Working on our Welcome

•October 3, 2017 • Leave a Comment

For in Christ Jesus … the only thing that counts is faith working through love.

–Galatians 5:6  

sermon for World Communion Sunday

Today, I choose to begin the sermon with a “might-have-been-true” story because, sometimes, a story has power to communicate a concept better than a definition or explanation. I wrote the story several years ago, and have de-identified the people involved out of respect for their privacy and freedom of conscience. It may not be historically true in every detail, but it does help convey spiritual truth, from my limited perspective.

“Simon” thought of himself a warrior for God, a protector of the “true faith.” When a new pastor arrived at his church, Simon approached the pastor like a trial attorney conducting a deposition. The minister was examined about obscure points of theology, and cross-examined about controversial social issues.

The new minister did not respond as Simon wished. The pastor wanted to less about controversial issues that divided the congregation, and more about the things that united them in mission and ministry. The minister preferred to be defined by the many things he was “for,” rather than by a few things he was “against.”

Simon was displeased, to say the least. On Sundays, he sat in the back row of the sanctuary, with arms folded, and a scowl upon his face. Occasionally, he would lean forward, and excitedly whip out a pen to write a quick note, as if to document some heresy that had just been spoken from the pulpit.


The pastor tried to be friendly. Once, he walked across the room to greet Simon with “Hi, Simon, how are you?” With an icy stare, never extending a hand, Simon replied “Just fine,” spun on his heel, and walked away. Another time, the pastor invited Simon to sit down at a table for coffee. Simon said, “I think I’d rather not.”

At the end of the year, Simon finished his term as church officer. Even though he imagined everyone else was shirking responsibility, he had taken up his cross and completed his service. On the final Sunday, after the new officers were ordained, the pastor watched him walk out the door, back straight and head held high. He thought he saw Simon kick the dust off his feet, and rub his hands together, as if cleansing himself of all association with the church. Simon drove away, never looking back, and was never seen in the church again.

Simon is the person who comes to mind when I read the latter chapters of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. There, Paul spends much energy mediating a conflict between two parties.


One group is called the “strong” in conscience: Christians who feel God’s blessing to eat whatever they please. Another group is called the “weak” in conscience: Christians who, for seemingly important and valid reasons, feel that Christians are morally obligated to avoid certain foods.

Paul’s consistent advice to both groups is to respect one another’s convictions. Each Christian is a servant of God, and, Paul says, it is not proper to judge someone else’s servant. If God is willing to accept such a person, then no one else is in a position to condemn.

Notice Paul’s bias. The ones who are labeled “strong” are more respectful and more welcoming of others who are different than themselves. The ones who are called “weak” display a desire to impose upon others their narrow understanding of the only appropriate Christian lifestyle.

Our text from Romans has been the basis for many sermons advising Christians to curtail behavior that will endanger the fledgling faith of a so-called “weaker brother” or “weaker sister.” But, in my experience, I’ve heard few sermons addressing a more common problem: of the “Professional Weaker Brother.”


A Professional Weaker Brother has been a Christian long enough to learn to accept the freedom that God allows in non-essential matters. But instead of accepting that diversity, he feigns weakness as a tool of manipulation. “You can’t do, or say, or believe that,” he will say. “If you do, you’ll cause me, my family, or my friends to stumble in their faith.” When that sort of thing happens, the tyranny of legalism threatens the freedom of Christ.


In his letter to the Galatians, Paul described a struggle during which he took a stand against the influence of professional weaker brothers in the early Church. The struggle was about the importance of circumcision. Jewish Christians were for it; Gentile Christians were against it. Paul was pressured to require his colleague Titus to submit to circumcision to appease supposedly “weak” Jewish Christians. Paul said that he couldn’t do that, because the truth of the gospel was at stake. “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision or uncircumcision means anything,” Paul said. “The only thing that counts is faith working through love.”

The temptation to appease the Professional Weaker Brother faces the Church in every age. It often starts out with a serious conversation about faithful living in a morally complex world, then devolves into a shouting match between factions with a hard line – sometimes a silly line – dividing them. At one time or another, churches have issued rules against alcoholic beverages (even though for hundreds of years it has been used in the sacrament of communion), against dancing (even though movement is the oldest art form, and David danced before the Lord), against hats, long hair, short hair, jewelry, instrumental music of any kind. Long ago, there was a serious church split between the pro-organ-music Christians and anti-organ-music Presbyterians. In the 19th-century, there was even a long, protracted battle fought between “anti-necktie” and “pro-necktie” Christian groups. That seems nearly unbelievable …


until I mention the phrases “I kneel” and “I stand,” and we realize that almost every week, a new controversy springs up in our society, with some people on each side accusing the other side of disrespect. When we remember that, then all the old divisions among Christians don’t seem so unbelievable anymore. Where the Church spends it limited energy appeasing the professional weaker brother, there it is also weakened in its ability to fulfill its God-given mission, and behind schedule on accomplishing its ministry goals.

Ed Stivender is a Christian comic, who was popular when I first entered ministry. In one of his standup routines, he had a bit about Jesus and the Pharisees. Jesus’ message was, “Come join the Kingdom of God, and let’s party, party, party.” Then, along came the Pharisees …


who were a bunch of party poopers. They said, “You can’t come to the party. Why, you would ruin it. First, you have to dress like us, you have to eat our foods and follow our rules.” Party Pooper is another name for Professional Weaker Brother.

When faced with forces that call us nasty names and seem determined to divide us according to this label or that label, God says, “I know your name, you are mine ….” Scripture says that you are a child of God, forgiven, loved, and free. Though you may not always agree with your brothers and sisters, you are part of one family, you are called to journey together in faithful and abundant living.


Come to the table of grace; welcome to the party!


More Than We Deserve

•September 26, 2017 • Leave a Comment

presentation slides courtesy of Mary Lou S. …

sermon for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time ….  Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous? –Matthew 20:15

Like many of Jesus’ stories, the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard may be deeply disturbing to those who listen carefully to what it is saying. It isn’t a text we are likely to recommend to those seeking advice on work relationships. It’s not a story that we would turn to for encouragement when it seems the system is rigged against us.


Earlier this month, news broke of a lawsuit on behalf of female employees at Google, who claim gender bias operates within the culture of the company. The lawsuit claims that women are paid less than men for the same work, that they are promoted more slowly, that they are denied opportunities granted to their male counterparts.[1] Telling these women to read Jesus’ parable, and be grateful for what you’ve got, probably wouldn’t be received too well.

In order to give the parable a fair hearing, I think it’s helpful to know something about its context. Some scholars say that Jesus addresses this parable to those who criticize acceptance of sinners and tax collectors into the kingdom of God.[2] Others say that Jesus is responding to those who, with impure motives, seek rank and privilege in his kingdom.[3] The order in which the laborers are paid tells us that, I think. The late arrivers receive their pay, and are free to go before the controversy begins.  With this parable, Jesus isn’t speaking to the downtrodden. He is addressing this parable to those who are feeling high and mighty, who need to be brought down to earth with a dose of humility.

If you look at the events that precede and follow the parable, I think you’ll get a broader perspective of what Jesus is up against. As the nineteenth chapter of Matthew comes to a close, Peter is anxious to hear about his reward:


“Look (Jesus), we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” And after Jesus finishes the parable, and after he foretells again the suffering that awaits him, the Mother of James and John comes to make a case for special treatment: “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.”

Peter and the Mother of James and John approach Jesus with the attitude that they deserve special treatment, that they have earned it, that it will be less than fair if they don’t. Jesus responds with a deeper knowledge of divine justice. One way to describe it is to say that because God’s grace sustains us, we already have more than we deserve.

Context makes a difference in the way we hear today’s gospel reading, and should make a difference in how we apply it to contemporary situations. Its use by powerful and privileged people to comfort those who are afflicted would be cruel. It is a text better directed to call out an inflated sense of self-importance and an underdeveloped sense of gratitude. Never is such a message more effective than when we take time turn the focus inward, and engage in self-examination.

I engaged in self-examination this week, in the wake of a note from our regional Presbytery Leader. The day of the Jason S. verdict (Sept. 15), he posed the rhetorical questions: “Will church on Sunday be business as usual? Will we use this incident to talk about racism and White privilege ….?” This week, I had the opportunity to tell Craig in person gently and respectfully how those questions stung. I think they stung me for several reasons. One reason is that every week I’m trying to follow God’s call while balancing many competing priorities, and greatly dislike how often I’m told that I should react in a nearly instantaneous way to current events, without deep reflection about a strategy for moving forward. Another reason is that I rarely think of worship and Christian education as constituting “business as usual,” that a sermon carefully crafted or a lesson well executed is part of a much longer process that ultimately may be more effective than a hasty reaction.

By Wednesday, I decided that I should get over my mild irritation. I admitted to myself that a white, male pastor living in suburban Edwardsville probably is too comfortable. I decided to explore what might be said or discussed in the context of a sermon that I haven’t said before or often enough in the past.

It occurred to me that I’ve learned lessons about racism since my elementary-school years in the 1960s, but the phrase of “white privilege” didn’t enter my vocabulary until more recently. The website “Teaching Tolerance” offers a helpful definition:



My reflection lead me to a more recent piece in which a comedian name Omar Ismail answered a sincere question: “I am white. That’s all you know about me. Am I privileged based on that alone and assuming I am, should I feel guilt and what should I do about it?” Here is Omar’s reply, in which he compares white privilege to being a tall person in a grocery store.

“Consider it this way. All I know about you is you’re tall. Do you have any advantages? Yes. Does that mean you don’t deserve the can of tuna on the higher shelf? No. Nobody is saying that. Eat away mighty giant. Should you feel guilty about getting the tuna from the top shelf? No. Nobody is saying that. Lighten your soul’s burden and let it fly free in the clouds beneath your knees. Does that mean short people can’t get the tuna? No. Does that mean there aren’t disadvantages of being tall? No. Nobody is saying that. You have our sympathy for your poor bruised knees.

What people are saying is:

*Denying you are lucky is silly.




Same with white. Advantages. It doesn’t mean you’re rich. It doesn’t mean you’re luckier than a lucky black guy. Nobody wants you to be crippled with guilt. Nobody has ever wanted that, or means those things. It means you have an advantage, and all anyone is asking is that you get that. Once you get that, it’s pretty straightforward to all the further implications.”[5]

I spent most of the rest of my allotted sermon writing time thinking about the problem I have recognizing my white privilege, and the problem I have appreciating the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, and how those two problems may be two faces of one common problem.

Commenting on this parable, Barbara Brown Taylor once said that it is entirely possible that, as far as God is concerned, there are all sorts of people who are far more deserving of God’s love than we are. With credit to her, and in light of the grocery store height analogy, I offer this new commentary:

Some people can reach many shelves. Others can reach few shelves for all sorts of reasons. For one thing, some people were not told about the grocery store. They didn’t know where it was, never had seen its shelves, until late in the day. But even if they had, they might not have done much about it. Were they welcome inside? Would there be a ladder available, and someone who would explain just which shelf to climb to find the cereal they needed? There are so many things we mean to do that we never get around to doing: people get sick, jobs disappear, relationships fail, storms wreak havoc, and along with these things, strength and confidence fade away. There are a lot reasons why people end up starving without the groceries they really need to live, and only God can sort out all the reasons.”[6]

In that sorting out process, there is grace. Jesus says, “’Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”


[1] Merrit Kennedy, “3 Female Former Employees Sue Google Over Alleged Gender Pay Discrimination,” 15 Sept. 2017,, accessed 20 Sept. 2017.

[2] Alyce M. McKenzie, Matthew, Interpretation Bible Studies, Louisville: Geneva Press, 1998, p. 72.

[3] Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of heaven: Sermons on the Gospel of Matthew, Louisville, WJKP, 2004, pp. 100-101.

[4] “Teaching Tolerance,” a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center,, accessed 23 Sept. 2017.

[5] Omar Ismail, “This Quora Answer Is the Perfect Metaphor for White Privilege,” 19 Sept. 2017, accessed 20 Sept. 2017.

[6] J. Hembruch, after Brown Taylor, p. 105.


Moving Forward Together

•September 10, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Slide1In the 18th chapter of Matthew’s gospel, we read advice Jesus gave about how to handle troubled personal relationships.


He has come down from the Mount of Transfiguration, a glorious moment, and has turned his sights toward Jerusalem. Difficult challenges lie ahead for his disciples. He knows that times will come when they are tired, confused, or afraid. Like any family, this band of brothers and sisters will experience times of conflict. Like any social network, theirs will need cool heads, calm hearts, and guidelines for developing personal happiness and promoting the common good.

Here are the policy guidelines he recommends:


In the words of the famous Bible scholar William Barclay, these guidelines constitute one of “the most difficult passages to interpret in the whole of Matthew’s gospel.”[1] Through the centuries, this passage has been a model for Christian conflict resolution. Church discipline in our Presbyterian Book of Order has been shaped in obvious ways by Jesus’ words. My old professor Tom Long writes about our model: “Its most impressive feature is how persistent and time consuming it is …. Nobody is written off in haste, no one is fired on the spot, no one slams the door in another’s face in rage; to the contrary, a sea of energy is expended trying, time and again, to make peace …. The whole process is focused on the restoration of the offender, not revenge for the offended.”[2]

This policy seems like so much work. You know it’s hard work if you’ve been involved in similar work

  • while in family counseling or family court,
  • personnel management or union negotiations,
  • or the judiciary processes of the larger Presbyterian Church.

Why does Jesus call us to such a difficult path? One way to answer that question is to point again to the best-known verse in this passage: “For where two or three                      are gathered together in my name, there I am in their midst.”

Barbara Brown Taylor says:


I was definitely looking for some connections between this text  and the real world when I chose to attend an event on Wednesday night  at Washington University.


It was sponsored by the Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, and featured a guided interview with former Senator, United Nations ambassador, and Episcopal priest John Danforth. As he joked, when you officiate the chancellor’s wedding and the center is named after you, the deck is stacked in your favor that you’ll receive an invitation to speak. Among other things, Danforth restated some themes that have defined both his political career and his ministry, including

  • the thought that the word “religion” is based on a Latin root that means “to bind things together,”
  • that according to the his letter to the Colossians, the Apostle Paul says of Jesus “He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together,”
  • and that in both religion and politics, one of our biggest problems today is that too many people are working in divisive ways that are unhealthy for the common good.

Danforth suggests that the path of moving forward together involves things like a “generosity of spirit” about the policies and tactics proposed for achieving broadly shared goals. Instead of emphasizing only the differences between perspectives, and assuming the worst about the motives of our opponents, we would do better to emphasize points of agreement. Danforth described an era he knows is gone, but hopes is not lost forever, when politicians engaged in social interaction, when it was possible for him to invite Democratic senator Tom Eagleton to sit in an honored place at the family dinner following Danforth’s swearing-in ceremony. Danforth warmly remembers that during the dinner, Tom turned to him, and said, “I bet you wish your father could be here,” and how in that moment of compassion, a relationship developed that would allow them to work in bi-partisan ways.

The influence of a pastor and mentor was most evident in Danforth’s memory of George L. Cadigan, who was bishop of the Episcopal diocese of Missouri when Danforth was ordained to the priesthood. With obvious warmth in his voice, Danforth remembered the way that Bishop Cadigan ended every letter with the words,  “I am your friend.” Then Danforth wondered with us, what if we made a point of saying to those with whom we have an antagonistic relationship, “I am your friend.” He said that in the difficult and sometimes toxic atmosphere we find ourselves in, if you know someone as a friend, you can get things done.

At this point, Danforth’s philosophy seems remarkably similar to someone else whose ministry intersected with public policy.


Healthy relationships are so vital that Jesus offers very explicit guidelines about what to do when there’s conflict.


You might even say that they constitute a command: to take a risk, to reach out to one another in friendship, to offer and seek forgiveness, to allow the power of His love to transform us, and make us whole.


[1] William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 2, in “The Daily Study Bible,” Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975, p. 187.

[2] Thomas G. Long, Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion, Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997, p. 210.

[3] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Family Fights,” in The Seeds of Heaven: Sermons on the Gospel of Matthew, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004, p. 84.

[4] Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love, as cited in Pulpit Resource, 5 Sept. 1999, p. 41.

Risk and Reward

•September 5, 2017 • Leave a Comment



Matthew 16:21-28

During the news cycle of recent weeks, filled with stories of disaster related to hurricane and flood, and potential disasters related to North Korean aggression, perhaps you saw the story of the latest Powerball lottery winner,


a health-care worker who says she will never return to work after winning 759-million dollars. I’m always a spoilsport when the topic of the lottery comes up. Personally, I look at all the money people are concentrating in the hands of a few people, and wonder what might happen if, instead, they used the money to do something positive for their family, community, or church. But I think I understand some of the reasons they do, and why it feels good to pay $2 for a chance for a chance that your wildest dreams might come true.

There’s a true story about what happened when someone’s wildest dream did come true, a story that started about 17 years ago. Sometime in June 2000, a ticket was purchased at a New Jersey convenience store that turned out to be the only winning ticket for a 46-million dollar lottery prize. No one came forward to collect the prize. People began to imagine that the winner had lost the ticket, or thrown it away without checking the numbers.

One Tuesday morning nearly a year later, a lottery official opened a rather plain envelope and found the winning ticket, accompanied by a claim form. The envelope was postmarked just two days before deadline for collecting the prize. The winner was simply following instructions, as the standard claim form says that all tickets worth more than $600 should be sent to state lottery headquarters.[1]


Can you imagine the winner standing at the corner mailbox? He has in his hand an envelope that, if delivered to the right person in a timely manner, is worth a fortune. But if that envelope is lost or mishandled, it is worth nothing. He puts it in the box, and walks away. With all due respect to the U.S. Postal Service, the winner’s decision to mail the envelope, rather than hand deliver it, entails more risk than most of us would be comfortable bearing.

When we step back from our lives, and reflect upon our daily activities, we will realize that we are constantly making decisions that involve risk. I drive to the grocery store because the potential reward of eating supper exceeds the potential risk that my car will be wrecked. I walk the Nickel plate trail because the potential reward of exercise and fresh air outweighs the risk of being run down by a bicycle. Each day, there are many simple actions we take that require at least some minimal level of risk taking.

When it comes to big decisions, we more actively consider risk. It can be painstakingly difficult to weigh the potential risks and rewards of choices that affect our career, home, marriage, children, health, or retirement. We wonder, “What risks are worth taking?”

I believe that if we study the sixteenth chapter of Matthew’s gospel long enough, eventually we will find ourselves asking questions about risk.


When we first encounter these very challenging words of Jesus, we may be tempted to think that they apply only to the apostles, or to saints like Mother Teresa, or to missionary martyrs like Jim Elliott who, before his death, penned the brave words, “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” But Jesus won’t let us off the hook: “If any” – not just Peter, or Mother Teresa, or Jim Elliott – “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

You and I may have difficulty finding time for one more assignment at work, or gathering energy for one more chore at home. We would like to save a bit of time for ourselves. Then along comes Jesus who says, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

We may wonder where the money is coming from to pay for all the gasoline we’re burning driving to work or taking children to activities. We would like to save a little money for a rainy day. Then along comes Jesus who says, “For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?”

If we take Jesus’ words seriously, we will wonder about the risks to our physical and financial health that we will encounter by following his advice.

Perhaps that’s what happens to Peter. Peter was the first to articulate what the other disciples were thinking. He was the first one who dared to say that Jesus was the Messiah. And now, when Jesus tells about the way his mission will lead to Jerusalem, suffering, and death, again Peter is the first to speak his mind: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” Peter listens to Jesus describe the dangerous path ahead, and responds as if he’s watching Jesus put a 46-million dollar lottery ticket in the mail – “God forbid it, Lord!” Why are you taking such a risk? What if something happens to you, and what if something happens to us? You can feel the fear in Peter’s response.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “The deep secret of Jesus’ hard words to us in this passage is that our fear of suffering and death robs us of life, because fear of death always turns into fear of life, into a stingy, cautious way of living that is not really living at all. The deep secret of Jesus’ hard words is that the way to have abundant life is not to save it but to spend it, to give it away . . . .

Slide5Life cannot be shut up and saved anymore than fresh spring water can be put in a mason jar and kept in a kitchen cupboard. It will remain water . . . but will have lost its essence, its life, which is to be poured out, to be moving, living water, rushing downstream to share its wealth without ever looking back.”[2]

The good news for this congregation is that those of you who have chosen to be with us through this moving process already know something about this secret, and are modeling it in ways that some other congregations have not been able.


Something has been happening to our Presbyterian congregations, something so uncomfortable that we don’t like to talk about it. Here is a partial list of the congregations in our regional presbytery that have closed during the fifteen years I’ve been part of the presbytery. I don’t want to oversimplify the complex cultural and demographic forces that have contributed to this phenomenon. But I will say that in every case in which I have been involved in, church buildings that were in declining condition or unfavorable locations occupied major portions of the congregation’s energy. While I was on the leadership team, we were managing at any one time up to seven buildings abandoned by congregations. For years, they had resisted change, thinking perhaps that if they were just loyal enough to the memories of their ancestors, and faithful enough through decades of adversity, the Lord would turn around their trend, and place them on an upward path. And so, instead of time spent on supporting vital congregations and dynamic leaders, we talked about contracts to restore broken boilers, sweep birds’ nests out of HVA/C systems, and repair leaking roofs to slow the declining value of buildings emptied of people and value for ministry.


As this Fall season begins, I am unashamedly proud of this congregation, and the faith of its people. Yes, we have challenges: the challenge to provide faithful and relevant programming and services, the challenge to staff them with employees and volunteers, the challenge to develop financial resources to support the mission and ministries to which God has called us. But we also have a hopeful future.


We have a year ahead of milestones that some of our brothers and sisters in other places can only imagine. That hopeful future is a gift of God’s grace, and it is the result, in some measure, of your choice to follow God’s point down a road less traveled, a road that entails more uncertainty and more risk.


Christ’s call to a life of meaning and purpose will continue to place us in a position of evaluating potential risk and reward. How much better it is to step out in faith, and give ourselves to something that matters, than to waste our lives frozen in place with worry. How much better to die living for something we love than to merely exist governed by fear. Jesus, says, “For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life.” In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.



[1] Daniel J. Wakin, “Ticket Worth $46 Million Was in the Mail. Honest.” New York Times on the Web, 15 June 2001.

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Risking Life,” The Seeds of Heaven: Sermons on the Gospel of Matthew, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004, p. 79.

The Pulpit

•August 23, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Wide Topa brief reflection on furnishing worship space …

“To the rest I say—I and not the Lord ….” -1 Corinthians 7:12a

Many pulpits seem to have raised “reading stand” in the center, perhaps modeled from older, cathedral style pulpits. I find such pulpits awkward to navigate. I’m usually concerned something will fall off the stand. Perhaps in an age where preachers used small handwritten notes, it was ok.  But today, with all manner of printed and electronic presentation devices, I prefer a pulpit as broad on top as possible. I suppose it has to be angled a bit to provide good view of materials, but needs to have some flat areas around the edges for placing props or other items. The composite photo above offers examples.

Some preachers and congregations prefer a more “open” base so that preacher’s body movement can be seen. Others prefer more storage underneath, and a little shielding and even support to lean on for those who are tired or not feeling particularly energetic on any given day.  I don’t have a strong feeling about this aspect, though think the pulpit should somehow fit and match the Lord’s Table and Font. Personally, I’d make the top at least as wide as any element of the base, and imagine a wide top offers the most versatility for preaching styles now and in the future.

Bell Lap

•August 20, 2017 • Leave a Comment


Some of you say that you like it when I share stories about my personal life. If you feel that way, then today you’re in luck. Others among you may wish that I’d keep my personal life to myself, and preach only what’s in the Bible. If you feel that way, then I ask for your patience while I get to the Bible today.

Thinking back on 55 years of life, it’s clear that on my best days, I was only an average athlete. At one stage or another, I’ve been involved in organized team sports like baseball, basketball, and football. I was in a golf league for three years, a bowling league for one year, involved in a couple bike trips around Michigan, participated in camp activities like archery, target and skeet shooting, and canoeing, rowing, boating, and fishing. Of all the sports I’ve ever tried, I believe that running was the most satisfying, because I could compete on a regular basis against myself, as well as others.

I ran the one-mile race just long enough to appreciate the unique psychology of that event.   The starter’s gun means adrenaline flowing into fresh legs, so the challenge in the first quarter-mile lap is to rein in the impulse to go too fast. In the second lap, the pre-race tension is gone, you’re flowing smoothly, and the goal becomes maintaining pace, keeping within a reasonable striking distance of the leader. By the third lap, muscle fatigue and labored breathing make the start seem like a distant memory. No matter how hard I tried to keep an even pace, the third lap was almost always the slowest one for me. As the bell rings indicating the fourth and final lap, new thoughts emerge. If you’ve made it this far, then certainly you can persevere to the end. If you have any energy left, now is the time to use it. You focus more on your stride, rhythm, and form, because you want to have a good finish.

Have you seen the film “Chariots of Fire”? It’s the story of several British track stars who competed in the 1924 Olympics. The film came out during the time in life when I charted my running miles, lap times, and heart rate like I recorded in journals my Bible reading, prayers, and scripture memory work. Today’s first scripture reading (1 Corinthians 9:24-27) was among my favorites. It was the time when I was encouraged to listen for God’s call and pursue a career in full-time Christian ministry, a calling that the Apostle Paul encouraged me to think of as a running race.

Now that you know something about my young-adult psychology, and the connections I made between spirituality and physical activity, you may be in a better position to understand why I’ve felt especially introspective this summer. You see, on August 9, 1987, I heard the starter’s gun when, as the “young” 25-year-old pastor with newly minted M.Div. degree, I preached my first sermon to the Eastwood Church of Kalamazoo.

I knew then that in a typical career, if one is blessed with good health and opportunity, a pastor might expect to retire at age 65 (as social security would have it for those of us born in 1962, it’s now age 67). So this month, while nations rage, and crowds riot, and leaders tweet, I’ve been hearing a more subtle sound. At first, I thought it was just the growing tinnitus I hear in my ears. But now, as I stride past a milestone on my vocational journey, I believe that what I’ve been hearing is a sound marking the final circle around the track, my personal “bell lap.”

On the whole, I think my pensive mood has been healthy. I’ve reflected on the best wishes I’m received this year in many warm and friendly forms. Friends say things like, “Happy 33rd wedding anniversary! May you have 33 more!” or “Happy 55th Birthday! Here’s to 55 more!” But I’ve been engaged in pastoral ministry long enough to see that it rarely works out that way. Fiftieth and 60th anniversaries often are spent mourning the loss of one of the partners. The onset of a terminal disease short-circuit plans for a milestone birthday. Life is limited; careers are limited. I think we should live them in light of the fact that each day brings us 24 hours closer to their end (or at least their transformation!).

As you may recall from classes or sermons, the Letter to the Hebrews, from which our second reading is drawn, is unusual among New Testament documents in the respect that its author is unidentified and forgotten relatively early in the Church’s existence. We do know that the author presumed an audience well acquainted with Jewish scripture and temple worship. They were likely Jews living in Jerusalem, probably not personal witnesses to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, but perhaps among those who gathered in the city during the months and years after these events.[1] As time passed, the Christians began to experience greater pressure to conform to the expectations of the Roman Empire, which valued religion only to the extent that it supported social order and political allegiance to Rome. Such pressure contributed to the widening gap between Jews who viewed Jesus as Messiah, and Jews who felt Jesus was a vexing fraud and troublemaker. The growing sense of isolation raised questions like, “If we really are doing God’s will, then why are we faced with these difficulties?” “If we really are following God’s call through Jesus Christ his son, then why does it seem like we’re on the edge of death and destruction?”

Responding to such concerns, the author of the letter to the Hebrews invites his audience to adopt a long-term perspective. If God’s promises were always so close that we could see them, then no faith would be required. Rather, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” In support of this thesis, the author introduces members of faith’s “hall of fame,” Abraham, Sarah, and others, each of whom encountered difficulty and faced challenge. Each looked forward to a home where they would no longer be treated as unwelcome strangers and persecuted exiles, and to a time when God’s promises of abundant life would be fully realized.

As I re-read the 12th chapter of Hebrews, I felt like it was written for me. After thirty years, I, too, am accumulating a personal “great cloud of witnesses”: mentors, Christian friends, the 300 saints whose funeral and memorial services I’ve officiated. In the author of this letter, I feel a kindred soul who reminds me that life’s journey isn’t just about where we are in any given moment, like when my office is thundering and shaking while, next door, foundations are shattered and scooped into a truck. Life isn’t just about the challenges I encounter when, in a busy week of ministry, there are also contacts about insurance changes, lien waivers, easement agreements, or affidavits to be notarized. The good news of this scripture text is that life’s journey is also about where I am going in the future, the finish line that lies ahead around the bends in the track, and the One who is with me along the way.

I believe there’s much more to say:

  • about God’s call to you and me,
  • about the amazing journey this congregation is on from one campus to another,
  • about the unique opportunities that will be ours for mission and ministry in the larger community,
  • about the role that Presbyterian Christians can play in providing a safe place for understanding and addressing the complex issues that face our society.

But, after three times around the mile-long track of serving as a pastor, I know something about pace: I can’t say it all, you can’t hear it all, in any one sermon, class, or meeting; we have to go at it regularly and consistently. So come with me, and “let us run with perseverance the race that set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith …. so that you may not grow weary or lose heart …. Lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet.”

Finally, hear the preacher pray for himself: “God, make me an instrument of your grace, and a channel of your peace, in what may remain of my personal ‘bell lap.’ Grant to me a good finish, that the race I am running may honor you, and serve your people. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”


[1] Among those who argue the plausibility of early dating is George Wesley Buchanan, To the Hebrews, second edition, vol. 36 in The Anchor Bible, Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co, Inc., 1976, p. 256 ff.


The Table

•August 16, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Communion Opena brief reflection on furnishing worship space …

“To the rest I say—I and not the Lord ….” -1 Corinthians 7:12a

Like the font, the Lord’s Table has a tendency to become a display stand rather than function as the everpresent reminder of being nourished by the Lord. There’s also the historical contrast in theology/practice between the Protestant and other traditions.  So, to try to keep it simple, the Lord’s table should always look like a DINNER TABLE at which you could gather the disciples for a meal.

Some tables are closed at the base, appearing more like “altars” on which something is sacrificed, or “stands” for holding objects, rather than “tables” at which disciples eat together.  Other tables are more “open” at the base, like those in the composite photo above. Such tables give much more visual support to the notion that you could actually pull up a chair to that table, as some congregations actually do in special services from time to time.  I imagine a practical reason why some tables are more “closed” at the base is that it gives structural support to what may be a heavy furnishing, but often at the cost of an important aspect of the symbolism that the Lord’s Table should convey.

Another matter perhaps worthy of consideration is the inscription on the Lord’s (Communion) Table.  In confirmation class, or somewhere along the way, many Presbyterians learn about different theological perspectives on the Lord’s Supper.  One common perspective is summarized with the label “Memorialist,” in which it is believed that the bread and wine are symbolic (merely symbolic?) of the body and blood of Christ.  Another perspective is summarized with the label “Reformed,” and associated with John Calvin, who said something like the spiritual benefits of the risen, ascended Christ are present in the experience of the Lord’s Supper through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.

Many communion tables reflect/reinforce a Memorialist perspective by using the inscription “(Do this) in remembrance of me” (Luke 22, 1 Corinthians 11). In contrast, a verse that would better reflect and reinforce Calvin’s theology would be:  “(When he was a table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.) Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him ….”  (Luke 24:30-31) Such an inscription would be a more unique and powerful reminder that in worship we do not simply “remember” Jesus from long ago, but are nourished by the risen Christ who is present in worship through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, who opens our eyes to see.