The Generous Heart of God

tanf-57515d415f9b5892e83b187aJonah 3:10 – 4:11

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

 But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’ And the Lord said, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?’ Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.

 The Lord God appointed a bush,* and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, ‘It is better for me to die than to live.’

  But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labour and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’

Matthew 20:1-16

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

There’s a truth I’ve tried to communicate to my children, and tried to live by myself which is — be careful about what you say on Twitter. Or Facebook. Or Snapchat. Or Instagram. Or whatever it is the kids are using now.

Be mindful of your words, I tell them.  Because you never know who is reading. A statement that seems rather innocent to you, may be offensive or even hurtful to another person.

I stumbled upon a teachable moment for my children some time ago when I casually browsed through my Facebook page, and saw a comment by the man who cut my hair.  He’s a generally pleasant person, so I was horrified to read what he wrote.  I have to edit it a bit because his language is too awful for me to repeat.  He wrote:

“Standing in Walmart behind a black (n word) and her black (n word) kids.  She just spent $280 in groceries using her Access card.  How is this fair?  What is going on in the world?”

There are some generous ways to interpret what he said.

Clearly, he was annoyed to be standing in line at the grocery store behind someone with a large order.  $280 buys a lot of groceries. And all of us hate to wait.

Maybe he was also annoyed by the children, who might have been whining or screaming, or trying to coax a candy bar out of their mother.

When I have to wait, I get annoyed.  All of us do. But obviously, there was something else going on with my friend.

He took the time to write about the color of the woman’s skin.

He wrote about the color of her children’s skin.

He used a word to describe them that I hope all of us would find objectionable.

And he was angry because the mother paid $280 for her groceries by using her Access card.  Access.  Food stamps.  We all know what that means.

This is what the man who used to cut my hair saw:

This woman ahead of him was getting something for nothing.

The woman in front of him was getting something she didn’t earn or deserve.

And the unfairness he observed made him angry.

Because he had earned his groceries.

And he believed the woman in front of him had not.

We all have a sense of what is right and what is wrong. We all have a sense of what is fair and unfair.Today, in this text we just heard from the book of Jonah, we learn something about God’s sense of fairness.

As far as anyone can tell, Jonah was an ordinary Jewish man,minding his own business, and God tells him to go at once and preach to Nineveh.

And Jonah thinks to himself, “Well.  Isn’t that strange?  Jewish prophets are called to preach to other Jews. Jewish prophets are never called to preach to non-Jews. Especially not to Ninevites. Jews preach to Jews. That’s the way it’s always been done, as far as I can tell.”

God’s instruction to preach to the Ninenites is not just unusal. It was outrageous. It was so outrageous that Jonah panics. Jonah runs as far and as fast as he can away from Nineveh.

In all fairness to Jonah, it isn’t really surprising Jonah thought God must be joking.

Nineveh was the capital of the Assyria, a brutal empire. Assyria had been responsible for the earlier destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel.  To Jews at that time, the Assyrians were the baddest of bad guys.

Jonah must be thinking, “Why would God want me to have anything to do with them?More to the point, why would God want to have anything to do with Assyrians? Assyrians are the worst!!”

So Jonah freaks out and runs away and gets on a ship so he can get as far away from Nineveh as possible.

We all know how that turns out. This is the part we remember from Sunday school. The big fish. Jonah is followed and swallowed.

Jonah ends up inside a big fish for three days and the whole time he’s sitting inside the fish, Johan complains.  About everything.


Jonah complains about the injustice of the whole situation.

Jonah complains about God telling him to do an unreasonable thing.

The scripture says that God finally tells the fish to spit Jonah out on shore, but I imagine the fish was also pretty happy to get rid of Jonah.

Funny thing about how the story of Jonah turns out.  Jonah stumbles into Nineveh and mumbles a one-sentence warning about its imminent downfall.  He shows up late, cranky, covered in fish goo, and utters the word God has given him.

The people in Nineveh, from the animals to the regular folk all the way up to very highest reaches of government, hear Jonah’s half-hearted message which may be the least inspiring prophetic uttering in the Scripture.

Despite Jonah’s half-hearted effort, the whole city repents.

The people of Nineveh change their mind, and turn to God.

And God changes God’s mind about striking down Nineveh.

But you know who doesn’t change in this story? Not one small bit, not one iota?

Jonah.  Boy, is Jonah mad.  Jonah is furious. He cannot believe what he has just witnessed.

Jonah knew that God is, “gracious, merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing, “ but Jonah still thinks that the God’s love should only apply to Israel. All along, Jonah has been taught that Israel is God’s favorite. But now he sees God forgiving Israel’s worst enemy.

Jonah can’t stand seeing the people of Nineveh get something they don’t deserve! Jonah resents that a blessing has come upon these murderous, non-believing Ninevites.

And then, the story ends with a big question mark.  Without us really knowing if God has convinced Jonah that the Ninevites deserved God’s mercy.

The story ends with God shaking God’s head and saying to Jonah, “I gave you that bush to cover your head, and I took away that bush.  Here’s the thing you need to understand, Jonah– I am in charge here, not you. Why shouldn’t I love Nineveh?”

The question mark hangs in the air. Why shouldn’t God love Ninevah?

At the end of the day, I think Jonah’s problem isn’t with Nineveh. Jonah’s problem is with God Jonah sees God’s concern and love for Nineveh as unjust.  Unfair.

Jonah’s problem with God isn’t just that Jonah doesn’t want to do what God wanted him to do. Jonah doesn’t want God to do what God wants to do, which is to love Nineveh.

Jonah is a lot like the hot, sweaty, tired workers in the vineyard who thought they understood the rules that say the longer and harder you work, the more you’ll get paid. Then they saw the less hot, less sweaty guys collect a full day’s pay for only one hour of work.

Their problem at the end of the day wasn’t with the workers who showed up late, but with this ridiculous landowner who defies anyone’s sense of basic fairness, let alone good business practice.

More than one commentator has made the observation that this parable of the laborers in the vineyard may have been the parable that got Jesus killed.  And they very well may be right. It certainly a parable that makes some people mad as hornets every time it gets told today. So it’s not difficult to imagine that it made people plenty angry in Jesus’ time.

Imagine that you are a religious mover and shaker, and one day you hear this itinerant preacher say that all those people at the back of the synagogue, in the cheap seats, are the ones who will be first.

And you realize that this Jesus is maybe talking about people who aren’t even in the church.

Maybe Jesus is talking about the people sitting outside begging, covered with leprosy, unclean, unwashed and unsaved.  The guy who cut you off in traffic. Or the smelly homeless guy at the bus stop. It could be that Jesus is saying that those people are the ones that God, in fact, loves best.  Or at least loves as much as you.

“Well,” you might think.  “This is certainly strange.  This is certainly something new.”

This parable from Matthew and the story of Jonah both strike at the very heart of who we are.

People who think we know the rules of how the world is supposed to work.

People who think we know what fairness is and what justice looks like.

People who like to sort the world into neat categories of deserving and undeserving, right and wrong, good and bad.

We’ve known about fairness from the time we were little children. “That’s not fair.” “She cut in front of me.”  “How come he gets to stay up later?”  “If you get to cut the pie, I get to pick the first slice.”

If you are a parent, you have heard this.  If you are a human being, you know this. We all know that terrible feeling when we are certain we’ve been cheated. The pull in your gut, the pounding of your heart, the words of anger forming in the back of your throat when you see something happening that just isn’t right,

The big problem here, in both of these scripture passages, is that when God is in charge, it seems hardworking, reliable, faithful people get short-changed.  And who likes that?

Well, the people in Nineveh who had long suffered at the hands of a murderous government liked it.

The laborers who showed up late because their kid was sick and they didn’t have a babysitter and their car wouldn’t start, and still got paid a full day’s wage just the same liked it.

So if these scripture passages makes us mighty uncomfortable, or even mad as hornets, it must be because we see ourselves as the front of the line people, the hardworking reliable folk who just got cheated.

We look down at our paycheck, look up at the landowner, and all we can see is all kinds of crazy.  Because what the landowner does seems to make no sense.

Or we can imagine that there is no front of the line, or back of the line. That in the Kingdom of God, there is no hierarchy that says some people are more valuable to God than others.  Maybe we can imagine God plays no favorites, and wishes goodness for everyone.

Maybe we can imagine the sense of fairness that God has gifted to every human being can grow into a vision of justice and equality for everyone.

Because there are systems in this world that are, indeed, not fair.  There are powers and principalities that are outrageously unjust.  There are still lots and lots of tables that not only need to be overturned, but also thrown out a window and burned as firewood.

And our God-given sense of fairness and our prophetic call for justice can be a powerful and beautiful thing when we move beyond, “She’s getting something she doesn’t deserve,” to words like:

It’s not fair that some affordable healthcare and others have to wait for care until their condition is do desperate, they’ll go to the emergency room.

It’s not fair that some have safe water to drink, while others do not.

It’s not fair that two people who have committed the same crime will end up with wildly varying punishments based only on the color of their skin.

It is not fair that some go to bed hungry while others have so much that they fill up landfills with what’s left over.

It could be that this parable is telling us to step out of line, in the best possible sense of the phrase and become more like the landowner in how we live our lives now.

We never know where we are in line anyway, and if we learn nothing else from these stories of Jonah and vineyard, it’s that God is going to surprise us, challenge us, get in our face, send us where we don’t want to go, and be in relationships we don’t want to be in, and, if we’re very, very lucky, the love of God we have received in Jesus Christ will soften our hearts.

And soft hearts are what we need. Soft hearts that can be broken for the people and the place that break God’s heart.

The good news is that God is not fair, at least not by our definition of the word;

God is generous.  God is love. God is the vineyard owner who messes up his accounting. God is the one who decides to call a reluctant prophet to emerge from a big fish and speak a word that changes the world.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.















God Said, “Go.”


Genesis 12:1-9                    

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”4So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. 5Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan,6Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 7Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. 8From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord. 9And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.

 God said, “Go,” and Abram went.

Abram left behind everything he knew and departed for…well…an undisclosed location. The land that God would show him.

But Abram went.  Having absolutely no clue where they would end up and trusting that YHWH would tell them when they got there, Abram packed up his family and his servants and everything that they could carry, and set off in the direction of Canaan.

Well, I’m not sure that Abram knew what direction they were headed, but the text tells us that’s where they headed.  And as if to make sure we do not miss the implication of Abram’s decision, the text carefully catalogs for us all that Abram left behind.  Country.  Family.  Friends.  Inheritance.  All of it left behind, everything familiar fading away.  All of it becoming less and less visible in the dust kicked up by Abram’s group of pilgrims, trudging away from Haran.

Perhaps at the beginning, as they were packing everything up, Abram and Sarai felt something like excitement growing.

We can imagine that feeling, particularly those of us in middle age or later.

Just imagine the opportunity to do something completely new.  Imagine a life shaped by a promise from God that from now on your life will matter beyond the small circle of the familiar.

God says, “I will make of you a great nation…I will make your name great.”  Greatness!  At age 75?  Who wouldn’t feel incredibly pumped at the prospect of a completely reinvented and renewed life?

But at some point in the journey, I’m sure the atmosphere changed – maybe early on or maybe a little bit later when it became crystal clear that there was no going back to Haran, even if they could figure out how to get back there.  Without a map. Without a GPS or Google Map.

Whenever it was that they reached that point, I imagine that there was a certain level of grief for Abram and Sarai.  Grief for all that they had left behind.  Grief borne of the realization that there was no going back to the comfortable and familiar.  Grief for all that was left behind them even with the promise of God shining before them.

We know that feeling, too, don’t we?  When the initial excitement of something new or something different wears off and we have to acknowledge that the world as we knew it is forever changed – we cannot help but grieve.  It is the worst kind of homesickness when you finally come to grips with the fact that you can’t go back.

That’s why people hate change – even a good change — so very much.  Change never happens without loss attached.

And what happens to Abram and Sarai establishes a theme that is replayed again and again throughout the Bible.   In the Old and New Testament, it’s a familiar pattern.

When God calls people in Scripture, they never, ever, ever get to stay where they are.  Spiritually.  Physically.  Geographically.   They always have to let go of something.   Just like Abram and Sarai.

Moses has to give up a cushy job with his father-in-law.

The people of Israel have to leave the familiar food and routine of Egypt and subsist on manna while wandering in the wilderness.

Jonah has to give up his visceral hatred of people from Nineveh and go to a place he despises.

The disciples give up everything to follow Jesus and they do it before they have anything like a real clue what Jesus is about.

Even Saul has to undergo a radical renovation of his heart and soul, and receive a brand new name, before he can begin the difficult work of blessing the new Christian communities.

It happens throughout the entire Bible.  In order to respond to God’s call, you have to give up something, and it’s usually something that you’d really prefer to keep, thank you very much.  There’s no way around it.

In fact, throughout Scripture, God does God’s best work with people who have become a little unglued and a whole lot disoriented.  That’s small comfort, I know, when you are the one who is being undone, but there it is.

So they didn’t know where they were going, and they mourned what they were leaving, but God couldn’t have been more clear about WHY Abram and Sarai were making the journey.  To be a blessing.  God was ready to create a family of faith whose sole purpose is to bless others.  And several millennia later, that is why we are here.  That is what the church and God’s people in 2017 are called to DO.  To be a blessing to the whole world.

Now you may not have the lofty ambition of becoming a great nation or have your picture on the front page of every newspaper, but I don’t think you would be here this morning if you didn’t want to be a blessing in some small way.

The question before us is not how we can become a bigger church or a more famous church or even a better church.  The question with which we are wrestling is – how can we, the sons and daughters of Abraham, be a blessing to our community, our city, our world?

Do you want to be a blessing?

Well, first of all, you’re going to need to let go of stuff that is important to you.  Like pretty much everything that you think defines you, whatever it may be – family, home, material comforts, money.  You don’t have to give everything away or move to another city.  But you do need to loosen your grip on what makes you comfortable.

Because none of comforts or traditions or ways of being church can matter so much to you that you choose to hold on to what is familiar versus what is God.

Jesus knew this very well when he says, “Those who hold on to their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives for my sake will find them.” Jesus wasn’t kidding.  And God wasn’t kidding around with Abram when God told him and Sarai to get moving.

Do you want to be a blessing?

If you do, you’re going to have to trust that even when you have no idea what you’re doing or where you’re going, it’s not the end of the world or even the end of you.

You’re going to have to learn to walk by faith with your eyes closed. Even if you peek, it probably won’t help much.  As Abram will tell you, dealing with God often means dealing with some ambiguity and confusion.  Maybe a lot of ambiguity and confusion.

You’re also going to have get over the idea that you have nothing to offer because you’re too old to change or too frightened or too set in your ways.

You may not receive the miracle of giving birth in your 80’s – and personally, I’m very hopeful that God does not have that sort of surprise in store for me – but when you believe that God can certainly work through anyone and everyone, you’ll be amazed at what God can pull off.

Even with little old you or little old me.  Sarai laughed like a hyena when God promised her a baby.

The lesson here is, don’t laugh at God.  Maybe laugh with God, but never at God.

Do you want to be a blessing?

Every once in a while, you’re going to have to stop moving and hunker down in one place.  Not to give up on the journey, but to rest.  And wait.  And pray. And listen for God.  And wait some more.

While you’re waiting, you may want to build yourself some kind of altar to remind you of how far you’ve come and how far you need to go. Church buildings are a kind of altar, I think, but they are not the only kind.

But don’t get too attached to any particular holy site, because the odds are good that you’ll have to leave that alter behind when the next stage of the journey begins.

You want to be a blessing?

Here’s a really hard fact of the matter.

You’re going to have to accept that the journey isn’t about you or what you want or the blessings you need, but about God’s purpose to bless all people.

Abraham was not called to be a blessing for only a particular family or a particular country or even for a particular faith. God called Abraham to build something Abraham could never, ever envision for himself.

Abraham had one job:  to build a great nation,

not for himself

not only for his own family.

The great nation of Abraham was to be a blessing to all the families of the earth.

When we let Jesus get close to us in the way God was close to Abraham, things happen.

We are challenged in ways that are not particularly comfortable.

We are led in ways we would probably not choose for ourselves.

Our choices and priorities are turned upside down.

Our lives will never be the same.

That is why it is so important for us to read and wrestle with and talk about the whole story of our faith.

That is why I am so delighted that you are embarking on a remarkable journey here at New Kensington.

We need the whole story to understand the richness and weirdness of God’s plan

to so love ordinary people, everywhere in the world

to so love US

that God’s love will lead us to be far more than we could ever imagine.


We need the whole story because we God’s plan to build a new nation to reveal God and God’s love will never be easy for us to fulfill.

We need the whole story because when things get tough for us, we don’t have to be afraid.

When things get tough, we know we are not alone.

When things get tough, we know that God is in those things.

When things get tough, we know that Jesus has already walked the road we are traveling.

When things get tough,

If we know the story

we will know and believe with our whole hearts

that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ.


No matter where it is we are going as a church, we can trust that our mission is as simple as this – we will be blessed if we are a blessing.


There’s no roadmap for how to do that. In fact, there isn’t even a road.

We make the road by walking it together.

And as we walk, we can remind one another about this story of Abram and Sarai.

Because God didn’t tell them to build a church and hope that people would find their way to them in order to be blessed.

God sent them out with nothing but a promise that God would guide them to the places and people so they could be the blessing.

It is God’s promise for us too, sons and daughters of Abraham.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.







Ritual, Memory and Meaning

hurricane-irma-gty-3-er-170906_4x3_992Exodus 12:1-14

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.

 I spend most of my time these days preaching pulpit supply, meeting with Sessions and consulting with congregations.  And here is a thing I’ve noticed.

Every congregation has its own rituals that become so familiar we barely notice them, but if they are somehow messed with or left out, watch out!

You know what I’m talking about when I say, “ritual.”  The flowers in a particular vase in a particular place. The church supper which features a particular food like ham balls, a tradition one congregation described to me a few weeks ago.  The way we serve communion, and the kind of bread and juice we serve. The pew where so and so always sits, which is often the same pew their parents or grandparents always sat.  The hymns we sing on Christmas Eve. Are you a congregation that ends with “Silent Night?” Or are you a “Joy to the World” kind of group? Particular scripture texts we count on hearing, like Psalm 23 at a funeral or 1 Corinthians 13 at a wedding.

Just the word itself –“ritual” – seems to carry a negative meaning for modern folk like us. A ritual is often something that we thoughtlessly do at a certain time, in a certain way.  There are some rituals we have been doing for so long that nobody can really remember why we decided to do it in the first place.  It’s like that great line in “Fiddler on the Roof,” in which Tevye says, “You ask me how this tradition got started.  I’ll tell you.  I don’t know.  But, it’s a tradition!”

Someone once said that we stubbornly hold on to various traditions and rituals at certain times of the church year because if we didn’t, the absence of such sacred cows would annoy the old folks and confuse the children.  And it’s true.

And, let’s be honest here, there are rituals and traditions that do seem pointless after a while, although we hate to admit it.  Many a congregation has been hobbled by that old chestnut, “But, that’s the way we’ve always done it,” which is usually said after someone has pointed out that some long-held tradition has crossed the line from faithful observance to mere habit.

Some people avoid church entirely because all they can see when they enter our sanctuaries are lifeless rituals tightly held by lifeless people who are just going through the motions.  And if those people are correct, if we really are just going through the motions in worship or in our life together as a congregation, if it really is just habit, we should think about that. If we can’t explain why we do something, maybe it is time to put that sacred cow to rest, even if we risk annoying the old folks and confusing the children.

This morning’s text is the story of how a ritual was given to the Israelites.

The passage from Exodus this morning comes right after the ninth plague against Pharaoh – the plague of darkness – and before the tenth, most terrible plague – the death of the first-born children in Egypt.

This passage narrates an interruption in the battle of YHWH versus Pharaoh, a pause in the action, a moment in which YHWH not only gives instructions on what the Israelites are to do as they prepare to leave Egypt, but also sets forth very detailed instructions of what every generation is to observe in the future.

It seems like an odd place for all of these rules and regulations to appear, but God insists upon setting forth a ritual, the Passover festival, what the text calls a “perpetual ordinance.”  Perpetual.  Something that every generation will be required to do forever.  And ever.  And ever.

But it must seem to Moses and Aaron that God is jumping the gun a little here, as the Israelites haven’t even begun their journey, and God is worrying about the menu for a party generations from now?

And furthermore, Moses and Aaron suddenly have a major logistical problem.  Scholars tell us that there were probably around 20-40,000 Israelites living in Egypt at this time.  That’s a lot of people who need to get the lamb recipe. In fact, that’s a lot of lambs being slaughtered at the same time.

Why all the attention to detail? Why does God stick Moses with the nightmare of organizing thousands of people to go through such fastidious food preparation, just as they are about to be released, finally, from slavery?

Why doesn’t God just tell the Israelites to pack up their stuff, put a sign on their door that says, “Angel of death not welcome here,” and get going before all hell breaks loose?

It’s like those warnings we’ve been hearing over these past weeks for people fleeing from a hurricane. The wind is increasing steadily and is about to blow at 200 miles per hour, and the storm surge is just about to sweep away everything that isn’t nailed down. The National Hurricane Center says all your preparations should be “rushed to completion.”

Now imagine — just as you’re about to hit the highway to escape the winds and the flood, the voice of God says – hold up! Wait a minute!  Go back inside and cook up a lamb so you’ll never forget that you were saved from total destruction!

I live in a neighborhood that’s primarily Jewish, and every year I am amazed by the preparations that Jewish families go through in the days leading up to Passover.  The care some of my Jewish neighbors take in vacuuming and cleaning for hours to rid their homes of every small crumb of leavened bread.  The back-straining labor of packing away all the every-day dishes and cooking utensils, carrying them up to the attic, then carrying down all the Passover boxes.  The last-minute preparation of food before sundown on the first night.

Some of my less orthodox Jewish friends are more informal in their preparations.  Instead of having a separate set of Passover dishes, they’ll use paper plates and plastic cups, and at some point in the 7-day observance at least a couple friends will fall off the wagon and give in to a craving for something other than a steady diet of matzo.

My husband tells the story of sitting at the Passover table as a child while his great-grandfather would move slowly through all of the Seder rituals – the reading of the Haggadah, the bitter herbs, the salt water, the lamb shank and the hardboiled egg followed, finally, by dinner.  The rituals seemed meaningless to a little boy with a growling stomach listening to an old man drone on in Yiddish for hours.1930sArnold Eagle

At some point all of us, Jewish and Christian and even people of no faith at all, look at our sacred traditions and rituals and wonder, “This is so much work. Why do we keep doing this? Why does this matter?”

But somehow the crucial message of Passover, even if it’s delivered over paper plates and plastic silverware, is conveyed again and again, through generations of families.  Children continue to get impatient, and pages of the Haggadah are skipped.  But the message endures and has endured.

This story is important. This story matters.

This text in Exodus reminds that sometimes rituals are life-giving for a reason that has little to do with the kind of lamb or the tidiness of our homes.  The Passover ritual has everything to do with what those rituals are pointing toward — God’s saving actions in the past, and God’s redemptive purposes for the future.

Life is about to change for the Israelites at this point in Exodus. The slaves of Pharaoh are about to undergo transformation.  And the transformation isn’t going to happen in a day or a week or even a year.  It’s gonna take some time.

The former slaves of Egypt will become a wandering band of nomads in the middle of nowhere.  There will be many days to come in the next 40 years in which the Israelites will find themselves starving, dehydrated, fighting with Moses, fighting with each other, lost beyond their capacity to reason, and just about ready to turn back to Egypt.  There will be mumbling and grumbling about the quality of the food, the lack of water, the heat, the journey, and the delay in getting to the promised land.  Even when the Israelites get to the Promised Land and begin to prosper as a people, they will forget again and again who they are, and turn away from YHWH.

Yet, it is through rituals like the Passover that they will be able to remember who they are – God’s people – and fed again for the journey by grace.  And they will be again reminded of the deepest truth of their faith.  That God is not just the creator of the world or the sustainer of all creation, but the “Lord your God who brought you out of the Land of Egypt to be your God” (Numbers 15:41).

The ritual of Passover, relentlessly practiced by every generation, will remind them of the truth. This is who you are. This is WHY you are. When everything else is moving fast and falling apart and looking grim. When the wind is in your face and the waters are rising.

This ritual will bring God’s people back to center and restore balance to the universe.

There was another Passover meal, many years later, when Jesus sat with his friends and recalled again the saving hand of God for God’s people.   Jesus sat at the table, drinking wine, talking with his disciples, knowing it was almost time for him to leave them in the flesh, and exist with them in a new way.  The winds of treachery were blowing. The floods of destruction and death were rising all around them. Jesus had warned his disciples the storm was coming. As they sat and laughed and drank their wine and ate their supper, Jesus knew the time has come to rush preparations to completion.

Jesus knew that the people he was leaving behind, and all the generations to come, would have moments when they would forget who they are, and whose hand had delivered them.  Jesus knows we are a hungry, thirsty people with terrible memories who need rituals — to see and touch and taste, so we can remember the story of God’s grace that feeds us, loves us, and saves us again and again.

So Jesus gave his disciples a ritual that would remind his people of their identity.  A ritual that we call a sacrament, that has the power to shape the lives of God’s people.  It is a ritual that matters not because of the kind of bread we use, or the kind of juice we serve, or whether we eat standing up or sitting down, or in the front of the church or in our individual pews.  The meaning of this meal is much larger than the details or the ritual. Calvin called the Lord’s Supper, “a recollection of past deliverance and nourishment for future redemption.”

We do not do the ritual because God demands it.  We remember Jesus and the meal he shared because it gives us life. It brings us back to the center and restores order to our lives.

The Lord’s Supper is a gift to us, that slows us down to remind us that we live by possibilities that are not our own.  And all of those possibilities begin and end with the one who set free our Israelite ancestors, and continues to give us freedom in Jesus Christ.  The God of Israel who is still the same God for us today.

The journey for the Israelites at this point in Exodus has only just begun.  They do not know what lays ahead for them.  All they possess is the hope that the place they are going to is better than the cruel and colorless life they have been living.

Even today, there are pharaohs that are still with us, enslaving us – to anxiety, to mistrust of one another, to fear of the future, to regret about our past. We are slaves to a culture that considers us consumers and producers, and would have us measure who we are by what we own or what we owe. Everywhere you look, there are pharaohs who want us to believe we are something other than the beloved child of a loving God.

And even in our churches, in this time of anxiety and transition, we wonder what will survive and if we will survive. Like the slaves leaving Egypt, we wonder where we are going.  Like people seeing a hurricane on the horizon, we feel the pressure to rush our preparations to completion and decide what we will take with us and what we will leave behind.  What will we miss? What will give us life? What really matters?

These are the urgent questions of our time, no less urgent than they were for our Israelite ancestors.

So we must tell each other the story, again and again.  We must tell the story which moves us beyond ritual to the only truth that matters. We must tell the story to reclaim the center of our life as God’s people.

Our story

is not blood on our doorposts.

Our story is not the stained glass windows

Or the hymnals

or the ham balls

or our places in the pews.

Our story is the Gospel we proclaim,

Our story is the waters of Baptism that claim us,

Our story is the body and blood of Jesus that redeems us,

Our story is not a dusty ritual in a dark building

But the in-breaking word of new life that proclaims,

“You are free!”

It’s up to us to live as if we believe that word of freedom.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.













Safe Spaces


Romans 12:9-21 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord. ”No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Matthew 16:21-28 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

 When Charlottesville happened, I was on a road trip with my son.

We’re were out in the middle of nowhere, with lousy cell service, no satellite radio, and mostly Christian and country music radio stations in our rental car.

I was able to receive only snippets of information about what happened when white supremacists, some of them carrying Nazi flags and torches, shouting, “Jews will not replace us,” came to Charlottesville to protest the removal of a Confederate statue. When we got to our hotel room in Rapid City, South Dakota, I finally saw the images on television. And they made me sick to my stomach.

The next day, while I was blithely meandering in Badlands National Park, some of my PC(USA) and other mainline clergy colleagues from around the country showed up in Charlottesville to take a peaceful and principled stand against the powers of evil.DHGt_HbXoAA-kWh

In many written accounts, some clergy credited the Antifa for protecting them from white supremacists who may have injured those peaceful pastors.

Lethal violence was not a remote possibility, but a too-real reality in Charlottesville on August 12. Just ask the family of Heather Heyer who was killed when a car was deliberately driven into a crowd of peaceful demonstrators.

Since that day, some of my friends and colleagues have written and talked about the privilege of those white clergy who stood on the side of non-violent resistance, but were protected by those who willing to put their bodies between them and the white supremacists carrying torches and guns and baseball bats.

And I’ve been lately wondering where should we put our Christian bodies if we are serious about standing against the kind of hatred so vividly demonstrated in Charlottesville?

Although my children are baptized Christians who were raised in the Presbyterian church, my husband and their father is Jewish. The sight of a flag with a swastika makes the blood in my veins run cold. There is no question I would immediately put my body between my children’s bodies and a Nazi, even a Nazi with a gun or a baseball bat. I wouldn’t think twice.

But where should my body be when the stakes are not so personal? Where do I stand if I am serious about following the way of Jesus? Do a hide behind a well-crafted sermon? Do I go to a demonstration but only if it’s a couple of blocks from my house in a neighborhood in which very few Nazi’s would venture? Do I pick up a brick or a baseball bat?

These are hard questions and they are urgent questions.

I am no anarchist, not by the longest shot. I am a pacifist by nature who believes violence begets only more violence.

My understanding of who Jesus is has been largely shaped by his call to forgive the enemy. The events of the past few weeks, however, have challenged me to honestly confront my own privileged position which keeps me safe and protected from weapons brandished by white supremacists. I can choose to have someone else put their body on the line on my behalf.

And I can put out of my mind the reality that there are those who do not have my privilege.  There are my brothers and sisters of color who feel like their backs are against the wall, leaving them with no choice but to fight back because they believe they cannot depend upon police officers to protect them.

For some of us, these days may indeed call us out to risk our bodies and be willing to lose our lives for the sake of the Gospel in ways that are not even remotely metaphorical.

I have no answers today, but I do know one truth for certain. God is waiting to see if we mean it when we call ourselves followers of the crucified Christ. The stakes are high. And the whole world is watching to see where we stand. God is watching to see if we’re serious about our bodies following Jesus even if it’s to the cross.

Immediately preceding our text from Matthew 16 today, Peter has affirmed Jesus to be “the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Hear this.  Jesus has just given the “keys to the kingdom” to Peter. And with those keys, Peter has been given authority and the power to bind and to loose heaven and earth.

Heady stuff. Peter must feel that his mission and Jesus’ mission have aligned in a very major way.  He and Jesus are finally simpatico. Time to get on with the building and the conquering and the winning. Peter is “The Rock,” and it’s time to start rocking out with Jesus.

But Jesus has a different idea. Jesus starts talking about a different kind of mission than Peter has in mind. And Peter would much rather Jesus talk about something else. Peter would much rather this conversation move toward the topic of winning not dying.

The Rock becomes the stumbling block. Peter’s dream of glory is smashed by Jesus’ purpose, which looks like it will include a long stretch of bad road which will end in a place of pain, death and failure.

That’s not what Peters wants.

Peter wants glory, but he wants to stay safe.

Peter wants to follow Jesus, but he’d rather keep his body off the path that leads to the cross.

Peter wants to save his life, not lose it.

Peter doesn’t want to lay down his life. Peter wants to keep his life.

Just like you.

Just like me.

Just like every other person who inhabits a fragile human body.

The point of life is to live, preferably for a really long time. Not to die.

Poor Peter.

Just when he thought he really knows Jesus,

Jesus tells him what being a disciple really means.

It’s not surprising that Peter can’t understand why his wise young teacher would choose a ridiculously dangerous path that would surely lead to a quick and bloody end.

Why would Jesus put his body at risk?

harvey-volunteers-01-ap-jc-170828_4x3_992I thought about that question this week while watching everyday people become heroes in Texas during Hurricane Harvey. Guys in boats going out into teaming flood waters from dawn until way past dusk, rescuing total strangers. One guy said he met more of his neighbors in 24 hours of than he had in the last 20 years. And then there were the rescuers who were electrocuted after they lost control of their boat and drifted into downed power lines. There were so many stories about ordinary people willing to lay down their lives.

I thought about mission co-workers I met in South Sudan who do the not-so-glamorous work of training teachers and building schools all while hearing gun shots in the distance.  In the stories they told me, they spoke of gunfire coming even closer, and the schools they built being burned to the ground by armed militia. The end of the story always included this ridiculous statement: “I can’t wait to go back and begin to rebuild.”

You probably have your own stories of heroes or people you’ve admired for doing hard things in frightening places.

We admire such people, we send checks to such people, we pray for such people.

But let’s be honest. Most of us don’t want to be those people.

Isn’t there is a little voice inside our head that also wants to say to them, “Isn’t there an easier way to do what you want to do? Why take risks? Why go back and build that school or rescue one more family?  What if you get killed?

Which is essentially what Peter says to Jesus.  “Isn’t there an easier way to do what you want to do? Why take risks? What if you get killed?

Peter wants Jesus to use his super awesome Jesus power to wipe out the Romans, not die on a cross.

And Jesus is having none of it.

And truth be told, we also want Jesus to use his super awesome Jesus power on our behalf.

To comfort us. To keep us safe.

To get rid of the Nazi’s. To solve the problem of racism.

To cure cancer.

To wipe out our enemies.

We are afraid of death, so we want Jesus to help us live.

We are so afraid of death that we hide in our safe spaces and hardly ever stick out our necks or take a risk that makes life worth living.

Fear is what keeps us from living. Fear is what keeps us from entering into the fullness of life that Jesus offers to save us from the smallness and fearfulness of our lives.

And Jesus knew the only way to release us from fear and death was to go to the cross and die and be raised from the dead.

So we would know that the whole world is now a safe space, despite all evidence to the contrary.

So we could stop trying to save our own life, because it’s already been saved.

So we could risk making our bodies vulnerable and living a life that matters for the sake of Jesus and the sake of the Gospel.

So we could live secured only by the truth that death does not win and is not the final word.

Jesus had to show us this truth.  With his body on the cross. With his resurrected body.
This week, one of my colleagues shared this quote by Sophie Scholl who was a non-violent anti-Nazi activist in Germany in the early 1940’s.  Before she was executed for treason at the age of 22, she wrote:

images“The real damage is done by those millions who want to survive. The honest people who just want to be left in peace. Those who don’t want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves. Those with no sides and no causes. Those who won’t take measure of their own strength, for fear of antagonizing their own weakness. Those who don’t like to make waves – or enemies. Those for whom freedom, honor, truth, and principles are only literature. Those who live small, mate small, die small. It’s the reductionist approach to life: if you keep it small, you’ll keep it under control. If you don’t make any noise, the bogeyman won’t find you. But it’s all an illusion, because they die too, those people who roll up their spirits into tiny little balls so as to be safe. Safe?! From what? Life is always on the edge of death; narrow streets lead to the same place as wide avenues, and a little candle burns itself out just like a flaming torch does. I choose my own way to burn.”

Jesus chose his way to live, to die, to burn bright with God’s glory and light. Peter didn’t understand why it had to be that way. And if we’re honest, we Christians are still not so crazy about this taking up our cross and losing our lives stuff.

We not sure we’re ready to live that way, in a way that can frighten us because it requires us to put our heart and body on the line.

And fear is what evil thrives upon. Fear is what empowers evil to get its way.

The powers of evil in this world count on you and me being frightened and staying so frightened that we’ll shut up and go along to get along.

The powers of evil know that most of us will lock our doors and shut down their hearts and do whatever it takes to keep our bodies safe.

The powers of evil are counting on us to ignore Paul’s exhortation in Romans.

They are counting on us to hold fast to what is safe instead of reaching out for what is good.

They are counting on us to do everything we can to avoid suffering.

They are counting on us to fear one another, and especially the stranger.

They are counting on us to strike out at those who persecute us, hold a grudge, hit back, and repay evil for evil.

They are counting on us to starve out our enemies and store up the water for ourselves.

The power of evil expects us to be so paralyzed with fear in the face of evil, we will not have the strength to overcome them with good.

The powers of evil – the same power which tempted Jesus in the wilderness – know every little trick, every little frailty, every little fear  — that will turn us into stumbling blocks in a heartbeat.

So where will your body be, dear friends?

What will you give in return for your life?

How far will you go to follow Jesus?

Jesus did not die to exempt us from the pains of life,

But to make it possible to live life fully…

Jesus was not resurrected so we could receive our lives as possessions to guard…

But as gifts to share, freely, joyfully, irrationally.

The keys of the Kingdom have been given to us, the people of God, for the sake of the world.

Thanks be to God.



















































We Survived


Psalm 105:1-11, 37-45

O give thanks to the Lord, call on his name,
    make known his deeds among the peoples.
Sing to him, sing praises to him;
    tell of all his wonderful works.
Glory in his holy name;
    let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice.
Seek the Lord and his strength;
    seek his presence continually.
Remember the wonderful works he has done,
    his miracles, and the judgments he has uttered,
O offspring of his servant Abraham,[a]
    children of Jacob, his chosen ones.

He is the Lord our God;
    his judgments are in all the earth.
He is mindful of his covenant forever,
    of the word that he commanded, for a thousand generations,
the covenant that he made with Abraham,
    his sworn promise to Isaac,
10 which he confirmed to Jacob as a statute,
    to Israel as an everlasting covenant,
11 saying, “To you I will give the land of Canaan
    as your portion for an inheritance.”

Then he brought Israel[d] out with silver and gold,
    and there was no one among their tribes who stumbled.
38 Egypt was glad when they departed,
    for dread of them had fallen upon it.
39 He spread a cloud for a covering,
    and fire to give light by night.
40 They asked, and he brought quails,
    and gave them food from heaven in abundance.
41 He opened the rock, and water gushed out;
    it flowed through the desert like a river.
42 For he remembered his holy promise,
    and Abraham, his servant.

43 So he brought his people out with joy,
    his chosen ones with singing.
44 He gave them the lands of the nations,
    and they took possession of the wealth of the peoples,
45 that they might keep his statutes
    and observe his laws.
Praise the Lord!

Many of my friends and relatives who are Jewish tell me that you can accurately sum up most of Jewish history, and explain every Jewish holiday with one simple sentence:

“They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.”

In fact, I found out this week there is a Passover song that has as its chorus:

 They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat

They tried to kill us, we were faster on our feet

So they chase us to the border

There’s a parting of the water

Tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat

 Although it’s certainly irreverent, there is something to this little ditty that might resonate as we consider the Psalm we heard today. It is a reminder that history doesn’t necessarily repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

The history of Judaism has been filled with dire and tragic events that threatened its very survival from the very beginning. Certainly, the odds have always been against this still small group of people. And yet, they have survived. Wars. Starvation. Exile. Genocide. A rhyming cycle of threat and survival.

So it is that faithful Jews continue to recite the history of God’s covenantal faithfulness, in shared rituals, to teach children and reconfirm for adults of every generation after generation after generation. When they gather in the synagogue or at the family dinner table on Shabbat, the liturgy recites the certainty of God’s faithfulness in the past, in the present,  and into the future.

passover-origAt Passover, for example, the family gathers at the table and each person from the youngest to the oldest is given a Haggadah which is studied, read and discussed. The youngest children ask questions about the story and the meal – why those gathered are eating particular foods and reading particular texts in particular ways.

The Passover meal itself is a multi-sensory teaching experience in smells and sights and tastes – the bitter herbs, the salt water, the matzah, the lamb shank – which tell the story of Jewish oppression and deliverance.

1930sArnold EaglePassover is a story-telling event, repeated over and over again, so none of God’s mighty works are ever forgotten.

There is a passage in the Haggadah which reads, “In each and every generation, someone rises to destroy us, but the Holy One who is Blessed rescues us from their hands.”

The Passover ritual and the story it tells makes meaning, but not only of peoples’ suffering. The stories tell the history of God’s blessing which shapes all of Jewish life.

As far as we can tell, Psalm 105 came into being during one of those times of great suffering for the Jewish people.

Psalm 105 came into being during the exile –  a pivotal point in Hebrew scripture.

Everything the people held dear had been destroyed. Civic, religious, and political institutions had been laid to rubble.  Jerusalem was trashed. The temple, gone. The Davidic dynasty had utterly failed.  Some people were carted off to Babylon.  Those who remained in Judea faced starvation and death.

The world, as God’s people had known it, no longer made sense.

All the color had drained from their lives. The landscape surrounding them was bleak.

And it is in this bleak space that faithful people remembered God’s goodness.

It is in this bleak place that faithful people told the story of God’s love and mercy.

It is in this bleak place that faithful people not only told the story, but made the story into poetry.

And they put the poetry to music, which is something we lose in our English translations.

The world as they’d known it had fallen apart, but they remembered. And they sang. Praises to the One who had created them from before the beginning of time.

Praises to the One who had redeemed them throughout history.

Praises to the One who they trusted to lead them out of a bleak present and into a promised future held together by covenant.

I’ve only cried on an airplane twice in my life.  The first time was on the approach to Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport in the summer of 2006, the year after Hurricane Katrina destroyed that

The second time was when our plane landed at the very optimistically named Juba International Airport in South Sudan in January 2015.juba-airport

In both circumstances, I wept because I was overwhelmed by the sense that I was seeing hell on earth.  The only difference is that New Orleans’ hell, although certainly made worse by humans, was largely a result of a natural disaster.

As anyone who knows anything about South Sudan can tell you, the unrelenting hell that has marked the country’s past half-century has been entirely man made.  The suffering in that part of the world is a result of people killing people for reasons as ancient as tribal and religious conflict, as historical as colonialism, and as mercenary as oil revenues.

As a result, the entire population of what once was Sudan, and is now Sudan and South Sudan, has been traumatized.  You can see it from the moment your step off a plane in Juba.  The people of South Sudan are trapped in a nightmare that hasn’t ended, and will not end, until there is peace.

The congregations and pastors that make up Presbyterian Evangelical Church in South Sudan have not been immune from the trauma. In fact, most of the pastors I met in Juba are exiles.  Many were forced out of northern Sudan after the south gained its independence in 2011. As a result of the peace agreement that established South Sudan, hundreds of thousands of Christian and traditional African religious adherents were forced to leave their lives in Khartoum and other parts of north Sudan in and return to what the Sudanese government considered their “ancestral homeland.”

The exiles were not allowed to take much property with them, and they arrived in a sparsely-populated, under-developed new country with little infrastructure and few easily-developed resources.  Many of the pastors I met had led well-established, thriving churches in Khartoum, and are now struggling to make a living by doing church work in South Sudan.  The more well-educated pastors who speak English have been able to get work in the South Sudan government.  The rest are struggling mightily.

The first wave of exiles came to South Sudan in 2011, as I said.  But in late 2013, a civil war broke out in South Sudan and violence has no stopped in any significant way that might allow the country to get back on its feet.  In fact, in the past 9 months, the violence has become even worse.

More pastors and church members – this time coming from within South Sudan — have come to Juba.  Many have lost friends, family, and their churches to the war.  In fact, it is safe to say that nearly every pastor I met from the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church is in exile, a stranger in a strange and sometimes dangerous land.

When you talk to these pastors, the trauma in their eyes is the first thing you notice.  They’ve been deeply broken by the death and destruction they’ve witnessed.  Some of the pastors have no option but to live but in the United Nations refugee camps. There are three of these UN camps in Juba, each containing thousands of refugees.  Other pastors are living in cramped quarters with friends and other family members.  One of the pastors I met is living in a 2 room apartment with 20 other people including his wife and 5 children.

131230201820-02-south-sudan-1229-horizontal-large-galleryAlthough the city of Juba is South Sudan’s capital city, there is no infrastructure to speak of, no safe water, no schools or healthcare, few paved roads, and an ever-growing population suffering from rampant disease and malnutrition.  It is a city of politicians and bureaucrats living behind gated walls, and a civilian population that resembles walking wounded. When we visited in 2015, Juba was relatively safe compared to the rest of South Sudan.

Today, the war has come to Juba, and many of the exiled pastors we met have been exiled again out of Juba into neighboring countries.

It is easy to forget God’s faithfulness when the worst happens.  The crushing diagnosis.  The deep loss.   Exile from friends or family.  When we are stressed or anxious or afraid or in pain, we can easily lapse into a sort of spiritual amnesia.  In the face of so much sorrow, we forget all that is good and what God has done for us.

We wonder if God has gone off and left us altogether. Or we doubt if God exists at all because it sure doesn’t look like it.  We forget God’s promises, God’s goodness and God’s call to us.  We are lost in waves of grief and panic.  Well-meaning friends may tell us that our problem is we don’t have enough faith or have done something to deserve the hell we’re experiencing.

What continues to amaze me about the people and churches with whom I prayed and worshipped with in South Sudan is that despite all evidence to the contrary, is they believe with their whole hearts that God has not forgotten them.  That God has not abandoned them.DSCN0045

They are confident in God’s faithfulness. They know their story. They know their place in God’s story. They sing their story and they celebrate and praise God as if their lives depend upon it.

Because of course, their lives do depend upon it.

The exiles in South Sudan know what the exiles who sang Psalm 105 know.

Our faith is not what saves us.  Only God saves us.

God saves us not because we are good, but because God is good.

God saves us not because we are powerful, but because God is powerful beyond our comprehension.

And it is in those horrible moments,

In a time when we feel most vulnerable,

that we most fully experience the grace and power of God.

God understands our exhaustion and our fear, and will meet us in that place.

I know all of that is true.  But when I saw the suffering I saw in South Sudan, it made me angry with God.  When I see the brokenness in families and neighborhoods and systems and other situations much closer to home, it makes me angry that God doesn’t do something about it.  So many days, I am not only angry beyond belief, but tired. Tired of seeing the bad guys win.  Tired of seeing the poor get poorer.

In those moments and hours and days when we feel things are falling apart everywhere, brothers and sisters, there is no more urgent need, no more pressing task than for God’s people to remember who we are.

This is a historical moment in which we most need to follow our ancient brothers and sisters in the faith in praising God, in poetry, in song, in art, and in words.

When life feels to be at its worst, Psalm 105 challenges us to dig deep and sing our own song.

Do you remember the wonderful works God has done?

Do you remember God’s miracles?

When God gave us breath and body?

Do you remember when God grafted us into Jesus Christ and into a community of faith in our baptism?

The promises given, the covenant created, over the font of blessing?

Do you remember?

Remember when we found a church in which we were welcomed and loved?


The fire that did not destroy us?

The death of a pastor that did not destroy us?

The separations and accusations and grief that did not destroy us?

Remember the cloud of God’s mercy and love that covered us by day,

And the fire of God’s spirit that led us through dark times?

Remember how you survived?

You survived.


Do you remember the sweetness of the days in which God brought you out with joy, God’s chosen and cherished ones? Singing. Working. Worshiping. Together.

God remembers.

And when we remember,

we remain astonished by what God has done for us,

And reclaim our holy place in a very old story

Of Abraham, Jacob and Isaac.

Of South Sudan,

Of Community Presbyterian Church of Ben Avon

Of you and of me.

A story that is still being written.

But, through Jesus Christ, we know the end of the story will be


Thanks be to God. Amen.


When We Are At Our Worst.


Acts 7:55 – 8:1a

55But filled with the Holy Spirit, he (Stephen) gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ 57But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ 60Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died.1And Saul approved of their killing him.               

Let us begin with prayer:  Lord of creation, we come to you with open hearts and eager ears.  Increase our understanding of your Word and gift us with faith to courageously live into your claim on our lives.  In Christ, we pray.  Amen.       

I have always thought the most horrifying text in all of scripture is Genesis 22, the story of Abraham and Isaac, a story in which God seems to allow a devoted father to believe for three horrible days that his beloved son must die.  And worst of all, Abraham will be the one to kill his son.

My question for the longest time was this – what kind of God would do that?

Eventually I realized that the story of Abraham and Isaac is not a story about a cruelty of God or even the faithfulness of Abraham.

I think the story says quite the opposite. I think it says violence is not inevitable, and certainly not God’s will.

Violence and vengeance are terrible choices human beings make on our own.

Violence and vengeance break God’s heart.

So much so, that God will provide us a way out, even it comes in the form of a ram in a thicket as it did for Abraham.

God always provides a peaceable solution if we have imagination and courage enough to see it.  And believe in the power of love to cast out our fears.

Imagination and courage have often been in short supply over the course of human history. Too often, humans choose violence.

And when our imagination fails us, and our courage is nowhere to be found, God does what God always does – God redeems our unholy and bloody messes.

We see that truth most clearly on the cross when resurrection ultimately transforms the worst of what humans are capable of.  When we are at our worst, God is at God’s best.

And today we see God’s redemptive work in another pretty horrible story, this time in the Book of Acts and the story of Stephen’s stoning.

At first glance, there’s absolutely nothing good to say about this text.  Stoning is a barbaric and horrible act. If we were present that day while Stephen was being stoned to death, we’d have to avert our eyes.

So there isn’t much to celebrate in this story.

Stephen was a devoted apostle, whose primary responsibility in the early church was to care for vulnerable people who could not care for themselves, like widows and orphans.

All of this good work got Stephen into a boatload of trouble with the religious authorities.  Stephen’s speech during his trial is what sealed the deal.  It’s a long speech that you can read for yourself in Acts 7, but the long and the short of what Stephen said to the religious leaders is that God’s chosen people were rebellious from the start and were still behaving badly.  Stephen recounted Israel’s long history of being stiff-necked and mean. Stephen said they had never met a prophet that didn’t want to push off a cliff or run out of town or crucify.

In other words, Stephen spoke the honest truth, just like Jesus, and experienced a similar result.

Stephen was only the first of many early Jesus followers who met violent ends.  In fact, after Stephen was executed, many of the new Christian/Jews converts fled from Jerusalem and scattered like so many fertile seeds across the landscape of the Roman Empire.

Over time, Christians were no longer the persecuted ones, but became the ones doing the persecuting.  And as history has taught us, horrific violence against individuals, communities, tribes and whole countries has been committed in the name of one god or another has been raging ever since.  Atrocities have been inflicted by people of faith, as well as on them.  The bloody result of religious zealotry looks pretty much the same regardless of which god is being vindicated.

I hate this story about Stephen’s death, but I also think there may be a sliver of light here that looks an awful lot like grace here if you look closely.

He’s standing on the sideline, with his eyes wide open, watching every moment of Stephen’s agony.  Did you notice that guy named Saul?

Saul is there on the scene, helpfully holding the coats of the guys stoning Stephen. Because, you know, stoning a young healthy man like Stephen takes a while.  Better to strip down, because stoning is hard, sweaty work even with a cooperative victim like Stephen.

And of course, Saul heartily approves of this execution.  He loves it.  It could be that Saul even had something to do with making sure this execution would happen.  Saul not only approves of the killing of this one particular troublemaker, but he will go on to ravage followers of Jesus by entering house after house to drag off men and women, committing them to prison or worse.

Saul is every inch the true believer, a real zealot in maintaining the purity of the Jewish faith.  Saul is the most persistent of persecutors and continues to be so until Acts chapter 9 when he will have his life turned upside down by the murdered Christ himself.

After that, Saul is no longer who he was; he becomes the apostle who will no longer measure truth by how closely it’s protected and guarded by religious insiders.  In fact, Paul breaks open the message of Jesus to everyone he can get to listen to him – Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female.

Despite all the violence he committed against Stephen and others in his past, Paul is finally able to see God’s better way.  Paul finally saw the way out of a pattern of violence. God had been waiting for him discover the peaceful love of Jesus Christ.

So there is light in this story after all.  We see it in the Christ-like forgiveness demonstrated by Stephen and how his words were absorbed through the eyes and ears of Saul.  Perhaps the seeds of Saul’s transformation were sowed right there, in that horrible moment where God took the heartbreak of human violence and transformed it into something life-giving that would open up the gospel beyond what anyone could imagine.

I’ve been looking for that blinding flash of light in South Sudan over the past year.  I know it’s there, but man, is it hard to see.

We didn’t know it at the time, but when my colleagues and I went to South Sudan in January of 2015, we were there during a very brief moment in time when the country was not exactly safe, but secure enough for us to be in Juba with our partners in the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church, and travel with them to Yei for a retreat at RECONCILE, a ministry and training center for peacemakers.womenmalakal_large

After we left, things really began to fall apart for our brothers and sisters in South Sudan. All of the hopefulness we experienced while worshipping and praying and singing and making plans for peace ran up against a steadily increasing pattern of violence and starvation that looks an awful lot like deliberate genocide at this moment in time.

 Just this week, we received a letter from the general secretary of the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan:

As each of you is aware of what is going on in South Sudan the
situation is going from bad to worse in South Sudan in general.
Famine is a big threat in the whole Nation even within Juba town the
capital city.  Many are dying in their houses.

Insecurity is everywhere and thousands are fleeing to the neighboring countries of Sudan, Ehtiopia, Kenya,Congo, and Uganda.131230201820-02-south-sudan-1229-horizontal-large-gallery

War is everywhere between ethnic groups, tribes by tribes and within
tribes themselves. Killing, looting, raping, and other human rights abuse is common.

Within Juba, those who were brought from others areas are living under severe conditions because of rains and lack of food.

Shelters and others human needs are needed urgently.
Finally, no good thing can come from South Sudanese themselves — we need
the international intervention like sending more troops for civilians’ protection.

We also received these words from another pastor in South Sudan, Thomas Tut:

What we want to hear – someone praying for us.  Not money, food or anything. The Church in South Sudan needs prayers. What we are facing now in our country we have never experienced. The foundations of our nation have shaken and the walls have been broken down. There are no boundaries for the church to protect the believers from hatred, tribalism, rape, killing and many other evil things. I can’t finish the list.01-16-2014Security_SSudan

But God is there and we are hoping through your prayers the morning will come very soon but we don’t know when.

 The people in South Sudan do not know when morning will come.

You and I, from our privileged Western perspective, have no idea when morning will come either.

In fact, the situation in South Sudan is one of those situations we have to admit we can’t fix. We can pray and we can advocate and we can write letters and we can support our PCUSA mission co-workers if the situation is ever stable enough again for them to go back into the country.  But quite simply, the only power that will disrupt the violence in South Sudan is the kind of power that turned Saul into Paul.

But where I see light is in the testimony of my South Sudanese brothers and sisters who continually lift up their strong confidence that God is present with them.  If they can trust that the living Christ is with them, perhaps what I need to do is learn to trust in the same way.IMG_0188

Stephen had his head bashed in with rocks thrown at him by his own people.  He said, “Lord don’t hold this sin against them!” as he died.

Jesus was crucified, his body ripped apart by his own people. He said, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing” as he died.

Through this horrible civil war, the Presbyterian church in South Sudan has been a tireless voice for peace among all people. When we were in South Sudan, we spent 5 days at RECONCILE, a ministry of many faith traditions in South Sudan with this purpose – to bring healing to a country filled with people suffering from PTSD after decades of war and to teach the way of peace-making that can help break the cycle of violence.  Those seeds of peacemaking that were planted by RECONCILE in South Sudan over the past decades cannot be blown away by the current struggle.  Those seeds will take root, down deep, and Saul’s will become Paul’s, and forgiveness will take the place of violence.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, I believe God’s peace will come to South Sudan.

The great preacher, Fred Craddock, once said: “All the way to the cross Jesus will be trying to get those who think ‘where the messiah is, there is no misery,’ to accept a new perspective – ‘where there is misery, there is the messiah.”

That’s the only hope I can offer you. I know it doesn’t sound like much. But it is as close to the truth as I can muster, and it is what I believe:

That God is present in South Sudan, perhaps more present than any of us can imagine. With each unnecessary death in that beautiful and troubled country, God’s heart breaks because we still haven’t seen the ram in the thicket, the blinding light on the Damascus road, the path of peace away from violence. God will keep planting seeds of peace through our prayers and in the hearts of our brothers and sisters in South Sudan. The Holy Spirit is persistent in pursuing even those who seem irredeemable, including even those who are causing the suffering. God does not give up hoping for transformation of even the hardest hearts, even if those hard hearts belong to you and me.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

For more information about South Sudan, see this recent series of reports from PBS:

Too True to be Perfect

father knows best

Acts 2:42-47

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

When my husband and I bought our first house, we had neighbors that, over the years, we came to refer to as “Paul and Paula Perfect.”

Have you ever had neighbors like this?

Paul and Paula seemed to be the perfect parents, with perfect children, living in a perfect house that I regularly observed as I stood at my kitchen window in my decidedly imperfect house.

Paul and Paula’s yard was perfectly landscaped within an inch of its life where as ours was frequently unkempt. Unkempt is a polite word for disgustedly weedy.

Paul and Paula’s house was perfectly decorated inside and out, while our house was sorely in need of paint and we were still living out of boxes from a cross-country move and sitting on IKEA furniture we’d picked up second hand.

Paula’s makeup and hair and clothes were always – you guessed it – perfect.

In those days, I counted it as victory if I showered before noon and made it to Supercuts every couple months. Paula’s attire was straight out of Ann Taylor. My outfits regularly consisted of stretched out maternity jeans and old sweatshirts permanently stained with baby goo.

If Paul and Paula’s lifestyle was right out of “Father Knows Best,” the Rothenbergs were “Raised by Wolves.”

Or so I imagined while standing at my kitchen window. Gazing at my perfect, perfect neighbors.

Of course, I am exaggerating.

Paul and Paula weren’t out to make me feel bad or invite comparisons.In fact, they were extremely nice people. Our daughter often played with their little boy while Paula and I chatted on her perfect patio.

And that pleasant relationship lasted for a while until the day our daughter accidentally kicked their son in the head while swinging on the Perfect’s swing set.

Yeah. Stitches and everything.

I felt terrible, my daughter felt worse, but after that incident, we didn’t see Paul and Paula very much.  I can’t remember if they moved away first or we moved first, but it was one of those weird neighbor-ish friendships that never was actually a friendship.

I know Paul and Paula were not perfect, of course.Nobody is perfect.

Nobody has it all together. The older I get, the more I understand outward appearances don’t mean very much.

And let’s be honest. My bad attitude about Paul and Paula had more to do with me than with them.

I looked at them then I looked at myself smack dab in the middle of raising a young child in a new city, trying to adjust to serious adulting, and feeling like I was doing a terrible job at pretty much everything.

I projected all my insecurity onto these perfectly nice people.

And that is how we might approach Luke’s description of an early Christian church in our text today.

It seems to be a description of what sounds like a totally perfect church.

This text in Acts 2 comes right after Peter’s Pentecost sermon.People responded to the message of forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit, they responded by repentance and being baptized; but it didn’t end there.Their lives were transformed. Their time was spent praying, praising God, learning, sharing resources, and eating together.

And isn’t it a beautiful picture of church? It’s perfect, really.

It is a church full of miraculous promise with the power of the Holy Spirit birthing a community into being.

It is a community that upends the social structure in favor of one built on study, fellowship, worship and equality flowing from love.

It is a gathering of people who are united as one body, sharing everything, agreeing on everything, in awe of everything.

And it is a congregation that brings in new members not once a year, or once a month, but every single day.

Every time I’ve read this passage, I cringe. I’ve never been in a church that fits this description. Yet, I’ve imagined this Acts 2 church is the way church is supposed to be.  Perfect.

And I’m not the only one.  If you Google Acts 2 Church, you’ll get about 21 million hits. Every denomination and every non-denomination has literally dozens and dozens of congregations that go by the name “Acts 2 Church.”

Dozens of books have been written to tell church leaders how you too can become an Acts 2 church. There are blog posts. Magazine articles. Conferences.All to create a modern version of the ancient Acts 2 church.

And if you look at church history, there have been communities and congregations of “Acts 2” churches emerging again and again.

From the Desert Mothers and Fathers in the 4th century, to monastic communities, to the Catholic Workers Houses of Dorothy Day to Christian Peacemaker Teams from the Mennonite tradition, to people living in intentional Christian communities in Pittsburgh today.There has ever been Spirit-led attempts to live into this Utopian vision laid out in the books of Acts.

And why not? It sounds pretty wonderful. The psalmist may very well have been envisioning an Acts 2 kind of church when writing Psalm 133: “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!”  We read this text from Acts 2, and it sounds like church the way it was always meant to be. A good place with completely committed people, with more than enough to go around and living an abundant life.

Acts 2 sounds exactly like the church Jesus had in mind while he walked on this earth, and exactly like the church we should be. Especially given the miracle of the resurrection we’ve just experienced again on Easter and the excitement of Pentecost that is just a few weeks away.

So what is wrong with us, church? Why are we lurking around here in our stretched out maternity pants and our weedy gardens and our unholy propensity to kick people in the head even when we don’t mean to? At least metaphorically.

It is both curious and reassuring to me, that Luke never mentions this utopian church again outside of these five verses. In chapter 4, there are 3 verses that expand a bit upon the renunciation of private ownership and how everyone in the community shares everything with everyone equally.

Then a church member named Ananias comes along and withholds money from the group after he and his wife sell some property at a huge profit.  When Peter calls him out for being selfish and not following the rules of the community, Ananias drops dead. Then about three hours later, Peter calls out Ananias’ wife about her role in the crime and she drops dead as well.

Yikes. So much for perfection. Not only does the Acts 2 seem too good to be true, but also the penalty for not fulfilling your pledge seems a little steep to me.

After that unfortunate incident, we never hear again about this Utopian Church in the book of Acts. It didn’t last long, as far as we can see. It does not seem to serve as a durable model as the Christian franchise expands into Rome and beyond. Eventually the Christian church builds structures and hierarchies until it fits in quite well with the Roman Empire.

Thankfully, this idealized model of God’s church and church leadership is not the only one we see in scripture. We see all sorts of faith communities in the Bible – from the wandering, murmuring tribes of Israel to the quarreling church in Corinth.

We see Jesus sitting at table and breaking bread with sinners and tax collectors and loose women and despicable Pharisees. We see God plucking up an adolescent shepherd, the runt of the litter, to become Israel’s greatest king ever.

Scripture is full of weedy communities and imperfect people.

All of which tells me that God’s idea of the perfect church is always God’s idea, not ours.

And God will work with imperfect people.  Because the church is not dependent upon the goodness or perfection of the people in it.  The church is dependent upon the goodness and perfection of God. And the church relies not upon own perfect power, but on the perfecting power of God’s spirit.

It could very well be that Luke doesn’t give us portrait of an early Christian community to tell us this is the only way church should be, or to make us feel bad for what the church has become. Or to warn us that if we are not generous givers, we’ll end up like Ananias.

In fact, given the way it appears and disappears in the book, many scholars have concluded that this idealized community never existed at all.

It could be that the writer of Luke is giving us this beautifully crafted portrait to tell us that the reign of Jesus Christ means that anything is possible. That in each imperfect church and in each imperfect human being in the church there is a perfect spark of potential. And that spark is the Holy Spirit.

And with the Holy Spirit, ordinary people can perform wonders, even if they are not always wonderful people!

Ordinary people can capture the awe of living in the Holy Spirit, even if they are not feeling so awesome themselves!

Ordinary people can serve as witnesses to and participate in the incredible goodness of God, even when we feel we are not good enough.

I am in the middle of writing an article for our denominations’ publication, Presbyterians Today.   The topic for the article is about spiritual wounds.  And how people are hurt by the church, yet somehow are able to find their way back to a healthy relationship with a loving God, despite the hurt.

Sometimes that reunion takes years. Sometimes it never happens at all.

As I have been interviewing people for this article, I’ve been struck by an overall theme of their stories. Again and again, people tell me what hurt them most was that rather large gap between what the church said it believed and how it actually behaved.  I have heard story after story of churches and church leaders who purport to be strong in Christian doctrine and practice, yet fail to demonstrate the grace of Jesus Christ and the love of God.

Many of the people I’ve interviewed said what hurt them most was the feeling they could not bring their authentic selves into these church spaces. They felt the church wanted them to be perfect, and if they couldn’t be perfect, they were not welcome, or worse, made ashamed for being who they are.

The pattern of life we see in the Acts 2 church is not about being a perfect church, but about being an authentic community.

A community that gathers.

A community that hears the Word and wrestles with it, together.

A community that shares meals.

A community that prays.

A community who seeks to share what they have with the poor.

A community that cares for one another and loves one another and accepts one another.

It is a pattern of life that does not require perfection, but our willingness to participate. Which is what we are called to do in the church.


Show up.

Keep imperfectly serving and imperfectly worshiping and imperfectly following Jesus.

Day after day. Week after week. Trusting in God’s promises. Trusting that Jesus is with us. Trusting that the Holy Spirit will sustain us.

Trusting that anything is possible, thanks to the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

At this table, we are welcomed by Jesus,

Accepted for who we are, imperfections and all.

At this table, we are a beloved community, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to love one another as brothers and sister, and share in the abundance of God’s grace and love.

At this table, through the power of God’s spirit, we receive a tiny glimpse,an awesome preview, a hope-filled glance

of the community that will finally be, the perfect expression of God’s perfect kingdom.

Thanks be to God.