knitting on the front lines of life

Sermon: Grace in the House

When I was a very little girl, my mother decorated my room in pastel ginghams. She dressed me in yellow and pink. I wore pinafores and barrettes in my carrot-colored hair. I had lace trim on my dresses. I wore knee socks and patent leather shoes. In all of my littlest girl pictures, I was about as cute as I get.


And then I started dressing myself, and the pictures changed.


Of course, my mother reserved the right to dress me on Easter and other holidays. You can see how happy that left all of us.


When I was little and adorable, people bought me dolls. I had lots of Barbies. My Barbies did not sit around dreaming of whirlwind romantic entanglements or trying to get Ken to marry them. I did not have the Barbie dream house. I had the portable house roll-up Barbie thingie that was a little apartment with a murphy bed on one side and an office on the other. Barbie was not the secretary in the office. She was the Advertising Executive. She owned the agency. And when she went for a ride, it was not in the pink Barbie Dream car. It was in a plastic silver corvette toy that I had chopped into a T-top. When Ken came along, he rode in the passenger seat.

I was still pretty little when I quit playing with Barbies and started knitting them tube dresses on a little loom someone in the family bought me. Yeah, dolls really weren’t my thing. My brother bought them from me for a quarter, gave them buzz cuts and made them POWs for his GI Joes. We are just a normal American family.

For the last few weeks, I have spoken to you about grace. Grace is one of the focus points of United Methodism. We have told the story of the prodigal son, and today the stories that precede that tale, the stories of the lost sheep and the lost coin. The danger in the discussion of grace that we have had so far is that when we focus on the grace given to the lost and the prodigal, we can forget that we, too, have a role in constantly accepting and offering grace. Grace can become what German theologian and Nazi detractor Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace,” when actually grace is a many-layered thing.

John Wesley defined three types of grace in Christian life. I can, on any given day, recite the three types of Wesleyan-defined grace but defining them is not something I do on a regular basis. You have probably heard them all before. But can we remember them and what they mean? Can we identify which type of grace we’re living into or striving for? It is not the easiest of tasks, so I turned back to Wesley himself for the easiest way to understand the three types of grace we know in our lives as disciples. To demonstrate this in a way we can remember, I am going to play with dolls. I had to rely on the grace of the mother of the girliest girls, Hannah and Claire Searcy, for this dollhouse and these dolls.

The first kind of grace is prevenient grace, the grace that comes before you.

Here we have a house. It is a cute house, a welcoming house, with a nice front door. If you were a doll, I would imagine that you would feel welcome here.

John Wesley compared prevenient grace to the front porch of a house. It welcomes you in. You have an invitation. It is the grace that is offered free, for all. It does not, however, offer us to a free-for-all. That would be cheap grace. It offers us to enter into the kingdom, to come into God’s presence, to enter the house.

Prevenient grace is that invitation offered by God to all people to come home. Now, you can stand on the porch of this house forever and not knock on the door. Or, you can respond.

When you respond, you receive something that John Wesley called “Justifying Grace.” You’re in the kingdom. You’re down with the big JC. John Wesley compared justifying grace to the actual door of the house. You knock. You walk through the door. You’re in. Lots of Christians think of the walking in the door as the moment of salvation, that moment when we accept that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and our savior and accept God in our lives. And then they argue about whether you can lose that salvation or not. Wesley thought of it in a different way. He thought of it as the receipt of justifying grace. When we think about this, we often think that when you walk in the door, your sins are forgiven, you’ve put your lot in with God, and you’re good to go.

So let’s imagine what happens if all of these dolls were to make that decision. They walk up to the house. They feel welcomed. They respond to God’s prevenient grace, that invitation of the front porch. They knock on the door and are received. God’s glad to see them. God’s been searching them out like lost coins and lost sheep. So all the dolls respond to the prevenient grace offered by God, make the decision to enter the door, and there they receive justifying grace. Now they’re in the foyer, and we’re going to need to turn this thing around so that we can see what’s going on with the dolls in the dollhouse. Where are all the dolls? Crowded in the entrance.

I’m going to play with this metaphor a little bit. What happens when a bunch of people are crowded into the entrance of a house and more people keep coming in? It gets very crowded and uncomfortable. What has to happen to remedy the situation? One of two things has to happen. Either some of them have have to move out of the entrance or someone has to stop people from walking in that door.

Suddenly the people in the doorway, the people that have entered, start trying to control who else comes in. The Welcome mat is removed, and a different welcome is offered.

The Fire Department is called, and a capacity limit is set.

The door only becomes offered to certain people. Now mind you, this is not God setting the limits, it’s the people crowded in the doorway that are trying to set limits. In our little example here, the Disney princesses start telling the  troll dolls that there is no room for troll dolls inside the house. The Barbies tell the Disney princesses to can it; there are room for little people, troll dolls, Barbies and that’s it. At least they can all agree that there is no room for the Bratz dolls. I think you can figure out where I’m going with this.

The better answer for the people crowded around the front door is to move into the other rooms of the house. That is what Wesley called “sanctifying grace.”

Sanctifying grace is God-given to people who are trying to follow Jesus. This is for the folks who answered the prevenient grace of the front porch by accepting the justifying grace of the front door and then moved out of the entranceway into the other rooms of the house. This is the grace offered to us as we work to mature as Christians, as we worship together, as we learn to offer grace to others, as we grow in our faith. It doesn’t mean we all live in the same room at the same time, but it means we spread out and expand and try to fully live into the home offered to all of us by God.

The big thing I think most Christians struggle with is this notion that when we’re in, we’re done. Once Jesus has found us as a lost sheep and we’re no longer lost, we’re just one of the 99 and we don’t matter so much anymore. But that’s not the case. We’re not done. While it seems that Jesus is telling us that God wants to find the lost, we have to remember that it is just as easy to be lost among the found. Thinking that we’re found and that’s it actually makes us lost because we’re not experiencing the fullness of God’s grace. We’re lost to the next step, jammed in the foyer trying to figure out how the Bratz dolls got an invite.

God calls us, not once, but over and over again to experience God’s grace. God doesn’t want us crowded in a doorway. God doesn’t want to lose us among all the found people. Rather, God wants to find us among the lost, the hurting, the trying, the struggling, the previously unwelcomed, the uncomfortable, the learning. God wants us to be tour guides to what we’ve learned inside the home God offers all people, free for all. God wants us to be sending invitations and giving tours to the Bratz and troll dolls of the world, those beloved children of God that have been labeled by people crowded in the doorway or watching from the street… those labeled as inappropriate, as unworthy, those who would not find a welcome elsewhere.

I think it is awesome news that God’s grace is more complex than it seems. Really, it’s still a simple matter of acceptance of what God offers. But it’s great news that God has more for us to do, more for us to learn, that we have a lifetime in this house to learn how to live. Jesus said, “My father’s house has many rooms.” May we accept all the levels of God’s grace, and learn to live in them during this life. Amen.


Sermon: A Matter of Focus

The story contained in the ninth chapter of the Gospel of John is one of the first stories I ever preached. It’s not a story that can be simplified down to a little phrase, such as “Jesus heals a blind man.” It’s more like, “Jesus healed a blind man, the religious leaders questioned everybody involved, and it all turned into a strange mess.” It can’t really be broken up and preached over several weeks, because the story is a single story. Without the healing, there’s no need for the discussion, without the context of the discussion, the healing is just another healing. Taken together, in the entirety of the chapter, we get a cool glimpse into how Jesus saw the world, what he did, what opposition he faced, and how he handled that opposition during his ministry. So it’s a story I’ve preached several times in my career, and each time, I’ve seen a different insight into this less-than-simple story of Jesus healing a man born blind.


This week, it was my great pleasure to get to meet an artist of incredible caliber and just pick their brain for a few hours. This artist is primarily a photographer, and the pictures they’ve taken left me in wonder. Most of the pictures were taken in locations I have seen, walked by, or been inside. But none of the pictures showed anything I have ever seen before. This artist has a gift of capturing what people like you and I never see but is all around us. The amazing thing is that the photographer does not intend to capture things no one else notices. It’s simply what they see when they look around them.


You know those rorschach tests? Those ink blots we see in psych or other exams? If you’ve never taken the test, you’ve probably seen it on television or in a movie. The tester shows you a white card with an inkblot on it and then asks you what you see. You and I would probably be like everyone else and tell the tester what we saw in the inkblot. This artist I met would either tell the tester what they saw in the white around the  inkblot or the mustache on the tester’s lip. This photographer’s perspective is just that unusual, that unique, that different. This artist approaches life with a perspective that is completely different from everyone around them.


And that’s just how Jesus was. It starts with the disciples. “Who sinned that this man was born blind — him or his parents?” This was a popular idea in the ancient world, that the sins of the parents were visited on their children. Of course, it couldn’t be that the man sinned and caused his blindness because he was born blind. The disciples look at the man and sees the start a theological argument about sin. Jesus sees a blind man and gives him sight.


Then we run into the townspeople. “Isn’t this the same man who used to sit and beg?” They see the healed man and see the beggar who asked them for money. Jesus saw a blind man and gave him sight.


Then the Pharisees, the keepers of the law, come on the scene. They immediately get worked up because Jesus healed the man on the Sabbath, when no work was to be done. They see the healed man and see a sin. Jesus saw a blind man and gave him sight.


Then the Pharisees go to the parents and inquire about the healing. The parents shake in their shoes over this and are afraid they will be cast out of the community so they pass the Pharisees back to their son. They see their healed son, and see a future killed by the religious authorities. Jesus saw a blind man and gave him sight.


The Pharisees go to the healed man, and they get into a deep discussion about discipleship and sin. They see the man, call Jesus a sinner, call the healed man a sinner, and threw him out! Jesus saw a blind man and gave him sight.


Do you see the difference in perspective here? All the people involved in have myriad issues with religious authority, law, sin, money…. Jesus had no issues. He saw a blind man. He treated him. There’s the difference in perspective. While all the others were dealing with all the fluff around the incident, Jesus dealt with the person, even coming to find him after he found out the Pharisees had tossed him out and offering him a chance at discipleship. The man believes and worship Jesus. Jesus says, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.” And the Pharisees hear it and get indignant. “‘What? Are we blind too?’

Jesus said, ‘If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.’”

So I’m sitting with this photographer, and I’m looking at their pictures when I realize that many of them are just ever so slightly out of focus. They’re still absolutely amazing photos with the same unique perspective that made me feel like my eyes had been opened to the things around me, but they were making my eyes hurt a little because they were trying to adjust to the picture, to put it into focus. It was like I had the wrong lenses in my glasses. And so many people do.

When we become Christians, we do so because we look at Jesus: the stories, communion, the worship of him, and we fall in love with him a little. We love his kindness, his mercy, his forgiveness, his sacrifice, his strength, and we know our lives would be better with him in them. But we’re looking at Jesus with the lenses of our own worldview, our own world. We look at him through the perspective we’ve grown up with and developed over our years. Sometimes, looking at Jesus pushes us to make better decisions, to sin less, to give more of ourselves. We try to turn to Jesus, to look to Jesus more and more. But what we’re doing is looking at Jesus, like the Pharisees, like the man born blind, like his parents.

There’s a point in our path of faith when we change from being a Christian who tries to look at Jesus to being a Disciple who tries to look like Jesus. Not to appear like him, but to see like him. It’s the change between looking at Jesus through the lenses of the world and looking at the world with the lenses of Jesus. It seems like word play, but it actually means a huge difference in our lives. Instead of looking at the world as someone who loves the Jesus I look at through the world, I’m looking at the world like the Jesus I love does. Instead of applying judgment and condemnation, I’m offering what Jesus offered: sight and help.

Let’s walk through an example. Let’s say we’re driving down Commercial Street, and we see a homeless man. There are many, many thoughts that could go through our heads, although I propose that most people that pass him by won’t even notice him or think about him. But those of us who look to Jesus might wonder about him. I wonder if he was one of the guys that asked me for money this week on my drive home. I wonder if he’s cold. I wonder where he sleeps. I wonder if he’s mentally ill. I wonder what made him homeless. I wonder if its nature or nurture that makes people end up homeless, which is really just another way of wondering who sinned, this man or his parents… I wonder if he is a criminal. I wonder if he is a drug addict. I wonder if he ever goes to any of the churches that exist for the homeless people downtown. Most likely, we would think to ourselves, “You know… someone should really do something about this homeless problem” or “The church should be doing something about this.” We wonder because we know we should wonder. We should care. The Jesus I see would care about this guy, so I should care about this guy. No. Jesus would slam on his brakes and treat this man. If he was hungry, he’d feed him. If he was sick, he’d heal him. If he was lonely, he’d befriend him. If he was sad, he’d comfort him. He would give the man what he needed, but most of all… he would see him and treat him like a person. There’s the difference. That’s the difference in perspective and focus.

Jesus offered the world a new perspective on life. He saw people. He saw people like us. And now, people see him. They come to church or watch a TV preacher or whatever it is they do… they like being seen by Jesus and seeing Jesus, but stop short of seeing like Jesus. That’s just going too far! But that’s the next step. To see others that aren’t necessarily like us. To stop seeing the fluff and start seeing the heart. To stop doing what we’re “supposed to do” as people who have seen Jesus and start being people who are working to see like Jesus. It’s not easy. Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.” It means the sins you ask forgiveness for become painfully real. You no longer get to check off, “Well, no murder or adultery this week. I’m good” and have to face things like, “I didn’t even see that guy. I didn’t listen when she tried to tell me… I didn’t pay attention.”

When we stop thinking we can see and start actually seeing the world through the eyes of Jesus, we’ll find ourselves risking more, trying more, seeing more, but we’ll no longer be Pharisees: the guilty who claim they can see. We’ll stop being folks who see the inkblot and start seeing the person holding the inkblot. We’ll be the forgiven that knew they were once blind, put on the lenses of Jesus Christ through the grace of God, and started picking up the pieces of the broken world one seen person at a time. Amen.

Sermon: Between Lukewarm and Unbelief

This week I was sitting in the office of the Council of Churches working on plans for our church’s involvement with Springfield’s new women’s homeless shelter when Rev Mark Struckhoff walked in and asked me when I was leaving for Italy and who was preaching while I am gone. I told him that we were going to try using technology so that I could preach both Sundays, and then I told him my sermon topic for next week, “Is GOD on Facebook?” and Mark answered the question, then I answered the question, and we both said, “Oooh. That would be a good sermon!” Mark’s answer was really good. Mark said “Of course not because….”


Too bad. You won’t hear Mark’s answer until later in this sermon.


So last week, I was in the young adult sunday school class, and they have started an exciting new curriculum called, “not a fan.” Keith asked me to come to class last week because he wanted my spin on something the curriculum says, and that’s this: Jesus never wanted a bunch of fans, Jesus wanted followers.


So the question the class wanted answered was this: is it really all or nothing with God?


We may sing “I surrender all” and sing “All to Jesus, I surrender. All to him I freely give,” but I know I have stumbled over those words. I give you my heart Jesus, but I would like to keep control over some areas of my life. You may see into my life Jesus, but there are times I’d like you to turn the cameras off. Do you remember the Bette Midler hit “From a distance”?


From a distance we all have enough,

and no one is in need.

And there are no guns, no bombs, and no disease,

no hungry mouths to feed.


From a distance you look like my friend,

even though we are at war.

From a distance I just cannot comprehend

what all this fighting is for.


From a distance there is harmony,

and it echoes through the land.

And it’s the hope of hopes, it’s the love of loves,

it’s the heart of every man.


From a distance we are instruments

marching in a common band.

Playing songs of hope, playing songs of peace.

They’re the songs of every man.

God is watching us. God is watching us.

God is watching us from a distance.


Boy, that’s a nice idea. It was extremely popular, and I think there is no irony in the fact that the song became Song of the Year in the same year we went to war for the first time in the Persian Gulf. At least from a distance, we look like good people doing what we’re supposed to do. It was a great song, but it is not at all biblical. Not at all.


This is the God that knows the number of hairs on our heads and knows and calls each of us by name, who speaks and pushes us onto the path God prefers, and sends us his only son to die and rise to conquer each and everyone of the sins of each and every one of us. And there’s no distance at all between God and us… except the distance that we create.


The concept of all or nothing with God is really quite scary. We may sing “I surrender all,” but there are things we hold back. We close the door to our bedrooms. We close the covers of our checkbooks. We keep a habit we know God would like us to lose. We sneak a moment that we consider private. We hold back. We create distance between us and God, and the distance I create is probably all together different from the distance you create, but we all have it. Distance. It’s not what God wants, and it’s nothing to sing about.


So the Sunday school asked me the questions: Is it really all or nothing with God? and I quoted two scriptures: today’s scripture readings.


In Revelation, Jesus speaks to a church and says that if they continue to be lukewarm in their relationship with and devotion to him, he will spit them out of his mouth. Another way Jesus has said this is that if we are ashamed of him, he will be ashamed of us in front of the Father. Lukewarm is simply not good enough. Be against or be for. Our leaders say “whoever isn’t for us is against us” while Jesus said, “whoever isn’t against us is for us,” but when Jesus is talking about disciples and church members, it’s pick a side and go with it, go for it. Don’t sit on the fence. Don’t be lukewarm. Be cold or be HOT.


So, yes, it’s all or nothing with God, but most of us, or maybe all of us, aren’t quite there yet. We haven’t yet turned over everything, so are we spit out-able?


Here’s the other scripture that comes to mind: Jesus is asked to heal a boy with a violent spirit by the boy’s father. Jesus asks the man if he believes. And the man says the oddest thing: “I believe; help me overcome my unbelief.” That is as real as it gets. It may not be the sweetest thing anyone said to Jesus, or the smartest thing anyone said to Jesus, but it was definitely one of the most honest, authentic things anyone said to Jesus. “I believe; help me overcome my unbelief.” I’m trying, but I need your help to get to the next level.


And that seems to be acceptable to Jesus. It’s enough for him to heal the boy. The guy is lukewarm in his faith development, yes, this is the first moment he’s had Jesus in his life, he’s a little on the fence. But…. but! he asks Jesus to help him believe more.


Is it all or nothing with God? Yes. All is the goal. All is what God wants. No distance is what God wants. Are we there yet? Probably not. We are holding something back or many somethings back. So how do we get from lukewarm to hot? Lord, I believe. Help me overcome my unbelief. Not my disbelief. My unbelief. Not my “I don’t believe that” but my “I haven’t believed that yet.” I haven’t seen what you can do with my relationships. I don’t know the difference you’d make in my finances. I don’t know what would happen if I exposed my whole self to you. That’s unbelief, not disbelief. See the difference?


My colleague Mark said God is not on Facebook because God does not want the whitewashed, carefully constructed images of ourselves that we show the world. God wants our true selves.


God doesn’t want your Facebook self, your masked self, your perfectly socially-acceptable self that you show outside your home. God wants the real you, warts and all. God wants all of it, without the distance that we try to maintain so we can think we’re good people. God wants the sin. He died for it and then rose to make it go away. He wants it! How do we get there, from unbelief to belief, from lukewarm to all-in, cards up, I surrender all? As Jesus said, some things can only come out through prayer. That’s the way to do it. We have to pray. Pray on the way to work. Pray before you go to bed. Pray whenever you’re stressed. Pray whenever you’re relaxed. Pray, pray, pray, pray every day. I believe, Lord, help my unbelief.


And if you pray everyday, occasionally throw out the formulas we so often use. All prayer don’t have to start to a beautiful beginning like “Dear Heavenly father” or “Gracious God.” They don’t have to be in King James’ English. They can start with, “hey, God…” They can start with, “HELP ME.” The more you pray, the more you’re going to start slipping up and saying things you didn’t mean to say… and that’s when you’re closing the distance God didn’t want in the first place. Pray until you say something you didn’t mean to say to God. If we pray until we’re real with God, and then, my friends, we will begin to burn hot and we will finally begin to be all in. Amen.

Sermon: Seasoned Reason


In Chicago, I did my field education assignment by living in a retirement hotel, an upscale independent living facility. Everyone had their own separate apartment, each floor had daily maid service, and we ate our meals together in the dining room. It was a lovely place to live, and I was the youngest resident. In fact, I was 60 years younger than the average (and the average included me). We had over 250 residents of all different faith backgrounds, and my job was to trouble shoot cultural and religious issues. For example, I had to regularly explain to the kitchen staff that it wouldn’t work to offer our Jewish residents a choice of crab salad or a ham and cheese sandwich for lunch. I taught classes, played the piano on Friday evenings, and I met with the Director to discuss how to address the larger issues facing the community.


My second year there, she told me  that their biggest problem over Winter was that we had a staggering number of deaths between December 26 and the end of January. It seems that many people, when sick, hold off the death process until they reach a major milestone. “I just have to make it until my 90th birthday.” “I just have to have one more Hanukkah.” But the other issue was that so many of our residents, along with the rest of the world, became depressed after the holidays. Dinner table conversation was about how disappointing Christmas or Hanukkah was. “My kids were only here for an hour.” “They didn’t take me home with them.” “It wasn’t what I expected.” So the residents become depressed and it makes them weaker. They end up passing away, in part from a broken heart, and then the people around them feel the loss and they get depressed. The whole winter was a disaster from then on. It happened every year.


Charlie Brown says, “I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.”


This is a joyous season for a lot of people, but it also an incredibly difficult season for many others. It’s the first Christmas without a loved one, or another Christmas without a loved one. It’s hectic and expensive. Our kids want more than we can afford. People give us gifts we didn’t expect, and we feel the need to return the favor. Credit cards get maxed out while people lose jobs. It’s another Christmas spent in a war zone. It’s the time of year when we realize that our families are strung across the country or across the world. The gap between those who have and those who have not is never wider than in the holiday season.


I can hear Linus’ words echoing, “Charlie Brown, you’re the only person I know who can take a wonderful season like Christmas and turn it into a problem.” It is a problem for so many people, but we still try to go into it with high expectations. It’s Christmas. Everything will be perfect. Families won’t fight. Dinner won’t be tense. The treeskirt will be loaded up with presents. The children’s program will go off without a hitch. The electric bill won’t be that high. We won’t get snowed in, and if we do, hey, we’ve been dreaming of a white Christmas.


Even if we have a knot in the pit of our stomachs, we try to make every Christmas just  like the last, only perfect this time. It’s a lot of stress, keeping up these high expectations.


When the Director of the Retirement Hotel and I had discussed how people try to be Linus during Christmas: the positive one who has the highest expectations of the holiday while inside they’re Charlie Brown: realizing they just don’t feel like they’re “supposed to,” we came up with this idea to get people to lower expectations. Who does that? I mean, seriously. I went out to the community with the mission to lower the residents expectations of the holiday. We had a well-attended class where we discussed family traditions, seasonal expectations, past realities, and healthy expectations. Each week, I asked the residents in the class to go to their dinner tables and discuss these same ideas with their table mates. We made my mission to lower expectations to realistic proportions their mission as well. Over the course of four weeks, almost everyone in that hotel had a discussion with a friend about keeping their expectations for the holidays reasonable.  And do you know what happened? Nobody died between December 26 and January 30 that year. Not a single resident. It was a record.


If you have high expectations for the holiday because your holidays are always great, that’s great. If your heart or stomach are churning over the holidays, that’s okay too. Because this season is the reason for Jesus.


I said that wrong, right? The sweatshirt says that Jesus is the reason for the season. A pastor friend from Chicago suggested recently that maybe the sweatshirt has it a little mixed up. She has lived through a lot of seasons, and she has realized that it is exactly when our expectations are mixy, our stomachs our churning, our bank accounts are in jeopardy, when people are cold and hungry and stretched too thin, when we can’t tell if we’re coming or going… this season is the reason for Jesus Christ. This kind of human turmoil and stuff… this is why God sent his only son to be born as one of us, live like one of us, die like one of us, and rise so we could. This season, these frustrations, these weird expectations… they’re not God’s doing. They’re ours. We were getting a little twisted up as human beings, so God sent himself to become one of us so that we would realize Emmanuel, God with us, and get untwisted.


God seems to have realistic expectations of us. God tried the whole, “I told you what to do, now do it” but it kept getting twisted. So, God tried “I’ll show you how much I love you.” For all our twists, all our expectations, all our failures, all our churns. And he sent the first message of this to shepherds in a field. Shepherds! These were not the high class high rollers. These were the guys that had to stay out all night away from everybody else. They had no great position in society, no wealth. God sent the message to the Charlie Browns of Israel.


So go watch “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown.” Hear Linus tell the story and be a shepherd on the hillside. Merry Christmas, Charlie Browns.



Sermon: Bois D’Arc Rocks

That Big Rock Church


When people ask me where I work, I tell them I am the pastor of Bois D’Arc UMC. Often, they ask me where Bois D’Arc is, what a Bois D’Arc is, or if I mean “Boise De Ark.” If they have ever been to or through Bois D’Arc, they ask me the same thing: “that big rock church?” I’ve heard it probably 50 times, but it always takes me a minute. Uh… okay. That big rock church.


Big? No. Rock? Yes. Church? Yes, it’s a church. When the former district superintendent was telling me about the awesome potential assignment she had for me five years ago, she told me that the Methodist church was the healthiest church in Bois D’Arc. That’s a pretty tall order. But it wasn’t her description of the Methodist church in Bois D’arc that convinced me to accept an assignment at this little country church. It was the stories from people in my downtown Springfield church who had grown up here: Gregg Johnson and Kristi Weigand. They spoke fondly of the little rock church in Bois D’Arc. They didn’t talk about the building. They didn’t talk about the size. What they talked about were the people. I’d met Taylor Hollis before I came to Bois D’Arc, but I had heard stories about Betty and Jim Squibb, Mary Lea Hicks, Gwen and Bob Baker, Marilyn Harris, Monye Richter, and Ann and Wayne Peters long before I ever walked through the glass doors and thought, “Yeah… this is home.” See? Even your pastor felt it.


A few years ago, we dug ourselves a garden to help feed the communities around us. We picked a spot that looked flat and fertile, but as soon as the plow hit the ground, we knew we had a problem. Underneath the grass on our property there are rocks. Lots of rocks. Big rocks.  There were rocks so big the tractor couldn’t make it through the soil. Rocks so big we couldn’t lift them. We had to bring in a special machine that shook the rocks to the surface. “Bois D’Arc rocks!” took on a new meaning for the 40+ people who picked rocks so that we could grow a garden that first year and the next year… and the next year.


In the Middle East, in Israel, the soil is different. It’s sandy. It’s difficult to build a house there, and a bad idea to build it on the sand, as Jesus explains. Floods come, water pushes the sand, the wind blows, houses fall down. You have to build your house, Jesus said, on rock.


Jesus is not just giving building advice here. This piece of advice, this instruction, comes at the very end of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. He has been giving instructions for living good, meaningful, God-centered lives, and he ends it by telling people that he means them to apply these instructions. Don’t listen, go back home, and continue to live the same life. Don’t build your house on sand; build it on the rock. Don’t build your life on sand; build it on the rock. This stuff should change your lives!


I appreciated the chance to meet with several of our members and record just a few of the memories they share. It’s pretty cool to have the people named in the stained glass windows we love sitting in the pews with us loving us back. This is a great time to be a part of this big (or little) rock church.


Because this little rock church matters. It matters to those who built it. This church was built with local labor and local rock. After the original white wooden church burned down, this church was built without debt by church members as the school was being built by the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression. It mattered to the people who worshipped in the basement for four years while it was being built. It mattered to the women who cooked extra dinners to bring to the workers. It mattered to the kids who sat on the steps during VBS in the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, 2000s, and even in 2011 when we took a photograph on the steps of all the church and neighbor kids who feel at home when they walk in these glass doors and see Jesus knocking on the door to our heart. It mattered so much to the Ladies Aid Society that they met every Friday to quilt and embroider items to sell at their yearly Bazaar and Turkey Dinner so that they could keep the church moving forward. It mattered enough to the working women that they began a Guild, now UMW, so that they could contribute as well. It mattered to pastors, whether Rev. Branstetter who stayed for 18 years or the many who stayed through what we call “the 2 year curse.” It has mattered to Trustees who made the decisions about when to build and what to build and how to get it done. It mattered to youth group leaders, Finance Chairs, Sunday School Teachers, Pianists. It mattered.


And it matters now… to many of these same families who were involved in its construction, but to other families who have come to worship here and bring children and grandparents and friends to experience life in a little rock church that is filled with families who have built their lives on THE ROCK by worshipping him inside this little rock church. These families, whether they were here when the church was being built or are here building it now… they didn’t go home after hearing his words and live the same lives. Jesus’ words mattered to them. The rock matters to them. These rocks matter to them.


They matter to Joann Pipkin who made our advertisement and to her daughter, Jera, who was confirmed this year and to Jera’s brother, Jace, who gets the next 50+ years to fall in love over and over again with Claire Searcy. It matters to Steve Floyd, to Justin, and to Kelly, to Jeremy and to Sara, to Mollie and Claire and Hannah. It matters to Ann Peters. It matters to Aubrey and Erma and Missy and Jamie and Sam and Tate and Jacob. It matters to Ryan and Jawan, to Ben and Madilynn. It matters.


It matters. This little rock church matters because this is where generations of their family have learned, learn, or will learn, have sung, sing, or will sing about, taught, teach, or will teach about, have praised, praise, or will praise: the rock.


It matters to Jesus Christ. It matters to his kingdom, because it is his body in this community, redeemed by his blood, practicing holy communion with him, singing praises to His Father, experiencing the movement of the Holy Spirit, blown at, rained on, ice-covered, and still standing. Still moving. Still changing. Still opening minds, doors, and hearts. It matters to Jesus Christ because it is not a community center. It is not an set of memories and sets of empty pews. It matters to Jesus Christ because it works with Him to build His Kingdom and because it points to the rock.


Jesus is the rock. The rock on which we can build our houses. The rock on which we can build our families. The rock on which we can build our lives. Floods will come. Storms will come. Winds will blow. Hail will fall. But our lives are built on the rock and in many ways revolve around this beautiful pile of rocks that mattered, matters, and will continue to matter… because it is built on the rock of Jesus Christ out of the rocks of Bois D’Arc soil. Amen.

Sermon: Sing the Song

Sing the Song


I spend every Thanksgiving at the home of my parents. It’s the only holiday that I get to spend at home with them because I work on the other ones. So I go home to the Lake every year, and the sneaking around begins. Dad and I have whispered conversations about what we’re going to get Mom and how we’re going to surprise her (because she’s always hyper-aware of our Thanksgiving machinations). Mom and I have whispered conversations about what to get Dad, and Mom and Dad try to pull out of me what I want. It’s tradition.


So this year, I was telling mom that I’m going to get my dad an itunes gift card, and my mom asks me what use it will be since he owns every song he’s ever listened to and liked. I said, “Oh, man, you can use an itunes card to buy movies, tv shows, books, apps, software.” And she said, “Well back in the day you could only use it to buy music.” And I started to laugh. Back in the day? I remember that.


Back in the day, I bought my first record. It was a single, and it was Prince’s “Raspberry Beret.” Back in the day, I listened to my first cassette tape and was blown away by the audio quality of this little tape played on my brother’s walkman that was so small, it was barely thicker than a United Methodist Hymnal. The tape was Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Back in the day, we bought our first CD player. It was boombox-esque and played tapes and CDs, so I made hundreds of mix tapes on it from the 10 or so CDs we had. The first one was Dire Straits’ brothers-in-arms. Back in the day, we were lucky if our cars had more than a radio, and now my dad’s car can catch music from his ipod or from the built-in satellite radio. Back in the day, we joined Columbia Music House to get 10 CDs for the price of exorbitant shipping. Now we download it digitally. I haven’t bought a CD in maybe 5 years! Back in the day, my mom’s used to sit around the piano and sing if they wanted music, but now we can sit around and play each other our favorite songs from our i-music-devices. How we play music has changed. The world has changed from back in the day.


Back in Bible times… now that was back in the day. But there really isn’t such a thing as “Bible times.” There is sort of a guessed-at period of time in which scholars think the Bible was written, and it touches two millennia. It’s really a huge period of time, and it encompasses lots of different ages. The world was a different place from the way it is now. It was a different place when the writers of the earliest Bible-writing period wrote from when the writers of the latest Bible-writing period wrote. They wrote and spoke different languages, faced different crises, knew different cultures and peoples. The Old Testament and New Testament are from vastly, vastly different people in vastly, vastly different worlds and situations, but even the writers in the Old Testament vary in their worlds and situations, which is why we end up getting stories that have layers of storytelling, like Noah’s Ark, where 1 pair of every animal and then 1 pair of every animal except the ones with 7 pairs walk onto the ark, or the two back-to-back creation stories. There are these layered stories with layers written in from different time periods that explain the story from the point-of-view of a changed world.


And then we have the Psalms. These are songs, written over the course of Israelite history, throughout the times of the writing of the Bible. And we have, specifically, Psalm 33, probably written very early in the whole scheme of things.


Sing joyfully to the LORD, you righteous; 

   it is fitting for the upright to praise him. 

Praise the LORD with the harp; 

   make music to him on the ten-stringed lyre.


Okay, Mary Lea. Turn off the organ and get out your harp. And Kay, we’ll have no more of that piano playing. Get out your ten-stringed lyre. You don’t have one? Does anyone have a ten-stringed lyre? How many of you have an inspirational song on itunes? Good thing the psalm continues:


Sing to him a new song; 

   play skillfully, and shout for joy.


The psalm, the song, goes on to declare the strength of God. He keeps the deep in jars. He breathed out the stars. He overcomes our plans with His. He just speaks and it happens. No army can stand against him, horses can’t save us. Remember, this was the ancient world. But you get the gist. This song of praise sings of a huge, powerful, undefeatable God… in a world that was changing and lost and full of war and natural disaster, in world in which it was hard to scratch out a living and raise a family, in a world that wasn’t going the way people thought it should be going… there is this one thing over all, and it is God. And God is good.


So get out whatever instrument you’ve got and sing God a new song… that’s what the Psalmist is calling us to do through thousands of years after the song was first sung.


This week, I came home to sing at the funeral of Monty Russell’s mother, Elnora. I had lots of options for accompaniment. I could have downloaded a background track. I could have played the piano or had the organist play, but I chose instead to sing a cappella, simply. And that turned out to be the right choice, because her life was a simple song.


I had met her only in a hard time, but I loved hearing the stories shared about her life, her faith, and the connection she made with her home community. I knew she was one of the founding members of her church, but as I heard stories about the way she sewed for everyone in town and charged only what they could afford… As I hear stories about how she baked cakes for the school’s baccalaureate reception… As I heard stories about how she held tea in her home for students… As I heard the stories of a life filled with generosity, kindness, and love, I had two thoughts. 1) She sang God’s song, and 2) I know that particular tune because I know Monty and Katherine. I don’t want to embarrass them by spelling out the ways they live out the same generosity, kindness, and love in this community, and I don’t need to for most of you. It’s the same song Elnora sang in her life. It’s the same song the Psalmist sang. Joyful, gentle, happy, strong… because it is a God-given melody, the song of life, the song of joy, the song of a life touched by the hand of God and sure in his existence.


It doesn’t matter whether we get our music on a cassette, an 8 track, a record, a phonograph, a piano, a ten-stringed lyre, a harp, a guitar, a CD or itunes. What matters is that as the world changes around us, we keep singing the song in our lives.


You were made to sing this song. You were gifted to sing this song. Maybe you can’t carry a tune in a bucket or play a kazoo, but you were given a life in which you can sing out this song with whatever gifts you have. Sing it in the nursing home. Sing it in the car. Sing it with a child who needs help. Sing it with a stranger who needs your kind word. Sing it with a couple in trouble. Sing it with the clerk at the gas station. But sing it, sing it, sing it out. God is good. God is powerful. The world changes, shifts, nations rise, nations fall, disasters come, disasters go. But God is good. God is in charge. That is something to sing about.


We wait in hope for the LORD;
he is our help and our shield.
21 In him our hearts rejoice,
for we trust in his holy name.
22 May your unfailing love be with us, LORD,
even as we put our hope in you.


Sermon: A Letter from Italy

Dear Church Family,


Ciao from Italy! I’m writing this at noon on Saturday your time. It’s dinner time in Italy. Tomorrow I will get on the plane before some of you even went to bed last night, and I will be somewhere over the ocean between Germany and the US while you are hearing this message.


Sundays are difficult for me in Italy. I spent last Sunday at a Truffle Expo. The city of Alba doesn’t expo the delicious, chocolate truffles we’re used to… they expo the hunted-by-pigs truffles that cost hundreds of dollars for a few ounces of fragrant fungus. While we were drinking coffee in Alba, I looked at the clock, and Alex must have seen something wistful in my face. It was 11 o’clock in Bois D’Arc. Although I was enjoying the company and the outing, the hours in which I would normally be worshipping God with you are spent with difficulty and longing in Italy. He said, “they’re okay.” I knew that, but I wished I was in church.


When I am in Italy, I am constantly reminded that I am in a Catholic country. Sometimes the reminders are pleasant, such as:


  • I pass a church every time we take a walk. Sometimes two churches. Sometimes more.


  • Every hilltop and every village we pass in the car has a recognizable church.


  • Church bells ring across the city.


  • This week, a nun brushed pass me in the open market.


  • At the dinner table a few nights ago, Alex’s dad taught me to say “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” in Latin.


Catholicism is everywhere in Italy. It’s part of the culture. You see it in the churches. You hear it in the bells. You feel it in the guilt. When a news story breaks, it is completely normal that the television announcer interviews a priest about the church’s view on the story. Catholicism is everywhere… just like the scent of truffle.


We bought a truffle for Alex’s dad at the Truffle Expo last Sunday. Truffles stink. I mean, they reek. They are fragrant to the point of gag. We’ve eaten truffle at two meals. At each one, I have had to ask Alex to limit my truffle shavings to the least possible quantity. I have to eat some so as not to appear rude, but I have to eat as few as possible, lest I gag at the table (and thus appear even more rude).  If you eat truffle on Monday, you will smell it all day Tuesday and possibly even into Wednesday. It’s like a smell you can’t get out of your noses.


If we read Paul’s letters, (which, by the way, were read to the churches in much the way this letter is being read to you) we get a sense that early Christians were not exactly embraced by the Roman government. We know there were persecutions of Paul and other disciples of Jesus Christ. The Jewish leaders weren’t exactly thrilled with the disciples either. They weren’t exactly thrilled with Jesus when he was alive! He either converted them to a new way of life and faith or he repulsed them with his ability to draw crowds and break the rules that composed their faith.


Officially, the persecution of Christians by the Roman empire began in 64, approximately 30 years after the death of Jesus. Disciples of Jesus Christ went through periods of both tolerance and persecution, and in the early 300s, faced their worst persecution yet. When Constantine became the Emperor, however, he had a different view of Christians because his mother, Helena, was one! In 313, he issued the Edict of Milan which allowed Christians and other people in the Empire the right of free religious choice.


I was in Milan yesterday. I smelled truffle from the meal the night before. I smelled Catholicism in the air… because Constantine and his successors didn’t stop at legalizing Christianity. They made the step to enforcing it, eliminating opportunities to worship in other ways. There were wars, crusades, persecutions, inquisitions as Christians became the dominant power in empires of the world. Have you notice that I’ve stopped using the word “disciple”?


In Italy, where all is Catholic and it is everywhere, I am reminded that discipleship isn’t about power or government or officialness. That’s not what matters. It’s not whether we have crosses or the ten commandments posted in court rooms or words added to our pledge of allegiance. It’s not about the words on our money or the religion of our leaders. It’s not about what we give to Caesar. It is not about whether our country smells like Christianity.


It’s about who Jesus is to us, and, truly, this is an individual question. Is he a prophet? Is he John the Baptist, the guy who brought you to a point in which you decided to change your life? Is he Elijah, who showed you the truth in a moment when you were lost? Is he the messiah, the chosen, annointed one? Or is he someone who matters every day? Does he effect how we are, or has he effected WHO we are?


Sitting at the dinner table, learning Latin from Alex’s father (because Latin is the language of the TRUE church), I saw the truffle approaching for the first time and was afraid. The smell of the outside is so strong. The inside, though, smelled different, and when I tasted it, I was surprised that it was almost tasteless. It was more of a smell than a taste. It was a fragrance, not a flavor. It didn’t run all the way through.


Christians in our country lament that we don’t have enough of the scent of Christianity in our nation. No, we don’t have public prayer in schools anymore. If you think about it, that only works if a country has only one religion and all the teachers are adherents. In other words, you might be fine with your kids’ teacher praying before class, until your kids had a Jehovah’s witness as a teacher, or a Muslim teacher, or a pagan teacher.


No, we don’t have crosses or the ten commandments posted in our courtrooms. No, you are not assumed to be Catholic or Christian or anything. But as a disciple, you don’t need to lament the lack of the scent of Christianity. You are free. Free to take up his cross and follow him. Free to taste like you smell, if you get my drift. It’s not something an empire or a country can decide because then you are left with just the scent of Christianity and not the path of discipleship. I don’t think Jesus ever saw following him as a national pastime. I think he knew that wasn’t going to work. When he talks to individuals about their discipleship, he talks to individuals. He asked them, he asks us, “Who do YOU say that I am?”


“Who do YOU say that I am?”


As we drove past Milan yesterday, Alex exclaimed when he saw a bumper sticker that said, “Jesus first.” That’s weird in Italy, and it was the first individual expression of faith I’d seen. Religious bumper stickers are normal in the US, but extremely odd in Italy where your religious belief is assumed as part of your citizenship. It made me smile. A counter-cultural expression of discipleship in a country scented with Christianity. I wanted to pull the guy over and talk to him.


The discipleship of Jesus Christ does not belong to a certain country, no matter what the beliefs of its founders or leaders. It belongs to the heart of the believer and to the messiah who touches their hearts every day. God comes to us as individuals through Jesus Christ and says, “Come, follow me.” When he asks us, “Who do YOU say that I am?” before the Father, may our answers show that he mattered to us every day and that our discipleship runs all the way through us. Amen.


Sermon: Be Not Ashamed


My boxer, Emily, has no shame. Really, you can’t make her ashamed of anything. Even when she’s done something bad…she ain’t mad atcha. She has never doubted that she is the most beloved boxer in the world. Emily was my parents’ first boxer. They believed that everything she did was absolutely adorable. If she did something wrong, well… she wasn’t a bad dog, just the best dog that did a bad thing that was probably their fault anyway.


My mom’s dog Cory has another story. While Emily was pampered and coddled by my parents, Cory spent her puppyhood with a family that openly expressed that Cory was a bad dog. To counteract her badness, they took extreme measures, which almost broke her spirit. Boxers are a breed that can, under intense circumstances, be broken. Broken boxers are dangerous, unpredictable dogs. Cory was on her way there. But when she arrived at my parents house, she was given her own bed and toys and there were clearly defined rules and another dog that diligently followed them. Commands were simple and direct. Love was plentiful. It didn’t take her long to come back from her brokenness. Until my mom tried to teach her a new trick or I tried to give her a bath and she just collapsed and hid under a chair, shaking. Training and bathing had been traumatic, and, even in the new house, the previous conditioning had left the dog filled with shame and fear.


These are short periods of a dog’s young life in which they are most susceptible to learning both fear and shame. If you shame a dog during one of these developmental stages, that dog will have shame and fear triggered for the rest of their lives unless the owners diligently recondition them to the stimuli. Failed intense training efforts during these period of Cory’s puppyhood gave her a deeply conditioned shame and fear response at any training efforts. Even now, she will only do a couple of tricks at a time, before hiding under a chair for a few seconds and then coming back and trying again. It’s a sad reminder of her almost-brokenness.


Just like with dogs, people can be conditioned with shame. Let me be more direct: people are conditioned by shame. We learn to feel shame when we are children, and the ways we are conditioned to shame continue with us through the rest of our lives unless we can find a way away from the shame.


What is shame? Shame is not guilt. Guilt is feeling bad over a specific action or group of actions. Shame is a deeper conviction than guilt. It’s the same kind of emotion but it is about the whole self. So here’s an example to demonstrate the difference.


Let’s say a person named Shane goes gambling one weekend and loses some money. If his family needed that money, he might feel guilty over the loss or guilty that he wasted money, or guilty that he even gambled if he had been taught that gambling was wrong.


But if Shane has done this several times and starts to believe that maybe it’s just him… Maybe there’s something wrong with him that he keeps doing this and losing. Maybe he’s just a bad person. He’s probably just a loser. That’s shame. It’s no longer a bad feeling about an action he took; now it’s a bad feeling about himself and his own value.


Shame-based conditioning also happens in organizations. Churches are particularly and horribly susceptible to running as shame-based systems. A few of the characteristics of shame based churches would include:


It’s important what other church members think of us, so keep up a good front.

Adults are the focus, kids need to keep quiet and out of the way.

Approval is what matters. Anything that would warrant disapproval should be covered-up.

Feelings are not recognized. People who feel too much are shunned.

People who do “bad things” are shunned.

Nobody asks questions.

One gender keeps the power, the other is just labeled as “oversensitive.”

Secrets are kept and leaked for power.

People speak in code. Communication is indirect.

Unspoken rules govern behavior.


Here’s an example of what that might look like: Shane goes to church after having run into another church member who was making a sales call at the casino a few weeks before. Shane didn’t want to go to church and face the man, but his wife made him go. It just doesn’t look right to go alone, she said, like they have something to hide. When he arrives at church, the wife of the man he saw gives him a disapproving look. At breakfast, one of their Sunday School classmates asks Shane and his wife what they did that weekend. After answering her, she says to him, “Oh, so you didn’t go to Oklahoma this weekend?” And he’s done. His secret shame has been leaked. Shane has three choices. He can either give up the gambling, give up the church, or fake it better and gamble farther away or on days he won’t run into anyone he knows. Who he is at church has to become separated from his real persona, causing all kinds of greater damage to his self-esteem.


Churches that continue in this paradigm can do some damage to its members and its leaders. If everyone requires approval or is led by unspoken rules, the choice is either to conform and resent or to “misbehave” and then fake it with the group, which leads to a sense of brokenness of self…. and… church people become hypocrites. A lot of unchurched people will say the reason they don’t attend churches is because churches are full of… hypocrites, people who are one way one Sunday and another Monday-Saturday. And that’s the product of shame-based conditioning in churches.


Now then… let’s take this home a bit because most shame conditioning happens… at home. Families that are shame-based have some of these same characteristics:


It’s important what other members think of us, so we keep up a good front.

Adults are the focus, kids need to keep their place.

Approval is what matters. Anything that would warrant disapproval should be covered-up.

Feelings are not recognized. People who feel too much are shunned.

People who do “bad things” are shunned.

Nobody asks questions.

One gender keeps the power, the other is just labeled as “oversensitive.”

Secrets are kept and leaked for power plays.

People speak in code. Communication is indirect.

Unspoken rules govern behavior.


Here’s an example. Shane’s wife is silent on the way home from church with her arms crossed all the way home. Their daughter is silent in the back seat. Everyone knows that when mom crosses her arms, someone is in big trouble. That’s the signal. Nobody asks what is wrong. The daughter is afraid her mom is mad at her, and she knows  know she will be in trouble if she asks. When they get home, his wife starts in on Shane, criticizing his gambling and his waste of their money. She tells him he is just as worthless as her father always said he was. It isn’t that she doesn’t like what he did, it is that she doesn’t like him anymore. When the daughter approaches them that night to ask if she can have money for the school field trip, the daughter is told that she should ask her dad why they don’t have the money for the trip. The kid knows better than to ask and starts making up an excuse for her teacher to cover up the problems at home. The kid is ashamed. The mom is ashamed. Shane is ashamed. It wasn’t that what he did was bad, it is that he himself is bad and everyone has let him know it. People, too, are a breed that can be broken.


But there is an answer. And it is simpler than you might think.


Paul writes to Timothy, his young sidekick, and Paul writes from jail. Paul. Paul is in jail. Paul was a Roman citizen, a successful businessman, and a leader of the most legalistic law-abiding Jewish people, the Pharisees. And he’s in jail… and while Paul might feel shame at this, that he has failed his upbringing, that he has embarrassed the Christian community, or that he has shamed himself and his family… Paul is proud, baby! And he writes to Timothy with excitement over his incarceration. He is in jail for Jesus, and he points out to Timothy that with Jesus there is no shame.


And if you think about Jesus’s ministry, there was no shame. He didn’t openly criticize anybody except the religious leaders and they just thought he was a crackpot. The individuals he met were never shamed by their encounter. His first miracle was to keep shame from the host of a party who ran out of wine. The woman at the well? He didn’t shame her. Peter who betrayed him? Didn’t shame him. Judas who was going to betray him? He didn’t shame him. The tax collector, Zacchaues, in the tree? Didn’t shame him. The woman caught in adultery? He told the crowd to put down their stones. Jesus didn’t make them feel shame. He offered them grace, the living water, the bread of life, the love of God, real personhood. G R A C E. Grace.


Every time we do communion, I am struck by this line in the confession, “Jesus died for us while we were yet sinners. That proves God’s love for us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.” And what is the response? “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven. Thanks be to God. Amen.”


That proves God’s love for us. Grace. Undeserved forgiveness. Love for us while we sin against him. Acceptance of us despite our mistakes. I sincerely think that if Jesus approached the Shane of my story today, his message would be something like this: “Hey Shane, I know you have done something you’re not proud of, but I still love you. Even though you’ve made a mistake with your family’s money, you are still mine. What you did does not determine who you are to me.”


This is exactly what Paul is teaching Timothy: Jesus worked through grace-based conditioning. His communication was direct. He didn’t speak in code. He told stories that mad the truth more accessible. He let children come to him and gave them a place of honor. He welcomed sinners and tax collectors and… women. He shared truth instead of keeping secrets. Oh my goodness, if we really followed the way Jesus communicated and acted with people… there would be a whole lot less shame in the world. People would hear the truth in love. Problems would be dealt with privately and with love. And people could actually be at church who they are all week. And that church would be one worth going to! Obviously, you think so. 😉

And imagine if that grace-based conditioning was shared in our families. And questions were asked, and conversations were open, and code was no more. Rules were spoken and children were valued and you knew you were loved no matter what you did. Holy cow. It’s like the whole kingdom of God inside a house. And doesn’t it sound great?


This winter, I offered to give my mom’s dog, Cory, a much-needed bath. Cory had a breakdown when I led her to the hose. It broke my heart. Her head was down and you could just see her little heart pounding in her chest. Bath time = trauma time. She broke free and ran away. And then she looked at my mom and then at me, and you could just see the trust in her eyes.  After a moment, with her head held up, she walked over fearlessly and shamelessly and positioned herself in the spray of the hose. And we knew then that what had been almost broken had been put back together by the love of her master. Sounds just like Paul. It could be the story of all the Shanes of the world, whatever their shame. May it be our story too. From shame-conditioned brokenness to grace-conditioned acceptance by the presence of Jesus Christ in our lives. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Sermon: Lepers & Blisters

A few years ago, I went in for my yearly doctor’s visit and met with my awesome nurse practitioner. It was a slightly stressful time. Bob was in Cox hospital, it was really cold outside, right before Christmas, which was always busy, and Alex and I were getting ready to spend our first Christmas together. At the end of the visit, she asked me if there was anything else I wanted to talk about, and I told her there was something wrong with my index fingers. She looked at my hair and my freckles. She looked at my index fingers. Then she looked at the rest of my hand. She said, “Do you knit?”

I said, “Does the Pope wear a funny hat?”

She asked, “What are you knitting?”

I said, “I’m knitting Alex a wide scarf for Christmas with allover cables.”

She asked, “Are you using the same yarn you always use?”

I scoffed. There is no “same yarn I always use.”

“No! I bought this gorgeous hand dyed merino wool yarn from South Ameri…ohhhhh.”

She said, “You have contact dermatitis.”

I asked, “How do I get rid of it?”

She said, “Stop knitting.”

Yeah, that’s not going to happen… unless I’m crocheting.

Fast forward to a month ago. We’re walking into the hospital to see Charlie Bunting, and all of the sudden I notice that my index finger is hot and it feels like sandpaper. Oh, I had that thing again. Switched yarns. The next day, when walking into the hospital, I realized my middle finger felt hot, and there it was… tiny blisters on my middle finger. And then the next day, they popped up on the other hand as I sat on the back porch. By Sunday, I had a few isolated blisters on my palm and ring finger. I tried not working with yarn. Didn’t help. I tried benadryl and claritin. Didn’t help. I tried topical benadryl. Nothing. I stopped eating yeast and wheat, which I’m allergic to… fewer, but still…blisters. Cortisone cream helped, but as soon as I stopped using it… more blisters. Every day, as soon as I hit the sun, more blisters on my hands. And peeling. And more blisters. I searched online for a different cause… eczema, psoriasis, a parasite, leprosy? Nope. It looks just like contact dermatitis. So what was I touching?

Leprosy is not a huge problem in the United States, although there are still leper colonies in other parts of the world. It is still a problem in many countries, including Brazil and India. Leprosy effects twice as many men as women, researchers are still unsure how it is spread, and a treatment was not developed until the late 1940s. But from the time people started keeping records, leprosy is mentioned.

In Jesus’ day, if anyone had seen my hands, I probably would have been sent to live outside the community for a week until a priest could see if it was leprosy. There are leprosy diagnosis rules in Leviticus 13. Every disease or affliction of the skin was treated as potential leprosy, and sufferers were isolated until it could be determined that they were safe. In a way, kinda smart… it was a way of keeping the whole tribe safe from communicable diseases. If you were part of the tribe, this rule makes sense. If you were the gal with the contact dermatitis, or the guy with leprosy, this rule stinks.

If it was determined that you had “leprosy,” you were completely isolated from anyone but other lepers. You were forced to live outside the community, have no contact with your family up close. No one touched you, no one saw you… except a few other people you were stuck with because they had the same illness. If you were around in the 80s and 90s, this might sound a little familiar, although the disease was different.

In seminary, we used to run through case studies from our professors’ time in churches to discuss how to handle big issues. In a hypothetical church, a registered child abuser shows up and wants to join the church. The church is well-known to have awesome children’s ministries. How do you offer them grace and welcome and maintain both a safe sanctuary and the integrity of the church’s ministries? In another hypothetical church, the fathers of an alleged murderer and the murder victim sing in the choir together. The father of the victim starts leaving notes for the father of the alleged perpetrator. People start taking sides, wanting the alleged perpetrator’s father to leave… how do you do that?

Whether or not we struggle with the actual illness of leprosy in this country, we have to acknowledge that there are lepers in our midst, people who have been estranged from the community by the community’s choice or pressure… don’t believe me? Get convicted of a felony, and then try to get a job. Try homelessness for awhile, and you’ll be amazed at how people can suddenly see through you. Be gay and Christian in a conservative denomination. And suddenly, the UMC’s theme of “open minds, open hearts, open doors” starts to be more relevant.

A few years ago, the District Superintendent came here for a church conference with a lesson prepared on welcome. He gave us a list of different kinds of people that might find difficulty finding a welcome because of their situation, job, race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. People some communities might consider leprous. We were supposed to rank our church’s welcome of all of these different kinds of people. A few minutes after he gave us the assignment, Terri Manley asked if we were supposed to write the names of people in our congregation who met these criteria. The DS gave her the funniest look. Then Gregg Johnson piped up that he had to get halfway down the second page before he found a description of someone we hadn’t had in our congregation. It was “young Arab male.” Then we started suggesting other kinds of people that the list didn’t include. After the workshop, the DS said that the exercise hadn’t gone how he had planned. Then he said he could only think of two other UMCs in the state that would answer that survey like we did.
So on Friday night, Emily comes up to me and asks what those blisters on my hand look like. And then she shows me a knuckle of her hand… and there it is. And I freaked out. O…M…goodness. She hasn’t crocheted in days. It’s contagious! Gingers can spread it to each other. I need to be isolated in the backyard. So I went online, found a forum of people with these blisters. And no matter what their diagnosis, it took reading about 30 entries to realize they all had the same first instruction: Don’t use hand sanitizer.

And then it hit me. “Emily,” I asked. “Did you use the hand sanitizer at Walnut Lawn when we went to see Charlie on Tuesday?”

She answered, “Of course.” Alex piped up, “I never use that stuff, but you always hit the pump on your way into Cox.” And there it was…

Everytime I get contact dermatitis I’ve been knitting, but I’ve also been visiting several days in a row in a Cox hospital facility, and using their hospital grade hand sanitizer on my way in and on my way out. The first time this happened, I was visiting Bob every day. The second time, I was visiting Charlie every day.

And it’s ironic, right? The thing that’s supposed to make me clean would have made me considered ritually unclean in the days of Levitical law.

Jesus is walking between Samaria, the land of the outsiders, and Galilee, when a group of lepers addresses him from a distance. “Have mercy on us, Jesus!” What does he tell them to do? He tells them to go to the Priest because, in Judaism, according to the Levitical law, it is a priest who has to declare them free of leprosy. But it is just this one samaritan guy, not a jewish guy, who realizes on the way there that… hey. I don’t have leprosy anymore. It doesn’t matter what the ritual says, I’ve been made whole. So instead of going to a Jewish priest, he turns around and goes back to Jesus. Instead of standing at a distance and yelling at him, as lepers were required to do, he throws himself at Jesus’ feet and thanks HIM for making him clean. After Jesus wonders why only this guy came back… which we’ll talk about next week… he tells the guy his faith has made him… not clean… but well.

Jesus always asks his disciples if they don’t have eyes to see and ears to hear. Don’t you get it? This Samaritan, foreign, leper… he saw. He actually looked at himself and saw a well person. And he realized that it didn’t matter if he was made “ritually clean” by Jewish law. It mattered that Jesus had made him well. He didn’t need hand sanitizer. He had been washed in the mercy of Jesus Christ.

There are no lepers in the house of God. There are no lepers in his kingdom. Not because “lepers” aren’t welcome, but because he takes away our leprosy, whatever it may be.

There’s a saying that churches are not supposed to be museums of saints but hospitals for sinners. At this hospital, where we all have been made well or are in the process of being made well… you will not find hand sanitizer at the doors. But you will be washed in the mercy of Jesus Christ in the pews. Amen.

Sermon: Believe in Me

A member of one of my mom’s old Sunday School classes once asked why we don’t have more pictures of Jesus as a kid. My mother, of course, said it was because they didn’t have cameras when Jesus was a kid, but the classmates told her it was because nobody thought he was anything special, just another kid. Jesus was once a kid, although we know little about his childhood… From the books that made it into the Bible. There… Other books. Books that didn’t make the cut.

I can’t preach from these books because they technically are not scripture. But these books were well-known both to early Christians and to Christians of the middle ages. Technically these books are infancy narratives and gnostic: a kind of religious literature that seeks to reveal secret knowledge. The downside is that this literature has a really bizarre worldview that was eventually dismissed as heretical. The good news: funny stories.

Like the one where Jesus’ dad makes a throne for the king in Jerusalem, but it came back because it is too small for the emperor’s…seat. Joseph is distraught until Jesus the kid picks up the throne and stretches it to fit the king. The wooden throne.

Or there’s the one where a kid falls off a roof and dies. Jesus is accused of pushing him. Mary makes him bring the kid back to life. The neighbors loved that one.

Or the one where Jesus teacher raises his hand to whip him for talking back, and the guy falls down dead.

Or the one where Jesus is sitting by a pond making sparrows out of clay. A Jewish leaders kid comes and tells him to quit breaking the sabbath. Jesus gives the birds life, and they fly away. No evidence. Then the kid jumps in the little fish pond and starts messing it up. Jesus curses him… Dead kid.

Can you imagine what happened when he lost the school talent show?

Yeah, these are like magically kinda creepy Jesus. These infancy narratives portray a kid more comfortable with his powers than the people around him and less responsible with them than we would hope the son of God would be. Someone asked me recently, after hearing some of these stories… What would it be like to be Jesus’ parents?

Mary, at least, knows he is the son of God. if Joseph had any doubts, they are probably long gone. They believe in him like no one else, but… He’s kinda scary. Keeps causing problems with the neighbors. I mean… How do you discipline the Son of God? How do you guide the one who will be the guide for billions?

Now I don’t like weepy movies, but I watched the Blindside, and I cried. Oh. My. Goodness. Like I did when I first saw ET. That movie… Ugh. Tearfest.

Its a 2009 Semi-biographical film about NFL offensive lineman Michael Oher. In the film, Michael, an absolutely huge black kid who runs from every foster home, ends up meeting a rich white family, the Touhys, that loves football. He becomes a part of their family and an excellent football player, and is recruited by several colleges. He picks Ole Miss, where the Touhy’s and his tutor went to college, and an NCAA investigation is launched that raises the question of whether the Touhy’s only helped him to recruit him for their college’s football team. Even the question crushes Michael, and he rushes back to the projects to think and look for his long-lost mom. Eventually, he able to tell the NCAA that he chose Ole Miss because its where all of his family went.

Touching movie. great story. Oh, the power that is unleashed when you believe in a kid.

Another kid story struck me this week. Fidel Castro, the leader of Cuba, sent a letter to his hero, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, when he was just a boy. He told him he admired him, that he’d be a leader of his country when he grew up, and he asked for a US ten dollar bill because he didn’t have one. Franklin’s staff didn’t believe him. They sent him a nice letter, but there was no $10 bill. Over the years, feelings of resentment grew in Castro when people didn’t believe in him. He left the church, he left political parties, he left any group that didn’t believe in his passion or his abilities. And resentment over his fallen hero and his country grew until Castro became a thorn in the side of the US not for a few years, but for generations. Oh, the power that is unleashed when you don’t believe in a kid.

Jesus tells us to believe in him. The scholars in the temple did in today’s reading. The people on the streets often did. His parents did. his disciples did, and, because he asks us to, and because we have managed to wrap our minds around enough of him, many of us believe in him.

But you know what? He also believes in us. Thats why he doesn’t dismiss us as servants but calls us friends. Thats why he empowers us to do his work. Thats why he gives us gifts. Thats why sometimes he carries us and sometimes he lets us walk on our own, thats why he lets us choose him. Because he believes in us.

And oh, the power that is unleashed when you accept that Christ isn’t constantly disappointed in your sin, but believes in your value and your abilities.

Michael Oher went on to have career in professional football. Fidel Castro went on to lead a country that believed in him, and stood against a country who dismissed him. Jesus went on to teach and heal and preach and grow. These semi-biographical stories, and the scripture stories tell us little, but they do show the power of his parents’ belief in him.

What power would be unleashed if you believed that he believed in you? Amen.