Grace Presbyterian Church

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Sermon: What is God Doing!!??

Grace Presbyterian Church

June 28, 2020, Pentecost 4A (livestreaming)

Genesis 22:1-14

What is God Doing!!??

In May 2003, a woman in New Chapel Hill, Texas took a large rock and smashed the skull of her fifteen-month-old son, then led her two older sons outside and did the same to them. The two older boys were killed, while the toddler survived but was disabled for life. She then called 911 to report what she had done. In court a year later, her defense attorney sought to have her found not guilty by reason of insanity. As he described in his opening statement, the woman was “a sick person on a quest to be closer to her Lord.” He continued by stating that the woman believed that God had told her that the world was going to end and that she “needed to get her house in order,” a part of which included killing her children. Witnesses, he continued, would testify that she loved her children and also believed “that the word of God was infallible.”[i] The plea worked: she was indeed found not guilty by reason of insanity, and sentenced to eight years in a state mental hospital, from which she was released in May 2012.[ii]

It’s not as though this is the only such story you could find out there, if you had the stomach for horror and the patience for googling. And it comes as a surprise to no one that the insanity plea was successful. To us, the very possibility of conceiving of such a thing seems the textbook definition of being insane – of not being in one’s right mind, or of “exhibiting a severely disordered state of mind” as Merriam-Webster defines “insane.” Of course she was insane, we say. Of course.

And then comes today’s reading from Genesis.

Right away it’s bad news: “After these things God tested Abraham.

I mean, that’s the kind of thing we specifically pray not to happen in the Lord’s Prayer. It’s the kind of thing we don’t really want to believe God really does. God issues the test, and Abraham says, as far as we learn, nothing: he just gathers up his son and his belongings, along with two servants, and sets out to do the deed When Isaac asks where the sacrifice is, Abraham offers an answer that is either elusive or prescient. He binds his son, and is about to kill him when an angel of God intervenes forcefully, attributing to Abraham fear of God and allowing him to see a ram conveniently caught in a thicket, sacrificeable instead of Isaac.

It’s a struggle to make anything out of, and Jewish commentary has struggled with the story far longer, and maybe far more honestly, than Christian critical observation. Part of that struggle inevitably involves questioning why Abraham is so passive in his response to God’s test, when that has hardly been his pattern so far in Genesis. Throughout this book’s account of Abraham’s life the relationship between God and Abraham had been by turns funny, personal, challenging, and about a billion other things, but not formal and distant. Perhaps most notably, back in chapter 18, Abraham had been most bold in challenging God’s stated plans to destroy the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, going so far as to bargain with God (a thing we’re specifically taught not to do) to refrain from destroying them if even ten righteous persons could be found there. Of course, that didn’t turn out to be the case, as the two cities were indeed destroyed (though Abraham’s nephew Lot was saved).

Things had gone strangely for Abraham since then, though. First Abraham had gotten in trouble (for the second time) with a regional king for trying to pass his wife off as his sister, in a misguided maneuver to spare his own life. Then his wife had borne their son Isaac and insisted on throwing out Hagar (for the second time) and her son Ishmael. Finally a minor tiff came up with that aforementioned regional king over a well, a tiff that had to be settled with a gift of sheep. It all sounds strange, to be sure, and there’s a reason that those stories don’t get into the lectionary. And that’s where today’s reading commences, “after these things.”

What happened to that Abraham, who bargained so relentlessly with God? What happened to the Abraham who knew darned well that God was not one to “sweep away the righteous with the wicked” (18:23)? What happened to the Abraham who knew God well enough to challenge him?

There are a lot of different varieties of tests. In the contest of scripture we tend to think of a “test” as being something to be endured, that we have to survive by faith, so to speak. That is how this passage is typically read: God was testing Abraham’s faith.

What if the tests we face are different? When I was a professor part of my job entailed occasionally giving tests, but that wasn’t about anybody’s faith or lack there of. The point of that kind of test was to see if any of the music and idea that we had discussed and listened to and learned over the term had stayed with the students at all. The question to be answered was ultimately have you learned anything? What do you remember? Can you take what you’ve heard and seen and put it into practical use?

What if that’s the test Abraham really faced?

What if that’s the test we face?

Have we learned what it is to follow God? Not merely to tick items off some checklist of half-remembered Bible verses we memorized in Sunday school as children and give ourselves brownie points for doing them, but to wholeheartedly, whole-mindedly, whole-bodiedly, and whole-spiritedly follow God? To be so saturated with the life and teaching of Jesus that we know what is real and what isn’t, maybe for the first time ever? To be so overtaken and occupied by the Holy Spirit that the spiritual discernment we so badly need to get through the tests we face is simply a part of living?

If you go in to class expecting a multiple-choice exam and instead are given essays to write, you’re probably in trouble. Are we just guilty of trying to win some blue ribbon for super-faithfulness, like those churches that keep reopening only to have to close again because of a new coronavirus outbreak? Will we ever learn that our test is not to be some kind of super-Christian, but to learn most simply how to listen and know and follow?

Later in Hebrew Scripture we hear from the prophet Micah (6:8) the most direct statement of what our test is: “…what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Or you could turn to Jesus’s words in Matthew’s gospel (22:37-40):

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

You want to talk about a test from God? There you go. Pick up your pencils. Begin.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


Hymns: (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #49, The God of Abraham Praise; #65, Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah


[i] “Attorney: Woman thought God told her to kill sons,” 30 March 2004 (accessed 27 June 22020)

[ii] “Deanna Laney out of mental institution,” 24 May 2012 (accessed 27 June 2020),

Sermon: When Unity is Unholy

Grace Presbyterian Church

June 21, 2020, Pentecost 3A (livestream)

Matthew 10:24-39

When Unity is Unholy

I’m not thrilled with the idea of being tear-gassed while at the church.

I am of course referring to the incident a couple of weeks ago at an Episcopal church building in Washington, DC, in which the rector and others from that church found themselves unexpectedly choking on fumes as the property was cleared for some kind of presidential event, one that mostly seemed to involve the president holding a Bible. (As to that event I can only say that, as a veteran of that old event known as “Bible drill” back in my youth, I wasn’t taught to hold a Bible that way.)

What was particularly interesting about the aftermath of that incident (to me, at least) was the reaction of other religious groups or leaders. Many naturally expressed concern about the incident and support for the rector and church. There were others, though, who reacted in quite the opposite fashion. At least one such leader, a president of a seminary my wife and I attended many years ago in our past life, went so far as to imply that, because of the ways Episcopalian (and other) churches disagree with his denomination on particular bits of scripture interpretation, those folks were not really “Christian” at all.

At the very minimum, such a response goes to show that “the church” – or that body of different denominations or institutions that use such terminology to describe themselves – is not unified. Given the great theological differences between such bodies it isn’t a surprise, but perhaps what might surprise some is that one could say that Jesus predicted it. And it might even be necessary.

It’s a shocking enough passage. It starts with the expectation that if others call the teacher (Jesus) the Devil, then Jesus’s followers should expect to be called much worse. It slips into more heartwarming stuff for a bit (if you ever wondered what inspired the song “His Eye Is On the Sparrow,” your answer is in verses 29-31). It turns darker in v. 33, at the suggestion that those who deny Jesus will in turn be denied by Jesus, but the real shock blast comes in verse 34: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

Whew. And it doesn’t get better, as Jesus go on to suggest that his work and teaching will set family members against one another, pointing to the three family relationships considered most important in that culture – son/father, daughter/mother, daughter-in-law/mother-in-law – as points of likely division. The thoroughly-not-uplifting conclusion to this passage suggests that choosing those family relationships over Jesus – over “taking up the cross and following” – makes one unworthy, and that losing one’s life for Jesus’s sake is to be preferred to its opposite, against all human rational thought.

My goodness, where does this leave us?

About a year ago, Layton E. Williams, a PC(USA) minister in South Carolina, had published a book with the title Holy Disunity: How What Separates Us Can Save Us. (It’s a really good book and you should read it.) I have no intention of writing a book on the subject, but I’m going to flip Rev. Williams’s title around: there are times when unity, or at least the pursuit of or insistence on unity at all times and at any cost, is flat-out unholy.

Our call is nothing less than to pursue a true and faithful relationship with God, through Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. And that will inevitably bring us into conflict or disagreement with others, even including our own fellow “Christians.”

Indeed this very discourse from Jesus we read today is born of exactly such conflict. Jesus’s principal attackers at this point in the scripture were none other than the religious leaders of world, as can be seen as recently in Matthew’s account as twice (three times, actually) in chapter 9. Taken with this context in mind, Jesus’s words to his disciples, about to be sent out on their own witness-bearing journey, sits rather differently; if you are truly proclaiming my good news, if you are ministering as I have called you to do, you’ll get in trouble for it, and not just with outsiders.

Now this isn’t carte blanche to go be a jerk all over the place. Being a follower of Christ isn’t about causing trouble merely for trouble’s sake; it is about causing trouble when justice is denied, when the poor and oppressed continue to be poor and oppressed, when the good is suppressed and silenced and the wicked is supported and allowed to prosper. Taking up your cross and following is no cute metaphor; crosses aren’t about anything but the strong likelihood of suffering, but Jesus still says that the one who doesn’t take up that cross and follow – no matter the suffering – is not worthy of him.

This kind of following requires spiritual and moral discernment. When I was in seminary (the second time, not the one I mentioned before) I did a year’s internship at the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, an organization that works with faith groups of all types to help them learn about social issues and, within their faith tradition, to aid them in taking action on them. The Center, at least when I worked there, had a direct three-word slogan that summed up its work quite well: “Learn. Pray. Act.” It’s a good summary. Learn: do the research, listen to those affected. Pray: that’s always a part of any discernment. And then, act – do what your learning and discernment leads you to do. (In other words, follow the leading of the Spirit.)

The “suffering” involved here, let’s be clear, is not abandoned suffering; this is where that part about the sparrows comes in. Sparrows were, in effect, cheap food in this culture, in effect sold two-for-a-penny. The same God that follows and cares for even such lowly creature follows and cares for you, even in the midst of the worst the world (or even your fellow Christians) can throw at you.

But following is still required, even if it causes division. You can’t sit by and say nothing when that crude and awful racist or homophobic joke is getting laughs around the table. You can’t sit by when any kind of injustice is perpetrated, even if you’re the one who profits or benefits from that injustice. And it’s not about passive responses either; it really does require taking action to put such injustices to a dead stop.

Where does that leave us today? We current Christians are actually pretty good at responding to the effects of injustice – we provide meals for homeless folk, for example. Where are we when it comes to erasing the injustices of our society that make homelessness inevitable for some, no matter how many jobs they work?

Those of you who have been part of this church for a while know that I consider the church’s worship an indispensible thing, its most distinctive contribution to the lives of its members. But even with that being so, the church is at its most Christlike when it is not all tucked safely inside its own walls, but is out in the street, out in the halls of power, out in every space of society calling out what offends Jesus and demanding that what is unjust be made just; both responding to and ministering to those who have suffered at the cruelty of the world, and calling to account those who administer such cruelty. That is indeed the church being the church.

And to compromise on that, to forsake that call to follow Jesus for the sake of “keeping the peace” with our fellow Christians or even for the sake of “furthering the peace, unity, and purity of the church,” as the line from PC(USA) ordination vows goes? That’s not faithful, and can only lead to what can only be described as “unholy unity.”

Let us not go there.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #718, Take Up Your Cross, the Savior Said; #766, The Church of Christ Cannot Be Bound


VIPCC shirt


























I still have the t-shirt.

Sermon: You Didn’t Earn This

Grace Presbyterian Church

June 14, 2020, Pentecost 2A (livestreaming)

Romans 5:1-8

You Didn’t Earn This

We’re “good people,” right?

I mean, we don’t go burn crosses in Black neighborhoods, right? We don’t use the n-word, or go off on those awful viral rants that keep getting caught on camera where white women go crazy screaming at or threatening Black people for no apparent reason, right? Right? We’re “good people,” right?

It is pretty unsurprising, in a time of great trouble and distress in society, to retreat into that kind of thought – a kind of reassurance that we are indeed “good people” or at least that we’re not “that kind of person, the ones who do the things that provoke protest or unrest. We’re better than that.


The Apostle Paul would call us up short on this one.

Writing to the people of the church in Rome, Paul comes pretty early in his letter to the need to remind his readers, in perhaps a subtle way, not to fall into this trap of self-reassurance. Paul – who had not been to Rome yet, and therefore did not personally know most of those to whom he was writing – feels compelled to remind his readers that any goodness they may have is not their own doing; they didn’t earn it.

This passage starts cheerily enough, following an extensive account of the faithfulness of Abraham to reinforce the notion that “since we are justified by faith, we have peace with our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.” Don’t lose track of that last phrase, folks; it’s terribly important.

That discussion on Abraham and his example of faith had followed, back in Chapter 3, a discourse on the highly unpleasant thought that, in fact, no one is truly righteous. As Paul puts it there, “all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin, as it is written; There is no one who is righteous, not even one…” No matter your background or where you came from – whether you came to this fellowship from a Jewish or Gentile background, you came with no advantage over the other in terms of righteousness. “No one…not even one.

Now notice that here, even after this seemingly more upbeat turn in chapters 4 and 5, Paul can’t quite let that point go. He does talk about how we are justified by faith; how we have peace with God through Jesus; how we can hope to share in God’s glory; how even suffering is used by God to produce good things in us. That all, even despite the introduction of suffering, sounds joyful. But then the hammer drops: “For while we were still weak, Christ died for the ungodly.” Then again, at the end of verse 8: “…while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” Paul won’t let us forget that any goodness we manifest is entirely God’s doing, and not our own. We didn’t earn this.

Remember that little slipped-in line about “this grace in which we stand“? God didn’t wait around until we were good enough. If that were the case God would never do much of anything with us. Any good that is in us is God’s doing, not our own.

This, you’ll not be surprised to hear, has – even has to have – ramifications in how we live. In light of current events, the most obvious point here is that any kind of bias or bigotry we may harbor against others for no reason besides who they are cannot stand; it is an utter denial and refusal of this grace from God that allows us to stand in any kind of goodness at all.

To put it bluntly: racism, whether individual or societal, is a rejection and denial of the grace of God, in that it claims that we somehow earn that grace and others do not. It is anti-grace, it is anti-being a follower of Christ, period. And the same can be said of any kind of bias in person or society or structure to which you might point.

It is to deny the grace that, in the words of the ever-famous hymn, “saved a wretch like me.” It is to deny the grace that, in words from that same hymn that we don’t normally sing, gives us hope that the God who gives that grace will continue us in that grace beyond our here and now, even beyond the bounds of our physical time here on this earth, even to the very end of all time and into eternity itself. And why would we want to deny that?

Whatever goodness you claim, whatever faith you name, you didn’t earn it. It is all of God’s grace, the – yes – amazing grace that saves and preserves us now and always. The same grace God extends to us God extends to all, and so must we. We didn’t earn this grace – that’s not what grace is – but we are compelled to share and extend it to all. Period.

When we were yet “ungodly,” while were still “sinners,” Christ died for us. Let us never exalt ourselves above that knowledge; instead, let us remember the grace that saves us, and let us live that grace towards all.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #655, What Shall I Render to the Lord; #—, Amazing Grace, How Sweet The Sound


Sermon: Never Back to Normal

Grace Presbyterian Church

May 31, 2020, Pentecost A (livestreaming)

Numbers 11:24-30; Acts 2:1-21

Never Back to Normal

The reading from Numbers today (not a book that crops up that often in the lectionary, by the way) is one of those odd little detours in the narrative of the Hebrew people. It seems out of place somehow, or at least detached from the main story, but once you soak it in for a while it opens up into its own interesting story.

The Hebrew people had been complaining. This was not a new occurrence. In this case they were complaining about having no meat to eat. That manna the Lord had provided was, in their opinion, getting old (at least according to “the rabble among them,” as verse 4 puts it). In this case Moses had had it up to *here* with them <hold hand up over head>, and gave the Lord a piece of his mind, to the point of saying in effect that if this is how you’re gonna do me, Lord, I’d just as soon you put me out of my misery.

The Lord comes up with two answers for Moses. He promises that the people will have meat. Lots of meat Lots of meat, in the form of quail literally falling from the sky. As for Moses’s personal problem, the Lord offered a personnel solution. Moses was to select seventy men from among the group, and those men would be set aside to “bear the burden of the people along with” Moses. 

The seventy join Moses and his first lieutenant Joshua outside the camp, gathered around the tent of meeting, and the Lord came down on them and, as the author describes, “took some of the spirit that was on him (Moses) and put it on the seventy elders.” And apparently under the influence of that little bit of spirit, the seventy turned into preachers for a few moments. 

So pervasive was this event that even two men left behind in the camp, Eldad and Medad, also got caught up in the prophesying moment. It’s not clear whether they were not among the seventy or were late for the appointment, but they joined in (though not by Zoom in this case). A boy ran and told Moses, which somehow prompted Joshua to offer to shut them up for good (Joshua does not sound like a people person here). Moses allows how he’d frankly prefer that everybody would touched by that spirit, they head back into camp, and this little side-story ends.

There is this odd detail, though; the author feels compelled to make sure to inform us that after this little prophetic outburst, “they did not do so again” (v.25). Presumably they had some extra work for the rest of the Exodus, but otherwise their lives went back to normal.

That’s how we know this isn’t the Pentecost story.

When those “divided tongues, as of fire” appeared among and upon the disciples in that upper room, there wasn’t a soul among them whose life ever went back to normal. Peter, the same disciple who couldn’t put two words together without saying something dumb, ends up giving the eloquent and convincing speech that makes up most of this reading from Acts. These often confused disciples, who just one chapter before were still going on about Jesus restoring the kingdom to Israel, are now speaking to these crowds from all over the world (at least the world as they knew it) proclaiming “God’s deeds of power.” They ended up becoming the unsuspecting leaders of the post-Pentecost community of followers, with their own uncertain leadership to practice and their own need to rely on that Spirit. As best as history and church tradition can piece together, they didn’t get to die peacefully; only John is recorded as not being executed in some way.

Their lives never went back to normal.

That’s not how the Holy Spirit works. It isn’t about “back to normal”; the Holy Spirit is all about what’s next. It disrupts. It ruffles things. It changes the direction of God’s people, if God’s people have enough wit to follow.

How curious that this particular text for this particular occasion should come along at this point in time. We are in an exhausting moment. After months of isolation people are clamoring, maybe even whining for things to get “back to normal” (shades of that “rabble” back in Numbers that was clamoring for meat!). Folks are exercising no caution about resuming their “normal” activities, even as institutions such as schools and, yes, churches (or at least some churches) are approaching with greater caution.  

And here we are with this story about the Holy Spirit disrupting the lives of these followers, lives that would never go back to what had been normal. And that may be exactly what we need in this moment.

Let us be blunt for a moment. We have, for a while now, been living in a “normal” that no follower of Christ should ever want to return to. Just to name a couple of examples:

  • Do we really want to return to a “normal” in which, for some large number of people in this country, skin color is a perfectly good reason to kill a man?
  • Do we really want to return to a “normal” in which 100,000 Americans die who didn’t need to die, and in which actual elected leaders think that means we’re doing a good job?

Or let’s get closer to home for a moment:

  • I have noticed that there are people joining us for these online services on Sunday mornings, for several weeks now, who cannot join us when we gather in person in the sanctuary. Do we really want to rush back to a “normal” that leaves these fellow Christ-followers out?
  • Alachua County seems to have arrived at a point of a much slower rate of new coronavirus cases being reported, even experiencing some days on which no new cases are reported. Do we really want to rush back to a “normal” that totally undoes that progress?

We might be at a point where being fearful of change might be exactly the “normal” we need to give up. We might be at a point where getting “back to normal” is exactly the thing the Holy Spirit is trying to get us out of. We might be at a point where it’s time to give up our yearning for control and trust the Spirit that is, in the words of the hymn we’ll sing in a few moments, “making worlds that are new, making peace come true, bringing gifts, bringing love to the world,” or to pray in the words of the first hymn we sang, that the Spirit “kindle faith among us in all life’s ebb and flow“:

O give us ears to listen, and tongues aflame with praise,

So folk of every nation glad songs of joy shall raise.

Maybe our call is, in this stressful and even violent time, to lay aside getting “back to normal” and to be ready to go forward in faith.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #289, On Pentecost They Gathered; #292, As the Wind Song

Sermon: Now What?

Grace Presbyterian Church

May 24, 2020, Easter 7A (livestreaming)

Acts 1:1-14

Now What?


The waiting is the hardest part

Every day you see one more card

You take it on faith; you take it to the heart

The waiting is the hardest part


It has finally happened. Scripture and circumstance have come together in such a fashion that I’m able to quote a Tom Petty song lyric in a sermon given in Gainesville.

Waiting is one of those things that is easy to overlook unless you’re in the middle of it. For example, accounts of D-Day focus on the crossing of the English Channel, the fierce battles to hold the beach at Normandy and finally to move inland against ferocious enemy fire. Less often recalled are the weeks and months of planning and preparation and, yes, waiting, for weather to be better, for the Channel to be crossable. Yet without the patience to endure that time of waiting and preparation – had the invasion been launched against an impassable crossing or impenetrable weather, D-Day would have come to naught.

No matter our eagerness, no matter our desperation (or what seems like desperation), no matter what, there are times when we simply must wait.

This is where the followers of Jesus find themselves at the end of today’s reading from the book of Acts. A lot has happened in these few verses, where the author Luke has filled in a few details that he didn’t include in his first account of the Ascension, at the end of his gospel. The disciples ask a question, Jesus brushes it off, offers up the promise of verse 8 that also includes a charge that will change their lives forever (if they haven’t already been so changed), and is lifted up to heaven. Some angels chastise the disciples for staring up into the sky (which seems unfair to me; it’s not every day you see someone lifted up into heaven!), and promises that one day Jesus will return the same way they’ve just seen them depart.

With those words ringing in their ears, the followers make the short trip back into Jerusalem, return to the “room upstairs” where they have been staying (maybe the same “upper room” where they had that last supper where Jesus broke the bread and shared the cup and gave them that new commandment about doing in remembrance of him, but we don’t know for sure), and there they waited.

Waiting for…what? It’s entirely possible they didn’t know what they were waiting for.

Jesus had told them to wait, way back in verse 4. He told them to wait for “the promise of the Father.” In the next verse he tells them that they will be “baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” (This is an echo of a promise from the end of he gospel account, Luke 24:47, in which Jesus says that repentance and forgiveness of sin is to be “proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem”) A couple of verses down back in Acts, just before he is lifted up, he makes that big promise that “you will receive power…and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” And finally there was that angelic promise that Jesus would return one day just the way he had left.

Yet, quite likely if the disciples were honest with themselves, they had no idea what any of those things meant. So, not much to do but follow Jesus’s orders, and wait.

The eleven disciples aren’t alone at this point. Luke observes that “certain women” were joining them, including Jesus’s mother Mary, who hasn’t shown up in Luke’s story since the trip to Jerusalem back in chapter 4 of the gospel, where twelve-year-old Jesus got separated from the family and took up residence as the Temple’s youngest visiting scholar. We can guess that the “certain women” probably included at least the same women who had shown up at certain points in the gospel narrative, such as Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, an unknown woman named Joanna, and others who were mentioned in Luke 23-24 as coming to the tomb to prepare his body with spices only to find the tomb empty. Also, Jesus’s brothers are now included in the company.

And…they wait.

Biblical scholar Beverly Gaventa makes a wonderful point about verse 14 in its original Greek. The verb for the first part of the sentence actually has a root meaning of “persist”; read this way the first part of the sentence tells us that “these were all persisting together.”[1]

Persisting together. Now that’s an image, made all the more powerful with the addition of the words “to prayer.” Persisting together to prayer.

Prayer’s never a bad idea, of course, but perhaps in a time of “nothing to do but wait” it’s all the more powerful a recourse. I suspect, though, that we’re not talking about any old kind of prayer.

There is the kind of prayer that is familiar from your average church service, even like this one – spoken out loud, directed toward God, with some statement of praise or petition at its core. We speak the Lord’s Prayer together, or there’s an opening Prayer of the Day or a Prayer for Illumination before the scripture is read. In these online services there is a time for prayer that does at least outwardly consist of silence, or at least no words spoken over the music, in which we are all invited to lift up prayers of intercession. Those are all good and needful prayers, and we will continue to pray them in some form or other as long as we gather this way and when we again gather in person.

I suspect, though, that’s not necessarily the prayer this little company of Jesus’s followers was most in need of praying in this waiting time.

About seven and a half years ago the best-selling author Anne Lamont put out a volume on the idea that most prayers can be boiled down to one of three essential prayers, encapsulated in the book’s title: Help Thanks Wow.

That’s not a bad summary of prayer, and one could argue that the Lord’s Prayer actually summarizes all three of those facets. Still, though, I’m going to suggest there’s something slightly different at play in the followers’ persisting together in prayer during this waiting time, and maybe that might need to be a large part of our prayer in our own current waiting time. How’s this for a prayer:

Now what?

Yes, Anne Lamont could probably argue it’s a kind of “help” prayer, but I think there’s something different at play. It’s not a prayer about getting help with some specific thing. In fact, it isn’t necessarily a prayer where we ask for much of anything at all.

It’s not a prayer about getting back to normal or returning to anything, not about restoring or regaining or re-anything at all. The primary principle of such a prayer is to wait for that promised baptizing with the Holy Spirit (whatever that means), that power (whatever that means), that something wrapped up in Jesus’s words that we don’t understand or grasp in any way but we trust, somehow, that whatever is behind it really is the Lord’s doing.

Now what?

We wait. We persist together. We pray.

We can’t, if we’re honest, say exactly what we wait for, what we pray for.

But we wait, persist together, pray. And what happens?

To be continued.

[Insert stanzas 1 and 5 of “For God alone my soul does wait“]

Thanks be to God. Amen.


Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #662, Christ Whose Glory Fills the Skies; #282, Come Down, O Love Divine



[1] Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Acts (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries Series, Abingdon Press, 2003), 68.

Message: You Had Me Until That Resurrection Bit

Grace Presbyterian Church

May 17, 2020, Easter 6A (livestreaming)

Acts 17:16-34; 1 Peter 3:13-16a

You Had Me Until That Resurrection Bit

Paul found himself in Athens as today’s reading begins, and it wasn’t exactly his idea.

First he had been run out of Thessalonica on a rail, then when he and his partners seemed to be making headway in Beroea, some of his opponents in Thessalonica found out and traveled there to stir up opposition and (hopefully) violence against Paul as they had in their own town. The newly-hatched community of believers in Beroea got Paul out of town fast, while his partners Silas and Timothy stayed behind to help get everything back in order. Ultimately Paul was deposited in Athens, more or less with the instruction to sit tight and stay out of trouble. As you can imagine, Paul was not the type who had even the slightest inclination to stay out of trouble.

Athens did have a synagogue, so Paul went there first, according to his usual pattern. His usual pattern of getting in trouble, though, got interrupted when some of the regulars in the marketplace got wind of what he was up to. Athens had what might be called an active public debate scene, and Athenians of various religious or philosophical systems (including some Epicureans and Stoics, as our author notes) jumped into the intellectual fray. Finally it was decided by the locals that this babbler of foreign deities might at least have something different to say, so he was hauled off to the ancient hill of debate known as the Areopagus.

At one time being hauled off to the Areopagus could be a matter of life or death, but by this time that no longer appears to have been the case. At any rate Paul was granted the opportunity to explain himself before the council there, and this speech became one of his most famous, even if it was one of his least typical.

What stands out about this speech is the degree to which Paul adapted his message to the intellectual and philosophical background of his hearers. He begins by acknowledging the plethora of idols offered up by the city, perhaps with tongue somewhat in cheek. By seizing upon one such idol – the one with the unprepossessing label “to an unknown god” – Paul forms a quick connection with his hearers, and from there proceeds through Athenian thought to approach the idea of a god unlike those the Athenians tended to idolize (and here that word really is being used literally). He quotes from their own literature; the phrase “in him we live and move and have our being” is taken from the ancient poet Aratus (although it was requoted many times in their literature), and the following “we too are his offspring” also appears in Greek literature frequently. And if we are the offspring of this god, it makes no sense to think of this god being reducible to wood or stone, does it?

Things seem to be going pretty well so far, with Paul acting out that bit of counsel in today’s reading from 1 Peter about “accounting for the hope that is within you,” but doing it “with gentleness and reverence.” He’s actually been identifying with his audience about as much as possible, and certainly showing respect for their own intellectual and philosophical traditions. Still, there’s only so far you can go in “accounting for the hope that is within you” before you end up having to say something that your interlocutor will disagree with, and Paul is now to that point.

First there is this notion of repentance and judgment, which wasn’t really a part of most belief systems among the Athenians, and probably brought about some grumbling on the part of his audience. But that wasn’t the worst of it, not by a long shot. Who’s going to be the one who carries out this judgment in righteousness? No less than “a man who he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance by raising him from the dead.” This is when the meeting broke up.

Some, as our author tells us, scoffed. Scoffing can take many forms; outright out-loud mockery, or a subtler but more dismissive “pfft” and walking away, or even just an incredulous facial expression. Whatever it was, that element of the audience was gone, intellectually if not physically.

It’s important to understand something here. It isn’t merely the idea of physical resurrection as a thing itself that underscores all the mockery. It isn’t just about the reaction “bodies don’t rise from the dead!“; there is, as would be the case with any good audience steeped in Greek philosophical traditions, an equal if not greater reaction “why would you want a body to rise from the dead?” Greek thought (or at least some corners of it) had no particular problem with the idea of living beyond death, but frankly one of the good parts of such a post-mortem life was being free from the physical body. Disembodied spirit was the ideal.

We should be honest here; we’re not always free of such an idea. After all, what is reflected in a saying like “shuffle off this mortal coil” besides the very idea of being rid of this broken-down old body? And if we’re honest about it, it’s not hard to be sympathetic to the idea. After the various breakings-down my body has experienced in the past decade I can understand wanting to be rid of it, and I’m guessing some of you can too.

Paul goes into more detail on this in some of his epistles, for example when he speaks of how “we will not all die, but we will all be changed” in writing to the Corinthians. But here, the event dissolves over this notion that a large part of the audience just can’t accept. A large part, but not all; some were curious to hear more, and even a few followed, including one of the Areopagus regulars named Dionysius and a woman named Damaris. Sounds like a mixed result, I suppose, but at least they didn’t chase him out of town.

But again, there comes that point when our testimony has to tell the whole story, even the parts that seem wild and fantastical and unbelievable to some of those with whom we share. As we make our way through this most unusual season of Easter, that one thing – the whole God-raised-him-from-the-dead business that so offended some of Paul’s audience at the Acropolis – is still a lightning rod for disagreement, or for disbelief, or even for old-fashioned scoffing. But as Paul put it, again writing to the Corinthians, “if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.” It’s hard to make any kind of good news out of a resurrection-less gospel.

And even in this strange and dangerous time, with death a far more immediate companion than we normally acknowledge, our hope is still in the assurance that death did not have the last word for Jesus, and that death will not have the last word on us.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #246, Christ is Alive!; #249, Because You Live, O Christ

Meditation: What Stephen Remembered

Grace Presbyterian Church

May 10, 2020, Easter 5A (livestreaming)

Acts 7:55-60; Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16

What Stephen Remembered

It’s an ugly scene, no doubt. The act of stoning a person to death is perhaps not as gruesome or grotesque as the act of crucifixion that Christ (and countless others across the Roman Empire) suffered. However, a stoning is hard to match for the sheer spectacle of violent, even unhinged rage that tended to motivate it. We’re not talking about easily-handheld rocks being thrown; these are boulders meant to do severe bodily harm. It was a violent spectacle, one of rage; one might think of the lynchings that dotted this country during the civil rights struggle for acts with similar rage behind them.

It’s hard to say exactly what Stephen did to provoke such an ending to his life at the hands of decidedly enraged enemies. We only meet him one chapter earlier, when he is one of seven members of the early Christian community appointed to oversee the distribution of food to the poor and widows of the community; this was done so that the disciples could concentrate on the Word of God and not be distracted by waiting on tables – yes, they really said that. (This “hospitality committee” consisted of all men; you knowhow well that would go today…) Stephen is noted immediately as being “full of the Holy Spirit,” and also as “full of grace and power,” and later as one who “did great wonders and signs among the people“; clearly he wasn’t limited to waiting tables.

This is most of Acts 6. As that chapter continues, a group from a local synagogue assembly apparently took offense at his works, and tried to play theological “gotcha” with him, only to end up thoroughly embarrassed and shamefaced at being unable to withstand his power of argument and command of the Word (apparently he didn’t have any trouble with doing that while waiting on tables). Those wounded snowflakes then ginned up some false witnesses and dragged Stephen before the council, where he let loose with a stem-winder of a sermon that must have made Peter proud, one full of Hebrew history (Moses in particular, since the false witnesses had accused him of disparaging Moses). Stephen was only beginning to connect all of that to the still-recently-crucified Jesus when he was dragged out of town and lynched with stones.

His final words, though, have done as much to seal his place in the church’s history as anything. First there’s the admittedly somewhat inflammatory part about seeing the Son of Man standing at he right hand of God – you can see how his enemies might get more enraged at that suggestion. At the last, he echoes the words of Jesus from Luke 23:34 (“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do“) on the cross, asking that this sin not be held against his murderers.

But that middle one is of most interest today. Here it is translated “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Again it’s a lot like something Jesus said on the cross, again from Luke: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46). But Jesus’s own words are an echo of a verse from today’s psalm reading.

Notice there in verse 5 of the psalm: “Into your hand I commit my spirit.

The excerpt of the psalm used as today’s lectionary reading doesn’t truly capture the full force of the full psalm. There is plenty of the language of despair throughout it. Verse 10 offers this: “my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away.” Or there is this extended lament in verses 11-13:

I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors, an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me.

I have passed out of mine like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel.

For I hear the whispering of many – terror all around! – as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life.

It’s quite a lament, as some of these psalms are, and seems far from relief.

And yet…the very next verse turns: “But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, you are my God.” And from there we follow into those two final verses of today’s reading, with their note of trust in God’s provision.

Whether Stephen was consciously echoing Jesus’s words from the cross in his own exclamation, or was directly remembering the psalm on his own, we don’t know. What we do see is that, even knowing that his end was near, Stephen did not despair. His trust remained fast in Jesus, and his remembering these words seems to have been a help, in that moment of final terror, that allowed him to hold on to that trust in the darkest moment.

What is it that allows us to hold on to that trust in dark times? Where is the connection, where is the foothold that helps us to remain firm on that “rock” and “refuge” that is sung in verse 2? What is going to help bring us back in those times when, unlike Stephen, we don’t necessarily seem to be quite “full of the Holy Spirit“?  When instead we’re unmistakably full of decidedly less sanguine fears and despairs and hopelessness?

On the other hand, what of the seeming, apparent fact that Stephen being “full of the Holy Spirit” ended up in his being brutally killed? How is that comforting at all? Is that what following that faithfully and devotedly gets us?

It’s hard not to think of Jesus’s own words in Matthew 10:34: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth: I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

As writer Enuma Okoro puts it in The Christian Century:

In theory, I like the idea of being close to God, intimate to the point of speaking regularly with God—and receiving clear directives. Whenever I was confused about something, I could just ask God and get clarity on the matter. I’d never have to wonder about what my next step should be. God would lead me and guide me and maybe even use me to get an important message across to other people.

It sounds divine! Except that in the Bible, an intimate relationship with God usually sends people’s lives into chaos. It makes them widely unpopular as messengers; it sends them to the margins of society. It also quite often gets them killed.[1]


There’s the challenge: to hold on to the idea that even if this call to serve and to follow and to proclaim ultimately leads us into danger or hardship or marginalization, if it deprives us of the comforts of society to which we have become accustomed, even if all of those things happen we are still God’s own, sisters and brothers with and in Christ Jesus, and as the psalmist says to God, “my times are in your hand.”

Right now, the idea of “serving God” is actually best exemplified (as strange as it seems) by staying home, not risking being the one who brings illness and suffering to another. Who knows what form it will take for any one of us in the future? Yet we already have a place to turn for words that can guide and comfort, yes? Hear Jesus on the cross; hear Stephen at the hands of his killers; hear the cry of the lamenting psalmist, who knows that his times (or hers, who knows?) are in God’s hands.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #463, How Firm a Foundation; #719, Come, Labor On


[1] Enuma Okoro, “Living By the Word: May 14, Fifth Sunday of Easter,” The Christian Century 11 April 2017 (accessed 9 May 2020),



Meditation: The Gate

Grace Presbyterian Church

May 3, 2020, Easter 4A (livestreaming)

John 10:1-10

The Gate

The magazine Newsweek, on April 18, carried a report of a court order issued by a federal judge in Miami, blocking the sale of a so-called “Master Mineral Solution” being touted as a “cure” for the Covid-19 virus.[1] This “solution” apparently consists of sodium chlorite, table salt, and a few other minerals. When combined with an “activator” (sold separately, of course) that consists of hydrochloric acid, the “solution” turns into chlorine dioxide.

Chlorine dioxide is a type of industrial bleach. In other words, that’s stronger than the stuff in your bottle of Clorox at home.

Yes, it’s galling enough that such a hoax is being perpetrated at all; more galling is the fact that the entity behind this hoax calls itself the Genesis II Church of Health and Healing (it’s based in Bradenton). One of the “church” websites offered the claim, both ethically and grammatically flawed, that “this should wipe it out this flu-like virus that many are being scared with its presence in this world.”

It’s not a shock to see a “church” or a “minister” or “evangelist” purport to have a cure that isn’t. There’s a substantial history of exactly that kind of thing, including the  disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker – remember him? – who is now peddling a “Silver Solution” as a potential cure for the coronavirus.[2] Again, it’s not new. But it does make me wonder, after time with today’s reading, about how easily swayed by fear so many people are, and how this passage might suggest that we are actually inferior to sheep when we behave that way.

Today’s teaching is actually a small chunk of a much larger story from John’s gospel, following chapter 9’s account of the healing of a man born blind and a controversy stirred up by a group of religious leaders following that healing, one which had ended with the healed man being thrown out of the synagogue after he had wondered why they had so much trouble with Jesus.

In chapter 10, Jesus is trying to teach his disciples in the wake of the incident, warning them against what he calls “thieves and bandits.” Jesus defines those “thieves and bandits” as “anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way.” In the real-life setting that informs this metaphor this is sensible enough; anyone looking to steal one of the sheep isn’t going to walk right up to the gate (and presumably right by the shepherd guarding the gate) and expect to be able to get away with it. Such a thief would need to rely on stealth, sneaking in and climbing over hopefully without the shepherd noticing.

How, then, does that translate to our own hearing and doing?

Part of the answer must necessarily be an accurate understanding of just what it means for Jesus to say (as the does twice in this passage) that he is the “gate” for the sheep. (Some translations may use the word “door” here, which is a good literal reading, but context points to “gate” – sheep don’t generally go through doors out in their fold.) Jesus supplies some of that throughout this reading (and its larger story of the healing of the man born blind), which is fairly detailed thanks to his disciples’ frequent habit of hearing Jesus’s teaching and … not getting it. And getting this right hinges very strongly on exactly what definition one uses for the word “saved” in verse 9, and what one understands of verse 10 and its talk of “abundant life.”

The “gate” of a sheepfold in such a time is, as suggested above, a security measure – a means of protecting one’s sheep from those thieves and bandits. This isn’t about the very common usage of “salvation” language in American Christianity in which being “saved” basically translates into having a “get out of Hell free card.” No, here the concept of being “saved” is much more elemental, as demonstrated in the healing of the man born blind; he was “saved” from his seemingly unending vulnerability to actual thieves and robbers, from the hopelessness visited upon the blind in his time and place.

Rather than being snatched away by thieves and predators, the sheep come through the gate – following the voice of their shepherd – and find safety and security, or good green pasture. Again, they can do this with a lot more confidence than we normally attribute to sheep because of that one attribute – they know their shepherd’s voice.

And that’s where it seems to break down for us. We profess to be followers of the Good Shepherd (that comes later in John 10), we recite that 23rd Psalm like a mantra, but we modern American Christians are too often and too easily swayed by the voices of the thieves and bandits, especially those with churchy-sounding titles. We grab for what looks like a quick fix rather than trusting in the God who has our interests at heart for the long haul.

We also have a skewed definition of “abundant life,” one that looks suspiciously like self-gratification more so than true abundance. We have a tunnel vision about that abundant life too – we make the thoroughly un-Christlike presumption that such abundant life is for me and not for us – singular instead of plural. We’re ready to bolt and run from the herd at the slightest provocation. We forget to be “us.” And in even the slightest time of trial, it’s too easy to slip into “I got mine, to heck with you.” You see that a lot right now.

Knowing the Good Shepherd’s voice comes partly of being together in the body (even in social isolation), hearing what Jesus said and what Jesus did and knowing that the voice of the Good Shepherd won’t lead you toward anything that doesn’t look like or sound like that. And that applies to “we,” not just “me.”

The abundant life of verse 10, then, is not something to be ordered online or downloaded in secret. It’s about being in the body of Christ (yes, even in quarantine), being in the sheepfold, following the shepherd to the good pasture and through the real gate. Our prayer, then, really needs to be as much about listening, and learning to know and to follow, the one true voice that calls us to the gate, and calls us to security, and calls us home.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #187, Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us; #541, God Be With You Till We Meet Again





[1] Asher Stockler, “Federal Judge halts sale of industrial bleach as Covid-19 cure from South Florida church,” Newsweek, 4/18/20 (accessed 5/2/20),


[2] Megan Flynn, “A disgraced televangelist promoted an alleged cure to coronavirus. Missouri is now suing him.” Washington Post, 3/11/20 (accessed 5/2/20),

Meditation: Cut to the Heart

Grace Presbyterian Church

April 26, 2020, Easter 3A

Acts 2:36-41, 1 Peter 1:17-23

Cut to the Heart

I don’t know how it is for you, but there are times in reading scripture – whether for sermon preparation or personal study or reflection – when I am basically brought to a halt by a particular use of word or phrase in the passage in question, and my study or reflection ends up getting drawn to that word or phrase.

In today’s reading from Acts, the particular arresting phrase is right there in the second verse we read, 2:37. We have just heard the culmination of Peter’s big speech or sermon on the day of Pentecost, and Luke (our author of Acts) is ready to describe the reaction of the crowd to the speech. In that speech Peter has, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, laid out a defense of the disciples – no, we’re not drunk, it’s only 9:00 a.m. – and pointed to the Spirit as the instigator of this day’s outbreak of speech among many nations and languages. From there, he moved towards a tour of scripture history and an evocation of those passages that he interprets as pointing towards Jesus of Nazareth, a man who had been executed a little less than two months before as we would reckon it, as the God-chosen “Lord and Messiah” as verse 36 puts it, despite his own audience’s religious leaders’ complicity in promoting and provoking that execution.

(Necessary clarification: Peter’s calling out his fellow Jewish folk here, his fellow Temple-worshipers and synagogue-gatherers, remember. There’s entirely too long a history of using this and other such passages as pretext for anti-Jewish hatred and violence. That is not tolerable, not excusable, and extremely not Christ-like or Christ-following in any way. So shut any thought like that down now.)

Let’s get real here; a speech such as this could have just as easily started a riot. You’re gonna blame me for some backwater preacher getting crucified by the Romans? Yeah, I’ll show you…. But that’s not what happens here. Instead, we get a reaction that is translated in our NRSV as saying the hearers were “cut to the heart.” That’s about as striking and (sorry) penetrating an image for a reaction that is emotional, yes, but not just; it also carries the weight of knowing one’s own complicity or guilt as well.

The easy explanation for that response is the work of the Holy Spirit. It’s not as if Peter has suddenly transformed from slightly bumbling and foot-in-mouth-prone disciple to silver-tongued orator in fifty days with no divine intervention. Both in Peter’s speaking and in the hearing of the crowd, the Spirit is moving and being received.

Part of this, it seems, is that this response that comes of being “cut to the heart” is about as direct as a response can be. There’s no bargaining, no “spin,” no trying to explain away or make excuses or plead ignorance or anything else: the response is simply “what should we do?” Seriously, how often do you see that anymore in the world?

Does that even happen anymore in the church? Are we modern Christians capable of being “cut to the heart?” I can’t get away from Thursday evening’s hymn devotion, on the Muscogee Indian hymn “Heleluyan, We Are Singing,” a song born of the experience of forced migration imposed upon the Muscogee and other nations that were removed from the American South to modern-day Oklahoma, with most churches in this country raising no opposition (only one denomination did, and it wasn’t Presbyerian). The frequent use of this scripture and others as pretext for anti-Jewish hatred and violence (referenced earlier) marks another example, as far too many Christian churches, writ large or small, either participated in that hatred with glee or remained silent. (A figure like Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Germany, for example, stands out precisely because so much of the German church openly supported the Nazi regime.) One could also look at how little reaction the church as a whole raises to the ongoing ruination of God’s creation, thinking back to last week’s message.

I wonder if part of the secret, if some part of being able to be “cut to the heart,” is found in another striking phrase later in this reading. When Peter and the disciples respond to their hearers with the call to repent and be baptized, the plea ends with this exhortation: “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.”

There is a faint echo of this call in the reading from 1 Peter, when in verse 17 the author exhorts his readers to “live in reverent fear during the time of your exile.” This isn’t the Old Testament; this isn’t the people of Israel and Judah hauled off to Babylon as captives. The “time of your exile” is no less than their current condition of living subject to Christ in a world that clearly does not live in that subjection. It is not to seek to escape from the world, but to know that you live in the world as an alien, a foreigner; to live in such a way that the commonplaces and habits and comforts of the world are as alien and strange to you as the surface of Mars would be. It is to live in the world knowing that the world is not your home, and the world’s ways are not your ways as a follower of Christ.

Only then, it seems, can we truly be open to the Spirit and its propensity to “cut to the heart” in the face of injustice, cruelty, hatred, and numerous other “ways of the world.” Only living as exiles in a land that is not ours, it seems, can the church truly be the church.

It’s a challenge to come to these passages in a time when it seems our most anxious desire is for things to “get back to normal” after the pandemic is done. I don’t know. If “getting back to normal” means no longer respecting or caring about the work of health care workers, supermarket employees, food and farm workers of all kinds and these others whose work is suddenly being called “essential,” maybe getting back to normal is a bad thing. Maybe we shouldn’t be so eager to “get back to normal” if that means looking upon the poor, the homeless, the oppressed as dispensable, not important enough to save in a time of pandemic. Maybe the point is to be exiles in the world for whom that kind of “normal” can never be accepted as normal, and to finally be the Church of Jesus Christ in the face of that heartlessness.

Does the Church have the ability at last to lay aside its history of privilege and to take up the call to live as strangers in a strange land? Can we truly live as though these newly-discovered “essential” members of society really are essential? Can we save ourselves from this corrupt generation? Can we regain at last our capacity to be, truly and deeply, “cut to the heart”?

Thanks be to God. Amen.


Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #415, Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy; #839, Blessed Assurance! Jesus Is Mine