Archives For Ministry

(At Presbyterian Church of Henderson, we utilize fill-in-the-blank outlines in the bulletin to accompany each Sunday’s sermon. This has added a new dimension to preaching for me, but the hearers of the word seem to appreciate having an outline to follow. One thing I’ve learned is that it makes the sharing of a manuscript a bit clunky in this format. The following sermon has 3 “bullet points” and I have identified those by putting them in bold print and using blue text to indicate the words that fit in the blanks.)

500 years ago this month, Martin Luther, a Catholic monk from Eiselben, Germany, nailed 95 theses to the door of the Wittenburg Church, an action that became the tipping point to a revolution that was already beginning to gain some traction. When Martin was 21 years-old, the story goes, he was a law student and brilliant debater. During that year of his life, he found himself caught in a thunderstorm, nearly struck by a bolt of lightning. He called out to St. Anne, mother of the blessed Virgin Mary, promising that he would become a monk should she save him. Upon surviving, Martin fulfilled his promise and entered into the monastic life.

As Martin sought to walk faithfully with God, God began to reform him in some surprising ways. He was a good monk by all the standards of the day, yet Martin found no consolation in this. He read the scriptures and was tortured internally by the idea of righteousness, which he felt that he, himself, could not possess.

In his course of study, however, he read and studied the letter to the Romans, and he began to understand the righteousness of God as a gift that comes by faith, not something he had to produce within himself.

It wouldn’t be long before the way that God was reforming Martin Luther would soon begin to reform the church in Europe. Even still, the movement he formalized on All Saints Eve of 1517 in Wittenberg would eventually lead to his trial as a heretic. His bold declaration of “Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me, Amen” came just before the guilty verdict and his escape to hide away and avoid arrest. He, a former monk, married a runaway nun. In his younger days, he penned words that he would later need to revise and in his older days, he wrote words that he probably should have taken back–harsh, graceless words about Catholics and Jews and even his fellow Reformers.

(Info drawn primarily from http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/theologians/martin-luther.html and a couple of books i had lying around to verify this.)

Martin Luther is an example of how God can take a disciple, one who is passionate and outspoken, willing and imperfect, and do something remarkable with his or her life. Simon Peter, one of the first disciples of Jesus, is another. This month, when we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we are going to spend the whole month with Simon Peter. For five Sundays, we will visit the highest points and the lowest low of his walk with Jesus as recorded in the gospels. Much like Martin Luther, Jesus called Simon Peter into following and he boldly and willingly followed on a new path, called to start a new thing.

Much like Martin Luther and Simon Peter, Jesus calls you and I to follow with boldness and willingness. Maybe you too have struggled with your lack of righteousness. Maybe you too have struggled to be faithful and stand strong in a threatening situation. Maybe you too have been re-called and re-formed by Jesus, or maybe you are seeking to recommit yourself to the journey of discipleship. This month of Reformation is a good one to reflect on all of that and consider what it means to allow Jesus to be Lord of your life and be continually changed and reformed to be more like him.

As we continue to listen for God’s word to us this morning, hear now the word of God from Luke 5:1-11.

Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. 4When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.’ 5Simon answered, ‘Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.’ 6When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7So they signalled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. 8But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’9For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.’ 11When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

All of the gospel accounts of the life of Jesus–the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John–have a story of how Jesus called his first disciples. The account here in Luke 5 is the most elaborate and the previous chapter provides clues that when we come to the scene in Luke 5, Peter has already known Jesus and witnessed some of his miracles of healing. Jesus healed his mother-in-law, as recorded in Luke 4:39, for example. So perhaps Peter was perfectly poised and prepared to accept the call to follow Jesus, as we see him do in Luke 5.  This is a great passage to read as we consider our own calling to follow, and what that means for us, as we read about what it meant for Peter.

As we explore what it means to follow Jesus, the first thing we see in the text is that following Jesus requires obedience. Early in this passage, Peter demonstrates obedience twice. First, Jesus gets in his boat and asks Peter to sail out a little ways from the shore. Peter complies. Next, after he’s done teaching, Jesus instructs him to sail out farther and let out the nets one more time, a request that might have seemed a bit bizarre. They fished all night and didn’t catch anything. The early morning, we might assume, has passed them by while Jesus has been teaching from the boat. There aren’t any fish to be caught at this hour, Jesus. And yet, Peter basically says, “this makes no sense, but if you say so, I’ll let down the nets.”

As disciples of Christ, sometimes our instructions make good sense. And sometimes, they simply do not. Sometimes the things we are called to do seem so counter-cultural in this day and age.

For me it would have been tempting for me to stick with “that makes no sense, teacher,” had I been in the boat when Jesus commanded the nets to be let down one more time. “Jesus, you’re a carpenter, not a fisherman, so we’re going to give you pass here, but really, letting the nets down again won’t do any good at this point.”

How many times have I read in Scripture or prayed for God’s direction only to think, “well, that will never work?” A lot. For example, a little more than seventeen years ago, I ran across a job listing for a church on a corner in downtown Henderson Kentucky and I. Just. Knew. I was supposed to send my resume. “But God,” I said, “maybe we should look at a map, because Henderson is nowhere near Lexington, and I’m trying to go to Lexington.”

Or maybe we read words like “in humility, regard others better than yourselves” or “have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus” who “emptied himself” and was “obedient even to the point of death” like we read in Philippians 2, and we’re tempted to say, “Oh, not anymore, Apostle Paul. We don’t do it like that in America.” When we follow Jesus, we are called to be obedient.

Another word about obedience: in order to be obedient, we have to know what God is asking us to do. Which means one or two things must be true: We must be reading scripture regularly, and allowing God’s Word to reform us and call us to obedience and we must be prayerful about the steps we take in our lives and listen for God to give us direction. Maybe you’re not doing either of those things regularly. If that’s the case and you want to follow Jesus obediently, start with reading scripture and you might be surprised at how clearly you’re able to hear God’s voice in other ways too.

Obedience means that when you know what God is asking of you, you change your actions, thoughts, or words to line up with what God has said.

“We’ve already done what we think is the right way,” Peter essentially insists in Luke 5, “BUT IF YOU SAY SO, we’ll do what you’ve asked us to.”

Luke 5 says the next thing that happens is that the disciples followed Jesus’ instructions and the result was that they caught so many fish their nets began to break and when they worked together to pull the fish into the boats, the boats began to sink. When Peter saw this, the scripture tells us, “he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!’ for he and all who were with him were amazed” at what had just happened. This reminds us that Following Jesus inspires worship. For Peter, it was a natural, unavoidable response to the goodness he had just witnessed. He fell to his knees and honored the holiness that he recognized in Jesus, the Christ.

The Apostle Paul knew well that following Jesus inspired worship. Just in our epistle reading today, from his letter to the church at Philippi, Paul writes, “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…who became obedient to death on a cross…and was exalted by God and given the name above every other name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

When God does something and we recognize it as an act of God or we know the presence of holiness, there is no other response than to honor and glorify God.

The problem is, we’re prone to idolatry. And as such, we often misplace that honor and glory and direct it elsewhere. Like towards ourselves. Or towards our things. Or towards anyone or anything else other than the source of every good and perfect gift we have.

Peter, skilled fisherman that he was, could have had a different response. Rather than recognize Jesus as the giver of the nets full of fish, he could have assumed it was due to the skill of himself and his team that when they put the nets down when Jesus commanded, they caught so many fish. Or, maybe even more likely, his skill met with just the right amount of coincidence. He doesn’t have either of those reactions, though. He recognizes the giver of the gift and he responds in worship.

Worship happens in a lot of ways. Yes, we worship as a body here on Sunday mornings and sometimes other times, too. We gather for worship because we each recognize that this is not just about us. It is about the Body of Christ in every time and place and a story that God is writing across the ages that includes all of us.

But as Peter demonstrates, worship is also spontaneous and often very personal. Worship can happen daily, hourly, minute by minute if we seek to live lives that glorify and honor God. Followers of Jesus Christ worship him because we recognize his goodness and holiness and we know that he is worthy of glory and honor. And when we are truly following Christ, we cannot help it. We are called to worship and we must respond.

After Peter worships, and it is noted that it is not just Peter who is amazed and sees Jesus for what he has done, Jesus says familiar words to Simon. “Do not be afraid; from now on, you will be catching people.” And with those words, we are told Peter and company park their boats on the shore and leave everything to follow him. And so, we see that it is the case that Following Jesus calls for whole-hearted devotion.

Peter who has just had this moment of revelation, who has heard Jesus’ invitation to follow, doesn’t just leave his nets and all the fish that the boats just brought ashore–he leaves his whole livelihood and identity behind. He will from that moment on, be known as one of Jesus’ disciples. We who have read the whole book know that Jesus will change his name and Simon will be called Peter. We know that Peter will see Jesus heal the sick and injured and bring people back from death. We know that Jesus will include Peter in some of the most amazing moments and will demand some of the hardest things from Peter. But Simon the fisherman knows none of this. Simon Peter knows that he was obedient to Jesus and Jesus did something miraculous and glorious, and so he worshiped Jesus and then left everything to follow him.

The same thing happens in our lives. Maybe you decided to follow Jesus, and you had no idea how that was going to turn out or where you were going to end up. But you followed as wholeheartedly as you could. And in every moment, every decision to be obedient, every scripture passage you read that caused you to grow a little more, every act and sight of wonder that called you to worship, every struggle that you prayed your way through, God was shaping you more and more in his image so that your identity wasn’t nearly as important as the identity given to you as a follower of Jesus.

When you follow Jesus, it’s impossible to do it halfway. When we try to hang onto ourselves, we aren’t really following. Jesus would tell his disciples later, “ ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

October 1, 2017 seems as good a day as any to consider your own calling to follow Jesus and how that looks in your life. Are you following obediently, allowing the words of scripture to test and try your thoughts and actions, seeking to prayerfully discern what God is asking you to do?

Are you worshipping honestly and frequently, giving God the glory and the credit for the good things in your life, remembering to turn toward God as often as you are tempted to turn towards yourself?

Are you devoted whole-heartedly, accepting the identity Jesus gives you and laying aside your own will for his?

Maybe you’re like me and when you think about it like that, you see that you’ve missed the mark somewhere along the way this week or in the past month or year or years, and you know it’s time to get back on the path that follows the footsteps of Jesus and leads to life. I think that probably Martin Luther and the other reformers we celebrate this month recognized that feeling as they continued to surrender their lives and ministries to God and find the way that is right and true. Peter knew that place well, as we’ll see in the coming weeks as he seeks to follow Jesus through some tough situations and deal with his own missteps.

The good news is that that we have a Lord who calls us as many times as it takes, out of a love and grace that knows no bounds. Yes, today is a good day to start again at following Jesus.

Let’s pray together, for ourselves and for each other, as we seek to be renewed in following Jesus.

Jesus, you stand at the lakeshore and you invite us to drop our nets and leave our boats and our names and our vain pursuits to be your disciples and to be known by your name. Help us to be obedient to your leading, and call us to be faithful students of your Word. Renew in us a sense of wonder and joy and call us to worship. Make us wholly devoted to you alone, gladly giving our lives for the sake of your Kingdom coming. Amen.

Sermon on Romans 13:8-14

September 21, 2017

(At Presbyterian Church of Henderson, we have started using fill-in-the-blank outlines in the bulletin to accompany each Sunday’s sermon. This has added a new dimension to preaching for me, but the hearers of the word seem to appreciate having an outline to follow. One thing I’ve learned is that it makes the sharing of a manuscript a bit clunky in this format. The following sermon has 3 “bullet points” and I have identified those by putting them in bold print and using blue text to indicate the words that fit in the blanks.

And my usual disclaimer: sermons are meant to be heard, not read, but this is the manuscript I used to preach this sermon on September 10, 2017.)

Let’s talk for a moment about light and darkness. On earth, we have a natural cycle of light and darkness which can be tracked and figured way ahead of time for each day in each location on the planet. Our human bodies adapt with a circadian rhythm, which compels us to sleep during the nighttime hours, when for most of human history it was too dark to accomplish anything well, and spending the daytime hours awake, with plenty of light to work, study, and play. If you’ve ever had to work the graveyard shift, which required your body to do the opposite, you may know the feeling of struggling to adjust to a different rhythm. We are in the annual season where the days are becoming shorter and the nights are becoming longer. Some of us long for more light and the long days of summer, while others of us are excited and settling in for cooler weather, shorter days, and pumpkin flavored food and drinks.

In the passage from Romans, Paul notes the difference between light and darkness and continues a theme in scripture that takes the concepts of light and darkness into the spiritual realm. The first words spoken by God, after all, in scripture are “Let there be light!” To his followers gathered on a hillside, Jesus says, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden…let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

For the apostle Paul, light symbolizes the new life all Christians are called to live. We are called to be people of light, who live uprightly and in a way that glorifies God, not just for our own sake, but for the sake of our neighbors, too. As we think about light and darkness, we have to acknowledge that darkness is available to us. Nothing good happens after 1 am, I’ve heard parents and grandparents instruct their kids–and depending on how strict your own moms or grandpas might have been, that time is a bit arbitrary. But there’s a sense that the darker the night, the more trouble there is to be had. We live in a time where darkness doesn’t require nighttime anymore, however. We live in a time where the anonymity of the internet provides its own cover of darkness for those who want to anonymously seek what Paul would probably call out as debauchery and licentiousness, or for those who would want to gather to wish or perpetrate hate or harm, enmity or strife on their neighbors. It’s a place where racists or sex traffikers or pedophiles or pornographers can connect to each other–actually there’s a whole internet only accessible to those who know how to get there that allows for this complete anonymity and the most vile of words and actions–and it’s actually called the Dark Web.

We live in a world where the darkest darkness is only a click or two away, and so Paul’s words to his church at Rome, which was plunged into a first century darkness, are needed among us as we seek to heed our calling to be people of the light.

The first instruction Paul has for us who want to live in the light is that We Love our neighbors like it is the Law….because it is!

Paul writes that “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Now the Law he’s talking about is the Law. The 10 commandments. The Torah. The 613 expectations provided in the first five books of Scripture. 613 rules for the faithful people of God to remember.

I am going to guess that many of you have been the YMCA in Henderson. I’ve become a frequent visitor to our local Y in the past few years, and we have a great Y facility. The creative folks there, probably both employees and board members, have made a lot of great updates and upgrades to the facility, and there are so many activities to choose from at the Y. But here’s what I always think when I’m walking in and around our YMCA: They certainly don’t need to buy any decorations for the walls here. Why not? Because they cover just about every available square inch of our YMCA with signs informing readers of all kinds of rules, like they should not wear perfume in the fitness center, that they have to sign their kids out at the front desk, that they should clean machines this way and wash hands because of flu season, and that they should use that weird scrubby brush thing outside the door to get dirt of their shoes–has anyone ever done that?

There are so many reminders of the rules, guidelines, and expectations of the Y on the walls, it can be a bit dizzying. You know the guy who wrote the book about how he followed all of the commandments in the Bible for a year? His name is AJ Jacobs and I kind of want to invite him down to Henderson to see if he can spend a week following all the rules at our YMCA.

Rules matter to us. We have rules we follow in our offices, in our homes, as citizens of our city or state or nation. Our After School ministry has a list of rules. Every year, we write an after school covenant that the kids and adults who participate in our twice a week program sign. Here is this year’s covenant. (Read a little of it)

Here’s the thing: What I really want to write each year on this covenant is “Love God. Love Others. Don’t Bleed.” To me, that should sum it up.

I think that’s probably how God might have preferred to present the Law all along. Well, probably just the first two things–Love God, Love Others. It’s not like God didn’t think of it. Deuteronomy 6:4 contains the words of the Shema–Hear O Israel, The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” and Leviticus 19:18 reminds “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.” In the gospels, you’re likely most familiar of Jesus’ words about loving neighbor in connection to the story of the Good Samaritan, and Jesus’ reminder that our definition of “neighbor” cannot be limited to geography or religion or skin color or socioeconomic status.

The Law was never about a list of do’s and don’ts. Why do we need 10 commandments? Or why does the Torah have 613 separate rules or laws? Because humanity is fallen. We forget how to love God and how to love our neighbor. Things that should be common sense or common courtesy aren’t always commonly understood. It has to be broken down and spelled out line by line for us sometimes…but the problem is that the list of rules makes us feel like we’re just if we simply do not break any of the rules. And yet, throughout history, priests, kings, prophets, and finally God incarnate remind us that the point of the Law isn’t following the rules…it’s love.

Last week, in preaching the passage before this one in Romans 12, Eric gave us a list of what real love looks like. Real love is sincere, pure, devoted, passionate, enduring, generous, merciful, compassionate, humble, peaceable, and missional. This is the love Paul wants his church in Rome, and us by extension, to understand and demonstrate.

When we love our neighbors, Paul says, we won’t harm them or steal from them or be unfaithful or covetous toward them. Love, by definition, means we want the very best lives possible for our neighbors, and we do not purposely cause them or wish them harm for any reason.

When we love our neighbors, we fulfill the Law. That’s the first way we live in God’s light.

This passage also reminds us is that we live in the light when we wake up and stay awake.

There’s an urgency, Paul reminds his church in Rome. There’s a timeline with a definite ending. It’s interesting to me how we understand this concept in our modern society. I had a group of kids at Camp Loucon last fall for our Presbytery’s Fall Retreat. We climbed up, up, up through the woods to the top of the zipline, like we do every year, and as kids one by one put on harnesses and attached to the line and jumped off the cliff to ride to the bottom, just about every other one of them would yell YOLO! As they jumped. Y-O-L-O stands for “you only live once!” It’s intended to convey the idea of urgency–that there’s a timeline here and the timeline has a definite end. But it’s interesting because the idea behind YOLO is that you only live once, so you may as well live however you want and do whatever will make you the happiest. This mindset is honored in our society, right? Find your passion, live life to the fullest, obey your thirst, just do it…YOLO. YOLO is very self-seeking and self-gratifying.

Paul’s version of YOLO has to do with waking up fully and being aware of God’s calling and God’s timing. Instead of living like we think we have all the time in the world to straighten up and honor God, we live each day like it might truly be the last day. Because we are reminded all the time, that it very well might be.

But here’s the thing: we aren’t called to keep awake simply because we might meet our maker sooner rather than later, and we want to be ready ourselves…as Christians, we know an urgency beyond that. The task of living in the light is big! It is nothing less than partnering with the Creator of the universe to bring about the transformation of the world! The world is full of darkness and we know the One who overcomes that darkness, and so we stay awake for the sake of our neighbors, the ones we are loving to fulfill the Law.

We stay awake and we continue to hold out the hope we have–hope in a Kingdom coming where all that is broken will be made new, where all that is wrong will be made right, where all pain and sickness and death will pass away. Wake up and keep awake, beloved church, and use the one life you’ve been given to shine light in dark places.

Finally, living in the light requires that we clothe ourselves with Jesus at all times. Paul writes “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; 13let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. 14Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” Clothe ourselves with Jesus? What does that look like? How can we tell?

Well, Paul says, go to your closet and make a choice.

We’re familiar with choosing what to wear. Most of us have to do it on a pretty regular basis. It is a chore for some, a joy for others, simple for some of us and whole lot more complicated for others. Some of us have uniforms we wear regularly, whether they are actual uniforms we are required to wear in our workplace, or a limited selection, color, or style we’ve decided is our look. Some of us have to make a choice every single day and try on multiple articles of clothing before settling on the thing that will be just perfect for the day ahead.

If we Christians want to live in the light, we have choose to wear the right things, says Paul. And the things we need to choose are the things of Christ, not the things of the world around us.

Paul gives us a list that is not exhaustive, but it gets the heart of what his instructions are. I looked up the Greek for the words Paul uses, because even if his list doesn’t intend to cover everything that could possibly be of the flesh or of darkness, I thought it was certainly a good place to start. Verse 13 says, “Let us live honorably as in the day, not in κώμοις (feasting) and μέθαις (drunkenness), not in κοίταις (that’s actually the word for bed, which is rather to the point, but to clarify, Paul is talking about immoral sexual behavior) and ἀσελγείαις (indecent conduct), not in ἔριδι (which means contention or strife) and ζήλῳ (which is the word for zeal, but it seems when Paul uses this word, he is usually using it to talk about zeal for self and a rivalry with others–so jealousy is overwhelmingly the preferred translation.)

Basically Paul gives three types of sin–gluttonous eating and drinking, immoral sexual behavior, and strife in relationships. Three categories of sins that show lack of regard for our neighbors and their well-being, and sins that demonstrate the darkness of Paul’s day…and ours.

In v. 12, Paul instructs laying aside the works of darkness and putting on the armor of light. Paul telling us to put on armor…does that sound familiar at all? Before starting Romans, we finished a series on Ephesians, also credited to Paul, which ended with a sermon about the Armor of God.

The belt of truth,

the breastplate of righteousness,

The shoes of the gospel of peace,

The shield of faith,

The helmet of salvation,

The sword of the spirit, which is the Word of God…

The armor of God. The armor of light.

But here’s a crucial thing. Paul is saying that the armor of God is none other than Jesus Christ.

Put on Christ’s truth.

Put on Christ’s righteousness.

Put on Christ’s faith.

Put on Christ’s salvation.

Put on Christ’s spirit–the very Word of God.

We are not the source of the light. We wear the light that John 1 says has already come into the world. We wear the light that has already conquered the darkness.

None of this is easy. It requires loving people who do not love us back, or loving people who aren’t very loveable. It requires setting aside our own desires and requires putting the well-being of others ahead of our own. It requires choosing to live so much like Christ that we are wearing him and allowing his light to shine through us. None of this happens by accident–we have to lay down our own clothes and our own selves and put those things on.

May we live as those who love our neighbors, stay awake, and love and reflect the light of God. Glory be the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon on John 4:5-42

March 19, 2017

(At Presbyterian Church of Henderson, we have started using fill-in-the-blank outlines in the bulletin to accompany each Sunday’s sermon. This has added a new dimension to preaching for me, but the hearers of the word seem to appreciate having an outline to follow. One thing I’ve learned is that it makes the sharing of a manuscript a bit clunky in this format. The following sermon has 3 “bullet points” and I have identified those by putting them in bold print and using blue text to indicate the words that fit in the blanks.

And my usual disclaimer: sermons are meant to be heard, not read, but this is the manuscript I used to preach this morning. This one began with a dramatic reading of the scripture by three members of the congregation.)

Scripture: John 4:5-42

We come this morning to a story that I have always loved. No doubt, I’ve read this passage of scripture more than just about any other. I’ve written papers about it. It’s regularly taught in youth group or Sunday School classes around here. I’ve preached about it from this pulpit at least one other time, but I think maybe twice.  

This passage contains the longest recorded conversation in any of the gospels and it happens between Jesus and a woman of Samaria. I love the rhythm of the conversation, the flow of topics from actual thirst and actual water to spiritual thirst and spiritual water. I love the way God changed this woman’s life in the course of an afternoon.

And I love the way that we once again bump into The Kingdom of God. Even when Jesus wasn’t explicitly talking about the Kingdom of God, Jesus was always talking about the Kingdom of God. And once again, we are reminded that when the Kingdom of God is set against the kingdom of this world, they could not be more different.

And right away we see that in the Kingdom of God,

outsiders become insiders.

Jesus and his disciples, walking the distance between Jerusalem in the south and Galilee in the north, make a stop mid-way between in Sychar, which is well within Samaria. It is noon and Jesus is tired, so while the disciples go to try to buy lunch, Jesus sits down by a well.

“A Samaritan woman came to draw water” is how the interaction begins. Two descriptions about her that make her an outsider to Jesus and his disciples. First, she’s a woman. The societal norms were clear on this one–a man, and especially a man who is a Rabbi, should not speak to a woman that is not his wife or family member. Further, she’s a Samaritan woman, which also makes her a religious and political outsider, since the Jews considered the Samaritans to be unclean.

Jesus obviously knows all of this. He knows she is a woman, he knows she’s a samaritan, he knows the expectations and he willingly reaches out to her with a simple request for a drink of water. Time and again, we see Jesus do this with folks he encountered, whether it’s touching a leper to heal him from disease to engaging a sychophonencian woman in a theological debate.

But there’s something else. It is noon and this woman is coming to the well. In the middle eastern desert during the hottest part of the day. Other women would have already been to the well, choosing instead to go in the cooler part of the day when the sun was just rising. A village well was, and still is in communities that have a common well for water, a gathering place. A place where women gather in the cool of the day before the chores at home need attention. For some reason, this woman goes when she knows she would be there alone. I imagine it’s more than the possibility that she was an introvert who wanted some time to herself.

If we jump ahead for just a second, we realize that this woman has been married multiple times and she’s currently residing with a man who is not her husband. Jesus will tell her this and she will confirm its truth.

Often we read scripture through modern eyes. In this instance, we might assume this woman is somehow to blame for this, that she was rightfully ashamed of how she had been living and that’s why she came to the well in the middle of the day and that’s what Jesus is going to talk to her about.  But we have to read this passage in the ancient context. In the ancient Middle Eastern world, this woman had little or no agency. We don’t know the circumstances of her five previous marriages, whether her husbands had died or abandoned her, how she even came to enter into those unions or even if she had wanted to be married. In the ancient world, no one really cared if a woman was willing to say “I do,” and marriage was more of a transaction, usually arranged by the father of the would-be-bride. Further, it was not advisable or even possible for a woman in the ancient world to live without a man. Women couldn’t provide for themselves. It’s possible that just about everything that was true about her situation were things she could not have changed.

But the actual circumstances do not always matter when it comes to shame, do they? Often, people with little ability to change their circumstances are blamed for the circumstances and are shamed by their communities, whether it’s deserved or not. I think about groups of people in our society in this day and age who are often blamed or shamed, maybe those who are dealing with disabilities or living in poverty. Or people who contract lung cancer–because lung cancer is the cancer that people assume must be the sufferer’s fault. Or I think about circumstances that cause individuals to feel private shame for things they could not have ever controlled, perhaps couples struggling with infertility or who have experienced reproductive loss and struggle in very personal ways, often quietly and alone. People can experience this isolation and separation from their neighbors for lots of reasons, many beyond their control, and I think this is where the woman here now at the well has been living.

This woman is an outsider to Jesus’ Jewish disciples, and she is also an outsider in her city or village, possibly all for reasons beyond her control. It is here where Jesus meets her and invites her into a different, wonderful story. And I think it is a beautiful thing that Jesus met this woman right where she was, and that it was Jesus who crossed those boundaries to reach out to her.  She had no idea when she walked to the well, her head bowed, her eyes to the ground, that she was going to meet the one who created her and that he was about to change her life forever.

In the Kingdom of God, outsiders become insiders because in the Kingdom of God, there are no more outsiders. The King of the Kingdom welcomes all to himself. This is good news not just for the woman standing with Jesus at the well, but for all of us who have found ourselves on the outside, separated from God or from each other.

And so now we come to the rest of the story. Our second point on the outline is that in the Kingdom of God,

dry wells are abandoned and living water flows.

Jesus has crossed lines to engage this woman in conversation and then he does something interesting. Out of the blue, he instructs the woman to go and get her husband and come back. And then, of course, she tells the truth, but in an ambiguous way–like we all do sometimes. “I have no husband.” And then Jesus speaks truth to her about her situation.

Considering the context and all of the things about shame and her outsider status, I do not actually think Jesus is talking about a sin problem, here. This is an assumption that is often held about this text. But I don’t think Jesus is addressing unfaithfulness in marriage…I think what may be happening here is that Jesus is acknowledging a deep emptiness and longing that has not yet been satisfied for her. The love she had experienced had not lasted, for whatever reason. Each relationship had led to a brokenness of some sort. She kept hoping for security or love with each dip of her bucket into the metaphorical relationship well, and that thirst was never permanently quenched.

Jesus offers her living water–a love that will never abandon her, a God who will always meet her needs. This is truly an opportunity for this woman to experience a permanent change in her life.

So I started thinking…what would Jesus have said to me if we had met at that well? He wouldn’t have asked about my husband, I don’t think. I thought and I thought and then it hit me.

Jesus would have looked at me from across the well and said, “Go get your perfect seminary transcript and bring it back here.” And I would have said, “Sir, I don’t have a copy printed.” And he would have said, “You’re right, because you don’t have a perfect seminary transcript because in Dr. Colyer’s doctrine class last semester you ended the term with a B.”

Because for me? That metaphorical well I keep revisiting hoping for permanent satisfaction is the well of approval. I want you, any of you, all of you, all of the people out there, all of my professors to approve of me and like me. It’s in my nature to go to whatever ridiculous length necessary to gain approval. But guess what? That’s a well that dries up fast. Because sometimes I make mistakes. Or I have to say something people don’t want to hear. Or someone just doesn’t like me. And even when I am well-liked, or my professors think I’m smart, that relief only lasts for a little bit…and then I need more praise and agreement and affirmation. But I was created and called to seek living water–the approval of ONE, the approval of God. That’s the water that will last.

What else might there be? What are the other wells that people go back to over and over again hoping for permanent satisfaction only to end up empty again?

On Sunday nights in the Fellowship Hall, a group of about 12 have been meeting to discuss Jen Hatmaker’s book “7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess.” As we read the book, we are thinking about the things that we have in our lives that we have a hard time using in moderation, and how sometimes those things become replacements for God. We’ve talked about food. We’ve talked about clothing. Tonight, Jesus be with me, we are talking about media.

One of the things we are really talking about, though, is that fact that in general, us humans have an emptiness inside of us, and that emptiness can be relentless. And sometimes, we try to fill that emptiness with…well, stuff. We buy bigger houses and seek promotions and we earn more money and we buy more stuff…and then we’re still empty, because those are not things that are eternal, and what we are really longing for, us humans, is something eternal.

So we go back to the same wells. For this woman, it was hope that the next relationship would last and bring security. For me, it’s approval and assurance that I’m good enough.

For someone else, Jesus might have talked about love of money or worldly success. Or the purchasing of new things–retail therapy. Or maybe about an addiction to drugs or alcohol or pornography or facebook. All wells that might fill someone up for a little bit, might quench a particular thirst for an amount of time…but not forever.

But Jesus offers another way, and a water that will truly quench those longings inside of us. If we would come to his well and drink deeply of the living water that comes to us through scripture, through prayer, through worship in spirit and truth, through trusting in God’s grace and listening for God’s call to us, seeking the Kingdom of God rather than the Kingdom of this world…we will never be thirsty again and our lives will be changed forever. And through our changed lives, God will change the lives of others. Because point number 3 is…

changed lives change lives.

In this one afternoon, this one woman’s life is changed forever. Jesus offers her living water and in it she finds a new identity as a child of God, loved and accepted, and a call to worship in spirit and truth.

And then God uses her newly changed life to change the lives of others in her community. This unnamed woman is often regarded as the first evangelist. She’s the first one who calls others to faith in Christ as the Messiah. Look–(read the come and see part of the passage).

All of a sudden the woman who went to the well at noon to avoid her neighbors is calling for them to come. In that interaction, Jesus changed her life, her identity, her understanding about who she was so dramatically that now she is inviting others to come and see.

And they did come, they left the city and came to the well and they heard this woman’s testimony and they believed in Jesus as the messiah. And they invited him to stay and even more Samaritans came to follow Jesus because of this one interaction at the well between Jesus and this woman whose name we never even learn.

She was living her ordinary life and Jesus broke in, reaching across many barriers, called her to him and offered her the thing she had been truly longing for, changing her life in such a way that God used her life and story to change the lives of so many of her neighbors.

Maybe you’ve been someone like this woman. Maybe God has changed your life in such a way that you’ve been able to offer this witness to others and maybe God has used your changed life to change the lives of your neighbors near and far. Maybe you’ve been unable to contain the gratitude you feel for a God who would call you in from the outside and claim you as God’s own, and you’ve shouted it from the roads and rooftops.

Or maybe you’ve known someone like this woman, and someone else’s story of how God has been visible and at work in his or her life has been the vehicle for change in your own life.

Did you know that this is God’s plan for evangelism? Did you know that God uses people–often ordinary, broken, flawed people at that–to bring the gospel to light for others? That the plan for the movement of the gospel involves one neighbor at a time, experiencing the love and grace of God and then sharing that same love and grace with others.

Where does Jesus find you this morning? Are you feeling like you’re on the outside, looking in? Is Jesus calling you to stop going to the same dried up well for joy or relief, and instead drink deeply of the living water that will bring joy and relief eternal? Are there people around you who are thirsty and in need of the hope that comes from the good news of a God who cares and loves and changes lives?

May we know Jesus’ calling, allow God to continue to change and challenge us, and be willing to bear witness to the goodness of God for the sake of our neighbors. Praise be to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

Merry Christmas!

December 24, 2016

I know, I kind of fell off the track for the last few words of the Advent Photo Challenge. Today’s word is #birth, which I’m sure will make for some very nice photos from other folks, but I’m going to skip that word. I also skipped #worry and #warmth and at least one other this week.

Today is when we’ll do most of our Christmas celebrating. In about 20 minutes, Simon and I will start waking the other two residents of this house.

Merry Christmas from our home to yours. May God bless you and keep you as one year ends and another one begins.

#Stillness

December 22, 2016

Last night was our Longest Night service.

Yesterday was a hard day. I am so grateful for the Light that endures. May that Light bring you joy and peace this season.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  John 1:1-5

#Presence

December 20, 2016

“Jesus and the Lamb” by Katherine Brown, 1982

This artwork hangs in our hallway. It hung in our hallway at our first house, too, and before that, it hung in my apartment. The print was a college graduation gift from my friend Katie.

Many days, I walk right past it and forget to see it. Other days, I stop and trace each sketched line with my eyes and think about how comforted and safe that lamb is in the arms of its shepherd, Jesus.

Lord, you have searched me and known me. 
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
   you discern my thoughts from far away. 
You search out my path and my lying down,
   and are acquainted with all my ways. 
Even before a word is on my tongue,
   O Lord, you know it completely. 
You hem me in, behind and before,
   and lay your hand upon me. 
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
   it is so high that I cannot attain it. 


Where can I go from your spirit?
   Or where can I flee from your presence? 
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
   if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. 
If I take the wings of the morning
   and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, 
even there your hand shall lead me,
   and your right hand shall hold me fast. 
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
   and the light around me become night’, 
even the darkness is not dark to you;
   the night is as bright as the day,
   for darkness is as light to you. 


For it was you who formed my inward parts;
   you knit me together in my mother’s womb. 
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
   Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well. 
   My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
   intricately woven in the depths of the earth. 
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
   all the days that were formed for me,
   when none of them as yet existed. 
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
   How vast is the sum of them! 
I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
   I come to the end—I am still with you. —Psalm 139:1-18

#Peace

December 19, 2016

Sometimes during this season of peace on earth, peace is hard to grasp.

I work at a church, which is supposed to be the bearer of this good news of peace and good will, and yet I, and my colleagues and many of our members, spend a good amount of time in Advent planning, implementing, rushing, and filling our schedules with programs, events, gatherings, and tasks.

The fourth Sunday of Advent was shaping up to be what I began thinking of as the “Presbyterian Pentathlon.” The day would contain: worship with our children’s Christmas pageant; a congregational meeting; a reception following worship and the meeting; Youth Group baking and board games; and the all-church caroling party.

Last week as I met with our pastor, Eric, and we strategized and did our part of the planning for the fourth Sunday of Advent, I confessed, “I’m the one who scheduled most of this stuff for this Sunday instead of spreading it out.” But the truth is, Advent fell as early as it could this year, and this fourth Sunday of Advent was not much more busy than previous years’ fourth Sundays are.

And so, starting at 9am yesterday, the day began as children and parents began to gather for the pre-worship rehearsal of their pageant. And it was a lot of non-stop for a lot of good Presbyterians as the day moved along.

Around 4:30pm, we pulled up to our third caroling stop. As we climbed the hill to Willie Ann’s house, she was waiting at her door for us. It was very cold outside, but we waited patiently for Willie Ann to hug and kiss each caroler coming in her door to see her. Willie Ann is 93 years-old, is God’s gift to anyone who knows her, and her hugs and loving words have blessed each one of us time and again. She is not able to come to church anymore and her presence is missed remarkably at each gathering.

So we sang, loudly, and I got a little teary because this was just good for all of our souls and a precious reminder of peace that comes through singing and hugging and spending time with people who love us.

Again Isaiah says,
‘The root of Jesse shall come,
   the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope.’ 
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Romans 15:12-13

#Confession

December 17, 2016

It is Saturday.

On Thursday, I finished my fall semester at UDTS. Yesterday, I cleaned, ran errands, got a haircut, celebrated my mother in-law’s birthday, and made a late night run to Michael’s with Jason.

Today, I slept all the way until 7am, something I haven’t done for weeks. And then when I got up, I poured the coffee and started making my pretzel, chocolate, M&M buttons to give away to neighbors, delivery people, co-workers, and some of Jason’s clients. And–here’s the confession–I turned on the cheesiest, happiest, most implausible Christmas movies I could find. And I’m currently on my third Christmas movie. And I expect to watch at least three more today as I finish writing cards, crocheting gifts, and wrapping things.

Tomorrow is church-a-palooza with all things 4th Sunday of Advent. And Monday, my J-Term professor gives us our pre-load for the class that starts January 2. So today? I’m doing whatever I want.

Oh, and hey, I found this:

#Watchful

December 15, 2016

Simon and Jonas…sometimes a hastily taken photo turns out all right.

Somehow, I ended up in Habakkuk tonight. Habakkuk is the book of the Bible I am least able to spell, and the book I am least likely to read, I’d figure.

But tonight, there’s this:

I will stand at my watch-post,
   and station myself on the rampart;
I will keep watch to see what he will say to me,
   and what he will answer concerning my complaint. 
2 Then the Lord answered me and said:
Write the vision;
   make it plain on tablets,
   so that a runner may read it. 
3 For there is still a vision for the appointed time;
   it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
   it will surely come, it will not delay. 
Habakkuk 2:1-3

#Saving

December 15, 2016

“Saving” was a word I had to think about all day yesterday before I settled on a photo. What exactly does “saving”look like when it comes to a photo challenge? What does it mean to save something or some situation or someone?

I thought about the word while I took my Hebrew final exam yesterday morning and encountered this word’s Hebrew equivalent.

I thought about it while I drove past banks.

I thought about it when I reached out twice yesterday afternoon and grabbed buckets of perler beads from the hands of children who were just about to drop them all over the floor.

I thought about it while I stood with the children around the big Nativity set in the fellowship hall last night.

I thought about it while 4 girls, poised over sheets of drawing paper with pencils in their hands, considered the stories in scripture about Jesus’ birth and drew their own interpretations of them. They asked each other (and me) questions about dress, customs, timeline, and particular elements of the story that are missing or not as prominent as most would assume. They asked questions they could answer for each other and questions that no one in the room could possibly answer. “Really?” they asked each other. “Is that true?” they asked. “I never thought about it that way before!” they exclaimed.

I thought about how stories are saved and kept. How having them written down is good, but knowing them through questioning and answering and drawing is better.

“Did you know that an angel told Mary she was going to have a baby before anyone else knew? And Mary was really confused, because she wasn’t even married! And she was probably upset at first, but it turned out to be good news…the goodest news!” A nine year-old boy explained me to yesterday afternoon as we worked on his homework together.

It’s news we still tell each other about, news we still keep, save, discuss, and draw.

 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’  Luke 1:26-33