Taken up

In some of the older churches in Europe, you can see a round opening in the ceiling, right above the altar. Some call it the Holy Spirit hole. In medieval times, a small Christ figure would be pulled up through it on Ascension Day, forty days after Easter. The Christ figure, made of wood or ceramic, would stand on the altar, with a rope tied around it. When the story was read of how Christ was taken up to heaven, liturgical stage hands up in the attic pulled in the rope and Christ went up and vanished from sight.

Ten days later, on Pentecost, members of the worship committee were again up in the attic and waited for just the right moment in the reading from Acts to lower a white dove carved from wood through the hole, followed by showers of red flower petals falling on the congregation like little flames. In some towns, the people responsible for special effects during the liturgy dropped a live white dove through the hole, and you can imagine the whole congregation looking up and watching it fly, wondering what the bird or the Holy Spirit might be up to. And in some churches, the showers of flower petals were followed by showers of almonds, nuts, raisins, and other sweet delights – the joy of heaven come down to earth, for all to taste and see.

The Reformation put an end to such theatrical gospel illustrations, in some places more successfully than in others no more statues ascending and descending, no more treats from the Holy Spirit hole for the children of Protestants.

You have probably seen depictions of the Ascension paintings in museums, stained glass windows and frescoes in churches, art projects in Vacation Bible School. The old masters show Jesus floating upward in flowing robes, clouds around his feet, while the disciples look up, their faces expressing a wide range of emotions from fear to wide-eyed wonder and devotion. In one painting from the early16th century, the body of Jesus has all but disappeared, and at the upper edge of the frame, you can only see the hem of his robe and his feet, still bearing the marks of his crucifixion.[1] It looks like his toes would disappear any moment now, and then the disciples would be on their own again.

All the stories that tell us about encounters between the disciples and the Risen One reflect experiences of absence and sudden presence, of Jesus appearing, abiding, and disappearing. Coming to know Jesus as risen is a matter of familiarity and loss, of grief and joy, of expectation and surprise. You could say that the fact that we celebrate seven Sundays of Easter, is a reflection of this process: the resurrection of Christ is a truth that takes time to sink in; it challenges our ways of seeing and thinking and knowing; it is a reality we cannot fully grasp, but are nevertheless invited to enter.

“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses,” the Risen One taught the disciples. Then he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight. Luke describes the disciples as standing there, gazing up to where they last saw Jesus, when suddenly two men in white robes appear, as they did on Easter morning, and ask, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” For forty days – in biblical lingo that means a good long time – Jesus had presented himself alive to them, appearing to them and speaking with them about the kingdom of God. The painful absence after his death on the cross had turned into new life; it was a roller coaster of joy and confusion, of faith and doubt, and just when they thought they knew him again like they hadn’t known him before, just when they thought that maybe now the world was ready for God’s kingdom to be restored in glory, the one who was supposed to take the throne slipped away again. No wonder they looked intently to where they had last seen him; it was like their world had a hole in it in the shape of their hope.

What makes absence hurt, what makes it ache, is the memory of what used to be there but is no longer, writes Barbara Brown Taylor.

Absence is the arm flung across the bed in the middle of the night, the empty space where a beloved sleeper once lay. Absence is the child’s room now empty and hung with silence and dust. Absence is the overgrown lot where the old house once stood, the house in which people laughed and thought their happiness would last forever. [2]

Where do you turn when your sense of God’s presence suddenly vanishes?  Where do you turn when the visible becomes invisible, the tangible, intangible; the answer, a question; the presence, an absence?

Luke tells us that Jesus didn’t go away, but that he was taken up. Paul writes that God exalted Jesus and gave him the name that is above every 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.[3] God has exalted Jesus – the same Jesus who ate and drank with sinners, who suffered and died in shame – God has exalted Jesus as Lord. The friend of sinners is seated on the throne of heaven.

And we? What about us? What are we supposed to do now? “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you,” says Jesus; “and you will be my witnesses.” The absence will again become powerful presence, and we will be witnesses of the love that has found us; we will be messengers of reconciliation; we will announce the Lord’s reign to the ends of the earth. Our gaze is stuck on that spot behind the cloud where we last perceived God’s presence in the person of Jesus, and the heavenly messengers gently redirect our attention down to earth.

It’s no use looking up if it’s him we want to see. He will come to us. In the meantime, our attention needs to be where his attention was when he walked on the earth. On the margins of our communities where life is far from flourishing. On the poverty of purse and of spirit that drains us of life and keeps us from recognizing each other as brothers and sisters in the one household of God. We let his attention direct ours, we do what he taught us to do, and we wait. He will come to us.

We will be clothed with power from on high. Or so he told them, so he told the few who would become his apostles. But those were different times, simpler times, we imagine. For them, back in those days, it was just natural to believe in the promises of God and follow, and they, of course, weren’t nearly as busy as we are—or so we like to think. Annie Dillard has written beautifully about this odd assumption:

A blur of romance clings to our notions of “publicans,” “sinners,” “the poor,” “the people in the marketplace,” “our neighbors,” as though of course God should reveal himself, if at all, to these simple people, these Sunday school watercolor figures, who are so purely themselves in their tattered robes, who are single in themselves, while we now are various, complex, and full at heart. We are busy. So, I see now, were they. Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in his holy place? There is no one but us. There is no one to send, nor a clean hand, nor a pure heart on the face of the earth, nor in the earth, but only us, a generation comforting ourselves with the notion that we have come at an awkward time, that our innocent fathers are all dead — as if innocence had ever been — and our children busy and troubled, and we ourselves unfit, not yet ready, having each of us chosen wrongly, made a false start, failed, yielded to impulse and the tangled comfort of pleasures, and grown exhausted, unable to seek the thread, weak, and involved. But there is no one but us. There never has been. There have been generations which remembered, and generations which forgot; there has never been a generation of whole men and women who lived well for even one day.[4]

No need, then, to paint the past in a rosy glow, whether it’s the days of the apostles or the years of innocence when tall steeples went up like grass after a spring rain. There is no one but us. There never has been. Us and the promise of God. Us and the promise that God is at work in the world. Us and the promise that we will be clothed with power from on high and be just right – just right, you and me, just right to participate in Christ’s continuing mission to the ends of the earth.

Jesus has been taken up, and now his presence is no longer restricted by the boundaries of time and space. Now he is available to all people everywhere, all of the time, through the Holy Spirit. He has been taken up, not away. He has been exalted to a place of powerful presence. Still bearing in his resurrection body the wounds of our sin, Jesus has been taken up into the heart of God. And from the heart of God, the Spirit pours forth like a shower of sweet almonds and raisins, foretaste of the world to come, and the work of redemption continues: In the company of Christ’s witnesses we proclaim repentance and the forgiveness of sins in his name, we seek to embody Christ’s compassion and obey his law, we walk in his way of humble service and declare his justice to the nations until he comes.

Christ has shown us that the movement of God is not up and away from the world, but ever closer to the world and deeper into its brokenness in order to heal it.

Christ bears in his body the wounds of our sin and the pain of creation, and he carries them into the heart of God, where all that is broken is healed and life is renewed.

And out of the heart of God flows the Spirit like a healing river to inspire and empower us to participate in God’s movement in the world, serving, healing, forgiving, and reconciling in Christ’s name.


[1] https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/110001279

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine (Boston: Cowley, 1995), 75.

[3] Philippians 2:9-11

[4] Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), 56-57.

Looking for audio of older sermons? Check out our Sermon Audio Archive.

Isn't it curious?

Luke’s first book is the Gospel that bears his name. His second book is called The Acts of the Apostles, and we could also call it The Acts of the Holy Spirit Poured out on all Flesh. It’s the story of Christ’s first witnesses who struggle to keep up with the movement of God’s Spirit from Jerusalem and Judea to Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

The opening chapters of Acts are centered in Jerusalem, but soon we hear about Philip’s witness in Samaria and the wilderness baptism of a man on his way back to Ethiopia – the Spirit and the witnesses are beginning to spill over the boundaries of Judea. But it’s not geography that presents the most difficult challenges for the first witnesses; it’s how they’ve learned to think about themselves and others.

The ancient Jewish world was divided into Jews and Gentiles – God’s people who live in righteousness and holiness, and the Gentiles who live far from God in the darkness of their idolatrous ways. For the good news of Jesus to spill over and reach the ends of the earth, the witnesses had to find the courage to cross boundaries that had been in place for generations. Luke masterfully compresses this gradual, very difficult, and contested development into a sequence of dramatic scenes with Peter as a key character.

Peter is in Joppa, a port on the Mediterranean, on the edge of the Jewish heartland, where he’s staying at the home of Simon the tanner. Tanners worked with animal carcasses, and their occupation made it very difficult for them to remain ritually clean. Pious Jews would have chosen a different place to stay on a visit to Joppa. So Peter is not just on the edge of the Jewish heartland; he’s also right on the boundary line where assumptions of holiness turn into assumptions of the opposite, where inside turns into outside, and belonging into exclusion.

Now Luke takes us to Caesarea, about forty miles up the coast from Joppa. Caesarea is a thoroughly Gentile port city, which Herod the Great built up as the governor’s residence for the Roman province of Judea. Here we meet Cornelius, a centurion in the Roman army. He was a devout, God-fearing man. They knew him at the synagogue, and they liked and respected him. He participated regularly in the daily prayers and shabbat services and he gave generously to those in need. Cornelius was as close to being a Jew as a male Gentile could be without undergoing circumcision. One afternoon Cornelius had a vision. He saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, “Cornelius! Your prayers and gifts to the poor have ascended as a memorial before God. Send messengers to Joppa and bring back a man named Simon, who is known as Peter. He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea.” When the angel had left, Cornelius called two of his servants and a soldier from his personal staff. He told them everything that had happened and sent them to Joppa.

About noon the next day, as their journey brought the three close to the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he had a vision. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being lowered to the earth by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-legged animals, as well as reptiles and birds. And a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” “Absolutely not, Lord!” Peter exclaimed. “I have never eaten anything that is impure or unclean.” The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” This happened three times. Then the sheet was pulled back into heaven. Three times you’d think a heavenly voice wouldn’t run into such resistance, wouldn’t you? You can tell a lot was at stake here for Peter. What he was told to do went against some of his most deeply held convictions, things he had been taught since he was a little boy.

Now while Peter was wondering what to make of this very persistent vision, the men sent by Cornelius arrived at the gate, and the Spirit interrupted his thoughts, “Simon, three men are looking for you. Get up and go downstairs, and do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.”

So Peter went down and said to the men, “I’m the one you’re looking for. Why have you come?”

“We’ve come on behalf of Cornelius, a centurion in Caesarea; he is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is well-respected by all Jewish people. A holy angel told him to ask you to come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say.”

Peter invited the men into the house as his guests, and the next day he went with them, and some of the believers from Joppa went along.

They arrived in Caesarea the following day. Anticipating their arrival, Cornelius had gathered his relatives and close friends. As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence. But Peter made him get up. “Stand up,” he said, “Like you, I am just a human.” Perhaps word had traveled from Joppa to Caesarea that it was Peter who had prayed for Tabitha to be brought back to life from death, and his prayers were answered. The power of God had been palpably present in that miracle, but for Peter to enter the house of a Gentile was an equally miraculous step into a radically new life.

Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people. He said to them, “You all are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. However, God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask why you sent for me?”

Cornelius told him the whole story. “Four days ago about this time, three in the afternoon, I was praying at home. Suddenly a man in shining clothes stood before me and said, ‘Cornelius, God has heard your prayers and remembered your gifts to the poor. Send to Joppa for Simon who is known as Peter. He is a guest in the house of Simon the tanner, who lives by the sea.’ So I sent for you immediately, and it was good of you to come. Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to tell us.”

And so Peter proclaimed the good news of Jesus to a Gentile audience for the very first time. “I now realize that God shows no partiality to one group of people over another. Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to God. This is the message of peace God sent to the people of Israel by proclaiming good news through Jesus Christ: he is Lord of all! You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism John preached — how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he traveled around doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, because God was him. We are witnesses of everything he did in Judea and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and allowed him to be seen, not by everyone but by us. We are witnesses whom God chose beforehand, who ate and drank with im after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” And while Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. God was indeed pouring out God’s Spirit on all flesh, sanctifying all flesh, sharing the divine holiness with all flesh, and Peter declared, “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water; they have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

An ancient boundary, deeply embedded in Jewish life and tradition, was dissolving. It wasn’t long before the apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them?” You crossed the line that separates holiness and idolatry what were you thinking?

Peter told them the whole story. He told them about his vision and the vision of Cornelius and all that they precipitated. He ended by recalling the sermon he preached at the house of the Gentile. “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had come on us at the beginning. Then I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?”

When they heard this, they were done complaining and they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

Even to the Gentiles. The church in the first generation moved from a carefully bounded ethnic identity to an international, multi-ethnic, Christ-centered identity, and it wasn’t the church’s doing. The initiative was God’s and the church followed – slowly, hesitantly, but it followed.

Perhaps you wonder, is Luke’s story about the conversion of Cornelius and his household or the conversion of Peter and the church? Which of the two received the greater blessing, Cornelius or Peter?

Both were given visions that allowed them to see themselves and one another in radically different ways.

Both were given new identities as equal recipients of God’s mercy.

Both were given new purpose as witnesses to the wideness of God’s embrace of the whole human family.

Isn’t it curious that for centuries, conversion meant that others have to become like us in order to be acceptable? In the story of Cornelius and Peter we have been given a powerful corrective to that view: in obedience to the Spirit’s guidance people welcome one another despite all that divides them. They welcome the stranger or enter the house of the stranger, not to convert, but to be converted by the barrier-erasing Spirit of Christ.

The Spirit is moving ahead of us, always working ahead of us to draw us into the fullness of life God desires for all of us. Somebody said recently we’re not living in an era of change but a change of eras. And yet, amid the seismic shifts we’re experiencing we trust that wherever we go, God is there, preparing a place for our continuing conversion into the likeness of Christ.

Looking for audio of older sermons? Check out our Sermon Audio Archive.

Manifold grace

American poet Mary Oliver asks her readers three questions, both at the beginning and the end of her best-known poem, The Summer Day.[1]

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Who made the world? she asks with childlike wonder. Who made the swan, and the black bear, and the grasshopper, all the marvelous creatures who are the world with us and share it with us? Her words invite our attention to follow hers to see the particular grasshopper who is eating sugar out of her hand, and to notice the peculiar back-and-forth movement of the grasshopper’s jaw, how large her eyes, how pale her forearms are, how thoroughly she washes her face, and how she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is, Oliver writes. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I’ve been doing all day.

And this is where she turns to us who have read or listened to her words, and asks us, Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

At the beginning her questions move from wondering about the world and who made it to the wonders of one small creature and one moment, and at the end her questions move from wondering what to do with the gift of one day to asking very directly what it is you and I plan to do with the gift of our one wild and precious life.

I don’t quite know what to tell her. I’m a little surprised; nobody has asked me anything like it in decades. My initial response is the thought that it’s a question for young men and women but don’t we each give the answer with our lives, each day, each moment, whether we’re sixteen, twenty-seven, forty-two, or ninety-four?

“Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?” Oliver asks. First Peter isn’t poetry, it’s prose and praise, but in the passage we heard this morning it walks with us into very similar territory. “The end of all things is near,” it says. “Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray. Above all, maintain constant love for one another.” Faced with the nearness of the end of all things, we are to be alert, awake, attentive, and of sober, uncluttered and disciplined mind so that we may pray. Faced with the nearness of the end of all things, we are to be attentive to the precious gift of each moment and each day, so we may receive and live it well, which is, according to First Peter, prayerfully. We receive and live the gift with gratitude to the Giver, so that God may be glorified in all things. And, above all, we live the gift of life by loving one another.

First Peter brings up hospitality in order to unfold further love’s meaning in the community of believers. In the early years of the church hospitality was an essential aspect of worship and fellowship; believers who owned homes had to be willing to open the doors for the church to gather on the Lord’s Day and on other occasions to worship, to eat, and to collect and distribute resources for the poor. And if families had a spare bedroom, they were expected to let itinerant church workers stay with them. At the end of his letter to the Romans, in a little half-sentence that tells us a lot about congregational life in the first century, the Apostle Paul sends greetings from “Gaius, who is host to me and to the whole church” (Rom 16:23). Love in the household of God means hospitality: welcoming the family of God into one’s home and caring for each of them with the gifts of wash basin and towel, of food and drink, blanket and pillow.

Be hospitable to one another without complaining – this attitude of generous welcome easily translates into other areas of life together: people making room for each other, people letting the needs of others determine their actions, people making space for new and unfamiliar customs and ideas, people giving each other space to grow and change. Hospitality is love’s demand not merely for those who own large homes and whose pantries are always well-stocked for company; all members of God’s household, all whom Jesus calls his brothers and sisters are to be hospitable and generous.

“Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.” This isn’t poetry, but it’s beautiful prose; it’s gospel prose. We’re invited to see ourselves not as owners, earners, or consumers as the dominant narratives of our culture relentlessly suggest. We’re invited to see ourselves as recipients of gifts whose Giver is generous beyond compare, and we’re asked to consider how to make use of these gifts in ways that honor the Giver.

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Now that I’ve had a little time to think about it, the question no longer renders me speechless. I want to live so as to discover every layer, every aspect of the manifold grace of God. I want to explore its immeasurable depth and width and height; I want to see, taste, feel, hear, and smell manifold grace; I want to walk in it, float in it, dig in it, bathe in it; I want to name it, sing it, praise it— manifold, manifold grace. In the company of Jesus, I want to know all that I’ve been given and I want to give and be part of the giving, to the glory of God.

The universe, the galaxies, the earth, the soil, the air, the ocean, and all living things – what a marvelous thing to be alive and be part of it all! Stewardship is such a dry, withered word, taken from the dictionary of management, when wonder is called for, and praise and care. The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; and we’re all every creature, from the largest to the smallest recipients of the manifold grace of God. The depth of this grace has been revealed to us in the life and death of Jesus. We find ourselves addressed by the risen Christ as friends and co-conspirators of the kingdom, and we are given the joyful privilege and awesome responsibility to let the manifold witness of our life together become a complete reflection of the glory of God. Stewardship isn’t just about the checks we write — it’s about the life we live together in Christ. It’s about all the ways in which we give ourselves to this new life by serving one another in the one household of God.

Earlier in First Peter, in chapter 2, we read, “Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” And what is it we offer? Our attention, our wonder, our praise, our moments and our days, the work of our hands and the meditations of our hearts, all that we’ve been given: the manifold grace of God.


[1] Mary Oliver, House of Light (Boston: Beacon Press, 1990), 60. For a little background, see https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/mary-oliver#about and http://maryoliver.beacon.org/

Looking for audio of older sermons? Check out our Sermon Audio Archive.

The fire of God

Many Waters is a song Julie Lee first released in 2000, on an album recorded in the chapel at Downtown Presbyterian Church. It was the first song of hers I ever heard, and I became a fan the moment I heard her voice soar into the chorus the first time. I used to play it in the car and sing harmony in that little sanctuary of song, and when it was over, I felt like I’d been to church. No, I’m not going to play it, let alone sing it; I want to share some of the lyrics with you:

Love, set me as a seal upon your heart

As a seal upon your arm

Love’s as strong as death

Oh love’s as strong as death

Jealousy, well it’s as cruel as the grave

It consumes you like a fire

With an unforgiving flame

Then the chorus:

Oh but love,

Many waters cannot quench it

Many waters cannot drown it

When it’s true…[1]

Some of you studied Song of Songs this morning in Sunday school, and perhaps you heard echoes of that beautiful collection of love poetry in these lyrics.[2] Many Waters is a song for lovers as well as a passionate affirmation of faith for God’s Easter people; it plays beautifully on both levels. Love’s as strong as death, oh, love’s as strong as death – that is what we see when we look to the cross; that is what we see when we remember Jesus laying down his life for his friends, loving God, loving his disciples, loving all of us: love as strong as death. And then, on the third day, the Easter chorus rises, Oh but love, many waters cannot quench it, many waters cannot drown it – because love is stronger than death, and the life laid down in love is raised, and new life washes the world in joy and hope.

First John, from which one of today’s readings was taken, was written for communities whose faith and life together had been shaped strongly by the Gospel of John. We commonly refer to First John as a letter, but it’s more like a sermon on the great themes of the Gospel of John, a sermon written during trying times when theological differences in the community had led to deeper divisions and fractures.

There are two great themes in that Gospel: One, Jesus Christ is the full revelation of God’s own self. And two, Jesus commands those who believe in him to love one another. And the two are inseparable. Toward the end of today’s reading from First John it says, “This is God’s commandment, that we should believe in the name of God’s Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as Jesus has commanded us.”[3] It’s a single commandment, combining the two themes in a union of belief and action, heart and hand, knowing ourselves to be loved and loving one another. In Julie’s song, it’s “set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm,” because the love of God, the love revealed in the life of Jesus, is meant to redeem and renew the core of our identity, the heart, the defining center of who we are, as well as all that flows from it, namely our thinking, speaking, and doing. The Venerable Bede, an English monk who lived from 672 to 735, wrote

Note that here John gives us only one commandment, though he goes on in the next verse to speak about commandments in the plural, adding love to faith, since these can hardly be separated from each other. For in truth it is impossible to love one another in the right way if we do not have faith in Christ, just as it is impossible to believe in the name of Christ if we do not love one another.[4]

Some three-hundred years earlier, Jerome, a priest and scholar mostly remembered for his translation of the Bible into Latin, wrote,

When the [Apostle] John could no longer walk to the meetings of the church but was borne [there] by his disciples, he always uttered the same address to the church; he reminded them of that one commandment which he had received from Christ himself, as comprising all the rest, and forming the distinction of the new covenant, “My little children, love one another.” When the brethren [and sistren] present, wearied of hearing the same thing so often, asked why he always repeated the same thing, he replied, “Because it is the commandment of the Lord, and if this one thing be attained, it is enough.”[5]

You see, there’s a theme being played and replayed from generation to generation, from the Song of Songs to the life of Jesus, to the Gospel of John, to First John, to Jerome and the Venerable Bede, to countless sermons in countless gatherings of the church, to Julie’s song, and to this preacher’s retelling of it all, it’s a theme connecting all of life from the dawn of creation to its completion in glory, and the theme is love – love pouring from the heart of God and flowing without ceasing to the day when we, in countless variations, love one another the way we are loved.

“I give you a new commandment,” Jesus said, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”[6] And the writer of First John picks it up and tells us, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us — and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”[7] Jesus is the pattern. Laying down our lives for one another has a heroic ring to it, doesn’t it? What comes to mind are Christian martyrs bravely stepping into the arena to meet the lions. What comes to mind are men and women in exceptional circumstances, demonstrating exceptional faith and love. Martin Luther King, Jr., murdered in Memphis for his vision of the beloved community, laid down his life for us. Bishop Oscar Romero, murdered at the altar during mass for his witness to Christ’s love during years of government-sponsored terror in El Salvador, laid down his life for us. Sister Rani Maria, murdered by a hitman for her work with the landless poor in India, laid down her life for us. But laying down their lives wasn’t a single, heroic act of martyrdom; it was their life.

Jesus is the pattern, and Jesus didn’t wait until government and religious leaders came together in uncommon accord to condemn and execute him. He laid down his life for us from the beginning. With every word of his, with every gesture and touch, with every step, every breath he laid down his life for us.

How do we lay down our lives for one another? In First John, the answer is given in the form of a question: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?” We lay down our lives for one another, not in rare heroic moments, but in the everyday encounters of each week. It begins with seeing a brother or sister in need and not turning away. She is thirsty? We give her something to drink. He is hungry? We give him something to eat. They are strangers? We invite them to stay. Laying down our lives for one another we begin to see our lives and theirs — whoever they may be and whatever labels the world may have pinned on them — we begin to see our lives and theirs not as separate, but as inseparably connected in the love of God. We lay down our desire to live for ourselves. We lay aside our claim to own our lives and we let ourselves be re-created in the likeness of Christ.

In his essay An Experiment in Love, Dr. King writes about

an overflowing love which is purely spontaneous, unmotivated, groundless, and creative. It is not set in motion by any quality or function of its object. It is the love of God operating in the human heart. It is a love in which [individuals seek] not [their] own good, but the good of [their neighbors]. [Such love] does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people, or any qualities people possess. It begins by loving others for their sakes. It is entirely “neighbor-regarding concern for others,” which discovers the neighbor in every [person] it meets. … [It] makes no distinction between friend and enemy; it is directed toward both.[8]

Dr. King calls this unsentimental love “a willingness to go any length to restore community.”[9] We see and receive this kind of unsentimental love in Christ, and we participate in it in countless, everyday ways.

There’s a fire burning in the world, a fire the shroud of death cannot suppress, a fire the violence of the oppressor cannot smother, a fire sin cannot snuff. Many waters cannot quench it. Many waters cannot drown it. It’s the fire that lit the bush where Moses took off his sandals. It illumined a path in the the night for the Hebrew slaves on their way to freedom. It burned in the hearts of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. It flickers brightly wherever people stand up and raise their heads in hope. It’s the fire of God. May it burn in our hearts and illumine our path.


[1] Julie Lee / Country Gentlemen Music Pub. / SESAC / 2000. See https://julielee.org/music for all her recordings.

[2] See Song of Solomon 8:6-7

[3] 1 John 3:23

[4] On 1 John, Patrologia Latina 93: 105.

[5] Jerome (347–420), Comment. in Ep. ad Galat. c. vi.

[6] John 13:34

[7] 1 John 3:16

[8] Testament of Hope, 19,

[9] Ibid., 20.

Looking for audio of older sermons? Check out our Sermon Audio Archive.

Irrevocably claimed

Where do I begin? Do I begin by telling you how sad I am? How much I will miss working with Hope and Greg? Do I tell you how we met over twenty years ago because of this congregation and the kind of witness and ministry it offers in this city?

Or do I begin by talking about how you’re feeling? It’s been over twenty years for me, so for some of you that’s for as long as you have been alive. Some of you have told me how sad you are, how angry, how you wish there had been another way. Others among you, I imagine, haven’t even begun to name the weight that’s pressing down on your shoulders or the heaviness at the bottom of your stomach. Where do we begin?

“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are,” we read in First John. Gathering in worship, hearing the witness of scripture, and affirming our faith we claim our true identity as children of God.

“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” This is the language of astonishment, wonder, and praise: children of God is what we’re properly called, and that is what we actually are, because of the love that has claimed us as God’s own. This is where we begin. We remember who and whose we are – with astonishment, wonder, and praise. We know our brokenness; we each feel the weight of the twisted self-images offered by our culture; many of us also carry layers of betrayal, abuse, and lies – but our true identity has been written on our skin and in our bones: child of God. Remember who and whose you are.

Desmond Tutu is the retired Archbishop of Cape Town and one of the great souls who help us remember. He was talking with Krista Tippett, and recalling three hundred years of colonial oppression in South Africa and the decades of struggle against apartheid, he mentioned the Bible. He talked about the discovery how the Bible could be such dynamite. Dynamite, he said, and he said it with an explosion of laughter, beautiful, infectious, full-of-Easter laughter. “If these white people had intended keeping us under they shouldn’t have given us the Bible.” Colonial rule and apartheid sought to mislead people into believing that the dignity of a human being was dependent on ethnicity or skin-color. But on the very first page the Bible declares that we are created in the image of God, and that has revolutionary consequences for any system of oppression.

Bishop Tutu talked about a small parish he served in Soweto while working for the South African Council of Churches. Most of the parishioners were domestic workers in the big homes of white families in Johannesburg. It was common for the white employers never to use a black worker’s name, even though they worked in their home every day. Their names, these employers said, were too difficult. And so women would be called “Annie” and most black men would be called “boy.” You know that nobody calls a grown man boy because his name is too difficult. And you know that nobody denies a woman her own name except to remind her that who she is is not up to her to detemine but to those who call her by whatever name they please. But in that small parish in Soweto they helped each other remember who and whose they were: We are God-carriers. We are God’s partners. We are created in the image of God. See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.

The bishop remembered seeing those dear old ladies as they walked out of church as if they were on cloud nine. “You know,” he said, “they walked with their backs slightly straighter … it was amazing.”[1]

This is the dynamite that blows away the layers of lies. See what love the Father has given us to break the chains of sin and death, and set us free.

Where do we begin? We remember who and whose we are, and we walk with our backs slightly straighter on the road to the day when all God’s children dance in glory.

On Easter morning, Kyla, Duke, and Calin were baptized, and as they emerged from the water Dan, Hope, and Greg called them each by name and by the family name we share. Kyla, child of God; Calin, child of God; Duke, child of God: you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever. We come from different places, each with our own story. We come with complex and colorful personalities, with the experiences that have shaped us and our expectations. We come with the lies we have come to believe and the truths we have forgotten – and streams of mercy wash away all that could keep us from being who and whose we really are. In baptism we bathe in the divine assurance that in Christ we have been adopted into one family as children of God. Our true identity is God-given from the beginning and affirmed anew in the sin-conquering, life-healing love of God, revealed to us in Christ. We are irrevocably claimed as God’s own.

“Beloved, we are God’s children now,” we read in First John; ”what we will be has not yet been revealed.” What we will be has not yet been revealed. We begin with who and whose we are, and we let that shape how we move into an unknown future. We trust that we have indeed been irrevocably claimed as God’s own, as children of God and as partners in Christ’s service, both individually and as a community.

What we will be has not yet been revealed, and it would be easy to get bogged down in the what-if’s and the what-might-be’s and other worries. And so we make plans, the best plans we know how to make. And we develop strategies to help us adjust to the changing contexts for our life and ministry. But it’s not our plans and strategies we rely on; it’s the faithfulness of God. And it’s not merely adjustment to changing contexts we seek, as though the contexts determined who we are and what we do. What we must continue to seek is what Dr. King liked to call “creative maladjustment.” “Maladjusted,” he said on more than one occasion, “is the ringing cry to modern child psychology. Certainly, we all want to avoid the maladjusted life. In order to have real adjustment within our personalities, we all want the welladjusted life … But I say to you, my friends, … there are certain things in our nation and in the world [to] which I am proud to be maladjusted and which I hope all [people] of goodwill will be maladjusted until the good society is realized. I say very honestly that I never intend to become adjusted to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry. I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism [and the] selfdefeating effects of physical violence… In other words, I’m about convinced now that there is need for a new organization in our world. The International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment men and women who will be as maladjusted as the prophet Amos, who in the midst of the injustices of his day could cry out in words that echo across the centuries, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”[2]

Men and women who will be as maladjusted as Jesus, because they have found their true identity in being his brothers and sisters, and therefore each other’s brothers and sisters in the one family of God.

“Beloved,” we read in First John, “we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”

In love God has created and redeemed us, and irrevocably claimed us as God’s own; that is who we are. And what will we be? We will be fully what we already are as children of God. We will be called, embraced and sent by the same love. We will be restored, fulfilled and made whole. And we will see the day when we will all be like him who is forever alive with God. What we will be has not yet been revealed, but we move forward with hope.

At the conclusion of this service, you are invited to join a listening circle to share your response to the news that Greg and Hope will offer their gifts for ministry elsewhere after June 3rd. Various leaders will start a circle by holding up a sign, and we ask that you simply flock to them — not all of you to the same two three. We want to keep the circles to no more than 8-10 people to give all ample opportunity to talk and ask questions.

We call them listening circles for a reason; please make room for each other, surround each other with care, and hear each other out. And not just today. In the coming weeks and months we will begin to notice just how much good work Hope and Greg haven been doing, because some of it won’t get done or will only get done with a lot of extra attention and time by others. So the next few weeks will not only give us occasions to say thank you and good bye to two fine ministers, they will also offer us many opportunities to step up, lend a hand, and help us keep the course through these uncharted waters, opportunities to claim anew ministry as the work of the people.

You will soon hear from the Board leadership about plans for a search committee to find an Associate Minister and the details of that process, but not today. It will take time for the full extent of our loss to sink in. Some of us will feel it more than others; every soul moves at its own pace. So be gentle and kind to yourselves and to each other; the work of advancing creative maladjustment in our time is hard, and we need to pace ourselves – emotionally, spiritually, and physically. We need to draw water from the deep wells of God and drink, not just occasionally, but daily, continually.

We need to remember who and whose we are, and take it from there. All that we need for our witness and ministry has been given to us. There is no need to wait until there are more members, or more resources, or more of whatever we might believe is necessary to be church. See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. Already. Today. Now. This is where we begin.[3]


[1] http://being.publicradio.org/programs/2012/tutu-god-of-surprises/transcript.shtml

[2] Excerpt from a speech at Western Michigan University on Dec 18, 1963. Dr. King frequently repeated the theme of “creative maladjustment” in speeches and sermons.

[3] With thanks to Audrey West http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3474

Looking for audio of older sermons? Check out our Sermon Audio Archive.

Easter laughter

Ever read Ecclesiastes? Did you like it? Not my favorite book. The writer of Ecclesiastes must have been having a particularly miserable day when he wrote this maxim: Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of countenance the heart is made glad.[1] I can see him sitting at his desk, dour-faced, and I’m waiting for him to look up and shout, “April fools!” but nothing happens. He just sits there like he’s for real. Most days I just leave him alone. I much rather hang out with the writer of Psalm 118, “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!” or Psalm 126, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy!”

I stumbled upon this little work of poetry that seemed most appropriate for this day when we celebrate the resurrection of the Lord, and our Jewish friends and neighbors celebrate Passover.

This week’s calendar offers surprises
In both Old and New Testament guises:
One God has sufficed
For both matzoh and Christ,
But it’s only the latter that rises.

Easter is the day when laughter is our prayer and our praise, for the Lord has raised Jesus from the dead. Do you know this one?

Two snowmen are standing in the backyard. One says, “Hm.” The other says, “That’s funny, I smell a carrot, too.”

Or this one:

What’s the best thing about Switzerland? I don’t know, but the flag is a big plus.

What’s the difference between a hippo and a zippo? A hippo is really heavy, and a zippo is a little lighter.

Not corny enough?

Murphy’s law says that anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. Cole’s law is thinly sliced cabbage.

And an old favorite:

A horse walks into a bar and the bartender says, “Why the long face?”

Not funny? Let me tell you a story about the KKK:

In 1953, Eldon Edwards formed the U.S. Klan’s, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, in Atlanta. He attracted few members until the following year, when the Supreme Court ordered school integration in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education and many whites throughout the South were determined to oppose the law and maintain segregation. By September 1956, Edwards was host to one of the largest Klan rallies in years, drawing 3,000 members to Stone Mountain, the site of the rebirth of the Klan in 1915. By 1958, Edwards’ group had an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 members.[2]

Tom Long grew up in Atlanta, he was a teenager in the 1950s, and every year in the fall, he remembers, on a Saturday, a horrific spectacle would happen. The Klan would gather on Stone Mountain for a ritual of hate during which they would burn a cross. And then they would get in their cars and drive down US 29 into downtown Atlanta honking their horns. And then in downtown Atlanta they would pull their hoods over their faces and they would march down Auburn Avenue. Auburn Avenue was Main Street in black Atlanta. The citizens of Auburn Avenue would lock their doors and shutter their windows for fear of the men under those hoods.

But then in the 60s the civil rights movement began to flower, and the first light of a possibility of a new and different way of living in society began to dawn. One year, fall came around and the Klan did as usual: the burning cross on top of the mountain, the motorcade of hatred down US 29, the robes and the hoods. Then they came to Auburn Avenue, and they started their parade of terror. But this time, the people living on Auburn did not lock their doors, and they did not shutter the windows of their homes and businesses. The citizens of Auburn Avenue stood out on the sidewalk; and, as the Klan went by, they laughed and laughed and laughed. And the Klan has never marched down Auburn Avenue again. The laughter of the redeemed, the laughter of hope toppled the powers and principalities.[3]

God raised Jesus from the dead to redeem us, to fill our hearts with hope and our lips with laughter. God raised Jesus from the dead to teach us how to laugh at the power of the oppressor and at our fear of the oppressor; how to laugh at death and our fear of death, how to laugh at sin’s power to weigh us down with shame, despair, and regret; how to laugh at the devil who thought he had the last laugh when Jesus was brutally executed; God raised Jesus from the dead so all of us would laugh and live and follow the Risen One in the beautiful morning light of the promise that love wins.

The raising of Christ is proved by our courage to rise against death,” writes Jürgen Moltmann. “That is not just a play on words. We show our hope for the life that defeats death in our protest against the manifold forms of death in the midst of life. It is only in the passion for life and our giving of ourselves for its liberation that we entrust ourselves utterly to the God who raises the dead.”[4] The raising of Christ is proved by our courage to rise against death by joining the citizens of Auburn Avenue and laughing with them at the absurd displays of supremacy and exclusion in our streets, our schools, and places of work. We show our hope for the life that defeats death in our protest against the manifold forms of death in the midst of life. But what about Mark’s story?

Mark ends his gospel in midsentence, So [the women] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid … That’s hardly a shout of victory over death. Not exactly a rousing display of courage to rise against death.Why would Mark want to tell us the story of Jesus with such a strange ending?

We have heard and read the whole story, from its beginning to this moment. We were there when Jesus was baptized and the heavenly voice declared, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” We were there when Jesus began proclaiming the good news of God in Galilee. We heard him preach and teach about the kingdom. We watched him inaugurate God’s reign by healing people and breaking bread with them, forgiving their sins and driving out demons. We heard him tell us three times about his death and resurrection. “After I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.”[5] He did tell us, didn’t he? We were there when Jesus prayed in Gethsemane and the disciples couldn’t keep awake. We were there when Judas betrayed him, Peter denied him, and all the disciples deserted him. When Jesus was arrested, questioned, and convicted, mocked, abused, and crucified, we were there. And now we’re here on Easter morning, and we’ve come to the tomb with these three grieving women, and Mark tells us that they too fled, seized by terror and amazement. End of story? No. We’re still here. The story Mark wrote down is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ—and the gospel is still unfolding with us as participants. It’s as though Mark were saying, “This is my story, now you tell it from here.”

The women were terrified. Something had gone wrong – or had gone so right they couldn’t take it in. There was the word that Jesus had been raised. And there was the word about a new life for them: Leave the tomb. Tell the disciples; tell even Peter. The risen Lord is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.

God had raised the body of Jesus to new life and by doing so, God had reversed the whole order of reality itself – of time and history, of life and death. God had raised Jesus from the dead, but for the three women, the new order of reality had only begun to sink in. And so they fled and said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. If Jesus ends up rejected, crucified, dead, and buried – it may break your heart, but it also confirms everything you have suspected about the world all along. It’s a Friday world, after all: Might makes right. Blessed are those who take what they want. The meek inherit nothing at all, except the scorn of the bullies.

But if we can open our fearful hearts to the promise and the new reality of this glorious day, Easter laughter floods this Friday world with hope, and we are given the courage to follow the Lord of life on the way. We know that at some point those three women started laughing and following, or Mark wouldn’t have had a story to tell.

“Easter,” writes Moltmann, “is the beginning of the laughter of the redeemed and the dance of the liberated … Since earliest times Easter hymns have celebrated the victory of life by laughing at death, by mocking at hell, and by making the lords of this world absurd.”[6]

God raised Jesus from the dead so all of us would laugh and live and follow the Risen One in the beautiful morning light of the promise that love wins.

So, here’s the question that Eastertide begs:
Is is all about candy and eggs?
No, the point to be praised
Is that Christ has been raised
And death taken down a few pegs.


[1] Eccl 7:3

[2] https://www.splcenter.org/20110228/ku-klux-klan-history-racism#fear%20and%20violence

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ahr8a2Cla-M

[4] Jürgen Moltmann, Experiences of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007), 32.

[5] Mk 14:28

[6] Jürgen Moltmann, Experiences of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007), 32-33.

Looking for audio of older sermons? Check out our Sermon Audio Archive.

A conversion of the imagination

Thousands were on the roads to Jerusalem for Passover, actually hundreds of thousands. Pilgrims converged on the city from all directions, and there must have been sheep everywhere, the closer you got to the temple. More than 250,000 lambs would be slaughtered in the temple for the Passover meal, one for each family or groups of friends who had made the journey together.[1]

During Passover, the population of Jerusalem quadrupled – there were people everywhere! Residents opened their homes to welcome the pilgrims as their guests – some because hospitality was a sacred duty, others because short-term rental provided a little extra income. The city was packed, and those who couldn’t stay in the city, camped in the hills or found lodging in the surrounding villages.

The roads around Jerusalem were full of people men, women, children, most of them on foot, all of them looking forward to the festival, sharing the joy and hope of remembering how the Lord had brought them out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and had led them to the land of promise. It was slow-moving traffic, much slower than 440 during rush hour, but in my imagination I see a cheerful throng, a happy crowd, people talking and laughing, sharing food and water, helping each other find the children that inevitably got lost in the crowd – and on the last few miles, when they could see the city from afar, the temple glistening like snow under the bright spring sun, on the last few miles they sang the songs of Zion, songs of longing and fulfillment.

Jesus and the disciples must have been in the middle of that joyful traffic jam several times that year; they were staying in Bethany, a small village just a couple of miles from the city, on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives. Jesus had told the disciples up in Galilee, long before they began the journey south, what awaited him in Jerusalem – he told them repeatedly, but they were unable to hear or grasp what he said when he spoke of rejection, betrayal, torture, and death, let alone being raised.[2] James and John heard him talk about his humiliation at the hands of the Jewish and Roman authorities, but all they could think about was who would get to sit in the seats of power at Jesus’ right hand and his left. One more time Jesus taught them how greatness was about servanthood, but who knows if his words really sank in.[3]

Now they were approaching Jerusalem, and a very curious sequence of scenes began to unfold. Jesus sent two of his disciples to go and get him a colt. His instructions were very clear and detailed: where to go, what kind of animal to look for, to untie it, even what to say should anybody ask them what they were doing and why. And then everything happened just as Jesus had said it would: they went away, found the colt tied near a door, began to untie it; bystanders asked, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” and they told them what Jesus had told them to say, “The Lord needs it and will send it back immediately.”

Now imagine this: a couple of guys show up in your neighbor’s driveway, and you watch as they open the door to the car, and they’re looking for the keys behind the visor what do you say?

“Excuse me. What are you doing? Can I help you find something?”

One of them looks at you over his shoulder and says, “The Lord needs it and will send it back immediately.”

“Oh, the Lord needs it, well, in that case, go ahead and take it.”

Sounds slightly surreal, doesn’t it? But the point is, as surreal as the scene may seem, Jesus told them what would occur, and then it happened exactly as he had said. Jesus knew what lay ahead, he really did, and he made careful preparations for his entry into the city. And he wasn’t the only one.

Every year, in time for Passover, the Roman governor moved his headquarters from Caesarea by the sea to Jerusalem. Passover made the empire very nervous. Large crowds were difficult to control under any circumstance, but add the hopeful memory of Israel’s liberation from Pharaoh’s yoke, and the situation could turn quickly from joyful worship to revolt. So Rome made its presence and power known. The governor, Pontius Pilate, entered the city riding on the biggest horse he could find in his stable. Behind him, elite soldiers on horseback, followed by row after row of foot soldiers. The pilgrims stepped off the road so the long column could pass through. They saw the banners on poles topped with gleaming eagles, they saw helmets and spears reflecting the sunlight; they could hear the beating of drums long before they saw anything, the could hear the clopping of the horses, the rhythmic beat of soldiers’ feet, the clanging of metal against metal.

The parade was designed to impress and intimidate. Rome knew how to project power and quell any outbursts of enthusiasm that might escalate into a governor’s nightmare. The heavy wooden beams that would be used to crucify the most dangerous troublemakers in the name of the Emperor had already been stacked at the governor’s headquarters; Rome was prepared.

On the other side of the city, the disciples brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. It was a red carpet, and the colt was a throne.

It was a parade, a procession, with people in front and behind shouting acclamations, Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! And Jesus didn’t say a word. He didn’t tell them to be quiet, he didn’t correct them like he had done before.

He entered the city, went to the temple, looked around, and then he went back to Bethany with the twelve for the night.

Jesus entered the city like a conqueror, but his parade was nothing like the governor’s imperial procession on the eve of Passover, and his conquest was nothing like the conquests of other rulers. The words of the prophet Zechariah surround this scene with the hope of generations, “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey...”[4] Triumphant and victorious – that’s our kind of king, but look how poor he is: he doesn’t even own a donkey, he had to borrow one for the parade. What kind of king claims the city, the throne, and the kingdom for himself by riding into town on an Uber?

Our own visions of a world made right often have more in common with Pilate’s parade and with imperial dreams of world domination than with the peculiar way of Christ. We get power wrong. And so those of us who wish to follow Jesus on the way celebrate this triumphal entry every year, hoping that this humble savior will convert even our dreams and imaginations.

We call this week ‘holy’ because we enter the mystery of God’s power revealed in the death of Jesus. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” the Apostle Paul urges believers in Philippi. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit … Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”[5]

Such words were rare and foreign in a city like Philippi. The citizens of Philippi cherished their connections to the imperial household, and their privileges as friends of Caesar. Roman culture valued force, competition, and honor-seeking. Humility was not considered a virtue. Roman society, much like ours, was built on the pursuit of status. You move up, and you socialize with the people who can help you move up even higher. You only look around to check out the competition, but you press on, your eyes on the next rung of the ladder, leaving behind those who cannot keep up.

Jesus moves in the opposite direction. Jesus emptied himself, Paul tell us. He humbled himself. He “made himself of no reputation,” as the King James Bible renders the words so beautifully. He reached down, his mind on nothing but the will of God, loving us sinners with a passion and a vulnerability for which we have no words.

We call this week ‘holy’ because the final days of Jesus’ life on earth reveal to us the heart of reality, and it’s not relentless competition in the pursuit of status. It’s God’s relentless love in the pursuit of communion with us.

We call this week ‘holy’ because our humble king died on a cross, and it was to him that God gave the name that is above every name.

We call this week ‘holy’ because in Jesus’ death and resurrection we see love that goes all the way for the life of the world.

Yesterday morning, in downtown Nashville, we had ourselves a parade. Thousands were on the streets, walking from City Hall up to Legislative Plaza and back, marching for our lives, and not just our lives, but our life together. With hundreds of thousands in D.C. and in other cities across the nation we marched for a better vision of our life together. We marched for a common life that isn’t shaped by proud, gun-toting self-assertion, but by care for each other’s well-being.

I can’t speak for all the participants, all the children, women, and men who walked together, laughing, shouting, chatting and chanting, I can’t speak for all of them, but I had Pilate’s parade on my mind, and I knew we were walking in the other procession, the royal procession of Jesus, the humble king of life.


[1] According to Josephus, Jewish Wars 6.9.3.

[2] See Mark 8:31; 9:30-32; 10:32-34

[3] See Mark 10:35-45

[4] Zech 9:9

[5] Phil 2:3-4

Looking for audio of older sermons? Check out our Sermon Audio Archive.

Surrender to love

What do you do when you want to see Jesus? “Hey, Google, show me Jesus.” I tried that, I wasn’t impressed. Perhaps you have better luck with Siri or Alexa?

It’s not terribly difficult to find pictures of Jesus. I did a quick image search, without any filters, and the results were, well, let’s say, interesting. Perhaps you’d be better off getting one of those big, glossy art books from the library, Jesus through the Centuries, or some such title, with pictures of early drawings in the catacombs, medieval book illuminations, icons, renaissance oil paintings, frescoes, statues and murals from cities around the globe. All those representations will tell you how people of different times and places have seen Jesus in their imagination. I expect they did what most of us do when we think about seeing Jesus: they had a collection of pictures in their minds, they were somewhat familiar with the stories about Jesus in the Bible, and they went ahead and created a composite of all those impressions. When you create an image of Jesus in your mind, it’s always a mash-up of what you’ve seen, what you’ve come to know about him, and how you think he looks at you.

To celebrate the new millennium, the National Catholic Reporter invited people to submit original artwork to answer the question, “What would Jesus Christ look like in the year 2000?” The contest was a huge success: The panel of judges received 1,678 representations of Jesus from1,004 artists in 19 countries from six continents.[1]

The winning entry was “Jesus of the People,” by Janet McKenzie, age 51, of Island Pond, VT.

“The painting simply came through me,” she said. “I feel as though I am only a vehicle for its existence.” McKenzie said her work has always walked a “spiritual path.” In the early 1990s, however, she began to feel discomfort with the art she had been producing, mostly images of white women.

“I realized that my nephew, a mixed race African-American of 9 or 10 living in Los Angeles, would never be able to recognize himself in my work,” McKenzie said. “I determined to be more varied, to make a racially inclusive statement.”

Since that time, McKenzie said she has worked with a variety of racial types, and her commitment to inclusivity shines through “Jesus of the People.”

“I decided I would use a female model,” she said, “to incorporate, once and for all, women, who had been so neglected and left out, into this image of Jesus.” The model was an African-American woman from her neighborhood. Despite wearing a crown of thorns, McKenzie’s Jesus does not seem anguished.

“It’s a total acceptance of his fate, and that’s what the painting is about – acceptance,” she said. “I want to remind people of the importance of loving one another. I hope people are able to go to the essence of the work, which is kindness and peace.”[2] This is the Jesus McKenzie sees and wants to show us.

It was on Passover, John tells us, in Jerusalem, when some Greeks came to Philip and said, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” People had been talking about him. Over in Bethany, they said, only days ago, he called a dead man out of the tomb, and he was dead for sure, he had been in that tomb for four days. People were interested, people were curious, and Jesus’ opponents said, with worry in their voices, “Look, the world has gone after him!” (12:19). And as though to prove them right, some Greeks came to Philip and said, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip told Andrew, and then he and Andrew went and told Jesus, and Jesus’ response Jesus’ response leaps out of the story and addresses every last one of us. “The hour has come,” he says, “for the Son of Man to be glorified.”

We’re never told whether these Greeks got their wish. The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. This is where you go, if you wish to see Jesus, John seems to be telling us. He paints a picture for us, a picture of the moment – the hour, he calls it when it is fully revealed who Jesus is. And the first layer of that picture is a brief parable.

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

Falling into the earth, and giving its life, the single grain doesn’t become lifeless.

It becomes fruitful, it participates in the fruit-bearing, seed-producing, life-multiplying fullness of life. Later in the unfolding story of his final days, Jesus talks about branches that bear much fruit because they are connected to the vine. Jesus’ life bears fruit in the lives of the people who abide in him. His own life-giving, selfless love multiplies in the life of all who believe in him, all who serve and follow him.

The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the witnesses tell us – the glory of life and light, of grace and truth, the glory of God’s boundless love. With all that he is and does in the world, Jesus embodies divine love for the world, the same love that unites him and the one he calls Father. These relationships are his life: the world and all who live in it and God. Now the hour has come for the Father to glorify his name and for the Son to be glorified in death and resurrection. Now the hour has come to reveal the unbreakable bond of their love.

No matter what the forces of evil will do to Jesus, they will not take from him his love for God. He will lay down his life in free, surrendering love – surrendering not to the powers of the world, but to God and to the promise of a world where love reigns supreme, a world fully at home in the intimacy of their relationship. He will lay down his life in sovereign love for God and his friends, with his death not the tragic end of a beautiful life, but the complete gift of his beautiful life for the glory of God and the life of the world.

Those who love their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

Jesus isn’t calling us to be life-haters. He calls us to be lovers of life in the fullest sense of the word. In John, the word hate means reject, and it typically refers to what the world does to Jesus and his friends: it rejects the life Jesus embodies and proclaims, and it clings to its own definition of life as a small and isolated existence, ruled by fear and self-centered obsessions.

Those who love life and live in love in the company of Jesus will reject that stunted version of life and its hatreds. They will embrace life in communion with God.

The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified, and the hour presents the world with an urgent choice: Will we respond with faith to the invitation to find life in communion with God? Or will we cling to the promises of the ruler of this world?

Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.

John has added another detail to his portrait of Jesus. The world and its ruler will sit in judgment and condemn Jesus to death by crucifixion. He must die because domination, violence, and death are the world’s ways under its ruler’s reign, and all that does not fit must be eliminated. And Jesus does not fit. There’s no room in this ruler’s world order for fearless truth-telling or self-less service or table-flipping temple-cleansing. Jesus can’t be silenced. Jesus can’t be bought. Jesus must die.

“If my kingdom were from this world,” Jesus later tells one of his judges, “my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over.” But his kingdom isn’t from this world. His kingdom is the end of this world.

He lets the world have its way with him. And he refuses to respond in the ruler’s own violent terms. He lays down his life and dies. He dies as though the devil were in charge. He dies as though sin, violence and fear would continue to have the last word.

McKenzie painted a picture of Jesus who shows total acceptance of his fate. But Jesus was no believer in fate. He entrusted himself completely to the love that holds this rebellious world in its wide embrace.

The cross looked for all the world like the judgment of Jesus, but it was God’s judgment of this world and its ruler. The cross revealed the institutional captivity of our religion, the violence at the heart of our justice, and our willingness to do just about anything for the sake of political convenience.

But the other side of that story, the other side of this picture in which we see Jesus as well as ourselves revealed, the other side is the deeper truth: Jesus was lifted up on the cross, he was lifted up in the resurrection, he was lifted up in the ascension and lifted up from the earth, he continued to draw all people to himself, to life in fullness, to life in communion with God. He continues to draw women, men, and children from every tribe and nation into the community of believers who participate in God’s liberating and reconciling work.

What do you do when you want to see Jesus? You follow him.

“Where I am, there will my servant be also,” he says.

You let yourself be drawn to him. You let yourself be drawn more deeply into the kingdom that is not from this world, but for the world and its life.

You renounce the ruler of this world and embrace the life of Jesus. You renounce the logic of domination, violence, and fear and you surrender in love to love. You surrender in love to the love that breathes life into dust.


[1] https://www.ncronline.org/jesus-2000

[2] http://natcath.org/NCR_Online/archives2/1999d/122499/122499a.htm Please follow the link to see the picture.

Looking for audio of older sermons? Check out our Sermon Audio Archive.

Alive with Christ

“You were dead,” the apostle writes to the Ephesians. What an odd thing to say. I don’t think I would ever have spoken these words had the apostle not made me say them. You were dead. People may say these words in the third person, “He is dead” or in the past tense, “She was already dead.” But to say, “You were dead” is rather odd, because generally we only speak to the living, to those we expect to hear our words and for whom has death ever been a past reality? We are used to thinking of death as what awaits us all, but not as a situation in the past which a person might recall when somebody tells them, “You were dead.”

The apostle wrote to Christians in Ephesus, reminding them of their life before they knew Christ, before they were baptized and became members in the body of Christ. You were dead, he writes. You were following a way of life so far removed from life, it can only be called death. You were following the course of the world. You were captive to cultural and spiritual forces that were beyond your control, powers that drained the life out of you. You were pushed and pulled by relentless currents, obedient to desires of the flesh, heeding every inclination that led away from God, aimless and helpless to extricate yourselves. You were dead.

All of us once lived like that, children of disobedience, strangers to the covenants of promise, playthings tossed around by systems, forces, trends, and fads. We were dead, and the dead can’t do anything for themselves. They are done doing anything.

Then, in v. 4, the apostle writes two words that signal the great reversal in the history of humankind, “But God.” We were dead, but God, rich in mercy and with love beyond our imagining, made us alive together with Christ. By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing: it is the gift of God. It’s not something you did that you can be proud of, but rather something you can only receive like life itself. We are God’s accomplishment. We have been created anew to show what God can do through Jesus Christ, and to do the good things which reflect the gracious love of God. We have been created anew to live the life of Christ as members of his body.

As a season of the church year, Lent has its beginnings in the ancient tradition of preparing candidates for baptism. For forty days, they fasted, prayed, and studied, seeking to ready themselves for entering the Christian life in the darkness before Easter morning. The opening chapters of Ephesians are widely regarded as a portion of an early baptismal liturgy, and what is being impressed on the candidates is not what they need to do, but what God has done. To enter the Christian life, we are told along with them and all who came after them, to enter the Christian life is to entrust oneself to the current of God’s grace, both as a recipient of its healing and redemptive movement and as a participant in channeling its unceasing flow to the parched places where life is distorted, fragmented and broken. To enter the Christian life is to step into the history of God’s people, to join the great cloud of witnesses who proclaim the mighty acts of God; it is to say we were in Egypt, we were in the wilderness, we were in exile, we were in Bethlehem and Jerusalem, in Antioch and Ephesus and Rome, in Wittenberg and Cane Ridge. The story of God’s people becomes our story because Jesus Christ has embraced every last one of us with compassion and forgiveness, because no one is excluded from the solidarity of his love.

In him, the reign of sin comes to an end in what at first looked like sin’s ultimate triumph yet was revealed as its demise: Christ was crucified, he died, he was buried, and he was raised and enthroned at the right hand of God.

To be a Christian, according to the testimony of our text, is to be made alive together with him. It is to be crucified with Jesus, to die with him, to be buried with him, to be raised with him and be enthroned with him. To be a Christian is to let him make his life ours just as he made our death his.

Baptism into Christ is deeply personal, but the ultimate horizon of the resurrection is cosmic in scale. In ancient mediterranean cosmologies, the universe consisted of a subterranean region, the earth and the heavens, and several layers between earth and heaven; this is what the apostle is referring to when he writes about this world and the heavenly places. Every layer of this multi-tiered universe, according to Ephesians, is inhabited and ruled by powers hostile to the purposes of God. The letter’s first audience had no trouble imagining a demonic ruler of the power of the air. We do not commonly describe that which drives us to destructive behavior against each other and ourselves as an independent power; but we know well how people can be trapped in ideologies and structures and not know it. We can be caught in deadly systems and we are and be convinced that life’s just like that, or worse, that it’s supposed to be like that. We may not need saving from the ruler of the power of the air, but we do need saving because we live in a world estranged from its maker, with myths and idols that have arrogated to themselves the place of our story and our God. And without God, without God’s story of life, we become confused about who we are and how we are to participate in the miracle of life.

But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ … and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places.

In the cosmology of Ephesians, the powers that confuse us about who we are and what life is, inhabit the air between earth and the moon, hence the name, ruler of the power of the air. But Christ has been raised and seated beyond them – and we with him. This doesn’t mean we’ve been taken out of the world – obviously we haven’t. But with Christ we know who we are as God’s own, and with Christ we discover how to live as free servants of God rather than in bondage to the powers that oppress us.

For redemption in Christ to be complete, it must range as far and wide, as high and deep as the forces of evil. That it does indeed do so is the great promise of God’s vindication of the Crucified One. For all their power to cripple, control and alienate, all hostilities in the universe will not only cease ultimately, but will be reconciled.[1]

Every baptism is an act of faith, a testimony to the liberating power of the resurrection and to Christ as the revelation of what it means to be a human being. Few of us see the world the way people in antiquity did, but the image of being seated with Christ, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, still speaks to us: All that robs us of life, all that could ever get between us and the life God has intended for us and the whole creation, has been overcome by the love of God in Christ. Christ has made us his own, and through him we live in communion with God.

For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

When all is ended, by the grace of God, we are not what we have made of ourselves and of each other, but what God has made us. When all is ended, by the grace of God, life is not what we have made of it, but what God created it to be. So our being seated with Christ in the heavenly places doesn’t mean we have been removed from he world, spiritually or otherwise. We are created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. The redeemed life is not about being rescued out of the world, but about being in the world and walking the path that has been prepared for us. Every human life has good works as its purpose, which means every person has a divine calling: to follow a way of life that reflects the mercy of God, that is to walk with Christ, to work with Christ, to be alive with Christ.

We read portions of Psalm 107 this morning; it is a song with a recurring refrain, calling on the redeemed to thank the Lord for his steadfast love. The psalm sings of people wandering in desert wastes, hungry and thirsty, their souls fainting within them.

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress; he led them by a straight way until they reached an inhabited town.

At first glance, that straight way is simply the shortest way out of the desert. But at second glance, we recognize that straight way as the way of life God has prepared for us to lead us from the desert wastes to the community where life flourishes.

The psalm goes on to sing of some that sat in darkness and in gloom, prisoners in misery and in irons; they fell down, with no one to help.

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress; he brought them out of darkness and gloom, and broke their bonds asunder.

At first glance, that verse is about getting out of prison. But at second glance, it is about all of us who are trapped in lives that are neither our own, nor God’s—until God breaks our bonds. Yes, we were dead through the trespasses and sins in which we once lived, but God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ. Thanks be to God.


[1] With thanks to Fred Craddock https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2003-03/god-god

Looking for audio of older sermons? Check out our Sermon Audio Archive.

Articles of liberty

The late Justice Antonin Scalia once said, during oral arguments before the Supreme Court, “I think 90 percent of Americans believe in the Ten Commandments. And I bet 85 percent couldn’t tell you what the 10 are.”[1] He was probably right. The question before the court was whether certain displays of the Ten Commandments in public spaces violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. It’s a complicated question, and the Court’s rulings so far have boiled down to an equally complicated “depends.”

The Ten Commandments have not been in the headlines much recently, although the State Senate in Alabama voted again, just last week, in favor of allowing the Ten Commandments to be displayed on public property. The bill’s sponsor, State Senator Gerald Dial, stressed the importance of placing the symbol on public property, including at public schools, because it could cause a potential student shooter to rethink their attack plans. “I believe that if you had the Ten Commandments posted in a prominent place in school, it has the possibility to prohibit some student from taking action to kill other students,” Dial told the Alabama Reporter. The bill proposes a constitutional amendment that would allow the Ten Commandments or other religious symbols to “be displayed in a manner that complies with constitutional requirements, including, but not limited to, being intermingled with historical or educational items, or both, in a larger display.”[2]

I don’t know if the Senator hopes that students walking by such a display in the hallway on a daily basis will over time absorb the good words or if he envisions an armed invader who might lay eyes on the words, “You shall not murder,” and suddenly realize that the plans he had been hatching in his heart went against the will of God. I honor and respect the Senator’s desire to help shape communities and individuals who respect life and law, but there are many more things he and his colleagues can do to reduce violence, things that students, parents, teachers, and law enforcement officials have supported for years.

The Ten Commandments have gained weight as cultural icons, displayed as yard signs in front of suburban homes and as stickers on the tail gates of trucks, but as texts that actually inform the moral reasoning of people and communities they don’t seem to get much play. Tom Long suggested that for many proponents of their public display, “the commandments are heavy yokes to be publicly placed on the necks of a rebellious society.”[3] For such an understanding of the Decalogue, the piece of granit on which the words are to be engraved cannot be too monumental. It appears that we have forgotten that the gods of Egypt and Babylon were heavy idols, and that the God Jews and Christians worship is the One who brought Israel out of Egypt and brought them back from Babylon.

What we have come to call the Ten Commandments are words of great weight, but they are not burdensome. They weren’t given to weigh people down, but to equip them for a life in freedom as people of God. They are words spoken by God to the people whom God freed from bondage. They begin with a preamble, and it doesn’t say, “I am God. Here are ten rules. Obey them.” The first word declares, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

They had escaped, and they were clear on only two things. They would no longer submit to the brick quotas of Pharaoh’s empire. And the Holy One who had freed them was the great new fact and force in their life. It was this God of liberation and promise who had demanded of Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” and now they were free. “Let my people go,” the Lord demanded, “that they may serve me.”[4] The Holy One had broken the oppressive bonds of Egypt, and now, at Sinai, God offered to make the exchange of bondage for bonding permanent in covenant – in a constitution of freedom that would allow the former slaves to flourish as God’s people in the land of God’s promise. The words God spoke at Sinai are as much declarations of freedom or articles of liberty as they are commandments:

Because the Lord is your God, you are free from serving other gods. Because the Lord is your God, you are free from the tyranny of lifeless idols. Because the Lord is your God, you are free to rest on the seventh day; free to honor covenants between generations and spouses; free to live without killing, stealing, lying, or coveting; free to live in covenant and not in bondage.

The freedom of God’s people is not spelled out as autonomy, but as loyalty to God, as a commitment to the promises and purposes of the God who brought Israel out of the house of slavery, the God who raised Jesus from the dead.

The Ten Commandments aren’t a set of ten memorable and somewhat intuitive rules to make life better for everybody or to ensure greater morality in a society where many believe morality is on the decline. They belong entirely within the story and history of God’s covenant with Israel, a covenant God opened to Gentiles through Jesus, so all may know the freedom of the children of God. The commandments belong with the people who continue to tell the story, the people who continue to hear it and live it in synagogues and churches.

Posting the Ten Commandments in our children’s classrooms or in the hallways of their schools won’t help them learn that killing and stealing are wrong. But they might learn something else, something very destructive for the life of our communities. Martin Marty wrote several years ago that the fights about posting the Ten Commandments, with the first commandment ruling out the beliefs of many children in classrooms or of many adults in court, are, in the end, not about religion. “There are plenty of places to post the Ten; the reason [significant numbers of people] want them in public places … is about who belongs and who doesn’t, who gets to set the terms and who has to adhere to them.”[5] Turned into cultural icons on the walls of our schools, between the flag and the Declaration of Independence, the Ten Commandments may teach some of our children how to tell our children who are Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist, “We were here first and you have to play by our rules!” As cultural icons, the Ten Commandments are in danger of becoming symbols of supremacy and oppression, the very opposite of their purpose as articles of liberty.

The display of the commandments in order to have them visible and continuously before us is a good idea, just not in court rooms, public schools, or metro offices. The best places for posting the Ten are in the settings where the mighty acts of God are proclaimed, where the story of Passover and the story of Easter are sung and told and studied, where God’s people gather to enter the story of redemption in order to live it more fully. The best places for posting the Ten are synagogues and churches.

How, then, will the commandments shape life in our schools and communities, State Senator Gerald Dial might ask, if we don’t give them a prominent place in those public spaces? The commandments impact our schools and communities through the people who receive their moral and spiritual formation in churches and synagogues, the people who hear all these words God spoke and continues to speak, the words at Sinai, the parables of the kingdom, the words of resurrection and discipleship.

God frees us from the powers that hold us in bondage – from the exploitation and abuse in Pharaoh’s brick yards to the oppression by guilt, fear, and shame. God frees us and draws us into the covenant of freedom – men, women, and children, students, parents, teachers, and state senators: Because the Lord is our God, we are free from serving other gods; we are free to participate in God’s mission of redemption and reconciliation, wherever we are.

Folks in our schools have been on my mind in recent weeks, and I’ve often thought about Calin, Duke, and Kyla, and other young people who are preparing for baptism. What does active shooter preparedness mean for followers of Jesus? They will have to sort that out, and I hope we can help them do that important work – important for them, for the church, and for the world and its future. I was reminded of going to confirmation class when I was about their age. We studied the catechism then, something that has gone out of style in Christian formation, mostly for good reasons. So, thinking about what our children and the rest of us are facing, I reread the passages dealing with the Ten Commandments, and I was touched by the wisdom and care I found expressed there. I’m reading from the Heidelberg Catechism:

Q. 105 What is God’s will for you in the sixth commandment?

A. I am not to belittle, hate, insult, or kill my neighbor— not by my thoughts, my words, my look or gesture, and certainly not by actual deeds— and I am not to be party to this in others; rather, I am to put away all desire for revenge. I am not to harm or recklessly endanger myself either. Prevention of murder is also why government is armed with the sword. …

Q. 106 Does this commandment refer only to murder?

A. By forbidding murder God teaches us that he hates the root of murder: envy, hatred, anger, vindictiveness. In God’s sight all such are disguised forms of murder. …

Q. 107 Is it enough then that we do not murder our neighbor in any such way?

A. No. By condemning envy, hatred, and anger God wants us to love our neighbors as ourselves, to be patient, peace-loving, gentle, merciful, and friendly toward them, to protect them from harm as much as we can, and to do good even to our enemies.

Because the Lord is our God, we are free from serving other gods. We are free to find fullness of life as servants of God.


[1] See Dahlia Lithwick, “The Two Tablets: The Supreme Court picks through the rubble of its Ten Commandments jurisprudence” http://www.slate.com/id/2114258/

[2] http://www.newsweek.com/ten-commandments-alabama-republican-gerald-dial-school-shooting-christian-roy-827195

[3] Thomas G. Long, Living by the Word, The Christian Century, March 7, 2006, 17.

[4] Ex 7:16; 8:1, 20; 9:1, 13; 10:3 See Walter Brueggemann, “The Commandments and Liberated, Liberating Bonding.” Journal For Preachers 10, no. 2, 1987, 15-24.

[5] Context, August 2005

Looking for audio of older sermons? Check out our Sermon Audio Archive.