Sermon – Genesis 7.1-5, 11-18, 8.6-18, 9.8-13, UJCCM Lenten Series, March 9, 2022

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This Lent, we as an ecumenical body in Upper James City County are retelling the “salvation narrative” – or at least that is the fancy phrase we use to describe the body of stories that show us time and again God’s saving deeds in history, and how those stories inform how we understand what will happen on Easter Sunday – how the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus will bring the fullness of redemption.  We started last week with the story of creation – the ways in which God lovingly called the created order good and made us in God’s image.  Tonight, we shift to another of the legendary stories – the story of the flood.

This is a story we know and love:  we use Noah’s ark as artwork in babies’ nurseries, I have Noah’s ark in the form of Christmas ornaments, we even sing songs about how God told Noah to build an “ark-y, ark-y” made of “bark-y, bark-y.”  I think we love this story so much because of the good news at the end.  But before we get to the end, we have to wade through a whole lot of a horrible beginning and middle.  You see, despite the goodness of creation, of the ways in which we were made in God’s image, we humans fall into sinfulness.  We do not hear much of that part of the story tonight.  Despite all the verses we did hear, what we do not hear is how horribly sinful humanity has become in Noah’s time.  This sinfulness grieves God so very much that God set God’s mind to do a terrible, awful thing[i].  Those waters out of which God formed the earth – those waters that God used a dome to separate – separate the waters from the waters, God uses to destroy the beautiful creation God has made.  God removes the dome, and the waters came down from the skies and the waters rise up from the ground.[ii] 

From the beginning of this horrible decision, God makes a choice – a choice to save some life instead of recreating life again[iii].  And so, on that ark that Noah builds, floats the people who will repopulate the earth, and the animals that will restore the created order.  We hear very little in scripture what those days are like[iv]:  the panic of rising waters, the death all around them, the solitude and silence of watery chaos, the noise of a bizarrely filled boat.  We have only our imagination to fill in what those desperate days may have been like. 

In some ways, I think Lent is a lot like those days on the boat.  There is the obvious forty days connection, but more telling is the stark reality of sinfulness and judgment.  Imagining the depravity of those days that would drive God to destroy most of creation is not as hard as we might like to think.  Sometimes, I wonder if God is not similarly grieved by us today.  Here we are after two years of a pandemic where our own country spent more time arguing over the supremacy of personal freedom over the call to love one another.  Here we are, for likely the millionth time debating whether there is such a thing as a just war as we watch civilians and children slaughtered in Ukraine.  Here we are divided by political party, divided by socioeconomic status, divided by race, divided by theology into denominations and faiths.  Here we are, refusing as individuals to love all our neighbors as ourselves, and love the Lord our God.  Lent is our season to float in the lapping waters of our sinfulness, wondering whether we should be on that boat or not.

But here’s the funny story about the flood.  This story is not about you.  This story is not even really about Noah, or the animals God saved, or even the rainbow at the end of the story we like to cling to so desperately.  This story is not about our sinfulness and brokenness and inability to live into the image of God in which we are created.  No, this is a story about God.  Everything in this story that we value, that makes this story a “salvation narrative,” is about God’s actions.  The reason we do not hear all the gory details about the lead-up to the flood – the details that even movies have been made about – is because this is a story about salvation, not judgment – on what God does to preserve creation.[v]

One of the exercises I have done with young adults is to talk about images of God.  We create a safe space where we can talk about those images – not just the ones the church likes us to see – of the shepherd caring for the flock, even at times with a lamb on his shoulders, or of the saccharine-y Jesus’ we hang around that look more like an American Jesus than a Middle Eastern Jesus.  Instead, we try to get real with the youth.  The images they often have are of a foreboding man on a throne, an intimidating father figure, or a judge behind a bench.  And when we adults are honest, our images are pretty similar.  But the images of God in this story, as one scholar writes are “striking:  a God who expresses sorrow and regret; a God who judges, but doesn’t want to, and then not in arbitrary or annihilative ways; a God who goes beyond justice and determines to save some creatures, including every animal and bird; a God who commits to the future of a less than perfect world; a God open to change and doing things in new ways; a God who promises never to do this again.  The story reveals and resolves a fundamental tension within God, emphasizing finally, not a God who decides to destroy, but a God who wills to save, who is committed to change based on experience with the world and who promises to stand by the creation.”[vi]

That’s the funny thing about this story.  The flood seems like a story for Lent because we find ourselves as sinful as Noah’s world, and we know we need to change our ways.  Lent is all about repentance after all – a turning from our sinfulness and returning to God.  But here’s the thing: even after the flood (and let’s be honest, even after this Lent), the people will keep going back to sinning.  I mean, we’re just in chapter nine of Genesis:  there is a whole lot more sinning left in the Old Testament for us to read.  Scholars argue, “The flood has effected no change in humankind.  But [the flood] has effected an irreversible change in God.”[vii]  This salvation narrative tells us more about God than ourselves.  God establishes the covenant with humanity and creation to never flood the earth again.  Certainly, there may be judgment again, but never the kind that annihilates the earth.  That rainbow that we love is not meant to remind us of God’s promise, but to remind God of the covenant – the restraint God promises to keep in the midst of well-deserved judgment.[viii]  Every promise God makes, all the salvation narratives we will hear the rest of this Lent, are made possible by the foundation of the promise God makes to Noah.[ix]

So, if this salvation narrative is not about us, does that mean we get a free pass for Lent?  Not exactly.  The real question for us tonight, based on everything we just learned (or remembered) about God, is “So what?”  Professor Patricia Tull argues, “Scripture says that a good and wise God created us good.  We’re capable of great evil, as the flood story says and as we know every day.  But God means for us to be transformed, just as the flood transformed God’s intentions.”[x]  Lent is our opportunity to mirror God’s transformation of intention.  What in your life this year needs transforming?  What have you been holding on to – a grudge, a hurt, an anger, a self-righteous indignation – needs to be released?  God learned in the flood that God could not change humanity – but God could change God’s relationship with humanity.  Our invitation this Lent is not necessarily to change ourselves, and certainly not to try to change others (which never goes well), but to transform our relationships – our relationship with God, our relationships with others, and even our relationship with ourselves.  Use the watery chaos of this Lent to listen through the noise of animals around you to hear the promise of the rainbow come Easter.  Amen.


[i] Leander E. Keck, ed, The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 1 (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1994), 394.

[ii] Keck, 392.

[iii] Keck, 394.

[iv] Keck, 389.

[v] Keck, 389.

[vi] Keck, 395.

[vii] Keck, 395.

[viii] Keck, 400.

[ix] Keck, 401.

[x] Patricia Tull, “Commentary on Genesis 7:1-5, 11-18; 8:6-18; 9:8-13,” April 15, 2017, as found at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/vigil-of-easter-3/commentary-on-genesis-71-5-11-18-86-18-98-13 on March 9, 2022.

Sermon – Luke 4.1-13, L1, YC, March 6, 2022

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Having grown up in the mostly Methodist and Baptist South, I grew up a culture that had no problem talking about the devil or Satan.  If you are starting to doubt yourself or are feeling abandoned in some way, a Methodist or Baptist would easily declare, “That’s just the devil trying to pull you away from the Lord.”  My experience with Episcopalians is we are not as comfortable talking about the devil and labeling the devil’s work in our lives.  I am not sure why we get so skittish talking about the devil.  Even the Great Litany, which we [prayed] sang this morning had a lot of “devil” references.  My suspicion is our hesitancy is a fear of sounding superstitious, a general lack of understanding or comfort with talking about the devil, or maybe a little disbelief.  But I must admit, when I have been told that my current troubles were due to the devil meddling in my relationship with God, I have felt oddly better.  There is something quite freeing about naming the devil in the midst of our lives.

Our gospel lesson today highlights why we are so skittish about the devil.  The devil works in the thin space between good and evil.  The three temptations of Jesus from the devil are just ambiguous enough that Jesus could reason his way into responding positively to the devil.  First the devil asks Jesus to turn a stone into bread.  Now if Jesus decides to do such a thing out of self-serving relief, we might align his actions with the devil.  But if Jesus turns the “abundant stones that cover Israel’s landscape into ample food to feed the many hungry people in a land often wracked by famine,”[i] then in good conscience, he might begin to consider the devil’s tempting offer. 

Next, the devil tempts Jesus with the power to rule over all the kingdoms of the world.  Now if Jesus decides to take such authority out of a desire for power and greed, we could easily deem his action as rooted in self-serving sin.  But, if Jesus agrees to take that authority so that he can rule the world with justice, then the deal with the devil becomes a bit murkier.  All we need to remember is heavy hand of Rome in Jesus’ day[ii] or the suffering in Ukraine today to wonder about the devil’s offer of turning suffering to justice.

Finally, the devil tempts Jesus to prove God’s protective care.  Now if Jesus were jumping from the pinnacle of the temple just to show off how protected he is, then we could judge Jesus to be behaving in a sinful way.  But Jesus is committing to a tremendous journey.  Seeking some assurance God will care for Jesus does not seem like that much to ask.  The devil’s work is to constantly keep picking away at trusting relationships with God, fostering mistrust between God and God’s people.[iii]

Several years ago, the film Doubt received several Oscar nominations.  The movie explored a Catholic Church and School where the head nun accused the priest of sexual misconduct.  But the story is presented so ambiguously that even by the end of the movie the viewer is not sure if abuse took place or not.  This is that thin place between truth and lies, between trust and mistrust where the devil thrives.  And truthfully, even in the movie, with whom the devil is cooperating is unclear.  This is the danger in all our lives today – the lines between God’s work and the devil’s work are so close that we have a hard time naming the devil in our lives.

Luckily Jesus’ responses to the devil give us some guidance today.  In each of the three temptations, Jesus leans on his deep understanding of Holy Scripture.  We see how powerful Jesus’ scriptural responses are because the devil attempts to distort this strength as well.  In the third temptation, the devil quotes scripture himself, trying to lure Jesus back into that thin place.  But Jesus cannot be fooled.  Jesus knows that the devil is using partial scripture citations that can be misleading out of context.[iv]  Jesus knows a dependence on Holy Scripture will support him in his weakness.

As we begin our Lenten journey, today’s gospel lesson gives us much to ponder.  First, we are invited into a time of pondering how the devil might be acting in the thin spaces between our faithfulness and sinfulness, manipulating our mistrust of God for the devil’s gain.  To understand how the devil might be acting, we will need to first label the areas of our lives with which we do not entrust to God: a particular relationship, a big decision, something challenging at work or at home, or an uncertain future.  These are areas that are most susceptible to the devil squeezing his way into our lives.  Next, Jesus invites us into a deeper relationship with Scripture this Lent.  We have already seen how Holy Scripture sustains Jesus at his weakest hour.  Whatever your Lenten practice, consider how you might incorporate some Scripture reading into your week, whether on your own or with one of our Lenten offerings.  You may be surprised at the parallels in scripture and your own life.  Finally, we are invited this Lent to lean into one another and to God.  If Jesus can lean on God in his weakness, we can lean on God in our weakness too, even if we are not totally ready to trust God with all of ourselves.  Just admitting our hesitancy is the first step to kicking the devil out of our thin spaces.  Amen.


[i] Sharon H. Ringe, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 47.

[ii] Ringe, 49.

[iii] David Lose, as found on http://www.workingpreacher.org/dear_wp.aspx?article_id=668 on February 15, 2013.

[iv] Darrell Jodock, “Antidote for Temptation,” Christian Century, vol. 112, no. 6, Feb. 22, 1995, 203. 

Sermon – Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21, AW, YC, March 2, 2022

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For those of you who have known me for some time, you know that Lent has always been my favorite liturgical season.  Lent is a season marked by profound honesty about the brokenness and sinfulness of our lives, the confessing of the darkness of our souls, and the desperate searching for a way back to the unimaginable grace and love that God shows us undeservedly.  Perhaps that description sounds a bit morbid and unappealing, but I find the raw truth of Lent to be refreshing in a world that brushes over and hides imperfection.

Despite my love of the sobering ritual of Lent though, the last two years Lent has felt like too much of a burden to bear.  Being in a pandemic, wading through political divisions, and our country’s institutional racism being exposed felt like too much.  We have been lonely, scared, angry, and, at times, lost.  Both of the last two Lent’s have felt like the “Lentiest Lents we have ever Lented.”  And as your clergy, and as a fellow disciple of Christ, I felt like asking us to waltz into the dance of Lent was just all too much. 

But this year feels different.  I would not say we are on the other side of this pandemic, and I would certainly not say we are back to “normal” – though I am not sure we will ever go back to the old normal.  Instead, I rather feel like we are standing on a board, balanced on a fulcrum.  We are not still climbing our way over this pandemic, and we are also not coming down from the apex of this pandemic.  Instead, we are balancing a foot on each side of the board – steady, but using every muscle in our body to keep balance, wanting to breathe a sigh of relief being at the peak, but not yet able to relax on solid ground.

That is why I am so very grateful for our text from Matthew this Ash Wednesday.  In years past, I always found this text rather sanctimonious.  Here we are at a service where we will spread ashes on our forehead – a very public sign of our faith – listening to a text telling us not to be pious before others, not to give alms in a showy way, and not to pray so as to draw attention to our holiness.  The contradiction between written word and physical act have never felt more at odds than on Ash Wednesday.

But I think I had Matthew’s gospel all wrong before this year.  This text is not really about shaming self-righteous behavior.  This text is about honesty, vulnerability, and humility.  If we are showy with our piety, alms giving, prayer, and fasting, our discipleship becomes about dishonesty.  Instead, Matthew is simply asking us to be real:  real with others, real with ourselves, real with God. 

That is the invitation this Lent.  Not to take on some pious Biblical study (though we will offer that this year on Sunday mornings), not to brag about Lenten disciplines (though we will encourage you into a little light competition this year), and not to commit to something that is so unreachable that you quit within the first two weeks.  Instead, this Lent is about honestly claiming the hurt of these last two years:  of confessing our isolation and the ways that isolation has hurt (perhaps by finding one of the planned opportunities for connection), of facing the mental health strain this pandemic has created and seeking companions on the journey (whether in an upcoming support group or through a new Stephen Minister), of confessing that we are not fine (and coming to church to find those who are also not fine).  Those Lenten disciplines will give us some stability on that wobbly board of pandemic life and may give us the assurance of the presence of God in the midst of life we need to come down the peak of this pandemic.

However you enter this Lent, whatever practices you take up or give up, however you engage in the offerings of formation this Lent, the Church invites you this year to be honest:  be honest in the struggle, be honest in the failings, be honest in the hope.  Your being real this year may just allow someone to experience the realness of Jesus in their own lives.  And we could all use a little more Jesus this year.  Amen.

Sermon – Luke 9.28-36 (37-43), TRS, YC, February 27, 2022

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Well, we finally made it.  After a season of epiphanies about Jesus:  from the Magi with gifts, the voice of God at Jesus’ baptism, the water into wine, the fishes bursting from nets, and lessons about life with Jesus from the Sermon on the Plain, we get to the mother of all epiphanies – Transfiguration Sunday.  In this event is everything we need to know about Jesus.  Luke tells us everything starts with prayer – life with Jesus is rooted in prayerful relationship with God.  Then, Jesus’ divinity is revealed as his entire appearance changes, with everything becoming dazzling white.  Moses and Elijah appear, which many argue represents the prophets and the law confirming Jesus’ identity and significance.  We even hear a conversation between the three figures about Jesus’ pending journey to Jerusalem and ultimate departure.  And, as if we needed to know even more about who Jesus is, God comes down in a cloud and says, clear as a bell, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”  We can’t get a lesson more epiphanic than this!

This story in Luke is so dramatic, that the lectionary says we can skip the next seven verses.  If you notice in your bulletin, those verses are in parenthesis.  And if I am really honest, as your preacher, I seriously considered eliminating those verses today.  I wanted to stay on that mountaintop with Peter, John, and James.  I want to be overwhelmed by the majesty of the moment, I want to gobble up the crystal clarity of this event, I want to breathe in the confidence of that comes from knowing this is the Messiah, the answer.  I might even want to build those dwellings or booths Peter is talking about for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.  This is a mountain of wonder, of joy, of understanding, of specialness, of the sacred.  I want to stay here.

But the text is not having such comfort today.  Nope, in Luke, the very next thing that happens after this rich, shocking, full epiphany and the disciples’ stunned silence, is they go back down the mountain and face another person who needs to be healed.  And this is not a simple request for healing, but a report that the man begged Jesus’ disciples to cast out the demon first, but they could not.  So not only do Jesus and his disciples go back to work, but also we learn that the disciples are not very good at the work.  In other words, they have work to do.

Sometimes, when we are tired and weary – and believe me, we have had a lot of tired and weary in the last two years – in those times we slip into the mode of thinking Church is an “escape from” place.  We face illness, and death, and war, and suffering, and poverty, and discrimination, and persecution, and brokenness every single day of the week, and we just want our mini-Easter on Sundays.  We want to climb a mountain, pray with Jesus, and bask in Jesus’ radiance.  And that is okay.  Luke would not tell us so many times in his gospel that Jesus escapes to pray if Jesus’ praying (and our praying) were not important.  But the danger in thinking of Church as an “escape from” place is that we risk not seeing the brilliance of Jesus in all the other days.

A couple of weeks ago, I was at a doctor’s office that serves patients from a broad range of socioeconomic backgrounds.  One such client had arrived for one of the daily walk-in appointments only to be told arriving at 9:00 am meant he had missed the available appointments.  The staff very graciously gave him a list of other places he could try and encouraged him to come back earlier next time.  The client sat there a bit stunned and dejected and I began to avert my eyes to give him some privacy for his grief.  But a minute or so later, an older gentleman came up to him and asked to see the paper the staff had given him.  He proceeded to show the younger man which alternatives were best, and then whispered the secret that although the staff said to come at 7:00 am, the real trick was to arrive by 6:00 am.  The young man’s face slowly relaxed under the loving tutelage of his elder fellow struggler in life.

Luke does not leave us on the mountaintop because Luke knows the danger the artificial divide between the sacred and the secular.  As scholar Debie Thomas warns, “Desperate for the mountain, we miss the God of the valley, the conference room, the pharmacy, the school yard.”[i]  The story of the healing in the valley is the “so what?” of this last grand epiphany story before we head into Lent.  “The story of the transfiguration of Jesus loses its power if [the transfiguration] does not include that moment when Jesus and the disciples come down from the mountain.”  By seeing Jesus differently today, we are enabled to see ourselves and others differently too.[ii]  We are able to see God in an elderly struggling man taking a young struggling man under his wings.  We are able to see God in the way an older child shepherds a younger child to Children’s Chapel.  We are able to see God in our gut-wrenching conversations of the presence of evil in the world and how to navigate war in a way that demonstrates all life is sacred.

This week, our invitation is to take this hour not as an “escape from” but as an “empowerment to” – an empowerment to go out in the world seeing the God of the valley, the God of the medical clinic, the God of the grocery store, the God of the Zoom meeting, and to be agents of God in all those places.  We come from a long line of disciples who were not always good at healing the suffering of this world.  But we enter a season of intentionality in these coming six weeks that will embolden us to keep trying.  We know from this hour of empowerment who Jesus is.  Now we get the chance to show Jesus’ face to others in our everyday lives.  Amen.


[i] Rohr summary about the sacred and the secular and quote from Debie Thomas, “Down from the Mountain” February 19, 2022, as found at https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2944 on February 26, 2022.

[ii] Lori Brandt Hale, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 456.

Sermon – Luke 6.27-38, EP7, YC, February 20, 2022

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Last week, we talked about the differences between Matthew’s version of Jesus’ famous beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount and Luke’s version of the same beatitudes from the Sermon on the Plain.  If you recall, in Luke’s version, Jesus comes down to a level place, and speaks to the disciples eye to eye, conveying an intimacy to his instructions with the disciples.  In Luke’s beatitudes, the epiphany we have is not so much about Jesus’ identity, like in the visitation of the magi, his baptism, or in the wedding of Cana, but instead is an epiphany about what living with Jesus will be like:  loving our neighbor, seeking and serving Christ in others, striving for justice and peace, and respecting the dignity of every human being – the very promises we make in our baptismal covenant.

In today’s lesson, Jesus goes from making eye contact with us to turning our eyes to make eye contact with those around us.  When we love our neighbor, seek and serve Christ in others, strive for justice and peace, and respect the dignity of every human being, Jesus tells us those neighbors and those others must include our enemies.  And this is where this week’s epiphany becomes more difficult.  This passage often hits us in the gut by that simple word, “enemies.”  Our minds go to the worst:  the violent murderer, the manipulative sexual offender, the blatant endorser of racial discrimination, or the oppressive governmental dictator.  But the harder enemies are those “little” enemies much closer to home:  the disruptive neighbor who disrespects common space, the colleague with whom you avoid certain topics of discussion to keep the peace, the student at school who is so subtle with their bullying no one else sees her as a bully, or that anonymous writer in the Last Word whose opinion makes you seethe with anger.  When we consider those “little enemies,” Jesus’ instruction to not judge, not condemn, to forgive, to share, and to love become a checklist of good behavior we are not sure we can keep. 

A few years ago, the Greater Williamsburg area kicked off a commitment to becoming a community of kindness with a rallying event.  The former Mayor of Anaheim, California, Tom Tait, who had run on a campaign of kindness, was the keynote speaker.  Mayor Tait talked about his time on City Council in Anaheim, how part of his work felt like a game of whack-a-mole.  Each month, some crisis or community problem would arise – violence in the community, the prevalence of drugs, problems in the public schools.  And the City Council’s response felt trying to put a Band-Aid on another problem – to whack at the problem to temporarily knock the problem out.  But those solutions never really made a deep impact.  What Mayor Tait saw was all those problems were like symptoms – symptoms of a city that was facing an internal sickness.  The only way to heal the internal sickness was to commit as a city to transform their entire way of operating.  Mayor Tait believed transformation would occur by committing to kindness.  To many, the idea sounded a little too pie-in-the-sky.  But once elected, Mayor Tait was forced to try to live out the reality of kindness.  With every decision, every major action, the community wondered together what would reflect kindness.  And slowly, the illness in the system began to heal.  Kindness was not a Band-Aid, but a system-altering antidote to a host of problems.

In a lot of ways, that is what Jesus is talking about today.  Yes, the things Jesus is talking about are commands – a list of ways to love one another – even our enemies.  But Jesus is not just talking about commands.  As one scholar describes, “Jesus isn’t offering a set of simple rules by which to get by or get ahead in this world but is inviting us into a whole other world.  A world that is not about measuring and counting and weighing and competing and judging and paying back and hating and all the rest.  But instead is about love. Love for those who have loved you.  Love for those who haven’t.  Love even for those who have hated you.  That love gets expressed in all kinds of creative ways, but often come through by caring – extending care and compassion and help and comfort to those in need – and forgiveness – not paying back but instead releasing one’s claim on another and opening up a future where a relationship of …love is still possible.”[i] 

What Jesus is doing is trying to, “inculcate, and illustrate, an attitude of heart, a lightness of spirit in the face of all that the world can throw at you.”  We are to assume this new way of being because “that’s what God is like.  God is generous to all people, generous…to a fault:  [God] provides good things for all to enjoy, the undeserving as well as the deserving.  [God] is astonishingly merciful…”  As N. T. Wright adds, “…this list of instructions is all about which God you believe in – and about the way of life that follows as a result.”[ii]  When we take Jesus seriously, and embrace this new way of being, the way that leads to love, life can be “exuberant, different, astonishing.  People [will] stare.”[iii]

That is our epiphany invitation today:  to loosen our grip on love and allow love to flow as freely as the abundance of God’s love for the world.  This is not an invitation to grin and bear niceness, like a grumbled “bless his heart.”  Instead, this is an invitation to live in way that is contrary to our very human nature.[iv]  As you imagine all those little enemies you may be feeling today’s invitation is impossible.  And on your own, loving those little enemies is impossible.  But you are not on your own.  Not here at Hickory Neck.  You have a community of faithful seekers – of people who long to follow Jesus – and who have just as many little enemies as you – in fact some of them may even be in this room.  But with Christ and this community of the faithful, we leave this place knowing that the Holy Spirit will enable us to let go of our desperate, possessing grip on God’s love, and instead allow that love to flow through us to everyone – because there is more than enough love for us all to share.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.


[i] David Lose, “Epiphany 7 C:  Command or Promise?” February 22, 2019, as found at http://www.davidlose.net/2019/02/epiphany-7-c-command-or-promise/ on February 19, 2022.

[ii] N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 73-74.

[iii] Wright, 74.

[iv] Charles Bugg, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 384.

Sermon – Luke 6.17-26, EP6, YC, February 12, 2022

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Today’s gospel lesson is Luke’s version of what is called “the beatitudes” or set of blessings from Jesus.  Most of us are more familiar with, or maybe even prefer, Matthew’s version of the beatitudes.  Matthew’s version has eight blessings as opposed to Luke’s four.  Matthew’s version happens on a mountain and is part of a larger section called the “Sermon on the Mount.”  Matthew’s full sermon is 107 verses, whereas Luke’s is just 32.  Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes within the Sermon on the Mount is more poetic and flowery – claiming the “poor in spirit” are blessed, making us all feel included, whereas Luke simply says “blessed are you who are poor.”  Matthew’s version has been set to music by masters like Sweet Honey in the Rock.  However, some scholars argue that Matthew’s Beatitudes “domesticate the radical pronouncement so that it comfortably fits ‘us’ who by no means meet its criteria,” and that over generations “the prophetic word became hollow and even more watered down than Matthew had rendered it.”[i]

Luke’s version we hear today is quite different, and often sits with us much more uncomfortably.  Luke’s version of the Beatitudes is not delivered from high on a mountain, but instead on the plain, or on “‘a level place’ with the disciples and the multitude, not on a mount above them.”[ii]  Aesthetically, Luke’s version is more plain, more abrupt, and quite frankly, a little “judge-y.”  Whereas Matthew has eight blessings, Luke pairs his four blessings with four woes.  So, if the poor are blessed and to whom the kingdom of God belongs, woe to the rich, for they have received their consolation.   Whereas the hungry are blessed and promised full bellies, those who are full now are promised hunger later.  Even those laughing and honored in their communities are promised tears and shame.  There is no sentimentalizing Luke’s beatitudes.  Most of us read Luke’s gospel and know that we are in for a lot of woe!

Of course, there is a reason we get Luke’s beatitudes this Epiphany season.  In this season of revelations about Jesus’ identity, the beatitudes follow a long run of epiphanies.  We started with the Magi in early January; heard of Jesus’ baptism and the pronouncement of Jesus’ blessedness (and shared that same pronouncement with our beloved Reed and Zenora); we heard of the changing of water into wine in Cana; the pronouncement of Jesus as the coming of the Messiah – a message so strong he was almost pushed over a cliff; and last Sunday, of an instruction by Jesus that led to so much fish nets almost broke. 

Today’s beatitudes from Luke are another epiphany – but not an epiphany of who Jesus is:  more an epiphany about what life with Jesus is.  As we look at Luke’s beatitudes this week, I do not think Jesus is being all that judge-y after all.  We already see in this version that Jesus is not speaking down to us but speaking among us in the level plain.  We also find that although Jesus opens his mouth in Matthew’s version, in Luke’s version, Jesus focuses his eyes.[iii]  The text says, “Jesus looked up at his disciples…”  There is an intimacy to Luke’s version of these blessings.  But perhaps more telling is looking at the word “woe” itself.  Karoline Lewis tells us that the word “woe” in the Greek lexicon is an interjection.  “Jesus, is not about pitting blessings against curses or favor against judgment.  Jesus is trying to get the disciples’ attention.  He is trying to get our attention.”  And so, as Lewis argues, perhaps instead of reading these “woes” as curses – or as the word W-O-E – we should read the woes as “whoas” – W-H-O-A.[iv] 

“Whoa!  Listen closely,” Jesus says as he gets down to our level and looks us in the eyes.  Whoa, you who are comfortable.  “The poor and the hungry know the reality of their situation.  They are totally dependent on God and therefore are disposed to entrust themselves to God’s care and mercy, which is the foundation of grace and a right relationship with God.”  Us, however, whoa!  We are “disposed to take comfort in [ourselves] and [our] resources, thereby finding it more difficult to trust [ourselves] to the mercy and grace of God.”[v]  Jesus is not telling us to glorify suffering and persecution with the hope of a future reward.  Jesus is saying, “Whoa! It’s time to ‘reorient relationships and reverse social, economic, and political injustices so that [we] gain right standing in the eyes of God.’[vi]

Our invitation today is to hear what whoas God has for us today.  Maybe we have gotten a little too comfortable with our creature comforts, maybe we have forgotten the hungry, maybe we have ignored those who are grieving and struggling – especially in this pandemic, or maybe we have begun to believe the hype about ourselves – resting in the respect people grant us instead of earning that respect.  Jesus’ whoa today is not a curse.  Jesus’ whoa today is an intimate pulling aside and an invitation to remember what following Jesus is all about:  loving our neighbor, seeking and serving Christ in all persons, striving for justice and peace, and respecting the dignity of every human being.  We made those promises just a few short weeks ago.  Jesus is simply telling us, “Whoa!  Remember who you are as a disciple – as a baptized child of God.”  And I like to imagine, since we are on a level plain, Jesus gives us solid pat on the shoulder, and tells us to get back out there and share those blessings with others:  because he knows we can.  Amen.


[i] David L. Ostendorf, “Theological Perspective, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 356.

[ii] Ostendorf, 358.

[iii] Gay L. Byron, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 359.

[iv] Karoline Lewis, “Woes and Whoas,” February 6, 2022, as found at https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/woes-and-whoas on February 12, 2022.

[v] Howard K. Gregory, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 358.

[vi] Byron, 361.

Sermon – Luke 5.1-11, EP5, YC (Annual Meeting), February 6, 2022

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As we reflect back on a year of ministry here at Hickory Neck, we see two realities.  On the one hand, we are tired.  After almost two years of a pandemic, I like to say we have been pivoting so much there is a significant divot in this sacred ground.  We have been in and out of in-person worship, in and out of tightened and lessened restrictions, we have had moments of renewal where it felt like things were getting close to normal, and then moments where the rug was snatched out from under us, and we felt like we were back to square one.  We miss our friends, we want to get back to the work of ministry that has fed us in the past or that drew us to Hickory Neck as a newcomer, we want to experience deepened relationships that come from coffee hours and parties and crowded worship spaces.  We are weary emotionally, physically, and spiritually.

I think that is why I love our gospel lesson so much today.  Jesus and the disciples have been out on the boat all day and night, and the disciples have been working through the night to catch fish to feed their merry band of followers.  When they catch nothing, Jesus says to Simon Peter, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”  Now what Simon actually says is, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.”  But what I like to imagine is Peter’s tone – or even what Peter was really saying in those eleven words.  In my mind, what Peter is really saying is, “Look, sir.  I get that you are trying to help, and I get that you are wise enough for us to be following you.  But I am the fisherman, and I think I know a little bit more than you on this one.  And quite frankly, I’ve been at this all night.  I am exhausted and weary, and not really interested in your next big idea.”  Of course, what he says instead (with I suspect not only skepticism but also a bit of insincere, sarcastic, feigned respect) is, “Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”

We have all slipped into Peter’s attitude at times in the last year.  Sure, we’ll keep meeting on Zoom.  Sure, we will put the masks back on.  Sure, we’ll wait to schedule the funeral, or the baptism, or the wedding.  Sure, we’ll keep watching online worship.  That sense of frustration is totally normal and we’re lucky if it doesn’t happen more often than not.  But what that frustration can do is blind us to abundance.  If Peter had held his ground and not put down the nets, he would have missed the brilliant thing that happens next in the story.  After trying all night long, using all their gifts and talents and finding nothing, they had no logical reason to say yes to Jesus – to follow Jesus’ invitation to try again.  But when Simon Peter and the other disciples do, they catch so many fish their nets almost break.  Saying yes to Jesus leads to shocking, life-giving abundance.

That is the second reality of this past year for Hickory Neck.  As wearying as this last year has been, there have been so many incredible moments of overflowing abundance.  Whether when we tasted communion for the first time after a long hiatus, whether we were able to sing together after months of silence or lonely singing with a computer screen, whether we were able to safely embrace for the first time in a long time, or whether we were able to see someone’s face on Zoom – hearing the sound of their beautiful laughter – those moments have been abundant.  That deep divot from pivoting on this sacred ground has meant that we have reached isolated aging church members online, by phone call, or by card.  That deep divot has meant that people we had never met before the pandemic have found us online and come to know us in person, bringing us the gift of joy and renewed community.  That deep divot means that we have reconnected with Jesus, being confirmed, received, and reaffirmed by our Bishop.  That deep divot means that even with restrictions we have celebrated lives lived, consecrated new marriages, and baptized babies and toddlers.  That deep divot means that families in our neighborhoods have come to learn that Hickory Neck loves them and understands how hard being a parent and a student is right now.  That deep divot means those who are hungry and homeless have come to know comfort.  That deep divot has been filled to the brim with the abundance that we can only know by answering the call of Jesus over and over again – even when we are weary and want to tell Jesus to back off.

That is our invitation for 2022.  When Simon Peter and the disciples get back to land, they don’t take all those fish and eat a big feast.  They do not sell the fish and take the saved treasure for whatever might come.  No, they leave the overflowing abundance behind, and they follow Jesus.  The abundance was not simply a reward for good, faithful service.  The abundance was a reminder of what life with Jesus is all about.  That is our invitation today too.  When we look at that deep divot of 2021, seeing the ways that deep well overflows with the goodness of this past year, we are invited not to linger by the well of comforting abundance, hoarding it for ourselves.  We are invited to see the abundance and walk confidently into another year, knowing that continuing to follow Jesus will lead to more divots and much, much more abundance.  I could not be more excited to see how Jesus will use Hickory Neck for goodness this year.  We are emboldened today by all that God has done thus far in these hard times.  And now, we are asked to trust that the Holy Spirit has many more good things in store as we seek to care for one another and as we seek to care for those outside our walls.  Our invitation is to trust God with boldness and follow Jesus into this next year with Hickory Neck.  Amen.

On Pandemics, Rollercoasters, and God…

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Photo credit: https://theinconstantmuse.com/2016/07/27/rollercoaster-ride/

One of the habits this pandemic has cultivated is thriving in survivalist mode:  dealing with the thing in front of you, then moving to the next, until all the “things” are done.  This requires shelving one’s emotions for another time because they get in the way of what needs to be done.  This kind of operating can be intoxicating because there is a rush that comes from accomplishing things when times are hard – acknowledging that despite how hard things are, you are still being productive and useful.  It can be a useful skill, but a habit that cannot be sustained long-term.

Nowhere have I felt that reality more than in this last week.  In the course of one single week I conducted a funeral for a one-month old infant, I joyfully celebrated the baptism of two life-giving children (one infant and one preschooler), I received the shocking news that my beloved barre and yoga studio would be closing in 24 hours (a place that has been a source of joy, friendship, and health for five years), our family entered into quarantine as we finally succumbed to COVID (we’re all fully vaccinated and boosted), which involved postponing countless major and minor events at church, and finally, learned that a dear friend who is younger than we are was gravely ill from long COVID.  It was not until the end of the week, when COVID finally slowed me down that I realized what a rollercoaster of a week it had been emotionally.

Truth be told, the life of a pastor is regularly a rollercoaster like this.  I frequently have back-to-back meetings:  one for a couple preparing for marriage and one for someone facing divorce.  I can have back-to-back visits:  one for a family with a newborn and one for someone on Hospice.  Even Holy Week has Good Friday and Easter Sunday within days of each other.  Emotional whiplash is a regular occurrence in this field.  But in some ways, the disadvantage of this pandemic is that we all seem to be living in a constant emotional rollercoaster.  You may have read my litany of the last week and thought, “Seems like a typical week in COVID!” 

My prayer for all of us during this rollercoaster of a time is that we be tender with one another.  When we hear good or hard news, remember there are a lot of other things going on in the background – family who cannot be there, conflict among neighbors, or even happy news that seems inappropriately timed.  But especially remember to be tender with yourself.  If you need to congratulate yourself for just surviving and being productive, do it.  If you need to wallow or cry, do it.  And in case you cannot feel it or have lost touch with your relationship with God, remember God is with you in the midst of it all, being more tender with us than we could ever be to ourselves or others.  My prayer is that you feel God’s presence this week.

Sermon – Isaiah 43.1-7, Luke 3.15-17, 21-22, EP1, YC, January 16, 2022

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A couple of weeks ago, despite months of planning, I was not sure today would happen.  Of course, we would celebrate the feast of Jesus’ baptism regardless of whether we were gathered in person or online, but I really wanted all the things that come with an in-person baptism – babies crying the middle of sermons, moms and dads rhythmically bouncing their children to soothe them during the service, crayons scattered wherever children find themselves in the worship space.  But most of all, I love having the congregation’s children gather around the font, eyes fixed on the pouring of water, clutching onto the sacred items we have asked them to hold, nervously giggling as they wait for the big moment of their friends’ baptism.  Their energy is reflected by the adults in the space but seeing that energy up close is invigorating.

But then, we suspended physically gathered worship, and everything shifted.  We had choices in front of us, and after much prayer and discernment, the baptismal family decided to gather their small family without the enthusiasm of the whole congregation physically present.  Not until I read today’s Old Testament lesson did I appreciate the parallels in our collective journey to this day.  You see, Isaiah has been prophesying to a people in exile.  The sinful generations of Israel have led to their own demise, and they now sit in Babylon in despair, recognizing their failings, feeling isolated from everything familiar, wondering if they will ever find God’s favor again.  Though we have not been exiled from our land, this pandemic has created our own exile of sorts.  Our weary hearts long for good news.

Into these twin exiles in Babylon and in pandemic, God speaks words of redemption, belonging, and hope.  “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine,” God says.  “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned…For I am the Lord your God…you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”  These words from God are a balm to the people of God.  But each of those promises are not only for the nation of God.  Those “you”s are accompanied by the second-person-singular verb forms, as one scholar explains, “as if speaking to each member of the community.”[i]  I will be with youYou are mine.  You are precious and honored.  I love you.

That is what we do in baptism.  Although baptism is a communal event – whether, like in Luke’s gospel, as Jesus stands in a line of people to be baptized along with them, or whether we gather in some hybrid form of in-person and online worship – even though baptism is necessarily communal, baptism is also about the promises to a unique child of God:  who belongs to God, with whom God is present, and who is loved.  We hear echoes of God’s blessing from Isaiah in Jesus’ baptism, when God says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  The Church claims the same for Reed and Zenora today – “You are my child, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”[ii]  Although Reed is old enough to hear and understand this blessing, we as a community, with Zenora’s parents and godparents, promise today to keep reminding Zenora of her identity as a child of God, whom God protects, to whom she belongs, and who is deeply loved and honored.  In truth, we all need that reminder, especially during these dark times.  That is why we will all reaffirm our baptismal covenant in just a few moments – so that we might reclaim our baptismal identity and receive again the charge of our call. 

This service today is not just a day of blessing for Reed, Zenora, and all of us gathered in hybrid worship.  Today’s baptisms are also a commission.  As one pastor writes, “Luke uses very few words to share with us the baptism of our Lord.  But those few words lead us to very deep wellsprings of joy in the faithful ministry.  To identify with all people, to depend upon God in prayer for the strength to live and to love, and to hear the affirmation of your God as the source of your calling and purpose in life are the most enduring joys of life.  Theses are the blessing of our life together in Christ as the church.”[iii]  Our invitation today is to take this pivotal moment for Zenora and Reed, to receive the reminder of your own beloved status, and then to go back out into the world with a reenergized sense of purpose and renewal.  God says powerful words to us today.  I love you.  Our work this week is to say the same to a hurting world.  I love you.  Amen.


[i] Kathleen M. O’Connor, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 219.

[ii] Robert M. Brearley, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 240.

[iii] Brearley, 240.

On Feeling the Love…

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Photo credit: https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/people/valentine-s-day-the-politics-of-saying-i-love-you-1.3777525

I grew up in a loving household, so I am not really sure where I picked up this particular sentiment.  But for as long as I can remember, I have not really been comfortable saying the words “I love you,” to just anybody.  I would sign cards, “Love,” or “Much Love,” or maybe throw around the casual, “Love ya!”  But somehow those three words seemed big and perhaps reserved only very special people.  There is an intentionality in those three words that made me feel uncomfortable or even too vulnerable.  As someone who can be a little emotionally guarded because of my profession, those three words evoke an intimacy that sends off warning bells.  And I am not sure I am alone in this sentiment.  There was even a movie called, I Love You, Man!  As if adding the word “man” qualifies the three words enough to not make them too intimate. 

But in the last couple of years, and certainly during this pandemic, this sentiment has started to shift.  I found after a long, hard phone call, where a friend and I bore our souls about how hard this pandemic has been, the words just came out of my mouth.  My immediate instinct was a little panic about how vulnerable those words felt.  But when the friend said the words back, a shift began.  The lesson was reiterated in a pastoral visit with an aging parishioner who was approaching the end of life.  After a long talk, I allowed the three words to escape my mouth again.  The returning “I love you too,” made me realize skirting around the words, “I love you,” has been an unnecessary, and perhaps false, act of denying the truth of our relationships.  No matter how much I try to protect myself, the very act of being a pastor means entering into, and sometimes offering one-sided, relationships of love.  The acts of Jesus were often shocking because he vulnerably offered love to all.

This Sunday, we will celebrate two baptisms at church.  It will be a day full of love, even in these restricted times when most of our parishioners will have to join online.  But as I prepare for Sunday, I am especially struck by our lesson from Isaiah,[i] which offers words of consolation to a suffering people.  In verse four, God says to God’s people, “…you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” We have lots of images of God rolling around in our minds and hearts, but these are some of the most intimate, affirming ones I have read of late.  And I really needed to hear them.  Perhaps you need them today too.  If so, they are my gift to you.  And if you need to hear them aloud, join us on Sunday for online worship.  There will be plenty of love to go around!


[i] Isaiah 43.1-7