Items filtered by date: January 2018
14 January 2018

John 1:35-51

Look!  It’s Jesus!

January 14, 2018          Maple Grove UMC


          Every time I hear that gospel reading, I think:  so many sermons, so little time.  For example, there’s a whole sermon in Jesus’ question: “What are you looking for?”  Two of John the Baptist’s disciples start following Jesus, and he asks them, “What are you looking for?”  I wonder how often we don’t find what we’re looking for, because we don’t know what we’re really looking for.  We buy cars and remodel our houses and go on trips.  Nothing wrong with any of those, but are they what really want?  Jesus’ first question in the gospel is, “What are you looking for?”  What a great sermon that could be, but it will have to wait for another day. 

          I’ve preached before on that wonderful phrase:  Come and see.  Those two who start to follow Jesus ask him, “Rabbi, where are you staying?”  And he says, “Come and see.”  They came and clearly liked what they saw, for they spent the rest of the day, in fact, the rest of their lives with him.  Philip tries to get Nathaniel to meet Jesus.  Nathaniel is skeptical: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”  Philip doesn’t argue.  He just says, “Come and see.”  It's the gospel invitation.  Does Jesus really forgive everything?  Come and see!  Is there a place for me in this church?  Come and see!  Can you have faith and still have questions and doubts?  Come and see!  I promise to give you that sermon again soon.


          But this worship series is called, “A Fresh Start.”  What does this gospel reading have to say about that—a fresh start with God, a trans-formed life?  Well, did you notice how excited everyone in this story is to meet Jesus? Well, everyone but Nathaniel, and even he gets there.  When John the Baptist sees Jesus, he can’t help himself—he has to cry out, “Look! It’s the Lamb of God!”  And when those two guys start following Jesus, they can’t help themselves—they invite themselves over to his house.  And when Andrew has been with Jesus a while, he can’t help himself—he has to go and get his brother so he could meet Jesus too.  And when Philip starts following Jesus, he can’t help himself—he has to find Nathaniel and get him to meet Jesus too. 

          In this story—and I would say, in all of our stories—meeting Jesus is exciting.  But here’s the thing:  by now some of us have known Jesus a long time.  I have known Jesus longer than some of you have been alive.  In turn, others of you have known Jesus longer than I’ve been alive.  And if we let it, over time the excitement of being with Jesus can kind of wear off.  Instead of thinking, “Oh boy! I get to spend time with Jesus this morning,” we think, “Well, I suppose I’d better say my prayers today.”  The excitement wears off.  Instead of thinking, “Knowing Jesus has helped me feed the hungry and speak up for justice and welcome all kinds of strangers,” we begin to think, “I wish there weren’t so many people wanting help from me.”  The excitement wears off.  Instead of thinking, “I get to praise God with Christ’s body today,” we begin to think, “I’ve got to drag the kids to church again.”  The excitement can wear off.

          But the gospel reminds us—when we meet Jesus, it is so exciting that we can’t help ourselves:  we have to cry out, we have to tell others about him.  Oh, to find that excitement again!  Marcus Borg wrote a book called Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time.  It isn’t really about “A Fresh Start.”  It’s about how you can be a scientist, or a liberal, or a skeptic, or any number of things, and still find faith in Christ meaningful.  It’s a great book; I hope you’ll read it.  But for today, just the title is evocative.  How can we meet Jesus again, as though for the first time?  How can we find that life-changing, fresh-start-giving excitement of knowing and being known by Jesus Christ?


          Well, here’s the story I want to tell you.  Years ago, when our daughter Rachel was about three, our family was having dinner at Roadhouse Annie’s, a long-gone diner in the Short North.  At that age kids like to stand on the seat of a restaurant booth, turn around, and look at everyone but their own family.  Rachel was doing that when the door opened and in walked a bearded man in a hooded jacket.  When he pulled the hood off, it revealed shoulder-length brown hair.  And Rachel cried out, for everyone to hear, “Look!  It’s Jesus!”  Carolyn and I were mortified, but Rachel was so excited.

          Carolyn and I were reminiscing about that a few days ago, and Carolyn said, “Yeah, she was young enough to believe Jesus might walk into a restaurant in the Short North.”  To which I replied, “I wish I was young enough to believe Jesus might walk into a restaurant in the Short North.”  More on that a little later. . .

As important as that “Come and see” sermon is, as critical as it is for to reach out and invite others to see and know Jesus, it’s not ultimately our invitation that gives people a fresh start.  It’s Jesus who does that. It's knowing and being known by Jesus that changes your life.  It has changed mine . . .

          When I was in junior high I went to church camp.  The counselors were wonderful.  There were kids I really clicked with.  I loved it.  But on the last night, sitting around the campfire, I started to not feel so good.  There was this burning in my chest.  I was afraid I had food poisoning or heartburn.  I went to the dean, a very reserved retired pastor, and told him how I was feeling.  He laughed out loud.  “Son,” he said, “that’s not heartburn.  That's the love of Jesus in your heart.  Sit down and enjoy it.”  Turns out it was Jesus and it was exciting.  And every time that feeling comes back, it's like a fresh start.

During seminary I attended a church in downtown Atlanta.  A huge, historic building with just a handful of members.  But that tiny church ran a homeless shelter in the basement, a weekly soup kitchen that fed hundreds, a city-wide racial justice ministry, and goodness knows what else.  One time I asked, “How can such a small church do all this ministry?”  One older lady shrugged her shoulders and said, “Because it’s what Jesus want us to do!”  Once you’d met her Jesus, you see, you couldn’t just stand by and let people be homeless; once you’d met her Jesus, you couldn’t let racism go unchallenged.  Her Jesus was exciting and empowering.  He still is.  And right now we need her Jesus more than ever.  Do I hear an Amen?

          A family member went through an extended, life-threatening crisis.  I could be with them, even help them sometimes, but I couldn’t protect them and I couldn’t fix the problem.  All I could do was pray and wait.  And every morning, figuratively, Jesus would come and sit on a park bench with me.  Every morning he reminded me he loved me and handed me the strength to make it one more day.  I'm not sure you'd call that exciting exactly, but it was pretty amazing.

Do you need a fresh start?  Well, let me recommend meeting Jesus.  Knowing and being known by Jesus is a life-changing experience.  Or if you’ve met Jesus before, let me recommend meeting Jesus again, as though for the first time.  Rekindle the excitement of meeting Jesus that has changed your life and carried you through hard times before. 


Now let me add a caveat here:  meeting Jesus is exciting and life-changing, but he's no flash-in-the-pan.  There's another important word in this gospel reading, and it is "stay."  Not just "Look! It's Jesus!"  But also, "stay," or as we used to translate it, "abide."  When Jesus asked the two guys, "What are you looking for?", they asked him, "Where are you staying? . . . or better, "Where are you abiding?” They weren't asking for his address; they were asking his heart resided, I they could count on him for the long haul.  They were wondering what it would be like not just to meet Jesus, but to be with Jesus, to "abide" with him. 

          And I suspect that, even in this ADD, thrill-seeking culture, this is what people are most deeply looking for—not just a new experience, but a new life.  Not just the excitement of meeting Jesus, but the discipline and joy of abiding with Jesus.  Abiding without excitement is being stuck in a rut.  But excitement without ongoing relationship is fleeting and shallow.  We need not one or the other, but both.


So how do you recapture the excitement of meeting Jesus?  If you need a fresh start, what can you do?  Here are three ideas:

  1. Open your eyes!  This is what "We Spy God" is all about: finding God in the everyday.  I am convinced that God is always somewhere in the picture.  But sometimes it's hard to see.  Sometimes we forget to look.  Sometimes we harden our hearts.  The trick is to be willing to stand on the booth and look around, to be willing to cry out for all to hear:  "Look!  It's Jesus!"  You don't have to be three to do this.  All it takes is a little faith.  All it takes is looking for God in the everyday.  All it takes is letting excitement carry you away a bit.  The truth is, Jesus just might walk into a restaurant in the Short North, or into Maple Grove Church, or into your home or heart.  And that is pretty exciting!  Open your eyes.
  2. The ones who meet Jesus are often the ones who seek Jesus.  When John the Baptist pointed Jesus out, two of his disciples got up and went after him.  When Andrew told Simon about Jesus, he got up and went to Jesus.  Even Nathaniel, skeptical as he was, when Philip said, "Come and see," he went and saw, and it changed his life.  Episcopal theologian, Kat Banakis, has pointed out that Jesus wasn't even what these guys were looking for.2  It didn’t matter; they found him anyway.  If you need a fresh start, a transformed life, don't just sit there.  Look for Jesus.  Or look for love or truth or meaning, and you'll find Jesus along the way.
  3. Or, by way of contrast, if you long to meet Jesus again, go where you’ve met him before.  In his massive commentary on John's gospel, Frederick Bruner has a little section entitled, "The Return to the Scene of the Encounter."2  Today's gospel reading starts out with John the Baptist seeing Jesus walk by and crying out, "Look! It's the Lamb of God!"  But just six verses earlier, exactly the same thing had happened.  John was standing in that same place, saw Jesus coming, and cried out, "Look! It’s the Lamb of God."  Do you think, after the first meeting, John was hungry for another?  So he goes back to the same place, this time taking two of his disciples with him.  Bruner puts it like this:  The moral of the story is: return to your meeting place with Christ; stand there with your most serious friends, and wait for him to walk by again.  Have you met Jesus before at camp or on retreat?  Well, there are still camps and retreats.  Have you met Jesus in morning prayer or by singing in the choir?  Well . . .  Have you met Jesus serving at a food pantry or homeless shelter?  Well . . .  Have you met Jesus in conversation with a counselor or trusted friend?  Go there, and wait for Jesus to walk by again. 


Will you pray with me?  Lord Jesus, we are hungry for a fresh start; we ache for our lives to be transformed by your amazing love.  Lord, give us eyes to see you in the everyday.  Give us voices to cry out with excitement.  Give us the will to seek you out, to go where we are led or invited on a holy quest.  And give us hearts to wait for you, in places where we have met you before.  O come to us, abide with us, our Lord, Emmanuel.  Amen.



1 Kat Banakis, Reflections on the Lectionary, The Christian Century (December 20, 2017), 21.

2 Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), 99-100.

07 January 2018

Mark 1:4-11

Begin as Beloved!

January 7, 2018  Baptism of the Lord Sunday 

Maple Grove UMC


          Do you need a fresh start?  Benjamin did.  He went to his rabbi and said, "Rabbi, my life is in ruins. My wife left me and took all my money, so my business is in ruins and there’s no way I can pay off my debts. Help me!"  The rabbi replies, "Here’s what to do: open up your Bible, point to any page and do whatever it says."  Six months later, Benjamin visits again. "Rabbi," he says, "since I talked to you, I'm a new man. I've remarried, got rid of all my debts and become successful in a new business. Your advice changed my life. "So what did it say when you pointed to the Bible?" the rabbi asks. "Chapter 11!"

          Do you need a fresh start?  I’ve got a better suggestion than bankruptcy, better than randomly pointing in your Bible.  If you need a fresh start, how about the gospel of Jesus Christ?  How about the excitement of meeting Jesus for the first time? How about some good news and being all-in for Jesus? How about being healed of what hinders abundant life?  If you need a fresh start, how about baptism in the name of Jesus Christ?

          The gospel reading today is, in a way, Mark’s Christmas story.  Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark says nothing about Mary and Joseph, no trip to Bethlehem, no virgin birth.  For Mark Jesus is declared God’s Son at his baptism, his manger is the Jordan River.  And instead of angels singing, in Mark there comes the voice of God:  “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  No shepherd or angel could bring news more joyful than this:  “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”


          It’s so important that the Father spoke these words to Jesus at the very start of his ministry.  These are the first verses of the first chapter of Mark, and already God is saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  Jesus hasn’t yet resisted any temptations, he hasn’t called any disciples. He hasn’t yet told any parables, healed any sick people or taken up the cross.  Even before he has a chance to prove himself, already he is baptized.  Before he’s done anything to deserve it, God calls him “beloved.”  Before he’s had a chance to measure up or not, God says, “with you I am well pleased.”  Jesus begins as beloved.

          The four gospels establish Jesus’ identity in different ways.  Through the story of the virgin birth, Matthew and Luke say that Jesus is God’s Son in a literal, physical way.  John tells about the preexistent Word that in Jesus became flesh and dwelt among us.  But for Mark, it is Jesus’ baptism that establishes his identity.  Lamar Williamson says, “Jesus is who God says he is,”1  And God says he is beloved, pleasing.  He begins as beloved.


               One way of looking at what made Jesus unique, at what it means to be the Son of God, is that, unlike the rest of us, Jesus never forgot who God said he was.  He began as beloved, and continued to live out of his belovedness all the time.  When Satan tempted him, Jesus didn’t budge; he just held on to his belovedness.  When even the disciples misunderstood and denied him, Jesus could keep going—he knew he was beloved.  Even from the cross there was no anger, no striking back—these aren’t necessary when you know you’re beloved. 

          I am convinced that what causes much of our sin and suffering is that we forget we are beloved and pleasing to God.  And when we forget that, we feel anxious and insecure.  So some of us drink or take drugs to calm that anxiety.  So hungry are some people to be told that they’re loved, they’ll do almost anything to hear it.  People are greedy for money or they put others down or arrogantly boast—all to somehow prove themselves worthy.  None of that works, of course.  It can’t, because we are already pleasing to God.  We begin as beloved.


          The solution God has provided for all this is called baptism.  You don’t have to become beloved and you don’t have to make yourself pleasing to God.  You begin as beloved.  All you have to do is remember that; all you have to do is live out of the belovedness that’s already yours.  Baptism never washes off.  Your belovedness never expires.  You can do things that don’t please God, but you can never be unpleasing to God.  Because you are who God says you are.  And in baptism, God says you are beloved, pleasing.  You begin that way.

          I can’t tell you exactly how many times I’ve preached some version of this sermon.  I suppose for most Baptism of the Lord Sundays in my 27 years of ministry.  And I can’t tell you exactly how many more times I’ll preach some version of this sermon.  I suppose every Baptism of the Lord Sunday for however long God allows me to preach.  Or until everyone within the sound of my voice knows deep in your heart that you are already beloved and pleasing to God. 

          The trick is to remember that belovedness, not to forget how pleasing you are to God.  Chris Anderson is an English professor at Oregon State. One summer he spent an extended time in solitude in a hut by the ocean.  One evening during this time he got lonely and felt the urge to talk to somebody, but no one picked up the phone.  So he called his own number at the university.  When he heard his voice saying to leave a message, he did. 

          The summer passed.  When he walked into his office for fall semester, he was already tired and depressed, worried about the start of new classes.  “I sat down in my chair,” he writes, “picked up the phone and began to check my messages.  And there, from the past . . . was my other self. I’d forgotten about it.  I hadn’t thought about that message [for weeks].  But . . . there was my own voice, sending a message to myself, and it sounded so gentle and wise it was like the voice of someone else.  It said:  Remember: You are loved.2

               That’s what baptism is: a voice message from God.  And it says:  Remember: you are loved, you are loved, you are loved.  You begin as beloved.


          The baptism liturgy in our hymnal ends with a call to “Remember your baptism and be thankful.”  But those of us baptized as babies can’t remember our baptism, exactly.  Martin Luther had a better phrase.  When he faced temptation, when he doubted himself, when he endured depression and felt like giving up, he would say to himself over and over, in Latin:  Baptizatus sum.  It means, I am baptized.  Come what may, I am beloved and pleasing to God. 

          And now that is your voice message from God.  When you face temptation, when you doubt yourself, when you endure depression and feel like giving up, say it:  Baptizatus sum.  I am baptized.  I am beloved and pleasing to God.  Repeat it after me, so you can take it with you, forever and all the time:

Baptizatus sum.

I am baptized.

I am beloved and pleasing to God.



1 Lamar Williamson, Jr., Mark, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1983), 35.

2 Chris Anderson, Light When It Comes: Trusting Joy, Facing Darkness & Seeing God in Everything (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016). 18-19.

02 January 2018

Luke 2:1-7

Love. Born HERE.

Christmas Eve 2017     Maple Grove UMC


"Love. Born Here."  That's been our theme this Advent and Christmas season.  We asked, “What is it that’s born at Christmas?”  Well, LOVE is born at Christmas: for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.  We pondered what it means that Love is BORN Here.  Jesus was BORN as one of us in Bethlehem.  And Jesus said to us, "You must be born again"--the Holy Spirit gives each person a new life, a life of love.  And now we come to the final thrust of this theme:  "Love. Born Where?  Love.  Born HERE." HERE (in our midst) and HERE (in our hearts). 

But I suspect Mary had other thoughts that first Christmas Eve as she went into labor in a barn far from home:  Oh no, is love going to be born HERE?  And shepherds had been told that the baby the would find was the Messiah, the Lord.  When they found him sleeping in a feeding trough for animals, they must have thought, Love was born HERE?  And those grand Wisemen came from the opulence of the East to a two-bit village in a two-bit Roman province, wondering, Love was born HERE?

The answer, as every child in Sunday school knows, is: Yes!  Love was born here in this little town of Bethlehem.  Yes! Love was born in a stable because there was no room at the inn.  And Yes!  Love was born and laid in a manger where animals feed.  Yes, Love is Born.  HERE.

One thing Christmas means is this:  God's love is born in surprising, in unexpected places.  God's love is born wherever God chooses, wherever God is; and, of course, God is everywhere and always. 

This past summer Maple Grove member Don Ackerman, who is a captain in the U.S. Army, was leading a group of cadets in training exercises near Fort Knox, Kentucky.  They were in the field for weeks on end, often incommunicado, so he told me I probably wouldn’t hear from him for a while.  And out of the blue one day I get a phone call from Don.  He's whispering into the phone:  "I can't talk long.  The enemy is just over the hill.  But I've got a question for you."

"Oh dear.  What is it?"

"While we've been out here, our unit has had Bible study together every day.  And one cadet has invited Jesus into her heart and become a Christian.  She asked me if she could be baptized, but there's no way to get a chaplain here.  What should I do?"

          Now I know the rules about ordained people and baptism and all that.  But what are you going to do? "Can you find some water?" I asked.

"Probably tomorrow we can," Don said.

"Well then, baptize her!  And make sure she finds a church home on her next post."

The next day I receive a photo of a newly baptized almost 2nd lieutenant coming up out of a watering hole in the woods, surrounded by eight or ten tired, dirty soldiers. 

Was Love really born THERE? you might ask.  And the answer is: Yes, sir!  Right there, sir!

There will always be skeptics. There will always be people who will say, Oh, love probably won't be born HERE or probably not THERE.  Love probably won’t be born in this person, certainly not in that person.  And there will always be discouraged people who think, Given the state of the world or the way my luck is going, maybe love won't be born at all, any more.  But every year Christmas proves the skeptics wrong and wins the discouraged over.  Yes! Love is born.  HERE.  A familiar song tells the story:

O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie.
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light.
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.


Love is Born.  Here.

Of course, it love is born all the time, all year long. But Christmas is a special time to look around and see how love is being born, here:

  • You should have seen the children at pageant rehearsal a week ago!  Controlled chaos, you could call it.  Thirty-three kids singing their hearts out, caring for each other, and learning about Jesus.  I'm telling you, love is born here!
  • At Faith Family Worship, our new intergenerational experience, a few Friday nights ago there people of all ages singing and dancing, praying, and doing crafts together around tables.  At the end couple of kids crying.  I went to see what was wrong.  They weren’t crying because they didn't want to be here but because they didn't want to go home!  Love is born here!
  • In September we had our Over-80s Luncheon.  I looked around at all of that wisdom, all of that experience, all the years of service gathered around those tables.  And it struck me--love has been born here for a long time!
  • More than usual, this past year I've witnessed brothers and sisters in Christ disagree with one another, sometimes passionately, about important matters.  But for the most part—not always, but for the most part--they spoke their piece, they listened carefully, they shook hands, and then came back together to worship and pray.  In this angry and divided world, it’s so important that love is born here!
  • At one of our Muslims, Methodists & More potlucks down in fellowship hall, I ate dinner with refugees from Syria.  One of them tearfully said to me, "This is such an important event.  I thought everyone here hated us.  Now I see there’s love here too!"  Love is born here!
  • I've had dozens of people thank me for Maple Grove's Thanksgiving Day dinner—the delicious food, real plates and silverware, the warmth of the welcome.  I have little to do with that, but I say, "You are so welcome."  Because love is born here.
  • On Veterans Day we blessed and sent devotional books to military members associated with our church.  A young soldier in Texas texted me:  "I was having quite a bad day—and I checked the mail to find a prayer book with a card from the church.  Thank you! You have must made my day."  I'm telling you, love is born here.

It happens all the time, all year around.  But Christmas is a special time.  Just look around!  Where here do you see God's love being born?  And the song tells the story:



How silently, how silently

The wondrous gift is given

So God imparts to human hearts

The blessings of His heaven

No ear may hear His coming

But in this world of sin

Where meek souls will receive him still

The dear Christ enters in 

And it all starts right here (in your heart).  Your heart is where God’s love most needs and aches to be born.  Sometimes it may feel like love is beyond your reach—that it's too risky to love some people or in some ways. That you've been too mistreated or too misunderstood to love again.  Maybe you've just felt forsaken and alone for too long for your tired old heart to find love again.  The good news is you don't have to find love.  God sends the love.  Christ is the love.  God so loved the world that he sent his only Son.  God’s love is born for us and in us—here.

          All you have to do is set a manger out for Christ.  All you have to do, like Mary, is say, “Okay, Lord, let it be with me according to your word.” All you have to do is consent to the birth, or the rebirth, of love in your heart.  And Christmas I the perfect time.  At Christmas we somehow know that the way things are is not way they always have to be.  Because Love is Born.  Here.

Here’s what not to do: don’t leave this place today without letting love be born HERE.  Long for love, pray for love, consent to love, let love be born in you this day.  And the song concludes:

O holy Child of Bethlehem

Descend to us, we pray

Cast out our sin and enter in

Be born to us today

We hear the Christmas angels

The great glad tidings tell

O come to us, abide with us

Our Lord Emmanuel


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