Pastor Glenn

Pastor Glenn

Rev. Glenn Schwerdtfeger, Pastor Maple Grove UMC
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Luke 24:13-35

Journey with Jesus—The Emmaus Road

March 10, 2013

This sermon is for people who sometimes wonder, "Is Jesus is really real?"  It’s for you if you’ve ever doubted that God was there.  I’m preaching to you today if your religion has ever let you down, if you’ve ever run out of hope.  Which means you don’t need this sermon if you are 100% sure of your faith all the time.  If you never have any doubts about God or Jesus, then God bless you, I’m not talking to you today.  Feel free to look at the bulletin.  Take out a pew Bible and read for a while.  Make a grocery list.  Because this sermon, and this Bible story, are for people who sometimes wonder where God is and if Jesus is real. 

Tom Long has pointed out that for a lot of people, the Christian faith seems disconnected from the rest of how we think and feel and get on with life.  Such people, he says, aren’t atheists for the most part.  They may believe, kinda-sorta, in a God who is loving and good; they might accept that Jesus lived and died and rose again.  But these are distant truths.  The problem for a lot of people, he says, isn’t that the faith isn’t believable; the problem is that it isn’t relevant, it doesn’t seem to matter.  They affirm the faith in the same way they are able to affirm that the planet Venus is 67 million miles from the sun.  Trustworthy information, to be sure, but not much help in living every day.


If you are one of those people, or if you know someone like that, then this Bible story is for you.  For we journey with Jesus today on the road to Emmaus.  But here’s the thing:  when we journey with Jesus on this road, we don’t always know he’s there. 

The original journey to Emmaus took place on Easter day.  In the wake of Jesus’ death, two of his followers have given up and left town.  While they’re walking and talking, Jesus comes and walks with them.  But, Luke says, "their eyes were kept from recognizing him."  Not "they failed to recognize him," but "their eyes were kept from recognizing him."  In other words, it wasn’t their fault, it wasn’t some problem with their eyes or a lack of faith.  No one’s blaming them. 

Maybe grief or disappointment got in their eyes.  After all, their hopes in Jesus have been dashed, their expectations left unmet.  They’d been so excited about Jesus, put so much faith in him, that when he died there didn’t seem to be anything to do but leave, put it all behind them.  Oh sure, there were some people who said Jesus was alive again, but who could believe talk like that?  They hadn’t seen him yet.  So on they walked, telling this stranger about their problems with Jesus, never suspecting the stranger was Jesus.

The journey to Emmaus is for the disappointed, for those whose expectations have gone unmet.  Surely everybody has walked that road some time.  It’s the road you walk when you don’t make the team, when your candidate loses, your sweetheart won’t talk to you, your loved one has died.

  1. 2   It’s the road you find yourself on when all the ways you used to feel close to God just don’t work anyThat’s the Emmaus road.  Surely everyone has been there at one time or another. 

But here’s the amazing and wonderful promise of the gospel:  on your road of loneliness and despair, you are not alone.  Oh, you may think you’re alone, but you’re not.  That one who joins you along the way, the one who hears your disappointment and your heartache, the one you complain to about Jesus letting you down—yep, that’s Jesus. 

Which means that Jesus may not look like you expected.  No beard or sandals, no long hair or piercing eyes.  Jesus might look like, well, like one of these Stephen Ministers we commissioned today.  Jesus might look like Cathy Davis as she listens to you after church.  Jesus might look like the stranger at the hospital who brings you a tissue when you’re crying, or the coach who offers encouragement when you’re about to quit.

Why do I call these people Jesus?  Because the Emmaus road story does.  And because it’s true.  If you’re looking for the Risen Jesus in all his resurrected glory, you may look forever.  If you’re expecting a voice from heaven or some magic sign, you’re probably still looking.  And if you’re waiting for absolute certainty before you believe, you may wait the rest of your life.  The promise of the gospel is this:  when you think you’re all alone, you’re not.  Jesus is the companion along the way. 

Here’s another thing about the Emmaus road:  a lot of times we don’t know it’s Jesus until later, after the fact.  Cleopas and his friend walk with Jesus for miles.  They talk about their faith and about their lack of faith.  They share a meal, never knowing, never even suspecting who it is.  It isn’t until Jesus takes bread, blesses and breaks it, and gives it to them that they know who it is.  These actions, this bread—they’ve seen this before.  They remember.  But no sooner do they recognize him than he vanishes; he’s gone again.  It’s only looking back that they know.  Oh, the signs were there all along—Jesus explained the scriptures to them, their hearts burned within them--but only looking back do they put it all together.

Isn’t that the way it is?  Years ago my wife, Carolyn, had to have surgery and afterwards developed internal bleeding.  It became critical and by the time they identified the problem, they had to rush her to surgery.  As they wheeled her away, I grabbed the surgeon’s arm and asked, "Doctor, is she going to be all right?"  He paused and said carefully, "Well, if she makes it through the night, she’ll probably be okay."  Let’s just say I was not comforted.

And there I sat, by myself, in a hospital room at Riverside.  It was a long surgery.  There was a wooden chair in the room, which I turned into a makeshift altar and knelt before it in prayer.  But I’ll admit, praying that night felt like talking into a dead phone line.  Never had I felt so all alone. 

But every so often, every forty-five minutes or so, a nurse put her head in the door and asked, "Are you doing okay?"  And I would mumble, "Yeah, I’m all right."  Finally I must have fallen asleep, because the next thing I knew that nurse was shaking my shoulders and saying, "Wake up, sir, wake up—the surgeon is ready to talk to you."  And suddenly I knew, I just knew, that Jesus had been with me all night long.  The nurse vanished out the door.  But looking back, I knew.  I’d been on the Emmaus road, and on that road, even when you think you’re all alone, you’re not.  Jesus is your companion on the way.

But we only seem to know it in retrospect, after the fact.  So if you’re on the Emmaus road—the road of doubt and disappointment—take heart, be patient, and keep your eyes open.  Jesus is there somewhere.

So if you’re one of those people I’m preaching to today—if you sometimes wonder if Jesus is real, if you’ve doubted that God was there, if your faith has let you down or if you’ve ever run out of hope—what can you do to find Jesus again?  What can you do to see and feel that God is there?  Well, you can’t make it happen.  Remember, it says "their eyes were kept from recognizing" Jesus.  It wasn’t that they weren’t looking.  And they didn’t recognize him until he blessed and broke the bread.  Revelation comes from God, not from us.

Still, in this story there are things you can do to cultivate, to prepare the way for an experience of God.  And they’re simple things.  When people get spiritually discouraged they seem to think they have to do some new and drastic thing.  They’ll change churches, or try out a whole new religion, or give up altogether.  If those things work, praise God.  But the Emmaus story suggests far more basic things.

First, welcome strangers.  What would have happened if those two discouraged disciples hadn’t welcomed the stranger to talk and stay with them?  They would have remained discouraged and probably wouldn’t have been disciples for long.

This really happened:  one Friday night at Maynard Avenue Church we were in the parlor eating pizza and doing a Bible study on this very scripture.  I asked that question, "What would have happened if these two disciples hadn’t welcomed this stranger?"  Barb said, "Then they would have missed seeing Jesus."  And right then, I mean right then, two people came to the door.  They were a bit disheveled and weren’t wearing coats, though it was cold out.  They were reluctant to come in; they were shy about interrupting.  But we convinced them to stay for Bible study and then to eat some pizza.  Eventually we got them coats and a place to stay and formula for their grandchild, while they loved us and helped us know what it means to be the hands and feet of Christ.  Did not our hearts burn within us that night, and in our years of fellowship with that family!  And none of it would have happened if we hadn’t welcomed a stranger. 

Second, open the Bible.  I know, I know, for a lot of people the Bible has become the last place they’d look for the presence of God.  It’s a hard book.  Parts of it seem oppressive and out of date.  It’s gets used in heavy-handed ways.  And it’s still the Word of the Living God.  It was when Jesus explained the scriptures to them that the two disciples felt their hearts on fire.  If the Bible’s not working for you, read a different part of it.  Join a different study group.  Find a different teacher.  But don’t give up on the Bible. 

And finally, most of all, Jesus became known to them in the breaking of the bread.  Often in our spiritual discouragement we abandon the old for something new, or for nothing at all.  But Jesus has not left the Communion Table.  The Lord is everywhere, but he is always present in the breaking of the bread. 

So if I’ve been preaching to you today—if you sometimes wonder if Jesus is real, if you’ve doubted that God is there, if your faith has let you down or if you’ve ever run out of hope, here’s the promise of the gospel:  when you think you’re all alone, you’re not.  Jesus is the companion along the way.  It may not seem like much--a piece of bread, an open Bible, a stranger on the way.  It may not be much, but here’s what it is--it’s Jesus.  He’s with you all the way.

  • Thomas Long, Whispering the Lyrics: Sermons for Lent and Easter (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Company, Inc., 1995), 96.
  • See Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1995), 20.


Luke 23:26-27

Journey with Jesus—To the Cross

February 24, 2013 Maple Grove UMC

It’s just a tiny part of Jesus’ journey to the cross, so small you might almost miss it:  apparently Jesus wasn’t physically able to carry the cross by himself.  So they pulled a man out of the crowd, just a guy coming in from the country, Simon of Cyrene, and they made him carry it the rest of the way.  It’s just one detail in the journey to the cross, yet it makes this a story about bearing burdens and sharing burdens.  And how much of life is about bearing burdens and sharing them.

Here’s one thing about the story of Simon of Cyrene:  even Jesus needed help carrying his cross.  And if Jesus Christ needed help carrying his cross, what makes any of us think we can carry our burdens alone?  Maybe you’re not this way, but it’s hard for me to ask for help.  In fact, even when help is offered, it can be hard for me to accept it.  Again, maybe you’re not this way, but I was raised to be tough and independent, to pay my own way, to clean up my own messes, and not to impose on anyone.  That’s a good lesson to learn, but if you learn it too well, it makes it hard to let people in, hard to get help when you do need it.  But if even Jesus needed help carrying the cross, what makes me think I need to carry my burden by myself?

I do tend to be like that, but I’m not the only one.  I’ve seen people who get hurt or have surgery and then reinjure themselves because they try to do too much and not let anyone help.  I’ve seen families with a financial problem or a child with behavior issues remain in crisis because they keep it to themselves and don’t let anyone know about it.  Depression, almost by definition, causes people to turn inward and not let anyone share that terrible burden.  Sometimes I get all anxious and worked up because I feel solely responsible for dealing with some problem, even though there are plenty of people who would share that responsibility with me.  And once I let someone carry the load with me, the problem immediately seems less daunting.  So if even Jesus Christ needed help carrying his cross, surely it’s okay for us to let someone share our burdens too.  It doesn’t take anything away from what Jesus accomplished on the cross that he needed a little help along the way.

There are all kinds of burdens in life.  There are causes that people dedicate themselves to—civil rights or curing cancer or feeding the hungry.  There are people who taken in foster children or build houses with Habitat or shovel their elderly neighbor’s snow.  And even though these things can take a lot of time and sometimes money, we may not think of them as crosses to bear, they may not feel like burdens at all, because we choose to do them, we take them on willingly. 

But not all burdens are like that.  There is no evidence that Simon of Cyrene wanted or decided to carry Jesus’ cross.  So far as we know, he’d never heard of Jesus, didn’t know he’d cross paths with Jesus that day.  Luke simply says that "they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus."  He just happened to be there, and the soldiers just happened to pick him out of the crowd, and this cross just happened to get laid on his shoulders. 

But that doesn’t mean what Simon did wasn’t important or any less necessary.  For the rest of his life, in fact for all eternity, Simon of Cyrene is the one who carried the cross for Christ.  He may not have chosen it, but he did it—and that matters immensely.  "We are defined by many things," writes Erik Kolbell, "including both the burdens we choose and the burdens that choose us."  Maybe most of all by the burdens that choose us.

Sometimes people will say about a difficult thing in their life—a handicapping condition, a special-needs child, "Well, I guess that’s just my cross to bear."  I used to object to that strenuously, saying, or at least thinking, "No, no, a cross isn’t something that just happens to you; it’s something you take up on purpose, for God."  But the story of Simon of Cyrene is making me rethink that.  There are lots of burdens in life that we do not choose, but they are still ours to bear, and it still matters immensely how we bear them.

Now I want to be very careful here.  I’m not talking only about huge, life-changing burdens.  How we bear even little things matters.  The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, wrote in his Notes on the Bible, "Great crosses are occasions of great improvement: and the little ones, which come daily, and even hourly, make up in number what they want in weight. We may in these daily and hourly crosses make effectual [sacrifice] of our will to God; which [sacrifrice], so frequently repeated, will soon amount to a great sum."  Little burdens matter too.

I also want to be clear that there are some burdens that are not good or right to bear.  Wives who were beaten or humiliated at home used to be told just to be submissive and put up with it, to bear that burden.  Not so!  That’s not a cross to bear—it’s abuse.  Let people help you get out.  Some people feel like they have to cover for an alcoholic or drug-addicted loved one, that silence is their burden to bear.  Not so!  That’s not a cross to bear either—it’s codependency.  And you can get help.

So I want to be very careful in talking about bearing burdens, but still there are burdens that are simply ours to bear—some we choose, and others that choose us.  And how you bear yours will define your life.  When a burden comes into your life—a cancer diagnosis, a handicapped child, a loved one with dementia—the tendency is to ask and wonder why.  Why me?  Why this?  But again I think Erik Kolbell is right when he says that when something like this happens, there is ultimately no purpose in asking why, "because to ask is to assume there is some sort of ethereal logic behind who suffers and who does not.  [But] God did not place Simon at that spot at the roadside, any more than [God] inflicts a child with a congenital disorder . . . or invites a plague upon a family’s livelihood.  No," Kolbell says, "the question we must ask is not why the cross is lashed to our shoulders, but what we will do with it."  And, I might add, with what kind of attitude will we bear it. 

No burden has to be borne alone, for even Jesus Christ needed help carrying the cross.  And yet, alone or with help, some burdens must be borne.  Simon of Cyrene neither wanted nor expected it, but he bore a great burden that day—crushingly heavy, deadly sorrowful.  But it became his to bear, and he bore it for Jesus, and in ways he could never have known, he contributed to the salvation of the whole world.

As a Sufi sage once put it, "We must bear that portion of the world’s pain that has been entrusted to our care."  The question isn’t whether  we will bear it--that option is not available to us.  The question is how we will bear it, with bitterness or with purpose and determination.  Burdens—even bitter burdens—are transformed by love.

The song I want you to hear, the song that is really the sermon today, was first recorded in 1969 by the Hollies, with Elton John on piano  And it goes like this:

The road is long, with many a winding turn

That leads us to who knows where.

But I am strong, strong enough to carry him.

He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.

If I’m laden at all, I’m laden with sadness

That everyone’s heart isn’t filled with the gladness

Of love for one another.

We journey with Jesus today to the cross, bearing with love our share of the world’s pain, a

Luke 4:1-13 

February 17, 2013 


Our theme for Lent is “Journey with Jesus.” Each week we’ll go with Jesus to some significant place—into the wilderness and to the cross, to the upper room and on the Emmaus road, the somber path to Gethsemane and the joyful entry into Jerusalem, all culminating in the difficult but blessed journey to belief on Easter. Along the way we’ll sing our traveling song—“Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” And as we journey we’ll bring shoes, both new and gently used, that others might journey too. 


We’re calling it “Journey with Jesus,” but in some ways, a better word might be pilgrimage. The word “journey” implies that you’ll wind up some place else, and that’s what we mean, exactly. As one writer puts it, on a pilgrimage you go to holy places and then come back home. “We end where we begin,” he says, “but we are not the same,” because along the way we have encountered God in new and deeper ways.i So won’t you join me on a journey, a pilgrimage, with Jesus this Lent? And when we return, I pray we will not be the same, but will have a closer walk with Christ. 2 


Today we journey with Jesus into the wilderness. The wilderness is a familiar place in the scriptures. After escaping from Egypt, the Israelites spent forty years in the wilderness, following the pillars of cloud and fire, learning to trust God before entering the Promised Land. The prophet Elijah spent forty days and forty nights fasting in the wilderness, fleeing for his life, before experiencing the Lord in a still, small voice. It was out of the wilderness that John the Baptist appeared, calling for repentance and preparing the way of the Lord. The wilderness is a deserted and inhospitable landscape, a place of soul-searching and testing. 


The wilderness is such difficult place that you wonder why anyone, even Jesus, would go there. Well, I can’t say why you might go there, but we know why Jesus went to the wilderness. Luke tells us that after Jesus was baptized, the Holy Spirit led him there. Mark’s gospel is even stronger, saying the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness. Jesus went to the wilderness, the place of testing and temptation, because God wanted him there, because he needed to go. But note that not even Jesus went because he wanted to; he went because he had to. For many of us, for me at least, it’s not usually that I choose to go to the wilderness, even if I know I need to; it’s more like the wilderness comes to me. I deal with testing and temptation when I have to, when the Spirit makes me. 3 


For Jesus the wilderness was a real place, the barren Judean countryside, where he fasted and prayed for forty days and forty nights. And it was at this point, when he was weak and famished, that the devil came and whispered in his ear. Some people have a wilderness place of their own—a retreat center, a cabin in the woods, maybe just a corner of the basement set apart for God-time. But wilderness doesn’t have to be a place “out there;” it can be a place “in here,” a landscape of the heart. Here’s my wilderness: it’s my journal. This is where I sort out the Tempter’s voice in my own life, where I wrestle with what is true and right and good. 


What does the wilderness look like for you? Fred Craddock has pointed out that if he were given a piece of paper and asked to draw a picture of the temptation of Jesus, he wouldn’t draw Jesus over here and then another figure over there with a pitchfork and a red tail. That’s more like a cartoon than a temptation. No, he says, if I were drawing the scene, Jesus would be the only one in the picture. He wouldn’t be alone, but he’d be the only one you see.ii Just like the wilderness, the Tempter isn’t just “out there;” he’s “in here” too. 4 


Temptation comes in many forms. We all know people—many of us are people—who struggle every day with whether or not to have a drink, to place a bet, use the credit card, visit that inappropriate website. We all know people—probably we’ve all been people—liable to succumb to anger or despair. In some ways these kinds of overt and obvious temptations can define our lives, and our families’ lives. 


But the temptations Jesus faced in the wilderness were of a different, even more insidious nature. Here’s how Tom Long has summed up what Jesus faced: These three temptations, he writes, were not enticements to do bad things; they [were], at root, invitations to be somebody else, to live some life other than that of the beloved son of God.iii Maybe at some level, temptation is always that—not just to do bad things, but to be somebody other than who you are, which is, of course, a beloved child of God. 


You go into the wilderness to learn who you trust and to trust who you are. Come on, Jesus, coaxed the devil, if you are the Son of God, turn this rock into bread. But Jesus knew about manna in the wilderness; he knew that the wilderness is where we learn to trust that God will provide. So the devil showed him all the kingdoms of the world and offered all authority to him, if only Jesus would worship him. But Jesus knew what kind of king he was, and he knew whom to worship. So the devil tried one more time: If 5 you are the Son of God, he said, jump off the top of the temple. Shouldn’t we find out if God would really save you? But Jesus knew that if you really trust someone, you don’t have to test them—you already know. 


You go into the wilderness to learn who you trust and to trust who you are. The Tempter preys upon our insecurity, our need to please and measure up, our desire to be somebody. Notice how the devil begins: “If you are the Son of God”--trying to get Jesus wondering. “Gosh, am I? Am I sure?” Self-doubt, Tom Long says, is the cancer that eats away at identity. “If you are the Son of God,” the devil repeats, “do this or do that.” But Jesus stands firm: “I am the Son of God, and I don’t need to do anything to prove it.” 


You go into the wilderness to learn who you trust and to trust who you are. And the Tempter preys upon our insecurity. 


  • If you’re a real man, the devil says, you’ll work all the time. If you’re a real man, you’ll keep your feelings to yourself. If you’re a real man, you’ll have sexual conquests to prove it. But you see, you can say, I am a real man, a beloved child of God, and none of those things are who I am. 
  • If you’re a real woman, the devil says, you’ll stay at home with the kids even if you don’t want to. If you’re a real woman, you’ll be able 6 to entice men into bed, you’ll do anything to look thirty when you’re fifty. But you see, you can say, I am a real woman, a beloved daughter of God, and none of those things are who I am. 
  • If you really loved me, someone says to you (or is it the Tempter?), you’d do whatever I want. If you really loved me, you’d let me do whatever I want. But you see, you can say, I do love you. I also respect you and love myself, and that is not who I am. 
  • You go into the wilderness to learn who to trust and to trust who you are. And when the devil had finished every test, Luke says, he departed from him until an opportune time. When is that opportune time? 
  • It could be the teen years, when the devil comes and says, “So you’re wondering if anyone really loves you, if you’ll ever fit in? Well, I know some ways to get people to love you. Here’s something you can do and you’ll be the life of the party. But is it who you are? 
  • The opportune time could be those mid-life years, when the devil comes and says, “So you’re wondering if it’s all been worth it, feeling like all the spice has faded out of life? Well, I’ve got some ways to put spice back into life. These things will make you feel alive again!” But is it who you are? 7 
  • It could be when you’re sick or frail, and the devil comes and whispers in your ear, “There’s nothing left for you any more; you’re not worth a thing any more. You may as well grow bitter and give up.” 


Those are just examples, of course. When does the Tempter come and whisper in your ear? What does he say? When he talks to you, whose voice will you trust? What he tells you, is it you? Is it who you really are? I had a friend who got caught up in some unethical behavior at work. It got to the place he couldn’t sleep at night. Finally, he ‘fessed up. He was penalized and lost his job. I asked him, “What made you change?” “Because all that,” he told me, “is not who I am.” One way of learning who you are is by deciding what you’re not. 

You go into the wilderness to learn who you trust and to trust who you are. And we begin our Journey with Jesus there, in that soul-searching, life-wrestling place. Who do you trust? And who are you, really? 


i Brett Webb-Mitchel, Follow Me: Christian Growth on the Pilgrim’s Way (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2006), 29 & 160. 

ii Fred B. Craddock, Cherry Log Sermons (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 16. 

iii Thomas Long, Whispering the Lyrics: Sermons for Lent and Easter (Lima, Ohio: CSS Publishing Company, Inc., 1995), 21. 

 Luke 9:28-36 

February 20, 2013 


A few days before the Transfiguration, Jesus was telling the disciples what it would mean for him to be the Messiah: “The Son of Man,” he said, “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Wow—that was hard to hear. Then he went on to tell them what it would mean for them to be his disciples: “If any want to become my followers,” he said, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for may sake will save it.” (Luke 9:18-27) That’s even harder to hear. 


That’s a tough road for the disciples. Daunting, exhausting, not at all what they expected when they started following Jesus. Jesus didn’t present it as a choice or option—just the way it is, a whole lifetime of sacrifice and self-denial. Luke doesn’t tell us how the disciples responded to Jesus. Maybe they doubted. Maybe they questioned whether they were doing the right thing. Maybe they wondered if they were up to it. 


But eight days later came a sign—the transfiguration of Jesus, in the midst of the doubting and wondering, a glimpse of glory, a momentary 2 vision of the splendor behind the everydayness of Jesus. And though, as often happened at important moments, the disciples were weighed down with sleep, though Peter had to talk without having anything to say, still they saw. 


It didn’t last long, but just for a moment Jesus was transfigured, and the three disciples saw their world and their Messiah with new eyes. Jesus was still going to suffer and die. The disciples would still walk a path of cross-carrying and self-denial. Yet for a moment . . . there was a sign along the way. Jesus was transfigured, the path confirmed, the light behind every darkness peeked through. And they went down the mountain and on with Jesus. 


Life often is a tough road. Daunting, exhausting, not at all what we expected when we first set out. And often the road doesn’t come to us with much choice or option—just the way it is. So in the spirit of transfiguration, I offer you a story, a sign along your way. 


They were swept along like driftwood in the swollen stream called the Interstate Highway. Frank and Minnie found it nearly impossible to navigate in the city even when it was dry and still daylight. But today the 3 windshield wipers were on full tilt; every time a semi passed they were blinded for a heart-stopping moment. And it was pitch dark out already, or as dark as it gets in the city, and they were just now approaching to the outskirts of town. 


“I told you we should leave early to get here before dark,” Frank informed Minnie for perhaps the seventh time during the trip. “But oh no! You just have to get your hair fixed first. Now when we wind up lost in the slums or off in a ditch somewhere, at least your hair will look great!” 


“Just be quiet, dear,” Minnie told her husband in her “everything’s under control” tone of voice. “You know I always get my hair done on Saturday. It’s something I can count on—I deserve something I can count on. Besides, we’re doing fine—we’re right on time and we’re not lost.” 


“Not yet, anyway,” Frank countered. “But we’re bound to miss a turn somewhere, as dark as it is. Look, you should be getting over to the right, or we’ll miss the exit, even if we do see it, which we probably won’t. Besides, you know how I hate it when you drive way over in these left lanes. What if some nut crosses the median and hits us head on? Is that what you want?” 


“Okay then,” she said for perhaps the seventh time during the trip, as she pretended to pull off to the side of the road, “You drive!” 4 


“Now, Minnie,” he protested, as he always did, “You know I can’t drive any more.” 


But as always his wife’s remark hurt him enough to keep him quiet for a while. It wasn’t quite true, either, that he couldn’t drive. He drove the 2. miles to work each day and down to the corner store for cigarettes. But he hadn’t driven much farther than that for nearly five years now, since just a few months after Maggie left home (or as Minnie put it, when she was angry with him—since he’d kicked her out of the house). Whatever . . . he didn’t have the energy to argue the point any more. Their daughter was gone, and he was left with a nervous condition. The doctor had some long Latin name for it; he just called it his “spells.” His heart raced, his hands shook, he broke into a sweat. And since it seemed worse when he drove, he left all the driving to Minnie these days. And she never had been too confident as a driver. 


So on she drove, in the rain, in the dark, toward the Mercy Psychiatric Hospital, where they had never been before. Oh, they’d been by it a time or two, but not so as to remember how to get there. In those days, they just passed it merrily by, not thinking they’d actually know people there. Even now, when it was their destination, the hospital barely seemed to be part of their world—more like part of some long, bad dream. 5 


Suddenly Minnie swerved to the right, catching Frank off guard. “This can’t be the exit!” he shouted. “I never saw the sign.” 


“25 South,” it said, Minnie assured him. 


“No,” he said thoughtfully, “I think it said 25 North back there.” 


“I thought you didn’t see the sign, dear.” 


And so she had quieted him again. But to tell the truth, she wasn’t sure it was the right exit—what with the rain, and yes, it was harder to get around in the dark, she thought, but of course, only to herself. They were on a busy city street now, with stoplights, and turn lanes to stay out of, and everyone driving far too fast. And wouldn’t you know it—there were big green reflective signs to tell them what streets they were crossing, but no signs at all to tell them what highway there were actually on. 


“I wish there were a sign along here somewhere,” she muttered. 


Still shamed into silence, Frank’s thoughts wandered, and it occurred to him how typical this trip was of his life with Minnie—setting off in the dark for an unknown destination. How many signs they had missed along their way together! How many times these pointless squabbles had substituted for real conversation. Their marriage had all but come apart, after more than thirty years, when Maggie left—and yes, he had sort of sent her 6 packing. But he’d had to do it. What else could I do? A man can’t encourage such behavior forever, and not in his own house! He had scolded, but tried to understand, when Maggie had dabbled in drugs in high school. He’d let Minnie talk to her about sex, whatever good that had done. They’d bailed her out of financial crisis more times than he could count. Why couldn’t she be more like her brother? A marketing analyst out West—stable, married, two kids, never any trouble with him. But one day five years ago, no word from her in months, Maggie shows up at the door like a tornado—strung out on drugs, obviously pregnant, accompanied by some deadbeat she stressed was not the baby’s father. Of course, she made a scene on the front lawn, they argued, and she called him a name he’d never used of any human being in his life—right out in front of her mother, with all the neighbors peering out their windows. Right then and there he told her to go away and not to come back. No one who spoke to him like that was any daughter of his. 


And he had not spoken to her since that day, and his memories of her fossilized around that scene on the lawn. It hurt too much to remember the good times with a daughter he’d disowned. One time Maggie wrote to them, wanting to come home, but he told Minnie to inform Maggie she had to change first, and that was the end of that. 7 


Minnie went to see her on the rare occasions Maggie called. She reported Maggie’s life to be first better, then worse, by fits and starts. But remembering the scene on the lawn, Frank had always refused to go, as a matter of principle. Until now. A few days ago Maggie had called to say she’d checked herself into a new drug rehab program at Mercy Hospital. She was trying to pick up the pieces of her life, trying to start all over again, calling herself “Margaret” now. And wouldn’t they come see her at the hospital? Frank never actually agreed to go; he just got in the car when Minnie left, saying he was tired of always hearing her nag him about not going. But on the inside he ached to have his daughter back. Still, he wasn’t sure he was doing the right thing by going. What would they have to say to each other? And Margaret, she was calling herself now. He’d never caller her that. She’d always been little Maggie to him. . . 


Minnie drove on, unsure of whether they were getting closer to their destination or farther from it. At last there it was, on the left: MERCY PSYCHIATRIC HOSPITAL, the sign read in big, bold letters, as though advertising for business. She started to turn in. 


“Not here, not here!” Frank corrected her. “You said it was the third entrance.” For once, she did not argue with him. For once, he was right. 8 


Across the parking lot, to a receptionist’s desk, up an elevator, down a long hallway, and back through five years of time. Her door was open—it was not like a hospital room at all—hanging plants, a little fridge in the corner, her guitar on the bed. 


“Come in, Mom,” she said . . . “and Daddy.” They stepped in, looking awkwardly at one another, across those five years and so much pain. 


“Well, dear, tell us about this new program,” Minnie began hesitantly. His daughter spoke about new meds and counseling sessions, but Frank did not hear. As she spoke she was transfigured before his eyes. She appeared to him not as the demon girl on the lawn, not as the strung-out addict, but as a normal-looking young woman, just trying to find a normal life. Tears rolled uncontrollably down his face. He didn’t know how to cry softly—he hadn’t had much practice, so he cried clumsily, heaving almost violently. She stopped talking, and they embraced, tentatively at first, then completely. 


“Maggie,” he said, “Margaret, I mean . . . I’m sorry. I want you to know you can always come . . . home . . . if you want to.” 


“Daddy,” she sobbed, “I do want to. I’m really trying this time.” 9 


On the drive home, Frank barely noticed the roads, hardly gave Minnie any directions. “You know it’s not going to be easy, dear, even now,” Minnie warned. Treatment takes a long time; it doesn’t always work, even when everyone wants it to. We barely know Maggie, Margaret, any more.” 


Frank leaned his head back, closed his eyes. “Yes, I know,” he said. “But a man can live for a long time on a moment like that. It’s funny how nothing’s changed really, and yet everything looks different. I feel like we can make it now—anywhere, through anything—as long as there’s this sign along the way.” 


And on through the night they drove, in the rain, in the dark, lifted by a glimpse of hope and led by the subtle light of transfiguration. 

 Luke 4:21-28 

February 3, 2013 


Here’s the question a little girl asked me in Sunday school one time: If Jesus was so good and perfect, why did people hate him and even kill him? Good question. We often think about “gentle Jesus meek and mild,” which makes it hard to imagine how anyone could dislike the guy. Well, Jesus was good all right, maybe even perfect—but he certainly wasn’t meek, he wasn’t mild, and he wasn’t always gentle. 


  • Jesus healed on the Sabbath, repeatedly, even after he knew it outraged the religious leaders. I mean, there were six other days to heal on, right? The Sabbath was at the heart of their faith, mandated by God in scripture. And here Jesus disrespected it. Sure he was doing good on the Sabbath. But there are rules. There are proper times and places for things. And they wanted to get rid of him. 
  • He was, simply, scandalous. He ate with tax collectors and notorious sinners. He talked with women, right out in public. He kept company with prostitutes. And they couldn’t put up with it. 
  • He challenged what Marcus Borg calls the “domination system,” the network of political oppression and economic exploitation that kept the 2 poor poor and the rich rich, and religious leaders supported it and benefited from it.i But Jesus drove the money changers out of the temple and talked about the first being last and the last being first. And they had to get rid of him before the poor believed him and started making demands or before the Romans clamped down on all of them. So they sent him to Pilate to die. 
  • Still, he rejected violence as a response to abuse. He taught things like “turn the other cheek” and “put your swords away.” And then even the crowds turned against him—calling for the release of the “freedom fighter” Barabbas rather than the conscientious objector Jesus. If he won’t fight for us, then crucify him. 


Yes, Jesus was good, maybe even perfect, but there were reasons people rejected him. Like in today’s reading the folks from his home town tried to throw him off a cliff. You’ll remember from last week’s episode he’s just preached his first sermon in Nazareth. He reads from Isaiah where it says the Spirit has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to captives and to let the oppressed go free. And then he said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” 3 


And they were amazed. They were proud that he was that one of their own. But Jesus didn’t quit while he was ahead. He went on: “And I suppose you want me to do for you the kinds of things I’ve been doing for the Gentiles at Capernaum. But I’m not going to do that.” 


And he reminds them of a couple of Bible stories. Bible stories are dangerous things. He told one about Elijah who when there was a famine didn’t help any widows in Israel but only some foreign widow from Sidon. And then there was Elisha who could have cured any number of Jewish lepers, but chose instead to cure a leader of the Syrian army. And just like that cheers turned to jeers. One minute they love him, and the next minute they were, Luke says, “filled with rage.” 


Why was that? Well, here’s my take. They thought he should love them first and most. They were, after all, his homies. They wanted to be, well, special. If God was going to do some miracles, they wanted to be first in line. And if Jesus was going to treat somebody else special, then they might just throw him off a cliff. They felt disappointed, hurt, put down, left out. I know it sounds childish; it also sounds true. 


The Bible is filled with people who couldn’t stand for someone else to be special. Jonah didn’t want to preach to the people of Ninevah--not because 4 he was afraid they wouldn’t repent; he was afraid they would. And when God forgave them, he sat down under a big plant and asked to die. 


When the Prodigal son’s older brother saw that his dad was throwing a party for his wayward brother, all he could think was, “Where’s my party?” And he wouldn’t come in. 

Jesus told a parable about some guys who contracted to do field work all day for a certain price. When the owner paid some other guys who only worked part of the day the same price, they were incensed, offended. 


And where people feel disappointed or hurt, put down or left out, rage is always close at hand. When I was little, I was the youngest and cutest grandchild my grandma had in town, and did she let me know it! I got hugs and kisses and cookies and attention. I was special! Then once in a while my cousin Tina would visit from out of town. She was younger than me, and probably cuter. And it turns out Grandma loved her too. Imagine that. And I was awful about it. I’d pout in the corner and say terrible things about Tina. I thought I was special. But if Tina was special too, what did that make me? I know it sounds childish—after all, I was five. But those kinds of feelings aren’t all the way out of me yet. 5 


I wonder if the message isn’t something like this: Jesus doesn’t love only us, and that’s okay. Because other people can be loved and special, and it doesn’t in any way diminish how loved and special I am. We’ve got to find a way to come to terms with that, or we’re always going to struggle with Jesus, because he’s never going to stop loving other people. 

I read about a white woman during the civil rights movement. A friend suggested she’d better get used to integration because we’d all be together in heaven some day anyway. But she said, “Oh no! If those people are going to be there, then I’m not going.” To which her friend replied, “Suit yourself.” Do you hear the woman’s hurt and rage? But Jesus doesn’t love only us. 


A couple in one of my churches came to see me. They said, “We’re leaving the church. You’re always talking about getting new people into the church. But what about us who are already here?” And they did leave. Then they were new people in somebody’s church. Do you hear their hurt and their rage? But Jesus doesn’t love only us. 


Whenever we feel hurt or disappointed, put down or left out, rage is always close at hand—enough to pout at your grandma or throw your Savior off a cliff. The answer, surely, is to recognize that other people can be loved and special and it in no way diminishes how loved and special you 6 are. Jesus can love his Muslim and atheist children, and love us Christians none the less. As much as Jesus loves his liberal believers, lo and behold, he can love his conservative believers just as much. I’m not special because you’re less special. I’m special because Jesus loves me too. 


How could Jesus love us all that much? How can I be really and truly special if you’re really and truly special too? At one of the Tuesday evening parenting classes, David Rutter told this story: When his first son Owen was born, he looked down at that precious baby and thought he’d never be able to love another human being that much again. Until Ethan was born, and he looked down at that precious baby and realized he loved him just as much, without loving Owen any less. And if David Rutter can do it, I’ll bet Jesus can do it. 

I’m not special because someone else is less special. I’m special because Jesus love me too. And even though Jesus doesn’t love only us, he sure does love us. And I feel myself backing away from the cliff, just a little bit. 


i Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 7-8 and passim. 

 Luke 4:14-21 

January 27, 2013 


It was Jesus’ first chance to preach in his old home church, or in his case, synagogue—a big deal in any preacher’s life. He’d been all around Galilee teaching and healing, and had developed quite a reputation. And now he’d come back to Nazareth, where he grew up, and they asked him to say a few words. First he read the scripture, from Isaiah: 


“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” he read, 

because he has anointed me 

to bring good news to the poor. 

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives 

and recovery of sight to the blind, 

to let the oppressed go free, 

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. 


He closed the Bible, said a prayer, cleared his throat and started preaching. And here’s what he said. I’ll repeat the whole sermon to you. This is how it went: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And he gathered up his notes and sat down. That was it. Nine words, in English, was the whole sermon. Here he has the attention of all the folks he grew up with, and he preaches for, oh, three or four seconds. 


What kind of sermon is that? I mean, the folks in the back pews hadn’t even gone to sleep yet, and he was done talking. The kids hadn’t 2 got in trouble yet, and he was done talking. The sound crew hadn’t even adjusted his microphone yet, and he was done talking. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Why, I’ve had sermon titles longer than that. 


Why such a short sermon? What’s going on? Well, a couple of things, I think. For one thing, Jesus trusts the scriptures. If you read the right scripture, you don’t have to talk about it for 30 or 40 minutes. If read, and really heard, the scripture will do the work. 


And second, Jesus knew that while words are important, the real message is what you do. A preacher had just delivered a message about serving your neighbors. One man came through the line after worship, shook the preacher’s hand and exclaimed, “That was a great sermon, pastor!” To which the preacher replied, “That remains to be seen.” Words matter, but deeds matter more. The bigger the life you lead, the fewer words you have to say. Jesus lived such a big life he needed only nine words. My life is not that big, so plan to stay another ten minutes or so. 


What Jesus gave his home church that day, in scripture and a few words, was what today we’d call his “mission statement.” A mission statement tells in a few words what you’re about, what your main purpose 3 


is, what above all else God has called you to do. If you don’t know what your mission is, what are you doing? To know your mission clearly is power. Abraham Lincoln’s mission was “to preserve the Union.” Nelson Mandela’s mission was “to end apartheid.” Mother Teresa’s mission was “to care for the dying.” These people may have done many things and engaged in various activities, but it was always clear what their mission was, because your mission was at the heart of everything you do.i For example, the mission of the United Methodist denomination is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” The mission of Maple Grove is “to be an open community of Christians who love God and serve our neighbors.” It’s what we’re here for. 


In the movie The Blues Brothers, paroled criminals played by John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd know what their mission—to save the Catholic orphanage where they grew up from foreclosure. Their tactics are questionable, their purpose is clear because they keep saying, “We’re on a mission from God.” 


So what was Jesus’ mission? Actually it’s stated different ways in different places—that’s why we have four gospels instead of just one. In three places Jesus says, “I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:13, etc.). That’s why he came, to call sinners. In John’s gospel 4 Jesus says, “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). That’s why he came—for us to have abundant life. And here at the start of Luke’s gospel Jesus chooses his mission statement from Isaiah 61: 


“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, 

because he has anointed me 

to bring good news to the poor. 

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives 

and recovery of sight to the blind, 

to let the oppressed go free, 

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 


That’s why he came—to bring good news to the poor, to set people free, to help people see. And “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” which refers to the year of Jubilee. Leviticus 25 says that every 50 years there is to be a year of Jubilee, when all the land in Israel gets returned to the family that originally owned it, regardless of how many times it had been bought, sold or foreclosed on. In other words, no one is allowed to accumulate too much land and get too rich and no family is allowed lose their property and be poor for too long. Every generation or so there’s a fresh start. 


And to all of that Jesus not only said, “That’s my mission,” he also said, “and it starts today. “Today,” he said, “this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” When it comes to good news for the poor, when it comes to 5 freedom for the oppressed, when it comes to a fresh start for the landless, today is not a word you hear often. It’s usually more like, “Well, we’ll get to that some day.” Or, “Land reform, eh? We’ll appoint a study committee to look into that. Look for our report in, say, never.” You remember the line of Langston Hughes, made famous by Martin Luther King, Jr: “A dream deferred is a dream denied.” But Jesus said, Today. Not some day, but today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. Economic justice, good news for the poor was Jesus’ mission, and it starts, he said, today. 


A few chapters later in Luke, John the Baptist was beginning to have his doubts about whether Jesus really was the Messiah. He sent a couple of people to ask Jesus, “Are you the one, or should we should we look for someone else?” And here’s what Jesus told them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” He told them, in other words, “How can you know if I’m the Messiah? If I’ve been doing my mission.” 


And here’s the thing, here’s what I want to say to you today: if it was Jesus’ mission to bring good news to the poor and set people free and help 6 people see, shouldn’t that be our mission too? I mean it just stands to reason that people who call ourselves Christians would have the same mission as the Christ whose name we bear. So is it? Is that our mission—to bring good news to the poor, to set people free? Was Jesus nine-word sermon in Nazareth a good sermon. Well, that, of course, remains to be seen. 


We have some members here at Maple Grove who every Tuesday night drive to a state prison and spend some time encouraging and talking to and praying with inmates, in hopes they might be set free, and that when they get out, they might be able to stay free. You might ask them, “Why do you do that? Why do you spend that much time on people who have broken the law and are in prison?” Well, here’s what they would say: “We’re on a mission from God. It’s Jesus’ mission.” 


There are people here at Maple Grove who sort clothes for needy neighbors at the Free Store and gather suits at New Life Church so homeless men can go to job interviews. There are people here who provide gifts for abused children, and serve breakfast on Sunday mornings at CRC. Why do they do that? Why is that so important to them? Well, they’re on a mission, of course, from God. It’s Jesus’ mission. 7 


There are people in this church, youth and adults alike, who take a whole week out of their summer, travel somewhere together, and rebuild storm-damaged houses or play with inner-city kids. Why do they do that? Why take time off work and drive for hours and sleep on the floor? Because they’re on a mission from God. Jesus’ mission. 


There are some people who here who are forming a new Justice Ministry Team. We’ll be joining with folks from other churches, synagogues and mosques to seek justice and a better life for immigrants in our community. Why should we do that? Why attend meetings and rallies? Why do the uncomfortable work of inviting others to join in and risk rejection and controversy? Because good news for the poor is ourr mission from God. It’s Jesus’ mission. 


Oh, I could go on. Those who don’t understand might ask why the people of Maple Grove give so much money to buy an airplane for missionaries in the Congo and provide food boxes for Bethlehem on Broad Street and to serve a delicious free dinner on Thanksgiving, when we have trouble balancing our own budget. But you know why: we’re on a mission from God. It’s Jesus’ mission. 8 



Now I don’t mean to pour it on too thick. It’s not like we live out Jesus’ mission fully and perfectly. There were a couple of churches in West Ohio Conference that gave over $100,000 each for that airplane for the Congo. Now that’s being on a mission. I was part of a church in Atlanta that hosted a soup kitchen and a homeless shelter in their basement and at the start of every committee meeting they asked themselves, “How will what we do and say in this meeting impact our neighbors who are poor?” That really felt like being on a mission. I sometimes wonder why Broad Meadows, with its diversity and needs and poverty, is less than two miles away from where we sit right now, but so far as I know we do a grand total of one ministry there. Maybe that’s our mission. 


Everybody and every church has their own way of living out the mission. And we’re all on a journey, right? We haven’t arrived yet. But we’re on the way. And when people ask why your church feeds the hungry and brings good news to the poor, if anyone is wondering why we visit prisons and set people free, you know what to say: We’re on a mission from God. It’s Jesus’ mission. 


i See Laurie Beth Jones, The Path: Creating Your Mission Statement for Work and for Life (New York: Hyperion, 1996), 3-4.

John 12:1-11 


January 20, 2013 


A woman was going through customs returning to the US from a trip to Scotland. When the customs officials asked her to open a particularly heavy bag she was carrying, she did so very reluctantly, revealing several large bottles. “What’s in the bottles, ma’am?” they asked. “Well, it’s, uhhh, water,” she said uncomfortably. Opening one of the bottles and sniffing it, the official’s eyes lit up. “Ma’am this isn’t water. It’s Scottish whiskey.” Recovering herself, the woman fell to her knees and exclaimed, “It’s a miracle!” 


Though funny, this joke points to one of the problems with the story of the wedding at Cana: that Jesus provides an enormous amount of alcohol for a party that sounds like it’s had plenty already. It’s a tough story for old-fashioned, tea-totaling Methodists. The Methodist movement has a long history of working against alcohol abuse. Welch’s Grape Juice Company was founded by a Methodist specifically to produce a non-alcoholic drink for Holy Communion. This building is host to five AA meetings every week. This story does suggest that Jesus was okay with 2 drinking alcohol, but we want to be careful not to give the wrong impression about the dangers and risks of alcohol. 


That’s one problem with this story. Another is the way Jesus talks to his mother. When she points out to him that the wine has run out, he says, “Woman, what concern is that to you and me?” Now the commentaries are filled with explanations of why that was not as rude as it sounds. And in the end Jesus goes ahead and does what his mother wanted. But I’m just saying, I wouldn’t want one of my kids talking to their mother that way. 


And finally, this is a rather odd miracle, isn’t it? No one is healed, or has their sight restored, or gets rescued from a storm at sea. The wine running out seems like a trivial problem compared to these things. I mean, there doesn’t seem to be any real point to this miracle. Except . . . 

except . . . right at the end, John says this about the turning of water into wine: “Jesus did this,” he says, “the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.” Yeah, that might be a big enough point, I guess. 


It raises the question of what miracles are. What are Jesus’ miracles for? In the other gospels—in Matthew, Mark and Luke—Jesus heals the sick and casts out demons at least in part out of compassion for the 3 suffering he saw around him. He saw people who were hurting and wounded, he had the power to do something about it, and he did it. Wouldn’t you? 


But in John’s gospel something bigger, or at least something different, is going. Not that Jesus is uncompassionate, but in John compassion is not the reason he does miracles. For John, Jesus’ miracles always do what I just read to you: they reveal his glory and they help people believe in him. Here’s the difference: if miracles are done out of compassion, people get healed, yes. Some people who are blind or deaf have their senses restored, sure. A few isolated individuals even have loved ones restored to them from the dead. But there will always be more lame people, always someone else who has lost their sight, loved ones continue to pass away and they don’t come back. But as Fred Craddock points out, Jesus’ power and grace reach to all persons, not just to the few who are recipients of miracles. Compassion would have provided more wine to avoid embarrassment for the father of the bride and that’s about it; but what Jesus offers is a revelation of the power of God, a sign that life is eternal and new, and that’s for everyone, for all time.i Miracles reveal God’s glory and help people believe. 4 


So if that’s what miracles are for, what does turning water into wine show us about God? What does it help us believe in? Abundance, I think. When the wine of life runs dry, Jesus makes more—lots more. Scholars have figured that Jesus made something like 120-150 gallons of wine—not bottles of wine or even jugs of wine, but bathtubs full of wine. One preacher says that if Jesus provided just 90 gallons of wine, it still comes to over 2,160 glasses full.ii And it wasn’t 2000 glasses of ordinary wine; it was 2000 glasses of the very finest vintage. 


Now, I can’t tell you if Jesus literally turned bathtubs full of water into wine. What I know is that he was remembered to have provided abundantly. He kept the celebration going; he showed that God can provide more and better than we can even imagine, which probably isn’t all that surprising to you if you’ve read the rest of the Bible. God created the whole world and everything in it, and it was very good. When the Israelites were starving in the desert, God sent manna from heaven every day for forty years. When the disciples wanted to send 5000 people away because there wasn’t enough to eat, Jesus fed them all and then some. And Acts says the believers shared with each other so generously that none of them was ever in need. 5 


What Jesus did at Cana of Galilee revealed his glory; it was a sign of the abundance of God, and at least twelve people—the disciples--believed in him that day. Yet abundance is not the way we experience God’s world, at least not all the time. So many of our national debates are about things we’d like to do but can’t figure out how. Sure, we think, it would be great if every kid received a high-quality education. Of course everyone should have access to the kind of health care I want for my own family. But we can’t do it. Conservatives says there just isn’t any more money. And liberals say, well, we can’t do any more with what we’ve got. We get stuck over and over again. But Jesus turns water into wine; God’s vision is abundant life. And I, for one, believe more is possible. 


Our own lives can feel equally stuck, just as fruitless. Back in the 60s, Peggy Lee sang it this way: Is that all there is? Her song tells about a fire that destroys their house—the whole world going up in flames. It tells of entertainment that leaves her feeling empty and love that doesn’t work out. Is that all there is? Surely we all experience life that way at some time: I thought this would be my dream job, but now it’s just another day at work. I thought my family was on top of the world, but look at the way things have turned out. I thought going to church would feed my soul, but it’s just going through the motions. 6 


Is that all there is? Well, here’s the answer. No, it’s not. When the wine of life runs out, Jesus makes more—lots more. When the well goes dry, Jesus is living water bubbling up to eternal life. When all is gloom and darkness, Jesus is the light of the world. There’s always more going on than meets the eye. And I, for one, believe. 


But here’s what I have learned—that the miracle stories in the Bible that once helped people believe in Jesus have become hard for a lot of people to accept. For many of today’s highly rational, skeptical, scientifically-oriented people, saying that Jesus turned water into wine doesn’t make them say, “Oh really! That’s cool!” It makes them say, “Do I really have to believe that to be a Christian?” 


Well, sort of, maybe. But it’s important to remember the purpose of miracles—to reveal God’s glory and to help people believe. What are our miracles today? Where do you see God’s glory revealed and what helps you believe? I asked the question at Administrative Council last Wednesday: What is a miracle? And someone said, “Whenever someone recovers from an addiction. That’s a miracle.” And I say, “Amen.” It’s too hard for most of us to do ourselves—God must be in it, with all God’s power and possibility and abundance. 7 


A few months ago I had to get up extremely early to be with someone at OSU Hospital. That particular morning it was unusually hard for me to get up and get going. I grumbled as I spilled the coffee and tripped over the cat. I felt sorry for myself for having to get up so early. I got on 315 in the dark and headed south. I exited onto Olentangy River Road—still dark. But when I turned and headed east on King Avenue, there opened up in front of me the most stunning sunrise I’d seen in years. And I thought, “Oh, my God.” No, I was not swearing. I thought, really, “Oh, my God. Thank you for sending me to the hospital this morning. And I prayed with that person like never before. I don’t know if you’d call that a miracle—after all, the sun comes up every morning. But it was the glory of God to me and I, for one, believed. 


Here’s a report Dawn Nauman sent after last Sunday: “During Project Sunday school for kids, we sat down to make a snack imagined as Manna. The kids were fussing a little bit. The honey was sticky, the peanut butter was sticky, the crumbs "looked gross," and powdered milk? Eeeeewwwww. And then we had the finished product . . . which was delicious. The kids ate and ate and ate. One child wanted to take the recipe home. Grumbling and then Manna? It felt like there was a definite hand in that message.” What had seemed gross was delicious. They ate 8 and ate and ate, and still it didn’t run out. I don’t know if you want to call it a miracle, but I, for one, believe. 

Miracles reveal God’s glory and help us to believe. And surely miracles happen all around us, all the time, if only we could see. My favorite poet, William Stafford wrote a poem about approaching death called “Toward the End.” It ends like this: 


Suddenly this moment is worth all the rest. 

Never has the sweetness arched so near 

And overwhelming. They say a green flash 

Comes if you are lucky right at the end. 

Now you see it was always there.iii 

Miracles reveal, if only for a moment, what’s always there—the glory and the power and the love of God. Did Jesus really turn water into wine? You bet he did! And he still does. All the time. And everywhere. And I, for one, believe. 


i Fred B. Craddock, John, Knox Preaching Guides (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1983), 24-25 

ii Fleming Rutledge, The Bible and the New York Times (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1998), 71. 

iii William Stafford, “Toward the End,” The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems (St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 1998) 12-13. 

 Luke 3:21-22 


January 13, 2013 


One of my favorite preachers is Barbara Brown Taylor and some of what I’m going to say today is borrowed from her—probably all the best parts. In one of her sermons, she tells about the novel Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett. It’s the story of Rose Clinton and her daughter Cecelia, who live at Saint Elizabeth’s Home for Unwed Mothers. Rose is the cook so Cecelia grew up spending her days there and being the darling of the place, petted and mothered by all the young women who will give up their own babies for adoption. One day when she is fifteen years old, Cecelia meets one of the new girls, Lorraine, who has come to Saint Elizabeth’s. Lorraine is having a hard time adjusting and Cecelia decides to help by giving her some advice. 


“The guy who got you pregnant,” she tells Lorraine. “Don’t say he’s dead. Everybody says that. It makes the nuns crazy.” 


Lorraine is quiet for a minute. “I was going to say that,” she says. 




“So what do I tell her?”


“I don’t know,” Cecelia says. “Tell her the truth. Or tell her you don’t know.” 


“What did you tell her?” Lorraine asks and Cecelia is speechless. “I sat there absolutely frozen,” she wrote later. “I felt like I was going to be sick, but that would only have proved her assumption. No one had ever, ever mistaken me for one of them.” It was not that Cecelia was judgmental towards people in trouble. She had grown up with them. She was friendly and helpful and gave them good advice. She just never expected to be mistaken for one of them.


Something like that happened to me once. I’d taken my girls for ice cream to the UDF at Indianola and Hudson which attracts a rather, well, diverse clientele. As the girls finished their cones, I struck up a conversation with a young man who told me he was nervous because he was on his way to the police station, which at that time was around the corner on Arcadia. “I get that,” I told him. “I’ve got to go to the jail this afternoon.” 


“Oh,” he said, curious, “What did you do?”


“No, no, no,” I corrected him, “I’m just visiting someone in jail, for my church.” He had mistaken me for one of them and my instinct was to make sure he understood that I’m not one of them. I’m different from them. 


Jesus took a different approach. Jesus showed up at the Jordan River one day to be baptized by John. The place, Barbara Taylor points out, was teeming with troubled, faulty, guilty people. We’ve read about the kind of people who came to see John the Baptist—sinners, BIG sinners, tax collectors who got rich by fleecing the people, Roman soldiers who bullied helpless citizens. But somehow all these people knew they needed to be changed. They had come to confess, to repent, to set down their burden of sin and turn their lives around. 

Then Jesus came and got in line with them. No one knew anything about him yet. He just came and took his place in line, waited his turn to be baptized. But later, after the heavens were opened and the Holy Spirit descended and a voice from heaven proclaimed who he was, there were lots of questions. What was he doing in that crowd of sinners? Why was God’s Son doing standing in line for baptism with everyone else?


You see, we like multiple lines. At the grocery store there are the regular checkout lines and the express lines where you can sail through. (Unless cheaters sneak into the express line with 25 items. You feel like ratting them out—12 items and under, buddy! 12 items and under!) 


At the airport there’s the regular boarding line and then there’s the first class line: you 150 people stand over there like cattle and wait in line; you eight dear souls, no you don’t have to wait in that line. Come on aboard. Can I get you a drink? Of course, you only like that line if you’re in it, but if you’re in that line, you love it. 


There’s one line for people who have health insurance, and another line for those who don’t. There’s one line for students with great ACT scores, and another line for the not-so-great. It’s the way the world is. 


So you might expect the same for baptism. Okay, one line for garden-variety sinners and another line for those who’ve really messed up. Or one line for those who signed up for at least three ministry teams and another line for the rest of you. One line for those who were raised in church and know the lingo, and another line for those who always wonder what’s going on. Multiple lines. That’s the way the world is, right?


Well, not for baptism, it’s not. For baptism there’s only one line. And Jesus came and got in it. 


Theologians have often been a little confused and embarrassed about Jesus’ baptism. Even the writers of the gospels struggle with it. Matthew has John try to talk Jesus out of being baptized. Luke mentions it almost in passing. John can’t even bring himself to say that Jesus was baptized at all. 


So why did Jesus get baptized when unlike the rest of us, he didn’t need to have his sins washed away? Why did he submit to baptism like us when, as John the Baptist pointed out, we’re not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals? Why did he do it? Well, partly because as people pointed out on Facebook in response to the Weekly Word Challenge—baptism isn’t all about washing away sins. But most of all, I think, Jesus got in line with us because he likes us. Loves us, in fact. Jesus wants to be in line with us. There’s nowhere he’d rather be than standing in line next to you. 


The truth is, we are all initiated into Christ’s holy church exactly the same way, and it’s called baptism. Oh, some of us are brought when we’re just a few days old and some of us some to the waters well into adulthood.


Some of us have a little representative water sprinkled on our brows and some are dunked three times in a muddy river. And some of us go on to be respected and looked up to by everyone in the church and others of us—well, we make full use of God’s mercy and forgiveness. 


But we all get here the same way, including those of us who get to baptize others in Jesus’ name. On the wall in my office is only one certificate. It’s not my seminary diploma or my ordination certificate, as important as those are to me. The one certificate on my wall says that I was baptized at First United Methodist Church in Bushton, Kansas on May 19, 1963. That’s where I stood in the line, or rather, my parents held me in that line. And I know for sure that Jesus was in it too. 


There’s only one line for baptism. And here’s why that line’s okay with me: Jesus came and got in it. 


Think with me for a moment about all the people who have been in that line: Martin Luther and Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa and Billy Graham, the founders and all the pastors and leaders of this church, possibly your mama and your daddy—they all stood in the one line and Jesus stood right there with them. But then, also in that line were plenty of people who got in trouble or wound up in jail, not to mention that person


i Barbara Brown Taylor, Home By Another Way (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1999), 32-36. 


two pews over that you just can’t stand—they all stood in the very same line and Jesus stood right there with them too. None of us has our act together all that much. As Barbara Taylor puts it, there’s no chance that we’ll be mistaken for one of them. Because we are them, thanks be to God, as they are us. 


When it comes to baptism, there’s only one line. And here’s why that line’s just fine with me—because Jesus comes and gets in line with us. In fact, there he is, right next to you . . . 

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