Archive for the ‘Sermons’ Category


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As congregations look towards the future, what kind of community do we want to be?  More importantly, what kind of community does Jesus want us to be?

The Beloved Community*

A Sermon on Acts 2:42-47, 4:32-37; and John 13:33-35, 15:12-15


Back in June I read an interesting article by New York Times columnist David Brooks.  He started out with some reflections on billionaire Warren Buffet’s Giving Pledge campaign in which he and other wealthy people are pledging to give away most of their wealth during their lifetime.

Then Brooks described what he would do if he had a billion dollars to give away.  He said he would do something to reweave the social fabric of our country.  He said he would use his money to support the formation of small groups of twenty-five people each all around the country.  These groups would meet weekly to share and discuss life.  They would be multigenerational with older members mentoring younger members.  These groups would engage people’s hearts through deep friendships, their hands through service, their heads with reading and discussion to stimulate the mind, and their souls to help them reflect on the purpose of life and orient them spiritually.

Here is Brooks’ reasoning behind this:  He said that people need to grow up enmeshed in loving relationships.  Quote, “Only loving relationships transform lives, and such relationships can only be formed in small groups.  Thus, I’d use my imaginary billion to seed 25-person collectives around the country.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/06/opinion/giving-away-your-billion-warren-buffett.html?_r=0)

I couldn’t help thinking of the 4-H club head, heart, hands, health pledge.  But Brooks reminded me of another group I am even more familiar with.  I grew up in one of those twenty-five person groups, a group of about twenty-five followers of Jesus, give or take a few, and now I am the pastor of another one.

As he walked with his disciples, Jesus patiently formed them into a community of love, a community of beloved people, a community that was itself beloved.  Throughout his ministry, Jesus told them what to do.  He showed them how to do it.  And on the last night before he poured out the last ounce of his love for us on the cross, Jesus summarized it this way.  After humbly washing his disciples’ feet, even the feet of those who betrayed and denied him, Jesus said, “Love each other just as I have loved you.”

The early church wasn’t perfect, but they tried to do what Jesus said, and their loving manner with each other left a positive impression on people around them.  (more…)

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Photograph by Harris Walker


The prophet Jeremiah called God’s people in exile in Babylon to seek the wellbeing of their Babylonian captors.  That sounds an awful lot like Jesus’ call to love our enemies.  Where does the will and the power to do that come from?

In search of an answer, here is a sermon I preached for an ecumenical worship service gathering people from all around the city of Rocky Mount, North Carolina.  It was part of a summer series on the theme of being the peace of the city.

The Power to Seek Peace
A Sermon on Jeremiah 29:4-7 and Ephesians 2:13-18
With allusions to Psalm 137 and Luke 6:27-36
Rocky Mount Summer Community Worship Service
Sunday, July 31, 2016
St. Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church

Somewhere in Babylon around the year 593, a congregation of homesick exiles from Jerusalem was listening to the reading of a letter from the prophet Jeremiah back home. They could not believe their ears! Say what, Jeremiah? Put down roots in Babylon? Seek the shalom—the welfare, the wellbeing, the peace—of Babylon? Pray for the Babylonians?

Imagine the murmuring! Jeremiah, they brought us here against our will! They worship gods with names like Marduk. Everything is foreign to us here. These people have hurt us as deeply as ever we could be hurt! Pray blessing and peace on Babylon?

Jeremiah, you know not! What we really want is for somebody to come in here and make the Babylonians suffer, pay them back. See, we do have a prayer, and it goes like this: blessed be the one who takes your children and smashes them against the rock! (Psalm 137).

Meanwhile the letter reader’s voice was continuing: because… in Babylon’s wellbeing you will find your wellbeing.

Jeremiah’s call sounds an awful lot like the call Jesus gave his followers. Jesus said, “But I say to you that are listening, love your enemies, do good to those that hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you.”

There’s no question about it: God was asking a very hard thing of the exiles. Did they heed Jeremiah’s words? (more…)

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Don’t Be Afraid

A Meditation on Luke 2: 8-16 for All God’s Children

December 24, 2015


Years and years ago when Jesus was born, people were scared of a lot of things. For one thing, their country was ruled by the Roman empire. There were Roman soldiers everywhere. The Roman rulers did fearful things to people who tried to challenge them.


And then there was a local ruler, King Herod, who was known far and wide for being so mean. You didn’t want King Herod to get mad at you.


It was a scary time for Jesus’ mother, Mary, to be traveling to Bethlehem. It was almost time for him to be born. What if it happened before she and Joseph could get to shelter? She was worried.


And there were also some people who were afraid of God. These were people who could not do all the things the Bible experts said they had to do in order to please God. Other people looked down on them, so they figured God looked down on them, too.


Now shepherds were in this category. People thought shepherds were low and dirty. Second class at best. Sinners by definition. Shepherd equals sinner.


That night, when Jesus was born, shepherds were out in the fields outside of Bethlehem, keeping watch over their sheep to make sure the sheep were safe. Suddenly, there was a blast of light, and an angel, a messenger from God stood there, and the shepherds were terrified. Of course they were startled! I’ll bet they thought they were seeing a ghost at first. Or maybe they realized right away that this messenger came from God, and they thought, “Oh Oh! We must be in for it! We’ve done something wrong for sure!”


But what did the angel say? The first thing the angel said was, “Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid, shepherds, for see? I’m bringing you good news of great joy for everyone—everyone! To you and everyone is born this day in the city of David a Savior, the Messiah, Christ the Lord.


“This will be a sign for you: you will find the baby wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”


I’m sure the shepherds’ mouths were still hanging open with surprise, when suddenly there was a whole crowd of angels with the first angel, and together they sang praises: “Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth, peace, goodwill among people.” The word from God to the world is peace and good will.


In other words, “Shepherds, this baby is born for you, a gift from God to you. And the word from God to you is peace and good will. God loves YOU.”


“Wow! Let’s go see!” the shepherds said, and off they went.


It was clear. Whatever anybody else thought, God loved those shepherds, and Jesus was born for them. Jesus was born for everyone.


Most, if not all of us, know what it is like to feel afraid. Sometimes scary things happen to us or to people we love. Sometimes we hear of fearful things on the news. Sometimes we are scared of other people. Sometimes we might wonder whether God could really love us, just as we are.


But what God said to those shepherds through the angels is what God says to us now. God says the exact same thing to us now. “Don’t be afraid. I’ve got good news for you. Jesus is born for you. God’s peace and goodwill is for you…yes YOU! All of you, each and every one!”


When we are afraid, God wants us to remember that God is with us. We are not alone. We don’t have to face it all by ourselves. God will help us. Jesus is born for us, and he loves us forever and ever. He will never leave us.


And one thing we definitely do not need to be afraid of is God himself. God looks at us with eyes that are full of good will, good will and love for all. That’s what God told us when God sent Jesus to the whole human family.


We can be courageous each day, even when we do still feel scared, because we know God is with us, and we know Jesus loves us. He is born for us!


“Wow!” the shepherds said. “Let’s go see the baby!” Wow! What a wonderful gift of love from a wonderful God!

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In those dark days when Caesar Augustus was hailed as lord and savior, the One who really is Lord and Savior was born in tiny Bethlehem.  In these dark days, it does seem that the likes of Caesar Augustus are still in control.  Do we dare hail a different king?

In Those Days

A Sermon on Isaiah 43:14-21 and Luke 2:1-20


Now in those days the emperor Augustus was the most powerful king of the most powerful kingdom the world had yet seen: the Roman empire. Looking at the empire as a whole, it was a time of great stability. Things were more stable than they had been in many years. Some viewed it as a golden age of peace and called it the Pax Romana—the peace of Rome, or the Pax Augustana—the peace of Augustus. It was a good time to be alive—for the wealthy and powerful at any rate. Around the empire Augustus was acclaimed as lord, divine son, bringer of peace, and savior of the world. Yes—those very words, including savior and lord. That’s what people were calling Caesar Augustus!


But what they called peace was enforced by the threat of violence. Keep the subjects afraid. Any hint of unrest was quickly squashed by the mightiest army the world had yet seen. The Romans had an especially feared execution technique, called crucifixion, and they used it regularly. Not everybody stayed in line, but most did, most of the time.


Maintaining the empire and the peace of Rome required lots and lots of revenue. That meant lots and lots of taxes—steep taxes, and the Romans didn’t want to miss any tax payers. Accurate tax rolls were a must.


That’s how Mary and Joseph found themselves caught up in forces they couldn’t control. They found themselves on the road to Bethlehem at the worst possible time: late in Mary’s pregnancy. (more…)

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Bartimaeus’ Cry

A Sermon on Mark 10:13-16 and 46-52

“Hush, Bartimaeus! Be quiet! Don’t make a scene!” MANY people scolded him. They spoke in the same harsh way as the disciples had spoken to the adults who tried to bring their children to Jesus. Mark uses the very same Greek word to convey their sternness.

Instead of helping Bartimaeus make contact with Jesus, they tried to shut him up. Was it because they thought he was an eyesore, a nuisance, an embarrassment that they didn’t want any VIPs to see? Bartimaeus sat by the roadside with his cloak spread open to receive coins passersby might toss his way. Maybe he resembled a homeless person curled up in a blanket in a doorway.

Bartimaeus was one of society’s least ones, a person whose life mattered less in others’ eyes—though polite people would be reluctant to admit that it mattered less. All lives matter. Right?

“Be quiet, Bartimaeus! We don’t want to hear it!”

Be quiet! Don’t make a scene. Through the ages that’s what countless people longing for things to be better have heard. People just wanting to exercise their rights as citizens, for example. People just seeking a decent living and who don’t want to be redlined out of safe neighborhoods. Be quiet! Don’t stir things up!

People just wanting to use the gifts God has given them—women who hear the call to preach, for example, still being told in so many places “Be quiet! It’s not your place!”

Parents of children with special needs petitioning for an appropriate education for their children being told “Go away! Don’t take resources away from our normal children!”

People deeply hurt by derogatory or unjust remarks made about themselves or others, but they don’t speak up. They swallow the pain because how well they have learned, “Be quiet! Be polite! Don’t stir things up!”

People with smiles plastered on their faces, but inwardly they struggle and cry. “Keep quiet,” they tell themselves. “Don’t let anybody see. Don’t let anybody hear. Don’t burden someone else.”

And many have internalized, “Don’t even bother the church. Don’t bring your brokenness to church. You at least gotta look like things are alright.” (more…)

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Stories don’t always have to be big to be good.  They don’t have to be exciting to be powerful.  Here is a sermon inviting disciples and congregations of disciples to point to Jesus by telling the simple, beautiful stories that are ours.  It follows up on the sermon Be Opened, and it celebrates my home congregation’s heritage.


Have We Got a Story to Tell!
A Sermon on Exodus 3:7-12, 4:10-13; Romans 10:14-15, with allusions to Mark 7:31-37
Homecoming at Morton Church

At first Moses liked what God was saying. God was saying, “My people are crying out in pain in Egypt, and I’m going to do something about it!” Even though Moses had been living in Midian for decades, he remembered well the horrible abuse the Hebrew people were experiencing at the hands of the Egyptians: unjust working conditions, physical and emotional violence and more. Doggone right something needed to be done! High time! Past time!

“I’ve seen my people’s misery in Egypt,” God was saying, “and I’m going to get them out of there and take them to a good new place.” “Wow!” Moses was thinking.

“ And so…and so,” God continued. I am sending you to Egypt to speak up for me. Tell the people that I know very well what is going on with them. I see how they are suffering. Tell them the good plans I have for them. And tell Pharaoh that I say, ‘Let my people go!’” Then you lead the people to their new home.

Moses was utterly gotten away with. “Who, me?” he exclaimed. What made God think anybody would listen to him? Nobody was going to listen to him. So Moses gave God all sorts of reasons why this was not a good idea. Moses raised a series of objections, ending with one that really was serious. “But I am slow of speech and slow of tongue,” Moses objected.

Perhaps Moses simply felt that he wasn’t particularly good at putting words together. But the original Hebrew text there uses a pretty strong word for what ailed Moses. It reads “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue,” like there really is some physical difficulty.

Moses probably had a physical problem—perhaps a cleft palate—that meant he had to work really hard to make himself understood. And the reality is, if you have speech related difficulties, people often wonder if your intelligence is intact, and if you really have anything to say. Is it worth the effort to listen.

With substandard speech, who was Moses to be speaking publicly, and in the name of God? No! Just no!

“Lord, please send someone else!”

But when God’s got a job to be done, somebody has to go. Somebody’s got to speak up. Just like Paul said in our epistle lesson today, “How are people going to trust Jesus unless they hear about him? And how are they going to hear unless somebody tells them the good news? Somebody’s got to tell the story.”

Often people think that telling the story of Jesus is a job for someone else, and for reasons a lot like Moses’ reasons. They feel inadequate. Surely somebody else can do a much better job. What about a trained professional?

Maybe it’s partly a hearing problem, as we were talking about last Sunday. Last week we noted that you have to hear and repeat words in order to be able to speak them. Hearing and speaking go together. To speak the word of Christ’s love to others, we must first hear it—hear it deep down in our souls, and let it heal us.

Or maybe it’s that we aren’t sure we have a story to tell, not an interesting story, anyway. Not a powerful, riveting story like Paul’s story, where the light of God literally knocked him down and turned him completely around. How can we be effective witnesses unless we have something big and exciting to share? Who’s going to listen to us? (more…)

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Be Opened!

Here is a sermon about Jesus’ power to open the innermost ears of our souls to hear the good news of God’s love, and then to open our mouths–and lives–to share that good news.

Be Opened
A Sermon on Mark 7:31-37 with allusions to Psalm 51
We don’t know what had gone wrong. We don’t know what caused the man’s hearing loss. It could have been a problem from birth. It might have been the result of ear infections or injury. One overly loud noise is all it takes to cause permanent damage. My father-in-law traces his hearing loss to machine gun practice during basic training after he got drafted. Dad served in the Philippines during the Korean War.

People can experience hearing loss as a blanket of silence, or as the loss of some sounds. Many people that are hard of hearing experience tinnitus—ringing in the ears, phantom sounds ranging from high pitched whistles and hissing to wailing sirens or blaring musical notes. These unreal noises drown out the real sounds that they want to hear. The ringing in my ears sounds so much like the sounds on the hearing test that I often can’t tell if the sound I’m hearing is real or not.

The man in the gospel story had hearing loss, and he also had difficulty speaking. Hearing and speaking go hand in hand. Most people learn to speak by hearing and repeating what they hear. It really is a miracle. When they come into the world infants already recognize and respond to their parents’ voices. When our daughter Laura was a year old, we saw very clearly that she was well on her way to learning how to talk. One night she came downstairs after my mother had given her a bath, and I said in a sing-songy voice, “Hi, clean girl!” And Laura imitated my exact intonation: aye een irl! It was only missing some of the consonants.

Ordinarily children are born able to hear and imitate the sounds of all languages. The sounds they hear and repeat get reinforced, and the ability to make the sounds they don’t hear falls away. After a while it gets so that what you don’t hear, you can’t hear. That is why it is much harder to learn to hear and speak another language later in life.

Children learn to hear and reproduce music in the same way. And that is why we encourage babies and toddlers and their caregivers to participate in Music for Little Friends, our children’s music classes. It develops their musical ears and their ability to make music.

What children hear—or don’t hear—matters. And what they hear from the adults in their lives is incredibly powerful. I recently read a story about a little girl who was born very prematurely, and the medical personnel were pretty sure she would die within minutes of birth. The parents wouldn’t let them take her away. The parents insisted on holding their daughter and talking to her for however long she was alive. The nurses left them alone, and they held their baby. They looked her in the face, and the mother softly crooned over and over, “We’re so glad you are in the world. We’re so glad you’re here. We are so glad God gave you to us.” Immediately the child’s heart rate improved, and after a while it became apparent that she was not going to die

When I read that, I thought about how every child needs to hear that message, and about what happens when children don’t hear those words in some form. They might get so they can’t hear those words, or can only hear them after a major breakthrough.

Because we don’t just hear with our ears. We hear with our hearts and our souls, too. (more…)

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