Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter


A Sermon on John 20:19-23

Sunday, April 19, 2020

In spite of Mary Magdalene’s testimony, Easter was not a day of overwhelming joy for Jesus’ first followers.  Joy was overshadowed by overwhelming fear.  The authorities had done the unthinkable to Jesus, and now anybody associated with Jesus was in danger.

To guard against people bursting in on them, Jesus’ followers hunkered down behind locked doors.  They were still too shocked to begin discerning what their next steps should be.  And if what Mary Magdalene said was true, and Jesus really was risen, what might he say to them if they did see him?  The memory of their faithlessness haunted them.  Easter evening found the church in lockdown.

A different danger has put us in lockdown.  The enemy we hope to keep out can only be seen through an electron microscope, and the best we can do is try to keep our distance from it by keeping our distance from each other.  One of the most heartbreaking things about this is that some people truly are locked in in institutional settings, and their loved ones cannot get in to see them.  People are doing their best to care and connect by phone and computer when possible.  They feel fortunate when their loved ones’ rooms are on the first floor.  I saw a photo yesterday of two brothers standing up on stools so they could see into their elderly mother’s room from the outside.

The fear is about more than the virus itself.  There are fears about finances.  How are we going to pay our bills?  What about our retirement funds?  What are we going to do when no job means no health insurance?

One of my big fears is that we won’t learn anything from this as a national family, and that we will go right back to the situation as it was before the coronavirus hit us: when millions and millions of Americans were already living just one paycheck away from disaster.  When a minimum wage job is not enough to be able to afford basic, decent housing anywhere in the country, and with many working two and three jobs and still being unable to afford insurance and basic medical and dental care.  With people at the top of the economic ladder accumulating more and more, indeed watching their bonuses and stocks and all their perks soar, at least until recently, while taking less and less civic and public and tax paying responsibility for the wellbeing of other Americans.  So critical functions like public health and critical maintenance are chronically underfunded.  As a character in a book I was reading yesterday put it, “Why is it that those who have the most want even more?”

And then there’s great uncertainty about when we will be able to relax the restrictions, and what our next steps should be so as not to unleash another wave of sickness.  What we are experiencing at Easter this year does resemble what Jesus’ first followers experienced that first Easter.

Locked doors didn’t keep Jesus out, however.  The risen Lord quietly slipped in among his followers, and the first words out of his mouth were gentle and gracious: Peace be with you.  Then, before they had a chance to respond, Jesus was already showing them his hands and his side, assuring them that he was real, not a figment of the imagination; and what’s more that he was one and the same as the Jesus they knew and loved.  That’s when joy started coming over them, John says.

Jesus then repeated the word of peace, that powerful word that was so full of love, healing, justice, and wellbeing, and he gave them a new sense of purpose.  Whatever their next steps turned out to be, they would serve the purpose of continuing Jesus’ own life and work.  “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you,” he said.  The gifts of peace and purpose were wonderful in themselves.  But Christ Jesus wasn’t finished yet.  He breathed his Holy Spirit on them.  As we’ve observed before, the word for breath and spirit are the same in both Hebrew and Greek.  Just as God breathed life into humanity in the beginning, now Christ Jesus breathed new life into his people, new life, and spirit power.

If we read on in scripture, a few chapters and a few weeks later, these same frightened followers had come out from behind locked doors and were boldly sharing the good news of Jesus any way they could.

No barriers are a match for Jesus now.  What he did for his followers that first Easter he does for us now.  Wherever crisis and pain have chased people’s peace away, Jesus slips in among them.  He speaks the word of peace, and brings the peace of his presence.  He opens his hands, those same wounded healing hands to us, encircling us with those same strong, everlasting arms.  He breathes his Spirit on, in, and among us.  Right here in my study.  Right there where you are.  He sends us to continue his life and work.

By the power of his Spirit, we will continue to be his body now, prayerfully sharing his good news any way we can even though our movements are limited right now.  And then, when next steps start to become clear, we will move out in power.  Yes, power!

We who pray over and over, “thy kingdom come, and thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” will have the opportunity to practice our king’s way.  We can be a part of the healing, of making things better in all the communities of which we are a part, from the local to the national and the world.  We know our God is the one who can change things so that we don’t have to just snap back to the same business as usual and the same injustice as before.  

May the peace of the risen Christ be with all who suffer this day, and with all who are fearful for loved ones or for themselves.  May the peace of Christ be with all who are waiting on him, all you with longing hearts, all needing comfort and strength.  May the peace of Christ be with all of you who are heavily burdened, and give you rest.

Beloved, may the peace of Christ be with you all, holding you near to the heart of God, now and always.  AMEN.

This choral piece by Pepper Choplin is one of the songs that is sustaining me through this uncertain time.

While It Is Still Dark

A Meditation on John 20:1-18

Sunday, April 12, 2020

photo of moon during night

Photo by Rok Romih on Pexels.com


Mary Magdalene and all those who loved Jesus were trying to find their way through the darkest time they had ever experienced.  They had watched helplessly as the state—urged on by the religious authorities—tortured Jesus to death.

They had pinned all their hopes on Jesus.  They saw him ushering in the kingdom of God, where things are the way they should be, with peace, healing and wellbeing for all.  The kingdom of love and light.  They had experienced it.  Mary Magdalene had experience great healing.

And now this.  Horror!

It was still pitch dark as Mary made her way to the grave.  She couldn’t wait even until sunrise.  She must go now.  But when Mary got there, the stone covering the entrance had been removed, and there was nothing inside but the burial wrappings.  Jesus was gone!  Somebody must have stolen the body—as if the crucifixion weren’t enough.  Mary grew even more distressed.

There is much to distress us in this present darkness.  The illness that has brought ordinary life to a stop is only part of the suffering.  We mourn the loss of life and livelihoods and more.  This week unemployment rose to levels our country has not seen since the Great Depression that began in 1929.  This crisis is making it impossible to ignore the fact that vast numbers of Americans live close to the edge even in so-called normal times.

Bad behavior on the part of some is adding to the distress: distressing news of people trying to exploit the situation to enrich themselves, and of people not even bothering to put their used masks and gloves into the trash, just dropping them in the grocery store parking lot.  Yuck!

Before all this started, many people were already struggling in so many ways, and the pandemic makes things even harder.

Mary Magdalene was so upset she just couldn’t stop crying.  She really couldn’t see anything clearly in the gloom, much less recognize Jesus in the shadows.

With deep respect in his voice, Jesus said, “Woman, why are you crying?  Whom are you looking for?”

She thought he must be the gardener.  “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where, and I will take him away.”

“Mary,” he said. The risen Christ reached out to her in the gloom. She knew that voice!  “Teacher,” she exclaimed.

Realization is like a light.  Recognition is like a light.  The Lord was near, and he was alive!

Think of what this meant!  It meant that while it was still dark the stone was moved.  While it was still dark, God had raised Jesus Christ to new life.  Long before daybreak God was already up and working to overcome the horror of Friday.  God’s work of resurrection got underway while it was still dark.  God overcame death while it was still night. 

Christ was alive before dawn, before those who loved him were able to see him and trust that he truly was there.  In the shadows, he was ready to reach out to Mary and all the rest again.

Surely the God of resurrection is already at work in this present darkness.  Surely the God of light is already working for goodness, love, and life despite the shadows of gloom and despair.  God’s power goes to work even while it is still dark.

In some Christian traditions the first Easter service takes place at midnight, long before sunrise.  People gather outside and kindle a fire.  Then they light a large, long-burning Easter candle from the fire, light their own small candles, and process into the darkened church.  There they maintain a vigil in the night.  They retell the story of God’s faithfulness through all the ages, and they start rejoicing before the light of dawn arrives.

That is because they know God is already at work to bring new life even before it can be seen.  They anticipate it.  They long for it.  They trust that it will come.  They trust that they will hear Jesus’ voice again.  They keep the faith.

Friends, let us keep the Easter vigil in this present darkness.  Thanks be to God for the beautiful flickers of light that we can see, where we can glimpse God’s great faithfulness, mercy, and love in the middle of all this.  Those who keep their candles lit, so to speak, join in the good God is doing.  Thanks be to God for that voice we know and love so well, the living Christ, who calls each one of us by name, inviting us to announce his good news.  Inviting us to live his good news.

Beloved, keep the Easter vigil, until our Savior takes us to the place where there is no more darkness, no more night, and it will be bright Easter forever.  AMEN.

Surely He Has Borne Our Griefs

A Meditation on Isaiah 52:13-53:4a

Passion Sunday, April 5, 2020

Often when we reflect on the meaning of the cross we think about sin.  Human sin is what put Jesus on the cross, and his death on the cross overcomes sin.  It is the sign and seal that God truly does forgive us.

But the cross means even more.  As the early Christians tried to express its meaning, they found help in the words of Isaiah that we just read: God’s servant was well acquainted with suffering and infirmity.  Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases.  Another translation reads, “It was our weaknesses he carried; it was our sorrows that weighed him down.”  The old King James puts it this way, “He was a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.  Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows.”

Jesus carried the weight of sin on the cross, but he carried much more.  Jesus carried the whole weight of human pain and suffering and sorrow.  He drank the cup of human experience all the way down to the bitter bottom, in total solidarity with us, in total love, in total understanding.  Surely he shares our sickness and our sorrows.  He makes them his very own.

In the early 1500’s there was an artist name Matthias Grunewald who understood this.  The monks of the monastery of St. Anthony in the northeastern French town of Isenheim commissioned him to create a work of art to be used at worship.  They ran a hospital that cared especially for victims of the plague, and for people suffering from skin diseases.  They asked Grunewald to create a work of art that would bring comfort to their patients.   He created what is called an altarpiece, and it consists of several paintings by Grunewald, along with some sculptures that were made by another artist. Crucifixion-centre-panel-Matthias-Grunewald-Isenheim-Altarpiece

The center of the altarpiece is Grunewald’s painting of the crucifixion.   The artist shows Jesus on the cross as a victim of the plague.  Jesus is a plague victim.  He has in his body the very same wounds as the patients at St. Anthony’s.  To the left you can see Jesus’ helpless, grieving mother being supported by the disciple that Jesus loved, along with another grieving woman.  To the right you see John the Baptist emphatically pointing to Jesus.  

We are in the midst of a plague now, an invisible enemy that is disrupting life, making people sick and killing people on a scale that we haven’t seen in our lifetime, but that earlier generations like Grunewald and the monks at St. Anthony’s certainly saw and coped with, and tried to address.  The COVID-19 plague attacks the lungs, making it very difficult for the hardest hit patients to breathe.  As I thought about Holy Week, and Good Friday this year, I couldn’t help thinking of the Grunewald painting, and I also couldn’t help thinking of how when Jesus died on the cross, he died because he couldn’t pull himself up any more to be able to breathe.  This painting proclaimed the word from Isaiah to the patients at St. Anthony’s, “Surely he has borne our infirmities.  Surely he has borne our griefs.”  The suffering Savior shared their suffering.  And John points to him as if to say, “This is the one who can help YOU.”

This is the one who can help US.  Surely our Savior is bearing our sickness and sorrow as we contend with COVID-19.  Surely he is with us, with supreme love and understanding as the sick struggle, and others struggle to help them.  Surely he is with us in our grief, and as we wrestle with our fears, and as we cope.  Surely our Savior bears our infirmities and carries our diseases.

I am thankful.  But I am also longing for the resurrection.


Words from Paul in this time of pandemic….

We Can Do This Hard Thing

A Sermon on Philippians 4:4-14

man hands people woman

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Paul was isolated not due to a virus, but because he was in detention. He could have been in an actual prison, but he also could have been under house arrest. We know that he experienced both these forms of imprisonment. It was a scary place to be. Paul had a possible death sentence hanging over his head. What’s more, he had to depend on other people to bring him food and supplies from the outside. He had reason to experience anxiety, and I am sure he did experience it and that he looked for ways to cope with it.

And Paul didn’t think only of himself. He was deeply touched by the expressions of support that he received from the church at Philippi, and he was deeply concerned about them. There they were, VERY out of step with the world around them. Philippi was a Roman colony, a place where being patriotic meant proclaiming that the emperor—caesar—is lord, something they could not do and still be true to their faith. The church proclaimed that Jesus Christ is Lord, and they longed for the day when every knee would bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord. Paul understood that the body of Christ at Philippi had their own struggles with worry and discouragement. He also knew that they wished they could support Paul even more than they had been able to so far. As he thought of this church with loving prayers, Paul wanted to write something that would lift them up and help them persevere.

Now that the COVID-19 virus is isolating us, I am amazed at all the ways people are reaching out to support one another. Musicians are recording at home and posting uplifting music. Last weekend Neil Diamond posted a video in which he urges people to sing. Then he plays a soft acoustic version of “Sweet Caroline,” and he changed the words to “hands washing hands,” adding some comic relief to the seriousness, too.

Good writers are posting their thoughts about how to stay safe and healthy in body, mind, and spirit. My cousin who is a school psychologist passed along a good list from one of her colleagues of mental health wellness tips, like keeping in touch with people, finding ways to be helpful, taking time every day to get outside if you can, limiting how much news you expose yourself to, and doing creative projects you enjoy. One of her tips is to, quote, “Find something you can control, and control the heck out of it,” like clean out that closet, or organize your toys.

Yesterday a colleague posted about being forgetful, and I get that. I’m having trouble remembering what day of the week it is. This is what stress and making big adjustments does to the brain. She speaks a word of grace about it. We should cut ourselves some slack when we need more rest and when we can’t get as much done as we do in normal times. (https://achurchforstarvingartists.blog/2020/03/28/trauma-brain/#comments)

Daily I am seeing people trying from a distance to help one another persevere, which is what Paul was trying to do for the Philippians from a distance. He did not have much to work with except parchment and a pen, but he made good use of them to put his thoughts into words. All the way through the letter you can hear how thankful Paul is for all of them, and for their faithfulness. They were gospel partners for Paul, and he didn’t take them for granted.

One thought that really struck me from the first chapter is this one. He says, “I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel.” Even under lockdown, Paul recognized that God was up to something, and that God could do something productive with this experience. I latched on to that because that is one of my biggest prayers and hopes for the situation that we are in, that in the end it will help spread the good news of Christ. I think it will if we are open to all that God can teach us through this; if we are willing to take what we learn forward into our future as a church. For example, what if there’s a way for us to continue to welcome people from afar into our worship remotely even after we are able to get back together at the church house. I also hope this COVID-19 season provides the push we need to make our culture, our ways of living more equitable and just for everyone. I hope God will use it to help mend some of our flaws as the song “America the Beautiful” says.

But the most important thing that Paul keeps coming back to all the way through the letter is to keep the focus on Christ. He got to the point where he felt safe with Christ regardless of how things turned out, but this didn’t come without a struggle. We can see that struggle in another letter, for example, when he writes about begging God to take the pain away, and finally being comforted by the word that God’s strength is enough. Paul rested in safety with Christ. Just give him Jesus. That is why early in the letter he said that living means Christ, but dying means Christ, too. And that is why our Brief Statement of Faith says right up front, “In life and in death we belong to God.” Period.

In the passage I just read, Paul reassures the church in Philippi that it is possible to change the focus from despair to joy, from fear to faith, from worry to prayer. “Turn your minds to prayer and thanksgiving” he wrote. “Turn your minds to all that is good and lovely. Focus on what is true, honest, just, and pure and worthy of praise.” All of these things are gifts from God. All of these beautiful things are gifts from the God who loves us. There is much to give thanks for, not the least of which is this community of faith. What Paul said of the Philippians, I say of you. I thank God every time I remember you. We give thanks every time we remember one another. Amen?

And, Paul adds, it is possible to persevere in all circumstances. “I’ve learned the secret to hang in there through plenty or want. I can do it through Christ who strengthens me,” he wrote. The strength comes from Christ. When we start to think, “I can’t cope,” we can join with Paul to say, “With Christ I can.” With Christ I can face what is happening. With Christ I can face tomorrow.

Carrie Newcomer’s song, “You Can Do This Hard Thing” has meant so much to me this week. Listen to it here:

You can do this hard thing. Paul wrote, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” In, with, and through Christ, I can do this hard thing, and you can, too.. Beloved, in, and with, and through Christ WE can do this hard thing!


I am posting this during the COVID-19 pandemic while we are altering our lifestyles in order to try to slow the spread of the virus, protect the vulnerable among us, and care for our medical personnel who are struggling to care for all the sick.  This song, “You Can Do This Hard Thing,” by Carrie Newcomer spoke to me this week.  We can do this hard thing.

As we find our way into an uncertain future individually and together as congregations, as communities, and as a nation,  seemingly easier but dubious, devilish ways will suggest themselves as means to the ends we hope for.  Like our ancestors in the wilderness and like our Christian forebears who sought the power of the state for Christian ends, or who put protecting themselves first, we are vulnerable to making deals with the devil, and we find ourselves worshiping something other than the living God.

Making Deals with the Devil

A Sermon on Matthew 4:1-11 and Exodus 32:1-14

Believe it or not, the deals the devil offered Jesus truly were tempting.  Why?  Because the devil’s proposals all appeared to offer sure-fire ways to accomplish an awful lot of good.  Imagine all the good Jesus could accomplish if the powers of the world were concentrated in his hands.

These deals were all the more tempting because Jesus was vulnerable.  Here Jesus was, about thirty years old, already well into middle age for that era, and he still wasn’t launched on his mission.  He had already been waiting such a long time and now the Spirit of God had taken him into the wilderness to wait some more.  Forty days and forty nights was a long time!  It was a time of great uncertainty.  Jesus didn’t know what the way forward was.  Jesus did not arrive on this earth with detailed plans, agendas, and timetables for ministry, and none was handed to him later.  That meant Jesus had to discern what to do and discern when the time was right.

What’s more, this extended time in the wilderness had left Jesus worn down and hungry.  Who could blame him if he just wanted to get some decisions made already.  Let’s get on with this!

A voice came to Jesus, a voice that sounded so reasonable. It wasn’t obviously the voice of evil.   It seemed to speak sense.  “Since you are the Son of God,” it said, “Turn these stones into bread and eat.  Look!  There’s an unlimited supply!  Just think of how many other hungry people you could feed.”  If Jesus wanted to attract lots of people to himself, that would certainly do it.  Jesus could literally have people eating out of his hand.

“Or what about this,” the voice of the devil continued.  “Come with me to the top of the Temple in Jerusalem.  Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down, proving that what the Bible says is true: that God will order his angels to hold you up so you won’t even hurt your feet on the rocks.  Psalm 91:11-12, quote!  Not to mention the people, no religious leader will be able to object.  They’ll be forced to accept that you are who you are.”  The crowds will swell even more.

Then that voice beckoned Jesus even higher, to the top of a very high mountain.  “Look,” it said.  “Spread out before us are all the kingdoms of the world.  See how splendid they are.  My power is what makes them great.  Kingdoms run on my kind of power.  This power is what the world understands.  Worship me, and this power will be yours.  Make a deal with me and take charge!  Deal or no deal?”

When people are stressed and uncertain, they are vulnerable to voices that say, “I have the answer.”  They are vulnerable to making deals with the devil.  They are like the God’s people the Israelites in the wilderness, tired of all the struggle and uncertainty and waiting, anxious to get moving forward.  

“Aaron,” they exclaimed, “We don’t know what on earth has happened to this man Moses who led us out of Egypt.  We’re tired of waiting.  We’re tired of this wilderness.  Let’s get this show on the road.  Make us gods to lead us on to the Promised Land.  Make something we can see and rally behind.”

They didn’t get any argument from Aaron.  He, too, must have been anxious to get going.  So Aaron told all the people to turn in their gold jewelry, which he proceeded to melt down, pour into a mold, and shape into a golden calf, a bull.  Why a bull?  In the ancient Near East the bull was a common symbol for power, and in particular, for military power.  This is what the gods of the great nations around Israel looked like.  Actually, Wall Street power is still pictured as a bull. 

When the people saw the bull, they agreed, “Look, Israel, these are our gods that led us out of Egypt, and THIS is the power that is going to get us to the promised land!”
What an irony!  While Aaron and the Israelites were busy concocting this golden calf, imitating the world around them, settling for the gods of the world, God had something much better in mind.  God was busy describing to Moses plans for using that very same gold to make beautiful vessels, instruments, and furnishings for God’s moveable sanctuary and for the ark of the covenant, the golden box to hold the tablets of God’s covenant law.  This sign of the covenant was what God wanted at the head of the procession to the promised land, not some bull.  The result was disaster.

Through the centuries the people of Christ have certainly made deals with the devil, sometimes for selfish ends, but often in the name of  some hoped-for GOOD goal, aiming for the promised land.  For example, this week I studied some of the history of the church in Germany during the Nazi era before and during the second world war.  History shows why the church didn’t take a stronger stand against what Hitler and his henchmen were doing.  In 1933, for example, the pope signed an agreement with the Nazi government, before the worst of the atrocities got started, with the goal of making sure the church could keep on doing what the church does, or what they believed it should do.   Honorable goal, right?  Hitler’s government agreed to permit Catholics to observe the sacraments and make pastoral appointments without interference, it agreed to state support of Catholic schools, and it agreed to permit religious instruction in public schools.  This looked like a win for the church, especially given some of the earlier history of persecution against Catholics in the region.  In exchange, however, the clergy could not engage in political activity or hold political office, they had to swear an oath of loyalty to the Hitler’s Third Reich, and they agreed to sponsor only organizations that strictly did charitable works or social activities.  The pope’s purpose in signing that agreement was to protect the institutional church.

But this muzzled the church’s tradition of speaking out on matters of human rights and justice.  The church was strangely silent, at least publicly, when Hitler started purging and murdering his political opponents, and when the government instituted boycotts of Jewish businesses, and started destroying synagogues and imprisoning Jews.  Eventually some found ways to resist, especially when it became clear that the Nazis’ goal was to eliminate everybody deemed weak or undesirable.  Some paid the price for resisting—imprisonment and worse.

Protestants made their own deals, going along with a policy of coordinating Nazi beliefs and policies with church theology and practice, beliefs about homeland and patriotism, and racial purity.  There was a Protestant movement called Deutsche Kristen, German Christians, who did things such as teach that Jesus was not Jewish, and bar Christians of Jewish background from being leaders.  There were many who thought Hitler was sent by God to save the German people and nation economically, culturally, and spiritually.  Cooperating with Nazism appeared to them to be the way to promote patriotism and traditional family values.

Other Christians who disagreed with the German Christian moment founded their own movement called the Confessing Church.  One of its documents, the Barmen Declaration of 1934, is in our Presbyterian Church USA Book of Confessions.  It declares that Christ alone is Lord of the church.  But even the Confessing Church had a spotty record when it came to resisting. 

The most poignant article I read this week came from a writer in the Seventh Day Adventist tradition, one of the smallest Christian groups.  It was a very small group in Germany.  The author, Harold Alomia, wrote, “It seemed that the church found itself being pulled from three different directions: the desire to carry out its mission, the need to please the state and avoid its demise, and the wish to keep its organizational structure intact.”  (Harold Alomia, “Fatal Flirting: the Nazi State and the Seventh Day Adventist Church.” Journal of Adventist Mission Studies, Vol. 6 [2010], No. 1, Art. 2, p. 11.) (https://digitalcommons.andrews.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1042&context=jams). He added, “The church seemed eager to seek power from the state to carry out the proclamation that God has entrusted to the church.”  Let me repeat that: the church seemed eager to seek power from the state to carry out the proclamation that God has entrusted to the church.

Those statements apply to much of the church in that era.  Seeking power and protection, trying to preserve its life, particularly its institutional life, the church made deals that seemed to be to its advantage, but turning a blind eye to evil.  And so the church ended up worshiping something other than Jesus Christ.   Deals with the devil.

On Jesus’ way to his own promised land, the devil offered Jesus deal or no deal.  “No deal, Jesus answered.  “Scripture says that humanity cannot live on bread alone, but must feed on every word that comes from the mouth of God.  No deal!  Scripture says, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.  No manipulating God!  No forcing God’s hand!  No deal!  Scripture says worship only God, and serve only God.”

As far as Jesus was concerned, no matter how hungry and impatient and eager for success one is, the will and way of God comes first!  There are no shortcuts to the Promised Land.  The humble, difficult way is the way.  The way of the cross is the way.  Some things are more important than protecting and saving ourselves.  Some things are more important than winning.

Christians are as tempted to make deals with the devil as ever.  As the Seventh Day Adventist writer put it, the church is still sometimes eager to seek power from the state to carry out the proclamation that God has entrusted to the church.  The church sometimes seeks the power of the state to fulfill its mission and meet its goals.  But when we unconditionally support someone who promises to deliver the power of the state to us through laws or directives, or in the form of seats on the Supreme Court, we are in grave danger of making deals with the devil.  And this will not end well.  Just ask our Israelite ancestors.  Just ask our Christian forebears who made that mistake.

The primary question for the Israelites, for Christ Jesus himself, and for Christ’s people today is not what is the most expedient, efficient, quickest way to make it to the promised land.  The question is not how can we MAKE what we want happen, INSURE it happens, however good it might be.  The question is not which way involves the least fear and the least pain, or what will please people and make us look good in others’ eyes, or draw crowds.  The primary question is “What is the will of God?”  We must think it through, guided by scripture just as Jesus did.  We must wrestle with it. We must discern it.

As we find our way into an uncertain future individually and together as congregations, as communities, and as a nation,  seemingly easier but dubious, devilish ways will suggest themselves as means to the ends we hope for.  What will it be?  Deal or no deal?


Morton Church’s children’s book fair is underway online.  Here are some mini reviews of some of the books you will find there:

IMG_1756.jpgMy Little Golden Book About God. This book was very special to me as a child.  I can still hear my mother’s voice reading it.  I still believe that “Beyond the farthest star, God knows the way,” and that God planned “this tiny world your two hands could span.”

Beautiful Moon.  This gorgeous book allows us to eavesdrop on a IMG_1760.pngchild’s prayers.  As a beautiful moon illuminates people in need around his city, this child prays for them: people who are homeless, hungry, or sick, and for many others.  The author has dedicated it “To All Those in Need of Prayer.”  I have shared this book with our congregation during worship.  Prayers don’t have to be fancy to be very beautiful indeed.

IMG_1761At Your Baptism. I keep this little book on hand to give families at a baby’s baptism. It’s a wonderful expression of God’s great love for us before we even know we are in the world. The text at the top of each page comes from a statement of God’s promises from the French Reformed liturgy for baptism. All that Jesus did, he did for you—yes you!—before you knew anything of it. Read this book, remember your baptism, and be thankful!

The author of Psalms for Young Children, Marie-Helene Delval, has captured the spirit ofIMG_1757.jpg the psalms, and rendered them in language that is “prayable” for our younger saints as well as deeply touching for us older saints. She includes the psalms of sorrow and lament as well as the psalms of praise and joy, showing us that we can take everything to God in prayer, even the feelings that dismay us.IMG_1783.jpg

In If Kids Ran the World, Leo and Diane Dillon show children from all over the world working for justice, kindness, and peace, along with caring well for our planet itself. The world they dream of and work for looks a lot like what God is dreaming of and working for. It’s a good one to share at young disciples time during worship to encourage people of all ages to dream God’s dreams—and to join God in realizing them.

Here are two books by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. In the Children of God Storybook Bible,IMG_1798.jpg he tells fifty-six Bible stories, most in the space of one or two pages, with stunning artwork by artists from around the world and gentle prayers for each one. This book IMG_1797.jpgmakes a wonderful gift. The readings also work well for devotionals and for children’s times during worship. In God’s Dream Archbishop Tutu describes the Beloved Community of God, and invites everyone to help God’s dream come true. The Beloved Community is not perfect, but God has given us gifts to mend and heal. I use this book in worship, too. I would love to give these two books to every child. 

Look! A Child’s Guide to Advent & Christmas, by Laura Alary. This gentle book invites young people and their adults to reflect on Advent themes, such as saying yes to God, and IMG_1811.pngto undertake Advent spiritual practices like putting ornaments on a Jesse tree and
serving others in need. It draws readers into the experiences of the people waiting in darkness in Isaiah, the ministry of John the Baptist, and Mary’s call to be Jesus’ mother. Savor this book in small bites throughout the season with your elementary and older children.

Jesus came for everyone. That is the message of That Baby in the Manger. It tells the story of what happened when a group of church children realized that the figure in the crèche of IMG_1794.pngbaby Jesus with blonde curls didn’t look like them, and what one of the elders and the pastor did about it. What a good discussion starter for conversations on the incarnation, race, ethnicity, and more! Highly recommended for every family and every church. In abbreviated form it works for reading during worship.

A Small Miracle by Peter Collington is a wordless book that invites people of all ages to reflect on what it means to incarnate the love and kindness of God. An old woman weak with hunger foils the robbery of the village church’s IMG_1799.jpgChristmas charity offering and cleans up the mess the robber left behind inside. She reassembles the crèche, putting each figure back in place. On the way home she collapses in the snow, and the nativity figures come to her rescue. They carry her home to her tiny caravan, where she lies unconscious. Mary and the baby stay with her while all the other figures go out to get food and other necessities. Carpenter Joseph even fixes a broken floorboard inside the caravan. This is a book to savor Christmas after Christmas. 

Refuge focuses on a part of the Christmas story that doesn’t
get much attention: the flight into Egypt.  Jesus and his family were refugees dependent IMG_1764.jpgon the kindness of strangers.  The donkey tells the story of the journey simply without mentioning Herod’s rage and violence.  A dream of danger is what prompts the Holy Family to flee.  This book is simple enough to share with little ones, short enough to read in worship, and deep enough to prompt discussion of how Jesus calls us to welcome strangers and care for refugees.

IMG_1762.jpgI’m a big fan of British author Lois Rock who tells the stories of Jesus and speaks of the things of God so eloquently and simply for children.  I’m also a fan of artist Alison Jay.  They have teamed up to to draw people into the nativity story in On That Christmas Night.  The illustrations are set in medieval Europe and resemble an illuminated manuscript in color and light, but the figures are rendered in a way that is unique to the artist’s style.  There is so much to see on every page.  One of the best things about this nativity book is that it includes both annunciation stories, and also the flight into Egypt.

Many books imagine the nativity story from the point of view of the animals that were IMG_1825.jpglikely present.  Room for a Little One by Martin Waddell is a lovely example.  One by one the animals gather and welcome each newcomer with the refrain, “There’s always room for a little one here.” The last to arrive is tired donkey carrying Mary who is in labor.  This book is for even our littlest followers of Jesus. At Morton Church’s Christmas dinner last year, one of our elders read this story to the children, and she used stuffed animals to represent each welcoming animal.  It was a hit.

IMG_1826.jpgChristmas Day in the Morning is a classic by Pearl S. Buck, and it’s a favorite at my house.  Maybe it’s because I grew upon a dairy farm and could easily picture this story taking place back home on our farm.  The thought of Jesus being born in a barn and of people bringing him gifts in the barn prompted a young man of  fifteen to ask, “Why should he not give his father a special gift, too, out there in the barn?” And so a gift that brings tears to my eyes was given early on Christmas morning.  The best gifts of all are not things.  The illustrator includes a note about how his own children responded to this story.

Christmas in the Manger is a board book that makes aIMG_1823.jpg good first Christmas book for an infant or toddler.  The characters of the nativity story are introduced through bright pictures and simple rhymes.  My favorite is the last one: “I am the baby asleep in the hay, and I am the reason for Christmas Day.”

In Sally Lloyd-Jones’ book Song of the Stars, all creation and all creatures from smallest to greatest long for the arrival of our Redeemer, journey to Bethlehem, and gather around the manger in awe and praise.  The truth they see is that “the One who made us has come to live with us!”  It reminds me of creation’s eager longing in Romans 8.  This book is yet another invitation to ponder the eager longing of Advent, and the mystery and wonder of the incarnation.




BB01074E-C8F2-43D8-82D6-7E9EA43466EDAdvent will soon be here.  Are you looking for good books to share with children and youth in your congregation, family and friends?  Come visit Morton Presbyterian Church’s Young Disciples Book Fair online.  Its goal is to help you find books that nurture faith and to promote reading in general.  Reading together is a great way to cultivate spirituality and strengthen relationships.  We are doing this through childrensbookstore.com, an independent online book store that only sells children’s books. 

Here are the details:

  • Dates: November 11-November 25, 2019
  • Go online to www.childrensbookstore.com/morton-presbyterian-church. You can view the site now.
  • Look through our posted lists of books on topics like “Who is God?” and “Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany.” Scroll to the bottom of the page and click on links to book lists by reading level.
  • Search for books in the search box at the top right of the web page, or click on “Shop Books” near the top left to find books by subject, series, and more.  More than 200,000 children’s and young adult titles are available.
  • Add books to the shopping cart, check out, and have the books shipped to your home.
  • During the dates above, Morton Church will receive 30% of every book purchased.  After the book fair dates, you can still order through our page, and the church will receive 15% of every book purchased.

The web page will stay active after the fair, and people can continue to use the book lists and order.  We would love to hear your book recommendations as we continue to update the page.  What books would you love to place in every child or youth’s hands?

29FFDC61-F80F-4397-84A2-660439268A1DThe book lists we created for the page are based on books we have used and loved, or they have been recommended by another source.  For example, the current issue of Christian Century has a list of books helpful for talking about difficult topics with children.  Read more here.

You can also find book lists, reviews, and recommendations for using children’s books in ministry at Storypath.com and Picturebooktheology.com.  I consult both of these sites regularly.

We are glad to share these resources with you.  If you choose to make purchases through our book page, thank you so much!  Money that we receive will help support and expand Morton Church’s ministries with children and youth in the church and community, which include Backpack Buddies at Coopers Elementary School to feed hungry bodies and summer book drives to feed hungry minds.

Please feel free to share this post far and wide.  Thank you!

My Fundraising Page


Laura and her Grandma at worship.

I am passing along two good articles about having realistic expectations of children during worship:

Christina Embree has so many good resources on her blog, Refocus.org.  Her post is Kids in Church: What Do you expect is going to happen?

Building Faith is another helpful site.  The post is entitled Children’s Behavior in Worship: Does Your Congregation Have Realistic Expectations?