Walking on Water 8-13-17

I find though, that I have to change what I’m talking about today because of the events in Charlottesburg, VA. I wish we didn’t have to, but we just have to address these things today. Listen for the word of the Living God for you today from Matthew.

Matthew 14:22-33 Jesus insisted that the disciples get into the boat and precede him to the other side. Having sent the crowds away, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray, remaining there alone as night fell. meanwhile the boat, already a thousand yards from shore, was being tossed about in the waves which had been raised by the fierce winds. At about three in the morning. Jesus came walking toward them, on the lake When the disciples saw Jesus walking on the water. they were terrified.  “It is a ghost!” they said, and in their fear they began to cry out. Jesus hastened to reassure them:  “Don’t worry, it’s me!  Don’t be afraid!” Peter spoke u and said, “If it is really you, tell me to come to you across the water.” :”come!” Jesus said. So Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus

But when he saw how strong the wind was, he became frightened.  He began to sink, and cried out, “Save me!” Jesus immediately stretched out his hand and caught Peter.  “You have so little faith!” Jesus said to him.  ”Why did you doubt?” Once they had climbed into the boat, the wind died down.  Those who were in the boat showed great reverence, declaring to Jesus, “You are indeed God’s Own!’

Let’s reflect for a moment on times when we have doubted God’s presence with us, and when and how we have found that connection again.

August 13, 2017

Walking on Water

“When the storms of life are raging, stand by me. When the storms of life are raging, stand by me. When the world is tossing me, like a ship upon the sea, thou who rulest wind and water, stand by me.”

The news yesterday of a woman being killed by a car driven into a crowd by a white supremacist terrorist shook me yesterday, and has shaken all of us, I dare to say. I had been invited to go down to Charlottesville a week or so ago, to stand vigil with other clergy against what people were starting to sense was going to be a dangerous gathering of hate groups, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists. One friend said, “If you wonder what you would have done during the Civil Rights movement, notice what you are doing now.”

I knew I couldn’t go down there, but I do have some mixed feelings of desire to do something, fear about doing something, fear about what is happening in our country, and concern for the best way to respond. So let me take a few minutes this morning to give some preliminary thoughts at the end of a stormy and scary weekend.

First let me address directly the problem with President Trump’s response to the calamity. He made a statement condemning in the ‘strongest possible terms’ the violence on all sides. That would be ok if the violence was being initiated by all kinds of people, and if it was specific about the ways in which the violence is being initiated.

Notice how a similar statement from the United Methodist Church sounds fairly similar to President Trump’s statement, but has a quite different impact, “The United Methodist Church condemns in the strongest terms racism, white supremacy and violence.” Social Principles 162 A  That statement can also challenge the violence which is being used to respond to violence, but you first have to be clear where the violence is coming from.

And I don’t think you can be really clear about where the violence originates if you’re first goal is to gain political points. I don’t mention President Trump’s weak response this morning to imply that if we got rid of one person or a few people, this problem would be solved. That would be seriously naive. We are confused when we divide everybody into right and left, us and them. We don’t solve things by dividing everybody right and left. It’s only when we get clear about right and wrong.

The truth is that all of us are caught in the storm of white supremacy, even if we are unaware of it. If we are pointing fingers at someone else and not noticing how our own lives are complicit in the systematic ways in which people of color are oppressed, then we are part of the problem. Let me put it even more pointedly than that – as Dr. William Barber puts it,, our country has a heart problem. White racism has been all tangled up in the way our country operates from the very beginning, and it’s not just a few people, it’s all of us taking part in that original sin.

I know that’s a pretty strong way to put it, but I don’t think we can cover this over. It’s a spiritual problem in our country, not a political problem. It requires soul work.


So let’s turn to the Gospel and see how the Word of the Living God gives us some help today. The story we read from Matthew today, of course is the story of Jesus walking on water to save the disciples who are scared to death because of a storm. Jesus had gone off by himself to pray and sent them on ahead. As they are scared they are going to capsize, Jesus catches up with them about three in the morning – walking across the water.

That scares them even more. They think he’s a ghost. Jesus has to reassure them, “Chill out guys. It’s just me. Don’t get even more scared!” At that, Peter, (and this only happens in the gospel of Matthew) decides to test the situation, and, still unsure it seems if it’s Jesus, says, “If it’s really you, tell you to come out there with you.”

Jesus chuckles, “Sure, go ahead and try it.” And Peter gets out of the boat, takes a few steps and starts to sink. Jesus has to grab him and save him, still chuckling about his daring and his incomplete faith.


I read a poem this week that I was going to use for my growing older sermon, that I think is still relevant to this passage and this message. It is by William Stafford and called “The Way It Is.” It’s how we came up with the idea of throwing the string around this morning.

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among

things that change. But it doesn’t change.

People wonder about what you are pursuing.

You have to explain about the thread.

But it is hard for others to see.

While you hold it you can’t get lost.

Tragedies happen; people get hurt

or die; and you suffer and get old.

Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.

You don’t ever let go of the thread.


As I was reading that poem and thinking about our reading today, I imagined Jesus saving Peter not just by grabbing him, but by throwing him a rope – the thread if you will. “You don’t ever let go of the thread.” Why? Because you can’t. Love has you. Love is you. Love, and your deep need for love, recognizes Love itself. Remember that you already are what you are seeking.

We get confused in the storms of our lives, we so easily get scared to death in the turbulence of our seas. We think that we are lost when we see the storms of racism and violence, and it’s even more scary when we realize that we are in the storm, as much as we try to avoid it.

God bless Peter who steps out of the boat. The key to faith and fullness of life in Christ is to trust the thread, to trust the connection to the Living God, to step out in the storms of life, to leave the comfort and security of our carefully protected boat, to head into the troubled waters of this chaotic world to proclaim the love of the Living God, trusting in God’s community of love, trusting in the thread that connects us all. You don’t ever let go of the thread – because you can’t. The thread is always there, connecting all of us to the love of God, even if we are unaware of it.

I saw several colleagues on the news down in Virginia yesterday, stepping into the middle of the storm – confident of the thread that connects them to God’s love, confident that their peaceful spirit would make a difference somehow as a few confused people spew hatred and violence, knowing that they had to be there, knowing they had to witness to the thread that connects us all.


Responsive Hymn 512      Stand By Me

A Room Called Remember 7-6-17

Genesis 32:22-21 In the course of the night, Jacob arose, took the entire caravan, and crossed the ford of the Yabbok River. After Jacob had crossed with all his possessions, he returned to the camp, and he was completely alone. And there, someone wrestled with Jacob until the first light of dawn. Seeing that Jacob could not be overpowered, the other struck Jacob at the socket of the hip, and the hip was dislocated as they wrestled. Then Jacob’s contender said, “Let me go, for day is breaking.” Jacob answered, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” “What is your name?” the other asked. “Jacob,” he answered. The other said, “Your name will no longer be called ‘Jacob,’ or ‘Heel-Grabber,’ but ‘Israel’—Overcomer of God’s—because you have wrestled with both God and mortals, and you have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked “Now tell me your name, I beg you.” The other said, “Why do you ask me my name?”—and blessed Jacob there. Jacob named the place Peniel—“Face of God”—because I have seen God face to face, yet my life was spared.” At sunrise, Jacob left Peniel, limping along from the injured hip.

As I sat with my mother toward the end of her life, I talked with family members often to give them updates and relay their best wishes to my mother. I enjoyed in particular talking to my Aunt Helen Thompson, who was married to my mother’s brother John Thompson. She the one surviving member of that generation at the age of 96 and she has an interest in genealogy. So I asked her about my ancestor Archibald Johnston. That question led to this sermon, reflecting on the importance of our ancestry and knowing we are. The search for our true deepest Self is the same as or at least part of our search for God. I’m also particularly interested in those of us who identify as white learning to complicate our history a bit, so that our primary identification is not to differentiate ourselves from Black people, but to know our own history. From that history we connect in more authentic ways with other people’s history.

My text for this morning is the Genesis text which Rick and Lisa read. I ask you also to listen to the second assigned text for this morning from the Gospel of Matthew. May the Word of God reach all of us this day.

Matthew 14:13-21 When Jesus heard about the beheading, he left Nazareth by boat and went to a deserted place to be alone.  The crowds heard of this and followed him from their towns on foot. When Jesus disembarked and saw the vast throng, his heart was moved with pity, and he healed their sick. As evening drew on, the disciples approached Jesus and said, “this is a deserted place and it is already late, dismiss the crowds so they can go to the villages and buy some food for themselves.” Jesus said to them “There is no need for them to disperse.  Give them something to eat yourselves.” “We have nothing here,” they replied “but five loaves and a couple of fish.” “Bring them here,” Jesus said, Then he ordered the crowds to sit on the grass.  Taking the five loaves and two fish, Jesus looked up to heaven, blessed the food, broke it, and give it to the disciples, who in turn gave it to the people. All those present ate their fill.  The fragments remaining, when gathered up, filled twelve baskets. About five thousand families were fed.

August 6, 2017

A Room Called Remember

Archibald Johnston was my grandfather of a dozen generations or so ago – on my mother’s mother’s side. A judge and statesman, he became Lord of Warriston, Warriston being a town, now a suburb on the edge of Edinburgh the capital of Scotland. As a staunch Presbyterian, Archibald was one of the leaders in the opposition to King Charles I attempts in 1637 to impose the Anglican/Catholic faith on Scotland.

He was one of the leaders of a group called the Covenanters and had some significant victories and defeats during his short 52 years of life. They had some initial success at keeping Scotland Protestant, enforcing what was called a Solemn League and Covenant which made the Presbyterian Church the official church not just of Scotland, but for a few years, the church of England as well. Archibald also had some significant defeats. As a leader of Kirk party, the party of the church, he advised the army to get rid of soldiers not loyal to the church, even if they were experienced soldiers. He did this on the eve of a battle, which they subsequently lost.

For a time things settled down and Lord Archie served in Parliament under Oliver Cromwell, but under the Restoration, things turned around again. As Charles II came back to power Anglicanism was once again imposed on people. There was a general pardon for all the people who had fought or opposed the king, but 4 people were condemned to death as an example to the others. Archibald fled to Holland, but was captured in France. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London, and hung in Edinburgh, and beheaded.

One of the reasons this story is so interesting to me is that when we do the genealogy of my family, we for the next hundred years see a slew of people named Archibald Johnston or Thompson, obviously named after Lord Warriston. And some of them, it seems were Presbyterian pastors in Pennsylvania in the 1700’s, people of strong Reformed faith.


I’m still trying to understand what happened back then and what effect it has on my life as a pastor in Pennsylvania in the 21st century. I wanted to preach this sermon to dig a little deeper in those reflections and I chose as the basis of my reflection from our assigned readings the Genesis reading about Jacob wrestling in the night. I find that juxtaposing scripture with personal reflections sometimes helps both to come into clearer spiritual focus.

So the story is of Jacob wrestling with a mysterious adversary. He seems to think it was God; some interpreters say he was wrestling with an angel. The passage just says he was wrestling with a man. The larger context of the story is that Jacob is just about to meet up with his brother Esau, who you may remember, Jacob cheated out of a blessing from their father, so you might think that Jacob was wrestling with Esau in his dream, wrestling again for a blessing.

The fight goes on all night, a true dark night of the soul, and neither party gains the upper hand. Finally, as they tire – you can imagine them holding each other in check – panting out to each other terms for a truce. At first in the following negotiation, Jacob takes the upper hand as the wrestler says, “Let me go, for day is breaking.” It seems that this spirit or dream or contender will go away when daybreak comes. Hmmm.

Jacob answers, “I will not let go until you bless me.” The mysterious one answers, “What is your name?” And when Jacob says, Jacob, the stranger has a new advantage because knowing someone’s name gives you some power over them. Not only that, but the being changes the name, saying, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, “God-Wrestler.” (so there’s another reason for the God connection.)

Then Jacob/Israel tries to take back the advantage by asking the wrestler’s name and the answer is ambiguous – “Why do you ask my name?” but then adding a blessing. So Israel does get the blessing after all.


Knowing who we are is a blessing in itself – knowing our history, knowing where we come from. Roots was a popular TV show years ago, because it helped African descended people in our country learn more about their history, about the wrestling in their past that brought them to the present day. This process is just as important for European descended people – to relearn and reclaim how our ancestors wrestled with adversity, difficulty, and oppression.


I’m pleased to reclaim Archibald as my ancestor who was a person of faith willing to die for his beliefs, who was willing to contend with kings and Parliament. And one other thing I’m really interested to learn – about his faults and shortcomings. They say he was pretty hard to get along with. Just as Jacob comes out of his encounter with the stranger with a limp, all of us who take on any kind of battle in the world find ourselves wounded in some way. And God is with us even in our wounds.

Jacob/Israel leaves his encounter with the angel/God/man with a pronounced limp that he’ll have for the rest of his life. He leaves to go on to find his brother, whom he is terrified to meet because of how he stole his brother’s blessing years earlier. He sends gifts of cattle, and livestock ahead to try to appease Esau’s anger, but when he finally meets him, Esau turns down the gifts but gives Israel a great big forgiving reuniting hug.


Lydia Muñoz sings a beautiful Mark Miller song, called “I Won’t Let Go,” which provides a lovely interpretation of our passage, saying that God will never let go of us, that God knows our names and blesses each one of us, no matter who we are or what wounds we carry. As we come to the table this morning, may that confidence that God will never let go of us, give us confidence in who we are as God’s blessed and wounded people, as particular people called to be part of God’s work in a beautiful, wounded world.

Communion Hymn 3174 Christ, We Are Blest

The Grand Finale 7-30-17

I’ve struggled a bit with how to tell you about my mother’s last day with us, on the threshold between life and death. It was a painful day and it was a beautiful day. It was a day I will always remember, and it’s kind of personal. I’m not going to tell you everything about it  (though it might seem that way) I’m trying to tell you just the parts you need to get the point of today’s sermon – that the only thing God promises us about tomorrow is that God will be with us. My hope is that this reflection will get us all thinking about how we live in the light of that love.

Matthew 6: “Stop worrying, then, over questions such as, ‘What are we to eat,’ or ‘what are we to drink,’ or ‘what are we to wear’ Those without faith are always running after these things.  God knows everything you need. Seek first God’s reign, and God’s justice, and all these things will be given to you besides. Enough of worrying about tomorrow!  Let tomorrow take care of itself.  Today has troubles enough of its own.

2 Peter 3:11-15 Since everything is to be destroyed in this way, what holy and devoted lives you should lead! Look for the coming of the Day of God, and try to hasten it along.  Because of it, the heavens will be destroyed in flames and the elements will melt away in a blaze. But what we await are new heavens and a new earth where, according to the promise, God’s justice will reside. So beloved, while waiting for this, make every effort to be found at peace and without stain or defilement in God’s sight. Consider our God’s patience as your opportunity for salvation

July 30, 2017

Learning from Death: The Grand Finale 

At the memorial service for my mother on Tuesday, my brother John told this story:  “Two days before Mom left us I was sitting on the bed with her.” he said.  She had been focusing on the beauty and grace of her life, and also had been lying with her eyes closed for days. “Deep in thought, Mom quietly said “Thank you, God.”  I began to speak when, in an angry voice she said, ‘I wasn’t talking to you!’” John said he was horrified. He said, “As I looked at her, a grin spread across her face, non-verbally saying, ‘Gotcha.’  Mom did in fact get the last laugh.”

Today’s sermon is about the last laugh, the last word, the grand finale. In many ways, this is the most difficult of my four sermons on “Learning from Death.” It feels so final. As you will see, though, there’s a bit of a surprise at the end.

Let me start the week before Mom died. I was lying in bed on Friday night, tossing and turning. I was supposed to fly back to Philadelphia the next day so I could be prepared for that Sunday’s service. That evening, I had had a wonderful time with one of my oldest friends in the world, Bob Bernet. Bob and I don’t remember a time when we didn’t know each other. Our mom’s were best friends, and we went to church and school together.

I was tossing and turning because I couldn’t decide what to do. Mom had been hanging on for such a long time, it felt like I needed to get back to work, but the end was getting closer and nobody else was coming to be with her for the next week. Finally, I decided I had to stay with my mother for another week, no matter what, and as soon as I decided – I was able to get to sleep. As soon as I decided also, I realized how I could do it.

The next day, I called Bob and asked him if I could stay with him and his wife Pasna at their house. They said of course, and even offered me rides back and forth for several of the days I stayed with them. The next night we brought home Indian food from their favorite Indian restaurant (Pas is from India). And as we sat out in their back yard eating, the birds were singing.

I said, “Do you hear that song? That’s a Wood Thrush, the most beautiful bird song in North America!” They said they hear it all the time, though they hadn’t known what it’s called. this is what it sounds like.

So all that week, I got to listen to my favorite bird and pray and sing with my favorite person. I prayed prayers of silence and love and remembering. I sang all the songs we are singing in the service this morning. I must have sung “Precious Lord, Take my Hand,” dozens of times that week and the other songs as well.

John was supposed to visit me here in Philly that next weekend, but I told him he’d better come to Cincinnati first. It was great to have him there. I told you last week about how my mother greeted him with everything she had left, joking and eating for the first time in days. Then she stopped eating and went to sleep for the next couple of days.

Late Saturday morning, John and I went for a walk together. He told me that she had only said one word to him the day before and he suspected it would be the last word she ever spoke. I asked him what she had said. He said her last word, the day before she died, was “Tomorrow…”

He didn’t know what she would have said if she had made it into a whole sentence. Maybe it was “Tomorrow, I’m done with this life.” Maybe it was, “Tomorrow, let’s have some more lasagna.” I heard the word as related to our scripture reading for this morning. Here it is from the Message translation, “Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.” I heard it as, “tomorrow – I’m ready.”

When we got back to her room, she was sitting up in bed and having trouble breathing. We got scared and John sat with her while I tried to get a doctor or hospice care worker. Since it was Saturday, it was hard for people to get there quickly, but we finally got her a little more comfortable. John called our brother Jim to let him know what was going on. I went over to Mom and kissed her head and went back and sat down. And John pointed, and said “She’s gone.”

I held her hand and cried, then John did the same. We took our time to say goodbye and held each other and cried. We called our youngest brother Richard and he was already in tears because Jim had called him. For a time, we were all there with each other in the moment, not worrying about tomorrow, trusting in God’s presence in that sacred moment.

Soon, we began to call other family and friends – the people to whom she had gifted quilts and love and the people who had been there for her. I called Amo’s wife Helen to let her know how sweet it had been to pray for Amo and that Mom had now joined him beyond the veil. I texted my friend Bob to say that she was gone. He wrote right back, “The wood thrush just started singing.”

I’m still working through what it means to have lost my mother and father. It’s definitely a time of growth and change for me. One thing that has been working on me is my mother’s support for me in every situation. I really counted on that support when my work takes me out on a bit of a limb.

I’ve been thinking about how the gospel also provides that kind of support. Peter, for instance, in our reading from his second letter this morning, says, “what we await are new heavens and a new earth where, according to the promise, God’s justice will reside.” He speaks to the church’s active waiting for Jesus’ return to set things right. As that early community experienced the death of loved ones and leaders, they longed for the time to come soon and for their loved ones to be restored to that kin-dom.

The most profound thing I experienced in being with my mother through her journey in the last couple of months, was a sense of God’s presence in the moment, a sense of the moment including people like Amo who had already died, and my mother who was clearly getting ready. There were many surprises at the end, moments of humor and lightness in the midst of sadness and loss, moments of unexpected love and gestures we can’t possibly repay – except by paying them forward to others in grief, dealing with loss, or working for a better world.

I’ll never hear the call of the wood thrush the same way again. The gift of my quilt, the love of friends and my brothers, purple flowers and an oboe at the memorial – all carried surprises that helped deepen my sense of God’s presence with my mother and with me from before I was born to after her death – and, I am confident, beyond my own.

Responsive song: I Was there to Hear Your Borning Cry

Learning from Death: Humor & Courage 7-23-17

My brother John, came into town three days before my mother died. I knew that she would pull herself together to greet him with everything she had. I was interested to see, because she didn’t have much left. She had been sleeping or laying still with her eyes closed for most of the previous week. John came into the room and the jokester that he is, addressed Mom who was sitting up a bit, with her eyes closed. John said, “Are you ready to party, Mom? I’m here! Time to party.” She may have responded just a bit, because he kept going, “I don’t want you to drink too much now!” She opened one eye a bit to create a little wink. She whispered, “You keep an eye on me.”

Our second reading this morning is the one we are using in my mother’s service on Tuesday. Paul contends that nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God in Christ. It’s become one of the favorite readings at funerals around here and in many churches. As we read it this morning, I invite you to reflect on how this is true for the loved ones who have continued to be a presence of support and love for you after they have left this earth.

Romans 8: 26-39   The Spirit, too, comes to help us in our weakness. For we don’t know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit expresses our plea with groanings too deep for words. 27 And God, who knows everything in our hearts, knows perfectly well what the Spirit is saying, because her intercessions for God’s holy people are made according to the mind of God. 28 We know that God makes everything work together for the good of those who love God and have been called according to God’s purpose. 29 They are the ones God chose long ago, predestined to share the image of the Only Begotten, in order that Christ might be the firstborn of many. 30 Those God predestined have likewise been called; those God called have also been justified; and those God justified have, in turn, been glorified.

  31 What should be our response? Simply this: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” 32 Since God did not spare the Only Begotten, but gave Christ up for the sake of us all, we may be certain, after such a gift, that God will freely give us everything. 33 Who will bring a charge against God’s chosen ones? Since God is the One who justifies, 34 who has the power to condemn? Only Christ Jesus, who died—or rather, was raised—and sits at the right hand of God, and who now intercedes for us!

   35 What will separate us from the love of Christ? Trouble? Calamity? Persecution? Hunger? Nakedness? Danger? Violence? 36 As scripture says, “For your sake, we’re being killed all day long; we’re looked upon as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 Yet in all this we are more than conquerors because of God who has loved us. 38 For I am certain that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, 39 neither heights nor depths—nor anything else in all creation—will be able to separate us from the love of God that comes to us in Christ Jesus, our Savior.

[Let’s take a moment to reflect in silence on how we have experienced God’s love and presence, even in, sometimes especially in, the presence of the shadow of death.]

July 23, 2017

Learning from Death: Humor and Creativity

When I graduated from seminary and was ordained as a pastor 31 years ago in 1986, my mother presented me with a gift that is very precious to me – the Cathedral Window quilt that is hanging over the pulpit. She had clearly been working on it for a long time, had finished it a while early, and was impatient for me to have it. She said, “I don’t know if you’re ever going to get married, and I can’t wait any longer to give it to you.”

So she presented me with this beautiful gift which Charlene Reim, one of our newest members, has offered to help me unfold for you. As a new person at the church, she was curious about it, and asked what it was doing here and I realized that few people have actually seen it whole, at least for a while.

My mother often told me how much she loved making this quilt for me, how much she enjoyed choosing the colors of the fabric and deciding what beautiful color to put next to another beautiful color. I have many gifts from my mom, but this may be the most precious.


This passage from Romans is also one of the most meaningful in all of scripture, as Paul instructs people about the ways of the Spirit, and the depth of God’s love for humankind. Paul is talking to people who have been experiencing more than their fair share of hardship, persecution, and death. Christians in Rome expected that the coming of the Messiah would ease their burdens, but sometimes it seemed that becoming Christian made things worse.

I don’t need to detail how that was true. You know the tension between raised hopes and a deeply discouraging present reality. You have a sense of how historically that was true for early Christians at the center of a corrupt empire. We know how it is true in our lives in the places we have experienced the hope and promise of a community of faith and love and then have people in our midst deal with painful health problems, difficult family situations, or the death of a loved one.

Let me go back to talking personally for a moment and then relate back to the bigger question of God’s presence in any kind of hardship. Clearly, Paul was addressing bigger issues than I am in my life right now. My mother’s death is not a terrible tragedy. My mother was ready to die and she lived in a place where she had excellent care in a privileged environment. I’ve told you stories the last few weeks about how it was an actual blessing to be with my mother before her death – in prayer, singing, and silence. Folks have been more than kind in reaching out to me and recognizing that the death of a mother is a major event in my life.

I feel totally blessed to take time to reflect in these sermons on what we can learn about God’s presence during difficult times. This is an opportunity to look at how it is true that we cannot be separated from the love of God in Christ no matter what.

Over two years ago, as we prepared for a family reunion for my mother’s 92nd birthday, I wrote to everyone in my extended family who had received a quilt from my mother as a gift. Over 30 people sent me pictures of their quilts, and I put them into a book as a gift to my mother, a sign of her legacy as an artist. When I presented the book to her at the party, she looked at each page and then looked up with an expression of awe, joy and wonder. She showed that book to everybody who visited for months afterward.

You could make the case that my mother’s memory lives on in a very tangible way all over the country through these quilts. We might even relate it to our scripture reading to say that my mother’s God-given creativity is one of the ways that death cannot separate her from her family in and through the love of the Living God. This is true also of her sense of humor that passes down from generation to generation, and of her gardening which has its own legacy to it. It’s true of the love of four brothers for each other and their own gifts to their families and to the world. All of these gifts and legacies make it easy to see how death cannot and will not separate us from the love of the Living God or from her love for that matter.

[It got me to wondering the other day when eternal life begins. For my mother, did eternal life begin when she died, or did it begin when she understood that she had not really been alone one minute since the family reunion for her 92nd birthday? Did it begin when she gave people these quilts, or when she made them? Did it begin when she cared for dozens of children in Cincinnati Children’s Hospital as a nurse and as a captain in the Army? Did it begin when she became a member of the Presbyterian Church of her youth, or did it begin at her baptism?]

In the end, the claim that death cannot separate me from my mother is an easy lift, compared to what Paul is claiming. Paul’s claim is much more powerful – talking about God’s eternal presence always and everywhere, especially in the deep suffering of a whole community, early deaths, oppression on a big scale. He claims that God is not absent from any of those places, but connects in those places especially..In other words, Paul is not worrying about convincing people that God is present in the loss of a loving mother who died at an appropriate time. He’s working to understand God’s presence in the loss of loved ones in their community who die horrible deaths for their faith at the wrong times.

Paul’s claim is that nothing will separate any of us from the love of God in Jesus Christ no matter what. It is not our accomplishments or our families or our fortune that connects us eternally to that love. No mis-fortune or calamity, persecution or hardship can dis-connect us from that love. Loneliness or cancer, AIDS or heart disease, heroin abuse, or homelessness, or arrogance or privilege – nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ, not even death.

So I feel confident to lead the celebration of my mother’s life on Tuesday, because it’s easy to feel this connection to her life in the Living God, her legacy and her gift. I’ve cried my tears. There may be more this week, or the next time I pick up my phone forgetting that I can’t call her anymore, but I know God is with us through the tears and the hurts, the joys and the laughter. God was there for our first cry and God is with us through every trial of our lives, every difficulty we face, & beyond the end.

This is God’s good news. Let’s sing about it.

Learning from Death: Gathering Around 7-9-17

In our second reading, Jesus invites us to a deeper understanding of reality – one that makes hard work easier and one that makes difficult times easier to manage. The original meaning of the word disciple is student. When we become committed to Jesus’s teaching, we may learn this different way to deal with hard realities. Listen for the word of God for you today and consider this invitation to learn some of the most important lessons about life and death.

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 “What comparison can I make with this generation? They are like children shouting to others as they sit in the marketplace. We piped you a tune, but you wouldn’t dance.  We sang you a dirge, but you wouldn’t mourn. For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He is possessed.’ The Chosen One comes, eating and drinking, and they say, ‘This one is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ Wisdom will be vindicated by her own actions. Then Jesus prayed, “Abba God, Creator of heaven and earth, to you I offer praise, for what you have hidden from the learned and the clever, you have revealed to the youngest children. Yes, Abba, everything is as you want it to be.” Jesus continued,  “Everything has been handed over to me by Abba God. No one knows the Only Begotten except Abba God, and no one knows Abba God except the Only Begotten—and to those to whom the Only Begotten wants to give that revelation. Come to me, all you who labor and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest Take my yoke upon your shoulders and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart. Here you will find rest for your souls, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

July 9, 2017

Learning from Death: Gathering Around

Last week I told you about praying with my mother in the last three weeks of her life. This is key to everything I want to say this month, so I have to repeat some of what I said in my sermon last week. Praying with her at least an hour a day was such a powerful discipline, such a powerful chance to learn. Actually, at the time it just seemed like being with her. It seemed like the right thing to do, to pray and listen deeply to the Spirit. It’s only in hindsight that it feels more profound.

I was sitting on her bed with her, sometimes talking, sometimes listening, sometimes quiet. I told the story last week about saying a prayer with her where I started naming everybody we loved in our lives, everybody alive or dead. And after naming all her children and grandchildren, brothers and sisters, friends and neighbors, I asked her if I had missed anybody, not knowing if she had been awake at all during the prayer.

She nodded her head, “Yes” and I asked her who I had missed. She whispered, “Amo,” my father’s best man at their wedding and best friend since they grew up next door to each other in Cleves, Ohio, Amo who had died a few years earlier. She didn’t want me to leave him out of this simple all-inclusive prayer.

So, what was amazing about that prayer, beside the fact that she was paying close attention when she seemed to be asleep, and what was special about the many prayers after that one, was the liminal space we had entered between life and death. “Liminal” is a term which refers to rituals like coming of age rituals, where the person in the ritual is between one stage and another, on the edge of becoming an adult or on the edge of some other status, or on the edge of this world and a spirit world.

It was only after her death that I realized that as I sat there with my mother, in the extended quiet, I was able a bit to enter her experience of transition, of no longer distinguishing between those who are alive and those who are part of the “great cloud of witnesses” we talk about in our funeral liturgy and in scripture. We prayed for them all. We felt their presence, in our memory, in our prayers, and in our spiritual connection.


Jesus, in our passage from Matthew today admonishes the current generation. When we read it, we may hear the passage as admonishing the people of his time, or the people of Matthew’s time, or the people of our time. (because we experience Jesus as a fairly liminal character himself.) Jesus is clearly not happy with the current generation, which is not receptive to John the Baptist, who they criticize for being too ascetic, not eating or drinking and living in the desert. Nor are they receptive to Jesus himself, who eats and drinks with immigrants and tax collectors and gets called a glutton and a drunkard.

In this passage Jesus is portrayed as a Wisdom teacher, appreciating the infant rather than the wise and intelligent, appreciating the one who is learning rather than the one who is accomplished and full of him or herself. The most familiar part of this passage is the part that says “find rest for your souls, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” This can be a little confusing because it isn’t always that easy to follow Jesus. But I think the passage is actually referring to how satisfying our lives are when we are on the right track, when we are committed to doing the ministry that Jesus really wants us to do. It’s like when you run or get into a sport and you are “in the zone,” you enter a different kind of time, chronos time, and a hard thing gets easier.

It’s the difference between being part of a church where the only ministry tasks are about how to take care of the building and finances, and one where ministry is about welcoming and sustaining God’s people. It’s the difference between sitting with my mother out of an obligation, checking my phone every 2 minutes, and really being with her, holding her head, fluffing the pillow, getting her a drink of water – being in between life and death with her.

It’s the difference between feeling like we have all the answers, not even noticing that they don’t always fit, and being open to being a disciple, a learner, thinking more deeply about how we live and expressing what we’ve learned. It’s the difference between being on our own trying to figure out how to live, and being part of a community of disciples, learning together and giving each other feedback to help each other see how our actions effect each other, making our lives easier because we are in a zone, within a community of caring.


At the end of my mother’s life one of the things I learned about her was about the community of caring that she had around her, that she had inspired through her caring tor them. It made her last days easier, even when they were hard. As with that prayer, I think she had a sense of support from all the people she loved, alive or dead. The great cloud of witnesses surrounded her and helped on the way.

The end started two years ago when we decided to have a party to celebrate her 92nd birthday. We invited all the cousins and all the families to a place in Kentucky. When Mom went to the doctor a few months before the party, however, they told her the reason she was having trouble breathing was a heart condition that was not going to get better. They offered to put a new valve into her heart through a vein and told her she would be ok for the party.

Two weeks before the party she was still not ok. She was having trouble breathing and she was sorry she did the operation. The doctor said she would have died without it, so I felt lucky to have her any way we could get her. She never fully recovered from that operation, and she sometimes regretted it, but I told her I’ve appreciated every extra day I could have.

She seemed to will herself to get better for that family reunion/birthday party. It was that important to her. All the family came, cousins from Maryland, PA, NY, and Hawaii. It was a great party with everyone to whom she had ever given one of her famous quilts. (which we’re going to unfold at the service in 2 weeks.)

So nearly 2 years later I was sitting with her in her hospice bed and she said something that at first I wasn’t sure came from a hallucination or not. She said, “you know, the wonderful thing about these last 2 years? Everybody came for my birthday and they never left.”

After thinking about it, I decided it wasn’t a hallucination. It was the truth. Almost all those people from that party had visited with her and stayed with her to support her sometime in those 2 years, and they all had been praying for her and rooting for her. Her commitment to them and their commitment to her put her in a different sense of time, chronos time. It was not an easy time, but her spirit and theirs combined made the yoke easy and the burden light. All those people gathered around her, that great cloud of witnesses returned her love and got her through.

This is the good news of the Spirit of God.


Responsive hymn 2158 Just a Closer Walk with Thee