Front and Center

Morton Memorial UMC
Sept. 1, 2013

Luke 14:1, 7-14 (CEB)

14 One Sabbath, when Jesus went to share a meal in the home of one of the leaders of the Pharisees, they were watching him closely.

7 When Jesus noticed how the guests sought out the best seats at the table, he told them a parable. 8 “When someone invites you to a wedding celebration, don’t take your seat in the place of honor. Someone more highly regarded than you could have been invited by your host. 9 The host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give your seat to this other person.’ Embarrassed, you will take your seat in the least important place. 10 Instead, when you receive an invitation, go and sit in the least important place. When your host approaches you, he will say, ‘Friend, move up here to a better seat.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests. 11 All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”
12 Then Jesus said to the person who had invited him, “When you host a lunch or dinner, don’t invite your friends, your brothers and sisters, your relatives, or rich neighbors. If you do, they will invite you in return and that will be your reward. 13 Instead, when you give a banquet, invite the poor, crippled, lame, and blind. 14 And you will be blessed because they can’t repay you. Instead, you will be repaid when the just are resurrected.”

The great silent film star Charlie Chaplin, on a lark and under an assumed name, entered a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest that was being held in a movie theater in San Francisco.
He didn’t win.
He didn’t even make the finals.
I think everyone has a story of showing up somewhere expecting to be well-received and getting a rude awakening. Continue reading

Asking and receiving

A couple of notes: I wrote this on Saturday, on short notice, based on one of this week’s lectionary readings. But I did lift and adapt some passages from an essay I have up elsewhere on this site. Also, I realize this is the second time this summer I’ve referenced “Chariots of Fire” (although, in my defense, not at the same church).

First UMC Lynchburg
July 28, 2013

Luke 11:1-13 (NRSV)
11:1 He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”

11:2 He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.

11:3 Give us each day our daily bread.

11:4 And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

11:5 And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread;

11:6 for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’

11:7 And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’

11:8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

11:9 “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.

11:10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

11:11 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish?

11:12 Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion?

11:13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

From time to time, you hear athletes thanking God in locker-room interviews, or sometimes even entertainers thanking God in awards show acceptance speeches.
This practice is just as often held up to ridicule, and I can think of some particular comedians and commentators for whom it’s a personal pet peeve.
The usual argument these commentators make is that, quote, “God has better things to worry about than who wins a football game.” At first glance, this is quite a reasonable statement. There’s no reason to think that God has a favorite NFL team.
Continue reading

A Commandment Close By

First UMC Shelbyville
July 14, 2013

Deuteronomy 30:9-14 (CEB)
9The LORD your God will help you succeed in everything you do—in your own fertility, your livestock’s offspring, and your land’s produce—everything will be great! Because the LORD will once again enjoy doing good things for you just as he enjoyed doing them for your ancestors, 10and because you will be obeying the LORD your God’s voice, keeping his commandments and his regulations that are written in this Instruction scroll, and because you will have returned to the LORD your God with all your heart and all your being.
11This commandment that I’m giving you right now is definitely not too difficult for you. It isn’t unreachable. 12It isn’t up in heaven somewhere so that you have to ask, “Who will go up for us to heaven and get it for us that we can hear it and do it?” 13Nor is it across the ocean somewhere so that you have to ask, “ Who will cross the ocean for us and get it for us that we can hear it and do it? ” 14Not at all! The word is very close to you. It’s in your mouth and in your heart, waiting for you to do it.

This weekend, just across the street on the courthouse lawn, there was a chili cookoff. Actually, there were two of them – a regional event on Friday night and the Tennessee state championship on Saturday. As it turns out, I was a judge at both of them. I enjoyed it – but don’t offer me any more chili for a week or two. The cookoffs were sanctioned by the International Chili Society, and so contestants had to abide by that organization’s rules and regulations.
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Here I am; don’t send me

Cannon & Mt. Lebanon UMCs, June 23, 2013
First UMC Shelbyville, June 30, 2013

Jonah 1:1-10 (CEB)
1 The LORD ’s word came to Jonah, Amittai’s son: 2 “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their evil has come to my attention.”
3 So Jonah got up—to flee to Tarshish from the LORD! He went down to Joppa and found a ship headed for Tarshish. He paid the fare and went aboard to go with them to Tarshish, away from the LORD. 4 But the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea, so that there was a great storm on the sea; the ship looked like it might be broken to pieces. 5 The sailors were terrified, and each one cried out to his god. They hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to make it lighter.
Now Jonah had gone down into the hold of the vessel to lie down and was deep in sleep. 6 The ship’s officer came and said to him, “How can you possibly be sleeping so deeply? Get up! Call on your god! Perhaps the god will give some thought to us so that we won’t perish.”
7 Meanwhile, the sailors said to each other, “Come on, let’s cast lots so that we might learn who is to blame for this evil that’s happening to us.” They cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. 8 So they said to him, “Tell us, since you’re the cause of this evil happening to us: What do you do and where are you from? What’s your country and of what people are you?”
9 He said to them, “I’m a Hebrew. I worship the LORD , the God of heaven—who made the sea and the dry land.”
10 Then the men were terrified and said to him, “What have you done?” (The men knew that Jonah was fleeing from the LORD, because he had told them.)

The story of Jonah is, in some ways, a hard one to look at seriously. It’s been reduced to cartoon imagery. I can’t say the name “Jonah” without you thinking of a whale. And the big fish (whether it was a whale or not) is certainly part of the story. But it’s far from the only important part. There are a lot of people who don’t even know the story; maybe they think that Jonah being swallowed was just an accident, and the point of the story is that God gets us out of trouble when trouble swallows us up. But that’s not the point of the story at all.
The point of the story is God’s call, and Jonah’s response.
Continue reading

Look up and see Jesus

This is the group morning devotion I led this morning on our last day of Mountain T.O.P Adults In Ministry. I normally wouldn’t post something like this, but I had a special request. (Hi, Jan Lloyd-Gohl!)

Camp Cumberland Pines, Cumberland Heights, TN
June 29, 2013

Matthew 17 (CEB)
17 Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and brought them to the top of a very high mountain. 2 He was transformed in front of them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light.
3 Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Jesus. 4 Peter reacted to all of this by saying to Jesus, “Lord, it’s good that we’re here. If you want, I’ll make three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
5 While he was still speaking, look, a bright cloud overshadowed them. A voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with him. Listen to him!” 6 Hearing this, the disciples fell on their faces, filled with awe.
7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.

The Transfiguration, along with maybe the raising of Lazarus from the dead, is probably the most amazing thing witnessed by the disciples during Jesus’ earthly ministry prior to the crucifixion.

Peter, upon witnessing the presence of the two legendary figures, immediately went into public relations mode. Hey, he must have thought, this will show everyone! Once they see this, they’ll know that Jesus is the Messiah and have no choice but to appoint him as king and allow him to lead us in revolt against the Romans. Peter, overwhelmed by the experience, offers to put up tabernacles, or shrines, or shelters, depending on who you believe.
But God reminds Peter of what is really important: “This is my beloved son, Jesus. Listen to him.”
Many of you, like me, have been coming to this place, this program, for years. Others are first-timers. It’s a special experience, one we look forward to every year, one we’re constantly talking to our friends and neighbors about. And that’s a good thing. It’s a great thing. I didn’t think I was going to make it to the mountain this year, but God and the full-time staff made it possible for me to be here on short notice, and I was so excited about coming.
But now, we’ve gotten our fishhooks and we’ve loaded up our cars. In a little while, we’ll be headed home.

7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.

The purpose of this week has been to fix up houses and to teach workshops. But beyond that, it’s been to love our home repair families and the teenagers with whom we’ve worked. And beyond that, it’s been to look up, and see no one except Jesus. We mustn’t ever become so obsessed with the Mountain T.O.P. experience that we forget to look at Jesus.
On Wednesday night, some of us stopped by and saw the inscription at the lookoff point at Beersheba Springs, where Mountain T.O.P. was born: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills.” That’s from Psalm 121. Here it is in the Common English Bible:
121I raise my eyes toward the mountains.
Where will my help come from?
2My help comes from the LORD,
the maker of heaven and earth.
3God won’t let your foot slip.
Your protector won’t fall asleep on the job.
4No! Israel’s protector
never sleeps or rests!
5The LORD is your protector;
the LORD is your shade right beside you.
6The sun won’t strike you during the day;
neither will the moon at night.
7The LORD will protect you from all evil;
God will protect your very life.o
8The LORD will protect you on your journeys—
whether going or coming—
from now until forever from now.

“…and they looked up, and saw no one except Jesus.” As wonderful as this experience has been, all that matters is for us to look up and see Jesus. When we’re looking at our slide show, when we’re sorting through our photos or giving a report to our Sunday School class, we’ll talk about our traditions and the friends we’ve made and the worship that made us cry and the fun times we’ve had. We’ll talk about dominoes, and the room that got TPed, appendicitis, and Stone Door, and the woman with the distinctive laugh, and poppy-seed chicken, and putting the “P” in MPT, and fishhooks. That’s a natural way to talk about an experience like this. But let’s never get so excited about putting up a tent for Elijah that we forget about Jesus.
Going forward, we have to continue to have the faith, and the works, that we had this week with Moses, and Elijah, and Michael, and Joey, and Janey, and Brooke, and Alli here on the mountain.
As you leave here, look up – and see no one but Jesus.

From suffering to endurance

First UMC Shelbyville
May 26, 2013

Romans 5:1-5 (NRSV)

1 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Zach Sobiech, an 18-year-old from Lakeland, Minn., died this past Monday after a four-year battle with bone cancer. I first found out about Zach this week in a 22-minute documentary, called “My Last Days,” that you can see on the Internet. In fact, I strongly recommend that you look it up on the Internet. I also strongly recommend that you have a box of Kleenex handy while you watch it.
Zach Sobiech became an Internet sensation last fall, when a song he wrote as a farewell to his family was posted to YouTube. It got three million hits before his passing and has gotten at least two million since that time. That prompted a web site called Soul Pancake to do a short documentary about this remarkable young man.

What’s so remarkable about Zach Sobiech is his attitude. He wasn’t suicidal – he wasn’t looking forward to dying or being separated from his family and friends – but his attitude was relentlessly positive, life-affirming, dedicated to loving those around him for every last second he had available. He and his family made a decision that he would plan his treatment around quality of life rather than trying to prolong the inevitable, and he spent as much of his time as he could loving those around him and trying to live life with his friends, and his girlfriend, as a normal teenager. Continue reading

Not Fade Away (2013)

Because I got the call to preach at the last minute, I dug through the “sermons and devotionals” folder on my hard drive and found two earlier occasions when I spoke on Palm Sunday. This is basically my 2009 sermon, with a few tweaks and a paragraph lifted from my 2002 sermon.

Mt. Lebanon UMC and Cannon UMC
Palm Sunday – March 23, 2013

Luke 19:28-40 (NRSV)
19:28 After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.

19:29 When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples,

19:30 saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here.

19:31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.'”

19:32 So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them.

19:33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?”

19:34 They said, “The Lord needs it.”

19:35 Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it.

19:36 As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road.

19:37 As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen,

19:38 saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”

19:39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.”

19:40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

In 2005, I made my second short-term mission trip to Kenya. On my first trip the year before, we’d been working in the Kibera slums right outside Nairobi. But on this trip, we were working in a place called Ndonyo, in southwestern Kenya. It was a six-or-eight-hour drive for our team, which was riding in two weather-beaten vans.
Continue reading

Sacrifices with shouts of joy

Concord UMC
February 24, 2013

Psalm 27 (NRSV)
27:1 The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

27:2 When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh– my adversaries and foes– they shall stumble and fall.

27:3 Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.

27:4 One thing I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in his temple.

27:5 For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock.

27:6 Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me, and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the LORD.

27:7 Hear, O LORD, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!

27:8 “Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!” Your face, LORD, do I seek.

27:9 Do not hide your face from me. Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help. Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!

27:10 If my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will take me up.

27:11 Teach me your way, O LORD, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies.

27:12 Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence.

27:13 I believe that I shall see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living.

27:14 Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!


(Concord had special music today, featuring Jonathan and his daughter Corinna Lingle of Trinity UMC, and they were wonderful.)

The first verse of the 27th Psalm is one of the most beautiful in the Bible: “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”
Of whom shall we be afraid? Of what shall we be afraid?
Continue reading


Normally, I preach from the Revised Common Lectionary, and had every intention of doing so this time. People don’t always expect guest speakers to follow the lectionary, but I find it a great discipline, one which forces me to look at the scripture rather than sticking to stories or themes with which I’m comfortable. When I went to look up the week’s passages on the web site, however, I looked at the wrong date — a special mid-week observance rather than what were supposed to be the Sunday passages. By the time I realized my mistake, I’d already started working on the sermon, and — with Rev. Nan Zoller’s permission — I went ahead with it.

Concord UMC
Feb. 3, 2013

Luke 2:22-40 (CEB)

22When the time came for their ritual cleansing, in accordance with the Law from Moses, they brought Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord. (23It’s written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male will be dedicated to the Lord.”) 24They offered a sacrifice in keeping with what’s stated in the Law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.
25A man named Simeon was in Jerusalem. He was righteous and devout. He eagerly anticipated the restoration of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26The Holy Spirit revealed to him that he wouldn’t die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27Led by the Spirit, he went into the temple area. Meanwhile, Jesus’ parents brought the child to the temple so that they could do what was customary under the Law. 28Simeon took Jesus in his arms and praised God. He said,
29“Now, master, let your servant go in peace according to your word, 30 because my eyes have seen your salvation. 31You prepared this salvation in the presence of all peoples. 32It’s a light for revelation to the Gentiles and a glory for your people Israel.”
33His father and mother were amazed by what was said about him. 34Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “This boy is assigned to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that generates opposition 35so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your innermost being too.”
36There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, who belonged to the tribe of Asher. She was very old. After she married, she lived with her husband for seven years. 37She was now an eighty-four-year-old widow. She never left the temple area but worshiped God with fasting and prayer night and day. 38She approached at that very moment and began to praise God and to speak about Jesus to everyone who was looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.
39When Mary and Joseph had completed everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to their hometown, Nazareth in Galilee. 40The child grew up and became strong. He was filled with wisdom, and God’s favor was on him.

Our Bible passage begins with Joseph, Mary and Jesus heading to Jerusalem, a trip of about six miles from Bethlehem.

There’s a reference to ritual cleansing – and many Bible versions refer to “their” ritual cleansing. That pronoun is a little bit of an evasion. The first reason for the family to go to Jerusalem was specifically for Mary to be ritually cleansed. Under Jewish law, childbirth made a woman ritually unclean – for 40 days if the child was a boy, and 80 days if the child was a girl. (This was, of course, a very patriarchal society, a society where men had a lot more value than women.) During that time, women couldn’t participate in any religious ceremonies or services.
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The Faith of “Yes”

Concord UMC
October 14, 2012

Mark 10:17-31 (CEB)
10:17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

10:18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.

10:19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.'”

10:20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”

10:21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

10:22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

10:23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”

10:24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!

10:25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

10:26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?”

10:27 Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

10:28 Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.”

10:29 Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news,

10:30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age–houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions–and in the age to come eternal life.

10:31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

In today’s Gospel passage, a man asks Jesus about the key to eternal life. The man is enthusiastic; the Bible describes him as running up and throwing himself at Jesus’ feet. He calls Jesus “good teacher,” and Jesus immediately corrects him.
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus asks him. “Only God is good.”
Of course, we understand Jesus to be a part of the divine Trinity, “of one Being with the Father,” as it says in the Nicene Creed. But Jesus had not fully revealed that aspect yet, and perhaps Jesus sensed, and was trying to explore, that this man was fascinated by teachers. Continue reading