Sunday, February 28, 2021


February 28, 2021
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Mark 8:31-38[1]

Almost every Christian gathering place has one. Often made of gold, silver, or brass, sometimes of wood, glass, or even plastic, they hold a depiction of Christ crucified or stand empty to symbolize resurrection. The cross, the Roman tool of public execution, is a focal point, present in almost every sanctuary, chapel, and home where God in Christ is worshiped.

That was where the journey of Jesus was headed. He knew it. His message was too disruptive, too threatening to the powerful for him to be ignored or swept aside. The empire lined the roads with them, the crucified rebels, bandits, and thieves. Go against the power of Rome and this will be your end. Jesus knew where the journey would take him.

He knew also that his path would set him against the religious authorities, the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes. They would be disturbed, disrupted by this holy man who healed on the sabbath and tried to connect people to God, not through the Temple with its economy of sacrifices, but directly, without intermediary. Not loved, but tolerated by the empire, the religious leaders feared the heavy hand of Rome would crush them given any excuse. Yet Jesus knew they would reject him, said so openly, and tried to teach the disciples that this was the way.

Until now, the disciples had mainly heard the parables, witnessed the healings, and experienced a few miracles. The death of John the Baptist had been upsetting, but not unnerving. Excitement is building. The foreshadowing of the crucifixion and resurrection comes as Peter has just proclaimed his belief that Jesus is the Messiah. Perhaps knowing that they did not truly grasp the meaning of that title, Jesus begins to teach them about betrayal, denial, suffering, death, and still unimagined resurrection. You’ve come this far with me, he seems to say, do you think you’re ready for what comes next? “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”[2]

Living the life of discipleship means losing your life, sacrificing your own personal success and achievement in sacrificial love for others. You might gain the whole world, but to what end, if you forfeit your life? If you want to save your life, you must lose it for the sake of the gospel. You must take up your own cross, take the journey that may bring you suffering because it leads through suffering to the saving grace of redemption and resurrection. The salvation of the cross happens for us, but also through and within us. Do we have to suffer all that Jesus suffered? No, but the road through life is painful at times for us all; and each of us can know that God understands what we have suffered.

The writers of the New Testament, and all the theologians since, have tried to explain what happened on the cross. Paul’s letters had already worked out saving work of the crucifixion and the Good News of Christ’s death and resurrection long before Mark wrote down this Gospel. Already the church had formed and begun to preserve and interpret the meaning of the cross. But as one recent writer explains, “Mark has put this teaching moment of Jesus with his disciples and with those who desired to become his disciples at the center of his Gospel.”[3] The first call to ministry was not to ordination, or to teach theology, or even to be apostles; it was to be disciples, to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow Jesus on the journey of faith.

To get to the meaning of our own crosses, we need to have an understanding of the cross of Christ. A Lutheran Pastor from Denver, Nadia Bolz-Weber, was interviewed for a film series called The Work of the People. In the segment entitled “The Antidote,” she explores what happened on the cross. She remarks that “I’ve always felt like the cross was about God saying, ‘I’d rather die than be in the sin-accounting business anymore.’”[4] Jesus doesn’t condemn, let alone do violence to, his own crucifiers. To have all the power of the universe, to be entirely justified in using it, and to choose not to. Incredible. How incredibly redemptive.

It is shocking, then, to me that so many ascribe to condemnation and violence as integral to the Christian faith. One form this takes is Substitutionary Atonement – the idea that sinners deserve to die and face God’s judgement because of their sin. Jesus Christ, by dying on the cross, was the substitute for sinners, paying the price of death for us. That theology is in the Bible; it’s in Mark, in chapter 10 where we read “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”[5] And it’s in 1 Peter: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross.”[6] In the way it tries to explain salvation, Substitutionary Atonement says that God is not a god of peace and love but an angry and vengeful god who demands that the cost of sin be paid in death.

Imagine, God had a little boy, and loved that little boy so much. But God had to kill him because you stole a candy bar, or disobeyed to your parents, or looked at another man’s wife with lust. And now you have to be grateful for your whole life that God killed Jesus. Really? That’s messed up!

That theology is not what I believe happened on the cross. And it’s not Trinitarian. You see, that’s not God’s little boy on the cross, that’s God. Jesus is God. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three Persons in one Godhead. They share the same essence or substance.[7] That’s God on the cross, taking in all of our sin, all of our brokenness, all of how messed up we are into that broken human body. God takes in all of our desire for vengeance, all of our hatred and anger and fear, all of our desire to use power against other people, and gives back only forgiveness and grace.

It is God’s nature to create and to redeem creation. God is continually trying to redeem us, all the time, even if we don’t see it. God is continually trying to heal a broken world, and our broken hearts, our broken minds and bodies. That is the nature of God, not to punish, not to harm, but to heal, and to love, and to forgive.

To take up our own crosses, then, is to take on the work of redemption, of healing and loving a broken world. As people who have received God’s mercy, God’s forgiveness, we might just get the chance to help bring that into the world. We can, in spite of our often selfish, fearful, broken nature, offer healing, peace, love, and grace as the hands of Christ in the world. In that way, by having been redeemed ourselves, it is possible for us to offer redemption to others. “Opportunities are daily before us, times when we may give our lives sacrificially to acts of love, compassion, justice, and peace, even in the face of the same imperial forces of sin and death that confronted Jesus.”[8]

Now, we’re not suddenly made perfect. We’re still broken, but we’re healing. We can’t make the bad things of the world go away, but we can be companions for others on the road to healing. If we want to be disciples of Jesus, the suffering and brokenness of the world should cause us to offer healing, forgiveness, and love. Having carried our crosses, having suffered brokenness and received healing ourselves, mercy and love that heal can pour out of us like an antidote to the sickness that infects the human condition. Let us set our minds on divine things, and go out to love and serve the world.  Amen.

[1] The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

[2] Mark 8:34.

[3] Paul C. Shupe, “Pastoral Perspective on Mark 8:31-38” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, General Editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), p. 70.

[4] The Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, “The Antidote” featured on The Work of the People: Films for Discovery and Transformation, Copyright © 2021 The Work of the People, online at:

[5] Mark 10:45.

[6] 1 Peter 2:24.

[7] See “Trinity, doctrine of the” in Donald K. McKim, Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), p. 288.

[8] Shupe, 72.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Prayer and Repentance

February 21, 2021
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

2 Chronicles 6:36-40; Mark 1:9-15[1]

When I was a kid, we didn’t give anything up for Lent. Now, maybe some people in our church did, but we didn’t make a big deal about it. We celebrated Lent; we had a Shrove Tuesday pancake supper and played some silly games. We didn’t do the ashes on Wednesday, however. I remember saying, naively, to a friend, “You’ve got some dirt on your forehead.”

I do remember being asked by a friend or two, “What are you giving up for Lent?” Was I a bad Christian because, at first, I didn’t understand the question? “Um, nothing?” I felt like I was missing out on something, something important.

What is Lent really about, anyway? “The traditional purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer — through prayer, penitence, almsgiving and self-denial — for the annual commemoration during Holy Week of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus.”[2] Prayer serves to direct our attention to God. Penitence is “the condition of being sorrowful and remorseful for sins one has committed.”[3] Almsgiving is charity, giving to those in need and thus showing love for our neighbor. And self-denial is the giving-something-up which is meant to redirect our thoughts and energy from bodily or earthly things to spiritual or divine things. Lent was originally the time when candidates prepared for baptism, which took place during the Easter vigil, the Saturday night before Easter Sunday morning. It was an intense period of fasting and prayer.

As we know from the story of Noah, and as we heard in Solomon’s prayer, God knows that people will be people. We will sin, for “there is no one who does not sin.”[4] We will do wrong. People are weak-willed and short-sighted, and we mess things up. However, God also loves us, and “if [we] repent with all [our] heart and soul,”[5] God will hear our prayer and forgive us. So, what is Lent really about? It’s about coming to our senses. It’s about realizing that we have done wrong, that we have sinned, and repenting. Lent is about focusing on getting right with God.

We celebrate Lent because we need help keeping our focus on God. It’s okay if we stumble, if we fail, if we fall short. We’re not perfect; no one is. God knows that the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. Lent gives us a chance to try to be better. We should try, because when we do, we store up treasures in heaven, and that treasure can’t be taken from us. When we repent, we hear more clearly the good news, and we get closer to the kingdom of God.

There is something powerful in the act of repentance, really feeling sorry for the wrongs we have done and actively trying to make it right, that can make a difference in the way we live our lives. If we take it seriously, if we take prayer and repentance seriously, maybe something in us can change for good. Maybe something in the world around us can change for good.

We’re familiar with the act of self-denial, even if we don’t practice it as part of a Lenten observance. We diet for our health or to fit into the swimsuit this summer. Some of us even fast, going without food, or sweets, or indulgences for a time.

We’re also familiar with alms-giving. We write our checks weekly to the church for the offering. We donate to the Heifer Project, or One Great Hour of Sharing, to the Lions or the Rotary, and maybe the Salvation Army. We might even volunteer our time to help in a food pantry or soup kitchen.

Another way to look at alms-giving is to think of it as other-sustaining. We know the phrase “love your neighbor.” To love often means to sustain the life of the one who is loved. It’s something we already do, but we can take this moment, these forty days of Lent, to give our other-sustaining efforts a new intensity.

We share our bread with the hungry, and the M.O.R.E. Food Pantry patrons are grateful. We help shelter women who have been abused with our donations to Turning Point. Our rummage sale provided clothing and household items to many in need. But these things just treat the symptoms, they don’t cure the disease. We can do more. We can do more to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, and to satisfy the needs of the afflicted.

This Lenten season let us really try to be constant in prayer, to seek God in every moment, to be prepared to answer when we hear the call. This Lenten season, let us repent; not merely feeling sorry for the wrong things we have said and done, but really making an effort to correct our mistakes. This Lenten season, let us be generous with our money, with our time, and with our love. This Lenten season, let us deny ourselves what we don’t need, and sustain others with all that we can. This Lenten season, may we be heralds and harbingers of the coming kingdom of God.

There is good news to be shared. God loves us, and even if we sin against God we can be forgiven. God hears our prayers and keeps the promises. God maintains our cause as we seek to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. When we walk in the steps of Jesus, we have a firm foundation. Let us go in peace to love and serve the world.  Amen.

[1] The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

[3] Donald K. McKim, Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996).

[4] 2 Chronicles 6:36.

[5] 2 Chronicles 6:38.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Transfiguration and Transition

February 14, 2021
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

2 Kings 2:5-12; Mark 9:2-9[1]

I’m pretty sure you know who Moses is, the Hebrew boy raised by Pharaoh’s daughter. He was visited by God in a burning bush, sent to call upon Pharaoh to set the Israelites free from slavery and let them go. Moses led them across the Red Sea, through the desert to Canaan, and gave the Law from God to the people of Israel.

Elijah is a bit more obscure. Following the reigns of Kings David and Solomon, the nation of Israel split in two with Israel to the north and Judah to the south. The kings who ruled the kingdom of Israel did not follow YHWH, who I will refer to as the Lord, the God of their ancestors. These rulers allowed the worship of Baal and Asherah, gods of the neighboring Phoenicia. Ahab, son of Omri, who enthusiastically worshiped Baal, became known as the most wicked of the kings of Israel.

Elijah came from Gilead, east of Jordan, and “belonged to the class of small tenant farmers who owned no land of their own.”[2] Though of lowly origin, he played such a significant role in returning worship of the Lord alone to Israel that he is renowned as one of the greatest prophets. “Elijah set the standard against which all future prophets and messianic figures would be measured.”[3]

In one story from 1 Kings 18, Elijah challenges four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal to call down fire from their god to burn a sacrificed bull. When there was no answer, Elijah had twelve jars of water poured on the altar with the sacrifice. Then Elijah called upon the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, to answer so that the people would know that the Lord is God. “Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench.”[4]

In the passage we heard this morning, Elijah passes on his leadership to Elisha, who would become a renowned prophet as well. As Elijah was taken up into heaven by the chariot of fire, Elisha caught his cloak as it fell, symbolizing the ministry of Elijah passing on to his beloved disciple, Elisha.

Moses also passed on his leadership at the end of his life. “Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel: ‘Be strong and bold, for you are the one who will go with this people into the land that the Lord has sworn to their ancestors to give them; and you will put them in possession of it.’”[5] On Mount Nebo, in the land of Moab, the Lord showed Moses the land that would become Israel. Then he died and was buried in Moab. Joshua would go on to lead the conquering of Canaan, warn the people against worshiping idols and foreign gods, and challenge them to serve only the Lord.

Jesus led Peter, James, and John up a high mountain, where he was transfigured before them. In that moment there appeared to them Elijah and Moses, talking with Jesus. Two of the most prominent figures in the history of their people, Moses represented the Law, and Elijah the Prophets. This scene is meant to symbolize the passing on of leadership. The Law and the Prophets gave way to the Christ, the fulfillment of both, and it was witnessed by Peter, who would become the leader of the Church.

The transfiguration, marking a transition of leadership, is a moment to pause, to look and listen. Like a ceremony we might celebrate, marking a transition such as baptism, graduation, marriage, ordination of clergy, or a retirement, in this moment the community assembles and takes time to notice the moment. Peter, who will take on the mantle of leadership himself in time, witnesses the transition of leadership and asks for time to stop, look, and listen. “It is good for us to be here,” he says to Jesus.[6] We can get back to work later, but let’s stay awhile in this moment.

God responds from the cloud, speaking to these disciples in the same way that God spoke to Moses, and Elijah, and Jesus. “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”[7] This time is an opportunity to soak up the glory of God, to experience, however briefly, a reminder of why we’re in ministry, what it is that we are doing here. This moment of glory reminds us of our purpose, the point of the faith we proclaim, where the work of ministry leads.

Worship of God does that. Now, even the best of our worship encounters cannot reach the heights that Peter and his friends experienced. But any worship is an opportunity to reflect on God’s glory. A UCC pastor named Cheryl Lindsay writes, “in worship, we are reminded that we are reaching for a destination that is glorious–not simply better or adequate, but glorious. Our goal is not just to feed the hungry but to participate in a world when all are fed. Our call is not to merely accept the immigrant in our midst, but to shape a world in which no one is labeled stranger.”[8]

Worship helps us get ready. Having just a taste of what is to come can fortify us for the journey ahead. Joshua had a long and difficult task ahead to settle the people of Israel in a new land. Elisha would need to steer other kings away from foreign gods and back to the Lord. Peter, James, and John would have to face the horrors of the crucifixion and the challenge of establishing the Church. And every day, we followers of Jesus Christ must contend with a world sickened by evil and polluted by greed.

When the glory of God is revealed, take a moment to soak it in. Let hope blossom. God’s promises will be fulfilled. Light and peace will break forth. Take a moment to envision it, reach for it, rest in it. Then, you will be ready to go on, to go back down the mountain to the crowds who await. And you will have a share, a double share, of the spirit of Christ to help you shine.

[1] The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

[2] Klaus Koch, The Prophets: The Assyrian Period, tr. Margaret Kohl (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982), 32.

[3] Dietrich Gruen, Contributing Editor, Who’s Who in the Bible (Lincolnwood: Publications International, Ltd., 1995), 80.

[4] 1 Kings 18:38.

[5] Deuteronomy 31:7.

[6] Mark 9:5.

[7] Mark 9:7.

[8] The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, “Sermon Seeds: Coming Through the Clouds” reflection for Transfiguration Sunday, February 14, 2021, online at

Sunday, February 7, 2021

She Began to Serve

February 4, 2018

Saint John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Isaiah 40:28-31; Mark 1:29-39[1]

What is the definition of discipleship? One meaning is to think of it like an apprenticeship, learning from someone who is a master at a trade or who has special skills and knowledge. That is how the ancient Greeks understood discipleship. A person would work closely with a master in order to acquire practical and theoretical knowledge. Some disciples were even expected to pay the master for the privilege of learning the trade.

Around the time of Jesus’ ministry on earth, a Jewish student of religion was expected to learn not only the Hebrew Bible Scriptures, but also the oral traditions, the traditions of the fathers. A man, and yes, back then they were all men, would attach himself to a Rabbi, who would serve as a guide for the student as they studied the Scriptures.

Jesus, however, has a different definition of discipleship. Rather than call the best students or the most thoughtful philosophers to apprenticeship, Jesus calls some fishermen, a tax collector, and some other rag-tag fellows who never seem to get what Jesus is really about. Rather than call the strong, Jesus calls upon the weak, and in this story, someone lying in bed with a fever. Simon’s mother-in-law may not be listed in the “official” set of the twelve, but she becomes a disciple nonetheless.

Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law. “He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her…”[2] This is one of the first healing stories in Mark’s gospel, and already the crowds begin to gather outside the door seeking to be rid of their diseases and demons. But in that brief moment, in the way the woman responds to the healing, we see the first indication of Jesus’ definition of discipleship. As the fever left her, “she began to serve them.”

She was probably still weak from the fever. Yet it was her weakness which allowed the strength of God to enter in and become her strength. You and I may sometimes feel that we are too weak or tired to serve in ministry; but in our weakness, God gives us strength for the work of the gospel. “Have you not known? Have you not heard? God does not faint or grow weary; but gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”[3]

Later, in the tenth chapter of Mark, we hear Jesus say, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.”[4] The disciples, especially James and John, expected that they would become great leaders. But Jesus told them the way that they must walk was the path of service. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”[5] As she began to serve them, Simon’s mother-in-law demonstrated the call of the disciples to serve others.

One of the great servants of our age was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was a disciple of Jesus. He served the cause of justice, the cause of others who needed him. He is considered a great man, for what he said and did in the Civil Rights Movement. But he said that the honors, the awards, and the recognition that he received was not what was important to him. He served God with his entire life, and the kind of greatness that comes from that life is not out of reach for any of us. These are his words:

If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness.

And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.[6]

It doesn’t sound all that easy. And it’s not. It is hard work. But it is good work. It is the kind of work that will lift your spirits. By serving others, by helping them to bear their burdens, we find our own burdens much easier to bear. By listening to another person, we might hear what God is doing in the world outside of our own heads. When we take the time to help another, when we allow our plans and routines to be interrupted by the needs of another, we just might be able to release our own anxieties and make room for God to refocus our attention on what is really important.

I would like to share the stories of two people whose burdens were lifted by the service of someone they didn’t even know. These stories were published in the Huffington Post in 2018.[7]

Lou had recently moved to Boston from Florida. He took the commuter rail into the city each day for work, and one stormy winter’s day the train was delayed for hours. People were cold, wet, tired, and grumpy. When he finally made it to his car, well after dark, he found it covered with snow and blocked by a two-and-a-half-foot wall of snow from a plow. Without a shovel and feeling frustrated and teary-eyed, he searched the car for a makeshift tool. He had to resort to using his hands to clear the snow.

After making a couple of passes with his arms and hands to clear the snow off the car, he looked up to see a fellow commuter not only shoveling the car out, but offering a snow brush to clear off his windows. They made fairly quick work of digging the car out and both went their separate ways. On his way home, Lou cried from happiness and the unexpected kindness bestowed upon him.

Sara was circling the block to find a parking space so she could get a cup of coffee. A woman walking by flagged her down and said she would go in and get the coffee for her. While she was inside, a spot opened up and Sara was waiting by her car when the woman came out. She thanked her went to hand her money, but she said the coffee was on her. The woman went on to explain that she had metastatic cancer and with the time she had left, she wanted to do as many good deeds as possible. Sara shared that she was a cancer survivor and the two of them ― complete strangers ― shared a hug and some tears. Ever since that day, Sara has made sure to do random acts of kindness for others as often as she can.

To serve others as disciples of Christ means that sometimes we will have to bear the burden of accepting another person just as they are. We suffer and endure one another, not so we can fix or control the other, but so that we can allow them to be free. It is a burden, it is difficult, to allow someone else to be who they are, to not judge them, to not expect them to conform, to allow them to be strange, peculiar, broken and scarred, imperfect. But, when we allow the needs of another to supersede our own, we just might find ourselves serving the one who knows us best.

In the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew, Jesus gave a practical explanation of what discipleship is all about:

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me… I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.[8]

What does discipleship mean? It means to serve one another with love. It also means that we can’t just serve one another here at Saint John’s, or only in Union or Marengo. Jesus didn’t stay in Capernaum. He said, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”[9] As disciples, we are called to serve the world, in the name and in the manner of Jesus Christ, our Rabbi, the Messiah, the one who has called us to follow.  Amen.

[1] The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

[2] Mark 1:31.

[3] Isaiah 40:28-31, selected.

[4] Mark 10:45.

[5] Mark 9:35.

[6] The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Drum Major Instinct,” sermon delivered February 4, 1968, Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia.

[7] Lindsay Holmes, “8 Feel-Good Stories of Strangers Helping Someone They Didn't Know” for Huffington Post, May 2, 2018. Online at:

[8] Matthew 25:35-36, 40.

[9] Mark 1:38.