Month: October 2013

Motherhood Mercy

OK,God! Mercy! I give up! I cannot figure out how to help my daughter. Me, the helppingest helper in the world, cannot help, fix, or change the hell of being the new kid in 6th grade.

She’s an introverted, thoughtful, artsy, quiet, distracted kid who is desperate for a friend.

God, this has GOT to get better. What if she starts some behavior that isn’t healthy? It should be in “The 10 Steps of Moving:” Number 8, get licence. Number 9, get therapist. Number 10, give yourself time.

Tonight she told me a story about something that happened today in math class:

“Some stupid boy was acting so stupid. I told him to cut it out and do his job. And then this other stupid kid at our table said, “no wonder she doesn’t have any friends!”

Did you know that I have a strong right hook?

She’s on this really competitive swim team and she is not awesome. Yet swimming is her identity and she desperately wants to be included. To be part of the team. She said, “I wore my team shirt today, but nobody seemed to notice.”

“I just can’t figure out how to make a friend. What’s wrong with me?!”

My guilt in all of this is palpable. I am the reason for her unhappiness, right? Somehow, I have the power to fix this, right? Surely there is something. Homeschool? No. Private school? No. Time? Maybe. But what if she doesn’t get better? What if she is miserable and becomes the next Emily Dickenson, or worse?!

Preschool was so much easier! Third grade was a snap. This feels monumentous.

So, Dear Lord, have mercy.
I pray for the lonely child upstairs, tucked in bed after battling a day of cafeteria food and stupid boys. I pray for the quiet child who wants to be heard and recognized. I pray for the friendless child, who would be somebody’s friend if they would get out of their pre adolescent head long enough to notice. I pray for the dreaming child who wants to create and play and has no interest in formulas and fractions. I pray for the parents who say, “now go have a great day!” And then cries in the parking lot as their little girl goes to face another day. Lord, in your mercy….
Hear my prayer.


What it Takes to Be Presbyterian, Sermon for St. Andrew’s and Reformation Sunday

Romans 5:1-5

This weekend in our church calendar, we celebrate Reformation Sunday, and specifically as Presbyterians recognize our Scottish heritage. The Presbyterian Church is one of many Protestant churches whose identity is part of the Reformed Tradition. Now for most of us, the term the Reformed Tradition is about as interesting as dirt. For many talking about history and tradition can put an instant glaze over our eyes and we at once start thinking about what’s for lunch. Perhaps one reason for our disinterest is because surveys suggest that very few people identify themselves with their denomination any more. People are not as loyal to their denominations as they used to be, and therefore are not as invested in the denomination’s history. Today, Presbyterians as individuals are such conglomeration of different denominations and church backgrounds, the principles that first ignited the formation of the Presbyterian Church have been lost in the shuffle.

So in case you need a brief refresher course, here is the story of the reformation in a nutshell: 496 years ago in the 16th century in Germany, the reformation began, it jumped to Geneva Switerland, and then traveled to Scotland where it became Presbyterian. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther an Augustinian monk and university professor marching up to the door in Wittenberg, Germany and posted his ninety-five theses for all to see.

Luther’s argument is that God deserves all of the credit for salvation and humanity deserves none.

Not long after the Lutheran movement in Germany, a slightly different form of Protestantism emerged in Geneva, Switzerland. Its leader was a French humanist intellectual, John Calvin. Calvin’s idea was that political authority begins with the people, who have a God-given right to decide who gets to exercise power in the church, but also in the political arena. It’s called democracy, and in the sixteenth century, it was a revolutionary and heretical concept.

It was in Switzerland that Calvin’s student, John Knox, took these principles to Scotland where he reformed the church and the Presbyterian Church was born.

Saint Andrew is Scotland’s patron saint, for it is believed that the relics of Andrew were brought to Scotland in the middle of the 10th century. Andrew of course was one of the original 12 disciples, he was Peter’s brother and a disciple of John the Baptists. He preached in Asia Minor and along the black sea was martyred by crucifixion in Achea an x-shaped cross, at his own request as he deemed himself unworthy to be crucified on the same type of cross on which Christ was crucified.

So that’s the history lesson for the morning. If you are bored out of your gored you can come back to us now. History is important because it tells us we got where we are. But what is more important I think in today’s non-denominational society, where people are less interested in being associated with a specific denomination and more interested in going to a church that fits their needs…the more important question is what does it take to be a good Presbyterian?

You could say that it takes an appetite. Being a Presbyterian requires enjoying food. Potlucks, Pitch-In’s, Chili cook offs, First Tuesday’s, fifth Sundays, dinners, receptions, brunches, and donuts with coffee, yes we love our food and we rarely gather without something to eat as part of our business. You could say, being a Presbyterian takes an appetite.

You could say that you need patience. Presbyterian process moves at sloth like speed. Nothing is done without upturning every rock and rehashing discussions for the 100th time. The Vatican took 3 days to find a new Pope. Presbyterian churches can take up to two years to find a new pastor. You could say being a Presbyterian requires patience.

You could say that you need at least a tolerance of bagpipe music. It would be better if you loved it, if it sang to your soul, but you have to least tolerate it. If you are Presbyterian you are Scottish by default. The Scotts like to remind us that we have them to thank for the Presbyterian Church.

You could say that you need to like meetings. Better yet, you should enjoy long meetings. If you have an idea to bring to the church, there is a subcommittee that will need to talk that over. The subcommittee will do a study, and take two years to talk it out and then they will take your idea, totally change it, after which you will never bring an idea to a committee ever again.
You could say that you need to have a mastery of acronyms. Presbyterians like to talk in code. For example, let’s say you want to become a Presbyterian minister. Well, first you need to contact the CPM and after three years of seminary you will get your MDIV. If you get your Doctorate, you will get your DMIN. After lot’s of meetings with the CPM you can create a PIF. The CPM will want to make sure you understand the BOO and are up on NFOG. You will need to interview with the COM who might ask you how you feel about G60106b and if you have ever served as a YAD. Eventually this kind of code talk will become to normal to you.

You will need to learn your place in worship. You will need to make sure you sit on your hands and pray that the Holy Spirit stay clear unless we go over time and we are late for our brunch. The Holy Spirit better just stay with our Pentecost brothers and sisters who don’t seem as concerned about being decent and in order.

You could say that this is what is required of us to be Presbyterian, but really these are just things that make us quirky. What is ultimately required –is trust.

The foundation of the Presbyterian church is built on trust.

First, you have to trust God. You have to trust that God is in control, that God cares, that God is invested in our lives and our salvation. God initiates relationship. Being a good Presbyterian requires that we trust God. Trust is the root of our beliefs around theological ideas of total depravity and the providential care for the world. What that means, is that as human beings we naturally screw things up. We sin, make mistakes, fall short. We are in the words of Calvin, “depraved.” As Norman Maclean writes, “Presbyterians believe that man kind by its very nature is a damned mess.” We trust that God alone can rescue us from our depravity. We trust God with our salvation through Jesus Christ. We trust in the atoning power of the cross and in the assurance of the resurrection. Our salvation is not based on our works, it’s based on grace. It’s not based on what we have done, it’s based on what God does for us in giving us his son. We believe that in life and in death we belong to God. Trusting God is easy in principle and difficult in practice.

Trusting God takes significant will power. Trusting each other is even more difficult. Being Presbyterian requires that we trust each other. And this is tough, since we believe that we are all depraved! Nevertheless, the basis of the Presbyterian Church is that we trust our leaders, our elders and deacons to lead and serve. We trust our ruling elders to oversee worship, the budget, the mission, the education of the church. We trust them to be good stewards of our financial giving. We trust our deacons to serve the poor and care for those who are hurting. We trust our Trustees to take care of the building and our endowments. And these elected leaders, trust the congregation to support them, work with them and be a part of the process.
We trust the pastor. We trust our pastors to be a person of confidence, integrity and honesty. We trust the pastor to be a person who is faithful to the Word and who will preach the word of God. This means that the preacher never, ever preaches from their own personal agenda, or uses the pulpit for politics or personal biases. Ever. You trust me with your personal information. To sit with you with struggles and pain and you trust me that I won’t judge you or turn around and hold anything against you. Ever. You trust me to meet you where you are and accept you as you are.

We trust that money will be used for that which was intended. Giving money is a huge act of trust. We trust that money will be used the way we thought it was going to be used, and when doesn’t happen that’s when problems begin and the foundation begins to crumble. So we have to be upfront about how our expenses are used and we have to trust our leaders to be good stewards of our resources.

We also trust that we are part of a larger church. We are connected to the larger church. We are connected to the Presbytery and our other Presbyterian brothers and sisters. We entrust our Presbytery with our resources and our Presbytery serves as a
significant support to church’s particularly in times of struggle and transition.
What does it take to be a Presbyterian?

That you trust God.
That you trust one another.

That we trust each other our broken hearts, our damaged spirits, our fragile egos, our situations, and circumstances, our guilt and our shame. That we trust that in all of our brokenness we come to one another in understanding and never judgment.
Too often we treat the church like a club, and we our focus is on what the programs, the building, the activities can offer us compared to the other club down the street. We know that ministries can lead to God, a faith life, a prayer life. But we wait too long for the church part of life to catch up to the God part of faith.

There is no such thing as a perfect church. At the very best it attempts to live out the great commission to imperfectly express a perfect kingdom.

Fred Buechner beautifully writes, “Jesus says: Be the light of the world. Where there are dark places, be the light especially there. Be the salt of the earth. Bring out the true flavor of what it is to be truly alive. Be life-givers to others. This is what Jesus tells the disciples to be.
That is what Jesus tells his church, tells us, to be and do. Love each other.
Heal the sick, he says. Raise the dead, cleanse the lepers. Cast out demons.
If the church is doing things like that, then it is being what Jesus told it to be.
If it is not doing things like that—no matter how many other good and useful things it may be doing instead—then it is not doing what Jesus told it to be. It is as simple as that.”

Let us together put our trust that our human love of God and one another is the some total of what we were put on earth to do, and that we have everything we need to be human, then redeeming things will continue to happen, both because and in spite of us.
That is what it takes to be a Presbyterian. Amen

Invisible Tattoos


My hairdresser has 23 tattoos.

“I have recently noticed how many tattoo removal companies are cropping up everywhere,” I said.

“Yes,” she said, “But I would never have mine removed….it leaves a scar.”

As she put tinfoil in my hair and painted it with a color other than the actual dishwater blonde, we talked about tattoo artistry.

She explained that her tattoo work was traditional in nature. Every tattoo was filled with many symbols, each one representing a different part of who she was. Much of her work was centered around her grandparents. Her Grandfather was a World War II vet, who loved God and saw 52 – yes 52! air missions over Germany. One time, when he thought he was facing death, he quoted a passage from the Gospel of John over and over again and was saved.

“What was the scripture?” I asked.

“I can’t remember….it’s on my back.”

I’m reading the new, trendy, religious book, “Pastrix” by Nadia Bolz-Weber. She’s like Anne Lamott only with tattoos instead of dreadlocks. She swears and is edgy and funny. She speaks of a deep faith and her surprise that she would ever be a Lutheran Pastor. The fact that she is a recovering alcoholic, past comedian, was raised in a conservative tradition, that never would acknowledge women in leadership, and the fact that she swears a lot and freely gives her opinion makes her cool compared to those of us who, well, aren’t.

So tattoos have been visiting me this week.

It got me thinking about the idea of being marked. Back in the day, circumcision was the physical act that set people apart from people who weren’t part of God’s chosen people. Paul had a lot to say about that. He argued that circumcision wasn’t the ticket to salvation. Rather, it was all those who were baptized in the Spirit, not in the flesh. Baptism became the mark.

Here’s the thing. I have tattoos all over me. You just can’t see them. They tell the story of birth and death, of joy and heartbreak, of suffering and hope. And if you tried to scrub them off, they would leave a scar.

I think we all walk around with invisible tattoos that tell our stories, that reveal our true selves. Some of them are ugly and some of them are beautiful. But all of us are really walking, pieces of art, tatted up with our stories.

My biggest tattoo starts at my head and swirls around and around like a water-fall. It showers me. It says, “I have called you by name, and you are mine.”

Struggle that Leads to Blessing

Genesis 32

Today is a third sermon in a series on faith. Our first Sunday focused on faith as a discipline. It takes practice, ritual, commitment in order to have a strong faith. Practicing faith brings about healing. And still all of the obedience in the world doesn’t matter, if we don’t have gratitude. Gratitude brings about wholeness. That was the take home message last week. This week we focus on struggle that leads to hope.

You see it’s easier be a person of faith in here. But out there, in the world, with all of humanity, being a person of faith, is a struggle. Because life is a struggle. My neighbor down the street, the only neighbor who welcomed us to the neighborhood, a 37-year-old mother of three small children died last week after battling cancer for the past five years. That puts any struggle I may be having in perspective. I’m sure in your heart right now you can name someone who is struggling. If you have a heartbeat, you have a struggle.

Benedictine nun and writer Joan Chittister identifies eight elements of our human struggle as change, isolation, darkness, fear, powerlessness, vulnerability, exhaustion, and scarring.

Think about those eight elements for a minute. –Think for a minute which of those elements in your life have you ever or are currently experiencing?

Think about the struggle for the church. Where have we experienced the struggle of change, powerlessness, vulnerability or exhaustion?

One of the most powerful stories of spiritual struggle is the story of Jacob wrestling the angel. Our story today is like picking up on the third episode of a four part mini series. We find Jacob on a journey in between the home of his uncle Laban, where he had lived his adult life, married and had children; and the land of Canaan where he is now headed, his place of birth. Since moving to his uncle’s house, life has been pretty good for Jacob. He came with nothing and had acquired wives, children, servants, flocks and herds, all the signs of wealth and prosperity of that time. He has been able to avoid the conflict between him and his brother Esau. Jacob has a pattern of causing conflict with his family members. In fact today, his uncle wants to kill him. His brother wants to kill him. His father is disappointed in him and his mother….blames herself.

With Laban out to get him, Jacob has no choice but to go home and face his adversaries. To get home he will have to cross paths with his brother Esau. Esau has every right to take him out. And if Jacob were in Esau’s shoes, Jacob probably would have taken Esau out. – At least that’s what Jacob thinks.

Upon Jacob’s arrival to his homeland, he learns that Esau is on his way to see him, bringing with him 400 men. We are told Jacob is greatly afraid and distressed. He tries to do everything he can think of to save himself and his family. In a panic he divides his family and his belongings hoping that at least some of them will be saved. Jacob laments to God asking for deliverance. He thinks maybe he can make up for his sin by showering Esau with gifts. So he puts together a bunch of animals and food as peace offerings and then he sends an apology letter. He then sends his family on and Jacob sits alone, in the dark, and waits for the morning. He falls into a fitful sleep and is suddenly visited by what the Hebrew translates as a man or a messenger. It’s a mystery. Is it God? An angel? A human being? Is it himself? All of these are possibilities. Modern psychology would argue that Jacob is experiencing an internal battle within the anxiety ridden Jacob. Quite possible. I have been there. Maybe you have too. Knowing that the next morning was a huge test, or a medical exam, or a confrontation, my sleep can be interrupted with the craziest anxiety dreams. (The other night I had a dream there was literally and elephant in the room). One could argue that this is the first Biblically recorded anxiety attack. But through this internal wrestling, the visitor tells him he has now wrestled with a divine being. Eventually, Jacob says, “I have seen God face to face and yet my life is preserved.” The line is blurred here between the struggle with another human being, or an inner psychological struggle of confronting your own demons, or the struggle with God’s own self or all of the above.

In his struggle he becomes blessed. He is given a new name. In the same manner, when he confronts his brother, he finds that his brother has forgiven him, they are reconciled and Jacob finds himself doubly blessed. He has his brother back and he gets to start anew.

“The Jacob story brings out into the open what is often experienced as hidden. It makes public and visible what can often be private and invisible.”

Is there that old friend that you have struggled with and when noticing them in the restaurant you turn around and chose a different place to eat to avoid seeing them? Such a struggle causes anxiety.

Is there that family member who has hurt you or whom you have hurt and now you don’t know how to approach or forgive them, so you hope they don’t show up for Thanksgiving Dinner? Such a struggle keeps us from being our true selves.

More internally, is there an addiction or a temptation that you struggle with that you just assume nobody know about, but it’s an internal struggle that keeps you up at night? Such a struggle feels vulnerable.

When these things happen we are engaged in what Sr. Joan Chittister calls “a spirituality of struggle.” She says, “God is not a puppeteer and God is not a magic act. God is the ground of our being, the energy of life, the goodness out of which all things are intended to grow to fullness. Yet it is a struggle…How can we possibly deal with the great erupting changes of life and come away more whole because of having been through them than we would possibly have been without them? To do that takes a spirituality of struggle.” (Sr. Joan Chittister, Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope, p. 16 )

The process of struggle to blessing is just that, it’s a process. It doesn’t happen overnight. When a marriage is struggling, couples have to rethink expectations. When workplace ceases to be rewarding, people have to find a way to make it work. Moving from struggle to blessing is a process, in which the outcome always results in us being somehow changed. It is a slow but determining deconstruction of the self so that a real person can be reborn in us, beyond the expectations of others, even beyond our own previously unassailable assumptions. And struggle is its catalyst.

I have been concerned with the stories I have heard with how many of you struggled with past clergy leadership here at OPPC. It sounds like for many of you, it was a huge struggle. It sounds like there was a lot of change, that led many of you to places isolation, darkness, fear, powerlessness, vulnerability, exhaustion, and scarring. I’m so sorry this has happened here. My prayer is that for those of you who carry the burden of anger or resentment is not that you would just get over it, but that you could struggle with God until you can find yourself in a place of forgiveness and find healing.

Here is the good news: God does not leave us in our struggling. God struggles with us. The other side of struggle, is blessing. If you have ever overcome a real struggle in your life, you know that the other side of struggle is conversion, independence, faith, courage, surrender, limitations, endurance, and transformation. “Jacob does what all of us must do,” writes Chittister, “if, in the end, we too are to become true. He confronts in himself the things that are wounding him, admits his limitations, accepts his situation, rejoins the world, and moves on.”

So too God wrestles with each of us until we have the courage to confront our pain, admit our limitation, accept things as they are and move on. When we find ourselves on the other side of struggle, we discover that on that hard journey, we have been blessed.

This requires a measure of faith.

The Apostle Paul expresses this measure of faith this way:
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and 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.

Let us pray –
Miraculous God,
You are enough. As the rain hides the stars – as the autumn mist hides the hills. As the clouds veil the blue of the sky. So the darkness of our world hides your shining face from us. Yet if we may hold your hand in the darkness, it is enough. Since we stumble in our going – You do not fall. Amen.

Sermon Series on Faith #2: Gratitude as a Response to Faith


Sermon on Luke 17:11-19

Come, Thou Fount of every blessing,
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace;
Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
Calls for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet,
Sung by flaming tounges above;
Praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it.
Mount of God’s unchanging love.

I’m not 100% sure I know what this hymn is means. But I love it. I don’t often think of God as a fount, nor do I know exactly what it means to “praise the mount.” But I do know that it’s a hymn of gratitude. It was written in 1758 by Robert Robinson. He wrote this hymn to go with a sermon he wrote when he was 22 years old. Robinson had a fascinating life. His father died when he was just nine years old. He was a very bright, headstrong boy who became increasingly more difficult for his mother to handle. When Robert turned 14, she sent him to London for an apprenticeship with a barber. Robert proceeded to get into even more trouble, taking on a life of drinking and gambling.

At 17, Robert and some of his drinking buddies decided to attend an evangelistic meeting, with a plan to make fun of the proceedings. When George Whitfield began to preach, Robert felt as if the sermon was just for him. He did not respond to the altar call that night, but the words of the evangelist would haunt him for the next three years. On Dec. 10, 1755, at age 20, Robert finally yielded his life to Christ, and very soon thereafter answered a call to the ministry. Two years later he wrote this powerful hymn of gratitude – a response to faith.

Here I raise my Ebeneezer
Hither by Thy help I’m come
And I hope, by thy good pleasure
Safely to arrive at home
Jesus sought me when a stranger
Wandering from the fold of God
He, to rescue me from danger,
Interposed His precious blood.

 This is a hymn of gratitude of God’s saving grace.

Gratitude is always a response to faith. It then stands to reason that true faith always results in
gratitude. We cannot help but singing. We can’t help but respond.

Our Gospel reading today is the story of 10 people with leprosy.

This disease held many implications for those afflicted with the disease. The book of Leviticus dedicates two whole chapters to how people with the disease were to be treated. The book says that priests had to diagnose the disease, and then would pronounce them ritually unclean, and after would perform rites of purification. The Lepers were ordered to wear tattered clothing and wear their hair loose and then cover their hand with their lip and shout out “unclean, unclean!” So that people would be warned that they were coming. Imagine if you can the profound demoralizing experience this must have been. This was not only their health care policy, it was their social policy. This disease did not discriminate. There was nothing you could do to avoid it, which it made even scarier. Therefore they were barred from the community and declared unworthy of God. So, the rule was, “they live over here and we live over here and never the two should meet. We are not like them. They have are sympathy and we might pray and thank God we are not like them, but we have to be sensible about these things.”

Today ten lepers approach Jesus. This is a big deal. We just learned lepers weren’t to approach anyone. But they approach Jesus and they cry out, mercy, mercy. Jesus knows the Book of Leviticus and he says go show yourself to a priest. They are obedient to the rules and as they walk they find themselves healed.

One, upon seeing that he is healed, is overcome with gratitude and he runs back and falls on his knees in gratitude.
Imagine the courage it took for the one leper to leave his band of brothers and run back to Jesus. It’s a brave move just because he was set apart as a leper. But this man is not just a leper, he was a Samaritan. You know what they thought of Samaritans. Nothing good ever came out of that place. The rules were you don’t talk the likes of them. Barbara Brown Taylor says he is a double loser. Imagine the conviction it took to leave the only people who would ever acknowledge him as a human being and leave his community to return by himself to see Jesus and express gratitude.

Jesus is taken by this expression of gratitude and he looks upon this man and asks the question: why do nine rush away without giving thanks, and why is this foreigner the only one who does? And, to that one who came back, he says: “Your faith has made you well.” Some scholars say that Jesus says your faith has made you whole, and others interpret the passage as your faith has saved you. No matter how you slice it, the point is they all are healed, but only one is made whole. They all returned to their families and community, but only one was said to have faith. The ten lepers all obey Jesus and they all have healing. One leper responds in gratitude to Jesus and receives more than healing, he receives wholeness. Why wholeness? Because through his gratitude he is now he is connected to Jesus in a very personal way. He now has a relationship. Obeying Jesus brings healing. Showing gratitude makes a relationship.

You might be familiar with story of Les Miserables written by Victor Hugo. It’s the story of a man named Jon Valjean. He is caught stealing silverware from the local priest in order to get bread for his sister and her daughter. When the priest catches him in the act, Valjean strikes him on the cheek and flees. Later the next day he is caught and the authorities take him to the Father’s house. The Priest says, “ Valjean I am so disappointed in you! You just took the silverware. You were supposed to take the candle sticks too! They are worth so much more. Now take these.” As the authorities leave, the priest looks sternly in Val jean’s eyes. Jean Valjean asks, “why are you doing this?” To which the priest replies, Jean Valjean my brother you no longer belong to evil. With this silver, I have bought your soul. I’ve ransomed you from fear and hatred, and now I give you back to God. Valjean spends the rest of his life responding to the love bestowed him. He lives the rest of his life responding to the grace given him. At the end of his life he sings, “to love another person see the face of God.”

So too, when Jesus sees the Samaritan leper, he sees the face of God. And when the leper sees that he has been seen, he cannot help but respond with that same expression of profound love.

He breaks the rules and follows with his heart instead of instructions. Something rose up in him. Something so profound, he could not help but turn around and go in a different direction. To go in a direction no one ever thought possible.

This afternoon we are going to participate in an event that sets us apart from being just another church. We are going to participate in a worship service that is clearly Presbyterian in practice. It’s an installation service. The rules require that we have this type of service – like the rules required that the 10 lepers were required to go to the priest. But this service is more than just some formality that we need to go through, its response to the goodness of God. The question is: will we see this service as a witness that God keeps his promises? God calls people. God calls the church. With those with ears to ears to listen God speaks. With those with eyes to see, God reveals.

When I interviewed colleagues about Orchard Park Presbyterian Church, they couldn’t believe I was even being considered. “Oh, they will never call a woman. You should just decline.” They said. “Orchard Park? No way. Oh, they would never go in that direction.” They did not look with faith. They just saw what the societal rules had told them. So you see we have something to respond to today. God saw something they didn’t see. We have received more than healing. We have responded to Jesus out of obedience and out of gratitude. The obedience part results in healing. The gratitude part results in wholeness.

O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be.
Let they grace now like a fetter
Bind my wandering heart to thee.
Prone to wander, Lord I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.

And All God’s People Said, “Amen.”

Sermon Series on Faith: #1 Mustard Seed Faith

Sermon on Luke 17:6


How much faith are you running on? Half a tank? A full tank? Fumes? Do you wish you had more faith? Do you know where you can pick some up? Any chance you can get some faith supersized?

This is the kind of world we live in, isn’t it? We live in a quantifiable world. Amazingly it’s not too different from the disciple’s world we read about in our scripture reading today. The disciples have just heard the story of Lazarus and the rich man and they are little worried, maybe more than worried, maybe down right scared that they are going to end up in the flames of hell and so they ask Jesus how they can increase their faith. Obviously, they already had some faith in Jesus; after all, they were following him around as disciples. What they yearned for was more trust, surer belief, stronger conviction, deeper relationship that is, more faith.

Jesus responds by telling them they don’t need a lot of faith, just a tiny mustard seed of faith is enough. They don’t believe him, faith the size of mustard seed can no way be enough. They are thirsty for more.

I wonder if they were surprised when Jesus said we didn’t need more faith, that even the tiniest seed of faith is enough. What matters now is to put faith into practice, to do what is ours to do.

Jesus then responds with a little story about some faithful servants who work hard for their master and do their duty. What was Jesus getting at by responding to the question, “Increase our faith,” by talking about some hard-working servants who simply do their duty?

Jesus responds, “If you have faith” (implying that they do have faith), then you will do your duty and work hard for the Master.
Now as a Protestant this is where I see a flashing red light. The question this raises for me is, “Wait a minute, is Jesus saying that earn a stronger relationship with God if we work harder and serve more coffee on Sunday morning or teach Sunday School?” Which is it, is faith a divine gift or do we have to earn it?

If you are thirsty for a more powerful faith life, you have to practice it.

Faith takes practice. It takes discipline. It’s like a muscle. If we never use it, we aren’t aware of it, it doesn’t have any strength and it doesn’t function as it should. The muscle is always there, but it has to be exercised. If we discipline ourselves to use our muscles, it becomes strong and evident and it protects our core.

In the same way, faith takes practice. Even if we don’t see any evidence that its there, if we practice our faith it will eventually take root and start to grow. Even if we feel like we are going through the motions. Even if we are uncertain of what we think about certain doctrines or theology, we keep at it.

Simply put, we don’t believe in the faith we have been given. Being a Christian is not simply believing a set of ideas or doctrines, it is engaging in relationship with Jesus Christ. The duties Jesus is talking about here are ways of that encourage us to know him. We come to know him through disciplines of prayer, worship, study, silence, hospitality and service. We respond by taking up a taking up a way of life and by doing so our faith is increased. Make no mistake God is working on us as we participate in the practice.

Some days we may sit down to say the Lord’s prayer for example, and we begin with “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name,” and that is far as we can go, because this concept of God being as relational as a father and as majestic as in heaven is beyond our comprehension or understanding. But we say the prayer anyway. We go through rituals and say prayers without thinking until suddenly we are overcome with a willingness to let God’s will be done our life, whether what God might will is difficult or easy. For the first time, we really mean it.

You see what Jesus is getting at here is that if we as disciples want to increase our faith, we have to be disciplined enough to care about it and we have to trust that God will take care of the rest. However small the belief is, we need to respond to it. Not because we get a better grade from Jesus, but because in responding to our faith we get to KNOW Jesus.

The first time I became aware of Jesus knowing me while I was praying under a tree at church camp. I was in the seventh grade. It was a hot summer day in central Illinois. We had just been small groups and we broke out to have some alone time with the Bible and some questions. Suddenly, there under an oak tree, I felt a presence, an awareness I had never felt before, I knew God was with me. It was the most powerful moment and I knew God knew me and I knew God. And then I went on being a teenager, but eventually God came again in church choir and later on a mission trip at a Native American reservation. But I would never have had these moments of clarity were not for the discipline of my parents getting me to church. It started with what I’m sure was a lot of work for my parents, and the morning discipline of going to church. Getting three little girls dressed and pressed and in the car on a Sunday morning. Getting us all to choir practice. Getting us to church camp, driving us to confirmation to mission trips. They did all of that to plant a seed. Those seeds of knowing that I was not alone took root.

And they stayed planted. Eventually life brought struggles and suffering and loss and doubt. As it does for all of us, life brings challenges that shakes our core and causes us to question. We fall short. We sin. We lose our way. And when that happens we need to reminded that a little seed of faith remains. Jesus says to us today, “You have faith enough. Go practice.”

Kayla Mclurg makes the point that in earlier centuries, an altar call was a personal invitation to express one’s faith by signing on to work for the common good, whether abolishing slavery or creating child labor laws or relieving poverty. She writes, “In the little rural church I grew up in, an altar call came at the close of every service. ‘If one among us today has heard the call to place your faith in Jesus and follow him with your life, come forward as we sing.’ My heart stirred every Sunday. I wanted more faith. I wanted to follow Jesus. My mom said it probably wasn’t necessary to walk down the aisle every Sunday, but I have never forgotten how much I wanted to sign up, again and again.”

Today, we bring our own mustard seeds of faith, in many different shapes and sizes to the communion table, in the hope that God will nurture us too. Today, Christians around the world from many different traditions and denominations are celebrating World Communion Sunday. Communion is one of the most powerful rituals that we may not fully understand but feeds us with grace beyond all understanding.

This is the gift of communion. It’s the gift of prayer. It’s the gift of worship. Each discipline helps us grow.

Faith, then, by its nature requires us to act before we have full knowledge. The Good News is that cannot be measured. It can only be lived. Even when it feels hopeless or senseless. Even faith as small as a muster seed is more than sufficient … if we are willing to act on it. Jesus reminds us that we are not the masters of God’s purposes, but the slaves. We are bondservants of a cause beyond us. We can gnaw for hours on the would have, could have, should have disappointments of life, but peace will never be found there. Peace waits in the right here, right now, what is. This set of circumstances. These people. This degree of understanding and support. We have enough faith to do what is ours to do, to serve the purposes that matter.

Frederich Buechner puts it this way:
“People are prepared for everything except for the fact that beyond the darkness of their blindness there is a great light. They are prepared to go on breaking their backs plowing the same old field until the cows come home without seeing, until they stub their toes on it, that there is a treasure buried in that field rich enough to buy Texas. They are prepared for a God who strikes hard bargains but not for a God who gives as much for an hour’s work as for a day’s. They are prepared for a mustard-seed kingdom of God no bigger than the eye of a newt but not for the great banyan it becomes with birds in its branches singing Mozart. They are prepared for the potluck supper at (Orchard Park Presbyterian Church) but not for the marriage supper of the lamb.”

There is enough faith in this room to change the world. If only we have the courage to respond.

If you are struggling with your faith, or wondering what this whole being part of organized religion means, or wondering how your faith life fits into the rest of your life, remember this – keep practicing. You have enough faith in you to sustain you. Jesus will take care of the rest.

When you are running on empty and you can’t remember the last time you prayed for felt the presence of God, or if you wonder if ever really did. Trust and believe that you have been given a gift. You have enough. Keep practicing. Believe. Jesus has great plans for you.

When you are wondering about the future of God’s church. Keep practicing. Believe. God has great plans for us.

Faith is not a matter of pious exertion or heroic will power. But rather, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer testified in his prison poem “Who Am I?,” faith is the miracle of God-given trust, that willingness beyond willfulness that crawls into the lap of a trustworthy God, encouraging one to conclude in the face of all life’s questions and circumstances: “Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine. Whoever I am thou knowest, O God, I am thine.”


Who Am I? by Deitrich Bonhoeffer

Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a Squire from his country house.

Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As thought it were mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
Equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
Tossing in expectations of great events,
Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.

Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!

Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale
Kayla McClurg. “To Do What is Ours To Do” Season and Scripture: Luke, Ordinary Time C

The Balance Mystique


“My point is, life is about balance. The good and the bad. The highs and the lows. The pina and the colada.”
― Ellen DeGeneres, Seriously…I’m Kidding

A balanced diet. A balance of work and play. “Find your balance,” my yoga teacher says. Everything in moderation. Kids need a balance of school, play, activities, and eight hours of sleep.

Lets get real! A balanced life is a momentary experience that happens once on a Tuesday afternoon when all the stars are aligned, the workout got in, the foods were all whole grain, the children were all bathed, a full night sleep was had by all, every phone call was answered, and all accounts were paid in full. Do you remember that day?

I don’t. Why? Because it never happened!! It’s a mystic. It’s a facade. It’s not real. Balance is an ideal that can never be obtained, only striven for.

Some days I am closer to the center of a balanced life. I feel closer to it, when I have read “Mrs. Piggle Wiggle” to my children at night, without falling asleep before they do. I know it when I have more laundry in the drawer than on the dresser. I know it when I haven’t forgotten a meeting or my phone at the restaurant, or to close the back of my car after buying pumpkins.

Do you know what happens to large pumpkins that roll out of back of trucks?

I know it when I can laugh at myself and give myself and others a break.

I know it when I act out of grace and not out of judgment.

I know it when I care more about serving than about getting.

Gotta run. I’m late for yoga and the dog just ate a Lego.