Butterfly Effect

Are you familiar with that expression? The Butterfly Effect? In simple form, it says a butterfly flaps its wings in South America, and the resulting ripples give birth to a hurricane off the coast of Africa.

I don’t know if that is literally true or not, but I do understand that everything in the world is connected. Snow in Minnesota visits Louisiana as flooding in the spring. One assassin shoots the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo and touches off a World War. The temperature of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of South America impacts the amount of rain that falls in Iowa.

You may never have the opportunity to run into a burning building and save a life, but you can do a small kindness to others around you; hold open a door, offer a kind word to an over-worked retail clerk, give an extra big tip to your table server at the restaurant.

You may never know the impact your tiny butterfly stroke of a kindness will produce. Don’t let that stop you. Do all the kindnesses you can, whenever you can, toward whomever you can. And do it all as if you are doing your kindness to God.



Vanderbilt Divinity School prided itself on educating “Theologians.” They nearly drowned us in the densest, most profound thinkers over centuries. Niebuhr, Tillich, Schleiermacher, Barth; my brain cramps just typing their names.

A typical night reading the next day’s assignment would be looking up every other word, then when I got to the end of the page, saying to myself, “well, I understand what all those words mean, but I still have no clue what he was trying to say.”

I knew then that I was definitely NOT in the class of theologians cum laude. In more than a quarter-century of ordained ministry, that realization has become clearer with each passing year. But the more I have given up on trying to understand the higher points of theology, the more simple, and clear my understanding of faith has become.

One of those impenetrable thinkers described theology and faith as like a circle. You start off in naivete, a simple trusting. As you progress, your thinking becomes more and more complicated, until you come full circle, and arrive back at a second naivete. Very similar to the child-like faith where you started. Maybe I can claim that.

My working theology now consists of four statements. any one of them could fit on a bumper sticker.

  1. Love God with all that’s in you.
  2. Love your neighbor as yourself.
  3. Treat other people the way you want to be treated.
  4. Don’t be a jerk.

How’s that? No Law Library full of ‘thou shalts’ and ‘thou shalt nots’ just simply, what matters is how you treat other people. No agendas other than love. Your love for God shown in the way you treat others.

In the midst of another Advent season, rushing madly toward Christmas, and this theology calms my spirit more than the entire library of incomprehensible theology.

The most fulfillment in life is to be found in treating others as the beloved children of God they are. Yes, even the ones who don’t deserve it; even the ones who might mean me harm; even the ones whose hostility and anger threaten to overflow and cause real damage. Even those.

May you find under your Christmas tree this season something far more satisfying than theology. May you discover, truly feel in your soul how much God loves you. And may you be able to reflect that love to others so well that everyone who sees you will see the Christ in you, and be drawn to God.

Grace and peace,


Something More Than a Sunrise

I do love sunrises; especially when there are just enough morning clouds and dust particles to spread the morning sun into a palette of reds and peaches and magentas and purples that no artist can reproduce. The effect literally takes my breath; even when I know the truth in the sailors’ adage, “Red sky at morning, sailor take warning.” The dramatic colors warn that a storm is on the way, but they do quicken my pulse and open my heart to the urge to praise God for the unmatchable glory and beauty of creation.

Yes, I am one of those morning people. Watching the sky imperceptibly lightening from the deep black of night into the Carolina blue of daylight sky as the stars fade out sets a peaceful tone for the rest of my day. It DOES feel like reassurance from God. Today is a new day. The night of weeping is past and gone; now is the time to gird up our loins and renew the work to make the world resemble more the kindom of heaven. To sit quietly as the dawn seeps in, watching the sun rise above the horizon does feel as like encouragement from God. But there is more to faith than sunrise.

We were studying the Hebrew Scriptures in seminary, reading the Creation stories in Genesis and the establishment stories in Exodus and Leviticus when my eyes were opened to something I had read hundreds of times before and never noticed. You see it overtly in Exodus and Leviticus as the foundation is being laid for the identity of the Jewish people, but it is also there in Genesis. These books are part of the foundation of Judaism; they lay out what it means to be a person of faith in God.

And in these works that lay the foundation, faith in God is everything.  Every action of life, no matter how mundane, is an occasion for the living out of one’s faith. The center of a faithful life is to trust in God with everything, no matter what the external circumstances. Jesus summarizes this value when he says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your mind, and all your soul, and all your strength.” Faith in God; trust in God no matter the circumstance is at the core of this love for God.

The insight that astounded me in these Hebrew texts was that their faith was even expressed in how they measured their days.

For a morning person like me, the dawning of a new day seems the natural place to mark the beginning of the new day. In the Industrial world we live, we start the new day at midnight, since that is the hour when the fewest of us are working. But that is not where the Hebrew Scriptures mark the day.

As an act of faith, the Hebrew Scriptures mark the beginning of a new day at sunset. Not sunrise, where we witness the proof that God will send us another day, but at sunset, when our eyes tell us the day has been defeated and night has won. At sunset, when all we have to prove God will send us a new day is our trust in God. Beginning the new day at sunset is a deliberate act of faith in God, declaring our trust in God even when our eyes see what seems to be the opposite.

Thank you God, for sunrises; and for the chance to express our faith at sunset.

Now is the Time

January 24, 2021

Someone told me last week, one of the sins of the Church is that we have worshipped Christ, when that is never what Jesus said. Jesus said, “Follow me.” Follow me, he said to fishermen; set aside your vocation, set aside the ways your fathers made their identity and find a new purpose in life. Find your identity in more than the way you earn your living; find your identity in the way your life echoes mine. Follow me, he said.

Follow me. Watch what I do. Stand in my shoes and do the same. Follow me, Jesus said Follow me; into the lands of gentiles; beckon strangers to become siblings, enemies to be transformed into co-laborers in common cause. Follow me, Jesus said; and show the world what it means to fish for people. Follow me into the wisdom of the ages, into the words of the prophets, written on subway walls and tenement halls and on the hearts of the broken-hearted, disappointed by life’s evil corruption. Follow me, Jesus said, and learn a new life.

Follow me; into Isaiah. Hear the echoes of God’s word through the quill of Isaiah who knows it is God who sends the ones who feel the oil of God’s anointing, and who proclaim the vision,

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,

    because the Lord has anointed me;

has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,

    to bind up the brokenhearted,

to proclaim liberty to the captives,

    and release to the prisoners;

to proclaim the year of Jubilee,

    and the day of vengeance of our God;

    to comfort all who mourn;

to provide for those who mourn in Zion—

    to give them a garland instead of ashes,

the oil of gladness instead of mourning,

    the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

Follow me, Jesus said, into the wilderness of the wicked world, into the careless cruelty of the ones who cling to power, using fear as a weapon, goading brother into killing brother; sister seduced into betraying sister.

Follow me, Jesus said, bringing good news to the oppressed, into the world, to a different way to fish. Not naively, but full of the nerve that nudges us to confront injustice because:

[1]We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace, and the norms and notions of what “just” is isn’t always justice.

And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it.

Somehow we do it.

Liberty to the captive and release to the prisoners; calling to the hoarders and the hardheads that this is a Year of Jubilee- the 50th year, when the books are swiped clean, when a new start begins, when hope is resurrected from the ashes, garlands are given, and the oil of gladness slathered all around extravagantly from never-emptying bowls of mercy and grace. Follow me, Jesus says, and turn your neighbor’s mourning dirge into delightful dervish dancing.

And so we lift our gaze, not to what stands between us, but what stands before us.

Follow me, Jesus says, up to the mountain top, where we might gaze through the misty veil, and see the splendor of the Kindom of God in all its glory; not yet arrived, but on its way.  Stand with me on the mountain top, Jesus says, and behold the land of what may be, if only you will follow me.

Jesus calls us, as surely as he called Simon and Andrew and James and John, he calls my name, and your name. Jesus calls us away from the ruts we have worn in our daily habits, calls us to lift our gaze from the ground before us into the hope that calls us. Jesus calls us, above the distracting noise, the jackhammer clamor of prejudice and negativity, of violence and bigotry. Jesus calls us to echo back love and dignity when we have been bludgeoned with hatred and hostility. Jesus calls us, not to escape the world, but to show the world a way that leads to life, abundant and eternal.

We will not march back to what was, but move to what shall be: a country that is bruised but whole, benevolent but bold, fierce and free.

Follow me, Jesus said, and do what you see me do. Feed the hungry, tend the sick, embrace the outcasts, receive the repentant, love the unlovable. Follow me. Let your eyes be opened to the abundance of the universe God has created; reject the lie that there is never enough, open your hand and learn that you cannot outgive God. Let abundance flow from your hands, and see how God responds. Shower others and see how the flood of blessings from God pours over you in a cataract of grace.

The new dawn balloons as we free it.

For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it.

If only we’re brave enough to be it.”

Jesus beckons, “Follow me.” Follow me and see the abundant life God has created for you, if only you will open your hands and heart and accept it. If only you are brave enough to leave behind your familiar and follow Jesus.

Now is the time. Be better than what surrounds you. Put down the insults and the put-downs. Rather seek to lift up. You are not diminished by raising others to your own level. Now is the dawn of a new day; waste no more energy on what has passed. Be the light the world needs to see today. Now is the time.

[1] These beautiful lines, in Arial Bold italic script, are from Amanda Gorman’s poem “The Hill We Climb” delivered at the inauguration of Joseph R. Biden, Jr.

What the Hell Happened to My Sweet Little Sermon?

The First Sunday after the insurrection attempt and the Storming of the Capitol Building in DC.

January 10, 2021

In the Christian Calendar, Sunday, January 10, 2021 was to celebrate the Baptism of Christ. It is an auspicious day for baptisms. Last year on this date, we baptized two babies, Ace Agnew and Sutton Clark. I was almost finished with a lovely, sweet sermon about babies and remembering your baptism and how baptism brings us into the family of faith and such. It was a sweet little sermon; not very deep or challenging, just a sweet roll to go with your coffee while you watch the Livestream of worship from your couch. If sermons were clothing, this one was well-broken in flannel pajamas. Comfy.

Then Wednesday happened. A rioting mob, incited to violence, invaded the Capitol building, the very symbol of our nation’s constitutional government. They interrupted the constitutionally-mandated work of the Congress. They destroyed, vandalized, gloried in their lawlessness. They came prepared with weapons, with plans to execute lawmakers with whom they have political disagreements. So far five people are dead, including Brian Sicknick, a Capitol Police officer who gave his life defending the Capitol building and the public servants who were working there at the time.

After that, I looked at my sweet little sermon and it was just pablum. Not only unfit for the day, but to keep to that course would have been to insult the hearers who came seeking a word of Truth from the God who is Truth.

But what is there for a preacher to say? Where is there a Word from God for the people of God in the midst of this heartbreaking assault?

When events like this one have happened before, Nine Eleven, other personal calamities, I return to the Bible for strength, for the words to express my soul-deep pain, and for words of hope. I am drawn to the Hebrew Scriptures especially. For nearly two thousand years before the time of Christ, Jews have known what it means to suffer. They have known invasion, desecration and occupation of their sacred spaces; they have known what it is like to be trampled by enemies who ridicule their faith and mock their devotion to God. If any group can teach me about suffering, it is the Jews. If there is any store house of wisdom and faithfulness to God in the face of suffering, it is the Hebrew Scriptures. And so that is where I go.

Here are some of the places I found solace and strength this week:

Psalm 56, Psalm 137, Psalm 31, Ephesians 2:14-22, Isaiah 43, Isaiah 40, and Second Corinthians 4:7-9.

My first inclination was to simply read these texts in their entirety and leave them stand without any comment from me at all. That still might have been the wisest move. But preachers being preachers, well… and even with minimal comment, to read every verse of every one of these passages would take longer than we have time for today. So I have edited out a few verses here and there for the sake of focus and clarity, and time. I encourage you to seek out these texts for yourself. Read them aloud, read them completely. Read them slowly and then sit with them for a time. Some of them offer us words to express our anger. That is ok sit with that anger. Anger is an emotion; it is to be felt. Trying to stifle what you feel, to pretend you are not feeling angry is harmful to your body and spirit. Feel the feelings. You do not have to act on those feelings, but your body deserves that you feel them and acknowledge their right to exist.

Psalm 56

1 Be gracious to me, O God, for people trample on me; all day long foes oppress me;

2 my enemies trample on me all day long, for many fight against me.

O Most High,

3 when I am afraid, I put my trust in you.

4 In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I am not afraid;

    what can flesh do to me?

5 All day long they seek to injure my cause; all their thoughts are against me for evil.

6 They stir up strife, they lurk, they watch my steps. As they hoped to have my life,

7     so repay them for their crime; in wrath cast down the peoples, O God!

8 You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle.   Are they not in your record?

9 Then my enemies will retreat in the day when I call. This I know, that God is for me.

10 In God, whose word I praise, in the Lord, whose word I praise,

11 in God I trust; I am not afraid. What can a mere mortal do to me?

12 My vows to you I must perform, O God; I will render thank offerings to you.

13 For you have delivered my soul from death, and my feet from falling, so that I may walk before God in the light of life.

(these words in [ ] are mine. Feel free to ignore them in favor of the greater wisdom of Scripture.

[God has kept account of my tossings in bed at night; I struggle and weep, unable to rest, but I am not resting alone. GOD has seen, God knows, my tears do not fall wasted, God has gathered them from my cheek and stored them as precious offerings.

And when I feel my spiritual strength is at its breaking point, when I am certain I can take not one moment more, not one more grievous insult to decency and civility, I am reminded that God has delivered my soul from death before; God has kept my feet from falling so that I may walk before God in the light of life. In the midst of crushing heartbreak, that reassurance clings me to the rock.]

Psalm 137

1 By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and there we wept

    when we remembered Zion.

2 On the willows there we hung up our harps.

3 For there our captors asked us for songs,

and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,

    “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

4 How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!

6 Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.

7 Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall,

how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!”

8 O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!

9 Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!

[There are some of us who are craving vengeance, violence against those who have violated our beloved national spaces. The feeling is what it is; feelings just are. It is not an evil feeling. The challenge for us is that Jesus teaches us to deny acting on that craving; to answer hatred with love, to reflect back the love of God when we are attacked and trampled.

How shall we sing the songs of Zion while feeling as if we have been made aliens in our own land? We do it by remembering our baptismal vows to God. We sing by rendering our extra thank offerings to God, remembering that God has rescued us, has delivered our souls from death and our feet from falling.

We feel the anger, and it is righteous anger. If allowed out, that energy can entice us to repeat the same evil as the destroyers, and we become destroyers ourselves. If channeled, that energy can be used to rebuild the shining city on a hill we believe we can be, anger turned to productive work building better, stronger. Channeled into productive work, our anger gives us the energy to restore the breach between us, to build a society which cares for all its citizens, which protects the vulnerable from the strong, with liberty and JUSTICE for all, no exceptions. We feel that anger; we give thanks for the Psalmist for giving us words for our feelings. And then we use that energy to make our world better. For all.]

Isaiah 43 

But now thus says the Lord, who created you, O Jacob, who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;    I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
    and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
    and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,  the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
Do not fear, for I am with you;  I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you;
I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth—
everyone who is called by my name,  whom I created for my glory,
    whom I formed and made.”

Bring forth the people who are blind, yet have eyes,  who are deaf, yet have ears!

[In Baptism you are Called by the name Child of God; you are claimed as being one of God’s own children.

Yes, we strive against they who have eyes yet refuse to see what is right in front of them, ears yet refuse to hear truth. There is none so blind as he who will not see. We must not close our minds, we must let our hearts be free.]

Isaiah 40

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.

2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

3 A voice cries out:

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.

5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

21 Have you not known? Have you not heard?

    Has it not been told you from the beginning?

    Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?

22 It is GOD who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,

    and spreads them like a tent to live in;

23 who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.

31 but 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.

Second Corinthians 4:7-9 (2nd, not Two)

7 But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. 8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.

[Hear this, and let your spirit be at peace. The events of last week are serious, indeed. They threaten our very nation. And the threats may not be over yet. But no matter what happens, in our baptism we remain securely children of God. No matter what happens, we are not destroyed. God is our Protector, Parent, and Provider. We will survive; even this. It will not always be this way.]

Brice Hughes,

Burlington, Iowa

January 10, 2021

Saving Civilization

I don’t usually share my sermons in this blog, but in answer to a request, here is a draft planned for this Sunday:

Feel free to ignore.

“How the Irish Saved Civilization[1]

November 8, 2020

Zion UCC Burlington, IA

Repeating part of the reading we used as our Call to Worship: Psalm 78:2-4 New Revised Standard Version

I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old,

things that we have heard and known, that our ancestors have told us.

We will not hide them from their children; we will tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done.

What a strange sermon title. Truth is, the title isn’t really mine, it’s ‘borrowed’ (that is to say, stolen) from a book by Thomas Cahill. Since titles aren’t copyrightable, I ‘borrowed’ it, hoping there might be something to ponder.

Here’s the short version of Cahill’s book. Five hundred years of the Roman Empire falls apart in 467AD. There wasn’t one foe, but several who eventually broke it apart. You remember your European History from High School, right?  The Goths, Visigoths, and Ostrogoths, right? And the Angles, the Saxons, the Franks; the Scots and the Vikings, of course who never were under the Empire but as Rome weakened, they expanded. From about 500 to 1500 AD, Europe was in turmoil; disrupted, vandalized (oh, I forgot the mention the Vandals in that list).

Civilization in Europe declined during this tumultuous time. The Greeks and then the Romans had Engineering knowledge like running water and flushing toilets, used all over the Roman Empire. That knowledge was lost during those dark ages. There was a loss of scientific knowledge, a contempt for books and learning. Libraries were destroyed. We have scraps of some books that were almost entirely lost; some books we have reference to in other books. That is the only way we even know they existed is because some writer mentions them. Those books themselves are completely lost; destroyed by an angry antagonism against education and knowledge.

According to Mr. Cahill, much of civilization preserved was thanks to Monasteries in Ireland. Ireland was at the edge of the continent, away from the big cities and natural resources that made other places targets for invasion. They didn’t entirely escape the ransacking, but they were more isolated than other areas.

Those quiet monks, keeping to themselves, kept a low profile but continued on with their mission of supporting the church and spreading Christianity, even in the face of ridicule and hostility and entrenched ‘old ways’ of religion.

One of the important missions of the monasteries was copying books; both sacred and mundane. What we refer to as The Dark Ages began a thousand years before the invention of the printing press. If you wanted a copy of a book, someone had to write that copy, by hand. And that is the business many of the monasteries engaged in to support themselves. They copied the Bible more than anything else, but they copied lots of other books, as well. The Brother Xerox Copying service would copy whatever the paying customer wanted copied. In addition to The Church, wealthy people, kings and princes also wanted books copied.

Some king finds a book he wants copied; he borrows the book, takes it to the monastery and they make a copy for him. If it was deemed worthy, they might also make a copy for their own libraries at the same time.  They opened their monasteries to noble and commoner alike who sought to learn. If you come in peace, come with an open heart and mind, then you are welcome to sit and read and learn. And so the Irish monasteries preserved not only the tradition of books and writing, but also the tradition of reading and education.

Chaos and anarchy roared across Europe; once-stable institutions attacked, torn down, cities and libraries reduced to empty rubble; civilization collapsing.

In the middle of that collapse, the monks in Ireland quietly go on preserving, copying, keeping safe a legacy for the time when it might once again be safe to re-emerge and civilization to re-appear. The Irish monasteries had their share of invasions and looting. And I just wonder what that encounter would have been like. The Goths are at the gates of the monastery, looking for whatever is valuable enough to build this strong keep far away from the city, to staff it with men. They must have thought whatever is here must be priceless. Can you imagine how disappointed and befuddled the invaders must have been when they finally broke into the most secure of the vaults of the monasteries, prepared to loot the treasury and they find….. books.

They came looking for gold and silver; precious holy artifacts that could be melted down into treasure. But instead, books. What value are books to a looter who can’t read? How foolish they must have thought those monks to be, guarding these useless books as if they were valuable. Did they ridicule the monks for protecting these useless stacks of paper? Did they convince themselves of their own superiority as they killed the scribes and burned their libraries? Did they chase the librarian as he ran out the back way, through the snow, carrying as many of the precious volumes as he could? Did those invaders have any clue as to how precious the books the monks were trying to preserve?

In a season of chaos and a celebration of ignorance, the Irish monks kept on with their task; preserving for a future they could not yet see, but setting the world to be ready when the season for learning would once again come.

Now that we have had our first killing frost, gardening season has shifted from growth time and harvest into the resting time of winter. Some of us have been plucking flower heads, digging through tomato mush and pumpkin pulp, washing and drying the seeds, carefully storing those tiny seeds as investments in next spring. Here in Iowa it would be foolish to plant most of those seeds now. It is too cold; most of them won’t survive the winter. Instead, like Monks in Ireland, we store, preserve, ready to grow copies of our favorite plants next spring. Growth is not now; growth is for later, but there is work to do now in order to be ready for later.

Even when it doesn’t feel as if you are winning, you keep on doing those things which you know will help your faith to grow. You keep on doing those things which show your love for God and your love for your neighbor. Even when it doesn’t bring visible signs of success, or even acceptance, you keep on following Christ. Even when they ridicule you, arrest and beat you, or worst, ignore you; you keep living in that way that loves God with all you have and loves your neighbor as if they were kin.

I wish that we were in that summer season, where every word planted by the Church sprouts and brings about a bumper harvest; where the church was full again, with all the problems success and growth bring. I don’t think that is where we will wake up in the morning. The Church, written larger, as well as Zion Church, are in a time where success by numbers is hard to find.

The other part of this truth is that we are not Church only for our moment in time. We are one chapter of Church that extends for two thousand years. Part of our mission is collect, preserve, and transmit the faith to generations not yet born.

An important part of our work is making sure the Christian story is available to future generations. Warren Buffet says, “Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.”

You and I are the beneficiaries of those Irish monks from fifteen hundred years ago, and of the Reverend John Zimmerman, first pastor of Zion German Evangelical Church here; and David Michael, and Gary Chapman, and Jane Willan, and other pastors who worked here, teaching, transmitting, preserving so that you are now receiving this worship time. These few I have listed represent all of the workers, clergy and lay members who kept the faith so that you may benefit from it today.

Some missions take generations to accomplish. Great cathedrals take several generations, decades, sometimes a century or more to finish. Reinhold Niebuhr said “Nothing worth doing can be achieved in one lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.” Part of our mission is for the future; even when the present seems unwelcoming, even hostile.

That does not mean we abandon our missions. We are doing important work here at Zion. We are feeding hungry neighbors, helping with utility bills and rent and bus tickets. And we are feeding hungry spirits, even when we are not physically gathered in this place. In fact, in a very odd, maybe I should say very God-thing, being forced to move worship online has brought some unexpected benefits. Being online, we are being watched by lots of people who were not here in person before. Every week, the worship service is viewed by two to three hundred people. We know from the comments that many of you who are watching live far away. And we know that we are reaching hearts with Zion’s message about following Christ in our lives. We know that we are creating a virtual space where faith can be fostered and grow stronger. We are in a quiet moment, but we continue our mission just the same.

I want to thank all of you who are continuing to support our work together as Zion Church. Many of you have given us estimates of how you expect to support our work together next year. That is very helpful as we plan a challenging budget. If you have already sent us an estimate of giving; thank you! If that is something you think you will probably do but haven’t gotten around to yet, would you please go ahead and send us that information?  If you have never done that before, but you have been thinking you should support our work together as Zion, then I ask you to give us your best estimate of what that support might look like in 2021. We aren’t asking for some iron-clad contract, we know that circumstances change and what you had hoped to do changes, but it is helpful to have those estimates as we plan.

Even in this season when it can feel as if the tide of things is moving against the values of Christ, and preaching God’s love, compassion, and justice can feel like shouting into the hurricane storm, we keep on doing our work. Like those quiet Irish monks, we keep on doing our part, even when it doesn’t seem like the accepted, popular thing to do. Even when our way of following Christ is met with apathy or even ridicule, we keep on doing the right things.

Winter may be coming, but even now we preserve and protect, keep on with the work of enriching the garden so that when spring comes (and spring always does come, eventually), we will be here, ready—soil prepared, seeds on the shelf, ready to plant when the ground is once again ready to receive it and nourish tender seeds into bounteous harvest once again.

Hear again those words from the Psalmist:

I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old,

things that we have heard and known, that our ancestors have told us.

We will not hide them from their children; we will tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done.

Will you pray with me?

Eternal God, your children are of such a temporal nature, we need reminding that your timetables are not ours; that your view of eternity stretches far beyond our narrow vision. Guard our tongues that our wounded feelings not allow to escape hurtful words that will linger longer than any vote. Grant us the wisdom to imagine longer missions than our own lifespans; Make us bold to keep on telling to the coming generations the stories of your glorious deeds; to boldly proclaim your love for all, even in seasons of division and anger and hostility. When we feel ourselves lost in the wilderness, surrounded by ridicule and resentment, keep us to our missions, let us not lose hope. Grant us patience to keep on proclaiming the light of your divine love even in the darkness, that we might know the peace that comes from living as children of yours. For the sake of Your Son Jesus, hear our prayer. AMEN

[1][1] “How the Irish Saved Civilization” © 1995 by Thomas Cahill. Originally pub. By Doubleday. 941.501

Worship October 11, Zion UCC

19th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 23

Call to Worship (from Psalm 106)

L: Praise God!

P: O give thanks to God, who is SO good; whose steadfast love endures forever.

L: Who can list all the mighty doings of God, or declare enough of praise?

P: Blessed are those who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times.

L: Save us from ourselves, O God; and gather us from every nation, that we may give thanks to your holy name and glory to your name.

P: Blessed be God, who is from everlasting to everlasting. Praise God, and let all the people say, AMEN


[1]Glorious God! You invite us to assemble our spirits together, even while our bodies remain distant from one another. You draw us into spiritual unity, calling us to step away from the idols we have created to take your place. When we are together in spirit, we sense that nothing else in life substitutes for a vital relationship with You. All the mysteries of the universe are in your hands, and yet you have made yourself known among the peoples of this earth. We catch glimpses of your handiwork in Creation and we are awed. Touch us into healing and wholeness. Renew, remake us in the image of Christ, that we might change the world around us. AMEN

Youth Time (me) Nicodemus and his flashlight; need some light to find your way

Special Music

Call to Confession

God is not fooled by fancy words, elaborate rituals, or towering spires. God sees our fascinations with the golden calves of culture- pastimes and possessions that engulf our attention and resources every day until we are so thoroughly immersed in lusts and greeds and envies that we have lost sight of all that is godly and complete. We bring our petitions to God, seeking after a fresh start.

Prayer of Confession

God of mercy, you have planted within us a desire to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with you. We want to be fair and honorable, delighting in life lived openly and honestly, but we are distracted by the temporary thrills and expediencies. Restore our sight that we might see your path, loving God, and return to follow it. Save us from ourselves.

Assurance of Pardon

God is always near. Our supplications are heard as clearly as our thanksgivings. Know that the peace of God which surpasses all our understandings, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Your desire to do good pleases God. Find joyous focus for life in all that is honorable, just, pure, and excellent. Go in joyous assurance that God’s love for you is unstoppable.

Pastoral Prayer

Tomorrow is October 12, a date we remember because in 1492, Christopher Columbus “Discovered” America. Except, discover isn’t exactly the right word, is it? Columbus didn’t know these two continents were here, but they were not undiscovered; there were 50 million people living in North and South America when he sailed up. To say you discovered something that 50 million people are already living in is a bit like saying you just discovered California. Even so, having Europe become aware of the Americas most definitely changed history for these two continents.

Thinking about discovering something that lots of people already know about… today, the day before the day we remember Columbus and his ‘discovery’ is National Coming Out Day. It has been since 1988.

It’s a day for ‘discovering’ or uncovering realities which some people already know about.

Coming Out to your friends and family is like a voyage of discovery in some ways; it is a venture into unsailed waters, you don’t know for sure how things will go, you know that once you go there, some things will never be the same again.

But you also know that where you were is no longer acceptable.

You need friends to be with you when you sail off to discover, or uncover truths about your life. You need a safe harbor, a place you can begin that process where you know you will be protected. Zion United Church of Christ is one safe harbor; one place where we openly announce that you are welcome here; whatever your orientation or expression, you are safe to be who God made you to be. and from here, you can sail into unsailed waters to discover where God might send you.

Today, a day for proclaiming your deepest self; tomorrow, a day for remembering that sometimes discovery means you found out something that millions of people already knew.

God, whose wisdom no one can own,

whose love no one can limit,

gives a blessing

no one can take away[2].

God of bounding mains and open plains, of galaxies uncountable; open our eyes that we may discover Your presence as near as our own breath. Make us aware that our deepest, darkest secrets are not secret from you; and they do not reduce, in any measure, your love for us. Make us bold to own who we are before you; and know that your love for us is not diminished.

Hear us as we pray for those who live in fear of being found; for those whose stands for righteousness are threatened by terrorists and thugs. Teach us to respect life, and teach us that our rights are always paired with responsibilities toward others. Teach us to redefine what we mean by ‘family’ until we see others as you see them; all of us children of yours.

Hear us as we pray for our friends and loved ones who are grieving—grieving the death of loved ones; grieving the loss of jobs and a sense of security, loss of the joys of mingling and elbow-rubbing. Grant us patience, tender God, that we may ride out this viral storm until it be safe again to hug and be hugged.

Render healing for those we lift before you, healing God. Renew strength, restore hope, return our loved ones to home and hearth and heart and family.

Make us bold to speak of our faith, to show others how we live as followers of Christ, to proclaim and protest and proactively preach from rooftops and street corners, from social media and coffee shops, that You are the God of infinite love, that all Creation are your children, no matter what continent they call home, no matter what color their skin, nor whom they love, nor how they pray—all are children of Yours, and worthy of your love and our care.

Teach us how to live the prayer your Son Jesus taught our lips to pray:

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. AMEN

Scripture: Philippians 4:1-9

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.

I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.


“Fill the Tank”

October 11, 2020

Zion UCC, Burlington, IA

  • whatever is true,
  • whatever is honorable,
  • whatever is just,
  • whatever is pure,
  • whatever is pleasing,
  • whatever is commendable,
  • if there is any excellence and if there is
  • anything worthy of praise,
  • think about these things. 
  • Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

Lives flooded with negatives; television, social media, drive down the street and see flags of hostility and aggression waving. Armed white supremacist domestic terrorist groups plotting to storm the Michigan Statehouse, taking hostages; a coup of a state, planning to ‘try’ the Governor for treason, to kill people. We are seeing meanness, hostility, racism, insults everywhere. Every time you absorb another one of these points of shame, even when they don’t change your opinion, your own spirit is diminished, made dingier, more negative; made smaller, pushed further from the imitation of Christ.  With the barrage of hostility, anger, negativity on every side, it is hard not to focus on those distractions.

And what you focus on, you get more of. Are you aware of this? Whatever you search for, you will get ads for in social media. Try this experiment. Pick some item or idea you have never searched for before. Maybe women’s shoes or camping supplies. Search for that in Google. See how long it takes before your social media feed is flooded with ads for that very product you just searched. That is not a coincidence; you are being targeted by what you are searching for. The same works for your responses. If you click ‘like’ or comment on a white supremacist post, you will suddenly be seeing more just like it. If you react to a social media post about a Catholic shrine, you will see more Facebook posts about that. Whatever you focus on, you will get more of. Not accidental; deliberate. And it drives your confirmation bias to more and more narrow, less and less accurate.

When you are surrounded by the loudest voices insisting that you focus on the negativity, you can miss that which is pure and honorable also in your midst.

So, maybe my first step needs to be selecting what images and words and thoughts I allow in. Making that happen might include turning off the evening news; it might even mean that I stop following a friend or a relative on social media in order to minimize the amount of hatred and negativity I am absorbing. It might mean substituting more time reading the Bible and devotional materials instead of Facebook or twitter or Fox. Deliberately choosing my sources for what words and ideas I load into my psyche.

Where will I be able to see something true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, worthy of praise? Go there; spend more time in those worthy sources.

At the end of Paul’s list of positive things to focus on comes the next step. OK, great, we have been focusing on these things. Now what?

Well, two next steps . One is, now that you have begun to see these positive things around you; think about them.

What would the next steps be to move from the symbolic table of the Lord’s Supper, out into the world to make that feast a reality? If lack of sufficient food, or lack of adequate income for people to pay their rent or utility bills is a symptom of the larger problem, then what would a treatment look like? Something more than a band-aid; but a way that leads out of poverty? Some kind of a bridge into a life that is sustainable? And where could I play a part in that effort?

Last week, CBS interviewed a man in Atlanta who looked around the dilapidated neighborhood where he had grown up. He saw abandoned, falling down houses, empty store-fronts, high rates of crime. He thought about what would be true and honorable and commendable in his neighborhood.

The question of “What SHOULD this neighborhood look like?” was easy—houses should be occupied, clean, well kept; stores should be busy, providing convenient access to shopping for the neighbors and  producing a living for the owners.

Thinking about what it should look like though, he realized that was an outcome; the steps toward that hope looked different.

Happy, well-kept homes are often owner-occupied. But banks don’t loan money to buy houses in run-down areas. So, he bought up the abandoned properties, fixed them up, and then sold them, at below-market prices, to families who would live in those homes, strengthen the neighborhood. He is doing the same thing to the retail space, making a way for small family businesses which will sell to the neighborhood.

He realized that thinking about how the neighborhood should look was not enough; he needed to act. One key piece was the lack of financing, and he was able to arrange that. Seeing; thinking about; doing.

Then, keep on doing… seeing is important; focusing shows you more of the world around you; thinking about them moves you along, but then you have to step outside your own mind and do. What brings Paul’s instruction to life is in the doing.

Isn’t it lovely to see and contemplate that which is true and honorable and lovely? But as long as it remains within you, it’s like a secret garden, lovely for you to look at, but no one else can see it. You have seen and contemplated what is commendable and worthy of praise, honorable… now extend that to the world around you. when the sewage flood of negativity comes at you, rather than respond with your own hate-filled flood, do something positive.

Saw on social media last week, someone posted that what this country needs is Jesus. I couldn’t agree more. But that alone, confessing faith in Christ alone while remaining prim and clean in our little pews, is not nearly enough. The country needs Christ; to be sure. The world needs that message from God. But the good thoughts and right attitudes are not enough.

Write; Each of those phrases as a heading; every day write 3 things in each category; ie 3 things that are true; 3 that are honorable; just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent.

If you really want to supercharge that; write a note (yes, a real note, on paper, in an envelope with a stamp), and mail it to the people. “Dear Sir or Madam, on Tuesday, I noticed you doing…… it is rare to find someone actually doing something as commendable as you did. So here  I am, commending you. thank you; I hope this encourages you to keep on doing commendable things. I guarantee you, the results will amaze you and quite possibly change your life in ways you cannot imagine.

Then, as your eyes are opened to see these commendable things around you;

You imitate them; you keep on doing true, pure, honorable, commendable things… even if no one else sees you do it.

When you go to the grocery, return that cart someone left out in the parking spot. If you have the courage to eat lunch out, order the water instead of soda; give the table server what you would have spent on the soda in addition to a nice tip. Make their day.

What our neighbors need are hands and feet and hearts and hugs that DO the work of Christ in the world. It is not enough to sit on the couch and say, all God’s children are beloved. Sometimes, you have to put on your shoes and your mask and march to proclaim to the world that Black Lives Matter as much as any others, and demand in the name of God that systemic racism be acknowledged and scrubbed from our culture. Treating some groups in the culture differently than others is not the will of God; and it will not be solved by sitting on your couch.

It is hard to avoid being distracted by all the flood of negativity. So much of it surrounds us, not matter how hard we try, we just can’t filter all of it out. It is important to try; to work at not being distracted from what is important by that which screams it is urgent. Difficult, not impossible.

We continue to focus on that which is true and honorable, just and pure, commendable and excellent; indicators of the presence of God. We tune our ears to hear those elements. We ponder their meaning for our lives, and we ask ourselves what needs to be done to bring those positive elements to the forefront. Then we ask ourselves, what is my part in that? What can I do to advance that kindom of love and compassion? There we find life’s true mission, and God’s great challenge. There we find life—abundant, exciting, fulfilling, and eternal.

Invitation to Offering

Stewardship is more than paying the bills at Church. Stewardship is a Spiritual Discipline, an engagement between you and God, in which you acknowledge God’s presence and importance in your life, and dedicate a proportion of what you have back to God, who is the ultimate source of all we have. We invite you to designate Zion Church as one receiver of your stewardship before God. You may donate to Zion in a few ways. You can mail or drop checks by the Church Office of course, or you can go to the Church website: zionuccburlington.org and look for the “Donate” button, where you will be able to make a secure donation through PayPal. Thank you for your support of Zion Church. Together, we are changing lives.

Prayer of Dedication

May our offerings help prepare many to feast at your table, gracious God. May our generosity reflect the amazing abundance you entrust to our care. As we find joy in giving, may others be inspired to give their best, and may all of us realize your peace dwelling within us as we serve in the name of Christ. AMEN


[1] Invocation, Call to Confession, Prayer of Confession, Assurance of Pardon, and Prayer of Dedication Broadly adapted from “Taught By Love” by Lavon Bayler, © 1998 by United Church Press.

[2] Maren Tirabassi, from “Psalm 133 for Coming Out Day”

“Scraped from the Bottom of a Shoe” also known as, “Yesterday’s News”

Wells Fargo CEO Charlie Scharf told the truth and unintentionally exposed the root of the problem yesterday. Defending the abysmally small number of African-American employees at Wells Fargo (4.1%), Scharf said it was because of “a very limited talent pool.” To me that sounds like the lynch mob blaming its victim for not bringing a chair to stand on. Here’s a notion, Mr. Scharf: let Wells Fargo spend some of that fancy advertising budget deliberately mentoring persons of color and cultivate your own rich talent pool.

According to Business Insider mag: “Here’s a breakdown of Scharf’s salary package at Wells Fargo: $2.5 million base salary. $5 million target cash bonus. $15.5 million in equity. $26 million Wells Fargo stock, in lieu of awards he will forfeit for leaving his job at BNY Mellon.”

That cash bonus alone could fund Fifty $100,000 starter positions if they were serious about growing a talent pool.

Four percent is embarrassing, but information company Cisco has NO Black people on its executive leadership team. They have pledged to increase the number of Black persons in entry-level management positions to 25% within three years. The report I read did not divulge an amount of money budgeted for the effort. Announced goals not backed up by effort and money are smoke rings on a windy day.

Citi has budgeted over $1Billion dollars for initiatives to close the racial wealth gap. They will spend this money investing in Black-owned businesses, boosting credit access in communities of color, and helping increase Black homeownership.

And the one business/racial item you probably did hear: Mars (food company) is dropping its Uncle Ben label from its rice products. It will also retire the image. The brand will be renamed Ben’s Original.

Also yesterday, California Governor Gavin Newsom issued an executive order that would ban the sale of new gasoline-powered cars in the state by 2035. Here in the US, where the fossil fuel industry owns the federal government, this will be portrayed as catastrophic and unrealistic, but 15 nations have already passed similar laws. All the auto manufacturers have been working toward this for decades.

Ford Motor Company released a statement saying it’s “proud to stand with California,” noting it’s in the process of trying to “electrify our most iconic nameplates like the F-150 (pickup truck) and the Mustang Mach E.”

Also yesterday, Volkswagen announced its new all electric SUV  for the U.S. market. The ID 4 costs just under $40,000

15 Ways to Cheat at Arguing

Productive and Unproductive Argument

Many voices from all along the political spectrum are sickened and discouraged by the loss of civility in public discourse today. We DO have legitimate problems as a society, and there are varieties of approaches to find solutions. There are legitimate, honest, productive ways for persons of various perspectives to work together to seek best solutions that work for the most people. There are three classically accepted criteria for an argument to be good.

  1. First, the premises must be plausible; that is, there must be good reason to believe that the premises as presented are true.
  2. Second, the argument must be valid and strong.
  3. Third, the premises must be more plausible than the conclusion.

Unfortunately, those are not the tactics most often used in our current climate. Instead, what we see most often are false argument tactics. These fifteen argument fallacies have been understood since the Classical Greeks, centuries before the birth of Christ.

In case it has been a while since your last rhetoric class, here are the fifteen fallacies and brief explanations. You could make a game of this for yourself. Armed with this list, listen to political speeches. Check them off as the speakers use these illegitimate methods to discredit the arguments of their opponents.

  1. Ad Hominem
    1. Insulting or attacking the person instead of attending to the issue being argued. “Crooked Hillary” or “Cheeto Jesus” are ad hominem attacks. They add nothing to the question being debated. When a disagreement sinks into ad hominem attack, it is no longer a debate about issues, it is a fight.
  2. Strawman Argument
    1. Attacking a position the opponent does not actually hold. “Democrats want to disband all Police departments, so helpless little old ladies will be attacked in their homes and no one will be there to answer their 911 calls.” When you construct your opponent’s case out of straw, it is much easier to knock down.
  3. Appeal to Ignorance
    1. If you don’t know everything, you must not know anything. “Scientists don’t know anything about this Corona virus. One day they tell you masks don’t matter, the next day they tell you everyone must wear a mask. They don’t know anything.” Since the guy who has spent 50 years studying the science says he doesn’t have all the answers, you should instead listen to your neighbor across the alley who didn’t finish high school.
  4. False Dilemma, False Dichotomy
    1. Defining an issue as either-or, or black-white. “Either we spend all our money on missiles, or our enemies will attack us tomorrow.” Issues are almost never this clear-cut or simple. This fallacy is designed to polarize the audience, forcing them to choose between two camps.
  5. Slippery Slope Fallacy
    1. A chain of causes that moves from a seemingly benign beginning to an improbable extreme. Think about the monologue/song in Music Man, “Ya Got Trouble (right here in River City)” that links the playing of pool to the total destruction of the youth in the town. The first big step on the road To the depths of deg-ra-Day– I say, first, medicinal wine from a teaspoon, Then beer from a bottle. An’ the next thing ya know, Your son is playin’ for money In a pinch-back suit. And list’nin to some big out-a-town Jasper Here to tell him all about horse-race gamblin’. Not a wholesome trottin’ race, no! But a race where they set down right on the horse!
  6. Circular Argument
    1. An argument that seeks to prove its truth by repeating what is already assumed. “The Bible is True because it says so in the Bible.”
  7. Hasty Generalization
    1. A position stated without sufficient evidence. “Democrats never agree with Republicans.” Words like “Always” and “Never” are clues that a hasty generalization is being put forward.
  8. Red Herring Fallacy
    1. A distraction from an argument by inserting a sentiment that is not relevant. Ex: To Person A: “Why did you order federal troops into a city when no official there requested them?” Response: “Well, what about Person B’s emails?”
  9. Tu Quoque
    1. A diversionary tactic, distracting from one person by pointing out the hypocrisy of the other. Hypocrites can tell the truth, too. Ex: defending the slave trade in the Americas by arguing that blacks in Africa were also guilty of capturing and selling black people into slavery. More guilty parties does not make any of them less guilty; it attempts to distract from the issue at hand of white involvement in the enslavement of black people.
  10. Causal Fallacy
    1. Correlation does not prove causation. “This” happened, then “that” happened does not prove that ‘this’ caused ‘that.’ Walking under a ladder brings bad luck? Letter to the DNR: “You really should move that ‘Deer Crossing’ Sign. That’s a very busy stretch of road. You should put the deer crossing somewhere else where there is less traffic.
  11. Fallacy of Sunk Costs
    1. When much time, money, and blood has been spent on a project that turns out to be an error, yet you are reluctant to abandon the project because you have so much invested in it. This was an argument used in Vietnam. “If we pull out now, every American soldier killed there will have been futile.” Another way to look at it: “When you find you have dug yourself a hole, stop digging.”
  12. Appeal to Authority
    1. “Four out of five dentists agree…” is an appeal to authority. Just because a person has an M.D. and puts on a white coat does not mean they know anything about epidemiology. A podiatrist is an authority, but don’t ask them for an opinion about psychiatry. A false use of authority argument is using people who are not authorities in the field in question.
  13. Equivocation
    1. Using words to mislead. “The Democrats want to raise your taxes and spend it on big government, but my party will use revenue enhancement for strategic federal investment in critical programs.”
  14. Appeal to Pity
    1. Emotional blackmail “How could you eat that innocent little tomato? It was yanked violently from its plant, scalded with live steam to peel off its skin, boiled alive in a can, and now you are going to eat it? It hasn’t done anything to you. How could you be so cruel and thoughtless?” Truth and falsity are not matters of emotion, they are matters of fact.
  15. Bandwagon Fallacy
    1. This fallacy assumes that popularity indicates truth. Consider “The Bench Scene” from the movie “Men in Black © 1997.” (Look it up on Youtube). “Fifteen hundred years ago, everybody KNEW the earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody KNEW the earth was flat. Fifteen minutes ago, you KNEW that people are alone on this planet. Imagine what you will know tomorrow.” Just because EVERYBODY is on this bandwagon doesn’t make it the right bandwagon. And, of course, if it was actually true that 100% of all people were on the same bandwagon of an issue, there would be no argument. The very fact that the debate is happening is evidence that not everyone is on the same bandwagon.

Happy Arguing!

A Quarter Century

It is hard to imagine. Twenty-five years ago, August 6, 1995, I sat sweltering  in an unairconditioned church sanctuary in Crossville, Tennessee, surrounded by a dozen other equally overheated clergy, all of us in our clerical gear, sweating our way through a service of ordination. Phil Summerlin delivered the homily. He began by saying he had never preached an ordination sermon on the text I had chosen. It was Matthew 25:31-46.

Most people read that as a judgment passage. It is the longest exposition recorded of Jesus speaking about final judgment. Some of you may wish to pause here to go look up the passage. Others will remember it well enough that if I tell you it is about separating the peoples like a shepherd separates sheep and goats. Some sent this way for everlasting torment; others sent that way for everlasting praise and celebration. Most people read that as being about Final Judgment of the World. Since the age of 13, I have read it as a call to ministry.

In this passage, Jesus says, I was hungry/thirsty/sick/in prison, and you did or did not attend to my needs. And based on your action or lack of action you will be judged.

In the passage, both groups say the same thing: ‘When did we ever see you” hungry/thirsty/sick/ in prison,… ? Jesus answers, “Whenever you did (or did not) do this to the least of these, my brothers (siblings), you did (or did not) do it to me.”

The ultimate question: when you saw a need, what did you do about it? Did you make excuses, did you take advantage of someone vulnerable, or did you respond with what was needed?

I notice that there is no mention in this passage of holding membership in the correct church, or even of any church at all. There are no soaring creeds, no strait-laced pietistic doctrines, no hair-splitting Christologies. Just this: when you saw a fellow human being in need, how did you respond? Your response is as if you did or did not respond that way to Christ.

After seminary, having slogged my way through brain-befuddling theologies, Church history, doctrines and creeds, conflicts and ecclesiastical structures, after twenty-five years of service as an Ordained minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, it becomes more and more clear to me every passing year that this one passage lights  a pure and simple pathway. Theologians argue over microscopic differences, faithful people simply bring a cup of water to a thirsty fellow traveler.

Go thou and do this: treat every person you meet as if they are the Christ. Give water to the thirsty, feed the hungry, free the prisoners, protect the vulnerable, advocate for the voiceless, care for the weak and wounded. In this simple way of living lies the path to joy. And as far are you are able, invite others to join you in these acts of simple mercy.

Grace and peace,