Prayer, Lent 2

Rev. Craig Jan-McMahon
Windsor UCC
Lent 2B, 2/28/2019
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22:23-3
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Let us Pray: O Lord our God, hear our prayers, and send us your Spirit, that we might learn how to pray. 

We are here, waiting on you, O Lord, opening our hearts, praying for courage, listening for you in the silence

But in the silence, there is a lot of noise, hurtful voices echoing inside from the past, fears deafening us to your voice, distractions demanding our attention and sending our minds racing, anxieties and worries as familiar as friends we are afraid to let go of. 

And so we wait; and so we listen; and so we pray.

We pray for ourselves in this Lenten season, for courage to examine our hearts to find the noise and distractions that limit our capacity to listen, to feel compassion, to act with love.  

And we pray for the very real suffering that goes on all around us and invades our lives, and so we harden our hearts to protect ourselves, and so we hide behind judgments of others, and so we hide behind our sense of what others need to do to fix their problems.  

And so we lift our hearts to you, confessing our own brokenness, our own mutual need for healing, for pain that we have to locked deep inside our hearts because we believe we can hide it away there as if it will have no effect on us, as if it will have no effect on those we love, and because, somehow, foolishly, we think we need to pretend as if we can bear it alone, as if anyone can bear it alone.  

But then we are here, examining our hearts, promising again, to make good on our covenant with you, to walk with you into challenges and difficulties, denying ourselves, and walking with you by faith ever forward, never stopping, transformed and renewed all along the way.  

For we trust you do not despise our afflictions, nor do you hide your face from us, though we often feel misbegotten, unloved, and abandoned.

For we trust you promise to feed the poor, whose suffering we see multiplied before our eyes, and we pray they will be satisfied, and we ask, dear lord our God, for the honor of contributing to your good provision for the poor, for those who suffer hardships we cannot fathom, but which is known to you.  

Clean our hearts O God, 
And renew a right spirit within us.  

And our great congregation will praise you, with freedom borne of humility, and with strength founded in repentance, our hearts broken open by love.  

Into your hands we commend all those for whom we pray, trusting in your mercy, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  

Humility is Freedom

Rev. Craig Jan-McMahon
Windsor UCC
Ash Wednesday; 2/17/2021
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
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We turn from the outward Epiphany journey of looking for the light that comes not from within, but from without, to begin the inward journey of Lent, examining our own hearts, sitting with deep questions, confessing that our intentions have not been pure and our desires often lead us astray, invisibly, and without our consent.

Our guide these forty days is the prayer of the 51st Psalm, a prayer I cannot pray for you and you cannot pray for me and we cannot pray for each other,  a prayer we each have to pray for ourselves, for the answer is found within.

Give me a clean heart, O God
And renew a right Spirit in me.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts, be pleasing in your sight, O Lord our Rock, and our Redeemer.  Amen.

I have been called a hypocrite so many times by the people I most love that I wonder sometimes if it is my middle name.  

When I try to explain that their use of the word and idea of hypocrite is misplaced, that in calling me a hypocrite they are themselves hypocrites, their audible eyerolls drown out my noble efforts to disabuse them of their error.  

I have adopted an alternative strategy of saying, “Yes, I am a hypocrite, and I am grateful for your help seeing what is so obvious to you but which I cannot see in myself.”

Yet, I would like to rescue the word Hypocrite, as we find in scripture, from how this word is commonly used.  

People use it to day to name those who say one thing and do another, a person who fails to live up to the ideals she professes. This sense of hypocrisy can be seen in our gospel lesson, people who perform their piety in order to be seen by others, their motivation not coming from within themselves, not expressing their inner journey, but rather looking out for the approval of others. 

In this sense, the modern idea of hypocrisy is consistent with scripture to describe those who say and do things in public that are belied by what they do in private.

But those Jesus condemns in the gospels, those he points to as counter-examples for us are a particular sort of person common but not limited to religious communities, those who elevate themselves by criticizing others, by putting others down.

Religious people are especially good at this, their belief that they have been chosen or have found the truth sometimes causing them to look at others and see them as lesser than, failing to recognize this vision of others expresses their inner souls, for we only love God as much as the person we love the least.  

The idea of hypocrisy in the gospels comes from Greek actors playing a part on stage, who pretended to be something they were not.

The person who practices his piety in the public square is merely pretending, he has not opened his inner heart to God, has not prayed in private, has come to understand his own failings, does not yet see that his sins are as visible to others as theirs are to him: the result, an utter lack of humility. 

Humility is often referred to in scripture and fear of the Lord, an idea rather out of fashion, but fear in this sense is humility borne of self-understanding, awareness of our own blindness and deafness and need of help, a confession that we live in the broken world we have ourselves created.

But humility is freedom.

Freedom from those who elevate themselves above us by criticizing us for trying our best and for often failing, freedom from shame that says we are wrong and unworthy, freedom from the anxiety that comes from trying to be perfect, freedom from following the rules of expectations no human can meet, freedom from the need to pretend for others 

Why then do we pretend? 

Because it is so much easier, I think, so much easier to focus on the sins and failings of others rather than confess our own sins and failings, easier to pretend as if we have the answers and can tell other people what to do than to work with them and fail with them and learn with them, easier to demand that others meet our expectations than to hope together with them.

But the easier way is not the right way, and the easier way is not the way Jesus follows. Lent is not about the easier way anyway. 

To live real and authentic lives demands more of us than playing the parts we have been assigned and putting on the right face to please the crowd; it requires attending to our souls.  

As we embark on our Lenten Journey, I hope we will all see the work of Lent as leading us to freedom, as delivering from our own blindnesses, as an opportunity to practice humility in the world everyday, to do good things secretly, to make sacrifices daily to see how our desires  secretly control us.

And hope we will all pray this Lenten prayer when we rise in the morning, take breaks during the day, and lay down to sleep at night, each and every one of us praying this prayer at least three times a day every day these forty days:

Give me a clean heart, O God
And renew a right Spirit in me.

Give me a clean heart, O God
And renew a right Spirit in me

Give me a clean heart, O God
And renew a right Spirit in me

God bless you and your family,
God bless you on you Lenten Journey
God bless Windsor UCC. Amen

Friends are Sacred, To Befriend is Divine

Rev. Craig Jan-McMahon
Windsor UCC, 2/14/2021
Transfiguration Sunday
2 Kings 2:1-12 • Psalm 50:1-6 • Mark 9:2-9
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What songs come to mind when I say the following word:  Friend.

Is it: “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear….?”

If not a hymn, then maybe Simon and Garfunkel.

“When you’re down and out /When you’re on the street/ When evening falls so hard/ I will comfort you/ I’ll take your part/ Oh, when darkness comes/ And pain is all around/ Like a bridge over troubled water/ I will lay me down/ Like a bridge over troubled water/ I will lay me down.”

No?  Maybe the theme song from Friends.

“So no one told you life was gonna be this way/ Your job’s a joke, you’re broke/ our love life’s DOA/ It’s like you’re always stuck in second gear/ When it hasn’t been your day, your week, your month/ Or even your year, but/ I’ll be there for you/ (When the rain starts to pour)/ I’ll be there for you/ (Like I’ve been there before)/ I’ll be there for you/ (‘Cause you’re there for me too).”

It is no surprise that we sing that Jesus is our friend, for friends are sacred to us us–they are like bridges for us, they are there for us and we are there for them.  

Truth is, we can’t get through life without good friends, and hard times deepen the bonds of friendships and clarify the difference between true friends and mere acquaintances.  

We should not be surprised that like us, Jesus needs friends too, nor that God provides friends for him as God provides friends for us. 

And we would do well to look at Jesus’ ministry through the lens of friendship, for friends are sacred, and to befriend is divine.  

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts, be pleasing in your sight, O Lord our Rock, and our Redeemer.  Amen

True friends, more than anything else, are our equals. 

We share our lives with our friends, honest as we can be about our private struggles: celebrating together, making time and plans together, mostly agreeing about what is wrong with the world and with other people, learning how to avoid topics that will put too much strain on our friendship.  

I had a friend who used to say, “The problem with the world is that my perspective is unequally distributed in it.” 

Our friends tend to agree with our solutions to the world’s problems, which is a balm for when we feel bruised and lonely.  

Now more than ever, we are defined by our friends, by the people who are in our safety bubbles–friends are sacred because they make us feel safe and help us to see we are not alone in this wide world.  

Our experience in these hard times might help us to see that Jesus is in need of friends too, equals to him, to help him bridge from his ministry before the mountain top to his ministry after it, from establishing his authority and gathering a following to leading them down the mountain to contend with religious authorities and state power – all for the divine purpose of befriending the friendless.  

With the light of truth shining on the mountain top, Jesus is joined by Moses, the great liberator, and Elijah, the great prophet who escapes death.

They mark a turning point in his ministry as he descends the mountaintop and begins his journey to the next mountain he will climb, carrying a cross to liberate and to set us free once and for all, God resurrecting him after death.

The shining brilliant moment on the mountaintop is a moment of clear vision, when the clouds are lifted and the sun shines and we can see the way forward clearly–it is, more than anything, a moment of clear vision.

We see clearly who Jesus is when he is transfigured on the mountaintop, and we also see clearly that to follow Jesus means descending the mountain into the valley below.

He does not stay on the mountaintop, thank the good Lord, because if he did he we would not sing hymns of friendship, for friends do not hold themselves above us, look down from the mountain and tell us how to live our lives, but rather walk into the valleys with us, serving as bridges through hard times, there for us as we are there for them.  

The light shining from the mountain adds a deep challenge to the sacredness of our friendships, for friends can also hold us back and limit us from faithfully following Christ into the world, for as followers of Christ, our highest calling is to befriend the friendless.

There are times, as on the mountaintop, when this requires us to leave some of our friends behind.  

Moses and Elijah appear, and then vanish, as Jesus descends the mountain.  

Peter and James and John are not yet equals, but they follow after him confused and terrified and gain clarity later, when their eyes are opened, when the Spirit fills them with the power of the light revealed to them that day on the mountaintop.

The highpoint of my week is Thursday evening through Saturday morning, when my two little grandsons stay with us.

By Friday night, my wife and I are pretty well exhausted, so we have moved our normal tradition of having popcorn and ice cream for dinner on Sunday night to Friday night, much to the delight of our little fellas.

One of my jobs is to choose some music for us to listen to while we munch on popcorn. For the past few weeks I have been playing Neil Young for them because he sings as badly as I do, and the boys love my caterwauling:

One of these days/ I’m gonna sit down and write a long letter/ To all the good friends I’ve known/ One of these days, one of these days, one of these days/ And it won’t be long (it won’t be long), it won’t be long (it won’t be long)

This is a moment of clarity for me;  I think of my own grandparents who loved me so well, and though they are gone, I think I am writing them a long letter in how I love our boys.

But the song plays in mind, too, when I come into church to work, and think of all the good people who nurtured me in faith, who loved me enough to tell me when my anxieties were getting the better of me, who taught me to love Jesus and helped me find my way to pastoral ministry.

I wish I could write them a long letter, these good friends.

I hope I am writing a long letter to them in how I live my life and how I serve as your pastor.

And in this empty building on this bitterly cold Sunday, I know sacred friendships are holding us together.

Long lovely letters have been written in the lives of our congregation, in friendships over time that sustain us now and will serve as a bridge as we return to celebrate together, to mourn together, to be there for one another… for this is the sacred gift of friendship.

In all of this, one truth is a brilliant light of shining truth that gives us strength and unites us together.   

We are all called to the divine work of befriending the friendless; we follow Christ down the mountain, into the valley below, trusting always that God will provide friends for us when we walk by faith.  

God bless you and your sacred friends;
God bless you in you in your divine befriending;
And may God Bless Windsor UCC.

O Lord our God: We have followed you up to the mountain, and we have prepared ourselves to follow the way of  your son, but what are we to do and how are we to be?  

People look at us and expect us to be miracle workers, they expect us to pretend we ourselves do not struggle and are not ourselves confused, even as we confess our faith in you.  We long to accept we belong to you, we yearn to believe that you have given us enough to meet the demands of this present moment. 

Let us Pray.

With your disciples throughout time, we travel down the mountain into the valley unsure whether we are equal to the sacrifices you call us to make. With your disciples throughout time, we can look back and see how you have been faithful to us.  

You have given us your word and your law to bring order to our lives and to make of us a community, a people, called and chosen, set free to live and to serve.  

You have given us prophets to challenge us and to remind us that we are to bring good news to the downhearted and set the oppressed free. 

But what is your law for us today?  And what is your challenge for us in our time?

Hear us O God, and answer our prayers.  We pray for you word to inspire us, that we might be ruled by the freedom to which you call us, that we might be formed as a community that befriends strangers and aliens, a people faithful in our compassionate sharing and our willingness to be ruled by your grace.  

We pray for openness to challenge, for your light to shine in the shadows of fears threaten to posses us. 

Protect us from those who claim to be our friends but who hold themselves above us on their high mountains and deliver us from the sin of pretending that we are perfect and do not need to change, and give us courage to reflect your love for the friendless people in our world today who ignored, belittled, dismissed, hated, reviled, shamed, and imprisoned.  

As your Son is transfigured on the mountain, transfigure us also, that we may follow him into the valley without fear, that we might willingly sacrifice on the journey of salvation.

And We pray for those we love and those with whom we struggle, trusting that you hear prayers we do not have words to utter.

We remember today especially Monica Hernadez Sigfried, with prayers for her parents Scott and Charna Kelsey and their family; and we pray for members recovering from surgery.

Hold us with tenderness; grant us strength to endure and faith to thrive; give us courage, resilience, and decisiveness; and fill us with your Spirit no matter where we might travel; and reveal your vision to us, that we might see ourselves and others as your own beloved children, in Christ, united as one human family.

Into your hands we commend all those for whom we pray, trusting in your mercy, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Dreams and Visions

Rev. Craig Jan-McMahon
Windsor UCC, 1/31/202
B Epiphany +4
Annual Meeting; Reopening Survey Underway
Joel 2: 2, 6-9, 15-16, 19, 25-29; After all of this…
Acts 2:1-18: In the last days it will be..
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The prophet Joel speaks of an invading army and plagues assaulting the people of God, sounding very much like the political and social unrest of our day and the plague of this evolving coronavirus.  The prophet’s answer to the prevailing darkness is for all the people to repent and turn toward God, which they do, and God’s answer to them is timeless and changeless: mercy and compassion and inspiration: 

your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men and women shall see visions, and your old men and women shall dream dreams.

 The prophecy and visions and dreams of the people are God’s response to hardship.

On the day of Pentecost, huddled in fear, thinking the powers that crucified their Lord would unleash violence upon them, the disciples gather to pray, and the Holy Spirit rushes in, burning away their fears, uniting them in all of their striking differences, enabling them to understand one another though they come from different places and speak different languages, and in response to the scoffers who say they are merely drunk, Peter rises up to preach, quoting the prophet Joel: 

your children shall prophesy, your young men and women shall see visions, and your old men and women shall dream dreams.

Friends: it is time for prophetic visions and dreams.  

Let us Pray: May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of our hearts, be pleasing to you O God, our Rock, and our Redeemer.   Amen

In the past few weeks, I have endeavored to talk with you about our common calling, encouraging us to hear God calling us through these challenging times, calling us to open our hearts to the light that comes to us in the darkness, in dark times. 

This week, with our annual meeting scheduled to begin in a few minutes, I have been reflecting on the few months we have had together, though we have spent all of this time apart, plagued by the coronavirus.   

I break with my discipline of following the readings assigned to us by the lectionary to share with you my sense of how God is calling us individually and as a church.

We have two questions to answer with our lives and together as a church:

Who are we?

Where are we going together?

As I have repeatedly said, I cannot answer these questions for you individually nor for us as a church together, and yet we answer these two questions every day of our lives, either intentionally and purposefully, or unintentionally, dragged through time by fears or busyness or politics or obligations we are afraid to break.  

When we suffer hardships or invasions or plagues, says the Prophet, we are called to turn toward God, who is ready and waiting to lead and to guide us, to restore us with new visions of who we are in Christ, and to inspire dreams of our mission in the world.

As individuals, we experience the intentional answering of these questions as a sense of purpose and meaning, empowering us to move away from relationships and habits of despair that destroy the life within us, and toward the life God intends for us. 

As a congregation, we experience the intentional answering of these questions as an ability to make decisions, to thrive in our diversity, to learn and grow through hard times such as the one we are living in, and also through times when the demanding need for change press us to the breaking point.

Again and again I say: faith does not solve our problems, nor make everything easily work for us; faith is neither simple nor straightforward but is a lifelong relationship with God and neighbor, filled with mountains and valleys, hard times when nothing makes sense, and good times when we can see how everything works together for the greater good. 

Somehow, despite all the opposition prophets face and conflict they heighten, and despite the manifold failings of the disciples, still we see difficulties and struggles as a problem to be managed or solved rather than the challenges through which we meet God, in which we learn about ourselves, and because of which we form new, life giving relationships with our neighbors and also with those we have come to see as enemies.  

This is rather a lot to take in, so let me tell you a story.

Wednesday was a glorious snow day.

I got up early and got to work, so I would have time to snowshoe in fresh snow across lake Monona.

By the time I broke free, it was snowing a little; the wind was from the North by Northwest at about 10 mph. It is always windier on the lake. 

I set out to walk across the lake heading to South by Southeast, the wind at my back. 

I try to walk a straight line across the lake, a mile and half to a park on Winnequah Road. 

In the middle of the lake, the wind was howling. I began to notice open patches without snow, and I was afraid despite knowing better; it looked like open water to me.

I had seen someone riding a fat bike right down the middle of the lake a few days earlier.  I had seen ice fishers out there. In fact, there was a guy parasailing on a snowboard out there while I walked, and yet those patches of ice right out in the middle looked like open water to me. 

I imagined headlines: Local pastor falls through the ice, dies walking into open water….must have thought he could walk on water.  

I kept walking in a straight line as possible forcing myself not to avoid the open patches of ice and soon learned the howling wind had spirited away the snow: the open patches were  ice with the snow blown away.  

When my brain got over my fears, I began to see contours in the snow, high, drifting moguls and slick ice valleys. I began walking the easiest path I could find, slaloming my way on an easy path with the wind at my back, enjoying every minute of it.   

It was such a delight I started laughing right out loud.  

It was an Epiphany: that moment of sudden vision, when we see clearly what has been hidden by fears and habits or traditions or relationships that blind us, that moment of joyful freedom when what we now see is so apparent and obvious and easy.  

When I reached the park on Winnequah, my half-way point, I put down the ear flaps on my hat, put on my hood, zipped my coat up to my chin, and then turned North by Northwest into the teeth of the wind.

It had begun to snow in good earnest, and the wind whipped the snow on the lake into   white cloud slurry. I could not see the other side, and had to walk into the cloud slurry, led by my inner sense of direction.

I knew what direction I needed to go, but I could see only a few steps in front of me. 

My glasses fogged over; I couldn’t see a thing.

If there was an easy path, I couldn’t find it. I stumbled through high drifting snow and across treacherous patches of ice.   

The farther I got away from the shore and thus the closer to where I was going, the more unsure I became of my sense of direction.  

Fear got to me again.  

I began to worry about how close I was getting to where the Yahara river comes into the lake; I regretted not bringing my binoculars, thinking I could look out and find a landmark, though I could see only a few feet in front of me with or without binoculars.  

Finally, I remembered the wind was North by Northwest.  I got my bearings by walking against the wind, making sure I kept it pushing against me in the same place so I knew I was heading in the right direction. 

And then I had a second Epiphany.

It is easy to walk with the wind at my back and follow the path the wind makes across the snow, and it is easy to answer God’s call when things fall together and the way forward is clear and the footing is secure and the path is obvious.

But we also follow the wind by walking against it, the Spirit leading us forward into challenge and difficulty, and though following a headwind is hard work indeed, we sometimes are led by the Spirit to faithfully walk against the prevailing winds, finding our bearings, our sense of direction, by keeping steady against the wind.  

The easy way forward is not always the faithful way forward, nor is the absence of difficulty or challenge proof that we are heading in the right direction. 

I believe in the coming months, we will emerge from this plague; our old and our young will return to this sanctuary of God.  We will all do our very best to ensure all of our people are safe, knowing we will return by different paths and on different timelines, some of us with the wind at our backs, others with wind in our faces, but  all of us following the Spirit.    

It is time for us to do as Joel prophecies and Peter preaches, to begin dreaming together, young and old alike, to be united in a common vision of the Spirit, celebrating life and finding meaning in our diverse ways of living in the world, all of us finding our particular places in the world together.

It’s time for prophesy, for us to see our need to repent and turn again toward God, for courageous people to open their hearts to the truth the prophets have always called us to. to care for widows and orphans, to lift up the downhearted, to put the last first and give a seat at the head of the table to the least, to release the captives, to proclaim God’s favor.

It’s time for vision, for us to peer out into the future inspired by our faith that God has something in store for us so we can make decisions and work together, thriving in our differences, united in our faith that God is making a way for us. 

And it is time for us to dream, friends, it is time for us to dream, to dream Spirit-inspired dreams, not bound by the the narrow customs and traditions and comforts call such dreams drunken foolishness, for Spirit-filled dreams open us to the future God promises us, which always utterly transcends what we have known or can imagine to be possible, and exposes us to the sneering ridicule of sober doubters, which is something like walking into the wind.  

May God bless you, your family and your friends
May the Spirit inspire your dreams and grant you clear vision, 
And may God bless Windsor UCC

In the Belly of Paradox

Rev. Craig Jan-McMahon, Windsor UCC;
January 24, 2021; B Epiphany +3
First Sunday after the Inauguration; Sunday before Annual Meeting
Jonah 3:1-5, 10: The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time..
Psalm 62:5-12: On God rests my deliverance and my honor; my mighty rock, my refuge is in God.
1 Corinthians 7:29-31: For the present form of this world is passing away.
Mark 1:14-20: And immediately they left their nets and followed him.
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There are many times I wish I had easier things to say… times when I wish my role was only to soothe and comfort and celebrate, but we believe the truth sets us free.

Faith equips us to thrive through challenges we neither invite nor welcome, yet faith in God makes a way for us when we could not make a way by believing in ourselves and having faith in our own power.

Surely living in this pandemic is helping us to understand our faith in new ways; surely social unrest and domestic terrorism present unwelcome challenges to our faith, leading us to ask where is God in all of this, and in all of this how is God calling us to respond in faith?

These challenges are like Jonah’s whale, swallowing us up as we run away from God’s call on our lives only to find ourselves belched upon the seashore of our Ninevahs, answering God’s call despite our efforts to flee it, which, after all, is the story of faith we find again and again in scripture.

So friends, let us discern together what the disturbing and challenging call of God on our lives means for us in this time and this place.

Let us Pray
May the words of my mouth,
And the meditations of our hearts this day, 
Be pleasing to you,
O Lord our God:
Our Rock andOur Redeemer. 

Few writers capture the paradox of God’s call like the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, who says “like [Jonah] himself I find myself traveling toward my destiny in the belly of a paradox.”

In what seems self-contradictory and absurd lies a deeper reality and truth. 

In answering the call of God, Merton says, we discover our true selves, moving away from the false selves that emerge as we protect ourselves from people or social pressures or shame or dis-ease.  

The experience of opening ourselves to the call of God on our lives and moving away from the known into the unknown most often comes as a response to the personal crises we suffer, to traumas we experience alone and together.  

Merton’s understanding of call is hard won; his experience of depression was for him the belly of the whale; the paradox he names an experience common to us all–when we run away from God, or when we find ourselves swallowed up by the darkness, we find ourselves being carried toward God, though we do not know it at the time, and later come tell the story with wonder and gratitude.  

I often find myself struggling against the notion that the call of God is only about pastors, but this understanding of call is not what God intends for communities of believers, for we are all required to answer the call of God on our lives, to employ our gifts and give our time to the glory of God. Whether we are mechanical engineers or county workers or accountants, we are all called by God, and we are all responsible to struggle with the paradox of call.  

It is neither sufficient nor faithful to say “I don’t have time” or “I am too busy” or “I don’t’ want to get involved in church politics,” for the call of God is given to all of us and is not equal to all the other demands, and the paradox is that we have more time and more life and more of everything important and lasting when we ourselves as individuals and as a congregation accept our responsibility to answer the call of God on our lives.

In 1956, Richard Niebuhr wrote a book called “The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry.”

In 1956, Ike was President.

In 1956, the South was segregated.  

Way back then, there were four TV networks and families had only one phone number. 

The Korean War had ended and we were just getting involved in Vietnam.  

In 1956, we had yet to witness the assassinations of a president and a civil rights leader.  There were more. 

Back then Watergate was just a building in Washington, DC.

And in 1956 churches began adding on to their buildings for the post-war boom of children and families coming to church; in fact, our church undertook such a building project around this time. 

In 1956 and for years afterward the church as an institution was flush with resources: women who had not yet entered the workplace gave their time and energy to the church, serving on council and boards was a high honor; there were no traveling youth teams; playing sports on Sundays was unheard of, and businesses were closed on Sundays, so owners and employees could attend worship services.  

In short, the church was the center of American life and culture, and here lies the paradox: the world was changing, and the institutional church was called by God to change with it, through social upheavals, through rise of the civil rights movement, in the liberation of women.  The institutional church, however, most often did not find the call of God in these challenges, but rather saw the changing world as a threat to the institution.

The paradox of the call of God back then and today is that God prepares us for and calls us into these challenges at the very same time voices are raised up saying we should hold fast to what we already know and stand firm with what we already love, though to hold fast and to stand firm on what we have known in the past often prevents us from answering the call of God in our lives today.

Take for example the call of two sets of brothers, [Peter] and Andrew, James and John, who are mending their nets, preparing to go fishing.

There they are on the seashore, doubtless a short walk from home and hearth to the boats they have built or inherited that are the means by which they feed their families to earn a living;  

James and John are in fact working with their father, but Jesus comes along and calls them away from all of this into the unknown. James and John abandon their own father; [Peter], we know, has a mother-in-law and therefore a family of his own, whom he leaves behind when Jesus says, “follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” 

We cannot faithfully answer the call of God now or ever without leaving behind people and things we know and love, ways of understanding ourselves and others that have made sense in the past but no longer do, ways we structure our time and organize our lives and our work.

Answering God’s call and moving forward necessarily means leaving behind what we have known and loved and has held meaning for us in the past but have become burdens holding us back and limiting our ability to share the love of God with the least fortunate among us, for whom Christ died.

If I were a psychologist, I would offer a schema to help us see how the trauma and difficulty we are living through may lead us to respond in fear and turn inward and project our anxieties on others by demanding the world and everyone else change to match our longing for a time that is no more, but as a faith leader I have another message of hope to offer.

It is this paradox: within this suffering and within this challenge, inside of whatever hardship each of us may face, God is present calling us forward, nudging us to leave behind past things that hold us back, coaxing us into a future that will transcend what we have known in the past or could imagine for our future.

But this paradox of call is not easy, friends, and I cannot make it easy for us. 

When we say yes to call, when we step forward into the unknown, we discover our truest selves, and then paradoxically we then see the false selves we have put on for others, the ways we have pretended so as to protect false unity, the ways we have held back what we can give because we are worried how others will judge us.

All of these things we are called to leave behind, and when we leave them behind and follow Christ into the world there we find our true selves, who God calls us to be, who by faith we are becoming.  

God calls us away from relationships that force us to sacrifice our true selves; God calls us to leave behind habits that hurt us and those we love; God calls us into new power to love with life-giving integrity, making room for new life to emerge in us and in others;  for this is the structure and paradox of call, the structure and paradox of love, the structure and paradox of faith.  

If there were no paradox, if faith were solely about comfort, then faith would be altogether unnecessary, and we could merely follow the traditions of the past and serve our own comfort and tend to our own families and make time for God when it is convenient and agreeable and easy, 

But as we are more aware now than ever, life is challenging. Loving people when they are struggling and we can’t decide how much to help is really, really hard; and the world is changing in ways that leaves us wondering how we will manage the days ahead.

This is precisely the time when we become ready to answer the call of God on our lives.  

Yes, yes: I know what I am saying is completely paradoxical, it makes no sense except by faith.  

To accept what I am saying means admitting to a level of human vulnerability that terrifies us all, but in these challenging times–in the world, in our homes, at work, in the church–God is calling us to follow, to leave behind what limits and burdens us, and to move forward in faith that God will not merely make a way for us, but we will make us thrive and we will be renewed and through us God will provide hope for us and others, healing for us and others, reconciliation for us and others, because we are all part of this broken and hurting world.

May we all be open the paradox of God’s call on our lives, I pray, 
And may God bless you and your family and friends,
And May God bless Windsor UCC

Can We Tell the Truth about Call?

Rev. Craig Jan-McMahon
1/17/2021, Windsor UCC
Year B, 2nd Sunday after Epiphany
National Guard in Capitol; Threats of Violence in State Capitols; Inauguration in three days
1 Samuel 3:1-20 The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways
1 Corinthians 6:12-20 But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.
John 1:43-51 He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.”
Download PDF | Watch Video

Here we are again.

We are here recording on Thursday, not knowing how the world will change and change again before our words and music and prayers reach you on Sunday morning.

And yet we hear in our readings timeless words and stories, the lovely and rich call story of the last great prophet-leader of Israel, Samuel; the beautiful, poetic psalm of the inescapable love of God, the call of Philip and Nathanael, who are eager and primed and ready to answer the call to follow Christ.

Nothing I can say can speak more truth than the truth we find in these lovely stories, and yet these stories help us open ourselves to how God is calling us in these tumultuous times.  

We must protect ourselves from the delusion that serving God and answering the call of God on our lives solves all of our problems and allows us to stand apart and above the complex and endless troubles the human family ceaselessly makes, and so for a few brief moments, let us open our hearts and minds to the Spirit as we seek to answer the call of God on our lives in this time and place.

Let us Pray: May the words of my mouth,
And the meditations of our hearts this day, 
Be pleasing to you,
O Lord our God:Our Rock and Our Redeemer. 

In 2005, my last year in Seminary, I served at Samuel UCC in Clayton, MO.

It began at an Evangelical church, populated by German immigrants who came to America and built churches and orphanages and hospitals, and seminaries.  

Above the balcony, facing east so as to capture the light as sunrise, was a stained glass window of the call of Samuel.

The German Evangelicals who built the church and chose this story to inspire the congregation and to tell the world who they were as a people chose these words from the text we read this morning, for these words are the heart of this story:

Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.

This is, after all, the part of the story we most fondly recall, the part of the story where we say yes, the beginning of the journey, that moment of certainty and clarity when we see the truth and hear God’s call, a time or an event we look back on, turning points in our lives when we were forever changed.  

We often forget the struggle and difficulty that opens our hearts to the call of God on our lives and disremember how easy we thought our lives would be after that stunning brilliant moment.

“Here I am Lord. Speak for your Servant is Listening” are words we say when we encounter the end and limit of ourselves and experience the truth and the light of God, and what lies ahead of us when we open ourselves to the call of God on our lives?

Everything falls into place?

Everything just kind of works out without much work, without any conflict or difficulties?  

Pardon me, but where do we find such an easy road in scripture?

Certainly not in the story of the disciples when they answer Christ’s call to serve?

Nor the prophets who are harassed and dismissed and persecuted, whose prophetic vision is celebrated after they are dead and gone.  

And not in the story Samuel, his peaceful sleep disrupted by a voice he does not know how even to answer.  

Again and again he goes to the God he knows, Old Eli, and finally Eli understands this young and tender soul is himself hearing the voice of God calling him for the first time, the time has come for Samuel to answer for himself.

Let’s not pass over this moment too quickly, this transformation, for Eli tells Samuel to wait alone in the dark rather than running to him for guidance–the lamp of God had not yet gone out on Eli’s watch, we are told, as we see when Eli moves Samuel from depending on him to answering for himself to God who calls him in the night.  

And here we find the great danger and challenge of the call of God on our lives we prefer to forget, for the message given to Samuel is judgment against Eli and his house, an irrevocable judgment because he has allowed his sons to abuse their office and has failed to restrain them.  

Samuel hears God speak for the first time, and lays in bed through the night worrying about what to do next, afraid to tell Eli his vision, hoping he can just put it behind him and forget it, that Eli won’t remember to ask about it….

He rises in the morning to do his morning chores, opening the doors of the house of God, perhaps praying there will be a throng of worshippers to sweep in and distract Eli from talking with him.

We don’t often talk about the fear and regret that goes along with the call of God on our lives, when we see what sacrifices will be demanded of us, how our relationships will change, when we may well wonder, like Samuel, whether Eli will throw him out of the temple and disown him to protect himself and his sons.

How many times has someone we loved been trapped in addiction or abusive relationships or destructive patterns of behavior and are afraid like Samuel is for what happens next? For surely the devastation of addiction on lives is a form of God’s call for change. Surely the physical and emotional havoc of abuse is a form of God’s call for change. Surely the despair of being trapped in endless patterns of destructive behavior is a form of God’s call for change. Yet what comes next is always a step of faith into the unknown, and what comes next will surely be a feeling of fear and regret.

Friends, we have such a clear record in scripture.

Can we agree to tell the truth?

The Call of God is never easy on us, and it always demands just a bit more than we ourselves have resources to meet, 

It moves us toward rather than away from challenges.

But the truth is also that in these challenges God meets us and provides for us and makes a way for us. We later look back and tell the story of how God disrupted us from spiritual sleep and gave us a vision that challenged us to live by faith in God.

Like Old Eli, my message for all of you Samuels is to struggle with your own sense of call rather than depend on me, for God does not just call pastors but God calls people, and we together are called to discern how God calls us in these challenging times.

Human suffering and political foment are a form of God’s call: challenges rousting us out of our comfortable sleep and demanding so much of us we are afraid to take the first step.  

For this reason, we pray for courage. For this reason, we remember Samuel’s courage in telling the truth to Eli. For if we answer the call of God our lives, we become courageous enough to welcome challenges, and in these challenges God makes a way for us.

And so dear friends, for these challenging times we are facing together,

May God bless you and your family and your friends and neighbors,

And may God Bless Windsor UCC

A Beautiful Thing

Rev. Craig Jan-McMahon
Windsor UCC: 9/19/2020
Funeral Homily; Erin Mackay Harvey Blasinski
Isaiah 40:27-31; Psalm 121; Mark 14:3-9
Download PDF

A woman appears, as if out of nowhere.  

Though we remember her and tell her story, she remains nameless, which is fitting in its own way, for the story we tell to remember her fits the lives of others who add beauty to our lives, who are known for doing the best they can, and who like her upset those who think she should pipe down and stay in her place.  

The story, Jesus says, will be told in memory of her for as long as the good news is preached.

Let us pray:  May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts this day, be pleasing in your sight, O Lord our God, our Rock, our Redeemer, our Comforter.  Amen.

Before the advent of screw-on caps for jars and bottles, costly perfumes and ointments were put in sealed glass containers, the glass container could be safely broken open but could not be resealed and the aroma could not be contained. 

And to those there that day, it smelled like death and memory, for perfume such as the nameless woman breaks open was used to anoint bodies laying in family tombs, the perfume strong enough to overpower the smell of death, allowing families to visit their beloved as long as the perfume allowed.

The aroma of the perfume emanating the room causes many to remember their own beloved, their own grief; some respond with anger and scold her, they say, for squandering money, and in this way they cover their own grief with self-righteous judgment of her; in this way, they seek to hide their own vulnerability by exposing hers.

‘Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.’ 

The smell of the perfume working into their clothes, their hair, their memory, impossible to escape, too strong to avoid, unasked for, uninvited.  

But Jesus praises her.

She has done a beautiful thing to me. …  She has done what she could.

She has done a beautiful thing to me, he says,   She has done what she could, he says

The stories we heard today and the stories we tell in the days ahead, are of stories beautiful things, the ways Erin was extravagant with herself and those she loved, totally engaged in everything she did, appearing as if from out of nowhere, not waiting for later, not holding back, but breaking open what she had to give and looking in her own way to anoint us, to add beauty to our lives.

Jesus praises the woman who breaks open her bottle of perfume to helps us see the extravagant gift of good souls such as Erin, who ceasely do all they can, and refuse to slow down and wait for the a better time later, who erupt onto the scene and disturb polite people who are too upset or too embarrassed or too disturbed by her extravagance to see her beauty as God sees it, as we whose eyes are open by love are able ourselves to see it.  

Erin was an extravagant soul who loved beautiful things, a cat purring, voices united in song, dew on a spider’s web, the foggy mist over wetlands in fall as the weather cools, the silence of a night blanketed by snow, 

And then there were all those ways she did little thoughtful, unexpected things, personal loving things, that those who she loved remember now, and which cling to memory the way perfume clings to clothes, a blessing, an anointing. 

We have also to look at those who scold the woman for her extravagance, who see her beauty as wasted, who are perhaps embarrassed because she upsets their sense of order or what is right, but we might see these people with a degree of compassion, because, after all, the woman reminds them of their own griefs, their own losses, and rather than see her beauty and extravagance as a gift, they feel exposed by it, made vulnerable by it, and so they close their hearts and minds to the good news Jesus preaches and we celebrate when we open our hearts to beautiful souls such as Erin Mackay Harvey Blasinski.

Jesus says: 

She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.’

I am sorry our numbers have to be so limited today, because I have been hearing stories of Erin from the members of the church, and I know they are all praying for you gathered here today, Erin’s closest family and friends.  

I am quite sure our choir would have loved to sing for you, and our people would have loved to prepare a meal for you all so we could sit together and share stories of Erin’s beautiful way of doing the best she could.

And I know for sure we are aching to hug and hold one another here today, and that the congregation grieves with you, and longs to be able to express its love for you and Erin. 

There is in the grief of this day, a sense of regret, of what could have been, of what is being missed.

But there is beauty here today, in this moment in time, on this brisk day outside at Erin’s family home, accompanied by the sound of cars at the new stop sign, but also by the sounds of birds and surrounded by the landscape that formed her and shaped her lovely soul.

Wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.’

This is that wherever, and this is part of God’s world, and we tell stories in memory of Erin, and the body of people who loved her and were loved by her, the church body who cannot join with us physically today, this body of people who loved her and raised her up when she was a little girl and celebrated her and took care of her, this body is anointed beforehand and prepared for this day; 

Like a perfume it pervades, it clings to us, it reminds us ….

It reminds us of the power of love, too strong to avoid, inescapable, unbidden and uninvited, and yet pervading and enduring; we are all vulnerable to it, we all connected by it. 

This is what we remember, and this is how the gospel is preached, as we remember her, as we open our hearts to the power and beauty of love, as we accept that Erin did what she could do, and so did we.

This is the good news friends, and this is the gospel. 

God saw only beauty in Erin’s life, and God welcomes her into eternal beauty with the glorious company of Saints in Light, for she did all that she could do, and so did we.

And as you, Erin’s closest family and friends do what you can do in the coming days, the beauty of God will surround you, will fill you, will help you to remember, and in remembering, honor the gift and blessing of Erin’s extravagant life, and in time beauty will heal your souls, for God dwells in beauty, God’s beauty pervades, and God’s beauty never ends.  

God Bless you Friends. Amen.  


8th Sunday after Pentecost; 7/10/2016:
Amos 7:7-17; Ps 82; Colossians 1:1-14;  Luke 10:25-37
Marching (pdf sermon manuscript)

Vacations are a lot of work.

The week before you leave on vacation, you have to work double-hard to get everything ready to go, and yet when you come back it often seems that your work has multiplied like rabbits while you were away.  On a short week like this week, with the 4th of July holiday on Monday, it seems no matter what you do you are hopelessly behind and unable to catch up.

This has been one of those weeks for me only more so…by the time Friday rolled around, I had a list of things to do–laundry, grocery shopping, errands here and there and everywhere….

In all of this busyness, I did not miss the tragic news from Baton Rouge on Tuesday, but I purposely didn’t watch the video of it.  Neither did I miss the tragic news from St. Paul on Thursday, but again I avoided watching the chilling video.  Then on Friday when I started the day and looked at the news and read of the tragedy in Dallas, I found myself looking at the video, heartbroken, and then I looked at the other videos I had been avoiding…

And then I made list of “things-to-do” for the day–sometimes small, everyday tasks are a balm for the soul, but there are times when our souls are troubled for good reason, when to avoid trouble is unfaithful.

I will confess to you that I was troubled about this moment we share today; what you all might be thinking and feeling today, what Good News I can share as a preacher and teacher of the gospel on this day after this tragic week?  What would I be saying if I remained silent and did not speak of Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and Dallas?

After I finished my grocery shopping, I saw I had a Facebook message from one of my fellow UCC pastors in the Quad Cities.  She told me that there was to be a Black Lives Matters march from the Police Station in Rock Island, across the Centennial Bridge, to the Police Station in Davenport.

I finished my errands, put in my laundry, started my cleaning, and began to think…

Should I go on the Black Lives Matter march?

Should I use the church Facebook page to announce the march and invite you all to join me?  What are my responsibilities, as a pastoral leader, as a father, as a Christian?

And if I didn’t go, would I be like the priest and Levite to walk right past the wounded and suffering soul on the road? Would I be one of those Amos’ plumb line would show to be out of true, my sense of righteousness unaligned with my deliberate and active care for the poor and needy?

I suppose the matter would have been easier to decide if I were black, or if I had black children or grandchildren, or if I had police officers in my family, and yet there is that part of the Good Samaritan story that says that the Samaritan was moved by pity–his passion moves him to act: isn’t pity–compassion–a form of spiritual imagination?

And doesn’t the commandment to love our neighbors require us to extend ourselves to meet our neighbors?

Aren’t we as Christians supposed to be people who are known for our commitment to imagine the pain and suffering and grief of others and who like the Good Samaritan don’t simply pass by?

I have a confession to make: I wasn’t feeling it.  I was exhausted from my busy week and had lots of stuff to do, but then I finished my list of to-dos and had nothing planned for the evening–no excuse really.

An hour or so before the march, I talked about it with a neighbor.

The conversation we had was like conversations we all have, about whether marches are productive of anything, of whether to march is to say the police are the problem,  about whether the problem is broader and deeper, whether it is about poverty and prisons and racism and politics, or about whether we as a society expect police to be social workers and therapists and call on them to intervene rather than building social systems to care for people in crisis: abstractions really, merely abstractions.

Our conversation was not animated by pity or compassion but we found ourselves rehearsing the same talking points we have heard all of our lives….until we started talking about how we were talking, until we realized how privileged we are to talk about these matters in the abstract, about all the choices we have that others do not have and how very easy it is for us to choose to do nothing at all.

When the time came, I decided to join the march.

The leaders of the march talked to us in Rock Island, spoke about the need for the march, the hope of bringing about change so that what happened in Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and Dallas does not happen in the Quad Cities, and emphasizing that it was to be a peaceful march.

After the talking was done but before the march began, a pastor invited us to pray.  Hats came off, heads were bowed.

We said “Amen” and then set off together to cross the bridge.

At every turn, there were police officers protecting us.  What were they thinking and feeling I wonder?

As marchers passed by them, they greeted the officers, “Thank you for your service; thank you sir; we are grateful for you.” Many of the marchers reached out and shook police officers’ hands as they passed by–I wonder who was the Samaritan in these exchanges, and who was the poor soul suffering in the ditch.

About half way across, Pr. Mason Parks, the pastor of New Journey AME church just down 7th Ave here in Moline, a neighbor church, came along beside me and said “hello.”

I met Pr. Mason a year ago, after the Mother Emmanuel Massacre in South Carolina.  I was glad to see him but felt embarrassed about having failed to maintain our relationship.  I wondered if all of this sadness would be different if people like me took the time and saw the importance of maintaining relationships.  It is pretty hard to love our neighbors if we don’t take the time to get know them.

On the march, leaders were leading chants, and people were following along: hands up! don’t shoot!  What do we want? Justice! When do we want it. Now! What do we want?  Change! When do we want it, Now!

I did not raise my hands; I did not chant.  I felt out of place and uncomfortable, and I found myself feeling it would be dishonest somehow, untrue if I did.

In the crowd I saw two people marching side by side who were wearing shirts that say “Love thy Neighbor,” Thy black neighbor, thy white neighbor, thy Muslim Neighbor, Thy Gay Neighbor, thy straight neighbor.”

They were joining in the chants and hand raising with the leader; I didn’t have a chance to talk with them, but I expect they would say that marching and chanting was honoring the commandment written on their shirts.

Love is not an abstraction; it is an action.

As we crossed the bridge, people driving in the other direction slowed down to look at us.

Many of them whipped out their cell phones to take pictures.  Some of them honked and cheered us on.  Most of them simply passed by.

One fellow on a Harley hollered at us, “All Lives Matter” and then revved his engine loudly to drown out our chants.

When we got into Davenport, a few young men were laughing and hooting at us: Kill the Police they said, and laughed.

A little later a father riding bikes with his daughter yelled, “you’re wasting your time marching; why don’t you do something about it?”  His daughter, riding behind him, was laughing–what else could she do?

To end the march, we gathered in a parking lot in Davenport for speeches: I looked around and saw people of all kinds, rich and poor, black and white, young and old.

I saw many black parents holding hands with their little children, and I wondered what those parents must be feeling; white parents brought their children, too, and I wondered if I would have done the same.

Police officers stood off at a distance watching over us, expressionless.

The speakers encouraged us to stay involved, to pay attention, to vote and hold leaders accountable; they praised police officers who serve with honor and called for justice for those who violate their oath to protect and serve.  Many people were crying.  Some were holding up signs. Others were shouting amen.

The final speaker asked us to look around at our neighbors, to notice how different we were from one another, and to remember that we are in this together, that by working together as neighbors, we can bring about lasting and real change.

The event concluded with prayer; all of us joining hands together as one. As we prayed, police officers looked on.

I have been at pains to say often and repeatedly that God loves us not because of what we do but because of who we are.  I have said often and repeatedly that God’s grace is given to us as a gift which can neither be earned nor can it be lost.  But as the prophet Amos reminds us, God’s judgement is given to us as well.  This judgement, says Amos, is a plumb line measuring whether our worship of God is in true with our care of the poor and needy, whether our actions are in true with our prayers.

And Jesus teaches that to love God means to be moved by pity and compassion to take action on behalf of those whose pain and suffering has been ignored and overlooked and distorted and silenced.

As people of faith, as followers of Christ, as a congregation who listens to the words of prophets of old asking how we might square our prayers with our actions, we must look for hope not by accepting the abstractions and arguments that dismiss and excuse us from action, but we must exercise spiritual imagination.  We must allow ourselves to be moved by pity and compassion, by the suffering of others.  We must open ourselves to the judgment of God, which is now and will always be merciful and forgiving, but which now and always demands that we ask how we ourselves have been untrue so that the we ourselves can choose how to love kindness, to do justice, and to walk humbly with our God.

May our every prayer be an action that brings healing, hope, and reconciliations to a broken and hurting world.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Our Time Has Come

5th Sunday After Pentecost, 7/5/2015: Ezekiel 2:1-5  Mark 6:1-13

On the third Sunday after the Charleston Massacre, on the day after the 4th of July, we read Ezekiel’s call story and the story of Christ returning home, where he is rejected by his own people and can do no deeds of power among them.  And this was the first Sunday after Bree Newsome, an African-American woman, shimmied up a flagpole in Charleston, South Carolina, and took down the Confederate flag, quoting the 27th Psalm and the Lord’s prayer on her way down, where James Tyson, a white man, waited to help her get over the fence.

We read from Bree Newsome’s statement, Our Time Has Come (Bree Newsome’s complete statement), asking what God is calling us see and do through her prophetic words and her prophetic act.  We emphasize our belief that responding to God’s call to us as individuals and a church is a choice; and we remember that call is ineffective absent community.

NOTE: In the sermon I refer to an interview with Bree Newsome and James Tyson in which they note that black groundskeepers were required to raise the flag that they had taken down.  The interview video is here, the image appearing at about about the 1 minute mark.

Our Time Has Come (pdf sermon manuscript)

Desperate for Healing

5th Sunday After Pentecost, 6/28/2015:    2 SAMUEL 1:1, 17-27  | Mark 5:21-43
Desperate for Healing (pdf sermon manuscript)

This was again an important Sunday for churches across America.  We came to church for the second Sunday with Mother Emanuel heavy on our hearts, and only a few days earlier the Supreme Court made Marriage Equality the law of the land.  On a day that combined celebration with mourning, the theme of our texts brought us to the the connection between desperation, grief, and healing.