True Allegiance


Hab. 2:1-4,9-20James 2:14-26Luke 16:19-31

“Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”  Many reformed Christians have struggled with the book of James.  This is why!  So steeped in salvation by faith and  not works, this passage in James is often like a clanging gong to our reformed ears, which seems to say the opposite.

And yet, James provides a richness and completeness to Paul’s argument.  First, we are not talking about salvation, but about the transformative nature of a life of faith.  Second, James concentrates on works of charity, not works of obedience to the Jewish law.  Third, James also includes what I consider to be a central statement of Jewish belief, “God is one” and that that statement expands the meaning here.

If we are living as members of Christ’s faithful community, would not acts of charity be a natural outcome?  If we proclaimed to be Christian, and then spent all our time trampling all over the poor, others would very clearly see that we weren’t really Christian.  It reminds of the cute little tune, “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love…by our love.”

Works aren’t going to save you.

James never claims that.  But what he does state is that if you aren’t backing up your faith without works, you have lost your mind!

Christianity is not a religion of lip service.  This is not something we do on Sunday morning and ditch the rest of the week.

James helps us with focus.  He helps remind us that all that we do, all that we say, all that we believe, feeds into the overarching belief that God is one.  When we take this seriously, we come to know that the brokenness of this world, the heartache of our neighbors, all feeds into honoring God.  There is no divide of God’s character, and as James spins out his theology on demons and their work as the enemy of God, we see a God that firmly stands against the tyranny of poverty, brokenness, and hopelessness.

In other words, God demands our allegiance – our belief and our power to transform.



Native American Heritage


November is Native American Heritage Month.  Are you celebrating this in worship in any way?  Here are some ideas.  Many of them don’t require a bulletin change, just incorporate into what you are saying.  But a write up in the bulletin, a deliberateness to it, and coordinating with musicians in your congregation can provide extra impact.  Here are some of the things I have done in the past:

  • Talk about November being Native American Heritage Month in the announcement time and invite one of the Natives in the congregation to come forward to tell his/her/their story.
  • Have a Children’s sermon and tell about the “Legend of the Turtle”.  The Turtle and the Flood works best for me (Woodland), or the Turtle Gets a Shell (Oneida) but there are many depending on what jives with you.
  • Sing the Navajo prayer:
    Now I walk in beauty,
    beauty is before me,
    beauty is behind me,
    above and below me. (Google NOW I WALK IN BEAUTY to find a pdf score of the melody or a recording.  This one can be sung a cappella with very little practice.  I often sing this as I am walking down to begin the announcements even before a word comes out of my mouth.  Interestingly, over the years, this has become one of the more memorable things I do this Sunday in the congregational memory.  This is somewhat surprising because it only takes 20 seconds.)
  • The Presbyterian Hymnal is a treasure trove of Native music.   Sing Hear the Good News of Salvation (#441 in Glory to God Hymnal – a Dakota hymn sung to a familiar tune), Many and Great, or the Muscogee (Creek) hymn Heleluyan, We Are Singing (#642 in Glory to God Hymnal)
  • I have a Native American flute.  I doubt you have someone in your congregation who has one and can play it fluently.  But there is YouTube!  I feel a pre-recorded prelude coming on, and giving your musician a break!
  • Pray some Native prayers this Sunday.  Google “Native American Prayers of Thanksgiving” for many ideas from the Ute, Apache, Cherokee, and Creek peoples.
  • Connect with the Native American Ministries division of the PCUSA.  Reach out to someone in Grand Canyon Presbytery, Indian Nations Presbytery, or Eastern Oklahoma Presbytery, or at the GA office.  There is a Native American Young Adult Council too.
  • Think about inviting a Native speaker for next year’s Native American Sunday in September or for NA Heritage month in November.
  • Use a Native benediction.  I have used the traditional Cherokee blessing before:

    May the warm winds of Heaven blow softly upon your home;
    May the Great Spirit bless all who enter there. 
    May your moccasins make happy tracks in many snows, and 
    May the rainbow always touch your shoulder.

  • As Prayers of the People, pray the Great Spirit Prayer (Lakota):  “O Great Spirit, whose voice I hear in the wind,
    Whose breath gives life to all the world.
    Hear me; I need your strength and wisdom.
    Let me walk in beauty, and make my eyes ever
    behold the red and purple sunset.
    Make my hands respect the things you have
    made and my ears sharp to hear your voice.
    Make me wise so that I may understand
    the things you have taught my people.Help me to remain calm and strong in
    the face of all that comes towards me.
    Let me learn the lessons you have hidden
    in every leaf and rock.Help me seek pure thoughts and act
    with the intention of helping others.
    Help me find compassion without
    empathy overwhelming me.

    I seek strength, not to be greater than my brother,
    but to fight my greatest enemy Myself.Make me always ready to come to you
    with clean hands and straight eyes.

    So when life fades, as the fading sunset,
    my spirit may come to you without shame.”

  • And finally, if you are not in a leadership position with worship at your church, you can still do something to remember Native American Heritage.  You can pray this Prayer of Thanksgiving from the Iroquois people silently before worship on Sunday or with me right now:

 We return thanks to our mother, the earth, which sustains us.

 We return thanks to the rivers and streams, which supply us with water.

 We return thanks to all herbs, which furnish medicines for the cure of our diseases.

 We return thanks to the moon and stars, which have given to us their light when the sun was gone.

 We return thanks to the sun, that has looked upon the earth with a beneficent eye.

 Lastly, we return thanks to the Great Spirit, in Whom is embodied all goodness, and Who directs all things for the good of Her children.

  Iroquois Prayer, adapted

99 and 1


Joel 2:12-19Rev. 19:11-21Luke 15:1-10

It was a warm welcome yesterday at the presbytery meeting.  Maumee Valley Presbytery….I feel the love.  Thank you.

It was a great day, and I was honored to preach at our worship service.  For those of you that weren’t there, I preached over the passage from yesterday in Luke 14: “Take up your cross and follow me.”

Today’s gospel reading deals with the parable of the lost sheep.  The parable of the lost coin.  That being said, we are still talking about crosses!  On my recent trip, the Journeys of Paul, I had the privilege of visiting the Vatican.  While there I bought a replica of the cross that Pope Francis wears.  His pectoral cross, which each pope has the opportunity to choose one unique to them, from afar looks like a crucifix, but up close it is the parable of the lost sheep.  I would expect nothing less from a Jesuit.  He is so crafty and wonderful.

In the parable of the lost sheep and lost coin, each is a response to the claim of the Pharisees and the Scribes that Jesus “welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

This is the 1st Century equivalent of mud-slinging on the campaign trail.  “This is how bad Jesus is!  He welcomes sinners!  He eats with them too!  How bad can it get?  How many rules is he willing to break?” the Pharisees and scribes are saying, attempting character assassination.

What is most interesting is that, instead of explaining it away, Jesus seems to defend and reinforce this idea!  Jesus says, “Yes, one should welcome sinners!  And one should eat with them.”  He declares this in the context of two parables.

Does not one leave the ninety-nine sheep and go find the one that is lost?  And don’t you look for the one coin you lost?  Of course you do!  And in doing so, Jesus changes the trajectory of the early Christian church.  And today when we hear the phrase, “Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them,” our immediate reaction is not, “Oh my God, what a scandal,” but rather, “Good for him…and we should too!”

What good news!  God is concerned for the lost.  Luke pays special attention to the lost physically and spiritually.  There is much talk in his gospel of the poor, the lame, the widows, the children, the afflicted, and the lost.  His gospel begins with the special place of Mary and Elizabeth, and we see shepherds at the manager.

God is interested in exalting the lowly.  Those who have been swept under the carpet will now be raised up.  And these two parables, which often become the focus of repentance, are actually parables about joy.  “And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’”  So too, the woman who finds the coin in the parable ends up rejoicing.

In a sense Jesus is saying, “The party that I am having right here right now is nothing compared to the party that is happening in heaven each time God finds another lost soul!”

What a wonderful image!  This idea of God as judge is a bit different than what many of us grew up with, which went something like this: “Do bad things and God will get you.”  Instead, it is just the opposite!  God is not interested in the kind of judgment that curses us.  When we stand before the judgment seat and confess we have strayed, God’s judgment, as it turns out, is not one of condemnation, but one of rejoicing!  No life in prison.  No death penalty.  Not even probation.  Instead, the slate is wiped clean and the party begins.

I will wear my new cross with pride!


The True Banquet


Joel 1:1-13Rev. 18:15-24Luke 14:12-24

As Fall marches on and the weather turns to cold, a number of things sprinkle our daily landscape just as they do every year: talk of stewardship, talk of the harvest, Thanksgiving, and talk of big Packer wins.

OK, let’s get real….If you signed up for these Morning Reflections you certainly had to know what a huge Cheesehead I am.  So you knew what you were signing up for and have to endure: There was a big win at Lambeau last night, a slaughterfest, so much so that by the 4th quarter my mind was wandering and I began perusing Thanksgiving recipes and got thinking about what I would do this year.  My family has already signed me up for my Pecan Pie.  I’m not complaining there.  It really is good.

Those thoughts of food and banquet feasts followed me into the morning.  The parable of the great banquet is told today in Luke’s reading.  It is preceded by a repeated theme of Jesus: “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid.  But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.  And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you….”

I immediately thought of the Thanksgiving dinners we have here in the USA.

But so often it is a time for friends and relatives only.  What would Thanksgiving look like if we all invited the poor, the crippled, and the lame?  Jesus is making a point about the poor.  He is certainly not suggesting one should never eat with friends.  He ate with his disciples all the time.  But he also ate with the poor.

I think Jesus wants more from us than simply to eat with the poor.  Remember the law.  Remember the cleanliness code of the time.  For this time, Jesus is really speaking out of turn.  This is a clear violation of much of scripture to be eating with those who are unclean.  Really Jesus???  The lame?  The blind?  The crippled?  Ritually unclean! You have got to be kidding, Jesus!

Jesus is saying something radical here.  In essence, he is saying, “Go ahead and eat with them.  In fact, you must eat with these people.  And eating with these people immediately restricts you from Temple worship.  But no matter.  A banquet with the poor is more important than that.”

Yikes.  No wonder Jesus gets in trouble so quickly.  What a radical concept.  Radical love.  Radical inclusion.  The cost of discipleship seems to be a bit high.  And yet Jesus invites us into this life.  He requires it.  This is what is meant by the stewardship of our lives.

What a glorious banquet invitation this is, for he too invites us to a meal of which we are unworthy.  I’ll meet you there!


Hungry for Freedom


Ecclus. 43:23-33Rev. 16:1-11Luke 13:10-17

We Americans awake to a slightly different political landscape, as we do after each election.  There are some winners and some losers.  Many would argue that last Sunday we put our clocks back one hour, and yesterday put our state back 50 years.  So it is with mid-term elections.

This is particularly the case among many of my progressive friends from Oklahoma, who just endured what many of us consider to be one of the worst governors in all of state history, only to elect someone cut from the same cloth, but with no experience.  We were hungry for release from the past.  What a loss….And yet Oklahoma elected my friend and neighbor Kendra Horn!  So like I said, there are always winners and losers in these mid-terms.

We are fickle people with short-term memories.  It is a day of celebration for some, and it is a day of sadness for others.

In many ways, so is our Scripture passage in Luke.  Jesus heals a crippled woman, which is obvious rejoicing for her, but at the same time Jesus raises serious questions in the minds of the leaders of the synagogue and other orthodox Jews.

Jesus was teaching on the Sabbath and there was a woman there who was crippled for eighteen years.  She was bent over and unable to stand up straight.  Jesus, without prompting, calls her over and heals her: “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”

There are two major problems that many are having.  For one, Jesus is breaking a serious commandment – healing on the Sabbath, an act clearly prohibited by scripture.  Secondly, and perhaps a more grave issue for the day, is that this woman did not ask for the healing.  In many ways her illness and deformity was viewed as a result of sin.  She does not ask for her sins to be forgiven.  So, without a change of heart or even a desire for renewal, Jesus takes the lead and chooses healing for her!  He chooses forgiveness!  This was scandalous.  In some ways it would be akin to performing surgery on someone without their permission, in today’s lingo.

So what was the response?  The crowd rejoiced in the healing.  They were hungry for a release from the oppression of the rules.  They were not wanting to fall back to the old ways of doing things, but ready to turn the corner and have a fresh new start to their religious beliefs and application.  They were hungry for freedom themselves.

In this post-election time, there will need to be some healing too.  (Mainly I think it is a sigh of relief – that we endured and survived another election cycle and all the obnoxious ads that came with it).  And I pray and hope that it will be a time of coming together, and peace.  For we have many problems – monumental problems.  And whoever has been chosen as our leaders, they will have enormous tasks of legislation and building bridges in front of them.  What on earth will our politicians do if not be obstructionists to one another?  (Who knows)

We, Christians, will also be needed in this time, and in this place, to have the same spirit as the Jesus of miracles, who stepped across party lines, who took some risks for what was right, and who called forth healing.  He took the initiative in mercy, reconciliation, and grace.

We will need the same – because all around us there are people hurting – emotionally, physically, spiritually, financially, and relationally.  They need more than hope.  They need more than a handout.  They need our genuine care and compassion.  They need us to move past our political doldrums and fall back to a time when the church remembered how to be the church.  Reclaiming Christ’s vision of mercy will be no small task in today’s cultural climate.   So let’s pull our heads out of the sand and get on to Christ’s mission of love, mercy, and grace for a hurting world.


Prayer for Election Day


As we turn our attention to voting in today’s election, I share a prayer written by our friend and colleague Jill Duffield from the Presbyterian Outlook.  Originally published in Nov 2016, but it seems just as appropriate today:

Almighty God, as people go to the polls this day we pray first and foremost for peace. May the sense of community and connection be greater than any division or difference, no matter how entrenched. Knowing we will vote in schools, churches, synagogues, and other communal gathering places, may our commitment to care for one another grow as we stand in lines, talk to our neighbors and recognize we have more in common than we often realize. May we show one another kindness and respect, today and in the days to come.

We thank you for the freedom to vote our conscience, of which you alone are Lord. After this election, we are keenly aware that even if the political rhetoric fades the acrimony it highlighted will remain. Grant us the courage to step into the breaches and not shrink back into our enclaves of homogeneity. Send your Spirit to drive us to the places where you are already working to bring reconciliation. Remind us relentlessly that you are greater than every category we devise, more powerful than any estrangement we have created, eternal, ever present and always calling forth justice, peace and abundant life. Show us today and everyday how to live in the love of Jesus Christ, the perfect love that casts out fear. Amen.

Revelation: The Bible’s Most Confusing Book


Ecclus. 38:24-34Rev. 14:1-13Luke 12:49-59

About once a month, I have a student from some university call looking to interview me on my religious views, what Presbyterians believe, or some such questions.   Do you all get these calls too?

A recent call went something like this: This well-meaning student launched right off with his first question, “Do you believe the church you pastor is the one referred to in Revelation as being sealed (i.e. the 144,000)?”  Maybe it was a question from his professor.  Perhaps he is just on the prowl for a certain answer, to explore certain church traditions.  But I felt like the question itself was already a fundamental misunderstanding of the book of Revelation.  And here is what I mean:

Those who believe that every word in the Bible is literally true are in deep trouble today.

144,000 stand with the Lamb on Mount Zion and approach the throne.  The 144,000 sing a new song before the throne, and no one else can learn the song except those.  These are those who have been redeemed from the earth.  “It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins….”

It is a fantastical vision.  And I’m not saying it can’t happen.  The question is why would I think it is not full of symbol and hidden meaning, much like the rest of the Bible?  (I didn’t take Jesus literally when he said “take up this mountain and fling it into the sea” or “pluck out your eye if it causes you to sin”.  Not many pirates among us.  We really do need to look with better eyes than that.)

I remember many years ago some Jehovah Witnesses came knocking on my door.  One of their first statements to be was, “Do you want to be one of the 144,000 that are saved?”  These days you don’t hear them ask this question, now that their numbers have exceeded 144,000.  Their biblical ethic seemed inadequate, so they ditched that emphasis in favor of another ethic.  To complicate matters for those who want to revise the number, but still take the rest of the passage literally: There will be no women in this number saved.  And of the men, none of them have ever had sex.  These are the unmarried and completely chaste.  Leave anyone out?  I probably left most of my readers out.

So what are we to make of this?  How are we to read Revelation?  First, we need to give ourselves permission to not always take the Bible literally, but to read it for its deeper meanings.  (I hardly think that the kingdom of heaven is JUST like Jesus said – an actual mustard seed.  Of course there are metaphors!)

Next, we need to explore the images and metaphors of this passage.  How are we to take these dramatic pictures of the throne, and visions of salvation of the world?  What is behind these images that represent the faithful picture of salvation?

Additionally, we need to understand that in Revelation, numerology is important.  7 is a holy number.  7 times 77, something that Jesus used in reference to “how many times one should forgive,” is considered not to be 539, but meaning more along the lines of “forgive a WHOLE LOTTA times”.  It is a number too big to count.  In the same manner, 40 days in the wilderness, or raining for “40 days and 40 nights” is code for “a long, long time.”  40 years in the wilderness is an “unfathomable amount of time,” so large we all lost track of how long it really was.

And so here, our number 144,000, ties in with the disciples.  The number of disciples grew from 12, to 12 times 12, and that grew 1,000 times!  The writer of Revelation is saying, “The number of those saved is too large to be counted, but it will stem from those who heard and understood the Word.”

Rarely do I see Revelation speaking literally.  It is a dramatic portrait of God at work to conclude creation.  That which was begun in Genesis, and fell victim to sin, is cleaned up.  Another way to say it is, “In the end, nothing can resist the power of God.”

This ultimately is great reassurance, especially to a readership that was under persecution.  To hear that beyond their daily lives, God was in control and God had a plan, was great reassurance.  The same was true of many of the African slaves, who when the going got tough, their theology and songs focused more on the afterlife, redemption, and freedom from this world’s pain.

It is no wonder that we turn to Revelation at funerals and dark times.  They are reassurance of God’s sovereignty, and our desire to be allegiant to the Lamb and bow before the throne.