11-11-18 More than meets the eye

Thomas J Parlette

“More than meets the eye”

Mark 12: 38-44



          A few years back, the world was treated to a rather amazing announcement. 168 billionaires – yes, that’s billionaires – lined up with Bill Gates, the richest man in the world at that time, Warren Buffet, who was number 2 on that list, to announce that they intended to give away at least half of their wealth by the time they die to help fund a wide variety of worthwhile causes. And it wasn’t just the billionaires getting in on the charitable giving. Even the King of Chinese martial arts movies himself, Jackie Chan, got on Board. I understand that Jackie Chan has announced that he will give away half of his net worth.(1) His giving would amount to just 175 million instead of 500 million or more from the billionaires – but still, it’s a start. I wouldn’t worry too much about these wealthy folks – they’ll still have plenty left over to live on and pass down to their families.

          One day Jesus saw a group of wealthy men lining up to give a portion of their wealth at the Temple. They were making a big show of presenting their offerings. They wanted people to be aware of their charity. They used large coins so that when the pieces of money fell into the collection box it made an impressive clanging sound that could be heard by all.

          Then along comes this poor widow with only two small coins to drop in the box, an offering with the value of about a penny. That is all she could possibly offer God, that was everything she had.

          Probably no one else in the crowd even noticed her giving her offering, it didn’t make a clanging sound, just a little clink. But Jesus noticed her. He called together his disciples and asked them to notice her too. “That widow put more money in the treasury than anybody else, because they shared out of their abundance, but she gave all she had.” So, according to Jesus, the widow’s offering was more significant that Bill Gate’s or Warren Buffet’s billions, because God measures not how much you give, but how much you have left over. If your giving is not sacrificial, apparently, God is not impressed.

          Every couple of years we get a visit from this widow, and usually we read this story as Jesus commending her for her generosity, applauding her self-sacrifice and inviting us to do the same. I should know, I’ve preached that message in one way or another on numerous occasions.

          But as I read this story again, I wonder, is there more going on here than meets the eye. When you read the story carefully, Jesus never actually commends the widow, he never really applauds her sacrifice or tells us we should emulate her – not in so many words. Preachers like me do that – but Jesus did not What the text says is Jesus noticed her, and tells his disciples to notice her, too.

          So what else might be going on here? What might we learn from this widow in addition to self-sacrifice and generosity?

          Well, first of all, her act of giving could show that she had forgiven God. Now that might seem like a weird thing to say, but keep in mind, the only way we know this woman is as a widow. She had lost her husband. Some of you have experienced the loss of a spouse or a loved one and you know the hurt and loneliness that loss can bring. You also know about the temptation to bitterness and anger – especially resentment toward God, in many cases.

          In 1969, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote the ground-breaking book On Death and Dying, in which she described the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Some people move through these stages relatively smoothly, while others get bogged down along the way and never really come out on the other side. Most people I know, even when they get to a point of acceptance, or least to a point where they can go on with life, still have moments when they drift back into the stages of grief – particularly anger and depression, or at least a time of deep sadness. And for many people, the anger gets directed at God.

          I don’t believe you ever really stop grieving the loss of a loved one – but I do think that over time you spend less time in those stages of anger and depression and more and more time in the stage of acceptance where you remember what you loved most about your loved one.

          That’s why I think when this widow, one who had experienced a deep loss, and had probably harbored some resentment and anger toward God somewhere along the way, dropped her two coins in the box, she was in some was saying – “I forgive you God. I’ve come to grips with my grief. I’m over my resentment. I am at peace with God.”

          Another thing the widow might be saying is: I trust God. As you know, there was no Social Security, no pension plan, no monthly check she would be receiving now that her husband was gone. Widows were quite vulnerable. Unless her husband was a wealthy man, or her children could take care of her or perhaps other family members would take her in, she was at the mercy of a sometimes heartless society. But by giving her two little coins, this widow was saying: I trust God.

          That kind of trust, that kind of confidence, that kind of hope is pleasing to God. The late United Methodist Bishop, Charles Golden, once told of visiting a mission school in India where the students sang an African-American spiritual. They sang it to him as a courtesy, he said, because he was a black man. They sang I Got Shoes – “I got shoes. You got shoes. All God’s children got shoes. When I get to heaven, I’m going to put on my shoes and walk all over God’s heaven.”.

          Golden said he suddenly realized that these children singing that old spiritual about having shoes were all barefoot. It reminded him that when his ancestors had composed and sung that song, they too were barefoot. They were singing a song of hope and trust for they knew there were shoes laid up in heaven for them. I may be barefoot right now – these may be my last two coins that I’m dropping in the temple treasury – but God will provide. I trust God. All God’s children got shoes.(2)

          And here’s the final thing her offering may have said that day: She believed in the work of God. The work of the Temple was important to her and she wanted to support it, even though some of the leadership was corrupt. She wanted to put God first in her life. She wanted to be a part of something bigger than herself.

          Once there was a certain woman who lost her husband, and this woman was having a very difficult time working through the stages of grief. For weeks, she went each day to the cemetery to put flowers on his grave. She simply could not let go. No matter what she did it seemed that her grief would not dissipate. In her despair, she went to her doctor to see if there was any medication he could prescribe. When she told him about taking the flowers each day to the cemetery, her doctor made a suggestion.

          He said, “Instead of taking flowers to the cemetery, let me suggest that you take them to the hospital. I have two patients there who are alone. They have no family in town and they would really enjoy receiving some fresh flowers. Just for a day, why not take the flowers to the hospital instead of the cemetery? Ask them about their progress and give them some encouragement. See if there is anything you can do for them.”

          The lady took the doctor’s suggestion. She took the flowers to the hospital rather than the cemetery. Then she did it the next day, and the next. And soon she was able to work through her grief.(3) She had discovered that she could be part of something bigger than herself and the grief that was swallowing her whole world.

          Those coins, dropped in the Temple treasury that day, may have been an important part of this widow’s recovery from her grief experience. By dropping in those coins she realized she was part of something bigger than herself. She was participating in God’s work on earth. No wonder Jesus was pleased to see her make her offering. No wonder he pointed her out to his disciples. She had been victorious over her grief. She trusted God for her daily bread and she was involved in the ongoing work of the Kingdom. In fact, in God’s eyes this more poor window gave more that all the billionaires in the world put together. She gave all of herself.


          May that be true for all of us.

May God be praised. Amen.


1.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXIV, No. 4, p33.

2.    Ibid… p35.

3.    Ibid… p36.

11-4-18 Quotable Lines

Thomas J Parlette

“Quotable Lines”

Ruth 1: 1-18



          In our entertainment-saturated world, we hear a lot of lines from movies. Most are quickly forgotten, but some make us laugh, some make us think and others give us a lump in our throat. But among the countless lines that have been captured on film, a few have actually changed the way we talk.

          In The Wizard of Oz, released in 1939, Dorothy says to her dog, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” People quote that line whenever they feel like the world around them is changing fast.

          In 1948, the movie Casablanca gave us one of the most romantic phrases of all time, “Here’s looking at you, kid.” I won’t hurt your ears by trying to do Humphrey Bogart.

          Cool Hand Luke, released in 1967, gave us the words, “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate,” uttered by teachers everywhere.

          From 1984’s This Is Spinal Tap, we get the line “These go to 11.” Christopher Guest’s character, an empty headed rock star, was referring to custom guitar amps that don’t max out at a measly 10 on the volume knob – no, his went to 11. Now, turning something up to 11 can mean any type of excessiveness.(1)

          Three of my personal favorite quotable lines come from The Princess Bride. “Have fun storming the castle”, “Inconceivable” and “As you wish.”

          The world of movies, of course, is not the only source of quotable lines that shape our lives. The Bible is also full of great phrases that are remembered and quoted in a variety of situations.

          Psalm 23 gives us the comforting verse, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

          From Jeremiah we get the assurance, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”

          1st Corinthians offers the insight that “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.”

          Paul has some classic quotable lines, such as “I can do all things through him who strengthens me”, from Philippians.

          And from Romans, we are promised, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God…”

          And of course, there is the verse that Martin Luther called “the Gospel in miniature,” John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

          Another classic quotable line comes from our text for today from Ruth – “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my god.”

          What makes these lines from the Bible so special and so quotable? For starters, they are true – they capture an important insight about the nature of God and human beings. The Lord is as caring and protective toward us as a shepherd is toward his sheep. God really does watch over us, making plans for our welfare. Christ truly does strengthen us to face the challenges of our lives, and all things do tend to work together for good when we love and serve our Lord.

          These biblical verses are concise summaries of bigger truth, in the same way that movie lines reveal something essential about their characters. Humphrey Bogart was a tough guy with a tender heart. Christopher Guest was the empty-headed rock star. And Dorothy was a naïve young girl who had never been away from home before. These movie lines are memorable because they are so true to their characters.

          But great movie lines also shape us because they capture an entire story. When Dorothy says, “We’re not in Kansas anymore,” you know that she has entered the strange new world of Oz. When Chief Brody says, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat,” when he sees the giant great white shark for the first time, he captures the movie Jaws in a nutshell.

          In the book of Ruth, we hear Ruth saying the line, “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” This quotable line shapes our lives because it captures the entire story of the book of Ruth, bringing to mind the faithfulness of Ruth to her mother-in-law Naomi which, in turn, is a picture of God’s faithfulness to us. Her comment mirrors God’s faithfulness or “hesed” as it is called in the book of Ruth.

          Ruth’s story is set back in the days when judges ruled over the people of Judah, and there was a famine in the land. A man of Bethlehem fled the famine, became an immigrant, and went to live in the land of Moab, along with his wife Naomi and their two sons. The man died in Moab, and his two sons married a couple of Moabite women named Orpah and Ruth. But then the two sons died, leaving Naomi without a husband or sons. She was living at a time in which life was – in the words of the philosopher Thomas Hobbes – “nasty, brutish and short.”

          So what was poor Naomi supposed to do? She continued her journey as an immigrant, as a refugee, and she returned to Judah, where the famine was now over. But she knew that she had nothing to offer her daughter’s in law. So she encourages them to go back to their mother’s house.

          All three weep, and then Orpah kisses Naomi and heads back to Moab – reluctantly, but she goes. Ruth however, clings to Naomi. Naomi encourages her to go as well, but Ruth says, “Do not press me to leave you or turn back from following you. Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” When Naomi sees that Ruth is faithful to her and determined to stay with both her and her God, Naomi allows her to come along.

          This memorable verse captures the story of Ruth’s faithfulness. The line is repeated in a variety of settings today, with the citation “Ruth 1: 16” appearing inside wedding rings and on tabletop photo frames. These words of Ruth, expressing her determination to be faithful to Naomi and to God, have actually shaped our lives and changed the way we talk and feel.

          We remember these words because they reveal something essential about Ruth – she was a woman of deep love and faithfulness.

          But we also remember these words because they summarize the entire story, and remind us that God used this loving and faithful immigrant woman in a powerful way. Ruth went to Bethlehem with Naomi, and there she met a man named Boaz. She married him and had a son who became the grandfather of David. Because Ruth remained faithful to Naomi and to God, she was able to become the ancestor of the greatest of Israel’s kings – and an ancestor of Jesus himself. God used Ruth and Naomi, both of whom were immigrants and refugees, to bring about the Divine Kingdom on earth.

          Let’s not assume, however, that love and faithfulness always lead to a perfect Hollywood ending. When Ruth promises to stay with Naomi, she does not know that she will end up with a husband and a child. Jessica Tate, the director of the organization called NEXT Church, reminds us that when the two women arrive in Bethlehem, Naomi is bitter and anger. “At this point in the story,” she says, “we do not know that Ruth will become Naomi’s savior.” We don’t know that there will be a new family or plentiful food. All we are left with is Naomi’s emptiness.(2)

          “This is where we so often find ourselves,” says Tate, “with a scary diagnosis, a relationship crumbling, the loss of a job, the death of a loved one. We find ourselves in these empty places, uncertain of the end of the story. We do not know how, or if, our fortunes, our security, our confidence, our hope will be restored.”(3)

          So what do we do? In the movie A Beautiful Mind, a brilliant mathematician named John Nash suffers from terrible hallucinations. After a particularly threatening episode, his wife Alicia comes to him and asks, “You want to know what’s real?” Putting his hand on her heart, she says, “This is real.” She remains faithful to him in the face of an uncertain future, and near the end of his life, he wins the Nobel Prize.(4)

          “This is real,” says Alicia Nash – you are not alone.

          “This is real,” says Ruth to Naomi – I will be with you.

          “We are left with simply a promise,” writes Jessica Tate, “a promise that we are not alone.”

          This is God’s promise to us as well – nothing in all creation will separate us from our Lord.

          “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge.” This promise from Ruth to Naomi is also God’s promise to each of us. You want to know what’s real? This is real – the love and faithfulness of the one true God - in every place and time, in the face of any hardship, loss or failure, is made real around this communion table.

          That’s a quotable line that can shape our lives.

          May God be praised. Amen.


1.    HomileticsOnline for Nov 4th, 2018.

2.    Ibid…

3.    Ibid…

4.    Ibid…

10-28-18 How to ask for help

Thomas J Parlette

“How to ask for help”

Mark 10: 46-52



          I wonder how many of you have heard of a man named Charley Boswell? Charley Boswell was blinded in World War II while rescuing a buddy from a burning tank. Charley had always been a great athlete so, after the war, he took up golf. And he was astoundingly good at it. In short, Charley Boswell won the National Blind Golf Championship 16 times, once shooting a score of 81.

          In 1958 Charley went to Ft. Worth, Texas to receive the coveted Ben Hogan Award, named in honor of one the greatest professional golfers in history. Mr. Hogan agreed to play a round of golf with Charley. Charley said, “Would you like to play for money?”

          But Hogan said, “That wouldn’t be fair.”

          Charley was persistent – “C’mon, Mr. Hogan, are you afraid to play a blind golfer?”

          Now Hogan was really competitive, so he said, “Okay, I’ll play for money. How much?”

          “1,000 dollars a hole.”

          “That’s a lot of money Charley. How many strokes do you want me to give you?”

          “No strokes. I’ll play you straight up.”

          “Charley, I can’t do it. What would people think of me taking advantage of a blind man?”

          Boswell smiled and said, “Don’t worry, Mr. Hogan, our tee time is tonight at midnight!”(1)

          Charlie Boswell might have lacked the ability to see – but he certainly lacked nothing when it came to confidence.

          Today in the Gospel of Mark, we meet another blind man who was brimming with confidence – Bartimaeus. Actually, that wasn’t really his name, it was more of a description of him as a person. Bartimaeus means “Son of Timaeus”- so this blind man doesn’t even warrant a proper name, he is known only as the Son of Timaeus. That gives you a clue to his status in society – he is a nobody, not even worthy of a name. Such was the case for the blind, or really anyone with a physical or mental challenge in Jesus’ name.

          These middle chapters of Mark really hinge on blindness. It begins with the healing of the blind man at Bethsaida. From that story, to this one about Bartimaeus, Peter makes the confession that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus foretells his death and resurrection 3 separate times, and he is transfigured on the mountaintop to the amazement of Peter, James and John. But the disciples are caught up arguing about who is the greatest and who should get to sit on either side of Jesus in the coming kingdom.

          Over the course of these two chapters, the disciples prove that they are spiritually blind just as Jesus is healing people of physical blindness. In Mark, this is the last story of Jesus ministry until he enters Jerusalem for the beginning of his final days – when he will cure his own disciples of their spiritual blindness.

          In both blind man stories, the man in Bethsaida and Bartimaeus in Jericho – it is confidence and persistence that carry the day. For the man in Bethsaida, it is the confidence that his friends had in Jesus – that he would be able to cure their friend. For Bartimaeus, it was his own confidence in Jesus’ abilities and his persistence to keep asking for help, even though those around him were telling him to quiet down, to “hush up” as The Message puts it. As Jesus says at the end of the healing, “your faith – your confidence in me, your persistence in asking for help – your faith has made you well.”

          Bartimaeus really embodies those verses we heard from Psalm 34 – “This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord, and was saved from every trouble… Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord rescues them from them all.”

          We can learn some things from Bartimaeus, not the least of which is how to ask for help. Asking for help is not something that we are especially good at, especially Americans. In her anti-self help book Mayday: Asking for Help in Times of Need, M. Nora Klaver writes that “Asking for help is a universally dreaded endeavor. Whether we’re struggling with getting that heavy bag into the overhead bin on an airplane, or fixing a flat tire by the side of the road, Americans in particular are much more likely to say, “I’m good, I got it” rather than “can you help?” – unless it’s an emergency that involves calling professionals like the police or the fire department or an ambulance.”(2)

          In her research, Klaver suggests a number of reasons that we Americans don’t ask for help.

          Number 1 – she suggests that we were never taught how to ask for help. The ethic of self-sufficiency is woven into the fabric of our country. With hard work anything is possible – that is a very American mantra.

          Another reason we don’t like to ask for help is that we love our independence. In his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert Putnam reports that Americans are becoming more isolated from one another as attendance has decreased in clubs and community service organizations, including the church. With the advent of the Internet, we can pretty much take care of all our needs without ever leaving the house. We don’t need to go to the store, or sit in a classroom or have contact with anyone at all if we don’t want to.

          And for some of us, we don’t ask for help because we just don’t think of it. We are so conditioned to be independent and self-sufficient that it doesn’t occur to us to seek out help even when we really need it.

          Another reason we don’t ask for help is that it’s just easier to do it ourselves. Who hasn’t said or thought something like, “If you want something done right, do it yourself.”

          And finally we may simply be afraid to ask for help. What will people think if we appear vulnerable and admit we don’t know everything or have the skills to meet every challenge. So we soldier on the best we can, even when we really need help. We’re just afraid to ask.

          In short, we’re very good at trying to do it ourselves, and achieving modest results, instead of getting real help and making real progress. And in so doing, we miss out on the gifts that someone else can give us.

          Bartimaeus had no such qualms about asking for help, and the results for him were nothing less than miraculous. Through his story we can learn some things that can help us when we need to ask for help.

          First of all – name your need and remain open to other possibilities. Notice that Bartimaeus doesn’t cry out “Jesus, Son of David, let me see again.” Not at first. No, first he cries out “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Bartimaeus knows he needs forgiveness, spiritual healing. It’s not just his eyes that need to be healed, but his soul. He starts there, asking for the forgiveness and spiritual healing that we all need. Jesus asks him “What do you want me to do for you?” And Bartimaeus names his need – let me see again.

          Which brings us to the second thing we can learn here. Name your need – and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Take a leap of faith – ask. There is an old Chinese proverb that says “He who asks is a fool for five minutes, but he who dos not ask remains a fool forever.”(3) Name your need, and ask for the help you seek, just as persistently as Bartimaeus does.

          So Jesus restores Bartimaeus’ sight and we see the third thing we can learn from this story. Be grateful. When Bartimaeus receives his sight, his first action was to follow Jesus up the road toward Jerusalem. He was grateful for what Jesus had done for him.

          James Kraft, in his book, Adventure in Jade, tells about a great turning point in his life. He was fourteen years old at the time, one of a  family of eleven children living on a farm in Canada. Because of a serious problem with his eyes, James could not distinguish objects clearly. He compared his vision to a blurry image of a boat seen under water. Just as discouraging, his nearsightedness was so acute and so distressing that he also suffered from furious headaches.

          But by divine providence, there happened to be an eye doctor vacationing in the vicinity of James’ home. Young James began taking care of the eye doctor’s horse and buggy. Noting James extreme nearsightedness, the eye doctor insisted that the boy go to the city with him to be fitted with a pair of glasses as his gift. James did so. Here is how he described what the gift of improved vision meant to him. He said of the eye doctor, “He gave me the earth and all that was in it, completely in focus and beautiful beyond anything I could have dreamed… I cannot think of another act of human kindness in my lifetime which can compare with his.”(4)

          Bartimaeus received the same gift from Jesus – and was so grateful that he followed Jesus on the way to Jerusalem.

          There is a lot we can earn from this little story of Bartimaeus – not the least of which is how to ask for help. Name your need, ask and be grateful. Yes, you can do it by yourself – but you don’t have to.

          And for that – May God be praised. Amen.


1.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXIV, No. 4, p19.

2.    Homiletics Online for October 28th, 2018.

3.    Ibid.

4.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXIV, No. 4, p22.

10-21-18 Standing in the Footsteps of Melchizedek

Thomas J Parlette

“Standing in the Footsteps of Melchizedek”

Hebrews 5: 1-10, Mark 10: 35-45


           In a recent issue of the Christian Century, Episcopal priest Heidi Havercamp writes about an old-fashioned image of Christ that can still be found in many Episcopal churches. It is the image of Christ on the cross – not nailed, naked and suffering – but rather tranquil, triumphant and vested in stole, chausable, and even a maniple, a High Church vestment resembling a fancy dish towel. “This image,” she writes, “the resurrected Jesus as Episcopal priest always strikes me as both presumptuous and odd. But I can’t help think that this Sunday’s reading from Hebrews might provide the perfect caption: “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.”(1)

          It’s quite possible that you may be unfamiliar with this priest named Melchizedek. He was King of Salem, possibly an early forerunner of the place that would become Jeru-Salem, and a priest – which is peculiar because no one else in scripture was ever both. You were either a King or a Priest – but never both at the same time. And Melchizedek’s story occurred many years before the Levitical priesthood was even established. Very odd indeed.

          Melchizedek’s story is entirely contained within a few verses near the end of Genesis 14, where he meets Abram, before he became Abraham, after a battle and offers him bread and wine, blesses him, and vanishes – although not before Abram gifts him one tenth of his family’s possessions.

          We remember Melchizedek because his name means “King of Righteousness.” And the place he rules, Salem, has the same spelling in Hebrew as “shalom” – meaning peace. So many people make comparisons between Melchizedek and Jesus. You can see why. Here is a priest, the King of Righteousness and Peace, who appears in the wilderness, offers bread and wine and blessings and is deserving of tithes and offerings. You can see the parallels, the foreshadowing of the Messiah, Jesus the Christ.

          Melchizedek appears in Hebrews, in Genesis 14 and in Psalm 110, where we find the first use of the “priest forever” line. This image of the Great High Priest, who sacrifices himself is very important to the writer of Hebrews, as it is referred to 7 times in the book.

          A priest is one who is authorized to perform the sacred rituals and teach the traditions and beliefs of an organization – whether it is religious or secular. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, a priest was one chosen by God to be a mediatory agent between God and humanity. Before Christ, the thought was that individuals did not have direct access to God – you needed a go between, a middleman between God and humanity. This was done by a priest. And as time went by and communities grew and Temples came into existence – especially the Temple at Jerusalem – there was an office called the High Priest. This was the priest designated to enter the Holy of Holies and make offerings, prayers and supplications directly to God.

          The writer of Hebrews makes the theological case that Jesus in the Great High Priest. Jesus is the one chosen by God, with direct access to God, to make the sacrifice of himself to bring reconciliation between God and humanity. This text makes clear that being a priest is not a status symbol with rewards and perks, but rather a priest is set aside as a matter of function. It is a position of service, not privilege.

          This is where James and John go off track in our Gospel lesson from Mark. The brothers approach Jesus with their request to sit on either side of him basking in Jesus’ glory, because they think they deserve it. But they don’t understand yet what that means. To drink from the same cup as Jesus is live with humility, in obedience to God, as a servant to others. They will learn this lesson as Jesus completes his work on the cross and defeats the power of death by rising from death – but for now, they don’t quite get it. Their hearts are in the right place, their intentions are good, but they don’t quite know what they’re getting into yet.

          There is a wonderful story about the British author Graham Greene. Greene once waited two and half years for a 15 minute appointment with the Roman Catholic mystic Padre Pio, who lived in an Italian monastery. Padre Pio was reputed to be a “living saint” and bore on his body the stigmata, or the wounds of Christ.

          On the day Greene was due to meet with this revered mystic, Greene first attended a mass where Padre Pio officiated. Their appointment was to begin immediately after the mass. However, when the mass was over, instead of keeping this much awaited appointment, Greene left the church, headed for the airport and flew right back to London.

          When asked why he broke the appointment he had waited on for two and a half years, Greene said, “I was not ready for the manner in which that man could change my life.”(2)

          James and John didn’t know it yet – but they weren’t ready to be changed as Jesus would change them.

          The writer of Hebrews places Jesus squarely in the footsteps of the ancient, mysterious priest Melchizedek – and Jesus redefines what it means to be a priest. For Jesus, a priest is one who lives with humility, in obedience to God, to serve others. As the Great High Priest, Jesus sacrificed himself for humanity.

          But Jesus is not the only one who stands in the footsteps of Melchizedek. We do too. During the Reformation, Protestant theologians described all of us as priests, referring to the church as “the priesthood of all believers.” As disciples of Christ, we are called to live in humble obedience to God in order to make known in our service. That’s a tall order – the footsteps of Melchizedek are big footprints to fill. But that is our call.

          God calls us to be priests that bridge the gap between God’s dreams for the world and humanity’s needs in this world. As Jesus, the Great High Priest, is called to be the reconciliation of God – so too are those who bear Christ’s name are called to show this reconciliation to the world. As Susan Andrews has written: “As baptized “priests” we are given all the power, vision, and grace to be who we are called to be – not because we are perfect, but because God’s grace is made perfect in us. We can be “bridge people”: standing in the middle of red state/blue state politics, standing in the middle of violent conflicts, standing in the middle of broken relationships, standing in the middle of theological skirmishes, standing in the middle of the enormous gaps between rich and poor, black and white, immigrant and citizen - standing in the middle, between God’s vision of shalom and the disharmony of contemporary life. Yet, as “priest,” each of us is called to stretch out our arms to embrace all that is dissident, becoming a dwelling place of reconciliation where all of creation finds a harmonious home in God’s heart.”(3)

          Sounds a little crazy, I know – but it’s true.

          Michael B. Curry, Presiding bishop of the Episcopal church, tells about an old Apple computer commercial from the 1990’s that went viral on Youtube on the day in 2011 when Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, died. The tag line of the commercial was “Think different.”

          In the commercial, they showed a collage of photographs and film footage of people who have invented and inspired, created and sacrificed to improve the world, to make a difference. They showed Bob Dylan, Amelia Earhart, Frank Lloyd Wright, Maria Callas, Muhammed Ali, Martin Luther King Jr., Jim Henson, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, Mahatma Gandhi and on and on and on. As the images rolled by, a voice reads this poem:

          “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently.

          They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward.

          While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”(4)

          Anthropologist Margaret Mead once made the well-known statement that we should never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed individuals can change the world, indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.(5)

          As disciples of Jesus Christ, we stand in the footsteps of Melchizedek – to live as priests, as bridge people, to be an example of God’s vision of peace and reconciliation for this broken and dysfunctional world. It’s a bit of a crazy thing to do. But here’s to the crazy ones.

          May God be praised. Amen.

1.    Heidi Havercamp, Christian Century, September 26th, 2018, p21.

2.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXIV, No.4, p17.

3.    Susan Andrews, Feasting on the Word, Westminster John Knox Press, 2009, p184, 186.

4.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXIV, No. 4, p16.

5.    Ibid… p17.

10-14-18 Losing God

A sermon preached by Rev. Jay Rowland, Sunday October 14, 2018 at First Presbyterian Church, Rochester MN. 

Texts: Psalm 22:1-15,19

            Job 23:1-9, 16-17

Losing God 

I feel like I should apologize for the scriptures today. The lectionary provides at least four scriptures every Sunday. Our custom here is to select two of the four. Usually, at least one contains a message of hope, or encouragement, or something positive.  

Not today!   


Not sorry.   

Psalm 22 and Job 23 may lack optimism, but they don’t lack for meaning.  There’s something powerful about the raw emotion and the sharp edges of human suffering on display. When it comes to suffering, it seems to me there’s just no good that comes from pretending or putting on a brave face.   

And Job is suffering.  

Psalm 22 is often noted for being spoken/prayed by Jesus on the cross, “Oh God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”  Paired with Job today, one can easily imagine Job speaking/praying these words.  If you’re not familiar with Job, all you need to know about him is that he’s a good, honest man. He worked hard. He obeyed the law.  He was by all accounts a good husband, good father, a good neighbor and member of his community.  He was regarded as a man of integrity and conscience.  Job was also wealthy and accumulated material wealth and property.  In Hebrew culture, prosperity like Job’s was presumed to be indicative of God’s favor.   

But then Job lost everything: his wealth, his property, his health, and worst of all calamity came upon his family and they all died.   

To say that Job was despondent is an understatement.  In his agony, Job cries, Oh, that I knew where I might find [God], that I might come even to his dwelling.”  Job gives voice to the most basic question of faith and life: “where are you God?”!   

For many, Job represents the reality that bad things happen to good people.  Leaving aside some of the various theological questions Job often provokes, I prefer today to focus upon on Job.  How he deals with the bottom dropping out from under him. 

In his Introduction to Job in The Message, Eugene Peterson writes  

It is not only because Job suffered that he is important to us [but] because he suffered in the same ways we do, in the vital areas of family, personal health, and material things. Job searchingly questioned and boldly protested his suffering.…  [he] says boldly what some of us are too timid to say (out loud). … He shouts out to God what a lot of us (keep locked away in silent thought).  Job … refuses to take silence for an answer. He refuses to take cliches for an answer. He refuses to let God off the hook. [1] 

Job struggles to make sense out of the senseless loss he’s experienced.  We can identify with his struggle.  He searches desperately for anything or anyone who might comfort him in the midst of his agony.  Wendell Berry says that "the distinguishing characteristic of absolute despair is silence.”[2]  A memorable scene from Job is when Job’s friends first visit him. They sit in silence with Job for seven days (2:13). This speaks volumes about the sacredness of presence, and silence.  

But eventually their silence ends.  And when Job’s friends open their mouths, they manage to do the impossible: they found a way to make Job feel even worse.  They felt compelled to explain this awful turn in Job’s life.  There had to be an explanation. They quickly determined that Job must have done something terribly wrong.  They think they’re being helpful, but they’re only distancing themselves from Job.  One commentator observes that Job’s friends show their own anxiety and discomfort over Job’s suffering, “protecting themselves from the chaos that engulfed their friend.” (Kathryn M. Schifferdecker, see end notes) 

Job is the oldest, most ancient story in scripture. Job’s assertion that his sin did not bring down God’s wrath upon him is a crucial declaration that should reverberate through all of scripture and human experience.  And yet the opposite seems to be true:  Whenever life goes terribly wrong, we impulsively suspect that we did something “wrong” in God’s eyes, that adversity is the result of somehow running afoul of God’s love and mercy.   

Job refuses to believe that his situation is beyond God’s reach. He clearly feels abandoned by God and isolated from human community.  But he rejects the notion that he somehow deserves what has happened to him or that it’s merely his “fate”.  He protests his situation and on the contrary believes that God could and would make a difference, if only he could find God and appeal to God’s righteousness:

I would lay out my case

    and present my arguments.

Then I would listen to [God’s] reply

    and understand what [God] says to me.

Would [God] use his great power to argue with me?

    No, [God] would give me a fair hearing.

Honest people can reason with [God],

    and so I would be forever acquitted by my judge.

I go east, but [God] is not there.

    I go west, but I cannot find [God there].

I do not see [God] in the north, for [God] is hidden.

    I look to the south, but [God] is concealed.

Job 23:4-9 New Living Translation 

Even though Job laments God’s absence, at times Job speaks directly to God.  He refuses to believe or accept that God is unconcerned.  This would have been so comforting if at least one of his friends would have backed him up.  Instead, give Job advice about what he should do. They even claim to speak for God (Job 13:7-12). Not even one of them thought to speak to God on Job’s behalf or even join Job in appealing to God’s mercy.  

I suppose Job’s friends are indicative of how most people react.  We just don’t know what to say to someone we know is suffering terribly.  When people don’t know what to say it’s easy to do like Job’s friends, blurting out things that are more harmful than helpful.  Even though people mean well, it’s common to hear people say things like,

"God must have needed your [spouse, child, relative] in heaven."

"Everything happens for a reason."

"God must be testing you."[3] 

Job models a stout response to our own suffering.  Job speaks directly to God even though he also describes feeling like God “isn’t there”.  Job holds nothing back: he directs his anger, his pain, his grief, and his despair directly to God.  He knows that God is big enough to handle it.  Job’s lament is not mere complaint, it is ultimately an expression of hope.  Implicit in his lament (and lament in scripture) is conviction that what has happened is contrary to God’s covenant of love and community. Lament holds God to account whenever life spirals into despair.  Lament clings desperately to hope. 

In this way, Job has something valuable to teach us.  Job models the importance of lament: speaking our anger, pain, grief and despair directly to God, even when—perhaps especially when—we only feel God's absence.  In this unlikely way, Job teaches us how to cultivate hope in the midst of hopelessness.  Job reminds us that there are times and situations (in our own life and in events we witness) where what happens doesn’t make sense, defies reason, can’t be explained or excused or accepted.  

Sometimes life doesn’t make sense.  

When that happens, lament is the best we can do, and the best we must do to avoid losing God. 

[1] Eugene Peterson, The Message, Introduction to Job, p.822-823  Note: I’ve altered his text; my words are in parentheses. 

[2] Wendell Berry, "A Poem of Difficult Hope," in What Are People For? (New York: North Point, 1990), 59 

[3] Kathryn M. Schifferdecker http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1420.  She adds, “we do the same thing, of course, though more subtly. When we hear of a tragedy, our gut reaction is often to reason to ourselves why it won't happen to us: They built their house in a flood plain. He wasn't watching his child closely enough. She lives in the wrong neighborhood. This instinct begins early. When my 8-year-old daughter heard of a 9-year-old child who had been shot, her first reaction was "But the child was a boy, right?"

10-7-18 The Year of the Woman

Thomas J Parlette

“The Year of the Woman”

Gen. 2: 18-23



          Pastor Billy Strayhorn tells about a certain church which held a Sunday service patterned after those in colonial America. The pastor dressed in long coat and knickers, and the congregation was divided by gender: men on the left side of the aisle and women on the right. At collection time, the pastor announced that this, too, would be done in colonial fashion. He asked the “head of the household” to come forward and place their offering on the altar. All the men stood. To the amusement of the entire congregation, however, many of them crossed over the aisle to get money from their wives.(1)

          Way back in 1992, four women joined Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas and Barbara Mikulski of Maryland as members of the US Senate. Head-line writers consequently dubbed 1992 as “The Year of the Woman” because the United States now had 5 women in the Senate. But Senator Mikulski was offended at this title. She said, “Calling 1992 the Year of the Woman makes it sound like the Year of the Caribou or the Year of the Asparagus.” Then she added, “We’re not a fad, a fancy or a year.”(2)

          There are quite a few pundits who are predicting that we could see another Year of the Woman in 2018. More women than ever are running for office – at the state and federal level. And in the primaries, they are winning. It’s interesting to note that currently the Congress has 23 female Senators and 84 in the House of Representatives, an all-time high. And we will probably see that number rise after the mid-terms. The numbers aren’t equal yet, but they getting closer.

          Popular columnist Kathleen Parker, in an online article, adds her voice to those who think that 2018 might finally be the Year of the Woman. She notes that many of the original goals of the women’s movement have already been reached. Woman now outnumber men in college, graduate schools and medical and law schools; three of the nine Supreme Court justices are female; and, incrementally, women are reaching what Parker calls the dubious objective of serving alongside men in combat roles. Then in her humorous way she adds, “Nor would it be wise to underestimate women’s determination to clean House…” and then she adds in parenthesis (“and Senate.”)(3)

          That phrase “Cleaning House” has taken on a new connotation for some women. With Congress nearly equally unpopular with both Democrats and Republicans, many wonder if the situation cannot but be improved by the addition of a few more women in both houses.

          Clearly God thinks the world is a better place with women in it.

          Our passage for this morning from Genesis is one of the Creation narratives. The first chapter of Genesis is about what Gerhard Von Rad called “the Primordial History”(4) and what Walter Brueggemann called “the Pre-History.”(5) It was the story of how all creation came from God, and God considered all of it “good.”

          In this next part of the Pre-History, the writer focuses on human beings and their ultimate calling or destiny. This text focuses on humans as the glory of creation – made in the image of God, but also as the central problem of creation, as described in the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden giving in to the temptation to be like God. But for now – we’re not quite to the story about the Garden. Today we are looking at the story of God creating human beings.

          Our passage begins with the Lord God saying, “It is not good that the man should be alone. I will make him a helper as his partner.” So the first point to make about this story is that God doesn’t want us to be alone. We’ve just gone through the story of creation, and God called everything good. But now, God declares something not good for the first time. It is not good for humans to be alone.

          That’s true, isn’t it. It is not good for human beings to be alone. People are made for relationship. That is a practical statement of fact. That doesn’t necessarily refer to a spouse, it could also apply to family, friends, church, and of our social networks. Having family and friends, being connected to a community is good for our health.

          Lisa Berkmann of the Harvard School of Public Health has found that older people with more friends are much more likely to recover from a heart attack than people with few or no friends or social supports. Another study demonstrated that people with no friends were three times more likely to die than those with at least one or more sources of social support. These outcomes apparently have physiological underpinnings, since contact with friends and loved ones may also lower the levels of hormones like cortisol that are released in stressful situations. A friendly face, says one author, may be just as health giving as an aspirin or vitamin E. It is not good for our health for us to be alone. It is also not good for our emotional well-being. It is not good to be alone.(6)

          From the very beginning, God wants us to live in community.

          Author J. Allan Petersen tells about a flight he took on a 747 out of Brazil one time. Midway through the flight he was awakened by a strong voice announcing, “We have a serious emergency.” The emergency was that three engines had quit and the fourth was expected to go at any moment. The plane began to drop and turn in the night, preparing for an emergency landing.

          At first the situation seemed unreal to Petersen, but when the steward barked, “Prepare for impact,” he found himself – and everyone around him praying. He buried his head in his lap and prayed, God, thank you. Thank you for the privilege of knowing you. Life has been wonderful.”

          But as the plane approached the ground, Petersen’s last cry was, “Oh God, my wife! My kids!”

          Petersen survived the emergency landing. As he wandered around the airport in a daze after disembarking from the damaged plane, aching all over, he found he couldn’t speak, but his mind was racing. “What were my last words,” he thought. “What was the bottom line?” As his last thoughts came back to him, he had his answer – relationship. Reunited with his wife and children, he found that the only thing he could say was, “Thank God. Thank God.”(7)

          It is not good for us to be alone. We are made to be in relationship.

          So God goes about creating some more creatures. God creates all the animals and birds and lets the human name them. But none of them were suitable as a helper or a companion. So God took a piece from his human and fashioned an equal for the man. And the man recognizes this new creation as his equal – “Bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.”

          Which brings us to the second thing we can say about this passage. It is not good for humans to be alone. We are called to live in community. And men and women – humanity – are created in God’s image. God created both from the same essence and in God’s image. One is not favored over the other. One is not superior over the other.

          Now we all know that men and women are different. Man are from Mars and Women are from Venus as the bestseller says. Comedienne Elaine Boosler notes this difference when she says “when women are depressed, they either eat and go shopping. Men invade another country.”(8)

          Yes, men and women are different – but they are created equal, in the image of God. And as such, women deserve to be taken seriously, just as men are. Women deserve to be heard, just as me are. Women deserve the right to be believed. Women deserve the right to take their place alongside men as leaders in our society – in business, education and government. From the beginning, God created males and females to be equals – both created in the image of God.

          From the start, God recognized that it was not good to be alone. So God called us to live in community and gave us the world as a garden filled with the riches of God’s creation – plants, animals, oceans, skies, birds, the sun, the moon and the stars of heaven. And God gave us each other, created as equals, to love and to serve.

          That’s what we celebrate on this world communion Sunday, as Christians all over the world gather at the Table – God’s call to live in community, as equals. Because it is not good to be alone.

          May God be praised. Amen.

1.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXIV, No. 4, p4.

2.    Ibid… p4.

3.    Ibid… p4.

4.    Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis, The Westminster Press, 1972, p5.

5.    Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, John Knox Press, 1982, p11.

6.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol XXXIV, No. 4, p5

7.    Ibid… p5.

8.    Ibid… p6.

9-30-18: One of Us

  There is a time-honored story about a Catholic Church that was hosting a community Thanksgiving service. This was to be a first for the church and for the community. Naturally everyone was quite excited. With great dignity the priest led his three Protestant colleagues toward the chancel area when he suddenly realized that he had forgotten to put out chairs for his guests to sit in during the service. The priest urgently whispered in the ear of one of elderly ushers, “Please get some chairs for the guest pastors.”