Decisions, Decisions: “Can You Trust God’s Promises?”

First Baptist Richmond, March 5, 2023

The Second Sunday in Lent

Genesis 12:1-4a

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”

Today’s Old Testament lesson is the Call of Abraham from Genesis 12.  I love this story, if only because it’s the beginning of a saga that will go on for the next 38 chapters: one that will include God’s covenant with Abraham; the birth of his son, Isaac; Isaac’s near sacrifice on the mountain; the rivalry between Jacob and Esau; Esau’s stolen blessing; Jacob’s love affair with Rachel; Joseph and his coat of many colors, and many more.  But none of them would have happened if Abraham hadn’t said yes to God.  So, let’s take a closer look at that story.

It begins in the previous chapter, where we learn that Terah was the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran.  It’s only a hunch, but I have a feeling that Haran, the youngest of the three, was kind of a wild buck.  He fathered a son named Lot (apparently out of wedlock) and died while he was still a young man (probably doing something stupid).  Rumor has it that his last words were, “Hey, y’all; watch this!”  Nahor and Abram were a little more respectable.  Nahor married a nice girl named Milcah and Abram married Sarai, who was beautiful, but, as it turns out, barren.  She and Abram may have taken Lot in because they couldn’t have any children of their own. 

It was about that time that Terah decided to leave Ur of the Chaldeans and go up and around the Fertile Crescent to the Land of Canaan.  Abram and Sarai went with him and took Lot along.  But for some reason they stopped before they got to Canaan.  Maybe it was because Terah was getting old, or maybe it was because they found a place too beautiful to leave behind.  I can imagine Terah saying to Abram, “I believe this is it.  I believe I’ve found the place where I’m going to live out the rest of my days.”  They settled there, and Terah named it Haran, in memory of his deceased son.

It was a good place, and from all outward appearances Abram had it made.  He was living on his father’s farm with his wife, Sarai, and a nephew who was like a son to him.  His father was still in good health and as long as he was alive Abram would never have to worry about where his next meal would come from.  But one night the Lord whispered to him in his sleep, “Go, Abram.  Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

I read that passage to the church staff last Tuesday and asked them to listen for how many times the word bless or blessing is found.  “Five,” they said, counting carefully.  God is planning to bless Abram so that he can be a blessing; it’s as simple as that.  And then I told them that’s part of my daily prayer: that I would be “a conduit of God’s love and a channel of God’s blessing.”  I said I sometimes picture rain falling onto the roof of a house, collecting in the gutter, flowing through the downspout, and gushing out at the bottom.  That’s what I want to be where God’s blessing is concerned.  But I also told them I’m not always very good at that.  Steve Blanchard said, “You might have too many leaves in your gutter.”  We laughed, but he was right.  I’ve got a lot of other things going on in my life; the blessings don’t always flow through me in the way that they should.  And maybe that’s why God picked Abraham.  Maybe his life was wonderfully uncluttered.  He seems to be kind of a simple person, doesn’t he?  A downspout through whom God’s blessings can flow without obstruction. 

Still, when God told him to go from his father’s house he must have had to think about it.  I’ve thought about it, and what I think it came down to for Abraham was a choice between trust and security.  There was the security of living on his father’s farm and never having to worry about where the next meal was coming from, but there was also this invitation from God to step out on faith, to trust him, and in return God said he would bless him, and make his name great, and make of him a great nation. 

Decisions, decisions. 

Have you ever been there?  Have you ever considered a job opportunity in another state?  Has anyone ever asked you to marry them, with all the upheaval that entails?  Have you ever thought about quitting your job and going into business for yourself?  Have you ever had to weigh the risks and rewards? 

I was 23 years old when I got married.  I was working as a graphic designer at a little studio on Newtown Pike, just outside of Lexington, Kentucky.  My boss was a good man, the son of an Episcopal priest, and he was good to me.  He had taken me on even though he wasn’t completely sure he could afford me.  I tried to reassure him that he hadn’t made a mistake by doing the best work I could and sharing all my best ideas.  And I had ideas.  This was back in 1984 and most of the work we did was by hand.  We designed logos and did illustrations and laid out magazine ads.  But one day I stopped in at a new store in Lexington called “Apple,” where they sold personal computers, and they had one with a screen that displayed different fonts, in different sizes.  I had never seen anything like that before.  I came back to the studio and told my boss I had seen the future of graphic design.  He chuckled and went back to work on a beautiful pen and ink drawing that no computer could replicate. 

And neither could I. 

So, I began to think differently about the future.  I began to dream up a five-year plan where I would have my own business and use computers to do graphic design (I know that sounds crazy).  And then one day I was at the courthouse in the little town where I lived, running an errand for my boss, and just out of curiosity I asked the clerk how much a business license cost.  “Ten dollars,” she said.  “Ten dollars!?”  That sounded like a deal.  I just happened to have a ten dollar bill in my wallet and before I really knew what I was doing I had bought a business license for my new graphic design studio.  But this was a small town.  When I came to work the next day my boss said, “Jim, I’m going to have to let you go.”  He said, “I found out you bought a business license at the courthouse while you were running an errand for me.  If you want to start your own business go ahead and do it.  No man can serve two masters.”  And then he handed me a cardboard box with all my personal belongings in it and a check for two weeks’ salary. 

That’s how quickly life can change.  That’s how quickly you can move from the security of a steady job to the insecurity of an unknown future.  I didn’t know what I was going to tell Christy when I got back to our little apartment above the drugstore, when I climbed those stairs with my pitiful cardboard box.  We had been married only a little over a year.  She had a part-time job but I was the breadwinner and here I was, wondering if we would have any bread the next month.  I had a business license and a few skills as a graphic designer, but I didn’t have any clients yet and wasn’t sure how to get them.  Would I be able to provide for my young wife, or not?  It was a very scary feeling. 

I think Abraham must have had some of those same feelings when the Lord called him.  As I said, he had a lot of security where he was.  But now here was the Lord telling him to go away from all of that, from his country, his kindred, his father’s house, to a land that only the Lord knew anything about.  So much uncertainty.  So much insecurity.  And yet so much promise.  So much possibility.  Suppose that, just like me, Abraham had been feeling a little restless.  Suppose that he had been waiting for an opportunity to make a life for himself.  What if that was the reason the Lord came to him in the first place, because he knew that for Abraham the sweetest word he could hear was the word go?

That’s what my boss said to me, and in that moment it didn’t sound sweet at all.  I had wanted to go into business for myself but not then.  I wasn’t ready then.  I had a whole lot of things to figure out first.  But when I got fired I lost that luxury: the luxury of time.  I had to figure things out and I had to figure them out immediately.  I called a man in our church who ran an advertising agency and he said, “Yeah, I have a few, small freelance jobs I could probably send your way.”  “Thank you,” I said, as if he had just saved my life, because in some ways he had.  I ended up doing a good bit of work for him and making more money than I had before.

But here’s the difference between Abraham and me.  I hadn’t trusted myself enough to step out on faith, at least not at that point.  My boss had to push me out of the nest.  But Abraham trusted God enough to do it on his own, to put his things in a cardboard box and follow God down the driveway not knowing if he would turn right or left when he got to the end of it.  He trusted God, and that’s why we are still telling his story. 

I won’t say that I have seen the future of preaching, but in the last few months I’ve been introduced to something called “ChatGPT.”  Have you heard of it?  It’s a computer program powered by artificial intelligence where you type in your request and it comes up with a response.  It’s so good it’s making English teachers nervous.  They’re afraid their students will ask it to write a 20-page term paper on Romeo and Juliet and they won’t be able to tell the difference between actual and artificial intelligence.  So, when I was working on this sermon I asked ChatGPT to tell me the difference between trust and security, and it did a good job.  But then I refined my request by asking it to compare trust in God with the security of a good job, and here’s the result that came back:

“Trust in God” and the security of a good job are two different concepts that can provide individuals with different forms of reassurance and confidence.

“Trust in God” typically refers to a belief in a higher power that guides and protects individuals through life. For some people, trusting in God can provide a sense of comfort and security, knowing that they are not alone and that there is a greater purpose and plan for their life. This type of trust is often associated with faith and religious beliefs.

The security of a good job, on the other hand, refers to having a steady income and employment that provides financial stability and reduces the risk of economic hardship. A good job can provide individuals with a sense of security and peace of mind, knowing that they have a reliable source of income and the ability to support themselves and their families.

While “trust in God” and the security of a good job are different concepts, they can be interconnected. Some people may find comfort in their faith while facing job insecurity or financial difficulties, while others may attribute their success in their career to their faith and trust in God’s guidance and protection.

Ultimately, both “trust in God” and the security of a good job are important for individuals to feel secure and confident in their lives. The extent to which an individual relies on one or the other may depend on their personal values, beliefs, and experiences.”

Well, there you have it: an explanation of the difference between trust and security written by an artificial intelligence program in the year 2023.  And then you have Abraham, somewhere in the Second Millennium, BC, gathering up all his belongings, his flocks and his herds, his manservants and maidservants, his wife and his nephew, and setting out toward a land that the Lord had promised to show him.  He didn’t have a computer to consult.  He didn’t have a GPS.  He was stepping out on faith, trusting God to guide his steps, to bring him at last to the land that he had promised.  Was he nervous?  Excited?  Probably both, and yet if we could have interviewed him in that moment I think he would have said that he was starting out on the greatest adventure of his life, and that he couldn’t wait to see how things turned out. 

That was true for me.  Getting fired from my job was one of the best things that ever happened to me.  It forced me to stop trusting in myself and start trusting in God.  It freed me up to consider options I might never have considered.  In the fall of that year I headed off to seminary and began a journey in ministry that continues to this day.  It’s been a blessing—a huge blessing.  I only hope that some of the rain that’s fallen on my roof has collected in the gutter, flowed through the downspout, and gushed out the bottom in a way that blesses others because I think that’s why God does it: I think God blesses us so we can bless others.

Just as he blessed Abraham.

—Jim Somerville © 2023

Decisions, Decisions: “Will You Give In?”

First Baptist Richmond, February 26, 2023

The First Sunday in Lent

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

Welcome to the First Sunday in Lent, and to the beginning of a sermon series called, “Decisions, Decisions.”[i]  In my notes to the worship planning team I wrote, “Each of the Old Testament lessons [in this season] presents us with a choice, a fork in the road, a need to decide. So much of life is like that, isn’t it? But few decisions are as important as the ones these texts demand. If we can learn to make these, the rest should be easy.” And so, with a little fear and trembling, let us turn from the well-thumbed pages of the New Testament to the first few pages of the Old Testament, where we find an explosion of creative activity. 

For some time now I have believed that Genesis 1 could function as a call to worship for the entire Bible.  It’s very poetic.  It has the kind of rhythm and structure that lends itself to such a thing.  God says, “Let there be light,” and then there is light, and God sees that it is good.  So, maybe you could help me.  I’ll be the leader and do the hard part, but when I give you the signal you say, “And God saw that it was good.”  Got it?  Here we go:

“In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.  Then God said, ‘Let there be light!’ and there was light.”

And God saw that it was good.” 

But that was only the first day.

Then God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters, and it was so.  God called the dome Sky.” 

And God saw that it was good.” 

That was the second day.

Then God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.”  And it was so.  God called the land earth and the waters he called seas.  He caused a profusion of vegetation to spring forth from the earth; plants yielding seed and fruit trees of every kind.

And God saw that it was good.”

That was the third day.

Then God said, “Let there be lights in the sky to separate the day from the night!” And so God made the sun and the moon and the stars to keep them company,

And God saw that it was good.”

That was the fourth day.

Then God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.”  And it was so.  And God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and multiply,” and that’s what they did. 

And God saw that it was good.” 

That was the fifth day.

Then God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so. Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

So God created humankind in his image,
            in the image of God he created them;
            male and female he created them.

God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

And God saw that it was good.”

Only this time the Bible says, “It was very good.”  That was the sixth day, and on the seventh day God rested. 

It makes a pretty good call to worship, doesn’t it?  It’s poetic.  But in chapter 2 the poet steps off the stage and the storyteller takes his place, and his version of creation is a little different.  He says, “In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up, the Lord God formed man from the dust of the earth, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man stood up, a living being.  And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” 

I often say that Jesus was working to bring heaven to earth, but he seems to have gotten the idea from his Father, who took that big, empty field described at the beginning of chapter 2 and turned it into the Garden of Eden, into Paradise, into Heaven on Earth.  And he put the man that he had made smack-dab in the middle of it, and gave him the responsibility of tending it and keeping it.  Not a bad job, right?  Keeper of Paradise?  And the Lord said, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

And so, apparently, the man worked in the garden, and ate of its fruit, and in so many ways it was heaven on earth.  But in one way it was not.  The Lord said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.”  And so, out of the ground, the Lord formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and he brought them to the man to name them, and whatever the man called them, that was their name.  But there wasn’t found among them a suitable helper for the man, so the Lord caused the man to fall into a deep sleep, and while he was sleeping the Lord took a rib from his side, and fashioned it into a woman, and brought her to the man.  And when he woke up from his sleep and saw her he was delighted and said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.  I will call her woman, because she was taken out of man.”  It is for this reason, the storyteller explains, that a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves unto his wife and the two become one flesh.  And the man and his wife were naked, and they were not ashamed.

And then the storyteller steps off the stage and the preacher takes his place.  He begins chapter 3 by saying, “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made.”  And let me just point out that this serpent is not the Devil.  The text never says that.  It simply says that he is one of the wild animals that the Lord God made.  But it does say that he is crafty.  He is a sneaky snake.  And in this part of the story he slithers along a branch and says to the woman, “Did God say you shall not eat from any tree in the garden?”  She said, “No, we can eat from every tree in the garden.  Well, except one.  We can’t eat from the tree in the middle of the garden.  God told us that if we eat from that tree, or even touch it, we will surely die.”  But the serpent said, “You won’t die!  For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 

Decisions, decisions.

For years now I have believed that the tree in question was not an apple tree, but a fig tree, because I used to have one in my yard in North Carolina, and when the fruit was ripe I could not resist the temptation.  The figs were soft, and plump, and warm, and sweet.  But there is no fruit so tempting as the idea that you could be like God.  To be fair to the serpent, he didn’t say that the woman would be like God in every way.  He only said she would be like God in her capacity for knowing good and evil, but I’m not sure she even heard that part.  She had been able to resist temptation as long as it was only a fruit tree.  There were plenty of those in the Garden.  But when she heard that its fruit would make her like God she took another look.  She began to see that tree in a whole new way.  

It’s the same for us.  None of us wants to be “the Lord God Almighty”; that’s too much responsibility.  But we do want to be the god of our own lives.  We don’t want anyone else telling us what to do.  Some theologians call this event in the Garden “Original Sin.”  I don’t know how original it is.  I often tell people that if it hadn’t been Eve it would have been me.  It’s not especially original but it is perennial; it comes around again and again; this temptation to be the god of our own lives, to call the shots and suffer the consequences, whatever they may be.  But often those consequences are disastrous.  How many stories do we have to hear, how many movies do we have to see, about someone who tried to do it their way and ended up in a body cast, or worse?  We human beings are not good at this.  We don’t make wise choices.  Often we don’t even seem to have our own best interests at heart. 

So, turn with me to the pages of the New Testament for a different and better model.  Turn with me to Matthew 4:1-11 where Jesus is, in fact, being tempted by the Devil.  He has been fasting in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights.  He is famished.  And that’s when the Tempter comes to him and says, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”  Which sounds like a really good idea.  If you were famished, and you had the power to turn hot, smooth, desert stones into warm, crusty, loaves of bread, wouldn’t you do it?  But here’s the difference between Jesus and most of us: Jesus doesn’t even pause to consider that option.  Believing that God and God alone has his best interests at heart Jesus simply obeys the word of the Lord.  Quoting from the Book of Deuteronomy he says to the Devil, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” 

Meanwhile, back in the Garden, what some theologians refer to as “the Fall” began to take place almost in slow motion.  Listen to the verbs: convinced by the serpent that she would not die the woman looked at the tree; she saw that it was a delight to the eyes, and that it was to be desired to make one wise; she took of its fruit and ate, and also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.  And what the serpent had said turned out to be entirely true: in the moment they ate of the fruit they knew the difference between good and evil, because up until that moment they had never done an evil thing, but afterward they had.  Their eyes were opened, and they saw that they were naked, and for the first time in their lives they were ashamed. 

Do you know how it is when you are tempted to do something, and you struggle against it for a while but finally give in to the temptation and do it?  Whatever it is, when it’s over, aren’t you ashamed of yourself?  Aren’t you filled with remorse?  Can’t you see that it was so not worth it?  I think that’s how this man and this woman must have felt, still wiping the juice of forbidden fruit from their chins, when they saw themselves as they really were.  It wasn’t their nakedness that was the problem, it was them.  They wanted to cover themselves up.  But no matter how many fig leaves they used they couldn’t get away from God.  When he came to the Garden in the cool of the evening they hid in the shadows, hoping he wouldn’t find them. 

Things were so different than they had been in those earlier, innocent days, when God would come to the Garden, and call their names, and they would come running, delighted to hear his voice, eager to see him.  Again, those of you who have had some experience with sin know what I’m talking about.  When you do that thing your mother told you not to do it affects your relationship with her.  Only the day before she had been your best friend, and you had been making cookies together in the kitchen.  Now you hide in your room, wretched, hoping she won’t knock on the door.  Is there any way out of that mess?  Well, yes, and that is to not get into it in the first place. 

Think about it like this: there is a time when are able to make a decision, when you still have the power to do so.  But there is a time when you lose that power, when the temptation becomes so strong that giving in feels almost inevitable.  “Might as well get it over with,” you think.  But the way to resist temptation is to not walk down that street in the first place.  I don’t know what it is you might be trying to resist, but if you’ve had any experience with it you know: giving in doesn’t make you feel better, it makes you feel worse.  So, while you can still make a decision, make it.  When you’re still feeling strong enough to walk away, do it.  Save yourself from the shame of giving in, so that when God calls your name in the Garden,

You can run out to meet him.

—Jim Somerville © 2023

[i] Suggested by my friend Amy K. Butler, former Senior Minister of the Riverside Church in New York City and still a member of the annual sermon planning retreat we call “Preacher Camp.”

Be Curious, Not Judgmental: What Do We Do When Jesus Changes?

First Baptist Richmond, February 19, 2023

Transfiguration Sunday

Matthew 17:1-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.

I’m testing a theory, but before I tell you what it is I need to give you some background.  It started more than thirty years ago, when I had just graduated from seminary with a Ph.D. in New Testament studies and moved to Wingate, North Carolina, as the new pastor of Wingate Baptist Church.  Byrns Coleman, who was a member of the church and also chair of the Religion Department at Wingate College, asked if I would like to teach a class or two as an adjunct and that sounded like the perfect use for my new doctorate.

I said yes. 

I decided to start with a class that was required for freshman in those days, at that school: Jesus and the Gospels.  The first big decision I had to make was which textbook to use, other than the Bible itself.  I finally settled on a book called Mark as Story, by a religion professor named David Rhoads who invited his friend Donald Michie, an English professor, to show the students in his New Testament class how to read one of the gospels as if it were a short story.[i]  He writes: “As I listened to an English teacher interpret the gospel, I was fascinated by the fresh and exciting way in which he discussed the story.  He talked about the suspense of the drama.  He spoke of Jesus as a character struggling to get his message across.  And he showed how the conflicts come to a climax in Jerusalem.”[ii] 

Before I finished reading the introduction I was sold.  I chose that book and taught it for seven years.  And at the end of the first day of class I would give an assignment suggested by the authors themselves: I would ask my students to read through the entire Gospel of Mark in a single sitting.[iii]  “Find a comfortable chair,” I would say.  “Make sure you have a good reading light.  And then sit down and read through the whole Gospel as if you were reading a very short novel.  It should take about an hour.”  I don’t know how many of them actually did it, but when they came to class next time I assumed that they had, and I would ask them about their impressions of the Gospel.  Many of them were impressed by how quickly the Gospel moves: “Immediately,” Mark says, Jesus went from one place, to another, and then another.  Some were impressed by how impatient Jesus was with his disciples, and how dense they seemed to be.  And then someone would always ask why Jesus cursed that poor, innocent fig tree in Chapter 11.

Reading the whole Gospel in one sitting gives you a different feel for it than hearing one paragraph at a time preached over the course of a full year.  You come away thinking that Jesus was not as gentle, meek, or mild as you have imagined him to be.  He was in a hurry, anxious to get somewhere, and impatient with slow-witted disciples who couldn’t seem to keep up.  On at least one occasion he took out his frustration on a fig tree that he withered to the roots.  “Who is this guy?” my students would ask.  “And what does he want anyway?”  “Aha!” I would say.  “That’s just what we’re going to talk about…next time.”

On day three I would refer them to an old article by Genni Gunn called, “Getting Your Novel Started in Ten Days.”  “Now,” I would say, “let’s change the name of the article slightly.  Let’s call it, ‘Getting Your Gospel Started in Ten Days.’  And let’s imagine that Mark is sitting at his desk getting ready to write. 

“Day 1,” Ms. Gunn suggests:  “Define your idea.  Begin by asking yourself, ‘What is my Gospel about?’  Write a one-sentence summary.”  “Hmm,” Mark says.  “What is my Gospel about?  It’s the good news about Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God” (and by the way, if you look up Mark 1:1 you’ll see that’s exactly the sentence he wrote down.  And then, I imagine, he took the rest of the day off). 

“Day 2,” Ms. Gunn continues:  “List your characters.”  “Not so hard,” Mark says, chewing the end of his pencil.  “There’s Jesus, and Peter, and the other disciples, and all the people he healed, and the Scribes and the Pharisees, and Pilate, and, and . . . .  That ought to be enough for one day.” 

“Day 3,” Ms. Gunn continues:  “List locations and settings.”  “That’s not so hard either,” Mark says, getting out a clean sheet of paper.  “There’s the Jordan River, and the Sea of Galilee, and all those little towns around it, and then, of course, Jerusalem, Gethsemane, Golgotha . . . .” And then he can’t bring himself to write anything else. 

“Day 4,” Ms. Gunn suggests, cheerfully:  “Define your characters’ goals.  Your main characters must want something that they are unable to get.  In one sentence, define what each of your main characters wants.”  And this is where I would usually turn away from Mark, sitting at his desk, and toward my students, sitting at theirs.  “In this Gospel,” I would ask, “What does Jesus want that he is unable to get?”  And then I would watch them struggle, those bright young men and women, many of whom had grown up going to Sunday school in Baptist churches, wrestling with the idea that Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, might want something he couldn’t get.  And then a light would break across the face of one of my brighter students, and she would raise her hand tentatively, and I would say, “Yes?  Do you know what Jesus wants that he can’t get in this Gospel?”  “I think so,” she would say, gulping.  “I think he wants to establish God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.”  “Exactly!” I would say, slapping my desk, making her jump in her seat.  “That’s exactly right!  Jesus wants to bring in the Kingdom and he can’t do it because we won’t let him.”

Again, if you read the Gospels carefully, you will find that Jesus talks about the Kingdom more than anything else.  120 times, mostly in the first three Gospels, he refers to the Kingdom of God or its equivalent.  He doesn’t say all that much about saving sinners.  He gives passing notice to helping the poor.  The main thing he talks about—the main thing—is the Kingdom of God, and from the beginning of the Gospel to the end you can see that he is trying to get that project off the ground (or rather, on the ground).  So, when my students came back to class on the fourth day we spent some time talking about the Kingdom of God, and what it meant to Jesus.

“A kingdom,” I would say, reading straight out of the dictionary, “‘is a territory, people, state, or realm ruled by a king or a queen.  It is any place or area of concern thought of as a sovereign domain.’  In other words, a kingdom is wherever the king is in charge.  The Kingdom of God, then, would be wherever God is in charge.  That could be a nation, or a city, or a household, or a human being.  I think Jesus would say that if God is in charge of your life, then the Kingdom of God is in you!”  And that’s usually where I had to stop talking about the Kingdom, because there is only so much you can say in a classroom, even the classroom of a Baptist college.  You have to maintain a clear distinction between instruction and indoctrination.  But in church it’s different.  In church you don’t have to hold back.[iv]

So, here’s my theory. 

I believe that if Jesus really was trying to establish God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, then everything he did and everything he said was part of his strategy.  Including the episode in today’s Gospel lesson, where Jesus takes Peter, James, and John, and leads them up a high mountain by themselves.  In the previous chapter he has told his disciples for the first time that he is going to Jerusalem where he will suffer and die, and Peter, for one, cannot believe it.  “God forbid it, Lord!” he says.  “This shall never happen to you!”  But Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan!  You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.”  And that’s when he turns to the crowd and says, “If any want to become my followers let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me, for those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”  It’s a hard passage to hear, but at the end of it Jesus says, “Listen, one of these days the Son of Man is going to be revealed in all his glory, and there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see it.”

And so, “six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves,” where they saw the Lord revealed in all his glory.  His face was shining like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white, and suddenly Moses and Elijah were there, talking with him. Peter said, “Lord, it’s good that we are here!  If you want, I can make three shelters: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  But while he was still speaking a bright cloud covered the mountain and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.  Listen to him!”  And the disciples fell on their faces, terrified, trembling with fear, until Jesus came and nudged them and said, “Get up, and do not be afraid.”  And when they looked up they didn’t see anyone but Jesus.

If you were curious you might ask, “Did that actually happen?”  I don’t know.  On the way down the mountain Jesus ordered them to tell no one about “the vision” (Gk. horama) until after the Son of Man had been raised from the dead.  Maybe all of it was a vision.  Maybe Jesus led those disciples up to the top of a high mountain and then turned aside, as he often did, to pray.  And maybe while he was praying the disciples fell asleep, as they often did, while waiting.  And maybe it was while they were sleeping that Jesus asked the Father to show them who he really was in a way they would never forget.  We don’t know.  We can be curious about these things.  We can ask questions.  But on this side of eternity we may never know the answers.  Still we can ask: what was the impact of this event?  How did it affect the disciples?  Why did Jesus take them up there in the first place?

The answer?  Jesus knew some dark days were coming.  He knew that when they got to Jerusalem, and when he was arrested and tried and crucified, the disciples would be tempted to fall away.  They would see him hanging there on a criminal’s cross and think that they had been wrong about him from the beginning.  And that’s why he took some of them up on a high mountain where God could burn this image into their brains—an image of Jesus in all his glory—so that when they saw him hanging on the cross that glory would still shine through.  When he was dying with a condemned criminal on either side of him, they would remember Moses and Elijah on either side.  When dark clouds filled the sky and the rain began to fall, they would remember that bright cloud, and the voice that thundered, “This is my beloved Son!”  The Transfiguration was strategic: Jesus knew that if the disciples were going to continue his mission through the dark days that lay ahead it would be because some of them had seen him in all his glory, and could say to the others, “Don’t give up; this isn’t over yet.”

Friends, we are living in some dark days right now.  The number of people who still believe in Jesus, who show up to sing his praises on a Sunday morning like this one, is dropping off at an alarming rate.  And not only that, but on Wednesday of this week we enter into the 40-day Season of Lent, where we will walk with Jesus as he makes his way to the cross.  These are some of the darkest days on the Christian calendar.  We need some people who have seen Jesus in all his glory, who can hold up that image in front of us no matter what else might be happening.  And maybe you are one of those people.  Maybe Jesus is so real for you that it’s like he’s sitting right there beside you, so that you can almost hear the sound of his breathing.  Maybe you know that he really is the Beloved Son of God.  You’ve been listening to him all your life and you’re not about to stop now. 

Well, don’t only listen to him: talk about him.  Be like those disciples who were with him on the mountain, like Peter, who says in today’s Epistle reading: “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.  For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’  We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.”[v] 

I think Peter would say it was no vision.  I think he would say it was one of those moments when heaven came to earth, and something like that will get you though some pretty dark days.  It will get you through the 40 days of Lent and all the days that follow.  So, let that image of Jesus in all his glory sustain you through the days that lie ahead.  No matter what anyone else may say about him see him for who he really is, and hear God say again, “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased; 

“Listen to him!”

Jim Somerville © 2023

[i] David Rhoads and Donald Michie, Mark as Story: an Introduction to the Narrative of a Gospel (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982).

[ii] Ibid., p. xv. I also shared this paragraph in a November, 2022, sermon called, “King of the World,” from the Learning as We Go series.

[iii] These next few pages are from a sermon I preached in 2009 called, “Follow Me,” which was included in my book The Seven FIRST Words of Christ, published by Nurturing Faith in 2020 and available at

[iv] And now, back to this Sunday’s sermon (smile).

[v] 2 Peter 1:16-18

Be Curious, Not Judgmental: Are you talking to me?

Amanda Lott

February 12, 2023

I’ve had several people ask me how I feel about preaching, both today and as a general concept. My answer is usually the same, “I don’t mind to do it. I do it pretty often, actually, just in small parts!” In response to that answer, someone asked me this week if I knew how to give a sermon more than 3 minutes long, and I said, “You should probably ask my husband and daughters.”  

Before we jump fully into the text, I need to tell you what I told the boys and girls in Children’s Worship a couple of weeks ago: when I preach, I like to give a particular word for which to listen. Each time you hear that word, you can make a tally mark and after worship, we can compare notes to see how many you heard. This practice helps boys and girls – and grown-ups! – be active listeners. So, today’s word to listen for is “relationship.” 

I am glad to be here this morning, continuing the series of sermons in which Jim has invited us to be curious, not judgmental. Since this series began, I have found myself asking even more questions than usual about the texts we’re encountering. Am I asking 20 questions of every text? Probably not! But here are a few I have from today’s Gospel text: Number one is How did the children’s minister end up preaching on the passage that includes murder, adultery, divorce, and swearing? Is anger really that bad? What do all those sticky topics have in common? And what does all this have to do with Epiphany? Yes, we’re still in the season of Epiphany; more and more of who Jesus is, is being fully revealed to us. 

We’ve worked our way into the middle of the fifth chapter of Matthew – wading through the passage we know as the Beatitudes, which continues into the end of chapter 7 – and we’re sitting with the disciples and a good many other people as they listen to Jesus say things that are at once familiar and foreign, comforting and unsettling, straightforward and curiously veiled. We’ve heard, “Blessed are the peacemakers . . .” and “Blessed           are you . . .” and “You are salt and light . . .”  As we turn to verses 21 through 37 we encounter words that might sting and startle us as much as they did the people who first heard them. 

When I read and then sat for a while with these verses, my first thought was, and continues to be, the heart of this passage is relationship: relationship with God, relationship with the Law, and relationship with each other – and when I say relationship with each other, I don’t just mean those people who love God and follow Jesus like we do, I mean ALL God’s created people. 

 God is the God of relationship. God created us for relationship: relationship with God and relationship with each other. God gave us the Law to help govern and guide our relationships with God and with each other. In today’s passage, Jesus begins to give us a different, more expanded view of the Law. 

Included in last week’s text was Jesus’ statement that he had not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. This week’s text in a sense gives life and breath to that statement. Jesus had already captured the crowd’s attention, and as Lynn said a couple of weeks ago, had begun to turn their thinking about God’s kingdom upside down. Now he was about to shake that upside down and turn it inside out. 

Jesus, as most, if not all, the people listening that day, was Jewish. He knew the Law. He was not just familiar with it, he KNEW. IT. Jesus wasn’t Moses who brought the law down from the mountain, he was more than Moses. And here’s the epiphany: If you think about it, the Law CAME FROM Jesus, who is God with us. I’ve often thought that we give less time to thinking and talking about this aspect of Jesus than it’s due – I look at it like this: I believe a large part of the reason Jesus was here was to show us what truly living the law should look like. Jesus, who was and is God with bones and skin on, came to show us, in person, what God meant in the law that was given. I liken it to a parent TELLING a child how to make a bed or tie a shoe versus SHOWING them how to do those things. If this idea of Jesus sounds revolutionary to you, imagine what it must have sounded like to the community assembled that day.  

When Jesus said, “You have heard it said . . . “ he was reminding those present what they already knew. He was reminding US what we already know. “The law says this.” And all the people were nodding in agreement . . . until he began pointing out the difference between what was and what now is. Those listening that day were likely surprised to hear that there was more to keeping the law than they thought. Some of them might have interpreted Jesus’ words as blasphemy, misunderstanding extending the law for negating it. Modern biblical scholars have sometimes referred to the, “you have heard . . . BUT . . . “ construct as “antitheses,” which sounds like two ideas set against each other.  But Jesus’ extension of the law didn’t and doesn’t break or oppose the Law, it radicalizes it. Anyone who practices Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 won’t violate any commands of the Torah but will instead extend them, reaffirm them, give them breadth and depth. 

We all understand “don’t murder.” Got it. But Jesus said it’s THAT AND . . . 

  1. If you are ANGRY you are subject to judgment.  
  2. If you INSULT someone you have to answer to the authorities. 
  3. If you call someone “FOOL” you will be cast out to the hell of fire.  
  4. Don’t go to worship God if someone is mad at you for something. Go and fix it, THEN you are free from what’s holding you back and now you can worship.  
  5. Don’t wait to be taken to court to fix an issue; meet the person who’s got a beef with you and fix before it gets to court, or you’ll have to pay richly for it. 

Author Richard Rohr puts it this way: The life of the Spirit in the Hebrew Scriptures is largely a life of relationship. Those who can be in relationship can learn how to appropriately relate to the other, not just to the self. . . In fact, the life of the Spirit is a life of relatedness and relationship.  

In Jesus’ extension of the law, we can see it this way: If we’re made for relationship, then the heart of all this is not just keeping the law but preserving the relationships. If we’re mad, we’re not in the best place to have a good relationship. If we’re hateful to each other, our relationships suffer or dissolve. If we have made someone else mad, the distance created makes relationship difficult.  

If you’ll notice in verses 23 and 24, the emphasis is on the OFFENDER initiating making amends with the one who’s been offended – not waiting until someone calls you out about it, but knowing in your heart you need to do the work to repair the relationship. This idea aligns with the perspective we see elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel that God’s community should embody practices of regular and repeated forgiveness. That work is hard! Good, but hard.  

We are imperfect people who live in an imperfect world. But we as people who love God and follow Jesus should work at regular and repeated forgiveness, truly working toward reconciliation, because broken relationships with each other hurt our relationship with God. When our relationship is broken or hurting, we might sometimes sit and wonder of God, “Are you there? Are you still listening to me? Are you still talking to me?” 

Have you been on a playground with a large group of children, lately? There is a lot of noise and a lot of relationship learning going on. Learning to share. Learning to take turns. Learning to include. So much fun to watch and play with the kids! But one of the things that can make a grown-up’s heart jump up into their throat is hearing these words, “You talking to me?! Hey! You talking to ME?!” All adults within earshot stand up straight, hearts suddenly pounding, trying to locate the source of the puffed-up question before it becomes more than words tossed in the air. And then the race begins to see who can get there before the first physical contact occurs, and before everyone else is involved in the altercation. 

Those words and whatever actions caused them don’t just affect the kids directly involved. Bystanders are sometimes caught up in the fray, choosing sides and egging on, or getting hit accidentally. The adrenaline lasts all the way back to the classroom, and sometimes even until dismissal and on the bus. Teachers and students and parents and siblings – a whole community of relationships – suffers the consequences of anger and harsh words.  

Grownups don’t often have playground scuffles, but we do have meeting room puff ups. And “someone cut me off in traffic” road rage. And “why didn’t YOU load the dishwasher?!” household set-tos. And “my party didn’t win at the ballot box” political rage. Sometimes those bumps lead to big blow ups that end up with the same kind of words heard on the playground, “Are you talking to ME?!” Sometimes those bumps lead to long, cold silences that end in words that sound more like, “Are you TALKING to me???”  As we try more often to examine ourselves – our hearts, our motivations – in light of the words of Jesus, those bumps can and will turn into relationship-preserving conversations about forgiveness and reconciliation.  

We often talk of searching for truth and love but ignore that God wants that, too. God wants that from us. God wants that FOR us. God wants us to want that for each other. Not because God is lacking in understanding and knowledge of love, but because God wants to be in relationship – and true relationship is built on trust and faithfulness and love.  

One of the things that should set us as Christians apart from other groups in the world is the way we relate to each other. As people who love God and follow Jesus, we are called to be part of God’s continued revelation in the world, agents of creation and re-creation, agents of salvation, restoration and reconciliation – not just sitting around waiting for the kingdom to appear, but ushering it in with the ways we love God and treat each other. That ushering in is some of what we mean at Richmond’s First Baptist Church we talk about bringing the kingdom of heaven to Richmond, VA and beyond. How are we able to bring KOH2RVA if we haven’t first worked at freeing ourselves from anger and resentment? How are we able to say and show others that God loves them if we as God’s people haven’t at least tried to do the same with each other? I am convinced that one of our largest witnesses to the world of God’s redeeming love and grace through Jesus is how we as Christians navigate life together and how we extend those grace-filled relationships into the world outside the Church walls. 

I’d like to invite you into some thinking space. We are living in this in-between time where we have seen and know the fulfillment of the law and we’re working and waiting for what comes next. How will you spend this time? Think with me about how you might answer these questions. I will pause for a few seconds after each question to give you time to think a bit. 

Is there anyone you are angry with that needs your forgiveness to be free?  

Is there someone you’ve insulted or made fun of and you owe them an apology? Is there anyone you’ve called “fool” or “jerk” or “idiot” or something I can’t say in church . . . and you need forgiveness for it? 

Is there someone holding a grudge against you and you need to release both of you by offering and accepting forgiveness?

Now that you know the depth and breadth of the fulfillment of the law, the fulfillment found in Jesus, take a deep breath . . . and GO . . . go and be living, breathing reconciliation, inside these walls and outside them. Build relationships that bring the kingdom of heaven to your car . . . to your home . . . to your classroom . . . to your workplace . . . to Richmond, VA . . . and beyond. 

Pray with me. God, help us be living salt and light, seasoning the earth and filling it with the light born of our relationship with you. Amen. 

Be Curious, Not Judgmental: “Why Do We Have to be Salt?”

First Baptist Richmond, February 5, 2023

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

Matthew 5:13-20

You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.

There’s a scene in the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter where Loretta Lynn tries to impress her new boyfriend with a chocolate pie she’s made.  He takes one bite, makes a horrible face, turns and spits into a napkin, and says, “Make many pies, Loretta?” She says, “Naw, this is the first one.”  He asks, “How much salt that recipe call for?”  She says, “Shoot, you don’t put salt in a pie! You put in flour and eggs and sugar and… oh no,” realizing what she’s done.  Instead of sugar, she’s put two cups of salt in a chocolate pie.  He tries to make her feel better.  He says, “Well, it makes sense; salt and sugar are both white.”  But the look on his face when he bit into that pie is where today’s sermon title comes from: of all the things Jesus could have said about us, why do we have to be salt?  I’m curious.  Why not the sugar of the earth?  Why not the chocolate?  Why not the whipped cream on top?  But then I did a little research and discovered that, once again, Jesus knows what he’s talking about. 

The quote on the front page of your bulletin this morning is from Samin Nosrat, an award-winning chef who started as an apprentice at a world famous restaurant when she was only 19, and who, in her own words, didn’t know anything about cooking.  She says, “I didn’t know the difference between cilantro and parsley.”  But as she listened to the cooks at that restaurant talk about food she noticed that they didn’t talk about recipes, or look at cookbooks, or even use timers.  They talked about how much heat to use, and what kind of fat to cook things in, and whether something needed a splash of lime juice, and how much salt to use, you know: the fundamentals.  Nosrat ended up writing a book and doing a four-part Netflix series called Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.  She introduces the first episode by saying, “Salt.  It’s fundamental to all good cooking.  It enhances flavor and even makes food taste more like itself.  In short, salt brings food to life.  Learn to use it well and your food will taste great.” 

I haven’t read the book, but I would recommend the series.  It’s wonderful.  And I learned so much about salt!  I learned that there are approximately 4,000 different kinds of salt, and that the difference is not only in where the salt comes from, but also in the size of the crystal.  Smaller crystals produce an immediate, intense flavor whereas larger crystals are slower to dissolve and more subtle.  Did Jesus have all that in mind when he looked around at that crowd of people gathered on a hillside in Galilee and said, “You are the salt of the earth”?  Probably not, but I think he would have agreed with Nosrat’s simplest description: “Salt brings food to life.”  “Yes,” he might have said: “You are the salt of the earth.  In the same way salt brings food to life, you have it in you to bring the earth to life.”

And then Jesus moves on to his next analogy.  “You are the light of the world!” he says, and this one doesn’t offend us.  We know about light.  We know what a difference it can make.  What’s that quote again?  “It is better to light a single candle than curse the darkness.”  But the opposite is also true.  I have a friend whose mother is very sensitive to light, and she got to the point where she couldn’t sleep if her bedroom wasn’t completely dark.  She began to travel with a roll of electrical tape, so she could cut off a little piece and cover up the annoying green light on the thermostat in a hotel room, or the little blue light on the smoke detector.  He says the worst part is that he has inherited that same sensitivity.  He’s tried to cover up the tiny green light on the printer that sits on the desk in his bedroom, five feet away from the bed, not with electrical tape but with a piece of black construction paper.  But if someone accidentally bumps that piece of paper, and he wakes up in the night with that light shining, he curses the light.  “It’s bright!” he says.  “It ruins the darkness.”

What a great line!  That tiny green light “ruins the darkness.”  Maybe that’s what Jesus had in mind when he said, “You are the light of the world.”  Maybe he meant that there’s a lot of darkness out there, and he needs some people who can go out and punch holes in it, shine light on it, ruin the darkness.  Can you imagine printing that on a business card: “John Doe: Ruiner of Darkness”?  In today’s Gospel lesson Jesus is calling us to be something like that: to be, first of all, the salt of the earth: that is, the kind of people who bring the earth to life; and secondly, the light of the world: that is, the kind of people who put darkness to death.  And there’s a reason for this:

Jesus is trying to bring heaven to earth. 

In the very next chapter of Matthew’s Gospel he will teach his disciples to pray that God’s kingdom will come, and God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  I believe he not only wants them to pray for it, I believe he wants them to work for it.  He wants to bring heaven to earth and people are part of his strategy.  People like us.  People like those who gathered on a hillside in Galilee to hear him preach.  “You are the salt of the earth,” he says.  “You are the ones who are going to bring the earth to life.  You are the light of the world,” he says.  “You are the ones who are going to put darkness to death.  And between us—if you do your part and I do mine—God’s kingdom will come, and his will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Because there’s a problem here, one that is only hinted at in today’s Gospel lesson.  Jesus not only talks about salt, he talks about salt that has lost its taste.  And he not only talks about light, he talks about light that is under a bushel.  And then, at the end of the lesson, he says, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  So, I have a hunch: I think Jesus was saying that the scribes and Pharisees are like salt that has lost its taste, or like a lamp that is under a bushel.  And if the idea of salt losing its taste confuses you maybe you could think of salt that never leaves the saltshaker.  What good does it do?  It doesn’t season anything.  And what good does it do to put a lamp under a bushel?  It gives off no light at all.  My friend’s mother would be thrilled, but the world would be a darker place, the earth would be a less flavorful place, if salt and light kept to themselves.  And I think that’s what Jesus is saying about the scribes and Pharisees.

They are righteous, all right.  They are self-righteous.  The scribes were experts in the Law of Moses.  They were the ones who went through the Torah with a fine-toothed comb, looking for anything that could be interpreted as a commandment.  And they had come up with 613 of them!  248 positive ones and 365 negative ones, or as I sometimes say: “A ‘thou shalt not’ for every day of the year.”  The scribes identified the commands and the Pharisees kept them.  That was their claim to fame.  You may remember that the Apostle Paul was once a Pharisee and he was a diligent commandment keeper.  “As to righteousness under the law,” he says, “I was blameless.”  Is there anything wrong with that?  Keeping the commandments?  No, unless you become so obsessed with the letter of the law that you neglect its spirit.

And that’s what Jesus addresses in verse 17:  he says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets (which is what some of the scribes and Pharisees may have been saying about him behind his back, that he didn’t seem to be very careful about keeping all 613 commandments, that he sometimes ate without washing his hands, and sometimes healed on the Sabbath).  I have come not to abolish the law,” he says, “but to fulfill it,” to fill it full.  And what did Jesus come to fill it full of? 

I think you know.

There’s a story in Mark 12 about a scribe who asks Jesus, “Which commandment is the first of all?”  I like to think it was a sincere question, that this poor scribe was exhausted from trying to find and keep all those commandments.  So he comes to Jesus and asks, “Look, if I couldn’t keep all of them, if I could keep only one, which one should it be?”  “Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,” and “to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’ When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God’” (Mark 12:28-34). 

Here’s a scribe who got it: that the law was all about love: love for God and love for neighbor.  The scribes and Pharisees Jesus is talking about in this morning’s Gospel lesson don’t get it.  They think that it’s all about keeping the rules, and as a result they end up keeping score.  They start looking around, thinking, “Well, I’m not perfect, but I’m more righteous than Jacob over there.  He’s only kept 605 rules; I’ve kept 607.”  But that’s not the worst part: the worst part is that they are keeping all that righteousness to themselves.  It’s like salt in the shaker, like a lamp under a bushel.  It doesn’t flavor anything, doesn’t light anything up.  Love, in contrast, is only love when it’s shared.  You can’t keep your love for God to yourself.  What good would that do?  You can’t keep love for neighbor to yourself.  What good would that do?  Love that isn’t expressed isn’t love at all, and law that is only kept, and never shared, is not the kind of law God gave. 

“Don’t think I have come to abolish the law,” Jesus says.  “I have come to fill it full, full of the love God intended in the first place.  And you’re going to help me do that, by being the kind of salt that comes out of the shaker and flavors the earth, and by being the kind of light that gets out from under the bushel and lights up the world.”  And so, in the only true imperative in this entire passage, the only place where Jesus actually tells his hearers to do anything, he tells them to let their light shine before others, so that others may see their good works and give glory to their Father in heaven.  And that’s the challenge, isn’t it?  There are a lot of things we could do that would make people admire us.  We could come to church every time the doors are open.  We could read our Bibles and say our prayers.  We could keep the Ten Commandments.  Those are all good things, but they reflect directly on us.  What could we do that would reflect directly on God, that would cause people to see our good works and give glory to our Father in heaven? 

It may have been the word reflect, but when I was asking myself that question I thought about shining a flashlight into a mirror.  If you shine it straight at the mirror it bounces right back at you, but if you tilt the mirror at a 45-degree angle, the light bounces up toward the ceiling.  I thought, “Somehow we’ve got to figure out how to do that, how to shine our light in such a way that it doesn’t reflect on us, but on God.”  And that’s when I thought about doing our good works behind a mirror tilted at a 45-degree angle.  It would be awkward, wouldn’t it?  Someone would hear the noise, all the banging and scraping, and ask, “What are you doing back there?”  “Shh! I’m doing good works!”  “But I can’t see them.”  “You’re not supposed to see them.”  “Well, good, because all I can see now is clouds.”  “Well, that’s close.  Can you see what’s behind the clouds?”  “Not really.  Is it the sun?”  “No, it’s the Father.  When you see what I’ve done I want you to give him the glory, OK?”

There’s got to be a better way, and maybe there is.  Maybe it’s to love God for his sake, and not ours.  To love our neighbors for their sakes, and not ours.  Maybe if we had a window instead of a mirror we could look through it at those who need the most love in this world and then quietly, stealthily, go to work on their behalf.  Maybe then we would become for them the light of the world, the salt of the earth, and they would give glory to our Father who art in heaven.

—Jim Somerville © 2023

Be Curious, Not Judgmental: A Divine Attitude Adjustment

Be Curious, Not Judgmental:  “A Divine Attitude Adjustment”

January 29, 2023

Lynn Turner

Matthew 5: 1-12

I wonder….how many of you have ever tried snow skiing? If you have…you know there are various levels of sking marked by signs on the mountain….green slopes for beginners, blue for intermediate levels, and black diamond for experts.

Following our pastor in a sermon series is a little bit like following an Olympic black diamond skier down the mountain when you’re only used to the green or blue slopes.

But I’ve been fascinated with his series on “be curious not judgmental”, and so I decided to follow him down the slope.

So hop on the ski lift with me and let’s head up the mountain and look at this introduction to the sermon on the mount, in Matthew 5,  the known as the beginning to what many have noted as the Greatest sermon ever preached by Jesus, the sermon on the mount . The full sermon is chapters matthew 5-7…111  verses that our pastor will continue in the weeks to come. Today we are looking at Matt 5: 1-12.



As our Pastor has emphasized these past few weeks, The Gospels are eye witness accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus of healing, teaching and preaching  Most of the time the audience were the people of the land….your common ordinary people making a living and trying to survive under the oppression of the Roman empire.

The setting is in the area of Galilee…..not a mountain as we might think of mountains like the Rockies….a hillside really….sort of like an Amphitheater,….where Jesus could sit below…..and the people could see him and hear here him teach…..the sea of Galilee is the backdrop… is a beautiful setting, I have visited this place in Galilee…and am always astounded by its beauty and this passage of scripture..

”And Jesus seeing the crowds, went up the hillside and after he sat down, his disciples came to him and began to speak……Blessed are the poor in Spirit….. 8 declarations of blessing by Jesus for true followers of Christ. Not commandments like Moses on Mount Sinai…..but Blessings….

Some scholars say 9, Some 10…but for today I’m focusing on the  8

You have heard our pastor read these.

I’m indebted today by the commentary and book by  the late J Ellsworth Kalas, the Beatitudes from the Backside, a different way of looking at what it means to be blessed.…..

If we were to take our pastor’s suggestion from the past couple of weeks and begin reading these words of Jesus today and asking the questions that emerge….so many questions come to mind for me.

1.Who was the audience? Was this teaching JUST for his disciples? Evidently not….

At the end of the sermon in chapter 7,


“Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teachings for he taught them as one with authority….and not like their scribes”l

It began with his disciples… but as scripture notes…crowds had gathered…those who had heard about Jesus…seen him heal people, cast out demons…performed all sorts of miracles.

Keep in mind that these were oppressed people living under the Roman Empire values of wealth, and power.

What they were looking for was a message of hope.

But I love WHAT  Kalas pointed out ….Perhaps…..of those who were among the crowds that day….some moved up to that inner circle of those who followed Jesus….perhaps some were in the group of 70 who were commissioned by Jesus in Luke 10, or some were among the 120 who received the Holy Spirit on the  day of Pentecost in Acts.

Some more questions that emerge:

2. “Are we expected to live out these 8 sayings in our lives each day?”

3. “Did Jesus really expect us to welcome persecution?”

4.. “And how could we expect ever to have such purity of heart that we could see God?”

5. “Was Jesus recommending a way of life for his followers in ordinary times, or was he simply trying to wet our appetite for a KINGDOM yet to come?”

6. “Was Jesus laying out a pattern for a select few, a company of extraordinary people who must be better than we can ever hope to be?  Is it really possible for any of us to live out the beatitudes in everyday life?

Don’t worry….I’m not going to tackle all these questions in today’s sermon…..or we would be here all day…..but I hope these will make you curious enough to go and search for the answers!

So lets take look at the beatitudes as a whole:

They are declarations about a way of “being in the world”


Some scholars point out that they can be divided into 2 parts which I think is helpful.

The first 4 refer to OUR NEED for God:

Poor in spirit recognizing our need for God and God only

Mourn our need for comfort that can only come from God

Our need to be Meek, humble in heart, not better than anyone else

Our need to be treated rightly with justice…

The second 4Our Response to God

To be Merciful-

To be Pure in heart

To be Peacemakers-

To be willing to be Persecuted…_

You have to admit they seem impossible and written for another people in another time. Don’t they?

Jesus had just called His Disciples in Chapter 4: 17 with the words, “Repent and for the Kingdom of God is near.” …… Why was it important  for this message  to be His first?

Repent is not a happy sounding word is it? There’s a judging quality to it as if the judge were saying guilty before you’ve even presented your case.

Jesus did not begin with Repent, not be sorry,….not even DO or BE…but Blessed or some translate happy….

Happy,  is one of those words we love……, so much so that we have written it into our declaration of independence.

We believe that humans are “endowed by their Creator, with certain un-alien-able rights, that, among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness“ we think we are not only have a right to happiness, but even have a right to pursue it.

But when we start examining the beatitudes, we realize that in Jesus‘s view,  Happiness is not something we get by pursuing it; indeed, almost  the contrary. Happy  contains the root ‘hap’ which means ‘chance.’

In the Greek new testament, the word happy or blessed is the word , “ma kar-i-os”.

William Barclay goes on to say that “Ma kar-i-os” for the Christian goes beyond happiness.  Its joy that is self contained….completely independent from all the changes and chances of life.”  It embraces all of life… the good with the bad.

When we claim our dependance on the one in whom we place our trust and faith…..God alone….. happiness or Blessing..This kind of trust in God……is what Jesus was calling for in the Beatitudes. And declaring it HERE and NOW…not some day.

and who doesn’t need God’s Blessing today? 

I think I know what you might! thinking….wait a minute Lynn….

This is all upside down!  

Is it really possible to live out the 8 Beatitudes 


It just needs a Divine attitude adjustment!

Its all about character….the beatitudes….. a radical living out of our character with traits like  compassion, meekness, mercy and being a peacemaker.

Jesus is calling us here and now today to claim our true identity as Christians.

Do you remember the first time you encountered Jesus? You made a decision  to ask Jesus to be in your heart….to make him Lord of your life…to desire to follow him completely?

It was an intimate moment just between you and God. It was a life changing moment….

So how do we do that? You ask questions! The disciples had a lot of questions for Jesus along the way…that’s how they learned.


Author Mike Yaconelli says… “In the life of faith in God, there are no “wrong” questions….when you are hungry for God, every question is “right”. Faith opens our eyes and brings us face to face with a new reality of knowing.

Curiosity requires courage….a bold grasping of God’s truth. We march into the presence of God with armsful of questions. God is not afraid of them…People are afraid….institutions are afraid, but God is not”.

 The Beatitudes are not another thing on our “to do” list, but a change in our character to be who God created us to be.  

Encountering Christ is transformational.  Our way of perceiving the world radically changes.  We become more sensitive to others’ hurts and struggles.  We are able to identify the evil of oppression and unjust power systems.  

Our attitude toward the world dramatically shifts to be more in line with God’s attitude of love and compassion.  

The key to understanding the transformative shift lies in the word itself.  “Be” “Attitude”.  Our attitude towards existence undergoes a revolutionary change with Jesus at the center of our life.

So another curious question came to my mind this week.

How do we do this? 

Do we do this on our own? Or can we do it together with others?   

and my conclusion was YES! To both!

It begins with a personal relationship with Jesus.  The realization that you need and desire to enter a relationship with Jesus that is deeply and intimately personal.  The decision to bravely follow Him.

A man asked a 5 year old little girl one day, “Does God like you?  Without hesitation she replied with confidence..”yep”……”How do you know? He asked”

Because he tells me and I recognize his voice.”

Followers of Jesus hear His voice.

He taught not only with authority, but his message was different from anything else they had ever heard… was full of grace and hope and blessing.

It was an invitation to enter into the Kingdom of God in its purest form from now and throughout eternity.

The message began  with the need of repentance…..but quickly changed to that of  having as passionate a  love for Christ as He has for us.…

And then….I thought about Jesus surrounding himself with those who were like minded….his small group of 12……knowing that these with the exception of one…..would follow him to the end.

I was challenged and moved this week as I read the following

story from  Congressman John Lewis: Great Civil Rights Leader

“When I was four years old, the only world I knew was the one I stepped out into each morning, a place of thick pine forests and white cotton fields and red clay roads winding around my family’s house in our little corner of Pike County, Alabama.

We had just moved that spring onto some land my father had bought, the first land anyone in his family had ever owned—ten acres of cotton and corn and peanut fields, along with an old but sturdy three-bedroom house.

On this particular afternoon—it was a Saturday, I’m almost certain—about fifteen of us children were outside my Aunt Seneva’s house, playing in her dirt yard.

The sky began clouding over, the wind started picking up, lightning flashed far off in the distance, and suddenly I wasn’t thinking about playing anymore. I was terrified.

Aunt Seneva was the only adult around, and as the sky blackened and the wind grew stronger, she herded us all inside. Her house was not the biggest place around, and it seemed even smaller with so many children squeezed inside. Small and surprisingly quiet. All the shouting and laughter that had been going on earlier, outside, had stopped.

The wind was howling now, and the house was starting to shake. We were scared. Even Aunt Seneva was scared. And then it got worse. Now the house was beginning to sway. The wood plank flooring beneath us began to bend. And then a corner of the room started lifting up.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. None of us could. This storm was actually pulling the house toward the sky. With us inside it.

That was when Aunt Seneva told us to clasp hands.

Line up and hold hands, she said, and we did as we were told. Then she had us walk as a group toward the corner of the room that was rising.

From the kitchen to the front of the house we walked, the wind screaming outside, sheets of rain beating on the tin roof.

Then we walked back in the other direction, as another end of the house began to lift. And so it went, back and forth, fifteen children walking with the wind, holding that trembling house down with the weight of our small bodies.

More than half a century has passed since that day, and it has struck me, more than once over those many years, that our society is not unlike the children in that house rocked again and again by the winds of one storm or another, the walls around us seeming at times as if they might fly apart.

But the people of conscience never left the house. They never ran away. They stayed, they came together, and they did the best they could, clasping hands and moving toward the corner of the house that was the weakest.

And then another corner would lift, and we would go there. And eventually, the storm would settle, and the house would still stand. But we knew another storm would come, and we would have to do it all over again.

And we did. And we still do, all of us. You and I. Children holding hands, walking with the wind (John Lewis, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998).

When the storms of life come….we need each other!


“What if we  as  the church decided that we were going to join hands together as the storms of this life seem to be pulling us apart?

What if we are were to shift our attitudes and claim once again our identity in Christ Jesus ? The one who loves us just as we are…..who desires a relationship with us more than anything?

Imagined it  like this……

From Acts 2:

44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved..

Barbara Brown Taylor describes is like this:

,“I think Jesus should have asked the crowd to stand on their heads when he taught them the Beatitudes, because that is what he was doing. He was turning the known world upside down. “Upside down, you begin to see God’s blessed ones in places it would never have occurred to you to look.

“Upside down, you begin to see that those who have been bruised for their faith are not the sad ones but the happy ones because they have found something worth being bruised for, and that those who are merciful are just handing out what they have already received in abundance.

The world looks  |Different| upside down, but maybe that is just how it looks when you have got your feet planted in heaven.” [4] Taylor, Barbara Brown. Gospel Medicine,  ix.

Let us Pray:

First, Jesus…..forgive me…. I want to follow you Lord with my life , my attitudes and my actions….….I need you to Bless me Lord.

And Jesus, forgive us  as a body of believers, we want as your church to follow you completely today…whatever it takes…We need your blessing  Lord!  Through the grace of your Son Jesus….

….open our hearts to believe that we can live the life you’ve called us to….Amen.

Be Curious, Not Judgmental: “What Were They Thinking?

Be Curious, Not Judgmental:

“What Were They Thinking?”

First Baptist Richmond, January 22, 2023

Third Sunday after the Epiphany

Matthew 4:12-23

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him.

Today’s Gospel lesson is the story of how those first disciples dropped everything to follow Jesus, and it may be the perfect passage for this series, where we are trying to be curious and not judgmental.  Because it would be easy to judge.  It would be easy to say, “What were they thinking!?  How could they walk away from their homes, their jobs, their lives, their loved ones, to follow someone they had only just met?  It doesn’t seem very responsible!”  But if we can stay curious, then the question becomes an actual question: “What were they thinking?  What was going on inside their heads that made it possible for them to walk away that day?”  Because there are things we probably need to walk away from, and things we probably need to walk toward, but for whatever reason we haven’t been able to do it.  We would love to know what those disciples were thinking.

We’ll get to them, but let’s begin with Jesus.  In the opening verse of today’s reading he hears that John has been arrested and “withdraws” to Galilee.  That’s an interesting word, withdraw.  It comes from the same Greek word that is used when Joseph is warned in a dream to take Jesus and his mother and flee to Egypt.  It is used of those who, “through fear, seek some other place.”  I can’t imagine Jesus being afraid of anyone or anything, but maybe he didn’t want to end up like John, maybe he knew it wasn’t time for him to be arrested—not yet.  And so he withdrew from that region down around the Jordan River where John had been baptizing and came to Galilee.

But he didn’t come back to his hometown and that makes me curious.  Why not?  Why didn’t he set up shop in Nazareth?  Why did he go to Capernaum?  Matthew has an answer: he says it was to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles…the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”  For Matthew Jesus is that great light, and it makes perfect sense that he would go to the darkest place he could find: Galilee of the Gentiles, a place Isaiah calls “the region and shadow of death.”  But there’s another line in that prophecy that may be even more relevant.  It’s the line about “the road by the sea.”  Did you know that the Via Maris, the ancient highway between Asia and Africa, ran right through Capernaum?  Strategically speaking, if Jesus wanted to get his message out to the whole world he couldn’t have found a better place than Capernaum, where he could stand by the side of the road and preach to the whole world as it passed by.

And what did he preach?  This part is interesting: Jesus preached exactly what John the Baptist preached.  If you go back and look at Matthew 3:2 you will see that John was preaching, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” If you look at Matthew 4:17 you will see that Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.”  The message is exactly the same, but the ministry is not.  Skip down to the end of today’s passage and you will find that where John followed his preaching with a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, Jesus “went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people” (Matt. 4:23).  I sometimes refer to it as a ministry of “show and tell,” where Jesus was showing and telling people what the world would be like when God had his way. 

There is actually a moment in this Gospel when the disciples of John the Baptist come to Jesus because John is in prison and he wants to know if Jesus is the One to come or if they should look for another, maybe because his ministry is so different from John’s or so different from what John was expecting.  But Jesus says, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”  He says it as if it were proof that he is, in fact, the One to come, as if these were exactly the kinds of things the Messiah should be doing.  “And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me,” he says, finally.  Maybe another way to say it is, “Blessed is the one who can say yes to this way of bringing heaven to earth.”  And that brings us to those four fishermen. 

In verse 18 Matthew tells us that as Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, both of them waist-deep in the water doing what they had been doing all their adult lives.  I love the way Matthew explains that they were casting a net into the sea, “for they were fishermen.”  Yep.  That’s what they were.  Like it or not.  But along comes Jesus and says, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people,” and the world turns upside down.  Their world, at least.  Without a word they drop their nets, wade out of the water, and begin to follow him.  A hundred yards down the shore he sees two other brothers, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, in the boat with their father mending their nets.  He calls them and immediately they jump out of the boat, leave their father behind, and begin to follow Jesus. 

It’s not wrong to be a little judgmental at this point in the story, to ask, “What were they thinking?”  I’m sure Zebedee was, standing up in the boat and shouting after them, “Hey!  Where do you think you’re going?”  They had work to do.  They had mouths to feed.  Peter, at least, had a wife (we know this because in one of the Gospels Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law, and in my experience you don’t usually have one without the other).  But what if, instead of being judgmental, we could stay curious?  What if we could ask those disciples what they were thinking?  What’s your best guess as to what they might say?  I don’t know that I have any of the right answers, but I have plenty of good guesses.  Are you ready?

  1.  They didn’t know what they were getting into.  No, seriously.  Jesus said he was going to teach them how to fish for people and that sounds interesting.  Maybe they thought he was going to lead a workshop.  If he had said, “Hey, why don’t you come with me on a three-year adventure that is likely to end very, very badly?” they might have said no.  So, maybe they just didn’t know.  Maybe this whole thing evolved over time and what began as an afternoon workshop turned into a three-year adventure.  Maybe they found that once they said yes to Jesus they couldn’t say no.
  2.  Or maybe they did know what they were getting into.  Matthew tells us in verse 17 that Jesus “began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near,’” but he doesn’t tell us how long he was teaching and preaching and maybe even curing the sick before he called those four fishermen to follow.  What if he had been at it for weeks?  What if they had heard every sermon and every parable he had to preach?  What if they had seen him heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, and cast out demons?  It would make fishing look pretty tame by comparison, wouldn’t it?  And when he said, “Hey, do you want to stop fishing for fish and start fishing for people?” they might have said, “Yes!  Yes!  A thousand times yes!  We thought you would never ask!”  Maybe even Zebedee, maybe even Peter’s wife, maybe even his mother-in-law knew enough to know that if Jesus ever asked, those fishermen would go.
  3.  Or maybe, they didn’t feel like they had a choice.  I appreciate my friend Brian Blount’s description of this scene: He says, “When Jesus calls his disciples and they follow they are not making a lifestyle choice.  There is not a chance in Hades that the choice they make is an appropriate lifestyle choice.  There is no lifestyle logic that makes their drop-everything-and-follow-Jesus choice make sense.  We don’t have sense.  We have flames.  The fire that fuels this foolishness is Jesus’ claim that the Reign of God is an apocalyptic forest fire on the historical horizon.  When somebody comes believably proclaiming that God is about to visit, you drop whatever it is you were doing and you start doing whatever you can do to get ready.  The disciples got out of their boats and got underway…with Jesus.”[i]  I love that line, “an apocalyptic forest fire on the historical horizon,” because, as you well know, if somebody shouts, “Fire!” you drop whatever else you were doing.  The disciples did just that. 

Now, maybe none of these educated guesses has answered the question of what those first disciples were thinking, but I’m moving on.  I’m going to be curious, not judgmental.  I’m not going to decide that one of those is the right answer.  I’m not going to pretend that I know what those disciples were thinking.  But I am going to ask another question: not what were the disciples thinking but what was Jesus thinking?  Why would the Son of God—who could preach the Good News of the coming Kingdom like nobody else, who could teach people what the world would be like when God finally had his way, who could cure every disease and every sickness among the people—why would somebody like that need four fishermen? 

I have an idea.

When I came to First Baptist in 2008 our mission was to “make disciples.”  That’s a solid mission statement.  It comes straight out of the Great Commission in Matthew 28 where Jesus tells his followers to go into all the world and do what?  “Make disciples.”  But then I began to ask around.  I said, “Suppose we were successful in that mission.  Suppose that fully formed, fully functioning disciples were rolling off the assembly line every day?  What would they do?”  And I didn’t get a lot of good answers.  The most common answer was that they would make more disciples.  I remember thinking that a fully formed, fully functioning coffee maker doesn’t make more coffee makers, it makes coffee, but I didn’t say that.  I just spent a little more time thinking about the word disciple and what it means.

In Greek the word is mathetes, and it means “learner.”  As I thought about it I thought about the way Jesus must have learned the work of carpentry, and I began to think that a better word would be apprentice.  Can you picture Jesus as a boy, sitting in Joseph’s carpenter’s shop, watching him work?  At some point he might have asked his abba to teach him how to do what he was doing.  Joseph would have started with something simple, like a doorstop, would have shown Jesus how to measure twice and cut once, but then he would have watched him while he did it and eventually let him try it on his own.  I think that’s what Jesus was doing with the disciples.  I think he called them into an apprenticeship.  But instead of teaching them the work of carpentry he was teaching them the work of the Kingdom.  Because bringing heaven to earth is too big a job for any one person to do by himself, even Jesus.  He needed help. 

He still does.

By chapter 10 of this Gospel he’s ready to let the disciples try it on their own.  He gives them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.  And then he says, “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.”  In other words, he sends them out to do exactly what he has been doing.  In Luke’s Gospel, when he sends them out to do the same thing, the disciples return with joy, because the work of the Kingdom is joyful work!  Why would anyone want to do anything else? 

I can’t speak for the disciples.  I can’t tell you what they were thinking.  But I can speak for myself.  Back in 1984 I was working as a graphic artist.  It was good work and I enjoyed it.  I had actually gone into business for myself and was making more money in less time than I ever had before.  But one night my father-in-law, who was also my pastor, took me out for a steak dinner.  While we were there he said, “Have you ever thought about going into the ministry?”  “No,” I said, trying hard not to laugh.  “Never.”  But once he said it I couldn’t stop thinking about it.  I prayed about it; I read my Bible searching for clues; I talked to anyone who would listen.  A few weeks later I was in church on a Sunday morning—in worship, mind you, where anything can happen—and a woman stood up and played a song on a guitar.  I don’t even remember what the song was, but I remember that as she sang I felt released from all other obligations.  I felt free to do what my heart wanted to do.  At the end of the service I got up from where I was sitting, walked down the aisle, and told my pastor I was ready to go into the ministry.  My wife, Christy, was sitting beside me when it happened.  I didn’t tell her what I was going to do.  She must have been wondering, “What is he thinking?”  I’m not sure I could have told you myself.  But it was as real for me as it was for those disciples that day.  It was as if Jesus was calling,

And I couldn’t say no.

—Jim Somerville © 2023

[i] Brian Blount, “Look at These Fools!” A Sermon for Every Sunday, January 22, 2023 (

Be Curious, Not Judgmental: Where Are You Staying?

When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?”

Last week I told you that part of my sermon-writing process involves going to a coffee shop and reading over the lectionary texts for the week, and then seeing if I can come up with twenty questions for the text I’m planning to preach. I told you that it’s often hard to come up with twenty questions, but last week I came up with twenty seven because the text I was looking at was from the Gospel of John, and of the four canonical gospels that one is easily the most enigmatic, the most mysterious. For me, taking on the Gospel of John is a little like whacking a hornet’s nest with a stick: the questions come at me in a swarm.

I’m not going to talk about all twenty seven of them, but one of the most obvious is the one my assistant, Lori, asked on Wednesday of last week. She was curious, not judgmental, but she wondered: “Why does John the Baptist say that he doesn’t know Jesus?” It’s a good question, especially since in last week’s sermon I said (and I quote), “We can assume that Jesus’ relationship to John was a matter of common knowledge in the early church.”i But here John says that he doesn’t know Jesus. He says it twice, once in verse 31 and again in verse 33: “I myself did not know him.” In the notes I took at the coffee shop I was judgmental, not curious. I wrote, “Hasn’t John the Baptist read the Gospel of Luke? Hasn’t he read the Gospel of Matthew? Doesn’t he know that Jesus is John’s cousin?”

Apparently not.

As I told Lori last week (in a more charitable moment), you can think of the four Gospels as a kind of storytelling festival, where Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John step out onto the stage, one at a time, to tell the story of Jesus. And the thing to do is not to interrupt them and tell them they’ve gotten it wrong, but to listen to the particular way each of them tells the story, to be curious, and not judgmental. So, in John’s story of Jesus, John the Baptist doesn’t know who Jesus is. He says that’s why he came baptizing with water, that the Messiah might be revealed to Israel, and that reminds me of one of my favorite movies.

It’s Romancing the Stone, with Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner. Have you seen it? It’s a story about a lonely romance novelist from New York named Joan Wilder, who ends up in a real-life adventure in South America, accompanied by a swashbuckling mercenary named Jack T. Colton, who offers to help her find a hidden treasure. They follow a map that leads them to a cave under a waterfall, and to a milky pool where they dig down into the mud and come up with something wrapped in wet burlap. As Jack unwraps it Joan catches a glimpse of what’s inside and says, “It’s a priceless statue!” But it turns out to be a cheap ceramic bunny rabbit, the kind you might find at a souvenir shop. She says, “Wait a minute. In one of my novels a jewel was hidden inside a statue. Break it open!” He does, and for the first time we see this fist-sized emerald called El Corazon—“the heart”—that sparkles in a beam of sunlight like the priceless treasure it is.

It’s kind of what happens in this story. Jesus comes to John at the Jordan and John doesn’t know who he is. No one knows who he is. But John baptizes him with water and when he does a shaft of sunlight falls from heaven and shines on him, the Holy Spirit descends like a dove and remains on him, and that’s how Jesus is revealed as the

priceless treasure he is. From that moment on John can’t stop talking about him.

As this morning’s Gospel lesson opens John is there at the Jordan. He sees Jesus coming toward him and says, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’” And that was another of my coffee-shop questions: “When did John say that about Jesus, that ‘after me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me’?” It’s not in today’s passage. Where is it? So, here’s another good practice when you’re studying Scripture: don’t read only the assigned text; read what comes before it and what comes after it. Read the text in context so you can see how it relates to the rest of the story. If you do that with this passage, if you look back to the previous paragraph, you find John being interrogated by some priests and Levites who have come down from Jerusalem. They want to know who he is.

“Well,” John says, “I’m not the Messiah, if that’s what you’re thinking,” because apparently some people were. By the time the Fourth Gospel was written, late in the first century, a kind of cult had grown up around John the Baptist. There were people who thought that he, and not Jesus, was the Messiah. Can you see why the author of the Fourth Gospel would want to correct that, to have his readers hear John confess, “I am not the Messiah!”? John goes on to say that he is not Elijah or the prophet, but simply the voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord!” So the priests and the Levites ask, “Why, then, are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answers, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the strap of his sandal.” In chapter 3 of this Gospel John reminds his followers, again, that he is not the Messiah, and refers to himself allegorically as “the friend of the

bridegroom.” “He must increase,” John says, “but I must decrease” (John 3:28-30).

And so we come to that place in today’s reading where John is standing with two of his disciples and Jesus walks by. “Look!” John says. “Here is the Lamb of God!” And in that moment the disciples stop following John and start following Jesus. “Why?” I asked at the coffee shop, but maybe a better question is, “Why not?” John has already said that Jesus is the One who takes away the sin of the world, that Jesus is the One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. John, on the other hand, is simply the voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” He would tell you himself, “I am not the Lord. Jesus is the Lord. He’s the one you should follow. He’s the one who can actually do you some good.” And so these two disciples who have been following John, begin to follow Jesus.

It’s as simple as that.

Do you remember that place in the Book of Acts where Paul is visiting Ephesus and comes across some members of the John the Baptist cult? Paul might have been judgmental, but he chooses to remain curious. He says to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” They said, “No, we didn’t even know there was a Holy Spirit.” So Paul explains: “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the One who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus, and when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them (Acts 19:1-6). Remember what John said about Jesus? “I baptize you with water, but the One who is coming after me is the One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.”

Well, there you go.

The disciples in today’s reading make the right choice, they begin to follow Jesus,

and it isn’t long before he hears their footsteps behind him, turns and asks, “What are you looking for?” Debie Thomas comments, “It’s the first recorded question Jesus asks his disciples, and I believe it’s a question for the ages. What are you looking for? In your heart, in your secret and quiet places, what are the hungers that drive you forward in your life of faith? Why do you still have skin in this game we call Christianity? As you say goodbye to an old year and welcome a new one, what are you hoping for, asking for, looking for, in your spiritual life? Do you know?”

She writes, “I’ve been mulling over this question all week. When I go to church, when I pray, when I open the pages of Scripture, what am I looking for? Am I looking for anything, or am I just going through the motions of a religious life I inherited from my parents? Am I seeking consolation? Affirmation? Belonging? Certainty? Am I looking to gain power, or to surrender it? Do I want to know, or can I consent to trust? Am I looking to arrive, or to journey?”ii

She says, “I suppose it’s no surprise that the disciples who first hear the question simply dodge it. Perhaps, like us, they don’t quite know what to say. Whatever the case, instead of attempting a response, they ask Jesus their own question: ‘Rabbi, where are you staying?’”iii Which is a rather odd response. He had asked them what they were looking for and they asked him where he was staying. But he doesn’t correct them. He invites them. He invites them to “Come and see” in the same way he invites us. And they do. They go with him to wherever he is staying in that region around the Jordan. I’ve actually been there. There are plenty of good places to camp along the riverbank and caves in the hillside that are clean and dry. Jesus may have been staying in one of those and the disciples may have gone there with him and waited as he built a small fire and heated some water for tea (doesn’t the text say “it was about four o’clock in the

afternoon”? And isn’t that teatime everywhere?). But then it says, “And they remained with him that day.” And that may have been what they were really looking for.

The Greek word menō is used five times in today’s passage. It’s a very important word in John; it means “to abide” or “remain.” You may remember it from John 15 where Jesus says, “I am the vine and you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.” In this passage the Holy Spirit descends and remains on Jesus, it abides with him, and John says, “The one who sent me to baptize said, ‘The one on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’” And then the disciples ask Jesus where he is abiding and he says, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was abiding, and they remained with him that day: the disciples, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit were abiding together.

On this day when we are talking about the importance of small groups, can you imagine any small group experience more important than that one, or any more life-changing? Jesus once said that wherever two or more are gathered in his name there he is in the midst of them (Matt. 18:20). That is an incredible promise for any small group gathering and one we quote whenever only a few of us show up for something. But can you imagine this gathering? Jesus, those two disciples, and the Holy Spirit? Maybe John mentions that it was four o’clock in the afternoon not because it was teatime, but because the disciples would never forget what happened that day.

In the same way you and I remember when our children were born or when our parents died or when we walked down the aisle of a church, these disciples may have remembered the time they spent with Jesus. If you had asked them about it years later they might have said, with a faraway look in their eyes, “It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. We abided with Jesus. We remained with him, and as we did we realized that

we had found what we were looking for.” And no offense to John (as Jesus himself once said, “Among those born of women no one has arisen who is greater than John the Baptist” [Matt. 11:11]), but the disciples didn’t have that kind of experience with John;

They had it with Jesus.

We don’t know what they and Jesus talked about, but I would love to have listened in on that conversation, because when it was over they were convinced that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. Have you noticed all the titles that are used for him in this passage? He’s called the “Lamb of God” (twice), the “Son of God” (once), “a man,” “Rabbi,” and finally “the Messiah.” If I were ranking those titles I might put “Son of God” at the top and “man” at the bottom, but Andrew goes off to find his brother Simon and when he does he says, “We have found the Messiah.” And that’s all Simon needs to hear. Apparently that’s what he’s been looking for. He follows Andrew who brings him to Jesus, and while he’s standing there Jesus looks at him and says, “You are Simon, the son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated “Peter”).

In the end, it wasn’t only his name that was changed: it was his life. That’s what can happen when you spend time with Jesus, when you abide with him, when you remain with him. That’s why you want to ask him, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” And when you find out, you want to go there, and spend some time with him, whether it’s in a small group where two or three are gathered or in a church sanctuary with many, many more. Because years from now you might look back on this day and say, with a faraway look in your eye:

“It was about 11:57 on a Sunday morning.”

—Jim Somerville © 2023

Be Curious, Not Judgmental: “What Are You Doing Here?”

First Baptist Richmond, January 8, 2023

Baptism of the Lord

Matthew 3:13-17

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

 Today we begin a new sermon series suggested by my friend Don Flowers, who pitched it to us at Preacher Camp last summer by saying, “For Epiphany, how about a series called ‘Be curious, not judgmental’?”  “OK,” we said (trying to be exactly that), “tell us more.”  And then Don started talking about a television show called “Ted Lasso.”  Have you seen it?  It’s about a football coach from America who is hired to coach a soccer team in England even though he knows nothing about soccer.  What he does know something about…is people.  Ted Lasso (played by Jason Sudeikis) is a folksy, good-natured, fish-out-of-water who wins you over from the first episode with his one-word philosophy: “Believe.”

Lasso is hired to work with the Richmond Greyhounds, a football club (because that’s what they call soccer teams in England) that has fallen on hard times.  He brings his friend and fellow coach “Beard” along with him as they try to learn the rules of soccer while digging into the psychology of the fractured team and the football club’s manager, Rebecca, who is going through a bitter divorce from Rupert, the club’s former owner.[i]

In one of the most memorable scenes from the show Ted challenges Rupert to a game of darts, which makes everyone laugh.  What could this American possibly know about darts, a game the English have been playing in pubs for generations?  In fact, after accepting Ted’s challenge, Rupert produces a small leather case containing his own, custom-made darts and proceeds to show Ted how the game is played.  As you might expect, Ted is losing badly when he steps up to take his final throw.  But he asks the barkeep, “What’s it going to take to win?”  She mumbles something like, “Two triple twenties and a bullseye.”  Rupert chuckles and says, “Good luck.”

But Ted says, “You know, Rupert, guys have underestimated me my entire life.  And for years I never understood why.  It used to really bother me.  But then one day I was driving my little boy to school and I saw this quote by Walt Whitman painted on the wall there that said, ‘Be curious, not judgmental.’I like that.” And then Ted throws a dart into this tiny red rectangle on the dart board, right where it needs to go: double twenty.  A murmur goes up from the crowd.

“So, I get back in my car,” he says, “and I’m driving to work and all of a sudden it hits me.  All them fellas who used to belittle me, not a single one of them was curious.  You know, they thought they had everything figured out.  So they judged everything.  And they judged everyone.  And I realized that their underestimating me?  Whew!  Who I was had nothing to do with it.  Because if they were curious, they would’ve asked questions.  You know, questions like, ‘Have you played a lot of darts, Ted?’”  At which point he throws his second dart and sticks it right beside the first one: another double twenty.  Everyone gasps, and Ted says, “To which I would have answered, ‘Yes sir.  Every Sunday afternoon at a sports bar with my father from age ten till I was sixteen when he passed away.”  And then Ted pauses, lines up his third shot, and says, “Barbecue sauce.” And sticks the dart in the center of the bullseye to win the game.[ii]

It’s a great scene, and a great quote: “Be curious, not judgmental.”  But apparently Walt Whitman didn’t say it.  As I searched the Internet for the actual source I found this quote by Martin Luther King, whose birthday is coming up next week.  It’s not exactly the same, but sixty years ago, while giving a speech at Cornell College in Iowa, King said, “I am convinced that men hate each other because they fear each other.  They fear each other because they don’t know each other.  They don’t know each other because they don’t communicate with each other.  And they don’t communicate with each other because they are separated from each other.”[iii] 

But what if they weren’t?  What if we weren’t?  What if, instead of separating ourselves from one another, we became curious, and started asking questions?  How would that change the world?  I remember spending Thanksgiving with my family back in 1984, an election year, when my brother and I nearly came to blows over our differences of opinion.  I was only 25 years old, but at some point during that long weekend I realized there is a way to talk to people that opens them up, and another way that shuts them down.  Maybe it’s the difference between being curious and being judgmental. 

If that’s a good way to think about our conversation with people, it might be a good way to think about our conversation with Scripture.  Too often we stand above Scripture, telling it what it’s supposed to mean instead of standing under it, asking questions, and listening for answers.  One of the best things I do in my weekly sermon-writing process is go to a coffee shop on Monday afternoon and spend an hour reading through the lectionary texts for the following Sunday.  An hour!  Just reading and re-reading.  And then I get up, get a cup of coffee, come back to the text I’m planning to preach, and try to come up with twenty questions.  It’s not easy! Ten questions is easy, but twenty questions is hard.  It takes another hour.  But when I’m finished I can hardly wait to get to the commentaries and look for the answers.  If I had gone to the commentaries first I might have found answers to questions I would never ask. 

That’s been a good approach for me as I study Scripture.  It’s kept me curious, and not judgmental.  Today’s Gospel lesson is a good example.  It would be a little too easy to say, “Oh, right.  The baptism of Jesus.”  And then to stand up here without even looking at the Bible and tell you what the baptism of Jesus is all about.  It might not be a bad sermon, but it would come not from the text, but from what I think the text is about, or even what I think baptism is about.  It would be judgmental.  It’s harder to spend an hour asking the text questions, but it keeps me curious.  So, let’s take a look at today’s Gospel lesson and see what kinds of questions come to mind. 

It’s Matthew 3:13-17—just five verses.  Can you imagine how hard it would be to get twenty questions out of that?  That’s an average of four questions per verse!  It starts with the news that “Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him,” and I have some questions about that.  How did Jesus hear that John was baptizing?  Did someone stop by his carpenter’s shop in Nazareth one day and say, “Hey, Jesus!  You should go down to the Jordan!  John is baptizing and people from Jerusalem and all Judea, and all that region along the Jordan are going out to him to be baptized!”?  Did Jesus ask, “What kind of baptism is it?”  And did this person reply, “A baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”?  You see, if I were the sinless Son of God, that’s when I would know I didn’t need to go. Because there would be no need to repent, and no need for forgiveness!  But for some reason, Jesus packed a bag, kissed his mother goodbye, and went.  Why?

If you’ve been counting, that’s five questions already.  But let’s look at the next verse.  When it was Jesus’ turn to be baptized, when John looked up and saw who was standing there, “[He] would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’”  Aha!  So John knows who Jesus is!  But how?  When did he get to know him?  And where?  In this Gospel Matthew doesn’t say, but in Luke’s Gospel when Mary is told by an angel that she is going to have a baby she goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, and as soon as Mary calls out a greeting from the front gate Elizabeth’s baby (John, who is still in the womb) jumps for joy.  So it isn’t too much to believe that these two boys would have gotten to know each other through the years, and that their mothers would have told them that story.  But it’s not in Matthew’s Gospel, and it’s not in Mark, and it’s not in John.  The best we can do is assume that Jesus’ relationship to John was a matter of common knowledge in the early church, and that John’s need to ask “What are you doing here?” would have been understood. 

But let me pause long enough to ask: what are you doing here?  What are you doing sitting in a church pew on a Sunday morning, or sitting at your kitchen table watching a worship service on your laptop or tablet, or sitting in your recliner watching First Baptist on TV?  If someone asked you that question in the wrong tone of voice you might get defensive and say, “It’s none of your business what I do with my own time!”  But what if they asked you in the right tone of voice?  What if they were genuinely curious?  What would you say?

I asked that question on Facebook last week—“Why do you go to church?”—and got some beautiful answers.  Kenny Park wrote, “To see God’s face in the faces of those gathered, to hear God’s voice in the interactions, conversations, questions, and (sometimes) answers expressed.”  Jen Tsimpris wrote: “Some of the happiest, most sustaining, edifying, and peaceful times in my childhood were spent in church, as a part of the community of believers. I want my children to have the same experiences, from which they too can draw strength, courage, and hope in the years to come.”  Margaret Spencer wrote: “You want honest?  Sometimes it’s because it’s really hard to break the habits of a lifetime.  Sometimes it’s because if I didn’t go to church, my already-small social circle would be downright tiny.  Sometimes it’s because it’s my scheduled day to greet.  Sometimes it’s because it’s time to make baked ziti casserole for one of our social service agency mission partners.  And then there are the days when a sermon suddenly ‘connects,’ or the choir delivers a wonderful/challenging/brand-new or old favorite anthem that resonates, both literally and figuratively, and I remember that, with any luck, I go to church to make a difference.”

I could go on.  There were over a hundred comments on that post last time I checked and if you are my Facebook friend maybe you will take a look at them this afternoon.  But maybe you can keep those three in mind for now and keep your own reasons in mind when I ask you to bring your pledge card forward at the end of the service, or make your commitment to give online.  Maybe you can see that there are some very good reasons for being with us in person or connecting with us in other ways, and that what we do in church is worth supporting: it’s not only life-giving, but often also life-changing.  When someone is baptized, for example: when they give up their old life, renounce their old ways, and announce to the world that from now on “Jesus is Lord.”  When they go down into the water still covered in sin but come up clean.  When they gasp for breath and fill their lungs with the Holy Spirit.  That’s life changing.  That’s why we Baptists have taken our name from that act.  

Have you noticed the stained glass window in our baptistery?  The one that shows John getting ready to baptize Jesus?  It is an illustration of today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew 3.  And above that illustration is a portion of verse 15, carved into the marble of our baptistery: “Let it be so now; for it is proper in this way for us to fulfill all righteousness.”  If you haven’t come up with your twenty questions by this point, you should have no trouble now.  Because I don’t know what that means—“to fulfill all righteousness.”  I’m curious.  The way it’s carved into our baptistery could make you think that this is how we fulfill all righteousness: that being baptized is what makes us right with God.  But even if that were true it’s not why Jesus was baptized.  He didn’t need to be made right with God.  So, why did he do it? 

Through the years it has helped me to paraphrase Jesus’ response by saying: “Let it be so now, John; it’s the right thing to do.”  That’s one of the possible translations of this verse.  And if you read on in this text you can see why it was the right thing to do.  Because no sooner had Jesus come up out of the water than the heavens were opened, and he saw the Holy Spirit fluttering down in the form of a dove, and a voice like thunder said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” 

I sometimes explain the word epiphany to children by saying, “It means, literally, ‘to shine upon.’  Like when you hear a noise behind your house in the middle of the night, and you go out there with a flashlight, and you find a raccoon standing in the alley, with another raccoon on his shoulders digging through your garbage can.  You shine your light on those two and say, ‘Aha!  So that’s what’s making that noise!  A couple of raccoons!’”  It’s an epiphany with a lower case “e.”  But in the baptism of Jesus we have an Epiphany with a capital “E.”  God shines a light on him from heaven and we say, “Aha!  So that’s who that is!  The Beloved Son of God!” 

If you have eyes to see it, it can be an answer to the question of why Jesus would come for baptism at all: because it was the right thing to do, because, in this way, he could be revealed for who he really was.  And if that’s true—if he really is the Beloved Son of God—then it might be the answer to that other question as well: “What are you doing here?”  I don’t know what you would say to that, but if Jesus really is the Beloved Son of God then let me ask my twentieth and final question:

Where else would I be?

—Jim Somerville © 2023




No Longer a Starry-Eyed Bride

No Longer a Starry-Eyed Bride

First Baptist Richmond, January 1, 2023

New Year’s Day Covenant Service

Jeremiah 31:31-34

This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

  Today’s service is brought to you in two distinct movements: we’ve already had the first one—that was a continuing celebration of Christmas, with readings and hymns appropriate to the season—but the second takes advantage of the fact that we stand at the beginning of the New Year.  It’s the renewal of our covenant with God, an idea which probably got its start on Christmas Day, 1747.  That was when a young preacher named John Wesley stood before his congregation and urged them to give themselves up to God completely, and to renew at every point their covenant that the Lord should be their God.  A few years later, Wesley made the same proposal to nearly eighteen hundred worshipers at the French church at Spitalfields, and was amazed when they all stood up in agreement. “Such a night I never saw before,” he wrote in his journal. “Surely the fruit of it shall remain forever.”

So, it’s not a complicated thing we are doing in this part of the service, but it could be life changing.  In just a little while I will urge you—as Wesley urged his congregation—to give yourselves up to God completely, and to renew at every point your covenant that the Lord should be your God.  I can’t think of a better way for Christians to enter a new year.  But before we get to that point I want to talk to you about what a covenant is.

When I used to teach fifth-and-sixth-graders in Sunday school I told them that a covenant was a promise, and not just any kind of promise.  No, a very special promise, like the kind you might make at a wedding.   It’s true.  The marriage covenant is among the most sacred of all promises human beings can make, and yet I am often surprised at how glibly they do it.

The twenty-three-year-old bride, for instance (whom I have had to ask not to chew gum during the ceremony), seems to be only half listening as I say, “Will you, Ashley, have Brandon to be your lawfully wedded husband, to have and hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, as long as you both shall live?”  And then (and I can tell she is mostly thinking about how adorable Brandon looks in his tuxedo) she says, “I will,” as if she were standing at the counter at McDonald’s and I had just asked, “You want fries with that?” It’s enough to make a minister shake his head and wonder: “Does she have any idea what she’s getting into?”  That’s why I was so pleased to find this piece, written by a woman who was renewing her vows with her husband of twenty years; a woman who had been around the marriage block a time or two; a woman who knew what she was talking about.  She wrote:

My dear husband,

On our wedding day we stood before God, family, and friends and promised to love, honor and cherish each other. We swore to be faithful to our Lord and one another.  It seemed so easy to make those promises that day as I stood there, a starry-eyed bride.  I loved you, and as we walked through the doors of the church that day I pictured the perfect life I would have.

The reality has been slightly different.  We have loved, we have fought.  We have laughed, we have cried.  We have seen each other in the morning, unshaven and bleary-eyed.  We have determined that you make better coffee but that I don’t burn popcorn in the microwave.  We have gained a few pounds, picked up a few gray hairs, and seen the wrinkles begin to creep in.  We have nursed each other through colds, flu and viruses.  We have shared our secrets with one another.  We have been close.  We have been distant.  We have walked innumerable miles and talked for thousands of hours. We have experienced marriage. We now know what love is and what it is not.

I am no longer a starry-eyed bride. I cannot promise that I will always have your socks matched or that I won’t lock myself out of the house.  I won’t always have more than a quarter tank of gas or be able to tell you where the flashlight is.  Much as I might like, you will not always come home to an immaculate house nor will I always be perfectly groomed when you walk through the door.  I cannot promise that I will always be agreeable or easy to live with.  We both know that those kinds of promises should never be made.

What I can promise is this: I will always be your number one admirer, your staunchest supporter.  I promise to be your encourager as you follow your dreams; to be your comforter when you are downhearted; to be your conscience if you are confused.  I will rejoice with you in your victories and I will console you when life is unkind.  And, as of today, I promise to NEVER EVER make shepherd’s pie again.

Isn’t that refreshing? And isn’t it the right thing to do?  I think this is what every covenant needs from time to time: an honest look at that very personal relationship and a reassessment of those old promises. Some people wouldn’t agree, and especially when it comes to our covenant with Christ.  Some Baptist people, for example, might say that once you are saved you are always saved; that if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, that’s it; your destiny is sealed, your future is secure.  That may be true, but that’s the language of a contract, not a covenant.  A contract is a formal agreement, legally binding. A covenant is different: it’s personal.

So, we haven’t gathered on the first Sunday of the New Year to renegotiate our contract with Christ, but to renew our covenant with him. That’s very personal. And like the woman who wrote this piece for her husband we might need to look back at the whole span of that relationship, to the beginning—when we stood before a church full of people, feeling a little embarrassed, wearing a long, white robe, standing waist-deep in the water—we might need to look back to the day we were baptized.  

It won’t be hard for most of us to recognize the difference between who we were on that day and who we are on this one.  We were so innocent then.  We were so glib.  We said, “Jesus is Lord!” as if saying so would make it so.  We came up out of the baptistery thinking we were done with sin.  Now, when we look at our lives, we see how far we have fallen from that early innocence, and how frequently the church is NOT the starry-eyed bride of Christ.  But the wrong thing to do is to look at the mess we’ve made of this relationship and give up on it.  The wrong thing to do is to look at the institution itself and say no to Christianity the way some people say no to marriage. The right thing to do is to look on the one who loved us in the first place and wonder,

“If he asked me again, would I say yes?”               

—Jim Somerville © 2023


Let us humbly confess our sins to God:

O God, you have shown us the way of life through your Son, Jesus Christ.

We confess with shame our slowness to learn of him,

our failure to follow him, and our reluctance to bear the cross.

Have mercy on us, Lord, and forgive us.

We confess the poverty of our worship, our neglect of fellowship and means of grace,

Our hesitating witness for Christ, our evasion of responsibilities in our service,

Our imperfect stewardship of your gifts.

Have mercy on us, Lord, and forgive us.

Let each of us in silence make confession to God.


Have mercy on us, Lord, and forgive us.

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love;

In your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.

Now the message that we have heard from God’s Son and announce is this:

God is light, and there is no darkness at all in him.

If we live in the light – just as he is in the light – then we have fellowship with one another,

And the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from every sin.

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and there is no truth in us.

But if we confess our sins to God, he will keep his promise and do what is right;

He will forgive us all our wrongdoing.

Amen. Thanks be to God.


Let us pray:

Father, you have appointed our Lord Jesus Christ

As Mediator of a new covenant;

Give us grace to draw near with fullness of faith

And join ourselves in a perpetual covenant with you,

Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


In the old covenant, God chose Israel to be a special people and to obey the law.

Our Lord Jesus Christ, by his death and resurrection,

Has made a new covenant with all who trust in him.

We stand within this covenant and we bear his name.

On the one side, God promises in this covenant to give us new life in Christ.

On the other side, we are pledged to live not for ourselves but for God.

Today, therefore, we meet to renew the covenant which binds us to God.

Please stand, as you are able.

Friends, let us claim the covenant God has made with his people

And accept the yoke of Christ.

To accept the yoke of Christ means that we allow Christ to guide all that we do and are,

and that Christ himself is our only reward.

Christ has many services to be done;

Some are easy, others are difficult;

Some make others applaud us, others bring only reproach;

Some we desire to do because of our own interest; others seem unnatural.

Sometimes we please Christ and meet our own needs,

At other times we cannot please Christ unless we deny ourselves.

Yet Christ strengthens us and gives us the power to do all these things.

Therefore let us make this covenant of God our own.

Let us give ourselves completely to God,

Trusting in his promises and relying on his grace.

I give myself completely to you, God.

Assign me to my place in your creation.

Let me suffer for you.

Give me the work you would have me do.

Give me many tasks

Or have me step aside while you call others.

Put me forward or humble me.

Give me riches or let me live in poverty.

I freely give all that I am and all that I have to you.

And now, holy God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,

You are mine and I am yours. So be it.

May this covenant made on earth continue for all eternity.  Amen.      

—from The New Handbook of the Christian Year