Just Do It!


Meditation on Luke 3:7-18

Third Sunday in Advent

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

Dec. 13, 2015


John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’ And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’ As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’


My husband, Jim, and I went out to see “Spotlight” on Friday. The movie is named for the small, investigative reporting team working for the Boston Globe in 2002 that discovers a massive scandal of child molestation and cover-up within the local Catholic Archdiocese. The film brings out how difficult it is for the reporters and editors to pursue the story, as people are afraid to criticize the Church, which has considerable power, especially in Boston. It is more important for the Church to protect its reputation than to protect the most vulnerable members of the kingdom of God–the children, many of whom came from broken homes or lived in poverty. The Church settled multiple cases of child abuse through private mediation with victims’ families, forcing them to sign confidentiality agreements, so no one would find out what the priests had done. Some of the children were abused repeatedly, over a number of years. Many did not recover psychologically from the abuse.

One frightened victim, interviewed as a young adult, said he didn’t fight back or tell anyone about the abuse as a child because in his family, the priests were God! Adult victims portrayed in the movie wanted nothing to do with any church anymore.

Particularly moving in the film is its portrayal of how the reporters were affected by these revelations–and by the obstacles the Church thrust in their path as they grew closer to the full truth. Journalists on the Spotlight team had been raised in the Catholic Church. Most described themselves as “lapsed” Catholics. Sacha, played by Rachel McAdams, sometimes accompanied her “Nana” to church. But after learning of the abuse and cover up, she couldn’t go anymore without thinking about the victims–and the offenders–and how the Church had allowed the abuse to go on. In one touching scene, Mike, played by Mark Ruffalo, is standing at the back of a church, watching and listening to a children’s choir sweetly sing, “Silent Night.” Tears stream down his face. Later he tells his colleagues, his voice breaking with emotion, that though he was a “lapsed” Catholic, he always thought that, someday, he would go back.


Sin and corruption amongst the people of God are nothing new. Thousands of years ago, the Spirit led John the Baptist to preach repentance to a sinful generation, seeking to prepare the hearts and minds of those who had turned away from the one True God for the coming Messiah–John’s younger cousin, Jesus Christ.

Now John the Baptist is bold. His tone is sarcastic. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee the wrath to come?!”

I looked up “brood of vipers” and I learned that “brood” isn’t just a family group; it’s specifically the offspring! He’s saying, in today’s language, “Your mama’s a snake!” Vipers are found in most parts of the world today, including Florida! They are nocturnal; they ambush their prey–in the dark. They strike quickly. Their venom causes paralysis. Death may result from asphyxiation. I can’t think of anything worse than calling someone a snake–or a child of a snake!

Why would John use such harsh language? Bible scholars (such as Joel B. Green) say that John chooses words that “deliberately contrast with” their own self-identity. They see themselves as God’s chosen, the children of Abraham. They are comfortable with who they are, without seeing themselves as they truly are–sinful people who allow injustice, abuse, and oppression in their society to continue. They aren’t rich people, but they have more than enough and allow others to go without basic necessities, such as food and clothing. They are people, some of them, who are dishonest on their jobs and in their day-to-day lives, such as the tax collectors and soldiers who come to be baptized.

“Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ John says sternly. “For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children of Abraham.”

The crowd listens to John, though his words are harsh and abrasive. They must know, deep down, that he is right and that he is warning them for their own good. And after all, they are afraid, “fleeing” from the judgment, “God’s wrath” to come. “What then should we do?” they ask.

It’s interesting about John’s baptism and teaching–how the people have to leave their normal lives and go into the wilderness to partake in his ministry, but he doesn’t urge them to join him in his ascetic life, living apart from the world, wearing camel’s skin, eating only locusts and honey, and forsaking alcohol, which was quite unusual in those days. John’s baptism to repentance is to empower people to return to their former lives with changed hearts and minds–so that they may behave appropriately as the children of Abraham. The first step toward this change and right living is seeing oneself as one truly is–being convicted of one’s sins.

John teaches that true repentance is shown through acts of mercy and generosity. Live your life, he says, in a way that reveals your love for God and neighbor.

“Whoever has two shirts must share with anyone who has none. And whoever has food must do likewise.” He tells the tax collectors to collect no more than the amount they are supposed to. He tells the soldiers to stop extorting money from the people with threats and false accusations. “Be satisfied with your wages.”

He says, do this:  be honest, be generous, be merciful, be content with your material wealth.

Just do it!

The turning point of this passage is verse 15, “As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah.”  Their hearts are changing! They have gone from fear of God’s wrath and the judgment to joyful “expectation” of the Messiah and wondering if he could already be there. Was he John?

Not me, says John. Just wait!

“I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals,” he says. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”



As the movie “Spotlight,” nears its conclusion, we learn the most startling revelation of all–that the editor of the investigative team, “Robby” played by Michael Keaton–had been one of those who had by his own silence had covered up the abuses and allowed them to continue. An attorney representing the Church had sent Robby, when he was working as a metro reporter in the early 1990s, information on 20 clergy sexual offenders. Robby wrote one article, buried on the inside pages, but then dropped the story– failed to do any follow up on the victims, the offenders, or the Church.

Robby, who attended a Catholic school across the street from the Globe, had known about the allegations for years, and he hadn’t done a thing. He doesn’t remember writing the story at all until Sacha finds his article in the files– and gives him the clipping.

There’s a close up of Robby’s face as realization dawns, then sorrow and shame. He is determined not to fail again to do the right thing. He’s just going to do it–no matter what it costs him personally. Not even if it means losing longtime friends by pursuing the truth. The whole truth!

Brothers and sisters, I don’t want you to leave worship today talking about the horrible abuses in the Catholic church–and the cover up by Church leaders. Go out into the world determined to be the Church that God wants us to be–to hear the words of John the Baptist, and obey. Go in joyful expectation that the Messiah is coming! He’s coming soon! Now is the time to live the way God wants us to live.

Repent! Turn back to the Lord. Be honest. Be merciful. Be compassionate. Be content with your material wealth. Be generous. Share with your neighbors in need.

Just do it!

Don’t stumble into sin by judging others. Protestant churches, like Catholic, are not always places of health, healing, comfort and refuge, though they should be. Many of those who are hurt in a church end up not going to church at all–like the Boston Globe journalists. Do you know someone who was hurt by the church? What can you do to reach out to them?  What can we do? Let’s do it.

I can’t stop seeing Mike, standing at the back of a church as children sweetly sing, “Silent Night.” Tears are streaming down his face. He is a lapsed Catholic, he later tells his colleagues, his voice choking with emotion.

But he always thought that he would go back.


Let us pray.


Holy One, forgive us for being comfortable with our lives and not working very hard to correct the injustices in our society, in our world. Forgive us for not praying enough for our neighbors in need and not sharing what we have, though we certainly have more than we need.  Thank you for your generosity and mercy for us–just sinners, too often taking for granted your wonderful grace, that covers all our sins! Turn our hearts toward you in joyful expectation of our Messiah’s coming! Give us wisdom and compassion to reach out to people who have been hurt by churches, hurt by Christians, and no longer go to any church, anymore. Stir us to true repentance for our sins, demonstrating our change of heart through our words and acts of kindness, generosity, mercy, and love. Help us to do whatever it takes to draw others nearer to You, to bring stray sheep back into your fold. In Christ we pray. Amen.



Yellow for Alice


Meditation on Luke 1:68-79

Dec. 6, 2015

Second Sunday in Advent

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church


“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, 70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71     that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. 72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant, 73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us 74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. 76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. 78 By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, 79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”




I watched and listened in horror with the world on Wednesday as the latest act of terrorism was reported on CNN. A husband and wife opened fire on a social service center in San Bernardino, California, killing 14 people. The act of terror in California came on the heels of a shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado last week, which followed the terrorist attacks on Paris Nov. 13, when 130 people were killed and hundreds were injured.

On Wednesday, as CNN cameras rolled and Jim and I watched the horrible events unfold, my silent prayer was, “Come, Lord Jesus, Come.”

If you need any evidence, my friends, that we are living in a world that walks in darkness, a world in desperate need of a Savior, you only have to turn on the TV or read the newspaper.

Sometimes, it feels like the bad people are winning, doesn’t it? But it’s only an illusion. Christ has already defeated sin and death! We are the children of the new covenant, people of hope as Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:13 reminds a frightened church of the first century, “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.” We trust not in the things of this world but in the grace of God. By faith we can see our Emmanuel, our God with us, in the hearts of our brothers and sisters in Christ– and when we see their gentle acts of mercy and grace. People like my friend, Alice.    Alice was one of the first members of my last congregation that I met. As we pulled up in the driveway of the parish house to move in, she was there, holding a container of still warm, homemade chocolate chip cookies. She was one of many “Barnabases” the Lord has sent to encourage me and remind me of God’s love. And I am only one of many people that she encourages. When someone in the community is in need–sick, lonely or grieving– she is there with kind words, smiles, hugs, small gifts, cards and “thinking of you” phone calls.

Alice often wears yellow, especially in winter–when the world outside her in rural Minnesota is mostly white or brown. Yellow reminds her of summer, her favorite season. Yellow reminds me of peace, promised to us in today’s gospel reading–as we pursue it, led by the Spirit. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

I received a card from Alice a few days ago. It was yellow, with two lit candles, an open Bible and Psalm 92:1, “it is good to give thanks to the Lord.” What particularly touched my heart was her sprawling handwriting assuring me of her prayers for us and how she and her husband will always miss us because we are so dear to them. She reminded me about the small gift I gave to her as we said goodbye. “The little lamb,” she wrote, “rides in the car, and we think of you.”   Inside the card, Alice slipped a poem, “This is the Day,” by Patience Allison Hartbauer. “This is the day that the Lord has made–I will rejoice and be glad in it. I will start out this day with a song in my heart to face any trial and to win it…For I know that I walk with His hand in mind, He will guide every step of my way. If I fail or I fall, He will lift me up, the Lord is my strength every day. This is the day that I will be glad–I can smile, I can win and achieve. For I’ve given my heart to my God this day and I trust in His word–I believe.” And then this next line, she underlined. “I believe that He has a plan for me.”   “That my life will be changed for the best. He has washed all my sins, He has made me whole. I’m at peace, I am calm–I am blessed. This is the day that I overcome all the burdens that weighed on my heart. My spirit will soar and I will succeed, for I’m given a fresh new start. I will walk with pride with my head held high, and fear cannot enter my sphere. For this is the day that the Lord has made–All is well, all is good…God is near…”   On Wednesday night, after watching the report of yet another terrorist attack, I began to crochet a scarf for my dear friend, one of many Barnabases in my life, to remind her that winter won’t last forever. Yellow–for Alice. Yellow–for peace.


The passage in Luke that I read today is actually a song written by a man named Zechariah. When you look at this passage in your Bible, you’ll see that it is indented like the stanzas in a poem or verses in a song–like the Psalms. It wasn’t written that way in the original Greek, but it is, indeed, a song or “canticle,” one of several woven into the narrative of Luke, much like the Magnificat, the song Mary sings in Luke 1:46-56, just before the account of the birth of John the Baptist begins in verse 57.   John’s father, Zechariah, is so important to the telling of Christ’s story that Luke first mentions Zechariah and his wife in chapter 1, verse 5, immediately following Luke’s introduction, dedicated to Theophilus. Luke writes, “In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren and both were getting on in years.”

Their story has echoes of the Abraham and Sarah story, but also Hannah’s story in 1 Samuel, which we studied a few weeks ago. Zechariah is serving in the holy sanctuary of the Lord one day, offering incense on behalf of the people, while the people are praying outside, when an angel of the Lord appears to him. Zechariah is “terrified; and fear overwhelm(s) him.” (v. 12) Zechariah is alone because only the priests can enter into the holy sanctuary. The angel tells him not to be afraid– for his prayer has been heard. Your wife, Elizabeth, will “bear a son and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord… he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

Unlike Hannah and Mary, Zechariah responds with disbelief. He asks, “How will I know this is so? For I am an old man and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel replies, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”      I kind of feel sorry for Zechariah; I don’t think he was trying to be rude. He wants a son more than anything. The priesthood was, back then, only open to one ancestral line and the job was passed down from father to son. It wasn’t a position the general public could pursue by going to school; you had to be born into the tribe of Levi. And Zechariah, a name that means, “God remembered,” had waited so long for a child that, sadly, he had finally given up hope.

God punishes Zechariah for his unbelief, but then blesses him with a miracle–the longed-for son who would play an important role in God’s plan by preparing the way for Jesus Christ. And God, in his tender mercy, uses the “punishment” of becoming mute as a sign for the community–not of God’s wrath, but of His faithfulness to visit them with His grace; it was “proof” of Zechariah’s encounter with an angel.

The song that we read together today–Zechariah’s canticle– is the priest’s first utterance after the angel’s prophecy had come to pass; he has been mute for Elizabeth’s entire pregnancy! It isn’t until the baby’s circumcision, 8 days after his birth, when he is named “John,” that Zechariah regains his ability to speak. “John” is a name derived from a Hebrew word meaning, “God is gracious.” And while Zechariah’s overwhelming fear had turned to overflowing joy, “fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them, pondered them and said, ‘What, then, will this child become? For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.’”   Zechariah’s song answers that question — who, indeed, would this child become? He would be filled with the Holy Spirit. And turn the hearts of many of the people of Israel back to the Lord their God. And “make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

Let us pray.

Holy One, we thank you for the gift of your Son, Jesus Christ, our mighty Savior and loving Lord who will guide our feet into the way of peace. Lord, we long to live in a world where there is no more evil–no more violence, sickness and sadness, no more loss, no more pain. Prepare our hearts so that we are truly ready for your return. Help us to be more faithful to your calling on our lives and less distracted by the things of this world. Forgive us for our anxieties and fears and for our failure to mend the broken relationships in our lives. Help us to love and forgive! We pray that your Spirit would grant us wisdom to know your will and courage to live in obedience to your Word–without fear and doubt. And we ask that you be with all who lost loved ones in the recent wave of terrorist attacks. Please bring them comfort and wholeness, despite their terrible loss. Empower us to be brave peacemakers, bearers of hope, Barnabases to all who need encouragement and reminders of God’s love, tender mercies, and grace. We pray in the name of our Emmanuel–God with us and coming again. Amen.

“Teach me your paths”

Meditation on Psalm 25

First Sunday in Advent

Nov. 29, 2015

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
O my God, in you I trust;
do not let me be put to shame;
do not let my enemies exult over me.
Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame;
let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.
Make me to know your ways, O Lord;
teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth, and teach me,
for you are the God of my salvation;
for you I wait all day long.
Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love,
for they have been from of old.
Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
according to your steadfast love remember me,
for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!
Good and upright is the Lord;
therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
He leads the humble in what is right,
and teaches the humble his way.
All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness,
for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.
For your name’s sake, O Lord,
pardon my guilt, for it is great.
Who are they that fear the Lord?
He will teach them the way that they should choose.
They will abide in prosperity,
and their children shall possess the land.
The friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him,
and he makes his covenant known to them.
My eyes are ever towards the Lord,
for he will pluck my feet out of the net.
Turn to me and be gracious to me,
for I am lonely and afflicted.
Relieve the troubles of my heart,
and bring me out of my distress.
Consider my affliction and my trouble,
and forgive all my sins.
Consider how many are my foes,
and with what violent hatred they hate me.
O guard my life, and deliver me;
do not let me be put to shame, for I take refuge in you.
May integrity and uprightness preserve me,
for I wait for you.
Redeem Israel, O God, out of all its troubles.


I knew the breakfast was going to be good from the moment I saw Mike Smith pouring a bag of thawing blueberries onto a large griddle. Steam rose up and the berries and purple juice sizzled and danced on the hot surface. Mike expertly slid the berries and juice back and forth with his spatula, staring down at them, as if daring them to try and escape their destiny–to be the blueberries in our blueberry pancakes at our annual Thanksgiving breakfast.

“You’ve done this before,” I said to Mike. “Every year,” he answered, smiling, without looking up. And I thought to myself, “Those blueberries don’t stand a chance!!”

Thursday’s breakfast was a fundraiser for our youth and youth leaders to go to the Montreat Youth Conference next summer. Perhaps 60 or 70 people came to the breakfast. We had a good number of volunteers, too! By 9 o’clock, the room was filling up with MIPC families, some with extended family members visiting for Thanksgiving. Some came from as far away as Norway. Former youth–now young adults– came with friends and families, and it became something of a Youth Group/Kids Klub reunion. One young man, now living in Texas, nodded to the fellowship hall stage and told me with a smile that coming to the breakfast brought back memories of “Daniel and the Lion’s Den.” How he got talked into being Daniel, he said, he’ll never know.

This was my first Thanksgiving breakfast at our church, so it was a learning experience for me. I had no idea what I would be doing, but I wanted to help with whatever was needed. Right before the breakfast, though, Cindy told me there were plenty of people cooking, serving, and waiting on tables. I was free to do the “pastor thing.” My job was to meet and greet–which was good for me since I like to talk, and I am not crazy about cooking! And it was probably good for everyone else, because no sooner would I be talking to one group of people that I would receive a tap on my shoulder and be invited to meet and talk to another group of people. If I had taken any orders, those tables might still be waiting for their food!

I enjoyed meeting new people and listening to their stories, finding out how they were related to other people in the church. I liked watching the expressions on some of their faces change as they learned my identity. One person said that she had never seen a pastor wear pink tennis shoes to a “church dinner.”

I speak of the Thanksgiving breakfast today because I want to express my gratitude for everyone who came to support the youth, but also to encourage you, as a church, that the most important thing about the breakfast wasn’t the food we enjoyed, the money we raised, or even the number of people who attended. The breakfast was a medium for God’s love to be shared, Christ’s joy and peace to be experienced, and our relationships to blossom and grow! And as we seek to make new friends and people get to know us as we really are, pink tennis shoes and all– they are also getting to know and befriending our Redeemer and Lord, Emmanuel.


On this First Sunday in Advent, let us turn to the Psalms, ancient Israel’s hymns and prayers of praise and thanksgiving to the Lord, as well as cries for help in times of distress. The Psalms, thousands of years old, convey foundational beliefs in down to earth, accessible, even beautiful language. They were and still are ways of sharing the faith and passing it on to our children. In ancient times, people did not have written copies of the Psalms or any other Scripture in their homes. Most people did not know how to read. A leader would sing a verse and those assembled would repeat until the Psalm was learned by heart. As an aid to memorization, Psalm 25, like some of the other psalms, is an alphabetical acrostic. The first letter of the first word in each line corresponds to the 22 successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. For example, verse 1 begins with the letter aleph or the “a” of the Hebrew ABC’s.

The prayer opens with a raising of the “soul” toward God. This is a declaration of trust. The word translated “soul” (nepes) is more concrete than we think of “soul.” It refers to “the throat area, the center of the body where vital signs such as breathing, moisture and heartbeat are palpable.” Nepes means “life, self and soul.” To lift up one’s soul involves risk and trust; it is to leave oneself completely vulnerable. This is why the psalmist follows with a request not to be “put to shame” or to lose face. The psalmist speaks of his “enemies,” so we sense he is in danger; real or metaphorical, we aren’t sure. The Psalm, attributed to David, may have been composed in battle or simply in a time of great uncertainty and fear.

The message that stands out in this prayer for me is the psalmist asking the Lord to teach him God’s paths, “Make me to know your ways, O Lord.” “Teach me, Lord,” is a recurring theme throughout the Psalms. God is the good teacher, who alone possesses the wisdom and knowledge that are needed for every day, but especially during times of urgent need, as it is for the psalmist. But the psalmist isn’t speaking just of head “knowledge” when he asks to know God’s ways. The Psalmist is concerned for being in right relationship with the Lord, the “God of my salvation.” He wants God’s love and forgiveness! But he is having trouble forgiving himself for what he has done; he needs reassurance of God’s grace. He says in verse 11, “For your name’s sake, O Lord, pardon my guilt, for it is great.” He doesn’t try to bargain with God or earn His forgiveness through good works. He assures the Lord of his fear, his desire to be pleasing and obedient to Him, and his willingness to wait on the Lord. To be patient with God’s timing. He is never presumptive or arrogant. He knows that the Lord will teach only the “humble in what is right.” God’s ways and paths–the teachings of the Lord–are “steadfast love and faithfulness.”

God’s ways are the way to “prosperity,” which doesn’t mean an abundance of possessions, but shalom–peace and wholeness– with echoes of the Exodus story with, “their children shall possess the land.” What the Psalmist greatly desires–did you catch this?– is the promise of everlasting “friendship” with the Lord.

This is not a God who cannot be known intimately! This is a God who cares that the Psalmist is “lonely and afflicted”–hurting, emotionally. “Relieve the troubles of my heart,” he says, “and bring me out of my distress.”

And finally, the cry for not just the Psalmist, but for all Israel to be saved. “Redeem, Israel, O God, of all its troubles.”



Friends, when we are tempted to be busier than ever this Advent, let us consider our activities in the light of what Christ has called us to do–to make disciples, sharing the love and light of Emmanuel in a world walking in darkness.   Do the things we do support relationship-building–with God and other people? Do they fill us with joy — or leave us feeling lonely and empty inside?

Remember our own need for forgiveness–even after we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior! We all struggle, at times, like the psalmist, to forgive ourselves; for our guilt is great! Just because we are Christians doesn’t mean we ever stop being sinners! We need God’s reassurance. We need reminders of His loving presence with us. Let us humble ourselves before the Lord, for God’s wisdom is given only to the humble, to those who seek God’s paths and seek to walk in God’s ways. For those who are willing to patiently wait!

Let us pray.

Holy One, you are our teacher, our lover, our friend. Thank you for Jesus Christ, your only Son, who has made possible what was previously impossible–our salvation through belief in Him, in His work for us on a cross. Forgive us for our many sins, sins that we continue to commit, though our heart’s desire is to be pleasing and obedient to you. Help us to walk your paths of steadfast love and faithfulness and to learn to wait on you — to be patient, as the psalmist teaches us. We are not always good at being patient! Teach us to choose activities that build up our faith and our relationships with you and one another. Empower us to make disciples this Advent season by reaching out with the love and light of Christ, our Emmanuel. Amen.


I Have Lent Him to the Lord

Meditation on 1 Samuel 1: 1 – 2:11 (selected verses)

Bible Translation by Hans Wilhelm Hertzberg & J.S. Bowden

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

Nov. 15, 2015

1:1 There was a certain man of Ramathaim, of the Zuphites, of the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah the son of Jeroham, son of Elihu, son of Tohu, son of Zuph, an Ephrathite. 2 He had two wives; the name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other Peninnah. And Penninah had children, but Hannah had no children.

3 Now this man used to go up year by year from his city to worship and to sacrifice to the Lord of hosts at Shiloh, where the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phineas, were priests of the Lord. 4 Now there was a day when Elkanah sacrificed. And he used to give portions to Penninah his wife and to all her sons and daughters, 5 but he would give Hannah one portion, the portion of the face, for he loved Hannah, although the Lord had closed her womb. 6 And her rival used to provoke her sorely, to humiliate here, because the Lord had closed her womb. 7 So it went on year by year; as often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. 8 And Elkanah, her husband, said to her, ‘Hannah, who do you weep? And why do you not eat? And why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than 10 sons?” 9 But Hannah rose, after they had eaten the boiled meat and had drunk, and went before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on his seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. 10 She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. 11 And she vowed a vow and said, ‘O Lord of hosts, if thou wilt indeed look on the affliction of the maidservant, and remember me, and not forget thy maidservant, but wilt give to thy maidservant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life and no razor shall touch his head.’ 12 As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. 13 Hannah was speaking in her heart; only her lips moved, and her voice was not heard; therefore Eli took her to be a drunken woman. 14 And Eli said to her, ‘How long will you be drunken? Put away your wine from you. 15 But Hannah answered, ‘No, my Lord, I am only a woman sorely troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. 16 Do not regard your maidservant as a base woman, for all along I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation. 17 Then Eli answered, ‘Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition which you have made of him.’ 18 And she said, ‘Let your maidservant find favor in your eyes.’

     Then the woman went her way and ate with her husband and drank, and her countenance was no longer sad. 19 They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord, then they went back to their house at Ramah. And Elkhanah knew Hannah his wife, and the Lord remembered her; and Hannah conceived, and in due time bore a son, and she called his name Samuel, for she said, ‘I have asked him of the Lord.’ 21 And the man Elkhanah and all his house went up (again) to offer to the Lord the yearly sacrifice, and to pay his vow. 22 But Hannak did not go up, for she said to her husband, (I will remain here) until the child is weaned; then I will bring him to see the face of the Lord and abide there for ever…

     24 And when she had weaned him, she took him up with her, along with a 3-year-old bull, an ephah of flour, and a skin of wine; and she brought him to the house of the Lord at Shiloh, although the child was still young. Then they slew the bull, and they brought the child to Eli. 26 And she said, Oh, my Lord! As you live, my lord, I am the woman who was standing here in your presence, praying to the Lord. 27 For this child I prayed; and the Lord has granted me my petition which I made to him. 28 Therefore I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives, he is lent to the Lord. And they worshiped the Lord there…

    2:11 And they left him there before the Lord and went home to Ramah.


I enjoyed a lovely walk in my neighborhood yesterday morning before I began work on my sermon. The walk was soothing for me, a healing balm. I was hurting from an argument I had had with my mother the day before. I was having trouble letting the hurt go. I needed God’s help.

I listened for His voice in the breeze that whispered through the palms. I felt God’s love in the warmth of the sun on my back. I remembered what God has done for me, giving me hope and the promise of new and abundant life, as I trust Him each day. And as I submit to Him. I remembered my gratitude–the foundation of our faith — and the grace that God has shown me. I gave Him my thanks and praise.

I thought about Hannah in 1 Samuel and how she persevered through years of hurt and disappointment. She continued to seek God’s presence and trust in Him. Then one day, after she shared the longings of her heart, “pouring out her soul to the Lord,” she experienced a dramatic transformation.

Her sadness was turned to joy.


We who have struggled with conflict and hurt in our families are inspired by the example of Hannah, “sorely provoked” and “humiliated” by Penninah, her husband, Elkanah’s, other wife. Yes, it was common for a man to have more than one wife in Biblical times. This was a way the community looked after its members.  Widows were given in marriage to brothers or other kin of the deceased. When there were no other offers of marriage to an “old maid,” she was sometimes given in marriage to her sister’s husband, such as when Laban gave his daughter, Rachel, and her less attractive, nearsighted, older sister, Leah, to be Jacob’s wives. Having more than one wife helped to ensure the survival of the family, for children often died young; mothers frequently died in childbirth. Rachel died giving birth to her second son, Benjamin, Joseph’s younger brother, while journeying to Ephrath, later known as Bethlehem.

Maybe we feel a little sympathy for Penninah when we find out that Hannah was the one Elkanah loved. We read nothing about his feelings for Peninnah, who gave him sonsand daughters, while Hannah gave him none. We find no conversation between Elkanah and Penninah recorded. We do find, however, loving dialog between Elkanah and Hannah, revealing his patience and compassion while she was depressed, withdrawn, refusing to eat. He doesn’t hold her barrenness against her, for it was the Lord that “closed her womb.” Still, a woman’s identity and self-worth was found in giving birth and providing her husband with sons to carry on the family name and religion, and to keep his memory alive after his death.

Can you hear the comfort Elkanah offers his favored wife? He asks, “Hannah, why do you weep? And why do you not eat? Any why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than 10 sons?” He also gave her preferential treatment over Peninnah and her children.The climax of the pilgrimage is a sacrificial meal at which the pilgrims rejoice before Yahweh with eating and drinking. The head of the household divides the portions. Elkanah gave Hannah the “portion of the face,” perhaps a portion of honor, presumably much larger than the portion he gives to Penninah and her sons and daughters. But the fact that the women and children were present with him at the table, sharing the feast together, reveals an unusual kindness in Elkanah. Women and children usually remained in the background during the feast and waited to eat after mealtime was over.

How do you feel about the priest’s reaction to Hannah’s praying–accusing her of being drunk? It may be one of those moments of rare comic relief that we find in Scripture. But notice a pattern in God’s Word–that often the most “religious” people, the people we expect to have all the answers, are the ones who don’t understand what is happening in the spiritual realm. They don’t have eyes to “see”! God uses ordinary people to accomplish His work! The Lord is already using you and me!

Does it seem like the writer uses more words than necessary to describe Hannah’s silent prayer? In verse 13, we read Hannah “speaking in her heart;” “with only her lips moving”, “without making any sound.” Well, people didn’t pray silently back then–or at least it wasn’t common. Silent prayer is a spiritual practice that became more popular–but was still not universally accepted– after a 16th century Carmelite nun named Teresa of Avila, Spain, wrote books about something called “mental prayer.”

What I don’t want you to miss is the turning point for Hannah in this passage. She endures many years of disappointment, shame and humiliation, worsened by Penninah’s provocation. She gives the Lord the longings of her heart every year that she and Elkanah make the pilgrimage to Shiloh. She never gives up. She always hopes in the Lord. She is always gracious–even to Eli the priest. She says respectfully, “No, my lord, I am only a woman sorely troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord.”

Eli responds with a common “formula” blessing that doesn’t reveal whether he believes that God will give Hannah what she desires–or not. I don’t think he knows she has asked for a son when he says, “Go in peace, and (may) God grant your petition which you have made to him.” Hannah hears a promise, though, and responds in humility, submitting to God’s will for her life. There is NO trace of any of the “vexation”–(anger) — or “great anxiety” that she had shared in her silent prayer, when she “poured out her soul before the Lord.” She reminds us of the Virgin Mary after the angel tells her that she will conceive by the Holy Spirit and give birth to Jesus, who will be Son of the Most High. Mary says, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Hannah says essentially the same thing. “Let your maidservant find favor in your eyes.”

She is no longer sad; her grief is gone! Now she eats and drinks with her husband, celebrating the promise of God granting her the longing of her heart.

She soon gives birth to Samuel, a name that means, “He over whom the name of God has been said.”  What is lost in translation is the wordplay on the root “sa al.” When Eli uses “sa al” two times as he speaks to Hannah, the word means simply “to ask.” When Samuel anoints Israel’s first king “Saul,” the name means, “he who is asked.” When Hannah keeps her promise to the Lord and gratefully brings Samuel to be raised by the priest in the temple, she uses the same root word, “sa al,” which now becomes, “he who is lent.” When something is “lent,” if you think about it, it is usually “given” for a time, with the expectation of return.

But Hannah knows that Samuel, asked for in faith and given by God–in His time, belongs to the Lord–forever. She gratefully returns to the Lord what is most precious to her, saying, “I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives, he is lent to the Lord.”


Friends, do you know that you are a precious gift from God? That we and all of our family members belong to Him? We are, as Hannah says, “lent to the Lord,” as long as we live.

Are you feeling anxious or angry–like Hannah, who was sorely provoked by Penninah for many years? Seek the Lord. Trust Him with the longings of your heart. Pour out your soul before Him! Be patient! Hold onto your faith as you persevere through your trials. Hannah waited for many years on the Lord, without giving up hope. In fact, I think her years of suffering made her cling to Him even more.

And one day, her sadness turned to joy.

Let us pray.

Holy One, thank you for your love, a love that led you to give up your Son for our sakes! Thank you for listening to our prayers, for beckoning us to come to you and pour out our souls before you. Give us the longings of your heart, Lord. Help us to trust in your will, your plan for our lives, and your timing for all things. Move us to gratitude for what you have done for us so that we will be content no matter what happens in our lives. Help us to have grace for one another. In your Son’s name we pray. Amen.

“What Will You Give?”

Grumpy CatMeditation on Mark 12: 38-44

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

Nov. 8, 2015

      “As he taught, Jesus said, ‘Beware of the scribes who like to walk around in long robes and to be greeted with respect in the market-places and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’  He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’”


Friends, I am happy to see that folks are turning in their time and talents sheets, along with their pledge cards. So far, 43 people have responded. I am hoping more of you will fill out this volunteer sheet that invites us to give not only from our material resources, but to offer ourselves– all that we are– to the Lord and His Church! I had to smile when I saw some people’s names are listed under a variety of volunteer positions. Some are elderly with health problems and no longer driving, but they cheerfully give of themselves to do whatever the church needs–to serve the Lord.

But then I began to look more closely at our need areas, and I grew worried, especially as we consider our desire to have more young families and children in our midst. We only have 2 people volunteering to sub or assist in Sunday school and the nursery. Only one kind soul has offered to provide dinner for the youth group. If we really care about our young people and reaching out to the youth of our community for Christ, we have to do more than talk about it! We have to be willing to serve!

Another concern I have is the relatively short list of people willing to volunteer as ushers and greeters. How come? These are some of the most important jobs in a church, especially a congregation longing to grow. The greeters and the ushers are those who extend the first welcome, reaching out to new people and long time members alike with the love of Jesus. Usually, the greeter’s job is to help hold open the door for someone who needs help, smile, shake hands, and say, “Hello!” or “Good morning! We’re glad you are here!”  Greeters point people in the direction of the sanctuary, coffee and refreshments, the nursery, Sunday school, and restrooms. They introduce new people to other members and answer general questions.

At my last church, every person served as a greeter at least once a year; some more often than that, filling in for others who could not make it at the last minute or were away on vacation. Those who would have trouble standing for any length of time would be seated in a chair by the door.  We sometimes scheduled the greeters by couples or families. All of the children participated!

Friends, every Christian is called to reach out with Christ’s love to a hurting world. Greeters are making disciples of all the nations–one smile at a time. I can’t imagine what might keep people from wanting to be greeters; I can only think that maybe some people are uncomfortable welcoming strangers. Maybe they are worried they won’t know what to say. Or perhaps they are uncomfortable welcoming some of their own brothers and sisters in the Lord? Is that possible? Do we have some relationships that need mending?

Speaking as someone who has often been an outsider as a religion journalist, it isn’t just the pastor who needs to be friendly, welcoming and approachable. We ALL need to be that way!  Studies show that someone visiting a church often makes a decision in the first 10 minutes whether or not they will come again. What happens in the first 10 minutes at our church? Do visitors receive a warm greeting from everyone they pass by? Do people take the time to introduce themselves? Do people invite visitors to sit beside them during worship? Do people ever sit in a different seat just to welcome someone they don’t know and strike up a conversation?

And here’s one more question that I wonder about. Do new people see us smiling at one another? Are we smiling? Or do we appear to be a congregation of Grumpy Cats… you know, that cat on the Internet that went viral, the one who is always saying, “No!” in a thousand different poses. We laugh when we see him because he’s so cute and loveable, even though he is making that bad face. And maybe we laugh because we know, deep down, there’s a little Grumpy Cat in all of us.

We don’t always want to be what God wants us to be, not if it means we might have to change our routine or habits. We don’t want to give and give of ourselves–our time, talents, and money–as the Lord urges us to do, like the widow does in today’s gospel reading. We come up with excuses why we can’t volunteer or take on new jobs in the church. We allow the same group of people to do most of the work of our ministry, though they are overburdened and sometimes exhausted. We don’t always want to be servants and help others; we come to church wanting our own needs met and sometimes being overly critical because something isn’t to our liking. Something isn’t like it used to be or how we want it to be.

I hate to say it, but we are Grumpy Cats!


During Jesus’ ministry on earth, our Lord encountered a few Grumpy Cats, too. But they weren’t cute or loveable. In our gospel reading today, Jesus warns the disciples about the scribes, the teachers of the law. But there’s a problem with the comma after the word, “scribes” in verse 38 that may lead to a misunderstanding. The original Greek had no punctuation. Editors and translators, hundreds of years later, added punctuation making it easier for people speaking modern languages, such as English, to read. But Jesus wasn’t labeling a whole group of people as “bad.” He was pointing to the bad behavior and arrogance ofsome of the religious leaders–the so-called pious examples of the day– and contrasting it with the generous, faithful behavior of the poor widow, a woman who probably went unnoticed by most people. I think Jesus does this because he means for all religious people to be warned against the arrogance, superficiality, and hypocrisy that we can all slide into, if we are not careful.

I am going to read verse 38 with and without that first comma, so you can listen for the difference in meaning. “Beware of the scribes, (comma), who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!” Now, I will read verse 38 without the comma: “Beware of the scribes who like to walk around in long robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets.”

It’s significant that in this passage that denounces arrogance, false piety and self-righteousness, we encounter a lesson about giving and generosity. The economics of Jesus’ time were in some ways not that different than the economics of today’s world in that the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer. The Temple levied taxes, a mandatory assessment for every Jewish family, in addition to what was required for the regular 10 percent tithe and offerings. The system favored the wealthy that could easily afford the taxes and the tithe. And the system was corrupt; the wealthy and powerful were not paying their fair share. This was what Jesus likely meant when he denounced the religious leaders who “devour(ed) widows’ houses,” presumably by requiring them to pay high taxes after they no longer had a close male relative to provide for them. Women, in those days, had few options for earning a living. The Greek verb translated “devour” in verse 40 is a graphic term commonly used to describe the ravenous eating of wild animals.

But in this instance, the woman isn’t a victim of poverty being forced by a cruel system to give all her money away. The money she gives is an offering, freely given, in addition to the Temple tax and tithe. Jesus watches her from the outer court–the part of the Temple that was accessible to women– where people could give money by placing it into one of 13 receptacles shaped like a trumpet. In verse 42, she gives 2lepta (“copper coins” in the NRSV), which Mark tells us are the equivalent of one kodrantes (a “penny” in the NRSV). The lepton is the smallest Greek (and Jewish) coin of the time, while the kodrantes is the smallest Roman coin. The kodrantes was a small fraction of a denarius,which was a day’s pay for a soldier or laborer. (The denarius was the coin Jesus asked to see earlier in this chapter when the Pharisees and Herodians try to trick him by asking him about paying taxes to Caesar.) Jesus says the widow’s gift of just 2 lepta worth only a penny is “morethan ALL those who are contributing to the treasury.”

Why is it “more”? Jesus says in verse 44 in the NRSV that she gave “all she had to live on.” Translating the Greek word for word, we read, “she gave her whole life.” Think about it! She had 2 coins left. And she gave both of them! What courage! What faith! To have trusted the Lord enough to freely give all of herself to God and God’s people, without worrying about her future.

The poor widow’s story sums up what Jesus had been teaching from the beginning of Mark’s gospel about discipleship. In this widow’s sacrificial gift of “her whole life,” we hear echoes of Mark 1:16-20, when the 4 disciples leave their nets–their sole means of making a living–to follow Jesus. And we hear echoes of Mark 8:34, when Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.”

Do we have the courage and faith of the poor widow, who faced the future without fear– and gave without holding back? Do we trust the Lord to provide for us and guide us as we offer all of ourselves, for His sake? Friends, what will you give to the One who gave His Son so the world might have new and abundant life? What will you give?

Let us pray.

Holy One, we thank you for all that you have given us–our families, friends, our church, our talents and gifts, our jobs and homes and all the material wealth we enjoy. We thank you especially for our salvation through belief on your Son, Jesus Christ. We ask that you help us to be more faithful in giving and serving you with all that we have and all that we are. Empower us to be more welcoming and joyful as a church so that others would see your beautiful light shine through us and want to know you, and receive your love and grace. Forgive us for being self-centered at times, looking to have our own needs and desires met instead of seeking to meet the needs of others. Stir us to forgive one another and let go of any past hurts that may be holding us back from growing our congregation and reaching the community for Christ. Mold and shape us into the image of your self-giving Son. In His name we pray. Amen.

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