The Temptation of Limits–a Lenten Sermon

The Temptation of Limits

Because we come from many different religious and denominational backgrounds in this room, let’s take a moment and clarify some terms.  We call this the First Sunday of Lent, that’s LENT, as opposed to LINT which is the common name for visible accumulations of textile fibers and other materials, usually found on and around clothing, such as in your belly button.  There may be some connection, since we are encouraged to do a fair amount of reflection, what some might call naval-gazing, during the season of LENT, but that is as far as the connection goes.  Lent is a season for rending our hearts, not our garments.

For any of you who have experienced worship in a few seasons of Lent, you could, if you were a contestant on Jeopardy, slam your hand on the buzzer quickly to the question  What Bible story is most commonly found during Lent?  Your correct answer for the daily double would be What is the Temptation of Jesus in the Wilderness.

This story of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, like Moses’ 40 days on Mount Sinai, is the basis of Lent which was originally established as 40 days of preparation before the Holy Day of Easter—and you can count them– Beginning with Ash Wednesday all the way to Holy Saturday, not counting the Sabbath Days of Sunday (which are always a day of rest and renewal—a day of Resurrection).

Now Brian and I most typically preach from what’s called the Revised Common Lectionary (used by 46 Protestant denominations in 19 countries).  The lectionary is a selection of readings from the Bible.  They repeat in three year cycles—Year A, Year B, Year C, and we are in Year A that started with Advent.  And in the three year cycle, every first Sunday of Lent includes a Gospel story of the Temptation of Jesus in the wilderness.  Your Jeopardy answer is right.  Year A pairs this story of Jesus’ temptation with the Genesis story of another temptation, the temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden. 

I am finished with the overly long and pedantic introduction and will now try to get to the point of this sermon which is about the Temptation of Limits and the reason I have put off so long getting to it is that I’m not sure what to say about it. I only know that the phrase, “The Temptation of Limits” has felt like  a new idea to me, uncharted territory  or perhaps a forgotten land that I am almost scared of approaching, as if it might challenge my whole way of being and thinking about faith. 

 It was two weeks ago, when preparing the sermon Teachable People that I first got the feeling that I was getting close to a forgotten and somewhat threatening yet compelling land.  And the arresting word that I remember most from that preparation was the word “condition.”  In the sermon, guided so much by the insights of Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman,  I said,  “A true covenant relationship is marked by both unconditional and conditional parts.” 

And it struck me then as it still does now that “conditions” are not something that we like to explicitly discuss, we especially do not like them applied to ourselves.   You may remember a few weeks ago when one of the prayers in the prayer book said, “Pray for my ex-wife and her self-serving ways.”  And as that was being prayed, there was laughter in the room and I am not condemning the laughter, it served to point to the uncomfortable truth of what was being said, that a covenant relationship cannot reach its fullness, its perfection, when there is self-serving disregard of the conditional aspects required for mutual trust. 

I could have burned that sermon and used it for Ashes last Wednesday but the scripture texts today point us again to our trouble with conditions and limits. 

Some like to make light of the Garden of Eden story.  I appreciated reading a 20-year old article by an unheard of professor at an unheard of seminary in St. Paul Minnesota.  He pointed out that some scholars turn the Eden story  into a divine comedy. One might understand God’s negative response to the murder of Abel or the accumulated violence, but to eating a piece of fruit? It sounds like a divine sting operation. Parents know that one way to get a child interested in something is to prohibit it

(at least a sinful child!).     

And so we laugh at this crazy Old Testament God who would put the stupidest limits on us—what do you mean we shouldn’t eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil?  And the very question reminds us that we have zero trust in the covenant creating God who made us and set us in a world that is good.  From the very beginning we would rather live outside the boundaries of the Garden than live within the limits of a trust-based covenant. 

Do we think it absurd that parent might places limits on a beloved child?  Do we think it absurd that two partners might have conditions for a life-long commitment that is both mutually satisfying and of service to the world?

          Let me divert here for a minute—because limits always tempt us to go off on our own, to our own lonely world—I thought of Robert Bellah’s 1985 bestseller, Habits of the Heart:  Individualism and Commitment in American Life,  and oddly, the book, which I did not have time to reread, fell open to the chapter that looked to the rise of therapy as a new way of being in “relationship” with others.  He contrasted therapy with other more traditional forms of relating to others, such as kinship and family, religious community, and even friendship.  All of these traditional forms of relationship are based on restraints, limits, conditions. 

          For instance he reminds us that the concept of friendship as put forward by Aristotle had three essential parts:

1.      Friends must enjoy each other’s company 2. They must be useful to one another and 3. They must share a common commitment to the good.

It’s surprising to read that understanding of friendship because as Bellah points out, today, we define friendship most in terms of the first component only:  Friends are those we take pleasure in being with.  That is, we have over time, done away with the more restraining aspects of friendship.  

He believes this is partly what led to our culture’s reliance on therapy which stresses a person’s autonomy.  The therapeutic view, “ not only refuses to take a moral stand, it actively distrusts ‘morality.’  The question “Is this right or wrong?” becomes “Is this going to work for me now?”


And this is the temptation of limits—the limits raise the question is this going to work for me now?   The Gospel puts this question into the voice of Satan—but we realize that that voice is our own, for we are always asking this question:  Is this going to work for me now?  FOR ME.


And that FOR ME already points to the active distrust of the covenant relationship.

Adam acted out of his distrust—he and Eve were told by God that the covenant relationship, first formed with creation itself, had law, limit, condition, built right into the very created order and they preferred to leave the Garden.  Whereas Jesus, living with the rest of us East of Eden, in the lonely wilderness of our own choosing, Jesus chose again to live within the limits of the covenant with the God he fully and joyfully trusted.

Have you ever acknowledged out loud that you don’t trust someone?  It’s not a good feeling to say it, is it?  It’s a hard truth.  I said it this week about someone I work with in the community.  We can often rationalize saying it, we can give reasons and proof for why someone doesn’t deserve our trust.   The harder question to ask, is do we trust the ones we say we love; do we trust each other here in our faith community; and the hardest question of all—do we trust God?

I don’t know if we can will our way to trust—We can only pray to God as Jesus taught us, O God, lead us not into temptation, deliver us from evil, for thine is the beloved kingdom, and trustworthy power, and the glory of covenant life forever.

Teachable People–More than Good Enough

Teachable People

Note–First hymn of the morning was Gimme That Old Time Religion…It’s good enough for me

There’s no getting around that what we and other Christians do in Sunday worship is pretty old-fashioned.  Oh we try to get it up to date a little bit, but we’re still driving our grandfather’s oldsmobile.  The spiritual says, It was good enough for dear old Mom.  It must be good enough for me. 

That phrase “good enough” is a tough one in a world of constant change and invention.  You could say, Damn, that telegraph was good enough for me, but you sure can’t find anyone else to use one with you!

But in many ways, we are like telegraph users in a world of smart phones.  No, we are like papyrus writing people or like those early humans in caves, painting the walls by the light of the fire.

At heart, we are more interested in the Who of the human experience than the How.  Who am I? Who cares?  Who needs us?   Not how do I get from here to there but who cares that I get there at all?

The Bible is still a bestseller when it comes to those kinds of questions.  So the Bible is at the heart of our Old Time Religion.  I like what Joseph Campbell, the great scholar of comparative religion, once said in an interview with Bill Moyers, he said, if you really wanted Old Time Religion, you’d be reading Zarathustra.  Zarathustra isn’t a best-seller any more.  It remains for future generations to know whether or not the Bible holds swaying power through the millenniums to come. 

But our question about Who we are and Who cares are now questions.

And beginning with the Old Testament (or we might say, the Old Testimony)—there is the incredible claim that the Sovereign God of all things visible and invisible–the One God– love, chose, set his heart on the Israel—that in fact, brought Israel into being—first out of a aged barren woman and second out of a people freed from bondage and oppression—The testimony is that before these free acts of God, Israel did not exist.  And that after those actions, as theologian Walter Brueggeman puts it, Israel is never without Yahweh and Yahweh is never without Israel.

Some call this the scandal of particularity, the scandal that God would, of all the people on earth, have chosen old Abraham and barren Sarah to be the father and mother of Israel; that the God of the universe, would therefore, out of all the cries rising from the earth, listen particularly and act on the cries of the slaves in Egypt, that God would lead them out of bondage and form them into a holy nation, set apart—a covenant people.

The testimony of the Old Testament is that God has a particular covenant relationship with Israel which is why God can say:  You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.   We are bound together and as I am, so you shall be. 

Ironically, this seemingly unfair singling ot of a particular people, is done precisely it seems for the sake of justice for all—a light for the whole world.  As Brueggman puts it—there is a remarkable equation of love of God with love of neighbor.  It seems so obvious to us, but it is not obvious at all.  The equation could have been any number of things—love of God could have equaled love of power, could have equaled love of self.

Throughout the torah—what some call law but is also God’s teaching—there is the unmistakable demand for justice–a way to look at very specific and complex situations in our life and determine what actions will lead to the best outcome for the covenant community—a community that includes widows and orphans and undocumented workers along with murderers and liars and thieves.  Not with partiality or excuses, but with justice you shall judge your neighbor and love your neighbor as yourself.  I am the Lord.

The other part of the covenant that we should explore soon but not fully today is the testimony the Bible makes not only about the justice of God’s holiness, but the beauty of God’s holiness.  Much of the testimony of scripture is about the latter.  God’s holy justice and holy beauty shape our covenant. So we say in our service of worship—give of your best to the Master.   

And I suspect that these words we are talking about make some of us uncomfortable—Be Holy, Be Perfect, Give your best to the Master.  There is a very anti-authoritarian streak in our Reformed culture, our revolutionary heritage that overthrows kings and flees from popes and bishops and anyone who thinks they can dictate to us the way to be, the way to live.  We have a built in lens of suspicion when it comes to those with power, which makes our relationship with God somewhat challenging, in fact makes it challenging to be in any relationship that would seem to place some demand on us that we must obey.  We are very cautious of our commitments.

And each of us has to decide if we are still teachable or are we good enough on our own?  Are we satisfied with who we are or are we in a covenant relationship with God who invites us, even demands of us a more excellent way?  This is an existential question you face every time you come to church or every time you are reminded that you are in relationships with particular people and not living on an island by yourself.  Yet we cannot say we love God and not love particular people anymore than God can say, I love humanity, it’s people I can’t stand.  God, too, had to love particular people to show that God could love any people.

It is much easier to love in the abstract than to love the particular person next to you.  Just as it is we want to say God loves us unconditionally yet we know that God is not pleased by many of our specific actions.  A true covenant there is both unconditional and conditional parts.  Brueggeman points out that it is misleading to try to distinguish between grace and law, between trust and obedience.  In a covenant relationship we may love unconditionally but that does not mean that our covenant is not without demands.  This is meaning behind the popular phrase Freedom is not free.  And we know that is true—we know the stony way that is trod to freedom, treading our feet through the blood of the slaughtered.  Love of the particular always comes with a cost. 

Jesus, teaching on the Law centuries later, was still thoroughly committed to the same covenant understanding:  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.  Jesus is testifying that this covenant relationship with God is a deep personal connection to the very one who has loved us into being and it is a relationship that makes a claim on us, a demand.  Note Jesus did not say, BE perfect as I am perfect.   Even Jesus’ covenant was with God and God’s people, not himself.  He was not out to set some individual world record, to prove something to himself about himself.  He was here to fulfill a covenant relationship with his God and his neighbor and as he hung on the cross he was able to say, It is finished.  The same word as the word Perfect—telios. 

It is not enough for us to share the earth with 7 billion people.  No man is an island. We create a life with particular people in this world. And our covenants with others are shaped by our defining covenant with God that is both unconditional and conditional.  It is a covenant that can teach us of God’s righteousness and holiness and help us shape lives of justice and beauty.

Till the day we die, may we strive on to fulfill this covenant relationship with God and neighbor.  May we be teachable people, happy for the promise of a covenant life, seeking transformation of our “good enough” into God’s more excellent way.

The children of our children’s children will wrestle with their own questions of Who am I and Who care.  May the testimony of our covenant lives shine some fire-light on their walls in the dark.

Rev. Ruth Hamilton, Co-Pastor, Westminster Presbyterian Church, Washington DC

1The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: 2Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.

9When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God.

11You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. 12And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the LORD.

13You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. 14You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.

15You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. 16You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the LORD.

17You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. 18You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.

Matthew 5:43-48

43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”


The Precious Thing We Guard

The Precious Thing We Guard   — 2 Timothy 1:13-2:13 (The Message)

Sermon by Rev. Ruth Hamilton, October 13, 2013


13 So keep at your work, this faith and love rooted in Christ, exactly as I set it out for you. It’s as sound as the day you first heard it from me. 14 Guard this precious thing placed in your custody by the Holy Spirit who works in us. 15 I’m sure you know by now that everyone in the province of Asia deserted me, even Phygelus and Hermogenes. 16 But God bless Onesiphorus and his family! Many’s the time I’ve been refreshed in that house. And he wasn’t embarrassed a bit that I was in jail. 17 The first thing he did when he got to Rome was look me up. 18 May God on the Last Day treat him as well as he treated me. And then there was all the help he provided in Ephesus – but you know that better than I. 1 So, my son, throw yourself into this work for Christ. 2 Pass on what you heard from me – the whole congregation saying Amen! – to reliable leaders who are competent to teach others. 3 When the going gets rough, take it on the chin with the rest of us, the way Jesus did. 4 A soldier on duty doesn’t get caught up in making deals at the marketplace. He concentrates on carrying out orders. 5 An athlete who refuses to play by the rules will never get anywhere. 6 It’s the diligent farmer who gets the produce. 7 Think it over. God will make it all plain. 8 Fix this picture firmly in your mind: Jesus, descended from the line of David, raised from the dead. It’s what you’ve heard from me all along. 9 It’s what I’m sitting in jail for right now – but God’s Word isn’t in jail! 10 That’s why I stick it out here – so that everyone God calls will get in on the salvation of Christ in all its glory. 11 This is a sure thing: If we die with him, we’ll live with him; 12 If we stick it out with him, we’ll rule with him; If we turn our backs on him, his back will be to us; 13 If we give up on him, he does not give up – for there’s no way he can be false to himself.


Our weeks are often shaped by the lives of particular people.  What is going on with them affects us.  On Tuesday the plan was for me to take our dear members, only 56 years old, to the hospital for her radiation treatment and then later to her doctor’s appointment but arriving at her apartment, she was too weak to move, almost too weak to talk  — she kept saying “Talk funny.”  And “I’m scared.”  I remembered back to my mother’s last days, how she died the day before her next scheduled appointment and I wondered if that’s where we were with this dear friend.

 A visiting nurse came a little later and took her vitals which were good so after talking to her doctor we decided the best course of action was to get her up there to see him and being the  strong woman that she is, managed to get in the wheelchair and we went. 

While getting her up to the doctor’s office, Blossom called from another hospital where she was facing new complications and the frustrations of uncoordinated medical care.

(At age 93 she joked that the only problem was that her new medication could not be taken with birth control pills!)

The specter of death seemed all around, exaggerated by the shorter days and the pall of rainclouds and government shutdowns and looming defaults.

Turns out our younger friend was badly dehydrated and they sent her to get fluids and admit her.  Already she sounds like her old self and is looking forward to coming home walking!

On getting home that late afternoon, I felt some relief and plopped down next to Roman on the sofa and checked my messages.  That’s when I saw the text from Brian:  “Rhonda just called—they found Ron dead in his home.” 

The last time we saw Ron was on Monday night when he was at his regular spot next to David, working the cash register for Blue Monday Blues.  He had volunteered most Mondays and Fridays for several years.  When he didn’t show on Friday we assumed he just didn’t feel up to it, since he was ill and we thought recovering from a hospital stay.

On Monday a missing persons report was put out for him and Tuesday the police entered his home and found his body.

I went back out to meet some of the neighbors and said to one woman, “How awful that he died alone.” And she, a single woman, quickly said, “We all die alone.” 

Second Timothy is described as a last testament—From the very opening salutation you know that it is written from the heart,   Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, for the sake of the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus, to Timothy, my beloved child. 

Many scholars agree that this is probably not an actual letter from Paul to Timothy, but may have been written later by someone who wanted to remember the power of that relationship and emphasize what Paul was trying to pass on to us all.    Some of the world’s greatest literature is letters.  I think of the letters between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in their old age.  At times in life they had been bitter enemies, political foes but in the end they recognized that their shared purpose and experience was worth guarding and they both died on the same day– July 4, 50 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed.

To write a good letter to someone beloved is always a challenging spiritual exercise as you try to distil the love and the wisdom that is worth keeping, worth guarding, worth preserving and being mindful of.

Ron McBee’s father died when he was 15.  What a hard age to lose the father in your life.  Just that time when he was beginning to grab onto his own identity as a young man.  Many of you lost loved ones in an untimely way.  Some of you may never have known your father or mother, but the imagination inspired by the Holy Spirit working in us makes us powerful writers; as Brian said last week, helps us give voice to God’s truth in the midst of life and suffering.  A holy exercise might be for you to imagine and even write down what someone you love might say to you now, looking at your life today.

Of course for Erika and Eric (expectant parents) it is quite obvious who the precious thing is they will be guarding.  The Greek word for guard is phylasso*- and you can see the connection to our word “lasso”—when a rancher needs to get a particular calf, the rancher will use a lasso.  Lasso means a kind of isolation.  We guard something by giving particular attention, by isolating someone or something in our minds amidst all the other stuff we might pay attention to.  When you are out at the playground with your little child and children are everywhere you will always be most mindful of your own particular child.  And you’ll probably need to lasso that child a few times to.   And at first you’ll be wrapping that baby up, strapping that baby to you and being so mindful of that little person that you won’t know what else you used to think about.

You’ll look at all things through the lens of your concern for guarding that child.  Just as the writer, in these few verses of this letter, thinks about certain people and certain circumstances that guide his thinking and actions.  He  names Phy-ge-lus and Hermongenes, two men whose desertion seemed to surprise him;  Names Onesiphorus who searched him out in his imprisonment and took care of him.  He makes references to the reality of war and the disciplined life of soldiers reminding us of the great conflicts of life; he refers to athletes who symbolize the great competitions of this life and all  the rules of competing;  and he refers to the farmer, reminding us of the hard work , the toil not only  to make a living but to bear any fruit in this life. 

These heavy matters of war, of competition, of the economy, of who is for us and who is against us, these questions weigh on us and they can lead us over that fine line between guarding what is precious and trying to control it.  As every parent, child, friend, lover, can tell, there is a difference between being mindful and guarding what is  good, precious and beautiful between you and someone you love and controlling the other person to fill your own hopes or to satisfy your own fears; to win your own battles. 

So the the writer says after mentioning these things says, here’s what you do,  “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is the gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal, But the word of God is not chained.  That is the most important line to be mindful of.  The word of God, which is of course, the living  Christ, the Spirit of Christ alive in us, This Spirit of Christ alive in us,

When the risen Christ appeared to Mary she grabbed onto him, and he said, “do not hold onto me.”  When Moses asked to know God’s name, “God said, I will be who I will be.”   Jesus said, Those who try to control their life, will lose it, and those who let it go for my sake, will keep it. (The same word for “guard”)

What we are to remember every day of this toilsome life is that God has reached out to this particular planet, and to a particular people whose king was a man named David, and has given us a particular child who has shown us the face of God and the face of our true humanity.  And because  Jesus lives in us by the Holy Spirit, we know that Good will never be overcome by Evil, that Life will never be overcome by Death, that Love will endure all things.

May this good news shine through the way you live with the particular people who are part of your life right now.

*Later Sunday afternoon Chad and Amanda were married in the church.  Their wedding included the Lazo Ritual, a Mexican ritual where the parents place a Rosario (like a lasso) over each of their children getting married.  The two rosaries are connected, lassoing the two together.

We Are Not Forced to Love

Sunday, September 8, 2013  We are not forced to Love   by Rev. Ruth Hamilton


horse and open gatePsalm 139:1-6, 13-18

1O LORD, you have searched me and known me.

2You know when I sit down and when I rise up;

you discern my thoughts from far away.

3You search out my path and my lying down,

and are acquainted with all my ways.

4Even before a word is on my tongue,

O LORD, you know it completely.

5You hem me in, behind and before,

and lay your hand upon me.

6Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;

it is so high that I cannot attain it.

13For it was you who formed my inward parts;

you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

14I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

Wonderful are your works;

that I know very well.

15My frame was not hidden from you,

when I was being made in secret,

intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

16Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.

In your book were written

all the days that were formed for me,

when none of them as yet existed.

17How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!

How vast is the sum of them!

18I try to count them-they are more than the sand;

I come to the end-I am still with you.

Philemon 1-21   1Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, 2to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:3Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God 5because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. 8For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, 9yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love-and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. 10I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. 11Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. 12I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. 13I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; 14but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. 15Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, 16no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother-especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

17So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it.

Luke 14: 25-33  25Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life (psyche) itself, will not have the power to be my disciple. 27Whoever does not carry the cross (the societal punishment, the price of resistance, to bear what is burdensome) and follow me does not have the power to be my disciple. 28For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, to see whether he can complete it? 29Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33So therefore, none will have the power to be my disciple if you do not (separate yourself) from all your possessions.



Brian and I know that sermons are an old, old form of discourse, a one-way kind of dialogue in a tweeting, blogging world, so we are grateful and humbled that for 17 years this congregation has continued to listen to us preach.   And as preachers, we want to say how grateful we are that Shirli Hughes is here now as the Minister of Music because we know that God’s healing, life-changing word may come to some of you through music more than anything else.  However we are sought out by God today, to God be the glory.

And if your mind wanders, you might want to focus on the bulletin cover which is an illustration of the sermon title.  There is the horse, inside the boundaries of the paddock but not locked in, the gate is open, and the others running free can be seen, and the horse has  a choice—as do we—We Are Not Forced to Love.

A mere glance at a newspaper or perhaps simply looking to your week ahead is enough to know that we humans very often choose not to love, we choose not to make peace, we choose anger, we choose resentment, we choose bitterness, we choose violence, we choose war.  It says a lot about us that some of the main reasons the majority does not support a military strike in Syria to counter the use of chemical weapons are that we are tired of making war and we’re not sure we can afford it.    We are war weary and war poor.  

And yet what makes this so devastatingly hard is that photograph of those bodies laid side by side and the small bodies in their midst, lifeless, wrapped like a stillborn child and you imagine them gasping for breath and their wondering, what kind of world have they been born into.  We are not forced to go to war. and if we had a vote, probably a majority of us would say No to a military strike.  But, just saying No to a military strike is not necessarily saying Yes to Love—we do not want to stand aside and do nothing.  We want to show love, we want to know how we can be peacemakers.   

In Luke’s Gospel, note that Jesus is addressing a crowd.  In other words, his teaching brought together enthusiastic throngs.  His preaching on healing, his message of peace, of loving your enemy, that was a message people wanted to hear and we want to hear.  We want to be peacemakers in a war weary world.  We want to know there is another way.

And Jesus turns to the enthusiastic crowd traveling with him and he looks them right in the face, and the words clearly are addressed to the adult men of the crowd, the ones in charge of all the households.  He says, You cannot care more about your family, your household, you cannot care more about your own life (the Greek word psyche) than you care about this way of peace, which you seem so enthusiastic about right now.  If you are not ready to suffer on the way of peace in a war torn world, you will not have the power to be my disciple.

He is reminding that enthusiastic crowd and us today that we are not forced on this way of peace, the road of love.  And if we choose it, we must know that it will be hard, Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it The cost of Discipleship.

Then Jesus gives two illustrations from a war torn, defensive world.   He says, If you are going to put up defense systems, like the watchtowers often built in the vineyards, you need to sit down and count (the Greek word means literally to count the pebbles, like counting the votes)  You need to estimate whether you can finish the tower.  Otherwise people are going to laugh at you, the way our enemies may be laughing at us right now.

The second illustration is about considering whether to go to war—and the president has to decide (again the Greek word suggests it is consulting, not just individual considering)—consult Congress, consult other leaders, consult with citizens—to see if you can win a war against a larger enemy.  If you realize how stupid that would be you send a delegation of elders (presbia)—the ones who have been around, who know the history, who know the old complaints—the ones who can negotiate terms of peace.

Then he simply looks at them, at us,  in all our enthusiasm and he says, I am not forcing you to love, I am not forcing you on this way of peace, but if you want to learn from me, if you want to be my disciple, then you must separate yourself from all your possessions, This is not about stuff we can sell and give to the poor.  This is the stuff no one but us would want–all the baggage you carry with you, all the fears you need to defend, all the debts you are owed.

You will not have the power to make peace if you are more concerned about what personal wounds you possess that are rightfully yours!

And when we hear God talking to us like this, we know the decision before us, the choice the horse has—is a choice between costly love and cheap grace. 

There came a day in Saul’s life, a day when the choice suddenly became clear to him, he could continue the journey of war, to force his way built on all his beliefs, his past experiences or he could choose the way of peace, and he said of  that choice in his letter to the Philippians, for Jesus said I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as garbage, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.

Parker Palmer puts it this way:  Community cannot take root in a divided life.

And Paul, whether in prison or out of prison, uses his life to build community, not community for itself, but community that is generative, that is always looking for ways to extend, to grow, to spread the highest gift of love, to spread peace, not war.

His short letter to Philemon, which again he is writing from a prison cell, his letter is an appeal for peace. He is trying to advance a joint project for community building that he started with a congregation led in part by Philemon, and because he is in jail himself, he cannot go to do the work so he wants to send Onesimus to help with the work on his behalf.  Onesimus has been helping Paul while he is imprisoned.  Paul says he has become like a son to him.  The problem is there is rift between Philemon and Onesimus and as we all know, it is hard to extend the Christian community’s love when there is not love and reconciliation within the Christian community itself. 

Now Paul surely had other helpers he could have sent to carry on the work, but the reason we still read Paul’s letters today is because he never took the easy way, he faced the church’s conflicts head on and urged us to choose the path of love, the more excellent way—he called it.

So Paul sends Onesimus with this letter and in it Paul acknowledges that Onesimus owes Philemon a debt.  There is not enough evidence in this letter to tell whether or not Onesimus was an actual slave of Philemon though that has been a traditional interpretation.  Paul says treat him as a brother not as a slave and then says, If he owes you anything, if he has wronged you, I will pay for that.   My Bible notes put it well, “Paul offers to subsidize the cost of justice, because without justice there is no peace, and without peace between the brethren there can be no ministry.”

Paul understands that our struggles with each other emerge out of real debts, real wounds, and he admits we must deal with these debts we possess so we can separate ourselves from them and continue on the way to peace.   

We should never minimize the causes of ours wars—whether global or personal.  Our battles are based on real injustice, real wounds, real debts. 

Regarding our personal relationships, marriage counselor Harville Hendrix, the founder of Imago Therapy, has helped us see that the struggles in so many marriages and personal relationships are really based on old wounds, old hurts from our childhoods that were never grieved, never healed (and he believes that we unconsciously choose partners who have both the good and bad aspects of our childhood so that we often keep wounding and being wounded again and again).  —and that if we will become conscious in our relationships—we will be able to help with each other’s healing—we will be what Henri Nouwen called Wounded Healers.  And if we choose not to become conscious we will soon move into what he calls  the “power struggle,” which is where most couples stay fixed for most of their marriages: they either function in a “hot marriage” — fighting — or a “parallel marriage” — living together but not interacting much. 

Charlie Hunnicutt talked last week about a fantastic, over the top wedding he went to last month on the west coast—such events create enthusiasm—like the crowds that followed Jesus.  And then Charlie said, They will probably be divorced within a year!

Every day (in the relationships where we have the possibility of reconciliation)we have the choice between the life and death of love—like that horse standing by the open gate, we have to become conscious and decide whether we want to go through life keeping possession of our debts and wounds or whether we resolve those debts so we can experience the freedom of loving and spreading love. 

We are asking this as a church—do we choose new beginnings—the costly way of moving out more into the community,

The gate is open.

As we started out saying, we are war weary.  We want to make peace, show love, but we  stand here surrounded by all the debts we are holding, we sometimes wonder what God is thinking about us.  We know that God is not forced to love us.  God, too, can decide to walk away. 

But Psalm 139 that Marie read points to the truth, that in a very real way, God has chosen to follow Jesus, God has become conscious in this marriage with us, God has decided how to heal the wounds and resolve the debts.

 If we tried to count all the debts God has resolved with us, with this church, with this nation, with this world– it would be more than the sand.  If we ever come to the end of counting—God is still there with us. (Ps. 139)

Closing Prayer:

O God, the gate is open.  We know we are not forced to love.   We know that there is suffering to resolve all the debts and set aside the defenses that we possess, but, O God, we want more than anything to take up that cross, to pay that cost of love.   Help us learn from Jesus, give us the spiritual power to walk with you on the way of peace.


Call to Worship:  Let us rise in body and spirit to worship God.

Our help is the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

Again scripture says:  God was in Jesus Christ, reconciling the world to Godself—not counting their debts against them—and God has commissioned us with the message of reconciliation.

Thanks be to God!


Charge and Benediction:  “Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a person must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs us our lives, and it is grace because it gives us the only true life. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)”

Are you secular or sacred?

Are You Secular or Sacred, preached Sunday April 14 by Ruth Hamilton based on Gospel John 21:1-19

Starts like a beer commercial

1After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

You know if you take Jesus out of this picture for a minute, you’ve got a great beer commercial. You’ve got seven guys, that night one of them texted the others and said, let’s go down to the beach. One of them has a boat so they head down. Peter, says, Let’s go fishing. Sure, we’ll go with you. There’s always some leader like that in a group of friends. They go out, they spend the whole night out there and they don’t catch anything. It doesn’t really matter. They’re having a good time. Hanging out all night long, like only young people can do.

They are coping with trauma as all young people must learn how to do. They’ve just lived through the brutal death of a dear friend. They are under the rod of the Roman Empire and on the leash of an authoritarian religion. Most of all they are young, trying to figure out who they are in the world– and their destiny, if any.

One of things that will be reaffirmed as we study the New Beginnings report [see Special Events], is that DC is a magnet for young people. You will learn that in SW DC, the immediate mission field of our congregation, there is even a higher average of young people than in the city at large. And thanks to the massive data-mining done by marketing groups, there is a name for the largest segment of young people in our church neighborhood, the group is called Urban Edge.

Urban Edge are a collection of unmarried singles living in the funky neighborhoods of the nation’s big cities. Found in iconic neighborhoods like Greenwich Village in New York City and Haight- Ashbury in San Francisco, these city dwellers thrive in settings known for their cafes, nightclubs and arts. Most are college educated, in their 20s and 30s, and living in rental apartments filled with other young transients. They can afford their lofts in gentrified buildings thanks to wellpaying jobs in business, sales, the arts and public policy. However, most care less about their residences than their locations near to great ethnic restaurants, chi-chi boutiques, hot music clubs and other unattached singles attracted to this urban meet market. (from Mosaic USA Segment G25)

We don’t know how many of these young people near us have just lived through the brutal death of a friend. But trauma is relative for the young. Trauma comes from a first loss, a first death, a first rejection, a first heart break, a first huge disappointment of many —

No wonder this group, Urban Edge, are more than three times as likely to patronize bars and nightclubs. No wonder they want to go out drinking and fishing all night. The sounds of their jokes and laughter echoing across that lake the way they echo on the sidewalks of our city on a beautiful night like last night with the waxing moon on its back under Jupiter.

From deficit to abundance

4Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach;

Into this pleasant beer commercial, stands Jesus. And the contrast is immediate. Against the dark night is daybreak. In the beginning was the word..All things came into being through him..What came into being in Christ was life and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. To all who received him, he gave power to become children of God…

but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?

A rhetorical question. He already knew they had nothing. Not that that was why they had gone out together. But there was more that was empty than their nets. As there so often is when we wake up hungover from a long night of solace-seeking.

They answered him, “No.” 6He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!

The first clue for us that we are in the presence of the light-bringer, the life-giver, the power of being—is that we experience abundance in place of deficit.

When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea.

Well of course he was naked, out with 6 guys on a boat drinking all night. But he is still new, he is young. He can gird himself, throw on his clothes, jump over the side and swim to the light, to the life, to the power of being. He has heard the call—the invitation—the Word that was God.

8But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

To live with abundance is not without some effort. Some complications. Which is why too many of us are content with deficits our whole life. It is simpler, if empty.

From secular to sacred

9When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

A lot of people feel good about asking the question, Are you spiritual or are you religious? I’m not sure that question has much power any more. This story makes me want to ask myself, Are you secular or are you sacred? Is your life the stuff of a commercial, or is your life an experience of communion? To see life as sacred is to bring what you have to the great feast, the surprising feast you didn’t arrange. It is to know that you are in the presence of the Great Mystery, of Eternal Truth, of Unconditional Love– without having to ask.

I was moved by the prayer of some parents last week who named their three sons and prayed that God would give each of them the desire and discipline to know, love and walk with Him… It seems this is not a prayer that their sons find that they are spiritual rather than religious, just another factor in a marketing profile; rather it is a prayer– that we all pray for our children and all the children of the world—that they will come through the night and see a daybreak; that they will hear and accept the invitation to become children of God; that they will come to relish the disciplines of the soul as much as the disciplines of the marketplace; that their walk through this brief life will be a sacred one, not merely secular.

Sacred companions while we can

Those who see the true light that enlightens everyone, those who hear the invitation of the One sent to redeem the whole world, they are those called to join in the redemptive work.

15When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love/agape me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love/phileo you.” (I love you like a brother) Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs/goats.” 16A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love/agape me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love/phileo you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep/goats.” 17He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love/phileo me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love/phileo me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I/phileo love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep/goats.” 18Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger/new, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old/obsolete, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish/intend to go.” 19(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me./Accompany me”

We are so often cut off from our sacred self, that Child of God self. We hunger for that sacred meal by the shore at daybreak, we long for the peace of abundance, we pray that we and our children will not waste our life wandering in the darkness. We spoke not long ago [see Be a Punk] about John’s story of Mary being a friend to Jesus before his death, pouring out her costly ointment to show her love. Here again, the Redeemer of the World, the great Shepherd of the Sheep, is asking for companionship on the sacred way.

Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth before the battle on Crispin’s Day, called for companions—we few, we happy few, we band of brothers… So Jesus says to Peter come with me on this sacred journey while you can.

He seems to point again to the window of opportunity that we have in this life. There is a season of newness, when we can go where we want to go, where we intend to go. Then we become old, like institutions, like two year old cell phones, we become obsolete, we are carried to places we do not want to go.

As a congregation, as part of an institution that in many ways is obsolete in our world, we are seeking to discover a daybreak of new beginnings. At the same time, some of you are feeling quite old. One stakeholder emailed me about that, pondering the memorial service that some day would come. He said:

Thinking about such “end times” matters signals acknowledgement that the congregation I joined in 1977 is almost gone, and that a new, younger congregation exists, and should have the primary role in dealing with a New Beginning.

He wondered about whether he should participate in the conversations about the future that might not include him. If he were asking us this right now, of course, we would cry out: You must be part of this holy conversation. We are on this sacred walk together. We need you.

Rick Warren, author of the Purpose-Driven life, lost his son to suicide. How scary to be so close to the church of the living God and so far from life abundant. We learned that a 40 year old neighbor committed suicide last week. We talk to young people in SW DC who are not part of the Urban Edge but who live literally on the edge–with no discretionary income, no job, no prospects, no hope.

So the risen Christ stands at the edge of our commercial life and invites us to communion. And we, who are able to respond to the invitation, still able to gird our souls and go where we intend, will join him and all who long for a sacred life at the break of day.

Be a Punk

March 17, 2013  by Rev. Ruth Hamilton


John 12:1-8

1Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)7Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”


Just at face value, without going into some symbolic spiritual interpretation, this story is about how someone deals with grief and trauma and the approaching death of a loved one.    The story leads us to ask at least three questions—Who are the friends in your life?  When should you let them know how you feel?  And how should you let them know?

This is a story of friendship which leads us to reflect on our own friendships.  Mary was Jesus’ friend.  She and her sister Martha and their brother Lazarus had all become close to Jesus.  They had the kind of relationship where he could pop in any time without notice and they’d be happy to see him, even if he had twelve other guys with him!  You can tell from the few stories we have about them that they were close enough to talk honestly with Jesus.  They could be angry with him, they could just sit and enjoy him, they could cry with each other.

How important it is in this fleeting life to have such friends.   One fears that in the age of social media, we are plagued with too many acquaintances and not enough friends.  So many contacts we are trying to maintain there is little time for the nurturing of real friendship.

Friendship is a gift of grace.  It cannot be forced though it must be received.  Friendships often develop where’d you least expect it.  David became best friends with Jonathan, the son of his arch enemy Saul.  Ruth became close friends with her mother-in-law, Naomi.  In American history, we are amazed by the remarkable bond that grew up between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson or between Lincoln and his team of rivals.  The recent movie, Lincoln, makes clear that on the last night of his life, Abe would honestly have  preferred staying in the company of his friends than heading to the theatre with his wife.  And we are touched I think when we remember Martin Luther King Jr.’s last evening at the Lorraine Motel, laughing and joking with his good friends with whom he had shared so many days of the struggle.

Do you have good friends and are you a good friend?  Some of the greatest spiritual work we will do is that of nurturing a friendship.   To be a friend, one must use all the gifts of the spirit.  Who can forget what Linus said, I love humanity, it’s people I can’t stand.  Of course, he was sharing that with his dearest friend, Charlie Brown.   But it is hard to make friends.  People can just be so irritating and bothersome,  difficult.  No wonder so many people live alone.

I don’t know how many real close friendships develop in a congregation.  Are there people in this room you’d rush to open your home to if they were passing through town?  Maybe there are friends here you get together with for coffee or tea.   Maybe someone here you would call in a time of need, just to talk, to share.

It doesn’t always happen for everyone.  Not everyone is even looking for a friendship.  But when it does happen, it’s a beautiful thing.  It’s not so much a social relationship as a spiritual companionship.  And that’s a gift of grace.

This gets us to the second question—when do you show someone that you are their friend, that you love them as a friend.  The story says, do it while they are alive!  The touchy part of this story is the line, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”   I think Mark’s version of this story makes the point more clearly.  In Mark, Jesus says, “You always have the poor with you and you can show them kindness whenever you want, but you will not always have me.”

Of course, some will interpret this story to mean that we always need to be paying more attention to our spiritual relationship with Jesus than wasting time on helping the poor.  I don’t think that rings true.  I think Jesus is literally saying, there are always people with needs and you should always be kind to them but right now as I face my own traumatic death, I need you.  I need my friends.

Sometimes friends die suddenly, as Basil Sharp did when he died instantly after his car was hit but another or when Lawrence Jamison fell dead outside the church last fall…then there’s nothing more you can do but to hope they knew how much you loved them.  More often, friends simply age and face all the traumas that aging brings.  Of course, life itself is terminal, but sometimes, friends have terminal illnesses that will lead to an early death.  Sometimes, friends are in poorer health than we know.  Sometimes friends get to a point where they have to move farther away to get the care they need so it becomes hard to live out the friendship, as it was with Dorothy Sanazaro who moved out to Colorado.  Some of you have had friends who committed suicide and you’ve struggled to know if there was something more you could have done.

In any friendship, there comes a point where we decide whether or not to engage more or to disengage.  Often, if things get too uncomfortable, we choose to disengage.  It’s sad but true that you find out who your real friends are when you get into trouble.  The aged know only too well how lonely life can be toward the end.   When they can no longer be the life of the party, the party leaves them.  Younger people with health issues know the same reality.  One of our members many of you know is fighting breast cancer that at least two years ago metastasized to the bone and bone marrow.  She never lacked for family and friends though you’d be hard-pressed to know it now.   She’s talked honestly about how apparent it is that many family and friends don’t want to see her sick and just choose not to deal with it.

Remember after the last Supper when Jesus asked his friends to go with him and stay awake with him while he prayed.  He certainly couldn’t sleep knowing the trauma he was about to go through.  But they fell asleep, didn’t they.  They, who loved him, couldn’t even stay awake one hour with him.   So, we often disengage when we are needed most.   Are you the close friend of someone who is dying or near death and, if so, how are you facing it?

An article this week in the Post addressed the subject of gun violence in the city.   It highlighted the Holy Christian House of Praise where 300 funeral programs have been pinned to the wall outside the sanctuary.  The church hosts a Life After Homicide ministry to tend to the friends and families of people violently killed.

Said Doneika Johnson, 26, who grew up with Dominic Davis, a young man shot in January.  “It’s heartbreaking when you grow up in an environment where there’s nothing but death around you.  It forces you to put on a tough attitude because you don’t want to be perceived as a punk.”

We ask ourselves the question, How are we to show our love and friendship?

Mary here was a punk.  She let everything hang out and  pour out.  She was saving the incredibly expensive ointment for Jesus’ burial, something they probably all suspected was coming soon, but she couldn’t wait.  She had to let him know before he died, not after.  And she could no longer pretend that her heart wasn’t breaking.   Mary wasn’t going to act as if everything was normal.  That’s important to remember.  When someone is dying, it may be normal for humanity, but it’s not normal for that person.  Death cannot be denied nor should it be downplayed.  Rage, rage against the dying of the light.  Love, love with all your might.

Judas complained about what she’d done as if she was a punk.   Jesus said simply, “Leave her alone.”   In Mark’s version of the story, Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”  The loving act of a friend is always what will be remembered most.

For that is what she was, a really good friend.  And that is what we would wish, not only for Jesus, but for any one facing death, especially a traumatic one.  All death is traumatic in some way.  Do we not want everyone in the whole world to have the love and presence of a good friend in such a time of need?  And since we cannot be the friend of everyone in the whole world, it is incumbent on us to be the good friend of those God gives us as friends.

God bless you with friendship and make you a friend who is not afraid to look like a punk, who is not afraid of an extravagant act of love, who is brave enough to look death in the face.

Ending Stinkin’ Thinkin’

by Rev. Ruth Hamilton

March 3, 2013

what attracts us to Jesus, is his thinking, the way he cuts through the bull and dead dogma and the way his world-altering behaviors flow out of his thinking. 


Isaiah 55:6-9

Seek the LORD while he may be found,

call upon him while he is near;

7let the wicked forsake their way,

and the unrighteous their thoughts;

let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them,

and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

8For my thoughts are not your thoughts,

nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.

9For as the heavens are higher than the earth,

so are my ways higher than your ways

and my thoughts than your thoughts.



1I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, 2and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3and all ate the same spiritual food, 4and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. 5Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.

6Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. 7Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play.” (Exodus 32, 4,6—after the golden calf is made)  8We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day (SEE Number 25:1-3  Israelites having sexual relations with Moabite women, sacrificing to their Gods, God impaled the chief priests, 24,000 died..). 9We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents. 10And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer.11These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. 12So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. 13No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.  Therefore, my friends, flee from the worship of idols.



Your sole purpose


With email it’s become easier to share with each other things we run across that strike us as particularly funny, or urgent, or beautiful.  I enjoyed an email Patti Macie forwarded last week dealing with the need to lay down our stressful burdens at the end of the day and it concluded with a long list of modern-day proverbs or wisdom saying. I liked:

Accept the fact that some days you’re the pigeon, and some days you’re the statue!

If you can’t be kind, at least have the decency to be vague.

It may be that your sole purpose in life is simply to serve as a warning to others.


That’s an awful thing to say to someone isn’t it?   Paul says it here about our ancestors—like some cock-sure radio host—God has judged those people so they can be an example of what we are not supposed to do.


And when we hear that, we might say to each other, wow, that’s an example of what I don’t want to be like, and there, we just did the same thing.  We objectified someone else into a type that we hope isn’t our type.


Honestly, though, we’re wired, aren’t we, to always learn from one another.  Through the long process of evolution itself, we create molds and patterns for generations to come.  History often repeats itself.


If we were having to learn to walk with no sight, we would slowly and surely build up a vast amount of knowledge about the terrain we must travel to get where we want to go.  The most important thing, as for anybody, is having an idea of where you want to go.


Michael Polanyi in his book Meaning, shared a fascinating quote from E. W. Strauss about what the ability to stand on two feet did to human thinking.   Imagine yourself now being able to stand upright for the first time after being on all fours all your life…He writes:

In upright posture, the immediate contact with things is loosened…The horizon is widened, removed; the distance becomes momentous, of great import.

The direction upward, against gravity, inscribes into space world-regions to which we attach values, such as those expressed by [our concepts of] high and low, rise and decline, climbing and falling, superior and inferior, elevated and downcast.


It is clear that we are animals like every other creature of God’s hand.  And often the wild beasts seem more humane than we do, but when we become human beings, we do think hard about where we are going,  and not just on this earth but for eternity.  We think about these things and we everyday we try to build up more knowledge about how to get there.


When it comes to human beings, we Christians affirm that Jesus is the ultimate type for humanity.  The highest example of humanness.  Note that unlike Michelangelo’s “David,” we don’t think of Jesus as having a perfect body.  If anything, we are reminded of how Isaiah described the suffering servant,  He had no form or attractiveness that we might notice him. 


No, what attracts us to Jesus, is his thinking, the way he cuts through the bull and dead dogma and the way his world-altering behaviors flow out of his thinking.


The other night I got to hear a talk by a Catholic priest who runs a highly regarded treatment program for those living with alcoholism and addiction.   And he talked about the kind of destructive thinking that you don’t have to be an alcoholic or addict to recognize.  He called it “stinkin’ thinkin”  –those bombarding voices that come from every direction into our minds that make it impossible  to move forward to the life God promised.   “Nobody likes me.” “I’m so ugly.”  “Nobody understands me.”  “I know more than others.” “I’m a loser.” “I can do anything I want.”  “I just need something to relax.”  “What I do doesn’t really matter.”  On and on and on…  The priest reminded us that all our stinkin thinkin is rooted in our EGO—which he helps us understand by saying EGO—means Ease God Out.


Paul is in this letter having a conversation with fellow members of the church he helped to start in the wonderfully diverse city of Corinth.   Some of the members there are struggling with what it means to be free in Christ, free from the old Laws, the old dogma.  They are particularly wondering about the very practical question of whether or not to eat meat that they know has been offered as a sacrifice to some other God.

They are thinking, “Does it really hurt anybody?”  “It looks good, hate to waste good food!”  “Does anybody really care.”  I thought it didn’t matter what we ate.  I thought we were supposed to be tolerant of everybody.  I don’t want to be odd like those folks who won’t even celebrate your birthday with you.  On and on our thinking goes.


And this is the thing about stinkin thinkin,  it can trick you into believing that you are standing on two feet like a human being, when you’re really about to fall into the old beastly way on all fours.


Stinkin Thinkin leads to real consequences not only for individuals but for nations and the globe.  What can start out looking like the well-meaning pursuit of happiness for many, may end up looking like the support of pleasant lifestyles that are built on the enslavement of others.  What can start out looking like sacrificing your own freedom for a greater good can end up looking like a nation serving a totalitarian leader and a willingness to kill others for a political end.


Christ is not an anarchist or a totalitarian.  His goal, his aim was to seek God, as one seeks water in a dry land.  His goal was to keep his relationship with God at the center of his life, not to ease God out.  Unlike our ancestors in the dry land who tired of the confusing journey of faith and freedom and decided it would be just as easy to create a God out of the things they had at hand, that way they could worship that God however they wanted and whenever.  And that God could never give them a commandment they didn’t want to obey.  EGO—they eased God out.


As a liberal congregation and proudly so, we too wonder what it really means to be free in Christ and faithful.  We wonder what is essential to keep as Christians and what we can let go.  We wonder if every risk is a good one?  We wonder when we should No instead of Yes.  We wonder if we are really as open-armed as we say we are.

Paul says, If you think you are standing, watch out lest you fall.


As human beings we have been given the freedom to think through all the inconsistencies and incompatibilities in our lives.  God has given us creative imagination to help us hold things together.  Through creative imagination we find meaning at this table where God invites us to nourish both our body and our soul.


Through creative imagination, the God glorifying thinking in us, we find we are able to hold together the love of God and the death of Christ.  When we do not ease God out, God helps us stand in our freedom.  Ego aimi—I am with you.


And the beauty of God’s glory is that even when we have fallen to all fours, and the beast in us is fully awakened, God will make a way out for us.    How close so many of us have come to dying on all fours, fallen into the stinkin thinkin of our inner beast, but God made a way out.


And across this earth today, millions and millions face such suffering and death because of the stinkin thinkin of whole nations and peoples.  And amidst the millions and billions are those called by grace to stand up, to be fed at God’s table, to raise up our arms and pray, “God, show us the way out,” and to you be all the glory.

Now and forever.  Amen.



*I didn’t mention the other thing the Catholic Priest said about “Stinkin’ Thinkin’”  He said it was the product of the Itty Bitty Shitty Committee in our brain.

God Makes a Move

I Samuel 1 by Rev. Ruth Hamilton

December 30, 2012

…The temptation is to give up on God; to stop believing that God can change a condition of injustice;


The Old Testament is the testimony of people who came to know the One God and their testimony about God made two things clear—1) that this God was incomparable and 2) that God was about justice.  Dr. King often quoted the line:  The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.  It was not a new thought, but an old conviction that the One God of Israel, the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebecca, was not only the incomparable King of kings and Lord of Lords but also the God who hears the cries of the people in bondage and sends servants to speak to truth to power saying: “let my people go.”


The amazing testimony of the Old Testament—a testimony that we share with Jews and Muslims—is that the One God—Yahweh, Allah, Jehovah—who has made all things visible and invisible is also the God who cares intimately about the suffering and shame of the most vulnerable on earth.


God not only cares, God acts, God makes historic moves that change and shape and transform our world and us.


The Old Testament bears witness that Samuel is one such move made by God.  The books of I and II Samuel pick up with the history that left off in the book of Judges.  The last line of the book of Judges says:  In those days there was no king in Israel;  all the people did what was right in their own eyes.


That’s an NRA -vision of the world, everyone needs to be ready to do what is right in his or her own eyes.  Don’t count on a king.  Be a law unto yourself.  That is not an unusual sentiment.  It is the way of life for much of the world today.  Everyone on their own.  Save yourself.


Into that history comes a man with two wives—Elkanah and Hannah and Peniel.  Hannah has a complaint.  Even though Elkanah says he loves her more than Peniel, Hannah has no children while Peniel has many.   The scripture says that her rival, Peniel, used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed up her womb.  Hannah’s return to the altar year after year just brought out more of Peniel’s provoking.


So when they go up to the old altar on the hill at Shiloh, she prays to God for the gift of a child.  It’s not so much that she wants the child, because she promises to give the child to God’s service.  It’s that she wants the end of the stigma of being childless.  The injustice is the stigma and the shame that goes with it.


And this is where the temptation of the faithful comes in.  The temptation is to give up on God; to stop believing that God can change a condition of injustice; to just accept reality and try to get by, do what is right in your own eyes.  Take what you can get.  A lot of people give up on God.  You may be wondering right now whether you’ve given up on God.


The reason Hannah is in the Old Testament is that she didn’t give up.  She didn’t stop asking the incomparable God to bend toward justice for her.    So the next year, she goes up to that old stone altar and kneels down and prays aloud to herself, in such a trance that the old priest Eli thinks she’s drunk, and she says, I’ve not been drinking, I’ve been pouring out my soul before the Lord.  Do not regard me as a worthless woman.  I have been speaking out of my anxiety and great vexation all this time.

And the old priest Eli says “Go in peace, may God answer your prayer.”

And that year God did answer Hannah’s prayer, giving her a son whom she named Samuel—which means “I have asked him of the Lord.”   You don’t get justice unless you make a clear request.  Ask and you will receive.

So God ended Hannah’s stigmatized condition.  But God not only ended Hannah’s personal stigmatized condition.  God used Samuel to shape and challenge the whole people of Israel.  By setting Samuel in the midst of the organized religion of the day up at Shiloh, God found a way to bring to light the injustices that the priest’s own sons were carrying on in the name of God.   Samuel would grow up to be a great judge who administered justice.  He would also be involved in helping to select the first leaders to rule over Israel as kings.

When Luke began to tell his story about Jesus, he makes the connection between the faith of Hannah and the faith of Mary.  You yourself can compare the songs of these two women of faith who never stopped believing that justice would be done.  Two women who do not want to be considered as worthless women, two women who at very different times and places in life, still trust that the incomparable God cares about injustice and their stigmatized condition.  So that when Mary hears that her son will be great, her son whom she is to name Jesus, will inherit the throne of his ancestor King David, she trusts that it is true.

Here we come again, year after year, week after week, to bow down our hearts at this altar of God, and these stories make us stop and wonder, are we simply here out of habit or are we that persistent voice crying out to God, pouring out our soul to God to end some condition of injustice that we personally know.  Have we stopped believing that God can make a move in us and through us to change a stigmatized condition of the world?  Wherever there is stigma, there is injustice.  We think of stigmata, the marks in the hands and the feet of the crucified Christ.  The New Testament testifies that the incomparable God who cares about ending injustice, came to dwell among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, who in his life walked headlong into every stigmatized condition, eating with so-called sinners, touching so-called untouchables, preaching good news to the poor, setting captives free, overturning the tables of the corrupted religion, facing the ultimate stigma of death on a cross.   The ancient hymn said of him, Though he was in the form of God did not consider it something to be grasped, but he poured out himself and became a servant of God, even unto death on a cross, he despised its shame and is seated at the right hand of God.  That is, in his life and in his death, he embodied God’s incomparable work for justice.  And being a Christian congregation, we claim that we desire to be shaped by that same life and death, by that incomparable work for justice.

Sometimes Christian congregations lose sight of that, they lose their faith that God can make a move in and through them for justice.  Sometimes congregations begin to focus on how to have the right kind of music or how much to charge for building rentals or how to get a better website.  All these things take time, energy, money.  They may matter but if they have gotten unattached from the old conviction that the incomparable God cares most about justice, then they become empty acts and fruitless functions.

We should always be looking and listening for the Mary’s and Hannah’s in our midst. They may seem drunk to us, a little odd, but in fact they are bearing the true faith that will set us free.

Sometimes the Hannah’s and Mary’s start out by bothering us.  They always want something.  They are never satisfied.  They are persistent.  You may recall earlier in the year, last winter, when we had a family come to the church in need of shelter, a mother, father and two little children.  We simply could not turn them away.  None of us that I know of was prepared to open our home to these strangers but we decided we could risk letting them stay in the church building which we did.  They camped out in that little room back there.  Then they seemed trustworthy enough that I drove them to Days Inn on New York Avenue where they City homeless funds paid for their stay until more permanent housing could be found.  They’d keep calling.  They had no food.  They had no money for transportation to get back and forth to the social service offices.

We stopped helping for a while then he called again.  They had gotten into housing but they had no winter coats and very little food. So we found some coats we didn’t need and a little bit of food that was on hand.   It really wasn’t much we gave and it certainly didn’t meet their needs but it was something.   Then on the morning of Christmas Day he called again.  Talk about feeling bothered.  Now things had changed.  His wife had run off with another man, taking the children with her and since he was now single, they kicked him out of the unit that was reserved for families.   He was back on the street.  I forgot him all Christmas Day till he knocked at our door that afternoon.   We gave him some food and he wept over the betrayal of his wife and his situation as a homeless man.  He had found a group home that would take him but he had to come up with a $250 deposit to get in and he needed a few days to raise that money.  Once again, we offered to let him camp out in the church building.   I was willing to let international students come stay in our guest room but I wasn’t quite so sure about this homeless guy.  The church office would do.  And there he stayed, reading the Bible and using his computer and phone to reach out for help and work.  We gave him a $100 of church money and he got donations from others for the other $150 and Friday I drove him out to the group home in Wheaton.  The change in his spirit from Christmas Day to Friday was so dramatic.  He was so happy on Friday to be starting afresh in this group home with other professional, working guys just down on their luck like him.  We talked about all sorts of things on the long rush hour drive to Wheaton.

He talked about the rejection he’d experienced at many churches.  Places where what you wore to church seemed to be the most important fact.  Places where the pastors were more into their power than God’s.  He talked  about racism, especially the discrimination he experienced from what he called foreigners.   I was really glad to myself that he would have some nice things to say about Westminster.  But I was even more glad to arrive at that group home, and to hug the manager there, a big tall African-American man,  named Roger.  So happy to know that someone had had the faith to risk buying a house to house homeless men.  That someone had trusted the incomparable God of justice enough to keep pushing for something that he or she could do to change an unjust condition.

I don’t imagine that will be the last time we hear from Troy and that’s okay.  I thank God for sending Troy to our house on Christmas Day and reminding us what Christmas is all about, the long arc of the universe bending toward justice and faithful people who never stop believing that God can make a move to change the world.   As we end one year and begin another, may each of us and Westminster always put God’s concern for justice, the end of stigma and shame, at the heart of all we do.   When we do that, the world is never the same.

No king in Israel. Everybody did what was right in his own eyes.

Elkanah, Hannah and Peniel of Ramah—he went up year by year to sacrifice to Lord of Hosts at Shiloh.

Two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phineahas were priest.

Why does Hannah’s song talk about a king?  The anointed?

Samuel is a transitional figure—between time of Judges and time of Kings

Transitional for Hannah—pre-family and post-family

Rituals—the annual sacrifice—the communal nature

Tipping points–

Recommitment to God


“Correspondents”—a sermon written and delivered by Rev. Ruth Hamilton at Westminster DC Sunday, Feb. 26, 2012      

…consider that holy scripture is the report of such correspondents who are not afraid to go where the important, life-changing action is happening… 


GENESIS 9:8-17

8Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9“As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. 11I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” 12God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” 17God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”


Mark 1: 9-15  Translation:  And it happened in those days, Jesus came  from Nazareth of Galilee, and he was baptized into the Jordan by John.  And immediately, rising up out of the water, he saw the heavens being split open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending into him.  And a voice happened out of the heavens, “You are my son, the beloved.  In you, I am pleased.”

And immediately, the Spirit threw him out into the wilderness.  And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan, and he was with the wild beasts, and the angels served him.

But after John was delivered over, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time has been fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.  Turn and trust in the good news.”


Did you hear about the journalist, Marie Colvin,  who was killed in Syria the other day?  Maybe it was that she was a woman or maybe it was the black patch over her left eye that makes me remember her, but it’s good to be reminded of such heroes, who are running into a dangerous situation rather than running out of it. It makes us ask, what hard but important situation are we running into.  It would be sad to come to the end of our life and find that we’d run out of every hard place screaming or snuck out a side door and hoped no one saw us.

I ask you today to consider that holy scripture is the report of such correspondents who are not afraid to go where the important, life-changing action is happening.  No matter how dangerous or hard.  What we read here in Mark is what would come from a correspondent who has imbedded herself down by the Jordan River where something clearly is happening, thousands of people coming down from the cities and the countryside, following after some wild-looking leader who baptizes them in the River.  People who are so sick of the way life has become that they are just moved to action, they have to do something to show their protest against the status quo.

And like the cameraman who focuses in on one individual whose experience seems to capture best what is happening, the focus is on Jesus who goes all the way into the Jordan and comes up out of it and then, in an invasion of his privacy, we all get to see and hear what he did, this incredible spiritual moment when it seemed to him that the heavens split open and the spirit of the Almighty came into him—and believe me this is all a lot different than the typical facebook posting “I just got my hair done.” Or the riveting news, “I just took my nephew to the airport.”

The cameraman and the reporter stay with this Jesus and follow him as he heads, not back to his town, but into the wilderness there by the Jordan.

When something really happens to you that changes the course of your life, changes the way you see yourself, maybe even the way others see you, something that shakes the foundations, you can’t just go on without some time to adjust.  What are some of the things that change us?   The death of a loved one, falling in love, having a great success or becoming famous, being fired,  witnessing something traumatic…

When this happens, it’s hard to just show up at work the next day as if nothing has happened.  You need to take time to ponder, to wrestle, to wonder, to make sense of it all, to confirm it or deny it.  You need the equivalent of a Lenten season, a lengthening of your days and that’s hard to do when you have a To Do list that is longer than you are tall and you keep getting interrupted by someone texting you:  “I just had some wonderful fish tacos from the truck down on P Street. U should try them.”

Thank God for this intrepid correspondent, these Gospel writers who hone in on something that is happening that matters, at risk of their own lives, to pass on to us something that still matters and that still rings with an authority and truth surpassing a million blogs.

The fact of the matter is that we have one life to live and it’s not all that long and parts of it matter and lots of it we could lose and never miss it.  And if a Gospel correspondent were focusing in on your life what would the story be?  What is happening in your life that is material for the next Gospel?  What is the good news of your life that could inspire someone 2000 years from now?

We’re correspondents in the business of good news—not passing news but lasting news, not pretty news but powerful news.  The kind of story that keeps rising up when everything else is falling down.

Sometimes we get discouraged with our life and the life of the world.  Good news can be hard to find. Mark Twain was always good at voicing our discouragement:  Often it does seem a pity that Noah and his party did not miss the boat.

We are drawn to the stories of those brothers and sisters who finally missed the boat or who stopped caring whether they got on or not.  Brothers and sisters who could no longer trust in the miracle of life. Whether it’s the story of Whitney Houston or a drunken privileged kid like George Hugely or a war scarred vet or some kids across the river who have so little context for what matters that the loss of a rhinestone bracelet is cause to bring out the big AK-47s.  And then sometimes the powers that be just bring out the bigger guns to snuff out whatever good news is happening.  There may be wild beasts in the wilderness but they are nothing in comparison to the great amalgamations of power, guns and money that try to take God’s place and shape our world in their image.

Marie Colvin was reporting on the big guns being used by the Syrian Army.  In the interview she gave to Anderson Cooper the day she died, she said:

…It’s a complete and utter lie that they’re only going after terrorists. ..The Syrian Army is simply shelling a city of cold, starving civilians.

Anderson Cooper: Thank you for using the word “lie.” I think a lot of people will want to thank you, because it’s a word we don’t often hear, it’s not often used, but it’s the truth in this case. The Syrian regime and their representatives have continually lied, and they have lied on this program to us directly. Marie, you have covered a lot of conflicts, over a long time. How does this compare?

Marie Colvin: This is the worst, Anderson, for many reasons. I think the last time we talked was when I was in Misrata. It’s partly personal safety, I guess. There’s nowhere to run: The Syrian army is holding the perimeter. And there’s just far more ordinance being poured into this city and no way of predicting where it’s going to land. Plus, there are a lot of snipers on the high buildings surrounding the Baba Amr neighborhood. You can sort of figure out where a sniper is, but you can’t figure out where a shell is going to land. And just the terror of the people, and the helplessness of these families hiding on the first floor. All they can do is hope it doesn’t hit them. That’s very, very difficult to watch.

She was killed by one of those shellings a few hours later.

The good news is that when there is no where to run from the forces of death there is only a final falling into the River that is God and then coming up again gasping with the breath of new and everlasting life that we will not know until we get there.

By the end of his 40 day wilderness struggle, Jesus knew there was no need to run from what mattered.  It catches up to all us eventually.

So he came from Galilee and he went very intentionally back to it.   As he had gone into that cleansing River so he threw himself back into the life of the world he knew.

He made a decision.  He figured out who he was and what mattered in his life.  By that time John had already been snuffed out by the rulers of this world, his head would be brought in on a platter, but Jesus didn’t let that hinder him.  As Dr. King said the night before he died, “I’m not fearing any man”.

Jesus came back to his life and his people and, without fear, said to them:  God is here.  God’s intervention is happening right now.  Be a witness to it.  Turn to what matters and trust in the good news.

Turn, turn and as Jesus did invite someone to come with you.  Turn and become an agent of healing.  Turn and be moved to action by compassion.   Turn to see the rainbow in the sky.  Turn and trust in the good news.

Now to the One who makes things happen. To the One who matters when all else is done. To God be the glory in our lives.  Amen.



Well, this meeting of God’s correspondents has come to an end.  We’ve got a whole week ahead of us before we may report back in again.  Go back into your life and see what really matters, see what is really happening.  Something is happening.  With God at work, something important is always happening.  That is good news.