An Open Invitation

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.” ’ He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’

 Peter began to say to him, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you.’ Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.’

Mark 10:17-31

Preached and written by Doris Powell

Are there any passages of scripture that terrify you? For me, this is one… the story of the rich man seeking eternal life. So terrifying, I still remember a sermon preached on this text over forty years ago. Why terrifying? Because even then, I knew I was rich.

Today, you can go to a website,, to learn just how rich you are. Say, your annual net income is $25,000. Enter $25,000, and click: “Show my results.” Watch the numbers whir in the results box to learn:

You’re in the top 2% richest people in the world!

I admit it lacks context… a $25,000 income in the USA means a pretty modest life-style. $25,000 in Ghana means you live in luxury. Still, it’s a bit shocking: the top 2%.

Forty years ago, I didn’t need a website to tell me I was rich. I had a modest home with a mortgage, heat in the winter, enough food, a steady job, and an education. I was rich. Maybe not mega-rich, but rich enough.

The Rich Man

The man in this story was likely mega-rich. Many Bible translations title this story, “The Rich Man. ”In Jesus’ time, there was no middle class. So, if you “had many possessions,” you were rich. This was a memorable event. It happened right in front of Jesus’ disciples. The strong emotions and surprise they felt meant it would live in their memories. They were “perplexed” and “greatly astounded” as Jesus taught:

“How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”

Extremely perplexing in a society that believed God showed favor by conferring wealth. If the wealthy couldn’t be saved, who could?

This encounter is recorded in all three Gospels with only slight variations. Matthew identifies the man as “young” and Luke as “a ruler.” In Mark’s Gospel, two added details make it feel more personal to me, more human. The rich man knelt before Jesus. I can picture his reverence in this act, as well as in his words, “Good Teacher.”

Jesus, as a devout Jew, gave the honest answer one might expect he’d advise everyone, about observing the commandments. Imagine how the man’s simple response must have affected Jesus.

“Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”

He wasn’t bragging. He was looking up at Jesus, telling of his life-long spiritual journey. Here is the second detail recorded only by Mark:

“Jesus, looking at him, loved him.”

Jesus, looking into his heart, then gave him a very personal answer:

“You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

The encounter concludes:

“When the man heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”

Then followed the discussion with Jesus’ disciples about:

‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ … “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.”

So, forty years ago when I heard that memorable sermon, I was kneeling at Jesus’ feet with that rich ruler to hear: “Go, sell all what you own…” Could I do that? I didn’t think so. Truly, the passage we read from Hebrews got it right:

“Indeed, the word of God is living and active… it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before God no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.”

The Sermon

The sermon I remember began with a caveat: Jesus was speaking to an individual, not giving generic advice. The Bible is NOT saying, Doris, Betsy, Kenny… all of us… MUST sell all we own to gain eternal life. But I still didn’t feel totally off the hook, so I tried to follow the advice offered in the rest of the sermon by our minister, Lester Moore.

1. Go home, pull out your excess and give it away. You don’t need it, and it can meet the needs of others. I did that. It wasn’t too hard.

2. Learn to distinguish NEEDS from WANTS, or you’ll quickly accumulate new excess. Makes sense. That was a bit life-changing for me, always asking myself, “Do I really need that?” It’s not that I never buy anything that I just want, but there are many things that I haven’t acquired. And I never got sucked into a life-style of living beyond my means.

3. The things you need to keep: find a way to share them. This suggestion was surely the most life-changing for me. I’d never thought about it quite that way before.

Patterns for Everyday Life

I decided I needed to keep my car. How could I share it? Within the week, a coworker came up to me and asked if I might consider taking on a rider to work. An Iowa State University student, working part-time in the mail room, needed a ride in. She could pay gas money. Would I consider it? I was able to share my car! I told her I didn’t need gas money. She was right on my way. And I was blessed with an incentive I needed to get to work on time.

I also decided I needed to keep my house. Within the year I was able to share it with a dear friend, Sandee, who was trying to be a mom, a full-time student, and a part-time worker to afford housing. It was too much. She and her son, Ryan, lived with me for two years. It was the most harmonious time of my life. After she went off to seminary, I had several students stay with me at different times while they were doing their job searches. And the blessing came back around to me when I spent seven weeks enjoying Betsy’s hospitality as I recovered from ankle surgery. A great friendship blossomed.

Last week, I was delivering Meals on Wheels with Lawrence, when it occurred to me… I’d found a new way to share my car, delivering meals. This morning’s Call to Worship got it right: “Here we set the patterns for everyday life.”

For years after that sermon I lived, what I called, “a simplified life-style.” It freed me to follow the call I heard to go to seminary where I lived in a small studio apartment for the next three years. I’d look out over San Francisco Bay and feel so blessed.

The Invitation

There it was. It was there all along. I had just missed it. In my worry over possessions, I had totally missed The Invitation:

“Go, sell what you own… then come, follow me.”

Jesus looks at each one of us and invites us: “come, follow me.” The following will take a different form for each of us. Our calling is unique. And what we must unburden ourselves from, to be free to follow, will be unique too.

The UCC calendar identifies this Sunday as “Disabilities Awareness Sunday.” For many, an attachment to possessions can be disabling; but for others, it will be something else. An addiction? A fear? A grievance? An old wound? When Jesus looks on you and loves you… what will his next words to you be?

If I’m honest, I have to tell you, I’ve back-slid. One look at my house and you can see I haven’t been living that simplified life-style for some time. Distinguishing needs from wants takes discipline. Living in a large (for me) house, for twenty-five years hasn’t helped. But after a life-time of working on it, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing, habits of sharing possessions and time have endured.

The Good News is: “Come and follow” is an open invitation. An open-ended invitation. It didn’t come with an expiration date. It’s right here, for each of us.

Sometimes I wonder about that rich man. I can’t imagine he could get those few moments with Jesus out of his head: what it felt like to have Jesus look on him with love. Did the invitation play over and over in his mind? In his dreams? Did he find “grace and help” in his time of need? Maybe later he sold and distributed all he owned and followed. We don’t know. Or maybe, after Jesus’ resurrection, he became part of that community we read about in Acts last week:

“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.”

As Jesus assured his disciples:

“For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

May it be so for us, too… Amen.

Rachel McDonaldmark
Love is Consent

The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.

Song of Songs 2:8-13

When Josh and I began dating, it took me a little while to get used to it.  I liked dating him, but then suddenly all of these other people would know that. But the both of us were at college, taking classes together when we started dating, so people were bound to find out. I was particularly concerned about our professors.  Something about our professors knowing we were dating just made me feel itchy.  My subconscious came up with a foolproof plan.  I didn’t realize it for a while until Josh called me out on in, but I would hold Josh’s hand outside but then as soon as we would walk into a building I would drop it, as if the close confines of the building made us too obvious.  Because if I didn’t hold hands with him inside our professors wouldn’t know, right?  Foolproof logic. 

Obviously not and I am happy to report yes, sometimes, I will hold Josh’s hand inside.  Maybe.

I tend to not be into outward affection.  Recently, one of my favorite TV quotes comes from the Good Place, where the eternal being, Michael, who is decidedly not human says this about humans kissing: “Kissing is gross.  You just mash your food holes together.  It’s not for that.”

I get that.

I can even be lukewarm on hugs.  I will hug people, but sometimes I just don’t want to.  

Song of Songs is a lot for me, then.  And maybe it is for some of you, too.  The opening line of Song of Songs  is,

“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth—

   for your love is more delightful than wine.”

Seemingly out of nowhere, here in the middle of the bible we get a whole book of love poetry.  Not just any love poetry, but PG-13 love poetry.  Poetry about lovers chasing after one another, using strange metaphors to describe body parts, and generally doing a lot of not talking about God.  


It does seem out of place in scripture.  There’s nothing else like this.  Not just because of the love poetry though, although, it is decidedly strange in its use of metaphors.  But this is also one of those other rare places in scripture where we get to hear a voice from a woman’s perspective.  And not only is this a woman’s voice, but a woman talking about bodies and desiring someone and generally all sorts of things that should make you blush.  

Get it girl.

Because the bible and the church have not exactly been places for women to express their sexuality.  Quite the opposite.  It’s frankly a miracle this is still in the bible.  It’s powerful and exciting to hear.

And thank goodness it’s still in there because it teaches us a powerful lesson about love.

Like I told you, hugs aren’t always my thing.  If I go in for a handshake with you, it doesn’t mean I don’t like you.  Sometimes I just like my space.  But you know the hugs I really like?  The ones I choose to give.  

You know how sometimes children are told, “Go hug grandma, go hug your aunt?”  It starts there for many of us where we’re taught that we don’t have full control over our whole body.  I would recommend asking people of any age if they want to be hugged.  Because it’s a small thing, but it teaches us how to be in the world.  Is love something you have to do, like you must go hug grandma, or something you get to choose to give joyfully and freely?  Do I have to hug you, or do I get to choose to hug you?  

One of these seems a lot more like love than the other.  Love without choice rings hollow. 

Love given freely--that’s the best and perhaps only kind of love.

Song of Songs shows us this kind of love.  One of the best lines in this love poem is, “My beloved is mine and I am his.”  Song of Songs is a conversation.  It’s back and forth between the two lovers, each pursuing one another.  It’s exciting because everyone is participating.  No forced grandma hugs here. 

It’s a little bit more like what your heart feels like when you hold hands walking by your professor for the first time.  

I’m happy to tell you more stories about Josh and me, but to make sure Wesley doesn’t walk out I’ll switch gears a little bit.  This scripture may not talk about God, but I will.  Follow me out here, because although this love talk is about our human relationships, it also teaches us something about how we relate to God.  

We believe and say God is love.  But we don’t often take time to explain what that love is, other than occasionally a pastor explaining to you about all the different Greek words for love.  So what kind of love is God? 

Here’s an idea: God is love that is freely given.  God is love that is pursuing and pursued.  It’s exciting because everyone is participating.  

The love at the heart of our faith is a love of consent.  

We try to model that here at South Haven, whether you know it or not.  We don’t make people come here, attendance isn’t compulsory.  There’s no requirement of how you must interact with God.  Instead it’s an invitation to a relational way of being.

“I am my lover’s and my lover is mine.”

One of the great mysteries of God is that we don’t seem to be forced to do much.  We are not obliged to love.  But we are free to love.

The love poetry of Song of Songs ends with a request.

“Come away, my lover,

and be like a gazelle

or like a young stag

on the spice-laden mountains.”

You are not forced, but called to love.  With your whole self, your whole body, as you choose.


Rachel McDonald

He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary* and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence* at him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.

Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, ‘Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.’ So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

Mark 6:1-13

When I’m not busy pastoring here at South Haven, I also do a little bit of work on the side for an organization called the Center for Parish Development.  One of the tasks I do is create graphics for social media.  I have a routine, where I make sure the organization’s name is carefully centered at the bottom.  I pick colors from a similar palette for brand recognizability.  I work to arrange photos in just the right way. 

I create what we consume relentlessly, neat, boxed, bright, catchy images and videos.  Anything to get us to look up and pay attention, even if it’s only for three seconds.  I spend time packaging information.  I like taking lengthy theological treatises and turning them into a six word saying.  It brings me great joy because it’s predictable and pleasing.  

We expect this.  Neat, well-designed, concise.  

The Gospel of Mark is the briefest of the gospels.  Not typically for detail, Mark gets to the point.  I like Mark.  Quick to read and understand.  

Except for moments like here, in the sixth chapter.  Amongst the story of disciples being sent, and chilly hometown crowd, we hear this brief mention of Jesus’ family.  Not only that, but this detail that just zips by: Jesus, apparently, had sisters.

This has the potential to unravel the whole thing.

This is not easily repackaged, neatened up.  It’s what happens throughout scripture, when these brief mentions of the women on the edges represent whole layers of stories and understanding that we only get the briefest glimpse of.  

The story frays around the edges.  The central message of Jesus and the disciples fades out of focus when you realize that the impact of all of this goes far beyond the main characters.  Jesus’s actions have consequences.  In this case, his actions seems to have impacted yet again more unnamed women, sidelined in the story.  

How many times have we heard about these disciples, and yet not a word about these sisters?

I have sisters and I am a sister.  There’s very little I wouldn’t do for them.  This week it included riding with my sister Charity to a baby shower in Columbus I wasn’t even invited to.  Later in the month I’ll travel to Seattle to stay in a small room in an Airbnb, sharing a bed with my sister Kristen.  This is what it means in my family to be a sister.  We show up for one another. 

Yet families are complicated. 

Back in chapter three, we get a brief mention of Jesus’ mother and brothers, who have chased after him.  This is after Jesus has begun healing and performing miracles, but his family has arrived to grab him by the ear and drag him home.  The crowd lets Jesus know his family is looking for him.  Jesus replies in this way, saying, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”  and looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

So much for family loyalty.  

No surprise, perhaps, later when Jesus says, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”  Here we catch the briefest hint that Jesus’s family might have rejected him, just as he seems to have walked away from them.  

But what about his sisters?  

This is a loose end I can’t let go of.  Jesus is so quotable, so loveable, so marketable, until he’s not.  Until I’m wondering if Jesus abandoned his sisters, no matter how a sacrilegious thought this is to think.  Even if they did shun Jesus, this gets personal when I think of my own sisters.  This can’t be right.  Wouldn’t Jesus and his family be, well, a little more Norman Rockwell?

Mark could have left this detail out.  It could have been the amorphous hometown crowd, full of impersonal people, that rejected Jesus.  But Mark had to bring family into it.  

Was Jesus’s family trying to keep him home because they knew it would be safer there?  Were they refusing his message and miracles because to acknowledge them would mean acknowledging this dark path Jesus was to follow?  Was it easier to think of Jesus as brother or son, than savior of all?

Or was this more of a Cinderella story, with evil step mothers and step sisters, better abandoned?

I don’t know.  What I know is this is an itch that I keep coming back to.  

Did Jesus’s sisters end up following him?  Were they there to see his miracles, to find their own escape from their hometown.  I imagine one way or another, through Jesus their life was transformed.  

To create something new, you must let go of the old.

This is a story that forces me to think about just how revolutionary Jesus really was and still is.  This isn’t gentle Jesus, but strategic Jesus.  This is Jesus who left his hometown behind and instituted a take em or leave em policy with his disciples.  This is  Jesus who travels lean and mean.  

When I think about Jesus’s sisters I’m forced to remember that Jesus didn’t preach ease and simplicity, but fracture and challenge.   

I don’t think Jesus hated families or his family.  But I know he came to tell us about sacrifice.  

I’m grateful that Mark included this little detail.  Because it stops me from sliding through this story as if it’s something I’ve heard before.  Yes, yes, the disciples aren’t to take anything with them, get on with it. But sisters are real to me.  It’s a hook, a catch, that reminds me that our faith is about real people and real consequences.  

Jesus unravels that which we clutch onto.  

And this includes neat and tidy pictures about families.  Jesus’s sisters are a reminder, a message of their own despite their lack of name and detail, that the world Jesus left behind was complicated.  That it did tear families apart.  But it did more than that.

Christianity from the beginning has always been a place for complicated families.  Jesus brought this way of breaking and reforming families.  The church became a place for people to find their new families.  Jesus’s message held: “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother!”  We still use this language today, when we look around the room and don’t see strangers, but siblings in Christ.

But what about Jesus’s sisters?

I don’t know.  I wish I knew more. 

Yet I am grateful for their silent witness that forces me once again to consider that the bonds of family we find here in church are hard fought.  That these are not simple and easy relationships.  The life of faith is complex and difficult and I am quick to forget.  

For today though, for Jesus’s sisters, I will remember.  

Rachel McDonaldmark, jesus
Making It Up As We Go

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred and twenty people) and said, ‘Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus— for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.’


So one of the men who have accompanied us throughout the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.’ So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, ‘Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.’ And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.


Everyone’s just making it up as they go.

If you need any proof of that just take a look at our online search histories.  I checked google for some autocomplete results, those little snippets that tell us what the world is searching for, and these are some of the questions we’re asking:

What should I eat/major in/do with my life?

How do I get a passport/know what iphone I have/live without you?

Why does my stomach hurt/my back hurt/my cat lick me?

What is the best dog food/mattress/probiotic?

Who should I date/vote for/see for depression?

We’ve all got questions, because life is complicated.  

If we were another church and I was another pastor, I might direct us now to the bible to find the answers to our questions. Bible over Google!  Well, we are going to look at the bible, but less for clear answers and more to find the company of other questioners.  

The book of Acts tells the story of the early church, the first Christians, and what happened after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension.  

As you can imagine, it’s a pretty chaotic time.  When Jesus first came, people had all of these expectations of what he would do.  He would come to save and restore the world.  And he did, but not by overthrowing the government, not by becoming powerful and rich, and not by following what other people wanted him to do.  Instead, Jesus came by another way, by calling together the lost and forgotten, by loving the unlovable, and by demonstrating love and sacrifice through death and resurrection.  This was not exactly the story everyone had been expecting. 

These early followers of Jesus must have been confused then as what to do next.  We see this when right before Jesus’ ascension, the disciples try to get a straight answer out of him.  “Okay Jesus,” they say, “Will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”  Which in my translation is another way of saying, “Aren’t you going to take care of all of this the way we hoped you would?”  And how does Jesus answer?  “It’s not for you to know.”

The disciples could’ve seen this answer coming.  The whole time they had been with Jesus it had been more questions than answers, more surprise than certainty, so why should now be any different?

Once Jesus did ascend, the disciples were left then to figure out what on earth to do.  These disciples were left without Jesus, but they were also left without one of the twelve--Judas.  Judas, the disciple who had betrayed Jesus has died, leaving a gap in the group of disciples.  

And the disciples do this thing best described by a rubber band.  They were stretched by Jesus.  Now that Jesus is no longer with them, they snap back a little.  “Jesus picked twelve disciples, so we’d better have twelve!”  They’ve lost most of their creativity at this point, exhibited by their selection of two other Jewish men to replace the Jewish man they have lost. 

But that’s okay.  Change is hard, for us and for the disciples, so I certainly don’t fault them.  

We want to stick with what we know, and in the church as it is in the rest of our lives, there can be serious denial about the change happening in our lives.  How many parents take years and years to take down the poster that their teenage child put up, despite their child having been out of the house for year and that child even has a child of their own?  

Yet despite the disciples and our reluctance for change, there’s a glimmer of hope in this story.  The disciples have a free-wheeling way to choose this next disciple: they cast lots.  

I’m envious of this.  I’m not a disciple, but I am a church leader.  And I promise you, I had to do a lot more than have my name pulled out of a hat to get into a leadership position.  If any of you want to ever read a tall stack of essays I wrote about theology, you’re welcome to them.  

The disciples don’t seem to have the church knowledge we have today--to be a leader you must have a committee nominate you, have letters of recommendation, be thoroughly known and interviewed.  

Or maybe we’ve forgotten the trust that the disciples had in God’s providence.  

Do you think God has a plan for your life?

I’ve thought that for myself for a long time.  I was taught elements of that, that God is in control, God has everything mapped out.   It becomes a thing people say to one another in times of distress: “Don’t worry, this is all part of God’s plan.”

But my belief in this was challenged, as I expect is has been for many of you, by the great horrors and grief we encounter in the world.  Could this really be part of God’s plan?  This is one of the most difficult and challenging questions we can ask about God.  Was it God’s plan for my family member to die?  Was it God’s plan for that natural disaster to happen?

And this question works on an even smaller scale.  Was it God’s plan for me to get that parking spot?  Was it God’s plan for me to get this job?  Was it God’s plan for those lots to choose Matthias?

I don’t have all the answers for this.  And trust me, google doesn’t either.  

But I can tell you that my understanding of God has grown to include the idea that God might not have a plan, but plans.  Not just a single way, but many possibilities.  For me, this has been a way of naming that God is greater than our thoughts, more expansive than our words, and more loving and infinite than I can imagine.  

Who am I to limit what God has planned?

I see a glimpse of this in the disciples who gathered together, unsure of their next steps.  They met and discussed, talked about what to do.  And at the end of the day they said a prayer and cast lots.  

In this moment, I recognize a deep and abiding human truth: we’re all just making it up as we go along.  God has not dropped a clear guidebook of exactly what we should do in all situations, the power that be at google have not clarified all of life’s mysteries for us, and we encounter over and over and over again situations for which we are not even remotely prepared.  

There’s a line in a John O’Donohue poem called “For a New Beginning” that says:

Awaken your spirit to adventure;

Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk

I think of this when I think about God, and how God does and does not act in ways I anticipate.  God does not give me the clarity of answers I always want, but I know God’s presence in the ways I try to find ease in risk.  I see God, Jesus, and Holy Spirit, in this beautiful trinitarian dance we find in these early story of the church, letting go and reaching out, trusting the leadership of these frail and faulty humans.  

Perhaps God knew which of these disciples, Justus or Matthias would be better.  But maybe God’s blessing on the casting of lots is the same blessing we receive today:  God is delighting in the adventure with us.  We do not have to be afraid or even have a few of the answers.  

Rachel McDonald
Unfulfilled Dreams

Mark 1:4-11 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with* water; but he will baptize you with* the Holy Spirit.’ 

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved;* with you I am well pleased.’

Less than a month before he was killed, Martin Luther King Jr. returned home to Ebenezer Baptist Church.  He was there to preach to the community that baptized and ordained him.  The title of his sermon for the day was “Unfulfilled Dreams.”  

He preached on 1 Kings 8, about a little phrase that the God had spoken to David. David, as we know, never completed one of his biggest dreams.  It was Solomon, not David, who built the temple that was David’s dream.  Yet 1 Kings has God telling David, “You did well to consider building a house for my name” or in the King James language Rev. King used, “Whereas it was in thine heart to build an house unto my name, thou didst well that it was within thine heart.”

Martin Luther King Jr. took this words from God and preached it as it was first heard to David, then to the congregation, but then as pastors so often do, you can just hear in this sermon how he was preaching to himself.  We know Martin Luther King Jr. as the hero, as the one whose vision has been vindicated and accepted, even as we imperfectly move toward it.  But to him, this glory wasn’t far from assured.  Like David, Martin Luther King Jr. knew that his dreams were not likely to be fulfilled. 

Yet, what he heard in this scripture, this tiny little overlooked verse, what he wrung out of this text was the promise from God that trying was good enough.  That is was about the orientation of our heart, our intention, that God honors.  He said near the end of the sermon, “I don’t know this morning about you, but I can make a testimony.  You don’t need to go out this morning saying that Martin Luther King is a saint.  Oh, no.  I want you to know this morning that I’m a sinner like all of God’s childrens.  But I want to be a good man.”     

It is almost heartbreaking to hear this, the testimony of a man we know and honor as a great man, standing before his church family and before God simply asking to be known as good.  

I’ve read that Americans these days may have left this kind of longing far behind, as we now accept that we are good, maybe great even.  That we have an over-inflated sense of self, that it’s a problem of over-confidence than lack-of-confidence.  And for churches and preachers this can make it much more difficult to convince Americans that we are, in fact, sinful creatures.  In short, we don’t need convincing that we are good, because we know we are.    

I have seen this and believe it to a certain extent, but I don’t trust it entirely.  Because what we say and do on the surface can often hide our real insecurities.   I have seen the longing Martin Luther King Jr. had.  This deep desire to be known as good.  The desire to be liked, to be loved, to be seen as someone worthwhile, someone good.  In fact, overconfidence can be a mask for deep insecurities and a desire to be loved and known and seen as good that we all have.  We want to hear these words, “You are my beloved, with you I am well pleased.” 

Of course, these are the words God said over Jesus during his baptism.  As Jesus came out from the waters of the Jordan river after joining right in on this wild baptism thing, Mark says the heavens were torn apart.  The Spirit descended.  And God came right to the river, right to the mud, right to the ragtag group of followers, to John the Baptizer with his camel’s hair clothes, to Jesus, and declared God’s pleasure.  This was good.  This was worthy of love. 

And this was before Jesus even did anything.  This is the beginning of his ministry, the very first time we meet Jesus in Mark.  Maybe his divinity was worth declaring good.  But there’s hopefulness here that God’s blessing comes as an act of grace.  Jesus is beloved not because of what he is going to do, but because of who he is.  God’s blessing comes as undeserved grace.  

We can travel far away from understanding God’s blessing upon the world, upon us, as good.  It’s a blessing that comes right at the beginning of creation, in the beginning as Genesis says, when God was creating the world, God continually called what God saw “good.”  This, remarkably, included us, the humans.  As beings created in God’s own image, as beloved children, we too were called good.  But we’re quick to abandon this blessing God gives. 

But we have to come back to this, go back to the beginning, go back to the blessing of God, because do people need to hear this.  I know this because there are powerful people who continue to lie and tell people that they are not valued.  That where they live makes them less worthy.  But that’s not of God.  

Because in God’s eyes, the people of Haiti are good.

The people of Africa are good.

Do you know why they’re good?  Because they are people created in the image of God. Full stop.  

Guess what, church?  We’ve forgotten this, time and time again, preferring judgment to the knowledge that God loves and offers grace freely, abundantly.  That God called our world good.  That God doesn’t judge separate from this world, but becomes fully human to be a part of it, and it well pleased with that!  

We are good to God and worthy of love.  

Here’s the other way we could imagine God.  We could imagine God distant from our world.  Judgmental of our world.  An unmoved mover.  Aloof.  Elite.  Out of touch.  

But here, when we come to recount this story of the day when Christ was baptized, we hear anything but.  The story goes that God tore open the heavens to send a blessings to earth.  That Jesus asked to be baptized, to be brought alongside all of these other people who were seeking a new way of life, to get right in the river with them. 

And God was pleased because it was good.  

If only we could believe this.  If we could believe it about ourselves.  What would it mean about how we viewed the world if we believed that we were good?  Maybe greater yet, what if we believed those around us were good?

We are witnessing in our society right now such a lack of appreciation of the good that is to be found in others.  I think of the world Martin Luther King Jr. inhabited and I think it is no wonder that he sought to be considered good in a world that was telling him he was less than the white men around him.  And Rev. King’s dream is still unfulfilled!  White privilege is alive and well. Police decisions motivated by fear and distrust, an inability to believe that a young black man could be good, lead to senseless killings. Need I say again how entire countries are dismissed out of hand.  

Yet these are beloved children of God!

It is my faith, it is my belief of who God is, it is my study of scripture that makes me want to shout this until all know and understand.  

I wish I could sit down with Martin Luther King Jr. and tell him, yes, yes, you are a good man.  Because God has come to you and names you as beloved.  And you are good.  

That I could tell this to all who doubt their self-worth, who have to listen to the other voices that dismiss them, who push them aside who say they are not valued.  To let them know that this is not how God sees them.  

Today, let the sky open.  Let God send the Spirit on those who need to hear that they are beloved, that they are good.  

Centered Joy

Matthew 25:1-13 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

Have you ever met a person that just radiates good? Someone who spreads joy, who makes everyone who encounters them feel at home?  I met someone like this seven years ago at the Abbey of Gethsemani.  His name is Brother Paul.

I met Brother Paul through an opportunity I had through a class I took at Baldwin-Wallace.  I was taking a class on Thomas Merton, a great spiritual writer and monk.  In this small class we read many of Merton’s books and sat around and talked about God, religion, and the contemplative life.  The highlight of the course was traveling down to Kentucky to the Abbey of Gethsemani which was Thomas Merton’s monastery.  


This is a photo of the Abbey of Gethsemani.  The weekend I spent there among the monks and my classmates was holy.  And yet it was simple.  We followed the monks in times of prayer, meals, times of work, times of gathering together.  All together it was this time of heightened spirituality, where God felt so close.  

It didn’t hurt that I was also able to share the weekend with my new boyfriend at the time, who many of you now know as my husband Josh.


Here at the Abbey life was and still is marked by silence.  It is somewhat strange then that my memory of the weekend is not of silence, but of laughter. 

My classmates and I had an opportunity that weekend to sit down with Brother Paul to talk.  Brother Paul had been a student of Thomas Merton and we were to ask him questions about his life and Merton.  I don’t remember many of our questions or answers, but I do remember Brother Paul’s laughter. 


Here is Brother Paul and Josh.  We sat at the Abbey in a special “monks only” area under a ginkgo tree.  It was a warm October day, as we sat in the sunlight filtered through the leaves of the tree.  

Brother Paul was radiant.  He had this energy almost unlike anything I had ever seen and unlike anything I have experienced since.  He was full of joy and laughter, so unlike any kind of solemn expectations I may have placed upon him as a monk.  And he was present.  He sat there with us, interested and engaged in what we had to say, asking us questions.  

I found a PBS interview with Brother Paul where he said, and here I am quoting,  “Well, I think the purpose of the monastic life in the modern world is to show that we don’t need a purpose. The purpose of life is life, and you are to be just to be. Everybody measures their importance by how useful they are, so you need to shatter that. You know, somebody has to come along now and then just say listen, you know, that’s not it. That’s not what life is.”

Brother Paul was there.  He was ready to see us, to listen to us, to see God in us.  He was present and prepared for joy.

There is a famous Thomas Merton story from his book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander where he talks about walking through downtown Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut.  He wrote, “I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world. . . .This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed.”

The wonderful thing about this story is that the corner of Fourth and Walnut is not an exciting place.  It’s not much more exciting than the corner of Northfield and Rockside.  Merton just happened to be ready to receive this glimpse of God.  

We hear in Matthew how there are some who are prepared with light, and some who aren’t. There are those who are ready for Jesus and those who are not.  Be ready, Matthew tells us.  

Notice which bridesmaids were ready.  They all fell asleep, they all had to wait, the ending of the night was unexpected to every single one of them there.  But the wise had extra oil and were ready for the banquet.  The foolish had to leave, to run frantically out to try and get more oil for their lamps.  

They were half present.  They brought the lamp, but not the container of oil.  

It was a silly thing.  It was a small thing, to have that extra oil ready.  The difference between wise and foolish was just a bit more preparation. 

The difference between an ordinary street corner and a moment of pure joy was maybe just a bit more attentiveness. 

I was at my sister’s house a few weeks back.  This is my sister Charity, the one who got married in October.  We were sitting at her dining room table, visiting as we waited for her husband Ahren to come home so we could all eat together.  When Ahren walked in, he immediately went over to the window and turned on two electric candles that sit in the window.  “You always forget,” he scolded Charity.  She giggled, knowing that was true.  An exasperated Ahren shook his head and that was that. 

I didn’t think of it until this past week when I was driving home from one of our choir rehearsals.  I was driving on Charity and Ahren’s street, looking for their house.  In a row of suburban homes, I still can occasionally have trouble picking out which one is theirs when it’s dark outside.  Looking through my windshield I spotted those two electric candles and instantly knew which driveway to turn down. 

Maybe Ahren had just wanted Charity to know that it only take a little light to be able to find your way home.      

It doesn’t take much to leave the light on.  I thought for a while after meeting Brother Paul that to have that kind of spiritual luminosity, I would have to give my whole life to a monastic lifestyle.  

It turns out it’s much simpler.  

Some read these parables in Matthew about the great division God puts between the wise and the foolish, how there are some who are prepared and ready to enter the joy and celebration God offers and those who are not.  

But all it took was a little oil, a moment of laughter, a bit of sunlight through the ginkgo tree.  I am coming, Jesus says. Turn on your light and see.  



John 1:6-9 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

Today we hear these ancient words of John. Both the gospel of John and John the Baptist--two separate people although easy to get confused.  John the Baptist, although never labeled as such in the gospel of John, is our signpost at the beginning of the journey of Advent.  He points and we look.  

It reminds me of something my dad would do when we were kids.  All four of us would be at the kitchen table and my dad would suddenly just look up at the ceiling.  Of course, we all would then look up.  And then my dad would be laughing, because there wasn’t anything up there, he was just tricking his gullible children.  

Well, John the Baptist points toward something much more meaningful than a spot of nothing on the ceiling.  But like my siblings and me, it’s hard to not follow John’s gaze.  

We learn in the gospel of John that the baptizer John was there to witness and testify.  If these words sound legal to you, it’s because they are.  John was building a case.  John was there to witness to the truth and light of the person of Jesus Christ.  This is in direct opposition to those who set out to build a case against Jesus.  

It is in the gospel of John that we hear the most about the plot to kill Jesus.  We hear about the smear campaign that placed Jesus in front of Pilate, the political maneuvering that sentenced him to death, even though as Pilate said, there was no case against him.  Jesus was framed.  

And so, even here at the beginning, we hear the testimony of John the Baptist.  The one who went ahead of Jesus, proclaiming his light.  John says look, the truth will be illuminated here, in this story we tell about Jesus.  You will see how he was light and life. It’s not what those people said.  Let me tell you the truth.

The light that John brought wasn’t the cozy blur of Christmas tree lights. This is the bright light of investigative truth.  John the Baptist is a spotlight, turned toward the injustice of the world.  

He is a witness.  

I am here today to make a case to you that Advent is not just a cozy season of hot chocolate and Christmas lights.  Advent is a season of testimony where we are called to rise up and testify against all that is untrue and hidden in the secrecy of night.  

Maybe you see where I’m going with this. 

Because I could help but read this witness of John separate from the news.  You know the news, begun perhaps by all of the women standing up and speaking their truth through a simple two word phrase--me too.  

This has led to a dramatic cascade of truth telling, casting light on shameful patterns and habits of men abusing their power against women.  

I won’t recap the news any further for you, as I trust you have heard plenty about the names of those who have fallen from grace. 

But I do want to linger a moment longer on how I view the acts of these women who are standing up and revealing truth as acts of Advent witness.  

Think of how long it took for some of these women to get to a point where they believed they would be heard.  Think of the case they have to make, that each detail, each piece of evidence must be in place or else their truth would not be believed.  

Yet what we’re seeing is that truth telling brings more truth telling.  The powerful are not protected by their wealth and position.  

What could be more faithful to the message of John the Baptist and Jesus?  Both of these men came to speak about injustice in the world.  They talked about how the world would be turned upside down, how the mighty would fall.  They spoke about the corruption of the leaders of the day.  

This Advent, don’t shy away from testimonies of truth.  

Each week this Advent we will be looking at scriptures and studying around the theme and focus, “Leave the Light On.”  You’re going to hear a lot about light the next few weeks.  And as we journey toward the manger, we will get cozy, hushed, and reverent as we move closer to the sleeping baby Jesus. 

But this is not without remembering the bright light that John the Baptist gave witness to.  Testify to the light that causes the mighty to fall and the world to enter a new day of truth and justice. 


Worse Than a Bridesmaids Dress: Matthew 22:1-14

Have you ever seen someone wear white to a wedding?  You have, I’m certain, because the bride wears white.  But what about someone else?  That’s one of those great faux pas that you can hope you never see.  It’s funny how sacred we hold that kind of tradition. 

Now here’s another one; have you seen a bridal party gone wrong?  I’m thinking like the movie bridesmaids, when things get really out of control.  I have this theory that things go wrong because bridesmaids are often forced to wear the most ridiculous outfit.  You know the dresses I’m talking about--those ones with poofy sleeves or an unflattering hemline.  Definitely a hideous color.  So the bridesmaids get the wedding day and get so mad that they have to wear these terrible dresses that they behave just awfully.  

This is why my sister, Charity’s, wedding last weekend went so well.  She let the bridesmaids pick out their own dresses, so we all loved them.  And therefore, it was a wonderful wedding. 

Our worst wedding attire faux pas for Charity’s wedding was when my brother, Wesley, only had flip flops to wear with his dress pants for the rehearsal dinner.  He had also forgotten dress shoes for my wedding though, so I suppose fair is fair.  

Jesus told a story about a different kind of wedding.  Once again, today we are being brought into the world or parables, with all of the exaggeration and allegory parables bring.  It is not a direct narrative, a historical retelling of events that happened, but a story to open our minds, bring truth and understanding to us.  Parables tell us about God and about what the kingdom and realm of God is like.  Parables help us do this thing that we can’t help but do when we get close to the holy, we have to talk around it a bit, using all the creativity and metaphor at our disposal.  

Hear this parable again:

22 Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2 “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4 Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ 5 But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6 while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. 7 The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8 Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9 Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10 Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12 and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13 Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”

We can learn a few things about God from this, but the one that sticks out to me is how attentive God is as a host.  God cares about the details.  When we think about divinity, the holy, who God is, there’s a line of theology that has placed God as separate, other, and quite uninterested in what humanity is up to.  This is not the case if we are to trust Jesus’s parable.  

God is an attentive host.  God care about the details.  It matters if this one man is out of place, so much so that we are certainly tempted to ask, does it really matter what this guy is wearing?

And I say to you, ask the bride of the wedding where one of the guests wore white.  

What we learn from this parable and other parables is that God does care about the individual.  It’s the one lost sheep out of a hundred, the one lost coin who bring great joy.  In the gospel of Matthew there are two different stories about yeast, that tiny bit of yeast that spreads.  In one story, the yeast is good, in the other the yeast represents the Pharisees.  It is the small that spreads, that has influence.  The gospel of Matthew is also the gospel that is strict in tell what to do with the sin and the people who do follow the way of Christ.  As Matthew 18:9 says, “And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away.” And the person who would not repent is to be cut off from the church.  This is all in Matthew 18--look it up.  

One person, one idea, one moment--good or bad it is that one small thing that can affect lives.  

Ask Josh how one person can ruin a marching band. Talk to me about what shoes I wear when I want to feel powerful.  One question stars a lifelong relationship, one mutation changes the course of evolution, one protest sparks a movement. 

And God is not oblivious to the way our lives work.  God is attentive to the details of our lives.  God knows, as we must now know, that to build the realm of God will take consideration of all that we put into it.  If the realm of God is to be a place of welcome, of love and compassion, for children, for the outcasts, for all who seek refuge, why would God not be vigilant about the details?  God is an attentive host for those that God loves.  

Our attentiveness to the details of our lives in response is a way to honor God, the host extraordinaire, the one we give deference in judgment and retribution to.  We are to be good guests, to be thoughtful.  

I take these flashes of God’s judgment, the brief glimpses of outer darkness we get in scriptures like these, as moments to trust God’s vision for God’s world above my own.  It is not to encourage or revel in the judgment God brings, but to be grateful that God is paying attention and cares in such a way to create a world that prioritizes those whom we have forgotten.  

God is creating and building a world where the best can be spread, where the lost sheep and the little children take center stage, where joy is protected and honored.  God is offering a feast and celebration, one without wedding crashers.  One that looks a little bit more like this, love and hopefully for what is to come.  

Rachel McDonaldparables, matthew