Nine Miles

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 
“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
   are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
   who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’

 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Matthew 2:1-12

These wise guys weren’t really so wise after all, at least when it came to navigation.  Perhaps they were book smart, not street smart. These wise guys took their fancy gifts and their herd of camels to the wrong place.

They were nine miles off, to be exact.  Instead of Bethlehem where Jesus was, they went to Jerusalem.  Maybe their star navigational system hadn’t quite been calibrated correctly.  Nine miles away seems pretty good to me if you’re navigating by heavenly bodies.

Or, maybe they had just been looking at the wrong scripture, the wrong prophecy.  Especially if they were referencing Isaiah for navigational help. The prophet Isaiah pretty much exclusively spoke of how peace and prosperity would return to Jerusalem.  If you were listening to him, you’d go to Jerusalem. Listen to what Isaiah prophesied, “A multitude of camels shall over you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come.  They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD.” And what place was he talking about? Jerusalem.

No fault to our foreign wise people then for showing up on their camels with their gifts to Jerusalem.  But if they were looking for a King like Jesus to lavish their gifts upon, they must have been sorely disappointed in Herod.  

To call Herod a not so nice guy would be an understatement.  Herod had gotten the title of King from the Romans and it seems like the power went to his head.  This Herod, for there are many in the bible, is the one with the unpleasant distinction of ordering all of those children to be killed in an effort to weed out Jesus.  

I can’t imagine the chief priests and scribes to be particularly thrilled then when they received the summons of Herod to come and sort out this mystery of the magi.  But diligently they came, and I assume with voices trembling they shared that just perhaps, these foreign Magi had referenced the wrong prophecy, sorry Isaiah. They needed to look again at what another prophet, Micah had said.  

Micah’s prophecy looked toward Bethlehem, saying, “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.”

Route recalculated.  Now the Magi and Herod both knew that this caravan needed to go just a bit further south to drop off their mostly kind gifts.  (Because side note: don’t give myrrh to a child. It represents death, which is okay as a symbolic note referencing the future death and glory of Jesus on the cross, but not okay pretty much in any other circumstance.)  Weird gifts and all, off they go.

And what a difference those nine miles mean.  For me, it’s my morning commute. For Jesus, it’s the difference between being born in a place of power and a place of humility.  To rule from Jerusalem would mean a reestablishment of urban power and privilege. To come from Bethlehem, well, that’s a clue that Jesus was gathering his followers from the margins.  The coming reign of Christ was full of tax collectors, lepers, sinners, and, of all things, women.

Nine miles can make a difference.  

This is the story the gospel of Matthew, the good news from God, repeats over and over again.  Not a geographical shift of nine miles exactly, but a shift. A nudge. The promises of God are fulfilled again and again, but not in an expected way.  

It’s like the genealogy at the beginning of Matthew, which might be easy to skip over because who wants to read lists of names.  And it would be easy to skim if it followed the set pattern. But sneaky, sneaky Matthew tosses in a few extra names, like Rahab and Ruth.  Suddenly it’s a genealogy that includes Gentiles and women, which is out of bounds from what would typically have been listed. Yet it’s still a fulfillment of this line from Abraham to David to Jesus, just with a little extra flair.  A little nudge to the side.

Let’s not get too metaphorical, but what might need adjusted a bit in your life to find Jesus?  Let’s recalculate a bit together, shall we?

I’m assuming you, like me, want to be nimble enough like these wise guys to make the jump from Jerusalem to Bethlehem when need be.  Let’s not confuse Herod with Jesus. It’s worth a bit of extra travel to go see the real deal.

The Magi challenge me to not settle with good enough.  They brought their gifts and camels and went to a city that was laden with prophecy and they found a king.  Thank goodness they didn’t stop there.

Let’s commit to the spiritual practice of redirection.  Let us trust that God sometimes needs to give us a nudge to get us back on track.  What we’re looking for is just nine miles away.

**Many thanks to Walter Brueggeman’s commentary, “Off by Nine Miles,” from which many of this sermon’s insights are borrowed.

Rachel McDonaldmatthew
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