Monday, December 4, 2017


Photo by Linda Young Baker

Read Isaiah 35.
Open is hard. Last week, our home was broken into. A few electronics and jewelry that was mostly sentimental in value were stolen. We were lucky, really. No people or pets were hurt. Memories cannot be taken. Stuff can be replaced. What has really been taken is our sense of security. Our immediate response has been to batten down the hatches. Replace locks. Fortify doors. Beef up security. Our eyes are open, all right, but what we are looking for is danger. We fear for our lives.
In the spring of 2006, my mother captured this photo of baby redbirds nesting in a rose bush. They are so open! So trusting! So vulnerable! And that is what makes openness so very difficult. Open is vulnerable. Open is risky. Open can be downright dangerous. When we are open, anyone can come in. And, let’s face it, more than a few jackals, lions and ravenous beats prowl the streets. So it is no wonder that our natural inclination is to shut down. Close ranks. Slam the doors of our hearts and slide the deadbolts securely into place.
But, the irony is that, when we lock ourselves away, we are not open to anyone. Sure, we are not open to predators, but we are also not open to friends, lovers, or helpers. We are not open to the Savior.
This time of year we often sing, “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus… from our fears and sins release us.” But, if the Savior is to come, we must be open to receive him. And that requires trust. And faith. And hope.
Have you ever watched children take communion? Many times they will stick their tongues into the little “shot” glasses to get every last drop of juice. I want to be like that. I want to be hungry for God, hungry for grace, hungry for truth, hungry for righteousness, hungry for Jesus. How about you?
Let us pray: Loving God, open us to the saving power of your Holy Spirit. Open our eyes to your truths and our hearts to our neighbors. Amen.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Training wheels

Grandma Moses turned out her first painting at the age of 76. Three years later, her art was hanging at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Gladys Burrill ran a marathon at the age of 92, earning her a place in the Guinness Book of World Records. In 1987, Teiichi Igarashi became the first centenarian to climb Japan's tallest mountain, and 85-year-old Theodor Mommsen received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1902. Paul C├ęzanne had his first art exhibit when he was 56 years old, and Colonel Sanders started KFC when he was 65.[i]

Great things can be done at any age. Great things can be done at any age by anyone at any time … if we will claim the power God gives us, but few things in life scare us more than our own power. We see that clearly in our story today.
The story of Jesus walking on water is just one of many instances in the gospel of Matthew where people use their power. Sometimes, they use it well. Sometimes, they do not. When Jesus was born, the prophets described him as a ruler who will use his power to shepherd the people of Israel. That is immediately contrasted with Herod, who uses his power to kill innocent children. It’s as if Matthew is saying, “The Messiah is NOT that kind of king.” So what kind of king is he? Jesus goes to great lengths to describe his kingdom through a series of parables. Then, suddenly, Matthew moves from word to action.

John is murdered to please an evil queen. Herodias used her daughter to gain the king’s favor, then she used that power to kill. She didn’t have to. Another queen, Esther, found herself in a similar situation. She won the king’s favor and was told that she could have anything she wanted. That’s a lot of power. Esther used that power for life. She used her power to protect the lives of an entire nation of people. Esther used her power to work FOR God. Herodias used power to work AGAINST God.

When Jesus heard that his cousin had been murdered for sport, he set out to find a quiet place to be alone with God. But the people followed him. There were still so many people who were sick and in need of a savior. Jesus was filled compassion, so he used his power to cure their sick. And then he fed THOUSANDS of people with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish! Talk about power! Jesus used his amazing power to work for God.

But he did not do it alone. Jesus handed the food to his disciples, and THEY fed the crowds. Can you imagine facing five thousand hungry men and their families, and all you have in your hands is that very little bit of food that the Lord has given you? You see the hunger. You see the great need. And you feel so inadequate. But you do what the Master tells you to do. You give the people something to eat, and a miracle occurs. Everyone gets enough. No one leaves hungry.

You move from despair and anger to confusion and joy! You are filled with hope! And confidence! I CAN do this! It turns out that I can do this after all. What the Lord has commanded me to do, God has empowered me to do. You revel in that triumph as you gather up the leftovers.

You would think that would be enough miracle working for one day. But Jesus has one more job for the disciples. One more lesson to teach them. He commands them to get into a boat and cross the Sea of Galilee. He will meet them on the other side.

So the disciples get in the boat and attempt to cross the sea on their own. Sure, it is dark, but these are experienced fishermen. They know their way around a boat. They know how to handle themselves in a storm. So they are not afraid, even though the wind is against them and their boat is being battered by the waves. The disciples are not afraid. At least, not until they see Jesus walking on water. THAT scares them!

Who knows what they were thinking? Maybe it’s a ghost! Maybe Herod was right. Maybe John the Baptist and Jesus have come from the dead. Maybe the source of their power is not heaven. Maybe it is evil! We do not know what they were thinking. But Jesus knows that they are afraid. So he calls to them and says, “Take heart. It is I. You know who I am. I am the Messiah. I am the king who uses his power for God. I am the king who uses his power for life. There is no reason for you to be afraid.”

Peter is the one who speaks. “All right, if it is you, and we know what you can do, then command me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus says, “Okay. Come on, Peter. Come to me." So Peter jumps out of the boat and begins to walk on water! He is headed straight to Jesus. Everything is fine, until Peter gets distracted. He gets distracted by the wind, and, suddenly, he panics! He begins to doubt his own ability. He doubts his own power. He doubts Jesus. Peter starts to sink.

Now, sometimes, we judge Peter kind of harshly. “Why would he be afraid?” we wonder. “He knows that Jesus is right there.” But remember the panic you felt when you suddenly realized that you were riding your bike without training wheels? Or when you realized that you had swum halfway across the pool without anyone holding you up? Or the first time you had to buy a car ALL BY YOURSELF?!?

It’s scary! Suddenly, you discover that you have more power than you ever dreamed! And it scares you senseless.

Sometimes, we are more afraid of success than we are of failure. If we succeed, things will change. Our lives will be different. Nothing will ever be the same again. So it is no wonder we falter. We see how life is changing. We now see ourselves as people with power. People who can do. As people who can, in fact, do miraculous things! And it scares us. All of sudden, we are not so sure we want to swim. Or ride. Or do it on our own. It would be a whole lot easier just to let someone else keep holding us up!

But then you remember. When you are dependent on someone else, you are at his mercy. You can only go into the water when someone else is there to hold you up. And you can only venture down the street when someone else is there to steer the bike. If someone else is calling all the shots, then you may never get what you want. You remember how that limits you, and you long to be free. Even though freedom is a scary thing, you would rather be free. You would rather be free to sink. You would rather be free to fall. You would rather be free to fail than to never try at all.

But, man, doesn’t it feel good to know that someone will be there to fish you out of the lake and breathe life back into you if you do sink? Doesn’t it feel good to know that someone will be there to kiss your skinned knee if you do fall off the bike? Doesn’t it feel good to know that, no matter how many times you might fail, someone will be there to save you?

Of course it does. And that is the good news for us today. Like Peter, we serve a loving master who sends us out into the world, knowing that storms are going to come up. The water is going to get rough sometimes. We might encounter things that we never imagined. And we might get scared. We might not even recognize help when it comes. But help will come. Help will be there. Sure, we might get cocky. We might decide that we can walk on water, too. And maybe we can! If Jesus commands it, we can do all kinds of amazing things! So who knows? Maybe we can walk on water! For sure, we can do anything that God commands us to do… if we do it with God’s help.

But the really good news is that, even if we fail, even if we take our eyes off of the Lord, even if we get distracted by the wind and the waves and the storms of life, even if we start to sink, Jesus will be there. Jesus will be there to catch us if we fall. Jesus will be there to lend us a hand.

Years ago, an Irish emigrant named James Rowe and his friend Howard Smith wrote a hymn of love and hope and commitment. “…Smith was a little man whose hands were so knotted with arthritis that you would wonder how he could use them at all, much less play the piano.” But Rowe’s daughter once said, “I can see them now, my father striding up and down humming a bar or two and Howard E. [Smith] playing it and jotting it down.”[ii]

As difficult, and perhaps as painful, as it must have been for Howard Smith to play the piano, he continued to compose hymns because that is what God had called him to do. And, as a man who had himself once been saved from a stormy sea, Smith knew that “love so mighty and so true merits [the] soul’s best songs. Faithful, loving service, too, to [Christ] belongs.”[iii]

Friends, the same mighty and loving God who reached out and lifted Peter out of the water has also lifted us up out of our sin and out of our pain and out of our failure. Love has lifted us up out of our doubt and out of our fear and out of our anger. Love has lifted us up out of our despair and out of our hopelessness and out of our confusion. Like Smith and like Peter and like all the disciples who were in that boat, we, too have been called to serve. We have been called to go. We have been commanded to get into the boat and cross the lake because there are people on the other side who are sick and in need of a Savior.

The crossing may be difficult. But remember. Whatever God has called us to do, God will give us the power to do it.

[i] Matthew Cole Weiss. “25 People Who Did Great Things After Fifty.” Published on Ranker at Accessed August 13, 2017.
[ii] The story of Love Lifted Me is published online at Posted June 3, 2005. Accessed August 12, 2017.
[iii] James Rowe and Howard Smith. “Love Lifted Me. The Cokesbury Worship Hymnal. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1938. 233.
[iv] Rowe and Smith, 233.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017


It must have come as quite a shock. John had been murdered, his head literally delivered on a platter to a spoiled princess and her conniving mother by a foolish, arrogant and heartless king. Such cruelty was horrific. Unthinkable. Heartbreaking.

John! O John! Jesus must have wept. His cousin, almost like a brother. They had been bound to one another since they were babes in their mothers’ wombs. John always leading the way for Jesus. It was John who had called people to repent, to make themselves ready spiritually and mentally for the kingdom of heaven. For the Lord. For Jesus. And it was John who had baptized Jesus, preparing him to establish that kingdom. And it was John who had recognized Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah. But now John was dead. And Jesus was left to grieve.

It’s easy to understand why Jesus would want to be alone for a little while. He had been traveling and teaching and healing people all over Judea. And, all the while, dealing with skeptics and critics and thick-headed fishermen. He needed some time to himself. To be alone with God to process the news. To mourn the tragedy. And to come to grips with the harsh reality. If the rulers of this world had beheaded John, who was the messenger, what would they do to Jesus the Messiah?

Jesus decides to get away for a little while, so he gets in a boat and heads off to parts unknown. But the crowds follow him. They need him. They are sick. They are broken. They are intrigued. They are lost. Alone. Confused. They are hungry. They are hungry for things that they probably cannot even name. They are hungry for God. They might not call it that. Maybe all they know is that they need something. Someone. Help. They need help. They’re sure not getting it from Herod.

He did not care about them. He was too wrapped up in his own needs and wants and wishes. He didn’t care what they needed or what they thought. Herod didn’t care what anyone thought. If he wanted something, he took it. Who cares if Herodias was his brother’s wife? Herod wanted her, so he took her. Didn’t matter to Herod that Herodias was also his niece, which made their relationship incestuous. Herod did not care. He did not care that he was already married. Herod didn’t even care that, by divorcing his first wife, he instigated a war that led to the destruction of his own army. Herod did not care about anybody but Herod. So he ate and he drank and he gambled with the lives of people too weak or poor or uninformed to protect themselves.

The crowds needed help. And they find it in Jesus. Jesus seems to have the answers. He seems to have the power. He seems to have what they need. What they’ve been yearning for. What they must have now. So they follow Jesus. Right out into the middle of nowhere. Jesus traveled by boat, but the people walked. That’s how much they needed him! They were willing to follow him anywhere, no matter how difficult the journey might be. Somehow they knew where he was going (maybe they followed the disciples) and they got there before Jesus. As soon as he steps on the shore, Jesus is confronted by a great crowd of people and their overwhelming need.

You can bet Herod would not have allowed anyone to interrupt his rest. He could have cared less what the people needed. But Jesus had compassion for them. He loved them so much that he set aside his own need for comfort and solitude, and he took care of them. Jesus cared for them. But he did more than care. He acted. He cured their sick.

We’re not sure how long he worked with them that day, but I suspect it was a long, hard day. When evening came, the disciples said, “It’s getting late, and these people have a long walk back to town. Send them away so they can go get something to eat.”

Jesus said, “There’s no reason for them to leave. You can feed them.” The disciples did not see how that was possible. All they had were five loves of bread and two fish. That wasn’t nearly enough to feed such a large crowd. But they were not thinking big enough. They forgot that they were talking to Jesus. The one who had healed a man with leprosy just by stretching out his hand and touching him. They forgot that Jesus was the one who had healed the centurion’s servant without even meeting him or knowing what was wrong with him. They forgot that Jesus could cast out evil spirits with a single word and rebuke the winds and calm the waves. They forgot that Jesus can do anything.

They were looking at what they had and what they could do, and they found it insufficient.

We do that, sometimes. We look at ourselves, and all we can see is what is lacking. Where we fall short. What we don’t have. But Jesus does not ask us to give what we do not have. Jesus takes what we do have, what we are willing to give, and does far more with it than we could ever imagine!

That day on the beach, Jesus took five loaves of bread and two fish and fed five thousand men and countless more women and children. Some scholars say there might have been as many as 20,000 people on the beach that day, and Jesus fed them. He fed the sick. The outcast. The unwanted. People that no one else cared about. Jesus fed them all. And he didn’t give them a little. A taste. A morsel. They all ate and were filled. They were no longer lacking. No longer in need. No longer hungry. They were filled. They all had enough.

Which is quite a miracle in itself, right? One person meeting all those needs, especially when he had so little to work with. Five loaves of bread and two fish. That’s next to nothing! Compared to the huge need, five loaves of bread and two fish is nothing. But in the hands of Jesus, those five loves and two fish were more than enough to meet every need. After everyone had been served, there were 12 baskets full of leftovers. Twelve baskets full of broken pieces. Twelve baskets full of crumbs.

Others would have overlooked those bits and pieces, but Jesus did not. Nothing was wasted with the Lord. All those broken bits were gathered up and redeemed.

Remember when we used to redeem Coke bottles? We took those empty bottles and sold them back to the store. Those bottles were valuable. They were worth something. They were useful. They still served a purpose.

Jesus saw those broken pieces of bread and fish, things that others would have discarded, things that others HAD discarded, and he saw value in them. They were worth something. They were useful. They could still serve a purpose. So he redeemed them. Just like he saved all those broken and discarded people on the beach that day.

In the kingdom of God, even the leftovers are worth saving.

It doesn’t matter how much or how little we have to give. It doesn’t matter how insignificant we think we are. It doesn’t matter how insignificant the world thinks we are. It doesn’t matter if we are old or young or feeble or broken or sick or tired or strung out or stressed out or maxed out. God is not through with us. The world may cast us aside. But, in God’s eyes, even the leftovers can be redeemed.

Monday, July 3, 2017

God Will Take Care of You

Don’t worry. God will take care of you.

Yeah, right. Don’t worry. Easy to say. It’s a lot harder to do. It can be easy to trust God when things are going well. When you have everything you have ever needed or wanted. But what happens to faith when someone you love is taken away? How easy is it to trust God when your child’s life is at risk? And what if the One who is threatening your child is God? What happens to faith then?!?

It would never happen, you say. God would never do that. God is loving and kind. And children are a gift from God. They are precious in God’s sight. God would never harm a child.

And yet, thousands die each year from disease, abuse and war. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, 3 million cases of child abuse are reported in our country every year, and anywhere from four to seven children die every day due to abuse or neglect. God could stop it. God rescued Isaac. Why won’t God rescue these children?

I don’t think the problem is with God. I believe God desperately wants to save these children. I believe God wants to save each and every child. In fact, I believe that God is already at work, trying to save each and every child. The problem is not with God. It is with us.

Your Bible may refer to our text today as the sacrifice of Isaac, but our story is not one of sacrifice. It is a story of salvation. And our story depends upon Abraham. Will he obey God? Will he trust God? He has been faithful. Will he continue to do what God tells him to do?

Abraham had come a long way. He had traveled a great distance, lived many years, and experienced many things since God first spoke to him in Haran. The way was not easy, and Abraham had made his fair share of mistakes. Abraham was no paragon of faith, and no one would call his wife Sarah a model believer either. Despite the fact that Abraham obeyed God’s command to leave his country and home and relatives in Mesopotamia, Abraham did not initially believe it when God said Abraham would have a son. At first, Abraham contradicted god then he fell on his face and laughed.[i]

Abraham often questioned the Lord, and Sarah was always trying to out think God. So, at best, Abraham and Sarah were what preaching professor Elizabeth Achtemeier calls “sporadic believers.”[ii] They trust God sometimes.

Sometimes they are faithful. Sometimes they are not. Sometimes they obey without question, and sometimes they have A LOT of questions. Kind of like kids, right? Sometimes they do exactly what you tell them to do right when you tell them to do it. And sometimes they want to argue with you.

Happens a lot when kids get to be teenagers. You get your driver’s license and want to go to the mall or to a ballgame, but, instead, your mom sends you to the store for milk. That is a test. To see if you really ARE ready to take on more responsibility.

When it comes to faith, we are all children who are growing in our knowledge of God and trust in God. And, just as there are times when parents test their children, God tests Abraham. Which makes sense, ‘cuz, you know, a lot depends on Abraham. “God’s promise of blessing for the world rides on the faith and obedience of Abraham….”[iii]

Have you ever thought about that? The fate of the WORLD depends on Abraham. Will he do what God has told him to do? Even if it does not make sense to him? Even if he does not like what God is telling him to do? Does Abraham trust God? If so, how much?

Can you imagine how hard it was for Abraham? He had waited his whole life for a son. And, finally, God blesses him with a child, and, now, God is asking Abraham to sacrifice that child. So what will he do? Will Abraham cling to the gift God has given him? Or will Abraham trust the one who gave him the gift?

I’m gonna be honest with you. The idea that God tests us is not one that I like a whole lot. I don’t like the idea that God might “set us up” somehow. The whole scenario is so unpleasant that we might be tempted to explain away this story, saying that Abraham MISTAKENLY believed that God wanted him to sacrifice Isaac.[iv] But scripture clearly states that God tests Abraham by commanding him to use Isaac as a burnt offering.

This is not a game. God wants to know if Abraham trusts God COMPLETELY. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says that, at this point in the story, God genuinely does not know what Abraham will do, just as Abraham does not know what God will do.[v]

Luckily, Abraham passes the test. Abraham does EXACTLY what God tells him to do, even though everything in him must have been screaming out, “Don’t make me do this!” Abraham obeys God. Abraham obeys God because Abraham trusts God. Abraham believes that God will provide. Abraham has no clue HOW God will provide. He has no earthly idea what God is about to do! But Abraham believes, beyond any shadow of doubt, that the God who is able to give life to an old man and a barren woman is able to take terrible tragedy and, somehow, bring about new life. Abraham believes in God. Abraham believes in the goodness of God. Abraham believes that, somehow, God will provide. Abraham believes because God made a promise, and God has always kept that promise.

So Abraham sets out to do what God has told him to do. He builds an altar, places the wood on it, and ties up his son, his only son, his only hope. Abraham places Isaac on the altar and takes out a knife and prepares to give God everything.

And God says, “Stop. Don’t do it.”

And Abraham stops. Abraham listens to the voice of God. He heeds God’s call. And that, my friends, is the word for us today. Will we do what God calls us to do?

When we read this passage now and hear God ask for a human sacrifice, everything in us rebels. We know that God does not do that. But ABRAHAM did not know that. The sacrifice of children was a common religious practice in that time and place. There was no reason for Abraham to think that YHWH might be any different from any of those other so-called gods. This is Genesis. We are at the very beginning of the story. Abraham was just finding out what God is like and what God will do. Other religions claimed that God requires human sacrifice, but this terrifying story proves that YWHW is different.

“If anybody is going to be sacrificed,” God proclaims, “it will be me.” And, friends, that is the good news. God provides. God provides the sacrifice. God IS the sacrifice. God loves us so much that God would rather die himself than see even one child suffer.

But there is more to our story today than another affirmation that God is our liberator. This story calls us to action. It calls us to listen. It calls us to trust.

Like Abraham, we have come this far in our journey by faith. We have trusted God. Maybe we have not always been faithful, but, to some degree, we have trusted God. We have trusted God, and God has led us to this point where we are right now. Maybe it isn’t where we thought we would be. Maybe it isn’t where we want to be. But this is where we are.

The question is will we trust God to lead us from here? Will we do whatever God tells us to do next? Even if we don’t understand it? Even if we don’t like it? Even if it means sacrifice? Are we willing to give up everything for God?

God gave up everything for you.

[i] Elizabeth Achtemeier. Preaching the Hard Texts of the Old Testament. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998. 19.
[ii] Achtemeier, 19.
[iii] Achtemeier, 20.
[iv] Achtemeier, 17.
[v] Walter Brueggemann. Interpretation: Genesis. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982. 187.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Onward, Christian Soldiers

John Maxwell, the best-selling author of The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, says, “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.”

Bob Pruitt knew the way. He was a career officer in the US Army Field Artillery. He served in Vietnam and rose to the rank of colonel. He knew how to lead. After his retirement from the military, Bob worked in real estate and was active in Kiwanis. In fact, he served as president. Bob was a problem solver, and he led by example. When the Kiwanis group needed something to hold snow cones, Bob made it. And he made it right. That was the only way he knew how to do it.

Bob Pruitt
He could be rather particular about things. Some might even say demanding, but Bob believed in doing your best. So he was the best dad he knew how to be. He always attended his son’s ball games. When they beat the #1 team in the state, Bob praised Tom saying, “You played a good game….” Then Bob proceeded to tell Tom how he could improve. Bob knew the way.

He knew what needed to be done when St. Mark’s was just getting started and meeting in a community center. And he knew what needed to be done when his son wanted to get permission from the city of Germantown to use a trail for dirt bikes. He knew what needed to be done to stop a water tower from being built near the middle school. Bob knew the way.

And he wasn’t shy about offering advice. But he was always there to help when someone was in need. And if there was a job to do, Bob was there to do it.

Bob was a true leader. He knew the way of Jesus the Good Shepherd. He went the way of the Good Shepherd. And he showed others the way.

The same could be said of Joshua. He knew the way of servant leadership. And that way began with faith. He had faith in God. And, boy, did he need it!

If anyone was ever put to the test it was the newly appointed leader of the Israelite people. Joshua had some mighty big shoes to fill. Moses had guided the people for decades. In fact, it was Moses who led the people out of captivity in Egypt and through the Red Sea. It was Moses who drew water from a rock and brought down manna from heaven. It was Moses who received the 10 Commandments and built the Ark of the Covenant. It was Moses who had led the people to the Promised Land. But Moses was gone. He had died on Mount Nebo, looking down into the fertile valley of Canaan. Moses saw the land that God had promised to give the people of Israel, but Joshua would claim the prize.

Joshua had earned God’s favor. He had proven himself to be reliable. Strong. And faithful. Back when the Israelites first made their way to the edge of the Promised Land, Moses had sent 12 leaders to scout out the land. Joshua was one of them.

“See what the land is like,” Moses told the scouts. “Are the people strong? How many people live there? Are the towns well protected? Is the soil fertile? What kind of food grows there?” (Numbers 13:18-21) That’s the kind of thing you need to know before you attempt a takeover.

So the 12 scouts spent 40 days getting the lay of the land. When they returned, they told Moses that the land was very rich. It flowed with milk and honey! But the people who lived there were powerful, which just makes sense, right? If the land is fruitful, then the people who live there will be strong and healthy and rich, and the cities will be full of people and well protected.

Ten of the scouts discouraged Moses from even trying to enter the land, but Caleb said they should go and take possession of it. And Joshua reminded them that the Lord was with them so there was no reason for the people of Israel to be afraid. “The Lord will lead us, and the Lord will give the land to us.”

 But the people rebelled. They lost faith in God. They did not believe that the Lord would keep the promise to Abraham. They did not believe that God would give them the land. So they refused to go. In fact, they even talked about replacing Moses as their leader and heading back to Egypt! They were so afraid of what was ahead of them that they were ready to go back into SLAVERY.

And that made God very angry. “How long will these people treat me with contempt?” God fumed. “How long will they refuse to believe in me? In spite of all that I have done for them! I should strike them down.”

But Moses pleaded for mercy. And the Lord relented. God vowed to keep the promise made to Abraham. God would be faithful, even though the people were not. The Lord would give the Israelites the land that had been promised. But, first, they would have to wander in the desert for 40 years. Long enough for them to learn to trust God. And long enough for the unfaithful spies to die. The unfaithful ones would not enter the Promised Land, but their children would. God would show them the way. (Numbers 13-14)

Sure enough, four decades had passed. The disbelieving had fallen away. And the time had come, finally, for the Israelites to claim the land that had been promised to their ancestors. God would defeat their enemies. And Joshua would lead them to victory.

But it would not be easy. Leading others into battle never is. The Lord encourages Joshua, “Be strong and courageous. Follow my commands. Do what I tell you to do. Do not waver from my instructions, and you will succeed.” (Joshua 1:6-9)

So Joshua does exactly what the Lord tells him to do. He gathers up the people and tells them to get ready. In three days, you will take possession of the land that the Lord is giving you.

He does not doubt or waver or change the plans one iota. Joshua is faithful. He believes in God. He trusts that the Lord will do what God has promised to do. In fact, Joshua has so much faith in God, so much confidence in the Lord, that it inspires the people. They vow to follow Joshua and to obey his commands fully. “Just as we fully obeyed Moses,” they say, “we will obey you.”

Huh? Ae you paying attention? That right there is some revisionist history! Because the people were always rebelling against Moses and against God. That’s how they ended up wandering in a desert for 40 years, remember? But maybe they have learned a thing or two. Maybe all those days trusting God for food and water and life itself have taught them the wisdom of obedience. Maybe they truly have come to believe that God is good. Maybe they truly have come to believe that God is faithful. Maybe they really believe that God is trustworthy. Because Joshua tells them it is time to go and they go. They follow Joshua, and they follow the Lord. They follow even though the way forward is difficult.

The first hurdle they face is the Jordan River, which is at flood stage, but they line up behind the Ark of the Covenant and walk straight into it. And the water dries up! They walk right across a dry river bed, and, after 40 long years, they finally enter the Promised Land! The first thing they do is worship and recommit themselves to the Lord.

It appears that the Israelites have learned finally to trust the Lord. The faith of their leader has inspired them to believe. So they march together. Bravely into battle.

Before the battle begins, Joshua sees a warrior outside of the city. Joshua wants to know, “Are you for us or against us?” “Neither,” the man replies. “I am the commander of the army of the Lord.” Joshua fell face down on the ground in reverence and asks, “What message does my Lord have for his servant?”

Now THAT is humility! And obedience. Joshua has been chosen by the Lord God Almighty to lead a great nation, but he is not arrogant. Or boastful. Or domineering. Joshua does not believe that he is too great to bow down before the Lord. He does not believe he is too great to serve. Joshua is humble. Joshua is obedient. Joshua is respectful. Joshua does not act as if he is better than everybody else. He seems to know that it is his service to God that makes him great.

The commander tells Joshua to take off his shoes because he is standing on holy ground, and Joshua does what he is told. Again, Joshua is obedient. And faithful. He follows God’s commands.

The people of Jericho had heard that the Lord had dried up the mighty Jordan River so that the Israelites could cross it safely. They knew that Joshua and his army were coming for them, so they were shut up tight, ready to ward off an assault. They were bigger. They were stronger. And they were prepared for battle.

But the Lord had told Joshua, “I have delivered Jericho into your hands.” God promises victory to Joshua. “Just do what I tell you to do. March around the city once a day for six days. Have 7 priests carry trumpets of rams’ horns in front of the ark. Then on the 7th day, march around the city 7 times with the priests blowing the trumpets. When they hit one long note, have all the people shout out loud. Then the wall of the city will collapse, and your people can walk right in.”

Sounds crazy, right? That is not how you win a war against a well-fortified city. Jericho was a spring-fed oasis. It dominated the lower Jordan plain, and it had for 6000 years or more. Its people were protected by a high wall and tower. Enemy invaders trying to take such a city must penetrate the walls and gates. To do that, you generally had three options. Use some sort of ruse like Trojan horse. Break through some weak place in the wall, or go over or under it. Or you can lay siege to the fortress, cutting off supply lines until residents are forced to surrender.[i] You want to take a well-fortified city, you go in with guns blazing. You don’t march around it and blow a few horns. What kind of military tactic is that? Foolishness like that could get everybody killed!

But Joshua does not waver. He does exactly as God had instructed. He gives the priests and the people and the armed guards their instructions. And they follow his lead. They line up and march around the city while 7 priests blow trumpets. But they don’t say a word. Not one cry. For six straight days. They follow God’s commands exactly. On the seventh day, they line up again and march around the city. But this time they circle the city 7 times, and when the priests finally hit one long blast on the trumpets, the people cry out, just as Joshua had told them to do. And the walls of the city collapsed! Just like that. Just as God had promised. Imagine that!

The Israelites were victorious. Even though they were small and weak and vulnerable. They defeated a much more powerful enemy. Because they trusted their leader, and they had faith in God.

[i] Jerome F.D. Creach. Joshua: Interpretation Commentary. Louisville: John Knox Press, 2003. 61-62.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Jesus Loves the Little Children

Dianne Hudnall, a founding member of Blue Bucket Books, reads to 3-year-olds at LaPetite Academy.

Best-selling author Robert Fulghum says all he really needs to know he learned in kindergarten. That’s where he learned the really important lessons of life, things like: share everything, play fair, wash your hands before you eat, say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody, flush, and warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.[i]

And Karl Barth, the famous theologian who opposed both liberalism and Adolf Hitler, wrote four volumes in 12 parts. Each was 500 to 700 pages long.[ii] But, when a student asked him to summarize what he believed, Barth replied, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”[iii]

Sometimes the deepest truths are expressed in the simplest of ways.

It’s been said that the Bible is a love story. It is the story of God’s amazing love for all of humanity. That message has been summed up in another great song that many of us learned in Sunday School: “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.”

We see that clearly at the end of Matthew’s gospel. The way Matthew tells the story, the eleven have HEARD about the resurrection of Jesus, but they have not yet SEEN him. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary had gone to the tomb, but instead of tending to the dead body of our Lord, they encountered an angel who told them the most amazing story. “Jesus has risen from the dead! Look and see for yourself. He’s not there. Now go tell the others. Tell them to go to Galilee. Jesus will meet them there.”

So the two women hurried away. They were afraid, but they were also filled with joy! Could it be true? Was Jesus really alive? If so, what did it mean? They ran to tell the others, but, all of a sudden, Jesus was right there with them! The women went to him, and they bowed down to worship him, grabbing at his feet, as if they were afraid he might leave them again! But Jesus tells them not to be afraid. “Go!” he says. “Go and tell the others. Tell them to go to Galilee. They will see me there.”

So the women swallowed their fear, and they went and told the 11 exactly what Jesus had told them to say.

And, sure enough, the 11 go to Galilee, and Jesus is there! As soon as they see him, the 11 begin to worship, even though some of them aren’t quite sure what to believe about this resurrection story. And who can blame them? It is quite a tale! But they could not deny the truth that Jesus was right there in front of their very eyes. And that was all the reason they needed to worship!

I imagine the temptation would have been great for them to just stay there. With Jesus. Up on that mountain. Praying and praising God. Up there where it was safe. Just the 11 and Jesus. Just the way it used to be. But Jesus had other plans. “Go!” he said. “Go and make disciples.” And not just there in Galilee. At home with the folks they knew and liked and trusted. Jesus sent the 11 out into the world! To EVERY nation.

“Teach everyone,” he said. Young and old. Rich and poor. Male and female. Jew and Gentile. Teach your friends and your enemies. Teach those who are like you and those who are nothing like you. Teach those who believe what you believe and those who don’t believe ANYTHING you believe. Teach everyone. ALL nations. Everyone.

Truly, Jesus loves ALL the little children of the world! And you know what? Dianne Hudnall does, too.

Dee taught young children for about 39 years! Can you imagine 39 years in a classroom full of 20 little wiggly, giggly livewires? I can’t! I’d go nuts! But Dee says, “I found my niche. I knew that’s where I needed to be.”

She began her career as a first-grade teacher in Arkansas, but, when her family moved to Memphis, Dee focused her attention on pre-schoolers. She had a real gift for working with children from other nations.

Over the course of her career, Dee taught children from 26 different countries. When she would find out that a new child was coming, Dee would get material from the child’s native land so that, when he walked into the classroom, he felt like he was home. For instance, if a child was coming from China, Dee displayed Chinese newspapers and chopsticks and books about pandas. One year, Dee was assigned a child from Korea, so she got someone to come read to the class in Korean. What Dee created for her students was not a classroom in America. It was their classroom.

As a result of her efforts, Dee received the Diversity Teacher of the Year Award from Nick Jr. The following year, she was chosen from a group of 2000 teachers to receive the Diversity Champion Award.

But more important than accolades is the impact that Dee had on each child’s life. Most of her students did not speak English. Many had not even HEARD English, but, after one month in Dianne’s classroom, they would jump in her arms and say, “My Dee!” She loved them, and they loved her. She earned their trust and respect and their hearts.

Dee taught them many things. She taught them to be patient and respect each other. She taught them to FOLLOW rules and to APPRECIATE rules. She even taught them that learning can be fun!

But, most importantly, Dee taught them about God. It was a secular school, so Dee could not teach Bible stories, but she taught them about the Creator when she helped them see the beauty and power of creation. Together, they raised butterflies from caterpillars and petted a lynx and admired a boa constrictor and played with a big box turtle and hopped around like frogs! They hugged trees and picked up litter because Miss Dee told them that, if we want the earth to be happy, it’s up to us to take care of it.

Dee taught them about Jesus when she loved them and took care of them and helped them find ways to love and care for others. Every child in Dee’s class was paired with a buddy, and they helped each other. And Dee taught her students about logical consequences. If you stack big boxes on top of little boxes, they will all fall down. Likewise, if a student was in a play center and argued with other kids in that area, he had to leave the center until he could play well with others. Dee also taught her students to recognize other people’s feelings, which is the first step in meeting people’s needs.

So Dee taught her students about God and about Jesus, and, though they may not have known it at the time, Dee also taught her kids about the Holy Spirit. She was not allowed to talk about religion, but she always wore a big cross necklace, and, any time a child asked about it, Dee knew the Holy Spirit had given her an opportunity to talk about God, and she took it!

Dee’s openness to the Spirit encouraged others to follow God’s leading. One year, the classroom mouse died, and one of the students led a funeral for it. Then on 9-11, that same girl went into the playhouse and started praying for everyone who was hurt. Many of the other children heard the girl praying, and they climbed into the playhouse and joined in.

Go! Jesus says. Go and make disciples of ALL nations. Make disciples of them. Teach them about Jesus. Lead them to commit their lives to Christ. Train them to follow the teachings of Jesus. Give them the tools they need to grow in faith. Teach them about all about God. Help them see God at work in the world. Teach them to love and serve others, especially those with special needs. And, when you see the Holy Spirit at work, call it to the attention of others so they can learn to sense God’s presence, too. Go, Jesus says! Go! Don’t be afraid. You can do it.

But we aren’t all called to be teachers. Some of us are not very good with kids at all! And that’s okay. There are lots of different ways to make disciples.

Pamela Lappen makes disciples in Las Vegas by leading dance classes for people with Parkinson’s disease.[iv]

And the people of Northwoods UM Church in Jacksonville, North Carolina, are making disciples by hosting a monthly dinner for men and women whose spouses are deployed in the armed forces.[v]

And, during hot summer months, members of City on a Hill UM Church in Woodstock, GA, make disciples by placing bottles of cold water and a note of thanks for their mail carriers every Monday.[vi]

We make disciples whenever we share the love of God with others. And there are as many ways to share God’s love as there are people in the world who need it.

Go, Jesus says! Go and make disciples! Don’t be afraid. You can do it. I will be with you. Always.

“Go, make of all disciples.” We hear the call, O Lord,

That comes from thee, our Father, in thy eternal Word.

Inspire our ways of learning through earnest, fervent prayer,

And let our daily living reveal thee everywhere.[vii]

[i] Robert Fulghum. “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten: Uncommon Thoughts on Common Things.” New York: Ballantine Books, 1986.
[ii] “Karl Barth: Courageous theologian.” Written by the staff of Christianity Today. Published at Copyrighted 2017 by Christianity Today. Accessed June 10, 2017.
[iii] Trevin Wax. “Top 5 Christian Theologians: Karl Barth.” Published August 22, 2008 at https://blogs/ Accessed June 10, 2017.
[iv] Christine Kumar. “Dancing with Parkinson’s.” Interpreter Magazine. January-February 2017. Published online at Accessed June 10, 2017.
[v] Christine Kumar. “Military families support one another. Interpreter Magazine. November-December 2016. Published online at Accessed June 10, 2017.
[vi] “Cold water for mail carriers” published on The Interpreter Magazine website at Copyright 2017 United Methodist Church. Accessed June 10, 2017.
[vii] Leon M. Adkins and Henry T. Smart. “Go Make of All Disciples.” The United Methodist Hymnal. Nashville: The United Methodist Church, 1989. 571.