Jesus Can’t Breathe


In Colonial America some pews were set aside as general seating for special groups. Details varied according to town, location, date and circumstances but they included reserving seats for adolescents, Native Americans, the poor, widows, the hard-of-hearing, prisoners, and black people, whether enslaved or free. In most churches, even here in New England, the last pews were commonly called Negro Pews and often labelled “free” or “Negro.”

New Hampshire was no exception to this custom. Negro Pews were features of the old North Meetinghouse, which stood on Market Square Portsmouth from 1711 to 1854. The Negro pews there were high above the front door in the upper balcony, as far as possible from the pulpit. And slave owners had to purchase pew space for their slaves just as they had to for themselves. Negro pews were found in other churches and continued in 1807 when St. John’s Church was built. The pews in a church that is the oldest today in our Episcopal Church of New Hampshire were properly identified with brass labels engraved “Negro Pews.”

You see our ancestral Episcopalians in New Hampshire followed a hierarchical system which expressed “dignity” in terms of proximity to the pulpit. The placement of Negro Pews against the back wall of the balcony declared black people’s status as the lowest order of a hierarchical white society. I bet it was hard to breathe up there after climbing all those stairs.

There were a few New England churches that placed Negro Pews in the side balconies, a highly-visible location usually reserved for adolescents and unmarried young adults. Placing blacks here gave physical expression to the white perception of black people as childlike, untrustworthy, or given to inappropriate behavior. This attitude became an enduring fixture of white culture. It was expressed as recently as the mid-20th-century when the term “boy” was used to exclude grown black, gay or Jewish men from mainstream culture or to imply their place at the bottom of society among children.

Black people left Portsmouth Churches in the 1890’s when the first black church was established. But this was just a different, out of sight, out of mind form of segregation, you’ve heard the term “separate but equal.” Some churches gradually left behind segregation practices but the brass “Negro” labels remained in St. John’s until long after the practice of separate seating had long lapsed. Their disappearance reflected our societies growing white embarrassment about past sins. []

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But Pastor Bill, what does this have to do with All Saints’ or our texts? Well repentance about past segregation we didn’t participate in, doesn’t mean that racism wrongs have been righted, or that you and I are not called to reflect and repent for those thoughts and actions known and unknown, things we have done and things we have failed to do around power, privilege and prejudice, the sin that perpetuates oppression based on race. Repentance is what John calls us to this day. John called people to repent, to clean-up the practices of our lives and to completely reorder our thoughts so that nothing will get in the way of the Lord’s coming. The reading from Isaiah gives the context for this radical call:

  • the assurance of forgiveness that encourages us to repent; and
  • the promise that the coming one will be gentle with all His people, especially those who suffer and are oppressed.

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What Does The LORD Require?

Micah 6.8Micah 6:8 is one of my favorite verses in all of scripture. I’m not alone as many writers list it as one of the top 10 due to its focus on doing instead of just thinking about faith. In North America and even in the Vatican these days there is a shift from religion as being something one studies and thinks about, to being faith experienced and lived. Even our own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America uses the tag-line God’s Work. Our Hands. to articulate and encourage this shift in religious life.

Many want religion to be a simple, a bunch of rules to follow, a prayer to say, a formula to happiness, wholeness, and heaven. Just tell me what you want from me, what I need to do… Preachers on television use this model: believe this, don’t do that, act this way and God will bless you, God will give you what you want, what you’ve earned, and your life as a “Christian” will be full of perfection and prosperity. But you and I know that God isn’t a puzzle to be solved or a program to be worked.

God who created us and loves us, pursues us as we wander and wonder about what we need to do. God sent prophets to shape us up and assure us of God’s blessings. And when we ignored them and insisted on our way, God send Jesus to save us from our sins and ourselves. Today we hear from Micah and Matthew Messages to realign us and remind us of what God does for us first, what God dreams and hopes our response is, and both of those are love.

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In my experience as a student, my writing teachers always stressed the importance of using strong verbs to make your point. In Micah that verb is “require”. It’s a word we know well. It focuses us on what one needs to do and serves to focus and direct the verse:

what does the Lord require of you…?

Seems pretty easy to understand, but here is where the nuances of language, particularly the original Hebrew get in the way. Sure it would be easy to tell you to:

do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.

THAT is what the Lord requires, wants, and demands.

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Who’s Your Daddy?

Reformation Sunday + October 27, 2013


When I told the Wednesday Faith Night Bible Study group this week that my working title for this Reformation sermon was “Who’s Your Daddy?” their reaction was similar to yours. Admittedly it’s an unusual, maybe edgy title, but it reflects a central question in John’s Gospel today.

The people of the promise who believed in Jesus had just heard him say that by living out the word he’d taught them, they would truly be his disciples. Disciples who would experience the truth and the truth would set them free. Well they didn’t get it, claiming that as sons and daughters of Abraham they’d never been slaves to anyone. I wonder if Jesus laughed-out-loud because he, like most Sunday school children, know that the people had been enslaved, and more than once…

  • Remember Egypt, how the Passover and Exodus stories were all about God freeing them from slavery?
  • Remember when they were slaves to wandering around a dessert for 40 years before entering the Promised Land?
  • Or when years later they were defeated, taken away, enslaved from all they knew and had been promised during the Babylonian exile?

Descendants of Abraham never enslaved—I imagine Jesus smiling and maybe shaking his head as he asked them: “Who’s Your Daddy?”

Who’s Your Daddy according to that all-knowing web resource Wikipedia, is a slang expression that most often takes the form of a rhetorical question. It is commonly used as a slam, an insult, and a boastful claim of dominance over the intended listener. Perhaps the phrase itself comes from the 1968 song “Time of the Season,” by The Zombies (yes pastor used a zombie reference during Halloween week) that features the lyrics:

What’s your name? Who’s your daddy? Is he rich like me?

And as we struggle to keep our eyes open after watching the World Series game last night (especially if you’re a Red Sox fan), you may recall the phrase from the 2004 American League Championship Series when it was used as a taunt chanted by New York Yankees fans at Boston Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martínez. Now Most of you know that I’m not a Yankees fan, but Pedro brought this on himself after losing a game against the Yankees when he told reporters:

They beat me. They’re that good right now. They’re that hot.  I just tip my hat and call the Yankees my daddy.

I don’t care if you are the world’s biggest Yankees fan, or George Steinbrenner Jr., the Yankees are not your daddy. Nor is Abraham your daddy. Distant ancestor, biblical hero and father figure yes, but not  even daddy to the Jewish people Jesus was engaging in our Gospel story this morning. So “Who’s Your Daddy?” We are children of God, that’s who our daddy is!

Word. Jesus, God with us in the flesh came to remind us of that. Jesus tells us that as children of God, we are no longer subject to the world’s boastful claim of sin and dominance over us.

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Christ and the Comfort Zone

anointing jesus feet

Most of us love routine in our lives.

  • We would rather interact with people we know, deal with things we know about, know our schedule ahead of time, and go to places we know.
  • We are comforted by the same old same old, the familiar and known. 
  • We find safety and security in the routines of our lives, the content or complacent. 
  • We live in our favorite place in the world, our comfort zones.

God is with us everywhere, even in that known zone that is oh so comfortable. We know from Hebrew Scripture and the Good News of the New Testament, that God shows up and surprises us when the unexpected happens, when things are not going according to our plans, and even though we know this,it disrupts our expectations of God, it shakes and shocks us out of our comfort zones.

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In our reading from Isaiah, the Prophet reminds the people of the promise living in exile surrounded by Babylonian culture and religion, of their own history, when God was present, acting for them during the Exodus from Egypt.  But the God of the Exodus, is a God of promise in the present and future, and is not just present in Scripture as a historical God of the past. It is this God, our God that the prophet speaks of today. Proclaiming God’s presence and promises of great action to come. Isaiah speaks not of miracles in water, but of miracles in the desert places, today, tomorrow, and all the tomorrows to come.

God, speaking through Isaiah, says to expect the unexpected. God through Isaiah says watch for something new to spring up. Watch for what we might think impossible, improbable, or even outrageous. God promised to do a new thing those many, many years ago, and God is not done doing new things. God is not done surprising, even we the people gathered as the church in this time and place.

Watching, praying and discerning what God is up to, is what our congregation leaders have been up to since our annual meeting in February. It will take time to listen and faithfully figure out how to walk together and do what matters in this time and place. We met on Monday, and Janina, our president, led us in studying God’s Word as we do as part of every council meeting. The prayer she chose to share following our Bible Study, is a prayer of courage that comes from our Evangelical Lutheran Worship book:

Lord God, you have called your servants
to ventures of which we cannot see the ending,
by paths as yet untrodden,
through perils unknown.
Give us faith to go out with good courage,
not knowing where we go,
but only that your hand is leading us
and your love supporting us;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

This is my favorite prayer. It hangs above my desk at home and downstairs in the pastor’s study next to the door, so I can see it and pray it when I leave the safety of that space when I am needed to leave my comfort zone, to encounter God in the new and unknown.

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God Grieves Holy Innocence + Innocents

Psalm 130

This was a week when Friday morning I had three pages of notes, an outline, and I could have preached without a lot of further prep. I had the day scheduled as a day off but planned to make a couple of hospital visits and finish my sermon at Starbucks. I turned on the television as I got ready and learned of the unfolding events at Sandy Hook Elementary School. I was transfixed, sat down and before I knew it hours had passed. Kay called in the afternoon and I was eventually able to eat, get out of the house, stop at the office for a bit and get to the hospital.

But those sermon notes were useless in the face of the events that unfolded and all I could think about was the slaughter of the Holy Innocents in Bethlehem two thousand years ago, and those of that morning. That is why I read the Gospel from Matthew 2 this morning, because I couldn’t shake the images of violence against the innocent and the unlikely gift of myrrh given to Jesus by the very one who would tell his would be killer about him.

Gold Frankincense and Myrrh were what the Three Kings brought as gifts to Jesus. Shortly after these gifts were unwrapped, an angel of God appears to Joseph and the stage is set for the Holy Family to escape to Egypt, but also for a madman to kill innocent children. This text and the news are sad reminders that violent crime has been a part of the human experience throughout human history. From Cain killing Abel in Genesis, the blood of countless victims has cried out to God. Our hearts, those of our Connecticut neighbors and the nation too, cry out to our God who gives us life. We grieve this day for the victims and innocence lost for families, friends and communities like our own who feel hurt beyond words and sit in darkness.

Violence terrorizes and eats away at a civil society. Our bonds of trust, the foundation of safety and security that allow us to live routine, peaceable lives tear and fray, leaving our lives tattered—and instead of loving, we question our foundations and fear our neighbor. Sitting in tatters, saddened by violence, and angered by the injustice, we want justice. We want those who violate the sanctity of life, the perceptions of peace, and the safety of society to be held accountable. But in our sadness and anger, you and I are vulnerable to soul ripping feelings of revenge. In the midst of our utter frustration with the complexity that contributes to violence may make us long for simple solutions.

Of course there are no simple solutions to our grief, our cries for justice, or our longing for peace in our broken and fallen world. So we gather to pray, to hear God’s Word, to be fed and sustained by bread and wine. Today, this gathering at this time, in this place is an Emmanuel moment. God is with us. God is with us in what we do when we gather as Children of God to be reminded of God’s unfailing presence with us. This is the sure and certain promise of God’s unfailing love and willingness to accompany us in the midst of all goodness and evil.

God is with us. God is with the dying. God is with the grieving.

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Love and Marriage

Love and Marriage

The texts today speak about love and marriage, reminding me of the theme song from the first Fox TV hit “Married with Children.” Many of you would know it better as a Frank Sinatra song originally used by Frank Sinatra in 1955 for the television production of Our Town, a play by Thornton Wilder.

Love and marriage, love and marriage, Go together like a horse and carriage. This I tell ya, brother, you can’t have one without the other.

Love and marriage, love and marriage, It’s an institute you can’t disparage. Ask the local gentry and they will say it’s elementary.

Try, try, try to separate them, it’s an illusion. Try, try, try and you only come to this conclusion:

Love and marriage, love and marriage, Go together like a horse and carriage.

Dad was told by mother you can’t have one You can’t have none. You can’t have one without the other.

Quaint 1950’s sentiment, hardly reflected in a world when according the U.S. Census only 48% of American households are married. The institution of marriage is an illusion for many, As quaint and antiquated as a horse and carriage. Today 20% of households are “traditional” families, that is married couples with children. We live in a world where broken relationships, abused partners, divorce, and abused children are as much the reality today as they were in Jesus’ day.

The texts today are less about the institution of marriage and divorce laws, as they are about justice and love. Jesus calls us out on our selfishness, and our oppression of those who are powerless. In the beginnings of Genesis and the time of Jesus, women and children were considered property of the man. And marriage was between a man and a woman because marriage was a baby-making institution, it had nothing to do with love, it included multiple wives, and slaves because the survival of the small and fragile tribes and kingdoms of the time depended on it.

A divorce could be decreed by a man for any reason, he was bored, one of his wives burned dinner, bore daughters instead of sons, or wasn’t able to bear children at all, the absurd list goes on and on. And children were to work and support the household, they were property, they were not the center of parents lives. Children were to be seen and not heard and in the Mark story today, the disciples try to keep the children away from Jesus, because that was the custom of the day.

But Jesus calls out… men, the institution marriage, the practice of divorce, the disciples and all who push aside fellow human beings to the margins, from women, to little children. Jesus values all people, and while Jesus lifts up love and marriage, he lifts up love and the value of relationships most of all. Jesus calls us out to live in love, to live with a personal and communal responsibility that does not throw away relationships, regardless of who they are between, and above all, does not throw away people.

We are to welcome all. We are to value all relationships. We are called to lives of love and to lives of justice that work to defend all the defenseless. The relationships of our lives are all build on love. We do not control, as much as we think, or would like…

  • Who we are drawn to in relationship;
  • Who we are friends with; and
  • Who we fall in love with.

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Disciples and Dust

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. Mark 6:11


The image of shaking the dust off one’s feet and moving on appears in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke as well as in one passage of Acts. During biblical times Jewish people considered the very ground of Israel so holy, that when they returned home from any other place, they would before stepping onto their home turf, stop and remove the dust from their feet. The idea was that the holy land wouldn’t get contaminated by the less than holy dirt between their toes.

Of course the dirt itself wouldn’t corrupt Israel, but the less than holy experiences on that ground might. But for many, this image of shaking off the dust is more than a “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” moment. It was an action that some see as an in your face door slamming for those who ignore or reject the good news of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. That somehow is we do not reenact this dusting, shaking, door slamming, shunning of non-believers, we are somehow no longer holy, but corrupted or infected by the atheists, agnostics, heathens, non-believers, idolaters, or the very dust of the place we encountered them.

Dust… for me it is the word that leapt off the page this week. And as I worked with the text from Mark during the week I came to realize that it was more than the stuff I was cleaning up at home as we readied the house for dinner guests on Friday. Dust does seem to get everywhere, it does corrupt and infect in a sense, but the Mark text is not about using pledge or swiffers to reclaim holiness… it is about the very stuff of who we are as believers, disciples and followers of Jesus.

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Do know that a duster is more than a tool for cleaning? The informal use of the term duster today refers to a person who is absolutely garbage at a sport, game or anything really. This person is considered a “duster.” The term derives from this “duster” getting completely obliterated in anything he/she does and collects dust. Example: A person who gets left in the dust.

Someone can be considered a “dust” if they failed an exam or if your just a “dust” at anything; can be sports, school, video games, etc..

  • Getting “dusted” in Halo or Hockey
  • “Wipe that dust off your shoulders or shake it off your feet!”
  • “Wow, what a dust!” or “Your such a duster.”

Synonymous with looser, did you know that the first disciples, those Jesus sought out to heal, teach and hang out with would be considered “dusters” today?

The good news for you and me is that we don’t have to have it all together, to be Christ followers. You and I are claimed, forgiven, loved and made whole by a God of abundance who made us from dust. In a week when after decades of careful experiment, physicists say they have found the “strongest indication to date” to prove the existence of the Higgs boson–a subatomic particle so important to the understanding of space, time and matter that has been dubbed the “god particle,” dust, the stuff we are made of, the building block of all, does not contaminate, but defines us. Continue reading

The Ultimate Power Play


In the Name of Jesus. Amen.

The Boston Bruins were able to survive a historically bad power play in the 2011 National Hockey League playoffs en route to a Stanley Cup championship last year. But unfortunately, those power-play woes carried over into this season, and Boston didn’t survive due to their ineffectiveness when they had the advantage throughout the season and in the first round of the playoffs, and the ousted Bruins blamed their anemic power play.

It seems like the same old sad story all over again as the B’s had their chances on the power play in their playoff run, but they couldn’t leverage it and gather strength from it. The Bruins finished 0-for-3 on the power play in Wednesday’s 2-1 overtime loss in Game 7 to the Washington Capitals.  They finished the best-of-seven series in a 2 for 23 power play funk that once again exposed their weakness and many wasted opportunities in a historic series in which all seven games were decided by a single-goal margin of victory.

Okay Pastor Bill’s a hockey fan, but what does this have to do with Jesus? Glad you asked. You see the power play is important in hockey, but power play is a sports term used in various games including: lacrosse, water polo, indoor soccer, indoor football, netball, and cricket. It also is a term used in corporate America and politics.

In the sports world…

  • Power plays take advantage of a team weakened by the loss of a player.
  • Holding the power advantage, most are able to skate circles around their opponents, and
  • Drive-up the score in their favor while adoring fans cheer and celebrate the power brokers.

In corporate America…

  • Power plays take advantage of employees and consumers weakened by the loss of jobs and product quality.
  • Holding the power advantage, most are able to skate circles around their opponents, and
  • Drive-up wealth in favor of shareholders, while lining the pockets of power brokers.

In the political arena…

  • Power plays take advantage of rivals, voters and those oppressed without a voice.
  • Holding the power advantage, most are able to skate circles around their opponents, and
  • Drive-up perks in favor of their constituents and contributors, while the minorities on the margins are ignored or oppressed by the power brokers.

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In a post-resurrection world, power plays still happen, but Jesus continues to turn tables and redefines the term power in the midst of a huge political and religious power play. The political and religious authorities have dragged Peter in to find out the details of the healing of a man crippled from birth. Those gathered were the power brokers of the day: civil rulers, religious leaders, religion scholars, Annas the Chief Priest, Caiaphas, John, Alexander—everybody who was anybody was there. They stood Peter and John in the middle of the room and grilled them: “Who are you and who put you in charge here? What business do you have doing this? Just who do you think you are?”

There is no concern over the miracle healing or the restoring of the crippled man. The rulers and leader are only concerned about their power, authority and being surprised by, and beaten by this holy power play. And there is another power play as Peter, for the first time in Acts is described as being filled with the Holy Spirit. Peter, powered by the Spirit lets loose: “Rulers and leaders of the people, if we have been brought to trial today for helping a sick man, if we are under investigation for this healing, I’ll be honest with you—we have nothing to hide. It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the One you killed on a cross, the One God raised from the dead, by means of his name this man stands before you healthy and whole.”

And because like the rulers, leaders and people gathered, Peter and John are devout Jews, as well as disciples commissioned by Jesus who was a loyal worshipper of YHWH, we hear an echo of Psalm 118 from Peter. “Jesus is ‘the stone you masons threw out, which is now the cornerstone.’ Salvation comes no other way; no other name has been or will be given to us by which we can be saved, only this one, Jesus.” Old Pete the rock and blockhead of the disciples, proclaims Jesus as healer of the crippled man. Jesus who cares for, leads, and keeps us safe is the model image of the Hebrew Scripture Shepherd and here is named as the cornerstone of all healing and life restoring power.

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The authorities were interested in more than the details and authority of the healing act. Because the healing restored the man to wholeness, it saved him from his powerless life on the margins, ignored and oppressed by the people and powerful alike. The healing turns the tables of power and authority, changing both the man and the community. It brought new life through a power play of merciful love and it scored salvation, the goal of us all.

The power brokers, the people, and the man experienced both the healing and saving power of Jesus’ name. And you and I if we admit it seek salvation all the time. We sit on the margins of a world run by powers that be that doesn’t call on or see the healing and saving power of Jesus’ name. We get caught-up and buy-in to powerful ways of the world, lured by all that glitters and seems to satisfy…

Sports and Entertainment, where we seek comfort and escape through cheering on and consuming activities that fill our hunger, fantasies, and mask our loneliness and longing for love and community.

  • Corporate America, where we seek comfort and escape through shopping and consuming activities that fill our hunger, fantasies, and mask our selfishness and longing for acceptance and fulfillment.
  • Politics, where we seek comfort and escape through debating and following activities that fill our hunger, fantasies, and mask our hopelessness and longing for a messianic leader to make us safe and secure.

Because we are not in control of the power play, we seek healing power and salvation in the “ism’s” of our lives…

  • Athleticism, perfecting our bodies while winning with power
  • Careerism, perfecting our identities while succeeding with power
  • Consumerism, perfecting our inadequacies while preening with power
  • Militarism, perfecting our insecurities while beating with power
  • Racism, perfecting our mediocrities while oppressing with power

Anywhere, anytime, anyplace we can place ourselves and our power over others we do. It may give us meaning, but it doesn’t heal or save us.

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Jesus our Good Shepherd who laid his life down for us, calls us to do the same for our neighbor in need. It is not about winning power plays, it is about trust centered on Jesus as we are sustained by the power of the Holy Spirit, and called to heal and share the name above all names, Jesus.

This day theologian Catherine of Siena is remembered on the liturgical calendar. She and Francis of Assisi, are the two patron saints of Italy. Catherine’s life was sustained by the power of the Holy Spirit and shaped by sacrificial and generous acts for her powerless neighbors done in the name of Jesus. She left a great legacy of prayer, one of which is included in our Evangelical Lutheran Worship book that is powerfully simple and beautiful.

Let us be in a place of prayer….

Power of the eternal Father, help me.

Wisdom of the Son, enlighten the eye of my understanding.

Tender mercy of the Holy Spirit, unite my heart to yourself.

Eternal God, restore health to the sick and life to the dead.

Give us a voice, your own voice, to cry out to you for mercy for the world.

You, light, give us light.

You, wisdom, give us wisdom.

You, supreme strength, strengthen us.


Thomas, Saint of Post-Modernity

The Church today is in the midst of great changes. At the heart of the changes are believers who live out their faith with a spirituality that is more passive and intellectual in a time when society is increasingly active and hands-on. Look around. Weekly we sit in passive rows, attending and consuming worship. Our faith may be lived out in other activities or ways, but we look for the church to offer programs to meet our Christian consumer needs.

But the world we live in is full of Thomas like disciples. You know Tom, the slightly hyper follower who doesn’t sit around passively and living a passive spiritual life contemplating what it all means. Tom wants to see and do, experiencing the divine, making faith and following Jesus a tangible part of daily life. Tom would feel comfortable today in post-modernity, where people don’t want to be told about faith to believe in God, they want a spirituality that experiences God by observing others, and seeing how they follow Jesus by putting faith into action. They are uncomfortable with the Christian experience of the modern era, the one most of us are most comfortable with.

We live in a time when people fill their lives with experiences and tangible things that bring them identity and meaning. You and I are no different. We spend much more time planning weekend activities, vacations, and shopping than we do following Jesus and loving our neighbors in need. Now I know I’m preaching to the proverbial choir here, notice the number of people here today, verses last week. Notice how many were in worship for just Palm and Easter Sundays, too busy or otherwise distracted, to walk together as community to the cross, participating in the most active worship experiences during the most holy of weeks.

Many are like those gathered behind locked doors where it was safe to see Jesus, and some are like Thomas who need to see and experience to believe and then follow. Follow Jesus. Even for the faithful among us, following is difficult. We come to church, we worship, we study God’s Word, go on retreat and religious events, or read countless books, employing our intellect to follow Jesus. Some see the connection and make the leap to live out and follow Jesus by seeing and experiencing, but most struggle to connect the faith of their heads to their hearts and hands.  Continue reading