A Sermon On Pledging Allegiance

A reading from Mark 1:

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

Here ends the reading.

To what do you pledge allegiance?

It’s what a question I’ve been thinking about reading this text and this week in particular as we witnessed the inauguration of President Biden last Wednesday. Part of the ceremony that has flown a bit under the radar has been Fire Captain Andrea Hall leading the Pledge of Allegiance in American Sign Language. It was a powerful moment.

And it had me thinking of all of the allegiances we tend to pledge, whether explicitly or implicitly. We pledge allegiances to flags, countries, family, sports teams, and political parties. In our consumer culture, we pledge allegiance to certain brands above others. Apple or Samsung? Coke or Pepsi?

When you list them out like this, you can see all of the ways we align with different entities as a way of pledging allegiance.

It was a little different for the disciples in the New Testament days. But there were significant forces that pulled on their lives as well. They wouldn’t have pledged allegiance to Rome, unless under threat of violence — which is how that worked. But they often would pledge their allegiance to family, the family business, the temple, etc.

It’s striking how fast this moves, isn’t it? Mark’s language around this is urgent. Jesus announces the reign of God come near and things start to move quickly. Immediately is the word we hear time and time again. The soon-to-be disciples come to a fork in the road where they have to make a choice and immediately upon hearing the call of Jesus in their lives, they leave their nets and follow. You can even see Zebedee hanging out in the boat with the hired workers at the end waving his hands wondering where his sons are going!

When Jesus calls us, it’s a call that overtakes our lives. It transforms everything about us. It changes the way live and move and have our being. It changes the way we interact with others. It broadens the horizons of what we know to be possible. Because this call brings us into union with the One who brings life from death.

When our allegiance is to God first, when we seek first the reign of God and God’s righteousness, it changes how we act in almost every way.

When we live into our call as disciples and our allegiance is to God first, every encounter we have is an opportunity to love and serve Jesus.

If you’re a teacher, what would it look like to respond to the student who comes to you with a question as though you were responding to Jesus?

If you work in retail, what would it look like to treat each customer as though they were Jesus?

If you deliver mail, work in insurance, work in healthcare, or whatever else you may do, what would it look like to treat the people you meet each day as though they were Jesus?

I don’t say this to make you walk around worshiping every person you meet. But I wonder what this does to our own attitudes and faith when we seek to serve others in this way. We create a culture of humility and care, we are freed to rest in this care ourselves as well.

It is out of God’s great love for us that we are invited into this work. God could bring kingdom come with a word of creation. But instead, God chooses to include us in this work.

It’s a blessing to be in this work with you. It’s a blessing to join God together in this work.

May it nourish and restore us. May it nourish and restore all of creation.


A Checklist Manifesto for Ministry

In 2001, there was a critical care specialist at John Hopkins Hospital named Peter Pronovost who became frustrated with the number of central line infections in the ICU. So he came up with a simple checklist of five steps that cut incidence of central line infections from 11% to 0%.

Seeing this kind of success, he started developing more checklists for other problems he noticed in the ICU. One of the simplest checklists was one step long.

Ensure patients are monitored for level of pain every four hours and provided timely pain medication if required.

This one, simple step reduced the likelihood that a patient would endure untreated pain from 41% to 3%. **

In 2009, Atul Gawande compiled a number of these stories from medicine to aviation to show how simple checklists are being used to make these industries and processes more efficient, while minimizing the number of mistakes. He called it The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right.

Chef David Chang of Momofuku fame has heaped praise on Gawande’s work as Chang has used checklists while he expanded his restaurant group to ensure that quality remained high as he continued to grow his business.

I wonder how we might incorporate checklists into the life of the church.

Now, a lot of you might have a first reaction of “Wow. We have found a way to make the church more boring.”

But hear me out.

For church leaders, there is so much static going on in our heads and checklists are a way to help clear that static, clarify communication with our leaders, and ensure that everyone is on the same page moving forward.

For instance, what if we made checklists for:

Checking in with & supporting families following a funeral
Following up after a first-time visit
When families celebrate milestones (births, graduations, children leaving home, etc)
Communicating changes in service times or special services
When new families want to join children’s ministry
Thinking through a sermon/education lesson

Here’s an example of a checklist for following up after a first-time visitor:

____   Ask visitors to fill out communion cards with basic contact info.
____  Send an e-mail the next week thanking them for visiting & introducing myself
____   Make sure they are included on the e-newsletter list
____   Send information about upcoming & ongoing education opportunities
____  2 weeks later: Invite them to fill out a Time + Talent welcome survey & invite questions
____   3 weeks later: Send an invitation to a welcome lunch

The beauty of these checklists is that they can be in a constant state of refinement and tweaking. If you and your team are on the same page moving forward with these kinds of things, there’s no telling what could happen.

And as a bonus, it can help clear some of the disorganized static from our brains. The more of these follow up tasks we can streamline and automate, the more energy we can steer away from these processes and onto other aspects of ministry — messages, bible studies, connecting people to God and each other.

So what ways do you use checklists or these types of processes for ministry?

How could they be helpful and life-giving to the things you and your faith community are doing?

Leave a comment below and let me know! I always love hearing stories of how everyone else is finding ways to do life-giving things in their corner of the world.


** These statistics are taken from _The Checklist Manifesto_ by Atul Gawande.

On Telling Your Children About Egypt

widetableBrothers and sisters in Christ, grace + peace is yours in the name of the one who came to break every chain that binds, Jesus the Christ. Amen.

In the early 1930s, Dr. Hugh Thomson Kerr was the pastor at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He looked around the city and lamented the lack of unity he saw among the churches around both Pittsburgh and the country as a whole. So he decided to do something about it. He worked through the Presbyterian church to begin what he called World Communion Sunday in 1936. It was an opportunity for any church that wanted to participate to join their brothers and sisters in the faith around God’s table in remembrance and celebration of the gifts of grace found at God’s table.

Now, to be sure, there were people who were not happy about this. They were not content to share the precious body and blood of Jesus Christ with just anyone. Can you imagine how scandalous that would be? And yet they went ahead with the celebration. It continued year after year. The first Sunday in October became known as World Communion Sunday – where churches all over the world gather around this table, eat this bread and drink from this cup in remembrance of the love and forgiveness of Jesus.

Today is the 80th year that communities of faith have been gathering around the table for just such an occasion: to remember that we belong to something bigger that’s happening in the world.

The story we heard of the first Passover from Exodus 12 and 13 is an incredible story to tell as we celebrate this Sunday. The Israelites have been slaves in Egypt for longer than they care to remember. Every day is just like the one before.

Moses and Aaron keep petitioning Pharaoh and Pharaoh’s heart keeps being hardened. There are 9 plagues sent on Egypt and after each one, Pharaoh still keeps the Israelites enslaved. Until the 10th plague. God tells Moses and Aaron that the Israelites are to take a lamb for each household — and if one family is unable to afford a whole lamb, their neighbor is to invite and welcome them into their home. They will then slaughter the lamb at twilight, take its blood and put it on their doorposts as a sign.

God will then pass through the land of Egypt and kill the firstborn of every Egyptian family — every family without blood on the doorposts. When God sees blood on the doorposts, God will simply pass over that house and move on. After the Passover, this Israelites will be freed from slavery and are then commanded to eat unleavened bread as a way of remembering the God who frees them from slavery.

The Hebrew word used here for Egypt is the word mitzrayim.
The name is derived from the Hebrew word meaning “narrow place.”

So for the Israelites, and all who would come after, the process of leaving Egypt is the process of leaving a narrow place or a narrow understanding of themselves and their place in God’s story for a more expanded or broadened view of God or of themselves or their community.**

Have you ever had an experience where you realize that you were thinking narrowly and then something happens that expands your point of view? A time in your life when you have moved from a narrow place to a wide place? We hear this language in the Psalms often thanking God for bringing us to a broad or wide place. We’re circling around this same quality of God. God frequently brings us from narrow understandings to wider understandings.

For the Israelites, the command comes from God through Moses to remember, then to tell following generations about the time God brought them out of Egypt — out of mitzrayim, out of a narrow place.

I wonder what that experience has been for you. The grace of God has a way of expanding our understanding of God’s love in the world. I wonder about a time when you have sensed God’s grace in a real and tangible way. 

For us, as followers of Christ, it comes to us around this holy table as tangible as the bread we eat and the wine we drink. Though our experience at this table may be intensely personal. On a day like today, World Communion Sunday, we are also reminded of the wideness of this table.

It’s a table that Jesus shared with his disciples, even the one who was about to betray him.

This table, which leads to the foot of the cross into new life, continues our journey to a wider place.

So today, as we join millions of Christ followers around the world in communion with one another, we come forward remembering the God who leads us from narrow places into broad places, from sin into grace, from brokenness into wholeness, from death into life.


** More is covered on this in Rob Bell’s conversation with Rabbi Joel Nickerson in episode 98 of the Robcast.

Fire and Wind, Water and Word, Toothpaste and Dish Soap: A Sermon on Pentecost

A reading from Acts 2

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 
“In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams. 
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy. 
And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 
The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

Brothers and sisters in Christ, grace + peace to you from God our creator, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ – Amen.

We have a number of different things coming to a culmination in worship this morning. First, we have two years worth of work and study coming to fruition as our youth affirm their baptism this morning. Second, we have seven weeks worth of incredible generosity building to this day where we celebrate the final day of our donation drive for Lutheran Services in Iowa. And third we have almost two thousand years worth of tradition in the story we heard today from the book of Acts.

Two thousand years ago, the church was gathered together in a room. The resurrected Jesus had ascended and so they just showed up together trusting that God would show up. And all of a sudden there was a sound like a rush of a violent wind. Tongues of fire were coming down over each of their heads.

It’s these ordinary things like wind and fire — things that we can’t grasp, can’t grab a hold of, can’t control for our own purposes — that come to signal the presence of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Over the last two years, we’ve had youth from our community learning more about the faith and trying to understand the promises that God made to us in baptism as they prepare to make promises of their own today. I don’t mean to rain on any of your parades today but, though these promises are noble, brave, and certainly can help in guiding our life, we will break these promises… often. We all break these promises — to live among God’s faithful people, to strive for justice and peace in all the earth. We break these promises, and yet God never breaks the promises given in our baptism.

It’s these ordinary things like water and words of promise — things we can’t grasp, can’t grab a hold of, can’t control for our own purposes — that come to remind us that we are sealed with the power of the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.

Over the last seven weeks, we’ve been gathering basic household items together to donate to families in our community who are in need through Lutheran Services in Iowa. They are a wonderful organization that help people from before they are born until they are well advanced in ages. They have programs that help victims of domestic abuse, children in foster care, refugees looking to find work often coming from areas of severe oppression and violence.

And yet to people who are in need, these items like soap and shampoo, toothpaste and toilet paper can mean more than we can imagine. It’s these ordinary things that, when we give them for the sake of one another’s flourishing, do an extraordinary amount of good.

In simply gathering these items together, little by little, week by week, we are able to donate 1,485 household items to families across our community. 1,485! That’s incredible!


Our potluck lineup after church with the donated items in the background — almost 1,500 in total.

You see, we don’t have to worship in fancy sanctuaries or ornate cathedrals to have God be made known to us. It’s in ordinary things like fire and wind, water and word, toothpaste and dish soap that we are reminded of God’s promises to us and of God’s call to go and serve a world in need.

So, my brothers and sisters, as we go throughout our day of Pentecost, may we be blessed to remember that Pentecost was not a singular event that happened almost two thousand years ago and never again. It happens each and every time we feel that pull of the Spirit toward our neighbor and this world in love. May we be blessed to remember that God always keeps his promises, even when we break ours. And may we remember that our call as disciples is to give thanks to God for the blessings we have been given by sharing them with the world. And may we go on our way rejoicing, saying, “Thanks be to God!”


Isiah Thomas, Leonard Cohen, & Learning to Sing in the Dark: A Sermon on Acts 16

Today’s reading is from Acts 16:16-34.

16 One day, when we were on the way to the place for prayer, we met a slave woman. She had a spirit that enabled her to predict the future. She made a lot of money for her owners through fortune-telling. 17 She began following Paul and us, shouting, “These people are servants of the Most High God! They are proclaiming a way of salvation to you!” 18 She did this for many days.

This annoyed Paul so much that he finally turned and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I command you to leave her!” It left her at that very moment.

19 Her owners realized that their hope for making money was gone. They grabbed Paul and Silas and dragged them before the officials in the city center.20 When her owners approached the legal authorities, they said, “These people are causing an uproar in our city. They are Jews 21 who promote customs that we Romans can’t accept or practice.” 22 The crowd joined in the attacks against Paul and Silas, so the authorities ordered that they be stripped of their clothes and beaten with a rod. 23 When Paul and Silas had been severely beaten, the authorities threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to secure them with great care. 24 When he received these instructions, he threw them into the innermost cell and secured their feet in stocks.

25 Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. 26 All at once there was such a violent earthquake that it shook the prison’s foundations. The doors flew open and everyone’s chains came loose. 27 When the jailer awoke and saw the open doors of the prison, he thought the prisoners had escaped, so he drew his sword and was about to kill himself. 28 But Paul shouted loudly, “Don’t harm yourself! We’re all here!”

29 The jailer called for some lights, rushed in, and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 He led them outside and asked, “Honorable masters, what must I do to be rescued?”

31 They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your entire household.” 32 They spoke the Lord’s word to him and everyone else in his house. 33 Right then, in the middle of the night, the jailer welcomed them and washed their wounds. He and everyone in his household were immediately baptized. 34 He brought them into his home and gave them a meal. He was overjoyed because he and everyone in his household had come to believe in God.

Grace to you + peace from God our creator and our Lord and Savior Jesus who is the Christ, Amen.

I was reading an interview recently with Hall-of-Fame basketball player Isiah Thomas. He grew up learning how to play basketball on the playgrounds of his Chicago neighborhood. He would go anywhere with a basketball hoop to practice his jump shot. He would stay out there all day and even into the night. There were no lights on the playground, but even after dark he would stay out and practice his shot. He knew he’d made it if he heard the chain link net *clink* as the ball went through.

Here’s what he knew… If you can make a jump shot in the dark, you can most likely make it in the light as well.

Paul and Silas on their way to pray when they meet a slave-girl who is possessed by a demon. The demon makes her owners a lot of money and so they continue to reinforce this spirit inside of her — as slave owners are want to do. Anything to make a few extra bucks, right?

So Paul and Silas meet her and she starts following them for days shouting that these are men of God. Finally, it says Paul gets so annoyed that he turns around and heals her on the spot. And the demon leaves her body.

But now the slaveowners economic opportunity is gone. Remember, the slave girl isn’t a person. She holds no value to her owner as a person. She is merely an economic opportunity. But now that is gone. So they do the only sensible thing.

The throw Paul and Silas in jail. But not just any jail.
They chain their feet to the floor of the innermost cell of this prison.
They’re in the pit.

Then later on that night, around midnight, they are still praying at singing hymns to God. They are praying and singing so loud that every prisoner could hear them.

All of a sudden, the earth starts to shake. But this wasn’t just a small tremor of an earthquake. It was so violent that the very foundations of the prison were shaken. The doors flung wide. The shackles around their feet broke open.

They were free.

Now this tells us a little something about God. Even in the darkest night, even in the innermost cell, even when your feet are chained to the floor the spirit of God will shake the very foundations of your captivity and move you into freedom.

God will take even the sturdiest of shackles made of the strongest iron and bolted to the firmest of concrete foundations and God will crack those very foundations until you are released.

So, my brothers and sisters, whatever is shackling you today — whether it’s addiction, perfectionism, anxiety, whether it’s racism, sexism, and or any other ism that divides and separates, whether it’s longing for the past or fretting about the future — when we pray and sing to God, God has a way of cracking the foundations of what holds us captive and leads us into freedom.

One of my favorite Leonard Cohen lyrics is from his song “Anthem.” He writes:

“Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There’s a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.”

Cohen LyricMy brothers and sisters, when we sing songs that compel us to “let this house proclaim from floor to rafter” that all are welcome, our hold on this community cracks open to let the light of God shine just a little bit brighter. In just a couple minutes we’ll sing praise to “the One who breaks the darkness with a liberating light.”

When we sing these songs we can feel those shackles start to crack. We can feel the solid ground in which those chains are held start to give just a little more.

There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.

So next time you are chained the floor in the innermost cell at midnight and you don’t know what to do, remember that we worship a God who brings life out of death and light out of darkness.

We’re not in the perfection business. We’re in the business of showing up — showing up in all of those times when we don’t have it figured out, when things are messy and we don’t know what to do so we throw up our hands and say, “Well, I have absolutely nothing figured out, but I’m here.”

And slowly the presence of God begins to chip away at our need to feel like we have it all together.

There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.

Brothers and sisters, may you be blessed this Easter season to see the light shining through the cracks of your captivity to lead you into freedom. And may we then remember to go — GO — therefore into this world to shine the light of the risen Christ to others when they are shackled to the floor, in the innermost cell at midnight.

May we do so with glad and joyous hearts, singing “Thanks and praise to God.”


%d bloggers like this: