The Not Top 10

Exodus 20.1-17

Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven alone, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you, your son of your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it. Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Lent is a season of repentance and introspection. However, that doesn’t mean the liturgical season encourages navel-gazing – in fact it compels us to look at our lives individually and corporately. Lent almost forces us to ask, “How have I failed, and how have we failed?”

It is not an easy season in the life of the church.

In preparing for this Lent I was struck by the theme of covenants – both biblical and otherwise, and what they have to do with our faithfulness. Almost everyone here is familiar with what a covenant is, we’ve borrowed money, or rented an apartment, or purchased a car, all under the auspices of a contract. They exist because of a fundamental distrust that we have for one another and institutions, we use them to protect ourselves should the other not hold up their end of the bargain.

Yet the truest and deepest relationships are those built on trust – when we lovingly yield ourselves to the other with vulnerability and fragility. And that is precisely what God has offered us in the covenant – the vulnerability required for true trust.


Confession time: I am prejudiced against Sunday School.

I can’t help it really – while growing up in the church, I had far more love for what we did in a room like this, than what happened in the Sunday School rooms. Participating in Sunday School required waking up earlier than usual, it forced us to rush through the typical morning rhythm, and then we’d be deposited in classrooms in which there were old smelly couches, fading biblical posters, and an assortment of discarded bibles.

Bless the teachers’ hearts: they tried to teach us about the bible… but it never really stuck. I can remember a lesson about David and Goliath, but all we talked about was how buff David looked in the pictures and we wondered aloud how long it would take us to look similarly.

I can remember learning about Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac, and even though I now know that God provided a ram instead, at the time I was terrified of God and didn’t want to go back to church for a few weeks.

I can even remember learning about Jesus and Mary Magdalene, but the story fell a little flat when our teacher kept referring to her as a “lady of the night” which made Mary sound more like a vampire than whatever a lady of the night is.

Beyond the lack of theological depth, the thing that really drove me crazy about Sunday School was the fact that it felt way too much like regular school. We had a teacher, who took our attendance, assigned us particular seats, gave out homework, and even presided over pop-quizzes. And I understand that theological education is important, I went to seminary after all, but the way it was done for me resulted in my studying not to hear what God had to say, but for the promise of receiving a piece of candy if, for instance, I could find the book of Isaiah before anyone else in the room.

I could fill this entire sermon with Sunday School anecdotes, but the one event I remember most vividly was the day we were quizzed on the Ten Commandments. I knew they were a thing, I was pretty sure we had an embroidered version of them hung on the wall outside the sanctuary, but I had no idea what they were.

I sat there at the table with my blank piece of paper and I stared off into the distance for a long time. What does God command us to do? I probably wrote something about loving God, and loving neighbor. I might’ve even suggested that we’re supposed give our money to God. But when the time of our quiz came to an end I turned in my poor excuse of a quiz, and I failed.

There would be no piece of candy for tween-age Taylor that day.

Do you know all of the Ten Commandments, in order? If I gave each of you a piece of paper for a quiz, would you receive your piece of candy? How many of us have memorized God’s top 10?

When I was living in Durham, NC there was a period of time when people started placing the Ten Commandments on lawn-signs in their front yards for everyone else to see. I’d be riding my bike to class, and house after house, rather than wanting me to know who they would be voting for in the next election, wanted me to know that I’m not supposed to break the Sabbath, or worship any other god, or kill anyone.

It was around that same time, as it comes up again and again, that a sizable portion of the population began advocating for the appearance of the Ten Commandments in public buildings, like schoolhouses and local courthouses.

And I couldn’t help but think that God was using the surging publicity of the Ten Commandments to make up for my failure in Sunday School.

            Somehow or another, God was going to drill these commandments into my brain!

            But then I began wondering, was this God’s work, or was it ours?

Or, to put it another way: Were the commandments being used to provide freedom, or as a weapon?

Then God spoke all these words… Through a covenant, a promise to be our God, God delivers us, sustains us, heals us, and watches over us. God only asks that we follow ten simple rules. And we can’t do it.

Every single one of us in this room has broken a commandment (some of us more than others!) And yet, our failure to hold up our end of the agreement does not affect God’s commitment. It is in knowing that we fail, God loves us.

God is the one who establishes the covenant with us, not the other way around. No response, no bargaining on our part, was required. God binds God’s self to us knowing full and well how we will respond.

And the way we talk about the commandments, the way we quiz children, or place them in our yards, or desire them in our courthouses, makes a mockery of the gift that they are.

We make them more about us, than about God.

The Ten Commandments express the purposeful will of God for God’s people. In our limited imaginations we’ve made them out to be a list of what we can and cannot do. We’ve used them like a bludgeon against those who do not follow them.

But at the heart of the commandments, at the heart of God’s covenant with us, is the freedom to love God and one another.

Of course, there is a freedom to ignore the covenants, something we do all the time. All those signs in people’s yards, they were all facing away from those who lived in the houses. It was as if they wanted others to follow what they themselves had forgotten. Quizzing children on what the commandments say is a far stretch from helping them to be implemented. Displaying them in courthouses will not make people follow them any more than a speed limit sign will on a highway.

It’s incredibly ironic that many people want the Ten Commandments up in public in a country where divorce is over 50% (you shall not commit adultery), where we have more guns than human beings (you shall not kill), where capitalism is more important than community (honor the Sabbath), and where we spend more time worshipping celebrities than Almighty God (you shall have no other gods before me).

Public displays of religious affection in the form of the Ten Commandments will not change or transform this world.

But binding ourselves to them, holding each other accountable to these strange and life-giving realities, is the seed that results in a new garden of life. If we ignore them, we do so at our own peril, not because God is waiting with a whip to punish us, but because the teachings establish a way of being.

Living outside the commandments results in a life of isolation, individiualism, and apathy.

            But living in the commandments, writing them on our hearts rather than our walls, is the beginning of a trust that transforms everything else.

We might say, “What’s the harm in a little coveting?” Our entire advertising economy is based on the principles of jealousy and envy after all. Or we might wonder about what’s so wrong with working extra hours on a Saturday morning… Our entire culture produces a narrative in which over production is an expectation.

It is in the prohibition of such things that God challenges our understanding of reality. We can give our lives over to our own commandments, but our lives will be a shallow shadow of what they could be. Living in the Ten Commandments sets us forth on a path that allows us to fully love God and one another. It is the way we become who God is calling us to be.

The Ten Commandments are God’s Top 10 rules for faithful living and, sadly, they have become a Not Top 10 list for us.


We regularly worship other gods, like the god of wealth or political power. We build up false idols in material objects. We do things in the name of the Lord that harm and destroy others. We break the commitment to rest. We reject and rebel against our parents. We live in a world fueled by war and violence. We are captivated by a highly sexualized culture that tempts us toward adultery. We steal from those without power. We lie constantly. And we believe the commercials that tell us life will be better if we just had what the person on the screen has.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can rediscover this Not Top 10 list for the freedom that it provides. We can bind ourselves to it, and in so doing the shackles of death will fall away. We can remember that its not a list to be memorized, or a weapon to be used, but a way of life that leads to life.

We can love God with our whole hearts, we can trust in our allegiance to the Lord, we can ask to be used by God rather than the other way around, we can find true rest, we can love our parents both biological and spiritual, we can see all people as having sacred worth, we can live into the promises we make in marriage, we can give to those in need, we can tell the truth in love, we can believe that we already have enough.

We can do all of this but God makes the impossible possible. God fills us and fuels us for lives bent not toward ourselves, but toward others. God sustains us when we are down in the valley, and uses the Spirit to push us back toward the mountaintop.

Displaying the Ten Commandments for other people to see will never bring us closer to God, but striving to live according to the them results in a profound freedom unlike anything else. Amen.


Sweeter Than Honey


This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Rev. Dr. Emily Hunter McGowin about the readings for the Third Sunday of Lent [Year B] (Exodus 20.1-17, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 1.18-25, John 2.13-22). Emily is a teacher and scholar of religious studies and a theologian in the Anglican tradition. She has a book on evangelical family practices titled “Quivering Families” coming out in May. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the privatization of the Christian family, the most misunderstood commandment, tribalism in the decalogue, the perfection of the law, biscuits with honey, God’s foolishness, and the lens of the resurrection. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Sweeter Than Honey

maxresdefault (3)

Think And Let Think’s Top 10 – 2017

I started Think And Let Think a few years ago as a way to compile my thoughts, sermons, and devotionals. After starting at my first church in 2013 it became an easy way for parishioners to access the sermons from Sunday if they were unable to attend. Over the years the scope of the blog has grown far beyond the people I serve in the local church, and 2017 saw a tremendous increase in readership. Below are the 10 most popular posts from 2017.



  1. Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.

I preached exclusively from Romans during Lent. After reading through Barth’s Romans for the nth time, I felt like I needed to stay in the letter through a liturgical season and dragged my congregation along for the ride. This sermon was prompted by Paul’s reflections on Abraham’s righteousness and my contempt for the United Methodist Church’s slogan of open hearts, open minds, and open doors.

“We can have the perfect advertising campaign, with our slogan in big capital letters, but that does not redeem our sinful actions and behaviors. We might think we are righteous and that we are “color-blind” or “LGBTQ affirming” or “economically transparent” but we are nevertheless sinners in need of God’s grace and forgiveness. We can even leave the church doors unlocked all week long, but we will still be broken and in need of God’s redeeming love.”


  1. God Won’t Give You More Than You Can Handle

At the beginning of the year I preached through a series on Dumb Things Christians Say. One of the dumbest things Christians say on a regular basis is, “God Wont’ Give You More Than You Can Handle.” Oddly enough, it’s not true. This sermon works through the phrase and attempt to show that God doesn’t give us what we can handle, but that God helps us handle what we are given.

“Sometimes, we say things like “God won’t give you more than you can handle” because we don’t know what else to say. We encounter the shadow of suffering that is so suffocating we don’t know how to respond. So instead, we will that awful void with awful words. And we make God into a monster.”


  1. A Reminder For Those Attending Annual Conference

Annual Conference can be a time of great renewal and great cynicism. 2017 was no different. In the days leading up to the Virginia Annual Conference gathering I collected my thoughts in hopes that all of would remember that the church is primarily about God, and only secondarily about us.

“God is the one who first breathed life into John Wesley and sent him on a course that would forever reorient the fabric of the church. God is the one who breathed life into all of the churches of the Virginia Conference, who empowers the pastors to proclaim the Word from their respective pulpits, who shows up in the bread and in the cup at the table. God is the one who gathers us together for a time of holiness, who moves in the words we sing, who rests in the spaces between us when we worship, who calls us to serve the kingdom instead of serving ourselves.”


  1. The Mystery Of Marriage

I was privileged to preside over the wedding of one of my oldest friends this year and it prompted a wedding homily that gets at the heart of why getting married is such a strange act of faith.

“Love, the kind of love that will sustain your marriage, holy love, is Godly love. It is a love unlike anything else on this earth. It is beyond definition and explanation. It is deeper than the deepest ocean, and greater than the tallest mountain. It is sacrifice and resolution. It is compromise and dedication. The love that God has for you is the kind of love you are promising to one another and it is a mystery. It is only something you can figure out while you’re figuring it out.”


  1. The Church Doesn’t Exist To Make A Difference

It took five years of full time ministry before I received my first piece of anonymous hate mail. Because it was anonymous and therefore could not have a dialogue with the individual, I wrote a reflection about their complaint in hopes they would one day see it.

“Christians in America have played the political game for so long that we can almost no longer differentiate between America and God. Or, at the very least, we assume that if the church is not involved in the work of making the world a better place, than it’s not worth our time and attention. In scripture, Jesus calls this behavior idolatry.”


  1. Thoughts On The Cross Flag

In the days immediately following President Trump’s response to NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, the lectionary reading was Psalm 25.5: “Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.” That week I found myself surrounded by conversations that had everything to do with politics, and nothing to do with God. And after reading the psalm, my thoughts on the Cross/Flag came flying out.

“It’s one thing for talking heads to ramble about the pros and cons of kneeling during the anthem but it’s another thing entirely when it comes to the realm of the church. These days the church seems to revolve around tweets from the White House more than the revealed Word of God. These days the church appears to spend more of it’s time debating the values of our country’s democracy than our Savior’s teachings and ethics. These days the church seems to believe that our salvation will come from Congress more than from Jesus Christ.”


  1. Ten Things I Learned From My First Week At A New Church

I moved from St. John’s UMC in Staunton, VA to Cokesbury UMC in Woodbridge, VA this year. It was my first pastoral reappointment and after finishing my first week at the new church, I put together a list of ten things I learned.

“Like being surprised, it’s important to remember that something will go wrong. On my first Sunday at St. John’s I completely forgot to give the offering plates to the ushers and they just stood by the altar patiently waiting until one of the choir members waved her hands to get my attention. For my first Sunday at Cokesbury we didn’t have anyone to play music. The long time organist retired the day before I arrived and the back up players were either out of town or don’t know how to read music. So instead of singing along to an organ or a piano or a guitar we did everything acapella and (thanks be to God) we made it through the service.”


  1. What Things?

After announcing to the church in Staunton that I was being appointed somewhere else, I discovered a tremendous freedom in my preaching (because like it or not, they were only stuck with me for a finite period of time). After reading the lectionary text for the week, Luke 24.13-19 (The Walk to Emmaus), I felt like the time had come to address a pertinent controversy in the community; naming the local High School after Robert E. Lee.

“We make so many assumptions of people without ever doing the good and difficult work of learning who they really are. We see a bumper sticker, or we hear an accent, or we observe a skin tone, or we read a Facebook post, and we let that dictate who they are to us. When truthfully, what we make of those limited observations says far more about us, than about the ones we see.”


  1. God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It

Another sermon from the series about “Dumb Things Christians Say.” This one was based on “God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It” with thoughts on church bathrooms, women speaking in church, and caring for refugees. (This one got me in some trouble)

“People have used this book, with understandings like “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” to attack and belittle people for far too long. It has been used to justify the horrific practice of slavery. It has been used to subjugate and relegate women’s rights. It has been used to rationalize physical violence and aggression toward people of different religions. It has been used to incite fear and terror in those who do not believe. It has been used as a weapon again and again and again. And now we, the people of God, join together to say “no more!””


  1. On Not Looking Like A Pastor

I, apparently, don’t look, sound, or act like a pastor. And I think this is a good thing.

“We, Christians and Pastors alike, are more than how the world portrays us. We are broken people who are in need of grace. We are faithful people filled with the joy of the Spirit. We are hopeful people who believe the church is the better place God has made in the world. So I am grateful for not appearing like a pastor. I am grateful because I believe it will help me help others to see what the grace of God has done for me.”

Karl Barth and The Strange New World Within The Bible

When I was in seminary, Dr. Stephen B. Chapman told a remarkable story about a survey that had been done in past. All of the faculty and doctoral candidates at Duke Divinity School were once asked to name the top 3 books or articles that had shaped their call to ministry or academia. Though many were quick to respond with something like “The Bible” or “1 Corinthians” the survey challenged people to think more specifically about works outside of the bible that had shaped their lives.

Some of the greatest works from Christian History were all named such as Calvin’s Institutes, Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, Wesley’s Sermons, and Augustine’s Confessions. Others were quick to name works from more contemporary writers like Schweitzer, Bonhoeffer, Merton, Yoder, Hauerwas, and Nouwen. The survey demonstrated that there were an abundance of texts from a variety of traditions that had shaped the minds of those called to serve the church. However, even with all the variations of answers and all the different denominations that were represented, there was one article that was mentioned more than any other: Karl Barth’s “The Strange New World Within The Bible.”


Barth’s article can be found in chapter 2 of his seminal work The Word of God and The Word of Man originally written in 1928. When I read the article for the first time I underlined so many sentences that it was difficult to read it a second time. The margins are now covered with thoughts, exclamation points, and asterisks. It is nothing short of transformative.


In it, Barth attempts to answers the following questions: What is there within the Bible? What sort of house is it to which the Bible is the door? And What sort of country is spread before our eyes when we throw the Bible open?

Like most of Barth’s writing, it cannot be explained but only proclaimed. The best way to experience it is by reading the thing itself. Therefore, I have attached a PDF of the chapter to end of this post for anyone to read.


But after rereading the article again this week, and looking through all my old notes and markings, I decided to write my own version of the chapter relying on Barth’s original to guide my thoughts…


The Strange New World Within The Bible

We are to attempt to find an answer to the questions, What is there within the Bible? What sort of house is it to which the Bible is the door? What sort of country is spread before our eyes when we throw the Bible open?

We are with Adam and Eve in the Garden. We hear the Lord warn them about the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil. We hear the slithering serpent calling them (and us) to rebel against the One who loves us. And Adam and Eve reach for that forbidden fruit inevitably driving them away from the Lord and into the unknown. We can feel that there is something of ourselves in these two standing at the edge of Eden looking back to what they once were and unsure of what would come in the days ahead.

We are with Noah kissing the ground after the Flood. We see the rainbow cast across the sky and we feel the colors reflecting off the pools of water around Noah’s feet. We hear the promise from the Lord to never abandon creation again. We believe that Noah is the new beginning, another chance for humanity to get things right. But then we see him tilling the ground, preparing the vines, and eventually getting drunk from the wine. In him we see the failures of the past reaching forward into the present and we know that there is something behind all of this.

We are with Abraham in a strange land. We hear a call from the Lord, which commands him to go to a land that has been prepared. We hear a promise to Abraham: “I will make of you a great nation and your descendants will be more numerous than the stars.” And we see that Abraham believed the promise! We feel the Spirit moving through the space as the story moves ever forward.

We are with Moses on a rocky hillside. We feel the warmth of a bush burning but not being consumed. We hear the voice of the Lord speak to the wandering shepherd: “Tell them I AM sent you.” We experience the calling that will forever define an entire nation of people, a delivery from slavery to Egypt, and freedom in the Promised Land. We hear these strange words and promises and we know that they are unlike anything else we have ever read. We know that it is a story, but it is a story about us.

We are with Joshua at the edge of the new land. We remember the painful journey and the years of struggle that led to this moment. We experience fear and excitement with the other sojourners, as they are about to cross the threshold into God’s promise. We hear about Rahab and what she was willing to do for God’s people and it gives the people confidence to actually be God’s people.

We are with Samuel asleep on the floor. Again we hear a call three times “Samuel, Samuel!” We see the young man run to the priest Eli to share his experience and we begin to connect this call with others. We know that Samuel has heard the Lord and that he must obey. We know the journey will not be easy, but it will be good.

We read all of this, but what do we experience? We are aware of some greater power beneath the word, a faint tremor of something we cannot know or fully comprehend. What is it about this story that makes our hearts beat with such tempo? What is opening up to us through the words on the page?

We are with David when he puts the rock into the sling and takes down the mighty Goliath.

We are with Solomon when he prays for the Lord to give him the gift of wisdom.

We are there when Isaiah feel the coal being placed on his lips.

We are with Elijah when he hears the Lord not through the wind, not the storm, nor the fire, but through the still small voice.

Then come the incomprehensible days when everything changed; that strange and bewildering moment in a manger in Bethlehem when the Word became flesh. When a man and a woman fled to save their child’s life. When that baby grew to be a man who was like no other man. His words we cause for pause and alarm and delight and fear. With unending power and resonating grace he calls out: Follow me. And they do.

Through him the blind begin to see. The lame begin to walk. The hungry are fed. The powerful are brought low. The poor are made rich. The deaf hear. The blind see.

And then we are there when the sky turns black. We hear his final words and we feel a faint echo from those first words so long ago. But that echo continues for three days until it reaches a triumphant crescendo in an empty tomb, in resurrection.

We are there with the disciples in the upper room. We watch the Holy Spirit fill their mouths with the words to proclaim. We go with them across the sea and over the dry land. We watch them use water and word to bring new disciples into the faith. We smell the bread being broken and we can taste the wine being shared at the table. We can feel the parchment of letters sent to church far away in our fingers.

And then it ends and The Bible is finished.


What is it about scripture that makes it different from everything else we read? What is so important about the connections from Adam to Jesus? What are we to make of the prophets and the apostles? What do we do with statements like “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” and “Forgive them Father, for they do not know what they are doing”?

These are difficult and dangerous questions. It might be better for us to stay clear of the burning bush and the coal for our lips and the call to the cross. Perhaps we would do well to not ask because in our asking is the implication that The Bible has an answer to every question. Yet it does provide something just as the Lord provided for Abraham.

It is not merely a history or a genealogy.

It is neither a myth nor a fable.

What is there within The Bible? The answer is a strange, new world, the world of God.

We want The Bible to be for us. We want to mine it for all its precious metals. We want it to answer our questions. We want to become masters of the text.

But The Bible is itself and it drives us out beyond ourselves to invite us into to something totally other. We are invited regardless of our worth and our value, regardless of our sin and failures, to discover that which we can only barely comprehend: a strange new world.

Reading The Bible pushes us further through the story that has no end. In it we find the people and places and things that boggle our thoughts. We read decrees that shatter our understanding of the real. We experience moments of profound joy and profound sorrow. We find ourselves in the story when we did not know we had a story.

And it causes us to ask even more questions: Why did they travel to this place? Why did they pray this way? Why did they speak such words and live such lives? And The Bible, for all its glory, rejects answers to our Why.

The Bible is not meant to be mastered; instead we are called to become shaped by the Word. And this is so happen in a way we cannot understand. For the heroes of the book are seldom examples to us on how to live our daily lives. What do David and Amos and Peter have to teach us except to show us what it means to follow God?

The Bible is not about the doings of humanity, but the doings of God. Through the Bible we are offered the incredible and hopeful grain of a seed (as small as a mustard seed), a new beginning, out of which all things can be made new. This is the new world within the Bible. We cannot learn or imitate this type of new life, we can only let it live, grow, and ripen within us.

The Bible does not provide us with simple tools on how to live like a disciples, or what to do in a particular situation. It does not tell us how to speak to God, but how God speaks to us. Not what we need to do to find the Almighty, but how he has found they way to us through Jesus Christ. Not the way we are supposed to be in relationship with the divine, but the covenant that God has made with God’s creation.

The strange new world within the bible challenges us to move beyond the questions that so dominate our thoughts. Questions like “What is within the Bible?” and “Who is God?” Because when we enter the strange new world within the Bible, when we discover ourselves in the kingdom of God, we no longer have questions to ask. There we see, we hear, and we know. And the answer is given: God is God!



Back to the Basics – Sermon on Mark 8.22-26

Mark 8.22-26

They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on is eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Can you see anything?” And the man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Then he sent him away to his home, saying, “Do not even go into the village.”


I was shivering at the front of our sanctuary with ashes all over my fingers. Whether at 7 am or 7 pm the services were virtually the same: it was cold and dark outside, those who came huddled together for warmth, I preached the same homily, used the same ashes, and said the same words as I marked each person: you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Ash Wednesday is one of those profound moments in the regular rhythms of church life where we admit something the world tries to claim the contrary: nobody makes it out of life alive.

I began both services with a brief introduction about the importance of Ash Wednesday, and the history behind it. We all prayed together. I read a selection from Psalm 51 about God creating in us clean hearts. I preached about living out our faith in the world as marked and cleansed people, and challenged each of us to act like the cross was still on our foreheads, even when the ashes faded away. I then prayed and blessed the ashes and invited everyone to come forward. There is something profoundly frightening and intimate about having people coming up to have ashes placed on their skin. We participate in an ancient ritual that is so contrary to the ways of the world. It is a privilege to come so close to the holy presence of God with each person who stood before me; looking them in the eye, holding their shoulder, touching their skin.

Before I offered a benediction for the services I invited everyone into a time of silence. While I prayed I was struck by the Spirit in a way that I had previously not encountered. I started thinking and praying for the people who were not in the sanctuary for the service. And I don’t mean for those of you who enjoyed Ash Wednesday from the warmth of your homes. I prayed for the people who came to our last Ash Wednesday service, but not this one. Because some of the people I held in my hands one year ago, I have buried in the months since. The words: “you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” take on a truly deeper meaning when the people go from worshiping in the pews, to resting in a casket at the front.

They brought the blind man to Jesus. Perhaps they wanted to see a public demonstration of his power and so they found someone for him to cure. Or they knew the struggles and sufferings of a friend and believed that Christ was the one to heal him. Whatever the case, the crowds begged Jesus to touch the blind man.

Jesus then took the man by the hand, and led him away from the crowds and out of the village. He spit into the man’s eyes, and laid his hands upon him. “What do you see?” Jesus asked. The man looked up and said to the Messiah, “I can see people, but they look like trees walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on the man a second time. Suddenly, the man’s vision broke through and his sight was restored and he saw everything clearly. Jesus sent him back to his home, commanding him to not even stop in the village.


Is it strange that it takes Jesus two tries to get the healing right? Throughout the gospel accounts Jesus is the main man when it comes to healing and he gets it done right away. Paralyzed? Jesus says “take up your mat and walk!” Tied up with chains outside of the village because you’re possessed by demons? Jesus commands the demons out and sends you home. Your son is epileptic? Jesus says “all things are possible for the one who believes” and makes it so. But here in Mark 8 we have a strange story, a story that can only be found here in this gospel. Jesus is asked to heal a blind man, he uses his own spit for the first part, but it doesn’t work all the way, so he has to touch the blind man a second time.

I don’t know about you, but I love this story. I love how grounded it is in the material and physical world. I love the way that Jesus ignores the crowd and brings the man outside of the village. I actually love that it takes Jesus two tries to get it right because it says so much about our relationships with God. In fact, I love this passage so much, that I used it as the New Testament reading for Lindsey’s and my wedding. If I remember the wedding sermon correctly Jason, our pastor, said this about the choice: “The walking trees do-over miracle of Jesus with the blind man is a text that only a pastor would use at his wedding.

Yet, even with its strangeness and bizarre imagery, I love this passage. I think it works well for weddings; You only really see the person you’re marrying, after you marry them. Dating and being engaged is like seeing the other as a blurred image, but in the vows and covenant of marriage the other comes into focus, and we see what our lives truly become together.

Moreover, I think this text works well for the beginning of Lent, as it reminds us that sometimes it takes two tries to get this whole discipleship-thing figured out. In fact, it often takes more than two tries to get it right.

The story with Jesus and the unnamed blind man is a reminder about what our relationship with God is like. Before we become Christians, we see and experience the world with extremely limited vision. We believe that we are the center of the universe, that our primary purpose is to love ourselves and serve our needs no matter the cost. But then a strange thing happens. Maybe it occurred when you were invited to worship for the first time, or maybe it happened on a mission trip, or maybe it happened in the middle of the night after awaking from a strange dream; whatever the experience was, God became real for you for the first time.


Some might say that as soon as that event takes place, you begin to understand God and see the world with clear vision. This story however, would claim the contrary. When we initially experience God’s wonder its like seeing people as trees walking. We are given a glimpse of what the world looks like turned upside down, we begin to grasp and understand what loving God and neighbor is all about. But our vision of discipleship is still dim and incomplete.

Frankly, this distorted and obscure vision of faith is where most Christians are located, myself included. We think we understand everything that God is doing and we think we are seeing things clearly, but its not the case. How many of us can rattle off all the words to the creeds and to the Lord’s Prayer, how many of us have the hymns memorized and can sing without looking down, how many of us really know and read our bibles, yet our vision is still dim?

Lent is the time for us to turn back toward God and see things clearly. We need to see God as God is. Not just the God of our liturgical creeds and hymnals, but the Lord of our hearts and homes, of our hopes, our prayers, and our needs. We desperately need a real picture of what faith looks like. Because faith cannot just be showing up to church once a week for an hour of worship. Faith is about giving your entire life over toward loving God and others 24/7, 365.

While I was praying after our Ash Wednesday services I realized that I don’t really know any of you. At least not to the degree that we are called to know and love God in our lives. While applying the ashes to some of your foreheads I saw what you allow me to see, I saw some of your celebrations, some of your failures, some of your hopes, some of your sins. I can strive to know you as deeply and as fully as I can, but I will only see you as a blurry tree depending on what you open up.

Yet, while preparing for funerals, I start to see a clearer picture of the person. It’s like God has touched me a second time and I finally begin to understand the kind of life that someone lived. Part of it comes from the vulnerability and honesty that families and friends are willing to share, but part of it comes from my willingness to finally ask questions that I never felt brave enough to ask while they were alive.

For all of us, our discipleship and relationship with God is often perpetually caught in this state of blurred trees. We show up to church, we pray, we read our bibles, but without a sure foundation of the basics of faith, our vision will always be limited. 


That’s why, throughout the season of lent, we will take time each Sunday to return to some of the basics of faith. We might come to the table once a month to partake of Jesus’ body and blood, but do we really believe and know what we are doing? We might talk about being saved and affirming Jesus Christ as Lord, but what does salvation really look like, and why do we call Jesus our Lord? We might see the other people in our pews as brothers and sisters in Christ, but why is our relationship with them limited to Sundays mornings or church activities?

It is my hope that over the next few weeks all of us will receive that second touch from the Lord; by returning back to the basics we will begin to see faithful things and then to see all things clearly: God, ourselves, and others.

But that’s where we’re going. For today I was to focus on this: Our lives are gifts. We are privileged to be surrounded by such beautiful and unique people in our lives. From our co-workers, to fellow students, to friends, and family, and even strangers, we are blessed people. Yet, do we really know any of them? Do we really see them as they truly are? I promise that for all the perfect exteriors you might encounter, there are at least a few who, on the inside, are looking for someone like you to see the real them.

If we take this two part healing seriously than it’s up to us to initiate the second touch for the people around us. We could wait for them to show up and open up, but most of the time it will never happen. Instead we are given the chance to ask deep and important questions of the people in our lives. Questions like: How is it with your soul? What are you doing right now that is saving your life? Do you feel loved?

When you find someone and bravely ask them questions, you are like the crowds bringing the blind man to Jesus; you go into the world as Christ’s body, and by learning more about the other, you discover what it means to see things clearly. 

We begin our challenge here at the Lord’s Table. After we are invited to feast and confess our sins, we will exchange signs of Christ’s peace with one another. This is the chance for us to begin opening our eyes to the truth around us; We are a church of broken people, and when we love on each other and gather at God’s table, we start putting all the pieces back together. Amen.