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Archive for March, 2010

An Unforgettable Easter

Dear blog readers,

What makes Easter unforgettable for you?  (This is a serious question, not a rhetorical one.  Please share!)

There are a lot of forgettable things in life.  But a man rising from the dead certainly wouldn’t seem to be one of them.  In the resurrection narrative from the Gospel of Luke, the two men in dazzling clothes said to the terrified women, “He is not here, but has risen.  Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”  Then, the text says, the women remembered Jesus’ words.

Then, they remembered?  How could they have forgotten?  If a friend told me he was going to rise from the dead, I’d think he was crazy, but I’m pretty sure I’d remember it.

But, before we are too quick to pass judgment, perhaps we should consider our own Easter practices.  How memorable are our Easter Sundays from one year to the next?  Other than having a butterfly launch, or a big box of balloons, or a dramatic reading of the resurrection story to pique our interest and catch our attention, we typically sing the same hymns, read the same scriptures, and trot the same man out in a big bunny suit for the annual Easter Egg Hunt.  I can’t even remember my own Easter sermon from one year to the next until I pull it out of the file.  So what keeps one Easter Sunday from blending into all the rest?  What makes Easter unforgettable?

Sometimes I think we modern-day Christians have become so far removed from the story, so far from that early morning at the empty tomb, that we forget how crazy this resurrection was.  For us, the new life of resurrection easily blends into the new life of spring blooming all around us.  Easter fits so nicely and naturally into the spring season that we begin to think Easter is nice and natural.  In fact, Easter blends so nicely into spring that we lose a sense of how unnatural, how unfathomable, and how unforgettable the risen Christ truly is.

So how might our Easter be unforgettable this year.  Any suggestions?

May the words of my mouth, the meditations of my mind, and the feelings of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.  Amen.

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Palm / Passion Sunday

Holy Week is here.  Easter’s coming!  It’s going to get a lot darker, though, before we see the light.  So let’s keep praising our God!

What follows is the sermon from Palm / Passion Sunday.

“Praising God”

Luke 19: 28-40 and Psalm 118: 1-2, 19-29

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

March 28th, 2010 – Palm / Passion Sunday

Have you ever known someone who was in constant need of praise?  Someone who, no matter how many compliments you give them, still don’t believe you and still are in need of more?  It gets tiring after a while, doesn’t it?  It gets a little annoying!  And it makes you wonder why he or she really needs so much praise?

Well, this week I began wondering if God was a little like this.  You know, throughout our scriptures we, as believers, are constantly called upon to praise God, to give thanks to God, to cry out with the disciples, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”  “The title of the book of Psalms in Hebrew is a word which means praises, and many of the psalms begin and end with a call for people to praise God.  Furthermore, throughout the scriptures, the ‘end times,’ ‘renewed creation,’ or ‘heaven’ is depicted as a time and place when believers from every nation will ceaselessly praise and worship God.”[1]

So what’s the deal here?  Is our God’s ego so weak as to need an ever-flowing stream of praise?  Is our God’s sense of self so fragile that we need to prop our Creator up with compliments?  Well, I don’t believe this is the case.  But, this call for praise really does make me wonder?  Why are we supposed to spend our days ceaselessly praising our God?  What is the purpose of all this praise?

Poet Mary Oliver says we can learn a lot about praise from the roses, how in their own exotic fragrance, in their huge willingness to give something to the world, they leaf and bud and bloom into the blue sky, joyfully rising in gratitude and in praise.[2] All creation is to praise the Creator.  All creation is to turn to God.  All creation is to leaf and bud and bloom in response to all that God has given us.  And so, we humans worship, and we sing, and we serve and we love, all in the name of the God who inspires such praise.  We join the multitude of disciples today who joyfully praise God with loud voices.  We wave our palm branches.  We shout our Hosannas. And we do all of this not so much for God’s sake, as for our own.

“Have you ever noticed that delight spontaneously overflows into praise?”[3] Unless we get self-conscious, and our self-consciousness brings our praise into check, we talk about the things we enjoy.  In fact, the world rings with words of praise.  Music fans praise their favorite music group.  Sports fans rave about their team.  Food lovers commend their favorite restaurants.  We talk about the things we enjoy because we want to share our joy with others and because our joy isn’t really complete until we have shared it.[4]

One of the joys of parenthood is that you get to see and learn about the world all over again as your child learns and grows.  As your child wakes up to the world, you do too in a way.  For example, I never would have noticed all the tractors, trucks, buses, airplanes, and basketball nets that we drive by if I didn’t have a 2-year-old in my back seat pointing all these things out to me.  Isaac and I have a great time driving down the road looking for all these things that bring him joy.  This has become such a ritual now, that whenever I am driving by myself and I see a tractor or a truck or a basketball net, it feels a little frustrating because I can’t share that joy with Isaac.  Our joy is not complete until we can share it.  We cannot fully enjoy anything, unless we can sing its praises.

This is why God asks for our praise.  What is the chief end of humankind?  Asks the Westminster Shorter Catechism.  The chief end of humankind is to glorify God and to enjoy God forever.  Our joy is not complete until we share it.  We cannot fully enjoy God unless we sing God’s praises.  Just think about how much more meaningful an experience of God becomes when you can share that experience with others, and talk about it, and relive it.  Just think about a moment when you experienced God in worship, and that moment was kept alive, and known more fully all week long, because you shared it with a whole community of people.  God wants us to enjoy him fully.  And so God wants us to sing God’s praises.

So we praise God to enjoy God, but also as the Westminster Catechism says, we praise God to glorify God.  Our praise isn’t just for God.  Our praise isn’t just for us.  Our praise is also for others.  Our praise, no matter what form it takes, is our witness, our testimony, our story to tell about the God whom we love so much.  To glorify God means to reveal God or make God clear.  To glorify God is to direct our attention and the attention of others to the transcendent in our midst.   This, we do, by our praise.

Phil and Patsy Keith recently shared a story with me of an experience they had while traveling in Washington, D.C.  They were riding a crowded subway train heading back to their hotel when a man of Korean descent quietly boarded the train.  As the doors of the subway train closed, the man immediately broke into song.  In a loud, beautiful voice for all to hear he sang:

Come, Thou Fount of every blessing,

Tune my heart to sing Thy grace;

Streams of mercy, never ceasing,

Call for songs of loudest praise.

Teach me some melodious sonnet,

Sung by flaming tongues above;

Praise the mount!  I’m fixed upon it,

Mount of God’s unchanging love!

When he finished, the people on the train burst into spontaneous applause.  He took a little bow.  And then got off the train.

Our praise is our witness, our testimony, our story to tell about the God whom we love so much.  To praise God is to glorify God.  To praise God is to reveal the transcendent in our sanctuaries, in our places of work, in our schools, in our homes, and in our subways.  To praise God is to reveal God in our midst.

On his way to Jerusalem, riding along on a young colt, watching the people spread their cloaks in front of him, smiling to the children waving their palm branches, and listening to the whole multitude of disciples who joyfully, and loudly cried out to him, Jesus refused to silence the people’s praises.  Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.”   But he refused.  At the risk of his own life, he refused. Because why would he take that moment away from them?  Why would he keep them from fully enjoying their God?  Why would he keep them from glorifying God and revealing the transcendent in their midst?  This was the gift Jesus came to bring.  This was the gift he was on his way to Jerusalem to protect.  So as we follow our Savior down that long and fateful road, may we do so with loud shouts of, “Hosanna!” and with heartfelt songs of praise.

Now to our God, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and praise, now and forevermore. Amen.


[1] Lindsay P. Armstrong, “Preaching the Lenten Texts”, Journal for Preachers, Lent, 2010, pgs. 11-12.

[2] Mary Oliver, “The Poet Visits the Museum of Fine Arts,” Thirst, (Beacon Press, Boston, 2006), pgs.5-6.

[3] Lindsay P. Armstrong, “Preaching the Lenten Texts”, Journal for Preachers, Lent, 2010, pgs. 11-12.

[4] Ibid.

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Praise God!

Come, Thou Fount of every blessing,

Tune my heart to sing Thy grace;

Streams of mercy, never ceasing,

Call for songs of loudest praise.

Teach me some melodious sonnet,

Sung by flaming tongues above;

Praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it,

Mount of God’s unchanging love!

I’ve been humming this hymn all week. This morning, after a fabulous two mile run at our local park, I walked out to the end of the dock to take in the lake and the trees and the morning sun. It was just me and a couple of geese. It was beautiful. So I sang a little…Come, Thou Fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing Thy grace… The geese didn’t seem to mind.

The scriptures are constantly calling upon us to praise God. In the Palm Sunday text for this week Jesus says that if we don’t praise God, then the stones will do it for us. Apparently, God is meant to be praised. Not so much for God’s sake, though, as for ours. Standing at the end of that dock, I noticed my beautiful surroundings. But when I started singing, it was more beautiful. I’m not sure how to explain it exactly, but it seems like praise helps us notice God more, it “tunes our heart” to God’s amazing presence and grace. We enjoy God more fully when we lift our voices, our hearts, our minds in praise. Jesus refused to silence the whole multitude of disciples who were “praising God joyfully with a loud voice.” And why would he? Why would he take that moment away from them? Why would he keep them from fully enjoying their God ?

May the words of my mouth, the meditations of my mind, and the feelings of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer. Amen.

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Fifth Sunday in Lent

Whenever I try to create a “moment” in worship I feel like I am dancing along the edge of a cliff. One false step and the moment will unravel into a fizzling failure. Some would go as far as saying that you can’t create such moments, that the Holy Spirit is only present through spontaneity. I don’t agree with this, though. Spontaneous moments in worship can be wonderful, when (and if) they occur. But carefully created, planned moments in worship can also be amazingly spiritual seeing as the Spirit is not just present in the moment, but (if everything goes as it should) also in the whole process of preparation, planning, and finally, performing.

For this Sunday’s sermon, the Spirit led me to do something different. I know this type of narrative-style sermon is not everyone’s cup of tea. But when you preach to the same congregation Sunday in and Sunday out it is good to freshen things up and do something new every once in a while. This type of sermon is easier for me to write seeing as I wasn’t as worried about sentence structure and punctuation and finding a way to illustrate my points. The work this week really came in preparing to perform the sermon. I rehearsed more than usual so I wouldn’t be tied to the text; even so I could ad lib a little. Then I had to mentally and emotionally climb into the character of the sermon so I could feel what she would have felt while I was preaching.

Other than sending a few unsuspecting choir members into cardiac arrest (I sort of wished I had warned them), the sermon went even better than I had hoped. Special thanks this week goes to church member TK, who is always willing to help out and always willing to indulge my creative whims….even when that means shouting down his pastor in the middle of her sermon.

What follows is the sermon from the fifth Sunday in Lent.

“Leave Her Alone!”

John 12: 1-8

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

March 21st, 2010 – Fifth Sunday in Lent

Mary meant well, I’m sure. But I don’t know what she was thinking…doing what she did at dinner that night. She just got all carried away. She embarrassed herself. She embarrassed all of us. Talk about awkward! You could have cut the tension in that room with a knife. Oh, Mary! What were you thinking?!

We were all having such a good time. Jesus had come over for a Sabbath meal and we were all so excited to see him and spend time with him. Lazarus never left his side the whole evening. He really worshipped the man after Jesus pulled him back from the brink of death. (Wasn’t that amazing!?) And Martha, always the perfect hostess, was rushing around making sure everyone had enough wine in his or her glass and kept encouraging folks to go back for seconds. We were all having so much fun. Everyone was talking, and laughing and carrying on. Jesus really seemed to be enjoying himself too. He’d been looking so sad lately, so burdened. He really needed this party to lighten things up a bit and get away from it all.

And then Mary comes in and ruins it all. She comes in carrying this small pottery jar and at first no one really notices her…we’re all too busy having fun. But then we smell it…the perfume….it was everywhere! The scent was so strong we had to put our fingers to our noses to keep our eyes from watering. What was that? We all thought to ourselves. Where was that smell coming from? And then we saw her. I think everyone saw her at the same time because we all grew really quiet while we tried to figure out just what exactly was going on? There was Mary with her head hung over Jesus’ bare feet, crying so hard she was sobbing….I’m really not exaggerating…this is really what she was doing! She had let down her hair so that it hung in front of her face and over Jesus’ feet and she was literally spreading the nard of this perfume on Jesus’ bare feet with her hair! Oh my Lord, it was a sight. I mean, what a disgrace! With her hair all flopping around in her face like that, mixed with all her tears and all that oily perfume…this was not how a lady of Mary’s stature should have been acting!

When I saw Mary and finally figured out what she was doing…oh….I was so embarrassed for her. In fact, I think everyone was because all of a sudden the whole mood of the party changed. It wasn’t light and fun anymore. It was awkward and tense and uncomfortable. No one seemed to know what to do. All eyes were on Mary and Jesus and on this melodramatic scene unfolding before our eyes. No one knew what to say. So we all just stared. The only sound in the room was Mary’s sobbing.

Well, fortunately, Judas finally had the presence of mind to say something. I mean someone had to! And good for Judas to point out how ridiculously wasteful Mary was being! Good for Judas to remember the poor! I didn’t realize it until Judas pointed it out, but do you know that Mary spread a whole pound of perfume on Jesus’ feet? And do you know how much that stuff costs? Judas said we could have sold it for three hundred denarii! That’s a whole year’s worth of wages? 365 days worth of wages? Just think of all the hungry mouths Mary could have fed with that money? Just think of all the widows and orphans she could have supported? But no, Mary decides to take all that money and just pour it all over Jesus’ feet. She might have well just thrown it in the Sea of Galilee for all the good that was going to do.

You know, the more I think about it the more angry I get. We really shouldn’t just let this go. Something really ought to be done about this. Mary shouldn’t be allowed to act so irresponsibly, make a fool of herself and all the rest of us, and then go on about her business like nothing happened. Yes, I think we need to do something about this. Maybe we should tell her she’s not welcome at our community dinners anymore. Hmm….yes, and you know Passover’s just right around the corner and I think that she shouldn’t be allowed to participate this year. Of course, I’d have to speak to some of the others about this first. I’d have to make sure the community understood that this was the right thing to do. I think I’ll go talk to Peter first. He’s always pretty easy to sway on these things. And then maybe Thomas. If I can win over Thomas then I can win over anyone. Yes, I think this is a good plan. And it’s definitely the right thing to do…. I’m going to go find Martha…see what her impression of the whole thing was…

Shouting, Angry Voice Breaks In: “Leave her alone! You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me!”

Well! Was that really necessary? Did you have to raise your voice like that? I mean, no one deserves to be shouted at. No one deserves to be ridiculed like that. No one deserves to be so disrespected… I mean….was I being so bad as to deserve that kind of treatment?

And what did you mean by what you said? Did you mean to defend Mary? Did you mean to say that she was in the right? Did you mean to imply that what she did at that dinner party was actually righteous behavior? Are we all supposed to touch you like that? Are we all supposed to make such fools of ourselves over you? Are we all supposed to have that kind of single-minded devotion and love and passion for you? Are we all supposed to give so generously of ourselves to you?

Oh….my God.

When you said “you always have the poor with you”…I remember those words….that’s from Deuteronomy[1]…from the law teaching us to be generous with the poor because they will always be with us….but then you said that we wouldn’t always have you…. were you trying to tell me that YOU were in the poor?[2] That when we are generous with the poor we are generous with you?

And when you said…you will not always be with us….did you mean…I’ve heard the rumors, you know…I’ve heard about the danger brewing after you raised Lazarus from the dead…I’ve heard the Romans are coming after you…is all this really true?…Are you in danger?…Are you leaving us?…And was Mary… anointing you for…was that perfume for your burial? Was Mary saying goodbye?

Oh, God. Oh, Jesus. Please forgive me. Please forgive me for being such a fool. Please forgive me for not seeing what was right in front of me. Please forgive me for saying the things I said and thinking the things I thought while Mary was…while Mary was…acting so faithfully. I realize now that our time with you is short…and so precious. So I pray that you help me…help me stop worrying about what everyone else thinks and start worrying about what you think….help me set my fears aside so I can truly embrace you and your ministry….so I can travel with you down that road to Jerusalem….help me not be so self-conscious, Jesus. Instead, help me lose myself in you and in your will for my life. Help me get myself and my ego out of the way, Jesus, so I can follow you and be your faithful disciple. And thank you, Jesus, for this lesson in humility. Thank you for saying what needed to be said. Thank you for opening my eyes and helping me realize that I had lost my way. Now I know….now I know my path….now I know that it won’t be long before we have to say goodbye to you…so I plan to make the most of this special time….I plan to follow you every step of the way…I plan to sit at your feet every chance I get.

I think I’ll go find Mary and tell her the good news. Won’t you join me?

Now to the God of all grace, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore. Amen.


[1] Deuteronomy 15:11

[2] Exegetes and scholars often view this saying of Jesus as John’s rendering of Matthew’s chapter 25, the parable of the sheep and the goats, with its famous lines: “Whatsoever you do to the least of your brothers and sisters, you do to me.” – Megan McKenna, Leave Her Alone, pg. 18.

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Fourth Sunday in Lent

There are moments in worship when I feel so alive.  Like when our pianist takes the last verse of Amazing Grace up a key and we in the congregation respond to the cue by singing for all we are worth.  Or moments such as when I spontaneously think of just the right words to express what I believe and what I want to say and then those words actually come out of my mouth.  Or moments when I am preaching when I hit that sweet, sweet spot….when I have relaxed into the message, when I feel myself connecting with God’s people, when I as the preacher have faded into the background and God’s Word is fully illumined.  I cannot contain my joy when enough of these moments happen during worship.  They are life-giving moments for me.  And in light of my sermon from this past Sunday, they are resurrection moments.  What follows is the sermon from the fourth Sunday in Lent.

“Raising the Dead”

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32

March 14th, 2010 – Fourth Sunday in Lent

What is killing you today?  Is it the pain in your neck or your shoulder that the doctors can’t seem to treat?  Is it the jealously you harbor in your heart for that girl who seems to have everything?  Is it the feeling of resentment that is eating up your marriage and keeping you from a blessed union with your spouse?  Is it guilt and shame over mistakes from your past that make you break into a hot sweat every time you recall them?  Is it the bone-deep weariness you feel as you try to simply get by in the face of crazy life obstacles?  Is it the fear of what your future might or might not hold?  What is killing you today?

Today’s text from the Gospel of Luke is full of dead people.  The younger son essentially wills his father’s death by asking him to dole out his inheritance right here and now.  You are better dead to me than alive, the younger son’s request of his father implies.  Surprisingly, the father obliges his son but we parents know that it kills him to do so.

And what about the boy’s mother?  Where is she in this story?  Is she tucked in a back room somewhere?  Is she straining to hear what is going on from behind a closed door, dying to cry out in protest, dying to grab her son and say, “No, don’t go!  Don’t do this!”  She is the all-too-familiar biblical woman without a voice, without an identity, and without a say in whether or not she and her husband should let their son go.  The whole situation is killing her as well.

And then there’s the elder son; the one who is so full of resentment and hatred towards his younger brother, the one who has sought his father’s approval all his life and then ends up being such a big disappointment in the end.  How can he really know life when he is so full of anger and resentment and self-loathing?  How can he know life when he feels so dead inside?

Finally, we come to the younger son.  The one who needed to “come to himself” while off living “dissolutely.”  Since he needed to come to himself, obviously he wasn’t his real self; he wasn’t really alive while he was off on his party binge.  He may have felt the thrill of his newfound freedom, he may have experienced the high that can come with such dangerous living, but it was all pretty short-lived.  His selfish ways caught up with him quickly and lost all its glitz and glamour.  It finally took a field of pigs whose quality of life seemed better than his own to wake him up to the fact that he was living the life of a dead man.  This wasn’t what he was supposed to be doing with his life.  This wasn’t who God had created him to be.  This wasn’t life.  This was death.  And he needed a miracle to turn things around.

The younger son was fortunate, in a sense though, because at the very least he did come to himself.  He was able to recognize the suicidal track he was on.  Oftentimes we never realize how dead we really are unless we get a loud wake up call.

I am currently reading Anne Tyler’s book The Accidental Tourist in which she tells the story of Macon Leary, a travel writer who hates to travel and a man who has gone through life observing what is happening, but who has never been truly engaged. Compulsively tidy, Macon has always believed that it is possible to order one’s life so effectively that the untidiness, or chaos, that throws life into confusion can be avoided. But then the unimaginable occurs.  Macon’s beloved 12-year-old son is cold-bloodedly murdered in the senseless robbery of a burger joint.[1] Their son’s murder sends Macon and his wife Sarah into a tailspin that eventually ends their polite and predictable marriage.  This tragic and chaotic turn of events in Macon’s life issues him a wake-up call for which he was completely unprepared.   In the light of these life tragedies, Macon begins to see himself for who he really is–a lost, dead soul covering up his deadness with a false sense of order, control and tidiness.

The death of a loved one often leads us to reexamine our lives and our relationships.  When a friend or a loved one dies (especially if it is unexpected) all of a sudden we are awake to the fact that life is short and can take many an unexpected turn.  So we try to get back in touch with old friends from the past.  Or we start taking more risks in order to feel the thrill of life again.  Or we decide we need to make some changes so we slap some new paint on the walls and rearrange the furniture.  And after doing all this we wonder…we wonder why we still feel so dead inside?

Why do we still feel so dead inside?  Well, perhaps because it takes more than getting in touch with a few old friends, it takes more than a change of scenery, it takes more than wrapping our dead bodies in quick-fixes and temporary band-aids in order to bring us back to life.  In fact the only thing I know (and believe) to be able to raise the dead is the amazing grace of God.

The story of the prodigal son is amazing in its beautiful portrayal of grace and forgiveness.  No more hopeful picture could be painted than of the father recognizing his lost son off in the distance and then running to welcome him home.  This story truly is a well-read favorite of our Christian tradition.  It’s hard to improve upon.  But this past week I read an article by Barbara Brown Taylor that, by shedding some new light on an old story, perhaps made it even more beautiful.

In order to truly capture the beauty of this story we must first understand the huge honor owed the patriarch of a clan in the ancient Middle Eastern culture and the elaborate code for keeping that honor in place.  “Patriarchs did not run.  Patriarchs did not leave their places at the heads of their tables when guests were present.  Patriarchs did not plead with their children; they told their children what to do.”[2]

So in light of this cultural context, today’s story becomes a story about a weak patriarch with a rebellious son whom he seems unable to control.  After his son leaves home, the community gathers around the family who is left behind in order to protect and provide.  With the younger son running off with his share of the inheritance and with fewer hands to tend to the family farm, the father is more than likely grateful for the community’s offer of help and support.

But with the community now banding around the family in need of help, it becomes clear that “the only way the younger son is ever going to step foot back inside that town is to come back ten times richer than he left, with fabulous presents for every member of his family and enough left over to buy back the farm.  Then he will have to throw a banquet and invite the whole community, honoring them as extravagantly as he shamed them when he left.”[3]

“But of course this is not what happens.  Instead, the younger son loses everything, and he loses it to Gentiles—Roman citizens, pagan pig-owners, complete strangers to the God of Israel.  He might as well have used his birth certificate to light an Italian cigar.  What he does is so reprehensible that the Talmud actually describes a ceremony to deal with it—a qetsatsah ceremony, to punish a Jewish boy who loses the family inheritance to Gentiles.  Here’s how it works.  If the boy ever shows up in his village again, then the villagers will fill a large earthenware jug with burned nuts and corn, break it in front of the prodigal son, and shout his name out loud, pronouncing him forever cut off from his people.  After that he will be a cosmic orphan, who might as well go back and live with the pigs.”[4] So in returning to the place and community of his birth, the prodigal son’s only real hope lies in reaching his father before the village reaches him in order to confess and beg for forgiveness.

Well, his father must have been on the lookout for him because he sees his son while he is still far off.  And his father, this weak patriarch, this shamed man in his community, is filled with compassion.  “Then he does something that patriarchs just don’t do.  The father runs to his son—runs so that everyone can see his pale ankles, runs so that his robes get wedged between his legs and flutter out behind him like an apron, [runs in front of all the stunned elders of his community]—he runs and puts his arms around his son, and kisses him right there on the road where everyone can see.”[5]

In this way, the father saves the son.  He saves him from the community ready to banish and orphan him.  He saves him from a life lived with the pigs.  He saves him from himself and his dissolute living.  He saves him with love, and forgiveness, and the indescribable grace of a father willing to shame himself, willing to degrade himself, willing to die himself in order to save his son, in order to welcome his child home.  The father humbles himself and brings his son who was as good as dead back to life.

Quickly, bring out a robe—the father calls out for all to hear—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.  And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again.  He was dead!  But now he is alive!

Resurrection….by the grace of God.  We can’t get there by ourselves.  We can’t raise ourselves from our death-like state.  Our quick-fixes and our temporary band-aids simply won’t do the trick.  But a love so great, a love so humble, a love so willing to die so that we might live, is waiting for us with open arms.

It’s by the grace of God that we can know resurrection because it’s by the grace of God that we are given the gift of faith.  And it’s by the grace of God that we know who we are and whose we are and why we are here.  And it’s by the grace of God that we are reminded that we are cherished, and loved, and precious no matter what.  And it’s by the grace of God that we are given another chance, and another, and another.  And it’s by the grace of God that we are turned from the old to the new, that we are turned from the ways of death to the ways of life.  It’s by the grace of God that we can know resurrection.

What is killing you today?  Well, whatever it is, God’s grace is ready to embrace you and welcome you home.  God’s grace is ready to proclaim, Let us eat and celebrate; for this child of mine was dead and is alive again.  He was dead.  But now he is alive!

Now to this God of resurrecting grace, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.


[1] Amazon.com review by Mary Whipple.

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Parable of the Dysfunctional Family”, April 17, 2006, found on www.barbarabrowntaylor.com/newsletter374062.htm

[3] Ibid, BBT.

[4] Ibid, BBT.

[5] Ibid, BBT.

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A Resurrection Story

It’s a resurrection story.  I never thought of it like that before this week.  The story of the prodigal son has always epitomized the themes of grace and forgiveness for me.  And surely it is about grace and forgiveness.  But grace and forgiveness are the means by which resurrection occurs in this story.  The dead are raised by grace and forgiveness.

It struck me this week that this story is full of dead people.  The younger son essentially wills his father’s death by asking him to dole out his inheritance right here and now.  You are better dead to me than alive, the younger son’s request of his father implies.  Surprisingly, the father obliges his son but we parents know that it kills him to do so.  And what about the boy’s mother?  Where is she in this story?  Is she tucked in some back room somewhere?  Is she straining to hear what is going on from behind a closed door, dying to cry out in protest, dying to grab her son and say, “No, don’t go!  Don’t do this!”  She is the all-too-familiar biblical woman without a voice, without an identity, and without a say in whether or not she and her husband let their son go.  The whole situation is killing her as well.  And then there’s the elder son.  The one who is so full of resentment and hatred towards his younger brother.  The one who has sought his father’s approval all his life and then ends up being such a big disappointment in the end.  How can he really know life when he is so full of anger and resentment and self-loathing?  How can he know life when he feels so dead inside?  Finally, we come to the younger son.  The one who needed to “come to himself” while off living “dissolutely.”  Since he needed to come to himself, obviously he wasn’t his real self, he wasn’t really alive while he was off on his party binge.  He may have felt the thrill of his newfound freedom.  He may have experienced the high that can come with such dangerous living.  But it was all pretty short-lived.  His selfish ways caught up with him quickly and lost all its glitz and glamour.  It finally took a field of pigs whose quality of life seemed better than his own to wake him up to the fact that he was living the life of a dead man.  This wasn’t what he was supposed to be doing with his life.  This wasn’t who God had created him to be.  This wasn’t life.  This was death.  And he needed a miracle to be able to turn things around.

When have you felt dead inside?  When have you needed a miracle in order to turn things around?  This story isn’t just for those engaged in dissolute (immoral) living.  It’s for all of us.  It’s for all of us who need a little resurrection in our lives.  It’s for all of us who need to be reminded of who we are and whose we are.  It for all of us who need to be brought back to life, back to God, back to the One who runs unashamedly to welcome us home.

May the words of my mouth, the meditations of my mind, and the feelings of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.  Amen.

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Third Sunday in Lent

I am getting back into the swing of things after taking last week off to help my parents while my mom was in the hospital.  Today was basically spent clearing the piles off of my desk that were making me feel crazed and chaotic.  So now that that’s done I feel like I can breathe a little better (of course the amazing breeze coming in through my open window today helps too). We’ve had a terrible run of sicknesses in our house and I feel too much like I’ve been simply “getting by” during this Lenten season.  I’m hoping to regain my sense of shalom this week, or my sense of spiritual well-being and balance, so I can enjoy the beauty and the hope that this Lenten season can bring.

We celebrated the gifts of women this past Sunday.  So I left the lectionary behind to tell the story of Naomi.

“Naomi’s Story”

Ruth 1:1-18

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

March 7th, 2010 – Third Sunday in Lent – Celebrating the Gifts of Women

She never imagined her life could take such a turn for the worse.  Naomi had been living in Bethlehem, her home and her families’ home for generations.  She had always felt so safe living in Bethlehem, the small town filled with her friends and family members, the place where she met and married her husband, Elimelech, and the home where she gave birth to her two sons, Mahlon and Chilion.  Life in Bethlehem was a blessed life, that is, until the famine struck.  Nobody anticipated the famine in Bethlehem…I mean the name Bethlehem means “House of Bread”…so no one was prepared.  Naomi’s husband had no choice but to pack up everything and move to the east, to the country of Moab, to a country of foreign ways and foreign people.  Naomi didn’t want to move, but she knew that she had to for the sake of her family.  Things were bad then, but bearable.  At least they still had each other, Naomi thought to herself.

But then Elimelech died.  And Naomi mourned.  Her marriage to Elimelech had been arranged, but she had grown to love him deeply.  What would she do without her husband?  How would she raise her sons all by herself?  Mahlon and Chilion were good sons, though, and took more responsibility after their father passed away.  They grew up and married two Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth.  Naomi saw her family growing again and she was pleased.  But then tragedy struck again and both Mahlon and Chilion died.  Naomi couldn’t take it.  She knelt on the dirt floor of her tiny home and beat her fists into the earth crying out to God, “Why? Why?”  Naomi’s grief and sense of loss was almost too much to bear.  She turned bitter and angry, convinced that God was against her.  Her life, her life that had once been so blessed, had been taken from her.  She was cursed.  She was cursed to live out the remainder of her days as a widow…as a widow in a time when being a widow meant being destitute…a time before life insurance…a time before women could leave home to get a job.  Naomi had nothing left.  Naomi had nothing more that she could lose.  So famine or no famine, Naomi decided to return home to Bethlehem.  At least there she could be comforted by memories of better days.

Because none of us holds the power to see into the future, life often takes unexpected and sometimes even tragic turns.  We may think we’ve built ourselves a secure future, setting aside our nest eggs, saving for our college funds, planning for our retirement, but stories such as Naomi’s remind us that life isn’t so predictable or so easily planned for.  Sometimes bad things happen.  Life can take a turn and we can lose it all.

In 1929, on a day now known as “Black Thursday,” the Stock Market crashed and people literally lost everything.  Stories have survived of men committing suicide after the crash, men whose lives had taken a completely unexpected and tragic turn.  The Crash later launched the Great Depression of the 1930’s when many workers lost their jobs and were forced to live in shantytowns and former millionaire businessmen were reduced to selling apples and pencils on street corners.

Life is unpredictable and sometimes even downright tragic.  Naomi’s story reminds us of this fact, her story reminds us of the reality of life that we cannot ignore.

Naomi begins to prepare for her journey back to Bethlehem.  As she prepares she gathers her two Moabite daughters-in-law around her and tells them of her plans.  Naomi urges them not to follow her to Bethlehem but to stay in Moab, to stay near their families and the only place they have known as home.  But Orpah and Ruth protest.  They are worried about Naomi.  They know how insecure and unsafe life is as a widow.  But Naomi insists and eventually Orpah kisses her mother-in-law goodbye.

Naomi expected this.  She knew her daughters-in-law would be concerned about her, but would eventually concede to staying in Moab.  In Moab Orpah and Ruth would actually have a chance to marry again.  If they followed her back to Bethlehem, though, they would be looked down upon as Moabite foreigners.  Their chances of remarrying in Bethlehem would be slim at best.  So when Orpah kissed Naomi goodbye, she wasn’t surprised or hurt.  She knew that this was the way it had to be.

As Orpah slowly walked away, Naomi turned to kiss Ruth goodbye as well.  But Ruth wouldn’t accept the kiss.  I’m not going, Ruth said.  I’m not leaving you.  Of course you are Ruth, Naomi said, you have to.  No one expects you to return to Bethlehem with me.  But Ruth was adamant in her decision.  No, I’m not leaving you.  You are my family now.  Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my god.  Naomi couldn’t believe her ears?  Was Ruth really saying she was going to Bethlehem?  Was she really willing to give up her chance at a family and a future by leaving the country of her birth?  Her questions were answered when Ruth grabbed Naomi’s arm and began to lead her towards their home so they could begin packing for their trip.

So, in another unexpected life turn, Ruth shows unprecedented loyalty and commitment to her mother-in-law.  Such an act of loyalty and commitment can be described by the Hebrew word khesed used frequently throughout this story.  Khesed can be translated as “loving kindness.”  It is more than simply being kind, though.  To do khesed means showing love or kindness over and beyond what is considered normal or expected.  It is an act of love that is completely unexpected and unmerited.  It is an act of grace.  And this is what Ruth offered to Naomi.

When Naomi and Ruth get settled back in Bethlehem Ruth begins gleaning grain in the field of a prominent rich man named Boaz.  All the poor people gleaned in the fields because the Israelite landowners were required to leave both the standing grain at the edges of every field and the grains that were accidentally missed during harvesting for use by the poor.  So Ruth was hard at work in the fields when Boaz noticed her.  “Who is that?” he inquired.  Someone responded, “She is the Moabite who came back with Naomi.”  Boaz was impressed by Ruth and the story that had gotten around town of her loyalty to Naomi.  And, in another unexpected life turn, Boaz begins to care for Ruth and Naomi, providing them with food and security. Eventually Boaz marries Ruth and they have a son named Obed.  So Naomi’s story ends happily.  Because of the khesed shown to her by Ruth and then later by Boaz she was no longer poor and destitute.   Her family was growing again.  She knew the security of a home and a future.  Naomi had been redeemed.

Oftentimes, when we read this story we take it to mean that we ought to be like Ruth.  That we ought to go above and beyond when it comes to loving others, serving others, and showing kindness and mercy.  And this is a valid reading of this text.  But there is also another way to read it.  Yes, we ought to be like Ruth, but we are Naomi.  We are the ones in need of redemption.   And God is the one who shows us khesed. God is the one who shows us unexpected and unmerited grace and kindness.

Our Psalm for today reflects God’s willingness to go above and beyond when it comes to showing us grace and love.  Where can I go from your spirit?  Or where can I flee from your presence?  If I ascend to heaven, you are there.  If I take the wings of morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.

God’s faithfulness to us is unprecedented and at times even unfathomable.  We have done nothing to deserve God’s loving kindness.  In fact, we’ve done more to deserve God’s wrath than God’s love.  But God is faithful still. Yes, we ought to be more like Ruth, but we are Naomi.  Naomi’s story is our story.

The story of Naomi is, in fact, a story of redemption and of hope for all of God’s people.  Naomi’s story gives hope to the poor and destitute that one day they will be redeemed, that one day they will know food and shelter and security.  Naomi’s story also gives hope to all of us that we will also be redeemed – that we will be changed by the grace of God – that we will be set free from sin and from the trappings of this world – that we will be set free from the need to place our trust in the things of this world – that we will be set free to live as God intended us to live—to live lives of  “loving kindness.”  Naomi’s story is an important one, reminding us of our hope for redemption.  But Naomi’s story is also important in reminding us that we cannot earn this redemption by ourselves.  We cannot set ourselves free.  Instead, our redemption is the result of someone else’s faithfulness.

A.J. Gordon, the pastor of a church in Boston, once met a young boy in front of the sanctuary carrying a rusty cage in which several birds fluttered nervously. Gordon inquired, “Son, where did you get those birds?” The boy replied, “I trapped them out in the field.” Gordon asked, “What are you going to do with them?” And the boy responded “I’m going to play with them, and then I guess I’ll just feed them to an old cat we have at home.” Gordon felt bad for the birds, so he offered to buy them, but the lad exclaimed, “Mister, you don’t want them, they’re just little old wild birds and can’t sing very well.” Gordon replied, “I’ll give you $2 for the cage and the birds.” “Okay, it’s a deal” the boy said, “but you’re making a bad bargain.” The exchange was made and the boy went away whistling, happy with his new money. Gordon walked around to the back of the church property, opened the door of the small wire coop, and let the struggling creatures soar into the blue. The next Sunday he took the empty cage into the pulpit and used it to illustrate his sermon on redemption.  “That boy told me the birds were not songsters,” said Gordon, “but when I released them and they winged their way heavenward, it seemed to me they were singing, ‘Redeemed, redeemed, redeemed!”[1]

It’s by someone else’s faithfulness that we are set free.  It’s by someone else’s loving kindness that we are redeemed.  The final few verses of the book of Ruth share the secret of who our “someone else” is.  Running through the genealogy of Naomi’s family the text reads, “A son has been born to Naomi.  They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, who became the father of David.” The birth of Obed represents the redemption of Naomi.  But the birth of Obed also leads to the birth of David, whose line promises redemption for the whole people of God through the birth of a Messiah, Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Jesus Christ is our “someone else.”  Jesus Christ is the one whose loving kindness has set us free.  May we leave today with our hearts full of our redemption song.  May we leave today singing our praises to the one who has set us free.

Now to the God of all grace, who calls you to share God’s eternal glory in union with Christ, be the power and the glory forever! Amen.


[1] From Our Daily Bread and found on http://www.sermonillustrations.com

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