Sermon: Ancient Stories–Who Breaks Retribution with Love

2014 08 17 Who Breaks Retribution with Love from John Knox Kirk on Vimeo.

sermon preached at John Knox Kirk of Kansas City, Missouri, on August 17, 2014.

Psalm 133
and Genesis 45:1-15
(Click links for scripture texts)



One high school friend took this picture of Ferguson and area youth cleaning up the wreckage of a local Quiktrip this week.


Its been a crazy week in my home town,

a crazy, bloody, scary, dangerous week.

Depending on when you ask me,

I might say I grew up in Iowa, which I did,

from just a bit after birth to around age 12

but more likely I’ll say Saint Louis,

where my family moved just before I started 7th grade.

My father, also a Presbyterian Pastor,

was called to a small, diverse, inner-city church in the Central West End

which once was a church of thousands

before the interstates came in the 50s and 60s

and what was left

was Westminster, and its 150 or so members

drawn from all over town.

It was one of the few churches with a Manse,

that’s a fancy word for a house that the church owns

so that the pastor can live there

as part of their salary.

They didn’t have a whole lot to pay my father,

but the manse was a nice trade off.

I’m not sure why, but the Manse wasn’t anywhere near the church,

the church being on the corner of Union and Delmar

itself on a somewhat bizarre intersection of town

on one side mansions, slightly deteriorating

from no longer being the wealthy part of town

but still with gated streets and carriage houses

still worth big money, comparatively,

and on the other side section 8 housing and apartments

and community health clinics with free tests and all that.

That’s Saint Louis, the Central West End part,

near the park and the major hospital district and, just a mile or two East,

the nice shops and attractions.

The manse was seven miles away, in the suburbs.

My home was in University City,

an inner-ring suburb of some 35,000 people

a short distance from Washington University and the U City Loop,

delightfully diverse and safe and warm, again, comparatively.

It was a town of churches and synagogues,

not the enclave of the rich or of the poor,

claiming Tennessee Williams, you know, cat on a hot tin roof,

and Bob Gale, who wrote the Back to the Future movies,

as notable people who called it home.

The move to University City was eye-opening to me.

To relocate from monochromatic, rural Iowa to diverse Saint Louis

at a pivotal age, no less,

meant a demand that I recognize

that the world that I thought I knew…maybe I didn’t know so well.

It has always been from this move that I learned to catch myself from thinking

that I have everything figured out.

Who knows the next time God is going to pick me up from where I am

and plop me down somewhere completely different

and ask me to make sense of the new environment the best I can.

I attended University City public schools, first Brittany Woods Middle

then U City High.

Its important to note that I found these to be excellent schools,

good preparation for what would be a demanding liberal arts college

and later Graduate School. They did something right.

But not everyone saw them that way.

In fact, even though University City had a majority white population,

many affluent parents, most of the white kids and some of the others

were sent to private schools.

U City High, by contrast, was about 75 percent African American,

maybe 19 percent white, and a few others there too.

And while I entered a freshman class in High School of around 400 kids

less than 200 graduated with me four years later.

So many of the families that remained had great challenges, my peers.

And while I tended to hang out with many of the other white kids at school

I made many African American friends

and lived with many many more on a daily basis.

I walked with them down city streets, and experienced how they were treated

by shopkeepers, or police-officers, or bystanders,

not all of them, not all the time, but enough to get it

that their life was not the same as mine

not as free, not as fair.

I mention all this to say

that what has been happening this week in Ferguson, Missouri, has hit me hard.

I have classmates who live there, and in neighboring Florescent.

I see them tweeting and facebooking.

They’re helping organize clean ups or yearning for the end to the chaos.

They’re broadcasting a desire for the whole mess to end

for the danger to end, for the power dynamics to end

but also for justice, blended with peace.

It breaks my heart.

I struggle to find something to make sense of it all.

One of my closest friends, with children a bit older than mine,

not from Saint Louis at all but watching from afar like everyone else,

described watching the news with his older boys

and being at a loss for explaining what was happening

not in Iraq, not in Ukraine, not in Palestine,

on the other side of our state.

And while it started with a shooting of an unarmed black teen

by a white police officer last week

the ensuing protests and heavy-handed police response

have re-opened a lingering wound

of centuries old inequities and power dynamics

that many of us, in this room,

are fortunate enough not to have to think much about on a daily basis.

I know I’ll never go to bed at night

worrying about how my daughters will be treated

if they ever get stopped by the police. Others worry constantly.

Ferguson is today’s hotspot, but the issues raised are not isolated there.

We’ve made some great strides as a country.

Incredible change, for sure.

And I’m deeply grateful for those who stand in the gaps

of a chaotic world:

community police officers, firefighters and paramedics

aldermen and journalists and peacemakers

and those who are working for both order and for justice.

Suffice it to say that there remain deep, systemic challenges,

that remain before, say, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream

that I referenced last week becomes our reality.


This has been on my mind all week

as I’ve pondered this concluding tale from the Book of Genesis. [Read more...]

Sermon: Ancient Stories–Who Inspires Risky Dreams

August 10, 2014 ~ Ancient Stories: Who Inspires Risky Dreams from John Knox Kirk on Vimeo.

sermon preached at John Knox Kirk of Kansas City, Missouri, on July 27, 2014.

Matthew 14:22-33
and Genesis 37:1-28


So I’m wondering,

are you enjoying these stories?

We’re winding our way through what some call the Hebrew Patriarchs,

the big men of the first testament,

and yes, the stories center, perhaps unfortunately,

around the guys.

But I’ve been arguing that if we can get a bit past the anachronism,

that is, the fact that these stories are three thousand years old,

at least,

and if we can get past some of the patriarchy

that comes with stories that are that old,

I mean, just look at stories that are 50 years old,

much less three thousand years old tales..

If we can try to understand the point of these old stories

about the foundation of our faith:

the ancient promises of God to Abraham

and God’s steadfast love throughout all of

our human folly;

the shaking of tradition and conventional wisdom

with Isaac

the blessing of questions and doubt

with Jacob

we can come to understand that even these ancient stories

have some meaning for us.

Life giving meaning.

Today’s reading is no different in that regard.

All of these stories offer a worldview, a way of thinking about humanity

and about our relationship with the divine,

who created us—you and me,

with the divine Ruach, the divine breath

each of us with the image of God imprinted in us.

If there was ever any question in your heart whether you matter,

whether you are important,

whether you have a purpose,

well, there’s an answer:

these ancient stories affirm that we are created by God and are loved by God

and are destined, each of us,

to live fully the lives God wants for the creation,

lives marked by that Hebrew word Shalom,

which means some combination of peace

and wholeness

and comfort

and community,

you know, where Lion will lay with the Lamb

and all will be fed

the whole bit.

One way to understand faith, and the diverse religious options out there,

is to see them as various ways of giving us a worldview,

a way to see and to live in the world.

And these ancient stories are the foundation of our worldview,

bequeathed to us, given to us by our Hebrew ancestors,

the forbears of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

So we’ve been walking through these ancient stories,

and we’ve been seeing how humanity, from our very beginning,

has demonstrated all the characteristics we might expect

from looking at our own living:

crazy jealousy, passionate yearning, family conflict,

and also the capacity for deep empathy,

incredible love. [Read more...]

Sermon: Ancient Stories–Who Wrestles With Us, and is Okay with That

July 27, 2014 – Ancient Stories: Who Wrestles with Us and is Okay with That from John Knox Kirk on Vimeo.

sermon preached at John Knox Kirk of Kansas City, Missouri, on July 27, 2014.

Matthew 14:13-21
and Genesis 32:22-31



I had some tears writing this sermon.

It conjures up many memories from a lifetime of faith.

These stories in Genesis are life giving for us, I think.

But perhaps not the way one might expect.

I don’t know about you, but I have a tendency to want things to be simple,

to prefer the black-and-white description of a problem,

with a clear and robust solution.

My car won’t start. The diagnosis is a bad battery

(caused by a forgetful driver who didn’t close the door)

and the solution is a jump start,

or at worst a new battery.

Hopefully not a new car.

Or, that noise in the garage,

thankfully it stopped once the mousetrap went off the other day.

No more noise. That must be the end of it, right?

I hope so.

Who doesn’t prefer things to be simple, clear and unambiguous?

Cut and dried.

But so much in our life never works this way.

*The blood work wasn’t quite clear, and there need to be more tests

but the treatment options aren’t very good regardless.

*Our friends are fighting, and we can see both sides of the argument

and we don’t know how to help or how to be honest

without hurting one or the other, or both!

*There is SO MUCH TO DO—around the house, for work, for school,

cleaning and cooking and mending—

how can there be time for it all?

So much in life is complicated, complex, multi-faceted.

We’d have enough if it were just our lives and our struggles,

but then heap onto it the crazy world we live in:

What is the right thing to do about tens of thousands of children,

young kids, mind you,

flooding into the United States,

fleeing not just poverty, but unspeakable violence

and political strife and drug cartels

in Central America?

Just pack them up and send them back?

Keep them in make-shift detention centers on military bases?

Free them to be with family and loved ones who will care for them?

If we acknowledge the biblical call to care for children in our midst,

along with all the vulnerable, the hurting, the hungry,

the responsibility to treat well

the foreigner traveling in our land—

my bible uses the word “alien” alongside with

widows, and orphans, to describe those

most in harms way

If we acknowledge that, how do we respond to so many kids

in the middle of an already fractious, tentative, politically fraught

question about immigration policy and reform?

Not easy. Not clear at all.

And that’s just one headline story from this week’s papers. [Read more...]

Sermon: Ancient Stories–Who Does Not Follow Convention

July 13, 2104 ~ Ancient Stories – Who Does Not Follow Convention from John Knox Kirk on Vimeo.

sermon preached at John Knox Kirk of Kansas City, Missouri, on July 13, 2014.

Matthew 13: 1-8, 19-23
and Genesis 25: 19-34


Today’s exploration of these ancient themes in Genesis is going to be a bit different.

 We’ve been walking with Abraham the last several weeks,

seeing God move in and among the creation

choosing a people to be God’s people

and then helping them SEE differently, ACT differently

and God shapes them, molds them, guides them.

These ancient stories are about who God is,

God’s persistent, challenging, sometimes inscrutable love

and how that goes head-to-head with human proclivities

to do things our way, following our convention.

But Abraham now has died, Ishmael even comes back from the wilderness

and helps Isaac bury him, in the very cave Abraham bought to bury Sarah

and the story moves on: with Isaac and Rebekah and their own follies.

Isaac and I will always have a close bond. We father’s of twins.

But If there is anything I’ve learned as a parent of twins, its that all twins are different.

These two: Esau and Jacob, seem to be completely different personalities:

One ruddy, athletic, a marksman

the other dark, contemplative, cunning.

My girls: much more alike, much less conflicted with each other. Thank goodness.

All twins are different.

And this story in Genesis is the beginning of another sordid affair

the first act in a multi-part production where Jacob wrestles

the birthright duly owed to Esau

first through this pot of lentil stew,

and then through tricking Isaac

for a blessing a bit later down the road.

It is part of Genesis’ explanation of how the lineage of the Hebrew people

passed not through the expected right of succession…

through the firstborn son (even in the case of twins)

but through Jacob, the one who later would wrestle with God

who would be renamed Israel

Israel—the name which literally means “wrestle with God”

Jacob, the one who would father 12 sons of his own, bless his heart

including Joseph,

and his Technicolor dream coat.

It continues the tradition of God being God, and not doing things the expected way.

God chooses the younger kid, the weaker kid,

even before they were born.

Esau would also be great, would also be the first of many nations

but the line of the Hebrews, of the covenant,

would go through Jacob.

Unexepected. Unpredicted. Unplanned.

What kind of God is this, exactly?

But we also have before us this terrific story of Jesus

that gets the same themes, the same rumblings, the same disruption.

Maybe today, rather than looking directly at Isaac and Jacob,

we could look at the parable of the sower… [Read more...]

Sermon: Ancient Stories–Who Binds us Together

July 6, 2014 ~ Who Binds Us Together from John Knox Kirk on Vimeo.

sermon preached at John Knox Kirk of Kansas City, Missouri, on July 6, 2014.

Matthew 11: 16-19, 25-30
and Genesis 24: 34-38, 42-67


Was reminded this week how much we do is about strengthening our ties together.

The way we’re formed into families and friendships

Little pairs or triplets or gaggles of love.

Aristotle once described human beings as “social, rational animals”[i]

by which he meant

Thinking beings who are naturally inclined to be bound together

through love and society.

In this and in many other things, I think Aristotle was right on the money.

This week I celebrated our nation’s Independence Day holiday

with a group of closest friends

six adults, six kids

countless ooohs and aaaaahs over fireworks and bratwurst.

We also made some quick revisions to our wedding policy here at the Kirk

since someone wrote asking about a possible wedding here next year

and we needed to get those changes finished.

Meanwhile, I sat with someone who is quite content in her singleness,

thank you very much

as she told me about the friends and nephews in her life

who give her such joy that she teared up talking about them.

And I also helped a few families say goodbye to loved ones for a final time,

as we prepare to do this again this coming week too.

These are all holy moments, the joyous and the difficult alike.

Our families are all different. Our friendships are not the same.

There are people who give our lives such meaning and joy that we gush over them,

and family members who have done such harm to us

that our fists clench when the thought of them enters our mind.

The life of faith is, at least partially,

about strengthening the good and healing the hurt in our relationships,

our families, our church, our community, our world.

We might be rational, social animals,

but the work of nurturing healthy relationships:

father, mother, daughter, son, sibling, lover, neighbor, friend

is constantly challenging, consistently nuanced and contextual.

It can be exhausting and maddening and frustrating. [Read more...]

A Kirk Nine Month Check-in, Membership and the Future


As I begin to think about a new member class at the Kirk, I’m reminded about how some struggle with the idea of “membership.” Joining a church, what’s that about? To me, its the notion that, for this season, I want to explore with these people my place in God’s story, and how that story is moving and changing and alive at a particular place. Its not that you have to agree with everything, or even have everything figured out. Its that this is a place that is giving you something–some life, some meaning, some purpose, some inspiration, some rest, some swift-kick-in-the-butt–that you are willing to commit to for a time.

So, we’re pulling together a new member class for the end of the month. It might be small, it might be mighty. Not sure yet. But its exciting to me to dream about the future with these folk. When I look at our children’s time and see kids from Cameroon, Korea, El Salvador, and around the block, its exciting to dream about our future together, where we are community minded; loving & serving. (Incidently, that’s our new church tagline!) Our heart on strengthening the community around us, through loving and serving others. Finding where exactly that will lead us to serve and to love in the months ahead. Trusting God who transforms us in Christ and inspires us to transform the world for good.

I’m thrilled. Its been an exhilarating 9 months as pastor here. Let’s keep moving….

(PS: want to talk about membership at the Kirk? Send me a message and lets talk)

Image: a stylized picture of the Kirk’s new sculpture “Path of the Spirit” by member Karen Lyman. Its part of our new outdoor space I hope will become a gift to the neighborhood, a peaceful place for reflection and inspiration…