Easter: Resurrection Faith

1 April 2018

Easter Sunday

Warwick United Church of Christ

Newport News, Virginia


“Resurrection Faith”

Based on St. John 20: 1 – 18

By the Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.


And thus we rust Life’s iron chain

 Degraded and alone:

And some men curse, and some men weep,

 And some men make no moan:

But God’s eternal Laws are kind

 And break the heart of stone.


And every human heart that breaks,

 In prison-cell or yard,

Is as that broken box that gave

 Its treasure to the Lord,

And filled the unclean leper’s house

 With the scent of costliest nard.


Ah! happy day they whose hearts can break

 And peace of pardon win!

How else may man make straight his plan

 And cleanse his soul from Sin?

How else but through a broken heart

 May Lord Christ enter in?


This excerpt from Oscar Wilde’s poem, the Ballad of Reading Gaol has touched me for many years. He wrote it in 1897, after being imprisoned, for of all things, loving another man. It is surprising to many that this writer of frothy parlor comedies, would write in such a raw and tender way, with such profound allusions to faith and scripture. Those words “How else but through a broken heart, May Lord Christ enter in?” have stayed with me ever since I first heard them.

Easter is a time of joy, of new life, and new hope. I love proclaiming “Christ is risen!” after a long Lent. I look forward to this day with great anticipation every year, and maybe some of you do as well – because it is such a day of joy and hope and gladness, it is a day that encapsulates why I am a Christian. For me, if there were no Resurrection, I doubt that I would give myself to God. But there is, and I try to. But what gets lost behind the eggs, bunnies, and flower crosses is that early on Easter morning the disciples were paralyzed by fear. Their rabbi, the one they believed to be the Messiah, was murdered, crucified. Jesus’ mother Mary, her sister, Mary Magdalene, and John all witnessed the crucifixion – as they saw their son, their brother, their friend, their savior die upon the cross. Now I don’t want to imply that we should be stuck in Good Friday thinking on Easter – but they were still mourning, still afraid what might happen next. Twice after Jesus is resurrected, he finds his disciples locked away out of fear. One commentator describes the Easter morning passage as being “awash in tears.” Here we find that Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early to find the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. She runs to Peter and John to tell them, and they in turn run to the tomb and see the linen cloths that Jesus’ dead body had been wrapped in, but no body. But they go back to their homes. Do they not understand what has happened? Mary stays at the tomb, and weeps. We’re told three times that she wept. Clearly she loved Jesus very much.

Perhaps this Easter, like the disciples you’re not ready.  Maybe like Mary, the tears flow before the alleluias. The Easter of my last year of seminary I felt like this. And let me say, I would not entrust this story to every congregation – but I feel Warwick is a place safe to share some of life’s rawer moments. A few weeks before Easter, my then fiance, a wonderful woman who had come to find a spiritual home in the UCC, was undergoing a serious crisis of faith – questioning everything she believed, about God, Jesus, and the church. She, probably wisely, decided that could not be a pastor’s wife. I was absolutely, totally heartbroken. I had never felt such searing pain. I wept everyday for months, sometimes just soul piercing wailing. It was like a death. And for me it was, the death of all my hopes and dreams for us, for the marriage that wasn’t to be. The plans, the ideas of what our future would look like all came crashing down in an instant. I did not know – and this is not hyperbole – if I would live through it. When Easter came, I sat in an empty pew off to the left side of the sanctuary, and cried through the hymns. I love Easter, but I felt like I was in the tomb all alone. A few weeks later, still during Eastertide, I graduated from seminary. What should have been a joyous moment, the culmination of years of hard work, late nights and term papers, was bittersweet. I was done, but the woman who helped me through it was not there. We sang the hymn “O God Our Help in Ages Past” for the commencement at the National Cathedral. For some reason we ended the hymn on the fourth verse:

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,

bears all its sons away;

they fly forgotten, as a dream

dies at the op’ning day.

That was not what I needed to hear as I stepped out into the world a new, but lost seminary graduate – of dreams dying at opening day. I still don’t know why the planners chose to end on that verse, because when you end there it seems rather hopeless doesn’t it? What I needed to hear, and what so many hurting people need to hear is the last verse:

Our God, our Help in ages past,

our Hope for years to come,

be Thou our Guide while life shall last,

and our eternal Home!

The hope that God will be our guide however long we run this earthly race and will welcome us home someday – I needed that, and I bet a lot of you do too. I clung hard to that hope and ultimately it is what got me through the most difficult year of my life, and it has gotten me through other times when I felt like I was in that tomb. When I was going through that time, I began telling myself “Every day another empty tomb, every day a little resurrection.” Meaning, if I could show a little hope, if I could take a little step toward my healing, someday it would be alright. It took a long time, but eventually it was. Without belief in God’s purposes, that in the words of Julian  of Norwich, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well,” I do not believe I would have gotten through it. But here I am, several years later – and it was the most formative experience of my life and ministry. I learned so much from it, though I would have rather learned it just about any other way. Now, I share this not to solicit sympathy, or to draw attention to my own life’s troubles, or God forbid to distract from the gospel – but rather I share this with you, to say that for those of you who are hurting this Easter and maybe don’t feel ready for resurrection, that I as your co-pastor have been there, where you are in some way. I know what it’s like to say I love God and Jesus and the Easter message, but I just can’t grasp it right now. Hear this – Jesus took on human flesh for you. Jesus was born in Bethlehem for you. Jesus stunned the teachers in the temple for you. Jesus gathered disciples and taught us how to love, for you. Jesus proclaimed that the Kingdom of God is at hand for you. Jesus suffered and died on the cross for you. Jesus rose again on the third day for you. And Jesus ascended to heaven for you. So, ask Jesus to roll away the stone for you, to open that tomb so that you can take hold of that new life he has obtained for you.

God took the violence of the cross, a form of state-sponsored torture and murder, transformed it, and transformed the world. I believe that whatever pain and hurt exists in your life, God will transform it if you let God. Maybe not on our time or in the ways we expect – remember the disciples thought Jesus was going to show that he was the messiah in power and political upheaval. But Jesus shows himself through vulnerability and grace. And in God’s time, God will transform our hurts and pains. In God’s time, our scabs scar over, and from those bruises we can share God’s healing.

In the United Church of Christ, we often say “Never place a period where God places a comma, God is still speaking,” Resurrection is the ultimate comma. It is not darkness of cold earth that we face. We do face mortality in this frame, in this sphere – but if we have faith in the God of new life, of redemption and grace, we face a glorious Heaven with all the saints in light. The Good News is this: that God has sent Jesus Christ to us, first in the form of a humble, poor baby, then as a wandering teacher, who has taught to love ourselves, each other, and God. By Christ’s nativity, life, teaching, healing, suffering, crucifixion, death, resurrection, and ascension we are redeemed. He breaks the bonds of sin and death. Though the powers of the world tried to end his ministry that upended their world, those powers are gone and Christ still reigns. Herod is dead. Caiaphas is dead. Pilate is dead. But Jesus Christ is alive. Despite the worst of the cruel cross of Calvary, death could not destroy Christ. As God made flesh, Christ stormed the doors of evil and has conquered them. Violence could not kill him, and he was raised in three days. This is our inheritance as children of God. As the heirs of Christ, as members of Christ’s Body, so too will we be raised with Christ. In baptism, we are forever knit into the Body of Christ. When we die, we join all the witnesses of faith who have gone before us.

Mary weeps at the tomb fearing what has become of her Lord’s body. First two angels ask her why she weeps and she says, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Then she turns around to a man thinking he is the gardener, saying, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” But it is Jesus the Christ. Jesus says, “Mary!” And Jesus says “Sallye!” “Rudy!”  “Shirley H/V/F!”  He calls your name. The Risen One comes to you in your joy and struggle, in pain and loss, and happiness and gratitude. Jesus tells Mary, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” To my God and your God. Indeed Mary Magdalene, the only one who stayed at the tomb, the one who was faithful in the midst of her grief, found joy and told the other disciples “I have seen the Lord!” Mary has been known as the Apostle to the Apostles, because she was the first witness to the resurrection, the first to tell the disciples, and the first woman to preach of the Risen Christ.  It has been said that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church – but I would say that the tears of Mary have watered the life of the Church. Truly like Mary, may we be able to see Christ risen before our tear-filled eyes, to be able with God’s help to move from fear and sadness, to joy and exultation that Jesus is not dead, he is risen. He has broken the bonds of sin and death, and tramples them beneath his feet. He is alive, and he reigns in love and mercy, and his kingdom will have no end. He will turn our mourning into dancing, our tears into laughter.

Even if it is through tears this Easter, and perhaps especially if it is through tears, like Mary may we be able to proclaim “I have seen the Lord!” May that Lord, our Lord, our God and Savior, brother and friend transform tears of sadness and pain into ones of great joy, just as he has transformed death to life. With the hymn may we truly be able to sing

God sent his Son, they called him Jesus

He came to love, heal, and forgive

He lived and died to buy my pardon

An empty grave is there to prove my Savior lives.

Because he lives I can face tomorrow

Because he lives all fear is gone

Because I know he he holds the future

And life is worth the living

Just because he lives.




500th Anniversary of the Reformation: The Church Ever Reforming

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St. Nicolai Church in Eisenach, near Wartburg Castle


500th Anniversary of the Reformation

29 October 2017

The United Church + Die Vereinigte Kirche

Washington, DC


Based on Romans 3: 19 – 28

By the Reverend James Semmelroth Darnell


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.


A blessed Reformation Sunday to us all! This Tuesday will mark 500 years, nearly 1/4 of the history of the Christian Church, since Martin Luther’s 95 theses rocked the Roman Catholic Church and spurred the the Reformation of the Church and created a new branch of Christianity. On October 31, 1517, tradition tells us that Dr. Luther, then a professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg in German Saxony, nailed his 95 theses against the sale of indulgences by the Church to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. It’s not quite as radical as it sounds, nailing something to the church door – as it would have been a fairly common way of disseminating information in the college town (though I’m sure our trustees would appreciate it, if you didn’t take up that particular method of communication). Though it makes for a great story, historians now question whether Luther disseminated his 95 theses in this way at all. The story was originally told by Luther’s fellow reformer Philipp Melanchthon, who was not in Wittenberg at the time – though it’s possible Luther could have shared this with him, given their closeness. We do not really know if the theses were ever posted on that church door, though today it’s bronze doors are inscribed with the words of the theses in Latin, and below the steeple the words “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” – a mighty fortress is our God. What we do know though, is that on that day, the eve of All Saint’s Day, Dr. Luther wrote a letter to Albrecht of Brandenburg, the Archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg, including his theses.

Luther’s 95 theses objected to the sale of indulgences. An indulgence, according to Catholic theology is a reduction in the amount of penance one has to do for a sin committed. Indulgences, then and even now, can be granted for certain number of prayers said, pilgrimages completed, adoration of the Eucharist, completing the stations of the cross, and other acts of piety. In Luther’s era, many people sought indulgences for the souls of those loved ones they believed to be in purgatory. The very same archbishop Luther wrote to essentially purchased his archbishopric in Mainz with a loan – which he paid off by selling indulgences. The remission of sins, which once at least cost a good work or prayer, were now available for a few coins. Luther was not the first to object to practices like this – Czech reformer Jan Hus preceded Luther in his arguments by over a century, and was burned at the stake for it. Luther stated in his theses that this practice of essentially selling forgiveness of sins: “They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory. It is certain that when money clinks in the money chest, greed and avarice can be increased; but when the church intercedes, the result is in the hands of God alone.” From Luther’s statements like these, and their wide distribution shortly thereafter, started nothing less than a revolution that challenged the Church hierarchy to answer for corrupt practices.

Luther was not the first to seek reform for these and other practices. But the religious, social, and political situation of his time combined in such a way that he was seen as enough of a threat, and had such a following, as to spark a revolution in the life of the Church. Many other reformers would bring about reformations throughout Europe, and there were many compatriots in Germany, but it was Luther’s courage to question, to challenge corruption and demand the Church be better, that we be faithful as the Body of Christ on earth. In Herman Selderhuis’ very accessible new biography of Martin Luther, he sums up how all-encompassing Luther’s Reformation really was and the impact it made:

“In a sense, October 31, 1517 could be called the birthday of a new world, a world in which life looked different in every context for those who followed Luther’s lead. A society that was based on the conviction that people have to restore their relationship with God changed radically when a new foundational conviction emerged: that God in Christ accomplished everything. God’s justice was no longer the threat that drove someone to pursue a morally upright lifestyle, but rather, it was a gift that motivated people to gratitude. This theology, this new relationship between God and people, removed the logical basis of the mass, pilgrimages, veneration of relics, celibacy, monastic life, purgatory, preoccupation with the salvation of the dead, and the all-encompassing and supreme position of the church. Luther’s theology brought something totally different from what previous attempts at reformation had sought. The fact that God provided righteousness instead of requesting it made it necessary to reconsider the church, preaching, lifestyle, marriage, education, politics, heaven and hell, death, and the Devil.”

Our three readings this morning are centered on some of the primary spiritual themes of the Reformation. Holy Scripture and lay people’s access to it was of paramount importance to the reformers. They believed that the Bible should not be read by clergy alone, but by every follower of Jesus Christ – and that it should be translated into the languages of the people, not just Latin. Contrary to popular opinion, Luther was not the first to translate the Bible into German, but his translation was and is still the mostly widely read Bible translation of the German-speaking world. You will notice the 1984 revision of the Luther Bibel in our own pews. Luther began translating the New Testament when he was being hidden away in the Wartburg castle in Eisenach. A few years ago, Evie and I were able to visit the castle. When we got there, we had the option of either taking transportation up the steep hill or making the brisk walk ourselves. We decided to walk, and though we were winded, got the impressive views of being closer and closer to what looked like the fortress appearing out of the mountain. So it is no wonder then, that years later, Luther would adapt Psalm 46 into his greatest hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” as he did indeed experience God’s protection as a fortress, in the time immediately after he refused to recant his teaching and was banned by the empire. Psalm 46 itself is a profound poem of faith in God’s protection in the midst of natural disasters and political upheaval:

God is our refuge and strength,

  a very present* help in trouble.

2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,

  though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;

3 though its waters roar and foam,

  though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,

  the holy habitation of the Most High.

5 God is in the midst of the city;* it shall not be moved;

  God will help it when the morning dawns.

6 The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;

  he utters his voice, the earth melts.

7 The Lord of hosts is with us;

  the God of Jacob is our refuge.*

Like we often do, Luther too often had struggles of faith and doubt. He called these deep struggles, Anfechtungen – which have been described as “the spiritual assaults that … kept people from finding certainty in a loving God.”   In this time he intensely experienced heart palpitations, crying spells and profuse sweating, and thought he might well die and go to hell. He knew well the long dark night of the soul, and recommended ““Having been taught by experience I can say how you ought to restore your spirit when you suffer from spiritual depression. When you are assailed by gloom, despair, or a troubled conscience, you should eat, drink, and talk with others. If you can find help from yourself by thinking of a girl, do so.” If that wasn’t politically incorrect enough, he also said “Copious drinking benefits me when I am in this condition.” Not something I’d recommend, but hey, Luther said it. But in addition to these helps, he turned to the fellowship of other Christians and he turned to the Word. It was in the midst of his greatest depression that he wrote “A Mighty Fortress.”

Luther said of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “This letter is truly the most important piece in the New Testament. It is purest Gospel. It is well worth a Christian’s while not only to memorize it word for word but also to occupy himself with it daily, as though it were the daily bread of the soul.” St. Paul writes

For “no human being will be justified in his sight” by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. 21But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.


If you’ve been in church any great deal of time you probably recognize that verse: all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We don’t talk a lot about sin here. But it is the great leveler, since we all sin. Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, a very fine Lutheran minister and author, says: “Sin, according to Luther, is being curved in on self without a thought for God or the neighbor. In that case, sin is missing the mark and it’s all the ways we put ourselves in the place of God. Sin is the fact that my ideals and values are never enough to make me always do what I should, feel what I should, think what I should.” We all miss the mark and occasionally curve in on ourselves, but we are not alone – all believers and nonbelievers alike do. But St. Paul even says of himself “19For I do not do the good I want to do. Instead, I keep on doing the evil I do not want to do. 20And if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.” Try as we might, we are always going to fall short of God’s law. We are imperfect human beings, though we are children made in the very image of God. Because of this, God grants us grace in Jesus Christ. It is by Jesus’ nativity, incarnation, life, teaching, healing, ministry, suffering on the cross, death, resurrection, and ascension that we receive the grace by faith that supersedes all our sins. This grace is enough. It is sufficient for the life of faith. It is what justifies each and every one of us before the God who loves us unconditionally. But the Church occasionally drifts back into the Law which no one but Christ can fulfill. This is what Luther was railing against in the first days of the Reformation – that Christians felt the need to commit all kinds of acts of extreme piety to be worthy of salvation, to the extent of paying for indulgences to have stays in purgatory shortened. Grace is God’s free gift to us. Any works we do, the prayers we pray, the Scripture we read, the worship we do, is not to make us worthy. Christ has already made each of us worthy. God loves us and accepts us, and forgives all the ways in which we miss the mark. Any of our acts of piety are not to make us worthy, but should be out of gratitude for that gift of grace. Luther commented on this passage from Romans, writing:

“Faith is a living, unshakeable confidence in God’s grace; it is so certain, that someone would die a thousand times for it. This kind of trust in and knowledge of God’s grace makes a person joyful, confident, and happy with regard to God and all creatures. This is what the Holy Spirit does by faith. Through faith, a person will do good to everyone without coercion, willingly and happily; he will serve everyone, suffer everything for the love and praise of God, who has shown him such grace.”


Finally, in our passage from the Gospel according to St. John, Jesus says, ““If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free…If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” Yet, again, this verse is probably familiar to most of us. The truth will set you free has been the watchword of many educational institutions. But it is not a generic truth that sets us free, or that of an academic discipline (though my former spouse would want me to remind you that God blesses those as well). Rather, it is God’s truth incarnate in Jesus Christ that sets us free. The Word made flesh liberates us all from the bonds of sin and death to new life and new hope. The reformers were grounded in this Christian freedom, a freedom that gave them the courage to envision a new way for the Church, to seek new ways of being the Church. This was a freedom for each individual Christian to read and study scripture for themselves, the freedom to confess directly to God without the intercession of a priest, the freedom from fear of purgatory, the freedom to make our own Christian regardless of ecclesiastical authorities, the freedom of God’s grace mediated not by our own halting righteousness but by God’s perfect love for us in Jesus Christ. Christian freedom, said the martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is being free for others. That is, though God’s grace is free, it is a freedom not from responsibility to others, but it is a freedom that enables us to be in relationship with God and fellow children of God. It is this freedom which calls us to act on behalf of those who are oppressed, voiceless, sick and hungry, and in need of healing. It is the freedom to live as Christ lived for us.

God’s protection, grace, and freedom. These themes which were so central to the Reformation remain of utmost importance for us as their Protestant heirs and as Christians. The work of the Reformation is not finished. The Church is always being called to renew and reform itself to draw closer to faithfulness. The United Church of Christ’s founding document says that we “claim as our own the faith of the historic Church expressed in the ancient creeds and reclaimed in the basic insights of the Protestant Reformers. We affirm the responsibility of the Church in each generation to make this faith its own in reality of worship, in honesty of thought and expression, and in purity of heart before God.” God’s grace, freedom, and refuge are the same in every age – but in each generation we must make the faith our own. God is the same yesterday, today, and forever – but the forms we use to share God’s love can and must change with the time. Luther was so successful in part because he took full advantage of the printing press and written word with his pamphlets and published works, preaching 7,000 sermons in 36 years. Likewise we should take advantage of all our resources to share the Good News that God loves us unconditionally and through no work of our own we are redeemed. The Church in this time with decreasing resources and apparent concern for the poor, hungry, and unhealthy must be the Church free for others, to live out God’s protection for us in their lives. In a time when greed and wealth continue to have such sway, and the gap between rich and poor widens at an alarming rate, the news that God’s grace is completely sufficient liberates us from these lusts. The Church too must acknowledge its own failings – when we have placed ourselves as the judge rather than God, when we have emphasized works over grace to keep butts in the pews, when we have longed for the power we used to have over society, when we made idols over the good old days which were not good for many people, when we have been silent while others were victimized – all of these things are calls for reform and renewal. But when I think of my own United Church of Christ and this congregation – I am grateful for the way we live out that reform and renewal, in a place where many varieties of Christianity can live in harmony with one other and with respect for other religious traditions, where the gifts of women and LGBT persons for ministry are honored and respected, where diversity is not just tolerated but celebrated, where each person is invited to lived out their own faith journey in this company of welcoming, open children of God. Thankfully any successes or failures we have at being the renewed Church are ultimately not merely up to our own efforts – but on God’s grace.

Martin Luther preached his final sermon four days before he died in 1546, in the Evangelical Church of St. Andreas in his hometown of Eisleben. There were reportedly only five people there to hear the great man, and he was understandably upset. He questioned if the Reformation was a failure. A lot of us have had moments like that, perhaps even in our efforts for Christ’s Church. And yet it was not a failure, for here we are 500 years later, descendants of what was started so long ago in Wittenberg. Again, it is not about the efforts of one great man or our efforts or works, but rather always pointing to Christ who loves and redeems us. We don’t know what the fruits of our ministry will be. But we know that God will use it to the glory of the Kingdom of God. For that may we be ever thankful and ever reforming.


1. Christmas: Fight or Flight, Fear or Faith

A detail of the Flight Into Egypt mosaic at the Hanging Church, Old Cairo.

Flight Into Egypt mosaic at the Hanging Church, Old Cairo.

First Sunday of Christmas

1 January 2017


Bethesda United Church of Christ

Bethesda, Maryland


Fight or Flight, Fear or Faith

Based on St. Matthew 2: 13-23

By the Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell




Herod the king, in his raging,

Charged he hath this day

His men of might in his own sight

All young children to slay.

This Coventry Carol, which comes to us from a 16th century Christmas pageant in Coventry, England, is one of the only hymns to refer to this morning’s gospel text. It is indeed a haunting one. Truly, our gospel reading is haunting itself. It is a bit jarring this 7th Day of Christmas, the First Sunday of Christmastide. We are not yet to Epiphany, and already we hear of Joseph fleeing Bethlehem with Mary and the infant Jesus, because Herod has appointed his henchmen to kill every child under two years old in the Bethlehem region. And yet, I think this story is fitting for us on this New Year’s Day. This story is an important one, which foreshadows the kind of life Jesus will lead. But aside from this biblical import, we live in a time of great anxiety and uncertainty. Have you ever experienced a year people were so glad to say goodbye to? I certainly can’t remember one. Of course, there are many years one can point to rationally and say, there were more wars, there was worse genocide, more evil regimes. But simply looking at social media this past week, were so many posts from friends telling 2016 to go to hell. One friend posted, “Isn’t it awful when you wake up in the morning and wonder, “Who is going to die today?” I may have posted a meme of an angry-looking Jesus, with the caption, “Get thee behind me, 2016.” Joking aside, like many others, I am glad to have shut the door on the past year. Personally, it was a difficult year for me, having gotten separated and then divorced, with all the attached difficulties of those things.  So many friends and colleagues faced similar losses this past year. But, beyond our personal stories, so much of this willingness to welcome 2017 has been about what feels like an increasingly unstable world – with so many horrific attacks and bombings by ISIS/ISIL and Boko Haram, the bloody civil war in Syria and its attendant refugee crisis, the Oakland and Orlando shootings, police violence and Brexit. But especially as Americans, and particularly as people living in the Washington, DC area, there is tremendous anxiety about the incoming Trump administration, with fear about what may happen to the rights of immigrants and refugees, people of color, women, LGBT persons, and other vulnerable populations.

In the midst of all this, we have the story of a refugee family. But this is not just any family, but the Holy Family. The baby Jesus, his mother Mary, and earthly father Joseph. I have always wondered about Joseph. We know so little about him. But he is the main player in our gospel text this morning. He is visited by an angel in a dream three times, and each time he acts boldly, courageously, and in faith. But, imagine how startling it must have been to hear the angel say, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” But the gospel writer simply says, “Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt.” Dr. Thomas Troeger, professor at Yale Divinity School writes:

The infant has just received extravagant gifts from exotic visitors. The meaning of his birth, the promise of his life seemed in that bright and shining moment so momentous, so filled with hope, and now this nightmare. Joseph moves from promise to terror with the dreaming of one dream. The nightmare does not end when Joseph awakes. There is a frenzy of activity: stuffing together whatever they have, walking down the street and out the gate onto the main road to get to Egypt as fast as possible, the child crying, the mother exhausted, Joseph’s heart clutching in his throat every time he sees a soldier. The nightmare does not end when they get to their place of refuge. It grows greater, spreading beyond Joseph and the new family, pervading the region they have left behind as the blood of baby children darkens the earth, and their inconsolable mothers set the land echoing with “wailing and loud lamentation.” How swiftly and far we have traveled from gold frankincense and myrrh to the homes drenched with the blood of children because a tyrant fears any potential challenges to his power and authority![1]

The transition from the cattle lowing, bowed shepherds, to being on the run in a foreign land is indeed stark. But beyond our Precious Moments nativity scenes, we should remember that being born in a barn was no great honor, the result of Mary and Joseph having no place to stay. As a baby, already, Jesus was the “Son of Man who had no place to lay his head.” He goes from being homeless to being a refugee. The family leaves Judea for Egypt, going back to the place their ancestors once escaped in the Exodus. St. Matthew is the only gospel to mention this flight into Egypt, and our passage this morning is its only mention. The Bible does not tell us about their journey, where they stayed and how long. But Coptic Christians in Egypt have ancient traditions around the Holy Family’s sojourn in Egypt, believing that they spent three years there in between the flight from Bethlehem to returning to Joseph’s hometown of Nazareth. There are over a dozen sights in Egypt claiming that the Holy Family was once present there. There are multiple stories of idols crumbling in the presence of young Jesus, and him making springs of water develop. One particularly interesting legend is that the family briefly rested in the shade of the mountain Gabal El-Tair – Coptics say that Jesus stretched his small hand to hold back a rock which was about to fall from the mountain onto the family. The imprint of his palm is apparently still visible. What is striking about these Coptic beliefs, whatever their veracity, is they seem to show Jesus, Mary, and Joseph continually on the move – perhaps to continue evading Herod’s wrath.

Like so many refugees today, the family was simply seeking safety for itself. There are so many examples in our world today, but perhaps the most haunting and convicting are the children of Aleppo. Children whose parents are trying to escape the nightmarish civil war to a life where they can live in peace, free from violence and bloodshed. Many of you may remember the photo a few months ago, of a 5-year-old boy named Omran Daqneesh. In the photo he is covered from head to foot in dust and ash, with his face bloodied. He sits in a bright orange ambulance, looking stunned and dazed, having been pulled from the rubble of a building hit by an airstrike. This image was a horrible reminder of the consequence of our warring madness, and inaction on the part of much of the world. Children like this one seek a place of refuge, like the Christchild. And yet we have a president-elect wanting to close off our country to such children. On our own southern borders, come families much like Jesus’. Some coming to escape drug wars and violence, and debilitating poverty – looking for a chance at life. Whether their parents are undocumented or not, these children are guiltless. Can we not see the parallel between the Holy Family traveling on their beast of burden, beaten down by the sun, exhausted as they look for refuge and those who seek refuge in our own country? As Christians, we should be able to see the face of the infant Jesus in these most vulnerable children.

Matthew quotes the prophet Jeremiah saying:

A voice was heard in Ramah,

wailing and loud lamentation,

Rachel weeping for her children;

she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’

Once again Matthew is the only place that records Herod’s slaughter of the innocent babies of Bethlehem. But recorded history tells us that it would have been perfectly in character for this despot. Christianity has made Herod a villain for all time; but it was a title he earned for himself. He has been variously called “a madman who murdered his own family and a great many rabbis,” “the evil genius of the Judean nation,” and “prepared to commit any crime in order to gratify his unbounded ambition.” Herod engaged in enormous building projects across his nation, including the self-named Herodion, purportedly in honor of gods and Roman rulers, but in reality, to boost his own name and ego. These building projects was one of the main causes of the impoverishment of his people. Throughout his reign from 37 – 4 BCE, he grew increasingly paranoid about threats to his power, as we certainly see in his reaction to the birth of Jesus. He put to death three of his own sons for plotting against him, as well as an uncle and one of his ten wives. Emperor Augustus, at whose behest he served, said “It is better to be Herod’s pig than son.” The joke being that as a Jew Herod at least wouldn’t eat the pig.

Author Kathleen Norris wrote in her book Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith:

Everything Herod does, he does out of fear. Fear can be a useful defense mechanism, but when a person is always on the defensive, like Herod, it becomes debilitating and self-defeating. To me, Herod symbolizes the terrible destruction that fearful people can leave in their wake if their fear is unacknowledged, if they have power but can only use it in furtive, pathetic, and futile attempts at self-preservation.[2]

Norris’ words remind us of the danger of our leaders acting out of a place of fear and insecurity. They also remind us of the danger in our own selves when we are captured by fear. We live in a time of enormous fear and anxiety. We have just lived through a campaign season in which our worst fears were manipulated – when candidates capitalized on fears of the other, fear of change, fear of loss of privilege. We must resist this impulse toward fear – which leads not to life but to death.

Joseph and Mary were very likely afraid after Joseph had his first dream of the angel telling him of Herod’s horrible plan. Think of all the times they may have been afraid – when Gabriel tells Mary she will bear the Son of God – afraid of what people will think, how she will explain it, will Joseph abandon her? Of when Gabriel appeared to Joseph explaining this to him – was he too afraid of what people would say about this pregnancy? Were they afraid on the road to Bethlehem, as labor pangs became ever more present? Were they afraid in that barn, about how they would raise this child? We can only imagine how afraid some of these things made Mary and Joseph. But they did not act in fear. They acted in faith that God would do as the angel reported it. They acted in faith that they were the earthly protectors of God’s only begotten Son.

When Herod’s fear got the best of him and chose violence to protect himself and his ego – to fight the Prince of Peace with the tools of death, Jesus’ parents did not let themselves become paralyzed by fear. Joseph listened to the angel’s warning and acted. For Joseph, flight was not a negative response, but one of faith – acting in accordance with God’s promise, taking part in God’s redemptive action, protecting his and God’s son. It reminds me of what Presbyterian activist Maggie Kuhn once said, ““Leave safety behind. Put your body on the line. Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind–even if your voice shakes. When you least expect it, someone may actually listen to what you have to say. Well-aimed slingshots can topple giants.”[3]

Kathleen Norris again says, “leave Herod in his palace, surrounded by flatterers, all alone with his fear.”[4] In a world which sometimes seems captive to fear, we are called to step out in faith. It may take a journey in a foreign land, but we cannot let ourselves be debilitated by those who choose to play on fear. We are called as Christians to speak out, to act, to follow the way of the Christchild. We must remember that he was a refugee like so many others, that he too was once a vulnerable child. So as Christians, we are called to not only remember that, but to see Christ in the face of the children of civil war, of the border, of our own communities.

Joseph received two more visions of the angel in a dream. Herod died, possibly by his own hand, in 4 BCE. The angel appeared to Joseph saying, “‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor martyred at the end of World War II for his stance against the Nazi Reich, exemplified living out faith in the face of fear. In 1940, three years before he was imprisoned, he preached on this text, saying:

Day after day and year after year, Joseph awaited the divine command to return home. Joseph will not take this decision himself. Joseph waits upon God’s wisdom. Then God sends the command in the dream of the night, to stand up and go home with the child and his mother, “those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” The mighty Herod is dead without achieving his purpose. But Jesus lives. So has it always been in the history of the Church. First distress, persecution, fear of death for the children of God, for the disciples of Jesus Christ. But then came the time when it is said, “those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” Nero is dead, Diocletian is dead, the enemies of Luther and the Reformation are dead, but Jesus lives, and with him, those who belong to him. The times of persecution come to an end and the truth emerges – Jesus lives![5]

We might also add that Hitler is dead, that Bonhoeffer’s captors are dead – but Jesus lives, and men and women of the resistance, like Bonhoeffer, with him.

Joseph receives the angel in a dream one last time. He is afraid to go back to Judea because Herod’s son Archelaus is ruling there. Joseph’s instinct is a good one, and the angel confirms this. Indeed Archelaus will only rule for 9 years before being banished – after an outcry from the people, because he had been even more violent than his father. So the family at last goes to Joseph’s hometown in Nazareth. Again we know little of Jesus’ years growing up there, and almost nothing of his relationship with Joseph – but we can be assured that they both grew in wisdom and faith, much formed by their journey into and out of Egypt.

As we begin 2017, yes, our world seems unstable. But as Matthew’s gospel tells us, so was the world into which Jesus was born. Perhaps that is part of the reason Jesus came into this world to share our common lot. Herod and Archelaus are long gone, and they have successors who will one day be long gone as well. For 2,000 years the world has needed a Savior, and the Good News, then in Bethlehem, Egypt, and Nazareth, is the same today in Bethesda and Washington, is that we have a Savior. By his coming to us, as a vulnerable baby to Mary and Joseph, journeying with them in Egypt as a refugee, growing up in God’s favor in Nazareth, by his life and teaching, preaching, and healing in Galilee, by his death, resurrection, and ascension, we are redeemed, and we are led out of fear into faith. This year and every year, may we journey with the Holy Family, acting in faith as they teach us to do.


To God be the glory. Amen.

[1] Thomas Troeger, Matthew 2: 13 -23, Homiletical Perspective, Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.

[2] Norris, 225, via http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Fear-Herod-Alyce-McKenzie-12-23-2013

[3] http://www.history.pcusa.org/blog/maggie-kuhn-womens-history-month

[4] Norris, 226

[5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christmas Sermons, ed. Edwin Robertson, Zondervan, 140 -141.

4. Lent: Lifted By Love


Fourth Sunday in Lent
The United Church + Die Vereinigte Kirche
Washington, DC

“Lifted By Love”
Based on St. John 3: 14 -21
By the Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” For God so loved the world. John 3:16. Part of our text this morning, and one of the few verses in the Bible that most people can quote chapter and verse. We see it on banners and signs and billboards, even in face paint at football games. When searching this verse on Google Images, it even has categories for this verse on Valentine’s Day and Christmas cards. This verse is a part of a long conversation Jesus is having in the middle of the night with Jewish leader Nicodemus. What Jesus says in this verse is profound and important to be sure, but as far as we know, it was not originally intended to be set apart from the rest of his message to Nicodemus. Scholars nearly universally agree that the way that it is so often ripped from its context and made to stand alone is a bad thing.
Now, I support knowing the full context of a given biblical passage as much as possible. But, I also wonder, is the way John 3:16 is highlighted, such a truly bad thing? Psalm 23 wasn’t written to be used at funerals, and 1 Corinthians 13 (Love is patient, Love is kind), is about love in community, rather than between dewy eyed newlyweds, and yet these passages provide comfort and solace to the grieving and support and encouragement for newly married couples. Likewise, if highlighting “For God so loved the world,” helps more people to hear about God’s love, I’m all for it. So I want to go a bit deeper with this verse first, and then we’ll take a broader look at the entire passage itself.
At its worst, this verse has been used as a dogmatic weapon to mark who’s in and who’s out. Think of the placards and signs and tshirts that just say “John 3:16” without the actual words of the verse. It’s like it’s become a secret code for evangelical insiders to show who is saved. One church sign in North Carolina reads, “Where will you spend eternity, Heaven or Hell? Read John 3:16.” The way the verse can be thrown around and pushed so aggressively, it turns a passage about God’s love into something antagonistic and combative. Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz Weber writes, “For some the fact that this love of God in Christ is truly for [each of us] is not enough. I must — and let’s be honest, the church feels it must — add to the gospel. And what the church will add every time is an exclusion clause: “for God so loved … us but not them.” Or, “for God so loved … Christians, but not Muslims. Or, “for God so loved … America, but not Iraq.” Sadly, a passage about God’s expansive love has come to mean for some, and for many outside the Church, that one group of right belief is inside this claim and everyone else is outside it.
But, at our best, this text is used not as a weapon, not as a tool to show who is in and who is out, but as a way to proclaim God’s boundary-less love. We can point to John 3:16 and say “For God so loved the world”! It is not a select group. It is not one nation of people, or even one people within a nation. It is not even God’s favorite ones. It is not those we like, not those we look like, or act like. It is the entire world. God’s love knows no boundaries. God sees our warring madness, mourns our hatred and greed, and sends to each of us, Jesus Christ, to teach us, to lead us into the Way of Life. Jesus reminds us: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” God is enfleshed and comes into our world, not angry and condemning of us, seeking to judge us harshly, but deeply sorrowful for our neglect of God and our neighbor and seeks to show us yet a better way.
Usually, when we hear “For God so loved the world, he gave his only begotten Son,” we describe it as God loving the world so much, that God gave us Jesus Christ. In fact, some Biblical translations phrase the text as “For God loved the world so very much, that he gave his only Son.” This is true. God indeed does love this world so very much. But another way to look at “so loved” is that it is how God show’s God’s love for humanity, it is God’s demonstration of deep and abiding love. It is not like my love for potato chips, or even love for my wife. Rather this is agape love. This is the self-giving, sacrificial love supremely demonstrated in the gift of Christ. It is God’s love in relationship with humanity, it is inherently covenantal. This is the same love which we reciprocate back to God, and indeed it is agape Jesus speaks of when he says “love your neighbor as yourself,” and “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” It is this agape love that St. Paul speaks of to the Corinthians when he wrote, “Love is patient, love is kind…love never fails.” This is even the same kind of love spoken of in the First Letter of St. John, which says, “God is Love.”
Perhaps the best definition I have found of God’s agape love is from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In a sermon to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1957, he preached, “Agape is more than eros; agape is more than philia; agape is something of the understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill for all men. It is a love that seeks nothing in return. It is an overflowing love; it’s what theologians would call the love of God working in the lives of men. And when you rise to love on this level, you begin to love men, not because they are likeable, but because God loves them. You look at every man, and you love him because you know God loves him. And he might be the worst person you’ve ever seen… . Love is understanding, redemptive goodwill for all men, so that you love everybody, because God loves them. You refuse to do anything that will defeat an individual, because you have agape in your soul.” All I can add to Dr. King’s description is that it is this kind of love which God shares, and calls on us to both reciprocate and share with one another.
So Jesus himself says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” The words are profound enough on their own, but think of what it means that Jesus says them. Jesus is predicting his own future. He is telling Nicodemus this in the midst of their conversation. Nicodemus doesn’t fully understand this yet, but Jesus is saying that he, the man from Nazareth and Galilee, is the one whom God has sent to us to teach us and show us how to love God, love each other, and love ourselves.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee, one of the main groups of Jewish leaders in Jesus’ time, with whom Jesus often clashed. Nicodemus was also a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council, which whom again, Jesus came into conflict. This is Nicodemus’ first appearance in scripture. He has come to Jesus in the middle of the night to discuss Jesus’ message. The lectionary divides this discussion into two parts: in the first, Jesus tells Nicodemus that no one “can enter the Kingdom of God without being born from above, ” which Nicodemus questions, saying, “How anyone can be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’” Nicodemus fails to understand that Jesus speaks metaphorically. Jesus responds: “If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” It is at this point in the discussion that our text begins.
We are in the midst of Lent, and here we find as our text St. John’s first prediction of the crucifixion. We still wander in the desert, but even now, the cross looms in the distance. Fittingly, Jesus says that just as Moses lifted up a serpent on a pole to save the Israelites while they were in the desert, so he must be “lifted up”—on the cross. God in Jesus Christ is willing to share love so deeply that it challenges the current order and status quo of oppression and greed and violence, so much so that the authorities nail him to the cross. But God is willing to show power in vulnerability and love even to Calvary’s hill. But this prediction that Jesus offers does not stop with being “lifted up,” but he continues with the promise of the Resurrection: “So must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” We are not left with Jesus remaining on the cross but raised to life, and us with him.
As Jesus continues his message to Nicodemus, “This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” This portion of our text can be disconcerting. Has not Jesus just said that he did not come into the world to condemn it? This is where context is helpful. Each of us, I’m sure, tailors a message to whichever person we are sharing it with in a given moment. I would tell a story in a different way to a close friend than to Evie, a different way to Evie than to my mother, and a different way to my mother than to my sister. We do this because we are in relationship with those people and know how they might best receive a message. I believe Jesus is doing this with Nicodemus. Remember what he is saying here is all in the context of that midnight discussion. Why would Nicodemus come to Jesus at night? Because he is afraid of being seen with Jesus – of revealing his sympathies with the Jesus Movement. Jesus senses his trepidation but also his desire to believe. So we have Jesus urging Nicodemus in no uncertain terms to come out of the darkness of being a midnight follower, to actually embracing Jesus and seen in the light of day.
On the cover of our bulletin this morning is a depiction of our passage by Henry Ossawa Tanner. The son of an African Methodist Episcopal bishop, Tanner expatriated himself from the U.S. to France at the turn of the 20th century, frustrated by American racial politics. He spent 11 months in Palestine on two separate trips between 1897 and 1899, where he painted “Nicodemus Visiting Jesus.” Our cover is a study for this painting. Allen Dwight Callahan says of this work: “Henry Ossawa Tanner sought to represent Jesus as a man in history, while at the same time representing the interplay of colors and the confrontation of light and shadow the mystery of the incarnation as divine events…”Nicodemus Visiting Christ” signifies the manifestation of the Word. Although historical and human it remains nevertheless mysterious. The light in the scene does not come from above but from within, and from the rooftop staircase of the dwelling that is the scene of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. The highlights of Jesus’ face shine as he speaks and gestures in near-darkness; illumination at the same time that emanates in and transcends thought and language…As Jesus speaks, the light of the world enters the darkness of Nicodemus’ ignorance…Tanner himself wrote, “My efforts have been to not only put to Biblical incident in the original setting… but at the same time give the human touch which makes the whole world kin, and which ever remains the same.” It is a beautiful illustration of Jesus’ light coming to Nicodemus, and Jesus urging Nicodemus to choose to follow him openly, to unabashedly embrace the light.
St. John’s gospel doesn’t explicitly say how Nicodemus responded. But we know what he did, which is the more important thing after all. He appears twice more in the gospel. He next appears a couple of chapters later. As other Pharisees begin to conspire against Jesus, Nicodemus asks, “Is it the way of our law to judge a man without giving him a hearing first, and finding out what he is about?” Nicodemus indeed gave Jesus a hearing and indeed found out what he was about – and argues for others to do so as well. Nicodemus appears in the gospel one last time, and poignantly so. After Jesus was crucified and died on the cross, Joseph of Arimathea, one of his disciples, came to bury Jesus’ body in the tomb. With him came Nicodemus, who brought a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes, spices with which to prepare the body for burial. Just as Jesus had told Nicodemus of the gift of eternal life, Nicodemus prepared Jesus’ body for his. He came into the light and lived out his faith in tenderness and love. Christian tradition says that Nicodemus was martyred sometime in the 1st century AD, and his relics are believed to have been found in the 400s, with St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr.
As we walk this road of Lent, we see the cross awaiting in the distance. But let us remember that Christ is lifted up because of his great love for us, for each and every one of us. There is nothing you can ever do or be that will take that love away. God loves us without exception. It is simply up to us to respond also in love, to love God and to share that love with others. For God so loved the world.

To God be the glory. Amen+


Rev. Nadia Bolz Weber, http://sojo.net/blogs/2011/03/28/how-did-john-316-become-about-weirdos-and-violence

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/documentsentry/doc_loving_your_enemies/

Allen Dwight Callahan, “John,” in True to Our Native Land, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007

“God is always with you.” – Mildred JoAnn Landis Semelroth Hadank

joann24 February 2014

A Service of Death and Resurrection

Honoring the faithful life of

JoAnn Semelroth

“God is always with you.”

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.


                Our friend, and my grandmother, was born as Mildred Joan Landis on Saturday, June 4, 1927, to Mary and Galen Landis in Kewanee, Illinois. The day she was born, Charles Lindbergh  began  his famous first non-stop flight across the Atlantic Ocean. Calvin Coolidge was president and the average car cost $360. Silent films were being edged out with the premiere of the Al Jolson musical, “The Jazz Singer.”  Now, as most of you know, she never went by Mildred, always JoAnn, and would eventually change the spelling of her taken name – showing early on her independent spirit. When she was born, Kewanee was a small city of nearly 18,000 persons. She was joined by her brother Jim in 1929, on the day that the U.S. stock market crashed, and in 1946, her beloved sister Lynne. As a baby, little Joan survived a bout of pneumonia. Probably the most dramatic event of her early life occurred when at age five, while on an errand for her mother, she was struck by a car while crossing the street. She was unconscious for three weeks, but fully recovered and had a steel plate in her head ever after.  A child of the depression, she told me that her family wasn’t affected too harshly, as both of her parents were teachers. One memory she once shared was that of her mother preparing meals for homeless wanderers while they waited outside.

                She graduated from Kewanee High School in 1945. While she originally planned on becoming a teacher like her parents, she applied to nursing school with her friend Bernadine. Though Bernadine was not accepted, JoAnn was and she attended Methodist School of Nursing in Peoria. This was her first view of city life. When she graduated in 1948, she returned  to Kewanee and worked at Kewanee Hospital for two  years.  In 1950, she moved back to Peoria to work for her alma mater’s hospital.  While working at Methodist Hospital, she cared for a patient who would later become her husband. JoAnn and Arthur C. Semelroth, Jr., a native of Peoria, were married on April 28, 1957 at First Methodist Episcopal Church in Kewanee.  Art and JoAnn lived in the South End of Peoria on Livingston Street.  JoAnn became stepmother to Art’s children from his first marriage, Sharon and Skip Semelroth.  They were joined by Art and JoAnn’s children: Kent, in 1957, and Julie, in 1960. Later in the 60’s, she left Methodist Hospital to be the Head Nurse at High View Nursing Home. She returned to Methodist School of Nursing as a Nursing Instructor in 1967. One of her pastors, Clyde Ridall, always referred to her as Professor Semelroth.  In 1971, at age 44, she received her Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Bradley University. She was a proud Bradley alumna, and was an avid Bradley basketball fan.

                JoAnn became a grandmother to her first grandson, Ronald Cronin in 1968, followed by Robert Cronin in 1970, Ian Semelroth in 1981, myself in 1984, Jenna Darnell in 1987, and Isabel Semelroth in 1988. In 1989, after 39 years of nursing at Methodist Medical Center, she took early retirement at age 62. She enjoyed retirement to the fullest – playing cards, attending plays, concerts, and basketball games, teaching Sunday School, traveling across the country, and spending time with her numerous good friends in Peoria and Kewanee.  Every week she and her friend Vi would see a new movie.  She often helped out at my mother’s daycare in the 90’s. In 1998, she began dating Bob Hadank, a former neighbor. They were married in 1999, and enjoyed nearly 15 years of marriage until Bob’s death at age 95, last November.  They enjoyed exercising at the River Plex and attending many antique car shows together.

                As JoAnn entered her later 70’s and 80’s, she became frail and her memory began to fade. But she never lost her sweet kindness.  To me, her one question was always, “When are you coming back to see me?” It was never soon enough. Never soon enough for one of Grandma’s hugs. About a year ago, I sat in the ER at Methodist Medical Center with JoAnn and Bob. When I told the nurse that she had worked at Methodist for 39 years, he asked her “Are you JoAnn Semelroth?” and proceeded to tell us how she taught him how to insert an IV.  It was always a joy, especially the past few years, to meet nurses that she had taught and doctors she had worked with, who made sure she was well-cared for. Their esteem and respect for her was wonderful to witness.

                JoAnn, who let me say, would bristle to hear me calling her that, was a doting grandmother. In many photos, you can see that she has a rather serious ‘resting face,’ which my wife says I also have. But, when you see the photos of her with a little grandbaby or great-grandbaby, her face lit up. She was absolutely radiant. Even the past two or so years, when she was frailer and less active, when she was around Haley and Greyson, or Kayla and Elijah, her old spark was there, shining as bright as ever. She also was fascinated with little baby feet. But beyond loving babies, she was truly the most wonderful grandmother you could ask for. She was enormously proud of the 6 of her grandchildren – Ron and Bob, Ian and Isabel, Jenna and I.  My sister Jenna and I were very blessed to live so close to Grandma for our entire growing up years, first only a few blocks away when she moved into the Montclair Apartments after selling my parents her and Art’s home, and then just across the street after she married Bob. It was a blessing to have her so close and to have her impact our lives the way she did. It wasn’t always fun exactly – especially when she liked to sit by her picture window and call when my window shade wasn’t up by a certain hour – but she was never less than a loving and blessed presence in our lives.

                I had a special bond with my grandmother, as her youngest grandson  – “my little boy” she would call me. In January 2012, after I baptized my niece and nephew at my church in Missouri, she came to me in the receiving line with tears in her eyes saying, “Oh, my little boy!”  Some of my first memories are of Grandma picking me up from pre-school, still wearing her white nurses uniform, and then hiding behind her skirt while the family was taking pictures after Jenna’s baptism. She was my friend and my protector. You always felt safe around Grandma. The one exception may be the time she started a fire in her microwave by putting in a chicken sandwich with aluminum foil.  My sister and I spent many weekends sleeping over at Grandma’s apartment. She was ever patient as we built forts out of TV trays and afghans. When I was a bit older, I remember sitting at breakfast with Grandma, hearing the news that Princess Diana had died.  We would share in watching Nick at Nite, and she’d let me stay up just a bit late to see Mister Ed, and we’d watch some of her favorites like Lawrence Welk, the Golden Girls, or a Bill Gaither special. Grandma had season tickets to Peoria Players Theatre with her friend Gladys, and about once a season they would invite me along. I still have my program from The Fantasticks.  I would later perform community theatre at Peoria Players myself, and worked alongside some of the same actors I saw as a kid. Each week in the summer, Jenna and I would attend municipal band concerts with Grandma, always sitting on the back sidewalk. She took us to movies, and I recall Pinocchio as one of the first we saw together. Grandma also, unbeknownst to my parents, took me to my first R-rated movie, As Good as it Gets.  At home or her apartment we loved to watch classic movies together. Grandma’s favorite movie stars, the crushes of her youth, were Don Ameche and John Payne.   I think we watched every Shirley Temple movie. Aunt Lynne tells me that when Shirley Temple passed away on February 10, Grandma intently read the newspaper article on her.  I can credit my grandmother for much of my love of theatre, music, and movies.

                We never traveled together outside of a few family trips, but Grandma loved traveling, and I have inherited her wanderlust. After she retired, you never quite knew where she would be, taking numerous bus trips to Mackinaw Island, New England, New York and elsewhere. She particularly liked mystery tours, which were these daylong bus trips where you didn’t get told the destination until arriving. Grandma sent postcards everywhere she went, even if it was just to Chicago. I saved most of them and actually put them in an album a few weeks ago – there are a lot from North Carolina, Florida, Texas, and Georgia on trips to see her kids, grandkids, and siblings – but also from Branson, one of her favorites, and many other places across the Midwest. I collect vintage postcards today, partly started from what she would send me.

                Much of who I am is because of Grandma. This can be said of many of us.  My own sister is an alumna of Methodist College of Nursing, like our grandmother, and a registered nurse, attending to the babies in the neo-natal intensive care unit, carrying on our grandmother’s legacy of caring service as a nurse.  Grandma modeled to me what it was to be a kind and compassionate person.  This kindness and compassion was an outgrowth of her faith, having been baptized at First Methodist Episcopal Church of Kewanee, later participating at First Methodist in downtown Peoria while she was a nursing student, then as a member of Grace Evangelical United Brethren Church. Grace later became Grace United Methodist Church when the Evangelical United Brethren merged with the Methodists in 1968. She exhibited the prophet Micah’s axiom: Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God, as much as any person I have met.  Grandma saw to it, beginning at age three, that I went to Sunday School and worshiped with her at her United Methodist congregation. I credit much of my early religious education to this wonderful woman, who laid the groundwork for a strong faith in me. I attended church intermittently with her later in childhood. When I was in my early teens I began going to church with her regularly again. She planted the seed of faith in me, which I hope gives both glory to God and honor to my faithful grandmother.  I stand here in this robe and collar, in part because of her. Without her teaching me the stories of the Bible, without seeing her commitment to the community of faith, without witnessing her gentle, quiet faith, perhaps I would have never had the same devotion to these things that she gave me.

                Some Christians make their faith known by being preachy and outwardly pious. Grandma was not one of those people. She was devout – in reading of scripture, in teaching Sunday School, in attending worship, in participating in the Lydia Circle and United Methodist Women (who some say is the mafia of the United Methodist Church). But what set her aside as an exemplary example of a faithful United Methodist and a faithful Christian was the way she led her life. The Beatitudes are on the back of her memorial card. These are the “Blessed be…” statements Jesus made in the Sermon on the Mount near the beginning of his ministry. I think five of the blessed particularly speak to who JoAnn was:

                ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

 ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. [1]

                 In the summer before I left Illinois for seminary, Grandma and I sat together once a week and had our own Bible study from the United Church of Christ’s “God is still speaking,” program.  Often when we came to a difficult passage her stock answer was that the text was the “God is always with you.”  But this was neither a surprise nor really a stock answer, for I knew from being raised in the church by my grandmother that the belief that “God is always with you” was at the core of her theology. And it has been the core of my theology ever since she first read me the Bible stories we explored together again that summer.

                Two years ago when I was ordained in Washington, DC, I asked Grandma to do the gospel reading from St. Luke. She got up to the chancel with her walker and my mother, and read the gospel boldly. I wish the audio to the recording of this which you heard  a few minutes ago was better, but she did it strongly without a microphone.  What a treasure it is, to be able to hear her read this wonderful passage from St. Luke’s gospel.  The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that this passage speaks to what Grandma believed.

                The gospel reading is known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  In the passage’s context, Jesus speaks of a variety of lost things: the shepherd who leaves his 99 sheep to find the lost one, the woman with ten silver coins who celebrates when finding the one she lost, and the prodigal son whose father thought he had lost, but then returned. These are all multi-layered stories rich in symbolism about the ways in which God seeks us out, how precious each one of us is to God, how God never gives up on us, how God is indeed always with us. But the most poignant of these is the story of the prodigal son.

                Jesus so often taught by telling stories, and this is one of his greatest stories.  A man had two sons. One son decides he’s had enough of home life, tells his father to give him his inheritance so he can venture out on his own. To Jesus’ original hearers, this action would essentially mean that the father was as good as dead to the son, and all he needed from their relationship was his money. Anyways, the son goes off on his own, spends all his money and had to take a job as a hired hand feeding pigs. Now remember, Jesus was speaking to a Jewish audience who viewed pigs as unclean, which were to be avoided at all costs. So this son had to take the lowest form of employment available, he was so destitute. Even the pigs had more to eat than he. So he thinks to himself how even his father’s hired hands have food to spare, and he composes a speech of how he will go grovel to his father and ask to be treated like the help. The son goes on his road of repentance. Apparently the father has been waiting, because as soon as he sees his son in the distance, he hoists up his robes and runs to greet his son – throwing dignity and position aside, to welcome his son home. The son begins his speech saying, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son…” But he doesn’t get to finish, and his father stops him. It is not necessary. This father’s love doesn’t have conditions. Rather than scolding his son or focusing on how his son treated him or where the money went, he says to his servants, “Quickly, bring out a robe—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 lost and is found!” A grand celebration with singing and dancing ensues. But the man’s older son does not approve. He refuses to go in, out of anger that he was the one who kept the household together while his brother was away. But the father insists, saying, ““Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

                God is like the father in this story. Whether we are devout Christians who spend every day in church or agnostics who have never set foot in a house of worship, God welcomes us when we turn to God, welcomes us with open arms, calling on the party, for a robe around our shoulders, a ring on our finger, and sandals on our feet. Our God loves us without condition, and with vast overflowing streams of grace and mercy. God runs out to meet us on the road, to embrace us. God is always there, waiting in love and hope.

                I know that Grandma believed this. She said as much with words, and more importantly in her actions. You could disappoint her in your actions – but were never in doubt that she loved you with her whole heart. It was her belief that God was always there for her, for everyone – and she embodied this with love, kindness and compassion, as a nurse, as a teacher, as mother, sister and grandmother, and friend.

                Not only does God wait for us and welcome us spiritually, like the prodigal’s father – when we die, God literally welcomes us home. God cannot wait to welcome us home, and runs to meet us, as in this parable.  God has welcomed Mildred  JoAnn Landis Semelroth Hadank home. It for us now to commend her to God.

                It is hard to believe I’ll never have another phonecall from Grandma saying, “It’s just nice to hear your voice,” or have her hold my hand saying “I’m just not going to let go.” The grief we all feel is very significant because she left such a significant impact on our lives. She made many of us who we are.  I know that I would not be the man I am today without her influence, love, and care. For that I am eternally grateful. So today and the days ahead are filled with the pain of loss, of the holes left in our lives from her physical absence.

                Yet, as Christians we believe that death is not the end and does not have the last word. In the United Church of Christ, we often say “Never place a period where God places a comma, God is still speaking,” Resurrection is the ultimate comma. It is not darkness of cold earth that we face. We do face mortality in this frame, in this sphere – but if we have faith in the God of new life, of redemption and grace, we face a glorious Heaven with all the saints in light. The Good News is this: that God has sent Jesus Christ to us, first in the form of a humble, poor baby, then as a wandering teacher, who has taught to love ourselves, each other, and God. By Christ’s nativity, life, teaching, healing, suffering, crucifixion, death, resurrection, and ascension we are redeemed. He breaks the bonds of sin and death. Though the powers of the world tried to end his ministry that upended their world, those powers are gone and Christ still reigns. Despite the worst of the cruel cross of Calvary, death could not destroy Christ. As God made flesh, Christ stormed the doors of evil and has conquered them. Violence could not kill him, and he was raised in three days. This is our inheritance as children of God. As the heirs of Christ, as members of Christ’s Body, so too will we be raised with Christ. In baptism, we are forever knit into the Body of Christ. When we die, we join all the witnesses of faith who have gone before us.

                So Grandma has joined Peter, James and John, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Paul and Timothy, John and Charles Wesley, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Mother Theresa.  We don’t know what awaits us in Heaven, but as people of faith, we believe it does await us and we can rest in the blessed assurance that Grandma is at peace in her glorious home.  I hope that she has been reunited with her parents and relatives, and especially with Art, after nearly 40 years. Maybe she’s enjoying a heavenly card game with Gladys, Helen, and Nelda. Maybe she’s enjoying a movie with Vi at the Pearly Gates Cinema. Surely, she is praising God with Clyde Ridall, Pat Carper, Mary Yard, Dorothy Nickels, Bob Bozarth and others. I know she longs to see us again, just as much as we long for her.  One day, God-willing we will all be reunited in God’s loving kingdom.

                Pericles said, “What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.” In no small irony, Grandma, the crocheter and embroiderer, wove deeply in our lives. Neither gone nor forgotten she will be ever present with us in the ways she made us better people by her love and care, by simply being present in our lives. The loss of her physical presence is a difficult, difficult thing – sometimes just excruciating – but she will remain with us by the love and care we show, in her honor.  When Grandma was sick and in the hospital bed in my mother’s living room these past weeks, one day my little niece Haley and nephew Greyson were helping to arrange the sheets on her bed. Another time when Greyson could not reach Grandma he kissed her headboard. And another day, when Grandma was crying in pain, Haley said, ”It’s okay great-grandma, I’m coming!!” These beautiful acts of kindness by toddlers, her great-grandchildren are her legacy, for it is such kindness and caring love that we learned from her. So do not despair, but have hope. For Mildred JoAnn Landis Semelroth Hadank lives in us, and in Heaven with our God.

Grandma, I love you. I will never forget how much you have done for me. I hope I will honor you and God with the life I have been given. You blessed us and honored God with your earthly life, and now have your heavenly one to bless us with. Intercede for us, and welcome us home when the time comes. God be with you til we meet again.

To God be the Glory. Amen.


[1] St. Matthew 5: 5-9, NRSV

Why I’m Not Signing the UMC Petition

There is currently a petition circulating urging United Methodist Bishop Peggy Johnson not to bring formal charges against clergy in her conference who perform same-sex marriages. While many of my friends, who I respect and honor,  are signing the petition, I will not.

I believe the petition is misguided for several reasons. First, simply ignoring those parts of the Book of Discipline which regard homosexuality as incompatible with Christian scripture and living, does nothing to eliminate this homophobic language from the Book of Discipline. Even if one bishop is convinced to not charge clergy in same-sex relationships or clergy who perform same-sex marriages, clergy in other conferences will continue to be held accountable to the standards of the Book of Discipline. Clergy will still be at the behest of a bishop who may or may not share their views on sexuality.

As long as the current language is in the Book of Discipline, every incident of civil disobedience should be brought up on charges. It is what the Discipline calls for.  But it is also strategic. If every bishop charged every clergy member who is knowingly same-sex relationship and  every clergyperson who performs same sex marriages, conferences would be so overloaded with clergy on trial that it could force the United Methodist Church to finally acknowledge the deep divisions within the Church.

To be clear, I support the United Methodist clergy who choose to out themselves to their bishops and those brave allies who choose to marry same-sex couples. But those clergy know full well the risks they are taking, and should be prepared to face the challenges that result from such actions. These actions are civil disobedience, which has to be combined the courage of the conviction to take such stands in the first place. Each time clergy are brought to trial, the more the homophobia of the United Methodist Church is exposed, and hopefully  comes closer to being shamed into removing the repugnant anti-gay language from the Book of Discipline.

Read the petition here: http://act.faithfulamerica.org/act/methodistwedding

Thanks to Jesus


13 October 2013

21st Sunday after Pentecost

Fairfax Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Fairfax, VA

Thanks to Jesus

Based on St. Luke 17: 11-19

By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell

                There was a highly melodramatic film made in 1939 called Five Came Back. Starring a young Lucille Ball, it was the story of the passengers of an airplane that crashed en route to Panama, and you guessed it, only five of them make it back home.  Well, in our gospel story today, after Jesus heals ten lepers of their skin ailments, not even five return to thank him. Only one comes back to thank Jesus for healing him. Given that Evie and I saw “A Chorus Line” last night, I’m tempted to say that he was “one singular sensation…one thrilling combination.”  Bad musical theatre references aside, the interaction Jesus has with the one person who comes back to thank him is quite extraordinary.  Jesus told those who he healed to go see a priest, who could allow them back into the community because they were now clean. But one comes back, falls to Jesus feet and thanks him. Jesus says to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” Notice the language here – when Jesus healed all 10, he said they had been made clean. Here, he says the one is made well. In the first situation the physical infirmity is healed. But in this instance, the one who returned is made well by his faith, meaning that he is no less than redeemed by God.  We are told that he came back praising God in a loud voice, the only one who thought to do so. And in doing so, he found new life even beyond his physical healing.

                There is something else extraordinary here about this one who came back. It is only when he came back that  the gospel writer informs us that this person is a Samaritan. Now, you likely have heard the parable of the Good Samaritan, about the person beaten on the side of the road who is ignored by the priests and left to die, until a reviled Samaritan comes along to take care of him.  This is another good Samaritan story. Today, Samaria is located in the Palestinian West Bank. Samaritans once numbered over a million people, but as of last year have been decimated to only 751 left. But 700 years before Jesus was born the Assyrians invaded Israel. In the area of Samaria, some Samaritans mixed with the Assyrians and other foreigners, which recent DNA evidence actually confirms. The Judeans in their part of the country found this repulsive and repugnant. They wanted nothing to do with ethnic mixing, and especially these Samaritans. They believed that Samaritans also corrupted and altered the Jewish faith, while in reality the Samaritans actually practiced an older version of the faith than the Judeans themselves. The Samaritans also had their own temple, since the Judeans did not regard them as fellow Jews, a temple which the Judeans destroyed 100 years before the birth of Jesus. Samaritans today still worship at the ruins of that temple. So the Judeans and Samaritans had been fighting for 700 years when Jesus met this Samaritan woman. The view of these people was so low, that this is why it would have been surprising for early Christians whenever they heard of Jesus’ positive interactions with Samaritans.

                So it is one so reviled and hated by the surrounding Jewish believers, that shows faith and gratitude. I think there’s a direct correlation.  Often when you live on the underside of life, when you’re oppressed and discriminated against, when you’ve been passed over or ignored, you become more attune to the blessings that life does have to offer. You can become bitter. Or, like the Samaritan, you can reach out for grace when it’s offered.  Whereas the other nine didn’t bother to stop and thank Jesus, the Samaritan, the one who lived a difficult life on the margins, could tell grace and healing, when he saw it, and knew to give thanks. Rev. Bruce Epperley, pastor of South Congregational United Church of Christ on Caped Cod, writes that “The Jewish recipients received a cure and presented themselves to Jesus just as he advised. There is no reason to criticize their behavior. The Samaritan leper returns grateful for his cure.  He is a model of interdependent living: he knows he can’t make it alone, he needs a power greater than himself for healing, and so he gives thanks for all that he’s received.”[1]

                Thinking about this Samaritan’s gratitude,  I think we don’t thank Jesus enough. We ask away in our prayers, but we don’t always show respective thanks for what we have received from our Lord. So I want to share some of the things I’m thankful to Jesus for.

                *I want to start out personally. I am thankful to Jesus for a grandmother that not only demonstrated Christ’s love to me, but taught me about Jesus, took me to church and Sunday School, and nurtured my childhood faith.

                *I am thankful to Jesus for a family that takes care of each other, that cared for me as I searched for employment over 7 months.

                *I am thankful to Jesus for helping me through life’s difficult periods. The past few years have been ones of extreme highs and extreme lows for me.  In 2011, I had both the wonderful joy of becoming engaged, and the traumatic heartbreak of the sudden end of that relationship. It was the most painful thing I have ever endured, a sadness I didn’t know whether I would survive or not. Then mere months later, I had the joy of receiving my first call to a parish and being ordained, and then the difficult realization that my gifts would be used better elsewhere. This was a very hard time for me, but through it I was sustained by my faith in Christ, for which I am thankful.

                *I am thankful to Jesus for this place, for this family of faith called Fairfax Christian Church.  I am thankful that he has called you into this Christian community. I am thankful for the opportunity to minister with you in this place. I am thankful that you share Christ’s message of love and hope with welcome and positivity.

                *I am thankful to Jesus that he came to us a weak and vulnerable baby, born in a barn to parents just as lost as an others.  I am thankful because we are reminded that God comes to us not in triumphant overbearing power, but in vulnerable love. I am thankful because the Jesus who loves us into salvation is the same Jesus who clung to his mother’s breast.

                *I am thankful to Jesus that the one story we have from his childhood is one in which he goes off and does his own thing, driving his parents into a frenzy.  I am thankful for the story of Jesus staying behind at the temple because it shows us both his humanity and divinity, and that he was a son who wandered off like other sons with parents who worried like other parents.

                *I am even thankful to Jesus for sassing his mother. Now this one might be a little controversial. But when Jesus was at the wedding at Cana, Mary tells him to take care of the wine problem. He tells her “Woman, my time has not yet come!” Not a very nice way to treat his mother, but she pays no heed. I am thankful, because it makes Jesus a real person with real and flawed relationships.

                *I am thankful to Jesus for teaching us another way. I am thankful that Jesus teaches us that love is stronger than hate, that hope is stronger than fear, that life is stronger than death. I am thankful that Jesus teaches that all are accepted and loved, even when society says otherwise.

                *I am thankful to Jesus for his healing power. I am thankful to Jesus for restoring not only health, but giving hope in his healing presence.

                *I am thankful to Jesus for showing us what God is like through his words and actions. I am thankful that in Jesus we can know God as a loving friend and companion, one who cares for us, who reaches out to us time and again, one who loves us beyond our faults and failures.

                *I am thankful to Jesus for giving his life for us. I don’t pretend to know or understand exactly why Jesus was forced to die on the cross, but I do know that he did it willingly and with utmost love. I am thankful, because through the cross comes resurrection.

                *I am thankful to Jesus for the joy and hope that the resurrection brings. I am thankful for the new life it gives us. I am thankful that Jesus has broken the bonds of violence and death, and shown us that love always wins.

                *I am thankful to Jesus for redeeming me, for redeeming all creation in his wondrous and mighty acts. I am thankful to Jesus for leading us each into the way of salvation.

                *I am thankful to Jesus for this life and the joys it brings, and all the more for the life to come in which we will finally see Jesus face to face.  I am thankful to Jesus already for that day will come when each of us like the Samaritan who came back will be able to fall to our knees and thank Jesus, giving praise to God.

Beautiful Jesus, Head of all creation
God and the blessed Mary’s child
I want to thank you, praise and adore you
Joy of my soul, so long desired

Fair are the meadows, fairer still the woodlands,
Robed in the blooming garb of spring;
Jesus is sweeter, Jesus is purer,
Who makes the woeful heart to sing.

Fair is the sunshine,
Fairer still the moonlight,
And all the twinkling starry host;
Jesus shines brighter, Jesus shines purer
Than all the angels Heav’n can boast.

All fairest beauty, heavenly and earthly,
Wondrously, Jesus, is found in Thee;
None can be nearer, fairer or dearer,
Than Thou, my Savior, art to me.

Beautiful Savior! Lord of all the nations!
Son of God and Son of Man!
Glory and honor, praise, adoration,
Now and forever more be Thine.

(Munster Gesangbuch, 1677)

In thanks and praise, O Lord, amen.

[1] Bruce Epperly, Adventurous Lectionary