they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
    and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more;

[Micah 4:3]

Washingtonville Cemetery 4A small cemetery sits behind Trinity Lutheran Church in Washingtonville, Ohio, a small village of 800 or so people that straddles both Columbiana and Mahoning Counties. The cemetery was a stop on a tour of the area that Trinity’s pastor, the Rev. Kari Lankford, gave me after I had preached at the other congregation she serves, St. Paul Lutheran Church in nearby Leetonia.

What fascinated me was the age of the headstones. Although some had been refurbished, many were in various stages of deterioration. But stacked neatly in a corner of the cemetery were several that had been removed from their original location by storms and strong winds. Since no one can seem to find the cemetery’s records, these markers are destined to remain forever detached from the people they were meant to memorialize.

Washingtonville Cemetery 2I became filled with a sense of profound sadness, primarily because many of these were monuments of veterans that had served in the Revolutionary War. Their historical significance has apparently been desecrated. It was as if to say, “That was yesterday’s war, let’s move on to the next one.”

For some unusual reason, on this Memorial Day my mind drifted to the image of those neglected gravestones at that cemetery, while elsewhere, in many and various ways, we dutifully honor the memory of those who died in service to our country.

Let me be unequivocally clear; I am categorically opposed to war. I find the praise lavished on America’s military servicemen and women by our current society to be, in large part, superficial and disingenuous. The patriotism displayed at sporting events by the singing of God Bless America and jets flying over stadiums borders on the extreme. A less glamorous, more realistic show of support might be to visit a Veterans Administration hospital sometime and spend time with the numerous patients noticeably missing limbs and bearing the not so evident psychological scars – lifelong reminders of the incalculable human cost of conflict. They are the living headstones of today.

I was also today drawn to the verse from Micah cited above. The verse is also repeated verbatim in Isaiah 2:4. A sword is a potent symbol of military efforts, while a plowshare symbolizes agricultural life and community. I firmly believe that at our very core, the most basic human desire is to put an end to war and convert the means of destruction into creative tools for the benefit of all mankind.

Yet what is going on today was no different than in Micah’s time. The vision of swords being beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks is a nice idea, but all throughout history it has been ridiculed by our experience of the everyday reality of the world. This is a world dominated by the sword.

The sentiment of Micah’s beautiful verse is further disdained by the cold hard reality of our own lives. We respond too easily with hatred and violence, too easily with division and strife. We see it in our political discourse and in the language we use for one another. In short, we see it everywhere.

Memorial Day is an appropriate occasion to respectfully honor the sacrifices that those who have lost their lives in battle have made for this country. It is also an opportunity to further the consciousness of the absurdity of war, and honor the memory of fallen by working more diligently to find peaceful solutions to conflict. Let us be open to the invitation to strengthen ourselves in God’s word. In so doing, we become witnesses to a great hope, a transformative hope, a hope that will one day live out the reality that we expect to be fulfilled among us – a life of peace.


…as they were watching, [Jesus] was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.

[Acts 1:9]

The first time I preached a sermon on the Ascension of our Lord was ten years ago, on May 5, 2005. The ministerial association that I was a part of held an ecumenical Ascension service each year and the preaching assignment was usually given to the least experienced preacher, which happened to be me.

It was an evening service and in case you didn’t catch the date, it was also Cinco de Mayo. As you can imagine, there were not only more people in bars than were in church on that festive evening, but there were more clergy in the service than there were worshippers in the pews. Eventually, that ecumenical celebration was discontinued and, you might add, with good reason.

I can assure you that today there are very few congregations that will celebrate the Ascension of Our Lord with worship.* Some will observe the Ascension this coming Sunday, bumping the seventh Sunday of Easter from the calendar. But I suspect that most will simply not observe it at all.

When you consider that the writer of the gospel of Luke and the book of Acts thought this event worthy of narrating twice, this lack of observance of this great ecumenical feast gets shoddy treatment.

It wasn’t always this way. The ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ was once celebrated universally and dramatically. According to the website,, some churches had special holes in their roofs that were used on Ascension Day; when the words were read – “While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” – a likeness of the risen Lord would be hauled up from the floor of the nave to and through the roof and out of sight of the people worshiping below.

The same hole was used on the Day of Pentecost when, in some of these same churches, roses were showered down from above to symbolize the tongues of fire that “rested on each one of them” on the first Pentecost.

I would not, by the way, campaign for a revival of the medieval practice of lifting a statue of the Lord up and through the roof. Building property committees would obviously look down on the idea ( both literally and figuratively speaking) and any pastor who would suggest such an architectural adjustment would most likely find him or herself preaching somewhere else the next Sunday.

But the bottom line is that today, we do very little if anything at all. We don’t quite know how to celebrate the Ascension. This stands in stark contrast to the Amish communities in North America, who typically mark the day by closing their businesses and not doing field work, focusing instead on family gatherings and reunions. For the rest of American society, however, it is just another day.

Ascension-JohnSingletonCopley_000Perhaps we just can’t tolerate too much worship spilling into the week. Perhaps the scene of Jesus ascending on a cloud is a bit too reminiscent of Peter Pan or Mary Poppins with her umbrella. Yet week after week, on Sunday after Sunday or whenever we gather, we recite the words of either the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed and we repeat the line, “He ascended into heaven.” It rolls off our lips with little difficulty and I would guess, with little thought given to the meaning of those words.

What does it mean to you that Jesus ascended into heaven?

As humans, we are visual thinkers. Words help us create images that we remember even though we have seen them only in art or in our mind’s eye.  We think of heaven as another place, an upper level on our three story universe. But unless we reframe our thinking, our mental elevator will always remain stuck on the ground floor.

I would propose to you, however, that we don’t need to look to the heavens to find inspiration. The ever-present God is right here, giving us all the guidance and inspiration we need. And that guidance and inspiration can be found in Holy Scripture. God’s word in Holy Scripture points us in the right direction—beyond ourselves.

In the assigned Gospel reading for Ascension Day, Luke 24:44–53, verse 45 reads: Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.

He opened their minds to understand the scriptures. There is something liberating in this statement. Our minds must be open to understand, not closed. Reading the Bible with open minds reveals something new each time we read a passage. This is one of the things I used to stress when I was in the parish to the point that I believe some cringed when I would mention it.

Though Jesus has ascended into heaven he leaves us with his Word to teach us continually.  It is because of this teaching that we are guided along the way. As the Psalmist tells us in Psalm 119, “Your word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” [Psalm 119:105]

*There are two Ascension Day services in the Northeastern Ohio Synod that I am aware of. Both are at 7:00 p.m.

Messiah Lutheran Church, 21485 Lorain Road, Fairview Park, OH 44126 (440) 331-2405

Messiah Lutheran Church, 4920 Fairport Road, Newton Falls, OH 44444 (330) 872-0382

letterman’s legacy

“I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”

[John 15:11]

David Letterman
David Letterman

I haven’t always been a fan of David Letterman. I probably never watched his late night talk show on CBS with any regularity until I married my wife, Linda, ten years ago. She ritualistically never turned off the TV until she had, at the very least, seen Letterman’s “Top Ten.” Even though she had to wake up much earlier than I did, she would faithfully follow this routine, then wake up grumbling in the morning about how sleepy she was. So I was compelled to endure the routine. The things we do for love.

However, as one who can fall asleep at the turn of a switch, over time I found myself staying awake through the entire hour. I was intrigued by his interview skills, his ability to ask the tough question without being antagonistic, and to compliment without fawning.

In recent months my wife and I have gravitated to Jimmy Fallon, his NBC counterpart. We both agree that Fallon’s routines are fresher and livelier. Despite their obvious appeal to a much younger audience, we find them just as captivating to our demographic. Perhaps it’s a function of my penchant for childishness and silly humor.

When Letterman announced that he would be retiring, we felt guilty – as if somehow our disloyalty had led to his leaving. So in recent weeks we have been watching the “Top Ten” and quickly switching back to Fallon, hoping we haven’t missed much.

I read with interest a lengthy interview which recently appeared in the New York Times, and was struck by Letterman’s introspectiveness. He is obviously a keen observer of human nature, a man who has put a lot of thought into his craft and his career.

He is seemingly thankful for his good fortune. He has survived a quintuple heart bypass and a sex scandal that could have cost him his marriage, if not his livelihood. Through it all he has been able to maintain a sense of humor. And perhaps it is that ability to laugh that, despite his personal flaws and shortcomings, has enabled him to carry on with little damage to his reputation.

Given his private personality, not much is known about David Letterman’s faith. A quick internet search revealed that his mother worked for a time as a secretary for the Second Presbyterian Church of Indianapolis. Bu as to whether he worships regularly, or even believes in God, is known only to him and those closest to him.

Nevertheless, there was one telling statement in the interview in response to the reputation that he is not a warm person. Letterman ends his answer by saying, “It’s the Golden Rule. I try to be nice to people who are nice to me. I like doing nice things for people. It makes me feel good. But I think it’s legitimate.”

And Letterman has made me feel good by making me laugh – a lot.

Martin Luther is quoted as saying, “If you are not allowed to laugh in heaven, I don’t want to go there.”

And as I read the Times interview, I also couldn’t help but recall the words of Jesus from the Gospel reading for the Fifth Sunday of Easter: “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”

Yes, I’m very aware that it’s a totally different context. Some may go so far as to accuse me of heresy by drawing analogies between Letterman’s nightly joking and Jesus’ remarks to his disciples on the night before his crucifixion. But as he prepares to leave the airwaves, it’s remarkable to note how much this late night comedian has influenced the American public. It undoubtedly pales by comparison to the lasting joy of Jesus. Still, Letterman leaves us an enduring legacy of laughter that will not be fleetingly forgotten.

Linda and I are committed to watching Letterman’s entire final show on May 20. I may even record it for posterity. He is a unique talent and the excellence he has brought to the late-night genre will be difficult to attain, let alone surpass.


“Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”

[Acts 10:47]

ACTS: The Gospel of the Spirit
ACTS: The Gospel of the Spirit

Several years ago, church historian Justo González wrote a commentary on the book of Acts entitled Acts, the Gospel of the Spirit. It was written from an obvious Latino perspective, emphasizing the social, spiritual, missional and theological implications on the Latino culture and churches. But there is a lot to be gleaned from this work for other cultures as well.

The first reading for the Sixth Sunday of Easter contains the last five verses from the 10th Chapter of the Acts of the Apostles [44-48]. It is the end of a long narrative normally known as “The conversion of Cornelius” but González maintains that in all truth it is really the conversion of Peter.

What struck me was verse 47 (see above) because of its similarity to a line in the previous Sunday’s reading from Acts, the encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. The Eunuch asked Philip, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” [Acts 8:36]

In both instances, we are presented with situations that invite us to reconsider something to which we may not previously have given much thought. Jesus’ followers were Jews or converts to Judaism. They perhaps hadn’t thought through what Jesus meant when he said to them, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” [Acts 1:8]

"Baptism of cornelius" by Francesco Trevisani
“Baptism of cornelius” by Francesco Trevisani

So here we find in this short reading another powerful line that tells us that, “The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.

At last they were starting to get it. The world didn’t necessarily revolve around them.

Normally, we are conservative about dealing with things different or unfamiliar – unfamiliar food, brands, people. To an extent, such an attitude is reasonable because it enhances our chances of survival. But problems occur when we get too comfortable with the familiar, to the extent we lose the awareness that there are other ways of doing basically the same thing that are just as valid as ours.  Some of us eat bread with our meal, others eat tortillas.  Some eat potatoes, others eat rice and beans. But, in the end, they both accomplish basically the same thing, feeding the hungry stomach.

When we lose the awareness that there are diverse ways of doing basically the same thing, we run the risk of falling into the us-versus-them kind of thinking where what is comfortable and familiar to us becomes something natural and hence, eternally true – while what is different to us becomes something abnormal and essentially inferior.  We, in short, run the risk of calling people or things profane even when they come clean off God’s hands.

More specifically, when we become overly comfortable with the familiar, we tend to make two kinds of blunders.

One is that we are likely to lump together everyone and everything that is different from us under one catchall category called the “other.” We lump together all those people and things that are different from us and demean them. We put people into simplistic categories like “thugs,” “illegals,” “terrorists, or “liberals” or “conservatives.”

While that may bring order to our own mind, it hinders our ability to truly understand other people, or to appreciate the fact that they themselves may be very diverse. It hinders us from entertaining the notion that each of these individuals and peoples might have a unique history, a special culture, and unanticipated gifts.

The second blunder is that we make ourselves, or that which is familiar to us, the norm of what is good and beautiful and wise – and usually end up looking quite bad and ugly and woefully ignorant. 

Take for example, skin color. There is no getting around the fact that our skin color – our physical appearance – is familiar to us. That in itself is not a problem. The problem occurs when we get too comfortable with our skin color – our own family, our own culture, our own gender, our own sexual orientation – to the extent that we make it normative for all humanity. 

We know this problem all too well, and it comes with different labels: racism, ethnocentrism, sexism, and homophobia. But whatever we call it, we know it is wrong, because it forces us to call evil what God has created good.

We have seen this dynamic play itself out over the past several months in the civil unrest that has resulted from the shootings of unarmed victims by police which are then followed by protests that have often turned into violent conflict.

diverse2Unfortunately, we bring that same thinking into the church community and limit ourselves, our churches, and the very kingdom of God from experiencing the fullness and richness and beauty of what it can become.

Seeking similarities between us and those who are different from us, seeing the clean hand of God in all that God has created, even if that means experiencing discomfort, is one of the things we are called to do as Christians. And only if we can do that, will it be possible for use to reconcile in Christ.

To quote Jesus from the Gospel reading for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”

I normally don’t close a blog post with a prayer, but I came across this one several years ago and have used it on occasions which seem appropriate. I apologize for not having written down the source.

God of all nations and peoples, for whom no one on earth is unclean, untouchable or taboo, cleanse our hearts from the fears and prejudices which still threaten our being and challenge us in the deepest places of body and spirit. Come to us, and do whatever it takes, to open our eyes, to bring a change of heart, and to turn us to do what is right, so that, in your good time, we shall recognize one another as beloved brothers and sisters, and as children of your love. In the name of the one who broke tradition, to touch, to heal and to hold, Jesus Christ your Son, our Savior, Amen.


Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God

[1 John 4:7]

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

It has been a while since I’ve posted anything new on this blog. Even my most recent post was a duplication of something I’d written a few years ago. I confess it has been a struggle to sit and think about something other than a sermon. There have been countless other writing obligations, and the months of March and April have been filled with pastoral visits for joyous celebrations as well as for dreary, tense, and at times contentious, meetings.

The celebrations I love. I say that to just about anyone who will listen. It is a delight to be with the people of God in praise and worship of our Lord. The meetings I could do without. But I made a commitment to myself to be as diligent as possible to post something weekly and I have fallen far short. I truly apologize.

That confession out of the way let me proceed with what has prompted me to put words on paper. It is confirmation season. Over the month of May I will preside over at least four occasions in which youngsters will make public affirmation of their baptism, including one which will involve the youngsters whom I taught when I was still in the parish.

The Pastors and confirmands at the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, Brooklyn, Ohio, April 26, 2015.
The Pastors and confirmands at the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, Brooklyn, Ohio, April 26, 2015.

I look forward to these significant occasions. It has been and continues to be a thrill to my ears to hear these youth profess for themselves the baptismal promises their parents made for them years ago.

As I prepare for these confirmations, I have pondered the five-fold covenant those being confirmed are asked to uphold:

·      to live among God’s faithful people,

·      to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper,

·     to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed,

·      to serve all people, following the example of Jesus,

·      and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.

I wonder how many of us have really thought through the implications of those statements. That’s a pretty tall order for anyone, let alone a teen.

The ELCA provides a handy manual that offers examples of how we can live out these promises in practical ways. The manual can be accessed by clicking HERE.

Reading through these pages in the aftermath of the tragic devastation brought on by the natural disaster in Nepal and the strife and unrest created by the environment of systemic racism in Baltimore, I am struck by how so many of us are unaware or unwilling to admit that these are exactly the situations where Jesus is calling us to be present, the people that Jesus is calling us to care for, the places where Jesus is calling us to be.

The reading from the first letter of John for the fifth Sunday of Easter is quite unequivocal in its command that we love one another.

Yet it is so much easier to make a monetary donation to a charity and let someone else take care of the rescue efforts in Nepal, and go on with the rest of our lives.

There is no shortage of opinions regarding the events in Baltimore in the aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray. But in the myriad of comments expressed in social media, I fail to see much more than shallow, irresponsible, self-righteous posturing that speaks more to our sinful humanity than our higher nature.

Again, the author of First John is quite condemning:

Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. [1 John 4:20]

So what is it that binds us? What is it that unites us?

2014-07-21 Gervasi's VineyardIt is, pure and simple, the love of God. Jesus illustrates that in the Gospel reading by using the image of the vine. In a vine there are many entwined branches, winding their way around each other in intricate patterns of tight curls.  What this image suggests, then, about community, is that there are no free-standing individuals in the community, but branches which encircle one another completely.

The image of community is one of interrelatedness. The world needs to connect with God and people in ways that have depth and can last. 

That is the challenge before us.


I originally published this post in April of 2013. It is an abbreviated version of a sermon I had preached at the parish I served, The Lutheran Church of the Covenant, on the second Sunday of Easter. Since we read the same Gospel every year at this time, I wanted to bring this one back, since it was one of my favorites (if I do say so myself!). I ask that you please overlook the dated references to the Cleveland Indians. Otherwise, it is my hope that the words herein are a source of hope and joy this Easter season. Blessings!


When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

[John 20:19]

Baseball-and-the-Bible_thumb.jpgAs some of you may know, I love baseball.  As a youngster I lived for this time of the year. I was a terrible player.  I discovered very early in life that I would never become the next Roberto Clemente, so I did the next best thing.  I would buy every baseball or sports magazine there was to learn as much as I could not only about my favorite team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, but also about the rest of the teams in the National League.  I would eat, drink and sleep statistics – batting averages, home runs, RBI’s, earned run averages, and pitchers’ won-lost records.  I read about the players’ personal lives, their families, their hobbies and other interests.  In short, I had an interest and a curiosity that bordered on obsession.

Those of you who follow the Cleveland Indians are very well aware that they have a new manager who has two World Series rings to his credit.  The team has been improved with free agents.  For the first time since he bought the club, the owner has opened his pocketbook and is actually paying competitive salaries for proven talent.  At least for the first few games, that investment seems to be paying off.  The home opener was this week and for the first time in recent memory, there was an enthusiasm and an atmosphere of expectation that perhaps this team and this town can once again experience the excitement that was felt in the late nineties when winning the division was almost routine.

This post is not about baseball. I merely wanted to draw you in a bit. However, in many ways we can make a direct comparison and contrast between baseball and faith.

The anticipation of winning that World Series championship comes around each spring with remarkable regularity. This hope that a new season brings is never destroyed, no matter how many disappointments we live through year after year after year.

Those frustrations that we feel when the Indians disillusion us, had to be in many ways the same way the disciples felt just after Jesus’ crucifixion.  This was the man they’d pinned their hopes on, the man who was going to take them to the World Series, metaphorically speaking, of course.  He was going to return the kingdom of Israel back to the Jews and drive out the Roman invaders.  But now he was dead, killed like a common criminal, on a cross.

So here the disciples were.  Huddled in a room behind locked doors.  Wondering what to do next.  Worried that the authorities were coming after them and fearful that they would meet the same fate as their leader.  And then the Gospel tells us that Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

And then, our Gospel goes on to say, the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.  Try to imagine that scene, if you will.  The disciples, once cowering in fear, upon seeing Jesus, in an instant celebrating, cheering, high-fiving each other with all the euphoria that comes from watching a star slugger hit a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth. 

The-Doubt-of-St.ThomasJesus came and stood among them.  That is not so simple a statement as it may seem.  The doors were locked.   We don’t know how he entered. Yet Jesus came and stood among them.  But he not only stood among them.  He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Here is a new beginning. The Spirit, the helper, will help the disciples lay the claim of Jesus before people.  And seeing Jesus and receiving the Holy Spirit made all the difference in their lives. 

The apostles were now speaking of grace and hope. They were the people of a new way. Their agenda remained the agenda of Jesus. But now the Spirit, as it inspired and empowered Jesus to bring goodness and hope to people, released the apostles from the powers that oppressed them, the power of fear, the power of sin, and showed them the way of peace.

What about us?  We who, like Thomas, were not there in that locked room on that first night of Easter.  What difference does Jesus and the power of the Spirit make in our lives?

We, too, are messengers of God’s salvation.  We are a faith community that is called to be a people shaped by Jesus’ gift of the Spirit given to us in Holy Baptism.  It is about a new beginning, a second chance to change direction (repentance) and to look to Jesus for leadership. It is also a chance therefore to find forgiveness for sins.

To spread a message of forgiveness, Jesus doesn’t call those who appear blameless or somehow most worthy. He calls those who truly know that they themselves have been forgiven.

Let us rejoice in the new beginning, the new season of Easter, the season filled with grace and hope.  Jesus is calling us, forgiving us, and sending us.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Christ has arisen, alleluia.

Rejoice and praise him, alleluia.

For our redeemer burst from the tomb,

even from death, dispelling its gloom.


      Let us sing praise to him with endless joy.

     Death’s fearful sting he has come to destroy.

     Our sin forgiving, alleluia!

     Jesus is living, alleluia!

[Evangelical Lutheran Worship #364]

There are few hymns that make me want to clap my hands more than Christ Has Arisen, Alleluia! It is a traditional Tanzanian tune titled Mfurahini, Haleluya. The original text to the hymn was written by Bernard Kyamanyawa and the English translation by Howard S. Olson.

I actually first heard it sung as a gathering hymn at a funeral for the wife of a seminary professor some fifteen years ago and immediately fell in love with the melody. The feeling it evokes within me is one of sheer joy, unlike any other piece of music that I love – and I love music.

We sang it at the Easter Vigil I attended this year. This is one of my favorite liturgies of the year. I remember with fondness the Easter Vigils at Sunrise which I had the privilege of leading in my previous parish for the past five years (see photo above).

The fact that for the first time in years I had no role in this liturgy other than to worship was an experience in itself. I was free to take in the sights and sounds and actually hear and meditate on the readings. I paid special attention to words and phrases with a heightened awareness to things I hadn’t noticed before. It was a pleasantly strange and fabulously liberating occasion.

But when it came to this hymn, I had to restrain myself to keep from clapping in rhythm. What intrigued me most was that I realized I had never heard the hymn in its original Swahili language. Driven by curiosity, I came home and found it on YouTube and I share it with you here. Listen, enjoy, and may the blessings of Easter fill you with joy and hope.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Reflections, thoughts, ideas on ministry and the Northeastern Ohio Synod of the ELCA


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