The Peaceable Kingdom

December 18th, 2022 homily on Isaiah 11:1-10 by Pastor Galen

Recently I came across this cartoon, which depicts two cats sitting at a bar. The Christmas lights hanging behind them suggest that it is the holiday season. The first cat, drinking out of a martini glass, turns to the other cat and says, “I always give them a few days to enjoy the tree before I destroy it.” The other cat, chugging from a beer mug, says “Me too. It’s the season of giving.”

This cartoon reminds me that, as much as we humans may love animals, and especially our pets – sometimes they can be difficult to live with. Our cat is usually pretty gracious with our Christmas tree. As long as we put the glass bulbs high up on the tree we’re usually OK. But when we buy a new couch or stuffed chair, our cat doesn’t even give us a day before she starts clawing the stuffing out of it. 

Now, the destruction of a Christmas tree or couch is a small price to pay for the love and affection we receive from our pets – most of the time. But overall, our relationships with animals can be quite fraught. Think of lions, and tigers, and bears. Or how about spiders and snakes and mice…and mosquitos? In many ways, we have a love-hate relationship with the animal kingdom.

While we as humans have sometimes been on the receiving end of the destruction wrought by animals, the reality is that we have committed more than our fair share of destruction as well – sometimes intentionally destroying animals or their habitats, other times making their world less habitable through our careless waste and pollution. 

The reality of our fraught relationship with animals makes Isaiah’s imagery here in chapter 11 all the more fascinating. Wolves living with lambs. Leopards lying down with goats. Cows and bears grazing together. Lions eating straw like oxen. Calves and lions living together, and a little child leading them! Isaiah tells us, “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious” (Isaiah 11:9-10).

A Signal To the Peoples

Here the prophet Isaiah looks forward to the day when there will be peace on earth. Peace that saturates every single corner of the earth. Nations will not go to war against other nations, as we saw in Isaiah chapter 2, and even the wild animals will get along with domesticated farm animals. According to Isaiah, the whole earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord. And the “root of Jesse” will stand as a signal to the peoples.

The word “signal” here is a banner that was used in battle to show where the commanding officer was in the midst of the chaos of the battle. The signal, or banner, would have had the king or queen’s emblem, and the banner bearer would have led the way. An indication not only where their commanding officer could be found, but also a reminder of who they were fighting for – and where their loyalty lay. 

Isaiah says that the “root of Jesse” – a descendant from the line of Jesse, the father of King David, will stand as the signal – the banner – leading the way, pointing the nations – the whole world – in the way we should go. 

Earlier in chapter 11, Isaiah says that “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” The imagery here is of a plant or tree that has been cut down almost to the ground, and there’s just a stump left. It looks like the plant is dead, but then a tiny little green shoot grows out of it. 

Isaiah was speaking here to a people who had lost hope. Their kingdom had been cut down and it seemed that all that was left was a mere stump. The prophets had made it clear that this was a well-deserved punishment for the fact that as a people they had gone astray – practicing idolatry and turning their backs on God. And yet Isaiah provides a glimmer of hope, saying that God can and will bring new life out of what appears to be dead and lifeless. God will send a Messiah – an anointed one, a descendent of King David, from the line of Jesse. And this anointed one will raise up the banner, lead the way – and not just for the nation of Israel – but for people of all nations. Nations who had previously been at war would come together in peace, with God as their ruler.

Isaiah says of this Messiah, “The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins” (Isaiah 11:2-5).

And then Isaiah launches into this image of even the wild animals living peaceably with the domesticated animals and a little child leading the way. And Isaiah says, “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9). The Messiah’s reign will be glorious, and he will reign over a peaceable kingdom.

The Peaceable Kingdom

Now, when you hear the words “the peaceable kingdom,” you may be reminded of a painting of animals clustered around a small child. There’s one famous historical painter in particular – a Quaker minister and painter by the name of Edward Hicks who lived from 780 to 1849, who is well known for his paintings called “The Peaceable Kingdom.” I say  paintings, because he painted over 100 variations of this painting during the course of his lifetime! 62 of those paintings are still in existence today. Some of the most famous variations include the famous Quaker William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, in the background of the painting, signing a peace treaty with Native Americans. 

Hicks’ early paintings are hopeful and optimistic, and seem to look back on Penn’s peace treaty with the Native Americans as a hopeful indication that the world is getting better, that society is becoming more peaceful. These earlier paintings depict wild and domesticated animals lying down together in a playful style. Predators and prey living together in perfect harmony. In some, the tiny child is almost floating above the animals.

But historians have noted that there was a subtle change in the depiction of the animals over the years. As time went on, Hicks began to depict the wild animals with sharp teeth and even snarls. In this painting, for example, the cow seems to be cowering behind the wild animal, and the sheep and goats seem ready to run away at any moment. 

It seems that over the years the painter had begun to lose hope in humanity as he watched the barriers between peoples grow higher and stronger, and the animosity grow deeper and more violent. He was most likely discouraged by what was going on in his own denomination, where a major split occurred during the course of his lifetime – and this seems to be represented here in the tree that seems to have split down the middle.  

But what is fascinating about those later paintings is that the child, a Christ figure, is larger and more pronounced. Not only that, but rather than seeming to float above the animals, he seems to be actively restraining the wild animals, gripping the lion’s mane and the bear’s neck, holding them in place with his strength.

Rev. Derek Weber explains that throughout the course of his lifetime, “Hicks, though he began losing hope in the workings of the human community, began to cling even more tightly to Christ. In Christ, Hicks would put his hope.”

Peace is Only Possible Through Christ

Now, I love that the name of Hicks’ famous painting includes the word “peaceable,” because it sort of sounds like the word “possible.” But you and I know, as Hicks came to find out, that true peace is only possible through Jesus Christ.

Several years ago I had the opportunity to speak with a woman who had been actively involved in working for social justice for many decades – since the time of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. And I asked her, in her opinion, whether she had seen progress in the many years she had been working for change? In her opinion, was our society becoming more or less just? And she said the answer is both – simultaneously. Our society is becoming simultaneously more and less just at the same time. Yes, she had seen positive progress in some areas, and yet in other ways she was seeing our society becoming more and more divided. 

This is why Isaiah’s prophecy rings so true. It’s why Hicks’ paintings evolved over time. Because there has never yet been a peaceable kingdom, and true peace and justice and harmony will never be achieved by our own strength and will, but only through Christ. 

Fortunately there is hope in the midst of despair. Part of Isaiah’s prophecy, in fact, has already come true – that a shoot would come from the stump of Jesse, that a little child would lead the way. This is the Good News we proclaim at Christmas and all year long – that Christ has indeed come to usher in the Peaceable Kingdom. Christmas is not just a festive season or a reason to celebrate in the midst of a cold winter. Christmas reminds us that there is hope in the midst of despair. There is life even in the midst of death. 

There is still a lot of work to be done, and Advent reminds us that we still await the final fulfillment, when Christ will return to set the world to right. But even here and now we can experience hope, peace, joy, and love, with Jesus leading the way. When we love others as Christ loved us, when we welcome others – particularly those who are different from us – in Jesus’s name, and when we share about Emmanuel – God with us – we stand as a signal to the nations that there is a God among us and there is a way to know peace, and there is hope in the midst of despair; there is joy even in brokenness. 

We are called to stand as a signal. So let us raise up the banner! Let us point the way to Christ, that all may see and experience the peace and hope that he brings. Let us follow Christ wherever He may lead. And, as the apostle Paul says in Romans 15:13, “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.”



November 27, 2022 homily on Isaiah 2:1-5 for the First Sunday of Advent, by Pastor Galen

The Old Jalopy

The story is told of a boy whose parents had promised that they would give him a beautiful car to drive when he turned 16. From the time he was a little boy he had dreamed of this car. He even planned to park it in the family’s shed where it could stay warm and dry. But first, he thought, his dad would have to get rid of that old car under the tarp in the shed. He couldn’t wait for his dad to haul the old junker off to the dump to make way for his dream car.

But when would that day come? When would that new car arrive? And when would his dad get rid of that old junky car under the tarp? Then one evening in early summer he heard strange sounds coming from the shed. It sounded like power tools … a drill … a hammer. What was going on? Peering into the darkness, he noticed that a light was on in the shed. He walked out into the warm night air, through their little yard, and poked his head into the shed.

When he saw the tarp, rolled up and left against the door, he excitedly thought that his Dad was finally getting rid of that junky old car. But then he suddenly looked and saw one of the most incredible sports cars in automotive history. It was a Corvette, but not just any Corvette. It was the coveted, beautiful, powerful 1963 Corvette 327 V8 with a split window, aluminum knock-off wheels, painted candy apple red.

That was the car that had been underneath the tarp all those years. He stood there stunned. It was always there, just getting ready for his father’s masterful work of restoration. At that moment his father looked up, his hands deep in the engine bay, and handed his son a socket wrench. With a broad smile, he said, “Come on, son. Grab a tool and let’s get this car ready.” (Adapted from Randall Rauser, What on Earth Do We Know about Heaven? – Baker Books, 2013, pp. 157-158).

The way the son viewed the car sitting there under the tarp all those years is the way that a lot of people – and even many Christians – view the world today. To them, the world is irredeemable. Humanity is too far gone. Society will just continue to sink deeper and deeper into depravity until the day when Jesus will return and rescue his followers from this sinking ship and take us up to heaven – and then proceed to return and destroy the earth altogether.

This view has been around for a long time, but was in many ways popularized in the 1970’s by the book, The Late Great Planet Earth and the movie A Thief in the Night. It was made even more popular in the 1990’s by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins and their Left Behind series of books, which sold close to 80 million copies and were made into movies and even real-time strategy video games.

God’s Restoration Project

But another, and, I would argue, even more ancient understanding of the world is that God is actively at work in the world today, working to redeem and restore the world to the way it was originally supposed to be. And, like the father in the story, God is inviting each and every one of us to participate in this long-term cosmic restoration project. 

In this view, Jesus initiated the Kingdom of God through his life on this earth and through his death and resurrection – a foretaste of the resurrection that is to come. And there will come a day when Jesus will return in the flesh, and rid the world of evil and set the world to right, establishing the Kingdom of God in its fullness, and ushering in the new heaven and the new earth that we are promised throughout the Scriptures. Those who have died in Christ will be resurrected, and we will live forever with God. 

What this view suggests is that even here and now, God is inviting each and every one of us to grab a tool and participate in God’s restoration project. When we submit to Christ’s rule and reign as the King of our lives, and as we participate with God in doing acts of justice and mercy and kindness and reconciliation and peace-building, we further and advance God’s rule and reign in this world. Jesus is inviting us to be a part of the restoration project.

It is this second view, I believe, that fits most clearly with the prophetic vision set forth by the prophet Isaiah here in Isaiah 2, where he envisions the days to come when the “mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; [and] all the nations shall stream to it” (Isaiah 2:2). 

Isaiah is speaking figuratively here, since of course the temple mount in Jerusalem is not the highest mountain in the world. But Isaiah is saying that there will come a day when the world will see and understand the truth of God’s Word. All the peoples of earth will come to learn of God’s ways. And God will take God’s rightful place as the supreme ruler of the world – serving as judge and arbiter between the various nations, establishing a world marked by peace and justice, where war becomes obsolete. 

In Isaiah’s vision, people have no more use for weaponry, and so they turn their weapons of destruction into tools of productivity. And people from every nation in the world seek to follow God’s Word and walk in God’s path. 

Isaiah’s vision of peace was fulfilled in part through Jesus’s ministry here on this earth. Jesus’s followers included people who would have been otherwise enemies – Zealots and tax collectors, religious leaders and people who were considered sinners. People who had been afflicted by evil spirits. People of every class and status. But they came together to learn God’s ways and learned to put their differences aside.

Following Jesus’s death and resurrection and ascension into heaven, when the Holy Spirit fell on the 120 followers of Jesus gathered in the Upper Room on the Day of Pentecost, the Church grew exponentially to include people from all over the known world at the time. 

In this way, the nations did indeed stream to the mountain of the Lord, seeking God’s truth, and desiring to walk in God’s ways. In this way, people who would have previously been enemies put aside their differences and submitted to the rule and reign of Christ in their lives. In this way, they figuratively beat their swords and spears into plowshares, and stopped learning war.

And in this way, Isaiah’s prophetic vision is fulfilled anytime we as people lay aside our own selfish wants and desires, our own greed and desire for personal gain and advancement, and come together as followers of Jesus, learning his ways, and seeking to walk in his paths. In many ways, Isaiah’s prophetic vision is being fulfilled right here in our midst today, as we here in our congregation gather from many different cultures, many different theological and denominational backgrounds, different ages and races and stages of life, and yet we are coming together to worship and serve God together. May it be so even more.

Hope in God

This morning we lit the Hope candle on our Advent Wreath – a reminder to us that there is more to come, and that the restoration project is nowhere near complete. It’s a reminder that we still look forward in hopeful expectation for the future return of Christ when all will be made right.

One problem with the “Left Behind” understanding of this future hope is that there is no incentive for us to work for peace and justice here and now. In fact, I’ve heard some Christians almost gleefully point to the degradation of our society as proof that Jesus’s return is near!

On the other hand, there’s a danger if we fall into the trap of thinking of believing that the restoration of this world is up to us – that we can or should try to restore the world on our own – without God in the picture. How often have people tried to engage in their own restoration efforts, pulling the tarp off the car, exposing the evils and injustices in the world, and then proposing their own solutions, without seeking to learn or follow Jesus’s path?

Think of how many political and religious and institutional leaders have promised to create a utopian society – if people would only follow them, or pledge their time or money or resources to their cause. Think of how many people have tried to bring about “peace” through violent means – arguing that the ends justify the means, while failing to recognize the truth of Martin Luther King Jr.’s statement that “Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal.” 

And think of how many people have pledged their undying loyalty and support to causes that have offered a skewed vision of Isaiah’s prophetic vision – without first seeking to truly learn and follow God’s ways. 

It’s vital for us to remember that everything we are invited to participate with God in God’s restorative work in the world. But the pressure is not on us to do it on our own. In fact, it would be impossible for us to do so. We need a Savior. We need a Healer. We need a Redeemer. 

This in fact is the Good News that we proclaim at Christmas – that God has sent a Savior into this world, to show us the way to live, to restore the relationship between God and humanity, and to show us how to live as citizens of Heaven here and now, even as we await Christ’s return, and the coming of God’s Kingdom in its fullness.

And so we wait with hopeful expectation for the day when Jesus will return and complete the restoration project. But even while we await the final fulfillment, we pick up tools and join the Father in the workshed – participating in God’s restorative work of peace and shalom in our world.

Where Do We Start?

Now in many ways, it can be hard to know where to start. And the call can be different for each one of us – and that’s why we come together as a Church – a community of Christ’s followers, with our different gifts and callings and passions. No one individual can be the Church on our own. We are called to seek and serve Jesus together. 

One of the things that I appreciate about being a part of a larger body of Believers – a denomination – is that the United Methodist Church as a denomination has identified various ways that we together as a part of Christ’s Body can participate together in God’s restorative work in the world. 

One of the ways that our denomination has identified that we can work together is in calling for an End to Gun Violence – as laid out in our denominational Book of Resolutions, and our Social Principles. Our Book of Resolutions states that “As followers of Jesus, called to live into the reality of God’s dream of shalom as described by Micah [and Isaiah], we must address the epidemic of gun violence so ‘that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in God’s paths.’ Therefore, we call upon United Methodists to prayerfully address gun violence in their local context.” 

The Book of Resolutions goes on to suggest 8 practical ways that congregations can live out Isaiah’s prophetic vision, including making gun violence prevention a regular part of our conversations and prayer times, assisting those affected by gun violence through prayer, pastoral care, and more, and even for individual United Methodists who own guns as hunters or collectors to safely and securely store their guns and to teach the importance of practicing gun safety. (The full list of suggestions is available online at:

And to this morning, may we pray and work for the healing of the world – an end to war and violence – and that God’s peace and justice would reign. May we ask God how we as a congregation may be called to participate in God’s restorative work in the world. And may we place our hope and our trust in God – who has already done a great work in us and is actively at work in the world – and invites us to join in.


Christ the King

November 20, 2022 homily on Luke 1:68-75 and Luke 23:33-43 for Christ the King Sunday

The Crown

The popular Netflix drama The Crown portrays the life of Queen Elizabeth II all the way from her wedding in 1947 to Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and up through the early 21st century. The fact that the show is reported to be the most expensive television series ever produced is indicative of our fascination not just with the British royal family, but of monarchies in general. Think about how many popular shows and movies and books there are about kings and queens, how many fairy tales and Disney movies there are about princes and princesses. History class – at least when I was growing up – might as well have been the history of royal families and all of the wars and battles that were fought to overtake or maintain the various monarchies. 

Today there are very few absolute monarchies left in the world. According to my limited research, there are 5 absolute monarchies in the world today – where the ruler has absolute power, and there are 38 constitutional monarchies, where the monarch is bound to exercise power within an established framework, such as a constitution. The overwhelming majority of countries in the world are now republics. But it wasn’t always that way. For most of history, the majority of people in the world were ruled by absolute monarchs – kings, queens, emperors, chiefs, pharaohs, or czars — individuals who exercised the highest authority and power in the land. Their wish was their command. The people did not get a vote. They had to do whatever their sovereign ruler desired, or face dire consequences. 

It is against this background that the Scriptures were written. Indeed, a fair amount of the Bible itself recounts the history of the various rulers of the nations of Israel and Judah, and the surrounding nations such as Egypt and Babylon. And yet, large swaths of the Bible were not written by the rulers – those who had the ultimate authority – but rather by prophets and poets and historians who stood on the margins of society, frequently using their prophetic writings to call out the rulers who were misusing or abusing their power. 

Of course the Gospels tell an account of a Messiah – a King – who demonstrated a very different way of ruling. Jesus’s Kingly power and authority was exerted in such a different way, in fact, that the majority of the people of his day did not even recognize him as the King that he was and is. Even at the point of Jesus’s death and resurrection – the ultimate display of his power and authority over death and hell and the grave – the majority of people did not recognize Jesus’s sovereign rule and reign. Many stood by scoffing at him. They assumed that if he had ultimate power and authority then he would in fact have used it to save himself – to avoid the pain and suffering that he experienced on the cross.

But throughout his life, and right up until the point of his death on the cross, Jesus exercised his sovereign rule and reign as King in a way that went against the grain of society, and yet was and is very much in line with the way that God has exercised authority all throughout human history. And so to understand Jesus as King, rather than comparing his rule and reign to that of earthly monarchs, we have to look at Jesus’s use of power and authority in light of the way God has always exercised God’s power and authority as the supreme ruler of the universe. And to do that, we have to start at the very beginning.

In the Beginning, God Created

The first verse of the Bible states, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” (Gen. 1:1 KJV). In Genesis chapter 1, we see God speak the world into existence. God says, “Let there be light, and there was light” (Gen. 1:3). God separates the waters in the sky from the waters on the earth, the sea from the dry ground. God creates plants and animals, fish and birds – all by speaking them into existence. We see God as a sovereign ruler here. God’s word is God’s command. Whatever God says – whatever God speaks – is what happens. God is the supreme authority – the absolute monarch. And God uses that supreme authority in ways that are productive and creative and generative.

And then God does something very unexpected. God creates people. Not through speaking us into existence, as was true of the rest of creation, but in Genesis chapter 2, we see that God formed humanity from the dust of the ground, and God breathed into us the breath of life (Gen. 2:7). 

And then we see something utterly fascinating. In Genesis chapter 1, we see God blessing human beings, and commanding us to “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth” (Gen. 1:28). 

The word “dominion” here is a word typically used to describe the rule and reign of a king! So rather than holding onto all of the power and authority, like we might typically expect of an earthly king, God empowers people – human beings – giving us power and authority over the fish of the sea and birds of the air, and over the animals that move on the earth. Of course God wants us to use that power in ways that are productive and generative and life-giving. We see this in Genesis 2, where God commissions the first human to tend to the garden. God even gives the first people permission to eat of any of the fruits of the trees of the garden – with of course the exception of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil – a command which was given to them for their own protection. 

God Empowers

And so we see here a God who has supreme power and authority, and yet chooses to empower others – giving human beings purpose and authority to make our own decisions and our own choices – but within reason, and within boundaries. Yes, there are times when God intervenes, and prevents us from making horrific mistakes. And there are even times when God sends judgment – but always after much warning and pleading and prodding to encourage us to wake up and realize the destructive path on which we are headed. 

Throughout human history, God has continued to grant power and authority in ways that are unexpected – often raising up and empowering the unlikeliest of human beings to lead God’s people. People like Moses, Deborah, Samson, David, and Esther. Often they were people who were the least likely people to be chosen – sometimes because of their physical traits, their gender, or because they were poor, or because they were on the margins or outskirts of society. But God empowered each of them to rule and to make decisions.

After God brought the Israelite people out of slavery in Egypt, God did not want the people to have a monarch. God raised up leaders like Moses and Joshua and Deborah who set up laws and led the people under the power and authority of God. But the people continually begged God for a king so they could be like the surrounding nations, and God eventually allowed them to have a king – with the warning that it would not go as they hoped. And sure enough, the history of the Kings of Israel and Judah that we see in the biblical books of Kings and Chronicles are not all that different from the histories of absolute monarchies throughout the world. Kings and Queens who abused their power and authority. Rulers who usurped the throne through violent revolutions, promising to right the wrongs of their predecessor, but so often falling into the same trap. 

Occasionally throughout the Hebrew Bible we see godly kings and queens who did in fact use their power in generative ways that blessed and helped the people under their authority. But more often than not, the saying “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” holds true throughout the stories of the biblical monarchs. 

Waiting for the Messiah

Fast forward to the time of Christ. The Jewish people were under the rule and reign of the Roman Emperor. They had not been a sovereign nation for many generations. Their king, Herod, was a “puppet” king under the authority of the Roman emperor. But the Jewish people longed for the “good old days” when Judah and Israel were a united kingdom, with their own sovereign monarch. Specifically they longed for the days – 1,000 years before Christ – when King David reigned. And they looked forward with hope and expectation for a messiah – a king and a savior – who would free them from the yoke of Roman oppression and restore the earthly kingdom of Israel.

Even Zechariah – John the Baptist’s father – seems to expect this in Luke chapter 1, when he says, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors…that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. (Luke 1:68-75)

Zechariah’s words were and are indeed true of what Jesus came to do – but not in the way that Zechariah or any of the other people living in his day expected. Jesus did in fact come to save us, and to give us the freedom to serve God without fear. But he did that – not through leading a violent revolution or setting up an earthly kingdom – but instead through instituting a heavenly Kingdom – one marked by love and grace and forgiveness. Through his life and death and resurrection Jesus instituted the Kingdom of Heaven, and it grows and expands as we submit to the rule and reign of God in our hearts and our lives. When we make Jesus the Lord of our lives, and when we proclaim the Good News of Christ’s Kingdom to those around us, then the Kingdom of God advances and takes root. 

Christ the King

Against the backdrop of earthly monarchs who ruled with absolute authority, it makes sense that the people of Jesus’s day failed to recognize him as a king. Any earthly ruler would have used their power to save themselves from the cruel torture and shame of death on the cross if given the opportunity. And so it makes sense that the bystanders at the cross assumed that Jesus must be powerless, since he did not choose to save himself. And yet upon closer look at Jesus’s actions from the cross – we see that he exerted his rule and reign in ways that were very much in keeping with God’s sovereign rule throughout human history. Jesus chose to use his power to forgive the very people who tormented and crucified him. He destroyed his enemies by forgiving them – making them no longer his enemies. And in his dying breath, he chose to save even the thief hanging next to him on the cross – who was indeed condemned justly – even though Jesus himself did nothing wrong. 

Great Power, Great Responsibility

As people, you and I have been given great power. I know it may not always feel like it. So often we feel powerless. But each and every day we have the power to make decisions that affect us and the world around us. Like so many others before us we can clench our fists and try to hold onto that power – or even use or abuse that power for our own self interests, at the expense of others. 

But as followers of Christ, we are called to use the power we have been given in the same way that Jesus used his power – and indeed the way that God has intended for power to be used – in generative, life-giving, creative ways that heal and restore. If and when we have the power to get revenge on our enemies – we are instead called to love. Rather than hold onto grudges, we are called to forgive. Rather than use our power for our own selfish gain, we are called to empower others. 

We do this at work, when we share the resources and training we have received, even if we’re not sure there will be a direct benefit to us. We do this at school, when we help our classmates learn to succeed, even if it might make us not stand out as much. We do this at home, around the house, when we willingly pick up additional chores around the house so that a family member or roommate can pursue their dream. We do this when we advocate for those who have not been given an opportunity to let their voice be heard in our company, our organization, or in the broader society. And we do this when we willingly share some of our power or privileges or resources so that others can have the same opportunities we have been given. 

And so this morning may we as followers of Jesus use whatever power or privilege or opportunities we have been given for the good of others. Maybe we live into our baptismal vows to accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil and justice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. And may we follow in the footsteps of Jesus – the King of kings and the Lord of lords – who used his power and authority to empower others.


An Attitude of Gratitude

November 13th, 2022 homily on Luke 17:11-19 by Pastor Galen

Yesterday I had an opportunity to visit one of our dear church members, and take her a little gift in honor of her 97th birthday. The member, Ms. Jean, shared that she has been reflecting back over life, she said that she doesn’t remember a single bad thing that happened in her life. She explained that it’s not because nothing bad ever happened to her, but rather that she has chosen to focus on all of the good things that have happened. Ms. Jean has learned what I believe is the secret of happiness – to cultivate an attitude of gratitude, and to focus on the many blessings we have received, rather than focusing on the negatives, or always wishing for something we cannot have.

Our gospel lesson this morning illustrates the power of giving thanks – and how uncommon it is to have an attitude of gratitude. In this story in Luke 17, we see that only one out of ten people who were healed of their leprosy returned to thank Jesus — a ratio that might be more universal that we may care to admit. My hope and my prayer is that we will grow to become more like the one man who formerly had leprosy who returned to give God thanks and praise – rather than the other nine.

Social Isolation

Now leprosy, as you may know, was not just a physical condition. The disease called leprosy also had social ramifications as well. Leprosy was believed to be highly contagious, and so in Bible times, anyone who had leprosy was forced to live in social isolation, apart from their friends and family. 

Many of us had a small taste of this sort of social isolation during the COVID pandemic. Perhaps you or your family members had COVID, and you had to make the difficult decision to quarantine for a time apart from your family members or those in your household. I’ve heard stories of family members passing through the door to members of their household who had to be isolated for a week or longer.

All of us experienced social isolation in some way, especially in the beginning of the pandemic. At first we thought that it would just be a couple of weeks where we would have to discontinue our church services. But then the pandemic stretched longer and longer, and our period of social isolation lasted longer than any of us could have ever imagined. (Who would have thought that over two and a half years later we would still frequently need to wear masks and practice social distancing?) 

But the one thing that gave many of us hope during the pandemic was knowing that our period of social isolation would eventually come to an end. Someday, somehow, we knew that we would learn to live with COVID — that the vaccine would become available, and that we would eventually be able to reunite with our friends and family. And so, while we missed giving hugs and seeing each other face to face, we made do for a time with elbow bumps and Zoom calls.

But imagine, if you will, the prospect of never being able to hug your friends and family members again. Never being able to touch or see your loved ones close up. Imagine never being able to walk through the doors of a church again. Of missing out on every single holiday meal and special occasion – not just for a couple of weeks or months or years, but for the rest of your life.

This was the reality for people who were diagnosed with leprosy in Jesus’s day. Leprosy was believed to be an incurable disease, and to be diagnosed with leprosy was in many ways like receiving a death sentence. 

Of course, people who had leprosy often ended up connecting with other people with leprosy. It is often the case that people who are cast out by society end up bonding with other people who are also social outcasts – even if they don’t have much more in common than that. And so these ten lepers had each other. And yet no doubt they missed their friends and family members back home tremendously. And they would have given anything, and gone to any lengths – for the possibility of being healed and allowed to return home.

Ten Lepers Encounter Jesus

And so when the lepers heard that when they heard that a famous healer was coming to their town, it’s no surprise that they made their way to Jesus. Luke tells us that the men “approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’” (Luke 17:13). In those days, people with leprosy had to ring a bell when they were anywhere near other people, and call out “unclean, unclean!” to warn everyone to stay away. And so I imagine these 10 lepers, huddled together for fear of infecting those around them, crying out to Jesus for mercy, wondering whether or not Jesus will heal them, wondering whether he will even bother to stop and listen to them. 

But of course Jesus does listen to them. He has mercy on them, and tells them to go and show themselves to the priests at the temple. 

Now it may seem odd to us that Jesus would send them to the religious leaders of the day, rather than to a doctor, but this was the law in those days, and the standard procedure if and when someone was healed from a skin disease. The priests would examine the person, and determine if they were truly free of the disease, and if and when they could return and be a part of the community again.

Now, interestingly enough, when Jesus directed them to go and show themselves to the priests, they had not yet been healed! It was only after they started on their way towards the temple that they were healed. This took a tremendous amount of faith on the part of all ten lepers. First, they came to Jesus for healing. They asked him to have mercy on them. That took faith. Then, they took Jesus at his word, and started off on their way towards the temple to show themselves to the priests, even though they had not been healed. Talk about tremendous faith! In many ways, all ten are to be commended for their tremendous amount of humility and faith in God.

One out of Ten

But what happened next is what is particularly striking – particularly when we think about the topic of gratitude. Because nine of the people who were healed are never heard from again in the story. Do they continue on to see the priest? Do they go back home and reunite with their family? We don’t know. But what we do know is that it’s the one – the one who turned back to thank Jesus and give praise to God – who receives the added blessing. 

One of the men – who happened to be a Samaritan – a group of people hated and despised by the Jewish people of the day – when he saw that he was healed, “turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’s feet and thanked him…Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? So where are the other nine? Did none of them return to give glory to God except this foreigner?’ Then [Jesus] said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17:15-19).

All ten were healed, but only one returned to give God thanks. In some ways, this is startling, but in other ways –  if we stop and think about it – it probably rings  true for us as well. How many times do we seek God for something, and then when we receive it, we are so excited that we forget to give God thanks? We tell everyone else around us – our friends, our family members, but we forget to thank the One who answered our prayer! Or we fail to even do that – we just receive the blessing, and move on to our next need or prayer request.

And so often we simply take for granted the blessings we have been given because they’re all around us. When we’re in good health, and have all of our basic needs met – those are times we are most prone to forget to give God thanks.

But it shouldn’t be this way. Notice here Jesus’s question – where are the other nine? God desires – and even expects – us to give God thanks and praise for the blessings we have received. Throughout the Scriptures we are exhorted – commanded even – to give God praise. This is not optional. This is a mandatory part of the Christian life. God is worthy of our praise, and we ought to praise God for each and every blessing we have been given.

But cultivating a spirit of gratitude is not just a command. It’s also something that is good for us. Notice here Jesus’s words of blessing to the Samaritan. “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well” – or some translations say “whole.” The word here that’s used is a different word than the one used to describe the ten when they were healed from their leprosy. That word –  “cleansed” – had to do specifically with their leprosy. Their outward skin condition. Their physical health. But Jesus’s word to this Samaritan man is that he has been made whole. Not just physically, but spiritually, emotionally, and relationally whole. Because this man returned to give God thanks – because he recognized that Jesus was the source of his healing – and because he turned to God in gratitude, he was made whole.

Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California, has done extensive research on gratitude, studying more than one thousand people, from ages eight to 80,  and found that across the board people who practice gratitude consistently report a host of benefits including physical, psychological, and social.

…gratitude grows the more you use it.

Several years ago, author and blogger Chris Winfield embarked on a journey to test out this theory and to cultivate gratitude in his own life. Prior to that, he said, “I was always looking for the bad things that happened to me, rather than looking at all of the good things that were happening in my life every single day.”

And so he began writing a gratitude list every single day, and had kept it up for more than 34 months as of the time he wrote a blog post, entitled, “13 Things I’ve Learned Writing 1,024 Gratitude Lists.”

Here are the 4 most important things he said he learned on his gratitude journey:

“1. It’s Hard at First: My mentor told me to text him three things that I am grateful for every day. Sounds pretty easy right? Well, it wasn’t. When you’ve lived most of your life not focusing on gratitude, it’s not so simple to change that.

2. There Is Always Something to Be Grateful For: No matter what was going on in my life (business problems, I was sick, someone cut me off in traffic) there was always something that I could find to be grateful for (my health, my daughter’s smile, etc.).

3. Gratitude Grows the More You Use It: [as A.A. Milne says in Winnie-the-Pooh, “Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.” My gratitude lists started off very basic and I struggled to find things to be grateful for (especially on the really tough days). But once I consistently took action, it became easier and easier.

4. It Can Help Stop Negative Thought Patterns: According to the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging, the average person has about 70,000 thoughts each day! There’s one big problem with this — the vast majority of these thoughts are negative. Gratitude can work to stop these negative thought patterns by replacing it with something positive.”

Cultivating An Attitude of Gratitude

Thanksgiving is a couple of weeks away, and this is a wonderful time for us to cultivate a spirit of gratitude. Personally, I am seeking to start out every day during the month of November by writing a Thank you note to someone in my life who has been a blessing to me. (If you remember, I encouraged us to spend some time “off-line” each day during the month of November, and to spend at least part of that time expressing our gratitude to God and to those around us).

Now, it may seem silly to keep a list of things we’re grateful for, or to intentionally start the day or the week by writing Thank You notes. You may think that gratitude has to be spontaneous in order for it to be genuine. But the reality is that unless we stop in our tracks, and intentionally turn around to give God praise –  like the man who was healed by leprosy – then we will continue on our way, failing to give God thanks, focusing on the negatives or what we need or want from God. So, as counterintuitive as it may seem, in order to develop a spontaneous spirit of gratitude, we need to intentionally carve out time and institute practices in our own lives in order to become people who consistently have a spirit of gratitude. Spontaneous or not.

And so I encourage you, in whatever way you can, and however you feel led – to intentionally practice gratitude. Make a list, write out a Thank you note, text a friend or loved one each day for the next few weeks and let them know you are grateful for them. And don’t forget to give God thanks and praise for all of the daily blessings God has given to us: waking us up each day, and starting us on our way, food on our table, clothes on our back. May we become the one in ten who give God praise, and may our hearts expand as we give God the praise that God is due! 


At the Feet of Jesus

Homily on Luke 10:38-42 for All Saints/All Souls Sunday by Pastor Galen

Mary was one of those people who just never fit neatly into a box. As a young Jewish girl growing up in first century Palestine, she was in many ways an anomaly. Independent, enthusiastic and passionate, she was one of those people who lived life to the fullest, and didn’t care what others thought about her.

Because of the time in which she lived, she was most likely not allowed to go to school. And so I imagine that when her older brother Lazarus came home from school each day, she quizzed him incessantly about everything he had learned at school that day. Math, science, history, the Torah – she wanted to learn it all.

And even though she herself was not allowed to go to school and learn, I imagine that she dreamed of becoming a teacher herself one day. And every day, after hearing all about the things that Lazarus learned at school, she would arrange her toys in a circle her and sit down to teach them, drawing letters and numbers in the dirt and instructing her toys to repeat after her, in the same way Lazarus described a typical day at his school.

If indeed Mary was someone who had always wanted to learn but who had been prohibited for attending school, it’s not hard to imagine why, as a young adult, when Mary heard that a traveling Rabbi was coming to her town – a Jewish teacher who was known for including anyone and everyone in his ragtag group of followers – that she was right there, hanging on every word that he said. And I imagine too that when the call was given to go out and participate in proclaiming his message, that Mary was one of the first to sign up. 

Sitting at the Feet of Jesus

But of course Mary’s out-of-the-box personality was not always well received by those around her. In Luke chapter 10, when Mary was “sitting at the feet of [the rabbi] Jesus,” – her sister Martha complained that Mary was leaving her to do all of the work by herself.

Now, saying that someone “sat at the feet” of a rabbi was another way of saying that that person was the rabbi’s disciple, or follower. In Acts 22:3, for example, Paul mentions that he studied “at the feet of” the famous Jewish rabbi Gamaliel. It doesn’t mean that Paul was always literally sitting at the feet of Gamaliel. But rather it’s a way of saying that Gamaliel was his instructor, and the expectation was that Paul would one day help further and perpetuate the teachings of his rabbi.

And so when Luke tells us that Mary “sat at Jesus’s feet and listened to what he was saying” and that Martha was upset because Mary had left her to do all of the work by herself, it’s possible that Martha was upset because Mary has been off traveling around with the other disciples, teaching and proclaiming the message of Christ. Earlier in Luke 10, Jesus sent out 72 of his disciples 2 by 2 to proclaim the message of the Kingdom of God. We don’t know the names of all of those disciples, but given the proximity of these two stories, and Martha’s complaint about Mary leaving her to do all the work, it’s possible that Mary had been one of those disciples who had been sent out.

But even more upsetting than the fact that Mary had left her to do all of the work, Martha is most likely upset that Mary is refusing to play by the rules, refusing to fit into the box. Mary was not conforming to the prescribed gender roles of the day. She was acting in ways that were deemed inappropriate for women of her day in broader society. And yet, Jesus affirms Mary’s right to be his disciple – affirms her right to learn, and by extension to be someone who participates in proclaiming the message to others as well.

This wasn’t the only time that Mary was criticized for being at the feet of Jesus. In John 12, another time when Jesus was visiting their home, Mary anointed Jesus’s feet with costly perfume – a lavish and intimate act of love and devotion, which the apostle Judas criticized for being wasteful. There too Jesus came to Mary’s defense, affirming her act of love and devotion, affirming her right to be a disciple – to worship God with all of who she was, and to give all that she had in worship and devotion to Christ.

All Saints/All Souls

Today is All Saints and All Souls Sunday, when we remember and give thanks for all of those who have gone before. In particular, we think of those people of faith who modeled for us what it looks like to be passionate followers of Christ. Today is also a joyous occasion, as we welcome new professing members of our church through baptism and confirmation, who will commit to being loyal to Christ and participating in the ministries of our church through their prayers, their presence, their gifts, and their service. 

And I think that Mary is a wonderful model for us as we think about our own walks with God and the type of saints we may aspire to be. Because Mary was sort of an “everyday” saint. She isn’t known for performing miracles, or saving multitudes of people. She isn’t known for being perfect – not that any of us are. Mostly what she is known for is for being someone who sat at the feet of Jesus, someone who was a passionate and devoted follower of Christ. And someone who was willing to give all that she had in Christ’s service.

Mary is the type of saint that any of us can be. Because no matter who we are, or what we’ve done or failed to do, we too can sit at the feet of Jesus – we too can be disciples who learn and share. Sometimes that’s just showing up – honoring God with our presence. Sitting in church, participating in worship, actively listening to the message. It also means taking an active role in learning – reading or listening to Scripture on our own, studying the Bible for ourselves. And it involves sharing what we’ve learned with others. 

The “protege effect” is an educational theory that posits that the best way to learn is to teach. When we share what we’ve learned with others, we develop a better understanding, and retain knowledge longer than if we simply read or listen and try to retain the knowledge. As the Roman Philosopher Seneca said: “While we teach, we learn.”

In Mary too we also see an interesting model of what it looks like to serve, as she poured herself out in love and devotion to God. The point of the story about Mary and Martha is not that Martha was doing the wrong thing for serving Jesus behind the scenes. Indeed, we can and should aspire to serve God in practical ways. But Martha’s mistake was in criticizing Mary for the way that Mary was living out her calling. In our service of Christ we need to be careful not to criticize others for following Christ in ways that might be different from ours. We each have unique roles to play in the Church – we are all called to serve, but not alk in the same way.

And finally, in Mary, we see a model of someone who gave her all to Jesus. Pouring out her expensive perfume, anointing Jesus’s feet in preparation for his impending crucifixion on the cross was a way of demonstrating that she was “all in” – holding nothing back. This, I believe, is the most remarkable trait of those followers of Christ that we look up to and admire. They were people who were passionately devoted to God, who were willing to give all of who they are to God, holding nothing back. This means that every moment of our day, whether we are working or sleeping, or playing, or hanging out with friends – can and should be done to the honor and glory of God. 

And so this morning, as we remember and name those saints and all those souls who have gone before, and as we welcome new professing members of our congregation – may we follow in the footsteps of Mary and those saints who have gone before. May we recommit ourselves to sitting at the feet of Jesus – to actively learning and absorbing all that we can – and to sharing that with others – to pointing others to the saving grace and mercy of God, offered freely to all. Like Mary, may we not be so concerned with what others might think about us, but rather may we recognize our utter need and dependence on God, and respond in worship. May we too be known as people who were passionately in love with Jesus, and who were willing to pour ourselves out in love and devotion to God and God’s purposes in this world.