Dog Days of Summer #7 – Mary and Martha

This blog post is featured in a chronological series “The Dog Days of Summer – Biblical Figures Feel the Heat.”  Blogs are intended to offer an outlet for reflection beyond Sunday morning.

July 26, 2015

Delivered by Rev. Dr. Camille Cook Murray / Sermon title: “How to Write a Condolence Letter”

Text: Luke 11

Mary and Martha, friends of Jesus, strong ladies, “felt the heat” when their dear brother Lazarus died. Mary and Martha had faith. They believed Jesus was a miracle worker, but they didn’t think that even Jesus could do anything for their brother once he had died.  It was too late to make a difference.  Jesus’s reaction to the news of his death was two-fold.  First, Jesus said he was glad to hear Lazarus had died.  Glad to hear he had died?  Yes–Jesus was glad for the chance to reveal himself even further to his followers. But gladness was not his only reaction in the face of death.  But Jesus also has a very personal and emotional reaction in the face of death.  In the company of the grieving community, Jesus sat down and wept.  Jesus in his own tears makes a public acknowledgement of the pain that death causes in life.  Those are the two reactions to death from Jesus and they serve as a good guide for us as we try to figure out our own response to death of loved ones or to those who grieve beside us.


In the face of death, grief and loss, Presbyterians want to know what they should do. What is a faithful Christian response in face of death? What on earth do you write in a condolence card?  Knowing what we believe helps to shape our response, but knowing Jesus’ response helps even more.


We need our letters to tell a bit about the promises of good news in our faith: the hope, the peace, the joy there is for those who die in the Lord. Jesus said to Mary and Martha that those who believe in him and die, will live. That is the lesson Jesus was glad to get to teach them, that no resurrection was not a metaphor—it was a new life for those who had completed lives on this earth. This is the gladness Christ holds for us in death and this should something we try to share with others in times of grief.


I urge you, regardless of how difficult it is to find the words, to write those notes to your friends and family in times of grief.


So here are my five pointers for how to write a condolence letter:

  1. say something about the person – something you valued, something you admired, something you will miss

  2. say something about how you find hope or gladness in your faith

  3. say something to acknowledge their grief

  4. quote the Bible

  5. tell them you are there for them (and mean it)


Let me give you an example:


Dear Gloria,

It is hard for me to write this note to you on the eve of Gerald’s death. He was a man of great integrity and a loyal colleague to me for many years. I will miss his insights, his story telling, and his boisterous laugh. At times like these, I take comfort in the promises of the gospel that death is not the final chapter for us.  I trust this is true for Gerald.  Even so, I know this time will be filled with much sadness for you and your family.  May you know, as it says in Philippians, “the peace, which passes all understanding, and may God guide your heart and mind in Christ.”  I am praying for you, and we are here for you if there is anything you need.  I will call you in a few weeks to see what I can do or find a time to go for lunch.

God’s blessings of unconditional love and abiding comfort to you,



Letters like these are important reminders for the bereaved, because times of grief and hardship can cause us to waver in our faith. Mary and Martha in their fog of loss, stumbled and questioned and doubted.  But Jesus could handle that.  He could handle the grief. He could handle the doubts. And, thank God, he could handle the death.


I am the resurrection and the life, he said, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.  Write it, say it, believe it.






Using the 5 points listed above, write a condolence letter. You can make up the scenario, or you can use a scenario from your past. Remember to hold onto the two truths: the Good News of Jesus and the grief of the present loss.

Dog Days of Summer #6 – Hannah Rose

This blog post is featured in a chronological series “The Dog Days of Summer – Biblical Figures Feel the Heat.”  Blogs are intended to offer an outlet for reflection beyond Sunday morning.

July 19, 2015

Delivered by Rev. Dr. Camille Cook Murray

Text: 1 Samuel 1:1-28

If you take a bird’s eye view on the life Hannah, it is hard to see how she qualifies to be included in our sermon series of biblical figures ‘feeling the heat’.  Hannah seems to have it all.  She has her adoring husband.  She has six children: four sons and two daughters.  Her eldest son, Samuel, was a national figure, a prophet and a judge.  Her future was secure, her life was full, and her faith was strong.


Yet it was not always so rosy for her.


To begin, we find Hannah in a polygamous marriage.  The other wife had given their husband many children but Hannah was unable to get pregnant.  The other wife daily ridiculed Hannah for her infertility.  Her husband loved Hannah but did not appreciate her grief.  She fell into depression – unable to stop her tears, unable to eat, unable to explain herself.  When she turns to the temple for prayer the priest overhearing her laments accuses her of being drunk and tells her to pull herself together.


This is the reason Hannah is in our summer grouping.  Hannah’s story may have turned out fine in the end but there was a very long and a very dark chapter she had to get through, and despite her long and difficult trial she did not lose her faith.  Midway through the story, “Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord.”  Hannah was not pregnant, had not reason to think she would ever get pregnant but Hannah rose.  She was bullied and belittled but Hannah rose.  Hannah had no future to believe in but Hannah rose.  The verb is a powerful one.  She did not stand, she did not get up, she did not go out.  Hannah rose.  She rose and she presented herself to the Lord, crying out in prayer all that her heavy heart was carrying.


Hannah rose.  Hannah prayed.  Hannah spoke.  Hannah found a way to faithfully travel through the season of sadness in her life.  She found a way to stay in conversation with God even in the midst of that darkness.  She found a way to believe in God’s hope even when life felt hopeless.


The reality is that we all have these seasons, manifesting themselves in a variety of shades of heaviness. When they come we must try to maintain our posture, hold onto our faith, and learn what we can from the experience. Hannah knew from her ancestors that God was able to do the impossible – bring life where there is no life; upend what is settled; make a future with hope out of a desperate situation.


We have inherited faith from men and women who have risen against great odds, persevered in the face of desperation, and displayed remarkable courage and fortitude in all seasons. So let us not sell ourselves short by thinking we do not have the strength or moral reserves or faith to get through anything, which comes our way.  Just like Hannah, one-foot forward day after day.  Amen.

Questions for Reflection:


What are some ways that you have persevered in a dark situation? How has that strengthened your faith?


What do you find troubling in Hannah’s story? What do you find comforting?


20th c. theologian Reinhold Niebuhr penned the “Serenity Prayer”:

God, give me grace to accept with serenity

the things that cannot be changed,

Courage to change the things

which should be changed,

and the Wisdom to distinguish

the one from the other.

Living one day at a time,

Enjoying one moment at a time,

Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,

Taking, as Jesus did,

This sinful world as it is,

Not as I would have it,

Trusting that You will make all things right,

If I surrender to Your will,

So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,

And supremely happy with You forever in the next.


Dog Days of Summer #5 – Stephen

This blog post is featured in a chronological series “The Dog Days of Summer – Biblical Figures Feel the Heat.”  Blogs are intended to offer an outlet for reflection beyond Sunday morning.

July 12, 2015

Delivered by Rev. Rachel Landers Vaagenes

Texts: 1 John 4:11-21; Acts 6:1-8; 7:54-60

Stephen became a member of the community of the faithful during those first heady days of the church. The Holy Spirit had come in tongues of fire to land on the apostles, and they were filled with power and told many about Jesus. Though Stephen’s life spans only 2 chapters in the Book of Acts, he is distinguished for two reasons:


Firstly, he is traditionally known as the first deacon. The term deacon in the Greek refers to a “servant, a minister, or an administrator; one who executes the demands of another.” [1]


His duties soon went beyond waiting on tables however, and Stephen is later described as “full of grace and power,” doing “great signs and wonders among the people.” These signs and wonders soon caused him to run afoul of the religious establishment, who arrested him on trumped up charges and brought him before the religious council. After his testimony, the council is unable to refute his words, but they cannot bear them any longer. We read that they “covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him.” It is here that he receives his second distinction: the first deacon is also known as the first Christian martyr.


The term martyr, though it eventually became synonymous with dying for the faith, is derived from the Greek word to “witness.” Stephen’s witness was not just in his death, but in his life of service and in his testimony to his Lord. Both his words and his actions pointed to the power of God.


Killed for his faith, the depiction of the life and death of Stephen parallels Christ’s in many significant ways. Like Jesus, he is brought before the council on trumped up charges; like Jesus he is taunted in order to provoke him to blasphemy. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus declares that “From now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God.” In Acts, Stephen witnesses “the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” In Luke, Jesus cries out from the cross, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” In Acts, Stephen declares, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Finally, just before Jesus dies he prays, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” So Stephen prays, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”


Here we can see a parallel, but also a progression. Jesus calls on God the Father, while Stephen cries out to Jesus himself. Jesus declares that the Son will be seated at the right hand, while Stephen declares that he sees the Son standing at the right hand. Jesus asks the Father to forgive; Stephen asks the Son.


These are powerful and deliberate parallels drawn by the author who wrote the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, and a preliminary reading might bring us to the conclusion that we as the community of faithful are simply called to be imitators of Christ, called to copy and continue the work that he did during his time on earth. Such a conclusion would not be incorrect, but it would be incomplete.


What does it mean for us to proclaim Jesus? Here is what it is not:


Witness is not following Jesus into death to earn God’s love. Witness is not imitating Christ, being a martyr in order that others might be saved. Salvation has happened already and for eternity through the life, death and resurrection of Christ. We by our actions cannot make God’s work more or less effective. But that does not mean we have no task.


Christian life moves toward a goal: life as citizens in the Kingdom of God. This does not mean that we are waiting to be whisked away out of this life of toil however. Our goal is a goal of vocation rather than vacation. “Christians live by the promise of God and thus in creative hope. There is work to be done, a message to be proclaimed, forgiveness to be offered and practiced, service to be rendered, hostility to be overcome, injustice to be rectified.” [2]


If we believe that God is at work in the world, our task as a church is to make that work known. Witness is the very life of the church. Our task can be summed up in Paul’s words that I like to use as a benediction: “Keep Alert! Be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.” This is the work of the community of the faithful.




Daily Reflection exercise:


Stephen had a profound sense of the presence of God. He paid attention. This comes with practice:


Make an effort to remember the presence of God in your daily life. Brother Lawrence, a 16th century monk, endeavored to devote himself continually to prayer, and when he had to take on any other business (he was the Abbey cook), he prayed: “O my God, Thou art with me, and I must now, in obedience to Thy commands, apply my mind to these outward things, I beseech Thee to grant me the grace to continue in Thy presence; and to this end do Thou prosper me with Thy assistance, receive all my works, and possess all my affections.”



[1] Strong’s Greek Concordance

[2] Migliore, Daniel; Faith Seeking Understanding; p. 247.

Dog Days of Summer #4 – John the Baptist

This blog post is featured in a chronological series “The Dog Days of Summer – Biblical Figures Feel the Heat.”  Blogs are intended to offer an outlet for reflection beyond Sunday morning.

July 5, 2015

Delivered by Rev. Rachel Landers Vaagenes

Texts: Mark 6:14-29 and Revelation 3:14-22


John the Baptist is our fourth subject in our “Dog-Days of Summer: Biblical figures feel the heat.”


John was a prophet on the outskirts of Judah, and his manner, appearance, and behavior all signaled that John was not playing by the rules of the established order. Herod had imprisoned John because of his critique of Herod’s marrying his own sister-in-law.


And so the stage is set for the final day of the life of John the Baptist. In almost Shakespearian style the scene plays out: an illegitimate marriage, a raucous celebration, a niece’s pleasurable dance, an outrageous promise, an opportunity seized. Suddenly the power of this king is very much called into question. Herod gives way, while John stands firm.



2000 years later, Lloyd Olsen lopped off the head of a chicken for dinner.[1] Yet the rooster continued to live in defiance of the loss of what we would consider essential: his head. It turns out that there isn’t much brain required to keep something alive.


And so here we are presented with two stories of beheadings: John and Mike. John, who died, Mike, who survived. What can they teach us about ourselves?


Are we John? Are we those who put our faith hope and trust in God? Willing to risk everything, even our lives in service to the radical eternal love of Jesus Christ? Or are we Mike? Alive but not living? Unfortunately, like Mike, the church too, is able to survive without its head.


Who are we? What work are we meant to do? Before we can advance, there is a great stumbling block in our way. And though it is large, it is not easily seen. We have become blind—not to our sins, for they are apparent enough—but to our sinfulness. A sin is a thing that is to some extent external from us. It is something we possibly do or participate in. but “Sinful” is something we are: internal and part of our identity.


When we ask about our mission, be it service or witness or worship, we cannot start with this or that program or outcome. We must start with Jesus. Then—only then—will we be able to discern God’s will for us. Our identity as a church and as individuals is wrapped up in our understanding of who God is: a God who calls sinners back to freedom.


This means getting comfortable with recognizing, confessing, and repenting of sin. And that means we need to get comfortable feeling uncomfortable.


In Revelation, the church in Laodicea says, “I am rich, I have prospered, I need nothing.” But hear the words of the messenger of God: “You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” They have forgotten how much they were in need of salvation.


But Christ remembers. We are not forgotten. We are sinners called by God; loved, and tasked with sharing that unconditional love with the whole world. This is not a comfortable, safe love. It is a risky, vulnerable love. It is a love that was carried all the way to the cross. It is in this love that we are known.


John the Baptist knew who he was, and with Christ as his head he had no fear of losing his own.


We can survive as a comfortable church, or we can reclaim Christ as our head. This weekend as we mark the 239th year of independence of our country, let us be a church worthy of the freedom to worship God. What do we have to lose? And what is that compared to all that we have to gain?


To God be the glory, now and forever. Amen.