Category Archives: Reading Scripture

Coming To Our Senses In Lent – Registration has closed! (But here’s what we’ll be doing)

Each year, churches look for ways to deepen faith during the season of Lent. Quite often, this means reading a book together, or adding a midweek worship service. For some, however, these practices are simply “more of the same,” and do not lead to deeper faith. Sometimes we need to engage all of our senses to discover God’s direction as we learn to follow Christ.

So this year, some folks have signed up to explore with me how our five senses are reflected in scripture. We will also consider how spiritual practices engaging those senses can bring us to a deeper understanding of God’s love for us, as we seek to live a more Christ-like life. Each week, we will focus on one of the five senses. We will read about and discuss a miracle of Jesus related to that sense, and I will introduce to a spiritual practice to try during the following week. REGISTRATION HAS CLOSED. But stay tuned for future offerings like this.

Continue reading

Equipped for Every Good Work – Sermon on 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5

October 20, 2019

 Both the Old and New Testament readings today focus on scripture, the Word of God written on our hearts, delighting our spirits, and leading us to salvation. We are in the third of four Sundays examining Paul’s ‘last will and testament’ of faith in the second letter to Timothy. This week we move on from ‘wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening’ (2:14), to allowing scripture to work on us, to change us and equip us.

Remember that the Bible’s primary purpose is to reveal God to us. But what is the point of that revelation if we do nothing with it? Continue reading

Handle With Care – Sermon on 2 Timothy 2:8-15


Words can be dangerous. We have to handle them with care. Here’s an example: On Tuesday, I had heard that one of our members had been hurt falling off a ladder. When I called to check on him, he assured me he had done no such thing. It’s easy for rumors to spread misinformation like this. Idle chitchat can have major consequences. 

Here’s another one: Last Sunday, I announced my retirement in 2020. By Sunday afternoon, there was a rumor that Bruce and I plan to move to the east coast after I retire. I’m not sure where that one came from. We are not making any plans to move to the east coast! Rumors can get pretty interesting, can’t they? We have to handle our words with care. Continue reading

Good News, Bad News – Sermon on Luke 4:14-21 for Epiphany 3C

January 23, 2022

We like to remember that the word ‘gospel’ means ‘good news.’ But the sad truth is that hearing good news doesn’t always mean receiving the gospel. Hearing is not necessarily accepting. Seeing doesn’t always mean believing.

Our scripture passage for this third Sunday after Epiphany comes from the gospel of Luke. The evangelist places the story immediately after Christ’s baptism and temptation in the desert, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus has already been teaching and performing miracles in other towns nearby, and his reputation has returned to his hometown of Nazareth.

This was one of those “hometown kid makes good” stories. You know the kind. Continue reading

Staying Centered on Christ

Back in September, I started a sermon series called “Discipleship 101.” In my planning, I thought it would last about 4 weeks, maybe six. It was intended to help the congregation of First United Methodist Church live into its mission to “stay centered on Christ and offer Christ.” We do pretty well at “offering Christ” through various ministries, but it’s that “staying centered on Christ” part that is often a struggle. This sermon series was originally intended to help us go deeper into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I thought it would be a handy bullet-pointed list of things we can do to grow in faith. Wow, was I wrong.
youth.bibleThe scripture passages from the Revised Common Lectionary kept bringing me to messages of forgiveness and reconciliation and living in community with fellow believers. As I prayed over these passages and listened for a theme to emerge, I discovered that the path to true discipleship isn’t a “to do” list at all. In fact, nothing we do in our own strength will bring us closer to Jesus or deepen our faith. Discipleship isn’t about what I do, it’s about the One I follow.
Followers of Jesus stay focused on the One they follow. Everything else – Bible study, prayer, spiritual practices, equipping people for ministry, generosity, hospitality – these are simply evidence of a life devoted to Christ. They aren’t the “how to” steps for getting there. The only way to become a better follower of Jesus is to ….follow Jesus.
Yes, it really is that simple. And that hard.
The next few weeks will bring us to the completion of this particular series, as we slide into “Discipleship 201” – but where will God lead us on this journey? I invite you to join us on Sunday mornings at 9:30 at First United Methodist Church in New Ulm, MN to discover “what’s next?” And if you can’t make it to worship with us, check back here for a link to the sermon each week. Together, let’s stay centered on Christ and offer Christ to one another. Peace be with you. – Pastor Jo Anne

Intersections: Where Science Meets Scripture – sermon on Genesis 1:1-5, 27 – 2:22

We’re in the middle of a series of sermons based on topics you have
requested, as we look at places where faith intersects with life. We started off learning how to wrestle with God. When God shows up in
your life, confronting you with your past, preparing you for your future,
the only option for your present is to grab hold of God and hang on. We
also learned that, any time you wrestle with the living God, you will be
changed, and God will bless those who engage in the struggle.

Last week, we looked at the intersection of faith with doubt. We
considered the possibility that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but  certainty, because if we insist on being certain, we don’t really need faith.
Doubt keeps faith alive and active. When Jesus asks us, “Why did you  doubt?” it’s an invitation to examine why we choose to believe.

Next week, we will examine how we can be faithful Christians who are ‘in
the world, but not of the world,’ and at the same time, connect with
people who need to know Jesus, but who see Christians as hypocrites or

But this week, we get to tackle a topic that might be the most
controversial of all: how do we reconcile the biblical accounts of creation
with a scientific understanding of how the world came to be? Are science
and scripture mutually exclusive? Can you be a good Christian and still  accept that the earth is billions of years old, as scientists claim? Continue reading

A Visit to the Precipice – thoughts on Luke 4:21-30

21Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”23He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” 24And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

modern nazareth from mt precipiceAbout a year ago, we were standing on that “brow of the hill” – or at least what is traditionally accepted as the spot. The modern city of Nazareth lies below the hill to the west.

And Mt. Tabor can usually be seen off to the east, toward the Sea of Galilee. However, on the day we visited Mt. Precipice, it was rainy and cloudy.

2015-01-09 clouds over NazarethAs the clouds rolled in over Nazareth, we had to use our imaginations to picture the vista below us.


We could mostly make out Nazareth to the west, but the rich farmland to the south and the valley between us and Mt. Tabor to the east were completely obscured by clouds.

2015-01-09 mt precipice toward tabor clouds





2015-01-09 mt precipice clouds



I noticed that our little group of tourists reacted to this phenomenon in a surprising way. Keep in mind that we really couldn’t see anything – the view was completely obscured by clouds and rain. But that didn’t stop us from lifting our phones and cameras …

shawna and amanda taking photos on mt precipice2015-01-09 07.37.48

tourists on mt precipice





But do you notice something about these pictures? Everyone is looking in a different direction.

Here we are at the top of the hill where Jesus himself was dragged, just so he could be thrown down the hillside and stoned to death for blasphemy. And we are looking in every single direction, through the fog, at things we cannot see. If we inch out to the edge of the path, we can look down the hillside and imagine a human being thrown down over those rocks.Amanda looking down from mt precipice


But the precipice itself is the only thing we can clearly see. Ponder that.

The precipice of Mt Precipice 2015-01-09 07.46.49





Made for a Purpose – Sermon on Genesis 2:4-9, 15-17

We’ve had a great start to reading The Story together.
Several of you have already told me about the way this has impacted your lives, and it is good to see God already at work among us.  If you missed the discussion on Wednesday night, let me bring you up to speed.  (Then plan to join us this Wednesday, as we dive into chapter two!)

Here’s what we have so far:

The beginning of our journey through the story of the Bible is like the beginning of an action-packed movie. If you miss the opening scenes of a good action movie, you will probably not understand the rest of the story. There is so much packed into those first few minutes, it’s worth sitting through all the previews to make sure you’re in the theater when the action starts.

It is the same with the Bible’s grand story. The story of Creation sets the scene for the whole revelation of God in the Bible. So many things happen here at the very beginning, and so many characters are introduced that you may miss an important fact if you skip this first chapter.
If you come into the theater after this movie has begun, you might think this is a story about Adam and Eve, and what happens to them.  

And you would be wrong.

The main character of the Grand Story of the Bible is God.
This is a story about who God is, and what God does.  The very first thing God does in this story is create. From Genesis 1:1, we learn that the beginning of the universe is not an impersonal accident, but the result of the creative purpose of a personal God.  

The story of creation is presented to us as a poem. It is art. The book of Genesis is traditionally attributed to Moses, but he wasn’t around at the beginning, so what he wrote probably came from words that had been spoken from one generation to the next. The easiest way to remember an important story and pass it along to others is to put it into the form of a poem or song. Here in Genesis, we have a beautiful work of art that tells us how the world was formed.

It’s arranged in an order that makes sense, and is easy to remember. First, God makes the places, and then he creates the things that belong in those places. So, on the first day, God makes light and dark, one the second day, he divides sky and water, and on the third day, God creates land and covers it with vegetation. Then on the fourth day, God puts stars and moon and sun where they belong, to rule over the day and night that were created on the first day. On day five, God puts birds into the sky and fish into the sea, and on day six, God populates the land with animals. God saves his crowning achievement for last. The final thing God makes is humankind.  God’s core passion is people, made in God’s own image. 

We read in Genesis 1:26-27:

26 Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

27 So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

All the beauty of creation is secondary to you. Let this truth sink in. God made you in God’s own image, whether you are male or female, for a purpose: to live with God while caring for his creation. God’s supreme passion is to be with us at all costs, to give us everything that is good. 

“In the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens, 5 when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the LORD God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; 6 but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— 7 then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. 8 And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. 9 Out of the ground the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (Genesis 2:4-9)

“15 The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.16 And the LORD God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” (2:15-17)

Notice that the tree of life was not forbidden for food. Only the tree of death, knowing good and evil.
And almost from the beginning, something goes wrong. We call it “the Fall” but it really should be called Adam and Eve’s rebellion. 

You see, when God made humans, his purpose was to live together with us in friendship. But God knew that the only way that could work would be if humans chose to love God the way God chose to love us. God gave Adam and Eve the freedom to choose.
They could choose life in friendship with God, or they could choose death, by knowing both good and evil.

God does not force love.
Love must be given freely, or it isn’t love. So God let Adam and Eve choose, and they made the wrong choice. Adam and Eve rebelled against God and ate from the forbidden “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” and God’s vision to be with people was ruined. 

But here’s the good news: the rest of the Bible is about God’s pursuit to get us back!

Sin damages the whole human race.
Because Adam and Eve chose a different vision than God’s vision, sin became part of their spiritual DNA and they produced more sinners. Their children were born with sinful natures, one brother even killing another out of jealousy. And the sin virus was passed on from generation to generation, until things got so bad, God said, “I want a do-over.”

So God looked for the most righteous person he could find, and he chose Noah to start over. But it didn’t work. The flood erased the wicked human race, but did not erase the sin nature from Noah and his family.  Once they were off the ark, Noah planted a vineyard, and made wine from the grapes. One day, his youngest son found Noah drunk and naked, and he went snickering to tell his brothers about it.

“When he drank some of its wine, he became drunk and lay uncovered inside his tent. 22 Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father naked and told his two brothers outside. 23 But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it across their shoulders; then they walked in backward and covered their father’s naked body. Their faces were turned the other way so that they would not see their father naked.”
(Genesis 9: 21-23.)

There’s a clue at the very beginning of God’s story that God has a plan to save us, and Noah’s nakedness points us back to that clue. After Adam and Eve sinned and became aware of their nakedness, they made fig leaf clothing to cover their nakedness. God took away the fig leaves and covered Adam and Eve with the skins of animals. Here’s the clue:  For God to restore humans to their place in Gods created order, blood must be shed. 

God created the world with the grand vision of living together with us in the world. It is God’s supreme passion to be with you. God gave us freedom of choice. Adam and Eve chose out of the freedom of their will to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and ruined God’s vision of living with us.  
Sin was deposited permanently into the nature of Adam and Eve, a deadly virus separating them from a holy God. God banished Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden and set angels to guard it, in order to keep them from the Tree of Life, which would sustain life forever. Without access to this tree, they would eventually die.

We think God is being cruel by letting us die. But it’s actually an act of God’s grace to keep us from being able to sustain our life forever in a state of sin and hatred. Man’s choice resulted in separation from God, and it broke his heart. The ‘rest of the story,’ the entire Bible, tells us of the relentless pursuit of God and the extent to which he will go in order to get us back.

The flood is God’s first attempt to go to great measures to get us back. But it doesn’t work because it doesn’t deal with sin. Sin goes onto the ark with Noah, and it disembarks with him. But God isn’t finished. He will not let his good creation go.

Let’s review…

When God replaced Adam and Eve’s fig leaves with garments of skin, he gave us a clue as to how far he would go to fulfill his supreme desire to restore a relationship with us. Even when we are ashamed and feeling vulnerable, he covers us in order to restore our relationship with him, but covering us requires the shedding of blood. We are invited to soak in the fact that the God of the universe wants to be with us more than anything else on earth. You are the point of The Story.

God wants to be with you. Think about that. You. God wants to personally be with you. At great cost to God, God has done everything possible to get you back. You are valuable. Recognizing your own personal worth begins by believing what God says about you.

In Psalm 139 we read:

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
 before one of them came to be.
How precious to me are your thoughts, God!  How vast is the sum of them!
Were I to count them,
 they would outnumber the grains of sand— (Psalm 139:14-18)

There was a time in my life when I had to read those five verses out loud to myself every day. I did not feel fearfully and wonderfully made. I felt completely worthless. I was sure that God didn’t care about me anymore. I had wandered away from God. I had turned my back on him, and I was afraid to turn around, because I had convinced myself that God had turned his back on me. Yet, when I read these words, I began to realize that God had been waiting for me all along. God wanted me back.  

Then one day, I glanced backward in my Bible and read the last verse of the psalm right before this one, psalm 138. The psalmist writes,
“The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever! Do not forsake the work of your hands.” 

The Lord will fulfill his purpose for you. God made you for a reason. He gave you a purpose when he formed you, before you were even born. No matter how far away from God you wander, no matter how much you rebel against his plan for you, he wants you back.

The rest of the story is all about God’s work to restore each of us to our place in his perfect creation. We can take the first step toward that restoration when we confess our sins and ask God to forgive us. Psalm 139 ends with these words:

“Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.”

The way everlasting is the path back to God, whose love endures forever. His purpose for all of us is to live in loving relationship with him, and he has created you to do that in a way that is completely unique to you. God made you for a purpose that only you can accomplish. Will you let God fulfill his purpose for you? He will not forsake the work of his hands. His love for you endures forever.

Will you take the first step back to God?

Let us pray.

Lord, you formed us and made us in your image, but we don’t do a very good job of reflecting your glory sometimes. You made us to walk with you in friendship, but we often turn away from you. We know this breaks your heart. Yet, you don’t give up on us. Your steadfast love endures forever. 

Help us, Lord. Help us to see your way in front of us, and help us to follow in that way. We pray for the things that continue to break your heart: for the migrants fleeing war and terror with no place to go, for those who suffer from incurable disease, for those who mourn. We pray for leaders to rise up among your people who will stand for justice and righteousness. We pray all this in the name of your son, Jesus Christ, Amen.

Bread for All: Real Bread – Sermon on John 6:35, 41-51 Pentecost 11B

August 8, 2021

In the sixth chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus has been teaching the crowds and his disciples about bread. A few weeks ago, we heard how he fed 5000 people with a few small loaves of barley bread. Last week, he described himself as “the Bread of Life.” Today’s reading repeats the last verse we heard a week ago, and then takes us further into the story, as we hear Jesus explain what he means by this radical claim. Continue reading

Being God’s Kids – Sermon on 1 John 5:1-6 Easter 6B 

5/10/2015 (Mother’s Day)

It may seem that the heretics we read about in John’s letters are far removed from us. After all, they lived more than 2000 years ago, and a lot of theological water has gone under the bridge since then. We’ve had plenty of time to figure out what it means to be Christians.

Biblical scholars have written tons of books to explain the hard parts of scripture for us, and great leaders in the church have managed to refute most of the questionable beliefs that emerged during the early years of the faith. Those crazy ideas about Jesus being just a spirit who appeared to be human sound strange to us. It would never occur to us that Jesus was ever anything but fully God and fully human.

We live in a time when we don’t hear much about people standing their ground in theological debate. Our scholars and Christian leaders aren’t famous for hashing out the finer points of Christ’s identity as the Son of God. Instead of arguing about who God is and who Jesus is, we argue about who can be married in our churches or preach in our pulpits, or how we should respond to global warming, or what we should do about bigotry in all its forms.

That time seems far away, when Paul and John and Mark and Luke were still defining the very essence of Christian faith. And yet, the questions they faced were very much like the questions our culture asks today:
Who is God, anyway?
Why does Jesus matter?
What if I want to be “spiritual, but not religious?”
How can I know what lies beyond this life?
Who is going to love me, when I don’t love myself? Continue reading