Go on. Go Ahead.

A Sermon on Exodus 17:1-7.
A version of this sermon manuscript was preached by the Rev. Erin Counihan at the Association of Mid-Council Leaders (PCUSA) Gathering in St. Louis, MO on Oct. 14, 2017.

Go on. Go ahead.

It’s a funny thing to say to a man who has been leading the people for a while now.

Go on. Go ahead.

They hate you and want to stone you. They are thirsty and afraid. Sure, they’ve seen God at work among them already- in the cloud and the pilar of fire, they’ve seen the waters set aside to make a new way, they’ve seen their violent oppressors conquered and tossed into the sea, they’ve seen the manna sprinkled down from heaven above, they’ve seen and felt and tasted God’s constant provision, care, and love, through crisis after crisis, but the thing is, the people are STILL IN CRISIS anyway, and they are still scared and thirsty and want to kill that leader who is taking them on this terrible, scary, thirsty journey through crisis, toward God-only-knows where.

But Go on, Moses. Go ahead.

Now, generally when we read the Exodus story at the church I serve, I ask us to consider ourselves as the people, the crowds, the masses of Israelites walking and wandering, I ask us to place ourselves in the middle of the tired, scared, thirsty pack. But today, well, really because of what I saw here yesterday, I am going to ask us to consider this story from a different position. Because yesterday, just as we were starting worship, and the Rev. Co-Moderator Denise was trying to call us into worship, and her mic wasn’t working, and half the room set upright, and went, “um, mic! Excuse me, mic’s not working. Turn on the mic! Over here, please!” When folks from five different tables got up to address the concern, when half the room took action in a crisis, I realized I was in a room full of leaders. I was in a room full of people used to being in charge. I was in a room full of people used to being the one who could fix the problems. A room full of people who have the answers and the vision and show others the way. So while I am in THIS room, full of us kind of leaders, let’s go ahead an let ourselves be Moses in this story for just a moment.

(Don’t worry, I promise I won’t tell your people back home that you think you’re Moses.)

But let’s put ourselves in those sandals, just for a moment, because I do think we can relate a little here. Because like Moses, we are people called to lead God’s people on a journey. We are people called to lead God’s faithful walking through crisis after crisis. We are people called to cry out to God for ideas and answers and new ways to fuel and fill and resource the community to live and witness and serve and just get by in this new time. And we are people called to lead and serve folks who are scared. And tired. And thirsty. And they’re really not sure we know the way to wherever it is God is promising to take us. And the resources aren’t coming from the places where we used to find them. And The people we lead are hungry and thirsty and tired and frustrated and scared and to many of them and more than a few of us, I fear it is starting to look safer back in the past, back where we came from, back when we were comfortable. And we are hearing some grumbling and quarreling and we may be hearing folks ask, we may be hearing ourselves ask, “Is the Lord among us or not?! “


I hear that inside my own head all the time. I hear it in committee meetings, I hear it in stewardship meeting, I hear it in prayer gatherings, I hear it in neighborhood meetings. As we walk through crisis after crisis. As my news feed is filled with ugliness after ugliness. I, middle-of-the-packer, grumble and quarrel with myself, as Moses, asking me, Is God with us or not?

You see, because here in St. Louis, where I live and serve and try very hard to faithfully follow the way of our Lord, here, my community, my city, is full of thirsty people. And the people here are thirsty for justice.

This day today marks thirty days of protest in our city since the most recent verdict of injustice was handed to us. 30 days of protests in the streets where my colleagues, co-conspirators, neighbors and friends are right now as I speak with you, where they are standing out there crying out in thirst.

Today marks thirty days since one our our leaders issued an acquittal of another of our officers who killed another man of color in this city. Today marks 30 days since we started grumbling and quarreling in this city all over again. Today is 30 days, and it’s coming three years after we spent 400 days in the streets before that.

And so, on these days when we stand in these dry, dry streets, and when we fill dry, dry city hall committee rooms, when we walk through dry neighborhoods carrying paper petitions to register more thirsty voters, I catch middle-of-the-pack me asking Moses-me, “is God with us or not?” When we march and the mothers of our lost siblings come up in the center, and a another mother joins the line, I catch myself quarreling inside me, “is God with us or not?” When we chant, and call out their names- Anthony Lamar Smith, Kiwi Herring, Vonderrit Meyers, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Terrence Crutcher, LaQuan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and we keep adding another name to that dry list of injustice and death, I wonder, “is God with us or not?” When our elcted officials cancel town hall meetings and send a militarized force out to greet the thirsty people in the streets, I wonder, “is God with us or not?” 

Because we are thirsty for justice and I don’t know, but I heard somewhere or read somewhere that justice is supposed to roll down like water, but I am standing there in the street surrounded by thirsty people everywhere…. and it is always then that I hear the chants pick back up. And they quiet the grumbling in my heart. When the young and the old, the wealthy and the poor the housed and the house-less, the clergy and the atheist, the trans and the straight, the black and the brown and the white and the all start saying it..







And I hear a little voice beneath that reminding me, Go on. Go ahead. I will be standing there. In front of you.

And I look around and see my people…






And I hear it again. Go on. Go ahead. I will be tanding there. In front of you! STRIKE THAT DRY ROCK. And the water the people NEED will come out of it.

God says, Go on. Go ahead.


I don’t know what the issues are in your community, in your presbytery, in your congregation right now. But I know that we all come from communities filled with grumblings. From communities filled with quarreling. From communities filled with fears. From communities filled with thirsty people. And like Moses, we are leaders drawn from the water, we are leaders drawn out from the waters of our baptism, called to walk ahead, told to go on, to the place where God is standing. To use the tools we have already been given. To strike and smash some dry, old rocks. And let God’s provision, hope, justice, and love flow. Because God WILL quench the thirst of the people.

So, go on. Go ahead.

Because it’s Sunday and we all need a Word.

There’s a lot of pressure to preach well on days like today. Mostly it’s pressure we pastors put on ourselves. We feel called and charged with coming up with words, powerful words, meaningful words, inspirational words, comforting words. And we are. But also, this isn’t about us. It’s about God’s Word. So, very early this morning, with the help of a Spirit who’d been nudging at me through many, many drafts, I wrote this sermon. It came out a little differently than I had planned. God made some changes in the pulpit, too. It’s not perfect. I am sure there are some theological holes. And I know there’s a ton of bad grammar (don’t show my Mom). But this IS what God gave me to say today, this day, with all that we’ve seen over this weekend, to the congregation who gather at Oak Hill, to our little family, to our little fellowship, and all that we’ve seen over these past few years, in our space and context. And it preached to me so.

(We also used this prayer, shared by Rev. Traci Blackmon at the start of worship, and this prayer written by fellow RevGal, Rev. Rachel Hackenberg during our prayers of the people. I am so thankful for the beautiful words of others. Always.)


On Hate. And Fear. And Dreams. Oh, and the Work.
A version of this sermon manuscript was preached by the Rev. Erin Counihan on Sunday, August 13, 2017 at Oak Hill Presbyterian Church in St. Louis.

Text: Genesis 37:1-28
(This is an expansion of the lectionary OT text for 19A. Our congregation has been reading the lectionary OT texts throughout this summer.)  

At first I thought it was about hate.

They hated him.

It says so in the text and it gives us reasons why. They hated him. He was daddy’s favorite. Daddy loved him the most. Daddy gave him the fancy coat. He tattled to daddy on them. As someone who has 4 siblings let me just say, these totally appropriate and acceptable reasons for siblings to hate one another. Siblings are close and competitive and prone to jealousy and, well, it just happens. So, They hated him.

At first I thought it was about hate.

But then, they hated him even more, it says. They hated him even more when he had a dream and told them about it. In Joseph’s time dreams weren’t just these sleepy-weird-fantasy memories that we brushed off and said, “I really have to stop watching Law and Order before bed.” No, in Joseph’s time, dreams were visions from God, divine revelations, and holy proclamations. Dreams weren’t just ideas or dramatizations of our inner dialogues. They were prophetic truths send directly from God above.  And so, when Joseph had a dream, when he was given a dream from God, that all his brothers were to bow down to him, that his brothers and even his parents were to bow down to him, and when Joseph TOLD his brothers who already hated him about this dream of how they will bow down to him, they hated him even more.
They hated him even more because now they also had FEAR. Joseph’s words had made them afraid. Joseph’s dream had made them afraid. God’s plan revealed in Joseph’s dream had made them afraid.
This holy-special-divine-dream-plan terrified them. How could THEY bow to Joseph? They couldn’t. Because they couldn’t imagine bowing down to someone so lowly. Someone beneath them. They very one who was supposed to be behind them. Promises had been made, expectations set. This wasn’t how it worked. It up-ended the power dynamics society had come to let them understand. Their baby brother, for he was the youngest at the time, wasn’t the one who supposed to lead. It would be humiliating. The systems of their society determined that he did not have power, so who did he think he was? That kind of power was not his for the taking. That wasn’t how it was done. He was to remain subservient to his more powerful brothers. That’s how it worked.

But… if God suggested differently…. Because, God did have that kind of power…..

Well, that would change everything.

So when Joseph tells them of this dream, they who already hated him, were now also afraid, afraid of the change, of what it would mean for THEIR lives if this dream were true. Afraid that losing power, flipping the system as they know it, having to bow down to one who they felt was beneath them. That fear of the threat to their own position and influence and expectation is what drove their hate into rage. Murderous rage.
When I watched events playing out in Charlottesville this weekend, certainly I saw hate. But behind that hate, what motivates that hate to action, to rage, to a murderous rage, is fear.
Did you see the pictures? Did you see how young those white supremacists were? In their khakis and polos, carrying tiki-torches from Target and guns from Walmart. They were young. They weren’t the old uncle toothless redneck hillbilly caricature we like to label as racist. The image we like to draw up because it is so different from us, fringe and outdated. No. Those people yesterday, they looked like us. They looked like me. They looked like young white men, terrified of a world that might not, just for a moment, put them first. They looked terrified of a world changing around them, of changes they cannot stop, of a growing voice of dreamers, who’ve been given a vision from God, that we are ALL equally created in God’s image. That we in all of our various shades and styles, traditions and ethnicities, languages and tones, are beloved children of God. That is what they fear. As if there were a finite amount of God’s belovedness….
“Here comes this dreamer”, Joseph’s brothers said, “come now, let us kill him… and we shall see what becomes of his dreams.”

“They said to one another, ‘Behold, here cometh the dreamer… Let us slay him… And we shall see what will become of his dreams.”

It’s the inscription on a plaque outside room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN where another dreamer once was gunned down.

“The said to one another, ‘Here comes this dreamer, let us kill him… and we shall see what becomes of his dreams.’”

They’re not the exact words, but can’t you hear the chief priests and scribes murmuring that under their breath, behind waving palm branches as another dreamer rode into Jerusalem on a donkey?

“The said to one another, ‘Here comes this dreamer, let us kill him… and we shall see what becomes of his dreams.’”

It’s a statement of hate.
It’s a statement of fear.
It’s a desperate plan.
And it’s terrible theology.

Because if the dream is of God, if the dream is divine, then we can’t really stop it.
Even if we plan to kill that dreamer.
Even if we hate the dreamer.
Even if we craft systems to keep the dreamer down.
Even if we silence the dreamer.
Even if we take away the dreamer’s voting rights.

Even if we gerrymander the dreamer’s voting district.
Even if we rob the dreamer of access to health care.
Even if we separate the dreamer from us in school.

Even if we refuse to educate the dreamer.
Even if we lock the dreamer up.
Even if we cast the dreamer out.
Even if we don’t hate the dreamer, but we silently sit by and watch as our own brothers plot and craft and rob and silence and separate and lock up and hate and fear the dreamer.
Because, and I’m so sorry to say it, Joseph, it isn’t about the dreamer.
It’s about God’s dream.
For ALL of us.

You’ll remember, that this story doesn’t end up quite the way that the brothers had planned. And it takes some years. Long, hard years, full of work, and relationship building, and more dreaming, and more work. But Joseph’s dream, God’s dream, does come true.

Church, I believe God has a dream for us too. A dream of beloved community, a peaceful kin-dom, that time when justice rolls down like waters, where the wolf lies down with the lamb, where the multitudes are fed and no one is left hungry, where wisdom and understanding and love and hope prevail and sustain. It is the dream that God tells us over and over again in this message we call scripture. A dream that is taking thousands of years to learn and to live. A dream that requires us to join in what God is creating, to join in what God is making new, to join in what God is bringing out in us, with our faith, our prayer, our witness, our confession, our commitment, and our work.

For if we want peace, we’re going to have to work. If we want justice, we’re going to have to work. If we want to end racism in this country, we’re going to have to work. If we want to dismantle white supremacy, we’re going to have to work. If we want to stop this violence, in our streets, in our systems, and in our own hearts, we’re going to have to work. If we want to be freed from hate, we’re going to have to work. If we want to overcome fear, we are going to have to work. If we want share and spread love, a love from God, a love that overcomes and overwhelms, a love that changes and creates and makes things new, a love that saves, a love that can and has and will topple systems and fears, a love that is already pouring through you and me and us, a love that is already present and acting in this world, we’re going to have to work.

We’ve got to name it. Say it out loud.
Pray for it. Pray without ceasing.
Live it. And craft that dream into our own hearts.
And work for it. And work for it some more.
To join in the naming, praying, living, and working God is already dreaming for us.
Out of fear, they say, let’s kill this dreamer.

Out of love, let us say, we will do the work to live God’s dream.



On Wrestling.

A God Who Always Shows Up to Wrestle
A version of this sermon manuscript was preached by the Rev. Erin Counihan during worship on Sunday, August 6, 2017 at Oak Hill Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, MO.

Text: Genesis 32:22-31
I remember really not being sure anymore.

Because at that time, nothing made sense. Going to work didn’t make sense. Talking to my friends didn’t make sense. Sitting alone certainly didn’t make sense. Neither did grocery shopping or working out or dealing with my landlord or brushing my hair. In the days and weeks and months after my little sister died unexpectedly many, many years ago, nothing made sense to me. We’d had the funeral, I’d seen her one last time in that casket, then I was there when they put that tiny little box into the ground. Through too many awkward conversations and far too much mac and cheese, I’d listened to every last it of good advice and well-meaning words of condolence and love that incredibly sweet and generous and lovely people had been so kind as to offer. And at some point, it really felt like I had said all the words. I had no more left. I had planned and organized and cried and processed and felt and watched Love Actually 57 times. And I had nothing left. I was completely numb.

And I couldn’t possible see, feel, or imagine how there was a God in that. I had read the hospital report, I had gone over the details many, many times. I knew the logistics and the specifics. There was nothing holy or sacred about what happened. It was medical. Clinical. Scientific. And it was done. A whole person. Done. A whole story. Done. In ashes. Now in the ground. Right by my grandma.

So for a long time, numb as could be, I walked through the motions. “Fake it till you make it”, my mom advised. “Just come along with us,” one of my other sister’s said. So I went to church, but there was no more God in it for me. I still liked the songs. And the people were sweet. And you know I liked the cookies and juice.

But God no longer made sense to me in this world.

It’s fascinating to me how grief looks so different in different people.  How we handle things differently, process things differently, experience and journey through the same exact things so differently. For so long, I felt like my family had taken their grief to one side of the river- and with it, their faith, their laughter, their joy, and their ability to move on- and I was stuck on the other side, lost in my numbness, all alone.

In our text today, Jacob the wrestler, the one wrestling within his mother’s womb, the one who wrestled away his brother’s birthright, the one who wrestled away his father’s blessing, the one who wrestled to gain wives and fortune, now sends all that he has- his family, his herds, all of his possessions- to the other side of the river, and is left alone to wrestle for his soul.

It is when he is alone, on the river bank that night, as he is leading his family back to God’s promise land, back to face the wrath of his brother, back to face the decisions of his past, back to face an unknown future, all alone, that Jacob the wrestler, wrestles with God.

We’re not told how it started. Was Jacob quietly waiting. Sitting silently in prayer, resting and gathering his thoughts, devising a plan. Was he screaming and shouting about. Calling for a fight. Seeking out trouble. We’re not told how it started. Did God just show up? Was there a leading in? Or a flashing presence? Who threw the first punch? Who drew the first blood? Were words tossed about or did they go straight for the body?

For such an important match, we’re not told a whole lot.

But here is what we do know. God showed up that night to wrestle with Jacob. And God was willing to wrestle all night long.

I spent a year in a numb fog after my sister died. I knew dust and I knew doubt. I went through the motions and more often, I just walked out. On faith. On believing. On God. But God kept showing up. God kept showing up for a match that took more than a year. For a match I snuck back into three years later. For a match, I still revisit in dark moments and times.

And I may limp a little from our battles. But I know how strong it’s made me, how strong God has made me, in doing this work, in skirmishing and roughhousing this way. In struggling and scrappling together we are both stronger. God knows my moves. I know some of God’s plays.

In the end, day breaks. A new light rises, and God offers a blessing, and changes a name. Jacob is Israel- the one who wrestles with God face to face. Jacob is Israel- changed in name and in gait. Jacob is stronger. Jacob moves differently. Jacob is blessed. Jacob continues on.

And God keeps showing up. To challenge. To wrestle. To bless. To encourage.

So I keep showing up, too. Numb, or tired, doubtful or jolly, with confident moves and lots of friends, or kind of afraid and all alone… however I can, I keep showing up, for a God who is willing to wrestle with ME.

All. Night. Long.

That Beast Racism, er, I mean Goliath

Are We Ready to Slay the Monster, the Beast, The Giant: Goliath/Racism?
A version of this sermon manuscript was preached by the Rev. Erin Counihan at Oak Hill Presbyterian Church on Sunday, June 21, 2015.
Text: 1 Samuel 17: 1a, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49image
This Wednesday, we sat in that room.
Right over there. On the other side of the wall. Sitting, in a circle. Was it nine of us? Or eight? I can’t quite remember.

But there we were. On Wednesday.

And I like to think, because I’ve come to know the people who gather in that room each Wednesday, that had a stranger come in, through our unlocked door and joined our Wednesday bible study, that stranger, too, would have been welcomed.
Someone would have motioned to an open seat. Someone else would have slid their book over to share the lesson. Someone else might have gotten up to offer the newcomer a bible, so that when we went around the circle reading the passage, our new guest would have had the opportunity to read in turn. We would have invited them to share- their opinions, questions, ideas, doubts, and prayer requests. Then we would have bowed our heads and closed our eyes and prayed to God with our new friend.

As the news of the terrible tragedy, the act of terror, the violent hate crime flooded our worlds Wednesday night, I couldn’t get that scene out of my mind. Hadn’t I just sat in such a room, with such faithful people, that very day? I fell apart weeping over the idea.

Because, at first, when I first heard the news, that there had been a shooting in a church at a prayer meeting, that was as far as I got. And in my disbelief, I dig deeper. I searched for more information, for details. How could this be? What kind of monster could do such a thing. And then when I read the rest of the story- that the shooting was at an AME Church, at THE AME Church, at Mother Emanuel, in the deep south, a church and denomination created because the white church wouldn’t let them in. A church that had been burned to the ground out of hate. That the victims were all African-American, and the shooter was white. My heart shattered into a million pieces. Because now I could imagine what kind of monster had done such a thing. Because I knew that monster. I knew that monster’s name- Racism.

That monster has been destroying lives, churches, communities, and unity in our nation for centuries. That monster we here in St. Louis know well. We know it well in the stories of our schooling, in the stories of the changes in this neighborhood, and especially over the past 10 months we know it well in conversations about policing and the deaths of Michael Brown, Kajieme Powell, Vonderitt Meyers, and Ledarius Williams.

Here in our congregation, we have been attempting to talk about that monster. We’ve held sacred conversations, attended marches and learning events, we’ve offered so many prayers. We’ve been learning new terms, reading new scholars, and hearing new stories. We’ve been listening to new voices. And it hasn’t been easy or comfortable. There are days when even I, the one who talks about this all the time, have thought, man, we’ve got to talk about something else. It’s getting pretty awkward. This is exhausting. We need a break.

But then I read the news, or talk to a friend, or watch how people watch my own kid when we walk into a store and I am reminded that my black and brown sisters and brothers don’t have that luxury of taking a break from the conversation, of hiding from the monster, not even for a break, not ever for a day. So as long as our black and brown brothers and sisters are dying at the hands of the monster of racism, the beast of injustice, and the devil that is gun violence, in our streets, in their own homes, and in God’s home- I have no business being comfortable. The least I can do is talk about it. Pray about it. Learn about it. Listen to their voices, their experiences, and their cries. And hear God’s call to be humbled, to repent, and to work for justice.

Because that monster of racism, I believe is our Goliath. It is this big, bad thing, supported by an army of hate, wearing the armor of indifference, imposing its way on our systems, laws, communities, schools and society. And I believe today, with our broken hearts, we are presented with a choice. We can be the Israelite army, the chosen people of God, armed with the tools of righteousness and love, but stunned, and scared, frozen in awkward fear, refusing to take action. Or we can be David.

David. Who in this moment, is not the great warrior king, but is just young shepherd. No one thinks he’s anything special. But he is called by God. Experienced in the love of God. Confident in the hope of God. Rejecting any armor but that of the Word of our Lord.

We can be David, and show up, stare the monster Goliath of Racism in the face, take every bit of trash talk, of garbage hyperbole, it can spew at us, and boldly say, out loud, “I come to you in the name of the Lord God, whom you have defied.”

We can be David.
What might happen? If our God, the God who uses all kinds of broken, unexpected people, used us?
Our God, the God who called a really old couple to birth a chosen tribe.
Our God, the God who called a stutterer to speak the law to the people.
Our God, the God who called children to be prophets.
Our God, the God who called an unwed teenage girl to give birth to the divine being.
Our God, the God who called an oppressor, a persecutor, to preach and grow the church.
Our God, the God who called a boy shepherd to take on the biggest beast of his time.

What if that God is calling to us now? Can you imagine? For a moment, if we didn’t care how big the monster, beast Goliath of Racism was, if we didn’t worry about how wide and deep and far its arms reach, but if we could be like David, look it in the eye and call it out. Saying THAT IS NOT THE WAY OF GOD!

What if we channeled David every time we hear a just slightly offensive joke?
What if we channeled David every time we noticed discrimination, inequality and underrepresentation in our workplaces, in our schools, on panels and governing boards?
What if we channeled David every time we cringed at a friend’s social media post?

What if we channeled David every time we caught ourselves exercising our own privilege?

We can channel David. We can be David. We can do something. We must do something. Something. Because, we don’t have to be armed with the right words. We have God’s true word.
We can be like David, are little things, called by God into service. To slay the beast. Not with big maneuvers, impressive moves or fancy tools, but with our faith in God and God’s message of love.

Goliath is out there. And in here [points to sanctuary]. And in here [points to my own heart].

Are we ready to be called to service like young David, infused with our faith in the Lord? Or will we sit by silently and watch the beast attack, stuck in our fear?[i]

I will close today with the reading of our Gospel from the book of Mark. Hear now the word of our Lord:

35On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?[ii]

[i] This sermon references the theological ponderings of Rev. Tawnya Denise Anderson as shared with the RevGalBlogPals. I am thankful for her scholarship and vision and especially for her challenge to us preachers! 

[ii] Mark 4:35-40 NRSV

Called Out.

Called Out.
A version of this sermon manuscript was preached by Rev. Erin Counihan on Sunday, March 8, 2015 at Oak Hill Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, Missouri.
Texts: Exodus 20:1-17 and John 2:13-22
Prayer: Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you,  O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.


I called my mom last night. I had been checking out some of the coverage from the Selma 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. of that day when civil rights protesters and police in Alabama met on a bridge, and violence was the victor. She wasn’t there. At the time, she was at home, six or seven states away. She was at church that day. And although my parents have always shared with me stories of their experiences during this tense time in our nation’s history, I couldn’t remember my mother ever specifically speaking of this day, I couldn’t remember her telling me how she saw Selma. So I called and asked her about what she remembered from that time.


Now, if you promise not to do the math to figure out her current age, I will tell you that at the time my mom was 26 and living in Bethesda, MD, just outside of Washington, DC. She told me how watching the images of that day on tv, brought the reality of what was happening into her living room. How she could see that violence, right there, in her living room and how it was so completely unavoidable.

She remembered the call going out to “outsiders” the next day, and especially to white clergy, to join in the protest. She told me about going to church, the church she grew up in, Bethesda Presbyterian Church, an all white church just outside of Washington DC, and hearing her minister, Rev. Dr. Carl Pritchett, tell the congregation that he was going to Selma. She remembered the controversy. She remembered that some in the church supported him and that others felt he was out of his mind. Who felt betrayed. He was a southerner, born in North Carolina, how could he be doing this? How could he be speaking out in this way? He caused division, my mother remembered. But she remembered how he told them that he felt called by his conscience and by his God to go and stand for justice. So he went. Dr. Pritchett marched in Selma. He went on, and he organized boycotts and he called the faithful at Bethesda Pres. to participate actively in the Civil Rights movement.

Now, after talking to my mom, I did a little research. Dr. Pritchett was pastor of Bethesda Presbyterian for 19 years, beginning in 1956. But he didn’t start out as an activist. He started out as a southerner, who by the account I read, was a bit of a racist, as he had been raised to be. And when Washington was consumed by the civil rights movement, when the march on washington was called for just two years earlier, Dr. Pritchett was against getting involved. He was clear that marching in the streets was not for him.

That August in 1963, DC area pastors had been asked to house participants gathering for Dr. King’s March on Washington and to feed them. Many had said no. At the time the Presbyterian Church was split in two, the northern PCUSA and the southern PCUS. Dr. J. Randolph Taylor, a PCUS pastor at Washington DC’s Church of the Pilgrims, called his colleagues out. He went to the Presbyterian Outlook magazine and wrote an open letter to his beloved church brothers and sisters saying, “Brethren, all of us must be open to the fresh demands which the eternal Word of God places upon us to be relevant in our ministry to the age in which we live…. One of the crucial problems of our times is racial equality. The church is directly involved in its solution because of the imperatives of the gospel.” This letter from Dr. Taylor was read to the general assembly of the PCUS two days before the March. A prayer service was called for the morning of the march at Dr. Taylor’s church, the Church of the Pilgrims in NW DC. 200 southern Presbyterians, including several ministers, came to that prayer service, including my mother’s pastor, Dr. Pritchett.

Dr. Pritchett hadn’t planned on doing anything more than attending the prayer service. He wasn’t one for violence or marching. He wasn’t one for the streets. But he was moved in that prayer service, he was moved to action. He marched on Washington that day, and it fundamentally changed how he saw the movement, and the church’s role in the movement. He became an activist. He preached the message of justice and equality he found in the gospel. And he called on the Church to see its role in how things were playing out in the streets, he called her out saying, “The Church forced it out in the streets…. if I should ever feel that my place is physically out in the street, it will be because my church has forced me out of the sanctuary…and into the street.”

Being called out by his colleague forced Dr. Pritchett to look at himself and how he was doing church. Forced him to consider which rules he was following and why. And once he had been called out, once he had been transformed by that, he found it is duty to return the favor. To challenge good, faithful, law-abiding church folks to consider how they were being the church.

The good, faithful, law-abiding people of faith at the temple that day in Jerusalem were also trying to follow all the rules. Cesar’s money wasn’t allowed in the temple, with his face on those coins, it wasn’t allowed. So the money changers were there to fix the situation, to turn the money into face-less money that could be properly offered in the temple. For God. They were following the rules.

The animals. The animals were there to be offered as sacrifices. There needed to be a space to clean them off after a long, dusty walk to the temple. They needed to be spotless and clean in order to be sacrificed.The doves were being sold to people who were too poor to have animals to offer. But all this was in accordance with the tradition and expectation and the way that you knew to be a good and faithful person of God. That’s why they were there.

The people were following the rules.

The temple, it was being improved, enlarged. Made to accommodate more. So that more could come and honor God. So that more could do the right thing. So the space would be more beautiful. To honor God. All to do the right thing, the faithful thing, to honor God.

These good people of faith were all following God’s rules.

But they were missing the point.

And Jesus was there to tell them just that.

Jesus was there to call them out. Because they were missing the point.

We all need to be called out every now and again. We need that accountability. That parent’s eyebrow raised as if to say, “are you sure you wanna do that?” That teacher saying, “you can do better.” That teenager asking, “well, what did you do when you were my age?” That toddler questioning, “what does that word mean, daddy?” That federal government report stating in black and white, “this city has a race problem, this police department has a race problem.” Our president saying, “What’s our excuse today for not voting? How do we so casually discard the right for which so many fought?” And our God, who came to us in the flesh, flat out saying, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

Our God who came to us to say, this is not the temple. This building and it’s walls. This set of rules and rituals. They may be tools and building blocks to your faith but I am the way and the truth and the light. I am the temple. I am the active presence of God that you seek. I am the relationship you are looking for. I am the way. And I will be destroyed but in three days I will raise it up. For you.

Theologian Gustavo Gutierrez tells us that “The active presence of God in the midst of the people is a part of the oldest and most enduring biblical promises.” He traces this pattern through the covenants that we’ve been reading these past few weeks. The active presence of God as witnessed in rainbows and generations, in commandments and mountaintops, in burning bushes and prophet voices. But everything changed when the active presence of God became human flesh and walked among us, taught us, healed us, and called us out.

So today I ask all of us, where is the active presence of God calling to us? And what is Jesus calling us out on?

Update: Not sure why I can’t seem to figure out how to get my citations to paste over into the wordpress format, but here they are, in order, but not attached. Sorry!

1. “A Brief Spiritual Biography of Bethesda Presbyterian Church” as posted on http://bethesdapresbyterian.org/about/#ChurchHistory_anchor (accessed 3/7/2015)

2. Southern White Ministers and the Civil Rights Movement by Elaine Allen Lechtreck p.101-110. 2008.

3. A Theology of Liberation by Gustavo Gutierrez, 15th Anniversary Ed. p. 106. 1988.

Call it what it is.

Call it what it is.
A version of this sermon manuscript was preached by Rev. Erin Counihan at Oak Hill Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, MO on 3/1/15.
Texts: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 and Mark 8:31-38


As part of my training for ministry, I served as a hospital chaplain for three months one summer during seminary. It’s a standard requirement for all pastors in our denomination, and serves a bit like a pastoral care bootcamp. And I learned a whole lot during those three short months in the hospital, but there were two big take-aways that stick with me today.

First, no one in the whole hospital expects chaplains to be funny. They expect you to be nice and holy and boring and sweet but certainly not funny. Not one bit. So when you crack the smallest, corniest, most rehearsed joke ever, they think you’re hilarious. I’m telling you, hospital patients are my people! With a pocket full of stale grandpa jokes, I killed like a comedian on the late night circuit. It got so I had a whole routine. And I had an entire set full of jokes just about hospital socks. I’m telling ya, there wasn’t a room I couldn’t get into by asking if they knew they had to give the socks back (wink, wink, nudge, nudge).

The second thing I learned working as a hospital chaplain was that people in hospitals love them some theology of glory. The theology of glory is what I like to call the 15th Century reformer Martin Luther’s fancy term for spin. Putting a bright spin on dark times. People in the hospital love to do this for the chaplain. “Oh, it’s alright, Chaplain, I mean, it’s been tough, but whatever doesn’t kill ya makes you stronger, right?” “I’m sure learning a lot about who my friends really are.” “I am blessed to be in the care of such great staff.” “It’s been good for me to learn to lean on my faith.” And on and on with this stuff.

Oh, and this isn’t just for hospitals. No, we all do it. It’s easier to look ahead to the glory when we’re in the hard times. To make the best of it. To see the silver lining.

But Martin Luther thinks that’s a bunch of hooey. In those famous theses he wrote, he offers a couple that hit on his theology of glory and his theology of the cross. He writes in theses #21: “A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the things what it actually is.”

At the hospital, working as a student chaplain, I felt I only had two jobs.

  1. Tell a silly sock joke to get myself into the room.
  2. Sit beside someone in pain and name it. Tell them it sucks. It’s unfair. It’s frustrating. It’s terrible. It’s painful. It’s horrible. And it just sucks. Be the person who walks in the room and looks them in the eye and doesn’t poke or prod, but sits and names it and allows them to feel whatever they’re feeling; calling it what it actually is.

Oh, how I wish Peter could have done that. I wish Peter could have heard Jesus’ story and said, “Whoa… this is terrible. It’s going to be awful to watch you suffer like that. I just can’t believe this has to happen.”

But Peter couldn’t do that. He couldn’t sit in that dark space. Peter wanted to jump to the glory. Peter didn’t want a suffering, bloody, on the cross Messiah. Peter wanted the healer, the miracle worker, the leader, the glory Messiah.

As modern day followers of Jesus, we want that too. We want to come to worship, and to Sunday school, and to this table and we want to receive the hope of Christ’s resurrection. We want to receive the grace of forgiveness. We want to bask in the risen Lord’s glory. And we should. We totally, absolutely should.

But we also need to remember that it came at the expense of suffering and death on the cross. And that the one who called us to follow, the one who invited us to the table, the one who promises to forgive and pray for us, is the one who suffered so greatly on the cross and called us to carry our own crosses.

Not just to give up chocolate, or deny ourselves facebook for 40 days, but to lose our lives for his sake, for the sake of the gospel.

There’s enough evil and suffering in our world, in our community, in our families and schools and jobs, that I don’t think we have to look too hard to find places where we might be called to pick up our crosses, to drop our own self-interests and carry the needs of a neighbor. Maybe it can be as simple as dropping our own opinions and arguments and listening to the opinions of a neighbor. Maybe we don’t work to win an argument and we just listen to make another feel heard. Maybe it’s letting go of our own political and social agendas, and listening with open ears to Christ’s agenda, sitting before us right here. And maybe it’s just naming the reality of the things that are painful, hard, and evil, and deciding to live in that suffering, not for the glory it will bring, but because that’s what’s real. And knowing that Christ is in that, too.

And here’s some good news: you guys are already doing this! You are here today. You could be home, in warm beds. You could be snuggled up in jammies with warm cups of cocoa. You could be eating breakfast in bed. You could be sledding on Art Hill. You could be at brunch. Do you remember brunch? You gave up BRUNCH. You give up brunch every Sunday!

You shovel, you clean, you wash dishes, you cook, you host mission teams, you give money to the poor, you give food to the hungry. We’ve got a good start.

So this Lent, let us try to see if we can stand it to stand in the suffering and call it what it is. To hold ourselves in such a place where we might be able to recognize the suffering in its full reality, and to recognize Christ in that suffering; to submit to a lifestyle of sacrifice and to recognizing Christ in that sacrifice.

In the name of the Creator, the Sustainer, and the Redeemer, Amen.

“But who are we in all this?”

A sermon preached by Rev. Erin Counihan at Oak Hill Presbyterian Church, St. Louis on 8/24/14
Readings: Exodus 1:8-2:10 and Romans 12:1-8

I have been blessed with great mentors in my life. One of the best pieces of advice, for my own faith journey, that a great mentor of mine once shared with me was to put myself into scripture. Now, before you get the image of Joey from “Friends” in that London episode where he has a pop-up map of London and boldly proclaims, “So, I was in my map…” and have images of me standing inside my bible, let me explain. This mentor challenged me to place myself in the scene. To try on each role, to be each of the characters. To see the events unfolding through each person’s eyes. To live their verson of the story. To see from their angle, but to also hear with their ears, to smell with their nose and to taste with their tongue.

And today’s Exodus tale, with its oppressive regime, classism, racism, talk of brutality and extermination, fear and control, privilege and outcasts, well, given the headlines here in our community and around the world this week, it’s not too hard to place ourselves in this story.

And I don’t know about you, but I immediately jump into the role of the midwives. I want to be Shiphrah and Puah in this story.  I love these midwives. They are smart and bold and caring and crafty. Who doesn’t want to be the midwife in this story? They save the babies! They save the nation! They stick it to the man. They are faithful to God.

But who are Shiphah and Puah?

Shiphah and Puah, as they are identified by the meanings of their names in Hebrew which are “beautiful” and “splendid”. They are the women charged with carrying out Pharaoh’s brutal edict, but instead use what power they have to reject his authority and remain loyal to their God. They are the only ones in this story who are named, until Moses is given his name in the end of this story, and we hear of their mighty protest, but we don’t ever really get to know them. Shiphrah and Puah are a mystery. Scholars dispute their identities. In the NRSV version of the text they are called “the Hebrew midwives” but the sentence construction could also read, “the midwives of the Hebrews”. So were they Egyptian or Hebrew? And for, this week, this piece of information is crucial. Were they Hebrew women standing up to their oppressors or were they Egyptian women standing in solidarity with the Hebrews and fighting on their behalf? Did they know Pharaoh, had they met with him before? Did they have reason to assume would believe them when they issued their little white lie? What risk were they taking here?

And what about Moses’ mom? I wouldn’t mind being her in this story either. The smart lady who hides her son. Who in faith crafts a basket for him and trusts God will protect him in the reeds of the Nile.

We could be Pharaoh’s daughter who takes in the cursed Hebrew boy. Who has pity for him and perhaps his people? Who openly defies her own father when a child’s life is at stake? Who is willing to listen to the Hebrew girl and who is willing to pay a Hebrew woman to care for this secret child.

We could be Moses’ sister, boldly jumping out to speak to the daughter of Pharaoh. Smart enough to offer his mother, her mother, for the task of raising this baby on behalf of Pharaoh’s daughter. Protecting her brother, but putting herself and her whole family at risk, too.

These are the folks we Christians want to be in this story. We want to be the heroes. We want to save the babies! We want to be the faithful. We want to be the righteous.

But can we also consider where we might see ourselves in the other characters? Can we consider how and when we might be Pharaoh? We see others, who don’t come from where we come from, who are more numerous than we are, who don’t look like us, who we perceive as powerful, but who we do not know. Who have done nothing to threaten us. Who have not risen up or taken arms against us, but who we hate just for who they are or where they come from. Can we consider how we have perhaps held others down out of fear?

Can we consider how we are the taskmasters? How we follow orders and don’t ask why. How we obey blindly. How we are ruthless in our demands and impositions?

How about “all his people”? The text says that Pharaoh commanded all his people to throw those baby boys into the Nile. Did they do it? Did other moms hide their babies? Did other moms fight back? We hear a lot about the women in this story, what were the men doing? Were they talking about this horrific situation? Were they organizing a rebellion? Were they planning other ways to save the babies? Were Hebrew men speaking with Egyptian men? Were common, every-day Egyptians aware of what was happening? What about the other children? The older siblings? The teenagers? Were they fighting back? Were they plotting an escape?

Because, in this story, we can’t all be Shiphah or Puah or Pharaoh’s daughter or Moses’ sister. These were great people of faith, but I can’t imagine that they were the only faithful in the area. So what were the others doing? How did they get involved? How did they witness to what was happening? How did they tell their friends about what they saw? How did they share the story? The grief? The hope?

Friends, because that is where we are. We were not Michael Brown. We are not his family. We were not Darren Wilson. We are not his family either. We are not a county prosecutor. We are not ISIS fighters nor are we persecuted religious refugees in the hills of Iraq. But we are the body of Christ. We are the beloved community of faith who name and claim Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. We may not have experienced the horror of Pharaoh’s command, but we are a part of the story, we are in the scene.

So then, who will we identify with? Who will we try to understand? Can we be humble enough to see where we are in each of the players? Can we be bold enough to talk about it? Because we may not all be called to scoop babies out of the Nile or reject a harsh ruler’s command. We may not all be called to paint signs and stand in protest. We may not all be called to march. But we are called to witness. We are called to be a part of the story. We are called to examine our roles in the narrative. And we are called to recognize God’s presence in all of it. And we are called to talk about it.

So where are you in this story? Where are you in our city’s story? Where are you in our church’s story? Because, remember, church, what Paul says to us today:

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God- what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Hear us, Lord Jesus. We are shouting for you!

A sermon (which ended up being more of a prayer) preached by Rev. Erin Counihan at Oak Hill Presbyterian Church, St. Louis on August 17, 2014 (8 days after Michael Brown was killed).

Readings: GENESIS 45:1-15 and MATTHEW 15:(10-20) 21-28


“Lord, help me,” she cried.

Hey! Did you hear her, Jesus? Did you hear her shouting for you? Did you hear her call, no beg, for help? She needed you.

Did you see how she tracked you down, she ran to you, she found you? I know she’s not one of you. I mean, she’s a woman. She’s a Canaanite. She’s one of the pagan enemies of Israel. But, Lord, she recognized you and came to where you are and she called to you for help. Because she believed in you. Did you hear her?

You did. You did, but you didn’t respond. You were silent. And your people, they asked to send her away. Then, worse than your silence, then you responded and you were harsh and mean and you called her a dog.

Jesus, did you hear him? He needed you too. He put up his hands. He raised his arms in surrender. His blood had already been spilled on that street, but he still breathed and Jesus he needed you!

Jesus, did you hear them? All of them. So many of them. They look just like him. They’ve been stopped before. They’ve been held before. They’ve been beaten before. They’ve seen that look in an officer’s eye. They came out and called to you. They were calling for justice. They called for the truth. They wanted answers. They needed answers. They needed to be treated with respect. They didn’t need guns and smoke and gas pulled on them.

Jesus, did you hear them? The business owners. Neighbors. Mothers. Grandfathers. Praying for safety. Praying for the violence to stop.

Jesus, did you hear the media? Trying to show the world what was happening, to share the real stories, but instead getting arrested and shut down.

Jesus, did you hear all of them, on Facebook and twitter, in coffee shops and hardware stores, offices and beauty salons and libraries. They can’t stop talking about this. Why don’t their white friends understand? Why don’t they stand up with them?

Jesus, did you hear them? All the way from Palestine and Egypt, sending messages of support, because they’ve been through it, too. Because they have tips to share of how to live through the tear gas.

Jesus, did you hear them? The other cops in this city. Good cops. Who do their job fairly. But who won’t get a fair shake. Not now.

Jesus, did you hear him? The man who told the crowd that he was pulled over just this week, for driving while black, and his 5 year old son burst into tears when the cop spoke with his dad, because he was scared his daddy was gonna die. Do you hear how our children are learning from this?

Jesus, do you hear us!? Do you hear that we are sick of this? Do you hear that we can’t live like this! With our police turned into military. With racism so long and deep. With trust so bruised. With death so close. With tension so strong. With fear so real it keeps us awake at night. With peace so far it’s become hard to imagine.


Because we are shouting. And like that Canaanite woman so many years ago, we are desperate for you, for the healing only you can bring. And like that woman, so many years ago, we are shouting to you because we believe. We believe YOU CAN HEAL THIS. So, like she did, we now run to you. We shout. Over and over again. We call to you, “Lord, help us.” Please, heal our children. Heal our police force. Heal our history and our generalizations and our assumptions. Heal our community. Heal our own hearts. Throw us the crumbs of your love and peace.

And if an enemy woman in a foreign land can through her desperation, persistence, and faith, change YOUR mind, Lord, then maybe our minds can be changed too. Perhaps there is hope for each of us. For those of us who are slow to listen, for those of us who’ve seen it all before, for those of us who are still singing the same protest songs after 50 years and who are sick that we still have to. Lord, let your healing enter our conversations. Use these tragedies, in Ferguson, in Iraq, in Maryland, in Staten Island, in Mexico, everywhere, to start conversations anew. Let the relationships formed in response to this violence be blessed with your name, Lord. Let us speak to one another in faith and hope, let us shout at the authorities in hope, let us respond to the teenager who calls to us from the Quick Trip in hope, let us walk together in your name in hope, Jesus. Because we believe in you. Great is our faith, now, even in our desperation. So we run to you. You, the one who heals the sick. The one who teaches the children. The one who helps the poor. The one who opens the eyes of the blind. We believe in you, Lord Jesus. So we run to you. And we shout and call out and beg. In faith. In hope.

Lord, have mercy on us.

Lord, help us.