Questions and Reflections

Except In: Did Jesus Tell Jokes? And Can You Imagine that he did?

[Jesus] also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.” He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

Mark 4:26-34

My sermon from 4th Sunday after Pentecost (June 17, 2018) on Mark 4:26-34. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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Do you think Jesus was funny?

Last week, our reading according to Mark had folks saying that Jesus “was out of his mind.” Now, that’s a kind of funny but it’s not the funny I’m thinking about. Instead, I want to know if Jesus told jokes. Like, when he sat around the campfire in the middle of the Judean desert, after having left one village where he casted out demons and before he walked into the next – did Jesus unwind by telling everyone a funny story? The odds are good that he probably did. And if we take a look at his life as shared by Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John – Jesus probably needed a sense of humor just to get through it all. His life, from the very beginning, was full of the kinds of stories we tell over and over again. There were incredible joys, like when magi from the east came to visit him when he was merely a baby. But there was also terror, like when his family fled to Egypt as refugees, escape King Herod and the government’s violence. Jesus life, I think, needed humor and laughter to help carry him to the next part of his story. So I’m sure Jesus laughed. And when he was at the countless campfires and dining room tables Scripture doesn’t tell us about, I’m sure he told funny stories. Yet we rarely, as a church, talk about Jesus as being funny. We rarely listen to the stories he tells and expect to laugh. Instead, we assume that everything Jesus says must be very deep and full of a kind of spiritual flavoring that strips his words of most human emotions. We don’t let Jesus get angry or tell a joke. We demand that every word Jesus says sounds like what we imagine “holiness” to be. Because it’s easy to say that Jesus is the Son of God. But it’s harder to say that Jesus was also a human being. And human beings, when they speak, aren’t always as holy or reverent or spiritual as we would like them to be. Sometimes a person gets angry. Sometimes they yell. Sometimes people cry and sob and we can’t understand a word their saying because of their tears. Our words are filled with a variety emotions. And today, in our reading from the gospel according to Mark, Jesus tells a joke.


Now the joke is subtle but it’s there. And it involves that mustard seed. Jesus starts his story by saying that the kingdom of God – God’s dream for what world can be – is like a mustard seed that is put into the ground. Jesus, like all good storytellers, ramps up the drama by claiming that the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds (even though it’s not) and when the seed grows, it multiplies and becomes something huge. This tiny seed grows…and grows…and grows until it is something so big that even birds can make their home in it. The mustard seed is amazing because it can grow into something bigger than itself. But this is where Jesus’ joke shows up. And we miss seeing that joke when we focus only on the seed’s size. We marvel at how big the seed grows but we forget what the seed is. It’s a mustard seed. Now, I like mustard; I like it with pretzels; and I know that the mustard plant served all sorts of medicinal purposes back in Jesus’ day. But it’s still mustard, and in Jesus’ day, this was a normal everyday plant that grew like a weed. It didn’t need much soil or sun or water to take root. And once it did, good luck trying to get rid of it. This weed would dig in, sprout more versions of itself, and keep growing. And it would grow and grow and grow until it was the greatest of all shrubs. Now, that shrub would be big – maybe 10 feet high. But a shrub is still just a bush. When you imagine what heaven on earth would look like, what this kingdom of God might be, does it resemble the beauty, girth, and strength of a well manicured house plant? Probably not. And even scripture, when it imagines God’s kingdom, usually talks about a tree. Because a tree can be huge. A tree is full of life and it becomes a home for all kinds of animals, from squirrels to birds to rabbits who live in its roots. In the book of Revelation, the final image of God’s kingdom on earth includes a giant tree that grows 12 different kinds of fruit. A tree is something tall, strong, mighty, and majestic. And when we imagine the kingdom of God, it should include everything a powerful tree symbolizes. And that usually doesn’t involve shrubbery.


Jesus, in this short parable, takes aim at the assumptions we bring when we encounter him. We want God’s kingdom to be mighty, strong, and overwhelming. We want Jesus’ presence to show up in a way that’s spectacular and in a way that stands up to the test of time – just like the best oaks or elms or cedar trees do. We want our faith to be precious and expensive – like a vintage of wine that comes from only the very best grapes. We come to Jesus with the expectation that his presence and our faith will be obvious, mighty, and important. And when it’s not, we then wonder if maybe there’s something wrong. Or maybe Jesus doesn’t really care about me. Or maybe Jesus isn’t important at all. We come to scripture, to Jesus, and to our faith with expectations and assumptions. And we need to know what those things are. Because when we don’t, we let our broken expectations define our faith rather than letting our faith grow into what Jesus’ expectations for us actually are.

Which means we need to let Jesus tell jokes. And we need to be ready to laugh when he does. Because the kingdom of God is really like an ordinary weed that pops up, is hard to remove, and it will get into everything. Our expectations and assumptions will be re-written by this Jesus who shows up in our every day. Jesus is going to be everywhere, even in the smallest moments of our lives. He’s going to be present in every one of our interactions. And he’s going to show up in our relationships. He will re-oriented our desire and expectation for what is mighty, strong, and powerful; and he will show us that when we are at our most vulnerable, when we are our most human, that’s when we can see the kingdom of God in our midst. The kingdom of God is present in the ways we listen, care, and empathize with each other. The kingdom of God comes close to us when we are a Jesus – not only to those we adore but also to those we don’t. It’s in the everyday moments of love and care for the other – for the vulnerable, the sick, the poor, the marginalized, the migrant, the old, the young, and all their families – it’s in those moments when the kingdom of God pops up to show us just who God is. The Christian faith is an everyday kind of faith. It’s a faith meant to be lived and experienced. And it’s a faith that’s not only for the perfect – but it’s also for imperfect people like us. When we follow Jesus, when we leave our assumptions about what he says and how he says it – behind, we discover that the faith he gives us is one that unravels all our expectations. And this faith gets into every nook and cranny of our body, mind, and soul – and it will be a way of life for us that will change us, so that we can love others in ways we never imagined possible before.

Amen.



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Reflection: Not Knowing

What does it mean to "know" God? I use the word "know" to point to a deep relationship with Jesus Christ. This kind of relationship is in our bones, in our mind, and in our heart. Our connection with God is so embodied within us that all our interactions with the world are framed by Jesus, his teachings, and our hope in him. This kind of knowing is very aspirational. We rarely have moments in our lives when we, in the present, notice God in this way. But when we take a look back at our lives, sometimes God shows up in a visible way. The tools of faith (prayer, worship, reading the Bible, caring for each other, and receiving communion) can help us see the God who was with us. In worship, we see who we are and receive God's eternal promises. In prayer, we name our deep needs and listen for the God who is always speaking to us. In reading the bible, we uncover God's story and how our lives are wrapped up in the God who created everything. And through service and a meal, we are fed to continue the work God is already doing in the world. It takes effort, time, and energy to know God and discover just how much God already knows us. 

Paul, in this passage from 2 Corinthians 5:6-17, is pointing to a version of what this  knowing looks like. He is projecting a confidence that looks almost foolish. He is writing to a faith community struggling with divisions and hardships. Members of the church in Corinth are arguing about everything: from how communion should be served, the role of women in the faith community, and what kind of lives followers of Jesus should lead. Over and over again, the fractures in the community imply that there's little that anyone could be confident in. But Paul is confident because he is focused on why the community exists in the first place. Paul trusts Jesus and knows that Jesus changes everything. 

Paul's journey with Jesus changed his life but it did not eliminate the hardships he experienced. He struggled with doubt. He struggled being part of a wider church that didn't always agree with what he said. Yet he knew that wherever Jesus is, something new is happening. Verse 17 in our reading adds a few words that shouldn't be there. Paul doesn't write, "so if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation." The greek words he uses are, "so if anyone is in Christ, there NEW CREATION!" When Jesus shows up (and he does in baptism, at the communion table, and when 2 or 3 gather in his name), we are living in that new thing God is already doing. The tools of faith help us see what Jesus has done with us already. Once we see what Jesus has done, we can face the uncertainty of our future with a confidence that Jesus is, in every moment, making everything new. 



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Reflection: I...I...I

"I heard...I was afraid...I was naked...I hid..." 

One way to dwell in scripture is to look at what is said and focus on the verbs. Today's passage from Genesis 3:8-15 is a dialogue between God, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent. It begins with God walking in the garden near the start of a new day (in the Jewish calendar, new days begin at sundown). The evening breeze is blowing and sound of God's rustling alerts Adam and Eve to God's presence. Adam and Eve how ate from the "Tree of Good and Evil," panic and hide from God. The fruit gave the first two people access to all knowledge: to what is good, evil, and everything in between. This kind of knowledge is more than just having a thought about something. This knowledge is deep, mythical, cosmic, and expansive. It's a knowing rooted in a sense of reality that we cannot fully comprehend. This knowledge gave Adam and Eve access to God's experiences but, unlike God, human beings have no way of making full sense of it. And when Adam and Eve are confronted by God, all they can do is hide. 

"I heard...I was afraid...I was naked...I hid..." Adam's use of verbs show how his perspective has changed. This new experience has reoriented Adam. He has now placed himself at the center of his universe. Instead of seeing himself as part of what God created, Adam can only focus on himself. He blames God for creating Eve and blames Eve for giving him the fruit of the tree. He takes no responsibility for his actions and, in fact, seems even incapable of doing that. Adam becomes so focused on himself that he cannot admit who is he or what has happened. And when confronted by the One who knows Adam better than Adam knows himself, the only thing Adam can do is hide and hope God doesn't see him. 

But God does see him and that changes everything. God, amazingly, doesn't give up on Adam and Eve. Instead, God keeps coming to them, working within their reality to bring them back into God's. We know that Adam and Eve will still be themselves. We know all of us struggle to imagine a universe where we aren't the center of it. We can't change our reality on our own so God, in Jesus Christ, comes to change it for us. It's through Jesus and his relationship with us when our use of verbs change.  When we say we're afraid, Jesus says, "Don't be." When we say we're stripped bare and exposed, Jesus gives us a community to care for us. And when we hide from God, Jesus comes to us in our baptism, in our faith, and at the table to say we are his and will be, forever.  



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Behind the Yellow Line: Jesus and the Unforgivable Sin [Sermon Manuscript]

[Jesus went home] and the crowd came together again, so that [Jesus and his disciples] could not even eat.When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Mark 3:20-35

My sermon from 3rd Sunday after Pentecost (June 10, 2018) on Mark 3:20-35. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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There are many spoken and unspoken rules of etiquette that make mass transit work. Some of these rules are obvious, like a sign in an airplane bathroom saying “No smoking.” But other rules are only learned through experience. It usually takes a trip or two to figure out what our airplane attire should be so that we can slip on and off our shoes quickly as we go through airport security. As a former daily rider of the New York City subway, I learned a lot of these unspoken rules while taking rides on the A, the W, and the 1,2, and 3. I learned, for example, where to stand in the subway car when kids did their “what time is it? Showtime!” routines, so they wouldn’t hit me in the head while they twirled around on the overhead bars. I also discovered why you don’t count your blessings when you walk into what appears to be an empty subway car on an otherwise very full train. And I mastered all the jumps, hops, and skips needed to transfer from an express to a local when the doors on both trains are about to close. Yet the place where the spoken and unspoken rules of the subway really made their presence known to me was on that bright yellow line located in the subway stations themselves. That line, usually chipped and barely visible, marks the edge of the subway platform itself. It tells us where it’s safe to stand and where it’s not because when a subway train zooms through the station, the edge of that subway platform ends up being a very dangerous place to be. We’re asked, through vocal announcements and posted signs, to always stand behind the yellow line. But it’s not hard to take a step on that line because there’s nothing really stopping us from doing that. And once a train does enter the station, all of us end up inching onto that line - trying to find that sweet spot on the platform so we can be the first on the train once the doors open. The yellow line marks a place of real danger. The yellow line is there as a warning. And in our reading from the gospel according to Mark, Jesus is pointing to his version of that yellow line when he mentions the sin against the Holy Spirit.

Now, it’s a bit odd to hear Jesus - this Son of God who forgives sins all.the.time - talking about a sin that’s unforgivable. What sin could be so great that even Jesus would stay away from you? Sadly, Jesus isn’t very specific. All we get is this “blasphemy” against the Holy Spirit. We usually want something a little more clear so we let our imaginations run wild. We create lists full of the terrible things people do to each other and to themselves, trying to dream up where Jesus’ line actually is. This kind of list making is pretty normal. But it also can be extremely dangerous. I’ve walked with people who are new to Christianity, who end up spending years in a kind of spiritual torment thinking that something they did in their past was something that God would never forgive. I’ve been at the bedside of people who’ve lived incredibly meaningful lives, but who end up spending their final days in incredible guilt, not knowing if Jesus would welcome them in. I’ve seen church authorities, theologians, and pastors say that something as small as using the wrong word when you stub your toe or something as big as suicide would be the one thing that would keep Jesus away from you. None of these pronouncements are life giving. None of them bring hope. And none of them, I think, get to the heart of what Jesus is saying in this moment. Because this searching for the sin that Jesus won’t forgive pulls us away from the bible and we end up missing what Jesus actually said. When our response to scripture is to pull a quote from Jesus out of it so that we can find something out here we think makes more sense, that’s when we should do the opposite and jump back into scripture, back into the story, and spend time with Jesus as he is. We need to see Jesus in this text. We need to see who he is with. We need to see the crowd.

Now, we’re only in the 3rd chapter of Mark so we’re still at the beginning of Mark’s version of Jesus’ story. Yet, Jesus has already been pretty busy. He’s been preaching and teaching all over Galilee. He’s already started casting out demons, healing the sick, and telling all sorts of people their sins are forgiven. Word about him is starting to spread so people from all over Galilee and from other places like Judea, Jerusalem, and even foreign cities like Tyre and Sidon, come to see Jesus. This crowd around Jesus is full of all kinds of people. Men, women, and children; the educated and uneducated; locals and foreigners; everyone from every part of society is there, including the kinds of people we like and those we try to ignore. Every person in that crowd, through their encounter with Jesus, are being, in some way, restored. People are seeing demons being casted out and lives becoming full and whole. Jesus is seeing people as they are, showing them their value, and loving them because they are worth God’s love. This attracts the attention of the religious elites who come to see what Jesus is doing. They know Jesus is doing something incredible. They see the new life Jesus brings. But they can’t help but call what they see as false and unreal. These religious authorities are so cynical, so prideful, so trusting in themselves, that they can’t see God at work right in front of them. God’s grace and hope and love transforms lives; yet those in the know: the religious, the spiritual, the faithful; they are the ones who can’t see it.

The bright yellow line that Jesus mentions in this reading from Mark isn’t really a line that he draws himself. Rather he points to the line we draw when we miss seeing what Jesus is doing in our lives and in our world. When we give up on grace; when we fail to trust that Jesus is with us; and when we imagine that the new life we see in others somehow means our life is now less; we end up calling good evil and evil good. Now, since we are human beings, we are still sinners. We will look at the world around us, see what God is doing, feel uncomfortable, and let our uncomfortableness define what we do next. But we don’t have to do that. Instead, we can always lean on grace. We can always lean on love. We can do the work it takes to move past our uncomfort and discover where life is being made whole. We can notice the places in our world where brokenness is being restored and we can work to be a community where all people are seen and where all demons are casted out. But when those demons can’t be, when they are present in those we love and worship with, we can be a community that lives with them, offering help, love, and support, even when they can’t ask for any of that help themselves. The yellow line of warning that we imagine Jesus laying down for us is really a line of danger we create for ourselves when we think we know the limits to how God actually works. But when we do that, we forget that Jesus never gives up on us. He never gives up on those he claims and he loves. And his transformative power of grace is with us right now and it’s also out there, moving throughout God’s beloved world. The lines we put down are not the lines God draws. Our limits cannot hold back where God’s grace goes. And that’s a good thing. Because a God who is as limited as we imagine God should be - is never a god who can offer us the limitless love we do need - so that we can become the followers of Jesus that this world, and this church, needs us to be.

Amen.



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Remember: a sermon on the Sabbath

Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you.Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.​

Deuteronomy 5:12-15

My sermon from 2nd Sunday after Pentecost (June 3, 2018) on Deuteronomy 5:12-15. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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So what can you say when the words don’t come?

 

As a manuscript preacher, I write down every word that I plan to say in my sermon. So it’s bit scary when the clock hits midnight on Sunday morning and I have a blank page. This usually doesn’t happen but for some reason, until a few hours ago, the words for today didn’t come.

Now, if I spend some time thinking about why this happened, it’s probably because I just ran out of words. Much of my time over the last week was spent giving words to the different things going on here at the church. Some of those words you’ll hear in our special congregational meeting right after the service. And others were spent helping to organize the New Jersey Synod Event at the upcoming ELCA Youth Gathering later this month. I also had a long email chain floating with various members of the Upper Pascack Valley Clergy Group as we made plans to meet and talk about our upcoming schedule. And since we’re nearing the end of our programming year here at church, there’s still emails to write about our special Sunday School Walkathon next week, prep for Graduates’ Sunday, Blessing of the Animals Sunday, and gearing up for another fun Vacation Bible School. When you take these different events, throw in the normal pastoral contacts, the Genesis Garden, the Tri-boro Food pantry, the prayers, phone calls and time spent with all the other churchy stuff that we do, together as a community, as we live out our faith - it’s sort of amazing how many words get said in this place before our worship on Sunday even begins.

Yet what probably pushed me over the edge this week was my time yesterday at the New Jersey Synod office near Trenton. As a member of the New Jersey Synod Candidacy Committee, I’m a part of the team that journeys with people as they become the next pastors and deacons in our church. Everything we do in the Candidacy process is, I feel, holy, and amazing, and also ...completely draining. Before the meeting, I spend hours reading essays, applications, internship evaluations, and psychological profiles. Then, at the meeting itself, there’s always a pre-interview part where the team prepares themselves for the people we’re about to meet. And then we talk with each candidate for over an hour, discovering what they’ve learned, how they’ve grown, where they failed, and how their relationship with Jesus has shifted as they become the leaders God wants them to be. It’s really a blessing to be part of this process. And it’s awesome to see all the different kinds of people who know that Jesus matters; who knows that this church matters; and who want to serve and lead and be a part of what God is already doing in the world. But by the end of the day, after six long interviews and six tough and faithfilled decisions, the candidates and the committee are usually spiritually and emotionally wiped out by the end of the day. We end using a lot of words in a small amount of time to help shape and shepherd the next leaders of the church. So when the meeting is over,  im home and the house is quiet - by the time 12:01 am on Sunday morning rolls around - there feels like there’s no more words left to say.

So what do you say when the words don’t seem to come?

Now I know that we all have moments when we feel like we’ve run out of words. But there are other times when we don’t even know where our words should start. We might have a friend or a family member who is hurting and in crisis. When we see them, our throat basically closes up because we know there’s nothing we can say to make their situation better. And there are moments when we are the ones who are hurting and we feel surrounded by too many people giving us words they think will help us but end up being words that are meaningless and Emory. There are moments in our lives when the sheer amount of work we do, be it for our jobs, our families, our homes, our church, and our friends - there are moments when we will use up all the words we could possibly share. And there are still other moments when there are no words that will bring to us, and to others, the peace we need.

And it’s in those moments when, maybe, it’s the act of living in the Sabbath that becomes the only thing we could possibly say.

We tend to, I think, focus on the Sabbath as a day of rest because Exodus 20 and Genesis 1 is where the Sabbath is intimately connected to God’s prior creative act. God created the world in six days and then, like every good project manager, God needed a break once the initial work was done. The Sabbath becomes this moment of time set apart as a divine mini-weekend. It becomes a place where we rest; where we recharge as a way to prepare ourselves for the next day, the 8th day, when the week restarts and we, like God, head back to work. But this connection to creation isn’t the focus we hear in today’s reading from Deuteronomy. The Sabbath isn’t only a moment where we rest, mimicking an all-powerful God who, for some reason, needed to take a break. Rather, the Sabbath is rooted in a freedom that was denied to the Israelites for generations as they served as slaves in Egypt. They didn’t get a break so God gave them one. And then God commanded that this Sabbath is also an invitation for all the people around us to get a break as well. The people we expect to serve us, to help us so that we can relax and recharge - every single one of them, whether they’re the busboy at your favorite restaurant, a masseuse at a Korean Day Spa, or even just a family member - everyone stops together. Everyone is invited to live as if all their necessary work is already done. Instead, all people get to just be - and live with and in the God who loved, and served, and did everything to make them free.

It’s in our nature to turn the Sabbath into a kind of rest designed to only help us do the work we do the other six days of the week. It’s harder, I think, to imagine the Sabbath as a moment in time where we, regardless of our job, regardless of our abilities, and regardless of our social status, where we, together, just get to be with the God who has done all work needed to love us; hold us; and keep us close. Our words, sometimes, can trap us into thinking we need to speak in this moment and every moment. When the words don’t come, we assume that means something’s wrong. But maybe that’s the moment when we need to stop speaking and instead put ourselves, our loved ones, and our neighbors into God’s Sabbath. And when we do that, we’ll see that it’s okay to not have all the words. It’s okay to sometimes not know what to say. And it’s okay to do that one thing all of us can do: we can sit with each other and just be. Because when the 8th day finally rolls around, who we meet and see there is the God who has already rolled the stone away. This Jesus has already been with us, there in every possible moment, including the ones when no sinkage word could ever undo the hurt we’ve felt, caused, or participated in. Our words won’t always be enough. But God’s Word is. And it's through your baptism, through your faith, and through your relationship with Jesus Christ that end up moving you into a sabbath of just being where everything, and everyone, is whole, free, and loved.

 

Amen.

 



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Interpreting Scripture in Real Time

Did you notice what Jesus did in this passage according to Mark 2:23-3:6? He applied a scripture story to a situation that appears, at first, unrelated. What we see in this passage is Jesus using different parts of the bible to engage with a current situation. His disciples, who are hungry, are doing work on the sabbath. The Pharisees, using our first reading today as the basis for their interpretation, question Jesus. Jesus, on the fly, remembered a part of scripture where someone was hungry. And so he introduces to all of us a story about David.

This incident in David’s life comes from 1 Samuel 21. David is on the run. David is a fugitive from Saul, the king of Israel. David is on his own and he has two pressing problems: he needs food and weapons. He visits the town of Nov (north of Jerusalem, near the Temple) and meets the local high priest. David pretends to be on a mission from Saul, telling the priest that he needs food to do what Saul wants him to do. The priest counters saying that they only have the bread of the Presence nearby. This bread was used for special rituals and fed to the priests when the priests were ritually pure. David says that he is ritually pure and so the priest, believing what David told him, David the bread. David then takes from the Temple the sword that Goliath once held. Armed and fed, David flees into a foreign country.

Jesus took this story about David and made a bold claim about the sabbath. The sabbath, like all holy things, are designed to give life. Hunger hurts, mains, and kills. Jesus can only respond to hunger by feeding others. Jesus is centered on giving life. Yet this feeding (and healing) on the sabbath is not what gets Jesus into trouble. What becomes the big problem is his claim that the “Son of Man” (i.e. himself) is lord over the sabbath. Jesus is making a claim about his identity. He is saying that he is the Messiah, Emmanuel, God-with-us. And the world around him (and us) can’t help but challenge that claim.



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Uh oh. John 3:16.

John 3:16 is one of the most famous verses of the New Testament. It has become, over the years, the text used to define what it means to follow Jesus. When someone hands you a religious piece of paper while you are walking on the street or waves a sign while sitting in a football stadium, they are acting as if God is waiting on you to make a choice. The choice is simple: choose Jesus or choose the world. And once you choose Jesus, God will choose you.

But is this the point of John 3:16? I don’t think so. When we leave scripture in scripture, John 3:16 (by reading John 3:1-17)becomes less about the choice we make and more about the choice that God has already made. Jesus, God incarnate, is having a conversation with a guy named Nicodemus. God is already there. Jesus is a human being taking the steps that will lead him to the cross. God has already made the choice to love the world. Nicodemus thought he was the one choosing to come to Jesus. But he is suddenly realizing that Jesus came to him.

In a recent article in the Christian Century, Thomas Long shared a story that the former publisher of the magazine, John Buchanan, once told him. The publisher was a pastor and was baptizing a two-year old child. He read the standard pronouncement from the prayer book: “You are a child of God, sealed by the Spirit in your baptism, and you belong to Jesus Christ forever.” Unexpectedly, the child responded, “uh-oh.” “Nicodemus’s response to Jesus could be heard as a shocked, ‘uh-oh.’ Moving politely toward Jesus with an inquiry, Nicodemus alarmingly finds Jesus moving toward him to rescue him, to transform him, to save him.”

The Christian life isn’t about choosing Jesus. Instead, it’s about noticing that Jesus already chose us. If we’re not saying “uh-oh” to the God who is making us into something brand new, we’re not realizing what Jesus is actually doing. Following Jesus means we will end up following something other than ourselves. Jesus doesn’t keep us where we are comfortable. He takes us to the place where we will be transformed. And once we’re transformed, we’ll discover who God is calling us to be.



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Holy, holy, what: is our vision of God as strange as it should be? [Sermon Manuscript]

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.

And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

Isaiah 6:1-8

My sermon from Trinity Sunday (May 27, 2018) on Isaiah 6:1-8. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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What does heaven look like?

I bet if I handed out a piece of paper and some crayons to everyone, each one of us could dream up some far out visions of what heaven might look like. Several of us would color pictures full of blue skies with white fluffy clouds floating by. Others might include some pearly gates, roads covered in gold, and angels flying everywhere. More might decide that heaven needs people. So we’d include pictures of loved ones, making sure each person looked their best. We might want to include images from nature, like mountain ranges with amazing vistas and tropical paradises with white sandy beaches. Each one of our pictures would be different but I’m pretty sure all of them, whether we can draw or not, would be something beautiful. Heaven, I think, should be beautiful. It should be almost indescribable. Because when we imagine being with God, basking in God's perpetual light, there’s no one word in the English language that can fully describe what we’d actually see. Heaven is more than just a place that looks good. It’s a reality that gives us a sense of wholeness, comfort, and peace. Heaven should feel like we’re finally home because heaven is beauty, peace, hope, and love made real. Heaven, in other words, should be gorgeous. But what if it isn’t? What if heaven is very strange? What if heaven isn’t only blue skies and white fluffy clouds but is more like the image described in our first reading from Isaiah today?

Isaiah, in this passage, is experiencing a vision. He meets God in the place where God promise to be, and all Isaiah can initially see is the very bottom of God’s robe. God, it seems, is sitting on an elevated throne, high in the sky. And hanging down, filling the entire space, is God’s massive robe. Now, imagine, if you can, the hem - the very bottom of a robe - filling up the this entire church. But don’t stop there. Also imagine that this robe engulfs the parking lot outside, the housing subdivisions all around us, and it covers the reservoir and even fills up the sky. This is the massive, gigantic, and overwhelming reality that Isaiah has to grapple with. Yet this vision of heaven, of the Temple, of hanging out in the place God promises to be,  doesn’t end with only this overpowering picture of God. The vision continues with these strange flying creatures called seraphim who are like flying serpents filling the sky. These creatures who are tending to God each have six wings. Two cover their eyes, shielding themselves from looking directly at God’s face. They use two more wings to cover themselves, keeping everything discreet. The other set of wings are the ones they actually use to fly. And as they fly, these strange creatures begin uttering a phrase we are familiar with: holy, holy, holy. Yet the seraphim are probably not singing these words in a beautiful and melodic way. No, these “holies” are harsh, loud, and downright terrifying. They shake the very walls of this version of heaven and fill the place full of dense smoke. This vision is downright terrifying. And it’s one where every one of our senses is overpowered and where all our expectations about God’s house is undone. The beauty of heaven as we imagine it to be runs head first into the reality of who God is. And it’s at that moment when Isaiah does the only thing he can do: he admits exactly who he is. And then a seraph comes down, with a piece of red hot coal, to cleanse his words by burning his lips.

I don’t know about you but this vision of God’s holy house doesn’t really match up with my own understanding of what being with God is like. But - maybe it should. Because our image of who God is influences what we expect God to be. And if our image of God, of this Father and Son and Holy Spirit; if this image is soft, and beautiful, and very peaceful - then we might not be seeing how incredible God actually is. God should do more than inspire our sense of peace. God should inspire our wonder. God should do more than meet our expectations. God, instead, should make our mouths hang open in awe. And once we finally get it, once we finally realize how indescribable and unimaginable God actually is - it’s then when we realize a fundamental truth about who we are. God is strange and terrifying and loving and peaceful all at the same time. Which means there really is a God and we’re not it. We are not the center of the universe. We are not the ones in control. We are just us: human beings that are imperfect, small, and sometimes broken. The God who we worship and celebrate and who connects with us each and every day is a God that is so vast, so massive, so indescribable that even the prophet Isaiah only got a hint of just how incredible our God actually is.
 

Now, our vision of heaven, of what it’s like to hang out with God, should, I think, include blue skies, angelic beings, and every beautiful thing we can imagine. Because this is the image of God’s kingdom that we see expressed in the garden of Eden. This is the image of God’s realm that Jesus’ ministry pointed to and what he worked to bring about. The golden roads, beautiful scenery, and a heavenly city full of people is the vision of what forever looks like in the book of Revelation. Our relationship with God is an honest-to-goodness treasure and our faith is a beautiful jewel that will hold us forever. But this God who is our treasure is also a God full of strangeness and awe. And that’s a good thing. Because it takes a strange kind of God to do that very strange kind of thing and decide to become like Isaiah, small and human and cowering in God’s throne room. It is the God who is beyond measure who chooses to become just like us. Because the only thing that can match God’s indescribable reality is God’s indescribable love. We are not the center of the universe but God has decided that you are the center of God’s. And so God doesn’t wait for us to be ready for heaven before God shows up. Instead, Jesus comes down and through his life and cross, we see what God’s kingdom of hope, love, and mercy looks like. And then, through our baptism, through our faith, and through the simple act of being fed at the Lord’s table, we discover just how central all people are to God. The heaven we imagine will never be as strange as we need it to be. Because it’s only a strange kind of God who would decide that each of us, as we are, are necessary for the new reality that God is bringing about.

 

Amen.

 



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Bigger than ourselves. From Pastor Marc - My Message for the Messenger, June 2018 Edition

15. 1500. 30,000. What do these three numbers have in common? They show how we are part of something bigger than ourselves.

June is a month where we will celebrate just how connected we are. When Jesus claimed us in our baptism, he did more than connect us to himself. He united us with everyone else whom he claimed as his own. Our faith is designed to be a team sport. We cannot follow Jesus on our own. We need others to pray for us. We need others to support us. We need others to love because Jesus loved us first. We are called to be people who connect, forming a community that is even bigger than Christ Lutheran Church's walls.

On June 3rd, we will hold a special congregational meeting to discuss what it takes to be a community of faith. We'll have one worship service at 9:30 am. Our congregational meeting will take place immediately after. After the meeting, we will then bless our Genesis Garden. The Genesis Garden is in its 33rd year. Together, we will raise over 1500 lbs. of fresh produce to donate to the Center for Food Action in Englewood. When we work together, we make a real difference. On June 10th, Lutheran youth (8th grade and up) from around Northern New Jersey will attend our 9:00 am worship. Afterwards, they'll share brunch and go for a hike nearby. The first meeting of this new initiative met in May at Calvary Lutheran in Allendale. Youth from CLC had a great time, even discovering classmates at their schools who were Lutherans, just like them. We can't wait to welcome these amazing kids to CLC. On June 17th, we'll honor all graduates as we start our summer worship schedule. We're proud of everyone who completed their schoolwork and are now taking that next step in their lives. And finally, on June 24th, we'll host our annual Blessing of the Animals. We'll worship in the Opsal (Fellowship) Hall. All critters, large and small, are welcome to attend. If your pet friend doesn't like large crowds, feel free to bring a picture (even if it's on your phone), and I'll say a blessing over it. We'll also celebrate our youth and adults who will be attending the ELCA Youth Gathering in Houston where over 30,000 people will gather for worship, service and fun.

This is a month where we will connect as a community. This is a month where we will see how we can do so much when we are together. I can't wait to see you as a part of it.

See you in church! Pastor Marc



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God's Imagination: isn't limited by ours. [Sermon Manuscript]

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

Acts 2:1-21

My sermon from Pentecost (May 20, 2018) on Acts 2:1-21. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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It’s been a good few weeks for Church fashion, hasn’t it? Just two weeks ago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute held their annual gala, showcasing their new exhibit “Heavenly bodies: fashion and the Catholic imagination.” Celebrities from all over the world were there and many dressed themselves according to the theme. Marjorie Harvey wore a black dress covered in the kind of jeweled crosses you would see in a Mexican cathedral. Janelle Monae wore a hat with a large gold brim, mimicking the golden halos surrounding the heads of saints in orthodox icons and medieval art. Nicki Minaj’s dress would fit in perfectly with the red flames surrounding us right now. And Rihanna was the most glittery and shiny bishop that I’ve ever seen. The MET gala was an amazing event because fashion designers took seriously all of Christian tradition, showing  how deep, complex, and tender our relationship with Jesus can be. And then yesterday, I, like many of you, woke up in the wee hours of the morning to watch the Royal Wedding. Now, since I’m a bit of a church nerd, I wasn’t really paying attention to the guest list or what Meghan Markle’s dress would look like. Instead, I was focused on the Dean of the Chapel’s robe, on the long golden cape and stole the Archbishop of Canterbury wore, and on what the Rev. Michael Curry, presiding bishop of our friends in the Episcopal Church, would end up bringing. The mountains of flowers, the long trains, the golden jewels, rich fabrics, and over the top hats might seem a little much to our more Lutheran, more Ikea-like, kind of taste. Yet each piece of clothing, surrounded by ornate wooden carvings and stunning stained glass windows that stretched in a chapel space with a ceiling that felt like it was 150 feet high - everything at that Royal Wedding, just like at the MET gala, was rooted at the intersection of faith and imagination. The art we surround ourselves with; the clothes and robes we wear; the words we speak and the songs we sing - all of it, I believe, are centered in that place where faith and creativity begins. And we call that place, this weird, unseen, almost strange kind of force - the Holy Spirit.

Now I’m sure, when the apostles were hanging out together on the day of Pentecost, no one was really focused on what they were wearing. There was no red carpet or fashion critics live tweeting their hit takes. The followers of Jesus were just there, a group of devout Jews, praying and worshiping together in the city of Jerusalem. Jesus had died, was raised from the dead, and had ascended into heaven. Jesus told his followers to stay in Jerusalem and wait for the Holy Spirit. And so they did. They waited. And they waited. And then they waited some more. I imagine that some of the disciples got a little antsy while they were waiting. Scripture doesn’t tell us much about what they did while they waited or what their mindset might have been. But I know, for myself, I would have expected the Holy Spirit to show up on day 1. And then, when it didn’t, I’d tell myself: “well, it took 3 days for Jesus to be raised so we’ll just wait until then.” And then when day 4 showed up, and still no overt expression of the Holy Spirit could be seen, I’d remember that it was around day 4 when some disciples came back after meeting Jesus on the road to Emmaus. But then day 5 would come. And then six and seven. I’d start to wonder if the Holy Spirit showed up already and maybe I missed it. Or maybe it was already here, just super subtle, like a thought or an idea that sits in the back of your brain; it’s always there but you sort of ignore it unless you think about it. By day 8, I’d want to do anything; to feel like I’m not wasting my time. And then on day 9, I’d totally waste my time by playing games and cleaning up my apartment. When day 10 finally showed up, I’d be grateful that it was Pentecost, this Jewish holiday where thousands of people from all over the world came to worship God in the Temple in Jerusalem. I couldn’t wait to join the crowd; to worship God with special rituals, fancy clothes, and prayers we say only once a year. I’d want to use this event as an excuse to get out of my own imagination because my imagination kept expecting, kept demanding for the Holy Spirit to show up when I was ready for it. But the Spirit didn’t listen. And now, caught in the long pause between the original promise of Jesus - of his presence and of his love - to where we are right now, when this waiting has made our passion cool; when the waiting has made our expectations dim; when the waiting has made our faith something we live with rather than live for - it’s then when the burning fire of the Spirit; it’s then when the mighty wind of God’s love blows through - ending our waiting and creating something unexpectedly new.

This new thing, this Holy Spirit, is God’s imagination at work. And since God’s imagination has always been at work, from the creation of universe to the life and cross of Jesus and is even active today, the Holy Spirit has always been here. Yet the Holy Spirit needed to come to the disciples in this intense way because God’s imagination needed to become theirs. We know that our imaginations, rooted in our common humanity, comes with all the baggage being human has. It means we’re not perfect. It means we know sin. It means we will experience and witness and sometimes cause, through our action and inaction, a brokenness that breaks our hearts and God’s. We know that our imaginations are filled with fear of what might happen on a field trip or what kind of gun violence will happen at a school. We know how the anxiety caused by illness or injury can fill up every moment of our lives. We know how the limits to our imagination can cut us off from talking, serving, and even living with people we disagree with. And we know how easy it is to imagine walls around us. The lives we live influence and reinforce the imagination we carry with us. But the limits to our imagination won’t limit God’s. And the Holy Spirit is here, lighting a fire of love under us, so that we can live lives that reflect God’s full and rich imagination. This imagination includes a community that is more than just you and me. It includes all nationalities and all languages. It includes all genders and ages; all rich and all poor. It’s a community that loves and serves and cares, bearing each other’s burdens and living lives where love becomes all that we do. And it’s a community that requires you. It requires Grace and Julia. It requires all of us. Because we, whether we imagine it or not, are part of God’s imagination. We are part of what God is doing in the world. We are caught up in the fire of the Spirit, here to make know in words and in actions how much Jesus’ love matters. This imagination will sometimes look like a tuxedo made out of a preacher’s stole or a dress looking like the story of salvation as told by a stained glass window. This imagination will look like a garden whose vegetables are given away to those in need and will look like a home cooked meal given to a family suffering an unexpected crisis. God’s imagination will look like a group of 7th and 8th graders who spend 2 years discovering new words for their lifetime of faith. And it’ll look like a descendant of slaves standing in a chapel in England, preaching with slave spirituals to a royal power that once sold Africans in a colony across the sea. God’s imagination is vast. God’s imagination is moving. God’s imagination is being lived out right here. And this imagination, this Holy Spirit, this life centered in the hope and promise of Jesus Christ, begins and ends, with an almost unimaginable love that includes even you.

 

Amen.



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