Questions and Reflections

Freedom of a Christian: Part 1

Today's First Reading is the opening of Martin Luther's "On Christian Freedom." Written in 1520, this short writing is one of Luther's most poetic works. After Luther posted his "95 Theses" on a church door in October, 1517, a split grew within the church. On one side was Luther, a monk and theology professor, who felt compelled to speak out about abuses in the church. On the other side was the Pope, Roman Catholic Church, and the Holy Roman Emperor. Luther's sermons and writings were widely published, making him one of the first best selling authors. As the debate about  abuses grew into a wider conversation about faith and Jesus, different people tried to reconcile the opposing sides. During one of these attempts, Luther was asked to write a "reconciliation-minded letter" to the Pope. Luther wrote the letter and attached a short writing describing the heart of his beliefs. That short writing is "On Christian Freedom."

The core subject of Luther's writing is faith itself. Using the standard writing devices of his day, he begins by talking about his experience of faith. He asserts himself as a learned authority on the subject and invites us into his writing. Luther firmly believes that faith matters and he wants to show us why it should matter to us too. But faith isn't merely abstract thoughts located in the brain. Faith is something we live out loud. Luther moves from his invitation into his themes or how he will structure his writing. He will explore faith in two sections focused on freedom and service. And those two sections appear to be at odds with each other. In Christ, we are subject to no other person. We are as free as we can be. Yet at the same time, we are subject and bound to everyone. That everyone includes more than just our family and friends. It includes neighbors and strangers too. Luther's writing begins by making the claim that the Christian life is a paradox we get to live out.



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Tempted By the Fruit of Another: Lent is about admitting life's hard moments

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Mark 1:9-15

My sermon from First Sunday in Lent (February 18, 2018) on Mark 1:9-15. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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So if it’s okay, I’d like to do something a tad different today. In honor of Mark’s version of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness being the shortest version we have, I’m going to be a little shorter today too. At merely 1 verse in length, Mark’s description of Jesus’ time in the wilderness lacks the details we might expect. Mark tells us that Satan, the devil, tempted Jesus but we don’t really know what that means. Matthew and Luke will expand that story, giving us details about what Satan will do to the Son of God. But Mark doesn’t do that. Mark, instead, gives us an intriguing detail, inviting us to use our imagination to visualize, expand, and dig into what that detail might mean. And then Mark rushes to the next thing. Jesus was in the wilderness, hanging out with wild animals in an untamed place where only God could be in control - and then Jesus learned that John the Baptist was arrested. John, as we find out later, spoke out against the sexual coercion and abuse the king did in his quest for more power and control. The king tried to silence John only to have Jesus respond instead. Jesus in Mark jumps quickly from his baptism to his preaching and teaching in the world. And If we read this passage too quickly, we might think we’re supposed to skip over those 40 days that are full of trials, hardships, dangers, and mystery. If we read too fast, we can skip past the evil, skip over struggle, and just move on to the next part of the story. But sometimes moving on is something we can’t do. Sometimes we’re in that wilderness, in that evil, in that struggle, and in that place where life is hard. There are times when living through our life rather than just skipping over to the next part is the only thing we can do. And when we’re caught up in those moments, that doesn’t mean God loves us less.

Kate Bowler is a professor of North American Religion at Duke Divinity School. She just released a new book that I haven’t read but it is on its way to my house. It’s called “Everything happens for a reason and other lies I’ve loved.” It’s a memoir of sorts because Kate found herself, at the age of 35 married, with a 1 year old, working her dream job, and living her best shiny and bright life - and then she was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. She’s still undergoing treatments but is actively promoting her book, giving interviews, and even launched her own podcast. Her writing and interviews are rooted in being where she’s at: caught up in this moment where her mortality is very real, very present, and where she has to make decisions she never expected to make. She can’t skip or spend her energy on the next part of the story that’s all shiny and bright. She’s living in a moment that’s hard. And she knows it’s hard. And she values those around her who say, out loud, that this is hard. And awful. And full of mystery. If I was describing her story, I’d say she’s living in the wilderness, living in an untamed place, living in her version of Lent but that doesn’t mean God loves her less.

This living in Lent...living in what is hard...is not an easy thing to do. If we had our choice, we won’t really want to be there. Who wants to struggle, and cry, and know that we might not get back to the way we were? Who wants to have to admit that life is going to keep getting harder? And who wants to know how broken they truly are? In a world where every moment is supposed to be about living your best life, living in Lent seems downright strange. Because when we live in Lent, we admit who we truly are. We admit that life isn’t always shiny and bright. And we admit that we will struggle, that we will make mistakes, and that we will try to run away from what’s hard. But there’s one more admission we get to make. We know and trust that we are not the only one who lived through Lent, lived with struggle, and lived with suffering. We know that Jesus did too. And his 40 days with the wild beasts, Satan, and temptation was just one of his Lents, one of many moments when life was hard - like when his friends left him, and denied him, and when he suddenly found himself alone. Jesus didn’t rush through his Lents and he doesn’t ask us too either.

Instead, Jesus knows there are moments when life is hard. There are moments when we wish we could skip to the next part of our story. Living in Lent means living in what’s hard, in what might feel untamed, wild, and full of grief. It’s a moment we aren’t asked to like. And this moment might last way longer than just 1 verse or 40 days or even a decade. But even when we are caught up in those moments, we are not living in them alone. Because the Jesus who was in his wilderness is in yours too. And he isn’t trying to only help you survive. Jesus is here to love us through our Lent and he bring us to the other side.

 

Amen.

 



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Confessing Our Sins at Home

Confessing our sins is a spiritual practice we do when we gather together for worship. But how can we confess our sins when we are not in church? During our daily ritual of prayer and time with God, what words can we use to confess and ask for forgiveness? You might have the confession we use on Sunday mornings memorized. Those words might be the ones you need to name the sins you know but the sins you do not realize participated in. But I also know that memorizing long lines of text is not a gift all of us have. I struggle with memorizing anything longer than one sentence. But I know all of us can memorize at least one phrase to use in our daily life. I invite you to find a phrase in scripture to help you confess your sins. And if you don't have one, take the first half of the first verse from Psalm 51: "Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love.

That half verse is powerful. The first four words asks God for mercy. That request isn't only a general statement. When we ask God for mercy, we are invited to wonder why we need that mercy in the first place. We are invited to reflect on our lives and the ways we stumble as followers of Jesus. We are asked to name the ways we have failed to love God and our neighbors. We look back into our past and ask deep, meaningful, and difficult questions. And then we turn to God and ask for mercy and love. 

Our God is a God who loves and forgives. Through the work of Jesus Christ on the Cross, we are reconciled with the creator and sustainer of the cosmos. By confessing our sins and naming the ways we fail to follow Jesus, we reorient ourselves towards God. This reorientation helps us see where Jesus is in our live and in our world. Our daily spiritual life needs prayer and confession. And it's through these kinds of spiritual practices that we see God's love for us and the world more clearly. 



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Your Sound: God speaks even in silence

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Mark 9:2-9

My sermon from Ash Wednesday Evening Worship (February 14, 2018) on Matthew 9:2-9. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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I always expect my ash making for Ash Wednesday to be loud. But so far, the sound has always underwhelmed. You would think, with all the different tools I use to make ashes, that loud sounds would be part of the process. I need a large metal coffee can, a bunch of matches, and a deep stack of dried palm fronds. I take all of this to the barbecue pit outside the church. I have plenty of opportunities to make something loud. I could, for example, drop the metal can and listen to it clang and clang and clang as it rolled down the parking lot. And, when I finally get to the pitl, setup the coffee can, and stuff the palm fronds into it, I should hear a loud WHOOSH as I light the extremely dry, extremely brittle, and extremely fragile palm branches. And since I’m lighting this fire outside, the everyday loudness of the outside world should show up. The cars on Pascack Road usually honk. The giants trucks, as they drive by, rattle and rumble the building. And I’m always on the lookout for a low flying airplane making a dull roar as it prepares to land at Teterboro airport. I even half-expect a fire engine from the Woodcliff Lake Fire Department to stop by with its siren wailing, wondering why there’s so much smoke coming from the grounds of the church. The ash we will use tonight was made in the middle of the day, during the middle of our everyday life. And my everyday life expects some kind of loud noise. But in all the years I’ve burned palms here in Woodcliff Lake, the loud sounds I expect never come. Instead, it’s always the silence that surprises me.

I don’t know what it is about Ash Wednesday but, for me, today is a day filled with a very full silence. Even the loud sounds that I know will come, like the bellowing of the organ and the cry of a 3 year old child, seem to be less intense than normal. When I prepared the ashes for today, the clang of the metal can bouncing on the top of the metal grill didn’t disturb me like it’s suppose do. And the pops and crackling of the burning palm fronds was barely audible. I found myself over the last several days falling into an old Ash Wednesday pattern where I keep asking people to repeat themselves because, even though they’re speaking at their normal volume, the silence of this day keeps drowning them out. The sounds of everyday living - from ash making, to cars honking, to the music we sing - on Ash Wednesday, these sounds collide with a day that is already full. Because Ash Wednesday isn’t just another day on the church calendar. Ash Wednesday is an interruption of our everyday expectations.

And this interruption starts with the date itself. For one thing, Ash Wednesday takes place on Wednesday. It shows up in the middle of our week. And it’s never the same date year to year. It can show up in early-February or right next to President’s Day Weekend or skoot all the way into early March. Ash Wednesday can even show up on Valentine’s Day, which it hasn’t done since 1945 but will do again two more times before the year 2030. Ash Wednesday this year has inspired reporters, theologians, pastors, and priests to interrupt their normal routines and have a little fun. They’re busy sharing punny memes online, creating Lent-friendly heart shaped candies, and writing a bunch of articles wondering if it’s okay to eat Chocolate on this first day of Lent. Whatever our expectations for what this 2nd full week of February is supposed to bring, Ash Wednesday shows up, interfering and disrupting our normal routines. It inserts itself, almost without asking, into the busy school, work, sports, and life schedules we’ve already created. And when Ash Wednesday shows up, it does something a little odd. The day isn’t, I think, trying to give us one more thing to do. Even though we’re here at church and some of us will have ashes placed on our face, we’re not here trying to just fill up our time with our actions. Ash Wednesday isn’t a day centered on what we do. You’re here but it isn’t to do something. Rather, you’ are here to rediscover who you really are. Ash Wednesday interrupts the ways we fill up our time and our sense of self-worth by doing and doing and doing - And instead invites to remember who and what we already are. And that Ash Wednesday proclamation is declared during the silence.

There are moments in today’s service that will be silent. There will be long pauses after the readings and space between prayers. There will be times when the silence might feel awkward and you might try to fill it either out loud or with thoughts racing through you mind. But I invite you to hold off, accept that awkward feeling, and just let the silence be. Because that silence isn’t empty. It’s really full of words. And its words are centered in one sentence that begins with the word, “Remember.”

“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

Dust, on its own, cannot live or move or make much noise. There’s nothing that dust can really do. It cannot fill its time or run around doing all that it can to give it some sense of meaning. When it comes to what is eternal, when it comes to the divine, dust...can’t say much. Instead, dust can only sit in its silence - and wait for a sound that gives it meaning. Wait for a voice that says it matters. Dust needs that word that says its loved. On Ash Wednesday, the silence is a paradoxical kind of place. On one hand, we are confronted by who we are and our own mortality. And yet, in that very same moment, we are assured of the eternal promise God gives to us. Whether you chose to wear the ashen cross on your forehead today or not, all of us carry that mark of Christ. We carry this silent sign of who we are and who we belong to during every moment of our everyday live. And in those moments when we are surrounded by bellowing noise and in others moments when silence is all we have, Jesus promises that you are known and loved. Your imperfections will not cause God to abandon you. And the promise of God’s love for you doesn’t end because of what you ever you’ve gone through. t’s through our connection with Jesus Christ that we learn to stop trying to fill up our lives and we discover how Jesus fills us with His life instead. The silence of this moment, the silence of this Ash Wednesday, is how God interrupts our life right now to tell us that we are known, that we are seen, that we are cared for and that we will be, forever, loved.

 

Amen.

 



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A Noon Day Ash Wednesday Meditation

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

My sermon from Ash Wednesday Noon Day Worship (February 14, 2018) on Matthew 6:1-6,16-21. No audio recording. Read my manuscript below. 

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David Bryne, former lead frontman of the pop band The Talking Heads, has a pretty neat theory about how music works. He thinks that the music we created, from African drum beats to Gregorian chant to Rock and Roll, was determined by the space it was performed in. So if you’re outside, far from the walls of buildings, the complex rattle and rumble of drums reverberates freely; and it grows in beauty the farther the sound travels. Much of the hymns, chants, and music we sing in church was designed for a specific kind of place. Cathedrals in Europe, with their large ceilings, needed the right kind of sound filled with long notes to fill the space but it couldn’t sound messy. Even the contemporary music we sing on Sundays at our 9 am service is designed to be played in a concert venue or a large auditorium where the stage is the most prominent feature. I haven’t spent much time with David Bryne’s theory but it feels, to use a phrase that contradicts his 1984 concert film, it feels like it actually makes sense. And I think this because I experience these same thoughts when I’m preparing to preach. The space I preach in plays a role in what I actually preach. And the space matters so much that when I began to setup this chapel for worship this morning, I realized the sermon I planned to preach wouldn’t work. This space isn’t designed to be a place where I stand up front and talk at you for 12 minutes. This is a space filled with movable furniture, bright lights, and wonderful colors. It’s an intimate environment that, I think, invites us to worship in a slightly different way. And so, I’m going to invite us to do just that. But instead of music or a loud sound to start us off, we’re going to start with silence.

If you are able, I’d like you to make sure your feet are firmly planted on the floor. Then, put your hands on your lap or on your knees in a position that is comfortable but won’t make you fall asleep. Sit up straight, if you can, and in such a way that you are noticing exactly where your body connects with the chair. And once you’re set - close your eyes. And, for a moment, we’ll sit in silence.

(A brief silence).

Now I’d like you to pay attention to your breathing. Notice the breath as it goes out and comes in. And if this silence feels a tad awkward, and random thoughts keep entering into your brain - that’s okay. Notice them. Pay attention to the fact that they are there. But don’t dwell on them. Watch the thought come in...and then out while you focus on your breath.

(A brief silence)

And now I want you to hear something honest and true - something we will share together very shortly.

Remember that you are dust -

And to dust you shall return.

(A brief silence)

And since you are dust - you are mortal - know that you were created by a God who cares that you exist, by a God who knows you, and by a God who loves you right now.

(A brief silence)

And in those moments when you feel alone, know that Jesus is there. And in the moments when you do not know where to go, know that Jesus is there. And in the moments when life is difficult, I promise that Jesus is there.

(A brief silence)

And I’d like to end with something our presiding bishop wrote for today:

“The history of salvation is one extended love story between God and God’s creation, between God and humankind, between God and God’s people. We were created in love for love. Real love. Love that is solid and deep and unflinching. Love that is true enough to be honest….

God’s work of reconciliation in Christ is God’s eyes-wide-open acknowledgement of human rebellion and sin, the undeniable fact that all is not well no matter how hard we try to fix it or deny it. The remedy was the all-in, complete love of the incarnation, crucifixion and death of Christ. Jesus meets us right in the middle of our pain - the pain we feel and the pain we cause others - and without minimizing the depth of our offense, offers forgiveness and new life…”

So on this Ash/Valentine’s Day, know that “Ash Wednesday is [your] valentine from God, one that invites us to enter deep into the mystery of true love, honest examination of our lives and the possibility of real repentance. The Ash Wednesday valentine starts us on the journey to the cross, to the passionate love of God shown in the Passion of Christ. And after the cross, the resurrection.”

(A brief silence)

You may open your eyes.

Jesus Christ is all-in with you.

 

Amen.

 



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Why Elijah? Jesus meets a prophet

Even if you know your bible well, this passage from the gospel of Mark (Mark 9:2-9) is odd. Elijah, as we see in our first reading (2 Kings 2:1-12), never died. He is taken into heaven and his status as a prophet is passed to Elisha. Elijah and Elisha are not the only prophets in the text. There is some of kind of prophet community in the background, a group that might resemble  modern day monks or nuns. These prophets served a specific role in the ancient Israelite community but we do not know exactly what they did. They appear to serve as a liaison between God and the wider community. Some, like Elijah and Elisha, were recorded in scripture due to their special relationship with God. Others, like the company of prophets, remained nameless. Elijah's relationship with God was so unique, he was taken into heaven. Over the centuries, an expectation developed where Elijah and Moses (who died but whose body is purposefully hidden) would return to announce the return of the Messiah. They are here in this story to announce that Jesus is exactly who God says he is. Jesus is God's Son, the beloved, and the one in whom God is well pleased (see Mark 1). And because Jesus is unique in this way, everyone in invited to listen to him. 

If Elijah is confusing to you, I invite you to read his story. He first appears in 1 Kings 17:1 (but start reading at 1 Kings 16:23). He shows up after King David has died and the kingdom of Israel has split into two. In the words of Everett Fox, "of all the figures that appear in Kings, none is as powerful, or mysterious, as the prophet Elijah. He appears as if from nowhere, mediates miraculous deeds, and inserts the word of [God] into the political events of the region...He is constantly on the move, argues wit God, and almost succumbs to despair." Elijah is very human but also resembles Moses. Moses is the template that all future prophets (including Jesus) are compared to. Once we know Moses story (see Exodus - Deuteronomy), we will see the parallels with Elijah and Jesus. I invite you, when you can, to spend time with Elijah. You might be surprised by how much doubt, struggle, arguments, and hope are required in one's relationship with God.



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Shine On: Jesus isn't only on the mountaintops

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

Mark 9:2-9

My sermon from Transfiguration (February 11, 2018) on Mark 9:2-9. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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It’s been a week full of sport spectacles. We started with the Super Bowl, continued with it’s celebrations, and ended with the beginning of the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. For those of us able to watch, we witnessed Tom Brady fail to get that 4th quarter comeback he usually pulls off. We watched sports fans riot, turning over cars, climbing light poles covered in crisco, and hanging from any street sign with the name “Eagle” on it. And then the week peaked with the opening ceremony at the Olympics. That show was filled with incredible pyrotechnics, 1200 drones making patterns in the sky, and there was a parade of nations full of smiling faces, questionable glove choices, and a shirtless gentleman from Tonga waving his nation’s flag in the below freezing temperatures. As a non-athlete, I experience these events in a very visual way. My eyes take in all the colors, shadows, bright lights, and bursts of motion at these amazing events to create an overall experience that I participate in. Now, I know I will never catch a touchdown in the Super Bowl. I will also never slide a large stone down a long sheet of ice and have it stop in just the right spot during an Olympic curling event. I will never be that kind of athlete but through the gift of sight, I can see people who are and I’m left in awe. I marvel at their skills and talent. I join with fans from all over the world to celebrate their accomplishments and revel in the thrill of sports. I rely on my eyes to carry me into a wider story that celebrates the amazing things people do. This last week was a week full of visual spectacles. It was a week meant to be seen. And today’s story from the gospel of Mark is an event God wanted Peter, James, John, and even us, 2000 years later, to experience and see. God wanted to show off and God put together a light show no Olympic opening ceremony or Super Bowl halftime show should could ever pull off. This mountain top moment even one upped Justin Timberlake by including the actual Moses and Elijah in the event instead of relying on a hologram. At the end of this cosmic light show, a cloud came down and covered everything. And then a voice from the cloud spoke, telling everyone to listen. The visual feast and spectacle of the Transfiguration is replaced by a command to hear.

Now this moment, in verse 7, is the only time in the gospel according to Mark when God the Father, God the Creator, told the disciples to do something. And it’s a bit of an odd command since it comes in the middle of Jesus’ story. For the previous eight chapters, Jesus preached and taught in Galilee and the surrounding territories. He put together a group of disciples who, occasionally, at least try to listen to him. Jesus spent a lot of time casting out demons, healing the sick, and debating with religious scholars, theologians, and priests. There were plenty of opportunities for the voice to show up in those teaching moments and tell everyone to listen. But it’s at this very visual moment, after a light show that no human beings could duplicate, when God’s voice shows up. And instead of commenting on the light show, instead of pointing to Elijah and Moses and explaining what they were seeing, God tells everyone to just listen. Listen to God’s Son. Listen to God’s beloved. Listen to Jesus.

And then the spectacle is over. Moses, Elijah, and the cloud are gone. The mountaintop is empty except for these three disciples and Jesus who is, I think, back in his regular clothes. I imagine they all stood there, saying nothing. And then Jesus turned around and led Peter, James, John, and all of us, back down the mountain.

God told the disciples to listen and then Jesus leads them into the places where he knows he won’t be listened too. Even the disciples failed to understand what Jesus says as they go down mountain. When Jesus was on that mountain top, he was in a place where even the great faith leaders of old showed up to listen to him. But Jesus chose not to stay there. He went down the mountain, back to the places and the world he already knew. Jesus, and all of his disciples, return to the villages and towns full of people who are sick and hurting. They go back into the cities full of Roman soldiers and tax collectors and people who care more about personal power than anything else. Jesus chooses to walk down into our everyday lives. He doesn’t stay in the spectacle. Instead, he comes down to live in a world that chooses suffering and violence more than it does love and service. Jesus knew that the world would not always listen to him. But I think Jesus came down so that, in the words of the Rev. David Lose, “we might understand that the God who created and still sustains the vast cosmos not only knows that we exist, but cares. Cares about our ups and downs, cares about our hopes and disappointments, cares about our dreams and despair, cares about all the things we care about,” and this God in Christ who cares will never, “ever let us go, and in time” will “ redeem us and bring us into the company of saints.” Jesus, after a visual spectacle designed to resonate through the ages, comes back down into the messiness of our lives and the messiness of our world because our God isn’t a God of special effects or a God only for Super Bowl and gold medal winners. Our God is a God for every moment of our lives because every moment of our life matters to God.

I bet, most of us, would sometimes like it if the god of the spectacle, full of flashing lights and descending clouds and other special effects, showed up in our lives more often. It would be awesome to have these great faith filled experiences that we could share with our family and friends that they could see. It would be amazing if, in some kind of cosmic light show, God was made know in a very public way because that would make God easier to follow. Because it’s easier to follow the spectacle, easier to sometimes think we’re listening to it. And it would be safer to follow a Jesus that threw himself a Super Bowl halftime show every once in awhile often. But it’s better, I think, to have a Jesus who came down from that mountain and straight into our very mundane, and boring, and sometimes fearful lives. Because a Jesus who stays on the mountaintop is a Jesus we could never, because of our sin, because of our imperfection, because of the ways we fail to listen, a Jesus on that mountaintop is a Jesus we would never be able to reach. But a Jesus who comes down to us is a Jesus who is already here, already with us, already giving us the grace we need to love, and serve, and, to finally, listen to him.

Amen.



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Lifted Up. Power, Expectations, and #metoo (Manuscript)

As soon as [Jesus and the disciples] left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

Mark 1:29-39

My sermon from the 5th Sunday After Epiphany (February 4, 2018) on Mark 1:29-39Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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I want to ask you a question: what did you do to prepare yourself to hear scripture today? I’ll be honest and say that sometimes, when I am in the pews, I do nothing to prepare myself for any scripture readings. Some days, just being here feels like it’s all I need to do. I flip open the bulletin, look at the words, and wait for an idea or a phrase or a feeling to jump out at me. Being this kind of passive participant with the Bible is sometimes exactly what we’re supposed to do. But there are more active ways to get ourselves ready to hear God’s word. Over the years, I’ve used a few tricks that might help all of us be a little more engaged with the text. We can, for example, choose to close our bulletin and focus on hearing the words instead of reading them. We can say a quick prayer, asking God to reveal to us what God already knows we need. We can also try to close our ears, mentally blocking out the tone and inflections used by the person reading out loud so that we can have a very personal reading of the text. And if none of those options fit our worship style, we can do something else, something that I like to call the eyebrow test. The first thing we do in the eyebrow test is relax our face. We want our eyebrows and eyes to be free to react to anything that we read or hear. And then, while the text is being read, we pay attention to what our eyes and eyebrows do. If we roll our eyes, blink hard, or raise one eyebrow, that part of the text might be what the Holy Spirit wants us to focus on. So looking back at this reading from Mark, what part of this text caused your eyebrows to move?

For me, my eyebrows went up at verse 33. Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law and the first thing she does is serve the men around her. Now, that might not have been the part of the text that you noticed. But when I shared this text with my colleagues and friends, Simon’s mother-in-law made a lot of eyebrows move. We talked about why that was and a movement happening in our culture right now kept coming up. In this moment when #metoo is making an impact in many different areas of our society, our expectations of ourselves and others are being confronted. There was an expectation for Simon’s mother-in-law to serve and so she did. But expectations can be problematic. It was expected, that if you worked in certain corporate offices or professions or fields - you would be harassed. And it was expected that you would accept that harassment if you wanted to further your career. It was expected that your boss or supervisor would make a pass at you and, if you reported it, you would be ignored or punished or your harasser would be reassigned to a place where no one would know what they had done. Survivors of harassment and assault would be stuck, not knowing who would believe them. Women in this situations banned together, alerting each other to the people and systems who enabled this hostile behavior to continue. It was expected, and through a collective silence accepted, that those with any kind of power would, and could, harass their subordinates. Not everyone did that but too many people, too many men, took advantage of their power over others to spiritually, physically, and emotionally hurt the people around them. It was power, not lust, that gave them what they want. And since these harassers were famous, rich, creative, or successful, they got away with what they did. Their victims couldn't walk or run away because the rest of us, for years, chose not to believe those who were victimized. We assumed that those with power over others have a right to that power and we gave them the benefit of the doubt. But that benefit is usually all they need to harm so many others.

Now, most of us had never heard of #metoo until just a few months ago. But it’s a movement that was started over a decade ago by Tarana Burke, as a way to support women of color who experienced sexual harassment and abuse. By creating a space where a survivor could tell their story, #metoo has brought to light the kind of expectations women and some men were supposed to put up with. Even the church, through it’s #churchtoo movement, is being confronted by the stories of women and men, especially women clergy, who are regularly harassed and abused. This movement is making an impact in every part of our life where one person has power or authority over another. And it’s about time that it has. For too long, this kind of violence has been tolerated because it was expected. Too many people, through no fault of their own, have had to live through these experiences. Not every survivor will feel safe enough to share their story. But those who do, who know they will have to live with the consequences that come with sharing their stories in a world that doesn’t want to hear them, these women and some men have helped, I hope, to unravel our expectations of what power is supposed to do. And in that process, they are revealing the kind of power that Jesus exercises and shares.

Because power, as Jesus shows, always lifts the vulnerable up. Jesus, when he entered Simon’s house, is immediately told about Simon’s mother-in-law. She is ill, with a fever. And in an era without ibuprofen and Tylenol, she is, most likely, dying. Simon tells Jesus all of his mother in law’s hurts, pain, and suffering because she can’t do that herself. And that’s when Jesus goes to her. He sees her. He takes her by the hand and lifts her up before she is fully healed. Before Simon’s mother-in-law is made well, Jesus helps her up, giving her the dignity she deserves because she is made in the image of God. It’s only after her story is heard and believed, after she is given her dignity and status as a true human being, that she is made whole. Power, as Jesus shows us, doesn’t hurt the vulnerable. Those with power are called to lift others up, not because they and the vulnerable are perfect but because Jesus is.

And then, after all of that, Simon’s mother in law serves. And it’s okay to be uncomfortable with that. She still lived in a world full of expectations. But after this encounter with Jesus, she is now able to thrive. She now has new life. And giving others new life is just what Jesus does. This new life isn’t something Jesus only gave to people he encountered 2000 years ago. That new life is something Jesus has already given to each of us. Jesus made a promise to each of us in our baptism that his love isn’t defined by how others view us. And he renews this promise of new life to us every day, helping us to love others in the same way he love us. So that means we get to hear these #metoo stories and then change. We get to redo our expectations of what it means to be in relationships with people who we have power and authority over. We get to believe the women and men who are survivors, to lift them up, and then give them what they need to thrive. And we are asked look back into our own past, to admit the wrongs we did or saw or experienced, and to not let “that’s just the way it was” be our excuse. Because, in our baptism, we were shown a new way to live. And, in Jesus’ life, we were given a new image of what power in God’s world is supposed to look like. Power is suppose to serve and not make those without power serve us. But when power over others moved the world to nail Jesus to the Cross, God resurrected Jesus from the grave, because God will always has the final word. And in those moments when the behavior at work or at church or at school make our eyebrow go up or worse, Jesus calls all of us to lift the survivors of harassment and assault up, and to give them the dignity, mercy, and new life that Jesus has already given to us.

 

Amen.

 



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Did God root for the Eagles? And what kind of transformation does God offer to us?

Some of my favorite Super Bowl memories are centered around the church. I remember a former bishop giving me a pep talk from the pulpit that the Denver Broncos would do well right before the Broncos lost 43-8. I remember someone sneaking in a prayer request for the NY Giants that surprised the assistant minister reading the prayers out loud. I remember swapping finger food recipes during coffee hour and arguing which puppy would be the MVP of the Puppy Bowl. When we think of the Super Bowl, church isn't usually on our minds. We, instead, daydream about nachos, TV commercials, and silver plated trophies. Even though the Super Bowl doesn't start until this evening, we might be focused on this big event that's about to come. Today's text from Isaiah 40:21-31, when read with football on the brain, might make us wonder if God is an Eagle's fan because the faithful "shall mount up with wings like eagles." I don't know if God roots for the Eagles but I do know, like many of us, this text is focused on the next big thing that's coming. But it isn't focused on a human event rooted in the spectacle of competition. Isaiah is instead looking forward to the day when everything changes. 

To hear the hope in this passage, we need to remember who Isaiah is talking to. Isaiah is surrounded by a community wondering if they should return to Jerusalem. For 70 years, the people have lived in Babylon (in modern day Iraq) after the Babylonian Empire destroyed their nation. Babylon was recently destroyed and their new emperor, Cyrus the Persian, wants to send the Israelites back home. But is Jerusalem still home? The people hearing these words grew up, started families, buried their loved ones, and created new homes in Babylon. They land of Israel is a place they only know about from stories told by their grandparents. They wonder if God, who appeared to be defeated by the armies of Babylon, is even paying attention to them anymore. Isaiah responded by inviting the community to remember who God is and what God has done for them. God is inviting them to return a homeland they do not know but one that gave their ancestors life. God isn't asking them to go back to what they have experienced. God is, instead, inviting them into a new adventure to create a new home in the place God promises to be. God is giving them a new life. 

Verse 31 is beautiful but our translation doesn't capture what Isaiah is saying here. The faithful will not do their best impression of the Lord of Rings and mount eagles that will fly them into the sky. The faithful will, instead, be like a "molting eagle who exchanges old wings for new." (Charles Aaron Jr, Working Preacher.com). What God invites us to do is to look forward to our transformation into who God is calling us to be. 



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Foodies. Negotiating Faith and Life.

If you don't take a picture of every meal you eat, did it really exist?

I know this is a silly question but if you spend any time on social media, you know people love taking pictures of their food. And I love taking pictures of my food too. When I go to a great restaurant, I want to showcase their skill. When I visit a friend’s dinner party, I want to showcase their gifts of hospitality. And when my kids bake cookies, I want to share their hard work. But there’s are food events I don’t take pictures of. You won’t see a picture of lunch leftovers on my instagram and you won’t see the bag of chips I "accidentally" ate for dinner last night. One of the great things about social media is that we get to choose what we share online. But This is also a problem. We usually only share the experiences making us look like we are living our best life. When we showcase the meal at the trendy restaurant, we are doing more than highlighting the skills of the chefs. We're also letting everyone know that we have the wealth, status, time, and "coolness" to visit this kind of place. 

Social Media is an obvious example of what we do constantly: we curate our own life. We choose what to share and what we don't. We choose what to tell our friends and what to keep to ourselves. We make the choice to present a pleasant, happy, rich, and strong side of ourselves. We project a certain kind of image for others to see. And this image is developed through a constant negotiation with the world around us. We identify what the culture values and we try to match it. We negotiate what we can share and what we can't. We struggle with a world that expects us to be a certain way. We want to be ourselves but this constant negotiation means we sometime see wonder if we can. 

In our reading from 1st Corinthians 8:1-13 today, Paul is writing to a community struggling with this kind of negotiation. In their world, animal sacrifices are normal and expected. Animals are killed in various religious temples and the meat is given, or sold, to people. Meat in the ancient world was extremely expensive. For many people, the meat from animals sacrifices was the only meat they would ever eat. Christianity, as we know it, wasn’t a major religion yet. The followers of Jesus in Corinth were small and the only ones in the area. They are learning how live, share, and curate their new Christian identity. And that, even today, isn’t an easy thing to do. 

Paul, I think, is inviting the community in Corinth to be intentional in everything they do. They need to know the truth about who they are, whose they are, and what their wider community is like. They need to know that people will watch what they are doing and they need to know why they do the things they do. They need to negotiate with their culture but always begin that negotiate in, and through, Jesus. Jesus, when he deals with the world, thinks of the other person first. And Jesus always offers a love that is rooted in a God who will never give up on the world.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for the 4th Sunday After Epiphany, 1/28/2018.
 



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