Questions and Reflections

Reflection: Name-Change

One of challenging experiences I have teaching Confirmation Class is making the Ten Commandments meaningful to a bunch of 7th and 8th graders. We tend to read these gifts from God as a morality check-list, reducing them to ordinances that we try to keep. We might embrace the commandment "do not murder" but shrug our shoulders about the commandment to reserve the Sabbath for God alone. Martin Luther, in the Small Catechism, showed us that every "don't" in the Ten Commandments is connected to a "do." God doesn't want us to only not lie about our neighbor (the 8th commandment); God wants us to use our words to help our neighbors thrive. One of the more difficult Commandments to teach is the second: do not take the Lord's name in vain. God, I think, is asking us to do more than just stop shouting "Jesus Christ" when we stub our toe. God wants us to pay attention to the power of names. And our reading from Isaiah 62:1-5 shows us just how powerful names can be.

The reading begins with the assumption that Jerusalem means something. Jerusalem, conquered by the Babylonians and its people forcefully deported, is now mocked and teased by the nations around them. In the ancient world, wars were viewed as political and cosmic affairs. A war between two nations was also a war between their gods. The destruction of Jerusalem showed that the gods of Babylon were more powerful than the God of Israel. The nations won. Jerusalem lost. In the view of the nations, God and Jerusalem were symbols of failure and defeat. Their names were meaningless and, now, the butt of jokes.

But when the rest of the world assumes God is no longer potent, that's when God renews God's unending promise to God's people. God will give them a new name, a new identity, and "a new chance at life" (Walter Brueggeman's Isaiah). God will act with a new resolve and Jerusalem's new name will be "My Delight is In Her." If the nations thought God had abandoned God's people, God's new name for them will show how God is now with them. Names have power. Names signal our relationships, commitments, and how we viewed ourselves in the world. The names we give ourselves and the names we give others shape our life. The names we give others will reveal exactly how we will treat them. And the names we own for ourselves will reveal exactly what's important to us. Yet, through our baptism and through our faith, we are given a new name that doesn't depend on what others say about us. This name comes from God and God alone. We are Beloved; we are sealed with Christ's cross; we have Jesus' name. And that name changes who we are, who we will be, and who we can be right now.


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Declare It: God's Cute Aggression

But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth— everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”​

Isaiah 43:1-7

Pastor Marc's sermon for Baptism of Jesus (January 13, 2019) on Isaiah 43:1-7. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


It’s a bit scary to be a newborn...

Because you enter the world exactly as you are. You’re small, defenseless, and a little bit confused because you’re now “outside,” away from that precious inner sanctum where there was warmth and food. A newborn might spend its first few moments being poked and prodded by strangers who are wearing white clothes and shining bright lights in their face. Some newborns enter the world with a cry and a scream while others are completely silent. Every newborn goes through their own unique experience when they enter the world but one thing unites them: they come completely vulnerable. A newborn needs to be taken care of - and that’s, sometimes, a frightening way to live. But newborns, of course, know no other kind of existence. They just...are. And God willing, a community of family, friends, medical professionals, and others commitment themselves to do for this newborn what this newborn can’t do for themselves. A newborn needs a community but that community can be a bit...odd. Many, when meeting a newborn for the first time, can’t help themselves but say “awww.” Some feel an incredible urge to pinch their cheeks while others want to tug at their toes. Still more, without even thinking about it, say frightening things like “they’re so cute - I could just bite them.” Being a newborn isn’t scary only because they need to be taken care of. Being a newborn is scary because so many people in the community around them all seem to come down with what scientists call “cute aggression.”

Cute aggression is pretty common and it’s the catch-all term for when we want to “bite, nibble, squeeze, or smoosh the face of something completely adorable.” Studies show that when people look at photos of tiny and adorable things, we often react with pretty aggressive language. If we suffer from cute aggression, we might find ourselves being flooded by an incredible amount of positive emotions whenever we see a newborn baby or videos of baby otters having fun at the zoo. That feeling of wanting to bite a baby’s thighs doesn’t mean we’re suddenly becoming cannibals. It’s a trick used by our brains to help regulate, release, and moderate those moments when we’re flooded with “positive emotions and caretaking desires.” This experience is pretty much universal and some languages even have specific words to describe it. If it’s cute, a little furry, and a bit helpless, we can go over the top with our feelings of compassion, love, and care. It’s a reaction that, for many of us, is just built into who we are. And that’s okay - because, as we see in our reading from Isaiah today, God sometimes does the exact same thing.

God, in these seven verses, expresses God’s “defining and uncompromising love” for God’s people. Written while a large part of ancient Israel was living in exile, this text affirmed God’s “profound commitment…[a commitment] that persists… and is undisturbed by any circumstance.” God’s words began with a very simple but also very overwhelming command to “do not fear” because God is God - and God’s people will belong to God forever. We can imagine the community who first heard these words being a bit… confused. Because they were living in Babylon, having been forcefully deported by the empire that destroyed Jerusalem and burned God’s Temple. They were far from home and had no idea if they would ever return. So the community was spending a lot of time asking themselves “why?” Why did God let Jerusalem fall? Why did God let their loved ones be hurt, killed, and driven far from home? Why did God, in the face of struggle, fear, doubt, and worry, seem to abandon them to their fate? The community felt, at that very moment, as if they were nothing because everything they held dear - their wealth, their power, their homes, their health, their well-being, and their identity - all of that was basically gone. They weren’t only asking themselves why they were living in exile; they were also wondering who they actually were. They were a community that had lost - and they were now tiny, miserable, and insignificant. Yet it’s to them, to those who are nothing, that God does something that happens no where else in the Bible. God says, forcefully, and explicitly: “I love you.” It isn’t to the mighty or powerful or faithful or perfect that God says these words. Instead, they’re delivered to those who are broken, confused, questioning, and doubting. God declares, vividly, that they have an “intimate and nonnegotiable relationship” with God. God’s promise is that no matter where you are, no matter what you’ve experienced, no matter what you’ve gone through, you are God’s. And God’s love, commitment, and devotion to God’s people will be what defines them. It’s not their doubts, troubles, or circumstances that make them who they are. Their identity is centered in the God who loves and claims them. That love is God’s promise made real and for us who are Christians, that promise is made publically and explicitly in our baptism.

When we pass through the waters and when we hear our name on God’s lips, that’s when we discover exactly who God is for us. In the words of Walter Brueggemann, we read these verses from Isaiah as  “illuminations of baptism, a sacrament of relationship whereby we are inducted into the protective and sure care of God.” This claim of relationship doesn’t eliminate the promise first made to the Jewish people. Rather, the words first written for the Israelites in exile are a reminder that God’s faithfulness towards us doesn’t depend on anything we do. Instead, God comes to us first because we are precious in God’s sight. We are, through God’s promise, brought into God’s beloved family through God’s Son, who was born, lived, and who knew what it meant to be broken. When confronted by the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the lost, God could only do what God always does: and that’s just love. God’s love for us ends up being more than just an affirmation of who we are. God’s love also challenges, changes, and transforms us so that we can take seriously what it means to be God’s beloved. If we are loved, if we are claimed by God, and if we truly believe that we are precious in God’s sight, then we are invited to do more than just live our lives; we are invited to discover what it means to live out our identity as the beloved. God’s cute aggression towards those whom God loves is not the limit of God’s relationship. Rather, God keeps telling us over and over again “I love you” because God knows that love is the one thing that will change us into who God knows we can be. We are, no matter our age, always a newborn. We need care. We need attention. And we need love even though we spend much of our lives pretending like we don’t. Yet in our baptism, in our worship, in our faith, and at Jesus’ table, we are reminded that God will never stop saying, “I love you” because God knows that that promise is what will carry us through.




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Reflection: Judge

We rarely, I think, picture Jesus as primarily a judgement figure. When we close our eyes and imagine Jesus for us, visions of fire and brimstone are typically far from our minds. Personally, with a newborn living in my home, I lean on the picture of Jesus welcoming children instead of seeing him as someone wielding a winnowing fork while surrounded by unquenchable fire. Yet John the Baptist, in our reading from the gospel according to Luke 3:15-17, 21-22, imagined the Messiah to be someone who primarily judges. This Messiah would come into our world, a place where God's love, generosity, and justice already existed but was, currently, obscured. Work needed to be done to bring all the good stuff of God to fruition. The Messiah, then, would need to get his hands dirty and would be active in the world at large. John used an image of someone wielding a winnowing fork as an example of what the Messiah would do. A winnowing fork was a tool used to sort the good grains of wheat from the rest of the stalk. It was the good grains of wheat that produced good flour while the rest would be given to animals or tossed aside. The Messiah wasn't gentle in the way we think a Messiah to be. The Messiah was active, efficient, and would be harsh. And if we do think about the Messiah being harsh, we usually want him to act that way towards other people and not to us. 

Yet, the rest of Jesus' story after this point doesn't really match this vision. Throughout his 3 years of public ministry, from his baptism to his death on the cross, Jesus rarely is the one with a winnowing fork in his hands; instead, we are the ones acting as if we're the ones who can recognize the good from the bad. We imagine ourselves to be judges and we, like many people in Luke, have no problem casting a judgement on Jesus. Because Jesus has a habit of hanging out with the wrong kind of people in the wrong kind of places and for entirely the wrong reasons. He has meals with people he shouldn't, talks to people he should avoid, and keeps acting as if the gospel is real, honest-to-goodness, good news for the poor. Jesus' first judgement is to preach, teach, and act as if God will be God and that God will keep God's promises. God's promises are always rooted in a God who gives life because that's just what God does. We are thrilled when God gives us life, transforming us in ways we can't imagine. But we're less thrilled when we see God doing the same thing in others, especially in those we avoid. Throughout the gospel according to Luke, the text will show us how our judgements are not God's. The Messiah with the winnowing fork doesn't just separate people in the good and the bad. The Messiah also transforms us, pulling out the good grains of faith from the chaff inherent in our lives. And by encountering Jesus over and over again, through the confession of sins, the promise of forgiveness, and by meeting him in the bread and drink, we also discover what it's like to live as the baptized and Beloved ones we actually are. 


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Reflection: A Multitude of Camels

As a person of below average physical stature, I'm not entirely sure I would appreciate being covered by a multitude of camels. When I'm playing hide and seek, two little kids and two cats jumping on me is about the only amount of covering I can take. Yet in our reading from Isaiah 60:1-6 today, being covered in camels is a good thing. The author of this part of Isaiah was inspired by God's own voice to bring to God's people a divine promise. This promise offered the Jewish people and the people living in Jerusalem a vision of what their future with God would look like. The author's use of the word "you" didn't imagine to be writing to individuals 2500 years later who happened to be reading this book. The "you" here is plural and directed towards the city of Jerusalem. Ever since that city was conquered by David around the year 1000 BCE, the city had experienced a large amount of challenge, prosperity, hardship, and calamity. The city watched David's kingdom split in two and survived when 10 out of the 12 tribes of Israel were lost during an invasion by the Assyrians. Jerusalem survived through God's help and by playing the local political powers against each other. The kings of Judah sent a ridiculous amount of money, gold, and other resources to other political kingdoms as tribute. By this point in the book of Isaiah, the Babylonian exile was already over and the returning community were looking to rebuild the Temple. They were still under control by another nation, the Persians, would who still demand their own kind of tribute. For centuries, Jerusalem sent its resources away on carvans of camels, trying to save themselves from destruction while fueling the lust for powers that others had. But in the future, this would be reversed. All the wealth and abundance of the nations, the best they have, will come to Jerusalem. This is the queen of Sheba story (1 Kings 10:1-13) but on overdrive, pointing to a future where current expectations are replaced by God's great reversal.

On this Epiphany, we are drawn to the verse about gold and frankincense because these are two of the three gifts the magi brought to Jesus. As Christians, we see the great reversal expressed in Isaiah 60 as bearing fruit in the birth, life, and death of Jesus. The magi offered extravagant gifts to an infant who had no army, no sword, and who couldn't walk. Yet they saw who Jesus was, is, and will be. They knew that a relationship with Jesus, rooted in God's love, grace, and faith, would be the one thing no empire could ever take from us. During this life, we will probably never be covered by a multitude of camels. We will wonder why the exploitation by the rich seems to be growing in intensity. The world does not  match the future God has in mind. Yet God has laid out, for each of us, a different way of life that notices who we give our gifts too. And once we see who we give our gifts to, we can embrace a new way of life that lives into the hope when every vulnerable community will know that their light has come. 


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Reflection: Celebrate the Season

Every year my town publishes an eight-page calendar listing all the dates for trash and recycling pickup. The heavy-duty brochure includes details about what plastics can be recycled, what can’t be, and how cardboard boxes should be broken down and flattened. The document tries to tell residents everything we need to know when it comes to the trash we put on the curb. And on the front page, in big letters, is a note about Christmas trees. Christmas trees need to be placed on the curb and with all decorations, including tinsel, removed. Trees can’t be placed in plastic bags and they’ll be picked up, at random times, through January. And, with much fanfare, we’re informed that trees can be picked starting on December 27, only two days after Christmas.

We spent over a month preparing for Christmas. I spotted artificial Christmas trees in late August and Black Friday sales that started on October 31. Plane tickets and hotel reservations were ordered months in advance as we made plans to travel to visit family and friends. It takes a lot to make it to Christmas morning. And once that morning comes, we’re already off to the next thing. We set reminders to take down our outdoor lights. We take days off so we can stand in line at the stores to return the gifts we didn’t really want. Reservations are made for New Year’s Eve and we can’t wait to see what the New Year brings. It’s amazing how much energy we spend to get to Christmas and how we almost act as if Christmas, once it’s 12 noon on December 25, no longer really matters.

For centuries, the church has embraced Christmas as more than a day; Christmas is a season. For twelve days, through January 5, we’re invited to reflect that the gift of Jesus and the gift of faith change everything. By being in relationship with a Savior who loves us too much to leave us on our own, we can become exactly who God knows we can be. Today’s worship is centered on the twelve days of the season and the song we might know but have no idea what it’s about. The twelve days of Christmas are more than just about lords who leap and maids who milk. The twelve days of Christmas are rooted in a God who will never give up on us. And that’s a gift that we can’t do anything but spend a life growing into.


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"Sermon" Manuscript: The 12 Days of Christmas

On December 30, our worship used the old song 12 days of Christmas to talk about different aspects of the Christian faith.  The worship was adapted from an original collaborative effort by Rev. Katrina Paxson, Rev. Katie Dawson, Rev. Katie Russell, Rev. Stacy Smith, Rev. Katie Dawson, Rev. Amy Fetterman, Rev. Ali Haugerud, and Rev. Liz Kearny through Young Clergy Women International. A common internet letter claims that the 12 days of Christmas was originally composed with hidden Christian meaning. There's no real evidence of that. However, the song is a great way to explore what it means to be a follower of Jesus. The service was in the style of lessons and carols. Below are the "explanations" Pastor Marc spoke in response to each lesson. You can view a bulletin from worship here.

Lesson One: Jesus Christ

Last week we celebrated the coming of the Christ child – Jesus has been born!  Emmanuel - God-with-us - has come! The point of Christmas is that Christmas comes whether we are ready for it or not. And that when Jesus entered the world, he came as a gift for all of us because God’s love couldn’t do anything less. The first gift the singer of the 12 days of Christmas focuses on is also the most important because, if we sung the song in its entirety, we would repeat this part 12 times.

So that’s why we can let the partridge in the pear tree represent Jesus. Jesus, in the piece of Scripture we just read, likened himself to a bird. He claimed to care for us like a mother hen, like a shepherd, as our Savior. And we are reminded of his everlasting gift to us – his death on a cross and resurrection on Easter morning.  Jesus is our partridge on his tree.


Lesson Two: The Scriptures

One of the words I use over and over again is “scripture.” And I realize not everyone knows what that word means. “Scripture” is a piece of writing considered sacred to a specific faith tradition. As Christians, our scripture is the Bible and as Lutheran Christians, we separate our scripture into two parts - typically called the Old and New Testament. I tend to use the words “Jewish” and “Christian” scriptures for those two sections because we share parts of our Bible with the Jewish community and the words “old” and “new” can be used as a false dividing line for what part of the Bible is better than the other. Yet the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, and how God keeps God’s promises is not limited to only one section, part, or book of our Scriptures.

Now, turtle doves show up often in our Scriptures. It was a dove that Noah sent out to see if there was dry land after the flood. And the cry of the doves has also been used to symbolize grief and mourning. Doves are also mentioned in Song of Solomon as an indicator of new life because they are a migrating species, and they arrive in Judea in the spring.  Doves were also offered as sacrifices at the Temple for those who couldn’t afford sheep or goats. Even Mary and Joseph used these small birds as as a thank-offering in the Temple for Jesus’ birth. Doves allowed rich and poor alike to worship God.

Turtle doves are said to commit to each other for life. And so it is fitting that we can use them as a symbol for our Scripture – for the joining of the Testaments, of the Jewish and Christian scriptures, into one Bible. We continue to read these testaments together because they share how God’s love is one continuous story - and that this story continues today.


Lesson Three: Gold, Frankincense, and Myr

In our Bible, the number 3 is a holy number. Many journeys, like Jonah’s stay in the whaled, lasted 3 days and visions given to ancient prophets came in threes. As Christians, we understand God to be a Trinity - a Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit - and we spend 3 days every year living into the moments when Jesus died, was buried, and rose again.

During this season of Christmas, we are remember the three gifts of the Magi – gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  These unique presents were not random items, but demonstrated who the Magi believed Jesus would become. Gold was reserved for the royal or the divine and proclaimed the birth of the King of Kings.  Frankincense is a symbol of holiness and was used in priestly worship. The myrrh invokes bitterness and suffering, showing us how God came to be with us through the entirety of our lives, and how God takes us on a journey through death and into life.


Lesson 4: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John

The four calling birds can represent the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—which tell the stories of Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection.  But the concluding verse of the Gospel of John says that these books are not sufficient; that the works of Jesus are so numerous, they cannot be contained in any book.  Indeed, as Christians we proclaim that the incarnation means God is loose in our world--the work of Jesus is still being done. The Gospels cannot contain Jesus’ entire story because the story is, right now, still being written! Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are not the only ones called to cry out the Good News of Jesus Christ - we are too.


Lesson 5: The Torah

Those of us who love to spend the Christmas break re-watching all of The Lord of the Rings movies, might associate five golden rings with power, control, and domination. We might imagine that the Torah, the first five books of the Bible that these five golden rings can represent, point to a controlling and powerful God who gave us harsh laws to follow. We might think that Jesus is, somehow, a more loving God than the God in the Torah. But the Torah, the law of Moses, is not about constraint. Rather, the law of Moses is a gift, telling people how they can live in a life-giving relationship with God and with each other. The Torah is an invitation for us to be less focused on ourselves and, instead, to experience what God’s freedom is all about. God gives us a law to follow, showing us what evil is, and as our friend Sam tells us in the Lord of the Rings, the Torah shows us the good that’s “worth fighting for.”


Lesson 6: 6 days of Creation

When we think of eggs, we usually think of Easter. But these geese busy laying eggs represent new life, just like eggs do at Easter time. This new life points us to a God who is always busy creating it, including the six days of creation, when God created all that is, and was, and will be. The six loud, squawking, excitable geese can represent the beautiful chaos of God’s creation and the new life we find in Christ.


Lesson 7: 7 Gifts of the Spirit

Every year since 1984, a group of economists have figured out how much it costS to buy all the things on the “Twelve Days of Christmas” list. It’s called the Christmas Price Index and its used to measure inflation and the increasing costs of certain goods. In 2018 eto buy/hire/and use everything on this song’s list, would cost you $39,094.93. That’s...a lot. And the most expensive item, by far, is the swans. Seven swans, swimming or just sunning themselves on the shore, will cost you $13,125. They’re the most precious items in the whole song - and that reminds us of just how precious the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit are: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. These are gifts given to us freely by a loving God - and when we hold tight to these kinds of gifts over anything else money can by, our lives become the precious way we love God and our neighbors.


Lesson 8: 8 Beatitudes

When young maids, or unmarried women, were asked to “go-a-milking,” wedding bells were on the horizon!  It was an invitation to join your heart with another and to forever be changed.

In many ways, the Beatitudes are that same kind of invitation.  These eight statements of Jesus from a sermon recorded in the gospel according to Matthew teach us how we can love God and our neighbor in such a way that will are forever changed. We can look at these beatitudes and split them into two different categories: we are blessed by being and we are blessed by doing.  The first few beatitudes remind us there are circumstances we face in life that we might not have any control over - including hunger, grief, or oppression. God comes to us in those moments and reminds us we are not alone. But the second half of these blessings are an invitation to share God’s love with others. This Christmas, we remember that not only has Christ entered our lives right where we are, but that He also invites us to join our hearts together so that we can help change the world.


Lesson 9: 9 Fruits of the Spirit

The nine fruits of the Spirit, divine gifts made real in us, join with these 9 ladies in their dance. Together, the gifts dance in and through us, moving our feet, our hands, our bodies, our hearts in a holy rhythm. We are called to join in, and to move our bodies in ways filled with loving and humble service.


Lesson 10: The Ten Commandments

During the time of the Exodus, when the people of Israel were freed from slavery in Egypt, their leader, Moses, met God face to face on a mountain. God, through Moses, offered to the people, a promise and a relationship that was so special that the people of Israel could, after that, only be called as “chosen.” As a part of that relationship, God gave the people of Israel and us, the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are more than just a list of “thou shall nots…” they are a sign of who we are—God’s people, God’s chosen people—people who live differently because of who God is and what God has done for us. God intended the Ten Commandments to be a promise that would last for all of God’s people forever.  


Lesson 11: First 11 faithful apostles

The eleven pipers piping remind us of the eleven disciples who saw Jesus at the mountain after his resurrection and went forth into the world to share the music of the Gospel. These eleven disciples were sent out into the world to make disciples of all nations, to baptize those who put their weight down on Jesus, and to teach the world all the things Jesus had taught them.

These disciples were not considered faithful because they were freed from questions or doubt. Indeed, the text we just read from the end of the gospel of Matthew reminds us that even with the risen Lord stood in front of them, “some doubted”. And they’re weren’t considered faithful because they always understood everything Jesus said. Throughout Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, one of the storylines consistent through all of them is that the disciples don’t get it. And now, standing on the mountain with Jesus, they still don’t know what’s going to happen next.

Yet we call them faithful because they do two things: they show up and they go where God sends them next. They showed up at the place Jesus promised to be, on that mountain top, and when Jesus said, “go,” they went.

We join these eleven by showing up here on Sunday mornings, at the place Jesus has promised to meet us. May we also join these eleven pipers piping as we go out into the world to share the song of Christ’s all-pursuing love.


Lesson 12: The 12 Points of the Apostles’ Creed

The Apostles’ Creed is something we say most weeks in worship but we might not know exactly why we do. A creed is a statement of faith representing the basics of what we teach. And I say what we teach because we might not always understand or believe or trust what we’re asked to say. There are days when we’ll feel close to Jesus and others when we’ll wonder if the Holy Spirit is missing from our lives. The Creed isn’t limited to what we believe. Rather, it’s an invitation to see all of God’s promises even when we don’t understand them. The Apostles’ Creed can be broken into 12 parts and legend says that 12 apostles’ each contributed a part to it. But this is a legend because the Apostles’ Creed as we have it wasn’t finalized until the 8th century. But a version of hits creed has been used for almost two thousand years, showing us how we are always connected to something bigger than ourselves. Our faith doesn’t depends on us. Rather, our faith is a gift from God. And when we remember all the gifts God gives us, we grow in trust, knowing that the God who was born to a woman named Mary is the same God who is always with us, even in our doubts and questions. And so, as a way of remembering who God is for us, let us now stand as we are able, and confess our faith in the words of the Apostles’ Creed.



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Make Known: Making it to Christmas Eve [Sermon Manuscript]

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child;and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Luke 2:1-20

Pastor Marc's sermon for Christmas Eve (December 24, 2018) on Luke 2:1-20. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


It takes a lot of work to get to Christmas Eve. Over the last few weeks, if you stopped by the church office, you might have run into the pastor, parish administration, and the musicians speaking not-so silent prayers, hoping that tonight would turn out alright. We prayed for weather that was seasonal but not too snowy and for our furnace to not randomly stop working the minute the repair shop closed. And after our old work-horse of a copy machine finally printed the last of tonight’s worship bulletins, you’d swear we celebrated as if it was already Christmas. But it wasn’t only this faith community that needed to get ready to meet Jesus. Each one of us, in our own ways, had certain logistics to work through to make it here tonight. There were kids who, at the very last minute, couldn’t find any of their shoes and dogs, while we were distracted, who ate an entire loaf of bread off the kitchen counter, plastic bag and all. Some of us spent hours navigating the joy that is the Newark Airport so that we could be with our families and friends tonight. And still more are here alone, doing what they need to do as they spend another Christmas Eve on their own. The logistics of just making it to Christmas Eve involves a lot of planning, a bit of luck, and some real, actual, work.

Yet not everyone, in tonight’s reading from the gospel according to Luke, were trying to make it to Christmas Eve. The shepherds, who were spending the night in the hills around Bethlehem, had no idea what God was up to that first Christmas night. They weren’t expecting Christmas Eve. Instead, they were caught up in their daily, tiring, and dirty vocations. By the time night fell, most of the shepherds would have been like we are right now, a bit tired, a tad blurry eyed, and wondering when they could finally go to bed. Yet the beds we might be going home to were not the beds the shepherds knew. They would sleep exactly where they are, far from home. The work shepherds did was isolating, lonely, and dirty. The rest of society viewed them with suspicion, seeing them as no better than the sheep themselves. Yet shepherds knew how to manage the logistics of their everyday lives. When a wolf came by, they knew how to fight it. When a sheep was ill, they knew how to bandage its wounds. And when a mother was about to give birth, a shepherd knew how to coach the lamb and its mom, safely through. A shepherd, lowly, marginalized, and left to work with animals in the wilderness, knew exactly what life expected of them.

And then, suddenly, everything changed. An angel, a messenger from God, stood among them. Now, this wasn’t supposed to happen. No where in the operating manual for being a shepherd was there a section entitled “what to do when an angel of God appears.” They were busy preparing their flocks for the night; they weren’t keeping an eye out for God. But that’s exactly when God came to them. God’s first announcement of what happened in Bethlehem skipped over the rich, the powerful, and those with the power to make everyone move. God’s message about Jesus was first given to those already scattered in the wilderness, caught up in the busyness of their everyday lives. The shepherds expected each one of their days and nights to be pretty much the same. It would be difficult, hard, and they would be far from the halls of power and respectability. They expected to spend their lives living in the margins - and God met them, right there. We can imagine, as the angel spoke, the shepherds rubbing their eyes, wondering if they were dreaming. It seemed improbable, almost impossible, for an angel to show up to them. God, anticipating their confusion and wonder, doubled down on this improbable impossibility by letting the night sky explode with an angelic host, a literal army of angels. Before the shepherds could even process what was going on, the night was filled with a divine choir singing of a child, wrapped in cloth, waiting to meet each of them.

And once this message was finally given, God’s angelic army faded away and the night returned to what it was before. The shepherds were still in the wilderness and their sheep stilled needed to be taken care of. The logistics for the shepherd didn’t end once the angel showed up. But after experiencing the unexpected, they turned towards each other to discern what to do next. They left their sheep, came together, and as a community decided that the only thing they could do was see Jesus. They headed down the hillside, moving into the town of Bethlehem, which did not expect every shepherd in the countryside to show up all at once. And when this host of shepherds finally found Mary, Joseph, and Jesus - they couldn’t wait to share with them what their experience of God was. They told God’s newest family about how God, in a completely unexpected way, used an army of angels to announce how God was entering human life completely powerless. It wasn’t enough for God to merely oversee Creation; God chose to root God’s-self in the logistics of our everyday life. And that kind of life is filled with expectations that are met, interrupted, and turned upside down in the most unexpected ways. So God chose to get involved in the nitty gritty of our lives because God’s love couldn’t do anything less. And when Jesus took his first breath outside his teenage mother’s womb, an army of angels went into the countryside to let the marginalized, the lowly, and those living in the wilderness know that their God was near. The shepherds, living in the fields, didn’t expect to run into God there. But that’s exactly where God chose to meet them because they were worth living, dying, and rising for.

The logistics of our expectations will always be filled with busyness of our everyday lives. There’s always another event to prepare for, another storm to deal with, and we’ll never stop praying for those old reliable machines, traditions, and people that keep our lives on their expected track. Being who we are takes work. Yet through our faith and in our baptism, we discover that God has taken on all our expectations so that we can grow into the expectations God has for each of us. Because the beauty of Jesus’ nativity is that he came even though we had no idea that Christmas Eve could actually happen. And when Jesus showed up, his life of hope, peace, justice, and love wasn’t only for those ready for him. He was here for everyone, especially the marginalized, the outsiders, and those caught up in their own personal wildernesses. The wonder of Christmas is that Christmas comes whether we’re ready for it or not. Because Jesus knows exactly who you are, what your life is like, and how you can embody a life-giving love that turns the world upside down. There is no work we could ever do that would make Christmas happen. So Jesus did the work for us, coming into the world as a newborn baby, needing to be cared for as he prepared to take care of us all. And once the shepherds met Jesus face-to-face, they returned to fulfil the logistics of what they were expected to do. But they now had a message of hope, wonder, and love that they couldn’t wait to share with everyone.





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Reflection: One Thing (aka Christmas Stuff)

Christmas comes with stuff. This stuff can be physical like the endless mountain of cookies our coworkers give us to the long list of toys in our letters to Santa. Christmas stuff can also be sentimental, such as the family traditions that determine who hosts the yearly gathering and the order presents are opened. There's also Christmas stuff that covers every human emotion, from joy to sadness and grief. We might know exactly what our Christmas stuff is but we might carry other stuff that we don't even realize. Christmas is one of those events that brings all our stuff out into the open. And all that stuff impacts everything and everyone around us.

Our readings tonight also come with a lot of stuff. In our reading from Luke 2:1-20, there's a governor, an emperor, a field full of shepherds and an army of angels singing in the sky. Some of this stuff we might know well, like how there was no room for Mary and Joseph at the inn. But there's other stuff we might notice for the first time tonight. It might surprise us to learn that Syria once belonged to Rome and that Luke points to an additional census that once took place. We might finally ask how far it really was from Nazareth to Galilee (90 miles) and wonder how Mary made this journey while 9 months pregnant. The shepherds might jump out at us because, after they met the baby, they went back to their old way of life. Or we might suddenly wonder what a "heavenly host" actually is (answer: it's an army) and wonder why the Creator of the Universe would need one. There is a lot of stuff in the Christmas story but that story is more than just words on the page. As we re-tell this faith-filled story tonight, we create new stuff based on our reactions to the text. The birth in the stable, the songs of the angels, and the faithfulness of Joseph will cause different emotions to form within us. We might feel inspired or indifferent or somewhere in between. And those feelings are okay because the stuff of scripture is designed to generate additional stuff in us. This new stuff is rooted in whatever makes us exactly who we are because Christmas is about a God who chooses to get involved in all our stuff. The stuff of life is not strange to God nor are our experiences somehow too silly for God to experience too. God chose to experience all the stuff of our lives including what it’s like to be born, to grow up, to form relationships and experience heartbreak. God, through Jesus, decided to get involved with all the stuff that makes you, you. Because there's no part of your life that's unworthy of God's love. Whatever stuff you're carrying, know that Jesus is right there with you. And on this holy night, when we are surrounded by an incredible amount of Christmas stuff, know that Jesus will continue to give you all the stuff you need to know you are loved by him: his love, his mercy, his forgiveness, his peace, his body and his very life.

Merry Christmas!


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Reflection: Resilence

It's the Sunday before Christmas and this week has, for me, been particularly busy. As a pastor, this week is always busy but this year feels a bit different. There has just been "more" of everything this week. There are more distractions and phone calls from sales people. There have been more visits to the hospital and rehabilitation centers. There's been more worry about the world we live in, from concerns about finances to worry about hate crimes impacting our local high schools. This has been a week of just "more." And after a week like this, I don't have the energy to even open up my Bible. But even in these moments, we can discover a bit more about who God is for us. And, based on our reading from Micah 5:2-5a today, our God helps us be resilient.

This text is one you might have heard before but you might not know it's context. Micah lived in ancient Judah (the area around Jerusalem) and was active from 737 to around 697 BCE. This time period was extremely volatile, filled with wars and extreme violence. The Northern Kingdom of ancient Israel was conquered by the Assyrian empire in 722 and its population forcibly relocated to other parts of ancient near east. This action effectively eliminated 10 out of the 12 tribes of Israel. The Assyrians then turned their attention on Judah and Jerusalem. Their armies overran Judah, capturing 36 out of its 42 fortified cities. When it appeared as if all hope was lost, Micah shared this word. Micah said that a future king of Israel would come out of the city of Bethlehem. At the time, this prophecy was a ridiculous one to make. The Assyrians had captured Bethlehem and were laying siege to Jerusalem. Micah's words were more than silly; they seemed an impossible probability.

Yet his words pointed to what it’s like to be with God. Our relationship with God is what makes us resilient. Our trust in the One who is never far from us is how we are able to get through those difficult moments in our lives. The God who inspired Micah to make a ridiculous prophecy in the face of utter destruction is the same God who chose to be even more ridiculous by living a very human life. There is no experience in our lives that Jesus won't go through with us. There is no moment of utter defeat when the God who created the universe won't carry you through. And even though God's promise won't necessarily manifest itself in the ways we expect, the promise of presence, love and hope is a promise that God does not break. We are able to go through the difficult times because God is with us. And the God that gave Micah his words is the same God who is with you right now.


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Mary says: a blueprint for life [Sermon Manuscript]

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Luke 1:39-55

Pastor Marc's sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent (December 23, 2018) on Luke 1:39-55. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


I’m going to go ahead and say it: it’s a bit weird to be at church the day before Christmas Eve. You are, like me, probably focused on what comes next. There’s still meals to prepare, wishlists to fulfill, and a copy machine in our church office that needs to print 250 more bulletins before Monday evening. Our attention is so focused on Christmas, it feels like this Fourth Sunday of Advent has just snuck up on us. We can, if we’re not careful, let today slide right on by. But we can also accept this day as a gift. Because it’s not every Sunday when the main characters in our gospel reading are women. And it’s not every Sunday when we hear Mary’s song. This young woman who we give most of our attention to only when she’s kneeling silently in our nativity creches, is more than just a vessel of God’s work. She has a voice and that voice sings. Her song does more than bring us one day closer to Christmas; her song reminds us of our calling to make the promise of Jesus real in our everyday lives.

Mary’s pregnancy began in an unexpected way. In the verses immediately before our reading today, the angel Gabriel visited her and shared with her a message from God. Mary was told that her son Jesus would be the Son of the Most High and that his kingdom would never end. Perplexed, Mary wondered how this could happen. So the angel informed her that her cousin Elizabeth, who no one thought could have a baby, was actually expecting. Mary consented to God’s will and after experiencing God in this incredible way, she sought counsel and support from the one person she knew who might understand what she’s going through. She left home and went to see Elizabeth. Now we can imagine her journey there as being slightly uncomfortable. Mary was, at the time, young, barely a teenager, and in the first trimester of her pregnancy. Scripture doesn’t tell us how long her journey was but the road was most likely hilly, bumpy, and Mary might have walked the entire way. As she neared her cousin’s house, we can imagine Mary being tired, exhausted, worn out, and filled with joy because her cousin was near. Mary knew she could tell Elizabeth everything because Elizabeth would understand. Mary’s greeting was more than just a simple hello. Her words must have been filled with incredible hope, promise, and fear because Mary had met God in the most unexpected way. And as Mary spoke, she was heard. Elizabeth’s baby, who would become John the Baptist, kicked. And in that moment, the Holy Spirit filled Elizabeth, and she offered up an affirmation of love that Mary could only respond to in song.

Mary’s song is exactly what it sounds like. It’s not meant to only describe some kind of spiritual experience. Mary’s words are really an expansive description of who God is and how God works in the world. Now, if you had to explain who God is for you, your words might sound a bit like hers. The story we’d end up sharing would do more than point to our personal relationship with God. We would have to include what God has done for us, using our own words to mix the stories of the Bible and our personal experiences of God, together. And over and over again, our words would show how God, when we least expected, showed up. These topsy and turvy moments of God showing in our lives might have felt as exhilarating as having a prayer actually answered but it could be as mundane as walking down some stairs into a New York City subway and suddenly realizing you’re not alone. As we tell and retell the story of how God showed up in our lives, we would also find ourselves pointing to the ways God works in our world. God cares for the lowly, for the hungry, and for those who have no power. God removes the powerful from their places of leadership and sends the rich, those with enough, away empty. The God who created the world chose to be active in the world and in the moment when no one expected it, God chose to live a human life because our lives are worth living. Jesus showed up to remind us that God’s promises will never be broken. And through our faith, rooted in our baptism, we will find ourselves being turn upside down so that we can live God’s love out loud. God’s love, in our lives, is fleshed out with a song Jesus’ mom never stops singing.

We sometimes act as if Mary is a silent partner in the Christmas story because we treat Jesus as if he entered the world fully formed. We focus so much on his life as an adult, we forget that Jesus chose to grow up. Jesus didn’t magically appear in the manger. Jesus was actually born. So that means he was carried by Mary for nine whole months. And during those months, Mary did stuff. She worked; she took care of herself; and, I bet, she sang. The song she sung with Elizabeth wasn’t, I think, the only time those words came from her. Her song of the world being turned upside down was the soundtrack to her whole pregnancy. And as Mary sang, Jesus listened and he learned. Jesus’ later ministry would match his mom’s song. He would scatter proud, feed the hungry, take care of the sick, and he was killed by the Roman Emperor because the Emperor couldn’t tolerate any challenge to his throne. Mary knew exactly what her son would become because I don’t believe she ever stopped singing that initial song.

Mary’s song, sung while she was pregnant, looked forward, towards what Jesus would later do. Yet, when we look at the words she used, her song seems to be a bit of a paradox because it acts as if what God is going to do has also already been done. God’s reign of justice, where the world is turned upside down, is already being made real in our world. The implication of the incarnation and the resurrection is that, through Jesus, the world has already been saved. And instead of only looking forward towards the Advent of God’s reign come near, we are called to live as if God’s reign is already here. Mary’s song, then, serves as a blueprint for what our life with Christ should look like because a life with Christ knows that Jesus was born, he lived, he died, he rose, he’ll come again, and that he’s also still here, right now. A life with Christ trusts that Jesus actually matters. And in the words of Gail Ricciuti, “our challenge is to cultivate the ability to see God’s promises as already having come to pass” (Feasting on Word, Advent Companion, page 94). This isn’t always easy. But we can cultivate this skill by spending more time with today before rushing off towards tomorrow. And as we sit with the Jesus who promises to be with us until the end of this age, we will discover that even though we are filled with fears, doubts, joys, and praises; when we are with our God, we can only do what Mary did: and that’s raise our voice and sing a song filled with faith, challenge, hope, and love.





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