Questions and Reflections

Four O'Clock: On Vulnerability [Sermon Manuscript]

The next day [John the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”

The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

John 1:29-42

Pastor Marc's sermon on the 2nd Sunday After Epiphany (January 19, 2020) on John 1:29-42. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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So yesterday, I thought I could finish all my errands before the snow became a problem. But it take long for things to start looking iffy. When I pulled into the church parking lot, the roads were already covered by a very thin layer of snow. I knew I had to hurry so I parked my car, ran inside, and was here for at most 15 minutes. Yet that was all the time needed for the new tires on my car to start losing their grip on the road. By the time I left the church, the dusting of snow on my car had become a blanket. And as I drove down the one-way street connecting the church office parking lot with the main lot below, that’s when my car slid off the road. I eventually got back into the main lot and headed east on Church Road over the reservoir. Everyone, it seemed, was having a rude awakening that, regardless of their car or truck, they would be sliding through and around intersections. As I neared the intersection by Broadway next to Oso Buco, I saw several cars sliding backwards as they tried to drive up the steep incline. I knew then that the rest of my errands would have to wait. I managed to inch my way home but others weren’t so lucky. At every major intersection near a slight hill, there were police officers trying to get accidents off the road. Now I knew this storm was coming and that, in the end, it wouldn’t turn out to be that bad. But at its start, when the snow first fell, that’s when everything on the roads became vulnerable. 

Now I’m not sure if there’s an easy way to classify the experience of vulnerability - but being vulnerable is something we’ve all lived through it. I bet each one us could turn to the person next to us and share a dozen different vulnerable moments. But your story about vulnerability shouldn’t be like the story I just told. Nowhere in that story did I initiate vulnerability. Instead, I sort of fell into it and it’s a good story because everything, for me at least, turn out okay in the end. Yet there’s a different kind of vulnerability that we’re not always trained to admit or share. And that’s the vulnerability we experience when we take a risk and we’re not 100% sure how everyone else will respond. It’s the kind of vulnerability we live through when we walk into a new classroom in a brand new school. And it’s the kind of vulnerability that seems to move into our homes while we’re waiting for the doctor to call us with the results from our most recent medical tests. This kind of vulnerability makes us feel and act in all sorts of ways. Brene Brown, a researcher who collects and analyzes the everyday stories we tell about ourselves, defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.” And each one of those words is terrifying in its own way. If I had to guess, most of us want more certainty in our lives. And we’d also like less risk - or maybe just a little risk as long as everything turns out the way we hoped it would. Emotional exposure is even more challenging because that means we need to be honest with others about how we really feel. And we don’t get to control what others do with those emotions that we just shared. Taking the initiative to be vulnerable is scary and we spend a lot of time trying to be anything but. 

So it’s sort of interesting that in today’s reading from the gospel according to John, vulnerability shows up. We just heard John’s version of Jesus’ baptism and if you look closely, you’ll notice that Jesus, in this text, was never explicitly baptized. The act of John the Baptist pouring water over Jesus’ head is not - not mentioned but it’s also not spelled out. And that vulnerable moment of having someone else pray for you or perform a ritual with you is simply passed over. Instead, the gospel writer leans into certainty and has John the Baptist, in a very public way, identify Jesus as the Lamb of God. And that certainty is so clear that two of John the Baptist’s own disciples leave his side and follow the stranger they didn’t know before. 

Now it didn’t take long for Jesus to realize he was being followed. So he turned around and asked both of them a question. But his question wasn’t “Who are you?” or “Why are you following me?” or “Do you believe what John said about me?” Rather Jesus asked them to say out loud what it was they were looking for. And that’s a risky question because it doesn’t really an easy answer. Jesus is, at this point, a stranger to these two disciples. There’s no real relationship between them. Any “who” those two were looking for had to be colored and influenced by what they imagined “the lamb of God” or the “Messiah” would be. So what Jesus really asked them was to be honest about everything they wanted Jesus to be. And that admission would include sharing their hopes and their dreams; their thoughts and experiences; and what it felt like to leave John, the person they knew, to seek out the person they didn’t didn’t. By sharing their “what,” the two disciples would have to admit their vulnerability. 

hich might be why the two disciples, when faced with Jesus’ what, instead asked a question of their own. And that question, at least as it reads to me today, seemed to wonder if Jesus would be vulnerable too. Because they asked Jesus to reveal more than the place where he was keeping his spare pair of sandals. They wanted Jesus to tell them where he was sleeping - and where we sleep can sometimes reveal a lot about who we are. Our bedrooms can be the places where we for eight - or more likely six - hours a night sleep while the rest of the world keeps happening around us. And where we sleep, whether in our home, a hotel room, in a sleeping bag, on the couch in a friend’s apartment, or on cardboard on a city’s streets - where we stay can reveal a lot about the story we’re currently living. Revealing that story means being vulnerable. And Jesus’ response to those who asked him to be vulnerable too was simply: “come and see.” 

Being vulnerable is scary. Yet letting ourselves show vulnerability is a strength that invites us to live a different kind of life. It’s the kind of vulnerability that lets us do really hard things - like saying “I love you” first or finally admitting to our family and friends that we need help. Being vulnerable lets us shed tears of sadness and tears of joy, embracing our feelings instead of building a false wall around them. And being vulnerable is lets us admit that we are worth being fully seen. The call to be vulnerable is a call to admit that uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure is already a part of our lives. Yet that kind of vulnerability doesn’t have to limit what’s possible in our lives because we have a Savior who lived a vulnerable life too. There were times when even the Son of God wasn’t listened to, was rejected, and was abandoned by those he loved. Yet his willingness to be vulnerable with others created opportunities for all of us to be vulnerable with Jesus. And our vulnerability with Jesus is one of the ways Jesus transforms us into the people and the community God wants us to be. When we embrace vulnerability, we create a community where vulnerability is accepted, cherished, and is never taken advantage of. Instead, it recognizes that in Jesus, God’s love for us chose to be vulnerable, letting us say no by putting Jesus on a Cross. Yet God refused to let our fear of vulnerability end the story God wanted for us. Because being vulnerable lets us give up living the false story we think we should live and instead live deeper into God’s story - one where grace, love, and hope are ours - forever. 

Amen. 
 



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Refection: All Y'All

As a mono-language speaker, I'm always a bit surprised that I get to read the Bible in English. When these words and stories about God and Jesus were first shared and written down, the English language didn't really exist. Jesus didn't speak English and many of his earliest followers spoke Greek. As we see in our reading from the gospel according to John, the author felt compelled to translate common Hebrew and Aramaic words because they assumed their audience wouldn't understand them. And Since most of us do not speak ancient Greek or Hebrew, we forget that the English language can sometimes get in the way of what the Bible is trying to tell us. 

We notice this issue in our reading from 1 Corinthians 1:1-9. Paul had founded the Christian community in the city of Corinth and he was responding to a letter they sent him. Corinth was an old Greek city that was conquered and repopulated by the Roman Empire. It was also a cosmopolitan city, filled with merchants, slaves, and traders. The Christian community in Corinth was small but they were probably as diverse as the city lived in. They struggled, like we all do, with how they can follow Jesus in their everyday lives. The opinions of some in the community did not always match what Paul taught. And Paul found himself often dealing with situations he had never considered before. Paul needed to bring his experience of Jesus into the lives that people actually lived. 

One way he did that was by using the word "you." In English, "you" can point to an individual or a group. Yet we sometimes read Paul's "yous" as meant only for individuals. But that's not quite right. When we read "you" in Paul's writings, we need to remember he was speaking to the community. And the "yous" we see today should really be re-translated to "all y'all." Paul wanted to begin his letter to the Corinthians by reminding them that they needed each other. Faith, to Paul, is a always a team sport. We are called as Christians into a body (aka a community) that contains not only Jesus but also other people. We can't be the people God wants us to be without each other. As you look around this church or as you think about all the people in your copy of the church directory, remember that others have spirituals gifts you need and that you have spiritual gifts others need too. Without each other, we cannot be the individuals we are called to be. All y'all needs all y'all. 
 



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Make Waves [Sermon Manuscript]

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Matthew 3:13-17

Pastor Marc's sermon on the Baptism of our Lord (January 12, 2020) on Matthew 3:13-17. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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It should have been enough. The gospel of Matthew could have ended at verse 17. Matthew had already spent the first chapter detailing Jesus’ extensive family connections to King David and he narrated prophetic dreams and messages from angels that revealed how God, through Mary, would change the world. We heard how, in chapter, magi came from the East, seeking the new king of the Jews and brought him gifts of frankincense, gold, and myrrh. And we watched as King Herod tried to eliminate Jesus, forcing him and his family to become refugees. Finally, in our gospel reading from Matthew today, Jesus’ identity as God’s Son is fully revealed. As he came up from the water, the heavens opened up and the Spirit of God descended onto him. Then, while the water from the River Jordan dripped from his hair, a voice from heaven spoke. And that voice did more than just affirm Jesus’ own understanding of who he was. It also revealed to everyone who was with John by the River Jordan - who Jesus was too. Unlike the other gospels, Matthew’s version of these words from heaven were meant for a crowd. Because God said “this” - and that was God’s way of pointing Jesus out to everyone else. God wanted the people crowding around John to know exactly who Jesus was. He was God’s Son; He is God’s beloved; and Jesus will always be the one for whom God is well pleased. 

Now imagine, for a moment, being there when this event happened. And we can do that because Matthew told us that John didn’t only work with individuals. He dealt with crowds. So I think it’s safe to say that when Jesus entered the water to be baptized by John, there were more than just dragonflies, birds, and turtles with him. Other people were there too. And let’s pretend we’re there too. Let’s imagine there’s a line of people, who are ready to get dunked by John. We watch as the person ahead of us is baptized and then it’s time for us to walk forward. You immerse yourself in the sediment-filled water, quickly coming up gasping for air. And as your head comes back into the sunshine, you feel different. You knew you needed to repent and so, with the help of the Holy Spirit, this ritual with John was your way of being honest about all the ways you’ve failed to love God, your neighbors, and yourself. You then stood up, shook the water off your hair, and smiled - because you feel like a brand new person. But then you happen to quickly glance back at the person in line behind you. And that’s when you see Jesus. It’s when you started climbing back onto the riverbank that the heavens opened; the Spirit of God descended; and a voice - God’s voice - let you know who that person behind you was. “This” - the voice says - “is my beloved Son.” And as the radiance of that moment began to fade, I think it’s okay to imagine all the different kinds of thoughts that might have raced through you head. Maybe you would look at the person in front of you, with a look on your face asking: “was...that God?” And after they nodded yes, you might have trouble processing what you just saw. You might feel confused, overwhelmed, surprised, and maybe even a tad annoyed that what happened to Jesus didn’t happen to you. Either way, you would have seen God officially identify, in public, who Jesus was. And that moment - that experience - that event - should have been enough to turn and follow him.

Yet - we know that it isn’t. Because the gospel of Matthew didn’t end there. Jesus’ public ministry began shortly after his baptism and the rest of the gospel shows how we resist this God who promises to be with us. Even John the Baptist, who heard God’s voice speak at the River Jordan, will eventually send messengers to Jesus asking him: “are you really the One who the voice in the sky said you were?” Now those of us who were not there when the voice of God told everyone who Jesus was - we too might struggle trusting that Jesus is exactly who God says he is. And that lack of trust, I think, can also make us doubt who God says we are too. Because the voice who spoke at Jesus’ baptism is the same voice that spoke at ours - and that voice also gave us a promise of love, faithfulness, and hope. The voice that identified who Jesus was is the same voice that revealed your identity too. You are, through baptism and faith, beloved. You are God’s child. Yet the voice from heaven who announced who Jesus was - is also a voice that sometimes feels pretty quiet in our everyday life. 

As I prepared for this sermon today, I stumbled onto a commentary by Rev. Patricia Calahan, a Presybterian pastor. And she wrote this about voices. “...as we grow, we sometimes forget the heavenly voice, and we begin to listen to other voices that confuse us. Perhaps we hear voices when we are children through report cards that tell us that we are not smart enough. As teenagers, we hear voices through the cruelty of other teens that tell us we are not cool enough. As adults, we hear voices that tell us that we are not successful enough or that we do not have enough money. We often hear voices through media and unkind people that our bodies are not attractive enough. Somehow, as God’s voice gets drowned out, we listen to these other voices, and we are tempted to forget who we are.” And we also, I think, begin to forget who Jesus is too. Because who we are is also wrapped up in who Jesus is. And if Jesus is the Son of God, God’s love incarnate, then that means our identity, our true identity, must be love incarnate too. The voice from heaven did more at Jesus’ baptism than point out who he was. That voice also let us know who we, through Christ, are too. God says that we are enough, not because we are perfect but because, through Jesus, God has said that we are. We are beloved - and that means you are too. 

The gospel according to Matthew could have ended at verse 17. And our story - after we were baptized or when we trusted that Jesus lived, and died, for us - our story could have ended there too. But it didn’t - because God’s declaration and promise is one that’s meant to be lived, experienced, and shared. If you are struggling right now to believe that you are enough, I hope you’ll hear God say to you: “You are my son, you are my daughter, you are my child - my beloved - with whom I am well pleased.” And if you are feeling like you are enough - if you have ups and downs but overall you’re feeling pretty good - I hope you’ll see that this isn’t the end of your story too. Because living in the world knowing that you are enough is a revolutionary act in a world filled with voices telling you that you are anything but. And it is not our job, our calling, or our identity as followers of Jesus to add our voice to those who belittled, demean, bully, or push aside. Rather, we are called to use our voice to echo and share the very same promise that the heavenly voice made at Jesus’ baptism and our own. And that promise is that suffering, pain, abandonment, and injustice will not be the final chapter in the world’s story - and that our feeling that we are not enough will not be the last part of our story either. 

Amen. 
 



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Reflection: On Jesus' Baptism

So what are we supposed to do with Jesus' baptism? Today's celebration (Matthew 3:13-17), to me at least, is a little off kilter. I have always wondered why Jesus, as a member of the Trinity, needed to be baptized in the first place? Jesus is Jesus so there's no need for him to be united with himself and, as God, he has no Sin. Also, as we see in all four gospels, the words we use during our baptism are not the same words used by John. Jesus' baptism is not like our own yet we use the same word for both. So what are we to do with today's gospel reading knowing that Jesus was baptized?

Well, one thing we can do is to admit that Jesus' baptism is not like our own. And that's okay. Even the four gospel writers struggled to describe what this event in Jesus' life actually meant. They knew it was important because it defined the start of Jesus' work in Galilee but that baptism is also important to us because it defines the start of our life as faithful followers of Jesus. We can, I think, shift our questions away from asking why Jesus was baptized and instead discover what his baptism showed us. And I think, by being baptized, Jesus invited us to see how faithful acts can be a sign of active faith. Because in those moments when we struggle to see God and believe, one faithful act can show us that Jesus is still here.

As ELCA Lutherans, one of our guiding worship documents is called "The Use of Means of Grace." In its section on baptism, it says: "By Water and the Word in Baptism, we are liberated from sin and death by being joined to the death and resurrection of Jesus. In Baptism God seals us by the Holy Spirit and marks us with the cross of Christ forever. Baptism inaugurates a life of discipleship in the death and resurrection of Christ. Baptism conforms us to the death and resurrection of Christ precisely so that we repent and receive forgiveness, love our neighbors, suffer for the sake of the Gospel, and witness to Christ."

What baptism doesn't do, however, is make our faith a static thing. Since Jesus lived and lives, we have a faith that lives too. And like life, faith will ebb and flow, increase and decrease, fill us with hope and leave us feeling empty. Yet our baptism is always active, moving us to trust that God loves us, Jesus is with us, and that the Spirit is empowering us towards the hope that never ends. When you struggle to see Jesus in your life, know that even he was baptized. And since you were baptized, you are also a beloved child of God.



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Ah-ha! [Sermon Manuscript]

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Matthew 2:1-12

Pastor Marc's sermon on Epiphany Sunday (January 5, 2020) on Matthew 2:1-12. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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So last Sunday, Noel Ulanday, Dot Dohrman, and I visited Iglesia Luterana Santa Isabel - Santa Isabel Lutheran Church in Elizabeth - to present the financial gift we raised during our 60th anniversary. Santa Isabel is a mission development - a faith community formed to serve the people who live in their neighborhood. The church they meet in was once called St. Mark’s, a Lutheran church founded by German immigrants. But over the years, the ethnic background of the people who lived in that neighborhood changed. And so the church, with support from the synod, changed too. Santa Isabel is a bi-lingual community with its worship bulletin printed in Spanish and English. It’s pastor, Ramon Collazo, frequently shifts between those two languages during worship since not everyone who worships there is bilingual. Their Sunday worship is scheduled to start at 12:30 pm but it doesn’t really begin until 12:45. And even though I knew there was a big gap between the end of Sunday worship here and the start of services there - I still managed to arrive at Santa Isabel late. When I walked into their sanctuary, roughly 30 people sat in the two dozen or so dark brown pews. Everyone was looking straight ahead and we were surrounded by white plaster walls covered in stained glass windows dedicated to the former members of the older church. As their usher handed me a bulletin, she let me know that Christian pop music with a latin beat blaring from the speakers was the song after the sermon. I thanked her, took a seat in the back, and flipped through the rest of their bulletin to see what would happen next. 


Now since Santa Isabel is a Lutheran faith community, singing is a big part of their worship. Yet I noticed that, in their bulletin, no sheet music was printed nor were there instructions telling us to open a hymnal to find a specific song. Instead, the lyrics for every sung part of the service was printed in the bulletin but in a very tight and condensed format. I didn’t really know how I was going to sing with them because I don’t know spanish-language liturgy very well. Yet as we worshipped, I witnessed how the entire community helped everyone sing. We didn’t have much musical back-up because Santa Isabel’s musician wasn’t there. They’re an unpaid volunteer who needed to work at their job last Sunday. So instead everyone sang a capella and we wall took the first second of each song to collectively work out which note we would all start on. A few of the congregants near the front knew the songs well so they took the lead in establishing the tone for the music. But when more help was needed, someone else in the community started clapping the beat of the music with their hands, giving us a rhythm we all could follow. As we sung through Holy Communion, I realized that everyone in that room was expected to sing. It didn’t matter if you could sing or even if you believed you couldn’t. The community took it upon themselves to do the work so that even english only speakers like me could sing spanish-language songs. All we needed to do was worship together and then listen for the rhythm that God was already giving to us through song. 

Today’s reading from the gospel according to Matthew is the story we read each year to mark the festival of Epiphany. And the Epiphany is the revealing of Jesus to Gentiles - to non-Jews. We typically respond to this story as sort of an add-on to the Christmas story. But the magis’ journey to Jesus really stands on its own. The magi - who later tradition would call kings or wisemen - were ancient astrologers, who paid attention to the patterns of movement you could observe when you looked up and watched the stars and planets. It was thought, in the ancient world, that watching the night sky could reveal a kind of rhythm about our very lives. The magi, then, were folks who looked for that rhythm and when they noticed something different in the night sky, they headed West towards Jerusalem. The new song they saw in the sky showed that a king had been born in Herod’s territory. And since the magi trusted in rhythms, they first stopped at the palace - at the place where kings were supposed to be born. Yet when they arrived, Herod had no idea what they were talking about. Now Herod was a rhythm watcher too. He paid attention to the rhythm of politics and he used threats, violence, and the force of his own ego to get his own way. He turned to those whom he trusted to figure out where this rival king would be born. And since Herod was political, he knew what it would mean for another leader to be born on his watch. In a rather tense moment that we sometimes skip over, both Heord and the magi have a very short but highly charged conversation. The magi know that Herod wasn’t born the king of the Jews. Rather, he was appointed to be one by the Roman Senate a few decades before Jesus was born. So the magi’s words poked at an insecurity Herod had. Yet Herod was savvy and so he used the rhythms he knew well to try and get the magi to reveal where exactly Jesus was. And to do that, he falsely promises that once they found him, Herod would break his own rhythm: and go off to worship the king who wasn’t him. 


Worship, then, is one of the recurring themes in today’s reading. And the magi, inspired by that rhythm in the night sky, do exactly that. They go to Jesus, offer him gifts, and realize that God was doing something different in the world. The magi assumed they knew how to properly interpret the rhythms they saw and experienced. But when they arrived at the place where a king should be, they realized God wasn’t there. God was elsewhere, in the expected city of Bethlehem, yet showing up in an unexpected way. Because the newborn king wasn’t living in a place or hanging out in any powerful place. Instead, he was busy being a baby in a poor family that used an animal’s feed trough as his first bed. We might try to romanticize this scene - as if there some kind of innocence in not having the resources to feed your family. But Matthew wasn’t doing that. Instead, he was, I think, pointing out the rhythm of God was already marking in the world. And rather than asking for us to fully interpret the song God was singing, Jesus came to live God’s rhythm out-loud. 


The story of the magi reminds us that we need to be careful about which rhythms we’re paying attention to. And we can’t always assume that the rhythms we follow are always the rhythms of God. We have to ask ourselves hard questions like, are our assumptions about how the world works really true? And have we, maybe given different voices and different rhythms authority over our lives? When it comes to following Jesus, are we listening to him - or are we really listening to our so called interpretation of him - one that is skewed by a point of view that leaves us comfortable at the expense of others around us? None of these questions, I think, are supposed to be easy and they do take time to figure out. But we don’t have to do this work on our own. Because we get to do what the magi had to travel to do: we get to worship Jesus. We get to break out of the rhythms of our everyday lives and gather together as a community to spend honest-to-goodness time with him. In our baptism, through our faith, and by his own call - Jesus chooses to be with us and we get to be with him. When we spend time with Jesus, a different rhythm is ends up added into the song of our life. And all we need to do is listen - so that His song, God’s song, can be shown and sung through our very lives. 

Amen. 
 



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Reflection: Gifts to Bring

Let me know if you know this joke: Joseph, Mary, and Jesus are resting in their nativity scene. Around them are sheep, cows and bales of hay. A shepherd is there looking dusty and disheveled. And, there are 3 boxes sitting next to Jesus' manger labeled gold, frankincense and myrrh. Suddenly 3 new visitors burst in. In some jokes, 3 "wiser men" show up bringing 3 giant boxes of diapers. In other jokes, 3 "wise women" bring casseroles, child-care, wine, and some formula. The joke is always that the gifts provided by the magi in our reading from the gospel according to Matthew today are not enough of what you need to raise a child. The gold, as a source of money, could be put to immediate use. Yet, the two spices of frankincense and myrrh appear quite random. A gift for the son of God should, at a minimum, help raise the son of God, too.

Now, I think that critique is fair. The joke is more than just a funny comment to share with family and friends on Facebook. The joke also helps us engage with the text and ask the simple (yet difficult) question: why? Why would 3 gifts need to come to baby Jesus? Why would the magi, astrologers from modern day Iran, carry those items with them? What would Mary and Joseph understand these gifts to be? And, more importantly, what would the people who first read Matthew's gospel (Matthew 2:1-12) see in that gold, frankincense and myrrh?

Our first reading from Isaiah 60:1-6 helps a little with these gifts. In it, we hear of gold and frankincense being carried from "the nations" and delivered to someplace specific. The you reference in verse 1 is the city of Jerusalem and the prophet Isaiah is bringing word to a city that had, at that point, been destroyed by the Babylon empire. The city laid in ashes and the Temple was destroyed. Jerusalem looked as if would be gone forever. Isaiah's prophetic word of hope points to a future when the city will be repopulated by the descendants of those who were forcefully taken from it. The world would experience a vast political shift where Israel would become the dominant power. The riches of the world (i.e. gold and frankincense – an expensive spice at the time used for worship, food, and other items) would flow into what was once destroyed. The world would shift and what was once insignificant will make a difference in the world.

Yet, the myrrh is a little harder to place. Myrrh was used in a variety of ways including in perfume and as a pain-killer in medicine. Myrrh was seen as a symbol of long-life and used in healing. Myrrh was also identified in the gospels as one of the spices used to wash Jesus' body after his death. The gift of myrrh was, in one sense, a prayer by the magi offering Jesus a long and healthy life. But it was also a prayer that pointed to the life he would actually lead - one that would end up on the Cross.

The stories at the start of the gospel according to Matthew also point towards its end. And the entirety of Jesus' life was one centered in God's love for the world. The gifts the magi brought were not the most practical when it came to raising a newborn. But they did point to the vision of what Jesus' life, death, and rising again would mean. In Christ, God was loving the entire world— including the people who would resist the fact of God's kingdom coming near. And that love would be a gift that would continue to shine no matter what the future might bring.



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Creating Lamentations [Sermon Manuscript]

And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, [the magi] left for their own country by another road.

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

Matthew 2:13-23

Pastor Marc's sermon on the First Sunday of Christmas (December 29, 2019) on Matthew 2:13-23. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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During Herod’s nearly 40 year rule over what now makes up parts of modern day Israel, Lebanon, and Syria, he was given many different titles. Some knew him as Herod the First, the one who founded a new royal dynasty by nurturing a close relationship with Rome. The Roman Senate, around the year 40 BCE, declared him to be King of Judea and King of the Jews, granting him political authority over territory Rome had conquered 20 years before. Herod used his skills as an administrator and a savvy politician to keep the taxes flowing to Rome. So the Romans were grateful for his service and let him rule the territory in the way he saw fit. According to some ancient sources, Herod used favoritism, brutality, deception, and the sheer force of his grandiose ego* to get his way. He grew his power and the economy. But he wanted to make his territory great in other ways. So he launched massive building projects -  creating new cities, new ports, and new military fortifications. Some of these places he named after the Roman Emperors as a way to continue to earn their favor. But others he had no problem naming after himself. As these building projects grew, some began to call him Herod the Great. And that titled suited Herod just fine. In the middle of his reign, he embarked on his most ambitious building project yet. He wanted a way to strengthen his support among the local religious leaders and communities so he ordered the expansion and rebuilding of God’s Holy Temple in Jerusalem. He made it bigger, physically adding space to the mountaintop it sat on. He also made the Temple richer, using expensive building materials, jewels, and art to decorate it. He wanted the Temple to compete with the other religious centers in the ancient world. But he also wanted the Temple to fit into his own sense of vanity. It’s said Herod needed a bigger and flashier Temple because he desired “a capital city worthy of his dignity and grandeur.” Herod wanted the rest of the world to see him as the Great leader he imagined himself to be. 

So when the magi, in a story we’ll hear next week, informed Herod that a king had been born in his territory - Herod was obviously a little worried. Herod’s own path to political power was filled with violence, deception, and playing with people’s loyalties - and he assumed the next leader would do the same. Herod had no plans to lose his kingdom so he asked the magi to let him know where the baby was so that he could pay him a visit. But it wasn’t long before Herod realized that the magi had skipped town. Now since he was king and he believed nothing could, or should, get in his way, he moved on to plan B. He turned his gaze onto the place where the magi had visited and, in a rage, he ordered a genocidal act. 

Yet this order by Herod was not something he could do by himself. He needed other people willing to do his bidding. He needed a system in place that would encourage, support, and enable him and the people who responded to his whims. And he needed everyone to feel either too powerless or too comfortable in their way of life to avoid holding him accountable. Herod had no problem using violence to maintain his power. And I wouldn’t be surprised if people in his kingdom thought that the cost of politics required a certain amount of division and violence. For some, Herod’s actions were seen as necessary, or at least tolerable, to keep the economy and the building projects going. We might want to make Herod into some kind of cartoon villain - one meant to scare us but one that we can also safely ignore. Yet if we’re honest, we need to see Herod as the center of a shadow that was lived through by all kinds of people. His behavior and his attitude enabled to choose, via action or inaction, to let his values become their own. And it was that shadow, when confronted by the reign of God, that did everything it could to stop Christmas from coming. 

Yet by the time Herod raged, Joseph, Jesus, and Mary were already on their way to Egypt. God sent Joseph a dream, telling him that the shadow was coming. So this small family got up and left, crossing the border out of Herod’s kingdom and becoming refugees. They escaped - but others didn’t. And the Christmas joy Mary and Joseph experienced when Jesus was born didn’t last very long. Because the powers active in this world - a world filled with brokeness, hurt, pain, and our willingness to create way too many Rachels who weep for their children - did not want God to come on Christmas. 

Yet noticing the shadow - and figuring out what to do about it - is not always easy. We know there’s brokenness in this world that we have little to no control over. And there are situations, experiences, and truths that overwhelm us, making us feel as if change is never possible. We also struggle to see or believe that we ourselves can somehow be wrapped up in this shadow - a shadow that we use to live, love, and take care of those God has entrusted to us. I don’t think we want to admit how our own very lives might be resisting against the reign of God. And since, because of our baptism and our faith, are already members of the body of Christ, we assume the shadow is always about other people and rarely about ourselves. But the shadow itself is wide and deep - and there’s not always a madman at the center  showing us who we can become. We need light strong enough to reveal the shadow we don’t always see. 

Luc-Olivier Merson was a French painter known in the late 1800s and early 1900s for his postage stamps. Although he earned several awards for his paintings while he was alive, his work was eventually forgotten by the time he died. Yet hanging in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is a painting he did based on our reading from Matthew today. Jesus, Joseph, and Mary have made it to Egypt but they’re still on the move and they’re worn out from the journey. They set-up camp in an isolated place next to an ancient Egyptian statue. A small fire burns, barely lighting up the night sky, while a donkey grazes, eating the few blades of grass poking through the desert sand. Joseph is lying on the ground, using the small step at the base of the statue as a pillow. And Mary and Jesus are asleep, curled up inside the paw of that statue - which happens to be the Sphinx. The night feels so large and deep that even the light from the stars looks limited. It’s as if everything about today’s story - the fear, brutality, isolation, worry, and terror - is there with them. Yet even in that very real night - Jesus shined. He’s brighter than the fire. He provides more light than the stars. And even though the light he radiates does not vanquish or remove the shadow, he still shines - no matter what. As we pray today; as we worship this morning; and as we feast at Jesus’s table - we are holding on to the promise that the shadow will not have the final say in our, or our world’s, story. Jesus was born. Jesus was killed. Jesus was raised. And Jesus is still here.  His light, the light of Christmas, continues to shine into the shadow, calling us towards a way of life where mercy, justice, and the giving of hope is all that we do. The light that he shines will force us to confront the shadow we find ourselves in. And when we do, our comfort and our fear should not guide us. Rather, it should be Jesus - who doesn’t our false claim of greatness interfere with the great love God already has for each of us.

 

Amen.

 



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Reflection: Re-learning the old story

At the last minute, I made the executive decision to change today's reading from the Hebrew Bible. Rather than spending time in the book of Isaiah, I took us back to the opening chapter of the book of Exodus 1:1-2:2. We'll hear this passage again in August when we focus on Moses's origin story. But today I want to focus on a different part of the Exodus story: Pharaoh's order that all male babies of Hebrew descent should be killed.

The last major story at the end of the book of Genesis is centered on Joseph (aka Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat). He had become, over time, an important leader in the Egyptian government. After using the gifts God gave him to interpret dreams, he managed to save himself and the kingdom from ruin. A famine decimated the wider area but Egypt thrived because Joseph saved all the excess wheat they grew during plentiful years. His family (including his 11 brothers) and their households (including wives, kids, slaves, employees, and more) crossed the border into Egypt, become economic refugees. They did not know that Joseph was now a high-ranking official but, in a very colorful moment, the family was reunited and old grudges were forgiven. The Hebrew people settled inside Egypt, building homes and raising their families. They retained what made them culturally unique and assimilated only slightly into the wider culture. As time went on, the people in Egypt grew weary of the Hebrew people. They feared the Hebrews would replace them and the Egyptians would become marginalized. So in an act of political violence, the Egyptians enslaved the Hebrew people but that didn't satisfy the Egyptian xenophobia. They chose to do more. So, in a terrifying moment, the Pharaoh ordered male newborns to be killed once they were born. With the death of the male babies, it was assume the Hebrew women would be forced to marry Egyptians, transferring any wealth and property to the Egyptians or they would just die out. The Pharaoh ordered a genocidal act and the Hebrews, including their midwives like Shiphrah and Puah, did what they could to resist this command.

As you listen and read our story from the gospel according to Mathew today, keep in mind this Exodus story. The parallels are intentional and help us understand what Matthew chose to describe. When we forget the story of the Exodus, we end up missing the deep spiritual terror seen in the genocidal act Herod the Great ordered on the children of his people.



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Back to Work: The Night [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 on Christmas Eve (December 24, 2019) on Luke 2:1-20. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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As the parent of an almost 1 year old, I often spend my time being awake in the middle of the night. I’m the kind of person who’s jolted awake when my kid lets out a barely audible cry but sometimes need to be encouraged by my tired wife to just get up. Now, there’s something familiar yet also strange about having to navigate your home without your normal lights to guide you. We sort of know where everything is supposed to but not really because a shadow covers everything. I’ve spent the last year re-learning old skills - like how to find a clean diaper that’s hidden in what appears to be a black abyss. And I now know which windows I need to leave uncovered so that the light from street lamps can shine in, letting me see those random toys left behind in my very dark hallways. These skills are not needed every night because sometimes often awake for a moment before falling back asleep. But there are other times, especially these last few weeks, when I watched the night turn into a new day. And that’s always kind of interesting because even though the night is when my life at home slows down, that’s not necessarily true for everyone else. I now know, for example, which of my neighbors leave for work before the dawn breaks and which have to, every night, take their dogs out at 3 am. I get the sense that, culturally, we assume the middle of the night is when life slows down. But for those of us who are awake, we know that the night is filled with action, energy, and so much life. 

So as I sat pondering tonight’s text from the gospel of Luke in the middle of the night, I noticed that the word “night” only appears once. But the idea and experience of night shows up everywhere. Our story begins with Mary and Joseph on the move. The Roman Emperor, according to Luke, has forced them on a journey that would take several nights to complete. And that’s not really easy because Mary was almost 9 months pregnant and she would need to travel the 85 miles between Nazareth and Bethlehem via either donkey or by foot. We can imagine that this journey might have taken up to a week to complete. And as Mary and Joseph traveled from Galilee through Judea, they probably spent each day wondering where they would sleep that night. When they arrived at their destination, they would have been two among many who were forced by the Emperor to stop their current lives and return to the place where their ancestors were born. Everyone there, including Mary and Joseph, were to be counted so that the Emperor could figure out new ways to exploit them in his quest for more power. I sort of wonder if, while they were traveling to Bethlehem, if Mary and Joseph found themselves to be awake in the middle of the night. I can imagine them feeling anxious about the baby and everything the angels told them. And they might have asked themselves if any of that actually mattered because they lived in a world where the Emperor had the authority to make everyone move. The Bible doesn’t tell us if Mary needed to immediately give birth once she arrived in the city. Yet with the disruptive shadow of the Emperor hovering over everything - it feels as if another kind of disruption would have immediately settled on them. And so, with Jesus’ birth, Mary and Joseph found themselves living into their new life - one filled with more sleepless nights than they already had. 

Yet it’s precisely at that moment, as Mary and Joseph were preparing to be awake way more often in the middle of the night, when the word “night” finally appears in the Christmas story. But it wasn’t used to describe Joseph bouncing Jesus in his arms while the stars twinkled or how Mary was barely awake when Jesus, at 3 am, was ready to start his day. Instead, the word “night” wasn’t really connected to them at all. Instead, it was used to describe the people in the fields outside Bethlehem who were already awake. These shepherds were not expecting an army of angels to show up that night. They were just doing their jobs - one that took them away from their family and friends. They were busy taking care of sheep - sheep that, most likely, didn’t belong to them. And so they relied on each other for support and to keep watch while others took a few moments to sleep or rest. The shepherds knew that the world didn’t stop when everyone else was asleep. Life still happened in the darkness. 

Now we tend to act as if light and dark, day and night, are two opposite poles where life happens on one end but sort of stops on the other. Yet our Bible, while using language that reinforces that polarity, also uses images and stories to show that there’s something else happens in the dark. The dark isn’t always bad nor should we label anything that is dark as something devoid of good. Rather, the dark is part of life. And it’s in the middle of the night when the message about Jesus first came. That message wasn’t delivered to the rich or powerful or even to the Roman Emperor who had the power to disrupt everyone’s lives. The message of Jesus, instead, came to those awake in the middle of their night because even then, God moves. 

If I’m honest, I need to admit that there are different kinds of being awake in the middle of the night. And taking care of a healthy almost one year old is not the same kind of middle of the night we all share. Tonight, as we worship in the middle of this night, we might find ourselves living through our night that’s not as joyous as we wished it would be. Christmas Eve can be hard - filled with heartache, pain, worry, anxiety, and loss. It’s possible that we are, right now, living through a disruption that has interrupted our lives and forced us onto a new journey we didn’t expect. And it can feel as if the night controls way too much of our life. Yet on this Christmas Eve, I want you to know that the message to the shepherds is also a message meant for you. The story of Christmas isn’t only for those who are filled to the brim with candy canes, joy, and dress in twinkling Christmas lights. This story is also for those living through the middle of their nights because they were the ones who heard and saw Jesus first. Our good news of our great joy is that the middle of your night will not be the final chapter of your story. Because God came to live out the entirety of our lives - a life that will be filled with joy, laughter, pain, and sorrow. God did not run away from all the different kinds of middle of the nights that show up in our lives. Instead, Jesus was born to lead us through them. 

And those shepherds can also point us to something that we might miss. Since they were Jewish, those shepherds kept time in differently than Lutheran Christians do. For us, we act as if a new day really starts once the sun rises and the orange, reds, and yellows of the morning shine through. Yet  for those shepherds in the fields around Bethlehem, the new day always started the moment the night officially began. So when you are up in the middle of the night, you are also awake in the middle of a brand new day - one where God, in Jesus, promises to be with you, to love you, and to never let you go. 

 

Amen. 

 



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Reflection: Who Counts

I don't know about you but when I was a kid, I had a habit of counting the number of presents that appeared under my Christmas tree. It was my family's tradition to sort and organize all the presents before they were opened. My brothers and I would swarm the foot of the tree, quickly grabbing the presents that looked like they were for us while knocking the others to the side. Eventually we would each have our own little pile of gifts, and I would quickly count to see who had the most. It didn't matter, at that point, what the quality of each wrapped gift was. What mattered was how many were in each pile. And the kid with the most seemed to be, for a moment at least, the one who truly counted.

Tonight's story from the gospel according to Luke 2:1-20 is the same one we hear every Christmas Eve. But every year, to me at least, part of the story sounds new. We have to be careful as we hear this story that we don't skim over the words, thinking that we already know what the Christmas story is all about. Instead, we should slow down and let every word that's uttered fill our ears and our hearts with sound. When we do that, we can sometimes notice the part of this story that God knows we need to hear right now. We might need to spend time with Mary, sit beside Joseph, or stand in wonder with the shepherds on the hillside. And when we spend time with something, we can't always rush it. Instead, we need to sit with it as God's words work on our soul.

So in the spirit of slowing down, what struck me this Christmas Eve was the power of counting. The story begins with the Roman Emperor choosing to count who is under his control through the calling of a census. A census in the ancient world was used to find out how many soldiers could be conscripted in a specific and how much taxes could be raised to fund a new military campaign. By counting people, the Emperor could launch additional wars to expand the areas under their control.

The census, in the ancient world, could be a very disruptive tool—letting those in authority disrupt people's lives as they launched new campaigns to fill the hunger for power. The census in Luke is even more disruptive than most. People were forced to uproot their lives and travel great distances to the places where their ancestors were born. By the time Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem, the city was full of people waiting to be counted. The Roman Emperor hoped that by counting them, he could discover new ways to exploit them. And that exploitation would show the world how the Emperor counted while everyone else didn't.

Yet it was during that act of disruptive exploitation when God showed up. While the Emperor was busy counting those who didn't count, God became truly human. The rules of the world that defined who had value and worth were disruptive by a God who knew that you counted. On this Christmas Eve, your worth does not depend on the number of presents under your tree. Your value has nothing to do with all the comparisons we've made between ourselves and those around us. Your status as a human being does not depend on how you choose to count yourselves or others. Because, to God, you count and you matter. We are good at making our own counts of ourselves and our world as a way to define how valued we think we should be. Yet, when it comes to God, how you choose to count in the world isn't what defines God's love for you. Rather, to God, you already count - because on this holy night, Christ is born.

Merry Christmas!



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