Questions and Reflections

Category: New Testament

Reflection: Source of Your Life

One of the ways I serve the wider church is by being a member of the New Jersey Synod's Candidacy Committee. The Candidacy Committee shepherds people as they discern if God is calling them to become pastors or deacons. This process asks a lot from the people who go through it. They're required to pass background tests, undergo intense psychological exams, interviews, attend retreats, earn a Master's Degree, work as an intern, and write a lot of essays. The candidates who go through this process are diverse and unique in their own ways. They come from different places, speak different languages, and live varied lives. They also were not raised in Lutheran churches. And some were also hurt by the church itself. As they go through the candidacy process, the candidates for ministry are asked to be vulnerable. And, this isn't an easy thing to do. Most of us have learned, overtime, that being vulnerable is something we shouldn't do. We act tough, refuse to cry, and choose not to ask for help. We run away from our vulnerability because we view it as a weakness rather than a strength. Yet that's the opposite of what the candidacy process requires of our candidates. It's only by embracing their vulnerability that they are able to become the leaders God is calling them to be. We don't need pastors who appear to be emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually strong. We also need pastors and deacons who know what it’s like to see God's foolishness at work. Because the faith that God gifts to us is not a faith that serves only those who are strong. Rather, it's a faith that helps us live through our life so that we can connect to each other and discover the vastness of God's grace and love.

The text from today's letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 1:18-31) is Paul's attempt, I think, to remind us what the foundation of our life is. And instead of explaining what that foundation is, I'm going to let Paul's words speak for themselves. I encourage you to not rush through our reading from 1 Corinthians today. Read through it slowly and when you're done, make a plan to read it again later. Pick it up again this week or when you're commuting or at the gym. Read Paul's writing in such a way that his words are entwined with the air you are breathing, filling your lungs with the Word of God. And then open yourself to the possibility that you are more than who you think you are. You are not limited by your physical strength. You are defined only by your health. Your struggle to ask for help is not the core of who you are. Your foundation, as a beloved child of God, rests in a Jesus who was just as vulnerable as you are. And yet he lived a vulnerable life so that we, through those same vulnerabilities, could become the loving, peaceful, and dynamic people God wants us to be.


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Left: Places Matter [Sermon Manuscript]

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
   on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people who sat in darkness
   have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
   light has dawned.’
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.

Matthew 4:12-25

Pastor Marc's sermon on the 3rd Sunday After Epiphany (January 26, 2020) on Matthew 4:12-25. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


So I’d like to start today with a very geeky thought exercise. I’m going to name some comic book superheroes and the places that made them who they are. And while I do that, I’d like you to use your imagination and picture those superheroes in those places. We’ll start easy with Clark Kent - aka Superman. He was born on the planet Krypton and raised in rural Kansas. But when it came to living his life, the place that really formed his identity was, I think, his home base - the fictional city of Metropolis. So, take a second and imagine Superman being himself in Metropolis. Now let’s move next to Batman. And when we do that, doesn’t the city of Gotham sort of show up automatically in our heads? This pattern of hero and place works even if you switch to a different comic book universe. Because Spider-man really is just a kid from Queens and Captain America fits a World War II era Brooklyn. The Black Panther had to come from Wakanda and the Black Widow is who she is because she grew up in Soviet Russia. So now that we’ve imagined superheroes being themselves in the places where they belong, let’s stretch our imagination and see what it would be like if these same heroes were defined by some place else. For example, what if Batman didn’t spend his time in Gotham but instead built his batcave in a suburban city like Woodcliff Lake? Or what if Captain America, instead of playing stickball on the docks of Brooklyn, he grew up playing soccer on dusty fields along the US-Mexico border? And what if the Black Widow grew up in California, Japan or maybe Nigeria? I don’t find it hard to imagine superheroes from those places. But it’s not easy to re-imagine the superheroes we do know to the point where we fully understand how these new places would shape their identity. Places matter because they can provide a context and a history to our stories. And since places do make a difference in the fictional world of comic book superheroes, then the places we hear about in the Bible should inform how we interact with Jesus and how we live into his invitation to “follow him.” 

Today’s reading from the gospel according to Matthew is full of places. There’s Nazareth, Capernaum, Zebulon and Naphtali; the Sea of Galilee, Galilee itself, Syria, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan. That’s a lot of geography in only a few verses. And when the Bible gives us a lot of one thing in only a few lines, that’s a signal that we need to pay attention. Yet it’s not easy to pinpoint where our attention should go when we’re given a list like this. We might choose to focus on those places we do know - like Jerusalem, since that’s where Jesus died, or Nazareth since we just heard that name in the Christmas story. But when it comes to the Bible, sometimes the most effective way to see what the gospel is all about is to spend time with the things we don’t know. And I’m going to assume that most of us don’t recognize Zebulun and Naphtali. And it’s perfectly okay if you don’t. These are two words that even I, a religious professional, looked up and I’m pretty sure I’m pronouncing them wrong. Yet we know those two place names matter to the story about Jesus that Matthew told because Matthew immediately reached back into the scripture and quoted words from the book of Isaiah that were spoken maybe 700 years before Jesus was born. 

So to grasp Zebulun and Naphtali, we need to go back to the book of Genesis and to a man named Jacob. Jacob was the son of Issac who was the son of Abraham who was the one who received a promise from God that he would be the ancestor of many nations and that one of those nations would be God’s chosen, embodying God’s life and love for the world. Jacob’s life was very full of its ups and downs and his name was even changed to Israel after he wrestled with God in the river Jordan. Jacob ended up having at least 12 sons who became the heads of the 12 tribes that made up the Israelite people. Two of those sons were named Zebulun and Naphtali. Years later, after the story of the Exodus, the territory in the so-called Promised Land was split among those twelve tribes. Zebulun and Naphtali were given the northernmost territory, with their claim including the Sea of Galilee and beyond. Their territory was large but also unwieldy. And according to the Bible, they never really gained full political control over the are because it was basically a borderland next to large empires to the north and east. The land of Zebulun and Naphtali were told to make their home was also the main invasion route into Israel as well. In the words of Brett Younger, “whenever anyone invaded, they were the first and last to bear the brunt of it.” Eventually in 722 BCE, the Assyrian Empire completely conquered the northern part of Israel, deporting its 10 tribes and effectively wiping them off the face of the earth. The people who repopulated the territory that formerly belonged to Zebulun and Naptali were always viewed with suspicion. And even if these people were Jewish, other members of the religious community were worried about their identity and whether they could ever be considered truly part of God’s family. During the time of Jesus, Galilee was considered to be too non-Jewish - too full of Gentiles and was now occupied by another Empire - the Romans - who did their very best to exploit the people who lived there. The former land of Zebulun and Naphtali was a place covered by an old and deep shadow. Yet it was there, in that shadow, where Jesus began to work. He set up his home base not in a city but in a small fishing village, on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. And while there, he called his first disciples from among those marginalized people who others didn’t think were worthy of the Messiah’s attention. The light of God didn’t show up only in the places we expect God to be. Instead, Jesus stepped into the shadow, showing that we - regardless of history, regardless of our past, regardless of what we’re experiencing now - that we truly are beloved children of God. 

So when Jesus looked into the boats and saw Simon, Andrew, John, and James mending their nets, he saw more than just a few people who knew how to fish. He knew how their geographical place shaped and informed who they were. He knew the story of their land; he knew the story of their people; he knew what others thought of them; and he knew what they thought about themselves. Jesus knew the disciples came from a place. Yet when they met Jesus, he proclaimed that another place - God’s place - this kingdom of heaven - was coming to meet them. This wasn’t his way of saying that the place people are from doesn’t matter. Rather, Jesus was showing them - and us - that we do not have to be limited by the places we call home. We are, through baptism, connected to a body of Christ, to Jesus himself, who embodied what God’s kingdom is all about. And what centered that king was it’s giving of life - a life that brought healing, wholeness, and, above all, hope to those covered in shadow. When we take seriously the places that show up in the Bible and how they informed Jesus’ own ministry, we’re also invited to ask how our places shape our response to Jesus Christ. And this kind of invitation takes a kind of work that has to be more than just a simple thought exercise about comic books. Instead, we’re required to ask hard questions about our places, how they’ve shaped us, and how we’ve used places to harm, vilify, or overshadow others. This work isn’t easy and we might not like what we discover about ourselves. Yet this work is something that Jesus knows we can do. Because he did not call perfect people to be his disciples; instead he called folks just like us. And he continues to give us his life and his light so that we can bring prayers of peace, gifts of love, and the power of hope into every shadow in our lives and in our world. 



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Reflection: Faith is More Than an Explanation

For the next several weeks, one of our readings from the Bible will be from Paul's first letter to the small Christian community in Corinth. Corinth was a cosmopolitan city and the Christian community reflected that diversity. Paul started his letter by describing how the Corinthian community should see themselves. He called them saints and how their individual spiritual gifts were needed for the community to become who God wanted them to be. Today's reading covers the next ten verses in 1 Corinthians, and it's here where we discover why Paul is writing to them in the first place. The community was divided and their division was stopping them from loving one another.

The theme of division that is depicted in 1 Corinthians is a theme that resonates with us today. If you turn on the TV, it doesn't take long before our divisions in the United States become visible. The political discourse in our country continues to grow more partisan as people refuse to listen to the each other and are instead fed a steady diet of opinions that already fit our preconceived notion. Any point of view, argument, or story that challenges us is casted aside, labeled fake, and pushed to the margins. There seems to be more joy in defending our sides rather than authentically listening to someone with a different story than our own. Even the cries for unity, such as a pledge for civility or that "we're all Americans" doesn't really work because those definitions - of what it means to be civil and who is an American - are currently under debate. Our divisions are becoming hardcoded into our individual identities.

So, we can relate to the divisions present in the Corinthian community. Different interpretations and views of Jesus were being expressed inside that church. People identified themselves by which school of thought they belonged to, some to teachers named Apollos, Paul, Cephas (Peter), and even Christ himself. All claimed that their point of view was right and that they were the true winners when it came to faith. We can speculate they believed their spiritual gifts defined how much they were loved. If they were blessed, then God was showing that their point of view was correct. And if they were winning, everyone else who didn't agree with them had to be losers who were not worth being part in their community in the first place.

So Paul, in today's verses 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, stepped in to try and unite the Corinthian community. He didn't try to find a common denominator that would support every position people expressed. Instead, he pointed them to the Cross. He directed everyone towards Jesus, the Son of God who was divine yet died; the One who had the power of God yet emptied himself of that power and was crucified by the world. Jesus, who had every ability to win when it came to the events of Holy Week, chose not to. Jesus was foolish and that's why the rest of us get to truly live.

This choice and faithfulness Jesus lived into is one that we're called to live out, too. It's not enough to just know things about Christianity, Jesus, or the Cross. Rather, through our baptism and our faith, we are brought into Jesus who still lives. And since he lived for others, we are called to do the same. It's an invitation to not let our divisions be what identify us nor to let ourselves be the ones that dictate what justice, civility, hope and love are all about. Rather, we are called to let Jesus do that. And he does, through the Spirit, by connecting us to a community of people that is, by design, diverse and full of people not like us. Because it's only when we are connected with people who are different from us when we seeing how life- giving our division-breaking Jesus actually is.


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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. 


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. 



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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. 


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. “ 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. 



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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. 


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. 



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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. 


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.





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