Questions and Reflections

Category: Luke

Welcome: Being Reverent [Sermon Manuscript]

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, [Mary and Joseph] brought [Jesus] up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

Luke 2:22-40

Pastor Marc's sermon on the Presentation of Jesus (February 2, 2020) on Luke 2:22-40. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


So how loud do you think the Temple was when Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to it? One way we can answer that question is by using our imagination to combine the story we just heard from the gospel according to Luke with some details about life in ancient Jerusalem. Now, the Temple was located along one of Jerusalem’s main city walls and it was the center of religious and political life. All kinds of people moved in and out of the Temple constantly. The narrow streets leading up to the Temple were the size of alleyways and they were filled with merchants and businesses selling all kinds of things. These merchants served a very densely populated city with people living in cramped apartments and with little to no space between the buildings. I’m pretty sure much of Jerusalem wasn’t soundproof so it’s safe to assume that you could hear everyone else’s business and everyone else could hear all of yours. The Temple also didn’t try to limit the noises of the city and in its own way, the Temple added to it. It had numerous large courtyards filled with people: pilgrims who traveled to the city, priests performing religious rituals, and rabbis teaching anyone who came to listen. Yet they weren’t the only living things making noises in that space. There was also the sounds of animals - cattle, sheep, lambs, and birds needed for ritual sacrifices. We often imagine religious places being quiet and serene. But the Temple in Jerusalem was never a refuge from the noises of life because it was filled and surrounded by it. Even baby Jesus, as Mary and Joseph carried him in their arms, probably added to the noise with his own cries for attention. The Temple was the physical representation of God’s presence with God’s people. And that presence should have received some kind of reverence. Yet what’s reverent to us might not be reverent to God because God chose to be engaged in our kind of life - one that doesn’t stay very quiet. 

Being reverent or showing reverence is one of those things we can see but it’s also really hard to define or explain. When I was in seminary, I finished my degree at the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal church in New York. That seminary identifies itself as being anglo-catholic which is just a fancy word meaning they like worship full of incense, bells, bowing, fancy clothes, candles, and long periods of silence. I don’t recall ever having a class where reverence was defined or laid out but being reverent was something we all tried to do really well. And one of the extreme examples there of being reverent took place at the seminary’s gym. Across the hall from the gym was a small chapel space where the leftover pieces of communion bread and wafers were stored after worship. In their tradition, anything not eaten during communion is still considered consecrated and is due reverence. So that means, before we would enter the gym, we would turn and bow in the direction of the chapel. And then, after spending an hour on the elliptical machine and lifting weights, we step out of the gym and bow before heading home. There’s nothing wrong with this kind of reverence but when it doesn’t really have a definition, we can reduce being reverent to only performing certain acts. That’s why, I think, many have stories about being acolytes as children and getting into trouble because they lit the candles on the altar in the so-called “wrong order,” or weren’t wearing the right shoes, or made too much noise. Or some learned how to do everything that was expected of them but learned to do it quickly, barely nodding their head at the altar, and assuming they were getting away with being reverent. Reverence is more than just an act. It’s something that shows intentionally and that we realize we’re encountering the divine. 

Paul Woodruff, in his book Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue, admits that even he doesn’t really know what reverence is. But he does describe it as “the well-developed capacity to have feelings of awe, respect, and shame when these are the right feelings to have.” Nothing in that description talks about silence or noise or bowing or lighting candles in the right order. But it does talk about a capacity to pay attention to what we’re engaged with and that’s, I think, a call for us to be aware when God shows up. Reverence is, in the words of Richard Dietrich, the acknowledgement that we “are not alone in the universe” and “that there are others.” And reverence also knows that “we are not the center of the universe or its governor.” Being reverent or showing reverence isn’t about how deep your bow is when you’re in-front of the altar nor is it only about embracing a holy silence while standing in any sacred space. Rather, reverence about being consciously aware of who we are and whose we are - and how, even now, God is still here. God is still with us. And, whether we feel it or not, we are not alone. 

Today’s reading from the gospel according to Luke is an example of reverence. Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the Temple to finish the rituals associated with making their Jewish family whole. Jesus was circumcised, named, and presented at the Temple. And Mary brought two turtledoves as part of her ritual to mark the transition of her life from recently giving birth. Those birds not only showed Mary and Joseph’s willingness to be fully Jewish and share their faith with this newborn son, but it also made public their economic status since a wealthier person would have brought a lamb instead of a dove. While they stood there, waiting to give their birds to the appropriate religious official, I’m sure those animals shrieked and chripped while baby Jesus cried for his mom’s attention. The noise of the city, the bustle of the Temple, and Mary and Joseph trying to handle the kind of chaos that comes with bringing any child into any sacred space, probably did sound very reverent. Yet what made this a truly reverent moment was their intentionality to, in that moment, admit their connection and need for God. And that kind of reverence is always going to be expressed by different people in different ways. For some, reverence shows up in moments of silence, deep bowing, and long pauses. For others, reverence means being stirred by the Spirit to leave one’s home and tell a complete stranger than their baby will be a light for all. And for still more, reverence means being a prophet and letting everyone know the truth about the world and about God. Reverence isn’t, I think, something we pick up easily. It takes time to learn reverence and we grow into it by noticing how God encounters us in the everyday moments of our everyday lives. We try to express this reverence in our worship and in prayers. But reverence isn’t restricted to only sacred spaces. Reverence is something we should also notice and express in our world. The details of what this kind of reverence will look like will always be different from person to person. And that’s perfectly okay. Because it’s not the type of act that defines reverence. Rather - it’s your capacity to be your version of Simeon and Anna; your version of Mary and Joseph; to be honest about the world around you; and see how God is at work in you and in others. Being reverent requires us to put ourselves aside and believe that there really is “something else” to whom we owe reverence too. And when the noise of the world and the noise in our lives makes it seem as if being irreverent is all that we can do, we get to remember that God did not run from that noise. Instead, God entered into it - choosing to live a noisy life, surrounded by a noisy people, who were reverent and irreverent in their own unique ways. God lived in the noise so that Christ could transform it, inviting us into a new way of life where our capacity for awe, respect, and shame opens us to live for others because Jesus, even now, lives for us. 



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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. 


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. 





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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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Reflection: A Bracketed Faith

Did you notice something odd in our reading from the gospel according to Luke 23:33-43? The copy printed in your bulletin has the first sentence of verse 34 surrounded by brackets. Those brackets are a sign that something about that sentence is a bit odd. And to figure out how odd, we need to recall how our version of the Bible came into being.

It's important to remember that we do not have any original copies of any biblical books. Our versions are a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a—you get the idea. Since the Bible is so important, we're blessed to have many old manuscripts of the biblical text. But the oldest copies we have are only dated to the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th centuries. That means the best examples of the Biblical text that we have come from copies written 100-300 years after the original. And since there were no copy machines in the ancient world, these versions of the Bible were written by hand. This kind of copying can sometimes add errors into the text. A writer, after working for hours on end, might forget a word or accidentally skip a line. Some scribes even changed the text because they *needed* to fix its grammar. However, most of these changes were really insignificant and when we compare different manuscripts to each other, we can figure out what the original text might have been like. But there are times when even this kind of comparison runs into problems. And when scholars end up not knowing if a word, sentence or phrase is supposed to be there, they put brackets around that part of the text.

So the reason why there are brackets in verse 34 is because scholars are not sure if those words are supposed to be there or not. Many different manuscripts have that sentence and many others do not. Those words could have been added by a scribe trying to make Jesus' actions on the Cross line up with what Stephen does in the book of Acts. Or the words might have been removed by a scribe who couldn't stand Jesus uttering a prayer that might never be answered. I don't have an answer on why this text is in brackets but I like that it’s here. To me, the brackets invite us to reflect on our own assumptions and choices we make in our own faith. What verses from the Bible do you ignore? What sayings of Jesus are at the core of how you are? How do you interpret scripture? We all live with a bracket faith. There are parts of God's story that we cling to and others we ignore. I believe we should be honest about our core convictions and about the brackets that define the life we live. Because when we pay attention to our brackets, we also get a chance to lean into the brackets of support that God has already given to us: baptism, communion, this church and God's love. And it's through these brackets that God helps support, challenge, and change us into the people we are supposed to be.


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The Days are Surely Coming [Sermon Manuscript]

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Luke 23:33-43

Pastor Marc's sermon on the Christ the King/Reign of Christ Sunday (November 24, 2019) on Luke 23:33-43. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


Sunday is coming….was a phrase I repeated over and over again this past week. As some of you know, my voice last Sunday was a bit weak so I chose to limited what I did during worship. My plan was to tone down my usual Sunday morning routine so that my voice could slowly recover during the week. Yet my body had other plans and by Tuesday morning, whatever it was that bothered had decided to become an upper respiratory infection. I found myself going through the week without any energy and with a raspy voice that could barely speak one sentence before exploding into a cough. The lovely doctor at the urgent care prescribed me three different medications to take and he told me that I might, just might, feel better next week. Yet I knew that before next week, Sunday - i.e. today - would come. And I had no idea if my voice would make it through this sermon. So as I typed up my manuscript, I knew there was a good chance my voice would spend most of today as a raspy whisper before collapsing into an awkward silence. Now, I’m not really trying to be super dramatic about this because I knew this situation was only temporary. The medicine I’m taking would eventually soothe my symptoms and I should be ready to chant our Advent liturgy next week. But until we get there, we’re still here. And it’s sort of weird writing a sermon that could, at any moment, end up unspoken. So if you were in my shoes - and if you found yourself having only a fragile and whisper-like word that you could use to share Jesus with the people right next to you - what is it that you would do? 

Today’s reading from the gospel according to Luke is a sub-section of what we usually hear on Good Friday. Jesus has already been betrayed by friends, arrested, tried, and sentenced to death by the Roman Empire. He is led out of the city of Jerusalem to a little hilltop called the Skull where he is crucified along with two other criminals. Luke, luckily, spared us the details about what crucifixion was like but we know that the community who first heard Luke’s version of Jesus’ life was very familiar with what this public execution was all about. Jesus and the two on either side of him were meant to serve as a warning to anyone else who might challenge the political and civic authority of Rome. A crucifixion was a public event - so these three were placed on crosses within easy sight of the major roads than led into and out of Jerusalem. The actions by the crowd, the stealing of Jesus’ final possessions, and the inscription written in three different languages that was nailed above his head - was all there so that anyone passing by would know what was going on. This gruesome and public spectacle was meant to show that there was no contest between the authority of Rome and this Jesus - who was crucified as if he was nothing but  a common criminal. Since those in power viewed themselves as the ultimate deciders of what was right and wrong, they made sure that even one of those crucified with Jesus would feel stirred to mock and plead with Jesus to save them. Every voice, every sound, and all that violence swirling around Jesus was there to overwhelm the Son of God. Because it wasn’t enough for those in power to just refute, challenge, or ignore what Jesus taught, shared, and did. Rather, he needed to be undone because who he was, and who he chose to eat with, challenged those who were comfortable clinging to the status-quo. In that moment and on that Cross, the voices, words, and breaths that surrounded Jesus were not shaky, raspy, or silent. They were loud because they believed, and trusted, that they had won. 

But it was then when a different voice broke through. And Jesus chose to have a final back-and-forth with another person before his death. It’s only here, in Luke’s version of Jesus’ life, that the second criminal speaks up. And we’re not really sure why he did. Nothing in the text tells us that the criminal knew much about Jesus or that maybe they had met before. Instead, all we know is what we see. And that he, while caught up in the same sounds, voices, and violence that surrounded Jesus, saw what the others did not. The unnamed criminal heard the yelling; the jeering; read the ironic inscription; and experienced the crucifixion - but also witnessed how Jesus, in the words of Craig Kocher, refused to give in to “the meanness and arrogance that surrounded him.” To the cries of blood from the crowd, Jesus didn’t respond. To the clubs and whips that beat him, Jesus [refused] to fight back. To the soldiers who tore his body to shreds, Jesus offered forgiveness. And “on the cross the passion of Jesus’ suffering [was] surpassed by the passion of his redeeming love.” It’s there, when Jesus’ breaths grew short and when his words began to fail, when the criminal seemed able to see that “the tenacity of God’s love [was] greater than the tenacity of humanity’s despair.” 

It’s in that moment when the second criminal grew close to no longer having a voice that could speak or share, when he confessed the truth about who he was and who he knew Jesus to be. He spoke as he was; a person hung on a cross that he was given and that he had earned. And instead of asking for his freedom or to be let go, he simply asked to be remembered by the God who was showing that there’s no where, including the bleakness of death, that could escape from the love of God. In that moment, when Jesus’ breath grew weak and his voice barely a whisper, he responded to the unnamed criminal with a promise of paradise. Yet that promise Jesus made wasn’t only about what happened after he died. Because Jesus, in Luke, was busy showing how God’s kingdom broke into “today” over and over again. Every healing he offered, every sermon he preached, every teaching he gave, and every time relationship Jesus restored or made new - that happened “today.” Jesus wasn’t offering those who clung to him a promise meant for tomorrow. He was offering them a gift for life today. And that life was a promise that today - right now - will not be futile. You, as broken as you are, are seen, loved, and valued. You, in all the ways your love yourself and in all the ways you don’t, are known by God. And You, as imperfect as you are, can give voice to a word that this world so desperately needs. When we, together, love like Jesus, when we heal like Jesus, when we take risks like Jesus, and when we give mercy just like Jesus - we are also trusting that the grace that was big enough to claim us as its own is also big enough for a world that still offers too many crosses. The word we give won’t always be well spoken, clearly stated, or sound well-articulated. But it can, and will, make a difference because we know that Sunday - that the Resurrection - that new life - still comes. And even when our voice is gone and a raspy whisper is all we have - we can still share mercy, compassion, forgiveness, and love because Jesus’ love for us - and for the world - is never silent, fragile, or will ever fail. 



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I Will Give You Words [Sermon Manuscript]

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, [Jesus] said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.

Luke 21:5-19

Pastor Marc's sermon on the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost (November 17, 2019) on Luke 21:5-19. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


So for today’s sermon, I’m going to do something I don’t usually do: and that’s use a sermon illustration based on a movie I haven’t seen. But there’s a chance you have because the film, Wild Rose, came out over the summer. According to, Wild Rose is about a Scottish woman, fresh out of prison, who struggles balancing her job and her two children with her dream to become a country music star before ending up in Nashville, Tennessee. I’m hoping once my family takes a break from watching Marvel Superhero Movies for the 10,000 time - to actually watch this film because one of its songs is expected to win the Oscar. But what really fascinated me about Wild Rose wasn’t its plot or its actors. Rather, what struck me was the unlikely story of how its Oscar caliber song came into being. And that story doesn’t begin with the movie script or with some amazing songwriting team tinkering for hours in a music studio. Instead, that story begins in a hospital room, 10 years ago, when Oscar winning actress Mary Steenburgen, woke up after having a minor surgery on her arm. As the anesthesia wore off, she realized something was a bit off because her brain, her mind, and what she knew about who she had suddenly changed. 

Now, you might know Mary Steenburgen from her Oscar winning role in the 1980 film “Melvin and Howard.” Or, if you’re already getting ready for Christmas, she’s also Buddy’s step-mom in the movie Elf. For the last 40 years, being an actor was who she was. She obsessed over the craft and she worked hard at her vocation. But in that hospital room ten years ago, what made her who she was, changed. As she said in an article I read this week, “The best way I can describe it is that it just felt like my brain was only music, and that everything anybody said to me became musical. All of my thoughts became musical. Every street sign became musical. I couldn’t get my mind into any other mode.” Mary’s new reality was completely unexpected and it really scared her. She didn’t know what to do. So after a few months living in this new way, Mary did the only thing she could do to help tame the loudness of her new musical mind: she started learning to play an instrument. And she also bugged one of her friends to help turn the music she heard in her head into actual songs. It wasn’t long before she cut her first demos, sent them off to music executives, and found herself living out her new mode, her new reality, in Nashville as a professional songwriter. 
Today’s text from the gospel according to Luke is sometimes called Luke’s “Little Apocalypse.” And we call it that because Jesus’ words are, well, spooky. He mentioned a lot of things that might keep us awake at night - such as the fear of war, violence, famine, and other natural disasters. He also named the different ways we use religion to deceive one another and how even families can betray each other. Nothing Jesus said here was very specific but it’s hard not to see all the chaos around us and think that Jesus was speaking to us today. I do think that when it comes to Luke’s Little Apocalypse, Jesus does have a message for us. But to understand what he’s really saying, we need to pay attention to where Jesus was when he first spoke these words. 

Now, at this point in Luke’s version of Jesus’ life, Jesus was nearing his final to the Cross. He had already shifted his ministry away from the Sea of Galilee in Northern Israel and moved into the city of Jerusalem. While there, he spent quite a bit of time preaching and teaching in the massive religious complex that was the Temple. The Temple, by this point, was recently renovated. One of the old puppet kings - Herod the Great - who was given his power by the Roman Empire, had expanded the Temple, using blocks of stone weighing over 100 tons to fill in the original valley that limited just how big the Temple could be. Herod wanted to use the rebuilding of the Temple as a way to help his brand, hoping his name would be a symbol for what was rich and powerful. For the disciples following Jesus, many who grew up in small rural villages, the Temple in Jerusalem would have been physically overwhelming. It would have appeared to be so powerful, strong, and mighty and it served as a visual reminder of how awesome people needed God to be. For them, God needed a sanctuary worthy of being given grand gifts and it needed to look as if it could withstand whatever nature and humanity threw at it. God’s Temple needed to turn God into a brand where God would, in a contest, over power the opponent and win. Jesus’ disciples, I think, expected Jesus to operate in the same way. They had, for three years, watched as Jesus casted out demons, healed the sick, and fed thousands with a handful of loaves and fishes. Jesus disciples expected him to embody and show how God’s strength and power meant that he would win in all situations. The disciples, though, were a little realistic so they tolerated some hardship and struggle. But they believed that would only be in the short term. They expected Jesus, through a kind of divine power and force, would help them dominate and win at life. But Jesus would surprise them by showing us - that this God-with-us - would instead show us how to live through our life instead. 

When we listen to Jesus’ words in Luke’s Little Apocalypse, we notice that he wasn’t really trying to predict some specific events happening 2000 years into the future. Rather, Jesus was challenging those who followed him to no longer let our expectations of God stop us from living the life God has already given to us. The life we have is never going to be perfect. And it will be filled with conflict, challenge, and fear. We will find ourselves, whether we plan to or not, causing harm to those around us through the actions we or our wider culture takes. We will end up living through things we never truly wanted to experience in the first place. And Jesus wasn’t afraid to tell us how life can be hard. But in the midst of that challenge, he also gave us a promise. He said, through the gift of faith and the gift of baptism, he will give us a new vision of how we can look at our lives. Like Mary Steenburgen, who woke up to find herself living in the world in a new way, Jesus’ words remind us that our faith opens us to the possibility that we can, through Jesus, truly live. We can live knowing that brokenness will be a part of our lives but it won’t be the final word. We can live knowing that we will sometimes get things very right and also very wrong but that mercy can be the default of everything that we do. And we can live knowing that doubt, worry, and fear will always be with us - but that Jesus will lead us into joy and peace. Even when it feels as if the foundation of our life is giving way, Jesus will be there - feeding us his words and his life with grace and mercy. The promise of the apocalypse is that our expectations and assumptions will not be the final world. Because, through Christ, God’s expectations are already being written in our world and we are here to live as if there truly is a new song of hope, forgiveness, and love that will become true mode for our lives and the world.



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Hold Fast: grace vs Grace [Sermon Manuscript]

Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to [Jesus] and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

Luke 20:27-38

Pastor Marc's sermon on the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost (November 10, 2019) on Luke 20:27-38. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


What was the last argument you started in bad faith? 

Now we’re probably pretty good at noticing when someone starts an argument with us in bad faith. They begin by first expressing a point of view or a position they don’t actually believe. Or maybe they’re just trolling, antagonizing us while pretending they’re trying to have a real conversation. Or maybe they’re assuming they’re the only expert in the room - so they’ll never listen to you or anyone else’s point of view. An argument in bad faith is never an attempt at an honest conversation because it’s all about undermining the validity of another person’s point of view. So it’s not hard to notice those moments when no one listens to us. But I’m not sure if we’re always willing to admit those times when our behavior stops us from listening too. So what was the last argument you started when you knew you weren’t going to listen? What was it that made you feel in the right and what convinced you that everyone else was wrong? What, in that moment, were your feeling and thinking? And once you have that experience firmly in your mind, hold onto it. Savor it. Then go back to the start of today’s passage from the gospel according to Luke. Because everything you experienced in your bad-faith moment was exactly what some of the Saduccees brought with them when they chose to argue with Jesus. 

Now the Saduccees themselves were a bit mysterious because we don’t really know too much about them. From what we can tell, they were a movement within the Jewish community who had, by the time of Jesus, become overseers of the Temple in Jerusalem. Many of the rich and politically powerful were also Saduccees and they, as a group, were closely connected to the what the Roman Empire said and did. When the Temple was destroyed in the year 70, the Saduccees basically disappeared from the historical record - so it’s difficult to reconstruct what they said about their faith. We think their theological viewpoint was defined by an intense focus on the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, and that they sort of ignored the rest. This narrowing of what they considered to be holy scripture meant that some of the things we take for granted as Christians, like the resurrection of the dead, of heaven, and even the after-life, were things the Saduccees didn’t really believe in. For them, in the words of John Senior, “all of the goodness life [had] to offer - love, justice, peace, abundance, and happiness - [was] experienced within its horizon.” Life could only be made meaningful within the limited boundaries of our time on earth. And once death came, that was it. The hard boundary between life and death was firm. Whatever the afterlife - the place of Sheoul - was going to be - would be separate, distinct, and filled with a kind of meaninglessness that would have no impact on our life today. Life was bookended by that meaninglessness - and so the handful of years people lived on earth was really the limit of what life could possibly be. 

So when the Sadducees came to Jesus, they showed up in bad faith. They did not believe in an afterlife or a resurrection as the Pharisees and Jesus taught. They asked Jesus to solve a riddle - one they imagined would show how absurd the so-called future life might be. Now, in the centuries before Jesus’ birth, several cultures - including Ancient Israel - practiced what was called Levirate marriage. Levirate marriage was designed to preserve and ensure the continuation of a family or tribe. When the culturally defined male leader of a family or tribe died, the brothers and other male descendants were called to mary that leader’s widow - and, hopefully, create heirs that would continue the former leader’s legal legacy. Those heirs were needed to make sure that the so-called social norms that governed things like inheriting land, passing on wealth, and preserving the family’s name, would work. On one level, a levirate marriage offered a kind of grace because the widow of that male leader needed the protection of a male family member. She couldn’t, according to same cultural norms, really work, keep wealth, or provide financially for herself or her family. Once her husband died, she could be easily forgotten and forced to live in extreme poverty. A levirate marriage would ensure her survival while letting the family name continue. But this arrangement, while filled with a little grace, was also a problem because it was rooted in patriarchy. The widow in this system had no agency of her own and her survival depended on which males she belonged to. Since she couldn’t generate her own wealth or pass on her own family name, there was no real way she could say “no” to marrying her dead husband’s brother. She was trapped in a way of life that granted her a little grace while denying her the grace of personhood. So when the Sadduccees told Jesus their riddle, they didn’t bother giving her a name. She, like other women caught up in the levirate marriage system, was defined by the male society said she belonged to. We never learn her backstory. We have no idea where she came from. All we learn is that she’s made a widow seven times before she died. And when some of the Sadduccees asked who she would be in the afterlife, they assumed that the grace she was given in this world would be enough. She had survived while wrapped up in a system that would always keep her nameless. So the Saduccees wondered to whom, in death, would she belong? But Jesus answered that she would continue to be who she already was: she is, and always will be, a child of God. 

Jesus chose not to ignore or run past the Sadducees bad-faith argument. Instead, he pushed through, pointing to the limitless grace of a limitless God. The Sadducees assumed that the contours of this life, what they experienced personally, was the only thing that gave us meaning. Any point of view, experience, or reality that challenged what they assumed to be true needed to be confronted in good or bad faith. Yet Jesus knew and gave witness to a new reality where our eternal relationship with God was the primary definition of who we are. We are not defined only by the little bits of grace our culture or our neighbors give us. We are worth more because God chooses to never let us go. There is no hard boundary between life and death that will ever stop God from loving us. And there’s more than one experience, point of view, or way of life that God uses to show us our true meaning in God. The Sadducees wanted Jesus to fall into a trap because they believed life was limited. But Jesus, instead, showed them how our limitless relationship with God can guide our so-called limited life right now. Since we are wrapped up in this grace that will not end, we can - with God’s help - make that grace feel bigger in our world today. We can turn those small moments of grace in our culture and neighborhood into more fuller of examples of God’s everlasting love, by breakdowning all the systems, ideologies, and points of view that undermine someone else’s sense of personhood. Because we, like Moses and Abraham, Issac and Jacob - and even the unnamed woman in the Sadducees’ riddle - we have a God who is a God of the living. And that God wants you, me, and everyone else to know what it’s truly like to live.



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Forever: The fullness of our story [sermon manuscript]

Then [Jesus] looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets."

"But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you."

Luke 6:20-31

Pastor Marc's sermon on All Saints' Sunday (November 3, 2019) on Luke 6:20-31. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


Part of my work as a pastor in the New Jersey synod is to help in the formation of new pastors and deacons for the church. Every year, an incredibly diverse array of people feel the call to shepherd God’s people. It’s my job to guide them as they add a new chapter into their already complex, indepth, and faith-filled personal story. So last Friday and Saturday, this candidacy committee met with a group of people who are starting and finishing up that process. We held interviews, filled out mountains of paperwork, and we prayed a lot. The story of the church and the stories of the people God calls to lead it can, sometimes, be pretty messy. But we know that Jesus is always present - and is transforming our entire story into something new. 

We met on the other side of New Jersey in a place I’ve never been to before. And that’s Zion Lutheran Church in Oldwick. As a history dork, I found this to be very cool because Zion is the oldest Lutheran congregation in all of New Jersey. And to put that in perspective, I was thrilled that we here celebrated our 60th anniversary just last month. Yet when Zion in Oldwick celebrated their 60th anniversary, the American Revolutionary War had yet to begin. They are a community of faith that is over 300 years old. Their story as a church is long, complex, full of beauty, and full of messiness. Yet they are still figuring out what it means for them to faithfully follow Jesus. Their longevity as a congregation does not mean they know the one perfect way to be “the church.” Rather, their story is very local, connected to the people, community, and geography of the place they call home. Their story, their complete story, is bound together with people. And so sometimes, when it comes to Jesus, it’s important to notice, to name, and to listen to the people who are already there. 

In today’s reading from the gospel according to Luke, people are everywhere. Jesus cared deeply about how we treat each other. So he started his sermon with “Blessed are you who are poor” and that “you” was not meant to be abstract. Jesus wasn’t spiritualizing people. He was talking to real people who were living very real lives. But that can be hard to hold onto when Jesus preached like he does today. Because he gives us a lot of words and these words move quickly. We start out with all kinds of blessings and woes, loving your enemies, and a command to turn the other cheek. We hear that we should celebrate when people exclude us; that we should pray for those who abuse us, and that we shouldn’t ask for anything if someone takes something from us. We know that Jesus’ words are meant to take us somewhere but as we listen to this passage, we’re not sure where he is going. Finally, when we get to verse 31, we run into something that feels like a summation of what came before. Everything difficult that we just heard feels more manageable when its condensed to simply be the golden rule. How we care for ourselves and for others is all over this passage. And the last verse, “do to others,” is a clean and neat way to sum up this story while leaving the uncomfortable and messy bits behind. 

But there’s another place in this passage where people show up. And that’s at the very beginning of today’s reading. Before Jesus said anything, we hear that he and his disciples were together. Yet in the background of this scene, Jesus was also surrounded by a crowd looking for love, compassion, and healing. So while in the middle of this swirling mass of humanity, that’s when Jesus spoke. Yet what struck me as a bit different today is that, unlike other times when Jesus preached, he wasn’t described here as being physically above his disciples. They weren’t there looking up at him. Instead, Jesus looked up at them. Rather than speaking in a top-down kind of way, where his body implied that his words were coming down from on-high, Jesus spoke from below. He spoke from the place where healing needed to happen and where the uncomfortable and messy bits of life feel the most real. And since Jesus chose to speak up from that place, it showed that he was already there. Jesus wasn’t only interested what was tidy; he chose to be with us in our life as it actually is. Because it’s there when the truth about who we are and whose we are actually meets. And when we hold onto the fullness of our story, that’s when we finally discover how Jesus has shaped, formed, and molded us so that grace, mercy, forgiveness, and love will be there at the beginning of everything that we do. 

So unlike us, there are no photos or images of Zion Lutheran Church’s very first worship service. If we want to see what it was like, we have to use our imagination. I’m sure many of us could visualize the colonial farmhouse that service was held in and think about who might have been there in the early 1700s. We can picture the tri-corner hats, the long dresses, and the identities that made up those first Lutherans who settled in western New Jersey. There’s a good chance no one spoke English that day and their style of worship was different from our own. But I think we’re pretty confident that we could each describe what that first part of Zion’s story looked like. So as you mentally hold that image in your head, I want to invite you to identify the family that farmhouse belonged to. Prior to their move to New Jersey, that  family were members of the “Dutch” Lutheran church in Manhattan. The head of the household was named Aree van Guinee, which is very dutch, and he had a rather large and multi-generational family. From what I can tell, he was through and through faithful Lutheran. But unlike what we might expect, he came from Africa. He had, at some point, been forcefully abducted and brought to this country as a slave. And after gaining his freedom, he created his own household and he would eventually donate the land Zion Lutheran Church was first built on. Rarely do we, as Lutherans, remember that our diversity as a community is rooted not only in the Germans, Norwegians, and Swedes who brought their faith with them. But when we go back to the beginning, to the people who were already at the start of the story, our history in New Jersey is rooted in a freed African slave and his family.

There’s a messiness in that story - but there’s also a vision of what the church is when we take seriously the fullness of our story. As we, through faith, worship, prayer, and by spending time being this church together, we end up being transformed and changed by Christ who is not afraid of the messiness of who we are. Instead, he’s too busy loving us - and showing us how we can love by not hiding the bits of our story that makes it hard. We are heirs to a faith that passed on to us by people who were already present before we are. Their story, with all its messiness, is our story - and our story, with its messiness, is the church’s story too. On this All Saints’ Sunday, when we light candles in memory and in honor of all those who showed us what God’s grace and love actually looks like, we also acknowledge the fullness of our faithful story. Because that story, through Christ, has already been seen; it’s already been known; and it’s even now being shaped and transformed by God’s grace so that love will be at the forefront of everything we do. 



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Thank God: knowing our story

[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Luke 18:9-14

Pastor Marc's sermon on Reformation Sunday (October 27, 2019) on Luke 18:9-14. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


Today’s text from the gospel according to Luke isn’t the usual one we read on Reformation Sunday. Typically, when we commemorate Martin Luther posting 95 thoughts about God and faith on a church door in Germany, we spend time in the gospel according to John. But after consulting the texts and looking at our church calendar, it didn’t feel right to let Reformation Sunday interrupt our journey through Luke. For the last few months, we’ve been in the part of Luke where Jesus’ teaching comes fast and furious. Luke has dropped the descriptive sentences that we might expect as he narrated Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. Instead, we get parable after parable as Jesus is confronted by religious leaders and his own somewhat clueless disciples. Last week, we listened as Jesus told a story about an unjust judge and a persistent widow who wouldn’t leave him alone. Eventually, the unjust judge allowed the widow’s quest for justice to be fulfilled. Luke saw in that parable an underlying concern for prayer - especially the prayers that feel as if they go unanswered. Jesus wanted those who followed him to stay persistent in prayer, to continue to talk to God night and day because God never stops listening. Prayer, then, seems to be the thruline that connects last week’s parable with the one we heard today. And instead of being only about prayer, today’s parable began with the two characters actually praying. 

Now, since this is a parable filled with prayers, we might want to first look into the words of the prayers themselves. But before we do that, I think it’s important to first pay attention to their bodies. The act of prayer is always a bodily event. When we pray, have to use our bodies. And in today’s parable, before we even hear any of the prayers these two characters speak, Jesus first tells us something about their bodies. We begin first with the religious leader, the Pharisee, and the tax collector both going to the temple to pray. This wasn’t an abnormal thing to do as the Temple was always open for private prayer and had multiple worship services every day. Once they were both finally in the space or the building where they would pray, we learn that the Pharisee’s body was standing alone. We don’t know exactly where he was standing - maybe in the front, where everyone could see him or maybe somewhere a little more private. But we do know he created some physical distance between himself and other people. The tax collector, however, had a slightly different bodily experience. He wasn’t described as standing by himself. Instead, he’s far off - with his eyes refusing to look up, towards God. And while he prayed, he kept his hand clenched in a fist as he hit his chest over and over again. We don’t know anything else about this tax collector but these additional comments about his body do give us a sense of what his experience of prayer was like. And it also, I think, shows us a similarity between the two that we might otherwise miss. Both the Pharisee and the tax collector experienced and embodied distance in their prayer life. And that distance, I think, was also a major part of the life they both chose to live. 

Yesterday, I was invited by our friends at Temple Beth Sholom in Park Ridge to participate in their weekly Saturday worship. They told me to get there at 11 am and to make sure I stayed for lunch. As if my custom, I showed up a few minutes early - only to be greeted by a locked door and security guard. After a quick hello, the guard let me in and I was greeted in the lobby by a congregant. The greeter showed me where the kippahs were kept, placed a prayer book in my hand, and helped usher me to a seat. He also let me know that worship had already been going on for an hour and a half but that I was on time for the main event. As I sat there, Rev. Larissa Romero from Pascack Reformed Church joined me as well as the mayor and several members of Park Ridge council. We were there, together, to be part of a small interfaith and community cohort standing with Temple Beth Sholom and all the other synagogues and temples who were commemorating the one year anniversary of the attack on Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. We, together, lamented that evil act. We also named the evil that is antisemitism and white supremacy and how it seems to be getting worse rather than better. I spoke of my personal anguish that the Christian faith, a faith that gives me so much life, is sometimes warped and twisted to justify anti-jewish acts. And I spoke of our ongoing work to speak out and confront the ideologies that believe that welcome, inclusion, love, and mercy should not be part of who we are. Throughout their worship service, I saw the Jewish community claim the fullness of their story - a story filled with unimaginable hardships and breathtaking joys. And as I watched them reasert who they were, all of us were invited to claim our full story too - one that is bigger, deeper, and larger than just our individual lives. The invitation to claim the fullness of who we are is scary because it requires us to reckon with the dark shadow that has been cast over others. But when we do that, when we struggle against the hate and evil we find within our own communities, we do more than make a difference in the lives of others. We also make a difference in our own. Because the act of naming, owning, and living through our own story is how we close the distance between us, our neighbors, and our God. 

The distance the Pharisee and the tax collector surrounded themselves with came into being in different ways. The Pharisee had, as we see in the words of his prayer, grown into a person full of himself. His prayer is devoted to the pronoun “I” and he was thankful for what he is not. The tax collector stayed away during prayer because he, by his very vocation, was deeply embedded in the system that funded the Roman Empire. For him to earn any kind of living, he was forced to exhort extra funds beyond what the Roman Empire required. He was, in a sense, crushed by his own sins because he worked in an economic system that was sin itself. He was broken - and I imagine he struggled seeing himself living any other way. 

The Pharisee and the tax collector, when they prayed, used their bodies to mimic the way they existed in the world. Both were distant because they struggled to embrace the fullness of who they were. And who they were wasn’t only centered in what they did, or how they worshipped, or measured by how much they gave away. Their story began with the One who created them and gave them a place to pray. They were, like all of us, made in the image of God. And through that act of creation, that’s where their relationship began - and was strengthened and reformed through the One who continues to break through the distance we put between ourselves, God, and each other. As Christians, Jesus invites us to accept the fullness of our story - the good and the bad. And we are also called to accept the fullness of other people’s stories - not as we imagine them to be but as they truly are. When Temple Beth Sholom invited a group of us into their worship space to pray, we found ourselves doing more than just offering support. We also saw, in real time, the distance we’ve put between us, narrow. We can, because of our faith, reform our relationships with ourselves and with our neighbors. And we can, through Jesus, grow to see all people as made in God’s image. 





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Persist: Who God Is [Sermon Manuscript]

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Luke 18:1-8

Pastor Marc's sermon on the Nineteeth Sunday after Pentecost (October 20, 2019) on Luke 18:1-8. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


So I started writing this sermon a few minutes before the Yankees took the field last night for game six in the American League Championship series. Now, while I was writing, I had no idea how the game would turn out. But I couldn’t help but wonder if my writing about the game while it was going on might, somehow, jinx it. (And I'm sorry.) Even though I don’t root for either the Yankees or the Astros, I have quite a few friends that do. And during every game of this series, many of those friends were busy posting their predictions and arm-chair analysis on social media. Yet there were a few diehard fans who made sure to go the extra spiritual mile when it came to the ALCS. On Friday night, someone I know made sure to bring the biggest fan he knew to the fifth game: his mom. She was there, decked out in all her Yankee gear, except for her hat - which she left at home sitting next to a sacred Jesus candle. She also brought with her what he called her “playoff rosary,” a string of blue prayer beads she could pray through while the game was going on. It’s safe to say that she is a persistent faithful Yankee fan, ready to do all she can - physically and spiritually - to support her team. And it seemed, at least during game five, as if her persistence paid off because by the time they found their seats, her Yankees were already up 4 to 1. 

When it comes to sports, it’s pretty normal to ritualize our persistent support. We might find ourselves, after watching our team win a game that no one thought possible, doing whatever we can to help them win again. But since most of us aren’t actually on the field or able to make any real decisions that might influence the game, we find other ways to support our team. We make sure, for instance, to wear the exact same shirt we wore when they had that amazing come from behind victory. Or, when we’re at work, we arrange all our dust collectors and papers the way they were when we heard our favorite player make that incredible play. We also might find ourselves Tebowing in prayer every time our team takes the field even though it feels a tad weird to ask God to intervene in sports. On game days, ritualizing our behavior is just something we do because being a persistent fan takes work. But that’s also what makes being a fan so much fun. Our life with our team - with all its rituals, celebrations, and even tears - is something amazing that we get to do. 

Today’s reading from the gospel according to Luke begins in an odd place because it starts with an explanation. Before we even hear Jesus speak, Luke lets us what he thinks the parable was all about. As helpful as that might be, this kind of pre-explanation before we read Jesus’ words might make us miss what God wants to tell us. So one thing I like to do whenever we find a verse telling us what the next story is all about, is to skip that verse. Instead of starting with “then Jesus told them a parable about…,” we can start with “Jesus said.” And the first words out of his mouth was the beginning of a story set in a city where an unjust judge had set up shop. This judge thought he was accountable to no one yet he had the power and the authority to make whatever he wanted - happen. But the only case we hear him pay attention to was centered on a widow demanding justice. Yet all we hear is her request. We never learn the details about her situation or discover what justice, in her case,  would look like. All we know is that this widow who lacked the judge's authority and power, kept coming to him, demanding that he do the right thing. At first, he does nothing because he doesn’t really have to do anything. He can just be his unjust self. Yet day in and day out, the persistent widow made sure to keep interrupting his daily life. He had the power and the authority and the will to ignore her. Yet like every good community organizer or civil rights’ protester, she kept coming back because the persistent demand can sometimes be the most powerful tool we have to change the world. The judge, in the end, does change his mind but only out of a deep sense of self-interest. He gave her justice because he no longer wanted to waste his energy telling her no. In the end, he, like the widow, never stopped being exactly who he was. Yet it was because they were who they are, that, in the end, helped make justice, finally come. 

One of the dangers of a text like this one is that we often misuse it, thinking Jesus was telling his followers to just pray more. Yet I know that many of us know exactly what it’s like to live with persistent prayers that seem to go unanswered. We often find ourselves staying up way too late thinking that if we prayed more, or went to church more, or if we gave money to that televangelist on TV, then maybe the crisis we are currently in wouldn’t have come. It’s normal, and completely human, to think that our prayers should make God do what we want. And to hope that we could, through our persistence, somehow wear God down, so that what we want might finally come true. 

But that approach to prayer isn’t, I think, what Jesus was trying to get at here. It wasn’t only the act of prayer that he was pointing to. Rather, he wanted us to know and understand and fully grasp that God is exactly who God promises to be. And because God is our God, we get to persist in bringing to God every prayer, tear, crisis, and joy that we have. We have, through our baptism and our faith, been united with a God who made sure that Jesus persisted in this world through the whole spectrum of human life. From birth, to growing up, to relationships, and even to death - Jesus lived a very human life. But he didn’t do this because God, somehow, needed to be changed. Rather, God knew that the only way to break the cycle of us trying, and failing, to persistently come towards God was for God to come to us. Jesus came to show us exactly who God is - a God who feeds; a God who heals; a God who welcomes; a God who offers justice; and a God who promises to, in the end, carry us through whatever life might throw our way. We get to persist with our God because we, as we are, are loved. And that’s the kind of love that can hold all our ups and downs, all our rituals and superstitions, and all the times we find ourselves in the top of the 9th down 4 to 2 with our prayers being the only thing we can hold on to. Because our God is, truly, God. And we get to live all our life with God because God has already promised to live all our life with us. 



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