Questions and Reflections

Category: John

In The Present: Jesus Isn't Pretend [Sermon Manuscript]

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?" (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, "Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me."

John 12:1-8

Pastor Marc's sermon on the 5th Sunday in Lent (April 7, 2019) on John 12:1-8. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


On Thursday morning, I was sitting in my office in the middle of a conference call when odd messages started popping up. At first, these messages showed up in my email. But then came the texts. And before you know it, I was getting phone calls, asking me weird questions about something I didn’t really understand. Many different people from this church seemed to be responding to an email I never sent. They wanted to know why I, out of the blue, needed them to buy some gift cards. I didn’t and that’s when I realized we were being scammed. Now, as a pastor, I’m used to being scammed. Every few weeks or so, I receive an email or phone call from someone asking for money. Since asking for help is one of the hardest things a person can do, I have a personal policy where I believe every story someone tells me. I believe them when they mention their recent medical trauma. I believe them when they describe the family they’re taking care of. I believe them when they talk about the tank of gas they need to make it to their next job interview. And I believe them when they mention they only need a hotel room for one night because they’ve got a place lined up right after that. I believe them because that’s sometimes true. And when I let them know how I can help, you can hear the tone of their voice change when they suddenly realize they’re being heard. But when a scam is taking place, that’s all pretend. The story we’re told isn’t real no matter how much detail they put into it. A scammer knows how to use our trust, our relationships, and our empathy against us. Someone went to our church website, noticed my contact information, and created a fake gmail account pretending to be me. They then, I think, tried to find email addresses for anyone listed on our website. When they found one, they immediately sent that person a note, hoping you believed it came from me. Once you replied, their ask would follow. All they needed was for you to go buy a few gift cards and send them electronically. At that point, it probably felt weird because I was asking you something I’ve never asked before and the emails I sent you never used your name. But, you’d ask yourself, what if Pastor Marc was really asking for help? And that’s exactly what the scammer hoped you would think. They tried to use the strength of our relationship and your generous nature to make a quick buck for themselves. Once your money was sent, it was as good as spent - and the scammer would go find another faith community to target in the same exact way.

When it comes to scams, if something feels off, it probably is. As your pastor, I would not personally ask you to buy gift cards via email nor act as if I didn’t know who you are. When it comes to emails, phone calls, and anything we see online, we need to approach these situations with the same kind of suspicion we bring to the internet every April Fool’s Day. If it feels weird, it probably is. Our feeling of unease in those moments is not something we should quickly push aside. Instead, we should stay there, knowing that sitting with unease isn’t comfortable but it can be holy. And that kind of holy moment might actually be a gift from God.

Today’s reading from the gospel according to John asks us to sit with a lot of unease. In the verses immediately prior to this one, people wondered if Jesus would risk coming to the Passover festival knowing that the religious and political authorities were planning to arrest him. What they didn’t realize was that he was already on his way. A few days before Passover, Jesus stopped in the village of Bethany, two miles outside of Jerusalem. Jesus’ old friends Lazarus, Mary, and Martha lived there and so they invited him to dinner. I imagine their meal was full of the kind of conversation, laughter, and joy that only comes when we dine with old friends. Yet, Jesus was eating with someone that wasn’t only a friend. He was breaking bread with the man that he, a few chapters before, raised from the dead. That dinner party in Bethany was a moment that shouldn’t have happened. Yet because Jesus was at the table, our expectations were replaced by the new thing God was doing. The unease we feel when we realize who was on that guest list is how we notice how holy that moment already was. Without our unease, Mary’s response to Jesus seems a little weird and a bit off. But when we pull up a chair and take our place at His table, Mary’s response to Jesus is the only reasonable response when God shows up.

Because when God shows up, there’s nothing about it that’s pretend. Jesus is never anything but Jesus no matter where he is. He’s Jesus when he’s raising Lazarus from the dead and he’s still Jesus when he’s sitting at Lazarus’ table, chewing on a piece of bread. Jesus is the one who patiently taught his disciples even though they never quite knew who he was. And Jesus is Jesus when he’s welcoming the unwelcomed, offering them seat at the Lord’s table. Jesus was Jesus back then on his final journey to Jerusalem and he’s still Jesus, right now, when he shows up in our lives, in the bread, in the drink, and in the ways we love one another. Jesus never takes a day off from being himself even though he knows the risk being Jesus entails. Not everyone will choose to sit with his guest list nor will we always trust that the gifts of faith, hope, love will transform us into something new. We will, through our own experiences of sin and brokenness, believe that being as wise as serpents means we can never truly be as gentle as doves. We will be scammed and, over time, use that as an excuse to live a life thinking we’re safeguarding ourselves from death but, in reality, we’re denying ourselves true life. In the words of Michael Koppel, “so often we... store up precious resources - whether material, spiritual, or emotional - with the intention to use them eventually, yet the activity of saving can itself consume our lives and limit the opportunity for the outpouring of gifts. Our inclination may be to hold back, [afraid] that sharing the resources means losing them, unaware that some resources can become activated only through wholehearted offering.” When we are in the presence of Jesus, can we truly hold back? Mary couldn’t help but be grateful for God’s presence around and within her even though she knew the kinds of scams people played. Mary refused to let what others do be what defined her. Instead, she leaned on Jesus who never stopped being Jesus to her. As we go about our lives, we will face many situations that feel a little bit off, filling us with unease. But we can trust that unease because that might be how God shows us a new holy moment in our lives and how Jesus is already with us, leading the way.




*Quotes from Feasting on the Gospels: John, Volume 2.


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Annual New Jersey State Exempt Association's Memorial Service

[Jesus said:] "I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid."

John 14:25-27

Pastor Marc's homily for the New Jersey State Exempt Association's Annual Memorial Service (April 6, 2019) on John 14:25-27. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


At the start of every Lent, which begins 46 days before the great celebration of Easter, you’ll find the faithful from many different flavors of Christianity walking around with what looks like a black smudged cross on their forehead. Some of the smudges will be pretty good and look like an actual cross. But others will be a bit different. Some are either misshapen, super light, or so dark that you see little chunks of something grainy on the forehead. That imperfectness is proof that these crosses were not self-applied. Rather, people gathered in churches, at street corners, and on train station platforms to have a priest or a pastor pray for them and use a thumb or finger to trace a cross on their foreheads. The blacken cross is a sign of our mortality; it’s a symbol of mourning and grief; and it’s a reminder of the promise that the God who loves the world also loves you. The blacken mark on the forehead isn’t made with makeup, mascara, or even magic marker. Instead, that cross is made from something you, as firefighters, know very well. It’s made of ash.

Now, the ash we use at Christ Lutheran is black, finely sifted, and mixed with olive oil so that when I spread it on your forehead, it will literally leave a mark. Some years, the ashen crosses look the way their supposed to. But other times, not so much. Even though my artistic skills might be lacking, the ash itself is made the same way, every year. It’s our tradition to save the palm branches we waved in the air on Palm Sunday, the beginning of the final week before Easter. We place these leftover branches in a safe place and let them dry out for almost a year. And then, on the day before Ash Wednesday, you’ll find me in the parking lot with a metal coffee can, a bundle of dried palm branches, a big pitcher of water, and a few matches. Every year, I think I know how to make good ashes. Yet the process always throws me for a loop. This year, I found myself with a pile of matches that refused to stay lit. Everyone that I lit would burn bright for a second before going out. After awhile, I had exactly one match left and I prayed this one would finally take. I held my breath. It lit. And it didn’t go out. I gently dropped it into the center of the coffee can filled dried palm branches. For a minute, nothing happened. But then, in a flash, everything changed. The palms were engulfed in flames. Everything burned. And I was left with a hot metal can full of ashes.

That flash, that moment when everything changed, is what Jesus was talking about in our reading from the gospel according to John. These few verses are part of a larger conversation he was having with his disciples. Jesus gathered them together to share a meal, to wash their feet, and to prepare them for what’s coming next. None of Jesus’ followers expected him to die. They assumed he would be victorious in the way we expect the king of king and the lord of lords, to be. But the Jesus in John always knows what’s going to happen next. So before his arrest and before the Cross, Jesus wanted to say farewell. Jesus spent almost 3 whole chapters saying the same thing over and over again. He told those who followed him that everything was about to change but that God’s love for them, and for the world, never would. Jesus, in the end, wasn’t saying goodbye. His death would not be their end. Instead, it would be part of a new beginning where the Holy Spirit would come to give them peace. When their world felt like it had turned upside down, they would discover they were not alone. Jesus promised to send them “an advocate, a helper, one who offers support when we most need it and least know where to find it.” In the moment when everything changes, God would send someone to bring God’s love and peace.

So often, when we think of this advocate, we look up, towards the clouds, looking for some divine sign to come from above. But I’m not sure that looking up is what God always has in mind for us. We need, I think, to turn our head downwards and to look at each other. We have, as beloved Children of God, been given a job, a divine vocation, to bring peace to those in need. The Holy Spirit isn’t always manifested as some mighty sign from above. It can also come to us in a more human form when we suddenly see the bearers of God’s gifts and love right in front of us.

I don’t need to tell you about the many times you’ve found yourself in that moment when someone’s forever has changed. You, as firefighters, have answered the call to bring peace and hope in those moment when it feels as if no peace can be found. From burning buildings to car accidents to being in the right place, at the right time, when someone’s life needs to be saved - your commitment to your calling, to your service, and your sacrifice, does not go unseen or unheard. We are gathered here today to remember those who knew the risks when they answered God’s call to love and serve their neighbors. We give thanks for them and we celebrate their call, and your call, to be exactly who God wanted you to be - to be firefighters - to be peace bringers - to be an advocate, a helper, and the one who provides a way through for those who cannot find it. As a follower of Jesus, I can’t help but see the Holy Spirit and the love of Christ in each of you. You are God’s bringers of peace. And I pray that we all work to bring more of that divine peace into our lives, into our neighborhoods, into our cities, so that it can cover the whole world.



*Quotes from Feasting on the Gospels: John, Volume 2.


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Truth is a Person: Pontius Jesus Politics [Sermon]

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”

John 18:33-38a

Pastor Marc's sermon for Christ the King Sunday (November 25, 2018) on John 18:33-38a. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


There are no Republicans or Democrats in the Bible - but the Bible is full of politics. Politics, in its broadest sense, is how we make, preserve, and modify the general rules under which we live. (See Andrew Heywood's book). These rules, spoken or unspoken, show up whenever groups of people live or work together. As human beings, we need each other. But that doesn’t mean we always get along. Our rival opinions, competing needs, and different wants leads to conflict, cooperation, and more conflict. We team up with each other, form factions against one another, and use every skill we have to “win” whatever conflict we’re in. Politics are the rules, expectations, and activities that form and shape how we work - or how we don’t work - with each other. Now as a faith community located in the United States, it’s not hard to hear the word “politics” and immediately think of political parties, recent elections, and which family members we avoided talking politics with during last Thursday’s Thanksgiving dinner. Politics is also something, we think, the church should avoid because politics feels partisan, biased by whatever political leanings and political party we identify with. We tell ourselves that politics doesn’t belong in the church so we seek out the “spiritual” meaning of every text in the Bible that we read on Sunday mornings. But when we only look for the spiritual, we miss the political realities that impacted Jesus’ life and ministry. Today’s text from the gospel according to John is a political text. And we can’t discover it’s spiritual meaning until we are honest about the political reality that informed Pilate’s first words to Jesus: “Are you the King of the Jews?”

Now, if you were meeting Jesus face-to-face for the first time, what would your question be? It could be anything yet I’m pretty sure none of us would ask Pilate’s question. Pontius Pilate, as we remember, was a Roman governor who ruled Jerusalem and the surrounding communities during Jesus’ years of public ministry. Pilate was appointed by the Emperor and he embodied Roman authority, control, and military might. He was the Emperor’s representative when the Emperor wasn’t around. And when Pilate spoke, everyone in Syria, Judea, and the Middle East listened. Pilate’s governor mansion wasn’t based in Jerusalem. However, when the Jewish festival of Passover took place, Pilate moved into the city with a large cohort of soldiers. They were there to provide security, crowd control, and to keep everyone in line. Gigantic religious events had a tendency to encourage riots, conflict, and revolts. So Pilate was ready to eliminate any threat, no matter how small it seemed. Jesus had also recently arrived in the city. After teaching in the Temple and sharing a final meal with his friends, he was betrayed by Judas and arrested. After being convicted in a trial overseen by the religious authorities, Jesus was handed over to Roman power. Pilate didn’t care if Jesus was a spiritual leader. And he wasn’t looking for any religious advice. Pilate wanted to know if Jesus was a threat. And since the religious leaders had handed Jesus over to him, Pilate already assumed he was. Pilate’s first question, out of the gate, was a political one. He wanted to know if Jesus claimed any kind of authority that would challenge Rome’s rule. Pilate could only imagine the world as he knew it to be. And any king in his world needed certain things. A king needed territory, followers, and resources. A king needed an army willing to kill on his behalf. A king, in Pilate’s mind, needed to inspire fear, conflict, and co-operation in those they ruled. And if Jesus could do any of that, then he would be a king and he would challenge Rome’s monopoly on that power.

Pilate, as depicted in the gospel according to John, wasn’t interested in the truth. His questions to Jesus were not a gentle inquiry into Jesus’ life, ministry, and mission. Instead, it was an interrogation because Pilate needed to confirm Jesus’ identity as a threat. Pilate knew how his world worked and as the Emperor’s representative, the truth he knew was centered in power, control, and someone “winning” every conflict - no matter what. What Pilate couldn’t see, or chose not to see, was the truth right in front of him. And that truth wasn’t a what, an idea, or some kind of fact written down on a piece of paper. The truth was a who because, as Jesus shared in John 14:6, he is “the way, the truth, and the life.”

We tend to imagine the outcome of politics as having some kind of material shape. Politics involves people having power and that power is expressed by having authority over others. Politics is made real in a specific location - be it in a city council chamber, in a part of Congress, or even in the unspoken table seating charts dictated in some high school lunchrooms. Politics, we believe, is about controlling domains and forming our own, personal, kingdoms. Yet Jesus’ politics was, and is, different. He came to live out his commitment to a world that was already overseen by him. As part of the Holy Trinity and as the One through whom the entire universe was made, there’s no domain or kingdom or territory that doesn’t already belong to Him. When it comes to God’s creation, there’s no territory that Jesus needs to fight for to control. So Jesus chose to build personal, meaningful, and deep relationships with us since we already live in God’s world. And in the words of Rev. Karoline Lewis, “... Jesus’ Kingdom can be anywhere, anytime that Kingdom behavior is exemplified...lived out...and That Kingdom witness [is] heard and observed.” What Pilate couldn’t see was that Jesus’ kingdom was rooted not in things but in people. Jesus wanted people to connect with God’s ultimate promise to them - that we are loved not because we are perfect but because God is - and that promise...changes everything. It changes how we interact with each other. It changes how we live with our neighbors. It changes how we make, preserve, and modify the general rules under which we live. Rather than being focused on “winning” whatever conflict we’re in, our faith in Jesus compels us to realize that we - on a cosmic and divine level - have already won. So instead of competing with one another, we can choose to love each nother. Instead of seeking out victories over those we disagree with, we can chose to help them thrive. Instead of building walls to give us a fake sense of security, we can work on building bonds of friendship - knowing that those bonds take much more work to create but are the only way to develop lasting peace. We get to be honest about the ways we’ve failed to use our power for good and we get to stand up to racism, sexism, classism, and every-ism that stops us from seeing the image of God in the people around us. And because of our baptism, we get to imagine how our politics can be a way we serve God and our neighbors. Jesus as the truth means that, sometimes the truth we tell, is anything but. Yet when we cling to Jesus, listening to his voice over all others, we find ourselves testify to his truth of forgiveness, mercy, service, and, above all, love.





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Saints: You Are Alive [Manuscript]

When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

John 11:32-44

Pastor Marc's sermon for All Saints' Sunday (November 4, 2018) on John 11:32-44. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


There are a few habits I no longer do that I miss. As a kid, my brother and I would wait until the energy in the air was just right and then we’d setup a board game on our bedroom floor, one that would take us days to complete. Later, in college, there was this one spot, next to the bookstore, that overlooked a small creek. Every time I walked past it, I would stop - letting the sound of the flowing water connect me to a God I did not acknowledge but One who was with me all the same. And for a while, I looked forward to turning on my computer each week, visiting the New York Times’ Style Section, and clicking through a new photo gallery showcasing what Bill Cunningham had seen and photographed. Bill Cunningham was an iconic photographer who you could spot in New York City wearing a bright blue French worker’s jacket and riding a single speed bicycle. A hat designer by trade, Bill knew fashion and he spent decades reporting on what new trends were bubbling up across the world. But what made him unique was the time he spent on the street, trying to find that new and interesting thing that people actually wore. He didn’t spend much time looking at the fancy dresses that an actress might wear on the red carpet for an awards show. Bill was more interested in the shoe or the bag or the silhouette that people wore when they went out. He was, in essence, interested in style - which is not the same as fashion. In Bill Cunningham’s memoir, Hilton Als writes in it’s preface that style is “a certain faith and pride in one’s public persona - ‘the face that I face the world with,’” to quote Tennessee William’s Sweet Bird of Youth. Style is how we showcase “the existential mess and brights spots called [our] ‘I’” - and Bill wanted to discover “what you had made of yourself.” What made his photospreads awesome wasn’t only the creative people he photographed who had a sense of style that I could never copy or dreamup. What you could see in his photographs was his sheer joy at discovering you. Bill was a creative person with an incredible talent yet he spent all his energy looking at and engaging with other people. He could have focused only on himself or used the people around him to create whatever narrative about the world he wanted to tell. Instead, he used his gifts to point forward, to point to the people around him, because the people around us, I think, are needed so that we can live our life in Christ more fully.

Today’s reading from the gospel according to John ends in an odd spot. Lazarus, who was dead, is now alive. I think we usually imagine this scene as being one where Lazarus walked out of the tomb under his own power. He was sick, he died, Jesus rose him from the dead, and Lazarus left the tomb in better shape than when he first entered it. But when we pay attention to the text, our vision of this scene changes. His walk couldn’t have included his normal strides with one foot in front of the other because his feet were tied together. The best he could do as he exited the tomb was probably shuffle his feet forward. And that shuffle was accomplished almost blindly because a piece of cloth covered his head. And since we hear nothing about Lazarus trying to untie his feet or remove the covering on his head, I imagine his hands were bound to him, removing all freedom of movement. Lazarus exited the tomb but he was still constrained by the burial wrapping for it. Jesus’ words, like the ones spoken in the opening chapter of the book of Genesis, have this power to rearrange the cosmos and reorder our expectations of life and death. But that same word, in today’s text, couldn’t remove a piece of cloth from Lazarus’s head or make his walk from the tomb a little easier. It’s possible, I suppose, that a completely wrapped up Lazarus is how Jesus wanted people to verify that Lazarus was once really dead and now was really alive. But if that’s true, once Lazarus stepped out of the tomb and everyone could see who he was, that part of the story should have ended. But it doesn’t. Instead, Jesus leaves Lazarus bound and, while looking at the crowd, he tells all of them to get up - to go to Lazarus - and unbind him. It’s as if this act of God’s resurrection isn’t complete unless those gathered around participate in some way.

Now it’s hard, at first, to imagine how we can do that. Last I checked, very few of us here have ever raised someone from the dead. But we all, I think, have had moments in our life when the people around us have nourished, sustained, or changed our life into something better. We usually don’t define those moments as equal to Jesus rising from the dead. Our small experience of new life feels tiny and inconsequential in comparison. But I bet the people around Lazarus, when told to go and unbind him, thought what they were doing was small and meaningless too. Yet it’s by Jesus’ invitation that we, in whatever way we can, go and do what Jesus did - and that’s give and generate life. Many of us have been given this life - nourishment, housing, knowledge, experience, guidance, love, forgiveness, mercy, and hope - by a long list of mentors, family members, and friends. They, through Jesus, changed us, informed us, and made us better. Some did so in a very intentional ways; others just by being there in our time of need. I bet many of them never realized just how life-giving they were to us. And many of us never realized how life-giving those people were until years later. We will, in a few moments, light candles in memory of those who gave us life. We will place those candles in the sandbox, letting them burn all the way down, because the life they gave us will never be snuffed out. That life is centered, rooted, and grounded in the One who continually, day in and day out, gives us his life - in baptism, in prayer, at the Lord’s table, and in our faith. Jesus’ invitation to the crowd surrounding Lazarus’ tomb was an invitation for all of us to participate with him in the act of giving life. And we can give this life, make it our habit, because we have, through our baptism, been united with Christ’s own eternal life - a life that doesn’t begin only after we die but one that starts right now. Together we are drawn into God’s act of passing on new life by first bearing witness to the many ways life was given to us and those around us. When we see that life, that love, that hope in our neighbor, in our family member, and in the person sitting in the pew next to us, we discover how we can help unbind each other from the hate, evil, violence, and self-centeredness that this world wants to bind us up with. It’s said that “the light that lit Bill [Cunningham] from within...was that of a person who couldn’t believe his good fortune: he was alive.” You, no matter who you are, no matter your doubts, no matter the ways you feel bounded up - you, through Jesus, are alive. You are a vital part of how Jesus is giving, expressing, and sharing His life with the world. And we are invited to work together, to lean on each other, and to trust each other as God resurrects us, this church, and our world by making Jesus’ life and love a habit for all.





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Reflection: A Hard Teaching

What’s difficult about faith?

We might answer this question by first focusing on what’s possible and what’s not. The question becomes a history and science debate. We read Genesis 1-2 (the creation of the world), and realize it doesn’t tell us that the earth is 4 billion years old. We move on from there to Jesus’ story and spend hours looking at star charts, trying to use astrophysics to prove that the Star over Bethlehem really happened. We can’t really do that so we move on, looking at Jesus’ life, and wonder about his miracles. We ask if he could really raise someone from the dead, heal a blind person, and feed over 5000 people with just a few loaves of bread. When these stories fail to match up with what we believe is possible, we start to struggle. The inconsistencies between scripture and “the real world” causes us to say, “I can’t believe.” This debate can feel like it’s a science vs faith issue. But it really isn’t. What we’re doing is taking what we know and wondering what our faith has to say about it. That impulse is completely normal, completely faithful, and is something people have done for thousands of years. Instead of focusing on the question of science and history, we should step back and look at why we’re doing. And that’s because, I think, we know that faith is hard. It’s not easy. Faith isn’t about trying to escape the life’s problems. Rather, faith is about living through them. And as followers of Jesus, what can make faith difficult is sometimes Jesus himself.

In today’s reading from the gospel according to John 6:56-71, the difficult teaching is Jesus’ promise about his body. The disciples do not question his abilities, his faithfulness, or that he’s a teacher from God. But what they can’t fathom is how Jesus’ body connects them to God. We know from our personal experience just how difficult bodies can be. They grow, change, and enable us to do amazing things. But our bodies also get sick, grow old, and wear out. Some of us, through cultural expectations and teachings, learn to dislike our body, wanting it to change. Bodies are very human and bodies do not last forever. Yet it’s through a body, Jesus says, that forms an eternal relationship with the Creator of everything.

For me, the difficult thing about faith is that faith is meant to be lived in our bodies. God chose to enter the world, live in a human body, and to experience life like we do. It’s through a body, through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, that God gives us the faith to trust that we are never on our own. This trust is meant to be experience in our current body, as we are right now. This faith is meant to flow into every nook and cranny that is our sometimes awesome, sometimes broken, body. Faith is not meant to be only an abstract thing. Faith isn’t something we keep in the back of our minds. Our faith is a gift from God lived through our bodies and our words. Jesus lived and died for you as you are. He didn’t live or die for the perfect version of you, the fit version of you, or for the most instagramable version of you. He lived and died for everything that makes you you – and that includes your body. And it’s through baptism, faith, prayer, and being fed ta the Lord’s table, that we discover how the eternal life can be lived, right now, in our non-eternal bodies.


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Reflection: John and Eternal

Last Monday, we hosted an interfaith event called “Welcoming the Stranger.” The event focused on faith and immigration, letting scripture interact with the personal stories of immigrants. After a piece of scripture was read, a reflection was offered by someone who went through the immigration process (including those who were undocumented) or who work with people currently in detention centers. Videos from Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service were used to show how Lutherans from several different denominations have responded over the years to the surge of unaccompanied minors and families who have sought asylum in the US. None of the clergy in attendance preached. Instead, we invited the words of scripture and the words of personal stories to swirl in the air around us. It wasn’t an event designed to provide answers. Rather, it was an event inviting us to, in every experience, ask faith filled questions. 

One of the common themes in the stories we heard was food. Throughout the immigrants’ journey, from its start to their time in detention centers, the food was always poor and there was never enough of it. We know how the lack of food impacts our body and mind. We lose energy, have difficulties processing what other people are saying, and struggle with simple day-to-day tasks. The lack of food increases our stress levels as we worry about where our next meal is coming from. Hunger takes a physical, mental and spiritual toll on us, impacting every area of our life. 

As we listen to Jesus’ words today in John 6:51-58, it’s easy to latch onto the word “eternal” and think “forever.” For us, eternal is a measurement defined by duration. Eternal life is about trying to live forever. There’s a truth to that but there’s another aspect to eternal we sometimes forget. The eternal life Jesus offered wasn’t just about living a long time. Rather, a life with Jesus is filled with value and worth. This kind of life isn’t without struggle. Even those of us who share in Holy Communion will, eventually, die. Yet this life with Jesus is one where our purpose, identity and joy is made real and secure in a savior who is never far from us. We don’t always know what life will bring. We don’t always know when, through no fault of our own, we might need to take a journey that leaves us hungry, scared, and full of doubt. But when we cling to Jesus, trusting that he is with us, we can face our troubles knowing that the struggles we face are not the limit of who we are. We belong to Christ; we are eternally valued; we are loved; and we are, even right now, living our eternal life. 


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Be Excellent To Each Other: one way to find a fuller picture of Jesus

So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Ephesians 4:25-5:2

My sermon from the 12th Sunday after Pentecost (August 12, 2018) on Ephesians 4:25-5:2. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


Over the last few months, my brother has been figuring out our family tree. We know a bunch about my mom’s family and some about my dad’s mom’s family. But when it comes to my dad’s dad, my grandfather, we knew practically nothing. Every few years, we searched various genealogical websites, trying to find something about him and his family. Nothing ever came up until this year. We found this: a copy of my grandfather’s registration card for the military during World War 2. Now that’s a pretty neat and helpful thing to find. It’s got his age, a birthdate, a birthplace - Silver City, New Mexico, and my grandfather’s job: he was a farm laborer. The card also recorded the name of someone who knew where my grandfather was at all times. And that person, Sylvester, is my great-grandfather. This image was our first tangible encounter with our great grandfather - and we both wanted to find out more. My brother spent days looking at census records, newspaper clippings, and whatever else he could find. But it was a struggle because my great-grandfather’s last name kept changing. Even on this draft card, you can see how the printed last name of my grandfather doesn’t exactly match his signature at the bottom. And my great-grandfather’s last name is missing a letter. This problem only gets worse when we look at this image from the 1930 United States’ census. I discovered that my great-grandfather spent time in California and that census takers deleted the first 2 letters of his last name. Sylvester's first name, in the census at least, retained its Mexican spelling and it showed that he, and many of his children, were born in Mexico. They moved to this country at some point but I didn’t know when or where until we found this: an index card recording their border crossing. On February 7, 1917, my great grandfather, my great grandmother, and their kids crossed the border at Columbus, New Mexico. I don’t know why they entered the United States. But they are, on the card, listed as refugees. In 1917, a Mexican Civil War was tearing up Northern Mexico. So it’s not hard to imagine my great-grandfather and his family wanting to escape the bloodshed and violence all around them. They, as family, sought asylum and safety in the United States.

Now, if you look closely at the border crossing card, you’ll see that my great-grandfather’s last name is, once again, spelled differently. And that’s annoying. Yet these constant changes in spelling provide an opportunity for us to engage with these documents in a different way. My encounter with my great-grandfather is bounded by these written words. To uncover the fullness of his story, I need to recognize how the changes in spelling matched his life as an immigrant, and a Mexican, in the United States. To really understand who he was, I needed to see all his words, including their English and Mexican spellings.  

This exercise of looking at how we encounter someone and expanding what that might mean, is a helpful exercise for our faith. For many of us, our encounters with Jesus are bounded by words. These words are the ones we hear on Sunday morning and  the ones we read and feel when we open our bibles and our daily devotionals. We know that Jesus is the Word but our words can sometimes limit what we think Jesus might be like. Instead of seeing Jesus as this expansive, inclusive, and amazing event, we let our words box Jesus in. And I’m saying “our words” because we need to be mindful that when we encounter Jesus in scripture, we’re encountering him in our language which wasn’t originally his. Jesus didn’t speak 21st century English or Spanish. He didn’t know our figures of speech, our idioms, or what emojis we like to end our text messages with. Instead, he spoke Aramaic. And he probably knew Ancient Hebrew and maybe Ancient Greek. Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, made sure that his words were written down and shared through that Ancient Greek dialect that we no longer speak. Our encounters with Jesus’ story happen through a holy, and Spirit guided, translation. But that translation is built on an interpretation of what Ancient Greek and modern day English means. Sometimes, to fully see Jesus and what our life with him might look like, we need to read his story in a different translation or see his story interpreted in a language not our own. We might even need to step into that Ancient Greek text itself. This exercise isn’t always necessary but it’s sometimes helpful. And it makes a difference today  - with this text from Ephesians, where we see the author telling us to be kind.

Now being kind is more than just being nice. Being kind requires us to empathize, care, and serve each other with love and respect. Being kind takes work, sacrifice, and is sometimes a struggle. So there’s something good, life giving, and loving about being kind. But when we look at this text in English, is there much here that is Christ specific? The actions and behaviors that Ephesians describes as good are pretty standard, regardless of our religious beliefs. Not lying to each other, working through our conflicts, and not stealing from each other is good advice for any community, religious or not. Much of these ethical teachings in Ephesians can be reduced to the golden rule: where we treat each other the way we want to be treated. It’s not entirely clear how these kinds of actions, when they include Jesus, make a more unique and holy difference in our lives and in our world.

So it’s at this point when reading the Ancient Greek text becomes helpful. As you can see on the screen, this text from Ephesians in Greek is interesting. And I’ll be the first to admit that I can’t read it. But, with a little help, I was able to place red boxes around two important words in this text. The first box surrounds the word for kind. The second box is for Christ himself. The words in those two boxes look similar. And they are because the words translated as kind and Christ are closely related. When the Ancient church heard this passage in Greek, they smiled because they recognized the wordplay being done through the words kind and Christ. They would, through this more expansive engagement with the text, understand that they were being asked to do more than just be kind. They were, at the same time, being asked to be a Christ to everyone they knew.

Part of being a Christ to each other is going to look like we’re being kind. But there are times when being a Christ to each other means we’re going to need to change our point of view, our expectations, and maybe even our way of life. Being a Christ means we have to be with Christ, spending time with his story, with his words, with his world, and with his people, regardless of where they come from or what they believe. What makes our actions as Christians different from everyone else, is that our service and love for each other is wrapped up in a savior who lived and died so that all people might discover God’s love for them. When we see our faith as an expansive act of love, we uncover a core part of our own story. And that story is not limited by our experiences, our thoughts, what’s happened to us, or even what we found on Our story is Christ’s story because we are Christ’s people and so we love ourselves, each other, and all people as Christ loves us.





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Reflection: Living Bread

I usually don't like my bread when it’s alive. I have a bad habit of buying a baguette and leaving it on my kitchen counter for too long. I always plan to eat it quickly but that plan rarely comes through. After a few days, the baguette evolves and comes alive. Mold forms, usually in a place I can't see at first. When I finally pick it up, I see the mold and toss the bread into the garbage. I swear I'll eat the bread sooner next time. We'll see if I ever listen to my own advice. 

In today's reading from the Gospel according to John 6:41-51, Jesus is "the bread from heaven" and "the living bread" at the same time. As Lutheran Christians who share communion every week, the words "bread from heaven" are understandable. Every Sunday, we gather in Jesus' name and wait to be served at His table. He comes to us through words, songs, bread and drink. We eat his body, and we are physically (and spiritually) fed by him. We will never be able to fully understand the mystery that is holy communion, but we know that when we eat Jesus, we are connecting with a savior who gives everything to us. His life, death and resurrection showed that God will go through anything so that God can love and serve us. God has (and will) feed us spiritually and physically. But have you ever held the piece of bread at communion and think it's alive? 

By calling himself the living bread, Jesus reminds us that he is with us right now. Jesus isn't only important to us in our past or in our future. He is with us in this moment. There is no moment in our lives when Jesus doesn't care about us. And there is no point in time where he isn't with us. He invites us to live a life responding to his presence, mercy and love. God has, and will, give everything to God's people and God's world. The question is whether we will do the same? 


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Reflection: Re-frame

What was the last thing Jesus did for you? 

An interesting part of today’s reading from John 6:24-35 is Jesus’ willingness to engage that question. These verses follow what we heard last week. Jesus fed 5000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish. The crowd tried to make Jesus their king so he fled into the mountains. While there, his disciples decided to get in a boat, leaving Jesus on the seashore. Jesus, though, refused to stay behind. He walked on water, meeting his disciples where they were. They cross the sea and the crowd is not thrilled that Jesus left them. They assemble a small fleet, sail after him, and find Jesus on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. They asked Jesus when he arrived. And Jesus refused to answer the question. Instead, he wondered why they were there in the first place. 

I think it’s easy to listen to Jesus’ rebuke of the crowd and automatically assume we’re not a part of it. As followers of Jesus, we gather at His church every Sunday because we believe. The communion we share is a physical connection to our God. When we participate in holy communion at this church, we are automatically feeding on the bread of eternal life. Just by being here, we feel as if we are in the right crowd. 

But if we examine the motivations in this text seriously, we discover that we are not different from the crowd at all. The crowd came to Jesus because Jesus did something amazing. They felt God in their life and they wanted more. They were fed real food and since we need to eat every day, it would be silly for them to not find Jesus’s. Yet Jesus took their motivations and re-framed it. He knows they are looking at him, wanting to be fed again. So Jesus reminds them they’ve already been fed. They asked for a sign to prove what Jesus could do. But it’s not about what God will do. Rather, faith is fed by what God has already done. 

Imagine if we reframed how we viewed the world. Instead of looking for what God can give us next, what if we looked back at what God has already done? If we noticed all the different ways God feeds us, if we took time to count our blessings, then our present and our tomorrow might be less about what Jesus can do and more about how we can be like Jesus to the crowd around us. 


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Reflection: John is Different

There are actions and stories in Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John that are similar to each other. Jesus is constantly teaching, healing, and feeding people. We sometimes take these stories about Jesus and reduce them to one sentence. This process of condensing stories is helpful. It reminds us of what Jesus did in the past and what he does for us today. But these stories are not always exactly the same in all four gospels. And that difference matters. Today’s reading from John 6:1-21 has two stories that are also in the Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Jesus feeds thousands of people and then walks on water. If we focus only on that one sentence summary of what Jesus does, we miss the details that reveal who Jesus is. For example, in Mark’s version of the feeding of the 5000, Jesus’ disciples are the ones that feed the crowd. But John does things differently. In the gospel according to John, Jesus, not the disciples, is the one who feeds everyone. That a difference and a contradiction. It’s also not the only one. We also notice that, in John, this story takes place around Passover. But in Mark, Passover isn’t to be found. The feeding of the 5000 is an important story but each author of the gospels told the story differently. These differences and contradictions are hard to hold together. But they’re also very important. So why did John write the story in this way?

John is focused on the question: who is Jesus? And his Jesus is the One who has been with God since before the earth was made. Jesus has all the attributes of God, including knowing how the story will turn out. And since Jesus knows the story, Jesus is always in control of it. John’s version can sometimes feel as if Jesus is too divine; like he really isn’t as human as you and I. But all writing about Jesus will fall short because it’s impossible to fully express (and understand) everything there is about Jesus. He is always 100% human and 100% God at the same time. Our words will always struggle to explain this detail of Jesus’ identity. But this struggle is also a gift because it allows Jesus to be as expansive as we need him to be. There are times when we need to know that Jesus knows what it’s like to be hurt, betrayed, and cry. And there are times when we need Jesus to be the One who knows the end of every human story. The different of the stories about Jesus help us discover the many different ways Jesus matters to us. His story, like all our stories, is full of nuance and what looks like contradictions. Yet the constant theme in all our stories about Jesus is who he is, and forever will be, Emmanuel – God with us, for us, and who will never stop loving us.


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