Questions and Reflections

Category: Lent

Disrupt Lent (Sermon Manuscript)

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

Pastor Marc's sermon for Ash Wednesday (March 6, 2019) on Matthew 6:1-6,16-21. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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One of the most trendy and completely overused terms in business is “disruptive innovation.” It was originally coined in 1995 to describe the kind of technology that subverts an existing industry and eventually replaces it. For example, the first cars in the late 19th century were amazingly innovative but they didn’t replace the horse and buggy market because cars were really expensive. But once Ford started to mass produce cars with the innovation of the assembly line, the horse and buggy went the way of, well, the horse and buggy. Since the late 1990s, tons of startup companies and inventors have tried to make a lot of money with so-called “innovations” that “disrupt” the market. Sometimes, it worked. Uber and Lyft, the ride-hailing companies, really did disrupt and subvert the taxi industry. But other “innovations” really didn’t. A few months ago, a company wanted to put fancy vending machines filled with deodorant, laundry detergent, ramen noodles, and basically everything you find at a neighborhood store or a bodega - in apartment buildings. At the time, they seemed like they wanted to “disrupt the bodega” which is an industry that, as someone who relied on them while living in NYC, doesn’t really need much disrupting. Some churches, also, want to find some kind of “disruptive innovation” that would reinvigorate what the Christian faith is all about. We want to “disrupt church” and make it more meaningful in the lives of those around us. I saw an attempt at this recently when the actor Chris Pratt, from Guardians of the Galaxy, posted online about something he tried. He shared with all his fans about his experience with the “Daniel Fast” which is based on a handful of verses from the book of Daniel. The Daniel Fast usually takes place in January and is supposed to grow your faith and your sense of well-being by encouraging you to eat less, pray more, and work on your connection to Jesus Christ. It’s a movement that’s been around for a few years and it even has its own website, how-to-guide, and devotional book. Yet, it basically sounds like a program reinviting what we believe Lent is all about. And instead of spending 40 days (46 if you include Sundays) on Lent, the Daniel Fast let’s you do all similar things in only half the time. In the words of a friend, the Daniel Fast is an attempt to “disrupt Lent.” And it’s not the only one. A colleague reported seeing a similar kind of devotional book for Christians who don’t practice Lent to use in the 21 days leading up to Easter. There’s a desire, by some, to repackage this season of the church year, turning it into a program that will give us the results we want. We fast to make ourselves slimmer, we read some bible verses out of context so that we can feel more spiritual, and we do it all 21 days because 40 is too long for our attention span. But when we disrupt Lent, we actually end up doing the opposite of what Lent is all about. Lent isn’t about doing more, trying to aim for something we can get; Lent is about rooting ourselves in a season to discover what we already have.

Tonight’s reading from the gospel according to Matthew is the middle part of Jesus’ sermon that Matthew uses to frame everything that comes next. In a sense, Jesus is upfront about how his life, his teachings, and how his death will disrupt the expectations we all have. He started the sermon in chapter 5 with the beatitudes, the verses about “blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn,” and blessed are those who we don’t see as being blessed. Jesus inverts our expectations, showing us how we can have a different kind of life once we re-discover who God is and who we really are. And that experience isn’t always easy and doesn’t, necessarily, make us comfortable. Tonight’s verses from Matthew chapter 6 asks us to spend time realizing what we want and what we expect. In Jesus’ day, the wider community understood the world in terms of honor and shame. The relationships people had with one another were rooted in a sense of what you could get from someone and what you could give. There was an entire system of patronage, of using what you could give and what you could get as a way of building personal loyalties and personal brands that the entire community chose to embrace. Being seen while in prayer was important. Being known as someone who gave generously mattered. Having other people watch you do your faith out loud was part of what society was about. If you weren’t being seen, then it was as if it didn’t happen. And if no one knew it happened, why do it in the first place?

That, I think, is why Jesus moves to treasure at the end of tonight’s reading. Treasure isn’t only limited to gold, silver, and how well our investments in the stock market are doing. Our treasure is also those things, experiences, and realities that we choose to keep. They’re what we work hard to cultivate and what we choose pay attention to. Your treasure is what you chose to tend. And what we tend, in the end, reveals who we are.

That kind of revelation takes time to discover because we have to be honest about what we’re trying to get and also what we try to give. Are we generous with our neighbors? Are we willing to give ourselves grace? Are we intentional with our faith or do we just sort of go with the flow? What do we put our trust in? And do we only care about what we get? None of these questions are easy but they’re not meant to be. Because the season of Lent is a season designed to disrupt us just like Jesus disrupts our expectations of what faith, life, and love are all about. These next forty days and six Sundays are an invitation to take ourselves, our lives, and our faith seriously.

And we choose to start this process with a little bit of ash, mixed with olive oil, on our foreheads. Most of us don’t usually wear a lot of ash. Yet tonight, the ashen cross will disrupts what we normally do. The next time we look in a mirror, we don’t see who we usually expect to see. Instead, we will re-discover what was first given to us. The ashen cross, like some kind of divine blacklight, reveals what we have: and that’s Jesus. In your baptism, you were marked on the forehead with the sign of the cross and sealed with the entirety of Jesus’ story. You were given a new life that doesn’t let your limitations or expectations be the end to your story. In the Cross, we discovered how far God goes to show each of how much we’re loved. And it’s that kind of love which has the power to turn what we get into what we can give. In Jesus, the world was disrupted. In Jesus, our old way of living has been replaced. We are not the sum of our expectations. We’ve been loved by too hard and too much let ourselves be the only ones that define our story. When we Lent, when we cling to God, and when we follow Jesus to wherever Jesus takes us, we end up tending to a new reality where you, me, and the entire world end up being as treasured as God knows we should be.

 

Amen.

 



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A Reflection for Good Friday

Tonight’s worship is one filled with silence. We begin by entering this sacred moment without speaking. The service then starts abruptly, without the prelude of music we’re used to. The opening of tonight’s worship isn’t designed to break the silence. Instead, we’re invited to live into it. Every word we speak, song we sing, and prayer we offer is a moment filled by a heavy silence. It’s a silence that reminds us of who we are, who Jesus is, and why we share our life with a crucified savior.

I invite you, over the next 36 hours, to hold this silence. Before too long, the silence will end with the rolling away of the stone on a beautiful Easter morning. Easter has already come. We know that the silence will be broken. But we shouldn’t rush to Easter too quickly. The silence that marked Jesus’ final moments on the cross and his time in the tomb is a silence God chose to live through. There are moments of our lives that we cannot rush through. Instead, we need to live through them. Jesus chose to live the moments we cannot rush through. Because when God chose to live a human life, God lived through every part of it.



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Freedom of a Christian: Part 2

There is a tendency in the world of spirituality to split a person into parts. You are not only a person; you also have a spirit, soul, heart, brain, emotions, passions, body, flesh, and more. Each part of our humanity is compartmentalize so that it lives on its own. Then, when we look at each other, we assume that we are all just separate pieces barely holding together. We assume that God looks at us the same way. Faith deals with the different parts of us (our soul, our spirit, our beliefs) in different ways. This splitting up of the human person is an old idea. It comes from Plato, an ancient Greek philosopher, who put an ideal world (the place of the soul) in competition with the real world. The real world is broken, messy, and imperfect. The abstract/spirit world is perfect and the goal of life is to live (and get) to that perfect world. This thinking still exists in the church. When we talk about the afterlife, heaven is described as a nicer version of our world. Sometimes, when we feel tension in our lives, we quote Matthew 26:41 - "the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak." When we split ourselves into different parts, we act as if these different parts matter in different ways to God. We say that God cares more about our soul than our body. We claim that our broken body gets in the way of our faith. Faith is a mater only for the soul and it mostly ignores (or criticizes) our body. When we separate ourselves into parts, we believe that God cares only about part of us as well. 

In Freedom of a Christian, Luther borrowed the language of soul and body. But unlike his peers, Luther refused to separate the two. Instead, he considered the whole human person. You are a body, mind, spirit, and heart. You are a totality. You experience life as a complete unit and people experience you as a complete unit too. In this passage from the Freedom of a Christian, Luther is talking about the spiritual connection faith brings us. But this faith does more than keep our soul close to God. This faith, like a heated iron that glows when it is placed in fire, causes our entire being to love God and serve our neighbor. Faith, for the Christian, is the fuel for everyday living. With faith, we can love. With faith, we can serve. And the faith that God gives us is a gracious gift, helping us to do the impossible: trust that, through everything, God is still here and that God still oves. 



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Tempted By the Fruit of Another: Lent is about admitting life's hard moments

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Mark 1:9-15

My sermon from First Sunday in Lent (February 18, 2018) on Mark 1:9-15. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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So if it’s okay, I’d like to do something a tad different today. In honor of Mark’s version of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness being the shortest version we have, I’m going to be a little shorter today too. At merely 1 verse in length, Mark’s description of Jesus’ time in the wilderness lacks the details we might expect. Mark tells us that Satan, the devil, tempted Jesus but we don’t really know what that means. Matthew and Luke will expand that story, giving us details about what Satan will do to the Son of God. But Mark doesn’t do that. Mark, instead, gives us an intriguing detail, inviting us to use our imagination to visualize, expand, and dig into what that detail might mean. And then Mark rushes to the next thing. Jesus was in the wilderness, hanging out with wild animals in an untamed place where only God could be in control - and then Jesus learned that John the Baptist was arrested. John, as we find out later, spoke out against the sexual coercion and abuse the king did in his quest for more power and control. The king tried to silence John only to have Jesus respond instead. Jesus in Mark jumps quickly from his baptism to his preaching and teaching in the world. And If we read this passage too quickly, we might think we’re supposed to skip over those 40 days that are full of trials, hardships, dangers, and mystery. If we read too fast, we can skip past the evil, skip over struggle, and just move on to the next part of the story. But sometimes moving on is something we can’t do. Sometimes we’re in that wilderness, in that evil, in that struggle, and in that place where life is hard. There are times when living through our life rather than just skipping over to the next part is the only thing we can do. And when we’re caught up in those moments, that doesn’t mean God loves us less.

Kate Bowler is a professor of North American Religion at Duke Divinity School. She just released a new book that I haven’t read but it is on its way to my house. It’s called “Everything happens for a reason and other lies I’ve loved.” It’s a memoir of sorts because Kate found herself, at the age of 35 married, with a 1 year old, working her dream job, and living her best shiny and bright life - and then she was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. She’s still undergoing treatments but is actively promoting her book, giving interviews, and even launched her own podcast. Her writing and interviews are rooted in being where she’s at: caught up in this moment where her mortality is very real, very present, and where she has to make decisions she never expected to make. She can’t skip or spend her energy on the next part of the story that’s all shiny and bright. She’s living in a moment that’s hard. And she knows it’s hard. And she values those around her who say, out loud, that this is hard. And awful. And full of mystery. If I was describing her story, I’d say she’s living in the wilderness, living in an untamed place, living in her version of Lent but that doesn’t mean God loves her less.

This living in Lent...living in what is hard...is not an easy thing to do. If we had our choice, we won’t really want to be there. Who wants to struggle, and cry, and know that we might not get back to the way we were? Who wants to have to admit that life is going to keep getting harder? And who wants to know how broken they truly are? In a world where every moment is supposed to be about living your best life, living in Lent seems downright strange. Because when we live in Lent, we admit who we truly are. We admit that life isn’t always shiny and bright. And we admit that we will struggle, that we will make mistakes, and that we will try to run away from what’s hard. But there’s one more admission we get to make. We know and trust that we are not the only one who lived through Lent, lived with struggle, and lived with suffering. We know that Jesus did too. And his 40 days with the wild beasts, Satan, and temptation was just one of his Lents, one of many moments when life was hard - like when his friends left him, and denied him, and when he suddenly found himself alone. Jesus didn’t rush through his Lents and he doesn’t ask us too either.

Instead, Jesus knows there are moments when life is hard. There are moments when we wish we could skip to the next part of our story. Living in Lent means living in what’s hard, in what might feel untamed, wild, and full of grief. It’s a moment we aren’t asked to like. And this moment might last way longer than just 1 verse or 40 days or even a decade. But even when we are caught up in those moments, we are not living in them alone. Because the Jesus who was in his wilderness is in yours too. And he isn’t trying to only help you survive. Jesus is here to love us through our Lent and he bring us to the other side.

 

Amen.

 



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Spring Forward: Pastor Marc's Newsletter Reflection for March

I'm never ready for a time change. The one in the fall is easier to live with—an extra hour of sleep or an opportunity to re-live an hour (if we're night owls) so we can get that one moment right. Falling back is awesome. But in early March, the opposite happens. We actually lose time. In fact, I lose more than just an hour. I spend the entire Saturday before the time change lamenting my upcoming loss of sleep. And then I spend all night worried that my alarm clock will not go off and I'll wake up after church has already started. When I spring forward in March, I don't spring forward joyfully. I feel more like I'm being launched, unwillingly, into a future I'm not exactly ready for.

Being launched into a future we're not ready for is a good foundation for Lent. Lent is a time for prayer, reflection, fasting and repenting. But why? I think one answer is because we don't know exactly what tomorrow will bring. We don't know what adventure we'll be called to embrace. We don't know if some crisis will arise that changes who we are and what we know. We don't know if tomorrow will be different or if tomorrow will feel just like today. And even though we might feel confident today, there's no way we are ever truly prepared for all the possibilities of what tomorrow can bring.

But Lent is an opportunity to more fully experience one part of who we are. We are God's. We are Christ's. We don't know what we'll be asked to spring forward into but we do know that, no matter what, Jesus is there with us. Lent is usually called as a time to repent. But repenting is more than just feeling sorry for doing something wrong. Repent is really about turning back towards God. When we repent, we turn away from where we think we should go and, instead, turn back towards the promises of God that are ours to begin with. When we turn back, we look forward into God's future which has a place for all of us. Spring forward by springing back into God and live into that love that God gives us every day.



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A Reflection for Ash Wednesday

When you get home tonight, I invite you to not wash your face right away. Instead, do your normal evening routine. Put the kids to bed, wash the dishes, and watch your favorite shows on Netflix. Have a late dinner or an early snack, continue that book you read, or if you're reading the bible in a year, try to catch up on your reading. I invite you to be yourself after church tonight because, even in your normal evening routine, Christ is with you. 

Ash Wednesday is a day when we make Christ's promise to us visible on our foreheads. When this congregation baptizes an infant, child, or adult, we mark each baptized individual with the sign of the cross on their forehead. The pastor takes a little oil, places it on their thumb, and gently marks their head. The oil doesn't last long. The water from the baptism usually makes the oil hard to stick and, in the pictures and celebration that follows, the oiled cross vanishes. But even though the visible sign vanishes, the promise doesn't. When we are marked with Christ's cross, we are marked with the promise that God is with us. Christ's willingness to live and di for us is given to us even if we never step foot in a church again. We might give up on God but God promises to never give up on us. This seal is ours forever and the ashes on Ash Wednesday serve as a visible reminder for God's eternal promise. 

Tonight kicks off the season of Lent. This is the night to remember who we are and who's we are. When the time comes to wash your face, to remove the ashen cross from your forehead, let the water remind you of our baptism and that God's love is all around you. 



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A Reflection on Lent

We're about to start a 46 day journey. 

Today, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of Lent. We tend to talk about Lent being 40 days but if you take a look at a calendar, you'll notice that Easter is 46 days away. The answer is that Sundays during Lent don't "count." Sundays are always reserved as holy days where we celebrate Jesus risen from the tomb. Sundays are always days of joy and abundance, where we proclaim God's overflowing love for us and the world, and our need for God's grace in our lives. Each week of Lent, then, is six days of pilgrimage towards the joy of the seventh day.

And that journey towards God is the point of Lent. I like that Sundays break up our forty day period. We're reminded, over and over again, that we are a people who are loved by God and that such proclamation, and love, is a joyous thing. Lent isn't just a time to be hard on ourselves. Nor is Lent a time when we give up something we enjoy to just feel miserable and post about it on Facebook. Lent is about that journey to God - that journey to Sunday. It's about being intentional and recognizing our need for God in our lives. It's about knowing that our life is a journey to God and with God. It's about taking the time to see God's presence in our lives and to celebrate God's love for us in abundant ways. 

This Lent, I invite you to take on a practice that will help support your journey with God. Read the Gospel of Mark, a book our Confirmands are reading right now. Pick up a series of Lenten devotions called "Grace and Peace" and spend 10 minutes every morning reading and praying with them. Make a commitment to visit church every Sunday, checking in on social media, and letting your friends know that you are being fed here. Come, let's celebrate our journey to God and see, in Christ, God's journey to us. 



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