Questions and Reflections

Category: Matthew

And Ever Since Then... [Sermon Manuscript]

When [Jesus and his disciples] had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
 “Tell the daughter of Zion,
 Look, your king is coming to you,
  humble, and mounted on a donkey,
   and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, 
 “Hosanna to the Son of David!
  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
 Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.

Matthew 21:1-11

Pastor Marc's sermon on Palm Sunday (April 5, 2020) on Matthew 21:1-11. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


I don’t usually include props in my sermon but since you’re zoomed in right now, I figured today could be a little different. Before I sat here, I stopped by our church’s utility closet to pick something up. A utility closet is where we store stuff that we use at the church to make sure it stays clean and safe. And our closet is, thanks to the Property Committee, really well organized. It’s full of extension cords, paint rollers, screwdrivers, screws, paper towels, and this - toilet paper. Now toilet paper has been in the news recently because everyone seems to be buying it and no store seems to have it. A few nights ago, someone posted in one of my town’s many facebook groups that the local grocery store had just put out a pallet full of toilet paper. People, of course, were excited and they quickly shared their excitement by leaving comments on the post. Some people thanked the person who shared and then headed to the store. Others made jokes and posted funny pictures. Still more left comments lamenting our current situation. And then there additional people wondering why so many people were hoarding toilet paper that they didn’t need. Those last comments are one of the stories we’ve been telling ourselves constantly over this last month. When we go to the store and see barren shelves, we wonder what it is that other people are doing and why there’s nothing there for us. Toilet paper has, in many ways, become a symbol of the moment we’re living in right now. There are pizza shops where, when you order a pizza, they give you a roll of toilet paper. And there are jokes all over the internet where toilet paper has become like another form of currency. Every time a roll of TP shows up in a store or online, it’s not long before the story about other people hoarding supplies pops up. But - I’m not sure if the story about TP is really the story we’re telling. Because the shortage we see at stores is because our wider story has changed. We’re now spending most of our time at home and we no longer need our offices or schools to be stocked full of paper products. The companies that kept those places full of what they needed were not designed to cater to the ways we live at home. Rarely, if ever, is a roll of toilet paper in someone’s home the size of a hubcap. Yet that’s the standard size we see in offices, buildings, and at school. The paper companies that serve business and schools usually do not serve the consumers at home. So when we made the choice to stay at home because we wanted to keep other people safe, what changed was our entire story. The system we use to keep our stores stocked with all kinds of paper products was not designed for the story we’re currently living in. 

One of the things that struck me about today’s story from the gospel according to Matthew is the very last question that we hear. As Jesus entered Jerusalem, the entire city wondered out loud: “who is this?” This moment is unique to Matthew and it hints at his vision of this moment being sort of this large and over-the-top kind of moment. The passage began with Jesus doing a slightly excessive thing, and asking for 2 animals to be brought to him rather than just one. And then, as he rode the donkey into the city, a large crowd led the way. People climbed trees to break off branches so they could wave them in the air. And still more took off their cloaks and jackets, throwing them onto the dirt road, so that no dust could be kicked up and obscure this over-the-top sort of moment. The crowds that surrounded Jesus kept shouting the words “Hosanna” and named Jesus as the son of David - and the one who comes in the name of the Lord. In Matthew’s version of this story, Jesus’ arrival into Jerusalem is anything but quiet. The crowd is large and the shouts even larger. News about his arrival quickly floods the city and overwhelms whatever else was going on. No longer was the city of Jerusalem preoccupied by its everyday story. Jesus’ arrival changed that. Instead, the city seethed in confession by the arrival of this person and this movement that came from somewhere else. And Matthew lets the entire city speak out loud - as it wonders just who this Jesus is. 

That question - who is Jesus - has been our question this entire season of Lent. Each week, we’ve spent time during the sermon thinking about that moment when Jesus felt very real to us. Using that moment as the source of our faith story, we’ve been working on how to share that story with others. And we did that by finishing a series of sentences. We started by setting the stage for our story with the sentence: “Once upon a time there was…” We then kept our story going by describing a part of what our normal life was life by finishing the sentence “And every day…” But then Jesus showed up - and we noticed it right away or only saw it later, when we looked back at our life and realized that Jesus had been a part of it for a very long time. So we then added to our faith story by finishing the sentence “Until one day…” “And because of that…” our life shifted and changed. Last week, we described how that change sort of climaxed in our lives by finishing the sentence “Until finally…” Yet we know that the climax of the story isn’t the end of it. Rather, it’s the start of a new moment in our lives when the story that we tell becomes fully part of who we are. This pandemic that we’re living through wasn’t one that any of us planned for. We didn’t want it to come. We didn’t want it to impact Bergen County, our friends, our neighbors, and even ourselves as much as it has. We, together, have no idea when it will end. And we’re not sure when we’ll be able to go to the store again and be greeted by a mountain of toilet paper that we can freely buy. There’s a lot to our current story that we don’t know. But - there’s something we can add to that story by focusing on the question the city shouted out in today’s reading from the gospel according to Matthew. When the city asked the question, they actually received an answer. And though the answer stated in the Bible is important - what I’m more struck by is who it is that does the answering. It’s not just the disciples who answer who Jesus is. Nor is it only specific people - those who knew him his entire life, or those he healed, or those he fed with a few loaves of bread and fishes. Rather, it’s the crowd - the entire crowd - that gets to answer. That crowd wasn’t made up of only one kind of person. It was diverse - filled with people of all sorts of backgrounds and all sorts of experiences. Each one of them, if you asked them who Jesus was, would have given different answers based on their personal experiences of Jesus Christ. Yet, together, their stories pointed to a wider story - that Jesus was someone who made a difference in their lives. The Jesus who came to us in our baptism, in our faith, and in that moment that we’re trying to share right now - is still here. He’s still with you. And he’s still an active part of your life as you learn to live into this new story of pandemic, barren shelves, and looking for rolls of toilet paper. So as we finish this Lenten series on telling our story - I invite you to reflect on what your life was like after Jesus was real to you. What new story did you find yourself living out? And then finish this sentence: “And ever since then…” 



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Once Upon a Time There Was... [Sermon Manuscript]

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Matthew 4:1-11

Pastor Marc's sermon on First Sunday in Lent (March 1, 2020) on Matthew 4:1-11. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


One of the quirks of today’s story from the gospel according to Matthew is that we never hear why the devil chose this moment to tempt Jesus. There’s no flashback scene showing us the many ways the devil and Jesus didn’t get along. And there aren't even a few words giving us insight into the devil’s planning for this moment. All we know is that after Jesus was baptized, God’s Spirit led him into the wilderness. Now, if we were writing this story, we might want to make the characters’ motivation more explicit. We could, for example, start our version of the story before the world was even made - and include some great battle between good and evil. Jesus and the devil would, at some point, stare at each other and then fight, sharing a few one-liners that would make any Marvel Superhero Movie proud. After the initial fight, we would then see the devil always lurking in the background. But we would also try to make it clear why the devil went after Jesus as an adult instead of, say, when Jesus was 9 or 10. We would make each temptation connected to the back Jesus and the devil both shared and each one would feel more personal and deadly than the last. I’m pretty sure that if we were the ones telling this story, we would use way more words than Matthew did. Because telling stories and making them come alive for others is actually hard. Storytelling is something that we can all do but it’s a skill that takes time for us to develop. And one of the core elements in storytelling - focusing on what’s central - isn’t always an easy thing to suss out. 

So that makes me wonder, what do you think is central in this temptation of Jesus story? Now, I plan to share what I think is central but before that, I want you to answer that question for yourself. If you had to make this story real for someone else - where would your focus be? 

Now, if you didn’t come up with an answer, that’s okay. Because, like I said, storytelling is hard.  And there’s a lot of things in this story about Jesus that we could make the center. It would be helpful if we had a model for storytelling that we could easily use to re-tell this Jesus story. Lucky for us, we see storytelling at work everyday. And some of these storytellers, we pay lots of money to watch their movies, buy their t-shirts, and own their toys. One of those kinds of storytellers that’s popular in my house is the animation studio Pixar. Since 1995, they’ve made some of the most popular movies in the world including Cars, Finding Nemo, Toy Story, and Coco. Their use of computer animation is pretty unique and defines their signature styles. But they also have a pattern they follow when it comes to telling their stories. And this method of storytelling that is what makes their movies about what toys do when we’re not looking or what jobs the monsters in our closets have - actually work. From what I’ve been told, their format follows a basic six part outline. It begins with: “Once upon a time there was…” They then expand their  initial environment by adding “And every day…” But then something happens and they move into “Until one day…” The story then cycles through its ups and downs by repeating the phrase “And because of that…” over and over again. Eventually, the story then moves towards a resolution with “Until finally…” The story ends not with “and happily ever after,” but it sets up for a sequel with: “And ever since then…” This six part outline of telling a story is something we’ll spend time doing during Lent. And since today is the First Sunday in Lent, let’s focus on that first part: “Once upon a time there was…” 

Because that opening, I think, is what sets the tone for what’s central in the story. It helps reveal the characters, the setting, and gives hints at what’s possible. Today’s reading from Matthew isn’t at the start of the book but the devil, I think, knows what’s central to the entire story. And the tempter revealed why he reached out to Jesus now by repeating the same phrase at the start of the first two temptations. Although it’s possible to act as if the tempter was asking a real question when they said “if you are the Son of God,” I find the tempter’s words in that moment to be way more sarcastic. The tempter knew who Jesus was because, right before this moment, Jesus was publicly identified by God as God’s Son during baptism. That declaration wasn’t hidden and it wasn’t meant only for the crowd gathered around Jesus that day.  It was a word that made Jesus the center of the world’s story - and so, in response, the forces that wanted to be at the center instead, had to respond. The temptations, I don’t think, were not the central element of this story. Rather, it was Jesus himself. The tempter wanted to challenge Jesus’ own self-understanding. By poking at his very identity, the tempter was hoping Jesus would stumble. Instead of keeping himself at the center of the story, the tempter tried to make personal desires, a sense of self-importance, and the lust of power and control, be that focus instead. The devil knew Jesus’ story would end if there was anything else that stood at its center. But Jesus, instead, refused to let anything else stand in the place where he belonged. 

Yet I’m pretty sure we’re all familiar with what it’s like to live lives where isn’t always at the center. We can get so wrapped up in the busyness of our lives that we end up giving permission to something else to define the heart of who we are. This shifting away from Jesus is something we can choose to do - but this shift also happens without our being aware it has. It sort of sneaks up on us and we find ourselves living lives where self-interest, personal desires, and power over others defines the choices we make as individuals and as a community. Instead of living in love, we live in fear. Instead of taking a risk and showing mercy, we ignore those in need. Instead of staying open to the diversity within the body of Christ and in our world, we close ranks around those who already think, believe, and act like we do. We think Jesus is at the center of our story - but we end up putting our trust, focus, and identity into everything else. 

Today’s story, I think, is less about avoiding temptation and more about keeping Jesus at the center of our story. It’s the belief that the story of who we are cannot be fully told unless the Jesus who claimed us in baptism and in faith is part of the story we tell. And we need to learn - and relearn - how to tell it. Our faith story is exactly that - our own. It doesn’t have to be as big and wild as a Pixar movie to be meaningful and true. Instead, it just needs to be ours - honest, authentic, and that names the moments when Jesus felt present and when he didn’t. Our faith story, as we grow, will change and evolve. But by telling the story, we give witness to the truth that Jesus refuses to give up on us, no no matter how many other things we make central. So, this Lent, let’s learn how to re-tell your faith story. Think about your faith and that moment when Jesus became real to you. It could start with a parent, a grandparent, or yourself. It could involve a specific place, a specific time of your life, or a specific experience you had. Start thinking about who Jesus is to you - and let’s have the Pixar model of storytelling help you tell your Jesus story. And we can start by using that space in the back of the bulletin by my reflection to finish that sentence: “Once upon a time there was…”



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The Christian Life [Sermon Manuscript]

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

Matthew 17:1-9

Pastor Marc's sermon on the Transfiguration of Our Lord (February 23, 2020) on Matthew 17:1-9. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


It’s hard to talk about today’s story - the Transfiguration of Jesus - without including all the verses that come before it. So that’s what I’m going to try to do now; I’m going to paraphrase what happened in Matthew before Jesus, Peter, James, and John went up the mountain. And to start off, we’re about 12 chapters further into Jesus’ story than we were last week. Jesus’ ministry around the Sea of Galilee is almost over. But before he took his final steps towards the city of Jerusalem, Jesus visited the city of Caesarea Philippi. Now Caesarea Philippi was the political, religious, and economic center of the entire area and it was built at the base of a mountain covered in religious shrines and temples. For centuries, people gathered there to worship non-Jewish gods and goddesses. Yet during Jesus’ lifetime, something new showed up and there were suddenly statues honoring and celebrating the Roman Emperors. By this point, the Roman Emperors were declaring themselves to be either gods or the sons of gods. And they claimed they had a kind of divine permission to make the entire world their own. In the city of Caesarea Philippi, the streets were filled with Roman soldiers and their allies; and the marketplaces were covered in images declaring Rome’s greatness at the expense of everyone else. Caesarea Philippi was a place that tried to convince you that it was Rome that gave your life meaning and purpose. And so Jesus brought his disciples there. And while standing in the shadow of a mountain filled with statues dedicated to the Roman Emperor, Jesus asked those who followed him: “who do you say that I am?” Peter, even though he could literally see the political, economic, and religious might of the Roman Empire in front of him - quickly said: “Jesus, you’re the Messiah; you’re true center of our world.” Jesus, in response to Peter’s confession, started sharing more of his story. He told them of his decision to head to Jerusalem and how, instead of overthrowing the Roman Empire, he would be arrested and killed. This wasn’t how Peter thought the story of the Messiah should turn out - so Peter challenged Jesus’ own words. And in a sudden shift, Jesus seemed to turn on Peter. He called Peter Satan - and said he was stumbling block for Jesus’ own ministry. Jesus then turned to all his disciples, telling them that they needed to deny themselves, take up their cross, and be ready to follow him. 

And that, according to Matthew, is the last sort of detail we get about what Jesus was upto until he and his friends go up a mountain. For six days, we hear nothing about the direction Jesus walked in or if he visited any other towns. We have no idea if Jesus cured anyone during this break or if took some me-time and maybe visited a spa or saw a show. For six whole days, we have nothing in the story that can distract us from the twist and turns that came right before. And instead we can imagine the disciples replaying this conversation they had with Jesus over and over again in their head. They tried to make sense of Peter’s confession, Peter as Satan, and this cross that seemed to involve them all. They had heard Jesus confirm that he was exactly who they hoped he was. And yet his words also left them confused, worried, and full of doubts. 

So after six days, Jesus took Peter, John, and James up a mountain. And as they climbed, the three disciples carried all of their stuff with them. Every doubt they had about Jesus; every question about their choices in their life; and this conversation they had repeated in their minds over and over again - all of that went up that mountain with them. Jesus didn’t invite his most perfect followers to journey with him up the mountain. Rather, he took the doubters; the ones with questions; the ones who, even after following Jesus for some time, still weren’t exactly sure what their faith and this Jesus was all about. Jesus, in other words, basically invited us to go up that mountain with him. Because we, like Peter, James, and John also doubt; and worry; and sometimes wonder if this Jesus thing matters for us as much as it should. We, like them, still find ourselves living through moments where we don’t see Jesus as clearly as we should. And in periods of our life that last much longer than six days, we’re not sure exactly what we should believe. We find times in our lives where every prayer we utter, every worship service we attend, and every piece of bread or drink we share at the Lord’s table feels - a little bit too normal - and no where near divine. God, for us, starts feeling too strange or too mundane; too over-the-top and unrealistic or maybe too down-to-earth and really small. God stops feeling like God. And we find ourselves going up the mountains of our lives not really sure why we’re going up at all. 

Yet it’s then, right before the disciples got to the top of the mountain, that Jesus transfigured. His face glowed brighter than the sun and his clothes turned white. Suddenly two others appeared with him and the disciples instinctively knew that Moses, the one who received the law on another mountain top, and Elijah, the great prophet, was there with them. Peter, being Peter, interrupted this scene with his words - and so God spoke. And the disciples fell to the ground, afraid. Matthew doesn’t tell us exactly what they were afraid of - but we can fill in the details ourselves. The disciples, In the words of Joseph Harvard III, “had their eyes opened, and they saw a new reality. It was revealed to them that the way of Jesus was God’s way in the world.” Yet their eyes saw more than just Jesus. They also, I think, came to realize a truth about themselves. Jesus is. They really were disciples who doubt, who wonder, who get confused, and they realized they’re the ones who do not get Jesus right. And so they fell to the ground, covering their faces and their eyes, because they saw the truth about Jesus collide with the truth they knew about themselves. 

Yet before they could uncover their eyes and see Jesus looking like his own unshiny self - Jesus first came to them. He came to those who were afraid; to the ones who doubted; to those who didn’t know what to do with this Son of God. Jesus came to them first, and with a gentle touch and world, invited them to “Get up and do not be afraid.” These words were not meant to be harsh or to be a command for the disciples to not feel what they were truly feeling. Rather, it was a word of comfort that Jesus knows we are exactly who we are - right now. Jesus knows we doubt and that we’re sometimes confused. He knows we feel fear and that our fear will sometimes block us from seeing the truth that’s around us. Jesus knows we are exactly who we are - yet he also knows whose we are too. We are already in a relationship with him. And he comes to us not because we are perfect but because his love for us is. He reaches out to us - in baptism, in communion, in our gathering together for worship, and in our prayers - and he continues to remind us that nothing can separate us from God’s steadfast love. Our doubts; our fears; our confusion; and even our lack of an unwavering faith - will not stop Jesus from coming to us. Instead, his commitment to us lets us do a hard thing and that’s follow him. We get to get up, to head down the mountain into our very ordinary lives, and to trust that Jesus is with us even when we are afraid. We follow because we choose that love, not fear, will be at the center of our lives. And Jesus, in our journey on mountains and through valleys, promises he will never let us go. 



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Hard Words [Sermon Manuscript]

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

Matthew 5:21-37

Pastor Marc's sermon on the 6th Sunday after Epiphany (February 16, 2020) on Matthew 5:21-37. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


So yesterday, my entire family attended a funeral at Trinity Lutheran Church in Astoria, Queens. We loaded up our minivan, filled the kids with snacks, and prayed we would find a parking spot within six blocks of the church. When we finally got to Trinity, the service had already started. But since that church is my “home congregation,” I knew exactly how to walk in, take over an entire back pew, and get settled before the opening hymn was over. Trinity was the first church I ever really attended. It’s also the place where Kate and I were married; where Oliver was baptized; and it was that faith community that recognized what God had in mind for me before I even knew what being a Lutheran was all about. Trinity is one of the reasons why I’m a pastor. And one of those people who shaped my faith and my relationship with Jesus was a woman in her 90s named Virginia. 

Now, Virginia was an amazing person. She was tough as nails, with your stereotypical New York sense of humor and Queens accent. She knew Greek, was a former owner of a diner, and kept in contact with Kate and I through facebook right until the end. During the recession of 2008, I found myself with a lot of free time because my freelance web development work dried up. So on Tuesday mornings, I joined Virginia and a few others of the “old guard” to putter around the church, chat, and have lunch. Virginia was the type of person who, regardless of the situation, was always herself. She had no problems sharing her opinions. Yet she was also incredibly accepting of other people. She knew everyone’s business but she didn’t really gossip. Instead, people trusted her and she worked hard to build that trust with all people. It didn’t matter if you were 92 or 22 - if you needed help, care, or prayers - Virginia was the one who knew exactly what you were going through. She was, in a few words, opinionated, thoughtful, loving, and a little intense. And she made sure to fully invest herself into her relationships so that all of us could experience grace. 

Today’s reading from the gospel according to Matthew is not the easiest to preach on. We find ourselves deep in Jesus’ sermon on the mount - a sermon that began with the beatitudes - where Jesus said that the meek and the poor in spirit were blessed. Last week, we heard Jesus declare that he came to fulfill the law and the promises recorded in the prophets and that those who followed him were the salt of the earth. Jesus used, I think, a figure of speech to help root us permanence of God’s promises. When God said “I love you” and claimed you as God’s own in baptism - God really meant it. And God’s giving of grace is like salt being salty - it’s just a permanent part of who God is. You can almost imagine being there with Jesus and feeling pretty upbeat since he told you how much God loves you. But then Jesus goes a little hardcore and, as we hear today, he started talking about things like murder. Now, Jesus’s speaking pattern in this passage was pretty common in the first century. Rabbis often debated by stating a traditional understanding of a law and then challenging it with an interpretation of their own. This wasn’t their way of trying to replace the law or the tradition they inherited. Rather, it was a way to dig deeper into it and, in the words of Eric Barreto, grab onto “the divine values these commandments [and laws] communicated.” Jesus, in this passage, wasn’t trying to replace the law. Instead, he intensifies it. And Jesus, I think, went heavy so that reveal God’s vision for our lives and for our world. 

So, instead of trying to unpack everything Jesus said in this passage - which would require a whole sermon for each verse - let’s take this passage as a whole. What thread weaves in and out of these seventeen verses - especially the parts that seem harsh, like Jesus’ comment on divorce? Where’s the grace in these hard words from Jesus? 

Well, for me, that’s where my friend Virginia comes in. She learned, over her many years, how to invest in the connections she had with other people. She knew how to ask questions, how to listen, and how a New York style wisecrack could let us know we were heard. Throughout today’s passage from Matthew, Jesus is focused on our choices in relationships. He’s not thinking so much about the people we have relationships with or what they’ve done. Rather, he asks us to be honest about what we invest into every human connection that we have. Do we invest in anger and in the brokenness that’s entails or are we faithful enough to admit how other people could rightfully have something to hold against us? Our coming before God is, according to Jesus, related to our relationship with one another. And how we connect is a sign of that faith and trust. For us to truly reconcile with one another, we need to be honest about the harm we’ve caused others. And in those situations where reconciliation is impossible, we can still use the gifts of community, connection, and therapy to not let anger, resentment, and disconnection be what defines us. 

It’s this work of investment, I think, that gives light to Jesus’ words that follow. Instead of objectifying people - especially women - and then blaming them for our gaze, Jesus told those who are doing the looking to invest in their connections by first disciplining themselves. Instead of letting men, who traditionally controlled the wealth in a household, divorce their wives and leave them homeless and in poverty, Jesus told us to invest in the life we’re building together. There are times when that investment in a marriage will be exactly what that relationship needs but there are other times when our investment will reveal that the most holy and healthy thing we can do is let that marriage. And instead of tying the promises we make to one another with some kind of collateral to make sure it actually happens, Jesus asked us to invest in making every word we say be honest and trustworthy. Jesus’ call in this passage is not focused on what others do or how they make us feel. Rather, it’s about how we can, right now, invest in our relationships and how that investment will actually grow us closer to God. 
Because the story of law, the prophets, and of Jesus himself is the story of God’s continual investment in God’s relationship with us. We, as humans, are made in the image of God and we carry a bit of the divine into the world. Those who follow Jesus are, through our baptism and our faith, invested into the body of Christ - a body that, at its core, is all about relationships and connections. We are not only in a relationship with Jesus; we’re connected to everyone else. And this connection and relationship is nourished through our worship, our prayers, and reinforced every time we commune at the Lord’s table. We are, as baptized followers of Jesus Christ, connected to a God who does not stop investing in God’s promises - and we are invited to be like God in all our relationships as well. This kind of investment isn’t easy or simple and it actually requires us to do the work. But when we do, the investment we make in our relationships ends up giving grace because it reflects the grace God has already given us. We can start this investment by naming our anger; by admitting all the different ways - either personally, systematically, or historically - others might have something against us; by being honest that we do objectifying others; by naming the different ways we take our marriages for granted; and by finally admitting how our comments - especially those we make on social media - do not embrace the care and the truthfulness God wants us to share. Because it’s only when we go heavy and deep into our actual lives that we are then able to fully invest into all our relationships. And its then when grace and love becomes a permanent part of who we are - something that we freely give because Jesus already has given that grace to us. 



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One Second [Sermon Manuscript]

[Jesus said:] “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:13-20

Pastor Marc's sermon on the 5th Sunday after Epiphany (February 9, 2020) on Matthew 5:13-20. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


So I want to start today’s sermon by highlighting something I’ve been doing these last few weeks that’s sort of grown into an unintentional sermon series. Two weeks ago, I asked all of us to imagine different superheroes and the places that made them who they are. We talked about Batman and the City of Gotham, Superman and Metropolis, and even Black Panther and Wakanda. Those places shaped those superheroes were and we  are shaped by our places too. Last week, I started by asking all of us to imagine just how loud the Temple in Jerusalem would have been when Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus engaged in some of the rituals of their Jewish identity. Our expectation that holy sites should be serene and quiet probably didn’t match the actual experience of worshippers in Jerusalem 2000 years ago. Instead, the noise and bustle of the Temple pointed to the life that God’s presence brought to God’s people. And so today, I’d like us to - once again - use our faithful imagination as we engage with this text from the gospel according to Matthew. But instead of asking you to imagine being a piece of salt or being an actual city on a hill, I want to point out what I think our imagination does for us when we let it encounter the Bible. When we engage our imagination, the possibilities of where the text will take us is practically endless. The words, rather than ourselves, take the lead and we don’t assume that we already know what this passage is all about. We don’t limit the text to only be moral instruction or so-called life lessons or even details about what we’re supposed to believe. Instead, we let the Word of God meet us as we are right now. And instead of working on the text, our point of view shifts and we see how the text, and God, has already been working on us. 

So let’s take a second to shift our mental gears and engage our imaginative ones. I’m going to re-read verse 13: “[Jesus said] You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.” I don’t know if that verse sounded different to you than it did before. But I find that when I use my faithful imagination, I’m able to ask questions I might not have been brave enough to ask before. Usually, when we read this verse, we assume Jesus knows a lot about what salt can do. And so he must have known that salt could, while walking around the sea of Galilee, lose its taste. Yet our imagination might be emboldened to wonder if Jesus got this little snapple fact wrong. Because salt, which is just sodium chloride, can’t actually lose its saltiness. If it does, it’s no longer salt and it couldn’t be thrown onto the ground. Some have argued that the salt Jesus was referring to was of poor quality, mixed with dirt and sand and could, after time, lose its taste. But it’s also just as plausible that Jesus was maybe purposefully describing something impossible but used words that invited us deeper into his story. It’s kind of like when someone tells you something that, at first, seems completely reasonable but then later, when you actually think about it, makes you go “what?” The absurdity we didn’t see at first ends up pulling us in. And we wonder where Jesus is taking us next. 

Now the transition from salt to light to city to lamp is a little jumbled but there’s an opening here that fits our use of faithful imagination. We shouldn’t only focus on visualizing ourselves to be lit up like a lighthouse, seeing ourselves as a revealing symbol to the world. Instead, we can narrow the vision for our imagination by zooming in on the bushel basket. The bushel basket Jesus had in mind was probably made out either wood or reeds woven tightly together. It would have been used regularly to collect fruits, grain, and other agricultural products and it probably wasn’t entire air-tight or fully sealed. The bushel basket was a tool that didn’t need to be perfect to get its job done. And it also wasn’t designed to be around lamps. In Jesus’ day, if you wanted light to shine without the help of the sun, you had to light something on fire. The lamps Jesus probably had in mind were little oil lamps with a wick burning an open flame. Putting a dry and wooden bushel basket over a lamp would, most likely, burn the basket up. The ordinary beauty of a lampstand lighting up an entire house does not erase the absurdity in the first half of Jesus’ words. That weirdness is right there in the text and we’re not, I think, supposed to smooth out what Jesus said. Rather, these moments might be a sign that we are witnessing Jesus’ faithful imagination at work - an imagination that reconfigures and transforms the world through God’s absurd and loving grace. 

Because it takes a special kind of imagination to wonder if salt could lose its saltiness and if an easily flammable basket could cover a burning flame. An imagination that is comfortable with those kinds of absurdities is one that’s also capable of reimaging us. Instead of letting us lean into our default settings of “comfort, conformity, and complacency,” God’s holy imagination invites us to see how our actions and our inactions always have an impact. Too often we let our fears, worries, and our unwillingness to admit our wrongs, limit our imagination and what we think is possible in the world. This is manifested in the many ways we ask others to show us grace while we give them none. And how we are quick to label other people’s stories, identities, and experiences as absurd because we can’t imagine how their lives are connected to our own. We often act as if the limits we place on our own imagination come from God. Yet, as we see in our reading today, the God who has already re-imagined you as being the light of the world will not be limited by what we think that means. 

Instead, God will continue to do absurd things, like giving us the grace to expand our faithful imagination. Because it’s that kind of imagination that, I think, helps us trust that the promises God made to other people God also made to us. The impossibility of salt losing its saltiness means that you, as the salt of the earth, will not lose God’s promises too. And since a flammable bushel basket will only burn brighter when it meets the lamp of God, your identity as the light of the world is a gift God has already given to you. These declarations from God are not given to us in response to something that we do. Nor are they merely affirmations of what we’re already doing. Instead, the promises of God are gifts, re-imagining us into the people God wants us to be. It’s a re-imagining that expands our limits of what it means to show mercy, to give grace, and to love. It’s a re-imagining that expands our capacity to say we’re sorry, to seek justice, and to see what we can do so that others might thrive. And it’s a re-imagining that helps us expand the imaginations of others too. As little H. is about to hear shortly in his own public welcome into the body of Christ - we are here to let the light of God’s grace shine in all that we say and do. And that light - a promise of love, a promise of mercy, and promise that you are already part of God’s holy and life giving imagination - is a gift that we are called to freely give. 



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Left: Places Matter [Sermon Manuscript]

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

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

Matthew 4:12-25

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


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

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

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

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



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Make Waves [Sermon Manuscript]

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

Matthew 3:13-17

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


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

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

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

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

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



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Reflection: On Jesus' Baptism

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

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

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

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


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Ah-ha! [Sermon Manuscript]

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

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

Matthew 2:1-12

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


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

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

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

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

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



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Reflection: Gifts to Bring

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

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

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

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

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


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