Questions and Reflections

Category: Matthew

Creating Lamentations [Sermon Manuscript]

And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, [the magi] left for their own country by another road.

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

Matthew 2:13-23

Pastor Marc's sermon on the First Sunday of Christmas (December 29, 2019) on Matthew 2:13-23. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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During Herod’s nearly 40 year rule over what now makes up parts of modern day Israel, Lebanon, and Syria, he was given many different titles. Some knew him as Herod the First, the one who founded a new royal dynasty by nurturing a close relationship with Rome. The Roman Senate, around the year 40 BCE, declared him to be King of Judea and King of the Jews, granting him political authority over territory Rome had conquered 20 years before. Herod used his skills as an administrator and a savvy politician to keep the taxes flowing to Rome. So the Romans were grateful for his service and let him rule the territory in the way he saw fit. According to some ancient sources, Herod used favoritism, brutality, deception, and the sheer force of his grandiose ego* to get his way. He grew his power and the economy. But he wanted to make his territory great in other ways. So he launched massive building projects -  creating new cities, new ports, and new military fortifications. Some of these places he named after the Roman Emperors as a way to continue to earn their favor. But others he had no problem naming after himself. As these building projects grew, some began to call him Herod the Great. And that titled suited Herod just fine. In the middle of his reign, he embarked on his most ambitious building project yet. He wanted a way to strengthen his support among the local religious leaders and communities so he ordered the expansion and rebuilding of God’s Holy Temple in Jerusalem. He made it bigger, physically adding space to the mountaintop it sat on. He also made the Temple richer, using expensive building materials, jewels, and art to decorate it. He wanted the Temple to compete with the other religious centers in the ancient world. But he also wanted the Temple to fit into his own sense of vanity. It’s said Herod needed a bigger and flashier Temple because he desired “a capital city worthy of his dignity and grandeur.” Herod wanted the rest of the world to see him as the Great leader he imagined himself to be. 

So when the magi, in a story we’ll hear next week, informed Herod that a king had been born in his territory - Herod was obviously a little worried. Herod’s own path to political power was filled with violence, deception, and playing with people’s loyalties - and he assumed the next leader would do the same. Herod had no plans to lose his kingdom so he asked the magi to let him know where the baby was so that he could pay him a visit. But it wasn’t long before Herod realized that the magi had skipped town. Now since he was king and he believed nothing could, or should, get in his way, he moved on to plan B. He turned his gaze onto the place where the magi had visited and, in a rage, he ordered a genocidal act. 

Yet this order by Herod was not something he could do by himself. He needed other people willing to do his bidding. He needed a system in place that would encourage, support, and enable him and the people who responded to his whims. And he needed everyone to feel either too powerless or too comfortable in their way of life to avoid holding him accountable. Herod had no problem using violence to maintain his power. And I wouldn’t be surprised if people in his kingdom thought that the cost of politics required a certain amount of division and violence. For some, Herod’s actions were seen as necessary, or at least tolerable, to keep the economy and the building projects going. We might want to make Herod into some kind of cartoon villain - one meant to scare us but one that we can also safely ignore. Yet if we’re honest, we need to see Herod as the center of a shadow that was lived through by all kinds of people. His behavior and his attitude enabled to choose, via action or inaction, to let his values become their own. And it was that shadow, when confronted by the reign of God, that did everything it could to stop Christmas from coming. 

Yet by the time Herod raged, Joseph, Jesus, and Mary were already on their way to Egypt. God sent Joseph a dream, telling him that the shadow was coming. So this small family got up and left, crossing the border out of Herod’s kingdom and becoming refugees. They escaped - but others didn’t. And the Christmas joy Mary and Joseph experienced when Jesus was born didn’t last very long. Because the powers active in this world - a world filled with brokeness, hurt, pain, and our willingness to create way too many Rachels who weep for their children - did not want God to come on Christmas. 

Yet noticing the shadow - and figuring out what to do about it - is not always easy. We know there’s brokenness in this world that we have little to no control over. And there are situations, experiences, and truths that overwhelm us, making us feel as if change is never possible. We also struggle to see or believe that we ourselves can somehow be wrapped up in this shadow - a shadow that we use to live, love, and take care of those God has entrusted to us. I don’t think we want to admit how our own very lives might be resisting against the reign of God. And since, because of our baptism and our faith, are already members of the body of Christ, we assume the shadow is always about other people and rarely about ourselves. But the shadow itself is wide and deep - and there’s not always a madman at the center  showing us who we can become. We need light strong enough to reveal the shadow we don’t always see. 

Luc-Olivier Merson was a French painter known in the late 1800s and early 1900s for his postage stamps. Although he earned several awards for his paintings while he was alive, his work was eventually forgotten by the time he died. Yet hanging in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is a painting he did based on our reading from Matthew today. Jesus, Joseph, and Mary have made it to Egypt but they’re still on the move and they’re worn out from the journey. They set-up camp in an isolated place next to an ancient Egyptian statue. A small fire burns, barely lighting up the night sky, while a donkey grazes, eating the few blades of grass poking through the desert sand. Joseph is lying on the ground, using the small step at the base of the statue as a pillow. And Mary and Jesus are asleep, curled up inside the paw of that statue - which happens to be the Sphinx. The night feels so large and deep that even the light from the stars looks limited. It’s as if everything about today’s story - the fear, brutality, isolation, worry, and terror - is there with them. Yet even in that very real night - Jesus shined. He’s brighter than the fire. He provides more light than the stars. And even though the light he radiates does not vanquish or remove the shadow, he still shines - no matter what. As we pray today; as we worship this morning; and as we feast at Jesus’s table - we are holding on to the promise that the shadow will not have the final say in our, or our world’s, story. Jesus was born. Jesus was killed. Jesus was raised. And Jesus is still here.  His light, the light of Christmas, continues to shine into the shadow, calling us towards a way of life where mercy, justice, and the giving of hope is all that we do. The light that he shines will force us to confront the shadow we find ourselves in. And when we do, our comfort and our fear should not guide us. Rather, it should be Jesus - who doesn’t our false claim of greatness interfere with the great love God already has for each of us.

 

Amen.

 



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Resolved: Joseph's Decision [Sermon Manuscript]

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.​

Matthew 1:18-25

Pastor Marc's sermon on the Fourth Sunday of Advent (December 22, 2019) on Matthew 1:18-25. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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I’m sure you know we’re only two days away from Christmas Eve. And if you’re like me, just saying those words out loud makes you feel pretty anxious. There’s still a lot that I need to do - and even though I know Christmas Eve comes whether we’re ready or not - I hope it at least waits until after the bulletins are printed, the presents are wrapped, and the cookies and milk for Santa are placed where they’re supposed to be. 

Now, one of those things I’d like to do in the next two days is to make sure that our red and blue activity bags that kids can use during worship are ready for Christmas Eve. I want to make sure that all the books, toys, crayons, colored pencils, word searches, and coloring pages inside those bags are up-to-date and clean.. And since I’m a bit of a church geek, I’d also like to make what in those bags match our church season. But that’s not always easy. If you do a quick google image search for Christmas coloring pages, there are plenty available with an older looking Joseph, a Mary who doesn’t look like she just gave birth, and a newborn Jesus who can already hold his head up without help or support. They’re pages that show the characters but they don’t tell the whole story. However, last year, I found a different kind of coloring page. Mary was resting on a bed of straw and she looked completely exhausted. Joseph sat a few feet away from her, giving Mary the space she needed. But Joseph wasn’t asleep, tending to the donkey, or chatting with some random shepherds. Instead, he was busy holding Jesus - gently rocking him while Mary slept. In our Lutheran tradition, we don’t always see Joseph in this way. He’s usually depicted like he is in our creche - faithful, righteous, and kneeling besides Jesus. But then we sort of forget his place in the rest of Jesus’ story because the Bible doesn’t mention him very much. Once Jesus grew up and was preaching around the Sea of Galilee, his mom was the only one the gospels mention by name. Yet our reading today from the gospel according to Matthew invites us, I think, to spend a little more time with Joseph - especially when he was living through his version of Christmas Eve. 

Our passage begins with Joseph facing a dilemma: the woman he’s engaged to was pregnant. Unlike the gospel according to Luke, the gospel of Matthew doesn’t have any backstory to this moment at all. Mary enters the story pregnant - and Matthew zeroed in on Joseph’s reaction. We find out, pretty quickly, what his decision eventually was. But we hear very little about the mental, emotional, and spiritual process that led to his making that choice. There’s a gap at the start of Joseph’s story that we can either zoom past or we choose to stay there. And on this fourth Sunday of Advent, I think we’re invited to be in that gap between verses 18 and 19. That gap lets us use our imagination - to see what we would have done if our fiance showed up pregnant. What questions would you have asked? What thoughts would have raced through your mind? And if we take seriously our family history, our cultural background, and what it’s like to be here in Northern New Jersey in the 21st century - what would you do if you were Joseph and Mary came to you?

The process of asking those questions - of being honest with ourselves about what our life is actually like - is the same process we can use to imagine Joseph in his story. And as we reflect on what we would do in that situation - we have to admit that knowing the right thing is something that’s not always easy to figure out. Joseph’s background as a first century Jew living near the Sea of Galilee and influenced by the Greco-Roman economic, cultural, and political systems that informed how people lived their lives - that mix of culture, tradition, and way of life - had something to say about his situation. Because Joseph lived in a place where traditions and legal systems around engagement, marriage, the role of women, inheritance, and property defined what being married and being engaged. And Joseph, raised in that cultural system, probably assumed that there were certain things that worked a certain way because that’s just how things were done. Joseph’s upbringing within his context would have shaped and informed the process his thoughts and feelings would take once Mary showed him what was new. Plus, if his family and friends knew about the situation, they probably had no problem telling Joseph exactly what he should do - giving him their free advice whenever he saw them. It’s also possible that Joseph visited his local synagogue, participated in various religious rituals, an even prayed - hoping that God would tell him what to do. We have no idea if Joseph really did any of those things. But we can imagine that this man, who God wanted a parent for Jesus, did what we would have done: taking what makes us who we are - our personality, our story, our experiences, our background, and our influences - to form his choice. And even with all of that, with everything that made him who he was, when God showed up to him in Mary - Joseph said no. He couldn’t, as faithful and good and righteous as he was, see that Christmas was coming. So God, once again, broke into this world - sending an angel during Joseph’s waiting for Christmas  - letting him know that, ready or not, Christmas would come. 

It’s hard to imagine that the devoted, righteous, and faithful person we imagine and portray in our creche and in our children coloring would also be the same kind of person who, when faced with Jesus, would first say “no.” Yet his no did not stop Christmas. God chose to do what God always does - to continue to bring God’s kingdom near - but this time God’s kingdom showed up in a new way because God lived and experienced human life up close and personal. And when God showed up, even Joseph couldn’t imagine that this was how God would expand what love, mercy, and forgiveness might be like. So today, when we’re sooo close to Christmas that our anxiety and excitement has blended into one almost unbearable mess, we’re reminded that God still comes. It isn’t our goodness, faithfulness, or righteousness that defines what God will do. Rather God, through the Holy Spirit, moves into our world and into our lives, opening us to what’s possible with Jesus Christ. And those possibilities are not limited by our imagination, culture, context, or by anything ever describe as “just the way things are.” Rather, the only limit to what God is up to is God’s limitless love for all. 

Now we might know that we’re nowhere near as righteous as Joseph. Yet we are wrapped up in our own waiting for Christ - and we, like him, need the Holy Spirit to intervene. As we worship, pray, and share in holy communion - we are reminded that we are here because the Holy Spirit continues, in a myriad of ways, to come to us - working God’s grace on our hearts, souls, and minds. We, through the Spirit, are being transformed. And even though we might not feel more righteous today than we did yesterday, God’s Spirit is helping us to become a more active participant in what God is doing in the world. Because even Joseph, when he was face-to-face with what God was doing in the world, chose to send God away. But as the story kept going, he eventually found himself letting Mary sleep while he held God’s new and holy presence in his arms. As we wait for Christmas Eve to come, know that it doesn’t depend on us. Jesus does, and will, come. And as he does, love will grow. 

 

Amen.

 



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Reflection: Straight into Christmas

Sometimes even the lectionary (our three year cycle of Bible Readings) feels like it skips the end of Advent and moves straight into Christmas. The reading from the gospel according to Matthew assigned for today (Matthew 1:18-25) is Jesus' birth moment. We're given the space to not only tell the story of Jesus' birth (like we are doing with our Christmas pageant at 9:00 am worship), but we can also start moving away from the expectation of Advent and into the event that is Christmas. Many of us, I think, do our best to make Christmas into something "big." We decorate, bake cookies, shop for gifts, and let the stress of the season interrupt a good night's sleep. Even if we prefer a simpler Christmas, there's still something different about this season. Our expectation can only last so long before we jump straight into Christmas.

But there's still, in theory, two more sleeps until Christmas Eve. There’s a gap until Christmas comes. Yet, we all know that the gap isn't empty. Your Christmas-to-do list is still long—as well as everything else your life needs you to do. There's still a lot of doing to do before Tuesday night. Yet we should, if we can, take a moment to also realize that something is also being done to us. Rev. Dr. Martin Otto Zimmann wrote in the Advent Devotion we're using this special prayer: Blessed Immanuel, thank you for becoming one with us that we might aspire to be one with you through word, water, wine and bread. With each passing day, we ask that you continue to draw us closer to you so that we might become the people you intended in a Creation free from sin and avarice. The story of Advent is also a reminder that our gap-to-Christmas is one that is full of more than just our doing; it's also full of God coming to us. We might think that we're getting closer to Christmas but the reality is that God is bringing Christmas closer to us. And, as we worship, pray and share in Jesus' body and blood, may the gap-til-Christmas help make us into the Christmas people God knows we can become.



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Are You: Doubt [sermon manuscript]

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he."

Matthew 11:2-11

Pastor Marc's sermon on the Third Sunday of Advent (December 15, 2019) on Matthew 11:2-11. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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So what happened to John the Baptist? Why does he sound so unsure this week? And what would it take for you to ask his question? 

It was only 7 days ago when Matthew first described to us John’s ministry. John was living in the wilderness around the river Jordan, wearing clothes made out of camel hair, eating locusts and wild honey, and preaching about our need to be transformed. Now most people avoided the wilderness because you never quite knew what was lurking around the next bend. Yet John’s message made some people curious and they risked the wilderness to see him. John’s preaching wasn’t always the most pastoral; and he talked a lot about an unquenchable fire. But his words struck a nerve because they invited people to be honest about who they were and how they needed God to transform them. John was confident that God was on the move and soon someone would come to make the kingdom of heaven a reality on earth. When Jesus came to John in the wilderness, his presence seemed to affirm everything that John said. In the verses following our reading from last week and ones that we’ll hear in January when we celebrate Jesus’ baptism, John knew who Jesus was and the entire crowd heard God’s voice say that Jesus the beloved Son. When it comes to the checklist of who the Messiah would be, God’s own statements should be enough. Yet our reading today from the gospel according to Matthew makes last week’s moment with John in the wilderness feel like it was a long time ago. Because after Jesus’ baptism, Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness dealing with the devil. But John, during that same time, was arrested. 

Now, on one level, John’s arrest kicked off Jesus’ own public ministry. After getting word of what happened, Jesus left the wilderness, gathered disciples, healed the sick and suffering, taught in synagogues and religious centers, and he preached a very long sermon while sitting on a mountain. Jesus’ ministry grew and soon large crowds came to him while he preached around the Sea of Galilee. But while Jesus was on the move, John sat in prison. He was there because his message about transformation did not make everyone, especially King Herod, particularly happy. King Herod was basically a political puppet, a ruler who was overseen and controlled by the Roman Empire. His status as a leader depended on what Rome decided for him. Yet that didn’t stop Herod from trying to secure whatever power he could. He came from a large extended family that often killed each other to get their own way. And his family would also marry each other, using the laws about inheritance as a way to increase their own power. Sources tell us that, at some point, Herod and Herod’s brother’s wife, who was also Herod’s half-niece, fell in love. They agreed to marry but there was a rumor that they married while Herod’s brother was still alive. Their marriage was seen by some, including John, as unlawful.  And since John wasn’t afraid to tell the powerful when they were wrong, Herod had John arrested. John was in prison when he heard that Jesus’ ministry was bubbling up all around him. Visitors to John problem told him about all the different places Jesus went to; all the healing he was doing; and how Jesus even made a difference in a Roman soldier’s household. Jesus’ ministry seemed to be circling around John. Yet the One who John proclaimed would come to baptized with the Holy Spirit and Fire - didn’t seem to be coming for John. I wonder if, in that moment, John felt as if Jesus was showing up for everyone else but him. John knew the danger he was in and he might have been waiting for Jesus to save him. And as John waited, doubt settled in. 

Now, one of the words at the center of the Advent season is “wait.” We, as my kids remind me every single day, are waiting for Christmas. But we’re also waiting for something more. We’re waiting for God’s kingdom to become real. We long for peace, for refreshment, for a life where joy overcomes our burdens. And we often we find ourselves exhausted, worn out by our busy schedule and all the things we think we need to do to be the person we hope to be. We might catch ourselves saying our prayers but wondering if we’re actually heard. We might even come to church but doubt we’ll get anything out of it. We find ourselves often waiting - waiting for something to be different - even though we’re not always sure what that different thing will look like. So, we wait, and the time we spend on waiting seems to stretch on and on. 

And that, I think, is the problem with waiting. Waiting takes time. And while we wait, we find ourselves filling that time with our questions and our wondering. We might think that questions and doubts are somehow a sign that our faith is weak. But I don’t think that’s true. Because if John the Baptist, who heard God literally say Jesus was the beloved Son, also doubted during his season of waiting - we can give ourselves permission to doubt too. We can, like John, wonder. We can, like John, seek clarification. We can be honest when it feels as if God is showing for everyone else but us. And we can ask John’s question - or  come up with our own. 

Now, none of that is being unfaithful. We are allowed to doubt. And when we do that, I hope we can also lean into Jesus’ answer to John’s question. But we shouldn’t only look at the words Jesus used to describe himself. We can also listen to what Jesus told the crowd when he described who John is. John might have had doubts about Jesus but Jesus had no doubts about John. And Jesus, as he talked to the crowd, did more than name all the amazing things John did or focus only on John’s faithfulness. Jesus also made sure to point out that he and John were intertwined. John was Jesus’ messenger and Jesus needed John as his messenger. They were wrapped up in each other - and their connection couldn’t be separated no matter how much doubt John had. Even during his time of waiting, wondering, and feeling as if Jesus was seeing everyone else but him, John’s relationship with Jesus wasn’t defined by what John felt or thought. Instead, John’s relationship with Jesus was defined by Jesus alone. And Jesus promised that their relationship would not be broken. 

We know that waiting is hard. And we also know that there’s different kinds of waiting - some which are harder than others. Nothing about waiting is easy because waiting takes time - and that time will sometimes feel too long or not long enough. We will, like John, have seasons wondering where Jesus is. Yet even when our doubts seem to be all that we have, there’s still one thing that can’t be taken away. Jesus’ love for you isn’t defined by you; rather it’s defined by him. And you, through your baptism and your doubt-filled faith, are intertwined with Jesus and he is intertwined with you. Your season of doubt and of waiting cannot separate you from Jesus because he’s already with you. And when your doubts about God, faith, the world, and yourself seem to overwhelm you, remember this: Jesus doesn’t doubt you. 

 

Amen.

 



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Be Transformed: Repent [Sermon Manuscript]

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Matthew 3:1-12

Pastor Marc's sermon on the Second Sunday of Advent (December 8, 2019) on Matthew 3:1-12. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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When were you transformed? 

I paused a little longer than usual after that question because I’m not necessarily sure it’s easy to answer. We might be able to name those things about ourselves that have changed but the word transformation feels as if it should describe something bigger. Right now, there are plenty of ads and commercials this holiday season trying to convince us that we can buy transformation. Yet we know that rarely works. Instead, we end up with a new doohickey that we use only once before donating to our church’s Trash and Treasure rummage sale. Those ads know that we all have a vision of what being transformed is all about. But I’m not sure if that’s always exactly what we want. To me, Transformation is what happens when our assumptions about ourselves are turned upside down and we find ourselves, for better or worse, living in a new way. And that newness is scary because we don’t know what the transformed life will look like. We’ll find ourselves facing new challenges, experiencing new situations, and we’ll have to confront the old assumptions that supported the life we used to live. Transformation changes us because it redefines who we are. 


So when thinking about the transformation in our own lives, I sometimes find it helpful to notice when transformation happens on a larger scale. And so I want to talk about an organization called Muso that I first heard about this week. Muso’s story begins over a decade ago when doctors and medical professionals in the United States and in the African country of Mali decided that they wanted to address some of Mali’s major healthcare issues. Mali had, for example, one of the highest child mortality rates in the world meaning that 154 out of every 1000 kids - 15% - never saw their fifth birthday. So these doctors partnered with the Mali government and moved into poor neighborhoods, thinking that if they lived in those communities and struggled alongside with them, these highly trained medical professionals could really make a difference. Ari Johnson, one of those early team members, described in an interview what it was like to provide care at the start of their project. Mere days after arriving, parents and grandparents would form a huge line outside their clinic before it even opened, hoping those doctors could heal their kids. But - they couldn’t. And instead, Ari found himself attending a lot of funerals. Now he had trained at some of the best medical schools in the world and yet his knowledge and his skills couldn’t change the neighborhood around him. Too many people kept dying - and he couldn’t transform their life outcomes. Something needed to change but he didn’t know what. Yet he, and the rest of his team, didn’t give up. And as they struggled alongside the community, they realized the community was teaching them things they didn’t know. As Ari listened to the patient stories and as he got to know who they are, he realized our typical approach to healthcare was actually stopping people from getting well. He was taught that, as a doctor, his responsibility for the patient began the minute the patient showed up at his door. Yet he and his team noticed that many people couldn’t get to his door in the first place. The high cost of insurance, fees, co-pays, the distance to the clinics, and more - was stopping people from getting to their doctor’s door in time. The people knew they were sick but by the time they got the resources they needed to see the doctor, it was usually too late. If a child’s malaria was diagnosed early, it would only take a few dollars worth of pills to cure her. But if the diagnosis was made too late, even the best hospital in the world couldn’t help. Muso realized that their model for care needed to change. And instead of seeing their responsibility only starting the moment the patient first came to them, Muso decided that the wellness of everyone in their neighborhood was their primary responsibility. So they developed a model of proactive healthcare, sending trained staff into people’s homes to make early diagnosis, provide basic care, and if more advanced help was needed, the patient would receive free-to-them healthcare at a strengthened government clinic. By turning upside down their assumptions about when their responsibility for care began, Muso ended up transforming their neighborhoods. In a seven year period, the child mortality rate in the areas they served dropped from 154 per 1000 to 7 - which is about the same as the United States. Yet that story is even more amazing than those numbers reveal. Because during that 7 year period, there was a coup-da-ta in the government; the terrorist organization Al Qaeda occupied the northern part of the country flooding the areas Muso served with refugees; and if that wasn’t enough, there was also an Ebola outbreak. Yet through all of that, an amazing number of lives were transformed. And it happened because people struggled together; they listened to one another; they were willing to live through funerals; and they let their assumptions about themselves and their world - be turned upside down. Transformation happened because what people didn’t realize was the chaff in the lives was burned away and, in their place, seeds for a new kind of life were planted.

 
John the baptist’s first spoken word in the gospel according to Matthew is: “repent.” Now, in ancient Hebrew, repent meant “to turn around.” And it was used to show how we need to change our focus; to turn away from what we think is our priority and instead look towards God. Yet when repent was translated into ancient Greek, the language Matthew wrote in, the word repent also meant “to change your mind.” But this change was more than just shifting your opinion. It was really about changing who you knew yourself to be. In other words, repenting to Matthew is all about being transformed. And John spoke this word of transformation not in a city or in a temple but in the wilderness. The wilderness, in Scripture, is never a serene or peaceful place. Instead, it’s always unpredictable - full of unknowns and things we can’t control. It’s there in the wilderness when our assumptions about the world and ourselves are turned upside. Yet the wilderness is also the place where, through John, God’s message comes. God’s call to transform wasn’t given in an environment that was warm, cozy, and safe. Rather, God delivered it in the middle of all our possible unknowns - giving a visual representation of the promise that immediately followed John’s first word. This was God’s way, I think, of letting us know that no matter where our transformation takes us, God is already there. And with God comes love, mercy, guidance, and, above all, hope. Now the unknowns of our transformation might be scary. And it’s perfectly okay to be afraid. Yet we live through our transformations not because we know where we’ll end up - but because we trust that God is along side us and will be there ahead of us. So on this second Sunday of Advent, as we listen to a camel hair wearing, locust eating, prophet preaching in the middle of our unknowns - it’s okay, I think, to lean into your transformation. That transformation could be as big as creating a new organization to redefine what healthcare is all about or it could be something a little more personal; like finally making that appointment to see a therapist or get help for that issue you can’t fix on your own. When our transformation begins, we don’t know where exactly we’ll end up. But we do know that, through our baptism and through our faith, we are already with God. And since God is alongside us and since God is ahead of us, the transformation we will live through will, in the end, make us new. 

Amen.
 



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A Luminous Lord: the Golden Hour [Sermon Manuscript]

[Jesus said to his disciples:] "But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour."

Matthew 24:36-44

Pastor Marc's sermon on the First Sunday of Advent (December 1, 2019) on Matthew 24:36-44. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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One of the things I struggle with is light - because I am one of those people who make their children pose seventeen different ways while trying to capture the exact picture that I want. This picture taking process goes about as well as you’d expect - yet I continue to ask my family to “move just a little” as I figure out how to use the light around them. We know that the light in a photo matters to the story we want to tell. And depending on the location, time of day, the season, and the weather - the light itself can change. That, I think, is what makes light hard. We know that it matters, that its part of the story we want to tell, but we don’t always know how to find or even use the best possible light. 

Yet the best light is out there. And in the words of photographer Bryan Peterson, this light “often occurs at those times of the day when you would rather be sleeping or sitting down with family or friends for dinner.” We call this special time the golden hour and it’s, “always disruptive to your ‘normal’ schedule.” Now, if you are rooted to a 9 to 6 kind of day, then the golden hour on this December morning started around dawn - right when we were deciding whether to get out of our warm bed or not. The golden hour will also come right around sunset - which, during this time of year, has already come and gone by the time we get to our car at the end of the work day. The golden hour is a kind of transitional moment; a sort of boundary between night and day; where the low-angled light of the sun reveals the world’s textures, shadows, and depth. When we use that light, the photos we take tell a fuller and more nuanced story because the warm and vivid light of the golden hour enhances what’s already there. The light in that moment creates shadows and contrasts that let us see a deeper kind of truth. We get to see exactly what that photo is all about. Yet the image that is created with the golden hour light is also an image of home - because for us to take it, we had to disrupt our usual lives. And by living through that disruption, we get to see that part of the world and part of our life in a new way. 

Today’s reading from the gospel according to Matthew is, culturally, a bit out of place this time of year. Many of us have already put up our Christmas tree and covered our front yards with a tad too many decorative inflatables. Over the last few days, we’ve celebrated Thanksgiving by wearing elastic pants to every meal and embraced consumerism by kicking off our Black Friday shopping last Wednesday. We tell ourselves that we are moving towards Christmas. Yet the Bible readings we hear on the first Sunday of Advent point us further - right to the end of the world. Now, the end of the world we’re talking about is what we call Jesus’ second coming - when God’s work of reconciling all of creation back to God will finally be complete. The second coming shows up at the end of the second paragraph in the Apostles’ Creed and at the start of the Lord’s Prayer - when we ask for God’s kingdom to truly come. In other words, the second coming is when God’s future becomes our present. And the what and when of that future has been bugging the followers of Jesus for a very long time. Back in Matthew 24:3, the disciples asked Jesus what the end of the world would look like - and when exactly would it come? So Jesus responded with two full chapters filled with his preaching and teaching. Yet his answer was purposefully not complete. He had no problem telling his disciples what the end of the world might look like - yet he didn’t say when it would come. That truth - his not knowing - probably made Jesus’ followers a bit nervous because Jesus, as God’s Son, should know what the rest of the Trinity is doing. But I think Jesus knew how his words would make us feel. And he wanted us to stay in that moment because he kept speaking in an anxiety-inducing kind of way. He started talking about the story of Noah, noting how Noah spent years building the ark, yet everyone around him lived as if everything was alright. The flood that came seemed sudden because the people didn’t notice what God was already up to in the world. After the story of Noah, Jesus kept talking; using a metaphor to reinforce that sense of a crisis. Two groups of two would have their lives suddenly disrupted and they would become two groups of one. Those taken would be like the ones swept away by the flood while the ones who were left would be like Noah, called to live as if God was doing something. Jesus dug deep into that calling by describing what it would be like if we knew when a thief was going to break into our homes. And instead of letting those who followed him know when that disruption in their lives would come, Jesus told them to just be ready - and to live as if Jesus’ second coming would be here soon. Jesus didn’t want those who followed him to wait until some future date to start living as if his life, death, and resurrection mattered. He wanted us to live that way now. Because, in the Bible, the end of the world isn’t only about tomorrow; the end of the world is also about how we live our lives today. And so on this first Sunday of Advent we look forward to Jesus’ second coming because we know his first coming mattered. But that first moment for us will always be bigger than just Christmas morning. Because it also includes those moments when Jesus first came to us - in our baptism, in our faith, and when we realized we are not alone. The unexpected hour of Jesus’ coming isn’t only designed to keep us feeling anxious. It’s also there to serve as a reminder - that there have been disruptive moments in our own pasts that feed our hope. Because it was then when we saw ourselves as part of Christ’s true body - and we discover saw how he lived, died, and rose so that we could live anew. 

And so Jesus’ call to each of us is about remembering that we live in a world that he’s already been on. He’s already touched this ground. He’s already experienced the joys and pain of life. And he, like all of us, has had his heart broken by the disruptions we don’t always see coming. Yet even when the shadow of the night tried to cover and hide God’s light on the Cross, the next morning’s dawn did come. And it was then, as the Resurrection broke through, that a new golden hour was given to each of us. We, through the light of Christ, get to see all of the world’s textures, its hurts, its shadows, and its joys honest and vivid colors. Yet this light also lets us see how God’s love always breaks through. It might take us seventeen tries of shifting our vision to see what God is actually doing. Yet that’s okay. Because when we look for what God is doing in the world - for the ways God’s love shines through - that’s how we keep awake and how we let everyone know that Jesus matters. The doesn’t mean we’ll always get it right or that we will always use Christ’s light exactly the way we’re supposed to. Yet we still try. Because we are called to live today in a way that trusts that our future, and the world’s future, will end up in God. 

 

Amen. 

 



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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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Your Sound: God speaks even in silence

“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.

Mark 9:2-9

My sermon from Ash Wednesday Evening Worship (February 14, 2018) on Matthew 9:2-9. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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I always expect my ash making for Ash Wednesday to be loud. But so far, the sound has always underwhelmed. You would think, with all the different tools I use to make ashes, that loud sounds would be part of the process. I need a large metal coffee can, a bunch of matches, and a deep stack of dried palm fronds. I take all of this to the barbecue pit outside the church. I have plenty of opportunities to make something loud. I could, for example, drop the metal can and listen to it clang and clang and clang as it rolled down the parking lot. And, when I finally get to the pitl, setup the coffee can, and stuff the palm fronds into it, I should hear a loud WHOOSH as I light the extremely dry, extremely brittle, and extremely fragile palm branches. And since I’m lighting this fire outside, the everyday loudness of the outside world should show up. The cars on Pascack Road usually honk. The giants trucks, as they drive by, rattle and rumble the building. And I’m always on the lookout for a low flying airplane making a dull roar as it prepares to land at Teterboro airport. I even half-expect a fire engine from the Woodcliff Lake Fire Department to stop by with its siren wailing, wondering why there’s so much smoke coming from the grounds of the church. The ash we will use tonight was made in the middle of the day, during the middle of our everyday life. And my everyday life expects some kind of loud noise. But in all the years I’ve burned palms here in Woodcliff Lake, the loud sounds I expect never come. Instead, it’s always the silence that surprises me.

I don’t know what it is about Ash Wednesday but, for me, today is a day filled with a very full silence. Even the loud sounds that I know will come, like the bellowing of the organ and the cry of a 3 year old child, seem to be less intense than normal. When I prepared the ashes for today, the clang of the metal can bouncing on the top of the metal grill didn’t disturb me like it’s suppose do. And the pops and crackling of the burning palm fronds was barely audible. I found myself over the last several days falling into an old Ash Wednesday pattern where I keep asking people to repeat themselves because, even though they’re speaking at their normal volume, the silence of this day keeps drowning them out. The sounds of everyday living - from ash making, to cars honking, to the music we sing - on Ash Wednesday, these sounds collide with a day that is already full. Because Ash Wednesday isn’t just another day on the church calendar. Ash Wednesday is an interruption of our everyday expectations.

And this interruption starts with the date itself. For one thing, Ash Wednesday takes place on Wednesday. It shows up in the middle of our week. And it’s never the same date year to year. It can show up in early-February or right next to President’s Day Weekend or skoot all the way into early March. Ash Wednesday can even show up on Valentine’s Day, which it hasn’t done since 1945 but will do again two more times before the year 2030. Ash Wednesday this year has inspired reporters, theologians, pastors, and priests to interrupt their normal routines and have a little fun. They’re busy sharing punny memes online, creating Lent-friendly heart shaped candies, and writing a bunch of articles wondering if it’s okay to eat Chocolate on this first day of Lent. Whatever our expectations for what this 2nd full week of February is supposed to bring, Ash Wednesday shows up, interfering and disrupting our normal routines. It inserts itself, almost without asking, into the busy school, work, sports, and life schedules we’ve already created. And when Ash Wednesday shows up, it does something a little odd. The day isn’t, I think, trying to give us one more thing to do. Even though we’re here at church and some of us will have ashes placed on our face, we’re not here trying to just fill up our time with our actions. Ash Wednesday isn’t a day centered on what we do. You’re here but it isn’t to do something. Rather, you’ are here to rediscover who you really are. Ash Wednesday interrupts the ways we fill up our time and our sense of self-worth by doing and doing and doing - And instead invites to remember who and what we already are. And that Ash Wednesday proclamation is declared during the silence.

There are moments in today’s service that will be silent. There will be long pauses after the readings and space between prayers. There will be times when the silence might feel awkward and you might try to fill it either out loud or with thoughts racing through you mind. But I invite you to hold off, accept that awkward feeling, and just let the silence be. Because that silence isn’t empty. It’s really full of words. And its words are centered in one sentence that begins with the word, “Remember.”

“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

Dust, on its own, cannot live or move or make much noise. There’s nothing that dust can really do. It cannot fill its time or run around doing all that it can to give it some sense of meaning. When it comes to what is eternal, when it comes to the divine, dust...can’t say much. Instead, dust can only sit in its silence - and wait for a sound that gives it meaning. Wait for a voice that says it matters. Dust needs that word that says its loved. On Ash Wednesday, the silence is a paradoxical kind of place. On one hand, we are confronted by who we are and our own mortality. And yet, in that very same moment, we are assured of the eternal promise God gives to us. Whether you chose to wear the ashen cross on your forehead today or not, all of us carry that mark of Christ. We carry this silent sign of who we are and who we belong to during every moment of our everyday live. And in those moments when we are surrounded by bellowing noise and in others moments when silence is all we have, Jesus promises that you are known and loved. Your imperfections will not cause God to abandon you. And the promise of God’s love for you doesn’t end because of what you ever you’ve gone through. t’s through our connection with Jesus Christ that we learn to stop trying to fill up our lives and we discover how Jesus fills us with His life instead. The silence of this moment, the silence of this Ash Wednesday, is how God interrupts our life right now to tell us that we are known, that we are seen, that we are cared for and that we will be, forever, loved.

 

Amen.

 



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A Noon Day Ash Wednesday Meditation

“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

My sermon from Ash Wednesday Noon Day Worship (February 14, 2018) on Matthew 6:1-6,16-21. No audio recording. Read my manuscript below. 

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David Bryne, former lead frontman of the pop band The Talking Heads, has a pretty neat theory about how music works. He thinks that the music we created, from African drum beats to Gregorian chant to Rock and Roll, was determined by the space it was performed in. So if you’re outside, far from the walls of buildings, the complex rattle and rumble of drums reverberates freely; and it grows in beauty the farther the sound travels. Much of the hymns, chants, and music we sing in church was designed for a specific kind of place. Cathedrals in Europe, with their large ceilings, needed the right kind of sound filled with long notes to fill the space but it couldn’t sound messy. Even the contemporary music we sing on Sundays at our 9 am service is designed to be played in a concert venue or a large auditorium where the stage is the most prominent feature. I haven’t spent much time with David Bryne’s theory but it feels, to use a phrase that contradicts his 1984 concert film, it feels like it actually makes sense. And I think this because I experience these same thoughts when I’m preparing to preach. The space I preach in plays a role in what I actually preach. And the space matters so much that when I began to setup this chapel for worship this morning, I realized the sermon I planned to preach wouldn’t work. This space isn’t designed to be a place where I stand up front and talk at you for 12 minutes. This is a space filled with movable furniture, bright lights, and wonderful colors. It’s an intimate environment that, I think, invites us to worship in a slightly different way. And so, I’m going to invite us to do just that. But instead of music or a loud sound to start us off, we’re going to start with silence.

If you are able, I’d like you to make sure your feet are firmly planted on the floor. Then, put your hands on your lap or on your knees in a position that is comfortable but won’t make you fall asleep. Sit up straight, if you can, and in such a way that you are noticing exactly where your body connects with the chair. And once you’re set - close your eyes. And, for a moment, we’ll sit in silence.

(A brief silence).

Now I’d like you to pay attention to your breathing. Notice the breath as it goes out and comes in. And if this silence feels a tad awkward, and random thoughts keep entering into your brain - that’s okay. Notice them. Pay attention to the fact that they are there. But don’t dwell on them. Watch the thought come in...and then out while you focus on your breath.

(A brief silence)

And now I want you to hear something honest and true - something we will share together very shortly.

Remember that you are dust -

And to dust you shall return.

(A brief silence)

And since you are dust - you are mortal - know that you were created by a God who cares that you exist, by a God who knows you, and by a God who loves you right now.

(A brief silence)

And in those moments when you feel alone, know that Jesus is there. And in the moments when you do not know where to go, know that Jesus is there. And in the moments when life is difficult, I promise that Jesus is there.

(A brief silence)

And I’d like to end with something our presiding bishop wrote for today:

“The history of salvation is one extended love story between God and God’s creation, between God and humankind, between God and God’s people. We were created in love for love. Real love. Love that is solid and deep and unflinching. Love that is true enough to be honest….

God’s work of reconciliation in Christ is God’s eyes-wide-open acknowledgement of human rebellion and sin, the undeniable fact that all is not well no matter how hard we try to fix it or deny it. The remedy was the all-in, complete love of the incarnation, crucifixion and death of Christ. Jesus meets us right in the middle of our pain - the pain we feel and the pain we cause others - and without minimizing the depth of our offense, offers forgiveness and new life…”

So on this Ash/Valentine’s Day, know that “Ash Wednesday is [your] valentine from God, one that invites us to enter deep into the mystery of true love, honest examination of our lives and the possibility of real repentance. The Ash Wednesday valentine starts us on the journey to the cross, to the passionate love of God shown in the Passion of Christ. And after the cross, the resurrection.”

(A brief silence)

You may open your eyes.

Jesus Christ is all-in with you.

 

Amen.

 



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Surprise! (sermon manuscript)

[Jesus said to the disciples: ] “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Matthew 25:31-46

My sermon from Christ the King Sunday (November 26, 2017) on Matthew 25:31-46. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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So what are the things you expect to see on Thanksgiving weekend?

For me, I like to drive down route 17 and see the miles of cars trying to get into the Garden State Mall parking lot. Others, I know, are glued to the tv, watching football on Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday, and praying that their NFL team will do all they can to secure the #1 spot in next year’s draft. This is a weekend where some set-up Christmas trees, hang garland and lights, and place 9” long inflatable dinosaurs in Santa hats on their front lawns. It’s a busy weekend for weekend warriors, travelers, and all kinds of consumers. But it’s also a busy weekend for everyone who works. Even though more and more people spend their holidays shopping online, retail stores and malls still need a small army of employees to open, staff, and survive this ultra busy time of year. Thanksgiving weekend isn’t only the start of a season where we stuff ourselves full of turkey and eggnog and a huge amount of stress as we try to do everything and still find that perfect gift for family and friends. This weekend is also when hundreds of thousands of people will become a seasonal retail employee. As you stare at a mountain of tvs, trying to decide which one is right for you, the staff person who helps you might not be who you expect. It could be a college student trying to pick up some extra hours of work, or a stay-at-home dad trying to help his family stay afloat, or it could be one of the countless underemployed folks in this country who need these kinds of jobs to survive. Even pastors, seminarians, and interns take these kind of seasonal retail jobs. Now, that fact might surprise you since the holiday season is a busy one for pastors - but sometimes student loans, a health crisis, and an unexpected expense makes seasonal work a requirement for a clergyperson. That cashier you saw yesterday at Target could be, at this very moment, preaching in a pulpit. And I know this because, yesterday, that cashier/preacher posted in a clergy Facebook group a note he received from his new boss. The boss sent out a group-text to all the seasonal employees as they got ready for Black Friday. The boss wanted to remind them of the expectations management had. After writing about being on time and how to dress, they ended with an important piece in big, capital letters: “PLEASE ALWAYS BE AWARE THAT OUR GUESTS MAY BE TARGET EXECUTIVES. WE ARE TO TREAT EVERY GUEST AS IF THEY ARE.” It might surprise you to find out that the seasonal retail worker helping you might be clergy. But it’s probably just as surprising to learn that the management at Target is sharing with their seasonal employees a version of today’s reading from the gospel of Matthew. The sheep and the goats is not a parable only for the Bible. It’s a story for our modern retail life because you never know who you might run into while shopping this holiday season.

Today’s passage from Matthew is an interesting text to chose to end the church year on. Starting next week, we are in a new year in our 3 year cycle through scripture and we’ll be focusing on the gospel according to Mark. You would think, since we’re starting with a new gospel, we would end this year with the last words from Matthew. But we don’t. Instead, we end with Jesus’ last public teaching before his betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion. We end our church year with Jesus standing in the Temple and talking about farm animals, visiting people in prison, and a final and fiery  judgement. This isn’t the most hope-filled text to end the church year on. And it’s also a text where, if we were given the choice to pick which story today to use, the sheep and the goats would be a surprising pick. But maybe that surprise is why our 3 year cycle picked this text to end this church year on. Because this isn’t just a surprising text. It’s also a text with surprise built in.

And did you notice that? The surprise the sheep and the goats both express? In today’s story, the Son of Man shows up in full glory. Everyone knows who he is and everyone understands that something important, amazing, and all-powerful is about to happen. No one doubts what’s going on. But they do have a question for this eternal judge. They are surprised to learn that this isn’t the first time they’ve met him. So Both sides wonder when they saw him last. And this judge, this Son of Man, answers them strangely. Because He simply tells them who he was with. Jesus was with the stranger who lived in their nation. He was with the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, and the ones who had nothing. Jesus was stuck in the prison cell with the justly and unjustly convicted. He was always there, in the open, with people we could actually see - but we, as a society and as individuals, chose not to see them. We keep our distance because they are different, or scary, or because we assume they brought this pain and suffering and poverty on themselves. We act as if they deserve their fate - and that’s who Jesus chose to be with. Jesus is there, hanging with the ones we don’t like, with the ones we don’t agree with, and with the ones who we label as the goats in our world. When we see the surprise in today’s text, we finally see how Jesus chooses to be with people, even the people we don’t think he should be with, because that’s just who Jesus is. God’s presence in our lives doesn’t depend on us having the title, or the wealth, or the good looks, or all those things society says we need to have to be seen and noticed by everyone else. Jesus is with everyone, especially the ones society doesn’t see, and that’s surprisingly good news. Because a God who chooses to be with people is a God who chooses to be with us; and with the person sitting next to us; and with that seasonal retail employee we might run into later this week. Jesus is right there - in the middle of places and events and with people we don’t expect him to be with. And unlike the management at Target, we don’t have to be afraid that a Target Executive might show up because we know that the king of kings, the Son of Man, this Jesus of Nazareth who was born in a barn and had an animal food dish for his first bed - we know that Jesus is with whoever is in front of us.  And he’s also with us, because Jesus keeps his arms outstretched and open so that he, and we, can serve and love all.   

Amen.



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