Questions and Reflections

Category: Sermon (Manuscript)

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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Four O'Clock: On Vulnerability [Sermon Manuscript]

The next day [John the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”

The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

John 1:29-42

Pastor Marc's sermon on the 2nd Sunday After Epiphany (January 19, 2020) on John 1:29-42. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


So yesterday, I thought I could finish all my errands before the snow became a problem. But it take long for things to start looking iffy. When I pulled into the church parking lot, the roads were already covered by a very thin layer of snow. I knew I had to hurry so I parked my car, ran inside, and was here for at most 15 minutes. Yet that was all the time needed for the new tires on my car to start losing their grip on the road. By the time I left the church, the dusting of snow on my car had become a blanket. And as I drove down the one-way street connecting the church office parking lot with the main lot below, that’s when my car slid off the road. I eventually got back into the main lot and headed east on Church Road over the reservoir. Everyone, it seemed, was having a rude awakening that, regardless of their car or truck, they would be sliding through and around intersections. As I neared the intersection by Broadway next to Oso Buco, I saw several cars sliding backwards as they tried to drive up the steep incline. I knew then that the rest of my errands would have to wait. I managed to inch my way home but others weren’t so lucky. At every major intersection near a slight hill, there were police officers trying to get accidents off the road. Now I knew this storm was coming and that, in the end, it wouldn’t turn out to be that bad. But at its start, when the snow first fell, that’s when everything on the roads became vulnerable. 

Now I’m not sure if there’s an easy way to classify the experience of vulnerability - but being vulnerable is something we’ve all lived through it. I bet each one us could turn to the person next to us and share a dozen different vulnerable moments. But your story about vulnerability shouldn’t be like the story I just told. Nowhere in that story did I initiate vulnerability. Instead, I sort of fell into it and it’s a good story because everything, for me at least, turn out okay in the end. Yet there’s a different kind of vulnerability that we’re not always trained to admit or share. And that’s the vulnerability we experience when we take a risk and we’re not 100% sure how everyone else will respond. It’s the kind of vulnerability we live through when we walk into a new classroom in a brand new school. And it’s the kind of vulnerability that seems to move into our homes while we’re waiting for the doctor to call us with the results from our most recent medical tests. This kind of vulnerability makes us feel and act in all sorts of ways. Brene Brown, a researcher who collects and analyzes the everyday stories we tell about ourselves, defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.” And each one of those words is terrifying in its own way. If I had to guess, most of us want more certainty in our lives. And we’d also like less risk - or maybe just a little risk as long as everything turns out the way we hoped it would. Emotional exposure is even more challenging because that means we need to be honest with others about how we really feel. And we don’t get to control what others do with those emotions that we just shared. Taking the initiative to be vulnerable is scary and we spend a lot of time trying to be anything but. 

So it’s sort of interesting that in today’s reading from the gospel according to John, vulnerability shows up. We just heard John’s version of Jesus’ baptism and if you look closely, you’ll notice that Jesus, in this text, was never explicitly baptized. The act of John the Baptist pouring water over Jesus’ head is not - not mentioned but it’s also not spelled out. And that vulnerable moment of having someone else pray for you or perform a ritual with you is simply passed over. Instead, the gospel writer leans into certainty and has John the Baptist, in a very public way, identify Jesus as the Lamb of God. And that certainty is so clear that two of John the Baptist’s own disciples leave his side and follow the stranger they didn’t know before. 

Now it didn’t take long for Jesus to realize he was being followed. So he turned around and asked both of them a question. But his question wasn’t “Who are you?” or “Why are you following me?” or “Do you believe what John said about me?” Rather Jesus asked them to say out loud what it was they were looking for. And that’s a risky question because it doesn’t really an easy answer. Jesus is, at this point, a stranger to these two disciples. There’s no real relationship between them. Any “who” those two were looking for had to be colored and influenced by what they imagined “the lamb of God” or the “Messiah” would be. So what Jesus really asked them was to be honest about everything they wanted Jesus to be. And that admission would include sharing their hopes and their dreams; their thoughts and experiences; and what it felt like to leave John, the person they knew, to seek out the person they didn’t didn’t. By sharing their “what,” the two disciples would have to admit their vulnerability. 

hich might be why the two disciples, when faced with Jesus’ what, instead asked a question of their own. And that question, at least as it reads to me today, seemed to wonder if Jesus would be vulnerable too. Because they asked Jesus to reveal more than the place where he was keeping his spare pair of sandals. They wanted Jesus to tell them where he was sleeping - and where we sleep can sometimes reveal a lot about who we are. Our bedrooms can be the places where we for eight - or more likely six - hours a night sleep while the rest of the world keeps happening around us. And where we sleep, whether in our home, a hotel room, in a sleeping bag, on the couch in a friend’s apartment, or on cardboard on a city’s streets - where we stay can reveal a lot about the story we’re currently living. Revealing that story means being vulnerable. And Jesus’ response to those who asked him to be vulnerable too was simply: “come and see.” 

Being vulnerable is scary. Yet letting ourselves show vulnerability is a strength that invites us to live a different kind of life. It’s the kind of vulnerability that lets us do really hard things - like saying “I love you” first or finally admitting to our family and friends that we need help. Being vulnerable lets us shed tears of sadness and tears of joy, embracing our feelings instead of building a false wall around them. And being vulnerable is lets us admit that we are worth being fully seen. The call to be vulnerable is a call to admit that uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure is already a part of our lives. Yet that kind of vulnerability doesn’t have to limit what’s possible in our lives because we have a Savior who lived a vulnerable life too. There were times when even the Son of God wasn’t listened to, was rejected, and was abandoned by those he loved. Yet his willingness to be vulnerable with others created opportunities for all of us to be vulnerable with Jesus. And our vulnerability with Jesus is one of the ways Jesus transforms us into the people and the community God wants us to be. When we embrace vulnerability, we create a community where vulnerability is accepted, cherished, and is never taken advantage of. Instead, it recognizes that in Jesus, God’s love for us chose to be vulnerable, letting us say no by putting Jesus on a Cross. Yet God refused to let our fear of vulnerability end the story God wanted for us. Because being vulnerable lets us give up living the false story we think we should live and instead live deeper into God’s story - one where grace, love, and hope are ours - forever. 



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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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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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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. 


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.





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Back to Work: The Night [Sermon Manuscript]

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Luke 2:1-20

Pastor Marc's sermon on Christmas Eve (December 24, 2019) on Luke 2:1-20. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


As the parent of an almost 1 year old, I often spend my time being awake in the middle of the night. I’m the kind of person who’s jolted awake when my kid lets out a barely audible cry but sometimes need to be encouraged by my tired wife to just get up. Now, there’s something familiar yet also strange about having to navigate your home without your normal lights to guide you. We sort of know where everything is supposed to but not really because a shadow covers everything. I’ve spent the last year re-learning old skills - like how to find a clean diaper that’s hidden in what appears to be a black abyss. And I now know which windows I need to leave uncovered so that the light from street lamps can shine in, letting me see those random toys left behind in my very dark hallways. These skills are not needed every night because sometimes often awake for a moment before falling back asleep. But there are other times, especially these last few weeks, when I watched the night turn into a new day. And that’s always kind of interesting because even though the night is when my life at home slows down, that’s not necessarily true for everyone else. I now know, for example, which of my neighbors leave for work before the dawn breaks and which have to, every night, take their dogs out at 3 am. I get the sense that, culturally, we assume the middle of the night is when life slows down. But for those of us who are awake, we know that the night is filled with action, energy, and so much life. 

So as I sat pondering tonight’s text from the gospel of Luke in the middle of the night, I noticed that the word “night” only appears once. But the idea and experience of night shows up everywhere. Our story begins with Mary and Joseph on the move. The Roman Emperor, according to Luke, has forced them on a journey that would take several nights to complete. And that’s not really easy because Mary was almost 9 months pregnant and she would need to travel the 85 miles between Nazareth and Bethlehem via either donkey or by foot. We can imagine that this journey might have taken up to a week to complete. And as Mary and Joseph traveled from Galilee through Judea, they probably spent each day wondering where they would sleep that night. When they arrived at their destination, they would have been two among many who were forced by the Emperor to stop their current lives and return to the place where their ancestors were born. Everyone there, including Mary and Joseph, were to be counted so that the Emperor could figure out new ways to exploit them in his quest for more power. I sort of wonder if, while they were traveling to Bethlehem, if Mary and Joseph found themselves to be awake in the middle of the night. I can imagine them feeling anxious about the baby and everything the angels told them. And they might have asked themselves if any of that actually mattered because they lived in a world where the Emperor had the authority to make everyone move. The Bible doesn’t tell us if Mary needed to immediately give birth once she arrived in the city. Yet with the disruptive shadow of the Emperor hovering over everything - it feels as if another kind of disruption would have immediately settled on them. And so, with Jesus’ birth, Mary and Joseph found themselves living into their new life - one filled with more sleepless nights than they already had. 

Yet it’s precisely at that moment, as Mary and Joseph were preparing to be awake way more often in the middle of the night, when the word “night” finally appears in the Christmas story. But it wasn’t used to describe Joseph bouncing Jesus in his arms while the stars twinkled or how Mary was barely awake when Jesus, at 3 am, was ready to start his day. Instead, the word “night” wasn’t really connected to them at all. Instead, it was used to describe the people in the fields outside Bethlehem who were already awake. These shepherds were not expecting an army of angels to show up that night. They were just doing their jobs - one that took them away from their family and friends. They were busy taking care of sheep - sheep that, most likely, didn’t belong to them. And so they relied on each other for support and to keep watch while others took a few moments to sleep or rest. The shepherds knew that the world didn’t stop when everyone else was asleep. Life still happened in the darkness. 

Now we tend to act as if light and dark, day and night, are two opposite poles where life happens on one end but sort of stops on the other. Yet our Bible, while using language that reinforces that polarity, also uses images and stories to show that there’s something else happens in the dark. The dark isn’t always bad nor should we label anything that is dark as something devoid of good. Rather, the dark is part of life. And it’s in the middle of the night when the message about Jesus first came. That message wasn’t delivered to the rich or powerful or even to the Roman Emperor who had the power to disrupt everyone’s lives. The message of Jesus, instead, came to those awake in the middle of their night because even then, God moves. 

If I’m honest, I need to admit that there are different kinds of being awake in the middle of the night. And taking care of a healthy almost one year old is not the same kind of middle of the night we all share. Tonight, as we worship in the middle of this night, we might find ourselves living through our night that’s not as joyous as we wished it would be. Christmas Eve can be hard - filled with heartache, pain, worry, anxiety, and loss. It’s possible that we are, right now, living through a disruption that has interrupted our lives and forced us onto a new journey we didn’t expect. And it can feel as if the night controls way too much of our life. Yet on this Christmas Eve, I want you to know that the message to the shepherds is also a message meant for you. The story of Christmas isn’t only for those who are filled to the brim with candy canes, joy, and dress in twinkling Christmas lights. This story is also for those living through the middle of their nights because they were the ones who heard and saw Jesus first. Our good news of our great joy is that the middle of your night will not be the final chapter of your story. Because God came to live out the entirety of our lives - a life that will be filled with joy, laughter, pain, and sorrow. God did not run away from all the different kinds of middle of the nights that show up in our lives. Instead, Jesus was born to lead us through them. 

And those shepherds can also point us to something that we might miss. Since they were Jewish, those shepherds kept time in differently than Lutheran Christians do. For us, we act as if a new day really starts once the sun rises and the orange, reds, and yellows of the morning shine through. Yet  for those shepherds in the fields around Bethlehem, the new day always started the moment the night officially began. So when you are up in the middle of the night, you are also awake in the middle of a brand new day - one where God, in Jesus, promises to be with you, to love you, and to never let you go. 





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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. 


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. 





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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. 


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. 





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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. 


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. 



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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. 


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. 





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