Questions and Reflections

Reflection: Re-learning the old story

At the last minute, I made the executive decision to change today's reading from the Hebrew Bible. Rather than spending time in the book of Isaiah, I took us back to the opening chapter of the book of Exodus 1:1-2:2. We'll hear this passage again in August when we focus on Moses's origin story. But today I want to focus on a different part of the Exodus story: Pharaoh's order that all male babies of Hebrew descent should be killed.

The last major story at the end of the book of Genesis is centered on Joseph (aka Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat). He had become, over time, an important leader in the Egyptian government. After using the gifts God gave him to interpret dreams, he managed to save himself and the kingdom from ruin. A famine decimated the wider area but Egypt thrived because Joseph saved all the excess wheat they grew during plentiful years. His family (including his 11 brothers) and their households (including wives, kids, slaves, employees, and more) crossed the border into Egypt, become economic refugees. They did not know that Joseph was now a high-ranking official but, in a very colorful moment, the family was reunited and old grudges were forgiven. The Hebrew people settled inside Egypt, building homes and raising their families. They retained what made them culturally unique and assimilated only slightly into the wider culture. As time went on, the people in Egypt grew weary of the Hebrew people. They feared the Hebrews would replace them and the Egyptians would become marginalized. So in an act of political violence, the Egyptians enslaved the Hebrew people but that didn't satisfy the Egyptian xenophobia. They chose to do more. So, in a terrifying moment, the Pharaoh ordered male newborns to be killed once they were born. With the death of the male babies, it was assume the Hebrew women would be forced to marry Egyptians, transferring any wealth and property to the Egyptians or they would just die out. The Pharaoh ordered a genocidal act and the Hebrews, including their midwives like Shiphrah and Puah, did what they could to resist this command.

As you listen and read our story from the gospel according to Mathew today, keep in mind this Exodus story. The parallels are intentional and help us understand what Matthew chose to describe. When we forget the story of the Exodus, we end up missing the deep spiritual terror seen in the genocidal act Herod the Great ordered on the children of his people.



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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. 

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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. 

 

Amen. 

 



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Reflection: Who Counts

I don't know about you but when I was a kid, I had a habit of counting the number of presents that appeared under my Christmas tree. It was my family's tradition to sort and organize all the presents before they were opened. My brothers and I would swarm the foot of the tree, quickly grabbing the presents that looked like they were for us while knocking the others to the side. Eventually we would each have our own little pile of gifts, and I would quickly count to see who had the most. It didn't matter, at that point, what the quality of each wrapped gift was. What mattered was how many were in each pile. And the kid with the most seemed to be, for a moment at least, the one who truly counted.

Tonight's story from the gospel according to Luke 2:1-20 is the same one we hear every Christmas Eve. But every year, to me at least, part of the story sounds new. We have to be careful as we hear this story that we don't skim over the words, thinking that we already know what the Christmas story is all about. Instead, we should slow down and let every word that's uttered fill our ears and our hearts with sound. When we do that, we can sometimes notice the part of this story that God knows we need to hear right now. We might need to spend time with Mary, sit beside Joseph, or stand in wonder with the shepherds on the hillside. And when we spend time with something, we can't always rush it. Instead, we need to sit with it as God's words work on our soul.

So in the spirit of slowing down, what struck me this Christmas Eve was the power of counting. The story begins with the Roman Emperor choosing to count who is under his control through the calling of a census. A census in the ancient world was used to find out how many soldiers could be conscripted in a specific and how much taxes could be raised to fund a new military campaign. By counting people, the Emperor could launch additional wars to expand the areas under their control.

The census, in the ancient world, could be a very disruptive tool—letting those in authority disrupt people's lives as they launched new campaigns to fill the hunger for power. The census in Luke is even more disruptive than most. People were forced to uproot their lives and travel great distances to the places where their ancestors were born. By the time Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem, the city was full of people waiting to be counted. The Roman Emperor hoped that by counting them, he could discover new ways to exploit them. And that exploitation would show the world how the Emperor counted while everyone else didn't.

Yet it was during that act of disruptive exploitation when God showed up. While the Emperor was busy counting those who didn't count, God became truly human. The rules of the world that defined who had value and worth were disruptive by a God who knew that you counted. On this Christmas Eve, your worth does not depend on the number of presents under your tree. Your value has nothing to do with all the comparisons we've made between ourselves and those around us. Your status as a human being does not depend on how you choose to count yourselves or others. Because, to God, you count and you matter. We are good at making our own counts of ourselves and our world as a way to define how valued we think we should be. Yet, when it comes to God, how you choose to count in the world isn't what defines God's love for you. Rather, to God, you already count - because on this holy night, Christ is born.

Merry Christmas!



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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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Twenty-Twenty

I received my first pair of glasses when I was about five years old, but I’m pretty sure my eyesight needed help long before that. I don’t remember there ever being a time when I didn’t need help seeing. When I first wake up in the morning, everything is fuzzy. Every light radiates like a star on the top of a Christmas tree, and every object looks like a fuzzy multi-colored blob. The biological lenses in my eye are not quite right so I need help to see twenty-twenty. That’s why one of the first things I do every morning is a put a little plastic lens in my eye. That lens I put on helps me see the world more clearly. Without it, I would struggle to see what’s in front of me.

This January marks more than a new year; it’s also a new decade. From now on when we hear someone mention the “20s,” they’re talking about today. A new decade means new possibilities and new opportunities. But it also lets us reflect on where we have come. Some of us weren’t even born ten years ago. Others were still in school, college, or had just started our first job. Some of us were happily married while others knew they needed to separate. And many of us were surrounded with loved ones who will not be entering this new decade with us. Even if we do not feel that January 2020 feels any different than January 2010, our lives and our world have changed. Yet, regardless of whatever change we’ve gone through, God has been with us through it all. And the Jesus who loved you in January 2010 is the same Jesus who loves you now.

This new decade provides us an opportunity to look forward. We can be honest about everything we’ve gone through. We can admit the ways things haven’t turned out they way they should. And we can take time to worship, pray, and be with Jesus – and to discover how he’s been with us through it all. When we notice that Jesus has always been part of our lives, I believe that’s when we gain a new perspective on the life we’ve lived. That new perspective then becomes a new lens as we look forward to the future that’s about to come. The new lens helps focus us, noticing the ways God is in the world and in our lives. And when we see God more clearly, we might also learn how to love ourselves, world and neighbors in a deeper and more meaningful way. The 2020s won’t be entirely the same as the 2010s. But maybe we can choose to live through the 2020s with our eyes seeing the Jesus who is always there.

See you in church!

Pastor Marc



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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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Reflection: Meme Advent

I know the stress of the holiday season is getting to me when I'm laughing way too much at liturgical memes. Liturgical memes are images shared online that poke fun at the things we do in church. As a professional religious person, I know I'm already going to laugh at any liturgical meme I find. But when the never ending to-do list of the Advent Christmas season begins to overwhelm me, I start laughing at these images longer than I should. I'm soon annoying my non-church nerd friends by sending them jokes about writing Year C (the label for the cycle of readings we used last year) on my checks and whether raisins in raisin bread can be consecrated as the body of Christ. Yet the meme I return to every year at this time comes from the movie Mean Girls and how on the third Sunday of Advent, we light pink.


Today is Gaudete Sunday which is Latin for "rejoice." In the 800s, a special Gregorian chant was created to celebrate the third Sunday of Advent. In the middle of a season filled with Biblical images about the end of the world, Jesus' second coming, and with John the Baptist calling us all vipers, it's sometimes hard to rejoice. The early church wanted to break through our sense of doom and gloom and remind us why we gather together. We are here to celebrate how God continues to break into our lives with guidance, love and hope. The opening word of that special chant was simply "rejoice." And during this season when we are overwhelmed by our to do lists, rejoicing is hard. We know that the journey to Christmas isn't always a Hallmark movie. An unexpected crisis will interrupt our plans, and we will find ourselves consumed by the broken relationships in our lives. As we get closer to the longest night of the year, it can feel as if a shadow might overcome us. And in these moments, we might not be able to rejoice on our own.

Which is why, I think, the liturgical calendar interrupts our expectations and reminds us to "rejoice." We are connected to a God who loves each of us as we are. And that love transforms our brokenness, our problems, our sins, and the ways we don't love ourselves and others. The liturgy—what we do in worship on Sunday morning—is a structure to tell the truth about God, ourselves and our world. It gives us words when we don't know what to say, and it helps us pray when we can't anymore. And the liturgy reminds us that Christ's light will always shine. So today we light a pink candle instead of a blue one. We remind ourselves to rejoice. We celebrate that no matter what we do, we know Christmas will still come. And we are blessed to trust that Jesus will lead us into a life where love never ends.



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Reflection: Soak It In

Every once in a while, our lectionary (the 3 year cycle of readings we hear on Sunday morning), gives us a text that I don't always feel the need to explain. I don't necessarily want to describe what the text is about. Instead, I just listen to the words as they're read out loud. I don't rush to unpack what they say. I don't try to understand everything that was written. I let the words flow over me and I wait for the Holy Spirit to open me to what God wants to say. The word God gives me might not necessarily be exactly the same word God gives you. Yet the lesson we hear from the Bible will work on us, helping to transform us into the people God knows we can be. 

Today's reading from the book of Romans 15:4-13 is a passage from scripture meant to do something to us. It starts by pointing us to the scripture we've been given and how our faith actually transforms us. Through Christ, our relationship with each other is refined, reformed, and made new so that we can always be a people of hope. And as a people with hope, we have been given words that help carry us through whatever life might throw our way. These words appear in our scriptures, in our prayers, and in the Spirit-filled interactions we have with one another. Yet there will be times when our faith will be shaken, our confidence in God will weaken, and when hope will be hard to see. And when that happens, a passage like this from Romans can help connect us to the God who will never leave our side.

So I invite you to just listen to these words today. Read them out loud if you can. Let the words Paul wrote nearly 2000 years ago feed your faith. One way you can do that is place the sentences from these passages in different parts of our worship service. Include verse 7 in the opening we usually share. Add verse 4 before we read any readings from scripture. Let verse 5 connect you with one another as you gather around the Lord's table. Let verses 10 and 11 be the reason why you sing loud. Let this passage from Romans fill your soul so that verse 13 becomes your anthem and your way of life. Because, right now, you are loved.  And regardless of where you are in your life, God is transforming you into something new. 



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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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