Questions and Reflections

November 2017

Surprise! (sermon manuscript)

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

Matthew 25:31-46

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


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

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

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

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



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What's in a Name? Christ the King vs Reign of Christ

You did it! You survived another church year. Today is Christ the King Sunday. It's a new holiday in the church calendar, established less than 100 years ago. In 1925, Pope Pius XI established this day to encourage Roman Catholics to recognize Christ's authority in our lives. Christ the King was originally scheduled for the last Sunday in October (which might have been a way to push back against Lutherans and their Reformation Sunday) but was moved to the last Sunday in the church year in 1970. Many different protestant churches (including Lutherans) adopted this feast day because its central question is important for all Christians. We know Jesus is important and we commit ourselves to follow him. We celebrate his presence in our lives and sing hymns calling him the "king of kings." Jesus matters - but does our everyday life act like he does? 

Over the last few decades, a debate about name of this Sunday has emerged. Should we call this Sunday Christ the King when the word "king" is so problematic? There are plenty of kings in scripture that give the word "king" a bad name.  In 1 Samuel 8, the prophet Samuel describes what kings actually do. They value power more than anything. They want to keep everything for themselves. They oppress the poor, fight wars, and bring ruin to entire communities. They demand the obedience of others while filling their bank accounts with other people's wealth. Kings in scripture are not a good thing. Even the kings we celebrate (like King David), have immense personality flaws that lead to their downfall and destruction. All of us think we know what a good king looks like. They are full of power and majesty. They are wise, caring, and give hope to others. They live lives worthy of being in a Disney animated film. And they are a king that looks nothing like Jesus did when, broken and battered, he died on the Cross. 

I still call today Christ the King Sunday because that's a name other people use. But, in my own devotion, I prefer to call today: "Reign of Christ Sunday." Because that's what we're really celebrating. We are, through out baptism, called to live as if Jesus really matters. We are to recognize his love for us and love others just as much. We are to celebrate service rather than power and to always cling to hope. We are to live as if Christ truly rules over our lives because, through the Cross, we know he already does. 


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Come to Church Twice. From Pastor Marc - My Message for the Messenger, December 2017 Edition

One of the gifts the November time change gives us is a gift I don’t usually embrace. The sun is setting earlier which gives me an opportunity to see something vibrant and colorful. But the sun sets at the same time when my day is transitioning. I race from the church to two different schools to pick up my kids. I take them home, unpack bags, feed cats and try to figure out what’s for dinner. In the middle of this daily busyness, I rarely notice the sky turning orange and red as the sun sets. I miss the best sunsets. Once my night calms down, at the moment when the sky turns a deep blue, my social media feeds are filled with pictures of the beautiful sunset I just missed. I experience the reds, oranges and golds that just happened in the deep blue moment before night begins. I try to remind myself to take a break and make time to look out the window tomorrow. But that reminder rarely sticks. My experience of the vibrant color-filled sky is limited to those moments when they sky is a deep blue.

The season of Advent is a season of blue. The cloth and fabric decorating our church mimics the blue color in the sky right before dawn breaks. But I think that blue matches the color that appears right after a sunset. Both of these moments are when we have just enough light to see. We remember the beautiful colors of the day that we just experienced and we look forward to dawn that’s about to come. It’s at these moments, I think, when our hope in Christ feels very real. We might be experiencing our own moments of being blue, waiting for something life-giving to come. We might feel as if the best moments of our lives are in our past, and we are in the sunset of our lives. We might long for the vibrant colors we have never seen or wish for a return to a past that, in hindsight, always looks better than they truly were. The deep blue moments in our lives can feel very long. But the story of Jesus is a story where the moments of deep blue are overcome by a love that shines bright. As followers of Jesus, we know Jesus has come. He walked on earth, gave hope to the hopeless and conquered death itself. There were times in his story when it looked like the sun had set, but a sun that sets is also a son that will soon rise.

This year Christmas Eve is on a Sunday. We will celebrate with our traditional evening worship at 5:00 pm and 10:30 pm (note the new time). But we will also mark the final Sunday of Advent that morning with one service at 10 am. Christmas is exciting, but Advent reminds us that we are people always rooted in the hope that the deep blue in this world is not God’s final word. I invite you to attend church twice this 24th. Spend the morning knowing that Jesus is with you even in the deep blue moments of your lives. And then celebrate that evening with all of God’s people because, in Jesus, a new day for the entire world has broken.

See you in church!

Pastor Marc


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Talents: Changing Names (sermon manuscript)

[Jesus said to the disciples: ] “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’"

Matthew 25:14-30

My sermon from the 24th Sunday after Pentecost (November 19, 2017) on Matthew 25:14-30. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


What are you thankful for today?

Since it’s the start of Thanksgiving week, I’ve been thinking about being thankful. I’m thankful for my health and my family. I’m grateful for a roof over my head. I’m thankful for the pumpkin pie I ate last night. And I’m grateful for each of you, for this church, and for the grace God gives us each and every day. It’s not easy being thankful. But when we pause and take a moment to reflect on what we’ve been given, it’s not hard to find at least one thing to be thankful for. And so if you’re having a little trouble thinking about what you can be thankful for, here’s something you might not know. Three weeks ago, we celebrated the 500th anniversary of the start of the Lutheran reformation. We celebrated with special music, a large choir, and welcomed two other churches into this space. We gave thanks because a monk-turned-university-professor turned the Christian world upside down by posting 95 thoughts about Jesus, faith, and the church on a door in Germany. We call this church and this faith community Lutheran because of that German monk. But being “Lutheran” was something that almost didn’t happen. And I’m not talking about the what-ifs of history that could have put an end to the Lutheran reform movement. No, I’m really just thinking about the name. We’re Lutherans because that German monk was named Martin Luther. But, when Luther posted his 95 theses, he wasn’t known as Martin Luther. His real name, the name his parents gave him at his birth, was Martin Luder. Luther and Luder sound the same but they’re actually very different. Luder is a little awkward because, in German, Luder is something lewd. It’s a word associated with immorality. If things had turned out differently, we might know ourselves today as Luderans or the Lewds or something that doesn’t really roll off the tongue. Imagine inviting your friends and your family to come worship with you at Christ Lewd Church. That doesn’t sound very pleasant. So we can be a thankful that Martin Luder, after he posted his 95 theses, decided to do a new thing: he embraced his faith, his experience of Jesus Christ, by taking on a new identity so he changed his name to Martin Luther.

But why Luther? And what does that mean?

Well, he chose Luther because Martin was a guy who wasn’t afraid of being trendy. In the 1400s and 1500s, Europe was being transformed. New ways of looking at the world were coming into being. Universities across Europe were still a new thing and they were embracing a new way at looking at the world called humanism. Now humanism has many different parts to it but a core piece of it is a desire to “get back to the sources.” Humanists reached back into their cultural past to rediscover ideas that they had lost. They re-learned ancient greek so that they could read Plato, Aristotle, and other early philosophers in their original languages. Bible scholars started to do the same and published the first greek new testament to appear in Western Europe in something like 1000 years. Humanists loved being humanists and they wanted to make this movement part of their very identity. And some did this by literally changing their name. They created new first and last names and made them as greek as possible. And Martin Luder did the same. After he posted his 95 theses, he started to sign his letters and his papers with the name Martin Eleutherius which means - Martin: the freed one. Eventually, he stopped writing Elutherius and instead shortened it to Luther. This church and this community of faith are named after someone who chose their own name. We are the descendants of a German monk who threw off the name and identity he was given at his birth to become something new. Martin Luther became Martin Luther because his relationship with Jesus changed. He wrestled with doubts, fears, and was angry with God. But his encounter with Scripture forced Martin to realize he was more than just his father’s son. He was, because of Christ, “the freed one.” There was something about Jesus, something about faith and grace, that caused Martin Luder to break his connection with his past and embrace a new point of view. God gifted Martin Luder with an insight into God’s relationship with all of us. Luder no longer saw life as a mere few years where we try to get the God to be somehow on our side. Instead, Luther saw how, in Jesus, God already was. God gave Luther a new way of loving himself and serving the world. God gave Luther a gift. And God gives us these gifts so that we can be gift-givers like God.

So when we think about God or look for God in our lives, God as a gift-giver is one perspective that helps us see God anew. But God as gift-giver doesn’t mean that God is Santa Claus. God’s love for each of us isn’t defined by how many toys or wealth we actually have. And chasing after those things isn’t what God wants for our lives. We can read a parable like today’s from the gospel according to Matthew and think there’s something about faith that requires us to double our money. A talent, in the New Testament, was a physical quantity of silver or gold that weighed something like 130 lbs. This parable, on the surface, seems to celebrate those who turn a lot of money into more. But this isn’t a parable about money. It’s about the kingdom of God. And in that kingdom, the only things we have are what God first gives us. Each slave in this story is entrusted with a gift and are supposed to use that gift as if they were the master himself. Two of the slaves embraced this challenge. They didn’t hide what they were given nor did they keep it for themselves. They took risks. They tried new things. They engaged with the world and, somehow, their gift grew. When they first received their gift, a new relationship was formed. That relationship created a shared identity where they were called to be like the master. At the moment the gift was given, the three in the story were entrusted to become something more than just themsleves. They were now gift-givers, too.

Martin Luder struggled to see the gifts God gave. He longed to discover a loving God but his prayer, worship, and study couldn’t shake his sense of worthlessness before the God of all. He was focused on the gifts he thought he needed to give to God, to make God love him, but he could never do enough. Yet once he saw God in a new-light, as a God who is a gift-giver, Martin Luder could no longer be the person he was before. The gifts God gave him were more than just his intellect and other talents. What God gave Martin Luder was a Jesus who, no matter what, would never let him go. That is something he could be thankful for. Jesus is more than just someone to follow, believe, or trust. Jesus is also a gift given to us. We will always be a little like Martin Luder, struggling to see God and wondering if this God thing actually matters at all. But through our baptism and through a faith that God gifts to us each and every day, we can live lives that do more than just focus on ourselves. We can live, like Luther, as a freed one. We can become people thankful for the gift of Jesus himself. And since Jesus is our gift, we are entrusted to do nothing less than share that gift in everything that we say and do.



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A Reflection on Zephaniah 1

This reading from Zephaniah 1:7,12-18 is terrifying. 

It begins with a command from God demanding silence. This phrase lets us put this text in context. This command is used when something is taking place in the Temple. In ancient Israel, the Temple was where heaven and earth meet. It's where God truly is. By demanding our silence, the prophet Zephaniah tells us that these words are spoken in the place where God is present and where God is being worshipped. These words take place as people gather to pray and celebrate God. The people are participating in rituals, telling stories, and experiencing God. As we will discover, the people expect to be blessed when they worship God. Instead, they are challenged and undone. 

We don't worship in the Temple but but we do worship in our church. Within these eight walls, we pray, sing, and experience Jesus' presence in a holy community. We gather here on Sunday morning because this is where Jesus promises to be. In the stories we share and in the rituals we participate in, we experience a vision of what God's community of welcome, love, and hope actually looks like. We are living and expressing what God's reality truly is. Our rituals are both ancient and new. They are designed to help us experience the presence of God. We are invited guests, brought here to find comfort and joy at God's table. 

But imagine Jesus speaking these words to you. What do you hear? What do you feel? The metaphors in the passage are centered around vines, vineyards, and wine. God, in the verses around this passage, is the tender of a vineyard, making fine wines and drinks. This drink is designed to be life-giving to all who consume it. In this metaphor, God's people are not drinking the wine God created. Rather, the people are the wine itself. God stored us, tending us carefully, and waiting for us to mature. Yet the wine grew complacent in dealing with God and each other. The wine sought out its own comfort at the expense of others. The wine went bad. And so, in the presence of the God, the wine is destroyed. The people trusted their strength as a nation and a culture so that is the first thing God takes. They did not see God living in their community, so God takes their sight. They did not live lives believing that God will do both good and harm. They didn't believe that God keeps God's promises. The people just lived, assuming they were good people, and that's all they need. 

When we are in God's house, we expect God to brings comfort and joy. But this text doesn't do that. This is not a text meant for other people. It's a text spoken to the people God claims as God's own. It's a text meant for us. Prophets bring us words that are harsh. Their words challenge us and terrify us. They can turn us defensive but they are here to change us into the people God wants us to be. Zephaniah wants to know, when it comes to daily life, do we live as if the vision of welcome, love, and hope that God proclaims is what we strive to be or do we pretend that our point of view, expectations, and perspective is the only thing God actually wants?


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Oil: looking for the absurd and consistent in Jesus' parables (sermon manuscript)

[Jesus said to the disciples: ] “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

Matthew 25:1-13

My sermon from the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost (November 12, 2017) on Matthew 25:1-13. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


So I know Halloween is over and Thanksgiving is just around the corner but like every retail store out there, I too, have Christmas on the brain. Well, not Christmas exactly - just Christmas sweaters. I don’t know if you’ve noticed but the Ugly Christmas Sweater is a thing. It’s no longer a name we give to the knitted sweaters we find at Goodwill that are covered with trees, snowmen, and lights.  The Ugly Christmas Sweater is now a fashion design with the name right on the tag. If, say, you headed north after worship and stopped by a Target in New York, you can pick up a fantastic Ugly Christmas Sweater. If you wanted a sweater that lights up using long lasting LEDs? Target has a dozen to choose from. If you’re looking for something more branded, and you want to celebrate the new Star Wars movie with R2D2 wearing a Santa hat? You can get that in red. And if you love the story of Santa but wished he had tabby cats pulling his sleigh instead of reindeer - your dream is now a reality. Ugly Christmas Sweaters are amazing because they are completely absurd. They’re silly, light hearted, and challenge us to look at the world in a new way. When we see a coworker, family member, or friend wearing a ridiculous sweater, we’re forced to see them in a new light. The more absurd their Ugly Christmas Sweater is, the more that sweater changes our viewpoint and perspective. Ugly Christmas Sweaters are absurd and looking for the absurdities is what we need to do when listening to Jesus’ words today.

And doing this isn’t always easy. When we hear Jesus speak, we want to keep his words reverent, sacred, and important. We should take his words seriously. But that doesn’t mean we can only approach his words in a serious fashion because parables, by their very nature, are not completely serious. They are stories that are a little bit off. And they need to be because they translate into human terms what Jesus “the kingdom of heaven.” Since our world isn’t the kingdom of heaven quite yet, we need stories that are a little off to help us see God more fully. So parables need us to, in my opinion, find those slightly askew parts in the story, to find those Ugly Christmas Sweater moments. the story. And one such moment comes at the very end of today’s parable. Jesus, in a sentence designed to sum up the entire story, tells everyone to “stay awake.” But who, in this parable, actually stays awake? No one! Everyone, the wise and the foolish, sleep. So if everyone sleeps, what’s the point of the story?

Now, the thing about Ugly Christmas Sweaters is that there is always more than one and that rule applies to Jesus’ parables too. We need to look for all the absurd moments. But that’s hard because we no longer live in Jesus’ cultural context. We are not Jews living in Galilee and Jerusalem 2000 years ago. We don’t know what wedding would really be like back then. From what we can tell, the groom would show up on their wedding day and one of the first rituals involved bridesmaids. These bridesmaids would use lamps and torches to escort the entire wedding party from the bride’s home to the groom’s. Once the groom, bride, and everyone else made that move, the three day long party would start. But we don’t know how many bridesmaids would be needed. So the fact that Jesus mentioned ten, and then splits them into two groups of 5, is a little bit off. The story also starts with everyone ready to do their part.  Every bridesmaid has a lamp and, it seems to me, every lamp is already on fire. Even when they notice that the groom is delayed, they keep their lamps lit, instead of conserving their oil while they wait. And this waiting is weird because everyone seems to fall asleep, right where they are, with everything still burning. That doesn’t feel very safe. And then, when the groom finally arrives in the middle of the night, some torches are ready but others are about to go out. Five of the bridesmaids need more oil but their sisters do a completely unChristian and unJesus-like thing: they don't share what they have. They reject their sisters, telling them to go to the store which, if we’re honest, probably wouldn’t be open since it is the middle of the night. But 5 bridesmaids go anyway and while they’re away, the groom finally shows up. The 5 that meet him don’t tell him that others have gone on an errand. Since the groom was late, it would have been thoughtful for him to wait for the other bridesmaids to return. But he doesn’t. Instead, the escort happens, the party begins, and they shut the door behind them. When the other bridesmaids finally show up, they are rejected again. When we look at the details of this story, we see that everyone ends up wearing an Ugly Christmas sweater. Everyone does something slightly absurd. Lamps burn unnecessarily. The wise do not share. The foolish are able to find an oil store at midnight. And the groom, who we usually identify as Jesus himself, isn’t very kind, considerate, or loving. The only part of the story that we can attribute to Jesus himself is that very last sentence which doesn’t seem to make much sense because everyone sleeps. Everyone in this parable is a little absurd. Everyone is wearing an ugly Christmas sweater. The only thing that stays consistent is: the oil.

So what is the oil supposed to be?

Well, without oil, lamps do not burn. Without oil, the bridesmaids have nothing that will bring them light in the middle of the night. Without that light, shadow is all there is. This parable, and the two right after it, are ones where we spend a lot of energy trying to figure out what they  say about the afterlife. We don’t want to be denied entry into the party that Jesus is throwing so we latch onto the words “stay awake” and we do whatever we can to figure out what we need to do to get into heaven. We can be so laser focused on getting into that final party that we miss a key to this parable that Jesus gives to us way back in chapter 5. At the start of his ministry, in the very first parable he used to teach something to his friends, he tells them, “you are the light of the world” (5:14). “You are” already burning bright. “You are” already lit up. We don’t start this parable as characters without the fuel, the oil we need. We start as light. And that’s because you have something the characters in this parable do not. A parable needs a storyteller and our storyteller does more than just tell stories. Our storyteller made a promise to you in your baptism that the oil used to mark the sin of the cross on your forehead will never run out. Jesus promised that he will always give you the oil you need to shine bright. In the long periods of waiting, when nothing seems to go right, you will have oil. In those moments when we feel stuck in one place, exhausted, worn out, and unsure of what we’re supposed to do next, you will have oil. When the days feel long and the nights feel even longer, Jesus promised that you will have fuel for your journey. But that fuel isn’t always a motivation, a power, a feeling that we feel deep inside. That fuel is also a community, a church, where we all turn to each other and ask: “what do you need to keep going?” (Lundblad, Feasting on the Word (Matthew volume 2), page 259) And in the moments when we don’t have an answer to that question, the community around us still does what it can to carry us through. The church sings can sing when we cannot. The community can prays when we cannot. Others worship even though you yourself might not be able to set foot through that door. All of us can believe the hurts that you share and we can all break the silence of pain, suffering, stigma, and hate that makes this world hurt too much. And then, with a little piece of bread, a little thimble of drink, and a simple word of promise - we can give you all of Jesus because Jesus has given all for you.



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Declare: Making a Statement

Cats rarely listen to me. The two that live at my house, Finn and Flotus, never respond well to my verbal commands. When I tell them to stop sleeping on my jacket, they purr. When I order them to jump down from the kitchen counter, they crawl into the kitchen cabinets above. I don't consider my two cats as pets. They're really small and furry roommates. Finn and Flotus live their own lives and they enjoy not listening to a word I say. It can be frustrating to live with two cute fuzzballs who ignore everything I declare to them.

As I reflected on our text from 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 today, I'm struck by what Paul declared to the community he was writing to. Scholars believe that this is the earliest letter from Paul we have. And since Paul's letters were the first pieces composed for what became our New Testament, this letter is the first written record of what the gospel is all about. Paul is writing to a small community who are worried. They were expecting to Jesus to return very soon. But there was a delay and people, in their community, have died. The question was: did the ones who die miss out on Jesus? 

Paul answers by doing something we don't always get to do. He stated clearly and forcefully that our union with Jesus transcends life and death. This promise is a promise God made to us in our baptism when we, through no strength of our own, were united to the entirety of Jesus' story. Paul declared what he knew to be turn and he invited the community to do the same. Imagine, for a moment, making this kind of declaration in your own life. It doesn't matter if someone (or some cat) listens to you. Paul, in this text, doesn't tie this promise to anything that the people in this community have to do. The promise is true because God is true. And this promise is something we all have. Part of our life in faith is to, with the help of the Holy Spirit, make these kind of declarations to our family, friends, and even strangers. We don't always know what the declaration will look like but we know what the declaration will be about. It will be words, actions, and deeds centered in a hope, and a love, that does not end. 


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Marching On: Blessed Are Those Who Mourn

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Matthew 5:1-12

My sermon from All Saints' Sunday (November 5, 2017) on Matthew 5:1-12. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


If we’ve spent time in church, these words from the gospel according Matthew are ones we probably already know. We might not have all twelve verses memorized but if someone starts saying “Blessed are…” - we can fill in some of the rest. Jesus, at the start of his long sermon marking the start of his public ministry according to Matthew, says that there are specific groups of people who have specific kinds of experiences and that these people, in the eyes of God, are blessed. But, right now, as I stand here overlooking the sandbox that we will shortly fill with lit candles, I am drawn to Jesus’ words on mourning. Today is a day where we, as a community, mourn. We will read out loud the names of people connected to this church who have recently passed away. We will light candles for family, friends, coworkers, and colleagues who burned bright in our lives. We’ll remember everyone who mattered to us; everyone who loved us; everyone who, through their thoughts, words, and deeds, filled each of us with so much life. Today we create a space in this church where it’s okay for all of us to just mourn and express that mourning in any way we want to. If you want to be stoic, calm, and collected? That’s totally cool. And if you want to shed a tear, we’ll pass you a box of tissues. All Saints’ Sunday is a day when you get to be just you. But I wonder: does what we’re feeling now match up with what we think being blessed actually feels like? In other words, when Jesus says that those who mourn are blessed, do we really believe him?

Now, on some level, the answer to that questions is yes. I mean, these words are coming from Jesus. Jesus, the Son of God, the firstborn from the dead, the one - as the Nicene creed says - through whom all things were made. If we're going to believe anyone, then we should believe Jesus. His words about those who mourn being blessed is an idea that we can, in theory, get behind. We can hear his words and, as they bounce around in our head, we can reason through the  concept of mourning. Being able to mourn means that we had something worth mourning. We had a connection with someone where real-honest-to-goodness-life flourished. The time spent with that person might only have lasted a moment or it could have grown over decades. But we were changed because they were a part of us. These kinds of people are literal gifts from God. So it’s easy, on one level, to say yes, this is what being blessed looks like. We were blessed by special people in our lives and mourning is part of what that kind of relationship actually looks like. But I’ve never been good at keeping life-giving relationships stuck in my head. Emotions, feelings, and my soul get involved. Even when I try to think and reason my way through mourning, there’s still a part of me that...just plain hurts. Or feels empty. Or feels incomplete. It’s as if there’s some kind of hole inside me that is held open by the memory of the person that once filled that space. Even though I trust Jesus’ word. And I know about heaven, the communion of saints, and how, since we are part of the body of Christ, we are always connected to each other - no matter what. Even though I know all of this - that empty space is still just there. This feeling...this hard to describe and I don’t know if what I feel is something you feel too. But it’s hard to imagine that carrying around these kind of holes inside of us each and every day is what being blessed is supposed to be like. 

There’s a struggle in Jesus’ words here and it made writing this sermon a bit of a struggle too. In the midst of this struggle, I did what I always do when the words for Sunday don’t seem to be coming. I opened Facebook. I scrolled through my newsfeed, congratulating a friend on the birth of her new baby girl and wondered why my father-in-law was posting pictures of horses. I saved a few articles to read later and I did my best to avoid getting sucked into posts with 200 comments in the various groups that I’m a part of. Some people might call this procrastinating. To me, I was just scrolling. And then, one post jumped out at it. Someone left a photo on the facebook page of a friend and I noticed the caption for this picture first. It said, “I bought you an angel.” And below the caption was a dark and grainy photo, taken at night. There was a candle lit up and sitting on a white base with some figurine or sculpture on its side. I couldn’t make out what the sculpture was but I the candle shined just bright enough to illuminate the tombstone it was sitting on. That angel was for a friend of mine who had committed suicide several years ago. I stared at that picture for a bit and I kept coming back to it as I wrote the rest of these words. When it comes to being blessed, we don’t imagine heartbreak or sadness or having an empty spot inside of us as being what blessed looks like. Being blessed is reserved for for an answered prayer, or when we get or dream job, or when something takes away the worry, anxiety, and stress that hangs over our lives. Being blessed is when the voids and empty parts inside of us fill up. It isn’t supposed to be when we admit the ways we still sad, broken, and still grieving. Yet Jesus says that even us, even those with holes in their hearts and empty parts in their souls - even you are still important to God. Mourning isn’t a process designed to fill up the spaces in our lives that our loved ones still occupy. Mourning is how we learn to live with, and through, death. This doesn’t mean, however, that God caused this mourning or that God really wants the void that we carry to be part of our life. Instead, mourning is an experience that God promises to carry you through because even Jesus suffered heartbreak. Even Jesus mourned. The Son of God stood at the tomb of his friend Lazarus and Jesus just cried. And when Jesus rose from the grave, the holes on his hands from the nails that hung him to the cross were still there. The holes didn’t go away. The holes inside us, these parts holding the memory of those who gave us so much life, are not parts of ourselves that we are supposed to avoid, push aside, or just get over. We mourn because there are people who will always matter to us; there are people who we will always light a candle for; and there are people who showed us what living the faith actually looks like. We mourn because God gives us to each other as a gift - a gift meant to give us life. And that kind of gift is a love that no hole or void or empty feeling can ever overcome. The sadness we feel isn’t the end of the story. The space inside us that feels empty is a space God reserves for our loved ones to fill again. We who mourn are blessed not because of the holes that we carry but because God promises that these empty spaces won’t be the limit to the story God is already telling. Even though the candles we place today in this sandbox will eventually burn out, the light God gives to each of us is a light that will always burn bright. Blessed are those who today, mourn. Blessed are those who today, ache. Blessed are those today, who feel sad. And Blessed are those who knew us, who loved us, and who are with the Lord forever. 



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Seals: Revelation

This summer, my family and I visited the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington D.C. To escape the constant thunderstorms, we took shelter in a fake structure designed to look like a cave. One side was made up of a large piece of glass. Half of the glass was submerged under water, showing us animals swimming inside. We stood there for awhile, watching two sea lions dart around the water tank in circles. They would swim by us quickly, as if they were saying hello to us. They then swam as fast as they could to the other side of the tank and we could no longer see them. They circled like this over and over again. We were mesmerized by their speed, agility, and grace. My kids loved that they seemed to know we were there. We watched them. They played around with us. And, for a moment, our perceptions, viewpoints, and realities danced with each other. 

When the bible mentions seals, I instantly think of these kinds of animals. But I'm always wrong. In the bible, seals were emblems and symbols used to mark letters, packages, and other containers as being authentic and true. Vases were marked with a seal representing the ruler who owned it. A letter would have a little ball of melted wax shaped by a specific mold to show it came from a specific person. If the letter was opened, the seal would break. A seal was a sign that something (or someone) was authentic, unbroken, and tied to a specific lord or ruler. A seal showed who this item was from and who it belonged to.

Our reading from Revelation 7:9-17 today is a vision of what it looks like to be sealed by Christ. In our baptism, our forehead is marked with the sign of the cross. We are declared, in a very public way, as being someone who is authentically and materially part of Jesus Christ. We cannot earn this kind of declaration. None of us can ever be as perfect we should be. Instead, we are sealed in this way as a gift from Jesus himself. This seal is a promise that we do not live this life alone. Instead, we carry Christ with us no matter what. Like watching a seal swimming in a zoo, there are times when we cannot see Jesus. He might be on the otherwise of the tank that is our life. But he is never as far as we think he is. He is always just around the corner. He will meet us, challenge us, and change us with a love that can never be undone. And that love is a love that even death cannot break. 


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