Questions and Reflections

December 2017

New Voices. From Pastor Marc - My Message for the Messenger, January 2018 Edition

As I write this, the first snowfall of the season is on the ground outside. The roadways and parking lots are clear but patches of snow are still on the grass. In places that get a lot of sun, no snow remains. But in parts that are shaded by buildings and trees, the snow is still thick on the ground. The sun is bright, melting all the snow on our new roofs. But the air is still cold. The snow in the shade has no desire to melt and go away. The world outside is caught between two zones: one that looks like winter and one that looks as if winter is still far away. But the rest of us, those who have to live and move between these two zones, we have to wear our snow boots or zig and zag around the piles of snow. Navigating between different kinds of realities is, sometimes, what life is all about.

Each week, ELCA Lutheran pastors in Bergen County, Passaic County, Essex County and Morris County meet for Bible study and fellowship. We talk about our communities, our joys, our struggles and how we see the Holy Spirit at work in our churches. And over the last year, we are hearing people wanting new ways to engage with their faith outside of Sunday morning. There's a desire for study, prayer, and worship at different times and in different places. For some of us, the busyness of our lives means we can only feed our faith late at night, once the kids are in bed. For others, a late Saturday night work schedule means worship on Sunday morning is hard to get to. The ELCA pastors in Northern New Jersey want to help you engage in your faith everyday but in a way that complements your lifestyle in such a way that you will be able to do it. If you want to get into a routine of daily prayer, we want to help you do that. If you want to discover new ways of teaching bibles stories to your kids, let's figure out how to do that together. And if you're looking for Lutheran Christian perspectives on everyday life, we can provide that. But to do all of this, we need your help.

If you had a magic wand and could dream up something to grow your faith, what would it be? Are you looking for something to listen to on your daily commute? Would you like to attend a weekly spiritual meditation session run by a trained professional? Are you looking for a deeper sense of fulfillment and wonder if a spiritual life coach might help you find your way? Can you commit to weekly worship on a day other than Sunday? And if you can't get to church on Sunday, would you love to have someone come to your home and watch a recording of the service with you? Email me (, call the church office (201-391-4224) or leave a note in my mailbox with your idea. There's no one single program or resource that will feed everyone's faith. What works for you might not work for your neighbor and vice versa. But we can, through our collective network of Lutheran churches and ecumenical partners, discover and develop the tools that can make this New Year a year where our experience of our faith and our relationship with Jesus Christ grows by leap and bounds.

See you in church!
Pastor Marc


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Unwrapped: Christmas Being Christmas (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

My sermon from Christmas Eve (December 24, 2017) on Luke 2:1-20. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


How do you add a little Christmas peace to your everyday life?

That was the question I was pondering on Friday while sitting in the Costco parking lot, stuck behind a car that was double parked because every other parking spot was filled. Now, I know, visiting any retailer a few days before Christmas is going to be a little wacky. It’s literally an adventure that requires patience, tenacity, flexibility, and lots of prayer. And if you think about it, parking lots during the holidays are places full of faith. We’re always just praying - praying that God will gift us a precious parking spot as soon as supernaturally possible. And so, as I spent those precious moment stuck in that parking lot, I decided I needed to take a deep breath, relax, and de-stress. So I put on a little Christmas music to try and get a little peace during a very unpeaceful time.

And so, as my Christmas playlist cycled through hymns, old standards, gospel pieces, pop, and even Christmas punk, I noticed that many different kinds of artists in many different kinds of songs have one very specific trick they use to make their music sound more Christmas-y. And that’s - this *shakes jingle bells*. Jingle bells. This little jingle and jangle is used to make every song feel a tad more like Christmas. Now we know jingle bells work in a song like Jingle Bells but did you also notice these bells in Mariah Carey’s “All I want for Christmas is You.” Andy Williams, in his 1963 Christmas album, doesn’t seem to use any bells but then we get to Little Drummer Boy and the snare drum is matched with a hard and harsh jingle bell. Hanson, the 90s pop group who became famous for their song Mmmm bop, have no problem adding bells to literally every song that they do. When artists want to set a Christmas mood, these bells are used to set the tone. So I wonder, would using these bells be able to turn any moment into a Christmas one?

Like, if I had these bells on Friday while waiting for that parking spot at Costco, would my situation feel different if I just jingled these bells? And if it that worked, would these bells also help out when I had to sit down for a tough meeting with my boss, or when I’m trying to figure out my taxes, or when I have to remind my kids for the 100th time to turn out the light before they leave the house? Can these bells turn any situation into a Christmas one, bringing a little joy and, I hope, some peace?

But this kind of thinking assumes that there is only one kind of Christmas. Christmas needs to feel a certain way, have certain kinds of joy, family, and friends around to be Christmasy. Yet, not every Christmas is as peaceful as we hoped they would be. Some of us will spend tonight and tomorrow alone. Others are spending their first holiday without someone they loved. A few of us might be dreading seeing our family members and still others don’t want to see what their credit card bill will be after the presents are all unwrapped. And all of us, as this community of faith, know that there are folks nearby who lack the food, the shelter, and the access to healthcare they need to thrive. It’s easy to jingle these bells and imagine that Christmas is really centered on a feeling of happiness and comfort. But not every Christmas will fit on a Hallmark card. And there are moments when the jingle of bells doesn’t really feel appropriate. There are certain experiences, certain songs that our lives sing where the jingle jangle of bells would not cover up or erase or change what we are going through. As we live our lives and experience everything that life has to offer, the sounds of Christmas - of what we imagine and think Christmas is supposed to be - may not actually be what we need.

And yet, it’s at those moments, I think, when we need Christmas the most. But I don’t mean Christmas as merely a tone or a mood or some kind of backing soundtrack to our lives. Rather, when we are living through our non-Christmas moments, that’s when we need Christmas to be as it truly is. We need to know that God chose to come into the world at an imperfect time, when a 9 month pregnant Mary had to travel over 90 miles on a donkey because the Roman Empire was forcing them to be counted. And when Jesus came into the world, he wasn’t born in a palace or a hospital or a medical ward. He entered the world in a stable where an animal’s food dish served as his first crib. Jesus came into this world just like we do - vulnerable, weak, and helpless. Jesus, God, the creator of the universe, the one who is past-present-and-future all at once, decided to live a life where someone else had to take care of him. God came to into our world to truly be one of us - to know our pain, to feel our loneliness, to celebrate our joys, and to experience every one of our frustrations. Jesus chose to do something unbelievable. He chose to be an actual human being.

Like all artists who use bells to turn any song into a Christmas song, Jesus chose to live a human life so that he could add a little bit of himself to everything we experience. He is there when Christmas feels like Christmas and he is also there when Christmas feels so very far away. And in the moments when we feel alone, or abandoned, or when we  don’t even know what we believe, we might feel Christmas is really a story for other people. But it’s not. Christmas is about Jesus coming into this world and into our lives as we already are - and not as we think we’re supposed to be. Christmas is about the creator of the universe becoming human because your life has value, your life has meaning, and you and this world are worth more than you can possibly know. Christmas is more than just the sound of jingle bells trying to turn every moment into a Hallmark one. We are, in Christ, surrounded by a love that holds us, guides us, and strengthens us, especially when we are in our greatest need. This love, this Christmas, this Jesus - will always be with us - because tonight is the night when God became human.





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Meek And/Or Mild (Manuscript)

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her

Luke 1:26-38

My sermon from the 4th Sunday of Advent (Decener 24, 2017) on Luke 1:26-38. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


I think it’s fitting that on this Christmas Eve morning, this fourth Sunday of Advent, we are spending time trying to see Mary. And that word “see” is important. Today’s reading from the gospel according to Luke is known as the Annunciation: the moment when the angel Gabriel tells Mary about what God has in store for her. The passage tells us the general location where this event is taking place and who is there but that’s about it. We don’t know where in Nazareth Gabriel met Mary. And the passage doesn’t tell us any details about Gabriel and Mary themselves. We don’t know what they look like or even how old Mary was. Instead, scripture gives us an opportunity to step into this part of the story and imagine this moment for ourselves. For centuries, artists have done just that. And so, if you don’t mind doing something a little different, I’d like to showcase a few pictures of the Annunciation so that we can see how this moment in scripture has inspired artists for centuries. 
Pictures in the slideshow
1200px-Fra_Filippo_Lippi - Filippo Lippi,
Annun_angelico_grt - Fra Angelico: The Annunciation
The_Annunciation_MET_DT404 - Luca Giordano
The_Annunciation_MET_DT1469 - Joos van Cleve
C - greek
The Annunciation 1898 - by Henry Ossawa Tanner
Unknown Artist
Annunciation-patricia-brintle -  Patricia Brintle
The Annunciation by John Collier

Now some of those images might have been familiar to you. They might resemble what we imagine this scene to be like. But other painting might have surprised you. Several of the images showed Mary reading a book. The book is usually identified as the book of Isaiah, implying that Mary was literate, educated, and that angel found her in a moment of prayer and study. Other pictures showed Mary in the dark of her bedroom or even while she was still in bed, at the moment when she was waking up. Some of the Marys had the white skin of Northern Europeans. Others were olive, brown, and black. Some artists depicted Mary as a young adult while others imagined her to be the teenager she probably was. Each one of the artist used scripture, their cultures, and their traditions to imagine what it would be like to be a teenager in Nazareth who is suddenly told that she is going to give birth to God. 
Now, as Lutherans, I know we don’t usually spend a lot of time with Mary. Her appearances in scripture is limited so we don’t hear her voice very often in Sunday morning. We spend time with Mary usually only during this season - when it’s almost Christmas. We give her a voice in our Christmas pageants and in the carols we sing. We talk about her, about how she’s going to give birth in a barn, and we sort of downplay the rest of her 9 months of pregnancy. We place Mary in our nativity sets and creches, with her hands folded in prayer. But she sort of sits in the back, behind everyone else, behind even Jesus. We place her there and then just let her be. In many ways, we spend this Christmas season letting Mary be a passive participant in her own birth story. 

But is she really as passive as we make her to be? 

There are two other images of Mary that expand her story for me. And each one appears takes place while the baby inside Mary grows. The first one is this one, an image of Mary based on the song we just sang. She’s standing tall, her foot is crushing the serpent from the Garden of Eden, and she doesn’t look pregnant. Mary sings her song while visiting her cousin Elizabeth. Elizabeth is more than six months pregnant with her own son who will become John the Baptist. But while everyone knows Elizabeth is pregnant, Mary doesn’t yet show. I imagine that Mary, in this moment, is in her first trimester. She’s in the part of her pregnancy where miscarriages are common. Mary can be quiet at this stage but she knows what’s going on. She knows what God is doing. And she sings about who God is, who God loves, and what God’s justice is all about. The second image is one I discovered recently, first created in 2003 by a Trappistine nun in Iowa. The image shows Mary when she is very pregnant. She can’t hide what’s going on anymore. But she doesn’t need to. Instead, she’s everything who she chooses to be - and she’s in this image, consoling Eve. Her foot again is on the head of the serpent because, through her, God is moving us past our sins. Her son, this Jesus, will be the one who will take this broken world and unite it with its creator. And this Messiah, this Savior, this king of all kings, is being nourished, carried, and cared for by this young woman who is someone that the people in Nazareth could not see as ever being the mother of God. In these last two images, Mary is exactly who she’s supposed to be: she knows who she carries inside her; she knows who God is; she knows that’ll she’ll be Jesus’ mom; and she chooses to be an active participant in what God is doing in the world. She doesn’t know the details about Jesus’ story - but she does know that, through Jesus, God is blessing the world. And God wanted Mary to be a necessary part of what God is bringing about. 

Many of the images of the Annunciation focus on the moment when the angel first show ups. They dwell on the angel’s arrival, Mary’s wonder and confusion, and her confession: “how can this be?” But it doesn’t take very long before Mary is saying, “Here I am; let it be.” Mary doesn’t know exactly where God will be taking her but she does know that God will be changing the world through her. And as she grows and changes, her son, this son of God, is nourished and loved and changes too. It is impossible for Mary to be passive participant in the Jesus story because Jesus is literally a part of her for 9 months. And as Jesus grows, so does she. Mary shows us that Jesus and our faith are truly gifts that we are given. But this gift doesn’t mean that we are a passive participant in our own faith story. We are, like Mary, invited to move from “how can this be?” to “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.” God has decided that it’s through people, through actual human beings, that God will honor, bless, and love the world. We are, like Mary, called to keep Jesus close. We are, like Mary, called to carry Jesus wherever we go. We are, like Mary, called to listen to the angels God puts in our path. And we are, like Mary, called to sing and work for justice in our neighborhood and in our world. We are, like Mary, called to be the ones through whom God will bless the world. 


Send the Rich Away - Ben Wildflower
Mary Consoling Eve - A sister from Trappistine Monks in Iowa made this


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How did you countdown to Christmas?

This year, I spent each day helping my family countdown to Christmas using three different Advent calendars. One calendar told a part of Jesus' story each day through scripture, hymns, and stories. Our second calendar was all about Santa. Each window in the calendar opened to reveal Santa doing different things to get ready for Christmas Eve. Our last calendar was a bit different. Instead of opening a piece of the calendar to reveal Jesus' story, we instead added something to a nativity scene. Geese, cows, cattle, camels, angels, stars, and more needed to be placed on that nativity scene. And we could put those characters wherever we wanted. On some days, a cow ended up in the sky. Mary had to spend time on the roof. Joseph slept in a tree. This kind of calendar was a lot of fun because it invited my family and I to make God's story our own. And when we play with God's story, we discover how much that story makes a difference for us. 

An Advent calendar isn't the only way to countdown to Christmas. We can also cross names off our "to buy" list, put x's through all the holiday parties we attended, or count the moments we sat in silence as moments of sadness and mourning flow through us. Christmas can be a difficult holiday because we expect so much out of it. We expect joy, comfort, happiness, and snow. We struggle when Christmas doesn't match what we want it to be. Yet, as we will hear tonight, Christmas isn't a moment where God meets our expectations. Instead, God does something brand new. No one in Bethlehem expected God to show up in a barn behind the inn. Only Mary and Joseph knew what God was up to and even they were unaware of what Jesus' story was all about. The angels told the shepherds but the rest of the townsfolk, city dwellers, local farmers, and even the distant Roman Emperor were not even looking for God to show up, in the flesh, on that first Christmas night. All of us countdown to Christmas in different ways. We expect Christmas to show up and a "good" Christmas will match whatever our expectations will be. May this season invite all of us to discover the God who doesn't let our expectations be the limit to what God will do. 


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Mary Sings: the Magnificat

If you look at the readings today, you'll notice we're doing something different. On a normal Sunday, we hear one or two scripture readings before I read a piece from the gospels. The lectionary, the 3 year cycle of readings we use every Sunday, gives us three readings and one psalm (or a poem) to look at every Sunday. Some churches read all four pieces of scripture every Sunday. It's the tradition at CLC to share the gospel and one or two more readings. We rarely read the psalm or poem. But today we're breaking our local tradition by singing that poem out loud. 

Today's second piece of scripture is a sung version of the Magnificant, aka Mary's song. In the gospel according to Luke, Mary is pregnant and she visits her cousin Elizabeth. When Elizabeth sees Mary, the child in Elizabeth's womb (aka John the Baptist) leaps for joy. Elizabeth celebrates and tells Mary what just happened. Mary responds to this amazing moment with a song.

Mary's words are powerful. She celebrates God, God's relationship with her, and the way God moves in the world. God, according to Mary, reverses our expectations. The powerful, rich, and proud lose their status. It's the hungry who God feeds. God lifts up the poor and protects the vulnerable. God, according to Mary, fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away. In our culture and context, we routinely separate people into groups and we decide who should be listened to and who shouldn't. As human beings, we are very good at choosing sides and giving power to the privileged. According to Mary's song, God chooses sides too. And the side God chooses might not be one we expect. 

Mary's song is a song of celebration. But it's also a song that gives us pause. The journey Mary is going on will be difficult. She is pregnant but she has no prenatal care. She is going to give birth in a time and place where women routinely died during childbirth. Her son will grow up, challenge the religious and governing authorities, and they will respond by sending Jesus to the cross. Mary will see her son up there. She, as a parent, will see God act in ways she doesn't expect. There will be much for her not to celebrate. She will have to live through a difficult story. But maybe that is part of the hope that is a big part of Mary's song. The God she will give birth to is the same God who will help her live through whatever comes next. 


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Who Are You? (sermon manuscript)

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

John 1:6-8,19-28

My sermon from the Third Sunday of Advent (December 17, 2017) on John 1:6-8,19-28. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


When I was younger, the long string of Christmas lights that wrapped around my Christmas tree sort of scared me. Now, don’t get me wrong - the lights were beautiful to look at. But I never really had a good relationship with the lights themselves. They were always tangled and I was the one assigned to untangle them. I would tested each string of lights and I usually ended up getting a little electric shock while trying to find that one bulb that was burnt out. And when the lights were finally wrapped around the tree, the bulbs would get so hot they would burn me when I accidentally touched them. Old fashion Christmas lights were kind of spooky to me but nowadays, LED Christmas lights are a brand new thing. They come in all sorts of colors; they are incredibly bright; and even though they still get tangled, they at least remain cool to the touch. I really like LED Christmas lights and I know I’m not alone. In fact, it seems like a lot of suburban homeowners are switching their outdoor Christmas lights to LEDs. And this is a good thing because LEDs, in theory, last a long time and use less energy. If, for example, an old fashion string of 100 mini-incandescent lights were turned on and used 12 hours a day for 45 days in a row, that would cost about $3.50 to run. But if you took that string of lights and replaced it with LEDs, the cost to use those lights drops to 41 cents. That’s 1/8th the cost for the same amount of light. We can make our outdoor Christmas lights displays more environmentally friendly and cheaper all at the same time. But some recent studies involving nighttime satellite imagery shows that the transition to outdoor LED Christmas lights is not only about having a less costly electric bill. No, people are using that cost savings to invest in more lights. Because if it costs 1/8th of what it did before to run a new string of lights, it makes sense to get 7 more strings of lights so that you can maximize the your Christmas buck. Our outdoor Christmas light displays are getting bigger and brighter. And if you were up in space and looking down on the United States, you would see the light output in the suburbs increase by 50% during the month of December. And with LEDs now becoming more prevalent, that number grows every year. These new LED lights help us to shine brighter than we ever could before. This is one of the ways, I think, we testify to a truth that we don’t always feel or see. As the nights in our part of the world grow longer and longer, we do the only thing we can do: we flip a switch and throw a little more light into whatever darkness surrounds us.

And flipping that switch - that’s a very Advent thing to do. As we hear in our reading from John today, testifying - shining - witnessing to this light - is what this season is all about. Now, this week is a little odd because we met Mark’s version of John the Baptist last week. And John’s version of the Baptist is a bit different. John’s Baptist spends a lot of time saying no. “No, I’m not Elijah. No, I’m not the prophet. No, I’m not the Messiah. No, I’m not the light.” Instead, what John’s Baptist does is testify. He shares and bares witness to the truth. Mark depicts John the Baptist as a bit of a wild man who is eating bugs out in the desert. But John’s Baptist is a guy who primarily just talks. He shares what he knows and what he has experienced. Over and over again, he breaks the silence that wants him to stay quiet. John’s Baptist keeps talking about God, pointing out to others where God is and where God is active in the world. At every possible moment, he is pointing to that light that he knows is out there. And he does this even though he knows not everyone will believe. Once john’s Baptist tells the truth, he has no control over what other people will say or do once they hear it. He doesn’t get to tell others how they should react. So John’s Baptist just keeps on talking - and he doesn’t let his fear about how other people will respond stop him from telling the truth; the truth that is Jesus - this God in the flesh.

And this kind of testifying, this kind of witnessing, is really hard. It’s hard because keeping silent is sometimes the safest thing we can do. Any time we share a truth or an experience that we’ve had, it’s easy for others to not believe us. How many times have you had your feelings brushed aside after you shared how you felt? How many times were you blamed for that thing that you experienced? Too often, we are told that our feelings or responses to our personal experiences are, somehow, wrong. We’re the ones, we’re told, who misinterpreted what happened to us. We’re the ones who are being too judgemental and our experience wasn’t really that bad and we’re being a little too sensitive. We start believing what others say, learning that we can’t trust our own experiences, and that other people are the only ones allowed to interpret our own story. We discover what it’s like to be disbelieved and, in that process, we lose the ability to tell our own story. We lose a bit of who we are because this shadow that surrounds us has more say over our lives than we do. We end up doubting the truth and we try to cover up whatever light we see.

But the truth is something that always needs to be brought out into the open. When we tell the truth; when we give witness to the light as we know it, we are, in the words of Dr. Karoline Lewis, “[insisting] that [this] light will indeed shine, [overcoming] the darkness that has hidden so much for so long.” This season, this Advent, is more than just a countdown to Christmas. Advent is an opportunity for all of us to flip a switch, to turn on every light, and give witness to the truth that we know. Every experience we’ve had is our experience and the story we tell is a story that has value.  Now, I know that not every story will be told. And there are some stories that we might not be ready to share with those around us. And that’s okay. But when we hear someone else’s truth, we are called to protect their truth and believe them. We’re not here to dismiss them. We are here to listen, to learn, to comfort, and - if need be - to change. And if we can, we add a little more light to their story by telling one of our own. We show through our words and actions that they are not alone. Because, as we see in today’s reading from John, testifying to the light - sharing and giving witness to the truth is our Christian calling. It’s what Advent - this time of waiting - this time of anticipation - this time of expecting - is all about. Because Jesus invites us to remember that “our God...moves about this world feeling everything we feel.” Our God is always with us, no matter what. And because God is with us, because God decided to be born, to grow up, and have actual human experiences, our God, our Jesus, will be with you even when telling the truth ends up being the hardest thing you’ve ever done.





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The Spirit of the Lord

One of the neat things about the incarnation is how messy it is. The incarnation, if you don't know term, is what Jesus does on Christmas day: Jesus is born. In his birth, Jesus decided to become a human being. But Jesus doesn't lose his divine identity when he does this. Instead, Jesus becomes a paradox. He is both 100% human and 100% divine. This is something that shouldn't be possible because someone who is 100% divine cannot be 100% human (i.e. someone who can die, someone who needs to eat, someone who needs to sleep) at the same time. The incarnation (Jesus becoming human; God being born) is messy because our lives, from the beginning, are messy events. We enter the world covered in goo. We spend time in the dirt and in the grass. We eat, sweat, and sometimes stink. Jesus chose to be messy which, if we think about it, is a surprising thing for God to do. 

Yet this messiness is also an invitation brining us closer to God. Instead of viewing the incarnation only as a moment when God comes to us, our reading from Isaiah invites us to wonder what it would be like to go towards God. If we were on God's home turf, hanging out in God's kingdom, what would it look like? What would be happening? Isaiah answers those questions with his words here. God does more than just accompany us on our journey. God is also an activate participate in whatever God created. God empowers people to bring good news to the oppress, to heal the broken, and to free prisoners. God's kingdom is a world filled with justice and peace. God kingdom is, in the end, the place where the vulnerable are made whole, no matter what.

These words from Isaiah 61:1-4,8-11 are words that are central to  Jesus' public ministry. In the gospel according to Luke, Jesus quotes these passages and the crowd almost throws him off a cliff. The crowd could see that Jesus' words were powerful because they knew what Jesus' words meant. The passage from Isaiah proclaims a promise that God's kingdom is a kingdom where a great reversal takes place. The situation in our world will be reversed by a God who desires life, love, and peace to all people, regardless of where they were born or what advantages they gained in life. The incarnation isn't only about Jesus being born. The incarnation is also an invitation for us to realize that a part of our Christian life is to follow Jesus by being Jesus-like to all our neighbors in need.


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No Room (sermon manuscript)

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Mark 1:1-8

My sermon from the Second Sunday of Advent (December 10, 2017) on Mark 1:1-8. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


So in my pre-pastor life, I worked as a web-developer. I built websites, web-based applications, and whatever odd bits of software my clients needed. And I say clients because I did this kind of work as a freelancer. I was my own small-business with only myself as the employee. And this worked out, for a few years at least. But there was a drawback to this kind of employment - especially during this time of year because my version of the corporate holiday party was a pretty lonely affair. I never really got to participate in that kind of ritual - I was only able to witness a version of them on tv and in movies. But that recently changed because my wife’s employer throws a big party every year. And they’re exactly what I always hoped they would be. The party is held in a large ballroom; I’m allowed to eat all the food I want; and there’s a DJ making sure the dance floor is filled up all night long. And since I don’t actually work with any of the people attending this holiday party, I’m a little carefree because I won’t see any of them Monday morning. And that feeling of being carefree extends to the photobooth setup by the dj stage, letting anyone take fun pictures of themselves or a group using a wide variety of props. If you want to wear a batman mask, a rainbow boa, and oversized pair of sunglasses all at the same time, you better be willing to have your picture taken. Anyone using that photobooth would snap the picture and then be able to email themselves a copy of that picture as a fun memento from the corporate holiday party. Everyone at Kate’s office makes sure to stop by the photobooth and take as many silly pictures as possible. And then, as the night goes on, the pictures get a little more wild and ridiculous. It’s fun to watch everyone make these pictures with their colleagues and their friends. They all laugh and smile, and then email these private moments only to themselves. Every person who gets a copy of that picture gets to choose who to share that with. But what would have if that wasn’t the case? What if something happened and the pictures weren’t emailed out like they were supposed to? And what if someone, realizing that the none of the pictures have names attached to them, decided that the best way to make sure those pictures get to the right person is by emailing every single picture to every single person in the company? Because that’s exactly what happened last year at my wife’s holiday party. Even the people who didn’t attend the party were able to witness everything that happened in that photobooth. I’m pretty sure, that come Monday morning, there were some… regrets in Kate’s office. But there were also a lot of confused people because, as they scrolled through the pictures, they kept seeing people they didn’t know. The party was full of spouses and significant others and friends - people the employees at Kate’s office would never pass by in the hallway or sit with during a meeting. The employees, by scrolling through these pictures, would meet these photobooth strangers as a specific moment in time in the middle of their specific life story. The strangers are people without beginnings, middles, or ends. They’re just there - and all the feelings, emotions, questions, energies, and thoughts that show up when we engage with the picture of a photobooth stranger that we are enticed by but do not know - everything about that moment is captured in our reading from the gospel of Mark today. Because, like those photobooth strangers, Mark introduces us to Jesus in the middle of his life story. Jesus is already an adult. He’s about 30 years old and he’s taking his first steps towards the cross. Jesus’ story begins right in the middle of the action which means, in Mark’s gospel, there’s no room for a birth story.

And that’s a strange beginning for us to be reading during our Advent season. Because most of us are, in some ways, totally focused on Jesus’ birth. Nativity sets are dotting our front yards. Christmas trees and being trimmed and decorated. Even our Sunday School here at the church is gearing up to share Jesus’ birth story next week in between worship services. We’re two weeks away from the moment we celebrate Jesus showing up in the form of a vulnerable, helpless, and very needy baby. The story we will tell then includes angels and shepherds and magi crossing borders to see this newborn babe. But that beginning is not where the gospel according to Mark starts. Instead, this gospel which scholars believe was written a decade or two before any of the other gospels were written, begins with a word about good news and shows us a scene where a guy named John is eating bugs in the wilderness. There’s no genealogy about Jesus’ parents here. There’s nothing about a census or a journey and Mary doesn’t sing song about how God empowers the poor over the rich. Instead, we start in the middle of the story - with a word that Jesus is coming - and that this Jesus changes everything.

I’m pretty sure everyone at last year’s holiday party wished they knew ahead of time that the pictures from the photobooth were going to be emailed out to everyone. If they had, they might have handled themselves differently. They might have been a little more cautious about the props and poses they used during their photobooth adventures. Everyone, I think, would have wanted their photobooth pictures to present the best side of themselves. That’s, usually, what we want everyone around us to see. But today’s gospel reading, this beginning that starts in the middle of Jesus’ life story, shows us that God shows up in the middle of whatever our story might be. Even in the moments when we are unable to present our best selves - in those moments when our life and our future are shrouded in a shadow and we feel as if the story of our life that we want to tell is a story that no one will believe - even in those moments, in the middle of every one of our stories, Jesus shows up. Jesus doesn’t wait for us to decide when he can enter our lives. Instead, he just pops in, in the middle of our story because he wants to be there as our life story unfolds. And that’s why, I think, Mark starts in the middle of everything. As Jesus’ story unfolds through Mark’s words, we discover how our own story becomes new, and different, and more life-giving when we have Jesus in it. And this happens because Jesus isn’t a passive observer in the life we live. He is continually pushing us to imagine the world and our lives as he does: a world where every experience is told and believed; a life where the every vulnerable person is made safe and whole; a reality where the hungry are fed, the stranger is welcomed, the sick is cared for, and no one is ever left out in the cold. And Jesus also imagines a world where God’s promise to be with us always is a promise we actually believe. In the gospel according to Mark, the story begins in the middle of Jesus’ story with a guy named John and a promise of the Holy Spirit. And that promise is rooted in a presence and a relationship that will never end. Jesus doesn’t come to us only when we are picture perfect and ready to meet him. He comes to us in the middle of whatever story we’re current in. And that is truly good news.





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Prepare the way?

Does God need us to prepare the way of the Lord? 

Today's reading from Isaiah 40:1-11 is a text Christians see as pointing to the ministry John the Baptist did. God called a person to bring God's word of comfort and challenge to all of God's people. But this text is more than just a prediction of something that happened 600 years after it was written. It's a passage that also tells the story of a prophet preaching to the Jewish community in Exile. The Babylonian empire had destroyed Jerusalem, burned God's Temple, and forcibly relocated the survivors to what is now Iraq. The people felt abandoned because the war destroyed their homeland. They wondered where God was because it seemed as if God broke all of God's promises. Their faith, identity, and sense of self are in turmoil. And that's when God brings all of them a word of comfort and hope. At first, this new prophet wondered why they should preach at all. The people, the prophet proclaimed, are like grass and flowers - they might pay attention to God's word when it suits them but, eventually, they will turn away. God, however, responded by reminding the prophet of who God is. The value and worth of God's word does not depend on what people do once they hear it. Instead, God's word matters because it comes from God. And even in our moments when we feel abandoned and all alone, God is still with us and will never let us go.  

There are times in our lives when we think we can convince God to something on our behalf. We bargain with God, making promises of our own. We tell God we'll go to church each week, hoping that we will be blessed. We promise to pray every night, and hope God will make a health crisis pass. We see a preacher on tv and send him money because he promises that God will reward us with more money than we give to him. And we sometimes act as if we can force Jesus' return if we make some kind of political or religious event happen. But does God, the creator of the universe, need us to do that? Can we truly bargain with the one who is the past, the present, and the future all at once? Our God isn't a God who believes in "pay-to-play" kind of realities. Our God, instead, just loves. Our God, instead, keeps God's promises. We worship, study, pray, and live generous lives because, in Christ, we discover that is exactly who God is. Jesus knows what it's like to feel abandoned. He knows what it's like when people don't believe the stories he shares. He knows what it's like when the powerful try to shut him down, refusing to listen to his experiences. He knows what it is like to cry out to God in pain, suffering, and hope. Jesus knows what it's like to be like us. The story of God isn't a story where people someone convince God to be on our side. God's story is about discovering how God is with us, no matter what. When we know Jesus, we see God more clearly. And when we live a Jesus-like life, we discover who God wants us to be. 


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Don't Yawn (sermon manuscript)

[Jesus said: ]

“But in those days, after that suffering,

the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

Mark 13:24-37

My sermon from First Sunday of Advent (December 3, 2017) on Mark 13:24-37. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


If you are giving out Christmas gifts this year, who on your list is the hardest person to shop for? For me, it’s my parents. They are terrible to shop for. They are one of the few people I know who, when you ask them what they want, will say “nothing” - and they mean it. They buy what they want when they want it; they like to plan and pay for their own adventures; and they are content with what they have. It’s so annoying. So over the last few years, I’ve resorted to sending them a photo book full of pictures of their grandkids. I go through all the pictures I took over the last year, relive all those memories we created, and put an entire year into book form. It’s sort of a fun thing to create. But making this kind of book is also a little terrifying because I want it to be perfect. I have this subconscious desire to give my parents a photo book that’s full of beautiful pictures. I want them to open the book up and instantly know what we were doing without me having to explain it. And if I’m honest, I also want to - sort of - show off just a tiny little bit. I want to humblebrag and overtly brag about just how fun, awesome, and well-adjusted my family is. And this is an odd thing to do because my parents know just how imperfect we are. They’re not asking me to brag or measure up but I feel like I need to anyways. There’s probably some kind of family dynamic at work here that I should unpack with a therapist at some point but there’s another issue here too. There’s something about this season, about these four weeks before Christmas when all of us, I think, try to chase after a picture perfect kind of Christmas. And even if we don’t think we do, the image of what a perfect Christmas looks like is all around us. Stores, tv ads, and every show on HGTV flashes hints about just how postcard perfect your holiday could be. I wonder if, even subconsciously, being around so much perfect ends up changing what we do. We start needing our Christmas tree and out decorations to be just right. We need to find that perfect present for everyone on our list. And we do all we can to look impeccable and festive at every holiday party we attend. We are in a season where being perfect isn’t only for kids trying to use their good behavior to convince Santa to bring them the toy they really really want. It’s also a season when all of us chase after perfection: the perfect home, the perfect meal, the perfect relationship, and a perfect, peaceful, and loving family. The weeks before Christmas is when we try to make an ideal a reality. That’s why I want my photo book for my parents to be all kinds of awesome. And why I want the last photo in that book to be a perfect family portrait with everyone, including the 3 year old, looking straight at the camera.

But you know what? That perfect picture has yet to come. And it’s sort of amazing how many different ways that picture fails to actually work out. The Christmas ideal, this picture or expectation we carry with us - rarely ever shows up - because we live in the real world. There’s never a holiday where there isn’t stress, or worry, or disagreement, or conflict. And even when the stars align and we are blessed to have a moment that meets our incredible expectations, that moment doesn’t last. The imperfect always comes back. And even though I think most of us know, deep down, that this season will not be perfect, we still get caught up chasing after our ideal. And that chase causes us to act as if this season, somehow, depends fully on us. If the tree lights go out or a turkey gets burned or if a heated conversation leads to conflict and anger around our dining room table - the more we chase after the ideal, the more we make Christmas depend on what do, what we say, and what we can afford. We make Christmas, in the end, depend on us. And a Christmas that depends on us, doesn't really sound like Christmas at all.

Now, the next four weeks will not be as perfect as we want them to be. Our homes will not look like they belong on HGTV nor will every Christmas light on our pre-lit tree actually last all month long. And not everyone in our family will be looking at the camera. But that’s okay. Because this season, this Advent, this waiting for Christmas -  isn’t a season that depends on us. It’s a season about a God who showed up, stuck around, and will come back soon even though we, as people, rarely live and love and serve the world as the ideal Christians God calls us to be.

Jesus, in this passage from Mark, makes a promise to us and to the entire world. He tells us to keep awake because we do not know when the master of the house will come; they might come in the evening, or at midnight, or at the cockcrow, or at dawn. Jesus, in these verses, seems to tell his friends to be ready for the moment when God will shake every mountain. But I think Jesus is really telling them to keep their eyes open because God is about to do something that doesn’t appear ideal. Jesus, in the chapters right after this passage, takes his first steps towards the Cross: a journey starts with a meal, in the evening, with his friends. And after this last supper, Jesus is betrayed and, in a moment of anguish and prayer, he finds his disciples asleep because it was the middle of the night. Jesus is then arrested and his trial begins. We listen and watch his disciple Peter deny him as the cock crows. And then, in the morning, Jesus is brought before the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate who then condemns him to death. In the words of David Loss, “the heavens shake and the sun is darkened … [at] precisely … the moment when [Jesus] is nailed to the cross and our breath is taken away as we see God’s love poured out for us and all the world.” We are not in a season asking us to reach some ideal. Rather, we are with a God who, regardless of the season, comes to us as we are because the imperfect, the vulnerable, the sick, lonely, poor, and hungry are worth a love that does not end. Will we still try to chase our ideal Christmas this year? Yes. But does that mean that Jesus will only show up if we get Christmas right? Not at all. Because the picture perfect love that God gives the world is a love that shows up in the form of a fussy and vulnerable little baby and is made real by a savior who, with arms outstretched, shows us what a picture perfect kind of love actually looks like.




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