Questions and Reflections

December 2018

Reflection: Celebrate the Season

Every year my town publishes an eight-page calendar listing all the dates for trash and recycling pickup. The heavy-duty brochure includes details about what plastics can be recycled, what can’t be, and how cardboard boxes should be broken down and flattened. The document tries to tell residents everything we need to know when it comes to the trash we put on the curb. And on the front page, in big letters, is a note about Christmas trees. Christmas trees need to be placed on the curb and with all decorations, including tinsel, removed. Trees can’t be placed in plastic bags and they’ll be picked up, at random times, through January. And, with much fanfare, we’re informed that trees can be picked starting on December 27, only two days after Christmas.

We spent over a month preparing for Christmas. I spotted artificial Christmas trees in late August and Black Friday sales that started on October 31. Plane tickets and hotel reservations were ordered months in advance as we made plans to travel to visit family and friends. It takes a lot to make it to Christmas morning. And once that morning comes, we’re already off to the next thing. We set reminders to take down our outdoor lights. We take days off so we can stand in line at the stores to return the gifts we didn’t really want. Reservations are made for New Year’s Eve and we can’t wait to see what the New Year brings. It’s amazing how much energy we spend to get to Christmas and how we almost act as if Christmas, once it’s 12 noon on December 25, no longer really matters.

For centuries, the church has embraced Christmas as more than a day; Christmas is a season. For twelve days, through January 5, we’re invited to reflect that the gift of Jesus and the gift of faith change everything. By being in relationship with a Savior who loves us too much to leave us on our own, we can become exactly who God knows we can be. Today’s worship is centered on the twelve days of the season and the song we might know but have no idea what it’s about. The twelve days of Christmas are more than just about lords who leap and maids who milk. The twelve days of Christmas are rooted in a God who will never give up on us. And that’s a gift that we can’t do anything but spend a life growing into.


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"Sermon" Manuscript: The 12 Days of Christmas

On December 30, our worship used the old song 12 days of Christmas to talk about different aspects of the Christian faith.  The worship was adapted from an original collaborative effort by Rev. Katrina Paxson, Rev. Katie Dawson, Rev. Katie Russell, Rev. Stacy Smith, Rev. Katie Dawson, Rev. Amy Fetterman, Rev. Ali Haugerud, and Rev. Liz Kearny through Young Clergy Women International. A common internet letter claims that the 12 days of Christmas was originally composed with hidden Christian meaning. There's no real evidence of that. However, the song is a great way to explore what it means to be a follower of Jesus. The service was in the style of lessons and carols. Below are the "explanations" Pastor Marc spoke in response to each lesson. You can view a bulletin from worship here.

Lesson One: Jesus Christ

Last week we celebrated the coming of the Christ child – Jesus has been born!  Emmanuel - God-with-us - has come! The point of Christmas is that Christmas comes whether we are ready for it or not. And that when Jesus entered the world, he came as a gift for all of us because God’s love couldn’t do anything less. The first gift the singer of the 12 days of Christmas focuses on is also the most important because, if we sung the song in its entirety, we would repeat this part 12 times.

So that’s why we can let the partridge in the pear tree represent Jesus. Jesus, in the piece of Scripture we just read, likened himself to a bird. He claimed to care for us like a mother hen, like a shepherd, as our Savior. And we are reminded of his everlasting gift to us – his death on a cross and resurrection on Easter morning.  Jesus is our partridge on his tree.


Lesson Two: The Scriptures

One of the words I use over and over again is “scripture.” And I realize not everyone knows what that word means. “Scripture” is a piece of writing considered sacred to a specific faith tradition. As Christians, our scripture is the Bible and as Lutheran Christians, we separate our scripture into two parts - typically called the Old and New Testament. I tend to use the words “Jewish” and “Christian” scriptures for those two sections because we share parts of our Bible with the Jewish community and the words “old” and “new” can be used as a false dividing line for what part of the Bible is better than the other. Yet the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, and how God keeps God’s promises is not limited to only one section, part, or book of our Scriptures.

Now, turtle doves show up often in our Scriptures. It was a dove that Noah sent out to see if there was dry land after the flood. And the cry of the doves has also been used to symbolize grief and mourning. Doves are also mentioned in Song of Solomon as an indicator of new life because they are a migrating species, and they arrive in Judea in the spring.  Doves were also offered as sacrifices at the Temple for those who couldn’t afford sheep or goats. Even Mary and Joseph used these small birds as as a thank-offering in the Temple for Jesus’ birth. Doves allowed rich and poor alike to worship God.

Turtle doves are said to commit to each other for life. And so it is fitting that we can use them as a symbol for our Scripture – for the joining of the Testaments, of the Jewish and Christian scriptures, into one Bible. We continue to read these testaments together because they share how God’s love is one continuous story - and that this story continues today.


Lesson Three: Gold, Frankincense, and Myr

In our Bible, the number 3 is a holy number. Many journeys, like Jonah’s stay in the whaled, lasted 3 days and visions given to ancient prophets came in threes. As Christians, we understand God to be a Trinity - a Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit - and we spend 3 days every year living into the moments when Jesus died, was buried, and rose again.

During this season of Christmas, we are remember the three gifts of the Magi – gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  These unique presents were not random items, but demonstrated who the Magi believed Jesus would become. Gold was reserved for the royal or the divine and proclaimed the birth of the King of Kings.  Frankincense is a symbol of holiness and was used in priestly worship. The myrrh invokes bitterness and suffering, showing us how God came to be with us through the entirety of our lives, and how God takes us on a journey through death and into life.


Lesson 4: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John

The four calling birds can represent the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—which tell the stories of Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection.  But the concluding verse of the Gospel of John says that these books are not sufficient; that the works of Jesus are so numerous, they cannot be contained in any book.  Indeed, as Christians we proclaim that the incarnation means God is loose in our world--the work of Jesus is still being done. The Gospels cannot contain Jesus’ entire story because the story is, right now, still being written! Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are not the only ones called to cry out the Good News of Jesus Christ - we are too.


Lesson 5: The Torah

Those of us who love to spend the Christmas break re-watching all of The Lord of the Rings movies, might associate five golden rings with power, control, and domination. We might imagine that the Torah, the first five books of the Bible that these five golden rings can represent, point to a controlling and powerful God who gave us harsh laws to follow. We might think that Jesus is, somehow, a more loving God than the God in the Torah. But the Torah, the law of Moses, is not about constraint. Rather, the law of Moses is a gift, telling people how they can live in a life-giving relationship with God and with each other. The Torah is an invitation for us to be less focused on ourselves and, instead, to experience what God’s freedom is all about. God gives us a law to follow, showing us what evil is, and as our friend Sam tells us in the Lord of the Rings, the Torah shows us the good that’s “worth fighting for.”


Lesson 6: 6 days of Creation

When we think of eggs, we usually think of Easter. But these geese busy laying eggs represent new life, just like eggs do at Easter time. This new life points us to a God who is always busy creating it, including the six days of creation, when God created all that is, and was, and will be. The six loud, squawking, excitable geese can represent the beautiful chaos of God’s creation and the new life we find in Christ.


Lesson 7: 7 Gifts of the Spirit

Every year since 1984, a group of economists have figured out how much it costS to buy all the things on the “Twelve Days of Christmas” list. It’s called the Christmas Price Index and its used to measure inflation and the increasing costs of certain goods. In 2018 eto buy/hire/and use everything on this song’s list, would cost you $39,094.93. That’s...a lot. And the most expensive item, by far, is the swans. Seven swans, swimming or just sunning themselves on the shore, will cost you $13,125. They’re the most precious items in the whole song - and that reminds us of just how precious the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit are: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. These are gifts given to us freely by a loving God - and when we hold tight to these kinds of gifts over anything else money can by, our lives become the precious way we love God and our neighbors.


Lesson 8: 8 Beatitudes

When young maids, or unmarried women, were asked to “go-a-milking,” wedding bells were on the horizon!  It was an invitation to join your heart with another and to forever be changed.

In many ways, the Beatitudes are that same kind of invitation.  These eight statements of Jesus from a sermon recorded in the gospel according to Matthew teach us how we can love God and our neighbor in such a way that will are forever changed. We can look at these beatitudes and split them into two different categories: we are blessed by being and we are blessed by doing.  The first few beatitudes remind us there are circumstances we face in life that we might not have any control over - including hunger, grief, or oppression. God comes to us in those moments and reminds us we are not alone. But the second half of these blessings are an invitation to share God’s love with others. This Christmas, we remember that not only has Christ entered our lives right where we are, but that He also invites us to join our hearts together so that we can help change the world.


Lesson 9: 9 Fruits of the Spirit

The nine fruits of the Spirit, divine gifts made real in us, join with these 9 ladies in their dance. Together, the gifts dance in and through us, moving our feet, our hands, our bodies, our hearts in a holy rhythm. We are called to join in, and to move our bodies in ways filled with loving and humble service.


Lesson 10: The Ten Commandments

During the time of the Exodus, when the people of Israel were freed from slavery in Egypt, their leader, Moses, met God face to face on a mountain. God, through Moses, offered to the people, a promise and a relationship that was so special that the people of Israel could, after that, only be called as “chosen.” As a part of that relationship, God gave the people of Israel and us, the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are more than just a list of “thou shall nots…” they are a sign of who we are—God’s people, God’s chosen people—people who live differently because of who God is and what God has done for us. God intended the Ten Commandments to be a promise that would last for all of God’s people forever.  


Lesson 11: First 11 faithful apostles

The eleven pipers piping remind us of the eleven disciples who saw Jesus at the mountain after his resurrection and went forth into the world to share the music of the Gospel. These eleven disciples were sent out into the world to make disciples of all nations, to baptize those who put their weight down on Jesus, and to teach the world all the things Jesus had taught them.

These disciples were not considered faithful because they were freed from questions or doubt. Indeed, the text we just read from the end of the gospel of Matthew reminds us that even with the risen Lord stood in front of them, “some doubted”. And they’re weren’t considered faithful because they always understood everything Jesus said. Throughout Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, one of the storylines consistent through all of them is that the disciples don’t get it. And now, standing on the mountain with Jesus, they still don’t know what’s going to happen next.

Yet we call them faithful because they do two things: they show up and they go where God sends them next. They showed up at the place Jesus promised to be, on that mountain top, and when Jesus said, “go,” they went.

We join these eleven by showing up here on Sunday mornings, at the place Jesus has promised to meet us. May we also join these eleven pipers piping as we go out into the world to share the song of Christ’s all-pursuing love.


Lesson 12: The 12 Points of the Apostles’ Creed

The Apostles’ Creed is something we say most weeks in worship but we might not know exactly why we do. A creed is a statement of faith representing the basics of what we teach. And I say what we teach because we might not always understand or believe or trust what we’re asked to say. There are days when we’ll feel close to Jesus and others when we’ll wonder if the Holy Spirit is missing from our lives. The Creed isn’t limited to what we believe. Rather, it’s an invitation to see all of God’s promises even when we don’t understand them. The Apostles’ Creed can be broken into 12 parts and legend says that 12 apostles’ each contributed a part to it. But this is a legend because the Apostles’ Creed as we have it wasn’t finalized until the 8th century. But a version of hits creed has been used for almost two thousand years, showing us how we are always connected to something bigger than ourselves. Our faith doesn’t depends on us. Rather, our faith is a gift from God. And when we remember all the gifts God gives us, we grow in trust, knowing that the God who was born to a woman named Mary is the same God who is always with us, even in our doubts and questions. And so, as a way of remembering who God is for us, let us now stand as we are able, and confess our faith in the words of the Apostles’ Creed.



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Make Known: Making it to Christmas Eve [Sermon Manuscript]

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

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

Luke 2:1-20

Pastor Marc's sermon for Christmas Eve (December 24, 2018) on Luke 2:1-20. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


It takes a lot of work to get to Christmas Eve. Over the last few weeks, if you stopped by the church office, you might have run into the pastor, parish administration, and the musicians speaking not-so silent prayers, hoping that tonight would turn out alright. We prayed for weather that was seasonal but not too snowy and for our furnace to not randomly stop working the minute the repair shop closed. And after our old work-horse of a copy machine finally printed the last of tonight’s worship bulletins, you’d swear we celebrated as if it was already Christmas. But it wasn’t only this faith community that needed to get ready to meet Jesus. Each one of us, in our own ways, had certain logistics to work through to make it here tonight. There were kids who, at the very last minute, couldn’t find any of their shoes and dogs, while we were distracted, who ate an entire loaf of bread off the kitchen counter, plastic bag and all. Some of us spent hours navigating the joy that is the Newark Airport so that we could be with our families and friends tonight. And still more are here alone, doing what they need to do as they spend another Christmas Eve on their own. The logistics of just making it to Christmas Eve involves a lot of planning, a bit of luck, and some real, actual, work.

Yet not everyone, in tonight’s reading from the gospel according to Luke, were trying to make it to Christmas Eve. The shepherds, who were spending the night in the hills around Bethlehem, had no idea what God was up to that first Christmas night. They weren’t expecting Christmas Eve. Instead, they were caught up in their daily, tiring, and dirty vocations. By the time night fell, most of the shepherds would have been like we are right now, a bit tired, a tad blurry eyed, and wondering when they could finally go to bed. Yet the beds we might be going home to were not the beds the shepherds knew. They would sleep exactly where they are, far from home. The work shepherds did was isolating, lonely, and dirty. The rest of society viewed them with suspicion, seeing them as no better than the sheep themselves. Yet shepherds knew how to manage the logistics of their everyday lives. When a wolf came by, they knew how to fight it. When a sheep was ill, they knew how to bandage its wounds. And when a mother was about to give birth, a shepherd knew how to coach the lamb and its mom, safely through. A shepherd, lowly, marginalized, and left to work with animals in the wilderness, knew exactly what life expected of them.

And then, suddenly, everything changed. An angel, a messenger from God, stood among them. Now, this wasn’t supposed to happen. No where in the operating manual for being a shepherd was there a section entitled “what to do when an angel of God appears.” They were busy preparing their flocks for the night; they weren’t keeping an eye out for God. But that’s exactly when God came to them. God’s first announcement of what happened in Bethlehem skipped over the rich, the powerful, and those with the power to make everyone move. God’s message about Jesus was first given to those already scattered in the wilderness, caught up in the busyness of their everyday lives. The shepherds expected each one of their days and nights to be pretty much the same. It would be difficult, hard, and they would be far from the halls of power and respectability. They expected to spend their lives living in the margins - and God met them, right there. We can imagine, as the angel spoke, the shepherds rubbing their eyes, wondering if they were dreaming. It seemed improbable, almost impossible, for an angel to show up to them. God, anticipating their confusion and wonder, doubled down on this improbable impossibility by letting the night sky explode with an angelic host, a literal army of angels. Before the shepherds could even process what was going on, the night was filled with a divine choir singing of a child, wrapped in cloth, waiting to meet each of them.

And once this message was finally given, God’s angelic army faded away and the night returned to what it was before. The shepherds were still in the wilderness and their sheep stilled needed to be taken care of. The logistics for the shepherd didn’t end once the angel showed up. But after experiencing the unexpected, they turned towards each other to discern what to do next. They left their sheep, came together, and as a community decided that the only thing they could do was see Jesus. They headed down the hillside, moving into the town of Bethlehem, which did not expect every shepherd in the countryside to show up all at once. And when this host of shepherds finally found Mary, Joseph, and Jesus - they couldn’t wait to share with them what their experience of God was. They told God’s newest family about how God, in a completely unexpected way, used an army of angels to announce how God was entering human life completely powerless. It wasn’t enough for God to merely oversee Creation; God chose to root God’s-self in the logistics of our everyday life. And that kind of life is filled with expectations that are met, interrupted, and turned upside down in the most unexpected ways. So God chose to get involved in the nitty gritty of our lives because God’s love couldn’t do anything less. And when Jesus took his first breath outside his teenage mother’s womb, an army of angels went into the countryside to let the marginalized, the lowly, and those living in the wilderness know that their God was near. The shepherds, living in the fields, didn’t expect to run into God there. But that’s exactly where God chose to meet them because they were worth living, dying, and rising for.

The logistics of our expectations will always be filled with busyness of our everyday lives. There’s always another event to prepare for, another storm to deal with, and we’ll never stop praying for those old reliable machines, traditions, and people that keep our lives on their expected track. Being who we are takes work. Yet through our faith and in our baptism, we discover that God has taken on all our expectations so that we can grow into the expectations God has for each of us. Because the beauty of Jesus’ nativity is that he came even though we had no idea that Christmas Eve could actually happen. And when Jesus showed up, his life of hope, peace, justice, and love wasn’t only for those ready for him. He was here for everyone, especially the marginalized, the outsiders, and those caught up in their own personal wildernesses. The wonder of Christmas is that Christmas comes whether we’re ready for it or not. Because Jesus knows exactly who you are, what your life is like, and how you can embody a life-giving love that turns the world upside down. There is no work we could ever do that would make Christmas happen. So Jesus did the work for us, coming into the world as a newborn baby, needing to be cared for as he prepared to take care of us all. And once the shepherds met Jesus face-to-face, they returned to fulfil the logistics of what they were expected to do. But they now had a message of hope, wonder, and love that they couldn’t wait to share with everyone.





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Reflection: One Thing (aka Christmas Stuff)

Christmas comes with stuff. This stuff can be physical like the endless mountain of cookies our coworkers give us to the long list of toys in our letters to Santa. Christmas stuff can also be sentimental, such as the family traditions that determine who hosts the yearly gathering and the order presents are opened. There's also Christmas stuff that covers every human emotion, from joy to sadness and grief. We might know exactly what our Christmas stuff is but we might carry other stuff that we don't even realize. Christmas is one of those events that brings all our stuff out into the open. And all that stuff impacts everything and everyone around us.

Our readings tonight also come with a lot of stuff. In our reading from Luke 2:1-20, there's a governor, an emperor, a field full of shepherds and an army of angels singing in the sky. Some of this stuff we might know well, like how there was no room for Mary and Joseph at the inn. But there's other stuff we might notice for the first time tonight. It might surprise us to learn that Syria once belonged to Rome and that Luke points to an additional census that once took place. We might finally ask how far it really was from Nazareth to Galilee (90 miles) and wonder how Mary made this journey while 9 months pregnant. The shepherds might jump out at us because, after they met the baby, they went back to their old way of life. Or we might suddenly wonder what a "heavenly host" actually is (answer: it's an army) and wonder why the Creator of the Universe would need one. There is a lot of stuff in the Christmas story but that story is more than just words on the page. As we re-tell this faith-filled story tonight, we create new stuff based on our reactions to the text. The birth in the stable, the songs of the angels, and the faithfulness of Joseph will cause different emotions to form within us. We might feel inspired or indifferent or somewhere in between. And those feelings are okay because the stuff of scripture is designed to generate additional stuff in us. This new stuff is rooted in whatever makes us exactly who we are because Christmas is about a God who chooses to get involved in all our stuff. The stuff of life is not strange to God nor are our experiences somehow too silly for God to experience too. God chose to experience all the stuff of our lives including what it’s like to be born, to grow up, to form relationships and experience heartbreak. God, through Jesus, decided to get involved with all the stuff that makes you, you. Because there's no part of your life that's unworthy of God's love. Whatever stuff you're carrying, know that Jesus is right there with you. And on this holy night, when we are surrounded by an incredible amount of Christmas stuff, know that Jesus will continue to give you all the stuff you need to know you are loved by him: his love, his mercy, his forgiveness, his peace, his body and his very life.

Merry Christmas!


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Reflection: Resilence

It's the Sunday before Christmas and this week has, for me, been particularly busy. As a pastor, this week is always busy but this year feels a bit different. There has just been "more" of everything this week. There are more distractions and phone calls from sales people. There have been more visits to the hospital and rehabilitation centers. There's been more worry about the world we live in, from concerns about finances to worry about hate crimes impacting our local high schools. This has been a week of just "more." And after a week like this, I don't have the energy to even open up my Bible. But even in these moments, we can discover a bit more about who God is for us. And, based on our reading from Micah 5:2-5a today, our God helps us be resilient.

This text is one you might have heard before but you might not know it's context. Micah lived in ancient Judah (the area around Jerusalem) and was active from 737 to around 697 BCE. This time period was extremely volatile, filled with wars and extreme violence. The Northern Kingdom of ancient Israel was conquered by the Assyrian empire in 722 and its population forcibly relocated to other parts of ancient near east. This action effectively eliminated 10 out of the 12 tribes of Israel. The Assyrians then turned their attention on Judah and Jerusalem. Their armies overran Judah, capturing 36 out of its 42 fortified cities. When it appeared as if all hope was lost, Micah shared this word. Micah said that a future king of Israel would come out of the city of Bethlehem. At the time, this prophecy was a ridiculous one to make. The Assyrians had captured Bethlehem and were laying siege to Jerusalem. Micah's words were more than silly; they seemed an impossible probability.

Yet his words pointed to what it’s like to be with God. Our relationship with God is what makes us resilient. Our trust in the One who is never far from us is how we are able to get through those difficult moments in our lives. The God who inspired Micah to make a ridiculous prophecy in the face of utter destruction is the same God who chose to be even more ridiculous by living a very human life. There is no experience in our lives that Jesus won't go through with us. There is no moment of utter defeat when the God who created the universe won't carry you through. And even though God's promise won't necessarily manifest itself in the ways we expect, the promise of presence, love and hope is a promise that God does not break. We are able to go through the difficult times because God is with us. And the God that gave Micah his words is the same God who is with you right now.


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Mary says: a blueprint for life [Sermon Manuscript]

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Luke 1:39-55

Pastor Marc's sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent (December 23, 2018) on Luke 1:39-55. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


I’m going to go ahead and say it: it’s a bit weird to be at church the day before Christmas Eve. You are, like me, probably focused on what comes next. There’s still meals to prepare, wishlists to fulfill, and a copy machine in our church office that needs to print 250 more bulletins before Monday evening. Our attention is so focused on Christmas, it feels like this Fourth Sunday of Advent has just snuck up on us. We can, if we’re not careful, let today slide right on by. But we can also accept this day as a gift. Because it’s not every Sunday when the main characters in our gospel reading are women. And it’s not every Sunday when we hear Mary’s song. This young woman who we give most of our attention to only when she’s kneeling silently in our nativity creches, is more than just a vessel of God’s work. She has a voice and that voice sings. Her song does more than bring us one day closer to Christmas; her song reminds us of our calling to make the promise of Jesus real in our everyday lives.

Mary’s pregnancy began in an unexpected way. In the verses immediately before our reading today, the angel Gabriel visited her and shared with her a message from God. Mary was told that her son Jesus would be the Son of the Most High and that his kingdom would never end. Perplexed, Mary wondered how this could happen. So the angel informed her that her cousin Elizabeth, who no one thought could have a baby, was actually expecting. Mary consented to God’s will and after experiencing God in this incredible way, she sought counsel and support from the one person she knew who might understand what she’s going through. She left home and went to see Elizabeth. Now we can imagine her journey there as being slightly uncomfortable. Mary was, at the time, young, barely a teenager, and in the first trimester of her pregnancy. Scripture doesn’t tell us how long her journey was but the road was most likely hilly, bumpy, and Mary might have walked the entire way. As she neared her cousin’s house, we can imagine Mary being tired, exhausted, worn out, and filled with joy because her cousin was near. Mary knew she could tell Elizabeth everything because Elizabeth would understand. Mary’s greeting was more than just a simple hello. Her words must have been filled with incredible hope, promise, and fear because Mary had met God in the most unexpected way. And as Mary spoke, she was heard. Elizabeth’s baby, who would become John the Baptist, kicked. And in that moment, the Holy Spirit filled Elizabeth, and she offered up an affirmation of love that Mary could only respond to in song.

Mary’s song is exactly what it sounds like. It’s not meant to only describe some kind of spiritual experience. Mary’s words are really an expansive description of who God is and how God works in the world. Now, if you had to explain who God is for you, your words might sound a bit like hers. The story we’d end up sharing would do more than point to our personal relationship with God. We would have to include what God has done for us, using our own words to mix the stories of the Bible and our personal experiences of God, together. And over and over again, our words would show how God, when we least expected, showed up. These topsy and turvy moments of God showing in our lives might have felt as exhilarating as having a prayer actually answered but it could be as mundane as walking down some stairs into a New York City subway and suddenly realizing you’re not alone. As we tell and retell the story of how God showed up in our lives, we would also find ourselves pointing to the ways God works in our world. God cares for the lowly, for the hungry, and for those who have no power. God removes the powerful from their places of leadership and sends the rich, those with enough, away empty. The God who created the world chose to be active in the world and in the moment when no one expected it, God chose to live a human life because our lives are worth living. Jesus showed up to remind us that God’s promises will never be broken. And through our faith, rooted in our baptism, we will find ourselves being turn upside down so that we can live God’s love out loud. God’s love, in our lives, is fleshed out with a song Jesus’ mom never stops singing.

We sometimes act as if Mary is a silent partner in the Christmas story because we treat Jesus as if he entered the world fully formed. We focus so much on his life as an adult, we forget that Jesus chose to grow up. Jesus didn’t magically appear in the manger. Jesus was actually born. So that means he was carried by Mary for nine whole months. And during those months, Mary did stuff. She worked; she took care of herself; and, I bet, she sang. The song she sung with Elizabeth wasn’t, I think, the only time those words came from her. Her song of the world being turned upside down was the soundtrack to her whole pregnancy. And as Mary sang, Jesus listened and he learned. Jesus’ later ministry would match his mom’s song. He would scatter proud, feed the hungry, take care of the sick, and he was killed by the Roman Emperor because the Emperor couldn’t tolerate any challenge to his throne. Mary knew exactly what her son would become because I don’t believe she ever stopped singing that initial song.

Mary’s song, sung while she was pregnant, looked forward, towards what Jesus would later do. Yet, when we look at the words she used, her song seems to be a bit of a paradox because it acts as if what God is going to do has also already been done. God’s reign of justice, where the world is turned upside down, is already being made real in our world. The implication of the incarnation and the resurrection is that, through Jesus, the world has already been saved. And instead of only looking forward towards the Advent of God’s reign come near, we are called to live as if God’s reign is already here. Mary’s song, then, serves as a blueprint for what our life with Christ should look like because a life with Christ knows that Jesus was born, he lived, he died, he rose, he’ll come again, and that he’s also still here, right now. A life with Christ trusts that Jesus actually matters. And in the words of Gail Ricciuti, “our challenge is to cultivate the ability to see God’s promises as already having come to pass” (Feasting on Word, Advent Companion, page 94). This isn’t always easy. But we can cultivate this skill by spending more time with today before rushing off towards tomorrow. And as we sit with the Jesus who promises to be with us until the end of this age, we will discover that even though we are filled with fears, doubts, joys, and praises; when we are with our God, we can only do what Mary did: and that’s raise our voice and sing a song filled with faith, challenge, hope, and love.





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New Opportunities: The Pastor's Message for the January 2019 Messenger

As I write this, Advent is still in full swing and Christmas is almost here. The sanctuary is still decorated, Santa hasn’t come yet, and our Christmas Eve services at 5:00 pm and 10:30 pm are a joy-filled future event. It’s a bit odd to be writing a message for the first month of next year when this year hasn’t ended yet. But a new year is an invitation to try new things and form new experiences. Last year at this time, I asked you a question: If you had a magic wand and could dream up anything to grow your faith, what would that be? Over the last year, we’ve had different opportunities to explore what an answer to that question might be. We hosted new Bible studies, formed new relationships with local charities, created new worship experiences and strengthened our prayer ministry. We’ve done more to showcase the generosity of this church and how your gifts make a difference in this place and around the world. We updated the lights in our sanctuary to match with our call to be proper stewards of God’s creation. We plan to start streaming one of our worship services in late January so that you can experience Christ Lutheran Church no matter where your life takes you. We spent the first year of a two-year program with the New Jersey Synod to strengthen our commitment to generosity and evangelism. And we’re working with other local Lutheran congregations to help new folks in our area grow a deeper connection with the communities they call home.

This journey over the last year hasn’t been without its challenges. Like other faith communities in our area, we’re discovering how we can continue to spread the gospel while living with our new fiscal reality. Every day, Jesus makes a difference in our lives, and we will continue to share Jesus in everything we do. If there’s a faith idea on the tip of your tongue that you haven’t yet expressed, there’s still time to make your Spirit-inspired idea a 2019 reality. You can always reach me by stopping by the church office or sending me at note at Let’s make 2019 a year where our talents and gifts show our neighbors in northern New Jersey just how much Jesus matters to each of us.

See you in church!
Pastor Marc


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Reflection: Rejoice

Have you met our old prophet friend Zephaniah?

There's a chance you haven't because in our three year cycle of readings (aka the lectionary), Zephaniah shows up twice. We know very little about him except that he preached sometime in the last few decades of the seventh century BCE (620s-600s), just a few years before Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians. Like other prophets, Zephaniah condemned the people of Judah (especially its leaders) for worshipping false gods and oppressing the poor. Zephaniah specifically named merchants, government officials, and judges as the ones who failed to live as if God truly exists. Zephaniah imagines a "day of the Lord" when God will show up, wreaking havoc on Earth, and righting the wrongs we all commit. This judgment will be universal and will include even those who know God well. At the beginning of chapter 3, those listening to Zephaniah assumed there was no hope for the future. Yet, according to Zephaniah, this is the moment when things will take a radical turn for the better.

Zephaniah 3:14-20, in the words of Professor Jin Han, is Zephaniah's "building on the gleam of hope . . . [and bursting] into [a] song of joy. The world is a total mess, but though the people have failed God, God will pull them through." The people will be pulled through not by their own doing but by God alone. God's own nature will cause a new day to dawn on God's beloved community. God's love, strength, patience, joy and sovereignty will carry God's people into a new reality where even the outcast is welcomed home. And when God's people raised up their voice in thanksgiving, what they will hear is God's own voice singing back to them.

The theme for the 3rd Sunday of Advent is always joy. Today we will light the pink candle (aka the rose colored one) to celebrate, along with Zephaniah, that the Lord is in our midst. As we get near the great vigil of Christmas (aka Christmas Eve) and prepare our voices to sing one million Christmas carols, we remember that Jesus is already with us now. Jesus was born. Jesus grew up. Jesus lived. Jesus died. Jesus was raised. Jesus still lives. We, with the help of Jesus, are already moving into a new reality where God's goodness will prevail. And with the voice of God singing with us, we have the opportunity to live as if that new reality is making a difference in our current lives.


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John the Baptist's Christmas Card [Sermon]

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

Luke 3:7-18

Pastor Marc's sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent (December 16, 2018) on Luke 3:7-18. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


If John the Baptist sent Christmas cards, what would they look like?

Most of the holiday cards I’ve received can be sorted into  three different categories. One set has pictures of people smiling on the front. These are the ones with kids, grand kids, and entire families standing in front of some festive background while wishing us a Merry Christmas. Another set of cards are comical, with Snoopy, cats, and a cartoon from the New Yorker offering us a tiny bit of holiday cheer. The third set are religious, where a pastel colored Joseph and a golden glittery manger show us the kind of treasure Jesus is. All of these cards are meant as a gift for us, giving us a taste of what this season of love, peace, and expectation are all about. Yet on first glance, I’m not 100% sure if John the Baptist would have sent those kinds of cards. We can imagine his having a picture of himself on the front, standing on top of a hill and surrounded by a desolate landscape. He’s wearing a shaggy outfit made out of camel hair and he’s leaning on a large walking stick. His hair would be all over the place and his beard would be anything but cute. And I bet, as we looked at his card, we’d swear he was staring right at us. John’s card would probably freak us out and below his picture on the front would be his holiday greeting for us all: Merry Christmas, you brood of vipers.

Now, that’s not really the kind of holiday greeting we’re used to. During this time of year, we expect something a bit more joyful. John’s words about wrath and about our being tossed into a fire doesn’t seem to match our seasonal context; a season where we can binge watch slightly ridiculous made-for-tv Christmas movies all day long. Yet, I think, we read John’s words on this 3rd Sunday of Advent to remind ourselves that our future expectations make a difference today. As we heard last week, John’s ministry began in the wilderness, in the place where our control breaks down. Over and over again, he told the crowds that came to him to repent: to do more than just feel sorry for the ways they’ve hurt themselves and others. Instead, we’re called to change our lives so that causing hurt isn’t the default experience other people have of us. This kind of life matters because the future God is creating will come about and we can live that future kind of life. So as John kept talking, the crowd gathered around him asked the same question you might be asking yourself right now: how?

And luckily for us, the Bible actually recorded an answer. John said, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” His words then turned more specific, addressing tax collectors and soldiers separately. Tax collectors made their living - and usually an extravagant living - by legally charging more in taxes than the Roman emperor actually requested. So John told them to collect only what was officially owed. To the soldiers, who served Rome and the Emperor, John told them to be satisfied with their wages and to not use their power to steal and commit violence against those they’re protecting. Now, all of this can feel a bit basic. It’s as if John looked at the crowd gathered around him, told them God was coming soon, and they’d better start learning how to share. They were invited to see how they fit in our social world; to admit their privileges and advantages and to use those to help their neighbors in need. John told the crowd to recognize their power and to use that power so that those without clothes and food might thrive. No one was told to quit their jobs. No one was told to leave their family and friends and join John in the wilderness. Instead, John reminded everyone that the fruits of repentance are made real in our everyday lives. And that kind of life is a little doable by all of us.

Which is why, last week, those who could - purchased Christmas gifts and hundreds of dollars worth of gift cards for families and individuals in our area. Other people in our church made sure to pick up a couple of extra boxes of cereal during their weekly grocery shopping trip and they brought those boxes to church so that another volunteer could drive all our weekly food donations to the Center for Food Action in Englewood. Last Thursday, a small team of volunteers, using financial resources from the Special Gifts fund, our Care Committee, and other places, purchased and assembled 48 bags full of bath towels, shampoos, toothpaste and other hygiene items. Those bag were given to our friends at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Passiac who, each week, gather with day laborers in a Home Depot parking lot to worship and offer them a warm breakfast before they go off to do their tiring, dangerous, and sometimes stolen labor. I’ve seen people in this church this week check in on each other and I’ve seen them pray for each other when a serious illness or hardship impacted their neighbor’s life. These little bits of God’s future kind of life also includes those unseen moments when you, either as a child, student, parent, business person, or even as a high school history teacher: served, cared, and honored others while doing your job. That doesn’t mean, of course, we did everything perfectly. You might be, like I am right now, going over in your head the different ways this week when you didn’t love, or share, or use your gifts to help those around you. But just because you weren’t perfect this week, doesn’t mean we get to stop tiring. We all have multiple opportunities everyday to make the most loving and life-giving choices we possibly can. We regardless of our age, positions, or resources, get to commit ourselves to the welfare of those around us. If we enjoy a standard of living that lets us thrive, we are invited to grow in our contentment with what we already have and to work hard so that all can thrive like we do. This kind of work isn’t only done by special people in special moments of their lives. This kind of work gets to be done by all of us, right now.

Because when we finally open the Christmas card John the Baptist sent us, we see the gift he was pointing to: we see Jesus. And this Jesus, this Emmanuel, this God-with-us, chose to come to us where we are, and, through the Holy Spirit, grants us the faith, the promise, and the hope to believe that the future God is already creating will make a difference in our lives today. Jesus, the One who chose to be born, who chose to grow up, who chose to live, and who even died - he is the One who will keep claiming us as His own even when we fail to share God’s most perfect love with everyone in our lives. He is always with you, no matter where your lives, your jobs, or your careers take you. And since he’s already saved the world, we can trust, and we can have faith,  that with Holy Spirit’s help - we can share and love and make a difference in our little part of God’s beloved Creation.





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Prepare: God and the Wilderness [Sermon]

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”​

Luke 3:1-6

Pastor Marc's sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent (December 9, 2018) on Luke 3:1-6. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


I’d like to start my sermon today by inviting you to forget something we just did. We heard a tiny bit of Jesus’ story from the gospel according to Luke which is one of the four gospels that contain the theological insights that serve as a foundation for our faith. Every Sunday morning, I introduce our reading from the gospels by inviting you to stand if you are able and then I say something like, “The gospel according to Luke, the Third Chapter.” This introduction prepares us for what comes next. We know we’re going to hear Luke’s version of Jesus’ story and since we’re in the third chapter, we’re already moving through the story God wanted to tell. In fact, we know exactly where we are in God’s story, including chapter and verse, because, at Christ Lutheran Church, everything is printed in our bulletin. But what if it wasn’t? What if there was no introduction to this text at all? I imagine it might sound different. So let’s try it. Let’s forget everything we just heard, including where this text appears in God’s story, and let’s listen to the first two verses as if we’ve never really heard them before: In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

If we didn’t know better, those two verses sounded like the beginning of an epic story. We met an Emperor, a governor, two rulers, two high priests, God, and some guy named John who was hanging out in the wilderness. The text begins at a specific time, in the fifteenth year of some Roman emperor’s rule, and it’s okay if you don’t have the years of the reigns of all the Roman Emperors memorized. What matters is that these verses are focused on a specific time and on a specific place where everything is defined by who was in control. The Emperor Tiberius was on top. He’s the one who appointed the governor and he allowed Herod and Philip and Lysanias to rule as kings subordinate to him. Even the religious authorities were under the Emperor’s control because no high priest could assume their office unless Roman power let it be so. So we received seven names, showing us the complete picture of who had power when this part of Jesus’ story took place. And that’s when the word of God, God’s voice, God’s energy, God’s point of view, and God’s power, came to a guy named John who was hanging out in the wilderness.

Now, the wilderness John was in was overseen by one of the rulers the Roman emperor put in place. But being a ruler of a place and actually ruling it are two different things. In the Bible, a  wilderness was always a strange, mysterious, and untamed place. We might imagine John wandering into ancient Israel’s version of the Alaskan frontier, a place where wild animals ruled and where the necessities for human life were hard to come by. A wilderness, especially in the Bible, was a place of desolation and scarcity. But a wilderness was also, at the same time, an experience of God’s provision and protection. During the story of the Exodus, the ancient Israelites complained constantly about spending 40 years in a place without enough food and water. But that wilderness was also where God provided them manna and its desolation shielded them from being re-enslaved by their former Egyptian rulers. Later, the young David who eventually became king and the prophet Elijah both fled into the wilderness for safety and, while there, they were sustained and protected by God. The wilderness, according to Scripture, is more than just a desert or an untamed mountain range. The wilderness is also an experience where our normal sense of who’s in charge and who’s in control is undone. Our wildernesses are those moments, places, and even years where the control we assumed we had over our lives is turned around. John wasn’t only hanging out in a desolate and untamed place. He was also living into an experience where he had limited control. The structure of order and power proclaimed by the first seven names that started this passage wasn’t where John was living. Instead, John was in the middle of his wilderness, in the middle of nowhere; a nowhere that fully embodied the isolation, the fear, and the anxiety we all experience when we are in our “nowheres” too.

Yet it’s in that “nowhere” where the word of God comes. It’s in those untamed and uncontrolled moments when God shows up. The word of God skipped over the seven names of those who had control and instead went to an eighth name living in the wilderness. We sometimes act as if John, the son of Zechariah, appeared in the wilderness suddenly, only when the word of God showed up. But John wasn’t only passing through the wilderness when God’s word came. Instead, he had been in the wilderness for a very long time. The fifteen years of the reign of Tiberius was also a signal to us that John’s life in the wilderness lasted longer. John’s faith, personal growth, and spiritual strength developed in that place where scarcity, isolation, desolation, fear, and lack of control was all he knew. God formed John to be the one who could prepare the way for Jesus, not in spite of his wilderness experiences but because of them. John knew that, when we’re living in the wilderness, it’s only by trusting God that we can be carried through.

Our wildernesses might not fully match up with John’s. There’s a good chance we won’t find ourselves near the Jordan River, deep in a deserted desert. Our wildernesses, instead, might be located in a doctor’s office, a school, at work, or even in our homes. Our wilderness might, instead, be something we carry with us as we live our life with grief, or sadness, or a lack of knowing who, exactly, we’re supposed to be. The wildernesses we live in might last a day, a week, a year, or even a lifetime. Yet our personal wilderness does not mean that we are far from God. Our wilderness cannot separate us from the One who skipped over those who thought they were in control and instead visited John who knew how little control he actually had. God doesn’t wait for us to have our lives together before God shows up. God makes a commitment to each of us that there is no wilderness we find ourselves in that God won’t go into too. The structures we put into place to try and figure out where we are in God’s story will always miss seeing the ways God provides, nourishes, and sustains. And when we believe that our wilderness is hiding us from God, trust that God is already there with you, and that you will find your way through.





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