Questions and Reflections

December 2019

Reflection: Who Counts

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas!


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Resolved: Joseph's Decision [Sermon Manuscript]

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.​

Matthew 1:18-25

Pastor Marc's sermon on the Fourth Sunday of Advent (December 22, 2019) on Matthew 1:18-25. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


I’m sure you know we’re only two days away from Christmas Eve. And if you’re like me, just saying those words out loud makes you feel pretty anxious. There’s still a lot that I need to do - and even though I know Christmas Eve comes whether we’re ready or not - I hope it at least waits until after the bulletins are printed, the presents are wrapped, and the cookies and milk for Santa are placed where they’re supposed to be. 

Now, one of those things I’d like to do in the next two days is to make sure that our red and blue activity bags that kids can use during worship are ready for Christmas Eve. I want to make sure that all the books, toys, crayons, colored pencils, word searches, and coloring pages inside those bags are up-to-date and clean.. And since I’m a bit of a church geek, I’d also like to make what in those bags match our church season. But that’s not always easy. If you do a quick google image search for Christmas coloring pages, there are plenty available with an older looking Joseph, a Mary who doesn’t look like she just gave birth, and a newborn Jesus who can already hold his head up without help or support. They’re pages that show the characters but they don’t tell the whole story. However, last year, I found a different kind of coloring page. Mary was resting on a bed of straw and she looked completely exhausted. Joseph sat a few feet away from her, giving Mary the space she needed. But Joseph wasn’t asleep, tending to the donkey, or chatting with some random shepherds. Instead, he was busy holding Jesus - gently rocking him while Mary slept. In our Lutheran tradition, we don’t always see Joseph in this way. He’s usually depicted like he is in our creche - faithful, righteous, and kneeling besides Jesus. But then we sort of forget his place in the rest of Jesus’ story because the Bible doesn’t mention him very much. Once Jesus grew up and was preaching around the Sea of Galilee, his mom was the only one the gospels mention by name. Yet our reading today from the gospel according to Matthew invites us, I think, to spend a little more time with Joseph - especially when he was living through his version of Christmas Eve. 

Our passage begins with Joseph facing a dilemma: the woman he’s engaged to was pregnant. Unlike the gospel according to Luke, the gospel of Matthew doesn’t have any backstory to this moment at all. Mary enters the story pregnant - and Matthew zeroed in on Joseph’s reaction. We find out, pretty quickly, what his decision eventually was. But we hear very little about the mental, emotional, and spiritual process that led to his making that choice. There’s a gap at the start of Joseph’s story that we can either zoom past or we choose to stay there. And on this fourth Sunday of Advent, I think we’re invited to be in that gap between verses 18 and 19. That gap lets us use our imagination - to see what we would have done if our fiance showed up pregnant. What questions would you have asked? What thoughts would have raced through your mind? And if we take seriously our family history, our cultural background, and what it’s like to be here in Northern New Jersey in the 21st century - what would you do if you were Joseph and Mary came to you?

The process of asking those questions - of being honest with ourselves about what our life is actually like - is the same process we can use to imagine Joseph in his story. And as we reflect on what we would do in that situation - we have to admit that knowing the right thing is something that’s not always easy to figure out. Joseph’s background as a first century Jew living near the Sea of Galilee and influenced by the Greco-Roman economic, cultural, and political systems that informed how people lived their lives - that mix of culture, tradition, and way of life - had something to say about his situation. Because Joseph lived in a place where traditions and legal systems around engagement, marriage, the role of women, inheritance, and property defined what being married and being engaged. And Joseph, raised in that cultural system, probably assumed that there were certain things that worked a certain way because that’s just how things were done. Joseph’s upbringing within his context would have shaped and informed the process his thoughts and feelings would take once Mary showed him what was new. Plus, if his family and friends knew about the situation, they probably had no problem telling Joseph exactly what he should do - giving him their free advice whenever he saw them. It’s also possible that Joseph visited his local synagogue, participated in various religious rituals, an even prayed - hoping that God would tell him what to do. We have no idea if Joseph really did any of those things. But we can imagine that this man, who God wanted a parent for Jesus, did what we would have done: taking what makes us who we are - our personality, our story, our experiences, our background, and our influences - to form his choice. And even with all of that, with everything that made him who he was, when God showed up to him in Mary - Joseph said no. He couldn’t, as faithful and good and righteous as he was, see that Christmas was coming. So God, once again, broke into this world - sending an angel during Joseph’s waiting for Christmas  - letting him know that, ready or not, Christmas would come. 

It’s hard to imagine that the devoted, righteous, and faithful person we imagine and portray in our creche and in our children coloring would also be the same kind of person who, when faced with Jesus, would first say “no.” Yet his no did not stop Christmas. God chose to do what God always does - to continue to bring God’s kingdom near - but this time God’s kingdom showed up in a new way because God lived and experienced human life up close and personal. And when God showed up, even Joseph couldn’t imagine that this was how God would expand what love, mercy, and forgiveness might be like. So today, when we’re sooo close to Christmas that our anxiety and excitement has blended into one almost unbearable mess, we’re reminded that God still comes. It isn’t our goodness, faithfulness, or righteousness that defines what God will do. Rather God, through the Holy Spirit, moves into our world and into our lives, opening us to what’s possible with Jesus Christ. And those possibilities are not limited by our imagination, culture, context, or by anything ever describe as “just the way things are.” Rather, the only limit to what God is up to is God’s limitless love for all. 

Now we might know that we’re nowhere near as righteous as Joseph. Yet we are wrapped up in our own waiting for Christ - and we, like him, need the Holy Spirit to intervene. As we worship, pray, and share in holy communion - we are reminded that we are here because the Holy Spirit continues, in a myriad of ways, to come to us - working God’s grace on our hearts, souls, and minds. We, through the Spirit, are being transformed. And even though we might not feel more righteous today than we did yesterday, God’s Spirit is helping us to become a more active participant in what God is doing in the world. Because even Joseph, when he was face-to-face with what God was doing in the world, chose to send God away. But as the story kept going, he eventually found himself letting Mary sleep while he held God’s new and holy presence in his arms. As we wait for Christmas Eve to come, know that it doesn’t depend on us. Jesus does, and will, come. And as he does, love will grow. 





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Reflection: Straight into Christmas

Sometimes even the lectionary (our three year cycle of Bible Readings) feels like it skips the end of Advent and moves straight into Christmas. The reading from the gospel according to Matthew assigned for today (Matthew 1:18-25) is Jesus' birth moment. We're given the space to not only tell the story of Jesus' birth (like we are doing with our Christmas pageant at 9:00 am worship), but we can also start moving away from the expectation of Advent and into the event that is Christmas. Many of us, I think, do our best to make Christmas into something "big." We decorate, bake cookies, shop for gifts, and let the stress of the season interrupt a good night's sleep. Even if we prefer a simpler Christmas, there's still something different about this season. Our expectation can only last so long before we jump straight into Christmas.

But there's still, in theory, two more sleeps until Christmas Eve. There’s a gap until Christmas comes. Yet, we all know that the gap isn't empty. Your Christmas-to-do list is still long—as well as everything else your life needs you to do. There's still a lot of doing to do before Tuesday night. Yet we should, if we can, take a moment to also realize that something is also being done to us. Rev. Dr. Martin Otto Zimmann wrote in the Advent Devotion we're using this special prayer: Blessed Immanuel, thank you for becoming one with us that we might aspire to be one with you through word, water, wine and bread. With each passing day, we ask that you continue to draw us closer to you so that we might become the people you intended in a Creation free from sin and avarice. The story of Advent is also a reminder that our gap-to-Christmas is one that is full of more than just our doing; it's also full of God coming to us. We might think that we're getting closer to Christmas but the reality is that God is bringing Christmas closer to us. And, as we worship, pray and share in Jesus' body and blood, may the gap-til-Christmas help make us into the Christmas people God knows we can become.


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

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

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

See you in church!

Pastor Marc


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Are You: Doubt [sermon manuscript]

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he."

Matthew 11:2-11

Pastor Marc's sermon on the Third Sunday of Advent (December 15, 2019) on Matthew 11:2-11. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


So what happened to John the Baptist? Why does he sound so unsure this week? And what would it take for you to ask his question? 

It was only 7 days ago when Matthew first described to us John’s ministry. John was living in the wilderness around the river Jordan, wearing clothes made out of camel hair, eating locusts and wild honey, and preaching about our need to be transformed. Now most people avoided the wilderness because you never quite knew what was lurking around the next bend. Yet John’s message made some people curious and they risked the wilderness to see him. John’s preaching wasn’t always the most pastoral; and he talked a lot about an unquenchable fire. But his words struck a nerve because they invited people to be honest about who they were and how they needed God to transform them. John was confident that God was on the move and soon someone would come to make the kingdom of heaven a reality on earth. When Jesus came to John in the wilderness, his presence seemed to affirm everything that John said. In the verses following our reading from last week and ones that we’ll hear in January when we celebrate Jesus’ baptism, John knew who Jesus was and the entire crowd heard God’s voice say that Jesus the beloved Son. When it comes to the checklist of who the Messiah would be, God’s own statements should be enough. Yet our reading today from the gospel according to Matthew makes last week’s moment with John in the wilderness feel like it was a long time ago. Because after Jesus’ baptism, Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness dealing with the devil. But John, during that same time, was arrested. 

Now, on one level, John’s arrest kicked off Jesus’ own public ministry. After getting word of what happened, Jesus left the wilderness, gathered disciples, healed the sick and suffering, taught in synagogues and religious centers, and he preached a very long sermon while sitting on a mountain. Jesus’ ministry grew and soon large crowds came to him while he preached around the Sea of Galilee. But while Jesus was on the move, John sat in prison. He was there because his message about transformation did not make everyone, especially King Herod, particularly happy. King Herod was basically a political puppet, a ruler who was overseen and controlled by the Roman Empire. His status as a leader depended on what Rome decided for him. Yet that didn’t stop Herod from trying to secure whatever power he could. He came from a large extended family that often killed each other to get their own way. And his family would also marry each other, using the laws about inheritance as a way to increase their own power. Sources tell us that, at some point, Herod and Herod’s brother’s wife, who was also Herod’s half-niece, fell in love. They agreed to marry but there was a rumor that they married while Herod’s brother was still alive. Their marriage was seen by some, including John, as unlawful.  And since John wasn’t afraid to tell the powerful when they were wrong, Herod had John arrested. John was in prison when he heard that Jesus’ ministry was bubbling up all around him. Visitors to John problem told him about all the different places Jesus went to; all the healing he was doing; and how Jesus even made a difference in a Roman soldier’s household. Jesus’ ministry seemed to be circling around John. Yet the One who John proclaimed would come to baptized with the Holy Spirit and Fire - didn’t seem to be coming for John. I wonder if, in that moment, John felt as if Jesus was showing up for everyone else but him. John knew the danger he was in and he might have been waiting for Jesus to save him. And as John waited, doubt settled in. 

Now, one of the words at the center of the Advent season is “wait.” We, as my kids remind me every single day, are waiting for Christmas. But we’re also waiting for something more. We’re waiting for God’s kingdom to become real. We long for peace, for refreshment, for a life where joy overcomes our burdens. And we often we find ourselves exhausted, worn out by our busy schedule and all the things we think we need to do to be the person we hope to be. We might catch ourselves saying our prayers but wondering if we’re actually heard. We might even come to church but doubt we’ll get anything out of it. We find ourselves often waiting - waiting for something to be different - even though we’re not always sure what that different thing will look like. So, we wait, and the time we spend on waiting seems to stretch on and on. 

And that, I think, is the problem with waiting. Waiting takes time. And while we wait, we find ourselves filling that time with our questions and our wondering. We might think that questions and doubts are somehow a sign that our faith is weak. But I don’t think that’s true. Because if John the Baptist, who heard God literally say Jesus was the beloved Son, also doubted during his season of waiting - we can give ourselves permission to doubt too. We can, like John, wonder. We can, like John, seek clarification. We can be honest when it feels as if God is showing for everyone else but us. And we can ask John’s question - or  come up with our own. 

Now, none of that is being unfaithful. We are allowed to doubt. And when we do that, I hope we can also lean into Jesus’ answer to John’s question. But we shouldn’t only look at the words Jesus used to describe himself. We can also listen to what Jesus told the crowd when he described who John is. John might have had doubts about Jesus but Jesus had no doubts about John. And Jesus, as he talked to the crowd, did more than name all the amazing things John did or focus only on John’s faithfulness. Jesus also made sure to point out that he and John were intertwined. John was Jesus’ messenger and Jesus needed John as his messenger. They were wrapped up in each other - and their connection couldn’t be separated no matter how much doubt John had. Even during his time of waiting, wondering, and feeling as if Jesus was seeing everyone else but him, John’s relationship with Jesus wasn’t defined by what John felt or thought. Instead, John’s relationship with Jesus was defined by Jesus alone. And Jesus promised that their relationship would not be broken. 

We know that waiting is hard. And we also know that there’s different kinds of waiting - some which are harder than others. Nothing about waiting is easy because waiting takes time - and that time will sometimes feel too long or not long enough. We will, like John, have seasons wondering where Jesus is. Yet even when our doubts seem to be all that we have, there’s still one thing that can’t be taken away. Jesus’ love for you isn’t defined by you; rather it’s defined by him. And you, through your baptism and your doubt-filled faith, are intertwined with Jesus and he is intertwined with you. Your season of doubt and of waiting cannot separate you from Jesus because he’s already with you. And when your doubts about God, faith, the world, and yourself seem to overwhelm you, remember this: Jesus doesn’t doubt you. 





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Reflection: Meme Advent

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

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

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


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Reflection: Soak It In

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

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

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


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Be Transformed: Repent [Sermon Manuscript]

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Matthew 3:1-12

Pastor Marc's sermon on the Second Sunday of Advent (December 8, 2019) on Matthew 3:1-12. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


When were you transformed? 

I paused a little longer than usual after that question because I’m not necessarily sure it’s easy to answer. We might be able to name those things about ourselves that have changed but the word transformation feels as if it should describe something bigger. Right now, there are plenty of ads and commercials this holiday season trying to convince us that we can buy transformation. Yet we know that rarely works. Instead, we end up with a new doohickey that we use only once before donating to our church’s Trash and Treasure rummage sale. Those ads know that we all have a vision of what being transformed is all about. But I’m not sure if that’s always exactly what we want. To me, Transformation is what happens when our assumptions about ourselves are turned upside down and we find ourselves, for better or worse, living in a new way. And that newness is scary because we don’t know what the transformed life will look like. We’ll find ourselves facing new challenges, experiencing new situations, and we’ll have to confront the old assumptions that supported the life we used to live. Transformation changes us because it redefines who we are. 

So when thinking about the transformation in our own lives, I sometimes find it helpful to notice when transformation happens on a larger scale. And so I want to talk about an organization called Muso that I first heard about this week. Muso’s story begins over a decade ago when doctors and medical professionals in the United States and in the African country of Mali decided that they wanted to address some of Mali’s major healthcare issues. Mali had, for example, one of the highest child mortality rates in the world meaning that 154 out of every 1000 kids - 15% - never saw their fifth birthday. So these doctors partnered with the Mali government and moved into poor neighborhoods, thinking that if they lived in those communities and struggled alongside with them, these highly trained medical professionals could really make a difference. Ari Johnson, one of those early team members, described in an interview what it was like to provide care at the start of their project. Mere days after arriving, parents and grandparents would form a huge line outside their clinic before it even opened, hoping those doctors could heal their kids. But - they couldn’t. And instead, Ari found himself attending a lot of funerals. Now he had trained at some of the best medical schools in the world and yet his knowledge and his skills couldn’t change the neighborhood around him. Too many people kept dying - and he couldn’t transform their life outcomes. Something needed to change but he didn’t know what. Yet he, and the rest of his team, didn’t give up. And as they struggled alongside the community, they realized the community was teaching them things they didn’t know. As Ari listened to the patient stories and as he got to know who they are, he realized our typical approach to healthcare was actually stopping people from getting well. He was taught that, as a doctor, his responsibility for the patient began the minute the patient showed up at his door. Yet he and his team noticed that many people couldn’t get to his door in the first place. The high cost of insurance, fees, co-pays, the distance to the clinics, and more - was stopping people from getting to their doctor’s door in time. The people knew they were sick but by the time they got the resources they needed to see the doctor, it was usually too late. If a child’s malaria was diagnosed early, it would only take a few dollars worth of pills to cure her. But if the diagnosis was made too late, even the best hospital in the world couldn’t help. Muso realized that their model for care needed to change. And instead of seeing their responsibility only starting the moment the patient first came to them, Muso decided that the wellness of everyone in their neighborhood was their primary responsibility. So they developed a model of proactive healthcare, sending trained staff into people’s homes to make early diagnosis, provide basic care, and if more advanced help was needed, the patient would receive free-to-them healthcare at a strengthened government clinic. By turning upside down their assumptions about when their responsibility for care began, Muso ended up transforming their neighborhoods. In a seven year period, the child mortality rate in the areas they served dropped from 154 per 1000 to 7 - which is about the same as the United States. Yet that story is even more amazing than those numbers reveal. Because during that 7 year period, there was a coup-da-ta in the government; the terrorist organization Al Qaeda occupied the northern part of the country flooding the areas Muso served with refugees; and if that wasn’t enough, there was also an Ebola outbreak. Yet through all of that, an amazing number of lives were transformed. And it happened because people struggled together; they listened to one another; they were willing to live through funerals; and they let their assumptions about themselves and their world - be turned upside down. Transformation happened because what people didn’t realize was the chaff in the lives was burned away and, in their place, seeds for a new kind of life were planted.

John the baptist’s first spoken word in the gospel according to Matthew is: “repent.” Now, in ancient Hebrew, repent meant “to turn around.” And it was used to show how we need to change our focus; to turn away from what we think is our priority and instead look towards God. Yet when repent was translated into ancient Greek, the language Matthew wrote in, the word repent also meant “to change your mind.” But this change was more than just shifting your opinion. It was really about changing who you knew yourself to be. In other words, repenting to Matthew is all about being transformed. And John spoke this word of transformation not in a city or in a temple but in the wilderness. The wilderness, in Scripture, is never a serene or peaceful place. Instead, it’s always unpredictable - full of unknowns and things we can’t control. It’s there in the wilderness when our assumptions about the world and ourselves are turned upside. Yet the wilderness is also the place where, through John, God’s message comes. God’s call to transform wasn’t given in an environment that was warm, cozy, and safe. Rather, God delivered it in the middle of all our possible unknowns - giving a visual representation of the promise that immediately followed John’s first word. This was God’s way, I think, of letting us know that no matter where our transformation takes us, God is already there. And with God comes love, mercy, guidance, and, above all, hope. Now the unknowns of our transformation might be scary. And it’s perfectly okay to be afraid. Yet we live through our transformations not because we know where we’ll end up - but because we trust that God is along side us and will be there ahead of us. So on this second Sunday of Advent, as we listen to a camel hair wearing, locust eating, prophet preaching in the middle of our unknowns - it’s okay, I think, to lean into your transformation. That transformation could be as big as creating a new organization to redefine what healthcare is all about or it could be something a little more personal; like finally making that appointment to see a therapist or get help for that issue you can’t fix on your own. When our transformation begins, we don’t know where exactly we’ll end up. But we do know that, through our baptism and through our faith, we are already with God. And since God is alongside us and since God is ahead of us, the transformation we will live through will, in the end, make us new. 



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A Luminous Lord: the Golden Hour [Sermon Manuscript]

[Jesus said to his disciples:] "But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour."

Matthew 24:36-44

Pastor Marc's sermon on the First Sunday of Advent (December 1, 2019) on Matthew 24:36-44. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


One of the things I struggle with is light - because I am one of those people who make their children pose seventeen different ways while trying to capture the exact picture that I want. This picture taking process goes about as well as you’d expect - yet I continue to ask my family to “move just a little” as I figure out how to use the light around them. We know that the light in a photo matters to the story we want to tell. And depending on the location, time of day, the season, and the weather - the light itself can change. That, I think, is what makes light hard. We know that it matters, that its part of the story we want to tell, but we don’t always know how to find or even use the best possible light. 

Yet the best light is out there. And in the words of photographer Bryan Peterson, this light “often occurs at those times of the day when you would rather be sleeping or sitting down with family or friends for dinner.” We call this special time the golden hour and it’s, “always disruptive to your ‘normal’ schedule.” Now, if you are rooted to a 9 to 6 kind of day, then the golden hour on this December morning started around dawn - right when we were deciding whether to get out of our warm bed or not. The golden hour will also come right around sunset - which, during this time of year, has already come and gone by the time we get to our car at the end of the work day. The golden hour is a kind of transitional moment; a sort of boundary between night and day; where the low-angled light of the sun reveals the world’s textures, shadows, and depth. When we use that light, the photos we take tell a fuller and more nuanced story because the warm and vivid light of the golden hour enhances what’s already there. The light in that moment creates shadows and contrasts that let us see a deeper kind of truth. We get to see exactly what that photo is all about. Yet the image that is created with the golden hour light is also an image of home - because for us to take it, we had to disrupt our usual lives. And by living through that disruption, we get to see that part of the world and part of our life in a new way. 

Today’s reading from the gospel according to Matthew is, culturally, a bit out of place this time of year. Many of us have already put up our Christmas tree and covered our front yards with a tad too many decorative inflatables. Over the last few days, we’ve celebrated Thanksgiving by wearing elastic pants to every meal and embraced consumerism by kicking off our Black Friday shopping last Wednesday. We tell ourselves that we are moving towards Christmas. Yet the Bible readings we hear on the first Sunday of Advent point us further - right to the end of the world. Now, the end of the world we’re talking about is what we call Jesus’ second coming - when God’s work of reconciling all of creation back to God will finally be complete. The second coming shows up at the end of the second paragraph in the Apostles’ Creed and at the start of the Lord’s Prayer - when we ask for God’s kingdom to truly come. In other words, the second coming is when God’s future becomes our present. And the what and when of that future has been bugging the followers of Jesus for a very long time. Back in Matthew 24:3, the disciples asked Jesus what the end of the world would look like - and when exactly would it come? So Jesus responded with two full chapters filled with his preaching and teaching. Yet his answer was purposefully not complete. He had no problem telling his disciples what the end of the world might look like - yet he didn’t say when it would come. That truth - his not knowing - probably made Jesus’ followers a bit nervous because Jesus, as God’s Son, should know what the rest of the Trinity is doing. But I think Jesus knew how his words would make us feel. And he wanted us to stay in that moment because he kept speaking in an anxiety-inducing kind of way. He started talking about the story of Noah, noting how Noah spent years building the ark, yet everyone around him lived as if everything was alright. The flood that came seemed sudden because the people didn’t notice what God was already up to in the world. After the story of Noah, Jesus kept talking; using a metaphor to reinforce that sense of a crisis. Two groups of two would have their lives suddenly disrupted and they would become two groups of one. Those taken would be like the ones swept away by the flood while the ones who were left would be like Noah, called to live as if God was doing something. Jesus dug deep into that calling by describing what it would be like if we knew when a thief was going to break into our homes. And instead of letting those who followed him know when that disruption in their lives would come, Jesus told them to just be ready - and to live as if Jesus’ second coming would be here soon. Jesus didn’t want those who followed him to wait until some future date to start living as if his life, death, and resurrection mattered. He wanted us to live that way now. Because, in the Bible, the end of the world isn’t only about tomorrow; the end of the world is also about how we live our lives today. And so on this first Sunday of Advent we look forward to Jesus’ second coming because we know his first coming mattered. But that first moment for us will always be bigger than just Christmas morning. Because it also includes those moments when Jesus first came to us - in our baptism, in our faith, and when we realized we are not alone. The unexpected hour of Jesus’ coming isn’t only designed to keep us feeling anxious. It’s also there to serve as a reminder - that there have been disruptive moments in our own pasts that feed our hope. Because it was then when we saw ourselves as part of Christ’s true body - and we discover saw how he lived, died, and rose so that we could live anew. 

And so Jesus’ call to each of us is about remembering that we live in a world that he’s already been on. He’s already touched this ground. He’s already experienced the joys and pain of life. And he, like all of us, has had his heart broken by the disruptions we don’t always see coming. Yet even when the shadow of the night tried to cover and hide God’s light on the Cross, the next morning’s dawn did come. And it was then, as the Resurrection broke through, that a new golden hour was given to each of us. We, through the light of Christ, get to see all of the world’s textures, its hurts, its shadows, and its joys honest and vivid colors. Yet this light also lets us see how God’s love always breaks through. It might take us seventeen tries of shifting our vision to see what God is actually doing. Yet that’s okay. Because when we look for what God is doing in the world - for the ways God’s love shines through - that’s how we keep awake and how we let everyone know that Jesus matters. The doesn’t mean we’ll always get it right or that we will always use Christ’s light exactly the way we’re supposed to. Yet we still try. Because we are called to live today in a way that trusts that our future, and the world’s future, will end up in God. 





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Refection: A New Vision of Life

The following observation is obvious but important to say anyways: the readings from the Bible we hear on Sunday mornings come from somewhere. When the Holy Spirit first inspired these words, she gave them to specific people in specific places. Those people could, through prayer, worship, and study, understand them. As these words were written down, compiled into books, and passed on to us centuries later, the Holy Spirit shepherded that process so that these words could make sense to us too. When we pay attention to where these words come from (i.e their context), we discover the word God wants for us. These verses come from somewhere and where they are in the Bible matters too.

With that in mind, we need to remember that today’s reading from the book of Isaiah 2:1-5 does exist on its own because Isaiah has a chapter one. Chapter one is not an easy book to read. Many of its verses sound like a lawsuit where God indicts and sentences the people of Israel. The people and their leaders failed to live up to the vision God had for them and war has come their way. Although chapter one placed the prophet Isaiah in the early 700s (when the Assyrian empire destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel and eliminated 10 of the 12 Israelite tribes), the final form of this book knew the entire history of Israel, including how Babylon in 587 BCE destroyed the Temple and depopulated Jerusalem. Even though the people worshiped God faithfully through prayer and rituals, the people’s relationship with each other was broken. Everyone cheated; everyone sought their own self-advancement; everyone fought to maintain their own privileges; and no one cared for the common good. The test God gave God’s people was to see how they cared for the most marginalized and powerless (widows and orphans in ancient Israel). Seeing their plight ignored, God ended chapter one by declaring Jerusalem judged guilty and putting them under threat from the God who once made them prosper.

But then, chapter two comes and we hear an unexpected word of hope. We expected the lawsuit to continue yet we are given a vision of a new future. Chapter two is not designed to cancel out chapter one. But it does say, quite boldly, that God is not done with God’s people. The vision God has will, someday, truly come. And God’s purpose for God’s people will be lived out. All people, regardless of their faith, will trust God because God’s people will show, through their care for the marginalized, the future God wants for us all. We begin this Advent season by being honest about our own context. We come from somewhere, with our own challenges as an individual and as a community. Yet in our baptism, we are grafted onto a new vision of God’s future where all people thrive. And this vision will require all people to re-evaluate their way of life and their identity. God’s vision isn’t about continuing our life as it is now. It believes in a change that will require sacrifice, prayer, and a willingness to be honest about makes us who we are. Yet there’s hope in this hard work because when we walk in the light of the Lord, we see a new kind of life where competition, self-centeredness, and violence are replaced with forgiveness, mercy, and love.


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