Questions and Reflections

February 2015

A Reflection on Genesis 9

Today's text (Genesis 9:8-17) is the first in a series of Old Testament lessons where we're going to hear about covenants. When Genesis was being compiled, it's important to know that covenants were actual legal documents. People made covenants all the time. They were typically contracts from one person to another where one of the parties held most of the power. For example, a king who lost a war could still retain his throne if he "covenanted" with whoever defeated him. That king could retain his territory but he would  be obligated to supply soldiers, supplies, and tribute to the one who defeated him. Covenants were documents detailing a series of mutual obligations between two parties of vasty different power dynamics. 

But there's an oddness in our Genesis reading today because the covenant that God makes is incredibly one sided. The great flood where God flooded the earth, killing everything except for the people and animals stored in Noah's ark, is over. As the water recedes, God makes a new covenant. But this covenant isn't just to Noah and his family. Instead, God makes a covenant with all of creation. And where most covenants required a series of obligations between the parties, God doesn't ask creation for anything. There's no requirements put on creation. Instead, God focuses the covenant on God. The "bow in the clouds" (i.e. a rainbow) is a reminder to God that God has made a covenant with all creation. God puts limits on God's own power, choices, and responsibilities. To quote a Lutheran professor, Cameron Howard, "God reaches out to the world, and God does all the heavy lifting."     

We're just starting our journey into Lent but I believe this reading helps frame why these 40 days matter. As Lutheran Christians, we're all about God's grace and God's continual reaching down to us. Even though we sin, screw up, and forget to take God as seriously as we should, God keeps making a covenant with us - reaching out - and doing the heavy lifting. That's the focus of the Jesus story and, we pray, that this focus will become part of our story too. 


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40 days and 40 nights [Sermon Manuscript]

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Mark 1:9-15

Pastor Marc's sermon on the 1st Sunday in Lent (February 22, 2015) on Mark 1:9-15. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


This text from Mark can feel a bit like a flashback. Last week, we were in chapter 9, when the disciples saw Jesus, Elijah, and Moses hanging out on a mountain top - and our own Linda Osolin brought this vivid scene to life for us. And before that, we heard Jesus’ baptism, followed him around the sea of Galilee, witnessed Jesus’ preaching in every synagogue, curing Simon’s mother-in-law from a fever, and tossing out demons wherever he went. But now we’re talking a little step back - and seeing when Jesus and Satan met in the wilderness. 

Now, Mark doesn’t really give us much to work with here. We don’t hear get details like we do in Matthew and Luke. There’s no conversation, no dramatic acts, no yelling at stones or being flown to the top of the temple to see all the kingdoms of the world. We don’t even hear emphatically if Jesus actually triumphs over Satan or not. All we get, really, is just a big-picture description of what happened. Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days. He was tempted and tested by Satan, he hung out with some wild beasts, and the angels fed him. And then, it’s over. John is arrested, Jesus heads to Galilee - and his long journey to the Cross begins.

So what do we do with this?

There is a reason why we’re hearing this story today and that’s because today is the first Sunday in Lent and one thing that we do, as a church, is listen to this story every year. Last year it was Matthew and next year, we’ll hear Luke’s version. And since we’re at the start of this 40 day march to Easter - hearing about Jesus’ own 40 day adventure makes sense. For those of us who have taken on a Lenten discipline this year - like giving up chocolate or facebook or maybe pledging to pray more, or make sure we attend midweek lenten worship and monday night bible studies - hearing Jesus go through his own mini-challenge is a tad helpful. And if we bring in what we hear in Matthew and Luke - we see how even Jesus gave up things, how even Jesus fought against temptation, and how Jesus used his study of scripture to overcome Satan. It can feel as if our personal struggle with a Lenten discipline has solidarity with the Son of God. So Lent becomes a story of temptation and struggle, a time of spiritual push and material pull, where Jesus’ story of temptation and confrontation becomes a model for our own. 

And this is great. If you’ve taken on a Lenten discipline, I support you in whatever you do and I’d love to hear about it and how it’s going for you. But Mark seems to be doing something a little different here. We hear how Jesus was tempted but we don’t see it. We hear that Jesus was in the desert for 40 days but we have no details on what that actually looked liked. All we know is that the Holy Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness, that Jesus struggled with Satan there, that God didn’t leave him alone - and, finally, Jesus left the wilderness to begin the next stage of his journey. Mark’s Lent involves flow - the push of the Spirit, the engagement with adversity, and the continuing of the story in a new and dynamic way. Movement then, not temptation, is the focus of the story. The question for us this Lent isn’t only a question about whether we should give up twitter or margaritas for the next 40 days - but just how the Holy Spirit is moving us. How is the Holy Spirit grabbing hold of us? And just where is God sending us? 

A few years ago, a young woman started attending Advent Lutheran Church in Manhattan where I was serving on my internship. She grew up in China and was in New York completing her graduate school. And she basically grew up as far from the church as you could possibly get - but the Holy Spirit had a hold on her. When she was younger, for a class assignment, she did a research paper on Martin Luther - and she always wanted to know more. But it took years, and a trip to the other side of the world, before an accidental exit from a subway station led her to us. She attended worship, became friends with folks, joined the community, and, after a bit, wanted to be baptized. So we did what the ancient church did - we use the time of Lent as a period of preparation for her baptism on Easter. Her and I met weekly, we opened our bibles - and starting at Genesis 1, chapter 1 - we spent time in prayer, conversation, and study - seeing how her story intersected with Scripture’s story and how Scripture’s story intersected with her. She didn’t need education - she didn’t knowledge - I didn’t feel called to tell her what to believe or what minute detail of the Lutheran Confessions she needed to believe to “get it right.” But what she needed was the opportunity - the space and the time to dwell with the Spirit, to see that it had led her to this place, to open her up to the fullness of the life God had in mind for her. 

Her time in the wilderness was much longer than 40 days, and it just so happened to spread all the way from mainland China to the middle of Manhattan. And our personal wildernesses might be that big too. But the promise of our baptism - and the promise we hear in worship each week, from the forgiveness of our sin to the joining with Jesus in a little piece of bread and a little bit of drink - the promise is that we are caught by that same Spirit that drove Jesus into the wilderness. We’re wrapped up in it - it’s in our bones - driving us into unexpected, upsetting, and uneasy places where we are going to be changed. We don’t know exactly how that will look. We don’t know exactly how it’ll come about. But, like Jesus in the wilderness, we know that once we get through to the other side, nothing is going to be the same. 

On Wednesday, we began our Lenten journey with Ash Wednesday and the marking of an ashen cross on our foreheads. I said that night that Lent is a season where we’re in the business of discovering our whys - our motivations for why we do and believe the things we do. It’s a season for questions, for discovery, it’s a season to look at Jesus on the Cross and wonder if it really means anything for us. But these questions aren’t just opportunities for navel gazing or fun what-ifs. These whys are the questions that change us. They help us grab onto the Spirit who already has a hold on us so that we, like Jesus, can look around and see our wildernesses, see our wild beasts, and see our angels who are ministering to us. And we will also see that the Spirit that drives us into the unexpected places is the same Spirit that sustains us there. We don’t go through this journey alone. We don’t travel through our wildernesses isolated, even if it feels like we do. We are never far from God even though we might feel God is far from us. No, the Spirit that drove Jesus is the same Spirit that drives us into the unknown - into our whys - into this season of Lent, inviting us to discover what God has in mind for each one of us. 



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A Reflection on Lent

We're about to start a 46 day journey. 

Today, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of Lent. We tend to talk about Lent being 40 days but if you take a look at a calendar, you'll notice that Easter is 46 days away. The answer is that Sundays during Lent don't "count." Sundays are always reserved as holy days where we celebrate Jesus risen from the tomb. Sundays are always days of joy and abundance, where we proclaim God's overflowing love for us and the world, and our need for God's grace in our lives. Each week of Lent, then, is six days of pilgrimage towards the joy of the seventh day.

And that journey towards God is the point of Lent. I like that Sundays break up our forty day period. We're reminded, over and over again, that we are a people who are loved by God and that such proclamation, and love, is a joyous thing. Lent isn't just a time to be hard on ourselves. Nor is Lent a time when we give up something we enjoy to just feel miserable and post about it on Facebook. Lent is about that journey to God - that journey to Sunday. It's about being intentional and recognizing our need for God in our lives. It's about knowing that our life is a journey to God and with God. It's about taking the time to see God's presence in our lives and to celebrate God's love for us in abundant ways. 

This Lent, I invite you to take on a practice that will help support your journey with God. Read the Gospel of Mark, a book our Confirmands are reading right now. Pick up a series of Lenten devotions called "Grace and Peace" and spend 10 minutes every morning reading and praying with them. Make a commitment to visit church every Sunday, checking in on social media, and letting your friends know that you are being fed here. Come, let's celebrate our journey to God and see, in Christ, God's journey to us. 


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Ashen [Sermon Manuscript]

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

Pastor Marc's sermon on Ash Wednesday (February 18, 2015) on Matthew 6:1-6,16-21. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


So, for a number of years in my pre-pastor life, I worked right near Union Square in Manhattan. And my daily commute usually involved walking past a bodega with a giant white cat sleeping among bags of Doritos and also walking past a tv studio where the cable channel TLC filmed their show What Not to Wear. Every few weeks I’d spot the two co-hosts hanging out on the sidewalk and I was always curious what they were wearing because the show, if you’re not familiar with it, was a makeover show. People would nominate family members or friends to be given into the hands of these two co-hosts and have their makeup, clothes, and hairstyles completely redone. And most everyone who was nominated for the show was nominated for the same reason. Their family and friends felt that the person they were seeing on the outside didn’t match what was going on inside. They knew their friend, knew their joys, their heartaches, their skills and amazing lives - and they wanted what was on the outside - to honestly reflect the beautiful person they knew and loved. They wanted their friend to present themselve out into the world and for the world to, in an instant, see their beauty, intelligence, and grace. I loved the show because I loved seeing that transformation - seeing that change - and seeing people look like they really are. And I was reminded of this show because, as I started to put together my thoughts for tonight’s sermon a few days ago, What Not to Wear  just happened to come on in the background. There I was, watching a makeover show, and hearing these words from Jesus that seem to be asking us to be made over too. 
Now, tonight’s reading comes from the middle of Jesus’ sermon on the Mount. Jesus has started his ministry, he’s preaching about the kingdom of God, healing the sick and brokenhearted - and he’s getting famous so crowds are starting to gather around him. Jesus, for a moment, pulls back and retreats up a mountain. His disciples follow him, they gather around him, and Jesus starts to teach. He tells them why he’s here - what he’s trying to do - what exactly he’s hoping to teach and share. And he’s also sharing with the disciples a taste of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. So in the middle of this sermon, we hear these words from Matthew chapter 6 - words about piety and the practice of our faith  - and we even a little fashion advice about what to do when we’re fasting. And here, Jesus is asking his disciples to be aware - to reflect and know, deep down, why they do the things that they do. Our first line tonight sums up what Jesus is looking at. He tells his disciples to “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen.” He tells them to be aware of why they are going to do what they are doing. What are their true motivations? Are they here for fame, to be loved and acknowledged and celebrated by others,  or are they here for something else? 

This text from Matthew is all about asking that why - about getting deep into what motivates us to believe what we do - and to do what we do. It means examining who Jesus is for us - it means looking at what the cross, if anything, means for us - and it means asking how we’re being madeover by God or if this makeover is even happening? We find, in these words from Jesus, being asked to look at our whys. And I think that’s why we read this text every year at the start of Lent and why this text is read to signal the 40 days and 6 Sundays that are between us and Easter. Because Lent - at its core - is an invitation to look at our whys - and to see just how our whys are matter to us. 

So if Lent is a season of asking our whys - then why do we mark today with ashes? 

I’ll admit that it seems odd on a day when we hear Jesus telling us to be aware of how we are practicing our faith in public, and then we go ahead and put an ashen cross on our foreheads. Jesus seems to say the exact opposite - telling us to hide from others our spiritual practice so we won’t be seen by others. But it’s hard for us to hide in the background if we have an ashen mark on our face. I’m mean, that cross is right out there- literally - in our face and on our face too. And for those who grew up or participated in Christian communities where the ashen cross wasn’t done - this peculiar act can feel very strange.

And I think it’s okay to call that ashen cross strange. Because today is the only day in the church year where we invite each other to put on a temporary tattoo in the middle of our forehead. And it’s something we’ll only see ourselves when we glance in the mirror or if we use the selfie angle on the camera on our smartphone. The ashen mark on our forehead is a cross that will be seen more by others that by ourselves. 

But I think that’s what maybe makes it so powerful. Because later tonight, as we go about our lives - maybe loading our dishwashers or preparing for tomorrow - or maybe heading out to start our graveyard shift where we work - it’s easy to forget that the cross is on our forehead. It’s easy to get caught up in the normal, everyday, busy parts of our life and forget where we were just a few hours earlier. It’s easy to go through our routine - to do what we always do - and not be mindful of Christ’s presence there. But those around us - those who see us - will see something different. They’ll see us wash dishes, marked with the Cross. They’ll see us make lunches for our kids, marked with the Cross. They’ll see us fold laundry and laugh at a late night tv show - marked with the Cross. Others will see us as we truly are - as people who smile, people who feel joy, people who make mistakes and screw up, and people who will, eventually, die - and we, all parts of us, have been marked by the Cross forever. Even when we don’t see the cross on us, we carry that cross with us, in everything that we do. 

This is, for me, the power of Lent. It’s an opportunity to decenter ourselves and recenter who we are as beloved children of God. It’s a time when we as individuals and as a church express and affirm that our identity as Cross bearers needs a little self-reflection to be fully known. Our life as disciples needs opportunities where we ask ourselves our whys and where we let our answers be meaningful and true just for us. It’s possible that your answers about your relationship with Jesus won’t match my answers about Jesus and that’s okay. But what matters is that we, together, are taking the time to ask the questions, to remind ourselves who we are and what we carry with us, and to know that we are all in the process of being madeover by God. And like all makeovers, this one is a journey and God is in for the long haul. Lent is a time for our whys. It’s a time to journey through our questions. It’s a time to affirm and share that our journey with Jesus is ongoing and needs tending. And tonight, on this Ash Wednesday and the start of this year’s Lent - it’s time to discover our whys and walk with Jesus as we uncover just who we are and what it means to be marked with the cross forever. 



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A Reflection on Isaiah 40

Isaiah 40 (today's reading is Isaiah 40:21-31) marks a shift in the tone for the entire book. The Babylon invasion, the destruction of the Temple, and the exile, when Israelites were sent to live, labour, and be confined in the heart of the enemy empire, is coming to an end. It's possible that Isaiah 40 is a conversation directed towards those members of the community who lived their lives away from home. Several generations had grown up in Babylon and would only know Jerusalem through the tales their parents and grandparents told. But Babylon has now been defeated by the Persians. The Persian Emperor, Cyrus, has decided to send the Jewish people back to Jerusalem. But Jerusalem had not been rebuilt. The temple no longer existed. Even the walls surrounding the city were broken. Living in Babylon was hard but the people at least knew what to expect there. Jerusalem, the city of God, was desolate. The people had no idea what they would find, or how they would survive, once they got there. 

This passage serves as a hopeful reminder to the people of Israel that God is with them. God understands that the future looks uncertain. God understands that the people of Israel had seen their nation destroyed and the empire that destroyed them defeated by another empire. The people felt small but God promises them that the presence of God is with them. Empires will come and go but God's love for God's people will not be undone. 

It is possible that some elderly members of the community would have been around to see the Temple restored after the return to exile. And those last few verses might point to their faithfulness. Even in the face of defeat and struggle, they were faithful in telling the story of God to their children and their children's-children. They believed that God stood with them even though God's Temple was gone. That's how they served God. And they were able to maintain the faith because God was with them. God's steadfast love does not depend on armies, empires, or power. God's loves people because that's just what God does. 


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Unnamed [Sermon Manuscript]

As soon as [Jesus and the disciples] left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

Mark 1:29-39

Pastor Marc's sermon on the 5th Sunday After Epiphany (February 8, 2020) on Mark 1:29-39. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


Our reading from Mark today is a continuation of what’s been happening for the last few weeks - all part of one big experience. Jesus is out, proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is here, gathering together his early followers, and sharing that good news with everyone. Last week, we heard Jesus enter the center of community life - the synagogue - and teach about the presence of God’s kingdom - and then casting out a disruptive spirit while he’s there. And today, right after Jesus leaves the synagogue, he’s invited to hang out at the home of his new disciples, Simon and Andrew. So he walks through the front door and they immediately let him know that Simon’s mother-in-law is ill. She’s in bed with a fever - and it’s serious. They can’t just go to Rite Aid or CVS to pick up some aspirin to try and break the fever. People are scared because she might die. They immediately grab Jesus, I imagine right before he even has time to shake the dust from his shoes - and he’s taken to where she’s lying. And Jesus, without a word, grabs her hand - lifts her up - and she’s cured. The fever is gone. Simon’s Mother-in-Law, feeling much better now, gets up, breaks open the kitchen cupboards and feeds them. The word that we translate as “serve” is really tied to feeding, to waiting on others. So Simon’s mother-in-law is freed from death’s grasp, liberated by the Son of God - and she responds by making lunch. 

And we don’t even know her name. 

This little episode in Mark is a bit problematic and it leaves me with many hard questions to answer. Why is Simon’s Mother-in-Law’s first act after being healed to make her son-in-law, and his friends, lunch? Why does Mark not even bother to record her name? And why does her encounter with the Son of God seem to just leave her where she was before? I mean, her son-in-law was told to leave his nets and follow Jesus. The man who had that demon cast out, was sent back into the community to rebuild and form new relationships that the unclean spirit had delighted in destroying and denying. The text, as it’s written, seems to imply that Simon’s mother-in-law, after meeting Jesus, just goes back to what she always does. She’s back to the same old thing. And that makes me uncomfortable. Because when she meets Jesus - something more should happen. 

Now it’s easy to try and explain this uncomfortable feeling, away. We can just say that this detail doesn’t matter - that Mark wanted to let us know that she was instantly healed. Or we can say that this was what women did back then - ignoring that the church has used texts like these to limit possibilities, job choices, and opportunities for women in ways that still impact us today. Or we can say that she was showing hospitality, honoring Jesus for healing her and being a guest in the house. Yet each of these explanations takes what Jesus does - his healing - and sees each one as merely an act of restoration, an act of returning people to what they were before. Jesus’s healing is limited - losing its edge - losing its sense of new possibilities and being a new creation - and, instead, is just a way to return people to how they were before - or maybe to return people to a better version of what they should have been before. Jesus’s healing can feel like merely restoring people to what they should have been in the first place - to a more perfect past - to an imagine history of just how great things were before. Jesus’s healing ends up being about a return to a past that we remember, a return to an image of history, a return to “just how things were.” Simon’s mother-in-law is healed - and ends up as a hoped-for image of what’s already come before. 

Earlier this week, an article on the Huffington Post caught my eye. An Episcopal Priest, the Rev. Lindsay Hardin Freeman, wanted to know just how many words in the bible were spoken by women. So she took the translation we use in worship - the New Revised Standard Version - and she started to catalog who said what, trying to find the stories of women who speak and raise those stories up. It took her and three other women three years to complete their work. And what they found was that in the entire bible, only 93 women speak. And only about half of those are named. So if you add up all the words they speak, they account for only 1.1% of all the words in the bible. That’s it. Their voices are barely there. And even in our story today from Mark, Simon’s mother-in-law doesn’t speak. She’s a character who is acted on and who acts - but she doesn’t say anything. Her voice, and name, is lost behind the written words Mark used. 

Yet - if we let our creativity, our imagination, and our experiences peel back the text a bit - we can uncover that more is being done here. And here’s where our translation breaks down and where it pays to have a semester of greek and a fancy computer program to help you out. Because the word we’ve translated as “serve” appears only four times in Mark. And if you work backwards, starting with the last occurrence in the gospel - showing up in chapter 15 - we hear that as Jesus was on the cross, in the distance were women, watching. The disciples and apostles had run off, scared and not knowing what to do - but the women who had served and provided for Jesus - who probably gave money and goods to keep his ministry moving from town to town - they were there, watching. The apostles ran but the women who followed - they stayed. 

And then, when you jump to the first time that word appears, you hear a story we haven’t heard this year yet - but one that we will in two weeks on the first Sunday in Lent. We hear that Jesus, after he was baptized in the river Jordan, he went into the desert for 40 days. There, he was alone. He was tempted by the devil. He was isolated - but the angels were with him - and they served him. 

Even though the text doesn’t tell us the names of the women who watched in the distance, I like to imagine that Simon’s Mother-in-law was there. She had served Jesus, and she kept serving, right through the Cross. And her serving in the house wasn’t just making a lunch for her son-in-law’s new best friends. She was now like the angels, doing what they did when there was no one else around. So when Simon’s mother-in-law was healed - I don’t see here as being merely restored to what she was before. Instead, she became what I said a few weeks ago Mark is trying to show through his entire gospel. He’s trying to show - he’s trying to answer the question of just what it looks like to be a follower of Jesus Christ. And Simon’s mother-in-law - she gets it. She does what the apostles and disciples and male followers of Jesus don’t get until after the resurrection. Simon’s mother-in-law meets Jesus, touches him, is lifted from her bed by him - and she’s more than just restored. She’s resurrected into something brand new. She’s a disciple - a follower of Jesus in ways that Simon - who we also know as Peter - he won’t get till much later. She’s felt Jesus presence - she’ll shares a meal with him - and, in Jesus’s presence, she’s made new. That’s her story. That’s what gives her life. And that’s what gives us hope - because - her story is our story too. 

Because, right now, Jesus is here. In our baptism - in this community - in the meal we’re going to share together - Jesus is here. We’re now encountering Jesus all over again - and that’s the point of worship - that’s why we’re gathered here. Because like Simon’s mother-in-law, we know that once we meet Jesus, we’re not left where we were before. We’re not called to just be what we’ve always been. We’re not called to point to some past tradition and try our best to live into that. No, we’re called to be brand new - to live into that brand new identity given to us because we have been met by Christ. The world might look the same as it did before- it might feel the same too - and we might find ourselves doing the same things we did before - but, with Christ, and because of Christ, we’re heading somewhere new. Our invitation, then, isn’t to just limit our imagination to what has been - but to see, instead, the brand new thing that God is calling us to. Because, like Simon’s mother-in-law, we’ve been grabbed by the hand - we’ve been held - we’ve been lifted up - and now it’s time to live that experience, to live that love, to live that hope - and see exactly where Jesus is leading us to. 



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Reflection: Meet a Prophet

The first reading is Deuteronomy 18:15-20.

Have you ever met a prophet?

I’ll admit that in our tradition, prophet is a scary word. We tend to not see them or identify them as people living among us. Other Christian denominations and traditions embrace the prophet identity but we don’t. They can make Lutherans in Europe and the United States uneasy since prophets, by definition, are an odd bunch. We tend to “other” them, see them as outsiders that belong to the past. Even people we might identify as prophets, say The Rev. Dr. Martin Lutheran King, Jr., we hesitate to label them fully. There is something about prophets that make us uncomfortable.

In our Deuteronomy text today, the people of Israel are asking Moses a very serious question. They want to know who they should listen to once Moses dies. Moses, the prophet that all other prophets are based on, speaks for God. He has met God, talked to God, and even debated with God. When Moses dies, then, who should the people listen to? How can the community know that there is someone in their community who is truly connected with God? The people of Israel are concerned about what to do when guidance from God is needed. They want to know who they can turn to when they need help.

This text offers some advice but this isn’t an easy question. Even in our own personal lives, it can be difficult to hear when God is speaking to us. We might look around at the person who obviously seems to be speaking for God. But there’s no guarantee that they are serving God. In our everyday lives, when we’re seeking counsel, help, and hope, just who do we turn to?

We turn to Jesus. The prophets in our midst are always prodding us, poking us, and directing us to Jesus. They do not ask for rewards nor do they only speak comforting words that make us feel better about ourselves. The prophets are always bringing us to the foot of the Cross, to witness to our crucified savior, whose arms are open to all. Prophets bring people to Jesus and push them away from themselves. They are outsiders because God has called them to push others into the arms of God. That’s where God wants us. That’s where we belong. And prophets exist to steer us into God’s love.


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Game Time [Sermon Manuscript]

[Jesus and the disciples] went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

Mark 1:21-28

Pastor Marc's sermon on the 4th Sunday after Epiphany (February 1, 2015) on Mark 1:21-28. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


Today, in our reading from the Gospel according to Mark, we hear Jesus’s first public act. This is it. The stadium is filled. The first disciples are on the sidelines. The national anthem has been sung. And the star of the game - Jesus - is on the field. 

It’s game time.

Jesus is in Capernaum, a small city on the coast of the sea of Galilee. He’s just been baptized by John in the Jordan, he’s put together his first group of disciples, and its now the sabbath. So Jesus walks into the local center of the community - the synagogue - and he begins to teach. 

Now, unlike churches and synagogues today, a single pastor or rabbi wasn’t the only one allowed to teach. Community members, like Jesus, could come up and lead. So what Jesus does is fairly normal. And I bet it’s safe to say that the people there probably knew Jesus - so they thought they had an idea what this kid from Nazareth was going to say. But when Jesus teaches - they’re amazed. His teaching strikes them as something powerful and mighty. They not sure what to make of it.

But someone in the audience gets it.
The reading says that a man with an unclean spirit is sitting there, listening. He listens to Jesus - and then he challenges back. 

The spirit asks Jesus why he’s there? Why come into this community and disturb what is taking place? 

Because the unclean spirit is happy where he is. He’s happy being in the middle of the community, in the middle of daily life. We shouldn’t bring our modern understanding of medicine and science into the text and think that this man is just suffering from some undiagnosed mental health issue. We shouldn’t think that he would be fine if he had the right pill. This unclean spirit isn’t schizophrenia nor should we think this is just some silly ghost story that we tell to scare ourselves. No, to Mark, this unclean spirit represents something else. This spirit is happy living in the world - happy living in that man - happy living in the center of that community. He’s there, in the middle, causing havoc, distrust, and causing separation from God. That unclean spirit is happy building and maintaining a boundary - a boundary between this world and God. So when Jesus shows up and begins to teach - that spirit knows what’s already happened. The status quo has been broken. The boundary between God and humanity is undone. 

So the unclean spirit shouts out. We can’t really tell, from the text, if the spirit is afraid of Jesus or is challenging Jesus. But, either way, the end is still the same. Jesus simply commands the unclean spirit to come out - and it does. There’s no prayer, no magic spells, nothing. Jesus just commands - and the spirit can’t do anything but come out. When it comes to Jesus and the reign of God - when it comes to the Superbowl between this world and God - it isn’t even a close contest. 

It’s kinda like watching last year’s Super Bowl between the Broncos and Seahawks. 

For Mark - this, in a nutshell, is who Jesus is. This first public act is more than just a healing. Jesus is uniquely empowered - he’s uniquely authorized - to declare that the reign of God is here. Jesus is here to institute that reign - to give it life and breath - to show us a glimpse of what God’s kingdom looks like - to model for us just how our life should look. The old status quo is broken. The old boundaries that keep people away from God’s love are being undone. The old rule that everything as it is now -  must be that way always - that just isn’t true. 

Because the reign of God is here. 

This past week, I was with around 100 other pastors, chaplains, and deacons, from our denomination - the ELCA - at a retreat outside Philadelphia. We were all newish pastors and ministry leaders - all having less than three years of ministry - and we were there to worship, to learn some new ideas, and to share our stories of what it’s like being leaders among God’s people. And it was great. I got little sleep, spent 16 hour days centered around scripture, stewardship, music, and leadership. And I had intense conversations with pastors from Maine through Philadelphia, listening to what they were struggling with. 

And I heard a lot about the status quo, about the boundaries that congregations setup for themselves and about the boundaries pastors bring with them into new places - not even knowing that they had them. I heard about communities struggling to see the people around them and other communities struggling as their identity changes. I heard stories of communities coming undone and others on the verge of shutting down.  

And this retreat did a great job creating space for these stories. But, by the end, many of us were mentally, physically, and spiritually exhausted. We heard the struggles. We created space for the issues. We explored the brokenness.

But we didn’t create space to hear about the in-breaking of God. We didn’t create space to witness to all the amazing things that God is doing. We spent time with our struggles - but we didn’t raise up our joys. 

And that’s pretty normal, isn’t it? How often are we devoured by our own troubles - by our own struggles with our status quo? How often do we let our troubles stew - giving them the authority to tell us what to do - to direct, manipulate, and control us? How often do we let our status quo end up becoming our default for how our lives will always be? How often do we let our unclean spirits define just exactly how things are? 

Jesus’s first public act is walking straight into the center of the community  - the center of life - and he announces that the reign of God is here. He announces that the boundaries we have, the boundaries we build - the boundaries we hold onto that define how we love ourselves and how we love others - Jesus announces that those boundaries don’t win. Jesus doesn’t use any special props. He doesn’t say any magic words. He doesn’t ask everyone in the community to believe in him before the healing occurs. Jesus, instead, just walks into the room. He teaches. He engages. He commands. And he breaks through. 

In Jesus, God’s love is announced. God’s hope is shared. God’s identity is made real. Jesus’s teaching and his healing are intimately tied - they can’t be separated. For Mark, they are one and the same. His teaching announces that the status quo has been undone; that our boundaries are broken down. Jesus’s teaching announces that our rules separating and oppressing people, our rules that keep people stuck because of who they are, what they look like, how much they make, or who they love - those boundaries have no authority. The only authority left is God’s. 

When the spirit is cast out, the text doesn’t say that it’s destroyed. It’s out there. That evil is still around. But it’s power has been uprooted. It’s power to hold sway over our lives has been undone. The boundaries it builds, maintains, and thrives on - no longer defines who we are. No longer does separation define our relationship with God and our relationship with each other. Our feeling and experience that, somehow, this separation, these boundaries, this distance trumps God’s reign, is done. 

That’s what Jesus, in Mark, announces. It’s a theme that runs throughout the whole gospel - a theme that we’ll be hearing over and over again. Jesus is here. Jesus announces that the reign of God is here. Hope and Love - those now are the rules of the game. The contest between God and evil, between God’s hope and our boundaries, isn’t a fair fight. We think that the game is on - but the contest is already over. God’s won and, in Christ, we’ve won too. 



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