Questions and Reflections

March 2015

A reflection on Palms and Passions

Today's imagery is striking. We start our worship at the entrance of the church, gathering together with palms and listening to the story of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem. We join the crowd, waving our palm branches in the air, and imagining Jesus entering the city like a king. He's here to join the countless other visitors celebrating Passover in God's city. There's joy here! 

But very soon, after we move into the sanctuary, the atmosphere begins to change. The gospel reading is all about Jesus' time on the cross. He dies and is buried. The meal we share together in Holy Communion is a reminder of Jesus' last meal with his disciples. We move quickly from a parade of joy to an end of incredible sadness. 

Today is a day when our Christian story brings to light the paradox of our faith. How can God's victory be seen in the death of Jesus? How can the savior of the world save us by dying like a common criminal? How can the Cross, a Roman symbol for death, be our symbol for life? Where is God's love when God's Son is hanging on a Cross? 

Palm Sunday is the start of Holy Week. It is a time for living with the mystery that is at the heart of what we believe. We walk with the God who becomes a person, living as we do and showing us how we are to live. We walk with this Jesus who ate meals with the unwanted and who brought good news to those who are suffering. We join the crowds in welcoming his arrival but quickly turning and shouting for his crucifixion. We remember that God loved us too much to let ourselves get in the way of God's mercy. We live lives that constantly turn away from God or forget that God is here. So God does what God always does - God comes after us. God is committed to us, to me, and to you. That's the mystery of Holy Week. That's the paradox of God's love. So let's walk with Jesus this week, knowing that we are his and He is ours. 


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You Say So [Sermon Manuscript]

As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” He answered him, “You say so.” Then the chief priests accused him of many things. Pilate asked him again, “Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.” But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed.

Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked. Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection. So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom. Then he answered them, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. Pilate spoke to them again, “Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” They shouted back, “Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him!” So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.

Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters); and they called together the whole cohort. And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. And they began saluting him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.

They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. Then they brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull). And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.

It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. The inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.

When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.

When evening had come, and since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate wondered if he were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he had been dead for some time. When he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the body to Joseph. Then Joseph bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock. He then rolled a stone against the door of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where the body was laid.

Mark 15

Pastor Marc's sermon on Palm/Passion Sunday (March 29, 2015) on Mark 15. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


Did you notice that today is brought to you by the letter P? 

Palms and Passion. Pilate and Purple. Priests and Preparation. The letter P is all over the place. In worship today, we started in the back - waved our palms in the air - processed down into our prefered pews - all while praising the presence of God here today. We might think, for a moment, that we’re caught in some real life version of Sesame Street, about to see Ovejita, Murray, Big Bird, and Elmo making some kind of big cake out of the letter P. But we’re not. We’re here to kick off the most important week of the entire church year - Holy week - where we remember Jesus’  journey into Jerusalem. It’s a week filled with action and drama; a week where the sheer amount of scripture we hear can easily just wash over us. We’re going to hit up the Gospel according to Mark and John. We’re going to watch Jesus enter God’s city - watch as the crowd greets him waving palm branches, throwing them on the ground to keep the dust down, treating Jesus like he’s a king or a Roman emperor. On Thursday, we’ll be there when Jesus partakes in the last supper and when he does a truly unbelievable thing: he becomes a slave, and washes his followers’ feet. And we’ll also be there on Friday, when we see Jesus die, his body nailed to a Cross. We’re traveling from the beginning of the story all the way to the tomb. And this story is so big that we’re kicking this whole week off with text, and worship, that’s full of a plethora of p’s. 

Except for one. There’s one p-word that the text doesn’t use but that I think it’s just as important. On this Palm Sunday - during this Holy Week - let’s do more than just hear the p-words. Let’s not let Pilate and Purple, Preparation and Passion, just wash over us. Let’s make this story ours. Let’s make this story “personal.” 


Our reading today of Jesus’ passion starts in the middle. We call Jesus’ final journey into Jerusalem the Passion because of the greek word paschein - which means to suffer. Jesus’ journey includes suffering. And we’re starting halfway through it. Jesus has been betrayed by one of his friends; he’s arrested; he’s brought before the religious leaders and he’s convicted of blasphemy - claiming that he’s the Messiah, the Son of God. And so Jesus is handed over to the Roman governor of Jerusalem to be dealt with. 

Now this governor, Pontius Pilate, probably didn’t hang out in Jerusalem much. As a Roman military leader, he prefered nicer, more upscale, Roman-like towns. But he’s here in Jerusalem because it’s Passover. Thousands of people are traveling into the city to celebrate this great festival in God’s Temple and Pilate wants to make sure no one starts anything - rebellious. He’s there with his full cohort of soldiers, to make sure people are safe - and to make sure that anyone who claims that they are a king, someone who will drive the Romans out of town - Pilate is there to make sure that those folks are dealt with quickly - and severely. And so that’s where our gospel reading starts - with Jesus’ hands and feet tied together, standing before the Roman governor. 

Now, Pilate, here, does something peculiar. He asks Jesus, right away, if Jesus is the “King of the Jews?” Up to this point in the gospel according to Mark, no one has claimed that Jesus is the king of the Jews. Messiah, sure. Peter confesses that a few chapters earlier. But Pilate doesn’t care too much about the Messiah. What he cares about is a king. What he cares about is someone who is there to set themselves up against the Roman Emperor. Pilate isn’t interested in God. He’s interested in order and control. So he immediately asks Jesus if Jesus is setting himself up to be a king - to be the kind of leader that deserves, and receives, the waving of palm branches when he enters a city. And Jesus, in a even more peculiar way, simply looks at Pilate and says “You say so.” 

Pilate hears in Jesus’ words a non-answer. Jesus doesn’t confirm; he also doesn’t deny. Instead, he lets Pilate do the talking and Jesus says nothing. He doesn’t fight back. He doesn’t stand up for himself. He doesn’t use his miracle mojo and save himself. Jesus is surrounded by people saying who he is - people who are giving him titles and identities - labeling him as a king and a messiah and a heretic. People are busy projecting their own views onto him - and Jesus says nothing. People keep saying who they think Jesus is - and all of that - brings him to the cross. 
So who do we say Jesus is? 

Messiah. Lord. Son of God. Yes. That is what we say. And all of that is true. But - if we let ourselves step into the story - to be in that room, to be in the crowd, to be one of those Roman soldiers or one of those priests - if we bring ourselves, our history, doubts, fears, faith, and joy - if we step into the story instead of just letting it wash over us - just who do we say this Jesus is? 

Because that - I believe - is what Holy Week is all about. We’re not re-enacting Jesus’ life but we’re encountering it. We’re hearing his story, entering into it, and finding out just who we are. So let the palms, passion, Pilate, and purple become personal. Enter this week by entering the story. Let all these p-words become your words. Let’s let ourselves dwell with Jesus - live with his disciples - live with his rejection - and stand from afar while the tomb is sealed. Let’s make this personal - because Jesus has. He made this personal for each of us. He lived this story - lived this experience - lived this life - not because he had to - but because he loved us too much, not too. 



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We Want to See [Sermon Manuscript]

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

John 12:20-33

Pastor Marc's sermon on the 5th Sunday in Lent (March 22, 2015) on Luke 2:22-40. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


They came...and said “we wish to see Jesus.” 

Today, in the gospel according to John, we’re hearing the start of Jesus’ final conversation with the world. He’s in Jerusalem for the last time. The religious and political authorities know he’s there. There’s a sense in the air that things are finally going to happen. And then some Greeks come to Jesus’ disciples and ask if they could see him.

Now, we actually have no idea who, or where, these Greeks come from. 2000 years ago, there wasn’t just one nation called “Greece.” Being Greek was much bigger than that. Individual cities like Sparta and Athens had founded colonies all around the Mediterranean Sea, from Egypt and Turkey, all the way to Morocco and Spain. And after Alexander the Great bulldozed through the Middle East, building an empire that stretched from Europe to India, the Grecian culture spread everywhere. And if anyone was anyone, they called themselves Greek. They spoke Greek, wrote in Greek, gave their kids Greek names and did all they could to be Greek. Being Greek was so pervasive that by the time of Jesus even the Old Testament that they used was a Greek translation of the original Hebrew. Being Greek was a big part of Jesus’ world - and, for some, that was a problem. Some couldn’t see how being Greek and being Jewish was compatible. The cultures were just too different. So these Greeks coming to see Jesus - even if they believe in God - they’re on the outside. They’re part of “the other.” They’re not suppose to know God or really get God or even call themselves part of God’s family. 

But it’s these outsiders - who are coming to Jesus. 

A few weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal had an article about a set of identical twins. This, of course, peaked my interest since I’m an identical twin - which some here saw last week when my twin came up from North Carolina for a short visit. So this article was all about how one set of twins no longer follows the religious tradition they were raised in. Their parents are baptist, incredibly faithful, and they’ve been attending the same church for years. But, for these twins, that faith tradition just wasn’t what God had in mind for them. A visit to a Catholic church when they were 12 changed them. So, after deep soul searching and prayer, one eventually left for seminary to become a Roman Catholic priest. And the other took a similar, if slightly different, path. He’s currently a Bishop in the Episcopal Church. Now, where they both ended up isn’t typical - but their journey out of the tradition they grew up in - that journey is typical. In fact, more than half of people will change their religious affiliation at least once before the age 50. Some will go back to the faith they grew up in but most don’t. At least 44% of all adults are no longer a part of the faith tradition they were raised in. The story of faith today isn’t just about who is leaving and becoming agnostic, atheist - one of the n - o - n - e - s - nones. The story of faith today involves movement and switch. Even here at Christ Lutheran Church, our pews are filled with folks who were once baptist, non-denominational, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Jewish, or Atheist. We’re a church filled with folks who don’t fit the stereotype of what a Lutheran is or was. And I’m glad for that because I’m not one of those either. As a Hispanic with a Jewish last name - there’s very little Scandinavian or German about me except for the amount of furniture from Ikea that’s in my house. If I wasn’t up here today, here with all of you, there’s nothing from my looks and background to make someone say “oh yeah, Marc - he’s totally Lutheran.” I’m an “other” - a non-standard Lutheran who has found a place here at Christ  - just like the countless other non-standard Lutherans here too. It’s to this place that God has brought all of us to see Jesus - to see him right here, whether we’ve been Lutherans our entire lives or not. 

And this is just what God does. God breaks down the barriers between us and them, between those who we expect to be in the “in group” and those who are always on the out. God is going to break down our barriers - breakdown our expectations - and show us what a resurrected world looks like; a world where being an other or outsider is no longer an opportunity to be shunned, rejected, or oppressed by others. Being Jewish or Greek, being black or white, being Lutheran or Catholic, being hispanic or not - Jesus doesn’t destroy those identities; instead, he’s putting an end to letting our identities overcome his. Because, when Jesus is lifted up, he draws all people - everyone - to him.     

This drawing into Jesus is more than just drawing people to a destination. Jesus isn’t talking about heaven or about what happens after our life on earth is done. Jesus isn’t just predicting his own death - predicting Good Friday. No, he’s pointing to something more. Jesus in the gospel according to John is always pointing to what comes after his death. After the Cross, after the Tomb, after His Resurrection, and Jesus’ Ascension into heaven. And after the Ascension comes now - what we’re doing right now - trying to live as disciples of Jesus Christ. John’s Jesus is inviting the Greeks - the outsiders and the disciples - onto a journey of what life is like when he’s no longer walking with them like he use to. He’s telling them what it looks like to follow him. To follow Jesus is to be like Jesus - to do the works he did, feed the faithful, love the stranger, heal the sick, and share with everyone who Jesus is. To follow Jesus is to follow Jesus’ story - a story that continually breaks through barriers of who we say is in and who we say is out. Jesus’ promise to the Greeks is not that they will somehow become better at being followers of God than the people of Israel. Jesus’ promise is that by following Jesus our desire to “other” each other - to split ourselves into camps of them and us - that will be undone. As Jesus draws everyone to himself, so should we do our part to not let our own actions, fears, biases, and prejudices, keep people away from him. And where prejudice seems to be winning, we’re called to struggle against it and tear that barrier down.

When the Greeks came to see Jesus, they found themselves face to face with Philip. And they looked at him and said, “we want to see Jesus.” Now, Philip could have said no. He could have pushed them aside. But Philip doesn’t. Instead, he hesitates. He’s not sure of what to do - so he goes to a disciple he knows - a disciple who’s been following Jesus ever since John the Baptist proclaimed, way back in chapter 1, that this Jesus is the Lamb of God. Philip goes to Andrew who then immediately goes to Jesus. Now I believe Andrew gets it. He’s seen Jesus break down barriers and walls. Because Andrew, like Philip, is a Greek. Andrew is a Greek name. So he’s knows what it’s like to be treated as an outsider, as someone who doesn’t belong - and it’s this kind of outsider who’s now hanging with the Messiah. Andrew is the other - but Jesus has a hold on him anyways. So Andrew, he just steps out of the way and they go and bring Jesus. That’s his story. And that’s our story too. May we, like Andrew, see the other, see the others already here, and step away from our own biases so that we can just get out of the way - and bring Jesus. 



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A reflection on Jeremiah 31

Today's First Reading is Jeremiah 31:31-34.

I learned something new this week about Jeremiah 31: this is the only Old Testament passage where the word "new" modifies the word covenant. But what exactly is new about this covenant is disputed. 

The book of Jeremiah is a hard text. Called to proclaim the coming destruction of Jerusalem, Jeremiah's ministry spanned 5 kingships prior to Babylon's take over of Jerusalem. Jeremiah's traditionally known as the author of Lamentations, a book full of sadness due to the loss of the city but hopeful that the community will survive. Jeremiah most likely spent the last years of his life in Egypt, away from those in Babylon but still trying to turn the people back to God. 

This first reading is about restoration. The new covenant God will bring is entirely earthy. Jerusalem will be rebuilt and the land of Israel will be repopulated. Throughout the Old Testament, land (and the promise of the land) is central to what God is doing. Restoration always has a very earthy feel. God isn't in the business of drawing the Chosen people away from the earth; God is busy restoring people to it. 

And the center of this restoration is grounded in God's promises. This new covenant isn't replacing the prior ones that we've heard this Lent (the promise to not destroy the world with a flood, the promise of the Ten Commandments, etc). This new covenant is fulfilling the eternal promises of God. God promises to walk with God's people, to get into the earthy lives we live, and help us grow into the people we are called to be. 

At the Lord's table, we hear words of a new covenant. When we share in Jesus' body and blood, we're reminded that God is active in our lives, nourishing us physically and spirituality, so that God's eternal promise is manifested in our lives. God's new covenant is rooted in forgiveness. Jeremiah vision of what the future will hold is still be actualized now. We're not there yet. But with God's love, grace, and Jesus' presence, we are transformed, reflecting tomorrow's future in our lives today. 


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I'm going to be fooled on April 1st

Pastor's Message in April's The Messenger.

And this is a little embarrassing. I mean, I know April 1st is coming. Pranks are going to happen. And, every year, someone gets me. Like clockwork, a fake news story, false press release, or a post on Facebook hooks me and I fall for it. I immediately send messages to my family, pointing out the amazing things I just saw, and every one write back: "Do you know what day it is?" 

The devotional book we're using this Lent, Grace & Peace, shares Ephesians 3:7-8 on April 1: "Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God's grace that was given me by the working of his power. Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ." As Lent ends and we walk together through the final three days before Easter, we're reminded of these boundless riches. On April 2nd, Maundy Thursday, we share in the Communion and wash feet, participating in Jesus' continuing acts of service and love for the sake of our relationship with each other and with God. On April 3rd, we stand at the foot of the Cross, living in the paradox that a dying savior destroys death. And, on Easter morning, we wake up to a new day knowing that, through Christ, we are continually being raised up by God to love and become who God calls us to be. 

The end of Lent and the beginning of Easter carries a sense of foolishness and mystery. There's little about the Cross that feels like victory. Jesus, dying to reconcile us to God, doesn't match our experiences of power and strength. Death and weakness is something we run away from. Yet, through death and weakness, God brings about love and hope. This is a season of the unexpected. God's work is unexpected. Jesus' experience is unexpected. And God's boundless love for us and the world is unexpected too. But God's love is just what God does. God continues to go out, engaging us in our lives and in our world, giving grace and faith so that we can love just as God loves. We're changed because Jesus does something foolish in our eyes. We're loved because God felt we were worth dying for. Each day is God's day. We awake, renewed and cared for by this foolish God who holds us close, pouring love, grace, and mercy into us, and asking: "Do you know what day it is?" 

See you in church!

Pastor Marc


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A reflection on Numbers


So does God send snakes to punish the people for complaining? 

Our title for this book, "Numbers," comes from a census that is taken at the start of the book (Chapters 1, 3, & 4), but the Hebrew title is a better description on what this book is about. The book is bemidbar, "In the Wilderness." The story is about Israel's journey from Mt. Sinai to the Promise Land, and that's where this bronze serpent appears, in the middle of the wilderness. 

The people are impatient and cranky. They're not sure if they can trust  that God knows what God is doing. They complain about having no food (even though there is plenty of 'manna' available) and that the food they have is awful. And after the complaint comes snakes. The text doesn't explicitly say that God sends the snakes because of their complaining but the people believe as much. They ask Moses to bring their prayer and sorrow to God. Moses does and God responds in a very odd way. Rather than taking the snakes away, Moses is instructed to make a bronze serpent that, when looked at, will heal and keep them safe. The snakes are in the grass and the threat of their attack is all around. Yet, by looking at an image of their problems, the people will live. 

We tend to not see God as dangerous but, in our text and throughout Scripture, God is very dangerous indeed. God is completely free to do what God wants. And, in that freedom, God is dangerous. A God that we have figured out is a God that is domesticated, comfortable, and controllable. But that isn't a God who will bring people out of slavery, lead people through the wilderness, and drag people, kicking and screaming, into the promised land. A dangerous God is a God who moves and loves. A dangerous God is willing to send Jesus into the world to die on a Cross. A dangerous God is a God who brings salvation, love, and mercy in unexpected ways. The serpents in our lives, swirling at our feet and in our souls, are never far from us. But God is with us, standing in the middle of our serpents, and, in a completely free and dangerous way, offering us a way to new life. 


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Field Goal Theology [Sermon Manuscript]

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

John 3:14-21

Pastor Marc's sermon on the 4t Sunday in Lent (March 15, 2015) on John 3:14-21. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


There I was, in the middle of a place I’ve never been, driving down a road that 20 minutes earlier I didn’t know even existed- and my fingers were trying to find a radio station to listen to. So I hit scan on the tuner- and then skip - skip - skip - trying to find something that I might like. I went right by NPR, passed classical music and top 40- and then...I heard something. I turned up the volume. I put on some sunglasses even though it was cloudy. And, just like that, I was in high school again. I stumbled onto a radio station just like the one I grew up on. They were playing the exact same music in the exact same order when this music was brand new. So, I immediately started bopping along, jumping around in my seat, and trying to avoid potholes while feeling like a kid again. 

Now, this felt like Nostalgia. I found myself feeling a sense of fun that only being a kid blasting music out of their parents’ car can bring. And our text from the Gospel today, can feel a bit like that. I mean, it contains probably the most famous verse in all of the New Testament - John 3:16 - “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” That’s beautiful. It’s got all the right things. God, love, giving, belief - eternal life. This feels kinda like what Christianity is all about. And even if we don’t have the verse memorized, we’ve definitely seen John 3:16 before. Flip over a bag from the clothing store Forever 21, and you just might see it. Drive down the highway and you’ll spot John 3:16 on bumper stickers, billboards, and the back of pickups. And if we’re glued to the tv set from, say, September through February when the National Football League is playing - in the corner of the screen, during game winning field goals or amazing goal line stands, there’s someone with a piece of posterboard that simply says John 3:16.

God - Love - Son - Believe - Eternal life. These are the keywords for Christian identity. Believe in Jesus’ - believe in his story - agree that his life happened in this way - and we’re granted eternal life. It’s how we score on the final drive of our life. Believe and we’re granted some benefit for the future. But - the amazing thing about Jesus’ words here - these words that have become the tagline for what it means to be a Christian and get on God’s good side - in the actual story in the gospel itself - these words don’t seem to work.  And if these words can’t convince someone who is literally speaking to the Son of God - than just what is going on here? 

Our gospel reading today is catching Jesus in mid-conversation. He’s speaking to a man named Nicodemus. And Nicodemus is one of those ‘right kind’ of people. He went to the right school, has the right friends, and people listen to what he says. He’s a man of privilege and he knows it. But he’s intrigued by this Jesus fellow that he keeps hearing about. So he sneaks into Jesus’ presence late at night and talks with him by candlelight. Now, Nicodemus is a smart guy - but Jesus keeps leaving him confused. Jesus talks about being born again, about the Son of Man moving between heaven and earth and back again, and other things that Nicodemus doesn’t get. A few verses before today’s reading, we catch Nicodemus asking Jesus “How can these things be?” I’m mean, he’s read his bible, studied God’s word and knows what living a faithful life looks like. He’s a person of God, yet Jesus keeps catching him off guard.  So Jesus continues with today’s words. And he brings in a reference at the start that Nicodemus would fully understand - a story from when the Israelites were in the desert, on their way to the promise land, and snakes were sent into their camp. So as people were being bit, they asked for protection, and God told Moses to craft a staff that looked just like what was harming them. And the Israelites were invited to stare into the face of what was killing them - to face their darkness - and only then, would they live. 

Darkness and light - that’s the focus of Jesus’ words. Jesus isn’t splitting the world into two camps - those who believe and those who don’t. Jesus is focused, really, on what God is doing. And what God is doing is sending Jesus into the world - sending a light into a very dark place. Nicodemus isn’t being asked to make a choice to earn eternal life. He’s being asked to do something much harder. He’s being asked to look into the darkness - to look at Jesus being hung in the darkness - and Nicodemus will be changed. 

And that’s the scary thing about belief. Belief asks us to look at ourselves - to look at our society - and every community that we belong to - and ask us to see the darkness. It’s an invitation to look at Jesus, killed as a criminal, and to see how our participation in systems - and actions or inaction - leads to the spiritual, physical, and emotional death of those around us. Belief is more than just a tagline on the bottom of our shopping bag or about hitting that game winning field goal at the right time that will send our life into immortality. Belief is an experience. It’s an encounter. It’s a long journey running into Jesus over and over again. It’s trusting that Jesus is here - that Jesus actually cares about us - and that, while living in our story, we will be changed by his.  

And Nicodemus, I think, hears that. The text doesn’t exactly say what happens between Jesus and Nicodemus after these words. Our next verses have Jesus with his disciples, heading into the countryside. But I think we can assume that after Nicodemus heard these words - after he heard this invitation to an encounter with this darkness and with this Jesus - Nicodemus, who came out of the darkness, turned back into it. He heads back into his world - into his education, power, wealth, and position. Jesus’ words, it seems, doesn’t convince him. The billboard of John 3:16 alone doesn’t work. 

But we have two more references to Nicodemus in John’s gospel. Just a few chapters later, he advocates for Jesus to be given a trial rather than be condemned by those who disagree with him. And then, much later in the story, after Jesus has been tried and died, Nicodemus comes to his body. He brings myrhh and aloes and with Joseph of Arimathea, they prepare Jesus’ body for burial and then lay it in a tomb. 

John’s Gospel never tells us that Nicodemus believed. He didn’t hear these words and insistently walk by Jesus’ side. But I like to believe that Nicodemus heard what Jesus was asking - and he learned to trust that Jesus’ encounter will change him, no matter how far in the darkness Nicodemus goes. He wasn’t trusting in eternal life for tomorrow - he was trusting in a full life for today. That doesn’t mean that Nicodemus’ life got easier or that God granted him more power and wealth than he had before. Jesus’ promise isn’t about receiving an easier life but is all about living a fuller, a more complete, one. Jesus’s presence in our lives doesn’t just make our lives more Godly - they make our lives more human, too. 

This encounter with Jesus is here, right now. In the bread and drink we’ll share, in the blessings we’ll receive, in the prayers we raise, in our relationship with each other, and in the wholeness offered in the healing that will follow our next song - this church is all about that Jesus encounter. Jesus is here but so is the darkness. We don’t own the light - but we can own up to our darkness. We can name it - share it - admit our fears, worries, concerns, and how we’ve felt this darkness on us and how we’ve shed darkness on those around us. We bring all of this here, to lay at the foot of where we trust Jesus will be. Because Jesus isn’t too big for our darkness. He isn’t too small for it either. He isn’t into field goal theology too. He’s not waiting for us to make that one kick that sends the game into overtime. Jesus is here for our encounter, inviting us into his presence, letting us know that he’s here for the long haul. Jesus doesn’t just care about the end of the game. He cares about its start and middle too. Jesus is here - Jesus invites your encounter - he invites us  to look into the darkness - and to know that God isn’t giving up on us. 



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A Reflection on Exodus 20:1-17: The Ten Commandments

A few months ago, I brought this text to our Confirmands, asking them what they think when they hear the word "commandment." And they said what is usually said: commandments sound a lot like laws or rules. The Ten Commandments sound like a short list of can'ts. Now we can agree that these can'ts are pretty solid and are actions we shouldn't take. But by seeing the commandments as can'ts, we lose sight of God's "can." God feels like a god who cares only about rules and maybe keeping a detailed record of our behavior on some giant spreadsheet, adding up our failures and mistakes. A God who is only about can'ts is going to be a God that keeps us from doing anything because we're afraid of what rule we might be breaking. 

But I believe that verse 2 is really the point of the Ten Commandments. God reminds Moses and the people of Israel that God brought them out of Egypt, freeing them from slavery. Their prior existence was constrained. They were the property of others, with no opportunities to live in free and full relationships with each other and with God. God is reminding the people of Israel that they're now starting on a new chapter in their lives. No longer are they people held captive by others; they are now embarking on a new journey of being God's people. They're building from scratch a new community and a new life. God isn't giving the people of Israel rules just to tell them what they're not to do. God is giving these commandments to the people of Israel to tell us this is how you live a free life. These commandments are about living in community with others. Their prior lives were lives that were limited. Now, opportunities abound. God is calling them into a new community knowing that their lives will be full when they are helping others thrive.

Jesus famously summed up the commandments in this way: they're about loving God and loving our neighbors. Jesus didn't see the commandments as can’ts; he saw them as what they bring forth—love. Jesus knew that when his friends, family, and neighbors thrived, he himself thrived as well. The commandments are an invitation to help us find ways to help our neighbors thrive because it's through our relation with each other that God's love is seen, felt, and made known. 


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Makin' a New Scandal [Sermon Manuscript]

Then [Jesus] began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Mark 8:31-38

Pastor Marc's sermon on the 2nd Sunday of Lent (March 1, 2015) on Mark 8:31-38. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


So the internet was abuzz on Thursday - and it was all about a dress where no one could agree if it’s coloring was white and gold - or if it was really blue and black. 

Now that’s weird, right? I mean, unless we’re colorblind - and, fun fact, I am color blind when it comes to purples and blacks - we tend to just kinda know what colors are. We’re comfortable knowing that white and gold are definitely not blue and black. But what we found out on Thursday is that we, as people, can’t be so sure. Two people, staring at the same picture of that dress, saw two different color schemes. One saw white and gold. The other saw blue and black. Even two people staring at the same screen at the exact same time saw the dresses as being two different sets of colors. Friends looked at this picture, completely disagreed about what color it was, and immediately shared it with everyone they knew, trying to get support for the color palette that they saw. And before you know it, the Today Show and the New York Times are headlining the story, talking to color and vision experts, trying to get the definitive answer on just what color this dress was. And even after the science was described - and it all has to do with how our eyes are biologically trained to filter light in different ways based on the time of day - and even when we found out that the color of the dress really is blue and black, not white and gold, no one could believe it. If we saw the dress as white and gold, how could that dress be anything different?
Our reading from Mark today takes place halfway through Jesus’ ministry. In the few verses before our reading starts, Jesus asked his disciples just who do they think he is. The disciples say that people are calling him John the Baptist part 2 or the return of Elijah, the prophet who did not die. But Peter takes it one step further: he calls Jesus the Messiah. So Jesus starts to teach them exactly what it means to be the Messiah - about Jesus’ journey to the Cross - his journey towards rejection, suffering, death, and resurrection. And Peter, after hearing all this, challenges what’s he heard. He actually has the guts to tell Jesus that he’s wrong. This teaching that Jesus is sharing isn’t the story that Peter knew. Jesus is talking about death when Peter knew that the Messiah is going to bring victory. Jesus is talking about suffering when Peter knew that the only suffering would be for the Romans, after the Messiah knocked them straight back to Italy. The Messiah as Jesus is describing is a completely foreign concept to Peter. He can’t see it; he can’t fathom it; he can’t wrap his mind around what Jesus is saying.   

It’s like Jesus showed him a picture of a blue and black dress, and Peter can only see white and gold.

Now, we know Peter is wrong but we can’t dismiss Peter too quickly and shrug him off as some kind of perpetual class clown of the disciples. Because even though Peter is wrong, he’s not easily wrong. His wrong is that hard kind of wrong - the wrong that can’t be scrubbed away by just giving him the right information. Jesus can share with him that the Messiah will suffer and that God is working justice in a different kind of way now - but Peter can’t believe it because that just doesn’t fit his reality. If we take all that Peter is, his experiences, his worldview, his culture, and temperament - if we take all of what makes him who he is - he’s a white/gold guy in God’s blue/black world. He can only see the Messiah as a soldier - as an over-the-top and powerful king that works like all kings do. Kings have armies. Kings have power. Kings have wealth, prestige, and can make people do whatever they want. And in a world where powerlessness is so easy to live and suffer through - the savior has to be the opposite of that. The savior is a superhero - kinda like Superman, Batman, and Iron Man all rolled into one. The Messiah is to make the powerful, make the kings, and the emperors, shake in their boots when they see or hear his name. 

But that strength can’t change a white and gold dress to blue and black. The Messiah that Peter expects won’t change the reality that Peter lives in. The Savior at the head of an army can’t undermine or undo our love of power, strength, and violence. A Jesus who marches into Jerusalem with a sword drawn is just playing the Devil’s game and power can’t be undone if the rules of fear and violence are still the same. 

Jesus, in our reading today, is telling his disciples and the crowd gathered around him that the rules have changed. The story where might makes right is no more. Jesus isn’t here to play the world’s game - he’s here to upend it. Violence hasn’t lost its bite or pain or hardship - but violence has lost its ultimate meaning for us. Power and strength, what the world uses to define people, no longer defines us. What the world says we are because of how we look, or how much money we make, or how smart we are - that doesn’t determine our worth. No, our worth is determined by one thing and one thing only - and that’s God’s love. 

But we do live in this world - and we are human after all. As much as we live in God’s reality, we’re still living in our own. We’re not always going to see clearly or see how the cycle of power that feeds the world is feeding us and impacting all of those around us. We’re not always going to be able to see how our own limited understanding of faith is blinding us from how God is calling us to live. We’re not always going to be able to identify those Crosses in our lives and in our world that we should pick up and carry. 

But there’s an invitation in today’s text to name our being a white-and-gold person in God’s blue-and-black world. And that naming isn’t to get us off the hook or cause us to throw up our hands and go “oh well” and continue to live as we always do. No, there’s an invitation here to invite God to upend our reality - to invite God to unravel our perspectives and open us to the fullness of what God’s doing in the world. 

And one way to do this - it takes time and effort because this is an invitation to a long journey rather than just a short prayer - is to change who we’re hanging out with when it comes to the Trinity. Let’s spend some time looking at our prayers - at our thoughts - at our experiences of faith - and try to identify just who we seem to be talking to more. When we pray, is God the Father, always in view? Or maybe, like me, Jesus is always on the mind? Let’s take some time to figure out who feeds our faith - and be totally honest if the Holy Spirit is always on the wayside. And after this time with our faith - aftering finding who is feeding us - be it God the Creator, Jesus the Redeemer, or the Holy Spirit the sustainer - once we name them, I invite us to sit with another member of the Trinity for awhile. If God the Father is the center of our prayers, pick up the Gospel according to John and hang out in that first chapter for awhile. If Jesus is our center, let’s open up Genesis and Exodus, and see what God as a pillar of fire is doing with the people of Israel. And if the Holy Spirit is distant, pull up next to the Psalms, and see how Jesus’s prayerbook is speaking to you. 

By expanding our experience of God, we’re expanding our witness to what God is doing in us and in our world. By living with another member of the Trinity, we’re unshielding our eyes to the Crosses that God is calling us to pick up in the world. And by journeying with God in a different way, we’re sharing in Peter’s story. Because even though he was a gold-and-white disciple, a disciple who even rebuked the son of God, we know God didn’t leave him there. God never stopped loving Peter, never stopped walking with him, and never stopped bringing him into the blue-and-black world where God’s love - and God’s hope - rule. 



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A Reflection on Genesis 17:1-7,15-16: Abraham and Sarah

Our first reading continues our look at God's covenants. Last week, we saw the covenant God made with Noah and all creation. Today, we witness the covenant God makes with Abram and Sarai. Plucked by God from their native land in what is now Iraq, Abram and Sarai made their home in the land around Israel. After faithfully living where God sent them, Abram and Sarai again meet with God. And here, God makes a covenant not only with Abram and Sarai but with their descendants. God's promises aren't limited in scope. They carry with them this timeless and eternal quality that transcends our very individual, and limited, experience of history. 

The covenant we see today also expands on what I'm calling God's invitation. The covenant God made after Noah's Flood is a promise that God will never destroy the earth again. God, in a sense, limits God's ability to respond to injustice. God will have to handle our acts of injustice and sin in a new way. And one way God does this is through expanding our part of that handling of injustice by expanding our sense of relationships. The covenant God establishes with Abram and Sarai is giant. Like an exponential explosion, each generation creates an ever-growing number of relationships. Not only are more and more people created but the sheer number of relationships formed by these people also grows. God's covenant impacts not only people but the relationships people form through conversation, communication, and interaction. The wideness of God's promise impacts even our most mundane interactions with each other. 

Last Sunday, the students in Confirmation Class wanted to clarify who exactly do we mean when we say "neighbor?" Are we really only thinking about the people immediately next door to where we live or just the people sitting next to us in the pews? The scope of God's covenant with Abram and Sarai shows that our neighbors are numerous. God doesn't only care about a few of our relationships; God cares about all of them. It's through relationships that God deals with the problem of our sin, including Jesus' relationship with us through the Cross.   


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