Questions and Reflections

March 2019

Way: What Does This Mean? [Sermon Manuscript]

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. [Jesus] asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

Luke 13:1-9

Pastor Marc's sermon for the 3rd Sunday in Lent (March 24, 2019) on Luke 13:1-9. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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“What does this mean?” is a pretty Lutheran question. If you opened up your copy of The Small Catechism, Martin Luther’s booklet to help parents teach their children what faith is all about, you would see a version of that question all over. Luther used the Apostle’s Creed, the 10 commandments, and the Lord’s prayer as tools to show everyone why Jesus matters. Now, if you grew up Lutheran, hearing that question might make you a bit uncomfortable. Because for generations, we traumatized 13 year olds at the end of their Confirmation programs by making them stand in front of the entire congregation and recite, from memory, Luther’s answers to that question. In the Confirmation program I teach, I no longer make kids do that. But we do spend a lot of time with the question: what does this mean? In fact, that’s pretty much the standard question we all ask whenever we are face-to-face with the Bible and with Jesus. When we discover terms, ideas, or stories that confuse us, that question helps us to find meaning in the things we don’t understand. But the search for meaning is more than a search for understanding. We also want to make this encounter with faith useful for our everyday life. That usefulness can be as simple as finding a moral argument we can use in our decision making or, when we’re confronted by a text that makes us a uncomfortable, we might want to find way to explain it away so we can ignore it. In the words of Diane Jacobson, we sometimes approach the bible, looking to “...[boil it] down to its core essentials.” We want every verse to have a obvious meaning, every paragraph to be a statement of faith, and every story about Jesus condensable into 140 characters or less. If we can strip down faith, we can then insert that faith into the things we already do, think, and feel. The question, “what does this mean?” is one of the ways we try to turn an encounter with faith into an actual faith that’s lived out in our lives.

But that question doesn’t show up only in our encounter with the Bible. Because how many times have you starred in the mirror, looking at your current life, and wonder, “what does this mean?” How many times have you reflected on your family, your community, and maybe the entire world and found yourself praying, “what does this mean?” Our search for meaning isn’t limited to only our engagement with the Bible. Our search for meaning shows up in every moment of our lives. When we have a chance to catch our breath while living through a whirlwind of joy, despair, tears, and sorrow - “what does this mean?” is the right question. It’s a faithful question and one I believe God wants us to ask. But the simple, quick, and easy answer we want might not be the actual answer God’s telling us to hold on to.

In our reading today from the gospel according to Luke, “what does this mean?” is a question the people around Jesus knew very well. We find ourselves dropped into the climax of a conversation Jesus began in chapter 12 while surrounded by a crowd of thousands. Jesus switched back and forth between talking to his disciples and to the crowd. He told those who followed him to be ready; to live confidently, trusting God, and encouraging them to remain faithful to what God was already doing. But that faithfulness wasn’t a call to wait and see what God was up to. Rather, since Jesus was with them, God had already made the first move. Everyone was invited to participate in what was already happening. People were being fed; the sick were being healed; the demons that drove people apart were being casted out; and those society chose to ignore were being seen, noticed, and restored to the community by Jesus himself. God was literally on the move and they were told to join in. The answer to the question of “what does this mean” when Jesus showed up was to get behind him so that God could take you where God knew you needed to go.

Now, it’s at that moment when some in the crowd asked Jesus a “what does this mean” question of their own. They had watched the government brutally murder a group of people who had gathered for worship and they knew of a building disaster in Jerusalem that had killed 18 people. Neither of those groups had the opportunity to jump on board with what God was currently doing. The crowd wanted to know what does it mean since they missed Jesus. Did they die because they were worse than others? Was their suffering, pain, and sorrow caused by their sin and does God, somehow, love them less? Jesus answered: no. Violence, pain, suffering, and the things we don’t understand are not a sign that God loves us less. Nor are those kinds of experiences an example of God abandoning us in our hour of need. I honestly believe God’s heart breaks everytime ours does and we have a Jesus who knows exactly what it’s like to weep. Jesus’ divinity does not overwrite his humanity and his love for us cannot be overwritten by our brokenness, sorrow, or sin.

Yet we will not always receive a simple, clear, or exact answer to the question, “what does this mean?” Pilate, the Roman governor, was wrapped up in an ideology and way of life that had no problem killing those who didn’t believe, act, or serve Rome like he did. His behavior seems like something we might understand or, at least, see other examples of in the world around us. But when the tower of Siloam collapsed...that’s just what it did.   We would like to know what it all means. We would like to know how we can take reality, mix in a little faith, and come out on the other side with an answer protecting us from what comes next. Yet the reality of our being alive means that we also need to come to grips with the mystery of meaning and the uncertainty of not knowing. And that kind of uncertainty is at the heart of parable Jesus used about the fig tree and the gardener.

In the words of Eric D. Barreto, “Many of Jesus’ stories leave us with uncertainty…. we do not know if manure and a gardener’s touch ends up making any difference whatsoever. Does the gardener just delay the inevitable? Does the gardener hold off for one year the fig tree’s destiny of serving as compost for another, more productive tree?” Jesus’ parable ended before it could reach any kind of resolution. We are left with that tree, in the uncertainty of “one more year.” We find given the opportunity to notice what God is doing while realizing the urgency of what such a call truly means. Following Jesus isn’t something we’re asked to do tomorrow. Following Jesus is something we get to do today. In your baptism and in your faith, you are wrapped up by Jesus who isn’t waiting for you to be perfect before he called you to follow him. Instead, he came to you as you are so that you, through Him, can become exactly who God knows you can be. But, if we’re honest, we’re not always sure exactly what that means. A life with faith is a life that will sometimes be uncertain. A life with faith is a life that’s often doubting. A life with faith is a life that will often ask “what does this mean?” Yet, even when we don’t know the answer and we’re at a loss of what to do next - that doesn’t mean we’re alone or that God loves us less. When we find ourselves not being able to see the way forward, that’s when we’re called to get behind Jesus, because he’s already leading the way.

 

Amen.

 



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Happy: The Pastor's Message for the April 2019 Messenger

When was the last time someone asked you what you wanted to be when you grow up? When I was little, I told everyone I wanted to be a paleontologist. Well, I probably said “dino bone hunter” when I was two or three, but for years all I wanted to do was search for dinosaur bones on a dusty mountain range. As I grew up, my answer to that question changed. I wanted to be a scientist, then an engineer, and biophysicist. By the time I graduated from college, all I wanted was a job that would pay me a living wage. Now that I have young kids, I realize how odd that question is. We train our kids and ourselves to respond by telling grownups what job we want to do. But what we do isn’t the limit to who we are. Imagine if we answered that question differently. What if we said, “I want to be good,” or “I want to serve the world.” Or what if anytime someone asked that, we responded with, “I want to just keep following Jesus.” As Christians, our jobs are only a part of the way we serve God.

Kari van Wakeren, Pastor of First Lutheran Church in Alexandria, Minnesota, recently wrote about what she wants for her kids. Like many parents, she wants her kids to be happy and healthy. But what does it mean to want that? She writes: As I considered this question, three things came to mind. I want my kids to grow up knowing: 1. God made them special. 2. They can do hard things. 3. They are not alone. With these three truths under their belt, I hope they will be able to weather life’s storms and make a positive impact in the world. But passing on these truths isn’t a once-and-done thing. Even knowing my desires for my kids doesn’t stop me from trying to shield them from adversity. In those moments, I need to remind myself that my goal for them isn’t happiness, but rather resilience, fulfillment and a quiet confidence, knowing their identity in Christ.

Growing into our identity in Christ isn’t easy for any of us, no matter how old we are. As van Wakeren writes, Jesus never promised that our lives would be easy or that we would always be happy. But God did send us the Spirit to remind us that we aren’t alone and, in Christ, we can do hard—and great—things. Easter is a perfect time for us to remember that, when it comes to Christ, we don’t have to grow into him. Rather, we already have him. And we now have the opportunity to become more Christ-like than we ever were before.

See you in church!
Pastor Marc



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Reflection: A Spiritual Home

Jerusalem is a major character in the gospel according to Luke. In fact, in the two volume work (Luke-Acts), Jerusalem is mentioned 90 times. That's an amazing number considering that the rest of the Christian New Testament only mentioned Jerusalem 50 times. Today's text (Luke 13:31-35) is in the middle of Jesus' journey to the city, a journey that dominates the last half of the gospel. So it makes sense to wonder why Jerusalem mattered so much to Luke. Beyond its significance as the city where Jesus died, why did Luke spend so much energy involving the city in Jesus' wider story? We have no real evidence if Luke ever lived in the city, and I get the sense that, based on the introduction to the gospel itself, that Luke wrote this text for a person who would have viewed Jerusalem as a city that couldn't compete with the more modern (and more Roman) cities in the area. We also know that Jesus wasn't born in the city nor did he grow up there. But his life seemed to circle around the city. At eight days old, he was presented at the Temple. When he was 12, he was caught teaching elders in the Temple. And when he was resurrected, he met his followers in a room in the city. If we look at the entire expanse of scripture, we can see why the city mattered. But, on a personal level, why did the city matter so much to people who didn't live there?

It's possible Jesus knew Jerusalem to be his spiritual home. A spiritual home isn't necessarily the place we live in. Instead a spiritual home is, in the words of James Burns, "a centering force in my life." Jerusalem always weaved in and out of Jesus' story. He not only knew of the city because of its prominent place in scripture but the outline of its Temple was mimicked and copied in the synagogues he preached in. Jerusalem held a special place over his life and, as we heard at Transfiguration, "all of his life was pointing to the Holy City." When Jesus turned toward Jerusalem, he was heading towards the place that shaped his life, regardless of the amount of time he actually spent there.

I imagine we all, to some degree, have our spiritual homes. They could be the homes of grandparents that we spent time in during the holidays or our first apartment once we left home. They are the places that inform how we live and move through our lives. Even if we haven't seen our spiritual home for decades, it still impacts our life and informs the decisions we make. Luke, I think, recognized that Jesus was drawn to Jerusalem in a way that was deeply personal. Jesus was doing more than visiting a holy city; he was going home.



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Join In: Communion and Citizenship

Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.

Philippians 3:17-4:1

Pastor Marc's sermon for the 2nd Sunday in Lent (March 17, 2019) on Philippians 3:17-4:1. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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Everything we do on Sunday morning had to be invented. The type of prayers we say, the kind of music we sing, and the special vestments I wear - all of it comes from somewhere. Some items are pretty easy to explain, like my alb, the robe that I wear. It’s colored white as a reminder of our baptism and it resembles the kind of basic, everyday clothing, that people actually wore in the Roman world 2000 years ago. But not everything we do on Sundays is so easy to explain or so old. In the mid 1890s, the New York Times and other newspapers reported on a new trend in holy communion that had gone viral. Some of the more “hip” churches in Brooklyn were starting to use, for the very first time, individual communion cups. This trend was so compelling that reporters went to church to see how the people would react. Yet the energy behind this new movement in communion didn’t come from theology or some rediscovery of an ancient church practice. No, individual communion cups were all the rage because by the 1890s, the world had finally discovered germs.

Now, it’s sort of amazing to imagine a time when we didn’t know about germs. Pretty much every cleaning item today brags about how many viruses and bacteria it can kill. But before the 1870s, germ theory and the dangers of microorganisms were not widely accepted. Yet as the science matured, people discovered how diseases could be transferred from person to person and how hygiene mattered. Hospitals began, for the first time, sterilizing their equipment and cities worked on the problem of sanitation. Dozens of new scientific journals dedicated to the wonders of hygiene started being published. And as indoor plumbing started to become more widespread, taking baths more than once a month became part of our cultural standard. A certain kind of cleanliness, once reserved for the very rich, was now available to many people, including the new “middle class.” It wasn’t enough to just own a large house. Your home, your body, and your entire life needed to be cared for, maintained, and “cleaned.” In other words, you needed to match society’s new definition of what was hygienic and everything that didn’t match this new spirit of “clean” was pushed away.

Entrepreneurs, caught up in this moment in history, noticed how all kinds of people drank out of the same cup when sharing holy communion. A new technology needed to be invented to bring the spirit of hygiene to the practice of holy communion. Many different people, all at the same time, filed patents for individual communion glasses as a way to combat the supposed scourge of unhygienic holy communion. By the time individual communion cups finally reached New York City, the buzz had been brewing for so long that a Brooklyn church advertising their use was standing room only on Sunday mornings. Soon after, religious newspapers and theological journals were full of letters and articles debating the new practice. Some challenged it on theological grounds while others advocated for the individual cups as a way to make Sunday morning as clean as Jesus wanted it to be. The debate over individual communion glasses lasted decades with the question of hygiene dominating every argument. Science, not theology, was now the go-to for the how-to of holy communion.

Yet in the dozens of articles, letters, and minutes from Lutheran churches who argued about this issue that I’ve read, it seems that the idea of hygiene rather than any scientific evidence was the real driving force behind the debate. Rarely did anyone show bacteria growing on chalices or give evidence showing how one communion cup spread some infectious disease. Instead, that conclusion was assumed to be true. Communion chalices had to be, according to advocates for the new practice, covered in germs. But that wasn’t the chalice’s fault. Rather, the real problem was the kind of people who drank from that chalice. And if you weren’t careful, the wrong kind of people would have touched that cup before you and they would make you sick.

Over and over again, early advocates for individual communion cups moved from a general statement about hygiene to detailed arguments designed to make you afraid. They weren’t worried about people who dressed like you, looked like you, or lived in the same economic class as you. Instead, they were concerned about that other person who happened to be kneeling next to you at the communion rail. And since the authors couldn’t use science to diagnosis that fictional person, they vilified them instead. Using every ethnic, racial, and economic dog whistle they could, the authors of these writings tried to frighten so-called “respectable people” from being contaminated by what the “other” might have touched. Actual science and facts didn’t matter. Consciously or unconsciously, the early advocates for the individual communion glasses gave in to, and promoted, fear. It wasn’t germs they were worried about. Rather, they were concerned about who God might want them to share communion with. They had no problem communing with someone who fit into their ‘clean’ world but if someone didn’t dress like them, talk like them, shop in the same places like them, live in the same economic class as them, or look like them, then holy communion was literally off the table. Their claim as citizens of their so-called hygienic world was only available to a select few and that opportunity for citizenship was denied to anyone who they didn’t already pre-approve.

Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, made a claim about citizenship that’s almost easy to miss. He was, as he wrote this letter, probably in prison writing to one of the many church communities he founded. That community, like all early church communities, struggled in the face of persecution, challenge, and internal conflict. Paul wanted to offer the two dozen or so followers of Jesus in Philippi some hope. The community there was surrounded by thousands of people who didn’t believe. Many of these early followers of Jesus probably didn’t grow up Jewish and they came from a variety of social and ethnic backgrounds. A few were probably even slaves. We can assume that a sizable portion of the church in Philippi were not Roman citizens and that they never expected to be granted that status. It wasn’t easy for them to keep the faith since so many other people were against them. So Paul wrote to strengthen them, encourage them, and remind them whose they are. No matter where they came from, what they used to believe, what language they spoke, what status they had, or what their personal hygiene actually was - they, because of the gift of faith and the gift of their baptism, belonged to God. Their citizenship in God’s kingdom, as they were, was already secure. Even in the midst of fear, terror, and conflict, they were Christ’s and Christ was already there’s. By standing firm in the Lord, they could live into a hope that would transform them into something brand new. They were no longer merely what they once were or limited by what the citizenship of the world could offer them. They were citizens of God’s eternal kingdom and that, to Paul, changed everything.

But that citizenship isn’t a citizenship that’s only to come. Rather, for all who follow Jesus, that citizenship is here, right now. Jesus’ own ministry was a sign of God’s kingdom come near and as citizens of God’s kingdom, our very lives are called to do the same. We are rooted in an identity that will not let he worlds we create for ourselves hold us back from fully embracing the diverse world that God not only created but, through Christ, God truly loved. We are called to dismantle, uproot, and undo any  worldview that aims to do the opposite of what Jesus did. We are not here to deny citizenship of others; rather, we are called to live as if our citizenship actually matters. In the face of hate, evil, extremism, violence, and the very small worlds that we too, try to create and maintain, we are reminded that we are, first and foremost, citizens of heaven. And as citizens of heaven, the only thing we can do is to be like Jesus and that means, no matter the cost, we’re here to just love.

 

Amen.

 



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Temptation Island: The Devil (Sermon Manuscript)

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.​

Luke 4:1-13

Pastor Marc's sermon for the 1st Sunday in Lent (March 10, 2019) on Luke 4:1-13. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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One of my favorite comic strips growing was Calvin and Hobbes. The strip showed the vivids adventures of six year old Calvin and his stuffed tiger, Hobbes. Hobbes, of course, was more than stuffed. He was, to Calvin and to the rest of us, fully alive. Hobbes embraced his tiger identity and had an approach towards life that was entirely his own. One of my favorite scenes has the two of them in the middle of a creek, jumping from one rock to the next. While in mid-jump, Calvin asked Hobbes if he believed in the devil, “you know, a supreme evil being dedicated to the temptation, corruption, and destruction of humankind?” Hobbes, without even thinking, jumped to a new rock and said, “I’m not sure people need the help.” Calvin then looked at us, saying “you just can’t talk to animals about these things.” And he’s probably right. We can’t really talk to animals about the devil. But we can, I think, talk about the devil and the nature of evil with each other. When we imagine the devil, we might think of some creature wearing an all red jumpsuit, holding a pitchfork, and who’s surrounded by fire. Or, we might view the devil as something a bit more abstract, like some kind of spirit we can’t fully describe. We might experience the devil as a kind of spiritual force or we might even have seen that force personified in the people closests to us. For every fan rooting for the New Jersey Devils while they play hockey in Newark, there’s another person whose experience an evil that feels as if it must have some from somewhere. When it comes to the spiritual questions I’m most often asked about, the problem of evil and the devil comes up a lot. And today, on this first Sunday in Lent, the gospel of Luke introduces us to a devil who tried to tempt Jesus in the wilderness.

Now, it’s important to remember what happened right before today’s scene from the gospel according to Luke. Jesus went to see what his cousin, John the Baptist, was doing in the wilderness. It was there, in the untamed places, where John told large crowds to share, to love, and to serve one another. John invited even tax collectors to collect only what was owed and ordered soldiers to not extort those they’re suppose to defend. John said a lot while out in the wilderness. And also baptized a bunch of people too. It was after his baptism when Jesus heard the voice of God identify him as the beloved, as the one in whom God was well pleased. In fact, God was so well pleased with Jesus that the Holy Spirit immediately sent him out into a different, and even more menencing, kind of wilderness. But before we get to that wilderness, in the few verses between Jesus’ baptism and Jesus’ temptation that we don’t read on Sunday mornings, Luke went shared one of Jesus’ genealogies. Starting with Joseph, Jesus’ earthly dad, Luke connected him back through history to king David, Isaac, Abraham, Methuselah, and even Adam. For Luke, Jesus’ identity as the Son of God wasn’t only affirmed by the story of Christmas. Jesus’ identity, as the Messiah, was part of the history of God being active, and present, in the world. Jesus, according to Luke, knew who he was. But he might not have known, exactly, how his identity as the Son of God was going to be lived out. So it’s during this in-between time, in the space between baptism and how he started his ministry with a sermon in his hometown of Nazareth, when the devil shows up.

The text doesn’t tell us much about the devil, at least what the devil looked like. We don’t hear if the devil has a forked tongue, hooves for feet, or is busy holding a hockey stick. Instead, Luke focused on what the devil said. And if you pay attention to the words, you realize the devil never really challenged who Jesus was. The “ifs” in verse 3 and 9 aren’t really meant to be questions; they’re really statements affirming that, since Jesus is the Son of God, he could turn stones into bread and he could tempt God to protect him. The devil doesn’t confront Jesus’ identity as God’s beloved directly, preferring to test and corrupt how Jesus will chose to live his identity out loud. And that’s why the second temptation is so insidious. It’s not the type of power the devil offered that’s scary; rather, it’s the scope of it. The devil used Jesus’ own sense of purpose and his mission to love and change the world, against him. Jesus wanted all people to discover what it’s like when God’s kingdom was near. And so the devil offered Jesus what seemed like the easiest, most painless, and quickest way to do it.

Yet that 2nd temptation shows us who, and what, the devil really is. Because what devil truly offers to Jesus is a lie and Jesus knows it. If we take seriously the whole scope of scripture, from Genesis through Daniel and even including the book of Revelation, we discover that the devil is offering a promise they can’t back up. Because when it comes to God’s Creation, it’s God, not the devil, who has ultimate authority. Whatever authority the devil thinks they have, it’s at the best temporary and one that they can’t wield or use or give out like they think they should. The devil, for Luke, is less a creature and, instead, is really a lie. It’s the lie that tries to convince you of your unworthiness. It’s the lie that tries to claim an authority over you that it doesn’t really have. It’s the lie that, by targeting your hopes and dreams, aims to shrink who you know yourself to be. “The devil,” in the words of one commentator, Professor Karoline Lewis, “does not question who Jesus is, but tries to get Jesus to question who he is.” The lie the devil offered comes when we are at our most vulnerable to try and convince us that we are not who God knows us to be. The devil, at least in Luke, tried to convince Jesus to question his own identity. Jesus, as we see, didn’t fall of it. But we, I’m sure, often do.

We don’t always remember that, because of your baptism and your faith, you’ve already been claimed as God’s own. God, in a very public way, anointed you as God’s beloved child. It wasn’t because you were perfect or lovely or always said the right things that God chose you. No, God made you God’s own because that’s just what God does. And because you are God’s beloved, a huge part of your identity is about being a child of God. Yet I know owning that identity is sometimes easier said than done. There are plenty of ways we lie to ourselves to say that’s not true. And there are people around us who try to further that lie by diminishing the fact that we are loved. It’s not always difficult to see the lie that’s around us but it’s sometimes difficult to chose to do something about it. Yet doing something about it might be what God wants for us during these next five weeks of Lent. Professor Karoline Lewis wrote, “perhaps a Lenten discipline this time around could be naming those persons and things who think they have you all figured out, who want you to be someone you are not, whose only true interest in you is how you might benefit them -- and maybe giving up those persons and things for the next five weeks...” Jesus, in the wilderness, knew who he was. And maybe this Lent, we can re-learn who we are too. You are, right now, a beloved child of God. And your life is different because of it.

 

Amen.

 



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Disrupt Lent (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 for Ash Wednesday (March 6, 2019) on Matthew 6:1-6,16-21. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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One of the most trendy and completely overused terms in business is “disruptive innovation.” It was originally coined in 1995 to describe the kind of technology that subverts an existing industry and eventually replaces it. For example, the first cars in the late 19th century were amazingly innovative but they didn’t replace the horse and buggy market because cars were really expensive. But once Ford started to mass produce cars with the innovation of the assembly line, the horse and buggy went the way of, well, the horse and buggy. Since the late 1990s, tons of startup companies and inventors have tried to make a lot of money with so-called “innovations” that “disrupt” the market. Sometimes, it worked. Uber and Lyft, the ride-hailing companies, really did disrupt and subvert the taxi industry. But other “innovations” really didn’t. A few months ago, a company wanted to put fancy vending machines filled with deodorant, laundry detergent, ramen noodles, and basically everything you find at a neighborhood store or a bodega - in apartment buildings. At the time, they seemed like they wanted to “disrupt the bodega” which is an industry that, as someone who relied on them while living in NYC, doesn’t really need much disrupting. Some churches, also, want to find some kind of “disruptive innovation” that would reinvigorate what the Christian faith is all about. We want to “disrupt church” and make it more meaningful in the lives of those around us. I saw an attempt at this recently when the actor Chris Pratt, from Guardians of the Galaxy, posted online about something he tried. He shared with all his fans about his experience with the “Daniel Fast” which is based on a handful of verses from the book of Daniel. The Daniel Fast usually takes place in January and is supposed to grow your faith and your sense of well-being by encouraging you to eat less, pray more, and work on your connection to Jesus Christ. It’s a movement that’s been around for a few years and it even has its own website, how-to-guide, and devotional book. Yet, it basically sounds like a program reinviting what we believe Lent is all about. And instead of spending 40 days (46 if you include Sundays) on Lent, the Daniel Fast let’s you do all similar things in only half the time. In the words of a friend, the Daniel Fast is an attempt to “disrupt Lent.” And it’s not the only one. A colleague reported seeing a similar kind of devotional book for Christians who don’t practice Lent to use in the 21 days leading up to Easter. There’s a desire, by some, to repackage this season of the church year, turning it into a program that will give us the results we want. We fast to make ourselves slimmer, we read some bible verses out of context so that we can feel more spiritual, and we do it all 21 days because 40 is too long for our attention span. But when we disrupt Lent, we actually end up doing the opposite of what Lent is all about. Lent isn’t about doing more, trying to aim for something we can get; Lent is about rooting ourselves in a season to discover what we already have.

Tonight’s reading from the gospel according to Matthew is the middle part of Jesus’ sermon that Matthew uses to frame everything that comes next. In a sense, Jesus is upfront about how his life, his teachings, and how his death will disrupt the expectations we all have. He started the sermon in chapter 5 with the beatitudes, the verses about “blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn,” and blessed are those who we don’t see as being blessed. Jesus inverts our expectations, showing us how we can have a different kind of life once we re-discover who God is and who we really are. And that experience isn’t always easy and doesn’t, necessarily, make us comfortable. Tonight’s verses from Matthew chapter 6 asks us to spend time realizing what we want and what we expect. In Jesus’ day, the wider community understood the world in terms of honor and shame. The relationships people had with one another were rooted in a sense of what you could get from someone and what you could give. There was an entire system of patronage, of using what you could give and what you could get as a way of building personal loyalties and personal brands that the entire community chose to embrace. Being seen while in prayer was important. Being known as someone who gave generously mattered. Having other people watch you do your faith out loud was part of what society was about. If you weren’t being seen, then it was as if it didn’t happen. And if no one knew it happened, why do it in the first place?

That, I think, is why Jesus moves to treasure at the end of tonight’s reading. Treasure isn’t only limited to gold, silver, and how well our investments in the stock market are doing. Our treasure is also those things, experiences, and realities that we choose to keep. They’re what we work hard to cultivate and what we choose pay attention to. Your treasure is what you chose to tend. And what we tend, in the end, reveals who we are.

That kind of revelation takes time to discover because we have to be honest about what we’re trying to get and also what we try to give. Are we generous with our neighbors? Are we willing to give ourselves grace? Are we intentional with our faith or do we just sort of go with the flow? What do we put our trust in? And do we only care about what we get? None of these questions are easy but they’re not meant to be. Because the season of Lent is a season designed to disrupt us just like Jesus disrupts our expectations of what faith, life, and love are all about. These next forty days and six Sundays are an invitation to take ourselves, our lives, and our faith seriously.

And we choose to start this process with a little bit of ash, mixed with olive oil, on our foreheads. Most of us don’t usually wear a lot of ash. Yet tonight, the ashen cross will disrupts what we normally do. The next time we look in a mirror, we don’t see who we usually expect to see. Instead, we will re-discover what was first given to us. The ashen cross, like some kind of divine blacklight, reveals what we have: and that’s Jesus. In your baptism, you were marked on the forehead with the sign of the cross and sealed with the entirety of Jesus’ story. You were given a new life that doesn’t let your limitations or expectations be the end to your story. In the Cross, we discovered how far God goes to show each of how much we’re loved. And it’s that kind of love which has the power to turn what we get into what we can give. In Jesus, the world was disrupted. In Jesus, our old way of living has been replaced. We are not the sum of our expectations. We’ve been loved by too hard and too much let ourselves be the only ones that define our story. When we Lent, when we cling to God, and when we follow Jesus to wherever Jesus takes us, we end up tending to a new reality where you, me, and the entire world end up being as treasured as God knows we should be.

 

Amen.

 



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Reflection: Arriving

Today's reading from Deuteronomy 26:1-11 is one of the centerpieces of the Haggadah, the Jewish text that sets the order for the Passover meal. While those gathered around the table re-tell the story of the Exodus, they make a confession to each other and to God as laid out in verses 5 through 8. They admit how they were part of a wandering community that was enslaved by the Egyptians. They testify how God saved them. They affirm that their relationship to God isn't only tied to the fact they were born into the family of Jacob. Their God is their God because God freed them from slavery. What's amazing about this text is that the pronouns here ("you") are singular. These words are meant to be spoken by individuals. It's not the community that's saying "a wandering Aramean was my ancestor;" I'm the one asked to say that. God wants each person to remember their history and, through the act of remembering, realize how God is currently doing the same for them. The God that loved them in the past is the same God who loves them now. And the God who loves them now is inviting them into a new future where God's love becomes what primarily defines them.


A Jewish colleague of mine described this passage as a text about "arriving." It's about remembering where you've come from and pointing to where you're going. When we remember our faith stories, we're doing more than looking at things that happened in the past. Instead, we're re-participating in the ongoing story of how our God makes a difference in our lives right now. The stories in the Bible point us to that realization. It's not enough to read scripture; we need to also make scripture our own. We do that by paying attention to those moments in our lives when God shows up. Your faith is your own and your faith is a gift. It, through Jesus, is already yours. Yet we also have the responsibility to make that faith a true part of who we are. We need to first tell ourselves and then tell others about how God has made a difference to us. And when we start doing that, we start arriving in the place God wants us to be.



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Reflection: Light Shine

When was the last time you put on a face mask? Face masks (or facials masks) are one of the quintessential skin-care products that, in theory, transform your face. They are thin sheets covered in oils or a creamy paste you slather over your face. After leaving it on for a few minutes (or overnight), you peel it off to reveal a re-invigorated you. The mask (in theory) cleans your pores, removes wrinkles, moisturizes, firms up the muscles in your face, and makes you look years younger. The Face Shop, a beauty manufacture based in South Korea, sells dozens of face masks based on natural products. You can buy a mask infused with kelp, olives, cucumbers, blueberries, potato, rice, bamboo, and honey. If you use it correctly and often, the face mask is supposed to make you look healthier and younger. In other words, after you wear these masks, your face will shine.

One part of Moses' story (Exodus 34:29-35) we don't always teach in Sunday School is about what happened to Moses when he encountered God. We tend to focus on his message, the commandments, and the golden calf but we ignore how Moses changed. Moses, while talking to God, did more than receive divine ideas to pass on to the people. According to Exodus, each encounter with God changed Moses himself. After meeting God, Moses' face shined. In fact, he glowed so much, he veiled himself when he talked to other people. When Moses walked back down the mountain to talk to the community, the divine light went with him. It lingered on his face, reflecting through Moses and into the community that was all around him.

As baptized followers of Jesus, we carry that divine light with us at all times. When we were baptized, a thin cross of olive oil was gently placed on our forehead. We were sealed with a sign of the Cross and that oil, lingering on our forehead, shimmered in the light. Even though the oil eventually wore off, the Cross never will. That seal was the ultimate face mask, a sign that God, through the community, has claimed us as God's own. Regardless of our later choices and doubts, God never stops loving us because God, through Jesus, has placed his light on us. We are bearers of God's light into the world. We are always carrying the Cross of Christ with us. We are the beloved. The people around us might not always see how our face shines but we can, through our actions, act like it does. We can let our light shine - because that light will never end.



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Go Down: Being Here (Sermon Manuscript)

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud.Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father.

And all were astounded at the greatness of God. 

Luke 9:28-43

Pastor Marc's sermon for Transfiguration Sunday (March 3, 2019) on Luke 9:28-43. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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“It’s good for us to be here.”

Now that’s something we don’t say as much as we should. If you flip through our church bulletin, those words appear nowhere else expect in our reading from the gospel according to Luke. It’s not difficult for us, as a church, to say we’re glad you’re here. But we rarely say it’s good for us to be here too. We tend to, I think, assume that’s one of those things that goes without saying. If we didn’t think coming to church was a good thing, we wouldn’t be here in the first place. So whether we arrived today 20 minutes before worship started or if walked in mid-way through the first song, once we come together to spend some intentional time with Jesus, we do church as quickly as we can. We pray, we sing, we read scripture, and then we take a moment to have a little something to eat. We do church without taking a moment to pause and reflect on what being here actually means. It really is good for us to be here. And I’d like us to take a few seconds to let that reality sink in.

(Take a long pause)

Now, me saying that it’s good to be here and you really sensing that are two separate things. We might find ourselves not really connecting to “that good” as much as we think we should. The wider church has, over the years, acted as if coming to church should be easy and that ease is a sign of how good church can be. But that’s not always the case. Just because something’s easy doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good. What’s good is to be part of a community that God has already created for us. Yet being in that community, especially during worship, might not always be easy. For example, we might find ourselves spending all of worship completely exhausted because our kids are, well, young. Our hands spend more time searching for snacks, handing out crayons, picking up toys, and escorting kids back and forth from the narthex than they ever do holding an actual bulletin. We’re lucky, on most Sundays, to hear every fourth or fifth word. And that might make us feel as if we’re too worn out to respond to anything Jesus just said. Yet, even then, it’s good for you and your family to be here. It might not feel like it. And I know nothing about it is easy. But when we, as we are, hang out in the places Jesus promises to be, we end up experiencing the good that sustains every one of our moments.

Now Peter, who saw Jesus lit up like some human version of Times Square, almost missed the whole thing. As we hear in today’s text, Peter was exhausted. Scripture says that he, and the others, were weighed down with sleep. Which, to me, means his entire body, from his eyelids to his back, arms, and legs, were completely tuckered out. For several years, he had traveled with Jesus all over Northern Israel. He saw Jesus’ miraculous healings and he struggled with Jesus’ teachings that challenged his point of view. Peter wasn’t just physically tired but I imagine he was also emotionally, spiritually, and mentally exhausted as well. He needed time to reflect, process, and understand what he was going through. I wouldn’t be surprised if Peter, with his eyes closed in prayer on that mountain-top, ended up zonking out for a minute or two. Yet he managed to stay up. And while Jesus prayed, Peter saw Jesus changed. Not only did Jesus’ clothes turn a dazzling white; his face changed too. Jesus no longer looked exactly like he did before. Yet Peter, James, and John knew Jesus was exactly who he’d always been. After Jesus was joined by Moses and Elijah, who talked with him about the dangers of the journey ahead, Peter chose to break the silence. Tired, worn out, and with his body full of adrenaline after seeing something he didn’t expect, Peter struggled to put words to what he was experiencing. He stated, quite bodly, that it was good for them to be there. But Peter couldn’t stop; he needed to do something. Instead of just sitting there with the experience, he rushed to the next thing. The three dwellings he wanted to build would not only mark the spot where they experienced God, but they would also be places where the experience could be captured, housed, and visited again in the future. I imagine Peter, knowing full well how tired he was, wanted to trap Jesus in that place so, after a nice long nap, Peter could return to the experience, giving it the honor and respect it truly deserved. He knew he was only hearing every fourth or fifth word and he believed his response to God needed more. So God chose to respond to him, covering them all in a cloud, and telling Peter, James, and John to settle down and listen.

What’s interesting about this story, though, is what didn’t happen on the mountain-top. Luke doesn’t tell us if Jesus responded to Peter or not. Instead, Peter’s desire to rush to the next thing is met by God’s command to pause and listen. Peter knew it was good for them to be there. But not every experience of the divine is an invitation for us to do something. There are moments when God just shows up, letting us know we’re not alone. And those kinds of moments don’t ask us to make a decision, or take an action, or to be anything but ourselves. All God asks for us is for each of us to notice what God is already doing. Even when we are tired, even when we are exhausted, even when coming to church is hard because of where we are in our life or because of things the church has done to us, when we gather together to spend time with Jesus, it really is good for us to be here. Because when we’re here, Jesus is here, and he feeds us in the very ordinary and the very extraordinary experience of words and scripture, bread and blood. These gifts are not designed to only transfigure us into something brand new on Sunday morning. Rather, these gifts are here to sustain us so that we, during every minute of every day, can listen to Jesus’ voice. Peter’s experience of Jesus wasn’t meant to stay confined to that mountain top. Because Jesus was already heading down into the valley and into the reality of our everyday lives. It is good for you to be here, in this place where the experience of Jesus doesn’t depend on how you feel or what you think or what you’re able to pay attention to. Instead, Jesus is here because he has promised to be. And that promise makes a difference not only in this moment; but in all our moments yet to come.

Amen.

 



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Just Breathe: The Pastor's Message for the March 2019 Messenger

When was the last time you just breathed?

Breathing is essential to life and, at the same time, is something we don't think about very much. The last time we might have even noticed we were breathing was when, during a crisis, we couldn't. Breathing is something we, as human beings, just do. On average, a person at rest takes about 16 breaths per minute. An article from the Herald Tribune calculated that, on average, "a person at rest takes about 16 breaths per minute. This means we breathe about 960 breaths an hour, 23,040 breaths a day and 8,409,600 a year unless we get a lot of exercise. The person who lives to 80 will take about 672,768,000 breaths in a lifetime." That's a lot of actions we take that we don't pay attention to.

One of the blessings we’ve received, I think, from the rising popularity of meditation, yoga and other practices is that we're spending a lot more time noticing our breathing. During moments of silence, we feel the air entering and leaving our chest. When our kids get angry, we teach them to take a deep breath. And when we're holding a pose, we remind ourselves not to hold our breath. When we pay attention to our breathing, we're paying attention to life. One simple breath can help us slow down and notice what's essential in our life. And paying attention to the essential is what Lent is all about.

Starting on Ash Wednesday (March 6), we will spend 40 days with the essential Jesus. Through prayer, fasting and regular worship, we can discover who Jesus is for us. We'll breath in Jesus and, in the process, discover the life with God that is meant to fill our lungs. Lent is when we are invited into a deeper faith that forms a closer connection to God. In the words of Rev. David Hansen, Pastor of Spirit of Joy! Lutheran Church, “Lent is a season for changing your life, turning things around, for getting back on the right path.” This Lent, just breathe and discover your God.

See you in church!
Pastor Marc



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