Questions and Reflections

April 2019

Amazed: Entering the Story (Sermon Manuscript)

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.’ Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

Luke 24:1-12

Pastor Marc's sermon on Easter Sunday (April 21, 2019) on Luke 24:1-12. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


One of the joys about being a parent of three small kids is that I get to spend a lot time with the middle of the night. I’m there when someone’s a little fussy, a little sick, or when they’ve decided that 3 am in the morning is the right time to start their day. Now that phrase, the middle of the night, can be used many different ways. We use it to describe those moments when we’ve stayed up way past our bedtime or when we’re talking about what we saw, felt, and experienced while working on the graveyard shift. The middle of the night tends to be exactly that - a time designation used to identify when something happened. But that’s not the middle of the night I know. When you’re awake when you don’t want to be, time stops being time - and instead the middle of the night becomes a character in your own story. It usually has its own look - maybe gloomy, dark, and damp - and it comes with its own sounds - like a single car driving down street or the creak of the floor as you walk across it. The middle of the night comes with its own thoughts - including moments of inspiration, an opportunity to re-experience old embarrassments, and time to focus on our current anxieties. That kind of night is more than just a moment in time. It’s a presence that we meet when we can’t sleep or when our 3 month old just has to get up.

I have no idea if the women who followed Jesus slept those first few nights after he died. Scripture doesn’t go into detail about what they felt, thought, or experienced. Instead, we’re given this space - this gap in the story - that invites us, I think, to use our imagination. Whenever we come across a moment in the Bible that could use a little more detail, that’s God inviting us to use the gift of our imagination to put ourselves into the story. But to do that faithfully, we need to remember the parts of the Bible around that gap. We need to remember what happened before the first day of the week.

Now, over the last week, we’ve spent time listening to Jesus’ final journey into Jerusalem. We heard about his arrest, trial, and his eventual execution. But Luke also gave us one verse letting us know that when Jesus was on the Cross, the women who followed him, stayed. They kept their distance - but they were close enough to see his final moments and to know where his body was laid. The women kept watch while the rest of the disciples, including Peter, James, and Thomas - scattered. Those men who followed Jesus didn’t see the rest of the story and Luke doesn’t tell us when they finally learned that Jesus had died. But I think we can assume that, once they saw Jesus arrested and handed over to the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, they knew how Jesus’ story would turn out. The Roman authorities would never tolerate anyone who gave others a different kind of life where the Roman Emperor wasn’t the ultimate decider of what was true and right. So once Jesus was put on trial, some of the disciples already knew what to expect. The tale they told themselves about Jesus didn’t need any outside confirmation. Jesus had been arrested by Rome - and so they thought they knew what would happen next.

Yet the women stayed. They’re the ones who looked on. They saw their teacher, their friend, the One who had healed the sick, welcomed the unwelcomed, and who reconciled our relationships with our God and with each other - end up being arrested and mocked by an Empire that could only say no: no to a way of life that valued peace over violence; no to a way of life that focused on healing rather than competition; no to a way of life that didn’t celebrate winners but instead invited the marginalized, the poor, and those we ignore - to thrive. Jesus was doing more than offering life lessons to those who followed him. Instead, He gave them a new life that wouldn’t let the world’s values of power, control, dominance, and injustice be, in the end, what finally defined them.

So - the women stayed - and they’re the ones who witnessed all of Jesus’ story. After his death, they returned to the places where they were staying, and they started preparing the spices needed to give Jesus a proper burial. All Luke tells us is that the women “prepared.” But I like to imagine that, as they worked, the women told each other the story that mattered to them. Which means they admitted their heartbreak. They shared in their confusion. And they made sure all knew that none of them could really sleep. And how, even during the day, it felt like night.

We can, as we are right now, sit with the women in that moment. We can share with each other, our stories - including all our hopes and dreams and even those moments when things didn’t turn out the way we wanted. We, along with those women, can admit our heartbreak, our worries, our fears, and what’s causing us to spent too much time with the middle of the night. Regardless of who we are or where we’re from; whether we come to church every Sunday or if we’re visiting for the very first time - God wants us, right now, to be exactly who are. Because those women, 2000 years ago, were exactly who they were too. They were caught in the middle of their night and they weren’t sure what to do next. So they did what they could. They gathered together. They leaned on each other. They shared their story and, above all, they loved, cared, and served one another. They were the body of Christ, they were the church, together. And even though they were living in the middle of their night, these women - Mary, Joanna, Mary, and others - would be the ones who followed Jesus to the end. Because they knew - that Jesus had never stopped loving them.

And so on the first day of the week, they got up in the middle of the night so that they could be at the tomb at dawn. They took everything they had prepared, even though they had no idea how they were going to open the tomb to see him. I imagine they were still in grief and were afraid that the Empire of No would deny them the chance to go to the tomb. But unlike the other disciples, unlike those who were already telling themselves a tale about Jesus of their own choosing, the women showed up, together. And when they got to the tomb, the stone door was rolled way. Their fears changed. They were filled with new questions. And they suddenly discovered that the middle of their night would not be what finally defined them. They were the first to be given Jesus’ full story. And that story - that Jesus - has been, through our faith and through our baptism, given to us too. The idle tale we tell ourselves that’s filled with all the things that keep us up in the middle of the night will not be the limit to who we are. Because, on Easter morning, in the middle of the night, a new chapter for Jesus - broke open. And because of Him, a new chapter in our story has already begun.





Keep Reading >>

Reflection: Good Friday

When was the last time you started anything in silence? Most mornings, I’m greeted by the noise of a truck driving by, the alarm on my phone beeping, and my kids playing games in the living room. Silence doesn’t always happen organically. We occasionally need to work to create some silence around us. Today, we will create silence to start our worship. There will be no prelude, announcements, or handshakes. Instead, we are invited to show up as we are, in silence. The Good Friday liturgy isn’t designed to break that silence. Instead, we’re invited to live into it. Every word we speak, song we sing, and prayer we offer is a reminder that God, through our crucified savior, is filling even the silence with something new.

I invite you, over the next 36 hours, to notice the silent moments in your life. Track those moments when you can’t hear the birds outside or cars driving by. See how long those moments last. And while you reflect on the silence, use that opportunity to pay attention to what you’re experiencing. How are you feeling? What are you sensing? What fear, anxiety, or worries are bothering you? What joy is filling your soul? Good Friday is a day when we discover who we are and who God is. We shouldn’t rush to Easter. We should spend time with the horror, suffering, and grace in the Passion of Jesus. Hold onto the silence you hear. Pay attention to yourself. And let’s get ready to meet the God who is already filling your life with mercy, hope, and love.


Keep Reading >>

Reflection: Maundy Thursday

It’s sort of amazing that one of the gospels we quote from the most (aka John 3:16) also contains the communion practice we practice the least. Foot washing is a liturgical act we do once a year (and sometimes not even that often). Yet we know foot washing mattered to the community around John because they made sure it appeared in their version of Jesus’ story. The stories contained in the gospels do more than describe events that happened in the past. These stories also reveal which parts of Jesus’ story mattered the most to specific communities. Those stories were then ritualized as a way to make Jesus’ story their own. John’s community did not record a communion moment like the other three (and Paul) did. Instead, John highlighted a ritual his community might have done weekly: foot washing (John 13:1-17,31-35).

Foot washing is a very personal and intimate act. Unless we’re a doctor or a podiatrist, we rarely touch other people’s feet or let other people touch ours. Right now, in our cultural context, the question of touch is a big issue. We’re having a wider debate about what kind of touch (even some that might be viewed as affectionate) is acceptable. Part of that conversation, I think, is about ownership. We’re debating the desire of “person A” to hug or kiss-hello “person B” trumps the desire for person B to give permission to be handled in that way. Physical touch, when uninvited, is haunting and terrifying. But when that touch is consensual, a connection and commitment can be formed that transcends time. In Jesus’ day, only slaves washed people’s feet. The slaves had no control over their body and had to touch others. A person who was washed by a slave knew the slave could not say no. But the person who was being washed could, in theory, step away. They knew, automatically, they were superior to that slave. They consented to being touched because they had ownership over their own body and the slave did not. Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet shocked everyone. Even though Jesus chose to wash others, he’s entering into the role of the person who could not say no. A slave had no control over the violence done to their body. And, as we’ll see on Good Friday, the Roman Empire made sure Jesus had no control over his, too.

If having your feet washed makes you uncomfortable, then you are already starting to get the point of the story. If you choose to stay in your pews tonight instead of coming to the front, your experience is similar to what Peter felt 2000 years ago. In this place and in this church, you will always have ownership over your own body. We will not ask you to do something to violate your bodily autonomy. Jesus’ gift of communion, his literal body for us, allows us to finally own what has been given to us: we are made in God’s image and that is something no one can take away from us.


Keep Reading >>

After Supper: Jesus' Dinner Party (Sermon Manuscript)

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.

1 Corinthians 11:23-26

Pastor Marc's sermon on Maundy Thursday (April 18, 2019) on 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


There’s a moment at the start of every dinner party I try to host when I stare at a completely empty table and say - to no one in particular - “now what?” It’s sort of a code word I use to help my brain take what I want to do and turn it into reality. I have a vision of what I want the experience to be like and I hope to make that experience a reality for all my guests. And so, yesterday afternoon, as I was standing in the center aisle here at church, I looked around and said to no one - “now what?” We don’t always talk about worship as if it’s a dinner party but, on some level, it is. There’s a little food, a little drink, and special dishes we don’t use for anything else. Our worship includes a lot of words, some music, people who show up early, and others who are always fashionably late. We assume we’re already on the guestlist but we expect that some people will show up that we don’t know. And if we’ve been coming to this dinner party for awhile, we already know where we want to sit before we even step through the front door. Over the last 2000 years, the church has created a worship event that is designed to feed our connection with God and with one another. And that act of feeding and connection is really what the best kind of dinner parties try to pull off. They do not try to impose anything on you; instead, they invite you into an experience that lets you discover more about yourself and about your reality. To make that happen, a dinner party needs to know why it exists and what core essence makes it unique and different. And that’s why, in our reading from 1st Corinthians, Paul took a moment to remind the church what dining with Jesus was all about.

The church in Corinth was a Christian community that Paul founded sometime in the 40s or early 50s. He was with them for about 18 months before heading off to a new town to plant another church. The church in Corinth, like all churches in Paul’s day, was small - with maybe only two dozen members at most. Yet within this small community, there was an incredible amount of diversity. Some in the community could read while others could not. Some were rich while others struggled to make ends meet. And some who gathered for worship were free, able to move around the city at ease, while others were slaves, with no control over the violence done to their own bodies. Each one of them, had committed themselves to be part of Christ’s church. Yet this new, small, and vibrant faith community - was conflicted. They argued over many different things including who Jesus was and how their faith should inform how they live. We don’t know all the details about every argument in that church but we can infer from Paul’s letters that these conflicts were driving the community apart. Not everyone agreed with everyone else and instead of affirming or living with those differences, they chose to silo themselves off into cliques of their own choosing. They still gathered together as followers of Jesus - but they didn’t have any real regard for one another.

Now, in the first faith communities, eating together mattered. When they came together to worship, their prayers, conversations, and songs also included a potluck meal. We can imagine they came to church carrying not only their version of morning coffee but also a Roman casserole dish with something for everyone to share. Except - sharing was something the community in Corinth wasn’t doing. And, in fact, the people  weren’t even gathering together at the same time. Those who were financially secure had a little more freedom in what they could bring to worship and when they would show up. Those with money would show up to church first, uncover their hotdish, and start eating. While those who needed to work long hours just to survive would arrive in the worship space a little later only to discover that worshipped had already started without them. The wealthy would have already eaten, leaving nothing for those who could bring only a little. In that communal space, people ended up creating a private meal and worship event only for themselves. In Corinth, being late meant that you were poor. And there was nothing fashionable about having to show up after the event had already started. Those with any kind of financial security started things when they wanted and they could bring whatever they had. They were dictating and creating a church that matched their lifestyle, point of view, and experience. And it was obvious, in that worship space, who was elite and who was not. Worship wasn’t really about spending time with Jesus. Instead, it was becoming another opportunity for the social divisions that mattered in the wider community to manifest themselves even around Jesus’ table.

So Paul reached into the traditions he was given to remind the church that, because of Jesus, we live with a different set of values. In this, the earliest written record of Holy Communion that we have, Paul laid out the essence of what Jesus’ dinner party is all about. The “now what?” of Jesus’ table wasn’t focused on the design of the dishware, the menu, or the look of the centerpieces. The Lord’s table, instead, is an inclusive event that does not distinguish between rich and poor* nor does it let our divisions get in the way of what Jesus has already done. As followers of Christ, as those with faith, and as those who have been baptized - Jesus has already made a place at His table for you. Our seat doesn’t depend on how much money we make, on what food we can bring, or even if we believe we truly belong there. The “now what?” of knowing Jesus is all about sitting with him and making sure we don’t get in the way of anyone Jesus’ calls to sit by our side. We live this way because: Jesus once gathered his friends and took bread, telling them this was his body and they should eat. Jesus also took a cup, gave thanks, and told them to drink.* Paul reminded the community in Corinth, and he reminds us, that the essence of the dinner party Jesus throws is one where God’s love overcomes the social divisions we love to perpetuate. When we gather around His table, our “now what?” isn’t to keep the barriers between us up because we are not here by ourselves. We are here with God and everyone Jesus calls. We are to be with each other - because that’s how we become the diverse, loving, inviting, empowering, caring, loving, and united people God has designed us to be.



* Melissa Florer-Bixler. Christian Century. Sunday’s Coming - Email sent on April 10, 2019


Keep Reading >>

Therefore: Making God's Story Your Story

After he had said this, [Jesus] went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, "Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, 'Why are you untying it?' just say this, 'The Lord needs it.'" So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, "Why are you untying the colt?" They said, "The Lord needs it." Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!" Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, "I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”"

Luke 19:28-40

Pastor Marc's sermon on Palm Sunday (April 14, 2019) on Luke 19:28-40. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


Did you notice, while standing in the narthex, that our reading from the gospel according to Luke doesn’t mention palm branches at all? Now, if you’re a regular attendee of Palm Sunday, you sort of expect having a palm branch given to you along with a worship bulletin. But if this is your first Palm Sunday or if Luke’s version of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem is the only one you know, then our blessing of palms today might feel a little odd. Nothing in our gospel reading mentioned foliage or branches. Instead, Luke couldn’t stop talking about cloaks. Cloaks are one of those pieces of clothing that we don’t see often but they are making a comeback. They’re worn like a coat but they’re lose and they hang at our shoulders. Cloaks can be really fun, with a hood, pockets, and sometimes are brightly colored. And in Jesus’ day, if you could afford to own a coat, you really owned a cloak. These outer garments were the default clothing people wore as they wandered around Jerusalem’s marketplace. They were everywhere and they became, for Luke, the primary item people used to show just how important Jesus was. Cloaks were used to create a saddle for Jesus and people threw them onto the road to welcome Jesus as he passed. If we treated our coats and out jackets today like we do our palms, we could insist that the blessing of the palms really should be a blessing of our jackets. And instead of waving our palms branches above our heads as we entered the sanctuary, we could have swung our jackets wildly and with abandon. Or, if we were looking for something a little bit more authentic, we could throw our jackets onto the floor and let everyone walk on them. Both of these kinds of garment traditions might make us a bit uncomfortable as we worry about being smacked in the face by a faithfully swung leather jacket or upset that our favorite hoodie might have tons of people stepping on it. None of these are, of course, things I’m going to ask you to do. But when we spend time with those words and phrases of today’s gospel that, for us, seem to be a bit different, a bit unique, and even a little bit off, we discover our odd-ball piece of Jesus’ story that God wants each of us to make as our own.

Because when we notice our odd-ball piece of scripture, there’s a good chance the people around us don’t see that verse in the same exact way. They might be able to see why it’s a bit off. But that word from God doesn’t necessarily speak to them in the same way it speaks to you. They don’t find themselves struggling with it. They’re not super interested in asking questions about it. They can move on to the very next sentence in their Bible reading while we just can’t. And when that’s happened, we’ve discovered a word or a phrase or an entire biblical story that God wants us to chew on. God wants us to ask questions, to do research, and to spend time trying to figure out why we can’t get this odd-ball piece of Scripture out of hearts and minds. Sometimes, this process of questioning, of spending time with the story, can take years or even a lifetime as the intensity of the words fade in and out of our lives. And overtime, the odd-ball bits of Scripture sort of morph into an odd-ball moment of awe, as we ponder everything we can about it. The more we sit with it, the more we notice, and the more we keep our odd-ball pieces of scripture close to us, we one day notice how that part of God’s story has suddenly become part or ours. The texts we encounter in the Bible are not meant to be read Sunday morning and then forgotten during brunch. They are, instead, meant to linger within us - giving us an opportunity to experience what it’s like to live with God’s Word. Our living with the text doesn’t always mean we’ll know exactly what it means. And it doesn’t mean that our reasons for sitting with it will always remain the same. When we end up living with part of God’s story, there’s a good chance we couldn’t share with those around us exactly why this one piece of Scripture speaks so deeply to us. Yet when we let our odd-ball texts of Scripture sit in our hearts and hang out in minds, we end up integrating God’s word into our own.

I can’t personally imagine being so caught up in a parade that it feels completely right to toss my favorite jacket onto the road so that someone else could walk on it. And I’m pretty sure, if I knew that was expected of me, I would leave my beloved red Ocean City hoodie or my fake leather jacket at home and replace them with something hanging right outside my office on the clothing racks for our Trash and Treasure rummage sale. Now, I know what Jesus was doing as he entered the city of Jerusalem. His followers were busy creating a scrappy, unsophisticated, and small version of a Roman military parade that was used to welcome victorious generals and emperors into the cities they came to visit. In fact, it’s possible that when Jesus entered Jerusalem, Pontius Pilate and his legion of Roman soldiers were being welcome and celebrated in the exact same way on the other side of town. Only one of those parades was revealing God’s truth while the other was celebrating the image of truth, power, strength, and victory as we always imagine it to be. Yet even the disciples were unaware of what Jesus was about to do. Even though I know what happens next in Jesus’ story, I’m still left wondering what it would take for me to take off my jacket and place it on the ground as a way to welcome Jesus’ divine gift of love that truly knows no bound. That’s one of my personal reasons why the story of Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem is something I still chew on. It’s a story that asks me to reflect on the love I already know; to examine the love I’ve already received; to recognize the gift that I’ve already been given because I’ve encountered Jesus and I know Jesus knows me. Yet, when Jesus shows up - whether in the face of a stranger, of the oppressed, of those who are hurting, those who are afraid, or those who have no home or no home to return to - what will I do when I find myself caught up in the parade Jesus is already marching in?

When you find a piece of scripture that’s a bit odd, a bit off, and one that makes you want to gnaw on it - just chew. Because that’s a sign that you’ve already stepped into Jesus’ story - and God has already started the process of making His story your own.




Keep Reading >>

Reflection: The First Response to Christ

The Bible wasn't written in chronological order. No one person sat down, unrolled a blank scroll, and started writing with Genesis 1:1. It took centuries to pull together the Bible. Most books were written at different times and in different places, by different people. We don't know much about the process that made the Bible happen but there's a general sense that editors pulled together different stories and written texts to form the Bible God wanted us to have. The editors, prayerfully and faithfully, used the words God gave them to show God's love to a lot of different communities. Scholars have tried to find the earliest pieces of the Bible; those texts that might preserve the first draft of the stories as they were first told. Some of the stories are ancient, meant to be spoken around campfires instead of being read from a book. Not everyone agrees about which piece of Scripture came first. Yet it's possible that the pieces of the Bible that are the oldest are all songs. From Miriam's song in the Exodus, Deborah's in Judges, and maybe even some of the Psalms - the earliest pieces of scripture are not sentences and paragraphs. Rather, the first words that spoke to God's people were poetry and songs. When we encounter God, it seems our first response is to just sing.

Today's letter from Paul to the Philippians 2:5-11 contains one of the oldest pieces of Christian scripture we have. Paul is quoting a hymn, one possibly already being sung by Christian communities before he began his missionary work. In a sense, this might be the earliest Christian writing we have, beyond the sayings of Jesus recorded in the gospels. When the small communities first gathered in dining rooms while sharing a meal, they did more than talk about God: they sung about God, too. And this hymn, one of the first hymns in our Christian hymn book, is centered on Jesus doing an almost impossible thing: Jesus chose to be one of us. It might not shock you to hear a pastor say Jesus was human (and also fully divine). As Christians, we've said this for centuries. But if we take that statement seriously, do we realize just how shocking that is? How many times, in your life, have you tried to not be human? How much energy have we spent not being ourselves? How often do we try to forget, ignore, or push aside the situations, experiences, and emotions that take away from our life? If you knew all the junk that comes with being a human being - the pain, suffering, rejection, sadness, and harm we cause ourselves and each other - would you choose to be one of us? And would you do that even if you didn't have to?

As we enter this Holy Week, we will spend time meditating on Jesus' death. But we can also use this week to think about Jesus' choice. Jesus gave up what he was entitled to so that he could love you. Jesus emptied himself of divinity because God's love demanded nothing less. This is a week where we remember not only who Jesus is and what Jesus did. We also remember how Jesus made a choice - and how everything changed.


Keep Reading >>

In The Present: Jesus Isn't Pretend [Sermon Manuscript]

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?" (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, "Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me."

John 12:1-8

Pastor Marc's sermon on the 5th Sunday in Lent (April 7, 2019) on John 12:1-8. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


On Thursday morning, I was sitting in my office in the middle of a conference call when odd messages started popping up. At first, these messages showed up in my email. But then came the texts. And before you know it, I was getting phone calls, asking me weird questions about something I didn’t really understand. Many different people from this church seemed to be responding to an email I never sent. They wanted to know why I, out of the blue, needed them to buy some gift cards. I didn’t and that’s when I realized we were being scammed. Now, as a pastor, I’m used to being scammed. Every few weeks or so, I receive an email or phone call from someone asking for money. Since asking for help is one of the hardest things a person can do, I have a personal policy where I believe every story someone tells me. I believe them when they mention their recent medical trauma. I believe them when they describe the family they’re taking care of. I believe them when they talk about the tank of gas they need to make it to their next job interview. And I believe them when they mention they only need a hotel room for one night because they’ve got a place lined up right after that. I believe them because that’s sometimes true. And when I let them know how I can help, you can hear the tone of their voice change when they suddenly realize they’re being heard. But when a scam is taking place, that’s all pretend. The story we’re told isn’t real no matter how much detail they put into it. A scammer knows how to use our trust, our relationships, and our empathy against us. Someone went to our church website, noticed my contact information, and created a fake gmail account pretending to be me. They then, I think, tried to find email addresses for anyone listed on our website. When they found one, they immediately sent that person a note, hoping you believed it came from me. Once you replied, their ask would follow. All they needed was for you to go buy a few gift cards and send them electronically. At that point, it probably felt weird because I was asking you something I’ve never asked before and the emails I sent you never used your name. But, you’d ask yourself, what if Pastor Marc was really asking for help? And that’s exactly what the scammer hoped you would think. They tried to use the strength of our relationship and your generous nature to make a quick buck for themselves. Once your money was sent, it was as good as spent - and the scammer would go find another faith community to target in the same exact way.

When it comes to scams, if something feels off, it probably is. As your pastor, I would not personally ask you to buy gift cards via email nor act as if I didn’t know who you are. When it comes to emails, phone calls, and anything we see online, we need to approach these situations with the same kind of suspicion we bring to the internet every April Fool’s Day. If it feels weird, it probably is. Our feeling of unease in those moments is not something we should quickly push aside. Instead, we should stay there, knowing that sitting with unease isn’t comfortable but it can be holy. And that kind of holy moment might actually be a gift from God.

Today’s reading from the gospel according to John asks us to sit with a lot of unease. In the verses immediately prior to this one, people wondered if Jesus would risk coming to the Passover festival knowing that the religious and political authorities were planning to arrest him. What they didn’t realize was that he was already on his way. A few days before Passover, Jesus stopped in the village of Bethany, two miles outside of Jerusalem. Jesus’ old friends Lazarus, Mary, and Martha lived there and so they invited him to dinner. I imagine their meal was full of the kind of conversation, laughter, and joy that only comes when we dine with old friends. Yet, Jesus was eating with someone that wasn’t only a friend. He was breaking bread with the man that he, a few chapters before, raised from the dead. That dinner party in Bethany was a moment that shouldn’t have happened. Yet because Jesus was at the table, our expectations were replaced by the new thing God was doing. The unease we feel when we realize who was on that guest list is how we notice how holy that moment already was. Without our unease, Mary’s response to Jesus seems a little weird and a bit off. But when we pull up a chair and take our place at His table, Mary’s response to Jesus is the only reasonable response when God shows up.

Because when God shows up, there’s nothing about it that’s pretend. Jesus is never anything but Jesus no matter where he is. He’s Jesus when he’s raising Lazarus from the dead and he’s still Jesus when he’s sitting at Lazarus’ table, chewing on a piece of bread. Jesus is the one who patiently taught his disciples even though they never quite knew who he was. And Jesus is Jesus when he’s welcoming the unwelcomed, offering them seat at the Lord’s table. Jesus was Jesus back then on his final journey to Jerusalem and he’s still Jesus, right now, when he shows up in our lives, in the bread, in the drink, and in the ways we love one another. Jesus never takes a day off from being himself even though he knows the risk being Jesus entails. Not everyone will choose to sit with his guest list nor will we always trust that the gifts of faith, hope, love will transform us into something new. We will, through our own experiences of sin and brokenness, believe that being as wise as serpents means we can never truly be as gentle as doves. We will be scammed and, over time, use that as an excuse to live a life thinking we’re safeguarding ourselves from death but, in reality, we’re denying ourselves true life. In the words of Michael Koppel, “so often we... store up precious resources - whether material, spiritual, or emotional - with the intention to use them eventually, yet the activity of saving can itself consume our lives and limit the opportunity for the outpouring of gifts. Our inclination may be to hold back, [afraid] that sharing the resources means losing them, unaware that some resources can become activated only through wholehearted offering.” When we are in the presence of Jesus, can we truly hold back? Mary couldn’t help but be grateful for God’s presence around and within her even though she knew the kinds of scams people played. Mary refused to let what others do be what defined her. Instead, she leaned on Jesus who never stopped being Jesus to her. As we go about our lives, we will face many situations that feel a little bit off, filling us with unease. But we can trust that unease because that might be how God shows us a new holy moment in our lives and how Jesus is already with us, leading the way.




*Quotes from Feasting on the Gospels: John, Volume 2.


Keep Reading >>

Reflection: Jackals and Ostriches and Dragons

One of the difficulties in translating the Bible is figuring out which animals are actually in there. In the various translations of today's text from Isaiah 43:16-21 that I consulted, the animals identified included jackals, ostriches, wild dogs, coyotes, buzzards, and surly birds. My personal favorite is from the King James Version which translated verse 20 as "dragons and owls." There's something very Harry Potter-esque about having a Bible passage with those two creatures in it.

We don't know exactly what animals Isaiah was thinking of (the Arabian ostrich roamed the Near East before being hunted to extinction by the early 20th century). But we do know what Isaiah was trying to get at. The animals in this passage are animals identified as being ritually unclean. There was something about them that did not match God's own reality of holiness. Humans were to avoid eating them or even touching them. Since dragons and owls were unclean, they were unable to honor God because their very nature made that impossible. Yet, when God shows up, that impossibility becomes possible. God, speaking through Isaiah, looks forward towards what God is about to do. The God who led the ancient Israelites out of slavery is the same God who is about to do even more. Instead of asking the community to remain in their past, God invited them to see into their future. Their present situation will not be the limit to what God is about to do. God is with them and that changes everything.

So that means that when God shows up, the unclean wild animals suddenly show honor. When God shows up, the desert is filled with rivers of water. When God shows up, new life comes. If we only look at what God has done in the past, we miss seeing how God who is active in our lives today. The God who loves you is still with you. The God who loves you still has hope for you. And the God who made the universe also made you. You are necessary to do what God made you for: to join your voice with all of God's beloved creation to God's incredible song of love, hope, and a new beginning.


Keep Reading >>

Annual New Jersey State Exempt Association's Memorial Service

[Jesus said:] "I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid."

John 14:25-27

Pastor Marc's homily for the New Jersey State Exempt Association's Annual Memorial Service (April 6, 2019) on John 14:25-27. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


At the start of every Lent, which begins 46 days before the great celebration of Easter, you’ll find the faithful from many different flavors of Christianity walking around with what looks like a black smudged cross on their forehead. Some of the smudges will be pretty good and look like an actual cross. But others will be a bit different. Some are either misshapen, super light, or so dark that you see little chunks of something grainy on the forehead. That imperfectness is proof that these crosses were not self-applied. Rather, people gathered in churches, at street corners, and on train station platforms to have a priest or a pastor pray for them and use a thumb or finger to trace a cross on their foreheads. The blacken cross is a sign of our mortality; it’s a symbol of mourning and grief; and it’s a reminder of the promise that the God who loves the world also loves you. The blacken mark on the forehead isn’t made with makeup, mascara, or even magic marker. Instead, that cross is made from something you, as firefighters, know very well. It’s made of ash.

Now, the ash we use at Christ Lutheran is black, finely sifted, and mixed with olive oil so that when I spread it on your forehead, it will literally leave a mark. Some years, the ashen crosses look the way their supposed to. But other times, not so much. Even though my artistic skills might be lacking, the ash itself is made the same way, every year. It’s our tradition to save the palm branches we waved in the air on Palm Sunday, the beginning of the final week before Easter. We place these leftover branches in a safe place and let them dry out for almost a year. And then, on the day before Ash Wednesday, you’ll find me in the parking lot with a metal coffee can, a bundle of dried palm branches, a big pitcher of water, and a few matches. Every year, I think I know how to make good ashes. Yet the process always throws me for a loop. This year, I found myself with a pile of matches that refused to stay lit. Everyone that I lit would burn bright for a second before going out. After awhile, I had exactly one match left and I prayed this one would finally take. I held my breath. It lit. And it didn’t go out. I gently dropped it into the center of the coffee can filled dried palm branches. For a minute, nothing happened. But then, in a flash, everything changed. The palms were engulfed in flames. Everything burned. And I was left with a hot metal can full of ashes.

That flash, that moment when everything changed, is what Jesus was talking about in our reading from the gospel according to John. These few verses are part of a larger conversation he was having with his disciples. Jesus gathered them together to share a meal, to wash their feet, and to prepare them for what’s coming next. None of Jesus’ followers expected him to die. They assumed he would be victorious in the way we expect the king of king and the lord of lords, to be. But the Jesus in John always knows what’s going to happen next. So before his arrest and before the Cross, Jesus wanted to say farewell. Jesus spent almost 3 whole chapters saying the same thing over and over again. He told those who followed him that everything was about to change but that God’s love for them, and for the world, never would. Jesus, in the end, wasn’t saying goodbye. His death would not be their end. Instead, it would be part of a new beginning where the Holy Spirit would come to give them peace. When their world felt like it had turned upside down, they would discover they were not alone. Jesus promised to send them “an advocate, a helper, one who offers support when we most need it and least know where to find it.” In the moment when everything changes, God would send someone to bring God’s love and peace.

So often, when we think of this advocate, we look up, towards the clouds, looking for some divine sign to come from above. But I’m not sure that looking up is what God always has in mind for us. We need, I think, to turn our head downwards and to look at each other. We have, as beloved Children of God, been given a job, a divine vocation, to bring peace to those in need. The Holy Spirit isn’t always manifested as some mighty sign from above. It can also come to us in a more human form when we suddenly see the bearers of God’s gifts and love right in front of us.

I don’t need to tell you about the many times you’ve found yourself in that moment when someone’s forever has changed. You, as firefighters, have answered the call to bring peace and hope in those moment when it feels as if no peace can be found. From burning buildings to car accidents to being in the right place, at the right time, when someone’s life needs to be saved - your commitment to your calling, to your service, and your sacrifice, does not go unseen or unheard. We are gathered here today to remember those who knew the risks when they answered God’s call to love and serve their neighbors. We give thanks for them and we celebrate their call, and your call, to be exactly who God wanted you to be - to be firefighters - to be peace bringers - to be an advocate, a helper, and the one who provides a way through for those who cannot find it. As a follower of Jesus, I can’t help but see the Holy Spirit and the love of Christ in each of you. You are God’s bringers of peace. And I pray that we all work to bring more of that divine peace into our lives, into our neighborhoods, into our cities, so that it can cover the whole world.



*Quotes from Feasting on the Gospels: John, Volume 2.


Keep Reading >>

Name It: Prodigal? [Sermon Manuscript]

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." So he told them this parable: 

"There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, "Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.  When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, "How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands." So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son." But the father said to his slaves, "Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate. "Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, "Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, "Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' Then the father said to him, "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.' "

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Pastor Marc's sermon for the 4th Sunday in Lent (March 31, 2019) on Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


The words we use to name and title the different stories we have in the Bible matter more than we usually think. If we’re not careful, these short summarizing phrases can cause us to miss what’s actually happening in the text. If, for example, we opened our Bibles to the very first page, to the book of Genesis, chapter 1, verse 1, we might find in bold print, a title placed there by an editor to help prepare us for what’s about to come. In one of the Bible I used, the word “Creation” is that title. Now, that title makes sense because the first chapter of the book of Genesis lays out one vision describing how God created the universe. Yet “creation” is a word with its own temperament and depth of meaning. To me, “creation” is a word that sounds historical, describing how something came into being and is now completed. That title seems to imply that God created the universe from nothing and sort of finished up by the beginning of chapter 2. The word “creation” invites us to see in the text a process that happened and is now mostly over. But what if that title was different? Would that cause to read the text differently? What if, instead of calling Genesis 1 “creation,” we called it “chaos,” since the story begins there, with a formless void? Or what if the title was a tad more active, pointing to what God actually does in the text? God, over and over again, speaks, using words to create a brand new song of life. What if the title we used for the opening chapter of the Genesis was something like “God speaks” or “God sings?” A title like that might invite us to remember that the God who created the universe is still speaking and singing, today. The names and titles we use for the stories we find in the Bible do more than provide a short summary of the text that follows. They also, on one level, frame how we choose to interpret that text as well.

So in the spirit of creating different titles for the stories we find in the Bible, I’ve going to invite you to take a moment to give a new title to a piece of scripture I just read. Now, you might already know the traditional heading for this parable from Jesus from the gospel according to Luke but, if you can, try to forget it. Come up with your own title instead. I’m going to give you about 15 to 30 seconds to think one up before asking you to share that title with the people around you. So - focus on the text for the next 30 seconds - and I’ll let you know when it’s time to share.

After 30 seconds, invite them to turn and share.

After a minute or two, return to the sermon.

Now, instead of asking everyone to go around the room and share what the title they came up with, let’s use a show of hands to see what common words or phrases showed up.

So how many of your titles included the word “son or sons?”

How many included the word “father?”

How many of us only focused on the younger son who went away?

Did anyone focus only on the older brother who stayed?

Did you include in your title anyone else, like maybe the slaves?

Did your title include any action words like “run,” or “love,” or “grace?”

Did anyone’s title only include God?

Did anyone’s title only focus on the Father?

Now, the traditional title for this parable is “the Prodigal Son.” And, if I’m honest, I’ve never really known what “prodigal” means. It’s one of those words I’ve heard so often, I assume I already know it. It must, somehow, describe the first son we meet in today’s text. This younger son, after demanding and receiving his inheritance from a father who is very much alive, traveled to a distant place and spent every penny he had. He spent freely and extravagantly, with no regard for his future or the relationships he left behind. When his money finally ran out, he was hungry, tired, dirty, and working in the fields with pigs. He decided to go home. But he’s not sure exactly how his father will respond to him. So the younger son prepared a little speech, one that I imagine he practiced over and over again. He would admit that he’s sinned, that he broke their relationship, and that he’s no longer worthy to be called his father’s kid. With that hard bit of honesty out of the way, the son would then make another demand on his dad. He would ask to be fed, paid, and treated like one of his father’s employees. But that final demand is one the younger son never gets to ask. When his father, who never stopped looking out for the son who left, finally sees him, the father runs to embrace him.  him. The younger son, believing this is finally his chance to make things rights, starts to recite his practiced speech. But after admitting who he truly is, that he is someone who no longer deserves a relationship with the one who is literally surrounding him with love, his father interrupted him. The younger son never gets to make his final demand on his dad. Instead, his father showered his kid with a recklass, extravagant, and almost wasteful response of over-the-top love and grace.

Prodigal means being wastefully and recklessly extravagant. And the man and his two sons in this story were prodigal in their own ways. The younger son was a pro in spending his money on wasteful kinds of living. And the older son, the one who stayed, was prodigal in a kind of self-centeredness that, like the younger son, can only make demands on his father. Yet their actions, while as relatable to each of us, are not the focus of the story. This isn’t a parable about the prodigal son or sons. This is, in the end, a story about a man who had two sons. And he can’t help but be prodigal with grace and forgiveness to those he loved. That love didn’t depend on what others said and did. Instead, the father loved his children with abandon because that’s just what the father did. The title we should use for this text from the gospel according to Luke shouldn’t be focused only on the younger son. Rather, this is a story about a prodigal father who describes the God who loves you just as extravagantly, just as recklessly, and just as freely, as the man in Jesus’ parable did. God’s love for you doesn’t depend on what you do, where you go, or what you say. Rather, you are loved not because you are perfect but because you are worth the kind of love that can only come from a prodigal God.





Keep Reading >>

Older Posts >>