Questions and Reflections

May 2015

3: Trinity Sunday [Sermon Manuscript]

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him."

John 3:1-17

Pastor Marc's sermon on Trinity Sunday (May 31, 2015) on John 3:1-17. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine posted on facebook that she was in a book. Now this isn’t that surprising because she’s a pretty unique person and she’s kind of a big deal in the circles she runs in. People who’ve traveled NYC subways and gone through Union Square, know who she is and she’s appeared in magazines, books, and on tv. So when two writers approached her, asking about her story, I bet she wasn’t surprised. So my friend gave interviewed - and then she didn’t hear from these two for awhile. In fact, she didn’t hear from them again. But, flash forward a bit, and my friend finds out - that these two wrote about her. My friend is in a book, the bulk of one of its chapters, and this book was published two months ago - and no one told her. Finding her story in an unexpected place - well, that did surprise her. And what I found fascinating about the whole thing was what the book is about: the book is a scientific look on surprise. My friend was surprised by appearing in a book that’s all about being surprised. 

The title of that book - is, literally, Surprise and it’s written by two women who study the psychology of being surprised. They want to know why we get surprised, what being surprised does to our body, and how we can use that to better who we are. These two women, Tania Luna and Leeann Renninger, are on the forefront of the science of surprise. Now, we tend to think about being surprised as something big: like, that surprise birthday party, or winning the lottery or something tragic like the unexpected death of a loved on. But the truth is that we spend our lives being surprised all the time. Hearing a new idea or a eating a new kind of food or even just trying something new - inside that kind of experience is surprise. Surprise, at its core, is an event or observation that’s unexpected or misexpected. It’s an experience that doesn’t fit into our expectations and what we thought was suppose to happen. Winning the lotto might be an awesome surprise - but finding a flower on your walk to work in a sand pit is a surprise too. We experience, everyday, dozens of surprises. We’re in a world that is so interconnected, so full of new information and new experiences, that we tend to discount what we see as surprises and call these experiences something else. But life is full of surprises - and on this Trinity Sunday, when we celebrate the identity of God, we’re also celebrating that we have a God who is not only full of surprises but a God who lives through our surprises too. 

In our story from the Gospel According to John today, there’s a lot of surprise. Nicodemus is a rabbi, a religious leader and teacher, and he comes to see Jesus in the middle of the night. Now there are many ways to look at this story - many ways to understand and interpret what is going on. But I was struck how this story illustrates how we experience surprise. Now, according to current research, there is a sequence to being surprised. When we are surprised, the first thing we do is freeze. We don’t shout or cry or get a big smile on our face - that happens usually a split second later. But when we’re first surprised, we get this deer in the headlights kind of look. Our brain actually hijacks itself - drawing our focus away from what we were doing and hearing and focusing everything we have on what surprised us. It’s why, when we’re surprised, we sometimes don’t say anything or have a blank look on our face. We freeze up. And then, once we’re focused, our brain tries to figure out what is going on. This is the second part of the sequence and it’s called the Find phase. We ask questions, look around, and try to find out why this is happening. And this phase can last a moment - or longer - maybe even a lifetime. When we’re surprised, “it’s only after we have answers to the majority of our questions” when we’ll finally stop, and consider this case of being surprised closed. 

So I hear in our story Nicodemus doing these two things. He’s curious but he carries with a framework, a perspective, an expectation of who this Jesus is and how this Jesus should be. If Jesus is a religious teacher, a leader, he should fit the mold of what a religious teacher says and does. But once Jesus speaks, Nicodemus’ is surprised. Nicodemus’ eloquence that we see in verse 2 vanishes. Instead, he freezes. And as Jesus words come about being born from above, Nicodemus starts trying to find an answer - an explanation - for what exactly Jesus is saying. Nicodemus is challenged by Jesus - and Nicodemus searches through his religious experience to find something, anything, that can make sense of what Jesus is saying. 

And this is where the third phase of surprise comes in. Jesus confronts Nicodemus’ perspective and his expectation. Jesus is saying things that challenge who Nicodemus is and what Nicodemus believes - so by being surprised, Nicodemus’ perspective and point of view shifts. Even though we don’t hear that in the text - we never hear Nicodemus respond to Jesus’ final words - by the very nature of being surprised, Nicodemus’ point of view is being shifted. Nicodemus experiences something unexpected - and his brain tries to fit that experience into who he is. We eventually see this shift having been accomplished near the end of the book - and not through Nicodemus’ words or his actions. Sixteen chapters from now, Nicodemus will join others in taking Jesus’ body down from the cross and burying it in a tomb. And as this shift in his perspective happens, the final phase of surprise occurs: and that’s share. When we are surprised - whether good or bad - we tend to talk about it. We tend to share this intense emotional experience with our friends, those around us, and anyone who happens to stumble onto the 1000 word essay that becomes our facebook status update. We usually can’t keep this surprising experience to ourselves. And Nicodemus can’t either. Even though the text doesn’t tell us whether Nicodemus ever shared his story - we know it was shared because we just read it - Nicodemus’ story is part of scripture and it’s been becoming part of who we are through these last two thousand years. 

Nicodemus is surprised by Jesus - and I bet Nicodemus is also surprised by where he eventually ends up. And that’s the power of surprise. Some of our strongest and best memories come from the experience of being surprised. Being surprised actually intensifies the emotions we feel. One scientists claims that our emotional intensity is 4x stronger when we’re surprised. And this is probably why we try to run away from surprises. We tend to stick with what we know, with what we’ve experience, with the point of view that we trust and that is controllable and predictable. The intense emotional experience that we have when we’re surprised - even in small surprises - ends up making us vulnerable. We end up a little unraveled, a little out of control, a little out of sorts. So we run from surprises. We pretend that we don’t get surprised very often. We tell our family and friends to never throw us a surprise party or buy us a surprised gift. We don’t meet new people because we’re fine with who we know and what we’ve got. Or we stop going to the doctor because what we don’t know, can’t hurt us. But we live our lives being surprised; being challenged; experiencing intense emotions that unravel who we are and shift us into some place new. And that’s what makes surprises so scary. They bring us, whether we know it or not, to some place new, some place we can’t control, some place where who we are might not be all we need to live through what’s coming. 

But God is all about the surprise. That’s what struck Nicodemus and that’s what strikes us every day. Because God isn’t afraid of surprises. Instead, God is all about doing the surprising thing. God became human; God lived a human life, experiencing our fears and joys and sadness through Jesus, God’s own Son - and he ends up dying on the cross. That’s surprising. And even if we hear the story over and over and over again - we know that what makes the story always new is how surprising it actually is. God’s story - God’s love for creation - God’s mercy and desire to take a chance with us - that’s surprising. And our story - our faith story - from having honest-to-God religious experiences to struggling with having any at all - or from having our prayers actually answered or realizing that through the Spirit, our prayers have done the surprising thing and changed us from who we were before - the fact that God keeps getting involved in our messes, joys, pain, and sorrow - that’s surprising. Our God - this blessed Trinity - is a God not afraid of our surprises, not afraid of walking with us when we are surprised - from the big happy experiences to the sad, unexpected, and tragic events that change who we are. Our challenge, then, is to see our surprises - to be honest when we are surprised - to know that we are always being shifted, always being transformed, always having who we are remade into something new and that we are always under God’s care. God is in, with, and under the change - shifting us from our old perspectives, our old way of doing things, our old privileged experiences - and bringing us someplace new. 



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A reflection on Isaiah 6:1-8

Our first reading is Isaiah 6:1-8.

King Uzziah, the good king, has died. So now what? 

That's the question facing Isaiah in today's first reading. Isaiah is young, possibly a child, and he's in the Temple when he sees God. Actually, Isaiah only sees some of God. God is so big and vast, only the hem of his robe can fit into the giant Temple. Around God are divine beings called seraphs. Isaiah is confronted by the amazing majesty of God's presence, and while a seraph can shout praises for God, Isaiah can do nothing but see his own unworthiness. I imagine it's a bigger version of what happens when we have a hobby that we're good at, only to meet a master in our craft. I love photography but when I'm in the presence of true artists, I'm humbled. I'm fully aware of what I lack and awed by this person with this gift and talent. Isaiah can't even express with words and sounds what he's witnessing. So God God takes the initiative to prepare Isaiah to speak. And speak he will.

This text might seem a bit odd to hear on Trinity Sunday. The Old Testament doesn't explicitly explain the concept of Trinity (and neither does the New Testament - the word Trinity wasn't invented until a hundred years after the Gospels were written). Instead, what we hear today is an image of where God dwells. And where God lives, community happens. God isn't hanging out alone; the seraphs are there. God is the "Lords of hosts" where "hosts" refers to "armies" (God isn't just great at throwing and hosting fantastic dinner parties). Where God dwells, communication, conversation, and relationships grow. God is busy communicating to others in a multiple of ways, through words, song, images, and touch. As Christians, we see community as part of God's very nature. God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God's own identity is rooted in God's community.

And since God embodies community, so are we to do the same. We gather together on Sunday. We pray together, read scripture together, and spend time getting to know those inside the church and those outside. The faith journey is an individual journey fully expressed when it's located within community. We need to see and experience God through others and through ourselves to fully experience all that God is. There's more to faith and Jesus than what we personally experience and we're called to see all of that by gathering together as a church, as a community, and as neighbors within God's world.


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A reflection on Acts 2

Our first reading is from Acts 2:1-21.

This story from Acts 2 is such a visual story. It almost deserves a Hollywood treatment. The apostles are gathered in a house, there's a sound that sounds like a tornado, and then flames of fire that show up on people's heads. This is a dream scene for a special effect artist. In the current miniseries on NBC, "AD: After the Bible," they creators did just that. There are clouds, flames, and bright lights where the apostles are gathered. This feels like a special effects kind of story.

But Pentecost isn't about visual effects; Pentecost is about something much less flashy. Pentecost is about the power of voice and understanding because the gospel isn't only centered in flashy moments. The gospel is centered in relationship; a relationship with God and with other people. For such relationships to exist, communication and commitment are more important than some visual effects we would see at a rock concert in a stadium. 

When the Spirit comes to the apostles, the apostles are given a voice. We know the apostles could speak (they do question Jesus a lot) but they were a community that is at a loss now that Jesus was no longer physically with them. They've lost their voice. Then the Spirit comes, filling them with a strange ability: they could speak languages they didn't know. So they spoke, and people who were visiting Jerusalem from other places heard these apostles speaking in their home languages. Nothing in the text says that the apostles could understand each other. Instead, it's only after the apostles hear from the crowd that they are being understood that Peter finally understands what's going on. The Spirit is transforming the band of apostles to be something it wasn't before: a community full of people who don't look, talk, or act the same but who are united in their faith in Jesus and their love for each other. This community will include old and young, men and women, slaves and free. The community will prophesy, calling the world to live as God wishes the world to be. God has always been active on earth but this new community will purposefully include different kinds of people. And this community will be invited to be Jesus in the world, empowered by the Holy Spirit to follow Jesus' commandments: loving God and each other. To do this, we, like those early apostles, need to engage with people who aren't like us, learning their stories, and discovering just how God is working in them and in the places they call home. 


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Need More Details [Sermon Manuscript]

[Jesus said:] "When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning. But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them.

‘I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, “Where are you going?” But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgement, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.

‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
‘A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me.’ Then some of his disciples said to one another, ‘What does he mean by saying to us, “A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me”; and “Because I am going to the Father”?’ They said, ‘What does he mean by this “a little while”? We do not know what he is talking about.’ Jesus knew that they wanted to ask him, so he said to them, ‘Are you discussing among yourselves what I meant when I said, “A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me”?

John 15:26-27; 16:4-19

Pastor Marc's sermon on Pentecost (May 24, 2015) on John 15:26-27; 16:4-19. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


Yesterday I was in Manhattan, visiting St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, in Midtown, because a friend was being ordained. Now, it was a great day. Not only was I happy to see my friend entering into this new journey in his life - I’m also a bit of a church nerd - so I couldn’t wait to see how St. Peter’s decked itself out for Pentecost. If you’ve never been to St. Peter’s, it’s actually an amazing kind of space. A few decades ago, the church partnered with developers to sell its property and build a new church with a massive skyscraper - the CitiCorp building - right above it. So the church is mostly underground, with just the roof of the sanctuary peeking out - with this giant skyscraper on stilts above it. This gives the sanctuary an atrium kind of affect. There’s a ton of windows and skylights, and people outside - when they’re getting off the subway or walking to work - they can look and see what’s going on inside. So because of this atrium like space, they have a really high ceiling that goes up and up and up and they attached from the rafters and theatre lights, over a dozen strings with these large 8 foot rectangular strips of red fabric hanging at the end. As the worship went on, the air inside the sanctuary would swirl. We couldn’t actually see the air moving - but those rectangle strips could - and so as the air moved, those strips would dance. It was beautiful looking up, as we sang hymns and read scripture, to see these red strips dancing, all around. 

But it wasn’t long before those red strips started doing something they shouldn’t. They’re suppose to be independent - moving and swaying and dancing all on their own. But, pretty soon, they stopped following the rules - and a couple got tangled. Two red pieces of fabric, they would dance and sway and then wrap themselves all around each other. They’d get tangled, stop dancing like they use to, and just sorta hang. Looking at them like that made me want to go up there, climb a long ladder to the top of the building, so I could just disentangle them so they could go fly and dance independently like they use too. But I couldn’t. Not only would that have disrupted the service - it would also have missed one of the points of Pentecost and miss one of the points about the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ words today from the Gospel according to John are not about separation; they’re about getting tangled, wrapped up with God because God is all about getting entangled with us. 

Now, we’ve been spending the last month or so jumping around the gospel according to John, specifically this last few chapters before Jesus is arrested. Jesus is busy giving his disciples a last address - a last sermon and teaching - before he is killed. He’s trying to encourage his disciples - to give them a word of comfort because they’re about to experience something both dark and amazing in just a few short days. Jesus is also laying the groundwork for how these disciples should see the world once Jesus is raised from the dead. He’ll no longer be experienced like use to be; he’ll no longer be restricted to living a human kind of existence. And so, today, we’re hearing about something called an Advocate who’s going to be sent once Jesus has ascended to the Father. As Jesus ascends, the Spirit - this Advocate - who John intimately ties to Jesus himself - this Advocate descends. Jesus promises that this Advocate will walk alongside the disciples, continually bringing them to Jesus, even though things will soon happen that will cause these disciples to question their own understanding of God, love, and justice. The Holy Spirit in John is kind of like a street sign, sorta stuck in the ground, and letting us know that - hey - Jesus was here -  that God lived a human life - and that the incarnation actually happened. But there’s more to this Advocate than just being a static street sign. This Advocate also does what the best advocates do: she talks, preaches, and agitates. She isn’t just a physical sign post, stuck in the ground, that can be ignored. This Spirit can be kind of a loud mouth - like she’s got a megaphone shouting that Jesus loves you - that Jesus cares about us - and that God doesn’t let us journey through our lives alone. 

But even though the Spirit is kindof a loud mouth - I find myself wishing she was a bit louder. Sometimes God’s silence can be more noticeable than the Spirit’s presence. There are times when I need a little direction - a little clarity - a little hope - or maybe a big hope - and when I turn to God, sometimes this loudmouth of an Advocate feels like she’s no where to be found. When we look into our experiences and struggles - the sheer amount of which, if they could be made physical and tangible - would probably fill up the largest church spaces - just exactly in which direction are we suppose to go? 

It’s at times like this when I wish the Spirit would just grab my hand, and tell me exactly where I’m suppose to go. But how can we tell, in the moment, that this is actually happening? How can we be sure that the decision - or none decision that we make - is a Spirit filled act or choice? How can we be sure we’re listening to the Advocate - and not just missing God’s word in the loud busyness of our lives? What details can we grab onto to truly know God’s presence, God’s wishes for us - so that we can be carried through our struggle and land, safe and sound, on the otherside? 

The truth is - is that we sometimes, or maybe most of the time, we can’t. We might not be able to feel a sense of God’s direction or purpose. We might be walking through a dark valley - not really sure that God is present or that we have any clue where we’ll be going. Or maybe everything is going fine - maybe we’re financially, physically, and spiritually stable - enjoying God’s fruits and planning some awesome summer vacations right now - but having a good time or having material success doesn’t mean that the Spirit is with us. Our carefree happiness or purpose driven prosperity isn’t on the checklist telling us if the Spirit is with us or not; if God is blessing and paying attention to us or not. Now, such a checklist would be nice. Some kind of short instruction manual from Jesus saying here’s how you identify the Spirit and how you make sure that the path you’re on is the right one. A list or a set of instruction on what to do, how to do it, and what to say in every and all situations so that we’re always on the side of God - that’s something we could totally use
But Jesus doesn’t promise a checklist; he promises presence. 

And presence can’t be reduced to a direction or a short list of what to do, what to think, or what to say. Jesus isn’t promising a magic 8-ball kind of Spirit; a Spirit that we’re able to shake up and get an answer from whenever we need to find out exactly where God is calling us to be. No, Jesus promises a presence - that God is walking with us - and that the Spirit is engaged in every bit of our lives. Because checklists and instruction manuals let us keep God at arm’s length. We can follow the list without actually knowing, or being known, by God. We can keep God to Sunday and keep Monday through Saturday to ourselves, sticking God in a checkbox, stick God in a list, limiting where God goes and limiting where we think God wants us to go. But faith - our faith - can’t be confirmed into a box, separating it from everything else that makes us who we are. The Spirit isn’t in the habit of being stuck in a box - the Spirit is too busy breaking through them. God doesn’t want us to follow checklists - God wants us, instead, to see what the Spirit is actually doing: and that’s getting entangled with us. We aren’t dancing on our own, catching the wind as it sweeps through our lives. We’re wrapped up, all of us and every part of us, around God and that’s something we can’t run away from. If we could, God wouldn’t fully know us - and we wouldn’t need to fully know God. But God’s entangled, through the Spirit, in our lives and in all the lives around us. The promise of Pentecost isn’t wondering whether God is here. The promise of Pentecost is recognizing that God is here, entangled in our lives, wrapped around us because that’s just what God does. We are a people entangled by God - entangled by the Spirit - and entangled by Jesus. So since we’re entangled by God, than just how is God calling us be entangled in the world?   


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Give [Sermon Manuscript]

[Jesus said:] "I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.

And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.

Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth."

John 17:6-19

Pastor Marc's sermon on the Seventh Sunday of Easter (May 17, 2015) on John 17:6-19. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


When was the last time you rode off into the sunset? 

Now maybe it’s because I just came back from Denver and I have cowboys and westerns on my mind - but last Sunday, I rode off into the sunset. Well, more like I flew into a sunset. During the flight from Newark, we spent the whole time trying to catch the sun. But it wasn’t until we neared the Rocky Mountains that we got close. As we descended into Denver, the sun was supposed to be setting. But it wasn’t because we couldn’t really see it. For over a week, Denver had been suffering a miserable weather. It rained and snowed and last Sunday was the worst day of the bunch. From 38,000 feet up, we couldn’t actually see the ground, the mountains, or the city. All we saw was the tops of clouds. And the clouds looked like a giant fresh batch of cotton candy, fluffy, light, and spread out as far as the eye could see. And the sun - since it was supposedly setting - it was just at the edge of the clouds - with sunbeams kissing and bouncing through the them, giving each cloud a hint of red, orange, and yellow. It was beautiful.  

So we descended - heading right into this giant pile of cotton candy - and there was a jolt. And a little bump. We were in the cloud - and then we were out. And as I looked out the window - looking at the ground in the state I grew up in - there was snow - dirty, muddy, ugly SNOW. The sun was gone - swallowed up by the clouds - and everything was just damp, gray, and cold. We were no longer riding into the sunset, like some cowboy in an old Western, into some unknown but happy ending. Instead we were heading straight into a dark, wet, and cold world. And this is usually the opposite of what we want, isn’t it? We rarely want to head into the grime, into the snow, into the cold. We want to head the other way - into the cotton candy, sun kissed world, on the otherside. We’re looking forward to riding off into our sunsets, into stories with a happy, and continuing, ending. Yet Jesus’ words today from the Gospel of John pushes us into this unlikely journey - into a journey away from the clouds and straight into the dirt, into the cold, into the places where the sun has just been swallowed up. 

So this last week, I attended the Festival of Homiletics - which is just a fancy way of saying a conference about preaching. 1800 preachers from more than a dozen denominations and from as far away as England and Australia gathered to spend the week learning from the best-of-the-best. I’ve heard it described as “Burning-Man-For-Pastors” but to me, it felt a little more like a comic book convention - or a Comic-con for Pastors. Our favorite creators were there, giving talks on what they’ve done and what they’re going to do next. Everyone who spoke had written a book or eight - so we’ve had walk the tables to make sure we collected them all. And we’d run into our favorite preachers, we’d stop them and take a picture to share on Facebook with a caption that included more than one exclamation point. And then, when it wrapped up, we all headed home - inspired, refreshed, and recharged by the Holy Spirit - only to discover that Sunday is coming and we’ve still got to peach. I just saw the best-of-the best, bishops: professors, presidents of seminaries and some of the rock stars of the Lutheran church - and now it’s my turn. 

And I’ll admit I find this totally intimidating. Each night, after the Festival, I’d sit down, trying to write. And “trying” is the key word in that sentence. I usually just ended up with a blank screen. And then, in the middle of the night, I’d wake up - and my mind would be racing - like, even when though I was sleeping, my brain was still working on the problem of today’s sermon. And that’s my anxiety; my nerves; my fear of what’s about to come. It’s not a gripping fear. It’s not an anxiety that some of our brothers and sisters have that limit who they can see and what they can do. It’s a minor anxiety - a minor issue - but it is one of my minor darknesses that I’m bringing here today. 

And that’s the thing about darkness - we know we’ve got them. We know we carry them. And darkness come in a variety of sizes and shapes, experiences and longing. Some can be small - like my anxiety about preaching today. But other darknesses we carry are bigger. There’s the broken relationships that’ll never be mended; the words and actions spoken or done that caused hurt in the people around us. There are the times when our own greed and selfishness, our own failure to understand ourselves and others, causes darkness to spread between us and other people. We’ve carry the darkness that we’ve created - and then there’s the darkness that happens to us. Darkness that found us: Illness,  sickness, and maybe just getting old and discovering our body doesn’t work like it use to and that’ll never be like it once was. There’s also addiction and mental illness, oppression and abuse, job loss or a lack of fulfillment in what we’re doing, and then there’s all that others have done to us - that continues to shape us even today. 

And that’s a lot. Living through our own darkness or the darkness we have caused others is physically, mentally, and spiritually exhausting. And I kinda wish that was all the darkness we had because that’s more than enough. But there’s more. Turn on the news and we can see it or if we listen to those around us who suffer, we can see the darkness we’re participating in that we didn’t even know was there. And if we tried to name all of these kinds of darkness, this sermon won’t end. Earthquakes and volcanoes, climate change and pollution, civil wars and terrorism, epidemics, poverty, and hunger. There’s also political divisiveness and tyranny, mass incarceration and lack of opportunity, racism, sexism, income inequality, and the list goes on and on. The thing about darkness is that whenever we think we’re about to ride off into the sunset, ride off into a better place, the clouds of our souls, our lives, and our world can collapse in on us - and sun just seems to vanish from our sight. 

And Jesus - he gets that. He understands darkness - and he’s, at this point in the story of John, is about to experience it. Jesus is wrapping up his final teaching before his betrayal, arrest, crucifixion, and death - and so, today, we hear him praying for his disciples. But he doesn’t pray like we would hope. He doesn’t ask God to take his disciples away from him, to rapture them to someplace safe so that they won’t experience harm or illness or fear. Jesus doesn’t ask for his disciples to escape the darkness they’re about to witness or the darkness they carry within them. Jesus doesn’t ask God to let his disciples escape from a world where evil looks like it’s going to win. No, instead, Jesus asks God to protect them. Jesus asks God to protect us. Because the Christian story isn’t about escaping darkness - it’s about heading into it. We’re honest about how we have darkness, how we carry darkness, and that we sometimes perpetuate a world that values darkness, greed, and power more than it does light, love, and hope. Jesus knows that. The disciples are about to see it with Jesus tied to the cross. And so Jesus asks God to protect his disciples because Jesus didn’t come to escape from the world - he came to love it.

And that’s what we’re to do too. 

It’s why we, as a church, are in Nepal even when another massive earthquake hits the region. It’s why we were in Liberia to fight Ebola before anyone else. It’s why, wherever darkness seems to be on the march, we’re called to be there. Jesus doesn’t ask his disciples to fix their own darkness before they head into the world. Jesus, instead, sends us out in spite of the clouds in our lives. We’re not called to ride off into the sunset, away from the world, but we’re called to be the Son in the world. We’re called to bring light to dark places; to bring love where there is hatred; to offer hope where everything seems hopeless. And we’re not asked to wait until tomorrow to love the world. We’re called to love the world right now - because that’s what God did. God didn’t wait to enter our mess. God didn’t wait for Israel or Rome or the Gentiles to have their act together before Jesus showed up in Mary’s lap. God doesn’t wait for us to see the darkness before we’re brought into God’s light. We’re called to live, and be, that light. The clouds of our lives - and the clouds of the world - don’t define who we are and they don’t limit whose we are. We’re part of the body of Christ - we’re part of the Son - and the thing about the Son is that even though it looks like it’s going to set - like the clouds are going to swallow him up - we know - we trust - and we believe - that the Son will, and does, rise.



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A reflection on Acts 1:15-17,21-26

Our first reading is Acts 1:15-17,21-26.

This Easter season our texts from Acts have focused on how God breaks down the barriers we create to signal who is in God's family and who isn't. The early Christian movement grew with people who were not like the apostles and who were not Jews. As God brought different kinds of people into Christ's body, the early followers of Jesus were pushed beyond their comfort zones. The story of the early Christian movement is not just a story about a group of people who survived Christ's death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven. The story also shows how different the makeup of the movement became after Christ died. 

Today we're zooming to the beginning of Acts. The Christian movement is small and scattered. They're still figuring out what to do now that Jesus is no longer physically walking alongside them like he used to. The early disciples restructure themselves, realizing their 12 is now 11. The number 12 had special meaning for the people of Israel. It represented the 12 original tribes who settled the promised land after the Exodus from Egypt. 12 felt like a complete number so the apostles decided to find a replacement for the one who betrayed Jesus. 

Replacing Judas must have been a difficult job. We know little about Judas except for what he did. The gospels might disagree in the details about how the betrayal happened but they are firm that Judas turned Jesus over to the authorities. Judas, who was probably one of the earliest followers of Jesus, betrayed their teacher, friend, and Messiah. He broke their trust deeply and severely. Even though Acts tells us that this had to happen, that reason doesn't negate the brokenness Judas caused their community. 

So the disciples did what we do in times of transition, change, and healing: they gathered together and prayed. They asked God to help them move forward and they did this collectively, intentionally, and trusting that God would bring them through. Judas' memory and the wounds he inflicted in the community still remain. But we trust that they will be scarred over, reminding us that healing isn't only a return to how things were because even Jesus's wounds are still with him.      


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Still Speaking [Sermon Manuscript]

Jesus said: "As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another."

John 15:9-17

Pastor Marc's sermon on the Sixth Sunday of Easter (May 10, 2015) on John 15:9-17. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


Three weeks ago - there was a cartoon in the New Yorker that caught my eye. Two kids have lemonade stands. And they have all the things they need - pitchers, cups, a little sign advertising what they’re selling. One sign says “Lemonade - 20 cents a glass.” But there’s no one buying. He’s all by himself. But the other kid, his business is booming. He can’t keep his lemonade in stock. There’s a huge line - a line that extends past his yard...and into the yard of the other kid with the no one there. And this guy - everything looks exactly the same as the other kid - except his sign. It says “Lemonade Cleanse - $20 dollars a glass.” 

Now, cleanses are pretty popular. We can’t open up a fashion magazine, read something on Buzzfeed, or binge watch something on Netflix without seeing someone talking, or doing, a cleanse. There are a million different kinds of cleanses out there - but the idea behind each is the same. For a few days, we limit what we eat to only a select few items - usually some kind of juice or smoothie or something with lemon in it. And that’s all we eat - for a week. The idea is that this forces our body to restart - and pushes chemicals and other “toxins” out of our system. By following a few simple rules and committing to it for a short time - we’ll end up thinner - healthier - and happier. The science behind whether cleanses actually work is pretty thin. There’s no solid definition of what a toxin even is and whether starving ourselves in this way actually helps. But cleanses can make us feel better, at least temporarily. After a cleanse, we might feel we look better in the mirror. We might actually love our body for a minute or two. And that can feel pretty good. Really good. But it doesn’t last. What’s rooted in the idea of a cleanse is a promise. A promise that if we follow a simple set of rules, and commit ourselves to something for only a week, we can take what’s negative in us - and push it out. And this is more than just wanting to look good for, say, a high school reunion or a wedding. The big promise - the big hope - is that well be able to take what what we don’t like about ourselves and change it. We can take what’s inside us - our troubles - our failures - our mistakes - and just restart who we are. We can be better - by pushing out our bad stuff - our toxins - and it only takes drinking bitter juice for a few days to make it work. But our words from Jesus today hint at something a little different. Jesus isn’t telling his disciples about what we need to push out. He isn’t telling us what we need to get rid of. Instead, he’s telling us what we have: and that’s Jesus. 

Today’s text from the gospel according to John is a continuation of what we heard last week. We’re in the middle of Jesus’ final pre-resurrection teaching of his disciples. They’re sharing the last supper, enjoying each other’s company, and then he let’s them know that he’s about to leave. Jesus knows that the Cross is coming. And after the resurrection, after Jesus’ ascension into heaven - the disciples will still be here. They’ll have some living left to do. So Jesus is preparing them, saying goodbye, and offering words of comfort and hope, to challenge what they’re about to see. 

And this goodbye - it’s more than just a “hey, seeya later after the Resurrection” kind of thing. Reading his entire discourse - which lasts four chapters - is like watching a Jesus waterfall. Words and images and metaphors just keep coming out - over and over again. Mansions and Vines, Love and Commandments - the words spill out - hitting the disciples on the head over and over again. He’s about to be betrayed. He’s about to be arrested. He’s about to hang on a Cross. And the disciples are about to lose him - Jesus presence with them is about to change - it’s about to feel very different. And the disciples have no idea that this is about to happen. But Jesus does. And in his words, Jesus can’t stop sharing with them, what even death can’t cause them to lose: and that’s him. We have Jesus - always. And this is something that we need to be reminded about over and over and over again. 

Today, we’re going to celebrate and share in part 2 of our First Communions this year. Just a couple weeks ago, we joined with five young people as they received Holy Communion for the first time [at 10:30]. And today, the good times keep rolling as we celebrate with Ava and Caroline and receive Jesus at His table. So as I prepared for today - holding Jesus’ words next to what we experienced in our classes together - from reading the Last Supper over and over, to picturing what Jesus’ table actually looked like - to even making chef hats and having to mix the dough for communion bread by hand after the mixer almost caught on fire...what I’m taking out of our time together - is a set of words that Caroline, Ava, and the other students really bought into. It became like a motto for our class. Jesus, in Holy Communion, is all about giving a little piece of himself to us. In fact, Jesus is in the business of giving a little piece of himself to us. That’s just what Jesus does. In today’s text, he could have called the disciples out. He could have dismissed them for their failures, their betrayals, their running away when Jesus is on trial. But, at this meal, Jesus isn’t focused on their failures. He’s not telling them to take a cleanse, to push out their toxins - the toxins that will try to separate them from Jesus once the Roman Empire’s executioners start their work. No, Jesus does something very different. He reminds them, over and over, about what they will be given and what they’ll get - and that’s Jesus. 

That’s his promise. That’s what Jesus gives us. He promises, right now, to give a little bit of himself to us. And this is pretty amazing. It’s surprising too because this promise isn’t made true through our experiences. It doesn’t matter if we’ve had a religious experience this week or if we walked into church this morning with some doubt, some questions, and maybe a ton of unbelief. Jesus’ presence here doesn’t depend on us. It depends on Him. And Holy Communion is Jesus shouting as loud as he can that he is here for you.

That kind of giving is just what Jesus does. 

And Jesus gives so that we can give just like him.    

There’s an invitation inherent in this communion that we all share - an invitation that will be strengthened for Caroline and Ava today. As Jesus gives us a little bit of himself - a little bit of his body - his sweat - his tears - his joy - and his love - giving becomes our job too. That person sitting next to us - they’re suppose to get a little bit of us too. The person outside - the person down the road - the person in the next state, the next country, the next continent over - as Jesus gives to us, so we’re called to give to them as well. As we’re fed, they’re to be fed. As we have a place to live, so are they to have a safe home too. As we live - so should everyone else too. And we don’t do this because our fears, troubles, failures, and sins have somehow been cleansed from deep inside of us. We’re still going to mess up. We’re still going to miss not seeing our neighbor in need or we’ll let our own fears stop us from giving what we can so that our neighbor no longer worries where their next meal is coming from. But our failures don’t stop God’s promises and our sins don’t overcome Jesus’ love. He comes to us over and over again because, like those early disciples, we need it. We need to be reminded over and over again what we have and what we keep being given. We have Jesus. We are his. And he’s in the business of giving a bit of himself to us no matter where we are or how far we try to run from him - because Jesus’ promise, Jesus’ hope, Jesus’ love - well - that trumps our toxins any day of the week. 



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A reflection on Acts 10:44-48

Our first reading is Acts 10:44-48.

Today's first reading from Acts is the climax of a much longer story. A roman soldier named Cornelius receives a vision from God to invite Peter into his home. Cornelius represents a kind of spirituality prevalent in Jesus' time: the God-fearers. God-fearers were Gentiles (non-Jews) who believed and worshiped God but they were not full converts. They had not fully joined the Jewish community. So an angel of God tells Cornelius to invite Peter into his home so that Cornelius can hear more about Jesus. 

So, in response, Cornelius sends a few people to find Peter. Before they arrive, however, Peter has a strange dream where a picnic blanket falls from the sky that's full of foods he shouldn't eat. Peter's a practicing Jew who believes Jesus is the messiah so he follows the food laws. He knows what God has told him not to eat. But God tells Peter to eat what's considered "unclean" because God has cleansed it. When Peter wakes up, he's confused by what's happened but before he can think about it too much, the visitors arrive. Peter greets them and offers them food and housing for the night. Refreshed, all return to Cornelius the next day. And as Peter and Cornelius talks, Peter finally gets what God is telling him. 

God is doing something new in Jesus. The traditional understanding of who is part of God's family and who isn't is broken down. God is opening the faith community to those who aren't Jewish. God is inviting unexpected people into God's family and Peter is called to recognize that. Peter isn't causing new people to join the Christian community; he's recognizing how God is doing that and he's just welcoming them in. 

Today's text is funny because it occurs when Peter is preaching. The Holy Spirit interrupts him so Peter stops and sees God at work around him. Peter recognizes God operating in people who are not like him. And the only thing he can do is to baptize them and include them more fully into Christ's body. We're invited to be like Peter, to see God at work in unexpected people and in unexpected places. God is busy making the Christ known in amazing ways. It's our job to find where it's happening and walk with God there.


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A reflection on Acts 8:26-40

Our first reading is Acts 8:26-40: Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. 

There's something fantastical and boundary breaking by being part of the body of Christ.

Today's story in Acts comes at a time when the Christ movement starts to break out from Jerusalem. For the first 7 chapters, Acts is laser focused on how the early church grew and developed around the Temple. But then chapter 8 starts and the movement expands. Stephen is killed and everyone but the apostles flee the city. As these early disciples enter the surrounding areas, they begin to bring Jesus to new people and new groups. Philip meets the Samaritans, a religious and cultural group that shared much with the Jewish identity but disagreed with how (and where) God was worshipped, hear Christ's story. The cultural and religious boundaries between the Jews and the Samaritans are transcended by Jesus and many Samaritans become believers. Then Philip is told to take a long walk between Jerusalem and Gaza where he happens upon the Ethiopian Eunuch.

Up until the modern era, eunuch's served a variety of roles in the courts of kings and queens. They were viewed as "safe" since they wouldn't be able to produce offspring with women (or feel the need to). So eunuchs were given important roles, serving as generals, secretaries, and oversaw the money in the treasury. Even though eunuchs could be politically powerful, they were also viewed as outsiders. Eunuchs wouldn't be allowed to worship like others or participate in religious rituals that non-eunuchs found life giving and wonderful. The Ethiopian eunuch who goes to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem is a complete outsider. He wouldn't be welcomed to worship like everyone else and those living in Jerusalem view him with suspicion. There is a large cultural difference between the eunuch and Philip and, in many ways, they shouldn't interact at all. But they do. The Holy Spirit actually orders Philip to breakout of his own cultural story and interact with someone from a completely different background. 

When Philip arrives at the eunuch's side, he finds the eunuch reading Isaiah 53 out loud. In these words pointing to the Suffering Servant, Philip hears and recognizes Jesus. And once Philip hears Jesus, he is compelled to tell the eunuch about him. Jesus' story breaks through the differences between these two. Their different cultures, nationality, and sexual identity doesn't interfere with the Spirit including both of them in Jesus' body. Once the eunuch is baptized, Philip is whisked away and Philip's journey continues. The Spirit continues to use disciples to breakdown social barriers and making the body of Christ bigger and more diverse than it was before. The Spirit doesn't seem interested in making sure we're all the same. The Spirit, instead, wants everyone to know that God loves them and Christ died for them. And that's a message that can't be contained by any one culture, nationality, race, or group. 


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Fruit For Whom? [Sermon Manuscript]

[Jesus said:] "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples."

John 15:1-8

Pastor Marc's sermon on the Fifth Sunday of Easter (May 3, 2015) on Luke 2:22-40. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


So what treasure did you find at yesterday’s Trash & Treasure sale? 

Now, most of my sermons aren’t show and tell - but I’m too proud with what I found, not to share. So this, right here, is what Trash & Treasure got me. I know, it’s small - and from the back, you probably can’t see it, but what I have here is a set of action figures. But not just any kind of action figures - these are original, straight from 1978, Star Wars action figures. We’ve got two Storm Troopers, Darth Vadar in an awesome vinyl cape, Obi Wan Kenobi who does this thing where a lightsaber shoots out of his arm and an R2D2 that has...well... seen better days. Now these action figures aren’t the only thing that ended up on my tab during my first experience of Trash & Treasure - and I’d be pretty selfish to think that this last month spent collecting clothing and other donations - all the countless volunteers who were here day in and day out and all last week, sorting boxes, cleaning donations, making sure the volunteers were fed, and then the 90 folks from this church and the wider community who were here helping the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people who actually came to the sale - I’d be selfish to think all of that was just so I could get these little action figures. But, in some ways, my immediate fruit - my immediate treasure - from this amazing endeavor is this set of plastic action figures. 

Now the idea of fruit - or treasure - is one of the central themes in our gospel text today. In the Gospel according to John, chapters 14 through 17 is Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse.” Jesus and his disciples are in Jerusalem, gathered together for their Last Supper - and Jesus is trying to prepare them for what’s to come. Good Friday is on its way. Jesus is about to be arrested and killed by the Roman authorities. So he’s using this moment to try and share what God is calling these disciples to be once Jesus is gone. Jesus isn’t trying to change what happens - but he’s sharing with the disciples how they should live once Jesus no longer physically walks alongside them like he used to. And Jesus opens this section with: “I am the true vine.” 

Now, these five words have kind of haunted me this week. They’ve been here, right in front of me, hovering over everything I see and do. And I’ve been holding these words up, next to not only what’s happened here - our Trash & Treasure Sale - but also what’s happened Baltimore - where protests, marches, and unrest arose in response to the death of Freddie Gray while he was in the police custody - and I’ve also held these words from Jesus up next to what’s happened Nepal where a tragic earthquake has left over 7,000 dead. When something amazing happens, like our sale where thousands of dollars was raised to be given to charities and organizations all over the world, it’s easy to see Jesus as the vine; easy to see his church doing what branches from a vine do - growing fruit, giving that fruit away, helping feed and nourish the community around us. When we’re fruitful in this way, it’s easy to see - and witness - Jesus’ fruitfulness too. 

But Jesus is also the vine in places where fruitfulness is harder to see. He’s the Vine in Baltimore - where we saw these mass protests exposed the fractured communities within Baltimore and show how the continued legacy of slavery and racism still impacts us today. Jesus is also the Vine in Nepal - where a massive earthquake last leveled entire villages, leaving hundreds of thousands homeless. Fruitfulness can be seen in the response to such events - but trying to see fruitfulness in these events themselves - is difficult. Jesus, in many ways, becomes blurred. His presence unsure. When we ask the question of why - why an earthquake had to hit Nepal or why, 150 years after the American Civil War, racism still dictates too much of our common political and social life - these whys hang there, out in the open, hovering over our collective life together. They’re just there - part of the fabric of who we are. They abide - they live - with us and our communities, like a silent roommate, on the outskirts of our minds but making an impact on our lives. They influence our decisions. They influence our faith. They bear witness to the fact that so much of our lives can feel, and be, just one giant unanswerable why. Yesterday, as I watched people buy things I never thought would actually sell, I just wanted to ask them why. But there’s also the deeper, more serious, whys. Why am I sick? Why am I alone? Why is everything going wrong? We carry these whys with us, individually and collectively. We abide - we live with - these whys. 

But maybe that’s part of Jesus’s point here. Maybe Jesus is trying to get us to see these whys. The disciples, gathered at the Last Supper, are about to ask a lot of whys. They’re going to see their teacher betrayed, their Rabbi arrested, and their Messiah killed. And then he’ll rise from the dead. That’s a lot of whys to live with - a lot of whys to abide in - a lot of whys to push, pull, and grab our attention. So Jesus pulls them out of it. “I’m the vine,” he says, “look at me.” Look at the one who’s walked with us this far - who sat at our table, who shared a meal with us, who heard our heartaches, joys, fears, and hopes. The whys - those unanswerable questions will always be with us. They will live with us, walk with us, abide in who we are and in everything we do. But look at me, says Jesus - Abide in me - and these questions, these concerns, they no longer define, ultimately,  who we are. 

And that’s because Jesus is the vine - and we aren’t. We, and what we carry with us, aren’t the source. We’re just branches - branches who’ve been brought to Jesus through our baptism - brought into a source that won’t let these hard whys limit who we are and what we do. These questions aren’t the only roommate we carry along. Through thick and thin, Jesus is there because that’s what it means to abide. Jesus dwells with us - in all aspects of our lives - from the sore backs earned raising money that will help people we’ll never meet - and he abides with us when we stare at the ceiling, late at night, with questions and fears that don’t seem to end. 

And yet abiding is more than just a presence; abiding empowers transformation. As we live and walk with Jesus, we are invited to be like him - to live and walk with others - to abide with them. And that’s why we started today with a prayer and litany for the people and servants of Baltimore and why we’re raising funds to help the people in Nepal and why we’ll be reading prayer requests made by folks who came to our sale yesterday in a little bit. We abide with others because Jesus abides with us. We walk with those in distress because Jesus walks with us. We love - praying and acting so that that all can live the life God wants them to have - and we do this because Jesus loves us. That’s our treasure. That’s our gift. That’s why over 80 volunteers yesterday served the hundreds of people who came through these doors, spending money that will be used to help us abide with families through the Center for Food Action, abide with communities suffering natural disasters, and abide with those around the world who struggle to have access to clean water. 

The hard questions and those experiences in our lives that just seem to happen or are a legacy of a history that we didn’t create - these whys will always be apart of us. They will always push and pull at our soul, trying to determine who we are or deciding where we’ll go. But these questions aren’t our vine - they’re not the source of who we our and where we are going. Our vine - our source - our hope is Jesus - who abides in us and we abide in him. God’s love is what holds us and claims us. Our whys can’t separate us from that. So as we are held, Jesus calls us to do what he does - entering into the lives of those around us, abiding and loving them - because as branches - as disciples of Jesus Christ - we can’t do anything less. 



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