Questions and Reflections

May 2018

Uh oh. John 3:16.

John 3:16 is one of the most famous verses of the New Testament. It has become, over the years, the text used to define what it means to follow Jesus. When someone hands you a religious piece of paper while you are walking on the street or waves a sign while sitting in a football stadium, they are acting as if God is waiting on you to make a choice. The choice is simple: choose Jesus or choose the world. And once you choose Jesus, God will choose you.

But is this the point of John 3:16? I don’t think so. When we leave scripture in scripture, John 3:16 (by reading John 3:1-17)becomes less about the choice we make and more about the choice that God has already made. Jesus, God incarnate, is having a conversation with a guy named Nicodemus. God is already there. Jesus is a human being taking the steps that will lead him to the cross. God has already made the choice to love the world. Nicodemus thought he was the one choosing to come to Jesus. But he is suddenly realizing that Jesus came to him.

In a recent article in the Christian Century, Thomas Long shared a story that the former publisher of the magazine, John Buchanan, once told him. The publisher was a pastor and was baptizing a two-year old child. He read the standard pronouncement from the prayer book: “You are a child of God, sealed by the Spirit in your baptism, and you belong to Jesus Christ forever.” Unexpectedly, the child responded, “uh-oh.” “Nicodemus’s response to Jesus could be heard as a shocked, ‘uh-oh.’ Moving politely toward Jesus with an inquiry, Nicodemus alarmingly finds Jesus moving toward him to rescue him, to transform him, to save him.”

The Christian life isn’t about choosing Jesus. Instead, it’s about noticing that Jesus already chose us. If we’re not saying “uh-oh” to the God who is making us into something brand new, we’re not realizing what Jesus is actually doing. Following Jesus means we will end up following something other than ourselves. Jesus doesn’t keep us where we are comfortable. He takes us to the place where we will be transformed. And once we’re transformed, we’ll discover who God is calling us to be.


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Holy, holy, what: is our vision of God as strange as it should be? [Sermon Manuscript]

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.

And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

Isaiah 6:1-8

My sermon from Trinity Sunday (May 27, 2018) on Isaiah 6:1-8. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


What does heaven look like?

I bet if I handed out a piece of paper and some crayons to everyone, each one of us could dream up some far out visions of what heaven might look like. Several of us would color pictures full of blue skies with white fluffy clouds floating by. Others might include some pearly gates, roads covered in gold, and angels flying everywhere. More might decide that heaven needs people. So we’d include pictures of loved ones, making sure each person looked their best. We might want to include images from nature, like mountain ranges with amazing vistas and tropical paradises with white sandy beaches. Each one of our pictures would be different but I’m pretty sure all of them, whether we can draw or not, would be something beautiful. Heaven, I think, should be beautiful. It should be almost indescribable. Because when we imagine being with God, basking in God's perpetual light, there’s no one word in the English language that can fully describe what we’d actually see. Heaven is more than just a place that looks good. It’s a reality that gives us a sense of wholeness, comfort, and peace. Heaven should feel like we’re finally home because heaven is beauty, peace, hope, and love made real. Heaven, in other words, should be gorgeous. But what if it isn’t? What if heaven is very strange? What if heaven isn’t only blue skies and white fluffy clouds but is more like the image described in our first reading from Isaiah today?

Isaiah, in this passage, is experiencing a vision. He meets God in the place where God promise to be, and all Isaiah can initially see is the very bottom of God’s robe. God, it seems, is sitting on an elevated throne, high in the sky. And hanging down, filling the entire space, is God’s massive robe. Now, imagine, if you can, the hem - the very bottom of a robe - filling up the this entire church. But don’t stop there. Also imagine that this robe engulfs the parking lot outside, the housing subdivisions all around us, and it covers the reservoir and even fills up the sky. This is the massive, gigantic, and overwhelming reality that Isaiah has to grapple with. Yet this vision of heaven, of the Temple, of hanging out in the place God promises to be,  doesn’t end with only this overpowering picture of God. The vision continues with these strange flying creatures called seraphim who are like flying serpents filling the sky. These creatures who are tending to God each have six wings. Two cover their eyes, shielding themselves from looking directly at God’s face. They use two more wings to cover themselves, keeping everything discreet. The other set of wings are the ones they actually use to fly. And as they fly, these strange creatures begin uttering a phrase we are familiar with: holy, holy, holy. Yet the seraphim are probably not singing these words in a beautiful and melodic way. No, these “holies” are harsh, loud, and downright terrifying. They shake the very walls of this version of heaven and fill the place full of dense smoke. This vision is downright terrifying. And it’s one where every one of our senses is overpowered and where all our expectations about God’s house is undone. The beauty of heaven as we imagine it to be runs head first into the reality of who God is. And it’s at that moment when Isaiah does the only thing he can do: he admits exactly who he is. And then a seraph comes down, with a piece of red hot coal, to cleanse his words by burning his lips.

I don’t know about you but this vision of God’s holy house doesn’t really match up with my own understanding of what being with God is like. But - maybe it should. Because our image of who God is influences what we expect God to be. And if our image of God, of this Father and Son and Holy Spirit; if this image is soft, and beautiful, and very peaceful - then we might not be seeing how incredible God actually is. God should do more than inspire our sense of peace. God should inspire our wonder. God should do more than meet our expectations. God, instead, should make our mouths hang open in awe. And once we finally get it, once we finally realize how indescribable and unimaginable God actually is - it’s then when we realize a fundamental truth about who we are. God is strange and terrifying and loving and peaceful all at the same time. Which means there really is a God and we’re not it. We are not the center of the universe. We are not the ones in control. We are just us: human beings that are imperfect, small, and sometimes broken. The God who we worship and celebrate and who connects with us each and every day is a God that is so vast, so massive, so indescribable that even the prophet Isaiah only got a hint of just how incredible our God actually is.

Now, our vision of heaven, of what it’s like to hang out with God, should, I think, include blue skies, angelic beings, and every beautiful thing we can imagine. Because this is the image of God’s kingdom that we see expressed in the garden of Eden. This is the image of God’s realm that Jesus’ ministry pointed to and what he worked to bring about. The golden roads, beautiful scenery, and a heavenly city full of people is the vision of what forever looks like in the book of Revelation. Our relationship with God is an honest-to-goodness treasure and our faith is a beautiful jewel that will hold us forever. But this God who is our treasure is also a God full of strangeness and awe. And that’s a good thing. Because it takes a strange kind of God to do that very strange kind of thing and decide to become like Isaiah, small and human and cowering in God’s throne room. It is the God who is beyond measure who chooses to become just like us. Because the only thing that can match God’s indescribable reality is God’s indescribable love. We are not the center of the universe but God has decided that you are the center of God’s. And so God doesn’t wait for us to be ready for heaven before God shows up. Instead, Jesus comes down and through his life and cross, we see what God’s kingdom of hope, love, and mercy looks like. And then, through our baptism, through our faith, and through the simple act of being fed at the Lord’s table, we discover just how central all people are to God. The heaven we imagine will never be as strange as we need it to be. Because it’s only a strange kind of God who would decide that each of us, as we are, are necessary for the new reality that God is bringing about.





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Bigger than ourselves. From Pastor Marc - My Message for the Messenger, June 2018 Edition

15. 1500. 30,000. What do these three numbers have in common? They show how we are part of something bigger than ourselves.

June is a month where we will celebrate just how connected we are. When Jesus claimed us in our baptism, he did more than connect us to himself. He united us with everyone else whom he claimed as his own. Our faith is designed to be a team sport. We cannot follow Jesus on our own. We need others to pray for us. We need others to support us. We need others to love because Jesus loved us first. We are called to be people who connect, forming a community that is even bigger than Christ Lutheran Church's walls.

On June 3rd, we will hold a special congregational meeting to discuss what it takes to be a community of faith. We'll have one worship service at 9:30 am. Our congregational meeting will take place immediately after. After the meeting, we will then bless our Genesis Garden. The Genesis Garden is in its 33rd year. Together, we will raise over 1500 lbs. of fresh produce to donate to the Center for Food Action in Englewood. When we work together, we make a real difference. On June 10th, Lutheran youth (8th grade and up) from around Northern New Jersey will attend our 9:00 am worship. Afterwards, they'll share brunch and go for a hike nearby. The first meeting of this new initiative met in May at Calvary Lutheran in Allendale. Youth from CLC had a great time, even discovering classmates at their schools who were Lutherans, just like them. We can't wait to welcome these amazing kids to CLC. On June 17th, we'll honor all graduates as we start our summer worship schedule. We're proud of everyone who completed their schoolwork and are now taking that next step in their lives. And finally, on June 24th, we'll host our annual Blessing of the Animals. We'll worship in the Opsal (Fellowship) Hall. All critters, large and small, are welcome to attend. If your pet friend doesn't like large crowds, feel free to bring a picture (even if it's on your phone), and I'll say a blessing over it. We'll also celebrate our youth and adults who will be attending the ELCA Youth Gathering in Houston where over 30,000 people will gather for worship, service and fun.

This is a month where we will connect as a community. This is a month where we will see how we can do so much when we are together. I can't wait to see you as a part of it.

See you in church! Pastor Marc


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God's Imagination: isn't limited by ours. [Sermon Manuscript]

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

Acts 2:1-21

My sermon from Pentecost (May 20, 2018) on Acts 2:1-21. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


It’s been a good few weeks for Church fashion, hasn’t it? Just two weeks ago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute held their annual gala, showcasing their new exhibit “Heavenly bodies: fashion and the Catholic imagination.” Celebrities from all over the world were there and many dressed themselves according to the theme. Marjorie Harvey wore a black dress covered in the kind of jeweled crosses you would see in a Mexican cathedral. Janelle Monae wore a hat with a large gold brim, mimicking the golden halos surrounding the heads of saints in orthodox icons and medieval art. Nicki Minaj’s dress would fit in perfectly with the red flames surrounding us right now. And Rihanna was the most glittery and shiny bishop that I’ve ever seen. The MET gala was an amazing event because fashion designers took seriously all of Christian tradition, showing  how deep, complex, and tender our relationship with Jesus can be. And then yesterday, I, like many of you, woke up in the wee hours of the morning to watch the Royal Wedding. Now, since I’m a bit of a church nerd, I wasn’t really paying attention to the guest list or what Meghan Markle’s dress would look like. Instead, I was focused on the Dean of the Chapel’s robe, on the long golden cape and stole the Archbishop of Canterbury wore, and on what the Rev. Michael Curry, presiding bishop of our friends in the Episcopal Church, would end up bringing. The mountains of flowers, the long trains, the golden jewels, rich fabrics, and over the top hats might seem a little much to our more Lutheran, more Ikea-like, kind of taste. Yet each piece of clothing, surrounded by ornate wooden carvings and stunning stained glass windows that stretched in a chapel space with a ceiling that felt like it was 150 feet high - everything at that Royal Wedding, just like at the MET gala, was rooted at the intersection of faith and imagination. The art we surround ourselves with; the clothes and robes we wear; the words we speak and the songs we sing - all of it, I believe, are centered in that place where faith and creativity begins. And we call that place, this weird, unseen, almost strange kind of force - the Holy Spirit.

Now I’m sure, when the apostles were hanging out together on the day of Pentecost, no one was really focused on what they were wearing. There was no red carpet or fashion critics live tweeting their hit takes. The followers of Jesus were just there, a group of devout Jews, praying and worshiping together in the city of Jerusalem. Jesus had died, was raised from the dead, and had ascended into heaven. Jesus told his followers to stay in Jerusalem and wait for the Holy Spirit. And so they did. They waited. And they waited. And then they waited some more. I imagine that some of the disciples got a little antsy while they were waiting. Scripture doesn’t tell us much about what they did while they waited or what their mindset might have been. But I know, for myself, I would have expected the Holy Spirit to show up on day 1. And then, when it didn’t, I’d tell myself: “well, it took 3 days for Jesus to be raised so we’ll just wait until then.” And then when day 4 showed up, and still no overt expression of the Holy Spirit could be seen, I’d remember that it was around day 4 when some disciples came back after meeting Jesus on the road to Emmaus. But then day 5 would come. And then six and seven. I’d start to wonder if the Holy Spirit showed up already and maybe I missed it. Or maybe it was already here, just super subtle, like a thought or an idea that sits in the back of your brain; it’s always there but you sort of ignore it unless you think about it. By day 8, I’d want to do anything; to feel like I’m not wasting my time. And then on day 9, I’d totally waste my time by playing games and cleaning up my apartment. When day 10 finally showed up, I’d be grateful that it was Pentecost, this Jewish holiday where thousands of people from all over the world came to worship God in the Temple in Jerusalem. I couldn’t wait to join the crowd; to worship God with special rituals, fancy clothes, and prayers we say only once a year. I’d want to use this event as an excuse to get out of my own imagination because my imagination kept expecting, kept demanding for the Holy Spirit to show up when I was ready for it. But the Spirit didn’t listen. And now, caught in the long pause between the original promise of Jesus - of his presence and of his love - to where we are right now, when this waiting has made our passion cool; when the waiting has made our expectations dim; when the waiting has made our faith something we live with rather than live for - it’s then when the burning fire of the Spirit; it’s then when the mighty wind of God’s love blows through - ending our waiting and creating something unexpectedly new.

This new thing, this Holy Spirit, is God’s imagination at work. And since God’s imagination has always been at work, from the creation of universe to the life and cross of Jesus and is even active today, the Holy Spirit has always been here. Yet the Holy Spirit needed to come to the disciples in this intense way because God’s imagination needed to become theirs. We know that our imaginations, rooted in our common humanity, comes with all the baggage being human has. It means we’re not perfect. It means we know sin. It means we will experience and witness and sometimes cause, through our action and inaction, a brokenness that breaks our hearts and God’s. We know that our imaginations are filled with fear of what might happen on a field trip or what kind of gun violence will happen at a school. We know how the anxiety caused by illness or injury can fill up every moment of our lives. We know how the limits to our imagination can cut us off from talking, serving, and even living with people we disagree with. And we know how easy it is to imagine walls around us. The lives we live influence and reinforce the imagination we carry with us. But the limits to our imagination won’t limit God’s. And the Holy Spirit is here, lighting a fire of love under us, so that we can live lives that reflect God’s full and rich imagination. This imagination includes a community that is more than just you and me. It includes all nationalities and all languages. It includes all genders and ages; all rich and all poor. It’s a community that loves and serves and cares, bearing each other’s burdens and living lives where love becomes all that we do. And it’s a community that requires you. It requires Grace and Julia. It requires all of us. Because we, whether we imagine it or not, are part of God’s imagination. We are part of what God is doing in the world. We are caught up in the fire of the Spirit, here to make know in words and in actions how much Jesus’ love matters. This imagination will sometimes look like a tuxedo made out of a preacher’s stole or a dress looking like the story of salvation as told by a stained glass window. This imagination will look like a garden whose vegetables are given away to those in need and will look like a home cooked meal given to a family suffering an unexpected crisis. God’s imagination will look like a group of 7th and 8th graders who spend 2 years discovering new words for their lifetime of faith. And it’ll look like a descendant of slaves standing in a chapel in England, preaching with slave spirituals to a royal power that once sold Africans in a colony across the sea. God’s imagination is vast. God’s imagination is moving. God’s imagination is being lived out right here. And this imagination, this Holy Spirit, this life centered in the hope and promise of Jesus Christ, begins and ends, with an almost unimaginable love that includes even you.




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Go Away: Does Jesus leave us?

Is it really to our advantage if Jesus goes away?

One of the odd parts of today’s ready from the gospel according to John 15:26-27;16:4-15 is Jesus’ talk about going away. He’s promises that he is leaving. This seems to contradict other pieces of scripture, especially in Matthew, that Jesus is “God with us” and he will be with us until the end of the age. It’s easier (and more comforting!) to talk about Jesus’ being with us, right now. A Jesus who is with us is a Jesus who makes a difference. So what can we do with a Jesus who is about to walk out the front door?

One thing we can do is look at the context of this passage. Jesus is in the middle of his long sermon preparing his followers for what comes next. Jesus, in John, knows he will be killed. His reality is going to change. The people who experienced him in person are, after the Cross, going to experience him in a different way. Jesus, who ate, slept, and sweated just like the rest of u. But now he is becoming something new. That newness is a type of leaving. Jesus’s followers will need to learn how to hold onto Jesus once Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension are the current reality. Their old experience of Jesus will be replaced by something they didn’t plan or expect. And the new thing that will make this happen is, according to the gospel of John, the Holy Spirit.

It’s the Holy Spirit that helps all of us to experience Jesus in different ways. It’s the Holy Spirit that helps us see the Jesus who is (in the Spirit), right before us. It’s the Holy Spirit that gives us the faith to trust that God’s promises are meant for you and for me. And Jesus’ chooses to make himself known to us through the Spirit. We are here, right now, because the Holy Spirit brought us here. God needed you in this space, to hear the words of God’s promises, and to experience the community God has brought into being The Holy Spirit is how God connects, serves, and loves all of us. And the Spirit is the only thing that can inspire us to connect, serve, and love each other in the exact same way.


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In the Name Of: Defining Testimony with Mother Mitties

If we receive human testimony, the testimony of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that he has testified to his Son.

Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts. Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son. And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.

1 John 5:9-13

My sermon from the 7th Sunday of Easter (May 13, 2018) on 1 John 5:9-13. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


One question I’m often asked when I meet someone for the very first time and I’m in my pastor’s uniform is: “what should I call you?” They, like most of us, get confused by what to call pastors because every flavor of Christianity calls their clergy by different names. I usually respond to this question with “I prefer Pastor Marc but I’ll respond to basically anything…” which is true. Depending on who I’m with, I’ve been called Rev, minister, reverend, pastor, brother, priest, prophet, teacher, elder, and even bishop. Some traditions that only have lay pastors merely call me by my first name or “Mr. Stutzel” if they’re feeling formal. But besides pastor, the number one title someone I don’t know usually uses is… Father. And that was true even before I had kids. I’m honored that many people equate my Lutheran identity with their understanding of what a catholic priest should be. We should celebrate when all of us affirm the leaders in other flavors of Christianity as being legitimate in the vast community that is the body of Christ. But I’ve never really been comfortable being called “Father” because that term is usually restricted to one gender. “Father” narrows who we believe an ordained clergy person could be even though our Lutheran Church has ordained women as pastors for almost 50 years. But I’ll admit I never really spent too much time thinking about the term growing up because it was a term I was always surrounded by. Even though I was lapsed Catholic, my great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, and friends always used the term “Father” so it was a phrase that felt very normal to me. It wasn’t until I attended an Episcopal seminary, which is a tradition that calls their pastors priests, that I actually asked the question about what a woman priest might call herself. And it was there when I finally met the few women priests who are called “Mother.”

Now, not every woman priest in the Episcopal Church goes by “Mother.” We should never assume to call a woman with a collar “Mother” without asking first. Because both titles, Mother and Father, are emotionally and spiritually loaded. They come with all sorts of baggage - baggage to us given by how our society describes what mothers and fathers should be and the baggage we carry based on our own experience of our parents, grandparents, and guardians. I, personally, don’t like being called “Father” and I sometimes stumble over the names of clergy who identify in such a way. And so, when I went to seminary, it took time for me to get use to calling certain clergy Mother. But there was one Mother there who embraced and lived into everything that term might mean.

Her name was Mitties (like Kitties but with an M) Dechamplain and she was my preaching professor at seminary. We didn’t call her professor or Rev or minister or pastor. All of us simply called her “Mother Mitties.”

Now, “Mother Mitties” preaching classes weren't complicated but they were hard. We read and listened to a lot of sermons. We spent time digging into the different styles, formats, and methods to craft this thing called “the sermon.” Some days we would preach in front of all our classmates and receive their feedback right after it happened we. Our sermons were also be recorded on video so we could do that uncomfortable thing of actually watching ourselves, learning how others experience us in the pulpit. One of the more nerve wracking assignments that we did multiple times was when we were given a piece of scripture to preach on ….and we only had five minutes to prepare. None of us in these class could be called, I think, natural preachers. It takes time, effort, and practice to learn how to preach. Yet Mother Mitties’ goal wasn’t to train us to preach in only one kind of way. She knew that there wasn’t one kind of format, one set of words, that all people, everywhere, would respond to in a faithful way. Instead, she wanted each of us to find our voice, to find our personal style of communicating that was authentically and faithfully who we are. She knew that the church needed more than just a bunch of clones that sounded just like she did. God, believe it or not, really does want more than one kind of voice that’s out there sharing God’s story. Mother Mitties wanted all of us to see how God already was molding us into the mouthpieces God wanted us to be. Our lives, our experiences, our questions, and our faith,  formed by following Jesus wherever he goes, is how all of us - preachers, seminarians, church goers, adults, and even children, discover how we are testifiers. And it’s through our stories, our storytelling, our testimony, that others finally meet and see Jesus.

Helping others meet and see really what testimony is all about. And it’s this kind of testimony that the church is all about too. This space, right here, where we gather to pray, sing, and experience Jesus’ story, is a testimony to who God is and how much God loves us. But this space, this worship, is a training ground. It’s here, through our confession and forgiveness, where we learn how to name the deep brokenness in our lives and in our world. We gain, in this time together, opportunities to admit our need to be prayed for and how the power of our prayers can refresh, heal, and bring peace to those around us. We discover, through scripture, just how serious God is about living with us right now - not because we're perfect but because God’s grace is. We sing, and stand in body and in spirit, shaking hands, and move about because faith is a full contact sport - and every bit of your body matters to God. And when we together kneel at the rail to share Jesus’ holy meal, sometimes surrounded by people we don’t know, we see how our unity in Christ overcomes the barriers and differences we create between us. Being honest about who we are; being willing to name just how much we need God; and seeing everything that Jesus has done for us does - we do that every time we worship. And that’s what testimony is. Testimony isn’t about finding a set of magic words with the right amount of thees and thous and other colorful language that makes us sound more faithful than we might actually be. Testimony is simply using the words we already have to tell our story and why Jesus makes a difference. Now, at first, if we’ve never spoken in that way before, will sound and feel incredibly awkward. And that’s okay. Giving testimony takes practice. And you’re gonna believe, more often than not, that the words you share about Jesus sounds almost ridiculous and you can’t imagine why anyone would listen to them. But they will because the words you speak will be the words God has already given you. And when you speak, when you share your faith, you aren’t doing it alone. Because you are, right now, in the Son. You are, right now, journeying with Jesus. You are, right now, following Jesus even when if it feels like Jesus is far away. And you are, right now, authentically and faithfully, loved. This is the testimony. This is your testimony. And this is a testimony that all of us, in the eternal words of Mother Mitties, can “preach [and share]  with abandon.”





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If you could eavesdrop on Jesus, what would you want to hear?

Today's reading from the gospel according to John 17:6-19 is portion of Jesus' final prayer during John's version of the Last Supper. For the last four chapters, Jesus has been preparing his followers for his eventual death, resurrection, and ascension. He's showing them how they will live when he is with them in a new way. Through acts of love (foot washing), community (a meal), teaching, and prayer, Jesus is putting together a vision of their life will look like. And so Jesus wraps up this section with a prayer that everyone hears.

As you listen to this prayer today, it might sound a bit like word salad. Thoughts, ideas, and phrases are repeated in an almost haphazard way. Jesus talks about what he has done, what he wants the Creator to do, and what he hopes his disciples will do too. The words spiral around, leaving us confused and a bit upside down. But this spiral does end. The spiral, unlike a circle, is taking us somewhere. When we are confronted by a text like this, we are invited to spend less time figuring it out and, instead, letting the words take us to someplace new. 

In the words of Mark Hoffman, a professor at the United Lutheran Seminary, this passage "functions better as a meditative prayer than as a spoken text. It is like a fabric woven with repeating words and themes." As you listen to the text and read it again at home, what words and themes speak to you? Where is the text taking you? Are you drawn to Jesus' relationship to the world and his call to break out of your  comfort zone? Or are you hearing Jesus' truth, his call to be sanctified (made holy), or wondering what word God has given you? Either way, Jesus' prayer in John 17 is not meant for us to read once and assume we have figured it out. It's designed for us to eavesdrop on, over and over again, so that we can discover what life with him, right now, actually looks like. 


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Everybody: Faith changes. And that's okay.

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?

This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.

1 John 5:1-6

My sermon from the 6th Sunday of Easter (May 6, 2018) on 1 John 5:1-6. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


That….is a fun word. And when I sit down to write the first draft of my sermon, I find myself writing the word “that” over and over again. I use it when I want to emphasize a particular point or when I want everyone to understand that this sentence is super important….like I just did, right there. “That” is a useful word but it’s also usually unnecessary. I don’t remember the specific grammar rule dealing with the word “that,” but the second and third drafts of my sermon involves removing the “that’s.” They’re  usually repetitive, redundant, and rarely make my point as clear as I want it to be. So I scrub “that” from my writing as best as I can. But I’m glad to see, in our reading from First John, a completely unnecessary “that” shows up. We’re at the beginning of the fifth , and final, chapter of this letter. The author is trying to make a very specific point about Jesus and why his human life and his human death matters. So the author starts the fifth chapter with “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God…” And right there is a perfectly good example of a “that” that doesn’t need to be there. “Everyone who believes Jesus is the Christ has been born of God…” is totally understandable. Both versions say the same thing - “everyone who believes Jesus is the Christ;” everyone who knows Jesus as the Messiah, as the Son of God, as the one who lived and died to save you and the entire world - if you know that Jesus, then you have been born of God. The author of 1 John didn’t need a “that” in the opening sentence to chapter five. But the author made sure to include it. The author had something they wanted to emphasize. And by adding a “that,” the author of 1 John pointed out to all of us how our words about faith will change as we spend our days and months and years following Jesus. 

Now, since today is the day after Trash and Treasure, I will continue my tradition of using something I found at Trash and Treasure as my sermon illustration. And what I found at yesterday’s sale is...this. It’s a vinyl record it’s called “Columbia Fall ‘82 New Artist Sampler.” On this album are songs by groups like “Men at Work,” “Translator,” “Scandal,” and “The Psychedelic Furs.” The record doesn’t have a real album cover. And I don’t think it was supposed to be found at a store. In fact, written on it, are the words “Demonstration. Not for sale.” We can imagine this record being mailed to radio stations, music reviewers, and whoever the marketers at Columbia Records thought might actually buy an album from a band named Scandal. The record is a sampler, designed to give the listener a taste of what these new-back-then pop bands were all about. Like an appetizer before a meal, this album would wet our pop music palate, and Columbia records hoped we would go out and buy or review or share the real albums of the bands showcased on this sampler record. 

But flash forward to today, and here I was, 36 years later, doing exactly what this record told me not to. Someone I don’t know dropped this album off at church. And I have no idea if they ever listened to it. In the pile of records where this album was, not one of the bands listed in this sampler were actually there. This album maybe didn’t do its job - so it was brought to church and we listed for sale. Together, the person who donated this album, this church, and myself changed the rules spelled out on this record’s cover. 

But I’m not too worried about breaking this album’s rule. Because it’s been 36 years. None of the bands listened on this album are now new. I can find, and listen to all their albums right now on Spotify and Pandora and Amazon and countless other online streaming services. That reality didn’t exist in 1982 so the reason for this album’s existence, in our current context, isn’t the same. The world this record lives in has changed. But it’s core identity - as something I can put on a turntable and listen to for hours on end - that remains the same. 

The “that” in the first verse of chapter five shows us something important. It shows us how the community surrounding the author of 1 John struggled to define what “belief in Jesus” was all about. Jesus, as we hear in the gospel according to John, is always saying things like “believe in me” which is great...but as we spend months and years and decades living with Jesus, and as we share our faith with strangers, and friends, and even our kids - nailing down what this Jesus thing actually is - is hard. Over time, our words change. We start saying “that” a lot as we highlight the experiences of faith that mattered to us and that we believe books filled with what we know is essential to faith and start writing, and repeating, creeds - not primarily as a way to limit faith but as an attempt to put our relationship with Jesus into actual words. Jesus, in this kind of process, doesn’t actually change. But the world, our society, and ourselves do. What we say about Jesus and about our faith evolves and grows. We gain, over time, new words to say and we toss aside the old ones. We give thanks for the perspectives of faith that brought us to this point but we stay open to new thoughts and new point of views that will end up growing our faith in ways we can’t currently imagine. The “that’s” of our youth won’t necessarily be the “that’s” of our old age. But any “that” that we use does matter. What we say about Jesus - his life, his death, his Cross, and his resurrection - are more than just simple statements of fact or opinion. They are words that shape what our faith can look like and informs how we live our faith out loud. As the community around the author of 1 John changed, so did the “that’s” of their faith. The words that fed the faith of the original disciples were words that needed to be expressed in new and different ways. The “that’s” started to change just a few decades after Jesus resurrection - and those “that’s” keep changing, even today. Because our lives, here in the 21st century, do not look 100% like they would have if we lived in Jesus’ time. He, I’m sure, would have no idea how to react to the music of an 80s pop band like “The Psychedelic Furs,” or what to even do with a vinyl record found in the middle of the Judean desert. Yet even though we live different kinds of lives compared to Jesus’ first followers, our need for his presence, his mercy, his forgiveness, and his love are just as important. Our language of faith has changed and that language will change again. We will, together,  struggle to find words for our new realities. We will disagree with each other about what new “that's” we currently need. But as long as we cling to Jesus, stay close to his presence, and hold onto his core identity as the very human / and very divine Son of God - we will discover, with the help of the Holy Spirit, the right “thats” God knows we need. And through this new word, God will enable us to do what Jesus calls us to always do: when it comes to God, to our neighbors, and to each other - our “that” is always love. 



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Jesus' Friends

Are you Jesus' friend?

In the age of Facebook and workplace acquaintances, being "friends" is a strange thing. On Facebook, I currently have 753 friends (if you're not my "friend", feel free to friend me.). I actually do know these people. I met them at school, on blogs, through work, and even at street festivals in New York City. It's actually fascinating to see, in numbers, just how big my network of relationships is - and this doesn't include the countless people I'm connected to off-line. These are all people I know but can I really consider them my friends?

In the ancient world, being a "friend" was a specific kind of thing. It was a word used to describe two kinds of relationships. One type was very political - a patron-client connection. Someone with power, wealth, or social status would form relationship (a "friendship") with someone without that kind of status. They would be friends but the friendship was rooted in what either person gained from the other. The other type of relationship was more equal. It was a relationship where each person focused always on the well-being of the other person. This last definition is what we today think of when we think of our "friends." But this also means that a friend is more than an identity or a title. A friend is someone who acts for the well-being of the other. A friend is someone who shows love. And this love is a willingness to give up everything, including our lives, for another person. This action isn't restricted only to our family members or our spouse. According to Jesus (John 15:9-17), we are called to give up everything we have for anyone who follows Jesus - including someone we don't even know. 

Friendship, like love, is a difficult action. As Emily Askew writes, "love and friendship may seem self-explanatory for us in the twenty-first century...[but] love in this passage is not a psychologist state, nor is it anywhere described as an internal quality" (Feasting on the Gospels, John volume 2, page 176). Love is more than just a warm and fuzzy feeling. Friendship is more than just companionship and compatibility. Being Jesus' friend means we are called to act like Jesus since he gave the world (John 3:16) everything he had. It's Jesus, not us, who decides who follows him. And it's through regular worship, prayer, and reading of scripture that Jesus helps us see the person next to us as someone who is our friend. And we are here to love all of Jesus' friends - even when we don't like them. 


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