Sermon: Something than Fear Should Be At The Center of Who We Are

King Herod heard of [the disciples’ preaching], for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”
For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

Mark 6:14-29

My sermon from the 8th Sunday after Pentecost (July 14, 2024) on Mark 6:14-29.


So this week was pretty busy for the Marvel cinematic universe. There’s been a lot of chatter over the upcoming Deadpool & Wolverine movie as well as new trailers for the next Captain America movie and the first season of the show Agatha All Along. I’ll admit my nerd cred has dropped a bit since I haven’t been keeping up with Marvel like I used to. But it was fun to drink my morning coffee a few days ago and see what all the fans were talking about. One particular fan, though, wasn’t thrilled with some of the choices Marvel has made when it comes to their visual storytelling. This person took a few screenshots from the new trailers and the recent shows to show how they’re all filmed in the same way. Rather than using the entire rectangle that makes up the screen on our tvs, at movie theaters, or even on our phones to tell the story; everything has been condensed to the very middle of the screen. We no longer need to focus on the wider perspective to notice what might come next. All the action, the important visuals, and the emotions that make a show what it’s supposed to be – is at the center of it all. Marvel is doing this because they want to do more than simply show a story; they want other people to share it. And one of the best ways to do that is to have people craft their own videos on Instagram, TikTok, and other social media. The videos for those apps, however, are often square – limiting what can be seen. Marvel keeps everything in the center so that clips from the show are easier to share. On one level, that might make the story easier to follow along since we never have to turn our head. But if we’re not careful, we might not realize that what we see in the center isn’t the entirety of what that story is about. 

Mark is probably the version of Jesus’ life that works hardest to keep Jesus in every frame. It started its story when Jesus was already an adult and ended when Mary Magdalene and others fled from the tomb after discovering that his body was no longer there. It’s the other gospels that typically include events and stories where Jesus isn’t around – such as when an angel told Mary she was about to become pregnant. Mark, though, rarely does this and so when we find ourselves in a story where Jesus is out of the game, that’s an invitation for us to listen. This story, though, is pretty terrible – feeling like it fits better in a true crime podcast rather than in God’s holy words. It starts by introducing us to King Herod who was actually Herod Antipas, the son of the other King Herod we met when Jesus was a baby. Antipas, by the time Jesus’ ministry took place, had ruled over Galilee for decades after being installed as its governor by the Roman Empire. Antipas’ primary responsibility was to keep his overlords happy by providing the Romans with all the money and resources they wanted. This mandate gave Antipas a lot of leeway when it came to exercising power in his little region and so there was no one who would really complain if he threw a troublemaking preacher into prison. John had, over time, become a bit of a thorn in his side since he wasn’t a fan of how Antipas chose to use his power. Antipas’ recent marriage to his half-brother’s wife was just another act in a series of them that caused John to wonder why Antipas did what he did. Their confrontation grew and, as reported in Mark, it became something like a biblical version of the TV show Law and Order: SVU. There’s a lot of salacious details that easily grab our attention. But I wonder if there’s another detail, a little off to the side, that we should focus on instead. Mark, in general, doesn’t include many details in his writing since he wants us to move quickly from one thing to the next. Yet one detail that’s a bit easy to miss is one Mark kept repeating since he named, several times, Antipas’ fear. We’re told that he not only feared John but that he was also afraid of what others might think if he didn’t kill him. This wasn’t an attempt to reduce Antipas to some kind of easily manipulated person since he was a person who used power recklessly for his own self-preservation. It was, rather, Mark’s way of answering John’s question about what was at the center of all he said and did. To Mark, Antipas wasn’t merely an evil ruler that we can look at from the sidelines and be glad we’re not like him. Antipas was, rather, a coward who chose to let fear  – the fear of losing power, of losing control, and the fear of losing his reputation – as the central motivating power that shaped who he was. 

Now fear is a very human emotion that we don’t always name. It’s a word we might say when we’re being honest about why we don’t want to see a scary movie but one we won’t say when describing why we interact with some people differently than we do with others. Our culture, I think, doesn’t really know what to do with fear which is why we mask our fear with all kinds of insecurities, anxieties, conspiracies, and a hyper-fixation on violence as an answer to everything. Our inability to process fear in life giving ways is a bit strange since so much of our scripture identifies as an aspect of faith as having a robust fear of God. Yet we choose to make fear into a bad thing unless it’s something we can regularly wield over others. I wonder if one of the reasons why we struggle with fear is because we don’t know how to properly explore it. We don’t have the questions we need to be honest about what it means to be afraid. One of those questions that might be helpful was put together by Professor Marily Mcentyre who saw what Antipas was up to and wanted to ask him: “what are you protecting?” The answer to that question wouldn’t be what he thought he was protecting; it would be honest, authentic, and faithful so that he could see how his power, prestige, and vanity was what he cared for the most. He was a coward not because he was sometimes afraid; what made him a coward was his unwillingness to examine how fear was at the center of everything that made him who he was. And when we keep that part of his story central to what it’s about, it invites us to wonder what’s at the center of us too. If we took all the scenes of our life and put what mattered to us the most in the middle, would we really want to see what’s on that screen? Would we want to notice the hurt, anger, frustration, or fear that we acted out of while not even fully realizing how that was already there? It’s a scene that, if we’re honest, might scare us since we know how human we truly are. But it’s also why we were brought into the One who made us, our needs, our brokenness, and all our fears, the center of everything he said and did too. When you were baptized and gifted with faith, God didn’t choose you because you’ve never been afraid. Rather, Jesus claimed you so that you could discover how his life could be at the center of yours too. Our fears do not have to be the primary motivating force that defines how we act in our homes, schools, workplace, or even our nation. Rather, we can ask ourselves a more faithful question about what we’re called to protect. It’s a question that isn’t always easy to answer especially when there are those who are choosing violence to grow our fears rather than quell them. Yet it is a question we can live out by reflecting on the fullness of what Jesus did. It’s a way of life that doesn’t mean we’ll never be afraid. But it chooses to trust that even when we can’t see Jesus in the middle of it all, he is already here – with a divine love that each one of us can share. 


Sermon: Be Their Guest

[Jesus] left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.
Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

Mark 6:1-13

My sermon from the 7th Sunday after Pentecost (July 7, 2024) on Mark 6:1-13.


Let’s imagine you knew a guest would be at your front door once worship was over today. It might be a friend, a family member, or someone using your spare room as an AirBnb. You knew you were going to church so you spent the last few days cleaning, scrubbing, and carefully putting away your collection of vintage Star Wars action figures. The mental checklist you put together to take care of your space is probably pretty long. Yet just making our space into what we want it to be isn’t the limit of what our welcome can actually look like. Sometimes to better understand what a guest might need, we need to reverse our perspective and think what it’s like to enter into a space we know for the very first time. We have to imagine ourselves as a guest who doesn’t really know which drawer the forks are kept in and that the handle for the toilet in the hallway bathroom needs to be jiggled to get the water to stop. Our homes and our lives are full of all kinds of quirks that we often ask our guests to embrace whenever they enter our space. And while these practices don’t really bother us, they’re not always easy to see – especially when we ask others to do them too. Being a guest and welcoming a guest can be a very humbling and scary event. Yet when we take the time to imagine ourselves as a guest while knowing we are already at home – we can find new ways to bless and serve those we might not fully know. 

Now the practice of being at home but imagining ourselves as a guest is almost like reading a story backwards. We begin at the end – the guest showing up – and read back into all that’s come before. It’s how we better recognize the quirks the guest might need to figure out while, at the same time, discovering a bit more of why we live the way we do. Starting at the end and reflecting on what came before is a process all over our Christian scriptures. Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John wrote their stories knowing that the Cross would come since they wrote their words down decades after that first Easter morning. Wondering what our future with Jesus is like while looking back at what has come is one of the ways we digest our faith. And this is a process that I think can help us reflect on today’s reading from the gospel according to Mark. When we start near the end, we notice the disciples who were about to enter into a future full of unknowns and fears. Jesus decided to send them out into communities they didn’t really know with instructions that were a bit specific. Unlike the guest who might show up to your home, Jesus’ friends would travel without a bag or money or even food for their journey. Their well-being would entirely depend on the hospitality of strangers. And while the culture for hospitality in Jesus’ day was much more extensive than our own, the disciples were probably a bit worried about what kind of welcome they would receive. They had, after all, saw how Jesus was welcomed by those who he grew up with. These neighbors, family members, and old friends had spent decades with Jesus and we’d expect them to at least listen to what he might have to say. But Mark shows us that the length of time we have with Jesus doesn’t always mean we’ll get who Jesus is. The disciples saw those who had played with Jesus in the marketplace as a kid, prayed with him when they worshiped together on the sabbath, and those who knew all the quirks that made Jesus’ home his home – wasn’t enough to clearly see who Jesus had become. The community didn’t pretend Jesus couldn’t do what the disciples had seen him do – such as heal the sick, cast out demons, and silence a storm. But there was something about Jesus – maybe a bit of wonder, disappointment and frustration he had left home, his family, and his responsibilities behind – that rendered those who knew Jesus the longest to not see who he truly was. Jesus was home but treated like an unwanted guest who should leave everyone alone. 

So it was a bit odd that Jesus, the unwanted guest, should then choose to send his disciples as guests into places they didn’t necessarily know. They would learn the quirks of all who they encountered. And while there, Jesus gave his disciples something to do. Jesus didn’t tell them to convert anyone or to take over anyone else’s culture or to act as if their relationship with God was better than God’s relationship with anyone else. Instead, in groups of two, he let them do what he did. He called them to listen, to invite, to proclaim, and to heal. These followers of Jesus would take the time to discover not only the quirks of the people they met but also their wants, their needs, and all that would make them whole. They would, as guests, speak into the pain and worry and fear and concerns that we never want any of our guests to know. Jesus had a habit of letting others know they are loved and he invited his friends to do exactly that by, in the words of Professor Matthew Skinner, “humbly… commit[ing] themselves to the well-being of” those around them. For the people around us who know us the longest, it’s not always easy to show what our soul needs. Often what we need is a guest who will meet us as we are to help us discover what we might become. Being that kind of guest, though, isn’t always easy since being welcomed leaves us vulnerable and in need. What would make this whole process easier would be if we were, instead of being guests, we were at home – surrounded by all that makes us who we are. And Jesus, I believe, knew this which is why he reminded the disciples about the home they already had with God. Jesus let them embrace the fullness of who they were with him by letting them be his body, his hands, and his feet in the world. Even when they were someplace new, what rooted them wasn’t where they had come from but who it was that claimed them as their own. Jesus had already granted them a home with their God which freed them to be the kind of guest who could bring healing and hope into the lives of everyone they meet. It’s a calling all who follow Jesus, all who are with Jesus, all who have been given a home in Jesus through the claim he has placed on all our lives – are given too. The homes we have are not simply the homes we’ve made or defined by the communities we are born into. Our homes are not limited to what we rent, what we buy, or what we pay taxes for. Our home is more than the place that holds all the quirks we require our guests to put up when they come to visit us. Instead, because of baptism, faith, grace, and the work Jesus did through the Cross and beyond, we are already at home in God. And since God is our home, we get to enter every home – including the ones we make throughout our lives – as a kind of spiritual guest that takes God’s quirks of mercy, forgiveness, and love and makes them real in the lives of everyone we meet. 


Sermon: The Power of “who”

When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”
So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

Mark 5:21-43

My sermon from the 6th Sunday after Pentecost (June 30, 2024) on Mark 5:21-43.


Our reading today from the gospel according to Mark includes a story within a story which is Mark’s favorite way to showcase who Jesus is. Jesus rarely ever went from point A to point B according to plan because life always got in the way. So after returning from his journey across the Sea of Galilee, Jesus was met on the shore by a man named Jarius. At that time, though, Jesus was surrounded by a crowd full of people with their own requests and needs too. From what I can tell, there was no real effort to organize the process by which Jesus decided who received help and when. Instead, people showed up and what happened next could be pretty chaotic. Jairus’ own request was a bit much since it would require Jesus to get up and leave everyone else behind. He had to repeat it several times but, after a while, Jesus listened. The crowd around him was full of people who waited all day to receive some kind of healing. But before he could reach everyone, Jesus decided to move – and someone in the crowd chose to move too. An unnamed woman had, for the last twelve years, lived with hemorrhages her doctors couldn’t cure. Mark doesn’t go into details about what, exactly, her medical condition might be. It’s possible she had some kind of menstrual disorder or she had suffered some kind of injury during pregnancy. It’s also possible her condition was entirely treatable but since medical care tends to focus its research on the bodies of men from certain wealthy and privileged backgrounds, she ended up spending all she had to live a life with a pain that gradually grew worse. She suffered – and I imagine her faith, her identity, and her relationships with others – and with her God – suffered too. Now she was in the crowd because, at some point, she had heard about Jesus. What she heard, Mark doesn’t say. But it was enough to bring her to that place by the sea. She arrived there unknown and unseen, just one more person in the crowd. Yet when Jesus began to move, she moved too. She reached out, touched Jesus’ cloak, and the healing – from what we’re told – happened quickly. She knew immediately that something changed. And while coming to terms with a body that no longer worked the way it had, Jesus looked around and said: “who?” 

Now “who” is a pronoun in English that does a lot of work. It can point to an individual, a community, an entire people, a sci-fi time traveling time lord, and an English Rock Band all at the same time. That flexibility is why the word “who” can be sort of mystical when it shows up in certain songs, speeches, and poems. Yet the word “who” in the language of ancient Greek – the language the gospel according to Mark was written in – doesn’t have that same kind of flexibility. Ancient Greek, like many of the world’s languages, attaches grammatical gender to nouns and pronouns. What gender might apply to what word varies from language to language but we can roughly expect anywhere from two to four different genders being applied to things like chairs, mountains, or a cloud. When a group of mixed genders are together – say, a group of people – ancient Greek defaulted to the “male” version of the noun or pronoun even if there was only 1 dude in a group of 1000. Since Jesus was, at that moment, surrounded by all kinds of people seeking health and wholeness – we’d expect his “who” to be male and plural. Yet the who he uttered was very specific – a who that was feminine and singular. While he was on the move among a crowd full of religious leaders, disciples, men, women, seekers, believers, doubters, the old, the young, the healed, those in need of healing, and every other flavor of humanity drawn to Jesus – Jesus knew who had reached out to him. The people around Jesus were oblivious, even sort of shocked that Jesus would say what he said. But there was one person in the crowd who knew exactly what he was talking about. The unnamed woman realized that Jesus saw her and she took the chance to share with him everything that had happened over the last twelve years. Her hemorrhages had already been cured but her true healing began when Jesus used one little word to let her know she was never alone. And after publicly commending her, he named her daughter since she was – and always would be – a part of God’s holy family. 

Now the power of “who” does more than reveal Jesus’ power; it also serves as a corrective for our tendency to twist what Jesus meant when he said “your faith has made you well.” It’s a phrase used to blame others – or ourselves – when our prayers go unanswered. It’s a kind of blame we’re especially good at leveraging against those who we don’t like and it’s a blame we internalize since Jesus’ miracles in the Bible don’t always appear to us in the same way. Life has a habit of making us wonder why Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter but not our own parent or friend or spouse or even our own child. I’ll admit I don’t really have a good answer to that very hard question but I do know that the amount of faith you have doesn’t determine your grief, your sorrow, or your pain. Faith doesn’t always look like patience or kindness or goodness or something that is always quiet and stable. There’s also a different kind of faith – of trust – that we live through too. In the words of Rev. Brad Roth, “[that] faith… [is when we] reach out and take hold of Jesus however [we] can—not an arm or a fistful of robe but just the barest little knot of tassel on the corner of his cloak. This sort of faith isn’t entirely explainable—not because it’s ridiculous, an impossible abstraction, but because in faith we’re responding to an overture that we don’t entirely understand from a place that is often heaving and doing something strange in us. [At that moment], there’s no knowing Zen smile [across our face because] we don’t have it [all] together, and our stomachs are knotted up like a wet dish rag. [It’s a faith that knows we’ve been bleeding for years] but there he is [, right there,] in the crowd.” This kind of faith is “a stretching through to something, to someone;” a faith that lives out Mark 5:27 on [an] everlasting loop.” It’s a faith that hears Jesus, comes to Jesus, touches Jesus, reaches out – a faith that can hold every emotion, every sorrow, every joy, every tear, every question, every wonder, and every moment of desperation. It’s a faith that has done everything it’s supposed to do – and yet still wonders where God is. And while that isn’t the faith we often prefer, it is the faith that helps us – when we have nothing left – to just come. And when we do, we sometimes receive a word that reminds us how God already sees us; that God already knows what we’re going through; and that our God is living with us through whatever we’re going through. That is a part of Jesus’ promise – that even our worst moments won’t be the final moment that defines us. Rather, we are – through baptism and in faith – a part of God’s holy family and God’s love, God’s hope, and God’s peace is something we can trust – because it will carry us through today and into a more holy tomorrow. 


Sermon: Jesus In the Storm

On that day, when evening had come, [Jesus said to the disciples], “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Mark 4:35-41

My sermon from the 5th Sunday after Pentecost (June 23, 2024) on Mark 4:35-41.


So last October, my family and I welcomed a new dog, Pepper, into the household. She’s colored black and white, with the blue eyes of a Siberian Husky and the attitude of an Australian Cattle Dog. Pepper loves herding the 5 year old around the house and barking at the chipmunks she sees through our back windows. It’s been awhile since I’ve lived with a dog so it’s taken a little time to integrate Pepper into my life. But there are those living in my home who are still struggling with a roommate they didn’t ask for. Our two cats, Finn and Flotus, used to have full ownership over the house. But once this playful puppy moved in, their life became pretty small. They’re primarily staying on one side of the house, spending their days sitting high on a bookshelf or outside in their enclosed patio. When they take the time to nap in front of sunny windows, their rest is never restful. Their ears are always on alert, waiting to hear the click-clack-click of Pepper’s claws on the vinyl floor. These two little furballs spend their days in a constant stage of exhausting vigilance because a puppy-sized storm is always on the horizon. 

Finn and Flotus’ restless sleep pattern seems like something we can relate to since many of us know what it’s like to live in a constant stage of vigilance. Yet it’s a way of living that is different from simply trying to always be prepared or letting others twist our anxieties and our fears for their own personal, spiritual, or political gains. It’s more like what we experience when we take a child to a busy playground. We might spend that time talking to a friend, making a phone call, or even attempting to do some work. But our focus is always split because we’re trying to keep an eye on where our kid is. It’s the mental, physical, and spiritual energy we use to protect ourselves from that person we’re living with who might explode at any moment and to keep tabs on the elderly parent or spouse who needs all the care we can give. It’s a vigilance that, even during our most holy moments, can be utterly exhausting. Yet it’s often the cost that comes with the fact we care. We care about those who matter to us. We care about our loved ones’ health, happiness, and future. We stay vigilant, even when we are asleep, ready to respond to whatever storm might come. It’s a hard way to live but it is also one of the surest ways to show others that we care. 

Now the sea of Galilee isn’t really a sea; it’s more of a large lake – roughly 13 miles long and 8 miles wide. It has, for centuries, served as the economic lifeblood of the entire area. Its water is essential when it comes to irrigating the crops and vineyards dotting the countryside and within its waters were tons of fish that Peter, John, and others regularly caught. The sea is also rather shallow and is surrounded by hills. This creates a situation where large storms can brew up very quickly. The waves and wind generated by these storms would easily swamp the small fishing boats that Jesus and his friends used. And even though the weather seemed fine when Jesus, the disciples, and the crowd left to visit the other side, everyone knew how quickly things could sour. Everyone would need to stay vigilant since a new gust of wind or a small wave could signal trouble for the fleet of ships staffed by not only fishermen but also folks who were old, young, and in need of healing. Everyone knew the kind of danger they could be in. And yet the One who sent them into the boats was soon fast asleep. Jesus – the One who could cast out demons, cure the sick, and who showed how God’s kingdom always upsets the status quo – was acting a little strange since he didn’t seem ready to respond to whatever might come. And when the wind picked up, the waves grew large, and water poured into the boat – Jesus, at the stern of the boat, was literally asleep at the wheel. It’s during the middle of the storm when Jesus’ rest looks incredibly restful since he refused to be moved. And the fact that he doesn’t stir made the disciples wonder if they didn’t know Jesus like they thought they did. They watched him do incredible things and yet he didn’t seem to be, at that moment, paying attention to what was happening around him. He wasn’t being vigilant and so it seemed, to them, as if Jesus didn’t care. 

So the disciples, while their boat is filling with water, called Jesus out for not being who they expected him to be. The disciples didn’t ask for help. They didn’t ask to be saved. They didn’t ask him to calm the storm. All they did was ask him why he didn’t care. It’s a question that is, I think, one of the most human and faithful questions we can ask. When our heart breaks, when our strength fails, when our need to be vigilant has drained our soul dry – asking if our Jesus is asleep at the wheel is probably the most normal thing we can do. What we want and what we expect is a Jesus who will act; a Jesus who shows up; a Jesus who cares. What we desire and what we need is a God who notices our pain, our sorrow, our suffering, and who steps in to say that this isn’t what life is supposed to be. We want a Jesus whose ears are always turned up; a Jesus who is ready to respond; a Jesus who makes our faith real. And yet when Jesus did wake up, the power he showed wasn’t the power they expected. He didn’t just stop the storm; he stopped the waves and the wind. The calm he brought was a calm no one wanted since the current and their sails were now worthless. They were now completely at rest with no easy way to go back to what they were or forward to what they might be. All they had in that moment was themselves and Jesus – which is also exactly what they had when the storm raged around them just a few moments before. The disciples had been through a whirlwind of emotions, feelings, and experiences that required them to be vigilant, to respond, to question, and to worry. Their thoughts, their wondering, and even their faith went up and down like waves swamping boats in a storm. Yet through it all, Jesus was right there – with them. Jesus, before they got into the boat, didn’t tell those who followed them that their life would be without storms. He didn’t claim that we might be overwhelmed by the wind and waves of life that suddenly come. But what Jesus did promise was that, because of our baptism and through the gift of grace, he would carry us through. When our focus is split, when our minds are preoccupied, when our attention is divided by the mentally and physically draining care we are called to give – we are not living through this moment on our own. Jesus is also right there with us – a restful presence even though we cannot rest since a storm might be brewing on the horizon. Yet even when that storm comes, the Jesus who claims you is the same Jesus who will be with you – so that the tomorrow that comes is filled with peace, hope, and light. 


Sermon: Jesus’ Stories Are Not Problems to Solve

[Jesus] also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

Mark 4:26-34

My sermon from the 4th Sunday after Pentecost (June 16, 2024) on Mark 4:26-34.


So last year, when my youngest transitioned out of daycare, they held a graduation ceremony for her and the forty other kids heading off to new schools. The event took place in a rented gymnasium that was filled to the brim with every parent, grandparents, and extended family member in the land. The four and five year olds were decked out in a mustard yellow graduation gown with a matching hat and tassel. The ceremony was incredibly elaborate and long; with all the kids singing over a dozen songs from memory. They worked really hard to showcase all they could do but something near the start of the ceremony didn’t go in the ways any of us expected. It began with the daycare’s director sharing a few words of welcome before inviting kids to process down the aisle on their own before taking their seats. Once everyone was settled, we were then invited to stand and recite the pledge of allegiance. The sound of metal chairs scraping the floor soon filled the space as everyone stood up and looked for the flag. And once we found it, there was a moment of silence as we waited for someone to kick the whole thing off. When it started, it took a few seconds before our voices came together to recite these words all at the same pace. But once the adults were done, we realized the kids were still speaking. They had memorized the pledge at the speed that worked best for them; yet us older folks, with louder voices, soon drowned them out as we raced to say it on our own. We were there to celebrate these kids moving into their new futures. And yet we began our time together by not even noticing our so-called One Voice failed to include all their voices too. 

Now one of the bits from today’s reading from the gospel according to Mark that I find really interesting is how we’re told that Jesus would often explain his stories to his disciples in private. These stories, known as parables, were used by Jesus to reveal a little bit of God’s imagination for our lives and our world. Yet these parables were often a bit absurd which is why people were often left scratching their heads. Having the opportunity to ask Jesus face-to-face what he meant was an amazing gift that the first followers of Jesus had access to. Jesus, it seems, wasn’t only in the business of sharing divine wisdom from above. He also held office hours. Jesus took the time to unpack any confusion the disciples might have. And that, combined with some other words and teachings within our Bible, seems to imply that understanding what Jesus said and did is a big part of faith. And while not every instance of Jesus’ office hours was recorded in our Bible, the fact that some parables were explained might make us imagine that those that weren’t should be easy to figure out. Jesus’ stories then become a kind of puzzle we’re supposed to figure out. For those with direct access to Jesus during his earthly ministry, we’d expect them to find those answers pretty fast. But for the rest of us, solving Jesus becomes the primary way we try to graduate out of our anxiety, fear, and confusion and into a more peaceful experience with our God. Jesus’ stories, then, are less about what God is up to and more a code that we feel we need to crack to finally discover our own place in God. 

But if that really was what Jesus’ stories were all about, then those first disciples failed every rest. Over and over and over again, Mark showed how their private access to Jesus never brought about full understanding. The education Jesus provided wasn’t enough for them to clearly see what God was up to. And that’s because, I think, Jesus’ stories were meant to be a code that had to be broken. Rather it was his way of letting them – and us – know how we are already a part of what God is doing in the world. Jesus’ stories are something we’re never meant to graduate from because they are designed to linger in our hearts and minds – especially during those moments when our understanding comes undone. Faith isn’t a puzzle we get to solve; it is, instead, a gift showing us how this current moment isn’t the only moment that defines who we get to be with God. Not fully understanding the nuances, details, and absurdities within the stories Jesus shared doesn’t mean we’re unfaithful, bad Christians, or people who really aren’t part of the body of Christ. Rather, we’re invited to just hold onto Jesus’s words so that we can move from understanding and into a trust that notices how our life is already wrapped up in the divine words, voice, and presence of God. You, in baptism and through faith, have been united with the One voice that has space for all. It’s a voice that is big enough to push through the ways we use our own voices to harm others while forgetting that some are even there. And it’s one of the ways God moves us to become our own kind of seed showing what happens when God’s kingdom comes near. 

Now I know living that out isn’t always easy especially when we don’t understand how we fit in the world. It would seem a bit more reasonable for God to let others – maybe a few religious professionals – make it their responsibility to show others how they have a place in God’s kingdom too. Yet if “understanding” God or fully recognizing how integrated our voice and God’s voice should become was the baseline needed to share God with others, then those first followers of Jesus would have remained silent, telling no one of what they had seen, heard, or experienced. God doesn’t only want those who always understand to let people know of the voice of love, grace, and hope God surrounds them with everyday. God has, instead, chosen you to be that voice and to listen for those voices that invite kids, adults, the young, and the old, about the Jesus who is already there for them. It’s a way of living in the world that I believe I’ve already seen our graduates, some who we’ll recognize later today, embody as they move into their new futures. But it’s also something we’ve also been blessed to see in two very specific ways by those who spent their own careers making sure the voice of their students wasn’t lost amongst the crowd. Those two faithful teachers – Jane Conboy and Craig Post – are, in their own way, graduating this month too. Jane has, for the last 39 years, taught French and Spanish at Pascack Hills High School  while Craig has spent 22 teaching science at Dumont High too. During their tenure, they did more than simply try to help students understand the information before them. They also, in their own ways, invited their students to grow into who they were meant to become. I’m sure that there were times when both Craig and Jane could describe, in detail, how specific lesson plans, office hours, and intentional effort made a difference in the lives of their students. But there were other moments when, out of nowhere, their students blossomed in ways even those kids didn’t expect. It wasn’t just their talents as teachers that changed their students’ lives; it was also how they chose to embrace and live into the grace God gives them everyday. We might not always fully understand what this Jesus thing is all about nor realize how we truly are an important part of what God is up to in our world. But we can trust that, no matter what, our God is with us. And when we recognize how God’s voice has already wrapped itself around all our voices with a love, mercy, and hope that will not end – that’s when our new future breaks through. 


Sermon: Living out a Mental Health First Aid Action Plan

[Jesus went home] and the crowd came together again, so that [Jesus and the disciples] could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.
“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”
Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Mark 3:20-35

My sermon from the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost (June 9, 2024) on Mark 3:20-35.


Earlier this week, I attended a “Mental Health First Aid” training here at the church. The two day event hosted by Meals on Wheels of North Jersey was to help us recognize and respond when people go through a mental health crisis. Nearly 1 in 5 adults, every year, will experience some kind of  mental health issue and youth and young adults are affected as well. Being mentally healthy doesn’t mean we’re always happy, comfortable, and secure. When we’re mentally well, we respond in ways that seem reasonable while living through joyous or difficult things.  If, for example, we do poorly on a test or we’re ghosted by someone we’re into – we’re supposed to get sad, angry, anxious, and more. Those are appropriate responses to something that is hard. But when these feelings linger for weeks at a time, impacting our ability to go to work, school, or take care of ourselves, we might be in the midst of a mental health crisis. Those attending the training were invited to learn how to respond well when a person they know starts to be a little different from who they knew them to be. And while doing that work can be hard, it’s also one of the primary ways we choose to be for each other – no matter what. 

What that care looks like, though, isn’t always easy to figure out since I’m not a mental health professional and God has not called me to diagnose the people around me. What we need is some kind of action plan we can follow when we don’t know what to do. And the training provided one – using the acronym “algee” – a l g e e – to imagine that care can look like. So the first thing we do is “Approach and Assess.” Rather than backing away when someone seems a bit different, we make sure it’s safe and then pay closer attention to whatever they’re going through. This assessment might even include doing the difficult thing of asking if our friend might be suicidal. While we assess, we move pretty quickly into the next stage of the acronym, L, by choosing to “listen non judgmentally.” It’s not helpful or our role to tell someone to calm down, man up, or to just get over it. We can, instead, let them know we’re concerned and we wonder how long they’ve been feeling this way. This kind of listening is hard because we often feel incredibly awkward while doing it. We don’t really know what to say and we might get upset when someone doesn’t accept the help we’re trying to give. Listening is a skill that is both exhausting and life-giving all at the same time. And while we do listen to the person who is suffering, we can move into the “G” of the acronym by giving them assurance that we’re with them and then share any information we might have. This kind giving can include the double “e” of encouraging them to seek appropriate professional help while also encouraging them to practice self-care since therapy, medication, and just taking a break doesn’t mean we’re not good enough or that we’ve somehow failed at life. This action plan isn’t meant to be linear since we often find ourselves listening, encouraging, assessing, listening, and encouraging over and over again. But it can help guide us through those situations when the people we care about aren’t who we expect them to be and this plan might even help us grow into who we can become too. 

I was thinking about the acronym “Algee” while noticing what happened to Jesus in our reading from the gospel according to Mark. Jesus, it seemed, was caught in the difficult situation of being challenged by many religious leaders as well as his own family all at the same time. Both were concerned with not only what Jesus was doing but also with whatever seemed to be happening within him. The leaders imagined that Jesus was, somehow, possessed by demons while even his mom thought he was completely out of his mind. Our notion of mental health is very different from what was commonly thought when Jesus’ walked the earth 2000 years ago. But I wonder if both of these groups thought Jesus needed an intervention because he wasn’t acting in ways they thought he should. Jesus’ own family and the scribes noticed how he kept talking to people he didn’t use to talk to in the past, while offering forgiveness in ways they didn’t expect, and he kept forming bonds with people he was supposed to exclude. Jesus kept talking about how the kingdom of God was near and yet the kingdom Jesus practiced didn’t have the boundaries they assumed it had. We should, I think, give Jesus’ family and the religious leaders the benefit of the doubt. They, I believe, were doing what they could do to live out God’s will. But when they were confronted by the life Jesus chose to live, they didn’t know what to say or do. And they soon fell into the trap we often fall into as well – expecting God, in the words of Professor C. Clifton Black, to abide by our own definitions of what the boundaries of God’s kingdom should be. We act, trust, and honestly believe that what we think is good, holy, and true match what God wants in our world. But Jesus often has a habit of showing how God’s boundaries are always much bigger than our own. This reality can be scary, challenging, and strange since we assume we know what God’s baseline alway is. Yet the baseline Jesus put into practice is always bigger since the kingdom Jesus lives out is a kingdom big enough to include us too. 

On the surface, Jesus’ family and the religious leaders didn’t really do a great job living into any kind of mental health first aid action plan. Jesus’ actions, teachings, and behaviors didn’t match what they considered normal and so their assessment led them to challenge rather than to listen. Jesus, in their mind, was dividing the community when it came to what God’s people were supposed to say and do. Yet much of Jesus’ ministry was about discovering how expansive God’s kingdom truly was. We, I think, often let our own notions of normal, holy, and healthy, get in the way of noticing what God is up to. We let the boundaries we define be the limit of what life can be rather than letting God show us what life can become. It’s an approach to living that we pretend includes us even though we are never as perfect, good, and loving as we demand others be. And we act as if these boundaries we put into place are the same boundaries God has already built even though Jesus’ love will always be more. This more isn’t only big enough to include the people we assume are with our God. It’s also a love big enough to include someone like you. You, through baptism and faith, have already been made part of what God is up to in the world. And while living into that truth can be hard, it is how God transforms us into who God imagines we can be. We won’t always get this kind of living right nor will we, while living through our own mental health issues, always be able to live into the kingdom God has already brought us into. But we can trust that when Jesus made us a part of His holy family, he meant it, and that he will be the One who will carry us through. 


Sermon: Sabbath is meant for everyone

Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

Deuteronomy 5:12-15

My sermon from 2nd Sunday after Pentecost (June 2, 2024) on Deuteronomy 5:12-15.


Today’s first reading from the book of Deuteronomy can feel a little bit repetitive. It is, after all, repeating what we first heard way back in the book of Exodus. At that point in the biblical story, God had freed the Isrealites from slavery and gathered them together at the foot of Mt. Sinai. For four hundred years, the Egyptians had controlled their work and their rest. So God, through the ten commandments, invited them into a new way of being in the world. Deuteronomy, though, took place 40 years after that moment – and Moses knew he wasn’t going to be with the community once they crossed into the land of Canaan. These words then are primarily a series of messages and sermons Moses wanted the people to hold onto – especially those who were born after they were enslaved. So Moses gathered the community together to hear – once again – the Ten Commandments. And we’d expect this moment to simply be Moses repeating words he had already shared. On one level, he did exactly that – recalling the shared promises they were drawn into such as don’t make idols, don’t steal, and don’t bear false witness against their neighbors. But Moses wasn’t interested in only doing what he had always done. And so rather than merely repeating why the sabbath came to be through the work God did during the story of creation, Moses expanded it to speak to those moments when rest isn’t an option. The sabbath doesn’t simply break up our week. The sabbath is meant to be an interruption that shows us who God imagines us to be. 

Now Professor Julián Holguín, in a commentary about this passage, pointed to two stylistic changes that expanded what the sabbath is all about. He noted that when the sabbath first appeared in Exodus, the community was invited to remember it. This remembrance was always more than simply thinking about it but it does seem to treat the sabbath as a kind of object or thought we hold in our head. Moses, though, changed the words – telling the community to observe it. The sabbath wasn’t merely something we hold in our hearts or our heads. That sabbath is something we do and live. It’s a moment in time when put into practice the art of not working – and this not working isn’t only for us. Moses, while describing who gets to stop, added to that invitation the ox, the donkey, and every animal in the field. This break in the week wasn’t only meant for those who had the opportunity, the resources, and the wealth to take a day off. It’s also meant for the enslaved; those of lower social classes; those who came from somewhere else; and even the creatures we use for our food and our lives. God tells everyone to just stop. You, as you are, shouldn’t turn in that spreadsheet that was due last Friday or make that one more phone call trying to fill your sales quota for the month. You shouldn’t take on that extra bit of uncompensated work you think will show your boss how much you care about your job. God, instead, tells you to stop – because your worth isn’t only defined by what you do. This invitation, though, isn’t only for you. The gift of rest – according to Moses – is also a gift meant  for everyone that happens on the exact same day. The rest we take is a rest meant for the gas station attendant who filled up our car before church and also for the undocumented line cook who will prepare our meal during brunch. The rest God imagines for us is a rest meant for everyone else too. And when we make others serve us while we take our break; we’re not really observing the sabbath even if we made it to worship that day. The sabbath, when practiced fully and completely, breaks the cycle that says God’s creation – and everything a part of it- is only valued through the ways it supports us. And instead of letting the community fall into that kind of trap – one they experienced during their long history of enslavement when resting wasn’t an option – Moses grounded the command to live out the sabbath in the kind of future God imagined for all. God’s beloved children aren’t only worth a break; they’re also invited to make sure others get their own kind of break too. 

Now what we should take a break from has been an ongoing conversation since God first gathered those people around Mt. Sinai. It’s a debate we’ve never truly resolved since what we do – and what we ask others to do – always changes. We typically focus the conversation on what we – as individuals or as families do: such as our never-ending-to-do list or how travel teams impact our ability to regularly attend Sunday worship. It’s a conversation that centers us rather than imagining what life might look like if everyone – and everything – could simply rest. Even Jesus, near the very beginning of his public ministry as depicted in the gospel according to Mark, was caught up in the same kind of conversation since the Greco-Roman world didn’t have a weekend. Observing the sabbath was one of the ways the Jewish community practiced their faith out loud. And it was incredibly at odds to be the kind of people who stop while surrounded by a culture that defined people based on what they do and what they could get from others. When anything other than God’s love and grace becomes the primary way we define ourselves and others, we end up falling into the trap that claims certain people, rather than others, are the ones who are truly worthy. Jesus, and those around him, were doing their part of not falling into that trap by engaging in an ongoing conversation about what the sabbath is all about. And while their answers to that question were a bit different, they were all living into the bigger question of what life looks like one God has claimed us as God’s own. It’s a question we keep living into even as new ideas, new technologies, new languages, and new cultures shape what the sabbath might mean. And while taking a break isn’t something all of us can currently do – the promise at the heart of Jesus’ words – is a promise meant for you. The work you do or can do isn’t the limit of who you are. Rather, you are shaped and defined and held by a God who claims you as God’s own. I’ll admit that, most weeks, I don’t rest as much as I should. I struggle to not only claim the sabbath but also to help others live into that sabbath too. It’s so hard to imagine the kind of rest for myself that would enable others to rest too. Yet the Jesus who lived, died, and rose for you doesn’t choose to see us only through the work we do or the value and wealth we create in the world or even through the rest we claim for ourselves and others. Rather who we are is rooted in who Jesus says we are – and Jesus, in faith and through baptism, has included you as a part of him forever. The purpose, hope, meaning, and promise we have in Jesus invites us to see ourselves, and others, as people worthy of rest, care, and love. And that value isn’t built on what we’ve done but on the Jesus who promises to be with you – forever.  


Sermon: What A More Divine Imagination Might Look Like

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 26, 2024) on Isaiah 6:1-8.


We’re nearing the end of my first year as a volunteer coach for my town’s rec track and field team. I am, to put it mildly, not an athlete and I’ve never particularly enjoyed running. But when the track team asked for help, I decided to not let others do what I’d like seen done in the world. I agreed to spend up to three days a week, one hour at a time, corralling up to 30 kids, one hour at a time. At first, I spent most of the time lingering in the background – letting more athletic parents lead the kids in stretching, agility training, and more. Yet as the season progressed, I was soon blowing whistles and shouting various affirmations with the best of them. Track, as practiced in my town, is as competitive as each kid wants it to be. Some turn every practice into an all out race while others spend most of the time talking to their friends. The goal of the season is to help kids set their personal records and then push past into something more. Even though these kids might never stand on a podium with a medal hanging around their neck, they can, with a little work, learn how to progress and grow. It’s a way summed up by another parent-coach who, while helping kids with the long jump, invites kids to focus less on getting the perfect jump and focus instead on getting one inch better. These small incremental and measurable bits of progress we make are a beautiful thing we should celebrate. But I’m also mindful of how our philosophy of progress doesn’t always last. There are times when getting one inch better is no longer an option since life is a bit different than a track and field program for elementary aged kids. I wonder if the heavy focus we put on growing, improving, and not letting things be might not be big enough to embrace the fullness of our lives. What we need to do is expand our imagination so we can be who God imagines we can be. 

Now the prophet Isaiah, in our first reading today, lived through something that not only expanded his imagination; it changed his life. He was, most likely, young when Uzziah, the king of Judah, died. Uzziah had ruled for over 50 years and was seen as an able administrator and successful military leader. Through his leadership, the borders of the country expanded and the community’s imagination of who it could be began to grow. Uzziah, though, wasn’t only interested in making the kingdom more prosperous than it once was. He also wanted power over their religious rituals and practices too. Uzziah, at one point, challenged the priests at the Temple, attempting to preside over rituals reserved for them alone. The question of what – and who – was allowed to shape the spiritual imagination of the wider community lingered even after Uzziah’s death. It was at that moment when God invited Isaiah into something amazing. Isaiah, while at the Temple, suddenly noticed something different filling that physical space. God, it seems, chose to reveal God’s self as an over-the-top version of earthly royalty. The throne God sat on was gigantic, pushing beyond the physical limitations imposed by the Temple or Creation itself. The royal robe God wore was also fancier than anything on earth. God filled that space with divine majesty but God and Isaish weren’t the only ones who were there. Kings and queens on Earth were surrounded by all kinds of soldiers, servants, and advisors. And so God made sure Isaish’s vision matched those expectations. The things surrounding God, though, were a bit different – resembling flying serpents instead of angelic beings. Each one of these seraphim had six wings – two to cover their eyes, two to cover themselves, and two they used to fly. While darting back and forth across the heavens, they kept singing “holy, holy, holy,” in a voice that probably matched what they looked like. The vision God gave Isaiah did more than overwhelm him. It also challenged him to re-imagine his world and himself. 

And so Isaiah began that process by admitting exactly who he was. He was, for all intents and purposes, terrified by what he saw and experienced. The words he uttered are similar in feeling as the ones we used during our confession at the start of worship. He realized, while experiencing the divine, how small and vulnerable he truly was. We don’t know exactly what was going through Isaiah’s head before this vision took place since his book doesn’t really flow in chronological order. But seeing the hem of God’s royal robe was enough to change him from seeing himself as a holy, religious, faithful, or even good person. Isaiah no longer could easily imagine his way into a future defined by his work, effort, or opportunity since he realized how limited he truly was. God, though, refused to let Isaiah linger with an imagination that was more human than divine. God made the vision bigger through a holy ritual inviting Isaiah to recognize his place in God’s imagination rather than only in his own. And then, with a rhetorical question God already knew the answer to, God pushed Isaiah into a tomorrow built on the promise that he is with his God – forever. 

Now I know, like I said last week, it would be amazing if our personal experiences with God resembled something like Isaiah’s. It would be amazing to build our faith on a moment so overwhelming and over the top. Some of us, I know, have had experiences just like that – serving as the foundation for everything that’s come next. But the rest of us, I imagine, have moments that aren’t always full of so much divine majesty. Our experiences with God might feel a bit small when compared to seeing God enthroned as king of all creation. Yet I wonder if Isaiah’s story is meant to act on us in the same way it acted on him. The smallness of our faith story compared to Isaiah’s doesn’t mean God isn’t with us. God hasn’t ignored you, brushed you aside, or decided others are worth way more than you just because you’ve never seen the hem of God’s royal robe. God isn’t, I think, primarily interested in your so-called progress but rather cares about how rooted you are in God’s holy imagination. Isaiah, after experiencing God, doesn’t really progress because he knew nothing he could do would ever get close to what he just saw. And so rather than relying on the inches of improvement to chase after God, God chose to change him. The work it takes to grow, change, and accomplish our goals is truly a beautiful thing. And God wants us to celebrate the journey we undergo while learning a new skill, starting a new career, or tending to the relationships that matter the most to us. But progress, itself, isn’t the whole of who we are. Rather, because of our baptism and through the gift of faith, God has already included you in God’s imagination for the world. Pushing ourselves from a  progress-based imagination into something more divine will, I think, do more than help us live through those times when getting better is no longer something we can do. It will also help us recognize how every holy moment, no matter how small, is really part of the one big experience of living with a God who promises to never let you go. 


Sermon: Living Out the Spirit of Pentecost

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 Sunday (May 19, 2024) on Acts 2:1-21.


What was your first summer blockbuster movie? 

I don’t mean a movie your parents brought you to because they were embarrassed to be seen watching The Avengers all by themselves. I’m talking about the first summer movie that, for a few months, became your entire personality. For me, my first summer blockbuster movie was Jurassic Park. And my brother and I annoyed our parents for weeks asking them to drive us to the theater over and over again so we could see it. It wasn’t long before I memorized entire scenes from the script and even today, when my car is stuck in traffic during a heavy rain, I can almost see a Tyrannosaurus Rex lurking just out of sight. Summer blockbusters are designed to overwhelm every one of our senses with incredible special effects – transporting us into a new reality where anything is possible. And when we walk out of the theater into the warm summer evening, these experiences linger with the hope that our present can be so much more. 

Now today’s reading from the books of Acts is, like a summer blockbuster, full of incredible special effects. It begins with Jesus’ disciples hanging out in the city of Jerusalem waiting to see what might come next. The city, at that specific time, had begun to fill with religious pilgrims hoping to celebrate the festival of Pentecost in the place God promised to be. The word Pentecost, in ancient Greek, means “fifthieth” and marked a Jewish celebration held 50 days after Passover. In the beginning, the festival gave thanks to God for all the food the earth produced. But over time, that thanks grew to include all of God’s promises too. People from across the ancient Mediterranean world and beyond converged on the city. And Jesus’ friends, who had already arrived in the city for the festival of Passover, sort of just stayed there while everything else swirled about them. They weren’t really visitors to the city nor were they planning, at that moment, to make it their home. Yet they still felt the need to wait and so they did, finding a place where they could stay. Jesus’ friends were still worried that Roman soldiers could show up at their door at any time. So they planned on keeping a low profile while figuring out what to do next. It was then when, over the bustling noise of the city, they heard the sound of a gentle breeze. At first, they probably thought nothing of it but it soon grew louder and louder. The wind, it seems, was on a mission – picking its way through the city to find their building alone. And when it roared through with the intensity of a tornado or a hurricane, this summer blockbuster special effect had only just begun. The disciples looked around and saw bits of fire – like the wicks of candles burning – dancing over each one of their heads. These disciples were wrapped in something incredible that kept swirling around them. And if that wasn’t enough, these fishermen, tax collectors, men, women, young, and old who mostly came from small towns and villages scattered around the Sea of Galilee – everyone could suddenly speak as if they came from somewhere else. 

Now if we could choose our own kind of holy experience with God, something as powerful as Pentecost might be high on our list. We’d love for our faith to be supported by a summer blockbuster kind of moment that we could share with everyone. What that might look like varies from person to person and it probably depends on whatever we’re going through at the time. Yet having a moment with some incredibly divine special effects would, for a bit at least, make it seem as if anything is possible. So often the God we seek and the God we expect is a God with overwhelming power, strength, and might. And while the Pentecost story implies that this is who our God is, when we only focus on the wind, the fire, and the amazing languages the disciples could speak – we miss what made this moment truly special. What they saw, with the fire and the wind and the gathering of so many different kinds of people – that truly was divine. But in the ancient world, people sort of expected that stuff like this would occasionally happen. To them, the world was full of heavenly special effects full of wonder and mystery. Yet what surprised these pilgrims about this moment wasn’t that the disciples could suddenly speak so many different languages. What truly overwhelmed their sense of wonder was how specific those languages actually were. God’s story of love, grace, and mercy as lived out in Jesus Christ was shared with them in the language they first heard as a baby in a crib. When they first entered the world, those who were excited to see this new life among them uttered words of love and hope in the dialect and languages they knew best. God wanted those who had not yet met Jesus face-t-face, and even those who weren’t in the neighborhood when Jesus was hung on the Cross, to know how the love they were meant to experience in their very first moments was the same kind of love God always had for them. It wasn’t the special effects of wind and fire and words that blew everyone away; it was how these words – rooted in a holy love – came to them in a very unexpected way. 

 Now in my office is a black binder full of bulletins from many of the Interfaith Thanksgiving services that have happened in our area since 1968. These special events serve as opportunities for different faith traditions to show one another what their language of holy love looks like. While scanning through the binder last fall while making plans for the service we hosted last November, I noticed how Doris’ name appeared unexpectedly in one of the bulletins. In 1976, St Paul’s Episcocpal Church in Montvale was hosting the service and they invited congregations to bring with them different pieces of cloth symbolizing who they were. Those pieces of cloth would .be used as a kind of banner and some words about that piece of cloth were presented by someone from each congregation. Some faith communities included pieces of fabric highlighting how different religious rituals expressed who they knew God to be while others highlighted their history and their identity in our religiously diverse neighborhood. When I scrolled down to see what CLC did, I saw how Doris Crouse presented what I think is an awesome encapsulation of what Pentecost is meant to be about. “Our church has chosen for its symbolic cloth a garment from one of our members who has needed much care. We are trying to put into practice the words of James in the second chapter, verses 14 through 17, where he speaks of caring for one another. This ministry of love, through caring for our church family and others in times of need, is one way of expressing our thanks to God for all [that God] has done for us.” 

Now on a day when we celebrate God’s special effects, we also give thanks for the effect our love, care, and faithfulness has on all our lives. We often look for things like tongues of fire to reveal who God is; yet God chooses to show up in the ways we let one another know how much we are loved. This love is not easy since it requires us to be with one another during times that are tense, difficult, and full of wonder. But this love we get to share is a love letting our friends, family members, and even strangers know how there is always a place for them at the foot of the Cross. I can’t imagine a more fitting way to celebrate Pentecost than honoring a disciple who continues to live that kind of faith out loud. Doris has, in her own way, been a kind of blockbuster who has let you know how much you mean to God. Pentecost isn’t only supposed to be about those special surprising effects that impacted a group of disciples 2000 years ago. Pentecost is always a celebration of who we get to be since we are graced by love, mery, and faith. Each one of you will have opportunities during our luncheon after worship to let Doris know in one-on-one conversations about how your mutual love has made an impact on your life. And we, along with Doris, David, their entire family, and all who call her friend – will continue to keep Pentecost alive by living out a holy kind of love that will never end.