No Room: starting in the middle of the story

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Mark 1:1-8

My sermon from Second Sunday of Advent (December 10, 2017) on Mark 1:1-8. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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If you are giving out Christmas gifts this year, who on your list is the hardest person to shop for? For me, it’s my parents. They are terrible to shop for. They are one of the few people I know who, when you ask them what they want, will say “nothing” – and they mean it. They buy what they want when they want it; they like to plan and pay for their own adventures; and they are content with what they have. It’s so annoying. So over the last few years, I’ve resorted to sending them a photo book full of pictures of their grandkids. I go through all the pictures I took over the last year, relive all those memories we created, and put an entire year into book form. It’s sort of a fun thing to create. But making this kind of book is also a little terrifying because I want it to be perfect. I have this subconscious desire to give my parents a photo book that’s full of beautiful pictures. I want them to open the book up and instantly know what we were doing without me having to explain it. And if I’m honest, I also want to – sort of – show off just a tiny little bit. I want to humblebrag and overtly brag about just how fun, awesome, and well-adjusted my family is. And this is an odd thing to do because my parents know just how imperfect we are. They’re not asking me to brag or measure up but I feel like I need to anyways. There’s probably some kind of family dynamic at work here that I should unpack with a therapist at some point but there’s another issue here too. There’s something about this season, about these four weeks before Christmas when all of us, I think, try to chase after a picture perfect kind of Christmas. And even if we don’t think we do, the image of what a perfect Christmas looks like is all around us. Stores, tv ads, and every show on HGTV flashes hints about just how postcard perfect your holiday could be. I wonder if, even subconsciously, being around so much perfect ends up changing what we do. We start needing our Christmas tree and out decorations to be just right. We need to find that perfect present for everyone on our list. And we do all we can to look impeccable and festive at every holiday party we attend. We are in a season where being perfect isn’t only for kids trying to use their good behavior to convince Santa to bring them the toy they really really want. It’s also a season when all of us chase after perfection: the perfect home, the perfect meal, the perfect relationship, and a perfect, peaceful, and loving family. The weeks before Christmas is when we try to make an ideal a reality. That’s why I want my photo book for my parents to be all kinds of awesome. And why I want the last photo in that book to be a perfect family portrait with everyone, including the 3 year old, looking straight at the camera.

But you know what? That perfect picture has yet to come. And it’s sort of amazing how many different ways that picture fails to actually work out. The Christmas ideal, this picture or expectation we carry with us – rarely ever shows up – because we live in the real world. There’s never a holiday where there isn’t stress, or worry, or disagreement, or conflict. And even when the stars align and we are blessed to have a moment that meets our incredible expectations, that moment doesn’t last. The imperfect always comes back. And even though I think most of us know, deep down, that this season will not be perfect, we still get caught up chasing after our ideal. And that chase causes us to act as if this season, somehow, depends fully on us. If the tree lights go out or a turkey gets burned or if a heated conversation leads to conflict and anger around our dining room table – the more we chase after the ideal, the more we make Christmas depend on what do, what we say, and what we can afford. We make Christmas, in the end, depend on us. And a Christmas that depends on us, doesn’t really sound like Christmas at all.

Now, the next four weeks will not be as perfect as we want them to be. Our homes will not look like they belong on HGTV nor will every Christmas light on our pre-lit tree actually last all month long. And not everyone in our family will be looking at the camera. But that’s okay. Because this season, this Advent, this waiting for Christmas – isn’t a season that depends on us. It’s a season about a God who showed up, stuck around, and will come back soon even though we, as people, rarely live and love and serve the world as the ideal Christians God calls us to be.

Jesus, in this passage from Mark, makes a promise to us and to the entire world. He tells us to keep awake because we do not know when the master of the house will come; they might come in the evening, or at midnight, or at the cockcrow, or at dawn. Jesus, in these verses, seems to tell his friends to be ready for the moment when God will shake every mountain. But I think Jesus is really telling them to keep their eyes open because God is about to do something that doesn’t appear ideal. Jesus, in the chapters right after this passage, takes his first steps towards the Cross: a journey starts with a meal, in the evening, with his friends. And after this last supper, Jesus is betrayed and, in a moment of anguish and prayer, he finds his disciples asleep because it was the middle of the night. Jesus is then arrested and his trial begins. We listen and watch his disciple Peter deny him as the cock crows. And then, in the morning, Jesus is brought before the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate who then condemns him to death. In the words of David Lose, “the heavens shake and the sun is darkened … [at] precisely … the moment when [Jesus] is nailed to the cross and our breath is taken away as we see God’s love poured out for us and all the world.” We are not in a season asking us to reach some ideal. Rather, we are with a God who, regardless of the season, comes to us as we are because the imperfect, the vulnerable, the sick, lonely, poor, and hungry are worth a love that does not end. Will we still try to chase our ideal Christmas this year? Yes. But does that mean that Jesus will only show up if we get Christmas right? Not at all. Because the picture perfect love that God gives the world is a love that shows up in the form of a fussy and vulnerable little baby and is made real by a savior who, with arms outstretched, shows us what a picture perfect kind of love actually looks like.

Amen.

Play

Don’t Yawn: The Season Doesn’t Depend on Us

[Jesus said:] “But in those days, after that suffering,

the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

Mark 13:24-37

My sermon from First Sunday of Advent (December 3, 2017) on Matthew 25:31-46. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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If you are giving out Christmas gifts this year, who on your list is the hardest person to shop for? For me, it’s my parents. They are terrible to shop for. They are one of the few people I know who, when you ask them what they want, will say “nothing” – and they mean it. They buy what they want when they want it; they like to plan and pay for their own adventures; and they are content with what they have. It’s so annoying. So over the last few years, I’ve resorted to sending them a photo book full of pictures of their grandkids. I go through all the pictures I took over the last year, relive all those memories we created, and put an entire year into book form. It’s sort of a fun thing to create. But making this kind of book is also a little terrifying because I want it to be perfect. I have this subconscious desire to give my parents a photo book that’s full of beautiful pictures. I want them to open the book up and instantly know what we were doing without me having to explain it. And if I’m honest, I also want to – sort of – show off just a tiny little bit. I want to humblebrag and overtly brag about just how fun, awesome, and well-adjusted my family is. And this is an odd thing to do because my parents know just how imperfect we are. They’re not asking me to brag or measure up but I feel like I need to anyways. There’s probably some kind of family dynamic at work here that I should unpack with a therapist at some point but there’s another issue here too. There’s something about this season, about these four weeks before Christmas when all of us, I think, try to chase after a picture perfect kind of Christmas. And even if we don’t think we do, the image of what a perfect Christmas looks like is all around us. Stores, tv ads, and every show on HGTV flashes hints about just how postcard perfect your holiday could be. I wonder if, even subconsciously, being around so much perfect ends up changing what we do. We start needing our Christmas tree and out decorations to be just right. We need to find that perfect present for everyone on our list. And we do all we can to look impeccable and festive at every holiday party we attend. We are in a season where being perfect isn’t only for kids trying to use their good behavior to convince Santa to bring them the toy they really really want. It’s also a season when all of us chase after perfection: the perfect home, the perfect meal, the perfect relationship, and a perfect, peaceful, and loving family. The weeks before Christmas is when we try to make an ideal a reality. That’s why I want my photo book for my parents to be all kinds of awesome. And why I want the last photo in that book to be a perfect family portrait with everyone, including the 3 year old, looking straight at the camera.

But you know what? That perfect picture has yet to come. And it’s sort of amazing how many different ways that picture fails to actually work out. The Christmas ideal, this picture or expectation we carry with us – rarely ever shows up – because we live in the real world. There’s never a holiday where there isn’t stress, or worry, or disagreement, or conflict. And even when the stars align and we are blessed to have a moment that meets our incredible expectations, that moment doesn’t last. The imperfect always comes back. And even though I think most of us know, deep down, that this season will not be perfect, we still get caught up chasing after our ideal. And that chase causes us to act as if this season, somehow, depends fully on us. If the tree lights go out or a turkey gets burned or if a heated conversation leads to conflict and anger around our dining room table – the more we chase after the ideal, the more we make Christmas depend on what do, what we say, and what we can afford. We make Christmas, in the end, depend on us. And a Christmas that depends on us, doesn’t really sound like Christmas at all.

Now, the next four weeks will not be as perfect as we want them to be. Our homes will not look like they belong on HGTV nor will every Christmas light on our pre-lit tree actually last all month long. And not everyone in our family will be looking at the camera. But that’s okay. Because this season, this Advent, this waiting for Christmas – isn’t a season that depends on us. It’s a season about a God who showed up, stuck around, and will come back soon even though we, as people, rarely live and love and serve the world as the ideal Christians God calls us to be.

Jesus, in this passage from Mark, makes a promise to us and to the entire world. He tells us to keep awake because we do not know when the master of the house will come; they might come in the evening, or at midnight, or at the cockcrow, or at dawn. Jesus, in these verses, seems to tell his friends to be ready for the moment when God will shake every mountain. But I think Jesus is really telling them to keep their eyes open because God is about to do something that doesn’t appear ideal. Jesus, in the chapters right after this passage, takes his first steps towards the Cross: a journey starts with a meal, in the evening, with his friends. And after this last supper, Jesus is betrayed and, in a moment of anguish and prayer, he finds his disciples asleep because it was the middle of the night. Jesus is then arrested and his trial begins. We listen and watch his disciple Peter deny him as the cock crows. And then, in the morning, Jesus is brought before the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate who then condemns him to death. In the words of David Lose, “the heavens shake and the sun is darkened … [at] precisely … the moment when [Jesus] is nailed to the cross and our breath is taken away as we see God’s love poured out for us and all the world.” We are not in a season asking us to reach some ideal. Rather, we are with a God who, regardless of the season, comes to us as we are because the imperfect, the vulnerable, the sick, lonely, poor, and hungry are worth a love that does not end. Will we still try to chase our ideal Christmas this year? Yes. But does that mean that Jesus will only show up if we get Christmas right? Not at all. Because the picture perfect love that God gives the world is a love that shows up in the form of a fussy and vulnerable little baby and is made real by a savior who, with arms outstretched, shows us what a picture perfect kind of love actually looks like.

Amen.

Play

An Invitation: A funeral homily for T.C. Sr.

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.”

John 21:1-12a

This bit from John chapter 21 is one of my favorite parts in all of scripture. But to really know why I like this text so much, we need to rewind one full chapter. Chapter 20 is full of what Jesus does after the resurrection. He meets Mary Magdalene in the garden and she mistakes him for the gardner. Later on, Jesus walks into the room where his disciples are gathered together, hiding in fear. They did not expect Jesus’ death and they’re not sure what to do next. Jesus shows up to say hello and he makes a plan to come back the following week. But not everyone was in the room that first time. The Apostle Thomas didn’t believe what his friends told him. So Jesus responds by making sure Thomas is in the room when he shows up, and Jesus invites Thomas to see the holes in his hands and side. And then, after these stories, the entire chapter ends with a conclusion telling us that the gospel of John doesn’t report everything Jesus said and did – but it shares what we need for a full life with God. These last verses wrap up the entire book. It truly the end of the story. But then we turn the page and Jesus is there, inviting us to breakfast. The gospel according to John is supposed to end with Chapter 20. But it doesn’t. Jesus’ story with his disciples, continues. When we get to those moments in our life that feel like endings; when we get to those moments when disease or death draws our loved ones away from us, scripture tells us that our story, with Jesus, continues. And that story starts with an invitation.

Invitations can be powerful things. An invitation connects us to new experiences, new people, and new ideas. An invitation can bring people and communities into our lives that we never knew before. And an invitation is why I am here today. My first experience with T. was through his daughter-in-law, A. She called my church office when I was away from my desk so my parish administrator took a message and left it for me. On a piece of bright pink paper with the words “While You Were Out” on top, there was a name, a phone number, and a short note asking me to call back. Right there, in black ink, was my invitation into the story God had already written in the life of T.C. Sr. But I’ve also learned that this wasn’t the only invitation to show up this week. An invitation from one of T. and R.’s neighbors is what connected them to our church. And when I talked to their neighbor last Sunday before worship started, she shared with me that she had extended an invitation to R. over breakfast – and she was thrilled to find R. later that morning, waiting for the bus to church. This same neighbor made sure to invite me to meet R. And as I sat with R. in the back pews, before worship started, I got a taste of who T. was. I was honored and blessed to see the love R. has for him. I heard about his faith and his heart. And I felt the sorrow and sadness all deaths bring but also witnessed the thankfulness we have for the special people God brings into our lives.

I never knew T. but I know that you did. All of you are a testament to the life he lived. It was a life that began with an invitation to know God – an invitation God extended and made true to T. in his baptism. And in the years since, Jesus’ invitation to be with T., no matter what, was an invitation Jesus never walked away from. T.’s weariness is now gone. His burden is light. And he is now discovering the fullness of love that Jesus’ invitation brings while basking in the eternal light of our glorious Lord, forever and ever.

Amen.

A sermon on John 21:1-12 at a memorial service held a Funeral Home in Tenafly on 11/30/2017.

Surprise! A surprising text and a surprising God

[Jesus said to the disciples: ] “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Matthew 25:31-46

My sermon from Christ the King Sunday (November 26, 2017) on Matthew 25:31-46. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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So what are the things you expect to see on Thanksgiving weekend?

For me, I like to drive down route 17 and see the miles of cars trying to get into the Garden State Mall parking lot. Others, I know, are glued to the tv, watching football on Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday, and praying that their NFL team will do all they can to secure the #1 spot in next year’s draft. This is a weekend where some set-up Christmas trees, hang garland and lights, and place 9” long inflatable dinosaurs in Santa hats on their front lawns. It’s a busy weekend for weekend warriors, travelers, and all kinds of consumers. But it’s also a busy weekend for everyone who works. Even though more and more people spend their holidays shopping online, retail stores and malls still need a small army of employees to open, staff, and survive this ultra busy time of year. Thanksgiving weekend isn’t only the start of a season where we stuff ourselves full of turkey and eggnog and a huge amount of stress as we try to do everything and still find that perfect gift for family and friends. This weekend is also when hundreds of thousands of people will become a seasonal retail employee. As you stare at a mountain of tvs, trying to decide which one is right for you, the staff person who helps you might not be who you expect. It could be a college student trying to pick up some extra hours of work, or a stay-at-home dad trying to help his family stay afloat, or it could be one of the countless underemployed folks in this country who need these kinds of jobs to survive. Even pastors, seminarians, and interns take these kind of seasonal retail jobs. Now, that fact might surprise you since the holiday season is a busy one for pastors – but sometimes student loans, a health crisis, and an unexpected expense makes seasonal work a requirement for a clergyperson. That cashier you saw yesterday at Target could be, at this very moment, preaching in a pulpit. And I know this because, yesterday, that cashier/preacher posted in a clergy Facebook group a note he received from his new boss. The boss sent out a group-text to all the seasonal employees as they got ready for Black Friday. The boss wanted to remind them of the expectations management had. After writing about being on time and how to dress, they ended with an important piece in big, capital letters: “PLEASE ALWAYS BE AWARE THAT OUR GUESTS MAY BE TARGET EXECUTIVES. WE ARE TO TREAT EVERY GUEST AS IF THEY ARE.” It might surprise you to find out that the seasonal retail worker helping you might be clergy. But it’s probably just as surprising to learn that the management at Target is sharing with their seasonal employees a version of today’s reading from the gospel of Matthew. The sheep and the goats is not a parable only for the Bible. It’s a story for our modern retail life because you never know who you might run into while shopping this holiday season.

Today’s passage from Matthew is an interesting text to chose to end the church year on. Starting next week, we are in a new year in our 3 year cycle through scripture and we’ll be focusing on the gospel according to Mark. You would think, since we’re starting with a new gospel, we would end this year with the last words from Matthew. But we don’t. Instead, we end with Jesus’ last public teaching before his betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion. We end our church year with Jesus standing in the Temple and talking about farm animals, visiting people in prison, and a final and fiery judgement. This isn’t the most hope-filled text to end the church year on. And it’s also a text where, if we were given the choice to pick which story today to use, the sheep and the goats would be a surprising pick. But maybe that surprise is why our 3 year cycle picked this text to end this church year on. Because this isn’t just a surprising text. It’s also a text with surprise built in.

And did you notice that? The surprise the sheep and the goats both express? In today’s story, the Son of Man shows up in full glory. Everyone knows who he is and everyone understands that something important, amazing, and all-powerful is about to happen. No one doubts what’s going on. But they do have a question for this eternal judge. They are surprised to learn that this isn’t the first time they’ve met him. So Both sides wonder when they saw him last. And this judge, this Son of Man, answers them strangely. Because He simply tells them who he was with. Jesus was with the stranger who lived in their nation. He was with the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, and the ones who had nothing. Jesus was stuck in the prison cell with the justly and unjustly convicted. He was always there, in the open, with people we could actually see – but we, as a society and as individuals, chose not to see them. We keep our distance because they are different, or scary, or because we assume they brought this pain and suffering and poverty on themselves. We act as if they deserve their fate – and that’s who Jesus chose to be with. Jesus is there, hanging with the ones we don’t like, with the ones we don’t agree with, and with the ones who we label as the goats in our world. When we see the surprise in today’s text, we finally see how Jesus chooses to be with people, even the people we don’t think he should be with, because that’s just who Jesus is. God’s presence in our lives doesn’t depend on us having the title, or the wealth, or the good looks, or all those things society says we need to have to be seen and noticed by everyone else. Jesus is with everyone, especially the ones society doesn’t see, and that’s surprisingly good news. Because a God who chooses to be with people is a God who chooses to be with us; and with the person sitting next to us; and with that seasonal retail employee we might run into later this week. Jesus is right there – in the middle of places and events and with people we don’t expect him to be with. And unlike the management at Target, we don’t have to be afraid that a Target Executive might show up because we know that the king of kings, the Son of Man, this Jesus of Nazareth who was born in a barn and had an animal food dish for his first bed – we know that Jesus is with whoever is in front of us. And he’s also with us, because Jesus keeps his arms outstretched and open so that he, and we, can serve and love all.

Amen.

Play

Talents: Changing Names

[Jesus said to the disciples: ] “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Matthew 25:14-30

My sermon from the 24th Sunday After Pentecost (November 19, 2017) on Matthew 25:14-30. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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What are you thankful for today?

Since it’s the start of Thanksgiving week, I’ve been thinking about being thankful. I’m thankful for my health and my family. I’m grateful for a roof over my head. I’m thankful for the pumpkin pie I ate last night. And I’m grateful for each of you, for this church, and for the grace God gives us each and every day. It’s not easy being thankful. But when we pause and take a moment to reflect on what we’ve been given, it’s not hard to find at least one thing to be thankful for. And so if you’re having a little trouble thinking about what you can be thankful for, here’s something you might not know. Three weeks ago, we celebrated the 500th anniversary of the start of the Lutheran reformation. We celebrated with special music, a large choir, and welcomed two other churches into this space. We gave thanks because a monk-turned-university-professor turned the Christian world upside down by posting 95 thoughts about Jesus, faith, and the church on a door in Germany. We call this church and this faith community Lutheran because of that German monk. But being “Lutheran” was something that almost didn’t happen. And I’m not talking about the what-ifs of history that could have put an end to the Lutheran reform movement. No, I’m really just thinking about the name. We’re Lutherans because that German monk was named Martin Luther. But, when Luther posted his 95 theses, he wasn’t known as Martin Luther. His real name, the name his parents gave him at his birth, was Martin Luder. Luther and Luder sound the same but they’re actually very different. Luder is a little awkward because, in German, Luder is something lewd. It’s a word associated with immorality. If things had turned out differently, we might know ourselves today as Luderans or the Lewds or something that doesn’t really roll off the tongue. Imagine inviting your friends and your family to come worship with you at Christ Lewd Church. That doesn’t sound very pleasant. So we can be a thankful that Martin Luder, after he posted his 95 theses, decided to do a new thing: he embraced his faith, his experience of Jesus Christ, by taking on a new identity so he changed his name to Martin Luther.

But why Luther? And what does that mean?

Well, he chose Luther because Martin was a guy who wasn’t afraid of being trendy. In the 1400s and 1500s, Europe was being transformed. New ways of looking at the world were coming into being. Universities across Europe were still a new thing and they were embracing a new way at looking at the world called humanism. Now humanism has many different parts to it but a core piece of it is a desire to “get back to the sources.” Humanists reached back into their cultural past to rediscover ideas that they had lost. They re-learned ancient greek so that they could read Plato, Aristotle, and other early philosophers in their original languages. Bible scholars started to do the same and published the first greek new testament to appear in Western Europe in something like 1000 years. Humanists loved being humanists and they wanted to make this movement part of their very identity. And some did this by literally changing their name. They created new first and last names and made them as greek as possible. And Martin Luder did the same. After he posted his 95 theses, he started to sign his letters and his papers with the name Martin Eleutherius which means – Martin: the freed one. Eventually, he stopped writing Elutherius and instead shortened it to Luther. This church and this community of faith are named after someone who chose their own name. We are the descendants of a German monk who threw off the name and identity he was given at his birth to become something new. Martin Luther became Martin Luther because his relationship with Jesus changed. He wrestled with doubts, fears, and was angry with God. But his encounter with Scripture forced Martin to realize he was more than just his father’s son. He was, because of Christ, “the freed one.” There was something about Jesus, something about faith and grace, that caused Martin Luder to break his connection with his past and embrace a new point of view. God gifted Martin Luder with an insight into God’s relationship with all of us. Luder no longer saw life as a mere few years where we try to get the God to be somehow on our side. Instead, Luther saw how, in Jesus, God already was. God gave Luther a new way of loving himself and serving the world. God gave Luther a gift. And God gives us these gifts so that we can be gift-givers like God.

So when we think about God or look for God in our lives, God as a gift-giver is one perspective that helps us see God anew. But God as gift-giver doesn’t mean that God is Santa Claus. God’s love for each of us isn’t defined by how many toys or wealth we actually have. And chasing after those things isn’t what God wants for our lives. We can read a parable like today’s from the gospel according to Matthew and think there’s something about faith that requires us to double our money. A talent, in the New Testament, was a physical quantity of silver or gold that weighed something like 130 lbs. This parable, on the surface, seems to celebrate those who turn a lot of money into more. But this isn’t a parable about money. It’s about the kingdom of God. And in that kingdom, the only things we have are what God first gives us. Each slave in this story is entrusted with a gift and are supposed to use that gift as if they were the master himself. Two of the slaves embraced this challenge. They didn’t hide what they were given nor did they keep it for themselves. They took risks. They tried new things. They engaged with the world and, somehow, their gift grew. When they first received their gift, a new relationship was formed. That relationship created a shared identity where they were called to be like the master. At the moment the gift was given, the three in the story were entrusted to become something more than just themsleves. They were now gift-givers, too.

Martin Luder struggled to see the gifts God gave. He longed to discover a loving God but his prayer, worship, and study couldn’t shake his sense of worthlessness before the God of all. He was focused on the gifts he thought he needed to give to God, to make God love him, but he could never do enough. Yet once he saw God in a new-light, as a God who is a gift-giver, Martin Luder could no longer be the person he was before. The gifts God gave him were more than just his intellect and other talents. What God gave Martin Luder was a Jesus who, no matter what, would never let him go. That is something he could be thankful for. Jesus is more than just someone to follow, believe, or trust. Jesus is also a gift given to us. We will always be a little like Martin Luder, struggling to see God and wondering if this God thing actually matters at all. But through our baptism and through a faith that God gifts to us each and every day, we can live lives that do more than just focus on ourselves. We can live, like Luther, as a freed one. We can become people thankful for the gift of Jesus himself. And since Jesus is our gift, we are entrusted to do nothing less than share that gift in everything that we say and do.

Amen.

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Oil: Looking for the absurd and the consistent in Jesus’ parables

[Jesus said to his disciples:] “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

Matthew 25:1-13

My sermon from the 23rd Sunday After Pentecost (November 12, 2017) on Matthew 25:1-13. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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So I know Halloween is over and Thanksgiving is just around the corner but like every retail store out there, I too, have Christmas on the brain. Well, not Christmas exactly – just Christmas sweaters. I don’t know if you’ve noticed but the Ugly Christmas Sweater is a thing. It’s no longer a name we give to the knitted sweaters we find at Goodwill that are covered with trees, snowmen, and lights. The Ugly Christmas Sweater is now a fashion design with the name right on the tag. If, say, you headed north after worship and stopped by a Target in New York, you can pick up a fantastic Ugly Christmas Sweater. If you wanted a sweater that lights up using long lasting LEDs? Target has a dozen to choose from. If you’re looking for something more branded, and you want to celebrate the new Star Wars movie with R2D2 wearing a Santa hat? You can get that in red. And if you love the story of Santa but wished he had tabby cats pulling his sleigh instead of reindeer – your dream is now a reality. Ugly Christmas Sweaters are amazing because they are completely absurd. They’re silly, light hearted, and challenge us to look at the world in a new way. When we see a coworker, family member, or friend wearing a ridiculous sweater, we’re forced to see them in a new light. The more absurd their Ugly Christmas Sweater is, the more that sweater changes our viewpoint and perspective. Ugly Christmas Sweaters are absurd and looking for the absurdities is what we need to do when listening to Jesus’ words today.

And doing this isn’t always easy. When we hear Jesus speak, we want to keep his words reverent, sacred, and important. We should take his words seriously. But that doesn’t mean we can only approach his words in a serious fashion because parables, by their very nature, are not completely serious. They are stories that are a little bit off. And they need to be because they translate into human terms what Jesus “the kingdom of heaven.” Since our world isn’t the kingdom of heaven quite yet, we need stories that are a little off to help us see God more fully. So parables need us to, in my opinion, find those slightly askew parts in the story, to find those Ugly Christmas Sweater moments. the story. And one such moment comes at the very end of today’s parable. Jesus, in a sentence designed to sum up the entire story, tells everyone to “stay awake.” But who, in this parable, actually stays awake? No one! Everyone, the wise and the foolish, sleep. So if everyone sleeps, what’s the point of the story?

Now, the thing about Ugly Christmas Sweaters is that there is always more than one and that rule applies to Jesus’ parables too. We need to look for all the absurd moments. But that’s hard because we no longer live in Jesus’ cultural context. We are not Jews living in Galilee and Jerusalem 2000 years ago. We don’t know what wedding would really be like back then. From what we can tell, the groom would show up on their wedding day and one of the first rituals involved bridesmaids. These bridesmaids would use lamps and torches to escort the entire wedding party from the bride’s home to the groom’s. Once the groom, bride, and everyone else made that move, the three day long party would start. But we don’t know how many bridesmaids would be needed. So the fact that Jesus mentioned ten, and then splits them into two groups of 5, is a little bit off. The story also starts with everyone ready to do their part. Every bridesmaid has a lamp and, it seems to me, every lamp is already on fire. Even when they notice that the groom is delayed, they keep their lamps lit, instead of conserving their oil while they wait. And this waiting is weird because everyone seems to fall asleep, right where they are, with everything still burning. That doesn’t feel very safe. And then, when the groom finally arrives in the middle of the night, some torches are ready but others are about to go out. Five of the bridesmaids need more oil but their sisters do a completely unChristian and unJesus-like thing: they don’t share what they have. They reject their sisters, telling them to go to the store which, if we’re honest, probably wouldn’t be open since it is the middle of the night. But 5 bridesmaids go anyway and while they’re away, the groom finally shows up. The 5 that meet him don’t tell him that others have gone on an errand. Since the groom was late, it would have been thoughtful for him to wait for the other bridesmaids to return. But he doesn’t. Instead, the escort happens, the party begins, and they shut the door behind them. When the other bridesmaids finally show up, they are rejected again. When we look at the details of this story, we see that everyone ends up wearing an Ugly Christmas sweater. Everyone does something slightly absurd. Lamps burn unnecessarily. The wise do not share. The foolish are able to find an oil store at midnight. And the groom, who we usually identify as Jesus himself, isn’t very kind, considerate, or loving. The only part of the story that we can attribute to Jesus himself is that very last sentence which doesn’t seem to make much sense because everyone sleeps. Everyone in this parable is a little absurd. Everyone is wearing an ugly Christmas sweater. The only thing that stays consistent is: the oil.

So what is the oil supposed to be?

Well, without oil, lamps do not burn. Without oil, the bridesmaids have nothing that will bring them light in the middle of the night. Without that light, shadow is all there is. This parable, and the two right after it, are ones where we spend a lot of energy trying to figure out what they say about the afterlife. We don’t want to be denied entry into the party that Jesus is throwing so we latch onto the words “stay awake” and we do whatever we can to figure out what we need to do to get into heaven. We can be so laser focused on getting into that final party that we miss a key to this parable that Jesus gives to us way back in chapter 5. At the start of his ministry, in the very first parable he used to teach something to his friends, he tells them, “you are the light of the world” (5:14). “You are” already burning bright. “You are” already lit up. We don’t start this parable as characters without the fuel, the oil we need. We start as light. And that’s because you have something the characters in this parable do not. A parable needs a storyteller and our storyteller does more than just tell stories. Our storyteller made a promise to you in your baptism that the oil used to mark the sin of the cross on your forehead will never run out. Jesus promised that he will always give you the oil you need to shine bright. In the long periods of waiting, when nothing seems to go right, you will have oil. In those moments when we feel stuck in one place, exhausted, worn out, and unsure of what we’re supposed to do next, you will have oil. When the days feel long and the nights feel even longer, Jesus promised that you will have fuel for your journey. But that fuel isn’t always a motivation, a power, a feeling that we feel deep inside. That fuel is also a community, a church, where we all turn to each other and ask: “what do you need to keep going?” (Lundblad, Feasting on the Word (Matthew volume 2), page 259) And in the moments when we don’t have an answer to that question, the community around us still does what it can to carry us through. The church sings can sing when we cannot. The community can prays when we cannot. Others worship even though you yourself might not be able to set foot through that door. All of us can believe the hurts that you share and we can all break the silence of pain, suffering, stigma, and hate that makes this world hurt too much. And then, with a little piece of bread, a little thimble of drink, and a simple word of promise – we can give you all of Jesus because Jesus has given all for you.

Amen.

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Marching On: Blessed Are Those Who Mourn

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Matthew 5:1-12

My sermon from All Saints’ Sunday (November 5, 2017) on Matthew 5:1-12. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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If we’ve spent time in church, these words from the gospel according Matthew are ones we probably already know. We might not have all twelve verses memorized but if someone starts saying “Blessed are…” – we can fill in some of the rest. Jesus, at the start of his long sermon marking the start of his public ministry according to Matthew, says that there are specific groups of people who have specific kinds of experiences and that these people, in the eyes of God, are blessed. But, right now, as I stand here overlooking the sandbox that we will shortly fill with lit candles, I am drawn to Jesus’ words on mourning. Today is a day where we, as a community, mourn. We will read out loud the names of people connected to this church who have recently passed away. We will light candles for family, friends, coworkers, and colleagues who burned bright in our lives. We’ll remember everyone who mattered to us; everyone who loved us; everyone who, through their thoughts, words, and deeds, filled each of us with so much life. Today we create a space in this church where it’s okay for all of us to just mourn and express that mourning in any way we want to. If you want to be stoic, calm, and collected? That’s totally cool. And if you want to shed a tear, we’ll pass you a box of tissues. All Saints’ Sunday is a day when you get to be just you. But I wonder: does what we’re feeling now match up with what we think being blessed actually feels like? In other words, when Jesus says that those who mourn are blessed, do we really believe him?

Now, on some level, the answer to that questions is yes. I mean, these words are coming from Jesus. Jesus, the Son of God, the firstborn from the dead, the one – as the Nicene creed says – through whom all things were made. If we’re going to believe anyone, then we should believe Jesus. His words about those who mourn being blessed is an idea that we can, in theory, get behind. We can hear his words and, as they bounce around in our head, we can reason through the concept of mourning. Being able to mourn means that we had something worth mourning. We had a connection with someone where real-honest-to-goodness-life flourished. The time spent with that person might only have lasted a moment or it could have grown over decades. But we were changed because they were a part of us. These kinds of people are literal gifts from God. So it’s easy, on one level, to say yes, this is what being blessed looks like. We were blessed by special people in our lives and mourning is part of what that kind of relationship actually looks like. But I’ve never been good at keeping life-giving relationships stuck in my head. Emotions, feelings, and my soul get involved. Even when I try to think and reason my way through mourning, there’s still a part of me that…just plain hurts. Or feels empty. Or feels incomplete. It’s as if there’s some kind of hole inside me that is held open by the memory of the person that once filled that space. Even though I trust Jesus’ word. And I know about heaven, the communion of saints, and how, since we are part of the body of Christ, we are always connected to each other – no matter what. Even though I know all of this – that empty space is still just there. This feeling…this reality…is hard to describe and I don’t know if what I feel is something you feel too. But it’s hard to imagine that carrying around these kind of holes inside of us each and every day is what being blessed is supposed to be like.

There’s a struggle in Jesus’ words here and it made writing this sermon a bit of a struggle too. In the midst of this struggle, I did what I always do when the words for Sunday don’t seem to be coming. I opened Facebook. I scrolled through my newsfeed, congratulating a friend on the birth of her new baby girl and wondered why my father-in-law was posting pictures of horses. I saved a few articles to read later and I did my best to avoid getting sucked into posts with 200 comments in the various groups that I’m a part of. Some people might call this procrastinating. To me, I was just scrolling. And then, one post jumped out at it. Someone left a photo on the facebook page of a friend and I noticed the caption for this picture first. It said, “I bought you an angel.” And below the caption was a dark and grainy photo, taken at night. There was a candle lit up and sitting on a white base with some figurine or sculpture on its side. I couldn’t make out what the sculpture was but I the candle shined just bright enough to illuminate the tombstone it was sitting on. That angel was for a friend of mine who had committed suicide several years ago. I stared at that picture for a bit and I kept coming back to it as I wrote the rest of these words. When it comes to being blessed, we don’t imagine heartbreak or sadness or having an empty spot inside of us as being what blessed looks like. Being blessed is reserved for for an answered prayer, or when we get or dream job, or when something takes away the worry, anxiety, and stress that hangs over our lives. Being blessed is when the voids and empty parts inside of us fill up. It isn’t supposed to be when we admit the ways we still sad, broken, and still grieving. Yet Jesus says that even us, even those with holes in their hearts and empty parts in their souls – even you are still important to God. Mourning isn’t a process designed to fill up the spaces in our lives that our loved ones still occupy. Mourning is how we learn to live with, and through, death. This doesn’t mean, however, that God caused this mourning or that God really wants the void that we carry to be part of our life. Instead, mourning is an experience that God promises to carry you through because even Jesus suffered heartbreak. Even Jesus mourned. The Son of God stood at the tomb of his friend Lazarus and Jesus just cried. And when Jesus rose from the grave, the holes on his hands from the nails that hung him to the cross were still there. The holes didn’t go away. The holes inside us, these parts holding the memory of those who gave us so much life, are not parts of ourselves that we are supposed to avoid, push aside, or just get over. We mourn because there are people who will always matter to us; there are people who we will always light a candle for; and there are people who showed us what living the faith actually looks like. We mourn because God gives us to each other as a gift – a gift meant to give us life. And that kind of gift is a love that no hole or void or empty feeling can ever overcome. The sadness we feel isn’t the end of the story. The space inside us that feels empty is a space God reserves for our loved ones to fill again. We who mourn are blessed not because of the holes that we carry but because God promises that these empty spaces won’t be the limit to the story God is already telling. Even though the candles we place today in this sandbox will eventually burn out, the light God gives to each of us is a light that will always burn bright. Blessed are those who today, mourn. Blessed are those who today, ache. Blessed are those today, who feel sad. And Blessed are those who knew us, who loved us, and who are with the Lord forever.

Amen.

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Is Or About? A Reformation 500 Celebration

Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

John 8:31-36

My sermon from the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation (October 29, 2017) on John 8:31-36. We were thrilled to worship together with Pascack Reformed Church and First Congregational United Church of Christ! Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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In New York City near the Empire State Building, there’s an entire city block that’s one of my favorite places to go. 32nd street, between 5th Ave and Madison Avenue, is filled with karaoke bars, beauty shops, and bbq restaurants that let you grill seafood, meat, and vegetables right at your table. This block is the heart of Koreatown, a cultural hub for the 200,000 Koreans and Korean-Americans who call the City and the surrounding area – home. When I lived in New York City, I had an old roommate who introduced me to this place. She was born and raised in South Korea so when we went out, we’d let her order for everyone at the table. She’d look at the menu, pick a few dishes, and switch seamlessly between English and Korean as she ordered our meal. And then, once the food arrived, her stories would start. She’d introduce us to a new vegetable, telling us where it grew, how it was used, and when it was harvested. We learned what foods were served on holidays and which dishes her grandmother made to mark special occasions. In her stories, we met extended family members, visited distant villages, and reveled in the old legends and myths that make a culture what they are. The more we ate, the more we experienced the history, culture, and personal stories that made my roommate who she was. Events that I could read about in my history books – like the occupation of Korea by Japan prior to World War 2, the Korean War in the early 1950s, and the dictatorships and the struggle for democracy afterwards, were fleshed out as my roommate told these same stories but with the names of her family members baked in. One of the dishes she introduced to me is Budae Jjigae, known in english as Army Base Stew. After the cease-fire between North and South Korea was signed, food was in short supply. Processed meats from US military bases were smuggled and sold on the local black markets. Spam, Hot Dogs, and various kinds of ham were mixed with Kimchi, Baked Beans, scallions, and whatever else was lying around. Army Base Stew is one of those dishes where literally everything is thrown into a pot – and you have no idea what you’re eating – but it’s delicious – so you just keep on eating. This dish was invented because people were hungry. Families created Army Base Stew to feed each other and their neighbors. This dish tells a story and when eat it, especially if we’re not Korean or we don’t need food pantries or SNAP benefits to survive, this dish moves us to experience something new. This, I think, is one of the amazing things that happens when we mix meals with stories. When we eat together, every story spoken around the table connects, mixes, and forms something new. Instead of learning about someone else’s history and culture, we encounter it, discovering a history and an identity that’s filled with real people with real names. When we listen to these stories over steaming stews, plates of food, and when we’re surrounded by bread and drink – the chewing on the food and the chewing on the words – changes us. We are no longer what we were before. The story and its storyteller have left their mark.

So, it might be a little strange to begin this sermon on the 500th anniversary of a movement that started in Germany by describing a Korean dish that was invented in the 1950s and that I consumed in a city that didn’t even exist when Martin Luther posted his 95 thoughts about Jesus, faith, and the church on a big old church door in Wittenberg on Oct 31, 1517. But if we’re honest, all of us are doing something a little strange today too. At this very moment, we’re supposed to be in our different church buildings using our different liturgical and theological traditions to feed, grow, and reflect on our faith. Each one of our communities can trace their origin to what Luther started 500 years ago but every one of us, including the Lutherans, have traditions and experiences and expectations that put distance between us. We have a long history of using our arguments about God, Jesus, and the Christian faith to keep us from sitting at the same table. During these last 500 years, our churches are not used to coming together. What we’re doing now is still a new thing. We are, as churches, changing our own spaces to become places where we can tell our stories to each other. And one way we do that is, I think, by following, something Martin Luther knew very well. We share ourselves and our Jesus while eating a meal.

A few years after the Reformation started, Luther was given an old monastery as a home. His wife, Katie Luther, had gifts and abilities Martin didn’t. She was the one who could manage the household, oversee their ten employees, keep track of their finances, and she made sure that their 50 person table was open to anyone who stopped by. Luther had a habit of inviting everyone to dinner. Locals and visitors, university professors and students, the rich and the poor, men and women, boys and girls would gather at that table. These dinners were more than just an opportunity to eat delicious food and enjoy a beer that Katie herself brew. Like our own dining room tables, the meal was a place to talk. We know a bit of what was shared around Luther’s table because people would take notes about what was said. Most of the time, students and theologians were trying to pick Luther’s brain, to get him to share a special insight about Jesus and the Christian faith. But for every question about Jesus, there was a story or a confession or a prayer rooted in an encounter with Jesus himself. Someone would admit feeling depressed or sad, sharing some personal demon that kept them awake at night. Another would ask about a piece of dogma or a rule of the church that was causing them some unbearable pain. Over the clatter of dinner plates and the clanging of glasses, the conversation didn’t stay in the “about stages” for very long. Instead, it dug deep into just how hard the faith of everyday life can be. Painful decisions, long periods of living in shadow, the joy of weddings, and even a father changing their child’s diaper – nothing was off limits at that table because, for Luther, nothing about our lives was off limits to God. It wasn’t enough to just know about Jesus. Jesus wanted to be encountered and experienced in the places God revealed him to be. Jesus didn’t want to wait for us to come to him. Instead, he chose to be with us in our everyday, even in those time and places when we are just living our life and don’t see Jesus right there with us. He is there when we shed tears of sorrow and tears of joy. He is there when we cry out in fear or in hope. He’s there when we have a decision to make that we just don’t want to or when everything right now seems easy and carefree. Our encounters with Jesus are not limited to moments that only feel super religiously. Even when we share a meal and tell stories with people who we don’t usually eat with, Jesus makes himself known to each of us. What matters to Jesus isn’t what we know about him. What he wants is for us to know him because he already knows us. When we came into this world, Jesus knew our name before we did. When we were baptized, we were publically acknowledged as belonging to His holy family. And as we grew up in our own families, cultures, traditions, and congregations, we learned stories that made us who we are and we were met by a Jesus telling us how his story, his life, his Cross, and his resurrection makes us into something new. As we celebrate this 500th anniversary of the Reformation and look forward to the years to come, we will keep doing something that is new and is old, all at the same time. We will keep sharing the stories that make us who we are; we will keep opening up our personal spaces so that we can listen to stories that are not our own; we will share bread and drink with all whom God puts in our path; and we will keep holding close to the One who encounters us with a gift of love, a gift of hope, and a gift of faith that frees us to live as Jesus’ people each and everyday.

Amen.

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Whose Head: What’s In Your Wallet?

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.​

Matthew 22:15-22

My sermon from the 20th Sunday after Pentecost (October 22, 2017) on Matthew 22:15-22. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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One of the “fun” questions my wife and I ask each other, usually as we’re coming home from a night out and there’s babysitter waiting at our house, is the question “do you have money?” And that’s a great question because I usually don’t. I don’t really carry cash. Instead, I’m a little old skool and I carry plastic. I came of age when credit card companies would literally throw cards at you during your first week in college. Over time, I discovered which cards gave me the most reward points and which restaurants didn’t overtly complain when my friends and I plopped down a pile of credit cards to pay for a meal. I’ll admit I didn’t always use credit cards the way I should. And there were times when paying the minimum balance was the only thing I could do. But I’m now at a place in my life where a piece of plastic, or an app on my phone connected to that piece of plastic, is how I physically pay for almost everything. And this credit is how I get to live my life. I’m a homeowner because of credit. I drive my mini-van because of credit. And I’m a pastor because credit let me figure out how to pay (and still pay) for seminary. Credit, to me, is a kind of promise. But it’s also more than that because credit creates relationships. I recently learned that credit and the rating agencies that support what credit can do came into being because people with money to lend and people who wanted that money needed a way to trust one another. That trust became a bond, a kind of faith, between people, moneylenders, and more. But this kind of faith comes with a lot of fine print. There are, in theory, rules everyone needs to follow. And when we borrow, we agree to be rated, to have the details of our life sniffed out so that we can be assigned a score, a number, that tells others our worth. Each credit card transaction is really an agreement, establishing a relationship, and using generations of legalese and case law to describe, in theory, how that relationship should work out. So last night, when I used my credit card to pay $1.89 for 2 cans of blacks beans, I entered into a faith-based relationship with Stop’N Shop and VISA – where the terms and conditions of that relationship were laid out in long bit of fineprint that I’ll never read. My regular, everyday life, needed those two cans of beans so I bound myself to an odd kind of faith that generates relationships and assigns value. I didn’t really think of the implications this all means when I inserted my credit card into a machine. But in light of today’s reading from Matthew, maybe I should.

Jesus’ words here are pretty famous. Even my non-Christian friends quote about what to give to the emperor and what to give to God. When we take Jesus’ words out of context, we can make these words mean whatever we want them too. But if we want to listen to what Jesus is saying, I think we should copy Jesus and do what he does in this passage. He doesn’t just talk to the Pharisees and Herodians, these religious and political groups trying to get Jesus into trouble. He asked them for a coin. And when they dig that coin out of their pockets to show him, I imagine Jesus actually taking that coin and holding it in his hand. A denarius is a Roman coin. And like our coins, it’s covered in symbols and images telling a story. We don’t know exactly what coin it was that Jesus held in his hands but it probably looked like one of our quarters. On one side was a picture of the head of Tiberius, the Roman Emperor, and it’s surrounded by words. The words tell us that Tiberius’ dad is Augustus and that Augustus was a god. On the other side of the coin was a picture of a woman, the Roman goddess of peace, holding an olive branch and a spectre. This peace would be a peace Rome would bring to the entire world… once it conquered it. The coin was more than just a piece of metal used to buy things. The coin was making a statement and a promise. The world, it said, belonged to Rome and the son of a god was sitting on its throne. The Roman war machine, it’s way of life, and it’s beliefs were the source of peace, prosperity, and hope in the world. These coins were worth something because Rome, with all it’s power, was worth everything. The worth of everyone in that crowd, according to that coin, was centered on Rome and nothing else. The people gathered around Jesus mattered because Rome defined their worth.

Now, I’ve never used a denarius to pay for anything. I’ve never called myself a Pharisee or a Herodian and I’m sure you haven’t either. We could, if we wanted to, leave Jesus’ words on the page. But what if we didn’t? What if listened to Jesus, took out our dollars, our checkbooks, our credit cards, and actually looked at the claim they make on our lives? My favorite credit card is dark steel gray, with a chip, two foil logos, and my name on the front. On the back is a magnetic strip, another foil logo, my name again, the credit card number, a few phone numbers, a website, and a statement that says “use of this card is subject to the cardmember agreement.” And then right there in the middle, is the place where I signed; where I agreed, in theory, to everything that card represents. I agreed to use it and let companies collect my information. I agreed to let them make judgments based on the information they collect. I agreed to support this even though their judgments about who is worthy of credit and who isn’t is still impacted by the legacy of racism, sexism, ageism, and predatory practices that sometimes help me and sometimes don’t. I even agreed, in some ways, to not even complain when I go through my yearly ritual of canceling my card and getting a new one because it’s number was stolen from me. To live the life I want to live, I am caught up in a system of credit that, because it’s created by humans, is never far from sin. We didn’t create credit or the sin of greed and racism and other systemic issues that infect the idea of credit or our use of it. And I don’t think any of us really asked to have our worth defined on an arbitrary scale from 300 to 850. Yet the value this system gives us can, through our participation in it, end up defining who we value…and who we don’t. Any faith, any tradition, any idea that gives us value impacts how we view the world and our neighbors. The coin the crowd brought to Jesus claimed that their value depended on Rome. But Jesus asked for this coin during the last week of his life while he was teaching in the Temple. Jesus is, at this very moment in the gospel according to Matthew, standing in the place God promised to dwell and he’s already in the shadow of the Cross. Our ultimate worth isn’t defined by our credit rating, or by our wealth, or by the systems of power and authority that we, as human beings, create, maintain, and reinforce without even thinking about them. Our ultimate worth is defined by the One standing there with that coin in his hand and who faces everything that coin represents: our false trust in power and might, our false belief that violence will bring us peace, and our complicity in the ways our life denies what’s life giving for those around us. Jesus takes all of that and heads to the Cross. He dies because of the things we value, but rises to show what God values instead. In our baptism [and even in the baptism of a young child like —-], our old value system, our old way of life, our old way of seeing who is important and who isn’t, is replaced by a faith that has no fineprint. This faith is a gift that says we’re loved. It’s a statement that we matter more than our credit score. Jesus gives us this gift knowing we won’t always know what to do in every situation and that we will, without thinking, participate in systems and a way of life that impacts others in negative way. Yet the gift he gives us is grounded in the choices God makes and the relationship God chooses. Jesus is loyal to us not because we will always be loyal to him – but because Jesus never gives up on those he loves. He loves us. He loves you. He loves this world [And he already loves —-]. We are given a faith that calls us to lean on God, to lean on Jesus, and lean on love even when our life going forward feels unsure, unsafe, and unknown. Jesus’ love is one credit card we can never max out and it will never be canceled on us, no matter what our credit score becomes. And when we lean on Jesus, we can finally discover how much Jesus value’s us and we will stop seeing ourselves and our neighbors as people only worth their 3 number score. We will see ourselves and our neighbors as Jesus sees us – as people worthy of a love that never stops giving.

Amen.

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