Unity of the Valley – Recipes

My message for the Unity in the Valley Event hosted at Pascack Valley High School on March 19, 2019. Unity in the Valley is a community organized gathering to encourage inclusion and fight back against recent examples of antisemitism and more.

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I want to start my remarks tonight with a simple question: what’s your favorite recipe? Now, it’s okay to take a few moments to think about it because it might not be the easiest question to answer. I’m not asking you to name your favorite thing to eat or what restaurant you like to go to. No, what I want to know is: what’s your favorite recipe? What dish, or meal, do you love to make or, if you don’t cook, what recipe does someone make for you that reminds you you’re loved? Once you figure out an answer to that question, hold onto it, because we’re going to use it in a few short minutes.

Now, as person of faith who didn’t grow up with one, I’m fascinated by the stuff of religion. There’s the big things like the rituals, the prayer books, music, and art. But there’s also the little things – like what faith communities choose to post on their bulletin boards and what little booklets they keep by the front door that no one ever picks up. One of those things I sometimes find in the lobbies of many different kinds of faith communities is: that community’s cookbook. They were usually published at least 10 years before, the pages are now yellowed, and the whole thing is bound together by an oddly colored piece of plastic. In Christian communities, we usually make these as a kind of fundraiser, asking people to submit recipes they want to share with everyone else. And these cookbooks are always filled with recipes you can’t find anywhere else. Sometimes, you’ll read about a chutney or hummus that someone’s mom used to make. But you’ll also find things that are a tad…frightening. As a Lutheran Christian, those kinds of recipes usually involve a casserole dish, jello, a fruit you’ve never heard of, and a can of tuna fish. When you read these cookbooks, you’ll wonder if someone submitted something just to punk you. Yet, you’ll also discover something beautiful. You’ll be invited to make that pineapple cake that someone always brings whenever there’s a funeral. And you’ll be able to taste the rice and beans someone prepares every time a church member is in the hospital, leaving it on the family’s front porch with a note saying we’re thinking of them. These cookbooks are more than just a collection of recipes. They’re a collection of stories – passed down from generation to generation – meant to be shared during incredible celebrations and to bring hope in moments of incredible sorrow. Our favorite recipes do more than tell others what we like to eat; they show our neighbors a bit of who we are, where we come from, and what makes us, us. We all carry within us a cookbook of recipes that lets other people know the entirety of our story.

But the cookbooks we carry are not, I think, meant to be only for ourselves. When we eat, we’re meant to eat together. Many of our faith and cultural traditions are centered at the table, at the place where dishes are served and meals are shared. Because we are invited to do more than just eat. We are here to get to know each other. The recipes we share are an opportunity for us to be vulnerable, to share a part of our tradition, our history, and our soul with someone else. The table is where we get to be human and that creates an opportunity for unity that is honest with itself and its past. The meal we share is how we discover each other’s joys and struggles. But it’s also a moment for confession, when we finally see how our way of life has negatively impacted another. It’s there where we reflect on the fullness of our story and admit the ways we didn’t take seriously the story of the other. It’s at the table when our -isms and -phobias breakdown. Antisemitism, sexism, racism, islamophobia, homophobia, and every other wall we build to deny people a place at our table is undone. When we take seriously what it means to really share a meal with your neighbor, we’re no longer in a position to hate and harm each other. Instead, we’re called to feed each other, to serve one another, and to help each other thrive.

And that calling isn’t always easy. Sharing a meal together will always take risk. We need to be honest and to admit the ways we’ve hurt one another. As a Christian, I have to name, outloud, the ways my faith has been used to hurt and harm people. I have to acknowledge how we have, wrongly, denied people a place at our tables because of who they are, who they love, or where they come from. We haven’t done enough to live into the reality of our faith tradition, about a Jesus who kept getting in trouble for sharing recipes and meals with people he wasn’t supposed to. But we can, and we will, change that. We’re not here to deny someone a place at the table. Instead, we’re here to eat and to be fully human, together.

So what’s your favorite recipe? Who taught you it and why? Was it your grandma’s cookies, your brother’s chili, your best friend’s gluten-free mac and cheese, or that recipe you found online that you cooked all on your own for the very first time? I want you to turn to the person next to you and take the next minute to share that recipe with them, why it’s important to you, and how you’re going share your table with someone new.

Prepare: God and the Wilderness

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

Luke 3:1-6

My sermon from the Second Sunday of Advent (December 9, 2018) on Luke 3:1-6. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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I’d like to start my sermon today by inviting you to forget something we just did. We heard a tiny bit of Jesus’ story from the gospel according to Luke which is one of the four gospels that contain the theological insights that serve as a foundation for our faith. Every Sunday morning, I introduce our reading from the gospels by inviting you to stand if you are able and then I say something like, “The gospel according to Luke, the Third Chapter.” This introduction prepares us for what comes next. We know we’re going to hear Luke’s version of Jesus’ story and since we’re in the third chapter, we’re already moving through the story God wanted to tell. In fact, we know exactly where we are in God’s story, including chapter and verse, because, at Christ Lutheran Church, everything is printed in our bulletin. But what if it wasn’t? What if there was no introduction to this text at all? I imagine it might sound different. So let’s try it. Let’s forget everything we just heard, including where this text appears in God’s story, and let’s listen to the first two verses as if we’ve never really heard them before: In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

If we didn’t know better, those two verses sounded like the beginning of an epic story. We met an Emperor, a governor, two rulers, two high priests, God, and some guy named John who was hanging out in the wilderness. The text begins at a specific time, in the fifteenth year of some Roman emperor’s rule, and it’s okay if you don’t have the years of the reigns of all the Roman Emperors memorized. What matters is that these verses are focused on a specific time and on a specific place where everything is defined by who was in control. The Emperor Tiberius was on top. He’s the one who appointed the governor and he allowed Herod and Philip and Lysanias to rule as kings subordinate to him. Even the religious authorities were under the Emperor’s control because no high priest could assume their office unless Roman power let it be so. So we received seven names, showing us the complete picture of who had power when this part of Jesus’ story took place. And that’s when the word of God, God’s voice, God’s energy, God’s point of view, and God’s power, came to a guy named John who was hanging out in the wilderness.

Now, the wilderness John was in was overseen by one of the rulers the Roman emperor put in place. But being a ruler of a place and actually ruling it are two different things. In the Bible, a wilderness was always a strange, mysterious, and untamed place. We might imagine John wandering into ancient Israel’s version of the Alaskan frontier, a place where wild animals ruled and where the necessities for human life were hard to come by. A wilderness, especially in the Bible, was a place of desolation and scarcity. But a wilderness was also, at the same time, an experience of God’s provision and protection. During the story of the Exodus, the ancient Israelites complained constantly about spending 40 years in a place without enough food and water. But that wilderness was also where God provided them manna and its desolation shielded them from being re-enslaved by their former Egyptian rulers. Later, the young David who eventually became king and the prophet Elijah both fled into the wilderness for safety and, while there, they were sustained and protected by God. The wilderness, according to Scripture, is more than just a desert or an untamed mountain range. The wilderness is also an experience where our normal sense of who’s in charge and who’s in control is undone. Our wildernesses are those moments, places, and even years where the control we assumed we had over our lives is turned around. John wasn’t only hanging out in a desolate and untamed place. He was also living into an experience where he had limited control. The structure of order and power proclaimed by the first seven names that started this passage wasn’t where John was living. Instead, John was in the middle of his wilderness, in the middle of nowhere; a nowhere that fully embodied the isolation, the fear, and the anxiety we all experience when we are in our “nowheres” too.

Yet it’s in that “nowhere” where the word of God comes. It’s in those untamed and uncontrolled moments when God shows up. The word of God skipped over the seven names of those who had control and instead went to an eighth name living in the wilderness. We sometimes act as if John, the son of Zechariah, appeared in the wilderness suddenly, only when the word of God showed up. But John wasn’t only passing through the wilderness when God’s word came. Instead, he had been in the wilderness for a very long time. The fifteen years of the reign of Tiberius was also a signal to us that John’s life in the wilderness lasted longer. John’s faith, personal growth, and spiritual strength developed in that place where scarcity, isolation, desolation, fear, and lack of control was all he knew. God formed John to be the one who could prepare the way for Jesus, not in spite of his wilderness experiences but because of them. John knew that, when we’re living in the wilderness, it’s only by trusting God that we can be carried through.

Our wildernesses might not fully match up with John’s. There’s a good chance we won’t find ourselves near the Jordan River, deep in a deserted desert. Our wildernesses, instead, might be located in a doctor’s office, a school, at work, or even in our homes. Our wilderness might, instead, be something we carry with us as we live our life with grief, or sadness, or a lack of knowing who, exactly, we’re supposed to be. The wildernesses we live in might last a day, a week, a year, or even a lifetime. Yet our personal wilderness does not mean that we are far from God. Our wilderness cannot separate us from the One who skipped over those who thought they were in control and instead visited John who knew how little control he actually had. God doesn’t wait for us to have our lives together before God shows up. God makes a commitment to each of us that there is no wilderness we find ourselves in that God won’t go into too. The structures we put into place to try and figure out where we are in God’s story will always miss seeing the ways God provides, nourishes, and sustains. And when we believe that our wilderness is hiding us from God, trust that God is already there with you, and that you will find your way through.

Amen.

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How Can We Thank: God’s Generosity

How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.

Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

My sermon from the First Sunday of Advent (December 2, 2018) on 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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When was the last time you received someone’s generosity?

I’d like you to think about that because, in a few moments, I’m going to ask you to share that experience with the person sitting next to you. Now I know this question can, at first, be a bit vague because we usually don’t talk about those moments in our lives when we receive generosity. Instead, we like to focus on being generous, on how we give. Generosity, as a concept, “has to do with the way we use our skills …[to] share ideas, practice hospitality, offer encouragement, make connections, and use our time [and resources] to address the needs of others.” (Living Generously, Stewardship Resource) Generosity is seeing someone else’s vulnerability and, for a moment, helping that person become a little more “complete” than they were before. It feels good to fill the need we see in the people around us. And it’s also easier to talk about the ways we’re generous because we then don’t have to let others know about those times in our lives when we were vulnerable too. Showing others our generosity sometimes invites us to bury those moments when we needed help and care. Yet generosity is how we love and it’s also, I think, how we experience love from one another. Generosity is an action, a practice, and a virtue that forms us, molds us, and helps us build the relationships we need so that we can become the people God wants us to be. And that kind of generosity takes many forms. It could be financial, like when a friend takes us out to dinner knowing we can’t pay them back. Or generosity could be when a loved one lets us vent, knowing they can’t solve our problems but they can create a space where all the feelings, emotions, and words inside us are finally let out into the open. A friend we haven’t spoken to in awhile might give us a call or a stranger might notice how tired we are and give us their seat on the bus; these are all examples of generosity and we receive this kind of generosity everyday. Yet we struggle to acknowledge it. But as we see in our reading from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, naming our vulnerability and celebrating generosity is part of what being a Christian is all about.

Paul’s first letter to the community in Thessaloniki is, most likely, the earliest piece of Christian writing we have. Paul wrote to a small group, of maybe a dozen or so, early Christians who had responded to Paul’s preaching and teaching in their city. Paul wanted to spend a significant amount of time in Thessaloniki, to support the small Christian community and help their relationship with Jesus grow. But something happened and Paul had to flee. The community in Thessaloniki was left on their own with no formally trained spiritual leader to guide them. And this worried Paul because Thessaloniki wasn’t your regular ancient Mediterranean town. It was the capital of a Roman province, with a large garrison of Roman soldiers keeping watch. Thessaloniki was a city full of Roman monuments and buildings promoting the authority of the Roman emperor who was starting to call himself “the Son of God.” Temples to other gods filled the city and each one had a large and devout following. And since Thessaloniki was a city in northern Greece, on a clear day, every person in that city could see in the distance, Mount Olympus, the tallest mountain in all of Greece and the legendary home of Zeus and other gods. Paul had to leave behind a small community of Christians in a city where Roman power, Roman rule, and Roman religious life had all the outward benefits and prestige. Paul worried that this community wouldn’t survive in the face of all that Rome. Yet it did. And not only that, they thrived. Their faith grew. They continued to worship. And they, as a community, learned how to live together – persevering through hardships and celebrating each other’s joys. God, through a divine and generous love, protected them and Paul’s joy literally leaps off the page. He can’t thank God enough for them, for this community in the shadow of Mount Olympus, that God didn’t abandon. Paul, I believe, honestly wanted to return to them, to be with them, but he knew that it wasn’t him who kept them together. Rather, it was God’s generosity in the face of their vulnerability that carried them through. The Christian community in Thessaloniki, on the surface, wasn’t very strong. The community was young, it’s spiritual leader had fled, and Christianity was so new that the New Testament hadn’t even been written yet – so there was no collection of writings to help shape and guide them. They were a community surrounded by other faiths and points of view that were bigger, more powerful, and were more richly rewarded. The Thessalonians in Paul’s community were completely vulnerable – and yet, they thrived. In the face of overwhelming outside pressure, the Thessalonians and Paul admitted to themselves and each other that it was only God’s generosity that kept them following Jesus. And this true God, this only God, was, while they were vulnerable, truly with them – giving them a faith that would carry them through.

Receiving generosity is hard because we then have to admit our own vulnerabilities. Yet we all have stories where the generosity of others is what carried us through. That kind of generosity, while mediated through human hands, comes from God. And it’s God’s generosity that sent Jesus into our world to experience everything we do, including what it’s like to be vulnerable. It’s God’s love that shows us how we can be generous. And it’s Jesus’s generosity that reminds us how we all need love.

I invite you now to take a few moments, a couple of minutes, and share with the person next to you a short description of a moment when you received someone else’s generosity.

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Truth is a Person: Pontius Jesus Politics

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”

John 18:33-38a

My sermon from Christ the King Sunday (November 25, 2018) on John 18:33-38a. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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There are no Republicans or Democrats in the Bible – but the Bible is full of politics. Politics, in its broadest sense, is how we make, preserve, and modify the general rules under which we live. (See Andrew Heywood’s book). These rules, spoken or unspoken, show up whenever groups of people live or work together. As human beings, we need each other. But that doesn’t mean we always get along. Our rival opinions, competing needs, and different wants leads to conflict, cooperation, and more conflict. We team up with each other, form factions against one another, and use every skill we have to “win” whatever conflict we’re in. Politics are the rules, expectations, and activities that form and shape how we work – or how we don’t work – with each other. Now as a faith community located in the United States, it’s not hard to hear the word “politics” and immediately think of political parties, recent elections, and which family members we avoided talking politics with during last Thursday’s Thanksgiving dinner. Politics is also something, we think, the church should avoid because politics feels partisan, biased by whatever political leanings and political party we identify with. We tell ourselves that politics doesn’t belong in the church so we seek out the “spiritual” meaning of every text in the Bible that we read on Sunday mornings. But when we only look for the spiritual, we miss the political realities that impacted Jesus’ life and ministry. Today’s text from the gospel according to John is a political text. And we can’t discover it’s spiritual meaning until we are honest about the political reality that informed Pilate’s first words to Jesus: “Are you the King of the Jews?”

Now, if you were meeting Jesus face-to-face for the first time, what would your question be? It could be anything yet I’m pretty sure none of us would ask Pilate’s question. Pontius Pilate, as we remember, was a Roman governor who ruled Jerusalem and the surrounding communities during Jesus’ years of public ministry. Pilate was appointed by the Emperor and he embodied Roman authority, control, and military might. He was the Emperor’s representative when the Emperor wasn’t around. And when Pilate spoke, everyone in Syria, Judea, and the Middle East listened. Pilate’s governor mansion wasn’t based in Jerusalem. However, when the Jewish festival of Passover took place, Pilate moved into the city with a large cohort of soldiers. They were there to provide security, crowd control, and to keep everyone in line. Gigantic religious events had a tendency to encourage riots, conflict, and revolts. So Pilate was ready to eliminate any threat, no matter how small it seemed. Jesus had also recently arrived in the city. After teaching in the Temple and sharing a final meal with his friends, he was betrayed by Judas and arrested. After being convicted in a trial overseen by the religious authorities, Jesus was handed over to Roman power. Pilate didn’t care if Jesus was a spiritual leader. And he wasn’t looking for any religious advice. Pilate wanted to know if Jesus was a threat. And since the religious leaders had handed Jesus over to him, Pilate already assumed he was. Pilate’s first question, out of the gate, was a political one. He wanted to know if Jesus claimed any kind of authority that would challenge Rome’s rule. Pilate could only imagine the world as he knew it to be. And any king in his world needed certain things. A king needed territory, followers, and resources. A king needed an army willing to kill on his behalf. A king, in Pilate’s mind, needed to inspire fear, conflict, and co-operation in those they ruled. And if Jesus could do any of that, then he would be a king and he would challenge Rome’s monopoly on that power.

Pilate, as depicted in the gospel according to John, wasn’t interested in the truth. His questions to Jesus were not a gentle inquiry into Jesus’ life, ministry, and mission. Instead, it was an interrogation because Pilate needed to confirm Jesus’ identity as a threat. Pilate knew how his world worked and as the Emperor’s representative, the truth he knew was centered in power, control, and someone “winning” every conflict – no matter what. What Pilate couldn’t see, or chose not to see, was the truth right in front of him. And that truth wasn’t a what, an idea, or some kind of fact written down on a piece of paper. The truth was a who because, as Jesus shared in John 14:6, he is “the way, the truth, and the life.”

We tend to imagine the outcome of politics as having some kind of material shape. Politics involves people having power and that power is expressed by having authority over others. Politics is made real in a specific location – be it in a city council chamber, in a part of Congress, or even in the unspoken table seating charts dictated in some high school lunchrooms. Politics, we believe, is about controlling domains and forming our own, personal, kingdoms. Yet Jesus’ politics was, and is, different. He came to live out his commitment to a world that was already overseen by him. As part of the Holy Trinity and as the One through whom the entire universe was made, there’s no domain or kingdom or territory that doesn’t already belong to Him. When it comes to God’s creation, there’s no territory that Jesus needs to fight for to control. So Jesus chose to build personal, meaningful, and deep relationships with us since we already live in God’s world. And in the words of Rev. Karoline Lewis, “… Jesus’ Kingdom can be anywhere, anytime that Kingdom behavior is exemplified…lived out…and That Kingdom witness [is] heard and observed.” What Pilate couldn’t see was that Jesus’ kingdom was rooted not in things but in people. Jesus wanted people to connect with God’s ultimate promise to them – that we are loved not because we are perfect but because God is – and that promise…changes everything. It changes how we interact with each other. It changes how we live with our neighbors. It changes how we make, preserve, and modify the general rules under which we live. Rather than being focused on “winning” whatever conflict we’re in, our faith in Jesus compels us to realize that we – on a cosmic and divine level – have already won. So instead of competing with one another, we can choose to love each nother. Instead of seeking out victories over those we disagree with, we can chose to help them thrive. Instead of building walls to give us a fake sense of security, we can work on building bonds of friendship – knowing that those bonds take much more work to create but are the only way to develop lasting peace. We get to be honest about the ways we’ve failed to use our power for good and we get to stand up to racism, sexism, classism, and every-ism that stops us from seeing the image of God in the people around us. And because of our baptism, we get to imagine how our politics can be a way we serve God and our neighbors. Jesus as the truth means that, sometimes the truth we tell, is anything but. Yet when we cling to Jesus, listening to his voice over all others, we find ourselves testify to his truth of forgiveness, mercy, service, and, above all, love.

Amen.

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Speaking Gratitude at the 50th Annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Worship

Pastor Marc’s sermon for the 50th Annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Service (Upper Pascack Valley Clergy Council) hosted by Congregation B’nai Israel on November 18, 2018. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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So I’m not sure how it happened but I, somehow, went through all of my formal education without really digging into the rules of English grammar. I never diagramed a sentence. I never memorized what a split infinitive was. And, to the chagrin of those who edit my newsletter articles, I love the Oxford comma. At first, I was fine with this lack of formal grammar education because, as a kid, I planned to grow up and become a paleontologist, or a computer programmer, or an engineer. I figured I could learn what I needed to know through a version of paper-and-pencil based osmosis, absorbing whatever it is I needed to know. But the Lord had other ideas. And I’m now in a career where using words is what I mostly do. Every day, there’s an important conversation about faith and life that becomes a vehicle through which we love our neighbor as ourselves. And there always another sermon to write, article to compose, and newsletter to create. These words end up being more than just a tool for communication. They are how we love, serve, forgive, welcome, and embody the faith that makes each of us exactly who we are supposed to be. For those of us who are able to write and speak, our words become containers of the sacred. And this sacred speech does something. Our words are how we build relationships with each other. Our speech is how we create opportunities for reconciliation and forgiveness. Our words can make someone’s day and, when misused, can cause unbelievable harm. I sort of wish I paid more attention in English class. But there’s at least one grammar rule that I, somehow, can still articulate. And that rule says we’re never to end a sentence with a preposition.

Now, a preposition is a word like with, by, for, in, or, to, and it’s used to express a relationship between a noun or a pronoun and some other element in a sentence. For example, in Deuteronomy 8, verse 3, it says: “God humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna…” That “with” is a preposition. I was taught to avoid ending any sentence with one of those kinds of words. But as I prepared for tonight’s message, I discovered that this so-called “rule” wasn’t really meant for English speakers. The grammarians who decided this took a rule for latin and dictated that English speakers should do the same thing. It’s a bit ironic that I ended up memorizing the one grammar rule that wasn’t really a rule to begin with. But it helped me stay connected to prepositions. And these kinds of our words, which contain the sacred, are especially important when we’re talking about thankfulness and gratitude.

Diana Butler Bass, in her book Grateful, pointed out that “gratitude…always comes with a preposition.” (page 97) “We are grateful for something, grateful to someone, and…grateful with others. Even [when our gratitude is] untargeted…prepositions [still] show up.” We might, for example, find ourselves completely alone on a deserted beach right before the dawn breaks. We listen to the waves gently crashing onto the shore. And then, as the sun rises, we witness the wispy clouds turn pink, orange, and red. Even though no one else is there, we still feel the need to, somehow, say thanks. Now, we sometimes define gratitude and thankfulness as rooted in a kind of exchange, where someone gives us something and we are indebted to them, in small and big ways. This kind of gratitude is built into our culture and it’s so embedded in us that we don’t realize how much this required reciprocity is part of the words we use and teach. I know my kids are a little tired of me always saying, “now what do you say?” after they’ve been given something. Yet gratitude doesn’t need to only be a transaction involving debts and debtors. Gratitude can also be structured through gifts and response. And when we shift our perspective away from looking at life as if it’s recorded on some kind of eternal balance sheet, we discover the gifts that already exist. We can see that “the universe [itself] is a gift. [That] life is a gift. Air, light, soil, water… friendship, love,…and [birth or chosen] family…[these are all] gifts. We live on a gifted planet.” (xxiv) And without these gifts, we wouldn’t even exist. Gratitude and thankfulness is rooted in these initial gifts. Each one of us, by merely existing, end up being a beneficiary in God’s world. And instead of only saying that this arrangement makes us indebted to God, we can choose to “express our appreciation for [these gifts] by … [giving all sorts of gifts – those that are large and small] … to others” (xxv)

When we center our gratitude in gifts rather than in indebtness, the prepositions of thankfulness show us that when gifts are given, “connection comes alive.” (97) In the words of Diana Butler Bass, “when it comes to gratitude, ‘me’ always leads to ‘we’.” (97). When we are grateful for something, grateful to someone, and grateful with others – our gratitude creates community with all those things on the other side of the prepositions. And that community is grounded in every gift that the Eternal One has first given us. Now, in my Lutheran Christian tradition, everything begins with gifts. Our life is a gift. Our relationship to God is a gift. Jesus, we believe, is a gift. And even our faith, our ability to say who we are and whose we are, is a gift. In theory, we should be good at recognizing the gifts given to us. Yet using words to name our gifts isn’t always easy. One of the skills we need to learn is how to name all our gifts out loud. Because it’s a gift that we are here tonight, celebrating 50 years of interfaith partnership and support in the Pascack Valley. It’s a gift that we, together, can choose to love, care, and be with each other – even though there are forces in this world that want to tear us apart. It’s a gift that I, a Christian, was invited to say these words tonight even though the history of antisemitism in a twisted version of my faith has led to incredible horrors against the Jewish people – an evil that we will continue to denounce, fight against, and do whatever we can to remove. And finally, it’s a gift that every one of you is here and that we, together, will use our words to affirm our collective call to welcome, love, and stand with all. Because as faith-filled people living in Bergen County, we are a gift to each other. As we look forward to our next 50 years together, I don’t know what nouns and pronouns will be on the other side of our future gratitude prepositions. But I believe that our love for each other will grow as we continue to stand in solidarity with each other. And that we will be a welcoming, diverse, and inclusive community of communities, rooted in our eternal gifts, so that we can be grateful for, grateful to, and grateful with.

Amen.

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Worth It: With Great Power Must Come Great Responsibility

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.

“As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them. And the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations. When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death;and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.

Mark 13:1-13

My sermon from the 26th Sunday After Pentecost (November 18, 2018) on Mark 13:1-13. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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Invisible Girl. Iron Man.The Hulk. Marvel Girl. These are just some of the comic book characters Stan Lee helped bring to life. He, along with the artists Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and Don Heck, was instrumental in creating an entire universe full of superheroes. To my kids, Stan Lee is that weird old guy with the awkward cameos in all of the Marvel superhero movies. But for the rest of us, he’s the one who spent five decades giving us all superhero dreams. Stan Lee wasn’t perfect. He took too much credit for the collaborative work he did and he should have given the artists, letterers, and inkers at Marvel Comics more money. Yet I, like countless other comicbook nerds, mourned his passing earlier this week. He was a pop-culture icon, giving birth to a world that looked a lot like our own but one where radioactive spiders gave teenagers superhuman strength. Peter Parker, aka Spider-man, is probably his most beloved co-creation. He first showed up in Amazing Fantasy Comics #15 as a sixteen year old kid who was bitten by a radioactive spider. Peter discovered he could climb walls, balance on thin cables, and crush steel pipes as if they were paper. With his new found powers, Peter did what any teenager would do: he joined the amateur professional wrestling circuit, using his new skills to make some money. After being given the stage name Spider-Man, tragedy struck and Peter Parker became the superhero he was destined to be. And in the final panel of his very first appearance, we read a line that I think even the Holy Spirit regretted not including in the Bible. Spider-man learned that “with great power comes…great responsibility.”

That line speaks about something that we all know but that we don’t, necessarily, practice. We want those with power to serve the greater good. We want people to recognize the power they do have and how they are called to confront the evil in the world. “With great power comes great responsibility” is an amazing line. Except…that’s not the exact quote of what the comic book actually says. If you opened up your copy of Amazing Fantasy #15 to the very last part of the story, you’d read: “And a lean, silent figure slowly fades into the gathering darkness, aware at last that in this world, with great power there must also come – great responsibility!” We usually leave out the “must also” part of that quotation. But maybe we shouldn’t. Because those words illuminate the inevitable calling that Peter Parker has. He doesn’t get to choose what his responsibilities are. Instead, he gets to live them out and endure. And like all of Jesus’ disciples, he sometimes wonders if this kind of life is actually worth it.

At the start of today’s reading from the gospel according to Mark, the disciples were just overwhelmed by it all. They were hanging out in the place God promised to be, in the Temple in Jerusalem, and they were following God’s Messiah. The disciples, I imagine, were filled with a sense of awe as they walked on holy ground with the One who could feed thousands of people with a couple of loaves and some fish. It’s not only the stones and the buildings that were large – the disciples knew that they were in God’s city with the One who could change the world. And in their exuberance, an unnamed disciple, gave voice to that feeling – and Jesus, in response, cut that exuberance short. Instead of basking in the glory of that moment, Jesus shared that everything around them would come tumbling down. Jesus claimed that God’s House, God’s home on earth, would be destroyed. And so, later on, four of Jesus’ friends came to him, wanting to know exactly what he was talking about. If the Temple was going to fall, they wanted to know when. Now that’s a completely reasonable question but what’s striking about that question is who asked it. And to understand that, we need to open our Bibles to the very first chapter of Mark. Because Peter, James, John, and Andrew weren’t just some random followers of Jesus; they were his very first ones.

According to Mark, after Jesus’ temptation in the desert and John the Baptist’s arrest – Jesus began his journey to Jerusalem by first going to the the Sea of Galilee. He found two sets of brothers working there. Peter and Andrew were fishing while James and John were mending their nets. Both sets of brothers, at Jesus’ call, left their homes and their families to follow him. And for approximately three years, they saw Jesus work wonders. They watched as he casted out demons. They were there when he healed people that the rest of us tossed aside. Jesus matched wits with the religious leaders of his day and he gave his disciples, including those two sets of brothers, a taste of what it’s like to have Jesus’ power. They, like almost everyone else, imagined that Jesus’ spiritual power would also become a political power that would drive the occupying Roman Empire into the sea. The Temple wasn’t supposed to be destroyed. Instead, it was supposed to become invincible. So the four, the ones who had been there since the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, asked him a question. They wanted to know if everything would still turn out the way they thought it should. They sought assurances from Jesus that, after giving up everything to follow him, he was actually worth it. Because without the Temple, without some political power, and without some honest-to-goodness benefits in the here and now, the two sets of brothers wanted to know if their lives, had any meaning at all. Jesus sidestepped their question. And instead, he told them to endure. He told them to just live.

And living can be hard. There are joys, of course, but there’s also struggles and suffering. As we age, we discover that our bodies don’t always do what they used to and our new normal isn’t very fun. Our relationships with the people around us can bring us incredible joy but they can also break our heart. We find ourselves praying prayers that we know won’t be answered. And we watch as entire towns are wiped out by wildfires, hurricanes, and wars. We wonder if being here makes sense because the benefits of our faith don’t seem to materialize in the ways we thought they would. We, in a sense, lose that everyday meaning that should move us into a more vibrant, and easier, future. And instead we discover that there’s a lot of life that we just have to live through.

And Jesus, well, he knows that. He not only understands our life but he chose to live that life too. He had the power to do exactly what Peter, James, John, and Andrew wanted. But he also knew that our cycle of living, of violence and war and hurt, was a cycle that needed to be broken. Living for power, for comfort, and for control at the expense of those around us, wasn’t the life God meant for us. So God came down to live with us, to experience first hand what our endurance requires. And Jesus showed us how we can still live even when the stones that serve as the foundation of our lives come tumbling down. Through Jesus’ life and the Cross, through our baptism, through the faith that brings us into Christ’s church week after week, we have been given a lifeline to the divine. It’s here where we receive the creator of the universe: it’s here where we received Jesus himself. And He says that you, as you are, are worth being loved and held by God. Living with faith isn’t easy because faith requires us to be honest about ourselves and our lives. Yet that honesty, in a way, becomes our great power because it helps us admit our collective responsibilities. Whether you are in happiest part of your life or whether everything is crumbling around you, you are eternally loved. And that love is our collective calling to care and serve each other just like Christ cares and serves you. So whether we’re a 95 year old creative legend or a 16 year old kid who was bitten by a radioactive spider, our calling is that we must love, pray, cry, laugh, scream, doubt, and live through our futures, trusting that the peace, mercy, hope, and joy that God has promised to us will, in the end, carry us through.

Amen.

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Might/Mite: The Power of a Loud Silence

As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Mark 12:38-44

My sermon from the 25th Sunday After Pentecost (November 11, 2018) on Mark 12:38-44. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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One of the fascinating things about World War 1 is that it’s a war we can see – but one we can’t hear. Even though the war was fought after the invention of the film camera, the videos we have are silent. At the time, sound recordings were mechanically produced by a needle making an etching on wax or metal. The machines that could record sound were simply too big and too delicate to bring into a war zone. Unlike today, where the phone in our pocket can share live images and sounds of wars happening all over the world, the war described as the one to end all wars is one we can’t hear. If want to imagine what that war sounded like, we have to rely on our imagination to fill in the details. A veteran could fill in these auditory gaps, using their own experience in combat or in training as a guide. But the rest of us, well, we have to rely on movies, tv shows, and video games to give us a hint of what war might sound like. However, in honor of today being the 100th anniversary of the signing of the armistice that ended World War 1, the Imperial War Museum in London found a “recording” of what the last 2 minutes of the war sounded like. Now, it’s not a recording as we understand them to be. It’s more of a series of lines on a chart similar to what we see on a seismometer as it records an earthquake. During World War 1, special military units used microphones and other equipment to find out where enemy artillery fire was coming from. Scouts would watch for the flash from the muzzle of big guns as they fired and then turn on a special machine to record on a filmstrip the intensity of the noise those guns caused. And once that noise was recorded, special computations were done to figure out where those big guns were. Most of these kinds of “recordings” were lost after the end of the war. But at least one piece survived. And that filmstrip recorded the last few moments of World War 1 from the vantage point of the Americans located by the River Moselle. A sound company was commissioned to turn these lines into actual sounds. They researched the guns used in the war, measured the noise intensity labeled by each tick on the lines, and even figured out how the ground would reverberated as each gun went boom. They basically reverse-engineered the sound of the end of a war – and in the minute long clip they posted online, you can hear the artillery guns firing up to the very moment the armistice took effect. Then…silence. And for a bit of drama, the sound company added the chirping of birds to its end.

The clip is pretty powerful. It’s the only audio recording we have of what the battlefield in World War 1 sounded like. But what makes it so intriguing – is its silence. Now, before a sound company reverse-engineered those lines on the filmstrip, we didn’t know what it sounded like. It was, in essence, silent to us. But once those lines were decoded, reworked, and made to speak – what keeps us returning to this recording over and over again is the silence embedded in it. It’s not the sound of the artillery pieces that make this recording interesting. What gives it an emotional boost is what’s on there once the sound of the big guns stop. And it’s a kind of loud silence that helps us discover exactly who we get to be.

Now, there’s some silence in today’s reading from the gospel according to Mark that we don’t always see. And that’s because, even though the reading is short, its words invite us to imagine a very loud and noisy world. Jesus was in Jerusalem, filling his time between Palm Sunday and Good Friday by preaching and teaching in the Temple. The Temple was the heart of the city, full of noise and full of people. They were talking, debating scripture, chanting psalms, and trying to speak up over the hees and haws of the animals waiting to be sacrificed. I’m sure there were moments when the crowd, while participating in religious rituals, were silent – but the sounds of the city would then move in. Jesus, at first, added to the noise by speaking about the flashy kind of scribe who’s style and rich living amped up the volume of whatever space they entered. But then Jesus switched things up. He grew silent. He walked into the outer court, the part of the Temple women could go into, and he sat down opposite the treasury. He watched as the crowd filed past the Temple’s version of a church’s offering plate and he heard the clanking of many metal coins as they landed in the treasury. Scripture doesn’t tell us how long Jesus was silent. But I like to imagine that he sat there for quite awhile. And instead of critiquing what each person offered, he waited until a widow came to the treasury to drop her offering into the plate. We don’t know anything about this widow. We don’t know how old she is, where she comes from, or even why she’s there. She, like Jesus, was silent at this moment in the text. And she’s carrying with her two small copper coins worth a penny. That amount of money couldn’t buy her much of anything. Yet it was all she had. And as she dropped those two coins into the offering plate, they barely clanged, making little noise as they landed.

But Jesus heard them. And he broke his silence to tell his disciples about the widow whose silent actions made an incredible amount of noise. The disciples, as we’ll see in next week’s reading, were focused on the bigness and the noise of it all. The large stones, the fancy robes, and the clang of the many coins tossed into the offering plate drew their notice and attention. But the widow was silent to them because her offering was so small, it appeared to make no noise at all. Yet once the noises around the widow were removed; once she was no longer a person in the crowd but rather a person Jesus saw: she became exactly who she had always been: a person God knew, a person God loved, and a person God saw. Her worth wasn’t defined by the value of what she could put in the offering plate nor by what kind of fancy clothes or places of honor she received while sitting around a dining room table. She was, and always had been, a beloved child of God. And since she didn’t have much of anything, she could only be exactly who she was: a widow who, while in God’s house, gave to God everything she had. Her silent place in the world was, according to God, full of a divine noise that only Jesus chose to hear. And she, owning basically nothing, was still willing to give her whole being to God. We, through the Spirit’s help, can do the same because Jesus Christ, through the Cross, gave his whole self for each of us. We tend to focus on the big noises all around us. We chase after whatever is bigger, brighter, and flashier – looking for stuff, experiences, and other people to fill out life with sound. Yet as baptized and beloved children of God, we already carry within us a divine sound that connects us to the source of all life, hope, and love. We are filled by a divine silence that no earthly sound, experience, doubt, fear, or war can ever drive away or overcome. We, because of Christ, get to be exactly who we are: and you, right now and always, are a beloved child of God.

Amen.

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Saints: You Are Alive

When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

John 11:32-44

My sermon from All Saints’ Sunday (November 4, 2018) on John 11:32-44. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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There are a few habits I no longer do that I miss. As a kid, my brother and I would wait until the energy in the air was just right and then we’d setup a board game on our bedroom floor, one that would take us days to complete. Later, in college, there was this one spot, next to the bookstore, that overlooked a small creek. Every time I walked past it, I would stop – letting the sound of the flowing water connect me to a God I did not acknowledge but One who was with me all the same. And for a while, I looked forward to turning on my computer each week, visiting the New York Times’ Style Section, and clicking through a new photo gallery showcasing what Bill Cunningham had seen and photographed. Bill Cunningham was an iconic photographer who you could spot in New York City wearing a bright blue French worker’s jacket and riding a single speed bicycle. A hat designer by trade, Bill knew fashion and he spent decades reporting on what new trends were bubbling up across the world. But what made him unique was the time he spent on the street, trying to find that new and interesting thing that people actually wore. He didn’t spend much time looking at the fancy dresses that an actress might wear on the red carpet for an awards show. Bill was more interested in the shoe or the bag or the silhouette that people wore when they went out. He was, in essence, interested in style – which is not the same as fashion. In Bill Cunningham’s memoir, Hilton Als writes in it’s preface that style is “a certain faith and pride in one’s public persona – ‘the face that I face the world with,’” to quote Tennessee William’s Sweet Bird of Youth. Style is how we showcase “the existential mess and brights spots called [our] ‘I’” – and Bill wanted to discover “what you had made of yourself.” What made his photospreads awesome wasn’t only the creative people he photographed who had a sense of style that I could never copy or dreamup. What you could see in his photographs was his sheer joy at discovering you. Bill was a creative person with an incredible talent yet he spent all his energy looking at and engaging with other people. He could have focused only on himself or used the people around him to create whatever narrative about the world he wanted to tell. Instead, he used his gifts to point forward, to point to the people around him, because the people around us, I think, are needed so that we can live our life in Christ more fully.

Today’s reading from the gospel according to John ends in an odd spot. Lazarus, who was dead, is now alive. I think we usually imagine this scene as being one where Lazarus walked out of the tomb under his own power. He was sick, he died, Jesus rose him from the dead, and Lazarus left the tomb in better shape than when he first entered it. But when we pay attention to the text, our vision of this scene changes. His walk couldn’t have included his normal strides with one foot in front of the other because his feet were tied together. The best he could do as he exited the tomb was probably shuffle his feet forward. And that shuffle was accomplished almost blindly because a piece of cloth covered his head. And since we hear nothing about Lazarus trying to untie his feet or remove the covering on his head, I imagine his hands were bound to him, removing all freedom of movement. Lazarus exited the tomb but he was still constrained by the burial wrapping for it. Jesus’ words, like the ones spoken in the opening chapter of the book of Genesis, have this power to rearrange the cosmos and reorder our expectations of life and death. But that same word, in today’s text, couldn’t remove a piece of cloth from Lazarus’s head or make his walk from the tomb a little easier. It’s possible, I suppose, that a completely wrapped up Lazarus is how Jesus wanted people to verify that Lazarus was once really dead and now was really alive. But if that’s true, once Lazarus stepped out of the tomb and everyone could see who he was, that part of the story should have ended. But it doesn’t. Instead, Jesus leaves Lazarus bound and, while looking at the crowd, he tells all of them to get up – to go to Lazarus – and unbind him. It’s as if this act of God’s resurrection isn’t complete unless those gathered around participate in some way.

Now it’s hard, at first, to imagine how we can do that. Last I checked, very few of us here have ever raised someone from the dead. But we all, I think, have had moments in our life when the people around us have nourished, sustained, or changed our life into something better. We usually don’t define those moments as equal to Jesus rising from the dead. Our small experience of new life feels tiny and inconsequential in comparison. But I bet the people around Lazarus, when told to go and unbind him, thought what they were doing was small and meaningless too. Yet it’s by Jesus’ invitation that we, in whatever way we can, go and do what Jesus did – and that’s give and generate life. Many of us have been given this life – nourishment, housing, knowledge, experience, guidance, love, forgiveness, mercy, and hope – by a long list of mentors, family members, and friends. They, through Jesus, changed us, informed us, and made us better. Some did so in a very intentional ways; others just by being there in our time of need. I bet many of them never realized just how life-giving they were to us. And many of us never realized how life-giving those people were until years later. We will, in a few moments, light candles in memory of those who gave us life. We will place those candles in the sandbox, letting them burn all the way down, because the life they gave us will never be snuffed out. That life is centered, rooted, and grounded in the One who continually, day in and day out, gives us his life – in baptism, in prayer, at the Lord’s table, and in our faith. Jesus’ invitation to the crowd surrounding Lazarus’ tomb was an invitation for all of us to participate with him in the act of giving life. And we can give this life, make it our habit, because we have, through our baptism, been united with Christ’s own eternal life – a life that doesn’t begin only after we die but one that starts right now. Together we are drawn into God’s act of passing on new life by first bearing witness to the many ways life was given to us and those around us. When we see that life, that love, that hope in our neighbor, in our family member, and in the person sitting in the pew next to us, we discover how we can help unbind each other from the hate, evil, violence, and self-centeredness that this world wants to bind us up with. It’s said that “the light that lit Bill [Cunningham] from within…was that of a person who couldn’t believe his good fortune: he was alive.” You, no matter who you are, no matter your doubts, no matter the ways you feel bounded up – you, through Jesus, are alive. You are a vital part of how Jesus is giving, expressing, and sharing His life with the world. And we are invited to work together, to lean on each other, and to trust each other as God resurrects us, this church, and our world by making Jesus’ life and love a habit for all.

Amen.

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Conscious: Holding Onto God When We Can’t

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

Mark 10:46-52

My sermon from Reformation Sunday/the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost (October 28, 2018) on Mark 10:32-45. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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Conscious and conscience are two words I always confuse when writing or speaking. The first one is used when we’re awake, able to respond to our surroundings. A patient in the hospital, when alert and able to respond to our questions, is described as being conscious. Conscience, however, is the word we use to describe the voice or feeling inside us that guides our actions. When we’re counting our calories and then eat an entire plate of cookies – we develop a guilty conscience. These words, conscious and conscience, are different but I’m always mixing them up. In fact, I mixed them up for the title of today’s sermon. Earlier this week, as I pondered the readings for today and the fact that it’s Reformation Sunday, I was drawn to Martin Luther’s use of the word “conscience.” But when I sent the title to Doris, our parish administrator, for inclusion in the bulletin, I unconsciously wrote “conscious.” I didn’t realize it until after the bulletins were printed. But maybe that’s okay. Because, in light of today’s reading from the gospel according to Mark and after yesterday’s brutal violence at a Pittsburgh synagogue, Luther’s understanding of conscience helps us become more conscious to our faith, to our calling, and to the ways we can love the world.

So I want us to begin by imagining it’s the year 1521 and we’re in a large, dark room, illuminated by burning torches. At one end of the room sits the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles the Fifth, who is 21 years old, wearing a large flowing robe, and has a very well defined chin. To his left and to his right are imperial advisors and officials representing the Roman Catholic Church. And in front of them is a thin, pale monk / university professor and a pile of his books. For the past 4 years, Martin Luther’s writing went viral, with the printing press being the new technology that spread his words all over Europe. The religious and political unity of the Empire – one that included Mexico, Spain, Germany, and Northern Italy was being tested. Those in power wanted Luther to recant, to turn his back on the words he had written. He had one day to prepare his response. And in a society where “concord, peace, and brotherhood [were] among its highest values,” what Luther said next had the potential to undo the cultural assumptions and expectations that held his society together. Luther started his response by saying he was merely “a man accustomed not to courts but to the cells of monks.” Yet his words were full of confidence. He refused to recant and he ended his speech with a paragraph that has become, for Lutherans, a sort of calling card of who we are. Standing before the most powerful political, military, and religious authorities in Western Europe, Luther said, “unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures by clear reason – for I do not trust either in the Pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves – I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.” And in words that were either not recorded on the official transcript or were merely added in the days following, Luther ended with, “I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me. Amen.”

It’s… a pretty amazing speech. And on youtube right now, there’s an unrealistically good looking Luther re-enacting this historic scene in dramatic detail. On this Reformation Sunday, when we celebrate our Lutheran identity while pointing to the Spirit’s continuing work of reforming, changing, and inspiring the church, there are few dramatic moments in Luther’s life that can inspire like this one. Most Americans are drawn to this moment because it suggests that Luther, in this act of resistance, was embracing his freedom, supporting the right of all individuals to decide their faith for themselves. Conscience, to us, is about finding that authentic voice inside us that connects us to who we want to be. Our conscience, on one level, is centered on words and thoughts. And that’s because our understanding of conscience is a modern byproduct of psychology and psychoanalysis. We don’t use the word conscience like Luther did. Luther wasn’t saying that his thoughts or his inner voice were captive to the word of God. Instead, for Luther, the conscience was, in the words of Lyndal Roper, “an individual’s internal knowledge of the objective meaning of God’s Word.” Now that sounds a bit abstract but that’s because it describes what’s almost indescribable – the part of us that knows and trusts God. When we talk about our faith with others, it’s easier when we can point to a belief or a writing or a thought or an opinion that says this is why we believe. It’s harder, though, to describe what keeps us with Christ when our world is torn in two. A loss, a tragedy, or an assault on humanity that forces us to ask where was God: during those moments, it’s not our thoughts or opinions that can keep us close to God. Rather, it’s Christ, who pours himself into us with love, grace, and mercy, that holds us when we can’t hold God. And for Luther, that’s conscience. And it’s not abstract. It’s connected to our emotions, our feelings, and our whole being. It can be sad, and weak, and even courageous. Our conscience can make us feel burdened but it can also help us change the world. When Luther said his conscience was captive to the Word of God, he “knew” with his whole-self – with every emotion, every thought, and every fabric of his being, what God’s Word was “and he [couldn’t] deny it.”

Luther, like Bartimaeus, didn’t think his way to Christ. No article or class or study guide provided him the answers to the life he was looking for. Instead, both had an experience of Jesus that changed their world. Bartimaeus, after meeting Jesus outside the city of Jericho, didn’t go off on his own way. Instead, he couldn’t help but follow Jesus. And Luther, once he realized that Jesus, who claimed him in his baptism, would never let him go – he couldn’t help but share with others the Christ he knew. Mercy, hope, and love was at the heart of their experiences. And those experiences fed their faith. Faith isn’t about saying the right prayer, following the right rituals, donating the right amount of money to the church, or doing everything perfect. Faith is about trusting that Jesus will keep his promises and that the old rules of our life are now broken. We are no longer trying to get our beliefs right so that we can keep God on our side. Instead, we get to live our lives knowing that since we’re with Jesus, our world has changed. Through the gift of faith, the gift of Scripture, the gift of worship, prayer, and the Lord’s own table – we are given the tools we need to see the world in a new way. It’s our conscience, when focused on Christ alone, that lets us raise our consciousness so that we can love the world as much as Christ loves us. We get to imagine a world where religious bigotry is replaced with understanding. We get to imagine a world where no synagogue, Hebrew religious school, or Jewish Community Center has to worry about antisemitic or white supremacy acts directed against it. We get to imagine a world where Christianity’s history of antisemitism and Luther’s own antisemitic writings are rightly condemned, repented of, and tossed out. We get to imagine a world where love wins. And, because of Jesus, we do everything we can to live into that kind of world because, in our baptism, in our faith, and through our conscience, Christ helps us stand firm and his way of hope, justice, and love is something we can do.

Amen.

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