Sermon: Your Name Change

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him,
“As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.
I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.
God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-17

My sermon from the Second Sunday in Lent (February 25, 2024) on Genesis 17:1-7, 15-17.


So in May 2010, I took a little trip to an office of the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles which was located in Jamaica, Queens. Since I lived in NYC at the time, I hadn’t owned a car in years but still needed to update my license. I stuffed my bright orange messenger bag with all the documents I needed but also quite a few snacks, my Ipod, and a book since I didn’t know how long I would have to wait. I eventually got to the front of the line and mentally prepared myself for the two part conversation I knew was about to come. The first part happened exactly as I expected since when I handed the person at the window my old license, she immediately asked if I could sing. My parents had, when I was born, chosen the name of my mom’s uncle – Anthony – to be my middle name. For as long as I could remember, I kept being associated with the singer who, at last count, has won eight Latin Grammys and sold over 12 million albums worldwide. The person at the window, after playfully letting everyone around her know she was helping “Marc Anthony” then asked what was wrong since the license I handed to her wasn’t expired. That’s when I started the second part of the conversation I was still getting used to. When Kate and I married, I changed my last name to match hers so we would have one shared family name. And, in New York State, the process for me to do that was incredibly easy. For years, folks getting married could change their name, within certain parameters, on the marriage license itself. It took very little work to legally change my full name but it was a lot harder to change my name everywhere else since not many folks knew what to do with a husband who had a maiden name. It wasn’t too difficult to update all my financial records but I remember a lot of other stuff, including all the forms I had submitted to start the process of becoming a pastor, were impossible to change. I had to restart a bunch of the documents that described my life because too many databases were shaped by designers who didn’t realize how limited their imaginations truly were.

Now the name changes in our Bible aren’t centered around the act of marriage. Instead, we’re often introduced to a character who has an experience that changes who they get to be. For example, Jacob spent a night at the edge of the Jabbok river wrestling with his fear, anxiety, and despair only to meet God and enter the dawn of a new day with the name of Israel. Other name changes, though, are a bit more human such as when the Pharaoh of Egypt changed Joseph’s name to Zaphenath-Paneah after elevating him to a position of authority and power. Today’s name change story from the book of Genesis is, in terms of narrative intensity, somewhere in-between those two examples I just described. Abram’s name change isn’t really all that dramatic since Abraham is actually a slight variant of Abram and both those names mean something like “exalted father.” Sarai to Sarah is even more mild since all it did was take an archaic feminine suffix and make it a bit more contemporary for the world they both lived in. Many of the other names in our Bible were bigger and bolder like when Jesus changed Simon’s name to Peter way back in Mark, chapter 3. Yet today’s name change feels so small that it makes us wonder why God changed their names at all. I think, to see that a bit more clearly, we have to remember this wasn’t the first time God let Abram know what God was up to. Just two chapters before, God gave Abram a similar vision of what his future was going to be like. Abram and Sarai, though, were not quite sure how God was going to make that happen so they took it upon themselves to make those promises come true. Their actions, though, were rooted in the choices rooted in violence and harm. We could, I think, attempt to excuse their behavior by saying they were simply people of their world. But God’s actions in response to Abram and Sarai’s imperfect actions show how love, mercy, and hope are the Godly values we should always use to interpret our own. Abram and Sarai, using their own limited imagination, tried to create the future they thought they were meant to have. And so that’s when God intervened, reiterating the covenant while dragging them into the future they couldn’t see. Their new name wasn’t that new but it was an invitation for them to live into a new future that wasn’t limited by their past, their history, their assumptions, their expectations, or their imagination. Instead, they would be the ones through whom the entire world would be blessed because being a blessing is what being human is all about.

The people at the DMV desk listened to my name change story and then took a bit of time figuring out how to get their database to accept who I was now going to be. I did, eventually, walk out of that place with a new license but even with that piece of plastic, my new name didn’t feel very real. What I needed was an opportunity to live into my new future to see what it might mean. And that actually happened since, in just a few months, I started living a life my younger self never imagined was possible. I went off to seminary and found myself in a new community of students, professors, and churchy folk who only knew my new name. That didn’t mean that I forgot where I came from or ignored everything that made me who I was. But there was something about living out my future in that specific faith community that let me grow into who I could authentically be. I know that my experience isn’t your experience and that name changes occur for all kinds of reasons. But I also believe that all of us, whether we realize it or not, have at least had our names added to when we were brought into Jesus’ holy family. When the gift of faith and the waters of baptism were poured over us and three of the names of God were used to claim you as one of the bright lights God had brought into the world, we were all invited into the future God was already bringing about. We were, in that moment, given new names that not only described who we are but also who we get to be. We, like Jesus at his baptism, were named Beloved and had the name Christian etched on our forehead in the shape of the Cross. These names do not mean that our future will be easy nor do they pretend we won’t face trials, struggles, or pain. God knows the Crosses we bear and also the crosses we give to those around us. Yet these new names do change who we get to be since the limit of our imagination will no longer push us away from a future where love doesn’t end.

Now I’ve had my new name for roughly 14 years and I still pause whenever someone says “Mr. Stutzel” since I think they’re talking about my father-in-law rather than talking to me. But I wonder if we all might make a similar kind of pause whenever someone says our name to remember all the names we actually have. Our name and names are big enough to hold our entire story while inviting us into a future where we can become more authentically and faithfully who we’re supposed to be. And while that future will not be easy, it will be one where our crosses and the crosses we make for others will no longer be what defines us. Instead, the love of God that added to and changed our names will also change us into the bearers of mercy, grace, and hope that everyone needs.


Sermon: What Happened when Jesus Stopped

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Mark 1:9-15

My sermon from First Sunday in Lent (February 18, 2024) on Mark 1:9-15.


Sarah Polley is a Canadian filmmaker, former child actor, activist, and writer who won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2022 for her film Women Talking. She’s a person who has been through a lot and has thought long and hard about what happens we need to just stop. As a person who works in films and movies, Sarah knows how much of a machine film-making can be. She’s often wrapped up in all the pressure to get everything done within a specific timeframe and under budget. Long days and even longer nights are not only considered the norm, it’s expected that the entire crew is supposed to be physically, mentally, and spiritually exhausted through the whole thing. And while some people can thrive in that kind of environment, most quickly learn how harrowing, traumatizing, and harmful these places can be. Sarah, while creating the film Women’s Talking – decided to implement something most directors, producers, and film creators don’t usually do. She gave everyone working on a film telling a story of women talking about their future after experiencing sexual violence – to simply stop. If the work became too much, the film would shut down while people took care of themselves. And Sarah shared why she did that while being interviewed on the podcast Everything Happens. Sarah said: “I was inspired by my sister, who’s a [doctor], and … she gives all of her patients her cell phone and says, you can use this any time at night or on the weekends. And we’re like, Susie, that is crazy. And she said, here’s the thing: it’s almost never [used]…[But] my Mondays are so much calmer, because what I don’t have is a waiting room full of people who were panicking all weekend, who didn’t think there was anyone they could call. Usually those same people won’t actually call my number. The fact that they know they can makes a huge difference in their well-being.” Sarah, while creating a film about a really difficult story, gave people permission to stop so they could do the mental, emotional, and spiritual work they needed to do when things became too much. And by doing that, she also gave her film crew what they needed to see – and build – their own kind of resilience that might help bring them through. These kinds of stops are something we’re not very good at offering ourselves or to others. But in our reading today from the gospel according to Mark, we get to witness one of the times when Jesus stops. 

Now we spend the first Sunday in Lent every year watching what happened immediately after Jesus was baptized. Even before the water dried from his forehead, Jesus was immediately sent into the wilderness. The wilderness, as imagined in our Bible, isn’t some kind of spot in nature untouched by human habitation. It is, primarily, the place where our control breaks down. We know we’re living in the wilderness when we are feeling utterly unsafe and alone. And yet that’s usually when God shows up to say that we are seen and known. In Matthew and Luke’s version of this story, we’re given a few additional details like an actual conversation between Jesus and one of God’s adversaries. But in the version we just heard today, we don’t get very much. Jesus, after hearing a voice from the heavens declare him to be God’s beloved son, was then sent on a one verse sojourn into a place where people have no control. Now when we take a step back and notice the wider story, this push by the Holy Spirit feels like an odd interruption. Jesus was, at the time, already in the wilderness since that’s where John the Baptist was practicing his ministry. Jesus, along with many others, had put a kind of stop on their lives to see what John was up to. Some journey into the wilderness because they were curious while others hoped their sojourn with John would help them become who they were supposed to be. Their time John and God was the stop, the sabbath, and the break they needed for their faith to grow. And while no one knew exactly what they would experience out there, I imagine that many expected they would somehow be changed. They would return to their lives refreshed, renewed, and ready to do what they were supposed to do. Their stop with God by the Jordan would change who they were but Jesus’ stop in the wilderness had only just begun. 

Now it’s reasonable to assume that the Son of God was always ready to be who he was supposed to be since he was there when the universe was made. But I wonder if the Holy Spirit, and Jesus himself, recognized that being human means being human. His forty days in the wilderness was not merely an extreme vacation meant to prove how awesome he was. It was an opportunity for him to stop, process, and integrate his story mentally, physically, and emotionally just like we do. The Holy Spirit gave him permission to not immediately go out and change people’s lives but to live into the kind of healing we need as we discover what the promise of God is all about. Jesus, at the start of his public ministry, didn’t need to just be God; he also needed to see how being human often needs permission to make it through. 

And that, according to Sarah, is what the “stop” on her film set actually did. It let people be people and admit when their experience became too much. Rather than pushing people beyond their humanity, the stop gave them permission to be who they were supposed to be. Sarah, while describing the impact of the stop on her film, said “… if you just give people the option of [stopping], it’s very rare that you’re going to be overburdened with it. But it does create a sense of care and support that I think just leads to better outcomes all around, like psychologically, artistically, in every way. If there’s some sense that you’re the priority, I just think you’re going to do better…[and I think during] the whole production, we stopped for like ten minutes out of eight weeks. But the knowledge that we could, I think, got people through a lot of days.” When Jesus’ ministry began, he hadn’t lived through what was about to come. He hadn’t fully faced what we do when God’s love comes near. Jesus’ stop in the wilderness wasn’t only a struggle with temptation or against sin. It was also an opportunity for him to grow into his humanity by paying attention to the resilience that comes when we have permission to stop. This stop doesn’t mean we’re taking a vacation nor should it be confused with the essential practice of the Sabbath that God wants to see in all our lives. Rather, it’s about being human and purposefully tending to the mental, emotional, and spiritual needs that make us who we are. God the Creator, after naming Jesus as a beloved son, stopped the ministry we’d expect Jesus to immediately do so that he could be the kind of human his ministry needed. And we, like him, should embrace our own permission to stop as we grow into who God knows we can be. Much of our culture and our lives are centered on how far, and fast, we go. We think we have to keep pushing even though stopping might be the far more healthier thing to do. Creating the space where we – and others – can stop isn’t always easy because we’ve been culturally conditioned to only accept the exact opposite. But when we stop and let ourselves be truly human, that’s when we grow into who God has already declared us to be. You, like Jesus, have already been named beloved. You, in your baptism, have already been named as essential to what God is doing in the world. There is nothing you can do to earn the love God has given you nor do you need permission to be as loved as you already are. But we can, instead, give ourselves – and others – permission to be human; a permission to pause; a permission to do the work that it takes to process what we are going through. And when we do that together, we do more than participate in our own sense of healing and wholeness; we also become the kind of human Jesus showed us how to be. 


Sermon: Snow Covered New Life

Jesus said: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

My sermon from Ash Wednesday (February 14, 2024) on Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21.


So on the left side of my driveway, right next to the road, is a piece of my property I don’t know what to do with. It’s home to a telephone pole, a stop sign, dead crabgrass, and whenever it rains, all the exposed soil floats down into the roadway. Every Spring and Summer, I dream up some new plant or decoration to put there before giving up and buying another bag of black mulch to throw on top. It’s a space that doesn’t feel like it has much life and yet, two weeks ago, I noticed a tiny bit of green trying to break through. I assumed that it must be a weed since the weather was still mostly cloudy and cold. But on closer inspection, that one little bit of green was actually surrounded by half-a-dozen more plants. It seems my wife, late last year, decided on her own to plant a few bulbs in a place where only dead crabgrass grows. Those little plants decided, on their own, to take a chance and germinate even though most nights were still a bit below freezing. The buds didn’t grow fast but they became bigger and brighter especially when, last weekend, the temperature broke 50. It seemed, for a few bright sunny days, the risk they took to start the next chapter in their lives might pay off. But when I left for church today, all that life was buried under a mountain of snow, dirt, ice, and grime created by a snowplow. 

I’ll admit Ash Wednesday on Valentine’s Day is always a bit weird. We, in theory, are supposed to be focused on love and romance while, at the same time, spend the day walking around with an ashen cross etched on our foreheads. It’s the kind of day when the memes are endless and I can justify to myself handing out candy hearts with the words “repent” written on them. But this day can also be very hard. Valentine’s Day has a way of implying the love in our most intimate relationships should resemble the ending of every rom com ever written. And if it doesn’t, then we must be worth less than we actually are. Valentine’s Day, in my experience, rarely reminds us how much we’re loved; it often reinforces all the ways we are alone. And if that’s not enough, Ash Wednesday comes along and reminds us of our mortality. There’s a way both of these celebrations can feel as if they’re primarily focused on some kind of end, with Ash Wednesday keeping our eyes on the end of life and Valentine’s Day hoping to end our seeking of any relationship by finding “the One.” But I wonder if, like bulbs bursting forth despite the threat of snow, Ash Wednesday is less about the end and more about how, in Christ, our life has already begun. 

Now Matthew, in his version of Jesus’ life, bookended Jesus’ public ministry with two long very long sermons. The first one, starting in chapter 5, is known as the sermon on the mount while the last one, starting in chapter 24, appeared right before his arrest, trial, and death. These two sermons serve like Jesus’ statement of purpose – putting into words what it’s like when God’s kingdom comes near. And so after beginning the sermon of the mount by pointing out how God often values the people we don’t, Jesus then moved into a section dominated by a word whose pronunciation is as harsh as its definition. That harshness, I think, invites us to focus on every one of Jesus’ “don’ts” and wonder what parts of our own practices of faith would Jesus say “don’t” to? That kind of self-reflection can be healthy when done with honesty and an incredible amount of vulnerability. But it can also bury us in despair when we notice how much of our identity is defined by what others say. We can also, if we’re not careful, turn Jesus’ list of “don’ts” into a kind of checklist that we use to spiritually harm others while patting ourselves on the back. In our desire to not be a hypocrite, we turn Jesus’ list of “don’ts” into an end in themselves. Our life with God, then, becomes defined by a checklist of faithfulness or morality that is never quite big enough to speak into all the grime, dirt, joys, and sorrows life brings. That kind of life might not be trying to earn God’s love but it stops living as if God’s love can be so much more. And that’s why, I think,  Jesus didn’t let his words at this part of sermon on the mountain only be a series of “don’ts.” He kept going, throwing in a “when” that assumes the faith practices of life, such as the sharing of money, praying in public and in private, and living as if we already have enough, will not be seen as the end of faith but as its beginning. Faith is a gift from God we “do” – and the “do” is always more than simply avoiding the “don’ts.” The faith Jesus imagines is a faith that reorients our priorities away from ourselves and towards the priorities of God. And while that might seem a pretty big ask to do, in Matthew’s version of Jesus’ life – that priority is always grounded in mercy. It’s a kind of mercy that doesn’t seek attention but gives it to those who feel unworthy and alone. It’s a kind of mercy that doesn’t demand power but empowers those pushed aside. And it’s a mercy that does ask our story to end with a rom-com ending but trusts that, with Jesus, we are already part of a story that will never end. 

The vibe for Ash Wednesday on Valentine’s Day will always be weird. It’s a day when we remember endings while giving one another flowers that have already bloomed. But today is also meant to be a kind of a beginning. It’s the beginning of the season of Lent when we spend forty days and six Sundays marching to a Friday we paradoxically call good. Today is the beginning of our yearly reminder that faith and love is an active and living thing; moving us away from our priorities and towards a way of being in the world that finds its purpose in what God has already prioritized. Ash Wednesday on Valentine’s Day is an opportunity to be honest about ourselves, our wants, our joys, our needs, and our sorrows, as we remember how – in Christ – another chapter for us and our world has already begun. This is a moment when we admit that life often buries us in snow, grime, and dirt right when it feels like we are about to bloom. And yet because of your baptism, your faith, and your identity as a child of God – your time with Jesus has only just begun. 


Sermon: Faith is an Experience

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.

Mark 9:2-10

My sermon from Transfiguration Sunday (February 11, 2024) on Mark 9:2-10


So every song ever written was, at some point, contemporary. I’m not saying every new song is always up to date and modern; just that every song’s specific style was once considered brand new. I was reminded of this last Sunday while watching the Grammys since that award show gave all kinds of music fans something to hold onto. The fans of Olivia Rodrigo, Tracy Chapman, and Joni Mitchell not only got to see those artists perform; they also witnessed how different kinds of music mattered to the people right next to them. When it comes to pop music, each one of us likes what we like; and I, personally, wouldn’t know how to explain to you why a specific artist or genre matters to me more than any other. But I wonder if the reason why we invest so much passion and energy into the music we love is because music is more than simply sounds in the air. Music has this way of creating an immersive experience that we get to be a part of. It surrounds us, fills us, and has a way of enhancing every other sense we have. Music also has a habit of changing our relationships with people when we’re gathered in an expansive European cathedral or standing in the low light of a bakery’s basement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. When we wrap ourselves in music, we create new memories while reliving old ones rooted in the people and places that have shaped who we are. Music is something we can, and should, study, analyze, and critique. But music is also meant to be an experience that carries us through the days, months, and years of our lives. When we let music be music rather than only something we try to understand, we discover a little bit of what Jesus was up to when he took Peter, James, and John on a hike.

Today’s reading from the gospel according to Mark is out of sequence from the stories we’ve been listening to over the last few weeks. The stories we’ve heard showed us what Jesus’ public ministry was like at its beginning but the reading from chapter 9 comes closer to its end. Jesus, after preaching and teaching throughout Galilee, Syria, and beyond, took his friends to the city of Caesarea Philippi. That city was built at the foot of a hill covered with religious temples that included one that imagined the Roman Emperor as a god. It was there, while surrounded by all the imagery celebrating the so-called divinity of Rome, when Jesus asked his friends who they thought Jesus was. Peter, being Peter, responded quickly, confessing Jesus to be the Messiah, the One who would change the world. Peter, though, kept talking and he also revealed how his understanding of the messiah was rooted in a very human point of view when it comes to power, strength, and might. Jesus, in response, rebuked Peter and tried to steer his thoughts to somewhere new. And it was after all of that when we discovered that Jesus, and his friends, took a six day break. Mark doesn’t tell us what happened during those six days but I wonder if the disciples spent most of that time trying to understand everything Jesus had said. They, if they’re like me, probably replayed that conversation over and over again in their heads while attempting to figure out how a Messiah who could cast out demons wasn’t casting out the Romans from the land. They had spent over a year watching this Jesus heal the sick, feed the hungry, and change the lives people had. Jesus was right there in front of them but there was so much they didn’t understand. And so after sitting with their thoughts for six long days, Jesus then took Peter, James, and John up a mountain.

Now we could, I think, try to unpack and explain every part of this story since the church gave it its own name. I have, in the past, focused on different parts within the story – such as Peter’s response, James and John’s silence, and how verse seven is the only place in the gospel according to Mark when God the Father told the disciples what to do. The Transfiguration is a story that invites us to go deeper into Jesus’ own story since we are re-introduced to Moses and Elijah. And it’s also a story when, in one sense, we see Jesus’ divinity on fully display – in the kind of event that matches who we expect Jesus to be. It’s fruitful to try and understand what the Transfiguration is all about but it’s also okay to let it be an experience we can never fully explain. Jesus, like I said last week, was always himself regardless of where he was. When he was teaching in a synagogue, praying alone on a mountain, confronting the religious authorities, and hanging out with people who needed mercy and peace – Jesus simply gave them life and then connected them to a community who could help them live their life in the months and years to come. Jesus, I think, knew that his disciples had spent the last six days trying to understand what he meant. And while he could have put together the ancient near east version of a powerpoint presentation, he also knew the disciples would need something to hold onto while living through the next part of his story. In their race to understand, they lost touch with the ways Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, trial, and death would end any understanding that they had. They needed to know that their Jesus was always going to be their Jesus – and that another chapter in their lives and in their world was already on its way.

That kind of faith is, I think, not something we can easily understand since it needs to be more than simply thoughts sitting in our head. Faith is supposed to be an experience that speaks, shapes, and influences every other experience we have. Faith, like music, enhances the lives we live while opening us to what this world could be. And while that sounds pretty awesome, it’s also pretty risky since it knows that our faith will be shaped by other kinds of experience that make us wonder why we believe in the first place. Faith, I think, doesn’t make life easy but it does hold us through all that life might bring. And while we might have a mountain top experience like Peter, James, and John, we also have to remember that these weren’t the only faith experiences pointed to in today’s story. Jesus, after letting his disciples wonder and ponder for six straight days, didn’t invite all his disciples up the mountain nor did he let James, Peter, and John share with the others all they had seen and heard. Jesus, instead, let each of the disciples have their own personal experience that would let them know they were not alone. The healings they saw; the words they heard; the welcome they were extended; and the relationships Jesus created for them with people they never expected to meet – those were holy moments big enough to hold them through the sorrow and heartbreak to come. The faith God gives us isn’t only something we have; it’s also meant to be an experience that holds us through all the wondering, doubts, questions, joys, and sorrows a life with faith will have. And when we let our experiences be experiences rather than turning them into things we have to immediately unpack, understand, or move on from – that’s when we might notice how Jesus already has a hold on us through all the experiences life brings.


Sermon: Small (Jesus) Town

As soon as [Jesus and his disciples] left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

Mark 1:29-39

My sermon from the 5th Sunday after Epiphany (February 4, 2024) on Mark 1:29-39


Two Thursdays ago, a person showed up at church wanting to drop off a gift for the Tri-Boro Food Pantry in Park Ridge. They knew I was its treasurer and they immediately handed me an envelope after walking into the building. I was, at the time, in the middle of several different conversations with several other people so it took me a few seconds to realize what was going on. I ended up doing that thing where I asked questions, buying time for my brain to catch up. The person in front of me, it turns out, was a musician who organized a benefit concert with his friends. They, together, used their gifts to be a gift for those in need. It’s always cool when folks recognize how their passions can make a difference in the lives of those around him. And yet it took me a while to figure out their story because he assumed I already knew what he knew. In fact, the conversations started with the words “You probably already saw…” which, in his defense, wasn’t a terrible assumption to make. But the truth is I often don’t usually know all the happenings orbiting the pantry since I can only mentally hold so much. Assuming those around us know what we know, have seen what we see, and think like we think is a very human thing to do. And in today’s reading from the gospel according to Mark, we notice how the community’s curiosity about Jesus created an environment where wholeness could grow. 

Jesus, after calling his first four disciples, went to visit the fishing village of Capernaum. Since it was the sabbath, Jesus joined the community for worship at the local synagogue. Like we heard last week, visiting preachers were often invited to lead and teach when it came to participating in the service. Jesus, after reading from the Bible, surprised everyone with words that carried a lot of authority. It was then when an unclean spirit lurking in the crowd spoke out, implying that Jesus would destroy everyone he touched. Jesus, in a very public way, sent that Spirit packing which made folks wonder who – or what – he was. But when the opportunity came to bring life, Jesus did exactly that. Once worship was over, Jesus moved from that very public space to one we might assume was pretty private. Yet it’s at this point in the story when we need to remember where Jesus was. When we imagine a village, we might think of small homes scattered around bits of land – maybe even mimicking the suburban developments we call home. But villages, towns, and cities in the ancient world were incredibly dense with people living right on top of each other. In Capernaum, the homes were one story tall and only a few rooms in size. They were built along shared courtyards that ran along streets no bigger than an alley. The lack of space meant that it was assumed everyone knew your business and that you knew everyone else’s business too. This, I think, might make us feel a bit queasy, inviting us to give thanks for the privacy our homes might give us. Yet we, in this area, live a version of that life since every town in Northern New Jersey acts like a small town. We like knowing who our neighbors are even though we lament at all the gossip we find ourselves a part of. And while we might imagine how we are above it all, every one of our towns have dozens of facebook groups caused by disagreements that led to anger and schisms. We love hearing which streets in our towns are closed for repair but notice how quickly our arguments turn vicious and personal. And while “being known” and recognized by our neighbors can be the one thing we need to help carry us through all life brings, we can end up feeling completely alone when we’re holding something we can’t always share. Small town life is incredible and terrible all at the same time. And when we let our assumptions about each other be the limit of who our neighbors can be, it’s hard for us to be the kind of community God calls us to be. 

So I’m guessing folks in Capernaum knew Simon’s mother-in-law was sick. They also knew her son-in-law had left his family in a bit of a bind after leaving his nets by the seashore to follow a man he just met. The news about Jesus’ work in the synagogue probably spread faster than his walk down the street into a courtyard surrounded by buildings full of all kinds of people. He was there because, since the sabbath wasn’t over, staying at the home of his disciples made a lot of sense. But I also wonder if Simon and Andrew brought him there hoping Jesus was more than they had already seen. Up to this point in Mark’s version of Jesus’ life, there’s no story about Jesus healing someone of a physical illness. They didn’t know exactly what he could do but after witnessing what he did in front of everyone, they wondered if he could do the same in a much more private space. All they had seen was how, while in a holy place, Jesus did a holy thing. Since Andrew and Simon were still getting to know Jesus, they could have assumed that was the limit of who Jesus could be. But they, along with everyone else, brought Jesus to Simon’s mother-in-law because they hoped Jesus would be Jesus no matter where he was. 

When Jesus showed up at the home of Simon’s mother-in-law, there was no guarantee Jesus could do what Jesus did. All they had was a call, a word, and an event that happened in a very holy and public space. The people around Jesus, though, took a chance to not let their experience of Jesus be the limit of who he might be. They hoped the One who told them to “follow him” would also follow them into places where hope was needed. Jesus wasn’t one way in public and different when all the eyes turned away. He was always simply himself – bringing mercy, forgiveness, and grace to all. We, I think, are invited to not only model Jesus’ ministry – using the gifts God has given us to bring wholeness to all. We are also called to be a bit like Simon, Andrew, and everyone in the community who wouldn’t let their experience of Jesus be the only thing He could be. Rather than letting their assumptions dictate Jesus’ story, they stayed curious about Jesus, their God, and even themselves. The made the choice to not embrace the small town identity that only lets people be who we let them be. Instead, they leaned into the part that invited them to know every part of their neighbors’ story. Unlike the healing stories that were about to come, Jesus didn’t have to connect those he healed to a community that could sustain them in the life and months ahead. The community already knew who needed help because they brought all of them to Jesus. Creating and living as that kind of community isn’t easy because it forces us to not act as if everyone knows what we know or have seen what we seen or think like we think. Rather, we need to be curious about ourselves, our neighbors, and those we’re just starting to get to know. And when we think we know what someone will say or do, that’s when God encourages us to not let our assumptions be the limit of who they get to be. We, instead, will be the kind of community who is curious, who wonders, and who trusts that – because Jesus is Jesus – we get to be so much more. 


Sermon: What’s an Exorcism?

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

Mark 1:21-28

My sermon from the 4th Sunday after Epiphany (January 28, 2024) on Mark 1:21-28


Today’s text from the gospel according to Mark is a little weird. Jesus, after returning from the wilderness and calling his first disciples, immediately entered a synagogue and did something we only see in horror movies, comics books, and late night tv ads. Now the casting out of demons and unclean spirits is something Jesus did all the time in Mark’s version of Jesus’ life. It was Mark’s way of showing how Jesus’ presence in the world reshapes our present, our future, and the entire universe. Jesus, when he showed up, challenged and disrupted how we see ourselves, our neighbors, and took care of one another. And while none of that sounds, I think, very strange when we talk about the Christian faith, things get interesting when we ponder the supernatural. We’re comfortable during worship talking about Jesus’ miracles, His presence in Holy Communion, and how our prayers are, sometimes, answered. But when the conversation includes demons, unclean spirits, and spiritual procession – our responses can be all over the place. We might, for example, have no problem talking about demons, evil, and the spiritual forces that move through us and in our world. Or we might notice how many of the so-called “unclean spirits” in our Bible resemble people who were living with depression, schizophrenia, or a bipolar disorder. When we act as if only one of those views can be true, we often cause harm. We end up dissuading people from seeking help through the God-given gifts of therapy, counseling, and psychiatry or turning people into a biological soup made up of chemicals, hormones, and repressed memories. Seeking help through therapy does not make you a bad Christian nor does lighting some sage on fire when the vibes in your house feel off turn you into something other than a follower of Jesus Christ. But when we spend too much of our time trying to separate, compartmentalize, and wall off from one another the physical, emotional, and spiritual parts of lives, we lose out on what it means to live our lives in the world. And I’ve often found that when we do this too much, Jesus breaks through to show us something new. 

I wonder if we can see a little of what that newness looks like by paying attention to what happened before the exorcism took place. Jesus arrived in the city of Capernaum which was really a large fishing village with maybe 1,500 people living within it. Its economy was centered on fishing in the Sea of Galilee as well as farming and harvesting olive trees in the surrounding hillside. Capernaum had one large road running north-to-south with side streets covered in small one-story homes.  A synagogue was built along its main roadway and was, in Jesus’ day, pretty plain without any seats or even a paved floor. It was standard practice for the entire village to, on the sabbath, assemble in the synagogue for a worship that wasn’t very formal. Within the service, there was space for people, even visitors from out of town, to read selections from the Bible and interpret what they thought it meant. Jesus’ behavior, then, at the start of worship wasn’t strange. We might, at this point in the story, immediately focus on the authority Jesus’ teaching seemed to embody. But I think it would be fruitful to spend a little time with the fishermen, farmers, merchants, men, women, and children who were already there. This community regularly interrupted their lives to spend time with their God. And they lived in a world full of mystery, different religions, and times when their own faith was weak or strong. The community was filled with all kinds of people whose spiritual life was exactly their own. And in the middle of them was an unnamed man possessed by a spirit. 

Now Mark doesn’t tell us who, or what, this spirit was. We never learn its backstory or how the man was possessed. Mark doesn’t describe how the unclean spirit made its presence impacted his life or interfered with his closest relationships. This gap within the story allows us to use our spiritual imagination to wonder what this man’s life was like. We might, influenced by our own personal biases, turn him into an evil force resembling something out of the movie The Exorcist. Or we might assume he lived with multiple personalities or had a constant over-the-top manic episode. This man, in our mind, stood in the back, away from everyone, living with all kinds of hurt and pain. And once we’re done picturing him in our head, it’s then when we realize that Mark did tell us one thing about him. We don’t know his story but we do know he was there. The man with an unclean Spirit was in the synagogue with the disciples, Jesus, and everyone else. He wasn’t sitting at home, barred from coming into God’s house. He was exactly who he was – a part of the community. And when Jesus showed up, he explicitly reaffirmed that truth by not immediately calling him out. He, instead, did something we might consider even more shocking than the exorcism itself: Jesus treated the man with the unclean spirit like he did everyone else. He included him, taught him, and showed the man with the unclean spirit as well as everyone in that place they were worth everything to God. And when the demon finally spoke, using the word “us” to imply Jesus was there to destroy the man himself, it was only then when Jesus acted. The unclean spirit wanted to keep this man away from anything that gave him life. And so rather than answering the spirit’s question, Jesus casted it out because bringing others into a life rooted in hope, connection, and love was why Jesus was there in the first place. 

I wonder, then, if that truth image can show us who we get to be as we live into our identity as part of the body of Christ. This community is not supposed to be for only one kind of person since life is complex, complicated, and full of mystery. When you are living through our own mental health crisis, seeking help doesn’t mean you don’t belong here. And when the language of possession, demons, and the supernatural describes exactly what you are living through, you still have a home here and with God. We, together, have a responsibility to care for ourselves and all around us through whatever they are living through. We get to learn each other’s story and not let the walls we build around one another interfere with our kindness and care. When we surround one another with a love that includes each other and keeps us safe, we are able to be exactly who we are. And when we a beloved friend, parent, child, or spouse is tormented in ways we struggle to comprehend or understand, we can believe their story – and promise that, no matter what, they’ll always belong. That’s how we journey with them one another through therapy, study, and prayer. It’s how we keep each other connected to the things that give us life. An exorcism is, I think, not merely a supernatural feat of power that shows off what we can do; it’s all about driving out that which keeps us separated from the connections that shape the life God is calling us to live. This kind of work isn’t easy nor will we always get it right. But this is what we get to do because Jesus, in our baptism, through the gift of faith, and with grace – keeps us connected to a promise of life, love, and hope that will never end it. 


Sermon: First Words

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

Mark 1:14-20

My sermon from the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany (January 21, 2024) on Mark 1:14-20


So I want you to think about an important relationship in your life. Maybe it’s your spouse, a co-worker, or a good friend. Maybe the relationship that first comes to mind is someone you just spoke to or a person you’ll always miss. Often when we think about the relationships that matter to us, we linger on the last words we shared together. But I wonder: do you remember the very first words you heard them speak? 

I’ll admit that this kind of exercise isn’t easy for me since I remember first impressions way more than first words. And while those can be the same thing, that’s not always true. In fact, entire pop culture industries, such as teen graphic novels, pop songs, and rom coms, are all about how first impressions aren’t always the end-all-and-be-all of all things. In our Bible, though, first words are very important because they set the tone for what follows. We noticed that a few weeks ago when we listened to the very first verse in the gospel according to Mark that went: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Those words were less a sentence about Jesus’ story and more a title to what’s about to come. We’d expect after words like that to immediately discover who Jesus is. Yet what Mark chose to do instead was introduce us to a man named John who then dunked Jesus – and many others – into the Jordan River. When he came up from the water, Jesus – as we’ll hear at the start of Lent – spent 40 days hanging out in the wilderness. But when John was arrested, Jesus returned to the area he grew up in. It’s only been a few verses but Mark has already shared a lot of stories that took quite a bit of time. Yet it’s at this point, in verse 15, when we hear something we hadn’t heard before. Jesus, for the first time in the gospel according to Mark, spoke actual words. Now these probably weren’t Jesus’ first words even though they are the first ones recorded in the oldest gospel we have. But they are the words Mark wanted us to hang onto while we listen to the rest of Jesus’ story. Jesus’ ministry began with a proclamation that history had reached a turning point. The kingdom of God wasn’t simply near; it was here. And God’s imagination for the world was now present in ways it hadn’t been before. Jesus, like John, called all people to repent but to do more than simply turn to God. This repentance was also about changing our minds, our hearts, and our identities. Jesus then told people to do more than agree with what he was saying; he told them to trust that God really is their God. Jesus’ words were good news to those who are hungry, tired, worn out, and suffering. But they also served as a kind of warning to those who put any kingdom in front of God’s. Jesus’ first words weren’t meant to only be spiritual; they also make a difference in the here and now. 

And it’s those words, I think, that frame what happens next. Jesus, at the start of his ministry, took a walk along a sea shore. Now the Sea of Galilee was the economic heart of a corner of the ancient Roman Empire that didn’t have the greatest reputation. Galilee was a part of ancient Israel filled with many different kinds of people living together. Folks were suspicious about the diversity since we assume a certain amount of isolation is needed to stay “pure.” Yet this mixed cultural environment also created a fertile place for new ministries to grow. Mark doesn’t tell us when Jesus appeared along the sea shore but, after reflecting on it, I wonder if Jesus showed up in the morning. That would have provided him plenty of time to see people while meeting them at the end of their work day. Fishing, in the ancient world, was often done at night with pairs of boats trawling a net between them. Once the fish were caught and hauled to shore, the nets were then repaired. Andrew and Simon, who were casting nets from the shore, might have been trying to add to their catch or were keeping their nets damp before they put them away. John and James, though, were carefully examining each thread of their nets that were very tired. When Jesus showed up, these two sets of brothers were simply doing what they’ve always done. Yet Jesus, with a handful of words, changed those brothers forever. The words he shared were very short and, when compared to Jesus’ first words, seem a little odd. Mark doesn’t record any of their small talk nor tell us if the brothers talked to one another when they saw Jesus in the distance. As Jesus drew near, he didn’t tell the brothers to choose him, to decide for him, to believe in him, or to even repent. Jesus simply said “follow me” but gave no details about where he was going or what their journey might look like. The only thing Jesus did point to was some kind of transformation, shifting them from their current context into something more. I don’t think, though, that Jesus wanted these brothers to treat people like they did fish: hooking them, netting them, and then – metaphorically – consuming them. I wonder if, instead, Jesus wanted these brothers to act as fishermen at the end of their day. They were no longer there to catch and collect. These brothers would also tend and mend what God had given to them. 

The good news of Jesus Christ; the good news of God; the coming of God’s kingdom; and the invitation to become something more – might require us to move through our past and into something new. But that call from God can also involve tending and mending what came before. This is especially true in our most important relationships where our need to listen, to understand, and to emphasize with each other is at the heart of who we’re supposed to be. Our mending might require us to change our deeply held beliefs that no longer bring life to those around us and we might need to sacrifice our own comfort so hope can flourish. The mending and tending we do might require us to change our priorities so that people can thrive. This work will connect us to people we didn’t expect. And if some of our relationships have become too much, separating might be the most holy thing we can do. We won’t always get this mending right nor will we always realize how we are the ones who get in the way of what Jesus is doing in our world. But we get to embrace this call from God because God’s first words to us are never God’s last words of hope, love, and grace. God continues to reach out to us through scripture, worship, prayer, and people to show that God’s words to us in our baptism – that we are beloved – will never be taken away. Making those words come to life in all we say and do isn’t always easy but we aren’t doing this work alone because Jesus is already here; Jesus is already present; Jesus is already ahead of us and is inviting us to follow and see what God’s words of love always do.  Amen.

Sermon: Baptismal Waters Seep Through

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.”

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Mark 1:4-11

My sermon from Baptism of Our Lord Sunday (January 14, 2024) on Mark 1:4-11


So on Thursday night, the Special Gifts committee met to review the various ministry projects that you think should be funded by our Special gifts fund. These projects included such diverse ideas as supporting a Lutheran mission amongst the Navajo, building affordable housing in New Orleans, and even replacing the parking lot outside our church doors. Over the last few years, we’ve been a bit cautious in how we use the Special Gifts fund since there was a slight disruption in how it was funded. But things had resolved enough that the Committee realized we have some money to spend. Our Special Gifts fund is supported primarily by the Anna and Dominick Ricci Foundation who were former members of CLC. When Dominick died, they created a foundation to support the organizations they cared about. For almost fifteen years, their ongoing support has impacted our personal understanding of what giving, generosity, and ministry should look like in this place. Prior to the Special Gifts fund, generosity was sometimes tied to something very physical especially when something like a new boiler needed to be installed. When you made a financial gift to your congregation, you would get a tangible return to the money you put in. If, for example, your gift went towards the heat pumps installed in the sanctuary, you would physically feel that gift heat up the back of your neck. But generosity can be harder when it goes towards something that feels a bit more ambiguous like my salary or for Sunday School supplies that you’ll never touch and feel. The Special Gifts fund has forced us to re-evaluate and re-engage with what faithful generosity looks like since it’s less about what we get and more a response to what we’ve received. And while that might be easy to say, it isn’t always something we experience first hand since our lives are filled to the brim with different kinds of joys, struggles, tragedies, worries, and fears. What we need, I think, is something to seep through all the stuff life brings so we can faithfully respond to what God has given to us. 

Now near the end of the Special Gifts’ meeting, our conversation turned towards water which, after two cold January rain storms, most of us would prefer to ignore. But if you’ve driven on our parking lot within the last few years, you know we’ve reached the limit of asking Brian to manually fill in the giant pot-holes that keep appearing. Our parking lot is at a low point on our property which means when the water flows down the hill behind the church, it pools on top of it. Yet that isn’t the only water issue impacting the pavement outside. Our property, as I understand it, also has a very high water table which means there’s a lot of ground water trying to break through our parking lot from below. That water is always present, moving and flowing, freezing and melting, seeping into every small crack and transforming them into large holes. The constant presence of this water impacts a lot of what we do since our ministry is built on how accessible this place is. We can, for a while, pretend as if that water isn’t there but there comes a point when that water will make it through. 

And that image of water seeping through might serve as an appropriate metaphor as we spend today pondering Jesus’ baptism. Now it will never not be weird that Jesus was baptized since, to us, baptism is all about a sinner being washed clean and brought deeper into the body of Christ. That, though, wasn’t something Jesus needed so it’s not always easy to find some spiritual fruit to nourish our souls. Whenever I run into a biblical story like this, that’s typically when I do my best to step into it – by joining Jesus as he waited in the water for John. We can imagine being there, in and along the banks of the Jordan River while surrounded by shepherds, fisherman, old, young, the sick, and the faithful. The large number of people there made what we might imagine as a very private spiritual moment into something very public. Standing there, waiting for John to call us forward, probably made the whole experience feel a bit like some kind of spiritual assembly line. I don’t say that as a way to discredit John’s work or to act as if our rituals are more faithful than his. Instead, when we pay attention to the entirety of Jesus’ baptism, we notice how it wasn’t only some cosmic event where the heavens opened and a divine voice spoke. There’s also a large part of it that was very human. When Jesus went to the water, he experienced it just like we do. He felt the top of his head get wet and the gentle trickle of water droplets as they fell down his cheek. The silt in the river caused his nose to twitch and the air in his lungs grew hot the longer he held his breath. And when John uttered his special words and prayers, Jesus only heard a bit of them since most of it was probably distorted by the water covering his ears. When the ritual was finally over, the words from heaven were quickly replaced with the need to go up the river bank and back into the life he was already living. Jesus’ baptism wasn’t about where he had come from or solely about who John declared him to be. Jesus’ baptism was a beginning to what comes next. The fullness of Jesus’ ministry, the healing, the relationship building, and his willingness to show what life looks like when God’s kingdom comes near, happened after he came up from the water. Jesus didn’t need to get baptized to experience the mercy, hope, and peace we want faith to bring into our lives. But his baptism does invite us to notice what life is supposed to look like once we are baptized. 

The waters of baptism, like the waters outside CLC’s front doors, do more than pool in puddles and flow down hills. These waters are meant to seep through us and into our world. These waters not only unite us with Christ but they make God’s words to Jesus, God’s words to us. God declared that you are beloved which, while amazing, isn’t necessarily something tangible we can grip onto, see, or even fully feel. But it is our beginning – an invitation to take the love that has claimed us and move it out into our parking lot and beyond. When we show, embody, and express that belovedness to others – that’s how we transform the intangible faith we hold into something true and real. And while we don’t always realize exactly how our baptism seeps through us, I’ve seen it move and flow in a place like our parking lot. It’s often out there where you check in with each other, asking about each other’s joys, hurts, and fears. It’s out there where you build each other up through the art of actually listening to what each other says. And when there are no words to describe the worry, anxiety, and sorrow someone feels – our parking lot is big enough to hold every tear. Our parking lot is a place where we want to do all we can to stop water from seeping through. Yet it is also one of the first places where the waters of baptism seep through you to make a real difference in our world. Those moments might not always be over the top or big or ones when we recognize what we’re actually doing. Yet it is often in these small interactions where the faith we are given grows into a love that always breaks through. 


Sermon: Welcome to the Magi Story

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Matthew 2:1-12

My sermon from Epiphany Sunday (January 7, 2024) on Matthew 2:1-12.


Now I know the season of Christmas technically ended yesterday but since I moved the celebration of Epiphany to today – you have permission to keep listening to Christmas music. In fact, I sometimes feel the urge to listen to Christmas carols throughout the year which is why my computer is full of way too many of them. I’ve found, over time, that the number of unique Christmas songs isn’t very large but the number of different versions of each song is almost endless. And one of those many imitated Christmas carols is based slightly on our reading today from the gospel according to Matthew. In that song, we’re invited to imagine ourselves as a little child who saw all these people going in and out of a cattle shed in the town of Bethlehem. Among those people included folks from out of town who brought rich gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Rumors swirled throughout the community that this newborn might be royalty even though kings don’t usually have an animal’s food bowl as their first crib. The child who was watching and listening, wondered if they could bring a gift to the baby too. But they, like the new family, were not particularly wealthy. The child felt as if they had nothing to offer. But since this is a Christmas carol, they did have a small drum. They wonder if maybe, just maybe, the gift of a song was something a newborn and their mom might want to hear. So the child, with all the courage they could muster, entered their home, looked at Mary, and asked if it was okay to “pa rum pum pum pum.” A drum solo isn’t usually what parents want to experience once they’ve put their newborn down for a nap. But the Christmas carol – the Little Drummer Boy – does reveal an overlooked aspect of the magi’s story. The story at the heart of the celebration of the Epiphany – when magi/wisemen/kings met a baby born in Bethlehem – wasn’t only about what these strangers did. It’s also a story about who welcomed them once they got there. 

Now in our Bible, people are sometimes categorized as either Jewish or gentile with a gentile simply being someone who wasn’t Jewish. But another phrase often used in place of gentile was “the nations.” That phrase described more than people who were defined by the invisible lines that designate which territory belongs to which political entity. “The Nations” also included all the different ethnic, religious, and cultural groups that exist in our world. “The Nations” included those who were part of large, multicultural, and hard-to-define groups like the people who lived within the Roman Empire. And “the nations” also included those who were identified by the town, city, or even valley they called home. “The Nations” wasn’t used as a term to only distinguish between “them” and “us;” it also described just how diverse the world truly is. And while most people in the ancient world rarely left the area they grew up in, they loved hearing stories about those who live “out there.” Every war, trade route, and wandering preacher made the world a much smaller place. And it was expected that someone – maybe even a messenger from God – might soon visit with news, stories, and a point of view they hadn’t heard before. That expectation, along with living in a world that doesn’t always have much of a safety net, is why our Bible spends so much time talking about hospitality. And much of that hospitality is centered on welcoming the stranger who showed up at your door. 

But what exactly that welcome looks like wasn’t always set in stone. And when the magi arrived in King Herod’s territory, he welcomed them in a very self-serving way. Now these magi were, most likely, Zoroastrian astrologers living in the Parthian Empire who spent their lives looking at the night sky. It was widely believed throughout most of the ancient world that the movement of the planets and stars, especially when a person was born, defined what their entire life was going to be about. When the magi noticed a strange star stirring in the sky, they assumed an important person had been born. And so they set out to find said person who was born to their west. This journey, though, was dangerous since the Parthians and the Romans fought all the time. Both assumed they had a divine right to rule their world. The magi, though, didn’t seem to think important people could only be like them so they crossed the border into a strange land. However, unlike the GPS on our phones, the magi didn’t know exactly where this important person was. So they did what any rational person would do and went to the place they expected important people to be. When they arrived at the palace of the king, they were welcomed by Herod who listened to – and believed – their story. He took care of them while figuring out how to violently respond to this threat to his rule. He gathered his advisors to figure out where this king might be. And while he could have kept this information to himself, he shared it with these strangers as a way to use them for his own violent purposes. Hospitality, for Herod, included giving food, resources, and information to these strangers from somewhere else. But everything he did was rooted in what he would get. 

Herod, though, wasn’t the only person who offered the magi hospitality during their visit. They still had one more place to go. When they arrived in Bethlehem, the home they went to was so mundane they needed a star to bring them to its door. We could focus on what they did when they got there, celebrating with joy and walking straight in. But since hospitality mattered so much in their culture, I imagine they were primarily welcomed and embraced. This welcome didn’t come only from the Son of God but also from his mother, the adult in the room. In the words of Rev. Joann Post, “Mary does not hesitate to invite them into her home, to introduce them to her son, to receive their well-intentioned but wildly inappropriate gifts. Because…she knew they would come. Maybe not these particular strangers, but she knew the world would come to meet her son. And she knew that she would welcome them in his name.” Mary wasn’t simply letting random people like shepherds, angels, and kids who loved drum solos to do what they wanted at her expense. She, instead, offered hospitality by welcoming everything the magi represented. They were the nations, the world, and people who might never become the followers of God and Jesus we assume they would be. Instead, the magi were exactly who they were – and Mary showed them Jesus before he preached his first sermon, performed his first miracle, or even took his first step. Jesus had done nothing and Mary knew, through the grace of God, that Jesus wasn’t only for her, her family, or her corner of the world. Jesus was for all. The welcome she offered, unlike the welcome modeled by King Herod, wasn’t about her. She didn’t focus on what she would get or receive. The hospitality she showed was about helping the ones who showed up – to thrive. Sometimes that welcome looks like offering a person food, a place to rest, or even an invention for them to make this community their home. Yet this welcome can also be simply letting people – those who are here and those who are brand new – to simply be who they’re supposed to be. When we do that well, learning how to listen, care, and grow with people we do not know – something new comes into being. The magi came to see a newborn king and Mary, who opened the door, reaffirmed what the star had already revealed to them: that God’s love and God’s story even included folks who are never described as becoming followers of Christ. I wonder how we, who’ve been welcomed by Jesus through baptism and through faith not because of who we are but because of who Jesus is, may be a bit like Mary and reflect that same kind of welcome in this community and throughout our world.