God’s Imagination: isn’t limited by our own.

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

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

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

Acts 2:1-21

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

****************************

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

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

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

Amen.

Play

In the Name Of: Defining Testimony with Mother Mitties

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

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

1 John 5:9-13

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

****************************

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Play

Everybody: Faith Changes

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

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

1 John 5:1-6

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

****************************

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Play

Love By This: Faith Isn’t One More To-Do

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him

whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.

And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.

1 John 3:16-24

My sermon from the 4th Sunday of Easter (April 22, 2018) on 1 John 3:16-24. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

****************************

So on Tuesday, I discovered just how waterproof my rainboots are. My boots, if you haven’t seen them, are pretty much the only water resistant shoes I own. I’m pretty picky when it comes to what I wear so when I find shoes I like, I wear them until their bottoms literally fall off. That means, when there’s even a hint of rain or water outside, I bust out my trusty boots. They’re thick, with a heavy heel, banana yellow in color, and come up to the middle of my calf. They usually work great…but Tuesday was a different story. My family and I were visiting the Cape Cod National Seashore on the one good weather day we had. Since it rained the day before and the temperature was hovering around 40, we bundled up in our winter coats and our rainboots and headed to the beach. I had the bright idea to hike 2 miles along the beach to visit a lighthouse. That hike went as well as could be expected since my unrealistic expectations and unrestrained optimism ran head first into the reality of taking a 3 year old and a 5 year old on a very physical hike. We didn’t make it very far before we got stuck in a tide pool. The ocean waves were pounding the beach, sending the water inland. The pool, at first, didn’t look very deep but a few steps into it, and we suddenly sank. I soon had two very wet kids and some very wet socks because the water came up to my knees, pouring over the top of my boots, and filling them up. When we finally managed to get out of the tide pool, I took off my boots and poured the water out of them. I slipped the, back on only to hear a large squick every time I took a step. My family decided to head back to our warm, and very dry, airbnb but I decided to press on, towards that lighthouse. I found a way through the tide pool, and headed along the sandy shore, with each step going squick. After about a half mile of this, I noticed my boots filling up again with water. Each step I took was squeezing the water out of my socks. But since the water couldn’t go out, it just stayed in my water tight boots. Every step I took meant more squicks as the loose sand on the beach made my feet sink, causing each step to be harder than the one before it. These boots, designed to bring me comfort and protection so that I could engage the world with dry feet, ended up trapping me in miserable wetness to the point where each step was a struggle that I didn’t, necessarily, want to take.

Today is our 3rd week in the first letter of John. We’ve already seen how this letter isn’t really a letter – it’s more a statement of what the letter writer believes. Some kind of split in their community, based on different understandings of Jesus himself, has caused the larger, more successful part of their church, to leave. What remained behind was the smaller group, the ones that wrote this letter, trying to get the larger group to come back. But at the same time, the author of 1 John affirmed that the Jesus we know: who lived a human life and ended up nailed to a cross – that Jesus is truly God’s Son. Jesus can’t be split into two different parts – into a human side and a divine. He is 100% one of us, and at the same time, 100% God. His entire life mattered. His death mattered. And his resurrection mattered too. To know Jesus is to embody and live out his whole entire story. So that means our life should love and help and make sacrifices for others just like he did. And we’re told told this every single day because God’s love never takes a break.

Which sounds, from our human point of view, as an utterly exhausting way to live. Each one of us woke up this morning with things we have to do. There’s the basic stuff, like eating, and the other things we do or have done for us, to cover the bare minimum of our human living. Some of us are working today or getting ready to go back to work tomorrow. Others are figuring out who will take which kid to practice, who will shop for food for the week, who will try to get their taxes finished before their extension expires, and who will visit their parents, knowing that they might have to say goodbye. It’s amazing how things, sort of, just pile, drowning us in all that we need to do. And then there are still more of us, feeling lonely or scared or worried, who wished we had a longer to-do list to distract us from our feelings. The complexity of everyday living is tiring all on its own. So it can feel overwhelming when our faith seems to be asking us to do one more thing. It’s like, if on our daily to do list, we had to write “be Jesus to everyone” on it each and everyday. Our faith, this living and breathing and evolving relationship with Jesus, can bring us comfort, peace, and a sense of purpose but it also, at the very same time, demands a lot from us. The flip side of faith is that faith itself, this force that causes us to trust God, is a gift that God freely gives us…but it’s also a gift that compels us to become something new that loves like Jesus can. Faith, which can protect and guide us as we wade through the sinking sands and tide pools of our lives, can also overwhelmed us when crisis, busyness, worry, and our everyday reality cause us to feel trapped, lost, confused, and wondering where is God right now? When the comforts of faith collide with the demands of faith, we can feel trapped in the sinking sand, unsure if we even want to take our next forward step.

Which is why 1 John says we should – because when we live out the life of faith, we discover the faith we already have. Faith doesn’t ask us to add one more thing to our to do list. Faith asks us to reorient the list we already have by recommitting ourselves each and everyday to that Jesus who has already committed himself to us. When we love like Jesus, when we examine all our doings and decide to root them in God’s only Son, we not only show others who we know Jesus to be but we also reveal, to ourselves, that we truly are God’s children. We might not always believe that or we might doubt that this Jesus matters. But what we do in our everyday life reveals to each of us the identity we were given at our baptism. We were made followers of Jesus. We made faithful and faith-filled. And we are, even today, loved. When we see clearly how much God loves us, how much Jesus on the Cross was meant for you and for me, the easier it becomes for us to love: to see the needs of this world and give our gifts, our resources, and even our lives so that others can thrive. A confident faith doesn’t mean that we will wade through life fully protected from the struggles, harms, and challenges that life will bring us. A confident faith, above all, holds on to our identity as beloved children of God, so that even in those moments when our faith is overwhelmed, flooded with anxiety and doubt so that our next steps feel heavy, hard, squishy and full of the unknown, we still know we aren’t alone. And then, even when we are afraid, we can then love and serve like Jesus because Jesus never stops loving and serving us.

Amen.

Play

We Declare: Nerding out with P52 and why church is hard and essential

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

1 John 1:1-2:2

My sermon from the 2nd Sunday of Easter (April 8, 2018) on 1 John 1:1-2:2. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

****************************

So if it’s okay, I’d like to spend some time today with y’all nerding out. But instead of digging into our shared love of comic books or which Star Wars movie is the greatest, I want to take us to another level. I want to spend time with something called P52. Well, P52 is just it’s nickname. It’s full name is Rylands Library Papyrus 52 and it looks like this Slide 1. It’s a 3.5 inch by 2.5 inch piece of papyrus located at John Rylands University in Manchester. And it doesn’t look like much. The papyrus is all brown and fragile. Its edges are jagged and torn. And the words written on it are missing most of their letters. In fact, the whole thing looks like maybe it was tossed in the trash and left in the Egyptian desert for 1900 years – which might actually be what happened. On first glance, P52 looks like a piece of junk. But it isn’t. That, right there, is the earliest written copy of anything we have from the New Testament. What’s on that scrap is the gospel according to John, chapter 18, verses 31-33. And it’s a copy of the gospel, dated to sometime between 125 and 175 CE, just a generation or two after that gospel was first written down. The bible we read today, the scriptures that structure our faith, are connected to that little scrap of papyrus that someone left in a trash can 1900 years ago.

Now, that’s sort of mindblowing, right? I like to nerd out with old papyrus because we see how we are connected to a faith that is bigger than ourselves. Our belief and those moments in our lives when Jesus is very real to us – they are part of a wider reality of faith that includes everyone here and whoever held that piece of papyrus out in the Egyptian desert. As much as we in the church like to talk about our faith being a very personal thing – by using words like “my faith” or “I believe” or even “Jesus loves me” – the faith we have is also a very communal thing. Our faith connects us, unites us, and brings us together into a community that looks to Jesus for its life. What we do in worship today might sound different from what happened in Egypt 1900 years ago, but we are all connected to a Jesus who is both personal and communal. Our faith is not designed to be a solo activity. Our faith is a team sport.

So for the next six weeks, we’re going to hang out in 1 John. 1 John is usually called a letter but it really isn’t. It’s more of a position paper, describing what they think the main themes from the gospel according to John are all about. But whenever someone writes down anything that says “this is what this means,” then we can be sure that there are others who don’t agree. Later on, we’ll discover that there’s been a split in the churches who first wrote and used the gospel according to John. And their disagreement centered on Jesus himself. One group, the larger and more successful of the two, decided that Jesus’ divinity, his status as God’s Son, was the most important part of who Jesus was. And since Jesus’ divinity was all that mattered, they decided that the rest of Jesus’ story – his humanity, his life, and his death – didn’t matter at all. For them, it was as if the opening chapter of the gospel according to John, the bit that described Jesus as being God and present since the beginning, was immediately followed by Easter. Everything in between was almost meaningless. It didn’t matter that Jesus was born. It didn’t matter that he was a teacher who always formed communities. It didn’t matter that he ate meals with people he shouldn’t, argued with the religious authorities, and healed those in need. And it especially didn’t make one lick of difference that Jesus ended up dying on the Cross. For the larger community, this framework created a kind of faith that was very personal, very individualized, and one that didn’t need really need the wider community. Because a faith that only cares about Jesus’ divinity, is a faith that doesn’t really care much about our everyday living. Instead, once that kind of faith feels like it already believes enough, then it starts acting as if life, right now, is meaningless to God. We can then make our life into whatever we want it to be, staying rooted in ourselves alone, and not in fellowship with the rest of the team.

Now, I know this kind of faith sounds a bit odd to us. But imagine if we didn’t have Mark, Matthew, or Luke in our bible. Then a faith that doesn’t pay much attention to Jesus’ life and death is a faith that a certain reading of the gospel according to John, can be possible. It’s a faith that’s centered on me and God and… no one else. It’s a faith that looks to escape the world rather than spend time trying to live in it. And it’s a faith that doesn’t really value community because it doesn’t believe that a community is needed to make people grow. It’s a faith that, in the end, looks for Jesus but ends up leaving Jesus’ community behind.

So, It’s to this larger, more successful, community that the author of 1 John was writing to. 1 John wasn’t written by the side that was the most powerful. And it was a letter that, in the end, didn’t really work at all because the two communities never reunited. 1 John is a piece of writing that failed it’s goal – yet it became part of our bible because, I think, it helped show all of us how faith is a communal effort. What we teach, share, and entrust to the next generation is a faith that grows, changes, and evolves in and through community. The gospel according to John needed Matthew, Mark, and Luke. And Matthew, Mark, and Luke needed the gospel according to John. Even the structure of our scripture itself shows us that we can’t be who God wants us to be unless each of us commit to following Jesus with each other.

And that commitment isn’t always easy. We will disagree with each other. We will see Jesus in different ways. There will be parts of our personal experience of faith that we believe should be essential to everyone, but we’ll discover that the person sitting next to us in these pews doesn’t feel that same way. [Nicolas, like the rest of us, is going to discover that] What makes church hard is that we are called to be with people who aren’t just like us. But that’s also what makes church essential because a faith without community is a faith that will not last.

And so, the author of 1 John, begins his writing in the place where our faith starts: with an honest sharing of what was “from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.” Our personal story with Jesus – with its struggles, doubts, and joys – is a story that we are asked to share with each other. When we tell our story, we commit ourselves to this community. And when this community listens to these stories, all of us discover a little more of what following this Jesus thing is all about. The person in Egypt hearing about Jesus from P52 had no idea that us, here in Woodcliff Lake, would be talking, and sharing, and following that same Jesus 1900 years later. But the Jesus that gave that person in Egypt life, and breath, and held them through all things – is the same Jesus who is here, with us, forming us into a new community where walking in His light is all that we [including little Nicholas] do.

Amen.

Play

No Joke: A mid-sentence and resurrected life

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.​

Mark 16:1-8

My sermon from Easter (April 1, 2018) on Mark 16:1-8. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

****************************

I’ve noticed that my life lately keeps wrapping up mid-sentence. When I walk from one side of my house to the other, with a very clear and specific purpose in mind, I’m usually detoured by the most random thins – like that sock, right there, in the middle of the floor. I grab it, planning to toss it into the laundry but then realize I forgot to move the laundry into the dryer. Oh, and there’s that email I need to write and I better post that funny thing my kids said on Twitter before I forget….….wait…I forgot what they said. When I finally return to that original task, hours have literally floated by. I call these mid-sentence moments because my wife and I will start a conversation and in the middle of a sentence, something like this will come up, and we’ll finish the conversation days later. This mid-sentence kind of living is exhausting and it’s also hard because it leaves conversations, thoughts, and experiences hanging in the air. And unless I keep these mid-sentence moments right here, right in front of me, they end up forgotten and falling away. Now I know that most of my mid-sentence living is caused by my life choices. It’s not easy having many competing priorities and living with a family that has their own priorities as well. I have some control over my mid-sentence moments but I also know that this isn’t always true. There are experiences that stop us in mid-sentence and not by our own choice. We are caught up by things and events and people we can’t control. And before we know it, our expectations are inverted. Our plans go awry. Our assumptions are undone. And we become like Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, left in mid-sentence.

The gospel according to Mark is a little weird because it ends basically in mid-sentence. Unlike Matthew, Luke, and John, there’s no vision of the resurrected Jesus in this text. Jesus doesn’t speak Mary’s name. He doesn’t walk through locked doors to surprise a disciple named Thomas. We don’t even get to see Jesus having brunch with his friends on the beach. Instead, we get a large stone, rolled away. A young man sitting there, telling the women to not be afraid. He gives them a job, saying “Go and tell.” Tell the disciples what you saw. Tell Peter where Jesus is going. Tell everyone that Jesus isn’t where you expected him to be. And the women, according to this text, go nowhere and say nothing.

Which isn’t really the story we expect to hear on Easter. We already started today by proclaiming that Jesus is risen. We’ve already shouted alleluia. We’re gathered here because we know that someone told; that there have always been women preachers because if the Marys and Salome hadn’t preached, we wouldn’t be here right now. We expect on Easter for the Bible to show us Jesus raised from the dead and yet the gospel according to Mark leaves us, and these women, stuck in mid-sentence – between what we know came before and what now looks brand new.

Now the women already knew everything that had gone before this moment. They had followed Jesus, heard his teaching, watched his healings, and were the only ones of Jesus’ disciples who saw him die on the Cross. I’m sure these women thought they knew Jesus’ whole story. But then, in a completely unexpected way, the women heard that the resurrected life was now a reality. And at that moment, their understanding of their relationship with Jesus suddenly changed. Their connection to God’s Son; this Savior who called each of them by name; who promised through word and deed that God knew them; that God saw them; and that God loved them; this Jesus who gave so many other people new life now had a new life of his own. And because Jesus knew these women, this new Easter life was now part of them. Their mid-sentence life was over and their resurrected life had, because of Jesus, begun.

But, according to Mark, this resurrected life doesn’t show up at the end. The resurrected life appears in our everyday living and it shows up everywhere. We see what this life looks like “when Peter’s mother-in-law is raised out of a fever and freed to serve (1:31).” We see the resurrection happen when a tax collector, a profession in the ancient world that required corruption, abuse, and violence, leaves his tax booth behind to follow Jesus(2:14). We see a person marginalized because of their difference “raised into the center of his community’s attention and is” then fully “healed (3:3).” And we watch a father, knowing that his doubt and his faith are not incompatible, so he bring his most cherished relationship to Jesus because being with Jesus changes everything. (Mark 9) Time and time again in Mark, the sick, the wounded, the marginalized, and the ones society casts aside are raised up, given new life, and then placed into a community called to care and love them. It was only at the tomb, after the good news of new life was told to them, that the disciples finally realized that Jesus had already been filling out the next part of their sentence and the next part of their life.

The resurrection isn’t something we have to wait to find out. It’s already here. In our baptism and in our faith, the new life of Jesus is given to each of us as a gift. This gift isn’t given to us because we’re perfect, or get everything right, and or we come to church every Sunday. No, this resurrected life is given to us because God lived our mid-sentence life and, through the Cross, God pushed us to the other side. It’s not always easy to feel and notice this resurrected life. We are, like those women at the tomb, still living lives in between what has come before and what will come next. The Marys and Salome had no idea what joys, struggles, and experiences their new life with Jesus would bring. But they did know that Jesus was right there, ahead of them, and he is right here, ahead of us. We just need to shift our focus, reset our eyes, look to him, and live into our resurrected lives. Lives where healing, not harm, is all we do. Lives where love of neighbor becomes a reflex because it’s part of who we are. Lives where the walls and dividing lines we build to keep others out so that we can stay in our personal bubbles – those walls need to be torn down. And these resurrected lives are where inclusion, care, service, and love become habits that offer new life to all. The resurrected life knows who we are, where we’ve been, and knows all the ways we failed to serve others without fear. This life knows us as we are, right now, caught in our mid-sentence moments; but with our eye stuck on Jesus, this resurrected life will carry us through into a new reality, into God’s reality, where the next part of our life becomes love.

Amen.

Play

4 Reflections for Good Friday

Click here to read John 18:1-19:42

My sermon from Good Friday (March 30, 2018) on the Passion according to John. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

****************************

Earth

One of the insights to faith that I like to borrow from our Jewish siblings involves the Passover. Tonight, Jewish people all over the world will gather together around tables to tell the story about who they are and what God did for them. They are doing more than celebrating sharing a history lesson. Passover is when every Jewish person is invited to re-experience the story of the Exodus. They are binding themselves to the story of who they are. The words, smells, and tastes of the seder meal re-connects them to the words, smells, and history of their own story. When the Jewish people celebrate Passover, they are emboding and embracing a history, an identity, and a reality that began in the fields of Egypt 3300 years ago and continues into this very day.

So tonight I’m going to invite all of us to do something similar. Let’s spend this moment re-experiencing Jesus’ story. The sights and sounds of Jesus’ story are meant for us. Now, there are moments in tonight’s story that will shock us. And there are words in this version of the passion, especially John’s use of “the Jews” as a catch-all for the small and angry group of leaders opposed to Jesus, that we, as a church, rightly condemn. Yet this is the story that God has given to us. This is the story God wants us to have. And it begins in a garden.

Gardens are powerful places. And in our little part of the world, gardens are stirring. Weeds and bulbs, bushes and branches, are starting to show life. The rich earth of our gardens are the places where life begins anew. The old leaves and vegetation are broken down, providing new nutrients to the soil. And seeds and bulbs use everything in the earth to grow. It is in a garden where new life begins. And since our old life cannot stand the new life that Jesus offers, a garden is the place where the Romans and other political leaders try to end Jesus.

Fire

It’s pretty reckless for Peter to be standing by that fire. He just cut off the ear of one of people who arrested Jesus. And now he’s standing with them, trying to warm himself by the fire. It’s hard to know what Peter was thinking. It’s obvious that he will be recognized because, by this point in the story, the disciples are no longer anonymous. People know who they are. They use their network of connections to enter the courtyard of the high priest and then stand, surrounded by the police, around the fire. The text says that it is cold. So Peter probably wanted some heat. But I don’t know if he understood the kind of heat was he getting into by standing next to that fire.

But I imagine that there was something so enticing by this fire that Peter couldn’t help but walk towards it. He had just seen his teacher arrested; he had just cut off someone’s ear; and he’s standing there, outside the rooms, where Jesus is being questioned. It’s probably fair to say that his mind wasn’t in the right place – so when he entered the courtyard, he drifted towards the warmth and the light he thought he needed. Yet that light was not the true light. And the warmth he felt was not as comforting as he thought it would be. He knew he was in a dangerous spot, in a place where he could not be his true and authentic self. So when the heat from the questions finally started to come at him, he denied his relationship with Jesus. How many times do we find ourselves drawn to people, places, and experiences where we can’t be ourselves? How many times do we find ourselves in situations where the light we thought we needed has put us in danger? How many times do we find ourselves being Peter, forgetting that the rooster is about to crow?

Words

Sometimes the words that are not said are the ones that sound the loudest.

Pilate is, to me, the kind of guy who always gets the final word. I’m sure we all know people like that or maybe we, sometimes, do that ourselves. Pilate tonight will race back and forth, from the religious leaders on the outside to Jesus on the inside. Words flow constantly between them and that’s because, in some ways, John is the wordiest of the gospels. It sometimes feels as if Jesus in this gospel uses three sentences even though only one sentence would do. Yet when the wordy Jesus meets the wordy Pilate, it’s the unspoken phrase that speaks the loudest. Pilate finally asks, “what is truth?” And Jesus says….nothing.

That silence in the text is actually even more harsh than that. The text doesn’t record any kind of response. In fact, it doesn’t tell us that Jesus stay silent. All we hear is Pilate asking what is truth – and then we watch as Pilate moves away from it. The truth is right in front of him, yet Pilate can’t see it. The truth is that the values Jesus is bringing into the world are the values the world is not ready to fully embrace. Pilate is busy playing word games while Jesus is busy showing what God’s truth, love, and grace actually looks like. When the Word of God shows up in our world, what we say will not be what defines us. Rather, it’s our relationship, it’s our connection with Jesus, that will carry us through.

Sweat

I usually can tell when someone has kids that play sports because whenever they give me a ride, the first thing they say as I enter the car is, “I’m sorry about the smell.” And then they point to the duffle bag filled with baseball, soccer, and lacrosse gear. I’ve yet to actually smell anything funky whenever someone says that but I appreciate their concern. I’ve spent enough time in gyms to know what sweat can smell like. I, myself, have sometimes not washed my workout gear as much as I should. Sweat is usually a sign of a body in stress and in motion. And by this point, Pilate must have been sweating. He’s running back and forth, interrogating Jesus and the religious leaders. The author of John writes as if the entire Jewish population is there in the room. But that’s just dangerous hyperbole. The judge’s bench sat outside Pilate’s headquarters and was in a courtyard that could only hold a hundred people at most. The only people who would be in that crowd were the religious and political leaders afraid of what Jesus was up to. The presence of Jesus was upsetting the uneasy social system that existed with the Roman Emperor, who was treated like a god, on top – while everyone else was somewhere below. It didn’t only matter if someone called themselves the Messiah, King, or the Son of God. If other people called them that too, that was enough to disrupt the fragile social order. Jesus, this man who called tax collectors friends, who ate meals with the people he shouldn’t, and who lived a life were service and love was the center of everything – this Jesus was a political problem in a world that believed that violence, power, and might made everything right.

Hang

I finished my seminary education at an Episcopal seminary which means people always asked me “what makes Lutherans different anyways?” Every flavor of Christianity has its own uniqueness. We all share the same origin story but we came into our own collective identities at different times and places. For Episcopalians, the marital troubles of a king and the American Revolution itself helped develop who they are. And for us Lutherans, the writings of a German monk / university professor gave birth to our movement. These differences are always easy to point to. But there’s another difference that defines us too. And that difference is centered on where we put our troubles.

It’s odd to talk about putting our troubles somewhere because we usually are told not to do that. Instead, we’re invited to take a deep breath, to get rid of distractions, and to dig deep so that we can overcome whatever issue we’re facing. We live in a “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps” kind of culture and all our troubles are ones we imagine can personally overcome. But we also know that this isn’t entirely true. There are troubles that we cannot, through our own hardwork and grit, actually overcome. There are troubles in our family members and friends that we can only sit on the sidelines and watch as that trouble unfolds. Our life is going to include moments when we cannot will our self out of the trouble, hurt, and heartbreak we find. Instead, we need to do something different: and that’s learn how to live through it. And that’s why Lutherans, I think, take our troubles and lay them at the foot of the cross. When we admit our own vulnerability and powerlessness, and take everything that we are experiencing and lay it right there at the foot of the cross, we are doing what Mary and Mary did. There was nothing they could do to stop what was what was happening. They couldn’t take Jesus down. Instead, they could only stand at the foot of the cross, stand there in their heartbreak, and look up. Yet in their incredible moment of powerlessness, Jesus made sure they wouldn’t live through this trouble alone. He gave Mary a new family; a new community to help carry her heartbreak. None of us can solve every problem we face. None of us can, on our own, make the troubles our family, friends, and world experience, just magically go away. But when we bring our troubles and lay them at the foot of the cross, we can – with Jesus – find a new community, a new reality, and a new life that will carry us through.

Amen.

Play

Reflections for Good Friday (Mark’s Gospel)

Click here to read Mark 14:1-15:47

My sermon from Good Friday (March 30, 2018) on the Passion according to Marl. Small chapel service at 12 noon. Read manuscript pieces below.

****************************

Sights and Sounds of the Passion
One of the insights to faith that I like to borrow from our Jewish siblings involves Passover. Tonight, Jewish people all over the world will gather together around tables to tell the story about who they are and what God did for them. But they are doing more than celebrating a holiday and sharing a history lesson. Passover is when every Jewish person is invited to re-experience the story of Exodus. They are binding themselves to the story of who they are. The words, smells, and tastes of the passover meal re-connects them to the words, smells, and history of their own story. When the Jewish people celebrate Passover, they are emboding and embracing a history, an identity, and a reality that began in the fields of Egypt 3300 years and continues to these very day.
So today I’m going to invite all of us to do something similar. Let’s spend this moment re-experiencing Jesus’ story. There will be moments today when I will share a reflection or two about the text. And there will be another moment when all of you will be invited to share which sights and sounds and images from Jesus’ story are making a difference for you, right now.

Reflection After Peter’s Denial/Last Supper

One of the things people recommend when you’re trying to eat moderately is to make sure you avoid the bread basket. But, if I’m honest, I never can. When I’m at a restaurant and the waiter puts in front of me a basket full of warm and crusty french bread or maybe some pita or even a big batch of Na’an, I will eat all of it. I might indulge a little by spreading some butter on it or by dipping the bread in some olive oil. But usually, when it comes to a big ol’ basket of any kind of bread, I don’t need any garnishes. I just eat whatever is put in front of me.

I wonder what kind of bread Jesus and his disciples used in the passage we just read. Since it was passover, I’m sure it was an unleavened flat bread, similar to matzah. And if we’ve had matzah before, we can assume we know what Jesus’ flatbread tasted like. But if you’ve ever had a bagel from someplace other than the New York City area, then you know that even the water can change how something tastes. A flatbread that was made using water from a modern water system in New Jersey will probably taste slightly different than flatbread made in California or Mexico or Japan. So I wonder what Jesus’ flatbread tasted like, 2000 years ago, in an era without running water, gas stoves, or non-stick pans. Is this the kind of bread we can imagine tasting? Can we, if we close our eyes, smell it? And can we also imagine what the disciples must have felt when Jesus, their friend and teacher, said that someone eating that bread would betray him?

Everyone in that room, I imagine, ate from the same bread basket. Everyone dipped into the same bowl of olive oil. Everyone ate together and everyone responded to Jesus the same way. They became defensive. They sounded confused. And they acted like they couldn’t even imagine betraying or leaving Jesus’ side. All of them promised to always be with Jesus- not realizing that in that moment, Jesus was already fulfilling his promise to be with them, forever.

Reflection After Everyone Fled

The naked young man running away is one of the stranger sights in the gospel according to Mark. Mark is the only one who shares this tidbit and this visual image is rather striking. A young man is following Jesus but seems to be sort of in the back. He’s wearing only a linen cloth which some scholars imagine to be his underclothes or maybe his pajamas. During the arrest of Jesus, everyone attempts to flee but this young man, for a moment, is caught. He breaks free but, in the process, loses his clothes. And he runs off, into the night, completely nude. It sounds almost comical, like a scene we might find in a rom-com or on America’s Funniest Home Videos. But it feels odd for Mark to try and lighten the mood of the scene when Jesus is betrayed, arrested, and abandoned. So why does this naked young man show up in the gospel according to Mark?

In all honesty, I have no idea. Scholars and commentators don’t really know either. Some try to identify a specific member of the twelve that was running around in their pajamas, like John or James. Others try to weave in elements from the other gospels, imaging this young man to be Lazarus. Still some think he’s a random person, maybe even the owner of the garden of Gethsemane. I read one argument that tried to tie this moment to how Jewish city guards would be shamed if they were caught sleeping on the job. Still others assume that this story was Mark’s personal story – that he was the one who was young, following Jesus, and ran naked into the night. Mark, according to this theory, made sure to include himself into it, like a painter painting themselves into the background of some great work.

I don’t know which theory is true but there’s one explanation for this naked young man that I tend to lean on. And this explanation is centered on the fact that the young man is unnamed. We know nothing about him. We don’t know where he is from, where he lived, or who his parents are. We don’t even know how long he has followed Jesus. All we know is that he is there when Jesus was arrested. He’s present when the values of this world – the values of greed, power, and violence – make their move against the Lord. He watches the world move against Jesus and then he flees, into the night. This young man, I think, represents all of us. Jesus’ story isn’t about something that happened 2000 years ago. Jesus’ story is happening to us, right now. We are the ones who are present when the world rebels against what God is doing. We are the ones who struggle to stay awake and see what God is up to. We are the ones who sometimes flee from God and, in the process, we end up vulnerable and alone. Yet even though we are the ones fleeing from God, God isn’t fleeing from us. And when another unnamed young man shows up in the gospel according to Mark, we will see the promise of hope, presence, and love that God chooses to wrap around all of us.

Holy Conversation After the Cock Crows
Ask people to share what they are feeling; they’re thoughts; they’re questions; what they’re seeing and experiencing)

Table Read: Who Can Love When You Can’t?

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.” After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.” The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. One of his disciples—the one whom Jesus loved—was reclining next to him; Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?” Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “Do quickly what you are going to do.” Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the festival”; or, that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.

When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

John 13:1-17, 21-35

My sermon from Maundy Thursday (March 29, 2018) on John 13:1-17,21-35. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

****************************

I’ve noticed that my life lately keeps wrapping up mid-sentence. When I walk from one side of my house to the other, with a very clear and specific purpose in mind, I’m usually detoured by the most random thins – like that sock, right there, in the middle of the floor. I grab it, planning to toss it into the laundry but then realize I forgot to move the laundry into the dryer. Oh, and there’s that email I need to write and I better post that funny thing my kids said on Twitter before I forget….….wait…I forgot what they said. When I finally return to that original task, hours have literally floated by. I call these mid-sentence moments because my wife and I will start a conversation and in the middle of a sentence, something like this will come up, and we’ll finish the conversation days later. This mid-sentence kind of living is exhausting and it’s also hard because it leaves conversations, thoughts, and experiences hanging in the air. And unless I keep these mid-sentence moments right here, right in front of me, they end up forgotten and falling away. Now I know that most of my mid-sentence living is caused by my life choices. It’s not easy having many competing priorities and living with a family that has their own priorities as well. I have some control over my mid-sentence moments but I also know that this isn’t always true. There are experiences that stop us in mid-sentence and not by our own choice. We are caught up by things and events and people we can’t control. And before we know it, our expectations are inverted. Our plans go awry. Our assumptions are undone. And we become like Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, left in mid-sentence.

The gospel according to Mark is a little weird because it ends basically in mid-sentence. Unlike Matthew, Luke, and John, there’s no vision of the resurrected Jesus in this text. Jesus doesn’t speak Mary’s name. He doesn’t walk through locked doors to surprise a disciple named Thomas. We don’t even get to see Jesus having brunch with his friends on the beach. Instead, we get a large stone, rolled away. A young man sitting there, telling the women to not be afraid. He gives them a job, saying “Go and tell.” Tell the disciples what you saw. Tell Peter where Jesus is going. Tell everyone that Jesus isn’t where you expected him to be. And the women, according to this text, go nowhere and say nothing.

Which isn’t really the story we expect to hear on Easter. We already started today by proclaiming that Jesus is risen. We’ve already shouted alleluia. We’re gathered here because we know that someone told; that there have always been women preachers because if the Marys and Salome hadn’t preached, we wouldn’t be here right now. We expect on Easter for the Bible to show us Jesus raised from the dead and yet the gospel according to Mark leaves us, and these women, stuck in mid-sentence – between what we know came before and what now looks brand new.

Now the women already knew everything that had gone before this moment. They had followed Jesus, heard his teaching, watched his healings, and were the only ones of Jesus’ disciples who saw him die on the Cross. I’m sure these women thought they knew Jesus’ whole story. But then, in a completely unexpected way, the women heard that the resurrected life was now a reality. And at that moment, their understanding of their relationship with Jesus suddenly changed. Their connection to God’s Son; this Savior who called each of them by name; who promised through word and deed that God knew them; that God saw them; and that God loved them; this Jesus who gave so many other people new life now had a new life of his own. And because Jesus knew these women, this new Easter life was now part of them. Their mid-sentence life was over and their resurrected life had, because of Jesus, begun.

But, according to Mark, this resurrected life doesn’t show up at the end. The resurrected life appears in our everyday living and it shows up everywhere. We see what this life looks like “when Peter’s mother-in-law is raised out of a fever and freed to serve (1:31).” We see the resurrection happen when a tax collector, a profession in the ancient world that required corruption, abuse, and violence, leaves his tax booth behind to follow Jesus(2:14). We see a person marginalized because of their difference “raised into the center of his community’s attention and is” then fully “healed (3:3).” And we watch a father, knowing that his doubt and his faith are not incompatible, so he bring his most cherished relationship to Jesus because being with Jesus changes everything. (Mark 9) Time and time again in Mark, the sick, the wounded, the marginalized, and the ones society casts aside are raised up, given new life, and then placed into a community called to care and love them. It was only at the tomb, after the good news of new life was told to them, that the disciples finally realized that Jesus had already been filling out the next part of their sentence and the next part of their life.

The resurrection isn’t something we have to wait to find out. It’s already here. In our baptism and in our faith, the new life of Jesus is given to each of us as a gift. This gift isn’t given to us because we’re perfect, or get everything right, and or we come to church every Sunday. No, this resurrected life is given to us because God lived our mid-sentence life and, through the Cross, God pushed us to the other side. It’s not always easy to feel and notice this resurrected life. We are, like those women at the tomb, still living lives in between what has come before and what will come next. The Marys and Salome had no idea what joys, struggles, and experiences their new life with Jesus would bring. But they did know that Jesus was right there, ahead of them, and he is right here, ahead of us. We just need to shift our focus, reset our eyes, look to him, and live into our resurrected lives. Lives where healing, not harm, is all we do. Lives where love of neighbor becomes a reflex because it’s part of who we are. Lives where the walls and dividing lines we build to keep others out so that we can stay in our personal bubbles – those walls need to be torn down. And these resurrected lives are where inclusion, care, service, and love become habits that offer new life to all. The resurrected life knows who we are, where we’ve been, and knows all the ways we failed to serve others without fear. This life knows us as we are, right now, caught in our mid-sentence moments; but with our eye stuck on Jesus, this resurrected life will carry us through into a new reality, into God’s reality, where the next part of our life becomes love.

Amen.

Play