Torn Open: Baptisms are Events

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 the Baptism of Jesus (January 7, 2018) on Mark 1:4-11. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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Did you ever wonder what it’s like to be baptized in the Jordan River?

Now, I know I’ve shared the following images and video before but on a day like today, when we celebrate the baptism of Jesus and the upcoming baptism of Shane Kurtz, I felt like I needed to share these images again. A few years ago, an old friend of mine served as an assistant for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land (aka the ELCJHL). She lived in Jerusalem and spent time in the various congregations that make up the ELCJHL. One of those churches is this one (show image) – the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bethany Beyond the Jordan. This church serves mostly as a pilgrimage site because it overlooks a spot on the Jordan River where tradition says Jesus was baptized. The Jordan River, as you can see here (show image), isn’t really much of a river at all. It’s more of a muddy stream at this point. And the track the river follows isn’t exactly the same as it was 2000 years ago. In fact, Jesus’ traditional baptism site is sometimes like this – (show image) – dry. But it occasionally fills with a little water (show image). The tent like structures in the back serve to keep visitors safe and out of the sun. The stone stairs and pillars are old, and were used by the ancient churches that once stood on this site. One thing visitors to this place like to do is to actually step into the Jordan river itself. But what would that look like? Well – it might look something like this: (show 15 second video).

Now, doesn’t that look…I dunno…warm? Last I check, it feels like it’s -5 outside here in Northern New Jersey. And I’m sort of tired of wearing multiple pairs of socks, long underwear, and winter hats while walking around my own house. I am ready to be somewhere warm. And looking at these images of Jesus’ baptism site – with its bright sun, white sand, and plants full of green leaves – I sort of want to just jump into that river – and let the sediment rich waters – full of yellows, oranges, and reds – wash over me. That water, from here at least, looks warm and inviting. But we all know that looks can be deceiving. And my friend who took that video told me that the water in the river was ice cold that day.

Now, we have no idea what season it was when Jesus went to visit John in the wilderness. We don’t know if it was spring or summer, winter or fall. Scripture doesn’t really give us many details when it comes to Jesus’ baptism. And our reading from the gospel according to Mark spends more time talking about John the Baptist than it does about Jesus’ baptism itself. This gospel doesn’t really pause and reflect on what this baptism of Jesus is all about. Details that might help explain this event are just not there. Instead, the text moves really fast. Jesus shows up and the first thing he does is go straight into the water. And as he comes out of the river, with the red, yellow, and orange waters dripping off him, Jesus sees the heavens torn open and the Holy Spirit coming down. The inherent separation of God and humanity is broken, it’s torn apart, by this Jesus who walks into the water. But the text doesn’t linger on this point. You would think that Mark might want to spend a little more time describing what the heavens being torn apart might actually look like. He could have spent at least one or two sentences explaining or making more plain what was going on here. But he doesn’t. Mark doesn’t give us any time to really linger on Jesus’ baptism. Instead, Mark wants to move on. He’s rushing us through this moment, trying to get to verse 12 and beyond. Jesus’ baptism is important – but Mark doesn’t slow down and try to explain what this event is all about. We might have questions about this moment, like why would Jesus need to be baptized? And why would Jesus, the Son of God, the one who had no sin, need a baptism for the forgiveness of sin? We might want to pause, reflect, and try to uncover and explain everything about this moment. And in some ways, we’re invited to do that because I stopped reading the story at verse 11. We assume we’re supposed to linger on this moment. But looks can be deceiving and Mark is in a rush. He doesn’t want us to explain this moment; this baptism of Jesus; he wants us to experience it and to recognize the event it actually is.

So what if we let Mark take us through Jesus’ baptism as fast he wants to? There’s no time for us to linger. There’s no time for us to wonder why Jesus was at the River Jordan once he shows up. Instead, once Jesus arrives, he’s down there in the river , submerged in the yellow, red, and orange waters that make up the Jordan. And when he stands up, we suddenly see something new. Because we are, at that moment, witnessing an appearance of God [working preacher, Karoline Lewis] that we have never seen before. Because at this moment, God is standing right there, in the water. And God is surrounded by more than just water, and sand, and lush green leaves. God is surrounded by people of all kinds and from many different places who are there, confessing their sins. All of them were yearning for God. And God unexpectedly showed up and walked into the water with them, letting everyone know that they are not going through this life alone.

Jesus’ baptism is, above all, an event. And the baptism that we practice, the baptism that we experienced, are events too. Now our baptism might not have been filled with the special effects like Jesus’ was. And the water used to cover us might not have been full of red, oranges, and yellows. But as the gospel according to Mark shows, our baptismal moment is focused on what comes next. Because God knows that there are verses to our own story that are still being written. None of us can predict exactly what our future might bring. And none of us know where life might take Shane or us next. But we do know that, in special moments that are filled with water and prayer, God makes a promise to each of us that we will never go through our life without Jesus by our side. When Jesus stood in the River Jordan, everyone saw God in a way they hadn’t seen before. And later today, when the waters of baptism are poured over Shane, we will see God doing a new thing. Jesus will become Shane’s companion, guardian, and friend forever. And as we bear witness to God doing a brand new thing for him, we are all reminded that the God who walked into the muddy waters of the Jordan is still here, walking alongside each of us and he is our companion, our guardian, and our friend – through this life and beyond.

Amen.

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Unwrapped: Christmas Being Christmas

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Luke 2:1-20

My sermon from Christmas Eve (December 24, 2017) on Luke 2:1-20. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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How do you add a little Christmas peace to your everyday life?

That was the question I was pondering on Friday while sitting in the Costco parking lot, stuck behind a car that was double parked because every other parking spot was filled. Now, I know, visiting any retailer a few days before Christmas is going to be a little wacky. It’s literally an adventure that requires patience, tenacity, flexibility, and lots of prayer. And if you think about it, parking lots during the holidays are places full of faith. We’re always just praying – praying that God will gift us a precious parking spot as soon as supernaturally possible. And so, as I spent those precious moment stuck in that parking lot, I decided I needed to take a deep breath, relax, and de-stress. So I put on a little Christmas music to try and get a little peace during a very unpeaceful time.

And so, as my Christmas playlist cycled through hymns, old standards, gospel pieces, pop, and even Christmas punk, I noticed that many different kinds of artists in many different kinds of songs have one very specific trick they use to make their music sound more Christmas-y. And that’s – this *shakes jingle bells*. Jingle bells. This little jingle and jangle is used to make every song feel a tad more like Christmas. Now we know jingle bells work in a song like Jingle Bells but did you also notice these bells in Mariah Carey’s “All I want for Christmas is You.” Andy Williams, in his 1963 Christmas album, doesn’t seem to use any bells but then we get to Little Drummer Boy and the snare drum is matched with a hard and harsh jingle bell. Hanson, the 90s pop group who became famous for their song Mmmm bop, have no problem adding bells to literally every song that they do. When artists want to set a Christmas mood, these bells are used to set the tone. So I wonder, would using these bells be able to turn any moment into a Christmas one?

Like, if I had these bells on Friday while waiting for that parking spot at Costco, would my situation feel different if I just jingled these bells? And if it that worked, would these bells also help out when I had to sit down for a tough meeting with my boss, or when I’m trying to figure out my taxes, or when I have to remind my kids for the 100th time to turn out the light before they leave the house? Can these bells turn any situation into a Christmas one, bringing a little joy and, I hope, some peace?

But this kind of thinking assumes that there is only one kind of Christmas. Christmas needs to feel a certain way, have certain kinds of joy, family, and friends around to be Christmasy. Yet, not every Christmas is as peaceful as we hoped they would be. Some of us will spend tonight and tomorrow alone. Others are spending their first holiday without someone they loved. A few of us might be dreading seeing our family members and still others don’t want to see what their credit card bill will be after the presents are all unwrapped. And all of us, as this community of faith, know that there are folks nearby who lack the food, the shelter, and the access to healthcare they need to thrive. It’s easy to jingle these bells and imagine that Christmas is really centered on a feeling of happiness and comfort. But not every Christmas will fit on a Hallmark card. And there are moments when the jingle of bells doesn’t really feel appropriate. There are certain experiences, certain songs that our lives sing where the jingle jangle of bells would not cover up or erase or change what we are going through. As we live our lives and experience everything that life has to offer, the sounds of Christmas – of what we imagine and think Christmas is supposed to be – may not actually be what we need.

And yet, it’s at those moments, I think, when we need Christmas the most. But I don’t mean Christmas as merely a tone or a mood or some kind of backing soundtrack to our lives. Rather, when we are living through our non-Christmas moments, that’s when we need Christmas to be as it truly is. We need to know that God chose to come into the world at an imperfect time, when a 9 month pregnant Mary had to travel over 90 miles on a donkey because the Roman Empire was forcing them to be counted. And when Jesus came into the world, he wasn’t born in a palace or a hospital or a medical ward. He entered the world in a stable where an animal’s food dish served as his first crib. Jesus came into this world just like we do – vulnerable, weak, and helpless. Jesus, God, the creator of the universe, the one who is past-present-and-future all at once, decided to live a life where someone else had to take care of him. God came to into our world to truly be one of us – to know our pain, to feel our loneliness, to celebrate our joys, and to experience every one of our frustrations. Jesus chose to do something unbelievable. He chose to be an actual human being.

Like all artists who use bells to turn any song into a Christmas song, Jesus chose to live a human life so that he could add a little bit of himself to everything we experience. He is there when Christmas feels like Christmas and he is also there when Christmas feels so very far away. And in the moments when we feel alone, or abandoned, or when we don’t even know what we believe, we might feel Christmas is really a story for other people. But it’s not. Christmas is about Jesus coming into this world and into our lives as we already are – and not as we think we’re supposed to be. Christmas is about the creator of the universe becoming human because your life has value, your life has meaning, and you and this world are worth more than you can possibly know. Christmas is more than just the sound of jingle bells trying to turn every moment into a Hallmark one. We are, in Christ, surrounded by a love that holds us, guides us, and strengthens us, especially when we are in our greatest need. This love, this Christmas, this Jesus – will always be with us – because tonight is the night when God became human.

Amen.

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Meek and/or Mild: Mary isn’t Passive

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Luke 1:26-38

My sermon from the 4th Sunday of Advent (December 24, 2017) on Luke 1:26-38. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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I think it’s fitting that on this Christmas Eve morning, this fourth Sunday of Advent, we are spending time trying to see Mary. And that word “see” is important. Today’s reading from the gospel according to Luke is known as the Annunciation: the moment when the angel Gabriel tells Mary about what God has in store for her. The passage tells us the general location where this event is taking place and who is there but that’s about it. We don’t know where in Nazareth Gabriel met Mary. And the passage doesn’t tell us any details about Gabriel and Mary themselves. We don’t know what they look like or even how old Mary was. Instead, scripture gives us an opportunity to step into this part of the story and imagine this moment for ourselves. For centuries, artists have done just that. And so, if you don’t mind doing something a little different, I’d like to showcase a few pictures of the Annunciation so that we can see how this moment in scripture has inspired artists for centuries.

Pictures in the slideshow
1200px-Fra_Filippo_Lippi – Filippo Lippi,
Annun_angelico_grt – Fra Angelico: The Annunciation
The_Annunciation_MET_DT404 – Luca Giordano
The_Annunciation_MET_DT1469 – Joos van Cleve
C – greek cathederal.com
Dante_Gabriel_Rossetti_-_Ecce_Ancilla_Domini!_-_Google_Art_Project
The Annunciation 1898 – by Henry Ossawa Tanner
Unknown Artist
Annunciation-patricia-brintle – Patricia Brintle
The Annunciation by John Collier

Now some of those images might have been familiar to you. They might resemble what we imagine this scene to be like. But other painting might have surprised you. Several of the images showed Mary reading a book. The book is usually identified as the book of Isaiah, implying that Mary was literate, educated, and that angel found her in a moment of prayer and study. Other pictures showed Mary in the dark of her bedroom or even while she was still in bed, at the moment when she was waking up. Some of the Marys had the white skin of Northern Europeans. Others were olive, brown, and black. Some artists depicted Mary as a young adult while others imagined her to be the teenager she probably was. Each one of the artist used scripture, their cultures, and their traditions to imagine what it would be like to be a teenager in Nazareth who is suddenly told that she is going to give birth to God.
Now, as Lutherans, I know we don’t usually spend a lot of time with Mary. Her appearances in scripture is limited so we don’t hear her voice very often in Sunday morning. We spend time with Mary usually only during this season – when it’s almost Christmas. We give her a voice in our Christmas pageants and in the carols we sing. We talk about her, about how she’s going to give birth in a barn, and we sort of downplay the rest of her 9 months of pregnancy. We place Mary in our nativity sets and creches, with her hands folded in prayer. But she sort of sits in the back, behind everyone else, behind even Jesus. We place her there and then just let her be. In many ways, we spend this Christmas season letting Mary be a passive participant in her own birth story.

But is she really as passive as we make her to be?

There are two other images of Mary that expand her story for me. And each one appears takes place while the baby inside Mary grows. The first one is this one, an image of Mary based on the song we just sang. She’s standing tall, her foot is crushing the serpent from the Garden of Eden, and she doesn’t look pregnant. Mary sings her song while visiting her cousin Elizabeth. Elizabeth is more than six months pregnant with her own son who will become John the Baptist. But while everyone knows Elizabeth is pregnant, Mary doesn’t yet show. I imagine that Mary, in this moment, is in her first trimester. She’s in the part of her pregnancy where miscarriages are common. Mary can be quiet at this stage but she knows what’s going on. She knows what God is doing. And she sings about who God is, who God loves, and what God’s justice is all about. The second image is one I discovered recently, first created in 2003 by a Trappistine nun in Iowa. The image shows Mary when she is very pregnant. She can’t hide what’s going on anymore. But she doesn’t need to. Instead, she’s everything who she chooses to be – and she’s in this image, consoling Eve. Her foot again is on the head of the serpent because, through her, God is moving us past our sins. Her son, this Jesus, will be the one who will take this broken world and unite it with its creator. And this Messiah, this Savior, this king of all kings, is being nourished, carried, and cared for by this young woman who is someone that the people in Nazareth could not see as ever being the mother of God. In these last two images, Mary is exactly who she’s supposed to be: she knows who she carries inside her; she knows who God is; she knows that’ll she’ll be Jesus’ mom; and she chooses to be an active participant in what God is doing in the world. She doesn’t know the details about Jesus’ story – but she does know that, through Jesus, God is blessing the world. And God wanted Mary to be a necessary part of what God is bringing about.

Many of the images of the Annunciation focus on the moment when the angel first show ups. They dwell on the angel’s arrival, Mary’s wonder and confusion, and her confession: “how can this be?” But it doesn’t take very long before Mary is saying, “Here I am; let it be.” Mary doesn’t know exactly where God will be taking her but she does know that God will be changing the world through her. And as she grows and changes, her son, this son of God, is nourished and loved and changes too. It is impossible for Mary to be passive participant in the Jesus story because Jesus is literally a part of her for 9 months. And as Jesus grows, so does she. Mary shows us that Jesus and our faith are truly gifts that we are given. But this gift doesn’t mean that we are a passive participant in our own faith story. We are, like Mary, invited to move from “how can this be?” to “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.” God has decided that it’s through people, through actual human beings, that God will honor, bless, and love the world. We are, like Mary, called to keep Jesus close. We are, like Mary, called to carry Jesus wherever we go. We are, like Mary, called to listen to the angels God puts in our path. And we are, like Mary, called to sing and work for justice in our neighborhood and in our world. We are, like Mary, called to be the ones through whom God will bless the world.

Amen.

Send the Rich Away – Ben Wildflower https://www.etsy.com/shop/BenWildflower
Mary Consoling Eve – A sister from Trappistine Monks in Iowa made this

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Who Are You? Shining Bright

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

John 1:6-8,19-28

My sermon from Third Sunday of Advent (December 17, 2017) on John 1:6-8,19-28. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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When I was younger, the long string of Christmas lights that wrapped around my Christmas tree sort of scared me. Now, don’t get me wrong – the lights were beautiful to look at. But I never really had a good relationship with the lights themselves. They were always tangled and I was the one assigned to untangle them. I would tested each string of lights and I usually ended up getting a little electric shock while trying to find that one bulb that was burnt out. And when the lights were finally wrapped around the tree, the bulbs would get so hot they would burn me when I accidentally touched them. Old fashion Christmas lights were kind of spooky to me but nowadays, LED Christmas lights are a brand new thing. They come in all sorts of colors; they are incredibly bright; and even though they still get tangled, they at least remain cool to the touch. I really like LED Christmas lights and I know I’m not alone. In fact, it seems like a lot of suburban homeowners are switching their outdoor Christmas lights to LEDs. And this is a good thing because LEDs, in theory, last a long time and use less energy. If, for example, an old fashion string of 100 mini-incandescent lights were turned on and used 12 hours a day for 45 days in a row, that would cost about $3.50 to run. But if you took that string of lights and replaced it with LEDs, the cost to use those lights drops to 41 cents. That’s 1/8th the cost for the same amount of light. We can make our outdoor Christmas lights displays more environmentally friendly and cheaper all at the same time. But some recent studies involving nighttime satellite imagery shows that the transition to outdoor LED Christmas lights is not only about having a less costly electric bill. No, people are using that cost savings to invest in more lights. Because if it costs 1/8th of what it did before to run a new string of lights, it makes sense to get 7 more strings of lights so that you can maximize the your Christmas buck. Our outdoor Christmas light displays are getting bigger and brighter. And if you were up in space and looking down on the United States, you would see the light output in the suburbs increase by 50% during the month of December. And with LEDs now becoming more prevalent, that number grows every year. These new LED lights help us to shine brighter than we ever could before. This is one of the ways, I think, we testify to a truth that we don’t always feel or see. As the nights in our part of the world grow longer and longer, we do the only thing we can do: we flip a switch and throw a little more light into whatever darkness surrounds us.

And flipping that switch – that’s a very Advent thing to do. As we hear in our reading from John today, testifying – shining – witnessing to this light – is what this season is all about. Now, this week is a little odd because we met Mark’s version of John the Baptist last week. And John’s version of the Baptist is a bit different. John’s Baptist spends a lot of time saying no. “No, I’m not Elijah. No, I’m not the prophet. No, I’m not the Messiah. No, I’m not the light.” Instead, what John’s Baptist does is testify. He shares and bares witness to the truth. Mark depicts John the Baptist as a bit of a wild man who is eating bugs out in the desert. But John’s Baptist is a guy who primarily just talks. He shares what he knows and what he has experienced. Over and over again, he breaks the silence that wants him to stay quiet. John’s Baptist keeps talking about God, pointing out to others where God is and where God is active in the world. At every possible moment, he is pointing to that light that he knows is out there. And he does this even though he knows not everyone will believe. Once john’s Baptist tells the truth, he has no control over what other people will say or do once they hear it. He doesn’t get to tell others how they should react. So John’s Baptist just keeps on talking – and he doesn’t let his fear about how other people will respond stop him from telling the truth; the truth that is Jesus – this God in the flesh.
And this kind of testifying, this kind of witnessing, is really hard. It’s hard because keeping silent is sometimes the safest thing we can do. Any time we share a truth or an experience that we’ve had, it’s easy for others to not believe us. How many times have you had your feelings brushed aside after you shared how you felt? How many times were you blamed for that thing that you experienced? Too often, we are told that our feelings or responses to our personal experiences are, somehow, wrong. We’re the ones, we’re told, who misinterpreted what happened to us. We’re the ones who are being too judgmental and our experience wasn’t really that bad and we’re being a little too sensitive. We start believing what others say, learning that we can’t trust our own experiences, and that other people are the only ones allowed to interpret our own story. We discover what it’s like to be disbelieved and, in that process, we lose the ability to tell our own story. We lose a bit of who we are because this shadow that surrounds us has more say over our lives than we do. We end up doubting the truth and we try to cover up whatever light we see.

But the truth is something that always needs to be brought out into the open. When we tell the truth; when we give witness to the light as we know it, we are, in the words of Dr. Karoline Lewis, “[insisting] that [this] light will indeed shine, [overcoming] the darkness that has hidden so much for so long.” This season, this Advent, is more than just a countdown to Christmas. Advent is an opportunity for all of us to flip a switch, to turn on every light, and give witness to the truth that we know. Every experience we’ve had is our experience and the story we tell is a story that has value. Now, I know that not every story will be told. And there are some stories that we might not be ready to share with those around us. And that’s okay. But when we hear someone else’s truth, we are called to protect their truth and believe them. We’re not here to dismiss them. We are here to listen, to learn, to comfort, and – if need be – to change. And if we can, we add a little more light to their story by telling one of our own. We show through our words and actions that they are not alone. Because, as we see in today’s reading from John, testifying to the light – sharing and giving witness to the truth is our Christian calling. It’s what Advent – this time of waiting – this time of anticipation – this time of expecting – is all about. Because Jesus invites us to remember that “our God…moves about this world feeling everything we feel.” Our God is always with us, no matter what. And because God is with us, because God decided to be born, to grow up, and have actual human experiences, our God, our Jesus, will be with you even when telling the truth ends up being the hardest thing you’ve ever done.

Amen.

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No Room: starting in the middle of the story

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

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

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

Mark 1:1-8

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Play

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

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

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

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

Mark 13:24-37

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Play

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

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

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

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

John 21:1-12a

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

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

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

Amen.

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

Surprise! A surprising text and a surprising God

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

Matthew 25:31-46

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Play

Talents: Changing Names

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

Matthew 25:14-30

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

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What are you thankful for today?

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

But why Luther? And what does that mean?

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

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

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

Amen.

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