Gifted: You Are Part of God’s Promise

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

Ephesians 1:3-14

My sermon from the 8th Sunday after Pentecost (July 15, 2018) on Ephesians 1:3-14. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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Have you ever tried to get your mouth to stop talking? Like, say you’re at a job interview or on a first date with someone you actually like. You’re doing your best to make a good first impression – so you make eye contact, answer their questions, and make sure you act as if you’re happy to be there. But sometimes we forget to turn on that part of our brain that gives other people a chance to speak. We talk…and talk….and talk. Our inner monologue, that little voice inside our head, tells us to stop talking but we just can’t. The words spill out, like a flood. If we’re lucky, the person we’re talking to understands our enthusiasm and they give us another chance to make a new first impression. But usually the person we’re talking to walks away with a look on their face that destroys all hope for any future conversation. One of the first things we learn when talking to other people is that we need to pause and create a space where others can speak. We need to stop talking. Because it’s in the small periods of silence when we discover how to listen to each other. When we stop filling our corner of the world with our own words, we hear, for the first time, thoughts, ideas, and stories from others that we never noticed before. It’s in the pauses and in the silence where we create opportunities to learn about, and connect with, each other.

Which is why these eleven or so verses from the opening chapter of our second reading, the letter to the Ephesians, is so weird. Because if you look at our english translation of this text, we see plenty of commas, periods, and other punctuation marks that slow the words down. There is no flood because the verses have pauses and silences inserted into them. But the ancient greek text behind our english translation has….none of that. These verses are one long and unbroken sentence. So imagine, for a moment, reading this text differently. Start like we did with “Blessed be the God and Father…” but when you get to the end of verse 4, right where it says “blameless before him in love,” don’t stop to take a breath. Don’t pause. Instead, head straight into, “He destined us will…” and then keep going. When we get to “he lavished on us;” continue “with all wisdom and insight.” These verses do not pause. They don’t take a break. They keep going, faster and faster until, by verse 11, we’re stumbling over the words. Our inner monologue wants us to stop, it needs us to slow down, but when verse 13 shows up, we can no longer keep straight who is in him, who is you, who believed, and who has been marked and who hasn’t. Instead, at the end of verse 14, everyone collapses into a heap, exhausted, worn out, and confused. Together we take deep breaths, trying to get our bearings, and wondering what it was that we just read and heard. Any of the spaces and boundaries between us – like our beliefs, our gender, our age, and our social and economic class – has been temporarily replaced by a flood of words that started with a blessing and ended with God’s praise. We are, whether we realize it or not, united by a run-on sentence that fills the space between us and forms us into a new community through our eternal connection to Jesus Christ.

Which is, I think, the reason why the letter to the Ephesians starts this way. The author, at this point, isn’t interested in creating new periods of silence, new spaces, where we can connect and deepen our relationship with God. Because when we stop talking, when we create a period of silence that someone else fills up, that’s something we did. It’s an act of connection that we choose to create. But the author wants to begin this letter by first pointing out how God is connected to us in all of our moments, including those moments we didn’t choose, and those moments where we, at first, didn’t notice that God was with us. These kinds of moments are varied and sometimes, in hindsight, easy to name. When we look back and reflect on specific moments in our lives, we can see how Jesus was there when we were sad or afraid. It’s after the fact when we recognize how Jesus carried us through those parts of our lives when we couldn’t feel God’s love for us. When we look back at the brokenness that we lived through – or the brokenness that we’ve learned to live with – that’s usually the moment when we can see how Jesus made a difference in our lives. But Jesus doesn’t only show up when we’re having a hard time. And he isn’t only visible after terrible things have happened. No, Jesus is here – right now. And not only is Jesus here but your connection to God is something that didn’t started at your baptism or your confirmation or when you finally stopped running from God and said, in a prayer, that you believe. Your connection to God, your relationship with Jesus Christ, was something God promised to you before the world was made. The space that you are living in, the space that we occupy and fill with our words, thoughts, emotions, and experiences – all of that, is connected and filled up, by God. There are no moments of our lives where God isn’t present. There are no periods of time when grace upon grace isn’t being given to us. All of us, as we are, are beloved children of God. And this relationship doesn’t depend on what we look like or what exactly we believe. It doesn’t depend on our age, how much money we have, what grades we got in school, or even who we love. The spaces we create to keep us separated from each other are spaces that, in Christ, God fills up. Each of us, as we are, are essential and precious to God. We are more than our bank account, more than our last health screening, more than what other people say about us, and even more than our citizenship or our nationality. You are, grace upon grace, part of God’s family. You are a part of Jesus Christ. And you are always necessary. You are necessary for this church. You are necessary for what God is doing in the world. And you are connected to a worldwide communion of believers that is rooted in love. This love doesn’t stop even in those moments when we are embarrassing ourselves with the flood of words coming out of our own mouths. And this love hasn’t stopped when the only words we can speak are, “God, why me?” In our deep desire to connect to God, to notice God, to understand what it is God wants from us – we first have to recognize that God is with us in every moment of our lives – and that we have been, and always will be, loved.

Amen.

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Asleep on a cushion: Where we sometimes want Jesus to Be

On that day, when evening had come, [Jesus said to the disciples], “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Mark 4:35-41

My sermon from 5th Sunday after Pentecost (June 24, 2018) on Mark 4:35-41. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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Let me know if this has happened to you. You come home after a busy day and you’re completely worn out. Your feet hurt. Your back is sore. And your brain can’t think straight. You take off your jacket with the intention of hanging it in the hall closet but gravity is extra strong today so the jacket slides off the hanger and lands on the floor. You could pick the jacket up but you need a moment to ready yourself. And it’s in that moment when something shows up to remind us that we’re not alone. Because without warning and without us even noticing, our pets sneak up and sit on that jacket. These fuzzy and scaly super spies will sit on anything that falls onto the floor. A stray jacket becomes a new bed. A shirt that didn’t make it into the laundry basket becomes their new lounge. In fact, anything that lands on the floor – from bubble wrap to a vinyl raincoat to a new couch cushion – everything becomes a pet’s new throne. Our pets know what we don’t want them to sit on and so that’s exactly what they do. They curl up on it, fall asleep, and look downright adorable. We want to move them but we feel bad. So we leave them there on that jacket, shirt, or cushion, and we just watch them, wondering when we got so gullible.

I’m pretty sure the disciples, in our reading from the gospel according to Mark today, didn’t think Jesus looked super adorable as he slept on that cushion in the boat. But they probably did wonder when they got so gullible about Jesus. They were in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, a shallow lake that several of the disciples had fished in for years. They knew this lake and they knew how quickly storms showed up. Once the weather started to shift, the disciples knew the threat that was coming. These followers of Jesus looked at the storm around them, knowing it was too late to turn back. So they looked at the boat itself, hoping it was strong enough to last. But their boat was small, the size of a large canoe, and the waves started flooding it. They realized how much trouble they were in and it’s then when they see Jesus, still asleep, on a cushion.

The disciples looked around and knew exactly the terror they were getting into. But in that very same moment, they looked at Jesus, and they were confused. Here was their teacher, their rabbi, who could cast out demons, cure the sick, and make someone’s withered hand brand new. This Jesus had spent the last few chapters preaching, teaching, healing, and inviting different kinds of people from different kinds of nations to cross their borders to see him. The disciples had seen him do amazing things and watched him bring new life to those society wanted to keep separated and locked away. Jesus, as he was, is God’s love lived out loud. Yet in this moment, as the storm raged, Jesus slept and I bet the disciples probably wondered why they were following him. We, like those first followers of Jesus, rarely imagine him to be a heavy sleeper. When trouble shows up, we want Jesus to be ready. We hope, and sometimes expect, Jesus to see our need and to fix us, right away. When we pray, we know how we want him to act. So when the storm comes, we want Jesus to be awake, like a well trained service dog, ready to respond. When we are in need, we don’t want Jesus to be asleep on a cushion.

But if we’re honest, there are times in our lives when Jesus napping on a cushion is exactly where we want him to be. Before the storm came, we have no hint in scripture that the disciples minded that Jesus was asleep. They were busy sailing their ships, rigging the sails, rowing the oars, and they had no problem with a Jesus snoring the evening away. As long as their journey was going the way they expected; as long as they were traveling along the path they found comfortable; as long as they thought Jesus wasn’t needed right away – the disciples were fine living as if Jesus wasn’t really there. Sure, Jesus was literally in the boat with them, but he was quiet, in the background, and he wasn’t causing any fuss. Jesus wasn’t in their way. Before the storm, he was the easy kind of Jesus to get along with because his nap induced silence seemed to affirm the status quo they were living in. When our life is going well or even when it’s just okay; when our challenges are real but they don’t confront a deep part of who we are – a Jesus asleep on the cushion is the kind of Jesus we expect we need. It’s a Jesus we assume we already know. It’s a Jesus we want to stay quiet. And we want him to be sleeping until the storm finally comes.

So I can understand, at a gut level, why the first thing out of the disciples’ mouth is: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” They didn’t ask for help. They didn’t ask to be saved. They simply wondered why Jesus didn’t care? I don’t know many people who haven’t asked this same question. And that question might be the most human and faithful question we can ask. When our heart breaks, when our strength fails, and when we notice the evil that surrounds us – asking if Jesus is asleep on a cushion is the most normal thing we can possibly do. We want him to act; we want him to show up; we want him to make his presence known. And we think, deep in our gut, that we know exactly what Jesus’ action will look like.

But we really don’t. And the disciples had no idea either. Scripture doesn’t tell us what the disciples thought Jesus might do but we know, based on their last question, that the calming of the storm wasn’t on their mind. Jesus slept because he trusted something the disciples didn’t. He knew that every single disciple and every person on those boats had Jesus, right there, with them. In the moments when we feel like we don’t need him, Jesus is there. And in those moments when we do, he’s there too. Having Jesus in our life doesn’t mean that we won’t face storms. And it doesn’t mean that the waves that hit us won’t swamp whatever ship we’re in. But when we have Jesus, when he comes to us in our baptism, when we meet him at the communion table, and when he shows up as we gather in his name – when we have Jesus, we have a savior who is with us 24/7. And this Jesus makes a difference in every moment of our lives. When Jesus, after he calmed the storm, asked the disciples, “Have you still no faith?” Jesus wasn’t asking them about what they think or what they believe. Instead, he’s asking if they have trust. And like a pet who shows up, uninvited and unannounced, to make their presence known by sitting on a jacket we didn’t hang up, Jesus is always with us and he invites us to trust that, no matter what, he will always show up and he will carry us through.

Amen.

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Except In: Did Jesus Tell Jokes? And can you imagine that he did?

[Jesus] also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.” He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

Mark 4:26-34

My sermon from 4th Sunday after Pentecost (June 17, 2018) on Mark 4:26-34. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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Do you think Jesus was funny?

Last week, our reading according to Mark had folks saying that Jesus “was out of his mind.” Now, that’s a kind of funny but it’s not the funny I’m thinking about. Instead, I want to know if Jesus told jokes. Like, when he sat around the campfire in the middle of the Judean desert, after having left one village where he casted out demons and before he walked into the next – did Jesus unwind by telling everyone a funny story? The odds are good that he probably did. And if we take a look at his life as shared by Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John – Jesus probably needed a sense of humor just to get through it all. His life, from the very beginning, was full of the kinds of stories we tell over and over again. There were incredible joys, like when magi from the east came to visit him when he was merely a baby. But there was also terror, like when his family fled to Egypt as refugees, escape King Herod and the government’s violence. Jesus life, I think, needed humor and laughter to help carry him to the next part of his story. So I’m sure Jesus laughed. And when he was at the countless campfires and dining room tables Scripture doesn’t tell us about, I’m sure he told funny stories. Yet we rarely, as a church, talk about Jesus as being funny. We rarely listen to the stories he tells and expect to laugh. Instead, we assume that everything Jesus says must be very deep and full of a kind of spiritual flavoring that strips his words of most human emotions. We don’t let Jesus get angry or tell a joke. We demand that every word Jesus says sounds like what we imagine “holiness” to be. Because it’s easy to say that Jesus is the Son of God. But it’s harder to say that Jesus was also a human being. And human beings, when they speak, aren’t always as holy or reverent or spiritual as we would like them to be. Sometimes a person gets angry. Sometimes they yell. Sometimes people cry and sob and we can’t understand a word their saying because of their tears. Our words are filled with a variety emotions. And today, in our reading from the gospel according to Mark, Jesus tells a joke.
Now the joke is subtle but it’s there. And it involves that mustard seed. Jesus starts his story by saying that the kingdom of God – God’s dream for what world can be – is like a mustard seed that is put into the ground. Jesus, like all good storytellers, ramps up the drama by claiming that the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds (even though it’s not) and when the seed grows, it multiplies and becomes something huge. This tiny seed grows…and grows…and grows until it is something so big that even birds can make their home in it. The mustard seed is amazing because it can grow into something bigger than itself. But this is where Jesus’ joke shows up. And we miss seeing that joke when we focus only on the seed’s size. We marvel at how big the seed grows but we forget what the seed is. It’s a mustard seed. Now, I like mustard; I like it with pretzels; and I know that the mustard plant served all sorts of medicinal purposes back in Jesus’ day. But it’s still mustard, and in Jesus’ day, this was a normal everyday plant that grew like a weed. It didn’t need much soil or sun or water to take root. And once it did, good luck trying to get rid of it. This weed would dig in, sprout more versions of itself, and keep growing. And it would grow and grow and grow until it was the greatest of all shrubs. Now, that shrub would be big – maybe 10 feet high. But a shrub is still just a bush. When you imagine what heaven on earth would look like, what this kingdom of God might be, does it resemble the beauty, girth, and strength of a well manicured house plant? Probably not. And even scripture, when it imagines God’s kingdom, usually talks about a tree. Because a tree can be huge. A tree is full of life and it becomes a home for all kinds of animals, from squirrels to birds to rabbits who live in its roots. In the book of Revelation, the final image of God’s kingdom on earth includes a giant tree that grows 12 different kinds of fruit. A tree is something tall, strong, mighty, and majestic. And when we imagine the kingdom of God, it should include everything a powerful tree symbolizes. And that usually doesn’t involve shrubbery.
Jesus, in this short parable, takes aim at the assumptions we bring when we encounter him. We want God’s kingdom to be mighty, strong, and overwhelming. We want Jesus’ presence to show up in a way that’s spectacular and in a way that stands up to the test of time – just like the best oaks or elms or cedar trees do. We want our faith to be precious and expensive – like a vintage of wine that comes from only the very best grapes. We come to Jesus with the expectation that his presence and our faith will be obvious, mighty, and important. And when it’s not, we then wonder if maybe there’s something wrong. Or maybe Jesus doesn’t really care about me. Or maybe Jesus isn’t important at all. We come to scripture, to Jesus, and to our faith with expectations and assumptions. And we need to know what those things are. Because when we don’t, we let our broken expectations define our faith rather than letting our faith grow into what Jesus’ expectations for us actually are.

Which means we need to let Jesus tell jokes. And we need to be ready to laugh when he does. Because the kingdom of God is really like an ordinary weed that pops up, is hard to remove, and it will get into everything. Our expectations and assumptions will be re-written by this Jesus who shows up in our every day. Jesus is going to be everywhere, even in the smallest moments of our lives. He’s going to be present in every one of our interactions. And he’s going to show up in our relationships. He will re-oriented our desire and expectation for what is mighty, strong, and powerful; and he will show us that when we are at our most vulnerable, when we are our most human, that’s when we can see the kingdom of God in our midst. The kingdom of God is present in the ways we listen, care, and empathize with each other. The kingdom of God comes close to us when we are a Jesus – not only to those we adore but also to those we don’t. It’s in the everyday moments of love and care for the other – for the vulnerable, the sick, the poor, the marginalized, the migrant, the old, the young, and all their families – it’s in those moments when the kingdom of God pops up to show us just who God is. The Christian faith is an everyday kind of faith. It’s a faith meant to be lived and experienced. And it’s a faith that’s not only for the perfect – but it’s also for imperfect people like us. When we follow Jesus, when we leave our assumptions about what he says and how he says it – behind, we discover that the faith he gives us is one that unravels all our expectations. And this faith gets into every nook and cranny of our body, mind, and soul – and it will be a way of life for us that will change us, so that we can love others in ways we never imagined possible before.

Amen.

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Behind the Yellow Line: Jesus and the Unforgivable Sin

[Jesus went home] and the crowd came together again, so that [Jesus and his disciples] could not even eat.When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Mark 3:20-35

My sermon from 3rd Sunday after Pentecost (June 10, 2018) on Mark 3:20-3. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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There are many spoken and unspoken rules of etiquette that make mass transit work. Some of these rules are obvious, like a sign in an airplane bathroom saying “No smoking.” But other rules are only learned through experience. It usually takes a trip or two to figure out what our airplane attire should be so that we can slip on and off our shoes quickly as we go through airport security. As a former daily rider of the New York City subway, I learned a lot of these unspoken rules while taking rides on the A, the W, and the 1,2, and 3. I learned, for example, where to stand in the subway car when kids did their “what time is it? Showtime!” routines, so they wouldn’t hit me in the head while they twirled around on the overhead bars. I also discovered why you don’t count your blessings when you walk into what appears to be an empty subway car on an otherwise very full train. And I mastered all the jumps, hops, and skips needed to transfer from an express to a local when the doors on both trains are about to close. Yet the place where the spoken and unspoken rules of the subway really made their presence known to me was on that bright yellow line located in the subway stations themselves. That line, usually chipped and barely visible, marks the edge of the subway platform itself. It tells us where it’s safe to stand and where it’s not because when a subway train zooms through the station, the edge of that subway platform ends up being a very dangerous place to be. We’re asked, through vocal announcements and posted signs, to always stand behind the yellow line. But it’s not hard to take a step on that line because there’s nothing really stopping us from doing that. And once a train does enter the station, all of us end up inching onto that line – trying to find that sweet spot on the platform so we can be the first on the train once the doors open. The yellow line marks a place of real danger. The yellow line is there as a warning. And in our reading from the gospel according to Mark, Jesus is pointing to his version of that yellow line when he mentions the sin against the Holy Spirit.

Now, it’s a bit odd to hear Jesus – this Son of God who forgives sins all.the.time – talking about a sin that’s unforgivable. What sin could be so great that even Jesus would stay away from you? Sadly, Jesus isn’t very specific. All we get is this “blasphemy” against the Holy Spirit. We usually want something a little more clear so we let our imaginations run wild. We create lists full of the terrible things people do to each other and to themselves, trying to dream up where Jesus’ line actually is. This kind of list making is pretty normal. But it also can be extremely dangerous. I’ve walked with people who are new to Christianity, who end up spending years in a kind of spiritual torment thinking that something they did in their past was something that God would never forgive. I’ve been at the bedside of people who’ve lived incredibly meaningful lives, but who end up spending their final days in incredible guilt, not knowing if Jesus would welcome them in. I’ve seen church authorities, theologians, and pastors say that something as small as using the wrong word when you stub your toe or something as big as suicide would be the one thing that would keep Jesus away from you. None of these pronouncements are life giving. None of them bring hope. And none of them, I think, get to the heart of what Jesus is saying in this moment. Because this searching for the sin that Jesus won’t forgive pulls us away from the bible and we end up missing what Jesus actually said. When our response to scripture is to pull a quote from Jesus out of it so that we can find something out here we think makes more sense, that’s when we should do the opposite and jump back into scripture, back into the story, and spend time with Jesus as he is. We need to see Jesus in this text. We need to see who he is with. We need to see the crowd.

Now, we’re only in the 3rd chapter of Mark so we’re still at the beginning of Mark’s version of Jesus’ story. Yet, Jesus has already been pretty busy. He’s been preaching and teaching all over Galilee. He’s already started casting out demons, healing the sick, and telling all sorts of people their sins are forgiven. Word about him is starting to spread so people from all over Galilee and from other places like Judea, Jerusalem, and even foreign cities like Tyre and Sidon, come to see Jesus. This crowd around Jesus is full of all kinds of people. Men, women, and children; the educated and uneducated; locals and foreigners; everyone from every part of society is there, including the kinds of people we like and those we try to ignore. Every person in that crowd, through their encounter with Jesus, are being, in some way, restored. People are seeing demons being casted out and lives becoming full and whole. Jesus is seeing people as they are, showing them their value, and loving them because they are worth God’s love. This attracts the attention of the religious elites who come to see what Jesus is doing. They know Jesus is doing something incredible. They see the new life Jesus brings. But they can’t help but call what they see as false and unreal. These religious authorities are so cynical, so prideful, so trusting in themselves, that they can’t see God at work right in front of them. God’s grace and hope and love transforms lives; yet those in the know: the religious, the spiritual, the faithful; they are the ones who can’t see it.

The bright yellow line that Jesus mentions in this reading from Mark isn’t really a line that he draws himself. Rather he points to the line we draw when we miss seeing what Jesus is doing in our lives and in our world. When we give up on grace; when we fail to trust that Jesus is with us; and when we imagine that the new life we see in others somehow means our life is now less; we end up calling good evil and evil good. Now, since we are human beings, we are still sinners. We will look at the world around us, see what God is doing, feel uncomfortable, and let our uncomfortableness define what we do next. But we don’t have to do that. Instead, we can always lean on grace. We can always lean on love. We can do the work it takes to move past our uncomfort and discover where life is being made whole. We can notice the places in our world where brokenness is being restored and we can work to be a community where all people are seen and where all demons are casted out. But when those demons can’t be, when they are present in those we love and worship with, we can be a community that lives with them, offering help, love, and support, even when they can’t ask for any of that help themselves. The yellow line of warning that we imagine Jesus laying down for us is really a line of danger we create for ourselves when we think we know the limits to how God actually works. But when we do that, we forget that Jesus never gives up on us. He never gives up on those he claims and he loves. And his transformative power of grace is with us right now and it’s also out there, moving throughout God’s beloved world. The lines we put down are not the lines God draws. Our limits cannot hold back where God’s grace goes. And that’s a good thing. Because a God who is as limited as we imagine God should be – is never a god who can offer us the limitless love we do need – so that we can become the followers of Jesus that this world, and this church, needs us to be.

Amen.

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Remember: a sermon on the Sabbath

Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you.Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.​

Deuteronomy 5:12-15

My sermon from 2nd Sunday after Pentecost (June 3, 2018) on Deuteronomy 5:12-15. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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So what can you say when the words don’t come?

As a manuscript preacher, I write down every word that I plan to say in my sermon. So it’s bit scary when the clock hits midnight on Sunday morning and I have a blank page. This usually doesn’t happen but for some reason, until a few hours ago, the words for today didn’t come.

Now, if I spend some time thinking about why this happened, it’s probably because I just ran out of words. Much of my time over the last week was spent giving words to the different things going on here at the church. Some of those words you’ll hear in our special congregational meeting right after the service. And others were spent helping to organize the New Jersey Synod Event at the upcoming ELCA Youth Gathering later this month. I also had a long email chain floating with various members of the Upper Pascack Valley Clergy Group as we made plans to meet and talk about our upcoming schedule. And since we’re nearing the end of our programming year here at church, there’s still emails to write about our special Sunday School Walkathon next week, prep for Graduates’ Sunday, Blessing of the Animals Sunday, and gearing up for another fun Vacation Bible School. When you take these different events, throw in the normal pastoral contacts, the Genesis Garden, the Tri-boro Food pantry, the prayers, phone calls and time spent with all the other churchy stuff that we do, together as a community, as we live out our faith – it’s sort of amazing how many words get said in this place before our worship on Sunday even begins.

Yet what probably pushed me over the edge this week was my time yesterday at the New Jersey Synod office near Trenton. As a member of the New Jersey Synod Candidacy Committee, I’m a part of the team that journeys with people as they become the next pastors and deacons in our church. Everything we do in the Candidacy process is, I feel, holy, and amazing, and also …completely draining. Before the meeting, I spend hours reading essays, applications, internship evaluations, and psychological profiles. Then, at the meeting itself, there’s always a pre-interview part where the team prepares themselves for the people we’re about to meet. And then we talk with each candidate for over an hour, discovering what they’ve learned, how they’ve grown, where they failed, and how their relationship with Jesus has shifted as they become the leaders God wants them to be. It’s really a blessing to be part of this process. And it’s awesome to see all the different kinds of people who know that Jesus matters; who knows that this church matters; and who want to serve and lead and be a part of what God is already doing in the world. But by the end of the day, after six long interviews and six tough and faithfilled decisions, the candidates and the committee are usually spiritually and emotionally wiped out by the end of the day. We end using a lot of words in a small amount of time to help shape and shepherd the next leaders of the church. So when the meeting is over, im home and the house is quiet – by the time 12:01 am on Sunday morning rolls around – there feels like there’s no more words left to say.

So what do you say when the words don’t seem to come?

Now I know that we all have moments when we feel like we’ve run out of words. But there are other times when we don’t even know where our words should start. We might have a friend or a family member who is hurting and in crisis. When we see them, our throat basically closes up because we know there’s nothing we can say to make their situation better. And there are moments when we are the ones who are hurting and we feel surrounded by too many people giving us words they think will help us but end up being words that are meaningless and Emory. There are moments in our lives when the sheer amount of work we do, be it for our jobs, our families, our homes, our church, and our friends – there are moments when we will use up all the words we could possibly share. And there are still other moments when there are no words that will bring to us, and to others, the peace we need.

And it’s in those moments when, maybe, it’s the act of living in the Sabbath that becomes the only thing we could possibly say.

We tend to, I think, focus on the Sabbath as a day of rest because Exodus 20 and Genesis 1 is where the Sabbath is intimately connected to God’s prior creative act. God created the world in six days and then, like every good project manager, God needed a break once the initial work was done. The Sabbath becomes this moment of time set apart as a divine mini-weekend. It becomes a place where we rest; where we recharge as a way to prepare ourselves for the next day, the 8th day, when the week restarts and we, like God, head back to work. But this connection to creation isn’t the focus we hear in today’s reading from Deuteronomy. The Sabbath isn’t only a moment where we rest, mimicking an all-powerful God who, for some reason, needed to take a break. Rather, the Sabbath is rooted in a freedom that was denied to the Israelites for generations as they served as slaves in Egypt. They didn’t get a break so God gave them one. And then God commanded that this Sabbath is also an invitation for all the people around us to get a break as well. The people we expect to serve us, to help us so that we can relax and recharge – every single one of them, whether they’re the busboy at your favorite restaurant, a masseuse at a Korean Day Spa, or even just a family member – everyone stops together. Everyone is invited to live as if all their necessary work is already done. Instead, all people get to just be – and live with and in the God who loved, and served, and did everything to make them free.

It’s in our nature to turn the Sabbath into a kind of rest designed to only help us do the work we do the other six days of the week. It’s harder, I think, to imagine the Sabbath as a moment in time where we, regardless of our job, regardless of our abilities, and regardless of our social status, where we, together, just get to be with the God who has done all work needed to love us; hold us; and keep us close. Our words, sometimes, can trap us into thinking we need to speak in this moment and every moment. When the words don’t come, we assume that means something’s wrong. But maybe that’s the moment when we need to stop speaking and instead put ourselves, our loved ones, and our neighbors into God’s Sabbath. And when we do that, we’ll see that it’s okay to not have all the words. It’s okay to sometimes not know what to say. And it’s okay to do that one thing all of us can do: we can sit with each other and just be. Because when the 8th day finally rolls around, who we meet and see there is the God who has already rolled the stone away. This Jesus has already been with us, there in every possible moment, including the ones when no sinkage word could ever undo the hurt we’ve felt, caused, or participated in. Our words won’t always be enough. But God’s Word is. And it’s through your baptism, through your faith, and through your relationship with Jesus Christ that end up moving you into a sabbath of just being where everything, and everyone, is whole, free, and loved.

Amen.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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