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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Change.Your.Reality

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

Mark 1:14-20

My sermon from the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany (January 21, 2018) on Mark 1:14-20. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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I want to start by saying something you might not agree with – but I honestly believe that Keanu Reeves might be one of the most talented actors of the last 25 years.

Or maybe I hold Keanu in such high regards because he was the star of the first movie I saw in a theater without my parents. The movie, of course, was Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey. Bill and Ted are two lovable, if not very smart, teenagers from Southern California who travel through time in a phone booth. Keanu played Ted and I remember being impressed by his 90s slacker style, the hair that hung down and covered half his face, and the fact that he was really good at saying the word “whoa.” The movie is very silly and includes a scene where Bill and Ted recite song lyrics from the 80s hair-metal band Poison to try and convince St. Peter to let them into heaven. It’s a ridiculous film – but it’s my kind of ridiculous. And when my brother and I first saw it, we were in a run-down theater next to the low-rent mall and were literally the only people in the theater. We were kids and we received our own private screening of one of the most ridiculous films ever made. It was awesome and that’s how I met Keanu Reeves. He showed up unexpectedly in my pop culture life, and in the process, I became a fan of his for life. Now, I haven’t seen all of his films and I don’t seek out every interview he gives. But he’s a pop culture icon in my life and I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. He’s made such connection with so many different kind of people that when a picture was posted online showing him sitting on a bench looking sad, literally everyone on the Internet created images and sent him messages trying to cheer him up. When he shows up in our lives, some of us see his work, hear his words, and our one-way connection with him just sort of happens. We become a fan. It’s hard to describe why we become fans. It seems like it’s something we just do. We becomes fans of famous people and not-famous people. We connect in this one-sided way with actors and musicians, and also with colleagues, friends, and even strangers. There are people in this world who we bond with instantly and without effort. And once that bond forms, once we are a fan of them, a part of us, a part of our reality, a part of what we think is possible – actually changes.
And that change of reality is part of what Mark is getting at today. Jesus, at the start of this gospel, keeps showing up in unexpected places. He goes to see John the Baptist and is baptized in the River Jordan. Jesus then spends 40 days in the desert, away from everyone. But once John is arrested, Jesus returns to the place he grew up in: the area around the Sea of Galilee.

Jesus is taking a stroll on the shore of the Sea of Galilee when he interrupts Andrew and Simon. Andrew and Simon are busy working, tending their nets. I imagine they expected to spend that day seeing nets full of fish rather than meeting the Savior of the world. But Jesus walked straight into their lives, spoke one sentence, and Simon and Andrew dropped everything to follow him. Jesus then walked a little farther, running into Zebedee and his two sons: James and John. James and John, like Andrew and Simon, are busy working. They’re mending their nets so they can catch the fish they need to survive. And James and John are not alone. Some workers and their father are in the boat with them. Now, scripture doesn’t give us any details about Zebedee or his relationship with his sons. We don’t know if they cared about each other or if they had any future plans for their shared lives. James and John might have been the ones Zebedee expected to inherit the family business, pass on the family name, and be Zebedee’s when he became too frail to work. And then Jesus showed up and James and John left their dad in the boat. Any expectations they had about only being fishermen is now gone. Every plan their father had made for them is suddenly undone. This family is sitting by the Sea of Galilee when they meet the Savior of the world and their reality, their expectations, and their future plans all radically change. When Jesus shows up, he expects more than just fans; he expects followers.

We might hope and pray that our experience with Jesus might look and sound like what happened to Andrew, Simon, James, and John. We might feel like we’re waiting for that moment when we meet Jesus in a very real and powerful way. We want to see Jesus face-to-face, in a completely unambiguous way, and in a moment where Jesus and life suddenly makes sense and all our doubts and questions finally cease. We’re waiting for a moment when faith will happen to us and we’ll say “woah” like Keanu and actually mean it. We expect Jesus to move us from being only a fan of his – with our doubts and concerns and moments when we don’t even know if we believe – and once we are perfectly faithful, then we can finally be the follower of Jesus we think we’re supposed to be.

And I’ll admit that I sometimes wish my faith worked like that. Because that kind of faith, that kind of spirituality, feels like it would be sort of easy. Jesus shows up, I hear one sentence, and I finally get what it means to be with Jesus. Andrew, Simon, James, and John seem to imply that following Jesus is something that happens in a moment. And we who are faithful but a bit doubtful start making assumptions about what made these four disciples change so suddenly. We assume they must have believed everything about Jesus when they first met him, we assume they knew exactly how the story would turn out. We assume that every question they had was, in that moment, instantly answered. But that kind of easy spiritual moment only happens if we end the gospel according to MarI right here. If this was the last thing we heard about Andrew, Simon, James, and John – we could say that faith is supposed to be a neat and simple and very clean. But we will see that the story doesn’t end here. And as we read the rest of Mark, these four will end up being terrible followers of Jesus. They will seek out power and misunderstand what Jesus tells them about humility, sacrifice, and love. They will try to keep the marginalized and vulnerable away from Jesus, failing to see how Jesus makes caring for the oppressed a primary focus of everything he says and does. These four will cross borders with Jesus and fail to see how Jesus wants them to expand what hospitality looks like. These four will even talk back to Jesus when he tells them about the Cross because they couldn’t imagine God making a sacrifice so that all people, regardless of nationality, gender, race, or citizenship in God’s kingdom, could actually thrive. And these four will, when Jesus is in his greatest need, deny and abandon him.

These four are not perfect followers of Jesus and Jesus didn’t wait for them to be perfect before he made them his own. Following Jesus isn’t about waiting for that perfect faith-filled moment. Following Jesus is about trusting that Jesus’ promise are true. Jesus doesn’t ask his disciples to believe everything before they follow him. He simply asks them to trust that he is with them. That kind of trust is a little spooky because it assumes we will have doubts, that we will have questions, and that we will sometimes wonder if we even are a fan of Jesus himself. That kind of trust knows we will not be perfect but it still follows Jesus anyways.

And we start building that trust by noticing where Jesus shows up. He chooses to show up in our baptism, making us his, forever. He chooses to show up in the bread and drink we are about to share. He chooses to show up in the middle of all us, right now, when we gather together in his name. And he chooses to keep showing up to us when we are outside these church walls, leading us down paths he has already trod. We are called not to be perfect but to make our way through our life by following in his footsteps. And we trust that Jesus is making us more than just his fans. He is making us, the imperfect, into his faithful followers so that we can see him, know him, and live like him, and really mean it when we see love face-to-face and say “whoa.”

Amen.

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Who Do You Listen To?

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

1 Samuel 3:1-10

My sermon from the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany (January 14, 2018) on 1 Samuel 3:1-10. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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When do we stop listening to new pop music?

A few years ago, a study was released asking that question. The study took several years of data from the online streaming music service called Spotify, matching the songs people listen to with their actual ages. And the authors of the study noticed that consumers of pop music follow a pattern. Pop music becomes important to us when we are teenagers. We’re developing our own cultural tastes but, since we’re young, we don’t know what our options are. We first listen to whatever is popular on the radio or the Disney channel or whatever we see on YouTube. And then, as we transition into our late teens and early twenties, we start expanding what we listen to. We discover bands and genres that are not on the radio. We affirm our own sense of independence and our own unique identity by becoming that person who tells their friends that we know what’s cool before they do. And then, in our mid 30s, our search for new music typically stops. We keep listening to the bands and albums we already love and we go back to re-discover the music that was popular when we were teenagers. While the rest of the world invents new musical styles and new sounds, we stay in the place we already are. Now, I know that this pop music generalization doesn’t work for everyone. I’m sure you have a friend who always knows what the kids are listening to these days, or you might be that kid yourself. But this pattern of what we listen to feels like it might make sense. And I’ve been thinking about this lately because something happened in our local media market that made me wonder if I’m on the other side of the pop music listening curve.

Because about two months ago, I was driving home after a meeting at church when I stumbled on a new radio station. And this station was doing something different. They were playing all the music that dominated the radio waves in Denver, CO in the late 80s and 90s. This new radio station is devoted to “alternative.” Do you remember alternative? It’s bands with names like Toad the Wet Sprocket, Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead, Hootie and the Blowfish, and the Crash Test Dummies. I was a bit shocked, to be honest, when I stumbled onto this station because this…this was my childhood. And I know I’m totally revealing my age here and there’s a chance you have no idea who these bands are – but I want you to imagine, for a moment at least, stumbling onto the music that you grew up with, this music that spoke to you, the music you hummed to yourself as you were trying to fall asleep every night. And if you’re young and what I’m talking about hasn’t happened to you yet, I’m hopeful that this experience of discovering your personal soundtrack will come. And then, in twenty years, you can be like me, and stumble onto the songs that matter to you while you are living in a new place and at a new point in your life. And then when that happens, will the songs you used to sing sound just like they did when you were 15? Or can we hear them in a new way?

I don’t know what music Samuel listen to when he was young. And in our first reading today, he actually is still young – probably just ten or eleven years old. When he was born, his mother entrusted him to the Temple in Jerusalem and that’s where he grew up. So it’s probably safe to say that the music of the Temple was the soundtrack to his early life. Psalms, hymns, trumpets, and various string instruments became, I think, Samuel’s songs. And as he tried to fall asleep in our first scripture reading today, I imagine that he hummed these Temple songs as he laid down after a serving God.

And then, suddenly, Samuel heard a sound he already knew but one that couldn’t really place. So Samuel did what he always did when he heard his name: he went to Eli, the spiritual and political leader of Israel. Eli lived in, and tended to, the Temple and he was Samuel’s caregiver. The words Samuel heard as he fell asleep were words he knew well. The person always singing this kind of song, always shouting his name, was Eli, so Samuel got up, ready to reply. Samuel, I think, was doing what we all do, sort of just half-listening to the words that were spoken. He heard his name and he instantly went into his own personal pattern of finding Eli and offering Eli a reply. Samuel, at this moment, struggled to understand what was happening. He didn’t pause and listen for that kind of understanding. And he probably didn’t even think he had to pause at all. The words he heard were, he assumed, from a song he already knew. But this time, the Lord was calling. And God, whose voice and breath gave Samuel, life, was speaking to Samuel in a new way. God wasn’t asking Samuel to listen like he always did. God wasn’t looking for Samuel’s usual reply. God need Samuel to pause, to listen for understanding, because God had a new word to share.

I wonder how many of us have said something, only to know by the responses that we weren’t understood. I wonder how many of us have been so focused on our reply that we didn’t understand what was actually being said. If I had a guess, I imagine that everyone in this room could share dozens of stories about the times when they weren’t listened to or when they failed to listen to others. It’s not hard to just react to what someone says. It’s not hard to be so focused on our reply that we end up being defensive, we lose our empathy, and we attack whatever the other person just said. We sometimes spend too much time trying to “win” whatever conversation we’re in, rather than actually listen and understand the words we hear. And that’s because, I think, listening for understanding is very hard. And it’s scary. And it forces us to be vulnerable. When we truly listen, we discover the ways we hurt others. We learn hear how our in-actions caused pain to those around us. When we listen to understand instead of just listening to respond, we discover how powerful our words actually are. And we are forced, in that moment, to put our own ego aside. Because when we listen, we let the other person lead and we become their servant.

And that, in essence, is part of what it means to be follow Christ. We are called to listen for understanding. And this call starts the moment God calls our name. That call is made public, for all to see, when the waters of baptism are first poured over us. This call to listen is a call meant for us and for little William Lintner in his baptism today. And even though the words of this call do not change, the meaning for us changes as we change. The words and songs that set us on fire as a teenager and helped us grow up in our 20s always stay the same; But we, the ones who are listening, change. We grow older. We gain new experiences. We run into new challenges and we find new joys. And so we’re not asked to just respond to things like we always did. We’re not here to only focus on our replies. God invites us to listen for understanding. God invites us to lose our ego and know that God’s voice and words will come to us from unexpected places and through unexpected people. And we are called to trust that the God who called Samuel is still calling us. Our God is still speaking. Our God is still singing a song just for us. And we can, right now, turn towards God and our neighbor and truly listen.

Amen.

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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