Flame On

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

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

John 1:6-8,19-28

My sermon from 3rd Sunday of Advent (December 14, 2014) on John 1:6-8,19-28. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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Our text today from the Gospel According to John might sound a bit familiar. Last week, we saw this same John the Baptist as he was presented in Mark – a wildman, living in the desert, wearing a coat made of camel hair and eating bugs and honey. In Mark, John the Baptist is Elijah – one of those old timey, speaking-truth-to-power, kind of prophet. He’s telling people they need to repent, that they need to come clean about who they are, and that something more is on its way. People from all over Jerusalem are heading to him, coming to hear his word, and be baptized by him. John the baptist is a man of God – a man from God – and he’s confident, powerful, prophet of God and no one tries to dispute that.

But looking at the words we hear today – from the Gospel According to John (who isn’t John the Baptist – this gospel was attributed to some other John), we get a very different kind of Baptist. He’s kinda lost his edge – his overpowering sense of confidence. People are still coming to see him, to hear what he has to say, but there’s something new – people who question him. There are people who don’t fully buy what he’s trying to say. Last week I described Mark’s vision of John the Baptist as a grizzled, super tough, flannel wearing, Colorado mountain man kind of prophet. This week – he’s different. He doesn’t feel as big, as confident, as overpowering. Instead of a Colorado Mountain Man – he feels more like a Williamsburg kind of Mountain Man. And this transformation is centered in verse 19 – a verse that illustrates just who John the Baptist is – what he does – and what he models for us in our lives – and it’s found in that question asked by the priests from Jerusalem – “who are you?”

Who are you – person by the Jordan, preaching, teaching, and listening.
Who are you – person with authority who seems to know something about God that we don’t.
Who are you – person we are unsure of, nervous about, suspicious of – just what exactly do you say about yourself?

What an uncomfortable question. And it’s why this mountain man from Mark seems to get smaller today. He’s no longer a man just a person proclaiming God’s coming – he’s now a person in conflict. He’s no longer the only dominating presence and he no longer dictates the whole story of what is going on. There are people who disagree with him and who are challenging him. The invulnerability seen in Mark is replaced by something more raw, something more relatable, something much more human.

And John answers these questions from the priests in a very human way – like we all do when we’re faced with these questions about who we are – about our story. In moments of vulnerability, we’re now stuck sharing about what we’re not. We have to ask questions about ourselves. We doubt and wonder who we are. And maybe, just maybe, the others have it right. Maybe we’re not as great or as strong as we pretend. Maybe our confidence and truth is false. Maybe we’re less than we should be.

A few weeks ago, someone stopped by the church as I was getting ready to leave. They came in and they wanted to pray here in the sanctuary. So I unlocked the door, flipped on the lights, and we came right up here to the rail, and kneeled. It was just the two of us in the middle of this huge space. And then we prayed. We asked for help, guidance, support. We asked for God to give us hope. And then we did the hardest thing – we gave ourselves permission to not be strong. We gave ourselves permission to cry even though we didn’t want to. We testified to who we are as humans – that we’re vulnerable. That we can’t always be as strong as we want to be or as strong as others tell us we need to be. And that, sometimes, the weight of the world, just wins.

John the Baptist was asked who he was and who he said he was. Are you Elijah? Are you the Messiah? Are you everything we hope you will and can be? And he did the only thing he could do – he said “No.” John the Baptist isn’t the greatest thing. He’s not the one the prophets pointed too. He wasn’t going to change the world or reconcile it to God or destroy the Roman Empire so that Israel could be its own kingdom again. He wasn’t going to fulfill our dreams or wish list and he wasn’t going to right every wrong in the exact way we want. He wasn’t because that’s not who he was. He was something else. He was vulnerable. He was human. He wasn’t what everyone hoped he would be.

Instead – he did what he could. No longer only the strong, immovable man as imagined in Mark – John the Baptist is instead made small because, in the gospel according to John, the stories about John the Baptist that he heard, recorded, and that spoke to him and gave life to his community – were the stories that made John the Baptist human. He’s one of us. He’s faced with questions about who he is, about what he can do, about how exactly he’s going to change the world. John the Baptist isn’t Elijah, he’s not the Messiah, he’s just one of us. So he does the only thing he can do – he testifies to the light.

He points to the one that will change the world – to the one who will reconcile the world. He points to Jesus in everything that he does and says.

And by doing this, John the Baptist, shares something we know as people with our own very individual stories full of joys and hardships and struggles – John testifies that we need light in our lives.

We are not perfect – though we act like we are.

We are into power – even though, ultimately, we are powerless in the face of death and time.

We’re into making boundaries based on wealth, race, age, and gender – defining who is the right kind of child of God and who isn’t – even though we all are made in God’s image.

And we believe we ourselves are the light – even though we spend so much of our time living and perpetuating darkness.

John the Baptist knew this. And he knew what was to come. He couldn’t change the world. But he could point to the One who will.

Testifying – sharing with others Jesus and with our need for God’s light in our lives – isn’t about being perfect. It’s about being honest about our vulnerability. It’s about being honest about our fear. Because testifying about the light – about what’s to come – about the strength beyond us that fixes the world – that turns us away from ourselves – turns us straight towards our neighbor in need – to our friend who hurts – to the stranger who could use a little help today – testifying to the light is about not trusting ourselves but placing our trust fully in the promise of God – that this world, everything in it, including you and me – that we matter to God.

That’s what it means to testify to the light – to share God’s story – to share what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. Because to be a child of God is to see that God, as one theologian I read stated, “God is committed to dealing with the tragedy of our natures.” God is committed to dealing with our darkness. God is committed to being with us in our darkness. And God is committed to overcoming it.

The story of John the Baptist, as we read today, is about God’s commitment. God is committed to Creation – to God’s people – to all that God has created and God won’t let it go. That commitment – that promise – that’s our strength. That’s what gives us life. The things we usually run to as ways to protect us – to give us strength – such as money, power, class, skin color, lifestyle, intellect, and a million other things that we use to build walls around us – we run towards all those things and hide behind them, thinking that vulnerability does not have a role in our story with God. That being weak, frail, doubtful, unsure, or just plain small is something that we cannot be.

But even as we run and hide in places where we feel strong, mighty, and protected – even as we run behind gates that we build against all that is uncomfortable to us – God still smashes through. And God does something very unexpected. God blesses our vulnerability. Because when God comes, when the light comes, it’s not in form of an army or lightning bolt or laser beam that destroys all before it. No, the light that John the Baptist points to – comes into the world in the most vulnerable way possible – as a newborn baby.

That’s how God change’s it all.

And that’s our story. That’s our testimony. Vulnerability isn’t against what it means to be human – vulnerability is at the heart of our Christian story. And that’s our invitation as we get closer to Christmas. We’re not called to only testify to our strengths and just how awesome we are. We’re not called to point to all the things we get right and all that make us better and stronger and tougher than those around us. In the Christmas letter of our lives that we share with family, friends, and everyone we meet, we’re not called to only testify to the greatest hits of our lives. We’re called to point to the vulnerabilities – to point to the weakness – to point to the unexpected and see God at work there. We’re called to say that God is there. That Christ is there. We’re called to say that Jesus – the One who is coming – the One who has come – and the One who will return again – he entered the world in a stable at the back of an inn – and started as a vulnerable and weak newborn babe. God’s light is found in the places where we’re most vulnerable – in the places where our self-assurances break down – where trust in ourselves is no longer good enough.

John the Baptist isn’t just a prophet from God. He isn’t someone we can ignore as someone different from us. John the Baptist, the one baptizing by the river, the one sharing God’s story – he is us. We are him. We are all vulnerable. And John does what we are called to do – he points – he shares – he says that in the unsure parts of who we are, in the parts of the world where God should not be, in the parts of our lives where we are weak and vulnerable – God’s light is there – and that light will never be overcome. Amen.

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The Prequel: a sermon on the opening of Mark.

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

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

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

Mark 1:1-8

My sermon from 2nd Sunday of Advent (December 7, 2014) on Mark 1:1-8. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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How would you start Jesus’ story? If someone you know asked you, right now, to tell them about Jesus – exactly how exactly would you start?

Well – the beginning right? Since, like the song says, the beginning is usually a very good place to start. And, right now, we’re kind of in a season about beginnings – this season of Jesus’ start. Even though in the church we’re in this season of Advent – it’s hard not to have Christmas on the brain. Holiday sales, tree decorations, Christmas songs on the radio, wishlists to Santa – that’s the season we’re in. One thing I love to do each day is to see how the houses have changed along the streets I usually take. Each day, another house has a wreath on its door or new outdoor lights. Some houses are covered in giant inflatable ducks and snowmen, others have huge nativity scenes with life size Wisemen and a baby Jesus that looks much bigger than a newborn should. And then there’s the fun stuff – the lawn filled with characters from the Island of Misfit toys, or the one that really makes me and Oliver smile – the house with the lawn with a dinosaur, an Elmo, and Darth Vadar and R2D2 in Santa hats. All of this is a part of this season of beginnings. It points to Christmas. It tries to illustrate Jesus’s birth and entrance into the world. And this, this beginning is a very good place to start.

So when the author of the gospel according to Mark sat down to write – to put the stories of Jesus down on paper – the author faced that same question – where to start? Mark is writing 30 to 40 years after the resurrection. The first generation of disciples, the ones who walked with Jesus or learned from his first disciples, have been dying. The next generation of Christian disciples are taking their place. So Mark is in this period of change – in this period of transition – and he’s surrounded by stories – stories of Jesus’ miracles and resurrection – his betrayal and his life with the poor and unwanted – so Mark takes all that he’s heard, all that he knows, all that the Holy Spirit has given him – Mark takes all of that –

and begins with John.

The gospel begins with a wildman. John is a guy in the wilderness – dressed in camel hairs, eatings bug and honey, and he’s out in the middle of nowhere, preaching, and teaching and baptizing. People are hearing his story, hearing about him, and they’re leaving their homes to find John and to see what this wildman is doing.

And since I grew up in Colorado, it’s hard for me not to fill in the rest of whatJohn the Baptist looks like. To me, he’s like an old fashion mountain man. He’s big and strong, grizzled, with a thick full beard, and he spends his time chopping trees for firewood, wrestling bears, and only coming to town once a year. That’s the wildman character that I grew up with – and you probably have your own. And that image is important because Mark wants us to realize that we’re dealing with just that kind of wildman. He’s living away from the cities – he’s living in the untamed areas of the world where no political or social powers dominate. He’s living off grid before living off grid was cool where the land is untamed, where nature rules, and everything is just raw – uncivilized – but not uncontrolled. There might not be any cities or roads or fences – but Mark’s community knew that the wilderness – the untamed places – that was where God made God’s-self known.

Mark’s community knew their scripture. They knew their bible, what we call the Old Testament. They knew that when Moses met God, Moses was in the wilderness. They knew that Mt. Sinai, when God gave Moses ten commandments to share with the Israelites – to share with them what it means to live a life freed from Egyptian tyranny and slavery – they were in the wilderness. It’s in the wilderness where God sheltered David from Saul, where the prophets of old would retreat when the powers of the world did not want to hear what God wanted to say, and it’s in the wilderness where individual and communal sins were cast out away from the community during Yom Kippur. Only in the raw places could our false sense of self-control, of goodness, of being right and strong and awesome, be taken down – only in the untamed places could our failures and mistakes, our pride and our unknown participation in systems that harmed others be laid bare. Only in the wilderness could we see our sins as they truly are – and be met by the One who promises to not leave us where we are.

And it’s there where Jesus is going to appear.

In the wild – in the mess – in the unexpected places with unexpected people – that’s the stage that Mark is setting for the arrival of Jesus. Away from the cities, away from the political authorities, away from the temples – that’s where God is going to something brand new; that’s where God is going to break through. It’s there – in this untamed land – that John makes the bold assertion that something more is going to happen – that the One who will change the world is on his way.

That immediacy is important for Mark. There’s no build up, no years to wait before Jesus’ ministry begins. The Son of God is happening now. There’s no wait for the time to be right, no time for us to be prepared, no opportunity for the world to decide when to let God in. No, the Son of God is happening now. And it’s in the wilderness – in the messiness – in the untamed areas that Jesus comes first. It’s in the places that cause fear, that cause worry, hat’s where change will come – not in the proper places, or at proper time, but in the way that God promises – to be known, felt, and experienced in the wilderness – in our wilderness – in the untamed places that cause us worry, that causes us pain, that causes us to fear – that’s where God comes. That’s where Jesus will make his presence first known. We’re invited to come out, to go see a wildman, confess our sins, and seek a word of comfort and peace and love from God. For Mark – the start of Jesus’ story begins with the wilderness. It begins with that messiness. It begins with everything that wilderness means to us.

We carry within us our own wildernesses. We’re filled with moments, with experiences, with feelings that have left us spending parts of our lives lost, without connection, with feelings of burnout, fear, loneliness, failure, brokenness – these are moments of wilderness and these can carve themselves into us. They become part of who we are. They help form us, and lead us – and we carry them with us into everyday of our lives.

So returning to that first question I asked in the beginning of the sermon – how would you start Jesus’ story? What if we took a cue from Mark and we started first with talking about our own wilderness?

To start Jesus’ story with wilderness would mean that we would have to do a difficult thing – and that’s be honest with our own story, honest with all parts of our story and what the wilderness in our lives look like. We would need to be honest with the wildernesses that we find ourselves in – from ones that we’ve imposed on ourselves to those that have been imposed on us through no fault of our own. We’d have to be honest with the wildernesses we carry as folks who live here in Northern New Jersey, and in the United States – honest with our own history, our culture, and what our society has said about others, said about ourselves, and be honest about the wildernesses we’ve created for others who didn’t fit our norm.

To start Jesus’ story with the wilderness means to take the chance and the risk to tell our honest story, to tell our fears, our worries, our failures and sins. To start in the wilderness means to go into the wilderness – to go into the untamed places – to go into the uncomfortable places – and to ask for understanding, forgiveness, mercy, and love.

I believe that Mark started in the wilderness because he knew what happens in the wilderness. He knew that in the uncomfortable places, God comes. He knew that in the untamed experiences, Jesus comes. He knew that in the hurt and fear and despair, the Holy Spirit is there. Our wildernesses are never so big, never so deep, never so distant, that God will not go there. Our wildernesses are never so vast that they’ll keep Jesus from us. Because it’s in those untamed places that God comes. It’s in the untidy places that God makes Godself known. It’s in the places where we don’t want God to go that Jesus breaks in and doesn’t leave us alone.

In these first verses from Mark – we’re given an invitation to live into Jesus beginning by starting a new beginning ourselves. Because the story of Jesus is more than just a birth story, more than just a series of events that happened 2000 years ago in a country far from here. The story of Jesus is a story of encounter, it’s a story of meeting, it’s a story of presence in our lives. Any story about Jesus needs to start in the wilderness – in our wilderness – and needs to never only be a story that sounds like “Jesus did this, Jesus said this, Jesus taught this…” but should sound like “Jesus did this for me, Jesus said this to me, Jesus taught this to me and this is how I have struggled, this is how I have felt fear, this is how I’ve doubted, and this is how I’ve been changed.”

In this season of beginnings – of starts – of giant nativity sets and Darth Vadar in Santa hats – lets take this invitation from Mark to heart and enter into our wilderness, enter into our untamed places, enter into our fears – and lets discover just how God meets us there.

Amen.

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Not Yet A Sheep

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

Matthew 25:31-46

My sermon from Christ the King Sunday (November 23, 2014) on Matthew 25:31-46. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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After hearing this reading from Matthew – doesn’t it feel like this really should be the shortest sermon ever? I should just stand here and say “Don’t be a goat! Amen.”

This text from Matthew feels simple. This is our last public teaching from Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus has been wandering around the Temple and outside of it, teaching to his disciples, those who are curious, and those who are trying to arrest him. And these are the last words in the Gospel of Matthew that Jesus utters before the Last Supper, before Jesus’s arrest, before his trial, and execution.

Jesus talks about the Son of Man returning in glory – returning from Heaven, with a huge entourage of angels, to judge the world. He sits on a throne and begins to split everyone into two groups. On his right – he puts those who he’ll bless and welcome into eternal life and he calls them sheep. On his left, he puts those who’ll be going someplace else and he calls them goats. The ones on his right did good – they clothed the naked, fed the hungry, visited the sick, saw those in prison. The ones on his left didn’t. It seems that their actions determined where they stand in this great judgment. Those who did good are blessed and get eternal life. Those who didn’t, don’t. It seems so simple, really. Here is the list of what we need to do to be a disciple of Christ: visit, feed, care, and love. That’s all it takes.

But – and there’s always a but – that’s not all that is shared in this story because our sheep and our goats do something very interesting. When they are split into two groups, and Jesus pronounces his judgement – explaining why they are where they are – both sides react the same way.

They’re surprised.

And it’s that surprise that makes this teaching not as simple as it first appears. If the goats and the sheep didn’t say anything – if they were just separated and we never heard them talk back to Jesus – then, yes, this teaching seems to be “do this and God will love you.” But the goats and the sheep – well – they talk back. They question. They look at Jesus and say “wait a minute…when did we help you….?”

So the sheep and the goats – they had no idea they were sheep and goats. They had no idea that their actions were being seen. They had no idea that their actions would have consequences. The goats – well – I think that’s an easy response for them. We hear in scripture, and we experience, selfishness. We know when we don’t give. We know when we don’t care for others. We have all experienced those moments – those hesitations – when we didn’t give that beggar a dollar even though something in our heart told us too. Or we didn’t pick up that phone call from a friend because we didn’t want to listen to them complain one more time. Or we just were so focused on our own needs that we just couldn’t see what was going on around us. The response – the questioning – by the goats makes sense.

But the sheep? That’s the odd bit here. Why are they surprised too?

It’s their surprise that makes this a hard text – a complicated text. If they weren’t surprised, then they knew that this result – this blessing to eternal life – was the way it was going to be. The sheep knew the end result so they behaved the right way. But they didn’t know. Instead, their good deeds were just a reaction to what was already inside them. They loved and cared for those who hungered, those who were sick, those who were a stranger – not because of any reward they would get – but just because that’s who they are. Their actions weren’t forced. Their actions were effortless. Their goodness and love was just part of their identity, their DNA – and it just comes out. These sheep are, to use the language of Matthew, are good trees and they bear good fruit. Their identity – their inner core – their sense of being – caused these actions of love, welcome, care, and support.

And that means these words from Jesus are a lot harder than they first appear. They aren’t about actions – they’re about identity – who we are and what makes us tick. And questions of identity lead into very personal questions – questions like: am I good? Do ethical things just come naturally – or are they forced? Am I trying to hard to do the right thing? Am I a sheep? Or am I a goat?

But before we answer those questions – we need to keep our eye focused on what comes next – on what happens when we turn the page – when we leave chapter 25 and head into chapter 26. It’s there when we see Jesus feed his disciples at the Last Supper – sharing that holy meal with those who’ll betray him, those who’ll deny him, and those who’ll run from him when he’s hanging on the cross. We need to keep our eyes on the One who’ll be stripped and mocked by the Roman soldiers. Who’ll thirst and be fed vinegar. Who’ll be imprisoned and no one will come to him. The One who’ll be nailed to the Cross – he’ll give up his life to reconcile the world to God – he’ll model just what it means to be the ultimate sheep.

This text from Matthew 25 is a hard text. It’s a text that accuses as much as it enlightens. It forces us to ask questions about ourselves – about our actions – about what we have done and about what we have not done – about whether we bear the good fruit that God calls us to bear – or whether we hesitate – make mistakes – fail to live out God’s love – God’s call to welcome the person who we don’t know and who doesn’t look or sound like us – or clothe the naked or feed the hungry or care for the sick.

This is a text that accuses – it shakes its finger at us – it calls us to account – and it forces us to turn to what’s about to come and what has come — and that’s Jesus Christ. Matthew 25 isn’t about what we need to do to be good Christians or faithful or whatever. Matthew 25 is about what Jesus did – about what Jesus brings – about what Jesus does – and about our need for Jesus in our life.

We know we’re not sheep. But, through Christ, we’re not goats either.

So what does that mean then? Where do we go from here? Do we wait until the good just kinda happens – until that faith mojo kicks in and we’re able to just spontaneously do all the good that we’re called to do?

No – we’re not called to wait. We’re not called to hesitate. We’re not called to decide when our faith is strong enough to help others because those in need are right in front of us here and now. We’re not here to decide when we’re enough – when we’ve got all we need to be strong, all we need to be faithful, all we need to be feel secure in helping out those around us. No, we’re not here to wait until we’re enough but, instead, to rest on the promise that Christ is enough. That Christ gives us strength. That Christ is with us. And that, in baptism, in the Holy Spirit, God’s promise is enough.

We’re not Christ but that doesn’t mean we can’t be Christ to our friends, family, neighbors, and strangers. We’re called to welcome – to invite – to share – to care – to love – not because we’re perfect; not because we’re awesome; not because we’ll always get it right. We’re called to do all these things because Jesus promises to walk with us – to be a presence in our life – to help turn us into sheep rather than let us remain as goats.

The challenge, then, isn’t to be filled with faith. The challenge is to live into God’s promise that we will be given that fullness of faith – that we will be given grace – that we are given all that we need, right now, to live, and love, as Jesus did.

The challenge is to be Christ-like: to notice the friend in need; to notice the stranger who needs hope; to notice those who hunger and thirst and who can’t hear the gospel because they’re too busy just trying to find something to eat.

The challenge is to see that next page – to know that, after Matthew 25, that hill on Calvary comes – that the actions of God to reconcile the world through Jesus Christ happened – that they matter – and that we might not be a sheep right now, we might still mistakes, we might still hesitate, we might not care or heal like Jesus did – but that doesn’t mean we don’t try —- not because it earns us favor with God —- but because that favor has already been given to us.

The world has already been saved —- and now, it needs to be loved.

Amen.

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Talentless

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

Matthew 25:14-30

My sermon from 23rd Sunday after Pentecost (November 16, 2014) on Matthew 25:14-30. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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Living in New York City, I didn’t see a lot of fall leaves. When fall came, I’d spot a few trees along the street turning red and gold, and I knew that their leaves would fall, but I rarely ever saw them fall. I didn’t get that crunch-crunch-crunch sound from walking in leaves because – as those leaves fell, the super of the building would come out, sweep them into the street, and that would be it.

Now that I’m living here in New Jersey, I have the exact opposite experience. There’s an amazing number of beautiful trees, gold, red, orange – and they all decided this week that they were just going to give up. There are leaves everywhere. I can watch them fall outside my window, they land on me when I go outside, and instead of just crunch-crunch-crunch, I’m slipping on them as I try to go up and down stairs. The world is buried by an abundance of leaves. So, yesterday, as I raked an incredible amount of yellow and gold leaves into a giant pile, I had this parable from Matthew stuck in my mind. As the pile grew so big that I could be practically lost in it, it reminded me of an image I grew up with and still see from time to time on TV and cartoons – and that’s Scrooge McDuck’s swimming pool. I mean, when I imagine what an abundant amount of wealth and money looks like – a swimming pool filled with gold, jewels, and cash is totally it.
But our parable today is about more than just money or being rich. This parable is about the concept of abundance – and just how to reframe ourselves so that we act, breathe, and live through the reality of God’s abundance in our lives – even though that abundance can be very, very, hard to see.

So Jesus starts this parable in an interesting way. He doesn’t talk about the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God – no, he’s instead building on what we heard last week – the parable of the bridesmaids with lamps and the final words from Jesus that we are called to “keep awake.” But instead of bridesmaids this week, we have a rich man, a journey, three slaves, and what happens when that rich man gives his slaves an incredible sum of money to watch over while he’s gone.

Now, we need to realize that when we hear the word “talent,” we’re not talking about an ability. The rich man doesn’t give one of his slaves five skills – like making him an incredible dancer or cook. No, a talent is an actual measure of wealth. So, for those of us who get a paycheck, social security, or maybe just an allowance, imagine if you reached into your pocket and found a roll of cash with 20 years of your wages on it. That’s one talent. So this rich man is about to take a journey and he gives one of his slaves 5 talents, another 2 talents, and the other 1. He’s giving away 100 years of wages, 40 years of wages, and then 20 years of wages. That’s how much money this guy has and he gives it to these three slaves with no instructions, no rules, no requirements. He just gives it away, leaves, and lets the slaves do what they wish.

Now what would you do if you suddenly had 100 years of wages in your hand right now?

Well, the first two slaves get busy. They go out, wheel and deal, and double their money. The slave with 100 years worth of money now has 200 and the slave with 40 now has 80. But the third one does something very different – he takes that money and buries it. Now, that might seem odd to us but burying money was something people did in Jesus’ time. That slave took the money and buried it to protect it so that none of it would be lost. He was given twenty years of wages and did nothing with it but he didn’t lose it.

So the rich man comes back and he asks his slaves what happened to the wealth he gave them. The first and second slave tell the rich man that they doubled his money and this makes the rich happy. He’s promises each slave that he’ll give them more responsibility, more wealth, more power in the future.

But the slave who hid that talent comes forward and, maybe noticing that the other two doubled their money, he begins to explain himself. Now, his explanation might seem a little odd to us – but it makes sense in his context. In Jesus’ time, it was believed that there was a finite and static amount of wealth in the world. If you made money, you had to have taken it from someone else. For this rich man to have his own swimming pool of gold and money, he must have taken all that money and gold from someone else. You only get wealthy if someone else gets poorer. And so this slave, thinking this way, was afraid. The rich man got wealthy by taking from others – and this slave was afraid of what would happened if he ended up with no money left – if he ended up making someone else richer and the rich man poorer. So the slave played it safe and brought back the talent to this rich man.

And then the rich man does something strange. He gets mad.

We need to be careful at this point to not focus too much on the success of the other two slaves. Sure, they doubled their money and the rich man seems happy about that – but that rich man gets angry with his third slave not over money but because of the slave’s inaction.

If we go back to the start of the parable, we see that each slave was given a certain amount of wealth according to their ability. The rich man doesn’t need more money. He’s going on a trip – and his slaves don’t even think about taking his money or running away or buying their freedom and no longer being slaves. This rich man is so comfortable in his position of authority and power, that more money, more wealth, won’t change who he is or what he can do. Instead, he gives out of his abundance to these slaves and gives them no instructions. Instead, he portions out the wealth in the amounts that he knows they could do something with. So when the rich man looks at that third slave and gets angry – he even tells the slave that the least he could have done was do something that writings in the Old Testament are very much against – and that’s put the money in the bank to get interest.

Now, this isn’t a parable about money or our material wealth. This is a parable about living out of a place of abundance. That third slave was locked in a mindset of scarcity. He was worried about what would happen when he lost it all. But the rich man didn’t need more money and the slaves didn’t need more money either. Money isn’t what defined them because money wasn’t really what they were given. What they were given was abundance – and they were challenged to live out of that abundance rather than out of their fear of losing it.

That challenge – to live out of a sense of abundance – that was difficult in Jesus’ time and it’s difficult in ours too. Turn on the tv to BBC America and watch an episode of Top Gear – and we’ll see an amazing car that we might never be able to afford. Open our mail and there might be a medical expense, some credit card debt, a student loan payment, or another reminder that we’re not as abundant as we’d like. And isn’t there always another thing on our unending to-do list? Another kid to pick up, homework to turn in, project to finish, errand to run, or challenge to overcome. Time and money, these define our sense of abundance. We’ve got too much to do, not enough time to do it, and not enough money to really live the life we expect.

Scarcity can feel very much like a squeezing – like trying to tread water during a tropical storm. The instinct is to turn inward, to conserve, to draw our arms tight around ourselves and push everyone out. The fear of being swamped by one more wave – one more bill – one more unexpected experience – turns us to just go ahead and protect ourselves. We bury our ability to take risks, our ability to change, our willingness to try something we haven’t tried before because we’re too busy trying to not lose what we have around us.

But that’s not what God has in mind for us.

This text isn’t about scaring us – this text is about giving shape to where the Christian life begins which is firmly in the one who, when nailed to the Cross, looked like the complete opposite of abundance – the opposite of security – he was the pure essence of scarcity – abandoned by his friends, arrested and tortured by the ones who occupied his homeland, and he felt completely abandoned by the God of us all – the Christian life begins there – in the one who was broken but who was about to do a very brand new thing. The text isn’t telling us to be afraid of brokenness or to never be afraid at all. We’re human – we’re going to feel fear – we’re going to be scared – but fear, failure and scarcity doesn’t define us. Fear, failure, and scarcity doesn’t make us who we are. And we shouldn’t let those limit whose we are.

[9:00 AM
So, if we take that jump and try to live out of a sense of abundance – what would that actually look like? One way might be is to talk about the gifts that God gives us – those talents or abilities we have that others don’t – and that we should use those to further God’s kingdom in the world. But I’m not convinced that’s what Jesus is doing here. I don’t think Jesus is talking about abilities and skills or even money – Jesus, instead, is challenging that underlying sense of scarcity that turns us inwards, keeps our eyes firmly on ourselves. We don’t see our friend in need because we don’t have time to give them a call. We don’t see our family in distress because we’re too busy driving to the next event, to that next thing. We don’t see the stranger suffering because we’re just so tired that trying to get to know someone new is just something we can’t do. But that’s what a vision of scarcity does. And the truth is that we’re not living a life in scarcity because we’ve been brought into the life of the one who can only be abundant. Brokenness doesn’t define us – Resurrection does. The invitation, then, is to live that Resurrection out – to reach out to that friend, to take a breath and look, really look, at our spouse, child, brother, or sister – and to learn the name of the person sitting next to you – to be abundant in the face of scarcity because, like the leaves outside, piled in the street, in our yards, and on our cars – we are claimed by that God whose love for us, for our friends, for our neighbors, and for the entire world is abundantly boundless.

Amen. ]

[10:30 AM baptism
In a minute, we’re going to get a little abundant in our life together here at Christ Lutheran Church. I’m going to invite Jackson to come on up here with his family and sponsors and we’re going to baptize him. We’re going to bear public witness to God’s love of Jackson, God’s claiming of Jackson, God’s promise to make Jackson brand new. And we’re going to do it in a very scarce way. We’ll use only a few words – only a few prayers – and we’ll only use a little bit of water in our small font. Yet, in these very small and ordinary things, we’re going to live abundantly. We’re going to hear God’s promise to Jackson to always be by his side. We’re going to hear about God’s promise to lead the son Jackson to the Son on the Cross. We’re going to hear about God’s promise to love Jackson not because Jackson will always be perfect but because God’s promises are. We’re going to proclaim that God’s abundant care for this world is going to be shown in this little bit of water, this little bit of words, and this little human being. We’re going to show that abundance isn’t defined by quantity – it isn’t defined by absurd numbers or extravagance. No, the abundance that we proclaim, the abundance that we live into, the abundance that feeds us, nourishes us, and changes us – that’s God’s abundance.

We’re invited to continue to live out that sense of abundance. We’re called to not let scarcity define us. We’re told to not conserve but to share, not to hold back but to proclaim, not to retreat but to go out, to meet our neighbors in Woodcliff Lake, Hillsdale, Park Ridge, and beyond – to know them – know their communities – know their needs, hopes, wants, troubles, sorrows, and joys – and to live abundantly with them not because we’re perfect or because we’re fearless or because we’re always going to double our money and never fail. No, we live abundantly because, like the leaves outside that are piled in the street, in our yards, and on our cars – we are claimed by that God whose love for us, for our friends, for our neighbors, and for the entire world is completely, 100%, totally boundless. To love – that’s our invitation, that’s our calling, and Jackson – that’s your calling too. We welcome you to a new experience and a new life that calls all of us to be, do, and explore the world as abundantly brand new.

Amen. ]

Play

Between Now and Tomorrow

‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

Matthew 25:1-13

My sermon from 22nd Sunday After Pentecost (November 9, 2014) on Matthew 25:1-13. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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“Keep awake….” that’s that start of our last line from Matthew today. “Keep awake – for you know neither the day or the hour.”

I don’t know about you, but whenever someone tells me to keep awake, to be alert, to be ready, I get a little anxious. I get a little concerned that maybe I’m not ready, maybe I’m not prepared for what’s to come. Even though I’m no longer a student in school, I still suffer from those nightmares, you know the ones, where we’re in highschool and it’s finals week and we walk into class for a test we’re totally not prepared for. Or, sometimes, I find myself having to take a final for a class I didn’t even know I was registered for until that last day. Every time I have these nightmares, I wake up to find myself a little sweaty, my heart kinda pounding, and the rest of the day just feels incredibly unsettled. So when I hear these words from Jesus about being ready – about being alert – I have flashbacks to those nightmares – to that anxiety – and I wonder, in this parable, just what can I stand on?

Because when we dig into the parable, a lot of odd things pop out. We have ten bridesmaids who are sent out to meet a bridegroom. They all have lamps and they’re suppose to meet this guy and escort him back to the party. So they all get to the prearranged meeting spot and – … – the bridegroom is not there. So these ten bridesmaids wait…and wait…and wait. They wait so long, they all just fall asleep.

But then, in the middle of the night, they hear a shout that the bridegroom is on his way. They wake up, get ready to escort this guy to the party, when five of them notice that they don’t have enough oil to keep their lamps lit. They ask to borrow some oil from the others but they’re refused. So these five bridesmaids without oil leave to go buy some and while they’re gone, the bridegroom arrives and he and the five remaining bridesmaids head to the party. The five without oil buy what they need and head back to the party, only to discover that the bridegroom not only left them, he’ll no longer let them in. They’re locked outside the party forever.

So, what gets me about all of this is that there isn’t anyone in this parable that I can really get behind. First, we have a bridegroom who is late to his own party and he doesn’t even apologize for being late. His lateness is the reason the oil runs low for some and we have no idea why he’s late. Second, when the bridesmaids are getting ready, the wise – those who brought extra oil – they not only refuse to share, they convince the other five to leave their meeting place and go out to buy more oil. When they leave, the bridegroom arrives and instead of waiting for the other bridesmaids to return – which might be the nice thing to do – they all just take off. Even the wise bridesmaids don’t tell the bridegroom to wait – they just all get up and go. There are plenty of opportunities in this story for a little patience, a little forgiveness, a little thoughtfulness – but when I share this story with my toddler, who do I want him to be like? Like the ones who don’t have enough oil, or the ones who won’t share, or the bridegroom who is late and doesn’t seem to wait? All we seem to get, really, is one set of bridesmaids labeled wise, another set labeled foolish, and we’re left wondering where we are in all of this. Are we wise? Are we foolish? When we head to God’s great party, are we going to be let in or are we gonna be stuck on the outside, knocking on that door forever?

Now, this parable is a story – it moves – and it brings us somewhere. But these last words from Jesus – “keep awake…” – they occur after the parable ends. They are, in one verse, Jesus’ exposition of what this parable means. We’re left at the end with a locked door, a party on one side, and a group of bridesmaids talking to the bridegroom on the other. Now, we can focus on that ending – on that locked door – on what that party on the otherwise is like – but maybe Jesus’ words provide us with an opportunity to take a step back and see this parable from another angle.

Those words – keep awake – now, there’s only one part of the parable that has anything doing with wakefulness or sleepiness. And it occurs before the bridegroom is met, before the oil runs out, before the bridesmaids don’t share or send each other away. Before the real nastiness of the parable begins, we find our ten bridesmaids all gathered together, at the expected place – waiting and waiting and waiting. Before their actions can define them as either wise or as foolish, they are all standing there together, waiting for their bridegroom to come – with their lamps ready.

And then they fall asleep.

It’s easy, I find, in our faith lives, to be asleep. Wise, or foolish, there are moments we all share when the experiences of our lives devour our faith. On top of the moments of pain and loss that we experience, we also have those little moments – those everyday moments – that cause our spirituality to be put on the backburner. We’ve all got too much to do and not enough time to do it. Rushing to get our kids to school, to the next activity, to get ourselves to the office, or the next job, or just to the next project or problem to solve – it’s easy to just blow past our faith life – to be, in a sense, too busy for faith. And as that next project, next responsibility, next priority, takes our focus, time, and energy, our faith life slowly goes dormant. Our prayers to God become shorter. Our time in worship becomes less. Our stories to one another about our experiences with God become quiet. We find ourselves going full speed forward, wise or foolish, old or young, onto the next thing and letting our time with God fall by the wayside.

It’s hard to think of ourselves as needing to be awoken when we’re so busy, we never have time to sleep – but Jesus’ words – to keep awake – isn’t about being roused from our slumber but to be mindful that we have already been awoken. Like those bridesmaids, we have been invited out, to go meet the bridegroom and, in our baptism, to remember that we have already been claimed by God. We have already been gifted the beginning of faith. We’ve already been given the spark needed to stay awake.

And as beloved children of God, we’re called to a state of active wakefulness. It’s a call to pay attention to God, to pay attention to ourselves, to pay attention that our wholeness rests not in how many items we get off our bucket list or how many unique check-ins we make on Facebook that makes our friends jealous – Jesus’ words are a reminder that our faith life, our life with God, needs engagement, needs focus, needs time. When we focus too much on the the end of the parable, on that locked door, we forgot about that middle part – that waiting. We skip over the time in the parable and just rush to get to that final event – to that next project – we end up doing what we always do – rushing through the parable rather than living with it. Jesus’ words are a reminder that our life as beloved children of God is less about the completing of tasks or checks on a checklist – but more about living into God’s activity, God’s future, and as one commentator said, more about actively living into the expectation that God will make all things new.

The Christian life is a waiting life. Stirred by God’s grace, we are pointed to the next big thing, to the promise that God will, and does, make all things new. But we’re not called to a passive waiting or a rushed waiting either – no, we’re called to be awake – to be like those bridesmaids while they wait – gathered with each other before the bridegroom, before God, with our lamps lit, ready to be fed by God and ready to respond to God’s call to gather into the world, into the darkness, into places where we might be incredibly uncomfortable – and to carry Christ’s light of love, mercy, care, and forgiveness.

We are called to be Christ’s light in the world – a light that burns brightly – but one that is constantly fueled, charged, and ready to engage with whoever and whatever comes our way. That doesn’t mean that we’ll always be faithful or that we’ll never doubt or that we’ll never forget to say our daily prayers – but it does mean that we don’t let apathy or habit or distance from our faith keep us from seeing what God is doing in our lives. When we open the bible and read, we are trusting in God’s wakefulness. When we share our faith life with our children and pass our faith down to them, we are participating in that active expectation that God isn’t done with us yet. Forgiving sins, sharing in the body and blood of Christ, baptizing children and adults into the church – we are resting firmly on that hope – on that call from Jesus to be awake – to be prepared – to keep making time for our faith because God continues to make time for us. So, wise or foolish, with oil or without, and even if we feel like we’re heading into our highschool classroom to take a test we never studied for or never even knew we had – we go awake. We go in hope. We go in faith that God is making all things new. “Keep Awake” – Jesus says – because God isn’t done with us yet.

Amen.

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The After Party

Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.

John 8:31-36/blockquote>

My sermon from Reformation Sunday. (October 26, 2014) on John 8:31-36.

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One Coin

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

Matthew 22:15-22

My sermon from 19th Sunday after Pentecost (October 19, 2014) on Matthew 22:15-22.

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