Sermon: Being/Living Integrated into/with the Kingdom of God

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

Matthew 25:31-46

My sermon from Christ the King Sunday (November 26, 2023) on Matthew 25:31-46.

So about a month ago, a new fuzzball joined my family. She’s about 8 months old, weighs approximately 40 lbs, and barks whenever someone knocks on the door. We named her Pepper and our two cats are finally willing to sit in the same room as her.  I haven’t lived with a dog for awhile so I wasn’t 100% sure what to expect when Pepper showed up. But I was honestly amazed by all the things she chose not to do. She wasn’t really interested in toys; she didn’t chase the cats; and when I accidentally left her alone at home for an entire day, nothing was chewed up. Pepper also surprised me because whenever I accidentally dropped food onto the floor, she simply ignored it. I initially hoped I would never need to sweep under my dining room table again now that Pepper was a part of my home. But in this joint process of integrating one another into our lives, I saw how embracing who she was rather than who I expected her to be, would make our relationship thrive. Working through our expectations into something new is, I think, one of the most faithful things we can do. And as we heard today in our reading from the gospel according to Matthew, Jesus knows just how hard that work will be. 

Now this reading is, if we’re honest, a bit difficult to integrate into who we imagine Jesus is. Outside these church walls, many of us are already gearing up for the story of a little baby born in Bethlehem. We’ve already decorated our homes with twinkling lights and we’re watching every Hallmark holiday movie we can find. We’re ready for a wholesome holiday full of eggnog, gifts, and a Jesus that warms us up like a cozy electric blanket. However the Jesus we just listened to is a bit terrifying. He talked about the Son of Man returning to Earth with every one of God’s angels. This Son was decked out in all his glory and when the entire world was brought before him, he immediately separated everyone into two groups. On his right hand he placed those who he’ll bless by fully welcoming them into the kingdom of God. But those he placed on his left will be sent somewhere else. This is the kind of Jesus we’re fine with as long as he’s focused on someone else. But when this Jesus turns his eyes towards us, a lump grows in our throat. We often use an unbiblical theological shorthand to describe who our experience of Jesus is. We pretend that the God we meet in the first half of our Bible is one who is full of judgment and wrath while the God we discover in Jesus is like a puppy dog wagging their tails. Jesus, though, chose his last sermon to his friends before his arrest, trial, and death, to end with a very complete and fiery judgment. And our struggle to integrate this Jesus with the one we expect even appears within the translation itself. We often choose to lessen Jesus’ impact by picking words that don’t impact us very much. For example, the word for “stranger” in our text is not really about the neighbor down the street who we often wave to but haven’t actually met. This stranger is the foreigner, the migrant, or the immigrant who finds themselves to be a stranger in a strange land – which was an experience Abraham, Moses, Ruth, Mary, and Jesus knew very well. In that same vein, the word for “welcome” is all about integrating people into a new kind of community where everyone is changed. And even the word we translate as “care” really means “to serve” which is something we don’t want to do when we feel like those around us deserve the state they’re in. The Jesus we can’t wait to meet on Christmas isn’t like the Jesus we meet today. And trying to integrate those two Jesuses together is a faithful task everyone of us needs to endure. 

So maybe instead of ignoring that task or choosing one Jesus at the expense of the other, I wonder if there’s a more authentic way to integrate Jesus’ words into our own. We can trust that Jesus really means what he says but we can also pay attention to what Jesus chose to talk about the most. The actual separation of people into two groups happened before Jesus explained any of his actions. He didn’t send people into a kind of courtroom where everyone saw what they had done or left undone before he shared his judgment on them. Instead, Jesus only used a handful of words to describe that judgment while putting most of his emphasis on the life that people actually lived. Both the sheep and the goats were surprised to learn that this wasn’t the first time they had experienced Jesus. They had already met him through the ones Jesus chose to be with. He was with the foreigner who lived among them and alongside those who were hungry, thirsty, sick, and in prison. Jesus was always there, right out in the open, with the people we often choose to ignore. And while we personally might be a bit nervous imagining Jesus to be a kind of judge, he knows we have no problem being the judge ourselves deciding who is worthy of our welcome, love, and service. 

So, in one sense, the judgment Jesus embodies is a reflection of the judgment we’ve already given. And while I personally lean towards the Jesus who chose to grow up and experience the kind of love we are called to bring into the world, I’m also grateful that he won’t let us be the final word on what love will do. Jesus came to integrate us into a holy way of life that breaks through every one of our expectations. That work, though, isn’t always easy since it’s a work we never really stop doing. And it’s often when we’re in a rhythm that feels holy and true when everything changes. That change might be small like discovering after your Thanksgiving dinner that the dog you thought wasn’t food motivated had licked clean every single dessert bowl and plate on the dining room table. But this work can also upend our entire lives when the life we’ve built with other people comes completely undone. Yet through it all we have a Jesus who, no matter what, chooses to be with us. And during those moments when love is hard, trust that you are God’s beloved and Jesus will never let you go. The life of faith is a life that is always trying to integrate Jesus’ love into our own. And while we don’t always know what that looks like, it does, I think, resemble to a small degree what happened when the last runner of the most recent NYC Marathon crossed the finish line. When we wait for each other, support one another, cheer for each other, and include those we don’t even know, we are using all we have been given to serve our God. And while that isn’t an easy thing to do, it is something we can do because the Jesus who has claimed us as his own will be alongside us – forever. 


Sermon: A New Song – Interfaith Thanksgiving Service

My sermon from the 55th annual Upper Pascack Valley Interfaith Thanksgiving Service hosted at Christ Lutheran Church in Woodcliff Lake, NJ. Delivered on November 19, 2023.

So about twenty years ago, my denomination – the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – decided it was time to create a new hymnal. Every 30 or 40 years or so, we take what we’re currently doing in worship and wonder what it might look like in the future. This process is how we faithfully hold onto our traditions while noticing the newer songs and prayers that feed our souls. But this work, as you can imagine, often invites people to live into every one of their big feelings. Some who worked on this new hymnal only wanted to sing the songs they already knew since those were foundational to their experience of God. Others, though, wanted to embrace the fullness of a worldwide Lutheran Christian story that isn’t only European and white. Arguing about what we do when we gather together to worship and sing is, I think, an experience every one of our faith traditions knows fairly well. And in my denomination we eventually came up with a compromise that no one was 100% happy with. However, when we physically began to assemble the book itself with all 654 hymns the church decided to include, another issue popped up. Those whose job it was to keep the whole thing under budget noticed that all these hymns made the book a little expensive. These folks decided to try something different so that every song that was picked could be accessible at a more reasonable price. And so one of the ideas they used was to print some of the hymns without their traditional 4 part harmonies. Now for some Lutheran Christians – this was a bit traumatizing. We have a rather long tradition of singing songs that include many different kinds of voices. Tenors, basses, sopranos, altos, those with high voices and those with low voices are necessary for the songs we sing. And while a song without those voices can still be beautiful, it would also be missing all the pieces that make it whole. At the heart of this church’s debate around its new hymnal was, I think, a conversation; one we’ve been having since Jesus’ disciples walked with him almost 2000 years ago. How do we make sure we’re doing all we’re supposed to do so that every voice can be included in the song we believe God is calling us to sing? 

Now, growing up, the only singing I ever did was either with my elementary school choir or in the shower at my parent’s house. Singing out loud in a way that other people could actually hear wasn’t something I really did until this faith thing became a part of my life after college. When I first started to go to church, I chose not to sing because I didn’t know any of the songs and I was embarrassed by how off key I usually was. Yet the flavor of Christianity that claimed me as its own didn’t let my lack of singing stop it from showing how my voice already had a home. The community did this by making sure that singing was something we did all the time, often including those all the additional verses beyond the first 4 that we usually ignore. The people around me made sure that these songs were often repeated so that I could learn what they meant. And my very first pastor modeled to me what voices were allowed to be part of this church community since he never, ever, hit the correct note even after having many different lessons with a variety of professional voice teachers. When we sang together, we were allowed to make mistakes, to feel all that we were feeling, to remain silent if we didn’t know what to say, and to experience what it’s like to have someone sing for you when you no longer can. The perfection of a community’s song doesn’t depend on how perfect it sounds but rather, I think, on who is there when we sing. 

Now creating the kind of space big enough where every voice has its place isn’t always easy to do. Life has a habit of making any kind of singing very hard. When we are living with too much grief, sorrow, fear, doubt, anxiety, and pain – it can seem as if there’s no place in this song for us. We sometimes assume our voice isn’t good enough or we might try to limit all the other voices that are meant to harmonize with us. We act as if a song of unity, strength, power, hope, and love includes only one voice that just so happens to fit with everything we already think and believe. The songs we sing are meant to bring life rather than to take life. And when we spend all our time, energy, and effort on making sure other voices aren’t included in the songs we sing, what comes out of our community ends up being mere noise – reducing our creativity, our beauty, our diversity, and our hope into the sound of a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. 

Now, at the moment, too many of us are experiencing what that kind of noise feels like. There are far too many people that we know or who we are connected to who are not spending their version of Thanksgiving sitting with their families and friends at a dining room table. The unholy songs of terror, fear, war, and violence are way too loud. And I often feel as if there’s a sound stuck deep in my throat full of anger, fury, sadness, and fear that’s on the verge of roaring out. It’s been down right heartbreaking to see how the songs of antisemitism and islamophobia have perked up among so many who claim to follow Jesus. And as my community made plans for tonight’s service, we weren’t quite sure what we could sing since the terror attack on October 7 in Israel and the ongoing war in Gaza has impacted so many of you. It feels weird to sing songs of thanksgiving when so many are living through such an overwhelming crisis. And I couldn’t really imagine which songs within our hymnal were big enough to represent who we truly are while being honest about all the tension hanging in the air right now. 

And so that’s why we sort of made the decision to reach deep into our musical tradition of finding ways to simply sing. We, together, have already sung about thankfulness and the wonder of creation and in a bit, we’ll sing about healing, wholeness, peace, and joy. It’s how this church can live into the truth that our towns, schools, and neighborhoods can’t be what they’re supposed to be without each of you. Your voice matters and we’ll do our part to make sure it’s heard. I know we won’t always get that right and we too often focus more on what to sing rather than why we’re singing in the first place. But we have truly been blessed by this interfaith community that has, since 1968, taken the time to listen, learn, and be a part of each other’s songs. My prayer is that this will continue because when we sing together, the songs of hate, fear, terror, and violence that keeps us apart loses all its strength and power. And on this Sunday before Thanksgiving, one thing I can be thankful for is that each of you are you. I’m thankful for your voice. I’m thankful for every one of the leaders that is part of this interfaith community. And I’m thankful that your voice is part of the songs I get to sing. I hope that by taking the time to share, learn, and be part of each other’s songs, we can help write a new song where our love, peace, mutual encouragement and constant support never fades. 


Sermon: Abundance

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

Matthew 25:14-30

My sermon from the 25th Sunday after Pentecost (November 19, 2023) on Matthew 25:14-30.

So last Sunday, I ended the sermon by inviting you to pay attention to what happened when the last person crossed the finish line at the New York City Marathon. The race, by that point, had been going on for over 12 hours and most people had already gone home. Yet when the last runner – who was so worn out she needed someone to hold her up while taking those final few steps in Central Park – neared the finish line, there was a huge crowd  cheering her on. When the race was over, someone was already there to place a medal around her neck, wrap her in a warm blanket, and see if there were any medical needs she needed addressed. This image, I think, helps us notice what Jesus was getting at when shared 3 stories in the gospel according to Matthew right before his arrest, trial, and death. Jesus wanted to help his friends live faithfully while they waited for the moment when the kingdom of God became fully realized in our world. He started with a story about ten bridesmaids who fell asleep at a wedding as a way to remind them how they were already part of what God was up to. And he followed that up with another story about a rich man who went on a journey. 

Now before we dig too deep into the parable, it’s important to remember that not every character in the stories Jesus told were meant to represent ourselves, God, or Jesus himself. Sometimes Jesus simply wanted to illustrate a scene that invites us to think and wonder. We could, I think, decide that the rich man in the story should be a kind of stand-in for Jesus since he was about to take his own journey through death and resurrection. But if we pay close attention to the details within the story itself, that comparison begins to collapse. The rich man was described as one who reaps where he does not sow, gathers where he has not scattered seed, and who seems to care an awful lot about profit rather than people. He even endorsed the unBiblical practice of investing money to generate interest with the bankers. The rich man always tried to expand his estate and to maximize his personal gain at the expense of everything else. That doesn’t sound much like Jesus at all which is why we shouldn’t make the rich man a stand-in for Jesus or God. Jesus, though, told this story because he knew those who first heard it would recognize the kind of story he was trying to share. In the ancient world, there were a ton of stories, plays, and songs about an enslaved person who suddenly found themselves with a lot of wealth. Each story had a kind of vibe that was a mix of the fairytale Cindrella, the 1983 movie Trading Places, and the show “My Lottery Dream Home” on HGTV. These stories sometimes showed someone without a future finally gaining one. But they also showed how harsh slavery could be since the enslaved person had little to no control over the violence done to their bodies or their lives. When Jesus began his story about a rich man leaving on a journey, those listening to him assumed the story would flow in a certain way. Yet the literary trope Jesus used also served as a signal that those listening should pay close attention to the bits of the story they didn’t expect. 

Now as I mentioned in my children’s sermon, a talent in Jesus’s world was a unit of measure. And when a talent was used as currency, it amounted to what an average laborer earned over  20 years of work. The rich man in our story entrusted one of the enslaved people with 100 years worth of wages, another 40 years worth of wages, and a third person with only 20. The amount of money described in this story is meant to be pretty obscene especially when we realize enslaved people never received a wage in the first place. Jesus, in his introduction to the story, does not describe the rich man’s expectations of those he gave money to. But we get the sense that being entrusted meant they were to use the money as if the rich man had never left. That means that those around the rich man had learned or been trained to wheel and deal like he did. The rich man not only invested them with resources but also with an education and way of life that exploited others in the quest for money and power. The rich man wanted them to be like him and, according to Jesus, two of them followed that to a T. But the third one decided to do something else. Instead of embodying the actions, behaviors, and practices of the person no one should admire, he buried the talent he was given in the ground. The rich man, when he came back, was furious – which, for those listening to the story, might have come as a bit of a surprise. The rich man didn’t lose a dime yet he tossed him into a place full of weeping and gnashing of teeth. The rich man wanted those around him to be like him in all that they said and did. And that, I think, is the vibe Jesus wanted us to pay attention to rather than seeing this as simply another story of someone poor becoming rich. We are meant to ask  who has a claim on us and what risks we are meant to take so that we can be exactly who God calls us to be. 

And that, I think, points to one other aspect of Jesus’ story that is a bit unique. When the rich man left on his journey, he already knew what each person was capable of. He gave them all they needed to be like him. And God, in the same way, has already given to you what you need to be who God knows you can be. The gift of baptism, the gift of faith, the gift of a community that prays with and for you, as well as your own skills, abilities, traits, strengths and weaknesses – all of that is how you can be faithfully You. These gifts will grow and change while life takes us on a journey that goes to places we don’t always expect. Yet being faithful doesn’t mean you need to become some kind of holy and wonderful and perfect person that no one can truly ever measure up to. Sometimes being faithful is running the race to its end or being there for a friend to hold them while they cross the finish line. You are not faithless because your practice of faith doesn’t match the person next to you. Nor are you worthless just because the world has decided that someone else is, somehow, worth more. You are, and always have been, worth dying and rising for. And Jesus wanted all those who followed him to claim that truth as their own. Next week, we’ll learn a little more of what faithfulness looks like in the 3rd parable Jesus shared. But until then, remember that God has invested God’s own grace, hope, and peace into you because God knows that you can make Jesus’ ongoing story of love real in our world. 


Sermon: What You Are A Part Of

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 the 24th Sunday after Pentecost (November 12, 2023) on Matthew 25:1-13.

Today’s parable from the gospel according to Matthew has fed the faith of many different kinds of people in many different kinds of places over these last two thousand years. The oldest church building we’ve ever found, which was constructed sometime between 230 and 240 CE, painted on the walls where people were baptized a picture of ten women holding lamps. Nearly sixteen hundred years later, on the other side of the world, enslaved people in this country sung in the fields a song telling them to “keep yo’ lamps trimmed and a-burnin’” despite the inhumane violence they received at the hand of their enslavers. These ten women gave these two different communities a spirit of hope and new life even though they were separated by time, language, and culture. Now I’m pretty sure Jesus’ disciples weren’t really thinking that far ahead when they heard this story. They were, instead, wondering why their teacher seemed so focused on preparing them for what was about to come. In Matthew’s version of Jesus’ life, he began his public ministry with a long sermon detailing his thoughts about the kingdom of God. And then, right before his arrest and trial, Jesus did the same thing; offering another sermon since the Cross was just over the horizon. He wanted those who followed him to notice how God’s kingdom would continue even though our kingdoms would try to end His story. This last sermon, like his first one, was full of different stories. And in the middle of it all, he chose to tell his friends what happened when ten bridesmaids fell asleep at a wedding. 

Now in the culture Jesus grew up in, weddings lasted at least seven days long. There were parties, pre-parties, and many different ceremonies that included the families, their guests, and everyone else in the village. And to kick off the last round of the events, the bridegroom first needed to visit the bride’s parents. It was then when they, together, would finalize what financial resources – like money, land, or animals – each side would bring to this new relationship. Most of these terms had been laid out when the couple became engaged, enabling them to set a date and send out invitations. But once the wedding date drew near, there typically was an attempt by all sides to try and get a little more out of the deal. It was expected that this final meeting would go long and so they developed a ceremony that announced when this meeting was over. Once all parties agreed to the exchange of money and gifts, the bridegroom would then be escorted away by a group of women holding lamps. These bridesmaids always knew that their job required them to wait. Yet they had a responsibility to be immediately ready once the negotiations were over. We can almost picture this story in our heads; imaging a group of women, standing in the courtyard of the bride’s family, ready to go with their lamps lit. But as day turned to night and the delay grew longer, these women soon fell fast asleep. They were ready to be the bridesmaids they were called to be; yet as hours passed by, their lamps soon went out – one by one. 

In a sense, their experience of the wedding was now paused while they were busy sleeping under the stars. But since weddings were multi-day events, the nights were often just as active as the days themselves. While these women slept, the wedding continued with the bridegroom still negotiating with the family. The village or town they were in was full of guests milling about as they enjoyed all the food, snacks, and drinks. Everyone in that space knew that the next part of the wedding could kick off at any moment so all the caterers, musicians, officiants, and singers, were gearing up for what comes next. The wedding ceremony might have been a bit delayed but the entire experience of the wedding itself was still going on. The bridesmaids weren’t the only ones involved since it was someone else who shouted to announce the bridegroom was coming. It was then when all ten women woke up and got ready to be who they were supposed to be. But that’s when five of them noticed something was wrong because they didn’t have what they needed to be part of the procession they were called to lead. 

Now Jesus’ words after the parable seem to imply that all the women messed up since they fell asleep while they were waiting. But I wonder if Jesus was trying to tell us something else since both those with oil and those without nodded off. I don’t think the snoozing itself was the problem; rather, it was about what happened when they finally woke up. Some of them had failed to be vigilant or prepare properly for what was about to come. Over the next two weeks, we’ll hear Jesus describe a little bit more of what that kind of vigilance might look like as we stay ready for the ongoing unfolding of the kingdom of God. Yet at the heart of Jesus’ argument, I think, is how this vigilance is always centered in what we’re already a part of. The bridesmaids were part of a wedding that they did nothing to bring about. They were simply called to be there and were given a role reserved for them alone. The vigilance Jesus asks us to embrace means noticing what we already are a part of. This, though, isn’t easy since there are many different things pulling on our soul. We all have lives full of different responsibilities, vocations, hurts, and joys. And it’s not often easy to notice what we belong to when our health fails and we watch loved ones enter the part of their life where getting better is no longer an option. It’s difficult when we’re exhausted, tired, and worn down to even guess what we belong to. And yet you, through your baptism, the gift of faith, and Jesus himself – have been brought into God through no work of your own. You, right now, are God’s beloved even if you no longer know what that feels like. And when it feels as if your light has gone out and you have no oil left to fuel your soul, Jesus’s love still burns within you because you’re already with your God. 

I was reminded earlier this week what that kind of living might look like while watching videos about the New York City Marathon. On the day of the race itself, most of my social media feeds were filled with people who were either in the race or were holding a funny sign while their friends ran by. But one thing I hadn’t noticed before was what happened to the final finishers of the race. Unlike other professional marathons, New York has a really long time limit. They do, after six hours, re-open all the roads but the runners are invited to keep going. Last Sunday, a little before 10 pm, the last runner crossed the finish line. When she got there, she was completely exhausted and even needed someone to hold her up while she walked. Yet when she neared the finish line, there was a crowd of people cheering behind her and those up front couldn’t help but hoot and holler. They were there to place a medal around her neck, wrap a blanket around her body, and let a medical team check to see if she was okay. She ran the race on her own but there was a community already surrounding her. There are days when we are like her – barely able to move forward on our own. Yet we also, at the same time, have the opportunity to be like those around her, noticing who is struggling and helping them as they participate in something they didn’t create on their own. We, as part of the body of Christ, get to live in the exact same way: moving forward in the life we’ve been given while remembering we’re already part of something so much bigger than ourselves. We, because of Jesus Christ, are always beloved even when this life feels like anything but. And that’s because God’s endless love is with you and Jesus will be there to carry you through. 


Sermon: Around God’s Throne Room

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Revelation 7:9-19

My sermon from the All Saints Sunday (November 5, 2023) on Revelation 7:9-17.

Revelation, the last book in our Bible, is a bit of an odd duck. It describes a divine vision given to a man  named John while exiled on a small island off the coast of Turkey. The vision, though, wasn’t full of fluffy clouds, freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, and puppy dogs wagging their tails. Instead, Revelation is filled with giant locusts shaped like tanks, the moon and a third of all stars falling from the sky, and four horsemen announcing the end of the world. The words Revelation used to paint pictures in our minds are often confusing, terrifying, weird, and beautiful all at the same time. For centuries, Christians have tried to decode what all the oddness in the book might mean. Folks often use it as a kind of checklist that reveals the date, time, and location when all of this might end. We take what we’re going through now and wonder if a certain ruler, war, famine, or new technology represents one of the strange images and metaphors described in Revelation itself. The problem, though, is that when someone claims they finally have it all figured out, the world continues and a new generation of Christians come into being. Revelation is a book that feels like it’s for someone else which is why we often choose to spend time with the bits of our Bible that feel like they make a bit more sense. But, in my opinion, Revelation’s strangeness is the reason why Revelation still matters because it shows, in the midst of everything going on in our world and in our lives, what being with Jesus is all about. 

So one of the ways we sit with Revelation is by paying attention to its initial purpose. Most writings in the Christian half of our bible were written for a specific reason and then, later on, we’re called scripture. For example, the author of the gospel according to Luke and the Acts of the Apostles started their book off by explaining how they wanted to report an “orderly” account of Jesus’ life and the early church to a non-believer with some kind of political power. And Paul, in his many letters, was often responding to a specific crisis or situation within a specific faith community. Revelation, we assume, is all about the end of the world since its name, in its original Greek, is simply “Apocalypse.” Yet the reason why we use, in our culture, the word “apocalypse” to describe the end of the world is because we tend to only pay attention to that part of the book itself. An apocalypse is not simply a series of cataclysmic events leading up the end game for the world. An apocalypse is primarily an unveiling: pointing out something we can’t always see. And what Revelation wanted to reveal is actually described in its first few chapters. John initially wrote this book to seven churches in what is now modern day Turkey. These churches were probably pretty small but they had been noticed by the wider community. A series of conflicts, questions, and situations within these places had made them wonder where God was in the midst of it all. For the communities that were poor, sick, small, and under other kinds of pressures, when were God’s promises finally going to come true? For the communities that were large and wealthy – how was God pushing them out of their sense of entitlement and into a deep love for one another? Also where was God when certain cultural expressions of power, holiness, and a Roman version of patriotism – things some even called Christian – were really centered in the idols we’ve constructed about what power, strength, wealth, security, and comfort are supposed to be about? And in this messed up, broken, and sometimes beautiful world – how does Jesus matter when it doesn’t seem as if believing makes any difference at all? These questions are the kinds of questions that never grow old since we wonder the same thing in the midst of our own pain, suffering, loss, and grief. It would be awesome to say that we move past these questions the more we pray, read our  Bible, and participate in the life of the church. But in my personal experience, these questions continue since living with faith is full of ups and downs and moments of certainty and endless doubt. The strangeness of Revelation not only addresses those faithful questions but it also reminds us how strange faith and life can be while following a Jesus who is fully divine but still wounded. And whenever the sense of dread, confusion, worry, and fear becomes too much – the vision recorded by John repeatedly shifts into a scene like the one we read today – when we’re suddenly in God’s throne room. 

Now the Revelation’s strangeness does appear in God’s throne room but it’s meant to bring us a sense of hope rather than fear. The place God is –  isn’t empty. It’s full of people from everywhere and every place. And these people, rather than appearing as soldiers, guards, or the secret service we’d expect hanging around a king, Queen, or emperor, are dressed in the white they put on in their baptism and are busy waving palm branches in the air. Among them are angels and the four living creatures who are described as some kind of divine beast familiar to those who read Ezekiel or are well versed in Roman mythology. And at the center of this very human and very divine gathering is a lamb – showing how vulnerability isn’t the weakness we assume it must be. This gathered community stretches beyond all time and space while wrapped up in the love, peace, and joy of God. And even those who swear they can’t sing – soon find that, in that place, they can’t do anything else. 

We might imagine this vision of God’s throne room to be, like other bits of Revelation, focused on what comes next. Yet what makes this part of John’s vision different from the rest is how rooted it’s supposed to be in our present moment. What’s being revealed to the seven churches, to John, and to us is that there is more to our world than all of this. What we see and experience isn’t all there since we, like those robed in white, have our own place around God’s holy throne. It’s a promise that this moment isn’t the limit of who we are since we are already Jesus’ beloved and we get to sing even when our world and our lives make that singing hard. Now I’ll admit it’s easier to say this rather than to trust it since grief, worry, and fear often makes us wonder if these words from God are true at all. Yet God often chooses to reveal this present and holy reality through the various saints God brings into our lives. That does not mean these people are perfect but, rather, that they, in their own ways, made God’s throne room visible to us. They are the ones who, when we feel lost, show how we’ve already been found. When we hunger and thirst, they are the ones who made sure we had what we needed to thrive. They helped us, protected us, loved us, and knew this world couldn’t be what it’s supposed to be without us. And it’s through their generosity and care, when the tears we shed are embraced and then wiped away from our eyes. These saints might not be physically in our presence but they are always with us because God’s love never ends. Yet this day is more than a day to remember; it’s also a day to live out God’s throne room too. We, because of our baptism and faith, get to answer the call to be those same kinds of saints to the people around us and to every generation that comes next. Together, we’ll put that into practice, by revealing to Alice her place in God’s throne room. We will, along with her family, friends, and godparents, will promise to listen to her, to pray with her, and we will be there no matter what comes next. And in those moments when things seem a bit strange, weird, scary, and we wonder where God is – we’ll be there to hold her tears and wipe them away. We’ll do this, not because we’re perfect, but because being with Jesus invites us to do nothing less. 


Sermon: Icons

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 the Twenty First Sunday after Pentecost (October 22, 2023) on Matthew 22:15-22.

Two weeks ago, something I heard a lot was the phrase: “I have cash if it’s easier.” I was, once again, co-leading an elementary school’s Scholastic Book Fair and many remembered how temperamental the registers can be. My working theory  is that the whole fair is focused on kids as the buyers. The machines have no problems processing all the singles, fives, tens, and twenties needed to buy the latest copy of Dog Man or one of the dozens of books entirely devoted to sharks. But since the fair I run occurs after school, we have to accept and process gift certificates, online prepaid accounts, free book vouchers, Visa, Discover, Master Card,  American Express, Apple Pay, Benjamins, Jacksons, and all kinds of coins. Every transaction is its own kind of adventure since we’re never quite sure how someone will pay. And while the cash did flow, money we couldn’t see was how most people bought their books. For a while now, our wealth has been defined by a series of 1s and 0s. Yet it’s only in the last decade or so when using physical money can make a financial transaction harder than it needs to be. Many of us, I’m sure, have a friend – or maybe we are that friend – who never has the physical cash needed to split a check, buy a book at a book fair, or even toss a coin in a wishing well. So when Jesus asked if anyone around him had a bit of cash, that’s an experience we can relate to. But instead of paying for his portion of the check, Jesus responded to a question wondering how we should split our lives. And before he even answered the question, he asked for a small metal silver prop that had the face of the Roman Emperor on it. 

The context for today’s reading from the gospel according to Matthew frames the entire story which is why, week after week, I keep bringing it up. Jesus, at this point in Matthew’s story, was living through what we call “Holy Week.” He had, days before, arrived in the city of Jerusalem on a donkey while a small crowd waved palm branches in the air. Jesus presented himself as a humble king who then immediately went to the Holy Temple. The Temple had recently been expanded by King Heord and there was a tradition of allowing all kinds of religious teachers from the many different flavors of Judaism to preach, teach, and talk about God during the festival of Passover. Jesus wasn’t the only itinerant preacher hanging out in the Temple but he was one of the more disruptive ones. The religious leaders in the city kept asking Jesus what he was doing. And Jesus, being Jesus, responded by telling stories centered on the kingdom of God. Jesus’ words and actions weren’t designed to be peaceful and those who disliked him felt like they had to do something before the legion of Roman soldiers patrolling the city took matters into their own hands. The religious leaders sent their disciples to Jesus, hoping Jesus would say something they could use to turn others against him. And since they were in a place where Jesus had tossed out the money changers and merchants who provided pilgrims with the animals and the correct kind of currency they needed to worship at the Temple – they asked Jesus about money and wealth. 

There are several different ways to enter this story and I’ll admit I initially focused on the t-word since my quarterly property tax payment left my mortgage’s escrow account earlier this week. But before we focus on the question Jesus was asked, I wonder if we should lean into what Jesus asked them. Jesus said, “show me the coin used for paying the tax,” which, to me, implied Jesus didn’t have one. Now throughout the Bible, it’s difficult to know if Jesus regularly carried any cash at all. For example, when he sent his followers out to do God’s work in the world, he told them to leave all their money behind. On one level, this was a bit silly since Jesus and the disciples relied on the monetary support of others – especially women – to travel the land while preaching and teaching. But it does show how Jesus had a rather nuanced take when it came to living within the economic structures that existed in his world. He was, like all us, part of that world – experiencing how we use money to proclaim who has valued, who matters, and to add additional meaning to our lives. Yet when he needed a coin to illustrate a lesson he wanted to share, he had nothing in his pocket. Jesus, I think, was doing more than simply being that friend who never seems to have cash when they need it. He, instead, did his best to live outside of the economics of the Empire. Stanley Hauerwas, in a commentary about this passage, wondered if the reason why Jesus wasn’t carrying the coin was because it was etched with an image of the Roman Emperor himself. Rather than carrying a symbol of wealth and power that proclaimed how the emperor was divine, the son of gods, and was destined to control the entire world – Jesus lived as if there was another way to be. That choice is, I think, a bit easier for the one who could heal the sick and feed thousands with only a few loaves of bread. Yet the absence of the denarius in Jesus’ own hand is something we should reflect on even though many of us rarely have any physical money at all. 

When we pay attention to what Jesus didn’t have, we realize how his answer to the crowd wasn’t an illustration of the separation between church and state or even a commentary on the righteousness of taxes themselves. It was, instead, a call to a deeper kind of discernment wondering why we’re holding onto this money in the first place. This is a deep and difficult question to answer since money does shape and transform our lives. The lack of money or even the abundance of it often determines how we interact with each other and with God. Jesus wasn’t asking those in front of him to make a checklist about what they can give to God and to Caesar. He was, as we heard over these last few weeks, much more interested in showing how we can live our lives as if the kingdom of God was truly near. The coin Jesus refused to carry embodied an empire that didn’t have much room for the kingdom of God. And even though much of the money and wealth we carry today is invisible, that doesn’t mean that our money is imageless. We choose to give money its meaning and value, allowing it to shape, define, and limit the relationships we have with each other and with our God. Even if we are the friend who never carries money, we let money carry our emotions, thoughts, hope, and dreams as we live within the various kingdoms that make up our world. Yet this money isn’t the only thing that bears an image; since we, through God’s handiwork, bear one too. As those who were created in the image of God, what we say, do, trust, and believe ends up reflecting the fullness of who we know God to be. That reflection is often defined by what we imagine love, service, power, and faith looks like. But God doesn’t let those holy values be defined only by us; God chose to send us God’s son – so that we discover who, in Jesus, God chooses to be. We are to love as he loved, to serve as he served, to welcome and include and pray and forgive and to not hold onto those things that say something other than God is what defines us. Money does play a role in how we live our lives. And we can’t always copy Jesus by not participating in the money-focused world we actually live in. But we can choose how to use that money and whether we let it consume the image God has already given to us and our neighbors. It’s said that money makes the world go round even if that money is something we can’t really see. Yet as Jesus reminds us in today’s reading – that money doesn’t need to be all we hold onto as we go around our world too. 


Sermon: “Be” You

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Matthew 22:1-14

My sermon from the Twentith Sunday after Pentecost (October 15, 2023) on Matthew 22:1-14.

So last week, I noted that the story Jesus told was one of the more violent ones he ever shared. I had to qualify that statement, though, since I knew today’s story was just on the horizon. Jesus, after entering the city of Jerusalem while riding a donkey, immediately headed to the Holy Temple to disrupt worship during one of the holiest weeks of the year. He, in his own way, kept challenging the status quo which was risky since Roman soldiers were busy patrolling the streets. The local religious leaders asked Jesus why he was doing what he was doing and he responded by sharing a few stories. The first involved two sons who struggled to fully embrace the promises of God. And then, while the faithful around him grumbled, Jesus told another story about renters who lashed out violently when they were told to share the fruit of their labor. This, according to Matthew, was when folks decided that Jesus had become too much of a problem. But instead of taking a step back and embracing his identity as the prince of peace, Jesus pushed forward and told another story about a wedding party that was anything but fun. 

Now I tend to read Jesus’ parables from beginning to end, letting his creative choices reveal God’s word to me. But today, I think it would be better to begin our reading of the story near the end. Once the city was burned to the ground and everyone in the surrounding area dragged to the wedding reception they couldn’t say no to, that’s when the king noticed someone who wasn’t properly dressed. This person is someone we know very little about since they’re not described as good or bad or as anything in between. All we know is that they weren’t among those who received the initial invitation to the party. And they, like everyone else in the crowd, had their lives interrupted by a king who took them from their homes, workplaces, and schools t so they could gather in a wedding hall before all the food got cold. No one in that space had the opportunity to head home and change into an outfit worthy of a royal wedding. They, instead, came exactly as they were since they never expected to be there in the first place. My hunch is that the people listening to Jesus’ story would have recognized this problem but automatically assumed that a king who prepared everything at the party before any RSVPs rolled in would have a plan to deal with it. When the guests arrived in their ripped jeans, wrinkled chinos, and brightly colored athleisure – everyone would have received a wedding robe once they arrived. The king not only prepared the feast but made sure everyone, the good, the bad, and those who weren’t even supposed to be there, had everything they needed to fully participate in the party. What the king saw, then, wasn’t someone who was underdressed or who lacked the resources or opportunity to let loose and have fun. What they saw was someone who was enjoying the food, getting busy on the dance floor, and admiring all the elaborate ice sculptures at the center of every table, but who refused to be as fully committed to the party as the king was to his guests. They chose to not embrace what the king had given to them. And so, in response, the king refused to let them stay and “be” among those who had made that party a part of who they are. 

Now a few nights ago, I was invited by Rabbi Loren Monosov of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley to attend a short solidarity gathering at their temple. It was organized as a response to the terrorist attack that occurred last weekend and the ongoing crisis that everyone knew was about to come. She began the event by inviting everyone to simply be. We were given permission to recognize our fear, worry, anxiety, confusion, sadness, horror, anger and whatever else that we felt. After a short prayer and reading Psalm 121 together, we took a moment to listen to a song recorded and filmed in Jerusalem itself. As a non-Jew who doesn’t speak any Hebrew, I’ll admit I didn’t really know what the song was about. Yet being there with our Jewish friends and neighbors helped to ground me in a story that wasn’t fully my own. Instead of letting my own perspective, point of view, or religious story supersede everything they were experiencing in that moment, I saw how letting people “be” can often be the most faithful thing we can do. Holding space so that others can navigate through a crisis is a necessary difficult thing to do. And as the video of the song reached its end, I also saw how much work us Christians still have to do. The video we were watching was being streamed from Youtube and, when it got to the end, Youtube automatically invited us to click on a few other videos the algorithm thought we might be interested to see. The tech operator at Temple Emanuel didn’t let those recommendations appear on the screen for very long but I had a moment to read a variety of video captions on the screen. Many of the recommendations were simply additional videos from the same event that song was recorded from. But at the very top was, from what I could tell, a video attacking Judaism itself. It would be easy to act as if I didn’t really see what I saw or as if it didn’t matter since we regularly work and serve, teach and pray, and listen to all of our Jewish friends and neighbors. Yet brushing it aside would be a failure of our own Christian duty to recognize how those videos and the algorithm that recommends them are often crafted by those who profess to follow the same Jewish rabbi, prophet, teacher, healer, king of kings, and lord of lords that we do. It’s hard to “simply be” when there are those who would choose, either consciously or unconsciously, chaos over hope, peace, and love. And when we’re caught up in moments when it looks like disruption, fear, and hurt is about to come out on top, Jesus’ words remind us of the wedding feast we’ve already been invited to. When the waters of baptism were poured over us and the seal of the Cross etched in oil on our forehead, our invitation to the party God’s already started was publicly given to us. That invitation wasn’t something we did anything to earn but was given to us because God remains faithful and committed to all that God’s loves. God’s commitment, then, invites us to fully embrace what the wedding party of God should be all about. We, then, are called to welcome because Jesus welcomed; to include because Jesus included; and to heal, serve, share, and disrupt every status quo that denies the humanity, hope, and peace that is God’s wish for all. That kind of work often requires us to recognize the ways we as individuals and as a community have hurt and harmed others by what we’ve done and by what we’ve left undone. And it’s through that work when we get to show up for our neighbors while they navigate through a crisis that makes hope so hard to see. Creating the space needed so that others can safely “just be” is one of the ways we embrace the garment of grace given to us in our baptism and faith. And when we fully embrace the commitment God has first made to us, that’s when we get to do the very holy thing of showing up for our families, our friends, and our neighbors with a love that never ends. 


Sermon: Turn a New Page

Jesus shared with the people: “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” 
Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

Matthew 21:33-46

My sermon from the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (October 8, 2023) on Matthew 21:33-46.

I’m sure many of you have noticed how full our lawns have suddenly become at the start of October. Where once there was a lawn chair, some dandelions, and a smattering of toys our kids forgot to put away, there’s now quite a few gravestones, giant skeletons, and dozens of inflatable Disney characters holding all kinds of jack-o-lanterns. When it comes to the Halloween season, I tend to focus on all the fun: like costumes and parties and eating body weight in fun-sized candy bars. But October is also a month when dozens upon dozens of new movies, tv shows, graphic novels and comic books suddenly show up to frighten us. I, personally, do not like being scared but I am a bit fascinated by the creative process that makes “scaring” work. A little while ago, I was listening to an interview with Emily Carrol, an award winning cartoonist who recently released a horror graphic novel called “A Guest in the House.” That comic book is all about a young woman who, after marrying a rather kind dentist, realizes there’s a mystery surrounding his former wife’s death. The person interviewing Emily could have spent the entire interview focused on the book itself, asking her why she wrote it and what she hoped readers would get from it. But what I heard instead was a different kind of discussion focused on the nuts and bolts of scaring people through comic books. Unlike movies, tv shows, or even the radio, cartoonists can’t use a variety of sounds, moments of silence, quick movements, or an unexpected camera change to surprise the viewer. So many of our October scares are defined by that unexpected thing that makes us jump out of our skin. To do that well, bits of information need to be revealed and shown at the exact right time to increase the tension and startle the audience. But that’s a bit hard to pull off in a medium where a reader can look down at an entire piece of paper and have all the art laid out before them. The primary tool Emily and other cartoonists use to mimic the kind of jump scare that we long for from movies and shows involves the physicality of the comic itself. Turning the page from one part of the story to whatever comes next is the moment when that unexpected jolt can suddenly appear. Turing the page, then, is one way we make October as spooktacular as we want it to be. And I wonder if Jesus, in our reading from the gospel according to Matthew, used a similar kind of page turning technique to show a little of what the kingdom of God is all about. 

Now today’s reading is a continuation of what we heard last week. Jesus had just entered the city of Jerusalem on a donkey and had annoyed everyone by disrupting how the Holy Temple functioned during one of its busiest times of year. The local religious leaders were a bit concerned by Jesus’ behavior since it seemed as if he was purposefully upsetting the delicate balance the community had established the occupying Roman Empire. They wanted Jesus to explain to them why he was doing what he was doing. And so Jesus, being Jesus, used a series of stories to illustrate his point. The first story involved two sons: one who said they wouldn’t work in the vineyard but then changed their mind; and another who said they would work in the vineyard but chose not to. The second story, which I Just read, detailed what happened when a vineyard was leased to tenants who didn’t really want to pay their rent. This parable is, I think, one of the more violent stories that Jesus ever told. And it’s one we seem particularly drawn to since the violence within it would soon echo through the violence done to Jesus on the Cross. It’s also a parable that we, as Christians, have used to justify our own violence and hateful acts towards the Jewish community while claiming that God has made us superior to everyone else. In light of the ongoing violence that occurs around the world everyday, I sort of wish that our lectionary – the 3 year cycle of readings we use on Sunday morning – had given us something a bit more peaceful. Yet when I read Jesus’ words in light of everything else that’s going on right now, I couldn’t help but notice the specific creative choices Jesus made in telling this story. Since he was the one telling the story, he controlled how certain bits of information would be revealed to everyone else. Jesus could heighten the tension by using specific words, different tones, and other storytelling techniques to invite us deeper into the story. He could have, for example, added a few value judgments to the different characters within his story by giving them specific adjectives like “good,” “faithful,” or “wicked.” Jesus, though, chose to do something else. He kept his words very plain, allowing our imaginations to paint a more vivid picture. All Jesus did was tell us what happened, allowing us to sketch a scene of what we assumed was going to happen once the page turned. Since violence and suffering is something we often focus our attention on, we couldn’t help but describe the violent outcome we’d expect to befall those wicked tenants who spilled so much blood within the story. Yet it’s interesting that Jesus, while not denying that part of the story, doesn’t actually turn to that page himself. All he did was ask a question – and we, in an almost unconscious way, revealed how focused we are noticing and using violence to get what we want in the world. We assume that the landowner is like us and so, like us, the violence within the story would grow. Yet I wonder what would happen if we didn’t turn the page so quickly. What if, instead of answering Jesus’ question, we let Jesus turn the page by himself? If we did, I imagine we might notice better how his words throughout the story were centered not on the tenants but on the one character who, over and over again, sent servants to those whose only response was violence. Rather than perpetuating the kind of violence he would soon experience himself, the part of the story Jesus focused on was all about the One who wants our lives to be as fruitful, and joyous, as a vineyard. That doesn’t necessarily mean that God expects our lives to be untroubled or that there will never be consequences for the ways we choose to hate and disregard our neighbors. But it does mean that when God chooses to act, the page God is turning to is focused primarily on mercy, forgiveness, justice, and joy. On one level, none of that feels too scary especially in light of an October full of spooks, ghosts, and ghouls. But if God’s love and God’s mercy ended up being the last thing we’d expect to see as we turned to the next page of our story, then that’s a pretty scary thought indeed. Yet I am grateful that we are not the ones who, no matter how hard we try, define what page God will turn to. Instead God will keep doing what God does – choosing to use words and people, prayers and songs, justice and wisdom, truth and hope, the Spirit and even Jesus himself to show how our focus on violence, pain, and hurt will be the page God turns us from so that our lives and our world will be filled with mercy, peace, and love. 


Sermon: Balance Differently

When [Jesus] entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

Matthew 21:23-32

My sermon from the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (October 1, 2023) on Matthew 21:23-32.

A few days ago, I stood on a skateboard and I’ll admit it was a little terrifying. In a past life, I regularly rode one around my college campus but I’ve since traded my Vans skate shoes for ones that primarily step on a gas pedal. Standing on a thin board a few inches off the ground shouldn’t be so difficult. But my balance isn’t what it used to be and I kept leaning forward and backward and side to side. Everytime I moved, my toes tried in vain to grip the side of the board while I made a million tiny bodily adjustments to keep it from sliding out from under me. I pretended as if I knew exactly what I was doing but the old skills I built up when I was younger no longer apply. Maintaining any kind of balance, whether physically, emotionally, financially, or spirituality is a rather difficult thing to do since it doesn’t take much for something to throw off our attempt at equilibrium. Tilting from one side to another is, on the surface, a type of balance that exists within a binary that knows we can never quite grab hold of that middle way that’s right in front of us. It would be awesome if we could step outside this way of being and find something a little more peaceful and holy. And I wonder if seeking, finding, and living with that type of balance is something Jesus hinted at in today’s reading from the gospel according to Matthew. 

Now Jesus spoke these words during a rather busy week in the city of Jerusalem as it prepared to celebrate the festival of Passover. He had, the day before, entered the city at the head of a small procession riding a donkey while others waved palm branches in the air. Some in the crowd recognized that Jesus was presenting himself as a kind of humble king. Yet others were a bit suspicious that this carpenter from Galilee seemed to be copying a different kind of procession that was occurring on the opposite side of the city. Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea appointed by the Roman Emperor himself, was, at nearly the same time, leading his own procession into Jerusalem surrounded by a legion of Roman soldiers. They were there to police the city  and intervene if anyone decided to use the Passover story as a pretext to upset the delicate political balance the Romans had worked hard to create. The soldiers were on high alert to respond if anyone, for example, entered the Holy Temple and disrupted the economic system allowing Jews from all over the empire to make specific kinds of offerings to God. Jesus, in Matthew’s version of His story, did exactly that after arriving on Palm Sunday. He flipped a few tables, drove out the moneychangers, and then took care of those within the Temple who needed help. The next day, Jesus returned to the Temple and the local leaders wanted some kind of explanation. They wanted to know why Jesus was trying to upset the balance that existed between the community and Roman solidres who had the capacity to burn the entire city to the ground. Jesus, in response, asked a question of his own and then followed up with a story involving a vineyard, a father, and a handful of kids. 

This story, compared to the other parables Jesus told, doesn’t appear to be too complicated. Within its structure, we find a kind of binary with a kid who refused to work but later changed his mind on one side and a kid who refused to fulfill the promise they made on the other. Both of the kids messed up and it’s pretty easy to place ourselves within the story. I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re thinking about one specific experience – even one from today – that shows how we are the one who said no and then yes or the one who said yes and did no. Oscillating between these two experiences is, in one sense, a kind of balance since, on most days, we’re often doing one – and then the other – in rather quick succession. This way of being in the world is very human but it’s also pretty exhausting. What would be better is if there was another character, maybe even another son connected to this story that would invite us to notice a different kind of balance we can live into in our world. 

Now seeing ourselves within Jesus’ stories is, I think, one of the reasons why Jesus told them. When we see ourselves within Jesus’ words, we discover how normal we are while, at the same time, witness the absurd generosity that makes up the kingdom of God. Every story, though, includes more than simply the characters within the words. There’s also those listening to it which includes those who saw Jesus face to face and us, gathered together, nearly 2,000 years later. But a story without a storyteller is one that cannot be told. And Jesus, I imagine, knew we didn’t have to settle into this kind of binary choice to find our balance with God. Rather than merely being the kid who says no and does it anyways or the kid who says yes and does nothing, there’s also a third way where our response matches the life God calls us to. To get to that point, we need to empty ourselves of the either/ors that define what we imagine balance might look like. We can, instead, look outside ourselves and towards the One who bore witness to what our humanity could be. Jesus, who was there when the universe was made, had the power to do anything and yet he chose to show how being human is always enough. Rather than tilting from one side to the other while seeking a balance that never quite gets there, we could focus on the third way Paul described in his letter to the Phillippians. Instead of acting as if we are the only ones who can bring balance into our own lives, we could look to Jesus who used His power to bring healing and hope to all. The balance Jesus modeled was less about trying to feel balanced since he, like all of us, wept, laughed, got angry, and rolled his eyes everytime his disciples failed to grasp what God was up to. Instead of being balanced, he lived out God’s holy balance by inviting those who were exploited, pushed aside, or up on their high horses, to discover the love God already had for them. This kind of balance admits the ways we are accountable to one another while, at the same time, have needs that are valid and real. It’s a balance we often won’t feel since an illness, an accident, a change in our employment or just life itself, can easily upend what we hoped this whole thing would be. The balance we need, then, can’t be created only by ourselves. What we need is a community – people around and outside of us – who can help us live balanced even when we’re feeling anything but. That’s why, when we were baptized, the promises uttered over us included more than a declaration of God’s love. We also heard how we were now part of something bigger than ourselves. We were brought into the body of Christ – a community bound to Jesus himself to make real God’s harmony of grace and peace. To do that well, we need to do more than simply tilt from one extreme to another. We have to choose to care. We do that kind of care by recognizing each other’s needs and our own. We practice care by noticing all the different gifts God has given us to share. We live this care out by not letting ourselves get in our own way while serving those God has united us to. We care by asking for help and doing our best at being a community that people trust will answer their call when help is needed. None of us can do that kind of care on our own since there are times when we need the care we’ve often given to others. Offering care or needing care is not a sign that our life has become, somehow, unbalanced, out of whack, or that life is about to zoom out from under us. It is, instead, a reminder that Jesus knows we need each other. We, together, are invited to care so that we can bring balance into the lives of those around us. And we do that not because we are perfect or awesome but rather because, through the Cross, Jesus has shown that God will always seek a new way where love and hope are found.