Sermon: The Work of Faith

While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence. Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.

Luke 24:36-48

My sermon from the 3rd Sunday of Easter (April 14, 2024) on Luke 24:36-48

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So one of the things I’ve been thinking about is how much work it takes to worship. I could, as a professional Christian, focus on what I, the musicians, the altar guild, and everyone else does to make this moment happen. But this week, I couldn’t help but wonder about the work it takes to sit in a pew, turn on a screen, or dial in via the phone. We don’t often call worship “work” since it feels a bit negative to frame our time with God in that way. However, when we’re here with a million things sitting on our never-ending to-do-list while sitting with someone who doesn’t really want to be here, we notice how much work worship is. It takes quite a bit of time, energy, and effort to wake up, get dressed, and make it here by the time the announcements end. And while it might seem easier to stay at home and turn on a screen, that’s actually pretty hard to do since, when we’re at home, we’re surrounded by all the other stuff life brings. Being in worship isn’t always easy and I’m grateful you have done the work to be with me now. But I also know being here and being present here isn’t always the same thing. It takes a lot to prepare ourselves for worship and once we’re here, the work of worship itself begins. There’s the constant standing up, sitting down, coming forward, and joining together in song. There’s also the need to follow along in the bulletin even if reading is something we can’t really do. And since we’re gathered together through the power of technology that can be a bit fickle, there’s also the need to give one another grace since worship doesn’t always go exactly to plan. We don’t describe worship as work since it’s supposed to be the opposite: an experience to help us do the work of living our lives. And while our faith truly is a gift from God that we can’t do anything to earn, living out our faith takes work; and it’s a work we don’t always have the energy or the patience for. 

Now today’s reading from the gospel according to Luke is, I think, an example of how much work Easter can be. We have, like last week, jumped out of the gospel according to Mark and into one with a story of the disciples meeting Jesus on the other side of the Cross. This story is a bit different from the one we heard last week from the gospel according to John even though both took place on the first Easter evening. Luke’s story started with the disciples talking about two things that had just happened. Two of the disciples had just returned to Jerusalem after having encountered a stranger on the road. After they heard from the women that the tomb was empty, they headed towards the village of Emmaus, trying to leave their worry, grief, and confusion behind. While they walked, they were soon joined by someone who seemed to appear out of nowhere. These two disciples told this stranger their story and the stranger responded by inviting them to ponder the entirety of God’s story. When it grew dark, they sat down by the roadside to share a meal. And when the bread was blessed and broken, the disciples suddenly realized who the stranger was. They immediately ran back to the city and found the other disciples discussing an unnarrated appearance Jesus made to Peter. We can almost imagine what that moment must have been like. Everyone was gathered in one space while Peter and the two disciples shared their story. Some of those around them responded with wonder, confusion, and awe; while others – especially those who consider themselves to be the expert in every situation – doubted how anyone could rise from the dead. Jesus had, according to Luke, spent time telling the disciples what would come next. But even after all the work Jesus did to prepare his disciples for the Cross and beyond, the experience of the resurrection wasn’t easily integrated into the disciples’ story. Hearing about that moment wasn’t enough; so Jesus, while the disciples wondered what these appearances might mean, took the time to show up. 

And one of the neat things about this story is how, in response, the disciples forgot what they had just been talking about. Instead of merging their current experience with the testimony they had just shared, even Peter and the two disciples who headed towards Emmaus thought Jesus was a ghost. Jesus’ hard work of calling each of the disciples by name and living with them through for over three years wasn’t enough to easily embrace him when he suddenly appeared. Now on one level, this shows how strange the resurrection is. And it serves as a reminder to never reduce Easter to something normal, expected, or mundane. Yet beyond the general weirdness of the resurrection, today’s story from Luke also shows us how much work faith is. If the disciples who saw Jesus face-to-face struggled to recognize him after the Cross, then it’s incredibly normal for the rest of us to struggle with that too. We don’t always get the opportunity to see Jesus eating broiled fish while we’re busy arguing with our friends. Instead, His presence is often felt in very subtle ways. We might, for example, notice Him in the kind word a stranger shared with us when we thought no one could actually see us. Or Jesus’ presence might become manifested through us when we find ourselves taking the time to listen and care for another person in need. We might experience Jesus in worship, prayer, or while taking a hike – noticing how a sense of peace surged through our body. And in those moments when life gets so hard we find ourselves hitting rock bottom, it’s then when we might notice Jesus is how Jesus is already there. These are just some of the ways Jesus shows up for us regardless of the work we do. Yet noticing him clearly and regularly in our lives is a work we get to do. It’s a work bringing us into worship, into prayer, and into our seat at the Lord’s table. It’s a work inviting us to really wonder and ponder and put into practice a love for God and our neighbor that shows up even when we don’t want to. This work requires us to actually talk to each other, celebrate each other, and to be with each other when there are no words to fix whatever we’re going through. And while this work doesn’t always come naturally to us or provide us the results we so desperately want, it is a work we can do because Jesus has already shown up for you. Doing the work of following Jesus isn’t always easy because being faithful and feeling faithful don’t always align. Yet if the disciples, 2000 years ago, had to do their own work to better witness to who Jesus is, we, in our own way, are invited to do the same. This kind of work will not get God to love us more nor will it provide answers to all the questions we might have. But it is a work that helps us get out of our own way so we can see how Jesus is leading us on The way. It takes work to not only worship but to be worshipful in all we say and do. And while we won’t always get that right, we can, together, do the work of faith because we get to lean into a holy love that, no matter what, never ends. 

Amen.

Sermon: Holding a Shaken Void

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

John 20:19-31

My sermon from the 2nd Sunday of Easter (April 7, 2024) on John 20:19-31.

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So on Friday morning, I lived my life by going to Costco. I pulled into the main lot, parked the car, grabbed a shopping cart, and headed towards the front door. Now, since I visit Costco every week, the staff don’t usually check my membership card at the door since they already know who I am. However, while I drew near, the greeter raised his hand – telling me to stop. For half a second, my hand reached for my wallet to show how I had permission to shop there. The greeter, though, didn’t want to see my card; he wanted to ask me a question. He looked me straight in the eyes and asked: “did you feel the earthquake?” I was, just a few minutes before, stuck on 17 around Garden State Plaza when the earth shook. At first, I assumed it was caused by a giant semi-truck getting a little too close to me. But Kate immediately called and wondered if I had heard the ground roar. For the rest of my drive, we talked about how different our shared experiences were. I, for example, noticed how no one on the roadway changed what they were doing while she saw all the posts online immediately wondering “what was that?” I assumed the greeter wanted to share his story of what it was like when the earth moved. But instead of telling me his story, he lamented that he had felt nothing. In fact, most of those inside the building didn’t know it even happened until family members and friends called to see if they were okay. And while it’s possible many of us had a similar conversation over the last few days, I heard in his voice something more than simply regretting missing out on some big event. There was, instead, a kind of sorrow since he was exactly where he was supposed to be when the earth shook in a very safe way but his day was completely unchanged. He – and those around him – longed for what everyone else had experienced but now carried a void within them they didn’t know how to fill. 

Today’s reading from the gospel according to John is, in its own way, a story about a similar kind of void that someone else carried within it. It began on the first night after Jesus’ friends heard his story continued. Mary Magdalene, after meeting the resurrected Jesus in a garden, returned to the city of Jerusalem to let the others know she had seen the Lord. Mary, along with all the other women who first came to the tomb, were the very first Christian preachers since they were the ones who announced Easter had come. Their testimony, while short and simple, was enough to challenge what everyone else thought and believed. And while we’d hoped that the word they shared would grant the disciples a kind of peace and joy transcending everything that had come before; it’s more likely it didn’t. They were still very much wrapped in the shock, doubt, disbelief, anger, frustration, grief, and guilt they carried within them. The disciples might have had an easier time listening to Mary’s message if she said Jesus didn’t really die or that he was merely wounded when he was placed in the tomb. But the word she shared was that everything that happened to Jesus really did happen – and even though he had been left alone, he returned so no one would ever have to live through their life on their own again. Her word is still a hard one to fully trust and believe which is why, on that first night, Jesus affirmed their message by visiting the disciples who locked themselves in a room. 

But what about those who weren’t there on that first Easter night or who didn’t have an experience like Mary did? Well, for the rest of us, there’s Thomas – the disciple who wasn’t there. Now we don’t know why Thomas wasn’t around on the first night but we do know, later on, he showed up for his friends. They, like Mary, told Thomas what had happened to them. And so Thomas, in response, put into words the void he suddenly felt inside. Thomas, most likely, assumed his experience of Jesus should match all the others since he had been with Jesus since nearly the beginning. But his friends now had an experience he didn’t have and we can hear that void form within him. His response to the other disciples wasn’t, I think, really him doubting what the others had seen. It was his way of proclaiming that he wanted his own experience that would allow him to join with the others to say “we have seen the Lord.” And while his willingness to be completely himself is something we should pay attention to; the part of the story I was drawn to this week was the fact how he, a week later, was back in the room where everything had happened. Thomas, during that week, could have gone somewhere else since Jesus hadn’t visited him. Or those in the Jesus community could have rejected him since he was unable, and unwilling, to proclaim what the rest of them did. But instead of doing what we, in our own way, have either experienced or done to others – Thomas was still there. The void he held inside wasn’t a sign he didn’t belong nor was their community defined by some kind of doctrinal position they all agreed on. Rather, this mixed community of people who had seen the resurrected Jesus and those who hadn’t; those who had experienced the divine and those who longed for it; a community filled with folks who were at peace and those who desperately needed it; they all belonged – together – with their God. We, as an Easter people, are not defined by our particular experiences of the divine – or the lack thereof. Rather, we are Jesus’ people because Jesus has called us while we were busy living the lives we actually live. This call was given to us in our baptism, when the union of water and word promised that because of Christ, our story – and the world’s story – will be so much more. This promise is often difficult to believe since we go through seasons of life when we might wonder if this faith thing truly matters. Yet the voids we hold within us doesn’t mean we don’t belong. We are made to be living in, with, and through a Savior who is manifested in a community big enough to hold all that makes us who we are. And while there are days when we will be like Thomas on the week after that first Easter evening, there are more times when we hold a void no earthquake can shake out of us. Yet during all those kinds of moments, you are still a beloved child of God. And the One who  chose to appear to those holding a void that needed to be filled – will, through His grace, His presence, the food at His table, and through the community we get to be everyday – Jesus will hold you through the voids inside of you and grant a peace that will carry you through. 

Amen.

Sermon: Easter is a Butterfly

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

Mark 16:1-8

My sermon from Easter Sunday (March 31, 2024) on Mark 16:1-8.

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So when those handful of days of warmer weather arrived a few weeks ago, I suddenly had the urge to throw away everything in my house. Everytime I walked through my garage, I couldn’t help but wonder if I really needed all those gardening tools and that mountain of throw pillows for chairs we no longer own. It wasn’t long before I interrupted my kids’ screen time to announce it was time to go through all the stuff they no longer play with. And after much weeping and gnashing of teeth, my family had a nice little pile of well-loved but still decent items to bring here in a few weeks for our church’s annual rummage sale. Yet when the clouds, rain, and wind returned – my zeal dissipated. I, instead, became a bit sentimental – remembering when these toys and books were played with and read for the very first time. One of the books I put back on the shelf is a classic story of a little creature who spent a week eating everything in sight before being transformed into something new. The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle was first published in 1969 and has sold more than 50 million copies. It tells the story of a caterpillar who hatched from a little egg while lying on a leaf and then ate through one apple, two pears, three plums, one piece of chocolate cake, one slice of salami, one piece of cherry pie, one cupcake, and much, much more. The little bug was, at that point, no longer a little caterpillar and so it built a small house for itself known as a cocoon. After moving inside, it stayed there for more than two weeks before emerging as a brightly colored butterfly. That transformation is a potent and powerful image which is why, for centuries, the butterfly has been used as an illustration for the entire Easter story. Jesus, after spending three years showing people what God’s love looks like, was killed on a Cross before being placed in a tomb. After spending three days in a cold and dark space, his followers came to visit him and discovered he was no longer there. The cocoon of the tomb gave way to his transformation into something new – and because of him, the entire world was transformed too. 

I wonder, though, if the image of the butterfly might reveal how the Easter story is bigger than taking something ugly and changing it into something beautiful. And to do that, we need to pay attention to what happens when a caterpillar enters a cocoon. Until recently, I assumed the whole process was similar to when a snake sheds its skin or a tadpole grows into a frog. The truth, though, is very different – and the whole thing is kind of gross. Once a caterpillar is safe in its cocoon, it then releases a bunch of enzymes to digest itself. The caterpillar begins to dissolve into something that has the consistency of soup. Its skin, eyes, organs, brain, nervous system – the stuff that made it who it was – becomes swirled together in a rather bizarre protein shake. Yet within that liquid mass are the blueprints for what comes next. The blueprints for its legs, eyes, wings, and more were held together in these tiny clusters of cells that were present within the caterpillar before it was even born. Once its old self finally breaks down, those blueprints use the protein-rich soup to become something new. In one sense, the creature that comes out on the other side is completely different from what came before. Yet some studies have shown how a butterfly somehow remembers what they learned and experienced as a caterpillar. We would assume that whatever could hold those memories would have dissolved completely into goo. And yet, even when it’s been completely transformed, the entirety of the butterfly’s story is brought into a new future that doesn’t forget who it’s always been. 

And that, I think, is what makes Mark’s version of the Easter story stand out – because this is the only version that doesn’t include an image of Jesus on the other side of the resurrection. Rather, what we get to do is journey with the women who, even in their grief, refused to let Jesus’ story end. When the sabbath was over, they left the city of Jerusalem, carrying spices and all the other things they needed to complete the burial rituals that were left half finished when Jesus was placed in the tomb. We can imagine their conversation as they weaved through the city streets and out into the countryside. We can almost hear them recall all that had recently happened and how they felt so completely alone. The women, along with all the other disciples, had an image in their head of the new future Jesus was about to make real in their world. But when the Roman Governor and other political and religious leaders decided to end this rabble rouser from Galilee, it seemed like Jesus’ story was now over. All that power, and violence, and hate had destroyed the One who refused to hold that kind of power over anyone. These women came to the tomb carrying their grief, shock, and sorrow while trying to do something that would help them make sense out of what felt like nonsense. What they knew, expected, and assumed had dissolved the moment Jesus was sealed in the tomb. And yet when they arrived, their transformed future had already begun. 

We can, in the midst of Easter joy, focus all our attention on the transformation – leaning into the vivid colors of a brand new thing shimmering like a butterfly. Yet what made Jesus’ story – Jesus’ story  – was how his future held together every moment from his past. And when he was given the chance to dissolve everything that came before – Jesus chose, instead, to bring his story through. When we finally hear, in the other gospels, of what it was like to see the resurrected Jesus, we notice how the holes in his hands and the hole in his side were still there. He stayed wounded – carrying with him everything that came before. The sorrow, the joys, the love, the things he had done and the things that were done to him – all of that remained because a resurrection can’t happen without there first being a life that was actually lived. Your story – exactly as it is – with all the stuff you’ve done and all the stuff that has been done to you – is worth a God who chooses to not let that be the limit of who you get to be. It is not your goodness, your happiness, your faithfulness, your comfort, or even your successes that brings you into the vivid beauty of God’s resurrected future. Instead, it’s because of Christ that we get to finally bear witness to the blueprint that has already been placed inside of us. You, as well as your friends, your family, your neighbors, and even those strangers you never meet – carry within you the blueprint of the very image of God. And it’s through the witness, faith, and grace contained in every part of Jesus’ story that transforms all our story into a hope that makes us, and our world, into something new. 

Amen.

Sermon: Starting Hospitality

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.” After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

My sermon from Maundy Thursday (March 28, 2024) on John 13:1-17, 31b-35.

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A few days ago, while working on this sermon, I looked out my front window and saw my neighbor walking across the lawn. She was bringing over her oldest child who happens to be the same age as my youngest. He opened the front door, walked in, and took off his shoes. Then, after placing them neatly next to our closet in the foyer, he draped his jacket on a chair in our dining room. When he first started coming over years ago, it was our tradition to take his shoes and jacket and put them in those places so he and his mom would know exactly where they were. Putting his shoes and jacket in a specific place was among the very first things we’d do as we worked through our short list of what hospitality in our home looks like. Before the fun; before we would give permission for them to generate the kind of chaos only five year olds can bring; and before the snacks would flow freely from the pantry straight into their hands – we would first make sure what was his would remain safe and whole. After a while, this pattern for hospitality became so routine, he does it the moment he comes through the door. It’s a routine that has, over time, become one of the ways he knows that – in this place – he belongs. And I suspect that if this routine was abruptly changed, he’d wonder where that welcome had gone. The routines we follow that show hospitality to those we welcome into our homes often set the stage for whatever comes next. And when that routine ends up out of order, we’re left wondering what’s actually going on. 

That sensation, wonder, and concern underpins, I think, a lot of what’s happening in tonight’s reading from the gospel according to John. Jesus, while at a dinner party with all his friends, interrupted everything by doing something that had already happened. It wasn’t only Jesus’ actions that struck everyone as strange – it was also when he chose to do it. We get a sense from John’s description of the meal that it followed the pattern of most Greco-Roman dinner parties. During the first part, people would lean on chaise lounges while munching on whatever items were brought to them. Once the eating was done, the second part of the meal would kick off with an opportunity to talk, teach, and learn from each other. These kinds of dinner parties were expected to last for hours which required a lot of planning, resources, and people to pull off. Yet before the first dish was served, there was a need to show hospitality to everyone who entered through the front doors. In Jesus’ day, that first act of hospitality was often a welcome trying to make all the dirt, grime, and dust from outside stay outdoors. The disciples, like most people in the ancient world, spent most of their lives outside. Their homes and apartments were, unless they were super rich, small, with each room serving many purposes. Much of the shopping was done in open air marketplaces and many of the available jobs involved working in fields, vineyards, or fishing on the sea. And since hygienic indoor plumbing, regular garbage collection, and closed toe shoes weren’t really a thing, anything outside often ended up on a person’s feet. When someone showed up at the home of a friend, neighbor, or to attend a dinner party, it was expected they would leave outside – outside. To do that effectively, the guest needed their feet washed which became the task given to the person with the lowest social status in the home. It was their responsibility to pour water over a stranger’s toes in an act that was both very intimate and dirty at the same time. And while the act itself wasn’t complicated, what it signified – that they had been brought into a different kind of space where they would be supported and cared for – set the stage for whatever came next. 

Now by the time the food had been mostly consumed, Jesus and his friends had experienced a lot of hospitality. When they arrived, their feet were – most likely – washed and they had been served by servants, chefs, and the enslaved people who worked in that space. They, for the moment, felt safe and secure as they talked freely about their journey to this point and what they expected would come next. Everyone around that table was, for better or worse, able to be themselves and couldn’t wait to see what Jesus would say when the second part of the meal began. Yet it was at that moment when Jesus looked at all of them – those who would stand at the foot of the Cross; those who would flee when the Roman soldiers came; and even the one who would betray him – Jesus looked at all of them and then got up, wrapped a towel around his waist, and washed their feet. It was not only a dirty, intimate, and unexpected thing for a religious leader to do for those who followed him; it also took place hours after the meal had already started. Jesus took what they had already experienced – the initial sign of hospitality – and inserted it at a very random time. Yet it was, I think, Jesus’ way of putting into action the words he was about to share. He, according to John, knew the Cross was almost here and how confused, alienated, and alone his friends would soon feel. They would have their world and their expectations torn down on a Friday that would feel anything but good. Jesus knew they would feel lost and so he wanted them to realize how, no matter what, they already had a home in him. Their failures, worries, and tears wouldn’t stop God from bringing them into a hope that would not end. The hospitality Jesus extended to them wasn’t only about being welcomed into that physical space; it was also Jesus’ way of letting them know how they were already part of the grace and love that would bring them through whatever came next. 

Now, if we’re honest, it is a little strange to imagine how water poured over our feet could express the hospitality God offers to each of us. Yet I’ve often found that it’s in the smallest of acts when we discover how much we belong. Jesus, knowing what was around the bend, interrupted everything to show just how much everyone matters to him. And so tonight, we will do the same. We will, after we sing, pray, and feast at the Lord’s table – interrupt everything to remind one another that in spite of what the world says about you – or you say about yourself – that you are a beloved of God. And while that declaration, first made in your baptism, will not eliminate the pain, sorry, and worry that comes around the bend – it will set the stage for the mercy, forgiveness, and hope that will bring you through. 

Amen.

Sermon: Strange

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

“Hosanna!Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

Mark 11:1-11

My sermon from Palm/Passion Sunday (March 24, 2024) on Mark 11:1-11.

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So last Tuesday, my family and I visited Congregation B’nai Israel to help our Muslim friends from the Peace Islands Institute break their daily fast during the season of Ramadan. It was, for me, a change in my usual routine since I’ve never been to an iftar dinner before. We gathered in the synagogues’ main fellowship space which had a dozen large round tables set in the middle. Over in one corner was a space filled with books, crafts, toys, and a mini-foosball table my kids couldn’t wait to play with while, near the kitchen, was a long row of buffet tables waiting to be filled. The air was filled with the sweet, savory, and spicy smells from all the rice, bread, soup, and cooked veggies we were about to eat. But before all that deliciousness could be consumed, we needed to wait since there was still one hour until sunset. Our program for the evening was to do more than just eat; we’d also explore how fasting appears in each of our Abrahamic traditions. It was going to be an opportunity to not only learn from each other but, in light of the events of October 7th and its aftermath in Israel, Gaza, Palestine, and the West Bank, we would choose to be the neighbors our communities needed. We weren’t there to ignore what had happened but would choose to be for each other during some of the holiest times of the year. 

Now since the room was filled with several religious leaders, we could have spent the hour in a very theological conversation explaining the role fasting plays within our traditions. Yet we chose, instead, to ponder, wonder, and notice how strange, odd, and different the experience of fasting can actually be. Unlike the fasts promoted as a kind of weight-loss gimmick to reinforce some culturally defined benchmark of who is worthy of love and who isn’t; or the involuntary fasts we experience when going through a crisis – the overall experience of religious fasting is rather disruptive. When we voluntarily give up food, drink, or something that doesn’t endanger our health or well-being – the first day or two are usually just fine. But there usually comes a point when we suddenly realize how the fast has disrupted something we’ve grown extremely used to. We notice, for example, how hitting the snooze button way too many times is actually central to our morning routine. We discover how dependent we are to having coffee and diet coke at a specific time during the day to simply make it through. We see how comical we are when we count the number of times we stand in front of a pantry full of candy and snacks while loudly proclaiming we have nothing to eat. The act of fasting shows how quickly we turn “having enough” into something that will never actually be enough to satisfy our worries, anxieties, and fears. 

I know our Christian tradition, especially during the season of Lent, points out how fasting can deepen our connection to God. It’s an opportunity to identify how, whether intentionally or not, we’ve integrated something too deeply into our way of life. Fasting from a food, activity, or experience might reveal how something other than Jesus has gained too big of an influence over our soul. Yet I wonder if instead of focusing on the good fasting can do, we should first pay attention to how odd it actually is. It is strange and different to take something we have worked hard to have in abundance and decided that today will be different. It is, in an almost counter cultural kind of way, to not assume who we are is all we get to be. Fasting – like all our faith practices – is, when you get down to it, a bit strange. We disrupt the routines we have developed for years to worship, pray, fast, confess, imagine, and trust we are strangely part of something more. And while our life of faith might be filled with routines we assume are typical, normal, and how things should be – it’s often on a familiar Sunday like today when we see how strange life with God actually might be. We choose, together, to start our Holy Week waving branches in the air from a tree not native to our area while remembering Jesus’ own disruptive and strange act of mimicking the parade the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, did at the same time. It’s a day when we end our worship reading a condensed version of Jesus’ death before letting the sound of nails hammering into wood fill this sanctuary with sound. It’s strange to take time out of our daily routine surrounded by expectations of power, strength, and might – and claim that won’t be the limit of who God is. The practice of faith is an opportunity for us to disrupt our habits and routines by reminding ourselves that there is a God and we are not it. We do this not because we are perfect or whole or always get things right. We do this because we know, experience, and trust that we have a God who will always choose to do the very strange thing of not letting us end God’s story. Today begins a celebration in our community that happens every year but reminds us how God’s love will never be routine because God has decided that there will be so much more in store for you and the world. 

Amen.

Sermon: Certain Uncertainity

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

John 12:20-33

My sermon from the Fifth Sunday in Lent (March 17, 2024) on John 12:20-33.

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During the season of Lent, our texts in worship invite us to focus on specific themes or ideas to provide a bit of insight into our life with God. But there are times when the narrative surrounding these stories help explain why they might matter in the first place. Today’s reading from the gospel according to John is, I think, one of those kinds of stories. It took place at the start of Jesus’ last visit to the city of Jerusalem. He had, by this point, done many Jesus-like things such as feeding thousands of people with a few loaves of bread as well as raising Lazarus from the dead. We get a sense Jesus’ reputation had grown to the point where people wondered if he was a prophet, a miracle worker, or mostly just a troublemaker. Since the city was gearing up for the celebration of Passover, there was a bit of uncertainty about what Jesus might do since he already had a history of flipping over tables and driving cattle, sheep, and birds out of the Temple. Jesus was no longer a person who could be pushed aside or ignored. And those in power wondered what to do with him. The situation felt very unsettled and that’s when some Greeks came to one of his disciples and asked if they could see him. 

Now who those Greeks were is a bit complicated since, in Jesus’ day, being Greek didn’t mean that your family originated from the small nation located at the bottom of the Aegean peninsula. Centuries of colonization, trade, war, and the power of pop culture, led some people living in modern day Egypt, Turkey, Morocco, Sicily, Iran, Armenia, Syria, Israel, and even Spain considered themselves to be Greek. Being Greek was a kind of cultural identifier signifying the language, values, beliefs, history, and point of view the Greek culture cultivated and shared. For many people in the Ancient Near East, being Greek was seen as a common denominator holding all different kinds of people together. Yet this was also a problem since some wondered if you could be both Greek and Jewish at the same time. For a long, long time, the people of God have wondered who is, and who isn’t, allowed to be part of God’s family, especially if those folks hold any kind of hyphenated identity. The Greeks who came to Jesus knew exactly what it was like to be at the center of that kind of conversation. And yet they also noticed that one of Jesus’ disciples had a name that showed he was Greek. 

Now, at this point, we could use the fullness of Jesus’ story to help us reflect on what this might mean. But I also wonder if there might be something to gain by staying in this moment and imagining being the outsider who felt the need to see someone who could reject them. I wonder, in the days and hours before they saw Philip, if their stomachs were knotted up with feelings of anxiety, worry, and fear. I wonder if their palms were suddenly super sweaty and if they tried to talk themselves out of even trying to see Jesus since they didn’t expect a rabbi like Jesus from ever really wanting to speak to them. These Greeks were, in other words, living through a feeling of uncertainty that left them feeling uncomfortable and extremely vulnerable. It was probably the kind of feeling we do all we can to avoid. And yet I wonder if their uncertainty helped open them up to what Jesus might be about. In her new book Uncertain: The Wisdom and Wonder of Being Unsure, Maggie Jackson wrote about how scientists have started to explore uncertainty in a new light. Uncertainty isn’t only about the unknown; uncertainty is also a very human thing that we experience deep in our bones. We love answers and so when uncertainty comes into view, we often have a physical sensation that leaves us feeling uncomfortable, mixed up, vulnerable, and completely stressed out. Yet it’s possible that what we’re feeling in that moment might actually be good. When our body reacts to uncertainty by increasing our heart rate and wetting our palms, it also releases all kinds of chemicals and hormones to help us keep our focus, bolster our working memory, increase our mental acuity, and help our brain be ready to process any new information. Being uncertain is a feeling we’ve been culturally accustomed to dislike but it also leads to a physical state of wakefulness that shows us the status quo is no longer enough. Uncertainty is often very annoying but it also keeps us physically open to the possibility that there might be something more. 

Now the reason why I think the Greeks were flustered with uncertainty is because they first came to the person who they related before going to Jesus. They saw in Philip something they could grab onto and yet even he was a bit uncertain of what might come next. Rather than heading to Jesus, he first headed to Andrew and asked what they should do. At every point in this series of interactions, the Greeks and the Disciples could have both walked away from the whole thing. The Greeks could have stayed on the sideline, avoiding any of the conflict their presence might have caused while Philip and Andrew could have assumed it was their responsibility to keep outsiders away from Jesus at all times. They could have let the prickly, cold, hot, and anxious feeling in the pit of their stomach keep them apart. Yet what they chose to do instead was to live through it – by paying attention, asking questions, staying curious, and realizing that Jesus wasn’t only for them. The uncertainty they felt wasn’t only a negative thing to avoid; it could also be a generative experience reminding them of what could be. It was this uncertainty mixed with the invitation of the Spirit that invited the Greeks to do the difficult thing of wondering if they were part of what God was up to. And this uncertainty was also what helped Philip and Andrew realize it wasn’t their responsibility to keep Jesus under lock-and-key. It was either of their responsibility, through their actions or inactions, to decide who was in and who was out. That responsibility would, instead, be fulfilled by Jesus who – in a few days after this reading – showed what that looked like by keeping his arms open to everyone while hanging on the Cross. Living with uncertainty is never an easy thing and there are types of uncertainties – pertaining to our health, employment, our relationships, and countless other stuff that weighs down our souls – that can’t be brushed away as simply as a knot of nerves setting our stomach. Yet it’s for those moments when everything feels uncertain that Jesus gave you the one thing you can always count on. In your baptism and through the gift of faith, God has already declared that you are meant to be part of what God is doing in the world. You aren’t just loved; you also belong. And it’s through this amazing covenant of what will be that enables us to lean into the uncertainty, not because we like it, but because we know it can never wipe away the certainty of God’s love for you. In the week ahead, we might find ourselves living through the kinds of uncertainty that leave us feeling conflicted, confused, and a tad more anxious that we’d like to be. But rather than running away from that uncertainty, I wonder if we might choose to embrace it – noticing the ways we are the outsider who is invited to see more while also the insider who has the opportunity to show others what it means to be wrapped up in the certainty of God’s mercy, hope, and joy. 

Amen.

Sermon: Remembering is a Practice of Faith

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

John 2:13-22

My sermon from the Third Sunday in Lent (March 3, 2024) on John 2:13-22.

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When we read the Bible, one thing we might try to do is put Jesus’ story in chronological order. We attempt to take all the things he said, did, and lived through and place them on a mental timeline we can follow along. This kind of work feels pretty relevant to us since we have four versions of his life in our sacred scriptures as well as a bunch of letters and sermons that flesh out a bit of what his life was like. It’s reasonable to want to hold onto all of Jesus’ story while spending each week in worship only dealing with a sliver of who Jesus is. And this is something we’re especially mindful of during the two big religious festivals that anchor our church year. We do all we can to make sure the shepherds, magi, and angels are visible on Christmas morning while making sure to include the last supper, Jesus’ arrest, and his cooking breakfast on the beach when Holy Week comes. Keeping tabs on Jesus’ timeline is one of the ways we discover what it means to follow Jesus in the here and now. But our very human desire to harmonize Jesus’ story can be rather complicated when we discover an experience that appears in two different moments in Jesus’ life. And today’s reading from the gospel according to John is one of those stories. All four gospels include a version of Jesus driving people out of the Temple with each one providing details that the others don’t. This diversity in reporting allows us to paint a fuller picture of what this event must have been like. However there is one major detail in this story that we can’t easily reconcile together. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, this incident at the Temple came near the end of Jesus’ story, serving as the final act that forces the religious authorities to finally do something about Jesus. John, though, took the incident of Jesus flipping over a few tables and driving out a bunch of animals from the Temple in Jerusalem – and placed it at the very beginning of his public ministry. All attempts at trying to make our mental timeline match all four gospels would leave us twisted in knots. But instead of trying to fix this problem, I wonder if it would be more fruitful to notice how John and his community used this story to explore a practice of faith we can’t always see. 

Now when we talk about practicing our faith, we usually lean to things we can do that others, if asked, could watch and witness. We might, for example, read our Bible, spend time in prayer, or volunteer at a local food pantry. These actions are not only visible, if we want them to be, to those around us – they’re also actions that show up in our Bible all the time. Our sacred scripture is full of people worshiping, praying, feeding the hungry, and making sure everyone, including strangers, are welcomed and loved. Faith isn’t always locked in our heads and our hearts  since what we do often reveals what we truly believe. Yet there’s one practice of faith that isn’t as easy to point to because it requires us to do the difficult thing of being honest about ourselves, our past, where we were, and what we were doing. It’s a kind of journey that acknowledges we are rarely the most trustworthy narrator to our own story. We’re invited to ponder all that went into who we are while acknowledging just how vulnerable that kind of work can make us feel. It’s the difficult yet incredibly faithful practice of remembering: of taking not only an authentic look at the role we played in our own story but all the events and experiences that shape what our remembering might mean. Our Bible regularly tells us to remember but we don’t always get an example of what that kind of remembering might look like. That, I think, is why today’s reading from John is so interesting. This passage wasn’t only written as a recollection of what Jesus was doing during a passover celebration in the place God promised to be. It also showed how his disciples in the years and decades after Jesus died and rose from the dead, used these same stories to interpret whatever they were living through. They did not act as if these words were primarily a news report about the past but recognized how it served as an illustration of what continues to happen when God’s love moves in the world. They remembered not only Jesus’ story but let that story become a lens that interpreted their own stories too. Their joys, their losses, and their sorrow all became an opportunity to ponder, wonder, reflect, and notice the God who was already in the midst of it all. They practiced a kind of remembering that drew out, noticed, and uncovered certain themes, words, and experiences that seemed to speak into what they were going through. And when the community around John lived through their own actions, inactions, or those things that happened to them that caused their world to come tumbling down, they remembered the promise Jesus uttered in a place that would eventually come tumbling down too. The community remembered the trauma, the worry, the anxiety, and the fear could only be lived through by clinging to the promise that another chapter in their story was already being written. Jesus’ incident in the Temple became, for them, not some event that started his journey to the Cross but a manifestation of the hope and love that was always at the center of Jesus’ story. 

When John wrote his version of Jesus’ life, sixty-five or so years after the Resurrection, his community had been remembering for decades. They looked back at everything that made up their personal and communal story and saw how Jesus’ story always intersected their own. They saw Jesus not only in the lives of the stories they shared but also saw him in the lives around them. And when it became too difficult to remember either because the experiences were too much or their ability to remember had started to fade, they had a community reminding them that, in God, they were always home. Taking an authentic look at where we’ve been, what we’ve done, or what’s been done to us is never easy. It’s a struggle being honest about our own story since we never are the objective observer we pretend to be. We also, as we live our lives and live through different experiences, we then gain new insights or thoughts that then inform those memories we thought we already fully understood. Our attempts at harmonizing our own story let alone the story of God is an ongoing challenge that we can never quite finish. Yet when we remember in the way the Bible wants us to, we discover how Jesus has, all along, been harmonizing us with the kingdom of God. Sometimes the most faithful thing we can do is to simply remember; we remember we are a beloved child of God; we remember we are, in faith and baptism, united with the One who claims us as His own; we remember that the Cross isn’t the end of the story and that we won’t be defined by the worst part of our story. Instead, when we remember, we do more than take a nostalgic trip down memory lane: we begin to grow into the new future God is already bringing about. 

Amen.

Sermon: Your Name Change

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him,
“As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.
I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.
God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-17

My sermon from the Second Sunday in Lent (February 25, 2024) on Genesis 17:1-7, 15-17.

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So in May 2010, I took a little trip to an office of the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles which was located in Jamaica, Queens. Since I lived in NYC at the time, I hadn’t owned a car in years but still needed to update my license. I stuffed my bright orange messenger bag with all the documents I needed but also quite a few snacks, my Ipod, and a book since I didn’t know how long I would have to wait. I eventually got to the front of the line and mentally prepared myself for the two part conversation I knew was about to come. The first part happened exactly as I expected since when I handed the person at the window my old license, she immediately asked if I could sing. My parents had, when I was born, chosen the name of my mom’s uncle – Anthony – to be my middle name. For as long as I could remember, I kept being associated with the singer who, at last count, has won eight Latin Grammys and sold over 12 million albums worldwide. The person at the window, after playfully letting everyone around her know she was helping “Marc Anthony” then asked what was wrong since the license I handed to her wasn’t expired. That’s when I started the second part of the conversation I was still getting used to. When Kate and I married, I changed my last name to match hers so we would have one shared family name. And, in New York State, the process for me to do that was incredibly easy. For years, folks getting married could change their name, within certain parameters, on the marriage license itself. It took very little work to legally change my full name but it was a lot harder to change my name everywhere else since not many folks knew what to do with a husband who had a maiden name. It wasn’t too difficult to update all my financial records but I remember a lot of other stuff, including all the forms I had submitted to start the process of becoming a pastor, were impossible to change. I had to restart a bunch of the documents that described my life because too many databases were shaped by designers who didn’t realize how limited their imaginations truly were.

Now the name changes in our Bible aren’t centered around the act of marriage. Instead, we’re often introduced to a character who has an experience that changes who they get to be. For example, Jacob spent a night at the edge of the Jabbok river wrestling with his fear, anxiety, and despair only to meet God and enter the dawn of a new day with the name of Israel. Other name changes, though, are a bit more human such as when the Pharaoh of Egypt changed Joseph’s name to Zaphenath-Paneah after elevating him to a position of authority and power. Today’s name change story from the book of Genesis is, in terms of narrative intensity, somewhere in-between those two examples I just described. Abram’s name change isn’t really all that dramatic since Abraham is actually a slight variant of Abram and both those names mean something like “exalted father.” Sarai to Sarah is even more mild since all it did was take an archaic feminine suffix and make it a bit more contemporary for the world they both lived in. Many of the other names in our Bible were bigger and bolder like when Jesus changed Simon’s name to Peter way back in Mark, chapter 3. Yet today’s name change feels so small that it makes us wonder why God changed their names at all. I think, to see that a bit more clearly, we have to remember this wasn’t the first time God let Abram know what God was up to. Just two chapters before, God gave Abram a similar vision of what his future was going to be like. Abram and Sarai, though, were not quite sure how God was going to make that happen so they took it upon themselves to make those promises come true. Their actions, though, were rooted in the choices rooted in violence and harm. We could, I think, attempt to excuse their behavior by saying they were simply people of their world. But God’s actions in response to Abram and Sarai’s imperfect actions show how love, mercy, and hope are the Godly values we should always use to interpret our own. Abram and Sarai, using their own limited imagination, tried to create the future they thought they were meant to have. And so that’s when God intervened, reiterating the covenant while dragging them into the future they couldn’t see. Their new name wasn’t that new but it was an invitation for them to live into a new future that wasn’t limited by their past, their history, their assumptions, their expectations, or their imagination. Instead, they would be the ones through whom the entire world would be blessed because being a blessing is what being human is all about.

The people at the DMV desk listened to my name change story and then took a bit of time figuring out how to get their database to accept who I was now going to be. I did, eventually, walk out of that place with a new license but even with that piece of plastic, my new name didn’t feel very real. What I needed was an opportunity to live into my new future to see what it might mean. And that actually happened since, in just a few months, I started living a life my younger self never imagined was possible. I went off to seminary and found myself in a new community of students, professors, and churchy folk who only knew my new name. That didn’t mean that I forgot where I came from or ignored everything that made me who I was. But there was something about living out my future in that specific faith community that let me grow into who I could authentically be. I know that my experience isn’t your experience and that name changes occur for all kinds of reasons. But I also believe that all of us, whether we realize it or not, have at least had our names added to when we were brought into Jesus’ holy family. When the gift of faith and the waters of baptism were poured over us and three of the names of God were used to claim you as one of the bright lights God had brought into the world, we were all invited into the future God was already bringing about. We were, in that moment, given new names that not only described who we are but also who we get to be. We, like Jesus at his baptism, were named Beloved and had the name Christian etched on our forehead in the shape of the Cross. These names do not mean that our future will be easy nor do they pretend we won’t face trials, struggles, or pain. God knows the Crosses we bear and also the crosses we give to those around us. Yet these new names do change who we get to be since the limit of our imagination will no longer push us away from a future where love doesn’t end.

Now I’ve had my new name for roughly 14 years and I still pause whenever someone says “Mr. Stutzel” since I think they’re talking about my father-in-law rather than talking to me. But I wonder if we all might make a similar kind of pause whenever someone says our name to remember all the names we actually have. Our name and names are big enough to hold our entire story while inviting us into a future where we can become more authentically and faithfully who we’re supposed to be. And while that future will not be easy, it will be one where our crosses and the crosses we make for others will no longer be what defines us. Instead, the love of God that added to and changed our names will also change us into the bearers of mercy, grace, and hope that everyone needs.

Amen.

Sermon: What Happened when Jesus Stopped

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Mark 1:9-15

My sermon from First Sunday in Lent (February 18, 2024) on Mark 1:9-15.

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Sarah Polley is a Canadian filmmaker, former child actor, activist, and writer who won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2022 for her film Women Talking. She’s a person who has been through a lot and has thought long and hard about what happens we need to just stop. As a person who works in films and movies, Sarah knows how much of a machine film-making can be. She’s often wrapped up in all the pressure to get everything done within a specific timeframe and under budget. Long days and even longer nights are not only considered the norm, it’s expected that the entire crew is supposed to be physically, mentally, and spiritually exhausted through the whole thing. And while some people can thrive in that kind of environment, most quickly learn how harrowing, traumatizing, and harmful these places can be. Sarah, while creating the film Women’s Talking – decided to implement something most directors, producers, and film creators don’t usually do. She gave everyone working on a film telling a story of women talking about their future after experiencing sexual violence – to simply stop. If the work became too much, the film would shut down while people took care of themselves. And Sarah shared why she did that while being interviewed on the podcast Everything Happens. Sarah said: “I was inspired by my sister, who’s a [doctor], and … she gives all of her patients her cell phone and says, you can use this any time at night or on the weekends. And we’re like, Susie, that is crazy. And she said, here’s the thing: it’s almost never [used]…[But] my Mondays are so much calmer, because what I don’t have is a waiting room full of people who were panicking all weekend, who didn’t think there was anyone they could call. Usually those same people won’t actually call my number. The fact that they know they can makes a huge difference in their well-being.” Sarah, while creating a film about a really difficult story, gave people permission to stop so they could do the mental, emotional, and spiritual work they needed to do when things became too much. And by doing that, she also gave her film crew what they needed to see – and build – their own kind of resilience that might help bring them through. These kinds of stops are something we’re not very good at offering ourselves or to others. But in our reading today from the gospel according to Mark, we get to witness one of the times when Jesus stops. 

Now we spend the first Sunday in Lent every year watching what happened immediately after Jesus was baptized. Even before the water dried from his forehead, Jesus was immediately sent into the wilderness. The wilderness, as imagined in our Bible, isn’t some kind of spot in nature untouched by human habitation. It is, primarily, the place where our control breaks down. We know we’re living in the wilderness when we are feeling utterly unsafe and alone. And yet that’s usually when God shows up to say that we are seen and known. In Matthew and Luke’s version of this story, we’re given a few additional details like an actual conversation between Jesus and one of God’s adversaries. But in the version we just heard today, we don’t get very much. Jesus, after hearing a voice from the heavens declare him to be God’s beloved son, was then sent on a one verse sojourn into a place where people have no control. Now when we take a step back and notice the wider story, this push by the Holy Spirit feels like an odd interruption. Jesus was, at the time, already in the wilderness since that’s where John the Baptist was practicing his ministry. Jesus, along with many others, had put a kind of stop on their lives to see what John was up to. Some journey into the wilderness because they were curious while others hoped their sojourn with John would help them become who they were supposed to be. Their time John and God was the stop, the sabbath, and the break they needed for their faith to grow. And while no one knew exactly what they would experience out there, I imagine that many expected they would somehow be changed. They would return to their lives refreshed, renewed, and ready to do what they were supposed to do. Their stop with God by the Jordan would change who they were but Jesus’ stop in the wilderness had only just begun. 

Now it’s reasonable to assume that the Son of God was always ready to be who he was supposed to be since he was there when the universe was made. But I wonder if the Holy Spirit, and Jesus himself, recognized that being human means being human. His forty days in the wilderness was not merely an extreme vacation meant to prove how awesome he was. It was an opportunity for him to stop, process, and integrate his story mentally, physically, and emotionally just like we do. The Holy Spirit gave him permission to not immediately go out and change people’s lives but to live into the kind of healing we need as we discover what the promise of God is all about. Jesus, at the start of his public ministry, didn’t need to just be God; he also needed to see how being human often needs permission to make it through. 

And that, according to Sarah, is what the “stop” on her film set actually did. It let people be people and admit when their experience became too much. Rather than pushing people beyond their humanity, the stop gave them permission to be who they were supposed to be. Sarah, while describing the impact of the stop on her film, said “… if you just give people the option of [stopping], it’s very rare that you’re going to be overburdened with it. But it does create a sense of care and support that I think just leads to better outcomes all around, like psychologically, artistically, in every way. If there’s some sense that you’re the priority, I just think you’re going to do better…[and I think during] the whole production, we stopped for like ten minutes out of eight weeks. But the knowledge that we could, I think, got people through a lot of days.” When Jesus’ ministry began, he hadn’t lived through what was about to come. He hadn’t fully faced what we do when God’s love comes near. Jesus’ stop in the wilderness wasn’t only a struggle with temptation or against sin. It was also an opportunity for him to grow into his humanity by paying attention to the resilience that comes when we have permission to stop. This stop doesn’t mean we’re taking a vacation nor should it be confused with the essential practice of the Sabbath that God wants to see in all our lives. Rather, it’s about being human and purposefully tending to the mental, emotional, and spiritual needs that make us who we are. God the Creator, after naming Jesus as a beloved son, stopped the ministry we’d expect Jesus to immediately do so that he could be the kind of human his ministry needed. And we, like him, should embrace our own permission to stop as we grow into who God knows we can be. Much of our culture and our lives are centered on how far, and fast, we go. We think we have to keep pushing even though stopping might be the far more healthier thing to do. Creating the space where we – and others – can stop isn’t always easy because we’ve been culturally conditioned to only accept the exact opposite. But when we stop and let ourselves be truly human, that’s when we grow into who God has already declared us to be. You, like Jesus, have already been named beloved. You, in your baptism, have already been named as essential to what God is doing in the world. There is nothing you can do to earn the love God has given you nor do you need permission to be as loved as you already are. But we can, instead, give ourselves – and others – permission to be human; a permission to pause; a permission to do the work that it takes to process what we are going through. And when we do that together, we do more than participate in our own sense of healing and wholeness; we also become the kind of human Jesus showed us how to be. 

Amen.