Sermon: Living Out the Spirit of Pentecost

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

Acts 2:1-21

My sermon from Pentecost Sunday (May 19, 2024) on Acts 2:1-21.

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What was your first summer blockbuster movie? 

I don’t mean a movie your parents brought you to because they were embarrassed to be seen watching The Avengers all by themselves. I’m talking about the first summer movie that, for a few months, became your entire personality. For me, my first summer blockbuster movie was Jurassic Park. And my brother and I annoyed our parents for weeks asking them to drive us to the theater over and over again so we could see it. It wasn’t long before I memorized entire scenes from the script and even today, when my car is stuck in traffic during a heavy rain, I can almost see a Tyrannosaurus Rex lurking just out of sight. Summer blockbusters are designed to overwhelm every one of our senses with incredible special effects – transporting us into a new reality where anything is possible. And when we walk out of the theater into the warm summer evening, these experiences linger with the hope that our present can be so much more. 

Now today’s reading from the books of Acts is, like a summer blockbuster, full of incredible special effects. It begins with Jesus’ disciples hanging out in the city of Jerusalem waiting to see what might come next. The city, at that specific time, had begun to fill with religious pilgrims hoping to celebrate the festival of Pentecost in the place God promised to be. The word Pentecost, in ancient Greek, means “fifthieth” and marked a Jewish celebration held 50 days after Passover. In the beginning, the festival gave thanks to God for all the food the earth produced. But over time, that thanks grew to include all of God’s promises too. People from across the ancient Mediterranean world and beyond converged on the city. And Jesus’ friends, who had already arrived in the city for the festival of Passover, sort of just stayed there while everything else swirled about them. They weren’t really visitors to the city nor were they planning, at that moment, to make it their home. Yet they still felt the need to wait and so they did, finding a place where they could stay. Jesus’ friends were still worried that Roman soldiers could show up at their door at any time. So they planned on keeping a low profile while figuring out what to do next. It was then when, over the bustling noise of the city, they heard the sound of a gentle breeze. At first, they probably thought nothing of it but it soon grew louder and louder. The wind, it seems, was on a mission – picking its way through the city to find their building alone. And when it roared through with the intensity of a tornado or a hurricane, this summer blockbuster special effect had only just begun. The disciples looked around and saw bits of fire – like the wicks of candles burning – dancing over each one of their heads. These disciples were wrapped in something incredible that kept swirling around them. And if that wasn’t enough, these fishermen, tax collectors, men, women, young, and old who mostly came from small towns and villages scattered around the Sea of Galilee – everyone could suddenly speak as if they came from somewhere else. 

Now if we could choose our own kind of holy experience with God, something as powerful as Pentecost might be high on our list. We’d love for our faith to be supported by a summer blockbuster kind of moment that we could share with everyone. What that might look like varies from person to person and it probably depends on whatever we’re going through at the time. Yet having a moment with some incredibly divine special effects would, for a bit at least, make it seem as if anything is possible. So often the God we seek and the God we expect is a God with overwhelming power, strength, and might. And while the Pentecost story implies that this is who our God is, when we only focus on the wind, the fire, and the amazing languages the disciples could speak – we miss what made this moment truly special. What they saw, with the fire and the wind and the gathering of so many different kinds of people – that truly was divine. But in the ancient world, people sort of expected that stuff like this would occasionally happen. To them, the world was full of heavenly special effects full of wonder and mystery. Yet what surprised these pilgrims about this moment wasn’t that the disciples could suddenly speak so many different languages. What truly overwhelmed their sense of wonder was how specific those languages actually were. God’s story of love, grace, and mercy as lived out in Jesus Christ was shared with them in the language they first heard as a baby in a crib. When they first entered the world, those who were excited to see this new life among them uttered words of love and hope in the dialect and languages they knew best. God wanted those who had not yet met Jesus face-t-face, and even those who weren’t in the neighborhood when Jesus was hung on the Cross, to know how the love they were meant to experience in their very first moments was the same kind of love God always had for them. It wasn’t the special effects of wind and fire and words that blew everyone away; it was how these words – rooted in a holy love – came to them in a very unexpected way. 

 Now in my office is a black binder full of bulletins from many of the Interfaith Thanksgiving services that have happened in our area since 1968. These special events serve as opportunities for different faith traditions to show one another what their language of holy love looks like. While scanning through the binder last fall while making plans for the service we hosted last November, I noticed how Doris’ name appeared unexpectedly in one of the bulletins. In 1976, St Paul’s Episcocpal Church in Montvale was hosting the service and they invited congregations to bring with them different pieces of cloth symbolizing who they were. Those pieces of cloth would .be used as a kind of banner and some words about that piece of cloth were presented by someone from each congregation. Some faith communities included pieces of fabric highlighting how different religious rituals expressed who they knew God to be while others highlighted their history and their identity in our religiously diverse neighborhood. When I scrolled down to see what CLC did, I saw how Doris Crouse presented what I think is an awesome encapsulation of what Pentecost is meant to be about. “Our church has chosen for its symbolic cloth a garment from one of our members who has needed much care. We are trying to put into practice the words of James in the second chapter, verses 14 through 17, where he speaks of caring for one another. This ministry of love, through caring for our church family and others in times of need, is one way of expressing our thanks to God for all [that God] has done for us.” 

Now on a day when we celebrate God’s special effects, we also give thanks for the effect our love, care, and faithfulness has on all our lives. We often look for things like tongues of fire to reveal who God is; yet God chooses to show up in the ways we let one another know how much we are loved. This love is not easy since it requires us to be with one another during times that are tense, difficult, and full of wonder. But this love we get to share is a love letting our friends, family members, and even strangers know how there is always a place for them at the foot of the Cross. I can’t imagine a more fitting way to celebrate Pentecost than honoring a disciple who continues to live that kind of faith out loud. Doris has, in her own way, been a kind of blockbuster who has let you know how much you mean to God. Pentecost isn’t only supposed to be about those special surprising effects that impacted a group of disciples 2000 years ago. Pentecost is always a celebration of who we get to be since we are graced by love, mery, and faith. Each one of you will have opportunities during our luncheon after worship to let Doris know in one-on-one conversations about how your mutual love has made an impact on your life. And we, along with Doris, David, their entire family, and all who call her friend – will continue to keep Pentecost alive by living out a holy kind of love that will never end. 

Amen.

Sermon: What’s Enough to Be Whole

In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons) and said, “Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus— for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

My sermon from the 7th Sunday of Easter (May 12, 2024) on Acts 1:15-17, 21-26.

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So if today’s reading from the book of Acts sounded a bit like gambling – you’re not wrong. The disciples, while pondering what the future of their leadership might look like, basically rolled some dice to see who it should be. It’s pretty weird for our Bible to embrace gambling since, weeks prior to this moment in the story, Roman soldiers did the same thing to decide who would keep Jesus’ bloodied clothing. And yet casting lots in the ancient world was seen as a way to communicate with the divine. The general thought was nothing could be truly random and so by tossing some dice or trying to pull a short stick out of a bunch stuck in a bag, folks would gain some holy insight into what might come next. That’s often why the Bible calls out gambling since it was seen as manipulating with forces we couldn’t fully control. Yet the act of casting lots was primarily used to make money and, in the process, consume people’s lives. The Biblical injunction against gambling is long and yet, in the days after Jesus ascended into heaven, the disciples took a chance to fill a hole within their community. The so-called “Twelve” were now down to eleven since one of their own had been the catalyst for Jesus’ crucifixion and death. And so before they spread the good news from Jerusalem and into the heart of the Roman Empire itself, they casted lots to see who among them could step up and make them feel truly whole. 

Now wondering what it takes to be whole is something I thought a lot about this week while noticing all the small orange price tags scattered all over the building. Our Trash and Treasure sale on the 5th was incredibly successful, raising around $13,500 to support ministries all over the world. But beyond all the cash, it was also a lot of fun because this place was full of people living out their baptismal calling to embody God’s love in our world. The church since mid-April felt very full but now, on the other side of the sale, it feels as if something is missing. This building has, in a sense, returned to its typical, natural, and wholesome shape. And yet all this quiet, especially when I’m here by myself, feels like we’re living with a hole waiting to be filled. That feeling is, I think, similar to what the disciples felt when, nearly 2,000 years ago, they realized they had a lot of living left to do. They, in the days and weeks after Jesus’ death, often wondered what they were supposed to do next. Some of them stayed within the city limits, worshiping in the Temple on the Sabbath before gathering together on Sunday mornings to share a meal and talk about their faith. During those conversations, I imagine they wrestled with everything they had just experienced. Jesus not only had refused to act as if might makes right, he kept appearing to them in ways that were exciting and strange. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in the community felt as if they were a bit more whole than they once were. And yet they could also see how Jesus himself still carried holes in his hands, side, and feet. Nothing was really as whole as they hoped it might be and so after watching Jesus assume the fullness of his identity as the Son of God, the disciples wondered what it might take for them to fully embrace who Jesus called them to be. 

That wondering probably gnawed on them which is why they, as a community, chose to do something Jesus didn’t explicitly tell them to do. We have no record of Jesus telling those who followed him to increase their leaders back to the number they once had. Jesus, rather, encouraged them to build a history of love among themselves and in their world. The call to build that history caused the disciples, I think, to reflect on their own history too. The hole left by Judas’ action wasn’t something that could be easily wiped away. They, as individuals, might never process or fully understand what caused Judas to do what he did. And yet they realized that, as a community, they could never be who they were supposed to be if they didn’t take stock of their entire story. The Eleven, with the help of prayer, worship, the reading of scripture, and the kind of conversation that lets us be honest and true, would gamble that the only way they could become whole is if they did this kind of work – together. 

Now wondering what it takes to be whole isn’t something only communities do after big changes and events. All of us, at one point or another, wonder what it would take to make our own lives whole too. We might, after a broken relationship, an unexpected change in employment, or a scary diagnosis – realize the tomorrow we planned for isn’t the tomorrow we’ll actually see. Our expectations, our hopes, and our dreams run head first into the randomness of life that we can’t always control. It’s then when we might feel a kind of hole grow in the quiet of our souls – one we try to fill with anxiety, grief, anger, and sorrow. Our first instinct might be to try and ignore what we’re going through as a way to take control of a life that feels like it might be going out of control. And while that might work for a little while, it wouldn’t last forever. We, instead, need to take stock of the fullness of our story – and realize that sometimes the most holy thing we can do is to wonder, question, lament, and shed the tears welling up inside. It’s these kinds of moments that make us realize that we aren’t as whole or as complete as we’d like to be. And while we might see that as a failure on our part to be the faithful person we think we’re supposed to be, I think a much better response is to pay attention to what our ancestors in the faith did while living through those kinds of situations too. When they longed for wholeness, they chose to be authentic and true to their story. They didn’t run away from their present by seeking to return to a past that seemed more wholesome than it truly was. The disciples didn’t move forward by running from their current moment. They, instead, explored the fullness of what today had become so they could see more clearly the God who would be with them in this life and beyond. Rather than seeking wholeness on their own, they would do this work together so they could love those who needed to be loved and, in turn, be loved when they felt isolated and full of holes. The community they were called to be wasn’t only going to be full of perfect people who always got everything right. Their community would, instead, be full of folks taking a chance that they, together, can be so much more. In the randomness of our lives, filled by things we’ve done and things done to us, God doesn’t want us to pretend to be anything other than we are. We get to be filled with our wondering, our questioning, our worries, and admit the ways we wish we were whole. And while that feeling might linger a lot longer than we’d like it to, your status as a beloved child of God doesn’t depend on how whole you think you are. You, even now, belong fully to God because God knows the body of Christ cannot be whole without you. As you imagine what tomorrow might be, it might feel like all you can do is gamble on what comes next. Yet the God who claimed you in your baptism is the same God who will bring you through. 

Amen.

Sermon: The Call to Build a History of Love

[Jesus said:] As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

John 15:9-17

My sermon from the 6th Sunday of Easter (May 5, 2024) on John 15:9-17.

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So on Thursday afternoon, right after school, the kids and I stood around a little hole in our backyard. We were in one of our flower beds, right next to two large oak trees covered in yellow pollen. The four of us were being a bit quiet while looking down on the grave for the goldfish we just buried. Over the weekend, the youngest went with a neighbor to a local carnival and when she came back a few hours later, she proudly let us all know she had “won” a goldfish. I didn’t expect this new friend to last a single night in a home with two cats and a dog. But come the next morning, I realized we had a new thing to add to our daily routine. This change, though, didn’t last long. And after marking the spot  with a few sticks we found on the ground, I figured it would be appropriate for me to say a few words. That moment, though, was harder than I expected because I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to share something profound since my kids were standing right there but what came out of my mouth instead was a garbled mess. 

Now today’s reading from the gospel according to John can, in its own way, sound like a garbled mess too. Unlike the other stories about Jesus with a beginning, middle, and end – this reading comes in the middle of a really long speech. It can be difficult to recognize what was happening when Jesus said these words. And so that’s why I often encourage us to always put God’s word back into scripture itself. Whenever we find ourselves in chapter 14, 15, 16, or 17 of John, we need to remember Jesus and his friends were in the middle of John’s version of the Last Supper. Jesus had gathered the disciples together in Jerusalem for a meal during the festival of Passover. The city, at that time, was overflowing with visitors which created a vibrant, energetic, and tension-filled atmosphere that wasn’t helped by all the Roman soldiers policing the city. Jesus, along with his followers, had developed a reputation as a bit of a rabble rouser which is why those in authority kept their eyes on this preacher from Galilee. Those around Jesus, though, were hopeful; expecting Jesus to do something at that moment to make God’s kingdom real in their world. These people were filled with anticipation but Jesus knew the Cross was almost here. Jesus’ words and actions throughout these chapters are more than universal teachings meant to turn us into good people. He wanted those who were about to see the end of his story realize their future had only just begun. 

So Jesus, knowing what the disciples would soon experience, chose to stretch a metaphor that – on the surface – sounded as if he was going on and on and on. Dr. Karoline Lewis, in a commentary on this passage, reminded me that Jesus’ longwindedness often has a point and we notice that when we pay attention to the subtle shifts in his language. So to see that a bit clearly, we need to remember the metaphor we heard Jesus use last week. He had invited those who followed him to see themselves as branches that extended outwards from the vine of Jesus himself. We are not to primarily see ourselves as individuals moving about in the world. We are, instead, always connected to the source of who we are. Jesus, while speaking to those who were going to see the life of their teacher cut off from them in a fit of terror and violence, told them to abide in him. These disciples were to hold onto him, no matter what, because he would always have a hold on them too. This holding onto Jesus would be difficult but could be done by living into the fullness of his story. But Jesus shifts that metaphor ever so slightly by telling us to not only abide in him but also in his love. Jesus, I think, recognized that just sticking by him wasn’t always enough. What we would also need was a memory or an experience knowing what it’s like to be loved by God. When our world comes undone; when we no longer have any tears left to shed; what can hold us through is the promise this isn’t what this life will only be about. Imaging what that future might be like isn’t always easy. And so what we often need is a kind of history showing how today isn’t the limit of what tomorrow might be. 

And so with that kind of love in mind, Jesus pushed our understanding of love away from being merely a feeling, emotion, or a kind of fantasy that only exists in Hallmark movies. Love can, and should, create a history where we discover how our hope is always real. It’s the same kind of love Jesus himself showed his friends when, before he even spoke these words, he embodied by getting up and washing everyone’s feet. Jesus, even when he knew that the Cross was near, kept creating a history of love, support, and care for those who didn’t always understand him; for those who didn’t always believe in him; for those who would deny him and even for those who would betray him. Jesus gave up the privilege we’d expect the son of God to claim as his own so that fishermen, tax collectors, men, women, the young, the old, the rich, the poor, the healthy, and those in need could discover how much God valued them. That history of love wasn’t, though, something only Jesus could do. He also called all of us to create our own history of love with one another – as a response to the love he always shares. It’s a history of love that carries us through the loss, grief, and hardships that come. It’s a history of love that sustains us when we do the opposite of what that love should look like. It’s this history of love that reveals what can be even when we are worn down by what we’re going through, what the world is going through, or even by our own intrusive thoughts and feelings. When we create a history of love, we’re not only going to be nice, kind, and never get into conflict with one another. Instead, the love we give is a love that chooses to be present with and for each other even in times of crises and suffering. We, with the gifts God gives us, can – and do – make choices of what this history of love will look like through the voices we listen to, the words we post and share, and the ways we decide that some are worthy of love and some aren’t. Even when the time we have with one another is short, we can work to build a history of love that transforms, expands, and even changes what our lives, our relationships, and our world might be. When I was standing over that hole in the ground trying to say something about a goldfish I had no real history with, I realized I had forgotten my responsibility to pay attention to building that history of love. It might seem small or silly or a bit odd to care too much about a goldfish I didn’t even plan for in the first place – yet even our smallest moments can be an opportunity to build that history with everything around us. I can’t change what this last week was like – but I can choose to make this week, the next week, and every week after that to one where I build a history of love – one that reflects the love that Jesus continues to build with all of us everyday. 

Amen. 

Sermon: Living into God’s Agenda

26Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) 27So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. 33In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” 34The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” 38He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

Acts 8:26-40

My sermon from the 5th Sunday of Easter (April 28, 2024) on Acts 8:26-40

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So I don’t know if you noticed but our first reading from the book of Acts appears to be missing a verse. If you look closely at the text as it was printed in the bulletin, we can see a series of numbers starting at 26 which signify the notation known as verses that appear all through our Bible. They were added centuries after these stories were originally written as a kind of marker letting us know where we were within each book. When we track the numbers, we can see number 33, 34, 35, and 36. But where we’d expect to find number 37, we instead 38. Now there are times during worship when we might skip a verse or two as a way to focus on one specific theme or idea. But today’s jump from 36 to 38 is something completely different. Scholars theorize that sometime during the first two or three hundred years of Christianity, a copy of the book of Acts might have had a few notes scribbled in the margin. These words were, most likely, used in the early church as a confession of faith during a baptism and it’s not hard to imagine someone scribbling those words next to a baptismal story in the Bible. But, later on, when that book was copied by hand, those scribbles ended up as part of the story itself. We could brush this off as a simple mistake that lingered past the point when verses were added to the Bible even though some of the earliest manuscripts didn’t include those words. Yet there’s also the issue that this insertion wasn’t really questioned since, in the words of the Biblical scholar Bruce Metzger, there was a “ feeling that Philip would not have baptized the Ethiopian without securing a confession of faith that needed to be included in the narrative.” When the Ethiopian asked Philip “what’s to prevent me from being baptized,” Philip’s silence was a bit too much. It didn’t seem possible that this Ethiopian official from the court of Queen Candace could become part of the body of Christ without doing something to prove they truly belonged. 

Now the book of Acts takes us along the journey as the followers of Jesus spread from Jerusalem to the capital of the Roman Empire itself. The book is full of incredible moments of healing, hope, and joy but also plenty of challenges. There were all kinds of issues, including threats of violence from folks who didn’t really get what this Jesus movement was all about. And the Christian community itself struggled knowing what to do with all the people who kept showing up but didn’t match Jesus’ own identity as an Aramiac speaking Jew from Galilee. It’s in the middle of all this complication when we meet a Greek-speaking Jewish apostle named Philip. He had, right before our reading today, had success starting new Christian communities in the land of Samaria. But instead of taking time to shepherd those new communities, an angel of the Lord sent Philip to an isolated road in the middle of the desert. While there, in a place no one would expect to find anyone to preach to, Philip noticed a stranger riding down the road. We never learn this stranger’s name but we do learn a lot about him. They were, most likely, African in origin and they served as the chief financial officer for the queen of the Ethopians. This meant they were responsible for managing an incredible amount of wealth yet it’s also very probable they were enslaved. They were heading home after visiting the city of Jerusalem for religious purposes because it seems they considered themselves a god-fearer. While in the city, this official secured a copy of the book of Isaiah which – in those days – was really hard for a private individual to find or even afford. This person had a lot of overlapping identities that made them who they are. Yet the one identity the book of Acts highlights the most is their status as a eunuch. This identity allowed him access to all kinds of political and financial power because his sexuality and gender was no longer seen as a threat. They were, instead, viewed as a kind of deviant – a so-called “no-man” who didn’t fit in anywhere. Their status as an outsider not only shaped how they lived but also influenced the faith they were allowed to practice. In the words of Biblical scholar F. Scott Spencer, the eunuch “suffer[ed] [not only] widespread stigmatization in Gentile and Jewish society as a permanently emasculated, mutilated figure unable to procreate,” he also “remain[ed] ‘cut off’ by law from full participation in the covenant community, according to Deuteronomy 23:1.” The Ethiopian eunuch believed in God and yet because of the things that had happened to him, by choice or by force, he didn’t really know his place within God’s household. What he needed to know was if God’s community could, would, or even should, include someone like him. 

And that’s why this story has stirred the spiritual imagination of the faithful for centuries while, at the same time, made them feel incredibly uncomfortable. When we’re honest about what we’ve done, what we’ve left undone, and all the things that make us who we are – asking if this Jesus thing has a place for us is one of the most faithful questions we can ask. We wonder how the household of God can truly contain complicated people especially those who don’t fit the so-called “norm” that’s around us. Communities, including the church, also have their own ways of letting people know who fits, who matters, and who should run and hide. And while we can really believe the body of Christ is a pretty big thing that extends beyond all time and space, it can still feel as a fairly exclusive place. These questions can help us uncover a little more about what God’s love is all about but have also been used to justify all kinds of cruelty and suffering. That’s why, I think, the early Bible copyists didn’t really question why a baptismal confession showed up when the Ethiopian eunuch was baptized in the middle of the desert. They assumed he had done something to show why he belonged. But Philip, rather than following that very human agenda, made the choice in this moment to follow God’s. He noticed the passage the eunuch was reading, a part of the prophet Isaiah describing a shamed sheep-like figure to whom “justice” and the chance for an offspring had been denied. Philip quickly recognized how this passage not only pointed to Jesus but how it also included the eunuch too. Philip knew the good news he needed to hear. And so in words that were not recorded but ones we can assume were shared, Philip let this complicated treasury official know that in Jesus, with Jesus, and despite all the ways we do our best to claim who belongs and who doesn’t including through something as violent as crucifixion on a Cross – Philip let the Ethiopian eunuch know how the household includes even him since God’s grace was meant for all. 

The baptismal note, scribbled in the margins, wasn’t supposed to hint at what the Ethiopian eunuch was supposed to do; rather, it was a revelation of what he, with Jesus, would now get to do. The barriers built around him and those barriers he built around himself had already come tumbling down. The identity he had in Jesus would wrap itself around everything that made him who he was, shaping, informing, cherishing, and transforming his life to come. No longer would Queen Constance’s agenda, Philip’s agenda, or anyone else’s agenda have an overwhelming claim on his life. Rather, the Jesus who lived, died, and rose for him would be his – forever. I know that, for me, wondering if I truly belong will never really go away since I’m fully aware of all the  ways I fail to live out the kingdom of God. But I trust that it isn’t my calling to decide who does – and who doesn’t – belong. Rather, like Philip, we get to be honest about all our questions, all our wondering, and all the identities we claim as our own. And that’s when we can give ourselves and others the good news that we have a place with God because Jesus loves them, Jesus loves you, and Jesus promises to always bring you through.

Amen.

Sermon: We Have a Real Unidealized Shepherd

[Jesus said:] “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

John 10:11-18

My sermon from the 4th Sunday of Easter (April 21, 2024) on John 10:11-18

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So last Sunday, folks from all over Woodcliff Lake met at the reservoir for a clean up. This event was something I’ve always wanted to do and I had, in my mind, a sort of idyllic expectation of how the day would go. Me, my kids, and a lot of our neighbors would carefully, safely, and without any grumbling or complaining, work together to take care of God’s creation on a pleasant day. If there was a word to describe the soft-focused image of what I expected that moment to be – it would be pastoral. When we arrived, everyone put on a pair of thick disposable plastic gloves, grabbed a trash picker, and a heavy duty contractor grade plastic bag. We were ready to make a difference in our community when, right when it was scheduled to begin, it started to rain. I’ll admit that standing along the lakeshore in the cold pouring rain while surrounded by garbage that flooded the lake during prior rainstorms wasn’t as fun as I thought it might be. The work we were going to do was necessary but it was going to be quite messy trying to fish out all the plastic bottles, soccer balls, old tires, pieces of lawn furniture, propane tanks, medical syringes, as well as a million tiny pieces of styrofoam out of our drinking water. The pastoral scene of an entire community coming together to make things better ran into the reality that this kind of work is often more difficult and dirtier than we’d like it to be. 

In the three year cycle of Bible readings we use for Sunday worship, the fourth Sunday of Easter is set aside as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” And we take time over these three years to read through 30 or so verses from the tenth chapter of John. These verses seem related to each other since they all seem to talk about a shepherd and some sheep. Now Jesus, from what we can tell, didn’t have much first hand experience living as a shepherd during his earthly ministry. He was, after all, the son of a carpenter and spent most of his time traveling from village to village and city to city. We don’t have any direct evidence he ever woke up in the middle of the night to wander into the fields to check on the sheep entrusted to his care so his use of the words sheep and shepherd are more attuned to some kind of metaphor rather than any personal experience. The people he was speaking to knew, and accepted, the image of a shepherd as a kind of idealized image of who God is. It was the responsibility of the shepherd to keep constant watch over those who don’t always listen. They would need quite a bit of patience, resilience, and all kinds of grace to not only lead those entrusted to them but also to care for their needs, hurts, concerns, and worries. This idealized shepherd would let the sheep be exactly who they are but not let that be the limit of who they could be. And when a sheep went astray, this shepherd would put themselves on the line for whoever is part of their fold. We can, if we pause and take a moment, probably imagine exactly what this kind of shepherd might look like. And yet I wonder if our image of the shepherd would highlight just how dirty, dusty, and dangerous this kind of work truly is. Metaphors have a habit of revealing the truth of what something can be while, at the same time, masking the reality of what that truth actually looks like. Jesus, I think, was aware of this kind of disconnect since, in his day, the shepherd was an image for God yet actual shepherds were viewed with suspicion, worry, and fear. It was easy to dismiss them as merely hired hands since most were from the lowest rungs of the social ladder working long hours under extremely dangerous conditions overseeing sheep they didn’t own. These shepherds played a vital role in an economy where flocks were a sign of wealth, power, food, and industry. Yet these people were often viewed as being worth less than the sheep they cared for. God, as a shepherd, was an idealized image of love and support easy to see yet we can also separate it from all the dirt and grime real life actually brings. 

And Jesus, I think, knows how our idealization of faith, hope, God, and Jesus, can get in the way of what our life can be. Too often our expectations of faith are littered with idealizations that assume a life of faith should look and feel as if we were sheep hanging out in a green field on a perfect warm spring day. Faith, though, is often a bit more murky since it’s meant to hold us even through those rainy days when we’re living with all the garbage life brings. Jesus wasn’t’ the good shepherd because he promised us a life that would match the idealized life we assume we’re supposed to have. Rather, he’s our good shepherd because even when life is far from perfect, we’re with the One who promises we will always belong. This kind of shepherding and living is messy which is why today’s reading is his interpretation of what had happened in John, chapter 9. Jesus, after running into a man born blind, made him one of His own. Rather than playing the game of wondering what this man or his parents did to cause his condition, Jesus simply did what a good shepherd does by showing him where a more abundant life could be found. We could, if we stay too focused on our idealized assumptions about faith, act as if Jesus’ physical actions around the man are what being with God is all about. Yet even before his sight was made brand new, he was already part of Jesus’ flock. Jesus spoke – and the man listened – which then led to an unexpected life that was full of its own turmoil and struggle. The community, unsure of what was going on, separated the man from them since they couldn’t handle what he had become. And so Jesus, after learning this, left everything behind to find the one who was pushed aside and show how he was worth so much more. In Jesus, this man found a place where he will always belong. And when Jesus’ journey in the world led him to the cross, Jesus showed the man born blind – and everyone else – just how far God will go for the world God loves. 

There’s a tendency to use the metaphors of sheep and shepherd to unintentionally craft an idealized image of what being with Jesus is all about. Jesus, though, doesn’t choose to be with us only in these so-called pastoral moments. Jesus chooses to do the hard work of living our lives with us – especially during those moments that are dirty and grim. Jesus knows that, no matter our expectations, there will be days when the rain just falls. And while those moments are not God’s dream for us, Jesus promises that, in Him, we will always belong. What we or others say and do will not be the limit of who we get to be with our God. Instead, we are led by a good shepherd who knows you, sees you, and shows you what love actually looks like. This love that we receive is also the shape of love we get to express to others. And when we put into practice a way of life letting others know how they belong with us and with their God, we aren’t simply being idealized sheep living in an unideal world. We are, rather, showing what the Good Shepherd will do because we belong to Him and He belongs to the world. 

Amen.

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 2nd 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.