Sermons

Nine hours, four minutes and thirty-seven seconds.  That’s the amount of daylight we get today, often given the misnomer of the “Shortest Day of the Year” when it should be “The Day with the Least Amount of Daylight,” but who am I to quibble.  Nine hours, four minutes and thirty-seven seconds is not much sunlight no matter how you parse it out.

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It’s the time when we sit in a great darkness.  And even though it’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year, sometimes it just isn’t.  Sometimes circumstances rock our boats as if a storm has kicked up, and the waves are beginning to crash over the hull of the boat, and fear sets in.  The loss of a job, hardship in a relationship, a painful diagnosis, the death of someone you love, addiction, trouble with a family member, a huge misunderstanding, infidelity.  Oh that list can go on and on, and I’ve known many a Christmas seasons of my own that fit those bleak descriptions.  Like the one Christmas when doctors found multiple spots on my Dad’s lungs. Or the year we moved and nothing felt right.  That Christmastide when the company I worked for shuttered its doors the very week Melissa and I got married.  The years my mom’s depression overshadowed Christmas during my childhood.

Continue reading A Light in the Darkness

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So which are you?  A sheep?  Or a goat?

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I didn’t notice many of you carefully choosing up sides this morning when you came in.  And if you did, I suspect you had to go over in your head a few times as to which side of the church was the one you really wanted to be on.  It’s the Son of Man’s left and right, but if he’s standing in front looking at us, then it’s reversed for the crowd.  You have to go left if you want to be on his right.

Continue reading Sheep, Goats and the Poor

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Matthew begins our lesson by spilling the beans of the plot all at once.  Thanks to the internet meme—and those famous words uttered in Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi—I hear it in Admiral Ackbar’s voice.  (He’s that amphibious salmon-colored character with a head that’s a cross between a squid and a catfish.)  “It’s a trap!” he proclaims as the Rebellion fleet cruises in to take down the Empire’s second Death Star. And so it is with Jesus today.  “The Pharisees plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said,” Matthew writes before laying out the story, inviting us to watch over Jesus’ shoulder to see if the trap springs back on his questioners.

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They begin by buttering him up. “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.” You can almost hear them licking their chops as they circle tighter and tighter. “So tell us what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”

It’s a trap!

Continue reading Being the Icon of God

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So two years after my mom passed away, my dad got married again. This was nine years ago now—and my dad himself has since died—but that was an interesting time in my life.  The woman he married was his brother’s widow, my aunt. At the time I described our family as going from zero to Jerry Springer in one fell swoop.  And when my cousin came out after the service starting to say that now this made her both my cousin and my step-sister, I cut her off before she could utter the words. 

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The wedding took place in Michigan where I grew up, at a church I was unfamiliar with, and a pastor who obviously thought the best part was that the bride would still have the same married name.  After the ceremony, my siblings and I dutifully made our way to the reception only to discover that two of my cousins-now-step-siblings had changed into shorts and t-shirts over the course of the ten minute car ride.  “It’s their mother’s wedding,” I muttered to my brothers and sisters.  “You’d think they’d make more of an effort to look even partially presentable out of respect for her.” We shook our heads and tut-tutted to each other as we tried to enjoy a beverage and wondered what the future held.

Continue reading The Perilous Hazard of Wedding Banquets and Preaching

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I have to begin today with some background in order to help us understand our gospel.  Matthew almost certainly writes to a Jewish Christian audience living in or near Palestine, and that these early Jewish believers were experiencing intense persecution from the Jewish religious authorities.  A number of aspects in the gospel point to this audience, including the focus on the Torah—the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures—along with a number of symbols and allusions to Jewish history. Jesus can be seen throughout the gospel as partaking in the tradition of Moses, and Jesus’ teachings and miracles keep hearkening back to that leader of the Exodus.

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However, Matthew’s Jesus also often gets very confrontational with the religious leaders, likely because his readers are also experiencing that conflict.  Jesus has been in their sight for some time, and now it’s reaching its climax. It’s the Monday of Holy Week in our reading.  The day before, Jesus rode on that donkey, and was hailed with praises and waving branches.  On this Monday, he comes into the temple and has been asked by whose authority he teaches. The leaders are trying to trap him, of course.  But Jesus is a bit tricksy himself, and asks them an unanswerable question too.  He then tells a parable that those religious types know casts them in a bad light, and they can’t say anything.  Our reading this morning is how Jesus continues speaking to these leaders.

Continue reading Stones, Dragons and Vineyards

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Over the course of my sabbatical, I spent 40 nights camping in a tent. While that has a nice Biblical ring to it, I didn’t plan it initially that way and until about two weeks ago thought I’d hit 39. The longest consecutive stretch of sliding into a sleeping bag was 12 days while on our family car camping trip as we made our way up the Rockies with stops at Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Glacier and Banff National Parks. I additionally had a seven day stretch on the hills of Kilimanjaro, and six days in a row while in the vast wilderness of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of Minnesota and Ontario. Out of those 40 nights, most were not in the same location, but rather setting up camp for a day or two and then moving on to a new place.

[featured-image single_newwindow=”false”]Phil LaBelle, 2017.[/featured-image]

Some of the sites were breathtaking, like the one at the Signal Mountain area of the Grand Tetons. We looked out from our tent over Jackson Lake with the entire jagged range of those mountains just beyond. We sat entranced that first day by the immense beauty. But not all was rosy even there as we had not one but two nights of gusty winds that kicked up for an hour or so after bedtime with the stiff breeze coming down hard from the mountains and over the lake. The wind had nothing to stop it before it hit the side of our enormous eight man tent which acted just like a sail. The four of us stood with our backs against the poles, holding hands, trying to not have our tent take flight and waiting for the storm to pass. On other nights at places so remote I could hear only the call of a loon, that plaintive wail it made as it tried to locate other birds nearby. One night I heard the sound of trucks rushing by and then hitting their brakes on the interstate that the campground backed up to.  I never really knew what I would get.

Continue reading Water in the Desert

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I have a confession to make: I didn’t get it all done.

This sabbatical I’m about to embark on has been in the planning for about a couple of years, and since last Fall I’ve been earnestly making lists of things that needed to be accomplished before I left, both personal and professional.  Updates that I wanted to conclude, tasks to work through, projects to complete.  I had fitness goals to achieve, cluttered spaces to be organized, and home improvement undertakings to finish.  Of course there were the regular aspects of my job, the joy of meeting some of you to grab a cup of coffee over at Red Barn.  The pastoral concerns that have emerged in the past couple of months, communicating the exciting things happening here at St. Mark’s, searching for a youth director.  Add to that the personal things: sports and music activities for the kids, supporting Melissa in her doctoral program, dinners to cook.

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The picture I had in my mind grew to fantastical levels: I would be the male equivalent of the Proverbs 31 woman.  Going to bed late at night, and rising before the sun, I would do more things than humanly possible all before I set out on this adventure of a lifetime.  (And a friendly reminder, that the woman described in Proverbs 31 is actually Wisdom personified, but I digress.)  The image I held up for myself was utter perfection. Continue reading How the Light Gets In

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One of my favorite Disney characters is Edna Mode, the designer of superhero suits from “The Incredibles,” who also answers simply to “E.”  The not so average Bob and Helen Parr—better known as Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl—have been underground in their forced retirement from super hero work, and both have reason to visit her.  Bob to repair his old suit which has gotten a tear—and that E will only fix if she can design him a new suit.

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While cleaning one day when Bob is out of town, Helen notices the stitched up sleeve on that old suit and wonders what Bob is up to.  While at E’s mansion, it dawns on Helen that she doesn’t know where Bob currently is in addition to the midlife crisis he’s been having.  Ultimately, Helen breaks down, sobbing.  We see Edna holding a roll of toilet paper for Helen to use as Kleenex, as she recounts the recent past.  Edna puts down the roll, and grabs a newspaper to push the used tissues into the trash.

Continue reading The Biggest Hurdle to Being a Disciple

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Anyone here ever read Charlotte’s Web?  While many of you may remember the overall plot of EB White’s classic book, I suspect the beginning has gotten a bit fuzzy for most of you.  Fern—the delightful girl who befriends the farm animals—sleepily asks where her Pa is going with the ax one morning when she come down for breakfast.  Her mother explains that some pigs were born overnight and that one of pigs is a runt.  “It’s very small and weak, and it will never amount to anything,” her mother says.  “So your father has decided to do away with it.”  Fern will have nothing to do with this and wakes up quickly.  She runs down to the barn lickity split  and stops her dad from killing that poor pig.  Later that day while she’s at school she decides to name him Wilbur, and she takes wonderful care of him.  It’s only later, after that pig has grown quite a bit, that Wilbur makes his way to Zuckerman’s farm up the road.

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Wilbur soon discovers that farms aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. He can’t find a friend to play with among the other animals and loneliness sets in.  He cries himself to sleep one night when a voice tells him that in the morning she will be his friend.  At the sliver of dawn, he asks all of the other animals if they were the one who had spoken to him the night before, but they all tell him to go away.  Finally the same voice calls out to Wilbur, “Salutations!”  White describes what happened next in this way, “Wilbur jumped to his feet. ‘Salu-what?’ he cried. ‘Salutations’ repeated the voice. ‘What are they, and where are you?’ screamed Wilbur. ‘Please, please, tell we where you are. And what are salutations?’ ‘Salutations are greetings,’ said the voice. ‘When I say “salutations,” it’s just my fancy way of saying hello or good morning.’”  It’s how Charlotte meets Wilbur.

Continue reading Rejoicing with the Risen Lord

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Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.

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The last words Jesus utters from the cross, that means of execution by the Romans, are simply: “It is finished.”   It is complete.  Accomplished.  The work he came to do both in and for this world as the Son of the Living God has been done.  And, implicit in the Greek, there is also the sense of a new beginning, a start of something that has been waiting to spring up around us, much like the sight of those first sprouts of a germinating seed.

Continue reading The End of Violence

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