Sermons

Five and a half years ago we divided up the remnants of my parents’ belongings.  My Dad had died on Easter Day that year and then, after his funeral and getting things initially settled, we gathered one last time in late May to sort out a life’s collection of things.  We chose things by birth order, selecting among the sentimental or practical items that remained, and I was number six.  I had my mind’s eye on an item in a Rubermaid container buried deep in the basement that I hoped would be forgotten or overlooked by my older siblings.  I have no idea what they chose, frankly, I think someone grabbed a Bose system, and another the dinnerware. I just know that the first five picked and my item remained. When all eyes fell to me, I quickly said, “Mom and Dad’s creche.”

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

I loved that nativity scene. The stable was hewn out of rough wood; remnants of lumber that had been around an old barn at my godparent’s home.  The figurines were painted by hand too, Mary and Joseph, Jesus in the manger, camels and magi and shepherds and an angel.  My mom and dad received it  from my godparents—my mom’s brother and sister-in-law—the year they moved with their three kids out to the country.  The house they moved to was next to a dairy farm, and that had to be 40 years ago now.  My family spent nearly every weekend at my Uncle Jim and Aunt Linda’s old farmhouse that summer, my dad helping with the electrical and other odd jobs, and my mom helping to clean and get them settled in, as that dusty old house became a home.  We kids would play in the barn—jumping in to piles of hay—or running threw the cornfields that grew on both sides of their yard.

Continue reading The Telling Nature of Choices

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“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream,” writes the Psalmist.  What do you dream about?  What carries your mind when you imagine better days?  What is it that you begin to hope for when you turn your attention to a possible future joy?

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On this Third Sunday of Advent, that is where we turn: to joy.  We can feel it in the air around us, of course.  Children anxiously waiting for Christmas.  Carols playing round the clock on the radio.  Homes filled with the scents of pine and baking.  We drive around after dark—that is after 4:30pm—we see lights on trees and candles in windows.  We receive cards with updates and pictures of family and friends, and we mark the days to Christmas as we the anticipation of joy builds.

Continue reading Keepers of the Story

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Our patron—the saint who gives our community its name— St. Mark the Evangelist, plunges us directly into the wilderness.  He doesn’t spill ink on genealogies to trace Jesus’ lineage in more detail than Ancestry.com, nor does he tell the narrative account of Jesus’ humble beginnings.  He simply writes, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,”’ John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  We don’t even have time to catch our breaths before we fall headlong into the blazing light and intense heat of the desert and of The Baptizer’s clarion call to repentance. 

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What is it about the wilderness?  Why is it the place that God often chooses to meet us?  What is found in the desert, the mountains, the rough places that cause them to become “thin,” the very settings where we palpably encounter the Divine?  Continue reading God Meets us in the Wilderness

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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.

[featured-image single_newwindow=”false”]Phil LaBelle (c) 2017.[/featured-image]

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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