Sunday’s sermon: Willing to FORGIVE

Text used – Matthew 18:15-35

  • This year, throughout the season of Lent, we’re going to be exploring different facets of willingness. But willingness can be a complex thing.
    • Element of willingness that requires sacrifice – often a willingness to lay one thing aside or forgo one thing in order to shoulder another
      • Sometimes means a setting aside of self → making space for another
        • For the wisdom & experiences of another
        • For the concerns and challenges of another
        • For the needs of another
    • Can be an element of obligation to willingness → being willing to do something even though it may feel dull, compulsory, or rote
    • Willingness requires dedication → Even if whatever you’re willing to do is something obligatory, you have to be dedicated to something in order to keep doing it.
      • Dedicated to the person that asked you to do it
      • Dedicated to the cause/purpose behind it
      • Dedicated to an outcome or at least a potential outcome
      • This is sort of the way I view laundry. I’m willing to do it even though I find it the most dull and obligatory of household chores because I’m dedicated to the outcome: clean clothes! → a silly example, to be sure, but you get the picture
    • Willingness can also bear beautiful, unexpected fruit
      • So throughout Lent, we’re going to be walking through some of Jesus’ parables and teachings from the gospel of Matthew, each of which has something particular to say to us about the inextricable role of willingness in our faith.
        • Today: forgiveness
        • Next week: fairness
        • Also:
          • Responding to God’s call
          • Preparing to do God’s work
          • Generous welcome/hospitality
          • Reverence/honoring God
          • Going out and sharing our faith
  • Before we dive too deep into this morning’s passage, let’s situate ourselves in Mt’s gospel a little → made a pretty big jump from last week’s text out of Mt 7 to this morning’s text in Mt 18
    • Passage from Mt 7 last week was toward the end of Sermon on the Mount
    • Btwn then and today’s text
      • Lots of healing/casting out demons
      • Jesus calls his disciples
      • Lots of teachings, incl. other well-known parables
        • Parable of the sower/seeds[1]
        • Parable of the mustard seed[2]
        • Parable of the lost sheep[3]
      • Miracles like feeding the 5000[4] and Jesus walking on water[5]
      • Death of John the Baptist at the hands and whim of the Romans[6]
      • Even Jesus predicting his own death and resurrection not once but twice![7]
    • Suffice it to say that a significant portion of Jesus’ ministry has taken place. He’s built up quite the reputation between last week and this week!
  • Turning to this week’s text
    • Two separate sections of Scripture that don’t usually get stitched together in lectionary readings
      • Subtitles from my Common English Bible: “Sinning brother or sister” (vv. 15-20) and “Parable of the unforgiving servant” (vv. 21-35)
      • But the thread that does that stitching is clear: these passages are held together by forgiveness.
  • First section involves community in forgiveness
    • Beginning of passage talks about how to approach someone you’re having an issue with (or who has an issue with you)
      • First, approach them alone → Note: Jesus doesn’t say, “Blast them in a public forum like a community Facebook group or on Twitter.” I don’t know when our society made the turn from actually talking out differences/misunderstandings with one another in person to simply spouting all your frustrations on social media, but I don’t think it’s a turn that’s done us any favors.
        • Interesting to note here – text: If your brother or sister sins against you” → Gr. “sins” = word that carries implications of both intentional and unintentional harm → It’s a term used of archers not hitting their targets – of missing the mark. Jesus is reminding us that even when the harm done us unintended harm, we still need to make amends. We still need to be willing to seek and give forgiveness.
      • If one-on-one conversations don’t resolve conflict, bring others with you → Not as enforcers. Not as people to argue your point with you or for you. Jesus specifically calls them “witnesses” – people who can give an honest, first-hand account of further conversations if need be.
        • Neutral parties, not collaborators waiting to be tagged into the fight
      • If small group mediation doesn’t work, then bring in the rest of the body of faith → This isn’t an element of the church that we like to think about – the idea that we’re all called to keep one another accountable in our journeys of faith. But that’s what Jesus is saying. We’re here to help one another in many ways, and one of those ways is, in fact, conflict resolution. We’re here to help each other work things out with one another.
        • Scholar: Matthew is not prone to sugar-coating much of anything and he gives this subject the same treatment. He assumes the community will experience pain, conflict, struggle, and disagreement as they figure out what it means to be Christ-followers amid conflict, Roman occupation, and competing allegiances. While Matthew doesn’t shy away from his particular brand of intense and hyperbolic declarations, this text feels refreshingly honest about the struggles of living in community. In a time when so many in our churches are asking “Can’t we all just get along?,” Matthew answers “No. But we have a plan for that.”[8]
      • Another interesting thing to note here – text (Jesus): If they don’t pay attention even to the church, treat them as you would a Gentile and tax collector.[9] → Now, that may sound like a dismissive statement. After all, according to the Law, the Jews were supposed to keep themselves separate from the Gentiles. And in first-century Jewish society, tax collectors were detested and generally shunned. They were Jewish citizens who worked for the Roman empire – the occupiers. And yet, Jesus spent his days and his ministry with such as these.
        • Disciple Matthew = tax collector
        • Very often throughout the gospels, the first people (sometimes the only people!) to see Jesus for the Messiah that he is are not Jews but Gentile
        • Scholar: The call to treat [the offender] as a Gentile or a tax collector is not a call to exclude him permanently; after all, Jesus ate with Gentiles and tax collectors and sinners. So considering the offender to be like one them is not a call to shun him, but a call to reach out to him. The community must continue in its effort to make reconciliation a reality.[10] → This emphasizes the most important role that the community plays in forgiveness: the willingness to reach out, to seek reconciliation even when it’s hard. Because somehow it’s always easier to do hard things together.
        • Central context of a verse that we often quote in a totally different context: For where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them.[11] → So often, we cite this verse tenderly, reassuring one another that God is with us when we pray together, even if there are just a few of us gathered. And yet the context of this verse is not gathering for worship but gathering for conflict resolution.
          • Working to smooth out our rough edges that are scraping up against one another
          • Working to heal wounds, old and new
          • Working to bring peace to tension and frustration and misunderstanding
    • Jesus doesn’t promise that this will be an easy process, but it is a process that, if we’re willing, can bear the essential fruit of forgiveness.
      • Scholar: When taken seriously, it is a laborious process. To follow these many steps resists our very human inclination to cut people off who have hurt us or simply let people who have “made their bed, lie in it.” Instead, this is a procedure that insists that the spiritual and relational wellbeing of each person is something worth fighting for and restoration to community is worth our time and energy. In a time when political and social divisions seem to be driving us to opposite corners or, perhaps, separate Bible or book studies; when social media allows us to “unfriend” or “unfollow” those with whom we disagree; when we are invited into echo chambers where we are told those who are different are an adversary or even an enemy that threatens our capacity for success, this text invites us to remember our call as a community. This seemingly pedantic set of rules and regulations for communal living invites us to take seriously both the way our sin impacts others as well as our summons to restore kinship with one another.[12]
        • Heart of our worship practice of confession, assurance, and passing the peace
  • Idea of restoring kinship leads us into the 2nd portion of our passage this morning – “the parable of the unforgiving servant” → sort of plays out the steps that Jesus talks about in the first passage AND drives home the importance of forgiveness
    • First servant owe the king more money than he could ever earn in many lifetimes – “ten thousand bags of gold”[13] → servant begs the king to allow him to repay his astronomical debt instead of throwing him in prison → king goes a step above and forgives his entire debt
    • First servant turns around and seeks out another servant who owes him a paltry debt in comparison to the one that was just forgiven him – just “one hundred coins”[14] → first servant manhandles the second servant, ignoring the second servant’s pleas for time to repay the debt and instead having him thrown in prison
    • All witnessed by yet another servant who takes the matter to the king → king calls the first servant before him, reprimands him for his lack of compassion and reciprocal forgiveness → king has the first servant thrown in prison
    • Jesus’ final words: My heavenly Father will also do the same to you if you don’t forgive your brother or sister from your heart.[15] → Anyone who’s tried to forgive someone for something – which is basically anyone who’s been human for more than a minute! – knows that this is a hard ask. Forgiveness isn’t easy because hurts don’t fade quickly. Our bodies take time to heal when we’ve been injured – sometimes a long time – but even that healing time is miniscule when compared to how long it takes our souls to heal.
      • According to research, it takes 5 positive comments to offset 1 negative comment → And that’s just in terms of general feedback – constructive criticism. That doesn’t pertain to all the barbs and insults and brokenness that we verbally hurl at one another.
        • We taunt “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” … but we only toss out that patently false verse when we’ve already been hurt, right?
      • And yet Jesus implores us to forgive. Because we have all already been forgiven. Forever. Dang. It’s hard.
        • Scholar: Like the debt numbers in this parable, we have been recipients of grace in amounts that we can hardly count. If we do not forgive the transgressions of our human experience in light of the outrageous abundance of the way we have been forgiven, we are at risk of being convicted alongside the servant. We are being called to liberal forgiveness.[16] → Jesus implores us to forgive. So … are we willing? Amen.

[1] Mt 13:3-9, 18-23.

[2] Mt 13:31-32.

[3] Mt 18:10-14.

[4] Mt 14:13-21.

[5] Mt 14:22-33.

[6] Mt 14:1-12.

[7] Mt 16:21-23; 17:22-23.

[8] Kimberly Wagner, “Commentary on Matthew 18:15-35” from Working Preacher,

[9] Mt 18:17b.

[10] Ada María Isasi-Díaz. “Matthew 18:12-22 – Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels – Matthew, vol. 2. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 92, 94.

[11] Mt 18:20.

[12] Wagner.

[13] Mt 18:24.

[14] Mt 18:28.

[15] Mt 18:35.

[16] Dock Hollingsworth. “Matthew 18:21-35 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels – Matthew, vol. 2. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 102.

Sunday’s sermon: Do Unto Others …

Text used – Matthew 7:1-12

  • I want to read a little bit of an article for you this morning. It’s an article that originally appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of INSIGHT magazine – the publication for the Chicago School of Professional Psychology – and was updated for publication on their website in 2016.
    • Title: “A Virtual Life: How Social Media Changes Our Perceptions”[1] – READ first few paragraphs (up to subheading “The Unreal World”) → Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I use social media all the time, both for myself and for church things.
      • Church side:
        • How we get the word out about events (Trunk or Treat, Christmas Cookie Sale, etc.)
        • Way to keep in touch with members/friends who have moved away or are gone for a season
        • Fun way to interact with one another for various liturgical purposes → e.g.: Lenten Photo Challenge
        • Obviously streaming our service on social media right now!
      • Personal side:
        • Keeping in touch with friends and family members → My aunts and uncles are spread all across the country, so social media is the way they keep up with my kids and my family.
        • Sense of community
    • And yet, despite all those reasons that we use social media, we cannot deny that the expectation … the showmanship … the judgmentalism … the pressure placed on individuals by social media can be toxic.
      • Recent phenomenon that has surface in the last 5 yrs. or so → people seeking plastic surgery to make their “real” face look more like any number of filters you can find in social media apps
        • “Filters,” for those unfamiliar, are appearance-altering digital image effects used on social media
          • Some simply change the coloring of an image (make it black and white, sepia toned, etc.)
          • Some add silly things like puppy ears or Darth Vader’s head to your image
          • Some alter the look of your face just slightly – bigger eyes, softer skin, poutier lips, etc.
        • Phenomenon has become so common it actually has a name: Snapchat Dysmorhpia[2]
    • All of this speaks volumes about the way that social media expectations have taken over our society. As Kenneth Gergen said (referenced in that article we read): “I am linked, therefore I am.” And yet with the social silos – the opinion echochambers – that social media creates, we have also become a society that surrounds ourselves with only the information that agrees with what we believe … that enforces our already-held beliefs (whether they’re based on facts or misrepresentations) … that “prove” to us that whatever we’re shouting about, whatever we’re anxious about, whatever we fear must be right “because I found it on the internet.” Because of our social media silos, we have become more insulated, more segmented, more disconnected than ever before. If ever there was a time when we needed to hear anew Jesus’ words from this portion of the Sermon on the Mount, friends, it is now.
  • Seems like a pretty straightforward list of commands
    • 1: Don’t judge.
    • 7: Ask, and you will receive.
    • Finished off roundly with v. 12 – the Golden Rule: Treat people in the same way that you want people to treat you.
    • But if they’re all such straightforward, “easy” things, why are we still struggling with them more than 2000 yrs. later?
      • Short answer: Because being human is hard. It was hard then. It’s hard now. And while some of the things that make it hard have certainly changed – we don’t have to worry about Roman conquerors crucifying us for stirring up trouble, they didn’t have to worry about the negative effects of social media on an entire population … truly, while some things have changed, there are still some things about being human that were just as hard back then as they are today, and I think the biggest one is the most obvious: it’s hard being human together. → need for community is an inherent part of us
        • Seek out people who are like us in some way – look like us, think like us, interested in same things we’re interested in, etc. → The vast array of extracurricular activities available at any high school or college is the perfect example of this.
          • My alma mater, UWEC (talked about a few weeks ago): campus of 10,000 students has 200+ student organizations → everything from fraternities and sororities to curling club, from mock trial to drone club, from faith-based groups to cultural associations, and more!
          • We seek out people who have things in common with us because as human beings we crave community – we crave that hit of oxytocin released by our brains when we’re with people we enjoy, friends and family.
        • And yet there are truly no crueler things done on this earth than the things that human beings do to one another, are there? Jesus knew that. Jesus knew that being human wasn’t easy.
          • If we follow the theology of John’s gospel – “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word was with God in the beginning. Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word, nothing came into being.”[3]then Jesus knew that being human wasn’t easy from the very beginning … before even taking on the mantle of humanity in the incarnation, Jesus knew things were going to be hard. But he came anyway.
          • Even if we just take the years of life that Jesus had already lived before speaking these words during his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had lived plenty. He would have seen … would have experienced … would have understood just how hard life could be. But he taught anyway. → tried to teach the people a better way to be humans together
  • So let’s take a deeper look at that seemingly-straightforward list.
    • First portion = about judgment and hypocrisy – Jesus’ famous words about being preoccupied with the splinter in your sibling’s eye while ignoring the log in your own → It’s so easy for us to point out the flaws in other people, isn’t it? We see so clearly the ways they’re messing up … the ways they’re misunderstanding … the ways that they could “so easily” improve. And yet, as the old adage goes, when you’re pointing one finger at someone else, there are always three more fingers pointing back at yourself.
      • Scholar: There can be no right judgment without a considerable about of introspection. … There is something about introspection, about being honest and truth about oneself with oneself, that makes the human heart more pliable and sympathetic in regard to the plight of other people.[4] → It’s so much easier to judge others … but the only people that we can truly improve in this world are ourselves. Jesus both reminds us that we are far from perfect and emphasizes just how important it is to work on ourselves in order to be better for those around us.
    • Second portion = about asking and receiving → This portion of the passage is harder than it appears on the surface because of that age-old haunting question: “Why doesn’t God answer my prayers?”
      • Wrapped up in struggles with discerning God’s will over our own desires/intentions
      • Wrapped up in struggles with following and obeying God’s will
      • Wrapped up in struggles with the classic battle between good and evil, between what is reality and what we claim is “fair” … struggles all bound up in that glimmering, gossamer thread called hope → Because in actuality, this is not an assurance of the “vending machine” version of God that we wish it could be. Even so, there is a hidden promise in Jesus’ imperative here.
        • Gr. verb tense for all those directives in v. 7 – “ask,” “search,” and “knock” – are indicative future
          • Scholar: meaning that they have not happened yet, and there is no specific indication of the time when they will come to pass. The paradoxical phrase “already and not yet” is apt to describe the fulfillment of God’s work in the world.[5] → So Jesus is promising that when we ask for beneficial things – when we ask for good things from the one who loves us greater and deeper and wider than anyone else has ever can ever or will ever love us – God will hear us and work in us and through us for good.
    • All wrapped up with that final verse – certainly one of if not the most familiar verse in all of Scripture: Therefore, you should treat people in the same way that you want people to treat you.[6]
      • Golden Rule = present in some form in various cultures around the world
        • Variation: “Silver Rule” à Do not do to others what you do not want done to you.
      • On the surface, the Golden Rule feels like it’s about us, right? If you strive to “treat other people the way you want to be treated,” you have to at least take the way you want to be treated into consideration, right? But when we think about it, it really isn’t about us at all.
      • Let me tell you a story. When I was in middle school – well, all throughout middle and high school, really – I had the world’s biggest crush on my best friend. Let’s call him Max. Sadly, despite all my pining and all my prayers, Max did not feel the same way about me. He knew how I felt, but he didn’t feel the same. But we were still best friends. One night, we were at a middle school dance along with all the rest of our friends. All middle school dances are a nightmare, right? Well, this was no different. I was crying because the boy I wanted to dance with didn’t want to dance with me. We got to the last song of the night, which of course was a slow song, and Max told all of us to sit down around a table. He said, “We’re going to play poker.” We didn’t have any cards, so this was imaginary poker. He dealt out our “cards,” then went around the table declaring what everyone’s hands were. He got to me last, and, having tumbled to how his game was played, I laid my “hand” down and said, “Four aces.” Max looked and me and said, “Yup. You win. Let’s dance.” And we did. By the time we got through all of that and actually made our way out onto the dance floor, there wasn’t more than a minute or so of the song left, but that didn’t matter. At that point, it wasn’t even about the dance anymore. Not really. It was about being seen – truly seen – by another person. By someone that cared. It was about experiencing compassion … and giving compassion. It was about putting aside all the hard things about being human and instead choosing to be human together in the best possible way. That is what Jesus asks of us. that is who and how we are called to be. Amen.

[1] Sherry Thomason. “A Virtual Life: How Social Media Changes Our Perceptions” from Insight, spring 2013, updated for website 7 Oct. 2016: Accessed 19 Feb. 2023.


[3] Jn 1:1-3.

[4] Mark A. Lomax. “Matthew 7:1-6 – Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels – Matthew, vol. 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 155.

[5] Leah D. Schade. “Matthew 7:7-11 – Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels – Matthew, vol. 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 162.

[6] Mt 7:12a.

Sunday’s sermon: How to Do and Be

Text used – Matthew 6:7-21

  • I went to college at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire, which is referred to throughout much of the UW System as “The Singing University.”
    • Choral education = popular major
    • But beyond the academics of it, people knew that if you loved to sing, you could find a place at UWEC. → 9 separate vocal performance opportunities
      • Large ensembles
        • Women’s Concert Chorale
        • Concert Choir
        • Symphonic Choir
        • Treble Choir
      • Small groups
        • Fifth Element
        • Innocent Men
        • Gospel choir
        • Newest: Novum Voce (perform only Renaissance music)
    • But the epitome as far as campus-wide recognition and status was the men’s choir: The Singing Statemen. I often joke that at my college, no one knew who the football players were, but everyone knew the Statemen.
      • Nothing like a Statemen concert
        • Always dressed in black tuxes with tails, white cummerbunds, and white ties
        • Always ran on stage in a way that looked like chaos but inevitably found each choir member perfectly in his place
        • Always included a boisterous and rousing rendition of the UWEC fight song
        • Always included a song for which they’d invite former Statemen in the audience to join them on stage → Because the Statemen weren’t just a choir. They were a brotherhood. “Once a Statemen, always a Statesmen,” as their motto went.
      • My friends and I went to a lot of Statemen concerts because some of our closest friends were Statemen, but there was one particular song that continues to reverberate within me almost 20 yrs. later. It’s a song that’s become a bit of a signature of theirs at this point – so much so that, when the Statemen put together a 50th anniversary choir in 2016, this is one of the songs that they sang. – song: “Ave Maria” → But not the more well-known version by Austrian composer Franz Schubert. This is the version by German composer Franz Biebl published in 1964.
        • Put a link to the Statemen’s 50th anniversary of this song on Facebook this morning (for at home or later)
        • Power of this version of the classic Latin prayer = layering of sound and harmony → each section of the music begins with a single voice (or, in some versions, a handful of voices singing in unison) → following that introduction, the music blossoms into this deep, rich tapestry of sound

  • The melody and harmonies progress in such a way that it doesn’t hit you all at once like a wall of sound but grows slowly sort of the way bread rises. One moment, it’s low and simple, but a few moments later, you realize it’s big and complex and resonating. And it’s that element of this that made me think of our Scripture reading this morning. → today’s passage = part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount
    • Begins with Jesus’ teaching about prayer (speaking in the terms of Biebl’s “Ave Maria,” this is that first section) → And Jesus opens this section on prayer with a simple refrain: When you pray, don’t our out a flood of empty words, as the Gentiles do. They think that by saying many words they’ll be heard.[2]
      • Adds another layer to his teaching on prayer: Don’t be like them, because your Father knows what you need before you ask.[3] → To that simple refrain of the centrality of prayer in our lives of faith, Jesus adds this assurance that God is listening.
        • Assurance that our prayers aren’t just floating off out into the ether … aren’t just words disappearing on the wind
        • But even deeper than that, Jesus assures us that God knows before we even ask.
          • Scholar puts words to the amazing audacity of this declaration: This is an extraordinary claim on God’s behalf! The creator of the whole world and its people is predisposed with intimate interest in individuals’ lives and actions.[4]
      • Develops the beautiful complexity of his lesson of prayer with yet another layer – a layer full of its own harmonies and themes: Pray like this: Our Father who is in heaven, uphold the holiness of your name. Bring in your kingdom so that your will is done on earth as its done in heaven. Give us the bread we need for today. Forgive us for the ways we have wronged you, just as we also forgive those who have wronged us. And don’t lead us into temptation, but rescue us from the evil one.[5] → I love the depth that we find in this because it’s a different translation. We all have the familiar words of the Lord’s Prayer that we learned growing up – debts and debtors, trespasses, sins. And sometimes those words have become so familiar that we forget what we’re actually saying … what we’re actually praying. We rattle our way through them because “it’s that time in the service” without thinking about them, sending them straight out of our mouths without letting them marinate in our hearts and our souls. So this different translation of those oh-so-familiar words makes us take them in and ponder them and pray them in a whole new way.
        • Sheet of Alternative Lord’s Prayers → ways for you to add your own depth and harmony to the melody of the prayer that you’ve known and recited for so long
          • Exercise: we’re going to recite the 2-sided one together (back of the page, the one from the Dominican Sisters Retreat, March 1993)
          • Scholar: Jesus’ prayer thumps along to the beating of our hearts. … If one brings this prayer to life, once one leaves the privacy of the prayer room and returns to the chaos of real life, strange things will happen.[6]
        • To finish out this section, Jesus takes that singular theme of forgiveness and develops that with more attention and depth: If you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you don’t forgive others, neither will your heavenly Father forgive your sins.
          • Scholar: While the beginning lines of the prayer elevate our attention toward the heavens, by the conclusion we are stuck in the belly of our soul, because we are unwilling to forgive others and thereby unable to receive the forgiveness promised us by God. … Imagine what it would be like if forgiveness retained a place in all human relationships. Imagine that instead of pointing fingers at each other we presented gifts wrapped in the fabric of forgiveness. What if, rather than laughing at the predictable fall of hypocrites, we raced to catch them and soften their landing.[7]
    • From there, Jesus starts a new section with a new theme: fasting – text: And when you fast, don’t put on a sad face like the hypocrites. They distort their faces so people will know they are fasting. I assure you that they have their reward.[8]
      • Goes on to layer and develop and beautify this theme of fasting
        • How to fast
        • How to present yourself to God while you’re fasting
        • Jesus’ assurance (similar to his assurance in his section on prayer): Then you won’t look like you are fasting to people, but only to your Father who is present in that secret place. Your Father who sees in secret will reward you.[9]
    • And the final theme that Jesus introduces and then layers and beautifies in this portion is the idea of treasures and reward.
      • Stems from his previous theme (just as his theme of forgiveness stemmed from his discussion on prayer)
      • Sort of like that beautiful, drawn out, full voice, full harmony ending “Amen” from “Ave Maria” → This short discourse on treasures really puts an “amen” on this entire section of text. – Jesus: Stop collecting treasures for your own benefit on earth, where moth and rust eat them and where thieves break in and steal them. Instead, collect treasures for yourselves in heaven, where moth and rust don’t eat them and where thieves don’t break in and steal them. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.[10] → Sure, this applies to our material treasures – our monetary treasures. “Follow the money” is a phrase for a reason, right? But more than that, Jesus is reminding the people – all the people gathered around him from that Galilean hillside and down through the millennia to us gathered today – that it’s more about their heart-treasures.
        • Their attention
        • Their devotion
        • Their focus
        • Their fixation
        • Wherever it is that your heart lands again and again and again – when you’re sad or scared or struggling – that’s what you treasure. The question this morning – one for you to ponder as we move on with our worship and our business as a congregation – is simple: Is your landing place – your treasure place – God? Amen.


[2] Mt 6:7.

[3] Mt 6:

[4] Robert J. Elder. “Matthew 6:7-15 – Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels – Matthew, vol. 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 122.

[5] Mt 6:9-13.

[6] Amos Jerman Disasa. “Matthew 6:7-15 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels – Matthew, vol. 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 124.

[7] Disasa, 124.

[8] Mt 6:16.

[9] Mt 6:18.

[10] Mt 6:19-21.

Sunday’s sermon: Happy Light, Blessed Salt

Text used – Matthew 5:1-20

  • I actually want to do something a little bit different this morning (surprise, surprise … right?) I want to bookend this morning’s sermon with our hymn, so to start off with, we’re going to sing the hymn that’s listed after our “Exploring the Word Together” time – #401, “Here in This Place.”[1]

  • So I wanted to start the sermon with this hymn this morning for a few reasons.
    • FIRST, much of the language as well as the theme of the hymn come straight from our text this morning à doesn’t necessarily overtly quote direct passages from Mt 5, but the wording is there
    • ALSO, it basically preaches my sermon for me this morning! → So I wanted you to have the words in your ear and your head and your heart before we even got going this morning. You could even keep your hymnal open or your finger in the page, if you want to.
  • Disclaimer before we start: When we read Scripture on Sunday mornings, we use the Common English Bible.[2]
    • Copyright information listed alongside the passage in your bulletin every week
    • Translation that comes straight from the Hebrew and Greek texts (as opposed to an update of an already-existing English translation) by a committee of dozens of highly respected Biblical scholars
    • Collaboration of various denominations including the Disciples of Christ, the PC(USA), the Episcopal Church, the UCC, and the United Methodist Church
    • So it’s accurate. It’s collaborative. And above all, I think it’s a lot easier to read than even the New Revised Standard Version or the New International Version. And 99% of the time, I agree with the translation choices that this committee makes for the text. However, today I don’t. Let me tell you why.
      • Gr. word at the beginning of each of the Beatitudes can certainly be translated as “happy” or even “fortunate” → So it’s an accurate translation. BUT in my opinion, translating that word as “happy” instead of “blessed” strays too easily into the territory of toxic positivity.
        • What is toxic positivity? – brief description from Psychology Today: Toxic positivity is the act of avoiding, suppressing, or rejecting negative emotions or experiences. … Although setting aside difficult emotions is sometimes necessary temporarily, denying negative feelings long term is harmful because it can prevent people from processing their emotions and overcoming their distress. … Positivity only becomes problematic when it functions to reject negative emotions—if someone responded to a disclosure of distress, for example, with “It’s all for the best, “Just try to be positive,” or “Good vibes only!”[3]
  • The situations that Jesus is describing in the Beatitudes aren’t necessarily ideal or easily situations – hopelessness, grief, humility, seeking after righteousness, showing mercy, being pure in heart, making peace, being harassed and insulted. Even the traits that we would think are positive traits – humility, mercy, pureness of heart, and peace – are not easy pursuits. They are traits that we need to cultivate and practice and continue to strive for. And I feel like couching these difficult situations in language as bright and sparkling and laden with expectations as the word “happy” can be might actually be damaging to our experience of faith.
    • Expecting happiness in the face of hopelessness?
    • Expecting happiness in the face of grief?
    • Expecting happiness in the face of insults and harassment and persecution?
    • I don’t think that’s real life. But finding blessing in those moments? That’s a whole other matter.
      • Basic definition of blessing: God’s favor and protection
      • Seeking out God’s favor and protection in the face of hopelessness?
      • Seeking out God’s favor and protection in the face of grief?
      • Seeking out God’s favor and protection in the face of insults and harassment and persecution?
      • Now, to me, that sounds like faith.
        • Brings to mind the writing of Martin Luther King, Jr., especially as we honored his birthday this past week → King’s writings hold nothing back about the injustice, violence, struggle, and oppression that African American faced then and still face today. King names the pain. He names the hatred and brokenness. He names the despair and fear. But at the same time, he holds space for hope and promise and blessing – God’s favor and protection – in the midst of those struggles. He strikes that balance between forcing happiness in the face of entirely unhappy circumstances and still finding blessedness in them.
          • From King’s last essay “A Testament of Hope” (1968 – published posthumously): People are often surprised to learn that I am an optimist. They know how often I have been jailed, how frequently the days and nights have been filled with frustration and sorrow, how bitter and dangerous are my adversaries. They expect these experiences to harden me into a grim and desperate man. … They have no comprehension of the strength that comes from faith in God and man. It is possible for me to falter, but I am profoundly secure in my knowledge that God loves me; he has not worked out a design for our failure. Man has the capacity to do right as well as wrong, and his history is a path upward, not downward.[4] → I don’t hear happiness in that … but I do hear blessedness overflowing!
  • Now, in terms of the way this Scripture reading is usually broken up, I think too often we stop there. We neatly finish up our reading of the Beatitudes, close our Bibles, and call it a day. But I like the way the Narrative Lectionary continues on through the next eight verses as well because these verses give us the “how” to the “what” of the Beatitudes. In the Beatitudes, we find Jesus reassuring people that even in the midst of the difficulties of being human, they can find blessing in faith. In the following verses, Jesus explains to them how and why that blessedness is so important.
    • Text: “You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again? It’s good for nothing except to be thrown away and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they put it on top of a lampstand, and it shines on all who are in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven.[5] → I saw a post from a fellow clergyperson on social media this week that was lamenting the prevalent slang usage of the term “salty” and how that was making it different for her to write her sermon in this passage.
      • (If you’re not familiar) – slang usage of “salty”[6]: annoyed or upset, especially when this is unreasonable → And while I know that that definition has a negative connotation, the term “salty” is most often used in a teasing manner. If I had a dollar for all the times moms in my circles have used the term “salty” to describe the way their toddler is acting in that moment, I’d be rich! But when those moms say it, they’re not saying it in a mean-spirited or angry way. They’re saying it in that endearing, exhausted, fully honest way that moms talk about their kids with one another.
        • Their “salty” kids are being brazenly independent → testing boundaries, testing their own abilities and limits, testing out different characteristics and elements of personality
        • Their “salty” kids are speaking up (a lot!) and speaking out (a lot!) and making sure their voices and their opinions and their desires are heard (a lot!)
        • Their “salty” kids are keeping them on their toes in all the ways: physically, mentally, emotionally
      • Feel like this definition of “salty” actually fits the passage and our purpose this morning pretty darn well → Jesus is exhorting the people to remember that their purpose is to affect the world around them – to enhance it, to enliven it, to change it.
        • Scholar: Salt, if added in the right amount at the right time in the right way, enlivens and enhances a meal’s other flavors. It brings them out. It makes them themselves, only more so – and the Christian community can and must do the same. We should bring our own flavor to the mix, of course, spicing things up here and there. Then, just as much, we should work to enhance other flavors, enliven other tastes, making the world more savory, more delicious, more beautiful. If we do not, what good are we?[7] → In order to do that – in order to bring about that more delicious and more beautiful world – we have to have the courage and the saltiness to cause some discomfort … to interrupt the status quo … to propose a new way of doing and seeing and being … the drive change.
    • Same with the “light” that Jesus mentions in this passage → Guided by God and our own faith, we have to be willing to shine a light, even on some of the most shadowy, neglected, cobweb-adorned corners of society.
      • Not always easy
      • Not always comfortable
      • Certainly not always a happy prospect … but still, a blessed one
      • Think of how your eyes feel when you turn a light on first thing in the morning. There’s that immediate shock. Sometimes, depending on how bright that light is, there’s even pain. We close our eyes. We shrink away. But we need the light to usher us into the day ahead – so we don’t stub our toes or stumble over an unseen obstacle. Jesus is exhorting the people to remember that a necessary, vital element of their faith is to reveal those parts of life that need to be seen: injustices, failings, misdirections.
    • Jesus’ call to be salt and light = Jesus’ reminder to the people why it’s important – why isn’t essential! – that they endure those challenging situations in which they will find blessedness AND his promise that there is blessedness to be found even in those situations
      • “You will be blessed even in your hopelessness because God will be with you. Others will see your faith enacted in hard times, and you will show them the way.”
      • “You will be blessed even in your grief because God will be with you. Others will see your faith even in the midst of heartbreak and loss, and you will show them the way.”
      • “You will be blessed even in your persecution because God will be with you. Others will see your faith in your determination and fortitude, and you will show them the way.”
      • Hear Jesus’ promise that God will be with us in that last part of our passage
        • Jesus speaks of fulfilling the Law and the Prophets à of bringing fullness and blessing and completeness to what has come before … bringing his own saltiness to the Law and the Prophets, shining a new light on the promises of old
        • Jesus speaks reaching out through our actions and words to live our faith and share it with those around us in ways that are authentic to our experiences but will also bring about change
  • With all that in mind, let’s sing through our hymn again this morning. Listen for the affirmation. Listen for the call. Listen for the blessing … the salt and the light.

[1] Marty Haugen. “Here in This Place” in Glory to God. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), #401.



[4] Martin Luther King, Jr. “A Testament of Hope” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James M. Washington. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986), 314.

[5] Mt 5:13-16.


[7] Matthew Myer Boulton. “Matthew 5:13-16 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels – Matthew, vol. 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 82, 84.

Sunday’s sermon: Thirsty Roots

Text used – Matthew 3:1-17

  • As we mentioned in our prayer requests this morning, we’ve had a stark and forceful reminder this week of the power of water. The heavy storms that have brought record rainfall to California have done an incredible amount of damage.
    • Caused sinkholes that have swallowed up cars and destroyed roadways
    • Water level of the Salinas River in central CA has been above flood stage since Friday[1] → river has inundated homes, businesses, and farmlands
    • Flood warnings and evacuation orders issued in a dozen counties all along the coastline[2]
    • Mudslides in northern CA have consumed roads and devastated homes in the same area where, just 5 short yrs. ago, a catastrophic debris flow claimed the lives of 23 people in Montecito
    • More than 24,000 people left without power[3]
    • This intense, heavy rainfall has already claimed the lives of 17 people, and there’s more rain in the forecast this week. And yet, in the midst of all this water-caused devastation, it remains a fact that California is also in the midst of an extreme drought situation. It’s such a startling, compelling illustration of both how vital and how volatile water is in our world and in our lives.
      • Press release put out by the United Nations a little over a year ago (Oct. 2021): Water is increasingly being treated as a mere commodity and even as a financial asset, a UN human rights expert told the UN General Assembly today, undermining the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation and the sustainability of the environment. Pedro Arrojo Agudo, the Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, said in a report that trading of water use rights in markets has eroded the notion of water as a common good and the State as a guarantor of the general interest. The UN expert also pointed out that water trading tends to treat the environment as just another user, and not as the basis of life, forcing States to purchase flows for environmental needs, and failing to address the roots of unsustainability … The recent entry of water as a commodity derivative on Wall Street futures markets aggravates the situation by subjecting water to the forces of financial speculation and to risks of speculative bubbles, not taking into account the demands of human rights and the sustainability of ecosystems, he said.[4] → This is where we find ourselves today, friends: living in a world in which the most essential element on the planet – something necessary for all life to survive and thrive – is being used as a weaponized commodity.
        • Water scarcity is a real and imminent danger all around the world → quick Google search for “water as weaponized commodity” yields results listing actions in China, Iraq, the West Bank, Syria, and many other places in which access to clean water for drinking, for sanitation purposes, and for daily living has been restricted or outright denied as a means of punishment and oppression
    • Truly, friends, in our world today, water is power.
  • And today in our worship, we mark the baptism of Jesus – a day drenched in water and Spirit, a day in which we usually wash our own spirits and hearts in the cooling waters of reassurance as we hear John’s words of prophecy and praise … as we hear the equanimity of Jesus’ request to be baptized just like the rest – just like those who came before and just like those who would come after – just like us … as we hear the reverberating echo of God’s praise and acceptance and love: “This is my Son whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him.”[5] → find all of these things in our passage today, too
    • Begins with John’s call to the people – John’s challenge for the people → John’s words at the very beginning of this passage make clear something that I think in a lot of ways we’ve forgotten in the mainline church today: baptism is a call to and acceptance of a life, a way, a faith.
      • Text: In those days John the Baptist appeared in the desert of Judea announcing, “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” … People from Jerusalem, throughout Judea, and all around the Jordan River came to him. As they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the Jordan River.[6] → here reveals the requisite intent in John’s call
        • Gr. “change” = repent, feel remorse – written in the imperative form which is not a simple suggestion but a command → John is making it clear that baptism requires a response in our emotions, in our lives, and in our faith. You see, the action of repenting is not just a “one and done” sort of action. The intent of repenting implies expressing regret over our words, actions, and attitudes, yes – saying “sorry,” if you will – but also allowing that regret to shape our words, actions, and attitudes going forward. Someone who repents but then goes right back to saying and doing and being the way they were before has not truly repented.
          • Scholar sheds an interesting light on this: In most church contexts, repentance is associated with guilt. People repent because they want to absolve themselves of the guilt incurred by sins they know they have committed. John’s repentance has little to do with the guilt that causes us to wallow in despair. Repentance for John is an action. John Howard Yoder understand clearly what this repentance looks like: “To repent is not to feel bad, but to think differently.”[7] → It is that call to live differently in the act of baptism that I think we’ve too often forgotten in the mainline church. When we baptize – whether we’re baptizing an infant, an adult, or any age in between – we’re making the promise to live differently and to help the one being baptized live differently. We shouldn’t baptize because Grandma expects it. We shouldn’t baptize because “it’s what we do.” We should baptize because we feel the pull of faith and the overwhelming abundance of grace in our own lives and want to see that lived out.
            • As parents who baptize their kids, we make that promise in regards to how we will raise them
              • Talking about God
              • Making space for God
              • Helping to foster their relationship with God
              • We don’t promise that we’ll have all the answers to the myriad of impossible questions that kids have about God (heck … even I don’t have a lot of those answers!), but we do promise to let those questions deepen our children’s relationship with God as well as our own.
          • Portion of “Theology of Baptism” from the Book of Order: [read from W-3.0402] → The waters of baptism flow abundant and pure, free and refreshing. The waters of baptism engulf us in the grace of God and immerse us in the movement and work of the Holy Spirit. Truly, friends, remember your baptism and be thankful, and know that the Holy Spirit is at work within you.
  • But at the same time, there’s another part of our passage this morning that we don’t normally hear on this Sunday – a part of the passage that brings contention to those reaffirming and holy waters, a part of the passage that reminds us that water and challenge have gone hand-in-hand for as long as humans have sought out the water.
    • Text: Many Pharisees and Sadducees came to be baptized by John. He said to them, “You children of snakes! Who warned you to escape from the angry judgment that is coming soon? Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives. And don’t even think about saying to yourselves, Abraham is our father. I tell you that God is able to raise up Abraham’s children from these stones. The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and tossed into the fire.”[8] → It’s certainly not the only time that Matthew calls out the Pharisees and Sadducees in this gospel account, but it is the first time. Maybe it’s because it’s the first time that it feels so harsh, or maybe it’s because John’s judgment in this passage is juxtaposed with the beauty and acceptance and joy of Jesus’ own baptism just a few lines later. But in actuality, it’s because of that beauty and acceptance and joy that this part of the passage is so important.
      • As we said, John’s call to baptism = call to change our hearts and minds, to truly repent not just in word but in deed and in dedication → It’s a called to a renewed and authentic relationship with God.
      • But we know that throughout Matthew’s gospel narrative, this is a change that the Pharisees and Sadducees refuse to make. They are the quintessential lived example of those who refused to see Christ for who he was and to receive the grace of God when it was literally walking and teaching and loving and breathing in their midst.
        • Important to point out – this is not just about the Pharisees and Sadducees à scholar: The message is not some distorted rejection of Israel, in the form of the Pharisees and Sadducees, as the divine judgment of the gospel. We are included among any who hold the divine call for repentance and new life in disdain or contempt.[9] → John uses the Pharisees and Sadducees as his illustration in that moment because they were there. They were the material he had to work with. And he knew – because he was a prophet, because the Holy Spirit was speaking through him, because he was already being hassled by the Pharisees and Sadducees for his own ministry – that they would not accept the coming Messiah. He knew that their baptisms would just be lip service, not a true and genuine change that seeped into their very souls.
          • John’s imagery = that of an ax and a tree that bears no fruit → And what’s one of the main reasons a plant – be it tree, tomato, or tulip – bears no fruit? Because it’s lacking the basic necessity of life: water. The roots can’t access the required moisture the plant needs to survive, so first it stops producing the fruit it needs to make more plants. Then, it begins to wither. Eventually, it dies. Though it may be a stark image, friends, our faith is no different. If we can’t let the waters of baptism seep into our very souls – into the core of who we are … if we can’t let those promises and that grace and that call from God effect real and lasting change in our saying and doing and being, then our faith will stop producing fruit and wither.
  • This morning, during worship, we’re going to be remembering our baptisms. As we do so, I invite you to immerse yourself once again in those promises, in that grace, in that call from God. As you feel the coolness of the water on your skin, feel also the wholeness and restoration that God’s grace brings. Feel also God’s pull on your heart, your soul, your life. “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” Alleluia. Amen.



[3] Ibid.


[5] Mt 3:17.

[6] Mt 3:1, 5-6.

[7] Laura C. Sweat. “Matthew 3:1-6 – Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels – Matthew, vol. 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 34.

[8] Mt 3:7-10.

[9] Dale P. Andrews. “Matthew 3:7-12 – Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels – Matthew, vol. 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 41.

Sunday’s sermon: Faith on the Run

Text used – Matthew 2:1-23

  • More than 100 million. Think for a minute. 100 million is a pretty big number for us to try to comprehend.
    • 100 million seconds = 3 years, 2 months, 2 days, 9 hours, 46 minutes and 40 seconds
    • 100 million miles = roughly the distance between Earth and Mars[1]
    • 100 million heartbeats = about 2 yrs. and 4 mos. worth of heartbeats (average heart beats 115,200 times/day)[2]
    • Roughly ⅓ the population of the whole United States[3] and greater than the entire population of most countries including Germany, England, France, and Italy (individually, not collectively)[4]
    • Yeah, it’s hard to wrap our heads around 100 million. But according to the United Nations, as of May 2022, more than 100 million people around the world have been forcibly displaced as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, or human right violations – what the UN calls “the highest levels of displacement on record.”[5]And according to SOS Children’s Villages, an international organization founded after World War II to provide care and support for children orphaned by war and conflict, children account for more than half of those displaced persons.[6]
      • Devastating not just for the most obvious reason – that these are young, vulnerable, frightened children who have been torn away from everything they know and thrust into a world of uncertainty and the bureaucratic whims of whatever countries they land in à also devastating because (again, according to SOS Children’s Villages) child refugees face incredible risks and dangers including disease, malnutrition, violence, labor exploitation and trafficking
    • And while I know the topic of displaced persons and immigration are a hot topic in America right now – especially with some of the political dealings that have dominated the headlines over the last few days – the vast majority of those 100 million displaced persons around the globe are being hosted by less developed nations – struggling countries in Africa, South America, and Asia[7] taking on the needs and care of their neighbors who have had to flee their homes for fear of their lives and their families lives … lives that have been unalterably turned upside-down, family histories and family paths that have taken a sudden and unexpected turn in a direction they never could have imagined and maybe never would have chosen for themselves had they been given the freedom to do so.
      • Hairpin life-turns that are necessary but no less daunting, dangerous, or desperate because of that necessity
      • A lot like the situations of nearly all of the players in our Scripture reading this morning → Scripture reading that can be separated into 2 parts
        • Story of the Magi visiting the Christ child
        • Story of Joseph and Mary fleeing to Egypt with the baby Jesus to escape King Herod’s horrific edict
  • Let’s start with the 1st half of the story: Magi visiting the newborn Messiah → Technically within the church calendar, Epiphany – the day we celebrate the coming of the Magi to see this newborn king who was foretold to them in the movements of the stars … technically, Epiphany was Friday (Jan. 6). BUT we’re including it this morning for two reasons.
    • FIRST, most of our nativity scenes having included the Magi in them since we set them out at the beginning of December (or whenever it was that you did your Christmas decorating), so Scripturally speaking, we might as well bring them into the story!
    • SECOND, and certainly more importantly, the Magi play a powerful part in the early part of Jesus’ story.
      • Text itself doesn’t tell us much about the identity of these Magi except that there were more than one of them and that they came “from the East” → traditional interpretation tells us …
        • Magi were learned scholars who studied a mystical, spiritual combination of astronomy and astrology → hence their notice of the star and their deep interest in getting to the bottom of its significance
          • Means they were scholars, not kings (despite the hymn we’re going to sing in a bit)
        • Probably came from the region of Persia and beyond
        • Scholar: The word [magi] … designates a priestly class of Persian or Babylonian experts in the occult, such as astrology and the interpretation of dreams.[8]
    • What the text does tell us = major highlights of their journey
      • First stop on their journey: King Herod’s court → And it’s here that the Magi make their fatal mistake – text: They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”[9] → So to understand why this phrasing creates such a tidal wave of horror and violence, we need to understand more about Herod.
        • Scholar: The historical Herod the Great was an Idumean (one from the land of Edom, historically the region south of Judea[10]) who, backed by Rome, had established himself as king by military conquest of his “own” people. The populace, who wanted a king with Jewish blood who was not beholden to the Romans, resented his rule.[11] → So Herod was a king who himself cowtowed to the Roman occupiers – a man of the region but not actually one of the people of Israel. He was a non-Jew ruling over a nation of Jews in a position that was tenuous at best. And here come these magi asking about “the king of the Jews” – a phrase that would surely have set Herod’s political heart racing with fear and frustration.
      • Herod extracts information from the magi about what they’ve seen, how they’ve interpreted it, and where they’re going next, then requests that they report back to him “so [he] too may go and honor [the child]”[12] → Of course, Herod’s true horrific and evil intentions are revealed in the second part of our reading.
      • Magi continue on their journey → find the child with Mary and Joseph → fall to their knees to pay homage to this newborn king → give him their gifts
        • Scholar: The order of actions, homage first and gifts second, is significant. Gift giving can be a way of controlling others. If the first thing the magi do is present their gifts, then it might seem that they are in command of the situation. … That is not the case with the magi. They express their relationship to Christ by kneeling and [paying] homage to him. First, homage. First, worship. First, giving themselves utterly and completely to Christ. Then, offering their regal gifts. It turns out the magi’s fourth gift, paying homage to Christ, is in fact their first gift.[13]
      • Following this action (wrapping up the magi’s part in the story) – text: Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.[14] → Despite their instructions … despite their own previous expectations … despite the possibility that the road that led them back to Herod’s court might have been easier and would have certainly involved a lavish place to rest and refresh themselves before they continued on their return journey home, the Magi followed a different path – God’s path. After their encounter with this “newborn king of the Jews,” their path was forever altered. The change was sudden and unexpected, and it surely took them through lands and lives they weren’t anticipating. But still, they followed.
  • 2nd half of the story = Herod’s reaction → section that many Bibles subtitle “The Escape to Egypt” and “The Massacre of the Infants” or “The Slaughter of the Innocents” or “The Murder of the Bethlehem Children” … not exactly a reaffirming passage → This is where we hear the rest of Herod’s story – horrific, evil intentions and all.
    • God appears to Joseph in a dream (again) and warns him to flee with his family to Egypt “for Herod will soon search for the child in order to kill him.”[15] → Joseph and Mary get up in the middle of the night and leave for Egypt with Jesus where they stayed “until Herod died”[16]
    • Meanwhile, Herod learns that the magi have circumvented him and he is furious → sends soldiers to kill all the children under the age of 2 living in Bethlehem and the surrounding territory
      • Scripture: This fulfilled the words spoken through Jeremiah the prophet: A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and much grieving. Rachel weeping for her children, and she did not want to be comforted, because they were no more.[17] → referencing Jer 31:15, though the fact that this horror had been foretold is of little comfort in the face of such blatant and mighty evil
        • Scholar speaks to the harshness and abruptness of this passage, especially now: Immediately following Christmas, this text comes as a severe jolt. The peace and joy of Christmas give way almost immediately to fear, impending danger, and horrific violence. … Juxtaposing this text with the nativity jerks us out of the coziness and merriment of the season, and brings us face to face with the reality of evil and with the danger and violence of this world in which we live and which the Son of God has entered.[18] → This is the danger and violent reality encountered by so many families and so many children around the world today as they are forcibly displaced from their homes. We can feel our hearts tug and our eyes well up as we hear this passage read – as we take in the abject injustice of Herod’s atrocity – but until we open our eyes and recognize that the same atrocities (and even worse!) are happening all around the world today – to individuals and families and children who are just trying to live their lives in the same way that Joseph and Mary and Jesus were … until our hearts break over that injustice as it happens in our midst today, we cannot in good faith be so outraged by Herod’s actions in our text today.
          • Horrible actions? Yes.
          • Actions that unalterably changed the lives and paths of thousands? Yes.
          • Did the Messiah overcome these horrific actions to bring about the love and kingdom of God anyway? Yes. → And friends, that is the good news. But it is good news that comes with a call – an immediate, insistent call that compels us not to hunker down in our faith, not to wrap it around us like a blanket fort to shield us from the outside world, not to close our eyes and our ears and our hearts to the suffering of others, but to boldly and purposefully follow the unexpected road that God lays out in front of us – the road that leads to change. Because our faith is a faith that moves, friends, not a faith that stands still. And we must move with it.
            • Close with the reverse Prayer of St. Francis[19] (author unknown):

Lord, make me a channel of disturbance.

Where there is apathy, let me provoke;

Where there is compliance, let me bring questioning;

Where there is silence, may I be a voice.

Where there is too much comfort and too little action, grant disruption;

Where there are doors closed and hearts locked,

Grant the willingness to listen.

When laws dictate and pain is overlooked…

When tradition speaks louder than need…

Grant that I may seek rather to do justice than to talk about it;

Disturb us, O Lord.

To be with, as well as for, the alienated;

To love the unlovable as well as the lovely;

Lord, make me a channel of disturbance. Amen.








[8] M. Eugene Boring. ”The Gospel of Matthew: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 8. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 140, 142.

[9] Mt 2:2 (emphasis added).


[11] Boring, 142 (with inserted reference, see FN 10).

[12] Mt 2:8.

[13] Thomas H. Troeger. “Epiphany of the Lord – Matthew 2:1-12 – Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year A, vol. 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 217.

[14] Mt 2:12.

[15] Mt 2:13.

[16] Mt 2:15.

[17] Mt 2:17-18.

[18] Ruthanna B. Hooke. “First Sunday after Christmas – Matthew 2:13-23” in Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year A. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 36-37.


Sunday’s sermon: The Hope of Christmas Future

Text used – Isaiah 35:1-10

  • We’re going to do a little exercise this morning, all. I’m going to give you a word, and I want you to show me what that word looks like with your hands.
    • Love
    • Peace
    • Joy
    • Pray
    • Work
    • Last one: keep → Now, I know the tendency with this one is to closed-fist it. After all, the first definition for “keep” in the dictionary is “have or retain possession of.” But the definition for the Hebrew word generally translated as “keep” is different.
      • From Schlimm’s 70 Hebrew Words Every Christian Should Know: The idea certainly isn’t that you’re holding onto something the way that, say, some of us “keep” old pens in a junk drawer or magazines atop the toilet. The force of the verb in Hebrew is much stronger. It has to do with protection: staying with something, making sure it remains safe, and seeing that it flourishes.[1]
      • With that nuance in mind, let me ask you again: What does “keep” look like?
  • Christmas is just a week away. We are swiftly coming to the end of our Advent journey, and this morning, we have come to the end of Scrooge’s story as well.
    • Final lines of Dickens’ tale: It was always said of him (Scrooge) that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One![2] → We close the pages on Scrooge story with a vastly different character than when we opened them. How did we get from there to here? We could sum it up with one simple word and leave it at that: grace. But let’s dig into it a little more.
      • Particularly in terms of question: What does it mean to “keep” Christmas?
  • Reminder of what we pulled from Rawle’s at the beginning of this series a few weeks ago: Scrooge is an iconic figure who represents stinginess, greed, and generally being in a terrible mood. … Even though by the end of the story Ebenezer Scrooge is a changed person, the character remains a strong caricature of everything our Christmas celebrations shouldn’t be. It seems that we can’t accept that he has been redeemed. But maybe there’s still hope. … After all, if Scrooge can be redeemed, then so can we.[3] → This final portion of Scrooge’s tale that we find ourselves in today is where we see that redemption truly come into focus.
    • See a glimmer of it during his visit with the Ghost of Christmas Past, especially when he’s watching his younger self let his fiancé walk away from him
      • See him regret
      • See him express an emotion other than irritation and surliness
      • See him begin to soften in his demeanor
    • See that glimmer grow even stronger during Scrooge’s visit with the Ghost of Christmas Present
      • See how he’s affected by the conversation around his nephew’s Christmas table – Scrooge’s reaction to both the majority of the people who are disparaging him and his nephew who continues to defend him and speak kindly for him
      • See how he’s affected by the plight of Bob Cratchit’s youngest son, Tiny Tim
    • But unlike the relatively soft and familiar transition between the Ghost of Christmas Past and the Ghost of Christmas Present – a transition that saw Scrooge returned to his own home and his own bed – this time, the Ghost of Christmas Present leaves Scrooge standing alone in a deserted street – story: The bell struck Twelve. Scrooge looked about him for the Ghost, and saw it not. As the last stroke ceased to vibrate, he remembered the prediction of old Jacob Marley, and, lifting up his eyes, beheld a solemn Phantom, draped and hooded, coming like a mist along the ground towards him.[4] → Remember the original title of A Christmas Carol? “A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas.” Yeah … this visitation from the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come – this visitation above all the others – is where the “Ghost Story of Christmas” part comes in.
      • By far the starkest, “ghostiest” visitation → Spirit shows Scrooge firsthand a bleak future indeed
        • Future without him → future in which no one mourns him but instead mock him
          • Gravediggers mock the lack of attendance at his burial
          • Those irreverently pawing through his possessions mock the fact that he had no one
        • Future also lacking another: Tiny Tim → contrast: all those who mourn Tiny Tim
        • Last thing the Spirit reveals to Scrooge = his own headstone → cements Scrooge’s change: “Spirit!” he cried, tight clutching at its robe, “hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope?” For the first time the hand appeared to shake. “Good Spirit,” he pursued, as down upon the ground he fell before it: “your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me by an altered life?” The kind hand trembled. “I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.”[5]
  • And it’s the repentance and hope and pleading that I hear in Scrooge’s voice in this passage that reminds me of our Scripture reading from Isaiah this morning.
    • Reading brimming with hope and redemption after difficulty: The desert and the dry land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom like the crocus. They will burst into bloom, and rejoice with joy and singing. They will receive the glory of Lebanon, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon. They will see the Lord’s glory, the splendor of our God. … Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf will be cleared. Then the lame will leap like the deer, and the tongues of the speechless will sing. Waters will spring up in the desert, and streams in the wilderness. The burning sand will become a pool, and the thirsty ground, fountains of water. … Happiness and joy will overwhelm them; grief and groaning will flee away.[6]
      • Reminder: Isaiah is giving voice to these words to those who had been forcibly relocated from their homes in Jerusalem to Babylon (capitol of the Chaldean empire) when the Babylonian army conquered the southern Kingdom of Judah in the late 6th BCE
        • Those who have been conquered
        • Those who have been displaced
        • Those who, though they have been given freedom to move about within the confines of Babylon, were barred from returning home for more than a generation
      • Scholar – powerful interpretation of this passage: In this reading, the opening of the eyes of the blind, the unstopping of the ears of the deaf and the enlivening of the limbs of the disabled are not miraculous healings. Instead, God will confront those who have made themselves blind to injustice with searing visions. Those who made themselves deaf to the cries of God’s poor and marginalized will be unable to shut out their cries. And those who lounged in luxury will run away in fear from their palaces like a frightened deer. All this will cause the mouth that has been shut up for fear of further persecution to sing for joy.[7] → If we think about Isaiah’s words through this lens, we see the redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge even more clearly in this passage. Truly, Scrooge was one who stubbornly and categorically refused to see and hear and act on the plight of those in need, and yet even he is redeemed.
    • Rawle ties this ultimate redemption to God’s overwhelming, indelible grace: Salvation is a process, and it begins today! … Grace to you from [God] who is, and who was, and who is to come. A God who is means that we are not abandoned. A God who was means that we are forgiven. A God who is to come means that God can be trusted. … God loves us, has forgiven us, and has given us purpose for the future, beginning today as servants to God and for each other. Through faith in Christ, our present, our past, and our future are held together in grace.[8]
  • And when we think of that idea of “keeping Christmas” throughout the year, that’s ultimately our aim.
    • Not about keeping the Christmas lights on the house all year long
    • Not about keeping our eyes peeled for the perfect gift or the perfect Christmas cookie recipe all year long
    • Not about playing Christmas albums or watching Christmas movies in July
    • That idea of “keeping Christmas” has more to do with that Hebrew definition that I mentioned earlier: “It has to do with protection: staying with something, making sure it remains safe, and seeing that it flourishes.” “Keeping Christmas” is about sheltering and nurturing and holding space for what we believe each and every day: that God came down to take on humanity that night out of God’s own love for us. The Word became flesh and loved among us. God’s own eternal Story took on everything it meant to be human – including pain and fear and anxiety and grief – exactly so that Jesus could meet us wherever we need him most in the midst of our stories to remind us that through God’s grace, we are named and claimed, forgive and freed.
      • Ringing truth of this can be hard enough to keep in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the holiday season – all the to-do lists and expectations and commitments (those placed on us by others and, even more persistent, those we place on ourselves) → poem by Ann Weems: “This Year Will Be Different[9]
        • “May that truly be said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!” Alleluia! Amen.

[1] Matthew Richard Schlimm. 70 Hebrew Words Every Christian Should Know. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2018), 64.

[2] Charles Dickens. A Christmas Carol. (White Plains: Peter Pauper Press, Inc., 2022), 126.

[3] Matt Rawle. The Redemption of Scrooge. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2016), 18.

[4] Dickens, 91.

[5] Dickens, 113-114.

[6] Is 35:1-2, 6-7a, 10b.

[7] Cory Driver. “Commentary on Isaiah 35:1-10” from Working Preacher,

[8] Rawle, 126, 128.

[9] Ann Weems. “This Year Will Be Different” from Kneeling in Bethlehem: Poetry for Advent and Christmas. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993), 71.

Sunday’s sermon: The Life of Christmas Present

Text used – Luke 1:46-55

  • Nearly 40 years ago, American physician and author Spencer Johnson wrote a little book – a modern-day parable of sorts.
    • May be familiar with Johnson’s name from some of his other books – all fall under the “self-help” category
      • First book: The One-Minute Manager[1]
      • Book from the late 90s: Who Moved My Cheese?[2] (about dealing with change in healthy ways)
        • Sequel: Out of the Maze[3] – published posthumously (about finding your way through life’s “stuck moments”)
    • Now, admittedly, these were not the books I was reading as they came out – certainly not as a baby with his earlier books, and not as a middle schooler or even as an adult with his later books. Johnson’s work came to my attention with that little modern-day parable that he wrote in 1984: The Precious Present[4].
      • When I joined the speech team in 7th grade, my very first piece was The Precious Present. I spent 3-4 months reading this piece aloud at least 4 times a week – once in practices, then again in each of three rounds during the speech tournaments every Saturday from Jan.-Mar.
      • Short story about a little boy and an old man → old man promises to give the little boy the most precious present → “present” = play on words → as he grows into a man, the old man continues to try to teach the boy that the most precious gift is finding the joy and blessing in the present moment
        • Not exactly a smooth journey for the boy, especially not as he grows into an adult preoccupied with material pursuits like wealth, success, and distinction → And though he eventually comes around to the true value of the gift – the precious present – the grown boy is initially very angry when he finds out that this valued gift that he’s built up in his mind and his imagination has nothing whatsoever to do with money or worldly success. It is not the treasure he expected at all.
  • A reality that is far from the expected … from the anticipated … from the imagined. That certainly sounds like both Mary’s story and Scrooge’s story to me.
    • Last week – left Scrooge reeling after his visit with the Ghost of Christmas Past → visit that reintroduced him to his former self
      • Self he was before his love of and desire for money consumed him
      • Self who had certainly experienced the stinging cold of rejection but had also experienced the loving warmth of family and friends – his sister, Fanny; his old boss and mentor, Fezziwig; his former fiancé, Bell
      • Encounter that seemed to thaw Scrooge’s heart, if only just a little → also left two promised spirit visits to go
      • What is to come this week – Rawle: The Ghost of Christmas Present is about to take Scrooge on a journey, offering Scrooge a window into the way things are that he could not experience by himself. If anyone can tell it like it is, the Ghost of Christmas Present certainly can.[5]
    • Scripture last week = portion of Esther’s story in which Esther is called to action “for such a time as this” → Esther called to act in a place and manner and time in which only she can act
      • Gateway into this week’s Scripture reading: Mary’s words of praise and thanksgiving most often called “The Magnificat”
  • Though our Scripture reading this morning comes relatively early in the book of Luke – toward the end of only the first chapter – a lot has already happened in this gospel story.
    • Angels have been busy!
      • Announcing the coming of John the Baptist to John’s father, Zechariah → John’s subsequent birth[6]
      • Announcing the birth of Jesus to Mary[7]
    • Mary going to visit her cousin, Elizabeth (mother of John before his birth)[8]
    • Mary’s words of praise in our reading today are in response to Elizabeth’s own words of praise and thanksgiving: When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. With a loud voice, she blurted out, “God has blessed you above all women, and he has blessed the child you carry. Why do I have this honor, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb jumped for joy. Happy is she who believed that the Lord would fulfill the promises he made to her.”[9] → I love this because as far as we can tell from the text, this joy-filled exchange between Elizabeth and Mary happens immediately upon Mary entering Elizabeth and Zechariah’s house. They haven’t observed any of the hospitality rituals expected at the time – no foot washing, no welcoming embrace or kiss of peace. Frankly, we can’t even tell whether Mary’s hasty visit to Zechariah and Elizabeth was expected. Nothing in Scripture indicates that they knew Mary was coming. We’re just told that Mary hurried to their home after her encounter with the angel Gabriel. I imagine Mary being welcomed into the home by Zechariah and calling out for her cousin Elizabeth who was in another part of the home making preparations of some kind – the meal, maybe, or some light housework. I imagine that Elizabeth heard Mary before she saw her, and that was when baby John jumped in her womb.
      • Fascinating exchange because both of these women find themselves in unexpected circumstances
        • Elizabeth and Zechariah are old – well beyond expected child-bearing age, especially at that time → They weren’t as old as Abraham and Sarah when Sarah became pregnant with Isaac, but they were old enough for Zechariah to scoff in the face of an angel when the Gabriel tried to tell him about John’s birth!
        • Opposite end of the spectrum: Mary is young and not yet married → By historical cultural standards, Mary was probably in her early teens – 12-14 yrs. old – and while she is engaged to be married to this presumably older and successful carpenter, they aren’t married yet. Still, she finds herself pregnant with God’s own child! “Mind-blowing” doesn’t really even begin to cover it!
    • And yet, in the face of these wholly unexpected and uncertain circumstances, we find both Elizabeth and Mary deeply inhabiting this present moment and finding utter and absolute joy in it! – Mary’s words: With all my heart I glorify the Lord! In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior. He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant. Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored because the mighty one has done great things for me. Holy is his name.[10]
      • Gr. makes it clear that Mary’s entire self is invested in this praise[11]
        • Gr. “heart” (“With all my heart I glorify the Lord!”) = word that encompasses the breath, the individual, the soul → It’s the word for what makes each person unique – their identity, will, personality, affections. It’s our individuality. So everything that makes Mary her true and genuine self is giving glory to God.
        • Gr. “depths of who I am” = much more general word for spirit, wind, breath – usually denotes that part of our humanity which is rational → So even setting her surging emotions aside, Mary recognizes this moment as one that is profound and extraordinary – a moment that requires praise.
      • Truly, friends, I think few texts within the whole of the Bible convey joy in the way that today’s passage does. It is joy that encompasses the whole history of the people of Israel, to be sure. Mary speaks of God’s mercy “from one generation to the next” as well as all the ways God cares and provides for those who are in difficult states – those who are without power, without food, without justice. But it is also a joy rooted firmly in the moment.
        • Rooted in the joy of sharing this miraculous thing that has happened to her
        • Rooted in the joy of being chosen by God for this incredible task
        • Rooted in the joy of truly embodying faith in a way that she never has before – that no one ever has before or ever will again!
  • The abundant joy of Mary’s present moment is reflected in the abundance the accompanies the Ghost of Christmas Present when he visits Ebenezer Scrooge.
    • No sooner had he returned from his journey with the Ghost of Christmas Past than Scrooge is awoken once again by the striking of the clock and a visit from yet another spirit – the Ghost of Christmas Present → read from Stave Three:

The walls and ceiling were so hung with living green, that it looked a perfect grove. The leaves of holly, mistletoe, and ivy reflected back the light, as if many little mirrors had been scattered there; and such a mighty blaze went roaring up the chimney, as that petrifaction of a hearth had never known in Scrooge’s time, or Marley’s, or for many and many a winter season gone. Heaped upon the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and great bowls of punch. In easy state upon this couch there sat a Giant glorious to see; who bore a glowing torch, in shape not unlike Plenty’s horn, and who raised it high to shed its light on Scrooge, as he came peeping round the door. 

      • This is probably the visit that people tend to be most familiar with because it is this spirit that brings Scrooge to the house of his horrendously overworked and underpaid assistant, Bob Cratchit. It is here that Scrooge observes just how little the family has – using the word “meager” to describe their Christmas dinner would be generous! – and yet how much love and joy they find in one another. And it is here that Scrooge learns about Bob’s youngest son, Tiny Tim, and his health struggles.
        • But visiting the Cratchits is not all the Ghost of Christmas Present does → takes Scrooge around to see all sorts of other Christmas festivities as they’re occurring – all celebrations bathed in the warmth of love and joy despite the circumstances the participants find themselves in
          • Rawle ties this to the Christmas story that we continue to inch ever-closer to: At its heart, the first Nativity is as story born out of poverty, where scarcity is transformed into abundance by a God who will stop at nothing to be with us.[12]
        • Spirit even takes Scrooge to the Christmas celebration he himself had been invited to – that of his nephew, Fred, and his wife → Scrooge observes everyone else around the table making fun of him and talking poorly about him, yet still his nephew defends him: “I have no patience with him,” observed Scrooge’s niece. Scrooge’s niece’s sister, and all the other ladies, expressed the same opinion. “Oh, I have!” said Scrooge’s nephew. “I am sorry for him; I couldn’t be angry with him if I tried. Who suffers by his ill whims? Himself always. Here he takes it into his head to dislike us, and he won’t come and dine with us. What’s the consequence? … he loses some pleasant moments, which could do him no harm. I am sure he loses pleasanter companions than he can find in his own thoughts, either in his moldy old office or his dusty chambers. I mean to give him the same chance every year, whether he likes it or not, for I pity him.”[13] → Even in the face of Scrooge’s own cruelty and dismissiveness – in the face of all his abuse and “bah! humbugs!” – Fred continues to give Scrooge a chance to open himself to the joy of the moment. And now, in no uncertain terms, Scrooge knows And that knowledge continues to bring about a slow dawning of change in Scrooge.
          • Rawle: This is what happens when you let Christ in. Christ transforms fear itself into an embodiment of hope.[14] → The first week of Advent, we talked about how we necessarily find hope in the waiting places – those in-between places of uncertainty. Mary’s words of praise and joy this morning remind us that, when we open ourselves up to God in those waiting places – and in all the other uncomfortable places in our hearts and our lives – we can find joy there, too. It may not be the bursting, overabundant joy of Mary’s Magnificat. It may be a subtler joy … a quieter joy … a joy that simple twinkles every now and then like a single candle flame instead of beaming bright light a searchlight. But it is still joy. It is joy because there is where we have found God among us. Alleluia. Amen.

[1] Spencer Johnson. The One Minute Manager. (New York: William Morrow and Company), 1982.

[2] Spencer Johnson. Who Moved My Cheese?: An Amazing Way to Deal With Change in Your Work and In Your Life. (New York: Vermilion), 1998.

[3] Spencer Johnson. Out of the Maze: An A-Mazing Way to Get Unstuck. (New York: Portfolio), 2018.

[4] Spencer Johnson. The Precious Present. (New York: Doubleday Publishing Group), 1984.

[5] Matt Rawle. The Redemption of Scrooge. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2016), 81.

[6] Lk 1:5-25.

[7] Lk 1:26-38.

[8] Lk 1:39-45.

[9] Lk 1:42-45.

[10] Lk 1:46-49.

[11] Exegesis by Rev. Elana Keppel Levy:

[12] Rawle, 97.

[13] Charles Dickens. A Christmas Carol. (White Plains: Peter Pauper Press, Inc., 2022), 82, 83.

[14] Rawle, 90.

Sunday’s sermon: The Remembrance of Christmas Past

Text used – Esther 4:1-17

  • Last week, we reacquainted ourselves with Charles Dickens’ classic Christmas character Ebenezer Scrooge and talked about the power of hope even when we think that hope cannot be found. This week, we move forward in our Advent journey together and in our journey through Scrooge’s tale together by encountering the Ghost of Christmas Past and considering this idea of the past – and of making peace with the past – through what might be an unexpected Scriptural lens: the story of Esther.
    • Reminder of the basics of Esther’s story
      • King Ahashuerus = King of Persia → ruled a huge swath of land – “from India to Cush – one hundred twenty-seven provinces in all[1],” according to Scripture
        • Basically the entire Middle East (minus the Arabian Peninsula, or modern day Saudi Arabia and all the small surrounding countries there) as well as Turkey, Greece, and much of southeastern Europe including parts of Italy and Austria → This is a HUGE area, folx!
      • At the culmination of a week-long drunken party with all his officials, Ahashuerus calls his beautiful queen, Vashti, to come display her beauty before all the assembled guests (the male guests, of course, because the women had their own party) → implication: she was supposed to come completely unclothed → not surprisingly, Vashti refuses the king’s request and is subsequently banished from the kingdom forevermore
      • King Ahashuerus seeks out a new queen → chooses Esther, unaware of the fact that Esther is a Jew
      • Meanwhile Haman, one of the king’s main advisors, is plotting to get rid of all the Jews – to completely wipe them out! – because they refused to bow down and worship the king and his officials → particularly offended by Esther’s cousin and guardian, Mordecai
      • Mordecai learns of Haman’s plot and turns to his cousin, Esther, the new queen for help = today’s passage → And truly, there is no mistaking the gravity of this situation in Esther. – text: When Mordecai learned what had been done, he tore his clothes, dressed in mourning clothes, and put ashes on his head. Then he went out into the heart of the city and cried out loudly and bitterly.[2]
        • “When Mordecai learned what had been done” … What had been done? – just prior to today’s text: Fast runners were to take the order to all the provinces of the king (all 127 provinces, remember). The order commanded people to wipe out, kill, and destroy all the Jews, both young and old, even women and little children. This was to happen on a single day – the thirteenth day of the twelfth month (that is, the month of Adar). They were also to seize their property. A copy of the order was to become law in each province and to be posted in public for all peoples to read. The people were to be ready for this day to do as the order commanded. Driven by the king’s order the runners left Susa just as the law became public in the fortified part of Susa. While the king and Haman sat down to have a drink, the city of Susa was in total shock.[3] → Certainly explains Mordecai’s reaction, doesn’t it? Even more so when we remember that it was because of his own refusal to bow down to Haman that drew the vain and hateful official’s attention and wrath upon the Jews to begin with.
    • Today’s passage = Mordecai reversing his previous instruction to Esther that she keep her Jewish identity a secret → Now, in the face of this dire and desperate threat, Mordecai is imploring Esther to use the power of her position and the truth of her heritage to save the lives of all the Jews from India to Cush. But Esther is afraid.
      • Afraid of the king’s seemingly fickle anger
      • Afraid for her own personal safety
      • Afraid because of the precedent sent by the king’s actions in the past → banishing Vashti for refusing him … for making him look like a fool → What would he do to a new queen to interrupted his business when she wasn’t called?
  • That place where the past affects the actions of the present = where our Scripture story and Scrooge’s story intersect this morning → While Esther hovers in that place of uncertainty – will she let her feelings from the past inhibit her actions in the present – we turn to the example of one who most definitely let the hurts of the past inhibit his entire being: Ebenezer Scrooge.
    • Ghost of Christmas Past first takes Scrooge to his childhood where Scrooge is reminded of how solitary and lonely his childhood is
    • Next stop = spirit takes Scrooge to his youth
      • Apprenticeship with Fezziwig in a counting house as unlike Scrooge’s own as can be
        • Fezziwig is kind, jovial, and generous
        • Roaring fire warms the entire room
        • Fezziwig dismisses his apprentices early on Christmas Eve with holiday blessings → dismisses them to a lavish Christmas party hosted by Fezziwig himself and his wife
      • Scene in which Scrooge’s fiancé Bell breaks their engagement, pointing out how Scrooge’s greed has consumed everything in him, leaving no room for love or for her
        • [read from Stave Two]: 

          “Your own feeling tells you that you were not what you are,” she returned. “I am. That which promised happiness when we were one in heart, is fraught with misery now that we are two. How often and how keenly I have thought of this, I will not say. It is enough that I have thought of it, and can release you.”

          “Have I ever sought release?”

          “In words? No. Never.”

          “In what, then?”

          “In a changed nature; in an altered spirit; in another atmosphere of life; another Hope as its great end. In everything that made my love of any worth or value in your sight. If this had never been between us,” said the girl, looking mildly, but with steadiness, upon him; “tell me, would you seek me out and try to win me now? Ah, no!” …

          “You may — the memory of what is past half makes me hope you will — have pain in this. A very, very brief time, and you will dismiss the recollection of it, gladly, as an unprofitable dream, from which it happened well that you awoke. May you be happy in the life you have chosen.”

          She left him, and they parted.

    • Final scene = more recent interaction between Bell and her current husband in which she is reminiscing about her former fiancé, Scrooge → her husband’s response: Scrooge is “quite alone in the world”
      • This final scene proves too much for Scrooge. He begs the Ghost of Christmas Past to take him back to his bed, eventually seizing the spirit’s hat himself and shoving it firmly onto the spirit’s head, extinguishing his mystical light and returning Scrooge immediately to his own bed. He is back in the same place … but even after just this first encounter, he is no longer the same person.
    • Rawle’s synopsis: Scrooge comes face to face with the Ghost of Christmas Past, and in doing so, he is reminded of things that have happened to him in the past. These remembrances bring him both joy and pain, but they help remind him of who he was and from where he came.[4] → We are told outright that Scrooge’s greed is one of the main sources of his current, joyless, miserable state. Over and over again, Dickens drives home just how miserly Ebenezer Scrooge is – how he hoards his money and constantly counts his money and places his money at the heart of his whole existence. But through this first visitation, we also get some insight into another element that has frozen Scrooge’s heart: rejection and the loneliness that comes from it.
      • Rejected by his friends
      • Punished by his father for the frivolity of simply being a child → sent away to school and forbidden to return home until many years have passed
      • Ultimately rejected by his fiancé when it became clear that his love and desire money had eclipsed his love and desire for her companionship
      • Time and time again, Scrooge is left alone. And we’ve all been left alone at some point, haven’t we? We know how painful that is. We know how empty loneliness feels. And when that loneliness comes not by our own bidding or our own actions but by the rejection of others, it can be even more painful – painful enough to freeze a heart and turn a soul’s focus entirely to something concrete that can be physically counted and piled high and hoarded … something like money. His past is no excuse for Scrooge’s meanness and spiteful behavior. But it is the beginning of an explanation.
  • In a way, Esther receives her own convicting and persuasive soliloquy similar to the speech that Bell delivers to Scrooge. In her speech, Bell is trying to make Scrooge see the reality of the way things are. We don’t know whether she’s just saying things to make her point or whether she’s actually trying to persuade Scrooge to change – to return to her. But in Esther’s case, things are much clearer.
    • Esther expresses her reluctance to go before the king unbidden because of the past → king’s anger at her unexpected intrusion could mean banishment or even death
    • But in the face of this reluctance, Mordecai does not mince words: Don’t think for one minute that, unlike all the other Jews, you’ll come out of this alive simply because you are in the palace. In fact, if you don’t speak up at this very important time, relief and rescue will appear for the Jews from another place, but you and your family will die. But who knows? Maybe it was for a moment like this that you came to be part of the royal family.[5] → Mordecai is clearly and boldly calling Esther to action and is also making it just as clear that, if she chooses to let her fear and uncertainty make her decisions and she chooses not to help save her people, salvation will come from some other quarter, but because of her inaction, it will not come for her. In this, Mordecai displays an incredible and unwavering faith in God. The question is will Esther do the same?
      • Ultimately, Esther chooses to act → results in the salvation of all the Jews as well as revealing Haman’s scheming and bringing down punishment for that scheming
  • The fact is inescapable, friends, that we are creatures formed and informed by our pasts. Our pasts cannot be changed, no matter how deeply we wish it. We can go over and over and over past conversations and past actions, thing again and again about what we could have said or what we should have done, but that doesn’t change what has already happened.
    • Rawle: For good or ill, our memories shape who we are, and these memories offer us a default picture of what the world is and our role within it.[6]
    • Question: How will we let that past – those memories – shape us? → Will we let them inspire us? Will we let them give us both wisdom and courage to do better next time? Or will we let them eat away at us, slowly making our hearts bitter, our spirits suspicious, and our minds judgmental? Will we let God open our eyes to the ways in which we are called to do and be in the face of all that is going on around us, or will we let the barbs of the past hold us back and even derail us from the purpose to which we are called?
      • Rawle: We are not called to be perfect so much as we are perfectly suited with a gift through which we respond to God’s grace. Scrooge is beginning to realize how the person he is doesn’t look much like the person he once was. His bitterness has consumed any hint of love or joy he once knew. In a way, he’s been walking down a path not intended for him to tread – he is not living the perfect plan for his life. I am not perfect, and neither are you, but we are perfectly made to follow Christ. → With all our past decisions, our past triumphs, and our past mistakes … still, we are perfectly made to follow Christ. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Est 1:1.

[2] Est 4:1.

[3] Est 3:13-15.

[4] Matt Rawle. The Redemption of Scrooge. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2016), 50.

[5] Est 4:13-14.

[6] Rawle, 54.

Sunday’s sermon: “Bah! Humbug!”

Text used – Habakkuk 1:1-5; 2:1-4; 3:17-19

  • “Bah! Humbug!” It’s a refrain we all recognize, right? It’s a phrase we all associate with one person: Scrooge! That truly singular and unmatched character from Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol.
    • Originally published in 1843
    • Story that’s been adapted to film no less than 135 times – everything from …
      • Silent film version entitled Scrooge, or, Marley’s Ghost in 1901
      • Classic Mickey’s Christmas Carol done by Disney in 1983
      • Classic Scrooge starring Albert Finney in 1970
      • The Muppet’s Christmas Carol in 1992
      • Fully computer animated version in 2009
      • Other off-shoots
        • Scrooged starring Bill Murray from 1988
        • Most recent Spirited starring Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds
      • Adaptations go far beyond film – you can find A Christmas Carol
        • Theater productions
        • Radio programs
        • Audio recordings
        • Operas
        • Ballets
        • Graphic novels
        • Comic strips
        • Video games
        • Podcasts
    • For many, the Christmas season hasn’t truly begun until they’ve watched their favorite version, either on their own with a plate of gingerbread cookies and a cozy mug of hot chocolate or with family and friends. There’s just something about the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, his moonlit wanderings through past and present and future, the lessons he gleans along the way, and his ultimate redemption that draws us back again and again.
    • Also a story that’s a perfect traveling companion for the season of Advent – read Redemption of Scrooge[1], p. 10
  • So we begin at the beginning of Scrooge’s story this morning.
    • Dickens’ own description of Scrooge: Oh! but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.[2]
      • Rawle’s slightly more general description: Scrooge is an iconic figure who represents stinginess, greed, and generally being in a terrible mood. … Even though by the end of the story Ebenezer Scrooge is a changed person, the character remains a strong caricature of everything our Christmas celebrations shouldn’t be.[3]
    • First stave (section) of Dickens’ story gives us a truly unsurpassable impression of a man focused on just one thing: money
      • Making it
      • Keeping it
      • Counting it
    • Also introduces the equally stingy and equally crucial character of Scrooge’s former partner, Jacob Marley – a man who, by his own description (via his chain-adorned ghost), was focused on all the wrong things during his life: making money, keeping money, counting money … a misalignment of priorities that he has realized all too late
  • Just as Marley attempts to warn Scrooge of his own wildly misaligned priorities, so the prophets of the First Testament were trying to warn the people of Israel and Judah of their own wildly misaligned priorities
    • Description of Habakkuk – scholar: Habakkuk’s prophecies date to the dawn of the 6th century BCE, when Babylon was bearing down on Judah after defeating the Assyrian Empire to become the dominant regional power. Like many other biblical prophets, Habakkuk interprets Babylon’s incursions as God’s judgment on Judah’s internal politics.[4] → For generations leading up to Habakkuk’s time, the people of Israel had been turning further and further from God. Sometimes they had been led there by kings who were themselves growing increasingly more corrupt and idolatrous. Sometimes they were led there through their own circumstances – those who had married people from other cultures who worshiped other gods. Many times, through the words of various prophets including Habakkuk, God tried to call the people back to that covenant relationship God had made with them. But each time, they fell away again.
      • Result of that falling away makes up the beginning of our Scripture reading this morning – Habakkuk crying out to God to notice the desperate plight of the people: Lord, how long will I call for help and you not listen? I cry out to you, “Violence!” but you don’t deliver us. Why do you show me injustice and look at anguish so that devastation and violence are before me? There is strife, and conflict abounds. The Instruction is ineffective. Justice does not endure because the wicked surround the righteous. Justice becomes warped. Look among the nations and watch! Be astonished and stare because something is happening in your days that you wouldn’t believe even if told.[5]
        • Scholar makes an important point about this seemingly-harsh passage: The prophet’s cry of frustration—“O LORD, how long?”—is shared with over a dozen psalms, as well as with other laments across the prophetic corpus. The question testifies to prolonged suffering; the speaker cannot imagine an end to the misery. Habakkuk does not hesitate to call God to account, giving voice to what he perceives is God’s refusal to respond to the prophet’s cries for help. That in and of itself is an important reminder for congregations: that being angry at God, or feeling that God seems absent, is “allowed,” and in fact has biblical precedents—and yet those feelings of despair are never the end of the story.[6]
    • Just as Marley is sent to Scrooge as an initial warning, so Habakkuk is sent by God as a warning to the people of Israel – a declaration that change must come
      • Scripture: Then the Lord answered me and said, Write a vision, and make it plain upon a tablet so that a runner can read it. There is still a vision for the appointed time; it testifies to the end; it does not deceive. If it delays, wait for it; for it is surely coming; it will not be late. Some people’s desires are truly audacious; they don’t do the right thing. But the righteous person will live honestly.[7] → God is not trying to hide salvation from the people. God’s promised salvation is coming. Change is coming. Hope is coming. But those promised comings don’t negate the present circumstances. The people are still living in the midst of the lives and culture that they made for themselves. Here we see a prominent difference between our Scripture reading this morning and Scrooge’s story: timing.
        • Scrooge’s story = accelerated → all the revelations and changes come in the span of one single night – in the roughly 17 hours between sundown on Christmas Eve and daybreak on Christmas morning
        • God’s timeline = much, much longer → And it’s that waiting that can be so incredibly hard, isn’t it? Intellectually, we know that Advent is a season of waiting, and we can spin that in all sorts of holly jolly ways: “It’s a season of anticipation” – a word that sounds so much shinier and more palatable than “waiting” … “It’s a season in which the light draws ever closer” which is meant to distract us that, in the absence of the light, things can be dark and cold and uncertain and scary … “It’s a season of preparation” which makes us feel like there’s at least something we can do in the face of the waiting.
    • Sort of helps us understand the desperation and frustration that we hear in Habakkuk’s complaints at the beginning of our reading this morning, doesn’t it? → When we’re holding out for something new, something different, something more, something sure, the waiting can seem interminable and even unbearable.
      • Rawle makes a particular tie btwn the agony of waiting and the season of Advent: Advent is to be a time of waiting, not only to live into the tension of when the divine and creation collide, but it is the spiritual discipline of slowing down to notice God’s presence in the still small voice within a violent and hurried world.[8]
  • But the thing about waiting is that only in that space between what is unknown and what is known can we find hope. Once a thing has been confirmed, has been made sure, has been defined and named, has been given substance and certainty, we move from hope to something else. Hope is born and lives and even thrives in the waiting places.
    • Hope expressed by Habakkuk at the end of our reading this morning: Though the fig tree doesn’t bloom, and there’s no produce on the vine; though the olive crop withers, and the fields don’t provide food; though the sheep are cut off from the pen, and there are no cattle in the stalls; I will rejoice in the Lord. I will rejoice in the God of my deliverance. The Lord God is my strength. He will set my feet like deer. He will let me walk upon the heights.[9] → Clearly, things are falling apart all around Habakkuk. Things are not going well for the people of Israel. But still, Habakkuk declares his hope remains in “the God of my deliverance.”
    • Rawle: I like to think about hope as “possibility.” Hope is the picture of all that God can accomplish. There will never be a day when dream about God’s goodness will pass, so there will never be a day not in need of hope.[10]
      • If ever there was a story about the power of hope, it is Scrooge’s story
        • Hope that was dashed
        • Hope that was repressed
        • Hope that finally burst forth
        • Hope that overcame
      • If ever there was a story about the power of hope, it is God’s story
        • Hope that was born
        • Hope that lived and breathe and loved and wept
        • Hope that taught
        • Hope that suffered and died and rose again once and for all
  • Good news
    • Just as Scrooge did not travel through this revelatory midnight wanderings alone, we do not travel alone either
      • God travels with us in the midst of it all
      • We travel with one another → Here to help each other see. Here to help each other trust. Here to help each other take the next step forward … and the next … and the next.
    • Hope endures all – all around us and all with us, all that is in our control and all that is out of our control à Rawle: Even though by the end of the story Ebenezer Scrooge is a changed person, the character remains a strong caricature of everything our Christmas celebrations shouldn’t be. It seems that we can’t accept that he has been redeemed. But maybe there’s still hope. Maybe over the course of this study, even Ebenezer Scrooge’s name might come to mean something different to you. After all, if Scrooge can be redeemed, then so can we.[11] → Alleluia. Amen.

[1] Matt Rawle. The Redemption of Scrooge. (Nashville: Abingdon Press), 2016.

[2] Charles Dickens. A Christmas Carol, illustrated ed. (White Plains: Peter Pauper Press, Inc., 2022), 5-6.

[3] Rawle, 18.

[4] Cameron B.R. Howard. “Commentary on Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:2-4; 3:[3b-6] 17-19” from Working Preacher,

[5] Hab 1:2-5.

[6] Howard.

[7] Hab 2:1-4.

[8] Rawle, 36.

[9] Hab 3:17-19.

[10] Rawle, 34.

[11] Rawle, 18.