Yes, Virginia, there is a Christmas Day coming — even in the year 2020! We don’t want you to miss any of the opportunities St. Mark’s has as we commemorate the birth of our Lord in that humble stable setting in Bethlehem.
Of course, 2020’s indelible mark comes with these holidays. Most of us will not be gathering in person, because of the coronavirus pandemic, which continues to ravage our world. But we can still gather in both real and virtual ways, thanks to the faithful, multifaceted efforts of our St. Mark’s family, led by Interim Pastor David Mueller and John Lasher, our director of music and worship arts.
Here’s what’s coming:
Christmas Eve. We will have ONE in-person service at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 24, with a chime choir and violinist Maria Rusu. Attendance is limited to 45 people in order to maintain social distance requirements. Those with reservations should arrive 15-30 minutes early to allow for registration and seating. The service will also be available by livestream on our YouTube channel. The link is embedded below..
Join us for worship at 10 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 27 for a service of Lessons & Carols. Join us in person or enjoy our livestream broadcast on our YouTube channel at the link below:
At noon on Sunday, December 27, we will rebroadcast the Delaware-Maryland Synod’s service of Lessons & Carols, featuring musical offerings and readings from churches throughout the Synod. Two selections from our Virtual Choir will be included. Join in at the link below. If you’d like a copy of the Synod’s bulletin, you may view and download it by clicking here.
Catch up on our pre-recorded Advent Devotions if you missed any of them. They also are available on our YouTube channel.
Here’s a bit about him, according to his profile on the website of our synod, the Delaware-Maryland Synod of the ELCA:
Bishop Gohl was elected bishop at the 2016 Synod Assembly. At the time of his election, he was pastor of Epiphany Lutheran Church and intern supervisor/vice pastor of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church, both in Baltimore. Before that, he served at Peace Lutheran Church in Glen Burnie, Maryland, in vice pastorates at Our Saviour, Lansdowne, Maryland; Zion, City Hall Plaza; Faith, North Avenue and assisted at All Saints, Loch Raven, and Peoples Community in Baltimore.
He attended Gettysburg College, earning his bachelor’s degree in 1996, and earned his master’s at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg in 2000. He is now between a master of sacred theology (STM) and doctor of ministry (DMin) at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.
Bill is married to the Rev. Arwyn Pierce Gohl and they have four children, Saliese, David, Andrew and Joyanne.
The Gohls make their home in the northeast corner of Baltimore City and enjoy time with their families; the Gohl side in Shrewsbury, Pennsylvania (by way of Long Island, where the bishop grew up) and the Pierce side in Fairhaven, Massachusetts.
Join us for worship in the sanctuary or by way of our YouTube channel, where the service will be livestreamed and available for viewing later, too. Here’s the link:
Christmas Eve at St. Mark’s will be quite different this year, because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
We are planning ONE 7:30 p.m. service. Attendance is limited to 45 worshippers.
For those who have reservations, a reminder that we will follow all safety precautions and ask that you arrive 15-30 minutes before the service begins to allow for the check-in process, social distancing, retrieving your communion packet and finding your seat.
The service will be livestreamed on our YouTube channel for those preferring to worship from home. The link to our Christmas Eve service is below, for your convenience.
If you had a disgustingly grimy rag and someone else had one that wasn’t quite as grimy — does that comparison really matter if both come out of the washing machine as white as snow? Interim Pastor David Mueller challenged us to reconsider our tendency toward “justification by comparison” in his sermon on Sunday, November 29.
Pastor Mueller is providing the text of his sermon again and plans to continue doing so for those who appreciate the written format during this coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic..
The link to our service video on our YouTube channel is below, followed by the text of the sermon.
We thank all who contribute to our ability to worship together — whether online or in our sanctuary — and are especially grateful for the leadership of Pastor Mueller and John Lasher, our director of music and worship arts, who makes these videos possible.
“Are We Serious?” (Isaiah 64:1-9)
Interim Pastor David E. Mueller
I have opted during Advent to preach based on Isaiah. Isaiah was evidently the favorite prophet of Jesus, because He quoted Isaiah most frequently. Obviously, this is a look back, when Advent invites us to look forward. True prophesy, however, always looks back, at the present and then on to the future. In any event, “Rise and Shine,” for your redemption draws nigh! (PRAYER)
At the risk of repeating myself, a growing liability of people — including preachers my age — I find reading nearly all the Hebrew Scriptures a study of contrasts.
On the one hand we have the rather constant intransigence of the Hebrews, the stubbornness, the sins. On the other hand, we have the constant love and care of God toward his chosen people. They may not have been good at keeping their covenant promises, but God is perfect at keeping his.
God chastised them for sure. Jeremiah the Prophet reminds us, however, “’For I am with you,’ says the Lord, ‘to save you; I will make an end of all the nations among which I scattered you, but of you I will not make an end. I will chastise you in just measure and I will by no means leave you unpunished.’” (30: 11).
We read a similar statement in the Christian letter to the Hebrews (12:5b & 6): “My child, do not regard lightly the disciplines of the Lord or lose heart when you are punished by him; for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts.”
When God is chastising, we do not need to feel ourselves unloved. One cannot help but wonder whether or not the whole world is being chastised right now. This, however, is a part of why I trust the Scriptures. No people writing about themselves have been as hard on themselves as were the Hebrews. In most instances, nations writing their history are much kinder and tend to overlook or cover up the nasty stuff. God, while loving, can be plenty hard on those he loves.
Often in the Hebrew Scriptures, especially the Psalms, God’s majesty and magnificence is lifted up in praise. Here in Isaiah 64, God’s might and power is accentuated. God “tears open the heavens,” and “mountains quake” and there is “fire,” and “awesome deeds.” All this is directed toward God’s adversaries.
It is here that many of my questions about God arise and cause me grief.
“Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” So just where were you, Lord, when the Christian Church embarrassed and misrepresented you in five Crusades? What about the Spanish Inquisition? There your chastisement on the Church surely would have helped and saved lives! How about the Holocaust? Six million of your chosen were murdered in some form, along with four million others. Could you not have torn the heavens opened and come down to help? And right now, besides the virus, why do you allow such political nonsense to go on? By the way, I have some folk I would like you to smite wiping them off the face of the earth. If only I was God!
Not only is none of us a god, but on our behalf as well, Isaiah proclaims. “You meet those who gladly do what is right, those who remember you in your ways.” Is that us? Hardly! “But you were angry and we sinned … we have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.” Do you believe this castigation? Who us? We are the good people. We attend worship, support the church, feed the poor, pay taxes. Are we the ones to take the hits?
The Reformation mantra was “Justification by faith” and we Lutheran Christians and others still lift up the banner of those words and the theology behind them. But we are so quick — and I will not exclude myself — to practice “justification by comparison.” We are of this political persuasion and not like those jerks on the other side. We are better than them! We do not rob banks, cheat on our taxes, mistreat our spouses, abuse our children, neglect elderly adults, curse, swear, lie and use witchcraft. Lord, smite the others and spare us any further inconvenience or pain. Thank you very much.
Sorry, it does not work that way.
I gave a children’s sermon decades ago, held up an oily rag, and asked the kids how much they thought I paid for it. After a number of guesses, I told them “a million dollars.” One kids cried out: “Boy, did you get ripped off.” But if you had a disgustingly grimy rag, someone else had one with far fewer spots on it, you both put them in the wash and they came out white as snow, what good would any further comparison be? Hold on to that notion for a few moments.
“There is no one who calls upon your name or attempts to take hold of you.” No one! “For you have hidden your face from us and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.”
Is COVID-19 God’s chastisement on us and the whole world? Did God cause the deplorable condition and division in American politics? Has God removed himself and left us to contend with present reality on our own? Perhaps! In any event, now is for certain a time for genuine humility and the absolute death of any pride remaining in us!
With Isaiah, our prayer must be: “Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember our iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.” Note: “we are all your people.” Yep! God loves all those others, too. You know, the ones I and perhaps you would have God smite!
But Lord, where are you? Will you tear open the heavens and come down? God already has!
Instead of coming in power, God came in peace as the Prince of Peace. Rather than come as a punisher, he came as the Redeemer. Rather than come as a victor, he came as a victim to be with us in our suffering, our wondering, our confusion, even our all too often misplaced anger and especially in our deaths.
He came as “God with us (Immanuel),” for us and not against us. He came not to kill but to die! He is coming again! I hope we can rise, shine and anticipate with great and abundant joy! Are we serious yet?
Oh, by the way, in the meantime why not pray and work for allowing the oily rags of everyone we can find to be washed in the blood of the Savior and be made white as snow?
A link to our live-stream service (via our YouTube Channel) is below, along with the text of Interim Pastor David Mueller’s sermon. For more information on this new online option, please read the guide provided by John Lasher, director of music and worship arts.
“Justice Deserved” (Matthew 18:21-35)
Interim Pastor David E. Mueller
You are getting a double dose of the Joseph story in that I referred to it last Sunday and here it is as the Hebrew lesson for today. It is an incredibly beautiful story about why forgiveness is far better than bitterness.
By typical human standards, Joseph had every right and reason to come down hard on his brothers. This was the equivalent of human trafficking today. It must have been pure agony and loneliness for years for Joseph to have been ripped out of his family and by his own brothers to boot. On a practical level, however, now that they all had been re-united in Egypt for 17 years, not knowing that their progeny would be there for over 400 more years, it made sense to get along and not be estranged.
By contrast, in the Gospel we are confronted with one of the worst cases of utterly base violations of the “Golden Rule” anywhere in the Christian Scriptures.
Right away, I want to emphasize that this parable is first and foremost about God’s forgiving grace and mercy. This can easily be lost in what must be ravenous rage in most of us about the awful turn of events and treatment of the second debtor by the first. Keep thinking thankfully about how gracious and merciful God is. Refuse to get lost in the inhumanity and ungratefulness of the first servant.
Lord God of Heaven and Earth, we rejoice in You and Your promises made to us. Help us never to be guilty of abusing You and Your grace and mercy and Your eternal love of us, shown especially in Jesus Christ, Your Son and our Savior. Amen.
This begins with the disciple we can count on as being mildly cantankerous in his questioning and commenting on the words of Jesus. OK, Jesus, you shared about going personally to someone who has offended us — that is, keeping the matter contained and only later bringing in others if necessary. So then, how often do we need to do this forgiveness thing? We need to give Peter a little credit here because he probably knew full well how hard forgiving others really is.
The answer that Jesus gives here may as well be “Infinitely!” In former translations, we heard 70 times 7. Now it is 77 times. In either instance, it is “don’t ever stop forgiving.” The number 7 in Biblical numerology always means complete. Forgiveness is never one and done.
There is more math herein. Scottish preacher William Barclay, in his “Handbook of Parables of Jesus” published in 1970, concludes that 10,000 talents is at least 10 times as much as the taxes paid by the total number of provinces in Judea. In 1970, it would have been 2.4 million British pounds or nearly 4 million U.S. dollars. Many of us might recall back then and now realize how much inflation there has been since 1970. The point is that it was utterly impossible to be paid back. One cannot help but wonder how on earth the steward could have accumulated such debt. Talk about things sneaking up on you.
The debt the steward wanted repaid in full was 500,000 times less. I am happy that Barclay did this math because otherwise we would not grasp the enormity of what the first man owed in comparison to the pittance owed him. A denarius was a day’s wage.
In the first place, Jesus told this parable to show how infinitely large and vast is God’s grace and mercy. In the second place, by implication, we are to consider the sins committed against us. As much as we may have hurt, as disappointed in a friend or family member as we may have been left, by human standards — as much as you have a right to expect justice — none of it is but a pittance compared to what any of us owe God.
We may not be murderers, thieves or gossips, and we may give generously of our time and treasures. We may not be America’s most wanted. When one looks at the comparison between crooks and people like us, the distance from God’s perspective might not be that much. We each and all owe God infinitely more than anyone else owes us!
“Have patience with me and I will pay you everything!” That is the biggest joke here. But how many bargains have we made with God? “Lord, if You forgive me, I promise never to do it again!” And those of us who are parents, how often did your children at various ages make similar promises? Did you believe them?
OK, so neither the math nor our methods work out very well for any of us! Perhaps it is because of the value we tend to place on our hurts.
Gigi and I were driving to upstate New York on Easter Sunday afternoon, 2019. Back in 1983, we were run into from the rear at a stop light by a woman driving 50-60 mph. There were no skid marks, just boom! I would love to share more about that some other time. Suffice it to say, I have lived in my rear view mirror ever since.
On that Easter afternoon there was this large white vehicle five cars back weaving in and off the road on both sides. I asked Gigi to get out paper and pen because if the vehicle got past us, I wanted it reported. Next thing we know at between 70-80 mph this Chevy Tahoe smacked us, pushed us off the road barely inches from the guard rail, and 500 feet later came to a stop.
I do not believe this was an accident but a criminal act. She admitted fault and the State Trooper gave her four tickets.
We were physically uninjured, but you should ride with Gigi and experience the lingering effect of this hit. I forgive her, but so that she harms no one else, I want her license suspended. Her insurance, All State, advertises 40% discounts for good drivers. I want her to pay at least 40% more. Am I an ogre? Possibly, but it is the reality of how I feel. Yet I can still forgive her, lest I (we) be the one(s) who are losing sleep over this incident.
Just as important, and really inescapable, as are our feelings about this woman’s crime against us — we must be honest and authentic — so also forgiveness, as Jesus states, must be authentic, that is, “from the heart.” There is no faking forgiveness! God sees through it even if no one else does.
In Luke 7:36, Jesus has a woman of questionable character anointing his feet and drying them with her hair. Obviously this freaked out his Pharisee host. Jesus then told another story about two debtors, one owing 10 times what the other owed. Which one, asked Jesus, will love the creditor more for forgiving the debt?
The one forgiven the most!
The insurmountable debt forgiven by the king of the first debtor here should have brought him so much joy and gratitude that he couldn’t wait to forgive the debt of the fellow who owed him so little. He chose instead his own fate — and, oh, how just was his deserved reward!
Abusing God’s grace is a dangerous matter. Accepting God’s grace gratefully is a genuine delight. Thank you, Jesus!
We have waited and prayed and longed for this day! For the first time in almost six months, the sanctuary at St. Mark’s will have worshippers in attendance! Church doors open at 9:45 a.m. and you will see many changes, as you know already if you have watched our “Reopening Day” video.
That’s not to say we have not been worshiping together throughout this long building closure, which was done in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. We have been together — online!
And thanks to the work of John Lasher and our Worship Committee, that online option will continue for all who are unable to join us in the sanctuary for any reason. See John’s guide to the new “livestreaming” broadcast that starts today at 9:55 a.m.
Many thanks to Interim Pastor David Mueller and John Lasher, director of music and worship arts, for producing the weekly prerecorded worship services that have helped us stay connected as much as possible during this time of extended separation.
Thanks, too, to the musicians and the virtual choir, the worship assistants and all who have continued to support the ongoing ministry of St. Mark’s with your prayers, gifts, mask-making, fundraising, notes of encouragement and other assistance. Thanks to Council President Kitty Dombroski and all who serve with her on the Leadership Council and its Worship Committee. Thanks to Office Manager Cheryl Denneny and Sexton Rick Johnson and all who have given their time and talents during this unexpected interruption of life together.
Now some of us are returning to in-person worship, but many will continue to wait until the virus is brought under control or a vaccine is available. We trust you to make the best decision for you and your family and we want you to be comfortable and connected in the way that suits you best.
We will continue to provide online access to our worship services. They will be broadcast live on our YouTube Channel and then will be archived there for future viewing. You can participate at any time, wherever you have an internet connection.
Thank you for your patience as we continue to develop and refine the tools we use for these broadcasts. We are amazed at the ways God has provided — and we hope to fill you in on some of the stories behind the scenes in the not-too-distant future.
Click on the image below to link to our YouTube livestream. The text of Pastor Mueller’s sermon for today is also available below.
“That Which Cannot Be Overstated” (Matthew 18:15-20)
Interim Pastor David E. Mueller
I believe most of you by now realize how important the righteous acts of Christians are to me. It is never exclusively or even primarily our personal salvation and spiritual well-being. We carry in our redeemed hearts and minds, the compassion, healing impulses and genuine concern for others of Christ.
The story was told decades ago about a certain lighthouse, the obvious purpose of which was to keep ships in the channel and not aground at night. Volunteers showed up regularly to clean, repair and manage the lighthouse so that it continued to fulfill its purpose. But the volunteers started gathering, having parties and neglecting the lighthouse in favor of activities more fun but less noble and necessary. It no longer fulfilled its purpose!
Jesus warns against putting our lights under a bushel basket (Matthew 5:15). The Church, which is not a building but a community of believers, has as its purpose to “let your light so shine, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16) When we move in on ourselves and fail to shine for the sake of others, we lose our purpose and reduce Christ’s suffering and death to meaninglessness.
At the very core of the Christian faith, however, is something even more important in a practical way. Without this core, we are not Christians at all for this core is also at the center of the nature of God. I am speaking of forgiveness!
David, in Psalm 103, professes the following: “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love…. He does not deal with us according to our sins … as far as the east is from the west so far he removes our transgressions from us.” (portion of 8-12)
Remove or ignore this core essence of God to forgive and we lose. Other gods may demand appeasement, sacrifices, rigid rituals, but God invites faith in who He is, and regarding us, what He does in Christ.
Matthew 18:15-20, our Gospel for today, is a powerful if really simple process about our learning to forgive. It is also perhaps one of the most abused portions of the Christian Scriptures, which has been used by Popes and other pious persons to manipulate kings and other leaders. It has been used all too often as a threat: “if you do not do what I/we want, you will be excommunicated.”
Clearly, this passage has been rightly called “Church Discipline.” At the end of the process “if an offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” The Amish in our day and certain churches in the past have called this “shunning!”
Please do not go to the end of the process too quickly. As Christians forgiven, it is both our duty and our delight to be forgivers. This could not be any more serious or special. If we don’t forgive, we are not forgiven. In the prayer our Lord taught us, God the Father does the feeding, the avoiding and the deliverance. The only thing we pray for and do is to be forgiven AS we forgive those who sin against us. The forgiveness petition is the pivot around which the whole prayer matters and the Christian life centers. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:7), Jesus shared “blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”
Travel with me to the beginning of this process. If someone in the Church sins against you, “go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” The Eighth Commandment as we number them is about not bearing false witness. Luther went so far as to say that if we tell the truth about someone for malicious reasons, we are violating this commandment. Bearing false witness implies blabbing about someone else all over the place. The prescription in Matthew 18 begins with keeping the issue, whatever the sin is, contained. But it is more: “If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.” The purpose is not to judge the other but to hopefully embrace the other, to hold again the other in positive regard.
If that does not work, “take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” This mandate of two or three and not just one other witness is found in Deuteronomy 19:15 and thus has biblical precedent. Once again the purpose is to reconcile and restore the relationship and not to judge. The others are to witness to your behavior and not just to confirm the intransigence of the perpetrator.
If that does not work, “tell it to the church.” Only after several truly righteous attempts to straighten out the mess does it become potentially a public embarrassment and sanction. If even that does not work, then the person is to be shamed and shunned.
As antiquated as this process may seem and as abused throughout history as it has been, there are very practical advantages, especially to the forgiver whether the forgivee is moved to acknowledgment or not.
My favorite account in the Hebrew scriptures is the story of Joseph which takes up a significant amount of biblical space, Genesis 37-50. Joseph was sold by his jealous brothers into slavery. They were forced to come to Egypt to obtain grain due to a drought in Palestine 25 years later. They did not recognize Joseph and after Joseph’s own ruse — holding the youngest brother Benjamin responsible for a theft — he revealed himself to them. They all moved to Egypt, where the Hebrews would spend 435 years. Seventeen years after moving to Egypt, their father Jacob died. The brothers freaked out, believing now the axe of Joseph’s wrath was surely going to fall. What Joseph said to them in Genesis 50:15-21 is as beautiful as it gets. The deepest weeping comes from the forgiver. The brothers did not get their due! They had spent 42 years in guilt, shame and fear.
This is often true of anyone who has been in some way violated and yet has an opportunity to forgive. The one who forgives or is willing to forgive even if the other refuses to accept it, is free of the burden. When as Christians we are in a constant state of being forgiven and forgiving, we are far freer to be about the more positive aspects and privileges of our faith. Forgive us AS we forgive!
There is more. First of all, you do not have to and cannot forgive someone who sinned against someone else. As the Fallwell scandal has surfaced, Becki has been quoted as saying: “I wish Christians were as forgiving as Christ.” She didn’t violate or harm me. Perhaps the students, faculty and administration at Liberty University need to forgive her and her husband but not me. I cannot forgive someone for murdering another. It is noticeable how many of those affected by such a crime, are freed of a lifetime of anger and anxiety when they forgive the perpetrator even if they also get justice in imprisonment.
Secondly, no Christian community including St. Mark’s can or will survive the presence of animus and the absence of forgiveness in its midst. Jesus, still in the Sermon on the Mount says: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go, be reconciled to your brother or sister and then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23, 24) This is often associated with Holy Communion. It is first “Holy” because the meal was established by Christ. It is also “common unity” with those partaking with you. You might have heard someone say along the way, at the altar, Holy Communion is between me and God. No it isn’t! God is NOT present when chronic conflict or animosity exists between God’s people. God affirms the reality of His people: if they are forgiving, so is He; if they are not, neither is He!
I believe that we need steady reminders of the power and absolute necessity of forgiving grace all over the place within Christian community. Without it, there is not just something missing, but someone missing. Without God we lose! With God we forgive and win!
If you have shared in our prerecorded worship services, you have seen the technical prowess of John Lasher at work. John, who is the music and worship arts director at St. Mark’s, and Interim Pastor David Mueller, along with our Leadership Council, Worship Committee and many others, all have worked hard to keep our connections alive during the long separation made necessary by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Now, he has information about how things will change for those who worship online and how to access our first “livestreamed” service, which begins at 9:55 a.m. on Sunday, September 6.
St. Mark’s is going live!
John Lasher, director of music and worship arts
Sunday, September 6 is the day St. Mark’s will reopen the church building in a limited capacity to resume worshipping together in person. This will also change how our services are presented online, since they will no longer be prerecorded, but streamed live, in real time.
The link to our live stream will remain the same from week to week. This link — which you can easily find on the homepage of our website — will be used for Sunday services, Christmas Eve and other special services and possibly other events such as weddings or memorial services which take place in our sanctuary (though these latter two will depend on the wishes of the families). We are also tentatively planning a few special live episodes of our Midweek Extra series , which will also be streamed over this same link.
If you happen to visit the link at a time when we’re not streaming, you will either be directed to our YouTube channel page or to a livestream “placeholder” page with suggestions for other videos you may wish to watch (the top suggestion will be one of our most recent videos).
Our Sunday services will always be at the same time (10 a.m. initially, then back to 9 & 11 once things get back to normal), and any other livestream events will be announced well in advance, so you will know when to “tune in.” We will typically take the stream “live” with background music about five minutes before a service/event begins.
Our live streams will be archived on our YouTube channel, so those who are otherwise occupied during the 10 o’clock hour may still view the services later, as they have with the prerecorded services.
Printed copies of the sermons will still be distributed to those without internet access and DVD copies of the service videos are still available to these same members. Once we begin streaming live the DVDs will not be available until sometime after the service ends on Sunday.
In addition to allowing our own members to attend our services online, when unable to do so in person, live streaming is a wonderful means of outreach. Those in our community who may be unable to attend services in person for one reason or another can view our services online (live or archived), and newcomers to the area who may be seeking a new church family may choose to “look in” on St. Mark’s.
We hope you will join us for these live services, and look forward to the outreach potential afforded by this new ministry tool.
In today’s prerecorded worship service, Interim Pastor David Mueller explores Paul’s instructions to Christian believers and urges us to consider the implications for our lives and our community.
“Be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints, extend hospitality to strangers.” Who of us would argue against any of that litany of goodness? Who would not want to be a member of a family like this?
Also participating in today’s service are John Lasher, director of music and worship arts, and Brian Schmidt, worship assistant. This week’s virtual choir includes Dave Herrmann, Allen and Myrna Kirk, John Lasher, David McClure, John Nichols, Cheryl Powell, Paige Stebner and Teresa Stebner.
Today’s prerecorded service may be the last as St. Mark’s aims to reopen on Sunday, Sept. 6, with the doors opening at 9:45 a.m. The service will also be streamed live online. More details to come. Be sure to check out the “reopening” video to see how things will work.
You can access today’s service below using the link to our YouTube channel. The text of Pastor Mueller’s sermon is also included here.
“What is the Point?” (Romans 12:9-21) Interim Pastor David E. Mueller
I confess that Romans 12:9-21, today’s appointed second lesson, is one of my favorite sections in the Christian Scriptures. This is not because I believe myself to be an example of its fulfillment. It simply challenges me in a major way.
Leviticus 19 is known as “The Holiness Code” for the Hebrew people. It is a summary of sorts of the other 600 or so laws commanded in the Pentateuch. We would most likely agree with most of it with a few exceptions like: “Nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials,” or “You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you.” That tattoo prohibition would get a whole lot of folk in trouble now.
Romans 12:9-21 in a similar way summarizes expected behavior of Christian believers. It might be an interesting exercise for each of us to look over these prescriptions to see if there are any we think are outdated, incredibly difficult to perform, or not of interest to us. Let’s look together today, mindful that almost any passage herein is a sermon or a study on its own.
We pray: Lord God, gracious and merciful Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, empower us by the Holy Spirit to understand Your Word for us written by Your servant St. Paul, and by the same Spirit lead us to living out these precious instructions for Your faithful people. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.
One of my three grandsons came to me about six years ago and asked me if I would pick his Confirmation verse. I recommended Romans 12:18: “If it is possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all.” He liked it!
We begin with this verse. Sometimes, it is not possible; that must be said. There are many people in the world who do not want to live in peace and will not accept peace if offered to them. They seem to be so accustomed to violence or conflict that they do not know how to live without it. That is a real shame but it can be true in families, in communities, in countries, and most unfortunately in churches. The end of the verse stands, however, that there are no exceptions. If possible, live peaceably with ALL!
At the beginning of this portion of Romans, Paul writes: “Let love be genuine!” Here is “agape” again, unconditional love, which exists in the subject and requires nothing of the object. It is to exist in us authentically whether others accept it or not. It is impossible to fake agape. It is the love with which God loves us and the love we are expected to offer others, even if our expressions of it are less than perfect; only God’s love is without blemish.
It starts within the Christian community: “Love one another with mutual affection.” Here the word for love changes to “phileo,” familial love. Being in a relationship with each other of unconditional love allows familial love to develop. Just look at what also follows in a flowing and growing way: “Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints, extend hospitality to strangers.” Who of us would argue against any of that litany of goodness? Who would not want to be a member of a family like this?
There is still more. “Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.” Like I said previously, there is a sermon or a truly lengthy study in each of these expressions. But guess what? None of it will work, certainly not without love but also not without discernment. I believe this may be more necessary these days than ever.
“Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.” The Greek for devil is “diabolos,” meaning “deceiver.” Distinguishing between good and evil is difficult to say the least. Evil is sometimes obvious, but more often is masked, presenting itself as good, valuable, worthwhile, etc. One gets sucked in and in short order is captured with no escape. Is it any wonder that we are to pray: “Deliver us from evil?”
When one considers feeding, giving drink and expressing care toward enemies, which means by implication that helping friends is already happening, then the absence of these expressions toward friends and enemies alike is at best wrong and at worst evil! Do not repay evil for evil; it never helps! If we have discerned what is evil and hated it, and are holding fast, “cleaving” to good, that is, “what is noble in the sight of all,” then we are being God’s and not the devil’s servants.
One can take almost any modern invention or technological capacity and use it for the good of others and not just self; or, the same can be used for evil and the detriment of all. Social media is shown to be quite detrimental to teens who overuse it, and to adults who seek political truth and are led into all kinds of falsehoods and half-truths. We must learn as Christians to discern, to scrutinize from a Godly perspective what is good and true and what is evil and wrong.
We might just be served by looking at current reality and asking whether it is good or evil. It can be as simple as that! Is it good or evil that a black man was shot in the back seven times by the police? Are almost 180,000 deaths due to COVID good or evil? Is political division filled with animus good or evil? Is a major evangelical figure preaching family values and living opposite good or evil? The litany could continue ad infinitum. Ask the question of issues concerning you.
At the same time, ask of yourselves: are we rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep? The matter invites intimacy and genuine empathy. Are you overcome by evil or overcoming evil with good? The reason I appreciate this section of Scripture is — as stated — not because I am good at it but am challenged by it. I am challenged by this biblical assessment and not some other.
Peter, in the Gospel for today, took physical as well as spiritual issue with Jesus having to go to Jerusalem to suffer and die. Ironically, this is immediately after Peter gave his simple confession that Jesus is the “Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Interestingly, we have learned long ago to refer to the day on which the suffering and dying took place as “Good” and not “Evil” Friday. Let that sink in.
A hymn which comes to mind, a favorite of mine, is “Lift High the Cross, the Love of Christ Proclaim.” It was written in England by George Kitchin in 1887, but was not published in America until 1974. At first wash, we, like Peter, may have resistance about Jesus having to suffer and die. What a way for God to go! Yet it is the love of Christ that is proclaimed on it.
The Cross of Christ is both what covers our sins of falling short of God’s glory and motivates us to faithfully live into Scriptural mandates to love and care ourselves. In this, Christ’s suffering and death is good and not evil.
As in any era, we Christians have some significant discerning to do!
There is much to love about our prerecorded worship service today, including a guest message from the Rev. Barbara Melosh, a visit with Interim Pastor David Mueller’s menagerie, wonderful music and Scriptures.
We also have important news about our reopening day (September 6!) and a new video — starring our own Teresa Stebner and Nancy Wilkerson and produced by John Lasher, director of music and worship arts — that demonstrates the procedures that will be in place to protect the safety of all.
Also participating in today’s service are Beth Miller, worship assistant, this week’s virtual choir — Dave Herrmann, Allen and Myrna Kirk, John Lasher, David McClure, John Nichols, Cheryl Powell and Teresa Stebner — and soloist Arden Shindel.
Our guest speaker, the Rev. Barbara Melosh, is a second-career pastor, ordained in 2005 after a teaching career (English and history) spent mostly at George Mason University. Her first call was to a small church in Baltimore city, a story told in her 2018 book “Loving and Leaving a Church: A Pastor’s Journey.”
Since her retirement in 2014 she has served as interim pastor at Grace in Hockessin, St. Stephen’s in Wilmington and Hope in New Castle. She is dean of the Delaware-Maryland Synod’s Delmarva North and Delmarva South conferences, convening colleagues for Bible study, shared ministry and mutual support.
You can access the prerecorded worship service on our YouTube channel through the link here and find the text of Pastor Melosh’s message below, too.
“Who do you say that I am?”
The Rev. Barbara Melosh
This question marks a turning point in the gospel of Matthew, and in the life of Jesus. It’s spoken as Jesus’ ministry is growing at a phenomenal rate—from a few people gathered from almost accidental encounters, called from their boats or, in the case of Matthew, called from their jobs as tax collectors, and now spreading like wildfire, with huge crowds that are following Jesus everywhere.
The carpenter from Nazareth has become the miracle worker of Galilee. He’s hosted a picnic for more than 5,000, out of just a few loaves and fishes, and a few days later, a replay — feeding 4,000 men, plus women and children.
Everybody’s talking about him, and Jesus turns to his disciples to check out the buzz.
“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
The disciples give their briefing. “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
So they report that some see Jesus as part of a rogue movement, those followers of the strange wilderness prophet John the Baptist. Others place him in the long line of God’s prophets known in Hebrew scripture, from Elijah to Jeremiah.
Jesus goes on, “But who do you say that I am?”
And then Peter takes a breathtaking leap. Others have called him a prophet, many have called him “Lord” — a title of honor, used for God but also for people in positions of power. But for the first time, Peter calls him Messiah — the anointed one, the long-awaited savior foretold in Hebrew scripture. “Messiah” is a Hebrew word, and in Greek that word is “Christos” — Christ. And “Son of the living God.”
A bold proclamation, pronounced defiantly at a site that the gospel’s first hearers would have recognized. The story takes place at Caesarea Philippi, located 20-some miles from the sea of Galilee, part of the foothills of Mount Hermon. It contains a massive rock face that is still there today.
That rock face held religious and political significance. It had been a place for the worship of the ancient god Ba’al, god of the storm. Then it was a place sacred to the worship of Pan, the Greek god of wildness, woods, and sexuality. And then, in the time of Jesus, the site had become a monument to the conquest of the region by Rome. Herod built a temple there to Caesar — and so for Jews, this site was a bitter reminder of of the triumph of Roman power.
Peter called Jesus “Son of the living God.” That was treason. “Son of God” was a title reserved for the emperor, wielding power by divine right.
“Messiah, Son of God.” Those same words got Jesus killed. Religious leaders brought him to trial. At the turning point, the high priest said to him, “I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Jesus replied, “ ‘You have said so. But I tell you from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.’” (Matt 26:64)
That answer sent him to the cross.
Right after Peter calls him “Messiah, son of the living God,” Jesus tells the disciples, for the first time, what will happen to him. That he will suffer, be killed and rise again.
“Who do you say that I am?”
In Jesus’ own day, there were many answers to that question. His disciples called him Teacher, Rabbi. His opponents called him a blasphemer, a heretic. His critics called him a glutton and a drunkard.
“Who do you say that I am?”
Christians have had many answers to that question.
Prince of Peace; for some Christians to be a Christian is to be a pacifist, standing in opposition to all wars.
Mother — maybe you never thought of that one, but there is a medieval saint whose ecstatic visions of Jesus revealed him as a nursing mother, milk coming from his breasts.
Good Shepherd, the one who cares for his sheep and will stop at nothing to find the one who is lost.
Defender of the weak, advocate for the most vulnerable.
Liberator, come to set us free.
Healer of our every ill.
Judge of the nations.
Ethical teacher and example.
“Who do you say that I am?”
It’s a question that takes us to our foundation. For three centuries, Christians struggled and fought and sometimes killed one another to work out an answer they could agree on and that’s what the creeds are — the church’s effort to say who Jesus is, and how Jesus can be God for people who worship one God, not three; but one God who IS three.
Before the creeds we use got written, early Christians used a shorter one in their worship. “Who do you say that I am?” Their answer was the three-word creed, “Jesus is Lord.”
Jesus is Lord. It’s still a good answer. Jesus is Lord, calling us to turn away from all our own false gods — money, success, power, security, self-improvement, even religion itself. Not Donald Trump. Not Joe Biden. Not even Anthony Fauci!
“Who do you say that I am?”
Over the centuries there have been many answers to that question, just as there are today. But Peter’s answer gets down to solid rock. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” The Messiah, the anointed one, the Christ. “Son of the living God”—not the gods of pagan worship, not the idols of our own day, not a God who made the world and then left us to work out the mess we’ve made of it; but the Son of the living God.
Where is that God at work in this time of pandemic, when we are separated from one another; worn thin with pandemic protocols; frustrated and angry and fearful about what is happening to our country?
That God meets us at the cross. The place where we come face to face with who we are — and who God is. The place we come to when we get all the way down to rock bottom, to stand again on solid rock.