The Lutheran Church of Saint Mark
75 Griswold Street
Glastonbury, CT 06033
Questions... & an Answer
Pastor Cheryl Hoffman's sermon from March 19, 2023.
Readings: 1 Samuel 16:1-13, Psalm 23, Ephesians 5:8-14, John 9:1-41
Did you know that a four-year old can ask up to four hundred questions day? And, between the ages of two and five, children can ask an average of 40,000 questions?
Here are some other question statistics. In scripture, Jesus asks 307 questions? Of course, if a four-year old asks 400 questions a day, Jesus probably asked more questions that this, but we can only count those questions recorded in the bible.
So, Jesus asks 307 questions. He is asked 183 questions. And, of those 183 questions, he answers only 3 of them directly. “What must we do to do the works God requires?” “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” And, the question we get in today’s gospel lesson: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
The whole of this gospel lesson swirls around this question. “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
The question, itself, tells us about the disciples and the world in which they lived. The text begins: “As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.” But this is not what the disciples saw. As Jesus walked along his disciples asked him, “Who sinned – this man or his parents that he was born blind?” What they saw before them was a result of punishment for sin.
In Jesus’ day, illness, disease, any form of disability or otherness was considered an act of God, given for some appropriate reason, usually assumed to be in response to sin. It is in Exodus where it is said that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generations, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,” yet by no means clearing the guilty, but “visiting the iniquity of the parent upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”
So, the disciples saw exactly what they had been taught to see. I suppose we can’t fault them for that. However, you would like to believe that their time with Jesus had started to influence their thinking somewhere along the way. But, clearly not yet in this story. Had they learned their lessons well, instead of seeing personified sin before them, they would have seen what Jesus saw, a man, who happened to be blind from birth.
And, it is this man, who Jesus presents to the disciples in his answer to their question: neither this man nor his parents sinned, but rather, indeed, just the opposite, he is one, through whom, God has chosen to reveal himself.
You can almost feel the whiplash of the disciples as they look from Jesus to the man and back again. This does not compute. It does not fit the mold or model of being worthy of God’s favor and choosing. Fishermen, a tax collector, a Samaritan woman, and now a blind man? Is there anyone \ God would not choose, could not use, to be light in the world?
No, absolutely not! And, that, this, is the point. But, it’s not well received by the community of the man born blind.
In this story the man doesn’t call out to Jesus, he doesn’t ask to be healed, he doesn’t reach out to touch Jesus’ garments, or bow down before him, he doesn’t plead to be saved.
He’s just a man who encounters Jesus. In this encounter, Jesus makes a common plaster of mud and spittle, puts it on the man’s eyes and sends him off to wash in the pool of Siloam. And, as happened in last week’s story after such an encounter with Jesus, the man (last week it was the Samaritan woman) returned to his people. At their questioning, he told them, eagerly it seems to me, of his encounter and its result. Only, unlike last week, the people weren’t so eager to embrace the story.
Those neighbors, the Pharisees, the Jews, even his parents, have trouble grasping, trouble seeing the man, after his sight has been restored. First, it’s because it all took place on the Sabbath. Then their doubt that Jesus was from God, their certitude that he, Jesus, too, was a sinner. Then straight up fear. And, in the end, it was because they just couldn’t let go of their old beliefs, lest the new ones upset the order of all things.
“You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And, they drove him out.
This text is all about challenging the way we see, think, and do things, especially the way we see, think about and treat other people. And, changing our paradigm can be just that, a challenge. Remember, I said a few weeks ago that Galileo was condemned as a heretic, when he tried to assert the Earth revolved around the sun, and not the other way around.
People don’t like when your rock the boat. Rock the boat, it may tip over. But, unless you get into the water, you can’t learn to swim. And, as long as you insist on the safety of the boat, you’ll never know if you can walk on water.
We may not see illness, diseases, blindness, mental health diagnosis, or other disabilities, as a result of sin, but this does not mean we see people as Jesus saw the man in today’s story, as a person created full of worth and value, and given a life with meaning and purpose.
It’s easy, and, sometimes, way too natural, to judge someone based on the way they look, or act, or what we think they can, or can’t, do.
I’ve read the FaceBook and Neighborhood threads of what Glastonbury residents think about the men and women standing at the end of the off-ramps and the entrance to Stop & Shop. I’d say 90% of them read something like: “these people are full of sin and deceit.” And, if it were in the commenters’ power, they would drive them out.
But scripture reminds us that the Lord does not see as mortals see; mortals look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart; that the first shall be last and the last shall be first; that the rich shall be brought down from their thrones, while the poor will be lifted up; and, that there is no longer Jew nor Greek, male nor female, blind nor sighted, abled or disabled, addicted or sober, mentally ill or stable, homeless or home owner.
As long as we continue to see people as other, and not as a brother or sister, as a fellow child of God created with worth and value, whose life has meaning and purpose in this world, we have failed to learn, and live, the lessons Jesus has sought to teach us:
That we are all in this thing called life, together;
That we are to offer each other a helping hand, instead of an accusatory pointing finger;
That we are to speak a loving, welcoming word, rather than a condemning question;
That we are to stop trying to make our many bodies all fit the same mold, and choose to live as one body, with many different and unique parts. Amen.
© 2023, The Rev. Cheryl Lynn Hoffman. All rights reserved.
Pastor Cheryl Hoffman's sermon for Transfiguration Sunday, Feb. 19, 2023
Readings: Readings: Exodus 24:12-18, Psalm 2, 2 Peter 1:16-21, Matthew 17:1-9.
Chatbots are all over the news these days. Do you know what I mean by a chatbot?
A chat bot – as defined by one itself, is a computer program designed to simulate conversation with a human user, especially over the internet. Chatbots can be programmed to perform a range of tasks, from answering basic questions and providing information to more complex activities, such as scheduling appointments or processing orders. They can also learn from user interactions and become more intelligent over time.
Chatbots have been in the news a lot lately, mainly in the field of higher education. Apparently some chatbots are so good they can write A+ essays and even complex doctoral theses. Professors have had to include the use of chatbots in their class rules and have had to learn to look for signs of a paper being too well generated.
Well now, according to one Associated Press article, pastors and rabbis are also turning to this artificial intelligence – to write their sermons. I don’t know why I was surprised. And then I was tempted.
I know the temptation texts are next week’s lessons, but I was tempted this week. For me, the Transfiguration is right up there with the festival of the Holy Trinity. I mean, it is a good story – it has a lot of good special effects – clouds, dazzling clothes, walking dead people, voices from out of nowhere, and secrets. But how do you apply this story to our lives today?
Am I supposed to say it’s okay to see dead people. It’s okay if you hear voices. It’s okay to keep secrets. Especially, your secrets about God, don’t tell anyone about your strange encounters with God. I mean, what else is there in this text?
Well, there is not a lot, but there is some. The first is when Jesus invites you to go someplace, go, because you never know what you will encounter. You can bet that Peter, James and John never, in their wildest dreams, expected to see Jesus transfigured, let alone meet Moses and Elijah on the top of that mountain. You can also bet that they never forgot that experience and that it fed their faith and their souls for the rest of their lives.
Had they said no, had they decided they were too tired for the walk, too involved in a conversation with another disciple, too concerned with whatever it is that they were doing when Jesus said Hey, lets the four of us go for a walk, they would have missed out on this fearfully transfiguring experience.
Then not only should you go wherever Jesus takes you; you should also listen to him, that is to what he says. Now it would be nice if Jesus’ voice came to us out of the cloud as the Father’s did in the story. Or even if he sat on our shoulder and whispered into our ear the answer to our every question or gave us our every needed direction.
Unfortunately, we don’t have that – or most of us don’t – I won’t eliminate the possibility that God might speak audibly or directly in some way to some people. But we do have scripture and experience that can speak to us – if we are willing to take the time, to spend the time needed to be with Jesus and listen.
There is also, in this text, the reminder that what goes up, must come down. Now it is really hard to not insert a balloon joke here, but I will resist that temptation. The text doesn’t say how long Jesus and the disciples were on the high mountain, nor how long the transfiguration experience lasted. But when it was over, Jesus touched them, told them to not be afraid and down the mountain they did go.
Peter was ready to stay up on that mountain forever – making dwellings for everyone. You know Lord, I’m not sure what is happening, but this is got to be some miracle, I mean Moses and Elijah, let’s just stay here and keep this dazzling holiness, whatever it is, going.
You can’t blame Peter. There isn’t a sane person who doesn’t want to keep a good thing going, who doesn’t wish a mountain top experience would last forever. It’s human nature.
But people live in the valleys. This is where ministry happens. This is where we are called to be. Even Moses had to come back down the mountain eventually.
And finally, speak up. I know Jesus orders Peter, James and John to tell no one. Why, I don’t know. It is one of the big mysteries of Matthew’s gospel. Jesus is constantly telling people not to tell anyone about what he does in Matthew’s gospel.
But sometimes, as in this case, it is conditional – Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead. So, you see, they are supposed to remember this event and eventually tell others about it.
We don’t know if Peter, James and John obeyed the order, but if they didn’t, and again, who could blame them, could you keep silent about seeing dead people and hearing voices from a cloud? But if they didn’t, they would be in good company, in most cases, Jesus’ instructions go unheeded and the person receiving the order goes and tells everyone what Jesus has done, spreading the news of his power and teachings all the more.
And isn’t this exactly what we are supposed to do as disciples – spread the good news of Jesus Christ. Throw open our arms and let the light of our hearts shine. But we also have to open our mouths and tell others what God has done for us. To let them know how our travels with God up and down the mountains in life have changed us, have saved us, have healed us, have touched us and helped us up and told us not to be afraid.
I guess there is more in this story than just special effects. Something for us today to carry down the mountain and into the world beyond our doors. So, I guess I won’t need this Chatbot sermon after all. [crumples paper & tosses it to floor]
© 2023, The Rev. Cheryl Lynn Hoffman. All rights reserved.
Pastor Cheryl Hoffman's sermon for February 12, 2023
Readings: Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 119, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37
Each time I read today’s lesson from Deuteronomy one word immediately leapt to my mind. It is, appropriately, a Hebrew word and, I bet, it is a word that most of you know. The word is “L’chaim.” It means “to life,” and is the traditional wish Jews share when raising a glass in celebration. Of course, as soon as “L’chaim” popped into my mind I began to sing “to life, to life, L’chaim, L’chaim, L’chaim, to life” (from Fiddler on the Roof). Maybe not quite so appropriate.
But “L’chaim,” itself, “to life,” is very appropriate for today’s readings, and not just Deuteronomy.
Last week, I told you it is all about God (it’s always about God). It’s not just what we do, but why we do it – for the glory of God and not our own glory? Does any of this sound familiar?
Well, in today’s texts, God tells us what God is all about, and it can be summed up in one word, LIFE. God wants nothing more for God’s people, for all people, than life. You might even remember that in the gospel of John, Jesus says, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). And for God, life, full and abundant life, means to be in right relationship, with God, and with each other. This is the purpose of the commandments, to keep us in right relationship. This is the purpose of Micha’s words, “to do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly with God.” This is the purpose of all those hard words we heard Jesus say in Matthew’s gospel reading.
Speaking of which, what is a preacher to do with this passage? If you are angry with your sibling, or insult them, you will be liable to judgment. Call someone a fool and off to the fires of hell you go. Have a disagreement with someone, settle it quickly lest you lose your case and languish in prison. Cut off your body parts if they just dare to tempt you to sin against another. And don’t even think about lying or deceiving each other.
Was Jesus speaking in hyperbole? Was he just trying to be funny to see if his disciples were really listening? To what extent was he being serious?
I mean cut off your hand, pluck out your eye, say “you fool” and land in hell? Jesus makes the ten commandments look easy or gentle, or at least something doable, maybe even embraceable, compared to his harsh, slashing, impossible restructuring of “the rules.”
But let’s move beyond the impossible decrees and jarring consequences. Consider the bigger picture. With each of his “you have heard it said, but I say to you…,” Jesus addresses one common theme, our relationships with each other.
With each of his instructions, Jesus says care enough about each other to do more than just what is required. The commandments say don’t murder, but be smart enough, care enough, to never let it get that far. Already, when your anger rises, stop and reconcile your differences. Choose life not death. L’chaim!
There is a quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi:
“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”
Perhaps something like this is behind Jesus’ words about cutting off a hand, or plucking out an eye. Our sins do not just “happen.” They do not occur in a vacuum. Our words and actions are first thoughts. If we are to remain in right relationship with each other, we need to nip in the bud those errant beliefs and thoughts, before they can become wrong words and actions. This is how we choose life. L’chaim!
As for divorce, remember that in Jesus’ day, a man could divorce his wife at any time, for any reason, simply by saying so, and giving her a piece of paper that made it so. A woman, on the other hand, had no such rights, no rights at all, really. With this in mind, the words that Jesus speaks here are not just about divorce, they are about justice. They are about living in right relationship, as husband and wife. L’chaim!
Jesus always speaks for those who cannot speak out, or speak up, for themselves, whether it’s a wife, a widow, a leper, tax collector, the poor, the lame, even the sinner. He is always on the side of the least of these. His goal is always restoration of relationship. L’chaim!
Had we kept reading in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus goes on. Speaking up for the evil doer, turn the other cheek; for those that want to sue for your coat, give them your cloak also; for those who beg of you, do not refuse them; for those who persecute you, pray for them; and, the clincher, for your enemies, love them.
Each one of these “you heard it said, but I say to you,” is also about living in relationship with each other. Doing what we can to plant the seeds of grace and good relationship, even when we would rather not. L’chaim!
Every interaction, says Moses in Deuteronomy and Jesus in Matthew, impacts our relationships. Every interaction is a choice, conscious or otherwise, for light and life, or for darkness and death. We either grow together toward abundant life, or we grow apart toward desolate death.
My concern, right now, is that we, as a people, are growing apart. It’s not just the big murders, it’s the little stabs of the knife. It’s the swearing, the name calling, not serving a team of kids at your restaurant because of the color of their skin. It’s here in Connecticut, this week.
And how can we build life-giving relationships, if we will not even reach across the aisle to shake a hand? Or when we go to war with our neighbors, instead of loving them as we love ourselves. And, it seems we’ve forgotten how to love our loved ones, let alone how to love our enemies. Yes, I’m deeply concerned about choices being made around the world these days. But, I learned long ago that I, that we, cannot control the choices of the world. Maybe we can influence to some degree, but we are only in control of our own personal choices, and the choices we make together as a community. When Fred returns this week, knocks on the parsonage door while I’m writing my sermon, and needs bus money to get to his court hearing; when his friend asks if we have any coats because she’s sleeping in a tent, I have choices to make.
When we are asked to use our building, or to give our treasured time and resources, we have choices to make.
When we are driving, and traffic is bad, and we are late; when people want to cut in front of us, or someone sneaks in line in front of us at the grocery store; or when the restaurant service is slow; or when we hear a racist joke; or when we see an injustice being done; we have choices to make.
Choices that will either grow life giving relationships, or isolating death. Let us choose wisely. L’Chaim! And, amen.
© 2023, The Rev. Cheryl Lynn Hoffman. All rights reserved.
Attitude & Purpose
Pastor Cheryl Hoffman's sermon for February 5, 2023
Readings: Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 112, 1 Corinthians 2:1-16, Matthew 5:13-20
It was my turn to lead our weekly pericope study last week (area pastor’s study the weekly Bible texts). As I was reading commentaries for Isaiah, I came across this question: How would your congregation respond to this call to worship?
“We hope you are not planning to go through the motions in worship, singing the songs but never engaging your hearts, hearing the Scripture but not listening for God, or giving an offering but not giving yourselves, because if so, you are not doing God any favors. You do not get points for attendance. If you really worship God today, then you will share with the poor, listen to the lonely and stop avoiding those in need.”
Now, let us prepare our hearts and minds for worship. As you know, I didn’t choose to discover the answer to this question. Nor am I going to put forth the suggested preaching challenge and say, “If you are not here to give yourself to God, then you should have stayed home.” Because, well, the truth is, I am a wimp. I do not have the bold confidence of the prophet Isaiah. Of course, Isaiah was not speaking on his own behalf. The words we heard were not his words, but the words of the Lord, some pretty harsh words.
Last week, I spoke to you about foolishness. On display in those texts was God’s foolishness. Paul reminded us of the foolishness of the cross, while Jesus spoke to the foolishness of God’s blessings in all the unexpected places.
Well today God speaks of Israel’s foolishness. “Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. You want to know why you fast, but I do not see? Why you humble yourselves, but I do not notice? Here is why: you serve your own interest on your fast day and oppress all your workers. You fast only to quarrel and to fight. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.
“Your time of fasting needs to make a difference. When you fast, share you bread with the hungry, bring the homeless poor into your house; when you are sitting in sackcloth and you see the naked, cover them with your own clothing; and stop hiding from your own needy family members.”
In other words, it is not just what you do, but with what attitude and purpose you do it. It is no use fasting, if all you are going to do is be hangry and bicker with each other. This is not a fast that brings glory to God. And, don’t fast if you are going to curse your workers, or make them toil extra hard to cover the work you aren’t doing. Why should they be mistreated for the sake of your fast? This is not right or just. If this is your idea of a fast, you have totally missed the point.
And now the hard questions because Isaiah, that is, God, is really speaking to us, right? What point are we missing? Which of our righteous practices have become self-serving? Which actions have lost their purpose, or the commitment, with which they are carried out? The other week someone saw me putting my watch back on after worship and asked: “You don’t wear your watch in church?”
I said, “No. I usually take it off because this is God’s time, and worship takes as long as it takes.” It’s also why I don’t bring my phone into the sanctuary, unless I intend to use it for a specific purpose during the service.
The time I’m here belongs to God. Well, all time belongs to God, but I’ve set aside this time to worship God, and God deserves my full attention. It’s hard enough to keep my mind focused some mornings, I most certainly don’t need the help of a buzzing distraction on my wrist or by my side.
But, I know not everyone feels the same way. I hear about it when the service goes “too long.” And, I see when people take out their phones during the service to check their texts. It does make me wonder about the why behind the coming to worship, the meaning behind the practicing of the sabbath.
This made me think about a story the author of our bible study book told. “When I was raising money for our churches new homeless shelter, [she wrote], I sat next to an acquaintance at our weekly Kiwanis club luncheon. He was a wealthy and influential man in the city, and I hoped he would make a significant contribution to our work. I knew him to be an active leader in his church. Over our salads, I told him about our project. I shared the difficult circumstances of the guests in our basement shelter and how we believed we were all neighbors, beloved by God and worthy of care and concern.
He put up his hand and said, “Eugenia, I'm a Christian, all right. But you are talking Sunday stuff. This is Tuesday. You are talking money, and money is for business and not for Sundays.” The author notes that her acquaintance “had managed, rather dramatically, to put God in a box to have a claim on his life and resources, only at certain times and in certain areas.”
Apparently, for this individual, what happens on Sundays, stays on Sundays. In no way, do Sunday happenings inform what he does on Monday through Saturday. Even such conversations are off limits. This is exactly the kind of person to whom God is speaking through Isaiah.
If being a Christian doesn’t change you. If doing what Christians do: attending worship, praying, fasting, giving alms on Sunday, doesn’t change you, if it doesn’t affect, guide and inform who you are, and what you do on all the other days, then the name Christian only serves our own interest. It does nothing to bring God glory. And, we really aren’t Christians at all.
If we want to use the gospel imagery, we might say this is the equivalent of putting our light under a basket. It’s OK to let God out for an hour Sunday morning, but at the end of that hour, back into hiding he must go. There’s no speaking out against racism or injustice. No helping the homeless. No sharing the gospel good news with the hopeless. No reaching out, touching the sick, or offering a prayer. “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” Letting our light shine is our vocation as Christians.
And, what does it mean to let our light shine? It means exactly what Micha taught us last week: to do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. To do justice and love mercy necessarily requires us to get involved with the lives of others. It means we must do out there, what Jesus does, and what we talk about doing in here. However, if we say, “Have a good week,” walk out the door, don’t let what we heard, or the meal we received, guide our thoughts and impact our actions over the next six days, then the purpose of this hour is little more than a social gathering. Then I am ineffective at my job. Then we are not taking our vocation seriously. Then we have become self-serving and have hidden our light.
Harsh words, I know, but God doesn’t ask us to only make nice and play well together. He calls us to do, and to love. Share what we have with those who don’t, bring the outsiders in, dress those in need, with dignity and not shame, and throw open our arms to all our brothers and sisters without judgement. He calls us to do these things, not because it will make a name for us, but because it will bring glory to God, through whom we are able to do all these things.
It’s always about God. That’s the point the Israelites were missing in their fasting. It’s always about God, our worshiping, our giving our receiving, even our fellowship. It’s all to the glory of God in here, so that God’s glory can be carried out into the world, to the people of God, out there Monday through Saturday.
That’s the point. Let us pray for the courage to let our lights so shine, that God’s glory will be unmistakable in the world’s darkness. Amen.
© 2023, The Rev. Cheryl Lynn Hoffman. All rights reserved.