Questions and Reflections

Therefore: Making God's Story Your Story

After he had said this, [Jesus] went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, "Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, 'Why are you untying it?' just say this, 'The Lord needs it.'" So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, "Why are you untying the colt?" They said, "The Lord needs it." Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!" Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, "I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”"

Luke 19:28-40

Pastor Marc's sermon on Palm Sunday (April 14, 2019) on Luke 19:28-40. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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Did you notice, while standing in the narthex, that our reading from the gospel according to Luke doesn’t mention palm branches at all? Now, if you’re a regular attendee of Palm Sunday, you sort of expect having a palm branch given to you along with a worship bulletin. But if this is your first Palm Sunday or if Luke’s version of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem is the only one you know, then our blessing of palms today might feel a little odd. Nothing in our gospel reading mentioned foliage or branches. Instead, Luke couldn’t stop talking about cloaks. Cloaks are one of those pieces of clothing that we don’t see often but they are making a comeback. They’re worn like a coat but they’re lose and they hang at our shoulders. Cloaks can be really fun, with a hood, pockets, and sometimes are brightly colored. And in Jesus’ day, if you could afford to own a coat, you really owned a cloak. These outer garments were the default clothing people wore as they wandered around Jerusalem’s marketplace. They were everywhere and they became, for Luke, the primary item people used to show just how important Jesus was. Cloaks were used to create a saddle for Jesus and people threw them onto the road to welcome Jesus as he passed. If we treated our coats and out jackets today like we do our palms, we could insist that the blessing of the palms really should be a blessing of our jackets. And instead of waving our palms branches above our heads as we entered the sanctuary, we could have swung our jackets wildly and with abandon. Or, if we were looking for something a little bit more authentic, we could throw our jackets onto the floor and let everyone walk on them. Both of these kinds of garment traditions might make us a bit uncomfortable as we worry about being smacked in the face by a faithfully swung leather jacket or upset that our favorite hoodie might have tons of people stepping on it. None of these are, of course, things I’m going to ask you to do. But when we spend time with those words and phrases of today’s gospel that, for us, seem to be a bit different, a bit unique, and even a little bit off, we discover our odd-ball piece of Jesus’ story that God wants each of us to make as our own.

Because when we notice our odd-ball piece of scripture, there’s a good chance the people around us don’t see that verse in the same exact way. They might be able to see why it’s a bit off. But that word from God doesn’t necessarily speak to them in the same way it speaks to you. They don’t find themselves struggling with it. They’re not super interested in asking questions about it. They can move on to the very next sentence in their Bible reading while we just can’t. And when that’s happened, we’ve discovered a word or a phrase or an entire biblical story that God wants us to chew on. God wants us to ask questions, to do research, and to spend time trying to figure out why we can’t get this odd-ball piece of Scripture out of hearts and minds. Sometimes, this process of questioning, of spending time with the story, can take years or even a lifetime as the intensity of the words fade in and out of our lives. And overtime, the odd-ball bits of Scripture sort of morph into an odd-ball moment of awe, as we ponder everything we can about it. The more we sit with it, the more we notice, and the more we keep our odd-ball pieces of scripture close to us, we one day notice how that part of God’s story has suddenly become part or ours. The texts we encounter in the Bible are not meant to be read Sunday morning and then forgotten during brunch. They are, instead, meant to linger within us - giving us an opportunity to experience what it’s like to live with God’s Word. Our living with the text doesn’t always mean we’ll know exactly what it means. And it doesn’t mean that our reasons for sitting with it will always remain the same. When we end up living with part of God’s story, there’s a good chance we couldn’t share with those around us exactly why this one piece of Scripture speaks so deeply to us. Yet when we let our odd-ball texts of Scripture sit in our hearts and hang out in minds, we end up integrating God’s word into our own.

I can’t personally imagine being so caught up in a parade that it feels completely right to toss my favorite jacket onto the road so that someone else could walk on it. And I’m pretty sure, if I knew that was expected of me, I would leave my beloved red Ocean City hoodie or my fake leather jacket at home and replace them with something hanging right outside my office on the clothing racks for our Trash and Treasure rummage sale. Now, I know what Jesus was doing as he entered the city of Jerusalem. His followers were busy creating a scrappy, unsophisticated, and small version of a Roman military parade that was used to welcome victorious generals and emperors into the cities they came to visit. In fact, it’s possible that when Jesus entered Jerusalem, Pontius Pilate and his legion of Roman soldiers were being welcome and celebrated in the exact same way on the other side of town. Only one of those parades was revealing God’s truth while the other was celebrating the image of truth, power, strength, and victory as we always imagine it to be. Yet even the disciples were unaware of what Jesus was about to do. Even though I know what happens next in Jesus’ story, I’m still left wondering what it would take for me to take off my jacket and place it on the ground as a way to welcome Jesus’ divine gift of love that truly knows no bound. That’s one of my personal reasons why the story of Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem is something I still chew on. It’s a story that asks me to reflect on the love I already know; to examine the love I’ve already received; to recognize the gift that I’ve already been given because I’ve encountered Jesus and I know Jesus knows me. Yet, when Jesus shows up - whether in the face of a stranger, of the oppressed, of those who are hurting, those who are afraid, or those who have no home or no home to return to - what will I do when I find myself caught up in the parade Jesus is already marching in?

When you find a piece of scripture that’s a bit odd, a bit off, and one that makes you want to gnaw on it - just chew. Because that’s a sign that you’ve already stepped into Jesus’ story - and God has already started the process of making His story your own.

Amen.

 



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Reflection: The First Response to Christ

The Bible wasn't written in chronological order. No one person sat down, unrolled a blank scroll, and started writing with Genesis 1:1. It took centuries to pull together the Bible. Most books were written at different times and in different places, by different people. We don't know much about the process that made the Bible happen but there's a general sense that editors pulled together different stories and written texts to form the Bible God wanted us to have. The editors, prayerfully and faithfully, used the words God gave them to show God's love to a lot of different communities. Scholars have tried to find the earliest pieces of the Bible; those texts that might preserve the first draft of the stories as they were first told. Some of the stories are ancient, meant to be spoken around campfires instead of being read from a book. Not everyone agrees about which piece of Scripture came first. Yet it's possible that the pieces of the Bible that are the oldest are all songs. From Miriam's song in the Exodus, Deborah's in Judges, and maybe even some of the Psalms - the earliest pieces of scripture are not sentences and paragraphs. Rather, the first words that spoke to God's people were poetry and songs. When we encounter God, it seems our first response is to just sing.


Today's letter from Paul to the Philippians 2:5-11 contains one of the oldest pieces of Christian scripture we have. Paul is quoting a hymn, one possibly already being sung by Christian communities before he began his missionary work. In a sense, this might be the earliest Christian writing we have, beyond the sayings of Jesus recorded in the gospels. When the small communities first gathered in dining rooms while sharing a meal, they did more than talk about God: they sung about God, too. And this hymn, one of the first hymns in our Christian hymn book, is centered on Jesus doing an almost impossible thing: Jesus chose to be one of us. It might not shock you to hear a pastor say Jesus was human (and also fully divine). As Christians, we've said this for centuries. But if we take that statement seriously, do we realize just how shocking that is? How many times, in your life, have you tried to not be human? How much energy have we spent not being ourselves? How often do we try to forget, ignore, or push aside the situations, experiences, and emotions that take away from our life? If you knew all the junk that comes with being a human being - the pain, suffering, rejection, sadness, and harm we cause ourselves and each other - would you choose to be one of us? And would you do that even if you didn't have to?


As we enter this Holy Week, we will spend time meditating on Jesus' death. But we can also use this week to think about Jesus' choice. Jesus gave up what he was entitled to so that he could love you. Jesus emptied himself of divinity because God's love demanded nothing less. This is a week where we remember not only who Jesus is and what Jesus did. We also remember how Jesus made a choice - and how everything changed.



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In The Present: Jesus Isn't Pretend [Sermon Manuscript]

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?" (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, "Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me."

John 12:1-8

Pastor Marc's sermon on the 5th Sunday in Lent (April 7, 2019) on John 12:1-8. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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On Thursday morning, I was sitting in my office in the middle of a conference call when odd messages started popping up. At first, these messages showed up in my email. But then came the texts. And before you know it, I was getting phone calls, asking me weird questions about something I didn’t really understand. Many different people from this church seemed to be responding to an email I never sent. They wanted to know why I, out of the blue, needed them to buy some gift cards. I didn’t and that’s when I realized we were being scammed. Now, as a pastor, I’m used to being scammed. Every few weeks or so, I receive an email or phone call from someone asking for money. Since asking for help is one of the hardest things a person can do, I have a personal policy where I believe every story someone tells me. I believe them when they mention their recent medical trauma. I believe them when they describe the family they’re taking care of. I believe them when they talk about the tank of gas they need to make it to their next job interview. And I believe them when they mention they only need a hotel room for one night because they’ve got a place lined up right after that. I believe them because that’s sometimes true. And when I let them know how I can help, you can hear the tone of their voice change when they suddenly realize they’re being heard. But when a scam is taking place, that’s all pretend. The story we’re told isn’t real no matter how much detail they put into it. A scammer knows how to use our trust, our relationships, and our empathy against us. Someone went to our church website, noticed my contact information, and created a fake gmail account pretending to be me. They then, I think, tried to find email addresses for anyone listed on our website. When they found one, they immediately sent that person a note, hoping you believed it came from me. Once you replied, their ask would follow. All they needed was for you to go buy a few gift cards and send them electronically. At that point, it probably felt weird because I was asking you something I’ve never asked before and the emails I sent you never used your name. But, you’d ask yourself, what if Pastor Marc was really asking for help? And that’s exactly what the scammer hoped you would think. They tried to use the strength of our relationship and your generous nature to make a quick buck for themselves. Once your money was sent, it was as good as spent - and the scammer would go find another faith community to target in the same exact way.

When it comes to scams, if something feels off, it probably is. As your pastor, I would not personally ask you to buy gift cards via email nor act as if I didn’t know who you are. When it comes to emails, phone calls, and anything we see online, we need to approach these situations with the same kind of suspicion we bring to the internet every April Fool’s Day. If it feels weird, it probably is. Our feeling of unease in those moments is not something we should quickly push aside. Instead, we should stay there, knowing that sitting with unease isn’t comfortable but it can be holy. And that kind of holy moment might actually be a gift from God.

Today’s reading from the gospel according to John asks us to sit with a lot of unease. In the verses immediately prior to this one, people wondered if Jesus would risk coming to the Passover festival knowing that the religious and political authorities were planning to arrest him. What they didn’t realize was that he was already on his way. A few days before Passover, Jesus stopped in the village of Bethany, two miles outside of Jerusalem. Jesus’ old friends Lazarus, Mary, and Martha lived there and so they invited him to dinner. I imagine their meal was full of the kind of conversation, laughter, and joy that only comes when we dine with old friends. Yet, Jesus was eating with someone that wasn’t only a friend. He was breaking bread with the man that he, a few chapters before, raised from the dead. That dinner party in Bethany was a moment that shouldn’t have happened. Yet because Jesus was at the table, our expectations were replaced by the new thing God was doing. The unease we feel when we realize who was on that guest list is how we notice how holy that moment already was. Without our unease, Mary’s response to Jesus seems a little weird and a bit off. But when we pull up a chair and take our place at His table, Mary’s response to Jesus is the only reasonable response when God shows up.

Because when God shows up, there’s nothing about it that’s pretend. Jesus is never anything but Jesus no matter where he is. He’s Jesus when he’s raising Lazarus from the dead and he’s still Jesus when he’s sitting at Lazarus’ table, chewing on a piece of bread. Jesus is the one who patiently taught his disciples even though they never quite knew who he was. And Jesus is Jesus when he’s welcoming the unwelcomed, offering them seat at the Lord’s table. Jesus was Jesus back then on his final journey to Jerusalem and he’s still Jesus, right now, when he shows up in our lives, in the bread, in the drink, and in the ways we love one another. Jesus never takes a day off from being himself even though he knows the risk being Jesus entails. Not everyone will choose to sit with his guest list nor will we always trust that the gifts of faith, hope, love will transform us into something new. We will, through our own experiences of sin and brokenness, believe that being as wise as serpents means we can never truly be as gentle as doves. We will be scammed and, over time, use that as an excuse to live a life thinking we’re safeguarding ourselves from death but, in reality, we’re denying ourselves true life. In the words of Michael Koppel, “so often we... store up precious resources - whether material, spiritual, or emotional - with the intention to use them eventually, yet the activity of saving can itself consume our lives and limit the opportunity for the outpouring of gifts. Our inclination may be to hold back, [afraid] that sharing the resources means losing them, unaware that some resources can become activated only through wholehearted offering.” When we are in the presence of Jesus, can we truly hold back? Mary couldn’t help but be grateful for God’s presence around and within her even though she knew the kinds of scams people played. Mary refused to let what others do be what defined her. Instead, she leaned on Jesus who never stopped being Jesus to her. As we go about our lives, we will face many situations that feel a little bit off, filling us with unease. But we can trust that unease because that might be how God shows us a new holy moment in our lives and how Jesus is already with us, leading the way.

 

Amen.

 

*Quotes from Feasting on the Gospels: John, Volume 2.



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Reflection: Jackals and Ostriches and Dragons

One of the difficulties in translating the Bible is figuring out which animals are actually in there. In the various translations of today's text from Isaiah 43:16-21 that I consulted, the animals identified included jackals, ostriches, wild dogs, coyotes, buzzards, and surly birds. My personal favorite is from the King James Version which translated verse 20 as "dragons and owls." There's something very Harry Potter-esque about having a Bible passage with those two creatures in it.

We don't know exactly what animals Isaiah was thinking of (the Arabian ostrich roamed the Near East before being hunted to extinction by the early 20th century). But we do know what Isaiah was trying to get at. The animals in this passage are animals identified as being ritually unclean. There was something about them that did not match God's own reality of holiness. Humans were to avoid eating them or even touching them. Since dragons and owls were unclean, they were unable to honor God because their very nature made that impossible. Yet, when God shows up, that impossibility becomes possible. God, speaking through Isaiah, looks forward towards what God is about to do. The God who led the ancient Israelites out of slavery is the same God who is about to do even more. Instead of asking the community to remain in their past, God invited them to see into their future. Their present situation will not be the limit to what God is about to do. God is with them and that changes everything.

So that means that when God shows up, the unclean wild animals suddenly show honor. When God shows up, the desert is filled with rivers of water. When God shows up, new life comes. If we only look at what God has done in the past, we miss seeing how God who is active in our lives today. The God who loves you is still with you. The God who loves you still has hope for you. And the God who made the universe also made you. You are necessary to do what God made you for: to join your voice with all of God's beloved creation to God's incredible song of love, hope, and a new beginning.



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Annual New Jersey State Exempt Association's Memorial Service

[Jesus said:] "I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid."

John 14:25-27

Pastor Marc's homily for the New Jersey State Exempt Association's Annual Memorial Service (April 6, 2019) on John 14:25-27. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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At the start of every Lent, which begins 46 days before the great celebration of Easter, you’ll find the faithful from many different flavors of Christianity walking around with what looks like a black smudged cross on their forehead. Some of the smudges will be pretty good and look like an actual cross. But others will be a bit different. Some are either misshapen, super light, or so dark that you see little chunks of something grainy on the forehead. That imperfectness is proof that these crosses were not self-applied. Rather, people gathered in churches, at street corners, and on train station platforms to have a priest or a pastor pray for them and use a thumb or finger to trace a cross on their foreheads. The blacken cross is a sign of our mortality; it’s a symbol of mourning and grief; and it’s a reminder of the promise that the God who loves the world also loves you. The blacken mark on the forehead isn’t made with makeup, mascara, or even magic marker. Instead, that cross is made from something you, as firefighters, know very well. It’s made of ash.

Now, the ash we use at Christ Lutheran is black, finely sifted, and mixed with olive oil so that when I spread it on your forehead, it will literally leave a mark. Some years, the ashen crosses look the way their supposed to. But other times, not so much. Even though my artistic skills might be lacking, the ash itself is made the same way, every year. It’s our tradition to save the palm branches we waved in the air on Palm Sunday, the beginning of the final week before Easter. We place these leftover branches in a safe place and let them dry out for almost a year. And then, on the day before Ash Wednesday, you’ll find me in the parking lot with a metal coffee can, a bundle of dried palm branches, a big pitcher of water, and a few matches. Every year, I think I know how to make good ashes. Yet the process always throws me for a loop. This year, I found myself with a pile of matches that refused to stay lit. Everyone that I lit would burn bright for a second before going out. After awhile, I had exactly one match left and I prayed this one would finally take. I held my breath. It lit. And it didn’t go out. I gently dropped it into the center of the coffee can filled dried palm branches. For a minute, nothing happened. But then, in a flash, everything changed. The palms were engulfed in flames. Everything burned. And I was left with a hot metal can full of ashes.

That flash, that moment when everything changed, is what Jesus was talking about in our reading from the gospel according to John. These few verses are part of a larger conversation he was having with his disciples. Jesus gathered them together to share a meal, to wash their feet, and to prepare them for what’s coming next. None of Jesus’ followers expected him to die. They assumed he would be victorious in the way we expect the king of king and the lord of lords, to be. But the Jesus in John always knows what’s going to happen next. So before his arrest and before the Cross, Jesus wanted to say farewell. Jesus spent almost 3 whole chapters saying the same thing over and over again. He told those who followed him that everything was about to change but that God’s love for them, and for the world, never would. Jesus, in the end, wasn’t saying goodbye. His death would not be their end. Instead, it would be part of a new beginning where the Holy Spirit would come to give them peace. When their world felt like it had turned upside down, they would discover they were not alone. Jesus promised to send them “an advocate, a helper, one who offers support when we most need it and least know where to find it.” In the moment when everything changes, God would send someone to bring God’s love and peace.

So often, when we think of this advocate, we look up, towards the clouds, looking for some divine sign to come from above. But I’m not sure that looking up is what God always has in mind for us. We need, I think, to turn our head downwards and to look at each other. We have, as beloved Children of God, been given a job, a divine vocation, to bring peace to those in need. The Holy Spirit isn’t always manifested as some mighty sign from above. It can also come to us in a more human form when we suddenly see the bearers of God’s gifts and love right in front of us.

I don’t need to tell you about the many times you’ve found yourself in that moment when someone’s forever has changed. You, as firefighters, have answered the call to bring peace and hope in those moment when it feels as if no peace can be found. From burning buildings to car accidents to being in the right place, at the right time, when someone’s life needs to be saved - your commitment to your calling, to your service, and your sacrifice, does not go unseen or unheard. We are gathered here today to remember those who knew the risks when they answered God’s call to love and serve their neighbors. We give thanks for them and we celebrate their call, and your call, to be exactly who God wanted you to be - to be firefighters - to be peace bringers - to be an advocate, a helper, and the one who provides a way through for those who cannot find it. As a follower of Jesus, I can’t help but see the Holy Spirit and the love of Christ in each of you. You are God’s bringers of peace. And I pray that we all work to bring more of that divine peace into our lives, into our neighborhoods, into our cities, so that it can cover the whole world.

Amen.

 

*Quotes from Feasting on the Gospels: John, Volume 2.



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Name It: Prodigal? [Sermon Manuscript]

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." So he told them this parable: 

"There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, "Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.  When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, "How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands." So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son." But the father said to his slaves, "Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate. "Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, "Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, "Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' Then the father said to him, "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.' "

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Pastor Marc's sermon for the 4th Sunday in Lent (March 31, 2019) on Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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The words we use to name and title the different stories we have in the Bible matter more than we usually think. If we’re not careful, these short summarizing phrases can cause us to miss what’s actually happening in the text. If, for example, we opened our Bibles to the very first page, to the book of Genesis, chapter 1, verse 1, we might find in bold print, a title placed there by an editor to help prepare us for what’s about to come. In one of the Bible I used, the word “Creation” is that title. Now, that title makes sense because the first chapter of the book of Genesis lays out one vision describing how God created the universe. Yet “creation” is a word with its own temperament and depth of meaning. To me, “creation” is a word that sounds historical, describing how something came into being and is now completed. That title seems to imply that God created the universe from nothing and sort of finished up by the beginning of chapter 2. The word “creation” invites us to see in the text a process that happened and is now mostly over. But what if that title was different? Would that cause to read the text differently? What if, instead of calling Genesis 1 “creation,” we called it “chaos,” since the story begins there, with a formless void? Or what if the title was a tad more active, pointing to what God actually does in the text? God, over and over again, speaks, using words to create a brand new song of life. What if the title we used for the opening chapter of the Genesis was something like “God speaks” or “God sings?” A title like that might invite us to remember that the God who created the universe is still speaking and singing, today. The names and titles we use for the stories we find in the Bible do more than provide a short summary of the text that follows. They also, on one level, frame how we choose to interpret that text as well.

So in the spirit of creating different titles for the stories we find in the Bible, I’ve going to invite you to take a moment to give a new title to a piece of scripture I just read. Now, you might already know the traditional heading for this parable from Jesus from the gospel according to Luke but, if you can, try to forget it. Come up with your own title instead. I’m going to give you about 15 to 30 seconds to think one up before asking you to share that title with the people around you. So - focus on the text for the next 30 seconds - and I’ll let you know when it’s time to share.

After 30 seconds, invite them to turn and share.

After a minute or two, return to the sermon.

Now, instead of asking everyone to go around the room and share what the title they came up with, let’s use a show of hands to see what common words or phrases showed up.

So how many of your titles included the word “son or sons?”

How many included the word “father?”

How many of us only focused on the younger son who went away?

Did anyone focus only on the older brother who stayed?

Did you include in your title anyone else, like maybe the slaves?

Did your title include any action words like “run,” or “love,” or “grace?”

Did anyone’s title only include God?

Did anyone’s title only focus on the Father?

Now, the traditional title for this parable is “the Prodigal Son.” And, if I’m honest, I’ve never really known what “prodigal” means. It’s one of those words I’ve heard so often, I assume I already know it. It must, somehow, describe the first son we meet in today’s text. This younger son, after demanding and receiving his inheritance from a father who is very much alive, traveled to a distant place and spent every penny he had. He spent freely and extravagantly, with no regard for his future or the relationships he left behind. When his money finally ran out, he was hungry, tired, dirty, and working in the fields with pigs. He decided to go home. But he’s not sure exactly how his father will respond to him. So the younger son prepared a little speech, one that I imagine he practiced over and over again. He would admit that he’s sinned, that he broke their relationship, and that he’s no longer worthy to be called his father’s kid. With that hard bit of honesty out of the way, the son would then make another demand on his dad. He would ask to be fed, paid, and treated like one of his father’s employees. But that final demand is one the younger son never gets to ask. When his father, who never stopped looking out for the son who left, finally sees him, the father runs to embrace him.  him. The younger son, believing this is finally his chance to make things rights, starts to recite his practiced speech. But after admitting who he truly is, that he is someone who no longer deserves a relationship with the one who is literally surrounding him with love, his father interrupted him. The younger son never gets to make his final demand on his dad. Instead, his father showered his kid with a recklass, extravagant, and almost wasteful response of over-the-top love and grace.

Prodigal means being wastefully and recklessly extravagant. And the man and his two sons in this story were prodigal in their own ways. The younger son was a pro in spending his money on wasteful kinds of living. And the older son, the one who stayed, was prodigal in a kind of self-centeredness that, like the younger son, can only make demands on his father. Yet their actions, while as relatable to each of us, are not the focus of the story. This isn’t a parable about the prodigal son or sons. This is, in the end, a story about a man who had two sons. And he can’t help but be prodigal with grace and forgiveness to those he loved. That love didn’t depend on what others said and did. Instead, the father loved his children with abandon because that’s just what the father did. The title we should use for this text from the gospel according to Luke shouldn’t be focused only on the younger son. Rather, this is a story about a prodigal father who describes the God who loves you just as extravagantly, just as recklessly, and just as freely, as the man in Jesus’ parable did. God’s love for you doesn’t depend on what you do, where you go, or what you say. Rather, you are loved not because you are perfect but because you are worth the kind of love that can only come from a prodigal God.

 

Amen.

 



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Reflection: Talking Ourselves Out of Ourselves

Rev. Dr. Frank Crouch, Dean of the Moravian Seminary in Pennsylvania recently wrote: "We have an astounding capacity to talk ourselves out of new creation -- both in our individual lives and in our communities of faith." Today's reading from 2 Corinthians 5:16-21  is Paul's claim that God is in the business of transformation. This transformation is not small in scope nor incremental. Like a car turning into a giant robot, the transformation God invites us into is a transformation that changes everything. When we are in Christ, we are no longer what we were before. We look at the world differently, we live in the world differently, and we relate to God (and each other) in a radically new way. Life with Jesus is a life that cannot do the same old things. Rather, a life with Jesus will reconfigure who we are, turning us into who God imagines us to be.

God's imagination for what is possible with us is centered in the act of reconciliation. Reconciliation is when two people or groups of people work to mend what drove them apart. The act of reconciliation involves more than one side saying "sorry." Reconciliation requires reflection, honesty, humility, and a willingness to be vulnerable. We have to admit our pain and the ways we hurt others. Reconciliation is not about telling someone else to "just get over it," "I didn't mean that," or "that wasn't offensive." Reconciliation, like repentance, is a process where people and communities are honest about what it means to hurt and to be hurt. The ministry of reconciliation, because of Jesus Christ, is what it means to live a Christian life.

But, if we're honest, we have to admit that we don't always know how we can make reconciliation work. It's difficult to discover how we, intentionally or not, hurt others. We, instead, choose to ignore that hurt and we end up pushing aside those whose stories undermine the vision we have of ourselves. But that vision is not the reality of who we are. We are, because of our baptism and our faith, a new creation. The transformation God imagined for you has already begun. The hard work of reconciliation, of living into a new reality where honesty, justice, and love flourish, isn't just possible; it's exactly what God is up to right now. God's love for you is a love that cannot be limited to only you. Rather, Christ's work of reconciling you to God will end up causing you to reconcile with the world around you. That will require difficult conversations. We will be forced to admit the harm we've caused. We will end up shedding tears for ourselves and for the world. Reconciliation is hard but it's also the way through which our neighbors will finally realize that Jesus loved, served, and died for them, too.



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Reflection: Without Money and Without Price

Now that spring has officially sprung, I long for the new life spring represents.
I look at my garden every day, trying to spot each new bulb as it breaks ground. I stare at my lawn, waiting for the grass to turn from a dried yellow to a vibrant green. I peer at every tree, looking for the buds of new leaves. And I can't wait to hear the song of birds that announce every new day. Spring is a season dominated by nature. But there are other "things of spring" that I wait impatiently for and one of them is the return of the neighborhood ice cream truck.

Ice cream is usually a sign of summer but once the temperature breaks 60, that truck is out and about. I usually hear it circling my neighborhood, with a soft jingle turning loud as the truck nears my home. Before you know it, I'm spending my evenings figuring out new ways to distract my children from noticing the sound. The sound of songbirds and the sound of ice cream trucks is a sign that a new way of life is here.

Today's reading from Isaiah 55:1-9 starts with a jingle from an ancient version of that ice cream truck. The scripture begins like a street vendor would, offering everyone free water, milk, and wine. But this gift isn't a free sample hoping to trick us into buying something expensive. The street vendor of Isaiah 55 is offering a gift of abundant and rich food that will last forever He wonders, out loud, why those around him invest their time, talent, and energy in that which does not truly satisfy. This poetic passage is an invitation for the community to turn away from what takes their life and, instead, turn towards what gives life. And the new free and satisfying life is a life that finds its home in God.

Although written to the community of Jews living in exile, this text also applies to us. Walter Brueggemann writes that these rhetorical questions ask us why we "invest so much in forms of life that cannot work - why work so hard and so long in ways that give no satisfaction; why give life over the demands and rewards of the empire that yield nothing of value in return." We are encouraged to ask ourselves hard questions and to wonder if our way of life is bringing a new life to those around us. What, right now, are we investing in that is taking us away from God? And what are we doing that is taking our life away from us?



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Way: What Does This Mean? [Sermon Manuscript]

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. [Jesus] asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

Luke 13:1-9

Pastor Marc's sermon for the 3rd Sunday in Lent (March 24, 2019) on Luke 13:1-9. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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“What does this mean?” is a pretty Lutheran question. If you opened up your copy of The Small Catechism, Martin Luther’s booklet to help parents teach their children what faith is all about, you would see a version of that question all over. Luther used the Apostle’s Creed, the 10 commandments, and the Lord’s prayer as tools to show everyone why Jesus matters. Now, if you grew up Lutheran, hearing that question might make you a bit uncomfortable. Because for generations, we traumatized 13 year olds at the end of their Confirmation programs by making them stand in front of the entire congregation and recite, from memory, Luther’s answers to that question. In the Confirmation program I teach, I no longer make kids do that. But we do spend a lot of time with the question: what does this mean? In fact, that’s pretty much the standard question we all ask whenever we are face-to-face with the Bible and with Jesus. When we discover terms, ideas, or stories that confuse us, that question helps us to find meaning in the things we don’t understand. But the search for meaning is more than a search for understanding. We also want to make this encounter with faith useful for our everyday life. That usefulness can be as simple as finding a moral argument we can use in our decision making or, when we’re confronted by a text that makes us a uncomfortable, we might want to find way to explain it away so we can ignore it. In the words of Diane Jacobson, we sometimes approach the bible, looking to “...[boil it] down to its core essentials.” We want every verse to have a obvious meaning, every paragraph to be a statement of faith, and every story about Jesus condensable into 140 characters or less. If we can strip down faith, we can then insert that faith into the things we already do, think, and feel. The question, “what does this mean?” is one of the ways we try to turn an encounter with faith into an actual faith that’s lived out in our lives.

But that question doesn’t show up only in our encounter with the Bible. Because how many times have you starred in the mirror, looking at your current life, and wonder, “what does this mean?” How many times have you reflected on your family, your community, and maybe the entire world and found yourself praying, “what does this mean?” Our search for meaning isn’t limited to only our engagement with the Bible. Our search for meaning shows up in every moment of our lives. When we have a chance to catch our breath while living through a whirlwind of joy, despair, tears, and sorrow - “what does this mean?” is the right question. It’s a faithful question and one I believe God wants us to ask. But the simple, quick, and easy answer we want might not be the actual answer God’s telling us to hold on to.

In our reading today from the gospel according to Luke, “what does this mean?” is a question the people around Jesus knew very well. We find ourselves dropped into the climax of a conversation Jesus began in chapter 12 while surrounded by a crowd of thousands. Jesus switched back and forth between talking to his disciples and to the crowd. He told those who followed him to be ready; to live confidently, trusting God, and encouraging them to remain faithful to what God was already doing. But that faithfulness wasn’t a call to wait and see what God was up to. Rather, since Jesus was with them, God had already made the first move. Everyone was invited to participate in what was already happening. People were being fed; the sick were being healed; the demons that drove people apart were being casted out; and those society chose to ignore were being seen, noticed, and restored to the community by Jesus himself. God was literally on the move and they were told to join in. The answer to the question of “what does this mean” when Jesus showed up was to get behind him so that God could take you where God knew you needed to go.

Now, it’s at that moment when some in the crowd asked Jesus a “what does this mean” question of their own. They had watched the government brutally murder a group of people who had gathered for worship and they knew of a building disaster in Jerusalem that had killed 18 people. Neither of those groups had the opportunity to jump on board with what God was currently doing. The crowd wanted to know what does it mean since they missed Jesus. Did they die because they were worse than others? Was their suffering, pain, and sorrow caused by their sin and does God, somehow, love them less? Jesus answered: no. Violence, pain, suffering, and the things we don’t understand are not a sign that God loves us less. Nor are those kinds of experiences an example of God abandoning us in our hour of need. I honestly believe God’s heart breaks everytime ours does and we have a Jesus who knows exactly what it’s like to weep. Jesus’ divinity does not overwrite his humanity and his love for us cannot be overwritten by our brokenness, sorrow, or sin.

Yet we will not always receive a simple, clear, or exact answer to the question, “what does this mean?” Pilate, the Roman governor, was wrapped up in an ideology and way of life that had no problem killing those who didn’t believe, act, or serve Rome like he did. His behavior seems like something we might understand or, at least, see other examples of in the world around us. But when the tower of Siloam collapsed...that’s just what it did.   We would like to know what it all means. We would like to know how we can take reality, mix in a little faith, and come out on the other side with an answer protecting us from what comes next. Yet the reality of our being alive means that we also need to come to grips with the mystery of meaning and the uncertainty of not knowing. And that kind of uncertainty is at the heart of parable Jesus used about the fig tree and the gardener.

In the words of Eric D. Barreto, “Many of Jesus’ stories leave us with uncertainty…. we do not know if manure and a gardener’s touch ends up making any difference whatsoever. Does the gardener just delay the inevitable? Does the gardener hold off for one year the fig tree’s destiny of serving as compost for another, more productive tree?” Jesus’ parable ended before it could reach any kind of resolution. We are left with that tree, in the uncertainty of “one more year.” We find given the opportunity to notice what God is doing while realizing the urgency of what such a call truly means. Following Jesus isn’t something we’re asked to do tomorrow. Following Jesus is something we get to do today. In your baptism and in your faith, you are wrapped up by Jesus who isn’t waiting for you to be perfect before he called you to follow him. Instead, he came to you as you are so that you, through Him, can become exactly who God knows you can be. But, if we’re honest, we’re not always sure exactly what that means. A life with faith is a life that will sometimes be uncertain. A life with faith is a life that’s often doubting. A life with faith is a life that will often ask “what does this mean?” Yet, even when we don’t know the answer and we’re at a loss of what to do next - that doesn’t mean we’re alone or that God loves us less. When we find ourselves not being able to see the way forward, that’s when we’re called to get behind Jesus, because he’s already leading the way.

 

Amen.

 



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Happy: The Pastor's Message for the April 2019 Messenger

When was the last time someone asked you what you wanted to be when you grow up? When I was little, I told everyone I wanted to be a paleontologist. Well, I probably said “dino bone hunter” when I was two or three, but for years all I wanted to do was search for dinosaur bones on a dusty mountain range. As I grew up, my answer to that question changed. I wanted to be a scientist, then an engineer, and biophysicist. By the time I graduated from college, all I wanted was a job that would pay me a living wage. Now that I have young kids, I realize how odd that question is. We train our kids and ourselves to respond by telling grownups what job we want to do. But what we do isn’t the limit to who we are. Imagine if we answered that question differently. What if we said, “I want to be good,” or “I want to serve the world.” Or what if anytime someone asked that, we responded with, “I want to just keep following Jesus.” As Christians, our jobs are only a part of the way we serve God.

Kari van Wakeren, Pastor of First Lutheran Church in Alexandria, Minnesota, recently wrote about what she wants for her kids. Like many parents, she wants her kids to be happy and healthy. But what does it mean to want that? She writes: As I considered this question, three things came to mind. I want my kids to grow up knowing: 1. God made them special. 2. They can do hard things. 3. They are not alone. With these three truths under their belt, I hope they will be able to weather life’s storms and make a positive impact in the world. But passing on these truths isn’t a once-and-done thing. Even knowing my desires for my kids doesn’t stop me from trying to shield them from adversity. In those moments, I need to remind myself that my goal for them isn’t happiness, but rather resilience, fulfillment and a quiet confidence, knowing their identity in Christ.

Growing into our identity in Christ isn’t easy for any of us, no matter how old we are. As van Wakeren writes, Jesus never promised that our lives would be easy or that we would always be happy. But God did send us the Spirit to remind us that we aren’t alone and, in Christ, we can do hard—and great—things. Easter is a perfect time for us to remember that, when it comes to Christ, we don’t have to grow into him. Rather, we already have him. And we now have the opportunity to become more Christ-like than we ever were before.

See you in church!
Pastor Marc



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