Questions and Reflections

Prepare: God and the Wilderness [Sermon]

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”​

Luke 3:1-6

Pastor Marc's sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent (December 9, 2018) on Luke 3:1-6. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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I’d like to start my sermon today by inviting you to forget something we just did. We heard a tiny bit of Jesus’ story from the gospel according to Luke which is one of the four gospels that contain the theological insights that serve as a foundation for our faith. Every Sunday morning, I introduce our reading from the gospels by inviting you to stand if you are able and then I say something like, “The gospel according to Luke, the Third Chapter.” This introduction prepares us for what comes next. We know we’re going to hear Luke’s version of Jesus’ story and since we’re in the third chapter, we’re already moving through the story God wanted to tell. In fact, we know exactly where we are in God’s story, including chapter and verse, because, at Christ Lutheran Church, everything is printed in our bulletin. But what if it wasn’t? What if there was no introduction to this text at all? I imagine it might sound different. So let’s try it. Let’s forget everything we just heard, including where this text appears in God’s story, and let’s listen to the first two verses as if we’ve never really heard them before: In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

If we didn’t know better, those two verses sounded like the beginning of an epic story. We met an Emperor, a governor, two rulers, two high priests, God, and some guy named John who was hanging out in the wilderness. The text begins at a specific time, in the fifteenth year of some Roman emperor’s rule, and it’s okay if you don’t have the years of the reigns of all the Roman Emperors memorized. What matters is that these verses are focused on a specific time and on a specific place where everything is defined by who was in control. The Emperor Tiberius was on top. He’s the one who appointed the governor and he allowed Herod and Philip and Lysanias to rule as kings subordinate to him. Even the religious authorities were under the Emperor’s control because no high priest could assume their office unless Roman power let it be so. So we received seven names, showing us the complete picture of who had power when this part of Jesus’ story took place. And that’s when the word of God, God’s voice, God’s energy, God’s point of view, and God’s power, came to a guy named John who was hanging out in the wilderness.

Now, the wilderness John was in was overseen by one of the rulers the Roman emperor put in place. But being a ruler of a place and actually ruling it are two different things. In the Bible, a  wilderness was always a strange, mysterious, and untamed place. We might imagine John wandering into ancient Israel’s version of the Alaskan frontier, a place where wild animals ruled and where the necessities for human life were hard to come by. A wilderness, especially in the Bible, was a place of desolation and scarcity. But a wilderness was also, at the same time, an experience of God’s provision and protection. During the story of the Exodus, the ancient Israelites complained constantly about spending 40 years in a place without enough food and water. But that wilderness was also where God provided them manna and its desolation shielded them from being re-enslaved by their former Egyptian rulers. Later, the young David who eventually became king and the prophet Elijah both fled into the wilderness for safety and, while there, they were sustained and protected by God. The wilderness, according to Scripture, is more than just a desert or an untamed mountain range. The wilderness is also an experience where our normal sense of who’s in charge and who’s in control is undone. Our wildernesses are those moments, places, and even years where the control we assumed we had over our lives is turned around. John wasn’t only hanging out in a desolate and untamed place. He was also living into an experience where he had limited control. The structure of order and power proclaimed by the first seven names that started this passage wasn’t where John was living. Instead, John was in the middle of his wilderness, in the middle of nowhere; a nowhere that fully embodied the isolation, the fear, and the anxiety we all experience when we are in our “nowheres” too.

Yet it’s in that “nowhere” where the word of God comes. It’s in those untamed and uncontrolled moments when God shows up. The word of God skipped over the seven names of those who had control and instead went to an eighth name living in the wilderness. We sometimes act as if John, the son of Zechariah, appeared in the wilderness suddenly, only when the word of God showed up. But John wasn’t only passing through the wilderness when God’s word came. Instead, he had been in the wilderness for a very long time. The fifteen years of the reign of Tiberius was also a signal to us that John’s life in the wilderness lasted longer. John’s faith, personal growth, and spiritual strength developed in that place where scarcity, isolation, desolation, fear, and lack of control was all he knew. God formed John to be the one who could prepare the way for Jesus, not in spite of his wilderness experiences but because of them. John knew that, when we’re living in the wilderness, it’s only by trusting God that we can be carried through.

Our wildernesses might not fully match up with John’s. There’s a good chance we won’t find ourselves near the Jordan River, deep in a deserted desert. Our wildernesses, instead, might be located in a doctor’s office, a school, at work, or even in our homes. Our wilderness might, instead, be something we carry with us as we live our life with grief, or sadness, or a lack of knowing who, exactly, we’re supposed to be. The wildernesses we live in might last a day, a week, a year, or even a lifetime. Yet our personal wilderness does not mean that we are far from God. Our wilderness cannot separate us from the One who skipped over those who thought they were in control and instead visited John who knew how little control he actually had. God doesn’t wait for us to have our lives together before God shows up. God makes a commitment to each of us that there is no wilderness we find ourselves in that God won’t go into too. The structures we put into place to try and figure out where we are in God’s story will always miss seeing the ways God provides, nourishes, and sustains. And when we believe that our wilderness is hiding us from God, trust that God is already there with you, and that you will find your way through.

 

Amen.

 



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Reflection: Being Refined

Have you ever refined gold? I haven't but our passage from Malachi 3:1-4 assumes we have. In the ancient world, there was only one way to extract gold from the rock it was found in. A worker would light a fire and place a crucible (usually a bowl made out of rock that can withstand hot temperatures) over it. Rocks containing pieces of gold would be placed into the crucible and everything would heat up. But the fire couldn't be merely a campfire. The fire would need to be hot. The worker wanted the rocks to melt, allowing the impurities to float to the surface while the gold settled into the bottom. They would do all they could to make the fire heat up until it approached 1,800 degrees. The mixture would melt and the worker would stand there, using a special tool to scoop out anything that floated to the top. Over and over again, the rocks containing the gold would be melted until all the impurities had been removed and melted gold was all that was left. This process created the blocks of gold that would eventually be turned into statues, jewelry and coins. Gold is one of the world's "precious" metals but the process to refine that gold was anything but.

If we were approaching a fire burning at 1800 degrees, we would do our best to stay safe. We would stand a safe distance away, put on the world's best oven mitts, and make sure we knew where the closest air conditioned room was. We might be able to protect ourselves from the full blast of that heat. But workers in the ancient world were not so lucky. Refining gold was a hot and dangerous business. Everyone wanted the gold the workers produced but very few, I think, wanted their actual job. Yet Malachi, when he described the messenger who will announce the coming of God into the world, predicted this messenger would burn like a refiner's fire. And this fire wouldn't come to only those who didn't know God. Rather, the fire would refine all of God's people. Those who believe in God, worship God, and follow God are the ones who will be refined by God. And this refining will not be easy. We will be exposed to a spiritual heat that we cannot protect ourselves from. Unlike the worker standing next to the fire, we will be embraced by the fire itself. And that fire will refine us over and over again, helping us become the people God knows we can be.

When we talk about trying to grow our faith, we rarely talk about a refining fire. We imagine, instead, that a few minor changes in our life will help us become the people we think God wants us to be. Yet there will be moments in our life when the foundations of our world will break. There will be times when our expectations for God will be unmet. There will be moments when we will wonder if the God we grew up with is the God who is with us now. There will be times when we will feel as if we are being melted into something we don't want to be. And it’s at those moments when we see how Jesus is already standing there with us, in the fire. We are precious to Jesus. We are worth God's love. And when we feel as if our world is burning up, he will be beside us, helping us become something brand new.



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How Can We Thank: God's Generosity

How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.

Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

Pastor Marc's sermon for the First Sunday of Advent (December 2, 2018) on 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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When was the last time you received someone’s generosity?

I’d like you to think about that because, in a few moments, I’m going to ask you to share that experience with the person sitting next to you. Now I know this question can, at first, be a bit vague because we usually don’t talk about those moments in our lives when we receive generosity. Instead, we like to focus on being generous, on how we give. Generosity, as a concept, “has to do with the way we use our skills …[to] share ideas, practice hospitality, offer encouragement, make connections, and use our time [and resources] to address the needs of others.” (Living Generously, Stewardship Resource) Generosity is seeing someone else’s vulnerability and, for a moment, helping that person become a little more “complete” than they were before. It feels good to fill the need we see in the people around us. And it’s also easier to talk about the ways we’re generous because we then don’t have to let others know about those times in our lives when we were vulnerable too. Showing others our generosity sometimes invites us to bury those moments when we needed help and care. Yet generosity is how we love and it’s also, I think, how we experience love from one another. Generosity is an action, a practice, and a virtue that forms us, molds us, and helps us build the relationships we need so that we can become the people God wants us to be. And that kind of generosity takes many forms. It could be financial, like when a friend takes us out to dinner knowing we can’t pay them back. Or generosity could be when a loved one lets us vent, knowing they can’t solve our problems but they can create a space where all the feelings, emotions, and words inside us are finally let out into the open. A friend we haven’t spoken to in awhile might give us a call or a stranger might notice how tired we are and give us their seat on the bus; these are all examples of generosity and we receive this kind of generosity everyday. Yet we struggle to acknowledge it. But as we see in our reading from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, naming our vulnerability and celebrating generosity is part of what being a Christian is all about.

Paul’s first letter to the community in Thessaloniki is, most likely, the earliest piece of Christian writing we have. Paul wrote to a small group, of maybe a dozen or so, early Christians who had responded to Paul’s preaching and teaching in their city. Paul wanted to spend a significant amount of time in Thessaloniki, to support the small Christian community and help their relationship with Jesus grow. But something happened and Paul had to flee. The community in Thessaloniki was left on their own with no formally trained spiritual leader to guide them. And this worried Paul because Thessaloniki wasn’t your regular ancient Mediterranean town. It was the capital of a Roman province, with a large garrison of Roman soldiers keeping watch. Thessaloniki was a city full of Roman monuments and buildings promoting the authority of the Roman emperor who was starting to call himself “the Son of God.” Temples to other gods filled the city and each one had a large and devout following. And since Thessaloniki was a city in northern Greece, on a clear day, every person in that city could see in the distance, Mount Olympus, the tallest mountain in all of Greece and the legendary home of Zeus and other gods. Paul had to leave behind a small community of Christians in a city where Roman power, Roman rule, and Roman religious life had all the outward benefits and prestige. Paul worried that this community wouldn’t survive in the face of all that Rome. Yet it did. And not only that, they thrived. Their faith grew. They continued to worship. And they, as a community, learned how to live together - persevering through hardships and celebrating each other’s joys. God, through a divine and generous love, protected them and Paul’s joy literally leaps off the page. He can’t thank God enough for them, for this community in the shadow of Mount Olympus, that God didn’t abandon. Paul, I believe, honestly wanted to return to them, to be with them, but he knew that it wasn’t him who kept them together. Rather, it was God’s generosity in the face of their vulnerability that carried them through. The Christian community in Thessaloniki, on the surface, wasn’t very strong. The community was young, it’s spiritual leader had fled, and Christianity was so new that the New Testament hadn’t even been written yet - so there was no collection of writings to help shape and guide them. They were a community surrounded by other faiths and points of view that were bigger, more powerful, and were more richly rewarded. The Thessalonians in Paul’s community were completely vulnerable - and yet, they thrived. In the face of overwhelming outside pressure, the Thessalonians and Paul admitted to themselves and each other that it was only God’s generosity that kept them following Jesus. And this true God, this only God, was, while they were vulnerable, truly with them - giving them a faith that would carry them through.

Receiving generosity is hard because we then have to admit our own vulnerabilities. Yet we all have stories where the generosity of others is what carried us through. That kind of generosity, while mediated through human hands, comes from God. And it’s God’s generosity that sent Jesus into our world to experience everything we do, including what it’s like to be vulnerable. It’s God’s love that shows us how we can be generous. And it’s Jesus’s generosity that reminds us how we all need love.

I invite you now to take a few moments, a couple of minutes, and share with the person next to you a short description of a moment when you received someone else’s generosity.

 



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Reflection: Vision. Story. Promise. Now What?

We start every new church year, every Advent, with the end of the world. Today's reading from the gospel according to Luke 21:25-36 is part of a longer sermon filled with Jesus' apocalyptic views. Like Daniel, Ezekiel, and Isaiah, Jesus' words are sprinkled with images of wars, starvation, persecution, and judgement. As we spend today lighting the first Advent candle and preparing to set out the nativity with a manger for a baby's bed, we are surrounded by words rooted in incredible violence. This text is jarring, masking the hope at the heart of Jesus' words. But hope is what Jesus is all about in Luke 21. And this hope is God's vision for the world. 

There's a pattern in the text that unwraps the hope Jesus is pointing to. The text begins with a vision, describing the earth in distress. Jesus then moves from a vision into a story, using a parable to tame the violence in the vision he previous shared. At the moment when the world trembles and it feels as if it will be covered in shadow, that is when summer will be on its way. The story is rooted in a promise - a promise that Jesus' words, ministry, and grace has a permanence that cannot be overcome. This vision, story, and promise is Jesus' reminder that, regardless of what we can see, there is still always more going on than meets the eye. We, as human begins, cannot see everything that God sees. We, with our limited perspective, cannot see everything else that's moving into place. And we, wrapped up in our sin, struggle to realize that we are not the center of the universe. By clinging to the promise that Jesus is truly God-with-us, we are wrapped up by a hope that does not end. Our relationship to God doesn't depend on us. Our relationship is rooted in a God who refuses to leave us on our own. Even when the world appears like it is coming apart at the seams, Jesus is still here. And we, as followers of Christ, are to stay alert, living our lives as if Jesus is really here right now. 

Dr. Michal Dinkler writes, "As we move into the Christmas season, let us not get so myopic in single-mindedly over-preparing for Christmas that we forget God’s vision for the world -- a vision that is God’s to control, a vision that is far broader and more expansive than either/or thinking can allow." Through your baptism and through your faith, you are with with God. This world, as we know, doesn't match the vision God has for it. But because of your faith, the kingdom of God is already here. As we start this new church year, we are reminded we spend all our years living into the hope that Jesus makes a difference today, yesterday, and forever.



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Reflection: Is/Was/To Come

God has many different names. In the Jewish tradition, there's a saying that God has 72 of them. Lord, Eternal One, and YHWH are just a few. These names, of course, are ones we give to God and we use them to describe God's divinity and immortality. These names help us understand who God is and also how different God is from us. While standing before the burning bush, Moses is told that God is called "I-Am" or "I-Am-Who-I-Am." As Christians, we use Jesus as one of God's names because Jesus is God incarnate. But even these names don't seem to be able to hold everything that makes God, God. 

In the ancient world, a formula was developed to flesh out a god's characteristics. The author Pausanias, for example, said that "Zeus was, Zeus is, Zeus will be." Like the words Lord and Eternal One, these descriptions of Zeus point to Zeus' supposed eternal identity. In our reading today from the book of Revelation 1:4b-8, this same formula is used describe God as the One "who is and who was and who is to come." But the formula isn't an exact match and there's an important difference that we should notice. The author of Revelation isn't only interested in God's eternal nature. God is much more than just something that lasts forever. Our God is also an everlasting being that acts. (Revelation: Interpretation Commentary, page 75). God moves and chooses to come into our world. God is not only something "up there." God also is here, right now. We are invited to know this God who, through Jesus Christ, chose to live with us. Through prayer, baptism, and the gifts served at the Lord's table, we meet a God who is already moving towards us. In Christ, God takes the initiative to enter into our lives because God already knows our names. And God will put God's holy name of love, mercy, and action into our hearts, souls, and minds. 



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Truth is a Person: Pontius Jesus Politics [Sermon]

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”

John 18:33-38a

Pastor Marc's sermon for Christ the King Sunday (November 25, 2018) on John 18:33-38a. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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There are no Republicans or Democrats in the Bible - but the Bible is full of politics. Politics, in its broadest sense, is how we make, preserve, and modify the general rules under which we live. (See Andrew Heywood's book). These rules, spoken or unspoken, show up whenever groups of people live or work together. As human beings, we need each other. But that doesn’t mean we always get along. Our rival opinions, competing needs, and different wants leads to conflict, cooperation, and more conflict. We team up with each other, form factions against one another, and use every skill we have to “win” whatever conflict we’re in. Politics are the rules, expectations, and activities that form and shape how we work - or how we don’t work - with each other. Now as a faith community located in the United States, it’s not hard to hear the word “politics” and immediately think of political parties, recent elections, and which family members we avoided talking politics with during last Thursday’s Thanksgiving dinner. Politics is also something, we think, the church should avoid because politics feels partisan, biased by whatever political leanings and political party we identify with. We tell ourselves that politics doesn’t belong in the church so we seek out the “spiritual” meaning of every text in the Bible that we read on Sunday mornings. But when we only look for the spiritual, we miss the political realities that impacted Jesus’ life and ministry. Today’s text from the gospel according to John is a political text. And we can’t discover it’s spiritual meaning until we are honest about the political reality that informed Pilate’s first words to Jesus: “Are you the King of the Jews?”

Now, if you were meeting Jesus face-to-face for the first time, what would your question be? It could be anything yet I’m pretty sure none of us would ask Pilate’s question. Pontius Pilate, as we remember, was a Roman governor who ruled Jerusalem and the surrounding communities during Jesus’ years of public ministry. Pilate was appointed by the Emperor and he embodied Roman authority, control, and military might. He was the Emperor’s representative when the Emperor wasn’t around. And when Pilate spoke, everyone in Syria, Judea, and the Middle East listened. Pilate’s governor mansion wasn’t based in Jerusalem. However, when the Jewish festival of Passover took place, Pilate moved into the city with a large cohort of soldiers. They were there to provide security, crowd control, and to keep everyone in line. Gigantic religious events had a tendency to encourage riots, conflict, and revolts. So Pilate was ready to eliminate any threat, no matter how small it seemed. Jesus had also recently arrived in the city. After teaching in the Temple and sharing a final meal with his friends, he was betrayed by Judas and arrested. After being convicted in a trial overseen by the religious authorities, Jesus was handed over to Roman power. Pilate didn’t care if Jesus was a spiritual leader. And he wasn’t looking for any religious advice. Pilate wanted to know if Jesus was a threat. And since the religious leaders had handed Jesus over to him, Pilate already assumed he was. Pilate’s first question, out of the gate, was a political one. He wanted to know if Jesus claimed any kind of authority that would challenge Rome’s rule. Pilate could only imagine the world as he knew it to be. And any king in his world needed certain things. A king needed territory, followers, and resources. A king needed an army willing to kill on his behalf. A king, in Pilate’s mind, needed to inspire fear, conflict, and co-operation in those they ruled. And if Jesus could do any of that, then he would be a king and he would challenge Rome’s monopoly on that power.

Pilate, as depicted in the gospel according to John, wasn’t interested in the truth. His questions to Jesus were not a gentle inquiry into Jesus’ life, ministry, and mission. Instead, it was an interrogation because Pilate needed to confirm Jesus’ identity as a threat. Pilate knew how his world worked and as the Emperor’s representative, the truth he knew was centered in power, control, and someone “winning” every conflict - no matter what. What Pilate couldn’t see, or chose not to see, was the truth right in front of him. And that truth wasn’t a what, an idea, or some kind of fact written down on a piece of paper. The truth was a who because, as Jesus shared in John 14:6, he is “the way, the truth, and the life.”

We tend to imagine the outcome of politics as having some kind of material shape. Politics involves people having power and that power is expressed by having authority over others. Politics is made real in a specific location - be it in a city council chamber, in a part of Congress, or even in the unspoken table seating charts dictated in some high school lunchrooms. Politics, we believe, is about controlling domains and forming our own, personal, kingdoms. Yet Jesus’ politics was, and is, different. He came to live out his commitment to a world that was already overseen by him. As part of the Holy Trinity and as the One through whom the entire universe was made, there’s no domain or kingdom or territory that doesn’t already belong to Him. When it comes to God’s creation, there’s no territory that Jesus needs to fight for to control. So Jesus chose to build personal, meaningful, and deep relationships with us since we already live in God’s world. And in the words of Rev. Karoline Lewis, “... Jesus’ Kingdom can be anywhere, anytime that Kingdom behavior is exemplified...lived out...and That Kingdom witness [is] heard and observed.” What Pilate couldn’t see was that Jesus’ kingdom was rooted not in things but in people. Jesus wanted people to connect with God’s ultimate promise to them - that we are loved not because we are perfect but because God is - and that promise...changes everything. It changes how we interact with each other. It changes how we live with our neighbors. It changes how we make, preserve, and modify the general rules under which we live. Rather than being focused on “winning” whatever conflict we’re in, our faith in Jesus compels us to realize that we - on a cosmic and divine level - have already won. So instead of competing with one another, we can choose to love each nother. Instead of seeking out victories over those we disagree with, we can chose to help them thrive. Instead of building walls to give us a fake sense of security, we can work on building bonds of friendship - knowing that those bonds take much more work to create but are the only way to develop lasting peace. We get to be honest about the ways we’ve failed to use our power for good and we get to stand up to racism, sexism, classism, and every-ism that stops us from seeing the image of God in the people around us. And because of our baptism, we get to imagine how our politics can be a way we serve God and our neighbors. Jesus as the truth means that, sometimes the truth we tell, is anything but. Yet when we cling to Jesus, listening to his voice over all others, we find ourselves testify to his truth of forgiveness, mercy, service, and, above all, love.

 

Amen.  

 



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Speaking Gratitude at the 50th Annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Service [Sermon Manuscript]

Pastor Marc's sermon for the 50th Annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Service (Upper Pascack Valley Clergy Council) hosted by Congregation B'nai Israel on November 18, 2018. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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So I’m not sure how it happened but I, somehow, went through all of my formal education without really digging into the rules of English grammar. I never diagramed a sentence. I never memorized what a split infinitive was. And, to the chagrin of those who edit my newsletter articles, I love the Oxford comma. At first, I was fine with this lack of formal grammar education because, as a kid, I planned to grow up and become a paleontologist, or a computer programmer, or an engineer. I figured I could learn what I needed to know through a version of paper-and-pencil based osmosis, absorbing whatever it is I needed to know. But the Lord had other ideas. And I’m now in a career where using words is what I mostly do. Every day, there’s an important conversation about faith and life that becomes a vehicle through which we love our neighbor as ourselves. And there always another sermon to write, article to compose, and newsletter to create. These words end up being more than just a tool for communication. They are how we love, serve, forgive, welcome, and embody the faith that makes each of us exactly who we are supposed to be. For those of us who are able to write and speak, our words become containers of the sacred. And this sacred speech does something. Our words are how we build relationships with each other. Our speech is how we create opportunities for reconciliation and forgiveness. Our words can make someone’s day and, when misused, can cause unbelievable harm. I sort of wish I paid more attention in English class. But there’s at least one grammar rule that I, somehow, can still articulate. And that rule says we’re never to end a sentence with a preposition.

Now, a preposition is a word like with, by, for, in, or, to, and it’s used to express a relationship between a noun or a pronoun and some other element in a sentence. For example, in Deuteronomy 8, verse 3, it says: “God humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna…” That “with” is a preposition. I was taught to avoid ending any sentence with one of those kinds of words. But as I prepared for tonight’s message, I discovered that this so-called “rule” wasn’t really meant for English speakers. The grammarians who decided this took a rule for latin and dictated that English speakers should do the same thing. It’s a bit ironic that I ended up memorizing the one grammar rule that wasn’t really a rule to begin with. But it helped me stay connected to prepositions. And these kinds of our words, which contain the sacred, are especially important when we’re talking about thankfulness and gratitude.

Diana Butler Bass, in her book Grateful, pointed out that “gratitude...always comes with a preposition.” (page 97) “We are grateful for something, grateful to someone, and...grateful with others. Even [when our gratitude is] untargeted...prepositions [still] show up.” We might, for example, find ourselves completely alone on a deserted beach right before the dawn breaks. We listen to the waves gently crashing onto the shore. And then, as the sun rises, we witness the wispy clouds turn pink, orange, and red. Even though no one else is there, we still feel the need to, somehow, say thanks. Now, we sometimes define gratitude and thankfulness as rooted in a kind of exchange, where someone gives us something and we are indebted to them, in small and big ways. This kind of gratitude is built into our culture and it’s so embedded in us that we don’t realize how much this required reciprocity is part of the words we use and teach. I know my kids are a little tired of me always saying, “now what do you say?” after they’ve been given something. Yet gratitude doesn’t need to only be a transaction involving debts and debtors. Gratitude can also be structured through gifts and response. And when we shift our perspective away from looking at life as if it’s recorded on some kind of eternal balance sheet, we discover the gifts that already exist. We can see that “the universe [itself] is a gift. [That] life is a gift. Air, light, soil, water… friendship, love,...and [birth or chosen] family...[these are all] gifts. We live on a gifted planet.” (xxiv) And without these gifts, we wouldn’t even exist. Gratitude and thankfulness is rooted in these initial gifts. Each one of us, by merely existing, end up being a beneficiary in God’s world. And instead of only saying that this arrangement makes us indebted to God, we can choose to “express our appreciation for [these gifts] by ... [giving all sorts of gifts - those that are large and small] … to others” (xxv)

When we center our gratitude in gifts rather than in indebtness, the prepositions of thankfulness show us that when gifts are given, “connection comes alive.” (97) In the words of Diana Butler Bass, “when it comes to gratitude, ‘me’ always leads to ‘we’.” (97). When we are grateful for something, grateful to someone, and grateful with others - our gratitude creates community with all those things on the other side of the prepositions. And that community is grounded in every gift that the Eternal One has first given us. Now, in my Lutheran Christian tradition, everything begins with gifts. Our life is a gift. Our relationship to God is a gift. Jesus, we believe, is a gift. And even our faith, our ability to say who we are and whose we are, is a gift. In theory, we should be good at recognizing the gifts given to us. Yet using words to name our gifts isn’t always easy. One of the skills we need to learn is how to name all our gifts out loud. Because it’s a gift that we are here tonight, celebrating 50 years of interfaith partnership and support in the Pascack Valley. It’s a gift that we, together, can choose to love, care, and be with each other - even though there are forces in this world that want to tear us apart. It’s a gift that I, a Christian, was invited to say these words tonight even though the history of antisemitism in a twisted version of my faith has led to incredible horrors against the Jewish people - an evil that we will continue to denounce, fight against, and do whatever we can to remove. And finally, it’s a gift that every one of you is here and that we, together, will use our words to affirm our collective call to welcome, love, and stand with all. Because as faith-filled people living in Bergen County, we are a gift to each other. As we look forward to our next 50 years together, I don’t know what nouns and pronouns will be on the other side of our future gratitude prepositions. But I believe that our love for each other will grow as we continue to stand in solidarity with each other. And that we will be a welcoming, diverse, and inclusive community of communities, rooted in our eternal gifts, so that we can be grateful for, grateful to, and grateful with.

 

Amen.

 



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Recipes of Faith: The Pastor's Message for the December 2018 Messenger

One of my favorite ways to celebrate the holiday and Christmas season is to eat. Thanksgiving turkey, Christmas hams, swimming pools full of cookies, and candy canes taller than my children - this season is a delicious one. And one way we participate in this season of eating is by opening up our cupboards, taking out our recipe boxes, and pulling out our favorite ones. Some are printouts from recipes we found online. Others come from newspapers, magazines, and cookbooks. And there are those few recipes in our recipe boxes that handwritten (or typed on a typewriter) that we have inherited from our parents and grandparents. One of my family's recipes comes from Kate's grandmother and it's now one of our Christmas day traditions. After the presents are opened, Kate (with help from our kids) prepares fried matzos for all to eat. The recipe is on an index card in the grandmother's hand. We eat these fried matzos often but there is something special about sharing this dish on Christmas morning. It reminds us how we are connected to something bigger than ourselves. The simple act of eating this food helps us relive, remember, and re-experience the relationships that make a difference in our lives.

Whether we inherit these recipes from the families we are born into or through the families we create on the way, these recipes do more than feed our bodies. They feed our souls and our hearts. We, through the gift of
food, discover what our relationship with Jesus Christ is all about. God wants more than us to merely receive the calories we need to survive. God wants us to thrive. And, through Christ and through the church, inspires all of us to help each other become exactly who God wants us to be. 

So what's your favorite recipe this holiday season? And if you had to make a recipe card for your faith, what would it look like? Rev. Chris Halverson of St. Stephen Lutheran Church recently created these: 

Faith Frittata:
Ingredients—Baptism, Word, Spirit, Community.

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees F
  • Place Baptism in a large skillet and cook over medium-high head, turn occasionally, even until browned.
  • Add the Word of God, received aurally. This will stimulate the Holy Spirit.
  • Cook for a lifetime.
  • Serve wherever two or three are gathered. Community will sustain it and replicate it.

 

Grace Wrap:
Ingredients—God’s faithfulness, promise, and signs.

  • Take half an hour to reflect upon how God has been faithful in the past.
  • Take some time to reflect upon all the things God has promised to us for our good and our salvation.
  • Wrap it all together in trust.
  • Serve through the waters of baptism and pair them with the bread and wine of communion, which will sustain the whole meal.

 

Spend sometime this season pondering your relationship with Jesus. What would your recipe card for Prayer, Forgiveness, Faithfulness, Mercy, or Hope look like? Create your own. And let's do what we can to keep these kinds of recipes out of the recipe boxes in our cupboard and, instead, in our lives everyday. 

See you in church!
Pastor Marc



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Worth It: With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility [manuscript]

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.

“As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them. And the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations. When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death;and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.

Mark 13:1-13

Pastor Marc's sermon for the 26th Sunday After Pentecost (November 18, 2018) on Mark 13:1-13. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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Invisible Girl. Iron Man.The Hulk. Marvel Girl. These are just some of the comic book characters Stan Lee helped bring to life. He, along with the artists Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and Don Heck, was instrumental in creating an entire universe full of superheroes. To my kids, Stan Lee is that weird old guy with the awkward cameos in all of the Marvel superhero movies. But for the rest of us, he’s the one who spent five decades giving us all superhero dreams. Stan Lee wasn’t perfect. He took too much credit for the collaborative work he did and he should have given the artists, letterers, and inkers at Marvel Comics more money. Yet I, like countless other comicbook nerds, mourned his passing earlier this week. He was a pop-culture icon, giving birth to a world that looked a lot like our own but one where radioactive spiders gave teenagers superhuman strength. Peter Parker, aka Spider-man, is probably his most beloved co-creation. He first showed up in Amazing Fantasy Comics #15 as a sixteen year old kid who was bitten by a radioactive spider. Peter discovered he could climb walls, balance on thin cables, and crush steel pipes as if they were paper. With his new found powers, Peter did what any teenager would do: he joined the amateur professional wrestling circuit, using his new skills to make some money. After being given the stage name Spider-Man, tragedy struck and Peter Parker became the superhero he was destined to be. And in the final panel of his very first appearance, we read a line that I think even the Holy Spirit regretted not including in the Bible. Spider-man learned that “with great power comes...great responsibility.”

That line speaks about something that we all know but that we don’t, necessarily, practice. We want those with power to serve the greater good. We want people to recognize the power they do have and how they are called to confront the evil in the world. “With great power comes great responsibility” is an amazing line. Except...that’s not the exact quote of what the comic book actually says. If you opened up your copy of Amazing Fantasy #15 to the very last part of the story, you’d read: “And a lean, silent figure slowly fades into the gathering darkness, aware at last that in this world, with great power there must also come - great responsibility!” We usually leave out the “must also” part of that quotation. But maybe we shouldn’t. Because those words illuminate the inevitable calling that Peter Parker has. He doesn’t get to choose what his responsibilities are. Instead, he gets to live them out and endure. And like all of Jesus’ disciples, he sometimes wonders if this kind of life is actually worth it.

At the start of today’s reading from the gospel according to Mark, the disciples were just overwhelmed by it all. They were hanging out in the place God promised to be, in the Temple in Jerusalem, and they were following God’s Messiah. The disciples, I imagine, were filled with a sense of awe as they walked on holy ground with the One who could feed thousands of people with a couple of loaves and some fish. It’s not only the stones and the buildings that were large - the disciples knew that they were in God’s city with the One who could change the world. And in their exuberance, an unnamed disciple, gave voice to that feeling - and Jesus, in response, cut that exuberance short. Instead of basking in the glory of that moment, Jesus shared that everything around them would come tumbling down. Jesus claimed that God’s House, God’s home on earth, would be destroyed. And so, later on, four of Jesus’ friends came to him, wanting to know exactly what he was talking about. If the Temple was going to fall, they wanted to know when. Now that’s a completely reasonable question but what’s striking about that question is who asked it. And to understand that, we need to open our Bibles to the very first chapter of Mark. Because Peter, James, John, and Andrew weren’t just some random followers of Jesus; they were his very first ones.

According to Mark, after Jesus’ temptation in the desert and John the Baptist’s arrest - Jesus began his journey to Jerusalem by first going to the the Sea of Galilee. He found two sets of brothers working there. Peter and Andrew were fishing while James and John were mending their nets. Both sets of brothers, at Jesus’ call, left their homes and their families to follow him. And for approximately three years, they saw Jesus work wonders. They watched as he casted out demons. They were there when he healed people that the rest of us tossed aside. Jesus matched wits with the religious leaders of his day and he gave his disciples, including those two sets of brothers, a taste of what it’s like to have Jesus’ power. They, like almost everyone else, imagined that Jesus’ spiritual power would also become a political power that would drive the occupying Roman Empire into the sea. The Temple wasn’t supposed to be destroyed. Instead, it was supposed to become invincible. So the four, the ones who had been there since the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, asked him a question. They wanted to know if everything would still turn out the way they thought it should. They sought assurances from Jesus that, after giving up everything to follow him, he was actually worth it. Because without the Temple, without some political power, and without some honest-to-goodness benefits in the here and now, the two sets of brothers wanted to know if their lives, had any meaning at all. Jesus sidestepped their question. And instead, he told them to endure. He told them to just live.

And living can be hard. There are joys, of course, but there’s also struggles and suffering. As we age, we discover that our bodies don’t always do what they used to and our new normal isn’t very fun. Our relationships with the people around us can bring us incredible joy but they can also break our heart. We find ourselves praying prayers that we know won’t be answered. And we watch as entire towns are wiped out by wildfires, hurricanes, and wars. We wonder if being here makes sense because the benefits of our faith don’t seem to materialize in the ways we thought they would. We, in a sense, lose that everyday meaning that should move us into a more vibrant, and easier, future. And instead we discover that there’s a lot of life that we just have to live through.

And Jesus, well, he knows that. He not only understands our life but he chose to live that life too. He had the power to do exactly what Peter, James, John, and Andrew wanted. But he also knew that our cycle of living, of violence and war and hurt, was a cycle that needed to be broken. Living for power, for comfort, and for control at the expense of those around us, wasn’t the life God meant for us. So God came down to live with us, to experience first hand what our endurance requires. And Jesus showed us how we can still live even when the stones that serve as the foundation of our lives come tumbling down. Through Jesus’ life and the Cross, through our baptism, through the faith that brings us into Christ’s church week after week, we have been given a lifeline to the divine. It’s here where we receive the creator of the universe: it’s here where we received Jesus himself. And He says that you, as you are, are worth being loved and held by God. Living with faith isn’t easy because faith requires us to be honest about ourselves and our lives. Yet that honesty, in a way, becomes our great power because it helps us admit our collective responsibilities. Whether you are in happiest part of your life or whether everything is crumbling around you, you are eternally loved. And that love is our collective calling to care and serve each other just like Christ cares and serves you. So whether we’re a 95 year old creative legend or a 16 year old kid who was bitten by a radioactive spider, our calling is that we must love, pray, cry, laugh, scream, doubt, and live through our futures, trusting that the peace, mercy, hope, and joy that God has promised to us will, in the end, carry us through.

 

Amen.

 



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Reflection: The Apocalypse

When we hear the word apocalypse, we usually think about the end of the world. We imagine massive wars, incredible natural disasters, and an unbelievable amount of destruction and anguish. The apocalypse is good for comic books and action movies but it's not, typically, something we want to live through. One of the ways we anticipate the apocalypse is by asking the question: "what will the end look like?" But that wasn't a question the bible really spent a lot of time talking about. Instead, the communities who wrote, read, and shared these biblical words wanted to know: "what is the meaning of our suffering?" Those who contributed apocalypse stories to the Bible (Daniel, Revelation, and even bits of the gospel according to Mark) were trying to find meaning in "their own struggle and suffering" (Revelation: Interpretation Commentary, page 43). 

Today's reading from the book of Daniel 12:1-3 is an attempt to find meaning. Daniel is the youngest book in the Old Testament section of our scriptures. The book was set in the years after Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians (in the aftermath of the year 586 BCE) but it was probably written 400 years after that. Daniel was composed at a time when the Jewish community faced severe persecutions from the ruling authorities. Judaism was outlawed and Torah scrolls were burned. Religious rites were abolished and children were discouraged from gaining the marks that defined them as part of the Jewish community. Rabbis and students were persecuted and killed. The Jewish community, especially the one centered in Jerusalem, tried to make sense of their suffering. The book of Daniel was a response to that suffering and today's text is the beginning of the final scene of Daniel's four visions of the apocalypse. But it's not a vision of the end. It's a vision of a new beginning. 

Daniel's vision of the afterlife is less about details of "what" happens and, instead, is centered in hope. Daniel doesn't try to mask the seriousness of suffering, pain, sadness, and fear. He doesn't say that  what we experience in our life is, somehow, "less real" than it is. Instead, Daniel acknowledges that life can be hard and that following God is not always easy. Our faith requires us to sometimes say "no" to the ways the world try to turn us from God, each other, or call to love the world. There can be a deadly consequence for that "no." But the world doesn't define our value or worth; only God can. And through the Spirit and our relationship with Jesus, we are defined by that connection to the divine. This connection is what gives us a new sense of purpose, love, and hope. This connection is what, today and always, gives us life. 



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