Questions and Reflections

Side-By-Side: Parables

Parables "are fictional stories."* They are the bread and butter of Jesus' teaching ministry and filled with images from everyday life. Most of us are not farmers (but if you would like some eggs, there's someone at CLC you should talk to) but we know what farmers do. Most of us do not plant seeds on acres of land but we do know the type of soil plants need to grow. This reading from the book of Matthew is the first parable we will see in this season after Pentecost but it will not be the last. We read the stories Jesus told because Jesus is a storyteller.  

As a storyteller, the stories Jesus tells can sometimes appear simplistic. Since these parables include images we know and understand, we trick ourselves into thinking any interpretation of a parable must be just as simple. If the parable confuses, challenges, or makes us uncomfortable, we seek out a simple answer to make ourselves feel better. We do a disservice to parables when we make them simple. Parables are confusing. They sometimes compare two things in striking and unpredictable ways. Parables sometimes do not make sense on the first (or 12th) reading of them and sometimes Jesus' own explanation of these stories fails to clear up their meaning. Parables are important because they help expose "two equally deep mysteries: the mystery of God and the mystery of human life."** The God who uses the phrase "I AM WHO I AM" as a name when Moses meets a burning bush is not a God who is neat, tidy, and containable. Anytime we limit God and Jesus inside a simple and safe definition, we miss experiencing who God really is. The God who created everything and who can never be fully comprehended by human beings is the same God who, through Jesus, entered into the mystery of human life. Parables do not try to explain away the mysteries of God and our lives. Instead, parables reveal these mysteries through stories that are challenging, familiar, odd, and comforting. Parables get the gears in our souls turning because engaging in all of life's mysteries is one of the ways the Spirit transforms us into Godly people. 

In today's parable, a farmer is terrible at their job. The farmer doesn't try to plant seed in only the places it will grow. Instead, the farmer throws seed around with abandon. In some places, the seed grows. In other places, it is eaten up. The farmer has a success rate of only 25% and yet the farmer keeps sowing. Where are you in the story today? Are you the farmer sowing seeds of love and life with abandon? Are you the rocky ground, the path, or the soil covered in thorns? Are you a seed waiting to sprout, not knowing what kind of soil you have landed in? Find your spot in the story - and discover what the Spirit wants you to hear today. 

* Richard Lischer's Reading the Parables, page 3.
** ", page 13.   



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Seek: Jesus's Yoke

I've never worn a physical yoke but I have carried intangible ones that were very real. When Jesus talks about yokes in this passage from Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30, he uses an agricultural image people in his crowd knew. A yoke is a heavy piece of wood used to connect two oxen side-by-side at the shoulders. Yokes were used in specific circumstances. One of the oxen would be experienced and well trained. They knew how to pull a plow or a heavy load. The other oxen in the yoke would be inexperienced. They were young and new to plowing. They wouldn't know what's expected of them. By teaming up an experienced ox with one who needs help, the farmer could plow their field and train their oxen at the same time. The oxen would do the hard work to prepare the field for planting, together. The old soil and plants from the year before would be plowed over and turned up. The new soil, once fertilized and filled with seeds, would grow a delicious crop. Without a yoke, the inexperienced oxen could never create a crop that would feed others. The yoke made that ox a creature that gives life. 

As a baptized Christian, you are yoked. You might not feel it, physically, but you are connected to Jesus right now. As Shelley Best writes, "Through faith, we are partnered with Jesus and taught how to balance and maneuver what is at hand, with the help of one who transforms our deepest desires into passion for God's just and merciful reign in the world.*" The gift of faith connects us to the One who knows us better than we know ourselves. We are bound to a Jesus who helps us to live in sync with him. This work isn't easy. This work challenges who we are and what we know. And this work can feel like our trust in God is growing or fading or both, at the same time. There will be times when the heavy load we're pulling feels like it's impossible to carry on our own. But we are not alone. We are connected with Jesus. And we need to "trust Jesus to help us carry our load and find rest."

*Feasting on the Gospels, Matthew Volume 1. Page 299-301.



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Giving Away the Building. From Pastor Marc - My Message for the Messenger, Summer 2017 Edition

How big is our church? Well...there are different ways to answer that question. We could share the physical dimensions of the church, measuring how many people fit in our sanctuary and how tall our church steeple is. We could talk about the number of church members our community has or how many people we have on our mailing lists. But I like to think about our size by looking at our relationships and connections. Our church is big because everyone who calls CLC home is connected to people outside of our church building. We all have neighbors, classmates, coworkers, and friends. Some of our family and friends are living all over the world. As disciples of Jesus Christ, our impact isn't limited to only the people we see on Sunday morning. Jesus is with us wherever we go and is active in all the relationships we have. Our church isn't only building on the corner of Church and Pascack roads. The church is the people God has called to be here and the church impacts everyone through the relationships we all have. 

One of the relationships that unite us as members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA - our denomination) is the Lutheran World Federation (LWF). The LWF is a global communion of 145 Lutheran denominations from 98 different countries. It's a network of 74 million Lutherans who worship, pray, celebrate, and gather together for an assembly every six years. The most recent assembly of the LWF was this past May in the country of Nambia. Our denomination's Presiding Bishop, the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, attended. In her recent article in the Living Lutheran, she wrote about being a global community united in our life with Christ. And she shared a story  I would like to share with you:

At the LWF Assembly a delegate from Russia told this story of freedom in Christ. There used to be a Lutheran church in St. Petersburg. It was a beautiful structure witnessing to the glory of God where the Lutheran immigrants who arrived in the 18th century could worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. It was skillfully crafted out of wood. St. Mary’s Lutheran Church still stood in St. Petersburg, renamed Leningrad.

The church was a place of worship and hope during the siege of Leningrad during WWII. But people were freezing and starving to death in Leningrad. There was no wood for heating or cooking. So the Lutherans looked at their beloved church and then looked at the suffering around them. Piece by piece they dismantled their building and gave it away for the life of their community.

Last month, we committed ourselves as a congregation to Raise the Roof on our ministry by replacing the flat roofs on our buildings. We are doing this because we know we are a community with a vibrant future in Northern New Jersey. We will continue to share Jesus in all our relationships and use everything God has given us, including our buildings, to give ourselves away for the life of our communities. As we move forward into a new and exciting future, let's remember that we are more than a building. We are the church. And we are here to love and serve each and every day. 


See you in church!
Pastor Marc 



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Grow In Faith

Do you want to grow closer to God? Today's passage from Matthew 10:40-42 is an answer to that question. 

For the last three weeks, Jesus has been giving instructions to his disciples. Jesus' work needs workers and the disciples are his hands and feet in the world. What Jesus did during his life on earth will be the disciples' mission as well. They will bring good news to the poor, which might not be good news to the rich. The disciples will eat meals with the people society says not to. The disciples will advocate for healing and wholeness in a world that fights hard to deny wholeness to everyone. The disciples will preach, teach, and do. The work will be hard but it's necessary, vital, and life-giving to those who do it.

Jesus' final words of instruction are these 3 verses from Matthew 10. They are words centered in hospitality. Hospitality is more than inviting someone into your home. Hospitality means we need to be willing to be a guest in someone else's home too. Hospitality is as simple as offering a cup of cold water to a thirsty child and as complicated as going into the home of an enemy and showing them love and compassion. We want to control how we practice hospitality. We want to decide who we invite into our home and whose home we are invited into. But Jesus breaks control in this passage. When it comes to being God's people, we don't get to chose who we show hospitality to. We are called to invite all people into our spaces and to go into the spaces of every other person too. When we do this, we are doing more than just being kind or compassion. We are actively engaged with God. We are actively living with God. We are actively welcoming God. It's through hospitality that we discover just what it's like to follow a God who created our world and who lived in it as a guest to show us what God's love actually looks like. 



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A New Family

This is the second week in a row when the gospel reading (Matthew 10:24-39) mentioned families. Last week on Father's Day, brothers, fathers, and children turned against each other. This week, daughters are turning against mothers and mother-in-laws. The two readings are from Jesus' instruction to his disciples before he sends them to do his work. Jesus tells his followers that this journey will not be easy. Jesus' followers will not always be welcomed and loved. The message they are bringing will challenge and confuse the wider Greco-Roman culture. There's something about Jesus changes the bonds we have with each other. And sometimes, the bonds inside our own families will break. 

This message doesn't seem to jive with the message we also hear in Jesus' words today. Jesus tells his followers that God cherishes them. God knows each of them in a real and authentic way. These words are filled with a theme of inclusion and welcome. Through their relationship with Jesus, the disciples are brought into a new family. This family is centered around a Jesus who will live and die for each of them. The people included in this Jesus-generated family are not perfect. Nor can each individual invite themselves into this group. Instead, Jesus calls them by name and loves them because that's what God does. God is creating a new family while the bonds of other families fall apart. 

We have many examples in our lives of broken families. Entire communities know what it's like to be abandoned. Too many friends of mine have been kicked out of their families for coming out as LGBT. Others have watched as broken promises, abuse, and addiction have destroyed the trust and love we believe all families should practice. When Matthew wrote down these words from Jesus around the year 75 C.E. (A.D.), the Christian community was very small. New converts to the faith were sometimes disowned by their families and friends. The experience Jesus described here is an experience the author of Matthew knew well. It's also an experience that is still too common today. Yet Jesus' word promises a new family that has, at its center, someone who will never break a promise of fidelity, love, and trust. This family is centered around someone who doesn't call the perfect to be his friends. He doesn't leave space at the table for only those who act and think and look like he does. Jesus points to a bond and love from God that transcends the bonds of human family. And this bond, even when threatened with the Cross, will not be broken. 



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Not the Rapture

I'm a big fan of First Thessalonians. Most scholars see this letter as the first piece of Christian writing that we have. Written around 50 CE, the letter tells us that Paul founded a community of believers in the capital of the Roman province ofMacedonia, Thessalonike. Paul was there only maybe a few month but he gathered together a group of Gentile (non-Jewish) believers in Jesus. When he left, probably heading to Corinth, the small community was flourishing and faithful. While in Corinth, a member of the community at Thessalonike named Timothy visited Paul, telling him all about what was happening back home.  Timothy brought Paul words of thankfulness and love but the community had a problem. They were looking for an answer to a big question. Members of their community had died and the Thessalonians didn't know how to handle it. They were concerned that their dead brothers and sisters had somehow missed out on salvation because they died before Jesus had come back. Was heaven and God's love no longer available to them now that they were dead? Would Jesus pass them over or not see them when he returns? The community in Thessalonike not only were mourning for the loss of their friends, they were also fearful of their friends' future. 

Paul hears what Timothy says and writes a letter in response. His words are gentle, kind, loving, and, above all, are encouraging. Paul tells the Thessalonians that those who have died are not lost. They have not missed out on the promise of Jesus. They have not, somehow, lost access to God. No, the ones who have died are fully caught up in Jesus' loving arms and Jesus is not letting go. 

This text from First Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18) has been used to justify the "rapture," a vision of the end of the world where "good Christians" somehow escape the world before Jesus returns. But Paul isn't talking about escape in his letter. Escaping never enters his mind. Instead, Paul is talking about living (and dying) in the world right now. He's telling his beloved community that grieving is okay, that the darkness that can come from sudden losses is part of our life, but that we are, first and foremost, a community rooted in a hope and love that even death cannot break. What matters in this text is not our being "caught up in the clouds" but, rather, that Jesus "will descend from heaven," into our lives, worship, and communion, in a million different ways. Not even death can keep us away from God's love. Jesus is running into the world and not away from it - and that truly is good news! 



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Work

Jesus’ ministry and the church takes work and workers. This is one of the take aways from our reading in Matthew 9:35-10:23 today. At this point in Jesus’ career, Jesus is doing what Jesus does. He preaches, teaches, and heals. He shares a vision of God’s kingdom that includes tax collectors and others typically kicked out of holy places. He eats meals with people he shouldn’t. Jesus is being Jesus. And Jesus, in our verses today, compels his followers to do the same. 

The apostles’ mission is an outgrowth of Jesus’ own ministry. Jesus visits new places and tells his followers to do the same. Jesus tells his followers to share God’s message of love and hope using the same words he uses. Jesus’ followers are called to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and cast out demons. And Jesus’ followers are told to provide this physical and spiritual care for free. A follower of Jesus doesn’t act only to benefit themselves. They are told to give freely and abundantly because that’s what Jesus does too. In the words of Colin Yuckman of Duke Divinity School, “To be sent by Jesus is, in some sense, to be sent as Jesus.” Jesus is training his followers on how they can be his disciples. When people encounter us, they are encountering and experiencing Jesus Christ and we need to act accordingly. 

This encounter with Jesus Christ is an unexpected mission God invites us to share. It’s also a mission that is not easy to do. An invitation to follow Jesus is an invitation to live a different way. An invitation to live in God’s kingdom means we need to realize the hard truths about the brokenness of the world around us. An invitation to live as Jesus is an invitation to recognize the ways we push ourselves and others away from God. Jesus decides that people like us can, through the help of the Holy Spirit, show others Jesus Christ. This seems like a daunting task. It can make us feel afraid. But, like we heard last week, we don’t do this job alone because Jesus is with us to the end of the age.



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Rest: The 7th Day

Imagine, after a super busy week, being confident enough to take a break. And if God rests, why can't we?

Our first reading today (Genesis 1:1-2:4) is the opening to our Bible. These verses share with us the first creation story in our scriptures and how God created in seven days. The universe began as a formless void. God, in this story, doesn't create out of nothing. Instead, God brings order to a chaotic soup of randomness. For six days, God creates. Animals, birds, plants, and people are formed. I love how the giant sea monsters are named specifically in this story and how humankind begins their lives as vegetarians. The opening words of the bible are not meant to be a timeline detailing the history of the universe. Rather, these verse show God's relationship with everything. Unlike other creation stories floating around during the time of ancient Israel, the world isn't created through a violent act. There is no war between various gods that caused the earth to come into being. The world, instead, is created by a God who declares that creation is good. Everything within creation matters because God says it does. The sea monsters and the blades of grass are connected to a God who loves them.

So after creating everything, God took a break. God, for a brief period of time, stops working. In our modern context, we are used to the idea of weekends. We live in a society shaped by over a century of people, systems of thoughts, organizations, and labor unions that created the weekend. In a sense, the weekend is an ideal. We take a break from a normal workweek to instead, rest. This is an ideal because not everyone's work week begins on Monday and ends on Friday. And our lives are so dedicated to busy, we stop working on Fridays only to start again with other projects, sports games, homework, and more on Saturday. We work because we have to. We keep working because, if we don't, we imagine what we're doing will never get done. We've built lives where we need to be busy because we don't receive the help we need to take a break. We are, in the words of some, a society addicted to being busy. 

But God, who doesn't need to take a break, actually stops working. God rests. God, who has a relationship with every blade of grass, every sea monster, and every person, has created a world where taking a break matters. God invites us to live in a world where everyone has the time and resources they need to stop doing everything. Instead, we can  sit, enjoy, and bless each other and the world. When we take a break and help the people around us take a break, we're not encouraging laziness. We're encouraging people to connect with creation and the God who created it. And when we can connect with God, we discover how we can bless what God has blessed. And we discover the blessing God wants us to be. 
 



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When Doves Cry

When you picture the Holy Spirit, what do you think of? Unlike Jesus, the Holy Spirit has no physical form. The Holy Spirit is not something we can touch or objectively see. Even though the gospels describe the Spirit of God in the form of a dove, the dove is merely a metaphor. The metaphor describes what the Holy Spirit is like but the metaphor shouldn't limit what the Spirit can do. For centuries, the translation of Holy Spirit as Holy Ghost misidentified what the Spirit can do. We know ghosts. Ghosts go by the name of Casper. They are something we see in a horror film. They can walk through walls, vanish in an instant, and help us make pottery when we star in a Patrick Swayze film. But because ghosts are recognizable, they seem containable in some way. The Holy Spirit, as depicted in scripture, is the opposite. The Holy Spirit, as we see in our reading from Acts today, is not contained by anything. Like the cry of a dove across a large valley or a rush of wind blowing through a small room, the Holy Spirit moves, breaking the ways we keep to ourselves and forcing us out of our self-imposed containment. 

Pentecost (Acts 2:1-21) is sometimes described as the "birthday" of the church. That's a metaphor that's not quite right. The church is always the community of believers who proclaim Jesus Christ, crucified and risen from the dead. This new kind of community began the moment Mary and other women told their friends that Jesus was raised from the tomb. Pentecost is really a celebration of the different kinds of people God is calling into this new kind of community. The city of Jerusalem is filled with Jews from all over the world. These pilgrims speak many different languages and have many different nationalities. The Holy Spirit gives the apostles the ability to make Christ's story heard in many different languages. The miracle of Pentecost is not the apostles' ability to speak different languages. The miracle of Pentecost is God calling many different kinds of people to be part of this new community because Jesus' message of hope, reconciliation, and love is for everyone.



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Eavesdropping on Jesus

In today's reading from John (John 17:1-11), Jesus is at the end of his long sermon before his arrest and trial. He concludes this long sermon to his disciples with a prayer. Jesus stops talking to his disciples and turns towards God. But Jesus doesn't pray silently. Jesus keeps talking. His disciples are in the room when Jesus starts to pray. The disciples eavesdrop on Jesus' prayer and get a glimpse at Jesus' own prayer life. 

The Rev. Karoline Lewis in her commentary on John writes, "What difference does it make to overhear Jesus praying for us?" How often do we think about Jesus actually saying our name in his own prayers? Usually when we talk about prayer, we focus on our personal conversation with God. If we pray to Jesus, we wait for him to respond to us and act on our behalf. We don't usually imagine Jesus talking about us. We know Jesus knows God and we know that Jesus is God. God and Jesus are so connected, it seems silly for Jesus to pray. Yet in the moment when the disciples are finally confronted by Jesus' upcoming death on the Cross, Jesus prays for them. Jesus asks for their protection. Jesus wants God to continue God's holy work through them. Jesus does more in this passage than affirm his presence with his followers. Jesus prays for them, too. 

Embedded in this prayer is a short definition of eternal life is. Eternal life is, according to 17:3, knowing God and Jesus. We rarely describe eternal life in these terms. We imagine eternal life being something that happens after this life. Yet Jesus says eternal life is knowing God and knowing Jesus. This is something we can participate in right now. Jesus prays for his disciples, asking God to continue to grant eternal life to his disciples. And this eternal life doesn't start later. This eternal life starts now.



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