Questions and Reflections

Reflection: You - Actions & Faith

The book of Amos contains among the earliest sayings from a prophet recorded in the Hebrew Bible (aka the Old Testament). Amos’ prophetic career was centered around the year 750 BCE (BC). We know very little about Amos’ life except for what’s recorded in the book itself. He was wealthy, owning substantial herds of sheep, and raised large orchards of fig trees. He lived in the town Tekoa, located a few miles south of Jerusalem. By this point, the original kingdom of David and Solomon had been split in two for centuries. The southern kingdom, centered around Jerusalem, was named Judah while the northern (and more powerful) kingdom was called Israel. At some point in Amos’ life, God compelled him to leave Judah and preach in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Amos wasn’t a professional prophet. He didn’t belong to the many prophetic schools and organizations that existed in ancient Israel. Instead, he was a wealthy business owner that God transformed into God’s mouthpiece. Amos’ words, while spoken in the Northern Kingdom, were directed towards anyone with wealth, power, and authority in both Israel and Judah.

As Amos sees it (Amos 5:6-7,10-15), those in comfort have lost sight of Israel’s special relationship with God. The covenant God established at Mt. Sinai (i.e. the ten commandments and the law) had been broken. The practicing of their faith had been reduced to mere performative acts. Instead of loving their neighbors and helping the power, those in power had increased the wealth gap between the rich and the poor. The wealthy feel entitled to bribe judges, believing that the laws of land were something only other people had to follow. Corrupt judges were installed in the courts (in the ancient world, courtrooms were in the city gates – see 5:10) so that they could rule in favor of the powerful. Amos, in chapter 5, is pronouncing a death sentence against the people of Israel because, according to Amos, God is about to enforce the terms of the covenant. Since Israel wasn’t fulfilling their end of the bargain, God was going to respond. Yet the situation was not completely hopeless. The invitation to take God’s covenant seriously was still open. Amos’ call at the end of today’s passage is to “seek good and not evil [so] that you may live.” Even in the midst of death, resurrection can always happen.

It’s easy for us to read this passage and believe it doesn’t apply to us. We can always think of someone richer than us or that these words are meant for a so-called “elite” or “establishment” that we are not a part of it. But what if we didn’t do that? What if we let Amos’ words speak to us? As a church in Northern New Jersey, we live in one of the wealthiest areas in the world. If we own our home, know where our next meal is coming from, and have any kind of savings or wealth at all, we have a lot in common with the audience Amos was speaking to. This reading is an invitation for us to re-evaluate how our faith impacts how we live, consume, and practice any power that we have. And if our actions do not match our faith, then God is inviting us to change.



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Jesus' Stewardship Plan: Giving it all

As [Jesus] was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

Mark 10:17-31

Pastor Marc's sermon for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost (October 14, 2018) on Mark 10:17-31. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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What have you loved this week?

Better yet, what have you said “love” to this week?

If a random stranger asked each of us to make a list of every love we said, I’m sure our first attempt would be something presentable. We’d put down the names of our families, our friends, and some random event we saw and enjoyed. The stranger would take a look at our list and probably force us to do it again. We’d have to admit that maybe we didn’t actually say “love” out loud this week and we’d erase the names on the list. Or maybe we’d need to add to it after remembering how many times we said we loved that shirt or song or food or whatever. Some of us hesitate saying the word love while others are a bit more carefree. This inhibition or exuberance around the word love comes from somewhere. In some cultures, boys are told to not say “love” – to reserve it to the point where we might not say it at all. We might have learned this kind of love language from our families, mimicking how often our parents said they loved us or each other. Or we might be very careful with the word love because we’d experienced too much heartbreak. Love is a powerful word. It’s a noun, a verb, an emotion, an action, an experience, a reality, and – according to Scripture – Love is God itself. Yet in the gospel according to Mark, the word “love” appears in only 3 verses. And in two of those verses, Jesus was quoting the Old Testament. So there’s only one place in all this gospel where Mark used the word “love” all on his own. And that happened in our reading today – at verse 21 – when Jesus looked at the rich young man and loved him.

I’ve joked in the past that our next church stewardship and funding campaign should be based on these verses from the tenth chapter of Mark. When people ask how much they should give, we could point to verse 21 and then sit down. Instead of asking for a tithe, for just 10% of what we make, Jesus seems to be asking for it all. He continued this theme a few verses later by pointing out how hard it is for those with riches to enter the Kingdom of God. Now, over the centuries, we’ve tried really hard to run away from Jesus’ words in this text. In the middle ages, a theory developed centered on Jesus’ words about a camel and a needle. Some theologians claimed there was a gate in ancient Jerusalem called “the needle,” and that a camel, using funky body positions, could inch its way through it. So if this was right, then those with wealth could enter the kingdom of God but they’d need to be a bit more flexible to make that happen. The problem is that theory is completely work. There was no gate named “the needle” and Jesus really said that it’s easier for a camel – a giant animal – to go through the eye of a sewing needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. Jesus’ words here can scare us – so, at times, we’ve turned against the rich young man saying he lied about keeping the law. Or we say he’s too rich, a stand-in for a different wealth class of people we’re not apart of. But that kind of thinking is designed to get us off the hook because we can always imagine someone who is richer than us. My personal trick is to do a close reading of the text, notice that Jesus said to give everything to the poor, and then point to my mortgage and my student loan debt from seminary. We try, as best we can, to manage this text, to make it feel safe. Because, if we have a bed to sleep in, if we know where our next meal is coming from, if we have health insurance, and if we have access to credit, jobs, and other kinds of opportunities – these riches are ones that we don’t want to give to that rich young man. We don’t want to be him. Because we also know that when Jesus showed him, the only person in the entire gospel according to Mark described as being loved – when Jesus showed him how to change his life, he left – sad and full of sorrow.

It’s hard to imagine experiencing Jesus’ love – and then leaving, feeling sad. We don’t want to meet God through prayer, or at Holy Communion, or through the love of our neighbors and have our sense of self torn in two. The rich young man was loved not because he was rich or faithful or because he followed the rules. Jesus just loved him because that’s who Jesus is. That gift of love is something we all want. But it’s a gift that isn’t a commodity that we can store and keep. Rather Jesus’ love is an action, a force, that compels us to discover the truth about who we are. We want to turn Jesus’ love into something we can possess because if we can do that, then we can fit Jesus into the society we’ve already created. People’s worth, we think, is based on what they are allowed to have: whether that’s authority, power, wealth, or status. We’ve defined people by what they possess and those with more are worth more. We act as if life is about accumulating experiences, opportunities, and whatever helps us think we are “self-sufficient.” In other words, we want to earn and grab onto what we imagine eternal life to be. The danger of wealth, of this constant need to possess, is that it can trick us to think we are following God’s rules while we self-justify every divide we create in the world. It’s at that moment when we turn Jesus into a possession instead of a Savior that Jesus finally tells us the truth, undoing the world we’ve built up while showing us something new.

Jesus does more in this passage than tell the rich young man to sell what he owns. Jesus also shows him how to love. We see in Jesus’ own actions and words a formula for what love looks like. In verse 21, Jesus’ response to the rich young man is to look and see him. Jesus, in that moment, sees everything about him – where he comes, where he’s going, and what his entire life looks like. Love can’t be limited to only ourselves. Love compels us to fully see the other – and in that process, connect with them. So after seeing the rich young man, Jesus tells him to sell what he owns so that he can come and follow him. Every one of the actions Jesus highlights points to what love is all about. Love isn’t about gaining a possession. Love is about gaining a relationship with the creator of the universe and, in that process, forming a bond with the world and all the people God loves. We want to split the world and it’s people into groups based on what we think they should possess. Yet Jesus’ love breaks through the dividing lines we draw up, connecting us to each other even though the world wants to keep us apart. Through Christ, we are invited to say “love” to more people than we might, at first, admit. We are called to make that “love” a reality by using the gifts God gave us, including our wealth, to create connections rather than re-entrenching our divisions. And it’s through Jesus where we discover a new way of life that is about more than giving something up. Instead, when we connect with each other, loving people in the same way Jesus first loved us, that’s when we’ll notice that our entire life is finally starting to grow.

Amen.



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But Jesus Said [Sermon Manuscript]

[Jesus] left that place and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan. And crowds again gathered around him; and, as was his custom, he again taught them.

Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

Mark 10:1-16

Pastor Marc's sermon for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost (October 7, 2018) on Mark 10:1-16. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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Start with a pause.

So in the space between when I finished today’s reading from the gospel according to Mark to when I first started speaking, what sermon appeared in your head?

I was reminded this week that there are stories from the Bible that speak to us before the pastor says a word. These stories tend to connect with us on a very personal level. They tug at our heart and our soul, reminding us of personal experiences we’ve had, struggles we’ve overcome, and point to the current shadows that fill our lives. Jesus’ words about divorce is one of those stories. All I had to do was say that word and memories of fear, pain, and sadness bubble up. We might remember sermons in the past that hurt because they used Jesus’ words to condemn us while we went through our divorce. Or we might hold onto a part of what Jesus said and find ourselves struggling to connect or fully empathize with those who have gone through their own separation. Some might hear Jesus’ celebration of the institution of marriage and feel personally attacked because they are single or alone or know they’ll never be married. The wider church has used this passage from Mark to define what our lives through marriage should look like. And if our life doesn’t match up, we’re punished for not being a member of a so-called “biblical” relationship. Now, we know that relationships are not always simple or easy. Our bonds with each other are formed by imperfect people and those connections will never fully match with our “happily-ever-after” expectations. Being married is a calling that not everyone will share. And sometimes ending an unhealthy marriage is the right and Christian and loving thing to do. We know this because we have people in our lives who are incredibly faithful and who are also single or married or divorced or everything else in between. Jesus’ love for us does not depend on our marital status. Instead, Jesus is always with us, whether we’re single, partnered, living together, separated, married, divorced, widowed, re-married, or re-divorced. That’s a promise Jesus gives us in our baptism and our marital status does not change that. So how can we rewrite the sermon that’s already in our head so that we cling to Jesus rather than to the word “divorce?” Well, one way we can do that is by starting at verse 13 with the word “people.”

Now I’ll admit that sometimes the formatting of our Bible trips me up. And for a long time, I saw verse 13 as the start of a separate story. The word “people” seems to mark the beginning of a new scene where families are bringing little children to Jesus so that he might touch them. That touching sounds a little weird but it’s Mark’s way of telling us that these children probably needed healing. So people wanted Jesus to heal their child by gently laying his hands on them. Jesus’ disciples, once again, were not happy that little children were in the room. The children were sick, loud, and annoying everyone who wanted to hear what Jesus had to say. But Jesus, as was his custom, said, “let the little children come.” For the third week in a row, our story from the gospel of Mark has children in it. Children in the ancient world were near the bottom of their society’s social ladder. They were prone to getting sick, were extremely vulnerable, and they needed to be taken care of. Children were loved by their families but the wider society was waiting for them to grow up. But Jesus, like we heard last week and the week before, welcomed them, saying that the ones who are vulnerable, the ones who are weak, and the one who have no authority in their community - they are the ones who are already part of God’s holy family. The little children in that room weren’t supposed to be in Jesus’ presence in the first place. Yet Jesus invited them in because God’s kingdom already included them. It wasn’t the super religious, the super powerful, or the super successful who earned or were entitled to a place in God’s kingdom. Rather, it’s those who find themselves in need, those who are suffering, those who are in pain, and those who have found their lives torn apart - that’s who Jesus goes to. And Jesus promises them that He will never let them go.

The word “people” seems like it starts a new story that’s all good news. But that word and it’s paragraph indention wasn’t supposed to start something new. Rather, in the ancient greek text that our translation is based on, the word “people” is really just “they.” Now that “they” could point to the crowd or the Pharisees or the disciples or whoever else was in that house. But I think that “they” also included those Jesus named in verses 11 and 12. The families bringing children to Jesus included not only married couples but also remarried couples, divorced men, and divorced single women. Now, those divorced women and their children would be in an extremely vulnerable position because, in general, it was the men who had access to wealth, power, and resources. That patriarchy was so ingrained in the culture that it was really only men who could initiative any kind of separation in Jesus’ day. A man could, through divorce, pretend as if their marriage never happened. But the woman didn’t have that option. She would be viewed as almost expendable, without a job or money or any kind of resources to support their children. Yet it’s the ones who had their world torn apart that Jesus welcomes and includes. Because, according to Jesus, the ones who suffer, who are in pain, who were tossed aside and left completely vulnerable - they are the ones for whom the whole kingdom of God belongs.

We do a disservice to ourselves, our church, and our faith when we read Jesus’ words about divorce and we forget “they” who brought their children. This story isn’t meant to be split in two. Rather, we’re supposed to read Jesus’ words about divorce and to use his actions with the children as our guide. As human beings, we are connected to everyone else, and we’re called to welcome, serve, and care for each other. No one is meant to be dismissed, pushed aside, or left vulnerable. No one is meant to be unheard or unseen. Our relationships with each other are supposed to support, guide, and help us be the followers of Jesus - God is calling us to be. But when our most intimate relationships end for the well-being of ourselves, our partners, and our families - then the church God has surrounded us with is called to support, hold, and love those in need. Jesus knew that we needed each other because it takes a community to repair what life has torn a part. It takes a church to help us mourn the end of one relationship while we’re being resurrected into something new. That’s why, in our baptism, we are given more than a personal relationship with Jesus. We’re given a whole body, a whole community filled with people who are called to love each other just like Jesus loves us. Regardless of our marital status, our age, or our gender, we are meant to be for each other. And in the words of Rev. David Lose, “when we recognize our own dependence and vulnerability and see ourselves in those who suffer,” it’s then when we “can ...imagine … – and thereby receive – the reign and presence of God.

 

Amen.

 



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Reflection: Helper

Our first reading today (Genesis 2:18-24) has been used for centuries to place women into subservient positions. The words man, woman, helper, and partner reinforce culturally defined expectations of what relationships and marriages should be. The word helper can be used in a diminutive way, reducing the "helper" to someone less than the person being helped. A partner, in our language, can sometimes make this person less than the person they're partnering with. Part of this problem comes from our frame of reference. If we keep the "man" at the center of the action, we make the entire story revolve around him. But if we take a step back and place God at the center of this text, than the interpretation we commonly use to reinforce our culturally constructed gender roles begins to unravel.

This text is part of the second story of creation in our Bible. The first story (which also includes the creation of human beings - Genesis 1:26-29) involved God creating the universe and saying that many things are "good." Today's text is the first time when God noticed something "not good." The "man" was alone and God viewed their loneliness as "not good." The word "man" is a poor translation, and we should replace "man" in Genesis 2:18-22 with "human being" because the spectrum of gender hadn't been created yet. The "human being" represents everything that a person could be. And God doesn't like that this person was alone. God wanted people to have life-giving relationships so God invented every kind of animal, trying to give the human a compatible companion. The companion for the human should be a partner (like a co- equal partner in a law firm) and a helper. God doesn't see helpers as something negative. Rather, the Bible calls God a "helper" over and over again (ex. Psalm 115). God wanted the human being to have a companion as life-giving to them as God is. But after failing to create an animal or bird that would work, God used the human as a template to create their life-giving companion. And since this new companion is from the human, the human (who is changed and is now Adam), is called to be a helper too. God values the relationships we create with each other and those relationships, when they give us life, are good.

Much of the commentary on this text focuses on the nouns (helper, partner, woman, man, etc.). We usually don't spend enough time looking at verse 23 which, according to the second story of creation, was the first recorded words Adam (the man) spoke: "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh." This phrase is rooted in joy because they discovered who, along with God, will help them become who God is calling them to be. In this joy-filled moment, they stand before each other as they truly are. They are naked. They are vulnerable. They are unpretentious and full of possibilities. They are as God made them to be: people who can love each other because they are loved.



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What You Get [Sermon Manuscript]

John said to [Jesus], “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell,where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

Mark 9:38-50

Pastor Marc's sermon for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost (September 30, 2018) on Mark 9:38-50. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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Scripture never tells us if Jesus puts the little one down.

 

Today’s reading from the gospel according to Mark continues the conversation that started last week. Jesus and his disciples have returned to Galilee and are staying in the city of Capernaum. Their journey to Galilee was uneventful but the disciples had a bit of an argument amongst themselves: they argued about which one of them was the greatest. Now, arguing about who’s the greatest is ...silly especially when God is literally in the room. But we can excuse the disciples’ behavior because they had experienced a taste of Jesus’ power. Jesus, in chapter 6, sent his disciples to preach, heal, and cast out demons all over Galilee. The disciples did what Jesus asked and they were amazed because people listened. People were healed.  And even demons, the evil forces that separate us from God and from one another, - even they were overcome by the power of Jesus’ name. The disciples thought that this was what Jesus was all about. So they argued about which one of them expressed Jesus’ power the most. Jesus, in response, asked a little child to join them. Jesus picked this kid, this little one, up and he welcomed them as a full member of their community. This invitation caught the disciples off guard because children, in Jesus’ day, weren’t valued very much. Parents loved their children but the wider society sort of didn’t because children were vulnerable, weak, and needed to be taken care of. Children had the potential to become contributing members of their society but until that happened, until they grew up, children were at the bottom of their world’s social ladder. Children weren’t full members of...anything. Yet Jesus took this child, put this little one in the middle of their community, and said: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” The power the disciples experienced wasn’t what Jesus was all about. Jesus’ true power was showing all people, especially those we ignore or push to side, that God sees them, that God loves them, and that God will never let them go.

Now, it’s immediately after this when John first speaks. And it’s like he didn’t hear anything at all. One thing I find helpful and that I encourage you to do as well is: visualize these scenes with Jesus. Imagine the room they’re in. See the disciples sitting or standing. Notice the little one with Jesus, and make that child real. Imagine this whole scene. And then listen as John speaks, admitting they tried to stop someone because they didn’t believe that person was part of their community. I imagine Jesus took a long pause before he responded. I can see Jesus re-enacting almost every animated gif, every animated image,  where someone is rolling their eyes or sighing or frustrated or moving their mouth but confused about what they should say next. Because Jesus had just placed a little child in the middle of their community, showing the disciples who was included in God’s family. But John still claimed that there were some who didn’t belong.

That’s why, I think, Jesus’ words sort of snowball in the rest of today’s text. At first, Jesus was kind, giving the disciples another vision of what Jesus’ community looked like. Jesus is putting together a body made up of people that is bigger than the 12 apostles in that city by the Sea of Galilee and bigger than all of us inside this church today. God is calling all kinds of people, the faithful, the sort-of faithful, and even those with no initial faith at all, to be part of what God is doing in the world. Our faith and our experiences - our relationship with Jesus - is not the only kind of relationship someone might have with him. Jesus nurtures, in different ways, the faith the Spirit gives us. We can never be quite sure exactly what the Holy Spirit is doing in those around us - but we can trust that the God who is with us is with them too. And if we can’t see God moving in the people around us, then we are putting barriers around what we think is possible with God. Those barriers are ones we create by saying that Jesus only works in one way and in one place and through one kind of experience. We choose, in those moments, to act as if we ourselves are God, because we get to decide where the building blocks of faith are placed in people’s lives. We encourage those around us to stumble, telling them to look for God in the parts of their lives where their faith will not grow. Because we choose to believe the faith life of others when their life of faith matches our own. But the community Jesus is putting together needs everyone, including those who we think are not as committed or as faithful or who express their life with Jesus in ways that will change what this community of faith does. The little one standing with Jesus and that unknown person casting out demons were not a problem that needed to be overcome. Rather, the disciples were the problem because they couldn’t see the ways they were preventing others from living their faith out loud.

As we visualize the rest of this text, the image of Jesus holding a young child while talking about maiming and hell and unquenchable fire - that’s a pretty harsh vision. These exaggerations make it easy to runaway from this part of the text. We can claim that Jesus is embracing hyperbole and that he doesn’t really mean everything that he says. We do listen to his words, about the ways we put stumbling blocks before others, but we downplay how serious those stumbling blocks are. We assume that any stumbling we cause in others are minor hiccups in someone else’s life. They can, and should, move past them and if they can’t, that’s their problem, not ours. Yet hyperbole [always] points to [a] truth.. [that] must be taken seriously. And in the words of Rev. Karoline Lewis, “the hyperbole points to what is at stake in being the cause of a stumble in faith. It’s not just about standing in another’s way of faith but denying their individual expression of faith. It’s not just that we have somehow prevented someone from having faith, but [we] have prevented a life of faith that they, and only they, can embody.” Too often “hyperbole becomes [a] convenient excuse to stop listening, to stop believing, [letting us] question the veracity of [any] claims,” made on us. But “when we place stumbling blocks in the paths of those trying to answer God’s call -- as they and only they can hear it and live it -- we are effectively silencing them.” We end up preventing others from being who Jesus is calling them to be. And in the face of that reality, a reality we too often create for others and a reality that we too often find ourselves in, Jesus - with that little one still in his arms - looks at the ways we try to silent the life of others - and Jesus says: “No.”

 

  

Amen.



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Reflection: Our Words Do Something

There's a word I read this week that I found helpful while reading this text from James 5:13-20 today. That word is "speech-acts." We know our words have power. We use them to bless and curse. The same voices that lavish praise on Jesus also swear at the person who cuts them off on the New Jersey turnpike. The words we use are more than just words. Words create actions. They make people feel joy and pain. With words, we can inspire people to great acts of beauty. And with words, we can destroy souls. Words are powerful, living things. And James, as we saw in chapter 3, knows the problems words can cause.

But James also knows who we are. We are followers of Jesus. As he wrote in 1:17-18, "every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures." We are God's creatures which means we have new words to speak. Our words, like God's love, is rooted in generosity. Our words are meant to tend and serve each other. The words we speak should create new kinds of actions that bring love, gentleness, and hope to the people around us. Our words are powerful because the Word, Jesus himself, is the center of everything we say and do.

So what should our speech-acts look like? Rev. Robert Hoch writes, "If someone is suffering, let them pray. If someone is happy, let them sing songs of praise. If someone is sick, ask the elders to come and anoint them with oil and pray for their healing. Confess your sins to one another. Be reconciled. Be renewed. Be whole. Learn from people like Elijah, who was just like us, and whose prayers were powerful and effective amid natural and political droughts. Restore one another to the community forged in God’s image." Our words should shape our actions to clearly resemble exactly who we know Jesus Christ to be.



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The Company You Keep [Sermon Manuscript]

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Mark 9:30-37

Pastor Marc's sermon for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost (September 23, 2018) on Mark 9:30-37. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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Imagine standing on a small ledge, 50 feet above the earth. On your right and on your left is just air. You feel safe because you’re wearing a harness and there’s someone below holding a blue safety rope. You’re on that ledge because you’ve embraced your inner Spider-man, climbing to the top of a thin rock wall inside a vast indoor playspace devoted to wall climbing, obstacle courses, and everything needed to become an American Ninja Warrior. Ten feet in front of you is a large red punching bag, hanging in the air. All you need to do to complete this obstacle is to jump on that bag, wrapping your arms and legs around it. Now, you know you’re safe. And you’ve spent the entire day doing things you’ve never done before. You’re feeling great. So you stare at that bag. And then you look down. And then you stare at that bag once more. All you need to do is jump. But then you hear it - a chorus of fifteen six year olds at a birthday party shouting “jump!” It’s sort of impossible to do great things when a bunch of little kids, their faces covered in pizza and cake, are shouting at you to “jump.” I felt bad for that teenager up on that ledge who was trying to do something great. But they recognized that their situation changed. So they sat down, letting their feet dangle over the edge. And after a minute or a two, they slid off - letting the safety rope control their descent down to earth.

In our reading from the gospel according to Mark, we have disciples and a savior who do very silly things. Jesus is wandering through Galilee, the northern part of ancient Israel. He’s trying to be discreet - so he doesn’t feed a thousand people or cast out any demons. Instead, he focuses on his disciples - telling them the next part of his story. The disciples don’t understand what Jesus is talking about but, as we heard last week, their confusion is completely understandable. Peter knew that Jesus is the Messiah - the one who would turn the world upside down. But Peter and everyone else assumed that this would only happen when Jesus used our tools of war and violence to establish God’s kingdom. Even after Jesus said, “that’s not how this works,” the disciples still didn’t get it. But they were listening because when Jesus told them, again, about his death on the Cross,  the disciples decided to change the subject.

Now, on the surface, arguing about who is the greatest is pretty silly. The disciples are literally walking around with the guy who can feed thousands of people with the crumbs in his pockets. And their acting like kids, arguing about who is Jesus’ best friend. We can, however, give the disciples a bit of pass on their behavior because, just a few chapters earlier, they had experienced Jesus’ power when Jesus sent them to preach, teach, and heal in villages all over Galilee and Judea. Each one of them had been like Jesus, getting a little taste of the unlimited things Jesus could do. And that, I think, gave them a confidence that God was going to overcome with power the pain, suffering, and violence all around them. They imagined that this overcoming of the world was just the beginning of what Jesus was about to do. So, I think, as they talked about who was the greatest, they told stories of the sermons they preached, the healings they participated in, and bragged about how many people heard them in synagogues, homes, and in marketplaces. And since they knew their Bible, they imagined themselves to be the heads of a re-established Israelite kingdom. The 12 tribes of ancient Israel would return, after having been reduced to only 2 over 700 years before they born. The disciples didn’t see themselves as only students of Jesus. They also imagined themselves to be his future generals. It’s silly to be arguing about who is the greatest when God is literally in the room but it’s normal to cling to whatever power we see - so that we can overcome our reality and receive its benefits today and for years to come.

So Jesus responded to a very human but very silly argument with a silly maneuver of his own. He invited a child to be with him and the rest of his disciples. Now we might not realize what Jesus is doing here because we spend a lot of time and energy trying to bring kids to Jesus. We’ve invested in our Sunday school, Confirmation, and our new multi-church high school youth group. I’m personally grateful when kids are here in worship because, as baptized children of God, Jesus says they belong here, just like I do. And any homeowner in our area can look at their property tax bill and see how much we invest in childhood - through education, sport leagues, music lessons, and giving kids experiences so that they can live a life we think they deserve. But in Jesus’ time, there wasn’t a childhood. Once kids were old enough to help their parents on the farm or in the home, that’s what they did. We have ancient statues of four year olds holding mining equipment because kids worked. But kids were still kids. They were still growing and learning and being themselves. They needed to be taken care of. So, in Jesus’ day, being a kid wasn’t something anyone really admired. No one wanted to find their inner child or spend time chasing their childhood dreams because a child, back then, was seen as someone less than being an adult. In the social hierarchy of Jesus’ day, this meant children were at the bottom. And until kids grew up, they weren’t worth much. They were marginalized, vulnerable, and powerless. The disciples imagined themselves to be Jesus’ generals because they were hanging out with the ultimate power in the universe. And in response, that power took the powerless and said this is who God chooses to be with.

I’m pretty sure the disciples would struggle to understand why we celebrate the birthdays of 6 year olds and why we have whole event centers filled with obstacle courses and climbing walls so that hordes of little kids can shout “jump” while they’re eating pizza and birthday cake. But I think they would understand what it’s like to feel as if they are on the cusp of greatness only to then slide down into reality. Every sermon they preached and healing they participated in, gave the disciples a personal confidence that they were heading towards something great. They saw themselves as climbing up a rock wall of faith that would let them overcome everything. Yet they struggled to see how, through the Cross and through the resurrection, God was about to transform it all. There was nothing the disciples could do to become the greatest with God because the greatness of God had already decided that they were worth living and dying and rising for. As the baptized, as the faithful, as the ones who follow Jesus - every time we worship, pray, read our bible, and serve in our church - we hope that this kind of experience will grow our relationship with Christ so that we can become a little more great in our faith. Yet the God we try to be great for is a God who is already here, in our midst, loving and serving and being great to us because that’s who God is. In Christ, there’s nothing we can do to be greater with God. We can’t climb that wall of faith because Jesus has already come down. Instead, we can only live God’s greatness out by sometimes taking a seat, letting our feet dangle over the edge, and then sliding down to live and love and serve each other and our neighbors just like Jesus did.


 

Amen.

 



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Reflection: Re-engage with God

The last verse in our James reading today 3:13-4:8 ("Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you") doesn't sound very Lutheran. This verse seems to imply God works through transactions. If you do something for God, then God will do something for you. If you say the right prayer, donate to the right cause, or act like you are really sorry, then God will respond by showering you with grace and love. In this kind of faith scheme, God is an accountant, waiting for our move before God gives out the goods. But God isn’t into transactions and there’s nothing we can do for God to love us more. So what should we do with a verse like 4:8? 

We need to remember James 1:17-18 when we read any passage in James: "every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures." We are, through the gift of faith, born anew. It’s through the Spirit when we finally learn to trust God. Our faith needs to come from God or else we’ll create a personal faith that always wonders what we’ll get out of it. Faith is a gift from God that awakens this truth: we truly are God’s beloved children. 

Since we are beloved, God invites us to live as if we are truly loved. That isn’t always easy. The Bible isn’t a guidebook with detailed instructions on how we are supposed to act in every possible situation. Instead, God trusts us to see the gifts God gives us and respond accordingly. James in this passage, I think, doesn’t see God as an accountant waiting to give us gifts after we do the right thing. Instead, God is always there even when we fail to love like God does. Drawing near to God is an invitation to embrace our need for repentance. We need to, over and over again, admit our failures and our sin. We need to remember there is a God and we are not it. We, through worship, prayer, study, and confession, return to God as a way to embrace who we already are. We are loved. We are God’s. We are with Jesus. And so we make the conscious choice to re-engage with God knowing that God has never disengaged from us. 



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A Colorful Faith: the Pastor's Message for the October 2018 Messenger

What’s your favorite color?

When I was little, my mom was very specific about how she dressed her identical twin boys. She put me in red clothes; my brother in blue. My parents never needed help in knowing who was who. But when I look at old pictures, the color scheme is usually the only way I can tell who I am. This color, somehow, became imprinted on my soul. Red has been, and is still, my favorite color. I don’t know why certain colors become our favorites or why our favorite colors sometimes change. But I do know we live in a vibrant and dynamic world full of color. And as we move into fall, the color around us is going to grow.

One of our blessings is our climate. Every spring and fall, the world around us changes. Trees will turn from green to red, gold and purple. Fields will pop with orange pumpkins, and trees will be heavy with pink, light green and bright red apples. The days will grow shorter which means we will be awake during the golden hours of the day: dawn and dusk. Through the glorious colors of this season, we’ll celebrate holidays like Halloween and Reformation Sunday. I can’t imagine a fall without color. And I can’t imagine a fall without church.

We’re restarting Sunday School on October 7 and continuing our new adult education programs on Sunday (The Essential Jesus) and Thursday (Being Lutheran in a multi-faith world). A new organization devoted to serving senior citizens in our area will meet for lunch and conversation on October 17, 11:30 am. Our joint program for high school youth connecting Lutherans from all over northern Bergen County will meet on October 19. We designated Sunday, October 21 as our God’s Work, Our Hands Sunday, and we’ll spend time after church serving our community and neighborhood. We’ll end the month wearing red on Reformation Sunday, October 28. These are just some ways we’re being church this month. If you haven’t attended these programs yet or want more information, keep an eye on our weekly e-newsletter for details. You can also call the church office (201-391-4224) any time.

Our worship and service to our neighbors is how we color the world. When we are open and active in our faith, we show everyone how vibrant Jesus can be. None of us will live out our faith the same way. The diversity in how we love God and our neighbors is mirrored in how diverse our favorite colors are. Yet each of us is called to live a faith that is as passionate and vivid as the colors all around us. God didn’t give us a monotone world, and God didn’t give us a monotone faith. God gave us a brilliant world to match a spirited faith.

See you in church!

Pastor Marc



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Who? Who? Who? Jesus is an everyday Messiah. [MANUSCRIPT]

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Mark 8:27-38

Pastor Marc's sermon for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost (September 16, 2018) on Mark 8:27-38. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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One of the neat things I get to do is visit people and, if they want, bring them communion. I have a little kit with 4 individual communion cups, a little bronze box that holds communion wafers, and a tiny plastic bottle filled with either red wine or white grape juice. I bring this kit with me when I’m visiting someone who hasn’t been at church in awhile or if they’re seeking a more tangible experience of Jesus. I don’t do these kinds of visits every week - but there are days when I get a lot of Jesus in a short amount of time. I’ll visit someone, set out the cups and wafers, share communion with them, and then drive to my next visit to do the exact same thing. When I do these back to back to back to back communion visits, I pre-plan my route, making sure I have enough wafers, wine, and clean glasses on hand. These Jesus-filled days develop their own kind of rhythm and afterwards my mouth is dry because of all the wafers I’ve consumed. And by the end of the day, my heart is usually completely broken because of all the pain and anguish that exists in people’s lives. But at the same time, my heart is very full because Jesus is there, in all of it.

If I had to guess, I’d say we don’t have many days when an overwhelming amount of Jesus shows up. Most of the time, saying our nightly or morning prayers is all we need to know that God isn’t done with us yet. There are other days when we don’t think about our faith much at all - and still more when we wonder if the creator-of-everything has turned their back on us. So these short and intense Jesus moments are sometimes few and far between. But when they come, they can show up in the most unexpected ways. A friend might say the exact thing we didn’t know we needed to hear. And a stranger might offer us mercy in such a way that we actually see what God’s kingdom looks like. Or we might receive a handwritten note from someone telling us we matter. It might take only 20 seconds to read those words - but that experience of Jesus lasts for hours. We probably need more of these kinds of moments in our lives. But there’s a grace in not being overwhelmed by Jesus all the time. We get to catch our breath, reflect on what we’ve heard, and discover how this faith makes a difference in our lives. If we had to engage with an overwhelming Jesus on a conscious level every day of the week - we might become so overwhelmed that we end up missing what God is trying to say. I think we need space, and time, and distance so that we can see the whole story of what God is up to. Otherwise we might end up feeling a little like Peter did in our reading from the gospel according to Mark.

Peter, at the start of this passage, probably felt pretty full of himself because Jesus asked who they thought he was and Peter blurted out the correct answer. It’s got to feel pretty great to get God’s question right. Yet the chapter didn’t end with this question. Jesus kept talking. And as he talked, sharing with his disciples who he was, what he’s doing, and what’s going to happen to him - Peter and his recently inflated ego felt the need to respond. Peter tried to be discreet, pulling Jesus aside before he rebuked him. But his private moment with Jesus became very public once Jesus called him - Satan. Now, Peter took quite an emotional roller coaster - shooting up to the top of the world at the start of our reading only to be, just a few verses later, staring at us from the bottom of a pit. Our moments with Jesus aren’t always going to be filled with a sense of peace and joy that we know only comes from God. Our moments with Jesus are sometimes rough, as if our world is being turned upside down. And in Peter’s case, it was. Peter thought he got Jesus’ question right. People knew Jesus was special but they didn’t know exactly what to call him. So they used what they knew, typecasting Jesus in roles they could explain and understand. And that’s exactly what Peter did. He knew Jesus was the Messiah, the One who would turn the world upside down. But Peter assumed he knew what that meant. When he said that Jesus was the Messiah, Peter wasn’t only identifying Jesus’ title. Peter was also, in that moment, telling Jesus what kind of Messiah Peter wanted him to be. Peter needed Jesus to turn the world upside down but he assumed that could only be done in the way we expect it to happen: through strength, power, and violence. Peter’s Messiah needed to act in a specific way - by raising up an army to drive the Romans back into the sea. Through military might and political violence, Peter wanted Jesus to build God’s kingdom in the ways kingdoms usually are. Because, for Peter, Jesus was a general, a superhero, a religious teacher, a politician, and a miracle worker who could make ancient Israel independent, mighty, and great once again. Peter’s declaration wasn’t only his way of identifying who Jesus was. Peter’s declaration was also an attempt to tell Jesus what Jesus was supposed to do. So when Jesus started talking about becoming a victim of violence rather than causing it, Peter had to speak up because Jesus wasn't getting this Messiah thing right. Peter wasn’t just rebuking Jesus; Peter was trying to tell God how Jesus was supposed to work. Peter thought he knew better than God what God is all about.

    Peter’s desire to make Jesus be what Peter wanted him to be, is a pretty normal thing to do. We all, at various times in our lives, want Jesus to act in the way we want. It would be awesome if Jesus was a little more over the top and flashy so that we could see him during the regular busyness and noise of our lives. But the Son of God who was born in a barn and who lived a very human life wasn’t interested in overcoming us. Rather, God is interested in transforming us. And that transformation is centered in everyday things - like eating and drinking, visiting and talking, living and dying. God can do over the top things and there will be moments in our live when we will see Jesus clearly. But those moments are not the primary moments where God is at work. Rather, these overwhelming Jesus filled experience help us uncover what God is doing in all our moments. There is no part of our life that’s too small for God to notice. And there’s no part of our life where Jesus isn’t already with us. Peter couldn’t see that because, in Mark chapter 8, he didn’t know the rest of Jesus’ story. Even when Jesus told him what would happen next, Peter couldn’t hear him over the expectations and assumptions making noise in Peter’s head. But once Jesus’ life played out - from his sharing of meals with all kinds of people, to his execution by the state, through his resurrection and the women standing at the empty tomb - it was then when Peter saw what Jesus was all about. We might not see God working in our lives all the time. But know that, no matter where you are or who you’re with, Jesus is already there. And when we gather together around the Lord’s table, whether in this sanctuary or around a coffee table in our living rooms, the everyday thing of eating and drinking, of sharing communion, points us to our everyday reality - that Jesus is busy filling every one of our moments with all his mercy, love, and grace.

 

Amen.

 



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