Questions and Reflections

Give Freely. From Pastor Marc - My Message for the Messenger, September 2018 Edition

Let's try a little exercise. Imagine strangers visiting your home. You've never met them before and this is the first time they've ever seen you. Instead of introducing yourself to them, you invite them into your kitchen. They open up your refrigerator and cupboards. What would they find?

They might find some old takeout Chinese food you should have been thrown out two weeks ago. They might notice your love of fruity carbonated waters and the imported butter you use for baking. They might also notice you don't always have all the food you actually need. Our kitchens reveal a lot about our lives. They show what we like to eat and what we can afford to buy. Kitchens reveal the basic items we must have and any health situations we are living through. When we have enough, we are able to focus on our families, studies, jobs, and living the life we want to live. When we struggle, worrying about where our next meal drowns out everything else.

One of our spiritual gifts as CLC is our willingness to feed others. For the past 33 years, our Genesis Garden has produced hundreds of pounds of fresh produce every year for our neighbors utilizing the Center for Food Action in Englewood. Our garden was recently highlighted at the New Jersey Synod Assembly and was shown to the Pinecrest Leadership Camp for Lutheran Youth in the Metropolitan New York Synod. It's also become a model for other congregations in our area who are interested in giving back to the community. Beyond the garden, the food donations you drop off in the narthex (our church lobby) are combined with financial gifts from Care Committee, CLC-Women, and others to help the Center for Food Action to feed neighbors in Bergen County. We've also strengthen our ties with the Tri-Boro Food Pantry based in Park Ridge. Our Vacation Bible School families, as you'll see later in this edition of the Messenger, donated several dozen bags of groceries to local families in need. By working together, we can help all families in need worry less about hunger and, instead, live their lives the way God wants them to.

September is the month when our programming year begins. Our two worship Sundays kick-off is September 16. Choirs will return for rehearsals, confirmation classes will start; a new adult education program will launch; and our life as a church will get busy. During this time, it's easy to focus only our personal needs. But our life and faith grow when we keep our eyes looking outwards. As we start a busy September, let’s keep noticing the needs of our neighbors. Let's keep an eye on Jesus. Let's keep feeding all our neighbors. And let's find new ways to serve and love because CLC is at our best when we, like Jesus, give freely and abundantly.

See you in church!

Pastor Marc



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Submit: a sermon on what to do with wives being subject to husbands [Manuscript]

Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish.In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.

Ephesians 5:15-33

My sermon from the 13th Sunday after Pentecost (August 19, 2018) on Ephesians 5:15-33. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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The readings from the Bible we hear on Sunday morning are not set in stone. They can be changed. Traditionally, our community follows the Revised Common Lectionary, a 3 year cycle of readings that assigns specific texts to specific Sundays and days of the week. The lectionary is used by many different Christians denominations, including Catholics, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodist; and serves as a powerful reminder that our differences as Christians does not replace our unity as members of the body of Christ. I like the lectionary because it invites us to spend time with all 66 books of the Bible instead of only my personal favorites. But the lectionary doesn’t show us everything. And it sometimes goes out of its way to avoid the more difficult writings on Sunday mornings. I consider a text difficult if I don’t want it read out loud when my two young kids are in the room. The bible is full of these kinds of passages, especially ones used to justify the atrocities we commit against each other. Wars, genocide, slavery, and sexual assaults - it’s all in there. I prefer a bible passage telling me to do something really hard, like love my enemies. But I’m less comfortable with a passage like Psalm 137, which celebrates the brutal killing of my enemies’ children. The lectionary tries to avoid these biblical texts of terror. But there are times when, I think, the Spirit wants us to engage these uncomfortable texts. And so that’s why I chose to expand our reading from Ephesians today, making sure we heard about wives, and husbands, and “being subject to.”

Now, these verses, especially 22 through 24, can be hard to hear because the universal church has used these verses terribly. I’ve seen writers use Ephesians 5 to deny a woman’s individuality and the gifts God gave her. I’ve seen church leaders use this passage to encourage wives to stay with their abusive husbands and partners. This text, along with others, is why women weren’t allowed to become pastors or even serve on their church council - which is a position that dominates many Christian churches today. It was thought that a wife, regardless of her vocation or her calling, would never be able to lead men because she would always be led by one. So this is an odd text to hear in our context because Lutherans have ordained women as pastors for the last 45 years. The bishop of New Jersey, Tracie Bartholomew, has preached from this pulpit and presided over that altar. And in the history of Christ Lutheran Church, we’ve had one woman pastor, held at least one ordination for a woman, and have had countless women leaders, including council presidents, who have lead this church. This kind of change is still relatively recent, especially when compared to the 2000 years of history that came before it. But we now recognize that gifts for leadership are not bound to any one gender. The Holy Spirit has helped us discover the more inclusive church we are called to be. This text from Ephesians doesn’t seem fully relevant to us anymore. So we might want to ignore it. But this text is still in our bibles. We can’t pretend it’s not there. Instead, we can use the Spiritual gifts God has given us - gifts of knowledge, experience, intellect, and guidance - to engage our bible seriously and faithfully. So, with all of that, what can we do with a text asking wives to be subject to their husbands?

Well, we can first figure out what this text actually is. These verses continue the moral teachings started in Ephesians 4. Our life with Christ has something to say about how we treat each other and ourselves. Yet our connection to Jesus, while made real in our baptism, in holy communion, and in our faith, is still pretty mysterious. It’s hard to know exactly what life with Jesus looks like even in our most intimate relationships. The author of Ephesians looked around in his cultural context and noticed people living in ancient Roman households. Now, all households are different, but every society has a vision of what they think a family unit should look like. Think of the rules we hear in Ephesians as Rome’s version of the Leave it to Beaver, 1950s vision of what home life should be like in the United States. The author of Ephesians took this idealized model of the Roman household and showed how Christ matters there. But he also used the Roman household as a model and a metaphor for what our collective life with Christ might look like. This metaphor is tricky because a Roman household assumes that certain people, because of their gender and their social status, are entitled to having power over others. When these assumptions are not questioned or examined, then our model for Christian community and the Christian home ends up being very Roman. So when we see a hierarchy, with some at the top and others at the bottom, we want to be the ones who stay on top. Which is why some, I think, have clung to this text from Ephesians even though it’s rooted in a Roman cultural concept developed almost 2,000 years ago.

So when we listen to this text and see the cultural hierarchy imported into it, we discover the flaw within it. Every model for living that we take from our cultural context and merge into our life with Christ will always be an imperfect metaphor because we are imperfect. We are sinners. And as we try to flesh out what the mystery of living with Christ looks like, the models we use will never be as perfect as we want to be. We will latch onto models and metaphors that give power to some while denying it to others. And people, especially men in the church, have too often used that power for harm. The church continues to struggle with this text because, in my opinion, we haven’t paid enough attention to what it actually is. We haven’t always recognized how the Roman household was imported into it. And, at the same time, we didn’t noticed what Christ is doing in that household. Since wives are named first, we focused on making them subject to their husbands. But we didn’t see that the “obligation of the husband to love is treated more extensively than the obligation of the wife to be subject.” We didn’t notice how “the radical thrust of the gospel is putting pressure on those who have authority and power.” (Brown, Introduction to the New Testament, 1997). We spent so much time trying to assert our power over others, that we forgot what Jesus actually does with his authority and power. We’re not here to try to hold onto our power or keep it only for ourselves. Rather, as people baptized into Christ, we are heirs to Jesus’ mission and his ministry. We have, because of Christ’s self-sacrifice and love, been given a deep and ever present relationship with the creator of everything. So our life together, in our churches, in our neighborhoods, in our families, and even in our marriages - our life together isn’t about what power and authority we think we’re entitled to. Instead, our life together is about how we get to like Christ to one another.

As human beings living in a very human world, we will always create new idealized models of how we think life should be led in communities and in families. But none of these models will match fully the Christian life we’re called to lead. Some of the models will work for a time but, eventually, they will be replaced by something else. Yet regardless of the model we find ourselves living in, our life in Christ commits us to changing those models so that we can empower and give new life to those around us. We get to help all people, including our spouses, and the most vulnerable, live the lives God is calling them to live. The model that demanded a wife be subject to her husband is fading into a new reality where we together help all women lead the body of Christ. The idealized models we use to imagine our communities, our homes, and our churches will change. The old ways will turn into something new. But because we are faithful, loved, and fed by Christ at his table, there is one model for Christian living that will never fade away. All of us, regardless of our gender and our marriage-status, are called to seek out what we can give up so that everyone around us can love, live, and thrive.
 

Amen.

 



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Reflection: John and Eternal

Last Monday, we hosted an interfaith event called “Welcoming the Stranger.” The event focused on faith and immigration, letting scripture interact with the personal stories of immigrants. After a piece of scripture was read, a reflection was offered by someone who went through the immigration process (including those who were undocumented) or who work with people currently in detention centers. Videos from Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service were used to show how Lutherans from several different denominations have responded over the years to the surge of unaccompanied minors and families who have sought asylum in the US. None of the clergy in attendance preached. Instead, we invited the words of scripture and the words of personal stories to swirl in the air around us. It wasn’t an event designed to provide answers. Rather, it was an event inviting us to, in every experience, ask faith filled questions. 

One of the common themes in the stories we heard was food. Throughout the immigrants’ journey, from its start to their time in detention centers, the food was always poor and there was never enough of it. We know how the lack of food impacts our body and mind. We lose energy, have difficulties processing what other people are saying, and struggle with simple day-to-day tasks. The lack of food increases our stress levels as we worry about where our next meal is coming from. Hunger takes a physical, mental and spiritual toll on us, impacting every area of our life. 

As we listen to Jesus’ words today in John 6:51-58, it’s easy to latch onto the word “eternal” and think “forever.” For us, eternal is a measurement defined by duration. Eternal life is about trying to live forever. There’s a truth to that but there’s another aspect to eternal we sometimes forget. The eternal life Jesus offered wasn’t just about living a long time. Rather, a life with Jesus is filled with value and worth. This kind of life isn’t without struggle. Even those of us who share in Holy Communion will, eventually, die. Yet this life with Jesus is one where our purpose, identity and joy is made real and secure in a savior who is never far from us. We don’t always know what life will bring. We don’t always know when, through no fault of our own, we might need to take a journey that leaves us hungry, scared, and full of doubt. But when we cling to Jesus, trusting that he is with us, we can face our troubles knowing that the struggles we face are not the limit of who we are. We belong to Christ; we are eternally valued; we are loved; and we are, even right now, living our eternal life. 



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Be Excellent To Each Other: one way to find a fuller picture of Jesus

So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Ephesians 4:25-5:2

My sermon from the 12th Sunday after Pentecost (August 12, 2018) on Ephesians 4:25-5:2. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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Over the last few months, my brother has been figuring out our family tree. We know a bunch about my mom’s family and some about my dad’s mom’s family. But when it comes to my dad’s dad, my grandfather, we knew practically nothing. Every few years, we searched various genealogical websites, trying to find something about him and his family. Nothing ever came up until this year. We found this: a copy of my grandfather’s registration card for the military during World War 2. Now that’s a pretty neat and helpful thing to find. It’s got his age, a birthdate, a birthplace - Silver City, New Mexico, and my grandfather’s job: he was a farm laborer. The card also recorded the name of someone who knew where my grandfather was at all times. And that person, Sylvester, is my great-grandfather. This image was our first tangible encounter with our great grandfather - and we both wanted to find out more. My brother spent days looking at census records, newspaper clippings, and whatever else he could find. But it was a struggle because my great-grandfather’s last name kept changing. Even on this draft card, you can see how the printed last name of my grandfather doesn’t exactly match his signature at the bottom. And my great-grandfather’s last name is missing a letter. This problem only gets worse when we look at this image from the 1930 United States’ census. I discovered that my great-grandfather spent time in California and that census takers deleted the first 2 letters of his last name. Sylvester's first name, in the census at least, retained its Mexican spelling and it showed that he, and many of his children, were born in Mexico. They moved to this country at some point but I didn’t know when or where until we found this: an index card recording their border crossing. On February 7, 1917, my great grandfather, my great grandmother, and their kids crossed the border at Columbus, New Mexico. I don’t know why they entered the United States. But they are, on the card, listed as refugees. In 1917, a Mexican Civil War was tearing up Northern Mexico. So it’s not hard to imagine my great-grandfather and his family wanting to escape the bloodshed and violence all around them. They, as family, sought asylum and safety in the United States.

Now, if you look closely at the border crossing card, you’ll see that my great-grandfather’s last name is, once again, spelled differently. And that’s annoying. Yet these constant changes in spelling provide an opportunity for us to engage with these documents in a different way. My encounter with my great-grandfather is bounded by these written words. To uncover the fullness of his story, I need to recognize how the changes in spelling matched his life as an immigrant, and a Mexican, in the United States. To really understand who he was, I needed to see all his words, including their English and Mexican spellings.  

This exercise of looking at how we encounter someone and expanding what that might mean, is a helpful exercise for our faith. For many of us, our encounters with Jesus are bounded by words. These words are the ones we hear on Sunday morning and  the ones we read and feel when we open our bibles and our daily devotionals. We know that Jesus is the Word but our words can sometimes limit what we think Jesus might be like. Instead of seeing Jesus as this expansive, inclusive, and amazing event, we let our words box Jesus in. And I’m saying “our words” because we need to be mindful that when we encounter Jesus in scripture, we’re encountering him in our language which wasn’t originally his. Jesus didn’t speak 21st century English or Spanish. He didn’t know our figures of speech, our idioms, or what emojis we like to end our text messages with. Instead, he spoke Aramaic. And he probably knew Ancient Hebrew and maybe Ancient Greek. Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, made sure that his words were written down and shared through that Ancient Greek dialect that we no longer speak. Our encounters with Jesus’ story happen through a holy, and Spirit guided, translation. But that translation is built on an interpretation of what Ancient Greek and modern day English means. Sometimes, to fully see Jesus and what our life with him might look like, we need to read his story in a different translation or see his story interpreted in a language not our own. We might even need to step into that Ancient Greek text itself. This exercise isn’t always necessary but it’s sometimes helpful. And it makes a difference today  - with this text from Ephesians, where we see the author telling us to be kind.

Now being kind is more than just being nice. Being kind requires us to empathize, care, and serve each other with love and respect. Being kind takes work, sacrifice, and is sometimes a struggle. So there’s something good, life giving, and loving about being kind. But when we look at this text in English, is there much here that is Christ specific? The actions and behaviors that Ephesians describes as good are pretty standard, regardless of our religious beliefs. Not lying to each other, working through our conflicts, and not stealing from each other is good advice for any community, religious or not. Much of these ethical teachings in Ephesians can be reduced to the golden rule: where we treat each other the way we want to be treated. It’s not entirely clear how these kinds of actions, when they include Jesus, make a more unique and holy difference in our lives and in our world.

So it’s at this point when reading the Ancient Greek text becomes helpful. As you can see on the screen, this text from Ephesians in Greek is interesting. And I’ll be the first to admit that I can’t read it. But, with a little help, I was able to place red boxes around two important words in this text. The first box surrounds the word for kind. The second box is for Christ himself. The words in those two boxes look similar. And they are because the words translated as kind and Christ are closely related. When the Ancient church heard this passage in Greek, they smiled because they recognized the wordplay being done through the words kind and Christ. They would, through this more expansive engagement with the text, understand that they were being asked to do more than just be kind. They were, at the same time, being asked to be a Christ to everyone they knew.

Part of being a Christ to each other is going to look like we’re being kind. But there are times when being a Christ to each other means we’re going to need to change our point of view, our expectations, and maybe even our way of life. Being a Christ means we have to be with Christ, spending time with his story, with his words, with his world, and with his people, regardless of where they come from or what they believe. What makes our actions as Christians different from everyone else, is that our service and love for each other is wrapped up in a savior who lived and died so that all people might discover God’s love for them. When we see our faith as an expansive act of love, we uncover a core part of our own story. And that story is not limited by our experiences, our thoughts, what’s happened to us, or even what we found on ancestry.com. Our story is Christ’s story because we are Christ’s people and so we love ourselves, each other, and all people as Christ loves us.

 

Amen.

 



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Reflection: Living Bread

I usually don't like my bread when it’s alive. I have a bad habit of buying a baguette and leaving it on my kitchen counter for too long. I always plan to eat it quickly but that plan rarely comes through. After a few days, the baguette evolves and comes alive. Mold forms, usually in a place I can't see at first. When I finally pick it up, I see the mold and toss the bread into the garbage. I swear I'll eat the bread sooner next time. We'll see if I ever listen to my own advice. 

In today's reading from the Gospel according to John 6:41-51, Jesus is "the bread from heaven" and "the living bread" at the same time. As Lutheran Christians who share communion every week, the words "bread from heaven" are understandable. Every Sunday, we gather in Jesus' name and wait to be served at His table. He comes to us through words, songs, bread and drink. We eat his body, and we are physically (and spiritually) fed by him. We will never be able to fully understand the mystery that is holy communion, but we know that when we eat Jesus, we are connecting with a savior who gives everything to us. His life, death and resurrection showed that God will go through anything so that God can love and serve us. God has (and will) feed us spiritually and physically. But have you ever held the piece of bread at communion and think it's alive? 

By calling himself the living bread, Jesus reminds us that he is with us right now. Jesus isn't only important to us in our past or in our future. He is with us in this moment. There is no moment in our lives when Jesus doesn't care about us. And there is no point in time where he isn't with us. He invites us to live a life responding to his presence, mercy and love. God has, and will, give everything to God's people and God's world. The question is whether we will do the same? 



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Now What? Our Spiritual Gifts are life-giving mysteries [Manuscript]

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called,

with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.” (When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth?He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

Ephesians 4:1-16

My sermon from the 11th Sunday after Pentecost (August 5, 2018) on Ephesians 4:1-16. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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So if you are a fan of the Internet, your social media feeds might have been devoted to goats over the last few days. A goat on the internet can mean many different things. It can be an acronym, referring to someone who is a g o a t - the greatest of all time. But it can also refer to that hairy little animal with horns that eats practically everything. On Friday morning, a breaking news report shook Boise, Idaho because over 100 goats were wandering in a residential area. At first, no one knew how they got there. They just showed up, wandering from yard to yard. Now, if your yard is mostly crabgrass like mine is, a bunch of goats coming over to have lunch isn’t really that scary. But if you have a yard you actually care for, a herd of goats showing up at your front door is downright terrifying. Those goats were on a mission and they were going to eat every plant in sight.

Now, if you followed the story, you know how the goats got there and what happened next. Everything, eventually, worked out and the goats went back to where they came from. It’s a fun little news story with a happy ending but instead of focusing on how the story ended, I want to spend time with how the story began. And it started with a tweet. Joe Parris, a reporter for a tv station in Boise, received a tip about these goats, so he went out and found them, taking 4 pictures of the goats with his phone. He immediately sent word to the wider internet that by writing this: “#Breaking - About 100 goats are on the loose right now in a Boise neighborhood. They are going house to house eating everything in sight. Nobody has a clue where they came from...updates to follow.” Goats on the loose is a really great sentence we don’t hear often. And this short news tweet had everything in it to keep us interested. But what drew me into this story wasn’t only the goats. Rather, what enticed me was how no one knew how they got there. It was a mystery! And the very best kind of mystery there is. If imagine ourselves as one of the homeowners on that street, seeing one goat in our front yard would be unexpected. But seeing over 100 goats would totally blow our mind. We would wonder where they came from but that question would have to wait because the mysterious herd of goats would be making our flower and vegetable beds disappear in a very non-mysterious way. We wouldn’t get to dwell on where this mystery came from. Instead, we have to live with it, and engage it, right away. And that’s what makes mysteries powerful. A mystery is an experience we can’t, in that moment, fully explain but it is something we have to live through. We run into these kinds of mysteries all the time and they’re usually very small. We might get a phone call late at night from an unlisted number and wonder who called us. But when that person leaves a voicemail, that little mystery is solved. Yet there are other mysteries that we are asked to hold onto; mysteries we can’t fully explain. And that’s important because it’s those mysteries that teach us who God is calling us to be.

We have spent these last few weeks taking time during worship to explore our spiritual gifts. And we’ve done that because of this passage from our second reading today. This is the moment in Ephesians when the focus of the letter changes. Before this, the author talked about everything that God had done and how God, through Jesus, had included Gentiles into a new humanity God was bringing about. This new humanity isn’t here yet so God created a community of faith, a church, that could be a inclusive, welcoming, and loving community for us all. God gives the church a sense of unity by connecting us to each other through the gift of faith and the gift of baptism. But this unity doesn’t ask us to forget who we are. We all have our own histories, backgrounds, experiences, and identities. We are all different. And that’s great because God wants the church to include all the diversity present in God’s world. Living with this kind of diversity isn’t always easy. So the letter to the Ephesians moves away from talking about what God has done and invites us to consider how our lives can respond to God done. And one way we do this is by discovering the gifts God has given to each of us.

These gifts, our talents and abilities, are not always easy to see. And, in fact, they can be quite mysterious. A gift we use in our everyday life might not be the gift God wants us to use in the church. We might be an amazing public speaker, able to articulate a clear point of view that impresses our coworkers and our boss. Yet in the church, God might want us to hold back, to not speak out as much as we do, and instead nurture a prayer life that prays for everyone in our bulletin and in our prayer chain. Or this mystery could be the exact opposite. We might be shy when we’re out in public and at school. We might be unassuming and quiet when we’re part of a large crowd. Yet in this place, surrounded by people who recognize us as a necessary part of what God is doing in the world, the spiritual gift of preaching might be exactly what God wants us to do. We can’t assume that the gifts we use in the world are the same gifts God calls us to use inside the church. Because the spiritual gifts God gives to each of us are designed for one thing: and that’s to help all of us grow into the kind of people God wants us to be. That happens when we, as a community, know each other and know ourselves. The gifts we bring into the church are needed so that the people sitting next to us can become the Christians they’re meant to be. And their gifts other people have are necessary for us so that we can fully follow Jesus Christ. These mysterious gifts from God are not designed to remain a mystery to those around us. We need to tell each other our stories and share the gifts God has given us. We need to listen to each other so that we can discover who we are and how other people’s gifts can change our lives. And we need to recognize the gifts we see in others before they see it in themselves. Our spiritual gifts, right now, might be mystery. Or we might think that we don’t have any gifts to share at all. But if 100 goats can show up mysteriously in Boise, Idaho, then we can take a chance and live more deeply into the mysteries of faith, love, hope, and mercy that God gives to us each and everyday. It’s in those mysteries where we discover who God is and why Jesus makes a difference in our lives. And it’s through those mysteries where we learn how we can make a difference in Christ’s Church and throughout all of God’s world.

 

Amen.

 



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Reflection: Re-frame

What was the last thing Jesus did for you? 

An interesting part of today’s reading from John 6:24-35 is Jesus’ willingness to engage that question. These verses follow what we heard last week. Jesus fed 5000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish. The crowd tried to make Jesus their king so he fled into the mountains. While there, his disciples decided to get in a boat, leaving Jesus on the seashore. Jesus, though, refused to stay behind. He walked on water, meeting his disciples where they were. They cross the sea and the crowd is not thrilled that Jesus left them. They assemble a small fleet, sail after him, and find Jesus on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. They asked Jesus when he arrived. And Jesus refused to answer the question. Instead, he wondered why they were there in the first place. 

I think it’s easy to listen to Jesus’ rebuke of the crowd and automatically assume we’re not a part of it. As followers of Jesus, we gather at His church every Sunday because we believe. The communion we share is a physical connection to our God. When we participate in holy communion at this church, we are automatically feeding on the bread of eternal life. Just by being here, we feel as if we are in the right crowd. 

But if we examine the motivations in this text seriously, we discover that we are not different from the crowd at all. The crowd came to Jesus because Jesus did something amazing. They felt God in their life and they wanted more. They were fed real food and since we need to eat every day, it would be silly for them to not find Jesus’s. Yet Jesus took their motivations and re-framed it. He knows they are looking at him, wanting to be fed again. So Jesus reminds them they’ve already been fed. They asked for a sign to prove what Jesus could do. But it’s not about what God will do. Rather, faith is fed by what God has already done. 

Imagine if we reframed how we viewed the world. Instead of looking for what God can give us next, what if we looked back at what God has already done? If we noticed all the different ways God feeds us, if we took time to count our blessings, then our present and our tomorrow might be less about what Jesus can do and more about how we can be like Jesus to the crowd around us. 



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Reflection: John is Different

There are actions and stories in Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John that are similar to each other. Jesus is constantly teaching, healing, and feeding people. We sometimes take these stories about Jesus and reduce them to one sentence. This process of condensing stories is helpful. It reminds us of what Jesus did in the past and what he does for us today. But these stories are not always exactly the same in all four gospels. And that difference matters. Today’s reading from John 6:1-21 has two stories that are also in the Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Jesus feeds thousands of people and then walks on water. If we focus only on that one sentence summary of what Jesus does, we miss the details that reveal who Jesus is. For example, in Mark’s version of the feeding of the 5000, Jesus’ disciples are the ones that feed the crowd. But John does things differently. In the gospel according to John, Jesus, not the disciples, is the one who feeds everyone. That a difference and a contradiction. It’s also not the only one. We also notice that, in John, this story takes place around Passover. But in Mark, Passover isn’t to be found. The feeding of the 5000 is an important story but each author of the gospels told the story differently. These differences and contradictions are hard to hold together. But they’re also very important. So why did John write the story in this way?

John is focused on the question: who is Jesus? And his Jesus is the One who has been with God since before the earth was made. Jesus has all the attributes of God, including knowing how the story will turn out. And since Jesus knows the story, Jesus is always in control of it. John’s version can sometimes feel as if Jesus is too divine; like he really isn’t as human as you and I. But all writing about Jesus will fall short because it’s impossible to fully express (and understand) everything there is about Jesus. He is always 100% human and 100% God at the same time. Our words will always struggle to explain this detail of Jesus’ identity. But this struggle is also a gift because it allows Jesus to be as expansive as we need him to be. There are times when we need to know that Jesus knows what it’s like to be hurt, betrayed, and cry. And there are times when we need Jesus to be the One who knows the end of every human story. The different of the stories about Jesus help us discover the many different ways Jesus matters to us. His story, like all our stories, is full of nuance and what looks like contradictions. Yet the constant theme in all our stories about Jesus is who he is, and forever will be, Emmanuel – God with us, for us, and who will never stop loving us.



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Dwell: In Absurdity

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

Ephesians 3:14-21

My sermon from the 10th Sunday after Pentecost (July 29, 2018) on Ephesians 3:14-21. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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In Provincetown, Massachusetts, there’s a boat sitting inside a building. The building itself is old, a former church that once fit over 900 people in its 128 pews. A large bell tower dominates the front and the sanctuary space overshadows the rest of the town. The building has been many different things over the years. It was an art gallery, a cultural center, and a heritage museum, but it’s now the Provincetown Public Library. And on that library’s second floor is a boat. Now since Provincetown has a long history of ships and sailing, it’s not surprising to find a boat inside its library. We should expect to find lot of boats, models of the various sailing ships that once called Provincetown home. But the boat I’m talking about isn’t a little model. It wouldn't fit in a bottle and you couldn’t display it on your desk. No, the boat in the library is a half-sized model of a schooner, the Rose Dorothea, that was built in 1905. The original ship was 109 feet long, weighed 108 tons, and had 26 sailors for its crew. The ship was famous for winning the one, and only, Lipton Cup - a race organized by the inventor of the individual tea bag, Sir Thomas Lipton - in Boston harbor in 1907. The Rose Dorothea was low in the water, with a thin central mast, large sails, and a rounded bow which let it zoom through the water. The ship had a productive career, sailing all over the Atlantic until it was sunk by a German submarine in WW1. Rose’s dramatic story became a stand-in for all the fishermen and women and sailors who called Provincetown home. And in 1977, the grandson of one of the sailors who won that Lipton Cup decided to build a half-sized model of the Rose Dorothea inside the heritage museum that was in that old church. So -today, on the second floor of the Provincetown Public library, is a 66 foot long schooner with full sails and a mast poking through the top of the ceiling. It’s a boat designed to never sail. It has shelves of books around it, blocking it from ever entering the Atlantic Ocean. The boat is just sitting there, a memorial to a way of life that still matters in Provincetown, and with a funny little sign on it that says: Do Not Climb.

It’s a bit absurd to build a big boat and keep it inside a building. But this boat is even more odd because it looks as if it could actually sail. I'm not a ship builder but I’ve seen plenty of museum replicas and models in my day. These models are usually small, imperfect, and very dusty. They’re designed to let our us imagine what a real life version of it would have been like. But the boat on the second floor of the Provincetown Public Library looks as if it could sail in the harbor just outside it. The master builder of the model, Captain “Flyer” Santos, was a real life ship builder. He knew what he was doing and he spent over 11 years making sure his team made the Rose Dorothea right. You would think he might have wanted to cut corners during construction because the model would never face a storm at sea. But Captain Santos didn’t because I think he had a story to tell. That ship is designed to invoke memories and feelings in us that we might not even know we have. We’re supposed to marvel at its design and beauty, while at the same time be in awe that anyone would want to sail a little wooden boat across the ocean. We might personally have never sailed or stood on an ocean going ship. But this half-scale model invokes in us a sense of wonder, uniting us with a story that is central to who we are. For many of us, these kind of ships are a part of our own story. We might have sailed across the ocean, passing through Ellis Island as new immigrants to the United States. We might be a descendant of someone who boarded an old rickety sailing ship, hoping to start a new life here in the 17th, 18th, or 19th centuries. Or our ancestors might have been shackled or the ones doing the shackling on the many slave ships that brought so many people involuntarily into this country. Not everyone in the United States is a descendant of immigrants who came from somewhere else or who came to this country willingly. But we, together, have a collective history that is tied to these ships that sailed over the ocean and created this nation along their way. It’s absurd to build a ship inside a building but the feelings, thoughts, and wonder that ship invokes in us, all that good and all that bad; that’s what grounds and root us in our collective story.

And that’s why, I think, the author of Ephesians ended the third chapter of their letter with a prayer. Today’s second reading marks the end of the first half of the letter, the part of the letter designed to tell us why it was written. The author was writing to a small community of Christians made up of Jews and Gentiles. And the letter focused first on the Gentiles, the non-Jews, letting them know that they were a necessary part of God’s kingdom. These people who never grew up Jewish were part of God’s plan because God, through Jesus, was uniting all people into a new humanity. This unity, I think, wasn’t supposed to ignore our differences but, rather, the author wanted to focus on what it is that keeps us together. It’s Jesus, this wandering Jewish Rabbi who casted out demons, fed the hungry, and lived a life showing us what it looks like when God comes near - that’s who connects us to each other. It isn’t our nationality or ancestry or history; it isn’t our race or language or gender; it isn’t our wealth or status or even sharing the same exact beliefs - that’s not the focus of why we’re here. We’re here because Jesus called us to be here. We’re connected to each other because, in our baptism, we are connected to the One who makes us one. And we matter to God because all people, in every kind of human family, comes from God. It’s absurd that a Jewish rabbi, killed by the Romans 2000 years ago, would call Gentiles to follow him. But Jesus did that then and he does that still. He calls all of us to cling to him, to follow him, and to know that his absurd love for us will overcome the absurd ways we run from him. We might not always know what that kind of love actually looks like. And we will have questions about what it is God wants from our lives. We’re not going to have every answer to every question that we ask. But we, through Jesus, will receive every answer that we need. In Christ, we are all connected to each other. In the Father, we are rooted to the One who has made all people One. And we, through the Spirit, have been given a faith that will remind us of the many way God is transforming us even when we don’t feel that way at all. Its this faith, grace, and hope that keeps us rooted and grounded in a love that will sometimes call us to do absurd things, like building a boat inside a library, so that all people, knowing who they are and whose they are, can finally see the new future that God is bringing about.

 

Amen.

 



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Remember That You Were: In Christ, Unity and Diversity

So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision” —a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

Ephesians 2:11-22

My sermon from the 9th Sunday after Pentecost (July 22, 2018) on Ephesians 2:11-22. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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Did you notice a bit of weirdness in our second reading from the letter to the Ephesians? Well, it might be hard to pin down just one bit of weirdness because there’s a lot in there. The passage begins by talking about Gentiles, moves to the circumcised versus the uncircumcised, and brings up aliens and strangers. The text then get a little Halloweeny by talking about Jesus’ blood and the walls of hostility that exist between us and other people. It’s easy to get lost in these verses since the sentences are long, the grammar is poor, and it’s difficult for translators to take this ancient greek writing and interpret it into modern English. Last week, I pointed out how eleven or so verses in the first chapter of Ephesians is really just one sentence in the greek. The author, in an enthusiastic way, wanted to overwhelm those hearing the letter, making sure they knew that they were destined to be children of God. They, as they are, were necessary so that the community in Ephesus could become Christ’s church. We’ve moved a bit from last week’s reading and it’s easy to hear these verses today and get confused by all the details. So we need to take a step back, skim through the passage, and pick out the main idea. And when we do that, we see unity. Jesus, according to Ephesians, brings together different groups of people and unites them into a new community. Faith and baptism gives everyone an additional identity, so that what unites us is greater than whatever divides us. Being with Jesus means we’re part of a diverse community that cares, serves, and loves each other. That’s the focus of this confusing text. Life with Jesus isn’t supposed to be like life anywhere else. Life with Jesus is full of difference; full of possibilities; and full of unity.

So if we keep that in our back pocket and read through this passage again, the details are still strange but maybe not as weird as they were before. The author is speaking to the people in the Ephesian community who followed Jesus but who didn’t grow up Jewish. As non-Jews, they’re called Gentiles. And it’s odd for Gentiles to believe in a messiah who was (and is) Jewish. But Jesus’ ministry always crossed cultural, religious, and national borders. The people who heard about him, who met him in marketplaces, at water wells, and on mountaintops were Samaritans, syrophoenicians, Israelites, Galileans, men, women, children, the sick, the healthy, the faithful, the non-believer, the Jewish person, and the Gentile. Jesus crossed the borders we built to keep ourselves apart. And it wasn’t long before his followers did the same. Paul, in his travels, preached in synagogues but he also went to the marketplaces. And I think his faith communities grew the most when he invited Gentiles to put aside their worship of many gods and instead discover the Jesus that lived, and died, and lives again for them. This kind of border crossing is never easy. And there were debates over how to bridge the Gentile and Jewish difference. Arguments arose over what kind of behaviors, what kind of actions, and even what kind of eating habits determined whether someone was part of the right group or not. The author of Ephesians is looking at the Gentiles inside that faith community and affirming that they are beloved children of God. In Christ, the walls, borders, and barriers separating the members of God’s publicly declared holy family comes down. And in the rush to make this point clear, the enthusiastic author of Ephesians emphasized this unity by saying something really weird. They wrote that Jesus “has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of two…”

Now, that’s weird because if we know our Bible, we know that Jesus isn’t really described elsewhere as the One who abolished the Jewish law: the commandments, the ordinances, the rules, and the way of life that connects God’s original covenanted people to God. Jesus, in his own words, described himself as fulfilling the law and Paul, in the letter to the Romans, promised that he will keep following the law while he follows Jesus Christ. So how can the author of Ephesians make this claim? How can they write as if Jesus himself wanted to abolish the Jewishness of his own identity?

When we take “fulfillment” and merge it with “abolished,” then the unity described in today's passage isn’t really unity. Because abolishing assumes that one identity and one way of life will replace all others. And that’s dangerous because we tend to take the additional identity we gain in Christ and assume that turns all our identities, our language, faith, culture, race, and background and converts it into an identity package that is more pure, holy, and Godly than all others. The true followers of Jesus, then, are required to look, act, and speak in exactly one way. And if someone can’t match that holy package, then they’re on the outside with no hope of ever being part of whatever’s right. This package we create always becomes an idol that ends up replacing Christ. And it’s this kind of idol that has led to programs, violence, and genocide directed towards the Jewish people, and others, for centuries. This same idol still shows up whenever someone complains that a dominant culture is being diluted and replaced by something that seems sub-human and different. When Jesus is described as someone who removed his own Jewish identity, then this passage from Ephesians stops being about unity and instead becomes a tool for disunity, violence, and suffering.

So it’s at this point, when we have a verse from scripture that is contradicted by other verses, that we have to make some choices. We can ignore this verse and act like it’s not really there. But it is there so we have to engage it. We can try to explain the problem away by claiming that this verse isn’t contradicted by other verses but that’s not helpful either. The Bible is full of verses that we will struggle with and God wants those verses to be there. We can choose to acknowledge that this problematic verse exists but, at the same time, let other verses, including Jesus’ own words, be the ones we choose to follow. We can also try to put this verse into context, noticing that the author is focused on Gentiles, on non-Jews, and we can give the author a pass for their over exuberant attempt at comforting the anxiety that existed in their community. Or we can do a combination of all of those thing while still clinging to the main idea: that in Christ, we are one but that doesn’t mean that our differences aren’t real. Diversity is hard. And being a community where difference exists is difficult because it’s easy to focus only on what divides us. We can spend all our energy alienating those who don’t look like us, who don’t speak like us, who don’t dress like us, and who don’t think like us. It’s easy to focus on where we are different because it’s harder to remember what unites us, what gathers us, and what brings us together. And the One who does that is Jesus Christ. We who once were far off and also who were near, we have been united by the blood of Christ. Through his calling, through the gift of faith, and through the joy of baptism - we are here to love and serve and care for each other because all of us, whether Christian since birth or brand new to the faith; all of us are needed to make Christ’s church the church God wants it to be. Differences will always be a part of this faith community. But as long as we cling to Jesus, we will be built into a community that is always loving, always faithful, and always new.

 

Amen.

 



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