Questions and Reflections

Saints: You Are Alive [Manuscript]

When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

John 11:32-44

Pastor Marc's sermon for All Saints' Sunday (November 4, 2018) on John 11:32-44. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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There are a few habits I no longer do that I miss. As a kid, my brother and I would wait until the energy in the air was just right and then we’d setup a board game on our bedroom floor, one that would take us days to complete. Later, in college, there was this one spot, next to the bookstore, that overlooked a small creek. Every time I walked past it, I would stop - letting the sound of the flowing water connect me to a God I did not acknowledge but One who was with me all the same. And for a while, I looked forward to turning on my computer each week, visiting the New York Times’ Style Section, and clicking through a new photo gallery showcasing what Bill Cunningham had seen and photographed. Bill Cunningham was an iconic photographer who you could spot in New York City wearing a bright blue French worker’s jacket and riding a single speed bicycle. A hat designer by trade, Bill knew fashion and he spent decades reporting on what new trends were bubbling up across the world. But what made him unique was the time he spent on the street, trying to find that new and interesting thing that people actually wore. He didn’t spend much time looking at the fancy dresses that an actress might wear on the red carpet for an awards show. Bill was more interested in the shoe or the bag or the silhouette that people wore when they went out. He was, in essence, interested in style - which is not the same as fashion. In Bill Cunningham’s memoir, Hilton Als writes in it’s preface that style is “a certain faith and pride in one’s public persona - ‘the face that I face the world with,’” to quote Tennessee William’s Sweet Bird of Youth. Style is how we showcase “the existential mess and brights spots called [our] ‘I’” - and Bill wanted to discover “what you had made of yourself.” What made his photospreads awesome wasn’t only the creative people he photographed who had a sense of style that I could never copy or dreamup. What you could see in his photographs was his sheer joy at discovering you. Bill was a creative person with an incredible talent yet he spent all his energy looking at and engaging with other people. He could have focused only on himself or used the people around him to create whatever narrative about the world he wanted to tell. Instead, he used his gifts to point forward, to point to the people around him, because the people around us, I think, are needed so that we can live our life in Christ more fully.

Today’s reading from the gospel according to John ends in an odd spot. Lazarus, who was dead, is now alive. I think we usually imagine this scene as being one where Lazarus walked out of the tomb under his own power. He was sick, he died, Jesus rose him from the dead, and Lazarus left the tomb in better shape than when he first entered it. But when we pay attention to the text, our vision of this scene changes. His walk couldn’t have included his normal strides with one foot in front of the other because his feet were tied together. The best he could do as he exited the tomb was probably shuffle his feet forward. And that shuffle was accomplished almost blindly because a piece of cloth covered his head. And since we hear nothing about Lazarus trying to untie his feet or remove the covering on his head, I imagine his hands were bound to him, removing all freedom of movement. Lazarus exited the tomb but he was still constrained by the burial wrapping for it. Jesus’ words, like the ones spoken in the opening chapter of the book of Genesis, have this power to rearrange the cosmos and reorder our expectations of life and death. But that same word, in today’s text, couldn’t remove a piece of cloth from Lazarus’s head or make his walk from the tomb a little easier. It’s possible, I suppose, that a completely wrapped up Lazarus is how Jesus wanted people to verify that Lazarus was once really dead and now was really alive. But if that’s true, once Lazarus stepped out of the tomb and everyone could see who he was, that part of the story should have ended. But it doesn’t. Instead, Jesus leaves Lazarus bound and, while looking at the crowd, he tells all of them to get up - to go to Lazarus - and unbind him. It’s as if this act of God’s resurrection isn’t complete unless those gathered around participate in some way.

Now it’s hard, at first, to imagine how we can do that. Last I checked, very few of us here have ever raised someone from the dead. But we all, I think, have had moments in our life when the people around us have nourished, sustained, or changed our life into something better. We usually don’t define those moments as equal to Jesus rising from the dead. Our small experience of new life feels tiny and inconsequential in comparison. But I bet the people around Lazarus, when told to go and unbind him, thought what they were doing was small and meaningless too. Yet it’s by Jesus’ invitation that we, in whatever way we can, go and do what Jesus did - and that’s give and generate life. Many of us have been given this life - nourishment, housing, knowledge, experience, guidance, love, forgiveness, mercy, and hope - by a long list of mentors, family members, and friends. They, through Jesus, changed us, informed us, and made us better. Some did so in a very intentional ways; others just by being there in our time of need. I bet many of them never realized just how life-giving they were to us. And many of us never realized how life-giving those people were until years later. We will, in a few moments, light candles in memory of those who gave us life. We will place those candles in the sandbox, letting them burn all the way down, because the life they gave us will never be snuffed out. That life is centered, rooted, and grounded in the One who continually, day in and day out, gives us his life - in baptism, in prayer, at the Lord’s table, and in our faith. Jesus’ invitation to the crowd surrounding Lazarus’ tomb was an invitation for all of us to participate with him in the act of giving life. And we can give this life, make it our habit, because we have, through our baptism, been united with Christ’s own eternal life - a life that doesn’t begin only after we die but one that starts right now. Together we are drawn into God’s act of passing on new life by first bearing witness to the many ways life was given to us and those around us. When we see that life, that love, that hope in our neighbor, in our family member, and in the person sitting in the pew next to us, we discover how we can help unbind each other from the hate, evil, violence, and self-centeredness that this world wants to bind us up with. It’s said that “the light that lit Bill [Cunningham] from within...was that of a person who couldn’t believe his good fortune: he was alive.” You, no matter who you are, no matter your doubts, no matter the ways you feel bounded up - you, through Jesus, are alive. You are a vital part of how Jesus is giving, expressing, and sharing His life with the world. And we are invited to work together, to lean on each other, and to trust each other as God resurrects us, this church, and our world by making Jesus’ life and love a habit for all.

 

Amen.

 



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Reflection: Eat It Up

How do we visualize goodness, grace and extravagance without using money? Money might have showed up around 5000 years ago and, by the year 700 BCE (BC), some communities were regularly minting their own coins. The Bible is full of early examples of money. Abraham buys land with money in the book of Genesis but when the Bible talks about his wealth, it points to the number of sheep he has. Solomon gives twenty cities in Ancient Israel to the king of Tyre in exchange for the precious material needed to make the holy Temple. Gold is, by this point, measured (in talents) but only a limited number of people had access to it. There's a chance most people in Ancient Israel rarely saw money. The few coins they collected were probably used to pay certain taxes to religious and political authorities. For the common person, money was around but it wasn't an everyday item. It rarely enticed the imagination of the people and wasn't something they were emotionally invested in.

People might not have cared about money but they did care about wealth. And wealth was something they wanted. Wealth, on one level, was about having enough resources to gain a bit of control over their lives. Instead of a living a life that depended on how good the harvest was every year, wealth allowed a person to survive regardless of the harvest. A wealthy person wasn't only someone who had 120 talents of gold in their house. A wealthy person also had sheep, goats, and storehouses filled with grain. A person with abundant and extravagant resources was able to feed themselves and their family year after year. So when Isaiah 25:6-9 tried to describe what living with God would be like, he wrote about a feast of good food that never ends.

Isaiah's feast, of course, is no normal feast. The drink is fantastic, the food is rich, and we are invited to even gnaw on the bones. That might sound a little excessive if we're vegan but that's sort of the point. What God offers to us is a connection to the source of all life and that connection will be over the top. This connection is also designed to feed and sustain us. Faith isn't abstract. Faith feeds, nourishes, and shows us how much God loves us. And this love, no matter where we are in our life, is abundant, over the top, and delicious. In the moments when we feel separated from God and that faith is meant for other people, Isaiah reminds us that God is always for us. And God's love is extravagant, over the top, and will sustain us through all things.



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Reflection: Prayer in Worship

The Mega-millions lottery jackpot peaked at $1.6 billion dollars this week. I didn't win but I, and maybe you, had fun dreaming about what we'd do if we won. We planned to help friends, pay down debts, and start a hundred new non-profits to help feed the world. The big jackpot allowed me to spend the week quoting my dad ("you can't win if you play") and reminding everyone, if they win, to tithe. Lotteries are big business in the United States. In 2016, they generated over $72 billion in ticket sales. States used the money to pay for programs or, in the case of New Jersey, to help pay their state pension problems. The lotteries are a form of gambling even if the wager feels pretty small. And like all gambling, it can be a form of personal entertainment or grow into something destructive. Winning the lottery shouldn't be our retirement plan but, for some, the lottery might feel like their only hope for a better future. A lotto ticket, in some ways, is like a prayer. 

We sometimes believe prayer is like winning the lottery. Our words become our ticket to get God to work on our behalf. It's a plea to God to just do something. But our prayer during worship is more than an attempt to win this "divine" lottery. Prayer is, first and foremost, rooted in our relationship with Jesus Christ. When we pray for the church, we ask God to make the Christian community as life-giving as Jesus' own body is to us. When we pray for the earth, we ask God to renew the goodness that's around us. When we pray for each other, we want people close to us to be made whole. And when we pray for our elected officials and other leaders, we're not asking for their will to be done. We are asking, instead, for God to rekindle their commitment to justice, humility, and mercy. God already wants all these things. God is actively working on these things. And our prayers, spoken and unspoken, are already heard. But when we name these prayers out loud, we also remind ourselves of what the Christian life is all about. Our prayers for healing remind us of our call to heal. Our prayers for the earth are a reminder that we, as stewards, can take care of our environment. Our prayers for the church invite us to share our faith in Jesus. And our prayers for our leaders are a reminder of the ways we all promise to commit ourselves to love, honor, and help one another. 

Jesus knows that prayer can be hard. There are days when we don't want to pray and there are moments when we feel as if we can't. Jesus wants us to pray for those it's easy to pray for and to pray for those we don't want to pray for. And if we can't, that's okay. That's why we pray, in worship, together. Trust that the people next to you will pray the prayers you can't. And make sure you're here to pray the prayers that are hard for them. Our prayers are not about trying to win the lottery. Our prayers are about trying to live into the love Jesus already gave us. And unlike our really low chance at winning the lottery, prayer does more than just connect us with God. Prayer also repairs, renews, and revives our souls. 



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Conscious: Holding Onto God When We Can't [Manuscript]

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.​

Mark 10:46-52

Pastor Marc's sermon for Reformation Sunday (23rd Sunday after Pentecost) (October 28, 2018) on Mark 10:46-52. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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Conscious and conscience are two words I always confuse when writing or speaking. The first one is used when we’re awake, able to respond to our surroundings. A patient in the hospital, when alert and able to respond to our questions, is described as being conscious. Conscience, however, is the word we use to describe the voice or feeling inside us that guides our actions. When we’re counting our calories and then eat an entire plate of cookies - we develop a guilty conscience. These words, conscious and conscience, are different but I’m always mixing them up. In fact, I mixed them up for the title of today’s sermon. Earlier this week, as I pondered the readings for today and the fact that it’s Reformation Sunday, I was drawn to Martin Luther’s use of the word “conscience.” But when I sent the title to Doris, our parish administrator, for inclusion in the bulletin, I unconsciously wrote “conscious.” I didn’t realize it until after the bulletins were printed. But maybe that’s okay. Because, in light of today’s reading from the gospel according to Mark and after yesterday’s brutal violence at a Pittsburgh synagogue, Luther’s understanding of conscience helps us become more conscious to our faith, to our calling, and to the ways we can love the world.

So I want us to begin by imagining it’s the year 1521 and we’re in a large, dark room, illuminated by burning torches. At one end of the room sits the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles the Fifth, who is 21 years old, wearing a large flowing robe, and has a very well defined chin. To his left and to his right are imperial advisors and officials representing the Roman Catholic Church. And in front of them is a thin, pale monk / university professor and a pile of his books. For the past 4 years, Martin Luther’s writing went viral, with the printing press being the new technology that spread his words all over Europe. The religious and political unity of the Empire - one that included Mexico, Spain, Germany, and Northern Italy was being tested. Those in power wanted Luther to recant, to turn his back on the words he had written. He had one day to prepare his response. And in a society where “concord, peace, and brotherhood [were] among its highest values,” what Luther said next had the potential to undo the cultural assumptions and expectations that held his society together. Luther started his response by saying he was merely “a man accustomed not to courts but to the cells of monks.” Yet his words were full of confidence. He refused to recant and he ended his speech with a paragraph that has become, for Lutherans, a sort of calling card of who we are. Standing before the most powerful political, military, and religious authorities in Western Europe, Luther said, “unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures by clear reason - for I do not trust either in the Pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves - I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.” And in words that were either not recorded on the official transcript or were merely added in the days following, Luther ended with, “I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me. Amen.”

It’s… a pretty amazing speech. And on youtube right now, there’s an unrealistically good looking Luther re-enacting this historic scene in dramatic detail. On this Reformation Sunday, when we celebrate our Lutheran identity while pointing to the Spirit’s continuing work of reforming, changing, and inspiring the church, there are few dramatic moments in Luther’s life that can inspire like this one. Most Americans are drawn to this moment because it suggests that Luther, in this act of resistance, was embracing his freedom, supporting the right of all individuals to decide their faith for themselves. Conscience, to us, is about finding that authentic voice inside us that connects us to who we want to be. Our conscience, on one level, is centered on words and thoughts. And that’s because our understanding of conscience is a modern byproduct of psychology and psychoanalysis. We don’t use the word conscience like Luther did. Luther wasn’t saying that his thoughts or his inner voice were captive to the word of God. Instead, for Luther, the conscience was, in the words of Lyndal Roper, “an individual’s internal knowledge of the objective meaning of God’s Word.” Now that sounds a bit abstract but that’s because it describes what’s almost indescribable - the part of us that knows and trusts God. When we talk about our faith with others, it’s easier when we can point to a belief or a writing or a thought or an opinion that says this is why we believe. It’s harder, though, to describe what keeps us with Christ when our world is torn in two. A loss, a tragedy, or an assault on humanity that forces us to ask where was God: during those moments, it’s not our thoughts or opinions that can keep us close to God. Rather, it’s Christ, who pours himself into us with love, grace, and mercy, that holds us when we can’t hold God. And for Luther, that’s conscience. And it’s not abstract. It’s connected to our emotions, our feelings, and our whole being. It can be sad, and weak, and even courageous. Our conscience can make us feel burdened but it can also help us change the world. When Luther said his conscience was captive to the Word of God, he “knew” with his whole-self - with every emotion, every thought, and every fabric of his being, what God’s Word was “and he [couldn’t] deny it.

Luther, like Bartimaeus, didn’t think his way to Christ. No article or class or study guide provided him the answers to the life he was looking for. Instead, both had an experience of Jesus that changed their world. Bartimaeus, after meeting Jesus outside the city of Jericho, didn’t go off on his own way. Instead, he couldn’t help but follow Jesus. And Luther, once he realized that Jesus, who claimed him in his baptism, would never let him go - he couldn’t help but share with others the Christ he knew. Mercy, hope, and love was at the heart of their experiences. And those experiences fed their faith. Faith isn’t about saying the right prayer, following the right rituals, donating the right amount of money to the church, or doing everything perfect. Faith is about trusting that Jesus will keep his promises and that the old rules of our life are now broken. We are no longer trying to get our beliefs right so that we can keep God on our side. Instead, we get to live our lives knowing that since we’re with Jesus, our world has changed. Through the gift of faith, the gift of Scripture, the gift of worship, prayer, and the Lord’s own table - we are given the tools we need to see the world in a new way. It’s our conscience, when focused on Christ alone, that lets us raise our consciousness so that we can love the world as much as Christ loves us. We get to imagine a world where religious bigotry is replaced with understanding. We get to imagine a world where no synagogue, Hebrew religious school, or Jewish Community Center has to worry about antisemitic or white supremacy acts directed against it. We get to imagine a world where Christianity’s history of antisemitism and Luther’s own antisemitic writings are rightly condemned, repented of, and tossed out. We get to imagine a world where love wins. And, because of Jesus, we do everything we can to live into that kind of world because, in our baptism, in our faith, and through our conscience, Christ helps us stand firm and his way of hope, justice, and love is something we can do.

 

Amen.

 



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Listen! The life of isn't about faith being an insider. It's about listening. [MANUSCRIPT]

They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles;they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John.So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Mark 10:32-45

Pastor Marc's sermon for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost (October 21, 2018) on Mark 10:32-45. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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On Friday, I rolled into Bergen Community College wearing my standard Sunday attire - black shirt, white collar, gray slacks, and pointed shoes. I parked my car, got lost, had to get back into my car to find the right parking lot, parked again, and eventually found my way to the Moses Center. I checked in with the two young congressional staffers at the front desk and walked into a large conference room. I and a bunch of other clergy from Bergen County were invited to have a conversation with Representative Josh Gottheimer at his 2nd Faith Leaders Breakfast. In that room were clergy and religious leaders from the many different faiths that call the 5th Federal district of New Jersey home. There were rabbis, imans, jathedar (jat-hey-daar), priests, pastors, deacons, heads of benevolence organizations, Sikhs, Jews, Muslims, Christians, Asian-Americans, Arab-Americans, Indian-Americans, Mexican-Americans, White-Americans, African-Americans, immigrants, and native born citizens eating store bought bagels and drinking hot Dunkin Donut coffee while sitting around some large tables. Rep. Gottheimer wanted each of us to share what our communities were currently seeing and experiencing. So that’s what we did. We talked. The issues we covered included refugees, recent hate crimes, immigration, family separation, health care, opioids, the expansion of divisive political rhetoric, and the unaffordability of Bergen county for poor families, recent retirees, and senior citizens. We weren’t there to workshop ideas or find solutions to the problems affecting our communities. Instead, it was a moment to share our story and discover that our different faith communities were experiencing similar issues. We were there to listen and to be listened to.

Now, listening is how community is formed. When we see that we are being heard, we learn to trust one another. We need the people around us to accept the totality of what makes us who we are - our good and our bad. And if they can’t accept that, then we build barriers to keep ourselves apart. Those barriers can, sometimes, keep us safe. But when they are misapplied, these self-generated borders diminish the humanity of the people around us. The listening that builds connection and community involves more than just hearing words. It requires reading body language, understanding histories, and discovering that our assumptions and experiences do not always apply to everyone else. We have to admit the ways we’ve failed to listen and we have to undo the walls that stop us from listening to those around us. Listening is one of the hardest skills our lives require. And it’s a skill that the disciples, in the gospel according to Mark, rarely display.

It’s probably safe to say that James and John were not really listening to what Jesus had to say today. We are still in the long beginning of Jesus’ climatic journey to the Cross and Jesus has, over and over again, tried to tell his innermost circle the truth about what’s going to happen. He is not, as the disciples hoped, going to initiate a political kingdom that would, through power and violence, establish a new Empire that would rival Rome’s. Jesus’ journey was going to be different. So on 3 separate occasions, Jesus shared that he was going to the Cross. And on those 3 separate occasions, the disciples failed to listen to him. At first, Peter tried to rebuke Jesus but Jesus told him to deny himself and take up his cross. Again, Jesus told them about the Cross but the disciples were too afraid to ask Jesus what he meant. Instead, they argued about which one of them was the greatest. So Jesus pulled them aside, brought the most vulnerable person in his cultural context into their community, and told the disciples to welcome them. And now, after this 3rd statement about what will happen in Jerusalem, James and John decide to interrupt Jesus. They want to be placed on Jesus’ right and on his left when Jesus finally comes into his glory. It’s a bit of an odd request since we know how Jesus’ story turned out. In his moment of glory, two crucified criminals will be on his left and on his right. James and John haven’t really listen to what Jesus has been saying. They saw his miracles, his casting out of demons, and his feeding of pretty much everyone - and these two want to stay close to that. But they articulated their request in a way that actually excluded everyone else. In Jesus’ day, power, prestige, and being the ultimate insider was expressed symbolically by saying what was on your right and left. James and John were not only asking to be close to Jesus but they were, at the same time, filling that space only with themselves. Today’s story doesn’t tell us exactly why they wanted that. James and John do not ask for any special power or secret knowledge or anything that would make them into some-kind of “super” follower of Jesus. But it’s possible that what they wanted was to just be “in.” They wanted Jesus to make them part of the in-crowd - the top two disciples at the popular table in Jesus’ lunchroom. This request was maybe not only about seeking power but more about trying to feel like they truly belong. James and John, after following Jesus all over Galilee and Judea, struggled to understand Jesus’ words because those words seemed centered on separation and loss. Death, we believe, is the way we finally lose each other. And that fear encouraged James and John to do whatever they could to keep Jesus by their side.

It’s normal, I think, to worry about losing Jesus. We carry with us certain expectations and assumptions about what a good faith life is supposed to look like. If we believe the right things, handle ourselves in the correct fashion, and make sure to dot our i’s and cross all our t’s - then our faith will always be secure and our spot in “the good life” will be permanently set. This kind of faith is usually not too hard on us, doesn’t really ask much of us, and is supposed to make everything completely manageable. But then real life happens. And we discover that the life we thought our faith secured is a life that doesn’t really exist. We might find ourselves wondering if Jesus left us or we might decide that since nothing is going right, we’re going to leave Jesus. We assume that the Kingdom of God doesn’t actually include us. We stop listening and, in that moment, forget that Jesus is already listening to us. In today’s reading, Jesus used a standard technique to listen: he took James and John’s request, repeated it back to them, and turned it into a question. They hoped to grab onto Jesus by becoming the ultimate insiders but didn’t realize that Jesus already had a hold on them. Every experience you’ve had, every question you’ve asked, every moment when you forgot about God and every time you thought God forgot about you - Jesus did more than just hear you in all those moments; he listened to you. He saw you. And even when you didn’t love yourself, he loved you. Following Jesus isn’t about trying to be the ultimate faith-based insider. Following Jesus is about trusting that he is for you and that he is with you. Our life of faith isn’t supposed to match our expectations. Instead, our faith knows that listening to God is intimately connected to our being able to listen to each other and to our neighbors. Our sense of belonging grows when we step away from the popular table and take a seat at the bigger, more inclusive one, say in a large conference room or at the table set by our Lord. This life of faith, this listening to God and to each other, is how we, together, live into God’s kingdom. And it’s how we finally believe and trust that we are loved.

 

Amen.

 



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Reflection: Buried with the

When my great-uncle died, I discovered my mom's family has a family graveyard plot. It's located in the middle of an old graveyard covered in tombs, tombstones, statues and monuments. The family plot surprised me because a 12 foot obelisk was erected on it. The obelisk is covered and is overflowing with names to the point where the last few were added on a separate stone so that they can lean against it. Compared to the tombstones around it, this monument is actually pretty modest. But compared to today, it's a little over the top. Large stones can be a sign of a family's wealth and status even if they didn't have much wealth or status. There's no history in my family of any incredible wealth but that tombstone tells a different story. It's safe to say that this family plot is located in the "rich" part of that old cemetery. In our context, that is seen as a good thing. But as we see in our first reading, Isaiah 53:4-12 being buried with the rich is a complicated metaphor that we need to unwrap.

This reading from Isaiah is one of the texts described as "The Suffering Servant." The Suffering Servant was the name given to parts of Isaiah 52-53 in the 19th century. They describe a "servant" who is caught in a cycle of humiliation and exaltation. For our Jewish friends, the servant is typically identified as Israel (or an unnamed one at work in ancient Israel). For Christians, we identify the Suffering Servant as Jesus. In Jesus' time, Isaiah 52-53 was not considered a prophetic text describing the Messiah (the one who would restore Israel's power and glory). But once Jesus died and rose from the dead, early Christians saw these texts as one that described Jesus' life and ministry. The Jewish and Christian interpretation of these texts are different but "both Jews and Christians have seen in their own history, in quite particular ways, the capacity and willingness of . . . God to do something new through suffering" (Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66, page 144.) The Suffering Servant texts are poems inviting us to discover the God who is at work in our world. Death, suffering, and vulnerability are not dead ends. We are, through our baptism, living into the new future God is bringing about.


The Suffering Servant is utterly rejected and that rejection continues from life into death. His burial among the rich is a negative thing. The people writing these words viewed the rich as those who took advantage of others. The Suffering Servant "is grouped with despised ones whom the world thinks have succeeded" (page 147). The Suffering Servant is a nobody who is the only one who can break the cycle of violence that exists in our world. But this violence – exploitation, hatred, anger, physical and mental assaults – can't be broken by force. Violence, according to scripture, only begets more violence. Instead, the Servant, must break this violence by embracing what makes them vulnerable. It's through weakness that God's power is made known. Your hurt or weakness isn't the limit of who you are. God knows you, including what makes you vulnerable, and loves you fully. We don't know exactly how God's power will be made real through us. But I trust that we'll finally see God more clearly when we embrace what we try to run away from: our vulnerability. Then God is inviting us to change.



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God Talk: the Pastor's Message for the November 2018 Messenger

When was the last time you talked God? Jonathan Merritt, a contributing writer to The Atlantic, recently wrote an article for The New York Times (based on his new book Learning to Speak God from Scratch) about the decline of our spiritual vocabulary. He sponsored a survey of 1,000 American adults to see how we talk about our faith, spirituality and God. Here’s a bit of what he found: This study revealed that most Americans — more than three-quarters, actually — do not often have spiritual or religious conversations....More than one- fifth of respondents admit they have not had a spiritual conversation at all in the past year. Six in 10 say they had a spiritual conversation only on rare occasions — either “once or twice” (29 percent) or “several times” (29 percent) in the past year. A paltry 7 percent of Americans say they talk about spiritual matters regularly . . . But here’s the real shocker: Practicing Christians who attend church regularly aren’t faring much better. A mere 13 percent had a spiritual conversation around once a week.

Why are we so afraid to talk about God? There are a lot of different reasons. For some, these conversations create tension or arguments. They sometimes feel "too political." Others don't want to appear religious, sound weird or seem like "that person" who is trying to get you to convert. We might feel as if we don't know enough to share our faith or feel as if talking about our faith is someone else's job. But it isn't. As a beloved member of the body of Christ, you have been called to love God and love your neighbor.

One way we love our neighbor is by sharing what's important to us. If your faith makes a difference in your life, then we should offer that to our friends and family. You don't need a theology degree to share Jesus. All you need to do is share your story. You might not believe that's enough when it comes to talking about God but it is. And Jesus believes you can do it.

One way to help us talk about God is to start noticing God at work in the world around us. On the following page, I've shared a God bingo-card created by Rev. Sarah Taylor. Take a look at where God is at work in the world - and let us know how you feel it out!

See you in church,

Pastor Marc



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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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