Questions and Reflections

March 2015

A reflection on Palms and Passions

Today's imagery is striking. We start our worship at the entrance of the church, gathering together with palms and listening to the story of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem. We join the crowd, waving our palm branches in the air, and imagining Jesus entering the city like a king. He's here to join the countless other visitors celebrating Passover in God's city. There's joy here! 

But very soon, after we move into the sanctuary, the atmosphere begins to change. The gospel reading is all about Jesus' time on the cross. He dies and is buried. The meal we share together in Holy Communion is a reminder of Jesus' last meal with his disciples. We move quickly from a parade of joy to an end of incredible sadness. 

Today is a day when our Christian story brings to light the paradox of our faith. How can God's victory be seen in the death of Jesus? How can the savior of the world save us by dying like a common criminal? How can the Cross, a Roman symbol for death, be our symbol for life? Where is God's love when God's Son is hanging on a Cross? 

Palm Sunday is the start of Holy Week. It is a time for living with the mystery that is at the heart of what we believe. We walk with the God who becomes a person, living as we do and showing us how we are to live. We walk with this Jesus who ate meals with the unwanted and who brought good news to those who are suffering. We join the crowds in welcoming his arrival but quickly turning and shouting for his crucifixion. We remember that God loved us too much to let ourselves get in the way of God's mercy. We live lives that constantly turn away from God or forget that God is here. So God does what God always does - God comes after us. God is committed to us, to me, and to you. That's the mystery of Holy Week. That's the paradox of God's love. So let's walk with Jesus this week, knowing that we are his and He is ours. 



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A reflection on Jeremiah 31

Today's First Reading is Jeremiah 31:31-34.

I learned something new this week about Jeremiah 31: this is the only Old Testament passage where the word "new" modifies the word covenant. But what exactly is new about this covenant is disputed. 

The book of Jeremiah is a hard text. Called to proclaim the coming destruction of Jerusalem, Jeremiah's ministry spanned 5 kingships prior to Babylon's take over of Jerusalem. Jeremiah's traditionally known as the author of Lamentations, a book full of sadness due to the loss of the city but hopeful that the community will survive. Jeremiah most likely spent the last years of his life in Egypt, away from those in Babylon but still trying to turn the people back to God. 

This first reading is about restoration. The new covenant God will bring is entirely earthy. Jerusalem will be rebuilt and the land of Israel will be repopulated. Throughout the Old Testament, land (and the promise of the land) is central to what God is doing. Restoration always has a very earthy feel. God isn't in the business of drawing the Chosen people away from the earth; God is busy restoring people to it. 

And the center of this restoration is grounded in God's promises. This new covenant isn't replacing the prior ones that we've heard this Lent (the promise to not destroy the world with a flood, the promise of the Ten Commandments, etc). This new covenant is fulfilling the eternal promises of God. God promises to walk with God's people, to get into the earthy lives we live, and help us grow into the people we are called to be. 

At the Lord's table, we hear words of a new covenant. When we share in Jesus' body and blood, we're reminded that God is active in our lives, nourishing us physically and spirituality, so that God's eternal promise is manifested in our lives. God's new covenant is rooted in forgiveness. Jeremiah vision of what the future will hold is still be actualized now. We're not there yet. But with God's love, grace, and Jesus' presence, we are transformed, reflecting tomorrow's future in our lives today. 



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I'm going to be fooled on April 1st

Pastor's Message in April's The Messenger.

And this is a little embarrassing. I mean, I know April 1st is coming. Pranks are going to happen. And, every year, someone gets me. Like clockwork, a fake news story, false press release, or a post on Facebook hooks me and I fall for it. I immediately send messages to my family, pointing out the amazing things I just saw, and every one write back: "Do you know what day it is?" 

The devotional book we're using this Lent, Grace & Peace, shares Ephesians 3:7-8 on April 1: "Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God's grace that was given me by the working of his power. Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ." As Lent ends and we walk together through the final three days before Easter, we're reminded of these boundless riches. On April 2nd, Maundy Thursday, we share in the Communion and wash feet, participating in Jesus' continuing acts of service and love for the sake of our relationship with each other and with God. On April 3rd, we stand at the foot of the Cross, living in the paradox that a dying savior destroys death. And, on Easter morning, we wake up to a new day knowing that, through Christ, we are continually being raised up by God to love and become who God calls us to be. 

The end of Lent and the beginning of Easter carries a sense of foolishness and mystery. There's little about the Cross that feels like victory. Jesus, dying to reconcile us to God, doesn't match our experiences of power and strength. Death and weakness is something we run away from. Yet, through death and weakness, God brings about love and hope. This is a season of the unexpected. God's work is unexpected. Jesus' experience is unexpected. And God's boundless love for us and the world is unexpected too. But God's love is just what God does. God continues to go out, engaging us in our lives and in our world, giving grace and faith so that we can love just as God loves. We're changed because Jesus does something foolish in our eyes. We're loved because God felt we were worth dying for. Each day is God's day. We awake, renewed and cared for by this foolish God who holds us close, pouring love, grace, and mercy into us, and asking: "Do you know what day it is?" 

See you in church!

Pastor Marc



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A reflection on Numbers

 

So does God send snakes to punish the people for complaining? 

Our title for this book, "Numbers," comes from a census that is taken at the start of the book (Chapters 1, 3, & 4), but the Hebrew title is a better description on what this book is about. The book is bemidbar, "In the Wilderness." The story is about Israel's journey from Mt. Sinai to the Promise Land, and that's where this bronze serpent appears, in the middle of the wilderness. 

The people are impatient and cranky. They're not sure if they can trust  that God knows what God is doing. They complain about having no food (even though there is plenty of 'manna' available) and that the food they have is awful. And after the complaint comes snakes. The text doesn't explicitly say that God sends the snakes because of their complaining but the people believe as much. They ask Moses to bring their prayer and sorrow to God. Moses does and God responds in a very odd way. Rather than taking the snakes away, Moses is instructed to make a bronze serpent that, when looked at, will heal and keep them safe. The snakes are in the grass and the threat of their attack is all around. Yet, by looking at an image of their problems, the people will live. 

We tend to not see God as dangerous but, in our text and throughout Scripture, God is very dangerous indeed. God is completely free to do what God wants. And, in that freedom, God is dangerous. A God that we have figured out is a God that is domesticated, comfortable, and controllable. But that isn't a God who will bring people out of slavery, lead people through the wilderness, and drag people, kicking and screaming, into the promised land. A dangerous God is a God who moves and loves. A dangerous God is willing to send Jesus into the world to die on a Cross. A dangerous God is a God who brings salvation, love, and mercy in unexpected ways. The serpents in our lives, swirling at our feet and in our souls, are never far from us. But God is with us, standing in the middle of our serpents, and, in a completely free and dangerous way, offering us a way to new life. 



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A Reflection on Exodus 20:1-17: The Ten Commandments

A few months ago, I brought this text to our Confirmands, asking them what they think when they hear the word "commandment." And they said what is usually said: commandments sound a lot like laws or rules. The Ten Commandments sound like a short list of can'ts. Now we can agree that these can'ts are pretty solid and are actions we shouldn't take. But by seeing the commandments as can'ts, we lose sight of God's "can." God feels like a god who cares only about rules and maybe keeping a detailed record of our behavior on some giant spreadsheet, adding up our failures and mistakes. A God who is only about can'ts is going to be a God that keeps us from doing anything because we're afraid of what rule we might be breaking. 

But I believe that verse 2 is really the point of the Ten Commandments. God reminds Moses and the people of Israel that God brought them out of Egypt, freeing them from slavery. Their prior existence was constrained. They were the property of others, with no opportunities to live in free and full relationships with each other and with God. God is reminding the people of Israel that they're now starting on a new chapter in their lives. No longer are they people held captive by others; they are now embarking on a new journey of being God's people. They're building from scratch a new community and a new life. God isn't giving the people of Israel rules just to tell them what they're not to do. God is giving these commandments to the people of Israel to tell us this is how you live a free life. These commandments are about living in community with others. Their prior lives were lives that were limited. Now, opportunities abound. God is calling them into a new community knowing that their lives will be full when they are helping others thrive.

Jesus famously summed up the commandments in this way: they're about loving God and loving our neighbors. Jesus didn't see the commandments as can’ts; he saw them as what they bring forth—love. Jesus knew that when his friends, family, and neighbors thrived, he himself thrived as well. The commandments are an invitation to help us find ways to help our neighbors thrive because it's through our relation with each other that God's love is seen, felt, and made known. 



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A Reflection on Genesis 17:1-7,15-16: Abraham and Sarah

Our first reading continues our look at God's covenants. Last week, we saw the covenant God made with Noah and all creation. Today, we witness the covenant God makes with Abram and Sarai. Plucked by God from their native land in what is now Iraq, Abram and Sarai made their home in the land around Israel. After faithfully living where God sent them, Abram and Sarai again meet with God. And here, God makes a covenant not only with Abram and Sarai but with their descendants. God's promises aren't limited in scope. They carry with them this timeless and eternal quality that transcends our very individual, and limited, experience of history. 

The covenant we see today also expands on what I'm calling God's invitation. The covenant God made after Noah's Flood is a promise that God will never destroy the earth again. God, in a sense, limits God's ability to respond to injustice. God will have to handle our acts of injustice and sin in a new way. And one way God does this is through expanding our part of that handling of injustice by expanding our sense of relationships. The covenant God establishes with Abram and Sarai is giant. Like an exponential explosion, each generation creates an ever-growing number of relationships. Not only are more and more people created but the sheer number of relationships formed by these people also grows. God's covenant impacts not only people but the relationships people form through conversation, communication, and interaction. The wideness of God's promise impacts even our most mundane interactions with each other. 

Last Sunday, the students in Confirmation Class wanted to clarify who exactly do we mean when we say "neighbor?" Are we really only thinking about the people immediately next door to where we live or just the people sitting next to us in the pews? The scope of God's covenant with Abram and Sarai shows that our neighbors are numerous. God doesn't only care about a few of our relationships; God cares about all of them. It's through relationships that God deals with the problem of our sin, including Jesus' relationship with us through the Cross.   



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Ask Pastor Marc: The Apostles' Creed, the Two Criminals, and Paradise

Two folks at CLC recently asked about "the good thief" in Luke 23:39-43. Jesus, on the cross, is surrounded by two crucified criminals (or thieves). One joins with the Roman soldiers, mocking Jesus. The good thief does the opposite. He recognizes Jesus' innocence and asks for Jesus to remember him when "you come into your kingdom." Jesus tells this criminal that, today, he will join Jesus in Paradise. 

But did Jesus really mean "today?" And how does that work when we assert in the Apostles' Creed that Jesus will return "to judge the living and the dead?" Did the thief go to heaven or is he somewhere else, waiting to be judged? And hidden under this question is another one: when we die, do we go to heaven right away or will we wait for some judgment in the future?

One way to think about this conversation between Luke and the Creed is about the experience of time. We tend to experience time in a very linear way. Friday is followed by Saturday, our 20th year is followed by our 21st, and grade 11 is followed by grade 12. Much of our lives follow a step-by-step process and we experience time in that way. We live a linear experience of history.

The episode with the good thief expresses is an event caught in history. Jesus and the thief are at the end of their lives. This conversation is the last one that Jesus will have with another person before his resurrection. The good thief expresses a sudden understanding that Jesus is innocent and that he has a kingdom in heaven. He asks to be remembered by this king when Jesus dies and Jesus's promises even more. Jesus promises this thief a relationship with Jesus in the fullest expression of heaven that there can possibly be: complete communion with God forever. The Creed also asserts this experience of time for Jesus is described as returning, in the future, to cast some final judgment, and unite earth and heaven forever. 

So we can see that Luke knows that we live lives caught in linear history. But he also asserts that God doesn't because, for Luke, everything after Jesus' death is a unified and timeless event. It's important to know that Acts is part 2 of the Luke story as was written by the same author. We see in both texts Jesus ascending multiple times and he's continually interacting with the apostles' at different places at almost the exact same time. Jesus and God are not bounded by time or our experiences of time. We are still living life in a linear way but God and Jesus are not. Jesus, instead, is interrupting our linear experience of time by proclaiming promises that invert our step-by-step experience of life. When we are claimed in our baptism, God isn't waiting for us to take a few steps before claiming us as God's own. No, God interrupts and intervenes immediately and asserts God's love and grace for us. God's grace isn't something we work for; it's something that is given. And this grace, and love, is timeless. 

I believe the Creed asserts this as well. Although we can read that line about future judgment in a linear way, I hear a promise for today. Like Luke, we're in the time after Jesus' death. We're in this wild time where Jesus' promises, rather than our experiences of time, are absolute. Our life is no longer defined by the steps we take or the ladder we try to take to God. Instead, our life is defined by the promises God makes through Jesus. Jesus told that thief that today, he will experience paradise, because Jesus's journey through the Cross is a victory offered to all. The Creed promises that God is in control. By asserting that Jesus will return, we trust that we are not journeying through our lives alone or in isolation. We are, instead, wrapped up in a journey where God's love and grace will finally win. The Creed isn't contradicting Jesus's words. It is, instead, supporting them. It is confessing that we place our ultimate trust in God through Jesus. What Jesus says, goes. Jesus promised that thief paradise and relationship with him on that literal day. Jesus promises us paradise and relationship today as well. Jesus' authority and mercy is the timeless truth that we are caught up in. The good thief story isn't really about this criminal's sudden change of heart. It is, instead, a story about Jesus' goodness and love. Jesus came to set free the oppressed and he does that for all of us - including that thief. 

_______________________

*The background for this comes from Raymond Brown's wonderful two volume work: The Death of the Messiah. It's a great overview of Jesus' death and a great introduction to a massive amount of scholarly research. I recommend it if you're looking for something really meaty and academic to start your deep journey into the passion narrative of Jesus.  



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From the Pastor: March 2015 Newsletter

We're hearing a lot about the wilderness this Lent. 

On the first Sunday in Lent (February 22), we find Jesus in the wilderness (see Mark 1:12-13). His baptism by John in the Jordan saw the Spirit descend onto him, and that same Spirit pushed him into the uncivilized and undomesticated outdoors. He's been pushed away from cities, people, and the land of Israel. Like the Israelites who spent 40 years in the wilderness after Moses led them out of Egypt, Jesus is now spending 40 days in a place where he is totally dependent on God. 

When was the last time you were in a place totally dependent on God? 

Part of our Lenten journey is recognizing our dependence on God. This isn't always easy to notice. I know I tend to put my dependence in other things or people. When I have a good job, financial security, a happy family, and great health, it’s easy to not notice what I have and instead strive for what I don't. And when things get rough, my sense of dependence turns elsewhere. It's easy to kick God to the curb, throwing ourselves towards who, or what, we believe is in power or control. God can feel so distant or unreachable; we don't even put God into view. 

I invite you this Lent to intentionally examine your dependence on God. Find a place in your home, away from what you need to do, and take a moment to sit with God. Sit with Mark 1:12-13. Pick an area of your life (work, school, family, etc.) and unpack how God matters in it. Get into the details and the nitty-gritty because God is there. God is present. And you matter so much to God; there's nowhere God won't go. 

See you in church! 



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