Questions and Reflections

May 2016

A Reflection on Nehemiah and Worship

Our reading is Nehemiah 8:1-3,5-6,8-10.

Why do we stand up so much in worship? Part of that answer is in our first reading from Nehemiah today. The books Ezra and Nehemiah (which were originally one book before they were split in two) tell the story of Jerusalem after the return from Exile. Cyrus the Great, after destroying the Babylon empire, sends the Israelites back to Jerusalem. The returnees start to rebuild the temple but local politics and infighting stop the project fron continuing. The Temple is eventually rebuilt but Jerusalem is not allowed to become the kingdom it use to be. Nearly 65 years after the first wave of exiles return to Jerusalem, Ezra and another group arrive in Jerusalem. Ezra comes to reform the community, teach the law (the Torah - the first five books of the Bible), and develop the Jewish identity. 

In our reading today, everyone - men and women - gather in Jerusalem. When Ezra opens the book of Moses (the Torah), all the people stand up. Ezra reads the book, from early in the morning through midday, while everyone stood and listened. As Ezra read, the leaders would stop to offer an interpretation of what was heard. This is similar to what we are doing today. We'll read scripture, stand up when a story of Jesus is read, and listen as I (with prayers and help from the Holy Spirit) offer an interpretation of what is heard. 

Ezra, at the end of our text, tells the people to not mourn or weep. At this point in the story, the people are weeping because they've discover how much they haven't followed God's law of love and mercy. But Ezra reminds the people that worship isn't only about focusing on what we've failed to do but is an opportunity to celebrate God. God doesn't let us travel through our life alone. Instead, God offers teachers, the Word, scripture, and even Jesus' body and blood to help us do what God is already doing in the world. Worship is more than just hearing God's stories. Worship is discovering that God is helping us to share God's love out loud.  



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Ask Pastor Marc: How is the date for Easter calculated?

From our June 2016 Newsletter

Did you notice that we celebrated Easter a month before our Jewish friends and neighbors celebrated passover? Several people asked me why that is since so much of the story around Easter (The Lord's Supper, Good Friday, Easter Sunday) take place during the passover celebration. After doing some research, here's what I found:

In 325 AD (or CE), Emperor Constantine of the Roman Empire brought together bishops and church leaders to meet and talk about their differences. One of the issues this First Council of Nicaea debated was the date of Easter. Prior to this council, different churches in different places celebrated Easter on different dates. Many celebrated Easter after Passover and relied on the local Jewish communities to calculate when Passover would take place. But some felt that this calculation wasn't correct. Since the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar (a little more than 354 days long), some calculation and adjustments were needed to help it fit a solar year (1 trip around the sun). This means that calculating Passover was tricky and that the date moves around. Sometimes this caused Passover to take place before the spring equinox (around March 21) and Easter would not fall on a Sunday. This didn't work for other Christians. After debate, the council resolved to calculate Easter on their own and not rely on the Jewish calendar. Not everyone agreed to this (we have sermons from the late 300s attacking the practice) and the actual calculation for Easter wasn't agreed on. It would take several more centuries for this to be sorted out. The church decided that March 21 will be its starting point. The formula is that Easter will be the first Sunday after the Full Moon following March 21 unless that Full Moon falls on a Sunday (in which case Easter would be the following Sunday). 

So why do churches in the West (Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Baptist) usually celebrate Easter on different dates than Eastern churches (Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox)? It's because of the calendar we use. In 46 BC (or BCE), Julius Caesar implemented a new calendar system called the Julian calendar. Each year has 365 days with an extra day added to the calendar every 4 years (leap years). In a Julian calendar, the average year is 365.25 days long. However, scientists know that it takes less than 365.25 days for the earth to travel around the sun (365.24 days). This isn't much but, after centuries, the calendar starts to move away from where the Earth is in its rotation around the Sun. Eventually, the Spring Equinox wasn't in March anymore! So, in 1582, a new calendar was introduced (Gregorian). That's the calendar we're used to and matches how most governments keep dates. But the Eastern churches still use a Julian calendar to calculate their religious festivals. Currently, there's about a 13 day difference between the Gregorian calendar and the Julian. Eastern and Western churches do, sometimes, celebrate Easter on the same day but due to different calendars, Easter is celebrated at different times. 



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A Reflection on Cyrus: a messiah

The First Reading is Ezra 1:1-10.

In the language of the Old Testament, the hebrew word for messiah means "anointed." This is a word we've heard and seen before. When oil is poured over a king in Ancient Israel, they become "the anointed one." When the altar and special holy vessels used in the Temple are consecrated, they are "anointed." Even non-Israelites can be described as a messiah (an anointed one). The only reference to a non-Israelite being named as a messiah or "anointed," is in Isaiah 45:1. God speaks to God's anointed one: Cyrus. And why does God do this? To bring the people of Israel out of exile and back to Jerusalem. 

Our first reading today is Cyrus' decree to his people to send the exiles from Jerusalem back home. After Babylon destroyed Jerusalem in 586, the Persians destroyed Babylon. Cyrus spent his time undoing what the Babylonians did. He allowed different religious and ethnic groups to return to their homelands and worship as they chose, as long as they didn't rebel against their Persian overlords. But in regards to the Israelites, Cyrus does not act out on his own. God stirs up Cyrus, telling him to send the Israelites home to rebuild the city and the temple. Through God's dynamic word and Spirit, the Israelites are sent home by a Persian king. 

As the church, we are also filled with anointed ones. In our baptism, not only are we united with God's promise through the water, we're also anointed with oil. Through oil and prayer, the cross is marked on our forever. We are given the mark of Christ, carrying Christ with us forever. Martin Luther famously said that the Christian life is being a Christ for our neighbors. Through God's Word and Spirit, we're stirred to make a difference in the world. Like Cyrus, many of us are not Jewish. But, like him, God's spirit is still stirring in us to love and care for our neighbors.



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The Bench in my Backyard: Pastor Marc's Messenger Article for June 2016

In my back yard, on six some weatherworn tiles, is an old bench. I have no idea how long this bench has been outside. The iron is rusted, the wood distressed and weird moss-like spirals are forming on it. When we moved into our home, the bench sat beneath a small maple tree. We took down the tree but left the bench where it is, out in the middle of the yard. Someone walking by would be surprised to see that lonely bench. It looks like it doesn't belong there. To understand that bench we need to know about that former tree.

June is a time of change at CLC. On June 19th our summer worship schedule begins with one worship at 9:30 am. Our choirs, singers, Sunday School and youth groups take a break during the warm summer months. At the end of June we'll worship in our Opsal room instead of the sanctuary as we welcome our four-legged friends (and more!) into the church for a blessing. A new person joining us at the end of June wouldn't realize that worshipping at 9:30 am in our fellowship hall isn't what we usually do. We have a much bigger story to share, and we just need to let others know it.

No matter where these summer months take you, I hope you'll bring a little of Christ Lutheran's story with you. Share with your new friends in your new adventures a little about this church in Woodcliff Lake, NJ. Share how you're part of this community of faith that supports the Center for Food Action in Englewood with our own community garden and has a rummage sale that is unparalleled in size and in spirit with money supporting capital improvements at the church and also impacting people all over the world. Talk about why your faith matters to you. Share your story. I also invite you to listen to other stories too. If you visit a new church on Sunday, bring back the bulletin and their newsletter. Share it with the pastor and the council. We're always looking for new and innovative ways to tell our story, and we value seeing what other communities are doing. The more we share with each other about being the church, the more we discover just how much the story of Jesus changes the world.

See ya in church!

Pastor Marc



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A reflection on being a scandalous people

Our first reading is 2 Chronicles 6:12,14-21.

Scandal. Do you watch it? This television show is a hit among some of my family and friends. I've see it a few times and, every week, the scandal on the show increases. The show tires to up the ante on what came before. The impossible, the unbelievable, and the shocking just keeps happening. The show is downright exciting. 

Did you know that scandals are also at the center of God's story? One way to sum up the two parts of God's story that we proclaim is to see what's scandalous in the Old Testament and what's scandalous in the New. The Apostle Paul and the Gospels point to the cross as  the scandal of the New Testament. The fact that God's Son died just doesn't make sense. Why would that happen? How can God die? Why would God live a human life? Why would we kill Jesus? These are the questions of the New Testament. The story is so familiar to us that we struggle to see how scandalous Jesus Christ is. But when we take a step back, look at what Scripture shows and tells us, the Cross is a scandal because, from our perspective, it doesn't seem possible. 

In the Old Testament (or Hebrew Scriptures as I sometimes call them), the scandal isn't what people do. The scandal is that the God of the universe, the God that created everything, decided that the Israelites will be God's people. The Israelites were slaves in Egypt, with no power, or armies, or wealth. They had nothing yet God chose them to be God's people. The Israelites never develop an empire, they never matched Rome or Alexander the Great or even the United States in wealth, power, and authority. But the Israelites are God's people and God chooses to live with them. 

So how can we respond to this scandal? In our first reading today, Solomon is dedicating the Temple as God's house. His prayer can only point to the scandal and admit that God's choice is beyond understanding. God's promise to be with who God chooses doesn't depend on what the people do. It only depends on God's promise. And that's who we are - a people who depend on God's promise. We live through a God who lives with us and who died for us. We are, in someways, a scandalous people



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A Reflection on the the Ark in Jerusalem & the Book of Chronicles

Our first reading is 1 Chronicles 16:23-34.

The book of Chronicles is a bit of a time-warp for us. In our Year with the Bible reading, last we showed us the destruction of Jerusalem. The very next book in our bible is 1 Chronicles which begins with Adam's genealogy. In someways, we're starting over. Scholars argue that 1 and 2 Chronicles was written after much of the Hebrew Bible (otherwise known as the Old Testament) was put together. The book rely on the Torah (the first five books of the bible), 1st and 2nd Samuel, and 1st and 2nd Kings to tell its story. But the author of 1 and 2 Chronicles included other sources and information that wasn't included in the prior books (and sometimes contradicts it). Why does scripture include different books that sometimes tell competing or different stories? One reason that makes sense to me is that Scripture isn't afraid of a wider story. Scripture includes all the stories and traditions because, without them, God's story would not be as big as it truly is. Our desire for one authentic, historical, and "correct" storyline isn't scripture gives us. Instead, scripture wants to tell all of God's story which is bigger than we can imagine.

Today's poem takes place when David brings the Ark into Jerusalem. It's a composite piece, pulling together several different psalms to praise God. Think of it as a mixtape to God, with Psalm 96 and Psalm 106 being used together to describe who God is. And this is what praise is: telling who God is. When we gather together to worship God, we're not gathering because God needs our praise or God needs to be flattered. We gather to tell God's story, to share what God has done, and how God is with us. Praise is proclaiming and sharing that God is good and howe we can live in God's goodness. When the ark enters Jerusalem, David's words of praise are about living in God's goodness because "his steadfast love endures forever" and that love is for me, you, and the entire world. 



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A Reflection on the fall of Jerusalem

Our First Reading is 2 Kings 25:1-6,8-12.

We've been reading the bible since January 1st and we finally reach the fall of Jerusalem. The kingdom Saul established and David grew collapses under an assault by the Babylonians. Babylon, located 60 miles southwest of Baghdad in Iraq, grew an immense empire that ruled much of the Middle East for 70 years. As they grew powerful, they attacked Jerusalem many times, looting God's Temple and sending the rich and powerful into exile. The leaders in Jerusalem try one final rebellion against Babylon but are defeated. As we hear in our text today, the city is taken, the king captured, and a large fire consumes Jerusalem. Only the very poor are allowed to remain. Everyone is taken and led to live in the capital of Babylon. 

This movement of people from Jerusalem to Babylon is what we call the Exile. The followers of God are taken from the promised land and forced to live in the capital of their enemy. They watched as their homes were burn, their army defeated, and the house they built for God (the Temple) is destroyed. I imagine the survivors of this ordeal felt an incredible sadness. Everything they knew was gone. It appeared as if Babylon, with their own gods, somehow defeated the God of the universe. The book of Lamentations was probably written in response to this tragedy. In the face of despair, the only thing the people could do was cry tears. 

But we know that the story of God's Chosen people does not end at Babylon. Even while located in the heart of the enemy capital, the Jewish people retain their identity and relationship with God. They connect with each other, continue to teach the faith to their children, and even start to standardize the biblical text as we have it today. Even though they were exiled from their homeland, they were never Exiled from their God. God is present in the hardship - and is still making things new.  



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