Questions and Reflections

Hold Fast: grace vs Grace [Sermon Manuscript]

Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to [Jesus] and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

Luke 20:27-38

Pastor Marc's sermon on the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost (November 10, 2019) on Luke 20:27-38. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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What was the last argument you started in bad faith? 

Now we’re probably pretty good at noticing when someone starts an argument with us in bad faith. They begin by first expressing a point of view or a position they don’t actually believe. Or maybe they’re just trolling, antagonizing us while pretending they’re trying to have a real conversation. Or maybe they’re assuming they’re the only expert in the room - so they’ll never listen to you or anyone else’s point of view. An argument in bad faith is never an attempt at an honest conversation because it’s all about undermining the validity of another person’s point of view. So it’s not hard to notice those moments when no one listens to us. But I’m not sure if we’re always willing to admit those times when our behavior stops us from listening too. So what was the last argument you started when you knew you weren’t going to listen? What was it that made you feel in the right and what convinced you that everyone else was wrong? What, in that moment, were your feeling and thinking? And once you have that experience firmly in your mind, hold onto it. Savor it. Then go back to the start of today’s passage from the gospel according to Luke. Because everything you experienced in your bad-faith moment was exactly what some of the Saduccees brought with them when they chose to argue with Jesus. 

Now the Saduccees themselves were a bit mysterious because we don’t really know too much about them. From what we can tell, they were a movement within the Jewish community who had, by the time of Jesus, become overseers of the Temple in Jerusalem. Many of the rich and politically powerful were also Saduccees and they, as a group, were closely connected to the what the Roman Empire said and did. When the Temple was destroyed in the year 70, the Saduccees basically disappeared from the historical record - so it’s difficult to reconstruct what they said about their faith. We think their theological viewpoint was defined by an intense focus on the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, and that they sort of ignored the rest. This narrowing of what they considered to be holy scripture meant that some of the things we take for granted as Christians, like the resurrection of the dead, of heaven, and even the after-life, were things the Saduccees didn’t really believe in. For them, in the words of John Senior, “all of the goodness life [had] to offer - love, justice, peace, abundance, and happiness - [was] experienced within its horizon.” Life could only be made meaningful within the limited boundaries of our time on earth. And once death came, that was it. The hard boundary between life and death was firm. Whatever the afterlife - the place of Sheoul - was going to be - would be separate, distinct, and filled with a kind of meaninglessness that would have no impact on our life today. Life was bookended by that meaninglessness - and so the handful of years people lived on earth was really the limit of what life could possibly be. 

So when the Sadducees came to Jesus, they showed up in bad faith. They did not believe in an afterlife or a resurrection as the Pharisees and Jesus taught. They asked Jesus to solve a riddle - one they imagined would show how absurd the so-called future life might be. Now, in the centuries before Jesus’ birth, several cultures - including Ancient Israel - practiced what was called Levirate marriage. Levirate marriage was designed to preserve and ensure the continuation of a family or tribe. When the culturally defined male leader of a family or tribe died, the brothers and other male descendants were called to mary that leader’s widow - and, hopefully, create heirs that would continue the former leader’s legal legacy. Those heirs were needed to make sure that the so-called social norms that governed things like inheriting land, passing on wealth, and preserving the family’s name, would work. On one level, a levirate marriage offered a kind of grace because the widow of that male leader needed the protection of a male family member. She couldn’t, according to same cultural norms, really work, keep wealth, or provide financially for herself or her family. Once her husband died, she could be easily forgotten and forced to live in extreme poverty. A levirate marriage would ensure her survival while letting the family name continue. But this arrangement, while filled with a little grace, was also a problem because it was rooted in patriarchy. The widow in this system had no agency of her own and her survival depended on which males she belonged to. Since she couldn’t generate her own wealth or pass on her own family name, there was no real way she could say “no” to marrying her dead husband’s brother. She was trapped in a way of life that granted her a little grace while denying her the grace of personhood. So when the Sadduccees told Jesus their riddle, they didn’t bother giving her a name. She, like other women caught up in the levirate marriage system, was defined by the male society said she belonged to. We never learn her backstory. We have no idea where she came from. All we learn is that she’s made a widow seven times before she died. And when some of the Sadduccees asked who she would be in the afterlife, they assumed that the grace she was given in this world would be enough. She had survived while wrapped up in a system that would always keep her nameless. So the Saduccees wondered to whom, in death, would she belong? But Jesus answered that she would continue to be who she already was: she is, and always will be, a child of God. 

Jesus chose not to ignore or run past the Sadducees bad-faith argument. Instead, he pushed through, pointing to the limitless grace of a limitless God. The Sadducees assumed that the contours of this life, what they experienced personally, was the only thing that gave us meaning. Any point of view, experience, or reality that challenged what they assumed to be true needed to be confronted in good or bad faith. Yet Jesus knew and gave witness to a new reality where our eternal relationship with God was the primary definition of who we are. We are not defined only by the little bits of grace our culture or our neighbors give us. We are worth more because God chooses to never let us go. There is no hard boundary between life and death that will ever stop God from loving us. And there’s more than one experience, point of view, or way of life that God uses to show us our true meaning in God. The Sadducees wanted Jesus to fall into a trap because they believed life was limited. But Jesus, instead, showed them how our limitless relationship with God can guide our so-called limited life right now. Since we are wrapped up in this grace that will not end, we can - with God’s help - make that grace feel bigger in our world today. We can turn those small moments of grace in our culture and neighborhood into more fuller of examples of God’s everlasting love, by breakdowning all the systems, ideologies, and points of view that undermine someone else’s sense of personhood. Because we, like Moses and Abraham, Issac and Jacob - and even the unnamed woman in the Sadducees’ riddle - we have a God who is a God of the living. And that God wants you, me, and everyone else to know what it’s truly like to live.

Amen. 
 



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Reflection: Focus

Today's reading from Second Thessalonians 2:1-5,13-17 is a bit strange since there's a big gap within it. We start off by reading the first five verses from chapter two but then skip to verse 13. Luckily, the missing verses do not get in the way of noticing what Paul was writing about. This is a text that wants us to ask ourselves a question: what kind of news are you always on the lookout for?

I think we'd like to say that we're into good news. But when we turn on our TV or scroll through the front page of any newspaper, the news we love to click on is mostly negative. We pay attention to whatever is the most recent tragedy, and we linger on stories when they're full of fear or sorrow. We even might get caught up in the most recent conspiracy theory, especially if that theory makes us feel superior to everyone else. Bad news is exactly that. Yet we hunger for it, devoting our time and energy consuming it over everything else. Because, for whatever reasons, we love to share stories that eventually end up as plot lines in Law and Order.

When we spend our energy focused on what's bad, there's a chance we'll miss seeing what's good. We end up being consumed by these negative thoughts and create an alternative reality filled with false facts. The more energy we spend in that false reality, the more we miss seeing what God is doing in the true reality. And this, I think, is what Paul was getting at. We need to be wary of all those who try to create alternative realities where one person or organization is seen as holding "the truth." Because, they will live in what's bad and miss the good news of the truth in the person of Jesus Christ. When we cling to His good news - good news rooted in a relationship with God - we are given the ability to see the world as it truly is. We'll see the true sin in the world but also what is good. We'll discover how we contribute to that sin, how our claims about "fake news" are anything but, and how we can grow into something better than we once were. We will often bear witness in a world that sometimes prefers a false reality to the truth. But we stay with the truth because we trust that Jesus' story will be our own. This trust isn't something we can figure out on our own. It's a gift, given to us by the Holy Spirit, that opens our eyes to God's reality. And when our eyes are open, that doesn't mean we are better or smarter than anyone else. We just have faith - and that's when we'll see the good news in Jesus because God, through Him, is creating a new future of love, mercy, and hope.



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Forever: The fullness of our story [sermon manuscript]

Then [Jesus] looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets."

"But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you."

Luke 6:20-31

Pastor Marc's sermon on All Saints' Sunday (November 3, 2019) on Luke 6:20-31. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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Part of my work as a pastor in the New Jersey synod is to help in the formation of new pastors and deacons for the church. Every year, an incredibly diverse array of people feel the call to shepherd God’s people. It’s my job to guide them as they add a new chapter into their already complex, indepth, and faith-filled personal story. So last Friday and Saturday, this candidacy committee met with a group of people who are starting and finishing up that process. We held interviews, filled out mountains of paperwork, and we prayed a lot. The story of the church and the stories of the people God calls to lead it can, sometimes, be pretty messy. But we know that Jesus is always present - and is transforming our entire story into something new. 

We met on the other side of New Jersey in a place I’ve never been to before. And that’s Zion Lutheran Church in Oldwick. As a history dork, I found this to be very cool because Zion is the oldest Lutheran congregation in all of New Jersey. And to put that in perspective, I was thrilled that we here celebrated our 60th anniversary just last month. Yet when Zion in Oldwick celebrated their 60th anniversary, the American Revolutionary War had yet to begin. They are a community of faith that is over 300 years old. Their story as a church is long, complex, full of beauty, and full of messiness. Yet they are still figuring out what it means for them to faithfully follow Jesus. Their longevity as a congregation does not mean they know the one perfect way to be “the church.” Rather, their story is very local, connected to the people, community, and geography of the place they call home. Their story, their complete story, is bound together with people. And so sometimes, when it comes to Jesus, it’s important to notice, to name, and to listen to the people who are already there. 

In today’s reading from the gospel according to Luke, people are everywhere. Jesus cared deeply about how we treat each other. So he started his sermon with “Blessed are you who are poor” and that “you” was not meant to be abstract. Jesus wasn’t spiritualizing people. He was talking to real people who were living very real lives. But that can be hard to hold onto when Jesus preached like he does today. Because he gives us a lot of words and these words move quickly. We start out with all kinds of blessings and woes, loving your enemies, and a command to turn the other cheek. We hear that we should celebrate when people exclude us; that we should pray for those who abuse us, and that we shouldn’t ask for anything if someone takes something from us. We know that Jesus’ words are meant to take us somewhere but as we listen to this passage, we’re not sure where he is going. Finally, when we get to verse 31, we run into something that feels like a summation of what came before. Everything difficult that we just heard feels more manageable when its condensed to simply be the golden rule. How we care for ourselves and for others is all over this passage. And the last verse, “do to others,” is a clean and neat way to sum up this story while leaving the uncomfortable and messy bits behind. 

But there’s another place in this passage where people show up. And that’s at the very beginning of today’s reading. Before Jesus said anything, we hear that he and his disciples were together. Yet in the background of this scene, Jesus was also surrounded by a crowd looking for love, compassion, and healing. So while in the middle of this swirling mass of humanity, that’s when Jesus spoke. Yet what struck me as a bit different today is that, unlike other times when Jesus preached, he wasn’t described here as being physically above his disciples. They weren’t there looking up at him. Instead, Jesus looked up at them. Rather than speaking in a top-down kind of way, where his body implied that his words were coming down from on-high, Jesus spoke from below. He spoke from the place where healing needed to happen and where the uncomfortable and messy bits of life feel the most real. And since Jesus chose to speak up from that place, it showed that he was already there. Jesus wasn’t only interested what was tidy; he chose to be with us in our life as it actually is. Because it’s there when the truth about who we are and whose we are actually meets. And when we hold onto the fullness of our story, that’s when we finally discover how Jesus has shaped, formed, and molded us so that grace, mercy, forgiveness, and love will be there at the beginning of everything that we do. 

So unlike us, there are no photos or images of Zion Lutheran Church’s very first worship service. If we want to see what it was like, we have to use our imagination. I’m sure many of us could visualize the colonial farmhouse that service was held in and think about who might have been there in the early 1700s. We can picture the tri-corner hats, the long dresses, and the identities that made up those first Lutherans who settled in western New Jersey. There’s a good chance no one spoke English that day and their style of worship was different from our own. But I think we’re pretty confident that we could each describe what that first part of Zion’s story looked like. So as you mentally hold that image in your head, I want to invite you to identify the family that farmhouse belonged to. Prior to their move to New Jersey, that  family were members of the “Dutch” Lutheran church in Manhattan. The head of the household was named Aree van Guinee, which is very dutch, and he had a rather large and multi-generational family. From what I can tell, he was through and through faithful Lutheran. But unlike what we might expect, he came from Africa. He had, at some point, been forcefully abducted and brought to this country as a slave. And after gaining his freedom, he created his own household and he would eventually donate the land Zion Lutheran Church was first built on. Rarely do we, as Lutherans, remember that our diversity as a community is rooted not only in the Germans, Norwegians, and Swedes who brought their faith with them. But when we go back to the beginning, to the people who were already at the start of the story, our history in New Jersey is rooted in a freed African slave and his family.

There’s a messiness in that story - but there’s also a vision of what the church is when we take seriously the fullness of our story. As we, through faith, worship, prayer, and by spending time being this church together, we end up being transformed and changed by Christ who is not afraid of the messiness of who we are. Instead, he’s too busy loving us - and showing us how we can love by not hiding the bits of our story that makes it hard. We are heirs to a faith that passed on to us by people who were already present before we are. Their story, with all its messiness, is our story - and our story, with its messiness, is the church’s story too. On this All Saints’ Sunday, when we light candles in memory and in honor of all those who showed us what God’s grace and love actually looks like, we also acknowledge the fullness of our faithful story. Because that story, through Christ, has already been seen; it’s already been known; and it’s even now being shaped and transformed by God’s grace so that love will be at the forefront of everything we do. 

Amen. 
 



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Reflection: Inheritance

If you read the Bible from cover to cover, you might notice that the Bible talks about inheritance a lot. In the Hebrew section, there are stories where inheritance is central to what God is doing in the world (see Numbers 36). Jesus in many of his parables dealt with the impact of inheritance (i.e. the Prodigal Son). And Paul's letters to the small Christian communities scattered around the Mediterranean Sea, used the language of inheritance all the time. We know that inheritance is a big deal. Those with assets that will exist after we die need to create wills and make plans for how those assets will be passed on. But whenever assets and money are involved, problems (especially in families) come. We might think that people in Paul's day expected to receive some kind of inheritance during their lifetime. But their reality was very different. Few people ever earned enough money or had enough stuff to pass on to others. Most people lived at the poverty line. Yet people knew what inheritance was all about. And in our letter today to the Ephesians, the author described the inheritance we've already been given.

When you're reading this passage (Ephesians 1:11-23), make sure to read it slowly. The sentences are long, complex, and full of punctuation marks. The author is crafting a picture and using relationships as its paint. In the ancient Near East, hierarchy was everything. The king or emperor stood at the top, the quintessential human being. Everyone's value was then defined by their relationship to him. The king had certain responsibilities - i.e. to administer justice, wage war, and keep the peace. Yet their authority was, in theory, complete. They were the ultimate human being and sometimes viewed as gods. Your value was determined by your connection to your king - and whether you, in the hierarchy, could make some decisions on your own.

The church, and those who follow Jesus, know that Jesus is their king. He is the ultimate authority, the quintessential human and divine being. Yet where normal kings wield their power to tell others what to do, Jesus is the king who was crucified. And that, at its core, is scandal of our faith. The one who had authority chose not to use it the way we expected him to. Instead, in humility, he showed us that there was no experience in our life that God would not go through with us. The inheritance we're given isn't tied into any material or financial assets. Rather, our inheritance is rooted in a relationship where mercy, love, and forgiveness rule. While we clamor to see what we get in our inheritance, Jesus is busy giving us his life so that we can see what God's love is all about. The hierarchy of Christianity will always subvert the idea of hierarchy as we understand it to be. Whenever we look up towards God, Jesus is too busy coming down to us; because we, through our baptism and our faith, are his pledge of love to the world. And we're called to live a life where our inheritance from God actually matters.



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Living in our Worship-filled Space - Pastor Marc's Message in the Messenger, November 2019 edition

There are two things I think people notice when they walk into my office. First, I assume people wonder how I get anything done since I have a lot of clutter on my desk. Second, once people stop looking at my desk, I’m pretty sure they notice the bookshelves behind my desk. Besides being covered in comic book bobble heads and pez dispensers, my bookshelves are filled with books. I know it does not look like it but there is a method to the madness. Most items are organized by subject and I (usually) know where every one of my books is. Some of the books on the shelves I’ve had since I was in elementary school, but others are new-to-me, gifts from friends, my family, or rescued from our incredibly well-run Trash and Treasure book nook. I love being surrounded by books, and my office is my ideal reading space. The spot is filled with all the things I’ve read, all the books I’m going to read, and is a record for all the different things I’ve learned. I love discovering the amazing insights others have come up with. Now that the school year is well on its way, my kids’ school recommended creating reading spaces for our kids. According to recent research, kids can learn to love reading by watching how their loved ones read. When we surround ourselves with a variety of books, children learn that there’s more to learning than using google. One simple way we can make our own reading spaces is by keeping a basket of books wherever we love to hangout. These well-curated and well-used baskets can sometimes be all someone needs to learn something new about themselves and the world.

As a church, we’re used to a faith-filled space. If we had to describe what the church is in one sentence that might be how we would describe it. But in the Bible, the word “church” never described a building; it always described an assembly of people. The church is always the group of people the Holy Spirit brings together to follow Jesus. A building is never the church, but a building can be a tool we use to spend time with God. In these holy spaces, we are reminded about Jesus’ love for us and his promise to never let us go. The church does not need a building, but we can use our building to discover the kind of church God wants us to be.

During November, we’re launching a special children sermon series on Holy Communion. The gift of Holy Communion is one of the ways God feeds us grace, mercy and love. Yet communion, as we can see in its name, requires a community. There needs to be an assembly of people, a church, who are committed to being with Jesus, together.

I know November is traditionally a very busy month filled with our 2020 Pledge Drive, many worship events and the Thanksgiving holiday. But we’ll find time this month to remember what makes our building a worship-filled space. We are who we are because Jesus continues to come to us in Word, worship, prayer and communion. And when we embrace our commitment to the gift of Holy Communion, we can then show everyone what living in our worship-filled space is all about.

See you in church!

Pastor Marc



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Thank God: knowing our story

[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Luke 18:9-14

Pastor Marc's sermon on Reformation Sunday (October 27, 2019) on Luke 18:9-14. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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Today’s text from the gospel according to Luke isn’t the usual one we read on Reformation Sunday. Typically, when we commemorate Martin Luther posting 95 thoughts about God and faith on a church door in Germany, we spend time in the gospel according to John. But after consulting the texts and looking at our church calendar, it didn’t feel right to let Reformation Sunday interrupt our journey through Luke. For the last few months, we’ve been in the part of Luke where Jesus’ teaching comes fast and furious. Luke has dropped the descriptive sentences that we might expect as he narrated Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. Instead, we get parable after parable as Jesus is confronted by religious leaders and his own somewhat clueless disciples. Last week, we listened as Jesus told a story about an unjust judge and a persistent widow who wouldn’t leave him alone. Eventually, the unjust judge allowed the widow’s quest for justice to be fulfilled. Luke saw in that parable an underlying concern for prayer - especially the prayers that feel as if they go unanswered. Jesus wanted those who followed him to stay persistent in prayer, to continue to talk to God night and day because God never stops listening. Prayer, then, seems to be the thruline that connects last week’s parable with the one we heard today. And instead of being only about prayer, today’s parable began with the two characters actually praying. 

Now, since this is a parable filled with prayers, we might want to first look into the words of the prayers themselves. But before we do that, I think it’s important to first pay attention to their bodies. The act of prayer is always a bodily event. When we pray, have to use our bodies. And in today’s parable, before we even hear any of the prayers these two characters speak, Jesus first tells us something about their bodies. We begin first with the religious leader, the Pharisee, and the tax collector both going to the temple to pray. This wasn’t an abnormal thing to do as the Temple was always open for private prayer and had multiple worship services every day. Once they were both finally in the space or the building where they would pray, we learn that the Pharisee’s body was standing alone. We don’t know exactly where he was standing - maybe in the front, where everyone could see him or maybe somewhere a little more private. But we do know he created some physical distance between himself and other people. The tax collector, however, had a slightly different bodily experience. He wasn’t described as standing by himself. Instead, he’s far off - with his eyes refusing to look up, towards God. And while he prayed, he kept his hand clenched in a fist as he hit his chest over and over again. We don’t know anything else about this tax collector but these additional comments about his body do give us a sense of what his experience of prayer was like. And it also, I think, shows us a similarity between the two that we might otherwise miss. Both the Pharisee and the tax collector experienced and embodied distance in their prayer life. And that distance, I think, was also a major part of the life they both chose to live. 

Yesterday, I was invited by our friends at Temple Beth Sholom in Park Ridge to participate in their weekly Saturday worship. They told me to get there at 11 am and to make sure I stayed for lunch. As if my custom, I showed up a few minutes early - only to be greeted by a locked door and security guard. After a quick hello, the guard let me in and I was greeted in the lobby by a congregant. The greeter showed me where the kippahs were kept, placed a prayer book in my hand, and helped usher me to a seat. He also let me know that worship had already been going on for an hour and a half but that I was on time for the main event. As I sat there, Rev. Larissa Romero from Pascack Reformed Church joined me as well as the mayor and several members of Park Ridge council. We were there, together, to be part of a small interfaith and community cohort standing with Temple Beth Sholom and all the other synagogues and temples who were commemorating the one year anniversary of the attack on Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. We, together, lamented that evil act. We also named the evil that is antisemitism and white supremacy and how it seems to be getting worse rather than better. I spoke of my personal anguish that the Christian faith, a faith that gives me so much life, is sometimes warped and twisted to justify anti-jewish acts. And I spoke of our ongoing work to speak out and confront the ideologies that believe that welcome, inclusion, love, and mercy should not be part of who we are. Throughout their worship service, I saw the Jewish community claim the fullness of their story - a story filled with unimaginable hardships and breathtaking joys. And as I watched them reasert who they were, all of us were invited to claim our full story too - one that is bigger, deeper, and larger than just our individual lives. The invitation to claim the fullness of who we are is scary because it requires us to reckon with the dark shadow that has been cast over others. But when we do that, when we struggle against the hate and evil we find within our own communities, we do more than make a difference in the lives of others. We also make a difference in our own. Because the act of naming, owning, and living through our own story is how we close the distance between us, our neighbors, and our God. 

The distance the Pharisee and the tax collector surrounded themselves with came into being in different ways. The Pharisee had, as we see in the words of his prayer, grown into a person full of himself. His prayer is devoted to the pronoun “I” and he was thankful for what he is not. The tax collector stayed away during prayer because he, by his very vocation, was deeply embedded in the system that funded the Roman Empire. For him to earn any kind of living, he was forced to exhort extra funds beyond what the Roman Empire required. He was, in a sense, crushed by his own sins because he worked in an economic system that was sin itself. He was broken - and I imagine he struggled seeing himself living any other way. 

The Pharisee and the tax collector, when they prayed, used their bodies to mimic the way they existed in the world. Both were distant because they struggled to embrace the fullness of who they were. And who they were wasn’t only centered in what they did, or how they worshipped, or measured by how much they gave away. Their story began with the One who created them and gave them a place to pray. They were, like all of us, made in the image of God. And through that act of creation, that’s where their relationship began - and was strengthened and reformed through the One who continues to break through the distance we put between ourselves, God, and each other. As Christians, Jesus invites us to accept the fullness of our story - the good and the bad. And we are also called to accept the fullness of other people’s stories - not as we imagine them to be but as they truly are. When Temple Beth Sholom invited a group of us into their worship space to pray, we found ourselves doing more than just offering support. We also saw, in real time, the distance we’ve put between us, narrow. We can, because of our faith, reform our relationships with ourselves and with our neighbors. And we can, through Jesus, grow to see all people as made in God’s image. 

 

Amen. 

 



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Reflection: Who Am I to Pray?

Gracious God, we thank you for the gift of prayer. What an extraordinary thing that we can pray to you, unburden ourselves before you, place our cares, woes and joys before you. I confess I find praying an awkward business. I keep thinking, "Who am I to pray?" But I know that to be false humility, hiding my prideful desire to be my own creator. So we pray a prayer of joy in prayer, asking that we become your prayers for one another. Amen."

From Prayers Plainly Spoken by Stanley Hauerwas.

Let this be for you an encouragement, that with all diligence and earnestness it may become your habit to pray. For next to the preaching of the Gospel, in which God speaks with us and gives us all His grace and blessings, the highest and foremost work we can do is to speak with Him through prayer and receive from Him what He gives us. We have this great need of prayer, for by it we are truly able to keep what we have and to defend it against our enemies - the devil and the world. By our prayer we seek and find what we are to receive. Therefore through prayer comes our comfort, strength, and consolation, as well as our protection against all enemies and our victory over them.

From Martin Luther's Exposition of John 16:23.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received (and one I wish I followed more) was to collect prayers. These prayers come to us during summer camp, through books and social media, and even in our worship bulletins. These published prayers were composed by faithful people to express the faith-filled moment they were living in. A prayer that speaks to us can feel like we're eavesdropping on someone else's life of faith. Yet their prayer might reflect our own experience of God. Their words might help us develop a language of faith that we can use in our daily life.

The prayer insert you received today is just one prayer. There are seven additional prayers floating around worship today. I hope the prayer you picked up spoke to you. But if it didn't, I hope you'll find time to collect prayers. Seek them out. Keep a list of them on your phone. And let the prayers written by others become part of your language of faith. Because the Reformation, which we celebrate today, was rooted in re-discovering how Jesus comes to us as we are. Even at this moment, you have all the words you need to talk to God. But if prayer is still a struggle, let the words of others guide you. And they'll show you that God loves you.



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Persist: Who God Is [Sermon Manuscript]

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Luke 18:1-8

Pastor Marc's sermon on the Nineteeth Sunday after Pentecost (October 20, 2019) on Luke 18:1-8. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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So I started writing this sermon a few minutes before the Yankees took the field last night for game six in the American League Championship series. Now, while I was writing, I had no idea how the game would turn out. But I couldn’t help but wonder if my writing about the game while it was going on might, somehow, jinx it. (And I'm sorry.) Even though I don’t root for either the Yankees or the Astros, I have quite a few friends that do. And during every game of this series, many of those friends were busy posting their predictions and arm-chair analysis on social media. Yet there were a few diehard fans who made sure to go the extra spiritual mile when it came to the ALCS. On Friday night, someone I know made sure to bring the biggest fan he knew to the fifth game: his mom. She was there, decked out in all her Yankee gear, except for her hat - which she left at home sitting next to a sacred Jesus candle. She also brought with her what he called her “playoff rosary,” a string of blue prayer beads she could pray through while the game was going on. It’s safe to say that she is a persistent faithful Yankee fan, ready to do all she can - physically and spiritually - to support her team. And it seemed, at least during game five, as if her persistence paid off because by the time they found their seats, her Yankees were already up 4 to 1. 

When it comes to sports, it’s pretty normal to ritualize our persistent support. We might find ourselves, after watching our team win a game that no one thought possible, doing whatever we can to help them win again. But since most of us aren’t actually on the field or able to make any real decisions that might influence the game, we find other ways to support our team. We make sure, for instance, to wear the exact same shirt we wore when they had that amazing come from behind victory. Or, when we’re at work, we arrange all our dust collectors and papers the way they were when we heard our favorite player make that incredible play. We also might find ourselves Tebowing in prayer every time our team takes the field even though it feels a tad weird to ask God to intervene in sports. On game days, ritualizing our behavior is just something we do because being a persistent fan takes work. But that’s also what makes being a fan so much fun. Our life with our team - with all its rituals, celebrations, and even tears - is something amazing that we get to do. 

Today’s reading from the gospel according to Luke begins in an odd place because it starts with an explanation. Before we even hear Jesus speak, Luke lets us what he thinks the parable was all about. As helpful as that might be, this kind of pre-explanation before we read Jesus’ words might make us miss what God wants to tell us. So one thing I like to do whenever we find a verse telling us what the next story is all about, is to skip that verse. Instead of starting with “then Jesus told them a parable about…,” we can start with “Jesus said.” And the first words out of his mouth was the beginning of a story set in a city where an unjust judge had set up shop. This judge thought he was accountable to no one yet he had the power and the authority to make whatever he wanted - happen. But the only case we hear him pay attention to was centered on a widow demanding justice. Yet all we hear is her request. We never learn the details about her situation or discover what justice, in her case,  would look like. All we know is that this widow who lacked the judge's authority and power, kept coming to him, demanding that he do the right thing. At first, he does nothing because he doesn’t really have to do anything. He can just be his unjust self. Yet day in and day out, the persistent widow made sure to keep interrupting his daily life. He had the power and the authority and the will to ignore her. Yet like every good community organizer or civil rights’ protester, she kept coming back because the persistent demand can sometimes be the most powerful tool we have to change the world. The judge, in the end, does change his mind but only out of a deep sense of self-interest. He gave her justice because he no longer wanted to waste his energy telling her no. In the end, he, like the widow, never stopped being exactly who he was. Yet it was because they were who they are, that, in the end, helped make justice, finally come. 

One of the dangers of a text like this one is that we often misuse it, thinking Jesus was telling his followers to just pray more. Yet I know that many of us know exactly what it’s like to live with persistent prayers that seem to go unanswered. We often find ourselves staying up way too late thinking that if we prayed more, or went to church more, or if we gave money to that televangelist on TV, then maybe the crisis we are currently in wouldn’t have come. It’s normal, and completely human, to think that our prayers should make God do what we want. And to hope that we could, through our persistence, somehow wear God down, so that what we want might finally come true. 

But that approach to prayer isn’t, I think, what Jesus was trying to get at here. It wasn’t only the act of prayer that he was pointing to. Rather, he wanted us to know and understand and fully grasp that God is exactly who God promises to be. And because God is our God, we get to persist in bringing to God every prayer, tear, crisis, and joy that we have. We have, through our baptism and our faith, been united with a God who made sure that Jesus persisted in this world through the whole spectrum of human life. From birth, to growing up, to relationships, and even to death - Jesus lived a very human life. But he didn’t do this because God, somehow, needed to be changed. Rather, God knew that the only way to break the cycle of us trying, and failing, to persistently come towards God was for God to come to us. Jesus came to show us exactly who God is - a God who feeds; a God who heals; a God who welcomes; a God who offers justice; and a God who promises to, in the end, carry us through whatever life might throw our way. We get to persist with our God because we, as we are, are loved. And that’s the kind of love that can hold all our ups and downs, all our rituals and superstitions, and all the times we find ourselves in the top of the 9th down 4 to 2 with our prayers being the only thing we can hold on to. Because our God is, truly, God. And we get to live all our life with God because God has already promised to live all our life with us. 

Amen. 
 



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Reflection: Struggle

In the game Oregon Trail, one of the elements that needed to be overcome was rivers. The game invited players to jump into a covered wagon on its journey from St. Louis to Oregon in the mid-1800s. After suffering broken axles, hunting for food, and contracting dysentery, players needed to cross several rivers. Players always hoped that these crossings would be uneventful but the wagon sometimes tipped over, causing wagon tongues to float way. Rivers, in Oregon Trail, were boundaries that needed to be crossed so that players could enter their promised land.

Today's first reading Genesis 32:22-31 begins at a river. Jacob, with his family and his wealth, is on his way to meet his brother Esau. Ever since their time in the womb, these two siblings have been in constant competition with each other. As a young child, Jacob pretended to be his brother in order to gain his father's blessing. Esau, in response, cursed his brother. Since then, Jacob's entire life was under Esau's curse. Jacob knew he needed to reconcile with his brother. But Jacob was unwilling to face his past. He needed to be transformed into something new. So God, in a colorful moment, intervened and the nation of Israel gained its new name.

In the ancient world, rivers were "believed to be infested by demons."* Jacob, when confronted by the unknown being, did not know what he was struggling against. He assumed he was fighting a demon but when dawn broke, he realized he was struggling with God. In that moment, his past and his assumptions collided with his present reality. He became open to new possibilities.  Jacob then asked for a blessing because he knew his struggle with God required him to become something new. Jacob's name change did not ignore or diminish his past. Rather, God's gift of a new identity signifies his transformation into something more than he once was. In our baptism, we are, like Jacob, given a new identity. We are not limited by what we have done or by what others have said about us. Rather, in God's eyes, we are God's beloved. And since we are loved, we get to live new lives that bear the marks of all our struggle while God's carries us into God's Promised Land.

*quote from page 233 of The Torah, a Modern Commentary (Revised) edited by W. Gunther Plaut, 2006.



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Reflection: How God Sees

Today's reading from 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c started in a strange place. Naaman was a successful military commander of Aram, a kingdom centered in modern day Syria. He did not follow the God of Israel yet we hear, in the very first verse, that God was with him. We don't always think about God being with those who don't believe. Yet, that's where this story began. Naaman was a foreigner with immense power given to him by his King and Israel's God. Yet his life was not perfect. Even though he was powerful, he was sick. And he could not remove the leprosy that afflicted him.

However, one of his slaves was a young girl who would be the catalyst for his salvation. She had been captured during one of the many Aramean raids on Israel during this period. Aram's success on the battlefield meant Israel was oppressed by their stronger neighbor. At this moment in history, the power gap between Israel and Aram was huge. Israel could barely defend itself. And in the case of this young woman, her power when compared to Naaman was even more at odds. She was enslaved by the very military leader who succeeded in destabilizing her community. She had no control over the violence done to her while Naaman could exercise his power in any way he saw fit. In the eyes of the world, she was nothing while he was everything. Yet God chose to speak through her. Naaman's healing would not come through his worldly power. Rather, his healing came through the people the world saw as powerless. Because, as evident throughout Scripture, those who have no one to trust but God are the ones who can see God's work in the world. After being informed by the prophet Elisha to go and take a bath, Naaman almost didn't do it. Elisha's words seemed too easy. Yet those around Naaman, especially his powerless servants and slaves, knew what God was up to. They convince Naaman to embrace what God was doing. Naaman finally washed and was healed.

But there's more to the story than a simple healing. We need to look at the Hebrew. Our English translation is based on to truly see what God was doing. In the words of Dr. Rolf Jacobson, "The Hebrew for 'young boy' is na’ar qaton—the masculine equivalent to the young girl (na’arah qatannah) whom the great man had enslaved and from whom his salvation began." In God's eyes, Naaman has become like the young girl - beloved, welcomed, and included. God chose to make Naaman brand new. And in that newness, God encouraged Naaman to see others in a new way, too. He was invited, I believe, to see that young girl not the way the world does, as a slave. Rather, he should see her through God's eyes, setting her free, because she, like every human being, is worth more than any army of chariots, horses, and mighty warriors.



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