Questions and Reflections

Reflection: Faith and Unseen

I'm going to begin my reflection with the words from Mary Foskett, Professor of Religious Studies at Wake Forest:

One of the most humbling and uplifting congregational milestones one can experience is the celebration of a church’s anniversary...

Because of the human tendency to see the events and challenges of our time as being particularly difficult or momentous, it is easy to overlook what generations before us had to face and overcome. Occasions like church anniversaries provide us opportunities to look back and learn from those witnesses to the Gospel who preceded us. Truth be told, every community experiences a season of discouragement or listlessness at one time or another. In such a season, calling upon the memories of those who have gone before us can be a powerful source of encouragement and inspiration.

The opening verse in our first reading today is one you might know well. We often define faith as belief in thing we can't see and when I was younger, I took that literally. I felt I was asked to believe in something that was more of a myth than a reality. It wasn't until I started going to church as a young adult that I discovered I needed to change my definition of faith. Faith is more than asserting that some belief is true. Faith is always rooted in trust. Trust forms within a relationship and that relationship takes work and practice. God decided that our faith should be rooted in the promise that God is with us through the long-haul. God doesn't make a commitment for a moment; God chooses to be with us, forever. The opening verse in this reading isn't defining faith as only a belief. Rather, it's a promise that faith forms as we live our life. And that living takes time.

A tool we can use to discover the faith God has given us is the practice of self- reflection. We're invited to remember where we were, what we were doing, and what truly happened. We're called to finally recognize when we met Jesus. And we're asked to name those moments when Jesus felt far away. Even if we're ashamed to admit all those times when Jesus was far from our thoughts, that's okay Self-reflection is never easy and will bring up experiences that we need to process. But when we look back, we do more than grow nostalgic for a romanticized version of our past. We end up reaffirming the hope we've already been given in our baptism and in our faith. No matter what is happening in your life right now, you are bound to the promises of God. That promise has already been made real in the lives of your family, friends, and in those who came before us. You are part of something bigger than yourself - and that promise will be what carries you through.


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Reflection: What do you see?

When you look in the mirror, what do you see?

When I look in my mirror, I know I am too quick at noticing the bits of myself that I don't like and I imagine parts of myself to be better than they truly are. If I've had a rough day, I find myself looking into the mirror re-enacting all the things that didn't go well that day. But if the day was good, I look in the mirror and find myself thinking I'm the next Tony Stark or Marc Anthony. A mirror always offers us a reflection of who we are but the interpretation of that image is left up to us. That interpretation can, however, be hijacked by things outside of our control. When we suffer through a mental health issue or are overwhelmed with words and images that destroyed our ability to know what a healthy self-image can be, that's when God's gifts of therapy, mental health professionals, and proper medication can help us interpret the image in the mirror in a better way. Yet even when we are mentally healthy, it's difficult to see our true selves in any mirror. We should be able to notice everything that makes us who we are: our beauty, our imperfections, and even how we've changed. But that isn't always easy because when we look in a mirror, there's always a lot to see. 

Today's reading from Colossians 3:1-11 reminds us, however, that there's another image hidden in that mirror with us. When we are looking at ourselves, we're also looking at Jesus Christ. In our baptism and in our faith, we are bound up in Christ. That means you are no longer only you; you are also a part of the body of Christ. In the words of Colossians, our life with Christ is as if we were clothed with him. We can imagine looking into a mirror and seeing ourself. But when we blinked, we suddenly saw Jesus. Every time we blinked, the image would change from you to Jesus to you again. Even though you are still exactly who you are, you are also more than you can imagine. You are wrapped up with Christ which means your life is something different. Your life is brand new. 

Now our life doesn't always feel new. In fact, life can feel boring, mundane, frustrating, or hard. We could, if we are in a healthy mental space, easily end up focusing only on that part of our reality. But when we do that, we miss a part of who we are. We fail to see how we are Christ's and Christ is ours - forever. And since that is true, we are invited to see ourselves differently. We are called to blink. We are called to see the Christ with-in us and around us. And since we are called to remember that we are clothed with him which means we can become that brand new person God knows we can be. 


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Big Barns: The trouble with "I Did It." [Sermon Manuscript]

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

Luke 12:13-21

Pastor Marc's sermon on the 8th Sunday after Pentecost (August 4, 2019) on Luke 12:13-21. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


Imagine, for a moment, being at home. You’re sitting by the window, watching a thunderstorm head your way. Before too long, the clouds have darken the sky around you and the wind rushes through the trees. I’m going to assume that most of us, at some point, have watched a storm come near. But in our little scenario for today, I’d like you to imagine watching that storm in a different way. For those of us who are not little kids, imagine sitting by that window when you were 3 years old. I want you to think 3 year old thoughts and view the world in a 3 year old kind of way. I want you to sit by the window, stare and wonder. And while you do that, I want you to believe that the storm is more incredible than anything your parents could imagine. 

Earlier this week on Twitter, I came across something shared by thousands of people. A mom was watching her little kid watch a storm outside their front window. The kid was lost in their own thoughts and was busy talking to herself. She said, to no one in particular, ““quiet...quiet. Kaboom comin.” And then, right after she said that, a huge crack of thunder filled the air. It was the kind of sound, I imagine, that would make us jump and maybe run away from the window. But not that little girl. Instead, in a whisper her mom could barely hear, she said to herself, “I did it.” The storm wasn’t something that happened to her. Rather, she believed she made the thunder happen. 

Now, I’ve watched way too many movies and read way too many comic books to say that this little girl was wrong. She could be the next Thor, the god of thunder, who is now realizing the full extent of her powers. Yet, what really struck me about that tweet was how I reacted to it in many different ways. I wanted to high five that little girl for having an incredible amount of confidence in herself. And I also felt a little bit like a sap because what she said was pretty adorable. When I first saw that tweet, I literally laughed out loud because I found it funny. But I was also a bit jealous because I know nothing I’ve said will be enjoyed by the same amount of people who saw that mom’s tweet. Yet there was something else there, in our reactions to that tweet, that was left mostly unsaid. What made this tweet funny to us was the assumption that the little girl was being absurd because she didn’t know the limits to her own reality. Those of us who are older and, in theory - wiser, could come up with a dozen reasons to explain why her understanding of her situation was wrong. We have no problem rewriting her experience so that her sense of “I did it” ends up not being true. We’re pretty good at showing other people how their understanding of their reality is wrong. But do we, when were caught up in our own “I did it” moments, have the  gumption, integrity, and ability to analyze ourselves in the very same way? 

Because, as we see in our reading from the gospel according to Luke today, our “I’s” matter. Jesus was approached by someone in the crowd who was going through a family squabble. We don’t know all the details about their story but it’s possible a younger sibling wanted a piece of their family’s inheritance. They had, for cultural or family reasons, possibly received nothing and they wanted Jesus’ to intervene. Their request for an intervention was exactly that: a request that didn’t ask Jesus for his thoughts or his advice. Yet Jesus gave them his opinion anyways by inviting them to listen to a parable. And for the last two thousand years, the church has affectionately named the parable Jesus told: the rich fool. 

Now the key to interpreting this parable is to pay attention to the I’s, that pronoun and letter, in the passage. After the rich farmer noticed his land producing more crops than he could ever use, he asked himself, “What should I do?” That’s a good question - one we should ask when abundance comes our way. Yet notice that question wasn’t directed to anyone but himself. And instead of just talking to himself, he answered himself as well. Not once did he seek out anyone else’s advice or think about anyone but himself. Which shows us the false reality that he lived in. Because there’s no way he could have planted, tended, and harvested such a large amount of food by himself. Other people were needed to make that harvest happen and yet all the rich farmer could say was, “I did it.” We also know, based on our own experience at the garden here at church: you can research, plan, and do everything correctly - but we still can’t make those plants grow. The land produces what it produces - and we don’t have as much control as we wish we did. The rich man could have named this reality, could have said thank you to the workers who made his harvest happen; and he could have thanked God for providing the rain, the sun, and the seed to make the land produce as much as it did. But he didn’t. Instead, he looked out his window at the abundant harvest he didn’t cause to fully happen on its own, and he said to himself, “I did it.” 

We’re pretty good at claiming credit, at saying “I did it” when it suits us. And we’re also quick to deny that kind of credit when something interferes with the story we prefer to tell about ourselves. We often celebrate, high five each other, and act as if we were the players on our favorite sports teams when they win a national championship. We easily make their victory into a version of our own. But we also distance ourselves from those moments in our country or in our collective life together that we claim are not part of who we are. We separate ourselves from the fact that things like mass shootings happen in our country every day - from garlic festivals in California to Walmarts in El Paso and, as I woke up this morning, to bars in Dayton, Ohio. We choose to act as if we are not truly part of this reality that we’re already in. Our “I did its,” when stated without reflection or even gratitude, is an attempt by us to imagine we live in a world different from the one we’re truly in. Yet Jesus chose to stay in the real one - in the place where God’s reality confronts and reveals the truth about our own. God names our hurts, our failures, our brokenness, and the ways we let the focus on ourselves, our love of the “I’s,” blind us from seeing the truth and the people who are around us. God names our world as it truly is - yet God also chooses to not let us stay there. Instead, Jesus is already present here, revealing to us what God’s reality, God’s kingdom, can actually be. When we follow Jesus, when we feed others like he did, heal communities like he did, stand up against violence and hate like he did, and when welcome all people like he did - we end up seeing, in a flash, what God’s kingdom is all about. Now, none of that work is easy. It takes guts and courage to reflect on our “I did it” moments with nuance, humility, and gratefulness. It’ll also take hard truths for each of us to own every one of our communal “I did it” realities - including those things we wish weren’t true. Yet we don’t go about this work on our own. Because, in our baptism and in our faith, we have Jesus. And when we cling to him, hold onto him, and work to align our lives away from ourselves and instead towards God and our neighbor*, our world and our community will end up being rocked by a different kind of thunder: one filled with hope, mercy, and a love that will carry us through every storm. 


*Elisabeth Johnson, Working


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Ask and It Will: Prayer Reveals Who God Is [Sermon Manuscript]

[Jesus] was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples." He said to them, "When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial." 

And he said to them, "Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, 'Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.' And he answers from within, 'Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.' I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

"So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"

Luke 11:1-13

Pastor Marc's sermon on the 7th Sunday after Pentecost (July 28, 2019) on Luke 11:1-13. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


You would think, by this point in my life, that I would be pretty good at recognizing when a sixth month old needed to go to sleep. I should, now that I’m on kid number three, be able to notice when she’s only a few minutes away from needing to fall asleep. My real-life training should enable me to swoop in, pick her up, and know exactly what to do so that, after only a few minutes, she’s embraced her naptime zzzs. But there are times when my baby-sleeping skills are not as strong as I expect them to be. I’ll catch her rubbing her eyes and thinking she’s ready for a nap. I pick her up, get her all setup to safely rest for a few hours, and I start carrying her around the house. I then start imagining all the stuff I can get done once she finally falls asleep. Yet that’s when I discover that I didn’t read her correctly. She’s not as tired as I thought she was and since I’m now holding her, she doesn’t want to be put down. The moment I planned to help her fall asleep turns into minutes and maybe hours. It’s not long before I lose feeling right arm while she’s happily talking at me and looking around. It’s not long before the deadpan look of a child needing to fall asleep that I expected to see on her face - is now actually on mine. I end up feeling as if I’m in a sort of a trance, walking around my house and not really seeing what’s in front of me. And it’s at that moment when my sixth month starts getting to work. She’s able to see what I can’t and so, before I know it, she’s grabbing everything that she can. She’s snatching the take-out menus we’ve left out on the counter, the toys scattered on the dinning room table, and all the hand towels and random clothing left around the house. I keep finding her holding things in her hands even though I never see her pick anything up. I swear there are times when I’m pretty sure she’s grabbed stuff that I don’t even own. Yet, when I’m caught up in my own stuff, unable to pay attention to everything that’s around me, she’s still wide-eyed and looking for all the things I can no longer see. She’s able to pay attention when I cannot - and her awareness becomes a defining part of who she is. The ability to always be paying attention is one of the things I think Jesus was trying to get at in our reading from the gospel according to Luke. Today’s passage isn’t only about prayer. Jesus also shared with his friends and with all of us - an insight into what God sees and what God is holding onto in our lives. 

Now, we could spend time today digging into the nuts and bolts of Luke’s version of the Lord’s prayer. This text and it’s counterpart in the gospel according to Matthew is the foundation for what we’ll recite later in our worship service. But, at this moment, I’m drawn to what starts this whole reading off. After praying in a certain place, one of Jesus’ disciples asked: “Lord, teach us how to pray.” Scripture doesn’t tell us the name of the person who made this request but I’m pretty sure everyone had it in mind. Jesus, the Son of God, was literally walking with them so it made sense to ask him what his prayer life was all about. How does he, the One who was there when everything was created - talk, communicate, and connect with the Father and the Holy Spirit? The “how” in that question seems to imply that the disciples were asking a technical question. They, we think, were looking for some training on what techniques they should use in their own prayer life. That training could, we imagine, be used to make our prayers feel more substantial, proper, and holy. Now, since Jesus followed the disciples’ request with a version of the Lord’s prayer, our interpretation of this passage as some kind of technical manual seems to make sense. And if Jesus had stopped talking at verse 4, then Jesus’ answer would be exactly what we were looking for. The Lord’s Prayer could be seen as some kind of technical training that defined how we connect to the creator of the universe. It could then be like a recipe or a list of magic words that convince us that, if we said the right thing in the right order, then God truly would hear our prayers. 

But that kind of guarantee isn’t a very strong one. Because we end up thinking that the Lord’s Prayer is somehow needed to get God to do something. Prayer, then, becomes a way for us to activate God; to make God move towards us - but only on our terms and after we’ve said the magic words. That kind of God is a God that only works on-demand and who remains pretty silent and pretty quiet until we need them. Yet a God who waits for us to move isn’t really the God we get. Instead, as we remember today on this Christmas in July Sunday, Jesus didn’t wait for us to be ready before Jesus, finally, showed up. There was no one magic word or statement or belief that made God live as a human being on earth. And there was no magic word or something or belief that made Jesus show up in your life. Jesus always comes on his terms - because there is no moment when God’s love isn’t on the move. That’s why, I think, Jesus didn’t stop his words with verse 4. Instead, he continued and his answer stopped being technical. Jesus told a parable about an unexpected guest showing up in the middle of the night. And instead of waiting until the morning to take care of them, Jesus admitted how we might shamelessly, and persistently, do whatever we could to take care of them. We didn’t ask that friend to show up. But since they did - we freely and abundantly serve and love them. 

The Rev. Matthew Skinner, professor at Luther Seminary, recently wrote, “everything about a prayer reveals something about what the pray-er thinks God is like.” And according to Jesus, our God is anything but technical. Our God, instead, is in the business of knowing who we are, where we’ve been, what brings us our greatest joys, and what it is that keeps us up late at night. Our God doesn’t wait for us to say some magic word before getting active in our lives. And that, I think, is one of the reasons why we pray. Not because our words will somehow get God to do whatever it is we want but because God has already made the decision to be with us, no matter what. In our baptism and in our faith, we are united with a Jesus who chose to see us as we truly are. When we are caught up in the busyness of our everyday life, plotting through without the time or the energy to reflect on where we’ve been, where we are going, or where we are right now - we have a Jesus who is already there, holding onto all the things we need to help carry us through. Even when we can’t see it, Jesus is making sure that God’s grace, God’s mercy, God’s forgiveness, and God’s love is being given to you. The God who made you, who came into the world for you, who died for you- sees you, values you, and is already listening to you. Your prayers and your silences are not going unheard because God will, shamelessly and persistently, always love you. 



*Questions from - Kristin Berkey-Abbott email on July 15, 2019 from the Christian Century “Sunday's Coming: Putting ourselves in Martha, Mary, and Jesus’ shoes” 


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Reflection: Live/Walk/Move/Engage

I'm going to invite you to do something you might not have done before. I want you to translate a tiny piece of scripture. Now, I'm assuming you do not know Koine Greek, the language the New Testament was written in. And even though I took a semester of Greek in seminary, most of what I learned has faded away. You and I both need other people who are skilled in translating Greek into English and the othe languages that we know. Yet the art of translation isn't an exact science. Since our language changes over time, our translations of the New Testament need to change too. Every translator of Scripture has to make a choice about which word (or words) to use in their work. Usually, only one word or phrase truly matches what the New Testament is getting at. But there are times when other options are available. In today's reading from the letter to the Colossians 2:6-19, we hear the author begin with: “as you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him..." The phrase "to live your lives" is one the church has used to describe our relationship with Christ. We are, through baptism and faith, united with him and that unity impacts every aspect of our life. As we live, we live intimately connected to Jesus.

But that phrase "to live your lives" might feel a little too abstract. We might need something a little more concrete, tangible, or physical to inform how we live our life in Christ. The Koine Greek word there is peripateite which literally means "to walk/walking" It's a word that, in Paul's time, pointed the followers of Jesus to the reality of baptism. Through baptism that we are empowered with God's wisdom to "'walk' in the way of righteousness and live in alignment with paths of justice."* This passage in Colossians is inviting us to recognize how our baptism connects us to the source of new life. The spiritual experiences we have in our life are not what define our relationship with God. God is already with us; we just need to pay attention to the ways God's wisdom is changing us for the better.

When it comes to describing our relationship with Christ, it might be enough to say we "live our lives" in him. But we could translate verse 6 differently. We might make verse 6 to read something like "as you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue walking in him" or "continue walking with him" or "continue walking with and in him." But if the word walking doesn't seem to stick, I invite you to paraphrase the passage in a way that speaks to you. What word or words describe what it's like for you to know that Christ is already in your life? And when you know Christ is in your life, how can you describe the impact he makes in everyone of your life's moments?

*Professor Lois Malcolm, Workin


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Watch Your Tone: what we give Jesus [Sermon Manuscript]

Now as [Jesus and his disciples] went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Luke 10:38-42

Pastor Marc's sermon on the 6th Sunday after Pentecost (July 21, 2019) on Luke 10:38-42. Listen to the recording here, watch the worship service here, or read my manuscript below. 


So I know it’s hot. And I bet, even if you’re sitting by the fans, you’re feeling pretty warm because we’ve already done some stand ups, sit downs, and other liturgical warmups. I’m pretty sure my usual 12 minute sermon, where I talk at you, isn’t going to work on a day like this. But I also know, based on my experience at our mid-week summer worship, that we don’t always mind the heat when we spend our time talking to each other. So that’s what we’re going to do in a few minutes. I’m going to ask you to break into small groups to talk about today’s reading from the gospel according to Luke. And I’m going to invite you to focus on one part of today’s reading - and that’s Jesus’ response to Martha. 

Now, when the gospel of Luke was first written down, it came into being maybe 40 or 50 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. For over a generation, Jesus’ words and stories were shared by people literally talking to each other. So when we read the gospels today, we need to remember that the authors assumed that our talking to each other would be the primary way we shared Jesus’ words and stories. These words were meant to be heard which means how we read these words actually matters. The tone of voice that we give to scripture, the characters, and even Jesus himself can inform, modify, and change what we think these stories mean. If we let Jesus sound only like some kind of college professor, then everything he says becomes a life lesson stored in our brain. Or if we let make Jesus sound like a new age spiritual teacher, then everything he says sounds like its a little mystical and maybe a little too far out. If Jesus’s voice, to us, always sounds stern, then every word he utters feels like a judgement. And if we make Jesus sound too serene, then we might wonder if God is really paying attention to the messiness and suffering in our lives. The tone we let Jesus use influences the meaning we give to his words. 

In groups of maybe 3 or 4 - I want you to spend time with Jesus’ response to Martha. Martha was doing exactly what she and Jesus expected. She was offering hospitality to Jesus and his entire encouraged while welcoming him into her home. Yet she also felt frustrated and she asked Jesus to tell her sister, Mary, to help. So the Lord answered her by repeating her name - twice. And the tone we hear Jesus use in that moment is going to influence what we think Jesus actually said. Each person in your group will read the story out loud but give Jesus’ voice a different tone. Make sure one of your Jesus’ sounds stern, another exhausted and annoyed, and another almost quiet and non-threatening. After each reading, spend a few moments asking each other if the tone influenced what you heard in the story. Once every group is done, we’ll come back together and see if this exercise made any difference. 

After the conversation. 

The story of Martha and Mary and Jesus is a story that invites us to see ourselves in it. We don’t have to make a decision to say we’re only a Martha or a Mary. We can, instead, admit that there are times when flip from one to the other. And that there might even be moments when we are called to be like Jesus among those two sisters. Jesus invites us to ask ourselves questions like, “How do you determine which work is important and which work isn’t? And “how do you hear God’s voice amid the noise of the chores?” He invites us to wonder, “Who is it that’s doing work so that you have the time to sit with important issues?” And how can each of us “defuse anger and frustration?” The answers we give to those questions are influenced not only by what’s happened in our lives but also, I think, they’re influenced by the tone we give to Jesus. We have to make sure that we don’t limit who Jesus is because our imagination of him is too small. So I’m going to invite you to stretch your legs of faith a little bit by, every once in awhile, listening to Jesus speak to you in a slightly different tone. Because that might be how Jesus chooses to reveal to you a new thought, a new experience, or a new reality of your faith that ends up informing and influencing everything else that you do. 



*Questions from - Kristin Berkey-Abbott email on July 15, 2019 from the Christian Century “Sunday's Coming: Putting ourselves in Martha, Mary, and Jesus’ shoes” 


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Reflection: Image Of

What does it mean for you to think about Christ as the image of the invisible God? Our first reading today (Colossians 1:15-28) continues what we heard last week. The author of the letter to the Colossians is writing to the faith community in the town of Colossae, a city in western Turkey. The author is hoping to strengthen their faith by inviting them to live their life in a new way. Since they are now part of the body of Christ (i.e. the church), they no longer have to live life as if everything depends on them. Instead, they are free to embrace their identity as followers of Jesus. This identity makes a difference in their everyday life because it makes love the central thing we are called to do. Our faith isn’t something that stays only in our head; faith is always lived in what we say and do.

But it’s not always easy to live out our faith, especially when it feels as if God’s face is turned away from us. When we are hurting, suffering, or in pain, we can wonder if God has turned against us. When we are caught up in the busyness of everyday life, we even forget to take a moment to spend time with God through prayer, worship, and study. I’m sure there are moments in your life when you wish you could see God face-to-face, hoping that the creator of the universe would offer you some guidance, hope, or encouragement. We want to see God – but we’re not always sure where God is.

That’s why verse 15 is such an important verse for our life of faith. God showed up in Jesus which makes his entire ministry a roadmap showing us where God is. God is there when people are hungry, inviting us to feed them. God is there when children cry out, inviting us to welcome them. God is there when people make a personal sacrifice so that others, including strangers, may have a better chance at life. God is there when we feel forgotten and when we, selfishly, push others to the side. God was there when we, unwilling to realize what God’s love is all about, nailed Jesus to the cross. God is there because love always has the final word. As followers of Jesus, we see God through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. And God makes a promise to be visibly present when we gather to worship in Jesus’ name, when we share in the feast of holy communion, and when we love each other like God first loved us. 


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What We Do: Pastor Marc's article in the Messenger, our Monthly Newsletter, for Summer 2019

What is it that makes Christ Lutheran Church what it is?

I’ve been thinking about that question quite a bit as we near our 60th Anniversary. This church on the corner of Pascack Road and Dam Road (which is what Church Road used to be call) first met in the local school house before purchasing the land it now sits on. The land used to be an apple orchard with a farmhouse that might have been a stop on the Underground Railroad. After receiving seed money from a church in Brooklyn, we have spent the last 60 years showing what God’s love, grace and kindness are all about. Countless people have been fed through worship, study, and through the many social action ministries (like the Genesis Garden) that help all people thrive. We are, I believe, a community that spiritually and physically feeds others. When the church council looked around to see what other faith communities we should support with our 60th anniversary thank offering, we used our own history as a guide. We looked for a developing congregation active in feeding people’s spiritual and physical needs. Santa Isabel Lutheran Church in Elizabeth is feeding not only the Latinx community in its neighborhood but is also meeting an unmet spiritual need for those currently in the Elizabeth Immigrant Detention Center. We see in Jesus’ own ministry a model for our own. The way we feed others is just one of the parts that make Christ Lutheran Church what we are.

This August, we’re going to try an experiment during worship on Sunday mornings. Each Sunday, we’ll participate in a “prayer exchange.” You’ll be invited to make a commitment to intentionally pray for someone else in the congregation. You’ll be given a name (chosen at random) and asked to pray for them during your daily prayers. If you are able, we ask that you connect with that person during coffee hour to ask them what they need prayer for. We invite you to only share what you are comfortable sharing and to respect the sacred responsibility that comes with prayer.

One of the ways we feed the faith life of the people around us is by praying for them. I’m looking forward to trying something new with you this summer.

See you in church!
Pastor Marc


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Recognize: Defining Community (Sermon Manuscript)

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" He said to him, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?" He answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." And he said to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live." But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" Jesus replied, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, 'Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.' Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" He said, "The one who showed him mercy." Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."

Luke 10:25-37

Pastor Marc's sermon on the 5th Sunday after Pentecost (July 14, 2019) on Luke 10:25-37. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


Amy-Jill Levine is a professor of New Testament at Vanderbilt University. She’s a prolific writer, speaks often at conferences and in churches, and she’s a member of an orthodox Jewish synagogue. Recently, she was asked why she, a Jewish scholar, “came to focus on the New Testament? What [was it] ...about Jesus that drew [her] in?” She said, “I think Jesus is fascinating. Plus he’s Jewish, so he’s one of ours. The more I read not only the words attributed to him but also the stories told about him, the more intriguing I find the material.” That phrase, “he’s one of ours” is one of the reasons why Professor Levine worked on understanding the people who first met Jesus and how they responded to his words and his ministry. So for today’s sermon, I’m going to use her work to shape one possible interpretation of today’s story from the gospel according to Luke. Now for those of us who have been in the church for some time, the parable of the Good Samaritan is a story we’re pretty familiar with it. Even if we struggle to remember all its details, we’re pretty sure we could share its message with others. The Good Samaritan was the one who showed mercy while the religious professionals, a priest and Levite, passed by on the other side. It’s a powerful story because the question, “who is my neighbor?” is one that never goes out of style. Jesus’ words mean that we cannot ignore this question or let someone else answer it for us. We are, according to Jesus, called to treat everyone as our neighbor - including those we try to separate and push away. 

Now, the parables of Jesus do more than use simple stories to explain a point. They also contain elements that surprise us because they take our assumptions about the world and about God and show how those are untrue. Parables, then, are designed to shock us into seeing the world in a different way. So, in the time of Jesus, what part of the parable of the Good Samaritan who shock someone who was Jewish? This isn’t an easy question to answer because the world Jesus inhabited is a bit different from our own. Even Judaism, as a faith and a people, has changed over these last 2000 years. And that community was heavily defined by events that happened a generation after Jesus’ death - when the Roman Empire destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, sending its many religious leaders and teachers into exile. Yet there are certain things that have, over time, stayed relatively consistent. And we can use those insights to try and reverse engineer what a 1st century Jewish person might have viewed as shocking. According to Professor Levine, the default behavior for every Jewish person was, and is, to treat everyone as their neighbor. The neighbor includes the people who look and sound like you but also the sojourner, the stranger, and the alien  who lives among you. So if we looked at the actions of each character in Jesus’ parable, what the good Samaritan did was the default expectation for everyone in the community. That expectation, then, might encourage us to give the priest and the Levite some kind of motivation to explain why they didn’t do what they were supposed to. We typically do that by saying that those two were worried about touching someone who was dying. If the person who was hurt was actually dead, the priest and the Levite could become ritually impure - meaning they couldn’t do the religious jobs - leading worship, saying prayers, and the like - the community expected of them. But that might not necessarily be what Jesus is trying to highlight. Because, according to Professor Levine, the issue of ritual purity doesn’t really apply to this text. Scholars have uncovered a lot of documentation showing how all Jewish people, regardless of their status as a priest or a Levite, who would be concerned about seeing someone suffering. Nowhere are Levites really restricted from touching the dead and the priest, in this case, was not going to Jerusalem so any so-called impurity wouldn’t actually interfere with his religious work. The priest and the Levite do not act neighborly - but their actions might not be why they are included in the story. Rather, Jesus uses them as part of a giant setup - one that those listening to Jesus would expect and that would use to, ultimately, up end that expectation. 

According to Professor Levine, Jews generally back then (and even now) fit into one of three groups: priests, Levites, and Israelites. The priests were those who were descended from Aaron - Moses’ brother - while the others were descendants of the 12 tribes of Israel. So when someone told a story, naming a priest and a levite, everyone in the crowd expected to hear the third. It’s sort of like a setup we might expect in a joke. Many of us have heard something along the lines of “a priest, a rabbi, and an atheist walk into a bar.” Once we hear “a priest and a rabbi,” we already expect who’s going to show up next. When Jesus’ audience heard him mention the priest and the Levite - they expected the Israelite to be the person who would show up next. But instead - it’s the Samaritan. And that’s what shocked those who first heard Jesus tell this story almost 2000 years ago. Because the Samaritan was a religious enemy of the Jewish people. For centuries, the two groups had argued about who God was and where God was to be worshiped. They had rioted against each other, tore up one another’s worship spaces, and did all that they could to not get along. Any story about a priest and a Levite wasn’t supposed to include the enemy at all. Yet there they were in Jesus’ story. And each person would then wonder where the Israelite was. As the story unfolded, and Jesus told each and every detail, the crowd would suddenly realize where they were in the story. The Isrealite, i.e. themselves, was the one who was hurt, left on the side of the road. And it’s the enemy, the one who they believe could only bring them harm, that actually showed what God’s love is all about. 

As much as this passage is about what we do for others, it’s also an invitation for us to expand our definition of community - because community might even include our enemy. It would be easy to make that last statement be pretty theoretical, something we merely say but that we don’t really truly consider. But Jesus’ words require us to take this statement seriously. And we do that by admitting all the people we define as our enemies. Who are the people you wouldn’t want living next to you? Who are the ones you wouldn’t want to even run into when you’re out and about on the road? Who are the folks that the voices you surround yourself with tell you should be ostracized and pushed aside? And who are the ones, who just by being here, make you feel afraid?  The parable of the Good Samaritan isn’t only an invitation for us to treat all people well. It’s a reminder that our definition of who is in and out of our community isn’t one we get to make. Because when Jesus was on the Cross, his arms were outstretched and opened to all. And that all - means all, including those we view as our enemy and those who see us as their enemy too. When we hear Jesus’ words today, we sometimes act as if we’re supposed to see ourselves as the Good Samaritan. But we’re also can also imagine ourselves as the one who needs help. Is our definition of community big enough to include seeing our so-called enemy as the one who might save us? And can we accept that our stereotypes and fears will not be the limit that God allows in God’s kingdom? 



*Material from The Jewish Annotated New Testament, 2011. 


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Reflection: Trinity and Trinity

Letters in the ancient world followed a pattern. They began with a greeting, a prayer of thanks, and then the main content. Scholars are not 100% sure if Paul wrote the letter to the Colossians because its style and wording don't fit the other letters Paul wrote. However, people were comfortable attributing this letter to Paul because, in the ancient world, it wasn't considered negative to write in the name of someone else. These kinds of letters were assumed to have been composed with Paul's teaching and faith in mind. They were from Paul's "school of thought" and congregations were invited to treat it as such.

Today's first reading (Colossians 1:1-14) is a selection that focuses on the prayer of thanksgiving. The author began by naming the school of thought and who they were writing the letter to. The author had recently discovered that there was a Christian community in the town of Colossae, a city in western Turkey. The author had never been there but learned about this community through its founder, Epaphras. The Christians in Colossae had a strong faith in Jesus Christ; they loved one another; and they had a firm hope in the eternal life God has already given to them. Through the work of Epaphras and the Holy Spirit, they experienced God reorienting their lives through Jesus Christ. And now that their lives had changed, the author invited them to start living their new life, right now.

For the author of Colossians, the trinity of faith, love, and hope is matched by the trinity of knowledge, wisdom, and understanding. These words were, in the ancient Roman world, focused on our everyday living. We live the way God wants us to live when we stay rooted in God's wisdom. But God's wisdom is not something that only stays in our head. God's wisdom is always lived out through the choices and decisions we make in our lives. It isn't enough to claim that loving our neighbors as ourselves works—in theory. We are, instead, called to make that kind of love a reality here on earth. We do this by reminding ourselves, every day, that through Christ, we have been rescued from living our life on our own. We are, through the Spirit, already being made wise. And when we stick with Jesus, we can finally discover how we can love this world as deeply as God loves each of us.


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