Questions and Reflections

Being Community: Inclusion at the Table [Sermon Manuscript]

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus.] 
And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

So he told them this parable:“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Luke 15:1-10

Pastor Marc's sermon on the 14th Sunday after Pentecost (September 15, 2019) on Luke 15:1-10. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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We’re already in week 2 of the NFL Football season and I - like many of you - have already declared this year a rebuilding one. I had the privilege last week of watching my beloved Denver Broncos loss and so I’m settling in for a long season. The feeling of being hopeful - but not really - isn’t unfamiliar to the fans of many different teams. Yet my poor expectations for the Broncos does mean I’m going to often see them commit one of my favorite unintentional offensive plays. The play I’m think of typically takes place in the second or third quarter, right when I feel like they’re gaining some momentum. After moving the ball down the field, I let myself believe that they might score some points. Even though I know I should know better, I still let a little smidigin of hope bubble up and I think they might actually turn the game around. The teams line up. The ball is snapped. The quarterback drops back and the defense closes in. Then, either through the skill of the opposing players or some bizarre twist of fate - the quarterback fumbles the ball. But it’s not just any kind of fumble. No, it’s the one where no one, at first, has any idea where the ball went. No one has any clue where the ball is but everyone is desperate to find it. They look this way and that until, at the exact same moment, everyone sees the ball. What once was lost has now been found - and it’s a free-for-all to try and grab it. Sometimes the outcome of such a play is good for us. But most of the time, it’s not. In that moment, our expectations were undone, to be replaced by a reality that we should have trusted as there all along. 

Today’s text from the gospel according to Luke begins on Jesus’ field. Pharisees and scribes, the religious authorities and the people who we’d expect to know God well, described Jesus as “welcoming sinners.” And that gives us a sense about what Jesus was doing. The Greek word we translate as “welcome,” also means “hosting.” Jesus wasn’t just inviting people to watch his first century version of a TED talk. He was also hosting meals. Jesus was throwing dinner parties and all sorts of people showed up. Pharisees and scribes came but also tax collectors and sinners. Those who believed they were “right with the Lord” found themselves sitting next to the “wrong” kind of people and were feeling uncomfortable. It’s important to realize that Luke, in this passage, wasn’t using the word “sinners” to mean “everyone” since we all truly live lives that fail to love God and neighbors as much as we focus on ourselves. No, Luke meant sinners - the people, if they sat next to us, we would try to move away from. I’m sure there are many times when we’ve found ourselves shifting, shuffling, and scooting away just like the scribes were. But there might be other times when we, as we sat down at a table, noticed everyone shrinking away from us. The people coming to Jesus’ table included people everyone we might try to separate ourselves from. Because Jesus’ guestlist was big - with the righteous, holy, religious - and even people we wouldn’t want to eat dinner with at all. 

So the grumbling at Jesus’ dinner party began and I imagine that made everyone uncomfortable. Jesus could have tried to weave and dance inside that pocket of tension for awhile. But at some point, he had to address it. And so he did - because his ministry involved telling the truth and not letting the uncomfortable thing be left unsaid. He chose to tell this truth in the form of three short stories - three parables - two of which we heard today. Each parable started with something being lost; that lost thing then being found; and each one ended with a gathering of friends and neighbors and a call to celebrate and rejoice. The rejoicing at the end of these parables was more involved that, say, updating your status on Facebook and waiting for the likes and congratulations balloons to roll in. The gathering Jesus described in his stories were always a party - a feast - where the entire community showed up. Jesus, while in the middle of hosting a dinner party, made sure that each of his parables ended with a dinner party of their own. And those parties were filled with neighbors and friends who didn’t grumble over the guest list. Instead, they shouted with joy because what was lost had now been found. That joy was why they were gathered together in the first place. And everyone - all neighbors, friends, and the entire community, were invited to sit together at the same table and eat. 

When we start by looking at who’s at the table rather than the reason for the table in the first place, we end up fumbling and losing sight of Jesus. The people Jesus gathered together at his table were not, first and foremost, defined by what they’ve done. He chose to see them as beloved children of God he knew they were. His relationship to us and to the world - starts there. All our “stuff,” our histories and our experiences do not limit his love. That doesn’t mean, however, that Jesus chooses to ignore our sin - those innumerable ways we fail to love God and each other. He is always aware of the many different ways we try to define and control the various guest lists in our communities. He’s watched us shift away from those around us and how we’ve let our feelings of “being uncomfortable” define what we fear.  He’s seen the work we’ve done to decide who belongs and who doesn’t in our neighborhoods. Jesus knows all of that sin and yet He doesn’t let our sin limit his interactions with all of us. He chooses to make grace, mercy, and love be at the heart of who he is so that even the people we shrink away from will know that they mean everything to God. In Christ, we are given a host that does not try to restrict who is welcomed at his table. Instead, he always chooses to expand it [which we will see shortly as Abigail, Elizabeth, Oliver, and Will embrace the seat at Jesus’ table that has already been set up for them.] Every time we try to deny a seat to someone at Jesus’ table, he chooses to pick them up, making a turnover out of our sin. Because the center of his relationship to all of us is defined by the meal he serves - a meal where he gives us everything, including his body, his blood, and his blessing. Jesus does not hold back his welcome and we, I believe, are called to do the same. Jesus’ table is not here to only include those people who make us feel comfortable. Jesus’ table also includes those who make us shift about in our seat. Yet all of us are invited to be His guest at His table. And it’s there when we are fed and fully seen. God sees us exactly as we are - including all the times we fail to make a play in the game that is our life. Yet at His table, you are welcomed. And the seat he has for you is one he will never fumble away. 

Amen. 
 



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Reflection: Change Your Mind

What do we do with a God who changed? I realize that's a bit of a provocative statement because we believe (and I believe it too) that God does not change. Yet we are often confronted by a God, especially in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) who does change. In today's story from Exodus 32:1-14, God's mind is changed when confronted by Moses. The story began at Mount Sinai. After being rescued from slavery in Egypt, the Israelites encamped around the holy mountain. Moses went up the mountain to talk with God but stayed hidden in the clouds for a bit too long. With Moses gone for so long, the community grew nervous. They were in a land they were unfamiliar with and had no clear vision of where to go next. Moses gave them a sense that God was with them but that was now missing. The community needed some tangible connection with the divine. So in a moment of need, Aaron, God's high-priest and spokesperson, helped build a golden calf to be worshipped and celebrated. Moses, not knowing what had happened in the camp, was informed by God about the building of the idol. God, very abruptly, chose to renounce kingship over the community by calling the Israelites "Your [aka Moses'] people." The community turned away from God and deserved to be punished. God let Moses know that God's judgment was about to come.

Yet one of the interesting things about this text is also what it doesn't say. Although anger and wrath were mentioned, nowhere does the text explicitly say: "God's anger flared up." Instead, that phrase was reserved for their dialogue. It's implied but never fully stated that God was angry. What God does say, however, is for Moses to "let me alone." This command, at first, seemed simple enough. But God was probably using a bit of reverse psychology. God wanted Moses to ignore God's command. God wanted Moses to intervene and Moses did. Instead of accepting God's commitment to violence or God's invitation to clone Moses for the nation itself, Moses defended the people worshipping the idol below. The community that rebelled against God and often against Moses was the community Moses said God must protect. God’s promises were not directed towards perfect people. God's promises were made to the broken, the imperfect, and those who often fail. God's promises were, and still are, made to people just like us.

God, in the end, changed God's mind. God articulated a desire to Moses and then rescinded it. Moses stood up to God by reminding God of God's own character. God is faithful; God is slow to anger; God is love. God's own unchanging character means that God's mind will often be changed. God will offer forgiveness, grace, and mercy, before wrath and violence. God will keep God's promises because those promises are what's truly unchanging about God. So when we talk to God in our own prayers, sometimes the most faithful thing we can do is be a bit like Moses and remind God of the promises God has already made to us and to our world.



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Give [up]: Did Jesus say that? [Sermon Manuscript]

Now large crowds were traveling with [Jesus]; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

Luke 14:25-33

Pastor Marc's sermon on the 13th Sunday after Pentecost (September 8, 2019) on Luke 14:25-33. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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I’m pretty sure that some of you, like myself, have spent time living in the worlds little kids create. These worlds, of course, are pretty amazing. They’re filled with all kinds of monsters and heroes, taking place in exotic locations that would make film director Peter Jackson very jealous. We might find ourselves having a lovely tea party on the moon with Belle from Beauty and the Beast only to suddenly find ourselves in the fight of our lives against whatever one of the many villains from the Power Rangers TV show. We are absorbed into an adventure where we, as grownups, have little say on what happens next. We might try to interject - to take some over the top situation - and tone it down into something a bit more manageable.  But when we’re living in the worlds kids created, we’re not called to weaken the impact of their words. Instead, we take everything they say seriously. Which means we will sometimes have to put on a silly hat; speak in a silly voice; and re-enact last year’s Super Bowl while facing the entire superhero cast of Avengers: Endgame. The world kids speak into being is a world we find ourselves living into. And once we enter their world, we might discover how their vision of the world can end up changing our own.


Today’s reading from the gospel according to Luke is a hard one. And it’s totally okay to admit that. Not only does it seem odd for Jesus to tell us to hate our mother and father - it’s doubly weird to hear these words on a day when a mother and a father will bring their twin baby boys up to the baptismal font. Our instinct might be to try and lessen the impact of these words. We might assume that Jesus was being over the top, using hyperbole as a way to get people’s attention. And that instinct isn’t, necessarily, wrong. Jesus did live in a world where rabbis regularly used hyperbole as a way to make their point. Over the top statements were part of their religious language and it was how prophets, teachers, and preachers invited us into the world as God knew it could be. But we shouldn’t use the presence of over the top statements as an excuse to ignore the hard words Jesus said. Jesus meant what he said. Yet he trusts that we can, with the help of the Holy Spirit, figure out what that means. Now, there are a number of ways we can do that. We can, for example, keep Jesus’ words in context, connecting the hard ones with the themes, plot, and point of view that makes that particular book of the Bible unique. We can also spend time learning about the culture of Jesus’ day, trying to understand how those following Jesus would have first understood these words. Yet if our understanding of the first century near east is a little light, we could also choose to pray through these verses, using our personal experiences of faith as a guide to unpack the hard things Jesus said. But if none of that works, there’s still one more Holy Spirit based trick up our sleeve. Instead of reading these verses from the beginning of the passage, we can read them starting at the end. Because Jesus’ words are supposed to take us somewhere - and if we know where he’s going, we can figure out where he began. 
Now, at first, this trick doesn’t seem to help us much. Jesus’ ending words are as hard as his first. Not only does he tell us to hate our family, he ends by telling us to give all our possessions. Jesus is, once again, embracing hyperbole; he’s being over the top on purpose. But it’s interesting telling that Jesus has moved from talking about family ties to possessions. There’s movement in his thoughts and we’re invited to go with him. If we step into the world at that point, we begin with nothing but ourselves. Our bank account, our job, and even our home is not there.  There’s just us and we got there, according to Jesus, because we paid attention to the cost of following him. Like a builder making a tower or a king going to war, we took the time to count up the costs of answering the call of God. And this call, as we go backwards through the passage, isn’t only about healing and wholeness. It’s also centered in being ready to carry the cross. The cross Jesus talked about here wasn’t metaphorical and he wasn’t being over the top. He was pointing to the reality of having Jesus in our lives while living in a world that chases after power, control, and one that chooses to live in fear. Being with Jesus isn’t easy; there’s a cost when we follow him. Because the world of love and hope Jesus imagines for us is a world we do our best to make less real.


In a few moments, Hunter and Hudson, along with their parents and sponsors, will come up here to meet Jesus in the baptismal font. This meeting isn’t only just to a beautiful moment. It’s also an event when all of us - parents, sponsors, and the entire congregation - live into the world Jesus’ words bring to life. It’s here where we’ll make many promises, including the promise to bring them God’s word instead of only our own. We will promise to nurture them and to surround them with a community which knows that love, mercy, and grace are the primary ways God chooses to be with us. And since God acts this way to us, we are called to bring the same and gifts to our neighbors - including strangers. We will promise, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to show Hunter and Hudson what it means to be sealed with the cross of Christ. And we will, through our words and actions, show Hunter and Hudson that life with Christ isn’t always easy but is one where love, instead of fear, makes each day full and life-giving. Together, we will give life to the world Jesus’ words created - one where all that have, including our relationships, our possessions, and even our identity is transformed by Jesus. Whether we realize it or not, no part of our lives are off limits to him. Because when we are all in with Jesus, we will never be the same. 


The hard words in today’s reading aren’t, I think, Jesus’ way of trying to get people to think twice before stop following him. Instead, they’re an invitation to a way of life that knows there’s a better adventure for us when we fully embrace God’s call. *Mark Ralls, pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church, wrote about watching “a mother teaching her young son how to swim.  She stood before him as he moved along the surface [of the pool], his arms and legs in rhythm. He was also aware of the dreaded deep end. As soon as they crossed the floating markers and the water turned a darker shade of blue, [the young son] would panic, lifting his head and flailing his arms. His mother  would encourage him: ‘Do not be afraid. I am still with you. Swimming in the deep end is no different than swimming in the shallow end. Trust me.” Jesus’ words today are that kind of encouragement for Hunter, Hudson, and all of us. Jesus is telling us to “hold nothing back, to be all God has called us to be.” We are here to live into the world as God knows it can be - a world where Jesus’ life-giving love knows no bounds. Because Jesus, through the Cross, gave each of us a new life where justice, peace, care, and grace are not part of an imaginary but, instead, are here and are very real. 

Amen. 
 

*Feasting on the Word, Luke, Volume 2. 



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Reflection: Past, Present, and Future

400 years ago, the first ship with enslaved Africans landed in the English colony of Virginia. The number of men and women on that boat was small but they represented a system of slavery that continues to impact us today. The system would help build and enrich the original English colonies and the young United States. No part of our nation was untouched by slavery. Even our neighborhood in Northern New Jersey saw the effects of slavery first hand. This week it was reported in the Pascack Press about the discovery of a "Wampum Factory" that thrived in Park Ridge. Wampum were beads made out of shells that were considered sacred by various Native American communities. In the 18th and 19th century, the Park Ridge area took shells imported from the Caribbean and turned them into beads. This work was done not only by the employees of the factory; it was also done by enslaved persons of African descent. Slavery was not an institution that existed in places far from New Jersey. Slavery existed in our neighborhood as well. And, at its core, the system viewed people (especially African-descent people) as property.

Slavery was not a new idea 400 years ago. Even during the time of Jesus and Paul, the institution of slavery was very real. Neither Paul nor Jesus condemned the practice or demand its destruction. On some level, they seemed to accept slavery as part of the DNA of the world. As Christianity expanded throughout the Mediterranean and the Near East, all kinds of people started to follow Jesus. The social and cultural divisions between people found themselves challenged by a Jesus who united all. His church started to include not only the poor, and rich; it also included the enslaved and those who enslaved them.

Today's reading from Philemon 1:1-21 is centered in this tension. Philemon was a wealthy follower of Jesus who Paul knew well. One of Philemon's slaves, Onesimus, seems to have fled from Philemon and ran into Paul. During his time with Paul, Onesimus became a follower of Jesus. Paul wrote to Philemon, letting him know that he was sending Onesimus back to him. Philemon would be welcoming back a person he had legal power over. Onesimus was, in the eyes of the government, Philemon's property. But as a follower of Jesus, how should Philemon view Onesimus instead?

This is the question at the heart of Paul's letter to Philemon. As followers of Jesus, our relationships with each other must be transformed by the relationship we have with Jesus Christ. This relationship cannot see others as property, dirty, or different. It must be rooted in the love Jesus first gives each to us. This love is not easy nor is it always clear what this love looks like in our everyday life. But God's love must be at the heart of every relationship that we have.



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Reflection: For the Sake of Relationships

Today's reading from Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 follows what we heard last week. After describing God's power (aka God as a consuming fire), the author of Hebrews immediately followed with the line, "Let mutual love continue." These two thoughts, "for indeed our God is a consuming fire" (12:29) and "Let mutual love continue" are jarring when read next to each other. Neither passage seems to relate to the other. Some scholars believe that this disconnect between the two chapters shows us that chapter 13 wasn't originally part of the letter to the Hebrews. But since we do not have any copies of this letter without chapter 13, we cannot confirm or deny this theory. What we can do, however, is admit that chapter 12 and chapter 13 do not flow into each other. There is a separation between these two chapters that leaves us feeling out of sorts. Yet this separation might help us understand one of the major themes of the letter. The author of Hebrews wrote to a community struggling with their faith. Individuals within the church had stopped attending worship. Some were no longer praying for each other. The community felt stuck and was starting to fall apart. People were feeling distant from one another. That separation within the community is matched by the separation we see in chapter 12 and 13. The community struggled to see the value of faith and their life together was suffering because of it.

When viewed through this lens, chapter 13 becomes a plea for people to act like they care for one another. This care does not depend on how we feel about each other. Rather, we care because we are included in God's history with God's people. Through our baptism, we are grafted onto the old story of God dealing faithfully with all people. These people are identified in the Hebrew Scriptures (aka the Old Testament) and in the stories of the faith-filled people around us. All people within this community are people who wrapped up in the story God is already telling. We love, care, and serve each other because Jesus, through the Cross, has loved and served us. Our life as a community should resemble the life Christ lived.

And one way this life looks like is through the sharing of power. In the words of Rev. Timothy Adkins-Johns, "following a Savior [who] has been defined throughout [Hebrews] by the sacrifice that he represents for us all, [so] we are called then to join in the sacrifice of our own position in order to build relationships." Mutual love is about realizing the power we have and making sacrifices to empower those around us. Only when we are honest about who we are and what we have can we truly discover what we can offer And what we offer does not depend on what others actually do or believe. Rather, we give because Jesus has already loved us and the Jesus we follow is bigger than only the present moment. Since "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever," we are called to be a community that lives like Jesus always mattered.



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Prayed For [Sermon Manuscript]

Now [Jesus] was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

Luke 13:10-17

Pastor Marc's sermon on the 11th Sunday after Pentecost (August 25, 2019) on Luke 13:10-17. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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So when Kate and I got married, I knew our life together would have its share of joys. Some of that joy was exactly what I expected - like the birth of our children , the various adventures we’ve been on, and what it’s like growing older together. But there was one joy that showed up at the beginning of our marriage that I didn’t expect to be as special as it was. And that’s because when we married, I regained grandparents. Growing up, I only knew one of my grandparents and he died when I was in high school. I still remember everything about him - like how he loved going to mass, got a kick out of watching the Phillies play, and how he always bought polo shirts at garage sales but only when they had other people’s names stitched on them. My grandfather would then, when he met someone new, introduce himself with the name on the shirt. I still miss him and I know I always will. But it was neat to marry into a family with a set of grandparents that let me call them Grampy and Grammy. They were wonderful, salt of the earth kind of folks, with their own personalities, quirks, and humor. They were also devout Christians and they had a habit of including the entire family into their religious rituals. That meant they gave me the same yearly devotional calendar everyone received on Christmas. But it also meant that, even before we were married, they included me in their prayer life. It’s hard to describe what it was like to know that Grammy prayed for me. But knowing that she did, I think, changed me. I knew, even on the weeks when I was too tired or sad or angry to pray, God still heard someone else say my name. I was worthy of prayer and on some days, that grace made all the difference. 

Now, during August, we participated in a prayer experiment here at church. Every Sunday, you wrote your name on a piece of green paper and dropped it in the baptismal font. You later took a card from the font and we invited you to include that person in your personal prayers. Sometimes, you knew exactly what the other person needed. Other times, all you had was their name. You might have struggled to figure out how to pray for them because saying their name didn’t feel like it was enough. Praying for others can be awkward - but, this time, when you prayed, someone else was praying for you. I wonder what that felt like. I wonder if this experiment moved you in some way. And I’d like for us to take a few moments to talk to each other about it. Even if you didn’t have a chance to participate in our prayer experiment, I want you to remember a time when you were prayed for by name. Let’s break off into groups of 3 or 4 people, and let’s talk about what it was like to pray for someone else and what it felt like to know that someone prayed for you.

 

Break into groups. And then, after you wrap up and see if people share - move to the gospel.

 

Now as we talk about our experiences of being prayed for, I find myself wondering about the prayer life of the woman in today’s reading from the gospel according to Luke. Scripture doesn’t tell us much about who she was but that doesn’t mean we can’t use our imagination to flesh out her story. I’m sure she prayed the same prayers we do. She asked God to make her well. But as the years went on, I bet her prayers changed. She knew she wasn’t getting better so she might have asked God to teach her the right prayers to say that might fix her. Yet, when that didn’t seem to work, she hoped that God would at least grant her a few moments of relief and peace. Her prayer life, I imagine, was strong. And I bet there were others who prayed for her. 

I say that because this story takes place in a synagogue. There was an entire community that knew her. And this community took their job as being faithful - pretty seriously. We see that in the actions of the synagogue’s leader. They valued the sabbath and wanted to make sure it was available for everyone. We tend to imagine the sabbath as being a day when people don’t work; as if it’s meant to be empty. But it really isn’t. The sabbath was also a day when everyone, including slaves and farm animals, had their productivity interrupted by a God who told them to just stop. The sabbath was designed as a day to pull us out from the busyness of the week and remind us that God is present with us all. The leader in this story wanted to “preserve a positive aspect of their...faith…[so] they set up rules” to protect it. But our desire to protect what is important can sometimes cause us to miss why it’s important in the first place. The woman coming to the synagogue wasn’t doing work and she wasn’t asking for a work to help her. She needed grace. And that’s what Jesus gave her. Because “if it was permissible to untie animals and let them drink, [it certainly] should be permissible to untie a woman from her bondage.”* The Sabbath isn’t meant to be a day defined by its emptiness of work. It’s also a day, according to Jesus, designed for the giving of grace. That grace can be as dramatic as healing someone through the gifts God has given us. But it can also be as small as naming someone in your prayers. There will be times when our prayer will feel like it’s work. We will find ourselves adding a reminder on our phone to tell us it’s time to pray. We might think this need for a reminder shows that we’re not praying correctly. And we’ll be worried that our prayers are not doing any good because so little seems to change. Those moments are completely normal and they're a sign that we should pray, anyways. Because, as we heard from those around us, being prayed for actually makes a difference. And since Jesus is already part of your life, you can be like him, by giving grace to others through your ability to pray. 

 

Amen.

*Feasting on the Word, Luke, Volume 2. 



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Reflection: Consuming Fire

For the last two weeks, we've met a God of fire. Today's reading from Hebrews 12:18-29  begins by describing how Moses met on Mt. Sinai but it doesn't stay there. By the end, we've moved on to the heavenly Jerusalem, Jesus, and how "our God is a consuming fire." A God who is fire is a bit scary. Like I said last week, we are way more comfortable with a God who is love, mercy, and forgiveness. We don't usually like to say that God is fire because fire, to us, burns. Fire can be scary. Our technology has gotten so advanced; we don't usually notice the fire that's around us. But in Jesus' time, fire was always present. The night was illumined by the flames from candles and torches. Food was cooked in ovens heated by open fires. Blacksmith shops and jewelers used super- heated fire to refine metal into something more whole and pure. Fire was, and still is, dangerous. But fire, in Jesus' time, defined was a visible part of everyday life. The fire around him did more than destroy or cause harm. Instead, it gave light, warmth, and food to the community. A God who was all consuming wasn't only burning things up. God was also refining people into something new. The God would could shake mountains is the same God who has consumed you. And, in the process, God is already shaping you into who you are meant to be.

Today's passage has been used to push aside or downplay the Jewish experience. It begins with comments about Moses meeting God at Mt. Sinai and then points to our meeting Jesus in the new Jerusalem. Our instinct might be to try and compare the two experiences but I don't think we have to. I'm not sure if the author of Hebrews is trying to say that one experience is better than the other. Instead, it's possible that the author was trying to remind the people he was speaking to (who were mostly not Jewish) that they have already met God. In baptism, in worship, and in the love we share with each other, that's how we see and experience Jesus Christ. We might want or desire a moment like Moses had on Mt. Sinai but we have, through the ordinary experience of church, already met Jesus himself. It isn't only those big and over-the-top experiences of God that shape, form, and refine us. It's also the little moments, the mundane one we don't even recognize as moments, that make us who we are. You have already met Jesus and he's already become a part of your life. And since that's true, that means when people meet you, they're meeting Jesus too. That is one of the gifts and challenges of our baptism. We are, through Jesus, united with him and his entire community. But that also means that we are the primary medium through whom people meet Jesus. You are, by baptism, connected with the God that can shake heaven itself. And that connection also means that, with the help of the Holy Spirit, the love, grace, and mercy you share can move mountains too.



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Is this Jesus? [Sermon Manuscript]

[Jesus said]: "I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law."

He also said to the crowds, "When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, 'It is going to rain'; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, 'There will be scorching heat'; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?"

Luke 12:49-56

Pastor Marc's sermon on the 10th Sunday after Pentecost (August 18, 2019) on Luke 12:49-56. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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Today’s reading from the gospel according to Luke isn't typically one of our favorites. I haven’t met too many people who have these words written on a piece of reclaimed wood that is now hanging in their family room. It’s a bit hard for us, I think, to connect the Jesus who was born in a manger with the one we hear today. We remember that at Jesus’ birth, the angels told the shepherds to “not be afraid.” Yet here he is, pointing to fire. 1600 years ago, Ambrose, the Bishop of Milian, wrote “are we to believe that [Jesus] has commanded discord within families? ...How does [this Jesus] say, ‘My peace I give to you, my peace I leave with you,” if he has come to separate [children] from [parents] and [parents] from [children]...” For a long time, the church has struggled with passages like this one. We’ve tended to ignore them, push them aside, or only use them as a tool to attack those we disagree with. But when it comes to our practice of faith, especially in our families and in our churches, we prefer a Jesus who is softer and more gentle. We want our Jesus to unite us, to overcome the divisions of our world, since we’ve seen how he invited even little children to come close to him. Yet the Jesus depicted in today’s text seems to almost relish splitting families apart. I’ll admit this isn’t the Jesus I turn to in my own devotions and prayers. And when I do see someone use these verses, they tend to weaponize them as a way to justify their own lust for power, control, and violence. It’s not hard to be comfortable with a fire-bringing Jesus when you assume you’re not the one who’s getting burned. So how do we reconcile the Jesus who brings us peace with the one who also burns? 

Now, when verses like this show up, my first step is to admit everything that I’m feeling. I name my discomfort, accept my hesitation, and put my Bible aside as I go find something in my kitchen to eat as a distraction from my general distaste. Once I’ve eaten one or a dozen cookies, I then get back to work. I highlight the verses I don’t like and I try to put them back into context. Because one of the most dangerous things we can do is pull a verse or two out of the Bible and wave it around, removed from all the other words God connected them to. Yet chapter 12 in Luke is tricky. Luke, it seems, took many different sayings of Jesus and sort of haphazardly placed them one after another. We don’t really have the full story of why Jesus said what he did. All we do know is that at some point during Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, he spoke these words. So when the immediate context, the words around these problematic verses, does not help - that’s when I take a step back and see how these verses fit into the entire story Luke was telling. And to do that, we need to journey back to the beginning of Luke’s version of Jesus’ life and ministry. We need to return to the shores of the Jordan River - when John the Baptist prepared the way for the Lord - and go back even further, to those moments before Jesus was even born. 

Now, in the beginning, Luke showed how Zechariah - John the Baptist’s father; Mary, Jesus’ mother; and John the Baptist himself - told us who Jesus was meant to be. Jesus is the one who will scatter the proud, bring the powerful down from their thrones, and fill the hungry with good things. He will shed a light on those hidden in shadow, overturn every oppressor, and transform our self-centered lives and communities into something new. Jesus will, according to John the Baptist, baptize us with water and fire - a fire meant to refine us as if we’re a piece of metal in a blacksmith shop that’s being transformed into Jesus’ own image. Jesus, through us, will make sure that the poor receive good news; that all captives are released; and that all who are oppressed by our greed and our fears will finally be freed. The fire Jesus brings is a fire Jesus gives to us - to the baptized - so that we, through Jesus, can shift our priorities away from ourselves and instead towards God. The Jesus we know and love promised to bring us peace and hope. Yet the peace Jesus brings is not a peace that always plays nicely with the world because good news for the poor is not necessarily good news for the rest of us. Jesus’ words in today’s text doesn’t contradict the more gentle Jesus we prefer. Rather, his words reveal just how serious it is for Jesus to be in our world. The peace, love, forgiveness, and justice Jesus brings means that our priorities, our goals, and what we think is right - sometimes needs to be transformed into what is actually God’s will. Jesus knows that this kind of transformation isn’t always easy. But it is essential - because Jesus’ presence in your life is meant to do something. His grace, his words, and his love refines you into who God knows you can be. Yet that fire can, and does, sometimes hurt - because its fuel is the truth about ourselves and our world that we don’t always want to see. 

When we come across a Jesus we don’t like, we should resist every attempt to make him more comfortable. We shouldn’t ignore him, downplay him, or use him to attack other people.  Because when we ignore the uncomfortable Jesus, we push aside the responsibilities Jesus gave us for our lives. When we were baptized, we were baptized not only with water - but with His fire. That fire was meant to refine us, to transform us, so that we can see the world more fully. Jesus’ fire lets us be honest about the ways we divide ourselves from each other, the ways we fail to love and serve one another, and how we often act as if there’s never just enough...so we horde everything for ourselves. We tend to act as if the words spoken at the beginning of Luke’s version of Jesus’ story - about a topsy turvey world where power over is replaced by power with; where freedom from is replaced by freedom for; and one where a love that is passive is, instead, made active - we act as if those words of fire were extinguished by the more gentle Jesus we prefer. Yet that true fire - the fire that reveals the world as it truly is and the one that transforms it into what God knows it can be - that fire Jesus brought is, through the Cross, already kindled and it still, through your baptism, burns within each of you. The love and care we give to each other does form relationships that can bridge over what divides us. Yet those bridges will create their own divisions because the world still struggles to accept God’s priorities of love, grace, and mercy as its own. But even though divisions still exist in our world, that doesn’t mean we are called to somehow stop being who God made us to be. We are a community filled with people rooted in love, grounded in forgiveness, filled with mercy, and one that is called to offer grace before it gives anything else. Because the fire Jesus spoke about is already burning. And we are called to be refined by its flame so that God’s priorities, rather than our own, always rules. 

 

Amen.

 



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Reflection: A Great Cloud of Witnesses

Today's reading from the book of Hebrews 11:29-12:2 continues what we heard last week. The author of this letter was trying to encourage the faith of a struggling church community. When the church was new, the members within it had shown great love for each other. But now, as the church grew older, some members of the community were struggling with their faith and others had stopped attending. The confidence of the community was drifting, and they were trying to figure out what to do next.

The writer, after spending last week retelling the story of Abraham and Sarah, turned to share other stories from the Bible. We hear of the Exodus, when Moses led the Israelite people out of enslavement in Egypt. We relived the moment when the city of Jericho was captured. We meet Rahab who violated the law of her city to protect some Israelite spies. Her faithfulness to God was remembered and her name included in Jesus' genealogy. The writer continued, name dropping people the community knew. They pointed to Biblical stories but also stories from their local context. We're not sure who the author was referring to when they mentioned people who were stoned, killed and harmed for their faith. But we can, I think, assume the community knew who they were. The writer mixed the Biblical story and the community's story to remind everyone that they were part of something so much bigger than themselves.

When you look at the story of your own faith, I am going to invite you to remember every part of it. You shouldn't be ashamed of any doubts you've had or questions. You should admit those times you stepped away from church and those times when you came back. Being faithful isn't always easy, and we can struggle to see God in the midst of everything we're going through. Yet you are also part of a story that is bigger than yourself. Your faith is intertwined with a faith story that began thousands of years ago. The God who never gave up on the Israelite people is the same God who will never give up on you. Your faith story matters. Your faith story makes a difference. And you might be surprised to know that your faith isn't only for yourself. Rather, your faith also inspires others to love God. Your faith, right now, is helping others see Jesus a little more clearly because you are also part of the great cloud of witnesses.



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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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