Questions and Reflections

Category: Commentary

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 God articulated a desire to Moses and then rescinded it.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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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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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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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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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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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 Preacher.org



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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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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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