Questions and Reflections

Category: Commentary

Reflection: Being Honest About Intrepretation

Let's spend some time with 2 Peter. It's a letter we don't read often. Most scholars believe that the letter was written many years after Peter's death. In the ancient world, it was acceptable for people to write in the name of people who had died. This was the author's way of letting people know their point of view and earlier readers would have recognized the references to Peter "as literary devices used in this type of writing" (Lutheran Study Bible). The author used Peter's point of view to address a major issue in the early church: what does unity look like? There was then, as there is now, many different perspectives about what it means to follow Jesus. And the author of 2 Peter wanted us to lean into the promises of Jesus more than assuming that our interpretation of Jesus was what faith was all about.

So how do we recognize an interpretation from the promise of Jesus? That's sometimes hard to do because we, as humans, are in the business of interpretation. We are constantly processing new experiences through the entirety of our story. If you've ever gone through something a family member or friend, we're often surprised by the slight differences that show up when we talk about the experience afterwards. The things that popped out to us didn't matter to our friend or the feelings our friend had were emotions that were nowhere near our radar. Even though we went through the exactly same experience, our interpretation of that experience is always different. We are not objective nor are our opinions facts. Rather we use our interpretation as a way to make sense of our world. And even though there are facts that never change, how we interpret those facts will be how we follow Jesus into the world.

The author of 2 Peter wanted, I think, for us to admit that we do interpretation. We should never be so hard-nosed about our own views that we refuse to listen to other people. When it comes to faith, our experience of God's grace is not the limit to what's possible with God. Our faith is exactly that: ours. And it's God who gives the gift of faith to us and to others in the exactly way that they need. It isn't our job to show people what they need to believe. Rather, we are called to share what we believe. And that begins by living into our experiences of Jesus - experiences we have in worship, in prayer, and in our daily lives. Center your faith in where you have met God. And let that fact fill you with a love that will sustain you all of your days.



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Who Is Jesus? Pastor Marc's Reflection in the Messenger: March 2020 edition

One of the ways I serve the wider church is by being a member of the New Jersey Synod’s Candidacy Committee. The Candidacy Committee shepherds people who feel a call to become deacons and pastors. We review applications, conduct countless interviews, and require candidates to write a bunch of essays. The candidacy process isn’t easy, but it’s one of the most fun things I get to be a part of. After every meeting, I leave spiritually exhausted but faithfully full because I got a glimpse of the future of the church. I know that we all, regardless of our age, are members of the body of Christ. Yet there’s a kind of joy that comes when we baptize someone new and when we see someone take their first steps to become a future leader in the church. It’s at that moment that we get a glimpse of the Spirit building a foundation to take the faith someplace new. And that faith is centered in our experiencing, understanding, and belief in who exactly Jesus is.

Who is Jesus? That’s a question the candidacy committee asks all our candidates at every stage of the process. We’ve surprised people by asking this question even though they’ve never been to seminary. And, we’ve asked those who just graduated from seminary that same exact question. As Lutherans, we’re supposed to share our faith, and we believe that words have power. The words we use should be centered on the Word. So, we proclaim Jesus in all that we do, teach and say. The question “who is Jesus” isn’t an easy one to answer. But our ability to answer it is essential whether we’re planning to become ordained deacons or not.

So during Lent, we’re going to learn how to answer that question on Sundays. We’re going to figure out how we, in our own words, can let people know who Jesus is to us. Our answer to that question might not earn an A in some theology class in seminary. But it will be enough to help make Jesus real to the people we’re closest to. My hope is that we’ll use a tool familiar to our friends at Pixar to help us share Jesus. Because when you feel the call to be a future leader in the church – to serve on council, to lead a committee, to head that new project that will help change the world, or to become a deacon or pastor in the church – who Jesus is to you will be the center of your story. And that’s a story that all people want to hear.

See you in church!
Pastor Marc



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Reflection: A Crossed Shaped Life

I'm going to let you in on a little secret: the Bible texts we read on Sunday morning sometimes allows for optional verses. We use a three year cycle of readings called the Revised Common Lectionary. And this cycle of readings is shared by Catholics, United Methodists, Reformed communities, Lutherans and the like. There are times when the lectionary gives us options for Sunday morning. For example, an assigned reading from the book of Isaiah might focus on the first nine verses in a chapter. But at the end of this reading, there are additional verses surrounded by brackets. These bracketed verses are not the main thrust of the reading but they can help us flesh out how the reading can make a difference in our lives. Not every church will read the optional verses. But I have a habit of including them whenever they show up. When it comes to our lectionary readings, I'm an adder. I like more. And I apologize to our lector today for adding all these extra verses to our readings.

Today's reading from 1 Corinthians 2:1-16 is a continuation of what we heard last week. The community in Corinth is divided. People have started to form teams and are refusing to even worship with other people. This division in the community is a bit surprising since the Christian community in Corinth probably numbered around 20. Yet they, like us, were working hard to figure out what it means to follow Jesus. And in their quest to be good Christians, they started to separate themselves from each other.

Much of this separation was caused by their belief that one team had to win and everyone else needed to lose. There was an inherent competition in their understanding of what it means to follow Christ. And they lived this competition out by trying to see which one of them had the best "spiritual" gifts. Instead of seeing these talents as tools they could use to take care of each other, the community in Corinth wanted to define themselves as being "the best." Paul's work in this section of the letter is to try and remove this sense of competition. He reminded them that, in Christ, none of us are more special than the others. We are all beloved. We are not here to be in competition with one another. Instead, we're called to put on the mind of Christ—and to see each other as Christ sees them.

When we put on the mind of Christ, what we're doing is letting the Cross influence our viewpoint of the world. With cross-shaped vision, we recognize the gift of Jesus Christ actually dying because he refused to let the world's sense of power and competition be what defined God's kingdom. Our actions in the world should not be a race to win against others. Rather, what we do should be defined by a love that is willing to make sacrifices for others. This sacrifice is not easy and is something we don't always want to do. But as the baptized members of the body of Christ, when it comes to being with God—we've already won. So, let's live as if Jesus life, death and resurrection actually matter.



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Reflection: Source of Your Life

One of the ways I serve the wider church is by being a member of the New Jersey Synod's Candidacy Committee. The Candidacy Committee shepherds people as they discern if God is calling them to become pastors or deacons. This process asks a lot from the people who go through it. They're required to pass background tests, undergo intense psychological exams, interviews, attend retreats, earn a Master's Degree, work as an intern, and write a lot of essays. The candidates who go through this process are diverse and unique in their own ways. They come from different places, speak different languages, and live varied lives. They also were not raised in Lutheran churches. And some were also hurt by the church itself. As they go through the candidacy process, the candidates for ministry are asked to be vulnerable. And, this isn't an easy thing to do. Most of us have learned, overtime, that being vulnerable is something we shouldn't do. We act tough, refuse to cry, and choose not to ask for help. We run away from our vulnerability because we view it as a weakness rather than a strength. Yet that's the opposite of what the candidacy process requires of our candidates. It's only by embracing their vulnerability that they are able to become the leaders God is calling them to be. We don't need pastors who appear to be emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually strong. We also need pastors and deacons who know what it’s like to see God's foolishness at work. Because the faith that God gifts to us is not a faith that serves only those who are strong. Rather, it's a faith that helps us live through our life so that we can connect to each other and discover the vastness of God's grace and love.

The text from today's letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 1:18-31) is Paul's attempt, I think, to remind us what the foundation of our life is. And instead of explaining what that foundation is, I'm going to let Paul's words speak for themselves. I encourage you to not rush through our reading from 1 Corinthians today. Read through it slowly and when you're done, make a plan to read it again later. Pick it up again this week or when you're commuting or at the gym. Read Paul's writing in such a way that his words are entwined with the air you are breathing, filling your lungs with the Word of God. And then open yourself to the possibility that you are more than who you think you are. You are not limited by your physical strength. You are defined only by your health. Your struggle to ask for help is not the core of who you are. Your foundation, as a beloved child of God, rests in a Jesus who was just as vulnerable as you are. And yet he lived a vulnerable life so that we, through those same vulnerabilities, could become the loving, peaceful, and dynamic people God wants us to be.



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Reflection: Faith is More Than an Explanation

For the next several weeks, one of our readings from the Bible will be from Paul's first letter to the small Christian community in Corinth. Corinth was a cosmopolitan city and the Christian community reflected that diversity. Paul started his letter by describing how the Corinthian community should see themselves. He called them saints and how their individual spiritual gifts were needed for the community to become who God wanted them to be. Today's reading covers the next ten verses in 1 Corinthians, and it's here where we discover why Paul is writing to them in the first place. The community was divided and their division was stopping them from loving one another.

The theme of division that is depicted in 1 Corinthians is a theme that resonates with us today. If you turn on the TV, it doesn't take long before our divisions in the United States become visible. The political discourse in our country continues to grow more partisan as people refuse to listen to the each other and are instead fed a steady diet of opinions that already fit our preconceived notion. Any point of view, argument, or story that challenges us is casted aside, labeled fake, and pushed to the margins. There seems to be more joy in defending our sides rather than authentically listening to someone with a different story than our own. Even the cries for unity, such as a pledge for civility or that "we're all Americans" doesn't really work because those definitions - of what it means to be civil and who is an American - are currently under debate. Our divisions are becoming hardcoded into our individual identities.

So, we can relate to the divisions present in the Corinthian community. Different interpretations and views of Jesus were being expressed inside that church. People identified themselves by which school of thought they belonged to, some to teachers named Apollos, Paul, Cephas (Peter), and even Christ himself. All claimed that their point of view was right and that they were the true winners when it came to faith. We can speculate they believed their spiritual gifts defined how much they were loved. If they were blessed, then God was showing that their point of view was correct. And if they were winning, everyone else who didn't agree with them had to be losers who were not worth being part in their community in the first place.

So Paul, in today's verses 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, stepped in to try and unite the Corinthian community. He didn't try to find a common denominator that would support every position people expressed. Instead, he pointed them to the Cross. He directed everyone towards Jesus, the Son of God who was divine yet died; the One who had the power of God yet emptied himself of that power and was crucified by the world. Jesus, who had every ability to win when it came to the events of Holy Week, chose not to. Jesus was foolish and that's why the rest of us get to truly live.

This choice and faithfulness Jesus lived into is one that we're called to live out, too. It's not enough to just know things about Christianity, Jesus, or the Cross. Rather, through our baptism and our faith, we are brought into Jesus who still lives. And since he lived for others, we are called to do the same. It's an invitation to not let our divisions be what identify us nor to let ourselves be the ones that dictate what justice, civility, hope and love are all about. Rather, we are called to let Jesus do that. And he does, through the Spirit, by connecting us to a community of people that is, by design, diverse and full of people not like us. Because it's only when we are connected with people who are different from us when we seeing how life- giving our division-breaking Jesus actually is.



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Refection: All Y'All

As a mono-language speaker, I'm always a bit surprised that I get to read the Bible in English. When these words and stories about God and Jesus were first shared and written down, the English language didn't really exist. Jesus didn't speak English and many of his earliest followers spoke Greek. As we see in our reading from the gospel according to John, the author felt compelled to translate common Hebrew and Aramaic words because they assumed their audience wouldn't understand them. And Since most of us do not speak ancient Greek or Hebrew, we forget that the English language can sometimes get in the way of what the Bible is trying to tell us. 

We notice this issue in our reading from 1 Corinthians 1:1-9. Paul had founded the Christian community in the city of Corinth and he was responding to a letter they sent him. Corinth was an old Greek city that was conquered and repopulated by the Roman Empire. It was also a cosmopolitan city, filled with merchants, slaves, and traders. The Christian community in Corinth was small but they were probably as diverse as the city lived in. They struggled, like we all do, with how they can follow Jesus in their everyday lives. The opinions of some in the community did not always match what Paul taught. And Paul found himself often dealing with situations he had never considered before. Paul needed to bring his experience of Jesus into the lives that people actually lived. 

One way he did that was by using the word "you." In English, "you" can point to an individual or a group. Yet we sometimes read Paul's "yous" as meant only for individuals. But that's not quite right. When we read "you" in Paul's writings, we need to remember he was speaking to the community. And the "yous" we see today should really be re-translated to "all y'all." Paul wanted to begin his letter to the Corinthians by reminding them that they needed each other. Faith, to Paul, is a always a team sport. We are called as Christians into a body (aka a community) that contains not only Jesus but also other people. We can't be the people God wants us to be without each other. As you look around this church or as you think about all the people in your copy of the church directory, remember that others have spirituals gifts you need and that you have spiritual gifts others need too. Without each other, we cannot be the individuals we are called to be. All y'all needs all y'all. 
 



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Reflection: On Jesus' Baptism

So what are we supposed to do with Jesus' baptism? Today's celebration (Matthew 3:13-17), to me at least, is a little off kilter. I have always wondered why Jesus, as a member of the Trinity, needed to be baptized in the first place? Jesus is Jesus so there's no need for him to be united with himself and, as God, he has no Sin. Also, as we see in all four gospels, the words we use during our baptism are not the same words used by John. Jesus' baptism is not like our own yet we use the same word for both. So what are we to do with today's gospel reading knowing that Jesus was baptized?

Well, one thing we can do is to admit that Jesus' baptism is not like our own. And that's okay. Even the four gospel writers struggled to describe what this event in Jesus' life actually meant. They knew it was important because it defined the start of Jesus' work in Galilee but that baptism is also important to us because it defines the start of our life as faithful followers of Jesus. We can, I think, shift our questions away from asking why Jesus was baptized and instead discover what his baptism showed us. And I think, by being baptized, Jesus invited us to see how faithful acts can be a sign of active faith. Because in those moments when we struggle to see God and believe, one faithful act can show us that Jesus is still here.

As ELCA Lutherans, one of our guiding worship documents is called "The Use of Means of Grace." In its section on baptism, it says: "By Water and the Word in Baptism, we are liberated from sin and death by being joined to the death and resurrection of Jesus. In Baptism God seals us by the Holy Spirit and marks us with the cross of Christ forever. Baptism inaugurates a life of discipleship in the death and resurrection of Christ. Baptism conforms us to the death and resurrection of Christ precisely so that we repent and receive forgiveness, love our neighbors, suffer for the sake of the Gospel, and witness to Christ."

What baptism doesn't do, however, is make our faith a static thing. Since Jesus lived and lives, we have a faith that lives too. And like life, faith will ebb and flow, increase and decrease, fill us with hope and leave us feeling empty. Yet our baptism is always active, moving us to trust that God loves us, Jesus is with us, and that the Spirit is empowering us towards the hope that never ends. When you struggle to see Jesus in your life, know that even he was baptized. And since you were baptized, you are also a beloved child of God.



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Reflection: Gifts to Bring

Let me know if you know this joke: Joseph, Mary, and Jesus are resting in their nativity scene. Around them are sheep, cows and bales of hay. A shepherd is there looking dusty and disheveled. And, there are 3 boxes sitting next to Jesus' manger labeled gold, frankincense and myrrh. Suddenly 3 new visitors burst in. In some jokes, 3 "wiser men" show up bringing 3 giant boxes of diapers. In other jokes, 3 "wise women" bring casseroles, child-care, wine, and some formula. The joke is always that the gifts provided by the magi in our reading from the gospel according to Matthew today are not enough of what you need to raise a child. The gold, as a source of money, could be put to immediate use. Yet, the two spices of frankincense and myrrh appear quite random. A gift for the son of God should, at a minimum, help raise the son of God, too.

Now, I think that critique is fair. The joke is more than just a funny comment to share with family and friends on Facebook. The joke also helps us engage with the text and ask the simple (yet difficult) question: why? Why would 3 gifts need to come to baby Jesus? Why would the magi, astrologers from modern day Iran, carry those items with them? What would Mary and Joseph understand these gifts to be? And, more importantly, what would the people who first read Matthew's gospel (Matthew 2:1-12) see in that gold, frankincense and myrrh?

Our first reading from Isaiah 60:1-6 helps a little with these gifts. In it, we hear of gold and frankincense being carried from "the nations" and delivered to someplace specific. The you reference in verse 1 is the city of Jerusalem and the prophet Isaiah is bringing word to a city that had, at that point, been destroyed by the Babylon empire. The city laid in ashes and the Temple was destroyed. Jerusalem looked as if would be gone forever. Isaiah's prophetic word of hope points to a future when the city will be repopulated by the descendants of those who were forcefully taken from it. The world would experience a vast political shift where Israel would become the dominant power. The riches of the world (i.e. gold and frankincense – an expensive spice at the time used for worship, food, and other items) would flow into what was once destroyed. The world would shift and what was once insignificant will make a difference in the world.

Yet, the myrrh is a little harder to place. Myrrh was used in a variety of ways including in perfume and as a pain-killer in medicine. Myrrh was seen as a symbol of long-life and used in healing. Myrrh was also identified in the gospels as one of the spices used to wash Jesus' body after his death. The gift of myrrh was, in one sense, a prayer by the magi offering Jesus a long and healthy life. But it was also a prayer that pointed to the life he would actually lead - one that would end up on the Cross.

The stories at the start of the gospel according to Matthew also point towards its end. And the entirety of Jesus' life was one centered in God's love for the world. The gifts the magi brought were not the most practical when it came to raising a newborn. But they did point to the vision of what Jesus' life, death, and rising again would mean. In Christ, God was loving the entire world— including the people who would resist the fact of God's kingdom coming near. And that love would be a gift that would continue to shine no matter what the future might bring.



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Reflection: Re-learning the old story

At the last minute, I made the executive decision to change today's reading from the Hebrew Bible. Rather than spending time in the book of Isaiah, I took us back to the opening chapter of the book of Exodus 1:1-2:2. We'll hear this passage again in August when we focus on Moses's origin story. But today I want to focus on a different part of the Exodus story: Pharaoh's order that all male babies of Hebrew descent should be killed.

The last major story at the end of the book of Genesis is centered on Joseph (aka Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat). He had become, over time, an important leader in the Egyptian government. After using the gifts God gave him to interpret dreams, he managed to save himself and the kingdom from ruin. A famine decimated the wider area but Egypt thrived because Joseph saved all the excess wheat they grew during plentiful years. His family (including his 11 brothers) and their households (including wives, kids, slaves, employees, and more) crossed the border into Egypt, become economic refugees. They did not know that Joseph was now a high-ranking official but, in a very colorful moment, the family was reunited and old grudges were forgiven. The Hebrew people settled inside Egypt, building homes and raising their families. They retained what made them culturally unique and assimilated only slightly into the wider culture. As time went on, the people in Egypt grew weary of the Hebrew people. They feared the Hebrews would replace them and the Egyptians would become marginalized. So in an act of political violence, the Egyptians enslaved the Hebrew people but that didn't satisfy the Egyptian xenophobia. They chose to do more. So, in a terrifying moment, the Pharaoh ordered male newborns to be killed once they were born. With the death of the male babies, it was assume the Hebrew women would be forced to marry Egyptians, transferring any wealth and property to the Egyptians or they would just die out. The Pharaoh ordered a genocidal act and the Hebrews, including their midwives like Shiphrah and Puah, did what they could to resist this command.

As you listen and read our story from the gospel according to Mathew today, keep in mind this Exodus story. The parallels are intentional and help us understand what Matthew chose to describe. When we forget the story of the Exodus, we end up missing the deep spiritual terror seen in the genocidal act Herod the Great ordered on the children of his people.



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Reflection: Who Counts

I don't know about you but when I was a kid, I had a habit of counting the number of presents that appeared under my Christmas tree. It was my family's tradition to sort and organize all the presents before they were opened. My brothers and I would swarm the foot of the tree, quickly grabbing the presents that looked like they were for us while knocking the others to the side. Eventually we would each have our own little pile of gifts, and I would quickly count to see who had the most. It didn't matter, at that point, what the quality of each wrapped gift was. What mattered was how many were in each pile. And the kid with the most seemed to be, for a moment at least, the one who truly counted.

Tonight's story from the gospel according to Luke 2:1-20 is the same one we hear every Christmas Eve. But every year, to me at least, part of the story sounds new. We have to be careful as we hear this story that we don't skim over the words, thinking that we already know what the Christmas story is all about. Instead, we should slow down and let every word that's uttered fill our ears and our hearts with sound. When we do that, we can sometimes notice the part of this story that God knows we need to hear right now. We might need to spend time with Mary, sit beside Joseph, or stand in wonder with the shepherds on the hillside. And when we spend time with something, we can't always rush it. Instead, we need to sit with it as God's words work on our soul.

So in the spirit of slowing down, what struck me this Christmas Eve was the power of counting. The story begins with the Roman Emperor choosing to count who is under his control through the calling of a census. A census in the ancient world was used to find out how many soldiers could be conscripted in a specific and how much taxes could be raised to fund a new military campaign. By counting people, the Emperor could launch additional wars to expand the areas under their control.

The census, in the ancient world, could be a very disruptive tool—letting those in authority disrupt people's lives as they launched new campaigns to fill the hunger for power. The census in Luke is even more disruptive than most. People were forced to uproot their lives and travel great distances to the places where their ancestors were born. By the time Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem, the city was full of people waiting to be counted. The Roman Emperor hoped that by counting them, he could discover new ways to exploit them. And that exploitation would show the world how the Emperor counted while everyone else didn't.

Yet it was during that act of disruptive exploitation when God showed up. While the Emperor was busy counting those who didn't count, God became truly human. The rules of the world that defined who had value and worth were disruptive by a God who knew that you counted. On this Christmas Eve, your worth does not depend on the number of presents under your tree. Your value has nothing to do with all the comparisons we've made between ourselves and those around us. Your status as a human being does not depend on how you choose to count yourselves or others. Because, to God, you count and you matter. We are good at making our own counts of ourselves and our world as a way to define how valued we think we should be. Yet, when it comes to God, how you choose to count in the world isn't what defines God's love for you. Rather, to God, you already count - because on this holy night, Christ is born.

Merry Christmas!



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