Questions and Reflections

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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Hard Words [Sermon Manuscript]

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

Matthew 5:21-37

Pastor Marc's sermon on the 6th Sunday after Epiphany (February 16, 2020) on Matthew 5:21-37. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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So yesterday, my entire family attended a funeral at Trinity Lutheran Church in Astoria, Queens. We loaded up our minivan, filled the kids with snacks, and prayed we would find a parking spot within six blocks of the church. When we finally got to Trinity, the service had already started. But since that church is my “home congregation,” I knew exactly how to walk in, take over an entire back pew, and get settled before the opening hymn was over. Trinity was the first church I ever really attended. It’s also the place where Kate and I were married; where Oliver was baptized; and it was that faith community that recognized what God had in mind for me before I even knew what being a Lutheran was all about. Trinity is one of the reasons why I’m a pastor. And one of those people who shaped my faith and my relationship with Jesus was a woman in her 90s named Virginia. 

Now, Virginia was an amazing person. She was tough as nails, with your stereotypical New York sense of humor and Queens accent. She knew Greek, was a former owner of a diner, and kept in contact with Kate and I through facebook right until the end. During the recession of 2008, I found myself with a lot of free time because my freelance web development work dried up. So on Tuesday mornings, I joined Virginia and a few others of the “old guard” to putter around the church, chat, and have lunch. Virginia was the type of person who, regardless of the situation, was always herself. She had no problems sharing her opinions. Yet she was also incredibly accepting of other people. She knew everyone’s business but she didn’t really gossip. Instead, people trusted her and she worked hard to build that trust with all people. It didn’t matter if you were 92 or 22 - if you needed help, care, or prayers - Virginia was the one who knew exactly what you were going through. She was, in a few words, opinionated, thoughtful, loving, and a little intense. And she made sure to fully invest herself into her relationships so that all of us could experience grace. 

Today’s reading from the gospel according to Matthew is not the easiest to preach on. We find ourselves deep in Jesus’ sermon on the mount - a sermon that began with the beatitudes - where Jesus said that the meek and the poor in spirit were blessed. Last week, we heard Jesus declare that he came to fulfill the law and the promises recorded in the prophets and that those who followed him were the salt of the earth. Jesus used, I think, a figure of speech to help root us permanence of God’s promises. When God said “I love you” and claimed you as God’s own in baptism - God really meant it. And God’s giving of grace is like salt being salty - it’s just a permanent part of who God is. You can almost imagine being there with Jesus and feeling pretty upbeat since he told you how much God loves you. But then Jesus goes a little hardcore and, as we hear today, he started talking about things like murder. Now, Jesus’s speaking pattern in this passage was pretty common in the first century. Rabbis often debated by stating a traditional understanding of a law and then challenging it with an interpretation of their own. This wasn’t their way of trying to replace the law or the tradition they inherited. Rather, it was a way to dig deeper into it and, in the words of Eric Barreto, grab onto “the divine values these commandments [and laws] communicated.” Jesus, in this passage, wasn’t trying to replace the law. Instead, he intensifies it. And Jesus, I think, went heavy so that reveal God’s vision for our lives and for our world. 

So, instead of trying to unpack everything Jesus said in this passage - which would require a whole sermon for each verse - let’s take this passage as a whole. What thread weaves in and out of these seventeen verses - especially the parts that seem harsh, like Jesus’ comment on divorce? Where’s the grace in these hard words from Jesus? 

Well, for me, that’s where my friend Virginia comes in. She learned, over her many years, how to invest in the connections she had with other people. She knew how to ask questions, how to listen, and how a New York style wisecrack could let us know we were heard. Throughout today’s passage from Matthew, Jesus is focused on our choices in relationships. He’s not thinking so much about the people we have relationships with or what they’ve done. Rather, he asks us to be honest about what we invest into every human connection that we have. Do we invest in anger and in the brokenness that’s entails or are we faithful enough to admit how other people could rightfully have something to hold against us? Our coming before God is, according to Jesus, related to our relationship with one another. And how we connect is a sign of that faith and trust. For us to truly reconcile with one another, we need to be honest about the harm we’ve caused others. And in those situations where reconciliation is impossible, we can still use the gifts of community, connection, and therapy to not let anger, resentment, and disconnection be what defines us. 

It’s this work of investment, I think, that gives light to Jesus’ words that follow. Instead of objectifying people - especially women - and then blaming them for our gaze, Jesus told those who are doing the looking to invest in their connections by first disciplining themselves. Instead of letting men, who traditionally controlled the wealth in a household, divorce their wives and leave them homeless and in poverty, Jesus told us to invest in the life we’re building together. There are times when that investment in a marriage will be exactly what that relationship needs but there are other times when our investment will reveal that the most holy and healthy thing we can do is let that marriage. And instead of tying the promises we make to one another with some kind of collateral to make sure it actually happens, Jesus asked us to invest in making every word we say be honest and trustworthy. Jesus’ call in this passage is not focused on what others do or how they make us feel. Rather, it’s about how we can, right now, invest in our relationships and how that investment will actually grow us closer to God. 
Because the story of law, the prophets, and of Jesus himself is the story of God’s continual investment in God’s relationship with us. We, as humans, are made in the image of God and we carry a bit of the divine into the world. Those who follow Jesus are, through our baptism and our faith, invested into the body of Christ - a body that, at its core, is all about relationships and connections. We are not only in a relationship with Jesus; we’re connected to everyone else. And this connection and relationship is nourished through our worship, our prayers, and reinforced every time we commune at the Lord’s table. We are, as baptized followers of Jesus Christ, connected to a God who does not stop investing in God’s promises - and we are invited to be like God in all our relationships as well. This kind of investment isn’t easy or simple and it actually requires us to do the work. But when we do, the investment we make in our relationships ends up giving grace because it reflects the grace God has already given us. We can start this investment by naming our anger; by admitting all the different ways - either personally, systematically, or historically - others might have something against us; by being honest that we do objectifying others; by naming the different ways we take our marriages for granted; and by finally admitting how our comments - especially those we make on social media - do not embrace the care and the truthfulness God wants us to share. Because it’s only when we go heavy and deep into our actual lives that we are then able to fully invest into all our relationships. And its then when grace and love becomes a permanent part of who we are - something that we freely give because Jesus already has given that grace to us. 

Amen. 
 



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Reflection: Sacred Trust

A few weeks ago, every pastor in the New Jersey synod received a letter from Bishop Tracie Bartholomew strongly "encouraging" us to attend a very specific workshop. The tone of the letter made it difficult for any of us to say "no." So on Tuesday, the Lutheran pastors in Northern New Jersey met our bishop in the main ballroom of the Lutheran retirement community at Crane's Mill. We were each given a folder, a pencil, and a pad of paper. And after putting on our names tags, we assembled in groups of eight around large round tables. The chaplain at Crane's Mill began the session by sharing with us a little bit about the facility, where to find refills for our coffee, and where the nearest bathrooms were. After the welcome, the Bishop asked her to lead us in prayer. When the prayer was over and after we all said "amen," the Bishop took over. And she led us in an all-day workshop on how pastors and deacons should maintain proper boundaries with everyone in their congregation.

This kind of boundary training (focusing on adult-to-adult situations) is something all pastors in our denomination go through every 5 years. It's not fun and it usually disrupts the plans we've already made for the day. But the workshop is important because it reminds us that the relationship between a pastor and the people they serve is something sacred. The pastor's commitment to serving God and God's people is built on a trust we are given to protect and nourish. But since pastors are people and live their lives as saint-and-sinner (like we all do), his sacred trust is sometimes broken. This usually happens when a pastor fails to stay mindful of their own spiritual, emotional, and mental health needs. Instead of caring for their congregation, the congregation ends up filling a void the pastor is missing in their life. This unhealthy behavior can seem small - like favoring one group of people over others. But it can also grow into something more problematic such as sexual harassment. In fact, over the last few years, there have been incidents in our synod where pastors broke their martial vows with members of their own congregations. This boundary crossing is unacceptable and is not tolerated in our synod. When a pastor does this, they are removed from the place they serve, and they are no longer a pastor in the Lutheran church. Yet, their removal from a congregation does not end the suffering within the congregation. A violation of sacred trust can reverberate in a community even decades later.

One thing the Bishop wanted us to share with you is a document of the Synod's guidelines pertaining to this kind of boundary crossing. Copies are available in the church office and these guidelines do not have a statute of limitations because there's no time-limit when it comes to trauma. As a church, we are our most faithful when we are honest about the harm we've caused. And since we all are members of the body of Christ, any violation in any church in any Christian denomination impacts us all. If a clergy person in your life has harmed you or if you have been part of a community where a clergy person has broken that sacred trust: I am sorry. We see you. We believe you. And may the Spirit guide every clergy person and leader in the church to hold fast to the sacred trust that keeps us all working together as God's servants.



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One Second [Sermon Manuscript]

[Jesus said:] “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:13-20

Pastor Marc's sermon on the 5th Sunday after Epiphany (February 9, 2020) on Matthew 5:13-20. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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So I want to start today’s sermon by highlighting something I’ve been doing these last few weeks that’s sort of grown into an unintentional sermon series. Two weeks ago, I asked all of us to imagine different superheroes and the places that made them who they are. We talked about Batman and the City of Gotham, Superman and Metropolis, and even Black Panther and Wakanda. Those places shaped those superheroes were and we  are shaped by our places too. Last week, I started by asking all of us to imagine just how loud the Temple in Jerusalem would have been when Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus engaged in some of the rituals of their Jewish identity. Our expectation that holy sites should be serene and quiet probably didn’t match the actual experience of worshippers in Jerusalem 2000 years ago. Instead, the noise and bustle of the Temple pointed to the life that God’s presence brought to God’s people. And so today, I’d like us to - once again - use our faithful imagination as we engage with this text from the gospel according to Matthew. But instead of asking you to imagine being a piece of salt or being an actual city on a hill, I want to point out what I think our imagination does for us when we let it encounter the Bible. When we engage our imagination, the possibilities of where the text will take us is practically endless. The words, rather than ourselves, take the lead and we don’t assume that we already know what this passage is all about. We don’t limit the text to only be moral instruction or so-called life lessons or even details about what we’re supposed to believe. Instead, we let the Word of God meet us as we are right now. And instead of working on the text, our point of view shifts and we see how the text, and God, has already been working on us. 

So let’s take a second to shift our mental gears and engage our imaginative ones. I’m going to re-read verse 13: “[Jesus said] You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.” I don’t know if that verse sounded different to you than it did before. But I find that when I use my faithful imagination, I’m able to ask questions I might not have been brave enough to ask before. Usually, when we read this verse, we assume Jesus knows a lot about what salt can do. And so he must have known that salt could, while walking around the sea of Galilee, lose its taste. Yet our imagination might be emboldened to wonder if Jesus got this little snapple fact wrong. Because salt, which is just sodium chloride, can’t actually lose its saltiness. If it does, it’s no longer salt and it couldn’t be thrown onto the ground. Some have argued that the salt Jesus was referring to was of poor quality, mixed with dirt and sand and could, after time, lose its taste. But it’s also just as plausible that Jesus was maybe purposefully describing something impossible but used words that invited us deeper into his story. It’s kind of like when someone tells you something that, at first, seems completely reasonable but then later, when you actually think about it, makes you go “what?” The absurdity we didn’t see at first ends up pulling us in. And we wonder where Jesus is taking us next. 

Now the transition from salt to light to city to lamp is a little jumbled but there’s an opening here that fits our use of faithful imagination. We shouldn’t only focus on visualizing ourselves to be lit up like a lighthouse, seeing ourselves as a revealing symbol to the world. Instead, we can narrow the vision for our imagination by zooming in on the bushel basket. The bushel basket Jesus had in mind was probably made out either wood or reeds woven tightly together. It would have been used regularly to collect fruits, grain, and other agricultural products and it probably wasn’t entire air-tight or fully sealed. The bushel basket was a tool that didn’t need to be perfect to get its job done. And it also wasn’t designed to be around lamps. In Jesus’ day, if you wanted light to shine without the help of the sun, you had to light something on fire. The lamps Jesus probably had in mind were little oil lamps with a wick burning an open flame. Putting a dry and wooden bushel basket over a lamp would, most likely, burn the basket up. The ordinary beauty of a lampstand lighting up an entire house does not erase the absurdity in the first half of Jesus’ words. That weirdness is right there in the text and we’re not, I think, supposed to smooth out what Jesus said. Rather, these moments might be a sign that we are witnessing Jesus’ faithful imagination at work - an imagination that reconfigures and transforms the world through God’s absurd and loving grace. 

Because it takes a special kind of imagination to wonder if salt could lose its saltiness and if an easily flammable basket could cover a burning flame. An imagination that is comfortable with those kinds of absurdities is one that’s also capable of reimaging us. Instead of letting us lean into our default settings of “comfort, conformity, and complacency,” God’s holy imagination invites us to see how our actions and our inactions always have an impact. Too often we let our fears, worries, and our unwillingness to admit our wrongs, limit our imagination and what we think is possible in the world. This is manifested in the many ways we ask others to show us grace while we give them none. And how we are quick to label other people’s stories, identities, and experiences as absurd because we can’t imagine how their lives are connected to our own. We often act as if the limits we place on our own imagination come from God. Yet, as we see in our reading today, the God who has already re-imagined you as being the light of the world will not be limited by what we think that means. 

Instead, God will continue to do absurd things, like giving us the grace to expand our faithful imagination. Because it’s that kind of imagination that, I think, helps us trust that the promises God made to other people God also made to us. The impossibility of salt losing its saltiness means that you, as the salt of the earth, will not lose God’s promises too. And since a flammable bushel basket will only burn brighter when it meets the lamp of God, your identity as the light of the world is a gift God has already given to you. These declarations from God are not given to us in response to something that we do. Nor are they merely affirmations of what we’re already doing. Instead, the promises of God are gifts, re-imagining us into the people God wants us to be. It’s a re-imagining that expands our limits of what it means to show mercy, to give grace, and to love. It’s a re-imagining that expands our capacity to say we’re sorry, to seek justice, and to see what we can do so that others might thrive. And it’s a re-imagining that helps us expand the imaginations of others too. As little H. is about to hear shortly in his own public welcome into the body of Christ - we are here to let the light of God’s grace shine in all that we say and do. And that light - a promise of love, a promise of mercy, and promise that you are already part of God’s holy and life giving imagination - is a gift that we are called to freely give. 

Amen. 
 



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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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Welcome: Being Reverent [Sermon Manuscript]

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, [Mary and Joseph] brought [Jesus] up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

Luke 2:22-40

Pastor Marc's sermon on the Presentation of Jesus (February 2, 2020) on Luke 2:22-40. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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So how loud do you think the Temple was when Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to it? One way we can answer that question is by using our imagination to combine the story we just heard from the gospel according to Luke with some details about life in ancient Jerusalem. Now, the Temple was located along one of Jerusalem’s main city walls and it was the center of religious and political life. All kinds of people moved in and out of the Temple constantly. The narrow streets leading up to the Temple were the size of alleyways and they were filled with merchants and businesses selling all kinds of things. These merchants served a very densely populated city with people living in cramped apartments and with little to no space between the buildings. I’m pretty sure much of Jerusalem wasn’t soundproof so it’s safe to assume that you could hear everyone else’s business and everyone else could hear all of yours. The Temple also didn’t try to limit the noises of the city and in its own way, the Temple added to it. It had numerous large courtyards filled with people: pilgrims who traveled to the city, priests performing religious rituals, and rabbis teaching anyone who came to listen. Yet they weren’t the only living things making noises in that space. There was also the sounds of animals - cattle, sheep, lambs, and birds needed for ritual sacrifices. We often imagine religious places being quiet and serene. But the Temple in Jerusalem was never a refuge from the noises of life because it was filled and surrounded by it. Even baby Jesus, as Mary and Joseph carried him in their arms, probably added to the noise with his own cries for attention. The Temple was the physical representation of God’s presence with God’s people. And that presence should have received some kind of reverence. Yet what’s reverent to us might not be reverent to God because God chose to be engaged in our kind of life - one that doesn’t stay very quiet. 

Being reverent or showing reverence is one of those things we can see but it’s also really hard to define or explain. When I was in seminary, I finished my degree at the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal church in New York. That seminary identifies itself as being anglo-catholic which is just a fancy word meaning they like worship full of incense, bells, bowing, fancy clothes, candles, and long periods of silence. I don’t recall ever having a class where reverence was defined or laid out but being reverent was something we all tried to do really well. And one of the extreme examples there of being reverent took place at the seminary’s gym. Across the hall from the gym was a small chapel space where the leftover pieces of communion bread and wafers were stored after worship. In their tradition, anything not eaten during communion is still considered consecrated and is due reverence. So that means, before we would enter the gym, we would turn and bow in the direction of the chapel. And then, after spending an hour on the elliptical machine and lifting weights, we step out of the gym and bow before heading home. There’s nothing wrong with this kind of reverence but when it doesn’t really have a definition, we can reduce being reverent to only performing certain acts. That’s why, I think, many have stories about being acolytes as children and getting into trouble because they lit the candles on the altar in the so-called “wrong order,” or weren’t wearing the right shoes, or made too much noise. Or some learned how to do everything that was expected of them but learned to do it quickly, barely nodding their head at the altar, and assuming they were getting away with being reverent. Reverence is more than just an act. It’s something that shows intentionally and that we realize we’re encountering the divine. 

Paul Woodruff, in his book Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue, admits that even he doesn’t really know what reverence is. But he does describe it as “the well-developed capacity to have feelings of awe, respect, and shame when these are the right feelings to have.” Nothing in that description talks about silence or noise or bowing or lighting candles in the right order. But it does talk about a capacity to pay attention to what we’re engaged with and that’s, I think, a call for us to be aware when God shows up. Reverence is, in the words of Richard Dietrich, the acknowledgement that we “are not alone in the universe” and “that there are others.” And reverence also knows that “we are not the center of the universe or its governor.” Being reverent or showing reverence isn’t about how deep your bow is when you’re in-front of the altar nor is it only about embracing a holy silence while standing in any sacred space. Rather, reverence about being consciously aware of who we are and whose we are - and how, even now, God is still here. God is still with us. And, whether we feel it or not, we are not alone. 

Today’s reading from the gospel according to Luke is an example of reverence. Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the Temple to finish the rituals associated with making their Jewish family whole. Jesus was circumcised, named, and presented at the Temple. And Mary brought two turtledoves as part of her ritual to mark the transition of her life from recently giving birth. Those birds not only showed Mary and Joseph’s willingness to be fully Jewish and share their faith with this newborn son, but it also made public their economic status since a wealthier person would have brought a lamb instead of a dove. While they stood there, waiting to give their birds to the appropriate religious official, I’m sure those animals shrieked and chripped while baby Jesus cried for his mom’s attention. The noise of the city, the bustle of the Temple, and Mary and Joseph trying to handle the kind of chaos that comes with bringing any child into any sacred space, probably did sound very reverent. Yet what made this a truly reverent moment was their intentionality to, in that moment, admit their connection and need for God. And that kind of reverence is always going to be expressed by different people in different ways. For some, reverence shows up in moments of silence, deep bowing, and long pauses. For others, reverence means being stirred by the Spirit to leave one’s home and tell a complete stranger than their baby will be a light for all. And for still more, reverence means being a prophet and letting everyone know the truth about the world and about God. Reverence isn’t, I think, something we pick up easily. It takes time to learn reverence and we grow into it by noticing how God encounters us in the everyday moments of our everyday lives. We try to express this reverence in our worship and in prayers. But reverence isn’t restricted to only sacred spaces. Reverence is something we should also notice and express in our world. The details of what this kind of reverence will look like will always be different from person to person. And that’s perfectly okay. Because it’s not the type of act that defines reverence. Rather - it’s your capacity to be your version of Simeon and Anna; your version of Mary and Joseph; to be honest about the world around you; and see how God is at work in you and in others. Being reverent requires us to put ourselves aside and believe that there really is “something else” to whom we owe reverence too. And when the noise of the world and the noise in our lives makes it seem as if being irreverent is all that we can do, we get to remember that God did not run from that noise. Instead, God entered into it - choosing to live a noisy life, surrounded by a noisy people, who were reverent and irreverent in their own unique ways. God lived in the noise so that Christ could transform it, inviting us into a new way of life where our capacity for awe, respect, and shame opens us to live for others because Jesus, even now, lives for us. 

Amen. 
 



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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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Left: Places Matter [Sermon Manuscript]

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
   on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people who sat in darkness
   have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
   light has dawned.’
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.

Matthew 4:12-25

Pastor Marc's sermon on the 3rd Sunday After Epiphany (January 26, 2020) on Matthew 4:12-25. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

****************************

So I’d like to start today with a very geeky thought exercise. I’m going to name some comic book superheroes and the places that made them who they are. And while I do that, I’d like you to use your imagination and picture those superheroes in those places. We’ll start easy with Clark Kent - aka Superman. He was born on the planet Krypton and raised in rural Kansas. But when it came to living his life, the place that really formed his identity was, I think, his home base - the fictional city of Metropolis. So, take a second and imagine Superman being himself in Metropolis. Now let’s move next to Batman. And when we do that, doesn’t the city of Gotham sort of show up automatically in our heads? This pattern of hero and place works even if you switch to a different comic book universe. Because Spider-man really is just a kid from Queens and Captain America fits a World War II era Brooklyn. The Black Panther had to come from Wakanda and the Black Widow is who she is because she grew up in Soviet Russia. So now that we’ve imagined superheroes being themselves in the places where they belong, let’s stretch our imagination and see what it would be like if these same heroes were defined by some place else. For example, what if Batman didn’t spend his time in Gotham but instead built his batcave in a suburban city like Woodcliff Lake? Or what if Captain America, instead of playing stickball on the docks of Brooklyn, he grew up playing soccer on dusty fields along the US-Mexico border? And what if the Black Widow grew up in California, Japan or maybe Nigeria? I don’t find it hard to imagine superheroes from those places. But it’s not easy to re-imagine the superheroes we do know to the point where we fully understand how these new places would shape their identity. Places matter because they can provide a context and a history to our stories. And since places do make a difference in the fictional world of comic book superheroes, then the places we hear about in the Bible should inform how we interact with Jesus and how we live into his invitation to “follow him.” 

Today’s reading from the gospel according to Matthew is full of places. There’s Nazareth, Capernaum, Zebulon and Naphtali; the Sea of Galilee, Galilee itself, Syria, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan. That’s a lot of geography in only a few verses. And when the Bible gives us a lot of one thing in only a few lines, that’s a signal that we need to pay attention. Yet it’s not easy to pinpoint where our attention should go when we’re given a list like this. We might choose to focus on those places we do know - like Jerusalem, since that’s where Jesus died, or Nazareth since we just heard that name in the Christmas story. But when it comes to the Bible, sometimes the most effective way to see what the gospel is all about is to spend time with the things we don’t know. And I’m going to assume that most of us don’t recognize Zebulun and Naphtali. And it’s perfectly okay if you don’t. These are two words that even I, a religious professional, looked up and I’m pretty sure I’m pronouncing them wrong. Yet we know those two place names matter to the story about Jesus that Matthew told because Matthew immediately reached back into the scripture and quoted words from the book of Isaiah that were spoken maybe 700 years before Jesus was born. 

So to grasp Zebulun and Naphtali, we need to go back to the book of Genesis and to a man named Jacob. Jacob was the son of Issac who was the son of Abraham who was the one who received a promise from God that he would be the ancestor of many nations and that one of those nations would be God’s chosen, embodying God’s life and love for the world. Jacob’s life was very full of its ups and downs and his name was even changed to Israel after he wrestled with God in the river Jordan. Jacob ended up having at least 12 sons who became the heads of the 12 tribes that made up the Israelite people. Two of those sons were named Zebulun and Naphtali. Years later, after the story of the Exodus, the territory in the so-called Promised Land was split among those twelve tribes. Zebulun and Naphtali were given the northernmost territory, with their claim including the Sea of Galilee and beyond. Their territory was large but also unwieldy. And according to the Bible, they never really gained full political control over the are because it was basically a borderland next to large empires to the north and east. The land of Zebulun and Naphtali were told to make their home was also the main invasion route into Israel as well. In the words of Brett Younger, “whenever anyone invaded, they were the first and last to bear the brunt of it.” Eventually in 722 BCE, the Assyrian Empire completely conquered the northern part of Israel, deporting its 10 tribes and effectively wiping them off the face of the earth. The people who repopulated the territory that formerly belonged to Zebulun and Naptali were always viewed with suspicion. And even if these people were Jewish, other members of the religious community were worried about their identity and whether they could ever be considered truly part of God’s family. During the time of Jesus, Galilee was considered to be too non-Jewish - too full of Gentiles and was now occupied by another Empire - the Romans - who did their very best to exploit the people who lived there. The former land of Zebulun and Naphtali was a place covered by an old and deep shadow. Yet it was there, in that shadow, where Jesus began to work. He set up his home base not in a city but in a small fishing village, on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. And while there, he called his first disciples from among those marginalized people who others didn’t think were worthy of the Messiah’s attention. The light of God didn’t show up only in the places we expect God to be. Instead, Jesus stepped into the shadow, showing that we - regardless of history, regardless of our past, regardless of what we’re experiencing now - that we truly are beloved children of God. 

So when Jesus looked into the boats and saw Simon, Andrew, John, and James mending their nets, he saw more than just a few people who knew how to fish. He knew how their geographical place shaped and informed who they were. He knew the story of their land; he knew the story of their people; he knew what others thought of them; and he knew what they thought about themselves. Jesus knew the disciples came from a place. Yet when they met Jesus, he proclaimed that another place - God’s place - this kingdom of heaven - was coming to meet them. This wasn’t his way of saying that the place people are from doesn’t matter. Rather, Jesus was showing them - and us - that we do not have to be limited by the places we call home. We are, through baptism, connected to a body of Christ, to Jesus himself, who embodied what God’s kingdom is all about. And what centered that king was it’s giving of life - a life that brought healing, wholeness, and, above all, hope to those covered in shadow. When we take seriously the places that show up in the Bible and how they informed Jesus’ own ministry, we’re also invited to ask how our places shape our response to Jesus Christ. And this kind of invitation takes a kind of work that has to be more than just a simple thought exercise about comic books. Instead, we’re required to ask hard questions about our places, how they’ve shaped us, and how we’ve used places to harm, vilify, or overshadow others. This work isn’t easy and we might not like what we discover about ourselves. Yet this work is something that Jesus knows we can do. Because he did not call perfect people to be his disciples; instead he called folks just like us. And he continues to give us his life and his light so that we can bring prayers of peace, gifts of love, and the power of hope into every shadow in our lives and in our world. 

Amen. 
 



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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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Seeing Epiphanies: Pastor Marc's Note in the Messenger, February 2020

As a person who preaches every week, I’m always on the lookout for sermon material. What I’m looking for is some activity, experience or observation that can reveal a little of what the Holy Spirit wants us to hear. As you might already know, much of my material is autobiographical. But, I don’t usually seek this material out. Rather, I live my life and then notice what might be helpful is this week’s sermon. Not every one of these notes ends up in a sermon, and many that are in the first draft of my sermons do not make it to Sunday morning. Yet, I’ve discovered that the more I share my faith, the more sermon material I can recognize in my every day life. And this sermon material is not merely a good hook to make you think I’m a good preacher. Instead, the material is way for me to see how the gospel of Jesus Christ is with us every day of our lives.

We’re currently in the “season after Epiphany” and will be in that season until Ash Wednesday on February 26th. The word epiphany means “appearance or manifestation” and describes what happened to the magi when they visited Jesus. God revealed to the magi that Jesus was here and how the presence of Jesus made a difference in their lives. When the magi returned home, I do not believe they were the same people they were before they saw Jesus. Instead, the fact that Jesus was in the world invited them to see their world (and their lives) in a new way. The month of February is a good month to look for the epiphanies of Jesus in our everyday lives. These epiphanies can seem small, but they are a symbol of the relationship we have with God. One epiphany that I like to invite people to use is to see how the washing of your face can remind you of the baptism you’ve experienced. The water on your face can feel simple, but the remembrance can change everything.

One of the things I’ve noticed about searching for epiphanies is that it gets easier the more you do it. The noticing of Jesus does not mean that Jesus is suddenly doing more for you. Rather, Jesus is already there – we just need to work our epiphany- seeing muscles a bit to see how God’s love is all around us. As your epiphanies grow, I hope you’ll take a chance to share those moments with your family and friends. You never know how your epiphany might help others find Jesus, too.



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