Questions and Reflections

January 2016

A Reflection on Moses' Shining

Our first reading is Exodus 34:29-35.

Next week (February 7) is Transfiguration, the Sunday when today's reading from Exodus is usually read. On that Sunday, we witness a story in the gospels where Jesus meets Moses and Elijah on a mountain top. The disciples watch as Jesus talks to these two prophets, with everyone lit up like the sun. Jesus is transformed. His typical wardrobe is replaced by a brilliant white robe. The disciples see Jesus as Jesus truly is: God's light in the world. This light Jesus shines is the same light that Moses experienced during his 40 years in the wilderness. Nothing we make or touch can truly radiate the true divine light that God gives. God's light is more than just a fancy firework show. God's light gives life to whatever it touches, causing God's servants to radiate that light as well. Moses, when he comes down the mountain after being on Mt. Sinai for 40 days, can't help but reflect what God has given him. 

Last Sunday, as I dug out from the snowstorm, I noticed that the bright sunshine was giving me a tan. The brilliant sun was reflecting off the two feet of snow, right onto my face. The light was overpowering and I wish I had shades. Even in the depth of winter, after a snowstorm so huge we canceled church worship services and towns up and down the east coast canceled school for days at a time, the brilliant light still shined. That light left its mark on me while I tried to dig out of my driveway. And it lingers because my face looks like I went to the beach. 

This brilliant light is the God we want. We want a God that shines. We want a God who lingers and who gives us a piece of this divine light to share with others. Even when we're bogged down in the storms of our lives, we have this God who still shines. But this God doesn't only shine. This God isn't only restricted to the mountain tops. This God is a God who is heading to the Cross - a story we'll experience once Lent starts on February 10. 


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Pastor Marc's February 2016 Messenger Article

Lent is coming. And I'm not sure I'm ready for it.

Christmas just finished. We've put away the tree, wrapped up the lights, and we’re trying to avoid looking at our credit card statement for the new few months. We're finally exhaling after the busy Christmas season. But here we are with Ash Wednesday about to arrive. On February 10, at 7:30 pm, we'll gather in the sanctuary to worship, pray, and feel ashen crosses made on our forehead. We'll start our 40 day journey towards Easter by reflecting on God's story and our own. These 40 days bring to mind the 40 days Jesus was in the desert before he began his public ministry (see Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Jesus fasted, listened to God and was tempted by the Devil before beginning his journey to the cross. Lent is a time when the church slows down, reflecting on who we are and what Jesus has done for us. It's a time to breath-in God before the celebration of Easter. 

But how do we breathe-in God? One way is through our mid-week Lenten soup and worship services. We'll gather on Wednesdays at 7:00 pm to eat delicious homemade soup and participate in a worship series called "Sensing the Gospel." We'll continue our weekly Bible studies as we read through the entire Bible in a year. We'll raise money and support for ELCA World Hunger and the Center for Food Action in Englewood and gather toiletries for the homeless in New Jersey. We'll sing, laugh, cry and celebrate a God who doesn't just know us. We'll celebrate a God who walks with us. This Lent, I invite you to breath-in God. Take up a discipline to pray first thing in the morning or right before bed. Join us at worship or study. Serve your neighbors through the church or trying something new. Find what you need to breathe-in God, and let's breathe-out God's love in everything we say and do.

See ya in church! Pastor Marc


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A reflection on Jesus' One Sentence Sermon

Our gospel reading today is Luke 4:14-21.

Last week, the gospel of John opened Jesus' public ministry by turning water into wine. Today, the gospel of Luke opens Jesus' public ministry with a sermon. He walks into a synagogue, opens up a scroll, reads scripture, and preaches. This is similar to what we do on Sunday mornings. We open up our texts, we read and hear scripture, and Pastor Marc preaches a sermon. This sermon, 1500 words or so, takes 12 minutes to share a piece of God's story and a piece of what the good news of Jesus (the Gospel) is all about. Jesus, on the other hand, doesn't prepare a manuscript and his sermon is just 9 words long. 

So if you had to share the good news of Jesus, what 9 words would you use? 

As we continue our year reading the bible, we're discovering just how complicated and layered God's story is. The text is relating a story that involves people who lived in a world different from ours. They didn't have cars or airplanes, smartphones or computers. The idea of a printed bulletin containing a worship service would have blown their mind. Jacob, Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar live different lives. But their experiences, emotions, and life is filled with stories and feelings we can relate to. They struggle to find their identity in their world. They struggle to live a life faithful to their beliefs and their God. They do what they need to survive and to pass on their story and their legacies. The more we discover their stories, the more we need to flesh out their world. A sermon covering their story requires more than 9 words. It requires books, articles, archaeology, and knowledge. The good news of God in their lives can add up to a mountain of words.

But if a stranger came up to you and wondered why Jesus matters, what would you say? Could you say that the captives are free, the blind can see, the oppressed are free, and that poor are receiving good news? And if we can, what exactly does that look like? Today's sermon from Jesus is sharing that God's kingdom is happening right now and we're invited to share what God's kingdom looks like while, at the same time, pointing to where God's kingdom is being lived out in our lives and in our world.


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Jesus and Wine

Our gospel reading is John 2:1-11.

There's an image floating around the internet that captures today's gospel reading well. The picture is a group of shelves at a supermarket. The shelves are neat, tidy, and well organized. We see bottles of white and red wine, all labeled, priced, and where they're supposed to be. There's nothing out of the ordinary here (if we lived in a state where supermarkets were allowed to sell wine). But, when we look up, over the bottles of wine, there's a green label with white lettering. It's says "Water." The image is captioned, "JESUS WAS HERE." 

Our gut reaction when we see that image for the first time is to chuckle or laugh. It's surprising. It's funny. It's delightful. And I expect that's exactly how the guests at the wedding felt when, after a long party, Jesus' wine was served. After days of celebration, the guests expected the most delicious food and drink to be gone. The longer the party goes, the less money, time, and energy is available to make sure that the best stuff is served. People expected to be fed but they didn't expect to be treated to something new. 

Jesus' actions at this wedding party is miraculous but John doesn't call Jesus' actions miracles. They're always signs. What Jesus is doing is pointing towards who God is and what God does. God celebrates. God provides abundantly. God shows up in unexpected places. God values relationships, friendship, and connection. The wedding is a sign of what God desires for humanity. God desires our friendship and connection with each other. God desires everyone to be well fed. God desires that all have an opportunity to thrive and experience the best that we have to offer. The wedding at Cana is Jesus' first public act in John. This water-into-wine starts his journey to the Cross. God's abundant reality and desire for God's world runs into a world where resources are hoarded, opportunities restricted, and where divisions are promoted and practice. But God will not let our limited reality overcome the limitlessness of God's love.


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Named: A Sermon on Genesis, Abram, and Faith's Need for Doubt and Questions [Sermon Manuscript]

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Genesis 15:1-21

Pastor Marc's sermon on the Baptism of our Lord (January 10, 2016) on Genesis 15:1-21. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


Whenever we hear the phrase “after these things,” we know that there’s a backstory we need to fill out. And that’s what today’s first reading needs. Our year through the bible has raced us through Creation, Cain and Abel, and Noah’s flood. We’re now with Abram who was called by God to leave his homeland in Ur, what is now Iraq, and head west, to the land of Canaan - to Israel, Jordan, and Palestine. Abram arrives in the land with his nephew, a few extended family members, and flocks of sheep and goats. He lives a semi-nomadic life, settling in one place for a little bit before packing up his animals, slaves, and family, and heading to a new place. His life has brought him all over Canaan, Egypt, and to the cities on the coast that are owned by the Philistines. And where Abram goes, God goes too. It feels like every time Abram moves, God visits him in a dream or through angels, making a promise that Abram will have children through his barren wife Sarai and that they’ll eventually own the land they live on. As Abram travels, meeting new people, visiting new places, and through some really odd episodes where he pretends that his wife is really his sister, Abram gets rich. He’s given animals, gold and silver, more slaves and servants. His household grows - his wealth grows - and he becomes so powerful that when his nephew Lot is captured in a war with five kings on one side and four on the other, Abram raises his own army, larger than the others, to free his nephew. Abram is a political and economic force in his corner of the world. But as the years go by, Sarai doesn’t get pregnant. He doesn’t get land. And so, it’s after he frees his nephew, after he’s defeated four kings and pushed aside the help from five - it’s then when our reading today begins. God visits Abram in a vision, starting with a promise, and Abram has the guts to question God. 

Right there, in our reading today, we have someone who questions God. And it’s not just anyone. It’s Abram; it’s Abraham; it’s the guy who will entertain the Holy Trinity when they show up at his tent and who will be so devoted to God that, in just a few chapters, he’ll take his son Isaac up a mountain, tie him up, to sacrifice. Abram is a big deal. He’s important. He’s one of our faith-filled examples to live up to. He’s willing to leave his homeland just because God told him to. He also has this one-on-one relationship with God, full of angels, visions, and conversation, a relationship that we’re probably a little envious of. He’s rich. He’s powerful. He can put kings in their place. And it’s this guy who calls God out, wondering when God’s promise will be fulfilled. 

So if Abram can question God - maybe we can too. 

Now, I’m pretty sure that many of us here, myself included, have questioned God at one point or another. And I know it can feel awkward to do that. Questioning God doesn’t really feel like a very faithful thing to do. We usually believe that faith doesn’t include questions, that faith doesn’t include doubts. When we do question, it can feel dirty, feel like we’re showing that our own faith is somehow impure, imperfect, and not what it should be. We might keep our questions in the shadows, burying them deep inside ourselves. Or we might feel that speaking these questions out loud, we somehow, automatically, no longer belong in this kind of faith community. Our questions might show that being a disciple of Jesus, being a Christian, isn’t something for us at all. 

But here’s Abram, while speaking to God and knowing that God will speak right back - here he is, questioning God. He actually doubts a promise that God has made to him over and over and over again. He doubts he’ll have a heir through his wife Sarai. Even a victory in war, even saving his nephew from the enemy, even all of his vast riches and political power - none of that can erase his doubt in this God who claims to be with him. 

So God tells Abram to step outside. He tells Abram to look up, look into a night sky with no pollution or artificial lights or full moon hiding the stars and the galaxies that make up the universe. And I imagine that’s what Abram did. He stepped outside, looked up, and saw a vision of the sky that we cannot see here in our neighborhood. And then God does what God always does: God speaks the promise again. 

And Abram’s believes. 

There’s nothing in the text that says Abram changed his mind. Abram doesn’t ponder, or wonder, or reason out what God is saying. Abram believes. He trusts. The speaking of God’s promise builds that faith within him. That faith is one of God’s gifts to Abram. 

And that’s why I believe, that on this Sunday when remember the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan, we continue to speak and share God’s promise. Every time we gather, every time we talk, every time one of us prays for someone else, we speak God’s promise. We continue to share that God loves us, that God loves you, and that there is something bigger here than all of us. Our God is walking with us in our questions, in our doubts, and even in our fears about what’s coming next. God is still speaking because God hasn’t given up on us. God is saying that, like Jesus, we’re beloved. God’s well-pleased with us not because we are perfect or that we’ll never make a mistake or that, somehow, God’s gift of faith will stop us from still being human. We know that’s not true and we see that in Abram’s story because in the very next chapter of Genesis, Sarai and Abram still doubt God’s promise, so Abram impregnates one of Sarai’s slaves, trying to make an heir. Faith doesn’t end doubts or questions. Instead, faith embraces those questions because there’s something bigger than our doubts - and that’s God’s love for each and everyone one of us here in this church, in our communities, and in our world. 

So, this week, I invite you to question. I invite you to doubt. I invite you to wonder just what God is doing in our lives and in our world. Be like Abram. Be like Sarai. Be like the countless members of God’s holy family who have wondered where God is and what God is doing. But make sure that you also share the promise. Questions and doubts need that promise and that promise needs those questions and doubts. So speak the promise. Tell yourself that God loves you. Tell someone else that God loves them. Look into the world, knowing that it’s loved, and figure out how you can love it too. Share God’s promise - share that each of us matters, that each of us is loved, and that Jesus walked into that dirty water of the Jordan - and up those dirty steps to the Cross because God gets into the dirt of our lives to to love us and even die for us. And not because we’re perfect - but because God is. 



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A reflection on John's Baptism and Christian Baptism

Our gospel reading today is Luke 3:15-22.

Luke's portrayal of Jesus's baptism differs from the other gospels. There's no explicit mention of John baptizing Jesus (the text only says that Jesus is baptized) and, in Luke, Jesus is baptized with other people. Luke paints a picture of Jesus being part of the crowd, one of many different kinds of people who come to participate in what God is doing in the world.

But why would Jesus need to be baptized? That's not an easy question to answer. But one way to examine this question is to make sure that we are clear about the baptism that Jesus received and the baptism we receive when we are welcomed into the body of Christ. The baptism practiced by John centered on repentance and forgiveness of sins. John was telling people to turn away from the behaviors and thoughts that were taking them away from what God is doing in the world. The baptism we practice is focused more on how God is working on us. When we are baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, God's name is put on us. God's name is washed over us, sealed on our foreheads, and poured into us. God gives us God's own name to carry into the world. Our Christian baptism doesn't ask us to participate in what God is doing in the world. Our Christian baptism makes us active participants in how God loves the world. 

Jesus takes John's baptism and makes it his own. He expands John's witness so that we are reborn as something brand new when we are baptized. After the water pours over us and we pat ourselves dry, we might feel just like we did before. But we are changed because God's name has been publicly given to us. We are beloved. God trusts us with God's own name and love. We're called to live differently, to feed the hungry, advocate for the poor, and love the neighbors God gives us. We're called to be a Christ in the world because we belong to Christ today, tomorrow, and forever. 


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A reflection on Creation and the Magi

Today's first reading is Genesis 1:1-5.

This is how our Bible begins - with the beginning of the world. What better way to begin our year of reading the bible than with the first words in our Bible? These weren't the first words of Scripture ever created but they are the first words of our sacred story. And that's how we begin worship today, with a translation by Everett Fox. Fox crafted a translation that's brings out the poetry and motion of the original Hebrew. Our English translation can sometimes feel too dry and wooden when we're talking about God's creative act. God, in the act of creating life, is living out God's sense of creativity and beauty. And when God creates the world, describing what God does requires poetry. 

What strikes me today is how this text from Genesis matches with the story of the magi. The magi, scientists and scholars from the east, are observing creation and looking for God's activity. They are looking for a beginning. As the story unfolds, we hear how a light (star) leads them, how darkness (Herod) tries to over take them, and how a new day is created (God's love is opened to the Gentiles through Jesus). 

When God does new things, God acts like the beginning of our sacred story. God sees what's going on, speaks, and acts. God risks entering our chaos to bring love, forgiveness, and hope. How God acts and what that help will look like is difficult to predict. But we know that, like the beginning of the world and the beginning of Jesus' story, God is in the business of creating new things. And God is busy with us, right now, creating us into being a new people for the world. 


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At-Beginnings: God's New Years Resolution [Sermon Manuscript]

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Genesis 1:1-5

Pastor Marc's sermon on the Epiphany of our Lord (January 3, 2016) on Genesis 1:1-5. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


So, earlier this week, I opened a copy of the Town News, the community paper for Paramus, and I found inside this: a list of 50 resolutions for the new year. Now, 50 resolutions is a lot. I don’t think anyone is expected to do all 50 in just one year. But just in case we’re one of the 44% of people who make a New Year’s resolution, and we needed a little help coming up with one for 2016, here’s a list to choose from. Now, some of these resolutions are pretty standard. The first one is, of course, to get fit and lose weight. That’s the #1 resolution that we make and explains why gyms are crowded in January but less crowded once Easter finally rolls around. Other resolutions on this list include visiting a national park, playing a board game with the family every once in awhile, and finally organizing that closet full of stuff that we’ve been planning to clean out for years now. But other resolutions are harder. For example, there’s #7 where we pledge to get more sleep. That’s one I’d love to be able to accomplish. Oh, and then there’s #24, which says we need to stop procrastinating. What exactly we need to stop procrastinating on is not mentioned but the article is sure that there is something we’ve been meaning to do that we just need to go ahead and finish. And then there’s #15 which is all about erasing our financial debt and #6 which is about finally finding the love of our life. The list gets even better. We’re invited to be more romantic, more open-minded, more adventurous, and to finally stop stressing. This list is full of things, habits, and behaviors that I’m sure we’d all like in our lives, no matter how old we are. But making a resolution and accomplishing a resolution are two separate things. And what makes a New Year’s resolution hard isn’t only when we make one without a game plan to accomplish it, like saying we want to better without the how to make it work. What makes a New Year’s resolution hard is the one making that New Year’s resolution in the first place. Resolutions imagine a future full of possibilities but resolutions don’t happen in a vacuum. They aren’t made by someone who’s a blank slate. Resolutions are made by folks who roll out of bed on January 1st carrying with them all of who they were on December 31st. A new year on the calendar feels like a new start - but when 2016 rolls around, we still have to figure out what to do with our 2015 selves. We’ve still got our failures, our successes, all the stuff about ourselves that we don’t like, and all the stuff that makes us awesome - we still have to deal with all of that. January 1st is never a blank slate because we’re never a blank slate. We’re still us, even when we want to become something new. 

And that’s where Genesis 1, chapter 1, comes in. Our first reading isn’t the usual text for today. On Epiphany Sunday, when we honor the magi who came to meet God’s Son, our first reading always comes from Isaiah. But today we’re starting with the first words from the first book of the bible. And that’s because we’re starting something new. For the next year, weekly bible studies, Sunday School, and even our lessons in worship will help us read the entire bible, together, in a year. Just three chapters a day is all it takes to walk from Genesis through Revelation. And so that means the first lesson we hear on Sunday is not going to match our normal 3 year church lesson’s cycle. Instead, we’re going to hear readings from Lamentations, and the Psalms, and we might even hear something from one of the smaller books of the bible like Obadiah or Nahum - those books in the bible we have but that we don’t read. The goal of this journey is to experience the wideness of God’s story while, at the same time, noticing things we haven’t seen before. So today, on this first Sunday of the new year, it’s fitting to start our journey through the bible with these first words from the first creation story in Genesis - when God created the light that could illuminate a star. 

Did you notice that, in these first words, in these first moments when scripture starts talking about God creating the universe - there was something there? On the very first day of creation, when God was doing something brand new, God’s creative act doesn’t start with something empty. There’s a wild place, an empty place, a place that is just pure chaos - and that’s where God creates. These words aren’t concerned with God creating everything from a blank slate. Instead, they’re focused on what God does when God does create. God doesn’t just make stuff. God also creates purpose. God also gives things and places meaning. This is a God who creates light and calls it good. From the chaos, over a dark Ocean, that’s where God creates - and that’s when God creates something brand new. Creation in Genesis 1 doesn’t happen in a vacuum. God doesn’t need a blank slate to create something new. God can take a mess, can take the darkness, can take us as we are right now - and bring something new. 

And that’s why Genesis 1 is, I think, the January 1st of God’s calendar. This is God’s New Year’s resolution. God see the darkness, sees the chaos, sees the problems, and God creates. God understands the fears, God understands the mistakes, God sees the sadness, and God creates. God promises to see the world as it is, to see the parts of our lives that we keep in shadows, to see the parts of our world that creates these shadows, and that’s where God works. The darkness doesn’t get the final word. God speaks and light comes - because that’s what God does.

It’s probably a little odd to think that God has a New Year’s resolution. And that might be a little scary to hear too. Surveys says that, by June, more than half of us who make a New Year’s resolution have already given up. And it’s not hard for us to feel like, sometimes, maybe God has given up on us. When we lose a job, suffer a long illness, or watch a family member struggle with broken relationships or addiction - we can see the darkness. We can talk about everyone being equal, about all of us being God’s children, but when we act like a man is better than a woman, or the young are better than the old, or if white is better than black and brown, or one person is better than the other just because of the language they speak, we can see the darkness. We can talk about God’s love, but when we watch the church hurt and reject others - we can see the darkness. We can wonder where God is and whether God’s light makes a difference in our world and in our lives. And I wish I had an easy way to explain that away. But I don’t. And scripture doesn’t either. Because after Genesis 1 comes Genesis 2, then 3...then the book of Exodus...and Numbers...and more. We hear of slavery in Egypt, people wandering in the desert, the story of the kings of Israel and watch Jerusalem being captured and the people sent off in exile. We watch as Jerusalem is rebuilt only to find God’s holy city occupied by the empire of Rome. Once the light comes, the light needs to keep coming, over and over and over again. Even when God’s Son is born in a barn, the light still needs to pierce the darkness to show some magi from the east just where God’s Son is. The world needs light. The world needs love. God’s story, as we’ll discover, continues to bring that light and love into a world that doesn’t always want it. But even in the darkness, even in the chaos, even in our old December 31st selves, God’s light, God’s New Year’s resolution, God’s love for the entire world - that still comes. 



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