Questions and Reflections

October 2014

The After Party [Sermon Manuscript]

Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.

John 8:31-36

Pastor Marc's sermon on Reformation Sunday (October 26, 2014) on John 8:31-36. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


So, if we journey back a bit, maybe 497 years or so, and we take a little trip halfway across the world to a little college town in the middle of Germany, I imagine that the day started like any other. The sun rose, people woke up, farmers tended their fields, and a young college professor in a black robe got up from his desk, put on his overcoat, went down the stairs carrying two pieces of paper that he just finished working on, and he walked out the front door into the dusty street, and headed to church. On the way there, I imagine he said hi to the people he knew, walked up a few short steps to this big, large wooden door - heavy and painted a bright red - and I imagine he stood there, looking at the other papers and flyers nailed to the church door - and then this young professor slowly nailed one of his papers onto that door. I imagine he stood there a moment, making sure everything was straight, reading through what he wrote one more time, before walking back down the steps and heading to his local postmaster to mail his second piece of paper, an exact copy of the first, to the local archbishop who lived a few towns over. With the mailing done, he walked back home or maybe to his office, going over in his head the lecture he was preparing for later that day. That young professor didn’t expect what happened next. He didn’t know he started something big. All he did was write 95 thoughts about the church, God, and what it meant to be a follower of Jesus Christ, and he posted those thoughts in public, sending a copy to his boss too. If Martin Luther, our spiritual ancestor that gives our flavor of Christianity its name, never sent that letter to the archbishop - the fights - the theological struggle - what happened next wouldn’t have happened. But they did. And, if you look around, you’ll notice that we’re the heirs to that struggle. We’re a product of that history. Us, here at Christ Lutheran Church in Woodcliff Lake - we’re here because a young professor took a look around, listen to the Holy Spirit, and told his story of God, his story of Jesus, his story of God’s love and our call to bear that love into the world - he told that story - and he wasn’t afraid to share that story with his boss. 

So, when we look at our Gospel reading today, these short verses from the Gospel of John, we find Jesus in Jerusalem, teaching and talking to his disciples and others gathered around him. Jesus turns to them and says “if you continue in my will know truth...and the truth shall make you free.” And these words kinda shock those gathered around him. They turn to Jesus and go - “now, wait a minute. Free? What do you mean free? Are you talking about us being slaves? Now, we know we’re not slaves. We know slaves - slavery is all around us - in the time of Jesus slavery was very real and affected millions - but we are gathered around you in the Temple - how can we be slaves? We are the descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.” 

“We have never been slaves to anyone…” That’s a very odd phrase to say. Maybe, presently, they could say that. Sure, they might not have been slaves right now. They might not be physically owned by anyone. Sure, the Roman Empire occupied their country and their government - the Roman Empire picked what they could do and when they could do it - but that’s not like the slavery they saw around them. Those gathered around Jesus - they focused on the present - on the right now - and, for that, Jesus calls them out on it. 

Their focus on the right now - it causes them to forget their story and their history. It causes them to forget who they are, where they came from, and their cultural identity. They were, as a people, slaves once. They were slaves in Egypt but God, through Moses, led them to Israel. They were in Israel when Babylon came and destroyed Jerusalem, taking their leaders and teachers far from home in exile. Their story was full of slavery - and, in that slavery - in the twists of history that gave them their culture - that story also gave them their identity as God’s chosen people, as the people God loves, walks with, struggles with, and continues to live with and through. When Jesus heard that they didn’t remember their slavery - he heard them saving that they did not know their story. They didn’t know who they were. They didn’t know whose they were. And they didn’t truly see the present standing right in front of them - and a future through the one standing before them, face to face - a future through Jesus Christ. 

Now, today is Reformation Sunday - it’s the one Sunday we officially, by name, recognize as the birthday of the movement on why we’re all gathered in this place today. It’s a day - like all holidays and celebrations - that can easily be stuck in the past. We could stand up here, recite Luther’s past, talk about how awesome we are, have a potluck with a few casseroles, and just call it a day. We can make the mistake of telling our story - and forgetting the most important parts of our story - we can see our story as a series of events rather than a series of people having epic encounters with God - women and men of deep faith, deep fears, deep doubts, who, unlike those disciples gathered around Jesus in the Temple - these faithful women and men looked in Jesus and they saw God’s mercy. They saw God’s love. They saw God’s future. And they saw God claiming them right now - saying that they matter, that they are important, that their story is God’s story. These faithful people looked at Jesus, looked at the one who died on the cross for them, saw God taking the initiative to reconcile the world, to forgive the world, saw God love the world - and these faithful people, in their own journeys of faith, asked - now what? Jesus walked the earth. Jesus died on the earth. Jesus is resurrected from the earth. God saw the distance between what humans did, thought, and believed, and God crossed over it - God grabbed onto us - and closed the distance. So, when God has done everything, now what? What do we do now? What are we suppose to do - all of us, as a ‘now what?’ people? 

9 AM [This was Luther’s question. And this is our question too. The Reformation continues - it pushes us into the future because we live in a very future oriented way. God loved us. Jesus died for us. Jesus is resurrected for us. We’re living in the post-Jesus event. We’re living after the party that God caused by living a very human life. We’re in God’s After Party - living out God’s and humanity’s future right now. We’re living out what it means to be free - to be the heirs of God’s promises through Jesus Christ We are free to shower our neighbor with love. We are free to raise them up when they are down. We are free to walk with them, through strife, struggle, conflict, and worry. We are free to fight for justice on behalf of those who cannot. We are free to march the picket line for those who cannot. We are free to facedown oppression in all its shape and forms - sexism, racism, agism - just to name a few - because we have been freed to be that love. That’s the cost of being a member of the Now What? people. God walked the earth. God loved Creation. God continues to shower grace, mercy, and forgiveness on humanity and God continues to raise up co-creators of the kingdom of God to fight for justice, tolerance, love, equality, and forgiveness - to do what God did in the act of the Cross - in that party that started on that hill at Calvary. We are a ‘now what’ people. We are living through our future, through God’s future, in the party after the party - we are, so to speak, living in God’s After Party - so just how is God calling us to live out that love today?] 

10:30 AM [In a minute, we’re going to ask Evan R., his parents, and sponsors to come on up here. And we’re going to make public his part of God’s story. With a little water, much prayer, and the Holy Spirit, we’re going to make known that God claims Evan; that God loves Evan; that Jesus will walk with Evan, no matter where life takes him; and we’ll promise as parents, as sponsors, and as this congregation to pray for him, to educate him, to love him, and to share our story with him. We’ll promise to confess with him the faith that we are given, the faith that the Spirit gifts us with, the faith that causes us to be here right now - to make public witness to God’s mercy, love, and forgiveness. In this “now what?” moment, we’re going to make the Christian church one person bigger, we’re going to proclaim God’s love to one more person, we’re going to promise to grow the Kingdom of God by proclaiming what it means to be free. Like Jesus in Jerusalem, surrounded by those disciples and those others listening to him - when they turned to Jesus and said “What do you mean - you will be made free?” - we’re going to proclaim that Evan is free - that he is now part of us, that he is part of what it means to be a “now what?” people. We’re going to share with him that this ‘now what’ - the time we live in now - isn’t a relic of the past. We’re not gathered here just to celebrate what happened yesterday. We’re not here to lament what yesterday was like - the bigger church, the bigger budget, the bigger services, the bigger Sunday School, and Youth Group. No, we’re here to share with Evan that the Reformation isn’t over, that we’re not finished quite yet. No, we - like him - are called to be like Martin Luther before us, to take a look at the world around us, to pay attention to what the Spirit is telling us, and to see the possibility of change - and just what that might mean. Because the Lutheran Christian story is always a story looking forward, mindful of the past, fully aware of the present, but knowing full well of who stands before us. When we look up, Jesus is there. We might not feel it. We might not acknowledge it. We might wonder if he’s really there - if he really cares - or if anyone really knows who we are. We might not know Jesus - but Jesus knows us. Jesus makes us free. Jesus makes God’s love very real for us - and that’s the gift given to Evan and to all of us.

We are free - as heirs of God’s promise through Jesus Christ - we are free indeed. We are free to shower our neighbor with love. We are free to raise them up when they are down. We are free to walk with them, through strife, struggle, conflict, and worry. We are free to fight for justice on behalf of those who cannot. We are free to march the picket line for those who cannot. We are free to facedown oppression in all its shape and forms - sexism, racism, agism - just to name a few - because we have been freed to be that love. That’s the cost of being part of the ‘Now What?’ people. God walked the earth. God loved Creation. God continues to shower grace, mercy, and forgiveness on humanity and God continues to raise up co-creators of the kingdom of God to fight for justice, tolerance, love, equality, and forgiveness - to do what God did in the act of the Cross - in the party that started on that hill at Calvary. We are a ‘now what’ people. Evan is part of the now what too. We are living through our future, through God’s future, in the party after the party - we are, so to speak, living in God’s After Party - so just how is God calling us to live out that love today? ]


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Why Reformation Sunday?

Many Lutheran churches across the world are celebrating the “birth” of the Reformation. Martin Luther, a monk living in Germany and teaching at the local university, was disturbed by practices in the local church. He saw the church being a hindrance to God’s love and mercy rather than dispensing that love and mercy to those who needed it most. His experiences didn’t match fully with what he saw, what he learned, and what he taught. This struggle led him to reach out to his local university community. He wanted to talk about his experiences and thoughts with his local professors. Using the practices of his day, Luther wrote 95 statements (called theses) and posted them to the public bulletin board of his day: the front doors of his local university church. Luther was using the Facebook, Twitter, and social media tools of his day. What he expected was a few professors to respond back. What he didn’t expect was the firestorm that followed. This firestorm gave birth to the Lutheran church - an understanding of Christianity that leads to all of us gathered at Christ Lutheran Church today.

Now, 497 years later, many are wondering why we still celebrate this day. We don’t live in Germany, we aren’t monks from the 15th century, and the questions Luther faced are not necessarily the questions we face today. Luther was a person of his era, a prolific writer who wrote beautifully, faithfully, spiritually. He was a man of God. He also said many things that I wish he didn’t, including anti-Jewish tracts that we condemn fully and loudly. So how can this man who lived in a very different time help us today? How can his experience of God help our journey of faith as people with cars, smartphones, Twitter, Hondas, and reality TV?

And that question is why Reformation Day still matters. Luther’s legacy is more than just a set of unchanging thoughts about God, faith, and Jesus that we just happen to share. His true legacy rests in his willingness to continue a long tradition of engaging faith with experience, of keeping Jesus central rather than distant, and always seeing the Cross as an entrance to God rather than as an escape from God. Lutheran Christianity is a questioning Christianity. We are a people who proudly struggle with Jesus’ question to the disciple: “Who do you say that I am?” That question is our question. That question is a question we’ll always struggle with and we’ll never fully express all that our answer means. But that’s okay. We’re Lutheran Christians which means we aren’t finished yet. We are always being changed. We are always being reformed. So just how is God you, me, and all of us to be reformed? 


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Quarter See, Quarter Ignore

If you put your hand in your pocket or maybe your bag, how many coins would you find in there?

Before I moved to Paramus, I was obsessed with quarters. I probably hoarded them. Every time I went to the corner bodega to buy a snack or drink, I made sure to bring just enough cash to guarantee that a quarter or two would be handed back to me. I needed those quarters. I wanted those quarters. And if they gave me two dimes and a nickel, I was annoyed. Quarters were a big part of my life because the laundromat down the block only took quarters. The change machine was never working when I needed it. And my fellow laundry washers would rarely make change. We all needed those quarters to make sure we could finish our duty and leave that place with clean cloths. 

But, today, coins are weird. In just a few short months, coins have disappeared from my life. My previous obsession with quarters has disappeared. I no longer need them like I use to and so, in the rare time I use cash to purchase something, any coins end up in a piggy bank at home, forgotten and unused. These lovable quarters, with the face of George or maybe a mountain or flower or other state symbol - they lie in the darkness, unused and unnoticed. 

Today’s text from Matthew (Matthew 22:15-22) is one of those episodes in Jesus’ life that grows the more you think about it. It’s a text that seems to support the compartmentalization of our lives. We put politics in one box and religion in another. We can then divide out what is proper to each. But Jesus’ ministry never seems to support this view of the world. He argues over and over again that trying to neatly separate areas of our life is untenable. The problem is that real life is messy and dirty. The boundaries seem to bleed through or are porous. We spend a lot of time watching our carefully separated lives blend together and what was once black and white now appears very gray. But even in the middle of this gray, there’s still one thing that matters. Even if we’re able to compartmentalize all areas of our life so that everything and everyone stays in their proper place, there is still one who breaks through all those barriers and who fails to stay inside the box we create for them. Unlike those quarters I use to hoard, God doesn’t stay in the darkness even after we feel we no longer need God. God never seems comfortable staying in the boxes we create for God. God always breaks through because that’s just what God does. It’s one way I imagine God’s grace looks like.

And if God’s breaking through the barriers and walls I and the world creates, than just what kind of world is God looking for us to build instead?


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What's your church uniform?

Our gospel reading is Matthew 22:1-14.

I'll admit that on most Sundays, I dress the same. I wear the same dark gray dress shoes, black slacks, and collared shirt. When I stand at the altar or the pulpit, I'm dressed in a white robe called an alb. Sundays in, Sundays out, I look the same. My uniform is my second skin on Sunday.

Prior to this Sunday uniform, I had another one. My Sunday mornings were a time when I didn't go to the office or meet clients. The time was reserved for God and, also, for me. I came to church in what I felt was a more authentic me. Red Converse all-star chucks, skinny jeans, and maybe a t-shirt with a squirrel or a band name on it - I brought to God my more comfortable, freeing, creative, and honest self. I came as I was and as I wanted God to meet me as I was.

How do you want God to meet you? When you meet Jesus in the bread and drink, what do you want Jesus to see?

Our uniforms tell a lot of who we are and who we want God to see. And no one uniform is more authentic or real than the next. One person's suit and tie can be another's Birkenstocks and socks. But God always asks us to bring our honest selves to the table. That honesty requires reflection and prayer. That level of honesty requires a willingness to engage God throughout the week. That level of honesty requires a faith life that stretches into every day in the week. And like our four who are being confirmed today, even once we are made adult members of the congregation, our faith life isn't complete nor is our faith life full. We live into our faith throughout our entire life. 

Faith is a journey. Faith is a challenge. Faith is a gift from God. And we're not in this process alone. Jesus took a chance on you and continues to take a chance on you. In your baptism, you were given a uniform, a new second skin, and clothed with Christ forever. Jesus is your uniform. Jesus is with you. So how can you, clothed in Jesus, live out your faith this week?


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Fruit By the Foot [Sermon Manuscript]

"Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

Matthew 21:33-46

Pastor Marc's sermon on the 17th Sunday after Pentecost (October 5, 2014) on Matthew 21:33-46. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


This...this reading from Matthew… it is a hard text.  

We’re immediately after the lesson we heard last week.  Jesus is in the temple, he’s teaching, and the religious leaders come up and ask him a question. They asked Jesus who gave him the authority to heal the sick, raise the dead, who gave him the authority to have meals with the outcasts and the poor.  And Jesus responded with a question and with a parable about a father and two sons.  Now, Jesus is following up that parable with a second parable.  He tends to do that when leaders question his authority. And this is the parable we get. 

It’s brutal. It’s violent. There’s a landowner who builds a vineyard, rents it out, and once the rent needs to be paid, there is an escalating spiral of violence.  There are slaves. These slaves are killed and beaten. The heir of the landowner is sent and he is killed. And when Jesus explains the parable - we get increasingly bigger images of death. First, violence to the tenants.  Then the kingdom of God is taken away from the religious authorities.  A cornerstone is mentioned that crushes and breaks those around it.  And, finally, we hear that the religious leaders are afraid of violence from those listening to Jesus’ teaching. It’s difficult to not see the violence - it’s difficult to see Jesus talking about violence - and to note why this text has been used to justify violence against our Jewish brothers and sisters over the centuries. There is a violence here that I don’t like - a violent streak that I don’t like to think Jesus had. 
But maybe there’s something else in this reading that can help bring the gospel out of it. And I think it has to do with where Jesus starts his parable - he starts it in another vineyard. 

Now, Jesus wasn’t just putting his parable in any field where grapes are grown - no, he was specifically pointing to [our reading in Isaiah] [a reading from Isaiah, chapter 5].  There the prophet Isaiah begins his story with something very strange.  He says - “Let me sing for my beloved my love-song…” A love-song.  

Maybe that’s a key that we can use to understand what Jesus is talking about in our reading from Matthew.  

Now, I guess that we’ve all heard plenty of love songs in our lives. When we turn on the radio, turn on spotify on our computer, we’re probably going to hear some song that have something to do with love.  So when I hear the words “love song,” I’m thinking John Legend or Taylor Swift or Beyonce - because there are songs about love - and then there are songs that are really about love.  Songs about falling into love, falling out of love, being happy in love and being sad when love ends. But I don’t know if I’ve heard a love song on the Z100 like this one from Matthew. Because seeing Jesus’ parable as a love song doesn’t minimize the violence but maybe it helps us ask the question just where the love is. What makes this song a love song.  And I think it rests on that cornerstone. 
Because Jesus does something different in this parable. As he tells this parable, I imagine his audience - the religious leaders - seeing themselves as the landowners.  They are the ones who have devoted their lives to reading and teaching God’s word. They were appointed by God to be the stewards of God’s people. They worked hard to maintain their Jewish identity while being occupied by the Roman Empire. They saw themselves as builders and I don’t think they’re wrong.  What I don’t think they saw - and what I think we struggle to see even today - is the move that Jesus makes.  Because his parable isn’t about the landowner. The parable isn’t about the tenants who beat and kill. The parable is centered on the unexpected thing.  After the first slaves were sent and then the second, it didn’t make sense for the landowner to send his son.  Even if take into consideration that the culture of ancient Israel is much different from ours today - the landowner’s action is unexpected. We already know that the tenants are violent - their reaction to the arrival of the son - that’s expected. But the landowner sending the son - that unexpected thing - that’s the love song. The problem with the religious leaders is that they’re not seeing what God is doing - they’re not seeing God’s behavior - they’re not noticing that God acts in unexpected ways. 

Because Jesus is that unexpected thing.  And Jesus changes everything. 

Today at Christ Lutheran - we’re doing a lot of things we usually do.  Today we’re back to our two service schedule.  We’re kicking off Sunday School. We’re having a big Harvest Picnic after the 10:30 service that I hope to see everyone at. We’re doing these things because it’s part of who we are. Education is important here. Children and youth are important here. Faith formation is important here. Getting together and eating food - that’s important here too. And these things make Christ Lutheran who we are. 

And during the Harvest Picnic - you’ll see tables from various committees. You’ll see people telling stories that you might know and some stories that you might not. You’re gonna see invitations for new folks to take on new roles and help lead a bible study, maybe teach a Sunday School class, or try something new as we help our neighbors in Woodcliff Lake. And I invite everyone to maybe, just maybe, do something unexpected. Maybe sign up to help with a youth event even though you’re worried that your skills as a teacher are lacking. Maybe help setup for a CARE event even though you’re not sure what CARE is.  Maybe volunteer to mentor a confirmation aged youth or a new member - getting to know them and letting them get to know you - even if you don’t think you’re that interesting. Because, like this parable from Matthew - the center, the love song is in discovering how God works in unexpected ways; in discovering how God meets us in unexpected ways - in the pain, in the violence, in the joys, and in the just regular things we do everyday. The religious leaders couldn’t see the unexpected ways God was working in Jesus Christ. They couldn’t see that Jesus was about to die. They couldn’t imagine that God’s love song was going to cover everyone - from the outcast to the social elite - and that Jesus was going to reconcile the world. The story of God, the story of Jesus, the story of being the people of God is that God can be found in the unexpected places, in unexpected people, in unexpected experiences. Let’s see just what unexpected things God has planned for all of us gathered here at Christ Lutheran Church. 



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Vineyards Everywhere

A vineyard is an odd thing to run into. Rarely when driving around New Jersey, walking to class, or heading into the employee break room do we run into a vineyard. But this is the second week in a row that the setting for Jesus’ parable is a vineyard (Matthew 21:33-46). I imagine the vineyard Jesus mentions to be a large field full of grapes wrapping around long sturdy vines full of rich, plump, and juicy grapes. Just thinking about this vineyard makes me want to eat one. 

But grapes are not a plant that owners plant and forget about. It doesn’t just grow the right way or make fat juicy grapes on its own. The plants need to be tended and taught to grow along the supports. Bad vines need to be pruned to allow the good vines to thrive. Pests, bugs, and weeds need to be removed. No matter how sturdy or strong or healthy the vines are when they are planted, if the plants are not tended and cared for, their vibrancy, vitality, and life, are wasted. 

Our reading from Isaiah (Isaiah 5:1-7) has the prophet channeling God’s voice and pointing out that God has done the heavy lifting for us. God has laid out the good soil, gifting us with the earth itself. With God’s gift of creation comes God’s willingness to be present in our lives, not afraid to walk with us during difficult times. It is with the gift of faith that we see the wideness of God’s generosity. 

But like the vines of grapes, tending our faith is part of the gift of faith itself. We’re invited by God to engage in intentional, visible, and tangible ways with what it means to be the body of Christ in the world. How the tending will look will be different for each of us. But as we kick off this year with our Harvest Festival, I invite you to explore if God is calling you to experience a different aspect of life here at Christ Lutheran. Visit the committee tables, write down your name, and find a way to tend and feed your faith in a new way. 


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