Questions and Reflections

October 2016


Our gospel reading is John 8:31-36.

"The truth shall set you free" is such a great line and is one of many great lines from the gospel according to John. This line is also beautiful and why we hear this reading every year at this time. As Lutheran Christians, the last Sunday in October is a time when we dress up the church in red and celebrate. But today is more than just the day before Halloween. The last Sunday in October is Reformation Sunday. We remember how, on October 31, a monk posted on a church door 95 thoughts about God and the church. We remember and celebrate all our faith-filled fore bearers who lived their faith out loud and passed this faith down to us. This October 31 will mark the beginning of our 500th year as a community of faith living called Lutheran. Today is a day when we remember how the past formed us and how faith is transforming us and our world. Reformation Sunday is always a Sunday looking into the future and seeing where God is taking us next. Reformation is about relationship. 

Relationship is at the heart of today's reading from John and we see that relationship when we leave these words in context. When we take verses of scripture out of context, we miss what Jesus is saying. Today's reading isn't about freedom as we understand it (personal liberty, autonomy, and the ability to make our own choices). Jesus is speaking  during a conversation with people who followed him and then stopped. Something caused these early followers of Jesus to not buy into what Jesus was doing and saying. These early followers stopped trusting in Jesus' identity and mission. Jesus uses this opportunity to expand our definition of faith. Faith is more than agreeing to a series of propositions or ideas. Faith is more than an intellectual experience and does not resemble the tests we take in school. Faith is, in the words of this passage, about a relationship with God. In the words of Gilberto Ruiz, professor at Saint Anselm College, "the verb translated in the New Revised Standard Version as 'continue' in John 8:31 is meno, a key term in John’s Gospel that is often translated as 'remain' or 'abide' and points to the permanent or enduring nature of the relationship between Jesus and the taking into consideration that Jesus’ language focuses on 'remaining' and that his audience is a group whose faith in him did not 'remain,' we see that this passage presents faith as a continuing relationship. The true disciple 'remains' in a faith relationship with Jesus, and it is this disciple who will be set free by knowing the truth revealed by Jesus." Faith is more than just saying yes to God; faith is walking with Jesus over the long haul. And that's not easy.

Relationships are never easy. Relationships take time. They require compromise, conversation, engagement, give, and take. There are times when our relationships are full of joy and other times when we are angry or sad. And our relationship with God is filled with the same kind of feelings and experiences. Sometimes our relationship with God feels completely unlike what we expect faith to be. But our faith with God doesn't depend on what we feel or think. Our faith is a gift from God. God doesn't wait for us to reach out; God comes to us instead. God starts our relationship through the gifts of baptism, parents, communities of faith, and the Holy Spirit herself. Faith is about what happened yesterday, who we are today, and where we are going in the future. Faith is a relationship and the Reformation is celebrating a God who starts that relationship so we can live into a future God is already preparing. 


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Who Are the Tax Collectors?

Our Gospel Reading is Luke 18:9-14.

Tax collecting in Jesus' era was a messy business. The system we use today is different. Many of us first experience taxes when we buy something. A sales tax is added to the bill. We also might have taxes taken out of our paycheck and spend hours trying to figure out a tax system that changes every year. Our system includes lawyers, accountants, and others who help us figure out the taxes we pay. Our system is not perfect but this system provides the money for roads, schools, hospitals, the military, and countless other institutions and activities that connect us as a community.  

Tax collecting in Jesus' time didn't work this way. Kings and emperors set a target for how much money they wanted to collect. These leaders did not have the institutions or the human resources to travel around and collect the taxes themselves Instead they hired tax collecting firms to collect the money for them. Tax collectors could even sub-contract to other tax collecting firms. These firms were legally empowered to collect the tax along with a "commission."  People who were taxed had to pay the original tax and the additional "commission." Tax collectors did more than collect taxes: they collected their own paycheck as well. 

The tax collectors Jesus called as his disciples were hated for a variety reasons. People did not like paying the tax and being connected connected to an occupying army (the Roman Empire) who set the taxes. Tax collectors worked "on behalf politically oppressed and economically exploitive system of imperial domination." (Gregory Allen Robbins in Feasting on the Gospels, Luke Volume 2). Tax collectors supported and sustained an empire that invaded Israel, conquered it, and determined who its leaders were. 

No one liked tax collectors. People avoided tax collectors and religious leaders rightly saw tax collectors as problems. But today's text is powerful because Jesus does more than talk about tax collectors. Jesus calls one as an apostle (Levi) and he'll eat with them in their homes. Jesus doesn't avoid the tax collector. Instead, Jesus loves them. 


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Pastor Marc's Message for the Messenger, November 2016 edition

For the last year, I've been working with colleagues to revamp and upgrade the amazing work done at the Tri-Boro Food Pantry (formerly known as the Pascack Food Center). For decades, this food pantry (housed at Pascack Reformed Church in Park Ridge) has served people in our community who are in need. Recently, we've seen more people using the pantry's services. Even in an area as wealthy as ours, food insecurity still exists. People in Northern New Jersey are suffering the effects of poverty. And this food pantry continues to grow to meet the needs of all who are looking for milk, eggs and other food for themselves and their families.

Each week, many of the pantry's new volunteers are busy organizing and sorting food donations as they come in. October, November and December are the busy times for food drives. As we give thanks for our blessings, we feel compelled to help others. Cub scouts, schools and fire departments are busy collecting food and delivering hundreds of items to the pantry. This generosity is amazing and saves lives. We can't be thankful enough for all who feed people during this time of year.

In the middle of this generosity, however, we need to remember that hunger never takes a vacation. Food insecurity can strike people and families at any time. New people who have never used a pantry before will be visiting the Tri-Boro Food Pantry for the first time in the spring and summer when an unexpected job loss, medical expense or change in lifestyle makes their next meal uncertain. As a church, we do more than feed people during the season of thanksgiving; we feed people all year long. The snack packs we packed to feed elementary school kids, the Genesis garden growing vegetables in the summer, the hunger appeal during Lent, and the dedicated box in the narthex that collects food all year long is just a sample of how we take care of people no matter what time of year it is. At this time, I am thankful for you because of all you contribute and do to fight hunger all year long. I am thankful that the love Jesus showers on you is expressed through your dedication in making a difference in our neighbor. I pray that your November is full of thankfulness, generosity and unbridled grace.

See you in church!

Pastor Marc


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Meet the Widows

Our gospel reading is Luke 18:1-8.

Jesus' parable (a parable is a short story with a religious or moral point) from Luke is not focused on the unjust judge. Instead, the story is about a widow. Widows appear throughout scripture, interacting with prophets, kings, and Jesus. Widows are women who are alone because their husbands have died. These women were in a dangerous situation. It was assumed that women should not have access to money, jobs, or a family inheritance. Rather, women were an extension of their husbands and fathers with no financial independence. A woman's financial security depended on their husband. Even though scripture has many examples of women who inherit property and who are wealthy, this was the exception rather than the rule. When a woman's husband died, her financial security vanished. Poverty and hunger loomed. These women would do all they could to take care of themselves and their family but their lack of resources is a major problem. When a widow is mentioned in scripture, she represents the poor and the hungry. She represents those without power. She is one of the many who are suffering today and will be suffering tomorrow. Being a widow in scripture is a very dangerous thing. 

As we listen to this gospel reading today and reflect on this parable throughout the week, we should notice what the widow asks for. She doesn't ask for money or a job or security. What she asks for is justice. So what is justice? In this reading, justice lis the opposite of who the judge is. The judge does not fear God and he does not respect other people. In fact, his response to the widow is to grant her justice because he doesn't like to be bothered! For this judge, his needs matter more than the needs of others. For this judge, his point of view matters more than God's. Justice is fearing God and respecting the other. Justice is something that God desires and demands. Justice is something God promises to all. When we hear the word justice, what does it look like? How is this justice experienced? What is justice for someone without power or security? What is justice for someone with power and who knows where their next meal is coming from? These are just some of the questions this parable invites us to ask and prayerfully seek answer for. Justice, in scripture, isn't an abstract ideal. For Jesus, and for us, justice is real. 


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Samaria and Leprosy

Today's reading from Luke (Luke 17:11-19) is also read on Thanksgiving Day. We might believe believe that thankfulness is the primary focus of this text but there's more we need to notice. To understand the power of this story, we need to know Samaria and leprosy. 

When the Gospels mention Samaria, they're describing a region north of Jerusalem that was once a separate kingdom. When King Solomon died, the kingdom of Israel split into 2 sections. The Southern Kingdom (called Judah) was centered around Jerusalem while the Northern Kingdom (which kept the name Israel) created a new capital called Samaria. Both kingdoms co-existed for almost 200 years and both communities worshiped and believed in God. But both communities believed God was telling them to worship in different places. Judah claimed (and the prophets and other religious leaders supported this) that God wanted to be worshipped in the Jerusalem. Samaria, however, built new temples in places where God's presence was felt in different ways. This caused major friction and disagreement between the two communities. Overtime, both communities grew to dislike each other. By Jesus' day, they despised each other and would discriminated each other whenever they could. Jesus, as a Jew, was supposed to avoid Samaritans at all costs. 

Leprosy is a disease that's mentioned in the bible often. We don't know exactly what kind of disease people in Jesus' time called leprosy but it was probably a skin disease that left people visibly sick and contagious. When someone developed leprosy, they were seen as unclean and were no longer full members of the community. They became outsiders. 

So where is Jesus in today's text? He's on the border. He's walking with Samaria on one side and Judah on the other. He's busy visiting villages where lepers live on the outskirts, away from everyone else. Jesus is conducting ministry between the 'regular' folks and the people who the 'regular' folks want nothing to do with. And, at the end of the story, it's not the 'regular' folks who notice who Jesus is. The one who finally notices that God is present is the person who, as a Samaritan and as someone with leprosy, is despised and rejected by everyone around them.


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"Seeing" in Luke

The Gospel Reading is Luke 17:5-10.

Last week, I invited us to "see" the people we do not normally see. Who we see and who is being seen are major themes in the gospel of Luke. Each time we read a text from Luke and Acts, we need to ask ourselves if sight is involved. We do this by quickly identify the major characters, their names, and what visual images are being used. We try to notice if anything is happening in the daytime (light) or is taking place at night (dark). On this first glance, we might not understand what this text is about but if we look for what's seen and what isn't, we can unpack what this text might mean for us. 

So let's take today's text from Luke and ask these questions. If we remember last week's commentary, Jesus is still traveling to Jerusalem. He's teaching on-the-go and there are no large crowds following him today. As they talk, the apostles ask for their faith to increase. For them (and us), faith is not abstract. It has weight, value, depth, and height. If the apostles had enough faith, if they trusted in God enough, they might receive a blessing of some kind. What the apostles want is more. 

This is where, I think, "seeing" plays a role. The apostles have a vision, an idea, of what their faith should look like. They've quantified their faith, created a measurement for it, and that's what they are looking at. They "see" an expectation for their faith and how they are not meeting it. The apostles see failure so Jesus points their eyes to something else: what they actually have. We want to measure faith but we can't. Instead, faith is something God gives us and even a little faith can do amazing things. We don't need more faith to love like God loves us. We have Jesus and that's more than enough. 


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