Questions and Reflections

October 2019

Living in our Worship-filled Space - Pastor Marc's Message in the Messenger, November 2019 edition

There are two things I think people notice when they walk into my office. First, I assume people wonder how I get anything done since I have a lot of clutter on my desk. Second, once people stop looking at my desk, I’m pretty sure they notice the bookshelves behind my desk. Besides being covered in comic book bobble heads and pez dispensers, my bookshelves are filled with books. I know it does not look like it but there is a method to the madness. Most items are organized by subject and I (usually) know where every one of my books is. Some of the books on the shelves I’ve had since I was in elementary school, but others are new-to-me, gifts from friends, my family, or rescued from our incredibly well-run Trash and Treasure book nook. I love being surrounded by books, and my office is my ideal reading space. The spot is filled with all the things I’ve read, all the books I’m going to read, and is a record for all the different things I’ve learned. I love discovering the amazing insights others have come up with. Now that the school year is well on its way, my kids’ school recommended creating reading spaces for our kids. According to recent research, kids can learn to love reading by watching how their loved ones read. When we surround ourselves with a variety of books, children learn that there’s more to learning than using google. One simple way we can make our own reading spaces is by keeping a basket of books wherever we love to hangout. These well-curated and well-used baskets can sometimes be all someone needs to learn something new about themselves and the world.

As a church, we’re used to a faith-filled space. If we had to describe what the church is in one sentence that might be how we would describe it. But in the Bible, the word “church” never described a building; it always described an assembly of people. The church is always the group of people the Holy Spirit brings together to follow Jesus. A building is never the church, but a building can be a tool we use to spend time with God. In these holy spaces, we are reminded about Jesus’ love for us and his promise to never let us go. The church does not need a building, but we can use our building to discover the kind of church God wants us to be.

During November, we’re launching a special children sermon series on Holy Communion. The gift of Holy Communion is one of the ways God feeds us grace, mercy and love. Yet communion, as we can see in its name, requires a community. There needs to be an assembly of people, a church, who are committed to being with Jesus, together.

I know November is traditionally a very busy month filled with our 2020 Pledge Drive, many worship events and the Thanksgiving holiday. But we’ll find time this month to remember what makes our building a worship-filled space. We are who we are because Jesus continues to come to us in Word, worship, prayer and communion. And when we embrace our commitment to the gift of Holy Communion, we can then show everyone what living in our worship-filled space is all about.

See you in church!

Pastor Marc


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Thank God: knowing our story

[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Luke 18:9-14

Pastor Marc's sermon on Reformation Sunday (October 27, 2019) on Luke 18:9-14. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


Today’s text from the gospel according to Luke isn’t the usual one we read on Reformation Sunday. Typically, when we commemorate Martin Luther posting 95 thoughts about God and faith on a church door in Germany, we spend time in the gospel according to John. But after consulting the texts and looking at our church calendar, it didn’t feel right to let Reformation Sunday interrupt our journey through Luke. For the last few months, we’ve been in the part of Luke where Jesus’ teaching comes fast and furious. Luke has dropped the descriptive sentences that we might expect as he narrated Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. Instead, we get parable after parable as Jesus is confronted by religious leaders and his own somewhat clueless disciples. Last week, we listened as Jesus told a story about an unjust judge and a persistent widow who wouldn’t leave him alone. Eventually, the unjust judge allowed the widow’s quest for justice to be fulfilled. Luke saw in that parable an underlying concern for prayer - especially the prayers that feel as if they go unanswered. Jesus wanted those who followed him to stay persistent in prayer, to continue to talk to God night and day because God never stops listening. Prayer, then, seems to be the thruline that connects last week’s parable with the one we heard today. And instead of being only about prayer, today’s parable began with the two characters actually praying. 

Now, since this is a parable filled with prayers, we might want to first look into the words of the prayers themselves. But before we do that, I think it’s important to first pay attention to their bodies. The act of prayer is always a bodily event. When we pray, have to use our bodies. And in today’s parable, before we even hear any of the prayers these two characters speak, Jesus first tells us something about their bodies. We begin first with the religious leader, the Pharisee, and the tax collector both going to the temple to pray. This wasn’t an abnormal thing to do as the Temple was always open for private prayer and had multiple worship services every day. Once they were both finally in the space or the building where they would pray, we learn that the Pharisee’s body was standing alone. We don’t know exactly where he was standing - maybe in the front, where everyone could see him or maybe somewhere a little more private. But we do know he created some physical distance between himself and other people. The tax collector, however, had a slightly different bodily experience. He wasn’t described as standing by himself. Instead, he’s far off - with his eyes refusing to look up, towards God. And while he prayed, he kept his hand clenched in a fist as he hit his chest over and over again. We don’t know anything else about this tax collector but these additional comments about his body do give us a sense of what his experience of prayer was like. And it also, I think, shows us a similarity between the two that we might otherwise miss. Both the Pharisee and the tax collector experienced and embodied distance in their prayer life. And that distance, I think, was also a major part of the life they both chose to live. 

Yesterday, I was invited by our friends at Temple Beth Sholom in Park Ridge to participate in their weekly Saturday worship. They told me to get there at 11 am and to make sure I stayed for lunch. As if my custom, I showed up a few minutes early - only to be greeted by a locked door and security guard. After a quick hello, the guard let me in and I was greeted in the lobby by a congregant. The greeter showed me where the kippahs were kept, placed a prayer book in my hand, and helped usher me to a seat. He also let me know that worship had already been going on for an hour and a half but that I was on time for the main event. As I sat there, Rev. Larissa Romero from Pascack Reformed Church joined me as well as the mayor and several members of Park Ridge council. We were there, together, to be part of a small interfaith and community cohort standing with Temple Beth Sholom and all the other synagogues and temples who were commemorating the one year anniversary of the attack on Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. We, together, lamented that evil act. We also named the evil that is antisemitism and white supremacy and how it seems to be getting worse rather than better. I spoke of my personal anguish that the Christian faith, a faith that gives me so much life, is sometimes warped and twisted to justify anti-jewish acts. And I spoke of our ongoing work to speak out and confront the ideologies that believe that welcome, inclusion, love, and mercy should not be part of who we are. Throughout their worship service, I saw the Jewish community claim the fullness of their story - a story filled with unimaginable hardships and breathtaking joys. And as I watched them reasert who they were, all of us were invited to claim our full story too - one that is bigger, deeper, and larger than just our individual lives. The invitation to claim the fullness of who we are is scary because it requires us to reckon with the dark shadow that has been cast over others. But when we do that, when we struggle against the hate and evil we find within our own communities, we do more than make a difference in the lives of others. We also make a difference in our own. Because the act of naming, owning, and living through our own story is how we close the distance between us, our neighbors, and our God. 

The distance the Pharisee and the tax collector surrounded themselves with came into being in different ways. The Pharisee had, as we see in the words of his prayer, grown into a person full of himself. His prayer is devoted to the pronoun “I” and he was thankful for what he is not. The tax collector stayed away during prayer because he, by his very vocation, was deeply embedded in the system that funded the Roman Empire. For him to earn any kind of living, he was forced to exhort extra funds beyond what the Roman Empire required. He was, in a sense, crushed by his own sins because he worked in an economic system that was sin itself. He was broken - and I imagine he struggled seeing himself living any other way. 

The Pharisee and the tax collector, when they prayed, used their bodies to mimic the way they existed in the world. Both were distant because they struggled to embrace the fullness of who they were. And who they were wasn’t only centered in what they did, or how they worshipped, or measured by how much they gave away. Their story began with the One who created them and gave them a place to pray. They were, like all of us, made in the image of God. And through that act of creation, that’s where their relationship began - and was strengthened and reformed through the One who continues to break through the distance we put between ourselves, God, and each other. As Christians, Jesus invites us to accept the fullness of our story - the good and the bad. And we are also called to accept the fullness of other people’s stories - not as we imagine them to be but as they truly are. When Temple Beth Sholom invited a group of us into their worship space to pray, we found ourselves doing more than just offering support. We also saw, in real time, the distance we’ve put between us, narrow. We can, because of our faith, reform our relationships with ourselves and with our neighbors. And we can, through Jesus, grow to see all people as made in God’s image. 





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Reflection: Who Am I to Pray?

Gracious God, we thank you for the gift of prayer. What an extraordinary thing that we can pray to you, unburden ourselves before you, place our cares, woes and joys before you. I confess I find praying an awkward business. I keep thinking, "Who am I to pray?" But I know that to be false humility, hiding my prideful desire to be my own creator. So we pray a prayer of joy in prayer, asking that we become your prayers for one another. Amen."

From Prayers Plainly Spoken by Stanley Hauerwas.

Let this be for you an encouragement, that with all diligence and earnestness it may become your habit to pray. For next to the preaching of the Gospel, in which God speaks with us and gives us all His grace and blessings, the highest and foremost work we can do is to speak with Him through prayer and receive from Him what He gives us. We have this great need of prayer, for by it we are truly able to keep what we have and to defend it against our enemies - the devil and the world. By our prayer we seek and find what we are to receive. Therefore through prayer comes our comfort, strength, and consolation, as well as our protection against all enemies and our victory over them.

From Martin Luther's Exposition of John 16:23.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received (and one I wish I followed more) was to collect prayers. These prayers come to us during summer camp, through books and social media, and even in our worship bulletins. These published prayers were composed by faithful people to express the faith-filled moment they were living in. A prayer that speaks to us can feel like we're eavesdropping on someone else's life of faith. Yet their prayer might reflect our own experience of God. Their words might help us develop a language of faith that we can use in our daily life.

The prayer insert you received today is just one prayer. There are seven additional prayers floating around worship today. I hope the prayer you picked up spoke to you. But if it didn't, I hope you'll find time to collect prayers. Seek them out. Keep a list of them on your phone. And let the prayers written by others become part of your language of faith. Because the Reformation, which we celebrate today, was rooted in re-discovering how Jesus comes to us as we are. Even at this moment, you have all the words you need to talk to God. But if prayer is still a struggle, let the words of others guide you. And they'll show you that God loves you.


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Persist: Who God Is [Sermon Manuscript]

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Luke 18:1-8

Pastor Marc's sermon on the Nineteeth Sunday after Pentecost (October 20, 2019) on Luke 18:1-8. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


So I started writing this sermon a few minutes before the Yankees took the field last night for game six in the American League Championship series. Now, while I was writing, I had no idea how the game would turn out. But I couldn’t help but wonder if my writing about the game while it was going on might, somehow, jinx it. (And I'm sorry.) Even though I don’t root for either the Yankees or the Astros, I have quite a few friends that do. And during every game of this series, many of those friends were busy posting their predictions and arm-chair analysis on social media. Yet there were a few diehard fans who made sure to go the extra spiritual mile when it came to the ALCS. On Friday night, someone I know made sure to bring the biggest fan he knew to the fifth game: his mom. She was there, decked out in all her Yankee gear, except for her hat - which she left at home sitting next to a sacred Jesus candle. She also brought with her what he called her “playoff rosary,” a string of blue prayer beads she could pray through while the game was going on. It’s safe to say that she is a persistent faithful Yankee fan, ready to do all she can - physically and spiritually - to support her team. And it seemed, at least during game five, as if her persistence paid off because by the time they found their seats, her Yankees were already up 4 to 1. 

When it comes to sports, it’s pretty normal to ritualize our persistent support. We might find ourselves, after watching our team win a game that no one thought possible, doing whatever we can to help them win again. But since most of us aren’t actually on the field or able to make any real decisions that might influence the game, we find other ways to support our team. We make sure, for instance, to wear the exact same shirt we wore when they had that amazing come from behind victory. Or, when we’re at work, we arrange all our dust collectors and papers the way they were when we heard our favorite player make that incredible play. We also might find ourselves Tebowing in prayer every time our team takes the field even though it feels a tad weird to ask God to intervene in sports. On game days, ritualizing our behavior is just something we do because being a persistent fan takes work. But that’s also what makes being a fan so much fun. Our life with our team - with all its rituals, celebrations, and even tears - is something amazing that we get to do. 

Today’s reading from the gospel according to Luke begins in an odd place because it starts with an explanation. Before we even hear Jesus speak, Luke lets us what he thinks the parable was all about. As helpful as that might be, this kind of pre-explanation before we read Jesus’ words might make us miss what God wants to tell us. So one thing I like to do whenever we find a verse telling us what the next story is all about, is to skip that verse. Instead of starting with “then Jesus told them a parable about…,” we can start with “Jesus said.” And the first words out of his mouth was the beginning of a story set in a city where an unjust judge had set up shop. This judge thought he was accountable to no one yet he had the power and the authority to make whatever he wanted - happen. But the only case we hear him pay attention to was centered on a widow demanding justice. Yet all we hear is her request. We never learn the details about her situation or discover what justice, in her case,  would look like. All we know is that this widow who lacked the judge's authority and power, kept coming to him, demanding that he do the right thing. At first, he does nothing because he doesn’t really have to do anything. He can just be his unjust self. Yet day in and day out, the persistent widow made sure to keep interrupting his daily life. He had the power and the authority and the will to ignore her. Yet like every good community organizer or civil rights’ protester, she kept coming back because the persistent demand can sometimes be the most powerful tool we have to change the world. The judge, in the end, does change his mind but only out of a deep sense of self-interest. He gave her justice because he no longer wanted to waste his energy telling her no. In the end, he, like the widow, never stopped being exactly who he was. Yet it was because they were who they are, that, in the end, helped make justice, finally come. 

One of the dangers of a text like this one is that we often misuse it, thinking Jesus was telling his followers to just pray more. Yet I know that many of us know exactly what it’s like to live with persistent prayers that seem to go unanswered. We often find ourselves staying up way too late thinking that if we prayed more, or went to church more, or if we gave money to that televangelist on TV, then maybe the crisis we are currently in wouldn’t have come. It’s normal, and completely human, to think that our prayers should make God do what we want. And to hope that we could, through our persistence, somehow wear God down, so that what we want might finally come true. 

But that approach to prayer isn’t, I think, what Jesus was trying to get at here. It wasn’t only the act of prayer that he was pointing to. Rather, he wanted us to know and understand and fully grasp that God is exactly who God promises to be. And because God is our God, we get to persist in bringing to God every prayer, tear, crisis, and joy that we have. We have, through our baptism and our faith, been united with a God who made sure that Jesus persisted in this world through the whole spectrum of human life. From birth, to growing up, to relationships, and even to death - Jesus lived a very human life. But he didn’t do this because God, somehow, needed to be changed. Rather, God knew that the only way to break the cycle of us trying, and failing, to persistently come towards God was for God to come to us. Jesus came to show us exactly who God is - a God who feeds; a God who heals; a God who welcomes; a God who offers justice; and a God who promises to, in the end, carry us through whatever life might throw our way. We get to persist with our God because we, as we are, are loved. And that’s the kind of love that can hold all our ups and downs, all our rituals and superstitions, and all the times we find ourselves in the top of the 9th down 4 to 2 with our prayers being the only thing we can hold on to. Because our God is, truly, God. And we get to live all our life with God because God has already promised to live all our life with us. 



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Reflection: Struggle

In the game Oregon Trail, one of the elements that needed to be overcome was rivers. The game invited players to jump into a covered wagon on its journey from St. Louis to Oregon in the mid-1800s. After suffering broken axles, hunting for food, and contracting dysentery, players needed to cross several rivers. Players always hoped that these crossings would be uneventful but the wagon sometimes tipped over, causing wagon tongues to float way. Rivers, in Oregon Trail, were boundaries that needed to be crossed so that players could enter their promised land.

Today's first reading Genesis 32:22-31 begins at a river. Jacob, with his family and his wealth, is on his way to meet his brother Esau. Ever since their time in the womb, these two siblings have been in constant competition with each other. As a young child, Jacob pretended to be his brother in order to gain his father's blessing. Esau, in response, cursed his brother. Since then, Jacob's entire life was under Esau's curse. Jacob knew he needed to reconcile with his brother. But Jacob was unwilling to face his past. He needed to be transformed into something new. So God, in a colorful moment, intervened and the nation of Israel gained its new name.

In the ancient world, rivers were "believed to be infested by demons."* Jacob, when confronted by the unknown being, did not know what he was struggling against. He assumed he was fighting a demon but when dawn broke, he realized he was struggling with God. In that moment, his past and his assumptions collided with his present reality. He became open to new possibilities.  Jacob then asked for a blessing because he knew his struggle with God required him to become something new. Jacob's name change did not ignore or diminish his past. Rather, God's gift of a new identity signifies his transformation into something more than he once was. In our baptism, we are, like Jacob, given a new identity. We are not limited by what we have done or by what others have said about us. Rather, in God's eyes, we are God's beloved. And since we are loved, we get to live new lives that bear the marks of all our struggle while God's carries us into God's Promised Land.

*quote from page 233 of The Torah, a Modern Commentary (Revised) edited by W. Gunther Plaut, 2006.


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Reflection: How God Sees

Today's reading from 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c started in a strange place. Naaman was a successful military commander of Aram, a kingdom centered in modern day Syria. He did not follow the God of Israel yet we hear, in the very first verse, that God was with him. We don't always think about God being with those who don't believe. Yet, that's where this story began. Naaman was a foreigner with immense power given to him by his King and Israel's God. Yet his life was not perfect. Even though he was powerful, he was sick. And he could not remove the leprosy that afflicted him.

However, one of his slaves was a young girl who would be the catalyst for his salvation. She had been captured during one of the many Aramean raids on Israel during this period. Aram's success on the battlefield meant Israel was oppressed by their stronger neighbor. At this moment in history, the power gap between Israel and Aram was huge. Israel could barely defend itself. And in the case of this young woman, her power when compared to Naaman was even more at odds. She was enslaved by the very military leader who succeeded in destabilizing her community. She had no control over the violence done to her while Naaman could exercise his power in any way he saw fit. In the eyes of the world, she was nothing while he was everything. Yet God chose to speak through her. Naaman's healing would not come through his worldly power. Rather, his healing came through the people the world saw as powerless. Because, as evident throughout Scripture, those who have no one to trust but God are the ones who can see God's work in the world. After being informed by the prophet Elisha to go and take a bath, Naaman almost didn't do it. Elisha's words seemed too easy. Yet those around Naaman, especially his powerless servants and slaves, knew what God was up to. They convince Naaman to embrace what God was doing. Naaman finally washed and was healed.

But there's more to the story than a simple healing. We need to look at the Hebrew. Our English translation is based on to truly see what God was doing. In the words of Dr. Rolf Jacobson, "The Hebrew for 'young boy' is na’ar qaton—the masculine equivalent to the young girl (na’arah qatannah) whom the great man had enslaved and from whom his salvation began." In God's eyes, Naaman has become like the young girl - beloved, welcomed, and included. God chose to make Naaman brand new. And in that newness, God encouraged Naaman to see others in a new way, too. He was invited, I believe, to see that young girl not the way the world does, as a slave. Rather, he should see her through God's eyes, setting her free, because she, like every human being, is worth more than any army of chariots, horses, and mighty warriors.


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Reflection: How Long

If you were looking for a phrase to describe Habakkuk, you should use Jin Han who described Habakkuk as "the irritated prophet." Habakkuk lived around the year 600 BCE in Judah, a small country with Jerusalem as its capital. During this moment in history, Judah was sandwiched between two competing empires: Egypt and Babylon. Both used their political, financial, and military muscle to force Judah to do their bidding. The people of Judah were anxious, unsure of what was going to happen next. And that anxiety, I think, weakened the community. Corruption grew as people focused on taking care of themselves at the expense of others. Judah was crumbling due to external and internal pressure. Yet the irritated prophet began his words today in an interesting way. Instead of speaking to Judah, he spoke first to God. His "how long" wasn't Habakkuk attempting to get new information from God. Rather, he began with a lament. For too long, the people of Judah suffered and God, in Habakkuk's eyes, seemed silent. The anger within these opening verses is very real. He wanted God to show up. He made a promise that he, like the soldiers on the watchtower, will keep watch until God shows up. God, finally, responded but not in the way Habakkuk expected. God told him to wait and to trust that God's promises will come true.

As we celebrate today our 60th anniversary as Christ Lutheran Church, I'm in awe of the number of ways we continue to trust in God's promises. Every time we gather to worship, we trust God is with us. When we gather for Bible Study, Sunday School, or Adult Ed, we trust that God knows us and that the Holy Spirit will reveal new ways to help us know God. When we gather to pray, to cook a meal for a member of the community, to harvest in the garden, and when we check in with one-another, we trust that the relationship we have in Jesus will always unite us. Through our committee work, choir practice, property cleanup, trash and treasure setup, and what we do in our church council, we trust that God has already given us the gifts and talents we need to further God's work in the world. We continue to proclaim the good news that Jesus is not apathetic and God is not absent. And we trust that Jesus' presence in our lives truly makes a difference. As we move forward into CLC's next 60 years, we will do what we have already done: trust God. And that trust will keep forming us into a community that will, today and always, keep following Jesus.


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