Questions and Reflections

November 2014

A Reflection on Ezekiel 34

This text from Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 is God’s reminder that we are always at the front of God’s mind even if God isn’t on the front of ours.

The former bishop of the New Jersey Synod said something like this recently at a preaching workshop on Advent but I believe our Old Testament reading from today says something very similar. This is the last Sunday of the church year. Not long ago, it gain its own name: Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday. Scripture lessons were picked to lift up the presence of Christ in our lives and to challenge us by asking who (or what) really structures how we live our life. 

In this piece from Ezekiel, God takes the initiative to search for God’s own people. This can easily be seen as a radical act on God’s part. So much of our approach to spirituality and faith can appear to be centered on ourselves. We ask questions about what we believe, what we stand for, and what feeds our souls. These questions are powerful and necessary to sustain our faith journey. But God turns this around. No longer is God asking for the people to turn towards God, God is now actively going to God’s people. God isn’t asking God’s people to be perfect before God reaches down to them. God comes to God’s people after calamity and during suffering. God comes to care for God’s people. And God does this because that is just what God does. 

The language of covenant and promise are all over this piece of Ezekiel because God is a God of promise. These promises are not made because we are wonderful but because God is love. God comes to meet us in baptism, in the words of scripture, in our prayers, and in holy communion to share with us that God’s promises are true promises that we cannot make broken. God cares for us. God comes to break injustice. God comes to renew, restore, and resurrect. God’s story is that we are always on God’s mind even if, during our busy lives, God isn’t always on ours.
 



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Day of the Lord

Our reading from the Old Testament is from Zephaniah 1:7,12-18, a book which probably was composed around 630 BCE after an era where the worship of multiple gods supplanted the worship of God. Zephaniah is encouraging the king of his time, Josiah, to throw out that worship and commit the nation to the worship of the one true God. And it is in this hostile environment where we hear Zephaniah talk about the day of the Lord. 

The day of the Lord is mentioned all over the prophets. My personal favorite exposition of the phrase is in Joel. Both Joel and Zephaniah imagine the day of the Lord as something that is coming very soon. The day of the Lord is different from contemporary images of what the "end times" will look like. There will be no war or great battle between good and evil. God, as supreme ruler, cannot be competed with. God will merely cast judgement. The day will be a day of wrath, violence, and incredible sorrow because, as Zephaniah states, "they have sinned against the Lord."

But this wrath, for Zephaniah, is directed towards one set of people: those who are indifferent to God and God's wants in the world. And what is it that God wants? Justice. Love. Healed relationships. God isn't indiferent to the world. God is active in it, moving through us and the world, helping us to love our neighbors, heal our friends, and raise up the strangers in our midst so that their life is full and filled. God loves us - and we are called to love everyone too.

To look at the day of the Lord and focus only on the wrath and violence is to see only half of the story. The other half tells us what God is looking for. Eric Mathis writes, "The day of the Lord is the day when indifference will no longer be tolerated. The day of the Lord is the day when, out of blood and ashes and flesh and dung, will, in fact, come something good: the promise of a future where God reigns over all people and all things." God's future is our future. Let's live into that. 



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Reflection: No Rapture

I'm a big fan of First Thessalonians. Most scholars see this letter as the first piece of Christian writing that we have. Written around 50 CE, the letter tells us that Paul founded a community of believers in the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia, Thessalonike. Paul was there only maybe a few month but he gathered together a group of Gentile (non-Jewish) believers in Jesus. When he left, probably heading to Corinth, the small community was flourishing and faithful. While in Corinth, a member of the community at Thessalonike named Timothy visited Paul, telling him all about what was happening back home.  Timothy brought Paul words of thankfulness and love but the community had a problem. They were looking for an answer to a big question. Members of their community had died and the Thessalonians didn't know how to handle it. They were concerned that their dead brothers and sisters had somehow missed out on salvation because they died before Jesus had come back. Was heaven and God's love no longer available to them now that they were dead? Would Jesus pass them over or not see them when he returns? The community in Thessalonike not only were mourning for the loss of their friends, they were also fearful of their friends' future. 

Paul hears what Timothy says and writes a letter in response. His words are gentle, kind, loving, and, above all, are encouraging. Paul tells the Thessalonians that those who have died are not lost. They have not missed out on the promise of Jesus. They have not, somehow, lost access to God. No, the ones who have died are fully caught up in Jesus' loving arms and Jesus is not letting go. 

This text from 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 has been used to justify the "rapture," a vision of the end of the world where "good Christians" somehow escape the world before Jesus returns. But Paul isn't talking about escape in his letter. Escaping never enters his mind. Instead, Paul is talking about living (and dying) in the world right now. He's telling his beloved community that grieving is okay, that the darkness that can come from sudden losses is part of our life, but that we are, first and foremost, a community rooted in a hope and love that even death cannot break. What matters in this text is not our being "caught up in the clouds" but, rather, that Jesus "will descend from heaven," into our lives, worship, and communion, in a million different ways. Not even death can keep us away from God's love. Jesus is running into the world and not away from it - and that truly is good news! 



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Between Now and Tomorrow [Sermon Manuscript]

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

Matthew 25:1-13

Pastor Marc's sermon on 22nd Sunday after Pentecost (November 9, 2014) on Matthew 25:1-13. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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“Keep awake….” that’s that start of our last line from Matthew today. “Keep awake - for you know neither the day or the hour.” 

I don’t know about you, but whenever someone tells me to keep awake, to be alert, to be ready, I get a little anxious. I get a little concerned that maybe I’m not ready, maybe I’m not prepared for what’s to come. Even though I’m no longer a student in school, I still suffer from those nightmares, you know the ones, where we’re in highschool and it’s finals week and we walk into class for a test we’re totally not prepared for. Or, sometimes, I find myself having to take a final for a class I didn’t even know I was registered for until that last day. Every time I have these nightmares, I wake up to find myself a little sweaty, my heart kinda pounding, and the rest of the day just feels incredibly unsettled. So when I hear these words from Jesus about being ready - about being alert - I have flashbacks to those nightmares - to that anxiety - and I wonder, in this parable, just what can I stand on? 

Because when we dig into the parable, a lot of odd things pop out. We have ten bridesmaids who are sent out to meet a bridegroom. They all have lamps and they’re suppose to meet this guy and escort him back to the party. So they all get to the prearranged meeting spot and - … - the bridegroom is not there. So these ten bridesmaids wait...and wait...and wait. They wait so long, they all just fall asleep. 

But then, in the middle of the night, they hear a shout that the bridegroom is on his way. They wake up, get ready to escort this guy to the party, when five of them notice that they don’t have enough oil to keep their lamps lit. They ask to borrow some oil from the others but they’re refused. So these five bridesmaids without oil leave to go buy some and while they’re gone, the bridegroom arrives and he and the five remaining bridesmaids head to the party. The five without oil buy what they need and head back to the party, only to discover that the bridegroom not only left them, he’ll no longer let them in. They’re locked outside the party forever.  

So, what gets me about all of this is that there isn’t anyone in this parable that I can really get behind. First, we have a bridegroom who is late to his own party and he doesn’t even apologize for being late. His lateness is the reason the oil runs low for some and we have no idea why he’s late. Second, when the bridesmaids are getting ready, the wise - those who brought extra oil - they not only refuse to share, they convince the other five to leave their meeting place and go out to buy more oil. When they leave, the bridegroom arrives and instead of waiting for the other bridesmaids to return - which might be the nice thing to do - they all just take off. Even the wise bridesmaids don’t tell the bridegroom to wait - they just all get up and go. There are plenty of opportunities in this story for a little patience, a little forgiveness, a little thoughtfulness - but when I share this story with my toddler, who do I want him to be like? Like the ones who don’t have enough oil, or the ones who won’t share, or the bridegroom who is late and doesn’t seem to wait? All we seem to get, really, is one set of bridesmaids labeled wise, another set labeled foolish, and we’re left wondering where we are in all of this. Are we wise? Are we foolish? When we head to God’s great party, are we going to be let in or are we gonna be stuck on the outside, knocking on that door forever? 

Now, this parable is a story - it moves - and it brings us somewhere. But these last words from Jesus - “keep awake…” - they occur after the parable ends. They are, in one verse, Jesus’ exposition of what this parable means. We’re left at the end with a locked door, a party on one side, and a group of bridesmaids talking to the bridegroom on the other. Now, we can focus on that ending - on that locked door - on what that party on the otherwise is like - but maybe Jesus’ words provide us with an opportunity to take a step back and see this parable from another angle. 

Those words - keep awake - now, there’s only one part of the parable that has anything doing with wakefulness or sleepiness. And it occurs before the bridegroom is met, before the oil runs out, before the bridesmaids don’t share or send each other away. Before the real nastiness of the parable begins, we find our ten bridesmaids all gathered together, at the expected place - waiting and waiting and waiting. Before their actions can define them as either wise or as foolish, they are all standing there together, waiting for their bridegroom to come - with their lamps ready. 

And then they fall asleep.

It’s easy, I find, in our faith lives, to be asleep. Wise, or foolish, there are moments we all share when the experiences of our lives devour our faith. On top of the moments of pain and loss that we experience, we also have those little moments - those everyday moments - that cause our spirituality to be put on the backburner. We’ve all got too much to do and not enough time to do it. Rushing to get our kids to school, to the next activity, to get ourselves to the office, or the next job, or just to the next project or problem to solve - it’s easy to just blow past our faith life - to be, in a sense, too busy for faith. And as that next project, next responsibility, next priority, takes our focus, time, and energy, our faith life slowly goes dormant. Our prayers to God become shorter. Our time in worship becomes less. Our stories to one another about our experiences with God become quiet. We find ourselves going full speed forward, wise or foolish, old or young, onto the next thing and letting our time with God fall by the wayside. 

It’s hard to think of ourselves as needing to be awoken when we’re so busy, we never have time to sleep - but Jesus’ words - to keep awake - isn’t about being roused from our slumber but to be mindful that we have already been awoken. Like those bridesmaids, we have been invited out, to go meet the bridegroom and, in our baptism, to remember that we have already been claimed by God. We have already been gifted the beginning of faith. We’ve already been given the spark needed to stay awake. 

And as beloved children of God, we’re called to a state of active wakefulness. It’s a call to pay attention to God, to pay attention to ourselves, to pay attention that our wholeness rests not in how many items we get off our bucket list or how many unique check-ins we make on Facebook that makes our friends jealous - Jesus’ words are a reminder that our faith life, our life with God, needs engagement, needs focus, needs time. When we focus too much on the the end of the parable, on that locked door, we forgot about that middle part - that waiting. We skip over the time in the parable and just rush to get to that final event - to that next project - we end up doing what we always do - rushing through the parable rather than living with it. Jesus’ words are a reminder that our life as beloved children of God is less about the completing of tasks or checks on a checklist - but more about living into God’s activity, God’s future, and as one commentator said, more about actively living into the expectation that God will make all things new.  

The Christian life is a waiting life. Stirred by God’s grace, we are pointed to the next big thing, to the promise that God will, and does, make all things new. But we’re not called to a passive waiting or a rushed waiting either - no, we’re called to be awake - to be like those bridesmaids while they wait - gathered with each other before the bridegroom, before God, with our lamps lit, ready to be fed by God and ready to respond to God’s call to gather into the world, into the darkness, into places where we might be incredibly uncomfortable - and to carry Christ’s light of love, mercy, care, and forgiveness. 

We are called to be Christ’s light in the world - a light that burns brightly - but one that is constantly fueled, charged, and ready to engage with whoever and whatever comes our way. That doesn’t mean that we’ll always be faithful or that we’ll never doubt or that we’ll never forget to say our daily prayers - but it does mean that we don’t let apathy or habit or distance from our faith keep us from seeing what God is doing in our lives.  When we open the bible and read, we are trusting in God’s wakefulness. When we share our faith life with our children and pass our faith down to them, we are participating in that active expectation that God isn’t done with us yet. Forgiving sins, sharing in the body and blood of Christ, baptizing children and adults into the church - we are resting firmly on that hope - on that call from Jesus to be awake - to be prepared - to keep making time for our faith because God continues to make time for us. So, wise or foolish, with oil or without, and even if we feel like we’re heading into our highschool classroom to take a test we never studied for or never even knew we had - we go awake. We go in hope. We go in faith that God is making all things new. “Keep Awake” - Jesus says - because God isn’t done with us yet. 

Amen. 
 



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Reflection: What Does It Mean to be a Saint?

A few years ago while visiting family in Philadelphia, I learned something about my ancestry. My mom comes from a big Italian-American family and one of her aunt's traveled back to Italy to dig through church records to discover parts of our family tree. While there, she pulled out records that linked my ancestors to the family of a Catholic saint, Camillus de Lellis. He started his life in the military but eventually had a religious conversion that led him to work at a hospital. He witnessed the patients who were poor being mistreated and so he founded a movement to help them. This movement still exists today. From my research (and with help from Wikipedia), this man lived a godly life. He cared for those who couldn't afford medical treatments and advocated for them to be treated with dignity. He lived a saintly life. And that means we're related. His DNA is part of my DNA. So does that make me a little more saint-like than someone else? Is that how saints are made? And does that mean I should work a little harder at living a more saintly life? 

All Saints' Sunday is an opportunity for us to proclaim, like our reading from Revelation today, that being a saint isn't defined by our bloodline, heritage, language, sex, gender, race, or cultural background. My family line doesn't make me holy; God's work through Jesus makes me holy. It's through baptism and God's promises that we are connected to all of God's people, from those early disciples to those disciples who will come after we have died. We're connected to our faithful ancestors and loved ones who taught us God's story. We're connected to our faithful descendants, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who we share Christ's story with too. We're connected to traditions and cultures that are alien to us - but they're not alien to God. 

Today, we celebrate those who now see God face-to-face. We celebrate the saints who live among us, the ones who tell God's story and their story in words and actions. And we also celebrate those of us who are still here and who struggle with what it looks like to live as God's people. Like me, we're all saints and all sinners at the same time. We're not perfect but we have been, through God's work, brought into the conversation of being the holy people God calls us to be. And we hope that, like our loved ones, family members, neighbors, and friends, that we will one day see God, face-to-face, and sing to the Lamb, our Savior, our hope, our Jesus, forever. 



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Face to Face [Sermon Manuscript]

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Matthew 5:1-12

Pastor Marc's sermon on All Saints' Sunday (November 2, 2014) on Matthew 5:1-12. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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Well, we all time traveled this morning - maybe you got an hour of extra sleep if you didn’t have toddlers or infants - and that’s something we’re going to continue with today. We’re interrupting the readings we’ve been hearing in Matthew - the readings when Jesus is in the Temple, right before he’s arrested - and we’re traveling back to the beginning of his ministry. In fact, we’re hearing the same gospel reading we heard in February this year. Jesus is now starting to teach, wandering around Galilee, gathering followers, and he’s getting a name for himself. He’s encountering people who are ill, sick, who are suffering from terrible diseases and demons - and he’s curing them. Crowds from all over Israel, Syria, and Jordan are coming to see Jesus - to hear him speak. And so Matthew has Jesus climb up a mountain - bringing to mind Moses on the mountain of Sinai - but instead of 10 commandments - instead of hearing from the man who met God face-to-face - the crowds are now gathered to hear this new man, this Jesus. And this Sermon on the Mount that Jesus gives is Jesus’ great sermon. Jesus is bearing public witness to what he is about to do, where he’s about to go, and what he’s about to face. And Jesus begins this sermon not with a joke, or with a funny story, or a pop culture reference - not even with a line about not getting an extra hour of sleep because of some toddlers. No, Jesus instead begins with just two words: “blessed are…”
“Blessed are the poor in spirit….blessed are those who mourn...blessed are the meek...blessed are those who hunger and thirst…” 

These are just some of the 9 “Blessed ares” that we hear today. Now, Jesus’ sermon goes on for another two full chapters - and we’re only getting a taste of his words today - but this is how Jesus starts. He starts by being descriptive about today, about reality. He starts by saying that the poor, those who grieve, those who are peacemakers - those who are experiencing all of that right now -  that they are blessed; they are holy; that they matter. Jesus isn’t telling the crowds or even us that we should change ourselves to be poor, meek, or pure in heart so we can be blessed - no, Jesus is saying those who are poor, meek, pure in heart right now - they are the ones that are blessed. They are the ones who are known to God. They are the ones who will be granted a special place in the kingdom of heaven. Now, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount will get around to telling people what to do and how to change - but Jesus isn’t doing that right now. Instead, he’s taking a moment at the start of the sermon to describe the world - to describe reality - to name how things are - but in a very odd way. 

The world Jesus describes - that isn’t the world that the crowds gathered around him knew. That isn’t our world either. Any kid in middle school or high school knows the pecking order, they know where they stand in the social hierarchy, and the meek never end up with anything. A person watching their savings dry up when new bills, expenses, maybe unexpected medical costs show up - they’re watching the kingdom take everything away from them. And those who are oppressed for their gender, sexual orientation, or racial, ethnic, or national background - justice is pushed aside in the struggle just to survive one more day. Turning on the tv or opening a news app shows us all the stories of the world devouring people. The reality we experience doesn’t match the reality that Jesus names. We don’t see the peacemakers blessed. We don’t see the pure in heart seeing God. We don’t see the merciful receiving mercy. Instead, we live and experience a very different kind of world. Jesus doesn’t seem to be describing the real world. He seems to be describing a made up world - a world that is just as fantastic as Middle Earth or the Marvel Comic Book Universe. Jesus’ reality doesn’t match our reality. Jesus’ words are foreign to what we see, feel, hear, and embody everyday. 

But the funny thing is that Jesus never backs down in describing the world this way. In his ministry, he never stops seeing the poor as blessed, he never stops seeing the meek as worthy of everything, he never stops seeing the peacemakers and calling them children of God. Jesus never stops naming the world around him in ways that the world cannot accept. He never stops healing the sick. He never stops teaching. He never stops saying that this world isn’t the way it should be - that God sees things very differently - that God names the world in a very different way. And that naming - that declaring - that willingness to stand up and say that the powerless are powerful, that the weak are loved, that those who are picked on are worth more than what their bullies call them - that naming says that the actions of those who do not love are not what defines us. Our worth is defined by the one who is not restricted by our lifestyle, by our understanding of power, by our own sinful nature. The one who names, the one who gives worth is the one who is standing right there, staring at us - face to face. 

Now, if we’re honest at this point, and we hear that our worth is defined by Jesus on the Mountain - that’s actually a little scary. I mean, we’re not perfect. We know our failures. We know our sins. We know that we fail to live the way God calls us to live everyday. We know that we fail to name the world in the way that God’s names it. We know that we fail to embody these twelve verses from Jesus’ sermon. We might feel that we are part of the problem - that we aren’t worth being named. Maybe, in the future, when we’re a little older, or less busy, or maybe a little more secure - we’ll take the time to be the better person we want Jesus to see - but right now, we’re not there yet. 

But that’s not the real problem. The real problem is that we’ve already been named by Jesus. We’ve already been claimed by Jesus. We’re already part of Jesus’ re-naming of the world because, in our baptism, in our coming to the Lord’s table - Jesus has said that we don’t belong to our understanding of reality but that we belong to his. We are now part of how God sees and experiences the world. We’re not here because we’re awesome or because we’re pure in heart or because we’re the perfect peacemakers. We’re here because Jesus has named us and claimed us and made us part of God’s reality. 

We’ve been brought into God’s reality - a reality that doesn’t match our own - but a reality that we’re called to make our own.  As we have been brought into God’s re-naming of the world, we’re called to rename the world as well. We’re here to say that the poor are blessed; that those who mourn are blessed; we’re here to say that the meek, the oppressed, the persecuted, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who hunger for righteousness - that all of these are blessed not because we say so but because God says so. We will see them, we will name them, we will raise them up because God sees them, names them, and calls them blessed. We’re part of God’s re-naming of the world, part of God’s work in seeing the world differently, we’re part of God’s living differently in this world because God took that chance to meet us face-to-face. Jesus keeps on coming to us, in our baptism, in our sharing of bread and drink, and in the Spirit to say that our experiences of the world, the definitions that the world gives us - that doesn’t define us. That doesn’t give us our worth. That doesn’t tell us if we’re blessed or not. We’re called to live in the world as God names it - as God blesses it - we’re called to change the world so that God’s love rather than our devisiness defines it. We are called to see the world as Jesus sees it - as Jesus experience it - we’re called live as ones who know Jesus face-to-face. 

Now, on this All Saints’ Sunday, when we remember those who have died, when we remember our pain and our sorrow, when we shed our tears for those who died recently and those who died long ago - when we recall the saints in our lives - let us also recall that their journey is our journey. That their call is the same as our call - to see the world differently, to live in it differently, to see what God has blessed and to act like they are blessed. And we do this not because we are perfect or because we are those who are not poor or those who do not mourn. We do this because, like our saints, we have seen God face-to-face. We have met Jesus in our baptism and at the table. We have seen the Spirit move in our friends, neighbors, and this community. We can say that God is present. That God is here. That God sees us face-to-face and that Jesus, when he talked from that mountain, when he talks to us in our words of love, our experiences of reconcilitation, in our engagement with the community to live as a people defined by hope and love rather than fear and death - we can, like him, say “Blessed are…” not because we bless them but because we can see the world as Jesus sees it - face-to-face. 

Amen. 
 



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Generous Thankfulness: Messenger Article for November 2014

As a new face here at Christ, every day is a day full of discovery. In each conversation I learn more about the people that make Christ Lutheran Church the warm and inviting place that it is. I hear stories how personal invitations from family and friends grew our community. Baptisms, marriages, Sunday School, Confirmations and funerals have been avenues of love to those who didn’t have a community to call their own. I hear in Christ Lutheran’s story a story of invitation, hospitality and welcome that does the very rare thing of inviting new people to help us change to more fully live as the body of Christ in the world. There is a generosity here at Christ Lutheran that is boundless, reflecting the boundless grace that God gives us every day.

November is a time when the leaves finish falling from the trees, giant piles of turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce from a can are shared, the days are cooler, and when we start to notice the days getting way too short. But as the darkness grows we’re invited to reflect on what God goes. We are a people who proclaim every Sunday that darkness does not win. The light will return. God’s generosity to us is bounded not by our wants but by God’s love which covers us every day. In thankfulness, November is a time to take risks with our own generosity. I invite you to help the Care committee provide food so everyone can share in the Thanksgiving dinner they deserve. I invite you to make a financial pledge to Christ Lutheran, helping us expand our generosity to children, youth, adults, elders and our neighbors whom we haven’t met yet. I invite you to help clean up after our Advent dinner, invite a friend to our movie showcase on November 11, read your bible and take a few minutes out of each day to pray. Even if the only time you have is waiting at a traffic light, I invite you to take a moment and say “Hi” to God. You might just discover how God is inviting you to live generously today. 

Pastor Marc



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