Questions and Reflections

November 2016

Welcome to Matthew: joy in judgment

Our gospel reading is Matthew 24:36-44

Happy New Year! Today is the start of a new church year. For the next 12 months, most of the readings from the gospels will come from Matthew. The Gospel According to Matthew was probably written in the mid-80s somewhere in Syria or Galilee. The author used the gospel according to Mark along with other stories they knew or read about. 50 years after Jesus' death and resurrection, the early Christian community was struggling to integrate their Jewish tradition, identity, and heritage with their multiracial and multiethnic reality. The Holy Spirit was calling different kinds of people from different kinds of places to be a Christian community. With the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 70, the early community was trying to discover who they were. 

Part of this conversation revolved around the idea of judgment. Matthew is full of judgment. Every few chapters, we hear a person, community, or group being by Jesus, God, and other people. The amount of judgment in Matthew can leave a  bad taste in our mouth. If we're sharing this story with our children, we shouldn't run away from judgment. Even our preschoolers know what judgment feels like. When we are judged by someone else, it is normal to be defensive. It is normal to be angry or depressed when we experience someone judging us. And it's also normal to judge others, from the car they drive to the way they dress. One of the lesson we try to teach is not to judge but we all know what judgment feels like. 

Could there a joy in judgment? That question is central to Matthew's experience of Jesus. For Matthew, Jesus is God's judgment on the world. Jesus shows God's power breaking into our world, casting out demons, healing the sick, forgiving sins, and bringing the poor good news. God's love is judgment. But instead of asking us to be defensive, God's judgment offers us an opportunity for new life. If we have a roof over our head and know where our next meal will come from, Jesus' judgment might worry us. But for the person without a home and how is hungry, Jesus' judgment offers an opportunity for food and life. Jesus' judgment offers an opportunity for joy. One goal this church year is to see the joy in God's judgment and live that joy in all that we say and do. 


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Red Riding Apocalypse: How to Live Until the End of the World

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.

Luke 21:5-21

Pastor Marc's sermon on the 26th Sunday after Pentecost (November 13, 2016) on Luke 21:5-21. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


When I try to imagine my grandfather, Fernando Almendarez, I struggle because I don’t really know what he looks like. The only memory I have of him isn’t a memory of him at all. I was about 5 or 6, staying at his house, and sleeping with my two brothers in the living room of his house. I woke up early to watch my parents, aunts, and uncles leave the house and head to my grandfather’s funeral. I didn’t grow up with a picture of him hanging in my house so, when I think of him, I don’t have a picture. Instead, I have stories. And some of those stories revolve around the war he fought. In 1943, my grandfather was a field hand in rural New Mexico. He had little education, little prospects, had skin brown like mine, and he spoke Spanish. But, like countless others, he was drafted into the Army, and found himself on the other side of the world, fighting through Southern France, the Low Countries, and Germany. When he returned, he didn’t talk much about what happened or what he saw. My grandfather told my father brief, and mostly incomplete stories, from those year - stories where my grandfather stood on the side of humanity when the violence and horror of war had destroyed the compassion in his fellow soldiers and in those around him - and stories when that same violence and horror destroyed that humanity and compassion in my grandfather. When he came home, my grandfather brought back more than just stories, trinkets, and even a purple heart; he carried with him immense emotional, physical, and spiritual trauma, a trauma that only increased because he was a spanish speaking Mexican-American in a nation that still, even today, doesn’t know how to fully deal with that. My grandfather’s war lasted longer than his enlistment and continued after he no longer found himself under German crosshairs. He needed to process his experience. He struggled. He, through hits entire life, needed to survive. In other words, in war and in life, he needed to endure - and that endurance is at the heart of Jesus’ words in Luke today. 

Today’s story takes place in Jerusalem near the end of Jesus’ public ministry. The city is flooded with tourists, pilgrims, and others who are gathering for the passover celebration. They are coming to visit the Temple, the place where God lives on earth, a magnificent building that King Herod spent decades renovating. Herod wanted God’s House to rival the beauty, size, and wonder of the massive temples to Jupiter, Osiris, and all the other gods scattered throughout the Middle East. Jesus spent his days in Jerusalem teaching in this recently renovated wonder. He preached, taught, and healed as more and more pilgrims arrived. As the crowds grew, so did Jesus’ audience. The religious and political authorities were not thrilled with this. They worried Jesus’ words and preaching might cause violence and unrest. They wanted to end this Jesus’ movement and are busy, in the background, wondering how they could make that happen. Jesus disciples, however, are a bit clueless. They are staring at the temple, mouths wide open, in awe. As the religious and political authorities plot Jesus’ destruction, Jesus tells his disciples that all this beauty, all this wonder, everything set aside for God in this place, will soon come crashing down. Jesus’ words freak out the disciples a bit so they ask Jesus when this will happen. Jesus, however, doesn't answer the question. He doesn't tell them when God’s house will fall. Instead, he tells them how they’ll live through it. 

Jesus tells the disciples, he tells us, that no matter what comes, no matter what hardships we face, even if it feels like the end of the world is here and we’re in the shadow of the valley of death - Jesus is right there. Jesus is making sure that the violence, the pain, and the suffering in this world will not be the final word. God, through Jesus, is writing a different ending for those he calls, loves, and leads. Jesus’ words do not describe what the end of the world might look like. Jesus’ words promise that, for those who Jesus make his own, their end is already written. 

But that ending doesn't mean that the present is going to be pleasant. Jesus, in these verses, is describing the world as it truly is. Evil is real. Violence happens. Our faith doesn't stop us from existing in a human world surrounded by human beings who, like us, still live in sin. We hurt each other. We do not see those who are truly in pain and who are suffering. And we continue to empower those who use hate, racism, sexism, and anti-semitism, and countless other -isms to devour our neighbors and our friends. But, in Jesus, our sin is not our final word. God loves us too much to let ourselves be the final answer. We will endure and see what God has, finally, in store for us. Through Christ, we will go where God will bring us. And in spite of who we are, God still loves us. 

And that’s hope. That’s our faith. We are connected, in our baptism and in our faith, to the One who wouldn’t give up on us even when we nailed him to a cross. Even when we do our best to drive God away, God endures us so that we can endure what comes. Now, when we hear the word endure, we sometimes make that word a little too passive. Endurance can feel like we’re called to merely tolerate or put up with what comes. But Jesus doesn’t model that kind of endurance. He doesn’t tell the disciples to only put up with what happens to them. He invites them to testify. He says we are to keep sharing the faith and who Christ is to us. And if we worry that we will not have the right words to share, Jesus promises that he will give them to us. We are not called to speak only after we know what to say: we are called to just speak. We are called to speak through our actions and through our words. We are called to endure - to endure like Jesus did: to eat meals with those who don’t look like them, to heal the sick without worrying if they deserve it, to welcome the stranger even if they speak another language, and to do all we can to empower the weak, the poor, the hungry, and even those that make us afraid. For Jesus, fear is never an excuse to stop loving - no matter what. And that’s because, endurance - Jesus style - is not a passive act. It’s active. It makes a difference. It looks at the pain in the world and resists, proclaiming that this present reality isn’t condoned by God because God imagines so much more. And while we wait for our hope in God to finally become reality, we will continue to endure, to resist, to look at the shadow of this world, and, even if we’re a lowly field hand from rural New Mexico, walking around with little education, no job prospects, and we can’t even speak the language - we can still through words and actions proclaim our one hope, a hope rooted in Jesus Christ, and a hope that promises that love, peace, and justice - in the end - wins. 



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Reflection: From our Presiding Bishop

[Today's reflection is a letter sent to ELCA pastors, congregations, and members from our Presiding Bishop, the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton.]

You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, you will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress; my God in whom I trust.” (Psalm 91)

During the week of Veterans Day (Friday, Nov. 11), I invite you to join across this church to pray for service members, veterans, chaplains and their families. Let us pray for an ordered civic life and respect for the dignity and worth of every person. In worship on these days, please remember the impact of family separation and mobility for veterans and those currently serving, many of whom are members of our congregations and communities.

In New Orleans this year, the ELCA Churchwide Assembly adopted a memorial asking, “the Office of the Presiding Bishop to establish a Sunday of prayer and action closest to Veterans Day each year to unite this church in prayer and encourage practical assistance for military members, veterans, ELCA chaplains and families.” I invite you to pray for the pursuit of peace and for the right use of power in cases where war is a response to aggression. Pray for those who have answered a vocation of military service and for their families. Through prayer, let us encourage our ELCA chaplains as they witness for Jesus Christ and make Christ present in word and sacrament. Prayer is powerful, and knowing this church remembers in prayer those who serve helps sustain their hope in Christ. For worship resources, prayer aids and other ideas visit:

Whether your congregation is new to addressing military concerns or has a history of prayer and action for those touched by war-time service, I ask for your prayers. Consider making the Sunday closest to Veterans Day an opportunity to care for those who have served as together we turn to God as our refuge and strength.

God’s peace,
The Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton
Presiding Bishop Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


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A Great Multitude: who is Jesus talking to in Luke 6?

Our gospel reading is Luke 6:17-31.

Today's sermon in the gospel according to Luke should sound familiar. This is Luke's version of the Sermon on the Mount which appears in the gospel according to Matthew. In Matthew, Jesus begins his public ministry by sharing everything. He sits on a mountain top, surrounded by his disciples and a crowd. When we see Jesus there, he looks like he's standing between the earth and heaven. We are looking up to Jesus. His words, in this context, point us to "a covenant made with a community to which [we] aspire to belong" (Thomas Frank in Feasting on the Gospels - Luke Volume 1, 2014). Luke's sermon starts in a different place. Jesus isn't on a mountaintop. Instead, Jesus comes down from one and teaches while standing "on a level place." 

The crowd gathering around Jesus is filled with different kinds of people. Some come from Judea (the area around Jerusalem) while others come from the city of Jerusalem itself. Another group, however, comes from the coast of Tyre and Sidon. Tyre and Sidon are old cities and city-states founded and ruled by the ancient Philistines. The Philistines fought wars against Israel, King David, and the early Israelites. At one point, they even captured the Ark of the Covenant itself! Tyre and Sidon are also areas associated with kings and queens who ruled parts of Israel and encouraged the people of Israel to follow other gods. As cities on the coast, Tyre and Sidon did have faithful Jewish merchants and followers of God living within their walls. But Tyre and Sidon are places that should be hostile to God. But this crowd is different. This great multitude is full of the "right" kind of believers and the "wrong" kind too. There are people hear who we do not expect. But these unexpected people are standing alongside us, wanting to be healed and learn what God is doing in the world. So Jesus, seeing this crowd full of unexpected people, does a very unexpected thing. He is not standing above the crowd; he is inside of it. Jesus, when he looks at the people around him, is standing at eye level. He in the middle of this crowd full of the right and wrong kind of people. God is doing more than inspiring us to join what God is doing in the world. God is coming into the middle of us, meeting us where we are at right now, and bringing us into God's future. 


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