Questions and Reflections

December 2016

Merry Christmas!

The Gospel Reading is Luke 2:1-20.

One of my favorite scenes in the movie Elf is when Buddy the Elf is talking to his elf-dad while fixing Santa's sleigh. Buddy is appalled that some people do not believe in Santa Claus. One of the questions he asks pertains to cookies: "I guess . . .parents then eat all those cookies?"

This is the season to eat all those cookies.

There's something joyful about Christmas Day falling on a Sunday. The church gathers together on every Sunday to remember, proclaim, and celebrate the entirety of Jesus' story. We share God's Son through worship, song, and communion. We also share our story as people living in the light of his resurrection. Each Sunday is a day to celebrate Jesus. And Christmas Day is a day to remember God entering the world and spending God's first moments wrapped in blankets and resting in a feeding trough.

We don't always get to decide what moments come into lives. But we do have a God who promises to be in those moments with us. God didn't need to be born as a child. God didn't need to spend that first night in a manger. But God decided to have parents. God decided to grow up like we do. And God went on a journey that did not escape death. God goes where we go. Christmas Day isn't the start of God's presence in creation; God has never been far from what God loves and made. But Christmas is the moment when God took a chance to be one of us because we are worth the love only God can give. I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and many blessings (cookies and other treats) in the New Year.


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A Christmas Eve Countdown Reflection

The Gospel Reading is Luke 2:1-20.

In my kitchen is my family's Advent calendar. The calendar is large, made of felt, and has dates embossed on little pockets. Inside each pocket is a Christmas character. We have magi, camels, angels, and even a Christmas goose. On the Nativity scene above the pockets, there is a piece of Velcro for each character to be stuck to. Every morning, I pick up my two year old or four year old (or both) and we empty a pocket, adding that character to the Nativity. Sometimes the Christmas goose ends up in the manger or the camel ends up in the sky. Other times I let my two kids change the entire scene. Once they're distracted by something else, I stick everything into a more traditional setup. My daily countdown to Christmas involves letting a little chaos happen before sorting everything out.

This year we also counted down to Christmas is a different way. Kids in our Sunday School invited the entire congregation to create a Reverse Advent Calendar. Each family picked an organization to support (a food pantry, homeless services organization, etc.) and each day we placed an item in a box to support that organization. My family spent the month filling a cardboard box with diapers, baby food, and pacifiers. We wanted to help a family with a newborn baby. When a character left their pocket in the Advent calendar, a new item for a baby was given to help someone in need.

We spend months counting down to Christmas but I wonder if we should be counting down at all. Maybe we should be counting "up" to Christmas. We can't countdown to something that has already happened and Jesus was born 2000 years ago. But we can look forward to what Christmas means for us today. God chose to live a human life. Jesus needed to experience everything we experience. In Jesus, we see how God loves the world. Through his life, we see what God's love does for the poor, marginalized, and everyone in need. And in his death and resurrection, we watch as God refuses to let our brokenness be our final word. Darkness, despair, frayed relationships, sorrow, and pain will not be what we to offer the world. By coming down to us, God gave to us the faith, love, and support we need to live lives that reflect God's love full into the world. When our countdown to Christmas runs out, that doesn't mean Christmas is over. Christmas is already here. Christmas is all year long. Our calling is to love like it's Christmas every day.



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Who is Joseph?

The First Gospel Reading is Matthew 1:18-25.

Today's reading from the gospel of Matthew is almost a mini-Christmas. We're hearing the story of Jesus' birth one week early and we're focusing on Matthew's telling of the story. And this telling is very short. Jesus' birth is only one verse long. The bulk of the the story is tied to a guy named Joseph. 

So who is Joseph? It's a bit complicated. We hear he's a carpenter and...that's about it. The details about Joseph's life are lacking. Today's story shares that Joseph was not involved with Jesus' conception which means Jesus is not Joseph's biological father. Using our modern day language and context, we could call Joseph Jesus' stepfather. Joseph, like Mary, will take care of Jesus and his siblings. Our community is full of stepfathers, step siblings, stepmothers, and more. Our families are incredibly diverse in structure and makeup. Joseph, like all parents, is encouraged to be a parent even if the children they are raising are not their biological children. A parent does more than just share DNA with their child. A parent takes the time, energy, resources, and makes appropriate sacrifices so the child can thrive. 

This description of parent fits who Joseph is. He raises Jesus. But we need to be careful with our stepfather language because, in Jesus' time, there were no step-parents. There were only parents. Our language can add helpful additions to explain the complicated relationships that exist in families. But, in the ancient world, those additions rarely existed. Instead, a child with parents who claim him as their own did not depend on biology to set who belongs to what family. Once a child was claimed by a parent, that child had a parent and a family. God the Father is Jesus' Father but Joseph, in the eyes of the ancient world, is also Jesus' father too. 


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Dealing with Doubt

The Gospel Reading is Matthew 11:2-11.

Wait a minute. Why does John ask Jesus if Jesus is the "one?" Shouldn't John know by now?

Last week, our gospel reading introduced John the Baptist to us. John the Baptist is a prophet preaching in the wilderness. John gains followers and his message puts him in conflict with the local authorities. John is arrested and thrown in prison. While in prison, John receives word that Jesus is preaching and teaching throughout Israel. John, who heard a voice from heaven declare "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased" (Matt 3:17), sends his followers to question Jesus. As we heard last week, John has high expectations for what the Messiah will do. Even though John heard the voice announcing Jesus, John still wonders who Jesus is. John's questions, in the words of Bonnie L. Pattison (Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew Volume 1, pg. 288), asked for some "clarification" for his faith.

Doubt can be unsettling. When we look at the people around us and hear the stories about Jesus' followers in the Bible, we assume we do not measure up. We see the people around us as the true believers while we are lacking. We might have questions. We might long to experience God. We might, after a tough experience or a profound loss, wonder if this faith thing is for us. Something might happen that knocks our faith ajar or challenges our basic assumptions about God and ourselves. The very fact that we are asking questions can make us wonder if we really believe or not. 

But I want to invite you to welcome the questions. Even John the Baptist, who was at Jesus' baptism, wasn't always sure. Even John had questions. Questions are not a sign that we do not have faith. Questions are a sign that we have it. In our questions, we are opening ourselves to a conversation with God about who we are and who God is. Jesus didn't run away from questions. He answered them. And Jesus will answer your questions too.


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Meeting John

On the 2nd week of Advent, we always meet John. In our three year lectionary cycle, the cycle of lessons we read in worship, John the Baptist appears here every year. He's a character who appears in all four gospels and lives like a frontiersman. He's in the wilderness, in an untamed and chaotic place, and baptizing those who come to him. As Christians, we see John the Baptist as Elijah. He is the great prophet of old who prepares the way for the Lord. During Advent, we are called to prepare. And part of that preparation is listening to John's words and figuring out who he is speaking too. 

In today's reading from Matthew, John the Baptist launches into a fiery sermon. He accosts the Pharisees and Sadducees who are members of two different denominations within Judaism. He calls them a brood of vipers and questions their commitment to the message he is sharing. John's language is full of fire and brimstone. He describes trees being cut down and thrown into pits of fire. Jesus is described as someone who will divide people and toss some of them into unquenchable fire. This is not our usual festive, peace-filled, or serene image we expect during this season. We might be decorating our homes to look like Hallmark Cards but John's words paint a different picture. 

So who is John speaking to? At first glance, he's speaking to Pharisees and Sadducees. The last time I checked, we are not Pharisees, nor are we Sadducees. We could assume John isn't speaking to us. But I challenge us to listen to his words. These are words for us. The Pharisees and Sadducees are the insiders. They are the ones who know their scriptures, study, pray, and worship. They know God and dwell with God everyday. John the Baptist is speaking a word to those who are the insiders, those who know their faith and know God. John challenges them. He wants to know if they are seeing what God is doing in the world. He challenges them to look around and see Jesus. That's our challenge, too. 


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A Letter from ELCA Pastors in Northern New Jersey


In the days following this presidential election, we are saddened by reports of increased vandalism, threats, and intimidation, some of an explicitly racist nature, throughout the country. Several news outlets, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, have reported a surge in such incidents, which have been directed mainly at Muslims, Jews, black and Latino people. The FBI recently reported that such incidents have been on the rise already in 2015, and that attacks on Muslims have seen the sharpest increase in frequency.

As Christian leaders, we find this both reprehensible and unacceptable. We are inspired by our Christian faith in a God who becomes incarnate and moves closer to us to save us, despite our flaws and sin, and thus frees us to move closer to others in fellowship and solidarity. We appreciate the support of our Synodical Bishop, The Rev. Tracie Bartholomew, who has instructed us that, “[r]egardless of who you or your parishioners voted for, we all must denounce this behavior. As the body of Christ, we are called to stand with those whom God loves and claims as God’s own cherished children…. We are charged to eradicate racism in all its forms, welcome the refugee and immigrant, and work for justice and peace in all the earth. There is no place for bigotry in our church.” (letter dated Nov. 14, 2016)

Thus we, the undersigned pastors of Lutheran churches of the ELCA, serving or supporting congregations in Bergen, Passaic, and Essex counties, want to assure all people in our communities, regardless of race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity, that we will seek to preserve and protect their rights and dignity, and promise to work for the end of systemic racism and discrimination. All people, but especially those who feel powerless or the targets of bigotry or scapegoating, should be treated fairly and with human decency, and as an enlightened community, we should all strive to address their needs so that together, we all may flourish.


The Rev. Wendy Abrahamson, Pompton Plains
The Rev. Hayley Bang, Paramus
The Rev. Bruce Bassett, Glen Rock
The Rev. Arnd Braun-Storck, Elizabeth
Chaplain Abby Ferjak, Ridgewood
The Rev. Maristella Freiburg, Newark
The Rev. Peggy Hayes, Dumont
The Rev. Julie Haspel, Oakland
The Rev. Lisa Holliday, New Milford
The Rev. Michael Linderman, Ramsey
The Rev. Jenny McLellan, Allendale
The Rev. Will Moser, Montclair
The Rev. Peggy Niederer, Wyckoff
The Rev. Scott Schantzenbach, Oxford
The Rev. Beate Storck, Tenefly
The Rev. Marc Stutzel, Woodcliff Lake
The Rev. Steven Sweet, River Edge 
The Rev. Ignaki Unzaga, Passaic


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