Questions and Reflections

February 2016

A Reflection on Numbers

The First Reading is Numbers 20:1-13.

It doesn't seem fair that Moses doesn't make it to the promised land. He was chosen by God to free the Israelites. He faces Pharaoh. He is the mediator between God and the people. And when God desires to affirm their relationship by revealing God's face to Moses, God even shields Moses so that Moses will not die. God continually protects Moses. But in our reading from Numbers today, Moses disobeys God. The people are thirsy and are complaining. Moses talks to God and God tells Moses to command a certain rock to give water to the people. Moses leads the entire people to the rock. They gather around it. And then Moses strikes it with his staff. Water comes forth and the people drink but Moses has sealed his fate. God said to speak. Instead, Moses struck with his staff. And now Moses, like the other leaders in our reading from last week, will not enter the Promised Land.

So what are we supposed to do with this text? In fact, what are we to do with all of the rebellion texts in Numbers and the rest of the first five books of the bible? One way to frame their presence is to examine what happens in many of the cases. The turning away from God is usually tied to an example of idolatry. Now, idolatry can mean many different things. For some Israelites, it meant creating a golden calf and calling it a god. For others, it meant not trusting God's promises and reverting back to their own strengths and fears. And, for still more, it mean putting something other than God at the physical (and spiritual) center of their lives. Wealth, knowledge, pride, and fear are all examples of idolatry. Anything that convinces us to put our trust in ourselves, our resources, or something other than God is just an attempt for us to try to be our own gods. And, like we saw in the Exodus story, the people didn't free themselves from slavery. God did. God brings freedom and life. Everything else, according to the earlier books, just brings us back into a type of slavery and death. 

This explanation isn't designed to excuse the violence in these texts. The violence in the bible is something I will always struggle with. But the question of what gives us life, energy, and purpose is an important one. What's at our center and does it feed our soul or devour it? 


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Spring Forward: Pastor Marc's Newsletter Reflection for March

I'm never ready for a time change. The one in the fall is easier to live with—an extra hour of sleep or an opportunity to re-live an hour (if we're night owls) so we can get that one moment right. Falling back is awesome. But in early March, the opposite happens. We actually lose time. In fact, I lose more than just an hour. I spend the entire Saturday before the time change lamenting my upcoming loss of sleep. And then I spend all night worried that my alarm clock will not go off and I'll wake up after church has already started. When I spring forward in March, I don't spring forward joyfully. I feel more like I'm being launched, unwillingly, into a future I'm not exactly ready for.

Being launched into a future we're not ready for is a good foundation for Lent. Lent is a time for prayer, reflection, fasting and repenting. But why? I think one answer is because we don't know exactly what tomorrow will bring. We don't know what adventure we'll be called to embrace. We don't know if some crisis will arise that changes who we are and what we know. We don't know if tomorrow will be different or if tomorrow will feel just like today. And even though we might feel confident today, there's no way we are ever truly prepared for all the possibilities of what tomorrow can bring.

But Lent is an opportunity to more fully experience one part of who we are. We are God's. We are Christ's. We don't know what we'll be asked to spring forward into but we do know that, no matter what, Jesus is there with us. Lent is usually called as a time to repent. But repenting is more than just feeling sorry for doing something wrong. Repent is really about turning back towards God. When we repent, we turn away from where we think we should go and, instead, turn back towards the promises of God that are ours to begin with. When we turn back, we look forward into God's future which has a place for all of us. Spring forward by springing back into God and live into that love that God gives us every day.


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A Reflection on Numbers: war language and temptation in the Desert

Our first reading is Numbers 1. Our gospel reading is Luke 4:1-13.

As we read through the bible in an entire year, today we're four books in. We call this book Numbers but it's Hebrew name is Bemidbar, "In the Wilderness." And that's a good title for this book. Since the last third of Exodus, the Israelites have been camped at Mt. Sinai. They escaped Egypt, received many different teachings from God while at Mt. Sinai, and they are now about to journey to the land of Canaan (modern day Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan). We call the book Numbers because the book, as we see in our first reading, starts with a census. They want to know how many soldiers they have for war. The journey into the promised land requires moving through territory filled with people who do not want the Israelites to be there. The people are heading to war. 

I've always struggled with the war imagery that is part of Scripture's story. War is violence and that's never been part of my experience of Jesus. Wars involve struggle, loss, hardship, and the death. They involve entire nations and peoples committing themselves wholly towards a goal of victory against their enemies. There is excitement, energy, and a huge amount of resources that are devoted to a goal of victory. Soldiers, their families, civilians, and innocent bystanders are required to make, and sometimes be, a sacrifice. Even necessary wars, where evil is fought against and destroyed, are costly. So when we hear stories about God's people being an army with descriptions of God as a general ('the hosts of heaven' means 'the armies of heaven'), I struggle with what I hear. God's army is on God's side but why does God need an army in the first place? 

Our gospel reading today might help with that. The story of Jesus' temptation by Satan can be framed as a moral struggle. Satan is trying to trick Jesus into making an amoral choice when Jesus is weak from hunger and thirst. But what if Satan is trying to do something more? What if Satan wants Jesus to make a choice that denies who Jesus is and what Jesus came to do? Jesus' journey involves the Cross and Satan offers him away out. Jesus doesn't fall for it even though Calvary isn't far away. Jesus doesn't make a moral choice; he makes the only choice necessary to save the world. I don't know why God needs an army and I don't have a satisfactory answer for why this kind of violence happens. But I do know, through Jesus, God does what is necessary to love the world. Numbers has an army. Jesus will be killed by one. God, in so many ways, is a mystery and this season in the church called Lent is an invitation to ask these kinds of questions even if no satisfactory answer comes to us. 


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A Reflection for Ash Wednesday

When you get home tonight, I invite you to not wash your face right away. Instead, do your normal evening routine. Put the kids to bed, wash the dishes, and watch your favorite shows on Netflix. Have a late dinner or an early snack, continue that book you read, or if you're reading the bible in a year, try to catch up on your reading. I invite you to be yourself after church tonight because, even in your normal evening routine, Christ is with you. 

Ash Wednesday is a day when we make Christ's promise to us visible on our foreheads. When this congregation baptizes an infant, child, or adult, we mark each baptized individual with the sign of the cross on their forehead. The pastor takes a little oil, places it on their thumb, and gently marks their head. The oil doesn't last long. The water from the baptism usually makes the oil hard to stick and, in the pictures and celebration that follows, the oiled cross vanishes. But even though the visible sign vanishes, the promise doesn't. When we are marked with Christ's cross, we are marked with the promise that God is with us. Christ's willingness to live and di for us is given to us even if we never step foot in a church again. We might give up on God but God promises to never give up on us. This seal is ours forever and the ashes on Ash Wednesday serve as a visible reminder for God's eternal promise. 

Tonight kicks off the season of Lent. This is the night to remember who we are and who's we are. When the time comes to wash your face, to remove the ashen cross from your forehead, let the water remind you of our baptism and that God's love is all around you. 


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I Am [Sermon Manuscript]

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen..

Luke 9:28-36

Pastor Marc's sermon on Transfiguration Sunday (February 7, 2016) on Luke 9:28-36. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


I’d like to start today with a question: what’s the most memorable experience you’ve ever had while in a cloud?  What happened? 

Well, for me, I was about twelve. I was in a car and my dad, brother, uncle and I were in Rocky Mountain National Park, heading up Trail Ridge Road. Trail Ridge Road is a mountain road. It starts around 9000 feet up and then goes up, up, and up the side of a mountain. At 12,183 feet, it turns, flattens out, and heads back down the otherside. The road is narrow, a single lane on each side and, like many Colorado Mountain roads - there isn’t much of a shoulder between the road and the edge below. So there we were, heading up the road, and it wasn’t too long before we were in a cloud. At first, it resembled fog. The air was misty and light. But then the fog got thicker. And thicker. And thicker. Even before we got to the timberline, the point on a mountain where trees can no longer grow, the trees and bushes along the edge of the road simply disappeared. The high wooden poles used to tell the snowplows where the edge of the road is during springtime vanished. We couldn’t see the edge. We couldn’t really see the road. And I I remember looking out the window, straining my eyes with all my strength, trying to see something, anything, that was out there. But I couldn’t. Everything, including the edge, was gone. I knew that edge was out there. I knew, if we weren’t careful, we would end up finding a spot where there was no road. So up and up we went - and there was nothing to see but this brilliant cloud all around us. 

I imagine that’s what talking to God in a cloud looks and feels like. 

And that’s what the apostles, I think, experienced in our gospel reading today. They are enveloped by the cloud of God - a cloud that shows up over and over again in the early books of the bible. This cloud descends onto mountains, leads the people as they march in the wilderness and lights their way at night. This cloud engulfs Moses when he’s on Mt. Sinai and given the ten commandments - and this cloud also covers Moses when he’s in the tabernacle, standing in front of the Ark of the Covenant, inside this giant moveable temple designed by God to be a place where the people can talk to God, no matter where they go. It’s in this cloud, in this experience, when the teachings in Exodus and Leviticus are given. And it’s also this cloud that comes down to cover the apostles’ after they finally get confirmation of just who this Jesus is. 

Now when Jesus is up on that mountaintop, praying, and Moses and Elijah come to speak with him - Jesus is lit up. He’s transfigured, changed, so that he shines - like some cosmic disco ball or really intense neon sign. This is the Special Effects kind of Jesus Jesus - a Jesus from a Michael Bay movie - who looks awesome. There’s no one who could see this - and not realize that Jesus is exactly who he says he is. It’s no wonder, when Peter sees this, that he wants to grab onto it - capture it - hold onto what he is seeing. They don’t have cameras - there’s no iPhone in Peter’s pocket to snap a picture, sending that image and experience into another cloud - the cloud of the internet - where it can be posted, shared, and seen. Peter, instead, tries to capture the truth that he’s seeing in the only way he knows how. And so he wants to build a dwelling, a monument, a temple to mark this event and hold what he sees. He wants to capture Jesus as he is, right there, lit up like Times Square. In Peter’s mind, this is the proof the world needs that Jesus is the Messiah. This is confirmation that Jesus is able to do the impossible. This is evidence that Jesus is like some superhero, with nice threads, special abilities, and the power to make their nation great again by tossing the occupying Roman army into the sea. Peter wants to keep what he sees. And that’s when the cloud descends. 

It’s when Peter praises this Jesus - praises the special effects, the glory, the bright lights, and the neon signs - it’s after that when God moves. The words Peter uses might seem odd but they’re really not. They’re our words too. We want this kind of Jesus. We want a Jesus who is easy to see, powerful, who looks like some cosmic Silver Surfer who will do our impossible things. And so when Peter speaks, giving voice to our desire to trap Jesus in what we think God’s power, hope, and love actually looks like - that’s when the cloud descends. That’s when everything is covered up. The disciples are hidden. The night sky is blotted out. The trees and bushes and edges that marked the boundary for this mountaintop - that’s all gone. They’re engulfed, surrounded, and terrified. Peter, James, and John grow silent. Their words stop. So God speaks instead, saying, “this is my Son - listen to him.” 

With those words, the cloud vanishes. Moses and Elijah are gone. Jesus’ fancy robes, his changed face, and his discoball appearance disappears. The disciples find themselves left with this plain and ordinary Jesus they always knew. Now I imagine that the disciples looked at Jesus differently after this. They probably wondered where those white robes went. But when this Super Bowl kind of Jesus vanishes and only an ordinary Jesus remains, Peter, James, and John don’t know what to do. Jesus could be with them like some cartoon action hero, but he’s not. Jesus could have the fancy clothes, but he doesn’t. This Jesus meets them in ordinary ways, in their ordinary lives, turning them so they can live out God’s extraordinary love. It’s this ordinary Jesus who called each of them by name, brought them together to form a new community, and to do new things, together. It’s this ordinary Jesus who cast out demons and cured the sick - which is pretty extraordinary really - but he also ate and drank with them, sharing in their meals, and promising to be their bread and drink. This is a Jesus who can wear the white of the angels - but who promises to walk with the disciples wherever they go. This is a Jesus who is going to walk down that mountain, knowing that his upcoming departure is about to come. He knows his journey - his Exodus - is leading him to another mountain just a few chapters from now. And that mountain, we call Cavalry. 

After the transfiguration - after the powwow with Moses and Elijah - after the cloud engulfs the disciples, replacing their vision of God with what God has in mind, we’re left with just one thing: Jesus. No fireworks. No special effects. No brilliant clothes. Just a Jesus who heads to the only place now where he can go - and that’s down, over the edge, into the valley, into the world, and into our lives. Jesus goes down because our mountain tops are few and far between - but our valleys are long, deep, and hard. The Jesus we get isn’t the summer blockbuster movie version of the Jesus that we want. The Jesus we get is the Jesus we need - a Jesus who lives for us - a Jesus who lives in us - and who dies for us - because that’s what the great I AM does. The Jesus we want can’t force us to love our neighbor like ourselves - but the Jesus we get, in our baptism, in our communion, in our community, changes us so we can. It’s on a mountain top that Jesus is transfigured - but it’s only through the Cross that Jesus can truly transfigure us. 



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A reflection on Holy Circles & Leviticus

Our first reading is Leviticus 19:1-18.

Leviticus is a biblical book is one of those biblical books that can be difficult to have a healthy relationship with. The book is in the middle of the Torah, the first five books of the bible (with Moses claimed as its author), and contains very few narrative details. We don't have the grand stories of Genesis and Exodus with people moving to new places, arguing with each other and with God, and with visuals that would make any summer blockbuster movie proud. Instead, we have a lot of words, delivered by God to Moses while Moses and the Israelites are camped at Mt. Sinai. The story stops but the words from God don't. 

And these rules can be weird, especially to our reading. It's easy for us to focus on the language that has filled recent social debates (such as the debate on human sexuality) but skip over the volumes devoted to animal sacrifices and what they do. We might want to remove text from Leviticus so we can use it in the way we want but we really shouldn't. This text should be taken as a whole with the parts we claim to understand kept alongside the parts we don't. We don't get to cherry pick Leviticus. 

So what do we do with Leviticus? One way that helps us is to draw circles. As you read the book, imagine a blank page with God as a dot in the center. Then draw concentric circles outward. Each circle represents a boundary of holiness. We see this in the story of creation (i.e. the 7 days) and in the construction of the tabernacle (the holy of holies in the center). The closer you are to God, the closer we (and the world) match God's divine sense of order and purpose. These rules about what to eat, drink, dress, and sacrifice help us get a sense of which circle we're on. Much of this language is focused on the action of the priests, the ones who mediate between God and people. The overall goal is to try to match God's sense of order. That's why Leviticus is so concerned with boundaries. By establishing boundaries, Leviticus works to establish a sense of order and purpose that helps match our lives up with God. Boundaries and order help us stay in tuned and in touch with God. 

But how do we read Leviticus in light of who Christ is and what he did? If boundaries are important, what do we do with a Savior who crosses boundaries, ate with the unclean, conversed with the unwanted, and even appointed Gentiles as his disciples? There is an order to God's creation - but just what does that order look like? 


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