Questions and Reflections

March 2017

A Pastoral Letter Condemning Antisemitism

ELCA Clergy throughout the region composed and signed a joint letter condemning antisemitism. We printed it in our bulletin on March 26, 2017. 

In 1994, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) pledged “to oppose the deadly working of [antisemitism], both within our own circles and in the society around us” (Declaration of ELCA to Jewish Community).  Now that our Jewish neighbors have once again become the victims of antisemitic threats and vandalism, we are instructed by our Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, the Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton, “to speak out, to reach out, to show up, and to root out this deadly bigotry” (Letter to Pastors, dated February 22, 2017). 

As Lutheran Christians, we confess our own history of antisemitism. We are implicated in the history of anti-Judaism spanning the history of the Christian faith, and in the memory and heritage of Martin Luther and his “anti-Judaic diatribes and the violent recommendations of his later writings” (Declaration of ELCA to Jewish Community). It is in this spirit of truth telling that we acknowledge our truth while, at the same time, point to the wider truth of God’s love for all of God’s people. The violent invectives of our past should not be the reality of the present or our future. 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 free us to move closer to others in fellowship and solidarity. As Christians, we are called to be “ambassadors of hope in the face of despair” (letter dated February 22, 2017) as a faithful response to the love of God in Jesus and to our call to love all our neighbors. 

Therefore, we, the undersigned pastors of Lutheran churches of the ELCA, serving or supporting congregations in Bergen, Essex, Morris, Passaic, and Rockland counties, condemn antisemitism in the strongest possible terms. No Jewish person, institution, house of worship, or cemetery should be threatened with hate or violence. Bomb threats directed at over 100 Jewish Community Centers and Day Schools (including Tenafly and Paramus) and the vandalism at Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Rochester are deplorable acts. The rise in the use of swastikas and other Nazi imagery is abhorrent. Our condemnation of this violence and all antisemitic speech, threats, and actions is unequivocal. We will continue to speak out and confront the evil of antisemitism in our communities. We will stand alongside our Jewish neighbors, institutions, and places of worship. We call upon our elected local, state, and national leaders to repudiate all expressions and acts of antisemitism.  We will continue “to work for the end of systemic racism and discrimination” so “all people in our communities, regardless of race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity...may flourish” (A Pastoral Post Election Letter from Northern NJ Clergy, dated November 23, 2016).


The Rev. Wendy Abrahamson, Pompton Plains

The Rev. Hayley Bang, Paramus

The Rev. Arnd Braun-Storck, Elizabeth

The Rev. Carol Brighton, Ramsey 

Deacon Abby Ferjak, Ridgewood

The Rev. Julie Haspel, Oakland

The Rev. Peggy Hayes, Dumont

The Rev. John Holliday, Old Tappan

The Rev. Lisa Holliday, New Milford

The Rev. Michael Linderman, Ramsey

The Rev. Jenny McLellan, Allendale

The Rev. Jeff Miller, Clifton

Vicar Paul Miller, Ramsey

The Rev. Will Moser, Montclair

The Rev. Robert Mountenay, Wayne

The Rev. Peggy Niederer, Teaneck

The Rev. Scott Schantzenbach, Oxford

The Rev. Joseph Schattauer Paillé, Wyckoff

The Rev. Wes Smith, Saddle River

The Rev. Roger Spencer, North Haledon

The Rev. Beate Storck, Tenafly 

The Rev. Marc A. Stutzel, Woodcliff Lake

The Rev. Stephen Sweet, River Edge

The Rev. Ignaki Unzaga, Glen Rock

The Rev. J. Lena Warren, Pearl River, NY


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Cinderella Story: a reflection on David's anointing

Today's first reading (1 Samuel 16:1-13) is the moment when David appears on the scene. He has 7 older brothers and is watching sheep when Samuel arrives. Samuel is a prophet and is the chief religious figure in the land. When the people of Israel asked for king, Samuel was the one who followed God's voice and crowned Saul king. But Saul's kingship went poorly. We never hear the full reason why God turns away from Saul but God does. God stops being present in Saul's life. Saul grows erratic, violent, and paranoid. When Samuel arrived in Bethlehem, the people did not know what to expect. Did Samuel come as Saul's messenger to deliver a warning or threat? Samuel came to do something else. He's came to commit treason and crown (anoint) David as a new king. 

One of the key lines in this story is verse 7. We have to remember that the writers of scripture did not understand human anatomy like we do. For them, the heart was the brain-soul-muscle of a person. The heart held memories, created thoughts, was the source of our will and personality. The heart was more than a muscle. The heart was the source of who we are. God is not enticed by height or strength. God is enticed by fidelity and character. 

David's anointing is not a strange story in Scripture. One of the most common storylines used in the Bible is God showing unexpected favor to a younger sibling. David is 8th in line. In a worldview that honored the first born son most, David never should have seen Samuel. But God sees David differently. God valued the least of Jesse's sons and crowned him king. This story sounds like a Cinderella story (like a 16 seed beating a 1 seed at the start of March Madness). Yet David's happily-ever-after is not the happily-ever-after we hope for. He will compete with Saul for years. He will create a large kingdom. He will take Bathsheba, a woman who is married to one of his soldiers, against her will. His kingdom will be rocked and torn apart by scandal. And he will lose family and friends in coup attempts and wars. David is chosen by God but the path he follows is full of dangers, hardships, joys, and failures. 


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The Life-Changing Magic of Lent: Pastor Marc's Reflection for the March Newsletter (the Messenger)

I typically need to remind myself that there is a blessing in having stuff. When I step on a Lego with my barefoot, trip over the corner of a misplaced ottoman or bang my head on a ceiling lamp that is too low, I want to throw everything away. But having stuff is a problem I'm blessed to have. Too many people in our world and in our neighborhood do not have the stuff I have. Many spend their months trying to decide which bill to pay, which meal to skip or how they can make their old car last longer. Having stuff means I have resources at my disposal that others do not have. But it also means I run the risk in having stuff overwhelm, distort, and disrupt my life, relationships and spirituality.

As I prepare to lead a mid-week Lenten series on the Small Catechism, I have been reading books on decluttering. Marie Kondo's The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Ruth Soukup’s Unstuffed, Stuffocation, Spark-Joy, A Decluttering Handbook for Creative folks, and The Joy of Leaving Your Stuff All Over the Place, are on my nightstand. Each book promises that we have the power to gain order and control over our lives. We can, through certain acts and habits, clear the clutter from our homes, relationships and soul. By looking at what we have, we can see ourselves more clearly.

When Luther put together The Small Catechism, he was offering parents and heads of households an opportunity to look at what they have. They, and we, have Jesus. Through the Ten Commandments, Apostles' Creed, the sacraments and prayers, entire families could discover Jesus' love for them and how Jesus' love changes everything. This Lent we're going to see how the The Small Catechism is more than just a book we teach to teenagers. It's a way to discover Jesus and live out our faith in a very real way.

See you in church!

Pastor Marc


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What to Keep: Pastor Marc's Reflection for the April Newsletter (the Messenger)

I feel like I've been "spring cleaning" for months now. In mid-February, when the temperature warmed up, I felt the urge to tidy up. I started looking at my clothes differently. I wondered if I really needed all these books on my bookshelf. I stared at the toys scattered in every room in my house and wondered if my kids would notice if they were gone. When the cold of winter breaks, throwing things out is what I want to do.

But what if spring cleaning was more about what we kept rather than what we threw away? Instead of focusing on the clutter, we spend time looking at what we have. The shirt we love ‘tis worth more than the trendy shirt we never wore. The chalkboard that lets kids imagine new worlds is more important than the unplayed matchbox cars surrounding it. When we focus on what to keep, our perspective changes. We stop grabbing everything we can because each item we buy is invited into an environment where it will be used, cherished and appreciated. The world we live in becomes a little more intentional because keeping things is a very intentional act. That first Easter morning was a very intentional act. When Jesus was crucified on Good Friday, he was being thrown away. The Roman Empire didn't know what to do with this rabble rousing rabbi from the backwaters of Galilee so they removed him from the scene. When he was placed in the tomb, his story was supposed to be sealed up for good. But Jesus' story wasn't over. The next morning, women came to the tomb to finish the rituals of burying their beloved teacher. They found Jesus' tomb empty because the Resurrection means nothing, not even death, can keep Jesus away from us.

This Easter, I invite you to think about what you keep in your life. Bring what you don't keep to church as we prepare for our annual Trash & Treasure Sale. And then celebrate the relationship you have with a God who promises always to keep you.

See you in church!

Pastor Marc


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Telling Our Story

The First Reading is Exodus 17:1-7.

Our Mid-Week Lenten Soup & Study this year is combining decluttering with Luther's Small Catechism. Both movements, I think, asks us to change how we view our stuff and our faith. Decluttering isn't about throwing things away; decluttering is about what we keep. Luther's faith is centered on keeping close to a God who keeps us close. Our journey of faith isn't helping us approach God. Faith is helping us see the God who is already with us.

One way we see God is by telling the stories of the people we grew up with. We share stories about our parents, grandparents, and distant ancestors (if we know them). When we talk to someone who doesn't know us very well, we might focus on the positive stories first. We talk about challenges that were overcome and all the good things that happened. We wait to share the negative things (violence, anger, frustration, broken relationship) until later. 

But our story from Exodus 17 doesn't do that. The Israelites are rescued from slavery by God. They go into the wilderness to escape Pharaoh and his army. They overcome exciting challenges. They are doing a new thing. We expect to hear stories showing how they survived and thrived. But should we also hear their complaining? Why does scripture share their screw ups? The stories we tell (or share on facebook, instagram, and snapchat) are stories where we try to look our best. We usually do not share our negative stories. But God's story includes people who complain, people who are thirsty, and people who wonder what God has done for us lately. When we are at our most broken and even we wouldn't stay near us, God still holds us close. God doesn't ask us to only share perfect stories. We are called to share every story because God is with us, even then. 


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A lifetime: 70 is a symbol and here's one of its meanings.

The First Reading is Genesis 12:1-4.

The second part of Genesis 12:4 reads "Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran." He's 75 when he leaves his adopted home. 

Abram originally grew up in modern day Iraq. When he young, his father Terah headed west to the city of Haran. Terah was planning to continue to Canan but he never made it. Terah build a home in Haran. When he died, Abram inherited the household. Abram has a home in Haran when God tells him to leave. 

The number 75 represents more than just a year in Abram's life. 75 represents his entire life. When 70 (or 75) years shows up in scripture, we're seeing a number that represents a lifetime. Scripture uses this number to point to everything this character would have experienced in a life. We are not supposed to be shocked that Abram, at the age of 75, could move to a new country. What is shocking is God telling Abram to give up his life so he can start something new. 

I imagine Abram saw Haran as his home. His household, wealth, and workers (slaves and servants) dwelled there. Over the years, he formed deep relationships with the other citizens of Haran. I imagine he knew every shortcut in the city and where to watch the sunrise over the hills. Even though he grew up in ancient Iraq, Abram was a citizen of Haran. By the time he was 75 years old, he was an old timer. He was a mature resident. He was a pillar of the local community. And that's the moment when God tells Abram to become a stranger. 

When Abram leaves Haran, he becomes an alien in the land of Canan. He is a foreigner, without papers, in a land he's never known. His old life in Haran is behind him. A new life is before him. God has called Abram to be a stranger in a strange land. And that's what a faithfilled life can look like. This life of faith isn't always a life of comfort and predictably. Faith sometimes means we will live in strange places with strange people. Yet these journeys will never be journeys without God. Abram goes to Canan because God is with him. We go to wherever God brings us because God is with us too. 


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The Garden of Eden and Totality

The first reading today is Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7.

We don't know why God plants trees in the Garden of Eden that Adam and Eve cannot eat. When I visualize the story in my head, I put these trees in the very center of Eden. No matter where they are, they know these trees are there. One of the trees is a tree of immortality. Whoever eats its fruits will become divine. The other tree is the tree we hear about today. It's a tree of the knowledge of good and evil. 

To me, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is a merism. A merism is a figure of speech where polar opposites are used to denote a totality (The Jewish Study Bible, Oxford 2004, page 16). Merisms show up many times in the bible. In the very first verse, God creates the heaven and the earth (i.e. everything). In the second creation story, the first human being is created and then split into male and female. The first human contained the totality of what's possible in humankind. Merisms show up in other places too. When we find polar opposites in Scripture, we need to look for what's totally represented. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil represents what everything that can be known. This  knowledge contains what we usually call knowledge: science, math, poetry, and language. But knowledge also contains experiences. To be knowledgeable, we need experiences. We need to know how to survive through a broken heat. We need to know what happens when we break someone else's. We will struggle, feel joy, and sometimes need to take each day just one-at-a-time to survive. Knowledge is more than just learning; knowledge is living. 

The totality of knowledge is what God has. And this is what Adam and Eve desire. They see the tree and the possibility for joys. They see the tree and the possibility to be like God. As Lutheran Christians, when we talk about Sin, we mean more than just immoral acts. For us, Sin is our desire to be like God. We want knowledge; we want power; we want control. We want to be God. And this is why Adam and Eve are exiled from the garden. But they aren't sent out alone. God will replace the loincloths they made for themselves with something better. Even when we try to take God's place, God never stops being generous to us. 


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A Reflection for Ash Wednesday

As I write this reflection, my two kittens are busy playing on the drying rack for my clothes. They are two little balls of fur; spinning, clawing, and jumping on my drying rack like its their personal jungle gym. My shirts, jeans, and other pieces of clothing are no longer clothes; they are cat toys. Every few minutes, I pick each one off the rack only to watch as they jump back on. This cycle is part of the game and it's a game my kittens will do nothing to break. 

The ashes we're using tonight are not brand new. They are part of their own cycle. Last March, on Palm Sunday, we marked the beginning of Holy Week by celebrating Jesus' final journey into Jerusalem. We welcome him into the city by waving palm branches in the sky. After the service, we saved the palms, tied them in a bundle, and hid them in a storage room. For the last year, they've sat undisturbed, slowly drying out. Yesterday, I took the bundle to our outdoor barbecue. I shared a prayer and burned those palms to ash. 

The ashes used tonight show us how our worship is connected to a wider story. When we gather together to share Jesus' story and live in God's promises, we are  participating in something that is more than  one time event. We are connected to God's story. And God's story covers the past and the future. By being part of God's creation, we are included in God's story cycle. Tonight, when the ashes are placed on our forehead, we will hear words reminding us of that story. We'll hear words of promise, connecting God's spirit of creation to the reality of our mortality. And we'll remember that, through Jesus, we're always with God, no matter where our life cycle takes us. 


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