Questions and Reflections

April 2015

Can you feel summer already?

Pastor Marc's message in the Messenger for May.

I know that it's only May (and hopefully it won't snow during these last weeks in April!) but the first weekend in May is a herald to summer. The blockbuster movies that raise over a billion dollars worldwide will launch (I'm looking at your Avengers 2); the lines at Dairy Queen are longer; baseball households will break out their gloves and head to Yankee Stadium. Even though school is still in session, water parks aren't open, and the water at the shore is freezing, summer is coming and we can't wait for it to arrive. 

On Memorial Day Weekend, we'll celebrate Pentecost. Pentecost was originally celebrated among Jesus' followers as a Jewish festival of thanksgiving, taking place 7 weeks after Passover. For us, however, Passover is celebrated as the moment when the Holy Spirit made itself known to the disciples. Scripture says that tongues of flame appeared over their heads and all the disciples started to speak different languages. As they shared Jesus' story, people from all over the world heard their own languages being spoken. The miracle of Pentecost isn't that the disciples suddenly started speaking in languages they didn't know. The miracle of Pentecost is that people from all over the world, no matter where they came from or where they grew up, were invited to hear Jesus' story in their own language and words. Jesus, who grew up speaking Aramaic and whose deeds and words were recorded in Greek, doesn't stay in that world. Instead, God opened Jesus' message to the entire world, inviting us to share Jesus' story to all. 

Summer is going to bring us to new places and bring new people to us. We're going to find ourselves in situations where we don't know the people we're talking to and where familiar places are going to seem different to us. Even in our own neighborhood, while sitting outside on the steps or the porch, something different is going to happen. We're invited, where ever we go and where ever we end up, to share Jesus' story and to make his love known. This requires more than just speaking. We need to make Jesus understandable. That happens when we meet people, learn their story, and listen to what they have to say. We learn how to share Jesus' love when we get busy learning what people need and how God has been active in their lives. This summer, we're going to feel the warmth of the sun. Let's make sure we share the warmth of the Son too.


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A Reflection on Acts 4:5-12

Our first reading today is from Acts 4:5-12.

"By... what name did you do this?" 

At first glance, this question towards Peter sounds a little odd. Peter is being investigated for what he did in the Temple (and what we heard last week). Peter healed a man who could not walk and that caused a bit of a kerfuffle. Peter is arrested and the religious authorities are interrogating him. They want to know what power Peter has or, if he doesn't have that power to cause miracles, who does? The authorities want  Peter to name names. 

We all have names and our names have power. God's name in the Old Testament is written as YHWH ("I AM").  It's not a true personal name but is instead a stand-in for how to address God. The authors of the OT assumed their was a personal name for God but, over the years, it was viewed as too holy and powerful to write down. Only chosen individuals, like Moses or the prophets, had access to God's personal name and with that name came the power to cause miracles and to do amazing things. I forget where I heard this next tidbit but an early attempt to discredit Jesus and the early church was the claim that Jesus wasn't that special, he just tricked his way into learning God's personal name. Nowadays, we might not think names have supernatural powers like but we know names carry power. Knowing a name implies a relationship and an ability to call on them when we're in need (or want something). "Networking," "who you know," and "family money" are all phrases we use today to signify the power that names carry. Relationships (and the opportunity to form those relationships) help advance our careers, get us out of trouble, and have access to experiences and resources that other people don't. Everyone has a name and everyone's name has a system of power that comes with it. So when the religious authorities ask Peter for a name, they're asking for information about who he has access too. And Peter does the only thing he can: he talks about Jesus. 

Peter's words are powerful because they focus on Jesus as the source of all that he can do. Jesus, who the authorities rejected and sent to be killed, is still active in the world, loving those who are rejected, and bringing light into dark places. The world currently around Peter is hostile. They attacked Jesus and are against what Jesus brings. Peter stands against that hostility, naming his reality: that all the good they do and the love they share comes not because he's a good, moral, or amazing person. The love he shares comes from Jesus Christ. We do what we do because we're disciples of Jesus. That's the source of who we are and what we do. It's also a challenge - inviting us to do what Jesus did and that's love everyone that comes into our path.


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A reflection on Acts 3:12-19

Today's first reading is from Acts 3:12-19

Today's first reading is a step back in our journey through Acts this Easter season. Last week, we were in chapter 4. Right now, we're in chapter 3. The disciples are in Jerusalem when Peter and John go to pray in the Temple. While there, Peter sees a man who has never walked and heals him in the name of Jesus. The man leaps and jumps praising God, and clinging to Peter and John in thanksgiving for healing. People are surprised, confused, and wondering what just happened. So Peter responds with our reading today. 

One of the core elements in today's reading is what it means to be part of God's family. Peter's words emphasize two things: how God continues to expand who is in Jesus' group and who isn't. Now, this can get very dicey and appear to be very black and white. Peter could use this opportunity to reject those who are gathered in the Temple. Even though they share the same identity as Jews, the people at the temple responded to Jesus differently. The disciples proclaim that Jesus is the Messiah while the rest do not. That's the boundary between who is part of Jesus' group and who isn't. Peter could look at those gathered around and reject them. He could say that they rejected Jesus and, in a sense, killed him along with the Roman authorities. Peter could wash his hands of them, condemn them, and say that they have no hope in ever being part of God's true family. 

But Peter doesn't. Instead, he invites them in because being part of God's in-group is open to all. 

We'll always struggle with who is "in," and who is "out." But God continues to push us to open the group by inviting people into a relationship with Jesus and with us. There's a risk when we do that. The people who might accept our invitation might not be like us. They might do things differently, enjoy different activities, or speak different languages. They might not even look like us. The ones we invite might change the group and make it different from what it was before. And that's scary. But that's God's call. God's love invites relationship and communion with everyone. God's love invites us to grow and change. Peter invited those around him into Jesus' family, knowingly inviting them to join the Body of Christ and making it shine with the love of God that encompasses all.


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A reflection on Acts 4:32-35

Today's First Reading is Acts 4:32-35.

This text from Acts is rather striking, isn't it?

What we're seeing is a vision of the Jesus community after Pentecost. The community is preaching in the temple, gathering in regular meetings, and some of the early disciples are being arrested for their beliefs. The community hasn't even been called Christian yet (see Acts 11) and Stephen won't be killed until Acts 7. So at the start of this post-Easter community, we find this text from Acts 4. Ownership of property and things, like land, houses, and I assume bowls and cups, no longer exists. Items are sold or shared. The apostles dictate where the money goes and who receives any. This model works because everyone is on the same page. The community can practice a radical form of generosity because they are so united. Our habit of using things to separate us from one another no longer exists. 

But the community in Acts isn't a blueprint that we're called to follow. This kind of community doesn't last (read Acts 5 to see why).  So instead of selling our houses and giving the money to Pastor Marc to handle, let's ask just what is going on here. We're invited to see what's happened to cause this community to act this way and that's the presence of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is causing the community to swirl around each other, to care and love each other in ways it didn't before. The barriers that we build to create a hierarchy of importance (such as how much money we make, how big our house is, how many vacations we go on) is broken. The community embodies the love that Jesus preached and practiced. People are cared for, division are broken, and love is the only rule. 

The community of Acts 4, however, isn't perfect. These short verses are focused on those already inside the community. There is nothing about giving to the poor, sharing with non-Christians, or having meals with the unwanted. They are turned inwards when so much of Jesus' ministry was directed towards the people "out there." All communities are called to embody Jesus, to proclaim in our actions and identity the love that God shares with the world. Radical generosity is a part of that. Loving the stranger is a part of that too. Turning away from ourselves and looking at those around us, asking what they need and how Spirit is moving in their lives, matters too. The first communities after Easter struggled with this. We struggle too. But this call from God, to be a community that embodies everything that Jesus is about, continues. That's our mission and our job.


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Easter Sunday: Christ is Risen!

What do you think about the resurrection? 

It's easy to get lost in what the church says about the resurrection. We have the story recorded in four different ways in the four gospels. Paul's letters and the later epistles written in his name are centered on what it means to live on this side of Easter. We hear how the empty tomb matters, how there's an angel sitting on a bench, and there's a neat pile of linens stacked to the side. And we see the disciples, women and men, standing there and wondering what happens next. 

But, beyond that story, how does the resurrection matter to you? 

Easter is a beautiful day. Flowers cover the altar here at church and the music will be amazing. And once the worship is done, Easter, for many of us, doesn't end. There's brunch and family dinners, visits to the mall in New York or a trip to Manhattan to experience NYC in Spring. We hit the road to see friends and family while decked out in our best suits, beautiful pink ties, and while wearing our most fun socks. And who can forget the opening and sharing of Easter baskets, the hunting of Easter eggs, and the bitting the ears off chocolate bunnies. The world around seems to be all about Easter as well. Easter sales, bunnies standing outside fire houses, hams that we need to pickup from Shoprite, and TV specials featuring Jesus premiering later tonight. Easter is an event that goes on, for everyone, all day. 

But Easter is more than just today. Easter is for every day and night of our lives. 

Today, like we do everyday, we shout from the rooftops that Jesus lives. But he's more than just a member of the Walking Dead. This Jesus is something brand new; living a promise that death isn't the end. Death isn't the opposite to life; instead, a new, different kind of life, is. And this new life matters now. Easter means our lives today are different than they were before. We're living in a post-Easter world where our lives, the specifics of our lives, are not defined by its end. Christ is risen. Christ is living. We are in the post-resurrection future. More is coming - and that matters to me and to you. 


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Good Friday: John and the Jews

I'm always uncomfortable when I hear in the gospel according to John, the phrase "the Jews." 

It's a phrase John uses a lot when compared to other gospels(over 60 times compared to only 6 in Mark). Living 2000 years after Jesus' ministry, this phrase might not sound too strange to us. But as the scholar Raymond Brown writes in reference to Jewish parents of a blind man in Jerusalem who are "described as being 'afraid of the Jews' (9:22) is just as awkward as having an American living in Washington, DC, described as being afraid of 'the Americas' - only a non-American speaks thus of 'the Americans.'" John isn't being descriptive in his use of the term; he's being hostile.  Scholars believe that the author of John was part of a community that had been expelled, or split, from Jews worshipping in synagogues. John's community probably couldn't understand why those in the synagogues did not accept Jesus as the Messiah and those in the synagogues couldn't understand how these people did. They split apart and, like all breakups, mutual hostility and anger broke out. John community was so angry that Jesus' story started to be reduced. The diversity of Judaism as witnessed in Mark, Matthew, and Luke (i.e. the Sadducees and the Pharisees) disappeared in John. They are all just "the Jews" and John does not like them very much. 

So what should we do with this aspect of John? Do we removed the references or replace them with something softer, like "religious authorities?" Such a tactic, I believe, fuels the problem. The reality is that John says some hateful things and he's been used to fuel Anti-Semitism for centuries. We shouldn't mask the hateful things that Scripture sometimes says.

And I believe that's what helps make Scripture powerful for us. Scripture isn't just God's word; scripture is also the human story. We are sinners. We feel hate. We exclude others, act out in anger, and discriminate over religion, race, sex, gender, and sexual orientation. We're very good at not loving our neighbors or ourselves. And John's gospel captures that. We see in John our inability to follow the commandments as Jesus taught us. John is showing us a community who are full of followers of Jesus but who still, like us, are caught up in sin. John's community, like ours, still needs God's love and grace to be transformed into the disciples God calls us to be.

John's antagonism and hateful sayings are things that we, as disciples of Christ, stand against. Our love for our neighbors and for God's creation calls us to do nothing less. John's community, as a community in our world, still struggled with darkness. We still struggle with darkness too. But Jesus promises to keep coming to us, bringing light into our dark places, and showing us how to love.


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