Questions and Reflections

May 2017

Eavesdropping on Jesus

In today's reading from John (John 17:1-11), Jesus is at the end of his long sermon before his arrest and trial. He concludes this long sermon to his disciples with a prayer. Jesus stops talking to his disciples and turns towards God. But Jesus doesn't pray silently. Jesus keeps talking. His disciples are in the room when Jesus starts to pray. The disciples eavesdrop on Jesus' prayer and get a glimpse at Jesus' own prayer life. 

The Rev. Karoline Lewis in her commentary on John writes, "What difference does it make to overhear Jesus praying for us?" How often do we think about Jesus actually saying our name in his own prayers? Usually when we talk about prayer, we focus on our personal conversation with God. If we pray to Jesus, we wait for him to respond to us and act on our behalf. We don't usually imagine Jesus talking about us. We know Jesus knows God and we know that Jesus is God. God and Jesus are so connected, it seems silly for Jesus to pray. Yet in the moment when the disciples are finally confronted by Jesus' upcoming death on the Cross, Jesus prays for them. Jesus asks for their protection. Jesus wants God to continue God's holy work through them. Jesus does more in this passage than affirm his presence with his followers. Jesus prays for them, too. 

Embedded in this prayer is a short definition of eternal life is. Eternal life is, according to 17:3, knowing God and Jesus. We rarely describe eternal life in these terms. We imagine eternal life being something that happens after this life. Yet Jesus says eternal life is knowing God and knowing Jesus. This is something we can participate in right now. Jesus prays for his disciples, asking God to continue to grant eternal life to his disciples. And this eternal life doesn't start later. This eternal life starts now.


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Pastor Marc's Note from the Messenger: June 2017 edition

At our last Confirmation class for the 2016-2017 year, Pastor John Holliday of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Old Tappan shared something I want to share with you. For the last year, we have partnered with Prince of Peace Lutheran Church to teach Confirmation. Kids from Prince of Peace and Christ Lutheran Church talked about faith, Jesus and learned from each other. When we met for our last class this year, Pastor Holliday shared how Confirmation is more than just education. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we're giving these 7th and 8th graders a job to share Jesus with the next generation.

At first glance, this seems like we're asking 7th and 8th graders to bring their kids to church if being a parent is where God leads them later in their lives. That's true but being a parent and passing on our faith to children isn't the limit to what the Holy Spirit is doing. The next generation of faith-filled Christians is anyone who hasn't experienced Jesus in their life. This can be a friend who doesn't go to church or an older family member who doesn't know who God is. This next generation can be the newborn baby who is coming to church for the first time and also their parents who never grew up in a faith community. The next generation isn't defined by age. The next generation is defined by the people, old and young, who are going to meet Jesus. And it's this relationship with Jesus that brings us into a church community where Jesus' promises show up. In the Rite of Confirmation, the church does something amazing. We affirm that these amazing youth, Brendan, Connor and Josette, are already the church. Since their birth, Jesus has loved them. Since their baptism, God has made them leaders in this community. And now, through Confirmation, we entrust to them the calling God gives to each of us: to share the faith, to live our faith and to help others discover the love Jesus has for each of them.

As we gear up for a busy June, we continue to be a community committed to making a difference, physically and spiritually, in our community. On June 4th, we will confirm three youths at our 10:30 am worship. I invite you to come to worship on that day. On June 11th, we'll bless our Genesis Garden after the 10:30 am service as we enter our 32nd year feeding our neighbors in need. On June 18th, our summer schedule starts with one service at 9:30 am. We'll honor our graduates and host a special congregational meeting at 10:30 am to give all an update on some property projects the church will need to address. And then, on June 25th, we'll hold our annual blessing of the animals. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, we are entrusted to live out our faith and to pass it on to people who need to know God's love for them. Let's keep doing that hard work all summer long.

See you in church!

Pastor Marc


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Workin' It

Paul, as he is portrayed in the book of Acts, is a disciple who loves a crowd. In today's reading (Acts 17:22-31), he's in the city of Athens. He's on a missionary journey around the Mediterranean and is spending time in Greece and Macedonia. After several violent episodes in Thessalonica and Beroea, Paul escaped to Athens. While in Athens, he continued to preach and teach. He caught the attention of some local Greek philosophers. They invite him to  speak at the Areopagus (which could be either the chief Roman court in Athens or a hill west of the Acropolis). Many in the crowd think Paul is just a babbler but others are curious about his message. Paul, knowing he is speaking to educated Greeks, filled his sermon with Greek philosophical references. He made Christ understandable to those listening to him. He challenged the Greeks to discover God by meeting Jesus Christ. At the end of his sermon, Paul's words on the Resurrection, shock some of the philosophers. Many discount his words but some believe. In the verses that follow, we learn their names. There is Dionysius, Damaris, and others. They become the new Jesus community in Athens. 

We don't know what happened to Dionysius and Damaris after Paul left Athens. But I think we're invited to imagine these new believers becoming like Paul. They prayed, worshipped, and shared their new faith with their family and friends. According to the book of Acts, Paul is a model for our own life. He is a person who regularly shared his faith with family, friends, and strangers. He supported himself by working in marketplaces as a leatherworker and he felt no shame when he shared his faith with his colleagues and customers. But he couldn't grow the church on his own. Instead, the Holy Spirit empowered the crowd, the "others," to share their faith too. We sometimes believe that sharing our faith is something only pastors or other people do. But communities grow when the "regular" people in the pews invite their friends, family, and neighbors to discover Jesus. The act of sharing does more than grow the number of people in church. The act of sharing opens our friends to a relationship with something bigger than themselves. And when we share Jesus, our own faith changes as well. Through all the conversations, sharing, and vulnerability needed to invite someone to meet Jesus, we learn more about our own faith and how Jesus makes a difference to us. Faith isn't something only for us. Faith is something others need to. So be like Dionysius and Damaris and the countless others in Acts that go unnamed. Share Jesus today, tomorrow, and forever. 


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Keep My Commandments [Sermon Manuscript]

Now [Jesus] was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

John 14:15-21

Pastor Marc's sermon on the 6th Sunday of Easter (May 21, 2017) on John 14:15-21. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


In New York City, there’s an old, boarded up gas station located on Hudson Street. The entire perimeter is sealed by a 12 foot high chain linked fence and, inside it, is a dilapidated garage with a few white delivery vans parked around it. Along the sidewalk is an old, rusting, gas pump with its last sale still on the dials. The last time it was used, 9.87 gallons of gas cost 3 dollars and sixty-five cents. And because this is New York City, the chain link fence is covered in signs. The last time I walked by this gas station, there was one sign in particular that I noticed. On this giant old white sign, big black letters said: “Unapproved parkers will have the air let out of their tires and their license plates removed.” Now I actually have no idea if it's even legal to do that but it's quite a threat, isn't it? I can totally see myself driving on Hudson street and thinking, for a moment, I finally found the last available parking spot in all of New York City. I pull in, thank Jesus for giving me the spot, and then I look up and see that sign. Those words are saying, in no uncertain terms, just...don't. Don't park here. Don't interfere.  Don't get in the way of the people working here. Because if you do, there will be trouble. 

That don't….is sometimes exactly what we think about when we hear anyone in scripture use the word commandment. Commandments can sometimes be God’s version of a big white sign with big black letters that simply says “Don't.” And we think this because the word commandment is dominated by the Ten Commandments we once learned in Sunday School or Confirmation Class or that we saw cross stitched and hung on a wall in our great aunt’s home. Don't have any other god but God. Don't take God’s name in vain. Don't murder. Don't cheat. Don't steal. Don't lie. Don't desire something that belongs to your neighbor. Now, there are some commandments that are not “don't” related like remember to keep the sabbath, to give that day fully to God, and to also honor your parents. But the “don’ts” outnumber the “dos”. And that ends up giving the word “commandment” an essence and a flavor. A commandment from God is seen, consciously or unconsciously, as God telling us “not” to do something. Commandments are God’s way of creating boundaries for us, fencing us in so to speak, so that we can stay on a straight and narrow path that will lead us to God. The thinking goes, if we stay within the boundaries God sets up, we will be okay. When we follow the rules, we show God and Jesus just how much we love them. And if we show God the right amount of love, then God will fully love us in return. The God of the “dont’s” will shower blessings on those who listen and will finally answer all those prayers that sometimes go unanswered. When the word commandment becomes a word that only means “don't,” then the God who speaks those don'ts becomes a God who cares only about what you don't do. And a God who cares only about what you don't do isn't the God Jesus is talking about today. 

For Jesus, commandments are not about the “don’ts.” The commandments are always a do. And commandments are never fences that keep us on a straight and narrow path that, eventually, bring us to God. Rather, because God is already alongside us, the fences which hem us in are torn down by a love that breaks walls and never builds them. So to understand Jesus and the word commandment, we need to remember a passage in John that never shows up in the 3 year cycle of readings we use in worship. In John chapter 12, just 2 chapters before today's reading, Jesus is giving his last public speech before John’s version of the last supper. A mixed crowd of many different ethnicities is gathered around him. Jesus is teaching, preaching, and showing signs of who he is but not everyone believes him. There are some that do but they refuse to share this publicly because they are afraid about what others might think. Instead, they remain quiet. But Jesus doesn't hold their quietness against them. He refuses, at that moment, to judge them. Instead, he talks about his purpose, about his mission, about his goal to save them. He's there to love and to show everyone who God is. Because seeing Jesus is seeing God.  To see how Jesus loves, how Jesus heals, how Jesus embraces and prays and talks to everyone, even those who are his enemies….that’s who God is. Jesus is telling the world exactly what God says and showing everyone how even a Cross can't stop God from saving them. All of this, Jesus says, is the Father’s commandment for him. This commandment for Jesus isn't a don't. It's a do. It's a live-a-human-life, love like God does, tell the world just how much it means to God even though this will lead to the Cross - kind of commandment. And Jesus, in chapter 12 verse 50, calls this kind of commandment….eternal life. 

Commandments are more than “don'ts.” Commandments are a way of life that embodies God’s love. When Jesus shares his last public speech, he's telling everyone that love is more than just a feeling and more than just being kind. Love is a way of life that is willing to sacrifice itself so that even a stranger can live and thrive. And today, when Jesus is in the middle of his long speech to his disciples, telling them that Jesus will be with them and they'll never be orphaned no matter what tragedy befalls them or him, the commandments Jesus points to are centered in a deep and abiding love that even death can't overcome. When we turn God’s commandments into a series of only don'ts, we sin. We impose limits on God’s love that simply do not exist. We forget that we have, through God’s promises, the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus with us, forever. And it's this spirit that empowers us to change these commandments of don'ts that we think are focused only on limiting what we do in our lives and instead see how God’s commandments invite us to help the person next to us - thrive. Instead of holding signs with big black letters telling others what we're going to do if they get in our way, the Holy Spirit guides us to take down our signs of don't and instead help others become the people God wants them to be. This might take some work on our part. And it might cost us some time, some money, and force us to break out of our comfort zone. But this is something we get to do because we are loved; we are chosen; we are, through our baptism and through our faith, part of God’s holy family. We are not orphans. We have Jesus. So let's act like we do.



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A Martyr: who is Stephen?

Who is Stephen? Today's reading from Acts 7:55-60 is a short (too short) part of Stephen's story. Stephen is Jewish but is Hellenized (i.e. Greek). His name is Greek, he speaks Greek, and his culture is Greek as well. As the faith community in Jerusalem grew, people like Stephen joined the church. The apostles (Peter, James, and others) struggled to provide effective leadership over a culturally diverse community. The apostles asked the Greeks to appoint seven leaders who would lead worship and serve this growing community. These seven were called "deacons" and Stephen was one of them. Acts 6:8-10 tells us that Stephen became known as a Spirit-filled follower of Jesus. This did not make some people happy. People came to question Stephen's teachings about Jesus. These arguments grew fierce and dangerous. Stephen is accused of speaking against God and Moses. He's arrested and sent to trial. While at trial, Stephen defends himself and his words make others mad. He invites the people around him to see the presence of the Holy Spirit (and God) in Jesus' community. Instead, the people hear Stephen inviting them to worship an idol (false gods). The people grind their teeth together. Stephen then doubles down on his relationship with God. He is suddenly filled with the Holy Spirit and sees God and Jesus. He tells everyone what he sees. That's the final straw for the crowd. Stephen is dragged outside the city and stoned. 

Verse 56 in today's reading is the only time in the Luke-Acts (Luke and Acts was written by one author) where God physically appears (Margaret Aymer, Working Preacher Commentary on Acts). Stephen sees the glory of God which, to me, is a reference to all of who God is. In that moment, Stephen "gets" God. Stephen also sees Jesus, standing at the right hand of God. The book of Acts isn't trying to tell us where Jesus is physically. Instead, Stephen sees Jesus intimately connected with God. Jesus is connected to God in a unique way. Jesus is God. God is Jesus. And the Holy Spirit is how God reveals this to God's people. In Stephen's story, we see who God is. We know God because we know Jesus. And we know Jesus because Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, comes to us over and over again. Through regular worship, prayer, study, and the sharing of communion, we dwell with the God who is willing to be with us through all things. 


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Ask Pastor Marc: The Holy Spirit in John and Acts

Last week, I was asked about John 20:22-23. In that passage, Jesus shows up when the disciples have locked themselves in a room. Jesus walks through the locked door, offers them peace, and then "breathes" the Holy Spirit onto them. It's an interesting piece of scripture especially since the beginning of Acts 2 shares how the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples after Jesus' resurrection. Acts 2 and John 20 seem to announce the specific historic moment when the Holy Spirit enters the world. Both episodes seem to contradict each other. 

I think it's important to remember that we have 4 different gospel stories rather than one. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are texts written by specific people to specific faith-filled communities. The Holy Spirit gave each author words revealing how Jesus mattered to them, their communities, and everyone who came after them. Each text describes different aspects of who Jesus is and what Jesus does. Each text also describes different experiences of the Trinity. This includes the Holy Spirit. Luke (who wrote the book of Acts), sees the Holy Spirit as something bombastic. The Holy Spirit inspires believers to preach life-giving words to their neighbors, friends, and even strangers. The Holy Spirit compelled Peter, Paul, and the other apostles to bring Jesus to far flung place. In Luke-Acts, the Holy Spirit inspired believers to move and not be silent about their faith.

In John, however, another aspect of the Holy Spirit is highlighted. John calls the Holy Spirit the parakletos which can be translated as advocate, comforter, helper, or intercessor. In the words of Rev. Karoline Lewis, "The Holy Spirit, according to John, is the one who is called to be alongside us." In John 14, we are introduced to the Holy Spirit in the middle of Jesus' last sermon to his disciples. Jesus knows Good Friday is coming. He knows he'll die, rise, and ascend to heaven. The disciples do not fully understand what's about to come. Jesus' final sermon is a way for Jesus to bring comfort to his followers. He promises to send them "another Advocate." So who was their first advocate? Well, their first advocate was Jesus. The Spirit, according to John, is a manifestation of the promises Jesus makes. Jesus will not orphan the disciples because "the Spirit will now accompany them." In John, the Spirit is very personal. The Spirit is a quieter encounter but an encounter that promises all of God's people that they'll never be abandoned no matter where in life (or death) they go. 

The Holy Spirit doesn't appear in only one historical moment in Scripture. The Holy Spirit is the multitude of ways God makes God's promises known to us. The Spirit grants us a new life held in God's abundant love. The Spirit was there when the universe was created and is there when we are baptized. The Spirit is always present but is experienced in our lives in many personal, amazing, and breathtaking ways. 


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Jesus is a gate.

This week, as I was cleaning, sorting, and organizing items for Trash and Treasure, I stumbled onto a picture of the Gates. For 2 weeks in 2005, artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude installed 7,503 vinyl orange gates along 23 miles of pathways in Central Park. The gates hung above the heads of people walking below and the wind blew the gates open and shut. The gates did a very poor job in being gates. They were not connected to any fences and anyone could walk past them. I remember walking under them on a cold February day and admiring how their colors brightened the park. But the gates did a miserable job keeping me out. 

Today's reading from the Gospel of John (John 10:1-11) is why the 4th Sunday of Easter is known as Good Shepherd Sunday. Every year we read parts of John 10. Jesus is talking to his disciples and the crowd about an experience they just witnessed. A man born blind was healed. The local civic and religious leaders cannot believed what happened. They exiled the man from his community. Jesus finds him and the man becomes one of Jesus' disciples. John 10 isn't separate from John 9 and the power of John 9 isn't the healing Jesus did. The relationship Jesus proactively offered to a person everyone thought was unworthy of having a relationship with God is the point of the story. The miracle in John 9-10 isn't the healing; the miracle is who Jesus claims as part of his community. 

One of the images the gospel of John uses is Jesus as a gate. A gate typically implies a fence but Jesus doesn't focus on that. Instead, the verses today are about what a gate does. A gate keeps sheep safe at night by keeping thieves and predators out. A gate helps feed sheep by letting sheep out during the day. The primary focus of a gate is to keep offering the sheep an abundant life. A gate isn't a fence. A gate needs to open and close. A gate needs to respond to those it's responsible for. Jesus is a gate. He isn't a fence. Jesus promises to be with those who hear his voice. The community around the man born blind built a fence to keep him out because he did not fit their expectations. But Jesus went and found him, giving the man born blind a life full of God's grace, mercy, and love. 


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The 3,000

One of the trends I'm discovering in my preaching and faith exploration involves using our imagination. Throughout the Bible, God invites us at specific points to imagine what comes next. Our first reading from Acts 2:14,36-41 is, I think, one of those points. Peter has finished his Pentecost sermon. He is preaching to a crowd filled with people from all over the world who are visiting Jerusalem. The people are hearing Peter's words in their own language and are amazed at what they see. Peter's words are also convicting. He tells them, in short, that "the people of God put God to death when God came to them" (Paraphrase borrowed from Professor Rolf Jacobson of Luther Seminary). For the people listening to Peter, this statement cuts them to the core. They feel like their souls and identity have been torn apart. They ask Peter, "what can they do?" We shouldn't see this question as their way to try and get on God's good side. The people listening to Peter are first and foremost recognizing who they are as human beings. The Spirit is revealing to them their identity and what people do when God shows up. The ones listening to Peter are now lost. They ask what they can do because they realize there is nothing they can do to fix their relationship with God. So Peter looks at them all and tells them to turn towards God and be baptized. 

The reading from Acts says 3000 were baptized that day. Imagine the strain on the altar guild. Imagine how long baptizing 3000 people would take and where it might happen. The entire group could have left the city to find a river to be baptized in. The banks would be filled with people standing in dirt and mud, waiting for their turn. People leaving the water would be dripping wet. Their feet and legs would soon be dusty and covered in mud. Everyone there would carry the physical signs of baptism. And then, once the baptisms were over, they would be part of a new community. In verses we do not hear today, the 3000 devoted themselves to their new faith community. They sold their possessions and put everything into a common account. They shared their financial resources, making sure all were cared for. Listening to Peter, God's people discovered who they are as human beings. They recognized what people do when God shows up. But, through the Spirit, God gave everyone a new imagination to live out God's love wherever God takes them next. 


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