Questions and Reflections

July 2017

Understand: Parables and Jesus

What was the last question you said "yes" to? And did you really mean it? In today's reading from Matthew 13:31-33,44-52, we read parable after parable describing the Kingdom of God. All of these parables are short, sweet, and inexact. The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, yeast, treasure, a searching merchant, a net, and a scribe. Many of these "likes" are a bit absurd. A person finds treasure and hides it in a field. They then buy the field and keep their treasure buried. A merchant is looking for pearls, finds one, and then stops being a merchant. The fisherman waits until the fish are on the shore before he sorts through his catch but he doesn't toss the unwanted creatures back into the water. And then, after a chapter full of parables, Jesus asked his disciples, "Have you understood all this?" And the disciples said, "Yes." 

This doesn't feel like a honest yes. When we step back and look at everything in Matthew 13, this "yes" by the disciples reads like a "yes" trying to get Jesus to stop talking. Over and over and over again, Jesus teaches them with a parable. The disciples are overwhelmed by absurd stories and they are not given the time to process what they're hearing. So when Jesus finally paused and asked them a question, they respond with just, "yes." They don't even try to explain what they understand. Jesus understands what they are doing so he responds with another parable about scribes.

According to Richard Lischer in his book Reading the Parables, scribes in Jesus day were not like a master of a household. Scribes were important. They knew how to read and write. They were employed to take notes, write contracts, and compose letters. Even the apostle Paul used scribes to write his letters down. Scribes are useful but they are not the head of the household. They are hired by the head of the household. Yet Jesus says the disciples "will preserve...all that is eternal in the law and the righteousness of God, and so doing will find the greatest treasure of all." The absurdity of Jesus' ministry is that his followers of tax collectors, fishermen, women, and sinners will know, find, and pass God's holiness and goodness to those around them. 

Parables are not simple stories we're asked to only understand. They are stories we're supposed to chew on, over and over again. When we struggle with Jesus' words, we discover who God is and what God expects of us. Jesus' journey with us isn't about providing easy answers to the dilemmas we face. Instead, he prepares us to live in the world like he does. And that world can sometimes be absurd. 


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Life Carries On: A taste of prayer in Romans

Taking a Sunday off during a sermon series is a little problematic. But like the British band Big Audio Dynamite says, "Life carries on, even when I'm not there." And that's true. Life is happening to other people and in other places even as you read these worlds. As human beings, we are the centers of our own little universes. People and situations revolve, interact, and move through and around us. We sometimes act as if the possibilities of life are limited to our own experiences, senses, and imaginations. But other people lives, thoughts, and experiences that are not our own. We are all centers of our own little universes but we are not the center of the entire universe. Yet with God's Spirit, we can see what a full, thriving, and loving life can possibly be. 

This passage from Paul's letter to the Romans 8:12-25 is amazing because Paul is making a bold claim here. He's telling this small community of two dozen people that they are who the world is waiting for. These men and women, rich and poor, slaves and free, are everything. Now, there is a dangerous way to read this passage. If the Roman community took these words as an excuse to push others away or to act like they are the only people entitled to being with God, then Paul's words create an us-vs-them view of the world that is problematic. The Roman community would seem themselves as "winners" and reject, forcefully, anyone who doesn't fit in. Their relationship with God would be an entitlement that would be for them alone and no one else. 

But Paul isn't, I think, doing that here. We need to remember the context of Paul's letter. He is writing to a small community located in the capital city of the Empire that killed Jesus. They are a community that celebrates and worships someone who was killed as a criminal in the worst way possible. They worship and celebrate what should be the epitome of weakness and smallness. And as a mixed community, they are filled with slaves who had no control over the violence inflicted on their bodies. This community is insignificant. Yet it's this community that Paul says is worth everything. They, through the Spirit, will change the world. 

And how will they do that? Paul doesn't go into details here but will later in his letter. The how is rooted in the why because living with the Spirit makes a difference. We can see that in our prayers. When we pray, the Spirit is helping us to believe that our smallness can talk to the everlasting God. In our worship service, that's why each Sunday has a specific prayer of the day. Before we read God's story and share with Jesus a holy and special meal, we ask God to make that Spirit live within us. This Spirit doesn't ask us to create a world of winners and losers. This Spirit asks us to live a life of love that is as complete as God's love for each of us. Because it's this kind of love, a love that even sacrifice itself for its enemies, that all our universes need. 


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Side-By-Side: Parables

Parables "are fictional stories."* They are the bread and butter of Jesus' teaching ministry and filled with images from everyday life. Most of us are not farmers (but if you would like some eggs, there's someone at CLC you should talk to) but we know what farmers do. Most of us do not plant seeds on acres of land but we do know the type of soil plants need to grow. This reading from the book of Matthew is the first parable we will see in this season after Pentecost but it will not be the last. We read the stories Jesus told because Jesus is a storyteller.  

As a storyteller, the stories Jesus tells can sometimes appear simplistic. Since these parables include images we know and understand, we trick ourselves into thinking any interpretation of a parable must be just as simple. If the parable confuses, challenges, or makes us uncomfortable, we seek out a simple answer to make ourselves feel better. We do a disservice to parables when we make them simple. Parables are confusing. They sometimes compare two things in striking and unpredictable ways. Parables sometimes do not make sense on the first (or 12th) reading of them and sometimes Jesus' own explanation of these stories fails to clear up their meaning. Parables are important because they help expose "two equally deep mysteries: the mystery of God and the mystery of human life."** The God who uses the phrase "I AM WHO I AM" as a name when Moses meets a burning bush is not a God who is neat, tidy, and containable. Anytime we limit God and Jesus inside a simple and safe definition, we miss experiencing who God really is. The God who created everything and who can never be fully comprehended by human beings is the same God who, through Jesus, entered into the mystery of human life. Parables do not try to explain away the mysteries of God and our lives. Instead, parables reveal these mysteries through stories that are challenging, familiar, odd, and comforting. Parables get the gears in our souls turning because engaging in all of life's mysteries is one of the ways the Spirit transforms us into Godly people. 

In today's parable, a farmer is terrible at their job. The farmer doesn't try to plant seed in only the places it will grow. Instead, the farmer throws seed around with abandon. In some places, the seed grows. In other places, it is eaten up. The farmer has a success rate of only 25% and yet the farmer keeps sowing. Where are you in the story today? Are you the farmer sowing seeds of love and life with abandon? Are you the rocky ground, the path, or the soil covered in thorns? Are you a seed waiting to sprout, not knowing what kind of soil you have landed in? Find your spot in the story - and discover what the Spirit wants you to hear today. 

* Richard Lischer's Reading the Parables, page 3.
** ", page 13.   


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Seek: Jesus's Yoke

I've never worn a physical yoke but I have carried intangible ones that were very real. When Jesus talks about yokes in this passage from Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30, he uses an agricultural image people in his crowd knew. A yoke is a heavy piece of wood used to connect two oxen side-by-side at the shoulders. Yokes were used in specific circumstances. One of the oxen would be experienced and well trained. They knew how to pull a plow or a heavy load. The other oxen in the yoke would be inexperienced. They were young and new to plowing. They wouldn't know what's expected of them. By teaming up an experienced ox with one who needs help, the farmer could plow their field and train their oxen at the same time. The oxen would do the hard work to prepare the field for planting, together. The old soil and plants from the year before would be plowed over and turned up. The new soil, once fertilized and filled with seeds, would grow a delicious crop. Without a yoke, the inexperienced oxen could never create a crop that would feed others. The yoke made that ox a creature that gives life. 

As a baptized Christian, you are yoked. You might not feel it, physically, but you are connected to Jesus right now. As Shelley Best writes, "Through faith, we are partnered with Jesus and taught how to balance and maneuver what is at hand, with the help of one who transforms our deepest desires into passion for God's just and merciful reign in the world.*" The gift of faith connects us to the One who knows us better than we know ourselves. We are bound to a Jesus who helps us to live in sync with him. This work isn't easy. This work challenges who we are and what we know. And this work can feel like our trust in God is growing or fading or both, at the same time. There will be times when the heavy load we're pulling feels like it's impossible to carry on our own. But we are not alone. We are connected with Jesus. And we need to "trust Jesus to help us carry our load and find rest."

*Feasting on the Gospels, Matthew Volume 1. Page 299-301.


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Giving Away the Building. From Pastor Marc - My Message for the Messenger, Summer 2017 Edition

How big is our church? Well...there are different ways to answer that question. We could share the physical dimensions of the church, measuring how many people fit in our sanctuary and how tall our church steeple is. We could talk about the number of church members our community has or how many people we have on our mailing lists. But I like to think about our size by looking at our relationships and connections. Our church is big because everyone who calls CLC home is connected to people outside of our church building. We all have neighbors, classmates, coworkers, and friends. Some of our family and friends are living all over the world. As disciples of Jesus Christ, our impact isn't limited to only the people we see on Sunday morning. Jesus is with us wherever we go and is active in all the relationships we have. Our church isn't only building on the corner of Church and Pascack roads. The church is the people God has called to be here and the church impacts everyone through the relationships we all have. 

One of the relationships that unite us as members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA - our denomination) is the Lutheran World Federation (LWF). The LWF is a global communion of 145 Lutheran denominations from 98 different countries. It's a network of 74 million Lutherans who worship, pray, celebrate, and gather together for an assembly every six years. The most recent assembly of the LWF was this past May in the country of Nambia. Our denomination's Presiding Bishop, the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, attended. In her recent article in the Living Lutheran, she wrote about being a global community united in our life with Christ. And she shared a story  I would like to share with you:

At the LWF Assembly a delegate from Russia told this story of freedom in Christ. There used to be a Lutheran church in St. Petersburg. It was a beautiful structure witnessing to the glory of God where the Lutheran immigrants who arrived in the 18th century could worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. It was skillfully crafted out of wood. St. Mary’s Lutheran Church still stood in St. Petersburg, renamed Leningrad.

The church was a place of worship and hope during the siege of Leningrad during WWII. But people were freezing and starving to death in Leningrad. There was no wood for heating or cooking. So the Lutherans looked at their beloved church and then looked at the suffering around them. Piece by piece they dismantled their building and gave it away for the life of their community.

Last month, we committed ourselves as a congregation to Raise the Roof on our ministry by replacing the flat roofs on our buildings. We are doing this because we know we are a community with a vibrant future in Northern New Jersey. We will continue to share Jesus in all our relationships and use everything God has given us, including our buildings, to give ourselves away for the life of our communities. As we move forward into a new and exciting future, let's remember that we are more than a building. We are the church. And we are here to love and serve each and every day. 

See you in church!
Pastor Marc 


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Grow In Faith

Do you want to grow closer to God? Today's passage from Matthew 10:40-42 is an answer to that question. 

For the last three weeks, Jesus has been giving instructions to his disciples. Jesus' work needs workers and the disciples are his hands and feet in the world. What Jesus did during his life on earth will be the disciples' mission as well. They will bring good news to the poor, which might not be good news to the rich. The disciples will eat meals with the people society says not to. The disciples will advocate for healing and wholeness in a world that fights hard to deny wholeness to everyone. The disciples will preach, teach, and do. The work will be hard but it's necessary, vital, and life-giving to those who do it.

Jesus' final words of instruction are these 3 verses from Matthew 10. They are words centered in hospitality. Hospitality is more than inviting someone into your home. Hospitality means we need to be willing to be a guest in someone else's home too. Hospitality is as simple as offering a cup of cold water to a thirsty child and as complicated as going into the home of an enemy and showing them love and compassion. We want to control how we practice hospitality. We want to decide who we invite into our home and whose home we are invited into. But Jesus breaks control in this passage. When it comes to being God's people, we don't get to chose who we show hospitality to. We are called to invite all people into our spaces and to go into the spaces of every other person too. When we do this, we are doing more than just being kind or compassion. We are actively engaged with God. We are actively living with God. We are actively welcoming God. It's through hospitality that we discover just what it's like to follow a God who created our world and who lived in it as a guest to show us what God's love actually looks like. 


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