Questions and Reflections

September 2015

A reflection on Numbers 11

Our first reading is Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29.

It's easy to romanticize the past. Today's reading from Numbers starts with the people wanting to go back to Egypt. They're tired of it. They remember their time in Egypt, choosing to remember the foods they once enjoyed: meat, fish, vegetables and spices. They're tired of the mana from heaven, the desert sands, and the constant wandering. They want to return to a past they understood. They're willing to forget the violence and brutality. They're willing to forget their slavery. The past is colored positivity because the future is so unknown.  

The interesting thing about this passage is that even Moses complains. He knows that the people are upset but instead of being upset with people, Moses turns his frustrations to God. He's annoyed that God's anger keeps returning. Moses is tired of being the only person God seems to care about. Moses calls out God, reminding God that the people complaining are, and always will be, God's people. God isn't only Moses' God; God is the God of all. And God needs to start acting like that's who God is. 

God listens to Moses and orders Moses to chose 70 elders to co-lead God's people. God isn't taking leadership away from Moses. God, instead, is expanding the opportunities of leadership for all. When the 70 are gathered, the spirit of God comes, and the 70 speak and sound like Moses does. But God isn't limiting leadership to only these 70. All of the sudden, two are discovered in the camp who were not there when the 70 received the spirit. These two, Eldad and Medad, are in the camp, being prophets. Joshua asks Moses to stop them because they are not one of the 70. But Moses refuses. He recognizes what God is doing. Everyone has an opportunity to be God's people, to love like God does, and to make a difference in the ones around them. We're not called to leave God's love to the professionals, the religious, or the more faithful folks. We're called to love, to share God's story, and to care because, in our baptism, we've already been chosen. And God asks us to act like we are. 



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A reflection on Jeremiah 11

Today's first reading is Jeremiah 11:18-20.

These three verses from Jeremiah need a little context. 

Jeremiah is a prophet operating around Jerusalem right before (and during) Jerusalem’s destruction by the Babylonians. He's watched as Babylon gets involved in Jerusalem's affairs. An empire with an army much larger (and better equipped) than what Jerusalem has, fear is tearing Jerusalem apart. Jeremiah is watching his society unravel before his eyes. He is given a job by God to spread a message about Babylon's advance and pleading with the people to turn to God and not try to defeat Babylon militarily. But no one truly listens. Jeremiah is arrested, tried, and almost killed. He's in prison when Jerusalem is captured by Babylon and eventually dies (we believe) in Egypt as a refugee. 

These verses from chapter 11 are the first of Jeremiah’s nine laments. God tells Jeremiah that others want to kill him. This makes Jeremiah sad and angry. He's upset that others aren't listening to him but he's also upset that God sent him on this mission. Jeremiah doesn’t want to share this negative message with his neighbors. He doesn't want to be the one living this kind of life. But God chose Jeremiah to speak the truth during a chaotic time so Jeremiah presses on. And he trusts that, in the end, God will set the world right.  

The verses end with Jeremiah asking God to destroy and punish his enemies. His sadness is matched by his anger towards those around him and God. Like many of us, Jeremiah can't fully separate sadness and anger. They're always together, with his sadness making him want to lash out at others. Faced by the impending war with Babylon, Jeremiah responds to his enemies in kind. He struggles, like all of us when we are in a crisis, to imagine a world bigger than what he is experiencing. Surrounded by violence, he imagines God’s promise in the language of violence. His language isn’t a model for us but his trust is. He trusts that God will make all things right but he struggles to imagine just how God’s hope, mercy, and love will look like when Jeremiah is caught up in the chaos around him.



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Turning Points [ Sermon Manuscript]

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Mark 8:27-38

Pastor Marc's sermon on the 16th Sunday after Pentecost (September 13, 2015) on Mark 8:27-38. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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We’re in the eighth chapter of Mark; the halfway point of the entire gospel. Jesus has been traveling around the Sea of Galilee, visiting villages like Nazareth and Capernaum. He’s traveled to Tyre and the Decapolis, lands populated and ruled by gentiles. Jesus keeps on healing people, casting out demons, and debating with the best religious leaders he can find. Jesus is on the move. 

So we find him, with his ragtag group of disciples and followers, heading north.  They’re near what use to be the northern tip of Israel when King David was alive - but is now a city named after the Roman emperor Augustus. This city, Caesarea Philippi, is relatively new but is the military and governmental hub for the area. It’s here where taxes are collected, gathered, and sent to rulers far away. And it’s here where a large marketplace contains statues and images of Roman Gods and Roman emperors. This is a city that lives, eats, and breathes Rome. It promotes Roman ideals, Roman religion, and faith in a Roman empire that is destined to rule the world. And it’s here - at this Roman city - with all the symbols, power, and images of Rome looking down on the disciples - that Jesus asks “who do you think I am?” 

It’s almost unfair, isn’t it? I mean, the disciples knew where they were going. They knew that this city is all Rome, all the time. They could be anywhere else but it’s here where Jesus speaks. It’s like taking an Ohio State fan to Ann Arbor or a New York Yankees fan up to Boston. It’s just not safe. But that’s what Jesus does. He takes his friends to an unsafe place. And then tries to get them to admit, publically, just who this Jesus is. 

I feel for Peter. He, correctly, identifies who Jesus is. Jesus is the Messiah. The Savior. The One who God has sent into the world to fix what’s wrong with it. Peter, out of all the other disciples, has put everything together. The healings, the casting out of demons, the feeding of thousands - Peter’s sees in Jesus’ hands, face, and words - God’s love and God’s power. Peter hears what Jesus is saying - he feels that the Kingdom of God has come near. So Peter says outloud what only the demons shared before - that this Jesus is here to change the world. It took guts to admit this. It took guts to say what no one else was saying. It took guts to say, while standing in front of a city that loves Rome, that Jesus is the Messiah and that he will undo everything that Rome has done. For Peter, the Messiah is going to build a new kingdom, right then and there. Peter’s imagining a holy throw down with the armies of God destroying Rome. It took courage for Peter to publically admit this while standing in front of Augustus’ city. And it probably took even more guts for Peter to try and correct Jesus when Jesus’ teaching about what the Messiah is actually going to do - was not close to what Peter knew. Because Peter, like everyone else, knew that Crosses can’t destroy the Roman walls surrounding a Roman City. 

But Jesus knew that Crosses can break down the walls that actually matter. 

When we hear today’s text, the meaning shifts depending on where the disciples are. If they’re fishing on a boat in Galilee, spending a lazy Sunday afternoon casting lines into the water, Jesus’s question has a different tone. It would sound like a group of guys and gals shooting the breeze without any real care in the world. Peter’s statement - Jesus’ comments and Peter’s rebuke - it all sounds abstract when the disciples are in a different place, disconnected from the world around them. 

But place matters. Jesus chooses to ask this question - here, at the foot of the Roman Emperor’s city. We can imagine the disciples standing there, right at the city gates, with the eyes of Roman soldiers and the stone cold glare of Rome’s gods staring down on them. That’s where Jesus’ question is voiced. That’s where Peter’s words are shared. 

And so, since place matters, when Jesus’ says “who do you say that I am?” - what do we, gathered here - at Christ Lutheran Church - actually hear? 

Now, for me, if I’m honest, I...really don’t know what I hear. During this last week, I’ve heard these words in all sorts of different places. I’ve heard them here in the sanctuary - in my office - in my home. I’ve heard these words in a church in Oakland, at a Costco in Hackensack, and while getting balloons at the Dollar Tree in Park Ridge. These words have snuck up on me while I’m in my kids’ bedroom, while I’m sitting in traffic, and while I’m wiping the sleep from my eyes. And I invite you to do the same. Take these words, this bulletin with you and read Jesus’ words in all the different places you go. And listen to see just what God is trying to get you to hear. Because I’ve heard Jesus’ words in a lot of different places - and, right now, I don’t know what to do with it. Jesus’ question - is the question. It’s the question we’re confronted with whenever our kids ask us why we celebrate Christmas. It’s the question when our friends asks us why we go to church.  It’s the question when tragedy strikes and we find ourselves unable to find the words to express why the unfathomable happened. Somedays, we will be as firm in our answer as Peter. Somedays, we will be as silent as the other disciples. And, somedays, we will be like those in the crowd, just watching as this faith thing seems to happen around us. We will find ourselves in places where the words of faith will come easy. And there will be days when these words just won’t come. 

And that’s okay. 

Because Jesus doesn’t ask his disciples or the crowd to understand. He doesn’t tell them that they always need to get it. He doesn’t tell them that they need to be perfect before they follow him. Jesus tells them, instead, to take up their Crosses. Jesus tells them to deny their assumption. Jesus tells them to just follow him. Jesus doesn’t want to be accepted; he wants to be followed. He wants us to go where he goes. He wants us to take seriously the place around us; the neighborhood; the friends we know and the friends we haven’t met yet. 

Because, like those disciples standing at the walls of Caesarea Philippi, we’re here, in this place, with Jesus. And he’s calling us to live in this place, to be with those people who are near and far. Jesus calls us to say that the walls of the world aren’t the walls that we’re going to build or keep up. And that the walls holding up this sanctuary aren’t here to protect us from the world - but are here so we can better serve the world. This is why, I believe, we use this place - this sanctuary - these buildings - this land - to serve people who will never walk through our doors. It’s why 1100 lbs of vegetables, and counting, from our Genesis Garden are feeding neighbors we will never see. It’s why, in a few hours, 200 of our closest Lutheran and non-Lutheran friends will be here to package more than 40,000 meals for the Center for Food Action. And it’s why our annual Trash & Treasure sale in May raises thousands of dollars that leave this place and head to serve Christians and non-Christians all over the world. We’re invited to be in this place, to be in this community, forming relationships with new people and reaffirming our relationships with those we know - because Christ wants us here, crosses and all. We might not always know how to answer when Jesus asks us “who he is” - but we can trust that God, through those silent disciples, that ragtag crowd, and the imperfect Peter; we can trust that through them, God loved the world. We can trust that God, through people like us, with our flaws, our quirks, our inability to always get Jesus right and to understand just who he is - we can trust that God, through imperfect sinners like us - is going to keep loving the world, through our hands, in ways that we don’t even know. Because Jesus has a way of bringing us to the places in our world with walls that need to come down. And, once there, we’re called to pick up our cross and follow Jesus straight on through.  

 

Amen.

 



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A Reflection on Isaiah 50: God's Work, Our Hands.

Our First Reading is from Isaiah 50:4-9a.

“The Lord God has given me…the Lord God has opened…the Lord God helps…the Lord God who helps…” These phrases in our first reading today is the key to this text. The writer is announcing that God has acted, giving them gifts and help. Whatever work the speaker is doing is because God is acting through them. 

Walter Brueggemann, Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, writes that these verses seem out of place. They don’t fit with the words that come before. “It is as though these verses provide a reflective interlude conceding the urgent, context vocation of the servant of [God], who is to bring Israel home from exile.” This interlude is rooted in the “utter reliability of [God.]” The speaker in the text is called the servant and they are struggling. The servant is facing trials and fights while living out their faith. There are times the servant wants to be silent, to hide, and pretend to not be a disciple of God. But, even during those times, God is enough. God will prevail. In the end, God’s kingdom will come. The servant proclaims they will not give up their relationship with God because God is always reliable. 

So who is this servant? As Christians, we see our Lord Jesus Christ in these words. We see in his story God’s reliability. This interlude is God's interlude into our world as Jesus who came to teach, heal, love, and overcome death on the Cross. This interlude is Jesus saying God is enough. 

This interlude in Isaiah can also represent our ned for interludes in our lives. Many times, during our own struggles, we need to breathe. We need to take a moment to step away, to reflect, and to remember who we are. We are disciples of Jesus, even when we fail to love others like we should. We are children of God, even when we fail to recognize God around us. We are loved, even when we don’t feel loved. 

God's love comes from God’s claim on us, a claim that we don’t earn on our own. Just as God risked living a human life, God takes a risk on each of us by claiming us as God’s. God’s claim on us is utterly reliable. God has gripped us tight. So, since we are loved, how do we share God’s reliable love to our neighbors, friends, family, and even to ourselves?



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A Reflection on Isaiah 35: Here is Your God

Our first reading is from Isaiah 35:4-7a.

Chapter 34 and 35 of Isaiah need to be read together. The joy of chapter 35 is seen through the violence and vengeance in chapter 34 and vice versa. To only see God as joy or vengeful is to miss the big picture of what God is doing. The bondage, drought, and oppression in the world will meet its match in a God who will bring about rehabilitative transformation. The displaced ones (Israel) will be restored and brought home. Evil will be defeated and God's goodness and love is coming. Isaiah visualizes God's love as people being healed, deserts being watered, and dry grasslands turning into lush and green places. God's kingdom is a full of life indeed. 

When I came back from vacation earlier this week, I noticed trees leaves in my driveway. My lawn is parched, brown, and dry. The weeds are limp and wilted. And the trees are just giving up on their leaves. The water I was hoping for hasn't come these last few months. Instead of rain drops, dry leaves are raining down instead. My home is parched. 

And sometimes, our lives are parched too. Something unexpected happens and we're caught off balance. The security we knew in being safe and knowing what was coming tomorrow is gone. The parts of our story that gave us life is now drying us out. 

It's in these times where the church, when we're at our best, comes to those who are suffering and says, "Here is your God." Each Sunday, we gather to be nourished by a God whose body and blood is offered to each of us. During the week, we call and connect, visit and bring food, restore and affirm our relationship with each other. Because the God who waters our lives also promises to be with us when we are caught in our deserts. There's no place where we go that God cannot come. So we, as Christians, are called to say boldly that here, right now, is your God. And's lets see where our God, who is with us, will take us next.   



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Crumbs: Jesus calling someone a dog [Sermon Manuscript]

From there [Jesus] set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

Mark 7:24-37

Pastor Marc's sermon on the 15th Sunday after Pentecost (September 6, 2015) on Mark 7:24-37. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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So what stories were Jesus was told to make him think it was okay to call a Syrophoenician woman a dog? 

Today’s reading from Mark is one of those hard texts, one of those stories where Jesus says something that we want to smooth over. Commentators, theologians, and scholars struggle with this text because this isn’t the Jesus we like to meet. We’re into the Jesus with his arms wide open, welcoming little children into his embrace. We’re into the Jesus who loves the world. But today’s Jesus doesn’t sound very loving. He sounds, in our first story, downright mean. 

And he is. When this woman comes to ask Jesus to heal her daughter, Jesus is being someone we don’t want to see. We shouldn’t try to explain the discomfort away by saying that Jesus didn’t really mean what he said - claiming that he was merely calling her a puppy or said this harsh statement while winking. We shouldn’t say that Jesus is calling her a beloved pet, like our golden retriever who is good with kids. Jesus is calling her a dog, feeding on the old traditions in his background that called Gentiles, dogs. They’re feral, savage, and unfriendly. They’re not worth our love. Jesus is dismissing and insulting her because she’s a Gentile and he’s a Jew. This isn’t the fun Jesus, the happy Jesus, the Jesus standing up for the poor, sharing meals with prostitutes and tax collectors, and turning water into wine to keep the wedding party going. This is Jesus dissing a woman who’s daughter is sick. He insults her; he calls her an ethnic slur. He tries to get her to go away. 

And she says no. She actually has the guts to talk back to the Son of God. She flips the stories that Jesus knew, that ones that he grew up with that defined her as someone not worth healing. She bends the dog metaphor to her advantage - and Jesus heals her daughter. She convinces Jesus to be the Jesus that God demands him to be. 

Over the past few weeks, I keep wondering about those stories that we’ve been told that formed us into the people we are today. I know part of why I’m thinking about this  because my son Oliver is getting to the storytelling phase of his life. He’s not only busy playing with his toys, using his imagination to come up with his own. He’s also asking more questions, asking “what’s that?” And so, almost unexpectantly, I’ve become his storyteller, his explainer, the guy who has to describe why all concrete mixing trucks don’t look the same and why he jumping from the top step might be a bad idea.  

So as I tell stories, I try to find the stories others tell and the stories that formed their opinions and beliefs. When some big event happens or when some cultural or social phenomena starts to dominate my news feeds - I’m drawn to the stories that underpin the feelings, emotions, and actions of all those involved. Because, in so many of our news cycles, the battles we see are fought over stories. 

And one of those fights I saw this week involved Hungary and the thousands of refugees from Syria and the Middle East who are trying to head to France and Germany. Hungary, fed up with the influx of people, shut down its rail system, stranding thousands of people who then formed camps inside railroad stations, afraid of what was going to happen next. And as they sat, scared, frightened, penniless, with no homes to go back to because risking their lives with human smugglers was safer than staying home - they watched as leaders from across the European Union debated about what to do with them. The prime minister of Hungary echoed the concerns that many had about these refugees. They were too foreign, too Muslim, too different, to be accepted into Western Europe. They were never going to belong to the countries that adopted them because they would never be European. They, and their children, and their children’s children, would always be the other. That was the story, the fear, underpinning all the talk about the money and resources needed to handle this crisis and the questions about who had the authority to actually act. So as Europe kept telling it’s story about who is welcome and who isn’t - another story showed up on it’s doorstep in the form of a photograph of a young boy, his body washed up on the beach, because the little boat his family was using to flee war-torn Syria sank on its way to Greece. 

When Confronted by this story - for the moment at least, Europe has started to change.  

When Jesus left the area around Galilee, leaving the territory he knew and headed to where the Gentiles lived - he tried his best to just blend in. He wanted to disappear. Maybe he was looking for a little vacation, a little R&R since he had spent quite a few months casting out demons and healing the sick. Maybe he just wanted a few moments to himself, to not have to defend his choices to every religious authority that came his way. Maybe he was just trying to find a moment where he could just breathe. But Jesus can’t escape notice. The more he tries to tell people to be quiet, the more others talk about him. No one, in the gospel according to Mark, actually follows Jesus’ command to not share, to not tell the stories about how Jesus has made a difference in their lives. So even when he visits a place full of people not like him, Jesus can’t stop being found out. Because that’s what the kingdom of God is all about. It isn’t about building barriers - it isn’t about hiding - it isn’t about limiting who has access to God’s love and who doesn’t. God’s kingdom isn’t interested in keeping the walls we built up. God’s kingdom is all about breaking those walls down. 

 

And, sometimes, those walls are the stories we’re told. They’re the stories we tell about who is welcome to be our neighbor and who isn’t. They’re the stories we tell that tell others who we think they are, rather than letting them tell us who they are. Even Jesus isn’t immune to the stories that shaped him. Even he, after announcing that God’s Kingdom is here,  after healing the sick, casting out demons, and debating theology with the smartest religious folks in the land - even Jesus, when standing toe-to-toe with the Syrophoenician woman, even he can’t see that God’s story is bigger than what’s come before. Jesus doesn’t originally understand that God’s kingdom doesn’t play by our rules. We don’t get to decide who is in and who is out. We don’t get to decide who our Syrophoenician woman is that shows up at our doorstep, what she looks like, what language she speaks, or what faith she believes. We don’t get to decide which new story is going to show up among us - but we do get to decide if that new story is going to change ours. We can aim to build walls - to try to round up and Fedex the unwanted away from us - or we can aim to be like Jesus - to see the one we don’t want to notice. Jesus, after meeting the Syrophoenician woman, doesn’t immediately turn around and head straight back to Galilee. The next story isn’t Jesus hanging with his disciples on a boat in the Sea of Galilee sharing a story about this gentile mom whose daughter he healed. Instead, he’s caught in the Decapolis, another Gentile area, where a man who can’t hear and who can’t speak is brought to him. And the stories about who is in, and who is out, that Jesus originally believed in, are gone. Jesus says “Ephphatha,” “Be Opened,” and he was healed.

 

Amen.

 



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