Questions and Reflections

September 2015

Just Faith It [Sermon Manuscript]

John said to [Jesus], “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

Mark 9:38-50

Pastor Marc's sermon on the 17th Sunday After Pentecost (September 27, 2015) on Mark 9:38-50. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


“No one else was in the room where it happened - the room where it happened - the room where it happened” - that’s the start of the chorus for the fifth song, of the second act, of the current hit Broadway musical “Hamilton.” Aaron Burr, played by Leslie Odom Jr, runs into Alexander Hamilton, played by Lin-Manuel Miranda, right as Hamilton is about to meet with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to talk about the power of the treasury and the location of the nation’s capital. The year is 1790. The US is still brand new. Everyone is trying to figure out how this government might work because we’re trying something different - a democratic republic - where some folks, but not all, actually chose their leaders. Alexander Hamilton, an immigrant, is the Secretary of the Treasury. He has a vision for a strong central government backed by a robust financial system to make the US an industrial and commercial powerhouse. Thomas Jefferson, a Virginian, has a vision of the US being an agrarian society led by educated, spirited, and wealthy white farmers. His ally is James Madison. So the three gather together, sharing a meal to crank out a compromise. In the end, Hamilton gets what he wants: a strong treasury with the power to fund commercial trade. Madison and Jefferson get a promise that the nation’s capital will move from New York City and be placed between Maryland and Virginia. And Aaron Burr, who would become famous as the only sitting Vice President to kill a person in a duel - is sitting there, on the outside. No one knows how the negotiations went. No one knows who said what, what options were put on the table, who showed their cards and who didn’t. The inner-circle of Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison made the decision. They made it happen. And Aaron Burr fumes because - he wasn’t there. 

And I imagine that the disciples, when they caught that person they didn’t know, casting out demons in Jesus’ name, felt kinda the same way. How could this unknown person do what they do? They didn’t walk with Jesus like the disciples did. They didn’t see Jesus face off against the religious leaders and visit the lands of Gentiles. This mystery person hadn’t earned the power and prestige like the disciples had. He wasn’t part of Jesus’ inner-circle. He didn’t belong to be in the room where Jesus happens. 

I think we all know what innercircles are. The lunch table where the cool kids sit; being invited to the right parties; being able to get a table at the trendy restaurant without a reservation. We know when we’re in the inner-circle and when we’re not. And there’s a desire - an impulse - for us to try and do what we can to get into that inner-circle, into the places where things happen, where decisions are made, and where we are known as the movers and shakers of our little corners of the world. Even if we scoff at what certain inner-circles stand for - we still define ourselves based on them. We might not be the cool kids with the right clothes or the right iphone - but even the freaks, greeks, burnouts, and nerds have their inner-circles. And once we’re in - once we have our spot - our opportunity for a little control and power in the world - we can’t let that go.

And that’s what I think the disciples felt. They were in Jesus’ inner-circle. Jesus called them by name to give up everything and follow him. Jesus gave them a sense of identity, a sense of purpose, and a place in the world. And then this upstart - this nobody - shows up and is doing what they do. We don’t know what, exactly, this unnamed person was doing. We don’t know if they were being manipulative, asking people to pay them before they’d cast out demons, or do something else very un-Jesus-like. But we do know that’s not why the disciples tried to stop him. They wanted him to stop because he wasn’t following “us.” He was a guy who didn’t belong.

And the disciples almost sound afraid - as if, somehow, the presence of this stranger would dilute or limit what the disciples were experiencing. I feel like the disciples imagined that Jesus could only have so many followers. Like his power had a limit and if he gave too much of that away to too many different kinds of people, there wouldn’t be anything left for them. The disciples wouldn’t be special, wouldn’t be powerful, wouldn’t have that status that they believed they should have. And the disciples weren’t wrong to think that way because that’s how the world - that’s how we - think. We live in a world where limits are a part of life. We live in a world where only a few have the power - the status - the gift of name, class, race, and gender - to be seen as the ones who should be in the room, making the important decisions. The disciples could handle an inner-circle of 12. But their room, their place, couldn’t handle more. 

And this is where last week’s lesson comes in. The Gospel of Mark has this habit of intercalating, a fancy word meaning that Mark likes to make a story sandwich. He takes two stories, surround one with the bread of the other, to make a stronger point. Last week, we heard the disciples arguing over who’s the greatest. And Jesus answered by bringing a child, a kid with no power, wealth, or status - into the community. He tells the disciples that this child - this powerless one - is to be welcomed, included, and part of the community because they are already part of God’s community. And today, we hear the same kind of story where the disciples, once again, are trying to hold onto their status, their power, their sense of greatness. They try to preserve their inner-circle as they know it. And Jesus just shuts them down. He starts to get graphic and even a little gross. He continues last week’s story by talking about gouging eyes, cutting off body parts, and burning things with fire. Jesus’ words aren’t for outsiders. They’re also not about an individual’s morality or sense of decency. These are words for those already inside the community and who are struggling with what to do about new people, different people, people who aren’t like them. Jesus, here, is talking about welcome. He’s talking about hospitality. He’s talking about how the inner-circle is suppose to be in the world that God is bringing about. 

And that’s because God’s inner-circle isn’t our inner-circle. Our love might have limits. Our resources might only go so far. But God breaks into the world on the promise that God’s love is limitless. Jesus’ love can’t be diluted into something less. The love that Jesus has for us is the same love he has for that stranger down the road who we’ll never meet. The story of Jesus is the story of an ever expanding, ever welcoming, ever open inner-circle where love and grace rule. And that inner-circle isn’t limited because God’s love can’t be limited by us. We’re not here to limit God. We’re here to live out God’s limitlessness. Because God’s not making the inner-circle smaller. God’s entering the world to show just how big God’s inner-circle truly is. 

“I want to be in the room where it happens - the room where it happens - the room where it happens” - that’s how Aaron Burr ends the song. He’s got to be in the inner-circle that we, and the world, care about. Burr wants in. He assumes that's where he's supposed to be. He believes he belongs in the inner-circle. And so do we. 

But what would it look like to see the world as God sees it? To live as if the person in the pew next to us and that random person in the line at the grocery store who is visiting from out of town - that all of them are already part of our inner-circle? What would life look like if we saw in others, no matter their background, faith, politics, race, intelligence, or abilities - what if we saw them as already part of our inner-circle and we as part of theirs? 

Because that’s Jesus’ challenge to the disciples. That’s Jesus’ challenge to us. We’re already part of the body of Christ. We’re already part of the God who is active in the world, right here and now. We’re the Hamiltons, the Jeffersons, and the Madisons of God’s world. We’re already in God’s room. The table is set. The meal is about to be served. Today, right here, and wherever we go, Jesus is about to happen. So how are we going to take our shot, rise up, and live out God's love in God's worldwide inner-circle today? 



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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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Compare and Contrast [Sermon Manuscript]

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever.

Mark 9:30-37

Pastor Marc's sermon on the 16th Sunday After Pentecost (September 20, 2015) on Mark 9:30-37. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


Later today, starting at around 1 pm or so, my family is going to notice I’m looking at my phone a little more than normal. They’re going to see me cheer - grumble - say “yesss!” - to no one in particular. I’m going to totally confuse my two sons. And that’s because they do not realize that in my fantasy football league, the mighty Paramus Avengers, led by Seattle Seahawks’ Quarterback Russell Wilson and the Denver Broncos defense is taking on that powerhouse from the nation’s capital, I Call Shanahanigans, led by running back Jamaal Charles and quarterback Matthew Stafford. It’s my game of the week. 

Now, I’ve been playing fantasy football, poorly, for years because, well, there’s more to football than just watching it. There’s also that part where I need to pretend to be the coach and owner - yelling at the tv and telling the professionals how they should be playing the game. I need to be arguing with my fellow fantasy football players that starting Tre Mason, running back for the St. Louis Rams, is the right thing to do today. I need to have these arguments - investing myself emotionally, almost spiritually, into a fantasy for a sport where the integrity of that sport and the league is questionable. Fantasy football: that’s going to be focus of all my ridiculous arguments today. 

What’s going to be yours? 

Now, ridiculous arguments don’t need to be intense. They don’t even need to be angry. They just need to be silly, like one of those arguments when, in the middle of it, we literally say out loud “why are we arguing about this?!” Like arguments with our kids about whether they should wear red or orange shoes. Or, even better, arguments with inanimate objects - like our car or that vacuum that just won’t suck up that one piece of lint like it should. I’m sure we’ll all have our share of ridiculous arguments this week. And the disciples, while walking with Jesus, they had their share of ridiculous arguments too. Because that’s what we’re hearing in the gospel of Mark today. Jesus and his disciples are wandering around Galilee, heading from town to town, and the disciples are spending their time having a ridiculous argument about which one of them is greater than the others. 

We don’t know what criteria the disciples used for this comparison. Maybe they were comparing the number of people they healed or who faced the scariest demon when Jesus sent them out a few chapters earlier. Or maybe, after awhile, the argument devolved - focusing on smaller, more petty things, like who has the best hair or who’s the tallest. Or maybe they just fussed over which one Jesus loved the most. Either way, Jesus - who’s walking ahead of them - keeps talking about the next part of the story: about Jerusalem, the Cross, and being raised from the dead. But the disciples aren’t listening. Instead, they’re putting each other down, and saying that they are the best. But the best at what exactly? The best at not understanding what Jesus is actually saying? The best at trying to stop people from finding Jesus? Or, like we heard last week, are they arguing about which one of them is the best at telling Jesus he’s wrong? If you’re walking around with God’s Son, hanging out with a guy who casts out demons, makes the blind see, and feeds thousands of people with the crumbs he finds in his pocket - arguing about who is greatest is….well - pretty ridiculous. 

But it’s easy to be that kind of ridiculous - and not just because it’s fantasy football season. We spend a lot of time looking around at what seems greatest. There’s always that better house; that better car; that better job. There’s always the need for more money so we can buy the newest iPhone, newest BMW, or that gold plated Apple watch. And there’s always that person - that couple - that family - and that kid - who just seems to have everything more together than we do. Every time we turn on the tv, read a magazine, or read what our friends post on facebook, we can always find one more way to feel like we’re less than someone else. We live in a world where we’ll always look for what’s greater, what’s newer, and what’s better. Because we act like the next big thing is going to finally give us that sense of worth and value that we’ve been looking for. The disciples wanted to be worth something. They wanted to be greater. They needed to compare themselves to others to figure out what they were worth. The disciples couldn’t see what they had. They couldn’t see who had them. 

And that’s when Jesus brings over a little child, telling them to welcome this child because whoever welcomes a child, welcomes God.

Now, Jesus chose this child for a reason. This child is a stranger - someone who isn’t rich, doesn’t have any authority, a kid who can’t raise up armies to fight for him or order anyone, really, to do anything. This kid has no power, no authority, no status outside their family. And this is who Jesus welcomes. He welcomes the powerless - the one without status - the one who can only be picked on rather than fight back. That’s who Jesus brings into the community. Because, as Christians, we’re not about what others can give us. We’re called to focused on what we can give others. 

Because we can give a moment of our time even when we think we can’t. We can give a helping hand even if we don’t know exactly what kind of help to give. We can gather 230 new friends to make 41,000 meals for people we will never meet. We can keep giving to those who can’t give us anything because the God who made everything gave Jesus for us.

What the disciples didn’t get was that they had Jesus. Jesus called them - these un-great - fishermen, women, tax collectors, and unwanted. They couldn’t give Jesus any status, any power, any worth. And yet, that’s who Jesus wanted to follow him. Jesus doesn’t call only the great or perfect. He calls us. He calls us even though we compare ourselves to others. He calls us even though we ask what others can give us rather than what we can give them. He calls us even though we sometimes don’t love. And that’s because, in spite of who we are, Jesus has us, through and through. 

We can give - because we’ve been drafted. We’ve been selected. Our stats have been compiled, our fantasy points awarded, and in spite of who we are, what we’ve done, and what we’ve failed to do - we’re still in the starting lineup. Because we aren’t on God’s fantasy team. We’re on God’s reality team. We’re who God wants to start on gameday. We’re the ones who Christ has claimed as part of his body. We’re the ones the Spirit promises to be with, no matter where we go. The truth is that we’re going to screw up. We’re going to make mistakes. We’re going to forget to love. But God’s ridiculous argument is that we, the imperfect, are already worth God’s love. Our value is already promised. Our rebirth has already been granted. So let’s go out - head to where we play - our neighborhoods, our schools, our workplaces, and our homes - and let’s give Jesus. 



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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. 


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.  





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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. 


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.





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