Questions and Reflections

September 2018

The Company You Keep [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 welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Mark 9:30-37

Pastor Marc's sermon for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost (September 23, 2018) on Mark 9:30-37. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


Imagine standing on a small ledge, 50 feet above the earth. On your right and on your left is just air. You feel safe because you’re wearing a harness and there’s someone below holding a blue safety rope. You’re on that ledge because you’ve embraced your inner Spider-man, climbing to the top of a thin rock wall inside a vast indoor playspace devoted to wall climbing, obstacle courses, and everything needed to become an American Ninja Warrior. Ten feet in front of you is a large red punching bag, hanging in the air. All you need to do to complete this obstacle is to jump on that bag, wrapping your arms and legs around it. Now, you know you’re safe. And you’ve spent the entire day doing things you’ve never done before. You’re feeling great. So you stare at that bag. And then you look down. And then you stare at that bag once more. All you need to do is jump. But then you hear it - a chorus of fifteen six year olds at a birthday party shouting “jump!” It’s sort of impossible to do great things when a bunch of little kids, their faces covered in pizza and cake, are shouting at you to “jump.” I felt bad for that teenager up on that ledge who was trying to do something great. But they recognized that their situation changed. So they sat down, letting their feet dangle over the edge. And after a minute or a two, they slid off - letting the safety rope control their descent down to earth.

In our reading from the gospel according to Mark, we have disciples and a savior who do very silly things. Jesus is wandering through Galilee, the northern part of ancient Israel. He’s trying to be discreet - so he doesn’t feed a thousand people or cast out any demons. Instead, he focuses on his disciples - telling them the next part of his story. The disciples don’t understand what Jesus is talking about but, as we heard last week, their confusion is completely understandable. Peter knew that Jesus is the Messiah - the one who would turn the world upside down. But Peter and everyone else assumed that this would only happen when Jesus used our tools of war and violence to establish God’s kingdom. Even after Jesus said, “that’s not how this works,” the disciples still didn’t get it. But they were listening because when Jesus told them, again, about his death on the Cross,  the disciples decided to change the subject.

Now, on the surface, arguing about who is the greatest is pretty silly. The disciples are literally walking around with the guy who can feed thousands of people with the crumbs in his pockets. And their acting like kids, arguing about who is Jesus’ best friend. We can, however, give the disciples a bit of pass on their behavior because, just a few chapters earlier, they had experienced Jesus’ power when Jesus sent them to preach, teach, and heal in villages all over Galilee and Judea. Each one of them had been like Jesus, getting a little taste of the unlimited things Jesus could do. And that, I think, gave them a confidence that God was going to overcome with power the pain, suffering, and violence all around them. They imagined that this overcoming of the world was just the beginning of what Jesus was about to do. So, I think, as they talked about who was the greatest, they told stories of the sermons they preached, the healings they participated in, and bragged about how many people heard them in synagogues, homes, and in marketplaces. And since they knew their Bible, they imagined themselves to be the heads of a re-established Israelite kingdom. The 12 tribes of ancient Israel would return, after having been reduced to only 2 over 700 years before they born. The disciples didn’t see themselves as only students of Jesus. They also imagined themselves to be his future generals. It’s silly to be arguing about who is the greatest when God is literally in the room but it’s normal to cling to whatever power we see - so that we can overcome our reality and receive its benefits today and for years to come.

So Jesus responded to a very human but very silly argument with a silly maneuver of his own. He invited a child to be with him and the rest of his disciples. Now we might not realize what Jesus is doing here because we spend a lot of time and energy trying to bring kids to Jesus. We’ve invested in our Sunday school, Confirmation, and our new multi-church high school youth group. I’m personally grateful when kids are here in worship because, as baptized children of God, Jesus says they belong here, just like I do. And any homeowner in our area can look at their property tax bill and see how much we invest in childhood - through education, sport leagues, music lessons, and giving kids experiences so that they can live a life we think they deserve. But in Jesus’ time, there wasn’t a childhood. Once kids were old enough to help their parents on the farm or in the home, that’s what they did. We have ancient statues of four year olds holding mining equipment because kids worked. But kids were still kids. They were still growing and learning and being themselves. They needed to be taken care of. So, in Jesus’ day, being a kid wasn’t something anyone really admired. No one wanted to find their inner child or spend time chasing their childhood dreams because a child, back then, was seen as someone less than being an adult. In the social hierarchy of Jesus’ day, this meant children were at the bottom. And until kids grew up, they weren’t worth much. They were marginalized, vulnerable, and powerless. The disciples imagined themselves to be Jesus’ generals because they were hanging out with the ultimate power in the universe. And in response, that power took the powerless and said this is who God chooses to be with.

I’m pretty sure the disciples would struggle to understand why we celebrate the birthdays of 6 year olds and why we have whole event centers filled with obstacle courses and climbing walls so that hordes of little kids can shout “jump” while they’re eating pizza and birthday cake. But I think they would understand what it’s like to feel as if they are on the cusp of greatness only to then slide down into reality. Every sermon they preached and healing they participated in, gave the disciples a personal confidence that they were heading towards something great. They saw themselves as climbing up a rock wall of faith that would let them overcome everything. Yet they struggled to see how, through the Cross and through the resurrection, God was about to transform it all. There was nothing the disciples could do to become the greatest with God because the greatness of God had already decided that they were worth living and dying and rising for. As the baptized, as the faithful, as the ones who follow Jesus - every time we worship, pray, read our bible, and serve in our church - we hope that this kind of experience will grow our relationship with Christ so that we can become a little more great in our faith. Yet the God we try to be great for is a God who is already here, in our midst, loving and serving and being great to us because that’s who God is. In Christ, there’s nothing we can do to be greater with God. We can’t climb that wall of faith because Jesus has already come down. Instead, we can only live God’s greatness out by sometimes taking a seat, letting our feet dangle over the edge, and then sliding down to live and love and serve each other and our neighbors just like Jesus did.





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Reflection: Re-engage with God

The last verse in our James reading today 3:13-4:8 ("Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you") doesn't sound very Lutheran. This verse seems to imply God works through transactions. If you do something for God, then God will do something for you. If you say the right prayer, donate to the right cause, or act like you are really sorry, then God will respond by showering you with grace and love. In this kind of faith scheme, God is an accountant, waiting for our move before God gives out the goods. But God isn’t into transactions and there’s nothing we can do for God to love us more. So what should we do with a verse like 4:8? 

We need to remember James 1:17-18 when we read any passage in James: "every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures." We are, through the gift of faith, born anew. It’s through the Spirit when we finally learn to trust God. Our faith needs to come from God or else we’ll create a personal faith that always wonders what we’ll get out of it. Faith is a gift from God that awakens this truth: we truly are God’s beloved children. 

Since we are beloved, God invites us to live as if we are truly loved. That isn’t always easy. The Bible isn’t a guidebook with detailed instructions on how we are supposed to act in every possible situation. Instead, God trusts us to see the gifts God gives us and respond accordingly. James in this passage, I think, doesn’t see God as an accountant waiting to give us gifts after we do the right thing. Instead, God is always there even when we fail to love like God does. Drawing near to God is an invitation to embrace our need for repentance. We need to, over and over again, admit our failures and our sin. We need to remember there is a God and we are not it. We, through worship, prayer, study, and confession, return to God as a way to embrace who we already are. We are loved. We are God’s. We are with Jesus. And so we make the conscious choice to re-engage with God knowing that God has never disengaged from us. 


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A Colorful Faith: the Pastor's Message for the October 2018 Messenger

What’s your favorite color?

When I was little, my mom was very specific about how she dressed her identical twin boys. She put me in red clothes; my brother in blue. My parents never needed help in knowing who was who. But when I look at old pictures, the color scheme is usually the only way I can tell who I am. This color, somehow, became imprinted on my soul. Red has been, and is still, my favorite color. I don’t know why certain colors become our favorites or why our favorite colors sometimes change. But I do know we live in a vibrant and dynamic world full of color. And as we move into fall, the color around us is going to grow.

One of our blessings is our climate. Every spring and fall, the world around us changes. Trees will turn from green to red, gold and purple. Fields will pop with orange pumpkins, and trees will be heavy with pink, light green and bright red apples. The days will grow shorter which means we will be awake during the golden hours of the day: dawn and dusk. Through the glorious colors of this season, we’ll celebrate holidays like Halloween and Reformation Sunday. I can’t imagine a fall without color. And I can’t imagine a fall without church.

We’re restarting Sunday School on October 7 and continuing our new adult education programs on Sunday (The Essential Jesus) and Thursday (Being Lutheran in a multi-faith world). A new organization devoted to serving senior citizens in our area will meet for lunch and conversation on October 17, 11:30 am. Our joint program for high school youth connecting Lutherans from all over northern Bergen County will meet on October 19. We designated Sunday, October 21 as our God’s Work, Our Hands Sunday, and we’ll spend time after church serving our community and neighborhood. We’ll end the month wearing red on Reformation Sunday, October 28. These are just some ways we’re being church this month. If you haven’t attended these programs yet or want more information, keep an eye on our weekly e-newsletter for details. You can also call the church office (201-391-4224) any time.

Our worship and service to our neighbors is how we color the world. When we are open and active in our faith, we show everyone how vibrant Jesus can be. None of us will live out our faith the same way. The diversity in how we love God and our neighbors is mirrored in how diverse our favorite colors are. Yet each of us is called to live a faith that is as passionate and vivid as the colors all around us. God didn’t give us a monotone world, and God didn’t give us a monotone faith. God gave us a brilliant world to match a spirited faith.

See you in church!

Pastor Marc


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Who? Who? Who? Jesus is an everyday Messiah. [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 for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost (September 16, 2018) on Mark 8:27-38. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


One of the neat things I get to do is visit people and, if they want, bring them communion. I have a little kit with 4 individual communion cups, a little bronze box that holds communion wafers, and a tiny plastic bottle filled with either red wine or white grape juice. I bring this kit with me when I’m visiting someone who hasn’t been at church in awhile or if they’re seeking a more tangible experience of Jesus. I don’t do these kinds of visits every week - but there are days when I get a lot of Jesus in a short amount of time. I’ll visit someone, set out the cups and wafers, share communion with them, and then drive to my next visit to do the exact same thing. When I do these back to back to back to back communion visits, I pre-plan my route, making sure I have enough wafers, wine, and clean glasses on hand. These Jesus-filled days develop their own kind of rhythm and afterwards my mouth is dry because of all the wafers I’ve consumed. And by the end of the day, my heart is usually completely broken because of all the pain and anguish that exists in people’s lives. But at the same time, my heart is very full because Jesus is there, in all of it.

If I had to guess, I’d say we don’t have many days when an overwhelming amount of Jesus shows up. Most of the time, saying our nightly or morning prayers is all we need to know that God isn’t done with us yet. There are other days when we don’t think about our faith much at all - and still more when we wonder if the creator-of-everything has turned their back on us. So these short and intense Jesus moments are sometimes few and far between. But when they come, they can show up in the most unexpected ways. A friend might say the exact thing we didn’t know we needed to hear. And a stranger might offer us mercy in such a way that we actually see what God’s kingdom looks like. Or we might receive a handwritten note from someone telling us we matter. It might take only 20 seconds to read those words - but that experience of Jesus lasts for hours. We probably need more of these kinds of moments in our lives. But there’s a grace in not being overwhelmed by Jesus all the time. We get to catch our breath, reflect on what we’ve heard, and discover how this faith makes a difference in our lives. If we had to engage with an overwhelming Jesus on a conscious level every day of the week - we might become so overwhelmed that we end up missing what God is trying to say. I think we need space, and time, and distance so that we can see the whole story of what God is up to. Otherwise we might end up feeling a little like Peter did in our reading from the gospel according to Mark.

Peter, at the start of this passage, probably felt pretty full of himself because Jesus asked who they thought he was and Peter blurted out the correct answer. It’s got to feel pretty great to get God’s question right. Yet the chapter didn’t end with this question. Jesus kept talking. And as he talked, sharing with his disciples who he was, what he’s doing, and what’s going to happen to him - Peter and his recently inflated ego felt the need to respond. Peter tried to be discreet, pulling Jesus aside before he rebuked him. But his private moment with Jesus became very public once Jesus called him - Satan. Now, Peter took quite an emotional roller coaster - shooting up to the top of the world at the start of our reading only to be, just a few verses later, staring at us from the bottom of a pit. Our moments with Jesus aren’t always going to be filled with a sense of peace and joy that we know only comes from God. Our moments with Jesus are sometimes rough, as if our world is being turned upside down. And in Peter’s case, it was. Peter thought he got Jesus’ question right. People knew Jesus was special but they didn’t know exactly what to call him. So they used what they knew, typecasting Jesus in roles they could explain and understand. And that’s exactly what Peter did. He knew Jesus was the Messiah, the One who would turn the world upside down. But Peter assumed he knew what that meant. When he said that Jesus was the Messiah, Peter wasn’t only identifying Jesus’ title. Peter was also, in that moment, telling Jesus what kind of Messiah Peter wanted him to be. Peter needed Jesus to turn the world upside down but he assumed that could only be done in the way we expect it to happen: through strength, power, and violence. Peter’s Messiah needed to act in a specific way - by raising up an army to drive the Romans back into the sea. Through military might and political violence, Peter wanted Jesus to build God’s kingdom in the ways kingdoms usually are. Because, for Peter, Jesus was a general, a superhero, a religious teacher, a politician, and a miracle worker who could make ancient Israel independent, mighty, and great once again. Peter’s declaration wasn’t only his way of identifying who Jesus was. Peter’s declaration was also an attempt to tell Jesus what Jesus was supposed to do. So when Jesus started talking about becoming a victim of violence rather than causing it, Peter had to speak up because Jesus wasn't getting this Messiah thing right. Peter wasn’t just rebuking Jesus; Peter was trying to tell God how Jesus was supposed to work. Peter thought he knew better than God what God is all about.

    Peter’s desire to make Jesus be what Peter wanted him to be, is a pretty normal thing to do. We all, at various times in our lives, want Jesus to act in the way we want. It would be awesome if Jesus was a little more over the top and flashy so that we could see him during the regular busyness and noise of our lives. But the Son of God who was born in a barn and who lived a very human life wasn’t interested in overcoming us. Rather, God is interested in transforming us. And that transformation is centered in everyday things - like eating and drinking, visiting and talking, living and dying. God can do over the top things and there will be moments in our live when we will see Jesus clearly. But those moments are not the primary moments where God is at work. Rather, these overwhelming Jesus filled experience help us uncover what God is doing in all our moments. There is no part of our life that’s too small for God to notice. And there’s no part of our life where Jesus isn’t already with us. Peter couldn’t see that because, in Mark chapter 8, he didn’t know the rest of Jesus’ story. Even when Jesus told him what would happen next, Peter couldn’t hear him over the expectations and assumptions making noise in Peter’s head. But once Jesus’ life played out - from his sharing of meals with all kinds of people, to his execution by the state, through his resurrection and the women standing at the empty tomb - it was then when Peter saw what Jesus was all about. We might not see God working in our lives all the time. But know that, no matter where you are or who you’re with, Jesus is already there. And when we gather together around the Lord’s table, whether in this sanctuary or around a coffee table in our living rooms, the everyday thing of eating and drinking, of sharing communion, points us to our everyday reality - that Jesus is busy filling every one of our moments with all his mercy, love, and grace.





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Reflection: Make Mistakes

“For all of us make many mistakes” [James 3:2] 


In a commentary I heard this week, the author said James 3:2 is their theme verse. We all make mistakes because we are not God. The choices we make impacts the world in ways we can't fully predict or control. James 3:2 isn't at attempt by the Bible to excuse our mistakes. Instead, it's an attempt at owning who we are. We are not perfect and we will hurt the people around us. The church is not immune from being a place where this kind of hurt happens. And that is a hard thing to accept because faith is a team sport. God knows that we become who we are supposed to be when we are in communities that follow Jesus. We need other people because they have the gifts we need to thrive. We need their talents for study, prayer, teaching, and more. We need them to care for us and we need to care for them. When we are together, our faith grows. But since we are together, we can find ourselves in situations where our mistakes hurt the ones around us.

James spends today (3:1-12) looking at what we say. He knows words have power. Our words can show others they are loved and valued. Our words can cause harm and destruction. We shower praises and thanksgiving on God and then a few minutes later, shower others with the "colorful" language that is part of our New Jersey identity. What we say to each other affects lives. It's also affects our faith. If we, as God's beloved children, speak harshly and poorly to each other, what does that say about God?

When we start our worship with confession and forgiveness, we are publicly acknowledging who we are. We are sinners who make mistakes. We also declare there is a God and we are not it. Yet our words and our actions reflect who we imagine God to be. As we heard in James 1:17-18, "every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures." If we believe God is full of grace, love, and mercy than we, as God's people, should practice these virtues every day. We need to see each other as beloved children of God. We need to see our enemies as people made in God's image. We need to listen when it’s difficult and acknowledge the hurts we've felt or caused. And we need to also give ourselves and other people grace. Because we will make mistakes. But we don't have to let those mistakes limit who know knows we can be.


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Reflection: Faith and Works

Do you remember James 1:17-18? As a reminder, these two verses inform every sentence in the book of James: "Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures." God-as-Father/God-as-Mother/God-as-Parent/God-as-Guardian gave us a new birth and so we get to live a different way.

We are sometimes an anxious church. We are, currently, learning to live with being a church that is smaller than it used to be. This anxiety isn't new. As I prepared for a congregation meeting in June, I read church council minutes from the late 1990s. The same worries today are the same worries the church had back then: the lack of youth and young families in the pews and our financial giving was not where it needed be. In fact, there hasn't been any steady and meaningful membership or worship attendance growth at CLC since the early 1980s. We grew because we were a suburban church that followed the wave of people who moved out of NYC in the 50s and 60s. We ebb and flow just like the people in our neighborhood do. And since the wider culture is retreating away from any kind of religious affiliation, no longer finding value in having an active church life, we (along with most religious communities in the US) have shrunk. That shrinking has given us a certain amount of anxiety that influences how we worship, how we serve our neighbors, and how we care for each other.

Inside this anxiety are fears we don't always articulate. Some of those fears involve the future of this community and what this community will be able to do once we, ourselves, are in need. We wonder who will give their time and their resources so that CLC can keep being a faith-filled community at the corner of Church and Pascack Roads. When we see a young family visit the church for the first time, we can sometimes act like the characters in this part of James. We project all our fears and hopes onto them, not noticing who they are but, instead, who they might become. Maybe they'll join a committee, help with our Sunday School, sing in the choir, and increase our weekly revenue. We need their help so we ask them to save this faith community. This is a lot of baggage to give to a visitor, and it's the kind of baggage we don't always evenly give to everyone who comes through our doors. But, whether we realize it or not, we are asking others to save us because we are afraid we can't save ourselves.

Which is true! We can't save ourselves which is why Jesus lived, died, and rose to save us all. James, like much of our scriptures, is inviting us to keep our eye focused on who we are. We're Christians which means we don't need anyone, but Jesus, to be the one to save us. James invites us to live, as individuals and as a community, by staying focused on Jesus. That doesn't mean we won't be anxious from time to time. And that doesn't mean we don't have to do the hard work to figure out what God is calling this community of faith to be and how we can make that a reality. Instead, James 2:1-17 invites us to remember that all this hard work is something we get to do. We are baptized; we are loved; we are God's. So we get to love, serve, and spread the faith to everyone in this church, neighborhood, community and world.


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Dog: a woman changes Jesus' ministry [Sermon Manuscript]

From there he 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 for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost (September 9, 2018) on Mark 7:24-37. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


One of the problems with relying on GPS and the map on our phone to get us from point A to point B is: we don’t always know where things are. We might know how to get to places - like, how to get to school, work, church, and our favorite restaurant. But we don’t carry in our heads a map of where those places are in relation to everything else. We, instead, keep driving straight until our phone tells us to turn right or left. The first verse in our reading from the gospel according to Mark sounds like an instruction we might give to the GPS in our phone. Jesus was preaching, teaching, and healing around the Sea of Galilee - the area he grew up in. But Jesus wasn’t going to stay there. He moved on to Tyre. Tyre is a city mentioned many times in the Bible, first appearing in the book of Joshua as a city destined to be controlled by one of the twelve tribes of Israel. Yet that was always a dream instead of reality. Tyre was first Phoenician, then Greek, and - in Jesus’ day - Roman. So….on that map in our heads displaying all the different places mentioned in the Bible, where’s Tyre? Because Tyre’s spot on the map helps us understand why Jesus compared a woman to a dog.

The image up on the screen is a map of Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan during the time of Jesus. Near the bottom is the Dead Sea with Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Hebron on its right. At the top of the Dead Sea, we see the tail end of the Jordan River. So if we follow that river north, we travel through Samaria and end up at the Sea of Galilee. This map is pretty great because it zooms in on the area around Galilee, showing us Nazareth, Capernaum, and Cana. We see where Jesus was and where those places were in relation to everything else. Our mental map of Jesus’ world has Galilee in the north, Jerusalem in the south, and we follow Jesus as he travels down the map. But in today’s text, Jesus goes a different way. After spending time around the Sea of Galilee, Jesus didn’t go south. Instead, he turned north, traveling towards the coast of the Mediterranean Sean and entered the city of Tyre.

Tyre, as see in this current satellite view, is a coastal city and a major port for the country of Lebanon. Tyre is also old, established almost 5000 years ago, and the tip of the current peninsula was once an island, surrounded by thick walls and supported by a strong navy. The island was joined to the mainland by Alexander the Great who built a causeway to the island to capture it. By the time the Romans occupied the city, Tyre was a wealthy metropolis, with a thriving culture that was very Greek. The Romans built a massive race track, large fortifications, and many temples - leaving behind ruins that can still be seen today.

Tyre wasn’t a Jewish city. It was very Greek and very Roman. I imagine, when Jesus first entered the city, he saw its diversity: including its many pagan temples and a harbor filled with ships and sailors from Northern Africa, the Middle East, and Southern Europe. As a Jewish rabbi with an entourage of Jewish disciples, Tyre wasn’t the place where Jesus was supposed to be. In fact, Tyre was in the complete opposite direction - literally, culturally, religiously, and politically. So that made Tyre the perfect place where Jesus could hide, letting him live anonymously by being absorbed into the diverse community that lived there. We don’t usually recognize Jesus as someone who hid from the world. But the Son of God needed a sabbath too and the gospels are full of moments when Jesus withdrew as a way to refresh and recharge. Yet Jesus’ sabbath never lasted long. Even in a Greco-Roman city far from Jerusalem, Jesus couldn’t hide from his reputation. A woman with a daughter suffering from a spiritual and physical ailment, tracked Jesus down. And when she entered Jesus’ life, everything changed.

The unnamed woman was Syrophoenician and a Gentile - which is Mark’s way of letting us know she wasn’t Jewish. She was as Greek and as Gentile as she could possibly be. And since she was a gentile woman, Jesus wasn’t supposed to talk to her. She would have expected this meeting and conversation to be improbable if not impossible. Yet her daughter was sick. And the syrophoenician woman believed Jesus could make her better. So in a city Jesus wasn’t supposed to be in, a woman who wasn’t supposed to believe in him - came to him. And as she knelt at his feet, begging for her daughter’s life, Jesus’ compared this desperate mother to a dog.

Jesus wasn’t saying that she was loyal, brave, and loving like our favorite pets are. Jesus called her a dog, a slur common in his time and in ours. He’s completely rude to this mother looking for help. We might want to defend Jesus, saying he didn’t really mean it or that he was testing her faith. But if we keep Jesus in context, letting this almost impossible situation - where a Jewish rabbi in a Gentile City is talking to a Gentile woman who isn’t supposed to believe in him - than Jesus’ heated and un-savior like response makes a little more sense. That doesn’t excuse what he said and no woman should ever be called a dog. But Jesus, in this very human interaction, listened to her - and he responded by appealing to the limit of his mission. He didn’t see himself as a savior or a teacher or a healer while in Tyre. He went there to hide; to, I think, not-be-Jesus for just a moment. Yet this unnamed woman refused to let Jesus limit who he was. And, to Jesus’ credit, he listened to her. He heard what she said. And Jesus let her win this argument - because he knows she’s right. In an improbable place, during an improbable conversation, an almost impossible thing happened - Jesus opened himself up, fully embracing what being Jesus actually means. He’s not here to save only some people. He’s here to love, serve, and save the world. Jesus is Jesus - everywhere and always. And he responded to this deeper understanding of who he was by heading north to another Gentile city - to Sidon - before turning south to the region of 10 Greek cities known as the Decapolis. And there he healed a man who was deaf and mute, inviting everyone to open up to what’s possible with God.

As human beings, it’s not easy to understand who or what we are. The mental map we carry of ourselves, where we came from and where we’re going, isn’t always as clear as we think it might be. A challenging experience, an unexpected obstacle, a setback of our own causing - all of that can unravel our plans, our expectations, and our understanding of what makes us, us. We might want to escape, to go to a place where no one knows us, so that we can recharge and restart our lives. But, like Jesus, we bring ourselves to any place we go. We can’t run away from ourselves. Yet the syrophoenician woman reminds us that we are more than we think. We are the beloved and baptized ones of God. Wherever we go, Jesus goes too. And he isn’t only on the side of the select few who believe the right things and who’s faith never falters. Jesus is for all of us - including those who get lost no matter what map or GPS they use. We’re invited to open our eyes to what God is doing through us, because we are the improbable people in an improbable place sharing an almost impossible thing to believe and hear: that God’s kingdom of peace, love, hope, and wholeness includes even you.





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Reflection: James and what we get to do

Martin Luther was not a fan of the book of James (today's reading is James 1:17-27). For him, the entire book was too focused on what people do rather than on what God has done for us. The gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, is how God has already done the hard work needed to make us faithful and faith-filled. The gifts of faith and grace are given to us through the Jesus who lived, died and rose for us. The gospel isn't a list of things we have to do to get God to love and help us. Instead, the gospel is about what Jesus has already done and how Jesus changes everything. Since God has already done the work to keep us close to God, there's nothing we have to do. There's no trick to get God to love us more than God already does. The Christian life isn't about what we have to do. Instead, it's about what we get to do. And the book of James is part of the conversation trying to figure out what the Christian life looks like.

As we read through James, keep 1:17-18 in your mind. These verses are full of vivid metaphors describing who we, as baptized Christians, truly are. God's gifts, such as faith, grace, mercy, and the specific spiritual gifts we looked at during these past seven weeks, are good. These gifts are made real when we gather together in community and these gifts are meant to be known to all. God is our "Father of lights" who, through baptism, gives birth (as a mother) to a new you. Since we are new, we need to look at ourselves in a new way. Instead of looking into a mirror and assuming everything we see is what's holy and true, we're invited to always return to scripture, prayer, and our faith community. These tools help us discover who we are meant to be.

Throughout James, we'll see behaviors that are called proper and others that are not. We might even see James tell us to "not" do something. But instead of turning James into a book of rules, we're invited to see James as a book of what we get to do. You get to live as a new you through this Christian community that loves and serves each other and the world. Knowing what this new you looks like is hard and even James will not be able to explain what the Christian life totally looks like. But James will, over and over again, return to the basics: as Christians we get to care for the orphans, the widows, the vulnerable and the marginalized. In other words, we get to be people who, at all times, just love.


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Your Day and Night and Day Job [Sermon Manuscript]

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

Mark 7:1-8,14-15, 21-23

My sermon from the 15th Sunday after Pentecost (September 2, 2018) on Mark 7:108,14-15,21-23. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


One of my favorite questions that’s appears on the internet is: can I eat this? Now, the question isn’t from someone wondering if this herb or plant or insect is edible. No, this question shows up when someone wonders if a food is still safe to eat. For example, someone asked if they could eat a tuna fish sandwich they packed for lunch but accidentally left on the kitchen counter all day long. Another person wondered if chicken broth that says it’s good 7-10 days after opening would still be good after 12. And someone else, after accidentally sending fresh green grapes through the wash cycle of their washing machine, posed a question to the entire internet asking if they could still eat them? From the folks finding a potato with a black part in the middle to the people who left tofu in their hot car for far too long - there’s people, everywhere, wondering if they can eat that.

Now we know, from personal experience, that the question they’re asking is a good one. Any food that is undercooked, poorly prepared, or left out in the sun too long will end up becoming something we can’t eat. There’s a lot of food that, when it goes into our mouth, leaves us feeling defiled. The cleanliness of our food, our dishes, and even our hands protects us and our families from food poisoning and illness. Our well-being depends on making sure that whatever we put in our mouth is safe and clean.

Which is why this passage from the gospel according to Mark might make us feel a bit queasy. At first glance, we assume we know what Jesus is talking about because, for generations, we’ve made the Pharisees into the “bad guys.” We imagine they were a group of people who took scripture and turned it into a list of rules that helped them earn God’s love. Since this passage starts with the Pharisees asking a question, we already know they’re wrong so we ignore what they say, skip to verse 15, and tell each other to work on our moral character so that we make Godly choices. But scripture has a habit of inviting us to re-evaluate what we think we already know. And when we stop and listen to the Pharisees’ question - about washing your hands before you eat - we’re left feeling a little askew because that question is completely reasonable. We know, through the God-given gifts of science and medicine, that washing your hands regularly, especially at meal times, is a good thing. It stops the spread of germs and makes sure that the dirt from the day doesn’t end up inside our mouths. As 21st century Americans living in an affluent part of Northern New Jersey where the use of antibacterial gels is so widespread that brand names like Purell are verbs instead of nouns - we’re unsettled by today’s gospel text because the Pharisees’ question is perfectly sensible. And based on the words the Pharisees’ used to frame their question, we know that some of Jesus’ disciples washed their hands just like the Pharisees did. That uneasy feeling we have isn’t because we’re wondering if the yogurt we left out will still be good when we get home later today. Instead, we’re queasy because the people we’re not supposed to like actually made a really good point.

So let’s accept the fact that the Pharisees asked a good question. They had a tradition of washing their hands before they eat and some of Jesus’ disciples did the same. The Pharisees, however, did not wash their hands for hygienic reasons, nor did they think that washing would somehow earn themselves God’s love and blessing. They washed because they took God’s Word seriously. They read their bible and knew that the priests in the Temple washed as a way to keep parts of their lives sacred and holy. The commands to wash are contained in the Torah, in the first five books of the bible, and is part of what’s called God’s law. The law, for the Pharisees, wasn’t a to-do list to earn God’s love. Instead, the law was a gift from God that helped them live a different way. The Pharisees wanted the law to make a difference in every part of their lives so they expanded its application, moving the priestly washing into their everyday lives. This expansion was a tradition created by the Pharisees to protect and nurture their faith, identity, and connection to God. By taking all of God’s gifts seriously, the traditions of the Pharisees were created to show all people that God is active in their lives and in their world. Hand washing made every meal, for every person, sacred; a visible sign that God cared for every part of our lives.

It’s these kinds of traditions that help us seek, discover, and live with the God who is always with us. We create them because they give us life and we pass them on to the ones who come after us because we want them to have that life too. We might, for example, choose to read devotions in the morning and to say our prayers at night. We celebrate certain organ based hymns and guitar heavy songs, letting artists and styles of music define what our church sounds like. We clap, sway, and put our hands in the air while shouting “amen!” Or we stay as silent as a mouse, letting God’s words fill the air around us. Church happens in specific places and in specific ways through the traditions we create and share. When we do church, we are deeply rooted in our traditions. And it’s these traditions that help us be faithful because they make us faith-filled.

But these traditions are just that: they’re traditions. Human beings, with the help of the Holy Spirit, created them as ways to grow our faith and help us see God. Without our traditions, we wouldn’t be who we are. But if we cling to these traditions too tightly, we end up forgetting why those traditions existed in the first place. They exist so that we can be God’s people in the world; so that we can love God with all our heart, soul, and mind; and love our neighbors as ourselves. When our traditions wall us in, cutting us off from the world and the people around us, then our traditions are getting in the way of us being the church. Part of following Jesus means we need to be a community that invites self reflection, asking out loud if how we do things is truly the way God wants us to be in the world. There are parts of our tradition that God wants us to keep doing and sharing. But if we’re honest, there are other bits and pieces that God might be inviting us to let go because they way we’ve always done things is now getting in the way of what Jesus is doing next. I’ll admit that looking at traditions in this way is pretty scary. It’s hard to let go of something that gave us so much life. But even in the moments when it feels as if we’re losing who we are, we are invited to remember that what fed our traditions is still feeding us now. Jesus, is here, right now, giving us courage and peace as we struggle through change and transition. We might not know where Jesus is taking us and we might not know, at first, what new traditions we’ll need to be the people God wants us to be. But when we follow Jesus, holding tight to the center of his life and to his Cross, everything we do will be grounded in a love that opens up all sorts of possibilities. Because Jesus will never give us anything we can’t fully eat, swallow, and digest as we grow into that new thing he is making us into.




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