Questions and Reflections

September 2019

Be the Messenger: Michael and Wonderwoman

And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming, “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah, for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.

Rejoice then, you heavens and those who dwell in them! But woe to the earth and the sea, for the devil has come down to you with great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!”

Revelation 12:7-12

Pastor Marc's sermon on the Michael and All Angels (September 29, 2019) on Revelation 12:7-12. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


When did you first see the end of the world? 

Now that’s sort of a silly question because, to the best of my knowledge, we’re all still here. The world hasn’t ended and I don’t think we’re living in some version of the movie The Matrix where we’re all trapped inside some elaborate computer simulation. Yet if you spend any time absorbing popular culture, you know that the end of the world is a story we tell all the time. We’re constantly inventing some cosmic event that threatens everything on earth but making sure to solve it before the movie ends. Humankind, I think, has been telling these stories for a long, long, time. And one that I’m particularly fond of used the last book of the Christian Bible, the book of Revelation, as its guide. 

For those who don’t know, I’m a bit of a comic book geek, firmly engrossed in a “make-mine-marvel” worldview. But every once in awhile, DC Comics creates something that even I pay attention too. In 1996, they released a four issue comicbook series entitled “Kingdom Come.” That title alone sounds really Christian and they used a particular reading of the book of Revelation as an outline. The series itself is a bit of a pop culture remix, taking place in a future where Superman, Batman, and Wonderwoman, have matured in their years. A whole new generation of heroes have emerged - and they number in the thousands. These so-called heroes defeated every supervillian but they’ve lost a sense of focus or purpose. They, instead, fight each other for territory and power. The series begins with an old superhero telling his pastor about the visions floating around his head. And the final vision we see is one filled with smoke, flames and fire. The old superhero quoted today’s reading from the book of Revelation. But instead of seeing a stereotypical angel, the old superhero saw a bat fighting an eagle dressed in red, white, and blue. And in a battle scene that seemed to engulf the world, there’s a super man screaming in anguish, and a star from heaven fell while surrounded by lighting. 

I won’t spoil how the series ends but this pop culture use of the book of Revelation also reveals what we think the book is all about. We often approach Revelation as a kind of code book that, when properly decoded, reveals the true story about the end of the world. And we search for that code by taking events happening in the world today and matching them with what we see in Revelation. This code searching ends up breaking Revelation into pieces, with verses from one chapter being merged to the next, in at attempt to find the true story. And before we know it, the book of Revelation has been reduced to one grand event where good faces evil. The authors of Kingdom Come used Revelation in this way. They took today’s reading and merged it with other passages from the book to set the stage for one giant superhero infused faceoff. And once the pieces were in place, the authors assumed that the choices their characters made would determine which side wins. This pick-and-choose approach to Revelation created an end-of-the-world story where individuals and their choices determined what happened next. Now that makes for an exciting story because we soon find ourselves identifying with the heroes in it. But when we do that, we also wonder if maybe our individual choices have some kind of cosmic implications. This story about the end-of-the-world stops being something that only takes place in the future. And instead we end up wondering if the choice we make today might decide the battle between good and evil tomorrow. 

Yet this approach towards Revelation doesn’t really work with today’s text. Our passage began with “War broke out” - so we imagine that we’re talking about some epic final battle. But when we keep the text in context and read all the other words around it, we notice the author doing something different. From a narrative point of view, the story had stopped moving forward. Instead, we find ourselves in the middle of a flashback where another remixed pop culture story is being told. Now, when Revelation first appeared, the Roman Emperors were really into a story about the greek God - Apollo. According to a popular myth at the time, the queen of heaven, Apollo’s mother, was attacked by a dragon - who represented all the chaos and discord in the world. Apollo, in response, destroyed the dragon, and in that moment, established a period of peace and prosperity in the world. The Roman Emperors claimed this story as their own, even going so far as calling themselves the sons of the god Apollo. They, by extension, had established a godly kingdom and they viewed all their enemies as some version of the evil dragon. Yet the followers of Jesus knew better. They had seen God’s true kingdom come near. It was through Jesus that they first witnessed what a kingdom rooted in love, welcome, and care looked like. Because Jesus, first and foremost, saw every person as one of God’s beloved. To the very first readers of the book of Revelation, the Romans were not the ones who slayed the dragon. Rather they were part of it. And the evil and chaos they were part of was still present in the world because, according to this remixed vision, the forces the defied God were lashing out. After being defeated in some distant past by Michael and all the forces of good, evil and chaos had fled to earth - the only place still available to them. Yet their presence in our world was never a sign of their so-called upcoming victory. Instead, the forces that defied God arrived already defeated. Although they might sometimes appear as if they are in control, those who rally against God’s kingdom have defeat at the core of who they are. A pick-and-choose approach to Revelation ends up missing the foundational truths that Revelation reveals over and over again. And that’s the promise at the heart of God’s words. When it comes to God’s ultimate victory, it does not depend on the individual choices people make. Rather, when it comes to the end of the world, it’s God, not evil, that has already won. 

That doesn’t mean, however, that we don’t have to live in this world. Jesus never promised those who followed him a life without hardship or struggle. We will find ourselves living through what feels like the end of our world. And there will be times when we choose fear and self-interest over God’s kingdom. There will be moments when we wish we had Wonder Woman’s strength to help us face the days ahead. And we will survive things that would cause even Batman to shed a tear. Yet we live, as Christians, live faithfully is this world because we believe that God knows what life is all about. God chose to enter the world as a baby - one that needed to be cared for. God chose to discover what it’s like to grow up, surrounded by the pop culture stories that we love to tell. And God knows what it’s like to have relationships and what it means to cry while standing outside a loved one’s tomb. As Christians, we know that there is no part of life that God does not go with us through. Because, through Jesus, God has already written another chapter for our story. We can, through baptism, faith, and grace, hold onto the promise that our name [including little Gwendolyn’s who will be baptized in just a few moments] is already written in heaven. And because we have that promise, we get to imagine our lives differently. Instead of looking at each one of our actions as being the ultimate turning point for how our story turns out, we get to instead live as if God’s promises actually come true. And since these promises are true, we then get to live in a God’s-kingdom-is-already-here kind of way. That means we get to welcome others like Jesus did; we get to heal like he did too. We get to build bridges and restore relationships between people. And we get to, regardless of turmoil, strife, and fear in our own lives, see every person around us as someone God already loves. This calling is one that’s not restricted only to the angels or superheroes in our lives. It’s also a calling that we, as Christians, get to live out right now. Because it’s through the Cross that everything in this world that defines you as unloved - has already come to an end. And, with Jesus, a new kingdom, rooted in all of God’s love has truly come. 


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Reflection: 5 Minutes with Revelation

What should we do with the book of Revelation? The last book in the Bible is mysterious, alluring and full of surprises. For some, Revelation's strangeness is a reason to ignore it. For others, Revelation is a codebook with secrets describing the end of the world. After Martin Luther translated the New Testament into German, he remarked that Revelation was "neither apostolic nor prophetic" and there was no way that "the Holy Spirit produced it." As time went on, Luther's take on Revelation changed. Instead of focusing on what the book said (i.e. what information it contained), he focused on what Revelation did to those who read it. How did Revelation's words and strangeness impact and change us? How were our current stresses, joys and experiences impacted by Revelation's imagery? How was our faith changed when we see Michael, the Dragon, and more? These are just some of the questions floating in the background when we read Revelation. And when Luther looked at what Revelation was doing to him, he noticed the promise within its pages that gave him life.

Revelation is not a codebook. Instead, it's scripture designed to give us Jesus. When we read Revelation, we should keep the insights developed by Craig Koester (Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary) in mind. One, consider the book as a whole. It's meant to be read as a complete book and not dissected into separate pieces. Two, the timeline in Revelation is not linear. The images often repeat, following a pattern that spirals forward. Third, the book wants to turn us away from false sources of security and into the hands of Jesus. Fourth, the book was written for a community 2000 years ago. It made sense to them, and it can make sense to us. And finally, the book is all about the promise given to us in our baptism and central to our faith: no matter what, Jesus is with us and he will, in the end, carry us through.


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Shrewd Your Faith: with Grace [Sermon Manuscript]

Then Jesus said to the disciples, "There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, 'What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.' Then the manager said to himself, 'What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.' So, summoning his master's debtors one by one, he asked the first, 'How much do you owe my master?' He answered, 'A hundred jugs of olive oil.' He said to him, 'Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.' Then he asked another, 'And how much do you owe?' He replied, 'A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, 'Take your bill and make it eighty.' And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

"Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth."

Luke 16:1-13

Pastor Marc's sermon on the 15th Sunday after Pentecost (September 22, 2019) on Luke 18:1-13. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


Did Jesus, in today’s reading from the gospel according to Luke, sort of celebrate dishonest behavior? That’s sort of the rub with today’s story. Jesus, as we heard last week, was hosting a dinner party where all kinds of people showed up. Sitting around the table with him were his disciples and also religious professionals like the Pharisees and the scribes. Yet those two groups were not the only ones there. Sitting next to them were the kind of people we wouldn’t want sitting next to us. Jesus’ table was, and still is, incredibly inclusive and that caused some people to grumble. So after sharing three different parables centered in grace and inclusion, Jesus turned to speak to his disciples directly. 

Now, if you’ve ever been to a dinner party or maybe a wedding reception and you’re surrounded by people you don’t know but who know each other - it’s basically impossible to not overhear everything that people say. And Jesus knew that. He expected everyone at that table - including his disciples, the religious professionals, and even tax collectors - to overhear his words. So even though he was looking at those who followed him, Jesus had something he wanted everyone to hear. He chose to share another story - and began with a rich landowner, a morally dubious manager, and unlikely acts of mercy that led to a shrewd reward. 

Now, we’re not always 100% sure what to do with this story because the manager is super selfish. After being accused of squandering his bosses’ resources, the manager learns he’s been fired. But since this story took place 2000 years ago, there was no company wide email alerting everyone to his change in employment. Instead, in the eyes of everyone who worked the land, who were indebted to the landowner, the manager still had a job. He oversaw the many tenants who worked worked the land and paid their rent through the crops they harvested. Yet their livelihoods depended on a corrupt system that was designed to keep the landowner rich at their expense. Their rent was, most likely, set at the near the maximum of what they could actually produce. And if they had one bad harvest, these farmers would find themselves permanently indebted to the landowner with no way to catch up. The farmers didn’t know  the manager had been fired. He was still the one who collected their rents and operated as if he was the landowner himself. There was a gap in what they knew and what he knew - so the manager used that gab to basically continue doing what he was first accused of. He invited everyone who owned the rich man debt to come to him - and then he reduced what they owed. And instead of writing the new rent amounts himself, the manager empowered the farmers to update the rent invoices themselves. If someone audited the landowner, they’d notice something was fishy. But the manager knew the landlord wasn’t paying as much attention as he should. All the landlord would notice is that the tenants debt was paid in full. In the end, everyone received what they wanted. The landowner got their rent; the farmers got a break; and the manager formed strong relationships with those farmers who now had extra resources they could share with him. The manager secured his own future at another’s expense - and we shouldn’t like that. But Jesus’ own words, as spoken through that landowner, seems to imply that maybe we should. In a shrewd and clever way, the manager saved his own skin. And Jesus, in verse 8 at least, seemed to commend it. 

So what can we take away from this parable? Well, one thing we can do is realize the structure of this parable matches another we might know better. There’s another parable Jesus told where an unlikeable character - a son - runs into a big problem of his own creation. After asking for his inheritance early, he squandered his rich landowner father’s resources. With nothing left in his bank account, he was thrown into disarray and unsure of what to do next. So he started talking to himself and he made the decision to return home. But his return wasn’t entirely selfless - and he practiced a slightly insincere speech, to convince his father to give him a job. The son is still pretty self-centered and is looking to be rewarded for doing what he shouldn’t have done. Finally at the end of the story, the father sees the son returning home. He runs to him, embraces him, and doesn’t let his son finish the insincere speech. Rather, the father commends him with a feast and celebrates his return. That parable is sometimes known as the Prodigal Son. And when we compare the structure of today’s story with that one, we find that they mirror one another. Which actually makes sense because, if we flipped our Bibles open, we’d notice that the parable of the Prodigal Son appears immediately before this one. The dinner party Jesus was throwing included the prodigal son and the dishonest manager right next to each other. Which might help us to discover what this parable is about. Jesus wasn’t sharing a story only about what we do with our wealth. He was also sharing a story about what we all need - and that’s grace. 

It’s grace, I think, that makes this parable hard. In the words of Richard Lischer, “Luke 16:1-8 tells the story of a man whose sins bring him to a terrible crisis, who makes a few desperate course corrections, and who finally receives commendation of his superior. Just as God welcomes tax collectors, prostitutes, and other lost souls into the kingdom, so God also opens the doors of heaven to middle-management types, tax cheats, and other reprobates. If we were to examine the inner lives and actual behaviors of prostitutes, tax collectors, and other friends of Jesus, as Luke permits us to do with the Dishonest [Manager], we might not be thrilled to sit down at the table with them in the kingdom of God. However, only the prodigals and the crooks appear to have responded to Jesus’ message with repentance.” [104] What the Pharisees and scribes, the ones who felt they were right with God didn’t seem to notice was their need for grace. They, like the elder brother at the end of the Prodigal Son or the verses that follow Luke 16:8, don’t know what to do with a God who loves even those who are really good at not following God. The dishonest manager’s behavior is wrong - yet his resourcefulness also displayed his need and giving of grace. He needed grace from the farmers who he managed; grace because of the situation he originally placed himself in; and even more grace from his former boss who could have turned on him in a second. The dishonest manager had, in a crisis of his own making, realized the grace he needed and, in the process, gave grace to others - such as those farmers - who needed it too. 

I wonder if we pay enough attention to the kind of grace Jesus was talking about. There are plenty of times, I think, when we feel as if we’re doing just fine. God’s grace is something we don’t notice or act as if its something only other people need. But when it comes to God’s grace, grace doesn’t come on a sliding scale. The grace God gives you is exactly that - grace and it’s made real in our baptism; affirmed in the prayers we offer; and its something we can literally feel and taste when we gather around the Lord’s table. Grace is grace; it’s the presence of God in your life and the declaration that you, as you are, actually matter. That doesn’t mean that God approves whatever you do - or how our self-interest interferes with our love of God and our neighbors. But God’s grace is always with you. And it doesn’t only show up when we’re in a situation where we desperately need it. The dishonest manager reminds us, I think, that we are called to receive the full force of God’s grace - and how it’s actually with you even when you feel like you don’t need it. When you truly embrace the fact that you are worth Jesus dying for you - you can then change what do - so that grace, instead of self-interest, becomes the only thing that you share. 




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Reflection: A Consequence of Prayer

The first letter to Timothy begins with Paul's name but scholars do not believe Paul wrote it. In ancient times, anonymous authors regularly used the name of someone famous as their pen-name. No one at the time considered this to be plagiarism or fraud. Instead, using the name of someone famous let the audience know what school of thought the author came from. First Timothy was probably written near the end of the first century, nearly 40 years after Paul's death. It's addressed to Timothy (a friend of Paul) who is identified as a leader in the church. By this time in the Christian church, congregations were trying to figure out what skills leaders in their community needed. Congregations were growing larger and there were theological struggles over what they should teach. The letter is addressed to pastors and bishops but also to the wider community. First Timothy is a letter meant for all people as they figured out how to live their faith out loud.

Today's reading 1 Timothy 2:1-7 is focused on prayer. The author encouraged folks to pray for everyone but especially for those with political authority. By the end of the first century, local governments were sometimes persecuting the Christian communities. And this persecution could be violent. The author of First Timothy wanted communities to pray for those who might be inclined to attack them. He hoped that such a public display of prayer would encourage the government to stop viewing Christians as a subversive threat. But this kind of prayer was more than just an attempt for the Christian community to have some peace. The church was encouraged to pray because that's what we're supposed to do. As Christians, our truth is always Jesus Christ and our prayer is that people will know him. And since we do know him, we are called to pray like he did even if that means praying on behalf of our enemies.

Yet the author of First Timothy, I think, struggled with what it meant to follow Jesus. He wanted to keep faith communities safe and so he encouraged them to not stand out. In the verses that follow today's reading, First Timothy spent a lot of time talking about women. He encouraged them to dress modestly, be silent, and not to have any authority over men. These were the standard cultural norms of the day, and the author believed that any deviation from that would make the Christian community a target. Yet this desire to stay hidden isn't a universal Biblical trait. There are times when following Jesus means we will stand out. We should never let the wider culture determine how we practice our faith. Instead, we should follow Jesus wherever he leads us. The call to follow and proclaim the good news is why, in 2020, the ELCA will celebrate the 50th anniversary of women's ordination in our church because we know that God doesn't want women to be silent. God wants all people to share the good news of Jesus. And that call to proclaim will always be at the heart of what the church does and will not be limited by what we think the wider culture says.


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Please - Let Me Remind You. Pastor Marc's Monthly Note in the Messenger

Please – May We Remind You

Those five words opened the CLC’s first Messenger. Published in November 1959, the four page monthly newsletter advertised events at the church. A speaker from the now defunct Luther Bible Institute was going to talk to parents and Sunday School Teachers. A special screening of the movie Martin Luther was going to take place in the sanctuary. A worship service on Thanksgiving Eve was highlighted as well as a fellowship dinner for new members. That last event was particularly interesting as the chairman of Stewardship planned to let people know the work of the church. After the dinner, teams would visit the new members the next afternoon and ask for their pledge. Some of the events and ministries displayed in the first Messenger are similar to what’s in the pages of this current edition. But some things have changed. The amazing gift of God’s love means that the church can, and does, change. Yet the heart of our mission – the sharing of the good news of Jesus Christ – is still central to everything we do. It’s God’s gifts of kindness and grace that lets us be the church in Northern New Jersey. We are here on the corner of Pascack and Church Roads because God knew we needed to be here. We are grateful that, for the last sixty years, CLC has been who it needs to be so that all people can witness what God’s kingdom is all about. Love, grace, service, justice, growth, change, and peace – are some of the themes of faith that have shaped generations of Christians at CLC. And these same focuses of faith will shape us for the next sixty years as well.

As we look forward into the future, we know that CLC will be different in sixty years. New people, new opportunities to serve, new gifts, and new challenges will shape this community into a church that will be exactly who Jesus is calling it to be. This change will not be easy but it will be faithful because God’s gifts of kindness and grace will always be with us. With the Holy Spirit guiding us and Jesus Christ leading us, CLC will radiate God’s love in new and profound ways. The church sixty years from now will be different. But I believe they will be thrilled that we, through our faithful witness, helped lay the groundwork for the amazing ministry they are doing in 2079. Let’s keep becoming the community God knows we need to be. And please, may we continue to remind everyone that Jesus loves them, and he will never let us go.

See you in church!

Pastor Marc


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Being Community: Inclusion at the Table [Sermon Manuscript]

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus.] 
And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

So he told them this parable:“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Luke 15:1-10

Pastor Marc's sermon on the 14th Sunday after Pentecost (September 15, 2019) on Luke 15:1-10. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


We’re already in week 2 of the NFL Football season and I - like many of you - have already declared this year a rebuilding one. I had the privilege last week of watching my beloved Denver Broncos loss and so I’m settling in for a long season. The feeling of being hopeful - but not really - isn’t unfamiliar to the fans of many different teams. Yet my poor expectations for the Broncos does mean I’m going to often see them commit one of my favorite unintentional offensive plays. The play I’m think of typically takes place in the second or third quarter, right when I feel like they’re gaining some momentum. After moving the ball down the field, I let myself believe that they might score some points. Even though I know I should know better, I still let a little smidigin of hope bubble up and I think they might actually turn the game around. The teams line up. The ball is snapped. The quarterback drops back and the defense closes in. Then, either through the skill of the opposing players or some bizarre twist of fate - the quarterback fumbles the ball. But it’s not just any kind of fumble. No, it’s the one where no one, at first, has any idea where the ball went. No one has any clue where the ball is but everyone is desperate to find it. They look this way and that until, at the exact same moment, everyone sees the ball. What once was lost has now been found - and it’s a free-for-all to try and grab it. Sometimes the outcome of such a play is good for us. But most of the time, it’s not. In that moment, our expectations were undone, to be replaced by a reality that we should have trusted as there all along. 

Today’s text from the gospel according to Luke begins on Jesus’ field. Pharisees and scribes, the religious authorities and the people who we’d expect to know God well, described Jesus as “welcoming sinners.” And that gives us a sense about what Jesus was doing. The Greek word we translate as “welcome,” also means “hosting.” Jesus wasn’t just inviting people to watch his first century version of a TED talk. He was also hosting meals. Jesus was throwing dinner parties and all sorts of people showed up. Pharisees and scribes came but also tax collectors and sinners. Those who believed they were “right with the Lord” found themselves sitting next to the “wrong” kind of people and were feeling uncomfortable. It’s important to realize that Luke, in this passage, wasn’t using the word “sinners” to mean “everyone” since we all truly live lives that fail to love God and neighbors as much as we focus on ourselves. No, Luke meant sinners - the people, if they sat next to us, we would try to move away from. I’m sure there are many times when we’ve found ourselves shifting, shuffling, and scooting away just like the scribes were. But there might be other times when we, as we sat down at a table, noticed everyone shrinking away from us. The people coming to Jesus’ table included people everyone we might try to separate ourselves from. Because Jesus’ guestlist was big - with the righteous, holy, religious - and even people we wouldn’t want to eat dinner with at all. 

So the grumbling at Jesus’ dinner party began and I imagine that made everyone uncomfortable. Jesus could have tried to weave and dance inside that pocket of tension for awhile. But at some point, he had to address it. And so he did - because his ministry involved telling the truth and not letting the uncomfortable thing be left unsaid. He chose to tell this truth in the form of three short stories - three parables - two of which we heard today. Each parable started with something being lost; that lost thing then being found; and each one ended with a gathering of friends and neighbors and a call to celebrate and rejoice. The rejoicing at the end of these parables was more involved that, say, updating your status on Facebook and waiting for the likes and congratulations balloons to roll in. The gathering Jesus described in his stories were always a party - a feast - where the entire community showed up. Jesus, while in the middle of hosting a dinner party, made sure that each of his parables ended with a dinner party of their own. And those parties were filled with neighbors and friends who didn’t grumble over the guest list. Instead, they shouted with joy because what was lost had now been found. That joy was why they were gathered together in the first place. And everyone - all neighbors, friends, and the entire community, were invited to sit together at the same table and eat. 

When we start by looking at who’s at the table rather than the reason for the table in the first place, we end up fumbling and losing sight of Jesus. The people Jesus gathered together at his table were not, first and foremost, defined by what they’ve done. He chose to see them as beloved children of God he knew they were. His relationship to us and to the world - starts there. All our “stuff,” our histories and our experiences do not limit his love. That doesn’t mean, however, that Jesus chooses to ignore our sin - those innumerable ways we fail to love God and each other. He is always aware of the many different ways we try to define and control the various guest lists in our communities. He’s watched us shift away from those around us and how we’ve let our feelings of “being uncomfortable” define what we fear.  He’s seen the work we’ve done to decide who belongs and who doesn’t in our neighborhoods. Jesus knows all of that sin and yet He doesn’t let our sin limit his interactions with all of us. He chooses to make grace, mercy, and love be at the heart of who he is so that even the people we shrink away from will know that they mean everything to God. In Christ, we are given a host that does not try to restrict who is welcomed at his table. Instead, he always chooses to expand it [which we will see shortly as Abigail, Elizabeth, Oliver, and Will embrace the seat at Jesus’ table that has already been set up for them.] Every time we try to deny a seat to someone at Jesus’ table, he chooses to pick them up, making a turnover out of our sin. Because the center of his relationship to all of us is defined by the meal he serves - a meal where he gives us everything, including his body, his blood, and his blessing. Jesus does not hold back his welcome and we, I believe, are called to do the same. Jesus’ table is not here to only include those people who make us feel comfortable. Jesus’ table also includes those who make us shift about in our seat. Yet all of us are invited to be His guest at His table. And it’s there when we are fed and fully seen. God sees us exactly as we are - including all the times we fail to make a play in the game that is our life. Yet at His table, you are welcomed. And the seat he has for you is one he will never fumble away. 



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Reflection: Change Your Mind

What do we do with a God who changed? I realize that's a bit of a provocative statement because we believe (and I believe it too) that God does not change. Yet we are often confronted by a God, especially in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) who does change. In today's story from Exodus 32:1-14, God's mind is changed when confronted by Moses. The story began at Mount Sinai. After being rescued from slavery in Egypt, the Israelites encamped around the holy mountain. Moses went up the mountain to talk with God but stayed hidden in the clouds for a bit too long. With Moses gone for so long, the community grew nervous. They were in a land they were unfamiliar with and had no clear vision of where to go next. Moses gave them a sense that God was with them but that was now missing. The community needed some tangible connection with the divine. So in a moment of need, Aaron, God's high-priest and spokesperson, helped build a golden calf to be worshipped and celebrated. Moses, not knowing what had happened in the camp, was informed by God about the building of the idol. God, very abruptly, chose to renounce kingship over the community by calling the Israelites "Your [aka Moses'] people." The community turned away from God and deserved to be punished. God let Moses know that God's judgment was about to come.

Yet one of the interesting things about this text is also what it doesn't say. Although anger and wrath were mentioned, nowhere does the text explicitly say: "God's anger flared up." Instead, that phrase was reserved for their dialogue. It's implied but never fully stated that God was angry. What God does say, however, is for Moses to "let me alone." This command, at first, seemed simple enough. But God was probably using a bit of reverse psychology. God wanted Moses to ignore God's command. God wanted Moses to intervene and Moses did. Instead of accepting God's commitment to violence or God's invitation to clone Moses for the nation itself, Moses defended the people worshipping the idol below. The community that rebelled against God and often against Moses was the community Moses said God must protect. God’s promises were not directed towards perfect people. God's promises were made to the broken, the imperfect, and those who often fail. God's promises were, and still are, made to people just like us.

God, in the end, changed God's mind. God articulated a desire to Moses and then rescinded it. Moses stood up to God by reminding God of God's own character. God is faithful; God is slow to anger; God is love. God's own unchanging character means that God's mind will often be changed. God will offer forgiveness, grace, and mercy, before wrath and violence. God will keep God's promises because those promises are what's truly unchanging about God. So when we talk to God in our own prayers, sometimes the most faithful thing we can do is be a bit like Moses and remind God of the promises God has already made to us and to our world.


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Give [up]: Did Jesus say that? [Sermon Manuscript]

Now large crowds were traveling with [Jesus]; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

Luke 14:25-33

Pastor Marc's sermon on the 13th Sunday after Pentecost (September 8, 2019) on Luke 14:25-33. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


I’m pretty sure that some of you, like myself, have spent time living in the worlds little kids create. These worlds, of course, are pretty amazing. They’re filled with all kinds of monsters and heroes, taking place in exotic locations that would make film director Peter Jackson very jealous. We might find ourselves having a lovely tea party on the moon with Belle from Beauty and the Beast only to suddenly find ourselves in the fight of our lives against whatever one of the many villains from the Power Rangers TV show. We are absorbed into an adventure where we, as grownups, have little say on what happens next. We might try to interject - to take some over the top situation - and tone it down into something a bit more manageable.  But when we’re living in the worlds kids created, we’re not called to weaken the impact of their words. Instead, we take everything they say seriously. Which means we will sometimes have to put on a silly hat; speak in a silly voice; and re-enact last year’s Super Bowl while facing the entire superhero cast of Avengers: Endgame. The world kids speak into being is a world we find ourselves living into. And once we enter their world, we might discover how their vision of the world can end up changing our own.

Today’s reading from the gospel according to Luke is a hard one. And it’s totally okay to admit that. Not only does it seem odd for Jesus to tell us to hate our mother and father - it’s doubly weird to hear these words on a day when a mother and a father will bring their twin baby boys up to the baptismal font. Our instinct might be to try and lessen the impact of these words. We might assume that Jesus was being over the top, using hyperbole as a way to get people’s attention. And that instinct isn’t, necessarily, wrong. Jesus did live in a world where rabbis regularly used hyperbole as a way to make their point. Over the top statements were part of their religious language and it was how prophets, teachers, and preachers invited us into the world as God knew it could be. But we shouldn’t use the presence of over the top statements as an excuse to ignore the hard words Jesus said. Jesus meant what he said. Yet he trusts that we can, with the help of the Holy Spirit, figure out what that means. Now, there are a number of ways we can do that. We can, for example, keep Jesus’ words in context, connecting the hard ones with the themes, plot, and point of view that makes that particular book of the Bible unique. We can also spend time learning about the culture of Jesus’ day, trying to understand how those following Jesus would have first understood these words. Yet if our understanding of the first century near east is a little light, we could also choose to pray through these verses, using our personal experiences of faith as a guide to unpack the hard things Jesus said. But if none of that works, there’s still one more Holy Spirit based trick up our sleeve. Instead of reading these verses from the beginning of the passage, we can read them starting at the end. Because Jesus’ words are supposed to take us somewhere - and if we know where he’s going, we can figure out where he began. 
Now, at first, this trick doesn’t seem to help us much. Jesus’ ending words are as hard as his first. Not only does he tell us to hate our family, he ends by telling us to give all our possessions. Jesus is, once again, embracing hyperbole; he’s being over the top on purpose. But it’s interesting telling that Jesus has moved from talking about family ties to possessions. There’s movement in his thoughts and we’re invited to go with him. If we step into the world at that point, we begin with nothing but ourselves. Our bank account, our job, and even our home is not there.  There’s just us and we got there, according to Jesus, because we paid attention to the cost of following him. Like a builder making a tower or a king going to war, we took the time to count up the costs of answering the call of God. And this call, as we go backwards through the passage, isn’t only about healing and wholeness. It’s also centered in being ready to carry the cross. The cross Jesus talked about here wasn’t metaphorical and he wasn’t being over the top. He was pointing to the reality of having Jesus in our lives while living in a world that chases after power, control, and one that chooses to live in fear. Being with Jesus isn’t easy; there’s a cost when we follow him. Because the world of love and hope Jesus imagines for us is a world we do our best to make less real.

In a few moments, Hunter and Hudson, along with their parents and sponsors, will come up here to meet Jesus in the baptismal font. This meeting isn’t only just to a beautiful moment. It’s also an event when all of us - parents, sponsors, and the entire congregation - live into the world Jesus’ words bring to life. It’s here where we’ll make many promises, including the promise to bring them God’s word instead of only our own. We will promise to nurture them and to surround them with a community which knows that love, mercy, and grace are the primary ways God chooses to be with us. And since God acts this way to us, we are called to bring the same and gifts to our neighbors - including strangers. We will promise, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to show Hunter and Hudson what it means to be sealed with the cross of Christ. And we will, through our words and actions, show Hunter and Hudson that life with Christ isn’t always easy but is one where love, instead of fear, makes each day full and life-giving. Together, we will give life to the world Jesus’ words created - one where all that have, including our relationships, our possessions, and even our identity is transformed by Jesus. Whether we realize it or not, no part of our lives are off limits to him. Because when we are all in with Jesus, we will never be the same. 

The hard words in today’s reading aren’t, I think, Jesus’ way of trying to get people to think twice before stop following him. Instead, they’re an invitation to a way of life that knows there’s a better adventure for us when we fully embrace God’s call. *Mark Ralls, pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church, wrote about watching “a mother teaching her young son how to swim.  She stood before him as he moved along the surface [of the pool], his arms and legs in rhythm. He was also aware of the dreaded deep end. As soon as they crossed the floating markers and the water turned a darker shade of blue, [the young son] would panic, lifting his head and flailing his arms. His mother  would encourage him: ‘Do not be afraid. I am still with you. Swimming in the deep end is no different than swimming in the shallow end. Trust me.” Jesus’ words today are that kind of encouragement for Hunter, Hudson, and all of us. Jesus is telling us to “hold nothing back, to be all God has called us to be.” We are here to live into the world as God knows it can be - a world where Jesus’ life-giving love knows no bounds. Because Jesus, through the Cross, gave each of us a new life where justice, peace, care, and grace are not part of an imaginary but, instead, are here and are very real. 


*Feasting on the Word, Luke, Volume 2. 


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Reflection: Past, Present, and Future

400 years ago, the first ship with enslaved Africans landed in the English colony of Virginia. The number of men and women on that boat was small but they represented a system of slavery that continues to impact us today. The system would help build and enrich the original English colonies and the young United States. No part of our nation was untouched by slavery. Even our neighborhood in Northern New Jersey saw the effects of slavery first hand. This week it was reported in the Pascack Press about the discovery of a "Wampum Factory" that thrived in Park Ridge. Wampum were beads made out of shells that were considered sacred by various Native American communities. In the 18th and 19th century, the Park Ridge area took shells imported from the Caribbean and turned them into beads. This work was done not only by the employees of the factory; it was also done by enslaved persons of African descent. Slavery was not an institution that existed in places far from New Jersey. Slavery existed in our neighborhood as well. And, at its core, the system viewed people (especially African-descent people) as property.

Slavery was not a new idea 400 years ago. Even during the time of Jesus and Paul, the institution of slavery was very real. Neither Paul nor Jesus condemned the practice or demand its destruction. On some level, they seemed to accept slavery as part of the DNA of the world. As Christianity expanded throughout the Mediterranean and the Near East, all kinds of people started to follow Jesus. The social and cultural divisions between people found themselves challenged by a Jesus who united all. His church started to include not only the poor, and rich; it also included the enslaved and those who enslaved them.

Today's reading from Philemon 1:1-21 is centered in this tension. Philemon was a wealthy follower of Jesus who Paul knew well. One of Philemon's slaves, Onesimus, seems to have fled from Philemon and ran into Paul. During his time with Paul, Onesimus became a follower of Jesus. Paul wrote to Philemon, letting him know that he was sending Onesimus back to him. Philemon would be welcoming back a person he had legal power over. Onesimus was, in the eyes of the government, Philemon's property. But as a follower of Jesus, how should Philemon view Onesimus instead?

This is the question at the heart of Paul's letter to Philemon. As followers of Jesus, our relationships with each other must be transformed by the relationship we have with Jesus Christ. This relationship cannot see others as property, dirty, or different. It must be rooted in the love Jesus first gives each to us. This love is not easy nor is it always clear what this love looks like in our everyday life. But God's love must be at the heart of every relationship that we have.


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Reflection: For the Sake of Relationships

Today's reading from Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 follows what we heard last week. After describing God's power (aka God as a consuming fire), the author of Hebrews immediately followed with the line, "Let mutual love continue." These two thoughts, "for indeed our God is a consuming fire" (12:29) and "Let mutual love continue" are jarring when read next to each other. Neither passage seems to relate to the other. Some scholars believe that this disconnect between the two chapters shows us that chapter 13 wasn't originally part of the letter to the Hebrews. But since we do not have any copies of this letter without chapter 13, we cannot confirm or deny this theory. What we can do, however, is admit that chapter 12 and chapter 13 do not flow into each other. There is a separation between these two chapters that leaves us feeling out of sorts. Yet this separation might help us understand one of the major themes of the letter. The author of Hebrews wrote to a community struggling with their faith. Individuals within the church had stopped attending worship. Some were no longer praying for each other. The community felt stuck and was starting to fall apart. People were feeling distant from one another. That separation within the community is matched by the separation we see in chapter 12 and 13. The community struggled to see the value of faith and their life together was suffering because of it.

When viewed through this lens, chapter 13 becomes a plea for people to act like they care for one another. This care does not depend on how we feel about each other. Rather, we care because we are included in God's history with God's people. Through our baptism, we are grafted onto the old story of God dealing faithfully with all people. These people are identified in the Hebrew Scriptures (aka the Old Testament) and in the stories of the faith-filled people around us. All people within this community are people who wrapped up in the story God is already telling. We love, care, and serve each other because Jesus, through the Cross, has loved and served us. Our life as a community should resemble the life Christ lived.

And one way this life looks like is through the sharing of power. In the words of Rev. Timothy Adkins-Johns, "following a Savior [who] has been defined throughout [Hebrews] by the sacrifice that he represents for us all, [so] we are called then to join in the sacrifice of our own position in order to build relationships." Mutual love is about realizing the power we have and making sacrifices to empower those around us. Only when we are honest about who we are and what we have can we truly discover what we can offer And what we offer does not depend on what others actually do or believe. Rather, we give because Jesus has already loved us and the Jesus we follow is bigger than only the present moment. Since "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever," we are called to be a community that lives like Jesus always mattered.


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