Entrusting the Faith. From Pastor Marc – My Message for the Messenger, June 2017 Edition

At our last Confirmation class for the 2016-2017 year, Pastor John Holliday of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Old Tappan shared something I want to share with you. For the last year, we have partnered with Prince of Peace Lutheran Church to teach Confirmation. Kids from Prince of Peace and Christ Lutheran Church talked about faith, Jesus and learned from each other. When we met for our last class this year, Pastor Holliday shared how Confirmation is more than just education. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we’re giving these 7th and 8th graders a job to share Jesus with the next generation.

At first glance, this seems like we’re asking 7th and 8th graders to bring their kids to church if being a parent is where God leads them later in their lives. That’s true but being a parent and passing on our faith to children isn’t the limit to what the Holy Spirit is doing. The next generation of faith-filled Christians is anyone who hasn’t experienced Jesus in their life. This can be a friend who doesn’t go to church or an older family member who doesn’t know who God is. This next generation can be the newborn baby who is coming to church for the first time and also their parents who never grew up in a faith community. The next generation isn’t defined by age. The next generation is defined by the people, old and young, who are going to meet Jesus. And it’s this relationship with Jesus that brings us into a church community where Jesus’ promises show up. In the Rite of Confirmation, the church does something amazing. We affirm that these amazing youth, Brendan, Connor and Josette, are already the church. Since their birth, Jesus has loved them. Since their baptism, God has made them leaders in this community. And now, through Confirmation, we entrust to them the calling God gives to each of us: to share the faith, to live our faith and to help others discover the love Jesus has for each of them.

As we gear up for a busy June, we continue to be a community committed to making a difference, physically and spiritually, in our community. On June 4th, we will confirm three youths at our 10:30 am worship. I invite you to come to worship on that day. On June 11th, we’ll bless our Genesis Garden after the 10:30 am service as we enter our 32nd year feeding our neighbors in need. On June 18th, our summer schedule starts with one service at 9:30 am. We’ll honor our graduates and host a special congregational meeting at 10:30 am to give all an update on some property projects the church will need to address. And then, on June 25th, we’ll hold our annual blessing of the animals. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, we are entrusted to live out our faith and to pass it on to people who need to know God’s love for them. Let’s keep doing that hard work all summer long.

See you in church!

Pastor Marc

Keep My Commandment: a sermon on dos and don’ts

”If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

”I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

John 14:15-21

My sermon from 6th Sunday of Easter (May 21, 2017) on John 14:15-21. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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In New York City, there’s an old, boarded up gas station located on Hudson Street. The entire perimeter is sealed by a 12 foot high chain linked fence and, inside it, is a dilapidated garage with a few white delivery vans parked around it. Along the sidewalk is an old, rusting, gas pump with its last sale still on the dials. The last time it was used, 9.87 gallons of gas cost 3 dollars and sixty-five cents. And because this is New York City, the chain link fence is covered in signs. The last time I walked by this gas station, there was one sign in particular that I noticed. On this giant old white sign, big black letters said: “Unapproved parkers will have the air let out of their tires and their license plates removed.” Now I actually have no idea if it’s even legal to do that but it’s quite a threat, isn’t it? I can totally see myself driving on Hudson street and thinking, for a moment, I finally found the last available parking spot in all of New York City. I pull in, thank Jesus for giving me the spot, and then I look up and see that sign. Those words are saying, in no uncertain terms, just…don’t. Don’t park here. Don’t interfere. Don’t get in the way of the people working here. Because if you do, there will be trouble.

That don’t….is sometimes exactly what we think about when we hear anyone in scripture use the word commandment. Commandments can sometimes be God’s version of a big white sign with big black letters that simply says “Don’t.” And we think this because the word commandment is dominated by the Ten Commandments we once learned in Sunday School or Confirmation Class or that we saw cross stitched and hung on a wall in our great aunt’s home. Don’t have any other god but God. Don’t take God’s name in vain. Don’t murder. Don’t cheat. Don’t steal. Don’t lie. Don’t desire something that belongs to your neighbor. Now, there are some commandments that are not “don’t” related like remember to keep the sabbath, to give that day fully to God, and to also honor your parents. But the “don’ts” outnumber the “dos”. And that ends up giving the word “commandment” an essence and a flavor. A commandment from God is seen, consciously or unconsciously, as God telling us “not” to do something. Commandments are God’s way of creating boundaries for us, fencing us in so to speak, so that we can stay on a straight and narrow path that will lead us to God. The thinking goes, if we stay within the boundaries God sets up, we will be okay. When we follow the rules, we show God and Jesus just how much we love them. And if we show God the right amount of love, then God will fully love us in return. The God of the “dont’s” will shower blessings on those who listen and will finally answer all those prayers that sometimes go unanswered. When the word commandment becomes a word that only means “don’t,” then the God who speaks those don’ts becomes a God who cares only about what you don’t do. And a God who cares only about what you don’t do isn’t the God Jesus is talking about today.

For Jesus, commandments are not about the “don’ts.” The commandments are always a do. And commandments are never fences that keep us on a straight and narrow path that, eventually, bring us to God. Rather, because God is already alongside us, the fences which hem us in are torn down by a love that breaks walls and never builds them. So to understand Jesus and the word commandment, we need to remember a passage in John that never shows up in the 3 year cycle of readings we use in worship. In John chapter 12, just 2 chapters before today’s reading, Jesus is giving his last public speech before John’s version of the last supper. A mixed crowd of many different ethnicities is gathered around him. Jesus is teaching, preaching, and showing signs of who he is but not everyone believes him. There are some that do but they refuse to share this publicly because they are afraid about what others might think. Instead, they remain quiet. But Jesus doesn’t hold their quietness against them. He refuses, at that moment, to judge them. Instead, he talks about his purpose, about his mission, about his goal to save them. He’s there to love and to show everyone who God is. Because seeing Jesus is seeing God. To see how Jesus loves, how Jesus heals, how Jesus embraces and prays and talks to everyone, even those who are his enemies….that’s who God is. Jesus is telling the world exactly what God says and showing everyone how even a Cross can’t stop God from saving them. All of this, Jesus says, is the Father’s commandment for him. This commandment for Jesus isn’t a don’t. It’s a do. It’s a live-a-human-life, love like God does, tell the world just how much it means to God even though this will lead to the Cross – kind of commandment. And Jesus, in chapter 12 verse 50, calls this kind of commandment….eternal life.
Commandments are more than “don’ts.” Commandments are a way of life that embodies God’s love. When Jesus shares his last public speech, he’s telling everyone that love is more than just a feeling and more than just being kind. Love is a way of life that is willing to sacrifice itself so that even a stranger can live and thrive. And today, when Jesus is in the middle of his long speech to his disciples, telling them that Jesus will be with them and they’ll never be orphaned no matter what tragedy befalls them or him, the commandments Jesus points to are centered in a deep and abiding love that even death can’t overcome. When we turn God’s commandments into a series of only don’ts, we sin. We impose limits on God’s love that simply do not exist. We forget that we have, through God’s promises, the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus with us, forever. And it’s this spirit that empowers us to change these commandments of don’ts that we think are focused only on limiting what we do in our lives and instead see how God’s commandments invite us to help the person next to us – thrive. Instead of holding signs with big black letters telling others what we’re going to do if they get in our way, the Holy Spirit guides us to take down our signs of don’t and instead help others become the people God wants them to be. This might take some work on our part. And it might cost us some time, some money, and force us to break out of our comfort zone. But this is something we get to do because we are loved; we are chosen; we are, through our baptism and through our faith, part of God’s holy family. We are not orphans. We have Jesus. So let’s act like we do.

Amen.

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Workin’ It: Making the Message of Jesus Known

Paul, as he is portrayed in the book of Acts, is a disciple who loves a crowd. In today’s reading (Acts 17:22-31), he’s in the city of Athens. He’s on a missionary journey around the Mediterranean and is spending time in Greece and Macedonia. After several violent episodes in Thessalonica and Beroea, Paul escaped to Athens. While in Athens, he continued to preach and teach. He caught the attention of some local Greek philosophers. They invite him to  speak at the Areopagus (which could be either the chief Roman court in Athens or a hill west of the Acropolis). Many in the crowd think Paul is just a babbler but others are curious about his message. Paul, knowing he is speaking to educated Greeks, filled his sermon with Greek philosophical references. He made Christ understandable to those listening to him. He challenged the Greeks to discover God by meeting Jesus Christ. At the end of his sermon, Paul’s words on the Resurrection, shock some of the philosophers. Many discount his words but some believe. In the verses that follow, we learn their names. There is Dionysius, Damaris, and others. They become the new Jesus community in Athens. 

We don’t know what happened to Dionysius and Damaris after Paul left Athens. But I think we’re invited to imagine these new believers becoming like Paul. They prayed, worshipped, and shared their new faith with their family and friends. According to the book of Acts, Paul is a model for our own life. He is a person who regularly shared his faith with family, friends, and strangers. He supported himself by working in marketplaces as a leatherworker and he felt no shame when he shared his faith with his colleagues and customers. But he couldn’t grow the church on his own. Instead, the Holy Spirit empowered the crowd, the “others,” to share their faith too. We sometimes believe that sharing our faith is something only pastors or other people do. But communities grow when the “regular” people in the pews invite their friends, family, and neighbors to discover Jesus. The act of sharing does more than grow the number of people in church. The act of sharing opens our friends to a relationship with something bigger than themselves. And when we share Jesus, our own faith changes as well. Through all the conversations, sharing, and vulnerability needed to invite someone to meet Jesus, we learn more about our own faith and how Jesus makes a difference to us. Faith isn’t something only for us. Faith is something others need to. So be like Dionysius and Damaris and the countless others in Acts that go unnamed. Share Jesus today, tomorrow, and forever. 

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 6th Sunday of Easter, 5/21/2017.

Who sees: What Jesus Power Do You Have?

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.

And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.

Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

John 14:1-14

My sermon from 5th Sunday of Easter (May 14, 2017) on John 14:1-14. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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So which of Jesus’ amazing miracles – from feeding 5000 people with just a few loaves of bread to making a man born blind see – do you wish you could do? A few years ago, when I was an intern at a church in Manhattan, I was part of their altar guild. I was setting up the altar for communion before services one Sunday when the unexpected happened. We were out of wine. Jesus’ water to wine trick would have been handy that day. And later, I could have used his gift of healing when I sat at a hospital bedside, helping a family say goodbye to a loved one who was dying way too soon. There are plenty of times when I wish I had a smidget of that awesome Jesus-like power to make an immediate difference in the lives of the people around me. But…more often than not, that amazing moment of power, that awesome miracle, just doesn’t happen the way I wished it would. Which is why, I think, verse 12 in our reading from the gospel according to John can be…well…hard. Jesus says that the one who believes, will not only do what he did, but will do even more.

Now, Jesus in the gospel according to John, does a lot. He turns water into wine, heals a person who is paralyzed, he walks on water, and raises Lazarus from the dead. In total, there are 7 big signs that end up on Jesus’ resume. And when I compare Jesus’ resume to my own, I don’t really come close. One way out of this comparison problem is to remember that we’re human. We’re not the Son of God. We can’t compete or compare ourselves with Jesus, really. But…let’s not do that. Let’s take Jesus seriously. Let’s stand right in front of verse 12, being completely open about our own resumes filled with belief and doubt, struggle and selfishness, love and sin; let’s bring all of who we are – and stand before this word from our Lord who claims that if we truly believed in him, we could do more.

Standing there, alone before this verse from Jesus – it’s a bit uncomfortable, isn’t it? Because it seems like Jesus is giving us some kind of test that judges how much faith we actually have. If we can make a man born blind see, then we’re good. Our relationship with God is secure because a super power from Jesus showed up. Verse 12 feels like it gives us a way to quantify our relationship with Jesus, to see how much faith we have, and to show just how Christian we are to other people. And if walking on water isn’t showing up in our life as much as it should, then we might need to invent other signs, other signals, that show us how much God loves us. Our wealth; our power; our material blessings; our moral choices – we start to pretend that these are the signs that tell us if we’re with Jesus or not. It doesn’t take long before Jesus stops being Jesus, and instead he looks, and acts, and sounds an awfully lot like us. Faith stops being about knowing and trusting Jesus. Instead, faith becomes a strange attempt to chase after his supposed benefits – benefits that, in the end, are centered in greed, control, in being strong and being right, rather than in being generous, loving, vulnerable, and open.

In the race to compare ourselves to Jesus, we chase after what we think he can give us. We run without first listening to what Jesus actually said. And we forget that Jesus’ words are always spoken in context. Because when we are standing before his words in verse 12, we were not standing alone. We were surrounded by Jesus’ early disciples, by Philip and Thomas and Peter and others, and everyone is scared. Everyone is confused. When we stop for a moment and keep Jesus’ words firmly planted in his story, we hear Jesus talking today to his disciples right before his arrest and trial. Everyone is in one large room, having a meal. And in the middle of this dinner, Jesus gets up and does something weird. He stops being their teacher, being the one who is supposed to be served, and instead he serves others by washing their feet. Even Judas, the one who betrays him, gets his feet washed. After the washing, Judas flees into the night, to arrange for Jesus’ arrest, while Jesus keeps talking. He mentions his impending death. He shares who will leave him. And he promises that when push comes to shove and people want to know if these followers of Jesus know him or not, even Peter, one of his most committed disciples, will deny knowing him. The disciples are confused and scared. Jesus is telling them, that is just a few short days, their faith will fail.

These disciples, on any normal scale of what it means to be faithful believers and true disciples of Jesus Christ, are totally going to blow it once Good Friday comes. Jesus, in this passage, isn’t telling them how they can measure or judge their faith. He isn’t giving them a list of statements of belief that are the end-all-be-all of what it means to be a true believer. None of the verses today can be considered litmus tests that we can use to test whether someone is a true follower of Jesus or not. Because that kind of list, those kinds of ideas, won’t help the disciples live through what’s about to come. Every word in today’s reading is a promise – a promise that even when they can’t see him, even when Jesus feels far away, even when Good Friday and death itself comes, none of that can break the relationship Jesus has formed with each of them. Not even their own fear or doubt, not even their denial or their running away, can overcome Jesus’ love for them. Jesus promises to be with them, to keep coming to them over and over again, even when it looks like evil has won and God has lost. Even when all hope is gone, Jesus isn’t. And that relationship Jesus has with each of us – that Jesus has with this entire world – in the end, means everything.

So, if today’s text from John is about a promise Jesus makes to us, then what could possibly be that greater work Jesus promises? Jesus’ super power isn’t focused on the supernatural acts that we call miracles. Jesus’ power is the relationship he forms with each of us. It’s how even with our resumes full of all the ways we act like God and try to make our opinion or likes or wants be the only ones that matter, even then Jesus keeps coming to us over and over again. It’s through relationship, when our faith grows. It’s through the time and energy we put in with Jesus to struggle and argue, to ask questions and wonder, to shed tears of joy and of sadness with him – it’s when we dwell with him, abide with him, when we discover exactly who we are and who God imagines us to be. The greatest work we can offer to our family and friends, to our neighbors and strangers, is simply to show them our relationship with this Son of God who never gives up on us even when we give up on ourselves. And that relationship is refined, maintained, and strengthened when we live our faith out loud together, in a community that isn’t perfect but one that clings, through all things, to this Jesus who shows us just who God is, and just how far God will go for us.

Amen.

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A Martyr: who is Stephen?

Who is Stephen? Today’s reading from Acts 7:55-60 is a short (too short) part of Stephen’s story. Stephen is Jewish but is Hellenized (i.e. Greek). His name is Greek, he speaks Greek, and his culture is Greek as well. As the faith community in Jerusalem grew, people like Stephen joined the church. The apostles (Peter, James, and others) struggled to provide effective leadership over a culturally diverse community. The apostles asked the Greeks to appoint seven leaders who would lead worship and serve this growing community. These seven were called “deacons” and Stephen was one of them. Acts 6:8-10 tells us that Stephen became known as a Spirit-filled follower of Jesus. This did not make some people happy. People came to question Stephen’s teachings about Jesus. These arguments grew fierce and dangerous. Stephen is accused of speaking against God and Moses. He’s arrested and sent to trial. While at trial, Stephen defends himself and his words make others mad. He invites the people around him to see the presence of the Holy Spirit (and God) in Jesus’ community. Instead, the people hear Stephen inviting them to worship an idol (false gods). The people grind their teeth together. Stephen then doubles down on his relationship with God. He is suddenly filled with the Holy Spirit and sees God and Jesus. He tells everyone what he sees. That’s the final straw for the crowd. Stephen is dragged outside the city and stoned.

Verse 56 in today’s reading is the only time in the Luke-Acts (Luke and Acts was written by one author) where God physically appears (Margaret Aymer, Working Preacher Commentary on Acts). Stephen sees the glory of God which, to me, is a reference to all of who God is. In that moment, Stephen “gets” God. Stephen also sees Jesus, standing at the right hand of God. The book of Acts isn’t trying to tell us where Jesus is physically. Instead, Stephen sees Jesus intimately connected with God. Jesus is connected to God in a unique way. Jesus is God. God is Jesus. And the Holy Spirit is how God reveals this to God’s people. In Stephen’s story, we see who God is. We know God because we know Jesus. And we know Jesus because Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, comes to us over and over again. Through regular worship, prayer, study, and the sharing of communion, we dwell with the God who is willing to be with us through all things.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 5th Sunday of Easter, 5/14/2017.

Jesus is a gate.

This week, as I was cleaning, sorting, and organizing items for Trash and Treasure, I stumbled onto a picture of the Gates. For 2 weeks in 2005, artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude installed 7,503 vinyl orange gates along 23 miles of pathways in Central Park. The gates hung above the heads of people walking below and the wind blew the gates open and shut. The gates did a very poor job in being gates. They were not connected to any fences and anyone could walk past them. I remember walking under them on a cold February day and admiring how their colors brightened the park. But the gates did a miserable job keeping me out.

Today’s reading from the Gospel of John (John 10:1-11) is why the 4th Sunday of Easter is known as Good Shepherd Sunday. Every year we read parts of John 10. Jesus is talking to his disciples and the crowd about an experience they just witnessed. A man born blind was healed. The local civic and religious leaders cannot believed what happened. They exiled the man from his community. Jesus finds him and the man becomes one of Jesus’ disciples. John 10 isn’t separate from John 9 and the power of John 9 isn’t the healing Jesus did. The relationship Jesus proactively offered to a person everyone thought was unworthy of having a relationship with God is the point of the story. The miracle in John 9-10 isn’t the healing; the miracle is who Jesus claims as part of his community.

One of the images the gospel of John uses is Jesus as a gate. A gate typically implies a fence but Jesus doesn’t focus on that. Instead, the verses today are about what a gate does. A gate keeps sheep safe at night by keeping thieves and predators out. A gate helps feed sheep by letting sheep out during the day. The primary focus of a gate is to keep offering the sheep an abundant life. A gate isn’t a fence. A gate needs to open and close. A gate needs to respond to those it’s responsible for. Jesus is a gate. He isn’t a fence. Jesus promises to be with those who hear his voice. The community around the man born blind built a fence to keep him out because he did not fit their expectations. But Jesus went and found him, giving the man born blind a life full of God’s grace, mercy, and love.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 4th Sunday of Easter, 5/07/2017.

In Common: what the Holy Spirit asks you to do

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Acts 2:42-47

My sermon from 4th Sunday of Easter (May 7, 2017) on Acts 2:42-47. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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Yesterday was my third Trash and Treasure sale. Usually, on the day after the sale, I talk about something I found among the piles of donated, and dusty, boxes. Last year I talked about a record I found. Two years ago, I showed a collection of vintage Star Wars action figures. And today, I’m going to keep that streak alive but I don’t any props up here to show you. Instead, the items I’m thinking about are outside, sitting in our dumpsters. And they’re there because, well, I threw them there. When the sale was over, organizations from all over Northern New Jersey came to take what they could use. But when they were done, there was still stuff left and it needed to go somewhere. We grabbed everything that was left and carried it outside. Anything made of metal was set aside for Joe, a metal scraper, to pick up. Everything else was tossed into the dumpster. In went glasses, vases, toys, linens, kitchenware, lamps – everything that didn’t sell. And it was during that mad dash to clean up everything when some of us recognized stuff on the tables. There was that toy we pulled out from a dusty box that was covered in 30 years of dirt. We cleaned it, made it shine, and…no one bought it. There was that lamp our crew of engineers spent 45 minutes to get working – and it was still there, sitting on the table. We also noticed things we personally donated; items that had made us happy but are now going into the dumpster. One of the joys of Trash and Treasure is seeing all the stuff that is bought and doesn’t end up in landfill. But one of the small sadnesses is seeing what gets left. In that dumpster are the hours of work spent cleaning, sorting, and making sure everything was in its best possible shape so that it could end up in someone’s home. We’re left with a tiny bit of sadness, a smidgen of grief, when the things we spent so much time and energy on – do not turn out the way we hope.

Today’s story from the book of Acts is a fun one. Whenever I’m in a bible study and theses verse comes up, everyone focuses on verses 44-45. “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” These verses at the end of Acts chapter 2 are describing Acts vision of what the early Christian community looked like. After the event of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit empowered the disciples to make Jesus’ story known to people who did not speak their language, the Christian community changed. After a very brief sermon by Peter, something amazing happened and the number of people in the Christian community grew from a just handful of apostles to a community numbering over 3000. This new community is living in Jerusalem and is filled with Jewish people doing very Jewish things. They worship everyday in the Temple. They break bread and eat their meals together. They devote themselves to the teaching of their leaders and they regularly say their prayers. In the book of Acts, we don’t hear about non-Jews being part of the early Christian community until later. At this point in the story, the Christian community is very Jewish and is very devoted to Jesus Christ. And it’s that devotion that compels the community to live in a different way.

Now, we can tell that the make up of this community is diverse because some of those 3000 have stuff and others have needs. The community probably met regularly and worshipped in large dining rooms of people who owned their own homes. Gathered in that space would be the rich, the middle class, the working class, and even slaves. The community would spend so much time together, they would begin to know each other in an authentic and real way. They would know each other’s names and each other’s needs. Inspired by their shared experience as being part of Jesus’ family, everyone would take what they have and sell it. Their possessions, their treasures, and maybe even their trash was gathered together so that anyone could use it. Every resource available to them is used to help individuals in the community, thrive. The great economic dividing lines between those who have and those who don’t – doesn’t limit who is included in Jesus’ family. Instead, the community uses everyone’s wealth to make sure everyone is healthy and secure. Their pre-existing conditions of being part of a society where the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor isn’t what the early church, according to Acts, looked like. Now, we might give this way of life, a name. We might call it communism or socialism or some kind of -ism that might scare us because we live in the United States. Capitalism is part of our way of life. Our possessions are our possessions and we don’t want to give up control over what we own. But Acts isn’t about any -ism. Acts is about what it means to be and to do, church. At the start of chapter 2, the Holy Spirit showed up in a big way. Jesus’ story was heard and experienced in diverse languages that the apostles didn’t know. This diversity of languages created a community where the diversity of class and wealth showed up too. The church isn’t supposed to be for only one kind of person with one kind of experience, or language, or economic background. The church is for everyone because the Holy Spirit brings all kinds of people together. And once the Holy Spirit connects us with people who are not like us, we are not called to ignore their needs. We’re not here to maintain the divisions of our wider culture, acting as if economic class is somehow ordained by God or a sign of who God loves. We’re instead called to live a different kind of life where people are known and where needs are not hidden or pushed aside. We’re called to actually form a true and honest and authentic relationship with the people around us.

Now this connection isn’t always easy to maintain or sustain. There are times when we will feel like this connection, this relationship with our community, is something we’ve invested time, energy, and resources into but…it doesn’t seem to be going in the direction we thought it would. No matter how much we clean, or work, or how many hours we spend to make this community more faithful, the future we thought was going to come about might, instead, be placed in a dumpster outback. But even when our ideas fail to materialize, even when a harsh word or a stress-filled moment makes us wonder just what this community of faith is all about, we keep being the church – rooted in Jesus. We keep being with each other even when we don’t want to be. We stay connected through a shared meal at the communion rail and we pray for each other, no matter what. This community isn’t just a random group of people who show up on Sunday for one hour each week. We’re part of the body of Christ. We are empowered by the Holy Spirit. We are a community called to not let divisions be what define us but, instead, to be a community where care, and love, and hope are at the center of everything we do. The community of faith is a community where the Holy Spirit shows up. And when the Holy Spirit shows up, our way of living 0 our way of being – changes.

Amen.

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The Long Walk: Life Giving Living Through

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.’ Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Luke 24:13-35

My sermon from 3rd Sunday of Easter (April 30, 2017) on Luke 24:13-35. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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Font. Font is one of those words that means something different in the church than it does in the wider world. When we talk about fonts inside a church, we’re usually talking about the baptismal font. Our font is this little white box on wheels, with a metal bowl inside, and it’s the place where we hear God’s promises tied to something physical. With a little bit of water, we remember that we are part of something that is always life-giving. So a font in church is something physical; it’s connected to God’s promises; and the font is usually wet.

But fonts in non-church places are a little different. Fonts are everywhere. They surround us on signs filled with letters, on papers covered in words, and on little screens we carry in our pockets that show us the food are friends are taking pictures of every single day. The actual graphic design of those letters and words is called a font. And those fonts have names. There’s Times New Roman, Arial, Georgia, and Helvetica. Some fonts are crisp, clean, and easy to read. Some fonts are so well designed, they make the actual words themselves look beautiful. But there are other fonts that…well…are not as pretty. They’re not crisp or modern or easy to read. They are fonts that are so curly and flowy and out-of-whack that the words themselves are lost in a spasm of weird design choices. The gold standard for that kind of font is….Comic Sans. Now, Comic Sans is actually a really good font for people with some kind of disability like dyslexia. And we might think that Comic Sans looks whimsical and fun like letters in a comic book but…from a design perspective…from a perspective that thinks it can read everything just fine – Comic Sans is really not. Comic Sans flows and moves in such a way that makes words feel out of place. And when Comic Sans is displayed on an electronic screen, the font itself just…doesn’t work. When we receive a message written in a font that is hard to read or in a font that is downright ugly, we don’t read it. We chose not to engage with it at all. The words appear too harsh, too tough, and too odd for us to take them seriously. Instead, we delete the email or toss that piece of paper aside and ask the person who sent it to send it again but, this time, in a font we can actually read.
But what if that ugly font was all we had? What if all the letters and words in front of us were in this harsh and unforgiving font that we wanted nothing to do with? Recently, I came across a short video that talked about an experiment where psychologists did just that. The experiment took place at a school. One set of classrooms kept all their handouts, papers, and computer screens in a font we all know and love. Everything was easy to read. All the words were beautiful. Everything was as perfect as a high school handout could be. The other classrooms, however, had all their handouts in terrible fonts. Some were incredibly dense, where all the letters were blocky and squished together. Some classrooms put everything in italicized Comic Sans. Nothing about the handouts or screens looked beautiful because the words were displayed in awful ways. Both sets of classrooms used these kinds of fonts all year long. And then, after finals were over and grades were in, the psychologists compared scores. They discovered that the students who suffered all year long with those terrible fonts did better than those who only had beautiful words. Those awful fonts forced the students to take each word seriously; to struggle through the bad design so that they could understand what was in front of them. The students who could read everything in beautiful and well-known fonts, didn’t. Their brain subconsciously disregarded the words because they looked so nice, so easy to read, so the brain acted like it had already seen this information before. Good design actually failed the students because the design itself didn’t invite them to fully understand what was in front of them. This font experiment showed that…sometimes…people need to sit with the ugliness, sit with things that are hard to see, and struggle through periods of shadow and sadness to truly unpack what’s there. Sometimes living through whatever we’re facing is actually the most life-giving thing we can possibly do.

In today’s reading from Luke, the story itself should be much shorter. Those two disciples should have listened to the women. The women had already gone to the tomb and discovered that Death was no longer the final chapter. The women ran and told others and Cleopas and his friend…heard all of it. The beautiful words of the resurrection entered their ears so….they should have listened….but they didn’t. Instead, they left Jerusalem. They vamoose from the city that killed their teacher and those two friends of Jesus tried to go someplace else. They didn’t know what to do with Good Friday. They were there when all the hopes and dreams they placed on Jesus were hung on a cross. Their expectations of what Jesus was going to do was buried when he was placed in that tomb. The healings, the miracles, the teachings – the dreams about a better future right in front of them – all of that was broken. In a few short moments, everything they thought they knew was undone. Cleopas and his friend didn’t know what to do….so they left. They headed to the village of Emmaus because the brokenness of their dreams, and hopes, and expectations was something that even a beautiful word couldn’t break through.

Cleopas and his friend couldn’t listen to the women….but you’d think they could have listened to Jesus. Jesus chose, right at that moment, right at the point when these two couldn’t even hear the good news – that’s when Jesus met them. And Jesus should have made it better right away. He should have introduced himself, called these disciples by names, and poof – end of story. But instead…Jesus joined them. He talked to them. He asked them opened ended questions that let’s these two disciples unload their mourning and grief and worry and confusion – all of that – onto him. Jesus gets everything they’ve got but he still doesn’t break their grief. Even his reasoned arguments about what God was up to couldn’t make the pain of these two disciples melt away. They couldn’t even notice how the core of who they are – their very soul, heart, and identity – is being…revived…and renewed in the midst of their current struggle. Instead, their long journey with Jesus is filled with questions, sadness, worries, and concerns. Their long walk with Jesus is filled with the grief that happens when our hope filled dreams are met by the brokenness of the world we actually live in. The two disciples take their long journey with Jesus not even knowing Jesus is there. But he is – because God’s love, by design, is not only meant for us at a specific moment. God’s love is not like the love we already know so we trick ourselves into thinking we’ve already gone through it. God’s love for us…is… a movement. It’s a movement through our lives and our realities. We don’t always understand why things are the way they are. But we do live our lives with a God who chose to live a life because your life is worth everything to God. And not just the good parts. Not just those parts where everything is joyous or happy or beautiful. All of your life, every bit of it, is worth everything to God. And since all of your life has value, Jesus promises to be there in the moments when your life feels like it’s nothing because there’s no journey, no pain, no sadness, and no Cross Jesus won’t go with you – through.

Amen.

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Ask Pastor Marc: The Holy Spirit in John and Acts

Last week, I was asked about John 20:22-23. In that passage, Jesus shows up when the disciples have locked themselves in a room. Jesus walks through the locked door, offers them peace, and then “breathes” the Holy Spirit onto them. It’s an interesting piece of scripture especially since the beginning of Acts 2 shares how the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples after Jesus’ resurrection. Acts 2 and John 20 seem to announce the specific historic moment when the Holy Spirit enters the world. Both episodes seem to contradict each other.

I think it’s important to remember that we have 4 different gospel stories rather than one. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are texts written by specific people to specific faith-filled communities. The Holy Spirit gave each author words revealing how Jesus mattered to them, their communities, and everyone who came after them. Each text describes different aspects of who Jesus is and what Jesus does. Each text also describes different experiences of the Trinity. This includes the Holy Spirit. Luke (who wrote the book of Acts), sees the Holy Spirit as something bombastic. The Holy Spirit inspires believers to preach life-giving words to their neighbors, friends, and even strangers. The Holy Spirit compelled Peter, Paul, and the other apostles to bring Jesus to far flung place. In Luke-Acts, the Holy Spirit inspired believers to move and not be silent about their faith.

In John, however, another aspect of the Holy Spirit is highlighted. John calls the Holy Spirit the parakletos which can be translated as advocate, comforter, helper, or intercessor. In the words of Rev. Karoline Lewis, “The Holy Spirit, according to John, is the one who is called to be alongside us.” In John 14, we are introduced to the Holy Spirit in the middle of Jesus’ last sermon to his disciples. Jesus knows Good Friday is coming. He knows he’ll die, rise, and ascend to heaven. The disciples do not fully understand what’s about to come. Jesus’ final sermon is a way for Jesus to bring comfort to his followers. He promises to send them “another Advocate.” So who was their first advocate? Well, their first advocate was Jesus. The Spirit, according to John, is a manifestation of the promises Jesus makes. Jesus will not orphan the disciples because “the Spirit will now accompany them.” In John, the Spirit is very personal. The Spirit is a quieter encounter but an encounter that promises all of God’s people that they’ll never be abandoned no matter where in life (or death) they go.

The Holy Spirit doesn’t appear in only one historical moment in Scripture. The Holy Spirit is the multitude of ways God makes God’s promises known to us. The Spirit grants us a new life held in God’s abundant love. The Spirit was there when the universe was created and is there when we are baptized. The Spirit is always present but is experienced in our lives in many personal, amazing, and breathtaking ways.

Appeared in Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin on 4/30/2017.