Is This The Time: a sermon on a question that is really a prayer

So when [the disciples] had come together, they asked [Jesus], “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

Acts 1:6-14

My sermon from 7th Sunday of Easter (May 28, 2017) on Acts 1:6-14. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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I always love a bible passage that starts with a very honest question. Today, in our first reading from the book of Acts, the disciples are just outside Jerusalem. For the last forty days, they have been hanging out with the post-resurrection Jesus. Jesus said hello to Peter. He showed up when two of his disciples took a long walk to the village of Emmaus. And Jesus even ate a piece of broiled fish while all his disciples watched to prove that he wasn’t a ghost. For forty days, Jesus taught them and the disciples experienced Jesus after the Cross. Jesus then led his followers to a hill not far from the city of Jerusalem. And it’s there when the disciples ask Jesus their question. “Jesus – is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” “Is this the time when you will kick out the Romans who are occupying your city and oppressing your people? Is this the time when you will establish your kingdom so that your followers can have the peace of mind and the safety they are looking for? After seeing your ministry from Galilee to Jerusalem, after watching you die on the cross, and after seeing you resurrected from the dead – Jesus, is this the time, when you will finally make everything right?”

Now, on one level, we’re supposed to tilt our heads and look a little bit askew at the disciples for asking this question. Because this is the question they’ve been asking since day one. When Jesus first called them as his own, they assumed Jesus would be like every other leader they knew. Jesus, as the Messiah, as the one who would save Israel, would make everything right by putting together some kind of army that would drive the occupying Romans into the sea. The disciples expected Jesus to establish a kingdom like David’s but one that was bigger and better with a special place in it for each of them. The expectations of the disciples never really gelled with what Jesus actually showed them. When they argued over which one would be greatest in the kingdom, Jesus told them to serve one another. When the disciples tried to keep the sick, the poor, and those who were different away from Jesus, Jesus welcomed the unwelcomed to his table. Jesus lived God’s kingdom out loud. And this caused problems. The Romans saw this mixed band of disciples, of men and women, old and young, rich and poor, the socially acceptable and those who should be left on the margins, – the Romans saw the disciples as the beginning of an army designed to rebel with violence. So the Romans killed Jesus, hoping to end his entire movement. And the disciples saw this. They experienced Good Friday. They watched as their teacher was buried in a rocky tomb. But the disciples also witnessed what God did in response. They hung out with Jesus in his full post-resurrection glory. They knew that God had upended our expectations through Jesus’ work on the Cross. And yet…their old question is still their current one: “Jesus, is this the time when will you make everything right?”

I can’t really blame the disciples for not getting it because haven’t we all asked the same question? When we flip on the news, pick up a newspaper, or scroll through a Twitter feed, we can watch in real time as evil makes itself known all over the world. We can be in Manchester as a bomb explodes at an Ariana Grande concert and read eye-witness accounts posted online mere minutes after Coptic Christians on a pilgrimage in Egypt are singled out for their faith and killed. We can see the faces of the two men in Portland who were killed when they stood up to a white supremacist harassing a young woman wearing a hijab and we can be in our homes, sitting on our couches in our pjs, and watch live video as torch bearing mobs gather around the statues of the Confederacy to protect these idols to white supremacy. The early disciples of Jesus knew that evil existed all over their world. But they couldn’t see it unfold in real time like we can. We can witness plenty of events, happening far away from here, where the disciples’ question is our question. And if we turn our eyes inward, taking a look into our cities, homes, families, and lives…the disciples’ question stays as our question too. When unemployment is about to run out, and the 200th resume we sent didn’t even get a response, and we don’t know how the mortgage, the car loan, the grocery bill, or the electricity will be paid…that would be a good time for Jesus to show up, and make everything right. When the experimental drug trial we are on isn’t showing any improvement,…that would be a good time for Jesus to show up and make everything right. And when the scourge of addiction, of greed, of infidelity, and when our own sin has destroyed the relationships that matter to us most…that would be a good time for Jesus to show up and make everything right.

On one hand, we can easily brush aside the disciples’ question as a question from a group of people who just didn’t get it. But we can’t ignore their question because it’s a question that sits on our lips, when our lives and our worlds fall apart. The disciples’ question is more than just a question. It’s a prayer. It’s a prayer asking God to do what God promises. It’s a prayer bold enough to ask God for something specific. It’s a prayer that actually knows God is listening because it asks a question, leaving space for God to answer or not. Which is sort of what Jesus does here. Jesus doesn’t answer the question with a no. Instead, he points the disciples’ back to a promise their question seems to miss. The disciples want a kingdom, a government, and an empire because they think that’s where God’s promises will be fulfilled. But Jesus points them to something more. The source of God’s kingdom is always God. The foundation of what God is doing is rooted always in Jesus. The disciples’ eyes are looking for a kingdom where they can see God at work. But Jesus wants them to know that, because Jesus is with them, God’s kingdom is already unfolding through them, in spite of the troubles, suffering, and sorrow that they cause or that happens to them. The life of faith is less about chasing after Jesus but more about living as if Jesus is actually with you. And since Jesus is with you, the fears and terrors of this world, and the sin that draws us away from each other and away from God, cannot overcome the relationship Jesus has with each of you. Jesus doesn’t promise his disciples an easy life. He doesn’t promise them a life without hardship or pain or sorrow. But What Jesus promises is presence. He promises love. He promises that he will be with them, no matter what. The life of faith isn’t easy. The life of faith sees the evil in this world and in our souls. The life of faith is filled with moments when the prayer “Lord, is it time” will be on our lips. But that prayer will also be on the lips of Jesus because no matter where we are and no matter what we’re going through, right now is always the right time to know that Jesus has us, that Jesus loves us, and that we will,in the end, make it through.

Amen.

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Eavesdropping on Jesus

In today’s reading from John (John 17:1-11), Jesus is at the end of his long sermon before his arrest and trial. He concludes this long sermon to his disciples with a prayer. Jesus stops talking to his disciples and turns towards God. But Jesus doesn’t pray silently. Jesus keeps talking. His disciples are in the room when Jesus starts to pray. The disciples eavesdrop on Jesus’ prayer and get a glimpse at Jesus’ own prayer life.

The Rev. Karoline Lewis in her commentary on John writes, “What difference does it make to overhear Jesus praying for us?” How often do we think about Jesus actually saying our name in his own prayers? Usually when we talk about prayer, we focus on our personal conversation with God. If we pray to Jesus, we wait for him to respond to us and act on our behalf. We don’t usually imagine Jesus talking about us. We know Jesus knows God and we know that Jesus is God. God and Jesus are so connected, it seems silly for Jesus to pray. Yet in the moment when the disciples are finally confronted by Jesus’ upcoming death on the Cross, Jesus prays for them. Jesus asks for their protection. Jesus wants God to continue God’s holy work through them. Jesus does more in this passage than affirm his presence with his followers. Jesus prays for them, too.

Embedded in this prayer is a short definition of eternal life is. Eternal life is, according to 17:3, knowing God and Jesus. We rarely describe eternal life in these terms. We imagine eternal life being something that happens after this life. Yet Jesus says eternal life is knowing God and knowing Jesus. This is something we can participate in right now. Jesus prays for his disciples, asking God to continue to grant eternal life to his disciples. And this eternal life doesn’t start later. This eternal life starts now.

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 7th Sunday of Easter, 5/28/2017.

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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