Reflection: Vision. Story. Promise. Now What?

We start every new church year, every Advent, with the end of the world. Today’s reading from the gospel according to Luke 21:25-36 is part of a longer sermon filled with Jesus’ apocalyptic views. Like Daniel, Ezekiel, and Isaiah, Jesus’ words are sprinkled with images of wars, starvation, persecution, and judgement. As we spend today lighting the first Advent candle and preparing to set out the nativity with a manger for a baby’s bed, we are surrounded by words rooted in incredible violence. This text is jarring, masking the hope at the heart of Jesus’ words. But hope is what Jesus is all about in Luke 21. And this hope is God’s vision for the world.

There’s a pattern in the text that unwraps the hope Jesus is pointing to. The text begins with a vision, describing the earth in distress. Jesus then moves from a vision into a story, using a parable to tame the violence in the vision he previous shared. At the moment when the world trembles and it feels as if it will be covered in shadow, that is when summer will be on its way. The story is rooted in a promise – a promise that Jesus’ words, ministry, and grace has a permanence that cannot be overcome. This vision, story, and promise is Jesus’ reminder that, regardless of what we can see, there is still always more going on than meets the eye. We, as human begins, cannot see everything that God sees. We, with our limited perspective, cannot see everything else that’s moving into place. And we, wrapped up in our sin, struggle to realize that we are not the center of the universe. By clinging to the promise that Jesus is truly God-with-us, we are wrapped up by a hope that does not end. Our relationship to God doesn’t depend on us. Our relationship is rooted in a God who refuses to leave us on our own. Even when the world appears like it is coming apart at the seams, Jesus is still here. And we, as followers of Christ, are to stay alert, living our lives as if Jesus is really here right now.

Dr. Michal Dinkler writes, “As we move into the Christmas season, let us not get so myopic in single-mindedly over-preparing for Christmas that we forget God’s vision for the world — a vision that is God’s to control, a vision that is far broader and more expansive than either/or thinking can allow.” Through your baptism and through your faith, you are with with God. This world, as we know, doesn’t match the vision God has for it. But because of your faith, the kingdom of God is already here. As we start this new church year, we are reminded we spend all our years living into the hope that Jesus makes a difference today, yesterday, and forever.

Happy New (church) Year! Hope and the Cow Who Climbed a Tree

Bring Year C glasses. Today’s Candle is “Hope.” Book: the Cow Who Climbed A Tree

Hi everyone!

I’m very glad to see you today.

Happy New Year! Today is the start of a new church year – when we’ll go through a new cycle of special colors, scripture readings, and more. In our Bibles, we have four separate books, separate chapters, that teach us about Jesus. And we need all four to see who Jesus is. And this upcoming year – “Year C” as you can see in my glasses – we’re going to read a bunch of stories about Jesus from the gospel according to Luke. It’s in the gospel according to Luke where we get the story about angels telling Shepherds about Jesus’ birth, where we discover who’s John the Baptist’s parents are and how Jesus and the John the Baptist are cousins, and where we hear how, way after he is born, after he dies, and after he is raised from the dead – Jesus meets two friends of his while they’re on the road to a place called Emmaus. So I can’t wait to spend the next year spending time with Jesus and with each of you through the Gospel according to Luke.

One of the big ideas we’ll hear in Luke is “hope.” Now hope is “a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen.” Hope is something that a little hard to describe so I brought a book to help me. The book here is The Cow Who Climbed a Tree” which stars a cow named Tina. Tina was a curious cow. Tina loved discovering. Tina loved science, and learning, and reaming. Tina even imagined building a rocketship to take her to the moon! Tina had a lot of amazing ideas – but her 3 sisters weren’t interested. They thought her ideas were silly. They thought Tina should only be focused on the things cows usually like – standing around and eating grass. They weren’t very nice to Tina nor did they treat her the way they should. Her sister hoped that Tina would be just like them. But Tina, the cow, hoped her sisters would celebrate and support her love of discovery, science, and learning. They both hoped that each other would be different than they are.

But as we flip the pages in the story, we see how both Tina and the sisters change. Tina, after climbing a tree, meets a dragon who helps Tina realize that being herself – loving science and learning is good. And the sisters, after noticing that Tina is missing, go to find her – and discover how Tina’s love for learning, and her inventions, were helping all sorts of animals learn how to “fly.” Her sister saw Tina for the special cow that she is – and they celebrate that by saying “YES!” when Tina asks if they want to fly. In the end, the sisters changed. They accepted Tina for who she was – a cow that loved to learn. And they discovered that Tina could help them love,see, and experience the world differently too.

We’re going to spend all year hearing about the hope Jesus gives to each of us. There are times when we will be sad. There are times when we we’ll look around the world and it looks like sadness, tears, and just icky stuff is what this world is about – and that they always seem to win. There are times when we’ll hope that we are different and that the people are different too. And Luke will remind us, over and over again, that because Jesus was born, because Jesus lived just like us, because Jesus grew up just like you, and because Jesus lived, and died, and rose from the dead – and that Jesus loves you – we have a hope that God will always, in the end, win.

So let’s light the first candle of Advent on the Advent wreath a candle that represents Hope!

Let us pray: Advent Lighting Words – from “Worshipping With Children”
God, the world is scary. But, You are with us in the worst of situations. So, in the darkness we light this first candle of Advent with hope –
hope that you are with us even when awful things happen,
hope that you will show us what we can do to fix the world,
and hope that you will fix what we cannot.

Amen.

Each week, I share a reflection for all children of God. The written manuscript serves as a springboard for what I do. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship on the First Sunday of Advent, 12/2/2018.

How Can We Thank: God’s Generosity

How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.

Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

My sermon from the First Sunday of Advent (December 2, 2018) on 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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When was the last time you received someone’s generosity?

I’d like you to think about that because, in a few moments, I’m going to ask you to share that experience with the person sitting next to you. Now I know this question can, at first, be a bit vague because we usually don’t talk about those moments in our lives when we receive generosity. Instead, we like to focus on being generous, on how we give. Generosity, as a concept, “has to do with the way we use our skills …[to] share ideas, practice hospitality, offer encouragement, make connections, and use our time [and resources] to address the needs of others.” (Living Generously, Stewardship Resource) Generosity is seeing someone else’s vulnerability and, for a moment, helping that person become a little more “complete” than they were before. It feels good to fill the need we see in the people around us. And it’s also easier to talk about the ways we’re generous because we then don’t have to let others know about those times in our lives when we were vulnerable too. Showing others our generosity sometimes invites us to bury those moments when we needed help and care. Yet generosity is how we love and it’s also, I think, how we experience love from one another. Generosity is an action, a practice, and a virtue that forms us, molds us, and helps us build the relationships we need so that we can become the people God wants us to be. And that kind of generosity takes many forms. It could be financial, like when a friend takes us out to dinner knowing we can’t pay them back. Or generosity could be when a loved one lets us vent, knowing they can’t solve our problems but they can create a space where all the feelings, emotions, and words inside us are finally let out into the open. A friend we haven’t spoken to in awhile might give us a call or a stranger might notice how tired we are and give us their seat on the bus; these are all examples of generosity and we receive this kind of generosity everyday. Yet we struggle to acknowledge it. But as we see in our reading from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, naming our vulnerability and celebrating generosity is part of what being a Christian is all about.

Paul’s first letter to the community in Thessaloniki is, most likely, the earliest piece of Christian writing we have. Paul wrote to a small group, of maybe a dozen or so, early Christians who had responded to Paul’s preaching and teaching in their city. Paul wanted to spend a significant amount of time in Thessaloniki, to support the small Christian community and help their relationship with Jesus grow. But something happened and Paul had to flee. The community in Thessaloniki was left on their own with no formally trained spiritual leader to guide them. And this worried Paul because Thessaloniki wasn’t your regular ancient Mediterranean town. It was the capital of a Roman province, with a large garrison of Roman soldiers keeping watch. Thessaloniki was a city full of Roman monuments and buildings promoting the authority of the Roman emperor who was starting to call himself “the Son of God.” Temples to other gods filled the city and each one had a large and devout following. And since Thessaloniki was a city in northern Greece, on a clear day, every person in that city could see in the distance, Mount Olympus, the tallest mountain in all of Greece and the legendary home of Zeus and other gods. Paul had to leave behind a small community of Christians in a city where Roman power, Roman rule, and Roman religious life had all the outward benefits and prestige. Paul worried that this community wouldn’t survive in the face of all that Rome. Yet it did. And not only that, they thrived. Their faith grew. They continued to worship. And they, as a community, learned how to live together – persevering through hardships and celebrating each other’s joys. God, through a divine and generous love, protected them and Paul’s joy literally leaps off the page. He can’t thank God enough for them, for this community in the shadow of Mount Olympus, that God didn’t abandon. Paul, I believe, honestly wanted to return to them, to be with them, but he knew that it wasn’t him who kept them together. Rather, it was God’s generosity in the face of their vulnerability that carried them through. The Christian community in Thessaloniki, on the surface, wasn’t very strong. The community was young, it’s spiritual leader had fled, and Christianity was so new that the New Testament hadn’t even been written yet – so there was no collection of writings to help shape and guide them. They were a community surrounded by other faiths and points of view that were bigger, more powerful, and were more richly rewarded. The Thessalonians in Paul’s community were completely vulnerable – and yet, they thrived. In the face of overwhelming outside pressure, the Thessalonians and Paul admitted to themselves and each other that it was only God’s generosity that kept them following Jesus. And this true God, this only God, was, while they were vulnerable, truly with them – giving them a faith that would carry them through.

Receiving generosity is hard because we then have to admit our own vulnerabilities. Yet we all have stories where the generosity of others is what carried us through. That kind of generosity, while mediated through human hands, comes from God. And it’s God’s generosity that sent Jesus into our world to experience everything we do, including what it’s like to be vulnerable. It’s God’s love that shows us how we can be generous. And it’s Jesus’s generosity that reminds us how we all need love.

I invite you now to take a few moments, a couple of minutes, and share with the person next to you a short description of a moment when you received someone else’s generosity.

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Recipes of Faith: The Pastor’s Message for the December 2018 Messenger

One of my favorite ways to celebrate the holiday and Christmas season is to eat. Thanksgiving turkey, Christmas hams, swimming pools full of cookies, and candy canes taller than my children – this season is a delicious one. And one way we participate in this season of eating is by opening up our cupboards, taking out our recipe boxes, and pulling out our favorite ones. Some are printouts from recipes we found online. Others come from newspapers, magazines, and cookbooks. And there are those few recipes in our recipe boxes that handwritten (or typed on a typewriter) that we have inherited from our parents and grandparents. One of my family’s recipes comes from Kate’s grandmother and it’s now one of our Christmas day traditions. After the presents are opened, Kate (with help from our kids) prepares fried matzos for all to eat. The recipe is on an index card in the grandmother’s hand. We eat these fried matzos often but there is something special about sharing this dish on Christmas morning. It reminds us how we are connected to something bigger than ourselves. The simple act of eating this food helps us relive, remember, and re-experience the relationships that make a difference in our lives.

Whether we inherit these recipes from the families we are born into or through the families we create on the way, these recipes do more than feed our bodies. They feed our souls and our hearts. We, through the gift of food, discover what our relationship with Jesus Christ is all about. God wants more than us to merely receive the calories we need to survive. God wants us to thrive. And, through Christ and through the church, inspires all of us to help each other become exactly who God wants us to be.

So what’s your favorite recipe this holiday season? And if you had to make a recipe card for your faith, what would it look like? Rev. Chris Halverson of St. Stephen Lutheran Church recently created these:

Faith Frittata:
Ingredients—Baptism, Word, Spirit, Community.

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees F
  • Place Baptism in a large skillet and cook over medium-high head, turn occasionally, even until browned.
  • Add the Word of God, received aurally. This will stimulate the Holy Spirit.
  • Cook for a lifetime.
  • Serve wherever two or three are gathered. Community will sustain it and replicate it.

Grace Wrap:
Ingredients—God’s faithfulness, promise, and signs.

  • Take half an hour to reflect upon how God has been faithful in the past.
  • Take some time to reflect upon all the things God has promised to us for our good and our salvation.
  • Wrap it all together in trust.
  • Serve through the waters of baptism and pair them with the bread and wine of communion, which will sustain the whole meal.
  • Spend sometime this season pondering your relationship with Jesus. What would your recipe card for Prayer, Forgiveness, Faithfulness, Mercy, or Hope look like? Create your own. And let’s do what we can to keep these kinds of recipes out of the recipe boxes in our cupboard and, instead, in our lives everyday.

    See you in church!
    Pastor Marc

Truth is a Person: Pontius Jesus Politics

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”

John 18:33-38a

My sermon from Christ the King Sunday (November 25, 2018) on John 18:33-38a. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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There are no Republicans or Democrats in the Bible – but the Bible is full of politics. Politics, in its broadest sense, is how we make, preserve, and modify the general rules under which we live. (See Andrew Heywood’s book). These rules, spoken or unspoken, show up whenever groups of people live or work together. As human beings, we need each other. But that doesn’t mean we always get along. Our rival opinions, competing needs, and different wants leads to conflict, cooperation, and more conflict. We team up with each other, form factions against one another, and use every skill we have to “win” whatever conflict we’re in. Politics are the rules, expectations, and activities that form and shape how we work – or how we don’t work – with each other. Now as a faith community located in the United States, it’s not hard to hear the word “politics” and immediately think of political parties, recent elections, and which family members we avoided talking politics with during last Thursday’s Thanksgiving dinner. Politics is also something, we think, the church should avoid because politics feels partisan, biased by whatever political leanings and political party we identify with. We tell ourselves that politics doesn’t belong in the church so we seek out the “spiritual” meaning of every text in the Bible that we read on Sunday mornings. But when we only look for the spiritual, we miss the political realities that impacted Jesus’ life and ministry. Today’s text from the gospel according to John is a political text. And we can’t discover it’s spiritual meaning until we are honest about the political reality that informed Pilate’s first words to Jesus: “Are you the King of the Jews?”

Now, if you were meeting Jesus face-to-face for the first time, what would your question be? It could be anything yet I’m pretty sure none of us would ask Pilate’s question. Pontius Pilate, as we remember, was a Roman governor who ruled Jerusalem and the surrounding communities during Jesus’ years of public ministry. Pilate was appointed by the Emperor and he embodied Roman authority, control, and military might. He was the Emperor’s representative when the Emperor wasn’t around. And when Pilate spoke, everyone in Syria, Judea, and the Middle East listened. Pilate’s governor mansion wasn’t based in Jerusalem. However, when the Jewish festival of Passover took place, Pilate moved into the city with a large cohort of soldiers. They were there to provide security, crowd control, and to keep everyone in line. Gigantic religious events had a tendency to encourage riots, conflict, and revolts. So Pilate was ready to eliminate any threat, no matter how small it seemed. Jesus had also recently arrived in the city. After teaching in the Temple and sharing a final meal with his friends, he was betrayed by Judas and arrested. After being convicted in a trial overseen by the religious authorities, Jesus was handed over to Roman power. Pilate didn’t care if Jesus was a spiritual leader. And he wasn’t looking for any religious advice. Pilate wanted to know if Jesus was a threat. And since the religious leaders had handed Jesus over to him, Pilate already assumed he was. Pilate’s first question, out of the gate, was a political one. He wanted to know if Jesus claimed any kind of authority that would challenge Rome’s rule. Pilate could only imagine the world as he knew it to be. And any king in his world needed certain things. A king needed territory, followers, and resources. A king needed an army willing to kill on his behalf. A king, in Pilate’s mind, needed to inspire fear, conflict, and co-operation in those they ruled. And if Jesus could do any of that, then he would be a king and he would challenge Rome’s monopoly on that power.

Pilate, as depicted in the gospel according to John, wasn’t interested in the truth. His questions to Jesus were not a gentle inquiry into Jesus’ life, ministry, and mission. Instead, it was an interrogation because Pilate needed to confirm Jesus’ identity as a threat. Pilate knew how his world worked and as the Emperor’s representative, the truth he knew was centered in power, control, and someone “winning” every conflict – no matter what. What Pilate couldn’t see, or chose not to see, was the truth right in front of him. And that truth wasn’t a what, an idea, or some kind of fact written down on a piece of paper. The truth was a who because, as Jesus shared in John 14:6, he is “the way, the truth, and the life.”

We tend to imagine the outcome of politics as having some kind of material shape. Politics involves people having power and that power is expressed by having authority over others. Politics is made real in a specific location – be it in a city council chamber, in a part of Congress, or even in the unspoken table seating charts dictated in some high school lunchrooms. Politics, we believe, is about controlling domains and forming our own, personal, kingdoms. Yet Jesus’ politics was, and is, different. He came to live out his commitment to a world that was already overseen by him. As part of the Holy Trinity and as the One through whom the entire universe was made, there’s no domain or kingdom or territory that doesn’t already belong to Him. When it comes to God’s creation, there’s no territory that Jesus needs to fight for to control. So Jesus chose to build personal, meaningful, and deep relationships with us since we already live in God’s world. And in the words of Rev. Karoline Lewis, “… Jesus’ Kingdom can be anywhere, anytime that Kingdom behavior is exemplified…lived out…and That Kingdom witness [is] heard and observed.” What Pilate couldn’t see was that Jesus’ kingdom was rooted not in things but in people. Jesus wanted people to connect with God’s ultimate promise to them – that we are loved not because we are perfect but because God is – and that promise…changes everything. It changes how we interact with each other. It changes how we live with our neighbors. It changes how we make, preserve, and modify the general rules under which we live. Rather than being focused on “winning” whatever conflict we’re in, our faith in Jesus compels us to realize that we – on a cosmic and divine level – have already won. So instead of competing with one another, we can choose to love each nother. Instead of seeking out victories over those we disagree with, we can chose to help them thrive. Instead of building walls to give us a fake sense of security, we can work on building bonds of friendship – knowing that those bonds take much more work to create but are the only way to develop lasting peace. We get to be honest about the ways we’ve failed to use our power for good and we get to stand up to racism, sexism, classism, and every-ism that stops us from seeing the image of God in the people around us. And because of our baptism, we get to imagine how our politics can be a way we serve God and our neighbors. Jesus as the truth means that, sometimes the truth we tell, is anything but. Yet when we cling to Jesus, listening to his voice over all others, we find ourselves testify to his truth of forgiveness, mercy, service, and, above all, love.

Amen.

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Children’s Sermon: T H E O L O G Y

Bring a piece of paper with Theology on one side, words about God on the other. Bring clipboards and crayons for each kid.

Hi everyone!

I’m very glad to see you today.

I want to talk about a word today – and it’s a word on this piece of paper. I’d like each of you to take a clipboard, some crayons, and trace the word. What letters do you see? T H E O L O G Y. That word spells…theology! Theology is a word that looks pretty fancy but it isn’t. Theo is latin for the word and ology is “study of.” So this word means…”study of God.” So when we’re talking about God, reading our bible, going to Sunday School, worshipping in this space, and learning about what God’s people are doing in the world – we’re doing “theology.” We’re studying and learning more about God.

But theology is more than just study. Theology – our studying about God – also depends a lot on what we say about God. And the words we use are important. So let’s turn over our pieces of paper. What do you see on the other side? Words like love, eternal, Jesus, kind, justice, caring, etc. These are all words that describe who God is and what God is about. So we say that God is love – which means God loves you, me, and everyone. We say that God is eternal – which is a fancy word for forever – and that means God will always with us, forever and ever. We say that Jesus is God because Jesus is – and so when we learn more about Jesus and hear his story, we discover who God is. That God heals. That God helps all people. That God welcomes everyone. And that God especially cares for us even when no one thinks we’re important or special. What we say about God – becomes our personal theology about God. And everyone here – you, your parents, and even I – we all have our theology about God. And sometimes what we say about God is perfect – but other times, we let other opinions or thoughts or perspectives twist who God really is for. And our words about God become less about love and justice and kindness – and words that are mean, or push people away, or say who gets to be loved by God and who doesn’t. We always have to be careful about the words we use with God because the words we use inform what we know and share about God.

So looks at this sheet. See these words? When you think about God, when you pray, when you read your bibles, and when you talk about God – use these words. Remember these words. Because these words will help you not only know more about God – it will help you love and be kind and listen and care for the people around you – just like God loves, listens, and cares for you.

Thank you for being here! And I hope you have a blessed week!

Each week, I share a reflection for all children of God. The written manuscript serves as a springboard for what I do. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship on the Christ the King Sunday, 11/25/2018.

Reflection: Is/Was/To Come

God has many different names. In the Jewish tradition, there’s a saying that God has 72 of them. Lord, Eternal One, and YHWH are just a few. These names, of course, are ones we give to God and we use them to describe God’s divinity and immortality. These names help us understand who God is and also how different God is from us. While standing before the burning bush, Moses is told that God is called “I-Am” or “I-Am-Who-I-Am.” As Christians, we use Jesus as one of God’s names because Jesus is God incarnate. But even these names don’t seem to be able to hold everything that makes God, God.

In the ancient world, a formula was developed to flesh out a god’s characteristics. The author Pausanias, for example, said that “Zeus was, Zeus is, Zeus will be.” Like the words Lord and Eternal One, these descriptions of Zeus point to Zeus’ supposed eternal identity. In our reading today from the book of Revelation 1:4b-8, this same formula is used describe God as the One “who is and who was and who is to come.” But the formula isn’t an exact match and there’s an important difference that we should notice. The author of Revelation isn’t only interested in God’s eternal nature. God is much more than just something that lasts forever. Our God is also an everlasting being that acts. (Revelation: Interpretation Commentary, page 75). God moves and chooses to come into our world. God is not only something “up there.” God also is here, right now. We are invited to know this God who, through Jesus Christ, chose to live with us. Through prayer, baptism, and the gifts served at the Lord’s table, we meet a God who is already moving towards us. In Christ, God takes the initiative to enter into our lives because God already knows our names. And God will put God’s holy name of love, mercy, and action into our hearts, souls, and minds.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week (or about our liturgy). This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for Christ the King Sunday, 11/25/2018.

Speaking Gratitude at the 50th Annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Worship

Pastor Marc’s sermon for the 50th Annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Service (Upper Pascack Valley Clergy Council) hosted by Congregation B’nai Israel on November 18, 2018. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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So I’m not sure how it happened but I, somehow, went through all of my formal education without really digging into the rules of English grammar. I never diagramed a sentence. I never memorized what a split infinitive was. And, to the chagrin of those who edit my newsletter articles, I love the Oxford comma. At first, I was fine with this lack of formal grammar education because, as a kid, I planned to grow up and become a paleontologist, or a computer programmer, or an engineer. I figured I could learn what I needed to know through a version of paper-and-pencil based osmosis, absorbing whatever it is I needed to know. But the Lord had other ideas. And I’m now in a career where using words is what I mostly do. Every day, there’s an important conversation about faith and life that becomes a vehicle through which we love our neighbor as ourselves. And there always another sermon to write, article to compose, and newsletter to create. These words end up being more than just a tool for communication. They are how we love, serve, forgive, welcome, and embody the faith that makes each of us exactly who we are supposed to be. For those of us who are able to write and speak, our words become containers of the sacred. And this sacred speech does something. Our words are how we build relationships with each other. Our speech is how we create opportunities for reconciliation and forgiveness. Our words can make someone’s day and, when misused, can cause unbelievable harm. I sort of wish I paid more attention in English class. But there’s at least one grammar rule that I, somehow, can still articulate. And that rule says we’re never to end a sentence with a preposition.

Now, a preposition is a word like with, by, for, in, or, to, and it’s used to express a relationship between a noun or a pronoun and some other element in a sentence. For example, in Deuteronomy 8, verse 3, it says: “God humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna…” That “with” is a preposition. I was taught to avoid ending any sentence with one of those kinds of words. But as I prepared for tonight’s message, I discovered that this so-called “rule” wasn’t really meant for English speakers. The grammarians who decided this took a rule for latin and dictated that English speakers should do the same thing. It’s a bit ironic that I ended up memorizing the one grammar rule that wasn’t really a rule to begin with. But it helped me stay connected to prepositions. And these kinds of our words, which contain the sacred, are especially important when we’re talking about thankfulness and gratitude.

Diana Butler Bass, in her book Grateful, pointed out that “gratitude…always comes with a preposition.” (page 97) “We are grateful for something, grateful to someone, and…grateful with others. Even [when our gratitude is] untargeted…prepositions [still] show up.” We might, for example, find ourselves completely alone on a deserted beach right before the dawn breaks. We listen to the waves gently crashing onto the shore. And then, as the sun rises, we witness the wispy clouds turn pink, orange, and red. Even though no one else is there, we still feel the need to, somehow, say thanks. Now, we sometimes define gratitude and thankfulness as rooted in a kind of exchange, where someone gives us something and we are indebted to them, in small and big ways. This kind of gratitude is built into our culture and it’s so embedded in us that we don’t realize how much this required reciprocity is part of the words we use and teach. I know my kids are a little tired of me always saying, “now what do you say?” after they’ve been given something. Yet gratitude doesn’t need to only be a transaction involving debts and debtors. Gratitude can also be structured through gifts and response. And when we shift our perspective away from looking at life as if it’s recorded on some kind of eternal balance sheet, we discover the gifts that already exist. We can see that “the universe [itself] is a gift. [That] life is a gift. Air, light, soil, water… friendship, love,…and [birth or chosen] family…[these are all] gifts. We live on a gifted planet.” (xxiv) And without these gifts, we wouldn’t even exist. Gratitude and thankfulness is rooted in these initial gifts. Each one of us, by merely existing, end up being a beneficiary in God’s world. And instead of only saying that this arrangement makes us indebted to God, we can choose to “express our appreciation for [these gifts] by … [giving all sorts of gifts – those that are large and small] … to others” (xxv)

When we center our gratitude in gifts rather than in indebtness, the prepositions of thankfulness show us that when gifts are given, “connection comes alive.” (97) In the words of Diana Butler Bass, “when it comes to gratitude, ‘me’ always leads to ‘we’.” (97). When we are grateful for something, grateful to someone, and grateful with others – our gratitude creates community with all those things on the other side of the prepositions. And that community is grounded in every gift that the Eternal One has first given us. Now, in my Lutheran Christian tradition, everything begins with gifts. Our life is a gift. Our relationship to God is a gift. Jesus, we believe, is a gift. And even our faith, our ability to say who we are and whose we are, is a gift. In theory, we should be good at recognizing the gifts given to us. Yet using words to name our gifts isn’t always easy. One of the skills we need to learn is how to name all our gifts out loud. Because it’s a gift that we are here tonight, celebrating 50 years of interfaith partnership and support in the Pascack Valley. It’s a gift that we, together, can choose to love, care, and be with each other – even though there are forces in this world that want to tear us apart. It’s a gift that I, a Christian, was invited to say these words tonight even though the history of antisemitism in a twisted version of my faith has led to incredible horrors against the Jewish people – an evil that we will continue to denounce, fight against, and do whatever we can to remove. And finally, it’s a gift that every one of you is here and that we, together, will use our words to affirm our collective call to welcome, love, and stand with all. Because as faith-filled people living in Bergen County, we are a gift to each other. As we look forward to our next 50 years together, I don’t know what nouns and pronouns will be on the other side of our future gratitude prepositions. But I believe that our love for each other will grow as we continue to stand in solidarity with each other. And that we will be a welcoming, diverse, and inclusive community of communities, rooted in our eternal gifts, so that we can be grateful for, grateful to, and grateful with.

Amen.

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Worth It: With Great Power Must Come Great Responsibility

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.

“As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them. And the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations. When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death;and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.

Mark 13:1-13

My sermon from the 26th Sunday After Pentecost (November 18, 2018) on Mark 13:1-13. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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Invisible Girl. Iron Man.The Hulk. Marvel Girl. These are just some of the comic book characters Stan Lee helped bring to life. He, along with the artists Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and Don Heck, was instrumental in creating an entire universe full of superheroes. To my kids, Stan Lee is that weird old guy with the awkward cameos in all of the Marvel superhero movies. But for the rest of us, he’s the one who spent five decades giving us all superhero dreams. Stan Lee wasn’t perfect. He took too much credit for the collaborative work he did and he should have given the artists, letterers, and inkers at Marvel Comics more money. Yet I, like countless other comicbook nerds, mourned his passing earlier this week. He was a pop-culture icon, giving birth to a world that looked a lot like our own but one where radioactive spiders gave teenagers superhuman strength. Peter Parker, aka Spider-man, is probably his most beloved co-creation. He first showed up in Amazing Fantasy Comics #15 as a sixteen year old kid who was bitten by a radioactive spider. Peter discovered he could climb walls, balance on thin cables, and crush steel pipes as if they were paper. With his new found powers, Peter did what any teenager would do: he joined the amateur professional wrestling circuit, using his new skills to make some money. After being given the stage name Spider-Man, tragedy struck and Peter Parker became the superhero he was destined to be. And in the final panel of his very first appearance, we read a line that I think even the Holy Spirit regretted not including in the Bible. Spider-man learned that “with great power comes…great responsibility.”

That line speaks about something that we all know but that we don’t, necessarily, practice. We want those with power to serve the greater good. We want people to recognize the power they do have and how they are called to confront the evil in the world. “With great power comes great responsibility” is an amazing line. Except…that’s not the exact quote of what the comic book actually says. If you opened up your copy of Amazing Fantasy #15 to the very last part of the story, you’d read: “And a lean, silent figure slowly fades into the gathering darkness, aware at last that in this world, with great power there must also come – great responsibility!” We usually leave out the “must also” part of that quotation. But maybe we shouldn’t. Because those words illuminate the inevitable calling that Peter Parker has. He doesn’t get to choose what his responsibilities are. Instead, he gets to live them out and endure. And like all of Jesus’ disciples, he sometimes wonders if this kind of life is actually worth it.

At the start of today’s reading from the gospel according to Mark, the disciples were just overwhelmed by it all. They were hanging out in the place God promised to be, in the Temple in Jerusalem, and they were following God’s Messiah. The disciples, I imagine, were filled with a sense of awe as they walked on holy ground with the One who could feed thousands of people with a couple of loaves and some fish. It’s not only the stones and the buildings that were large – the disciples knew that they were in God’s city with the One who could change the world. And in their exuberance, an unnamed disciple, gave voice to that feeling – and Jesus, in response, cut that exuberance short. Instead of basking in the glory of that moment, Jesus shared that everything around them would come tumbling down. Jesus claimed that God’s House, God’s home on earth, would be destroyed. And so, later on, four of Jesus’ friends came to him, wanting to know exactly what he was talking about. If the Temple was going to fall, they wanted to know when. Now that’s a completely reasonable question but what’s striking about that question is who asked it. And to understand that, we need to open our Bibles to the very first chapter of Mark. Because Peter, James, John, and Andrew weren’t just some random followers of Jesus; they were his very first ones.

According to Mark, after Jesus’ temptation in the desert and John the Baptist’s arrest – Jesus began his journey to Jerusalem by first going to the the Sea of Galilee. He found two sets of brothers working there. Peter and Andrew were fishing while James and John were mending their nets. Both sets of brothers, at Jesus’ call, left their homes and their families to follow him. And for approximately three years, they saw Jesus work wonders. They watched as he casted out demons. They were there when he healed people that the rest of us tossed aside. Jesus matched wits with the religious leaders of his day and he gave his disciples, including those two sets of brothers, a taste of what it’s like to have Jesus’ power. They, like almost everyone else, imagined that Jesus’ spiritual power would also become a political power that would drive the occupying Roman Empire into the sea. The Temple wasn’t supposed to be destroyed. Instead, it was supposed to become invincible. So the four, the ones who had been there since the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, asked him a question. They wanted to know if everything would still turn out the way they thought it should. They sought assurances from Jesus that, after giving up everything to follow him, he was actually worth it. Because without the Temple, without some political power, and without some honest-to-goodness benefits in the here and now, the two sets of brothers wanted to know if their lives, had any meaning at all. Jesus sidestepped their question. And instead, he told them to endure. He told them to just live.

And living can be hard. There are joys, of course, but there’s also struggles and suffering. As we age, we discover that our bodies don’t always do what they used to and our new normal isn’t very fun. Our relationships with the people around us can bring us incredible joy but they can also break our heart. We find ourselves praying prayers that we know won’t be answered. And we watch as entire towns are wiped out by wildfires, hurricanes, and wars. We wonder if being here makes sense because the benefits of our faith don’t seem to materialize in the ways we thought they would. We, in a sense, lose that everyday meaning that should move us into a more vibrant, and easier, future. And instead we discover that there’s a lot of life that we just have to live through.

And Jesus, well, he knows that. He not only understands our life but he chose to live that life too. He had the power to do exactly what Peter, James, John, and Andrew wanted. But he also knew that our cycle of living, of violence and war and hurt, was a cycle that needed to be broken. Living for power, for comfort, and for control at the expense of those around us, wasn’t the life God meant for us. So God came down to live with us, to experience first hand what our endurance requires. And Jesus showed us how we can still live even when the stones that serve as the foundation of our lives come tumbling down. Through Jesus’ life and the Cross, through our baptism, through the faith that brings us into Christ’s church week after week, we have been given a lifeline to the divine. It’s here where we receive the creator of the universe: it’s here where we received Jesus himself. And He says that you, as you are, are worth being loved and held by God. Living with faith isn’t easy because faith requires us to be honest about ourselves and our lives. Yet that honesty, in a way, becomes our great power because it helps us admit our collective responsibilities. Whether you are in happiest part of your life or whether everything is crumbling around you, you are eternally loved. And that love is our collective calling to care and serve each other just like Christ cares and serves you. So whether we’re a 95 year old creative legend or a 16 year old kid who was bitten by a radioactive spider, our calling is that we must love, pray, cry, laugh, scream, doubt, and live through our futures, trusting that the peace, mercy, hope, and joy that God has promised to us will, in the end, carry us through.

Amen.

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