Oil: Looking for the absurd and the consistent in Jesus’ parables

[Jesus said to his disciples:] “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

Matthew 25:1-13

My sermon from the 23rd Sunday After Pentecost (November 12, 2017) on Matthew 25:1-13. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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So I know Halloween is over and Thanksgiving is just around the corner but like every retail store out there, I too, have Christmas on the brain. Well, not Christmas exactly – just Christmas sweaters. I don’t know if you’ve noticed but the Ugly Christmas Sweater is a thing. It’s no longer a name we give to the knitted sweaters we find at Goodwill that are covered with trees, snowmen, and lights. The Ugly Christmas Sweater is now a fashion design with the name right on the tag. If, say, you headed north after worship and stopped by a Target in New York, you can pick up a fantastic Ugly Christmas Sweater. If you wanted a sweater that lights up using long lasting LEDs? Target has a dozen to choose from. If you’re looking for something more branded, and you want to celebrate the new Star Wars movie with R2D2 wearing a Santa hat? You can get that in red. And if you love the story of Santa but wished he had tabby cats pulling his sleigh instead of reindeer – your dream is now a reality. Ugly Christmas Sweaters are amazing because they are completely absurd. They’re silly, light hearted, and challenge us to look at the world in a new way. When we see a coworker, family member, or friend wearing a ridiculous sweater, we’re forced to see them in a new light. The more absurd their Ugly Christmas Sweater is, the more that sweater changes our viewpoint and perspective. Ugly Christmas Sweaters are absurd and looking for the absurdities is what we need to do when listening to Jesus’ words today.

And doing this isn’t always easy. When we hear Jesus speak, we want to keep his words reverent, sacred, and important. We should take his words seriously. But that doesn’t mean we can only approach his words in a serious fashion because parables, by their very nature, are not completely serious. They are stories that are a little bit off. And they need to be because they translate into human terms what Jesus “the kingdom of heaven.” Since our world isn’t the kingdom of heaven quite yet, we need stories that are a little off to help us see God more fully. So parables need us to, in my opinion, find those slightly askew parts in the story, to find those Ugly Christmas Sweater moments. the story. And one such moment comes at the very end of today’s parable. Jesus, in a sentence designed to sum up the entire story, tells everyone to “stay awake.” But who, in this parable, actually stays awake? No one! Everyone, the wise and the foolish, sleep. So if everyone sleeps, what’s the point of the story?

Now, the thing about Ugly Christmas Sweaters is that there is always more than one and that rule applies to Jesus’ parables too. We need to look for all the absurd moments. But that’s hard because we no longer live in Jesus’ cultural context. We are not Jews living in Galilee and Jerusalem 2000 years ago. We don’t know what wedding would really be like back then. From what we can tell, the groom would show up on their wedding day and one of the first rituals involved bridesmaids. These bridesmaids would use lamps and torches to escort the entire wedding party from the bride’s home to the groom’s. Once the groom, bride, and everyone else made that move, the three day long party would start. But we don’t know how many bridesmaids would be needed. So the fact that Jesus mentioned ten, and then splits them into two groups of 5, is a little bit off. The story also starts with everyone ready to do their part. Every bridesmaid has a lamp and, it seems to me, every lamp is already on fire. Even when they notice that the groom is delayed, they keep their lamps lit, instead of conserving their oil while they wait. And this waiting is weird because everyone seems to fall asleep, right where they are, with everything still burning. That doesn’t feel very safe. And then, when the groom finally arrives in the middle of the night, some torches are ready but others are about to go out. Five of the bridesmaids need more oil but their sisters do a completely unChristian and unJesus-like thing: they don’t share what they have. They reject their sisters, telling them to go to the store which, if we’re honest, probably wouldn’t be open since it is the middle of the night. But 5 bridesmaids go anyway and while they’re away, the groom finally shows up. The 5 that meet him don’t tell him that others have gone on an errand. Since the groom was late, it would have been thoughtful for him to wait for the other bridesmaids to return. But he doesn’t. Instead, the escort happens, the party begins, and they shut the door behind them. When the other bridesmaids finally show up, they are rejected again. When we look at the details of this story, we see that everyone ends up wearing an Ugly Christmas sweater. Everyone does something slightly absurd. Lamps burn unnecessarily. The wise do not share. The foolish are able to find an oil store at midnight. And the groom, who we usually identify as Jesus himself, isn’t very kind, considerate, or loving. The only part of the story that we can attribute to Jesus himself is that very last sentence which doesn’t seem to make much sense because everyone sleeps. Everyone in this parable is a little absurd. Everyone is wearing an ugly Christmas sweater. The only thing that stays consistent is: the oil.

So what is the oil supposed to be?

Well, without oil, lamps do not burn. Without oil, the bridesmaids have nothing that will bring them light in the middle of the night. Without that light, shadow is all there is. This parable, and the two right after it, are ones where we spend a lot of energy trying to figure out what they say about the afterlife. We don’t want to be denied entry into the party that Jesus is throwing so we latch onto the words “stay awake” and we do whatever we can to figure out what we need to do to get into heaven. We can be so laser focused on getting into that final party that we miss a key to this parable that Jesus gives to us way back in chapter 5. At the start of his ministry, in the very first parable he used to teach something to his friends, he tells them, “you are the light of the world” (5:14). “You are” already burning bright. “You are” already lit up. We don’t start this parable as characters without the fuel, the oil we need. We start as light. And that’s because you have something the characters in this parable do not. A parable needs a storyteller and our storyteller does more than just tell stories. Our storyteller made a promise to you in your baptism that the oil used to mark the sin of the cross on your forehead will never run out. Jesus promised that he will always give you the oil you need to shine bright. In the long periods of waiting, when nothing seems to go right, you will have oil. In those moments when we feel stuck in one place, exhausted, worn out, and unsure of what we’re supposed to do next, you will have oil. When the days feel long and the nights feel even longer, Jesus promised that you will have fuel for your journey. But that fuel isn’t always a motivation, a power, a feeling that we feel deep inside. That fuel is also a community, a church, where we all turn to each other and ask: “what do you need to keep going?” (Lundblad, Feasting on the Word (Matthew volume 2), page 259) And in the moments when we don’t have an answer to that question, the community around us still does what it can to carry us through. The church sings can sing when we cannot. The community can prays when we cannot. Others worship even though you yourself might not be able to set foot through that door. All of us can believe the hurts that you share and we can all break the silence of pain, suffering, stigma, and hate that makes this world hurt too much. And then, with a little piece of bread, a little thimble of drink, and a simple word of promise – we can give you all of Jesus because Jesus has given all for you.

Amen.

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Children’s Sermon: Wait

Bring stickers for kids to have.

So I have something here…what are they? Stickers. Stickers! Who likes stickers? MEEEEEE. I like stickers too. And at the end of this children’s message, I’m going to give you these stickers. I’m going to give you each one. But only at the end. Until then, we all need to wait. And wait. And wait.

So you know what’s something I don’t like doing? Waiting. Waiting can be so boring sometimes. Like, when it’s dinner time, and I have to wait for the food to bake. I’m hungry now. I want to eat now. But I have to wait. And wait. And wait. Do you like waiting? Nope! What are things you don’t like to wait for? Accept answers from the kids. Those are all hard things to wait for.

Today, we’re going to hear a lot of different lessons from the bible that are going to talk about waiting. And we’re waiting for someone specific. The bible tells us that we’re here to wait for…Jesus. Jesus, God’s Son, already came to our world. He lived in it, made friends in it, helped people, and showed everyone what God’s loved looks like. Even though we don’t see him, he’s still here helping us love each other. The bible tells us that, someday, Jesus will come back so that everyone can see him. So we’re waiting for him to return, to come back, so everyone can see him and everyone can see just how much God loves us.

So that means we have to wait. And it’s hard to wait. Like we’re still here, waiting for me to give you the stickers. What are the things we can do while we wait? Be patient. Be kind. Be helpful. Love everyone. So Jesus promises to come. We know he’s going to come. But, right now, we need to wait. But we wait knowing the promise will be fulfilled. So God invites us to act like the promise is true and that it’s already here. So if we think Jesus will take care of everyone when he is here, we take care everyone now. If we think Jesus will welcome everyone into his family, we do the same as well. We can’t do everything Jesus do – Jesus is God so Jesus knows things we don’t. Jesus can judge about people more than we can. So Jesus doesn’t want us to pretend to judge each other like he can. But he does tell us to love each other like we can. So that’s what we do. While we wait – we love.

And here’s your stickers!

Thank you for being up 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 23rd Sunday After Pentecost, 11/12/2017.

Declare: Making a Statement

Cats rarely listen to me. The two that live at my house, Finn and Flotus, never respond well to my verbal commands. When I tell them to stop sleeping on my jacket, they purr. When I order them to jump down from the kitchen counter, they crawl into the kitchen cabinets above. I don’t consider my two cats as pets. They’re really small and furry roommates. Finn and Flotus live their own lives and they enjoy not listening to a word I say. It can be frustrating to live with two cute fuzzballs who ignore everything I declare to them.

As I reflected on our text from 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 today, I’m struck by what Paul declared to the community he was writing to. Scholars believe that this is the earliest letter from Paul we have. And since Paul’s letters were the first pieces composed for what became our New Testament, this letter is the first written record of what the gospel is all about. Paul is writing to a small community who are worried. They were expecting to Jesus to return very soon. But there was a delay and people, in their community, have died. The question was: did the ones who die miss out on Jesus?

Paul answers by doing something we don’t always get to do. He stated clearly and forcefully that our union with Jesus transcends life and death. This promise is a promise God made to us in our baptism when we, through no strength of our own, were united to the entirety of Jesus’ story. Paul declared what he knew to be turn and he invited the community to do the same. Imagine, for a moment, making this kind of declaration in your own life. It doesn’t matter if someone (or some cat) listens to you. Paul, in this text, doesn’t tie this promise to anything that the people in this community have to do. The promise is true because God is true. And this promise is something we all have. Part of our life in faith is to, with the help of the Holy Spirit, make these kind of declarations to our family, friends, and even strangers. We don’t always know what the declaration will look like but we know what the declaration will be about. It will be words, actions, and deeds centered in a hope, and a love, that does not end.

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 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, 11/12/2017.

Children’s Sermon: What’s Call?

All Saints. Bring a light (iPhone), Justice League action figures, and a batman mask. Make sure light has bat signal on it. Going to shine a bat signal on a piece of paper.

So I brought some friends with me today: my superhero friends! But not Marvel these are DC…the Justice league to be sure. I have…Superman. Green Lantern. And Wonder Woman. But…wait a second. I’m missing someone. Who do you think I’m missing? Batman! Batman. I wonder where he is? If we don’t know where someone is, how can we reach them? Email. Text. Yell. Call. We could call them! Bring out phone. Do you know Batman’s number? I don’t. Is there another way we can call him? Bat signal. The bat signal!

Now, I don’t have a big bat signal but I do have this one. Shine the iPhone and use the little signal. Shine on piece of paper. When we call Batman, when we use the bat signal, we are telling Batman that we have a job for him to do. There’s a villain somewhere or someone needs helps. We need Batman to help make a difference. That’s what we need when we call for Batman.

In church, we sometimes use that same word: call. It’s not an easy word to understand. When I talk about our “calling,” we might be confused. And that’s ok. But that’s why I think about the bat signal. Just like we send out word when we have a job for Batman, God sends us a signal, a call, to do a job God wants us to do. All of us have a calling that God gives us. And the call can show up in different ways. When someone asks us for help, that’s god telling us to help. When we see someone hurting, that’s God calling us to see if we can make them feel better. And if we see someone crying, we might not always be able to make it better, but we can sit with them and let them know that we will stay with them, no matter what. Because that’s some of the jobs God gives us as Christians. Helping is a job God gives you and it’s something you can do, no matter how old or young you are. You are God’s superhero – and just like Batman (put on mask) can help when we call for him, God calls you to help others too.

Thank you for being up 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 All Saints’ Sunday, 11/05/2017.

Seals: Revelation

This summer, my family and I visited the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington D.C. To escape the constant thunderstorms, we took shelter in a fake structure designed to look like a cave. One side was made up of a large piece of glass. Half of the glass was submerged under water, showing us animals swimming inside. We stood there for awhile, watching two sea lions dart around the water tank in circles. They would swim by us quickly, as if they were saying hello to us. They then swam as fast as they could to the other side of the tank and we could no longer see them. They circled like this over and over again. We were mesmerized by their speed, agility, and grace. My kids loved that they seemed to know we were there. We watched them. They played around with us. And, for a moment, our perceptions, viewpoints, and realities danced with each other.

When the bible mentions seals, I instantly think of these kinds of animals. But I’m always wrong. In the bible, seals were emblems and symbols used to mark letters, packages, and other containers as being authentic and true. Vases were marked with a seal representing the ruler who owned it. A letter would have a little ball of melted wax shaped by a specific mold to show it came from a specific person. If the letter was opened, the seal would break. A seal was a sign that something (or someone) was authentic, unbroken, and tied to a specific lord or ruler. A seal showed who this item was from and who it belonged to.

Our reading from Revelation 7:9-17 today is a vision of what it looks like to be sealed by Christ. In our baptism, our forehead is marked with the sign of the cross. We are declared, in a very public way, as being someone who is authentically and materially part of Jesus Christ. We cannot earn this kind of declaration. None of us can ever be as perfect we should be. Instead, we are sealed in this way as a gift from Jesus himself. This seal is a promise that we do not live this life alone. Instead, we carry Christ with us no matter what. Like watching a seal swimming in a zoo, there are times when we cannot see Jesus. He might be on the otherwise of the tank that is our life. But he is never as far as we think he is. He is always just around the corner. He will meet us, challenge us, and change us with a love that can never be undone. And that love is a love that even death cannot break.

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 All Saints’ Sunday, 11/05/2017.

Marching On: Blessed Are Those Who Mourn

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Matthew 5:1-12

My sermon from All Saints’ Sunday (November 5, 2017) on Matthew 5:1-12. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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If we’ve spent time in church, these words from the gospel according Matthew are ones we probably already know. We might not have all twelve verses memorized but if someone starts saying “Blessed are…” – we can fill in some of the rest. Jesus, at the start of his long sermon marking the start of his public ministry according to Matthew, says that there are specific groups of people who have specific kinds of experiences and that these people, in the eyes of God, are blessed. But, right now, as I stand here overlooking the sandbox that we will shortly fill with lit candles, I am drawn to Jesus’ words on mourning. Today is a day where we, as a community, mourn. We will read out loud the names of people connected to this church who have recently passed away. We will light candles for family, friends, coworkers, and colleagues who burned bright in our lives. We’ll remember everyone who mattered to us; everyone who loved us; everyone who, through their thoughts, words, and deeds, filled each of us with so much life. Today we create a space in this church where it’s okay for all of us to just mourn and express that mourning in any way we want to. If you want to be stoic, calm, and collected? That’s totally cool. And if you want to shed a tear, we’ll pass you a box of tissues. All Saints’ Sunday is a day when you get to be just you. But I wonder: does what we’re feeling now match up with what we think being blessed actually feels like? In other words, when Jesus says that those who mourn are blessed, do we really believe him?

Now, on some level, the answer to that questions is yes. I mean, these words are coming from Jesus. Jesus, the Son of God, the firstborn from the dead, the one – as the Nicene creed says – through whom all things were made. If we’re going to believe anyone, then we should believe Jesus. His words about those who mourn being blessed is an idea that we can, in theory, get behind. We can hear his words and, as they bounce around in our head, we can reason through the concept of mourning. Being able to mourn means that we had something worth mourning. We had a connection with someone where real-honest-to-goodness-life flourished. The time spent with that person might only have lasted a moment or it could have grown over decades. But we were changed because they were a part of us. These kinds of people are literal gifts from God. So it’s easy, on one level, to say yes, this is what being blessed looks like. We were blessed by special people in our lives and mourning is part of what that kind of relationship actually looks like. But I’ve never been good at keeping life-giving relationships stuck in my head. Emotions, feelings, and my soul get involved. Even when I try to think and reason my way through mourning, there’s still a part of me that…just plain hurts. Or feels empty. Or feels incomplete. It’s as if there’s some kind of hole inside me that is held open by the memory of the person that once filled that space. Even though I trust Jesus’ word. And I know about heaven, the communion of saints, and how, since we are part of the body of Christ, we are always connected to each other – no matter what. Even though I know all of this – that empty space is still just there. This feeling…this reality…is hard to describe and I don’t know if what I feel is something you feel too. But it’s hard to imagine that carrying around these kind of holes inside of us each and every day is what being blessed is supposed to be like.

There’s a struggle in Jesus’ words here and it made writing this sermon a bit of a struggle too. In the midst of this struggle, I did what I always do when the words for Sunday don’t seem to be coming. I opened Facebook. I scrolled through my newsfeed, congratulating a friend on the birth of her new baby girl and wondered why my father-in-law was posting pictures of horses. I saved a few articles to read later and I did my best to avoid getting sucked into posts with 200 comments in the various groups that I’m a part of. Some people might call this procrastinating. To me, I was just scrolling. And then, one post jumped out at it. Someone left a photo on the facebook page of a friend and I noticed the caption for this picture first. It said, “I bought you an angel.” And below the caption was a dark and grainy photo, taken at night. There was a candle lit up and sitting on a white base with some figurine or sculpture on its side. I couldn’t make out what the sculpture was but I the candle shined just bright enough to illuminate the tombstone it was sitting on. That angel was for a friend of mine who had committed suicide several years ago. I stared at that picture for a bit and I kept coming back to it as I wrote the rest of these words. When it comes to being blessed, we don’t imagine heartbreak or sadness or having an empty spot inside of us as being what blessed looks like. Being blessed is reserved for for an answered prayer, or when we get or dream job, or when something takes away the worry, anxiety, and stress that hangs over our lives. Being blessed is when the voids and empty parts inside of us fill up. It isn’t supposed to be when we admit the ways we still sad, broken, and still grieving. Yet Jesus says that even us, even those with holes in their hearts and empty parts in their souls – even you are still important to God. Mourning isn’t a process designed to fill up the spaces in our lives that our loved ones still occupy. Mourning is how we learn to live with, and through, death. This doesn’t mean, however, that God caused this mourning or that God really wants the void that we carry to be part of our life. Instead, mourning is an experience that God promises to carry you through because even Jesus suffered heartbreak. Even Jesus mourned. The Son of God stood at the tomb of his friend Lazarus and Jesus just cried. And when Jesus rose from the grave, the holes on his hands from the nails that hung him to the cross were still there. The holes didn’t go away. The holes inside us, these parts holding the memory of those who gave us so much life, are not parts of ourselves that we are supposed to avoid, push aside, or just get over. We mourn because there are people who will always matter to us; there are people who we will always light a candle for; and there are people who showed us what living the faith actually looks like. We mourn because God gives us to each other as a gift – a gift meant to give us life. And that kind of gift is a love that no hole or void or empty feeling can ever overcome. The sadness we feel isn’t the end of the story. The space inside us that feels empty is a space God reserves for our loved ones to fill again. We who mourn are blessed not because of the holes that we carry but because God promises that these empty spaces won’t be the limit to the story God is already telling. Even though the candles we place today in this sandbox will eventually burn out, the light God gives to each of us is a light that will always burn bright. Blessed are those who today, mourn. Blessed are those who today, ache. Blessed are those today, who feel sad. And Blessed are those who knew us, who loved us, and who are with the Lord forever.

Amen.

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In the news: Churches mark 500th anniversary of Protestant Reformation

This is a copy of a news article I appeared in on October 30, 2017.. It celebrates a joint worship service with First Congregational in Park Ridge, Christ Lutheran Church, and Pascack Reformed Church to honor the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. My picture appeared on the cover of the local section in the Record. Article by Michael W. Curley, Jr. Photo by Mitsu Yasukawa. Includes video!

Luther’s break from the Catholic Church started the Protestant movement as others followed suit, resulting in numerous denominations splitting from what was at the time the only Christian church.

The various denominations of Christianity are still related after the Reformation, often referred to as a schism within the church, Stutzel said. Even though they each approach their faith differently, he said, the denominations are more similar than they are different.

“Over the last 200 years or so, the Lutherans in this country, mostly, not all of us, have had experiences where we’ve started joining together instead of splitting apart. We’ve been really acting on joining together,” he said. “There’s a movement to celebrate what’s common to us.”

As different faiths have often used arguments on faith to remain separate, Sunday represented “something strange,” Stutzel said, likening the shared service to Luther’s habit of inviting many different people to his home for dinner to talk with them.

“We’re a united and uniting church,” Suriano said. “So we’re very interested in joining together with other churches from the inception of our denomination.”

The pastors said they have been working toward bringing their congregations together since they each came to their churches in the last three years, including a joint Cross Walk around Easter.

They decided to make events out of the fifth Sunday of a month into special events, and with Reformation Sunday and the 500th anniversary of the Reformation falling on a fifth Sunday, it made an obvious choice to kick off the practice.

“Our motto is, ‘reformed and always reforming,’ so we’re always looking for new ways to connect, have a relationship with God, a relationship with others,” Romero said. “We think that we can still be together and connected in all the ways that we have in common.”

Is Or About? A Reformation 500 Celebration

Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

John 8:31-36

My sermon from the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation (October 29, 2017) on John 8:31-36. We were thrilled to worship together with Pascack Reformed Church and First Congregational United Church of Christ! Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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In New York City near the Empire State Building, there’s an entire city block that’s one of my favorite places to go. 32nd street, between 5th Ave and Madison Avenue, is filled with karaoke bars, beauty shops, and bbq restaurants that let you grill seafood, meat, and vegetables right at your table. This block is the heart of Koreatown, a cultural hub for the 200,000 Koreans and Korean-Americans who call the City and the surrounding area – home. When I lived in New York City, I had an old roommate who introduced me to this place. She was born and raised in South Korea so when we went out, we’d let her order for everyone at the table. She’d look at the menu, pick a few dishes, and switch seamlessly between English and Korean as she ordered our meal. And then, once the food arrived, her stories would start. She’d introduce us to a new vegetable, telling us where it grew, how it was used, and when it was harvested. We learned what foods were served on holidays and which dishes her grandmother made to mark special occasions. In her stories, we met extended family members, visited distant villages, and reveled in the old legends and myths that make a culture what they are. The more we ate, the more we experienced the history, culture, and personal stories that made my roommate who she was. Events that I could read about in my history books – like the occupation of Korea by Japan prior to World War 2, the Korean War in the early 1950s, and the dictatorships and the struggle for democracy afterwards, were fleshed out as my roommate told these same stories but with the names of her family members baked in. One of the dishes she introduced to me is Budae Jjigae, known in english as Army Base Stew. After the cease-fire between North and South Korea was signed, food was in short supply. Processed meats from US military bases were smuggled and sold on the local black markets. Spam, Hot Dogs, and various kinds of ham were mixed with Kimchi, Baked Beans, scallions, and whatever else was lying around. Army Base Stew is one of those dishes where literally everything is thrown into a pot – and you have no idea what you’re eating – but it’s delicious – so you just keep on eating. This dish was invented because people were hungry. Families created Army Base Stew to feed each other and their neighbors. This dish tells a story and when eat it, especially if we’re not Korean or we don’t need food pantries or SNAP benefits to survive, this dish moves us to experience something new. This, I think, is one of the amazing things that happens when we mix meals with stories. When we eat together, every story spoken around the table connects, mixes, and forms something new. Instead of learning about someone else’s history and culture, we encounter it, discovering a history and an identity that’s filled with real people with real names. When we listen to these stories over steaming stews, plates of food, and when we’re surrounded by bread and drink – the chewing on the food and the chewing on the words – changes us. We are no longer what we were before. The story and its storyteller have left their mark.

So, it might be a little strange to begin this sermon on the 500th anniversary of a movement that started in Germany by describing a Korean dish that was invented in the 1950s and that I consumed in a city that didn’t even exist when Martin Luther posted his 95 thoughts about Jesus, faith, and the church on a big old church door in Wittenberg on Oct 31, 1517. But if we’re honest, all of us are doing something a little strange today too. At this very moment, we’re supposed to be in our different church buildings using our different liturgical and theological traditions to feed, grow, and reflect on our faith. Each one of our communities can trace their origin to what Luther started 500 years ago but every one of us, including the Lutherans, have traditions and experiences and expectations that put distance between us. We have a long history of using our arguments about God, Jesus, and the Christian faith to keep us from sitting at the same table. During these last 500 years, our churches are not used to coming together. What we’re doing now is still a new thing. We are, as churches, changing our own spaces to become places where we can tell our stories to each other. And one way we do that is, I think, by following, something Martin Luther knew very well. We share ourselves and our Jesus while eating a meal.

A few years after the Reformation started, Luther was given an old monastery as a home. His wife, Katie Luther, had gifts and abilities Martin didn’t. She was the one who could manage the household, oversee their ten employees, keep track of their finances, and she made sure that their 50 person table was open to anyone who stopped by. Luther had a habit of inviting everyone to dinner. Locals and visitors, university professors and students, the rich and the poor, men and women, boys and girls would gather at that table. These dinners were more than just an opportunity to eat delicious food and enjoy a beer that Katie herself brew. Like our own dining room tables, the meal was a place to talk. We know a bit of what was shared around Luther’s table because people would take notes about what was said. Most of the time, students and theologians were trying to pick Luther’s brain, to get him to share a special insight about Jesus and the Christian faith. But for every question about Jesus, there was a story or a confession or a prayer rooted in an encounter with Jesus himself. Someone would admit feeling depressed or sad, sharing some personal demon that kept them awake at night. Another would ask about a piece of dogma or a rule of the church that was causing them some unbearable pain. Over the clatter of dinner plates and the clanging of glasses, the conversation didn’t stay in the “about stages” for very long. Instead, it dug deep into just how hard the faith of everyday life can be. Painful decisions, long periods of living in shadow, the joy of weddings, and even a father changing their child’s diaper – nothing was off limits at that table because, for Luther, nothing about our lives was off limits to God. It wasn’t enough to just know about Jesus. Jesus wanted to be encountered and experienced in the places God revealed him to be. Jesus didn’t want to wait for us to come to him. Instead, he chose to be with us in our everyday, even in those time and places when we are just living our life and don’t see Jesus right there with us. He is there when we shed tears of sorrow and tears of joy. He is there when we cry out in fear or in hope. He’s there when we have a decision to make that we just don’t want to or when everything right now seems easy and carefree. Our encounters with Jesus are not limited to moments that only feel super religiously. Even when we share a meal and tell stories with people who we don’t usually eat with, Jesus makes himself known to each of us. What matters to Jesus isn’t what we know about him. What he wants is for us to know him because he already knows us. When we came into this world, Jesus knew our name before we did. When we were baptized, we were publically acknowledged as belonging to His holy family. And as we grew up in our own families, cultures, traditions, and congregations, we learned stories that made us who we are and we were met by a Jesus telling us how his story, his life, his Cross, and his resurrection makes us into something new. As we celebrate this 500th anniversary of the Reformation and look forward to the years to come, we will keep doing something that is new and is old, all at the same time. We will keep sharing the stories that make us who we are; we will keep opening up our personal spaces so that we can listen to stories that are not our own; we will share bread and drink with all whom God puts in our path; and we will keep holding close to the One who encounters us with a gift of love, a gift of hope, and a gift of faith that frees us to live as Jesus’ people each and everyday.

Amen.

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Children’s Sermon: Coloring Community

500th Birthday of the Reformation! Bring a color sheet (page 40) from the resources by NC Lutherans. We’re worshipping with First Congregational (UCC) and Pascack Reformed Church.

So for those who don’t know me, I’m Pastor Marc and I’m the pastor here at this church. I am so happy that all of you are here today. And today is a very special day. We’re doing something we don’t usually do – and all of us are here together, at this church, today. Most Sundays, we’re at our own churches. Some of us are at Pascack Reformed in Park Ridge. Others at First Congregational, United Church of Christ, in Park Ridge. And others are here, at Christ Lutheran Church. We are all part of 3 different church communities – with different traditions and stories and background. But we’re all here – together – to celebrate something that happened a long time ago – that is part of all our histories and where we come from. We’re basically having a party – and like every good party, we have special music and after church we’ll have food and time to talk to each other. But one thing I like to have at a good party is decorations – more than the amazing decorations than we have already. So let’s make a few simple ones.

Pass out clipboards with the page 40 coloring sheet (all the different communities the ELCA is partners with) and crayons.

This is a coloring sheet and I hope everyone got one…good! Now, let’s start coloring – and while we color, let’s talk about it. What do you see on the page? Accept answers. It’s also full of symbols (describe the symbols). Do any of the symbols look familiar to you? Have Pastor Mark and Pastor Larissa share which ones look familiar to them too. Everyone keeps coloring! And there are words in the middle of it – Get someone to read them.

The words are from a letter that tradition says a man named Paul wrote almost 2 thousands years ago. That’s a lot time ago. But these are words from our bible, from our scripture, and this verse describes a little bit about why we are gathered here together. All of us are unique and different from each other. We are part of 3 different churches. We have 3 different traditions that inspire us and help us know God. We all have like different things, have different favorite colors, and come from different families. We are not the same. But I believe that God doesn’t want us to all be the same. God likes that we are different. God likes that we use different colors to color different parts of our coloring sheets. God values you – and can’t wait to see you grow up and, everyday, discover just how much God loves you.

So on this Sunday, when we celebrate this special party about a guy who, 500 years ago, wanted all of us to know the gifts God give us and how God loves us unconditionally, we celebrate what makes us different and special but also what makes us neighbors and friends – Point to the Cross. Jesus is what makes us who we are – and draws us together – and shows us how God loves us. Because all of us are part of God’s people – and belong to God’s holy, diverse, and amazing family.

Thank you for being up 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 Reformation Sunday, 10/29/2017.