Reflection: The Miracle Isn’t the Whole Story

To see what God is doing in our reading from 1 Kings 17:8-16, we need to start with geography. God sent a message to the prophet Elijah, telling him to go to the Zarephath, a village in the land of Sidon. Sidon is a small country situated on the coast of the Mediterranean sea, bordering the northern part of Israel. Sidon is not Jewish even though some Jewish people lived there. Sidon was a community that traced it’s history to the Phoenicians who famously battled with David and other early leaders of the Israelites. When Elijah received this message, he was sitting in a dried-up wadi to the east of the Jordan River. No rain had fallen in the area for 3 years because God was unhappy with Ahab, the King of Israel. As we will discover later, King Ahab recently married Jezebel, a princess from the land of Sidon Jezebel is not Jewish and when she arrived in Israel, she brought her religion with her. The importation of gods and idols into the royal household was something God wasn’t happy about. God brings about a drought and compels Elijah to tell King Ahab what is going on (1 Kings 17:1). Elijah, rightly, fled Israel after making this statement to the King and he kept a low profile, waiting for the next word from God to come. And when that word comes, God told Elijah that a woman in the land of Jezebel would be the one who would take care of him.

We shouldn’t separate the miracle in this story from the geography because the geography tells us who God is. God isn’t a divine being that only operates in a small geographical area. God, according to 1 Kings, has authority everywhere. This might seem obvious to us but in ancient times, gods were local. Their power was centered in specific places and people. A war between neighboring cities and kingdoms wasn’t a battle between secular rulers: it was also a war between gods. A god needed to defend their own turf or be considered beaten and weak. For the people of Sidon, God was a local deity who operated in the land Israel. God’s power was limited by geography. But 1 Kings 17 shows Elijah, the widow, Ahab and the people of Sidon that God is the God of everywhere.

Imagine, for a moment, if we lived our lives knowing our God is everywhere. What would it look like to trust Jesus is with us in church, at school and in our homes? How would our lives grow if we truly believed that the God who helped a prophet in Sidon is the same God who will help us even if we’re not feeling pretty religious today? What would you do differently today if you knew that wherever you are, Jesus is there?

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 the 25th Sunday after Pentecost, 11/11/2018.

Might/Mite: The Power of a Loud Silence

As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Mark 12:38-44

My sermon from the 25th Sunday After Pentecost (November 11, 2018) on Mark 12:38-44. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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One of the fascinating things about World War 1 is that it’s a war we can see – but one we can’t hear. Even though the war was fought after the invention of the film camera, the videos we have are silent. At the time, sound recordings were mechanically produced by a needle making an etching on wax or metal. The machines that could record sound were simply too big and too delicate to bring into a war zone. Unlike today, where the phone in our pocket can share live images and sounds of wars happening all over the world, the war described as the one to end all wars is one we can’t hear. If want to imagine what that war sounded like, we have to rely on our imagination to fill in the details. A veteran could fill in these auditory gaps, using their own experience in combat or in training as a guide. But the rest of us, well, we have to rely on movies, tv shows, and video games to give us a hint of what war might sound like. However, in honor of today being the 100th anniversary of the signing of the armistice that ended World War 1, the Imperial War Museum in London found a “recording” of what the last 2 minutes of the war sounded like. Now, it’s not a recording as we understand them to be. It’s more of a series of lines on a chart similar to what we see on a seismometer as it records an earthquake. During World War 1, special military units used microphones and other equipment to find out where enemy artillery fire was coming from. Scouts would watch for the flash from the muzzle of big guns as they fired and then turn on a special machine to record on a filmstrip the intensity of the noise those guns caused. And once that noise was recorded, special computations were done to figure out where those big guns were. Most of these kinds of “recordings” were lost after the end of the war. But at least one piece survived. And that filmstrip recorded the last few moments of World War 1 from the vantage point of the Americans located by the River Moselle. A sound company was commissioned to turn these lines into actual sounds. They researched the guns used in the war, measured the noise intensity labeled by each tick on the lines, and even figured out how the ground would reverberated as each gun went boom. They basically reverse-engineered the sound of the end of a war – and in the minute long clip they posted online, you can hear the artillery guns firing up to the very moment the armistice took effect. Then…silence. And for a bit of drama, the sound company added the chirping of birds to its end.

The clip is pretty powerful. It’s the only audio recording we have of what the battlefield in World War 1 sounded like. But what makes it so intriguing – is its silence. Now, before a sound company reverse-engineered those lines on the filmstrip, we didn’t know what it sounded like. It was, in essence, silent to us. But once those lines were decoded, reworked, and made to speak – what keeps us returning to this recording over and over again is the silence embedded in it. It’s not the sound of the artillery pieces that make this recording interesting. What gives it an emotional boost is what’s on there once the sound of the big guns stop. And it’s a kind of loud silence that helps us discover exactly who we get to be.

Now, there’s some silence in today’s reading from the gospel according to Mark that we don’t always see. And that’s because, even though the reading is short, its words invite us to imagine a very loud and noisy world. Jesus was in Jerusalem, filling his time between Palm Sunday and Good Friday by preaching and teaching in the Temple. The Temple was the heart of the city, full of noise and full of people. They were talking, debating scripture, chanting psalms, and trying to speak up over the hees and haws of the animals waiting to be sacrificed. I’m sure there were moments when the crowd, while participating in religious rituals, were silent – but the sounds of the city would then move in. Jesus, at first, added to the noise by speaking about the flashy kind of scribe who’s style and rich living amped up the volume of whatever space they entered. But then Jesus switched things up. He grew silent. He walked into the outer court, the part of the Temple women could go into, and he sat down opposite the treasury. He watched as the crowd filed past the Temple’s version of a church’s offering plate and he heard the clanking of many metal coins as they landed in the treasury. Scripture doesn’t tell us how long Jesus was silent. But I like to imagine that he sat there for quite awhile. And instead of critiquing what each person offered, he waited until a widow came to the treasury to drop her offering into the plate. We don’t know anything about this widow. We don’t know how old she is, where she comes from, or even why she’s there. She, like Jesus, was silent at this moment in the text. And she’s carrying with her two small copper coins worth a penny. That amount of money couldn’t buy her much of anything. Yet it was all she had. And as she dropped those two coins into the offering plate, they barely clanged, making little noise as they landed.

But Jesus heard them. And he broke his silence to tell his disciples about the widow whose silent actions made an incredible amount of noise. The disciples, as we’ll see in next week’s reading, were focused on the bigness and the noise of it all. The large stones, the fancy robes, and the clang of the many coins tossed into the offering plate drew their notice and attention. But the widow was silent to them because her offering was so small, it appeared to make no noise at all. Yet once the noises around the widow were removed; once she was no longer a person in the crowd but rather a person Jesus saw: she became exactly who she had always been: a person God knew, a person God loved, and a person God saw. Her worth wasn’t defined by the value of what she could put in the offering plate nor by what kind of fancy clothes or places of honor she received while sitting around a dining room table. She was, and always had been, a beloved child of God. And since she didn’t have much of anything, she could only be exactly who she was: a widow who, while in God’s house, gave to God everything she had. Her silent place in the world was, according to God, full of a divine noise that only Jesus chose to hear. And she, owning basically nothing, was still willing to give her whole being to God. We, through the Spirit’s help, can do the same because Jesus Christ, through the Cross, gave his whole self for each of us. We tend to focus on the big noises all around us. We chase after whatever is bigger, brighter, and flashier – looking for stuff, experiences, and other people to fill out life with sound. Yet as baptized and beloved children of God, we already carry within us a divine sound that connects us to the source of all life, hope, and love. We are filled by a divine silence that no earthly sound, experience, doubt, fear, or war can ever drive away or overcome. We, because of Christ, get to be exactly who we are: and you, right now and always, are a beloved child of God.

Amen.

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Children’s Sermon: All In

Hokey Pokey Time.

Hi everyone!

I’m very glad to see you today.

So it’s a little cold outside, right? The leaves are falling from the trees. The wind is blowing. The heat is on in our homes. And it might even snow this week. Can you believe it? No!

Play the Hokey Pokey with the kids.

Pretty simple game right? I tell you what to put into the circle, we move around, and then we turn. We put an arm in. And then we put a leg in. Then we put a face in. We put all our body parts in one at a time until the end – when we put in our whole body. And then the game is over.

But what if we did it differently? What if we just put our whole body in at the very start? It would make for a very short game – and we wouldn’t warm up much – but it would help illustrate one of the many things that Jesus tells us today.

Our story about Jesus today talks about his visit to a holy place, the Temple in Jerusalem. And if you don’t know what the Temple is, think of it as a big church – like this one – but bigger. The temple is full of people and is huge, gigantic, and massive. It looks so impressive that Jesus’ friends can’t help see all the people in fancy clothes who are there, all the religious leaders in their big robes, and all the large stones and statues and images that make the Temple such a vibrant place to be. Jesus’ friends notice the big and fancy stuff. But Jesus notices something different. He notices someone that his friends don’t – a woman who is a widow. And she’s poor. And she doesn’t have much money or resources or wealth. But she takes what she has and offers it to God – because she is all in with God.

She doesn’t just give part of what she has. She gives everything. She doesn’t, like in the hokey pokey, put in only part of her body – her arm, her foot, her leg. She puts her whole body in. And that’s something God wants from us too. God wants us to put our wholeself with God – to trust God, to pray to God, to worship God, and to study God’s word. God wants all of us to be with God – because God, through Jesus’ life – his death on the cross – and his resurrection – has put God’s whole self with each of 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 25th Sunday After Pentecost, 11/11/2018.

Community: Speaking at the Local School Board

I spoke at the November 5 meeting of the Pascack Valley Regional High School District’s board meeting. A local rabbi reached out to me and asked me to be there. Nazi graffiti was recently found at the local high school and some families were going to be there. Antisemitism is ungodly and unholy. The response of the Christian community is vital in combating this hate and evil. The school paper wrote this article after the meeting. The morning after, more swastikas were discovered at the school. I’ve reprinted the article from the school paper below.

Superintendent confirms anti-Semitic graffiti Swastikas found in PV bathrooms
Madison Gallo, Rachel Cohen, and Josh DeLuca – November 6, 2018

At the Pascack Valley Regional High School District Board of Education meeting held on Monday, Nov. 5, Superintendent Erik Gundersen addressed the two “isolated incidents” of anti-Semitic defacement that were discovered Sept. 27 and Oct. 18 inside of Pascack Valley High School.

Two swastikas were found etched into bathroom stall partitions. The first, discovered in September, was located in the second floor boys bathroom. The second, found in October, was in the boys bathroom in the cafeteria.

Gundersen said he does not know who first found these images. He added that all custodians and other staff members have been asked to go into bathrooms to see if there is any symbolism to hopefully narrow down who is responsible for it.

Pascack Valley Regional High School District Superintendent Erik Gundersen addresses a parent at the PVRHSD Board of Education meeting on Nov. 5 at Pascack Hills High School. Multiple parents spoke regarding multiple incidents of anti-Semitic defacement at Pascack Valley.

According to Gundersen, after the Anti-Defamation League educated the district years prior on how to combat hate in the school, they [the PVRHSD] knew to immediately shut down the bathroom on the second floor. The police, the PV law enforcement officers Hugh Ames, Mike Niego, and Chip Stalter, and the student resource officer, Mike Camporeale, are also conducting an investigation.

“The reason why it was locked is because we don’t want to subject students to that type of imagery — we don’t want them to see that type of symbolism,” Gundersen said.

Although he did make it clear that he believed the swastikas were drawn by one person, Gundersen declined to comment about any potential leads as to who drew them.

Hillsdale residents and parents of PV students Michelle Silver, Sharon Alessi, Caroline Reiter, and Pastor Marc A. Stuzel of the Christ Lutheran Church in Woodcliff Lake expressed concern regarding the incidents and criticized the district for not informing parents and members of the community during the comments from the public section of the meeting. The parents said they heard about this matter from other parents who were informed by their children.

“The idea of saying nothing and not addressing it, when clearly people know about it, and the kids are talking about it and parents are talking about it, and nothing is being said by the school,” Reiter said. “…[It] unrightfully so gives off the impression that the school tolerates it.”

Administrators did not brief the community about their findings, and, when being interviewed for another Smoke Signal story on Oct. 24, PV Principal Tom DeMaio was asked about the second floor bathroom being closed. He said it was “under repair from some damage that was done.”

“I did not send something out to the community because I did not believe our students were in danger, and we really have to balance the fact that the student body is not in danger based on the evidence that we have along with the fact the person we believe has done this is doing this solely to disrupt the school,” Gundersen said. “They’re looking for people to react in this manner because they take pleasure in seeing people react to a very cowardly act.”

Rather than sending an email to the community, Gundersen explained that PV Vice Principal John Puccio had a discussion with the Student Government Association at Valley relating to this topic.

“Any speculation that the administration was trying to hide this is simply not the case. Our administration had an open conversation with the Student Government Association,” Gundersen said. “But we purposefully lock it because we don’t want to expose students to that symbolism — it’s just inappropriate, it’s hurtful, and it’s insulting.”

These recent incidents are only nearly four years after a white supremacy scandal plagued the school in the May of 2015.

“We’re aware that school is a reflection of society in general as well. Our students develop certain attitudes, language, and behaviors based on what they see from the adults that they look up to,” Gundersen said. “Unfortunately, we have students that will say and do inappropriate things. Now certainly, the appearance of a swastika takes it to the extreme…And we’re doing our best to educate students and make them aware that how incredibly painful that symbol is.”

This was also made public just over a week after the synagogue massacre at the Tree of Life in Pittsburgh that killed 11 Jewish people during a religious ceremony on Oct. 27.

“I’m Jewish myself, I have two Jewish daughters who came through Pascack Valley, I know how they would’ve felt,” PVRHSD Board of Education President Jeffrey Steinfeld said. “I think we have to recognize that their concern is genuine, and we need to validate it and we need to address it.”

Stuzel, whose congregation includes students who attend PV, was in attendance after a rabbi reached out to his interfaith group with news of the anti-Semitic incidents. He was “more than willing to come and speak and support” as he believes that it is important for Christians to “say this is not right” and denounce “hateful” acts.

“Anti-Semitism isn’t something that we should only allow the Jewish community to deal with,” Stuzel said. “It’s a wider community issue.”

Silver, Alessi, and Reiter believe that the district should send an email to the community and host a speaker from an organization, such as the ADL, to discuss the issue of anti-Semitism at the school.

In addition to listening to the concerns of the parents, Stuzel, who is an active member of the local interfaith community, would be willing “to come in and help teach,” “lead programs,” and “talk about the faith community response.”

While Steinfeld did suggest that the district might look to incorporate more involvement from faith leaders, he did not go into specifics as to how the district planned to respond.

“I think Erik [Gundersen] and I will probably speak further about this and will have a greater discussion about what else we want to do and how else we want to address this moving forward,” Steinfeld said.

Saints: You Are Alive

When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

John 11:32-44

My sermon from All Saints’ Sunday (November 4, 2018) on John 11:32-44. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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There are a few habits I no longer do that I miss. As a kid, my brother and I would wait until the energy in the air was just right and then we’d setup a board game on our bedroom floor, one that would take us days to complete. Later, in college, there was this one spot, next to the bookstore, that overlooked a small creek. Every time I walked past it, I would stop – letting the sound of the flowing water connect me to a God I did not acknowledge but One who was with me all the same. And for a while, I looked forward to turning on my computer each week, visiting the New York Times’ Style Section, and clicking through a new photo gallery showcasing what Bill Cunningham had seen and photographed. Bill Cunningham was an iconic photographer who you could spot in New York City wearing a bright blue French worker’s jacket and riding a single speed bicycle. A hat designer by trade, Bill knew fashion and he spent decades reporting on what new trends were bubbling up across the world. But what made him unique was the time he spent on the street, trying to find that new and interesting thing that people actually wore. He didn’t spend much time looking at the fancy dresses that an actress might wear on the red carpet for an awards show. Bill was more interested in the shoe or the bag or the silhouette that people wore when they went out. He was, in essence, interested in style – which is not the same as fashion. In Bill Cunningham’s memoir, Hilton Als writes in it’s preface that style is “a certain faith and pride in one’s public persona – ‘the face that I face the world with,’” to quote Tennessee William’s Sweet Bird of Youth. Style is how we showcase “the existential mess and brights spots called [our] ‘I’” – and Bill wanted to discover “what you had made of yourself.” What made his photospreads awesome wasn’t only the creative people he photographed who had a sense of style that I could never copy or dreamup. What you could see in his photographs was his sheer joy at discovering you. Bill was a creative person with an incredible talent yet he spent all his energy looking at and engaging with other people. He could have focused only on himself or used the people around him to create whatever narrative about the world he wanted to tell. Instead, he used his gifts to point forward, to point to the people around him, because the people around us, I think, are needed so that we can live our life in Christ more fully.

Today’s reading from the gospel according to John ends in an odd spot. Lazarus, who was dead, is now alive. I think we usually imagine this scene as being one where Lazarus walked out of the tomb under his own power. He was sick, he died, Jesus rose him from the dead, and Lazarus left the tomb in better shape than when he first entered it. But when we pay attention to the text, our vision of this scene changes. His walk couldn’t have included his normal strides with one foot in front of the other because his feet were tied together. The best he could do as he exited the tomb was probably shuffle his feet forward. And that shuffle was accomplished almost blindly because a piece of cloth covered his head. And since we hear nothing about Lazarus trying to untie his feet or remove the covering on his head, I imagine his hands were bound to him, removing all freedom of movement. Lazarus exited the tomb but he was still constrained by the burial wrapping for it. Jesus’ words, like the ones spoken in the opening chapter of the book of Genesis, have this power to rearrange the cosmos and reorder our expectations of life and death. But that same word, in today’s text, couldn’t remove a piece of cloth from Lazarus’s head or make his walk from the tomb a little easier. It’s possible, I suppose, that a completely wrapped up Lazarus is how Jesus wanted people to verify that Lazarus was once really dead and now was really alive. But if that’s true, once Lazarus stepped out of the tomb and everyone could see who he was, that part of the story should have ended. But it doesn’t. Instead, Jesus leaves Lazarus bound and, while looking at the crowd, he tells all of them to get up – to go to Lazarus – and unbind him. It’s as if this act of God’s resurrection isn’t complete unless those gathered around participate in some way.

Now it’s hard, at first, to imagine how we can do that. Last I checked, very few of us here have ever raised someone from the dead. But we all, I think, have had moments in our life when the people around us have nourished, sustained, or changed our life into something better. We usually don’t define those moments as equal to Jesus rising from the dead. Our small experience of new life feels tiny and inconsequential in comparison. But I bet the people around Lazarus, when told to go and unbind him, thought what they were doing was small and meaningless too. Yet it’s by Jesus’ invitation that we, in whatever way we can, go and do what Jesus did – and that’s give and generate life. Many of us have been given this life – nourishment, housing, knowledge, experience, guidance, love, forgiveness, mercy, and hope – by a long list of mentors, family members, and friends. They, through Jesus, changed us, informed us, and made us better. Some did so in a very intentional ways; others just by being there in our time of need. I bet many of them never realized just how life-giving they were to us. And many of us never realized how life-giving those people were until years later. We will, in a few moments, light candles in memory of those who gave us life. We will place those candles in the sandbox, letting them burn all the way down, because the life they gave us will never be snuffed out. That life is centered, rooted, and grounded in the One who continually, day in and day out, gives us his life – in baptism, in prayer, at the Lord’s table, and in our faith. Jesus’ invitation to the crowd surrounding Lazarus’ tomb was an invitation for all of us to participate with him in the act of giving life. And we can give this life, make it our habit, because we have, through our baptism, been united with Christ’s own eternal life – a life that doesn’t begin only after we die but one that starts right now. Together we are drawn into God’s act of passing on new life by first bearing witness to the many ways life was given to us and those around us. When we see that life, that love, that hope in our neighbor, in our family member, and in the person sitting in the pew next to us, we discover how we can help unbind each other from the hate, evil, violence, and self-centeredness that this world wants to bind us up with. It’s said that “the light that lit Bill [Cunningham] from within…was that of a person who couldn’t believe his good fortune: he was alive.” You, no matter who you are, no matter your doubts, no matter the ways you feel bounded up – you, through Jesus, are alive. You are a vital part of how Jesus is giving, expressing, and sharing His life with the world. And we are invited to work together, to lean on each other, and to trust each other as God resurrects us, this church, and our world by making Jesus’ life and love a habit for all.

Amen.

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Reflection: Eat It Up

How do we visualize goodness, grace and extravagance without using money? Money might have showed up around 5000 years ago and, by the year 700 BCE (BC), some communities were regularly minting their own coins. The Bible is full of early examples of money. Abraham buys land with money in the book of Genesis but when the Bible talks about his wealth, it points to the number of sheep he has. Solomon gives twenty cities in Ancient Israel to the king of Tyre in exchange for the precious material needed to make the holy Temple. Gold is, by this point, measured (in talents) but only a limited number of people had access to it. There’s a chance most people in Ancient Israel rarely saw money. The few coins they collected were probably used to pay certain taxes to religious and political authorities. For the common person, money was around but it wasn’t an everyday item. It rarely enticed the imagination of the people and wasn’t something they were emotionally invested in.

People might not have cared about money but they did care about wealth. And wealth was something they wanted. Wealth, on one level, was about having enough resources to gain a bit of control over their lives. Instead of a living a life that depended on how good the harvest was every year, wealth allowed a person to survive regardless of the harvest. A wealthy person wasn’t only someone who had 120 talents of gold in their house. A wealthy person also had sheep, goats, and storehouses filled with grain. A person with abundant and extravagant resources was able to feed themselves and their family year after year. So when Isaiah 25:6-9 tried to describe what living with God would be like, he wrote about a feast of good food that never ends.

Isaiah’s feast, of course, is no normal feast. The drink is fantastic, the food is rich, and we are invited to even gnaw on the bones. That might sound a little excessive if we’re vegan but that’s sort of the point. What God offers to us is a connection to the source of all life and that connection will be over the top. This connection is also designed to feed and sustain us. Faith isn’t abstract. Faith feeds, nourishes, and shows us how much God loves us. And this love, no matter where we are in our life, is abundant, over the top, and delicious. In the moments when we feel separated from God and that faith is meant for other people, Isaiah reminds us that God is always for us. And God’s love is extravagant, over the top, and will sustain us through all things.

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 All Saints’ Sunday, 11/04/2018.

Reflection: Prayer in Worship

The Mega-millions lottery jackpot peaked at $1.6 billion dollars this week. I didn’t win but I, and maybe you, had fun dreaming about what we’d do if we won. We planned to help friends, pay down debts, and start a hundred new non-profits to help feed the world. The big jackpot allowed me to spend the week quoting my dad (“you can’t win if you play”) and reminding everyone, if they win, to tithe. Lotteries are big business in the United States. In 2016, they generated over $72 billion in ticket sales. States used the money to pay for programs or, in the case of New Jersey, to help pay their state pension problems. The lotteries are a form of gambling even if the wager feels pretty small. And like all gambling, it can be a form of personal entertainment or grow into something destructive. Winning the lottery shouldn’t be our retirement plan but, for some, the lottery might feel like their only hope for a better future. A lotto ticket, in some ways, is like a prayer.

We sometimes believe prayer is like winning the lottery. Our words become our ticket to get God to work on our behalf. It’s a plea to God to just do something. But our prayer during worship is more than an attempt to win this “divine” lottery. Prayer is, first and foremost, rooted in our relationship with Jesus Christ. When we pray for the church, we ask God to make the Christian community as life-giving as Jesus’ own body is to us. When we pray for the earth, we ask God to renew the goodness that’s around us. When we pray for each other, we want people close to us to be made whole. And when we pray for our elected officials and other leaders, we’re not asking for their will to be done. We are asking, instead, for God to rekindle their commitment to justice, humility, and mercy. God already wants all these things. God is actively working on these things. And our prayers, spoken and unspoken, are already heard. But when we name these prayers out loud, we also remind ourselves of what the Christian life is all about. Our prayers for healing remind us of our call to heal. Our prayers for the earth are a reminder that we, as stewards, can take care of our environment. Our prayers for the church invite us to share our faith in Jesus. And our prayers for our leaders are a reminder of the ways we all promise to commit ourselves to love, honor, and help one another.

Jesus knows that prayer can be hard. There are days when we don’t want to pray and there are moments when we feel as if we can’t. Jesus wants us to pray for those it’s easy to pray for and to pray for those we don’t want to pray for. And if we can’t, that’s okay. That’s why we pray, in worship, together. Trust that the people next to you will pray the prayers you can’t. And make sure you’re here to pray the prayers that are hard for them. Our prayers are not about trying to win the lottery. Our prayers are about trying to live into the love Jesus already gave us. And unlike our really low chance at winning the lottery, prayer does more than just connect us with God. Prayer also repairs, renews, and revives our souls.

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 Reformation Sunday / 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, 10/28/2018.

Conscious: Holding Onto God When We Can’t

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

Mark 10:46-52

My sermon from Reformation Sunday/the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost (October 28, 2018) on Mark 10:32-45. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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Conscious and conscience are two words I always confuse when writing or speaking. The first one is used when we’re awake, able to respond to our surroundings. A patient in the hospital, when alert and able to respond to our questions, is described as being conscious. Conscience, however, is the word we use to describe the voice or feeling inside us that guides our actions. When we’re counting our calories and then eat an entire plate of cookies – we develop a guilty conscience. These words, conscious and conscience, are different but I’m always mixing them up. In fact, I mixed them up for the title of today’s sermon. Earlier this week, as I pondered the readings for today and the fact that it’s Reformation Sunday, I was drawn to Martin Luther’s use of the word “conscience.” But when I sent the title to Doris, our parish administrator, for inclusion in the bulletin, I unconsciously wrote “conscious.” I didn’t realize it until after the bulletins were printed. But maybe that’s okay. Because, in light of today’s reading from the gospel according to Mark and after yesterday’s brutal violence at a Pittsburgh synagogue, Luther’s understanding of conscience helps us become more conscious to our faith, to our calling, and to the ways we can love the world.

So I want us to begin by imagining it’s the year 1521 and we’re in a large, dark room, illuminated by burning torches. At one end of the room sits the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles the Fifth, who is 21 years old, wearing a large flowing robe, and has a very well defined chin. To his left and to his right are imperial advisors and officials representing the Roman Catholic Church. And in front of them is a thin, pale monk / university professor and a pile of his books. For the past 4 years, Martin Luther’s writing went viral, with the printing press being the new technology that spread his words all over Europe. The religious and political unity of the Empire – one that included Mexico, Spain, Germany, and Northern Italy was being tested. Those in power wanted Luther to recant, to turn his back on the words he had written. He had one day to prepare his response. And in a society where “concord, peace, and brotherhood [were] among its highest values,” what Luther said next had the potential to undo the cultural assumptions and expectations that held his society together. Luther started his response by saying he was merely “a man accustomed not to courts but to the cells of monks.” Yet his words were full of confidence. He refused to recant and he ended his speech with a paragraph that has become, for Lutherans, a sort of calling card of who we are. Standing before the most powerful political, military, and religious authorities in Western Europe, Luther said, “unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures by clear reason – for I do not trust either in the Pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves – I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.” And in words that were either not recorded on the official transcript or were merely added in the days following, Luther ended with, “I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me. Amen.”

It’s… a pretty amazing speech. And on youtube right now, there’s an unrealistically good looking Luther re-enacting this historic scene in dramatic detail. On this Reformation Sunday, when we celebrate our Lutheran identity while pointing to the Spirit’s continuing work of reforming, changing, and inspiring the church, there are few dramatic moments in Luther’s life that can inspire like this one. Most Americans are drawn to this moment because it suggests that Luther, in this act of resistance, was embracing his freedom, supporting the right of all individuals to decide their faith for themselves. Conscience, to us, is about finding that authentic voice inside us that connects us to who we want to be. Our conscience, on one level, is centered on words and thoughts. And that’s because our understanding of conscience is a modern byproduct of psychology and psychoanalysis. We don’t use the word conscience like Luther did. Luther wasn’t saying that his thoughts or his inner voice were captive to the word of God. Instead, for Luther, the conscience was, in the words of Lyndal Roper, “an individual’s internal knowledge of the objective meaning of God’s Word.” Now that sounds a bit abstract but that’s because it describes what’s almost indescribable – the part of us that knows and trusts God. When we talk about our faith with others, it’s easier when we can point to a belief or a writing or a thought or an opinion that says this is why we believe. It’s harder, though, to describe what keeps us with Christ when our world is torn in two. A loss, a tragedy, or an assault on humanity that forces us to ask where was God: during those moments, it’s not our thoughts or opinions that can keep us close to God. Rather, it’s Christ, who pours himself into us with love, grace, and mercy, that holds us when we can’t hold God. And for Luther, that’s conscience. And it’s not abstract. It’s connected to our emotions, our feelings, and our whole being. It can be sad, and weak, and even courageous. Our conscience can make us feel burdened but it can also help us change the world. When Luther said his conscience was captive to the Word of God, he “knew” with his whole-self – with every emotion, every thought, and every fabric of his being, what God’s Word was “and he [couldn’t] deny it.”

Luther, like Bartimaeus, didn’t think his way to Christ. No article or class or study guide provided him the answers to the life he was looking for. Instead, both had an experience of Jesus that changed their world. Bartimaeus, after meeting Jesus outside the city of Jericho, didn’t go off on his own way. Instead, he couldn’t help but follow Jesus. And Luther, once he realized that Jesus, who claimed him in his baptism, would never let him go – he couldn’t help but share with others the Christ he knew. Mercy, hope, and love was at the heart of their experiences. And those experiences fed their faith. Faith isn’t about saying the right prayer, following the right rituals, donating the right amount of money to the church, or doing everything perfect. Faith is about trusting that Jesus will keep his promises and that the old rules of our life are now broken. We are no longer trying to get our beliefs right so that we can keep God on our side. Instead, we get to live our lives knowing that since we’re with Jesus, our world has changed. Through the gift of faith, the gift of Scripture, the gift of worship, prayer, and the Lord’s own table – we are given the tools we need to see the world in a new way. It’s our conscience, when focused on Christ alone, that lets us raise our consciousness so that we can love the world as much as Christ loves us. We get to imagine a world where religious bigotry is replaced with understanding. We get to imagine a world where no synagogue, Hebrew religious school, or Jewish Community Center has to worry about antisemitic or white supremacy acts directed against it. We get to imagine a world where Christianity’s history of antisemitism and Luther’s own antisemitic writings are rightly condemned, repented of, and tossed out. We get to imagine a world where love wins. And, because of Jesus, we do everything we can to live into that kind of world because, in our baptism, in our faith, and through our conscience, Christ helps us stand firm and his way of hope, justice, and love is something we can do.

Amen.

Play

Children’s Sermon: Looking at the world differently

Bring some Halloween Masks. Pulled in from Dollar Store Children’s Sermom.

Hi everyone!

I’m very glad to see you today.

So in a few days, there’s going to be a big holiday in our area. It’s…Halloween! Do you have your costumes picked out? What are you going to dress as?

Those costumes sound great! I love how you are going to pretend to be those characters. No only do you get to dress up like them, but you might even get to pretend to be like them. So, for example, if you’re Captain America and have an inflatable shield – you can throw it, gently and safely, just like he does. Or if you’re Harry Potter, you can use your magic wand to chase bad guys and enjoy some delicious butterbeer. When we dress up like our favorite characters on Halloween, we don’t just look like them – but we also, sometimes, get to pretend what it’s like to be like them and to see the world around them like they do.

So how do we see the world like our costume characters do? Well – it helps to sometimes have a mask. So I brought some masks that I just happen to have lying around in my house. Show off your masks. Putting on these masks let us see the world in a different way.

In our lesson about Jesus today, we’re going to hear a story about how Jesus helped someone see in a new way. The person was born blind meaning they couldn’t see. However, they knew Jesus was nearby and they asked for Jesus’ help. At first, people told the blind man to stay silent. But he wouldn’t. He kept talking. And so Jesus healed him – and then he could see. Before, he had experienced life in only one way. But, with Jesus, he got to see the world in a new way.

Because of your baptism, because Jesus loves you, and because Jesus is with you always – we get to see the world in a new way. We get to, in a way, get to imagine ourselves wearing a Jesus Mask – seeing the world like Jesus does. So, let’s pretend we’re putting on our Jesus mask. Pretend to put on a Jesus mask. And when we look at ourselves, when we look everyone in the pews, and when we go see everyone at school, in our neighborhood, and in the world – we now get to see them in a new way. We get to see them as Jesus sees them – which means we get to see that everyone everywhere is loved. And since Jesus loves them, we should too.

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

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/23rd Sunday after Pentecost, 10/28/2018.