Reflection: Being Refined

Have you ever refined gold? I haven’t but our passage from Malachi 3:1-4 assumes we have. In the ancient world, there was only one way to extract gold from the rock it was found in. A worker would light a fire and place a crucible (usually a bowl made out of rock that can withstand hot temperatures) over it. Rocks containing pieces of gold would be placed into the crucible and everything would heat up. But the fire couldn’t be merely a campfire. The fire would need to be hot. The worker wanted the rocks to melt, allowing the impurities to float to the surface while the gold settled into the bottom. They would do all they could to make the fire heat up until it approached 1,800 degrees. The mixture would melt and the worker would stand there, using a special tool to scoop out anything that floated to the top. Over and over again, the rocks containing the gold would be melted until all the impurities had been removed and melted gold was all that was left. This process created the blocks of gold that would eventually be turned into statues, jewelry and coins. Gold is one of the world’s “precious” metals but the process to refine that gold was anything but.

If we were approaching a fire burning at 1800 degrees, we would do our best to stay safe. We would stand a safe distance away, put on the world’s best oven mitts, and make sure we knew where the closest air conditioned room was. We might be able to protect ourselves from the full blast of that heat. But workers in the ancient world were not so lucky. Refining gold was a hot and dangerous business. Everyone wanted the gold the workers produced but very few, I think, wanted their actual job. Yet Malachi, when he described the messenger who will announce the coming of God into the world, predicted this messenger would burn like a refiner’s fire. And this fire wouldn’t come to only those who didn’t know God. Rather, the fire would refine all of God’s people. Those who believe in God, worship God, and follow God are the ones who will be refined by God. And this refining will not be easy. We will be exposed to a spiritual heat that we cannot protect ourselves from. Unlike the worker standing next to the fire, we will be embraced by the fire itself. And that fire will refine us over and over again, helping us become the people God knows we can be.

When we talk about trying to grow our faith, we rarely talk about a refining fire. We imagine, instead, that a few minor changes in our life will help us become the people we think God wants us to be. Yet there will be moments in our life when the foundations of our world will break. There will be times when our expectations for God will be unmet. There will be moments when we will wonder if the God we grew up with is the God who is with us now. There will be times when we will feel as if we are being melted into something we don’t want to be. And it’s at those moments when we see how Jesus is already standing there with us, in the fire. We are precious to Jesus. We are worth God’s love. And when we feel as if our world is burning up, he will be beside us, helping us become something brand new.

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 Second Sunday of Advent, 12/09/2018.

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.

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 First Sunday of Advent, 12/02/2018.

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.

Reflection: the Apocalypse

When we hear the word apocalypse, we usually think about the end of the world. We imagine massive wars, incredible natural disasters, and an unbelievable amount of destruction and anguish. The apocalypse is good for comic books and action movies but it’s not, typically, something we want to live through. One of the ways we anticipate the apocalypse is by asking the question: “what will the end look like?” But that wasn’t a question the bible really spent a lot of time talking about. Instead, the communities who wrote, read, and shared these biblical words wanted to know: “what is the meaning of our suffering?” Those who contributed apocalypse stories to the Bible (Daniel, Revelation, and even bits of the gospel according to Mark) were trying to find meaning in “their own struggle and suffering” (Revelation: Interpretation Commentary, page 43).

Today’s reading from the book of Daniel 12:1-3 is an attempt to find meaning. Daniel is the youngest book in the Old Testament section of our scriptures. The book was set in the years after Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians (in the aftermath of the year 586 BCE) but it was probably written 400 years after that. Daniel was composed at a time when the Jewish community faced severe persecutions from the ruling authorities. Judaism was outlawed and Torah scrolls were burned. Religious rites were abolished and children were discouraged from gaining the marks that defined them as part of the Jewish community. Rabbis and students were persecuted and killed. The Jewish community, especially the one centered in Jerusalem, tried to make sense of their suffering. The book of Daniel was a response to that suffering and today’s text is the beginning of the final scene of Daniel’s four visions of the apocalypse. But it’s not a vision of the end. It’s a vision of a new beginning.

Daniel’s vision of the afterlife is less about details of “what” happens and, instead, is centered in hope. Daniel doesn’t try to mask the seriousness of suffering, pain, sadness, and fear. He doesn’t say that what we experience in our life is, somehow, “less real” than it is. Instead, Daniel acknowledges that life can be hard and that following God is not always easy. Our faith requires us to sometimes say “no” to the ways the world try to turn us from God, each other, or call to love the world. There can be a deadly consequence for that “no.” But the world doesn’t define our value or worth; only God can. And through the Spirit and our relationship with Jesus, we are defined by that connection to the divine. This connection is what gives us a new sense of purpose, love, and hope. This connection is what, today and always, gives us life.

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 26th Sunday after Pentecost, 11/18/2018.

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.

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.

Reflection: Buried with the “Rich”

When my great-uncle died, I discovered my mom’s family has a family graveyard plot. It’s located in the middle of an old graveyard covered in tombs, tombstones, statues and monuments. The family plot surprised me because a 12 foot obelisk was erected on it. The obelisk is covered and is overflowing with names to the point where the last few were added on a separate stone so that they can lean against it. Compared to the tombstones around it, this monument is actually pretty modest. But compared to today, it’s a little over the top. Large stones can be a sign of a family’s wealth and status even if they didn’t have much wealth or status. There’s no history in my family of any incredible wealth but that tombstone tells a different story. It’s safe to say that this family plot is located in the “rich” part of that old cemetery. In our context, that is seen as a good thing. But as we see in our first reading, Isaiah 53:4-12, being buried with the rich is a complicated metaphor that we need to unwrap.

This reading from Isaiah is one of the texts described as “The Suffering Servant.” The Suffering Servant was the name given to parts of Isaiah 52-53 in the 19th century. They describe a “servant” who is caught in a cycle of humiliation and exaltation. For our Jewish friends, the servant is typically identified as Israel (or an unnamed one at work in ancient Israel). For Christians, we identify the Suffering Servant as Jesus. In Jesus’ time, Isaiah 52-53 was not considered a prophetic text describing the Messiah (the one who would restore Israel’s power and glory). But once Jesus died and rose from the dead, early Christians saw these texts as one that described Jesus’ life and ministry. The Jewish and Christian interpretation of these texts are different but “both Jews and Christians have seen in their own history, in quite particular ways, the capacity and willingness of . . . God to do something new through suffering” (Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66, page 144.) The Suffering Servant texts are poems inviting us to discover the God who is at work in our world. Death, suffering, and vulnerability are not dead ends. We are, through our baptism, living into the new future God is bringing about.

The Suffering Servant is utterly rejected and that rejection continues from life into death. His burial among the rich is a negative thing. The people writing these words viewed the rich as those who took advantage of others. The Suffering Servant “is grouped with despised ones whom the world thinks have succeeded” (page 147). The Suffering Servant is a nobody who is the only one who can break the cycle of violence that exists in our world. But this violence – exploitation, hatred, anger, physical and mental assaults – can’t be broken by force. Violence, according to scripture, only begets more violence. Instead, the Servant, must break this violence by embracing what makes them vulnerable. It’s through weakness that God’s power is made known. Your hurt or weakness isn’t the limit of who you are. God knows you, including what makes you vulnerable, and loves you fully. We don’t know exactly how God’s power will be made real through us. But I trust that we’ll finally see God more clearly when we embrace what we try to run away from: our vulnerability. Then God is inviting us to change.

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 the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, 10/21/2018.

Reflection: You – Actions & Faith

The book of Amos contains among the earliest sayings from a prophet recorded in the Hebrew Bible (aka the Old Testament). Amos’ prophetic career was centered around the year 750 BCE (BC). We know very little about Amos’ life except for what’s recorded in the book itself. He was wealthy, owning substantial herds of sheep, and raised large orchards of fig trees. He lived in the town Tekoa, located a few miles south of Jerusalem. By this point, the original kingdom of David and Solomon had been split in two for centuries. The southern kingdom, centered around Jerusalem, was named Judah while the northern (and more powerful) kingdom was called Israel. At some point in Amos’ life, God compelled him to leave Judah and preach in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Amos wasn’t a professional prophet. He didn’t belong to the many prophetic schools and organizations that existed in ancient Israel. Instead, he was a wealthy business owner that God transformed into God’s mouthpiece. Amos’ words, while spoken in the Northern Kingdom, were directed towards anyone with wealth, power, and authority in both Israel and Judah.

As Amos sees it (Amos 5:6-7,10-15), those in comfort have lost sight of Israel’s special relationship with God. The covenant God established at Mt. Sinai (i.e. the ten commandments and the law) had been broken. The practicing of their faith had been reduced to mere performative acts. Instead of loving their neighbors and helping the power, those in power had increased the wealth gap between the rich and the poor. The wealthy feel entitled to bribe judges, believing that the laws of land were something only other people had to follow. Corrupt judges were installed in the courts (in the ancient world, courtrooms were in the city gates – see 5:10) so that they could rule in favor of the powerful. Amos, in chapter 5, is pronouncing a death sentence against the people of Israel because, according to Amos, God is about to enforce the terms of the covenant. Since Israel wasn’t fulfilling their end of the bargain, God was going to respond. Yet the situation was not completely hopeless. The invitation to take God’s covenant seriously was still open. Amos’ call at the end of today’s passage is to “seek good and not evil [so] that you may live.” Even in the midst of death, resurrection can always happen.

It’s easy for us to read this passage and believe it doesn’t apply to us. We can always think of someone richer than us or that these words are meant for a so-called “elite” or “establishment” that we are not a part of it. But what if we didn’t do that? What if we let Amos’ words speak to us? As a church in Northern New Jersey, we live in one of the wealthiest areas in the world. If we own our home, know where our next meal is coming from, and have any kind of savings or wealth at all, we have a lot in common with the audience Amos was speaking to. This reading is an invitation for us to re-evaluate how our faith impacts how we live, consume, and practice any power that we have. And if our actions do not match our faith, then God is inviting us to change.

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 the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, 10/14/2018.