Work

Jesus’ ministry and the church takes work and workers. This is one of the take aways from our reading in Matthew 9:35-10:23 today. At this point in Jesus’ career, Jesus is doing what Jesus does. He preaches, teaches, and heals. He shares a vision of God’s kingdom that includes tax collectors and others typically kicked out of holy places. He eats meals with people he shouldn’t. Jesus is being Jesus. And Jesus, in our verses today, compels his followers to do the same.

The apostles’ mission is an outgrowth of Jesus’ own ministry. Jesus visits new places and tells his followers to do the same. Jesus tells his followers to share God’s message of love and hope using the same words he uses. Jesus’ followers are called to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and cast out demons. And Jesus’ followers are told to provide this physical and spiritual care for free. A follower of Jesus doesn’t act only to benefit themselves. They are told to give freely and abundantly because that’s what Jesus does too. In the words of Colin Yuckman of Duke Divinity School, “To be sent by Jesus is, in some sense, to be sent as Jesus.” Jesus is training his followers on how they can be his disciples. When people encounter us, they are encountering and experiencing Jesus Christ and we need to act accordingly.

This encounter with Jesus Christ is an unexpected mission God invites us to share. It’s also a mission that is not easy to do. An invitation to follow Jesus is an invitation to live a different way. An invitation to live in God’s kingdom means we need to realize the hard truths about the brokenness of the world around us. An invitation to live as Jesus is an invitation to recognize the ways we push ourselves and others away from God. Jesus decides that people like us can, through the help of the Holy Spirit, show others Jesus Christ. This seems like a daunting task. It can make us feel afraid. But, like we heard last week, we don’t do this job alone because Jesus is with us to the end of the age.

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 2nd Sunday After Pentecost, 6/18/2017.

Rest: Take a Break

Imagine, after a super busy week, being confident enough to take a break. And if God rests, why can’t we?

Our first reading today (Genesis 1:1-2:4) is the opening to our Bible. These verses share with us the first creation story in our scriptures and how God created in seven days. The universe began as a formless void. God, in this story, doesn’t create out of nothing. Instead, God brings order to a chaotic soup of randomness. For six days, God creates. Animals, birds, plants, and people are formed. I love how the giant sea monsters are named specifically in this story and how humankind begins their lives as vegetarians. The opening words of the bible are not meant to be a timeline detailing the history of the universe. Rather, these verse show God’s relationship with everything. Unlike other creation stories floating around during the time of ancient Israel, the world isn’t created through a violent act. There is no war between various gods that caused the earth to come into being. The world, instead, is created by a God who declares that creation is good. Everything within creation matters because God says it does. The sea monsters and the blades of grass are connected to a God who loves them.

So after creating everything, God took a break. God, for a brief period of time, stops working. In our modern context, we are used to the idea of weekends. We live in a society shaped by over a century of people, systems of thoughts, organizations, and labor unions that created the weekend. In a sense, the weekend is an ideal. We take a break from a normal workweek to instead, rest. This is an ideal because not everyone’s work week begins on Monday and ends on Friday. And our lives are so dedicated to busy, we stop working on Fridays only to start again with other projects, sports games, homework, and more on Saturday. We work because we have to. We keep working because, if we don’t, we imagine what we’re doing will never get done. We’ve built lives where we need to be busy because we don’t receive the help we need to take a break. We are, in the words of some, a society addicted to being busy.

But God, who doesn’t need to take a break, actually stops working. God rests. God, who has a relationship with every blade of grass, every sea monster, and every person, has created a world where taking a break matters. God invites us to live in a world where everyone has the time and resources they need to stop doing everything. Instead, we can sit, enjoy, and bless each other and the world. When we take a break and help the people around us take a break, we’re not encouraging laziness. We’re encouraging people to connect with creation and the God who created it. And when we can connect with God, we discover how we can bless what God has blessed. And we discover the blessing God wants us to be.

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 Trinity, 6/11/2017.

When Doves Cry

When you picture the Holy Spirit, what do you think of? Unlike Jesus, the Holy Spirit has no physical form. The Holy Spirit is not something we can touch or objectively see. Even though the gospels describe the Spirit of God in the form of a dove, the dove is merely a metaphor. The metaphor describes what the Holy Spirit is like but the metaphor shouldn’t limit what the Spirit can do. For centuries, the translation of Holy Spirit as Holy Ghost misidentified what the Spirit can do. We know ghosts. Ghosts go by the name of Casper. They are something we see in a horror film. They can walk through walls, vanish in an instant, and help us make pottery when we star in a Patrick Swayze film. But because ghosts are recognizable, they seem containable in some way. The Holy Spirit, as depicted in scripture, is the opposite. The Holy Spirit, as we see in our reading from Acts today, is not contained by anything. Like the cry of a dove across a large valley or a rush of wind blowing through a small room, the Holy Spirit moves, breaking the ways we keep to ourselves and forcing us out of our self-imposed containment.

Pentecost (Acts 2:1-21) is sometimes described as the “birthday” of the church. That’s a metaphor that’s not quite right. The church is always the community of believers who proclaim Jesus Christ, crucified and risen from the dead. This new kind of community began the moment Mary and other women told their friends that Jesus was raised from the tomb. Pentecost is really a celebration of the different kinds of people God is calling into this new kind of community. The city of Jerusalem is filled with Jews from all over the world. These pilgrims speak many different languages and have many different nationalities. The Holy Spirit gives the apostles the ability to make Christ’s story heard in many different languages. The miracle of Pentecost is not the apostles’ ability to speak different languages. The miracle of Pentecost is God calling many different kinds of people to be part of this new community because Jesus’ message of hope, reconciliation, and love is for everyone.

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 Pentecost, 6/04/2017.

Eavesdropping on Jesus

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

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

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

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 7th Sunday of Easter, 5/28/2017.

Workin’ It: Making the Message of Jesus Known

Paul, as he is portrayed in the book of Acts, is a disciple who loves a crowd. In today’s reading (Acts 17:22-31), he’s in the city of Athens. He’s on a missionary journey around the Mediterranean and is spending time in Greece and Macedonia. After several violent episodes in Thessalonica and Beroea, Paul escaped to Athens. While in Athens, he continued to preach and teach. He caught the attention of some local Greek philosophers. They invite him to  speak at the Areopagus (which could be either the chief Roman court in Athens or a hill west of the Acropolis). Many in the crowd think Paul is just a babbler but others are curious about his message. Paul, knowing he is speaking to educated Greeks, filled his sermon with Greek philosophical references. He made Christ understandable to those listening to him. He challenged the Greeks to discover God by meeting Jesus Christ. At the end of his sermon, Paul’s words on the Resurrection, shock some of the philosophers. Many discount his words but some believe. In the verses that follow, we learn their names. There is Dionysius, Damaris, and others. They become the new Jesus community in Athens. 

We don’t know what happened to Dionysius and Damaris after Paul left Athens. But I think we’re invited to imagine these new believers becoming like Paul. They prayed, worshipped, and shared their new faith with their family and friends. According to the book of Acts, Paul is a model for our own life. He is a person who regularly shared his faith with family, friends, and strangers. He supported himself by working in marketplaces as a leatherworker and he felt no shame when he shared his faith with his colleagues and customers. But he couldn’t grow the church on his own. Instead, the Holy Spirit empowered the crowd, the “others,” to share their faith too. We sometimes believe that sharing our faith is something only pastors or other people do. But communities grow when the “regular” people in the pews invite their friends, family, and neighbors to discover Jesus. The act of sharing does more than grow the number of people in church. The act of sharing opens our friends to a relationship with something bigger than themselves. And when we share Jesus, our own faith changes as well. Through all the conversations, sharing, and vulnerability needed to invite someone to meet Jesus, we learn more about our own faith and how Jesus makes a difference to us. Faith isn’t something only for us. Faith is something others need to. So be like Dionysius and Damaris and the countless others in Acts that go unnamed. Share Jesus today, tomorrow, and forever. 

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 6th Sunday of Easter, 5/21/2017.

A Martyr: who is Stephen?

Who is Stephen? Today’s reading from Acts 7:55-60 is a short (too short) part of Stephen’s story. Stephen is Jewish but is Hellenized (i.e. Greek). His name is Greek, he speaks Greek, and his culture is Greek as well. As the faith community in Jerusalem grew, people like Stephen joined the church. The apostles (Peter, James, and others) struggled to provide effective leadership over a culturally diverse community. The apostles asked the Greeks to appoint seven leaders who would lead worship and serve this growing community. These seven were called “deacons” and Stephen was one of them. Acts 6:8-10 tells us that Stephen became known as a Spirit-filled follower of Jesus. This did not make some people happy. People came to question Stephen’s teachings about Jesus. These arguments grew fierce and dangerous. Stephen is accused of speaking against God and Moses. He’s arrested and sent to trial. While at trial, Stephen defends himself and his words make others mad. He invites the people around him to see the presence of the Holy Spirit (and God) in Jesus’ community. Instead, the people hear Stephen inviting them to worship an idol (false gods). The people grind their teeth together. Stephen then doubles down on his relationship with God. He is suddenly filled with the Holy Spirit and sees God and Jesus. He tells everyone what he sees. That’s the final straw for the crowd. Stephen is dragged outside the city and stoned.

Verse 56 in today’s reading is the only time in the Luke-Acts (Luke and Acts was written by one author) where God physically appears (Margaret Aymer, Working Preacher Commentary on Acts). Stephen sees the glory of God which, to me, is a reference to all of who God is. In that moment, Stephen “gets” God. Stephen also sees Jesus, standing at the right hand of God. The book of Acts isn’t trying to tell us where Jesus is physically. Instead, Stephen sees Jesus intimately connected with God. Jesus is connected to God in a unique way. Jesus is God. God is Jesus. And the Holy Spirit is how God reveals this to God’s people. In Stephen’s story, we see who God is. We know God because we know Jesus. And we know Jesus because Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, comes to us over and over again. Through regular worship, prayer, study, and the sharing of communion, we dwell with the God who is willing to be with us through all things.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 5th Sunday of Easter, 5/14/2017.

Jesus is a gate.

This week, as I was cleaning, sorting, and organizing items for Trash and Treasure, I stumbled onto a picture of the Gates. For 2 weeks in 2005, artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude installed 7,503 vinyl orange gates along 23 miles of pathways in Central Park. The gates hung above the heads of people walking below and the wind blew the gates open and shut. The gates did a very poor job in being gates. They were not connected to any fences and anyone could walk past them. I remember walking under them on a cold February day and admiring how their colors brightened the park. But the gates did a miserable job keeping me out.

Today’s reading from the Gospel of John (John 10:1-11) is why the 4th Sunday of Easter is known as Good Shepherd Sunday. Every year we read parts of John 10. Jesus is talking to his disciples and the crowd about an experience they just witnessed. A man born blind was healed. The local civic and religious leaders cannot believed what happened. They exiled the man from his community. Jesus finds him and the man becomes one of Jesus’ disciples. John 10 isn’t separate from John 9 and the power of John 9 isn’t the healing Jesus did. The relationship Jesus proactively offered to a person everyone thought was unworthy of having a relationship with God is the point of the story. The miracle in John 9-10 isn’t the healing; the miracle is who Jesus claims as part of his community.

One of the images the gospel of John uses is Jesus as a gate. A gate typically implies a fence but Jesus doesn’t focus on that. Instead, the verses today are about what a gate does. A gate keeps sheep safe at night by keeping thieves and predators out. A gate helps feed sheep by letting sheep out during the day. The primary focus of a gate is to keep offering the sheep an abundant life. A gate isn’t a fence. A gate needs to open and close. A gate needs to respond to those it’s responsible for. Jesus is a gate. He isn’t a fence. Jesus promises to be with those who hear his voice. The community around the man born blind built a fence to keep him out because he did not fit their expectations. But Jesus went and found him, giving the man born blind a life full of God’s grace, mercy, and love.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 4th Sunday of Easter, 5/07/2017.

Ask Pastor Marc: The Holy Spirit in John and Acts

Last week, I was asked about John 20:22-23. In that passage, Jesus shows up when the disciples have locked themselves in a room. Jesus walks through the locked door, offers them peace, and then “breathes” the Holy Spirit onto them. It’s an interesting piece of scripture especially since the beginning of Acts 2 shares how the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples after Jesus’ resurrection. Acts 2 and John 20 seem to announce the specific historic moment when the Holy Spirit enters the world. Both episodes seem to contradict each other.

I think it’s important to remember that we have 4 different gospel stories rather than one. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are texts written by specific people to specific faith-filled communities. The Holy Spirit gave each author words revealing how Jesus mattered to them, their communities, and everyone who came after them. Each text describes different aspects of who Jesus is and what Jesus does. Each text also describes different experiences of the Trinity. This includes the Holy Spirit. Luke (who wrote the book of Acts), sees the Holy Spirit as something bombastic. The Holy Spirit inspires believers to preach life-giving words to their neighbors, friends, and even strangers. The Holy Spirit compelled Peter, Paul, and the other apostles to bring Jesus to far flung place. In Luke-Acts, the Holy Spirit inspired believers to move and not be silent about their faith.

In John, however, another aspect of the Holy Spirit is highlighted. John calls the Holy Spirit the parakletos which can be translated as advocate, comforter, helper, or intercessor. In the words of Rev. Karoline Lewis, “The Holy Spirit, according to John, is the one who is called to be alongside us.” In John 14, we are introduced to the Holy Spirit in the middle of Jesus’ last sermon to his disciples. Jesus knows Good Friday is coming. He knows he’ll die, rise, and ascend to heaven. The disciples do not fully understand what’s about to come. Jesus’ final sermon is a way for Jesus to bring comfort to his followers. He promises to send them “another Advocate.” So who was their first advocate? Well, their first advocate was Jesus. The Spirit, according to John, is a manifestation of the promises Jesus makes. Jesus will not orphan the disciples because “the Spirit will now accompany them.” In John, the Spirit is very personal. The Spirit is a quieter encounter but an encounter that promises all of God’s people that they’ll never be abandoned no matter where in life (or death) they go.

The Holy Spirit doesn’t appear in only one historical moment in Scripture. The Holy Spirit is the multitude of ways God makes God’s promises known to us. The Spirit grants us a new life held in God’s abundant love. The Spirit was there when the universe was created and is there when we are baptized. The Spirit is always present but is experienced in our lives in many personal, amazing, and breathtaking ways.

Appeared in Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin on 4/30/2017.

The 3,000: Imagination in Acts

One of the trends I’m discovering in my preaching and faith exploration involves using our imagination. Throughout the Bible, God invites us at specific points to imagine what comes next. Our first reading from Acts 2:14,36-41 is, I think, one of those points. Peter has finished his Pentecost sermon. He is preaching to a crowd filled with people from all over the world who are visiting Jerusalem. The people are hearing Peter’s words in their own language and are amazed at what they see. Peter’s words are also convicting. He tells them, in short, that “the people of God put God to death when God came to them” (Paraphrase borrowed from Professor Rolf Jacobson of Luther Seminary). For the people listening to Peter, this statement cuts them to the core. They feel like their souls and identity have been torn apart. They ask Peter, “what can they do?” We shouldn’t see this question as their way to try and get on God’s good side. The people listening to Peter are first and foremost recognizing who they are as human beings. The Spirit is revealing to them their identity and what people do when God shows up. The ones listening to Peter are now lost. They ask what they can do because they realize there is nothing they can do to fix their relationship with God. So Peter looks at them all and tells them to turn towards God and be baptized.

The reading from Acts says 3000 were baptized that day. Imagine the strain on the altar guild. Imagine how long baptizing 3000 people would take and where it might happen. The entire group could have left the city to find a river to be baptized in. The banks would be filled with people standing in dirt and mud, waiting for their turn. People leaving the water would be dripping wet. Their feet and legs would soon be dusty and covered in mud. Everyone there would carry the physical signs of baptism. And then, once the baptisms were over, they would be part of a new community. In verses we do not hear today, the 3000 devoted themselves to their new faith community. They sold their possessions and put everything into a common account. They shared their financial resources, making sure all were cared for. Listening to Peter, God’s people discovered who they are as human beings. They recognized what people do when God shows up. But, through the Spirit, God gave everyone a new imagination to live out God’s love wherever God takes them next.

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 3nd Sunday of Easter, 4/30/2017.