Reflection: A Platter

Today’s reading from the gospel according to Mark 6:14-29 is rare because Jesus isn’t in it. He doesn’t heal. He doesn’t teach. Jesus says nothing. But Jesus is the center of the story because King Herod is disturbed by what Jesus’ disciples are saying. In last week’s text, we saw Jesus send his disciples away. They were told to preach, teach, and heal. They took nothing with them – no bread, no bag, and no money. Instead, all they had were the words and power Jesus gave them. The text says they went out and “proclaimed that all should repent” (Mark 6:12). King Herod heard what Jesus’ disciples were doing. And King Herod was scared.

The story of John the Baptist’s beheading is a little gruesome. Herod is impulsive, calculating, and trapped in a system where he isn’t as politically powerful as he wanted to be. He is the king of Galilee but he’s not on top. Rome is still in charge. But that doesn’t mean that Herod didn’t have opportunities to gain more power. So in an attempt to strengthen his political position, Herod married his brother’s wife. John the Baptist heard about this political move and he won’t have it. John tells Herod that his marriage is unjust. This makes Herod (and his wife) upset. So John the Baptist is sent to prison and, eventually, killed. The text implies that Herod is regularly manipulated by Herodias, his wife. But we shouldn’t act as if this gets Herod off the hook for his actions. Herod made the choice marry Herodias and he is the one who made the decision to kill John the Baptist. Herod is an active participant in John’s beheading (he even says “John, whom I beheaded…”). Herod, like the others around him, will do everything he can to fulfill his impulsive behavior, including his desire for more power. He is participating in a system that is violent, aggressive, and harmful. And it’s this system that John, Jesus, and Jesus’ disciples speak out against.

One of the reasons why they speak out against this system because of what this hunger for power does to the people. We see the outcome not only in what happened to John the Baptist. We also see the evil this can cause in the words Herodias’ daughter uses. After King Herod is seduced by Herodias’ daughter, he makes an impulsive (and destructive) promise. The daughter takes this promise to her mother. Her mom wants the head of John the Baptist so that’s what her daughter asked for. But instead of only asking for the head, the daughter asked for it to be served on a platter. This system of power devours the people who stand up to it and corrupts the people who are living within it. The banquet of the rich and powerful requires the taking of a life. But next week we’ll discover what Jesus’ banquet of love, grace, and Godly power does instead.

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 8th Sunday after Pentecost, 7/15/2018.

Reflection: The Third Heaven

I have no idea what Paul is talking about when he mentions the Third Heaven (2 Corinthians 12:2-10). Our modern conceptions of heaven do not usually imagine a hierarchy in heaven. But this leveling is a new idea. There are texts in the Bible that imagines heaven as a layered cake where each layer brings us closer to God. Paul, in today’s letter to the Corinthians, is playing a game. He’s boasting about himself. He does this first by name dropping that he knows someone who ascended to the third heaven. Paul doesn’t give us any details but that’s because the third heaven isn’t the point. Paul is boasting because his opponents are boasting as well.

We don’t know much about Paul’s opponents. Pau was one of several different missionaries traveling throughout the Roman Empire. These missionaries all had different thoughts (and experiences) about what this Jesus thing was all about. As these missionaries wandered around the Roman Empire, they would form new faith communities. When a different missionary entered these faith communities later on, big disagreements would start. We don’t know what Paul’s opponents were like since we only have his descriptions to fall back on (and he is not an unbiased observer). Paul described his opponents as boastful, braggarts, who only wanted to see influence and gain power. They bragged about what they knew, who they knew, and why the Corinthians should follow them. Paul is never one to back down from a challenge so he plays their game as well. But instead of boasting about his strengths, he boasts about his weakness.

Now when was the last time you boasted about what you can’t do? We usually don’t describe that as boasting. Instead, even our humble brags are about pointing out how awesome we are. Paul, however, feels compelled to talk about his weakness. Weakness is defined as something we can’t do. But weakness can also mean something else. As Professor David Fredrickson writes, “To be strong means to be self-contained and self-identical, even as the world is falling apart around you. [Weakness – in the ancient Greek], on the other hand, means coming undone. It frequently referred to sickness and disease, but it also points, in a more general sense, to what we know about but can’t quite define: “human weakness,” which might be thought of as the failure of resolve or the lack of fortitude in the face of despair.”

Paul is boasting about coming undone. Paul is saying that he has been given a power that isn’t about having strength over the people around you. Real power and real strength, as Jesus defines it, is about loving others to the point where we personally come undone. We rarely want to become undone and there is a danger when the relationships we are in causes us to fall apart in unhealthy ways. Yet, when we are in a healthy relationship with each other and with Jesus, we are drawn closer to the one that brings us a full, connected, and generous life. When we boast about Jesus, we’re pointing out how he is giving us a new identity: one that celebrates us, loves us, and unites us with the world and every bit of heaven.

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 after Pentecost, 7/8/2018.

Reflection: Your Abundance

As you read this, I’m exhausted. Today marks the official end of the 2018 ELCA Youth Gathering in Houston, Texas. Coleen, Brendan, and I have been at the Gathering since Wednesday. On Thursday, we spent the day in the Youth Gathering’s Interactive Center which is an entire convention center converted into a ministry theme park. We participated in water challenges, physically seeing how far people in the world need to walk to get fresh water. We donated blood and could, if we waited long enough in line, to build a home with Habitat for Humanity. We created faith-based art, played games, ran through an obstacle course, and much more. On Friday, we spent the day with everyone from New Jersey in a fun worship based event. Yesterday was our service learning day. As I write this, I have no idea what our service project will be (we’ll discover it that morning) but I know we’ll give back to the local community. I know at this moment that I am feeling drained, exhausted, and limited. Yet the Gathering reminds all of us that our God is abundant.

In today’s letter from 2 Corinthians 8:7-15, Paul is talking to the community in Corinth about money. Paul is collecting funds from the community in Corinth to deliver to the church in Jerusalem. He’s encouraging the Corinthians to finish their pledge and send their money to Jerusalem. This request by Paul is pretty amazing because the church Corinth probably had no deep connections to the church in Jerusalem. Both cities were very different. Jerusalem was old, with Judaism at the heart of what it stood for. Corinth was newer, recently colonized by former Roman solders. The church in Corinth was gentile and most were new to the faith. According to tradition, the church in Jerusalem was older, Jewish, and had James as their leader. On the surface, there was no need for the community in Corinth to support the church in Jerusalem.

Yet Paul invites us to look at giving in a very Jesus kind of way. When we give, we’re not only saying something about our self; we’re also making a very specific claim about God. Our God is a God of abundance. God’s creating of the world and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ were acts rooted in God’s abundance. When we give, we are not giving out of our limitations (our limited income, time, or talents). Rather, when we give, we are giving out of our abundance. There are plenty of ways our budgets, time, and gifts feel very limited. We are over scheduled human beings, with limited perspectives, and bills that need to be paid. But our faith is rooted in a Jesus whose abundance brought him to the Cross and saved the world. This abundance is why you are part of Jesus’ holy family. This abundance is why Jesus loves you. We have a God who is abundant and we are invited to be just as abundant too.

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 after Pentecost, 7/1/2018.

Reflection: Ambassador for Christ

What’s the best title you’ve ever had? Titles usually matter in the places where we work. At a grocery store, we might be a “cashier” or an “associate manager.” At an office, we might be a “clerk” or a “receptionist.” Titles might reference our accomplishments (Dr, Ph,D, MPH), letting people know what we’ve done and what we know. But titles can also be ambiguous and varied. When I built websites for a living, I gave myself a new title almost every month. Every client I worked with required a different kind of a title. I was a “designer,” “graphic designer,” “web designer,” “web programmer,” “project manager,” or “new media expert.” My titles changed all the time but I did keep one that was consistent. On my business cards, I took a joke from the comedian Mitch Hedberg, calling myself “Marc, Potential Lunch Winner.”*

Titles, however, aren’t restricted to what we do. We come with titles the moment we are born. We are parents, children, siblings, and relatives. We are caregivers, care-receivers, senior citizens, and children. Once we enter the world, we are human beings. These titles are not defined by what we do. They are defined by the relationships we are given because we are people in God’s beloved world. In the world of work, our worth is defined by the title we have. In the world as God sees it, our worth is reflected in the titles God gives us. We are not limited by the titles God gives us because the the God who created, sustained, and died for us gives us a title of value nothing can take away from us.

We are, in our baptism, given a title that does not depend on what we do. We are declared as part of the body of Christ. We are made into Christians. This is the title that describes who we are and whose we are. And this is who we are, this title then informs everything else we do. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:18-6:13, we are made “ambassadors for Christ.” As an ambassador, we are Christ’s representative in the world. We are called to follow him. We are given his ministry of reconciliation and hope. We love like he did and still does. Today’s passage from 2 Corinthians is Paul’s attempt to describe what Jesus’ ministry looks like. It’s centered in patience, kindness, truthful speech, and genuine love. It’s a ministry that isn’t easy and will often make us (and others) uncomfortable. But we get to do the hard business of love because we are loved. You are Christ’s ambassador. May all of us live this title fully and faithfully.

*I was one of those folks who put their business card in the jar at every business he went to. I really wanted to win one of the free lunches they were raffling off. I never did.

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 after Pentecost, 6/24/2018.

Reflection: Not Knowing

What does it mean to “know” God? I use the word “know” to point to a deep relationship with Jesus Christ. This kind of relationship is in our bones, in our mind, and in our heart. Our connection with God is so embodied within us that all our interactions with the world are framed by Jesus, his teachings, and our hope in him. This kind of knowing is very aspirational. We rarely have moments in our lives when we, in the present, notice God in this way. But when we take a look back at our lives, sometimes God shows up in a visible way. The tools of faith (prayer, worship, reading the Bible, caring for each other, and receiving communion) can help us see the God who was with us. In worship, we see who we are and receive God’s eternal promises. In prayer, we name our deep needs and listen for the God who is always speaking to us. In reading the bible, we uncover God’s story and how our lives are wrapped up in the God who created everything. And through service and a meal, we are fed to continue the work God is already doing in the world. It takes effort, time, and energy to know God and discover just how much God already knows us.

Paul, in this passage from 2 Corinthians 5:6-17, is pointing to a version of what this knowing looks like. He is projecting a confidence that looks almost foolish. He is writing to a faith community struggling with divisions and hardships. Members of the church in Corinth are arguing about everything: from how communion should be served, the role of women in the faith community, and what kind of lives followers of Jesus should lead. Over and over again, the fractures in the community imply that there’s little that anyone could be confident in. But Paul is confident because he is focused on why the community exists in the first place. Paul trusts Jesus and knows that Jesus changes everything.

Paul’s journey with Jesus changed his life but it did not eliminate the hardships he experienced. He struggled with doubt. He struggled being part of a wider church that didn’t always agree with what he said. Yet he knew that wherever Jesus is, something new is happening. Verse 17 in our reading adds a few words that shouldn’t be there. Paul doesn’t write, “so if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.” The greek words he uses are, “so if anyone is in Christ, there NEW CREATION!” When Jesus shows up (and he does in baptism, at the communion table, and when 2 or 3 gather in his name), we are living in that new thing God is already doing. The tools of faith help us see what Jesus has done with us already. Once we see what Jesus has done, we can face the uncertainty of our future with a confidence that Jesus is, in every moment, making everything new.

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 after Pentecost, 6/17/2018.

Reflection: I…I…I – pay attention to the verbs

“I heard…I was afraid…I was naked…I hid…”

One way to dwell in scripture is to look at what is said and focus on the verbs. Today’s passage from Genesis 3:8-15 is a dialogue between God, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent. It begins with God walking in the garden near the start of a new day (in the Jewish calendar, new days begin at sundown). The evening breeze is blowing and sound of God’s rustling alerts Adam and Eve to God’s presence. Adam and Eve how ate from the “Tree of Good and Evil,” panic and hide from God. The fruit gave the first two people access to all knowledge: to what is good, evil, and everything in between. This kind of knowledge is more than just having a thought about something. This knowledge is deep, mythical, cosmic, and expansive. It’s a knowing rooted in a sense of reality that we cannot fully comprehend. This knowledge gave Adam and Eve access to God’s experiences but, unlike God, human beings have no way of making full sense of it. And when Adam and Eve are confronted by God, all they can do is hide.

“I heard…I was afraid…I was naked…I hid…” Adam’s use of verbs show how his perspective has changed. This new experience has reoriented Adam. He has now placed himself at the center of his universe. Instead of seeing himself as part of what God created, Adam can only focus on himself. He blames God for creating Eve and blames Eve for giving him the fruit of the tree. He takes no responsibility for his actions and, in fact, seems even incapable of doing that. Adam becomes so focused on himself that he cannot admit who is he or what has happened. And when confronted by the One who knows Adam better than Adam knows himself, the only thing Adam can do is hide and hope God doesn’t see him.

But God does see him and that changes everything. God, amazingly, doesn’t give up on Adam and Eve. Instead, God keeps coming to them, working within their reality to bring them back into God’s. We know that Adam and Eve will still be themselves. We know all of us struggle to imagine a universe where we aren’t the center of it. We can’t change our reality on our own so God, in Jesus Christ, comes to change it for us. It’s through Jesus and his relationship with us when our use of verbs change. When we say we’re afraid, Jesus says, “Don’t be.” When we say we’re stripped bare and exposed, Jesus gives us a community to care for us. And when we hide from God, Jesus comes to us in our baptism, in our faith, and at the table to say we are his and will be, 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 3rd Sunday after Pentecost, 6/10/2018.

Interpreting Scripture in Real Time

Did you notice what Jesus did in this passage according to Mark 2:23-3:6? He applied a scripture story to a situation that appears, at first, unrelated. What we see in this passage is Jesus using different parts of the bible to engage with a current situation. His disciples, who are hungry, are doing work on the sabbath. The Pharisees, using our first reading today as the basis for their interpretation, question Jesus. Jesus, on the fly, remembered a part of scripture where someone was hungry. And so he introduces to all of us a story about David.

This incident in David’s life comes from 1 Samuel 21. David is on the run. David is a fugitive from Saul, the king of Israel. David is on his own and he has two pressing problems: he needs food and weapons. He visits the town of Nov (north of Jerusalem, near the Temple) and meets the local high priest. David pretends to be on a mission from Saul, telling the priest that he needs food to do what Saul wants him to do. The priest counters saying that they only have the bread of the Presence nearby. This bread was used for special rituals and fed to the priests when the priests were ritually pure. David says that he is ritually pure and so the priest, believing what David told him, David the bread. David then takes from the Temple the sword that Goliath once held. Armed and fed, David flees into a foreign country.

Jesus took this story about David and made a bold claim about the sabbath. The sabbath, like all holy things, are designed to give life. Hunger hurts, mains, and kills. Jesus can only respond to hunger by feeding others. Jesus is centered on giving life. Yet this feeding (and healing) on the sabbath is not what gets Jesus into trouble. What becomes the big problem is his claim that the “Son of Man” (i.e. himself) is lord over the sabbath. Jesus is making a claim about his identity. He is saying that he is the Messiah, Emmanuel, God-with-us. And the world around him (and us) can’t help but challenge that claim.

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, 6/03/2018.

Uh oh. John 3:16.

John 3:16 is one of the most famous verses of the New Testament. It has become, over the years, the text used to define what it means to follow Jesus. When someone hands you a religious piece of paper while you are walking on the street or waves a sign while sitting in a football stadium, they are acting as if God is waiting on you to make a choice. The choice is simple: choose Jesus or choose the world. And once you choose Jesus, God will choose you.

But is this the point of John 3:16? I don’t think so. When we leave scripture in scripture, John 3:16 (by reading John 3:1-17)becomes less about the choice we make and more about the choice that God has already made. Jesus, God incarnate, is having a conversation with a guy named Nicodemus. God is already there. Jesus is a human being taking the steps that will lead him to the cross. God has already made the choice to love the world. Nicodemus thought he was the one choosing to come to Jesus. But he is suddenly realizing that Jesus came to him.

In a recent article in the Christian Century, Thomas Long shared a story that the former publisher of the magazine, John Buchanan, once told him. The publisher was a pastor and was baptizing a two-year old child. He read the standard pronouncement from the prayer book: “You are a child of God, sealed by the Spirit in your baptism, and you belong to Jesus Christ forever.” Unexpectedly, the child responded, “uh-oh.” “Nicodemus’s response to Jesus could be heard as a shocked, ‘uh-oh.’ Moving politely toward Jesus with an inquiry, Nicodemus alarmingly finds Jesus moving toward him to rescue him, to transform him, to save him.”

The Christian life isn’t about choosing Jesus. Instead, it’s about noticing that Jesus already chose us. If we’re not saying “uh-oh” to the God who is making us into something brand new, we’re not realizing what Jesus is actually doing. Following Jesus means we will end up following something other than ourselves. Jesus doesn’t keep us where we are comfortable. He takes us to the place where we will be transformed. And once we’re transformed, we’ll discover who God is calling 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 Sunday, 5/27/2018.

Go Away: Does Jesus Leave?

Is it really to our advantage if Jesus goes away?

One of the odd parts of today’s ready from the gospel according to John 15:26-27;16:4-15 is Jesus’ talk about going away. He’s promises that he is leaving. This seems to contradict other pieces of scripture, especially in Matthew, that Jesus is “God with us” and he will be with us until the end of the age. It’s easier (and more comforting!) to talk about Jesus’ being with us, right now. A Jesus who is with us is a Jesus who makes a difference. So what can we do with a Jesus who is about to walk out the front door?

One thing we can do is look at the context of this passage. Jesus is in the middle of his long sermon preparing his followers for what comes next. Jesus, in John, knows he will be killed. His reality is going to change. The people who experienced him in person are, after the Cross, going to experience him in a different way. Jesus, who ate, slept, and sweated just like the rest of u. But now he is becoming something new. That newness is a type of leaving. Jesus’s followers will need to learn how to hold onto Jesus once Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension are the current reality. Their old experience of Jesus will be replaced by something they didn’t plan or expect. And the new thing that will make this happen is, according to the gospel of John, the Holy Spirit.

It’s the Holy Spirit that helps all of us to experience Jesus in different ways. It’s the Holy Spirit that helps us see the Jesus who is (in the Spirit), right before us. It’s the Holy Spirit that gives us the faith to trust that God’s promises are meant for you and for me. And Jesus’ chooses to make himself known to us through the Spirit. We are here, right now, because the Holy Spirit brought us here. God needed you in this space, to hear the words of God’s promises, and to experience the community God has brought into being The Holy Spirit is how God connects, serves, and loves all of us. And the Spirit is the only thing that can inspire us to connect, serve, and love each other in the exact same way.

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, 5/20/2018.