Oriented to the Son: Isaiah 5

What do you always get when you go grocery shopping? For me and my house, we get grapes. Each week, I make a pitstop at the crates of grapes. The crates are usually stacked and taller than me. The grapes are black, red, green, seedless, and seeded. When grapes are on sale, I celebrate. When they are not, I buy them anyways. My youngest and I love grapes. And we both know just how wild grapes can be.

In a previous life, my landlord grew grapes in his backyard in Queens. They crawled up a lattice, forming a canopy over a concrete deck. Those grapes were green, plump, and sweet. When I moved to Paramus, my yard was full of wild grapes. Vines choked trees, bushes, and the house itself. Those grapes were small and tasted awful. The well cared for grapes in Queens and the unruly ones in Paramus both, however, chased the sun. The spots on the ground where the rays of the sun touched were the places where grapes sprouted. Without the sun, nothing grew.

Vineyards take work. It takes time and effort to make grapes grow the way we want them to. In ancient times, vineyards were a sign of wealth and prestige. They were also a metaphor for love, fertility, and relationships. The care needed to make a vineyard work was a stand-in for the care needed to make a relationship blossom. When Isaiah starts our first reading today (Isaiah 5:1-7), people think they know what he is talking about. They look for words of love but they are met with something else. Isaiah is speaking to the entire community, including its political leaders, priests, and those with enough food to eat. He shows them the world they’ve created. God, who cares for God’s people, is not seeing God’s people care for each other in the same way. Where God expects justice and help for the vulnerable, God is seeing oppression, violence, and death. God expected God’s people to share a love-song with each other but there’s only injustice instead.

So how do we sing a love-song for each other? This isn’t easy. Disagreements are a normal part of life and hurting each other is something we are good at. We do not usually notice the ways we harm the people around us. We can become lost in our own vineyard, focused only on ourselves. But we also have a way to move past this vineyard of one. We have the Son. Through the gift of baptism, we are united with the one who knows how to keep God’s love at the center of everything. When we keep close of Jesus, the fruit of our work is changed. What we do becomes life-giving to those around us. When we stay oriented to the Son in a conscious and intentional way, justice, healing, and wholeness becomes all that we do.

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 18th Sunday After Pentecost, 10/08/2017.

A Reflection on Philippians 2: Knowing Our Own Authority

Following Jesus (i.e. faith) takes work. Now as Lutherans, we are (rightly!) always suspicious when the words faith and work are next to each other. Faith is always a gift from God. We cannot, through our own effort, ever say “I believe” and mean it as much as we should. Instead, it’s the Spirit that reveals Jesus’ love and care for us and the world. This gift changes us. We are different and it takes work to live a different kind of life.

I believe Jesus expects, and knows, we can do this. God provides ways for us to grow. The Spirit guides us, Jesus’ presence holds us, and the Scriptures help reveal who God is and what a relationship with God looks like. Part of our work is being interpreters. We read Scripture. We analyze the world we live in. We reflect on our own experiences. A faith-filled life is a life of interpretation and a life that knows change. We know life isn’t constant. Situations change. Relationships change. Our own bodies change. Our faith can change. But Jesus’ love doesn’t change. Faith isn’t easy but if we wanted easy, we wouldn’t follow Jesus Christ.

Today’s reading from Philippians 2:1-13 includes the earliest Christian hymn we know. Verses 6 through 11 are a song. The song is more than a description of Jesus. It’s lyrics put to music because Jesus is an experience. And part of that experience is reflecting on who Jesus is, what Jesus did, and how that makes a difference to them. Jesus knew he was God but emptied himself of his power, authority, and freedom to be human. He chose to be like a slave, one who had no control over the violence inflicted on his body. He lived out loud what God’s kingdom looks like. And the government and spiritual authorities killed him for it.

Jesus is an experience and a model for our lives. This way of life puts the interests of others before ourselves. And this isn’t easy. To put others first means we need to know who we are and what our interests are. We need to know people different from us and what their interests are too. We need to know what experiences are foundational to who we are. We need to learn about experiences we don’t have but other people do. We might not think we have any power or authority but our gender, race, social class, and wealth give us different kinds of authority that explicitly and implicitly impacts the people around us. This kind of reflection, observation, and interpretation will make us uncomfortable. But Jesus knows we can handle it. Jesus knows we can live a different kind of life because we are not doing this work on our own. We have the Spirit. We have each other. We have Jesus. And even when we are uncomfortable, we are still called to 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 17th Sunday After Pentecost, 10/01/2017.

A Reflection on the Workers in the Vineyard

What does “the kingdom of heaven” bring up? Do you see a vision of clouds, deep blue sky, and angels flying around with wings? Does “the kingdom of heaven” inspire questions about the afterlife or does it cause you to think about life right now? Those first four words are the key to our interpretation of today’s reading from the gospel of Matthew 20:1-16. If the kingdom of heaven is only about heaven, today’s parable is a parable only about faith and belief. But if the kingdom of heaven is about the world right now, today’s parable is about living a faith-filled life.

Matthew is the only gospel that uses the phrase “the kingdom of heaven.” Mark, Luke, and John instead use the “kingdom of God.” We can read these two phrases, I think, interchangeably. “The kingdom of heaven” shows us how God is more than just our personal experience of the world. “The kingdom of God” reminds us how God interacts and cares about the world we live in. God’s kingdom includes the entire world. God’s kingdom has something to say to every kingdom, nation, and even home we create. God’s vision for our life is a vision that stretches from heaven to the earth and back again.

I like Richard Lischer’s description of why parables matter. “The implication of the parables is clear: if one cannot meet the kingdom of God amid the pots and pans of daily life, of what earthly use is the kingdom?”* There are parts of today’s parable that are hard. Why does the landowner get to chose who works and who doesn’t? In the world this story takes place in, what happens to those who are willing to work but are not hired? Do we want God to really be like this choosy landowner? And why does God’s vision of justice seem to punish, or at least be unfair, to those who worked the whole day? But the heart of this story is also a vision of radical equality and grace. And this vision matters right now. The workers’ worth isn’t defined by what they do. They are valued because God says they are. And this vision of justice isn’t something we are asked to wait to experience in the world to come. This justice is something God wants in the world today.

*Richard Lischer, Reading the Parables, 2014. Page 11.

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 16th Sunday After Pentecost, 9/24/2017.

Conflict in the Community Part 2

Today’s reading from the gospel according to Matthew 18:21-35 continues last week’s reading and is about conflict. My reflection last week showed how the bible knew conflicts within churches would happen. Communities are made of people and people will disagree with each other. But conflict isn’t a sign of the community being broken. As long as we commit ourselves to love and serve each other with grace, we will be strong. And we can serve each other with love and grace because our community includes someone important. Jesus is here and Jesus inspires us to serve one another.

Peter asked Jesus how many times we should forgive each other. Jesus’ answer is surprising because he says to forgive an unlimited amount of times. Jesus focused on what we can do. We cannot control other people but we can control our own response. When we are safe, we can forgive. When we are loved and allowed a life to live, forgiveness helps us break the bonds holding us back. Forgiveness is not forgetting. Forgiveness is ending the hurt inflicted on us to continue to limit who we are. When we forgive, we are loving ourselves by not letting hurt hold us back.

So how can we forgive like Jesus says we should? We start by first knowing who we are. In May, the Church Council voted to start a process to figure out who we are as a community. The process we are using is called Appreciative Inquiry. Appreciative Inquiry focuses on what we do well as a community. It identifies our gifts. When we focus on our strengths, we discover who we are and where we come from. When we know who we are, our disagreements stay rooted in our shared identity as a community. As a community of faith, Jesus invites us to have difficult conversations. He wants us to ask how we can serve our neighbors in new ways and what that might mean for our identity as a community. We need to ask difficult questions. We need to see how our faith and shared identity as followers of Jesus address issues like same-gender weddings, gender identity, racism, politics, and more. These conversations are hard but they can go well when we know ourselves.

The council is putting together a team who will start this process within the next few months. You will be invited to meet with a fellow church member for a one-on-one conversation. You’ll be invited to share your story. Once everyone in the church is interviewed, we will move into developing a shared vision of who we are and where we believe God is taking us. This process will take time and you’ll hear more about it in our next issue of the Messenger. I’m excited about what this process will uncover and look forward to seeing how the Spirit inspires us in new and exciting ways. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

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 15th Sunday After Pentecost, 9/17/2017.

Conflict in Community Part 1

Did you know today’s reading from the gospel according to Matthew 18:15-21 is in our church constitution? Every congregation in our denomination has a constitution, a document that outlines how we live our life together as a community. Each congregation’s constitution is unique but they follow the model established by our denomination. Today’s gospel passage is how we resolve conflict between members in our community. This method is not the only method available to resolve conflict inside the church but it shows us that conflict inside the church is normal. As a community of faith, we sometimes mess up and hurt other people. As a community filled with people, each one of us sometimes hurt each other or the community itself. We are not perfect. Conflict has, does, and will happen in this church. But conflict does not mean we are an unhealthy community. Conflict can be healthy and help us discover how the Spirit is leading us in exciting, effective, and life-giving ways.

One of the fun parts of this passage is the assumption inside it that we, as disciples of Jesus, and the church itself are always right. But if we’re honest, there are times when the issue we have with another person is our issue and not theirs. How many times have you heard someone talk about someone else but know, deep down, that the talker is at fault? How many times, after reflection or confrontation, have you realized you were the one with the problem and not the other way around? Conflict isn’t the sign of a broken community. The community is broken when we refuse to talk to each other. When we, as a church, avoid difficult conversations, we’re avoiding the possibilities healthy conflict can bring. I honestly believe that the Holy Spirit brings us specifically together not because we are all alike but because the Holy Spirit knows we need each other. When we talk together, we can see more clearly what the Spirit is doing.

So how can we disagree with each, talk to each other, and experience conflict while still being the community the Spirit wants us to be? One way, I think, is by first knowing who we are. We are beloved children of God. We are, through our baptism, united with Christ. When two of us are together, Jesus is right there. Jesus is there in our committee meetings, congregational meetings, and when we meet one-on-one. We are a community that gathers together not because we are all friends and we never disagree with each other. We are a church because we belong to Jesus and Jesus calls us to be right here.

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 14th Sunday After Pentecost, 9/10/2017.

Bless even when you don’t want to

What are the things in life you wish you liked? What do you keep trying, hoping that this will be the time when you finally enjoy it? There are two of these things on my list. One is bleu cheese. I try it every time I see it. I want to like it. I pray that I will like it. I know I should like it. But when I take a bite of it, I can’t take another. Next to bleu cheese is running. Growing up, I tried soccer, lacrosse, and basketball. I picked sports knowing I would need to run up and down a field. I even tried jogging for fun once. But running is something I’ve never been into. One of the issues I have with running is the pain. Once I start running, sharp pain radiates from my shins. I’ve learned different stretches and coping mechanisms over the years to deal with the pain but that pain is always there. I wish I liked running. I wish I enjoyed running races because I would like a cool medal. Nothing so far has made running “fun” for me. But I keep trying. God willing, this will be the weekend I complete my first 5K and come bak to New Jersey with a medal in the shape of a bowl of Kraft Mac & Cheese.

Today’s reading from Romans 12:9-21 continues what we heard last week. The Romans are trying to embody a life that follows Jesus and Paul is laying out what that life looks likes. Paul starts with love, honor, and service. He advocates taking strong stances against everything that keeps people from God. He explains that a life lived in harmony with others means showing hospitality to strangers and being generous to the people sitting next to you. We’re called to know people, crying when they cry and laughing when they life. We live to be with people and to bless them, focusing on the needs of our neighbors instead of ourselves. Paul is advocating a way of life that is difficult to understand and even harder to live out. Yet it’s a way of life rooted in Jesus Christ. Jesus had the power to seek vengeance, to raise an army, to establish a political kingdom on Earth that could push the Roman Empire into the Sea. As the Son of God, he could use his power like we do. He could have been violent, destructive, and focused on only his own immediate needs and wants. But he didn’t. He went to the Cross because God’s number one desire is to love, save, and redeem all of us. A Jesus-like life is hard. A Jesus-like life involves sacrifices. A Jesus-like life means always loving even in the face of evil. We keep loving because Jesus keeps loving us. And it’s that kind of love, service, and honoring of others that can truly change the world.

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 13th Sunday After Pentecost, 9/3/2017.

Pan Pizzaz: Peter is the Rock

Today’s passage from Matthew 16:13-20 is a passage the church has fought over for centuries. For the Roman Catholic Church, this text illustrates why Peter (and his spiritual descendants – the Popes) are central to church leadership. Martin Luther disagreed, seeing Peter’s confession (“You are the Messiah”) as the true cornerstone of all church leadership. There is also debate over what the “keys” actually are. Is this passage an invitation for the spiritual leaders of the church to decide who gets forgiveness and who doesn’t? Is this a passage letting us tell other people “I’ll pray for you” as a way to be passive aggressive with other people? Can priests, pastors, and Christians actually claim who are true Christians and who are not? It’s a powerful passage that has inspired debates and schisms for 2000 years. We should remember the history of interpretation because it shows how the interpretation of this passages changes depending on our cultural, historical, and political context. This passage invites us to remember why we need the Holy Spirit to open up God’s word for us because what the Holy Spirit gives us might not match, 100%, with what came before it.

When I look at scripture, I spend time putting it into context. Where does this passage appear in the wider story? What message is the author trying to get across? And what would the original hearers actually hear? A big part of my interpretation process also involves real estate. Location matters and location plays a big role in what Jesus is saying today.

The city of Caesarea Philippi was at the edge of northern Galilee, the tip of Israel’s ancient homeland. In Jesus’ day the city was new but the location wasn’t. For hundreds of years a temple located at the city site was dedicated to the Greek god Pan. The temple sat next to a large spring that provided water for the Jordan River. Over time, the temple complex grew. Images of Pan and other pagan gods were carved on the rocky hill behind the spring. When the city was finally established a few years after Jesus’ birth, the city became very Roman. Even it’s name, Caesarea Philippi honors the Roman Emperor – Caesar. This was a city that treated the Roman Emperors as gods.The rocky hill behind the spring was soon the Mt. Rushmore of the area, including images of Pan and the Roman Emperors as a sign of what was the rock, the foundation, of the wider world.

Today’s passage takes place with Jesus, Peter, and the other disciples overshadowed by images of the Roman emperor and Greek gods. It’s under the watchful eye of these rocks when Jesus calls Peter his rock. We can argue about the details of Jesus’ command to him mean but we shouldn’t ignore the impact such words would have made. Peter’s confession is a direct refutation of the government surrounding him. Jesus tells Peter that he will be a leader of a different kind of kingdom. These words are revolutionary words. They are powerful words. And they are words that remind us that no government on earth can be seen as the end all, be all, of the kingdom of God. Instead, Jesus’ followers are invited to see the world as it is, a place that struggles with sin, injustice, inequality, and power, but live as if Jesus makes the difference that we know he does.

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 12th Sunday After Pentecost, 8/27/2017.

The Persistent Canaanite Woman

It’s strange for Matthew to call the woman in our gospel reading (Matthew 15:21-28) a Canaanite. By the time of Jesus, the Canaanite culture was long gone. The land of Canaan included parts of Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Syria. When the people of Israel fled Egypt, they came into a territory dominated by Canaanite kingdoms. Gradually as the Philistines took over the coast and the kingdom of Israel dominated the interior, the Canaanite culture shrunk. By the time of the Exile, when the people of Jerusalem were taken to live in Babylon, Canaan no longer existed. Wars, invasions, demographic changes, and migrations mixed the Canaanite communities wither others. By Jesus’ time, after years of Greek and Roman rule, Canaanites didn’t exist. But we know, based on modern science, that the Canaanites never left. Recent DNA studies show how modern people living in Lebanon and the surrounding areas still have DNA matching skeletons buried 3500 years ago. By calling this woman a Canaanite, Matthew is making a statement. This woman is related biologically to Jesus and his disciples. But she is defined as someone who is completely different. She is a woman set apart, an outsider living in the old Philistine territories of Sidon and Tyre. She’s unworthy of Jesus’ time. And yet, she’s a mother who persists because her daughter is in trouble.

Jesus is a bit of a jerk in this passage. The Canaanite woman believes Jesus is who everyone says he is. She knows he has cured others and she wants her daughter to be cured too. Jesus hears her shouts but chooses not to answer. Even the disciples are annoyed by her persistent shouting. Since her words are failing, she takes the drastic step to get in Jesus’ way. She physically uses her body to disrupt his path. And once she’s stopped Jesus, she asks for help. Jesus responded harshly but she will not give up. She knows who Jesus is and will not let Jesus ignore her. Her faith is her persistence. She won’t let Jesus be anything but Jesus. Her persistence is also a description of who her God is. Her God cares. Her God heals. Her God will not let her family go and will keep God’s promises. She refuses to let Jesus be anything but Jesus. And if she can be persistent with Jesus, we can be 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 11th Sunday After Pentecost, 8/20/2017.

One More Thing

Today’s reading from Matthew 14:22-33 takes place immediately after last week’s reading. A crowd numbering over 5000 people came to Jesus. Jesus spends the whole day with them and then, in the evening, tells his disciples to feed the entire crowd. Imagine being a disciple in that moment. They were around a giant crowd, all day. Jesus probably moved through the crowd, coming to people who were sick and hurting. If the day was bright, warm, and dusty, I imagine the disciples would be exhausted by the end of the day. They’re tired and want to rest. But even after a full and busy day, Jesus makes them work. Once the leftovers are picked up, the disciples were worn out. And then one more thing comes up.

Jesus dismisses the crowd and his disciples. Jesus retreats to pray while the disciples board a boat on the Sea of Galilee. As Jesus prays, a storm develops. The disciples spend all night keeping their ship afloat. The disciples are already tired but the wind and waves do not let up. By the early morning hours, they must have been barely keeping themselves together. They look to the shore, now far away, and see Jesus coming towards them. The disciples freak out and Peter makes Jesus prove who he is. Jesus responds by giving Peter one more thing to do.

Life has a habit of giving us one more thing when we are already over our heads. A mourning family experiences another loss. A health crisis gets another unexpected diagnosis. The busyness of everyday life has one more problem thrown into the pot. As the winds and waters of life overwhelm us, one more thing will come. And when it does, Jesus is there.

We can act like the only time we meet Jesus is when we pick a time to meet him. Setting time aside to worship, pray, and study is very important. We are called to make faith a priority and that means giving our time to God. But when life overwhelms us and our time is occupied, that doesn’t mean Jesus isn’t with us. Jesus is there when we feel as if we’re drowning. Jesus is coming towards us even when we are being punished by the wind. And Jesus will grab our hand because there’s nothing in this life that can keep Jesus away from us.

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 10th Sunday After Pentecost, 8/13/2017.