A Reflection on Jeremiah 11

Today’s first reading is Jeremiah 11:18-20.

These three verses from Jeremiah need a little context.

Jeremiah is a prophet operating around Jerusalem right before (and during) Jerusalem’s destruction by the Babylonians. He’s watched as Babylon gets involved in Jerusalem’s affairs. An empire with an army much larger (and better equipped) than what Jerusalem has, fear is tearing Jerusalem apart. Jeremiah is watching his society unravel before his eyes. He is given a job by God to spread a message about Babylon’s advance and pleading with the people to turn to God and not try to defeat Babylon militarily. But no one truly listens. Jeremiah is arrested, tried, and almost killed. He’s in prison when Jerusalem is captured by Babylon and eventually dies (we believe) in Egypt as a refugee.

These verses from chapter 11 are the first of Jeremiah’s nine laments. God tells Jeremiah that others want to kill him. This makes Jeremiah sad and angry. He’s upset that others aren’t listening to him but he’s also upset that God sent him on this mission. Jeremiah doesn’t want to share this negative message with his neighbors. He doesn’t want to be the one living this kind of life. But God chose Jeremiah to speak the truth during a chaotic time so Jeremiah presses on. And he trusts that, in the end, God will set the world right.

The verses end with Jeremiah asking God to destroy and punish his enemies. His sadness is matched by his anger towards those around him and God. Like many of us, Jeremiah can’t fully separate sadness and anger. They’re always together, with his sadness making him want to lash out at others. Faced by the impending war with Babylon, Jeremiah responds to his enemies in kind. He struggles, like all of us when we are in a crisis, to imagine a world bigger than what he is experiencing. Surrounded by violence, he imagines God’s promise in the language of violence. His language isn’t a model for us but his trust is. He trusts that God will make all things right but he struggles to imagine just how God’s hope, mercy, and love will look like when Jeremiah is caught up in the chaos around him.

A Reflection on Isaiah 50: God’s Work, Our Hands.

The First Reading is Isaiah 50:4-9.

“The Lord God has given me…the Lord God has opened…the Lord God helps…the Lord God who helps…” These phrases in our first reading today is the key to this text. The writer is announcing that God has acted, giving them gifts and help. Whatever work the speaker is doing is because God is acting through them.

Walter Brueggemann, Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, writes that these verses seem out of place. They don’t fit with the words that come before. “It is as though these verses provide a reflective interlude conceding the urgent, context vocation of the servant of [God], who is to bring Israel home from exile.” This interlude is rooted in the “utter reliability of [God.]” The speaker in the text is called the servant and they are struggling. The servant is facing trials and fights while living out their faith. There are times the servant wants to be silent, to hide, and pretend to not be a disciple of God. But, even during those times, God is enough. God will prevail. In the end, God’s kingdom will come. The servant proclaims they will not give up their relationship with God because God is always reliable.

So who is this servant? As Christians, we see our Lord Jesus Christ in these words. We see in his story God’s reliability. This interlude is God’s interlude into our world as Jesus who came to teach, heal, love, and overcome death on the Cross. This interlude is Jesus saying God is enough.

This interlude in Isaiah can also represent our ned for interludes in our lives. Many times, during our own struggles, we need to breathe. We need to take a moment to step away, to reflect, and to remember who we are. We are disciples of Jesus, even when we fail to love others like we should. We are children of God, even when we fail to recognize God around us. We are loved, even when we don’t feel loved.

God’s love comes from God’s claim on us, a claim that we don’t earn on our own. Just as God risked living a human life, God takes a risk on each of us by claiming us as God’s. God’s claim on us is utterly reliable. God has gripped us tight. So, since we are loved, how do we share God’s reliable love to our neighbors, friends, family, and even to ourselves?

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 9/13/2015.

A Reflection on Acts 4

Today’s First Reading is Acts 4:32-35..

This text from Acts is rather striking, isn’t it?

What we’re seeing is a vision of the Jesus community after Pentecost. The community is preaching in the temple, gathering in regular meetings, and some of the early disciples are being arrested for their beliefs. The community hasn’t even been called Christian yet (see Acts 11) and Stephen won’t be killed until Acts 7. So at the start of this post-Easter community, we find this text from Acts 4. Ownership of property and things, like land, houses, and I assume bowls and cups, no longer exists. Items are sold or shared. The apostles dictate where the money goes and who receives any. This model works because everyone is on the same page. The community can practice a radical form of generosity because they are so united. Our habit of using things to separate us from one another no longer exists.

But the community in Acts isn’t a blueprint that we’re called to follow. This kind of community doesn’t last (read Acts 5 to see why). So instead of selling our houses and giving the money to Pastor Marc to handle, let’s ask just what is going on here. We’re invited to see what’s happened to cause this community to act this way and that’s the presence of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is causing the community to swirl around each other, to care and love each other in ways it didn’t before. The barriers that we build to create a hierarchy of importance (such as how much money we make, how big our house is, how many vacations we go on) is broken. The community embodies the love that Jesus preached and practiced. People are cared for, division are broken, and love is the only rule.

The community of Acts 4, however, isn’t perfect. These short verses are focused on those already inside the community. There is nothing about giving to the poor, sharing with non-Christians, or having meals with the unwanted. They are turned inwards when so much of Jesus’ ministry was directed towards the people “out there.” All communities are called to embody Jesus, to proclaim in our actions and identity the love that God shares with the world. Radical generosity is a part of that. Loving the stranger is a part of that too. Turning away from ourselves and looking at those around us, asking what they need and how Spirit is moving in their lives, matters too. The first communities after Easter struggled with this. We struggle too. But this call from God, to be a community that embodies everything that Jesus is about, continues. That’s our mission and our job.

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 4/12/2015.

Easter Sunday: Christ is Risen!

The Gospel Reading is Mark 16:1-8.

What do you think about the resurrection?

It’s easy to get lost in what the church says about the resurrection. We have the story recorded in four different ways in the four gospels. Paul’s letters and the later epistles written in his name are centered on what it means to live on this side of Easter. We hear how the empty tomb matters, how there’s an angel sitting on a bench, and there’s a neat pile of linens stacked to the side. And we see the disciples, women and men, standing there and wondering what happens next.

But, beyond that story, how does the resurrection matter to you?

Easter is a beautiful day. Flowers cover the altar here at church and the music will be amazing. And once the worship is done, Easter, for many of us, doesn’t end. There’s brunch and family dinners, visits to the mall in New York or a trip to Manhattan to experience NYC in Spring. We hit the road to see friends and family while decked out in our best suits, beautiful pink ties, and while wearing our most fun socks. And who can forget the opening and sharing of Easter baskets, the hunting of Easter eggs, and the bitting the ears off chocolate bunnies. The world around seems to be all about Easter as well. Easter sales, bunnies standing outside fire houses, hams that we need to pickup from Shoprite, and TV specials featuring Jesus premiering later tonight. Easter is an event that goes on, for everyone, all day.

But Easter is more than just today. Easter is for every day and night of our lives.

Today, like we do everyday, we shout from the rooftops that Jesus lives. But he’s more than just a member of the Walking Dead. This Jesus is something brand new; living a promise that death isn’t the end. Death isn’t the opposite to life; instead, a new, different kind of life, is. And this new life matters now. Easter means our lives today are different than they were before. We’re living in a post-Easter world where our lives, the specifics of our lives, are not defined by its end. Christ is risen. Christ is living. We are in the post-resurrection future. More is coming – and that matters to me and to you.

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 4/5/2015.

John and the Jews

The Gospel Reading is John 18:1-19:42.

I’m always uncomfortable when I hear in the gospel according to John, the phrase “the Jews.”

It’s a phrase John uses a lot when compared to other gospels(over 60 times compared to only 6 in Mark). Living 2000 years after Jesus’ ministry, this phrase might not sound too strange to us. But as the scholar Raymond Brown writes in reference to Jewish parents of a blind man in Jerusalem who are “described as being ‘afraid of the Jews’ (9:22) is just as awkward as having an American living in Washington, DC, described as being afraid of ‘the Americas’ – only a non-American speaks thus of ‘the Americans.'” John isn’t being descriptive in his use of the term; he’s being hostile. Scholars believe that the author of John was part of a community that had been expelled, or split, from Jews worshipping in synagogues. John’s community probably couldn’t understand why those in the synagogues did not accept Jesus as the Messiah and those in the synagogues couldn’t understand how these people did. They split apart and, like all breakups, mutual hostility and anger broke out. John community was so angry that Jesus’ story started to be reduced. The diversity of Judaism as witnessed in Mark, Matthew, and Luke (i.e. the Sadducees and the Pharisees) disappeared in John. They are all just “the Jews” and John does not like them very much.

So what should we do with this aspect of John? Do we removed the references or replace them with something softer, like “religious authorities?” Such a tactic, I believe, fuels the problem. The reality is that John says some hateful things and he’s been used to fuel Anti-Semitism for centuries. We shouldn’t mask the hateful things that Scripture sometimes says.

And I believe that’s what helps make Scripture powerful for us. Scripture isn’t just God’s word; scripture is also the human story. We are sinners. We feel hate. We exclude others, act out in anger, and discriminate over religion, race, sex, gender, and sexual orientation. We’re very good at not loving our neighbors or ourselves. And John’s gospel captures that. We see in John our inability to follow the commandments as Jesus taught us. John is showing us a community who are full of followers of Jesus but who still, like us, are caught up in sin. John’s community, like ours, still needs God’s love and grace to be transformed into the disciples God calls us to be.

John’s antagonism and hateful sayings are things that we, as disciples of Christ, stand against. Our love for our neighbors and for God’s creation calls us to do nothing less. John’s community, as a community in our world, still struggled with darkness. We still struggle with darkness too. But Jesus promises to keep coming to us, bringing light into our dark places, and showing us how 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 4/03/2015.

A Reflection on Jeremiah 31

The first reading today is from Jeremiah 31:31-34.

I learned something new this week about Jeremiah 31: this is the only Old Testament passage where the word “new” modifies the word covenant. But what exactly is new about this covenant is disputed.

The book of Jeremiah is a hard text. Called to proclaim the coming destruction of Jerusalem, Jeremiah’s ministry spanned 5 kingships prior to Babylon’s take over of Jerusalem. Jeremiah’s traditionally known as the author of Lamentations, a book full of sadness due to the loss of the city but hopeful that the community will survive. Jeremiah most likely spent the last years of his life in Egypt, away from those in Babylon but still trying to turn the people back to God.

This first reading is about restoration. The new covenant God will bring is entirely earthy. Jerusalem will be rebuilt and the land of Israel will be repopulated. Throughout the Old Testament, land (and the promise of the land) is central to what God is doing. Restoration always has a very earthy feel. God isn’t in the business of drawing the Chosen people away from the earth; God is busy restoring people to it.

And the center of this restoration is grounded in God’s promises. This new covenant isn’t replacing the prior ones that we’ve heard this Lent (the promise to not destroy the world with a flood, the promise of the Ten Commandments, etc). This new covenant is fulfilling the eternal promises of God. God promises to walk with God’s people, to get into the earthy lives we live, and help us grow into the people we are called to be.

At the Lord’s table, we hear words of a new covenant. When we share in Jesus’ body and blood, we’re reminded that God is active in our lives, nourishing us physically and spirituality, so that God’s eternal promise is manifested in our lives. God’s new covenant is rooted in forgiveness. Jeremiah vision of what the future will hold is still be actualized now. We’re not there yet. But with God’s love, grace, and Jesus’ presence, we are transformed, reflecting tomorrow’s future in our lives today.

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 3/22/2015.

A reflection on Numbers

The first reading today is from Numbers 21:4-9.

So does God send snakes to punish the people for complaining?

Our title for this book, “Numbers,” comes from a census that is taken at the start of the book (Chapters 1, 3, & 4), but the Hebrew title is a better description on what this book is about. The book is bemidbar, “In the Wilderness.” The story is about Israel’s journey from Mt. Sinai to the Promise Land, and that’s where this bronze serpent appears, in the middle of the wilderness.

The people are impatient and cranky. They’re not sure if they can trust that God knows what God is doing. They complain about having no food (even though there is plenty of ‘manna’ available) and that the food they have is awful. And after the complaint comes snakes. The text doesn’t explicitly say that God sends the snakes because of their complaining but the people believe as much. They ask Moses to bring their prayer and sorrow to God. Moses does and God responds in a very odd way. Rather than taking the snakes away, Moses is instructed to make a bronze serpent that, when looked at, will heal and keep them safe. The snakes are in the grass and the threat of their attack is all around. Yet, by looking at an image of their problems, the people will live.

We tend to not see God as dangerous but, in our text and throughout Scripture, God is very dangerous indeed. God is completely free to do what God wants. And, in that freedom, God is dangerous. A God that we have figured out is a God that is domesticated, comfortable, and controllable. But that isn’t a God who will bring people out of slavery, lead people through the wilderness, and drag people, kicking and screaming, into the promised land. A dangerous God is a God who moves and loves. A dangerous God is willing to send Jesus into the world to die on a Cross. A dangerous God is a God who brings salvation, love, and mercy in unexpected ways. The serpents in our lives, swirling at our feet and in our souls, are never far from us. But God is with us, standing in the middle of our serpents, and, in a completely free and dangerous way, offering us a way to new life.

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 3/15/2015.

A Reflection on Exodus 20:1-17: The Ten Commandments

The first reading today is from Exodus 20:1-17.

A few months ago, I brought this text to our Confirmands, asking them what they think when they hear the word “commandment.” And they said what is usually said: commandments sound a lot like laws or rules. The Ten Commandments sound like a short list of can’ts. Now we can agree that these can’ts are pretty solid and are actions we shouldn’t take. But by seeing the commandments as can’ts, we lose sight of God’s “can.” God feels like a god who cares only about rules and maybe keeping a detailed record of our behavior on some giant spreadsheet, adding up our failures and mistakes. A God who is only about can’ts is going to be a God that keeps us from doing anything because we’re afraid of what rule we might be breaking.

But I believe that verse 2 is really the point of the Ten Commandments. God reminds Moses and the people of Israel that God brought them out of Egypt, freeing them from slavery. Their prior existence was constrained. They were the property of others, with no opportunities to live in free and full relationships with each other and with God. God is reminding the people of Israel that they’re now starting on a new chapter in their lives. No longer are they people held captive by others; they are now embarking on a new journey of being God’s people. They’re building from scratch a new community and a new life. God isn’t giving the people of Israel rules just to tell them what they’re not to do. God is giving these commandments to the people of Israel to tell us this is how you live a free life. These commandments are about living in community with others. Their prior lives were lives that were limited. Now, opportunities abound. God is calling them into a new community knowing that their lives will be full when they are helping others thrive.

Jesus famously summed up the commandments in this way: they’re about loving God and loving our neighbors. Jesus didn’t see the commandments as can’ts; he saw them as what they bring forth—love. Jesus knew that when his friends, family, and neighbors thrived, he himself thrived as well. The commandments are an invitation to help us find ways to help our neighbors thrive because it’s through our relation with each other that God’s love is seen, felt, and made known.

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 3/8/2015.

Ask Pastor Marc: The Apostles’ Creed, the Two Criminals, and Paradise

Two folks at CLC recently asked about “the good thief” in Luke 23:39-43. Jesus, on the cross, is surrounded by two crucified criminals (or thieves). One joins with the Roman soldiers, mocking Jesus. The good thief does the opposite. He recognizes Jesus’ innocence and asks for Jesus to remember him when “you come into your kingdom.” Jesus tells this criminal that, today, he will join Jesus in Paradise.

But did Jesus really mean “today?” And how does that work when we assert in the Apostles’ Creed that Jesus will return “to judge the living and the dead?” Did the thief go to heaven or is he somewhere else, waiting to be judged? And hidden under this question is another one: when we die, do we go to heaven right away or will we wait for some judgment in the future?

One way to think about this conversation between Luke and the Creed is about the experience of time. We tend to experience time in a very linear way. Friday is followed by Saturday, our 20th year is followed by our 21st, and grade 11 is followed by grade 12. Much of our lives follow a step-by-step process and we experience time in that way. We live a linear experience of history.

The episode with the good thief expresses is an event caught in history. Jesus and the thief are at the end of their lives. This conversation is the last one that Jesus will have with another person before his resurrection. The good thief expresses a sudden understanding that Jesus is innocent and that he has a kingdom in heaven. He asks to be remembered by this king when Jesus dies and Jesus’s promises even more. Jesus promises this thief a relationship with Jesus in the fullest expression of heaven that there can possibly be: complete communion with God forever. The Creed also asserts this experience of time for Jesus is described as returning, in the future, to cast some final judgment, and unite earth and heaven forever.

So we can see that Luke knows that we live lives caught in linear history. But he also asserts that God doesn’t because, for Luke, everything after Jesus’ death is a unified and timeless event. It’s important to know that Acts is part 2 of the Luke story as was written by the same author. We see in both texts Jesus ascending multiple times and he’s continually interacting with the apostles’ at different places at almost the exact same time. Jesus and God are not bounded by time or our experiences of time. We are still living life in a linear way but God and Jesus are not. Jesus, instead, is interrupting our linear experience of time by proclaiming promises that invert our step-by-step experience of life. When we are claimed in our baptism, God isn’t waiting for us to take a few steps before claiming us as God’s own. No, God interrupts and intervenes immediately and asserts God’s love and grace for us. God’s grace isn’t something we work for; it’s something that is given. And this grace, and love, is timeless.

I believe the Creed asserts this as well. Although we can read that line about future judgment in a linear way, I hear a promise for today. Like Luke, we’re in the time after Jesus’ death. We’re in this wild time where Jesus’ promises, rather than our experiences of time, are absolute. Our life is no longer defined by the steps we take or the ladder we try to take to God. Instead, our life is defined by the promises God makes through Jesus. Jesus told that thief that today, he will experience paradise, because Jesus’s journey through the Cross is a victory offered to all. The Creed promises that God is in control. By asserting that Jesus will return, we trust that we are not journeying through our lives alone or in isolation. We are, instead, wrapped up in a journey where God’s love and grace will finally win. The Creed isn’t contradicting Jesus’s words. It is, instead, supporting them. It is confessing that we place our ultimate trust in God through Jesus. What Jesus says, goes. Jesus promised that thief paradise and relationship with him on that literal day. Jesus promises us paradise and relationship today as well. Jesus’ authority and mercy is the timeless truth that we are caught up in. The good thief story isn’t really about this criminal’s sudden change of heart. It is, instead, a story about Jesus’ goodness and love. Jesus came to set free the oppressed and he does that for all of us – including that thief.


*The background for this comes from Raymond Brown’s wonderful two volume work: The Death of the Messiah. It’s a great overview of Jesus’ death and a great introduction to a massive amount of scholarly research. I recommend it if you’re looking for something really meaty and academic to start your deep journey into the passion narrative of Jesus.