A Reflection on Isaiah 61

Does this reading for Isaiah 61:1-4,8-11 sound familiar to you? Do you know which gospel book references it? If you guessed Luke, pat yourself on the back. In Luke chapter 4, Jesus enters the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth and reads this bit from Isaiah 61. After he reads, he announces “today, this scripture is fulfilled.” For Luke, Isaiah 61 is Jesus’s mission statement and why Jesus is in the world. Good news will be delivered to the oppressed, prisoners will be freed, those who mourn will be comforted, and the gloom from the past will be repaired and resurrected. The world will be changed!

This change is at the core of what Advent and Christmas is about. Gatherings with friends and family, mountains of presences, yummy foods and drink, and bright colored lights, while joy-filled, are not the source of joy of this season. And for those of us who experience loneliness, fear, and regret during this holiday season, joy might be impossible to see or feel. But this word from Isaiah 61 is centered in Jesus coming to live a human life. There is joy here.

This joy is not something we can create on our own. No bright lights, gingerbread houses, or fantastic toys will make us find that ultimate peace that only God’s joy can bring. Isaiah assures us that when we shout with joy and thanksgiving to God, we do it not because we are perfect, never doubted, and are always faithful. No, the joy and thanksgiving we share comes from God for God “has clothed me with garments of salvation and has covered me with the robe of righteousness.” Faith and grace are both gifts from God. God gives those to us because that’s just what God does.

Today we’ll light 3 candles on the Advent wreath including the pink (or rose) candle. This candle is different from the others because it represents joy. Even in this season of expectation, hustle, bustle, and stress, we are reminded that we gather because of God’s sense of joy. God is in the business of getting involved with us. God is in the business of changing the world and changing us. That is something to celebrate this season and every season to come.

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 of Advent 12/14/2014.

A Reflection on Isaiah 40

Our first reading is Isaiah 40:1-11.

Growing up in Colorado, I lived near the county line. Along this border was a road that was called (surprisingly) County Line Road. What an awesome road. Driving on it was like being on a roller coaster. We went up one hill, down the other side, and immediately up another hill for what felt like miles.But what was fun during warm days was terrifying during the winter. Snow storms and icy conditions made County Line Road terrifying.

When I returned home for a visit after college, I noticed that the road was different. Construction crews came and leveled the hills. The route was straighter, faster, and less exhilarating. Some of the joy was lost but the winter terror was gone.

This passage from Isaiah was probably composed after the exiles from Babylon had returned to Jerusalem. The children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren were returning to a city they didn’t know but one that they heard about from stories of their parents, grandparents, and teachers. When they finally returned, the city must have appeared to be a ruin compared to what they had heard. The city was rough, the temple still in ruins, the walls broken, and its vibrancy and size only a fraction of what it was before. Not everyone had been sent into exile but enough to render the city an alien place to those who returned. I imagine the city looked rough, broken, and probably felt like it was abandoned by God. God’s city symbolized God’s people being at the bottom of the valley and in a land that no longer seemed to be a place of milk and honey. I imagine it felt like being caught on a roller coaster road, in the middle of a snow storm, with no end in sight. How could they hope to survive and thrive?

But in the middle of the terror, we hear words of comfort and hope. We hear about God’s relationship with God’s people. And we hear that God has not abandoned the world or us. Rather, God will feed the flock, gather the lambs, carry and nourish us in the midst of our snowstorms on icy streets. This passage tells us to rest in God’s promises, that we are caught up in God’s end, that we have been brought into God’s acts of restoration and resurrection and that our hope does not rest on what we do but on who we belong to. Our hope is in the one who comes to us today, yesterday, and who we will celebrate on Christmas Day.

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 12/07/2014.

A Reflection on Ezekiel 34

This text from Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 is God’s reminder that we are always at the front of God’s mind even if God isn’t on the front of ours.

The former bishop of the New Jersey Synod said something like this recently at a preaching workshop on Advent but I believe our Old Testament reading from today says something very similar. This is the last Sunday of the church year. Not long ago, it gain its own name: Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday. Scripture lessons were picked to lift up the presence of Christ in our lives and to challenge us by asking who (or what) really structures how we live our life.

In this piece from Ezekiel, God takes the initiative to search for God’s own people. This can easily be seen as a radical act on God’s part. So much of our approach to spirituality and faith can appear to be centered on ourselves. We ask questions about what we believe, what we stand for, and what feeds our souls. These questions are powerful and necessary to sustain our faith journey. But God turns this around. No longer is God asking for the people to turn towards God, God is now actively going to God’s people. God isn’t asking God’s people to be perfect before God reaches down to them. God comes to God’s people after calamity and during suffering. God comes to care for God’s people. And God does this because that is just what God does.

The language of covenant and promise are all over this piece of Ezekiel because God is a God of promise. These promises are not made because we are wonderful but because God is love. God comes to meet us in baptism, in the words of scripture, in our prayers, and in holy communion to share with us that God’s promises are true promises that we cannot make broken. God cares for us. God comes to break injustice. God comes to renew, restore, and resurrect. God’s story is that we are always on God’s mind even if, during our busy lives, God isn’t always on ours.

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 Christ the King Sunday, 11/23/2014.

The Day of the Lord

Our reading from the Old Testament is from Zephaniah 1:7,12-18, a book which probably was composed around 630 BCE after an era where the worship of multiple gods supplanted the worship of God. Zephaniah is encouraging the king of his time, Josiah, to throw out that worship and commit the nation to the worship of the one true God. And it is in this hostile environment where we hear Zephaniah talk about the day of the Lord.

The day of the Lord is mentioned all over the prophets. My personal favorite exposition of the phrase is in Joel. Both Joel and Zephaniah imagine the day of the Lord as something that is coming very soon. The day of the Lord is different from contemporary images of what the “end times” will look like. There will be no war or great battle between good and evil. God, as supreme ruler, cannot be competed with. God will merely cast judgement. The day will be a day of wrath, violence, and incredible sorrow because, as Zephaniah states, “they have sinned against the Lord.”

But this wrath, for Zephaniah, is directed towards one set of people: those who are indifferent to God and God’s wants in the world. And what is it that God wants? Justice. Love. Healed relationships. God isn’t indifferent to the world. God is active in it, moving through us and the world, helping us to love our neighbors, heal our friends, and raise up the strangers in our midst so that their life is full and filled. God loves us – and we are called to love everyone too.

To look at the day of the Lord and focus only on the wrath and violence is to see only half of the story. The other half tells us what God is looking for. Eric Mathis writes, “The day of the Lord is the day when indifference will no longer be tolerated. The day of the Lord is the day when, out of blood and ashes and flesh and dung, will, in fact, come something good: the promise of a future where God reigns over all people and all things.” God’s future is our future. Let’s live into that.

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 23rd Sunday After Pentecost, 11/16/2014.

Not the Rapture

I’m a big fan of First Thessalonians. Most scholars see this letter as the first piece of Christian writing that we have. Written around 50 CE, the letter tells us that Paul founded a community of believers in the capital of the Roman province ofMacedonia, Thessalonike. Paul was there only maybe a few month but he gathered together a group of Gentile (non-Jewish) believers in Jesus. When he left, probably heading to Corinth, the small community was flourishing and faithful. While in Corinth, a member of the community at Thessalonike named Timothy visited Paul, telling him all about what was happening back home. Timothy brought Paul words of thankfulness and love but the community had a problem. They were looking for an answer to a big question. Members of their community had died and the Thessalonians didn’t know how to handle it. They were concerned that their dead brothers and sisters had somehow missed out on salvation because they died before Jesus had come back. Was heaven and God’s love no longer available to them now that they were dead? Would Jesus pass them over or not see them when he returns? The community in Thessalonike not only were mourning for the loss of their friends, they were also fearful of their friends’ future.

Paul hears what Timothy says and writes a letter in response. His words are gentle, kind, loving, and, above all, are encouraging. Paul tells the Thessalonians that those who have died are not lost. They have not missed out on the promise of Jesus. They have not, somehow, lost access to God. No, the ones who have died are fully caught up in Jesus’ loving arms and Jesus is not letting go.

This text from First Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18) has been used to justify the “rapture,” a vision of the end of the world where “good Christians” somehow escape the world before Jesus returns. But Paul isn’t talking about escape in his letter. Escaping never enters his mind. Instead, Paul is talking about living (and dying) in the world right now. He’s telling his beloved community that grieving is okay, that the darkness that can come from sudden losses is part of our life, but that we are, first and foremost, a community rooted in a hope and love that even death cannot break. What matters in this text is not our being “caught up in the clouds” but, rather, that Jesus “will descend from heaven,” into our lives, worship, and communion, in a million different ways. Not even death can keep us away from God’s love. Jesus is running into the world and not away from it – and that truly is good news!

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, 11/09/2014.

Why Reformation Sunday?

Why Reformation Sunday?

Many Lutheran churches across the world are celebrating the “birth” of the Reformation. Martin Luther, a monk living in Germany and teaching at the local university, was disturbed by practices in the local church. He saw the church being a hindrance to God’s love and mercy rather than dispensing that love and mercy to those who needed it most. His experiences didn’t match fully with what he saw, what he learned, and what he taught. This struggle led him to reach out to his local university community. He wanted to talk about his experiences and thoughts with his local professors. Using the practices of his day, Luther wrote 95 statements (called theses) and posted them to the public bulletin board of his day: the front doors of his local university church. Luther was using the Facebook, Twitter, and social media tools of his day. What he expected was a few professors to respond back. What he didn’t expect was the firestorm that followed. This firestorm gave birth to the Lutheran church – an understanding of Christianity that leads to all of us gathered at Christ Lutheran Church today.

Now, 497 years later, many are wondering why we still celebrate this day. We don’t live in Germany, we aren’t monks from the 15th century, and the questions Luther faced are not necessarily the questions we face today. Luther was a person of his era, a prolific writer who wrote beautifully, faithfully, spiritually. He was a man of God. He also said many things that I wish he didn’t, including anti-Jewish tracts that we condemn fully and loudly. So how can this man who lived in a very different time help us today? How can his experience of God help our journey of faith as people with cars, smartphones, Twitter, Hondas, and reality TV?

And that question is why Reformation Day still matters. Luther’s legacy is more than just a set of unchanging thoughts about God, faith, and Jesus that we just happen to share. His true legacy rests in his willingness to continue a long tradition of engaging faith with experience, of keeping Jesus central rather than distant, and always seeing the Cross as an entrance to God rather than as an escape from God. Lutheran Christianity is a questioning Christianity. We are a people who proudly struggle with Jesus’ question to the disciple: “Who do you say that I am?” That question is our question. That question is a question we’ll always struggle with and we’ll never fully express all that our answer means. But that’s okay. We’re Lutheran Christians which means we aren’t finished yet. We are always being changed. We are always being reformed. So just how is God you, me, and all of us to be reformed?

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 10/26/2014.

Quarter See, Quarter Ignore

If you put your hand in your pocket or maybe your bag, how many coins would you find in there?

Before I moved to Paramus, I was obsessed with quarters. I probably hoarded them. Every time I went to the corner bodega to buy a snack or drink, I made sure to bring just enough cash to guarantee that a quarter or two would be handed back to me. I needed those quarters. I wanted those quarters. And if they gave me two dimes and a nickel, I was annoyed. Quarters were a big part of my life because the laundromat down the block only took quarters. The change machine was never working when I needed it. And my fellow laundry washers would rarely make change. We all needed those quarters to make sure we could finish our duty and leave that place with clean cloths. 

But, today, coins are weird. In just a few short months, coins have disappeared from my life. My previous obsession with quarters has disappeared. I no longer need them like I use to and so, in the rare time I use cash to purchase something, any coins end up in a piggy bank at home, forgotten and unused. These lovable quarters, with the face of George or maybe a mountain or flower or other state symbol – they lie in the darkness, unused and unnoticed. 

Today’s text from Matthew (Matthew 22:15-22) is one of those episodes in Jesus’ life that grows the more you think about it. It’s a text that seems to support the compartmentalization of our lives. We put politics in one box and religion in another. We can then divide out what is proper to each. But Jesus’ ministry never seems to support this view of the world. He argues over and over again that trying to neatly separate areas of our life is untenable. The problem is that real life is messy and dirty. The boundaries seem to bleed through or are porous. We spend a lot of time watching our carefully separated lives blend together and what was once black and white now appears very gray. But even in the middle of this gray, there’s still one thing that matters. Even if we’re able to compartmentalize all areas of our life so that everything and everyone stays in their proper place, there is still one who breaks through all those barriers and who fails to stay inside the box we create for them. Unlike those quarters I use to hoard, God doesn’t stay in the darkness even after we feel we no longer need God. God never seems comfortable staying in the boxes we create for God. God always breaks through because that’s just what God does. It’s one way I imagine God’s grace looks like.

And if God’s breaking through the barriers and walls I and the world creates, than just what kind of world is God looking for us to build 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 10/19/2014.

What’s your church uniform?

The Gospel Reading is Matthew 22:1-14.

I’ll admit that on most Sundays, I dress the same. I wear the same dark gray dress shoes, black slacks, and collared shirt. When I stand at the altar or the pulpit, I’m dressed in a white robe called an alb. Sundays in, Sundays out, I look the same. My uniform is my second skin on Sunday.

Prior to this Sunday uniform, I had another one. My Sunday mornings were a time when I didn’t go to the office or meet clients. The time was reserved for God and, also, for me. I came to church in what I felt was a more authentic me. Red Converse all-star chucks, skinny jeans, and maybe a t-shirt with a squirrel or a band name on it – I brought to God my more comfortable, freeing, creative, and honest self. I came as I was and as I wanted God to meet me as I was.

How do you want God to meet you? When you meet Jesus in the bread and drink, what do you want Jesus to see?

Our uniforms tell a lot of who we are and who we want God to see. And no one uniform is more authentic or real than the next. One person’s suit and tie can be another’s Birkenstocks and socks. But God always asks us to bring our honest selves to the table. That honesty requires reflection and prayer. That level of honesty requires a willingness to engage God throughout the week. That level of honesty requires a faith life that stretches into every day in the week. And like our four who are being confirmed today, even once we are made adult members of the congregation, our faith life isn’t complete nor is our faith life full. We live into our faith throughout our entire life. 

Faith is a journey. Faith is a challenge. Faith is a gift from God. And we’re not in this process alone. Jesus took a chance on you and continues to take a chance on you. In your baptism, you were given a uniform, a new second skin, and clothed with Christ forever. Jesus is your uniform. Jesus is with you. So how can you, clothed in Jesus, live out your faith this week?

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 10/12/2014.

Vineyards Everywhere

A vineyard is an odd thing to run into. Rarely when driving around New Jersey, walking to class, or heading into the employee break room do we run into a vineyard. But this is the second week in a row that the setting for Jesus’ parable is a vineyard (Matthew 21:33-46). I imagine the vineyard Jesus mentions to be a large field full of grapes wrapping around long sturdy vines full of rich, plump, and juicy grapes. Just thinking about this vineyard makes me want to eat one.

But grapes are not a plant that owners plant and forget about. It doesn’t just grow the right way or make fat juicy grapes on its own. The plants need to be tended and taught to grow along the supports. Bad vines need to be pruned to allow the good vines to thrive. Pests, bugs, and weeds need to be removed. No matter how sturdy or strong or healthy the vines are when they are planted, if the plants are not tended and cared for, their vibrancy, vitality, and life, are wasted.

Our reading from Isaiah (Isaiah 5:1-7) has the prophet channeling God’s voice and pointing out that God has done the heavy lifting for us. God has laid out the good soil, gifting us with the earth itself. With God’s gift of creation comes God’s willingness to be present in our lives, not afraid to walk with us during difficult times. It is with the gift of faith that we see the wideness of God’s generosity.

But like the vines of grapes, tending our faith is part of the gift of faith itself. We’re invited by God to engage in intentional, visible, and tangible ways with what it means to be the body of Christ in the world. How the tending will look will be different for each of us. But as we kick off this year with our Harvest Festival, I invite you to explore if God is calling you to experience a different aspect of life here at Christ Lutheran. Visit the committee tables, write down your name, and find a way to tend and feed your faith in a new 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 10/05/2014.