Reflection: Our Words Do Something

There’s a word I read this week that I found helpful while reading this text from James 5:13-20 today. That word is “speech-acts.” We know our words have power. We use them to bless and curse. The same voices that lavish praise on Jesus also swear at the person who cuts them off on the New Jersey turnpike. The words we use are more than just words. Words create actions. They make people feel joy and pain. With words, we can inspire people to great acts of beauty. And with words, we can destroy souls. Words are powerful, living things. And James, as we saw in chapter 3, knows the problems words can cause.

But James also knows who we are. We are followers of Jesus. As he wrote in 1:17-18, “every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.” We are God’s creatures which means we have new words to speak. Our words, like God’s love, is rooted in generosity. Our words are meant to tend and serve each other. The words we speak should create new kinds of actions that bring love, gentleness, and hope to the people around us. Our words are powerful because the Word, Jesus himself, is the center of everything we say and do.

So what should our speech-acts look like? Rev. Robert Hoch writes, “If someone is suffering, let them pray. If someone is happy, let them sing songs of praise. If someone is sick, ask the elders to come and anoint them with oil and pray for their healing. Confess your sins to one another. Be reconciled. Be renewed. Be whole. Learn from people like Elijah, who was just like us, and whose prayers were powerful and effective amid natural and political droughts. Restore one another to the community forged in God’s image.” Our words should shape our actions to clearly resemble exactly who we know Jesus Christ 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 the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, 9/30/2018.

Reflection: Re-engage with God

The last verse in our James reading today 3:13-4:8 (“Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you”) doesn’t sound very Lutheran. This verse seems to imply God works through transactions. If you do something for God, then God will do something for you. If you say the right prayer, donate to the right cause, or act like you are really sorry, then God will respond by showering you with grace and love. In this kind of faith scheme, God is an accountant, waiting for our move before God gives out the goods. But God isn’t into transactions and there’s nothing we can do for God to love us more. So what should we do with a verse like 4:8?

We need to remember James 1:17-18 when we read any passage in James: “every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.” We are, through the gift of faith, born anew. It’s through the Spirit when we finally learn to trust God. Our faith needs to come from God or else we’ll create a personal faith that always wonders what we’ll get out of it. Faith is a gift from God that awakens this truth: we truly are God’s beloved children.

Since we are beloved, God invites us to live as if we are truly loved. That isn’t always easy. The Bible isn’t a guidebook with detailed instructions on how we are supposed to act in every possible situation. Instead, God trusts us to see the gifts God gives us and respond accordingly. James in this passage, I think, doesn’t see God as an accountant waiting to give us gifts after we do the right thing. Instead, God is always there even when we fail to love like God does. Drawing near to God is an invitation to embrace our need for repentance. We need to, over and over again, admit our failures and our sin. We need to remember there is a God and we are not it. We, through worship, prayer, study, and confession, return to God as a way to embrace who we already are. We are loved. We are God’s. We are with Jesus. And so we make the conscious choice to re-engage with God knowing that God has never disengaged 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 the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, 9/23/2018.

Reflection: Make Mistakes

“For all of us make many mistakes” [James 3:2]

Amen.

In a commentary I heard this week, the author said James 3:2 is their theme verse. We all make mistakes because we are not God. The choices we make impacts the world in ways we can’t fully predict or control. James 3:2 isn’t at attempt by the Bible to excuse our mistakes. Instead, it’s an attempt at owning who we are. We are not perfect and we will hurt the people around us. The church is not immune from being a place where this kind of hurt happens. And that is a hard thing to accept because faith is a team sport. God knows that we become who we are supposed to be when we are in communities that follow Jesus. We need other people because they have the gifts we need to thrive. We need their talents for study, prayer, teaching, and more. We need them to care for us and we need to care for them. When we are together, our faith grows. But since we are together, we can find ourselves in situations where our mistakes hurt the ones around us.

James spends today (3:1-12) looking at what we say. He knows words have power. Our words can show others they are loved and valued. Our words can cause harm and destruction. We shower praises and thanksgiving on God and then a few minutes later, shower others with the “colorful” language that is part of our New Jersey identity. What we say to each other affects lives. It’s also affects our faith. If we, as God’s beloved children, speak harshly and poorly to each other, what does that say about God?

When we start our worship with confession and forgiveness, we are publicly acknowledging who we are. We are sinners who make mistakes. We also declare there is a God and we are not it. Yet our words and our actions reflect who we imagine God to be. As we heard in James 1:17-18, “every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.” If we believe God is full of grace, love, and mercy than we, as God’s people, should practice these virtues every day. We need to see each other as beloved children of God. We need to see our enemies as people made in God’s image. We need to listen when it’s difficult and acknowledge the hurts we’ve felt or caused. And we need to also give ourselves and other people grace. Because we will make mistakes. But we don’t have to let those mistakes limit who know knows we can 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 the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, 9/16/2018.

Reflection: Faith and Works

Do you remember James 1:17-18? As a reminder, these two verses inform every sentence in the book of James: “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.” God-as-Father/God-as-Mother/God-as-Parent/God-as-Guardian gave us a new birth and so we get to live a different way.

We are sometimes an anxious church. We are, currently, learning to live with being a church that is smaller than it used to be. This anxiety isn’t new. As I prepared for a congregation meeting in June, I read church council minutes from the late 1990s. The same worries today are the same worries the church had back then: the lack of youth and young families in the pews and our financial giving was not where it needed be. In fact, there hasn’t been any steady and meaningful membership or worship attendance growth at CLC since the early 1980s. We grew because we were a suburban church that followed the wave of people who moved out of NYC in the 50s and 60s. We ebb and flow just like the people in our neighborhood do. And since the wider culture is retreating away from any kind of religious affiliation, no longer finding value in having an active church life, we (along with most religious communities in the US) have shrunk. That shrinking has given us a certain amount of anxiety that influences how we worship, how we serve our neighbors, and how we care for each other.

Inside this anxiety are fears we don’t always articulate. Some of those fears involve the future of this community and what this community will be able to do once we, ourselves, are in need. We wonder who will give their time and their resources so that CLC can keep being a faith-filled community at the corner of Church and Pascack Roads. When we see a young family visit the church for the first time, we can sometimes act like the characters in this part of James. We project all our fears and hopes onto them, not noticing who they are but, instead, who they might become. Maybe they’ll join a committee, help with our Sunday School, sing in the choir, and increase our weekly revenue. We need their help so we ask them to save this faith community. This is a lot of baggage to give to a visitor, and it’s the kind of baggage we don’t always evenly give to everyone who comes through our doors. But, whether we realize it or not, we are asking others to save us because we are afraid we can’t save ourselves.

Which is true! We can’t save ourselves which is why Jesus lived, died, and rose to save us all. James, like much of our scriptures, is inviting us to keep our eye focused on who we are. We’re Christians which means we don’t need anyone, but Jesus, to be the one to save us. James invites us to live, as individuals and as a community, by staying focused on Jesus. That doesn’t mean we won’t be anxious from time to time. And that doesn’t mean we don’t have to do the hard work to figure out what God is calling this community of faith to be and how we can make that a reality. Instead, James 2:1-17 invites us to remember that all this hard work is something we get to do. We are baptized; we are loved; we are God’s. So we get to love, serve, and spread the faith to everyone in this church, neighborhood, community and 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 the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, 9/9/2018.

Reflection: James and What We Get to Do

Martin Luther was not a fan of the book of James (today’s reading is James 1:17-27). For him, the entire book was too focused on what people do rather than on what God has done for us. The gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, is how God has already done the hard work needed to make us faithful and faith-filled. The gifts of faith and grace are given to us through the Jesus who lived, died and rose for us. The gospel isn’t a list of things we have to do to get God to love and help us. Instead, the gospel is about what Jesus has already done and how Jesus changes everything. Since God has already done the work to keep us close to God, there’s nothing we have to do. There’s no trick to get God to love us more than God already does. The Christian life isn’t about what we have to do. Instead, it’s about what we get to do. And the book of James is part of the conversation trying to figure out what the Christian life looks like.

As we read through James, keep 1:17-18 in your mind. These verses are full of vivid metaphors describing who we, as baptized Christians, truly are. God’s gifts, such as faith, grace, mercy, and the specific spiritual gifts we looked at during these past seven weeks, are good. These gifts are made real when we gather together in community and these gifts are meant to be known to all. God is our “Father of lights” who, through baptism, gives birth (as a mother) to a new you. Since we are new, we need to look at ourselves in a new way. Instead of looking into a mirror and assuming everything we see is what’s holy and true, we’re invited to always return to scripture, prayer, and our faith community. These tools help us discover who we are meant to be.

Throughout James, we’ll see behaviors that are called proper and others that are not. We might even see James tell us to “not” do something. But instead of turning James into a book of rules, we’re invited to see James as a book of what we get to do. You get to live as a new you through this Christian community that loves and serves each other and the world. Knowing what this new you looks like is hard and even James will not be able to explain what the Christian life totally looks like. But James will, over and over again, return to the basics: as Christians we get to care for the orphans, the widows, the vulnerable and the marginalized. In other words, we get to be people who, at all times, just 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 the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, 9/2/2018.

Reflection: A Hard Teaching

What’s difficult about faith?

We might answer this question by first focusing on what’s possible and what’s not. The question becomes a history and science debate. We read Genesis 1-2 (the creation of the world), and realize it doesn’t tell us that the earth is 4 billion years old. We move on from there to Jesus’ story and spend hours looking at star charts, trying to use astrophysics to prove that the Star over Bethlehem really happened. We can’t really do that so we move on, looking at Jesus’ life, and wonder about his miracles. We ask if he could really raise someone from the dead, heal a blind person, and feed over 5000 people with just a few loaves of bread. When these stories fail to match up with what we believe is possible, we start to struggle. The inconsistencies between scripture and “the real world” causes us to say, “I can’t believe.” This debate can feel like it’s a science vs faith issue. But it really isn’t. What we’re doing is taking what we know and wondering what our faith has to say about it. That impulse is completely normal, completely faithful, and is something people have done for thousands of years. Instead of focusing on the question of science and history, we should step back and look at why we’re doing. And that’s because, I think, we know that faith is hard. It’s not easy. Faith isn’t about trying to escape the life’s problems. Rather, faith is about living through them. And as followers of Jesus, what can make faith difficult is sometimes Jesus himself.

In today’s reading from the gospel according to John 6:56-71, the difficult teaching is Jesus’ promise about his body. The disciples do not question his abilities, his faithfulness, or that he’s a teacher from God. But what they can’t fathom is how Jesus’ body connects them to God. We know from our personal experience just how difficult bodies can be. They grow, change, and enable us to do amazing things. But our bodies also get sick, grow old, and wear out. Some of us, through cultural expectations and teachings, learn to dislike our body, wanting it to change. Bodies are very human and bodies do not last forever. Yet it’s through a body, Jesus says, that forms an eternal relationship with the Creator of everything.

For me, the difficult thing about faith is that faith is meant to be lived in our bodies. God chose to enter the world, live in a human body, and to experience life like we do. It’s through a body, through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, that God gives us the faith to trust that we are never on our own. This trust is meant to be experience in our current body, as we are right now. This faith is meant to flow into every nook and cranny that is our sometimes awesome, sometimes broken, body. Faith is not meant to be only an abstract thing. Faith isn’t something we keep in the back of our minds. Our faith is a gift from God lived through our bodies and our words. Jesus lived and died for you as you are. He didn’t live or die for the perfect version of you, the fit version of you, or for the most instagramable version of you. He lived and died for everything that makes you you – and that includes your body. And it’s through baptism, faith, prayer, and being fed ta the Lord’s table, that we discover how the eternal life can be lived, right now, in our non-eternal bodies.

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, 8/26/2018.

Reflection: Eternal in John

Last Monday, we hosted an interfaith event called “Welcoming the Stranger.” The event focused on faith and immigration, letting scripture interact with the personal stories of immigrants. After a piece of scripture was read, a reflection was offered by someone who went through the immigration process (including those who were undocumented) or who work with people currently in detention centers. Videos from Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service were used to show how Lutherans from several different denominations have responded over the years to the surge of unaccompanied minors and families who have sought asylum in the US. None of the clergy in attendance preached. Instead, we invited the words of scripture and the words of personal stories to swirl in the air around us. It wasn’t an event designed to provide answers. Rather, it was an event inviting us to, in every experience, ask faith filled questions.

One of the common themes in the stories we heard was food. Throughout the immigrants’ journey, from its start to their time in detention centers, the food was always poor and there was never enough of it. We know how the lack of food impacts our body and mind. We lose energy, have difficulties processing what other people are saying, and struggle with simple day-to-day tasks. The lack of food increases our stress levels as we worry about where our next meal is coming from. Hunger takes a physical, mental and spiritual toll on us, impacting every area of our life.

As we listen to Jesus’ words today in John 6:51-58, it’s easy to latch onto the word “eternal” and think “forever.” For us, eternal is a measurement defined by duration. Eternal life is about trying to live forever. There’s a truth to that but there’s another aspect to eternal we sometimes forget. The eternal life Jesus offered wasn’t just about living a long time. Rather, a life with Jesus is filled with value and worth. This kind of life isn’t without struggle. Even those of us who share in Holy Communion will, eventually, die. Yet this life with Jesus is one where our purpose, identity and joy is made real and secure in a savior who is never far from us. We don’t always know what life will bring. We don’t always know when, through no fault of our own, we might need to take a journey that leaves us hungry, scared, and full of doubt. But when we cling to Jesus, trusting that he is with us, we can face our troubles knowing that the struggles we face are not the limit of who we are. We belong to Christ; we are eternally valued; we are loved; and we are, even right now, living our eternal 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 13th Sunday after Pentecost, 8/19/2018.

Reflection: Living Bread

I usually don’t like my bread when it’s alive. I have a bad habit of buying a baguette and leaving it on my kitchen counter for too long. I always plan to eat it quickly but that plan rarely comes through. After a few days, the baguette evolves and comes alive. Mold forms, usually in a place I can’t see at first. When I finally pick it up, I see the mold and toss the bread into the garbage. I swear I’ll eat the bread sooner next time. We’ll see if I ever listen to my own advice.

In today’s reading from the Gospel according to John 6:41-51, Jesus is “the bread from heaven” and “the living bread” at the same time. As Lutheran Christians who share communion every week, the words “bread from heaven” are understandable. Every Sunday, we gather in Jesus’ name and wait to be served at His table. He comes to us through words, songs, bread and drink. We eat his body, and we are physically (and spiritually) fed by him. We will never be able to fully understand the mystery that is holy communion, but we know that when we eat Jesus, we are connecting with a savior who gives everything to us. His life, death and resurrection showed that God will go through anything so that God can love and serve us. God has (and will) feed us spiritually and physically. But have you ever held the piece of bread at communion and think it’s alive?

By calling himself the living bread, Jesus reminds us that he is with us right now. Jesus isn’t only important to us in our past or in our future. He is with us in this moment. There is no moment in our lives when Jesus doesn’t care about us. And there is no point in time where he isn’t with us. He invites us to live a life responding to his presence, mercy and love. God has, and will, give everything to God’s people and God’s world. The question is whether we will do the same?

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, 8/12/2018.

Reflection: Re-frame

What was the last thing Jesus did for you?

An interesting part of today’s reading from John 6:24-35 is Jesus’ willingness to engage that question. These verses follow what we heard last week. Jesus fed 5000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish. The crowd tried to make Jesus their king so he fled into the mountains. While there, his disciples decided to get in a boat, leaving Jesus on the seashore. Jesus, though, refused to stay behind. He walked on water, meeting his disciples where they were. They cross the sea and the crowd is not thrilled that Jesus left them. They assemble a small fleet, sail after him, and find Jesus on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. They asked Jesus when he arrived. And Jesus refused to answer the question. Instead, he wondered why they were there in the first place.

I think it’s easy to listen to Jesus’ rebuke of the crowd and automatically assume we’re not a part of it. As followers of Jesus, we gather at His church every Sunday because we believe. The communion we share is a physical connection to our God. When we participate in holy communion at this church, we are automatically feeding on the bread of eternal life. Just by being here, we feel as if we are in the right crowd.

But if we examine the motivations in this text seriously, we discover that we are not different from the crowd at all. The crowd came to Jesus because Jesus did something amazing. They felt God in their life and they wanted more. They were fed real food and since we need to eat every day, it would be silly for them to not find Jesus’s. Yet Jesus took their motivations and re-framed it. He knows they are looking at him, wanting to be fed again. So Jesus reminds them they’ve already been fed. They asked for a sign to prove what Jesus could do. But it’s not about what God will do. Rather, faith is fed by what God has already done.

Imagine if we reframed how we viewed the world. Instead of looking for what God can give us next, what if we looked back at what God has already done? If we noticed all the different ways God feeds us, if we took time to count our blessings, then our present and our tomorrow might be less about what Jesus can do and more about how we can be like Jesus to the crowd around 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 11th Sunday after Pentecost, 8/5/2018.