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.

Reflection: John is Different

There are actions and stories in Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John that are similar to each other. Jesus is constantly teaching, healing, and feeding people. We sometimes take these stories about Jesus and reduce them to one sentence. This process of condensing stories is helpful. It reminds us of what Jesus did in the past and what he does for us today. But these stories are not always exactly the same in all four gospels. And that difference matters. Today’s reading from John 6:1-21 has two stories that are also in the Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Jesus feeds thousands of people and then walks on water. If we focus only on that one sentence summary of what Jesus does, we miss the details that reveal who Jesus is. For example, in Mark’s version of the feeding of the 5000, Jesus’ disciples are the ones that feed the crowd. But John does things differently. In the gospel according to John, Jesus, not the disciples, is the one who feeds everyone. That a difference and a contradiction. It’s also not the only one. We also notice that, in John, this story takes place around Passover. But in Mark, Passover isn’t to be found. The feeding of the 5000 is an important story but each author of the gospels told the story differently. These differences and contradictions are hard to hold together. But they’re also very important. So why did John write the story in this way?

John is focused on the question: who is Jesus? And his Jesus is the One who has been with God since before the earth was made. Jesus has all the attributes of God, including knowing how the story will turn out. And since Jesus knows the story, Jesus is always in control of it. John’s version can sometimes feel as if Jesus is too divine; like he really isn’t as human as you and I. But all writing about Jesus will fall short because it’s impossible to fully express (and understand) everything there is about Jesus. He is always 100% human and 100% God at the same time. Our words will always struggle to explain this detail of Jesus’ identity. But this struggle is also a gift because it allows Jesus to be as expansive as we need him to be. There are times when we need to know that Jesus knows what it’s like to be hurt, betrayed, and cry. And there are times when we need Jesus to be the One who knows the end of every human story. The different of the stories about Jesus help us discover the many different ways Jesus matters to us. His story, like all our stories, is full of nuance and what looks like contradictions. Yet the constant theme in all our stories about Jesus is who he is, and forever will be, Emmanuel – God with us, for us, and who will never stop loving 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, 7/29/2018.

Reflection: Imperfect but Whole

There’s a gap in our reading from the gospel according to Mark 6:30-34,53-56 today that is unfortunate but understandable. The lectionary, the 3 year cycle of readings we hear on Sunday mornings, skips Mark’s version of the Feeding of the Five Thousand and Jesus’ walking on water. The lectionary does this, I think, for two reasons. One, we hear a version of these stories in Matthew and Luke so the lectionary doesn’t feel like we need to repeat it. Two, starting next week, we’ll hear John’s version of these two stories. The lectionary made a choice to keep some versions of Jesus’ stories in our worship and to move others to the side. But these kinds of choices are artificial. We made them. The author of Mark and the Holy Spirit wanted these stories to be together. When we see Jesus’ compassion because the crowd “was like sheep without a shepherd,” we need to know that Jesus is going to do more than teach. He’s also going to feed, confront their fears, and heal everyone. Jesus (and his disciples)make people whole.

This Wholeness, however, does not mean being comfortable. Last week’s reading showed us what the apostles were doing and teaching. They traveled into villages, casted out demons, and told everyone to repent. They invited everyone (poor, rich, and powerful) to reorient their lives towards God. This reorientation is more than a change of beliefs. This reorientation is a change in priorities. And this is scary. It scared the people who heard it. It also scared King Herod. The words reminded him of what John the Baptist told him and he imagined Jesus to be John the Baptist back from the dead. The reorientation of our life will break down our prior assumptions, priorities, and way of life. It pushes us away from what we think makes us whole and instead compels us towards the Jesus who makes a whole.

This wholeness isn’t riches or wealth or being so healthy that people assume we do CrossFit everyday. The wholeness Jesus offers is the wholeness the apostles model. They do not always understand what God is up to. They make mistakes. And they have their doubts, concerns, and fears. Yet they do what Jesus did: teach, feed, and heal by connecting people to each other and to their God. Jesus knows he will never get perfect disciples. But he knows that his imperfect disciples can always 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 9th Sunday after Pentecost, 7/22/2018.

Reflection: A Platter

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

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

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

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 8th Sunday after Pentecost, 7/15/2018.

Reflection: The Third Heaven

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

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

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

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

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 7th Sunday after Pentecost, 7/8/2018.

Reflection: Your Abundance

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

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

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

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 6th Sunday after Pentecost, 7/1/2018.

Reflection: Ambassador for Christ

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

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

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

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

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 5th Sunday after Pentecost, 6/24/2018.

Reflection: Not Knowing

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

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

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

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 4th Sunday after Pentecost, 6/17/2018.

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

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

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

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

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

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 3rd Sunday after Pentecost, 6/10/2018.