Homily: Being Who We Get To Be

These remarks were shared at the Menorah and Christmas Tree Lighting in Woodcliff Lake, NJ on December 7, 2023.

So my flavor of Christianity, known as Lutheranism, began a little more than 500 years ago in Wittenberg, Germany. Its founder was a man named Martin Luther who was a monk, a priest, and a professor at the local university. And there’s a legend among my people that he was the first person to purposefully put lights on a tree to celebrate Christmas. It’s said that one day, after a snowfall, Martin was walking home in the middle of the night. The air was cold and clear and the snow crunched under his feet. Since he was walking before the invention of electricity, street lights, and the flashlight mode on the iPhone – the only light that could guide his way was the moon and stars. The snow covered the ground, trees, and even houses like icing on a cake. As he walked, he noticed how the starlight, reflecting off the snow stuck on the evergreen trees, made them shiny and bright. Those trees sparkled while everything else around him felt dry, drab, and lifeless. He eventually decided to cut one of those trees down and bring it into his home. He wasn’t the first to decorate the home with an evergreen tree but he wanted to try and copy what he saw during a snowy, starlit night. He, disregarding every first safety tip that we now – rightly – teach our children – placed lit candles on the tree’s branches. It was his way of celebrating the Christmas season by reminding his family and especially his children – that even when the world was at its bleakest, hope and love is never gone. 

Now as a person of faith, I often feel like a tree in winter and I’m not always sure if my hope is always evergreen. It’s a struggle to keep faith fresh and alive when we’re surrounded by so much sorrow, trouble, and despair. In a moment when so much hate, pain, fear, and terror, along with a rise in antisemitism, islamophobia and all those other things that try to keep love in the dark – I’m not sure if it’s always possible or even faithful to just act as if these holidays seasons can only be merry and bright. What I seek and want is a more fuller story that does not hide from the truth of this moment but also imagines of what tomorrow might be. I was recently re-reading a children’s book called “God’s Holy Darkness” which encourage us to think deeper about what the dark and light might mean. Throughout its page, it points to the stories within the Jewish and Christian scriptures where God was stirring even in the dark. Rather than saying that dark or black or night is bad while light and white and bright are good, the book invites us to remember how so many of our stories are pregnant with possibilities that are always present even when things feel lifeless, dry, and drab. We’re told that creation itself began in the dark – and it’s in a holy darkness that God poured out love and brought all things into being. When Abraham began to doubt God’s promises, the Lord took him on a walk and pointed to the night sky to count the stars. When Jacob wrestled with God and was changed, it began at night. We’re told that at midnight, the Lord passed over Egypt to see people free. And when Christmas came, angels announced his birth not to kings and queens and those who we consider important. It was first by angels to shepherds who were watching their flock in the dark. 

So I wonder if, on this holy night, we might admit the fullness of who we are while recognizing how this won’t be the limit of who we might become. We have already lit the Menorah and we will light this tree – to show how we can choose to be for each other and proclaim that Woodcliff Lake cannot be what it’s supposed to be without each one of us. As I look out into the darkness, I see in you an evergreen hope that more is always possible. You are the starlight that illuminates all the possibilities dwelling in the dark which we, together, can reveal. My prayer is that in the days that follow, we will do more than admire the lights that shine. We will remember that they, and we, are meant to be a manifestation of a hope, peace, and joy that never ends. 

And so let’s share a few more prayers as we bless the tree and its lights. 

Community Event: Unity in the Valley – Pascack Press Article

Unity in the Valley is comprised of a group of community leaders in the Pascack Valley of Bergen County, New Jersey, united in their opposition to all forms of hate and aggression towards any group or individual. Its mission is to help build tolerance and understanding for all through education in order to foster a safer, more accepting community.

Created in 2018 by local municipal leaders from Hillsdale, Montvale, River Vale and Woodcliff Lake, along with support from the Superintendent of Schools for the Pascack Valley Regional High School District, Unity in the Valley has grown to include a cross-section of religious leaders, student groups, law enforcement and volunteer organizations.

I was one of the faith leaders who spoke at a gathering on March 19, 2019 at Pascack Valley High School. Below is a copy of the article written by John Snyder for The Pascack Press: ‘We Must Push Back’: State’s Top Cop Headlines Unity in the Valley.

HILLSDALE, N.J.—Montvale, Hillsdale, Woodcliff Lake, and River Vale came together in celebrating Unity in the Valley, a kick-off event with far-reaching goals, highlighting the importance of unity and inclusivity throughout our community.

Highlights at the packed event March 19 at Pascack Valley High School included performances by Pascack Valley Regional School District students, messages of unity, a presentation by the Anti-Defamation League, and a keynote address by New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal.

Launched in 2018 by area municipal leaders, along with support from the superintendent of Schools for the Pascack Valley Regional High School District, Unity in the Valley has grown to include a cross-section of religious leaders, student groups, law enforcement, and volunteer organizations.

Unity in the Valley says it’s composed of community leaders in the Pascack Valley united in their opposition to all forms of hate and aggression toward any group or individual.

Its mission is to help build tolerance and understanding for all through education in order to foster a safer, more accepting community.

Meanwhile, The Hills/Valley Community Coalition invites parents and their teens to an education program, “Growing up OVERexposed: Helping Teens Navigate in a Hyper-Sexualized Digital World,” on Wednesday, April 3 at 7 p.m. at Pascack Hills High School.

The program features keynote speaker Lauren Hersh, founder and national director of World Without Exploitation

Grewal: ‘Hate against one community is hate against all’

At the March 19 Unity in the Valley kickoff event, one highlight was the keynote by Grewal, a Sikh, the state’s 61st attorney general and the nation’s first Sikh top cop.

In his address, Grewal—who was raised in Westwood and the Township of Washington, said that as attorney general he is “committed to using all of the tools of this office to protect those in danger.”

Calling out recent acts of hate-based vandalism in New Jersey, including in local schools, he said, “We must treat an act of hate against any one of our communities as an act of hate against all of our communities.”

He added, “We must also push back when the federal government fails to protect all of its residents or when it pursues half baked policies that do nothing to make us safer. It’s not just the federal government—we must also hold our local governments accountable.”

Grewal, named to his post by Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy, has been the object of hate and outspoken ignorance for his religion and his cultural garb. He said he has been accused of being a terrorist and told he should “go home.”

Before rising to AG, Grewal was Bergen County Prosecutor for almost two years. He was an assistant U.S. attorney in the Criminal Division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey and for the Eastern District of New York. He began his legal career in private practice.

As Bergen County prosecutor, Grewal made combatting the opioid crisis a prime law enforcement initiative.

He said messages of hate are “no longer being confined to the dark corners of the internet; they are now being said in our public squares,” and called for vigilance and compassion—and for love to set an example.

In July 2018 disc jockeys mocked him on air as “turban man.” They apologized and were suspended.

“It’s not the first indignity I’ve faced and it probably won’t be the last,” Grewal said at the time.

Ghassali’s family has suffered

Montvale Mayor Michael Ghassali, who is Syrian-American and president of the Pascack Valley Mayors Association, spoke of his and his family’s experiences as targets of corrosive hate and bias, explaining that it is a crime.

He said ISIS terrorists killed one of his cousins in 2015, and recounted horrors of the 20th century, where 1.5 million Armenians and 600 Syrians were killed in 195 over their faith and nationality, and 6 million Jews and others were killed in the Nazi Holocaust between 1941 and 1945.

“As recent as the last few years, 500,000 Muslims and Christians were killed in Iraq and Syria because of their beliefs. We stand here today to declare that we will not stand for hate in any form and toward anyone,” he said.

He said students had the hopes of the majority with them for a better future. “I promise you we are here to cheer you on,” he said.

P. Erik Gundersen, superintendent of schools, gave welcoming remarks on the theme of unity and inclusivity in a time when hatred has easy expression.

Pastor Marc Stutzel of Christ Lutheran Church gave the invocation. Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-Wyckoff, sent congratulations and support by video. Rabbi Debra Orenstein of Congregation B’nai Israel spoke on the power of setting intentions.

Students press the message

Pascack Valley seniors Bianca Belmonte and Samantha Nicklas, presidents of the school’s Human Rights League, called on audience members not to back down from hate but rather to act for good.

As reported in The Smoke Signal, the students’ news outlet, “We became infamous for publishing an opinion piece…that addressed the racism and bigotry going on in our school,” Belmonte said. 

“It was the Human Rights League that ripped the Band-Aid off the wound [referring to hateful vandalism] and acknowledged what was happening. But unfortunately, that wound is still blistering,” she added.

“We didn’t want to say that we’ve moved on and everything’s in the past and that it’s all better now. We wanted to be as real as possible and address what is really going on in the school,” The Smoke Signal said they added.

(For the record, The Smoke Signal’s multimedia coverage of this event, including voices from the community, arguably deserves an award. Check it out online.)

Among those representing the high school’s Gay Straight Alliance were Beck Kerdman and Reece Ferrentino.

The Anti-Defamation League sent its New York and New Jersey regional director, Evan Bernstein.

Senior Madison Gallo led an exercise having attendees write down the name of someone who has done something to change their course in life, showing the power of one person making one decision.

State Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi (R-River Vale) was among many area officials to attend.

She said online afterward, “We must all work together across party lines, religious beliefs, ethnicities, gender, sexual identity to stop hate and intolerance in all forms. As a local leader I pledge to continue to speak out against hate and work within our communities to prevent further hate crimes and incidents.”

The National Anthem was performed by the Pascack Hills and Pascack Valley Choir. The One Spirit Club was represented by Rachel Cohen, Olivia Jones, and Isabella Tjan, among others.

Closing prayer was by the Rev. Larissa Romero of Pascack Reformed Church.

Community: Unity in the Valley – PV Smoke Signal

Unity in the Valley is comprised of a group of community leaders in the Pascack Valley of Bergen County, New Jersey, united in their opposition to all forms of hate and aggression towards any group or individual. Its mission is to help build tolerance and understanding for all through education in order to foster a safer, more accepting community.

Created in 2018 by local municipal leaders from Hillsdale, Montvale, River Vale and Woodcliff Lake, along with support from the Superintendent of Schools for the Pascack Valley Regional High School District, Unity in the Valley has grown to include a cross-section of religious leaders, student groups, law enforcement and volunteer organizations.

I was one of the faith leaders who spoke at a gathering on March 19, 2019 at Pascack Valley High School. Below is a copy of the article written by Rachel Cohen and Madison Gallo for Pascack Valley’s Smoke Signal: PVRHSD holds Unity in the Valley event at PV.

New Jersey’s 61st Attorney General Gurbir Grewal is the first Sikh in the U.S. to become an attorney general. Gurbir gave a keynote presentation, along with prominent community members, students, faith leaders, and a message from New Jersey Rep. Josh Gottheimer at the Unity in the Valley event that took place at 7 p.m. in the Pascack Valley auditorium on Tuesday, March 19.

“We’re gathering together to say that we’re not going to let someone else change who were are,” said Pastor Marc Stutzel of the Christ Lutheran Church.

Grewal, a Bergen County native who grew up in Westwood and Washington Township, shared anecdotes of times when he was faced with hate. He was sworn in twice as a federal prosecutor in Brooklyn, New York, and Bergen County. Grewal was appointed by New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy as the New Jersey Attorney General around 14 months ago.

“As our state’s chief law enforcement officer, I am committed to using all of the tools of this office to protect those in danger,” Grewal said. “We must treat an act of hate against any one of our communities as an act of hate against all of our communities. We must also push back when the federal government fails to protect all of its residents or when it pursues half baked policies that do nothing to make us safer. It’s not just the federal government — we must also hold our local governments accountable.”“

Grewal is a Sikh, which means he practices Sikhism, a religion founded in the Northern Indian region of Punjab. As a Sikh, Grewal covers his head with a turban. He is the first Sikh Attorney General in the nation.  

Grewal said children have approached him asking for three wishes or if he was Osama Bin Laden while their parents stood by and did nothing. While Grewal was the Chief Law Enforcement Officer of New Jersey, he was stopped at a security gate because the guard claimed he “wasn’t on the list” to speak to young professionals at a corporation in New Jersey; ironically, he was giving a presentation about diversity and inclusivity.

“I have been told to go back home so many times and in such impolite terms, but I know they don’t mean go back to Bergen County,” Grewal said. “I have been called at times a towel head, a rag head, a terrorist. Sometimes, I endure these experiences alone, but unfortunately other times, I’ve experienced them as my three young daughters have watched.”

“[Hateful comments] are no longer being confined to the dark corners of the internet,” Grewal said. “They are now being said in our public squares. We have seen recent acts of vandalism across this county and across the state where individuals have painted the walls of schools, synagogues, and homes of words that we thought long disappeared from our memories. It happened right here at Pascack Valley, and it happened more than once. Just one week after finding those swastikasofficials found racist and homophobic slurs etched onto plaques of the baseball field.”

Personal ties to hate influence Mayor of Montvale

Michael Ghassali, the mayor of Montvale and the president of the Pascack Valley Mayors Association, said that hate is “a crime, an offense like murder, arson, and vandalism with bias against race, color, religion, disabilities, sexual orientation, gender, and nationality” while he was discussing experiences of hate in his personal life.“

One of the instances he spoke about was the murder of his cousin in May of 2015 at the hands of terrorists from ISIS.

“In 1915, 1.5 million Armenians and 600 Syrians were killed because of their faith and their nationality, and between 1941 to 1945, 6 million Jewish people were killed because of their faith and millions suffered,” Ghassali said. “As recent as the last few years, 500,000 Muslims and Christians were killed in Iraq and Syria because of their beliefs. We stand here today to declare that we will not stand for hate in any form and towards anyone.”

Ghassali said that students and children can become “wonders” to the world to make society an accepting place.

“They can cure cancer, they can build bridges and highways to make our lives better, and I promise you,” Ghassali said, “we are here to cheer you on.”

‘The wound is still blistering’ 

PV seniors and co-presidents of PV’s Human Rights League Bianca Belmonte and Samantha Nicklas spoke about the need for individuals to act in order to make a difference.

“We became infamous for publishing an opinion piece on [The Smoke Signal] that addressed the racism and bigotry going on in our school,” Belmonte said. “It was the Human Rights League that ripped the bandaid off the wound and acknowledged what was happening. But unfortunately, that wound is still blistering.”

Belmonte and Nicklas said they want to encourage students to be someone who makes a change by being “proactive rather than reactive.”“

“We didn’t want to say that we’ve moved on and everything’s in the past and that it’s all better now,” Nicklas said. “We wanted to be as real as possible and address what is really going on in the school.”

Belmonte and Nicklas wanted to place an emphasis on depicting the school’s climate genuinely during their presentation, and according to Belmonte, “even the students who aren’t in the Human Rights League know that the [PV] is not in the best shape right now.”

“We understand that the work we do is hard and often unpopular,” Nicklas said. “The Human Rights League is a small group that continues to work tirelessly, and sadly, often times singularly, without as much support from the school or community as we would like. Unfortunately, we cannot force members of the school community to participate. We cannot force people to care.”

PVRHSD Superintendent Erik Gundersen recaps the event

Unity in the Valley, according to Pascack Valley Regional High School District Superintendent Erik Gundersen, is not really an organization. Instead, he refers to it as a concept: “It’s the message, it’s the mission, it’s the symbol.” He intends for Unity in the Valley to be a “larger and louder” message to the symbols of hate.

The organizers of this event are comprised of one city council member from each of the four towns in the PVRHSD: Hillsdale, Montvale, River Vale, and and Woodcliff Lake.

“If we can get the 99.9 percent of our community to rally around Unity in the Valley, that will drown out the 0.1 percent of the individuals that are spreading the wrong message,” Gundersen said. “The student speakers were phenomenal, the faith leaders really have a perspective and an angle that we weren’t able to replicate as a school district, and I thought the representatives from the Anti-Defamation league and certainly the Attorney General just had fantastic and meaningful messages for all of us.”

Community: Speaking at the Local School Board

I spoke at the November 5 meeting of the Pascack Valley Regional High School District’s board meeting. A local rabbi reached out to me and asked me to be there. Nazi graffiti was recently found at the local high school and some families were going to be there. Antisemitism is ungodly and unholy. The response of the Christian community is vital in combating this hate and evil. The school paper wrote this article after the meeting. The morning after, more swastikas were discovered at the school. I’ve reprinted the article from the school paper below.

Superintendent confirms anti-Semitic graffiti Swastikas found in PV bathrooms
Madison Gallo, Rachel Cohen, and Josh DeLuca – November 6, 2018

At the Pascack Valley Regional High School District Board of Education meeting held on Monday, Nov. 5, Superintendent Erik Gundersen addressed the two “isolated incidents” of anti-Semitic defacement that were discovered Sept. 27 and Oct. 18 inside of Pascack Valley High School.

Two swastikas were found etched into bathroom stall partitions. The first, discovered in September, was located in the second floor boys bathroom. The second, found in October, was in the boys bathroom in the cafeteria.

Gundersen said he does not know who first found these images. He added that all custodians and other staff members have been asked to go into bathrooms to see if there is any symbolism to hopefully narrow down who is responsible for it.

Pascack Valley Regional High School District Superintendent Erik Gundersen addresses a parent at the PVRHSD Board of Education meeting on Nov. 5 at Pascack Hills High School. Multiple parents spoke regarding multiple incidents of anti-Semitic defacement at Pascack Valley.

According to Gundersen, after the Anti-Defamation League educated the district years prior on how to combat hate in the school, they [the PVRHSD] knew to immediately shut down the bathroom on the second floor. The police, the PV law enforcement officers Hugh Ames, Mike Niego, and Chip Stalter, and the student resource officer, Mike Camporeale, are also conducting an investigation.

“The reason why it was locked is because we don’t want to subject students to that type of imagery — we don’t want them to see that type of symbolism,” Gundersen said.

Although he did make it clear that he believed the swastikas were drawn by one person, Gundersen declined to comment about any potential leads as to who drew them.

Hillsdale residents and parents of PV students Michelle Silver, Sharon Alessi, Caroline Reiter, and Pastor Marc A. Stuzel of the Christ Lutheran Church in Woodcliff Lake expressed concern regarding the incidents and criticized the district for not informing parents and members of the community during the comments from the public section of the meeting. The parents said they heard about this matter from other parents who were informed by their children.

“The idea of saying nothing and not addressing it, when clearly people know about it, and the kids are talking about it and parents are talking about it, and nothing is being said by the school,” Reiter said. “…[It] unrightfully so gives off the impression that the school tolerates it.”

Administrators did not brief the community about their findings, and, when being interviewed for another Smoke Signal story on Oct. 24, PV Principal Tom DeMaio was asked about the second floor bathroom being closed. He said it was “under repair from some damage that was done.”

“I did not send something out to the community because I did not believe our students were in danger, and we really have to balance the fact that the student body is not in danger based on the evidence that we have along with the fact the person we believe has done this is doing this solely to disrupt the school,” Gundersen said. “They’re looking for people to react in this manner because they take pleasure in seeing people react to a very cowardly act.”

Rather than sending an email to the community, Gundersen explained that PV Vice Principal John Puccio had a discussion with the Student Government Association at Valley relating to this topic.

“Any speculation that the administration was trying to hide this is simply not the case. Our administration had an open conversation with the Student Government Association,” Gundersen said. “But we purposefully lock it because we don’t want to expose students to that symbolism — it’s just inappropriate, it’s hurtful, and it’s insulting.”

These recent incidents are only nearly four years after a white supremacy scandal plagued the school in the May of 2015.

“We’re aware that school is a reflection of society in general as well. Our students develop certain attitudes, language, and behaviors based on what they see from the adults that they look up to,” Gundersen said. “Unfortunately, we have students that will say and do inappropriate things. Now certainly, the appearance of a swastika takes it to the extreme…And we’re doing our best to educate students and make them aware that how incredibly painful that symbol is.”

This was also made public just over a week after the synagogue massacre at the Tree of Life in Pittsburgh that killed 11 Jewish people during a religious ceremony on Oct. 27.

“I’m Jewish myself, I have two Jewish daughters who came through Pascack Valley, I know how they would’ve felt,” PVRHSD Board of Education President Jeffrey Steinfeld said. “I think we have to recognize that their concern is genuine, and we need to validate it and we need to address it.”

Stuzel, whose congregation includes students who attend PV, was in attendance after a rabbi reached out to his interfaith group with news of the anti-Semitic incidents. He was “more than willing to come and speak and support” as he believes that it is important for Christians to “say this is not right” and denounce “hateful” acts.

“Anti-Semitism isn’t something that we should only allow the Jewish community to deal with,” Stuzel said. “It’s a wider community issue.”

Silver, Alessi, and Reiter believe that the district should send an email to the community and host a speaker from an organization, such as the ADL, to discuss the issue of anti-Semitism at the school.

In addition to listening to the concerns of the parents, Stuzel, who is an active member of the local interfaith community, would be willing “to come in and help teach,” “lead programs,” and “talk about the faith community response.”

While Steinfeld did suggest that the district might look to incorporate more involvement from faith leaders, he did not go into specifics as to how the district planned to respond.

“I think Erik [Gundersen] and I will probably speak further about this and will have a greater discussion about what else we want to do and how else we want to address this moving forward,” Steinfeld said.

God Talk. From Pastor Marc – My Message for the Messenger, November 2018 Edition

When was the last time you talked God? Jonathan Merritt, a contributing writer to The Atlantic, recently wrote an article for The New York Times (based on his new book Learning to Speak God from Scratch) about the decline of our spiritual vocabulary. He sponsored a survey of 1,000 American adults to see how we talk about our faith, spirituality and God. Here’s a bit of what he found: This study revealed that most Americans — more than three-quarters, actually — do not often have spiritual or religious conversations….More than one- fifth of respondents admit they have not had a spiritual conversation at all in the past year. Six in 10 say they had a spiritual conversation only on rare occasions — either “once or twice” (29 percent) or “several times” (29 percent) in the past year. A paltry 7 percent of Americans say they talk about spiritual matters regularly . . . But here’s the real shocker: Practicing Christians who attend church regularly aren’t faring much better. A mere 13 percent had a spiritual conversation around once a week.

Why are we so afraid to talk about God? There are a lot of different reasons. For some, these conversations create tension or arguments. They sometimes feel “too political.” Others don’t want to appear religious, sound weird or seem like “that person” who is trying to get you to convert. We might feel as if we don’t know enough to share our faith or feel as if talking about our faith is someone else’s job. But it isn’t. As a beloved member of the body of Christ, you have been called to love God and love your neighbor.

One way we love our neighbor is by sharing what’s important to us. If your faith makes a difference in your life, then we should offer that to our friends and family. You don’t need a theology degree to share Jesus. All you need to do is share your story. You might not believe that’s enough when it comes to talking about God but it is. And Jesus believes you can do it.

One way to help us talk about God is to start noticing God at work in the world around us. On the following page, I’ve shared a God bingo-card created by Rev. Sarah Taylor. Take a look at where God is at work in the world – and let us know how you feel it out!

See you in church,

Pastor Marc

A Colorful Faith. From Pastor Marc – My Message for the Messenger, October 2018 Edition

What’s your favorite color?

When I was little, my mom was very specific about how she dressed her identical twin boys. She put me in red clothes; my brother in blue. My parents never needed help in knowing who was who. But when I look at old pictures, the color scheme is usually the only way I can tell who I am. This color, somehow, became imprinted on my soul. Red has been, and is still, my favorite color. I don’t know why certain colors become our favorites or why our favorite colors sometimes change. But I do know we live in a vibrant and dynamic world full of color. And as we move into fall, the color around us is going to grow.

One of our blessings is our climate. Every spring and fall, the world around us changes. Trees will turn from green to red, gold and purple. Fields will pop with orange pumpkins, and trees will be heavy with pink, light green and bright red apples. The days will grow shorter which means we will be awake during the golden hours of the day: dawn and dusk. Through the glorious colors of this season, we’ll celebrate holidays like Halloween and Reformation Sunday. I can’t imagine a fall without color. And I can’t imagine a fall without church.

We’re restarting Sunday School on October 7 and continuing our new adult education programs on Sunday (The Essential Jesus) and Thursday (Being Lutheran in a multi-faith world). A new organization devoted to serving senior citizens in our area will meet for lunch and conversation on October 17, 11:30 am. Our joint program for high school youth connecting Lutherans from all over northern Bergen County will meet on October 19. We designated Sunday, October 21 as our God’s Work, Our Hands Sunday, and we’ll spend time after church serving our community and neighborhood. We’ll end the month wearing red on Reformation Sunday, October 28. These are just some ways we’re being church this month. If you haven’t attended these programs yet or want more information, keep an eye on our weekly e-newsletter for details. You can also call the church office (201-391-4224) any time.

Our worship and service to our neighbors is how we color the world. When we are open and active in our faith, we show everyone how vibrant Jesus can be. None of us will live out our faith the same way. The diversity in how we love God and our neighbors is mirrored in how diverse our favorite colors are. Yet each of us is called to live a faith that is as passionate and vivid as the colors all around us. God didn’t give us a monotone world, and God didn’t give us a monotone faith. God gave us a brilliant world to match a spirited faith.

See you in church!

Pastor Marc

Give Freely. From Pastor Marc – My Message for the Messenger, September 2018 Edition

Let’s try a little exercise. Imagine strangers visiting your home. You’ve never met them before and this is the first time they’ve ever seen you. Instead of introducing yourself to them, you invite them into your kitchen. They open up your refrigerator and cupboards. What would they find?

They might find some old takeout Chinese food you should have been thrown out two weeks ago. They might notice your love of fruity carbonated waters and the imported butter you use for baking. They might also notice you don’t always have all the food you actually need. Our kitchens reveal a lot about our lives. They show what we like to eat and what we can afford to buy. Kitchens reveal the basic items we must have and any health situations we are living through. When we have enough, we are able to focus on our families, studies, jobs, and living the life we want to live. When we struggle, worrying about where our next meal drowns out everything else.

One of our spiritual gifts as CLC is our willingness to feed others. For the past 33 years, our Genesis Garden has produced hundreds of pounds of fresh produce every year for our neighbors utilizing the Center for Food Action in Englewood. Our garden was recently highlighted at the New Jersey Synod Assembly and was shown to the Pinecrest Leadership Camp for Lutheran Youth in the Metropolitan New York Synod. It’s also become a model for other congregations in our area who are interested in giving back to the community. Beyond the garden, the food donations you drop off in the narthex (our church lobby) are combined with financial gifts from Care Committee, CLC-Women, and others to help the Center for Food Action to feed neighbors in Bergen County. We’ve also strengthen our ties with the Tri-Boro Food Pantry based in Park Ridge. Our Vacation Bible School families, as you’ll see later in this edition of the Messenger, donated several dozen bags of groceries to local families in need. By working together, we can help all families in need worry less about hunger and, instead, live their lives the way God wants them to.

September is the month when our programming year begins. Our two worship Sundays kick-off is September 16. Choirs will return for rehearsals, confirmation classes will start; a new adult education program will launch; and our life as a church will get busy. During this time, it’s easy to focus only our personal needs. But our life and faith grow when we keep our eyes looking outwards. As we start a busy September, let’s keep noticing the needs of our neighbors. Let’s keep an eye on Jesus. Let’s keep feeding all our neighbors. And let’s find new ways to serve and love because CLC is at our best when we, like Jesus, give freely and abundantly.

See you in church!

Pastor Marc

High Expectations. From Pastor Marc – My Message for the Messenger, Summer 2018 Edition

I recently experienced something rare: I attended a wedding and I didn’t officiate. Over the last few years, my wedding excursions included rehearsal dinners, writing sermons and pre-martial counseling sessions. This time, however, my only expectation involved tearing up the dance floor. As I sat there in the pews, waiting for the ceremony to start, I realized that

every wedding comes with different types of expectations. Sometimes we are intimately involved with the planning and decision-making. Other times, we’re a member of the bridal party, watching our good friend say “I do.” Occasionally we’re asked to just join in the celebration. Whether we realize it or not, weddings

are filled with expectations. There are the expectations we bring to the big day, like knowing the ceremony will start late and that the lines for bacon-wrapped appetizers will be incredibly long. But weddings also expect us to act, pray and celebrate in specific ways too. A maid-of-honor is expected to give a toast, and the flower boys and girls are expected to throw their flowers in the right spots. A wedding includes more than just the expectations of the wedding couple and their families. Weddings have expectations for all of us.

In a similar way, churches have expectations too. But to notice them, we need to remember that a church is more than a building. A church is the assembly: the people gathered in Christ’s name. When Paul wrote his letters to the Corinthians, Thessalonians, and Romans, he wrote to people. These small groups of disciples met in private homes since no official church buildings existed. The church was (and is!) the people who are brought together by the Spirit to follow Jesus. This following requires faith. It requires grace. And, it also requires changing out expectations because we’re more than a group of people who hang out together. When we come together, Jesus promises to show up with us. This promise isn’t pretend or abstract. Jesus’ promise to each of us, and to the

church, is very real. As people bounded to each other by our baptism and our faith, we are expected to be more than just mere acquaintances. Jesus expects us to be His church, together.

This expectation manifests in different ways. You’re expected to meet with your fellow disciples of Jesus on Sunday morning if you are well and able. If Sunday morning doesn’t work for you, then the entire community must do the work to create a new gathering at a different time and place. You’re also expected to keep the community in your prayers, especially the people we name on out loud on

Sunday morning. You might not know what they need prayers for but don’t worry: God knows. You’re expected, as a member of Christ’s church, to financially support the community in a very intentional way. And finally, you’re expected to make a difference in our neighborhood and in our world through our collective ministry or in another meaningful way. These expectations can be challenging but they exist so that our faith can be more than something that lingers in the back of our minds. Faith’s expectations for us are how others will see what Jesus has done for us. In other words, Jesus’ expectations are how we love – and this is the kind of love that will transform us into something brand new.

See you in church!

Pastor Marc

Bigger Than Ourselves. From Pastor Marc – My Message for the Messenger, June 2018 Edition

15. 1500. 30,000. What do these three numbers have in common? They show how we are part of something bigger than ourselves.

June is a month where we will celebrate just how connected we are. When Jesus claimed us in our baptism, he did more than connect us to himself. He united us with everyone else whom he claimed as his own. Our faith is designed to be a team sport. We cannot follow Jesus on our own. We need others to pray for us. We need others to support us. We need others to love because Jesus loved us first. We are called to be people who connect, forming a community that is even bigger than Christ Lutheran Church’s walls.

On June 3rd, we will hold a special congregational meeting to discuss what it takes to be a community of faith. We’ll have one worship service at 9:30 am. Our congregational meeting will take place immediately after. After the meeting, we will then bless our Genesis Garden. The Genesis Garden is in its 33rd year. Together, we will raise over 1500 lbs. of fresh produce to donate to the Center for Food Action in Englewood. When we work together, we make a real difference. On June 10th, Lutheran youth (8th grade and up) from around Northern New Jersey will attend our 9:00 am worship. Afterwards, they’ll share brunch and go for a hike nearby. The first meeting of this new initiative met in May at Calvary Lutheran in Allendale. Youth from CLC had a great time, even discovering classmates at their schools who were Lutherans, just like them. We can’t wait to welcome these amazing kids to CLC. On June 17th, we’ll honor all graduates as we start our summer worship schedule. We’re proud of everyone who completed their schoolwork and are now taking that next step in their lives. And finally, on June 24th, we’ll host our annual Blessing of the Animals. We’ll worship in the Opsal (Fellowship) Hall. All critters, large and small, are welcome to attend. If your pet friend doesn’t like large crowds, feel free to bring a picture (even if it’s on your phone), and I’ll say a blessing over it. We’ll also celebrate our youth and adults who will be attending the ELCA Youth Gathering in Houston where over 30,000 people will gather for worship, service and fun.

This is a month where we will connect as a community. This is a month where we will see how we can do so much when we are together. I can’t wait to see you as a part of it.

See you in church!
Pastor Marc