A Wide Saddle: Jesus has a sidecar in Jerusalem

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Matthew 21:1-11

My sermon from Palm Sunday (April 9, 2017) on Matthew 21:1-11.

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4 days later: a sermon on messaging Jesus.

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

John 11:1-45

My sermon from the Fifth Sunday in Lent (April 2, 2017) on John 11:1-45.

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Rattling Bones

Ezekiel is having a moment today. In our first reading (Ezekiel 37:1-14), “the hand of the Lord” sets him down in the middle of a valley. Ezekiel is having a vision which might be happening only in his mind. For him, this could be a very vivid dream. But I like to make this story real. I see God physically grabbing Ezekiel by the hair and carrying him into this valley full of dried bones. When he lands, I imagine his feet touching the bones. The bones rustle, clang, and clatter as he kicks them around. His religious concern about being unclean is overwhelmed by the sheer number of bones he sees. The visual overload he is experiencing would stop him from even processing what is going on. In that moment, he wouldn’t know what to say. His brain would just shut down. He could do nothing but look and see. And, in the process, he would be as still and dry as the bones around him.

God commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones. Prophesy is more than a prediction of the future. Prophecy is a life-giving word for right now. The words Ezekiel shares are words of promise. As he speaks, life takes hold, even among old bones. The bones start to move. The bones start to rattle. And if I was there with Ezekiel, I would be terrified. It’s sometimes easier to stay among dry bones than to see those bones rattled. It’s sometimes easier to stay with the status quo or keep things the way they are than to see the chaos and unpredictability that rattling can bring about. As the bones rattle, fear grows. But the rattling of bones is not the end of the story. Change happens. The bones turn into something new. As the vision evolves, God’s own breath comes into view.

When Ezekiel experienced this vision, he was living through the destruction of Jerusalem. Waves and waves of people were being deported from the city. The Babylonians would burn God’s Temple to the ground. The dry bones Ezekiel sees are not only metaphorical. They point to a community feeling hopeless because their sense of who they are is coming undone. Their world felt like it was coming to an end. But God promises God’s presence even when conflict, loss, and fear are all we feel. God’s Word makes a difference. And the final chapter of the story God is writing is a story that includes hope, life, love, and 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 5th Sunday in Lent, 4/2/2017.

I Met a Sitting US Senator

The Adult Choir and Music Director at my church is the NJ State Teacher of the Year. On Sunday she was recognized by Senator Bob Menendez at an event in honor of Evangelina Menendez (the Senator’s mother) and Women’s History Month. I was invited to the VIP reception before the ceremony. It was my first time talking to a sitting US Senator face-to-face.

They also caught me in my natural pose.

Photos provided by the office of Senator Bob Menendez.

Period. A sermon on interpretation and who Jesus sees.

As [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.” The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.

Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

John 9:1-41

My sermon from the Fourth Sunday in Lent (March 26, 2017) on John 9:1-41.

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A Pastoral Letter Condemning Antisemitism

ELCA Clergy throughout the region composed and signed a joint letter condemning antisemitism. We printed it in our bulletin on March 26, 2017. I drafted the initial letter. My colleagues (including a Jewish Rabbi) refined the language.

In 1994, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) pledged “to oppose the deadly working of [antisemitism], both within our own circles and in the society around us” (Declaration of ELCA to Jewish Community). Now that our Jewish neighbors have once again become the victims of antisemitic threats and vandalism, we are instructed by our Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, the Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton, “to speak out, to reach out, to show up, and to root out this deadly bigotry” (Letter to Pastors, dated February 22, 2017).

As Lutheran Christians, we confess our own history of antisemitism. We are implicated in the history of anti-Judaism spanning the history of the Christian faith, and in the memory and heritage of Martin Luther and his “anti-Judaic diatribes and the violent recommendations of his later writings” (Declaration of ELCA to Jewish Community). It is in this spirit of truth telling that we acknowledge our truth while, at the same time, point to the wider truth of God’s love for all of God’s people. The violent invectives of our past should not be the reality of the present or our future. We are inspired by our Christian faith in a God who becomes incarnate and moves closer to us to save us, despite our flaws and sin, and thus free us to move closer to others in fellowship and solidarity. As Christians, we are called to be “ambassadors of hope in the face of despair” (letter dated February 22, 2017) as a faithful response to the love of God in Jesus and to our call to love all our neighbors.

Therefore, we, the undersigned pastors of Lutheran churches of the ELCA, serving or supporting congregations in Bergen, Essex, Morris, Passaic, and Rockland counties, condemn antisemitism in the strongest possible terms. No Jewish person, institution, house of worship, or cemetery should be threatened with hate or violence. Bomb threats directed at over 100 Jewish Community Centers and Day Schools (including Tenafly and Paramus) and the vandalism at Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Rochester are deplorable acts. The rise in the use of swastikas and other Nazi imagery is abhorrent. Our condemnation of this violence and all antisemitic speech, threats, and actions is unequivocal. We will continue to speak out and confront the evil of antisemitism in our communities. We will stand alongside our Jewish neighbors, institutions, and places of worship. We call upon our elected local, state, and national leaders to repudiate all expressions and acts of antisemitism. We will continue “to work for the end of systemic racism and discrimination” so “all people in our communities, regardless of race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity…may flourish” (A Pastoral Post Election Letter from Northern NJ Clergy, dated November 23, 2016).

Signed:

The Rev. Wendy Abrahamson, Pompton Plains
The Rev. Hayley Bang, Paramus
The Rev. Arnd Braun-Storck, Elizabeth
The Rev. Carol Brighton, Ramsey
Deacon Abby Ferjak, Ridgewood
The Rev. Julie Haspel, Oakland
The Rev. Peggy Hayes, Dumont
The Rev. John Holliday, Old Tappan
The Rev. Lisa Holliday, New Milford
The Rev. Michael Linderman, Ramsey
The Rev. Jenny McLellan, Allendale
The Rev. Jeff Miller, Clifton
Vicar Paul Miller, Ramsey
The Rev. Will Moser, Montclair
The Rev. Robert Mountenay, Wayne
The Rev. Peggy Niederer, Teaneck
The Rev. Scott Schantzenbach, Oxford
The Rev. Joseph Schattauer Paillé, Wyckoff
The Rev. Wes Smith, Saddle River
The Rev. Roger Spencer, North Haledon
The Rev. Beate Storck, Tenafly
The Rev. Marc A. Stutzel, Woodcliff Lake
The Rev. Stephen Sweet, River Edge
The Rev. Ignaki Unzaga, Glen Rock
The Rev. J. Lena Warren, Pearl River, NY

Cinderella Story: a reflection on David’s anointing

The First Reading is 1 Samuel 16:1-13.

Today’s first reading is the moment when David appears on the scene. He has 7 older brothers and is watching sheep when Samuel arrives. Samuel is a prophet and is the chief religious figure in the land. When the people of Israel asked for king, Samuel was the one who followed God’s voice and crowned Saul king. But Saul’s kingship went poorly. We never hear the full reason why God turns away from Saul but God does. God stops being present in Saul’s life. Saul grows erratic, violent, and paranoid. When Samuel arrived in Bethlehem, the people did not know what to expect. Did Samuel come as Saul’s messenger to deliver a warning or threat? Samuel came to do something else. He’s came to commit treason and crown (anoint) David as a new king.

One of the key lines in this story is verse 7. We have to remember that the writers of scripture did not understand human anatomy like we do. For them, the heart was the brain-soul-muscle of a person. The heart held memories, created thoughts, was the source of our will and personality. The heart was more than a muscle. The heart was the source of who we are. God is not enticed by height or strength. God is enticed by fidelity and character.

David’s anointing is not a strange story in Scripture. One of the most common storylines used in the Bible is God showing unexpected favor to a younger sibling. David is 8th in line. In a worldview that honored the first born son most, David never should have seen Samuel. But God sees David differently. God valued the least of Jesse’s sons and crowned him king. This story sounds like a Cinderella story (like a 16 seed beating a 1 seed at the start of March Madness). Yet David’s happily-ever-after is not the happily-ever-after we hope for. He will compete with Saul for years. He will create a large kingdom. He will take Bathsheba, a woman who is married to one of his soldiers, against her will. His kingdom will be rocked and torn apart by scandal. And he will lose family and friends in coup attempts and wars. David is chosen by God but the path he follows is full of dangers, hardships, joys, and failures

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 in Lent, 3/26/2017.

What to Keep? From Pastor Marc – My Message for the Messenger, April 2017 Edition

I feel like I’ve been “spring cleaning” for months now. In mid-February, when the temperature warmed up, I felt the urge to tidy up. I started looking at my clothes differently. I wondered if I really needed all these books on my bookshelf. I stared at the toys scattered in every room in my house and wondered if my kids would notice if they were gone. When the cold of winter breaks, throwing things out is what I want to do.

But what if spring cleaning was more about what we kept rather than what we threw away? Instead of focusing on the clutter, we spend time looking at what we have. The shirt we love ‘tis worth more than the trendy shirt we never wore. The chalkboard that lets kids imagine new worlds is more important than the unplayed matchbox cars surrounding it. When we focus on what to keep, our perspective changes. We stop grabbing everything we can because each item we buy is invited into an environment where it will be used, cherished and appreciated. The world we live in becomes a little more intentional because keeping things is a very intentional act.
That first Easter morning was a very intentional act. When Jesus was crucified on Good Friday, he was being thrown away. The Roman Empire didn’t know what to do with this rabble rousing rabbi from the backwaters of Galilee so they removed him from the scene. When he was placed in the tomb, his story was supposed to be sealed up for good. But Jesus’ story wasn’t over. The next morning, women came to the tomb to finish the rituals of burying their beloved teacher. They found Jesus’ tomb empty because the Resurrection means nothing, not even death, can keep Jesus away from us.

This Easter, I invite you to think about what you keep in your life. Bring what you don’t keep to church as we prepare for our annual Trash & Treasure Sale. And then celebrate the relationship you have with a God who promises always to keep you.

See you in church!
Pastor Marc