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.”

Reflection: It’s a Mystery

When Stephen Hawking died last year, I noticed a debate surrounding depictions of him in the afterlife. Regardless of his personal beliefs, people chose to depict him walking in heaven. Since Professor Hawking used a wheelchair due to ALS (otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), he was now, in death, shown walking again. It’s a normal instinct, I think, to imagine the afterlife in this way. Even the book Heaven is for Real (which was popular a few years ago), imagined heaven being the place where we are our “best self.” This “best” is usually described as meaning we’re physically on point while in the afterlife. If we wear glasses on earth, then heaven should be a place where we all receive the best laser-eye corrective surgery. If we suffer physical ailments today, heaven is the place where those ailments no longer limit us. And if we are confined, disabled, or struggling in this life, eternal life should be the opposite of that. We imagine heaven being the place where we are physically whole and this wholeness, we say, cannot include the limitations of our human life.

Paul, in today’s reading from 1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50, was addressing questions about the nature of the Resurrection. In last week’s reading, Paul wrote that our faith and hope rested in the reality of Christ’s Resurrection. Without it, the followers of Jesus might be following a great guy but they are not following a savior. Today’s reading continues by expanding on why the Resurrection should matter to each of us. Through our baptism and faith, we have been united with the new thing that God has started in the world. As I often say in funeral liturgies, we have not only been baptized into his death but we also have been united into Jesus’ Resurrection. Our experience of the human story is no longer the limit. God has another chapter planned for each of us. And that chapter is rooted in the Resurrection that involves, on some level, an actual body. No one really knows what Paul meant by “spiritual body.” Paul did not believe or teach that we have an immortal soul that is separate from our human body. Paul, instead, believed that our identity as human beings is always embodied. We are who we are because of all our thoughts and experiences. And these experiences are generated, recorded, and handled by a real body. 
The Resurrection, to Paul, wasn’t about gaining a new body that is perfect. Rather, Paul wrote that the next chapter of our story will be a brand new reality. Paul had no idea what we’ll look like in the afterlife or during the Resurrection (the only model we have is Jesus as described in the gospels who is still wounded). But Paul knew that we will be living eternally as only God can imagine us to be. Heaven, the afterlife, and the Resurrection isn’t about living as our best selves. Instead, it’s about becoming fully who we are because we will be experiencing Christ’s love fully face-to-face.

This is a reflection published in Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for the Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, 2/24/2019.

Prepare: God and the Wilderness

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

Luke 3:1-6

My sermon from the Second Sunday of Advent (December 9, 2018) on Luke 3:1-6. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.


I’d like to start my sermon today by inviting you to forget something we just did. We heard a tiny bit of Jesus’ story from the gospel according to Luke which is one of the four gospels that contain the theological insights that serve as a foundation for our faith. Every Sunday morning, I introduce our reading from the gospels by inviting you to stand if you are able and then I say something like, “The gospel according to Luke, the Third Chapter.” This introduction prepares us for what comes next. We know we’re going to hear Luke’s version of Jesus’ story and since we’re in the third chapter, we’re already moving through the story God wanted to tell. In fact, we know exactly where we are in God’s story, including chapter and verse, because, at Christ Lutheran Church, everything is printed in our bulletin. But what if it wasn’t? What if there was no introduction to this text at all? I imagine it might sound different. So let’s try it. Let’s forget everything we just heard, including where this text appears in God’s story, and let’s listen to the first two verses as if we’ve never really heard them before: In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

If we didn’t know better, those two verses sounded like the beginning of an epic story. We met an Emperor, a governor, two rulers, two high priests, God, and some guy named John who was hanging out in the wilderness. The text begins at a specific time, in the fifteenth year of some Roman emperor’s rule, and it’s okay if you don’t have the years of the reigns of all the Roman Emperors memorized. What matters is that these verses are focused on a specific time and on a specific place where everything is defined by who was in control. The Emperor Tiberius was on top. He’s the one who appointed the governor and he allowed Herod and Philip and Lysanias to rule as kings subordinate to him. Even the religious authorities were under the Emperor’s control because no high priest could assume their office unless Roman power let it be so. So we received seven names, showing us the complete picture of who had power when this part of Jesus’ story took place. And that’s when the word of God, God’s voice, God’s energy, God’s point of view, and God’s power, came to a guy named John who was hanging out in the wilderness.

Now, the wilderness John was in was overseen by one of the rulers the Roman emperor put in place. But being a ruler of a place and actually ruling it are two different things. In the Bible, a wilderness was always a strange, mysterious, and untamed place. We might imagine John wandering into ancient Israel’s version of the Alaskan frontier, a place where wild animals ruled and where the necessities for human life were hard to come by. A wilderness, especially in the Bible, was a place of desolation and scarcity. But a wilderness was also, at the same time, an experience of God’s provision and protection. During the story of the Exodus, the ancient Israelites complained constantly about spending 40 years in a place without enough food and water. But that wilderness was also where God provided them manna and its desolation shielded them from being re-enslaved by their former Egyptian rulers. Later, the young David who eventually became king and the prophet Elijah both fled into the wilderness for safety and, while there, they were sustained and protected by God. The wilderness, according to Scripture, is more than just a desert or an untamed mountain range. The wilderness is also an experience where our normal sense of who’s in charge and who’s in control is undone. Our wildernesses are those moments, places, and even years where the control we assumed we had over our lives is turned around. John wasn’t only hanging out in a desolate and untamed place. He was also living into an experience where he had limited control. The structure of order and power proclaimed by the first seven names that started this passage wasn’t where John was living. Instead, John was in the middle of his wilderness, in the middle of nowhere; a nowhere that fully embodied the isolation, the fear, and the anxiety we all experience when we are in our “nowheres” too.

Yet it’s in that “nowhere” where the word of God comes. It’s in those untamed and uncontrolled moments when God shows up. The word of God skipped over the seven names of those who had control and instead went to an eighth name living in the wilderness. We sometimes act as if John, the son of Zechariah, appeared in the wilderness suddenly, only when the word of God showed up. But John wasn’t only passing through the wilderness when God’s word came. Instead, he had been in the wilderness for a very long time. The fifteen years of the reign of Tiberius was also a signal to us that John’s life in the wilderness lasted longer. John’s faith, personal growth, and spiritual strength developed in that place where scarcity, isolation, desolation, fear, and lack of control was all he knew. God formed John to be the one who could prepare the way for Jesus, not in spite of his wilderness experiences but because of them. John knew that, when we’re living in the wilderness, it’s only by trusting God that we can be carried through.

Our wildernesses might not fully match up with John’s. There’s a good chance we won’t find ourselves near the Jordan River, deep in a deserted desert. Our wildernesses, instead, might be located in a doctor’s office, a school, at work, or even in our homes. Our wilderness might, instead, be something we carry with us as we live our life with grief, or sadness, or a lack of knowing who, exactly, we’re supposed to be. The wildernesses we live in might last a day, a week, a year, or even a lifetime. Yet our personal wilderness does not mean that we are far from God. Our wilderness cannot separate us from the One who skipped over those who thought they were in control and instead visited John who knew how little control he actually had. God doesn’t wait for us to have our lives together before God shows up. God makes a commitment to each of us that there is no wilderness we find ourselves in that God won’t go into too. The structures we put into place to try and figure out where we are in God’s story will always miss seeing the ways God provides, nourishes, and sustains. And when we believe that our wilderness is hiding us from God, trust that God is already there with you, and that you will find your way through.



Children’s Sermon: R E P E N T

REPENT. This is from Worshipping With Children. Today’s candle is “Peace.”

Hi everyone!

I’m very glad to see you today.

We’re going to me a guy in our story about Jesus today who goes by the name John. And we call him John the Baptist. John the Baptist was, according to the gospel according to Luke, was Jesus’ cousin. John the Baptist was kind of a wild guy. He liked to dress like an outdoorsman who lived off the land, wearing camel hair clothes, and eating bugs for his lunch. He was hanging out in the country, in the wilderness, in the places where there were not cities or farms or villages. He was in a wild place – and he was there because he knew that God would meet him there.

While John was in the wilderness, God spoke to him and gave John the words he should use. And one of his favorite words is…this one Show the word It’s…Repent. Let’s say it together. Repent! This is a word that John uses again and again. Repent – Repent – Repent! Repent is a word we don’t usually use a lot. It’s one of those church words – words that we use in church but that we don’t always hear at school. But “Repent” is a word that we should all use. And what it means is…turn the page over…it means “sorry.” Being sorry is feeling bad that you did something wrong or your hurt someone. And being sorry is something we all have experienced.

But did you notice something different about these two words? They’re different sizes. Repent is big and sorry is small! Right! I wrote R E P E N T in very big letters and sorry in small because they’re different. When we’re sorry, we feel bad that we did something wrong. We might apologize, we might feel sick in our stomach, we might even get upset because we’re feeling so bad. Feeling sorry is a good, normal, and an important emotion we shouldn’t run away from.

But Repenting is different. Repenting – Repent – is doing something to make sure that we never do the thing that hurt someone again. Repenting is about changing our behavior so that we don’t create the circumstances or situations where we feel sorry like we did. So if we didn’t share a toy with our friend, we make sure to share the next time. When we say an unkind word about someone, maybe because of what they looked like or how they dressed, we ask why we did that – why we thought they looked different – and we change our thoughts so we don’t do that again. When we see someone who doesn’t have as much as us, who can’t enjoy the things we do, we don’t treat them differently or poorly because of that. Instead, we ask why they don’t have what we have, we step into their shoes, and then we change our behavior so they can experience the joy that God wants for them.

Now, repenting is a lot harder than just feeling sorry. John wasn’t interested in people feeling sorry about the bad things they were doing. He wanted them to change. And he knew, with God’s help, we can all admit what we do wrong, how we harm others, and we can ask God to help change us so that everyone can live the life God wants them to: a life full of love, a life full of helping each other, a life being kind, and a life of loving each other – and even strangers – as much as we love ourselves. And when we repent, with God’s help, we can create a world where everyone gets to live in peace.

So today, for the Advent wreath, we’re going to light two candles. The first one, if we remember, was about Hope. Today, it’s about peace. So let us pray: Advent Lighting Words – from “worshipping With Children:”
God, we know that we are not all you created us to be. You call us to repent, to make changes. So, we light the first candle knowing that you are with us in all the shadow of the world and we light this second candle promising to make the changes we need to make to be your people. Be with us, show us what to do, and give us the courage and energy we need to change


Thank you for being here! And I hope you have a blessed week!

Each week, I share a reflection for all children of God. The written manuscript serves as a springboard for what I do. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship on the Second Sunday of Advent, 12/9/2018.

Reflection: Being Refined

Have you ever refined gold? I haven’t but our passage from Malachi 3:1-4 assumes we have. In the ancient world, there was only one way to extract gold from the rock it was found in. A worker would light a fire and place a crucible (usually a bowl made out of rock that can withstand hot temperatures) over it. Rocks containing pieces of gold would be placed into the crucible and everything would heat up. But the fire couldn’t be merely a campfire. The fire would need to be hot. The worker wanted the rocks to melt, allowing the impurities to float to the surface while the gold settled into the bottom. They would do all they could to make the fire heat up until it approached 1,800 degrees. The mixture would melt and the worker would stand there, using a special tool to scoop out anything that floated to the top. Over and over again, the rocks containing the gold would be melted until all the impurities had been removed and melted gold was all that was left. This process created the blocks of gold that would eventually be turned into statues, jewelry and coins. Gold is one of the world’s “precious” metals but the process to refine that gold was anything but.

If we were approaching a fire burning at 1800 degrees, we would do our best to stay safe. We would stand a safe distance away, put on the world’s best oven mitts, and make sure we knew where the closest air conditioned room was. We might be able to protect ourselves from the full blast of that heat. But workers in the ancient world were not so lucky. Refining gold was a hot and dangerous business. Everyone wanted the gold the workers produced but very few, I think, wanted their actual job. Yet Malachi, when he described the messenger who will announce the coming of God into the world, predicted this messenger would burn like a refiner’s fire. And this fire wouldn’t come to only those who didn’t know God. Rather, the fire would refine all of God’s people. Those who believe in God, worship God, and follow God are the ones who will be refined by God. And this refining will not be easy. We will be exposed to a spiritual heat that we cannot protect ourselves from. Unlike the worker standing next to the fire, we will be embraced by the fire itself. And that fire will refine us over and over again, helping us become the people God knows we can be.

When we talk about trying to grow our faith, we rarely talk about a refining fire. We imagine, instead, that a few minor changes in our life will help us become the people we think God wants us to be. Yet there will be moments in our life when the foundations of our world will break. There will be times when our expectations for God will be unmet. There will be moments when we will wonder if the God we grew up with is the God who is with us now. There will be times when we will feel as if we are being melted into something we don’t want to be. And it’s at those moments when we see how Jesus is already standing there with us, in the fire. We are precious to Jesus. We are worth God’s love. And when we feel as if our world is burning up, he will be beside us, helping us become something brand new.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week (or about our liturgy). This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for the Second Sunday of Advent, 12/09/2018.

Reflection: Vision. Story. Promise. Now What?

We start every new church year, every Advent, with the end of the world. Today’s reading from the gospel according to Luke 21:25-36 is part of a longer sermon filled with Jesus’ apocalyptic views. Like Daniel, Ezekiel, and Isaiah, Jesus’ words are sprinkled with images of wars, starvation, persecution, and judgement. As we spend today lighting the first Advent candle and preparing to set out the nativity with a manger for a baby’s bed, we are surrounded by words rooted in incredible violence. This text is jarring, masking the hope at the heart of Jesus’ words. But hope is what Jesus is all about in Luke 21. And this hope is God’s vision for the world.

There’s a pattern in the text that unwraps the hope Jesus is pointing to. The text begins with a vision, describing the earth in distress. Jesus then moves from a vision into a story, using a parable to tame the violence in the vision he previous shared. At the moment when the world trembles and it feels as if it will be covered in shadow, that is when summer will be on its way. The story is rooted in a promise – a promise that Jesus’ words, ministry, and grace has a permanence that cannot be overcome. This vision, story, and promise is Jesus’ reminder that, regardless of what we can see, there is still always more going on than meets the eye. We, as human begins, cannot see everything that God sees. We, with our limited perspective, cannot see everything else that’s moving into place. And we, wrapped up in our sin, struggle to realize that we are not the center of the universe. By clinging to the promise that Jesus is truly God-with-us, we are wrapped up by a hope that does not end. Our relationship to God doesn’t depend on us. Our relationship is rooted in a God who refuses to leave us on our own. Even when the world appears like it is coming apart at the seams, Jesus is still here. And we, as followers of Christ, are to stay alert, living our lives as if Jesus is really here right now.

Dr. Michal Dinkler writes, “As we move into the Christmas season, let us not get so myopic in single-mindedly over-preparing for Christmas that we forget God’s vision for the world — a vision that is God’s to control, a vision that is far broader and more expansive than either/or thinking can allow.” Through your baptism and through your faith, you are with with God. This world, as we know, doesn’t match the vision God has for it. But because of your faith, the kingdom of God is already here. As we start this new church year, we are reminded we spend all our years living into the hope that Jesus makes a difference today, yesterday, and forever.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week (or about our liturgy). This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for the First Sunday of Advent, 12/02/2018.

Children’s Sermon: Happy New (church) Year! Hope and the Cow Who Climbed a Tree

Bring Year C glasses. Today’s Candle is “Hope.” Book: the Cow Who Climbed A Tree

Hi everyone!

I’m very glad to see you today.

Happy New Year! Today is the start of a new church year – when we’ll go through a new cycle of special colors, scripture readings, and more. In our Bibles, we have four separate books, separate chapters, that teach us about Jesus. And we need all four to see who Jesus is. And this upcoming year – “Year C” as you can see in my glasses – we’re going to read a bunch of stories about Jesus from the gospel according to Luke. It’s in the gospel according to Luke where we get the story about angels telling Shepherds about Jesus’ birth, where we discover who’s John the Baptist’s parents are and how Jesus and the John the Baptist are cousins, and where we hear how, way after he is born, after he dies, and after he is raised from the dead – Jesus meets two friends of his while they’re on the road to a place called Emmaus. So I can’t wait to spend the next year spending time with Jesus and with each of you through the Gospel according to Luke.

One of the big ideas we’ll hear in Luke is “hope.” Now hope is “a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen.” Hope is something that a little hard to describe so I brought a book to help me. The book here is The Cow Who Climbed a Tree” which stars a cow named Tina. Tina was a curious cow. Tina loved discovering. Tina loved science, and learning, and reaming. Tina even imagined building a rocketship to take her to the moon! Tina had a lot of amazing ideas – but her 3 sisters weren’t interested. They thought her ideas were silly. They thought Tina should only be focused on the things cows usually like – standing around and eating grass. They weren’t very nice to Tina nor did they treat her the way they should. Her sister hoped that Tina would be just like them. But Tina, the cow, hoped her sisters would celebrate and support her love of discovery, science, and learning. They both hoped that each other would be different than they are.

But as we flip the pages in the story, we see how both Tina and the sisters change. Tina, after climbing a tree, meets a dragon who helps Tina realize that being herself – loving science and learning is good. And the sisters, after noticing that Tina is missing, go to find her – and discover how Tina’s love for learning, and her inventions, were helping all sorts of animals learn how to “fly.” Her sister saw Tina for the special cow that she is – and they celebrate that by saying “YES!” when Tina asks if they want to fly. In the end, the sisters changed. They accepted Tina for who she was – a cow that loved to learn. And they discovered that Tina could help them love,see, and experience the world differently too.

We’re going to spend all year hearing about the hope Jesus gives to each of us. There are times when we will be sad. There are times when we we’ll look around the world and it looks like sadness, tears, and just icky stuff is what this world is about – and that they always seem to win. There are times when we’ll hope that we are different and that the people are different too. And Luke will remind us, over and over again, that because Jesus was born, because Jesus lived just like us, because Jesus grew up just like you, and because Jesus lived, and died, and rose from the dead – and that Jesus loves you – we have a hope that God will always, in the end, win.

So let’s light the first candle of Advent on the Advent wreath a candle that represents Hope!

Let us pray: Advent Lighting Words – from “Worshipping With Children”
God, the world is scary. But, You are with us in the worst of situations. So, in the darkness we light this first candle of Advent with hope –
hope that you are with us even when awful things happen,
hope that you will show us what we can do to fix the world,
and hope that you will fix what we cannot.


Each week, I share a reflection for all children of God. The written manuscript serves as a springboard for what I do. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship on the First Sunday of Advent, 12/2/2018.

How Can We Thank: God’s Generosity

How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.

Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

My sermon from the First Sunday of Advent (December 2, 2018) on 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.


When was the last time you received someone’s generosity?

I’d like you to think about that because, in a few moments, I’m going to ask you to share that experience with the person sitting next to you. Now I know this question can, at first, be a bit vague because we usually don’t talk about those moments in our lives when we receive generosity. Instead, we like to focus on being generous, on how we give. Generosity, as a concept, “has to do with the way we use our skills …[to] share ideas, practice hospitality, offer encouragement, make connections, and use our time [and resources] to address the needs of others.” (Living Generously, Stewardship Resource) Generosity is seeing someone else’s vulnerability and, for a moment, helping that person become a little more “complete” than they were before. It feels good to fill the need we see in the people around us. And it’s also easier to talk about the ways we’re generous because we then don’t have to let others know about those times in our lives when we were vulnerable too. Showing others our generosity sometimes invites us to bury those moments when we needed help and care. Yet generosity is how we love and it’s also, I think, how we experience love from one another. Generosity is an action, a practice, and a virtue that forms us, molds us, and helps us build the relationships we need so that we can become the people God wants us to be. And that kind of generosity takes many forms. It could be financial, like when a friend takes us out to dinner knowing we can’t pay them back. Or generosity could be when a loved one lets us vent, knowing they can’t solve our problems but they can create a space where all the feelings, emotions, and words inside us are finally let out into the open. A friend we haven’t spoken to in awhile might give us a call or a stranger might notice how tired we are and give us their seat on the bus; these are all examples of generosity and we receive this kind of generosity everyday. Yet we struggle to acknowledge it. But as we see in our reading from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, naming our vulnerability and celebrating generosity is part of what being a Christian is all about.

Paul’s first letter to the community in Thessaloniki is, most likely, the earliest piece of Christian writing we have. Paul wrote to a small group, of maybe a dozen or so, early Christians who had responded to Paul’s preaching and teaching in their city. Paul wanted to spend a significant amount of time in Thessaloniki, to support the small Christian community and help their relationship with Jesus grow. But something happened and Paul had to flee. The community in Thessaloniki was left on their own with no formally trained spiritual leader to guide them. And this worried Paul because Thessaloniki wasn’t your regular ancient Mediterranean town. It was the capital of a Roman province, with a large garrison of Roman soldiers keeping watch. Thessaloniki was a city full of Roman monuments and buildings promoting the authority of the Roman emperor who was starting to call himself “the Son of God.” Temples to other gods filled the city and each one had a large and devout following. And since Thessaloniki was a city in northern Greece, on a clear day, every person in that city could see in the distance, Mount Olympus, the tallest mountain in all of Greece and the legendary home of Zeus and other gods. Paul had to leave behind a small community of Christians in a city where Roman power, Roman rule, and Roman religious life had all the outward benefits and prestige. Paul worried that this community wouldn’t survive in the face of all that Rome. Yet it did. And not only that, they thrived. Their faith grew. They continued to worship. And they, as a community, learned how to live together – persevering through hardships and celebrating each other’s joys. God, through a divine and generous love, protected them and Paul’s joy literally leaps off the page. He can’t thank God enough for them, for this community in the shadow of Mount Olympus, that God didn’t abandon. Paul, I believe, honestly wanted to return to them, to be with them, but he knew that it wasn’t him who kept them together. Rather, it was God’s generosity in the face of their vulnerability that carried them through. The Christian community in Thessaloniki, on the surface, wasn’t very strong. The community was young, it’s spiritual leader had fled, and Christianity was so new that the New Testament hadn’t even been written yet – so there was no collection of writings to help shape and guide them. They were a community surrounded by other faiths and points of view that were bigger, more powerful, and were more richly rewarded. The Thessalonians in Paul’s community were completely vulnerable – and yet, they thrived. In the face of overwhelming outside pressure, the Thessalonians and Paul admitted to themselves and each other that it was only God’s generosity that kept them following Jesus. And this true God, this only God, was, while they were vulnerable, truly with them – giving them a faith that would carry them through.

Receiving generosity is hard because we then have to admit our own vulnerabilities. Yet we all have stories where the generosity of others is what carried us through. That kind of generosity, while mediated through human hands, comes from God. And it’s God’s generosity that sent Jesus into our world to experience everything we do, including what it’s like to be vulnerable. It’s God’s love that shows us how we can be generous. And it’s Jesus’s generosity that reminds us how we all need love.

I invite you now to take a few moments, a couple of minutes, and share with the person next to you a short description of a moment when you received someone else’s generosity.


Recipes of Faith: The Pastor’s Message for the December 2018 Messenger

One of my favorite ways to celebrate the holiday and Christmas season is to eat. Thanksgiving turkey, Christmas hams, swimming pools full of cookies, and candy canes taller than my children – this season is a delicious one. And one way we participate in this season of eating is by opening up our cupboards, taking out our recipe boxes, and pulling out our favorite ones. Some are printouts from recipes we found online. Others come from newspapers, magazines, and cookbooks. And there are those few recipes in our recipe boxes that handwritten (or typed on a typewriter) that we have inherited from our parents and grandparents. One of my family’s recipes comes from Kate’s grandmother and it’s now one of our Christmas day traditions. After the presents are opened, Kate (with help from our kids) prepares fried matzos for all to eat. The recipe is on an index card in the grandmother’s hand. We eat these fried matzos often but there is something special about sharing this dish on Christmas morning. It reminds us how we are connected to something bigger than ourselves. The simple act of eating this food helps us relive, remember, and re-experience the relationships that make a difference in our lives.

Whether we inherit these recipes from the families we are born into or through the families we create on the way, these recipes do more than feed our bodies. They feed our souls and our hearts. We, through the gift of food, discover what our relationship with Jesus Christ is all about. God wants more than us to merely receive the calories we need to survive. God wants us to thrive. And, through Christ and through the church, inspires all of us to help each other become exactly who God wants us to be.

So what’s your favorite recipe this holiday season? And if you had to make a recipe card for your faith, what would it look like? Rev. Chris Halverson of St. Stephen Lutheran Church recently created these:

Faith Frittata:
Ingredients—Baptism, Word, Spirit, Community.

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees F
  • Place Baptism in a large skillet and cook over medium-high head, turn occasionally, even until browned.
  • Add the Word of God, received aurally. This will stimulate the Holy Spirit.
  • Cook for a lifetime.
  • Serve wherever two or three are gathered. Community will sustain it and replicate it.

Grace Wrap:
Ingredients—God’s faithfulness, promise, and signs.

  • Take half an hour to reflect upon how God has been faithful in the past.
  • Take some time to reflect upon all the things God has promised to us for our good and our salvation.
  • Wrap it all together in trust.
  • Serve through the waters of baptism and pair them with the bread and wine of communion, which will sustain the whole meal.
  • Spend sometime this season pondering your relationship with Jesus. What would your recipe card for Prayer, Forgiveness, Faithfulness, Mercy, or Hope look like? Create your own. And let’s do what we can to keep these kinds of recipes out of the recipe boxes in our cupboard and, instead, in our lives everyday.

    See you in church!
    Pastor Marc