News and Resources from the Upstate New York Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Midweek Musings

Midweek Musings for Sunday, November 8, 2015

This week’s reflection comes from
Rev. Norma Malfatti
Director for Evangelical Mission/Assistant to the Bishop

Prayer of the Day
O God, you show forth your almighty power chiefly by reaching out to us in mercy. Grant us the fullness of your grace, strengthen our trust in your promises, and bring all the world to share in the treasures that come through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

Gospel: John 11:32-44
38As [Jesus] taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
41He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Those poor widows. Those poor widows – we feel for them. Their husbands are dead, they have no rights to his property, and no one to care for them, leaving them destitute.

Yet at the same time, we are awed by them; lifting them up as models of stewardship for they gave when they had nearly nothing to give. The widow of Zarephath just a small portion of her already too little food, the widow in the Temple her last two coins. Yes, we lift these women up as models of stewardship. We lift these women up for giving the very last they had, giving all they had, as models of stewardship.

But is that really the lesson to be learned here? That those who have nothing are to give the last that they have? And that we then are to follow their example?

I don’t think so. I think there’s another way to look at these stories.

First, they are stories of desperation and second, a critique, and not a model, of stewardship.

These women are desperate. They had nothing — the widow who served Elijah was down to her last meal and preparing for her and her son to starve to death; the widow in the Temple gave her last penny, everything she had. When she walked away, she was probably preparing for her own starvation, out on the streets.

These desperate women had so much in common but for the widow in the Temple, we don’t hear about an Elijah in her life…. though we are told of another man who noticed her.

The woman in the Temple, and so many like her, was desperate and out of her desperation she gave all that she had to God, not out of a spirit of generosity, the spirit in which we understand stewardship. No, instead this woman gave all she had, desperate and with nothing to lose because the men in her community, the ones who were supposed to be caring for her, the ones in robes with long prayers, the faith leaders, not just political and economic leaders, though they were that too, these leaders of the Jewish community let this woman get to a point where she was desperate, destitute, and devoid of food.

Who were these men in long robes with long prayers? Certainly not Lutheran, they sat in the front pew!

The scribes were respected, professional interpreters of the Law. They were crucial in the Jewish culture for their job was to define what righteousness was and righteousness is at the very heart of the covenant between God and Israel, so, as skilled interpreters of the Law they helped to maintain the covenant.

We see how important they are, or at least how important they think they are, by their walking around in rich robes and glad handing people in the Temple courtyard. They are showcasing their importance in the community but they are not really living up to the responsibilities that come with being a scribe and one of God’s chosen and holy people. They are not being good stewards of the Law, of their gifts in the knowledge of the Law, of their responsibilities to the community or their money. As Jesus has pointed out again and again to the disciples, the first shall be last and those who wish to be first must be slave to all.

When Jesus challenged the scribes at the beginning of the Gospel reading, it was not because of their interpretation of the Law, Jesus was criticizing them for their hypocrisy of knowing the Law but only pretending to follow it.

The scribes Jesus speaks of knew so well what the words of Psalm 146 state – that God gives justice to those who are oppressed, food to those who hunger, cares for the stranger and sustains the orphan and widow. The woman in the Temple, in her desperation, gave everything she had to God, her whole life, for she had nothing to lose and knew the Scriptures promised that the Lord her God would sustain her. The scribes and other leaders of the community were supposed to be agents of God’s justice and caring.

And yet, they failed, they failed this woman who walked away to starve to death on the streets.

Where is it that we fail to be good stewards of those who are hungry, homeless, oppressed? Where is it that we become the hypocrite and not the follower of Jesus? Whether we want to admit it or not, we are surrounded by people who may be just as desperate as the woman in the Temple, or the widow of Zarephath and we are called to be God’s stewards of provision and love.

And we are not just called to be stewards of God’s work done in and through the Upstate NY Synod and the congregations we are a part of; we are called to be good stewards in all that we do; in our relationships of being parents and grandparents, children and grandchildren, brothers and sisters; neighbors and friends; in our daily vocations whether we are employees, employers, or perhaps self-employed or volunteers; in our consumer practices whether we are shopping for groceries or clothes or cars.

We are called to be the stewards God has created us and gifted us to be, supporting God’s mission in this world – that all might know and feel God’s love and forgiveness and be wrapped in the Good News of the Gospel.

A pretty tall order when you think about doing this by yourself. Thanks be to God that you are not alone – the Holy Spirit has given you all you need to be a faithful steward of your life and the lives of those around you. You have partners in mission through fellow disciples at your congregation, in your conference, in this Synod and across the ELCA. And you have Jesus’ promise that he will be with you always.

As Jesus said in the Gospel reading a few weeks ago, what may seem impossible for humans in possible for God (Mark 10:27). So go and be the child of God and steward you were created to be.

Midweek Musings for Sunday, November 1, 2015

This week’s reflection comes from
Rev. Norma Malfatti
Director for Evangelical Mission/Assistant to the Bishop

Prayer of the Day
Almighty God, you have knit your people together in one communion in the mystical body of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Grant us grace to follow your blessed saints in lives of faith and commitment, and to know the inexpressible joys you have prepared for those who love you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Gospel: John 11:32-44
32When 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.” 33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

38Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus 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.” 40Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I 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.” 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44The 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.”

“Lord, if you had been here…”

Every time I read this story I am struck by Mary’s words. Sometimes I am right there with Mary saying, “yeah Jesus, why did you take so long to get to Bethany! Mary and Martha sent word days ago!” However, when you really read it carefully, whether or not Jesus waited the two days before leaving or not, he still wouldn’t have arrived in time – Lazarus had been dead for four days, not two.

Other times I’m more like Martha, who also confronted Jesus with these words and then twisted the knife a little more, “…even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” As if Jesus could be manipulated into doing something – have you read about his encounters with the Pharisees and Sadducees? Doesn’t mean I don’t try bargaining with God every now and then, just to see if it works.

Then there were those months that I sat by my father’s bedside while he was dying of cancer. I prayed. A lot. I prayed that God would heal my dad. I prayed the doctors would come up with some miracle drug that would destroy the cancer in his body. I prayed that the respiratory therapists would figure out how to help my father breath without laboring for a breath or relying on oxygen. I prayed that God would just make my dad better. Somewhere along the way I also started praying that God’s will would be done, not mine, surrendering my wants and hopes for my dad’s return to health to God’s care; praying that he would experience the promises of this week’s Revelation reading sooner, rather than later. That prayer did not come easily and not without some sense of guilt that I was giving up on my dad’s strength, but I wasn’t. Nor was I giving up on Jesus who promised to be with us to the end of the age.

I can tell you, without a doubt, that God was in my father’s hospital and rehab center room every day. As I washed his hands and feet I could feel God’s strength and comfort envelop me. And God was with my entire family whether or not we were with my dad. I didn’t need to lament and blame like Mary and Martha because God was there. And after a brave five month battle against cancer when my father finally did die, God was there too.

We do not have a God who is distant and uninvolved in our lives. We have a God who is right there with us in the thick of death and pain, grief and loss. Jesus wept right alongside Mary and Martha, feeling the same anger (a better translation of the word disturbed) and overwhelming grief we feel sometimes when faced with the unfairness of death. Some may say Jesus’ emotions were connected to a variety of things: his own grief, his pain for Mary and Martha’s grief, his frustration that they blamed him, or even that they somehow didn’t trust that Jesus really would do something to heal Lazarus. Whatever the reason we do know that in that moment Jesus wept, that in that moment Jesus felt deeply and knows something about what our pain and grief is like.

That’s because the home of God really is among mortals.

Throughout the Gospel of John we hear about Jesus abiding in humans and with humans. That wasn’t just for the people who lived 2000 years ago. That’s the truth for us today. We do not have to wait for the promises in Revelation to come true, even while we still live in the time between the resurrection and Jesus’ return when the mourning and pain of this world is still very real. We can trust that God understands that pain and will not abandon us to experience it alone – Jesus abides in us and we in him.

As this All Saints Day approaches and I grieve the death of another man who taught me much and helped to shape the person I am today, I cling to these promises. They are part of what carry me through the hard days of grief and propel me in sharing my love of God with others; because Jesus doesn’t just abide with me, Jesus abides with and in all people. That’s good news!

Midweek Musings for Sunday, October 25, 2015

This week’s reflection comes from Rev. Mary Johnson
Assistant to the Bishop for Candidacy

Almighty God, gracious Lord, we thank you that your Holy Spirit renews the church in every age. Pour out your Holy Spirit on your faithful people. Keep them steadfast in your word, protect and comfort them in times of trial, defend them against all enemies of the gospel, and bestow on the church your saving peace, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

GOSPEL: John 8:31-36
31Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?” 34Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.

When I thank God for my blessings, there are many things I often take for granted, though I should not. Among these is the fact that I have never been an inmate, a slave, a hostage or a prisoner of war. I have never lived in a war zone, an occupied territory, a concentration camp, a totalitarian state or a violent home. I appreciate freedom, as I experience it, but in a certain sense, I don’t really know the meaning of freedom in the same way as those do who have gained it after experiencing this kind of actual captivity. We who have never experienced physical captivity do know other kinds of bondage, though: we may experience regret, guilt or shame in our relationships or communities. This might be relieved by forgiveness received, amends made, or reconciliations accomplished – or perhaps by the knowledge that all of us are human, and we inevitably err and sometimes wound one another.

But not so with God. Our guilt before God is something we cannot escape or excuse. In this guilt we are captive. It can be a fearful thing to acknowledge this, unless we know there is a freedom offered to us that is absolute and absolutely trustworthy.

In our lives, we sometimes think or speak of the freedom we could experience if or when we graduate from school, leave home, gain financial security, retire, or whatever. We yearn to live life more fully and without restrictions – as if this is the most abundant life available to us. As we work, in Christ’s name, for real freedom and justice for those who suffer under any sort of oppression, we know that Christ offers the deepest and most lasting – eternal – liberation. This is freedom in the ultimate sense, a release from the captivity of sin and guilt before God. This freedom, given by God, is more powerful than any kind of earthly bondage.

Kayla Mueller was a young humanitarian who was brutalized and killed as a hostage of Islamic State militants in Syria. She was a person of great faith, and in one of her letters to her family she wrote; “I remember Mom always telling me that all in all in the end the only one you really have is God. I have come to a place in experience where, in every sense of the word, I have surrendered myself to our creator [because] literally there was no [one] else… I have been shown in darkness, light [and] have learned that even in prison, one can be free.”[1]

Thankfully, most of us will never know the kind of captivity she endured, but we have the witness of centuries of Christians, testifying that the freedom of life in Christ is freedom, indeed. On Reformation Sunday, we celebrate not an historical event or figure, but the saving power of God through Jesus Christ, God’s Son and Word made flesh, to liberate us all from the power of sin. One of the joys of being a pastor is the holy privilege of hearing the faith stories of everyday Christians who have experienced the new life that comes when they realize they are freed in Christ from fear or guilt or whatever had kept them from the abundant life God wills for them. And, it is not just pastors who get to hear these stories! When you hear such stories, you know how powerful they can be. Each of us has a story to tell, and our testimony – your testimony – may be just what is needed to bring the life-giving, liberating truth of the Gospel to someone in your life.


Midweek Musings for Sunday, October 18, 2015

This week’s reflection comes from Rev. Mary Johnson
Assistant to the Bishop for Candidacy

Prayer of the Day
Sovereign God, you turn your greatness into goodness for all the peoples on earth. Shape us into willing servants of your kingdom, and make us desire always and only your will, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

Gospel: Mark 10:35-45
35James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to [Jesus] and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”36And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 39They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

41When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Did you cringe when you read what James and John asked of Jesus? This wasn’t just a bold display of initiative and ambition, or a selfless desire to bask in whatever glory Jesus would enjoy. The story demonstrates – again – just how little Jesus’ earliest followers understood why he came and what he was all about. After all, as Mark told this story, James’ and John’s question comes immediately after Jesus’ words to his disciples, explaining to them, for the third time, just how it would be that he would enter his glory:

32They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, 33saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; 34they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.” (Mark 10:32-34)

Of course, it wasn’t just these twelve disciples who were concerned with being great and having glory. Power plays and self-promotion are the way of the world, as Jesus pointed out. From toddlers to heads of state, we all want to be recognized with special status and treatment of some kind; we all hope for honor and glory. We cringe at James’ and John’s audacity because we also recognize ourselves and our desires in them. This desire for privilege leads to “lording” it over others in our own lives, even if unintentionally. Bullying, subjugation, oppression, racism, violence, warfare – the manifestations of this desire go on and on.

And yet in this story of Jesus, James and John, we also read in verse 32 that the disciples were afraid. Their beloved teacher was describing a degrading, torturous death. When we are anxious or afraid, it can seem easier to ignore the thing we fear and to press ahead for the glory that we hope will come instead. If Jesus himself could suffer as he described – Jesus, whom they were coming to know as the Messiah and God’s own Son – what kind of suffering might lie ahead for his followers? We also prefer to focus on resurrection joy and the glory of a Christ who offers new life and hope, rather than to consider what Jesus’ servanthood, suffering and sacrificial death might mean for us as his disciples.

There is suffering in the Christian life, to be sure, but Jesus is calling us here not to suffering for its own sake, but to servanthood – humble service with and for others, to meet the needs of God’s beloved children. This is not done for the reward of “greatness” or “glory,” but in response to what we have received – the gift beyond measure of Christ’s life lived and death suffered for us. Serving our brothers and sisters is our way of giving thanks for this gift, and it can be a joyful thing. As we engage in servanthood in Christ’s name, we know that Christ is being made known in our serving. There is deep joy in living out our thanks to Christ by being part of his body, bringing his grace, peace and healing to the world God loves so dearly.

Midweek Musings for Sunday, October 11, 2015

This week’s reflection comes from Rev. Mary Johnson
Assistant to the Bishop for Candidacy

Prayer of the day
Almighty and ever-living God, increase in us your gift of faith, that, forsaking what lies behind and reaching out to what lies ahead, we may follow the way of your commandments and receive the crown of everlasting joy, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

Gospel: Mark 10:17-31
17As [Jesus] was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.'”20He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”21Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

23Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 26They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

28Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” 29Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age-houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions-and in the age to come eternal life. 31But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

If you are familiar with this passage from Mark’s Gospel, you might know it is sometimes called the story of “the rich, young ruler.” Looking closely at these verses, this may come as a surprise, since the man Jesus encounters is described here neither as young (as he is in Matthew’s Gospel), nor as a ruler (as he is in Luke’s Gospel). Mark does not actually call him “rich” either, but says that he had “many possessions.” He is just a man who comes humbly to Jesus to seek eternal life, just as we do, and he is one who has many possessions, just as we do. Though Jesus goes on to speak of wealth and those who are “rich,” I wonder if our desire to label this person as a “rich, young ruler” is a way for us to identify him as someone quite different than ourselves. Few of us are rulers; not all of us are young; and many of us do not see ourselves as rich – much less young and rich and rulers. Nonetheless, even if modest or middling by American standards, there is no question that by global standards we are materially rich. Jesus’ words here are addressed not to just a subset of a few others, but to us. And, to the extent that we distance ourselves from this man and from what Jesus asks of him, we are also like him, as he went away from Jesus, rather than following him.

Jesus reminds him of the Commandments, but lists only the latter ones, those that pertain to our life with our neighbors, and not the first three that call us to a faithful life with God. And Jesus does not question whether the man has truly kept these commandments. Rather, he asks the one thing that will reveal whether there is something in our lives that we value more than the life-giving relationship with God offered to us in Christ, whether we do in fact “fear, love and trust God above all things,” as Luther wrote in the Small Catechism. Like Jesus’ hyperbolic demand in Mark 9 that one give up a hand or foot or eye to save one’s life, this one is also an exaggeration to the extreme: to give up everything in order to serve the neighbor and to receive life in God’s Kingdom.

So, the man in this story, with his many possessions, went away grieving the loss of the life Christ offers. Or, was he grieving the loss of the possessions he was about to sell, in order to love and serve his neighbors, and so to come again to Jesus, and to follow him? We don’t actually know.

What we do know is that Christ calls people as disciples; some respond and follow him, and some do not. We all cling to earthly attachments – material possessions, preconceived notions of righteousness, even family relationships. Even those who do follow Christ will eventually fail and fall away. Each of Jesus’ first disciples did, and so do we all. But we know that is not the end of the story, because we know one more thing: Jesus loved this man, and he loves each of us, enough to give his life. He loved us so much he gave everything for us.

After all, the would-be disciple in this story actually had it half-right! When he first came to Jesus, he asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” There is nothing we must do – or can do – to gain eternal life. But, thanks be to God, it comes as a free gift of God’s grace – an inheritance, indeed – a gift that is ours at the cost of Jesus’ own life. So it is that this life-giving relationship with God is offered to all who would receive it. No matter how impossible it is for us to earn or deserve it, by God’s own grace we inherit eternal life. Yes, “for God all things are possible.”

Proclaiming Hope

This mission magazine tells the stories of just a few of the many ways lives are being made new by the power of the Holy Spirit through the ministries of the Upstate New York Synod. We hope you will be inspired by te work we do together in Jesus' name.

Questions Regarding Mission
New Mission
Lutheran Disaster Response
Social Ministry
Outreach with Young Adults
Congregational Renewal
Congregational Redevelopment
Growing Disciples
Companion Synods
Missionary Support
Theological Education
Outdoor Ministry
Campus Ministry

Download a PDF file of the entire magazine.