Grace and peace!Atonement is part of the New Jersey Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Founded in 1890, Atonement has been part of the rich history of Asbury Park, New Jersey for more than a century. We work to serve Jesus Christ, who commanded that we love all. For this reason, we are a Reconciling in Christ congregation, committed to including and working with all people regardless of gender, skin tone, ethnic heritage, age, sexual orientation, or economic status. You are welcome here!
We learn together, all ages, on Sundays at 9 am. We worship together, all people, on Sundays at 10 am. We seek to serve our community as the people of God all week long, and weekly we have new and exciting opportunities to be made one in Christ, gifted by grace, and called to serve!
Atonement has a long history of involvement in this community, including the founding of Interfaith Neighbors, Luther Haven a residential group living facility for individuals struggling with mental illness, now operated by Lutheran Social Ministry of New Jersey and Atonement's food pantry, open the second and fourth Wednesday of every month from 10:30 AM ? 12:30 PM, has been helping families throughout Monmouth County keep food on their tables for decades.
As the pastor of this congregation, I wish to personally invite you and hope to welcome you to Atonement. Whether you are an old friend or a new face, we eagerly look forward to gathering with you! Please E-MAIL me; I would love to answer any questions or hear any concern you might have. Wherever God is calling you to be, our prayers are with you!
Peace in Christ, Pastor Gary
Pastor Gary Andrew Bruce Woodruff is a graduate of the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. His passions are Jesus Christ, video games, friends, coffee, conversation, poetry, and good music - in that order. He was called as Pastor of Atonement on June 22, 2014, and was ordained to Ministry of Word and Sacrament on September 21, 2014. He lives in the congregation-owned parsonage. Occasionally he may be spotted about town. Say hi!
The Outsiders (12 Ordinary C)
In the name of Jesus, amen.In reflection on a passage where Jesus teaches humility, the brothers of the abbey gathered to determine who was most humble among them. It was no contest. Every one of the brothers agreed that brother Bodo was the humblest of everyone present, and he was awarded with a medal to commemorate his humility. Of course, they disqualified him as soon as he wanted to wear it.
Or consider the mystic in meditation on her own burdensome pride. Recognizing how horrible her pride was, she recognized that this made her humble. With this, she swelled with pride regarding her humility about her pride. And then she was humbled by her pride over her humility about her pride. And then she was proud that she had been humbled by her pride over her humility about her pride – and so on, on a merry-go-round with no end, until finally she recognized her ridiculousness and decided to make dinner for her sisters.
The point of these, as the point of the first part of Jesus’ instruction to the guests at the party, is that humility is not there to do something for ourselves. As long as it is about us, centered on us, confined to us, humility is not humility but just some form of pride and self-aggrandization. Jesus is not actually concerned with where people sit, but rather with why it is that they sit there. He is provoking the guests to interrogate their hearts and motives, not just giving them a clever social trick. The point is not to get more credit from others, to gain more standing or power, though it appears that way.
Instead Jesus upends this idea by turning on his host. When you throw a party, invite people you don’t know, people who could never invite you back. Imagine going to a wedding where the happy couple were hosting invalids, strangers, and immigrants! Yet, Jesus goes on – beyond the limits of our gospel reading – to tell a story about a ruler who does just that, because those who had initially been invited refused to attend the banquet. The ultimate point Jesus is making about pride, self-aggrandization, and working for ourselves alone, is that it cuts us off from the freely offered banquet. You see, it turns out the best things in life are free, but in order to receive them we will have to become outsiders taking gifts. You know, charity. Handouts.
This is the source of the lament in our reading from Jeremiah. God is crying out because a feast thrown for the whole nation has no one coming to it – not because it is costly to attend, but because it is freely given. The people ignore the banquet given without cost for empty pantries; they have left the flowing spring and prefer the dried wells that they dug out with their own hands. Their pride has severed them from receiving without deserving, without work, without earning.
In both these passages, the warning is that when we stop being outsiders to the banquet God throws, we must either be servants to the feast or we risk becoming the pride-filled ones who cut ourselves out of the free meal and dry out in our own pits of privilege. We create a notion that we should get what we deserve. But the whole gospel of God is that no one is getting what they deserve! Jesus is the host who does in fact invite all the broken and abused and neglected outsiders. And Jesus is also the outsider himself.
That’s what we miss in the reading from Hebrews. It skips over a confusing bit that I think it is important. After talking about mutual love, hospitality, visiting the sick and imprisoned and tortured, preserving marriage bonds, being satisfied with what we have and not being driven by love of money, we skip where the author goes because it’s a difficult for us to follow. The altar from which we eat is one that those who are insiders do not have a right to, because it is the altar outside the city. The Passover lambs were slaughtered in the center, in the temple, but their bodies were thrown into Gehenna, the garbage dump where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched. And, the author points out, Jesus also went and suffered and died outside the city gates, in order to make the people holy with his blood. Jesus became an outsider, dying with the literal garbage and thrown on a hill of trash, because he wanted the center to shift from the insiders in the palaces – the holy and deserving ones – to the outsiders he was inviting into eternal life.
For us, and our salvation, he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary, and became truly human. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate. He suffered death, and he was buried. Jesus became the lowest, weakest, and most ignored outsider. He was nailed to a post outside the city and left there to die. That is how he chose to invite the world to his banquet of eternal life; that is how the host of our meal became the broken, lame, poor, outsider with all those outsiders who are now invited to the free gift of love and life.
So for us who are insiders, what are we to do? “Let us go then to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured”, the author assures us, “For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city that is to come.” We who are insiders are called away from our cycle of being proud of being humble about our pride. We are called away from our prizes and credits and fortunes and concerns to the other. We are called to the poor, the blind, the lame, the invisible, the foreigner, the outsider. We are called to the banquet of the community of Jesus, where the least and lowest one is the greatest of all, where we are fed not by our own work but by the free giving of God, and where we are made outsiders in order to free us, at last, from ourselves.In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.
Forget Our Walls (Pentecost C)
Dear friends, something strange happens in our reading from Acts today: someone forgets the walls. Look again at the story. They are gathered in the upper room, the spirit descents, and they are suddenly preaching to the crowds of people gathered in Jerusalem for the feast of Shavuot, which we call Pentecost. So my question is, how did they get out there? Did the Holy Spirit blow the disciples out the windows? Did the author simply make a mistake? Did the building crumble? We don’t know, and Luke does not seem to care. Luke, the narrator, the disciples, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit have all forgotten the walls in our stories of life as the Church. Maybe it’s time for us to forget our walls, too.This week at Synod Assembly, our Bishop’s refrain in preaching was to ask: what keeps you up at night? There are two ways to take this: the things we cannot stop being afraid of, and the things we cannot stop being excited and passionate about.
For many of us, it’s the fears that continue to drive us. Fears in the wider world and our personal lives: war, gun violence, sexual violence, drug addiction, illness and surgery, aging, budgets, and all the times and places in our lives where the walls seem to close in around us. And as a congregation, we have things that keep us up at night: the budget has not been balanced since I was in middle school. Our income, our membership, our maintenance, have been in decline. And this mirrors the decline across the board in a denomination that has not grown nationally in membership since the 1960s. These things are real and they are scary, and they are walls – walls that restrict our moving and stop our seeing and hearing and keep us locked in place. Maybe it’s time for us to forget our walls.
At the Synod Assembly we gave thanks for the life and ministry of the Rev. Scott Schantzenbach, Assistant to the Bishop. Pastor Schantzenbach served 41 years in New Jersey, 16 of them on the staff of the Bishop. He spoke to the assembly, looking out over the crowd and naming the walls he encounters over and over again that impede ministry. Some of these gems included focus on the building, wishing for a magical pastor, and confidence in the charisma of the congregation as purported keys to the mission of the church. These are some of the walls that keep us as a club, as a relic, as a self-serving and self-perpetuating institution. Pastor Schantzenbach asked us what we would do if we weren’t afraid. He invited us to forget our walls.So what if we weren’t afraid and we forgot our walls? What if we stopped gathering privately to complain about each other and instead went through that wall to our neighbor who has harmed us? What if we stopped gathering privately to celebrate a personal savior and instead went through that wall to gather publicly to celebrate the Savior of the world? What if we stopped gathering to prop up “our church” and instead went through the wall called “our” to gather as a called, baptized, and mission-driven part of the Body of Christ, the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church? What if we stopped gathering to sing the songs of our parents and grandparents, and went through our musical wall to sing for the sake of the good news that God gives us to proclaim to Asbury Park?
What if we stopped sheltering from the heat of this political and cultural moment, terrified of the division of our nation and the hatred and violence of white nationalism which has been rising for four years, and instead went through the walls of our fears and securities to proclaim that Jesus is not “white”, that the Church is not “white”, that Christianity is not and must never be “white”, that God is not male, that the Spirit of Jesus is found not in skin or color or culture or language or familiarity or government or money or flag but in the water and the Word poured out to create the Church and the Body and Blood of Christ given as our daily bread and celebration cup? What if we forgot the walls that divide us?Forget the walls. That is God’s project.
The people of Babel gathered in pride over their capacity and fear of losing that power. They gathered to stay together, cloistered, rather than being fruitful, multiplying, filling the earth. The walls of the great tower kept them inside. The unity of their language and identity did not serve God but themselves. They wanted safety, security, and dependability. They wanted walls. They wanted to be, as a collected people, their own gods. And the Lord broke that plan by confusion, just as God in the end shatters every idol of our mind and heart. We make plans because we want to do God’s will, but when our plan is more important than the mission God gives, more important than the Spirit God breathes, more important than the Word God speaks, that plan is an idol walling us off from God and our neighbor. People of God, forget your fears, forget your idols, and forget your walls!This is Pentecost! Shavuot is the fiftieth day from the Passover. It is connected with harvest festivals, it is the day of the celebration of the day Moses brought the Torah down from Mount Sinai, it is the fiftieth day of the season of Easter, it is the day of the giving of the Holy Spirit, it is the day when God beaks down the walls of fear and complacency and assures us of our Helper. That is the Holy Spirit, our helper, sealing us in baptism so that we are never alone. We are not a little congregation with no helper or comfort: we have God the Holy Spirit as our Helper and Partner and Breath! We are not severed by our differences, but united by the Holy Spirit so that our differences become assets and gifts! Through the Holy Spirit, we are helped in forgetting the walls that have kept us in sin, death, despair, and helplessness. Through the Holy Spirit, at last, we are called by God with the ceaseless words of the angels: “Be not afraid!” God has given everything God requires.
We are free, completely free, from the walls of expectation and fear and requirement. We don’t have to do anything, because Christ has done everything, to the point of giving us a Spirit of boldness and truth. And now that you have forgotten your walls, people of God; now that you have forgotten your fear; now we have only one question to ask:What are you going to do, now that what keeps you up at night is not your fears but the exciting stirrings of God’s Spirit? What are you going to do, now that the walls have collapsed and the world is open to us? What are you going to do, now that God is here and offers us to each other? What are you going to do, now that you have forgotten to depend on tradition or money, on planning and Synods and knowledge and standing, on privilege and nation and language, on anything other than God’s gracious and loving promise that Christ’s peace and God’s Spirit are with us always? What are you going to do, now that the assumption that it takes twenty years to change a congregation is shattered by the Pentecost sending of disciples that baptized thousands and fascinated and blessed a whole city in a day? What are you going to do, now that you don’t have to do anything? Your life is yours, returned to you by a God who loves the world too much to let walls and fear and hate split it. Let us live the life the Spirit breathes into us, forgetting our walls, moving in the Spirit members of Christ’s body in this world, and calling all the while to one another: Alleluia! Christ is risen!
A Beautiful Crime (9 Ordinary C)
In the name of Jesus, amen.
I don’t often do this, but I’m going to start with a joke: A woman inherits a house after a relative’s death, and in due time she moves in. Now this is a place in the countryside, not at all the urban center she’s used to. The small town a short walk away is friendly, though everyone she meets mentions the old tales about her new home being haunted. She thinks nothing of it until one evening, when her phone rings. “I am the Viper”, the voice on the phone says, “be ready tomorrow.” And the line goes dead. Thinking it a prank, she goes to sleep, slightly troubled. The next morning, she wakes from tossing and turning to the phone ringing. “This is the Viper,” the voice says, “you have two hours.” Somewhat alarmed, she checks the grounds but finds nothing unusual. Thinking it must be a wrong number, she settles down to her morning coffee, when the phone rings. “This is the Viper,” the voice says, “be there soon.” Again, the line goes dead. Startled, the woman locks her house up and checks the entrances in case. No sooner has she finished than the phone rings again. “This is the Viper,” the voice says, “you have five minutes.” Panicked, she phones the police station and begs the officer on duty to come by the house. What seems an eternity passes, and finally the silence of the house is shattered by a sharp knock at the door. Without looking she runs to it and throws it open – to find not the police, but a short, balding man holding a bucket and rag. “I am the window wiper,” he says though an accent, “where should I start?”
Blame my father for that joke being stuck in my head. But I bring it to your mind because I think that what goes on in the mind of that woman is what goes on for us in hearing things like the gospel reading today. So often we turn the promise of God’s coming kingdom into a threat, and we can easily do that with this text, despite Jesus clearly saying “Do not be afraid,” and that it is God’s “good pleasure to give you the kingdom” and that at the arrival the One who is to come will actually serve and feed those who have been waiting – just as the “viper” was actually coming not to threaten or harm, but to serve and aid the woman in the house. It is the same when Jesus speaks about the master of the house who does not know when the thief comes. We could be frightened by the threat of this unexpected arrival, until we realize the beautiful crime God has in store for us.
So here is the beautiful crime: God comes at an unexpected hour and sneaks into our lives. God appears, much to our surprise, in order to feed and serve and comfort us. God arrives to clean out what we have thought of as “our” house. Of course, it’s not actually our house; it’s God’s house, we just live in it. It is God’s life that we are privileged to live, it’s God’s Church that we have been Baptized into, it is God’s celebration feast where we are fed, it is God’s world that we enjoy and care for and work in. The house belongs to God. The crime is beautiful because, when the master puts the apron on to cook dinner for us, we can finally remember that we are the house-guests who locked the master out and were starving in our isolation. The master is breaking into the house, the world, the Church, and our lives in order to save us. That’s what the birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and coming again of Jesus are all about.
This house must be broken into, God must commit this beautiful crime, because we are always locking ourselves away and turning to evil. Isaiah is quite clear about this problem, in case you thought it was only recent: God is disgusted by religious observance that has no impact or influence on the lives of the people. Do justice, Church! Take care of the vulnerable among you! But of course, as a society, they didn’t. The reign of kings in Judah ended in exile and destruction. The temple burned. The people preferred to stay locked, starving, inside the building until a fire finally destroyed it – and many of them inside of it. God wept as the chosen people died rather than be guests of a loving God. Does that sound familiar? It should.
Look around. This week has been a week of tremendous news in the Church, especially in the ELCA. You will find, among many other things, that we have expanded the denomination’s use of the word “ordination” to include deacons; that we have made an official statement of apology and repentance to people of African descent for our own ongoing participation in racism; that we have passed a social statement about the call of Christians to seek justice and oppose sexism; that we have voted to become a “sanctuary denomination”, committed at all levels to work for the rights and protection of immigrants and refugees. That is a great deal of statements, of thoughts and materials to wade though, and one would think every person connected to such a group would be urgently seeking ways to respond. We could even hope that the press releases might catch the attention of our neighbors, who might come to see what all the fuss is about. Perhaps in some places this is happening, but not here. Here we are, and our lives this week were not much different from the week before. God left the Temple in Jerusalem; our neighbors and our young people have left this temple as well. And the reasons are often the same: when our religious life does not change us, it ends up serving ourselves and not God.
That is why Jesus promises we will not be abandoned in this isolation, in this locked building that we think of as ours. Jesus promises God’s beautiful crime of a delivering kingdom come so that we might change our behaviors and our attitudes. Jesus makes this promise of God’s sure and certain salvation so that we might know, and come to believe, that Jesus Christ is the Lord, the owner of the house in which we are servants, and we are to be about readiness for his return rather than locking down the property. Jesus gives us a blessed assurance of God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom so that we might have faith.
Faith. Remember faith? That living, mighty, active thing that is supposedly the center of our particular witness as Lutherans? Faith is how all the great acts of the Scriptures came about, from (at least) Abel on, as the author of Hebrews points out. By faith Abel’s sacrifices were acceptable; by faith Enoch was taken by God and did not die; by faith Noah built the ark and was spared with his family; by faith Abraham and Sarah received the promise of life made to one as good as dead; by faith Abraham believed that even if God demanded the death of his own son, yet that same God’s promise and final word would always be life abundant; by faith the family of the deliverer hid him from the wrath of Pharaoh, and by faith Moses was raised and came to the mountain; by faith Moses was obedient to the God who works salvation and can destroy all the powers of the empire, whether in Egypt or in America; by faith the Israelites passed through the waters on dry ground, and danced on the safe side of the sea; and as the author of the epistle says, time would fail me to go on through the Scriptures but I could indeed, through Rahab and Ruth, through Hannah and Esther, through David and Daniel, through Isaiah and Jeremiah and Hosea and John and Mary, who did what they did not by knowledge or power but by faith in the promise which God has given.
And that is why this beautiful crime of God’s keeps happening, dear friends. That is why God breaks into our little meeting to whisper, to shout, to sing the promise again. That is why God splashes eternal life across our faces, breaks into the building and becomes both our servant and our meal, and forgives us all our evil. All our insularity, all our racism, all our sexism, all our selfishness, all our hard-heartedness, all our bitterness, all our anger, all our insecurity, all our fear, all our greed, all our injustice and hatred and contempt for each other and ourselves, and yet Jesus still breaks in again and says “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” All of this so that we may believe, not “know”, not “think”, not “feel”, not “hope”, but believe in that mighty life-changing way that happens throughout the Scriptures, that God is good. That God loves you and your neighbor. That this break-in we are living in fear of is actually good news, because God is not done with our world, with our church, or with us. God’s hand will save; do not be afraid of the divine break-in, but instead be ready!By faith, we are not afraid of God’s will, God’s command, or God’s coming. By faith we are looking not to what we wish was true but to what is true and how God is working in the world, the church, and our lives. By faith we are broken open to believe that life is stronger than death and love is stronger than hate. By faith we are free to confront ourselves: to stop locking the doors and start cleaning windows; to stop hiding the treasures away and start using them to get the house ready for the master; to stop protecting ourselves and start serving our neighbor. By faith we are freed to turn from the death we have been dying, and celebrate the life God has broken in to give us.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, amen.