The Shortest Sermon Ever

reading torah scroll

(sermon 1/27/19)

Luke 4:14-21

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

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Many of you probably know that in the last couple of weeks, the Netflix television personality Marie Kondo was at the center of a minor internet kerfuffle. I you aren’t familiar with her – and honestly, I wasn’t, before this – she’s the host of a show where she gives helpful advice to people about how to simplify and improve their lives through uncluttering and tidying up – getting rid of the nonessential physical stuff that, over time, we all accumulate like barnacles on the hull of a ship. Apparently, one bit of advice that she gave was that you should get rid of a lot of the books that you accumulate, and presumably, never read twice, or sometimes maybe even once. She was quoted as supposedly saying that you shouldn’t keep more than thirty books in your home. Now, I’m pretty sure that some of you here would more likely cut off one of your arms with a pocket knife than cut your personal library down to no more than thirty books, and it’s definitely something that would be an absolute non-starter with most pastors I know. Some of the comments about the “thirty book rule” that I saw online from pastor friends ran along the lines of “What, you mean no more than thirty books on my nightstand?” or “You mean no more than thirty books per topic?” and similar thoughts. And there were a few less-than-charitable suggestions for what Marie Kondo could do with her advice, from pastors and non-pastors alike, that I can’t share here.

In her defense, her entire point – and it’s a valid one – was that in simplifying, a person finds greater joy and effectiveness in their life through forcing themselves to consider what’s most important to them. It’s an important exercise meant to get a person to focus on the core, distilled, crystallized expression of their meaning and purpose.

Today’s gospel text is something like that. You might call it a Marie Kondo moment in the gospels. In this story, Jesus is at the very beginning of his public ministry. He’s already getting some notoriety, word is spreading from town to town about his powerful words, and even some healing miracles that he’d performed. He’s the small-town guy made good, and now here he was back in his hometown, and his home synagogue, undoubtedly surrounded by family and lifelong friends, and a number of others curious to see and hear him for themselves. He’s asked to read from the scriptures, and he goes to this passage from the Book of Isaiah, a text that was understood to be a reference to the one who would come from God, the anointed one, the messiah in whom they would find salvation. And not some pie-in-the-sky eternal salvation somewhere out there in the ether; they were all good observant Jews who knew they were already in God’s loving care – but rather, someone who would save them in a much more immediate sense, saving them from their oppression and troubles on this side of eternity. So Jesus reads, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

And then, he sits down, as was the custom, and he delivers what was probably the shortest sermon ever given in the synagogue, as he says in so many words, “Yeah, that’s all about me.”

We’ll hear next week that his audience didn’t exactly appreciate what he told them, thinking it was a bit cheeky and presumptuous. But this week, I want us to think about  Jesus’ words themselves. Because in those words, I believe we get the perfectly distilled, condensed, Marie-Kondo-simplified essence of what Jesus is saying his entire ministry, his entire message, is all about. This is what Jesus was sent to proclaim and to carry out. In other words, this is how Jesus defines “the gospel”: that God loves, and stays in solidarity with, and is working to help, the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the oppressed, the ones who for whatever reason have lost hope.

And since that’s the case, then it’s also the perfect distilled version of the gospel that Jesus calls his church to work for, too.

There’s a scene in the first “Star Wars” movie, where Darth Vader is about to kill Obewan Kenobi, and Kenobi tells Vader “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” In a very similar way, in another section of the gospels Jesus told his disciples very much the same thing in the days leading up to his crucifixion – telling them that after his death, through the work of the Holy Spirit they – the church – will actually achieve these ends, this good news, much more than he would during his short earthly lifespan.

So as we, the church, try to discern whether we’re actually proclaiming the gospel that Jesus did – and this is particularly appropriate today, as we’re about to go into our annual congregational meeting, and we’ll review our past year, where we’ve been, and consider where we’re going – we can consider Jesus’ words as a touchstone. In our actions as Christ’s church, we can ask:

  • Are we working to bring freedom and release to those who are locked behind bars, or in cages, or imprisoned in some other way?
  • Are we working to bring health and healing to those who are suffering from illness or disease?
  • Are we working to bring real hope and love to those who have none?
  • Are we letting others know that God is so focused on these priorities as to enter our existence and live among us, to show solidarity with us and love for us, through Jesus Christ?
  • In short, are we loving others out of gratitude for knowing that God loves us?

If we’re doing those things, then we’re proclaiming the same gospel Jesus proclaimed. And if we aren’t – if we define the gospel as being something strictly spiritual, only concerned with eternity and getting into heaven, and having little if anything to do with working against suffering and poverty and injustice and imprisonment and illness and hopelessness – then we aren’t proclaiming the same gospel as Jesus.

To me, that’s as simple and focused an understanding of the gospel possible. That’s as simple and focused an understanding of Christian theology that I can imagine. Everything else, all the billions of words put to paper about it, is just elaboration and commentary. I really believe that. But I’m still not giving up all of my books.

Thanks be to God.

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A Miraculous Thing

(sermon 1/20/19)

wine jars

John 2:1-11

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

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So there they were – Mary, invited to the wedding of some friends, or the children of friends, and apparently, Jesus was there as Mary’s plus-one. And the disciples are all there too, and since there were twelve of them they paired up nicely and the table placements worked well. Honestly, my heart goes out to the couple getting married in this story. I know it’s enough to think about planning a wedding that will only last a few hours, but in Jesus’ time, a wedding celebration could go on for several days. And when I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about our upcoming wedding, worried that more people will show up than have RSVPd, and we won’t have a seat, or enough cake, or champagne for them all, I can only imagine that couple stressing over the same kind of things for a multiple-day affair.

And yet, despite what must have been massive planning, we hear that something very definitely went wrong – someone really messed up, and they ran out of wine, and apparently pretty early in the game, and it causes Mary to mention it to Jesus. It isn’t clear whether she mentioned it in passing, just disappointed that she couldn’t top off her glass of Cabernet, or if she actually expected him to do something about it. And it isn’t really clear if Jesus’ answer to her was really as sharp and rude as the English translation sounds to our ears, or if we’re missing something through cultural differences, and it was really a more neutral answer. Either way, Mary told people to stand by and do whatever Jesus might tell them to help fix the problem, and Jesus does, in fact, ultimately do something about it – maybe because, as any good son knows, when Mom isn’t happy, nobody’s happy, and it’s going to be a long trip home; or maybe he did it because he had something else – something more important – in mind.

John’s gospel is all about signs – laying out signs that Jesus was, in fact, God’s chosen. God’s anointed. But more than even that, that he is the indwelling of the divine Word, the Logos, the cosmic Son, second Person of the Trinity, eternally coexistent in God and  with God and as God; the creative force through which all the cosmos was created. All living, in the flesh, in this very human being, Jesus – who knows all our human joys and sorrows and gain and loss; and sore muscles after a long, hard day’s work; and the blessedness of enjoying some good wine and music and dancing and celebrating the joys of this life with family and friends. John’s gospel give signs to show Jesus’ identity, and his actions here at the wedding are the first of these signs. It’s a sign not only that Jesus is divine, but it’s also a sign of what that divine being is actually like.

Because the narrator of this story is very concerned about signs, it seems significant that this story, the beginning of it all, occurs on what he says is “the third day” – similar to the end of the story, Jesus’ resurrection on that third day after his death. And maybe it’s also significant that there were six jars of water that were transformed. Some people have suggested that they symbolize the six days of creation, so that, just as Jesus transformed them into a new, better creation, so too does he mysteriously, miraculously, transform all of creation into a new, better creation. I don’t know if that interpretation is what John actually had in mind, but it sounds believable and it certainly doesn’t hurt anything to think about it that way.

One thing that we can say is going on here is that through his actions, Jesus is most certainly honoring and blessing this idea of the wedding itself, and by extension, human joy, and actually, all of human life itself.

As a point of Christian doctrine, we believe that marriage is an illustration of God’s love for the world, and of our love for God. And just as we and God are quite different, marriage involves two people, two souls, who have that mysterious combination of being both alike and different, similar and complimentary, who have found each other and who are committing themselves to each other. Those who think that marriage is really all about procreation have really missed so much; they’ve missed what I think to God is this much larger point: Through marriage, God gives us a distilled illustration of all of the wonder and the value, and the true definition, of love; and the very sanctity of human life as actually lived; and of our connection with God, with one another, and with all of creation. Love, supposedly perfect and pristine and protected in a glass case, is just a shallow and even harmful imitation of real love, as intended by God.

God sanctifies the humanness, the earthiness, of love as we actually experience it. The kind of love that needs to worry about running out of wine at a wedding. Or dealing with conflicting weekly schedules with work, and home, and church. The love that’s seen in the joy of marriages, and births, and graduations, and anniversaries, and binge-watching Netflix and family game nights and once-in-a-lifetime vacations. It’s all of that. But it’s also the love of the depths – of passing on that thing you really wanted because the other person needs something else even more, and two o’clock feedings or diaper changes, and getting back out of bed because you forgot it was your night to take the trash out to the curb, and terrifying childhood diseases, and equally terrifying adult diseases. The depths of money problems and aging and loss of independence and nursing homes and hospice and the heartache of losing the one you’ve lived with for years through all of these things, and now what are you supposed to do?

In the novel The Brothers Karamazov, one of the main characters, Alexei Karamazov, falls asleep and has a dream about this gospel text, the wedding at Cana. In his dream, it’s an indescribably wonderful and beautiful event, and when he awakes from the dream, he does something unusual – especially for him, since he’s certainly experienced his fair share of the depths of life. He gets down on the ground and embraces it, and kisses it, and through tear-filled eyes he forgives the earth and asks it to forgive him, and he promises to love it forever. In his dream, Alexei came to see what Jesus recognized at the wedding in Cana – knowing full well not only the joy of the day, but also all the difficulties the unnamed couple would undoubtedly face during their lives together. That somehow, all the beauty and ugliness are part of a greater, connected cosmic entirety, and that God is actually present with us in it all, sometimes in spite of it all. That God blesses and sanctifies it all, out of love for us, and that in some miraculous, mysterious, incomprehensible way, even when it’s painful, it’s beautiful. A beauty that can cause tears, tears far more deep than just tears over the beauty of the tux or the gown or the flowers. And Alexei, and Jesus, knew that sometimes, recognizing the mystery of that beauty really just calls for a good glass of wine.

(sips a glass of wine)

Thanks be to God.

Absolute Certainty

eiπ 

Luke 3:15-22

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

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There are some things that you just know. Things that, if you were deep asleep in the middle of the night, and someone shook you awake and asked you the question, without even fully waking up you’d blurt out the right answer. “What’s your name?” “What’s two plus two?” “What color are your eyes?” Things that you just know without even having to think. Here, let’s try that right now – I’ll ask you all a question and you just yell out the answer; don’t be shy. Ready? OK, here we go…. “What city are we in?” “What day of the week is it?” “Who played third base for the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates?” … Well, if you grew up where I did, you’d know the answer to that one. OK, since we’re in Louisville, how about… “What famous horse race takes place here?” “What alcohol is Kentucky known for?” And one last one: “Who baptized Jesus?”

Ah HAH! Not so fast. If you listened carefully to today’s gospel text, at least according to Luke, that couldn’t be right. We read in other gospels that John the Baptist baptized Jesus; that he even protested the appropriateness of him baptizing Jesus, instead of the other way around. But here, according to Luke, Herod had already arrested and imprisoned John by the time Jesus was baptized. So then, according to Luke, who did it? He never really tells us; he just doesn’t seem to think the detail is important. In fact, he doesn’t even give us any details at all; he just reports that it occurred, and he jumps to what follow – Jesus prays, the Holy Spirit descends upon him, and God speaks approval and pleasure with Jesus.

Things like this in the scriptures have always intrigued me – texts that we think say something, because we’ve read them or heard them so many times and we think we know the story, but we’re really melding together in our minds different accounts of the same event, and the separate accounts may be saying something different. Or for that matter, the thought-provoking detail in this story of the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus here, at age thirty or so. I mean, where has the Holy Spirit been up until then? If Jesus was the incarnation of God in the flesh in Jesus since his conception, wouldn’t the Holy Spirit have already been present within him? Or is this detail a part of a different theological take on Jesus – that up until this point, Jesus was actually just a ordinary, even if chosen, human being, and his actual divinity, his incarnation, began when the Spirit descended upon him at his baptism?

Well, there are volumes of theological discussions about that particular subject, and it’s an important one, but my actual point at the moment is that this, just like the question of who actually baptized Jesus, is something that we’ll never be completely certain of. But it seems that to Luke, the more important thing in this particular story is the significance of the baptism itself. To Luke, both in this story and considering the theological issues that he plays out throughout his gospel, Jesus’ baptism represents God’s having chosen Jesus – God’s having established a bond, a covenant of love, acceptance, and call with Jesus. And Jesus’ being baptized like other humans is also seen as a sign of Jesus’ – and therefore God’s – solidarity with all of humanity, sharing in the entirety of the human condition; the best and the worst, the blessed and the cursed – God loves and is in solidarity with all.

This covenantal understanding of baptism especially resonates with us Presbyterians, as part of the larger Reformed tradition. This is why we Presbyterians baptize infants and children – the sacrament is not a sign of us being of some magical age of reason and our supposedly making a decision to choose God. Rather, it is, as we say, a “sign and seal” of God’s covenant made with us, initiated and established entirely by God, and not at all dependent upon anything we choose or do or profess. As I’ll often say during a baptism, baptism is not a sign of what we’re doing; it’s a sign of what God has already done. While during a baptism, we, or if we’re children, our parents, will profess faith, just as we’d do in any other worship service, that isn’t what the baptism itself represents or depends on. Baptism, just as was the case with Jesus, and regardless of our age, is all about the reassurance that God’s Holy Spirit dwells with us, and that God has called us beloved, and that God is well pleased with us.

Today, we’ll be ordaining several people to become Ruling Elders. This is a very important thing in the life of the church, and in the lives of the people being ordained. Their journey of faith began in the covenant and call of their baptism, and now, through the discernment of both themselves and the whole congregation, that call from God is moving them into a particular kind of service and leadership in the church. In all likelihood, it will be something they remember for the rest of their lives. I can tell you that I’ll never forget my ordination as a Ruling Elder. Kneeling before God, feeling the presence and love of God, and through the laying on of hands, of those ordained before me, was electric. I’ve only rarely felt God’s presence that powerfully, and unquestionably, in my life.

And in a way, that brings us full circle. Because whether we’re talking about ordination or baptism, they’re both tangible, physical signs of this one fact – that, unlike the question of who baptized Jesus, the reality of God’ covenant – God’s love, acceptance, and claim on us; the reality that God will guide our paths all the days of our lives; and the reality that there is nothing that can separate us from that love, is something in which we can always have absolute certainty.

Thanks be to God.