Two Cousins

(sermon 7/11/21)

Mark 6:7-30  

Jesus called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.

But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”

The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught.


I had a cousin named John. Actually, he was my mother’s cousin, which I guess technically made him my first cousin once removed, even though we always just called each other cousins. But whatever might consider us, it didn’t really matter because John was only about a year and a half older than me, and we grew up together, went to school together, played on the same Little League team together, and lived in the same small town never more than a mile or so apart, and actually just two doors away on the same street for a while when we were really small; so for all practical purposes we grew up together as if we were brothers.

As adults, we both settled down in central Ohio, built careers, raised families. We stayed pretty close, even though we lived almost an hour apart, but still, family and work obligations and all the other realities of adulthood kept us from seeing as much of each other as I’d have wanted.

At way too young an age, John died from the affects of cancer, diabetes, and ultimately, kidney failure, while I ached to have been able to be an organ donor and wishing I could have spent more time with him in his last days. Still, while had been different than when we were kids, there was, and always will be, a special bond between the two of us.

The gospels tell us that Jesus and John the Baptizer were relatives; traditionally, they’ve been called cousins of some kind. I’ve always been intrigued by the details of their relationship that the gospels don’t give us. Were they close? Or were they cousins like the ones you like, or maybe not, but you only see once or twice a year at weddings and funerals?  We’ll really just never know, but it’s interesting to think about.

The lives of these two cousins intersect in this section of Mark’s gospel. Mark starts to tell a story about Jesus sending out the disciples, two by two, out into the towns and villages to proclaim the gospel, the good news of the coming of the kingdom of God and of God’s goodwill and favor for humankind. Then, right in the middle of the story, while the disciples are out in those towns that we never hear any details of, and before they return to tell Jesus about their experiences, Mark pauses the main action to drop in a secondary story. In this case, as you heard, it’s a story detailing hos John met his end. It’s an open question why Mark did this here. Was it to make a connection in the minds of his readers between John’s proclamation about the coming kingdom, and that of the disciples? That in John’s absence, the disciples now have the primary charge from God to take the message of the gospel outward, even further than John could have himself, and in an enhanced manner? Maybe it was some of that, and maybe even all of that, but maybe it was something else, too.

The whole sordid story of how John was killed is told as a kind of a flashback-within-a-flashback, starting with King Herod and his buddies talking about Jesus, wondering where his authority and power came from, and Herod remembering back to John the Baptizer. The Herod in this story is Herod Antipas, one of the sons of Herod the Great, who was king when Jesus was born. Now that Jesus is an adult, that Herod is long gone. But before he died, he realized that none of his sons were competent enough to handle the entire kingdom after him, so he divided it into three smaller kingdoms, each of them still under the authority of Rome. In this story, Herod Antipas was trying to be a big shot, impressing his friends with a big, lavish party, and he tries to impress them even further after Salome, his wife’s daughter, dances for him and his drunken buddies, which is actually pretty creepy if you give even a moment’s thought to it, by promising her whatever she asks for, even up to half of the kingdom, which actually wasn’t even his to give away. In the story, Herod gets manipulated by Herodias, his wife, and he doesn’t have the strength to avoid going along with John’s execution. He doesn’t want to lose face with his guests. It’s a story of a very weak ruler, in both power and character. What makes it even worse is Herod’s own apparent love-hate relationship with John – his conscience being pricked by John’s preaching, but still being intrigued and drawn to it. All in all, the flashback paints a picture of a sometimes evil, but always weak and pathetic person.

As I mentioned, Mark starts this inserted story with Herod thinking back to this memory. Now, he and his cronies were talking about Jesus, when Herod offers his opinion that Jesus is the return of John, whom he’d killed. Herod is being haunted, if not literally, at least figuratively – mentally, emotionally, spiritually, by what he’d done in his past.

Maybe that’s why Mark drops this story right here. The disciples are out proclaiming the good news of God’s favor to all people. Proclaiming liberation, redemption, a release from captivity and suffering and sorrow and guilt, a soothing of regrets, because of God’s proactive, unilateral choice to pursue humanity and bring us into covenant and relationship. By putting the Herod story here, is Mark making the case that the gospel could be good news even for someone as tormented and selfish and sniveling and conflicted as Herod Antipas?

In our own way, I believe that each one of us is being haunted by something in our past. It might be something relatively small that’s stuck with us, or it might be something really serious. You uttered a poorly chosen word or offered a careless, hurtful comment. You weren’t attentive enough to your children, your parents, grandparents, siblings, your dying cousin. You exploited someone who trusted you, causing them harm for your own personal benefit, maybe they never even knew it, and then again, maybe they did. You cheated on your taxes; you cheated on your business partner; you cheated on your spouse. You were too afraid to do the courageous thing that you could have done to help someone, but you were more concerned for your own skin or your own image, your standing in other people’s eye, not wanting to upset the status quo your other relationships. Whatever the actual details, all of us – all of us – carry something that haunts us.

And it isn’t just you and me as individuals, either. Our society is haunted by all of its past wrongs, too. Our abuses of power, our concern for our image over integrity. Our cowardly turning our backs on people in order to save face or retain power or preserve economic interests. Our wrongful treatment of so many different minority groups of people here and abroad, and all of these having a very real and negative affect on our present. Many voices haunt us, and sometimes, it can be exhausting.

But eventually, Mark does tell us in his gospel, just after this flashback scene, that the disciples who had been sent out by Jesus returned, and they reported back about what had happened as they proclaimed that good news.

Hear that same good news today. The news that despite whatever you’ve done in your past, or left undone, small, medium, or large, there is nothing you could have done to place yourself out of reach of God’s love and embrace. There’s nothing in our life that’s too much for God to forgive, to remove from your shoulders and your mind. Nothing.

It’s true that God’s love and acceptance doesn’t take away the harm that we’ve caused. It doesn’t remove the hurt, the scars. You can’t fix everything; you can’t bring John back from the dead. And this love and acceptance definitely comes with the expectation that we’ll do everything in our abilities to right the wrongs we’ve caused, to mend the tears, to restore and make reparation for our wrongs. But even with that, remember, dear precious child of God, you are considered forgiven, and precious, and beloved, and worthy by God. Today and always, you are held in the loving, protective, eternal hand of God, and there’s nothing that can snatch you out of that hand, and there’s nothing that will cause God to let go of your hand.

I did let go of John’s hand the last time I saw him, after a long, silent final hug. Yes, the silence spoke the regret for allowing petty busyness to keep us apart, and for lost opportunities to be together as much as we’ wanted. But it also silently spoke of a lifetime of joy, and gratitude, and love. As much sadness as there was in our goodbye, there was peace in it, too, knowing that some day, we’d be reunited again as cousins, or brothers, or whatever we really were, without any nonsense getting in between. And that peace comes out of the assurance, the good news, that those disciples proclaimed in those towns and villages, and by extension to Herodias, and to Salome, and Herod, and to you, and to me.

Thanks be to God.

Doors and Windows and Data Points

(sermon 4/11/21 – Second Sunday of Easter)

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

John 20:19-31
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.


It was a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Any rational person would have done the same thing; you would have; I would have. The threat was real and undeniable; the power of the empire had had enough of the threat and challenge to their own authority that Jesus posed, and they’d arrested him, abused him, and killed him in the most shameful and humiliating way they could, to make an example of him to anyone who might even think of similarly questioning their authority. And that put Jesus’ followers directly in their crosshairs. The threat of death for them was very real, and waiting for them outside their door, out in the street, out in the public places, and so, on this day, just two full days after Jesus had been killed, the disciples were keeping as low a profile as they possibly could, hunkered down inside, behind a locked door, worried about the threat outside and wondering what was to come next. What would they do, where would they go, what would happen to their movement – what would it look like? Would it even survive at all, now that Jesus was gone?

But then, suddenly Jesus wasn’t gone. He was right there, with them, in that room. Somehow different, but somehow also the same, but in whatever way he was there, and very, very real. In the midst of their worry and fear, and their very real concerns and questions about their own safety and the survival of the movement, even through the locked door Jesus was present.

It isn’t hard to see at least some partial parallel to our own current situation in this story. We’ve all been hunkered down behind our own doors, and for a lot longer than just a few days, out of concern for a very real and potentially deadly threat that’s been just on the other side of our own doors, even if it was the power of pathogens and not the power of empire that we’ve been worried about. And in a very real way, we’ve had similar questions, too. What would our own present-day version of the same movement started by those disciples look like after we came back out of our time behind doors?

And it isn’t just the pandemic that’s given us pause. It’s more than just that. A recently issued Gallup poll shows that church membership has plummeted in the last ten years, more sharply and quickly than at any other time in our history. In 2010, about 70% of Americans were official members of a church, synagogue, or mosque; in 2020 that number had dropped to 47% – less than half of Americans for the first time since polling began. And that drop was seen across the board – in virtually every race, every age, every socioeconomic level, and across all denominations, liberal, conservative, or middle of the road.  A significant part of that drop can be attributed to a generational shift, where people are far more likely to participate in groups or organizations without ever taking the step of becoming an official member. This phenomenon can be seen in the full range of social or cultural institutions, from churches to museums to the Moose Lodge. But that generational shift doesn’t explain it all, or even most of it. What other polling suggests is that the drop is more related to the fact that the general public’s overall impression of churches, and church people, has turned increasingly negative. They see the church as a whole as a negative force in society; an institution that’s racist, anti-woman, anti-LGBTQ; anti-science, anti-environment, and a host of other things that they see as just being common sense. Most of them have moved well past those issues, and they tend to see the church as a monolith, and a backward, obstructionist one at that.

There’s a term used in social science and political circles known as the Overton Window. The Overton window essentially brackets the range of issues, both social and economic, and from more liberal to more conservative, that are considered socially acceptable, without being considered radical or unacceptable at any given point in time. And of course, over time the Overton Window – the range of socially acceptable positions – shifts. In the last decade or so – roughly the same time church affiliation has taken that dramatic nosedive – social attitudes have changed even more quickly than usual, and the Overton Window has shifted accordingly, moving in a much more progressive direction. And what the general public perceives to be the social positions of the church are now very much outside of the Overton Window. The public has moved on, and they have the impression that that the church hasn’t. They perceive the church to hold views that just aren’t any longer within the Overton Window – that we aren’t just failing to realistically address the issues inside that window, we’re stuck wasting time arguing about the color of the curtains – we’re missing the whole point.

But here’s the rub: in another recent survey, this one by PRRI, it turns out that in the U.S. there are actually some 35 million Christians, spread across all traditions and denominations, that are consistently progressive regarding those particular hot-button social issues that the public sees as dealbreakers. And there are only about 17 million Christians that are consistently conservative regarding those same hot-button issues. That’s right – in this country there are almost twice as many consistently progressive Christians as there are consistently conservative ones. That might come as a surprise to you.

So where am I going with all of this? What’s my point? Just this:

While we’re still behind our locked doors right now, and we’re starting to wonder what a post-Covid church will, or should, look like; or even, given that scary-sounding Gallup poll, if we’re even going to survive at all; we need to remember a few very important things. First, our situation today isn’t anywhere near as dire as it was for those disciples gathered together on that first Easter Sunday evening. But Christ was present with them. He comforted them. He inspired them, emboldened them; he breathed the Spirit upon them; he gave peace to them. Remember, friends, that Christ is with us in every bit as real a way as he was with them, and he is offering us the very same comfort, and strength, and inspiration, and peace.

The other thing that Jesus did with those disciples was that he told them that at the right time, they were going to have to leave that room. They were going to have to go out, and tell their story, tell their truth. They were going to have to share the good news with others. That would come with challenges and setbacks, to be sure, but that he would always be with them, and because of that, they would succeed. They did eventually do that, on Pentecost Sunday, and in spite of how dark things looked on that Easter Sunday evening, when they did go out, they changed the world forever.

When we similarly come out from behind our own locked doors and come back out into the world, the same risen Lord will be dwelling with us, and empowering us, and emboldening us. We’ll have the ability to proclaim our story, our truth; the same good news of God’s love for all people; of God’s embrace and compassion for all people. And we’ll have the ability to share with others – our friends, neighbors, coworkers, others, whoever – that this good news includes the truth that God stands for – and contrary to what they might have thought, that the church; at least *our* church, believes that this good news includes:

  • caring for the poor and suffering and sick; and working to end the systems that cause their poverty and suffering and sickness;
  • demanding justice and equity for people of all races, and working to end the systems that cause those injustices;
  • extending the full dignity, acceptance, equal rights, and equal protection under the law, for people of every sexual orientation, gender, or gender identity; including marriage equality and full equality in the life and leadership of the church;
  • compassion for all those who are fleeing to this country for their survival; and working to end systems that cause their suffering, both in their own home country and in our own.

As our doors reopen, and as our society’s doors reopen, be loving and be bold in sharing this truth about our gospel, and our church, and our beliefs. And all the while – and this is important – make sure that you point out that your beliefs about these hot-button issues are because of, part of, your religious faith, not in spite of them. And if the people you share that with seem surprised, maybe say “Even though I guess I can understand that, really, you shouldn’t be. But maybe you should join us sometime.”

With Christ, and with the boldness and love and truth that he empowers us with, we can change the world, too. And it will all start, as it did with those disciples, when we open our doors, and leave our rooms, and step out into the world again, on Pentecost Sunday.

Thanks be to God.

I’ll Be There

(sermon 9/27/20)

Photo by Samad Deldar, used with permission –

Exodus 17:1-7

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”


Last week, the primary First Lectionary Text of the day was from Exodus 16, detailing God’s provision of quail and manna for the Israelites to eat as they were led by Moses through the Wilderness. It’s a great reading, but it’s a bit long, and trying to be mindful of the length of the service, I opted for the shorter alternative text from Jonah. That Exodus reading was a lead-in to today’s First Reading where, although the Israelites now have food, while they’re en route to the place God had said to go, Moses had chosen a place to encamp that had no water – the most essential of requirements for life.

The story is full of tension and drama. For us English speakers, the drama is even more amplified by a coincidental play on words between the Hebrew and English – they’re in “the Wilderness of Sin;” I mean come on, you know something noteworthy is going to happen in this story.

And what happens is that as a group the Israelites, who have had problems with Moses’ leadership in the past, confront Moses about his choice of campsites. In fact, the Hebrew term here is “rib”, which is often used to denote filing a complaint, often in a legal or a judicial sense. In short, the people lodged a vote of no confidence in Moses, citing his incompetence and ineffectiveness.

Moses’ response was interesting, and completely human. First, his defenses up, he complains about the complaints and the complainers; that the charges are baseless and unfair. And then – importantly – he equates the people’s complaining about him with their complaining about God; equating his own leadership decisions with God’s. It’s unthinkable to test or challenge God, so now it’s unthinkable to challenge Moses. To do so would call into question the complainers’ goodness or loyalty as Israelites. This was Moses’ response to the mass of people challenging his leadership, even though in the passage, we never hear that God had picked this particular campsite, and we never hear the people actually challenging God at all, only Moses.

This story comes down to us in the Book of Exodus along with the author’s intended gloss, telling us at the tail end, in the last verse, what we’re supposed to think about it – that it’s an illustration of the Israelites being troublesome complainers, disloyal, even at times anti-God; a “stubborn and stiff-necked people” as it says elsewhere in the scriptures. But if I just read the actual words here, without that gloss, I don’t see faithlessness. I don’t see any challenge to God. I see a group of people who are dying of thirst, who are suffering, who are rightly upset and angry at Moses and his leadership – which, honestly, the scriptural record shows to be pretty spotty and even at times unacceptable to God.

And just looking at the words, it’s almost impossible, especially after this most difficult and newsworthy week here in Louisville, to not see parallels between the Israelites’ complaints against Moses, and Moses’ response to their complaints; and the anti-racism protestors’ complaints lodged against the city’s leadership, and their response to that challenge; that those complaining are just a bunch of complaining, disloyal troublemakers.

If the story stopped there, it could end up being just another depressing reminder of all the chaos and problems we’re all living through right now, especially in the wake of the grand jury decision regarding the killing of Breonna Taylor, but also in so many other ways beyond even that. But thanks be to God, this story doesn’t end there. In fact, out of all that trouble, two important, over-arching, hope-filled moments of grace and gospel, both for the ancient Israelites and for us, comes through in the end.

The first of these is that the Israelites’ complaints, and their discomforting of Moses, were actually heard. Simply put, the Israelites standing up and making themselves heard by the power over them got actual results. This fact, that people’s voices, working together, can work change, real change, great change, in the leadership over us, was hope-filled good news to those Israelites, and it’s every bit as good to us as well, whether we’re talking about seeking an anti-racist city and society, or we’re thinking more generally about the incredibly important election coming up in just over a month. There’s great hope in the fact that the Israelites were heard. If you’ve seen any video of protests coming out of downtown, or other cities, whether on the evening news, or online, maybe watching one of the “502livestreamers”, you might have heard an often used chant that makes this very same point, that ”There ain’t no power like the power of the people, ‘cause the power of the people won’t stop!”

Of course, we aren’t naïve. We’ve all been around the block more than a few times, and we all know that massed “people power” can be a force used for good or bad, and that actually brings me to the second, and most important, most hope-filled, most gospel, good news in this story. Moses goes to God for help, and interestingly, he ups the ante to God claiming that he was afraid that the people were about to stone him; he was afraid they were going to resort to violence – even though the people never said anything like that in the story. In God’s wisdom, God just sluffs off that comment, but then tells Moses “I’ll be there.” God commits to being present, and to bringing a solution to the people’s suffering. God says “Moses, you still have a part in this too; you’ve got to get your rear end out here to this rock, but I’ll be there, ready to make things happen. You go ahead and strike the rock with your staff, and I’ll make the waters flow. In this story, Moses was just an agent in God, the real power, the real authority, solving the people’s problem. It was God’s presence, and God’s ability, and God’s desire, that caused the life-giving water to flow from the rock – bringing forth water where there seemed to be no water; bringing forth hope where there seemed to be no hope; bringing forth goodness and life where there appeared to be none.

Right now, in any number of ways, it might seem like there’s little if any hope at all, whether we’re looking at larger social issues, or we’re just at our wit’s end about when our kids can get back to school in person. Or we can go back to work in person. Or back to church in person. Or when we’ll be able to see our relatives again in person. Or maybe it’s a lack of hope due to concerns about our health. Or our finances. Our a strained or broken relationship, among family or friends. Or something else; whatever it is that might be sapping our hope right now, know that God is just as present with you, with us, as was the case in this text. Know that through Christ, God was present, and is present, and remains present; as is able and willing to cause living waters to flow for us, too. God can, and will. We might not know how, or when, but God will. God will hear our voices. God will hear our prayers. God will hear our cries, see our tears; embrace our worries and know our fears; and will bring us out of our wilderness just as the Israelites were brought out of theirs. This is our great hope. This is our great joy. Because while the protestors are right about the power of the people, it’s even more true that there ain’t no power like the power of God, ‘cause the power of God won’t stop.

So hold on to the hope in this story. And don’t be afraid, don’t worry, if you never actually hear God say “I’ll be there;” it’s only because God already is.

Thanks be to God.

It’s Love, Simon

(sermon 1/26/20)

Kinnereth - Sea of Galilee (Panorama)

The Sea of Galilee – photo by Zachi Evenor

Matthew 4:12-23

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.


It’s a pretty common, and healthy, behavior to want to retreat into a comfortable “safe space” after you’ve been hit with some terrible unsettling experience that’s thrown you off your normal balance. In one way or another, I think we all do it, however we define that safe space for ourselves. At the beginning of today’s gospel text, we see Jesus doing this same thing, after getting word that John the Baptist, his own relative, someone whose life and ministry he knew well, had been arrested and thrown in prison.

Just before this in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus had been tempted by Satan in “The Wilderness,” the desolate, barren Judean Desert. We don’t know if the events in today’s text followed that temptation immediately, or if some time had passed, but whatever the case, Jesus was still apparently in Judea or somewhere else far from home when he got the news about John. His response to it was to retreat to familiar territory, in Galilee, for some emotional re-centering. He goes back to his hometown of Nazareth, but he doesn’t stay there long. Matthew doesn’t say why. Maybe Jesus thought that if the authorities had come for John, they’d come for him too, and Nazareth would be an obvious place to look for him. Or maybe the memory of home was better than the reality of home – after all, the gospels tell us that Jesus’ first time teaching in Nazareth upset some of his fellow townsmen so much that they’d tried to kill him. Or maybe he just decided to go from Nazareth to Capernaum, along the Sea of Galilee because it is strikingly beautiful, then and now, and whose spirit isn’t recharged, and who doesn’t see things more clearly, after a trip to the shore?

So here was Jesus, walking along the Sea, absorbing the warm of the sun, the feeling and the fresh smell of the breeze, the sound of the waves lapping the shoreline, the seagulls and albatross flying overhead, the voices of fishermen going about their work. Putting ourselves in that same place, it’s easy to imagine Jesus’ concerns melting away.

And as we heard, on this particular walk Jesus encountered four fishermen in particular, all of whom would become important in his ministry. The first one of them, at least in this telling, was Simon – Simon, this random, average fisherman who was just in the right place at the right time, who would eventually become known as Peter, and whose passion, and wisdom, and courage, and flaws, would all work together to shape our understanding of what it means to follow Jesus even now, 2,000 years later.

I can’t imagine what it was that Jesus said, or how he said it, that made these four fishermen decide to just drop everything and follow him. Some people have suggested it was just the overwhelming power of the Holy Spirit that convicted their hearts and convinced them to immediately drop everything and take a completely different path in their lives. Maybe. In my own experience, though, I can say that when I sensed my own call to the ministry, even when I was absolutely convinced about its authenticity, that it had come from God, it still took a lot of time and convincing to actually do it. Maybe these four just really hated fishing, and they were only doing it because it was the family business. Maybe ever since James and John were little children, their father Zebedee would take them down to the shore, show them his three rickety, leaking fishing boats, and the old, worn nets that constantly needed repairing, and the unreliable employees and the backbreaking labor and low pay and the constant smell of dead fish that clung to his skin long after he’d gotten home from work, and he waved his arms over it all and told them “Boys, some day all this will be yours!” Maybe it wasn’t such a hard decision after all.

However it happened, it did happen – and a critical, especially intriguing part of that was Jesus telling them that if they followed him, they’d fish for people. What exactly did that mean, Simon must have wondered to himself. Maybe later that same evening, after they’d spent the whole day speaking with Jesus and learning from him, and they’d all gone to bed, it dawned on Simon that Jesus had fished for him. How did he do it?

Apparently, he hadn’t tried to scare him to death by hanging the threat of eternal damnation and suffering in hell over their heads; he didn’t yell at them that they were lost if they didn’t follow him. Whatever the details of their conversation were, it’s pretty clear that Jesus must have shown Simon and the others an alternative to life as they’d experienced it up to that point. A better way. A way that, in a split second, offered an answer to every one of the countless times they’d looked around at the world and thought to themselves, “The world isn’t supposed to be like this. This isn’t the way things are supposed to be. There must be a better way than this.” Whatever he’d said to them, Jesus apparently convinced them that there was.

For the next few years, as they followed and lived with Jesus, he showed them what that better, alternative way of understanding things looked like. This understanding of life wasn’t about power, or wealth, or fame. It wasn’t about just looking out for yourself, or getting ahead or gaining privilege for yourself by pushing other people down or out to the margins. And while life could be hard, and there would always be work to be done, God didn’t expect that to be our whole existence. This way of life that God was calling them into valued work, included resting from work, and activities, and all the busyness; and appreciating beauty, considering the lilies of the field. In the old order of things, strict rules made certain people ineligible to be part of the people of God – but as Simon would travel with Jesus, he saw something new happening. In this new way of understanding God and our world, now persistent Syrophoenician women, despised Samaritans, Ethiopian eunuchs, Gentiles of every kind; sinners, tax collectors, political radicals, religious heretics, weren’t just eligible to be considered God’s people, they were welcomed with open arms.

Why?  Because, as Simon, soon to be Peter, would come to realize, at the core of everything Jesus did, at the core of everything he taught, at the core at the core of this new way of understanding God and ourselves, was love. The fisherman who was told he would fish for people would come to realize that love – loving God, and showing love and compassion to one another regardless of circumstances – which was really just the most authentic way to love God – was at the very core of that. To fish for people, you don’t surround them with a net that they can’t get out of, or try to snag them on a baited hook, or try to force them at all; and you especially don’t try to scare them into this new way. Fishing for people wouldn’t require slick techniques or glossy brochures or massive door-knocking campaigns. That was old world thinking. Already, Simon could see that in this new way, Jesus’ way, all that would be needed would be to surround people with love – enabling them to experience the same love that Jesus showed them, and this same new, better way of understanding God and life that Jesus had intrigued him with earlier that same day.

I guess it would be a fisherman’s dream if they didn’t have to throw out a net at all, or work to haul them up into the boat, but if instead, the fish just jumped into the boat of their own accord. Over time, Simon wouldn’t just gain a new name. He’d eventually come to recognize that if we treated one another in the way Jesus had treated them, and taught them – offering them love, and compassion, and peace, and mercy, there wouldn’t need to be any coercion in fishing for people. Love would make them jump into the boat on their own, just as he’d jumped in himself. But for tonight, this first night of his new journey, Simon was satisfied in just knowing that wherever this was all going to go, it was love that was at the center of it all. That was enough for him in that moment. And with that, he drifted off to sleep.

Thanks be to God.

Rabbit Season – The Final Chapter

Rabbit Season – The Final Chapter

04 May 2015

Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea. – Acts 8:26-40


Oh for Pete’s sake, another week about rabbits? Well, I promise, this is the last week; next week it will be on to something different.

So as we start out this week, and just as they did in that children’s sermon in Toronto that I mentioned two weeks ago, let’s rewind, and remember where we are in this story. The rabbits in the novel Watership Down learned they couldn’t get along only as individuals; they had to learn to be a real community, working together and valuing all the members of the community in order for it to survive. And a big part of their being a community was the telling and retelling of their common stories; the morality-shaping stories of their hero-rabbit, “The Prince with a Thousand Enemies”, stories that explained how they should act and what made them a distinct community. Through those stories, they learned that they couldn’t keep silent and unengaged when someone was suffering or in trouble, or they became complicit in the wrong that was being done. They learned that doing this was a matter of justice, and extending hospitality to others, and that they were to do this even when it caused them personal risk. And that’s where we pick up our story today.

After wandering and roaming around, the rabbits finally found a suitable place to settle down and make a new home. When they did, they ended up encountering a wounded bird. At first, the rabbits didn’t want to welcome this outsider non-rabbit, but Hazel, the rabbits’ leader, said that based on all they’d learned along the way, the moral teachings in their communal stories had to be extended to more than just themselves – they applied to everyone. So the rabbits extended their welcome and hospitality to the wounded bird, and they worked together to nurse him back to health. They built a nest, and they even got over their own personal revulsion of the bird’s insect diet and they gathered up all the insects they could and fed the bird. The bird recovered and became as much a member of the warren as any of the rabbits, even providing aerial reconnaissance when the rabbits are attacked by the members of a neighboring rabbit warren. The rabbits had learned that their moral teachings, the wisdom of the hero-rabbit, was for all creatures, not just the rabbits like themselves.

This is a perfect parallel for the lesson the church had to learn, beginning in its very earliest days after the resurrection. Just like the rabbits, Jesus’ followers had to learn, step by step, that the good news of God’s grace, and love, and welcome was meant for all people, not just some specially chosen small group. Jesus himself taught them this in the incredibly diverse makeup of the apostles, the ones he chose to be part of his innermost circle. He picked both well-to-do and average working stiffs; members of the religious and political establishment and Simon the Zealot, who was what we’d call a terrorist today; people who were soft-spoken and people so loud and argumentative Jesus called them the “Sons of Thunder.” Cynics and doubters. There was a real broadness in Jesus’ inclusiveness and welcome – or what we’d often just call hospitality. And after the resurrection, it became clear that God wanted this inclusiveness and hospitality to extend even wider. In fact, this becomes a major theme of the Book of Acts; it shows up over and over and over again. We see it at Pentecost, when the welcome is extended to all the receptive Jews visiting Jerusalem at Pentecost. Then it’s extended even to the Jews who were among the Christians’ worst enemies, including Paul. Then it goes on to include Gentiles, who the scriptures said were unclean and had no place in God’s kingdom according to the scriptures. This 180-degree shift in understanding of God’s will is seen in all of Paul’s missionary work among the Gentiles, and Peter’s encounters with Gentiles in this book, also. And we see it in today’s Lectionary text from Acts, this extremely important story of God calling the apostle Philip to meet the Ethiopian eunuch, and to teach him, and to extend hospitality to him, to welcome him into the faith by baptizing him. Philip certainly knew, and so did the original readers of the Book of Acts, that eunuchs were specifically prohibited in the scriptures as being unworthy of being part of the people of God. There wasn’t anything he could do to repent and stop having been born an Ethiopian, a Gentile. There wasn’t anything he could do to stop being a eunuch. And yet, Philip accepts God’s new word, contrary to all he’d been taught previously, and he extends hospitality – God’s grace, and welcome, and acceptance to this eunuch.

This same desire of God’s continues in the church to this very day. Just like the rabbits of Watership Down, and just like Philip and the other apostles who sometimes struggled with the idea of stretching who could be considered part of God’s kingdom, we’ve had to learn this same truth – the truth of God’s calling of an ever-expanding circle of people into the fullness of the kingdom, too. Sometimes, we’ve learned this truth grudgingly and imperfectly, but time and again we’ve come to understand and accept this ever-increasing circle. This is the definition of hospitality in the kingdom of God. This is what God is trying to teach us, to accept those outside our own particular group, even when we might originally be viscerally opposed to them, just like the rabbits did with their insect-eating bird friend. This is the lesson that God has continually unfolding for us to live into as the church; in our past, our present, and into our future. This is the hospitality God has called us to adhere to, in recognition for the infinite grace and hospitality God has extended toward us.

In the final chapter of Watership Down, we read that the rabbits’ new warren succeeded and thrived, and it did so because they learned these important lessons we’ve talked about. But our own final chapter, as God’s people, hasn’t been written yet. God is continuing to call us to expand the circle that defines our community, and continues to call us to stand up and work for the good and safety and justice of all those within it. Will our story end up being a success or a failure? We’re the ones writing this chapter, so the answer to that question is up to us – but whatever the ending, it’s going to depend on whether we learned our lessons as well as the rabbits did.

Thanks be to God.