The Back Story

(sermon 2/1719)

g-violin3This fine violin was made in Cremona in 1654. Or was it?

Luke 6:17-26
He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

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George and I had a couple of friends over for dinner the other night, and at one point in the evening, George invited them into his workshop for a tour, and to show them some of his work in progress. This was actually a pretty big deal – it was the first time since he got here – and it was pretty rare even before that – that he invited someone into the inner sanctum, the “holy of holies,” as it were, of his workshop – where even a coffee cup set on the wrong surface, or a stray oily fingerprint on the wrong piece of wood could cause nightmares in the precision of his woodwork and finishing. As he was showing some of his work, he explained that he never makes instruments that look brand new, pristine; rather, he did a number of things to artificially antique it. But this couldn’t just be done willy-nilly, just randomly scratching and denting the violin; it has to be very carefully, artistically thought out to look like the actual wear that a one- or two-hundred year old violin would be likely to have. Edges have to be worn smooth where the violin would have rubbed on its case or was hung on a peg, while other edges in more protected areas need to stay sharper and crisper. Scratches might be made on the belly of the instrument where over the years, the bow may have scraped the wood surface. Small pockmarks will be made where the strings would have poked the wood while it was being restrung. Varnish will be rubbed off the high points, and where the stubble on someone’s cheek rubbed against it. Fake dirt, in different layers and colors, will be added in the right nooks and crannies in just the right way. To do all that, George has to create a “back story” for the instrument; an imagined life and history for it, that will help guide how to antique it believably. In short, the violin that he creates doesn’t just make beautiful music; it’s also being crafted to frame a particular story.

The writers of the four gospels actually did the same sort of thing, framing their particular version of Jesus’ life story in such a way to emphasize and tell a particular story. We have an excellent illustration of this in today’s gospel text – this part of Jesus’ teaching the multitudes that we call the Beatitudes. We can read about the same basic event in both Matthew and Luke. Most of the story is the same, but some of the details in the two versions are different, and in those differences we can see the equally valid, but still slightly different, back story that the author wanted to put forward.

Matthew’s gospel strongly emphasizes the divinity, the eternal royalty, if you will, of Jesus, and he emphasizes a more spiritual way of understanding the faith. This is Matthew’s back story. So to emphasize these points that Matthew thinks are important, when you read this story in his gospel Jesus climbs a mountain and sits on its top, almost like he’s sitting on a throne, while the people all gather around and below him to hear his royal decrees. Luke certainly agrees that Jesus is divine Lord, but throughout his gospel, his emphasis – his back story – is to stress Jesus’ oneness and solidarity with humanity, especially the poor and suffering. So as you heard, in Luke’s version of this story, Jesus doesn’t climb a mountain – he literally “comes down” to the people, and stands there in their midst, in a level place and on an equal footing, as one of them, to give them his message. And where Matthew’s Jesus blesses “the poor in spirit,” Luke’s Jesus blesses the plain old “poor.” Matthew’s Jesus blesses “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness;” Luke’s blesses “those who are hungry now.”

Well, it’s Luke’s Jesus whose words we’re considering today, so what do we make out of his words here? In this passage, Jesus says that the blessed people in this world are the poor, the hungry, the grieving, the hated and despised, the oppressed and persecuted. In other words, all the “losers” in this world. And if that isn’t enough, Jesus puts and even sharper point on things by warning the wealthy and comfortable – “Woe” to them, he says. Enjoy it now while you can; your day is coming.

Jesus’ words here are at the core of the understanding that the church has come to call God’s “preferential option for the poor.”

To be honest, that makes me squirm, because I know that by at least any reasonable global economic standard, I fit into the wealthy and comfortable category – the “woe to you” category. And so do you. So – is Jesus saying that God cares bout the so-called “losers,” and not us?

I think I understand this passage a little better after having two children. Any of you with at least two children will get it, too. You love all of your children equally. But at any given time, one on them might need a little bit more attention, a little more help, a little more grace, than the other. Not because you love one more than the other, but specifically because you love them both the same, and you want the same good outcome for them both. There will be times where your love will be expressed differently. So no, I don’t think that God loves the losers and hates everyone else.

To be honest, though, none of us is ever completely outside the “loser” status. We try to put our best face on things so other people think we have our acts together. We look happy when inside, we might be in deep pain. We try to appear popular and well-liked, while inside we might feel estranged, unloved by others and unloved by ourselves. ON the surface, we might make it look like everything’s going great, but really, we’re feeling the pain of being discriminated against, made second-class, based on the color of our skin color; or our appearance; or the body parts or the number of chromosomes we happened to be born with; or the person we love; or the accent in our voices or where we live. While not diminishing the seriousness of those suffering far worse than us, and not ignoring Jesus’ warning to the rich, this is part of the good news for us embedded in Jesus’ words: we’re losers, too, and because of that, the words of hope that Jesus offers here are words of hope and good news for us, too.

But back to those who are indeed suffering more than us, who Jesus called blessed: some people have used these words to say that these people will inherit the kingdom of God someday. They’ll be filled someday. They’ll laugh, and know justice, someday. That it really isn’t their place to question, or complain, or try to do anything to improve their lot in life now because it’s just their God-ordained place in the world, and they’ll eventually get the reward they deserve – someday.

But what if Jesus meant something a little different from – or at least, something in addition to that? What if part of Jesus’ intention, and part of Luke’s back story, is that part of what Jesus was saying was:

  • “Blessed are you who are poor, because you’re waiting for help is over – I’m establishing a church, a group of people, and blessing them with the needed resources, and I’m sending them out to make sure that your basic needs are met, now.”
  • “Blessed are you who are hungry, because I’m sending the church out to feed you, now.”
  • “Blessed are you who weep, because I’m sending the church out to comfort you, now.”
  • “Blessed are you who are hated or suffering injustice, because I’m sending the church out to teach love and compassion, and to work for equity and justice, now.”

Part of the good news for us in Jesus’ words here are that we’re blessed because we’re losers too, in our own ways. But another part of the good news for us is that we’re also blessed because Jesus has made us partners in bringing a bit more of the kingdom of God into the lives of hurting people in the here and now. That’s an incredible thing. An exciting thing. A real blessing, to be entrusted with that.

Maybe that’s what Jesus was saying here. Maybe that’s part of Luke’s back story. If it is, then whether it’s played on a violin or otherwise, it should be music to our ears.

Thanks be to God.

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The Eye-Rolling Moment

(sermon 2/10/19)

casting a net

Luke 5:1-11

Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

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You are an expert in something. Maybe in a number of things. It doesn’t matter who you are, how old you are, what your background is, there’s something – something about your work, or a hobby or some other interest – that your particular education, training, and life experience has made you very knowledgeable about. And having that expertise, you probably don’t have much patience when someone who knows less about that thing acts like some kind of expert who thinks you don’t know anything about it. The word “mansplaining” has become a part of our language because of this – the situation where a man feels like he has to explain something to a woman, who he assumes knows less about the subject than they do simply because she’s a woman – despite the fact that the woman often knows every bit as much, and often more, about the subject than he does. Every woman here knows that’s a real and terribly insulting thing – and honestly, the same sort of thing happens to other people in other situations, too, and it’s just as insulting.

I remember something similar back in my architecture days. My firm had years of experience across a broad range of project types. And every so often, I’d end up with a client who didn’t want to listen to the advice we offered because of that expertise. Instead, they thought they knew more about design and construction and zoning and building codes and construction law than I did, because they’d had a drafting class in high school and had build a shed in their backyard and they had a $50 CAD program on their home computer. Often when that would happen, after spending far more time than I should have to try to save them from themselves, I’d give in. I hit we could call the “eye-rolling moment.” I’d just smile, and say “OK, fine. If you want me to draw it up that way, just sign right here. And when you see it built that way in the field and you don’t like it and it has to be torn out and redone and all the plans have to be revised, I’m going to charge you more – a lot more – to redo them.” And when that happened – and it always happened – and they came back with their tail between their legs asking me to fix the mess, I’d be polite and never say “I told you so,” even though the bill to get them out of their bind said it just as well as any words would have.

It’s that eye-rolling moment that gets us to today’s gospel text. You can picture the scene. It’s a sunny morning along the Sea of Galilee, or as it’s called here, the Lake of Gennesaret. Simon, a fisherman, and a few of his buddies have come in to the shore after being out all night trying to catch a load of fish, to sell in the market that day. But they’d come up short. The whole night had been a bust for all of them. Now, all they could do was clean their nets and stow them away, and go home to catch a little shuteye before they went out again that evening.

As Simon sat there picking the seaweed and other crud out of his net, lo and behold here’s this Jesus character, this traveling preacher he’d heard about, standing there not far away from him along the shoreline, speaking to a group of people. As he talked, the crowd continued to grow, and as it did, it was gradually pushing Jesus along the shoreline, closer and closer to Simon, until Jesus was quite nearby, and he asked Simon for a favor. What? Borrow the boat to sit in, so the crowd didn’t press in too close? Sure, preacher, knock yourself out. But let’s put you out a little further down along the shore, so the crowd doesn’t bother me while I’m trying to get my work done.

Simon probably wasn’t in the best mood that morning, and who could blame him since he knew he still had a couple of hours of work to wrap up before he could get home, and he still wasn’t going to make a dime that day. Jesus was still close enough that Simon could hear bits and pieces of what he was saying while he continued to work. I wish life could be like all that, he thought to himself, but here in the real world, preacher, it just doesn’t work that way. This guy had all sorts of pie-in-the-sky ideas, but really a grown man should know better. He really should have stuck to carpentry. Maybe he wasn’t good enough of one to make a living at that, so now he’s trying this preacher angle. Who knows.

Eventually, Jesus finished up, and the crowd all went home. After getting the boat back to shore, Jesus went over to Simon and struck up a conversation. When he heard that the whole night had been a failure for him, Jesus said “You know, I think you should try one more time – maybe right out there,” he said, gesturing to a place on the water not very far out. Simon snorted and said no, I don’t think so I’m going to head home now. Jesus looked at him intently, eye to eye, and said “I really think you should try that spot right there, Simon…”

And it’s at this point that Simon hit his eye-rolling moment. Oh, sure. I’ve been fishing practically since I could crawl. I know this lake better than the back of my own hand. And now here you come, an outsider, a builder, a construction guy now turned traveling preacher, and you’re going to tell me how to fish?

He knew it wouldn’t work, and he’d just have to clean his net all over again. But Simon figured that it would be worth it to put Jesus in his place and show hm he didn’t know what he was talking about. OK preacher, hop in the boat, you’ll see.

Well, you know the rest of the story.

It seems that God must have a wicked sense of humor, because so many times in the scriptures, and so many times in people’s lives, we only become aware of the presence and power and goodness of God once we’ve been pushed to our eye-rolling moment. Maybe we just have to get to that point where there’s no logical explanation for something, there’s no way we can assume that something happened because of our own skill or expertise, before we can find God in a moment; where God can’t be missed; where God stands out from all the background noise.

Can you think of times in your life where you just knew that something wouldn’t work, where it was going to be a waste of time, a move in the wrong direction – and then, when you gave in and did that thing, like Simon did, you learned that you’d been wrong? That in fact, things didn’t go wrong, it ended up being a good idea – things ended up turning out better than you could have imagined?  I think it’s in precisely those moments – when we experience some surprising outcome after pushing through our eye-rolling moment – when our faith grows and deepens. Our personal faith grows. And when the church does the same thing, pushing through its eye-rolling moments, that’s when the church is best able to truly proclaim the gospel; when we’re proclaiming God’s good news to all people through our words and actions. In other words, that’s when the church is really evangelizing, which, of course, is how Luke concludes this particular story.

So today, I ‘d invite you to consider: what is your particular expertise? What’s your particular skill, your talent, your blessing? It’s good to take honest stock in ourselves, and know what that is – and to be grateful for it, because that expertise, that blessing, is truly a gift from God. Then, once you understand what you’re an expert in, think back over your life and consider when that expertise has helped you. And maybe even more importantly, when it’s helped others. Finally, think about when that expertise might have hurt you, or others. When it might have been an obstacle; when it might have caused a blind spot to something. Every blessing has a  shadow side to it, and we have to understand it and work to make sure that our particular blessing doesn’t become our particular curse.

Understanding that shadow side can be hard. Working to keep it from becoming a problem can be even harder. But the good news in all of this is that Christ – the very same one who stood on the shore that morning, and who loved Simon, and who admittedly used a little bit of orneriness to teach him a lesson – that same Jesus loves you and me, too, every bit as much as Simon; and he will help  us to learn when to trust in our own expertise, and when to trust God’s expertise instead.

You know, Simon originally just wanted to catch a boat full of fish. After he finally learned he could trust Jesus, and they’d caught more fish than he’d ever dreamt of, he was probably wondering if maybe he was going to need a bigger boat. If we trust Jesus the same way – pushing past our own eye-rolling moments when it comes to us living out the mission that God has for us, sharing God’s good news with others through our words and actions – we might end up wondering the same thing.

Thanks be to God.

“Is He Serious?”

(sermon 2/3/19)

reading torah scroll

Luke 4:21-30

Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” ’ And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

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He got up in the morning just a bit before daybreak, as he did every morning, and as he wiped the sleep from his eyes he gently jostled his wife from her sleep, too. They stretched and groaned their way into consciousness and got up, quickly getting ready for the day. Then she went to wake up their two children and get them started on their morning rotation in the bathroom, showering, brushing their teeth, getting dressed, while she moved out to the kitchen to get them all breakfast. He’d gone out to feed and care for the animals. While he was doing that, he noticed one of a dozen little jobs on his honey-do list that needed taken care of, and he did it. He knew that technically, he wasn’t supposed to do it this particular day, since it was the Sabbath, a day of rest, but he figured it would only take a minute and wasn’t that much work anyway. Once he was done, he went back inside and joined the rest of them for breakfast.

And it was a nice breakfast, too – this was the only day of the week they had time for a good, full breakfast all together as a family, and they enjoyed the time together even though the kids argued about whether one of them had gotten more eggs than the other, and the woman sometimes wondered why this day of rest always ended up meaning more work for her.

The man told the children that in church that morning, they were going to hear a guest preacher, someone he and their mother had grown up with, right there in their little hometown. He told them that when they were little boys, they’d done everything together – playing ball, stomping grapes in their bare feet together at the village wine press, attending synagogue together, sitting there laughing at the old man who fell asleep every week, paying tic-tac-toe and drawing pictures in the margins of their bulletins as the sermon droned on. There was even this one time where the two of them had – well, maybe best not tell that particular story, not now anyway, the man thought, as he noticed his wife looking over the top of her glasses at him from across the table. Well, in any case, he said, now everyone was talking about what a great preacher he is, and that maybe he’d even performed a few miracles, too (even though he suspected that was a bit of exaggeration, but he didn’t say so) – and now, he’d come back to his home synagogue, and he was going to preach today.

The man and his family sat there in the synagogue in their usual place, and when Jesus started in, everyone was paying close attention. He preached that now, this time, this place, was the beginning of God’s good favor for all of them who were suffering – all of them there who were poor, which was most of them, and suffering from physical ailments, which was a lot of them, and the captive and oppressed, which was all of them, under the thumb of the Roman occupiers. And here he was putting them all on notice of God’s good news for them; that God’s favor was about to be poured out upon all of them.

The man sat there amazed by it all. Where did he learn to speak like this? How did he learn to give people this kind of hope, this kind of inspiration? It was with a good deal of pride, and also a small bit of cynicism, that the man thought to himself that wherever he’d learned it, he had the entire crowd in the palm of his hand in that moment.

And then it happened. Jesus reached that point that occurs in so many sermons – maybe call it the “prophetic pivot” – that point that’s struck fear in the hearts of probably every preacher in history except Jesus, where they have to move from the part of the message that offers their listeners comfort, and makes them feel good; to the part that challenges them, when the preacher has to tell them something they don’t want to hear, something that discomforts and maybe even angers them.

The man felt that discomfort as he sat there. He heard his old friend refer to the old expression “Physician, heal yourself.” They’d heard that all their lives, and it made sense. Caring for others was all well and good, but your first priority has to be yourself and your kind. Charity begins at home. Galilee First. Don’t talk about helping others somewhere else when there’s still one homeless person living on the streets of Nazareth. And you certainly don’t owe your sworn enemy any care or consideration; when it came to that it was eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth territory. That common sense had been instilled in them practically since birth. It filled many of the stories in the scriptures that they’d learned together. They were exceptional. They were God’s favorite, God’s chosen over all other people. But now Jesus was telling them that this was wrong. That this good news of God’s wasn’t meant only for them, but for others, too. He heard Jesus remind them of stories from the scriptures where God’s favor was bestowed on a poor widow and her son in the foreign city of Sidon. The man wasn’t a big fan of Sidon. It was a big business center and a major seaport, and his brother lost his job at the local pottery factory when it closed and moved to Sidon because of better business conditions there. Still, he thought that at least in that story, God blessed the widow and her son because she was kind to the prophet Elijah, one of us. Wasn’t that the point of the story? Apparently not, since Jesus pushed the point even further, reminding them all of when God favored not just any foreigner, but Naaman, a general in the army of their arch enemy, Syria – their biggest threat. In that story, Naaman certainly didn’t do anything kind to any of their people; in fact, the only way he knew to seek out the prophet Elisha to help him with his physical ailment was through a slave girl that he’d taken captive during a war with his people. And yet, God still healed him.

His old friend was even saying that not only weren’t they the only people God loved, but that God would judge them unfavorably if they thought they were. It was all very confusing.

Well, this prophetic pivot was just a bridge too far for Jesus’ listeners this morning. The people there that morning all shook their heads, angry, asking themselves “Is he serious? Are we supposed to accept this nonsense?!!” His message broke with tradition, and even countered some scripture. It crossed a line, and the crowd didn’t just throw him out of the pulpit, or even just out of the synagogue, but they ran him completely out of town and chased him up a hill to try to throw him over it. The man followed the crowd outside to see what was going to happen. He quietly kept his thoughts to himself, but he was relieved to see that his old friend managed to escape and make it safely out of the mob. But as he walked home with his family that morning, he kept tossing these thoughts around in his mind. He knew about those parts of scripture that called his people God’s chosen, but he also knew about those other parts where God blessed others, outsiders, too. The contradiction had always been right there in front of them, but it was glossed over, but Jesus put a sharp point on it today. Jesus was saying that at least now, God’s favor, God’s good news, was for all people. And as people of God, they were all to show love, compassion, and justice to all others – regardless of borders or boundaries; people from different cultures, different religions, different philosophies. Even people considered dangerous.

The man wondered if this was really a time when God’s boundaries were expanding – or maybe, God never had any boundaries to begin with, and they all just had to realize that they’d been missing the point all along. So we’re supposed to love foreigners from Sidon who hurt our economy, and even people from Syria, who are a constant threat to our security. And if that’s the case today, he thought, who might we be told we have to love and accept next week? Two years from now? Two hundred years, two thousand years from now? Where will it all end? Love, compassion, and justice are all well and good, but don’t we end up having to draw a line somewhere?

He was still thinking about that as he crawled into bed that evening, and kissed his wife goodnight, and fell asleep, ready to get up the next morning and do it all over again.

Thanks be to God.

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.

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.

In the Grasp of the Unconditional God

(sermon 10/28/18 – Reformation Sunday)

Reformation Sunday 2018

Jeremiah 31:27-34

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. In those days they shall no longer say: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge. The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

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Today, in Protestant churches across the country, congregations will observe Reformation Sunday, when we recognize the great theological movement that changed the face of Western religion, society, and culture. We do that every year on this particular Sunday, the last Sunday in October, because that’s the closest Sunday to the anniversary of Martin Luther having out his period equivalent of a tweetstorm, nailing his “95 Theses” to the door of the church in Wittenberg. Of course, the Reformation started long before that. Before Luther was Jan Hus, and before him was John Wycliff, and long before any of them was some poor peasant who didn’t like something the Pope had decreed and asked why he had the authority to decree it, and someone answered “He can do it because he’s the Pope!” and the person answered “Well I didn’t vote for him!” and that was the match that lit the fire that eventually became the Protestant Reformation.

Maybe more than anything, the Reformation might be seen as the theological revolution of grace – the understanding that our salvation is entirely the work of God, and that there’s nothing, nothing, that we do to earn that salvation. This grace means that God has called and chosen each of us, directly, which means that God’s favor is not mediated to us through any religious leader. None of them has the authority to grant, or withhold, God’s forgiveness, or God’s salvation, to us. It’s what we call “the priesthood of all believers;” that we definitely value learning and in-depth study to become a spiritual leader, but their charge doesn’t include being that kind of arbiter of God’s acceptance or rejection.

The Reformation’s focus on grace could be seen as the rejection of the conditional God – that *if* we do something, *then* God will forgive us, accept us, save us. That *if* we carried out all the requirements of the “sacramental system” established by the church, and did this, that, and any number of other items on some priestly checklist, then we’d be saved, and we wouldn’t spend eternity in hell. Mind you, after the Reformation, we Protestants didn’t waste any time setting up our own sets of requirements, our own checklists – *if* we accept the statements of the right creed; *if* we believe the right thing about Jesus’ nature and the mechanics of how salvation through him works, *if* we believe just the right thing about the Trinity, or *if* we recite the “sinner’s prayer,” then God will accept us. But at its core, the revolutionary theological foundation of the Protestant Reformation said a resounding “NO!!!” to all of those things. God’s love, mercy, forgiveness, and salvation is not a conditional thing. We do not worship a conditional, “transactional” God. We worship a God of grace.

Today, we celebrate two related things – a baptism, and receiving members into our congregation. And the way we understand both of these things is tied very strongly to this theological revolution.

To us, baptism is a sacrament given to us by this unconditional God that we worship – it isn’t a sign of us doing something that makes God happy, and as a result of that, God will give in and stop being angry with us and will forgive us and save us. It isn’t the spiritual equivalent of an economic transaction. To us, baptism is a sign and seal of the covenant that God, completely independently of our words and actions, long before we ever were aware that we needed God, long before we were ever born, chose to make between us. In baptism, when we profess our faith, we are simply acknowledging that we recognize the existence of that covenant, and out of gratitude for it we want to profess it publicly, and live in gratitude for it.

And membership in a congregation is also a very Reformed concept. Before the Protestant Reformation, if you were born within the boundaries of a particular church parish, you were considered a member of that parish, and under the authority of that parish priest, and that bishop, and ultimately, the Pope. In the wake of the Reformation, we understood that being a part of a particular congregation is something that a believer chooses to do – it’s an intentional act, and in and of itself, it becomes a statement of faith as we commit to be part of a community of faith, part of an extended family united in Christ.

The Reformation began a new thing in the world. It began a new thing for all of us – the way we understand God, and ourselves, and the relationship between the two of us. It was also a resurgence in the theological understanding that we were supposed to work for the betterment of the society that we lived within. That while we weren’t doing good things to try to earn our salvation, out of gratitude for God’s grace, we are called to continually work to heal the broken areas of our world. With God’s help, to help create that “new thing” that God is ushering into our existence. To bring God’s love, and peace, and justice to more people. To heal wounds, and to respect one another, to value each and every human being, despite any differences; standing up for their dignity as having been created in God’s image and worthy of our love and care. All of them, without exceptions.

Let’s especially remember that part of the meaning of the Reformation today, at the end of what has truly been a week of hell and agony, ranging from the domestic terrorism of pipe bombs to the racist murders in JTown to the xenophobic mass murders at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. As we honor the great Reformers who came before us, let’s also remember that we’re called to be “the Church reformed, and always being reformed.” We’re called to be reformers, too. Is it possible, given the news, that God is calling us to especially emphasize that last aspect of the Reformation? Can we commit, out of gratitude to God, to stand up to the kind of hate-filled rhetoric that spawns tragedies and near-tragedies like the ones this week? Can each of us say enough is enough, and commit to never spew that kind of hate, even in moments of anger or frustration? Can each of us commit to calling that kind of hate out as the dangerous, ungodly evil that it is, wherever we hear it, as soon as we hear it, and no matter who it is that said it? Can we commit to using our faith, and the courage and strength that the Holy Spirit infuses within each and every one of us – no matter whether we’re liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, because first and foremost, we’re all under the banner of Christian – to stand up and say no more. We choose welcome. We choose love. We choose to be our brother’s keeper, and our sister’s, and the keeper of all those who identify somewhere else on the gender spectrum, too. We choose to be the face of Christ, the hand of Christ, the feet of Christ, and the love of Christ; and because we’re in the grasp of this unconditional God, we also choose to love unconditionally and to literally say, for Christ’s sake, stop the hate speech and the violence.

Amen.

Ubuntu

(sermon 10/7/18 – World Communion Sunday)

ubuntu

Luke 22:14-30

When the hour came, Jesus took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.

But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table.For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!” Then they began to ask one another, which one of them it could be who would do this. A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. “You are those who have stood by me in my trials; and I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

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Presbyterian. Baptist. Methodist. Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopalian, and on and on and on. All the different traditions, branches, and denominations under this one umbrella we call “Christian.” One often-cited source identifies 33,000 of them worldwide.  Other people scoff at that number, disputing that group’s methodology, saying that the real number is really only about a third of that, but 11,000 is still an awfully big number. And today, World Communion Sunday, this observance that first started at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh in the 1930s, is the day we especially set aside to proclaim and profess the unity that all 33,000, or 11,000, or however many groups there are, have through profession of faith in our common Lord Jesus Christ.

On one level, it’s nonsense, of course, since anyone with two eyes and three brain cells can see that Christians and Christian groups exhibit all kinds of characteristics, some wonderful and some atrocious, but unity doesn’t even seem to make it into the list of the top ten. In fact, we can’t even get out of the month of October, which starts with celebrating our unity today, without recognizing Reformation Sunday on the 28th, which, while we’re thankful for much of its theological progress, precipitated one of the two largest splits in church history. Some days it seems like we Christians can find a way to disagree about anything, from atonement theory to the dual nature of Christ’s personhood to the meaning of baptism to the color of the sanctuary carpet. I’ve wondered if in retrospect, Jesus wishes he’d have said “Wherever two or more are gathered in my name, there will be an argument.”

So on one level, the idea behind World Communion Sunday might seem a little silly, if not downright hypocritical.

But still, on another level, it’s a very good and important thing. Good because it reminds us of the hope that we’ve all been called to through Christ. Good because it reminds us of the unity that Christ wants us to have, not necessarily in every thing, but in the important things: in doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. In loving God with all our heart, mind, and strength; and loving others as we love ourselves.

And it’s good because it reminds us that this unity that we, the church, are supposed to exhibit is meant to illustrate to others the kind of unity and connectedness that God has designed us all for. It’s a reminder to the church, the world, and ourselves, that it’s absolutely impossible to be truly human as an individual. We’re wired within our DNA to be connected with, to be in relationship with, to understand and be in unity with, others. Given the news of the past 48 hours or so, and the divisiveness, and the pain and suffering and disconnectedness and separation being felt by so many people this morning, I can’t think of a more timely, and important, and good thing for us to celebrate and call for in church and world. The message of World Communion Sunday, and Communion in general,  is this message of hope that, even if we proclaim it imperfectly, we need to proclaim it louder than ever, and to model it in our own lives.

The Zulu term Ubuntu captures what I think is at the heart of what World Communion Sunday is all about. Literally, the term translates as “I am because we are,” and as a concept, it refers to the belief in a universal bond of sharing and connectedness that unites all of humanity. A big part of the gospel that we believe and that we’re called to proclaim is this very same idea.

The playwright Del Shores has written several plays; they’re all insanely funny, wildly irreverent, and always carry a deep message. In one of his plays, there’s a character named Benny, a wild, brash, over-the top young man who had suffered terrible bullying, abuse, and brutality growing up in a strict fundamentalist church. He carries a lot of bitterness and resentment about that, and he spews a lot of it in one scene – but after some reflection, he gets philosophical and makes a profound, deeply theological observation – that everyone, the good and the bad, even those who had hurt him so badly, were all like individual bits of colored glass in a big stained glass window; all interconnected, all needing one another for support; and that the light of God shines through each one of them to tell us something that God wants us to know, and to make the world what it is. Everyone.

One of the hymns we sang last week captured this idea too, in a particularly Christian sense. For everyone born, a place at the Table. Woman and man; young and old; just and unjust; abuser/abused. Everyone.

This faith, this Table, this sacrament, proclaims that by God’s design and through Christ who strengthens us and reconciles us, we are to lift up one another. To share in one another’s lives, to bear one another’s burdens, to rejoice with one another in our joys, to mourn with one another in our mourning – and most importantly, even recognizing our differences –  even sometimes profound differences – to celebrate the new life that we all have in common through our one common Lord,  Jesus Christ.

Thanks be to God.