Sermon for Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017

April 16, 2017 (Easter Sunday)
An Idle Tale
Luke 24:1-12

As news of the impending arrest of Jesus of Nazareth spread over the world this week, Alexandra Petri of The Washington Post filed this story, to help us understand the reasons why authorities wanted him in custody.

Crucified man had prior run-in with authorities[1]

The gentleman arrested Thursday and tried before Pontius Pilate had a troubled background.

Born (possibly out of wedlock?) in a stable, this jobless thirty-something of Middle Eastern origin had had previous run-ins with local authorities for disturbing the peace, and had become increasingly associated with the members of a fringe religious group.  He spent the majority of his time in the company of sex workers and criminals.

He had had prior run-ins with local authorities—most notably, an incident of vandalism in a community center when he wrecked the tables of several licensed money-lenders and bird-sellers.  He had used violent language, too, claiming that he could destroy a gathering place and rebuild it.

At the time of his arrest, he had not held a fixed residence for years.  Instead, he led an itinerant lifestyle, staying at the homes of friends and advocating the redistribution of wealth.

He had come to the attention of the authorities more than once for his unauthorized distribution of food, disruptive public behavior, and participation in farcical aquatic ceremonies.

Some say that his brutal punishment at the hands of the state was out of proportion to and unrelated to any of these incidents in his record.

But after all, he was no angel.

 

If Jesus’ arrest, trial and conviction on charges of subversion and disturbing the peace had actually taken place this week, in 2017, instead of two thousand years ago, we could expect this kind of news article about him.  No matter that the charges were manufactured out of whole cloth by an unholy alliance of religious authorities intent on maintaining their power and political leaders who valued law and order over all else.  (The religious authorities would have added “blasphemy” to the list of charges, but Rome had no particular interest in enforcing laws rooted in Jewish scripture.)

Jesus’ arrest, trial and execution were the triumph of cynicism, in which almost every person and institution is at their worst.

Religious authorities, who were supposed to be waiting for the Messiah to come, failed to recognize him and chose to silence him in the most permanent way they could think of.

Political leaders engaged in buck-passing and condemned a man to death to preserve their own positions in the imperial power structure.

Jesus’ own friends let him down:  the religious leadership paid one of them off to be an informant and deliver Jesus into their custody; one of them, when asked repeatedly, lied about even knowing Jesus; and most of the rest of them ran away.

The general public in Jerusalem, misguided by fear and anger over Roman oppression, and an increased Roman military presence during the Passover festival—a holiday that celebrated their liberation from oppression—let their religious leaders turn them into a lynch mob.

The only ones who come out looking even remotely good are one of the criminals being executed with Jesus and a group of persistent female disciples.  The women silently witnessed the injustice of Jesus’ arrest and condemnation.  They stayed with him through his long, excruciating death on the cross.  They watched Joseph of Arimathea lay him in a new tomb.  Then they went home and prepared the spices and ointments that would be necessary to give him a proper burial, rather than the necessarily hasty one Joseph had given him because the Sabbath was beginning.

 

When cynicism triumphs, despair is sort of inevitable.

That Sabbath day was a day of numbness and, yes, despair.  Jesus’ followers wandered through their houses, picking up random objects and setting them down, eating when someone said they had to but not tasting any of it, saying the prayers by rote.  After the Sabbath candles were put out, the night was long and sleepless.  In the darkness and the silence the tears finally came, hopeless tears that offered none of the catharsis that usually comes with weeping.

Each at her own house, the women all gave up their tossing and turning as the first light came up over the eastern horizon, and went to the place where they’d agreed to meet.  They walked out to Jesus’ tomb, to do the very last thing they could for him…

 

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” the angel asks them.  Why are you still captive to despair?  Why do you still believe cynicism and violence have won?  “He is not here, but has risen.”

They run back to where the disciples are hiding with their own despair, and tell them what they had seen and heard.  But the others don’t believe the women.  They think they’re speaking nonsense.  They suspect the women’s despair has driven them mad.

Peter, perhaps to humor the women, goes to the tomb to see what he could see; but no angels speak to him.

 

“Why are you looking for the living among the dead?”  Well?

Why are we looking for love in the wrong places, where we find only indifference, perhaps even abuse?  Why are we seeking happiness in getting money and buying stuff?  Why are we trying to find security in a bank account?  Why do we think solace can be found in a bottle?

We are still looking for the living among the dead!

 

“He is not here, but has risen.”  You thought despair won?  You thought violence could bring certainty?  You thought cynicism was the rule of the day?  Think again.

He has risen, and with him comes hope.  With him comes love that does not hurt.  With him comes security that goes far beyond dollars and cents.  With him comes the ability, with the women, to persist in staying with him, to persist in speaking his good news into a world still wallowing in disbelief and despair.  With him comes life, and with him comes joy.

Stop looking for the living among the dead.  Instead, turn now to the Risen One, the one who has defeated evil, defeated cynicism, defeated despair.  And let him live in you, so that your every step, your every word, your every action shines brightly, bringing hope, love, and joy to dispel the shadows of fear, cynicism, and despair.

[1] This article was found at https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/compost/wp/2017/04/12/crucified-man-had-prior-run-in-with-authorities/?tid=hybrid_mostsharedarticles_2_na&utm_term=.b84e896f1037 on April 15, 2017.

Sermon for February 26, 2017

February 26, 2017 (Transfiguration)
Highs and Lows
Luke 9:26-45

I suspect if you were to take a survey of people who attend church regularly, to find out what they want in a sermon, a substantial number of them would say they want to hear something that has some relevance to their lives, something they can take out of the church and put to use in their everyday lives.  The Bible study technique I typically teach folks, which the Sunday school class will be learning next Sunday, has as its last step the question, “What does this text mean to me, or to my community?”  In other words, how do I apply this text to my life?

So in keeping with that, the point I intend to make in my sermon this morning is, “When you are up on the mountain with Jesus, and he gets all shiny and starts talking to dead prophets, here’s what to do (and what not to do).”  Surely that will come up in our life this week, right?

No, not really; and that’s part of why a lot of preachers sort of dread Transfiguration, which shows up every year on the last Sunday before Lent begins.  It’s one thing to have a passage in which Jesus teaches his disciples something, and we can dig into it and figure out how we might put it into practice here and now.  But realistically, not one of us is likely to find ourselves in exactly the same situation as Mr. Impetuous and the Thunder Boys[1] did in our reading for today.  It’s just not going to happen.

Nevertheless, Transfiguration Sunday shows up at this time every single year, ready or not; and we have to do something with it.

 

In the Hebrew Bible, mountains are often places where people encounter God’s presence.  Moses climbed Mount Sinai and received the Ten Commandments, and when he came back down his face was shining so that he had to wear a veil.[2]  Michael Card[3] suggests, intriguingly, that the reason Peter wanted to build booths, in today’s text, for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah might not have been because he wanted to capture and enshrine the event, but because the booths would protect him and the sons of Zebedee from the dazzling light pouring off Jesus and the others—just as Moses had to wear a veil to protect the people from the dazzling brilliance of his face after he had been in God’s presence.

When Jesus took Peter, James, and John up the mountain to pray, they had to have wondered if they were going to meet God there.  They knew their Scriptures.  They knew about Moses, and they knew that Elijah had encountered God on Mount Sinai as well.[4]  They were, apparently, exhausted; but unlike at Gethsemane a ways down the road, this time they managed to stay awake to see what happened.  So they saw Jesus’ face and clothing become dazzling white, and they saw Moses and Elijah—who had both been in God’s presence at Mount Sinai—talking with Jesus.

Only Luke tells us what they were talking about:  Jesus’ departure (in Greek, his exodus), which would be accomplished shortly, in Jerusalem.  Interesting choice of words there, and Luke, whose Greek is some of the best in the entire New Testament, knows precisely what he is doing when he chooses them.  His exodus, which he is about to accomplish—Jesus is about to lead Israel into freedom from another kind of bondage, just as Moses led them from slavery in Egypt.

Then Peter starts babbling about building booths, and a cloud—also familiar as a sign of God’s presence—overtakes them, and a voice speaks from the cloud, echoing God’s words at Jesus’ baptism, although with some differences this time:  “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

 

And then it’s all over.  The cloud moves away, Moses and Elijah disappear, and Jesus stands alone, looking like he always did.  Then they go down the mountain, where things aren’t going quite so well.

The rest of the disciples—the same ones who earlier in this chapter had gone out on missions of their own, teaching and healing, with great success—have failed to heal a boy who has epilepsy.[5]  You can almost hear Jesus’ sigh of frustration:  “You faithless and perverse generation…”  It isn’t clear who he is calling faithless and perverse—the disciples, the boy’s father, or the entire crowd waiting for him at the bottom of the mountain like the Israelites waited less-than-patiently for Moses to come down off Sinai.

In any case, he quickly does what the disciples have for whatever reason not been able to do.

 

Our reading for today captures perfectly the tension that a lot of us find in our faith lives.  We worship regularly, we come into God’s presence regularly, we catch glimpses here and there of the Reign of God.  But most of the time we’re not having mountaintop experiences; most of the time we’re in the valley, doing the day-in, day-out work we all have in front of us:  working at our jobs or our volunteer tasks, keeping house, feeding animals, cooking, visiting the sick and the sad.

A faithful life includes both worship and work.  And sometimes even the worship part of it feels like work, or at the very least isn’t as exciting as what we experience on the mountaintop—at camp, on retreat, at conferences and concerts and other places where like-minded believers gather to have ecstatic experiences.

The kids at camp say it pretty frequently:  Why can’t our churches be more like camp?  After the final campfire, the closing circle, the bell being rung, we all get in cars and go back to everyday life, and we wonder why it’s still so…everyday.

Sunday morning at our local churches just plain isn’t Thursday night campfire.  It can’t be.  Camp is a place set apart, different from our everyday lives, different from our local churches, different from just about anything we experience anywhere else.  We need to go to the mountaintop from time to time, but we can’t live there.

We can’t live on the mountaintop…but maybe we can take a little bit of the mountaintop with us when we leave it.

 

On the mountain, Jesus was transfigured.  He wasn’t transformed—he was the same as he always had been; but his appearance was changed, so that Peter and the sons of Zebedee got to see him in a new way, see him for who he really was.

When we go up on the mountain, whether the mountain be camp or a retreat or a wonderfully uplifting conference[6], we are in God’s presence in a way that doesn’t often happen in the valley, and we see some things more clearly or more accurately.  And because those things are transfigured, we may find ourselves transformed.  When we come into God’s presence, and see Jesus as he really is, it changes us.  We are not who we were before, and that’s what we take with us back into the valley of everyday.

 

Can you think of an experience where you encountered God’s presence and the reality of Christ in a special way?  How did it change you?  How did those changes impact your everyday life afterward?  And if you haven’t had an experience like that, or it’s been a long time, let’s talk about that and see if we can find a mountain you can climb.

[1] Thanks goes to a colleague who posted only as Julie on this week’s “11th Hour Preacher Party” on RevGalBlogPals.org for this rather irreverent (but also rather accurate) set of nicknames for Peter, James, and John.

[2] Exodus 34:29-35.  At one point, a translation error in this passage gave Moses horns instead of a shining face.  Michaelangelo’s beautiful sculpture of Moses depicts this error.

[3] We know Michael Card mostly as the composer of the song “El Shaddai”, but he is a Biblical scholar in his own right.  His four-volume “Biblical Imagination Series” on the four Gospels, including his own translations, is definitely worth exploring.

[4] 1 Kings 19:1-18.  Here the mountain is called “Horeb,” an alternate name for Mount Sinai.

[5] The text says he has an unclean spirit; but the symptoms described sound a great deal like seizures.  With no understanding of what seizures are or what they mean, it’s not surprising that the ancients thought they were signs of demon possession.

[6] …like the one I go to in Wichita every fall, the Apprentice Gathering, where next year one of the featured speakers and workshop leaders will be none other than the aforementioned Michael Card.

Sermon for February 19, 2017

February 19, 2017
Don’t worry, it’s not contagious
Luke 7:36-50

Most folks in Punkin Center, Kansas, didn’t even know the woman’s name.[1]  She was very old, and other than occasional trips to the doctor, she never left her rundown house on the very edge of town, so very few people had even laid eyes on her in years.  She didn’t belong to either the Catholic church or the community church, which was formed when the Methodist, Christian, and Baptist churches in town merged about thirty years ago.

Back when she was able to get out, anybody who saw her would shoo their children away.  Anyone still around who’d grown up in Punkin Center knew her as “the woman who shot her husband,” because that’s what their mothers would tell them as they urged them into another aisle at the store to avoid her.

If anyone had ever bothered to find out, they would have discovered that her name was Lucy Carter.  She had moved to Punkin Center with her husband Ezekiel when he had gotten a job at the foundry that had once stood about two blocks from her house.

No one knew about the way Ezekiel treated her:  he was a cruel and sadistic man, worse when he was drinking, which was just about every weekend from the minute the factory whistle blew Friday evening until he passed out Sunday night.  Lucy had generally done any shopping she needed to do in town on Friday.  That meant that whatever bruises Ezekiel had given her the weekend before had faded enough so nobody noticed them if they didn’t look too closely.  And nobody ever looked very closely at Lucy Carter.

Lucy put up with what Ezekiel dished out for a lot of years.  As soon as their children were old enough, they left town—they hadn’t been safe from Ezekiel’s wrath, either, even though their mother had tried to protect them.  They urged Lucy to leave Ezekiel, to come live with them in the city, but after years of trying, they realized she never would and gave up.

Lucy and Ezekiel had been married forty-three years when she finally decided she’d had it.  By that time the foundry had closed, and Ezekiel’s weekend drinking had expanded to most of the week.

One Tuesday night in November, as winter closed in, Ezekiel administered a savage beating to Lucy.  It went on for hours, and Lucy ended up with fractures of her jaw, left wrist, and skull.  He even brought his pistol out of its hiding place and waved it around, shouting about how he should have used it on her years ago.  Finally he passed out on the kitchen floor, the gun toppling from his hand.

Lucy picked up the pistol, took aim, and shot him in the forehead.  The recoil knocked her backwards, and the pain in her head and arm flared white-hot.  She lost consciousness for a few moments.

When she awoke, there was blood everywhere.  She called the police.

At the trial, Lucy’s court-appointed attorney painted her as a battered wife driven to desperation.  But she was still convicted and sent to the women’s prison outside Moravia.  She spent a decade there, not speaking to anyone, not even her children who visited at least once a month.

Her daughter wrote to the governor regularly, enclosing copies of the police report and hospital records from that night, arguing that Lucy was defending herself from escalating violence, and begging for her sentence to be commuted.  Finally a new governor was elected, who was herself a survivor of domestic violence.  She found a letter from Lucy’s daughter on her desk her first day on the job, and she commuted Lucy’s sentence almost immediately.

Lucy returned to her little house in Punkin Center.  For awhile she worked in the shoe store downtown, mostly in the back office, but occasionally out on the sales floor when they were shorthanded.

Like everyone else in town, Amy Oneal had heard the whispers about “the woman who shot her husband,” and the rumors about why she’d done it, which were all over the map but nowhere close to the truth.  Amy had been in college in Topeka when Lucy was released from prison, and she had read the news reports about why she was in prison, why she’d shot Ezekiel.

But talking with her mother, she discovered that few people in town knew or cared about the real story.

Amy worked with Lucy at the shoe store on summer breaks.  Lucy never talked much, certainly never said anything about Ezekiel or about her time in prison; but she was always kind to Amy.

Some years later Amy and her husband Noah, a dentist, moved back to Punkin Center.  By this time Lucy had retired and become a virtual recluse, emerging from her dilapidated home only to see the doctor.  She survived on Social Security and the occasional check from one of her kids.  Another woman she had worked with at the shoe store brought her groceries every week.

Amy had grown up in the community church, so she and Noah quickly became active there, co-chairing the Local Missions team.  The missions team had a Valentine’s Day dinner every year, which drew folks from the entire county.  They used the proceeds to help elderly or disabled people in Punkin Center make needed repairs to their homes they wouldn’t have been able to make otherwise.  After the dinner each year, the team would receive suggestions of residents who could use their help.

Last year the team met on April 20.

Amy called the meeting to order and Noah opened with a prayer for all the residents of Punkin Center, especially those who were in need.  “May we see Christ in their faces, and may we be Christ’s hands and heart as we work for them,” he concluded.

The treasurer gave his report on the annual dinner, noting that there had been unusually large attendance, and some folks had given quite substantial donations beyond the cost of their dinner tickets.  He indicated that there was enough money to repair several homes that year.  Then Amy reviewed the list of folks whose names had been given to them.  There were only three nominations.  One of them was Lucy Carter.  The woman who brought Lucy her groceries each week had asked Amy to put her name on the list.  Lucy’s roof was leaking, and the porch steps were rotten.

The other two residents who had been nominated were easily approved; both of them had been in the community for years, and everyone knew and liked them.  But the process came to a screeching halt when Amy read Lucy’s nomination.

“Who is Lucy Carter?” asked Eileen Chapman, the team’s secretary.

“That’s the woman who shot her husband,” old Joe Snyder replied.  He had worked with Ezekiel at the foundry until it closed, and had his suspicions about what happened in his home on weekends.  But in those days, you minded your own business.

“Oh, her,” Eileen said.  “I don’t think it’s a good idea for us to help her.  Wouldn’t it look like we were condoning what she did?”

“I agree,” said Mark Bennett.  “People will be upset.  They won’t come to our dinner next year.  Maybe we won’t be able to help anybody.”

“I can think of at least a few church members who will probably leave the church,” said Pastor Christine.  “They came to me a couple weeks ago, because they had heard she was nominated.  They were offended that we would even consider helping her, and said if we did, they were going to take their money and go somewhere else.”

“We sure can’t afford to lose anybody over this,” Olivia Jackson said.

“No, we can’t,” said Eileen.  “Some of those same people came to me.  They said that if we help her, everyone in town will think we’re letting her off the hook for murder.”

Joe spoke up again.  “I’m not excusing what she did,” he said.  “But I knew Ezekiel, and he was scary when he got mad.  I can’t imagine what all Lucy went through living with him.  Maybe she didn’t feel like she had any other option.  Maybe if she hadn’t done what she did, he would have killed her—from what I heard he came awful close that night.”

“But the Bible says, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’” Olivia pointed out.  “If we help her, aren’t we saying the Ten Commandments don’t matter to us?  Lucy Carter is a killer, and I don’t see any exceptions to that commandment.  We can’t give our money to a murderer.  I move that we reject her nomination, and I further move that her name not be considered at any time in the future.”

“I’ll second,” said Eileen.  “She doesn’t deserve our help, and it would look bad.”

The committee discussed the matter some more, and when they started repeating themselves, Noah called for a vote.  The vote was six to three in favor of the motion—Amy, Noah, and Joe cast the “nay” votes.

“That does it,” said Frances Kirkpatrick, who had until that point been quiet, mostly because she was a soft-spoken person who just plain couldn’t get a word in edgewise.  “We cannot and will not associate ourselves with a sinner like that woman.  We have done the right thing.”

Several others nodded.  But Joe said, “You all ought to be ashamed of yourselves.  Didn’t you ever do anything wrong?”

“Not like that,” said Frances.

“Isn’t church supposed to be the place where we get our sins forgiven?” he asked.  “If what Lucy did was a sin—and quite frankly, I’m not sure I wouldn’t have done the same thing in her situation—she did her time…”

“Not nearly enough time,” interrupted Ike Stokesberry.

“That’s not up to you or me, Ike,” Joe replied.  “And it was a long time ago, and it seems to me that what’s past is past.”

“Not with murder,” said Simon Kirkpatrick, Frances’ husband.  “The law says there’s no statute of limitations for murder, so why would we allow one?”

Amy realized that the argument was about to start again, so she quickly called for a motion to adjourn the meeting.  Most of the team members left with heads held high, quite satisfied with the outcome of the meeting.  Amy, Noah, and Joe sat in silence for a long time, until Joe asked if he could say a prayer.

“Good Lord, you were called a friend of sinners when you walked this earth.  What has happened to your body?  Forgive us our lack of understanding, our refusal to show grace to those around us, to pardon sinners as you pardoned us.  Help Lucy, because she doesn’t have much of anybody else.”

 

The following Saturday morning, two pickups pulled up in front of Lucy Carter’s house.  Amy and Noah Oneal got out of one, and Joe Snyder got out of the other.  They got to work on the porch steps.

Lucy came to the door and asked what they were doing.  “Looks like your steps could use fixing,” said Joe.  “Hope it’s okay.”

“I brought some brownies,” said Amy, handing them to Lucy, whose eyes filled with tears.

“This is the nicest thing anybody’s done for me in ages,” she said.

[1] This story is much expanded from one Richard Eslinger told in his commentary on this passage in Feasting on the Gospels.  There was an actual “woman who shot her husband” in my hometown when I was growing up; I never knew her name, but she did occasionally wait on us at one of the shoe stores downtown.  Her husband had abused her, as I recall, and she did serve a short prison sentence for shooting him.

Sermon for February 12, 2017

February 12, 2017

It’s Still Good News

Luke 7:18-35

If you ever heard Fr. McGuirk speak at a Lenten luncheon, you’ll probably remember something he was known for:  He always began his talks with a joke, and those jokes were usually corny.  But people would listen, just to see what he’d come up with this time.

I didn’t hear this one from Fr. John, but it’s sort of his style.  What do Winnie the Pooh and John the Baptist have in common? (They have the same middle name.)

 

In today’s reading we see another side of John the Baptist, very different from what we saw earlier in the Gospel, when he was preaching in the desert and baptizing all comers.  There John was a firebrand preacher who called folks who presented themselves for baptism a “brood of vipers.”[1]  He even went so far as to criticize the Roman puppet king, Herod, because he’d married his brother’s wife.  That got him shut up in prison, which is most likely where he is when he sends messengers to Jesus with a question.

At this point his tone has changed quite a bit.  You can hear his weariness and discouragement.  “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

But maybe discouragement isn’t all John felt as he sent the question to Jesus.

If we put ourselves in John’s sandals, we can understand his doubt.

None of the other Gospels says so, but in Luke, John and Jesus are cousins.  You can imagine John having grown up listening to his parents telling the story of his miraculous conception, his father’s forced silence, how he, in Elizabeth’s womb, leapt for joy when Mary entered their house.  John was something special, and he knew it; but he always knew that his cousin was even more so.  Nobody would ever let him forget it.

The Gospel doesn’t say the two of them had met, other than when Jesus came to be baptized.  But that’s not necessarily the whole story; the Gospel leaves out most of Jesus’ early years.  We don’t know, but if the family was close, it’s not completely out of the question that they knew each other growing up.  And that could actually have made it that much more likely John could wonder if Jesus was really the Messiah.

Think about the people you knew growing up, especially your cousins and other family members.  If somebody told you that your cousin, a few years older than you, who as a teen had the chest x-ray of a friend who’d swallowed a safety pin hanging in his bedroom window, whose only word to you when you were a bratty five-year-old harassing his world-weary adolescent self was “Leave,” was the Messiah, would you believe it?[2]

But John’s doubt went a step further than just disbelief that someone he’d known his whole life could be the Messiah.  He knew his Scriptures, and knew what the Messiah was supposed to be like.  He expresses some of it in his message at the Jordan, back in chapter 3:  “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the 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.”  They’re images that, while they aren’t necessarily direct quotes from the Hebrew Bible, are certainly in keeping with what we see there.

Like most of his people, John would have had a pretty specific description of what the Messiah was to be like:  The Messiah[3] is to bring about the political and spiritual redemption of the Jewish people by bringing them all back to their land and restoring the city of Jerusalem.[4]  He was expected to establish a government in Israel that will be the center of all world government, both for Jews and Gentiles.[5]  He would rebuild the Temple and re-establish its worship[6]—in John’s time the Second Temple was still standing, although it wasn’t by the time the Gospels were written; but the Second Temple was considered to be rather inferior to the original Temple built by Solomon.  He would restore Israel’s religious court system, and establish Torah as the law of the land.[7]

Sitting in prison, John would probably have heard reports of what Jesus was doing.  Maybe he heard that some people were indeed calling Jesus the Messiah, even though he didn’t exactly fit the picture John had of what the Messiah was supposed to be.

 

There are a lot of reasons why John would have wondered what Jesus was up to, and whether it was he whose coming he’d predicted at the Jordan.  So his question might have contained some doubt, some discouragement; but maybe it also was tinged with hopeful wondering.

That’s sort of the way it is, though, isn’t it?  Our faith in Christ, our hope that the Reign of God truly is at hand, is frequently mixed with some doubt.  As we look toward the Reign of God, following Christ’s example, we hear the words of his servant Dr. King, about how the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.  Then we see the news of the day, and wonder if that arc is just a bent-over sapling that is going to spring back and smack us in the face.

Dr. King preached about, prayed for, dreamed of, and worked to build a better world, and he struggled with depression and despair his whole life.  A fellow civil rights activist, singer and actor Paul Robeson, who was a few years older than Dr. King, spent the last five years of his life in his sister’s house, in bed—not because of a physical condition, but because the fight had utterly broken his spirit and his heart.

 

“Are you the one who is to come, or should we wait for another?”

If the faith and hope of great people like Dr. King and John the Baptist were mixed with doubt and discouragement, surely we can be easier on ourselves and on one another when the same thing happens to us.

Let’s look around—and encourage one another to look around—when we’re wondering whether the Jesus path is really worth it, just like Jesus told John to do.  Perhaps those dark clouds will lift as we see that the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them, the hungry are fed, the strangers are welcomed, the outcast are lifted up, the sorrowful are comforted, the terrified are given peace; and blessed is anyone who keeps moving, keeps believing, keeps hoping, even when doubt creeps in.

[1] Luke 3:1-20.  Luke doesn’t say anything about the way he dressed or what he ate, as Matthew (3:4) and Mark (1:6) both do.

[2] That’s my cousin David, with whom I share a birthday, nine years apart; he’d probably be the first to say that he is most assuredly not the Messiah.

[3] This information is from a Jewish perspective; see http://www.jewfaq.org/mashiach.htm to learn more.

[4] Isaiah 11:11-12; Jeremiah 23:8; 30:3; Hosea 3:4-5

[5] Isaiah 2:2-4; 11:10; 42:1

[6] Jeremiah 33:18

[7] Jeremiah 33:15

Sermon for February 5, 2017

February 5, 2017
Be Well
Luke 7:1-17

A lot of modern folks find the healing stories in the Gospels troublesome.  Especially in the cases where Jesus tells the person who is being healed that their faith has saved them, we wonder if those stories have anything at all to say to us today.  After all, many people have both great faith and great illness; many people have faith that can move mountains while they can’t move their legs; many people have incredible hope in Christ, but can’t see the sunrise or their grandchildren’s smiles.  Where is their miracle?  Thus we find the healing stories hurtful, because we’re not seeing that kind of healing around us today, even among people who are committed followers of Jesus.

Some will give explanations that are frankly unsatisfactory:  Those stories happened while Jesus was walking the earth in the flesh, and since he isn’t here like that now, we can’t expect such miracles; or that was another dispensation, and the age of miracles is now over.  If either of those explanations carries the day, then there’s no point in reading these stories, because they have no relevance whatsoever for our lives today.

A lot of preachers skip the healing stories altogether; but I don’t think we should do that.  The healing stories in the Gospels are as much about showing us who Jesus is as they are about an actual healing that took place.  We saw that last week when Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath, displaying his authority as lord of the Sabbath and giving a foretaste of the wholeness that will be part of the age to come.  In Luke’s Gospel, healing stories carry the added duty of proclaiming “good news of great joy…for all the people,” as the angel announced on the night Jesus was born.

So the question we might wish to ask as we approach the two stories in our reading for today is, “Where can we find ‘good news of great joy…for all the people’ in these two healing miracles?”

 

In the first story, we have a Roman centurion whose slave is sick.  The centurion is a representative of the enemy of Jesus’ people.  Yet he has apparently been a friend to the Jews in that area, even financing the building of their synagogue; so Jewish leaders intervene with Jesus on his behalf.  “He is worthy,” they say, to have you do this for him.

But notice they’re asking Jesus to do something for the centurion, not necessarily for his slave.  And the language indicates that the centurion values this slave highly, not because he is a fellow human being who is suffering, but for the work that the slave does for him.  So the centurion comes to Jesus with mixed motives, but Jesus sees through them and recognizes his great faith—greater than that of many of his fellow Jews, who continue to argue with him about whether he has the authority to heal, to forgive sins, to decide what may or may not be done on the Sabbath.

Where is the “good news of great joy…for all the people” here?  First, Jesus recognizes the faith of a foreigner, even an enemy.  And second, Jesus heals a marginalized person, a slave.  We might wish that Jesus would also transform the relationship between the centurion and his slave, so they might be brothers rather than one exploiting the other.  And who knows?  The text doesn’t say, but maybe the centurion, like so many people who are radically changed when they encounter Jesus, does begin to think differently about the people over whom he has authority.

 

That story is interesting, but given that we don’t have slaves and are not a subject people in a country occupied by a foreign empire, it might have fewer points of contact with our life today than the second one has.

In this second story, Jesus encounters a funeral procession, headed by a widow who is having to bury her only son.  In every time and place, a parent having to bury a child upsets the natural order of things; but in the time and place in which Jesus lived, this widow’s plight was much worse than that.  A childless widow at that time was about as vulnerable as a person could get.  Women didn’t really have any way to support themselves; they were dependent on a man who took care of them—their fathers, then their husbands, and then their sons.

The widow leading the funeral procession out of the town of Nain had been left utterly alone.  She had nobody to depend on, nobody to provide for her, nobody who cared whether she had food to eat or a roof over her head.  As she walked out of Nain following the body of her only son, she had to have felt utterly lost, and utterly hopeless.

Jesus met up with this parade of despair making its way from the city gate to the cemetery, and he had compassion.

I think we often picture Jesus as calm and serene, almost entirely untouched by what’s going on around him.  If he feels compassion, it’s a detached sort of pity that isn’t really involved with the suffering person he’s encountered.  That is most emphatically not what we see in the Gospels, especially not in this story.

When it says Jesus has compassion, the Greek word tells us in what part of the body he experiences that feeling.  Jesus’ compassion for this desolate woman is gut-wrenching.  He enters into this woman’s grief and despair and feels them right alongside her.

And because, as the first story in our reading reminded us, he has authority over sickness and even death, Jesus raises her son from the dead; he sits up, throws off his shroud, and starts talking.  (I wonder what he said.)

 

What’s the “good news of great joy” in this story?  This time it seems obvious, at least in some ways.  The good news is that Jesus has compassion—deep, gut-wrenching compassion—for people who are suffering.  I think, in some cases, it’s very healing and very comforting just to know someone has come alongside us in our hard times.

And you know, that’s where we come in—it’s where we have the opportunity to stop being mere observers and instead become part of the “good news of great joy” we have in Jesus Christ.

We are the body of Christ, you know.  We are the ongoing, living presence of Jesus in the world.  And as Jesus had compassion for those who were in pain, in despair, hopeless, and marginalized in his time and place, so we also have compassion in our time and place.

We may each be moved to compassion by different things.  In some cases, we suffer alongside people who are going through things we have previously dealt with.  In other cases, we’re cut to the heart by circumstances we will never experience.

What moves you to the kind of gut-wrenching, deep compassion that Jesus had for the widow he met on the way to the Nain cemetery?  Is it the suffering of abused or neglected children?  Is it the loneliness of a person who has outlived all their friends?  Is it the fear and uncertainty of a family who leaves their war-torn home to seek refuge among strangers?  Is it the emptiness that follows a terminal diagnosis?  Is it the anxiety and degradation of grinding poverty?

Whatever kind of suffering, whatever kind of need, ties your guts in a knot:  that is the place where you could be called to act as Jesus’ hands, feet, heart and voice alive in this world.

Sermon for January 29, 2017

January 29, 2017
Did Jesus Break the Sabbath?
Luke 6:1-11

In his commentary for Working Preacher this week, Wesley Allen said we’ve got a tough row to hoe preaching on Jesus’ relationship with the Sabbath.[1]  The main reason is because most folks who are going to hear sermons on this subject today do not care about the Sabbath.

Most Christians have not observed the traditional Jewish Sabbath—Friday evening through Saturday evening—for centuries.  And a great many of us don’t even observe a “Christian Sabbath” on Sundays anymore.  We go to church, sometimes, but then we spend the rest of the day in recreation that is hardly restful, or catching up on the housework that didn’t get done during the week because we were busy working or running from one activity to another.  People who are in professions that must operate seven days a week, like first responders and nurses, have always had to work at least some Sundays; but if stores are open Sunday, that means more people have to work.

I would argue that we would do well to recover the practice of Sabbath-keeping.[2]  I’m not the only one; even Prevention magazine published an article several years ago saying we are healthier physically, mentally, and emotionally—not to mention spiritually—when we take one day a week completely off.

I would not, however, argue that we need to be all legalistic about it.  Oftentimes it seems, and this is a problem for Christians as well as Jews, that we want to take the gift of Sabbath—for it is a gift from a loving God—and turn it into a burden.  At various times in our history, we have been so concerned about keeping the Sabbath properly that we’ve made tons of rules governing what may and may not be done on the Sabbath.  It comes from an admirable impulse:  we want to make sure put this gift from God to its proper use, not take it for granted or forget it altogether.  But legalism about the Sabbath brings forth a backlash, which often looks like refusing to have anything to do with Sabbath at all.  And so the stores are open on Sunday—the Christian equivalent of Sabbath—and, apart from going to church, if we do that, it’s just another day.

So we don’t, as a general rule, care about Sabbath anymore.  But our Scripture for today is about Jesus and the Sabbath.  What are we going to do about that?

There are more stories in Luke’s Gospel in which Jesus gets into some kind of trouble on the Sabbath.  But I think the first story in this week’s reading governs them all with its final statement.

“The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”

It’s a statement about the Son of Man’s—Jesus’—relationship to this most important practice of Jesus’ own people.  The other stories, in a way, are commentary, examples of what it means for Jesus to be lord of the Sabbath; this is especially true in our second episode this morning.  It means a great deal more than simply that Jesus is the final authority about what he and his disciples may do on the Sabbath.

Son of Man is an eschatological title.  It is a title used for a figure with a prominent role in the ushering in of the age to come—the kingdom of God, as Jesus called it.

What are some of the things we expect in the age to come?  Isaiah predicted an end to war—they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks[3]—and even that in the animal world, predators and prey would live together in harmony.[4]  Revelation tells us sickness and sin, mourning and crying and pain, will all come to an end when God’s kingdom is fully in charge in this world, and God’s faithful will be saved and occupied in endless worship.[5]  In that day, the Son of Man will sit on the throne with God and rule over heaven and earth.

We know the Son of Man as Jesus Christ, the Messiah.

As I mentioned, the other stories about Sabbath that we find in the Gospels could well be commentary on Jesus’ statement that he is lord of the Sabbath.  If that’s the case, then our second episode today is an example of Jesus’ lordship over the Sabbath, as well as how the Sabbath relates to the age to come.

What we know about the age to come, where the Son of Man will sit on the throne with God, is that it will be an age of peace, justice, and wholeness.  Poverty, persecution, sickness, and despair will all be things of the past.  In the present age, we still have to contend with all those things; but I wonder if we could see the Sabbath as a foretaste of the age to come.

Think about this:  The command to keep the Sabbath appears twice in the Hebrew Bible, once in Exodus 20 and then again in Deuteronomy 5.  The language is a bit different in the two places, and those differences have some significance.  In Exodus we’re commanded to remember the Sabbath, and the reason for this is that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh, and hallowed that seventh day for all generations.[6]  But in Deuteronomy, we’re told to observe the Sabbath as a day of rest, and to let servants, foreigners, and even livestock do the same; because we were slaves in Egypt and know what it means never to get a day off.  Taken together, these two commandments mean that Sabbath is not just important because God rested on the seventh day after creating the world; it’s also important as part of our responsibility to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.[7]

So, in Luke 6, verse 5, Jesus claims for himself the title of Lord of the Sabbath; then in the rest of today’s reading, we have an example of what that means.

With Jesus at the synagogue that day was a man who had a physical disability, described as a “withered right hand.”  Whether he was born that way or whether it was the result of an injury or some other misfortune later in life is not explained, and probably isn’t important.

Jesus calls the man to stand before him, and makes him an object lesson in the continuing argument he’s having with the Pharisees and scribes.  “Okay, you’re so concerned about what is lawful on the Sabbath, so how about this:  Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath?  And is it possible that, if the chance presents itself to do somebody some good, then not doing it is the same thing as doing actual harm?”

Then he heals the man’s hand, simply by having him stretch it out.

 

The age to come will be a time of wholeness, when illnesses and disabilities will be healed.  For now, on the Sabbath, the Son of Man, who is Lord of the Sabbath, brings wholeness and healing to one man, and shows us what will be available to us all one day.  The Sabbath, when we observe it, gives us a taste of what is to come.

[1] Read his commentary at https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3001.

[2] See Wayne Muller’s book Sabbath:  Finding Rest, Renewal and Delight in Our Busy Lives (New York:  Bantam Books, 1999).  Muller actually asserts that a society that does not make space for a Sabbath of some kind is a violent society.

[3] Isaiah 2:4

[4] Isaiah 11:6-9

[5] See Revelation 7:15-17; 21:3-4.

[6] I learned this week that the rabbis derive great importance from the fact that, in Genesis 1, humanity is created on the sixth day, and thus their first full day of existence is a Sabbath day.

[7] Micah 6:8

Sermon for January 22, 2017

January 22, 2017
I Quit
Luke 5:1-11

When a person gets a job for the first time, they have to learn a few things beyond just the mechanics of how to do the actual work.  There are social skills involved that are different from those that help us get along in school or among our friends.  You have to learn how to talk on the phone in a professional manner, and how to have friendly relations with co-workers, with whom you may very well not be friends.  You have to learn how to relate to a supervisor, what an individual boss expects of you, how and how often they want you to be in touch if you have to be out sick, that kind of thing.

One very important thing to learn is the right way to go about quitting a job.  As a general rule, a certain amount of advance notice is preferred—two weeks being the standard in many industries, although it can be considerably more.  Generally speaking, bosses and co-workers don’t think too much of an employee who walks off the job in the middle of a shift—as some of my dad’s dishwashers did one busy Sunday—or just fail to show up at all, without calling, or call an hour before your shift begins and say you aren’t coming back.

I did do that once—only once—when I was very young.  It was just after I’d moved up to Wichita to go to college; I had gotten hired at a casual restaurant, a local place with two or three locations in town.  It was sort of similar to a place like Red Robin, except that they had a bakery and ice-cream counter.  They made hamburger buns and cookies from scratch.  My job was in the bakery, from 3 in the afternoon until everything was made that needed to be made for that night and the next morning, including keeping up with the demand for fresh hamburger buns.

Somehow the boss had gotten it in her head that I had once run a bakery—which I had not, of course, given that I was only 19 at the time—so as soon as she showed me where everything was, and told me, “Oh, by the way, you’re also responsible for serving ice cream to anybody who wants some,” she went home and left me there by myself.  She said I could expect to go home around 7 or 8.

That first night, I was there until 11:00, running myself crazy trying to get everything done and serve ice cream, all by myself with no training at all.

The second night was “Kid’s Night,” which they had once a week; on that night all kids ate free, so the place was packed, and all the kids wanted ice cream and cookies as they left.  I was there until midnight that second night, and I burned myself pretty badly getting a tray of cookies out of the oven.

So when it came time to go to work on the third day, I just plain could not make myself do it.  I called them up and told them I would not be in.  It wasn’t the right thing to do, but I did it.

 

Sometimes the only thing that can be said is, “I quit.”

In our reading today, Simon Peter finds himself at a time like that, although for a very different reason.  He and his partners, the sons of Zebedee,[1] were fishermen; they had just come off a long shift on the lake of Gennesaret (also known as the Sea of Galilee) when the fish just weren’t biting—well, actually, weren’t getting into the nets, but you know what I mean.  No doubt they were discouraged, but not enough to quit, really; anybody who fishes knows that there are just some days when you don’t catch anything, no matter what you try.

It was because they hadn’t caught anything, and their boats were empty, that Jesus was able to borrow one of them so he could go out onto the lake to teach the people who had gathered on the shore.  Jesus might be saying wonderful things from the boat, but the fact remained that they were going to have to go home and tell their families that they didn’t catch any fish last night, and thus they didn’t have any fish to sell today—and, therefore, they had no income for the day.

But when he was done teaching, Jesus did something about that, too.  He had Peter take his boat out into deeper water and let down the nets.  Maybe it was because he’d already figured out there was something about Jesus that Peter did what he said, even though Jesus was no fisherman.[2]  He seems to have been skeptical, but he did it anyway.

That’s sort of the way it is when we act on faith, isn’t it?  We can’t see into the future.  We might even be skeptical that what we’re being called to do will be successful; but we answer the call anyway.

And in this case Peter’s faith is rewarded; they pull in enough fish that their boat can’t hold them all!  The need of Peter and his partners to have fish to sell is very real.  They know what it is to have to go home and tell the family, “Sorry.”  Today they will not have to do that, because Jesus has taken care of their need.

It’s at this point that Peter seems to be overcome with the reality of who and what Jesus is.  And like many others who’ve suddenly found themselves in the presence of divinity, he’s also overcome with the reality of who and what he is—a sinful man.  I am pretty sure Luke means for us to make the connection between this story about Jesus and Peter and stories of others who’ve encountered God’s presence and heard God’s call to turn their lives in a new direction.  I’m especially reminded of Isaiah 6, where Isaiah sees into God’s heavenly throne room and cries out, “Woe is me!…I am a man of unclean lips.”[3]  In that case, a seraph symbolically removes Isaiah’s sinfulness by touching his lips with a burning coal.  Jesus simply accepts Peter as he is, saying, “Do not be afraid.”

 

Sometimes we preachers need to get out of our own way.  Discussion on the Narrative Lectionary Facebook group this week got bogged down when someone declared the image of evangelism or ministry as “fishing for people” to be problematic.  They objected because, let’s face it, most people who fish do it with the intention of killing and eating—or selling to someone else who will kill and eat—what they catch.  Do we really want to say our call to bring people to know Jesus Christ is like the work of catching an animal to kill and eat it?

But we were missing the point.  You can carry any metaphor out too far; the work of ministry is certainly not precisely like the work of fishing.  And I don’t think that’s why Jesus said it.  Nor do I think he intended for it to be universal, the old Sunday school song notwithstanding.  “I will make you fishers of men, if you follow me…”

Of course this is not the only way to think about our ministry as disciples of Jesus Christ.  The reason Jesus told Peter, “From now on you will be catching people,” was because Peter was a fisherman.  What he was saying was that as a follower of Jesus, his life’s work would be transformed.

If Peter had had some other occupation, Jesus might have used a different image to describe his new life.  And if that’s the case, then perhaps we can hear Jesus calling us, right in the midst of the work we are doing.

If you’re a fisherman, now you will be fishing for people.

If you’re a banker, your savings will be the souls of the hopeless.

If you’re a chef, you’ll feed people hungry for bread and for the grace of God.

If you’re a farmer, you will plant seeds of faith, and gather a harvest of disciples.

If you’re a singer, your song is God’s love.

If you’re a teacher, your classroom is the world, and your subject is hope.

If you’re a nurse, you will heal broken hearts and sin-sick souls.

If you’re a carpenter, you will be building the kingdom of God.

If you’re a plumber, you will make a way for the living water to flow.

If you’re a grandparent, your work is loving and welcoming God’s children—all of God’s children.[4]

When Peter heard this, he and his fellow fishermen dropped everything to go with him.  What else could they—could we—do?

[1] There isn’t any mention here of Simon’s brother Andrew, but presumably he was part of the “they” that hauled the nets full of fish up after Jesus sent them out to the deeper water.

[2] This isn’t Peter’s first encounter with Jesus; back in 4:38-41 Jesus is at his house after synagogue services, and heals his mother-in-law of a fever.

[3] Isaiah 6:5

[4] This list is adapted and expanded from the one with which Rev. Christina Berry of First Presbyterian Church in Sterling, Illinois, concluded her sermon for today.