The Foxes Do Not Have the Final Word

SERMON Lent 2C Luke 13 31 35

A fox can scramble over or dig under a 6 foot high fence. It can jump 3 feet in the air. It can even chew through chicken wire! They are the single greatest predator threat to backyard chicken farmers! As hobby chicken keeping has become more popular in recent years, the internet is full of ideas about how to protect your flock: instead of using chicken wire, make all of your fencing out of hardware cloth instead. And, make sure to bury that hardware cloth several inches below the ground, all the way around your chicken coop, to deter foxes from trying to dig under. Or better yet, get an electrified fence, or a really large dog to sound the alarm! Conventional wisdom says that chickens are essentially defenseless, and must be protected and sheltered at all costs by those who hope to keep them producing eggs for their families.

In our passage today, a group of Pharisees want to keep Jesus safe so that he can keep producing miracles for them. Jesus is about halfway through his march towards Jerusalem, where (as he has already told his followers) he will face rejection, suffering, and death.  The Pharisees warn him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you!” It’s important to note here that Herod, the tetrarch of Galilee, has already executed John the Baptist for his faithful work as God’s prophet. This is a very real threat. But, instead of shaking in his boots or heeding these warnings and heading for cover, Jesus declares with defiance, “I have a message you can send to that weasel from me, Go and tell that fox, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.’”

Jesus sends word to Herod that he has life-changing, life-saving work to do right here and now, and he plans to carry on with his ministry every single day until he reaches Jerusalem. He’s headed toward Jerusalem, but he stops in each town and village along the way to comfort and heal and even raise the dead. His ministry to real people who are hurting is of the utmost importance to Jesus and nothing will deter or distract him from this ministry of healing. Jesus portrays himself as a broody, hen in this passage, loving and providing life-giving comfort and shelter and warmth for the people the same way a Mother provides for her chicks. Jesus laments that as Mother, his deep desire is to gather under his wings even those who reject his message and cause harm. Jesus does gather the suffering and marginalized to his chest, and even wishes the foxes of this world –like Herod- would accept the love he offers and be gathered under those same wings. The tragedy of the gospel, for Jesus, is not the fact that he is going to die, but rather it’s that so many reject his love and actively try to impede his mission to love the marginalized.

Jesus knows where he’s going and the danger that awaits him, and yet he chooses to walk toward Jerusalem anyway. Jesus knows that death on the cross is but the second to last stage of God’s mission for him.  For on the third day he will complete his work. Neither death nor those who threaten death have the last word, for the last word will always be resurrected life. Jesus knows that death is coming, but so too is life everlasting, and the knowledge of that promise gives even Jesus the inner strength to press on defiantly in the face of the danger he faces.

Theologian Dr. David Lose writes, “Absent all the stories prior to Jesus’ arrival at Jerusalem, we might imagine that Jesus’ death is the story of one more tragic account of a senseless, unnecessary, even unjust death. But Jesus didn’t die accidentally. He died precisely because he gave attention to those the larger world deemed insignificant and proclaimed a God who embraced and loved all, not just a few. Similarly, Jesus’ resurrection is a story of the triumph of sacrificial love over death, hate, injustice, bigotry, and all that stands against the will of God to love, bless, and save the whole world.”

Jesus’ death was not the end of his works of healing and liberation, but his work was completed through his resurrection and continues to this very day, wherever Christians put their reputations and even lives on the line for those who are marginalized.

Jesus does not allow the foxes of this world to dictate or impede God’s action on behalf of humanity. Yes, there are scary and oppressive forces in our world, there are those who would prefer God’s message stay silent and the vulnerable stand undefended, but Jesus invites us as his church to participate in his ongoing work of performing cures and setting the captives free and standing up for what is just and faithful.

This Lent during adult faith formation, we will be remembering the lives and ministries of Harriet Tubman, Patrick of Ireland, Oscar Romero, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Each one of these saints of the church carried out Christ’s mission at different times and in different parts of the world, and each one of them risked their reputation, comfort, and bodily safety for the sake of sharing the message of Christ’s love for all people and standing up for the dignity of all human life. Oscar Romero and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were martyred as enemies of the state for proclaiming Christ’s love and justice and standing on behalf of the oppressed in El Salvador and Germany.

In a speech to the Catholic University of Belgium, on February 2, 1980, Romero said, “In less than three years, more than fifty priests have been attacked, threatened, calumniated. Six are already martyrs–they were murdered. Some have been tortured and others expelled [from the country]. Nuns have also been persecuted. The archdiocesan radio station and educational institutions that are Catholic or of a Christian inspiration have been attacked, threatened, intimidated, even bombed. Several parish communities have been raided. If all this has happened to persons who are the most evident representatives of the Church, you can guess what has happened to ordinary Christians, to the campesinos, catechists, lay ministers, and to the ecclesial base communities. There have been threats, arrests, tortures, murders, numbering in the hundreds and thousands…. But it is important to note why [the Church] has been persecuted. Not any and every priest has been persecuted, not any and every institution has been attacked. That part of the church has been attacked and persecuted that put itself on the side of the people and went to the people’s defense. Here again we find the same key to understanding the persecution of the church: the poor.”

Oscar Romero was martyred on March 24, 1980, while celebrating mass.

Neither death nor those who threatened death had the last word in Nazi Germany or El Salvador’s civil war. Through their inspiring examples of faithfulness to Jesus and his mission of love and justice for the vulnerable, the stories of Bonhoeffer and Romero live on as examples to all the faithful who have come after them.

Jesus’ resurrection completes his work, and gives us the strength and faith to continue his life-changing, life-saving mission in all times and places. No matter what threats we may face today or tomorrow, the promise that strengthened Jesus is the same promise that strengthens us: death will not be the end of our story, but our work is complete when we rise with Christ, Romero, Bonhoeffer, Tubman, Patrick, and all the saints.    Amen.

Spiritual Fitness is a Marathon and not a Sprint

SERMON Lent 1 Luke 4 1 13

I can’t tell you how many times throughout the course of my life, I’ve ended up injured when starting a new exercise regimen! As we all know, exercise is good and healthy for us, it helps us feel better, sleep better, have more energy, and can even help us live longer! But, we all sometimes forget or ignore our physical limitations. Sometimes I get so excited to start a new program, that I dive in and do the whole workout before seeing how it will affect me, and then I end up the next day on the couch feeling like I’m dying from this thing that’s supposed to make me live longer.

It turns out, the road to physical fitness is a marathon and not a sprint. It takes time and intentionality to build good habits. If improving our physical fitness really is a priority, then we must carve out time in our schedules for it and persistently build up to our goals. We can’t go from the couch to a 5k overnight.  Rather, we must train our bodies gradually over the course of time to be receptive to new kinds of exercise and even to grow to love it so that we don’t end up incapacitated on the couch or giving up all together because we did too much too fast.

The road to physical fitness is a marathon and not a sprint, and the same is true of our spiritual fitness. As we begin the holy season of Lent, we each begin a spiritual fitness regimen to deepen our relationships with God and with one another. We do not engage in generous almsgiving, prayer, and fasting as a means to achieve our own salvation –God’s grace alone is sufficient to save us- bur rather, the spiritual disciplines stretch our spirits and open us up to deeper experience of God and deeper love of neighbors. The spiritual practices of Lent are used to as exercise for our spirits, to get us back into spiritual shape as we return to God with our whole hearts. In making our relationship with God a priority and carving out time and intentional practices to cultivate our love of God and neighbor, we gradually return to the covenant God made with us in Holy Baptism and renew our relationship with God as we journey with Jesus through death and into life in 40 days.  Spiritual preparation is a marathon and not a sprint. And in our reading today, Jesus similarly spent 40 days preparing himself to live out his vocation as God’s son.

Just after he was baptized and anointed by the Holy Spirit, before he began his public ministry, Jesus spent 40 days alone in the wilderness. The wilderness is the historic place of spiritual preparation of God’s people, Israel. It’s the training gym of the spirit. Jesus fasted and he prayed for 40 days. And Jesus reflects on what it means for him to be God’s Son, just as we will reflect for 40 days on what it means for us to be a child of God.

Scripture tells us that at the end of those 40 days, Jesus was famished. He was vulnerable. And he was tempted by the devil.

After 40 days of fasting, the devil whispered in his ear, “Hey Jesus, why are you doing this to yourself? Since you are the Son of God, why don’t you just turn those stones over there into some bread. You’ll feel so much better, and it will be so easy for you. You know, since you’re God’s son.”

And Jesus took a deep breath and drew his strength from the Word of God, saying, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”

And then the devil, that old liar, showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, all their luxuries and conveniences, and whispered again in Jesus’ ear, “What good is power if you’re not allowed to use it for your own needs? I’ll give you powers to make all your dreams come true. You won’t have to follow my agenda or mission for your powers, you can have all of these luxuries and conveniences! All you have to do is worship me.”

 

And again, tempting as those luxuries must have seemed at the time, Jesus clung to his convictions, responding to the devil’s temptations with the Word of God, saying, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

And finally, the devil whisked Jesus away to Jerusalem and placed him on the highest point of the Temple, and once more whispered in his ear, “Don’t you want proof that God is worthy of your allegiance? Don’t you want proof that God will have your back when it counts? You’re giving up so much for the sake of following God’s mission for you. Your life would be so much easier if you didn’t have these principles. If I were you, I’d want proof that God would save me when it counts. Since you are God’s son, throw yourself down from here and watch the angels catch you! It’ll be hilarious! After all, it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you to protect you, and on their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

And Jesus was now famished and angry, his patience had run out, for the devil had twisted a beautiful psalm about TRUSTING God in times of trial, into a temptation to test God. Jesus said, “Everyone with any sense knows, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

 

Jesus fasted and prayed and was tempted in the wilderness for 40 days. The temptations of Jesus were never about proving his identity as God’s Son, but rather all of the temptations were about HOW he would live out his vocation as God’s son. Isn’t this the temptation we each face as followers of Jesus? At the Baptismal font, our identities as children of God were secured and assured. We are God’s beloved children. And yet, we sometimes fail to live like it. We sometimes fail to live like we are loved beyond measure. We may engage in self-destructive behaviors or get jealous and lash out at others. We may fall away from God and instead use our time and energy and resources to serve only ourselves. Each and every one of us faces our own temptations. And unlike Jesus, sometimes when the devil catches us vulnerable or irritable, we do give in to the whispers that lead us away from God.

Spiritual fitness is a marathon and not a sprint. In those moments when we sin, we don’t just give up on our relationship with God and spend the rest of the month on the couch feeling hopeless and sorry for ourselves. Rather, through God’s grace, we are constantly welcomed back to the font, back to the forgiveness of sins, and back into relationship. We are God’s children forever, and through the Holy Spirit, God works with and through us as we engage in the disciplines of Lent: prayer, fasting, generous giving, works of love, and study of scripture. God works in us through these faith practices to strengthen our resolve for the next time the devil comes whispering nonsense in our ears. God uses our spiritual training this season to teach us HOW to live as God’s beloved children, so that these lessons may stay with us all year long, so that next year we may start this journey in a spiritually fitter place than we are today. The Christian life is a marathon, not a sprint. And the Holy Spirit is our personal trainer, working with us every step of the way to mold us into who God calls us to be for the sake of the world. Today you may only spend 5 minutes in prayer, but perhaps by the second week you’ll be up to 10 minutes, and perhaps by the third week you’ll be up to 15, and so forth and so on until you experience God as your constant, beloved companion throughout the day. No matter what your starting point may be this first week of Lent, God loves you and encourages you to practice your faith and strengthen your spirit this Lent. Amen.

Spoiler Alert! Death is not how the story ends.

SERMON Transfiguration C Luke 9 29 36

I am impossible to watch movies with –so my husband tells me. I always want to know what’s going to happen next, I have a million questions about what’s going to happen next. I absolutely hate suspense! Though I absolutely love the thrill of a solved mystery, I just can’t handle lots of suspenseful music and drama. Even at my age, if a detective show gets too intense, I will cover my face with a blanket like my 7 year old son, or stare into my phone until the suspense is over! If something on Netflix has ended with a cliffhanger, I will keep watching until the trailer for the next episode tells me everything’s going to be ok. While most people avoid them, I happen to LOVE spoilers.

I think the reason I’m like this is because Netflix offers us a special privilege that doesn’t exist in real life –a glimpse into the future! Spoilers for what’s going to happen in the next episode, and even the next season! Could you imagine how it would change our lives if we knew exactly what would happen to us and the ones we love next month or even next year? I think we’d all walk around amazed and terrified all at the same time!

And I imagine that’s how Peter, James, and John walked down that mountain of transfiguration –amazed and terrified all at the same time!

The Transfiguration is Jesus’ gift to his disciples and to us. It’s the preview for what we can expect in the next season of his life, and in this next season of the Church year.

Eight days earlier, while Jesus was praying, he asked his disciples, “Who do the people say that I am?” And they responded, “John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.” And then he asked them the question he still asks his disciples, “But you all really know me, who do YOU say that I am?” And Peter rightly proclaimed, “You are the Messiah of God.”

Wow! Amazing.

And Jesus told them that as the Messiah, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the religious authorities, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

How…Terrifying!

Perhaps, as the fully human Son of God, even Jesus was terrified by his knowledge of his coming crucifixion. In Luke’s gospel, the disciples do not respond to this first passion prediction. I imagine that the disciples all pulled the blanket over their heads or stared into their phones, pretending to not really hear what he was saying about his fate. It was too terrible, too terrifying to think about it happening to Jesus.

Perhaps even Jesus was terrified. For we’re told that 8 days later, he brings his closest disciples (Peter, James, and John) up the mountain to pray with him. It’s worth noting that in times of fear and struggle, Jesus himself turned to prayer for comfort and strength. Jesus prayed most earnestly, and his disciples -spiritual works in progress- started to fall asleep. But the scripture says they were startled wide awake by what happened next! Jesus’ face, which they knew so well, became changed before their very eyes, he began shining with divine glory –and even his clothes turned dazzling white. And if that weren’t enough, Elijah and Moses stood right there by his side in their heavenly attire. Elijah and Moses discussed with Jesus his coming departure –his exodus- which would happen in Jerusalem. Jesus’ exodus would be the continuation and completion of Moses and Elijah’s work as God’s prophets. Just as Moses led God’s people through the wilderness to the Promised Land, so Jesus –the Messiah of God- would set God’s people free from the fear and bondage of death. Jesus is our deliverer, paving the way through the wilderness of Good Friday and into the promised land of resurrected life. God’s people would be healed and set free once and for all through the terrifying and amazing events that would happen to Jesus in Jerusalem.

Perhaps Elijah and Moses even gave Jesus some pointers as to what to expect in an extraordinary death, perhaps their purpose for being there was to give Jesus’ a glimpse into the first few minutes of his next episode, to comfort him and give him strength.

But the purpose of Jesus’ transfiguration was to give his disciples a glimpse of the glory beyond the painful suspense of Good Friday. Jesus was transfigured before them to reveal the core truth of our faith to his closest friends, to spoil the dramatic ending of his earthly life.  As Frederick Buechner said, “The worst thing is never the last thing, it’s the next to last thing. The last thing is the best. It’s the power from on high that comes down into the world, that wells up from the rock bottom worst of the world, like a hidden spring.” All of that rejection, suffering, and death that Jesus will weather, that is not how his story ends. The worst thing we can imagine, is NEVER the last thing. Rejection, suffering, and death, it’s not how our stories end either. Spoiler alert! The glory we see on Jesus’ face today reminds us that –as God’s beloved children- we will one day shine with the reflection of God’s heavenly glory. Each and every one of us will one day join the saints all dressed in dazzling white! No matter how bleak our present circumstances may seem, our story ends with shining glory and eternal life in the heavenly chorus.

This is the gospel of life that sets us free and transforms the way we live our lives today. And we need this very good news –this sneak preview of the glory that awaits us- to sustain us when our own lives feel too on edge with fear and suspense. No matter what happens in our families, with our health, with our jobs, or in our world, through Christ we have glimpsed the ending of our own stories, and it’s an ending not to be missed! Until the very best, very last thing comes, God sustains and strengthens us in our Christian lives with the promise of salvation, the belief in God’s eternal love for us, and a whole community of fellow disciples who surround us in prayer and support when life gets hard. These pillars of our faith give us strength and grace to face whatever Jerusalem lies ahead in our own lives. Amen.

Advanced Methods of Discipleship: Loving those who are hardest to love.

SERMON Epiphany 7C Luke 6 27 38

When I began college, I was eager to dive in and learn everything there was to know about my chosen subject, but I was introduced to the concept of prerequisite classes! I had to take Intro to Psychology, a 100 level class, before I could move on in the 200s to Research Methods and Statistics (my least favorite class), before I could take Psychopharmacology in the 300s, which helped prepare me for Abnormal Psychology in the 400s.

Anything worth doing, whether it’s getting an education, raising a family, planning and implementing a new project at work, changing to a healthier lifestyle, or making more space in your life for prayer –anything worth doing requires hard work and intentionality. In any endeavor that will produce growth, we can expect some growing pains along the way. We may have to take classes we’d rather not –like statistics-, in order to get us to where we need to be in order to grow. The same is true for the life of discipleship.

As Christians, we’re meant to grow in faith and discipleship throughout the course of our lives. The Holy Spirit works through us to produce spiritual fruit and growth and to equip us and stretch us as we engage in spiritual practices that are difficult. We all begin the life of faith as spiritual children, and then –as we practice our faith throughout the lifespan- by the grace of the Holy Spirit we grow into spiritual maturity.

St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Corinthians about this experience of spiritual growth. He wrote, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child, but when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.”

This practice of putting an end to spiritually childish ways is precisely what Jesus is preaching about in this section of his sermon on the plain.

While, “love your neighbor as you love yourself” is Jesus’ “Discipleship 101 class,” today Jesus brings out the really challenging material! “Love your enemies…. Do unto others –ALL others- as you would have them do unto you.” This is Jesus’ “Advanced Methods of Discipleship” class.

All of those people upon whom Jesus just proclaimed woe last week…. he now turns around and urges his disciples to love them. ALL of them. Love is the power to transform our world as it is into our world as it should be! Love –especially this most challenging kind of love- is the power to transform the hearts and lives of enemies and turn them toward the Lord. Our love is a radical witness of God’s radical grace. Our love reminds our enemies that the Lord loves them, which is a difficult truth for us to swallow, but it is the truth. God loves everyone –even those whom we find hardest to love. Even those whom we would love to judge and condemn and call down woe upon. To our baser instincts of revenge and resentment, Jesus preaches, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you… Do to others as you would have them do to you.”  Love of enemies is counterintuitive, countercultural, and most definitely counter anything WE would want to do! But it is what Christ calls us to. It is the way of spiritual growth and maturity.

Christian love is not loving only those who love us back –Jesus says everyone does that! And, Christian love is not even JUST about loving our unknown neighbors and turning them into friends. But mature Christian love –the active kind of love- is about loving those in our lives who are hardest to love: those whom we know and who get on our last nerve, or who have deeply hurt us. Mature Christian love is choosing to treat others the same way you would want to be treated, even when they’ve spread rumors about you, or broken your heart, or verbally attacked you, or worst of all when they’ve physically harmed you or the ones you love.

This was a challenge for our family last year after our car accident. We kept getting all of these letters in the mail about being the victims in a crime and asking if we wanted to seek financial restitution from the person who hit us. He was driving drunk with his own child in the car when he slammed into the back of us and sped away. When someone causes such a disruption in your life or could have seriously hurt your children, the natural temptation is to cry out “throw the book at him!” But, Eric and I prayed hard for him and decided not to seek anything because that poor man was in enough trouble as it was. If he was driving drunk with a child in the car in the middle of the afternoon, then he surely needs help and healing from whatever caused him to make such terrible choices. I wish I could say that we contacted the man who was driving that pickup truck and told HIM that we forgive him and wish him wholeness and healing, but to our shame we didn’t. We’re still growing as disciples too.

Mature discipleship is coming to a place where we can act lovingly and compassionately even toward those people who have caused us harm. This is hard and holy work. And it’s truly only possible through God’s grace, which allows us to follow Christ’s example of forgiveness and compassion.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting, and it definitely doesn’t mean faking warm and fuzzy feelings, but it means letting go of the knots within our own hearts that make our chests feel tight with resentment.

Now, this message of forgiveness and love of enemies does NOT mean returning to an abusive situation! Christ says pray for those who abuse you, and that’s about it. Tragically, for millennia, these challenging teachings of Jesus have been used by those in positions of power to justify oppression and systemic abuses, even within the Church. To this day we see stories of abuse in the news covered up and justified in a myriad of evil ways. Today, I pray each person here hears the words of Jesus as he truly intends for them to be heard –as good news of healing and empowerment for those who have been harmed. When Jesus said “Turn the other cheek” he was making a powerful statement in favor of nonviolent resistance to abuses of power. In the ancient world, those in power would beat their subservients with the back of their hands, and would only beat those of equal status with an open palm. When Jesus says “turn the other cheek” he’s saying “if they’re going to beat you anyway, make sure they have to face you as their equal, rather than continuing to treat you as less than.” “Turn the other cheek” does not mean “allow yourself to continue to put up with abuse.” Rather, it’s a statement meant to shock the abusers into ending the cycle of abuse.  Jesus says pray for those who abuse you, but you have no obligation to return to or stay in a situation of abuse.  Pray for those who abuse you, and for yourself for the power to heal and move forward in this blessed life God intends for you.

Forgiveness does not mean excusing horrible behavior, but it means moving forward spiritually. And forgiveness is not something that we can always accomplish through our own will alone, but in conjunction with God’s grace at work within us over the course of a whole lifetime. God accompanies us on our journey of forgiveness, and holds us close for as long as it takes to bring us peace. Forgiveness is  not for our enemy’s benefit, but for our own spiritual peace.

Mature Christian love is not defined by warm and fuzzy feelings for horrible people, but rather by the compassion to understand that no one starts out life treating others in horrible ways. Love of enemies is pausing to understand that something terrible must have happened in their lives to cause them to behave in such a way. When we have compassion for what others have been through or for what they may be going through right now, we have no choice but to put away the spiritually childish practices of judgment and condemnation, and to grow in forgiveness and grace toward even those who are hardest to love.

These “Advanced Methods of Discipleship” is hard and holy work, but Jesus promises, “Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, for God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate….The measure of grace you give to others will be the measure you get back.” Amen.

On Blessings and Woes

SERMON Epiphany 6C Luke 6 17 26

The beatitudes are kind of crazy. And that’s entirely Jesus’ point. While none of us want to be poor or hungry or weeping or hated, in Luke’s beatitudes Jesus challenges us even further, continues his sermon with a litany of woes or curses, saying, “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 scoffing and ridiculing now, for you will mourn and weep, Woe to you when everyone wants to cozy up to you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

This is a hard word! And that’s ok, because the hard words of Jesus lead us to wrestle and ponder more deeply the true meaning of our faith.

While we may not be as wealthy as Jeff Bezos, each and every one of us are rich by global and biblical standards, simply by the fact that we live in homes and have food to eat and perhaps a little left over for a rainy day. So, is Jesus talking about us, his 21st century disciples who enjoy a comfortable life? Is it opposed to the kingdom of God to have enough food on our tables or to have wealth? The short answer is “No.”  Jesus has been working through all of his disciples, including wealthy disciples, since the beginning of the Church. In fact, the gospel of Luke is dedicated in chapter 1 to Theophilus, a faithful disciple whose financial support provided for Luke’s needs in the time it took him to compile and write down this gospel. Talk about God having a sense of humor! Theophilus,’ who would have certainly been considered rich by 1st century standards, made possible the writing of this gospel which reveals Christ’s mission to bring good news to the poor!

And that’s what these blessings and woes are meant to be- good news for the poor, the hungry, and the weeping. These groups need to hear his good news most urgently! These are the groups who need to know that while the world rejects them and causes them to feel shame, that there is a place –a home- for them in the kingdom of God where they are not only accepted, but honored. These groups are the same ones who have been following Jesus around in search of healing. The multitude that gathered around him in that plain were from the country and the city, and even from around the Gentile territories of Tyre and Sidon. This was a diverse multitude, united together around a common trait: they all NEEDED Jesus. These are desperate people, people with nothing left to lose but their source of shame. So, Jesus came down from the mountain where he had been praying, and came down to earth where the people who needed him were gathered, and they all scramble to touch him, for the scripture tells us that “power came out from him and healed all of them.”

This desperate multitude who had been rejected and shamed by polite society, this is the audience to whom Jesus was speaking when he began to preach about God’s vision for our world –a grand reversal of the systemic honor and shame upheld by polite society.

In God’s kingdom, the world’s ideals of honor and shame are obliterated. In God’s kingdom, the last shall be first, the hungry shall eat their fill, the poor shall be honored, and those who weep will be comforted by God’s own presence with them. In the kingdom of God, the shame and loathing that people have endured will be removed as those precious ones are placed in positions of honor, and treated with dignity and love. In God’s vision for our world- when God’s kingdom comes in its fullness- no child will go hungry on the weekends, no one will be homeless –at risk of freezing in these elements, no elder will be abandoned in their old age, and no one will die because they can’t afford their insulin. In God’s kingdom, every person’s needs will be met because every person has inherent value to God.

The kingdom of God began with Jesus’ life and ministry, but it is still unfolding before us and through us. The Lord’s will will not be fully done in our world until Jesus Christ comes again in glory. Until that time, Jesus sets his disciples to work, and our work as the Church is to participate in making the Lord’s gracious will a tangible reality, one relationship at a time.

So what about these woes then?

The woes are for all who willfully stand in the way of God’s kingdom coming, those who get fat off of other people’s poverty, those whose greed and love of money is more important to them than Christ’s command to love thy neighbor, those who continue to stigmatize and shame the poor and the sick.

Jesus is not proclaiming woe on his disciples who happen to have wealth, but rather on those who cling to their wealth as their primary source of comfort and consolation in life. Jesus is preaching woe to those who find their core identity in their wealth and privilege, like the rich man in the parable which Jesus would preach later in Luke’s gospel. That rich man feasted sumptuously night and day and yet walked by poor Lazarus every single day at his gate and never gave him so much as a crumb from his table or a cool rag to soothe his sores. That rich man never once heeded the words of the law and the prophets to show mercy and justice to the poor and the sick. That rich man was then surprised when he ended up in eternal judgment while Lazarus enjoyed paradise in the comforting arms of Father Abraham.

Jesus doesn’t want anyone to meet that fictional rich man’s fate! Jesus wants us to hear his words of both blessing and woe–the very same message of mercy and justice present in the law and the prophets. And then Jesus expects us to heed his words, and live accordingly –in obedience to God’s will of mercy for our world. Jesus calls us to be his partners in making his kingdom a present reality for the poor, the sick, and the suffering.

We partner with Jesus today in sharing this same good news with the poor. Instead of only concerning ourselves with the food on our tables, we share the food God provides for us with our neighbors in need through the WELL and Food for Thought. An action as simple as remembering to put some pudding packs or tuna kits or cans of pasta or oatmeal in our shopping carts brings joy and good news to the children who receive them. The kingdom of God looks like children having enough food to eat on the weekends. The kingdom of God looks like individuals suffering with addictions or mental health concerns finding a place here at Luther Memorial to heal, recover, and experience God’s supportive love. The kingdom of God looks like the genuine, non-judgmental welcome all people receive when they walk through our doors for the first time. The kingdom of God looks like a place where all people find love and honor instead of ridicule and shame.

In Washington, DC there is a high end restaurant, the Sakina Grill, that is serving as an embassy of the Kingdom of God. The owner is a wealthy Pakistani-American, who says he’s on a mission from God. His restaurant is beautifully decorated, his food is highly praised, but his business model has many skeptics. Every day, Mr. Mannon feeds any and every homeless person who walks through his door for free. They sit in the same beautiful dining room as his paying patrons. He treats them all as his guests, regardless of their ability to pay for their meals. And not only does he feed their stomachs, but he goes above and beyond to care for them with dignity. He knows that some of his guests do not have enough teeth to chew through their meat, so he makes sure to serve up tender, boneless chicken so that those persons can enjoy their food just as much as anyone else.  Last year, Sakina grill gave away 16,000 free meals!  Mr. Mannon wants to set an example to fellow business owners, that you can welcome the homeless with open arms and an open heart and not ruin your business. He says that he is trying to worship the creator through the act of serving food to those who are hungry. He wants everyone to learn that loving and caring for others brings the greatest joy, the greatest blessing in life! Amen.

Invited to be Jesus’ Companions in Life and Mission

SERMON Epiphany 5C Luke 5 1 11

I absolutely love Dr. Who! I love the adventure, the drama, the non-violent problem solving, and the emotional warmth of the characters. Though the plot lines are often complex, I find many theologically significant themes in each episode of the show. Dr. Who is an alien who can travel throughout all of time and space. The Doctor never dies, but rather, when they sustain enough physical damage, they regenerate into a new bodily form. As such, the Doctor is one of the oldest and wisest beings in the universe. This past year, the Doctor regenerated into a female bodily form, and as is customary with each new incarnation of the character, after a harrowing experience with a group of 3 loosely acquainted humans, she invited them all on the adventure of a lifetime –the opportunity to travel through time and space with her as her companions!

With every incarnation of Doctor Who comes a new set of travelling companions, and these ones truly stand out as faithful representatives of humanity. They are: male, female, young, old, Indian, Black, White, organized, good with people, good with machines,  suffering from coordination disabilities, suffering from grief, trying to forgive, and fighting against the natural human desire for revenge.

These companions are in a word, human. Perfectly imperfect. And yet, the Doctor calls them to her side to participate in her work of loving and saving the universe. She chooses them as they are, and she lovingly calls them her “fam.”

In Luke’s gospel today, Jesus similarly chooses his travelling companions –the ones who will become his closest friends, the inner circle of his disciples.

Jesus has just been booted out of his hometown, Nazareth. Unless he wants to be thrown off a cliff, he can’t go back home again. So, he travels around nearby Capernaum healing the sick and casting out demons. Jesus is already doing amazing work, but at the end of the day he has no one to share his life with –no one to crack jokes with, no one to lean on when the pain of rejection begins to set in, no one to share in his work of healing and loving the world. The crowds are already beginning to follow him around. But having fame is not the same as having friends.

Jesus told the crowds that his mission was to “proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God.” And that’s just what he was trying to do by Lake Genneserat when the crowds began to press in on him and overwhelm him. With nowhere to go but in the water, Jesus caught the eye of a fisherman whose mother-in-law he’d healed the day before. Jesus got in his empty boat, and began to preach the good news to the crowds on the shoreline.

When he finished preaching the good news, he embodied the good news to the fishermen. They’d caught nothing after a whole night’s work, they were tired and frustrated and ready to go home to their beds. And Jesus said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon was skeptical, but obedient, saying, “Master, we have worked all night long, but have caught nothing. Yet, if you say so, I will let down the nets.”

Simon let down the nets, and they caught so many fish that the nets began to break! So, they called for their partners, James and John, to come and help haul the fish into their boat as well. There were so many fish, such amazing abundance, such amazing blessing, that they weren’t prepared to handle such grace! Even with the second boat’s help, they began to sink under the weight of this amazing catch of fish!

Jesus had just been preaching about the good news of God’s kingdom, and now he enacted the good news of God’s kingdom for these fishermen –more fish than they possibly knew what to do with! More than enough fish for all the people still standing on the shoreline, hanging hungrily on Jesus’ every word.

If they had stayed in their vocations, Simon, James, and John could perhaps have become rich men off that one miraculous catch of fish. But Simon Peter knew that this catch was not theirs, but the Lord Almighty’s! They had worked all night and caught nothing, there were no fish left to catch! Only God could produce such abundance on such short notice! Overwhelmed with humility, Simon Peter recognized Jesus’ divine power and responded in the same way many of God’s prophets responded when they found themselves in God’s presence, he said, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” As if to say, “I’m not worthy to even look upon you.” Simon Peter was transformed from obedient skeptic to true believer!

And in that moment, Jesus knew that he had found his travelling companions. They were hard workers, they recognized his divine power, they respected his authority and obeyed him even when what he asked was unexpected or illogical, they were faithful and they were human.

Jesus invited Simon and his partners, James and John, on the adventure of a lifetime, saying “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”

You will be changing lives through the good news of God’s kingdom!

And they left everything, even that miraculous catch of fish and the wealth it promised, and followed Jesus for the rest of their lives.

Peter, James, and John became Jesus’ inner circle of disciples, they were his “fam” and his co-workers in carrying out his mission to love and heal the world through the good news of God’s kingdom.

Were they the perfect disciples? Definitely not! They were all still sinners, just sinners who happened to follow and share life and ministry with Jesus!

Simon was a bit of an oaf, he said and did things all the time before thinking them all the way through. In fact, Jesus gave him the nickname “Peter” –which means Rock, as in dependable, but also dense.

Simon was far from perfect. But, Jesus loved him! He had passion, and he loved and served the Lord with his whole heart.

The Sons of Zebedee, James and John, were also far from perfect. Their nickname was “sons of thunder”! They both had hot tempers and were prone to desire revenge. These are the same guys who wanted to rain down fire from heaven on the town that rejected Jesus. But, Jesus loved them. They were faithful and loyal and did whatever was needed to serve his mission.

Jesus has been calling imperfect people to his side since the very beginning of his ministry, and he’s never stopped to this day. Paul, in 1st Corinthians confesses that not only was he not a perfect disciple, but that he was at the very bottom of the pack –the least of the apostles! Not only was he a hot head, but he spent his early career sentencing Christians to death! Paul felt great pain and shame about the sin of his youth, and over his ongoing failure to be a perfect disciple.  But Jesus loved Paul dearly. Paul shares with us truly a verse to take to heart as 21st century imperfect disciples. He writes, “By the grace of God, I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them –though it was not I, but the grace of God that is within me.”

God knows our struggles, God knows where we’ve each been, God knows all about our short comings today. And yet, Jesus still chooses us- he still hand picks us to be his disciples! Like the miraculous catch of fish, his abundant grace is still at work within each of us, giving us whatever we need to do the work he calls us to in his name. By the grace of God, Jesus transforms us, guides us, and works through us to communicate his love and blessing to those around us.

We may not be perfect disciples, but there never has been a perfect disciple of Jesus Christ. And yet, Jesus loves us anyway. The only ones Jesus has ever called family have been imperfect people, called, gathered, enlightened, and equipped through the Holy Spirit, and sent out to continue the good news work Jesus started. Amen.

 

 

As We Live in Love, We Grow in Love

Epiphany 4 C 1 Corinthians 13

“When we are who God intends for us to be, what do we value, what do we make time for, and most importantly how do we act in ways that reflect who God has called us to be as the Church? When we are Christian community at our best, what do we look like?”  We’ll ponder these and other questions during our R3 workshop next Sunday.  As we write down the answers to these questions, we will develop a written framework for our life together as a congregation –we will design a mission statement.

While very in vogue right now, as the church and world change rapidly around us, this concept of a written framework for communal Christian life is nothing new! In the 6th century, St. Benedict of Nursia faced a similar period of dramatic change within the world and the church. The world and the church was still reeling from the sack of Rome. It was a time to ponder “who are we, who are we called to be, what should our life together look like?” So, St. Benedict developed what he called a “little rule” for those living in Christian community in his monastery. This rule was a set of practices that offered a counterpoint to the chaotic, self-serving way of life in the world. Benedict’s rule was designed to help ordinary Christians live in a way that helped them better love God, self, and neighbor all while living together in healthy Christian community. Core principles and values in Benedict’s rule for community include: worship, work, study, prayer, humility, obedience, equality, and hospitality.  To this day, Christians the world over –both formal monastics and ordinary people working 9-5 jobs- still follow his rule as a written framework for what it looks like to live a Christian life.

Benedict called his framework a rule, but it’s not really a set of strict rules like we think of rules today. He was using the word rule from the original Greek word, “canon”, which is better translated as “trellis.” A trellis is a tool for training plants to grow in a certain direction, in our case, as Christians we are all being trained to grow toward God and neighbor. A trellis provides a supportive structure for the plant to live its healthiest life, and when it comes to bearing fruit, the trellis allows the grapevine to produce far more, far healthier fruit than if it were left to grow along the ground with no uplifting support. Since the beginning, we Christians have needed supportive structures, frameworks, to help us make sense of how to live our lives in service to God and to our neighbors.

What we read in 1 Corinthians 13 is not a soaring love poem only to be read at weddings and funerals, but truly a framework for daily living, a mission statement to help the early church in Corinth know how to live together in  Christian community. St. Paul wrote this letter to a congregation in conflict. The Corinthians were a mess, they were seemingly doing everything but loving God and loving one another. They were celebrating Holy Communion by segregating the classes –the wealthy feasted and got drunk at the Lord’s supper, and the working class Christians were lucky if there was a crumb of Communion left for them after their work shift ended. They did not treat one another as equal brothers and sisters in Christ. And they argued over spiritual gifts –everyone wanted the spiritual gifts they could show off with –speaking in tongues and working miracles- and no one seemed to value the more practical spiritual gifts like teaching or listening or taking out the trash after fellowship. Everyone wanted to be Benny Hinn or Joel Osteen and no one wanted to be Mother Teresa in that church in Corinth. Everyone wanted to receive honor for themselves, but no one wanted to use the gifts they’d been given to bring honor and glory to God. 1 Corinthians chapter 12 details this spiritual struggle within the congregation. Paul writes, “But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it…..” And he concludes chapter 12 saying, “But strive for the greater gifts, and I will show you a still more excellent way.”

Paul urges the Corinthian Christians to stop striving for the things that only benefit themselves, and to roll up their sleeves and start to serve. Paul says, “Stop striving for self! There is a more excellent way to live!”

“But strive for the greater gifts, and I will show you a still more excellent way.” The greater gifts are those that bring honor and glory to God, those which are expressions of God’s own love and sacrificial service to the world.

The way, the rule, the trellis, the mission we share as the Church through all the ages is LOVE!

Paul begins 1 Corinthians 13 by saying, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” All of those gifts and achievements that humans strive for mean absolutely NOTHING if we don’t use our gifts in love. And Paul is not just talking about those exciting spiritual gifts that would bring fame and personal glory. Even acts of service and generosity must be done for the right reasons. Paul continues, “If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” In other words, Paul is saying that if we DO strive for the greater gifts, those gifts of service and self-sacrifice, but do them out of a desire to be a martyr and not out of a desire to genuinely love God and love our neighbors, then we gain nothing from the experience, we do not grow from these spiritual activities that should produce growth within us if we fail to love God and neighbor in the process.

Love is the defining characteristic of the Christian life, because love is the defining characteristic of God. Love is not a spiritual gift. It’s not something that you either have or you don’t, it’s something that you cultivate through the way you live. Love is a way of life, love is “the more excellent way” through which all of the spiritual gifts we have get from inside of us to the outside world.

Our mission, our rule for Christian living is “the way” of love. Our earliest ancestors in the faith did not call themselves Christians, but rather referred to themselves as “followers of ‘the Way’ of Jesus Christ.” The faith community was not gathered together by doctrine or feelings or tradition, but by a shared intention to live as followers in the footsteps of Jesus. Of course, Jesus’ Way was love in action.

The way of love that Jesus practiced, the more excellent way that Paul is writing about, is not dependent on our feelings, but is demonstrated through our actions.

Christian love is not a noun, it’s a verb, as we see through all of the active verbs Paul uses to describe it:

Paul writes that to love means: “Not to envy,” “not to boast,” “not to be arrogant,” “not to be rude,” “not to seek its own way,” “not to be irritable,” “not to be resentful,” and “not to rejoice in wrongdoing.” These are some of the ways in which the Corinthians had already fallen short, and Paul wanted to make clear that these behaviors were not reflective of Christian community as it should be.

But, Paul revealed to the church the “more excellent way” of love. To live according to “the Way” means, “to be patient,” “to be kind,” “to rejoice in the truth,” “to bear all things,” “to believe all things,” “to hope all things,” and “to endure all things.” To love is to set aside all of the energy we’ve used in striving for ourselves, and to invest that energy into others. To love is to choose to act and speak with kindness when we could be rude or arrogant or irritable. To love is to rejoice in the truth, to celebrate the accomplishments and blessings of our neighbors, when we might start to feel envious or resentful or boastful. To love is to be patient and open-minded when we might normally insist that our way is the only way. To love is to believe the best in others, to give them the benefit of the doubt rather than jump to conclusions about our neighbors’ character or intentions. To love is to bear with one another, to lift one another up, all for the sake of being community in Christ.

Love doesn’t come easy. It takes work and practice and perseverance. We can’t will ourselves to love God or to love our neighbors, but the miracle of this more excellent way is that as we choose to act lovingly, even toward those whom we find difficult to love, day by day Christ’s love transforms us. We begin to feel more loving and more at peace, as we faithfully choose to act with love toward others. The very good news is this –even when we mess this love thing up, we can try again, and again, and again, as many tries as it takes to learn and grow and be our best for our neighbors. There is an inexhaustible source of love in the universe, a love that is free and available to tap into at all times and in all places. Love never ends, love never runs out, for the very God whom we follow is Love.

Like a grapevine climbing its trellis, like a monk following his rule, like a Church following its mission, as we live in love, we grow in love and bear the fruit of the spirit for the sake of the world.  Amen.

Christ’s Mission is our Mission

SERMON Epiphany 3C Luke 4 14 21

We’re on a mission from God! And so, it would seem, is Jesus! Our mission is rooted in the mission Jesus announces in our gospel reading this morning. Jesus has just been baptized in the Jordan River by John, anointed by the Holy Spirit, and thrust out into the wilderness to wrestle spiritually and prepare for the start of his ministry. And this is it! The inauguration of Jesus’ ministry as the Messiah! Jesus stands at the bema, the pulpit, and speaks the first adult words we hear from him in Luke’s gospel. Jesus tells the people exactly what difference his presence makes in our world, as he reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, announcing his ancient, present, and future mission for our world!

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me: 1. To bring good news to the poor. He has sent me 2. To proclaim release to the captives and 3. Recovery of sight to the blind, 4. To let the oppressed go free, and 5. To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

This is THE reason Jesus was born, THE reason Jesus was baptized, THE reason Jesus now embarks upon his ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing. Jesus comes as the embodiment of Julibee- the year of the Lord’s favor for all of society and all of creation that would come once every 50 years in ancient Israel. Jubilee was a radical expression of God’s love and justice that shook up the social order in such a way that all people were made equal to one another, society was totally reset every 50 years. All debts were cancelled, all property reverted back to its ancestral owners. Infact, land was never so much sold as it was leased for however many years were left until the Jubilee year, for the Lord declared that the Lord alone was the owner of the land, we humans are but God’s tenants. At Jubilee, all servants and slaves were set free. Even the land itself was allowed to go fallow on the fiftieth year, to enjoy rest and renewal, an ecological reset. The year of the Lord’s favor, Jubilee, was like winning the lottery if you were poor or enslaved or had fallen on hard times and had your inherited land bought out from under you. It was total freedom from all that weighed you down, everything that stressed the people into an early grave was released –no questions asked, no strings attached. But, if you were a wealthy debt collector, a slave owner accustomed to having servants, or one of those families privileged enough to buy up large chunks of land and make the original owners tenant farmers on their own inheritance, then the Jubilee was more of a spiritual reckoning –a time not of humiliation, but of humble remembrance that all people are equal in God’s eyes, and that it could just as easily be your family being set free from these burdens in 50 years time. For the wealthy, the Jubilee was a new reality that took time to get used to, a new way of understanding one’s self socially, of relating to one’s fellow human beings no longer as subordinates, but as equals.

Jesus stands up in worship in Nazareth, and announces that he’s here to usher in the Jubilee, the year of the Lord’s favor. Jesus Christ is GOOD NEWS, not just for tomorrow, but for the here and now. Jesus is good news TODAY.

Jesus’ mission is for us –to heal and redeem that which is broken in us, to set us free from that which holds us bound up in fear, to grant us clarity where we are blind, and to remind us over and over and over again of God’s love and favor for us.

Jesus’ mission is also for us –for us to follow in his own footsteps, for us to take his mantle of mercy and justice upon our own shoulders and to embody his kingdom on earth right here in 2019.

Jesus’ mission is still that which draws all people together as equally loved and equally favored human beings. Jesus’ mission draws us all together in one body, and sends us out to be God’s love and freedom and healing for others. Jesus’ mission is radical love made manifest, and that should be the mission of every person who loves and follows Jesus.

I’d like to share a powerful example of Jesus’ Jubilee mission experienced in our world. This past New Year’s Eve, one of my dearest friends was travelling down the highway in Baltimore, on her way out to dinner with her spouse. They were running about 45 minutes later than they expected to be that night. They weren’t even supposed to be on the road at that time. But all of a sudden, they witnessed a horrific car accident right in front of them. Immediately, they pulled over, and called 9-1-1. Now, my friend is one of the kindest, open-hearted people I know. Her spouse is also wonderful, but is more cautious and introverted and realistic about the dangers of the world. And yet, without hesitation, she pulled over and they both got out of the car to see how they could help. The vehicle that was hit was an old sedan, carrying 7 passengers: Two parents, 4 kids ages 7-19, and a 2 year old grandchild who was travelling on his teenage mother’s lap. My friends comforted the children and hugged them as they cried on the side of the road until the ambulance arrived on the scene. The ambulance carried the mother away to shock trauma, the father and another child who were injured, went with her. And that left the teenage mother, her child, and two younger siblings in need of a ride to safety.  They’d been on their way to their grandmother’s house in the city to enjoy New Year’s Eve dinner together when their car was struck. As she works as a nanny, my friend already had car seats in her car, and insisted on giving them a ride to their grandmother’s house. It was on that ride that the differences between them became evident. While my friends treat everyone with dignity and respect, they were really surprised when the mother didn’t seem to understand how important it was to have car seats for the children. Making small talk, my friend encouraged them to see a doctor right away if they started to feel sore. She asked if they had health insurance and the teen mother said, “What’s that?” Her spouse, who was driving, asked where their grandmother’s house was, and no one actually knew the address or the grandmother’s phone number, but eventually they found their way using landmarks.

It was not the New Year’s Eve experience they had expected to have. Meeting that family deeply affected them. They never did make it out to dinner that night. The next morning, they texted them to find out what happened with their mom, and learned that everyone was being released from the hospital that day. My friend imagined what it would be like to have such serious injuries, have so little financial resources, and be sent home the day after such an accident with so many little ones running around. She hardly knew this woman. She had hardly anything in common with her. She’d already done more for their family than many would have. And yet, my friends decided to spend their New Year’s day preparing chicken pot pies and casseroles to fill the family’s fridge. My friend’s cautious, introverted wife even baked her famous brownies to give the children a special dessert. They then stopped by the pharmacy to stock the family’s medicine cabinet with ibuprofen and Tylenol and gauze pads and wound wash and dressing strips. Instead of going out to eat on New Year’s Day, they brought a week’s worth of dinners to this family’s home, and shared these gifts of comfort and healing. They embodied God’s grace.

My friend shared this story on facebook as a way of processing this experience as it happened. But, she was disturbed that so many of the comments she received were in the vein of “That’s so amazing, you guys are amazing! Who would do such a thing for total strangers?”

 

 

She later called me and said, “Weren’t we just doing what humans are supposed to do for one another? We shouldn’t be considered special!”  And I affirmed her sentiments.  Compassion is the most basic level of humanity. And, as Christians especially, this is our most basic mission: to share Christ’s love with both friends and strangers, to be good news to the poor, to unbind one another of burdens, to free one another from captivity and oppression, and to proclaim the Lord’s favor to every single person we meet. This was Christ’s mission, and today we shoulder his mantle of justice and mercy in our world.  Amen.

God’s Love Never Ends, God’s Love Knows No Bounds

SERMON Epiphany 2019 Matthew 2 1 12

The Magi in the Epiphany story are not the first Magi to show up in the Bible. We’ve seen these guys before in many a royal court!

In Egypt, thousands of years before, when Pharaoh was having troubling dreams, his priests – the Magi, which is the Greek word for magician or astrologer- tried first to interpret the dream with no success. But the cupbearer remembered that he had met a man in prison, Joseph, a Hebrew, who faithfully interpreted his troubling dream. Pharaoh sent for Joseph, Joseph interpreted the dream, and Pharaoh made Joseph his right hand man in all of Egypt, even marrying him to one of the Magi’s daughters. God used this skill of dream interpretation to save Joseph from prison, and ultimately to save all of God’s people and all of the Egyptians from famine!

Four hundred years later, the new Pharaoh began to persecute the Hebrews who had all been living in the land of Egypt since the time of Joseph. God’s people were enslaved and bitterly abused. God heard the cries of the Hebrews, and called Moses from Midian to be their deliverer.

Moses and Aaron went before Pharaoh and his Magi.  Aaron threw down the staff as God directed and it became a snake. The Magi of Egypt were commanded by Pharaoh to assert their superior divination skills. They threw down their staffs and their staffs similarly became snakes, but the snake that had been Aaron’s staff gobbled up all the other snakes, symbolizing that God’s power is the ultimate power, and God’s redemption of Israel would prevail.

The Magi of Egypt went head to head with Moses and Aaron. When they turned the waterways to blood, the Magi did the same. Pharaoh was unimpressed. When they unleashed frogs on Egypt, the Magi conjured up the same. Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened. But when Moses and Aaron covered every human and animal in Egypt with irritating gnats, the third plague, the Magi representing Pharaoh and all the gods of Egypt could not match them. In fact, with the 3rd plague even the Magi turned on the Pharaoh and testified to our God’s ultimate power, saying “Truly, this is the finger of God!”

Thousands of years later, the book of Daniel, set during the time of the Babylonian exile, is full of Magi who serve the will of King Nebuchadnezzar! God’s people are yet again at a low point in their history, carted off from Jerusalem to Babylon in exile. At the beginning of the exile, the king of Babylon gave a command that some of the nobility of Judah, those who were especially wise or handsome or well-educated, should be brought into the king’s palace and taught the Babylonian literature and language so that they could serve the king. One of these who was brought to the royal court was Daniel, who was resolved to stay faithful to God and the teachings of the Torah. Daniel became a vegetarian, refusing to eat the royal rations that had been sacrificed to idols, and at the end of his training period, Daniel was chosen by the king to serve in the royal court. The scripture says, “In every matter of wisdom and understanding concerning which the king inquired of them, he found Daniel ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom.” Soon after, King Nebuchadnezzar demanded that his Magi tell him not only the interpretation of a troubling dream, but the dream itself! None of his Magi could do it, and they complained to the king that it was impossible, that only the gods held such wisdom. They were just about to be executed, when Daniel stood up and –by the grace of God- shared with the king both his dream and its interpretation! The King testified to God’s power, saying “Truly your God is God of God and Lord of kings, and a revealer of mysteries, for you have been able to reveal this mystery!” Like Joseph in Egypt, King Nebuchadnezzar elevated Daniel from simple Magi to ruler over the whole province of Babylon!

Later, after King Nebuchadnezzar’s death, King Darius came to power. Knowing Daniel’s wisdom, Darius made him one of 3 presidents of the whole kingdom! But, the other presidents and satraps –the wise men of the kingdom- conspired against Daniel. They urged the king to make a law that no one could pray to anyone but the king. Daniel, still faithful to God after so many years in exile, continued to pray regardless of the law. His rivals ratted him out to the king, and reminded him that no law made by the king could be undone, that Daniel must be put to death for his disloyalty. Daniel was thrown in the lion’s den overnight and survived, much to the king’s relief! The king himself testified to God’s power and faithfulness, saying, “I make a decree that in all my royal dominion people should tremble in awe before the God of Daniel! For he is the living God, enduring forever. His kingdom shall never be destroyed, and his dominion has no end. He delivers and he rescues, he works signs and wonders in heaven and on earth…”

 

And that brings us to today, Epiphany, the day when God – the revealer of mysteries- made the ultimate revelation to a whole new class of Magi. When we hear that “Wise men from the east came to Jerusalem” in Matthew’s gospel, we are supposed to suspect the role these royal courtiers will serve in this story. The Magi of old were self-serving, vying for power and prestige, had the ear of the king, often twisting the political landscape of their time to their own or their king’s advantage, and if they weren’t trying to manipulate the king, they served the king and they king’s will with unswerving loyalty.

So when we hear that these Magi end up in the court of King Herod, we can expect that they will do whatever is necessary to cozy up to the king for their own benefit. The Magi of the ancient world were the original “yes men.”

But these Magi, most likely a caravan of Zoroastrian priests from the royal courts of Persia, do not play along with their expected role.

Unlike the Magi of old, the Magi from the Epiphany story obeyed the will of God and rejected the will of the unjust king. Instead of serving their own interests, these Magi put their own safety at risk to bear their gifts and worship before Christ –the true king and deliverer of our world!

They served God and God alone, by keeping the home of the holy family a secret. They foiled Herod’s plan to find and murder the child, Jesus, for they travelled home by a different road. And, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus soon travelled to Egypt, fleeing for their lives from the evil of Herod whose malice and selfishness knew no bounds. The Magi’s gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh provided for the holy family’s needs while God provided a place of refuge for them in Egypt –the same land God once used to provide a safe home for God’s people in the midst of famine during the time of Joseph.

While there are still Herods and Magi in this world whose cruelty and selfishness know no bounds, what is revealed to all of us through the Epiphany story is that God’s love knows no bounds. And this is beautifully reflected in our appointed verse from 1 Corinthians this week:

Love never ends.  But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.”

More important than status or wisdom or skill or any other thing in this world which we vie for is love. God’s love never ends! It never fails! God never gives up on us. And God will go to the ends of the earth to find us and call us into relationship. No matter how dire or bleak our odds may seem, God and God’s love for all people prevail! We see this as we look back at the whole course of history. God’s people have not been the only ones to acknowledge God’s power and to worship our Lord. From Magi in Egypt to the Kings of Babylon, Gentile outsiders with bizarre rituals and customs have seen and testified to our God’s redeeming power! God didn’t wait for them to learn the Torah, but God spoke to them through their own customs of magic and astrology and dream interpretation. God has spoken not just through the prophets, but God has spoken God’s redeeming love into our world through the least likely of heralds, in the most extraordinary circumstances! From the shepherds in the fields on Christmas night, to these Magi whom God called to Bethlehem through the stars, God revealed and continues to reveal God’s self to the whole spectrum of humanity! God’s love and God’s promises and the hope we have for our world in Jesus Christ is for ALL people, and God welcomes and calls out to every kind of person to bow down and worship Christ as our one and only God and King.

God’s love never ends, and God’s love knows no bounds. And because of this truth revealed to us through the Epiphany story, our Christian vocation is to embody God’s endless, boundless love for one another. Amen.

The Not So Silent Night

SERMON Christmas Eve Luke 2 1 20

What would Christmas Eve be without singing Silent Night? I know that I have sung this hymn every single Christmas Eve of my life. The words and melody usher in the overwhelming sense of the heavenly peace the Christ child himself brings to our world! Tonight, this beloved Christmas carol turns 200 years old.

“Silent Night” was written first as a poem by Father Joseph Mohr in response to the unrest that the Napoleonic wars had caused for the whole region surrounding Austria. According to legend, St. Nicholas Church, where Father Mohr was serving in Oberndorf, Austria, was facing some significant building maintenance issues –their organ had broken down just in time for Christmas! The young priest wanted to ensure that there was at least one hymn sung at the midnight mass on Christmas Eve, so he asked their minister of music, Franz Gruber, to write a melody for his poem that could be played on the guitar. Yes, one of our most beloved Christmas carols was written in response to the chaos of war and in the midst of a liturgical crisis at St. Nicholas’ church.

Today, it’s hard for any of us to imagine not singing “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve.

But I wonder, given our Christmas scripture reading from Luke’s gospel, was it REALLY a “Silent Night” on that first Christmas Eve?

Bethlehem was bursting at the seams with people who had been forced to travel there for the census. The crowds overwhelmed the small city. Every comfortable bed in town was occupied! With so many people frustrated that their plans for the month had been interrupted by the inconvenience of this edict handed down by their oppressors, I doubt there was much silence in the inns of Bethlehem.

Was it REALLY a “Silent Night”?

Amid all the irritation and frustration, no one seemed to notice that a teenage girl labored in one of the barns. She had no comfortable bed to rest on. She had no doula. She had no experienced midwife. She had no Lamaze classes or soothing music or hot showers for her aching muscles. She had no scrubbed and sanitized environment, no monitors giving the peace of mind that all is well…

Birthing is a dangerous business.

Her fiancée paced around the barn, fetching hot water and preparing to play midwife –a role he’d never imagined himself in, a role in which he had no training, a role better left to the wise women of the village than a carpenter.

All Mary had were her silent prayers and her primal screams. In the throws of fully human childbirth, even the mother of our Lord, strong, and brave, and bold as she was, would not have labored in silence.

All Mary had were her silent prayers and primal screams until the instant when our Lord took his first breath. As his newborn lungs filled with oxygen, God himself let out a tiny primal scream to match his mother’s. God himself had been laboring with her, struggling to be born into our world through pain and hope and humanity at its most basic level. God himself let out a tiny and persistent scream, and galaxies quaked across the universe. God himself screamed and screamed until he was lovingly swaddled in bands of cloth by his mother, and placed upon her chest for nourishment. At last, the barn in Bethlehem was silent as Jesus ate the first of many meals he would share with us. He shared his first meal with his mother, as they both recovered from the difficult and dangerous work of bearing God for us.

It may HAVE been a “Silent Night” for the shepherds who were watching their fields by night. Their sheep had all nestled down for the night and the shepherds lay in the fields, gazing up at the stars, pondering “Why do you think the sky is shining so brightly tonight?”

It may have been a “Silent Night,” but then an angel of the Lord appeared before them and the glory of the Lord shone more brightly than the dazzling stars overhead. The angel proclaimed the very best news that any ear has ever heard,  “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” Then one angel’s voice turned into a thunderous, joy-filled chorus as every angel in the heavenly host sang Happy Birthday for the holy infant and Joy to the World, singing, “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to all people.”

The shepherds who had once been silent, ran at once into town to find the newborn Messiah and his mother. They came bursting into the barn, never a wise thing to do when a family has just settled their newborn for the night. They told Mary and Joseph everything that had happened in the fields, every word that the angel had said, and then they ran out, waking up the whole town as they praised God all the way back to their field!

It was anything BUT a “Silent Night” that first Christmas in Bethlehem, but it was the holiest night the world has ever known. And because of all of those screams and songs and shouts of jubilation, our hearts are now able to rest in heavenly peace. This message of universal peace is why the carol “Silent Night” has such enduring spiritual value. Christ risked a perilous birth in a barn in Palestine to make true peace possible in our world. God’s desire for us and for our world is for all people to hold peace within their hearts. This is the gift God gives us through the birth of Jesus Christ. God’s gift to us is lasting peace, not someday, but now, one person at a time. As we adore the humanity and divinity contained within that barn in Bethlehem, as we remember the chaos and grumbling that filled the town around him, we know that Christ comes to us today in the midst of crisis and frustration. Christ comes to us and dwells with us and swaddles us up in his love, feeds us, comforts us, and gives us the peace we need for whatever we find ourselves enduring. Heavenly peace is our gift from God, not just at Christmas time, but every day of this joyful and challenging life.  Whether you find yourself in silence this Christmas, or surrounded by noise, whether you find yourself resting in the fields or singing along with the angel’s song or unleashing anguished screams or bitter frustration, because of that first “Not So Silent Night” Christ is born, and Christ is with us, and Christ gives us his peace forevermore. Amen.