No Doubt: It’s Quasimodo Sunday

I don’t know how true this is anymore, in our confusing Zoom/hybrid worship era, but traditionally, this Sunday is called Low Sunday. Common wisdom says that it refers to the low attendance in churches usual on this day, after the big celebration on Easter Sunday. I love the story, though, of how back in the days after he retired, the beloved previous pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran in Buffalo would come back to preach. His name was Ralph Loew (L-O-E-W). So, of course, this was Low Sunday. You can see how the confusion came about. But neither of these is the real story. 

“Low” probably refers to the Sunday following the “high” feast of Easter, and neither to the low attendance usual on this day nor to Ralph Loew. This day actually has quite a few names: Low Easterday, Close Sunday (because it’s the close of the Easter octave, in other words, the eighth day after Easter), and – my favorite – Quasimodo Sunday. You’re probably familiar with the character, Quasimodo, from the novel by Victor Hugo or the Disney movie. This day gets the name from the first words of the opening words of the service for this day from 1 Peter: “Quasi modo geniti infantes” (like newborn babies). Quasimodo got his name either because he was an infant when he was abandoned at Notre Dame Cathedral or it was the day he was found – or maybe both. In any event, on Quasimodo Sunday we are called to welcome the newly baptized members of the Church. How cool is it that we have a baptism today!

If this plethora of names for the day isn’t enough, there’s so much going on in the readings that I’ve found it hard to focus in on just one. I think they must reflect what it was like in the early days after the resurrection, when people were telling stories about what they had experienced or heard, and others were asking questions trying to make sense of it all. It had to be an exhilarating time, as they tried to figure out what this resurrection business would mean in their lives and how they would become a community centered around the risen Christ. 

In a very basic way, it’s the same for us today we take a full fifty days to celebrate Easter to soak up the stories from long ago to share our own experiences of resurrection life and to ask questions as we try to make sense of it all. Of course, we’ve had 2000-plus years of institutionalized religion, but I think most would agree that the church is undergoing major shifts in how we understand the church as community. So as we move further into the Easter season, we’ll see what we can glean from these texts that can be used be of use to us at this point in time. 

First of all, we can lighten up on Thomas instead of continuing to call him by the derogatory name of Doubting Thomas and using him as a cautionary tale against our own doubts. We really should make him the patron saint of our post-Christian era because, then as now, people were questioning the claims about who Jesus was, debating whether the resurrection was spiritual and metaphorical or physical and literal.

We’re finally learning that there’s nothing wrong with questioning matters of faith. Doubt isn’t wrong. As the poet Kahlil Gibran wrote in the early 1900s, “doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother.” Theologian Paul Tillich said perhaps more clearly, “doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one element of faith.” And best of all Frederick Buechner “doubt is the ants in the pants of faith.” 

So the better conclusion about Thomas is to remember that when he sees Jesus he believes wholeheartedly and as legend has it becomes the apostle to India. You might know that there’s a Gospel of Thomas, which may have been written within a few decades after Jesus’ death, but it’s not included in the final collection of books we call the New Testament. In her book, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, Elaine Pagels argues that whoever wrote the Gospel of John clearly was familiar with this Gospel of Thomas – and thoroughly detested it. She says, “What you’re seeing when you read John and Thomas together is an intense, contentious … I guess you could call it a conversation, but really, it’s more like an argument between different groups of the followers of Jesus. What they’re arguing about is the question: Who is Jesus and what is the good news about him?”

So, because we know that the gospel of John is a gospel of symbols and metaphor, most of which can’t be traced back to the historical Jesus, we can understand John’s reasoning behind creating the Thomas story in order to remove doubts about the reality of Jesus’ death and resurrection. However, that doesn’t rob his message of its meaning. Jesus comes into the room on two separate occasions and says, “Peace be with you” and breathes on them. This is John’s Pentecost. It’s very different from the one in Acts that we’ll read on Pentecost, but the point is the same: receive the Holy Spirit; as God sent me so now I’m sending you.  

Through this gift of the Holy Spirit Jesus gave them peace. You might say that by breathing on them Jesus gave the disciples breathing space. By conferring peace upon them so that even though they were still frightened, and a way forward was still fraught with danger, they could feel the presence of Christ with them. This peace, available to us in times of crisis as well in times of calm, is the recognition that Christ is with us in all seasons of life and will provide a way to the future when we can see no way ahead. 

Just consider what we are doing when we share the peace of Christ with one another every Sunday. Granted, sharing the peace has gotten a little strange since the pandemic. Handshaking and hugging are out and we’ve had to adapt to virtual peace on Zoom. Many of us mourn this “touchless” ritual, but frankly there are a number of introverts who are just as happy to avoid the love fest. During this ‘fast’ from our usual practice it’s a good time to think about how the sharing of Christ’s peace can be comfortable, yet still meaning for all people. 

Because the sharing of Christ’s peace is not a token gesture. It is a potent recognition of God’s presence amid our pain, our doubts, our fallibilities, and our fears. It’s breathing space in a mystical experience as real as any that can be taken in by the limitations of our five senses. The risen Christ breathes in and on us, imparting new life and energy to face our own trials and challenges. The church will have new life to the extent that yet that we open ourselves to divine breath and then from our breathing space we offer grace and love to others. This peace, this breath is not only for us in times of doubt or fear. it’s what fuels our building of the beloved community allowing the walls that we and others erect around us all enabling us to see all of creation as one resting within the body of God.

But, oh, if only the world could see this unity. Then the fighting would stop in Ukraine and all sides would join in the rebuilding of their country. Community members and police forces across the United States would work together toward reconciliation and forgiveness. Republicans and Democrats would put highest priority on the well-being of all the people they represent. Every nation would put maximum effort into environmental care. 

If only I could see it all the time. I get an email every day with a thought and insight for my Enneagram type. The one I got yesterday said that I should cultivate a quiet mind and allow processing of feelings especially of frustration and resentment. I know that if I could always have a quiet mind and better process feelings, I’d be a better person. and thanks to things like my daily Enneagram thought I’m reminded of my area of growth. I try, as I am sure that you try in your ways too, to be better people and in our best moments we do see it so clearly. the line between you and me disappears; the lines between us and everyone else disappear; the lines between humans and other creatures and all of creation disappear. in our breathing space we know the peace of the risen Christ and we see Thomas – not doubting Thomas, but Thomas the Twin. Our twin reminds us that we have seen we have been breathed upon and given the Holy Spirit not just on Easter Sunday or on Pentecost Sunday but on Low Sunday and throughout the whole Easter season. we have fifty whole days to breathe in Easter air. 

And then Pentecost. It’s especially special this year because it’s Confirmation Day for four of our young people. Confirmation – also known as the Affirmation of Baptism – comes forty-three days after Quasimodo Sunday, the day we welcome the newly baptized members of the Church. And how wonderful it is to welcome Wesley and his family on his baptism day. There’s no doubt about that!

The glory of Easter continues for five more Sundays. Not that it ends then; it doesn’t. It will never stop as we look forward to the rushing wind and the fiery flames of Pentecost, as we continue to live into our understanding and our actions as a community centered around the risen and living Christ. 

Amen

Quasimodo outline” by 天曉得。 is marked with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

John 20:19-31

In the evening of that same day, the first day of the week, the doors were locked in the room where the disciples were for fear of the Temple authorities. Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Having said this, the savior showed them the marks of crucifixion. The disciples were filled with joy when they saw Jesus, who said to them again, “Peace be with you. As Abba God has sent me, so I am sending you.”

After saying this, Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven. If you retain anyone’s sins, they are retained.” It happened that one of the Twelve, Thomas—nicknamed Didymus, or “Twin”—was absent when Jesus came. The other disciples kept telling him, “We have seen Jesus!” Thomas’ answer was, “I’ll never believe it without putting my finger in the nail marks and my hand into the spear wound.”

On the eighth day, the disciples were once more in the room, and this time Thomas was with them. Despite the locked doors, Jesus came and stood before them, saying, “Peace be with you.” Then, to Thomas, Jesus said, “Take your finger and examine my hands. Put your hand into my side. Don’t persist in your unbelief but believe!”

Thomas said in response, “My Savior and my God!”

Jesus then said, “You have become a believer because you saw me. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Jesus performed many other signs as well—signs not recorded here—in the presence of the disciples. But these have been recorded to help you believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Only Begotten, so that by believing you may have life in Jesus’ Name.

Give a Fig for Jesus

A classic tough-guy movie scenario goes something like this. One macho type says to the other, “Is that a threat?” The other one, swaggering and hitching up his pants, replies with a menacing glare, “No, that’s a promise.” 

Today’s New Testament readings could be said to have both a threat and a promise in them. Although I’m not so sure that we don’t usually hear the promise as a threat, too. 

In the gospel reading, Jesus starts out by dismissing the threat that says that God inflicts suffering on people as a judgment for their sinfulness. 

We know that way of thinking. Bad things aren’t supposed to happen to good people. Remember Job? Job’s friends sought comfort in this idea when they see disaster upon disaster piled upon their friend. “There must be something you have done to deserve this,” they insist. “Repent of your sin.” But Job maintains that he’s innocent. When God finally shows up, even though we hear nothing to explain why Job suffers, God’s response to Job’s friends was (and I paraphrase): “Shut up you idiots!”

Jesus likewise showed little patience for pious speculation on the suffering of others. In response to the story of Pontius Pilate’s cruel violence against some Galileans, mixing their blood in with their ritual sacrifices, and the report of eighteen people killed by a falling tower, he asked, “Do you think because these Galileans suffered in this way, they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? And he answered his own question: “No.”

Despite Jesus’ rejection of this kind of judgement, we know that in some Christian quarters, that kind of thinking is still around. Some of us may remember how after the 9/11 attacks, Jerry Falwell – co-founder of the Moral Majority – quickly blamed LGBT people and feminists for bringing judgment upon us. In 2005, televangelist John Hagee claimed that Hurricane Katrina was the result of New Orleans’ toleration of homosexuality. And who could forget the tornados that ripped through Minneapolis on August 19, 2009 as the ELCA was voting to do away with the ban on openly gay clergy? When news that the steeple of the church hosting the assembly had been damaged, the warnings flew. A Baptist minister said on the news that evening, “The tornado . . . was a gentle but firm warning to the ELCA: turn from the approval of sin.” 

Funny how these judgments are always about sexuality. Doesn’t God have any warnings for us about war, or gun violence, or economic disparity? But Jesus dismisses all of this kind of judgmental blaming: “Do you think the people who were killed by the falling tower in Siloam were more guilty than anyone else? No.” Oh, whew! We’re all off the hook.

Except then he says, “You’ll all come to the same end unless you change your ways.” Uh oh, definitely a threat implied there. But then, he goes back into “promise” mode. In the parable of the fig tree, he offers hope to those who haven’t been living up to God’s expectations. But then again, the twist: If it doesn’t bear fruit next year, then cut it down.” Uh oh again. We’ve got a real mixed bag here of threat and promise. Same with Paul in the Corinthians text. He does veer awfully close to the threat side in his letter to the recalcitrant Corinthians: “Don’t test God like those ancient people did. Remember how they were killed by snakes?” He, too, comes back around to the good news, but I’m afraid that oftentimes the promise part of what he and Jesus say is overshadowed by the threat. It’s like when you have an employee evaluation and hear nine nice things about yourself and one criticism. What do you remember most? The one criticism, right? I think it might be the same with threat and promise here.

That’s why I’d like to spend a little more time with this fig tree parable. Parables are curious things. They’re stories that are intended to make us think. Jesus often used parables to get a point across. The problem with parables (the challenge) is that the point is not always obvious. Actually, when it seems to be obvious, we’ve probably missed the point. Another problem is that we’ve become so familiar with the biblical parables that we stop listening: “Oh, right, Parable of the Good Samaritan, got it.” 

When we know the end of the story, we’re no longer surprised. When our interpretation of it boils down to a nice moral platitude, the parable has lost its edge. We don’t allow Jesus to challenge us or to provoke us with hard truths. So, let’s see if we can find any challenges or surprises in this parable.

It starts out on a promising note. A gardener intervenes on behalf of an unproductive fig tree, asking for a year to try to get the tree to produce fruit. If his efforts fail, then he’ll cut it down. The end. 

Oh no. Wait a minute. What happens after a year? Does the tree produce figs? Or did it end up being compost for another, more productive tree? We don’t find out whether manure and a gardener’s tender care end up making any difference whatsoever. But let’s say that it does. Our fig tree survives. 

(Does anybody have a fig tree?) 

It turns out that fig trees are pretty interesting. They’ve been around since ancient times, and from what I’ve read, they’re pretty adaptable plants. They can grow in dry and sunny areas, with deep and fresh soil, but also in rocky areas and places with nutritionally poor soil. Another kind of fun fact about fig trees is that they require pollination by a particular species of wasps to produce seeds. 

As metaphors go, there’s some good stuff here. Our faith is able to thrive in the good times, in places conducive to nurturing hope and trust. But it can also grow quite well in the rocky times. In places where there’s little spiritual nutrition, we’re able to put our roots down deep to find what we need. 

But those wasps. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like wasps. They sting; they’re to be avoided. Except, for the fig tree they’re necessary for regeneration. That reminded me of the time a spiritual director encouraged me to see difficult people as gifts from God who could teach me about patience, compassion, and other spiritual gifts. Hmm. Could these people and even situations that sting be like those wasps? I admit that I didn’t like hearing that advice any more than hearing that wasps are beneficial to the web of life. But there it is. Gifts from God.  Every one of them.

Another reason I’m fascinated with this story is that Jesus wasn’t saying anything particularly shocking about the fig tree. We know that in nature things that are useless eventually die out. Take for example blue whales (another fun fact). Blue whales used to have teeth. But they don’t anymore. In their evolution from land to sea mammals, they’ve developed something called baleen combs in the front of their mouths, which filter the plankton, krill, and small fish they gulp in with the water. 

So the owner of the vineyard was simply expressing the truth of evolutionary biology. He wasn’t seeking to punish the plant; he was simply acknowledging that the tree wasn’t fulfilling its purpose.

What that says to me is that we each need to consider why God has put us here. In a book called The Evidential Power of Beauty, Thomas Dubay elaborates on this. It’s a bit philosophical, but bear with me: “Form is the deep root of a being’s actuality, which gives it its basic whatness. It is the actualizing principle of a thing, the mysterious taproot that makes that thing to be what it is, and thus why it is different from every other kind of being. The inner form . . . of a palm tree makes it different from an oak, a corn stalk, indeed, a squirrel—even though all are made of atoms.” In other words, you have a basic and unique whatness?

Do you know what that is? And can you say how are you making use of the gifts that God has given only to you? There are no easy, cookie-cutter answers to that question; it’s a matter of discernment – that applies to congregations as well as individuals.

Another lesson from the parable is that the fig tree took nutrients from the soil but didn’t give anything back, and nothing that only takes can ultimately survive. So it is with us. More than the usual moral sins that are hauled out to accuse others, maybe a bigger sin is failing to strive to give back and make the world a better place. I was at an event recently where two people who have had very serious challenges in their lives spoke eloquently about how they had been called upon to do things they hadn’t anticipated, yet these challenges have turned out to be extremely life-affirming.

After their talk, I had a long conversation with a young man sitting next to me. He’d been very moved by the two speakers and now was questioning his own “whatness.” He was on a very successful career track, which he enjoyed. However, he ‘d been feeling drawn to doing something completely different – perhaps not as lucrative, but something that would be more about giving back. Although he never mentioned God or used any kind of overtly spiritual language, he seemed to be moving into the realization of something more. I would describe it as a Divine lure going on within him. You could say that he’s like the fig tree, perhaps not failing to produce fruit, but being drawn to produce fruit of a different kind. 

Now, to be perfectly honest, the process of discernment can be long and it can be unsettling. Having been through a few of these myself, I think maybe that’s what Jesus was referring to with the fertilizer – the process can sometimes stink, but it’s often what leads to growth. And the pruning (not mentioned in this text, but elsewhere) can be painful – that’s just how spiritual growth works.

This may sound just as harsh as the threats we infer from Jesus in the gospel. But now we come to the gospel of the second chance. The fig tree should have flowered within the three years, but it didn’t. Nevertheless, it was given a second chance. As are we. Even a third, a fourth and so on. Our baptismal promise is that each new day, we rise anew, past sins forgiven, with a new day in which to live out our basic whatness, as first of all beloved children of a loving God. 

Yes, we sin. Lent is about sin and repentance. But not in the sense of some kind of Divine behavior modification program with punishments and rewards. Rather it’s about turning and returning to our source of life. And in the process of being faithful and loving disciples, in following the beckoning of a holy lure, in opening ourselves to being pruned and fertilized, in bearing fruit in service to the world, the Divine whatness that is all around us grows and thrives. 

The theme for today within the wider theme of “Our Whole Hearts” is “Tending to the Heart.” And I see our calling is to tend to the ‘basic and unique whatness’ of ourselves. 

One of my very favorite quotes is from the author Frederick Buechner: 
“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.” 

Perhaps today we could revise that just a bit: “Tend to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.” 

As a symbol of the hardy fig tree and of our own discipleship, I’ve brought Fig Newtons today. We’ll have them here for coffee hour. And for those on Zoom, so you think I don’t give a fig, I’ll have them here for when you can stop by. And for those not in the area, here you go; get a screen shot and keep it with you as a remembrance of the promise – not the threat – of your evolving spiritual journey and of all the good fruit you will continue to bear for the sake of the world.

Amen

Luke 13:1-9

At that very time there were some present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them–do you think they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’

The gardener replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'”

“Be Like Joseph” – Jesus of Nazareth

There have been at least eight times when the Ten Commandments have been at the center of debates about the separation of church and state. Most of these controversies have been over monuments in public spaces and judges have rightly ordered them to be removed. I don’t have anything against the Ten Commandments, but it seems like those who want to erect these monuments are more interested in telling others how to believe and behave than in examining how they themselves are doing in keeping the commandments.

When I read the gospel passage for today, another section from the ‘Sermon on the Plain,’ I wondered what they would think about a monument listing these commandments that Jesus lays on us:
*love your enemies
*do good to those who hate you
*bless those who curse you
*pray for those who abuse you
*turn the other cheek
*if someone asks for your coat, give them your shirt, as well
*give to everyone who begs from you
*if someone takes your property, don’t ask for it back it
*don’t judge
*don’t condemn
*be forgiving

You know the game show, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? I would call this passage Who Wants to Be a Disciple? And I wouldn’t be surprised if not many people would come forward to be contestants. This stuff is hard! And I would add that it can also be harmful. One reason it makes me uneasy is that these commandments have often been weaponized, especially by the church. Too often Christians have told people to be silent about their pain, swallow their suffering, using the Bible as justification. It’s have been used to silence the victimized, so others won’t be disturbed or inconvenienced by their stories. It was preached to slaves to keep them in their place. It’s been used to send victims of domestic violence back to their abusers. “If you are silent about your pain,” said writer Zora Neale Hurston, “they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”

Another reason for my uneasiness is that, in the wisdom of those who put together the lectionary – the cycle of readings for each Sunday – this passage has been paired with the story of Joseph and his brothers. Today we read just a short piece of the story, Joseph’s emotional reunion with his family. But that happy ending comes after a long story of the brothers’ hatred of their younger brother, their intention to kill him, their decision to instead to sell him into slavery and fake his death to their father. 

Joseph ends up in Egypt and manages to go from slavery to relative privilege in the house of a captain of Pharaoh’s army but is sent to prison after being falsely accused of rape. He was there for years until Pharaoh needed help interpreting a dream and someone remembered that Joseph had interpreted dreams for his fellow prisoners. He ends up becoming second in command to Pharaoh, a position of power and privilege. When his brothers come to Egypt desperately searching for food, he interprets it as divine providence. He reunites with his father and brothers, saves them all from starvation, and brings them all to Goshen to live in security. All’s well that ends well, right? Jesus appears to think so. Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you; don’t condemn; be forgiving. In other words, be like Joseph. 

So I’m uneasy with both of these stories because what they ask of us is so darn hard, if not impossible. I guess we can be thankful these texts come around in our lectionary only once every three years and only when Lent starts late and we get a seventh Sunday after Epiphany. But this year, Lent does begin late and we do get a seventh Sunday after Epiphany. So here we are. 

We’re almost to the end of Epiphany – the season of revelation of who Jesus is. No longer the babe of Bethlehem, but the teacher of wisdom and of the ethics of the realm of God. In just two weeks, we’ll be in Lent – and we know where that leads. The way of discipleship leads to a cross. And Jesus lays it out plainly in this sermon, that his way will be counter-intuitive, counter-cultural, and for all the benefits of being in relationship with him – a big challenge. If this is the job description who would want to be a disciple? Well, evidently, we do, because here we are. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we must confess that the challenge is often too much. 

In our individual lives, in our families, even in our churches, there are conflicts, often long-standing, unresolved rifts. Siblings who don’t speak to one another, children estranged from parents. Forgiveness and reconciliation is always hard to achieve, but especially when someone has taken away something that can never be given back. The life of a young person with a promising future snuffed out by a drunk driver or a random act of violence. Children whose innocence is forever taken away by abuse. Churches split apart by grievances they can’t seem to get beyond. I was just reading about the Lutheran church in Columbine, Colorado which found itself unable to minister both to the victims of the Columbine High School massacre and to the parents of one of the attackers. Real life on the ground is a lot messier than the resolution of Joseph’s story might have us believe – even for those of us who do try our best to be faithful disciples. 

So, as one who struggles with these texts, I have two insights that might be helpful for us today. First, I’m reminded of our Confirmation class when we were looking at the Ten Commandments. We read through each one and talked about what each one meant. We also read Martin Luther’s explanations of each commandment and saw that for each of the “thou shalt nots,” he adds a “thou shalt” (although we use more contemporary language), for example #8: “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” Sounds simple, don’t lie. But Luther asks: “What does this mean?” And answers: “We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray, slander, or hurt their reputations – but defend them, speak well of them, and explain everything in the kindest way.”

And #5: “You shall not murder.” Again, simple; don’t kill anyone. But Luther takes it further: “We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbors – but help and support them in every physical need.” And so on through #10.

What we realized was that Luther made the commandments even harder, impossible really. If just the bare commandments serve to hold up a mirror to let us see our failings, his additional explanations bring the mirror in even closer, exposing every wrinkle, pore, and blemish – every sin, both individual and corporate. For surely we are part of a system in which some of our neighbors are betrayed and slandered and some of our neighbors do not have all their physical needs met, like food, clean water, and shelter. 

The good news in all this is that, even as we take sin seriously, we take confession and forgiveness just as seriously. We look in the mirror. We see the truth of our failures and own them – no denial, no sugar coating. And we accept the graciousness of God who also sees us in the mirror but can see past the sin into the beloved hearts within us. God forgives and God gives the encouragement, the heart to go back and continue to live into the vision God has for all of us. This is grace. 

I don’t think those Ten Commandments monuments they want to put in front of courthouses can adequately convey the depth of meaning inherent in these so-called laws. These laws are about relationships – with God and with one another. They are not a black and white moral code. We are meant to wrestle with them, and continually examine ourselves, confess our failings, and receive God’s grace.  

And speaking of wrestling, we have to talk about forgiveness, that is how we forgive others. Jesus says, “Be like Joseph.” But we know that oftentimes, forgiveness can be very, very difficult. As author Sue Monk Kidd wrote: “People, in general, would rather die than forgive. It’s that hard.” 

And in our Covid-weary culture and our divisiveness amidst rage and meanness, it’s gotten even harder. The New York Times ran an essay with the title: “Rudeness Is on the Rise. You Got a Problem with That?” The author asked, “how do we respond to a world under stress, a culture in which the guardrails of so-called civility are gone?  The evidence of that stress is everywhere.  In airports and in the skies, airline passengers are angry about wearing masks, angry about inspection of firearms in their carry-ons, seemingly angry about, well, everything. Close to home, things aren’t much better, and it comes from both sides of our ideologically divided society.”

In the midst of all this, how do we live into God’s vision and Jesus’ call to discipleship?  We have to begin by stating what forgiveness is not (with thanks to Debi Thomas in Journey with Jesus). First, forgiveness is not denial. It isn’t pretending that an offense doesn’t matter, or that a wound doesn’t hurt. Forgiveness isn’t acting as if things don’t have to change. It isn’t allowing ourselves to be abused and mistreated, or assuming that God has no interest in justice. And forgiveness isn’t synonymous with healing or reconciliation. Healing has its own timetable, and sometimes reconciliation isn’t possible. In fact, sometimes our lives depend on us severing ties with our offenders, even if we’ve forgiven them.  In other words, forgiveness is not cheap.

Secondly, forgiveness isn’t a detour or a shortcut. Yes, we’re commanded to forgive. But the process of forgiveness calls us first to mourn, to lament, to feel anger, to hunger and thirst for justice. Forgiveness isn’t a palliative to simply numb the pain; it goes hand-in-hand with the work of repentance and transformation. 

Thirdly, forgiveness is not instantaneous.  It is a messy, non-linear process that might leave us feeling healed and liberated one minute and bleeding out of every pore the next. Forgiveness isn’t an escalator; it’s a spiral staircase. We circle, circle, and circle again, trying to create distance between the pain we’ve suffered and the new life we seek. Sometimes we can’t tell if we’ve ascended at all; we keep seeing the same, broken landscape below us. But ever so slowly, our perspective changes. Ever so slowly, the ground of our pain falls away.

I always wonder about the process that Joseph must have gone through in order to be able to forgive his brothers. What went on between the lines of the story? He was 17 when he was sold into slavery and 30 when he became prime minister to Pharaoh. We know that forgiveness is often, maybe usually, a process. Even those who immediately grant forgiveness have to still do the hard work that will come. 

Consider that before Joseph forgives his brothers, he wrestles with a strong desire to scare and shame them.  In fact, he does scare and shame them. Forgiveness is something Joseph has to arrive at, slowly and painfully. 

I may have used this example before but it’s an excellent example of this painful process. In 2006, a gunman stormed into a one-room schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, PA and shot ten young Amish girls, killing five and then killing himself. People around the world were astonished that the Amish immediately expressed forgiveness toward the killer and his family. There was also the perception (totally mistaken) that granting forgiveness meant they were then able to quickly get over the tragedy. 

But a year after the shootings, Jonas Beiler, of the Family Resource and Counseling Center, reported that members of the community suffered from nightmares, some were still startled by the sound of a helicopter overhead. Survivors, including some of the older boys who were let go by the killer, wondered if somehow they could have stopped the massacre. Some of the schoolchildren suffered from emotional instabilities, which therapists working in the community expected to go on for several years. But Beiler said, that because the Amish could express forgiveness, they were better able to concentrate on the work of their own healing.

And right there, I believe, is the key to these teachings. They’re not meant to be easy. We are meant to be challenged by them. We are meant to wrestle with them. Ten years after the Nickel Mines shootings, Aaron Esh Jr. reported that he still struggles with the memories. He says that despite the Amish’s legendary powers of forgiveness, it’s a struggle to stay constant. “You have to fight the bitter thoughts,” he said. Another mother of one of the girls killed that day said, “It’s not a once and done thing. It is a lifelong process.”

So, how do we work on our own processes, especially in those places where bitter thoughts reside? How does forgiveness happen?  First of all, it’s not something that anyone else can make you do, either by quoting Jesus to you or trying to make you feel guilty. To be forgiven and to forgive are always gifts of grace that come from some place beyond ourselves. It’s your process. Nor can anyone else tell someone who has suffered evil at the hands of others that God is bringing something good out of it.  No one else could say to Joseph, “God has brought you here.” He had to discover it for himself. If it is going to happen at all, victims have to discover for themselves that God has somehow created something new out of their suffering, that out of their survival God’s grace can even provide something that someone else will need.

We can learn from Joseph that his decision to not keep score against his brothers created the possibility of a new future for himself and his family. Otherwise, they would all still be controlled by and captive to the past. Can we begin to, at the very least, be open to the possibility of giving up the scorecard? Is there anything good that has come out of a situation of suffering at the hands of another? 

I was asked once whether, if given the chance, I’d go back and change my life so that times of suffering did not occur. I thought really hard about it. What a blessing that would be. No painful memories, no residual fears or hang-ups. But I finally decided that, no, I wouldn’t change my past in any way. Distressful as it may have been, it’s part of who I am, has contributed to my resilience, and has enabled me to have more empathy for others going through similar situations. So I can agree with commentator Barbara Brown Taylor: “When Joseph looked at his life, he didn’t see himself as a victim. He did not see a series of senseless tragedies. He saw a lighted path.” 

I doubt very much that Joseph saw that lighted path when his brothers threw him into a pit. Perhaps we can remember his outcome and hold out hope when our process is still in the pit, so to speak. 

Perhaps we can hear these hard teachings of Jesus, not as imperatives, but as a promise that God will be with us in the process of forgiveness, all along the way – from a faint acknowledgement of a possibility that forgiveness could happen, to openness to the spirit of healing working within us, to the desire to let go of the person or persons who hurt us (for our sake, not theirs), and maybe (but not necessarily) to reconciliation. 

This is what Jesus reveals to us, late in the season of Epiphany revelations and on the cusp of the Lenten journey: that all through our processes of forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation we can breathe in the “deep, joyous generosity of God,” and allow our lives be transformed – opening our hearts and minds and lives to the healing purposes at work in each beloved child of God.

Amen 

Genesis 45:3-11, 15 

Joseph said to his brothers, “It is I, Joseph. Is my father still alive?” The brothers couldn’t answer, so dumbfounded were they. Then Joseph said, “Come closer to me.” When they had come closer, he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. Now don’t be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me here ahead of you so that I could save your lives. There has been a famine in the land for two years, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and no harvesting. But God sent me ahead of you to guarantee that you will have descendants on earth and to keep you alive as a great body of survivors. 
So it was not you who sent me here, but God! God has made me Pharaoh’s chief counselor, the head of his household and governor of all Egypt. Hurry back to our father and give him this message from Joseph: ‘God has made me governor of all of Egypt. Come to me here at once! Do not delay. ‘ 

You will live here near me in the territory of Goshen: you, your children, your grandchildren, your flocks, your herds, and all your possessions. I will provide for you here – for the next five years will be years of famine – so that you and your children and all you own will be spared from destitution.” And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.

Luke 6: 27-38

Jesus said, “But I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, since God is good even to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, as your loving God is merciful. 

“Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged; don’t condemn, and you won’t be condemned. Forgive, and you’ll be forgiven;give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the amount you measure out is the amount you’ll be given back.”

 

I Have Bad News; I Have Good News

Who doesn’t love a good news/bad news joke? 

Defense lawyer says to her client: “I have good news and bad news.” 
Client says: “What’s the bad news?”
“Your blood matches the DNA found at the murder scene.”
“Oh, no!” says the client. “What’s the good news?”
“Well, your cholesterol is way down.”

Teenager says to her father: “I have good news and bad news.”
Father: “Give me the good news first.”
Teenager: “The airbags work really well in your new Mercedes.”

Husband: “I have good news and bad news.”
Wife: “Tell me the bad news first.”
Husband: “The washing machine broke.”
Wife: “Oh, no. What’s the good news?”
Husband: “The dogs are really clean.”

OK, so I know that neither of the writers of neither Jeremiah or Luke intended to make a joke. But I couldn’t help seeing the good news/bad news theme in both passages today, and even in the psalm. 

In Jeremiah, the good news is first:
Blessed are those who trust in God, you’ll be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. You won’t fear when heat comes. You won’t be anxious in times of drought.

Ah, if only he had stopped there. But then comes the bad news: “Woe to you who trust in mere mortals whose hearts turn away from God. You’ll be like a shrub in the desert. You’ll live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.”

That is definitely not funny. Nor was it meant to be. It’s not for nothing that a long lamentation or complaint or list of woes is called a jeremiad. The prophet Jeremiah preached to the Hebrew people in a time of great national crisis. The Babylonians were on the move and coming their way. As we know, they would conquer Judah and take their best and brightest into exile. 

Jeremiah is often (rightly) seen as a prophet of doom and gloom. But as we can see by the good news part of his prophecy, there are blessings to be had even among the woes.  

Then there’s Jesus. First the good news:
Blessed are you who are poor, you who are hungry, you who weep. Blessed are you when you’re hated, excluded, and reviled. You will be rewarded.

Then he drops the other shoe: 
But woe to you who are full; you’ll go hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now; you’ll be in mourning. Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you; you’ll be known as a false prophet.

This, too, is no joke. If you’re wondering why these beatitudes sound different from the ones we’re used to, it’s because we’re in Luke’s gospel, not Matthew’s. We don’t get to read this version that often in church. We read Matthew’s beatitudes every year on All Saints Sunday. Luke’s, on the other hand comes around in the lectionary just once every three years on the Sixth Sunday of Epiphany. 

But we don’t always have a Sixth Sunday of Epiphany. Depending on when Easter is, which determines when Lent begins, and therefore when Epiphany ends, Epiphany 6 doesn’t come around that often. Because Easter is late this year, today and next Sunday – the sixth and seventh Sundays after Epiphany – we hear lessons we seldom hear. These are portions of what’s called the “Sermon on the Plain,” the parallel in Luke to the longer and more familiar “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew.

According to Luke’s account, Jesus had just spent an entire night on a mountain in prayer. He then called all his followers together and chose twelve of them to be his apostles. Then Jesus came down from the mountain with them, healed many people and then preached this sermon, on a level place, beginning with a series of blessings or “beatitudes.” Blessed are the poor, the hungry, those who weep, and those who are reviled and defamed. 

There are fewer blessings in Luke (four, compared to Matthew’s nine). There’s nothing about the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, or the peacemakers. And two of the remaining ones have some major differences: Luke’s ‘poor’ becomes Matthew’s ‘poor in spirit’ and to Luke’s ‘blessed are you who hunger, Matthew adds ‘for righteousness.’ Luke moves from a spiritualized ethic to a more practical one. 

And, unlike the beatitudes in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Luke’s Jesus includes four ‘woes’ to those who refuse to hear and embrace these teachings – very reminiscent of the warnings we heard from Jeremiah. It’s also reminiscent of what we heard not all that long ago, back in Advent, when Mary sang the Magnificat:
My soul proclaims your greatness, O God and my spirit rejoices in you, my Savior. The mighty, who may be flying high now, will be brought low. The oppressed will be lifted up; the empty will be filled. Those who are full will taste what it feels like to be empty.   

When you read the entirety of Luke, you see that a major theme of this gospel is this great reversal of fortunes in God’s reign. See how the blessings and woes are paired together: poor/rich; hungry/full; weeping/laughing; rejected/accepted. In other words, there are ‘woes,’ there are consequences to living in opposition to God’s intentions. There’s an edge in this part of the teaching that maybe we’re not used to hearing. I’d venture a guess that most people like Matthew’s version better than Luke’s. My first recollection of the Beatitudes is that they were pasted into a back cover of a Bible under the heading “For Those in Need of Comfort.” 

But I’ve never seen a similar thing for Luke, under the heading “For Those in Need of Challenge.” But here we are on Epiphany 6 with Jesus speaking to the crowd on a level place. Might we also hear Jesus speaking to us – on the level? 

This long Epiphany season of revelation is taking us even deeper into the heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. On the surface, it seems pretty simple. We could see the blessings and woes as an either/or situation. Either you live right, or you don’t. Either you’re blessed or you’re cursed. But the reality is not so cut and dried. I don’t consider myself to be rich, do you? Except we are rich, compared to most people in the world. I’m never hungry, not really. In fact, we’re so full so much of the time that many of us have health issues from over-consumption. 

We do weep, some of us more often than others. And we take that seriously. But we also love to be entertained, to distract us from the overwhelming tragedies of the world. Syria, Yemen, Ukraine are far-away places; let’s change the channel and watch more funny cat videos. 

And we rarely have people saying seriously bad stuff about us, especially on account of Jesus. We’re respectable, comfortable, nice, good people. Except when we do speak out in a prophetic way, letting loose a jeremiad against those who exploit the poor, the hungry, the oppressed – when our desire to make a stand for justice outweighs our need to be liked. 

It’s often hard to know if we’re in the blessings column or the woes. The reality is that we’re complicated creatures. Martin Luther said it best when he described us as simultaneously saint and sinner. 

These blessings and woes remind me of the challenge we have these days with understanding privilege: white privilege, male privilege, middle class privilege, straight privilege, cis-privilege, able-bodied privilege. We get into all kinds of tussles about who’s using their privilege and when. 

But here’s the thing. I know that I enjoy certain kinds of privilege – as a white, middle-class, able-bodied person. I also know I’ve experienced the other side of the coin. As a woman, I obviously don’t enjoy male privilege. We could each name where we have privilege and where we don’t. That’s why many are calling for intersectionality, which says that all oppressive systems (racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, xenophobia, classism, etc.) are interconnected and can’t be dealt with separately from one another.

In other words, we’re all in this together – in both the blessings and the woes of life. We all have some form of sin and brokenness in our lives. Sometimes our sinfulness or brokenness is visible, oftentimes it’s invisible, but it’s there, nonetheless. Yet even in the midst of our complicated blessings and woes, God calls us into a way of transformation – both for ourselves and for our communities and our world. It’s called resurrection life.

St. Paul, in his plea to the Corinthians to remember their faith in the resurrection of Christ, reminds us where we need to put our trust as well. Living as we do in the paradoxical way of being both saint and sinner, we must rely on the life-giving power that is beyond our own efforts and will power. 

Resurrection isn’t just about eternal life when we die, but is also about the promise of new life, new possibilities in the midst of seemingly impossible problems. As we confront our own brokenness, sinfulness, the ways we’re caught in systems from which we cannot break free (our woes) – we also open ourselves up to the blessings. In this very challenging manifestation of the person and work of Jesus in the world, we are called to follow in the way of resurrection and blessing. The call to discipleship demands a response. 

Depending on how you look at it, the way of Jesus can be a good news/bad news story: the good news is that God loves you. The bad news is now you have to do something about it for the sake of the world. Wait, that doesn’t sound right. Let’s turn it around. Jesus has bad news and good news: the bad news is that you’re a sinner and you can’t free yourself and you live in a world of woes. The good news is that you are beloved and perfectly OK because God has made it so. Now go and do something for the sake of the world. 

Jesus has come to us “on the level” to tell us that the good news wins. Resurrection wins. Love wins – for our sake and for our prophetic work and witness in the world. And that is no joke.  Amen 

Jeremiah 17:5-10
Yahweh says:
Cursed are those who trust in human ways who rely on things of the flesh, whose hearts turn away from me. They are like stunted vegetation in the desert, with no hope in the future. It stands in stony wastes in the desert, an uninhabited land of salt.
Blessed are those who put their trust in God, with God for their hope. They are like a tree planted by the river, that thrusts its roots toward the stream. When the heat comes it feels no heat; its leaves stay green. It is untroubled in a year of drought, and never ceases to bear fruit.
The human heart is more deceitful than anything else, and desperately sick – who can understand it?
I, Yahweh, search into the heart, I probe the mind, to give to each person what their actions and conduct deserve.

Psalm 1

Happy are those who reject the path of violence,
who refuse to associate with criminals
or even to sit with people who belittle others.
Happy are those who delight in the law of Yahweh
and meditate on it day and night.
They are like trees planted by flowing water –
they bear fruit in every season,
and their leaves never wither.
Everything they do will prosper.

But not wrongdoers!
They are like chaff that the wind blows away.
They won’t have a taproot to anchor them
when judgment comes,
nor will corrupt individuals be given a place in
the congregation of the righteous.
Yahweh watches over the steps of those who do justice;
but those on a path of violence and injustice
will find themselves irretrievably lost.

1 Corinthians 15:12-20
Tell me, if we proclaim that Christ was raised from the dead, how is it that some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching has been meaningless – and everything you’ve believed has been just as meaningless. Indeed, we are shown to be false witnesses of God, for we solemnly swore that God raised Christ from the dead – which did not happen if in fact the dead are not raised. Because if the dead are not raised, then Christ is not raised, and if Christ is not raised, your faith is worthless. You are still in your sins, and those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If our hopes in Christ are limited to this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. But as it is, Christ has in fact been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.

Luke 6:17-26
Coming down the mountain with them, Jesus stopped in at a level place where there were a great number of disciples. A large crowd of people was with them from Jerusalem and all over Judea, to as far north as the coast of Tyre and Sidon – people who had come to hear Jesus and be healed of their diseases, and even freed from unclean spirits. Indeed, the whole crowd was trying to touch Jesus, because power was coming out of him and healing them all.
Looking at the disciples, Jesus said:
Blessed are you who are poor, for the reign of God is yours.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they scorn
and insult you and spurn your name as evil because of me.
On that day, rejoice and be glad: your reward will be great in heaven;
for their ancestors treated the prophets the same way.
But woe to you rich, for you are now receiving your comfort in full.
Woe to you who are full, for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now, for you will weep in your grief.
Woe to you when all speak well of you, for their ancestors treated the false prophets in the same way.

Nothing But Net

Nothing but net.

We’re probably much more familiar with a basketball net than a fishing net, especially the kind they used back in Jesus’ day. Fishing nets play a big part in today’s gospel story. Can you imagine Simon and James and John there by Lake Gennesaret (which Luke calls the Sea of Galilee), glumly cleaning up after their unsuccessful night of fishing? Even though they hadn’t caught anything, there would have been a lot of debris in the nets: dead fish, mud, pebbles, and seaweed from dragging the net through the deep water, the nets had to be kept clean; otherwise, they’d start to stink and attract rats, which would chew big holes in them. So, avoiding this hard work was not an option. Fishing wasn’t a leisure sport; it was part of the fundamental economic system of 1st century Galilee.

If you can imagine this scene of dejection, consider the extraordinariness of what happens next. I don’t mean Jesus telling them to go back and try again. I mean the extraordinary moment in between Simon wearily answering, “We’ve been working hard all night long and have caught nothing” and “But if you say so, we’ll go.”

That moment is a space that most of us have occupied at one time or another – in the gap between weariness and hope, defeat and faith, resignation and obedience – in the doldrums of the same old same old. Even the most faithful, hardworking among us “can land up on shore some mornings with empty, stinking fishing nets tangled in our fingers, wondering what the heck went wrong.” (Debi Thomas in journeywithjesus.net)  

The leap of faith Simon makes in that millisecond is the same one we make when we choose to try again, choose to go deep instead of staying in the shallows, choose to cast our empty nets into the water and trust that the presence of Christ with us in the boat is more precious than any guarantee of success. And what do we need for this leap of faith? Nothing but net. 

But back to Lake Gennesaret, where Jesus tells the astonished disciples-to-be, “From now on you’ll be catching people.” That sentence is often read as the call to evangelism. But I want to pause here too. Because the moment in between “from now on you’ll be catching people” and “they left everything and followed Jesus” had to be another moment in time filled with swirling reactions. 

As I said, fishing was part of the fundamental economic system of 1st century Galilee. However, it was controlled – and exploited – by the Roman Empire. Caesar owned every body of water, and all fishing was state regulated for the benefit of the urban elite. Fishermen couldn’t obtain licenses to fish without joining a syndicate, most of what they caught was exported — leaving local communities impoverished and hungry — and the Romans collected exorbitant taxes, levies, and tolls each time fish were sold.  To catch even one fish outside of this exploitative system was considered illegal. This exploitation may have intensified during the reign of Herod, due to his increased commercialization of fishing and his own luxurious living. Laborers sought ways to resist exploitation by hiding goods, lying about the size of their families in order to pay fewer poll taxes, and other covert strategies.

But here in this ginormous catch was abundance beyond their wildest dreams. And somehow they knew that these fish, these miraculous life-sustaining, family-feeding fish were not subject to the laws of Herod or Caesar. It must have been tempting to think that this Jesus could transform their weary labors into a new, independent fishing industry. 

It must have felt really good in that moment, sticking a finger into the eye of the empire. But Jesus calls them out from that daydream: “From now on you’ll be catching people.” And they got it. This Jesus was about something bigger than fishing. 

In the bounty of the catch, Jesus showed Simon the extravagant nature of God. In God’s realm, there’s enough food for everyone – there are no empty nets, there’s no economic exploitation. The Good News is for everyone. Meaning that if what we profess as Christians isn’t good news for everyone — it’s not good news.  

Which brings us back to catching people. I have to admit to some discomfort with that phrase. Even though I’m certain Jesus never meant that we’re supposed to go around nabbing people in order to save their sinful souls. Indeed, metaphors like this one have succeeded in forceful coercion and conversion; justification for forcing belief systems on the unsuspecting and insisting that those without a relationship with Jesus are most definitely not in the net of Jesus’ community. Catching implies a one-way action, and often a coercive one at that.

Even using the language of other translations, like “From now on you’ll be fishing for people” is problematic to my ears. In the dictionary, the meaning of ‘fish for’ is to try to get something in an indirect, and sometimes a deceptive, way. Like fishing for compliments or fishing for answers. 

This reminded me of a conversation I had with a young man who had become active in my church’s outreach to the ‘spiritual but not religious’ in our area. I think that in having that conversation, he began to trust me. He asked me why the church was doing this and I explained the idea behind it – and that it was not a ‘bait and switch’ situation where we would, at some point, reel unsuspecting people into church membership. His obvious relief at my answer told me that ‘catching’ him had been a concern and we would need to be clear about our mission, motives, and expectations.

The other incident that comes to mind happened just last week. I was the presenter for the Diversity Circle run by my friend Sridevi Ramanathan. When Sridevi introduced me to the group, she told the story of how we’d met. Both of us are included in the book Birthing God: Women’s Experience of the Divine. When my congregation wanted to invite a practitioner of Hinduism to be part of our Pluralism Summer program, I asked the author if it would be OK to give me Sridevi’s contact information. Which she did and Sridevi was a presenter at least twice in the four years we did the program. 

What I didn’t know until last week, though, is the hesitancy she felt before actually showing up that first time. As she said, she didn’t know what to expect. Would it be a set-up, a come-on that would end up as an attempt at conversion, something that she had experienced in the past. Of course, it wasn’t, but I can understand the fear. So I am wary of fishing, catching, reeling in anybody. 

But that doesn’t mean I disregard what Jesus is really saying. This story is about how we become disciples – by having a profound experience of Divine abundance and possibility. And it’s about hearing then the words that define the church’s mission: go and tell others.

I can already see some of you backing up a little and thinking, “Uh, oh. Here comes the sign-up sheet for knocking on doors in my neighborhood.” But come on back, I’m not going there. 

A lot of the ways we learned to fish in the past just don’t work any longer. The story of Simon and the other fishermen working all night and catching nothing is more like the experience of the church today than letting down the nets and catching so many fish that our nets – or our buildings – can’t hold them all. 

Now, I am aware that I’m already on page 3 of this sermon –which is supposed to be bringing you good news – and all I’ve probably done so far is make you realize how much we’re still in that space between “We’ve been working hard all night long and have caught nothing” and “But if you say so, we’ll go.”

So it’s time to get moving. Bruce Epperly, a United Church of Christ pastor and blogger wrote a surprisingly positive post about this week’s readings. Although it shouldn’t be surprising; it is the season of Epiphany after all. He wrote: 
Get ready for a wild ride! Strap on your seat belts and put on your helmet! We’re entering the amazing realm of the Twilight Zone, Narnia, and Hogwarts, an enchanted world, wild and wonderful, with mysticism and miracle, signs and wonders, where God shows up and turns our world upside down. Where God asks, and then empowers us to be more than we can imagine!

Wow! Is he reading the same story? But knowing Epperly’s writing, I’d expect him to find a deeper spirituality here and not simply a how-to manual of church growth. Listen to what he says about Isaiah:

Isaiah’s mystical experience in the Temple awakens us to the possibility that there may be “thin places” everywhere, as the Celtic Christians say. Places where the veil between heaven and earth is pierced and we see life as it is – Infinite. Where God’s grandeur abounds, and angels guide our paths. Out of nowhere, God shows up – a theophany that rocks Isaiah’s world. The doors of his perception open and he experiences the majesty and wildness of the world – the mysterious, fascinating, and tremendous. Isaiah receives God’s transforming and healing touch and a blessing beyond belief. He is anointed by fire, and then given a task.

Then he asks: When we hear these words, “Whom shall I send” what will our response be? Surely God calls us each moment of the day with nudges, intuitions, insights, and encounters. 

Then he goes on to I Corinthians, saying: 
Like Isaiah, Paul’s mystical encounter with the Living Christ turned his world upside down and gave him the vocation of ministry with the Gentiles. This passage gives us confidence in God’s power in the world and invites us to consider our own calling. No one is bereft of God’s grace or power to embody God’s vision and be God’s representatives in the word.

And then to the gospel:
Not expecting anything, and disappointed over an unsuccessful night’s fishing, Peter is welcomed into a world of wonders. Jesus calls him to go further and despite his doubts, Peter follows Jesus’ advice and receives “more than he can ask or imagine.” 

Peter’s experience mirrors the experience of many . . . congregations. We have worked hard and sought to be faithful and yet our congregation shrinks in size, budgets are tight, and the demographics are against us. We have tried all the latest church growth programs and the downward trend continues. And yet, God offers one more thing – launch out into the deep, go toward the horizon, awaken to new possibilities. Don’t give up, be faithful and join your imagination with faithful action that goes beyond church survival to healing the world.

Nothing but net.

Now we see that – as we’ve known all along – God is in charge here. And there are epiphanies still to come. The possibility is always there for you, for me to have God show up and rock our world – and our church. And while an epiphany can happen any time and quite unexpectedly, it certainly does not hurt for us to open up space in our souls, to develop our spiritual muscles, to be ready for when a ‘thin place’ opens up and gives us a glimpse into Infinity.  

And this isn’t just about a personal encounter with Divine Presence. This is also about re-creating, re-forming the Church with Holy Imagination and Creativity. It’s about launching out into the deep, awakening to new possibilities. No store-bought, cookie-cutter program will do it. It will take creativity and imagination, along with faithful action that will lead us out of despair or survival mode to renewing the Church and healing the world.

I want to tell you a little bit about what your church council has been up to. You might remember at our annual meeting last year, we decided to restructure the council – at least for a year – and try some new ways of leadership. We had a half-day retreat back in December where I introduced the idea of discernment as a way of leading the church. Discernment is different from a decision-making process in that it begins with different assumptions. In decision-making (and this is not a bad process and is appropriate in many situations) we believe that problems are solvable if approached carefully and logically. We have the capacity to understand and solve our problems by gathering and interpreting data, brainstorming options, establishing decision criteria, and selecting an optimal solution.

In discernment, we believe God is not neutral about our mission or our choices and is self-disclosing. We recognize that the Holy Spirit is our indwelling and ongoing guide. Openness of spirit and attitude is required and God’s will is best discerned within community. In this process, we listen for the promptings of the Spirit and explore through imagination, prayer, silence, and scripture. 

A good portion of the council’s time together is now being spent in this kind of process, and at some point you will be invited to participate in some way, too. Remember back in Advent, I kept asking the question: what is waiting to be born in our congregation? The question is much the same now: what is God calling Good Shepherd Lutheran Church to be – today?

Discouragement may be tempting, but in light of the gospel, it isn’t a realistic option. Remember how impossible Peter thought another fishing expedition would be that night: “We’ve been working hard all night long and have caught nothing.”  

Yet he knew enough about Jesus to say, “OK, if you say so, I’ll lower the nets.” Maybe he didn’t have any expectations; maybe he couldn’t even imagine what might happen. But he did it; he lowered the nets. Like Isaiah, he said, in effect, “Here am I. Send me!”

Here we are, in our boat – the church. We might think we don’t have much to offer, not enough resources, not enough people, not enough time. But as we get our fishing nets cleaned and ready to go, we would do well to remember this prayer from ELW Evening Prayer:

O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Savior. 

Nothing but net.

Amen

Luke 5:1-11

One day, Jesus was standing by Lake Gennesaret, and the crowd pressed in on him to hear the word of God. He saw two boats moored by the side of the lake; the fishermen had disembarked and were washing their nets. Jesus stepped into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a short distance from the shore; then, remaining seated, he continued to teach the crowds from the boat. When Jesus had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Pull out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.”

Simon answered, “Rabbi, we’ve been working hard all night long and have caught nothing. But if you say so, I will lower the nets.” When they had done this, they caught such a great number of fish that their nets were beginning to break. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and together they filled the two boats until they both nearly sank. After Simon saw what happened, he was filled with awe and fell down before Jesus, saying, “Leave me, Rabbi, for I am a sinner!” For Simon and his shipmates were astonished at the size of the catch they had made, as were James and John, Zebedee’s sons, who were Simon’s partners. 

Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” And when they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed Jesus.

Sarah & Abraham: Standing on the Promises

Lent 2              February 28, 2021

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There’s an old hymn called “Standing on the Promises.” I thought of it the other day when I saw the typo on the sign on a little grocery store in my neighborhood. It says, “No loitering is allowed on these promises.” 

Well, thankfully we are still allowed to stand on the promises that God has made to us. and today we continue our Lent exploration of some of the most important promises in the Bible. Last week, we sailed off in the ark with Noah and heard God’s covenant with all of creation to never again destroy the world with a flood.

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This week we have part of the story of Abraham and Sarah, patriarch and matriarch of both Judaism and Christianity. Their son Isaac and his wife Rebecca follow in their lineage; then their son Jacob, with wives Leah and Rachel follow them. When we hear God referred to as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – or to be inclusive, the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob, Leah, and Rachel – we’re hearing about the covenant that God made to make a great nation from these people: “I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars in the heavens. All the nations of the world will be blessed through your offspring.” Of course, Abraham is also the patriarch of Islam, through his relationship with Sarah’s slave, Hagar. God promises that their son Ismael will also be the beginning of a great nation. 

That’s a pretty cut and dried summary of the start of what we call the Abrahamic religions, the continuation of the covenant with all of creation has now focused in on these people. We could say that in these covenants, God has chosen to go “all in” with humanity. Some of the best stories in the Bible revolve around these ancestors. These are the heroes of our faith. But the thing I love best about their stories is that the Bible doesn’t leave out the messy parts. All of them are flawed human beings. In spite of knowing about God’s promises to them and promising themselves to be “all in” with God, they make mistakes, they have doubts, they try to make things happen on their own instead of following God’s way, they fail, they repent, they turn around and doubt again. 

Sarah’s response to the promise that she’ll have a child (kind of a necessity if you’re going to be the mother of a great nation) is to laugh out loud in disbelief.
Then, as Abraham and Sarah journeyed to the place God said they would be shown, Abraham passed his wife off as his sister to King Abimelech of Gerar. The motivation for this rather odd act is fear. As Abraham says to Sarah, “Look. You’re a beautiful woman. When the king sees you, he’s going to say, ‘Aha! That’s his wife!’ and kill me. But he’ll let you live. So say you’re my sister. Because of you, he’ll welcome me and let me live.” So that’s what they did. But God appeared to King Abimelech in a dream to warn him about Abraham’s deception – and Sarah was saved.

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Many years later, their son Isaac, proving that sins can be passed down through generations, also tried to pass Rebekah off as his sister. In the next generation, Jacob cheats his brother Esau out of his inheritance.  

Let’s just admit it, these people are sinners. In spite of knowing that God has been and promises to always be  all in for them, they succumb to fear, doubt, anger, jealousy, and every other kind of human failing. In other words, we can relate to them. So this notion of covenant, while perhaps not an idea we often think about in our own relationship with God, is actually pretty important. In a life of covenant, every moment of our lives exists at the intersection of God’s “I will be” and our response of “We shall do.”

The spiritual life is living within the naturalness of our natural lives,
as creatures of the earth who work and eat and labor and die,
but to try to turn these occasions into markers of praise and thankfulness
before God, the Life of all life. – Walter Brueggemann *

Of course, we know that standing on the promises of God on a daily basis in the midst of all our daily challenges is not always easy. How are we able to find a way to avoid at least the most egregious failures to follow on the right paths?

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I don’t believe that I have ever quoted Ronald Reagan on anything, but this seems to apply here. When dealing with the former Soviet Union, Reagan used the phrase “trust, but verify.” He had to find a middle way between those who were pressing for some restraint on the arms race by leading with trust. But he didn’t want to appear too soft, so he qualified trust by requiring inspections, evidence, and verification. That combination might help us here as we continue in our Lenten journey into covenant faith.

It helps us to be reminded of both the promises of God and the fulfilments. That’s what Paul did in his letter to the church in Rome. He wrote to them as they were trying to decide how to move forward into the future. We can pick up some hints that they were getting bogged down in squabbles about what was required for faith and conduct and about who was most qualified to be in leadership. They also seemed to have had some divisions between the Jewish Christians, steeped in the past, who kept all the requirements of Torah and the Gentile members, who liked to brag about their freedom from the past. 

But Paul wasn’t having any of it. He tells them that no one is really qualified because of their past, because all have sinned and fallen short. He also tells them not to absolutize requirements for faith in the present tense – because we are being summoned into the future that God is creating right now. We are required to trust that future and walk into it. In order to convince them that their trust wouldn’t be in vain, Paul reaches back to Abraham and Sarah. Despite having no heir and too old to get one, which in their world translated to being “as good as dead,” God enters into this dead-end existence and announces a future that required incredible trust: “I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”

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“In other words,” God says, “I’m all in with you and yours from now on.” The ones with no future will have a full and rich future, all because of a gift from God. Paul then transposes this old memory onto the church’s future, a future that rests on grace, the unfathomable  gift of God’s generosity that can shatter all our expectations. All it requires is faith, trust, and readiness to receive. 

That depth of trust is not an easy matter. We hold ourselves back. We’re suspicious. We want to wait and see before we take such a deep plunge of faith. But that’s what’s required in covenant living with the One who has promised to always go all in for us. To go all in is to give ourselves over to the inexplicable power for life that breaks all of our defenses of fear, anger, anxiety, and despair. It’s the plunge into bottomless love that appears at the intersection of God’s “I will be” and our response of “We shall do” – the intersection when God tells Abraham and Sarah to pick up and go into the unknown to a place that God would show them and (as all Genesis says in stunning brevity) they went. 

But Paul says more: 
They never questioned or doubted God’s promise. They grew strong in faith and gave glory to God. They were fully persuaded that God could do whatever was promised. Did they make mistakes along the way? Of course they did. There was that “my wife is my sister” incident, after all. But the main point of their story is the story of walking into the future given by God. And we can read the same point in the stories of so many other biblical heroes, as well as those of people throughout the ages who went all in trusting the future given by God. 

But what about verification? Trust but verify. I don’t want to give the impression that I’m comparing God to the former Soviet Union, as if we need to keep a watchful eye on a possibly untrustworthy covenant partner. But the truth is that we can verify God’s reliability. There is evidence of God’s responsibility to following through. 

The stories are many. The birth of Isaac to Sarah and Abraham. From them, descendants were born, as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore. The reconciliation of brothers Jacob and Esau, the formation of a people, the liberation of that people from slavery and again from exile. 

The stories of faith in the time of Jesus: from Mary and Joseph to Paul in 1 Corinthians, “Jesus appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve, then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” 

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And of course, the story of Jesus, in whom we see the flesh and blood manifestation of the “all in” nature of the covenant. Although it’s hard not to think of those disciples, who had been drawn to this charismatic teacher and spiritual guide, only to be told that being his follower would be much harder and more all-consuming than they could imagine. They would be required to “take up their cross” in order to be part of the deal. Talk about all in! Wouldn’t you think Jesus would have found a way to describe discipleship that isn’t so off-putting? Who is able to be so fully, completely committed to upholding our end of the “I will be”/“We shall do” covenant?

In spite of their flaws and mistakes, the disciples were. They discovered their ability to take up the cross, to live sacrificial lives of love and service. Their stories are verification of the power of that plunge into bottomless love where anything and everything is possible. 

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We could say the same for disciples today. The definition of carrying a cross can change in every time and circumstance. Certainly today, we could ask, “What does taking up the cross mean right now, for us, in this pandemic? What does it mean for us to be “all in” – for God and for each other. Perhaps at no other time have we been so aware of how closely we are connected to people we don’t even know. But we know we need to be in solidarity with one another, to help each other stay alive. The threat is so universal that our response to it must be all in – we need to bear one another’s burdens not only for our safety but for that of others.

We take up our cross when we help one another get through this long slog to a day of greater security. This is but the latest response of “We shall do” to God’s promise of “I will be.” And we don’t have to look very far to find the stories of sacrificial love and service: from parents and teachers making sure children are cared for and education is continued; health care workers literally putting their lives on the line, generous donors to food pantries and shelters, volunteers staffing vaccination centers, chaplains tending to sick, dying, and grieving. 

Verification of the goodness to be found in God’s creation can be found all around us – even in the midst of trial and tribulation. Verification of the never-ending source of love and spiritual renewal can be found in the stories of today’s heroes of the faith. 

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Verification can be found in a church brave enough to try new technologies in order to remain in community, ready to go all in and imagine a new future, to hear God’s call to go to a place it will be shown, and willing to go. The stories of trust and verification continue to be written. 

If we pay attention, we’ll find that the world teems with verification: life in the midst of death, hurts that have been healed, estrangements that have been reconciled, bondage that has turned to freedom, it’s all around us. Perhaps your story is one of them. I know that some of mine are verification enough for me. God has promised to be there. God has been there. I can trust that God will always be there. And when times get tough, I remember. And live my life accordingly.

And yes, just as Ronald Reagan’s “trust and verify” policy was, in fact, a complex, complicated, partial accomplishment, so our invitation to “trust and verify” is also complex, complicated, and partial. We are human after all, and despite our best intentions of being all in, there will be times when we fall off. Thank God for the promise – and verification – of grace. We never fall completely and are always welcomed back. The covenant is more than a contract that can be broken and discarded. Even if we try to break it, God never will. 

In this Lenten season, as we contemplate what it means to live in covenant, to stand on the promises, what it means to live at every moment at the intersection of God’s “I will be” and our response of “We shall do,” we can look to the future – beyond the pandemic, beyond anything that threatens our life or well-being, to a place that God will show us. And even though we don’t know what that will be, we rest in the promise of the covenant. Hope, resurrection, new life, a new future of gospel possibility!

Amen

* Walter Brueggemann, “The Future: Trust but Verify” https://www.fourthchurch.org/sermons/2012/030412.html

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, Yahweh appeared and said, “I am El Shaddai. Walk in my presence and be blameless. I will make a covenant between you and me, and I will increase your numbers exceedingly.” Abram fell on his face before God, and God said, “This is my covenant with you: You will be the ancestor of many nations. You are no longer to be called Abram (“Exalted Ancestor) but Abraham (“Ancestor of a Multitude)” for you are the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you most fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and rulers will spring from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you, and your descendants after you for generations to come. I will be your God, and the God of your descendants after you.” God continued, “As for Sarai (“Princess”), her name will now be Sarah.* I will bless her, and I will give you a child by her. I will bless her, and she will become nations; rulers of peoples will come from her.”

Romans 4:13-25
The promise made to Sarah and Abraham and their descendants did not depend on the Law; it was made in view of the righteousness that comes from faith. For if those who live by the Law are heirs, then faith is pointless and the promise is worthless. The Law forever holds the potential for punishment. 

Only when there is no Law can there be no violation. Hence everything depends on faith; everything is grace. Thus the promise holds true for all of Sarah’s and Abraham’s descendants, not only for those who have the Law, but for all who have their faith. They are the mother and the father of us all — which was done in the sight of the God in whom they believed, the God who restores the dead to life and calls into being things that don’t exist.

Hoping against hope, Sarah and Abraham believed, and so became the mother and father of many nations, just as it was promised. Sarah and Abraham, without growing weak in faith, thought about their bodies, which were very old—he was about one hundred, and she was well beyond childbearing age. Still they never questioned or doubted God’s promise; rather, they grew strong in faith and gave glory to God, fully persuaded that God could do whatever was promised. So their faith “was credited to them as righteousness.” The words, “was credited to them,” were not written with them alone in mind; they were intended for us, too. For our faith will be credited to us if we believe in the One who raised Jesus our Savior from the dead, the Jesus who was handed over to death for our sins and raised up for our justification.

Mark 8:31-38
Then Jesus began to teach them that the Promised One had to suffer much, be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and religious scholars, be put to death, and rise again three days later. Jesus said these things quite openly. Peter then took him aside and began to take issue with him. At this, Jesus turned around and, eyeing the disciples, reprimanded Peter: “Get out of my sight, you Satan! You are judging by human standards rather than by God’s!”

Jesus summoned the crowd and the disciples and said, “If you wish to come after me, you must deny your very self, take up your cross and follow in my footsteps. If you would save your life, you’ll lose it, but if you lose your life for my sake, you’ll save it. What would you gain if you were to win the whole world but lose yourself in the process? What can you offer in exchange for your soul? Whoever in this faithless and corrupt generation is ashamed of me and my words will find, in turn, that the Promised One and the holy angels will be ashamed of that person, when all stand before our God in glory.”

Live Abundantly – Even When Your Tank Is on Empty

008-gnpi-053-feeding-5000Sermon for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost

How do you explain the Feeding of the 5000? This story is so familiar, maybe your ears just tuned it out. But what really happened? How did Jesus turn five loaves of bread and two fish into lunch for thousands of hungry people?

Only two choices?

We might think we have two choices here. Either we accept that this is a factual account of a miraculous multiplication of food. These are the folks with the bumper stickers that say: “The Bible said it; I believe it; that settles it.”

Or we look for a rational explanation. Many have tried over the centuries to give rational explanations for miracles.

Here’s one version from the World War II era:

A teenager was riding in a crowded compartment with five strangers. His mother had given him a sandwich wrapped in a handkerchief for his lunch because rationing made food for travelers hard to come by. Noon came and he was hungry, but he didn’t want to eat his lunch in front of the others. He decided to wait until they got out their lunches, but no one moved.  An hour passed and then another. Finally, he decided he had no choice. He needed to eat, and so did the others. He reached in his pocket and took out the handkerchief. He spread it on his lap and carefully broke his sandwich into six pieces while the other passengers watched. He said a brief blessing and gave each one a part of his sandwich. Then everyone else reached into their pockets and bags and took out the food they had brought – and not wanted to eat in front of others who might not have anything. The food was broken and shared around the compartment with a sense of feasting. Stories and laughter were shared along with the food.

And then there’s Woodstock.

I remember hearing a similar version in a sermon back in the 70s. The people out in the desert with Jesus simply shared what they had with one another.  And at the time, that made sense to me. Woodstock had just happened. Food vendors had quickly been Unknownoverwhelmed by the thousands who had descended on Max Yasgur’s farm. But a group from CA, led by Wavy Gravy  (yes, the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor was named for him) stepped into the breach. On Sunday morning, Wavy Gravy stood on the stage and famously announced, “What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000.” One common thread in stories told about that time is that everyone remembers two things: the food ran out fast and everyone shared what they had.

These are both lovely stories, which could have happened. The problem, though, with this explanation is that there’s nothing in the Bible story to suggest that is what Jesus or Matthew had in mind.

Remember that in this series of teachings from Jesus, we’re always looking for how he’s continually trying to convey what it means to live in the realm of God – or the realm of heaven, as Matthew calls it. We’ve been reading parables over several weeks – stories told by Jesus to get us to think differently about everything.

Is this a parable ABOUT Jesus?

You might have noticed that there are different kinds of parables. For example, there are riddle parables. These were used to confound outsiders or opponents, so they couldn’t understand what was being said. Only insiders, like the disciples, were able to get the message, usually with some further instruction from Jesus.

Then there are example parables. These are moral or ethical stories that deliberately point beyond themselves to wider implications. Think of the Parable of the Poor Man’s Lamb, which Nathan told to King David to get him to realize that the rich man who took the one lamb (Bathsheba) from the poor man (Uriah) was David himself.

Others are challenge parables, like The Good Samaritan, are meant to make us think and discuss, and decide how they apply to present times. This was a common teaching style in Jesus’ time. Many of his stories are challenge parables.

So we’ve been reading different kinds of parables by Jesus. But there’s another type that we don’t hear about so often – that is parables about Jesus. This feeding of the multitude is a good way to illustrate this. All four gospel writers tell a version of the story. Mark has two versions with different details. John is the only one that has a boy with bread and fish. By looking at these accounts side-by-side, we realize – not that they were confused about what had really happened – but that they each had a point that they wanted to convey about what Jesus was doing.

So, debating whether this was a miracle or an example of human sharing is not the  point. The story assumes that there is a sign for us here in the feeding of the people. As a parable, then, the question is: what is Jesus teaching us about the realm of God?

And because parables can shift meanings depending on times and circumstances, the question gets even more specific:
what is Jesus teaching us about the realm of God – today?

We can’t forget that in Matthew, this story occurs just after Jesus learns of the death of his cousin John the Baptist at the hands of King Herod. His sign is accomplished in the midst of political turmoil, grief, and fear, not to mention the ever-present reality of poverty and illness among his people. We can’t see the crowd as a bunch of party-goers out for a good time. They were looking for a sign – that somehow, in the midst of all this bad news, there might be a word of hope.

And Jesus gives it: in the realm of God, something can come out of nothing. Even we, who enjoy a standard of living that might cause us to think this doesn’t apply to us, surely know those times when we feel we’ve got nothing: nothing to say, nothing to do, nothing to give. We’re like the disciples who, when Jesus says “Feed these people,” throw up our hands and say, “Sorry Jesus, we’ve got nothing. Oh yeah, a couple loaves of bread and a little bit of fish. But really, what good can that do? The need is too great.”

shutterstock_58909408When you’re running on empty
Think about those times when you feel like your tank is on empty, there’s nothing left. But life doesn’t stop: phone calls, texts, emails keep flooding in, work, school, and family demands intersect and collide. The news of the world is draining. And, oh, yeah, we’re in the middle of a deadly pandemic. Who wouldn’t feel depleted?

And then you come to church and hear the pastor asking for even more! Sheesh! The potential for burn-out is a real concern. But here’s the good news of our life in the kingdom of God: the success of your discipleship, as a follower of Jesus doesn’t depend on how much you have or what you can give, but rather on how much God gives by multiplying what you have – no matter how small or tired or frayed it might be.

Jesus said, “Feed them.” They respond, “We have nothing—only five loaves and two fish.”
Jesus says, “Bring your nothing to me.” He blesses the fish and bread and proceeds to distribute the food and the bellies of each one of them was filled.

And there were leftovers!

This story reminds us that in times when we feel depleted, all Jesus is asking us to do is to give our nothing – and then to stand back and watch Jesus teach us how God’s economic system is not like our own. In the realm of God, an economy is grown by God’s abundance.

Tikkun Olam
As I write this, I am aware of how naïve this sounds, especially to anyone experiencing unemployment, the very real possibility of eviction from their home, and any number of troubles so many are facing today. But this message from Jesus begins with the command to feed the people. This isn’t a promise of a free ride because God’s going to come and fix everything.

No, we don’t get a free pass. We, as I’ve learned from my Jewish friends, are to be practitioners of ‘tikkun olam,’ Hebrew for ‘world repair,’ signifying social action and the pursuit of social justice. We have to be concerned about unemployment, home evictions, and all the social ills of our day.

But when we look around and see the immensity of what needs repairing, it’s tempting to back away and say, “there’s nothing I can do” or for a church to think, “there’s nothing we can do.”

Especially now. A global pandemic ratchets up our garden-variety fears and anxieties so high that we don’t know what to address first. Our health and safety, the health and safety of others, our shaky economy, the sustainability of our education system, the future of our democracy, our family and friend connections frayed by either physical distancing or by too much togetherness in quarantine – to name just a few. It is a scary time.

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

And then there’s the church. Every time I come to the church and see the sign that says the building is closed, I kind of feel like I’m going into a building that’s been condemned. That is not what it says, but it’s a scary time for the church, too.

Rev. Erin Wathen writes in If We Weren’t Afraid: What Is The Post-Pandemic Church Going To Be?: 

“Once, there was a little church in a big desert. And it was dying. Money was tight; fewer and fewer people were coming to worship; there was no youth group, and nothing for children past the nursery. Their mortgage kept them from being a generous mission church. They knew things had to change. But like most churches that find themselves in such a spiral, they were uncertain about what to change.

“The reason I tell this story is because it has such a miraculous twist – because that church learned to live again. They tripled in size. They paid off the mortgage. They grew and found resources for outreach. They changed their ministry model and evolved from maintenance to mission. And it was something to behold. In this age of mainline decline, such transformation rarely occurs. Past a certain point of financial struggle, conflict, and general lethargy, there is often nothing a church can do to change its story. But this little church in the desert found its breath, its heart, its spirit again. And I was there to witness it. Because I was their pastor.

“And here’s why else I tell it again– because I can pinpoint the precise moment when everything changed. And it wasn’t a big influx of cash, or an innovative new program, or a viral YouTube video that flipped the switch. It was a single question, posed at precisely the right moment. Knowing things needed to change, a group of leaders from the church started a discernment process with other congregations in our area facing the same challenges. At the first gathering of the group, the facilitator asked us to discuss the following question: what would you do if you weren’t afraid?

“We looked at each other– and all the lights came on. This was new. We’d spent many a late night church meeting talking about how to reach out to the neighbors; how to generate more income; how to tweak our worship service and make it more engaging or modern… and on and on. We’d asked endless questions amongst ourselves about what we were doing, and how we were doing it, and whether we could change. But nobody had ever asked us– what would you do if you weren’t afraid? For the next several years, that question drove everything. And it changed everything.”

I share her story because I think it’s a fine example of a congregation going into the discernment process with nothing. And God took their nothing and multiplied it – just like God does, according to Jesus. Whatever growth they experienced wasn’t because they were smarter or worked harder or had more faith – it was because they trusted that in in their vulnerability, in their hunger, in their need – God would feed them. And they, in turn, could then even better than before, participate in ‘tikkun olam.’

Scarcity ORAbundance

Really, it all comes down to deciding whether to live in a state of abundance or of scarcity. If we believe that an economy in the realm of God is grown by God’s abundance, then an attitude of scarcity doesn’t track. Although it’s understandable. There’s a myriad of messages telling us that we don’t have enough, that we’re not enough. But that’s not the message of the gospel, so we have to choose which one to believe.

There’s plenty to be afraid about as well. But there’s no harm in asking: what would we do if we weren’t afraid? (caveat: not about not wearing a mask or believing And then standing back to see where God’s Spirit might lead us. If Jesus is right, we’ll have enough to fulfill our needs – and we’ll have leftovers!

That’s the miracle.

Amen

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Matthew 14:13-21

When Jesus heard about the beheading (of John the Baptist), he left Nazareth by boat and went to a deserted place to be alone. The crowds heard of this and followed him from their towns on foot. As Jesus disembarked and saw the vast throng, his heart was moved with pity, and he healed their sick.

As evening drew on, the disciples approached Jesus and said, “This is a deserted place and it is already late. Dismiss the crowds so they can go to the villages and buy some food for themselves.”

Jesus said to them: “There is no need for them to disperse. Give them something to eat yourselves.”

They replied, “We have nothing here except five loaves and a couple of fish.”

Jesus said, “Bring them here.”

Then he ordered the crowds to sit on the grass. Taking the five loaves and two fish, Jesus looked up to heaven, blessed the food, broke it, and gave it to the disciples, who in turn gave it to the people. All those present ate their fill. The fragments remaining, when gathered up, filled twelve baskets. About five thousand families were fed.

 

 

 

 

 

Jesus: Rest for the Weary

Matthew-11-28Matthew: the teacher’s gospel
We’re continuing on our way through the Gospel of Matthew in this season of growth in discipleship. Matthew is often called the “teacher’s gospel” because – as you might guess – his emphasis is on the teachings of Jesus. We started out the season a few weeks ago hearing about the calling of the original Twelve disciples and some of the instructions Jesus gave them as they went out, then, to teach. And then we began diving into the teachings.

When we started, I said that the purpose of the gospel is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. But it seems that we’ve been stuck in “afflict the comfortable” mode since we began. Frankly, some of the instructions sound rather discouraging:

  • I’m sending you out like sheep among wolves
  • When your message is rejected, shake off the dust from your shoes and move on.
  • Don’t think I came to bring peace on earth. I came not to bring peace, but a sword.

Quarantine Fatigue
But today, at last, we come to a “comfort the afflicted” passage, one of the most familiar and loved passages in the Bible: “Come to me, all you who labor and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Sounds  a bit like the words on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

I don’t know about you, but after hearing three Sundays in a row about the challenges and costs of discipleship, I’m ready for some rest. This verse is like the cup of cold water that Jesus talked about last week. It’s like those other familiar and well-loved passages that tell us: “Don’t be afraid.” “Come to me, all you who labor and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” is both refreshing and reassuring.

And don’t we just need this right about now? 4+ months of quarantine; discouraging news about the rise in number of those infected; people not following protocols, roll-back of plans for reopening; disturbing videos of police violence; protests from both sides of the political divide; millions of people out of work, and a contentious presidential election looming ahead. Given all this, it’s no surprise that a recent survey by the National Science Foundation at the University of Chicago for the COVID Response Tracking Study concluded that Americans are more unhappy now than at any time in the last 50 years. Personally, I don’t think I would have responded to the survey that I’m unhappy. But weary – that I can relate to. And from what I hear from most people I talk to, that’s not an uncommon condition.

A recent article is entitled Are You Experiencing Coronavirus Quarantine Fatigue? It asks if you’ve felt irritable, stressed, anxious, eating more, eating less, unable to sleep, unmotivated or less productive, having racing thoughts, or just on edge in general. If you’ve experienced any of these, you’re most likely feeling the effects of quarantine fatigue. Part of the fatigue is feeling overwhelmed by the uncertainty, unpredictability and the unknowns in all of this. So, “Come to me, all you who labor and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” is a welcome word from Jesus.

Take my yoke, please?yoke
Then he goes on. The very next thing he says is, “Take my yoke upon your shoulders and learn from me.” Now isn’t that a curious thing to say? I mean, who wants to have a bar laid across their shoulders like a beast of burden? Of all the imagery we have for Jesus, this one of a farmer yoking draught animals together in order to pull a heavy load is not very appealing. Plus, the yoke was a symbol of servitude in the Bible, and of the burden of slavery or taxes, while freedom from oppression was described by the prophets as breaking of the yoke.

Jesus isn’t making sense here, especially on this holiday weekend, when we celebrate freedom. But, he’s still not finished. He comes right back with a further description of both himself and this yoke: “Take my yoke upon your shoulders and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart. Here you will find rest for your souls, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

How odd that we would find rest for our souls by taking on a burden. But it begins to make sense when we know that in the rabbinic literature of Judaism, the yoke is actually a symbol of great importance, referring to the study of and obedience to the Torah. It’s a symbol of devotion to the kingdom of heaven, which is also the primary message of Jesus’ teaching.

As a Jew, Jesus would have known this imagery very well. He wanted those who were burdened by the cares of the world to learn from his gentle instruction, and in doing so, to find rest for their souls. This kind of rest isn’t the kind we get when we take a break to lie down on the sofa for a while (although that kind of rest is good, too!). This rest that Jesus offers is a deep and abiding peace, in which we find wholeness and fulfillment.

j-teach3Jesus: Wisdom Teacher
What we see in these verses is a portrait of Jesus the Wisdom teacher. Our pursuit as followers of Jesus is learning the lessons, but at the same time it’s a pursuit of wisdom, internalization of the lesson which enables our self-reflection and increased self-awareness, increased God-awareness, and consequently obedience to the word of God – not as a harsh requirement or dreaded burden, but as a life-giving gift.

Now, we need to understand the difference between conventional wisdom and Jesus-wisdom. Conventional wisdom is an idea so accepted it goes unquestioned, even if it’s wrong (like ‘if you work hard, you’ll succeed’). With Jesus-wisdom, which he communicated through parables, sayings, and sermons, we are invited to see things differently. For example, in his day, conventional wisdom said that sinners and outcasts were to be avoided and rejected, while the wisdom of Jesus said everyone is welcome at the table in the kingdom of God. Conventional wisdom said you should always strive to be #1, while the wisdom of Jesus says the first will end up being last.

Undoubtedly there were plenty of people around Jesus who considered themselves learned and wise. And Jesus is not anti-intellectual. His problem was with closed hearts and minds. He’s clearly frustrated in this passage and he calls out those who condemn both him and John the Baptist. People criticized John for being all gloom and doom and no fun. He wore weird clothes and preached messages that some of them didn’t want to hear. Now it appears that they’re criticizing Jesus for just the opposite: he eats and drinks with sinners. He’s having entirely too much fun. There’s no pleasing them. But he says, ” Wisdom will be vindicated by her own actions.”

I’m sure we could come up with examples of conventional wisdom in our day. One would be that your worth is determined by the work you do and by how well you measure up to social standards. But in Jesus-wisdom, your primary identity comes from being centered in the sacred, in your relationship with God. That’s the primary identity that Jesus himself modeled. “Everything has been handed over to me by you. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son.” This reminds us of John’s gospel, when Jesus says, “The Father and I are one.”

This wisdom teaching – which can bring about a profound change in perspective – comes from a profoundly different experience of reality than what our culture/ conventional wisdom teaches us. That experience is our direct connection with the spirit of God. So this way of Jesus that he calls us to is a way that is deeply centered in God and not in culture.

Your primary identity is a child of God71ZTwFrO04L._AC_SL1500_
So what can we make of all this in relation to our world-weariness today? It sounds overly simple to say tend to your primary identity as a child of God. But that is the message. It sounds simple, but we know that when conventional wisdom tries to tell us a different message or something in our social or cultural setting exerts a pull on us or we’re still in lockdown and have no idea when it will end –  it’s a challenge to hear a word of wisdom from Jesus.

That’s why the teachings are so important. When we are bound to God’s word by the yoke of Jesus, we become so steeped in Holy Wisdom that it becomes second nature to us. At the very least, we are aware that there might be an alternative way of seeing than the one we’ve always known. And we can enter into a time of questioning and discernment with an open heart and mind. That applies to how we make decisions in our own lives and families, but also in our church, our communities, our nation, and our world.

There’s another way of thinking about the purpose of a yoke, and that is as a device that both restrains and enables. It is simultaneously a burden and a possibility.

I admit I am powerless over . . .
I think this is what St. Paul was talking about in our second reading. Paul is obviously in agony over something within himself. This heartfelt passage reminds me of Step 1 of Alcoholics Anonymous and every group that offers help for addictions of all kinds:  “We admitted we were powerless over (fill in the blank).”

He sums up Step 2 and 3 in his closing sentences: “Who can free me from this body under the power of death? Thanks be to God – it is Jesus Christ our Savior!” He might have said, “I came to believe that a Power greater than myself could restore me to sanity. And I made a decision to turn my will and my life over to the care of God.” Step 3 says “as we understand God.” But Paul is sure of where his freedom lies: “It is Jesus Christ our Savior!” As he wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians: “God has given you life in Christ Jesus and has made Jesus our wisdom, our justice, our sanctification and our redemption . . . so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.”

What are you free for?
By following Paul’s understanding of freedom, we don’t negate our Fourth of July celebrations. But his understanding of Jesus-Wisdom should cause us to reflect, not only on what we are free from, but what are we free for. How does conventional wisdom want us to think and act; are those ways in alignment with the wisdom that comes from Christ.

I may be free, as some people claim, from wearing a facemask when I’m around other people. But who and what am I free for? I may be free, as my neighbors were, to set off fireworks into the wee hours of the morning. But if I take into consideration what I am free for, would that have changed my behavior? I believe so.

So even though our holiday celebration is colored by our divisions, our anxiety, and our weariness, we follow Paul’s advice in another place, “We do not lose heart.”

Prisoners of hope
And while Zechariah was not proclaiming the Wisdom of Jesus, we can take his words as our way of discipleship: “Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope!” Our stronghold is the word of God; our yoke is the teachings of Jesus, who whispers now to you and to me, “Come to me, all you who labor and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon your shoulders and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart. Here you will find rest for your souls for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Amen

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Zechariah 9:9-12

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Look!
Your ruler comes to you; triumphant and victorious,
humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

This ruler will cut off the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem;
and the battle-bow shall be banished.
This ruler shall command peace to the nations; stretching from sea to sea,
from the River to the ends of the earth.
As for you, due to the blood covenant with me, I am returning your prisoners from their waterless pit.
Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope! Today I declare that I will give you back double!

Romans 7:15-25a

Does anyone not feel the depth of moral conflict Paul describes in this passage? In everyday life, we struggle to stay on the right track and often fail miserably to be the disciples we hope to be. We want to be patient with our loved ones in this time of pandemic and have equanimity in responding to what is beyond our control, and yet we are impatient, angry, and sometimes behave less than admirably. No one fully knows our worries and cares and sense of struggle, but they matter to us, and often leave us feeling spiritually weak. Like Paul, we seek assistance and assurance. It is written . . .

I don’t understand what I do – for I don’t do the things I want to do, but rather the things I hate. And if I do the very thing I don’t want to do, I am agreeing that the Law is good. Consequently, what is happening in me is not really me, but sin living in me. I know that no good dwells in me, that is, in my human nature; the desire to do right is there, but not the power.  What happens is that I don’t do the good I intend to do, but the evil I do not intend I do. But if I do what is against my will, it is not I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. This means that even though I want to do what is right, a law that leads to wrongdoing is always at hand. My inner self joyfully agrees with the law of God, but I see in my body’s members another law, in opposition to the law of my mind; this makes me the prisoner of the law of sin in my members. How wretched I am! Who can free me from this body under the power of death? Thanks be to God-it is Jesus Christ our Savior!

 

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 

“What comparison can I make with this generation? They are like children shouting to others as they sit in the marketplace, ‘We piped you a tune, but you wouldn’t dance. We sang you a dirge, but you wouldn’t mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He is possessed.’ The Chosen One comes, eating and drinking, and they say, ‘This one is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ Wisdom will be vindicated by her own actions.

Then Jesus prayed, “Abba, Creator of heaven and earth, to you I offer praise; for what you have hidden from the learned and the clever, you have revealed to the youngest children. Yes, everything is as you want it to be. Everything has been handed over to me by you. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son – and those given that revelation.”

“Come to me, all you who labor and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon your shoulders and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart. Here you will find rest for your souls for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

 

 

 

 

 

Who Would Want to Be a Disciple, Really?

 

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St. German’s glass,” image by Gill Poole via Flickr

What’s the job description?

One of the things we were going to do shortly after I came to Good Shepherd was work on my job description. Since I’m here on a half-time basis, we knew we needed to talk about what parts of our ministry here are the biggest priorities for the pastor’s attention. But then we went into lock-down. Although, it’s probably good we didn’t have time to get to that job description because we’d have to change it anyway. Who knew that Zoom technology and creating worship – and everything else – on line was going to be a thing?!

But there are some parts of a pastor’s job description that are just a given. Like preaching – which has often been described as comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. And there’s no doubt that this gospel reading today is definitely afflictive. Yes, there’s comfort in there, too. But seriously, who keeps listening after “Don’t suppose that I came to bring peace on earth. I came not to bring peace, but a sword”?

This text is why pastors, if they’re smart, go on vacation this week and avoid having to preach on it. I mean, here we have a version of Jesus that is glaringly inconsistent with what we’re used to. Is this the same Jesus we sing about at Christmas as the ‘Prince of Peace’? The same Rabbi Jesus who taught about the unconditional love of God and the inclusivity of God’s realm? Who prayed in his farewell prayer: “that they may all be one”? Who is this Jesus who says, “Do you think I’m here to bring peace? No, just the opposite; I’ve come to bring division”? This just doesn’t track.

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It Never Was About That Kind of Peace

Although, if we know our gospel stories, we know the ministry of Jesus really has never been peaceful, as in keeping the peace at any price. Remember the story of Jesus’ first act of public proclamation, when he stood up in the synagogue to read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah: “God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” That was all well and good, very inspiring. But after declaring what was, in effect, his mission statement, Jesus follows up with a biting criticism of the religious community. At which point, the crowd turns on him and tries to throw him off a cliff.

Even so, this text today is unsettling. And frankly, with the divisions we see in our country right now, it doesn’t seem very helpful. Although we should have had an inkling of this. In last week’s gospel we read that Jesus sent out the original disciples to proclaim that the realm of heaven had come near. And I said we’re probably in for a bumpy summer, in this season of growth in discipleship, since some of these teachings of Jesus will be very challenging to us – as they were meant to be. They are meant to be ingested and allowed to seep totally into our bodies, minds, and spirits as we ponder what it means to live in and proclaim that the realm of God is here.

I also said that the transformation that such a process brings is one that is internal – our own spiritual awareness as beloved – and external. our actions in the world to proclaim the Beloved Community. Now today we find out that there could be a cost for doing any of that. “Do not suppose that I came to bring peace on earth. I came not to bring peace, but a sword.  I’ve come to turn a son against his father, a daughter against her mother, in-law against in-law. One’s enemies will be the members of one’s own household.”

37240407634_674c65e34f_bWho wants to be a . . . disciple?

Do you know the game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” I guess it’s still on, but it’s not the wildly popular version that was on primetime TV as many as four nights a week. I don’t need to go into the details of the game; the title makes it obvious. The hoped-for outcome is to literally become a millionaire. Who wouldn’t want to do that?

For some reason this show popped into my head when I was reading over the gospel last week. When Jesus encounters Simon and Andrew and then James and John and calls out to them, I imagine him saying –in his best Regis Philbin impression – “Who wants to be a disciple?”. Those first twelve obviously said that they did. But I started to wonder if Jesus had also approached others, who after hearing what the job and some of the consequences of discipleship would be, replied, “Who would want to do that?”

But here we are. We’ve obviously said yes to the call to follow Jesus. Why else are we here? But I’m sure we have questions about our job description, especially when it’s something as difficult to understand as the “not peace but a sword” business.

The first thing we need to do is understand the Jewishness of Jesus.

If we dig just a little into Jesus’ Jewish roots, we get a much better understanding of what he’s talking about. His listeners and Matthew’s readers would have gotten it right away, but we modern readers have been clueless. Episcopal bishop and prolific author John Shelby Spong wrote a book about just this. It’s got a mouthful of a title, Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy: A Journey into a New Christianity through the Doorway of Matthew’s Gospel, but what he’s done is explain how events in the life of Jesus would have been understood by the people of his day, how Jewish culture, symbols, and storytelling tradition permeate the Christian tradition, too.

He doesn’t use today’s Matthew text as an example, but I consulted The Annotated Jewish New Testament. And lo and behold, there it was: a reference to a section of the Talmud, which is a compilation of the writings of historic rabbis expounding on the meaning of the Hebrew Bible – and within it, a reference to one of the Old Testament prophets. Here’s part of what Rabbi Eliezer the Great had to say:

In the period preceding the coming of the messiah,
insolence will increase and the cost of living will go up greatly;
vines will yield fruit, but wine will be expensive; the government will turn to heresy,
and there will be no one to rebuke. The wisdom of the learned will rot,
fearers of sin will be despised, and the truth will be lacking.

Then he quotes the prophet Micah:

For son spurns father, daughter rises up against mother,
daughter-in-law against
mother-in-law;
a man’s own household are his enemies.

Sound familiar? Rabbi Eliezer then concludes:

Upon whom shall we depend? Upon our father who is in heaven.

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Believe it or not, these writings were meant to bring hope to a beleaguered people. Micah lived at the same time as the prophet Isaiah, when the Assyrian empire threatened and consequently invaded the nation of Judah. 150 years later, in the time of the prophet Jeremiah, Micah was reworked to address the Babylonian invasion and exile. And now Jesus brings them to bear in his time, with Judah under the heel of the Roman empire.

All of these prophets, including Jesus in one of his roles, lived in a time of upheaval. Their descriptions of doom and gloom were often more descriptive of what was already happening than prophesies of things to come. Remember that ‘prophet’, as it’s used in the Bible, doesn’t mean a predictor of the future (other than reading the signs of the times), but someone who calls the people back into right relationship with God. And if ‘disciple’ is a tough job description, think about the poor prophet. We read Jeremiah’s lament, as he tried to convey his message only to be mocked and ignored. Yet he ends by saying, “Sing to God, praise to God, who has rescued the life of the poor from the power of the corrupt!”

And think of Isaiah, who begins right off in Chapter 1 with doom and gloom:

Oh, what are a sinful nation you are! A people weighed down with injustice! You’re a gang of thugs, corrupt children who abandoned and despised me and turned your backs on me! Why do you invite more punishment? Why do you persist in more rebellion? You have a massive head wound, your heart is completely diseased; there is nothing healthy in you, from the top of your head to the sole of your foot.

But then later comes forth with:
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” 

and:
A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare God’s way, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley will be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground will become level, and the rough places a plain. Then God’s glory will be revealed, and all people will see it together, for the mouth of God has spoken.’

Finally . . . comforting the afflicted

All of this has been the long way around to get to the ‘comfort the afflicted’ part of these teachings of Jesus. It’s clear from all of this that there is comfort and reassurance to be found in the midst of affliction. Jesus rightly gives full disclosure on what following him would mean.

Sometimes proclaiming the realm of heaven – that is, life right here and now – won’t be popular. For example, a couple of years ago, the Lutheran Church of the Reformation in Washington DC, put on their sign for Trinity Sunday, which was also Pride Sunday: “Thank the Holy Trinity for God’s Whole Diverse Creation – Happy and Blessed Pride!!!  That got them onto the “Exposing the ELCA” website which says the congregation and the sign are shameful, tragic, and an apostasy (a renunciation of our Christian belief).

No peace, but a sword. Get used to it.

Then there’s Pastor Lenny Duncan’s book, Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the US, which includes the chapter: “Jesus Was Divisive.” In an interview, he criticizes congregations pushing to open churches before it’s safe: “The most compassionate action right now is intentional social distancing. That’s what Jesus would be telling us to do if we were gathering.”

I learned of a church that planned to reopen today (not in this area) in spite of the fact that their pastor has a medical condition that puts her at risk. It made me wonder about the decision-making process of that congregation, if anyone had stood up for the safety of the pastor – and other vulnerable members of the church. We’re called to lose our lives for the sake of the gospel but I don’t think this is what Jesus had in mind.

I can’t repeat all the language, but Lenny Duncan calls (let’s say) baloney on the idea of Christian unity, where people will set aside the agenda of God in the name of Christian niceness. And he says,

If we are dividing what is life-giving from what is empire,
if we are dividing what is of God from what isn’t,
if we are dividing what is love from what is hate,
then we are walking the path of our Savior.

In order to find your life, you must lose it.

It really comes down to how we define peace. If it’s going along to get along, that’s not true peace. Jesus ends this portion of his teaching with the enigmatic saying:

You who have found your life will lose it, and you who lose their life for my sake will find it.

That might seem to make no sense, but the truth is when you give yourself over to the ways of God, it might feel like you are losing your life – your autonomy, your independence. But in reality, you’re gaining your life – a real, true, fulfilled life of being in unity with all of creation, of heaven and earth. And the work you do in the world will flow from this divine, unified presence.

So yes, the way of discipleship may often be challenging. If you’re looking for a nice, comfortable religion, where you can sit back and relax – this isn’t it. If you’re looking for a church that will provide you with spiritual nurture but won’t ask for your help in creating a better world – this isn’t it. If you think that being a Christian means you’ll always be happy and peaceful and contented and never have any more problems – nope. No more difficulties – nope. Maybe even disagreement – yep. Maybe even real peacemaking – yep.

The old saying of the purpose of preaching the gospel is clichéd but true: that it is ‘to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.’ And sometimes we’re both at the same time. We will sometimes feel afflicted.  But we can always find the comfort that God offers us. Jesus told us about it when he taught that the realm of heaven has come near and it’s among us. It’s within you and me and all of us together.

Don’t be afraid!

Being a follower of Jesus is serious business. Thankfully, God takes us seriously and is with us in all our endeavors. We can be comforted in many ways by this. And we need to rely on that comfort as we go about the work of discipleship. Jesus said:

Don’t let anyone intimidate you. Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed;
nothing is hidden that won’t be made known.  Don’t be afraid of anything –
you are more valuable than an entire flock of sparrows.

You are God’s beloved. You are part of the Beloved Community. You have lost your life in the water of baptism and risen to new a life of discipleship. Don’t be afraid.

Amen

 

Matthew 10:24-39

Jesus taught:

“A student is not superior to the teacher, nor a servant above the master. The student should be glad simply to become like the teacher, the servant like the master. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebul, how much more the members of the household!

“Don’t let people intimidate you. Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, and nothing is hidden that will not be made known. What I tell you in darkness, speak in the light. What you hear in private, proclaim from the housetops.

“Do not fear those who can deprive the body of life but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna. Are not the sparrows sold for pennies? Yet not a single sparrow falls to the ground without your Abba’s knowledge. As for you, every hair of your head has been counted. So don’t be afraid of anything – you are worth more value than an entire flock of sparrows.

“Whoever acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Abba in heaven. Whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before God in heaven.

“Do not suppose that I came to bring peace on earth. I came not to bring peace, but a sword. I have come to turn a son against his father, a daughter against her mother, in-law against in-law.

“One’s enemies will be the members of one’s own household. Those who love father or mother, daughter or son more than me are not worthy of me. Those who will not take up the cross – following in my footsteps – are not worthy of me. You who have found your life will lose it, and you who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

 

A Purple Zone Pastor Sings the Blues in the Green Season of Discipleship

6m8RPKDAThe Yoke of Discipleship
Well, I’m glad to be back in church, at least to lead worship on Zoom from here. One reason I’m happy is that I can wear a stole again. One of the first things I did after you voted to call me as your pastor was haul my box of clergy stoles over here – where, of course, they’ve been languishing for the past three months. Not that I have to have a stole around my shoulders to perform my pastoral duties.

There’s no magic in the strip of cloth pastors receive in ordination. But it imagesis a reminder of the vows I took at ordination, the stole symbolizing the yoke (like you put on a team of animals) that Jesus talked about when he said, 
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

‘Tis the Season – to Be Green
So the stole is a symbol of discipleship. But it doesn’t make me more special than anyone else. In fact, I know a congregation where all the members wear stoles as a sign of each one’s calling as disciples of Jesus. And you know what; I like that idea, especially today as we enter into the very long green season of the Church year. If we were all here in the sanctuary, we would have changed the colors on the altar and lectern to green. The ink on our bulletin inserts would be green. The folder I use for my bulletin and other papers would be green. If we all had stoles, I’d be looking out into a sea of green. But we’re still on Zoom, so this stole is it – on this day when we begin a long stretch of time that focuses on what it means to be a disciple.

Matthew’s gospel names the first twelve to be called. I just read their names. But now, over 2000 years later, we can add each of our names to the list. You (fill in the blank with your name) are a disciple of Jesus, called into ministry with an explicit task. Jesus made it very simple: “Go and tell everyone: the reign of heaven is here.”

Now that might sound easy; it’s only six words. But I’m guessing we’d all feel pretty uncomfortable going up to people and saying, “Hey, guess what; the reign of heaven is here!” Even if you’d use the more traditional ‘kingdom of heaven’ or an even more contemporary version like the ‘commonwealth of heaven’ (my favorite is the Beloved Community), my guess is it wouldn’t make it any easier. Nor should it. I don’t think Jesus ever meant the task of discipleship to be reduced to the recitation of six words. As St. Francis said, “Preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words.” In other words, discipleship is about both walking the walk as well as talking the talk.

Preach the Gospel at All Times,
and When Necessary, Use Words

During this long green season we’ll be hearing teachings from Jesus and pondering how they might apply to us in a very different world than that of the original twelve. Some of these teachings will be very challenging. Easy answers won’t always immediately be in evidence. They are meant to be wrestled with and allowed to seep into our consciousness and into engrained ways of thinking or believing and bringing about some kind of transformation – a shifting in awareness, or thinking, or behavior, or all of the above.

As we enter into the green season, the time of growth in discipleship, we do so at an incredibly challenging time. As if living in a country severely divided by political and cultural identities wasn’t enough, a global pandemic has forced us to rethink how to do work, school, church, and everything else. And if months of that wasn’t enough, we’ve been thrust into a debate on race and the role of police in our communities. On this day when we remember the Emanuel Nine, murdered by an avowed white supremacist, we’re faced with an ever-growing list of people of color killed while in police custody. And if that’s not even enough, just two weeks into Pride Month and on the anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, the Department of Health and Human Services announced it would eliminate health care protections for people who are transgender.

Now, if you’re getting either excited or worried that this is going to be a political sermon, it is not – at least not in the sense of taking a position on one side or another. But it is about wrestling with how to be a disciple of Jesus during trying times. You may recall that I’ve been part of an initiative called Hearts Across the Divide: Restoring Civil Discourse in the Bay Area. We’ve had to postpone our first event and have been lying low during the pandemic, that is until the protests after the death of George Floyd. Our planning team decided to have a Zoom meeting to check in on how we’re doing.

pq-in-high-dudgeon-2The Meltdown
OK, I’m just going to admit it; I had a bit of a meltdown. I reacted to a video clip and a couple of podcasts that one of our members of a different political persuasion than mine had sent to us all. The best way I can describe my reaction is a state of high dudgeon. I looked it up to be sure. Yep, that was it: feeling and usually showing that one is angry or offended. I emailed Judy, my Hearts co-founder a few days later to say I was struggling and we agreed to talk the next day.

In the meantime, I’m reading opinions, articles, blogs, Facebook posts from people on my side of the political spectrum. And I’m getting upset with them! Frankly, I felt like my head was spinning from the rhetoric coming at me from both sides. I could understand why for some people just opting out of the public arena is the only option for staying sane. But then I remembered that discipleship doesn’t offer any outs for proclaiming the Beloved Community – even when it’s hard.

intersectionality

As Judy and I talked on Friday, there was a growing awareness of how language was pushing the divide even further apart. This is the good thing about reading and listening to opinions from the other side. You discover how we define words in completely different ways. I’ll give you an example. When I was working on critiquing the draft of the ELCA social statement on women and justice, our group (and evidently others) recommended that the statement should define and promote the concept of intersectionality, which refers to the ways in which race, class, gender, and other individual characteristics ‘intersect’ with one another and overlap.

For example, I have a friend who was struggling with the concept of white privilege. She is white; she’s also a lesbian. Her argument was that she’d been oppressed, too, for being both female and gay. And she was right. The fact is that we can be privileged in one aspect of our identities and not in another. There is no hierarchy of oppression. Intersectionality can help us avoid that kind of trap.

Imagine my surprise when I read that this is a huge hot button word for conservatives. It’s seen as a new hierarchical system that places non-white, non-heterosexual people at the top, and as a form of feminism that puts a label on you, tells you how oppressed you are, tells you what you’re allowed to say, what you’re allowed to think.

Even more confusing was learning that what’s upsetting them isn’t the theory itself. They  largely agree that it accurately describes the way people from different backgrounds encounter the world. But they object to its implications, uses, and, most importantly, its consequences: the upending of racial and cultural hierarchies to create a new one. There’s a perfect example of how two groups of people will hear the same word, even agreeing with some aspects of it, and remain in their divided camps.

Talking Heads2

When Talking to ________, Don’t Say _____________.
So I went back into my ‘civil discourse’ file to find two publications from the news outlet All Sides:

When Talking to Liberals, Conservatives May Want to Avoid These Terms
When Talking to Conservatives, Liberals, May Want to Avoid These Terms

In each one, they list a word or phrase, then how the other side will hear it, and then other options for what to say. For example:

What is said: “White Privilege”
What is heard: insensitivity to issues white people face
Suggestion: also acknowledge struggling white communities (e.g., opioid crisis, lack of manufacturing jobs and opportunity)

What is said: “All Lives Matter”
What is heard: ignoring of problems people of color face
Suggestion: focus on the basic values of caring for shared basic values of caring for children, communities, and country, without use of any slogans

This has been an education for me. I would not have known that words like communities of color, diversity, environmental justice, being woke, multiculturalism, safe spaces, trigger warnings can be heard in ways that I don’t intend and only stop the conversation and thwart any relationship-building across the divide. On the other hand, I can readily agree that I would have trouble with words like Culture War, War on Christmas, Second Amendment, States’ rights, Climate hoax, deep state.

What Do You Mean When You Say Racism?
One word that Judy and I personally learned has different meanings is racism. We went around and around on this with one of our conservative colleagues for quite a while until we realized we weren’t talking about the same thing. One side sees racism as a systemic reality in which we’re all complicit, while for the other side, it’s a matter of an individual’s behavior. The point of all this is to ask ourselves, if we’re serious about creating the Beloved Community, if we’re serious about All Are Welcome, then how can we avoid stepping on verbal landmines and instead use words that better reach out to those with different political views?

But wait, there’s more! There is also the challenge of maintaining civility with those of the same political views as mine. In some ways, this is harder. For example, the word civility itself has come under attack because it’s defined as ‘being nice.’ I’ve been told that civility is the tool of the oppressor; civility is white supremacy in sheep’s clothing. Yes, it can be, if it means telling the oppressed to ‘be nice.’ But that’s not what we’re talking about. Even the Golden Rule is under attack as a tool of the oppressor. And it’s not cool to be in the ‘purple zone’ (some of you know I’m a fan of Leah Schade’s book, Preaching in the Purple Zone: Ministry in the Red-Blue Divide).

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So I find myself in the unenviable position of being at odds with people I don’t agree with politically and with people I do agree with politically. For a while I thought about moving to an ashram on a mountaintop somewhere to spend my days in prayer and meditation. But both Moses and Jesus had to come down from the mountain and get back to the business at hand. For me, that’s the call of discipleship to bring the Beloved Community as near as possible, to the best of my ability. And I tell you all of this, not as a way to continue last week’s meltdown or to air out my dirty laundry or as a plea for sympathy. I tell you because when I read the gospel, the call of the original twelve, I can only fulfill my call in the midst of my daily reality. Same for you.

I was listening to a recording from a Sufi meditation workshop. The teacher spent quite a bit of time at the beginning of the session talking about current events and what our response could be as mystics in the world. One thing he said really landed. He said that justice alone will not create peace in the world. There must also be transformation within us. That’s exactly what Jesus is calling us into. Even with these hard teachings.

Some of them will be very challenging to us. But they are meant to be wrestled with and allowed to seep into our consciousness and into our engrained ways of thinking, being,  or believing – as they bring about some kind of transformation within us, a shifting in awareness, or thinking, or behavior, or all of the above. As we find peace within ourselves, we naturally will bring the Beloved Community near to all we meet – even those with whom we disagree.

So put on your seat belts. It could be a bumpy summer. But remember, the color is green – for growth. And we will grow together in discipleship and faithful service to the world.

Amen!

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MATTHEW 9:35‑10:8
Jesus continued touring all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, telling the Good News of God’s reign and curing all kinds of diseases and sicknesses. At the sight of the crowds, Jesus’ heart was moved with pity because they were distressed and dejected, like sheep without a shepherd. Jesus said to the disciples, ”The harvest is bountiful but the laborers are few. Beg the overseer of the harvest to send laborers out to bring in the crops.”

Jesus summoned the Twelve, and gave them authority to expel unclean spirits and heal sickness and diseases of all kinds. These are the names of the twelve apostles: the first were Simon, nicknamed Peter – that is, ‘Rock’ – and his brother Andrew; then James, ben-Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas; Matthew, the tax collector; James, ben-Alphaeus; Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot; and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus. Jesus sent them out after giving them the following instructions: “Don’t visit Gentile regions, and don’t enter a Samaritan town. Go instead to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, make this proclamation: ‘The reign of heaven has drawn near.’ 
“Heal the sick, raise the dead, cure leprosy, expel demons. You received freely – now freely give.”