Transfiguration in a Time of War

I usually love Transfiguration Sunday. It’s the grand finale of the Epiphany season – the spectacular revelation of Jesus on the mountaintop with the two biggest heroes of Jewish faith and history. The glorious spectacle almost reminds us of Easter.
And as we stand in the doorway between Epiphany and Lent, we could see this as a bookend, paired with the splendor of Easter Sunday to come. 

I also love the mystery of the mountaintop experience witnessed by the disciples, the rending of the veil between heaven and earth. We can’t fault Peter for wanting to capture the moment, store it in a structure, to be savored over and over. Having such an up-close encounter with the Divine would be both amazing and unfathomable. I envy Peter and the others who were there. So, yes, I love the glory, the mystery, the brilliance, the knowledge that such encounters can even be possible. 

But today – once again with news of the world intruding on our celebration – it’s hard to feel celebratory. Those of you from the Roman Catholic tradition may know that Transfiguration is celebrated annually on August 6 – which creates an interesting juxtaposition in light of current events.

August 6 is Hiroshima Remembrance Day. In 1945, the Enola Gay, a Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber, dropped the first atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. There was a dazzling, blinding light from the blast followed by an overshadowing cloud. Sounds eerily like the description in the gospel stories.

Going back even further, August 6, 1456, Pope Callixtus III declared the Feast Day of the Transfiguration due to the victory of the crusaders over the Turks. Interesting, to say the least, how this day is intertwined with acts of war. What is a preacher to do?

The mountaintop experience of Divine glory seems far away from the news of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The image of Jesus and Moses and Elijah as the superheroes of the world seem pale beside images of political strong men and heavy artillery. I have always thought of the Transfiguration as the possibility of trans-formation for all of us, indeed for the whole world. But war brings feelings of hopelessness, of despair for the future of the human race if we cannot – or will not – live together in peace. 

You know, I used to not like the way the lectionary includes the next section of the gospels, where Jesus is confronted by a man with a son who had epilepsy (although Luke says the boy is afflicted by an unclean spirit, demon) and heals him. It felt to me like it took away from the majesty of the transfiguration. I guess you could say that I wanted to build a booth and stay up on the mountain with Jesus.

But one thing today’s juxtaposition of Divine revelation and military invasion has done is flesh out a little more of these two stories together and what they can mean for us. Think about that mountain. We don’t know what mountain it was, but I am imagining that from its heights Jesus and the disciples were able to see down into the countryside where there were hundreds of people crucified on Roman crosses. So even though they had their mountaintop experience, the realty of everyday life in Palestine was never far from their sight. So coming back down and encountering a real-life situation is not as jarring as perhaps we might read it.

Divine revelation and everyday life are not at odds with one another;
they are both part of the whole reality of faith and life. 

As Franciscan priest and mystic, Richard Rohr has written:
We have created an artificial divide or dualism between the spiritual and the so-called non-spiritual. This dualism is precisely what Jesus came to reveal as a lie. The Incarnation proclaims that matter and spirit have never been separate. Jesus came to tell us that these two seemingly different worlds are — and always have been — one. Rohr challenges a ‘mountaintop’ religiosity that divides the sacred and special from the secular and ordinary. 

I like to believe that’s true, at least I do when we’re talking about the ordinariness of everyday life. I do believe that our time with family, our time at school, at work, at play are all part of our spiritual lives. But war – that’s another story – as is any violent act, bullying, any kind of abuse. These should not be part of the ordinariness of everyday life. So what do we do with the ugly side of life, the view of crosses from the mountaintop?

Jesus certainly knew what to do. Even though he could see those crosses and could look ahead and envision one in his own future, he came down from his mystical, glorious, Divine mountain and back into the maelstrom of human misery and need. A demon had seized a boy and was making his life a living hell. We could discuss their understanding of demons and unclean spirits, but the point was that for Jesus, there was work to be done. And he did it. 

We could say that a demon or unclean spirit has come upon us. War is not part of God’s intention for God’s people. But lust for power and domination, violence have infected our world from time immemorial. The invasion of Ukraine is just the latest episode of our warring madness.

It is not part of God’s intention, but it is part of our reality. Our secular lives are not separate from our spiritual lives. And so we must consider what our response will be to this war, as well as to any part of the maelstrom of human misery and need.

Perhaps you feel that church is no place to discuss a political situation, that this hour on Sunday morning is sacred, our mountaintop, where we come to commune with the Divine, to get away from the worries of the world. And that may indeed be true. We do come here to be refueled by the Spirit. And that is as it should be. But like Jesus and company, even from the loftiness of our spiritual high, we can see the crosses. We might try to shut them out of our consciousness, but its hard to do. Especially when we have Jesus himself talking about going to Jerusalem to die. The cross always looms over Transfiguration Sunday. 

And we know what to do. Like Jesus, we come down from our Sunday mountaintop experience and back into the maelstrom of human misery and need. How do we respond to this latest war? Partly it’s up to each of us to decide how to respond based on our own sense of calling as a follower of Jesus. There are certainly many appeals for money for medical supplies, humanitarian aid, or refugee assistance. I’m sure organizations such as Heart to Heart International and Church World Service who have gathered hygiene and school kits in the past are in the process of mobilizing to do so again. I remember at the start of our Iraq invasion, there was an initiative here in the Bay Area to send school kits to the children of Iraq. We should be on the lookout for opportunities. 

And of course, we should be in prayer – for both Ukraine and Russia. If praying for Russia seems extreme, remember Jesus’ words from last week: “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

Jesus was no stranger to violence, oppression, and war. He didn’t call disciples into a hermetically sealed bubble, safe from the realities of everyday life. We are not called to be followers of Jesus who seek only mystical union with the Divine. Those transfiguring, transforming experiences are of one piece with the gritty, messiness of human experience. He calls us now – to pray for oppressed and oppressor, to tend to the afflicted in whatever way we can. 

As we move into Lent and ever closer to the cross, it may be hard to remember the gloriousness of the Transfiguration or to anticipate the splendor of Easter. In the shadows of Lent, we embrace the suffering of the world – hoping and trusting that resurrection life will prevail, but unsure that it will. For Jesus, yes. But for our situations of discord and death and war? We’re not always so sure. But it’s not called a wilderness time for nothing. Our faith will be tested. Our discipleship questioned. 

Now is the time to remember Jesus on the mountaintop with the great heroes of faith, to bask with the disciples in that glory. The Divine Presence is in the world. Now is the time to go back down the mountain with Jesus into the needs of the world. We now bring that Divine Presence to others. As C.S. Lewis, author of Mere Christianity and The Chronicles of Narnia, wrote:

Christ became human in order to spread to other human beings the same kind of life. Every Christian is to become a little Christ. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else.

The rhythm of the church year has brought us now to this liminal moment, this threshold between the Advent/Christmas/Epiphany cycle and the Lent/Easter/ Pentecost seasons, this dazzling moment of timeless Holy glory and endless possibility. It has been said that the mission of the Church is to be a vessel where transformation can happen. Where lives are changed – from the bottom up, from the inside out – by the enlightening presence of God. We have to leave the mountaintop. But hopefully we go as transformed people. Something has changed or something has shifted. We’re not exactly the same as when we arrived. There’s a little bit of extra glow around us, a renewed vigor to be salt for the earth and light for the world. A re-energized optimism to believe in God’s vision for the world – a world of justice and true peace.

We can’t know what mountains and valleys lie ahead. We can’t predict how God will speak, and in what guise Jesus might appear. But we can trust in this: whether on the brightest mountain, or in the darkest valley, Jesus abides. Even as he blazes with holy light, his hand remains warm and solid on our shoulders. Even when everything else we’re counting on disappears, Jesus remains among us — Jesus alone. So keep looking and listening for the sacred, no matter where the journey takes you. Because Jesus is present everywhere. Both the mountain and the valley belong to him.

It is all of one piece. 

Amen.

Photos
Transfiguration, 1973
JESUS MAFA is a response to the New Testament readings from the lectionary by a Christian community in Cameroon. Each reading was selected and adapted to dramatic interpretation by community members. Photographs of their interpretations were made, and these were then transcribed to paintings.

Attribution: JESUS MAFA. Transfiguration, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.  https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48307 [retrieved February 27, 2022]. Original source: http://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr (contact page: https://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr/contact).

Gospels, Jesus heals a demon-possessed boy, Walters Manuscript W.592, fol. 48b by Walters Art Museum Illustrated Manuscripts. This work has been marked as dedicated to the public domain.

Transfiguration by Alexandr Ivanov, 1824
This is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. 

Luke 9:28-43a
About eight days after saying this, Jesus took Peter, John and James and went up onto a mountain to pray. While Jesus was praying, his face changed in appearance and the clothes he wore became dazzlingly white. Suddenly two people were there talking with Jesus—Moses and Elijah. They appeared in glory and spoke of the prophecy that Jesus was about to fulfill in Jerusalem. Peter and the others had already fallen into a deep sleep, but awakening, they saw Jesus’ glory—and the two people who were standing next to him. When the two were leaving, Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, how good it is for us to be here! Let’s set up three tents, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah!” Peter didn’t really know what he was saying. While Peter was speaking, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and the disciples grew fearful as the others entered it. Then from the cloud came a voice which said, “This is my own, my chosen one. Listen to him! “When the voice finished speaking, they saw no one but Jesus standing there. The disciples kept quiet, telling nothing of what they had seen at that time to anyone.

The following day when they came down the mountain, a large crowd awaited him. A man stepped out of the crowd and said, “Teacher, please come and look at my son, my only child. A demon seizes him and he screams, and it throws him into convulsions until he foams at the mouth. It releases the boy only with difficulty and when it does, he is exhausted. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they couldn’t.” Jesus said in reply, “You unbelieving and perverse generation! How much longer must I be among you and put up with you? Bring the child to me.” 

As the boy approached, the demon dashed the child to the ground and threw him into a violent convulsion. But Jesus reprimanded the unclean spirit, healed the child and returned him to his father. All those present were awestruck at the greatness of God

“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.

Teleidoscopic Jesus

You probably know what a kaleidoscope is, right? The most familiar kind is a tube with mirrors inside and bits of colored glass or paper. When you turn the tube, you can create intricate symmetrical patterns. But have you ever heard of a teleidoscope? It’s similar to a kaleidoscope, but it doesn’t have any colored objects inside. It does have mirrors inside, but it has an open view, so you can form kaleidoscopic images of whatever you’re looking at outside of the tube. So I could look at you and see a multitude of psychedelic images that change each time I turn the tube. An interesting side note is that, while the kaleidoscope has been around since the 1800s, the teleidoscope was invented in 1970 by John Burnside, an inventor and gay rights activist who lived in San Francisco. 

So why am I telling you this? I’ve been thinking that looking at Jesus is kind of like looking into a teleidoscope. Depending on what picture you look at or what story you read or who you ask, you can get a different image of who Jesus was. Even when you read the gospels. When you turn from Matthew to Mark to Luke and to John, you see the same person, but the picture is a little different. 

I realized this while I was reading the story of Jesus from the gospel according to Luke, where Jesus is reading from the Isaiah scroll in the synagogue. This scene, as we’re looking at it through our teleidoscope, is the inaugural speech of Jesus, the opening (at least through Luke’s eyes) of Jesus’ public ministry. This is a different scene from his first public act in John’s gospel, which was turning water into wine. There, the setting was a wedding. Today when we turn the teleidoscope, we see him in the synagogue. And, just as many of you do, he had volunteered to be the reader that day. But after he read from the book of Isaiah, he added a little commentary of his own. He said, “Today, in your hearing, this scripture passage is fulfilled.” 

By presenting Jesus in this way, the writer of the gospel of Luke shows us his image of Jesus. Same person as the one John described at the wedding in Cana, but with a twist of the teleidoscope. In a way, John Burnside’s little invention is perfect for Epiphany, the season of revelation, in which we look to see how Christ was revealed then and how Christ is being revealed today.  

Here in Luke, he says,
God has anointed me
to bring Good news to those who are poor,
to proclaim liberty to those held captive,
recovery of sight to those who are blind,
and release to those in prison –
to proclaim the year of God’s favor.

Can you hear the echo of the song of Mary in the Magnificat, from back in Advent?You have shown strength with your arm; you have scattered the proud in their conceit; you have deposed the mighty from their thrones and raised the lowly to high places. You have filled the hungry with good things, while you have sent the rich away empty.

The story of turning water into wine revealed Jesus as one who could show us the abundance of the kindom of God. This story in the synagogue shows us Jesus as the one who brings God’s justice. Same Jesus, with just a turn of the teleidoscope. Two ways that two different gospel writers presented Jesus to the world. And that was just the beginning. 

I was thinking about all the different ways we do look at Jesus. One way to find these is to look at church names: Christ the King, Church of the Redeemer, Christ the Liberator, Christ the Healer Church, Church of Our Savior, Christ the Servant, Christ the Way Church, Christ the Word Church, Church of Christ the Worker. And of course, Church of the Good Shepherd. 

If we were sitting in our sanctuary today, we would be looking right at the stained-glass window depicting Jesus as the Good Shepherd. Imagine if our beautiful window was also magically a teleidoscope and could cycle through all these other images – and more – of who and what Jesus was revealed to be.

But now we turn to the challenge that this multi-faceted Jesus presents to us today. Many people don’t know any of these faces of Jesus. Unfortunately, Jesus’ reputation has been tarnished in the eyes of many – he’s just part of an antiquated, irrelevant religious institution. 

Those of us still in the Church would do well to take seriously these questions that are asked by Gregory Jenks, editor of the book, The Once and Future Scriptures: 
* How do we represent Jesus to our world?
* Can the Jesus of hymnal and creed still capture the imagination of the 21st century person?
* Do we need latter day Luke’s to fashion fresh representations of Jesus for the 3rd millennium?
* Will they be found inside the churches or only beyond their boundaries?

In other words, does Jesus need an Extreme Makeover? And who’s going to do it? Well, guess what. I think each one of us is qualified to be a latter-day Luke. We are part of the revelation of Jesus to our world. But the question still looms: how can we capture the imagination of the 21st century person – especially in a place like the Bay Area, with our religious diversity, secularism, and spiritual independence?

So, here we are, a small group of people, most of who have been around the church for a long time. Surely, we have each developed a picture of Jesus in our minds. I’m assuming it’s a positive one, otherwise why would we be here? And when we put all these pictures together, we have a repertoire of stories, images, and experiences that comprise a beautiful teleidoscopic panorama. The challenge is how to tell our stories, images, and experiences. We don’t want to be identified as “that kind of Christian,” wearing our religion like battle armor and offending religious and non-religious alike. 

How can we be followers of Jesus without lurking at either extreme of the spectrum – neither a street corner evangelist, like a John the Baptist nor a silent disciple, like Nicodemus coming to see Jesus under cover of night? With the decline of the institutional church, Christianity’s engagement with other religions, and now a pandemic – we are forced to do what we never really had to do before: answer the question that Jesus asked Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” And decide how we’re going to convey that answer to our community. 

Some years ago, I was part of a Muslim/Christian dialogue group. We read a book together called Islam’s Jesus. I wrote a blog post that December with the title Christmas in the Qur’an. I was surprised to see a quote from that post appear in the Bay Are Interfaith Connect. I had written, “As we listened to our Muslim friends tell of their devotion to both Mary and Jesus, we were challenged to rethink our own understandings of who and what Jesus was and is.”

That question also arises in our encounters with those who identify as spiritual-but-not-religious or spiritually independent, as well as those who have been wounded by the church in some way. So I think having to wrestle with the question “Who do you say that I am” is a good exercise for all of us. Because the more secure we can be in our identity as followers of Jesus, the more articulate we can be in telling our stories, the better we will be at representing Jesus to our world and capturing the imagination of the 21st century person. 

We do not want simply to claim that we’re not like “those other Christians” with whom we disagree. We do want to be able to say what we do believe about this Jesus we profess to love and follow. And just like the naming of our churches and the turning of the teleidoscope, we’ll each have different things to say and different ways of saying it. 

The logical place to begin, it would seem, is to flesh out what our congregation’s name means to us. Thankfully, we’re not Third Lutheran Church of Burlingame. We actually have an image of Jesus right there on our sign and in our window. So my first question is: what does it mean to you that Jesus is the Good Shepherd? The second is: how do we convey that to those who walk and drive past our church? And of course, the third is: how do we do that even when we’re gathering only online? 

I was thinking about it this week when I happened to see an ad for Ashes to Go for Ash Wednesday. Lent is, after all, less than six weeks away. Ashes to Go has been around for a number of years. The idea is to take the church out of the building and into the places where people go every day. Some have gone out to commuter train stations, some to public parks, some have had drive-through stations in their church parking lot to distribute ashes along with a blessing. I’ve never done Ashes to Go before, but it seems to me it could be a way we might embody Christ the Good Shepherd in our community. These COVID days are challenging us to get creative – and while COVID is not a good thing, the call for creativity is. 

Remember, though, that’s just one turn of the teleidoscope. Other images of Jesus can show forth, too. When we hear again the mission statement that Jesus proclaimed in Luke and we affirm that as followers of Jesus his mission is also ours, we ask ourselves: how are we bringing good news to those who are poor, proclaiming liberty to those held captive, recovery of sight to those who are blind, and release to those in prison; how are we proclaiming God’s favor? 

Our Epiphany blessing bag project is one way. Yes, we’ve been delayed, but it just gives us more time to collect toiletries and other supplies for our neighbors who are homeless. And there are so many more opportunities. As we turn our teleidoscope and contemplate each image of Jesus we see in our private devotions and in our corporate worship, we should also be mindful of how we are presenting that image in the witness of our lives and of our congregation. If we are going to accept the challenge to be latter day Luke’s, and if we commit ourselves to presenting fresh representations of Jesus for the spiritual-but-not-religious, those wounded by the church, those who never followed us onto Zoom and might never come back, then wrestling with the question “Who do you say that I am” is a good exercise for all of us. 

Jesus himself had to go out into the desert after his baptism to wrestle with the question of who he would be. But when he came back – as Luke tells us – in the power of the Spirit, he was as clear as clear could be about who he was and what he would be about. The wrestling we do over our Jesus stories will yield the same results – in beautiful teleidoscopic images that will continually re-capture our imaginations. 

And this is how we will represent Jesus to our world.  

Amen. 

Luke 4: 14-21
Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and his reputation spread throughout the region. He was teaching in the Galilean synagogues, and all were loud in their praise. Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. Entering the synagogue on the Sabbath, as was his habit, Jesus stood up to do the reading. When the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed him, he unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written:

“The spirit of our God is upon me:
Because the most high has anointed me
to bring Good news to those who are poor.
God has sent me to proclaim liberty 
to those held captive,
recovery of sight to those who are blind,
and release to those in prison—
to proclaim the year of our God’s favor.”

Rolling up the scroll, Jesus gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he said to them, “Today, in your hearing,
this scripture passage is fulfilled.”

                                                                                                

Going Home By a Different Road (or Your Spiritual GPS Is Recalculating)

I think it was Yogi Berra who said, “If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.” It sounds like Yogi Berra, well known for his mangled, often-contradictory quotations. But on this one, I’m with Yogi. When I go on a trip, I need to have a good map, precise directions from Google Maps or an up-to-date GPS.  

On Epiphany Sunday, however, that idea gets thrown out the window. The Magi, whom we are told were very wise, didn’t have any of these on their journey from Persia to Bethlehem. As Matthew tells it, all they had for their journey to find Jesus was a mysterious star. And so, with them, we find ourselves in the uncharted waters – or I should say skies – of Epiphany. 

Now Epiphany is not just a ‘church’ word. We’re probably all familiar with the word as it’s used in an everyday sense. If you tell me you’ve had an epiphany, I’d assume that you’ve had an illuminating insight or discovery or realization, an “Aha!” moment. Psychology Today defines an epiphany as “a moment of sudden or great revelation that usually changes you in some way.” 

For example, Oprah Winfrey talked once about learning she had a half-sister she never knew about because her mother had kept it secret for almost 50 years. She described leaving her mother’s home after talking with her about it and said several times with tears in her eyes that she’d had an epiphany: the realization that her mother carried so much shame about getting pregnant that she could never fully embrace the child she’d given up for adoption. Describing this profound, emotional moment of revelation about her mother, Oprah used the word “epiphany” because it’s the perfect word to describe such a powerful experience or  life-changing awareness. Maybe you have your own story of this kind of revelation.

In church, when we use the word “Epiphany” (with a capital E), we’re talking about a day on the Church calendar, January 6, when we celebrate the coming of the Magi (sometimes called the Wise Men or Three Kings) who journeyed to a far-off place in order to bring gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the baby Jesus. And in so doing, they symbolized the revelation (showing) of God’s extravagant love for the whole world, born in Jesus.  

And when we talk about the Epiphany season, we’re thinking about all the ways that Divine Presence and Divine Love is revealed to us. It’s about undertaking our own journeys of following a star, of being open to the mystery of Divine guidance in every aspect of our lives, of recognizing the “Aha” moment when it appears. 

“But wait,” as the infomercials say, “there’s more.” The challenge of Epiphany is to also be the shining star that shows others the way. We also look for the “Aha” moments when we are able to share the extravagant love of God with others. 

I think I’ve told you before that this is actually my favorite holy day in the entire church year, more than Christmas. Maybe that’s because it’s so counter-cultural, at least here in the US. Even though there are 12 days of Christmas, the season pretty much ends on New Year’s Day. The festivities are over. Stores have moved on to Valentines Day merchandise. In other parts of the world, though, it’s a different story. Many other countries have very vibrant traditions around Epiphany.

Three Kings Cake

Here in California, we see a lot of the “Dia de los Reyes” tradition (Three Kings Day) celebrated in Latino communities in the US. This is the day when children get presents – from the Three Kings, not Santa Claus. At bedtime, they leave hay or dried grass and a bowl of water outside for the animals that the kings ride. 

Another wonderful thing about Epiphany is its sense of mystery and wonder. Who were these visitors who were guided by stars and dreams? Some say they were astronomers or astrologers, some say Zoroastrian priests, others say learned scholars from the East. And who knows even if there were only three? Matthew doesn’t say, and his gospel is the only one that tells about the visit of the Magi. They are shrouded in mystery yet have enchanted us through the ages. Many people have tried to come up with possible answers to how a star could move through the sky to guide these travelers on their way. 

We could get hung up trying to figure out how all this could have happened. But then we’d miss the point of the story. Matthew has created a story, a midrash, that on the surface is enchanting – plum parts in annual Christmas pageants. But there’s a lot of meaning packed into this tale. 

The Magi remind us of the wisdom of allowing Divine Presence to work within us and to step out onto an unknown path. They inspire us to give up some of our tightly held handholds and trust that the path forward will be made clear – by being led into a way of light, by listening to our dreams, by receiving the gifts that wise men and women have to offer. 

As I wrote this, I was reminded of a poem by Susan Ruach that I found years ago in A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants and it has always meant a lot to me. It’s called “A New Way of Struggling” and it’s become even more meaningful in these days (years) of the pandemic.

To struggle used to be
  To grab with both hands 
And shake
And twist
And turn
And push
And above all not give in, 
  But wrest an answer from it all 
  As Jacob did a blessing.
 

But there is another way
To struggle with an issue, a question. 
Simply to jump 
  Off 
  Into the abyss 
And find ourselves 
  Floating 
  Falling 
  Tumbling 
Being led
Slowly and gently 
But surely 
  To the answers God has for us
  To watch the answers unfold
  Before our eyes and still to be a part of the unfolding 
But, oh! The trust
Necessary for this new way!
Not to be always reaching out
For the old hand-holds. 

See, while the story of the Magi and the star might seem to be out there in a mysterious, celestial realm, it’s also very down-to-earth. It lives in the real world. Matthew created his story to illustrate what the life and death of Jesus meant to him. You might remember the song We Three Kings which describe their gifts. The verse about myrrh hints at darker days to come:                                                      

Myrrh is mine: Its bitter perfume
Breaths a life of gathering gloom                                                                                                        Sorrow, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in a stone-cold tomb.                                                                                                      

Not the most cheerful song. But Matthew wants us to know that Jesus was often going to be in opposition to the powers-that-be, cultural, religious, and political. It, of course, started right away with King Herod, who so obsequiously asked the Magi to come back and tell him about the child so he could go and pay homage, too. If this were a movie, we’d be shouting at the screen, “Don’t believe him!”

Angel’s Warning to the Three Wise Men, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=29202 
Copyright Permission: Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike – CC-BY-SA-3.0

Thankfully, they’re warned in a dream not to report back to Herod and they go home another way. As the Magi discovered, having one’s plans thwarted, changed, or even destroyed doesn’t mean it’s the end of the journey. It simply means (as my GPS often tells me) that we are “rerouting” and going a different way. I say simply, but it’s not usually that simple, is it? 

We may not have a king fuming after us, but we all have situations in which the old handholds are no longer working. When you expect things to go a certain way, anticipate one outcome, but then have to let go of it and embrace a different path? Sometimes we get to choose another road, but other times not. All kinds of things can force us onto paths we would not have chosen: job loss, illness, accident, divorce, natural disaster, national upheaval, pandemic, Zoom church, hybrid church. We make our plans, but often have to go forward, not knowing where our new path will lead.

That doesn’t mean, though, that we are left with no guidance system. If the Epiphany story tells us anything, it tells us all about Divine guidance. A star in the sky leads the Magi to Jesus. A dream warns them to go home a different way. And when Joseph, too, is warned in a dream to flee to Egypt, he too, ensures that the Light will continue to shine on.

I think this is why I love Epiphany so much. It doesn’t allow the Christmas story to stop with a sweet scene in a stable on a silent night. It zooms the birth of Jesus out into the real world with a realism that we recognize all too well. Realism that doesn’t ignore the challenges that we and our world face. But a realism that also recognizes that realism (as we think we know it) isn’t the only reality there is. Angels, Magi, stars, and dreams are still part of our stories today – if we’re open to the mystery and wonder of Divine Presence.

So while many are weary from the holiday season, the fact is that the story still continues. I saw a resource from the ELCA that calls Epiphany “the Season of Aha!” I’ve often called it the season of “So what?” We’ve just come through Advent, a time of waiting for the birth of Jesus and Christmas, celebrating the birth of Jesus. Now, Epiphany asks us to ponder: so what did that all mean, what impact does it have on my life, here and now? In Advent, we asked ourselves: what is preparing to be born in us this Christmas? In Epiphany, we await the revelations, the revealing, the uncovering of that new birth in us and in our church. 

That’s what this season of Epiphany is going to be: a season of revelations. We’ll hear stories from scripture of how the person, the message, the work of Jesus was revealed in his day. They will lead us into a journey of discovery of how the person, message, and work of Jesus is revealed to us today. 

And of course, we don’t travel alone. The dazzling truth of Epiphany is that there is a star that guides us. Holy Wisdom, Divine Light beckons us both inwardly, into where our own heart of wisdom resides – and outwardly, into the world where we can walk unknown paths with un-rational confidence. We, too, are caught up in the wonder and mystery of it all- beyond the stories of the first Christmas as told by Matthew and Luke; beyond all the trappings that have come to surround this season – as we acknowledge our part in bringing to birth God’s extravagant love in the world.

Finally, another poem, this one by Katie Cook*: 

Let us go in peace now;
For our eyes have seen God’s salvation.
We have stood, dumbstruck,
before the manger.
We have exchanged glances with the shepherds
and looked, sheepishly, out of the corners of our eyes at the wise men.
We have listened, with terror and delight,
to the messengers with their extraterrestrial song. 
We, who have walked so often and so long in terrible darkness,
have been flooded with holy light.

Let us go in peace now;
We have brought our gifts to the manger-
and for some of us
it was merely our broken selves—but now, like the shepherds,
we must go back to our fields; 
like the magi, we must go home another way.

Let us go in peace now;
May this Holy Child guide our steps
into the new year
And give us the courage
to give birth to God’s realm.

Amen.

*From Sacred Seasons, Seeds of Hope Publishers: 602 James; Waco, TX  


Matthew 2:1-12 

After the birth of Jesus—which happened in Bethlehem of Judea, during the reign of King Herod—magi from the East arrived in Jerusalem and asked,                                                                                                                              “Where is the newborn ruler of the Jews? We observed his star at its rising and have come to pay our respects.” 

At this news Herod became greatly disturbed, as did all of Jerusalem. Summoning all the chief priests and religious scholars of the people, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. They said,                                                 
“In Bethlehem of Judea. Here’s what was written by the prophet: ‘You, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the leaders of Judah, because from you will come a ruler to shepherd my people Israel.’” 

Herod called the magi aside to find out the exact time of the star’s appearance. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, instructing them:                                                                                                      
“Go and get detailed information about the child. When you have found him, report back to me—so that I may go and offer homage, too.” 

After their audience with Herod, they set out. The star which they had observed at its rising went ahead of them until it came to a standstill over the place where the child lay. They were overjoyed at seeing the star and, upon entering the house, found Jesus with Mary, his mother. They knelt before him and paid homage. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Then, after being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.

Baptism: Lifeline for a Lifetime

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Today, this commemoration of the baptism of Jesus is a leap forward in time. It seems like we just celebrated his birth, and now here’s the adult Jesus down at the Jordan River getting baptized. They grow up so fast, don’t they?!

What is it about this event that the Church calendar creators, in their wisdom, have put it right after Christmas and right at the beginning of the Epiphany season? Evidently, they thought that baptism was an important topic for us to think about, especially since a version of the story of the baptism of Jesus is told in three of the four gospels.

Baptism is one of the two sacraments of the Lutheran Church, and Martin Luther famously repeated often the admonition to “Remember your baptism!” But what did he mean by that? What do we mean by it? Baptism is one of the two sacraments of the Lutheran Church, and Martin Luther famously repeated often the admonition to “Remember your baptism!” But what did he mean by that? What do we mean by it? 

Sometimes stories are the best way to get at meaning, so I’m going to tell two. The first comes from Pastor Janet Wolf of Hobson United Methodist church in Nashville, TN. She describes her congregation as wildly diverse, including “…people with PhDs and folks who have never gone past the third grade; folks with two houses and folks living on the streets; and, as one person who struggles with mental health declared, ‘those of us who are crazy and those who think they’re not.’” 

As Pastor Janet tells it, some years ago, a woman named Fayette found her way to the church. Fayette was homeless and was living with lupus and mental illness. She joined the new member class and was particularly taken with a description of baptism as “this holy moment when we are named by God’s grace with such power it won’t come undone.” In the class, Fayette would interrupt to ask again and again, “And when I’m baptized, I am…?” And the class would respond, “Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.” “Oh, yes!” she’d say, and they’d go back to their discussion. The day of Fayette’s baptism came. This is how Pr. Janet describes it: “Fayette went under, came up sputtering, and cried out, ‘And now I am…?’ And we all sang, ‘Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.’ ‘Oh, yes!’ she shouted as she danced around the fellowship hall. 

Two months later, Pr. Janet got a phone call. Fayette had been beaten and raped and was at the county hospital. When she arrived at the hospital, she says: “I could see her from a distance, pacing back and forth. When I got to the door, I heard, ‘I am beloved.’ She turned, saw me, and said, ‘I am beloved, precious child of God, and….’ 

Catching sight of herself in the mirror  – hair sticking up, blood and tears streaking her face, dress torn, dirty, and rebuttoned askew, she started again, ‘I am beloved, precious child of God, and…’ She looked in the mirror again and declared, ‘…and God is still working on me. If you come back tomorrow, I’ll be so beautiful I’ll take your breath away!’”

That is what baptism is.

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The second story comes from Dr. Heather Murray Elkins, Professor of Worship, Preaching, and the Arts at Drew University. This is how she tells it:

It was the last day of a pastor’s retreat. I had given them an assignment. They were to look through scripture over the three days and find the name that belonged to them. Or the story they couldn’t live without. I explained that Abraham Heschel talks about scripture: We do not say the Word, the Word utters us. There are pieces of scripture we belong to. 

To prepare for closing day, we made a circle of chairs, with one chair in middle. And we’d hear each other pronounce our names to all there, to identify the way the word had uttered them. It was going very well, with really powerful testimonies coming right out of scripture. Then a young man, young to ministry anyway, sat in the chair and didn’t say anything. We waited and waited. It got really uncomfortable. Finally I said to him,” Is there something you’d like to share with us, some name or some story?” He didn’t look at me or the group, just at his hands.

He said, “I looked for three days, and there were names I wanted. But none were strong enough to replace the name I have, that I’d been given. I was given this name when I was very young, and it was repeated to me as I grew.  My father gave me this name.” Then he fell silent again. 

After a moment I said, “Would you be willing to share, what is that name, what is your name? 

And he said, he said, “My name is ‘not good enough’. That’s my name; my father gave me that name. ” Then he began to cry.

We were in that room, we were watching him, and he was crying and it was like he was drowning right in front of us. We’re a bunch of lifeguards, and we didn’t know what to do. How can he not have a name or how to break the power of that name?

And then it was I think the Spirit did its work, because it was like a wind or maybe just an impulse. A group of us got up, without a word, without making eye contact and went to where he was on the chair, sitting weeping. And we laid hands on him. And then it wasn’t just one voice, it was several voices, like one voice coming up all together, like one flow, one stream. And what we said, to him, sitting weeping in our midst, with our hands on him was this: “You are my beloved child. In you I am well pleased. “

And then we just paused.  We just let the blessing rest. And then we all sat down. 

When we packed up and finished our business and got ready to go home, I saw him in the parking lot. I went over and said, “I need to know, I really need to know: will that make a difference to you, will what happened make any difference?”

And he said, “You know, I don’t know.  But I feel as if something in here was broken. And it isn’t now. But I promise you, every time I put my hand in the water to help name another human being in front of God, I’ll remember who I am.“

She ends her story by saying, “See, I think that’s the secret of our baptism.”

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Martin Luther is said to have often exclaimed, “I am baptized” when he felt his energy flagging, his doubt growing, or his fear strengthening. The story is told that when he was hidden away for safekeeping in the Wartburg Castle, he struggled with loneliness and anxiety. It’s said that he would scribble on his desktop ‘I am baptized’ in order to battle back his despair. His story reminds us that baptism is not an empty ritual or a one-time welcoming party. Nor is it a requirement for salvation, a way to determine who’s in and who’s out, who’s saved and who’s not. It is a way of life, a way of being in the world that’s informed by a moment in time when we were sealed with the same Holy Spirit that came to Jesus in his moment in time. To scribble or say “I am baptized,” especially in times of loneliness, anxiety, despair, weariness, fear, illness or fatigue, is our greatest resource when our light is faltering or the fire of our passion for life is in need of rekindling.

OK, you say. But how does that work? You mean if I just scribble “I am baptized” on my desk, all my troubles will go away? No, it’s not a magic potion. The Holy Spirit’s not a genie in a bottle to grant your every wish. Baptism is a lifeline – for a lifetime. Martin Luther said baptism is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that takes our entire lives to fulfill.

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The most important thing to remember about baptism is that it’s about identity. That’s what this day is about. Epiphany is the season of revelation. Who was this Jesus who was drawn down to the river for John’s baptism? We get so caught up with the dilemma of why Jesus had to be baptized if he never sinned. We could argue about the validity of that assumption another time. Suffice to say for now, for Jesus, there was more to it than having his sins washed away. 

In all three gospel accounts, the voice of God speaks: “You are my beloved.” No mention of forgiveness of sins, just “You are my beloved.” That’s the revelation. That’s the gift Jesus took away from his baptism: his identity. Imagine what an epiphany that was for him – to be so known, so affirmed, so loved. Well, actually it’s the same thing that you were called in your baptism, so imagine that, savor that for a moment. You, yes you, are God’s beloved. 

For Jesus, secure in his identity, could then go into the wilderness to discern what his ministry would be and then follow through with it no matter where it took him or how difficult it would become. And it’s the same for us. The revelation is that we are beloved and the way forward is how we live out that identity. 

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In the wilderness, as he was spiritually tempted and toughened up for the ministry he was about to undertake, Jesus knew his ministry would be all about preaching and teaching what he called the Kingdom of God. Martin Luther King would come to call it “the Beloved Community,” which according to the King Center “is a global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. 

“Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. International disputes will be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries, instead of military power. Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.”

Pie-in-the-sky fantasy? Dr. King didn’t think so. He believed the Beloved Community is “a realistic, achievable goal that can be attained by a critical mass of people committed to and trained in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence.” Jesus didn’t think so either. When he read from the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue, he debuted his mission: “to bring good news to those who are poor, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim release to those held captive, and liberation to those in prison.” Obviously, there is still a lot of work to be done in service to the Beloved Community. If the events of recent weeks have told us anything it’s sin and brokenness are alive and well in the world.

But just as Jesus knew himself as Beloved of God and was able to face the hatred and violence he later encountered, and as Martin Luther King, as a follower of Jesus, also knew himself deeply as Beloved of God and was able to carry on the work of non-violent resistance in the name of the Beloved Community, it is our foundational identities as Beloved people of God that, as the old Powdermilk Biscuits jingle from “Prairie Home Companion” used to say, “gives you the strength to get up and do what needs to be done.”

To remember that you are baptized is to know – even if you don’t remember it or didn’t hear the voice of God say it – it is to deeply know that you are beloved. Can we even begin to appreciate the wonder of that? To be beloved – all the time, not just when you’re being loveable, but in your very worst moments. To be beloved – when you’re all alone with your thoughts and feelings, some of which you can barely admit to yourself, let alone to anyone else. To be beloved – when you can’t forgive or love yourself. To be beloved – when you’re tired, when you’re afraid, when you’re lonely.

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Remembering your baptism is allowing yourself to hear the words “I love you” and to allow them to sink down deep into your souls and permeate your every cell. But I suspect, most of us don’t take the time –at least not very often – to do that. Even as I was writing these words, I stopped and realized that it’s too easy to say this and know it on a rational level. But that’s not enough. It’s got to get down into the heart and soul if we are to be true followers of Jesus. So I stopped writing and I took a few minutes to meditate on those words. I already had my Epiphany candles lit, so the mood lighting was just right. The best way to describe those minutes is that it was like being in a Divine embrace. Yes, thoughts intruded. But coming back to the words, “I love you” or “You are beloved” was easy enough, especially concentrating on the light from the candles. The words that came to me were “Sleep in heavenly peace.” Or as St. Paul called it, “the peace that passes all understanding.”

This is baptism, our lifeline. And yes, we will get called back into the world of personal problems, national dysfunction and international violence. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus immediately goes into the wilderness to be tempted, in other words to face the realities of the world. And so do we. But we go as precious children of God. No more special or precious than anyone else. Baptism doesn’t make us some kind of elite God squad. But remembering our baptism is our way of holding onto the lifeline, intentionally allowing the Spirit of Divine creativity and possibility to work in and through us – even when we’re weary, discouraged or afraid.

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Affirming our baptism together solidifies our citizenship in the Beloved Community – along with Martin (both of them), Fayette, the young pastor at the retreat, and all the beloved children of God, born of water and kissed by the Spirit of God. May we remember that we have been named by God’s grace with such power that it won’t come undone. May we live in such a way that others will know themselves as beloved of God – especially those who have been given cause to think they are less than loved, less than children of the One who created them. 

May the revelation of Jesus as Beloved light our way through this Epiphany season, so that we can clearly see who we are, and reflect to others their true identity: beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold. Amen

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Mark 1:4-11

John the Baptizer appeared in the desert, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to John and were baptized by him in the Jordan River as they confessed their sins. John was clothed in camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist; he ate nothing but grasshoppers and wild honey. He proclaimed, “One more powerful than I will come after me. I am not fit to stoop down and untie his sandal straps. I have baptized you in water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

It was then that Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan River by John. And immediately upon coming out of the water, Jesus saw heaven opening and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove. And a voice came from the heavens: “You are my beloved, my Own. On you my favor rests.”

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The Magi vs Herod: Then & Now

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January 6 – a day that will live in infamy
Well, to say that it has been quite a week would be a huge understatement. Wednesday, January 6, was the official Day of the Epiphany – the day after the twelfth day of Christmas. I always look forward to that day. I keep the Magi in my Nativity scene a good distance away from the stable, moving them a little closer every day until they reach their destination on Epiphany. And I look forward to the Sunday closest to the 6th when we’ll celebrate in worship their arrival to pay homage to the newborn Christ. It’s my favorite holy day.

But you know what? This year, this Wednesday I never even got the Magi to the stable at all. I was glued all day and evening to TV coverage of the assault on the US Capital building and forgot all about the three wise guys. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I was aware that it was Epiphany, which made the unfolding violence even more repugnant. And in the days since, it’s been a challenge to sort through my own thoughts and emotions, as well as those of friends and colleagues. Not to mention the ongoing news updates and uncertainty of what might happen next. Just a week ago, we were giving thanks for the new year and offering prayers for better days ahead. But now we have yet another “date which will live in infamy,” along with the attack on Pearl Harbor, the assassination of President Kennedy, and 9/11. 

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Pushed to the back burner was the heartbreaking news of a record-breaking number of COVID deaths this week and a health system about to collapse. I looked at the lighted Bethlehem star we have in our living room. The light was still shining. But I seriously wondered how much more even it could take of this weary world. 

Epiphany is the story of the birth of the Christ to the rest of the world. 
But Epiphany doesn’t allow us to go down that dark road. It’s said that Christmas is the story of the birth of the Christ to the people of Israel and Epiphany is the story of the birth of the Christ to the rest of the world. 

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Although Matthew doesn’t name them or even say how many there were, an old non-biblical tradition claims that there were three Magi whose names were Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, each representing a different part of the world far beyond Israel – and another religion, probably Zoroastrian. On a happier day, I’d want to talk about the interfaith encounter that was the arrival of the Magi. 

Today, we’re going to try to find some gospel light to shine
into our troubled times. 

Why would Matthew, almost a hundred years after the birth of Jesus, include these figures in his Nativity scene? Think about it; everything is upside down in the story. The Magi are foreigners, most likely from Persia (today’s Iran); they’re out of place in Judea. They’re of a different religion; why are they be looking for a king of the Jews? And that star! What kind of star would lead them to a humble home, and not a royal palace, where they find that the newborn king is from a working class family, not a member of the royal court. We’re used to the Magi of Christmas pageants (brilliantly performed this year!); we hear the story every year. What’s really going on here? And is there anything that might guide us on our way through the maze of our current events?

To answer that question about any Bible passage we have to ask what the writer was stirred up about, what did they passionately want us to get from the story. The author of the gospel (who was not the apostle Matthew), lived in or near the city of Antioch, now in Turkey, but then part of Syria. Antioch was one of the great cultural and trade centers in the Roman empire. It had a large Jewish population, but it was also a central location of the spread of the Jesus movement to Gentiles throughout the empire and beyond. 

Matthew wanted to appeal to both Jews and Gentiles. So his Nativity story is radically inclusive. Not only are shepherds, who occupied the lowest rung of the social ladder, the first to hear the angel chorus, now here come these Magi, who under other circumstances might have been considered ‘other.’   

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Even more radical, this new Christian community talked about Jesus as the son of God, called him ‘savior’, and ‘lord’ – words that sound like everyday religious language to us, but were back then actually political terms. Roman Emperors claimed to be divine figures; Caesar was called ‘Son of God’ and was acknowledged as ‘savior’ and addressed as ‘lord’. So asserting a claim to divine status for Jesus that outranked the emperors of Rome was a bold (and dangerous) act.

So when the Magi go to King Herod to ask where to find this new king, boom! You have the clash that inevitably comes when the kin-dom of God bumps up against empire. Matthew writes, “At this news Herod became greatly disturbed (other versions say ‘afraid’), as did all of Jerusalem.” 

The king is afraid. He fears competition for his power. His insecurity drives him to violence. Thankfully, a dream warns the Magi to stay away from Herod. But unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there. Joseph, too, has a dream warning him about Herod and the Holy Family flees to Egypt. Meanwhile, in a version of “The Empire Strikes Back,” Herod, furious when he finds out he’s been tricked orders all children in and around Bethlehem two years old or under to be killed. It wasn’t until Herod had died that an angel again appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him it’s safe to return to Israel. 

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This horrific story of what’s become known as the Slaughter of the Innocents is not based on historical fact. The cruelty of King Herod has been well-documented; surely such a massacre would have been recorded. No, this is Matthew carefully crafting his message about what happens when the reign of Christ encounters the politics of authoritarianism and coercion. They are not compatible. 

OPEN LETTER TO VICE PRESIDENT PENCE, MEMBERS OF CONGRESS, AND THE CABINET CALLING FOR THE REMOVAL OF

I’m sure you can make the connection to events of the past week. Calls for an immediate end to the president’s term in office, even with only 10 days remaining, are coming from both sides of the aisle. The National Council of Churches has sent an open letter to the vice president, members of Congress, and the cabinet calling for the removal of the president from office. Among other national faith leaders, Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has signed the letter – as has our Sierra Pacific Synod Bishop, Mark Holmerud. You can find the letter below.

I’m not making a partisan statement; this is simply current events. I’m more interested in discussing how we as followers of Jesus respond to these events and those that will follow in the weeks, months, and years ahead. Something I heard from a theologian this weekend has given me a framework for thinking about this; maybe it will be useful to you. His advice is this: Dare to think. Dare to Act. Dare to Hope. Nice and succinct, but let’s see if we can unpack them. 

Dare to think. 
The Magi were the scientists of their day. They were astronomers who studied the locations and movement of the stars. And they were astrologers, who tried to make connections between the motions of the stars and life here on Earth. They observed, they studied, they discussed, and ultimately, they followed the science. 

I doubt I need to encourage you to believe the claims of science. But perhaps we do all need to be emboldened to seek ways to promote truth-telling, to counter falsehoods, to learn how to engage with those who may be recognizing that they had bought into something that wasn’t true. We’ll always need to dare to think, but perhaps in the days ahead we’ll also need to dare to be thoughtfully and truthfully compassionate. 

Dare to Act. 
The Magi didn’t just sit around talking about that star; they got moving. They didn’t even know where they were going. No maps, no GPS in their camels. But that didn’t stop them. Even when they made a mistake – going to see Herod – they corrected quickly and found an alternate route. Sometimes, the Nike ad has the best advice: Just do it. So I signed up for a Braver Angels event on Tuesday. It’s called “Hold America Together: A National Gathering.” If you don’t know them, Braver Angels is the organization that “brings together Red and Blue Americans in a working alliance to depolarize America.”  It used to be called Better Angels, and I like the change – because, as their website says: “At this time of crisis, we need more than civility, empathy, and goodwill. We need courage.”

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Dare to Dream
Personally, I’d add another dare to this list: Dare to Dream. There’s a lot of action going on in the dream world in this story. And the outcome would not have been so good if either Joseph or the Magi ignored the dream that helped to guide them on the right path. I’m part of a dreamwork group, where we share some of our unconscious adventures. The methodology we use states that:  “All dreams speak a universal language and come in the service of health and wholeness. There is no such thing as a bad dream’ — only dreams that sometimes take a dramatically negative form in order to grab our attention.” (“Dreamwork Tool Kit” Jeremy Taylor)

Dare to Wonder
This could even be expanded to: Dare to Wonder. That is, go outside of the realm of thinking sometimes, not into falsehoods and misinformation, but into amazement and wonder of mystery – of dreams, and stars, and imagination, of poetry and prayer that can lead us into ideas, projects, ways of being that on our own initiative would be inconceivable to us. 

And finally: Dare to Hope. 
Vaccines for the coronavirus are slowly making their way to all of us. Isn’t it good to feel some hope that we’ll soon be able to be together again? But there are other places where we might not yet be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. That’s where daring hope comes in. It’s the hope we spoke of in Advent when we lit the first candle and as we read: 
It is significant that the church has always used that language—the advent (coming) of Christ—because it speaks to a deep truth. Christ is coming. Christ is always entering a troubled world, a wounded heart. And so we light the candle of hope, and dare to express our longing for peace, for justice, for healing and the well-being of all creation.

And we prayed:
Loving God, we open up all the shadowy places in our lives and memories to the healing light of Christ. Show us the creative power of hope. Prepare our hearts to be transformed by you, that we may walk in the light of Christ.

Advent is over. Christmas is over. But that hope is still alive. It’s Epiphany! It’s the story of the birth of the Christ to the world in all of its splendor and wonder, as well as all of its disfunction and dis-ease. The Magi brought gifts to Jesus because they somehow had hope in this newborn prince of peace. Yes, wise women would have asked directions, arrived on time, birthed the baby, cleaned the stable, baked a casserole, and brought practical gifts. (Oh, there’s another one: Dare to Laugh). Anyway, the gold, frankincense, and myrrh were pretty good, too. More symbolism by Matthew. 

As we move further into the new year, not knowing what the days ahead will bring (I keep checking the news because another something big could happen at any time), we do not allow ourselves to sink into despair. Yes, there will be moments of fear, anxiety, flashes of anger, depths of sadness. We’re human beings, after all. But we do not succumb to the temptation to give into hopelessness. In fact, we dare to dream of the health and wholeness of our planet, the health and wholeness of our nation, of our families, of our church – and of ourselves. 

That’s the gospel light we’ve been given to shine into our troubled times. 

Can we Dare to Say Amen?!

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OPEN LETTER TO VICE PRESIDENT PENCE, MEMBERS OF CONGRESS, AND THE CABINET CALLING FOR THE REMOVAL OF PRESIDENT TRUMP FROM OFFICE

Posted January 8, 2021

Our faith instructs us to take seriously positions of leadership, not to lead others astray and to be careful about what we say and do. In Philippians 2:3-4 we are taught to, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”

President Donald J. Trump’s actions and words have endangered the security of the country and its institutions of government by inciting a violent, deadly, seditious mob attack at the U.S. Capitol. His words and actions have placed the lives of the people he is supposed to serve in grave danger to advance his own interests. Further, he not only failed to stop or condemn the attack after the Capitol had been stormed but instead encouraged the mob by calling them patriots. This domestic terrorist attack resulted in at least five deaths, including a Capitol Police Officer, and more than a dozen police officers injured. The desecration of the Capitol building was also disgraceful and reprehensible. 

For the good of the nation, so that we might end the current horror and prepare the way for binding up the nation’s wounds, we, as leaders of the member communions of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA (NCC), believe the time has come for the President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, to resign his position immediately. If he is unwilling to resign, we urge you to exercise the options provided by our democratic system.

In addition, we recognize the need to hold responsible not only those who invaded the Capitol, but also those who supported and/or promoted the President’s false claims about the election, or made their own false accusations. 

We grieve for our country at this difficult time and continue to pray for the safety and security, and ultimately the healing of our nation. Holding those who have abused their power and participated in these immoral and tragic actions accountable, in particular the President of the United States, is one step toward healing.

Signed:

Jim Winkler, General Secretary and President, National Council of Churches

Rev. Dr. John C. Dorhauer, General Minister and President, United Church of Christ and Chair, National Council of Churches Governing Board

Bishop W. Darin Moore, Presiding Bishop, AME Zion Church and Immediate Past Chair, National Council of Churches

Bishop Teresa Jefferson-Snorton, Christian Methodist Episcopal Church and Vice Chair, National Council of Churches

Rev. Teresa Hord Owens, General Minister and President, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Rev. Dr. Néstor Gómez, The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Rev. Paula Clayton Dempsey, Director of Partnership Relations, Alliance of Baptists

Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, Presiding Bishop, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

The Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, Presiding Bishop and Primate, The Episcopal Church

Senior Bishop Lawrence Reddick, Christian Methodist Episcopal Church

Bishop Sally Dyck, Ecumenical Officer of the Council of Bishops, The United Methodist Church

Rev. Dr. Jean Hawxhurst, Ecumenical Staff Officer, The United Methodist Church

Rev. Eddy Alemán, General Secretary, Reformed Church in America

Rev. Jane Siebert, President, Swedenborgian Church of North America

His Eminence Archbishop Vicken Aykazian, Ecumenical Director and Diocesan Legate, The Armenian Church, Eastern Diocese of America

Dr. Kimberly Brooks, African Methodist Episcopal Church

Rev. Richard Tafel, Swedenborgian Church

Carole Collins, Director of Operation, Alliance of Baptists

Reverend Brenda Girton-Mitchell, Progressive National Baptist Convention

Rev. Dr. W. Franklyn Richardson, Chair, Conference of National Black Churches

Stephen M. Veazey, President (Head of Communion), Community of Christ

His Grace Mar Awa Royel, Bishop of California and Secretary of the Holy Synod, Assyrian Church of the East

Bishop Francis Krebs, Presiding Bishop, Ecumenical Catholic Communion

Rev. Dr. James Herbert Nelson II, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), Presbyterian Church (USA)