“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.”

                                                                                                

Baptized into Beloved Community

Did anyone bring your baptism certificate with you this morning? Do you want to share anything about it: when was it; where was it; how old were you; who were your sponsors/ godparents; who was the pastor that baptized you? Here’s mine. I was baptized on November 4, 1951; I was just over a year old. This was at Grace Lutheran Church in Pottstown, PA and my sponsors were my grandmother and my Aunt Helen. Edgar Brown, Jr. was the pastor, but he retired in 1955, so I really don’t have any memory of him. My baptism certificate is actually a little booklet with the whole baptism liturgy, but I’ve framed just the part about me. It doesn’t say what time the baptism was, but I know that back in the day baptisms were not usually held during the worship service the way they are today. And the baptism font was in a separate little room, called the baptistry. 

The Sunday after Epiphany is the day we remember the baptism of Jesus, which signaled the beginning of his public ministry. Baptism is one of the two sacraments of the Lutheran Church, but through the ages there have been different ways that baptism has been understood – rightly and wrongly. 

Story #1: In my first congregation long ago, I was visiting with a couple who wanted to have their baby baptized. Being the sort of person who likes to ask people what they think before I start in on the pastor spiel, I asked them why they wanted their child to be baptized, what it meant to them. The mother’s answer was: “You have to be baptized so you can go to heaven.” 
I call this the “getting your admission ticket to heaven punched” view of baptism. 

Story #2: In the same congregation, a couple tragically experienced the death of their infant son. The next Sunday in church, a member of the congregation made the unbelievably insensitive remark that “it’s too bad you didn’t have him baptized before he died,” implying that either he had not gone to heaven or was lingering in some kind of limbo. This is on the same order as #1, except baptism is seen as a ‘get out of limbo free’ card. 

Story #3: At the second meeting with a new mom about having her son baptized, she informed me that after being pressured by her grandmother who was Catholic, she had agreed to have the baby baptized at grandmom’s church, but she also wanted him to be (as she said) baptized Lutheran. My explanation that the baptism at the Catholic church was valid, totally recognized by the Lutheran Church and there was no need for a re-baptism fell on deaf ears. As was an offer to have a ceremony of Affirmation of Baptism. 

Story #4: On the other hand, there’s the story of my brother and sister-in-law who were re-baptized. That was because the church they had joined was in the Anabaptist tradition, which does not baptize infants and. Instead, believers’ baptism happens when a person is old enough to make a commitment of faith – which, of course an infant cannot do. 

Story #5: A student from Japan, studying at the University of San Francisco, had been raised in a very conservative Christian church back home. She began attending church here and liked our more open way of looking at scripture and beliefs. At one point, she began to cautiously approach the subject of baptism. She had not wanted to be baptized in her home church, but now wondered if there was a different way of thinking about what baptism is and what it means to be a baptized Christian. 

Story #6: And finally, from the father of a three-year-old, who says, “I was sitting in church one day, watching a baptism from the front pew with my three kids. The pastor was pouring water on the head of a tiny baby. My son was quite taken by this, and I could see that something profound was brewing. With a puzzled look on his face, he turned to me and asked: “Daddy, why is he brainwashing that baby?”

With all of these understandings and misunderstandings about baptism, how do we think about this sacred ritual that is so central to who we are as Christians? Certainly, as we’ve been more exposed to other religious traditions and have accepted their belovedness in God’s eyes, it’s hard to see baptism as a necessity.   
In the book we’re reading in our book group, Wholehearted Faith, Rachel Held Evans writes from the perspective of evangelical Christianity, but her questions should resonate with us. She wrote:

“After high school, I attended a conservative Christian college that was supposed to answer all my lingering questions about Christian doctrine but instead propagated them. Chief among those questions was how a good and loving God could condemn to hell the majority of human beings who live on this planet, most for the misfortune of being born in the wrong place and at the wrong time. If only evangelical Christians went to heaven, I reasoned, this left out millions, even billions, of people who had never even heard the name Jesus. It left out whole continents and generations of men, women, and children raised in other faiths. It left out Anne Frank. We read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl in middle school, and Mrs. Kelly told us that Anne and her sister had succumbed to Hitler via typhus. I prayed for weeks afterward that God might somehow work a posthumous miracle and pluck her from the eternal fire in which I was sure she was being unfairly tormented. I couldn’t accept that a good, loving, and gracious God would burn Anne Frank forever.”

So, what does it mean to be a baptized? And why do it? Many parents today, having given up belief in a punishing God who sends unbaptized infants to hell, don’t even pursue it – unless grandma and grandpa pressure them and they do it out of obligation. Which is not the best reason. 

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about Martin Luther King, Jr. We celebrate his birthday tomorrow, but as the Senate prepares to begin debate on the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act, how can we not recall the 1963 March on Washington, DC for civil rights? On the 20th anniversary of that historic march in 1983, a crowd of 200,000-400,000 people came back to Washington. I was one of them. I wish I could say that I remember the speakers and musicians. I read that Pete Seeger was there. Stevie Wonder led the crowd in singing happy birthday, in an appeal that the birthday of the late Dr. King be made a national holiday. 

John Lewis was there, as he was in 1963. This is what he said, “We have a mandate from the martyrs who have given their lives in the struggle for human rights. We have a mandate from the masses who have worked together, prayed together, stood up together, sat in together, were beaten together and went to jail together. We have a mission to create a new agenda for America, to create a better world, to create the beloved community.”

The Beloved Community. MLK talked about it often. He wasn’t the first or only, but it was the essence of his dream: “Let us live together in peace and love in the Beloved Community.” So when we read in the gospel, “When Jesus was baptized, a voice from heaven said, “You are my own, my Beloved,” how can we not take notice? At this point in the story, there’s nothing about sin or death or judgement; it’s about being named Beloved. So it is at our baptism. We are named Beloved and incorporated into the Beloved Community. This way of thinking of baptism isn’t about creating an in group of the saved, those with a one-way ticket to heaven. No, the Beloved Community is now. 

Not that the dream has been completely realized. In the way that Martin Luther talked about the kingdom of God as being both “now and not yet,” so it is with the Beloved Community. Here’s a little bit from a resource called Becoming Beloved Community Where You Are: A Resource for Individuals, Congregations, and Communities Seeking Racial Healing, Reconciliation and Justice:

“Walking the road toward Beloved Community is an adventure, fueled by the power of the Holy Spirit, and no Christian should ever expect to arrive at the destination. This is a spiritual practice, after all, and no one ever finishes with spiritual formation. We are always praying. We are always reading scripture. We are always seeking to love and serve our neighbors. And we are always learning and practicing Jesus’ way of love, especially as he calls us to cross racial, cultural and ethnic lines, to examine structures of oppression and their impact on our own and others’ lives, and ultimately to nurture Beloved Community.”

The juxtaposition of the Sunday we remember the baptism of Jesus and the birthday of MLK, helps us see the two-directional nature of baptism. As we affirm our own baptisms, we acknowledge that we have heard – and taken to heart – the fact that the God of all the universe loves us. This is an inward adventure, because there are many voices, including our own that try to convince us that we’re not good enough, not worthy, not lovable. Living into our baptismal covenant involves leaning into the vision that God has of us, believing it, and living out of it – which means that we live into the vision of the Beloved Community. 

Because it’s not only a personal and inner endeavor. Baptism brings us into community. Not an exclusive community that keeps others out, but a community of people committed to living out the love of God. Church is meant to be that kind of community. And often is. In these days of COVID, though, it’s harder to define what our little corner of the Beloved Community looks like. How do we maintain our connections to one another? How do we maintain our connections with those we haven’t seen for almost two years? How do we envision our connections with our neighbors? 

I don’t know if you’ve seen the article about the housing developments being planned for Burlingame. Part of Rollins Road is being rezoned to allow single-story warehouses to be replaced with six-story apartment buildings. I’m not sure about this, but I think we might be the closest church to these new homes. And I wonder, if we want to reach out to new residents with an invitation the Good Shepherd, how will describe the community we’re inviting them to? 

In Wholehearted Faith, Rachel Held Evans says this: “Most of the openhearted wanderers I’ve encountered are looking not for a bulletproof belief system but for a community of friends, not for a spiritual encyclopedia that contains every answer but for a gathering of loved ones in which they can ask the hard questions.” 

A community of friends, a gathering of loved ones, a beloved community . . . hmm, seems to be a theme here. How do we tend the precious kinship we already have here? And how do we extend it to others? Of course, there is risk in doing that. Rachel Held Evans also wrote: “I have come to believe that wholehearted faith, like all wholehearted living, requires taking risks, cultivating vulnerability, and embracing uncertainty – both in our individual lives and in our communal life together. It demands that we admit all that we cannot know, and it encourages us to pursue it nonetheless.”

In other words, the baptismal covenant is also outwardly directed – to our neighbors, to the earth, to the work of dismantling racism, patriarchy, and other systems of oppression. As Howard Thurman, one of MLK’s mentors, co-founder of The Church for The Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco in 1944, wrote in his poem The Work of Christmas

When the song of the angels is stilled, 
When the star in the sky is gone, 
When the kings and princes are home, 
When the shepherds are back with their flock, 
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among others,
To make music in the heart.

We are going to remember and reaffirm our baptisms in just a few minutes. If you have your baptism certificate, keep it nearby. Have some water ready. you will be invited to dip into it and anoint your forehead or your wrist – with a cross, if you wish – as a sign of remembrance. As you do, pay attention; listen closely. You just might hear the rustle of the wings of a dove as the Holy Spirit hovers over you and a voice from the heavens whispers in your ear, “You are my Own, my Beloved. And I love you!”

Amen


O God, we long to co-create with you the Beloved Community, which looks to the common good; privileges all equally and creates societal systems which celebrate the humanity and the gifts of all.

Help us to listen to your voice, to hear your call to be drum majors for justice, peace and righteousness.

When the work of peace and justice overwhelms us and building the Beloved Community seems impossible, renew our strength and resolve – and our awareness that we are bound together in an inescapable network of mutuality and tied to a single garment of destiny. Amen. 

Creating the Beloved Community: Service Prayers for Martin Luther King, Jr., Weekend was written by the Rev. Dr. Cari Jackson, Founder and Director of the Center for Spiritual Light, New York City.

Copyright 2014 Local Church Ministries, Faith Formation Ministry Team, United Church of Christ, 700 Prospect Avenue, Cleveland, OH  44115-1100.  Permission granted to reproduce or adapt this material for use in services of worship or church education.  All publishing rights reserved.  

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.

Divorced on World Communion Sunday?!

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You might be familiar with Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber. If not, Google her; you should know about her. She’s an author and speaker and is famous for her tattoos and outspoken views. She came out of very rough and tumble lifestyle, abandoning her conservative Christian upbringing, but finally finding her place in the Lutheran church. She founded the congregation House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver and in August was called to be pastor of public witness by the Rocky Mountain Synod. Her New York Times bestselling books include Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, the memoir of her journey from alcoholic stand-up comic to Lutheran pastor. I’m telling you all this because I want to tell you the story that she tells in her newsletter. She writes: 

House for All Sinners & Saints was only about a year old when I took a Sunday morning phone call from a young parishioner who had gone home to Grand Rapids for a weekend visit. I could tell right away that Rachel was crying. 

“Take your time, baby.” 

When she finally spoke, it was halting and in a whisper. “Nadia, I’m at my parent’s church and they’re serving communion and …. (her voice cracks) I’m not allowed to take it.”

Rachel hadn’t thought much about her childhood church’s “closed table” (the term for when a church only allows certain people to take communion) until now. But she had spent a year with HFASS, a community centered around the grace of an unapologetically open table, and without even noticing it had happened, she had been changed by it. Every Sunday she had seen a woman stand at the altar table (again, she had only ever heard a male voice from the front of the church, never one with a timbre more like her own), and had heard that woman say these words: “We have an open table at House, which means that during communion, everyone without exception is invited to come forward at communion and receive the bread and wine – which for us is the body and blood of Christ. If you choose not to commune, you can come forward with your arms crossed and receive a blessing instead.”

Jesus ate supper with more types of people than I myself would feel comfortable with. Sinners, tax collectors, soldiers, sex workers, fisherfolk, and even lawyers. And his LAST supper was the worst. He broke bread with his friends who were just about to abandon, deny and betray him. And yet, he took bread, blessed it, broke and gave it to these total screw-ups and said, “this is my body, given for you, whenever you eat of it, do this in remembrance of me.” He instituted the Eucharist by giving bread and wine to all the people who were just about to totally screw him over.

And then what does the church do in remembrance of him? – try and keep the “wrong people” from receiving the Lord’s Supper. Some would argue it is reckless to just feed all who hunger. That the Eucharist is too sacred to just hand it over to anyone. But maybe the Eucharist is too sacred to not just hand it over to anyone.

People of good faith disagree on this issue. I know that. There are those in my own tradition who say that only the baptized should receive and that there is a catechumenal path that can be taken for those who wish to commune. Baptism first, THEN communion. As if grace only happens in a certain order. Over the years there have been dozens and dozens of adult baptisms at HFASS – I’d guess more than at most Lutheran churches. But having experienced the unmerited and always available grace of an open table, these folks sought out the grace of the baptismal font.

Before hanging up with Rachel, I assured her she was loved and wanted in our community and then I said, “Would it be ok if I told some folks at church tonight about what happened?” and she said yes. As a small group of us stayed behind that night to stack chairs and put away paraments, I told them about Rachel’s devastation at having been denied communion at home. Without skipping a beat, Stuart (the church drag queen) said, “Well then we’ll just have to take her communion at the airport.”

So, at 10 pm on a Wednesday, eight of us showed up to Denver International airport with a cardboard chauffeur’s sign that said “Rachel P___” on one side, and “Child of God” on the other, and waited for her at the bottom of the escalator. We then made our way up to the interfaith prayer room, I spoke about how on the night Jesus was betrayed he gathered with his faltering friends for a meal that tasted of freedom, and then we handed her what had been withheld days before: the body and blood of Christ. If we are to be judged for having gotten this wrong, let it be that we sat more at the table than fewer. Because it’s not our table. It’s God’s.

Today is World Communion Sunday, a day promoted by the National Council of Churches to promote Christian unity. Begun in 1933, it’s an attempt to remind us how each congregation is interconnected one with another. In these days of divisiveness, it’s not a bad idea. But as Pastor Bolz-Weber’s story reminds us, there are still divisions, still gatekeepers whose job, they believe, is to say who is in and who is out. 

I like to tell the story of the three sisters who were part of the trip to Germany I took many years ago. All three sisters were Lutheran, but they could never take Communion together, at least in two of the churches where they were members. One was in a Missouri Synod church, the other a Wisconsin Synod church. On Pentecost Sunday, in a little church in Germany, they came to the altar together. And it was a very big deal – for them and to all of us sharing in this joyful banquet.  

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Now, the gospel reading today might seem like an odd one for World Communion Sunday, especially the first part. On a day focused on unity, talking about divorce would seem to be quite incongruous. Better to go with the second part. Wouldn’t everybody agree on welcoming children? But hold on; let’s look at this more closely. When we read the teachings of Jesus, we always have to ask, “who was he talking to?” Certainly, his words have meaning for us today, but we have to wonder how people then would have heard them. 

First of all, we have to recognize that the Pharisees were asking about divorce because they wanted to trip him up. Hmm, why a question about this law and not another? Could it be that the practice Jesus had of welcoming those who were outcast, those considered to be outside the bounds of society? The answer Jesus gives should remind us of the answer he gave about paying taxes. He answers them with a question. He’s not going to play their game. 
He asked them, “What command did Moses give?” 
They said, “Moses permitted a husband to write a decree of divorce and to put her away.”

That would seem to be the end of it. But wait, let’s see if there’s more to the story. And let’s first acknowledge that all of this is from a hetero-normative perspective. Same-sex marriage wasn’t on the horizon yet. 

It’s crucially important to know that in Jesus’ day, marriage was a profoundly patriarchal institution in which women and children were considered to be the property of men. And when it came to divorce, the husband had all the power, as is made clear in as Deuteronomy 24:1-4. 
Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she doesn’t please him because he finds something objectionable about her, so he writes a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house.

Now, fast forward to Jesus’ day when there was dispute about acceptable grounds for divorce. Some said only adultery was just cause, while others stuck with the all-inclusive “something objectionable about her.” We know from other Bible stories of how precarious life was for women who were not attached to a man. Women and their children depended on marriage for their wellbeing, which put them in an extremely vulnerable position. We know Jesus that always cared about the powerless and vulnerable, so we have to ask: who’s vulnerable in this picture? Women and children. Now comes the shocker, as later he expands on this teaching: 
If a man divorces his wife and marries another, he commits adultery against her; and if a woman divorces her husband again and marries another, she commits adultery.

Wait a second. Did he just say “if a woman divorces her husband”? Yes, he did. The good news is that Jesus puts men and women in equal positions; each has agency in the marriage. The bad news is that Jesus is still critical of divorce. 

But – Jesus also recognizes the reality of the human condition. In effect, he’s saying, What Moses says about divorce is well and good, but remember, it was an accommodation to human struggle.

When two people become one in a marriage covenant, that relationship shouldn’t be broken apart. That’s the ideal. Isn’t that what every couple intends when they make their vows? But sometimes the ideal cannot be achieved. Sometimes divorce is the best option. Considering that this is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, sometimes divorce is the necessary option. Jesus still wants divorce reserved as a last resort, when the marriage is doing more harm than good, not when, “she does not please him,” or “there’s something objectionable about her.”

Like so many other situations in which we might find ourselves, when there is no good resolution, when sin is unavoidable, we have to do the best we can and then rely on God’s grace for compassion and forgiveness. On World Communion Sunday, we can recognize that we are all united, both in our human condition, with all our frailties and failings and in our access to grace. We could all be members of House for All Sinners & Saints. 

Then, there are the children. Again, remember that life for children in Jesus’ day wasn’t like it is today, at least it’s not supposed to be like it was then. Then, children had no power; they were property; they were expendable. The disciples wanted to shoo these nuisances away. But Jesus turns another societal norm on its head. Indignant, he orders them to let the children in and he blesses them. He even says that we’re all supposed to be as child-like and eager to see Jesus; “whoever doesn’t welcome the kin-dom of God as a little child won’t enter it.” We should be reminded of the status of so many vulnerable children today: immigrant children, foster kids, kids kicked out of homes for being lgbtq, kids who are neglected or abused – and remember Jesus’ example of welcoming them in.

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In both of these incidents, Jesus breaks down barriers. Women find agency; children receive blessing. Everyone is welcome as far as Jesus is concerned – especially these vulnerable ones. Would Jesus refuse anyone Communion? I don’t think so. Everything he said and did was about bringing us all together. So often he fed people or joined them in a meal. Eating together was almost a sacred activity. Communion is a sacred activity, a sacrament. We call it a Meal. Who would invite guests to a dinner party and then serve only some? 

I’m not criticizing churches who do not practice open Communion – well, just a little. That is their choice and they have their reasons. I just want to be very clear that here, at this table all are welcome – no exceptions. And if you ever find yourself left out of another Communion table, know that I and whoever wants to come with me will come to you – at the airport or wherever, with a sign with your name on it on one side and “Child of God” on the other. And we will share the most sacred meal of all together.

Amen

Mark 10: 1-16

Jesus left there and came to the districts of Judea and the other side of the Jordan. Once more the crowds gathered around and as usual Jesus began to teach them. Some Pharisees approached Jesus and, as a test, asked, “Is it permissible for husbands to divorce their wives?” 

In reply Jesus asked, “What command did Moses give?” They answered, “Moses permitted a husband to write a decree of divorce and to put her away.”
But Jesus told them, “Moses wrote the commandment because of your hardness of heart. From the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female. This is why one person leaves home and cleaves to another, and the two become one flesh.’ They are no longer two, but one flesh. What God has united, therefore, let no one divide.” Back in the house again, the disciples questioned Jesus once more about this. He told them, “If a man divorces his wife and marries another, he commits adultery against her; and if a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

Biblical,Scene,When,Jesus,Says,,Let,The,Little,Children,Come

People were bringing their children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples scolded them for this. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not stop them. It is to just such as these that the kin-dom of God belongs. The truth is, whoever doesn’t welcome the kin-dom of God as a little child won’t enter it.”

And Jesus took the children in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.

“Tammy Wynette 6488” by Nesster is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

JESUS MAFA 
“Jesus welcomes the children”

You Are Not the Greatest: Jesus on White Supremacy

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“I am not a racist!” That was my response when, many years ago, I was confronted by an African American man who had overheard something I had said. He wasn’t buying any of my impassioned denials. He also wasn’t buying the assurances of my two African American co-workers with whom I’d been having the conversation the man had overheard. I’ll never forget his dismissal of them: “some of us still wear the bandana” (meaning the bandana of slavery). He eventually stopped excoriating me and went on his way, but I was devastated. To this day, I remember the shame I felt that day and for a long time after. 

Only in recent years have I understood how misguided my response was in that situation. First, I had to learn that it is nigh unto impossible for any human being to never make a mistake, be it a slip of the tongue, an unconscious faux pas, or even words said in jest or in the heat of an argument. We can – and do – certainly try to avoid these mistakes, but if we’re being completely honest, we must confess that at times we do fail – in all kinds of areas. 

In 2015, I wrote a blog post called “I’m About to Offend Somebody” in response to the practice of calling out one another for our slip-ups. I wrote:  “Let me just say from the start: I’m a white, Western, able-bodied, straight, cis-gender, Christian, middle-class person of privilege. So, in any expressions of thought or opinion, I’m bound to offend someone. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for political correctness. But even in my most well-meaning attempts, I sometimes step on a land mine. 

“Trouble is, a land mine to one person may not be one to another. Years ago, talking with a gay activist, I said that someone had “his head screwed on straight” and got roundly chastised. Years later, I was (half) jokingly telling some members of my congregation who are gay that I’d been worried about the scripture reading that day where St. Paul visits “a street called Straight.” They thought I was being pretty silly, so I told them the story of the “head on straight” debacle. They thought the activist’s reaction was silly, too. So – who’s right?”

Since then, it’s gotten even more complicated. Our political divide doesn’t help either. We snipe back and forth about “wokeness” and “cancel culture” and unfortunately the sniping isn’t limited to the political divide. It goes on within our own circles, in an oppression Olympics that privileges one’s own oppression over that of another.  For example, in a discussion about racism, a friend who is lesbian chafed against being lumped into the category of “white privilege” without a recognition of her own history of marginalization. She’s not against accepting her place of white privilege but would like there to be a better way for us all to talk about these matters. 

The second thing I’ve learned is what to do when I do mess up. Back on that day, I failed to admit that I had made an error in judgement. It didn’t matter that my heart was in the right place, or that friends came to my defense, or that I didn’t mean what the man thought I had meant. I have learned that my cry of “But I’m not a racist!” is the all-too-typical White defensive response to being called out for racist behavior, no matter how unintentional. I should have apologized. And not just the non-apology of “I’m sorry if something I said offended you,” but a true acknowledgement of my cluelessness and a heartfelt assurance to do better. Maybe that would have eased the man’s mind. Maybe not. But it would have been the right thing for me to do in any event – which is to learn from a mistake. 

If you want to be first, you must be the last one of all and at the service of all

We hear a lot about racism and White privilege these days. We have anti-racism training in our synod, as well as in schools and workplaces. And yet, phrases like “Black Lives Matter,” “white fragility,” “systemic racism,” and “White privilege” continue to cause reactivity and resistance.  

So, amidst all our national and personal angst over what some call America’s original sin, I came to our gospel text for this week. And for the first time read the words of Jesus as a word to those of us struggling with our legacy of privileging some groups over others – whether the discrimination against Irish immigrants in the 19th century or Central American immigrants today. No oppression Olympics here. Jesus said, “”If any of you wants to be first, you must be the last one of all and at the service of all.” He said this because he had discovered the disciples arguing about who among them was the greatest.

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And we can laugh at those clueless disciples who just didn’t get Jesus, until we start applying it to our own lives in our own time. I suspect that most of us don’t see ourselves as making claims of greatness, right? We’re the blessed ones in the Beatitudes: the meek, the pure in heart, the peacemakers. Having to recognize how and where we’re privileged puts us on the wrong side of the domination system – which explains our resistance to such language. But Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook. Following Jesus means becoming last. That means we have to search our selves to even recognize where we are first. 

For example, no matter what your status is in this country, you are privileged. The current ethical dilemma is whether immunocompetent Americans should get booster shots against COVID, while in some places in the world, such as Ethiopia, the percentage of those vaccinated is under 1%. “If you want to be first, you must be last, and you must be at the service of all” says it pretty clearly. I am not advocating one way or another for getting booster shots; I have to admit that I’m torn myself. But it’s our responsibility to take the words of Jesus seriously and into account as we make our ethical decisions. And maybe taking it out to a global perspective in terms of our privilege as Americans, for example in our use of the world’s resources. According to the Sierra Club, “a child born in the United States will create 13 times as much ecological damage over the course of a lifetime than a child born in Brazil; the average American will drain as many resources as 35 natives of India and consume 53 times more goods and services than someone from China.” That’s privilege.

So, now we might be able to bring it closer to home and see the planks in our eyes when it comes to White privilege and then do something about it, starting from within ourselves. And in no way do I claim that this will be easy. I have been reading an incredibly wonderful book called Dear White Peacemaker: Dismantling Racism with Grit and Grace by Osheta Moore. Moore is an African American woman, pastor of Roots Covenant Church in St. Paul, MN. I love their website where they call themselves “Misfits on a Mission, Finding Identity in Jesus.” If I lived in St. Paul, I would definitely check it out. 

What the heck am I supposed to do?
Pastor Moore gets me. I mean she gets White anxiety. She says, “This is not for the faint of heart, Beloved. And still, I believe in you. I know how you feel sometimes. The calls for action are varied and sometimes opposing: 

Do your work, White people 
Pray for unity, people of God 
Defund the Police 
Black Lives Matter 
Blue Lives Matter 
All Lives Matter to God 
Show up 
Stop centering yourself 
Silence is complicity 
Speaking up is exerting your privilege
Use this hashtag 
Stop using that hash tag

“If there is one question I get with some regularity, it is, ‘What the heck am I supposed to do?'”

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I don’t remember how I came across this book, but it’s been a game-changer for me. I confess that I’ve been pretty discouraged with the state of racial discourse, even within the Church. I’ve been reluctant to speak out in some places because I knew I’d be dismissed as a White woman, or worse, as a “Karen” and told to “check my privilege at the door.” And it breaks my heart because I truly have come a long way from that day when I didn’t get what “White privilege” means. But in Dear White Peacemaker, Osheta Moore picked me up, dusted me off, and set me back on the path. And I ‘ve been recommending the book to everybody, recently to a White colleague struggling with a board of directors tussling over racial issues, I commanded: Read this book – now!

Your Name Is Not Racist; It Is Beloved
I won’t read the book to you, although every page is brilliant. She doesn’t negate the pain of racism, nor her own times of anger. But the title of her second chapter tells us where she’s coming from: “Your Name Is Not Racist; It Is Beloved.” The basis of her thinking is the Sermon on the Mount, as she uses it to help us understand our anti-racism activism in light of two themes:
1) the ethics of the Beloved Community, beginning with Jesus’ proclamation of the upside-down social order in the Beatitudes; and 2) how those ethics help us actively dismantle White supremacy culture.

In other words, how we can turn ourselves upside-down, from being (no matter how much we think we’re not) greatest – into the last of all, at the service of all. In the midst of our struggles and strifes with one another, Jesus gives us everything we need to show us the way – together. 

I’m listening to this book in the car on Audible, and when I came to her chapter “Confessions of a Judgmental Ally,” I almost had to pull over. Tears formed in my eyes as she read:
“I’ve made assumptions and perpetuated harm to other marginalized groups and individuals, and I’ve been lovingly corrected:

  • I’ve assumed my gay friends who just got married wanted kids. 
  • I’ve called a person in their fifties a boomer. 
  • I’ve talked about the joys of pregnancy in a room full of women, ignoring the reality that someone may be struggling with infertility. 
  • I’ve asked my sons to help me move furniture and my daughter to clean the kitchen. 
  • I’ve called a Puerto Rican man Mexican. I’ve called a Japanese woman Chinese.
  • I was surprised when a White-passing woman told me she identifies as Latina. 
  • I’ve used the wrong pronouns when meeting a transgender person. 
  • I’ve called my friend into environmentally safe cleaners, “crunchy.” 
  • I’ve rolled my eyes when told we’re having dinner with vegetarian friends. 
  • I’ve shared grammar memes just to prove I know how to use the word whom correctly. 
  • I’ve celebrated when a prosperity pastor was found having a “moral failure.”

“I’ve been judgmental. I have biases I need to interrogate and undo. I want to be considered an ally to all these people, but I can’t see how their shalom has been violated with my own prejudices in the way.   

“The first act of peacemaking is paying attention to my own privilege that often comes in the form of a plank in my eye. I cannot see the suffering of others well as long as it’s securely lodged in there. So I offer myself grace and receive forgiveness. I remember to accept help and guidance from people – even people I would judge, for they have insights and wisdom I will never have. I invite people in to hold me accountable, and I let the Holy Spirit check me when I am tempted to use my privilege to judge instead of seek justice.”

I’m telling you, I would gladly attend an anti-racism training led by this woman! I would say to her, “Challenge me as much as I need to be challenged. Don’t hold back.” I think of the program we tried back in my Buffalo days, when we got folks from white congregations in the suburbs to visit black churches in the city, not just for worship but also to sit down and talk with one another. At the start of the conversation time, a pastor of a suburban church shared his anxiety with me. He said he was afraid he was going to say something that would come out sounding racist.

Well, I would tell that colleague today to come to this anti-racism training because, even if (more like even when) he said something that could be taken as offensive, it would be alright – not that it would get swept under the rug, but that we’d deal with together as members of the Beloved Community. We would each become last in service to the other. And in that way, we would become first in saving our lives and healing our world. 

I’m serious about the transformative power of Osheta Moore’s book. I don’t think I’ve ever told the story of my experience back in the day of being called a racist. Until this last week. Being called Beloved by a person of color who has been affected by White supremacy, being called out for things that until I read the book I hadn’t even thought about and being called in to partner in the kin-dom of God, was huge. 

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I am reminded of one of my favorite bible verses, when in John’s gospel Jesus says, “I am the Vine; you are the branches. Without me, you can do nothing.” The work we do in the world is hard, arguably harder than ever before, with the very life of our planet at stake. Sometimes it feels too overwhelming, and we get discouraged. And then someone comes along and leads us back to Jesus, with whom we can do everything with, as James calls it, wisdom from above: “Wisdom from above has purity as its essence. It shows humility; it works for peace; it’s kind and considerate. It’s full of compassion and shows itself by doing good. Nor is there any trace of partiality or hypocrisy in it. Peacemakers, when they work for peace, sow the seeds which will bear fruit in holiness.”  

I found a YouTube video of an interview with Osheta Moore. I love that the interviewer started out by saying, “I’m trying to restrain myself from gushing about this book” and then proceeded to gush about it.

“I totally get it,” I whispered to her. “I totally get it.”

Amen   

Mark 9:30-37

According to Jesus, the greatest among us are those committed to service and honoring the least of these. Greatness involves welcoming the children in our midst and giving hospitality to the “nuisances and nobodies” (John Dominic Crossan). It is written . . .

They left that district and began a journey through Galilee, but Jesus did not want anyone to know about it. He was teaching the disciples along these lines: “The Promised One is going to be delivered into the hands of others and will be put to death, but three days later will rise again.” Though they failed to understand these words, they were afraid to question him. They returned home to Capernaum. Once they were inside the house, Jesus began to ask them, “What were you discussing on the way home?”

At this they fell silent, for on the way they had been arguing about who among them was the greatest. So Jesus sat down and called the Twelve over and said, “If any of you wants to be first, you must be the last one of all and at the service of all.” 

Then Jesus brought a little child into their midst and, putting his arm around the child, said to them, ”Whoever welcomes a child such as this for my sake welcomes me. And whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the One who sent me.” 

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Grace In-Between the Lines

Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter                 

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Today I want to talk about grace in-between the lines. I’m sure we could all come up with stories about how grace – a full-out, unwarranted, undeserved, wonderful thing – happened in your life. The birth of a child, falling in love, being forgiven by a friend, getting an unexpected windfall at just the right time, feeling completely in tune with life and with God –are examples of the kind of grace we could name and celebrate. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the grace that’s there even when we don’t know it’s there, that is in-between the lines of the stories of our lives and we could easily miss it – or just as easily believe it isn’t even there at all.  

Martin Luther wrote this in his commentary on the Book of Romans: “Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that one could stake one’s life on it a thousand times.”  Let that sink in for a moment.

“Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that one could stake one’s life on it a thousand times.”

When I read that, I couldn’t help thinking about a man who got up and spoke at a seminar that was supposed to help religious leaders learn how to minister to returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. Speakers had addressed the spiritual and moral wounds of war and the fact that most veterans were unlikely to enter our churches. There is a variety of reasons for that, but what this man had to say was the most heart-breaking. He was a therapist who counsels vets, and he described the inability of many veterans, in light of things they had seen and things they had done, to get back into ‘a state of grace.’ Imagine being in that dark and lonely place and hearing Luther’s words. Faith as “a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that one could stake one’s life on it a thousand times” might seem like an impossible dream. 

Another example is the man I used to visit in a skilled nursing facility. He would often reminisce in great detail things he had said in anger or mistakes he had made – over 50 years ago.  He ruminated about these things all the time, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t let go and enjoy the living, daring confidence in God’s grace available to him. 

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“Per un grapat de monedes // For a Handful of Coins” by~Oryctes~ is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

And that brings me to Judas. Now- don’t get me wrong. I’m not going to compare veterans – or anyone else – to Judas as a betrayer. I know that as soon as we hear the name, we think of words like villainy and treachery. But that’s not where I’m going. So stay with me for a bit.

Let’s go back to today’s reading from Acts where the early Christian church was having its first organizational crisis. The disciples had to call a congregational meeting so they could hold an election to fill the vacancy left by Judas –  because somewhere, somebody had decided there had to be twelve apostles to symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel. And now they were down one apostle. Verses 15-17 give the explanation for the vacancy; 21-26 explain the nomination and election process.   

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“the death of judas” by andrevanb is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

But notice that there are some verses missing in the passage from the lectionary. Where are verses 18-21? What happened in between verses 18-21? Well, what happened was the death of Judas, the gorier of the two accounts of his death. In between the lines of the story is a desperate act of disbelief in God’s grace.  

But wait a minute. Why should we care? Don’t we believe in the wickedness of Judas, his utter unredeemability? How could we think there could have been any grace available to him in between these lines? Aren’t we supposed to accept some version of the horrific picture painted by Dante of the ninth circle of Hell, where Satan gnaws on Judas for all eternity?  

Maybe not. There are some other possibilities for thinking about Judas that not only see the historic Judas as redeemable, but also his name which for so long has been synonymous with traitor. 

One of the most convincing arguments is that in the earliest writings of the church Judas is not a treacherous character at all. In the letters of Paul, the first one written around twenty years before the first gospel, there is nothing hostile about Judas, at least by name. Paul does write about “the night in which Jesus was betrayed,” but says nothing about it being by one of ‘the twelve.’ Also, when Paul described the experience of resurrection, he said that Jesus was seen by ‘the twelve’ – not the remaining eleven. So Judas is still among them, according to Paul. 

Where Judas begins to take a hit is in the gospels. Starting with Mark, the first gospel written, you can see the image of Judas becoming increasingly negative. By the time John wrote, Christianity was breaking away from being a sect within Judaism, and we can read the hostility in John’s references to ‘the Jews’ – of whom he was one, but of a different church body (and we know how nasty church fights can be). 

Continue reading Grace In-Between the Lines

Connected with Jesus on D’Vine

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Sermon
for the
Fifth Sunday
of Easter

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Remember this scene from last September? I certainly won’t ever forget waking up that morning to dark orange skies. Those of us who weren’t directly affected by the catastrophic wildfire season got an unnerving taste of the apocalyptic conditions not very far away. Of course those who live and work in burned over areas can tell us all about the devastation they experienced. One industry especially hard hit was winemaking. Vineyards are not only still recovering from the 2020 fires but are busy working with municipalities to put in place safeguards for the coming fire season. 

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Here in California we know that grapevines are precious commodities. Our hearts break at scenes like this one of burned over vineyards. We know that the loss of these vines has a profound effect on everyone – from vineyard owners, to local economies, to firefighters and first responders, hospitals, homeowners, the environment – and us, as we found out on that orange day in September when the clouds of destruction blew over us. It was a tragic time, and we pray that won’t see one like it again.  

When I read the gospel text for today, I couldn’t help thinking about grapevines in a much more concrete way. Sure, “I am the vine” is a metaphor. We know Jesus wasn’t saying he was a literal vine; that would be silly. But just as the “I am the Good Shepherd” imagery resonates in a special way with a congregation called the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, our being so close to wine country gives us a special relationship to “the Vine.” 

Of course, image of shepherd and vine would have been very familiar to the early followers of Jesus. We’re reminded how many of the ancient symbols of our faith are derived from nature and agriculture – and how they still work, even in our urban environment.

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This is now the fifth of the seven weeks of Easter, and the second of four weeks that delve into what it means to live in intimacy with God. And I have to say that I feel some reluctance to even talk about it any further, that we should just sit quietly and actually practice getting in touch with that place within each of us that is intimately connected to the Divine. I’m reminded of a retreat I once attended on the theme of prayer. We learned about the history of prayer, about different kinds of prayer, about authors who wrote books about prayer. But we never actually prayed! Sounds ridiculous, right? So I don’t want to repeat that retreat leader’s mistake. 

Merton

I would much rather create a space where something amazing could happen, something like what Thomas Merton experienced. Merton, the Trappist monk who died in 1968, wrote about a day in 1958, when he was running errands in downtown Louisville, Kentucky. He described it this way:

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly over-whelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. 

And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts, where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are.  If only we could see each other that way all the time.

As far as I am concerned, that’s a perfect description of intimacy with the Vine! But just as Merton hadn’t done anything to plan or prepare for this revelation, so it often happens with us – as a wonderful surprise. Although I will offer something that might be helpful. Here’s a guided meditation on the “I am the Vine” saying and you might find it helpful in entering into a meditative space.

For now, a few words about what was going on back then for Jesus and the disciples and what the take-away might be for us. The larger context of this passage in John is that Jesus is in the midst of what’s sometimes called his “farewell discourse” to the disciples (John 14-17). It is a passage of consolation; Jesus is assuring his dismayed disciples that he’s not abandoning them. What’s coming will not be distance but rather a radical closeness. Remember that John is writing maybe sixty years after Jesus had died. But rather than being a made-up fiction about what Jesus said and did, it is a testimony to what these followers had experienced. I imagine it to be similar to what Thomas Merton described. John wrote of what he knew – deep in his soul – to be true. So as Jesus assures the disciples that they won’t be abandoned, he’s also assuring us. 

The image of the vine and the branches is a word of solace. The connection between Jesus and the disciples will not be severed, even by death. That connection would be so organic that separation would be virtually unimaginable. Their very lives would be signs of that connection, just as the life and fruit of a branch are signs of its ongoing connection to its vine. 

Unfortunately, there are some Christians who hear this passage as a threat, like “If you want to live, you’d better stay connected to me, or else.” The pruning part is especially worrisome. A colleague wrote this:

As a teenager this metaphor freaked me out. In my conservative Evangelical church being fruitful meant converting others to believe like us. The pressure was on: to avoid being pruned and burned we needed to go get converts (“bear fruit”)! BTW, we were not speaking about bringing people to faith for the first time. This was mostly about persuading Anglicans and Catholics to switch across to our little Evangelical sect, renounce their infant Baptism and their sacraments, and start all over again in the Christian life with us. All that made me very uncomfortable. It seemed my spiritual status in that group was on the line, and that God was always looming with pruning shears and matches.

That’s not what this is about. Rather it is about Jesus saying: “Take heart: I will be with you, and our companionship will be even closer than it is now. Today we walk side by side — but in the days to come I will live in you, and you in me. Today, you walk in my footsteps — but in the days to come you will walk, so to speak, ‘in my feet,’ and I will walk in yours. Indeed, you will be my hands and feet for a world that needs healing and good news. Friends, I’m not abandoning you! On the contrary, I will abide in you. You will abide in me. I will not leave you alone…” https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/lectionary-commentary-for-easter-5

That’s not a threat. Not that pruning isn’t part of our relationship with the Divine. We know that it is also a rich metaphor that can be understood by any gardener. Pruning means cutting away for the sake of new and greater growth, more fruit, more abundance, more life. Even I, with my less-than-green thumb know that! What’s harder is to recognize what needs to be pruned in ourselves and then do what is necessary for us to grow – in faith, in relationship with ourselves, with others, with the world. Thankfully, it’s clear that Jesus isn’t intent on banishment, but on helping each and every branch bear fruit. When he says, “apart from me you can do nothing,” it’s not a threat or sneering assessment of our hopelessness, it is a promise of help. “I will abide in you. You will abide in me. I will not leave you alone…”

Ripe grapes in fall. autumn harvest.
Ripe grapes close-up in fall. autumn harvest.

This idea of mutual indwelling runs throughout John’s gospel, and through the Bible as a whole. Genesis depicts human life itself as possible only with the divine breath. In Galatians, Paul says, “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” and in Acts, he preaches to the Athenians that God is the One “in whom we live, and move, and have our being.” And here in John, because Jesus’ “I am the vine” is the seventh and last of his “I am” statements in the gospel, it’s the culmination of his teachings about how God, Jesus, and human beings are related: Jesus abides in God, and we abide in Jesus, as deeply, closely, organically related as a branch is to its vine. As John tells it, the ultimate goal is not merely to follow Jesus or obey his instruction, but to live in Jesus as he lives in us. Obeying his instruction will then be a natural effect or consequence of that intimate companionship, since our lives and his life will be one.

So what does such mutual indwelling look like in practice? It would look like Jesus, and at the same time it would look like us — that is, it would look like us being the people God made us to be. In a word, it would look like love: incarnate, tangible, down-to earth, intertwining, intersecting, growing, fruitful, vibrant love.

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It would look like reaching out to outsiders, the ones who are otherwise relegated to the margins of community. Take, for instance, the man in the Book of Acts known only as an Ethiopian eunuch (although in the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition, he is remembered as Bachos). Bachos asked Philip, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Actually there was quite a bit to prevent him. Eunuchs were sexual outcasts in Jewish religious society. According to Womanist biblical scholar Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney, in the Ancient Near East and North Africa, it was the custom for men who worked for monarchs to be surgically altered. This was to diminish the chances that they might attempt to establish a dynasty of their own. So there was a class of men who were highly educated, wealthy, and served in high-ranking positions, and who were, in an important way, different. Despite being a prestigious figure in a foreign royal court, Bachos is nonetheless an outsider. 

He’s reading from Isaiah and we have to wonder if he had chosen that passage because of his own experience of rejection. He’s returning in his chariot from a visit to Jerusalem where he was worshipping at the temple, even though he could never participate fully in temple worship because of his status as a gender minority. Yet, he’s a spiritual man; he’s drawn to the texts of the Hebrew Bible. By coincidence (God’s incidents?), he meets up with Philip. 

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We might wonder why this powerful man in his fancy chariot would invite a perfect stranger to come up and read the scriptures with him. He must have known somehow, must have known that this was a holy moment, a divine opportunity. And after reading and discussing scripture together, he knew something else, deep in his soul. “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” he asked. Nothing. Nothing stood in the way between Bachos and the promise of God. And he knew it. He knew it in his  bones. That even though he may not have been seen as ‘whole’ at the temple, he was whole. He was worthy. He claimed the promise that God offered him right there on the spot.

Bachos is the one God chooses to bring a message of belonging back to Ethiopia and “give birth” to the African Christian Church.

His story here reflects an expanding circle of inclusion that is all-too-often neglected in the church. In our current times, we should be asking ourselves: who are the outsiders, the disenfranchised, the excluded (whether we intend to exclude them or not) — and how can we reach out to them, build bridges with them, learn from them, create a new community with them? 

It may take some pruning for us to truly answer that. However, if we live into our connectedness with the Vine, the answers will undoubtedly become clear. We may have our own experiences of ‘God incidences’ when – if our connection is strong – we’ll be able to respond to the needs of a stranger with authentic, holy love. But we shouldn’t only wait for them to come to us. The measure of our health as branches on the vine will be our willingness and ability to find ways of breaking down walls of division, of building up communities of inclusion. As the Spirit flows through the vine, into the branches, sprouting leaves, putting forth good fruit – the true Christian community will thrive. It’s not about numbers (although the more who are included, the better); it’s about the quality of life as branches on the vine. 

We want to be a healthy, strong green vineyard . Jesus said, “Those who abide in me and I in them will bear abundant fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” We could turn that around and say, “Those who abide in Jesus will bear abundant fruit, for with Jesus you can do anything.” 

So tend to your branches. Seek communion with the Divine Presence that abides in you. Know in your bones that in Christ you are whole and you are worthy. Claim the promise that God offers to you. And together are a community of love and inclusion – in the spirit of Bachos, and Philip, and of course Jesus, our True Vine.

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Amen

Acts 8:26-40
An angel of God spoke to Philip saying, “Be ready to set out at noon along the road that goes to Gaza, the desert road.” 
So Philip began his journey. It happened that an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury had come to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage and was returning home.  He was sitting in his carriage and reading the prophet Isaiah.

The Spirit said to Philip, “Go up and meet that carriage.”
When Philip ran up, he heard the eunuch reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do  you understand what you are reading?”
The eunuch replied, “How can I unless someone explains it to me?” 
With that, he invited Philip to get into the carriage with him.

This was the passage of scripture being read: 
“You are like a sheep being led to slaughter;
you are like a lamb that is mute in front of its shearers: 
like them, you never open your mouth.
You have been humiliated and have no one to defend you.
Who will ever talk about your descendants 
since your life on earth has been cut short?”

The eunuch said to Philip, “Tell me, if you will, about whom the prophet is talking – himself or someone else?”
So Philip proceeded to explain the Good News about Jesus to him. Further along, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, there is water right there! Is there anything to keep me from being baptized?”
He ordered the carriage to stop; then Philip and the eunuch both went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of God snatched Philip away; the eunuch did not see him any more and went on his way rejoicing. Philip found himself at Ashdod next, and he went about proclaiming the Good News in all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

John 15: 1-8
Jesus said:
I am the true vine, and my Abba is the vine grower who cuts off every branch in me that does not bear fruit, but prunes the fruitful ones to increase their yield. You have been pruned already thanks to the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit of itself apart from the vine, neither can you bear fruit apart from me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them will bear abundant fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. Those who do not abide in me are like withered, rejected branches, to be picked up and thrown on the fire and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you want, and it will be done for you. My Abba will be glorified if you bear much fruit and thus prove to be my disciples.

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