"Counter-Intelligence," by Pastor Fred
The drama of Jesus’ Passion is unfolding (after 15 minute Gospel reading!) …And, I bet your thinking right about now, when is this thing gunna end?! When’s the intermission?! We know how this drama ends, already – so why do we have to be tortured too?
All I can say is, this is our story. The death and resurrection of Christ, is each and every one of our stories. And the passion story continues to change and transform us anew, each and every year we hear it. The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward,
in this case, God's kingdom – though, sometimes it seems like chaos is winning. And so hearing the Passion once a year, twice if you come on Good Friday, is probably not too much, especially if we decide we want to center our lives, “in the joyful procession of those who with their tongues confess Jesus as Lord, and with [our] lives praise him as Savior.” (Prayer of the Day)
This Holy Week, then, is an opportunity for us to ask the question: How are our personal stories intertwined with, in, and around the Passion story?
What has struck me in its reading this time, something that is still working on me, is the innocence of Jesus
- how many see and acknowledge it - and yet there is still this inevitability of his arrest and trial, his torture and execution, that are unstoppable. Why? Why is that?
For one, of course, we have the advantage of 20/20 hindsight. The Passion story was shaped by the apostles in such a way that we might see what they failed to see as they went through it. Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, goes uncomplaining forth
. But the question still remains: Why?
On the 10th anniversary of the declaration of war in Iraq this past week, stories of its most famous whistle-blower started popping up here and there. As with a kiss, Bradley Manning was handed over to be arrested some 3 years ago for allegedly giving classified information to WikiLeaks. He is still awaiting trial, scheduled finally for June 3rd. Private Manning was subject to torturous conditions, a clear violation of pre-trial standards, or any Constitutional standards, really, and has been held in military detention, in Iraq, Kuwait, Quantico, Virginia and Leavenworth, Kansas. Of the 22 charges he faces in military court, Manning denies that his intention was to compromise U.S. security. Instead, in a two-hour testimony, reading a 35 page statement on Feb 28, Manning “detailed charge by charge how he only wanted to tell the truth about the war crimes, not to aid the enemy,” and “to place the truth into the public record, a priority that exceeds any concern for his own personal well-being,” which indeed is now in jeopardy.
Just as it was hard for the country to see 10 years ago that going to war with Iraq was a mistake, Bradley Manning, and the shame he has revealed about war crimes, cover-ups, and the fraud and waste of millions of U.S. dollars, is practically invisible to us. The government says they will not seek the death penalty, but Manning could serve many years, if not life. The truth has come out, but the country doesn’t seem ready or equipped to deal with it, even as this sacrificial scapegoat, ironically, understands and accepts his fate – and, “goes uncomplaining forth.”
Jesus stood trial, twice in Luke’s Passion: first before Pilate, the local Roman ruler in Jerusalem, who could find no truth to the 3-fold charges that, (1) Jesus perverted the nation, (2) forbid taxes to Caesar, or (3) claimed to be a king. Pilate then sends Jesus to Herod Antipas, who is in town for the Passover from his kingdom in Galilee. King Herod is first excited to finally meet Jesus, but soon disappointed that Jesus would do no miraculous tricks for him. And when Jesus declined to comment on Herod’s question if he was a king, or Messiah, as a parting gift, “Herod put an elegant robe on Jesus,” a mockery and public bullying, before releasing him back to Pilate.
In one of the oddest, yet most telling details of the Passion story in Luke, “Herod and Pilate became friends with each other that day; [though] before this they had been enemies,” it says. Politics, as they say, makes strange bedfellows
, and they came to an understanding so that both of them could wash their hands of Jesus. In the end, however, wanting it both ways, they would not stand in the way of the crowds' insistent demand to crucify him
. An innocent victim, offered up like a paschal lamb, Herod & Pilate knew, would bring peace, at least for a time, despite the utter injustice of it.
So, one possible answer to Making Sense of the Cross might be: Jesus must die to satisfy our sin. But in this particular story, this Passion story, we see our sin, wonderfully (sic), in a whole new way. Our sin is also a failure of “sacred” sacrifice to be truly effective anymore, because it is revealed so blatantly as, not right, justice that is not done, not according to the loving God we have come to know and understand in Jesus.
And so what we see is that the Passion invites us to walk into a new world, a new reality. This Passion invites us to walk into the story of counter-intelligence, where a new and deeper truth about who we are, has been leaked and revealed; or as St Paul said, a story with a stumbling block, where we are set free to see that the cross is not folly, but wisdom. And once we have walked in, once we have taken the story into our hearts by faith, we no longer see Jesus, or the Bradley Manning’s as demons, or even victims to be sacrificed, but as the truth-tellers who are our true kings and leaders, willing to sacrifice themselves, so that now, we will be able to follow them, and take up the cross of Jesus, or really, our own crosses; in order that no more innocent victims will die.
This is a counter-intelligence that is not found in the wisdom of the world, but only comes by way of the Spirit, from the “Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” from “the King who comes in the name of the Lord!”
In asking, how are our personal stories intertwined with, in, and around the Passion story, we find that the Passion invites us to walk into a counter-intelligence story, and experience, not only the world as we know it, but the world and realm of God’s grace that changes and transforms us, so that we “joyfully” desire to center our lives, “in the procession of those who with their tongues confess Jesus as Lord, and with [our] lives praise him as Savior.”
The Fifth Sunday in Lent (C)
From Skeptic to Believer to Disciple to Friend
Since we began this Lenten journey, we have heard from Luke’s
gospel how determined Jesus was to go to Jerusalem and complete God’s plan to
conquer Satan, sin and death through his own death at the hands of political and
But, with only a week to go before Jesus actually enters the Holy City, the Church has given us
a gospel reading from John’s gospel.
And it is not a story about Jesus’ determination to die.
It is a story about time he spent with his friends.
You remember, of course, the story that precedes today’s Gospel.
Jesus was at the Jordan River.
He was there because there were already threats against his life.
While he was preaching at the Jordan, word came from Bethany that his
dear friend Lazarus was ill.
Mary and Martha wanted him to come to Bethany to heal their brother.
But instead, Jesus stayed two more days at the Jordan before making the trip to Bethany.
The disciples tried to stop Jesus, warning him that going back to Judea meant the possibility
that he would be killed.
But Jesus had something important in mind for his disciples and for his friends:
Mary, Martha and Lazarus.
When he arrived in Bethany, Lazarus was already dead four days; so dead that his body stank;
so dead that Jesus stood in front of his tomb and wept for the friend he loved so much.
Then he shouted so loudly that he scared death away.
And Lazarus walked out of the tomb, his burial cloths falling off of him like a cocoon.
And, it is this event, in John’s gospel, that sets in motion everything that was to follow Jesus because
some of those who witnessed Lazarus’ resurrection became believers that day.
But others, knowing that there might be a reward from the Chief Priests and Pharisees, made their way
quickly to Jerusalem to report that Jesus was getting close to Jerusalem.
By raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus had moved from “manageable nuisance” to “serious threat.”
Jesus, knowing that he must die at the Passover, takes his disciples to safety in Ephraim near the wilderness.
This gives the religious authorities time to influence the Roman authorities.
Surely, Pilate would not want this kind of a threat to stability in Jerusalem when hundreds of
thousands were coming to celebrate the Passover.
They had to put Jesus to death – and Lazarus too, since it was on account of Lazarus’ resurrection
that many Jews were becoming believers.
On his way back to Jerusalem (he HAD to go there!) Jesus spends
just one more night with his good friends: Lazarus, Martha and Mary.
Lazarus’ body probably still had the smell of death on it.
Martha, as was Martha’s way, got busy preparing a good meal and a house
of rest - for her Lord, yes; but more than Lord, her friend.
They reclined around the table to eat.
Everything (except maybe Lazarus) smelled good.
They must have talked about the good times they had all had together;
especially that day when Jesus brought Lazarus back to life.
They probably avoided talking about all those rumors about Jesus’ enemies wanting to
hunt him down to kill him.
At some time during the meal, Mary slipped away.
Martha was used to that.
Mary was always disappearing, even when she was sitting right there with everyone else.
Mary would get this look on her face like she was in another place;
like she was listening to music no one else could hear.
Soon, Mary came back holding a clay jar.
Without saying a word, Mary knelt at Jesus’ feet and broke the neck of the jar.
Immediately, the smell of the perfumed salve filled the room – no more dinner smells;
no more stinky Lazarus smells.
The smell was strong but soothing like the incense they knew from their visits to the Temple.
And, as everyone watched, Mary did four things; as remarkable as they were unusual.
She uncovered and unloosed her hair.
In a room full of men, it was not something an honorable Jewish woman ever did.
Then she poured the perfume on Jesus’feet.
They might have understood her anointing Jesus’ head – Jewish kings and prophets were
anointed this way and they thought of Jesus as both a prophet and a king.
Then, horror of horrors, she rubbed the perfumed salve into his weary feet.
A single Jewish woman touching a single man’s feet! Never done!
Then, to top this all off, she used her hair to wipe off the extra salve on his feet.
Most of us are so moved by this story of devotion that we don’t even question its appropriateness.
But Judas noticed it.
He complained that the perfume, which could feed a poor family for an entire year, was used so wastefully.
But Jesus tells Judas and everyone there, “Leave her alone! She has anointed me for my burial.”
Jesus knew that, by her actions, Mary was acting as a prophet.
For you see, perfumed oil was not only used to anoint kings and prophets,
but to anoint those who were to be buried.
By anointing Jesus’ feet, Mary was prophesying that Jesus was soon to die and be buried.
Soon after, during his last meal with his friends, Jesus would set aside his tunic;
wrap a towel around his waist; and wash the feet of his disciples.
Then he would give them a new commandment: Love one another as I have loved you.
Peter will object. Judas will have his feet washed and then leave to betray him.
But many probably remembered the prophet Mary washing Jesus’ feet with precious perfume
and wiping his feet with her hair.
And they will know that she had obeyed this new commandment even before he spoke it.
What does this all mean for us? I believe this tells us about a natural
progression in the lives of all who follow Jesus from skeptic to believer to disciple to friend.
Weeks ago, Mary (and her sister Martha) greeted Jesus at their brother’s tomb saying,
“If only you had been here, Lazarus might not have died. Why did you wait so long?
Why didn’t you heal him? Now he’s dead four days.”
They questioned Jesus.
They questioned his love for them and for their brother.
Maybe they even questioned that Jesus could make it better.
They questioned his love, his friendship, his power, his authority.
Just like we sometimes do!
In today’s Gospel, their friendship and love for Jesus renewed;
and certainly having their faith renewed in Jesus’ power and authority after Lazarus’resurrection,
they were firmly in the category of believers.
But Mary, perhaps because it was her nature, became more than a believer;
she became a true disciple and prophet.
Her faith moved her to act.
That’s what it means to be a disciple – not just to believe but to act.
And sometimes we move beyond faith to act like Jesus.
That’s what Paul is talking about in today’s second lesson.
No longer the skeptic; believing that Jesus is the Christ, Paul tells the Philippians that,
even while he is in prison, his daily life pushes him forward to act;
to BE the crucified and risen Christ; even to his jailors.
And the good news for us today is: no matter where we are at any given moment;
a questioning skeptic; a person of firm faith; a disciple who does God’s work through our own hands;
a loving friend; or a prophet whose dreams and visions give hope to our community –
no matter what, we are loved by God through our Lord and Savior Jesus, the Christ.
Our baptism anoints us into Jesus’ own death and resurrection.
Sealed by the Holy Spirit, nothing can separate us from the love of God.
Now, the only things we have to decide are what we are going to do with that beautiful and extravagant anointing.
Will we follow Jesus during Holy Week with the same devotion that Mary did?
Will we choose to be disciples of action and prophets of hope to the world in our daily living?
God, stay with us as we press onward in love, in peace, with strength and openness to those you call into our
March 10, 2013
The latest and greatest David E Kelly show on TNT, is called Monday Mornings. You might know David E Kelly if you were a fan of Boston Legal, or Ally McBeal, or Picket Fences. Monday Mornings is about a bunch of talented, some might say, conceited, surgeons, and the risky surgeries they love to do. In a recent episode, two doctors treat a homeless man, named Carter, who after spouting nonsense, something about CIA plots, ends up in the hospital psych ward where he is diagnosed with schizophrenia by the young Dr. Robidaux. Just to be sure, Robidaux asks Dr. Wilson for a consult, who orders an MRI which shows something completely different at play, a large brain tumor, which Wilson thinks has been there 5 years or more, and insists they prepare him for immediate surgery. In the O.R., Carter, still not in his right mind, now thinks Dr. Wilson is a CIA agent and refuses surgery. But they go ahead with it anyway, saying he’s not able to make an informed consent.
The good news is, the tumor is successfully removed, the risk seems to pay off, and Carter is a new man, he literally, returns to himself.
The other news – not sure if its good or bad – is that he now tells the doctors, his name isn’t Carter, but Bryan Cooper, and that he’s married and has two children. It’s then that he notices on the TV screen, over the doctor’s shoulder, that the year is 2013, which makes him agitated. The last time he had been Bryan Cooper, it was 2006.
Sure enough, the doctors track down his wife, who’s stunned, because Bryan had showed signs of confusion and personality change five or six years ago, she explains, and then suddenly, just disappeared. Unable to locate him, she had to go on with her life. And as difficult as it was, she had Bryan declared dead, and eventually she had remarried. Bryan, of course, is devastated by this news, but still, they agree to see each other.
And so in the final scene, there is no small amount of apprehension and anxiety, in anticipation of meeting again, after so much has changed. But there, in Bryan’s hospital room, the two daughters, now grown teenagers, tearfully hug their dad. And his wife – or ex-wife – filled with shock and wonder, and seemingly speechless, finally says, “welcome home, Bryan” as they all hug together! It is a joyous a return, under the circumstances. He was considered dead, and is now alive again!
What was lost is found
I find some interesting parallels here to Jesus’ parable of the man with two sons. For instance, there is a brokenness in the families when one leaves and is considered dead. And also similar is the return that reunites family. Neither story, utters the word “repent,” however. But there is great joy in the welcoming home!
Jesus tells a parable about a lost son, who eventually returns, and is welcomed home by an overjoyed father. Does the younger son repent – is an interesting question to ask of this story? Certainly he does hit bottom, before returning! After spending his inheritance away in a downward spiral of dissolute living
, you’d think that would be bottom. But actually it takes a stroke of bad luck, a famine, or a kind of Great Recession, to strike, which forces him to hire himself out to feed pigs in a pig pen, just to survive, until finally he realizes: “He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; [because] no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger’!” Now at bottom, he decides to return, but simply to try and buy his way back into his father’s good graces as a hired hand
It’s interesting to me that he works in the food industry, but still is under-nourished! As crazy as that is, it may sound quite familiar to us! We know that in the food industry in this country – in orchards & farms, restaurants and grocery stores – the rate of those using Food Stamps is 50% higher compared with the general population. The minimum wage for restaurant workers, you might know, is $2.13/hour, plus tips, but still, for most, the take home pay is simply not enough. And so, 20 million food workers, some 1 in 6 of our total work force, toil every day …harvesting fields, killing and cutting up animals, packing boxes, driving trucks, cooking meals, ringing up orders, serving tables, and cleaning up our mess. And so, like the Latin American countries we import most of the rest of our fruit, vegetables and meat from, many of the workers who help to put food on our tables – including lots of hard working undocumented immigrants – don’t eat from the fields, farms and tables, the great bounty in which they work. They have no feast, and sometimes, little welcome!
At a discussion here at church the other day, someone told me how they heard a news story about how the Lutheran church is in decline, some have just walked away, and it surprised them. “Are we doing anything about that,” she asked?
Well yes, practically everything we do here at Unity is about that. Like being intentional as a welcoming worshiping community for each and every guest that walks in our doors; and in reaching out to the Arts, the LGBTQ, and immigrant communities, as we develop partners through our Space-Sharing program; or by the events you create (like Girls Wanna Have Fun); and also individually in how we tell the story of our faith and faith-community to others; how about in calling an Associate Pastor for outreach and mission- in so many ways, renewing and transforming, is what we’re about.
But it’s true, the way we do church, or better yet, the way we are church, has rapidly changed, our foundations have been shaken. Most of us experience it as, our children, siblings or friends leaving the church we call home, wandering away, while we wonder why. Why have they left? Aren’t they squandering their faith inheritance? Spending the gifts of God foolishly?
Though, I have heard those who have left, describe us
in similar terms! Why has the church squandered its inheritance on lavish buildings, insular programs, and feel-good suppers, while the world around them that God calls us to serve, is in turmoil and neglect. Doesn’t Jesus call us to serve those in need?
The Benedictine, Richard Rohr has said, “The cross is the standing statement of what we do to one another and to ourselves. The resurrection is the standing statement of what God does to us, in return
.” Lord, what have we done to one another?! Help us to know and live the resurrection.
So, the question is still on the table. Does the younger son repent? Does he need to? I’m not sure there is a clear answer. But I do notice when the son returns he starts to tell his father the speech we’ve already heard him rehearse back in the pig pen: “I have sinned against heaven, and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” The father, though, doesn’t let him finish his speech, and so never hears the part about, “…treat me like one of your hired hands.” For the father has already run out to embrace him and welcome him home as his lost son now found. He has been accepted! He cannot earn his way back as a hired hand
. Perhaps then, this is what it’s all about. Relationships! Often broken, sure – then, sometimes also repaired! We cause hurt and feel estrangement, and nothing is better than coming to our true selves,
to the incarnate whole person God has created us to be. It’s not about inheritance or property, the family farm or church-as-building. It’s about the community and building relationships, repairing and restoring that which is bound together, ultimately and most powerfully, by God’s Holy Spirit. Realizing we belong together in vision and mission, is the only thing that can create joy from sorrow, and life from death! Try and hold us back from celebrating that!
On the theme of repentance in our Parable, Richard Jensen says: “Repentance is our acceptance of the reality that God has found us in Christ Jesus. The father simply gives him back his sonship as an act of grace.” His repentance is then, “he accepts being found!”
(Preaching Luke’s Gospel, p.175)
Ironically, this may be the hardest thing to do: if repentance is not about our sackcloth and ashes, not about our guilt or working off our mistakes, but accepting that we are being found by God, that takes a true change of mind, a turning around and going in a new direction – which of course, is the literal meaning of repent.
“The cross is the standing statement of what we do to one another and to ourselves, and the resurrection is the standing statement of what God does to us, in return.” That kind of forgiveness can bring us from death to life, and transform us as a community of wayward entitlement, into a community in celebration at the table of grace. Welcome home, dad or mom; welcome home daughter or son – for you who were dead are now alive again; you who were lost are found!
Come to the feast!
Lent 3CThe Owner and the Gardener
Have you ever eaten a fig before? It’s not your everyday menu item, here in the cold mid-west! But knowing they are plentiful in the Mediterranean and Palestine, immediately I thought of the Middle East Bakery & Grocery on Foster just off Clark. And sure enough, they had two brands of packaged dried figs, imported from Turkey. They were tightly wrapped in plastic rounds of 25 or 30 figs each. As I considered which one to buy, I noticed a pint container of figs just a shelf above, which were larger yet, and even though there weren’t as many, were more expensive. Ah, and it had the Middle East Bakery & Grocery label on it. As I paid, I made sure there was no added sugar, and then asked if they were actually made there, and the man broke into a big sheepish and proud smile. Oh yes, I’m a fig farmer he said. I make these!
Well, I couldn’t wait until lunch time, and as soon as I got to church, I opened the container and chose the largest fig of all and took a big bite. Umh! As many of you know I give up sugary deserts for Lent, and this fruit was so sweet and delicious that I felt like I was cheating somehow, the little gooey seeds sticking to my teeth.
Figs are a kind of luxury and wonderful gift. The fig tree is also iconic for Israel, a kind of gift, the chosen people of God. And practically, it’s a very beautiful tree, the fig tree, its leaves are large and its branches welcoming and inviting to owners and guests alike, providing a place of shade and rest from the heat of the day.
Here in the city it’s so easy to feel disconnected from the land, and the source of our food and nutrition. But the ownership of the land and its wealth are still important, perhaps more so than ever.
Having been to the Palestinian West Bank of Israel, the Occupied Territories, I’ve seen the rocky soil that actually is perfect for growing fig trees. We visited farmers near Hebron, where families lived in villages, that by our standards at least, were extremely primitive. For centuries they have planted and harvested and never worried about their social standing. But living day to day, like this, has its risks. And when radical-fundamentalist Jewish Settlers, many from the United States, came to live illegally on the edge of their farms, occupying the highest hill across the valley, their way of life became threatened. In addition to verbal intimidation, and even throwing rocks at their school children walking to school, they began night raids. Not attacking villagers, but on the eve of the harvest, they came to uproot and destroy their fig trees. It’s a tactic that’s been used for a decade or more, as the radical Settlers try to push the Palestinians off their land and take it over.
As one young American working in Palestine said writing home: “I am a proud Ohio farm girl living and working as a Christian Peacemaker with our Palestinian partners in Palestine. [Coming from the farm life] My rootedness to the earth has helped me feel at home here in West Bank, Palestine where the land is valued so strongly. …For them the earth is mother. It provides for their families. …Back home in the States, however, I never had seen my home demolished, my trees uprooted, my land confiscated, my irrigation lines destroyed like my Palestinian friends have. …No one ever forced me to leave my … huge fig tree shading my courtyard, or my terraced garden that feeds my soul.” (http://www.cpt.org/cptnet/2010/11/15/al-khalil-hebron-reflection-we-love-land)
Who owns the land makes a difference when it’s your livelihood and your life blood.
Jesus tells a parable of a fig tree, unique to the gospel of Luke, as he’s on his way for the last time, to Jerusalem. As Luke says, “Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem.” He’s not exactly looking forward to Good Friday! But he has taken on the prophet’s mantle of speaking the truth, living with the people who don’t make the history books, and leaning into the cosmic healing of the world God calls him to, in the work of the Three Great Days. And, along the way, Jesus isn’t afraid of sitting down with friend, or foe, enjoying a fig, or maybe some fig pudding, and a locally produced glass of wine. But no one owns him. Rather, he proclaims release to the captives, sight to the blind.
The owners of 90% of this country’s wealth, the 1%, received another gift just this past Friday, as the latest politically manufactured fiscal crisis by our elected leaders, reached a new low. This time the game went bust, and for the first time we actually went over the cliff. No deal was reached on the Sequester, a deal so draconian, its across the board cuts so clumsy and intentionally unfair, it was never meant to stand, only to force the two parties to sit down and compromise. But a radical fundamentalist minority in the House prefers to further gift the obscenely wealthy owners – sometimes ironically called ‘the job creators.’ They continue to pay half the tax rate you and I do, while the real problem, jobs, is predicted to get worse, as a consequence. And the true-believers actually think they’re doing the country a favor!
Whoever owns the wealth, owns those who hope to make a living off the land and the manufacturing economy.
So Jesus tells a parable, a story of a fig tree that disappoints! Even after 3 years, it still isn’t producing fruit yet. But the gardener graciously pleads for one more year to give it a chance to bloom and grow. At first we might identify the owner of the vineyard as God in the story. He’s in charge, and we recognize the management style: that this fig tree, that doesn’t produce, shouldn’t have the right to sit there and waste the soil – cut it down and find a new one!
But when the gardener surprisingly intervenes and asks for a pardon, and is willing to come down to, to kneel in the earth, to actually till and care for it, to give it some nourishment, water and feed it, suddenly we recognize this one, as the God we know in Jesus. The owner, is just another owner trying to capitalize on his investment, which isn’t bad in itself, except he hasn’t bothered to factor in Mother Earth or the garden workers – he stops by only to look for his profits. But Jesus – just like the Gardener Mary Magdalene mistakes him for in the garden of his death and resurrection – this Jesus, is a compassionate advocate for us all.
And so, to the worker working 2 or 3 jobs to feed a family today, and then is characterized as “lazy” because his or her “job creator’s” company merged with another corporation, and needed to lay of thousands of employees, and the worker, still working a job or two, now has to apply for SNAP to feed his or her children – Jesus says, wait, they’re not wasting the soil, don’t chop them down! I will come down to them, I will feed them; I have come to release the captives, and give sight to the blind – to pardon and feed, to proclaim and reveal.
All of us can use that, a little metanoia, a little transformation, an opportunity to repent and turn around from our destructive ways and selfish captivity. That’s what Lent is all about. And it’s what Jesus tells the disciples and the crowds on his way to the cross. You may not get it quite yet, but you will, after the cross and resurrection. Just let me till the soil and give you a little more “bread of life” fertilizer.
Jesus teaches in parables, but is much more than a Teacher. Jesus is a revealer, a living icon, who reveals to us the way of abundant life by transforming us, changing us, feeding us, because he is the cross and resurrection, the dying-to-this-world and rising-to-God’s-world, agent.
And so we may even recognize Jesus in Isaiah’s Lady-Wisdom character,
as she’s hawking us:
“Hey there, you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.”
Come away from your Exile, Jesus invites us, from that land of death;
Learn the way of metanoia
, and transformation;
Come to the feast, the table is set,
Uhm, uhm, uhm! Let us eat figs!
The Second Sunday in Lent (C)
Of Foxes and Hens
I was born and raised in the city.
There’s not much I know about life on the farm.
But I have heard the stories about foxes threatening animals on the farm, and chickens in particular.
When a fox appears at the edge of the chicken coup, most of the chickens (and probably
roosters too) will run around the coop and balk-balk-balk-balk to get the attention on the farmer.
But not the mother hen.
I’ve been told that mother hens will, above everything else, protect the lives of every one of her chicks.
She may peck at the fox, trying to hurt the fox if possible.
But, if the fox is focused on her chicks, she will cover the chicks with her own body;
offering herself up to the fox, if necessary, for the sake of the lives of her chicks.
Again, not from first-hand knowledge, I have been told that the way a fox hunts is quite wily.
A fox may even make its prey feel at ease to force its intended meal into a false sense of security.
(Remember the story of henny-penny? When the hen, the goose, and the turkey
meet the fox at the end of the story, the fox tells them that he wants to help
them get their message about the falling sky to the king by leading them right into his den.)
Today’s readings are all about trust.
The seemingly homely and powerless hen is much more trustworthy than the powerful, yet self-centered fox.
It is that way in the kingdom of God.
Abram and Sarai were already old when God first called them to leave the comfort and safety of their home
in Ur of the Chaldeans.
God had given them two promises:
first that they would have an heir and second that they would claim a new land for themselves and their posterity.
But weeks and months had gone by as they traveled to this new land. They weren’t getting any younger.
Abram was ready to adopt his slave, Eliezer of Damascus.
But God was not about to accept Abram’s Plan B.
Abram was asleep and had a vision.
Frustrated by God’s seemingly lack of fulfillment, Abram offers this alternative to God.
God takes Abram out under the skies and tells him, “count all the stars if you can.
That’s how many descendants you will have.”
Yep, that’s just like God.
When a promise is hard to believe, God promises more.
“Ok,” says Abram, “I believe you’ll give me the heir you promised.”
Then Abram, still dreaming, challenges God about the land God had promised.
God tells Abram to bring a calf, a female goat, a ram, a turtledove and a pigeon.
Laying them out for sacrifice, Abram even chases away the vultures.
But then Abram went deeper and deeper into sleep; so deep that he became terrified at the darkness.
And an incense pot with a flaming light passed over the sacrifice.
God was making a solemn promise, an oath, that all the land between Egypt and the Euphrates would be the land of Abram and Sarai.
When a promise is hard to believe, God swears by God’s very being. God puts the life of God on the line.
That’s the same thing Jesus is saying in the Gospel reading.
Some Pharisees come to Jesus to tell him, “Herod wants to kill you.”
“What else is new?” Jesus might have said.
Herod Antipas, this Herod who put the head of his cousin John on a plate to entertain his wife;
whose father, Herod the Great, had killed the innocent children of Bethlehem to try and kill him;
this Herod who had even invited Jesus to court for a “talk;”
this Herod would not scare Jesus.
This Herod is just an old, tricky, manipulative fox!
When daddy Herod died, he split his kingdom for his three sons.
All the Herods were foxy rulers. On the one hand, they built roads and
bridges and palaces and even made major improvements to the Temple.
That Temple is still referred to as Herod’s Temple.
But all of them used their capital building projects for the sake of propping up their own power.
Herod Antipas, THIS Herod, the beheader, the one to whom the Pharisees in today’s Gospel refer;
wants to do what daddy Herod couldn’t accomplish.
He wants to have Jesus eliminated.
But Jesus tells the Pharisees, “Go and tell that fox for me that I have work to do.
I’m just not that into you, foxy-loxy!”
I’ve got to cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow and the day after that and……
and eventually I will get to Jerusalem because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem”
Have you ever noticed that in all the sacred art produced over the centuries, you see Jesus praying,
walking, knocking on doors, gathering crowds, climbing hills, calling disciples, writing in the sand with his finger,
spitting into dirt to heal a blind man, raising dead people, sharing bread,
preaching to crowds, even weeping – but never running away.
Beginning with the devil’s temptation to be afraid, Jesus is cautioned time and again by friend and foe alike
to be afraid of what he’s doing. But he never runs away.
It doesn’t mean that Jesus never felt fear.
He was just as truly human as he was truly divine.
But Jesus knew what his mission was and nothing; not Herod, not the Pharisees, not his disciples,
not even the devil, would keep Jesus from finishing that mission.
Because that mission is God’s mission.
That mission fulfills the promise made to Abram and Sarai.
That mission, I tell you today, is OUR mission.
It is my mission and it is your mission.
There are still many wily, cunning, manipulative foxes around us today.
“Don’t worry about missing church once in a while,” they say to us,
“after all God wants your Sabbath to be a day of rest so sleeping in late on Sunday morning is just as important
as being in church.”
“Don’t feel bad about walking past someone who asks for your help on the street,” they say,
“after all, wasn’t it Jesus who said, ‘the poor you will always have with you.’”
Again and again, they will tempt you and lure you and make you false promises.
They will ask you to put your own needs, your wants and your desires,
ahead of the mission God sealed in us in our Baptism.
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the holy city, the city that God chose to be God’s dwelling-place,
the place where foxy rulers and foxy priests gather together to kill prophets and stone messengers of God,
your God still wants to gather you all as a hen gathers her chicks under her protective wings.
But sometimes, little chicks, you’re just not willing.
You’re not willing to keep the mission going.
And so, beware! See, your house is left to you.
I tell you, you will not see me or hear me or touch me or taste me until the time when you say or sing,
“Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”
It’s all about trust, you see. In the end, Abram and Sarai trusted the promises,
the unbelievable and fantastic promises that their heirs would be the
caretakers of the land and would be as many as the stars.
There was no reasonable way to believe yet they believed and were seen by God as righteous.
There were so many reasons why Jesus could have run away from Jerusalem.
Instead, he became more and more determined to be sacrificed for the sake of his brood, his flock, his children;
for the sake of you and me.
So, now it’s our turn.
Will we walk the way to Jerusalem this Lent?
We will participate in the mission God gave us at our baptism:
“to live among God’s faithful people, to hear the Word of God and share in the Lord’s
supper, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to
serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and
peace in all the earth?”
That’s a lot to promise.
And there will always be cunning foxes to get in our way.
But “trust me” God says to us.
Like he told Abram in a dream,
“Do not be afraid; I am your shield, your brooding mother hen; and your reward shall be very great.”
God of the covenant, in the mystery of the Cross you promise everlasting life to the world.
Gather all peoples into your arms, and shelter us in your mercy,
that we may rejoice in the life we share in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
And let the people say:
First Sunday in Lent (C)
"Don't Live by Bread Alone"
Jesus faced every test and temptation the devil could think of: like ignoring the conditions of being human, for an immediate gratification of changing stones into bread. Or, agreeing to live comfortably among the 1% with its trappings of royalty and fame if he would but worship the devil, and basically spit in the eye of the 99%. And thirdly, to disrespect the Temple and test even God, twisting the gift of abundant grace, into a few local favors.
But Jesus turns down all the frat boy pranks, the hazing tricks, and insider trading privileges. Jesus, it would seem, is just no fun at all!
Jesus, really did, face temptation, just like we do, but you have to figure he was also incredibly centered as a human being, and could see through the emptiness of it all. The wilderness desert experience of being tested and tempted is an archetypal story of many sages and religious leaders, and Jesus faces it with a curious lack of heavenly fire-power, hungry and fully human, guided by a Holy Spirit’s power – nothing more than a gentle and unpredictable blowing breeze.
Some years ago, during the season of Easter, Kim had a moment of clarity, and said, it’s nearly impossible any longer to understand feasting, because we eat like that all the time, in this country! This was even before the obesity epidemic was declared. Which isn’t to say we don’t have a hunger problem as well, but for many of us, the next snack, the next meal, the fast food lane, the great restaurants, our super -markets, are omnipresent, and whether its good and whole food or not, there is a plenty, for many. And so it’s hard to understand feasting if you’ve never fasted. If there is no regular or basic meal time, how do we know what a special feast time looks like?
Jesus went without eating for 40 days in the wilderness. This is different than a food desert, at least so far as it was self-imposed. But how many of us have lived in the desert wilderness, not knowing where our next meal will come from?
Jesus went to the place his ancestors wandered with Moses for 40 years, who had lived on the manna God sent them, one day at a time. This is the context of the story of our first reading too, the part that comes from Moses’ last speech before the Israelites were about to enter into the Promised Land. Moses asked them to look both, backwards to where they had been in the desert, and to look forward to a land flowing with milk and honey. And Moses gives them a very curious liturgy – don’t forget that you come from “a wandering Aramean,” Jacob, who went down to Egypt for famine relief, like most of his people. And now, as you have wandered back through the same desert, don’t forget too that God is about to give you this land as an inheritance. The proper way to remember and celebrate this is to offer the first fruits from your inheritance – make a gift right off the top from all that you have, and give it away at the Temple as a thank offering.
Jesus is a wandering Aramean. He lives in the desert wilderness for 40 days, depending on God for his life – for, one does not live by bread alone. Jesus was ready for a feast after that. But a feast is not self-gratification, or a party for yourself. A feast is always grounded in the inheritance God gives to all: A rich and endlessly complex gift of life within this created good world, that is shared with others, with all.
It’s hard to know what a gift an inheritance is, if you never lived without one. Casey Johnson, a fabulously rich friend of Paris Hilton, and grand-daughter of Robert Wood Johnson, of the Johnson and Johnson Pharmaceutical Giant, was tragically found dead in her home a few days after New Year’s, at the age of 30. She had squandered her inheritance spectacularly, lost her child in a custody battle due to drug abuse, and was awaiting trial on charges of burglarizing a friend's home. The heiress’s death wasn't news, as much as it was a foregone conclusion. Few people survive being born with an inheritance as large as Casey Johnson's.
If we’ve never experienced the desert, if we’ve never been taught to look back with understanding, or forward with hope and promise, how can we be ready for the feast that is our inheritance?
We have an inheritance as large as Casey Johnson’s. Not a million dollar trust-fund, but a promise of abundant life now and forever, a promise we know in the cross and resurrection, in bread and wine. Today, on this 1st Sunday in Lent, we remember the desert we came from before we met Jesus at the water well that never runs dry. And knowing full well the temptations to squander it all in frat-boy style, and forget who and whose we are, in this simple season of repentance and renewal, we dare to trust Jesus, and with him, look long and hard and directly into the face of the tempter, and see those empty promises as they are, a false path out of the desert, tempted to use God’s gifts to our own ends, or cheat our friends or the creation, out of peace with one another.
Only through this desert-wilderness experience can we understand what Moses is talking about in offering back the first-fruits-gift in: “Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you,” said Moses, “shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.” The Levites and aliens?! Here, the Levites represent the top of the food chain, and the aliens the bottom. The Israelites’ that had taken possession of the land were once like the aliens. They descend from a wondering Aramean, and were the Exodus desert people.
This can be a difficult God to understand: everyone, all, are entitled to the inheritance of God’s land of milk and honey. Everyone is invited to celebrate at God’s banquet. All people’s and ethnicities, those born into citizenship, and those passing through. How do we transform this essential way of life gifted to us, this deep-as-a-well theological understanding of our faith, into true inclusion of the alien today? Can ‘immigration reform’ really be just and open to the alien? Who’s land is this? Why are the borders there, today, on that line? Are we native to this land?
Jesus was a wandering Aramean. He began his ministry being led by the Spirit in the wilderness, and faced the tempter’s most attractive deals, walking away from them, and exposing them as silly and perverse. He became an alien, so that we too, followers in his path, might know what it is like to depend on God’s grace alone. Jesus, offered the power of a pantheon of the god’s at his finger-tips, humbled himself instead, and offered it all back to us, a perpetual gift of milk and honey, a table fellowship of bread and wine, where Priest and alien are welcome, and expected, to sit down together, at the celebration that knows no end.
We practice this table fellowship whenever we gather here. Jesus offers himself as the first-fruits of salvation, and we dine on his body, which is the centering life-blood of the new creation. We cannot live by bread alone. We live by the bread of life, that sustains us through every wilderness desert, and fills us with the hope and promise of a land flowing with milk and honey, a new land of abundance and peace, for all.
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Someone let the cat out of the bag! Our prayers on behalf of establishment and empire, our giving up sweets just for Lent, our offerings with strings attached, does not cut it, and hasn't really, for at least a generation. Church people, when they act like that, are perceived as hypocritical, and no one wants to be a part of that!
Some one let the cat out of the bag, and they didn't have to read it in scripture to know. But if they did, they'd have found it in the gospels, in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. Jesus let the cat out of the bag 2,000 years ago! Do your alms-giving, your praying, and your fasting in secret and God who sees in secret will reward you. How can you make these disciplines of Lent a part of who you are and how you live out your faith? These aren't bad things to do, if they're a part of a more wholistic life-style of faith.
But even before Jesus, the prophets had already let the cat out of the bag, 2,500 years ago. The crisis of Israel's Exile to Babylon, due to a whole people's disobedience, was the precipitating event, which proved to be a continuing problem upon their return. Having been set free from captivity and allowed to return home, still they had not repented, that is, turned in a new direction, but came back fractious and fighting amongst themselves, and assumed their privilege and their piousness would carry the day. Too much of rebuilding the Temple was the temptation every age faces when it thinks there is some good ol' days to return to, instead or finding restoration in the ways God leads us today, continually reforming our mission as God's people.
And so specifically tonight, we hear the prophet Isaiah, letting the cat out of the bag: The fasting acceptable to God is not a one time, one day of the week add-on to our life, but is a daily fast from domination, blaming others, evil speech, self-satisfaction, entitlement and blindness to one's privilege, as professor of Christian History, Amy Oden says. The fast that God seeks calls for vigilance for justice and generosity, day in and day out.
Perhaps it might not be totally inappropriate to say, that the Holy Spirit has been letting the cat out of the bag for a very long time, in every age, whenever God needs to speak to us.
And so, Isaiah also makes the restoration of Israel conditional, which in itself may rub our modern ears the wrong way. This generation, that has rejected moralisms and hypocrocy, is wary now, even of God's words. But imagine if Isaiah had quoted God saying, “Don't worry there's nothing you can do toward your healing and wholeness, or your relationship with me. It will either happen or it won't. Cei la vie!” Then there would be no hope and no moral compass at all.
But, the conditional if/then language of Isaiah, can and does create a life-giving relationship:
“If you remove...
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
[and] if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
The LORD will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
… and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
God is not a lone ranger, acting in isolation. God expects a partnership with a restored and reformed people. We are participants in God's life, an assembly of action in the realm of God's desires for us. The conditional if/then language is the heart of our hope, and the blueprint for our new life. If we repent, then God will restore us like a watered garden! Repenting includes turning from our old understanding – that just being near holy things, like church, bible, or good people, makes us holy – and means turning in a new direction:
“Is not this the fast that I choose [for you says God]:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?”
Being in relationship with God means having a clear, meaningful, and defined mission amongst God's people and creation. God wants a partnership with us, not to curtail our freedom, but to enhance life, justice and peace among all. If we will be God's people, then we have abundant life. And more and more, the cat is let out of the bag! Not just for us, but in this life-giving relationship, even God listens and can change God's mind, as the realm of God increases in, with and under us.
The cat's been let out of the bag for a long time. But the question is, are we ready for the 40 day journey to the great Three Days of Jesus' death and resurrection? Are we ready for the discipline of Lent – repentance, fasting, and works of love, for the sake of God's world? And are we ready to take it up as a practice that becomes who we are, all the time? – Are we ready for the realm of God that dawns in the new life of Easter?
Transfiguration of Our Lord (C)
Unless there’s at least one other person you care for and have been in right relationship with in this world, is it even possible to be in right relationship and to give or receive divine love?
When Sue Kinnunen’s second child was diagnosed with autism she was told she should give Carl up to a permanent in-treatment facility. This was a couple of decades ago, and not an uncommon practice at the time. But Sue was not one to unquestionably follow the common practices! She was determined to raise Carl at home as one of the family, along with her husband and two kids. It was not always a picnic or smooth sailing, but it sure made a difference in Carl’s life, and in many of ours, who knew him. For one thing Carl had a savant-like talent, that when you told him what day your birthday was, say October 29, he could tell you right away what day of the week it was. “That’s a Tuesday,” Carl would say. Just kind of an amazing little gift he would give you!
And for Carl, it made all the difference that he had people who loved him, and held him accountable to learning the boundaries, as best he could, of living and getting along with his neighbors. His level of autism would forever hold him back from fully engaging with others, but he learned how to navigate shorter interactions, and was immeasurably happier having family and friends in his life, than he would’ve ever been in a much more closed institutional environment, where he may never have had the chance to practice bonding with another human being.
All of us need at least one other person to care for and be in right relationship with in this world, in order to be in right relationship and to give and receive divine love!
Today we celebrate the Transfiguration of Jesus. Like at the beginning of this Epiphany season, at the Baptism of Jesus, we see and hear clearly, if only for a moment, the divine relationship Jesus had with his motherly-Father. At his baptism, God spoke to Jesus alone, “You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.” But here at the transfiguration, with Jesus standing close by, God is speaking from the heavenly cloud directly to the disciples, “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!” God draws the 3 disciples, and all “disciples,” into a divine relationship reminding us that Jesus has something to say. He shines dazzling white, like Light itself. He will be a divine guide. Listen to him!
What grabs me in our gospel story this time, however, is how Luke says Jesus took Peter and John and James up the mountain… to pray! When the gospels of Matthew and Mark tell this story it is very much the same, except they don’t mention Jesus going to pray at all! But if we were to look at Luke more extensively we’d find that Jesus prays at a number of important moments in his ministry, even when Matthew and Mark don’t say so. Jesus was praying at his baptism, when the Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove. Jesus was praying, of course, in the Garden of Gethsemane, waiting to be arrested. And on the cross, Jesus addresses God, asking for the forgiveness of those who crucify him, and again as he commits his life to God in his final breath.
I can’t tell you why prayer wasn’t mentioned in the other gospels at these times. Did they not get the same memo? Did Luke decide on his own, to add it in? Or maybe Mt & Mk just assumed Jesus prayed, where Luke makes it more explicit?
How about for us? How essential is prayer? When and how do we address God? And what does it look like?
Prayer can be expressed and experienced in such a wide variety of ways. But fundamentally, it’s a part of being in relationship with the divine. Which for us, means a relationship with the Holy Spirit is some way, and for the gospel of Luke, this always includes the ongoing battle of Jesus and the forces of evil, which are present throughout Luke’s narrative, and we learn that prayer, oddly enough, is one of Jesus’ first weapons in this conflict.
And always through Jesus, God is calling us to be God’s own children. We answer boldly in going to the baptismal font, and joining the assembly of the faithful on a journey, as disciples. Sometimes our relationship with God and Jesus becomes weak, our faith loses its way. We need to reinvigorate our relationship with God, just as we sometimes do with a friend or partner. Note that Valentine’s Day, this Thursday, often works as such a renewal day for couples!
Lately I have been experiencing prayer as, substance following form. And so, prayer is both practice as well as relationship. Sometimes, to get to a fruitful prayer relationship, our open communication with God and Jesus, we have to just jump in with any practice of prayer, often before we feel the presence of the Holy Spirit with us. We put one foot in front of the other, trusting that the spirit will come, maybe when we least expect it. The action and practice will invite and induce the relationship, not because faking it is okay, but because God is already present and near. The Holy Spirit is working in, around and through us, now and always, calling and opening doors to us, and the relationship is ours to see and live into.
The disciples, just like every Rabbis’ followers did, asked their leader Jesus, how to pray. And Jesus taught them what we now call the Lord’s Prayer. Its petitions are simple, yet its meanings profound and deep, and lead us into greater action and discipleship. We practice this prayer still, which helps us again and again to reinforce our relationship with the divine.
And Paul said of prayer that “the Holy Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words,” which speaks both to the power of God’s yearning to bridge the gap we sometimes feel from God, and the permission God gives us, that when we think we don’t know how to pray, we can let the Holy Spirit descend upon us. The important thing is renewing and building the relationship, and to Listen, as well as talk, to Jesus.
All of us need at least one other person to care for and be in right relationship with in this world, in order to be in right relationship and to give and receive divine love!
The reverse order could be said of the Transfiguration, I suppose. Listen to Jesus, God’s chosen one, and you will learn how to be a disciple in the world. Being made right by God in our divine relationship, we are freed to care for and be in right relationship with one another in the world. And so finally, if we are truly capable of loving at least one person, we’re capable of loving more than one, and eventually even our enemy, and finally all. Love is one cloth, broad and colorful and never ending.
My sister and brother in the faith, Sue and her son Carl, will always be an example for me in how loving one another gives us a glimpse of the Transfiguration on the mountain top. Without the personal sacrifice and the risk of loving another, so deeply, we cannot know the wonder and beauty of divine love.
Peter and John and James, as they come down from the mountain of Transfiguration into the valley of the 40 days of Lent, are met with their failure to heal a boy with an evil spirit, and they suddenly seem to be far from the cloud of glory and power of divine love. But, they will keep practicing, following Jesus, putting one foot in front of the other, all the way to the cross, and the Three Days. And they do finally receive the Peace of Jesus’ resurrection and the fresh blowing wind and gift of the Holy Spirit, and they experience and form a relationship with the divine – because, along the way, they have loved one another.
Jesus sat down
, and with the eyes of all
on him said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Pastor John ended his sermon last week with this passage, the last verse of his gospel text, and now the first verse again this week. And he handed off a challenge to me, to explain what comes next, and how the two go together.
So to recap, in last week’s episode (as they say), Jesus had just come home to Nazareth right after his baptism. The setting is traditional in the Synagogue. Jesus is asked to read the 2nd Reading of the day. The first reading was always from the Torah, the first five books of Moses, in the Hebrew scriptures. And the second reading was from the Prophets, though Jesus doesn’t choose from the appointed lectionary of that time, but goes specifically to Isaiah 61, about how the Spirit of God has anointed the prophet for a mission to the poor:
to proclaim release to captives
, sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free
, and proclaim a year of Jubilee
. This is Jesus’ mission statement! “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
By the end of this passage, a clear picture begins to emerge of who Jesus is – not unlike what we have learned so far in the celebrations of Christmas and Epiphany – which paint a picture of a poor child, born as a refugee, by the power of God’s Spirit, to a humble unwed mother, under the shadow of his more popular cousin John, who baptizes him we find out, on the eve of his arrest by King Herod. And then the Holy Spirit and God’s voice confirm that this Jesus, is God’s Son, the beloved one.
But the hometown folk in Nazareth – where last week we heard they had praised
Jesus for his teaching, and his fame was spreading throughout the country
side – now this week, take offense when Jesus begins to teach them what this means, that he is an anointed prophet, that is, a Messiah. “Is not this Joseph’s son”
they say? And Jesus, holding little back, begins to reveal the kind of transformative message, the embodied gift and responsibility, he brings to us, in our world.
From Christmas birth, to Baptism, to Epiphany, the good news Jesus proclaimed, has been revealed. But the question is, where are we in it? And, do we welcome this good news, as good?
Sitting in his Rabbi pose, Jesus now interprets two more stories from the prophets. It is so easy for us to identify with the outsiders, the Gentiles that Elijah
minister to, that we can easily miss his point, that we are being challenged by Jesus to see ourselves, not as the Gentiles this time, but as the family and friends of Jesus from his hometown of Nazareth, those who reject Jesus. By the end of this passage in Luke 4, the people are so enraged that they
are not included in the release of captivity
from Roman rule, and the forgiveness of debts in the year of Jubilee – that much anticipated 50th year when the 99% were given a fresh start, literally a new credit card, past statements burned up, all their interest and fees owed wiped clean – that they turn on him to get rid of him, once and for all, to hurl him off the nearest cliff
Their misunderstanding and rage can only remind us of the mobs shouting “crucify him, crucify him,” on Good Friday. And likewise, what happens next is best explained by the dawn of Easter Sunday, Jesus somehow passes through the midst of them and went on his way
– to the next town, the next calling, the next synagogue and church, willing to hear him.
What grips me today is not how
Jesus does that, but why
? For what purpose? In other words, why does he not allow himself to die and rise again right then and there? Some have suggested that that is all we need to be saved, Jesus’ blood shed, and God raising him on the 3rd day. Believe in that and you will live. Amen, now let’s go out and celebrate for tomorrow we die too! This is, for example, basically the script of Mel Gibson’s 2003 film, The Passion of Christ
, which is all about the bloody substitutionary death of Jesus. His interpretation opens with Jesus’ arrest, omitting his birth and baptism, his healing and teaching, everything that came before.
But what if the purpose of Jesus’ walking away from the angry crowd here at Nazareth, has a more fundamental purpose? What if it is
tied to what comes next, the going on to other towns, especially Capernaum, which will be his new base of operation, where he calls 4 fishermen and a tax collector to be his disciples?
Remember that Jesus’ message is one of not curing the self, first and foremost, but revealing how God’s love and grace are for all, how he comes as a doctor, not for the well, but for those who are sick
, to lift up the lowly and bring down the mighty,
as his mother Mary’s song, the Magnificat, goes. And so, when Jesus quotes from the scroll of Isaiah, it’s indeed significant how he interprets it, by reading everything to the assembly except the one passage about revenge: Today, this scripture is
not fulfilled by
“the day of vengeance of our God.” For Jesus, it’s not about a bloody revenge, it’s not even about identifying the enemy, the other, to raise and lift up yourself, thus defining who’s in and who’s out. It’s about raising and building up the body in the world, a remembrance and reanimation of the body of Christ, by revealing to us, the violence within us all, and how that understanding releases a new transformative power.
We see the same thing, for example, in saints such as Gandhi and MLK, Jr. Gandhi taught the principles of non-violence, sometimes enlisted the many, and always made sure the media was a witness of his acts of justice and peace on behalf of the poor and oppressed. Dr. King, who borrowed in part from Gandhi, had his circle of disciples too, the Jesse Jackson’s and Andrew Young’s, who went on to be the next leaders, and necessary witnesses, in fulfilling his work.
“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, if I have all faith, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal,” said Paul.
When Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah, and then sat down in the traditional pose of the rabbi to teach, he began with, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
And so, only to the extent that this Isaiah scripture is fulfilled
in us, today
, is the mission of Jesus fulfilled in the body of Christ, in the world. Jesus passed through the midst of them and went on his way,
so that he could gather witnesses to his mission. The sacrificial death of Jesus, or passion of Christ,
is nothing without witnesses and followers, in whom the Spirit of the Lord
God continues to live and grow.
Jesus gathered a group of friends, 4 working class fishermen, a rejected tax collector, and others, that could be his witnesses. A group like you and I. The 12 disciples, of course, did not always understand what Jesus was teaching, and at the end they all fell away, betrayed and denied him, and their friendship. Instead of defending Jesus, they stood with, and became his ‘enemies’ in his hour of need. Only after his appearance to them in his wounded raised body, did the ‘scales fall from their eyes,’ and they could see themselves as ‘enemies’ in need of release from captivity
, and again receive Jesus’ peace and Spirit, and be called, friends.
Today we celebrate RIC Sunday, an official moment in which we ‘come out’ as a congregation to lift up our belief in welcoming people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. You think it would go without saying by now, especially in this very accepting neighborhood. But, on the one hand, for those of us who are allies, those of us who do not identify as LGBT, we need to hear it and to pledge again to practice it. And, for those who are still struggling to get healthy about their sexual identity, whatever it is, we need to be clear as the church. Especially a church with a much longer history of being the enemy
. There is no barrier – all are welcome! “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, gay or straight.
Jesus was anointed with the Spirit of the Lord
to let the oppressed go free
, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
, a Jubilee year of forgiveness. We all need to hear that, and to take our part in it, today
. We are all enemies of Jesus, at one time or another, but who have also been called to be washed clean in the waters of baptism, so that we can accept and embrace our sister- and brotherhood in the one body of Christ in the world.
“Faith, hope, and love abide, these three; The greatest of these is love.” Love even trumps faith, says Paul. In the cross and resurrection, Jesus gave us a love that is for all. Let this scripture be fulfilled in us, today, and every day.
The Third Sunday after the Epiphany (C)
What a perfect set of readings for the day we gather to make decisions together about who we are
and what we need to be doing as Unity Evangelical Lutheran Church.
It’s almost as though the readings were chosen for the occasion.
But no, these are the readings that almost every Western Christian will hear today in worship.
That in itself proves that the Holy Spirit is still in the business of inspiring us through ancient texts.
The first reading from Nehemiah:
The people of Judea have finally been released from captivity in Babylon.
They have been sent by their liberators, the Persians, back to Jerusalem
to re-establish themselves as a distinct people following the beliefs and the
laws of their ancestors to worship their One True God.
Here in this lesson, they do not gather at the Temple.
They gather at the Water Gate.
Men, women, children, and all who could understand, listened to the reading of the Torah.
And, significantly, they also listened to commentary about the words they heard from the Torah.
You see, during their 400 years of captivity in Babylon, the priestly system of sacrifice had been
replaced with the synagogue system we know today in modern Judaism.
In fact, it is this synagogue liturgy we use in the first half of our Christian worship:
readings and songs from scripture followed by commentary.
The commentary is done in the First Reading by Ezra, the priest
and scribe; Nehemiah, the governor; and the Levites.
In today’s Psalm, we are reminded that the proclamation of the
glory of God is not only done by the laws, decrees, precepts,
commandments, and ordinances of God but by creation itself.
The scriptures are finer than gold and sweeter than honey.
The heavens and the earth have no voice to be heard and yet their voice goes out through all
the earth, and their words to the end of the world both in time and in space.
Yes, God is known in the words of holy scripture.
Yes, God is known as the Holy Spirit speaks through thousands of years of interpretation,
tradition, and commentary – God willing, through this very sermon.
And yes, God is known through songs and hymns; through art and icons;
through dance and drama; through our actions of eating bread, drinking wine, and
splashes of holy water.
And God is known through the wonders of great waterfalls and tiny streams; grand mountains
and patches of farmed land; through rainbows and clouds and even storms.
But God is known best through God’s greatest creation, humanity.
That’s why we are reminded today in the Second Reading that we are the greatest proclamation of who God is. Paul tells the Corinthians and us that we are the body of Christ.
And he tells us these three things:
1. All of us have gifts.
2. We have different gifts. We are not all the same.
Some of us are gifted with proclamation.
Some of us are gifted with interpretation or teaching or leadership or healing or
generosity or so many ways in which our gifts proclaim who God is and how God acts.
But we are not holy clones.
3. The reason we assemble together is not only to hear the holy Word and receive the holy sacraments;
but to share those holy gifts we have with one another and by them to make one another whole.
Those who use the familiar words spoken by so many today,
“I can worship God all by myself” or “I can be spiritual without being religious” do not know
how much they are missing when they are absent from the holy assembly, the Church, the body of Christ.
Now we hear the reading of today’s Gospel.
Jesus left his boyhood home when he was about 30 years old.
He was baptized by his cousin John. He spent 40 days in the Judean wilderness.
He began teaching and healing his way back to Nazareth in Galilee. And while visiting home this Sabbath,
he was invited by the synagogue president to read from the scroll of the prophet
Isaiah and to speak some words of commentary.
Just as Ezra and Nehemiah had done in today’s First reading;
just as scribes and rabbis had done since those early days of synagogue assembly;
Jesus was asked to say a few words about the text which he read to his friends and relatives.
And he surprised them.
All he intended to say about Isaiah’s words were, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Just a note: it was so tempting for me to keep going and tell you what happens next but you will have to come to church again next Sunday to hear next Sunday’s Gospel and next Sunday’s sermon to learn about that.
But we have enough to contemplate in this text, this Sunday’s Gospel reading.
Remember that the First reading and the Psalm told us about God in scripture and in creation.
Now here Jesus is identifying himself.
Jesus is telling us what God will do through him as he continues his ministry and makes his way toward
Jerusalem and the Cross.
He will bring good news to the poor; release to the captives; sight to the blind;
and freedom to the oppressed. He will proclaim the year of Jubilee.
(The year when all debts are cleared and all sins are wiped away.)
Everything that follows as he continues three years of ministry is exactly what he claims
in today’s Gospel as his Mission Statement. He will do exactly as his mother Mary sang before he was born.
He will scatter the proud and bring down the powerful; he will lift up the lowly.
He will feed the hungry and send away the rich.
He will upset the order of things and, by doing so, he will make friends of the poor,
the disabled, the disenfranchised and the sinner.
And he will bring death upon himself because of it.
Finally, he will set his face like flint towards Jerusalem; towards judgement and death on a Cross.
And this is how God will reveal God to the whole world for the rest of time.
And today, as that very body of Christ, we reveal God the best
way that God can be revealed through Jesus’ very same actions.
Through our baptism, we have taken on Jesus’ mission.
Jesus still does the same things because the Church does them.
The poor still gain hope as we give our offerings to feed them and clothe them and offer them shelter.
The captives are still set free when we involve ourselves in ministries of justice.
The blind still receive sight: whether it’s through Christian hospitals lifting cataracts or
when the scales of prejudice fall from the eyes of a bigot we have challenged.
The oppressed are still set free when we pray for those who live under unjust governments
or when our social service agencies help someone leave a life of chemical dependence.
And each one of us has a part in Jesus’ongoing mission.
So, as we close this learning part of our worship and move towards new strength and nourishment
in the sacrament of Holy Communion with one another,
I am asking you to take on Jesus’ mission.
With courage and resolve, let us all renew our mission as the body of Christ with the same words Jesus used.
Repeat after me, sentence by sentence:
The Spirit of the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor!
The Spirit of the Lord has sent me to proclaim release to the captives!
The Spirit of the Lord has sent me to help the blind recover their sight!
The Spirit of the Lord has sent me to free the oppressed!
The Spirit of the Lord has sent me to proclaim the Year of Jubilee!
Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in our hearing.