Jesus Calling

a sermon on Matthew 4:12-23

 

At Bible study on Wednesday, the group noticed there are lots of dreams in Matthew. As if joining the party, I had a dream about today’s passage, which must have been lots on my subconscious.

I dreamed I parked by one of the Madison lakes and pulled a fishing pole out of the car. It’s not totally unusual that I’d have a fishing pole along. Somehow I ended up with a big spinner bait just sitting in the edge of the water and I hooked a nice little 12” bass (well, kind of a bass, though more silver in the dream).

If you fish, you know that sometimes a fish goes for the bait, then turns away from it but still gets hooked. This dream fish got hooked behind its gills. As I was going to remove it, the fish had turned into a person, with a great big hook stuck in their arm, so then I had to get the hook out of a human arm.

Though my dream envisioned it, that is not what Jesus meant when he talked about fishing for people. So if we’re trying to catch his meaning, we should probably throw out the line again.

I have to say, I was a bit grumpy at this reading at first. I’ve been telling you the past couple weeks that the season of Epiphany is about Jesus being made known to us, showing forth who God is, revealing the true God for us.

Picture1Well, as I first read this, it didn’t seem like it was revealing all that much about Jesus. Maybe the stuff from the prophet Isaiah, for Jesus living out in a rural crossroads of Galilee, pointing out that God could be found away from the centers of power, in unexpected places. But that’s not a very thrilling insight.

Further, the sense of calling seemed to be more about you than Jesus. I don’t think sermons should be all about you. I like sermons to be about Jesus. Don’t get me wrong: there’s a distinction. Sermons are both. But they should mainly be what Jesus is for you, what he’s doing for you, how God is loving you and giving you life and forgiving you and sustaining you and such. If it’s mainly a perspective of “here’s what you need to do” and maybe only includes Jesus “because he said so,” that’s not a sermon. It’s a lesson. It’s an instruction. If it’s said energetically it might be a pep talk. But if Jesus is mainly revealed as somebody who wants you to do things, that’s not very good, and he’s no savior, and you don’t need that news because you already have too much you think you should be doing or ways you should be different or whatever.

So if we’re not looking in this reading for what you need to do if you’re called by Jesus, not for an assignment you might not be living up to, and if this sense of fishing for people isn’t leading toward first aid in how to remove large fishing hooks from various body parts, then we return to the question: what does this say about Jesus?

As I was looking for what calling these disciples would show about Jesus, and therefore about God, it led me to think about who fishermen were in 1st Century Palestine, out in that rural crossroads around Galilee Lake.

Our perspective is skewed by living in Wisconsin, where fishing is boats finding quiet bays to spend some leisure outdoors time (or maybe solitary guys on ice). We might get a little closer if we think about fishermen as rough around the edges, smelling like worms, with slimy fish guts, people who maybe cuss in the boat, saturated in a couple beers.

Those Galilee fishermen weren’t out for the weekend getaway of recreation in nature. They weren’t trying to pull up a mess of perch for a Friday fish fry. On a list of occupations ranked socially in the Roman empire, fishermen ranked last. They were captive to the economic monopoly, as all fish were claimed under ownership of the empire.

So these fishermen couldn’t just catch some walleye to grill that evening. Rather, at least 40% of their catch was paid in taxes simply for the opportunity to try to catch fish (making it a really expensive fishing license). Most of the rest of the catch went to market, set to exploit the local fishers, often sold as processed salted pickled fish paste (sounds tasty, right?) to be shipped down that “road by the sea” that’s mentioned in our reading, making it maybe as far as Rome, far away from the hungry bellies that caught the fish in the first place.

It left the peasant fishermen and their families and village perhaps with the dregs of fish paste barrels, themselves as the remnant and dregs of their culture, eking out existence.

It’s this kind of person Jesus calls. Jesus wants to hang out with the peasants. The exploited. The struggling-to-get-by. Those far from power. The ones who have to work night and day just to survive because they’re so oppressed by the economy. This does tell us something about Jesus and about God.

More, the metaphor of fishing in the Bible can be about pulling something out from hidden places and bringing it into view, which was used about judgment and calls to justice. These folks fishing for people could be saying that God’s judgment will be in the peasants pulling the wealthy aristocracy, the comfortable oppressors, the full-bellied self-satisfied upper crust out to face justice, to reckon with God.

Setting aside the summer bass boats or those out this weekend with ice augurs and tip-ups, instead thinking about the God who in Jesus calls 1st Century fishermen, we might move it forward with a few examples.

One thought I had this week was while our Confirmation class was shopping for the Lussier food pantry. It’s good that we want to share, that we want to offer food to hungry bellies, that we teach that practice. But it is definitely odd and a change from Jesus’ time that we would think of church as the ones donating to the food pantry more than needing to use the food pantry, the poor people, working minimum wage jobs night and day maybe even serving us our food but still not able themselves to have enough. It’s not an exact parallel, but we should consider it for where Jesus is and what that means.

For observing Reconciling in Christ Sunday, I have also been thinking that the church has too often and still too much gotten this exactly wrong for LGBTQ folks. When society has been wronging and oppressing queer people, the church has jumped on the oppressive bandwagon. But Jesus is in the same boat with those exploited and struggling, so the church could have seen Jesus calling LGBTQ fishermen who, with the biblical metaphor, would then be pulling others out to be judged for exclusions and injustices and ignoring God’s blessing.

Again, for this gathering, there may be a typical sense that I as a pastor have answered God’s calling and am fishing for people. But then we get to the annual meeting and the proposed budget for 2020, and I admit that my salary and benefits are the single largest piece of MCC finances. While emphasizing that pastors are not overly-compensated either for the amount of education or for the amount of hours we put in, still my wages and place in life probably don’t make me exactly the category of the fishermen of Jesus who were eking out existence.

And yet, for being called by Jesus and being invited into the circle of those with whom God identifies, I also want to note this isn’t limited to one socioeconomic caste or to geographic displacement or to having earned enough bruises from unmerited suffering. If Jesus is calling out to those who are struggling to get by in life, it means he is identifying with and associating with you against all that would diminish and stifle your life, those forces that make you feel trapped and confined, that cause worry or even fear, that serve to enslave you and make you feel you can never live up to the standards.

As he called to fishermen in their workplaces beside the lake, he calls to you in daily life, in all the stresses and frustrations. He goes on to “proclaim the good news and cure every disease and sickness.” Jesus is out to stop what is bad. It is for those moments and in those reasons that God in Jesus comes to our world and wants to be known in your life, to pull out those hidden struggles to be judged by God as wrong, to set it right, to give you life. It is for this reason that he calls out your name.

 

Hymn: “You Have Come Down To the Lakeshore” (ELW 817)

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Mary Had a Little Lamb

sermon on John 1:29-42

 

Here’s some Dr. King to get us going:

I know a man—and I just want to talk about him a minute. He was born in an obscure village, the child of a poor peasant woman. He worked as a carpenter. Then for three years, he was an itinerant preacher. And he went about doing some things. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family. He never owned a house. He never went to college. He never visited a big city. He never went two hundred miles from where he was born. He did none of the usual things that the world would associate with greatness…He just went around serving, doing good.

He was only thirty-three when the tide of public opinion turned against him. They called him a rabble-rouser. They called him a troublemaker. He practiced civil disobedience; he broke injunctions. And so he was turned over to his enemies and went through the mockery of a trial. And the irony of it all is that his friends turned him over to them. And while he was dying, the people who killed him gambled for his clothing, the only possession that he had in the world. He was buried in a borrowed tomb, through the pity of a friend.*

Take that portrait of Jesus from Dr. King with what John the Baptist didn’t say: Behold! The lion of God greatly to be feared, who repays all for their iniquities!

Behold the shepherd of God who protects the flock and guides lost sheep!

Behold! The spacious oak of God, standing steadfast and immovable, overshadowing nations!

Behold! The key of God, unlocking all mysteries!

Behold! The soaring eagle of God, fast to rise to the heights of heaven!

Behold! The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle of God who fights crime with hip attitude!

Behold! The genie of God, for whom your every wish is his command!

Behold! The Avenger superhero of God, who with superpowers defends the innocent!

Behold! The judge of God, who examines and decides critically from on high the fate of all!

With a couple exceptions, those are not only possible images but biblical ones for how we might behold God. We could have both desire and reason to see God in all of these ways. So it is striking that we’re introduced to God today not in any of those ways.

Again, this season of Epiphany is about God in Jesus being made known to us. This morning we pop over to John’s Gospel for Jesus’ first appearance there. Last week we heard his first words in Matthew’s account, about a Lord in humble service, revealing peace rather than ferocious destructive leadership.

So as Jesus goes casually strolling by in his first entrance in John’s Gospel, John the Baptist points him out and indicates who he is. To be clear, he might’ve said any of those big Beholds! The Lion! The Judge! The Superhero Savior! John could’ve even more basically said, Behold! It’s my buddy Jesus. He’s a decent carpenter and not bad to have in the boat if you go fishing. Or Behold! It’s Mr. Goody-Two-Sandals, and you better watch your mouth around him because he’s holy. Maybe most obviously, John might’ve announced, Hey! I dunked this guy in the river and a dove rested on him!

For any of the possibilities, the way Jesus might have been introduced, the first reaction to him meandering by, John the Baptist declared “Look! Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

So let’s try to figure this out with some associations. Look at the lamb on the cover of your bulletin. Granted this is A lamb and maybe not The lamb. But if John thinks lamby things about Jesus, what do you think when you look at this little lamb?

lamb

Maybe Jesus was cute.

Maybe he was cuddly.

Maybe he was soft.

He might’ve liked grass.

But it seems to me that the main thing is that a lamb is small and fragile and helpless. There has probably never been a superhero lamb with a bestselling action figure, right? And we’d be pretty clear that if a lion and a lamb picked a fight, the lamb would annihilate the lion. ? (Just testing.)

Dr. King would point out that it shouldn’t stand up to kings or armies. Yet this Lamb did that, and has influenced life on earth more than all the others put together.

Jesus did it by being particularly lamby. I looked through the 196 times the Bible mentions lambs, and the most notable characteristic is not just that they are weak and vulnerable. They die. In the Bible, lambs are constantly getting killed. There are lambs as offerings for sin and Passover lambs marking deliverance from death.

From his first appearance, Jesus is pointed out by John the Baptist as one who is going to get killed. That’s an odd place to put our hopes for life. He is the Lamb of God, God’s offering or sacrifice to us, delivering from death, taking away the sin of the world. With sin and death separating us from God, God bridges the divide and draws you in. There is no longer anything that can disconnect you from God. In this way that we wouldn’t even want to imagine, God comes to us, to set it right. When we want to Behold God blazing in on our terms, by our standards, God shows up all sheepish as the way to come to us.

Because this victorious Lamb of God over our stubborn isolation reappears with our liturgical song, I want to share from the book of Revelation. I especially want you to hear that even there when the triumph is expected from the kingly lion in this heavenly throne room, all of a sudden a slaughtered lamb is there instead. He doesn’t change into a fierce Lion to kill others; he remains always the Lamb who was slain. A special treat from Revelation, here you go:

“Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah has conquered.” Then I saw a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered. I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” (from Revelation 5:5-6, 11-13, 7:9, 12)

That was written for suffering people, feeling cut off and wondering whether their faith was right. They probably wanted a lion, a mighty king, some superhero. They get proclamation reassuring that the Lamb is indeed revealing a God who conquers by dying, that he is the answer for us and for all the world.

For any of your suffering, for anything that feels like it’s been inflicted on you or that you’ve done wrong, for all that you fear would cut you off from God, this final vision of the Bible and the weekly practice of our worship service knows that you join in the hymn of all creation, gathered around the Lamb who died to give you life.

If you feel like nobody, you’re invited to the party. If you feel you’re special, you’re invited to join the party. If you long for things to be different, you’re invited to the party. If you want to party and celebrate life, you’re invited to the party. If you’re a troublemaker, if you have too much, if you wish you had more, you’re invited in. If  you are climbing into the back of an ambulance, you’re invited to the party. When you need help, or when you’re ready to serve, you’re invited to the party of the Lamb. It’s a big party.

As Dr. King also declares for us, the fact that this new age is emerging reveals something basic about the core and heartbeat of the cosmos. It reminds us that the universe is on the side of justice. It says to those who struggle, ‘You do not struggle alone, but God struggles with you.’ This belief that God is on the side of truth and justice comes down to us from the long tradition of our Christian faith. There is something at the very center of our faith which reminds us that Good Friday may occupy the throne for a day, but ultimately it must give way to the triumphant drum beat of Easter.**

Though, I’d remind Dr. King if I could, that Easter doesn’t undo the slain Lamb. He’s still Jesus. And it is his way of sacrifice and suffering and love that triumphs for you. The Lamb of God is vindicated and opening the party doors. With that, you join the angels and archangels, saints past, present, and future, earth, sea, sky and all their creatures in singing: “Worthy is Christ, the Lamb who was slain, whose blood set us free to be people of God. For the Lamb who was slain has begun his reign. Alleluia!”

* “The Drum Major Instinct” in Testament of Hope, p266

** “Facing the Challenge of a New Age,” p141

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Baptism of Our Lord

sermon on Matthew 3:13-17

 

Watch This!

With my childhood, as I prepared to do something stupid, that phrase was accompanied by the reminder that show-offs always get hurt. On this day when we’re looking forward to a summer Boundary Waters trip, the phrase makes me think of teaching our young people to leap off of rocks and cliffs. Watch This! And then comes a big splash.

John the Baptist didn’t want to make waves, but Jesus would have none of it, saying Do it! It’s proper to fulfill all righteousness. John gives in and dunks Jesus. Making a splash with a different outcome of show-offs getting hurt as it points toward his death, Jesus leaped into the water of the Jordan River shouting Watch This! Though technically his phrase is less succinct; his Watch This is that it’s “proper to fulfill all righteousness.”

These are the first words Jesus speaks in the Gospel of Matthew. First words are important to pay attention to, just as the final words of Jesus are how this Gospel ends: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. And remember I am with you always, to the end.” So these first words serve as a grand Watch This to everything that will follow.

To know what we’re supposed to watch from Jesus, I did some word searching this week with the “fulfilling all righteousness.”

Fulfill is a word that Matthew likes to use. Though we’re only a couple readings into this year of Matthew, we’ve already heard fulfillments as part of the formula quotations that Matthew uses at least ten times about Jesus. The first was before Christmas, that “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son’” (1:22-23). Just after Christmas, we heard three more details Matthew saw as fulfilling Scripture (2:15, 17, 23). Most everywhere Jesus was going or what was happening to him seems viewed by Matthew as a fulfillment, all the way up to his betrayal, arrest, and death.

Matthew wants us to know that this is how it’s supposed to be, that this goes with who God is and what God wants. That’s a helpful reassurance when Jesus is killed—that it wasn’t a complete interruption or defeat of what God wanted, but was in line with it. Jesus fulfills God’s vision.

My word search found that fulfillment wasn’t only about old bible verses that Matthew says applied to Jesus, not only that the prophets were predicting Jesus or something. It’s also just a word for “full.” Nets are full of fish (13:48), and holes are full of dirt (Luke 3:5), and children are full of wisdom (Luke 2:40).

So that’s also saying that the full meaning is found in Jesus. He fills up biblical understanding. He fully shows what God wanted. He has all authority. Jesus is how God says Watch This.

But what about righteousness? Being full of righteousness doesn’t usually sound good to us. It sounds like being totally self-righteous, though that doesn’t clarify much of what Jesus and John were wanting us to watch while splashing in the water.

It is helpful to know that the same Greek word can be translated either as righteousness or as justice. Matthew sees Jesus coming to set everything right, to make it fair, to make it just as God wanted.

Of the seven times Matthew uses the word, five are in the Sermon on the Mount, so we’ll come back to them in a couple weeks as Jesus tells us in Beatitudes that those who hunger for righteousness or for justice are blessed, and you’re blessed when you’re persecuted for striving after it.

Which may mean Matthew is saying to us that even if it’s proper to fulfill all righteousness, all justice, maybe it’s not easy. This is the show-offs getting hurt aspect of when Jesus tells us to Watch This. Things going along with what God wants may still lead through tough times, through confrontations, even through death. Striving for God’s justice can be hard. Yet as horrible as it may be, what God is doing is not defeated or even very ultimately interrupted.

That may be a main part of what Jesus is saying here and what we watch for in his whole story. Eventually, even though Jesus is crucified, God is still working in it. As Jesus does things that challenge popular culture and maybe even would seem religiously or ethically dubious, still he is fully showing God for us, and showing us how God is striving to set things right, to include outsiders, to reach out to all nations, to heal the sick, to break down the barriers that would keep us from each other. What’s God want? Watch This!

Today, as Jesus says it is proper in this way to fulfill all righteousness, a very basic part of what he’s asserting is that he needs to be baptized by John. This is what’s right, John. So do it, even if you don’t like it.

Just before this, John had anticipated that the Messiah would arrive thundering with blazing fire to strip the forests bare, clearing the unrighteous out of his way, like an ax to clearcut with sharpened ferocity. The coming Messiah would be so powerful, John predicted, that John wouldn’t even be worthy to stoop down and tie his shoelaces.

It’s revealing to set that image alongside the Jesus who, in another Gospel, himself stoops to wash his disciples’ feet on the last night of his life. Still at that moment, the closest disciple Peter was protesting, saying he should be washing Jesus’ feet and not the other way around. Watch This can seem like something stupid is about to happen.

Here the greatest forerunner, John the Baptist, says he wouldn’t even be good enough to get near Jesus’ feet. John expected chainsaws and fire power. Instead Jesus shows up with a gentle dove. That is what God wants. Rather than taking charge and pushing others around, rather than clearing them out of the way, Jesus shows up and asks to be baptized by John, submits to John, humbles himself.

Now, a first reaction of ours is likely to be similar to John or to Peter: that Jesus is doing something stupid. We expect God to come blazing in. If what God wants is justice, then why doesn’t God blow away the oppressors? Why would God be subject to persecution? If God wants life, then why does God die?

These questions don’t get answered for us. They just get countered. If you predict that the powerful God will wipe out enemies, will hack away at foes, will ferociously eliminate what stands in the way, then you need to be reoriented to the God of the Bible, to the God known in Jesus, to the God marked by a dove and by love.

It is proper in this way to fulfill all righteousness. This is the right way fully to display what God wants, to embody it, to bring it to pass. Watch This.

Though this is about what we’re supposed to watch for in Jesus, it also offers a reminder in our own lives. When we are hankering after achievement and wanting to prove ourselves, when we wonder how well we measure up, we are met by Jesus, wading out into the water to take a dip and telling us to Watch This. It shows that righteousness isn’t self-righteousness, not about being show-offs in the old way, not about how rightly we live or how right you say things are going in your life.

With a splash of water and with all authority, Jesus declares that righteousness is fulfilled. We want to argue and make it different, but God says in baptism it’s all right. It is all fully right.

That is the declaration to you with a splash, too, in baptism, that there is nothing ultimately wrong, that you are filled up with everything right. Or, as the very voice of God declares in the story, in baptism you are directly called a beloved child of God. With you, God is well pleased.

As you emerge from the water, filled with that promise of new life, of things made right, you dive in to follow Jesus’ wet footprints through the rest of his story. You see the way of justice, of setting things right with and for others. As Jesus goes through death, you see that even those sufferings and obstructions of goodness won’t ultimately overwhelm the declaration of God’s blessing for you, God’s efforts on behalf of life.

You can take the leap and take your risks, and even if you always get hurt, you have assurance on the other side. And we keep returning for another splash of this water, to be reminded of that connection to Jesus, of his connection to and work for you, of that perpetual promise of love. Watch This: he makes everything fully right, and he is with you always, to the end.

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