I say to you, rise

sermon on Luke 7:1-17

A Narrative Lectionary bonus! Two stories for the price of one! Not really much connected, but piled together. Maybe they both have healing and Jesus saving somebody, sort of like last week we had two different reflections about sabbath.

The second part seems like a bigger deal, but let’s not ignore the first part and so pause for a couple introductory observances.

One: I’m not sure of the centurion’s sense of how it works. I like his line for not troubling Jesus, which is repeated in Catholic churches before communion (“Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and your servant shall be healed”). But I’m not exactly sure what the centurion is comparing the business of his bossiness to.

Mostly when Luke uses the word “authority,” it is about having power over demons and unclean spirits. Jesus can share authority as he sends out the apostles with the same task. Very clearly it’s telling us that in Jesus, we are seeing God’s work. Jesus is powerful because God’s Spirit rests on him.

But it’s odd to me that the centurion would say that Jesus’ authority is in giving commands from afar, as if that’s the main point. Maybe he’s commanding the illness to go away, giving orders for some uncleanness to release the servant. If it’s not that, I’m not sure whom the centurion figures Jesus is in charge of. At any rate, it’s impressive that he recognizes Jesus’ authority from God, especially since he wouldn’t be obvious to compliment Jesus.

That leads to observance two about this first story: These should be opponents. Jesus shouldn’t want to help these guys. A slave would be written off as lower class, or not even quite human in some eyes, property instead of a person. But Jesus isn’t going to be held back by that negative or shameful view of humanity.

More surprising is the centurion. That title means he’s a commander of 100 soldiers. He’s living in Capernaum, next to the lake, where Jesus lived, a town of maybe 1500 residents, which would mean that for every 15 peasants, there was one soldier, all under this officer, there enforcing the empire’s intimidating order, collecting taxes, confining what was possible in worship and everything else. Maybe this centurion was a decent guy who tried to get along with his neighbors, but his role was still the office of an enemy and big enough that he was well-compensated for doing it.

We don’t have much way to envision this. We don’t have experience of being watched and restricted as we simply try to proceed with life. It’s some of what Palestinians have to deal with now, in the occupation under the Israeli surveillance state. We might make rough estimates of these weeks in Venezuela or the #BlackLivesMatter sense of police oppression, though those are both domestic forces and not a foreign occupier.

The point is, Jesus here is helping the empire, the opponent, the bad guy. He’s giving a gift to the commander of the powers that were violently against his own people and their way of life. If it’s about sides, Jesus is on the wrong side.

But this is bigger. This remarkable statement about the spread of salvation is God’s mission leaves nobody out, so all flesh and people of every nation may know it. Slaves won’t be disregarded. As much as we’d want to say the villainous deserve vengeance against them, to be burned by God’s wrath, this won’t exclude even them from blessing. This isn’t for Jesus’ siblings or compatriots alone, not even for his race and clan first. This is for all. And for his part, the centurion recognized that in Jesus.

This passage is one of the small turning points in Luke’s Gospel. In chapter four, Jesus had launched his public ministry with a declaration that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him, anointing him to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (4:18-19). For three chapters, Jesus had been doing more and more of that, healing and releasing from illness and for those trapped in cultural obstructions, offering life. And it keeps spreading.

His fellow citizens probably wanted him to proclaim release from captivity of the empire, a revolution to kick out the occupying powers, but instead Jesus is working something even bigger than that, so is liberating the captor, releasing the oppressor, helping the centurion.

That may not get our vote, and just how wide this spreads still continues to surprise us. We want to restrict it, to say it must be earned, to make it reciprocal, to qualify it with qualifiers or qualifications, to rule out some and maybe to question whether it could even be too good to be true in our own lives.

The book by kind of the premier Old Testament professor these days Walter Brueggemann that GEMS were reading has a good line: “It is as though Jesus starts every meeting by asking, ‘Are there any here with withered hands, any widows, any orphans, any aliens, any lepers, any blind, any poor, any homeless? Come forward and be the focus of healing attention.’”* Those we would be most likely to leave out, Jesus is most insistent on. Those we would reject, he includes. Those who seem beyond help are his first choice.

And then comes the grand capper, the top story, the ultimate surprise of this section of the Gospel. It includes not only a widow, but a widow whose son has died, a woman who would’ve been at risk anyway and now is entirely without assistance, as good as dead herself. Yet Jesus is intent on this spread of life and release from what would confine or destroy it. So he finds himself in the middle of the funeral procession.

Now, it’s one thing to bring good news to the poor. It may even be impressive to heal lepers or to offer restoration to untouchables. It may stretch our imaginations and risk our self-preservation to break protocols of decency in reaching out to those deemed socially unacceptable and outside the limits of typical concern. These are things Jesus has been up to, and it’s already been a lot.

But this will blow all that out of the water. The most we might think is to offer condolences to the mother, to set up some aid program to meet her needs, to create some new social bonds and structure now that her son is gone. But those still operate within the limits of death, and Jesus won’t be so confined.

Young man, I say to you, rise.

And he gave him back to his mother.

There is none who is beyond the help of Jesus. Ever. There is no physical way to be outside the bounds of his saving work. There is nothing that can shut up his word of life.

This is so phenomenal that words can’t quite express or capture it. I’m amused by the term here that seems to effect the miracle. Jesus says, “Rise.” On the one hand, it’s the word that applies for Easter morning, for the resurrection, for that lifesaving event that turns all expectations of existence on their head: Alleluia! Christ is risen!

But it’s also extremely ordinary. Rise is the word for standing up when you’ve been sitting. It’s a word for parents telling you to get out of bed. Even death is only like sleep to Jesus, as he gently rouses you saying, “hey, it’s time to get up.” Awake, O sleeper, rise from death, and Christ will give you life! (ELW 452)

While proclaiming the unstoppable goodness of God’s blessing and work of life, I would mostly like to let fly with the promise and let it echo as broadly and resoundingly as it should.

But I also want to make sure the qualities or qualifications of your life don’t let you feel removed from this release, beyond the reach, somehow left out. There are illnesses that don’t go away, diseases that never feel eased. There is suffering that just keeps going and going. There are struggles and sorrows we can’t get past. There are reverberating Why questions never answered. There are times when being told “Do not weep” would seem cruelly uncaring rather than reassuring. There is captivity much too long confining. There generally feels like more bad news piling up than good, not only for the poor but for many of our lives.

And especially when this isn’t ultimately our own story of a son brought back to life. We face death. We don’t want it to be the end. We want the funeral procession interrupted. We want Jesus to reach out with his miraculous and powerful word, with his full authority, to drive away the demonic enemy of death.

For you who have had to encounter the intimacy of death, who know its sting, who have asked why, who have wished it would be kept at bay, who haven’t gotten relief and have had to continue with the diminished dimmed life of your own but without a loved one, this story may bear the feeling of loss, of being ignored. Why did Jesus see that widow and call to this young man, but not to you?

But this story doesn’t stand as an isolated incident, a peculiar exception. This story is the assurance that salvation in Jesus spreads for all, that his gift of life will not be stopped. Just as much as infirmities and germs can’t stop this blessing, just as political boundaries can never wall it off, just as societal standards crumble by comparison, so not even death will be its undoing. The word of eternal life is already today for you to rise up. Get up. Go on your way. Your faith has made you well. Jesus saves. Awake and stay woke. As I say to all, I say to you, Rise.

* A Gospel of Hope, p63

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Sabbath Essentials

sermon on Luke 6:1-16

 

A question about requirements of how to observe the sabbath may not be the most natural category for us.

But this week was pervaded with the category “non-essential services.” What’s required for us to keep functioning, and what can be readily set aside as superfluous or non-essential?

As the University of Wisconsin made a rare decision to shut down in the cold, professors and classes and learning were put on standby, but food and dorms and transportation and direct infrastructure connections were kept running. I don’t know how the engineering building or psychology department would feel about being told they’re non-essential, not really core to keeping UW on this bit of life support.

Of course it was city services, too. A glance at the city website told me that free mending, knitting, children’s hairstyling 101, scrabble, and basic computer help were all programs that were cancelled, and evidently deemed non-essential. But buses tried to remain in service. Police and Fire were on, and Public Works employees were providing residents with safe drinking water, picking up trash, and keeping streets, sidewalks and bike paths cleared (though in the midst of it, not even I was trying to use those cleared paths). It’s shocking to me that what we count as those vitals essentials, Palestinians are regularly forced to try to do without access to.

In my house, since Acacia works there, we were weighing whether the library should or shouldn’t count as essential. Clearly people could suffer through not picking up their latest murder mystery novel to read while hunkered under a blanket. But library buildings are often warming shelters, places for some of our poorer neighbors to get out of the cold and spend some free (literally free) time.

Shocking our culture’s typical sense, heck, even the mall was closed! How to shop for those unnecessary essentials we keep on purchasing?!

And so what about church? Essential or non-essential?

I want you to know we made sure your staff had options, that nobody was having to come to work if they thought it would be dangerous or detrimental to their family, though Anthony and Kaisa did show up to keep at their tasks of caring for our community. As we began considering language for new policy about this, we thought about how to cover “essential tasks that can only be performed at the building.” That means it’s tough to print bulletins or shovel sidewalks from home. But it could raise a subsequent question of how many cleared walkways or prepared bulletins we need if nobody else shows up.

That makes me figure that church is pretty optional. We cancelled a couple meetings this week, or actually postponed them. That isn’t exactly saying they were non-essential, since we’ll still get around to that work of planning worship and discussing building improvements and even the socializing of gathering for lunch. Bible study did carry on, with me figuring that those who wanted to brave the weather or wanted to huddle inside could opt for their own decisions.

All of this has me pondering overall the place of church. That I can’t ever compel anybody to come here—even in the nicest weather or with the most well-planned events or most consistent communication—makes this seem non-essential.

But there’s also always the question for me of what we offer that nobody else does. The most inflated historical truth claim has been that “there’s no salvation outside the church” and ends up making requisite presence here like the ticketing agency to get you into eternal life.

There could be a sense our practice here is tuning us in to source and destination in a way nothing else can. Or maybe with a statement that “God is love,” we would say that all love flows from God, and that makes what we do here essential. There’s even some reason to say that all humanitarian impulse and work for justice and peace has arisen out of the gospel we proclaim. (Though, of course, we much more regularly hear the contrary claim attributing to religion the injustices of war and racism and environmental degradation and hierarchies and oppressions.)

Maybe to ask it differently, instead of wondering whether church holds an essential place in our culture, we could ask what the essence of church is for you. What counts as the value and core of your experience of faith? And what is unnecessary or what is unessential and just gets in the way?

If you consider quiet prayer as the essential experience of church, then that might be at odds with a perspective centered on welcoming everyone as themselves, including chatty and active children. Again, if you consider being exposed to new cultures and expressions as essential embodiment, that mostly does not coincide with a central essence of singing some standard old hymns. Is church essentially about upright morality? Or essentially about community, which involves reconciliation that ignores wrongs? They may not be diametrically opposed or mutually exclusive, but are different in essence.

I think this gets closer to the core of what Jesus is addressing in our Bible reading today. Asking what is essential about church for us may edge toward the question of what was essential about the sabbath for him and his people and his time. It’s sort of a question of recognizing importance, what other things could get in the way, what had to be set aside as nonessential.

We shouldn’t, then, shrink this as a question of Jesus against Jewish faith clearly, or write off the Pharisees as too interested in legalistic details where Jesus has chosen the better part. Both sides ask what it means to observe the sabbath fully, what the essential services are, and in that how best to be relate to God. Just what does it take to focus on the essential relationship with God?

In one regard, this tradition goes back to these people’s escape from slavery in Egypt. They asked for a pause from their labors for the opportunity to worship. Doing work would be to recommit to slavery and to spurn God’s liberation. That fits exactly with our opportunity to be gathered here this morning, though it might feel a little more direct if we think about our weekend as being hard-earned through struggles of organized labor. If you pick up hours or have an employee to work on the weekend, is that just a little extra cash and function of the economy, or essentially scabs and strike-breaking that fly in the face of liberty?

In another regard, the tradition of the sabbath goes back to the beginning of the Bible and the creation story, that the seventh day marked creation’s goodness, of God celebrating work and life, to enjoy the accomplishment. That fullness is what the image on our bulletin cover is exalting.

Yet it makes a difficult tension, in the story and for us. We know that the work of creation is not complete, that all is not pure goodness, that for all to be able to enjoy as they ought to be able to, still requires some work. Jesus interrupts the rest so that creation can be more fully what it is intended to be, for hungry bellies and for a disabled and excluded man with the withered hand.

I think Jesus even raises the point that doing nothing is still doing something. He asks about destroying, doing harm, taking life. The comment seems to mean that failing to act on behalf of the man is equal to hurting him. Inaction is essentially injury.

On a pulpit swap, I get to bring my Lutheran identity into this UCC gathering, and will share that this reminds me of Luther’s Small Catechism where he similarly notices that the 5th Commandment, you shall not murder, isn’t kept only because you haven’t killed anybody today, not just avoiding harm, but participation in assisting the good, the full spectrum of helping in all needs. So refusing to give away your extra coat may be murder for the person in the cold. Refusing to give up your privilege may constrain life of those who are deprived. Doing nothing about these things inhibits the goodness of creation.

So if Jesus is active for good, we may say we should follow his effort for healing and justice, that what is essential for our relationship with God isn’t actually to be sitting around dawdling here on a Sunday morning, when instead we could be out doing the good God intends, sharing the harvest, reaching out for the sick, integrating those who have been excluded, striving for the healing and wholeness of creation.

But even Jesus doesn’t resolve that tension. He doesn’t give up on sabbath worship. He still gathers with the praying community. So there is still place for us to gather today, to rest and celebrate, to remember what got us here, to enjoy liberty. We still need this focus on God, this intentional regrounding in the relationship and essential orientation toward the good so we know what to do.

With that, I also want to hold onto one more tension. Our main tension isn’t between sabbath tradition or the ability to do work. Ours isn’t whether we can do good. Ours isn’t whether your presence here is necessary to earn salvation.

Our tension is among varied essentials, of the place of this sabbath worship and connection and renewal in our relationship to God and neighbor and creation amid all the other essentials of our lives. None of us gets the perfect attendance award, and all of us know the competing claims on our lives and time and all the ways a weekend can be filled and the directions we’re pulled, or even how the fullness of life makes us want to claim that the liberty of Sunday morning is in the one chance to sleep in, to read the paper, to have leisure, to claim it as sabbath rest, even without the part that is renewed relationship with God. Sometimes being here is risky. And we almost all recognize that Sunday doesn’t have the sacred place in our society it once had, as worship attendance dwindles and other opportunities abound.

So what about our practice has to change? Where is the place of church in a changing culture? How do we continue to claim and to share sabbath? How do we observe and practice, maybe in new ways, church as an essential service?

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Something Fishy

sermon on Luke 5:1-11; Psalm 98

 

On my first trip to the Boundary Waters, I was amazed at the fishing. Trolling behind the canoe with my line tangling in loops and the spinner bouncing out of the water, I hooked maybe the biggest bass I’d ever caught.

That’s not saying a lot. I call myself a fisherman, but for panfish. Most of my hours on the water or ice have been with a bit of bait and tiny hook and bobber.

That style and knowledge of panfishing made me actually relieved not to catch a fish later on that first Boundary Waters trip: a northern came out of the depths, struck my lure, then swam away. It was several years more before I landed a northern, then had to figure out how to get something with a huge mouth full of sharp teeth off my treble-hooks. (If I recall, it squirmed itself off.)

Now, unless Jesus shows up to give me unsolicited advice about fish I’m not used to catching, the main point of those details on my expertise (or lack thereof) is that even though I know what I’m fishing for and try specifically for that, still sometimes you get something else, and you can’t do much about it.

Then Jesus sends us to fish for people.

We’d imagine it’s about knowing the skills and having the right gear in our tackle box and being able to zero in on our target species, catching the people we want to catch. Like a guy trying to catch five-inch bluegills with a worm surprised by a fierce northern emerging from the dark depths, we also find ourselves shocked at times at church.

See, we too often see ourselves as polite and thoughtful and well-spoken and generous. In whatever way it is, we are surprised when somebody not like us shows up. With bait we were trying to use, that’s not the catch we were expecting to land.

There can be all sorts of surprises, many that happen in the diverse school of fishy folks around you today: It can be somebody who dresses different and doesn’t wear the right clothes to fit in.

It can be somebody who doesn’t know our language, whether we mean that literally for proper English or the church-ese theological terms that are part of these waters we’re swimming in.

It can be people who haven’t done the right thing, earned their place, and maybe you’d just as soon write them out of the prayers.

It can simply be those you can’t identify.

It can be noisy children who join in as themselves and act their age and don’t act your age and don’t sit stock still, as if church were the uncomfortable pain you were raised to believe it should be.

It can be a person with a different skin color, as some of you remember Winifred Brown speaking her mind on what it felt like to be “a brown M&M in a sea of marshmallows.”

On this Reconciling in Christ Sunday, for me, a straight male, it can come as a rather grateful stunning surprise to find in church—which has been so offensive and nasty and condescending and done more than about any other institution to repel people who are LGBTQ—that Jesus somehow still is catching queer folks along with obtrusive people like me. Our old definition of the right ones to catch and who would be thrown out hasn’t stuck. Jesus manages to catch even those tried to keep out.

Different from our sense of propriety on who church is for and the people we want to catch also goes with the story of Nadia Bolz-Weber, the tattooed Denver pastor who was along on my second trip to the Holy Land. She tells of intending her congregation to be for misfits: foul-mouthed recovering addicts. Nadia was distressed when businessmen in neckties started showing up. But Jesus was also fishing for those people.

We each have our view of what the prize catch is and we expect Jesus to be a trophy fisherman, looking for the grandest specimens to mount over his fireplace. If not a full saint, we at least hope to measure up and tip the scales as a keeper. Jesus, though, seems intent on raking up the puniest minnows and bottom feeders, not just the best fighters or the biggest beauties, but the really ugly whiskered scum suckers.

Case in point: Jesus is content to catch Simon Peter. We don’t need to react to him declaring himself to be a sinful man as if he’s especially stinky. Probably like other fishermen, he’s lied about his catch and perhaps had too much to drink out on the boat, sunburning his belly and hunched shoulders. He may not have shown the most respect to others who have horned in on his secret spot and maybe trash-talked his mother-in-law who (in the last chapter) was sick and not very helpful around the house.

But this very regular schmoe (“uneducated and ordinary” is how he’s described later in the story—Acts 4:13), who will prove himself kinda inarticulate and not the smartest fish in the school and not necessarily loyal, with his most notable trait being that he triply denied even knowing Jesus, Peter will be at the center, not just a big fish in some small pond, but an unprestigious grandpappy whale in the worldwide ocean depths that encompass God’s work.

The next two closest, James and John, keep arguing through the story about what it means to be great, occasionally in a brutal way, continually missing that Jesus isn’t casting for record breakers, much less hateful.

A real prize catch, these guys. Until Jesus catches the human equivalent of a parasitic sea lamprey: Paul, who was growing strong on the blood of those he’d been persecuting, yet became arguably the most important follower of Jesus ever.

Such is the strange fishing expedition of Jesus. Stranger still because, of course, Jesus is after you, too. You may consider yourself no trophy. You may be ready to name what disqualifies you from being sought-after game. You may not be the prettiest or strongest fighter, not especially agile or well-adapted to your environment. As a neighbor of mine used to complain about our lake’s perch, you may have some spots that are a little wormy. You may simply see yourself as not worth catching.

Or, knowing some of you, there may be a belief you’re too clever really to get hooked. You may say that you’re exploring the bait fisherman Jesus has lowered to offer, but you’re sure not going to swallow it hook, line, and sinker. You’re just testing the waters, exploring the facets of Christianity or what Jesus has to say about God, but you’re not going to get tricked enough to get swept up and lose control.

But metaphors of fishing rods with 10-pound test monofilament line hit a snag. Jesus isn’t limited by existing into my personal fish tales and soggy puns. It’s not just tackle boxes and bait. Jesus uses nets! And he sends down the net to catch you up in this, too. It’s not about either your gullibility or your desirability, not about fooling you to take the bait nor finding you the rare keeper he was after.

The whole point is that he casts his net far and wide to catch all in it. In depleted fishing waters of a Palestinian lake where pro fishermen could come back empty-handed after being out all night, yet this God of abundance immediately finds enough fish to swamp two fishing boats on one haul. This abundantly creating God of flagrant goodness in Jesus comes that all nations may see the salvation of God, with the Holy Spirit poured out on all flesh.

It’s not just the really rotten who are hauled aboard to be resuscitated in the live well, neither is it those who leapt of their own accord into Jesus’ boat, full of eager willpower to join him. It’s not those born into the right habitat to be exposed to it, or conditional on living in a culture with Friday fish fries, or even enough lakes and streams to be able to visualize what these images are angling for.

As one lovely hymn speaks of Jesus, “You have come down to the lakeshore, seeking neither the wise nor the wealthy. You who have fished other waters: O loving Friend, you have come to call me” (ELW 817).

So it is that you are caught up in Jesus’ mission, a fisherperson who has become a fish in order to fish for people. Jesus has caught you, claimed for eternity, scooped up and held you in this fisherman’s caring hands. You may like just as well to be held there forever. But after he catches, he releases you back into the teeming waters of this world, the regular flow of life, since there are other fish in the sea he must love, and since you are now his hands of care and love.

In that, you get to join his strange cast of characters, plus the fish of the sea and birds of the air and all creatures in sharing God’s goodness, in proclaiming release to the captives and this abundant goodness, joining the hymn of all creation.

It was your voice in our Psalm: “All the ends of the earth make a joyful noise to the Lord. Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it. Sing to the Lord a new song.” That song may sound with a fisherman voice like a sea chanty. Or like we did at student council camp, silly underwater style. Or may be the voice of Jesus is calling through each other in our next hymn.

 

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Today!

sermon on Luke 4:14-30

 

I want to start by saying that what Jesus does in this reading embodies my essential understanding of what a sermon is, or what a sermon does. In short, it does what it says. The words of a sermon accomplish the thing they are intending.

My sense of that is built on the Lutheran belief in the power of God’s Word as spoken in the words of a sermon (and spoken with the waters of baptism and in, with, and under bread and wine). That Lutheran trust in listening here to hear the voice of God comes from a larger biblical theology around God’s Word, that when God says “Let there be light,” then there’s light.

This also fits into broader modern understandings of how language functions, and fits into the type called “performative language.” Rather than second-order descriptions that talk about it (unfortunately, like I’m doing right now in trying to explain), performative language does the thing. When you say, “I forgive you,” that is itself the act of forgiveness. It doesn’t need to involve giving a rose or genuflecting or anything like that. When you say, “I take you to be my husband,” your words accomplish a rather large life-altering change in legal status, and may go with the smaller life-altering change “I promise to do the dishes.” Or a worse form of life-altering judgment is the forceful declaration, “You are under arrest” or “I sentence you to ten years in prison.”

So we’ve got examples of how this works, this function of language. To return more to the point, when God says something, things happen. I’ll give you two great verses from the prophet Isaiah that fit with this and with what Jesus is doing in Luke. “As the rain and snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be [says the Lord] that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Is.55:10-11).

Today Jesus declares, “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

As you receive the words, he was saying to his audience in the synagogue, you are receiving the good news. It is a life-altering declaration offering God’s favor, changing the status of the listeners, accomplishing its purposes, succeeding in the very thing it says it will do.

And though you may be more confident in Jesus than you are in me, this understanding invites you not just to hear my voice and to doubt its effectiveness, but even now to hear the Word of God, continuing to declare this good will to you: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because she has anointed me to bring good news, to proclaim release and recovery and freedom, the liberating Jubilee of God’s favor.” That message did not remain in a small ancient synagogue. The word of Jesus, the true voice of God, the anointing presence of the Holy Spirit repeats, “Today, this is fulfilled in your hearing.”

I want you to hear that message for you. I want you to be able to trust and rely on God’s effective proclamation speaking to you, to recognize not only its potential to be life-altering but its potency, that that power is happening to you here and now, in your hearing.

I also want you to know this reiterated blessing from God. In the Gospel of Luke, the very first word Jesus speaks in public is “today!” This is always when God is working. One commentator reminds us of this immediacy and constant presence, saying that “’today never is allowed to become ‘yesterday’ or to slip again into a vague ‘someday’…The time of God is today…The age of God’s reign is here…the time when God’s promises are fulfilled and God’s purpose comes to fruition.”*

We don’t gather in church waiting only for after death, or to be fulfilled in generations to come, through gradual improvements of society. We don’t gather simply reflecting back on history and wondering how it would be to listen to Jesus. We gather here and now because it is here and now that God’s Word is active and bearing fruit. It is in this place that new life begins, that you are brought again into the family, that evil is stopped, that you are assured of love and wholeness. This is God’s work, and it is fulfilled in your hearing!

As good as that sounds, I can see some agitation out there, ready to protest and say, “Yeah, well, but…” You’ll point out that for all of its alleged successful performance, something seemed to fall short that day in Nazareth. You may wonder if what God’s Word in the sermon of Jesus accomplished was not so much good news, but the bad news of them trying to kill him, driving him out of the town, trying to chuck him off a cliff.

This still shows his word is effective, just as it encounters the combative effect of sin, as its goodness is resisted, as it still struggles to prove the reality and embodiment of God’s will in our world and through our lives.

See, Jesus points out that this word that is fulfilled in their hearing is not a small, personal, restrictive word. It’s not a word that follows their preferences of insiders. It’s not a word that knows the boundaries of walls and borders. It’s not a word that merely comes as a supplement for our lives to verify what we thought we already knew about ourselves.

We’d just as soon have God’s message be a congratulations, saying Keep up the good work. But this one who comes casting the mighty down from their thrones and raising up the lowly, this one who comes so that all flesh may know salvation isn’t by any means going to say your efforts have earned you a well-deserved place, that your health is because you’ve done the right exercises, that your paycheck is because you’ve studied hard and found your way into a good career, that your ease is legitimated by your skin color or your abilities or having the right political views of justice. We want credit for our good behavior or responsibility for our improvement. But God’s Word is not about convincing you to change, to shape up. God’s Word is about creating the reality of setting right relationships.

As we sang in “Joy to the World,” “he comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found!” That means across humankind and throughout creation. He reaches to Syrians and Saudis and Guatemalans and Filipinos and Russians and Chinese. He reaches to Americans of all stripes, in each of our illnesses and dis-eases, or self-contented blindness and our poverty, whether of wallet or of spirit. He is anointed to share that Spirit and offer good news. Today this is fulfilled in your hearing.

So God’s Spirit is tasked with softening hard hearts and turning unwilling minds, to rejuvenate the faint and distressed, to renew all life worn down. That includes you, and it includes all. So I’ll add to Jesus’ word and remind you to buck up, not be so self-centered, to realize the inclusion of others doesn’t exclude you. This is no zero sum equation. After all, this is a God of eternal life, unending love, infinite kindness.

This is Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday weekend. And since this is one of the occasions during the year where I dwell in his words and expect them to be effective and still becoming part of our reality, I wanted to offer the last words spoken for this Today to be from him. I find difficulty, though; for all of his eloquence, Rev. King falls more on the imperative than on the declarative. He says “must” instead of “is.” His words are most frequently aimed at what we should do, while God’s Word is most ultimately in what God has done, will do, and is fulfilling today. Dr. King says “if, then” where God declares Today!

But maybe these words, from the Selma march, bridge the gap (so to speak) of those who wanted to respond to the words of Jesus by driving him over the edge and to us who want to be swept up in the spread of his blessing, to join the God who is marching on. So let’s not hear it as words of there and then, but words of here and now, especially since Rev. King begins with the apt “Today”:

“Today I want to say to the people of America and the nations of the world: We are not about to turn around. We are on the move now. Yes, we are on the move and no wave of racism can stop us.

“We are on the move now. The burning of our churches will not deter us. We are on the move now. The bombing of our homes will not dissuade us. We are on the move now. The beating and killing of our clergy[people] and young people will not divert us. We are on the move now…

“Like an idea whose time has come, not even the marching of mighty armies can halt us. We are moving to the land of freedom.

“Let us therefore continue our triumph and march to the realization of the American dream…

“I know that you are asking today, ‘How long will it take?’ I come to say to you however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long.

“How long? Not long. Because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.

“How long? Not long, ‘cause mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord…Our God is marching on.”**

 

 

* Craddock, Luke, p62

** A Testament of Hope, p229-30

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Baptism of Jesus

sermon on Luke 3:1-22

Luke today is pointing us to God and to the adult Jesus, and for that it’s also important what he points away from, the chaff he clears away that would obstruct our view or our lives.

Luke begins with a setting or set-up similar to the previous chapter’s Christmas story’s registration set in the reign of Caesar Augustus while Quirinius was governor of Syria. The political situation for the reading today locates it later, but with some of the same point: a particular moment, surrounded by major players in the cast, but with the odd factor that the superstars aren’t important. They’re really only named to highlight that they’re not actually the ones unfolding God’s drama. Salvation history doesn’t match the bolded headline names of history books. This takes place far from centers of political power in Rome. It was not with the Emperor, nor with the local governor, nor the squabbling Herod family in their divided territories.

Maybe that doesn’t surprise us, if we conceive of this as a religious and not a political story. We somehow think not only that state and church should be separate but inherently are, one dealing in secular matters and the other of a different spiritual realm. That wasn’t the case then, and isn’t now, at least as long as we’re associated with the God known in Jesus, who is for all our lives.

So the story also goes on to highlight that this was happening during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas. The story doesn’t separate itself from them because it’s anti-Jewish or anti-temple. John’s father Zechariah was a priest in the temple. Mary and Joseph took the baby to follow prescribed traditions in the temple. Even after the resurrection, Jesus will tell his followers to keep worshipping and praying in the temple. Luke isn’t trying to make a break from that.

But he is breaking from the insiders, from the expected center of attention, from the presumed place where things happen. In those days John appeared in the wilderness, far from those centers of power, far from culture and presumptions of progress.

An adult reiteration of what Luke had already been telling in the birth of these babies—sung by their parents as ones who give people knowledge of salvation and cast the mighty down from their thrones—the message is that God isn’t best found in the imperial palace or religious hierarchy. Instead, Luke dumps John way out into the boonies, the sticks, the hinterlands, out in the wilderness.

Again, this is not about wilderness in our typical view of purity and refreshment, out communing with nature. The point is to situate John far from anything that smacks of human authority.

Even if you’d lean toward quote “getting away from it all” as an outdoor recreation place to find God—a concept generally I’m highly in favor of, including the purpose of our Boundary Waters planning after worship today—still for finding God, John won’t let you just hang out in the wild, as if it’s simply good to be with other creatures and apart from humans.

See, when asked what we should do, John answers all about human interactions. First, he separates his listeners from another presumed privilege: that of genealogy. Don’t begin to say to yourselves that you have Abraham as your ancestor, to count on inherent blessing by association in the covenant family. There’s no power in asking, “Don’t you know who my father is?” John says. In fact, one commentary I read said John anticipates and heads off this presupposition by calling them the “brood of vipers,” or in that translation—it’s enough to make you squirm—“snake bastards.”*

Instead, John goes on to say that God is in right actions, how we treat each other. I want to interject that this is also not the final answer for the Gospel of Luke, not where God’s presence is best found or known. I have to reiterate that because John’s form of thought is so pervasively present in our minds, in our presumptions, in our self-constructed views of faith. We still want to claim closeness to God if you act nicer, try harder, bear more fruits of goodness, repent more fervently of sin.

I do appreciate John’s suggestions, like his notion that anyone who has two coats should give one to the poor. I intentionally donate to the homeless when I find I have extra (though still admit I’ve got four decent winter coats hanging in my closet). And sharing food with the hungry—clearly we could and should be doing more of that, and not just boxes close to their expiration date we foist on unsuspecting Lussier pantry clients. Those are good practices, even if that isn’t ultimately the clearest place to find God.

In that way, we remember that Luke also sees the heritage of Israel and the temple as good, even if not the clearest place to find God. This isn’t about where God isn’t, but is about the clearest view.

Oddly, John even seems wary about seeing the empire too badly. John speaks with tax collectors and soldiers, both part of the very establishment oppressing the population, making them subservient. Particularly for the soldiers, I would’ve preferred if John were more stringent in his expectations. For a pacifist like me, and one who identifies work for revolutionary peace as rising directly from my faith in God, I wish John told the soldiers to beat their swords into plowshares, to give up violence, to subvert the empire, to reject military force as a viable means to any sort of just ends. Still, as John would have it, godliness in their role was simply to be satisfied with their wages. Maybe this is why God isn’t most clearly seen in our actions, because we must always question if there’s more to do, something better.

Still, there was enough in John’s words that those listeners were ready to identify him as the center of godliness. In spite of his acclaim and attention and focus on setting them right, though, he still points elsewhere. People wondered if John may be the epitome, the center of God’s wisdom and blessing, if he may be the Christ, the Savior, the Lord.

We, however, have been through Christmas. We’ve heard the angels’ song. So we know more of the story. We know it’s not John. We know it’s Jesus.

Luke is so insistent on turning the focus away from the popular John that he tries to remove John from the picture. I think he might first do that by referring to him as only as John and not John the Baptist, not giving him that title. Indeed, the way Luke tells the story, John is already in prison before he mentions Jesus’ baptism. John is already out of the scene so that we can turn our focus solely to Jesus.

I like the language there that’s entirely passive: “when Jesus had been baptized.” It doesn’t say who did it. If you were to look at our baptism liturgy on p230 in the hymnal, you’d see a little asterisk indicating passive language possibilities. I used to prefer that. It is the wording in the eastern church, among our Orthodox siblings. I started using it back in seminary worship class to turn the focus away from me, removing the pastor from the scene. Instead, I figured it focused that what was happening in baptism was all God’s work, all about God claiming and naming you as a beloved child. (I changed to the more common western version with the thought that it’s also important to realize that God’s work doesn’t just happen on its own with a magic poof, but is through means—incarnate in Jesus, and also with the water, with bread and wine, through voices even as twerpy and incoherent and self-assured as my own.)

So Jesus was (passive) baptized.

And that’s when we get the theophany. Where this season named Epiphany means “to show forth” (sort of like putting Jesus on display), theophany is a good Greek word that means God is shown. So with Jesus’ baptism, God is shown to us in the Holy Spirit descending like a dove and a voice from heaven.

Here, at last, is the pointer of God’s clearest presence.

God wasn’t best found in halls of power, in the mightiest government officials, those who exerted their control. It wasn’t in those who claimed to be the holiest or were at the top of structure, running the religious show. It wasn’t in the cities or center of culture. It wasn’t in special pedigree or the privilege of family placement. It wasn’t in our actions for justice or our best efforts to do right, our pious practices, our jobs or place in the socioeconomic structure. It wasn’t even in the ultimate prophet. God’s presence is found in Jesus.

But, of course, the whole point of Jesus is going to be to share that with everyone. Luke in this passage includes an extra verse from Isaiah that the other gospels don’t: “All flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Luke is utterly insistent that salvation is for all, that this Savior is born for you, that he comes to bring good news for all the earth.

Indeed, he’ll baptize you with fire, a Pentecost outpouring of the Holy Spirit on all flesh, not because you’re the aristocracy or worked your way up or acted just right, nor leaving you out because of race or gender or history or any kind of ability. On all flesh. All shall see God’s salvation. This saving work comes for all, and for you. That is the story unfolding here in the Gospel of Luke, and it is the message we continue to point to always when we’re together. God’s salvation is in Jesus, and he is for all, and wants to be made known for you.

* Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Malina & Rohrbaugh, p236

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Christmas children’s message

Do you know what I was doing this morning?

 

I was trimming my nose hair. My pocket knife has this little scissors, and I was thinking I needed to do it to look prettier and more like I should.
But then I stopped. Because it’s Christmas. And Jesus being born means that God loves our human bodies in all their shapes and forms and there isn’t something that I need to do to look different.

 

Know what else this morning?

 

It snowed. I heard the plow go by really early, while I was still in bed. And I was really excited. So I ran to look outside and saw that it was really pretty, but only a little bit of snow. I wanted more, for having fun outside and just for being the amount I think our world needs right now.

 

But it’s Christmas, and Jesus was born to set things right, including our winter climate and how we people think and live on the planet.
And so I was thinking about things that don’t quite go right and things on Christmas that we wish were different. Maybe you can think of some of those this morning, too.

 

Maybe you didn’t get all the presents you wanted.
Or maybe you got even more presents than you wanted.
But Jesus was born so that people can have the right amount of what we need.

 

And I was also feeling some sad this morning. I miss my dog who died this year, who isn’t around for Christmas. And maybe in your families, you’re missing some people or things aren’t always exactly right.
But Jesus was born to bring us new life, to hold us in God’s love when we’re sad, and to give us “great joy” as we’ll hear next in the story from angels.

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