Saturday, January 28, 2017

“The Law of Love” - January 29, 2017

Text: Luke 6:1-16

Every once in a while you come across a list of archaic laws, many of which are still on the books.  Have you seen this sort of thing?  Here are some laws that were at one time or are still in force:     

In Wyoming, you cannot take a picture of a rabbit during the month of June.

In Harper Woods, Michigan, it is illegal to paint a sparrow and then sell it as a parakeet.

In Wisconsin, there is a law that says you cannot serve apple pie in public without cheese.

It is illegal to whistle underwater in Vermont.

It Tulsa, Oklahoma, you need a licensed engineer to open a soda bottle.

It is illegal for a man to knit during fishing season in New Jersey.

In Connecticut, a pickle has to bounce to be considered a pickle.

We were not immune to these sorts of laws in Iowa.  It was once a law that one armed piano players in Iowa had to perform for free.  And ministers in Iowa needed a permit to transport wine. 

There was a reason for these laws – not necessarily a good reason, but you don’t just come up with things like this out of the blue.  Maybe someone in Vermont drowned as a result of an underwater whistling contest.  Now, I don’t know the origin of the bouncing pickle rule in Connecticut – and once it had been bounced, would you want to eat it?  The law in Iowa about clergy transporting wine makes more sense.  It was passed in 1919, so it had to do with use of communion wine during prohibition.  I don’t know if it is still on the books or not.

While some laws seems strange and arbitrary, others are valuable and necessary.  The Hebrew people sought to live according to the Law - God’s Law.  The Law existed to allow God’s people to live fully and faithfully and joyfully and with integrity with God and with one another.  The Law was summarized in the Ten Commandments and was found in the Torah – the Books of the Law, the first five books of the Bible.  The Law was expounded upon in the Talmud, a commentary on the Law that explains in great detail how the Law is to be carried out. 

Now in our text for today, we have two controversies involving Jesus and the law regarding keeping the Sabbath.  The controversy is between Jesus and the Pharisees.  I think it is helpful to know a little bit about the Pharisees, because the way that they come across is often a caricature.  The Pharisees were a reform party within Judaism, with a concern for following the law and living one’s faith not just on the Sabbath and not just when you went to synagogue, but in one’s daily life.

Living out the faith on a day-to-day basis was difficult in a culture where it felt like your faith was under siege.  Israel was an occupied nation.  Hellenistic influence and Greek culture was all around.  Roman soldiers were stationed throughout the country.  There were those who worked with the Romans, collaborated with the Romans.  How do you maintain Jewish traditions, how do you hang on to your culture, how do you keep your faith when you are in the middle of a dangerous and chaotic world?  How do you maintain your religion when the powers that be are hostile towards it?

For the Pharisees, the answer was in keeping the law.  Keeping the Law as carefully and completely as possible.  This was what made them different.  This is what made them Jews.  This is what made them who they were.  It’s not that they were fundamentalists about the law just for the sake of the law – this was what held them together as a people.

The Law was something that could be followed by anyone, anywhere.  The Pharisees were offering devotional practices and ways of living out Jewish faith that did not require oversight or mediation by religious leaders.

So when we come to these stories, we need to understand that the Pharisees weren’t just hung up on rules and regulations, as we might sometimes hear.  They were sincere in their concern for the welfare of the people, and Sabbath observance was a part of that.

In our text, Jesus and his disciples were going through some cornfields.  His disciples picked some ears of corn and ate it.  This constituted work on the Sabbath and was not allowed, and some Pharisees questioned Jesus about it.  Why did his disciples disregard the Sabbath?

Jesus replied by appealing to a story from the Old Testament, where David and his companions ate bread from the Temple which was only for the priests to eat.  He told them that the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.

And then on another Sabbath, Jesus was at the synagogue and there was a man with a withered hand.  The Pharisees are watching, and Jesus knows it.  He tells the man to stretch out his hand, and the man is healed.  Healing on the Sabbath was also considered work, and unlawful.

It seems that it is Jesus’ attitude about it all that really infuriates the Pharisees.  He asks, “Is it lawful to do good or harm on the Sabbath?  Is it lawful to save life or destroy it?”

Jesus is getting behind the law itself to the intent of the law.  The Sabbath, and the Law itself, was about life.  For hungry people to eat – that is about life.  Healing for someone who had no use of his hand – that is about life. 

Why was Jesus so threatening to the Pharisees?  Jesus seemed to threaten their whole enterprise of sanctifying people through adherence to the law.  He seemed to have a casual and cavalier attitude about Sabbath observance, about ritual observance.  He ate with tax collectors and sinners and his disciples did not fast.  And then he even claimed authority to forgive sins.

Now, I know that Sabbath observance is not exactly a hot topic these days.  It has been a long time since it was.  At one time, there were a number of restrictions on commercial activity on Sundays – they were called blue laws, and many of you remember that, but that was fading out even when I was a kid.

We have kind of gone the opposite extreme of the Pharisees to where there are no Sabbath restrictions.  We can shop, we can go out to eat, there are plenty of youth soccer and Little League games on Sundays.  I don’t mow the lawn on Sunday unless it is a near-emergency, but that is due mostly to my upbringing – it is certainly not a community expectation.  We could agree on the importance of rest, the importance of renewal, the importance of balance in life, the importance of time for worship, so it’s not that the idea of Sabbath is unimportant, but even then, what does this scripture really have to do with us?

Luke included these stories in his gospel because Sabbath observance was an issue for the early church.  In a church made up of both Jewish and Gentile Christians, this was a real issue that had to be worked out.

Again, that may not make this an exciting topic for us, but what lay beneath it is important.  The questions surrounding the Pharisees’ challenge to Jesus and Jesus’ answer to them as well as Luke’s choice to include these stories in his gospel has to do with faithful identity to a community’s traditions and beliefs in light of ever-changing circumstances.  In other words, how do we live out an ancient faith in a new day?

It would be wrong to say that Jesus didn’t care about the law.  He kept the law, but he saw the law in a different light, a different perspective.  It was easy for the Law to become an end in itself.  The Pharisees could be so devoted to the Law that they could lose sight of the bigger purpose of the Law. 

Jesus has a different take on the Sabbath.  First, he says that Christ is Lord of the Sabbath, not the other way around.  The Sabbath was created for us – we were not created for the Sabbath.  Then he says that doing good on the Sabbath is lawful and in keeping with the scriptures.  The issue here has to do with having an openness of spirit and being able to discern what really matters.   

We can criticize the Pharisees for their rigidity, but let’s face it: we can all be rigid.  When it comes to faith, there are those we would consider to be fundamentalists – closed minded, unwilling to change, unwilling to consider other viewpoints, dead certain that their way is the right way and the only way.  But as much as I hate to say it, the fact is that we are all fundamentalists about something.

  • The jogger going out at 5:30 a.m. on a dark, blustery, snowy morning is a fundamentalist about her exercise regime.
  • The carpenter whose workshop looks like a display ad is a fundamentalist about the location of each and every one of his tools.
  • The 6-year-old who makes his parents pick off every single one of those tiny dehydrated onion squares from his Happy Meal hamburger is a fundamentalist about his food.
  • I know that in some households, if whoever goes grocery shopping comes home with a store brand instead of Heinz ketchup, they will discover a ketchup fundamentalist in their family.
We may think of ourselves as pretty progressive and open-minded, but if we were to suddenly make drastic changes in our Sunday morning order of worship, we would discover a good deal of liturgical fundamentalism.  We can be fundamentalists about which side of the sanctuary we sit on or the kind of music we sing or any number of things.  The point here is that we are all rigid in our own ways.

The streak of fundamentalism that is there within all of us is not necessarily bad.  Insisting on promptly recording every transaction you make and keeping your checkbook balanced is a good thing.  There are folks on our street who are fundamentalists about the appearance of their yard.  More power to ‘em.  Being a “fundamentalist” about some things can strengthen our sense of self and our resolve as followers of Jesus in a world where following Jesus is not always easy.

This is really where the Pharisees were.  Strictly and unwaveringly following the law was a way to keep the faith in a world in which that was not an easy thing.

But such rigidity becomes a problem when it reaches into the depth of our souls and hardens our hearts towards others and takes away our capacity for compassion.  The codes of behavior that we seek to live by can become a problem when they keep us from what God wants the most. 

We started out with some odd and offbeat laws that in some cases may still be on the books.  In each case, these laws had to give way to a higher and more important law – sometimes the law of common sense but often a higher legal standard.  The state of Iowa cannot forbid one-handed piano players from making a living because of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment or the Americans with Disabilities Act or maybe something else - you can ask one of the lawyers here this morning.  But there is a bigger picture law that supersedes the One Handed Piano Player law.

At the root of it, that is the disagreement between Jesus and the Pharisees.  Jesus sees a higher law.  And the higher law, according to Jesus, is to love God with our heart, mind, soul, and strength and love our neighbor as ourselves.  The law, including Sabbath keeping, is to help us in doing that, to guide us and assist us in doing that.  When the Law keeps us from loving our neighbor, then there is a problem.  Maybe the problem is not the law itself but the way we understand it and apply it and live it out.  

The higher law is the law of love.  And this is where it hits home for us: how do we live out our faith – how do we live out Jesus’ ethic of loving God and neighbor – in a chaotic and unsettled and polarized world?

We read our text for today and want to put ourselves in Jesus’ shoes.  We want to stand with him as he answers the Pharisees.  But truth be told, we have a lot in common with the Pharisees, and I actually feel compassion for them.  They are keepers of the tradition, they are the good church-going folks, they are seeking to be faithful in a world in which that is not easy.

But Jesus shows us that the way to do that is not through easy answers.  It is not in one-size-fits all solutions.  The way forward, the way to live our faith in a complicated world, is by seeing the world through the eyes of love – messy and difficult as that may be. 

This brings us to the last few verses of our scripture for the day.  In last week’s text, Jesus called his first disciples.  Now, he calls all twelve, and they are listed by name.  It strikes me that they are called after Jesus has already been embroiled in controversy.  So they know going in, this is not going to be easy.

And that is the way it is for us.  Sometimes following Jesus can be tough.  But we have his example.  And we have one another.  And we have his law of Love.  Amen.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

“Fishing With Jesus” - January 22, 2017

Texts: Isaiah 6:1-8, Luke 5:1-11

Everybody has a bad day now and then. We all do.  One afternoon, New York Yankees star Mickey Mantle went hitless and struck out three times in a row.  A bad day.  “When I got back to the clubhouse,” he remembered, “I sat down on my stool and held my head in my hands, like I was going to start crying.  I heard someone come up to me, and it was little Tommy Berra, Yogi’s son, standing there next to me.  He tapped me on the knee, nice and soft, and I figured he was going to say something nice, like ‘You keep hanging in there” or something like that.  But all he did was look at me, and then he said in his little kid’s voice, ‘You stink.’”

We’ve all had days like that.  Simon didn’t play baseball; he was a fisherman.  But he was 0-for the day.  Along with his fishing partners, he had worked all night with nothing to show for it, not even that first fish. 

There is exhaustion, and then there is exhaustion laced with failure.  This is where the story begins for Simon.  He is no doubt in a lousy mood, and along with his partners he is cleaning the nets and getting ready to go home.  And about then, Jesus shows up.

Now, Simon apparently had met Jesus before.  After the episode where Jesus is nearly killed after giving his inaugural sermon in Nazareth, which we looked at last week, he travels through Galilee, he teaches and heals people in Capernaum, and among other things, he heals Simon’s mother-in-law.

Now, I have to tell you, I love this story.  Crowds are pressing in on Jesus as he stands by the shore of the lake, and I love the idea of Jesus just commandeering Peter’s boat.   He just climbs in Peter’s boat and tells Peter to put out into the water a ways so that he can speak to the crowd.  Pretty cool.  Pretty creative.  Jesus is a problem-solver and speaking from the boat no doubt added to the excitement and spectacle of the occasion.

And then I love the fact that Simon lets Jesus use his boat, that he assists Jesus in this effort.  Remember, he has already been there all night.  He just wants to finish up and go home.  But he honors Jesus’ request and takes Jesus out in the boat.

Now, since they had met before, maybe he was used to Jesus doing this sort of thing.  Or maybe he does this out of gratitude.  Jesus had healed his mother-in-law, after all, so he is not going to say no Jesus’ request.  It was the least he could do.

Or maybe Simon is just that kind of guy – the kind of person who would take you out in his boat even though he is dead tired, just because you asked.  We don’t know for sure.  Simon just does it.  I love that.

And I love it that when Jesus is done teaching, he isn’t actually done.  Think about this: we don’t know anything about the content of his teaching as he sat in the boat and spoke to the crowd, but we know what happened next, and the real take-home, the real message, came after his sermon was over.  Jesus teaches through his actions, here even more so than through his words, and I love that.

And then Simon does something that doesn’t quite make sense.  Jesus asks him to put his nets out in the deep water for a catch.  Simon and his partners had been working all night with nothing to show for it, and this itinerant rabbi guy comes along and tells him to try again.  And Jesus wants him to go out to the deep water.  Everybody knew that fish fed in the shallows, and Simon, the professional fisherman, had been at it for hours.

For all Simon knew, Jesus may have been setting him up to be an object lesson – a lesson in failure.  This appeared to be an exercise in futility, but I love the fact that that Simon goes along with it.   We do know that Simon was an impulsive kind of character.  Maybe he just said – what the heck – and rolled with it.  Or again, maybe he felt indebted to Jesus and felt he couldn’t say no, ridiculous as the request was.

But then what happens?  A miraculous catch of fish, so many fish that the nets are tearing.  Peter has his friends in the other boat come out to help.  I love imagining the expression on the fishermen’s faces as they struggle to haul in this catch and barely get their nets to shore.  I love the sheer craziness of it, that whereas they had not caught that first fish before, Jesus comes along and it is the fish story of a lifetime. 

This is where it gets really interesting.  Simon has some previous relationship with Jesus; he may have considered himself a supporter of Jesus.  But it is fair to say that however much Simon thinks he knows Jesus, at this point he realizes that he really doesn’t know him at all, that he’s only just beginning to realize who and what Jesus is.  And that scares him.  As the size of the catch becomes clear, Simon goes from joy to amazement to something like terror.

After a day of striking out, you don’t just throw the nets into deep water and pull up a boatful of fish.    What could this mean?  Like most of us, Peter liked to think that he understood the way things worked.  But all that was shattered, as something impossible, something miraculous, had taken place.  Simon was afraid because the way he had conceived of the world was obviously not exactly the way it really was.

“Get away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man,” he says.  It is not that Simon had just committed a heinous sin, or that he has a particular transgression in mind.  It is more a matter of realizing that he is in the presence of something much greater than himself, a power far beyond what he had ever encountered, and he felt in awe.  Simon felt small and unworthy in this presence – he knew himself to be a sinful man.

It is not unlike our Old Testament scripture, the calling of the prophet Isaiah.  When faced with a vision of the power and holiness of God, what does Isaiah say?  “Woe is me.  I am a man of unclean lips and live among a people of unclean lips.”  It was a recognition of his finitude and of God’s greatness.

I love the fact that it is out on the boat, fishing with Jesus that Simon is confronted with the power of God and the realization that Jesus is something far greater than what he might have imagined.  Because it challenges his ideas of how the world works, it scares him.  It would scare any of us.

And then I love what Jesus says to him: “Do not be afraid.”  David Lose wrote that these words are the hallmark of Luke’s gospel and maybe the hallmark of the gospel, period. Jesus comes so that we don’t have to be afraid anymore.

Lord knows, there is plenty for us to be afraid of.  There is plenty out there to frighten us – economically, environmentally, politically, culturally, not to mention personally.  Health, finances, school, career, relationships – it is easy to give in to fears.  But Jesus knows our fear, our worry, our anxieties.  He says, “Do not be afraid.”  These are words to hold on to.  These are good words for the times we live in.  I love that Jesus says to Simon, “Do not be afraid.”

And then Jesus gives Simon something to do, something bigger and larger than anything he’d ever imagined.  Jesus gives him a purpose, a calling.  “From now on, you will be fishing for people.”  It’s kind of interesting, don’t you think, that Jesus says, “do not be afraid – from now on you will be fishing for people.”  I would think that being told that he would fish for people would add to the fear, not relieve it.  I would think that being given a task of fishing for people would only increase Simon’s anxiety.

When Simon expresses fearfulness he is asking Jesus to take the mystery of God away from him and return his certainties.  But instead, Jesus invites him to leave behind his certainties, that God had something bigger and grander for him than he could have ever imagined.  Instead of taking away the mystery, Jesus invites him to go even deeper – to go into the deep water of faith and trust.

I love that Jesus recruits this fisherman and calls him to continue his vocation, but to now fish for people.  I love the fact that Jesus calls these guys with fishing boats as his first disciples.  Simon (whom we will later know as Peter), James and his brother John, and presumably Simon’s brother Andrew, who is not mentioned by name here, are Jesus’ first disciples.  I love that Jesus doesn’t interview a group of prospects or ask for their resumes or check their references – he just calls these fishermen to be his disciples.

There is a lot to love about this story.  But then we get to the very last verse.  “When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.”

Simon and his fishing partners left behind everything - their professions, their livelihood, their family and friends, their familiar world, everything – in order to follow Jesus.  And to be real honest, I can’t say that I love that part.  If we are honest, we have to admit that we are pretty ambivalent about that.  Because this has gone from scaring Simon to scaring us. 

What would I give up everything for?  What would you give up everything for?  It’s a hard question.

I love this story – except for the part about giving up everything.  Maybe a question for us is: what are we willing to give up?  And if we don’t actually give up anything, are we really following Jesus?

You know, when you have just had far and away the largest catch of fish you have ever had – the greatest moment of your professional life - that is a lot to walk away from.  If I had been Simon, I would have been tempted to say, “Sounds great, Jesus.  I’d love to join you!  First we need to go and sell this fish, there’s so much we’ll probably need to pickle some, and we really need the money.”  I would have been tempted to at least try and take care of a few things first.

But that is not what happened.  The experience was so life-changing that Simon and his friends leave everything and immediately follow Jesus. 

Simon Peter, as he comes to be called, leaves everything behind, including his certainties about the way life works.  And as he followed Jesus, he had to leave his certainties behind again and again: the certainty that God’s Messiah would not have to suffer, the certainty that he himself would be loyal to Jesus through whatever came, the certainty that dead was dead, the certainty that the gospel was just for the Jews.

This is a lot more than a fishing story; it is a call story.  Simon is called to follow Jesus, called to fisher for people.  And this is our calling.  We are called to leave behind – if not everything - at least something.  Maybe our ideas of what is possible.  Maybe our concern for dignity and propriety.  Maybe our self-image that says we’re not worth much and God couldn’t really use me.  Maybe a certain level of comfort.  Maybe our fear of failure.  Maybe the notion that we don’t have much to offer.  Maybe our sense of what is most important in life needs to be re-examined.

Jesus words are a call to evangelism.  Just the mention of the word “evangelism” scares a lot of us.  The word itself literally means, “sharing the good news.”  The reason we don’t want to have much to do with it is because so often, it hasn’t sounded like Good News, it’s sounded like bad news, judgmental news, scary news, exclusive news.

There was a survey of younger persons, 18-30 year olds who are not religious, asking their impression of Christians.  The top responses were that Christians are antigay, hypocritical, judgmental, and too tied to politics.  This survey is a couple of years old; I would guess that those sort of responses have only increased in the time since.  For a lot of people, Christian faith comes across as anything but good news.

These negative impressions did not just come from out of the blue.  If the only thing you knew about American religion came from news stories, your impression of Christian faith might be pretty negative too.  Those who get the attention are so often the ones who are peddling a Bad News kind of Christianity, a judgmental and narrow and exclusive and uncaring faith.  But it seems to me that this should serve as even more incentive for us to authentically share the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Pastor and blogger John Pavlovitz said, “Sometimes the best evangelism is letting people know you are a Christian and then not being a complete jerk.”  Maybe we can do that.

Shane Claiborne spoke at ISU a couple of years ago.  He leads a community called The Simple Way, a group that lives and serves in the poorest area of Philadelphia.  Claiborne bemoans the way Christians have so often spoken in our culture and acted in the public square.  He says that the gospel is best spread not by force but by fascination.

That is what Jesus did.  Jesus told great stories.  He acted in selfless, compassionate ways that made people wonder about him.  Folks came to hear him because the way he talked about life and the way he related to God were different – and authentic.  People were genuinely interested in what he had to offer.  Simon did not follow Jesus because he was scared into it or cajoled into it or because he was obligated.  He followed because he was intrigued. 

What if we exhibited such care and compassion that folks started to wonder about us?  What if we reached out to people with such genuine interest in them as individuals that they sat up and took notice?  What if folks experienced Christians not as hypocritical or judgmental, but as a breath of fresh air?  What if we came across not as having all the answers but being open to the questions?  What if we didn’t offer shallow comments but instead invited people to think deeply?   What if we came across not as having it all together but as struggling like the next person, but wrapped up in the grace of God and the care of the community as we struggle?   

It’s worth considering.  Because like Simon, Jesus has called us to the fishing business.  Amen.



“Fulfilled Today” - January 15, 2017

Text: Luke 4:14-31

Most of us have some experience with our speech being evaluated.  It happens for me every Sunday.  Not everyone makes a comment about the sermon, but by the number of people who fall asleep or seem wide awake, there is an evaluation of sorts going on.  That reminds me of our church in Illinois that was down to only one functioning radio headset for folks with hearing difficulties.  One Sunday, Lorene asked Fred if he wanted to use it and he said, “That’s OK, you take it.  I think I’ll just sleep this morning.”

At any rate, what we say gets critiqued.  Maybe you teach a class or present a paper at a conference.  You take a speech class or make a sales presentation or lead a workshop or teach Sunday School.  You come up with a persuasive way to ask mom and dad for the car.  Most of us have some experience with our speech being evaluated, whether we get formal feedback or not. 

Our scripture for today is Jesus’ first sermon recorded in Luke.  And those present are not just evaluating the sermon; they are evaluating him.  Stories were beginning to circulate about how he was healing people and about what a captivating teacher he was.  Jesus was in his hometown synagogue.  The custom was for someone in the synagogue to read the scripture for the day and to offer comments on it.  On this day, Jesus was asked to read and comment.  And everyone was excited to hear what he had to say.  These people knew him.  They wanted him to do well.  They were predisposed to give him a favorable evaluation. 

Beyond whatever personal connections folks had, they were genuinely enthused about what Jesus’ success might mean to their community.  It wasn’t easy living in Nazareth.  There were heathens all around.  Phoenicians lived to the west and north, Samaritans to the south, Greeks to the west.  Nazareth was far from the good influence of Jerusalem and surrounded by these pagans.  It’s no wonder that Nathaniel asked Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  Nazareth was not an easy place for a pious Jew to grow up.  A religious leader coming from Nazareth could be a great thing for the city.

Jesus opened the scroll of Isaiah and read: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.  That was the custom – one didn’t stand at the pulpit to speak, one sat.  All eyes were on Jesus.  There was great anticipation.  Everyone was eager to hear what he had to say.  And this is what he said: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Not what they expected, exactly – Jesus seemed to be assuming a lot of authority for a rookie preacher – but he sounded great.  People commented on how well he spoke, how proud they were.  Although there were no doubt some other thoughts behind these kind words for Jesus.

For one thing, there was some question about his scripture reading.  He read from Isaiah chapter 61, which was all well and good, but he failed to finish the verse.  He mentioned “the day of the Lord’s favor,” but he left out the next part, about “the day of vengeance of our God.”  He spoke of good news for the poor, release, recovery, freedom, and God’s favor, but left out vengeance.  What was that about?  Was Jesus weak on sin? 

And even more on the minds of people were subtle questions about whether Jesus had gotten too big for his britches.  “Isn’t this Joseph and Mary’s boy?” they asked—and the implication was, how could Joe and Mary’s boy be talking like this?  So while Jesus was outwardly well received, there was some latent criticism.  And as Jesus continued, the negative response much stronger.

Jesus was aware of the criticisms and questions.  But rather than quieting the crowd with a moving, inspirational sermon, Jesus is in the crowd’s face.  “No doubt you are going to quote to me the proverb, ‘Doctor, heal yourself,’ and you are going to want me to do in my hometown the things I did in Capernaum.  Well, I know that no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.”

Like this is going to win over the crowd.  But then it gets worse.  Jesus reminds the crowd of times when God’s favor is shown not to good Israelites, but to no good foreigners.  “Remember when there was a severe famine, and Elijah went not to one of the Hebrew widows, but the poor widow at Zarephath in Sidon, and she was the hero of the story?  Or remember when there were many lepers in Israel, but the leper who was healed was Naaman the Syrian?”

What is Jesus thinking?  These are people surrounded by Gentiles, and Jesus, one of their own, is talking up foreigners!  What’s the use of having a hometown Messiah if it’s not going to benefit the hometown?  Jesus was disrespectful -- and what’s more, he was just wrong.  Yes, God could on occasion show favor to other nations, but this was their God, not the Phoenicians’, not the Syrians’, not the Samaritans’.  Where did Jesus get off? 

The crowd became enraged.  Jesus had essentially shown himself to be a false prophet by blaspheming the faithful Jews and praising the sinful Gentiles.  They chased him to the edge of town and intended to throw him off the cliff there.  Luke does not tell us how exactly, but Jesus was able to walk away.

You’ve got to admit: Jesus did get the crowd’s attention.  They took notice.  But if Jesus wanted to stay in the business long, this was definitely not the way to go about it.

There were good reasons the people in Jesus’ hometown reacted so strongly.  First, there was the problem of familiarity.  They knew Jesus.  This was the kid they had watched grow up, the boy who had worked with his father in the carpenter’s shop.  What reason did he have to think he could just come in and tell them the way it was?

If some outside expert had come in with a good PowerPoint presentation, it might have gone over better.  But Jesus was one of their own.  The problem was that their proximity and familiarity tended to blind them.  Having known Jesus for years, they just could not recognize him as a prophet.  Certainly not as a messiah.

I wonder if we sometimes have that same problem.  Jesus can be too familiar.  Too much of a pal, too much “our” guy.  Have you ever noticed all the paintings of Jesus that have him as a blue-eyed, blond haired white guy?  Have you noticed that we tend to attribute to Jesus good middle-class American values?  We can tend to re-make Jesus into our image.  Jesus is a friend, yes, a friend who is always with us.  But Jesus is not our lackey. 

Familiarity was not the only problem.  Perhaps a bigger issue was resentment that Jesus had taken God’s favor to others – others whom they didn’t care for.  Capernaum, where Jesus had apparently already had success, had a strong non-Jewish population.  And his stories about the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian didn’t help at all.

Maybe the worst thing was the fact that Jesus actually believed this stuff.  He took it all just a little bit too seriously.  He quotes Isaiah, talking about release of the captives and restoring sight to the blind and all that stuff.  They liked that – it was a very nice sentiment.  But Jesus really, truly, seriously believed this.  He really did believe in good news for the poor – even for a poor widow of Zarapeth.  He really did believe in healing – even for a Syrian like Namaan.  Jesus wasn’t putting a limit on it.  And he really did believe that he was called by God to bring about this healing and recovery and release and Good News.

There was a strong reaction because Jesus’ preaching confronted them with truth they did not want to face.  They wanted a manageable Messiah.  They did not want someone barging in to remind them of a part of their own tradition that they would just as soon forget: that God’s favor extended beyond the confines of Israel.  At the root of it all, they were offended by God’s grace, especially toward those of whom they did not approve. 

I can’t help but think that there was a good bit of scarcity thinking in the congregation – a sense that there was just so much grace and goodness and blessing to go around, and Jesus was wasting it on outsiders.  The people of Nazareth profoundly misunderstood the ways of God.  God’s love is not a zero-sum game.  The more love and grace and kindness and compassion is shared, the more there is to give away – just like the story Jesus mentions about the widow of Zarephath, who used her last little bit of oil and flour to make bread for the prophet Elijah, and yet the jar of flour and jug of oil never ran out.

The reading from Isaiah and Jesus’ inaugural sermon serves as the thesis statement of Luke’s gospel.  This is Jesus’ mission.  He is about bringing healing and sight and release and freedom.  He is about justice.  He is about mercy.  And all of this he makes available to everyone.

You know, we can be just like the folks in Jesus’ hometown.  We can feel under siege, like the good people of Nazareth: dominated by the powers-that-be, surrounded by bad influences, lax morals, power-mongering corporations, scary politics.  We can feel under siege, as though things are out of control.  We want God to be on our side.  And God is with us.  But like the people of Nazareth, we can be offended that God’s grace embraces even those who are different from us.

We want a Messiah we can manage, a savior we can control.  What we don’t want is an unpredictable savior who will challenge us and maybe even change us.

It is worth noting that the very first word Jesus utters in the gospel of Luke is “today.”  Not yesterday, not someday, but today.  He begins not by dwelling on the past or dreaming of the future, he begins right here, right now, today.  Today this scripture has come to pass.  That is challenging.

There is a big difference between seeing the Bible as beautiful words and lofty thoughts and seeing it as making actual demands on us, calling for action here and now.

In her book The Case For God, Karen Armstrong argues that over the centuries, religion has been much more about what people do than simply what they think.  Faith really can’t be understood, she says, unless it is lived.  She wrote,

It is no use imagining that you will be able to drive a car if you simply read the manual or study the rules of the road.  You cannot learn to dance, paint, or cook by perusing texts or recipes.  The rules of a board game sound obscure, unnecessarily complicated, and dull until you start to play, when everything falls into place.  There are some things that can be learned only by constant, dedicated practice, but if you persevere, you find that you achieve something that seemed initially impossible. 

Jesus challenged his hometown congregation that their faith be about more than reading lofty words.  Living out this faith, making it a part of your life, could cause some discomfort. 

Today is Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.  Dr. King would have turned 88 today.  And as we think about his legacy, it seems to me that these verses from Luke chapter 4 pretty well describe his ministry.  Good news for the poor, release for the captives, recovery of sight, freedom for the oppressed.

In 1968, Dr. King gave a sermon titled “The Drum Major Instinct.”  In it, he spoke of how he would want to be remembered:

Every now and then I guess we all think realistically about that day when we will be victimized with what is life’s final common denominator—that something that we call death. We all think about it.  And every now and then I think about my own death and I think about my own funeral…  And every now and then I ask myself, “What is it that I would want said?” 

If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral.  And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long.   And every now and then I wonder what I want them to say.  Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize—that isn’t important.  Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards—that’s not important.  Tell them not to mention where I went to school.

I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others.  I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody.  I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question.  I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry.  And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked.  I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison.  I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.

Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice.  Say that I was a drum major for peace.  I was a drum major for righteousness.  And all of the other shallow things will not matter.

I won’t have any money to leave behind.  I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind.  But I just want to leave a committed life behind.  And that’s all I want to say.
Jesus came into his hometown synagogue and challenged his hometown congregation.  The challenge was to really believe and really act on the words they read and spoke in worship each week.  The challenge was to show their faith in their living, through compassion that reached out to those in need, to those who were most vulnerable, to those on the margins.

We are just getting started in the gospel of Luke.  Jesus spends the rest of the gospel living out the mission he read from the scroll of the book of Isaiah that day.  As followers of Jesus, the challenge for us is to do the same.  Amen.

“Beloved Child of God” - January 8, 2017


Text: Luke 3:1-22

We were in Indiana with my family over the holidays.  We had a great time, and the group keeps growing.  This time, it was my parents, their three children and spouses, 7 grandchildren, and 3 girlfriends and boyfriends.  I looked at the group of grandchildren – Zoe is the oldest – and realized that they are mostly young adults now.  I know this did not just happen overnight, but for some reason this was a revelation.  I was proud of all of them, but I also felt really old.

They grow up quickly, don’t they?  Take Jesus.  Two weeks ago, he was a baby, born in Bethlehem, and then last week an infant fleeing with his family to Egypt.  Here we are one week later, and he is 30 years old.  Time flies.

We will be in the book of Luke for the next couple of months, through Easter.  Luke begins with the birth of John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin.  Then he tells about the birth of Jesus and his presentation at the temple.  There is a story of a visit to Jerusalem and Jesus at the temple when he was 12 years old.  And then – boom – he is all grown up.

Which brings us to our scripture for today, focusing mainly on the ministry of John the Baptist.  It is very interesting the way it all starts.  “In the fifteenth year of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea and Herod was ruler of Galilee and his brother Philip ruler of Ituria and Trachonitis, and Lysanius ruler of Abilene (which is probably not the one in Texas), during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas…” 

This is interesting because in the first place, it is reminiscent of Luke’s telling of Jesus’ birth.  “A decree when out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered; this was when Quirinius was governor of Syria.”  Luke sets things in historical perspective.  Here, he mentions the emperor and various rulers, the chief political and religious leaders, and then he says the Word of God came to John, son of Zechariah.  In the wilderness.  It is quite a contrast.  You have these rulers, powerful and privileged people, but the Word of God comes to John, this wild man, out in the wilderness. 

John preaches repentance, he tells the crowds who come out to the wilderness to hear him that they have to change.  And he does not coddle them, doesn’t try to make them feel good about themselves.  He calls them a “brood of vipers.”  John plays hardball, but amazingly, people come out to hear him.  And they really do want to change.  Maybe they come out to hear him because they really want to change.

So they ask, what do we do?  And this again is interesting because while John’s message sounds really severe, what he asks is actually pretty basic.  If you are a tax collector, don’t cheat.  If you are a soldier, don’t extort.  OK, sounds reasonable.  He says, if you have two coats, share one.  If you have food to share, share it with people in need.  John comes across as this radical rabble-rouser, but in a way, he is just asking people to do the right thing, to do what the law and the prophets had always asked of people.     

Yet for some reason, simply treating others fairly and compassionately was hard, and it always has been.  What John was asking sounds simple enough, but if everyone followed it, it really would be radical. 
 
And in fact, it came across as so revolutionary that people flocked to the wilderness to hear it, and were baptized as a sign of their repentance.  John just had this vibe about him, and folks started to wonder if he was the messiah.  John says, “No, one greater than me is coming; I’m not even worthy to untie his sandals.  I am baptizing you with water, but he will baptize you with the fire of the Holy Spirit.”  And then he makes another very interesting statement.  “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

What is this about?  A winnowing fork?  Most of us wouldn’t know a winnowing fork from a salad fork.  Or a tuning fork.  Or a fork in the road.

I have to confess to not having a lot of knowledge of farming.  Growing up, there was a cornfield across the road from us, but we lived in the country the way the Shiremans live in the country.  You can live next to a cornfield and still be in a subdivision.  Actually, when I was in grade school, the people across the road had a couple of donkeys on their small acreage just for fun, and they would often hee-haw when we were out waiting at the bus stop.  (I mean the donkeys would hee-haw, not the neighbors across the road.)  But this background does not make me an authority on winnowing forks.

I would guess, however, that even those who farm are not necessarily familiar with winnowing forks.  Here’s the way it worked: before grain was ground for flour, it needed to be as clean as possible.  After harvesting and threshing, it contained a lot of chaff – pieces of stalk, the outer husks of the grain, and other stuff you did not want in your bread.  To winnow, you might take a basket of grain and go outside on a windy day and pour it into another basket.  In doing so, the chaff would be blown away while the heavier grain would fall into the basket.

Another method would be to use a winnowing fork.  After grain had been beaten out of the husks, or threshed, you would have grain on the floor mixed with chaff.  You would take the winnowing fork and throw the grain into the air, allowing the chaff to be blown away.

The question, of course, is what John meant by this image of Jesus with a winnowing fork.  Clearly it is an image of judgment, of separating the wheat from the chaff.  But Jesus did not treat people as chaff to be discarded.  He seemed to have a special concern for those who looked upon as outcasts – those who might have been thought of as “mere chaff” by others.

I think that John’s point here has to do with the choices we all have to make.  He is talking about our lives, about Jesus baptizing us with the Holy Spirit and then he goes immediately to the winnowing fork, separating the wheat from the chaff.  Maybe this has to do with the chaff in our own lives and the choices we all have to make about what to hold on to and what to leave behind and about how Jesus helps us to make those kinds of choices – how Jesus works in us to bring about change in our lives.

The decisions we make about who we are, about the life we will live, really matter.  This was the attraction of John.  People knew that the way they lived their lives mattered a great deal, and they came to him in the wilderness because they wanted to live a different way.

The choices set before us each day are not always big and dramatic.  But they are real.  In the face of wrongdoing, we can turn a blind eye or we can speak up.  When a friend is in need, we can offer to help or we can justify our inaction by telling ourselves we are too busy and too extended.  We can choose to be kind or impatient.  We can choose to hang on to what we have or share with others.  We can choose to risk being compassionate, risk investing in the lives of others, or we can hold back.  We can pursue success or popularity or wealth or possessions or we can make our lives about relationships, about making a difference, about building up the life of the community.

Just as John envisioned Jesus separating wheat and chaff with a winnowing fork, we have choices to make about the good and the bad, wheat and chaff.  We have to decide.  And this deciding is not a once-and-for all matter as much as it is a constantly renewing cycle, a daily calling.  Living as a follower of Jesus means deciding how to faithfully respond to what is before us today.  It means making faithful choices.

John called for such decisions, and it was an offense to Herod.  He had John put in prison for a time, and in the end it cost John his life.  But Jesus himself understood that we have a choice to make, and he chose to come to the waters of baptism.  He chose to identify with John’s movement, and more than that, he chose to identify with all of the people who came to John – people with needs, people with struggles, people wanting to repent and turn their lives around.  Jesus called people to make choices, and he himself made such a choice.

In humility, he submitted to John’s baptism.  Luke reports very little of the actual baptism and does not even mention John by name, but he reports that after the baptism, there is a voice from heaven saying, ”You are my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.”  For Jesus, his baptism was an experience of affirmation of his identity and calling.  It says to us that Jesus could not have done what he did apart from God’s grace and power and love. 

For us, our baptism represents the choice we have made to follow Christ.  It represents repentance and trust and faith and is an experience of God’s grace.  In our baptism, God says to us, “You are my beloved daughter…you are my beloved son.”

David Lose, one of my professors who is now a seminary president in Philadelphia, writes,

…Baptism… provides [us] a name – Beloved – and with that name, an identity – child of God, one to whom God is unfailingly committed. And that name and identity has never been more important.

We are at a time and place where so many would like to identify and define us by many, many names: Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal, American or foreigner, gay or straight, rich or poor, Black or White, and the list goes on.  Additionally, we are also and increasingly named and defined by the products we use or stores at which we shop.  Nike, Apple, BMW, Tiffany, Hallmark – these are not just company names, but lend a particular sense of self, and increasingly the brand labels on our shirts, shoes, cars, and computers convey a great deal of our identity.
Lose went on to reference a recent study at Duke University.  Research by a marketing professor there and colleagues in New York and Tel Aviv showed that especially for those who are not deeply religious, brands are a form of self-expression and a token of self-worth, just like symbolic expressions of one’s faith.  One’s commitment to a brand of clothing or automobiles or coffee of whatever can have an almost religious-like dimension.  It can be a big part of who we are.

For Jesus, baptism was about identity, and it is for us as well.  Identity is something that can be slippery and something we may struggle with at times.  And identity can be constantly changing.  I read the Northcrester, the newsletter from Northcrest, a couple of days ago, and it included a poem by Lorene Hoover that gets at the issue of identity.  Lorene is in Arizona, but I called her and asked if it would be OK to read her poem.  And she said yes.

I began life as the new Marshall baby
my brothers’ little sister until my sister was born.
Then I became one of the look-alike
name-alike Marshall girls. 
Few could tell which was which.

In high school I was one of the country kids.
At a Kansas college I could at last be ME
in class, in choir, on the news staff—
except when I was Mary’s roommate
or one of the Iowa kids.

On my first job I was the new office girl
until I tired of writing down words of six male bosses.
That sent me to college again
to become some kid’s teacher.

Later I was my husband’s wife
my children’s mother.
Now I am only ME writing to be me

except when I’m my grandchildren’s “Nana”
one of those old people at Northcrest
except when I’m an Arizona “snow bird”
an Iowan.

At family sing-a-longs
I am again one of the Marshall girls
a writer, writing to be ME.
We play many roles, and the whole matter of identity can be hard to pin down.  It is not that the various roles we play are unimportant – they can be very important.  But we need to know that deep within us, at the heart of it all, our primary identity is “child of God.”  And in baptism, God names us and continues to name us as “beloved.”

These other names and affiliations may describe us, but they do not define us.  At the core, we are beloved children of God.

As Christians, we are called to live out our baptism, to live out our identity as a beloved child of God, by following in Jesus’ ways, by continuing his ministry on this earth.  And as John reminds us, this can involve making choices.  Not just between the good and the bad, which may not be so difficult, but between the important and the merely urgent, between the good and the best.  We may have to learn to separate those things that are attractive but fleeting from that which is solid and lasting.  We have to learn to separate those core beliefs and values and commitments that matter most from those more peripheral matters that are not so important and on which we sometimes need to just agree to disagree. 

The choices facing us are not always easy.  But in all of our decision-making, we live in God’s grace.  In those times when the way does not seem so clear, we can rest in knowing that God says to each of us, “You are my beloved child.”  At the root of it all, this is who we are.  Thanks be to God.  Amen. 

“On Not Burying Joseph” - January 1, 2017

Text: Matthew 1:18-25

Many years ago - in fact, it was back in the last millennium – I served as a Campus Minister at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington.  I worked with a very interesting and diverse student group there.  One of the students was named Beth.  She was Roman Catholic, and she lived near Peoria.  Her dad had accepted a new job in a different part of the state, and she was telling me about moving.  She said that they were trying to sell the house, so they had buried Joseph in the back yard.

I wasn’t quite sure what she was talking about.  Beth told me that the tradition was that if you bury a statue of Joseph upside-down in your yard, facing the house, the house will sell.  And then when you move, you give Joseph a place of prominence in the new house.  She added that she didn’t think anybody believed that this actually makes the house sell, but it couldn’t hurt.

As it turns out, there are statues made just for such a purpose.  You don’t bury a nice ceramic statue of Joseph; you go to your local Catholic supply house and get a plastic statue of Joseph to use.  The reason that you bury Joseph upside-down is that he will then work harder to get out of the ground - and thus harder to sell your house.  You can also order a kit off the internet that includes a plastic statue and an appropriate prayer to use when you bury Joseph.  They are available from DiscountCatholicProducts.com for $4.99 plus shipping.  This is for real.

Beth’s family sold their home without too much difficulty, if I remember correctly, though it would be hard to say whether Joseph was responsible or not.

I have never tried this myself, but if a person were having trouble selling their home this would be worth a shot.  But it occurs to me that while we may not actually put statues of Joseph in the ground, there is a sense in which Joseph does get buried.  When it comes to the Christmas season, Joseph can get buried in the story.  And so I’d like for us to think a bit about Joseph this morning.

Think about the carols we sing – we sing about angels and shepherds and prophets and stars and wise men and Bethlehem and bells.  And we sing about Mary – ”What child is this who laid to rest on Mary’s lap is sleeping”…  “Round yon virgin mother and child”… “the child, the son of Mary”…  “to show God’s love aright, she bore to men a savior”…

While many of our carols include Mary quite prominently, you can look in our blue hymnal and there is exactly one mention of Joseph.  It comes in the fourth verse of “Angels We Have Heard on High”: “Mary, Joseph lend your aid, with us sing the savior’s birth.”  If all we knew about Christmas came from our hymnal, Joseph would simply be some guy who along with Mary helps us sing Christmas carols.

This morning, we have turned to a lesser known carol that appears in our black hymnal, “Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine,” just so we could sing something about Joseph.  But even there, the carol is sung from the viewpoint of Mary, who actually has a more prominent role in the carol.

Poor Joseph.  He gets shorter shrift than the oxen and donkeys, and far less attention than the shepherds or angels or wise men.  From our music, even Good King Wenceslas seems to be as big a player in the Christmas story as Joseph.

But while our carols seem to be largely unaware of his existence, the Bible does not entirely forget Joseph.  Our scripture today includes the story of Jesus’ birth as told by Matthew, who reports on Jesus’ birth from the perspective of Joseph.

While Joseph was engaged to Mary, she becomes pregnant.  It is a crisis for Joseph.  What should he do?  Customs were such that at this point, the marriage could only be called off through a divorce.  A public divorce would have been humiliating for Mary, but it would clear Joseph’s name.  The other option was a quiet, private divorce that might spare Mary the pain and humiliation.

Joseph is described as a righteous man, and his story really gives a new definition of what it is to be righteous.  Does righteousness mean following the law blamelessly, to a T?  Observing the proper regulations, participating in the right rituals in the right way?  Or does it mean something more than that?  Does righteousness involve mercy and compassion and grace?

The word “righteous” can have a negative connotation, and that may be because we all know examples of folks who are self-righteous - those who observe the proper religious mores and want everyone to know about it.  Jesus reserved his harshest criticism for the Pharisees and Saducees, for religious folks who were smug and self-congratulatory about it.  We have lots of examples of self-righteousness.  We have fewer examples of actual righteousness, because true righteousness, if this description of Joseph is to be believed, involves humility.  A truly righteous person doesn’t blow their own horn or seek after attention and adulation. 

Joseph was caught between loving the law and loving Mary.  Being a righteous man, he chose to divorce her quietly.  But after much agonizing, finally God intervenes.  In a dream, God tells Joseph that he is to take Mary as his wife, that the child is from the Spirit, and that he should name the child Jesus, because he would save the people from their sins.

This is not the sort of dream a person has just every day.  Joseph wakes up in a cold sweat.  Believing what God had told him in a dream was not easy.  Doing what God asked was definitely not easy.

This would not seem to be the best way to begin a marriage.  But Joseph believes, and he acts.  Not only this once, but again and again.  Joseph followed God even when it was difficult.  He believes the word given him in a dream and takes Mary as his wife.  People stared.  People talked.  Social invitations dried up.  It was very awkward, and how could they explain to anybody else that this was God’s child? 

And then, after his son was born, Joseph is told in a dream to flee to Egypt so that the child would not be killed.  Can you imagine what this was like?  The baby Jesus is a refugee, fleeing violence.  We live in a time of terror, a time of fear, but we might all do well to remember that the baby Jesus was a refugee who with his family fled his own country to escape violence.

Joseph again does as God instructs and takes his family to Egypt.  After a time, he again is told in a dream to return from Egypt but to settle in Nazareth instead of Bethlehem.  And he does.  Joseph is faithful and Joseph trusts God, again and again.

We all enjoy warm, beautiful, uplifting family holiday traditions, but that first Christmas was filled with worry and anxiety and hardship.

Eugene Peterson tells of the Christmas when he was 8 years old.  His mother, whom he describes as “an intense woman capable of fierce convictions,” was reading from the prophet Jeremiah when she came upon these words:
Thus says the Lord: Learn not the ways of the nations…for the customs of the people are false.  A tree from the forest is cut down, and worked with an ax by the hands of a craftsman.  Men deck it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it cannot move.
That’s really in the Bible, Jeremiah 10:2-4.  And there was no doubt to Eugene Peterson’s mother that the prophet Jeremiah was talking about the false practices of American Christmases.

Peterson’s father would get out the ax a couple of weeks before Christmas.  He was a butcher and did not tolerate dull tools.  He sharpened the ax, then the family piled into the Model A pickup.  They drove about ten miles to just the right spot in the Swan Range of the Rocky Mountains.  Eugene got to pick the tree, and then his father swung the ax.  “A tree from the forest is cut down,” said the prophet.

His father would square the base of the trunk so that it would be easy to mount when they got home.  He would work deftly with the ax.  “Worked with an ax by the hands of a craftsman,” the prophet said.

When they got home, his father would take packing boxes from the butcher shop and cut them into 18-inch supports, which he would nail to the tree trunk.  “They fasten it with hammer and nails so it cannot move,” wrote Jeremiah.

Finally, lights and ornaments and tinsel were draped around the tree.  “Men deck it with silver and gold…the customs of the people are false.”

And so, that Christmas when he was 8 years old, there was no Christmas tree.  Eugene Peterson was embarrassed, humiliated in the way only 8-year olds can be humiliated.  His friends always visited each other’s homes to see their Christmas tree and what kind of decorations they had.  That year, he just made excuses about why friends couldn’t come over--his sister had a contagious disease, his mom was really mad and wouldn’t let him have any friends over.  The worst part was the fact that to him, it was so obvious – in the front window, where there always stood a tree, there was nothing.  It was there for anybody to not see, advertised to the whole world that there was something seriously wrong with this family.

On Christmas Day they always had a real Norwegian Christmas.  Lutefisk, lefsa, all the foods from the old country, and lots of talk.  Peterson’s favorite uncle was the biggest talker and the best storyteller.  He posed as an atheist, mostly to bother Peterson’s mother.  He was also the only one ever to use profanity in the house.  That Christmas, he had a field day.  “Evelyn, how the hell are we going to have a Norwegian Christmas without a tree?”  But Eugene’s mother had just the response: “Brother, we are not celebrating a Norwegian Christmas this year; we are celebrating a Christian Christmas.”  Then she got out Jeremiah and read it to him, and he was astonished.  For a little while, he was quiet.

The next year, the family had a Christmas tree again.  No explanation was ever offered.  Looking back on that experience, Peterson wrote:
The feelings I had that Christmas when I was eight years old may have been the most authentically Christmas feelings I have ever had, or will have: the experience of humiliation, of being misunderstood, of being an outsider.  Mary was pregnant out of wedlock.  Joseph was an apparent cuckold.  Jesus was born in poverty… the people in the story were aware, deeply aware, that the event they were living was counter to the culture and issued from the Spirit’s power… 

So, Mother, thank you.  Thank you for providing me with a taste of the humiliation that comes from pursuing a passionate conviction in Christ.  Thank you for introducing into my spirit a seed of discontent with all cultural displays of religion.  Thank you for being relaxed in grace and reckless enough to make a mistake…  Thank you for the courage to give me Jesus without tinsel, embarrassing as it was.

Thank you for taking away the Christmas tree when I was 8 years old.  And thank you for giving it back the next year.  (Stories For The Christian Year, Macmillan, 1992, pp. 9-17)
This is not an encouragement to do away with our Christmas trees, or or seasonal celebrations.  But looking more closely at Joseph helps us see how sparkly and sanitized and smooth and easy Christmas has become.

The scandal of Christmas is the scandal of incarnation – God became human flesh.  And how did this come about?  God came as a baby, born to unwed parents.  This birth was the subject of rumors.  Jesus was born in poverty, in an insignificant little country.  Born in a barn with all the accompanying sights and smells, the only visitors lowly shepherds.  Shortly after he was born, this child became a refugee.

Through it all Joseph was there, strong, quiet, faithful.  Joseph’s legacy is not in what he says.  In the birth stories, we have Mary’s song, but Joseph does not utter a word.  In the whole Bible, Joseph does not speak a single word – and yet he speaks volumes by what he does.

Faithfulness isn’t supposed to be easy.  If it were, it wouldn’t mean anything.  The Incarnation wasn’t easy.  If it were, it wouldn’t mean anything.

It’s not easy to focus on giving in a culture of acquisition.  It’s not easy to celebrate the Prince of Peace in a world of violence.  It’s not easy to hold out for real hope and real joy in a world satisfied with cheap, temporary substitutes.

It’s not easy, but we have examples.  Examples like Joseph.  Strong, faithful, willing to follow God even when it wasn’t easy.  Not glitzy or flashy, content to not be the center of attention, willing to put himself on the line, willing to stand against the powers that surrounded him.  Joseph was a righteous person who showed us that true righteousness is filled with love and mercy and humility and being willing to listen.  True righteousness is seen in the way we value others.

Today is the first day of a New Year.  For a lot of us, this is a time for making resolutions, a time for thinking about how we might want to make changes in the year ahead.  We could do a lot worse than resolving to be more like Joseph.  Amen.

“Christmas Conflict” - December 4, 2016

Texts: Isaiah 11:1-10, Matthew 3:1-12

I always enjoy the scripture readings from the prophets during the season of Advent.  This year, we will be hearing from the prophet Isaiah each week.  In last week’s reading from Isaiah, we read about beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.  A wonderful, hopeful vision, with words worthy of a Christmas card.

Today we are in Isaiah chapter 11.  Included in this reading is a vision of what is called the Peaceable Kingdom:     

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
   the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
   and a little child shall lead them.
This is another scene that makes it into many of our Christmas cards – a scene of peace and serenity.

We sometimes see this lived out at our house.  Our dog Rudy and our cat Harry will hang out together, taking naps, and it can be cute and cuddly.  I say it can be, because it does not always end up cute and cuddly.  We have had Rudy for several years.  He likes to take naps in his brown bed in his kennel.  But last year, we got Harry, a kitten then and a big cat now.  Harry tends to take over things, he’s kind of an alpha cat, and more often than not, he is the one sleeping in Rudy’s brown bed in the kennel.  Rudy will be sleeping right beside him, in another dog bed on the floor, except that Rudy is outside of the kennel, separated by the heavy metal wire of the kennel.  And that is probably just as well.

From time to time we will hear a story that can make us think of the wolf and the lamb, or the calf and the lion.  Awhile back there was a story from a zoo in Thailand of a tiger raising a group of piglets.  There was video of piglets nursing from their adopted mother, a tiger, who seemed perfectly content with the whole thing.  The piglets were actually wearing little tiger-stripe costumes, but that was just for show for the zoo visitors.  It was a picture of peace. 

This morning we lit the second Advent candle, the candle of peace.  This is a season for thinking and reflecting on peace.  We think of the message of the angels of “Peace on earth, good will to all people.”

But while we read of peace and sing of peace, there is an elephant in the room, since we are going with animal images this morning.  Or to be more accurate, a locust-eating, camel skin-wearing, fire and brimstone preaching prophet in the room named John the Baptist.

John the Baptizer appears in the wilderness of Judea, preparing the way for his cousin Jesus.  He had an interesting marketing plan.  He threatened people with destruction if they didn’t repent, called them snakes fleeing from the wrath of God, and chaff that would be burned up in unquenchable fire.  His sermons must have made you feel just so good.  Just the kind of thing you want to put on your Christmas card.  There is a reason John doesn’t get included in Nativity scenes. 

And so in our scriptures for today, we have peace and calm and togetherness on the one hand and an angry guy in the wilderness pointing out sin and calling for repentance on the other.  What do we make of this?  And wouldn’t we be better off putting John somewhere else, anywhere else but on the Sunday we light the candle of peace?

Well, there is a tension, to be sure.  Our first instinct may be to just listen to read Isaiah and kind of ignore John today.  But it strikes me that tension is where we live a lot of our lives, and perhaps considering both of these scriptures together might be helpful.  (Or maybe not, but we’re going to try it anyway.) 

Let’s be honest: facing tension is as much a part of the holidays as egg nog and fruitcake and Frosty the Snowman.  This is a time of joy, a time for family and friends, a time for celebration – this is all true.  But it is also a difficult time and a time of competing feelings.

This is a season for joyful celebrations, but it is also a time when losses are deeply felt.  There are those for whom this will be the first Christmas without a loved one, and it will be a very different Christmas.  They joy will be rather muted.  For some, it will be all they can do to get through Christmas.

This is a time when we send cards with sentiments like “Peace on Earth,” but we make these proclamations in the midst of a violent world.  There is a tension.  We may speak of “peace on earth” when we don’t really feel it in our hearts.  We speak of peace while we deal with disagreements and conflicts and anxiety. 

Many of us will join with family at Christmas.  But sometimes, these family get-togethers are not exactly smooth sledding.  Some will walk on eggshells around certain family members.  Some of us will have to bite our tongues at times, maybe more so than usual this year.  Some of us are feeling weighed down by stress.  It’s just part of the deal.

And then, trying to make Christmas a celebration of Jesus’ birth when it has culturally become more of a celebration of commercial excess causes a certain tension.  Larry Lindley is the director of the Edna Martin Christian Center in Indianapolis, one of our American Baptist neighborhood centers.  A few years ago, a department store in Indianapolis was giving away Christmas trees they had used in a previous season.  These were very nice, perfectly good artificial trees.  And so Larry called to see if they could have one for the Edna Martin Center.

The store told him that they were sorry, but they could not give Christmas trees away to a religious organization.  Does anyone see the irony?  Starbuck cups are somehow important to Christmas, but on the other hand the Christmas spirit is not something to share with religious organizations.  The celebration of Christmas has in many ways been co-opted by the culture.  Yes, we have conflict at Christmas. 

Conflict is a part of life.  Cats and dogs, lions and lambs, tigers and pigs.  We celebrate with Rodney and Rachel as they graduate and go on to begin their careers, but you know, there can be conflict in the workplace.  There is conflict between generations and between those with differing values and understandings, different tastes and sensibilities.  And conflict is within us too: we feel joy and sadness, excitement and loss, hope and despair, all at the same time.  We might feel it even more strongly in this Advent season.

I told you about our dog Rudy and our cat Harry.  The three of us will sometimes take a nap together – we are all pretty good at it, especially on Sunday afternoons.  And it all goes well until Harry wakes up and thinks, you know, I think I’m going to just bite Rudy, just for fun.  And there is a yelp and then barking and chasing and pandemonium.  The peaceful feeling does not last.  Woody Allen famously said that the lion will lie down with the lamb, but the lamb won’t get much sleep.

So maybe it is appropriate that this morning we have Isaiah on the one hand and John on the other.  Isaiah holds out the Peaceable Kingdom, the vision and hope for peace among people and nations and between those who are very different from each other.  But then John comes along and reminds us that it’s not easy, and that maybe the problem isn’t simply out there, but it’s also in here.  

John was quite a sight: he ate honey and locusts, dressed in camel hair, and called people to repent.  He preached out in the wilderness and people flocked to him for baptism.  But when some of the Pharisees and Saducees, religious and political leaders, came to him, he let them have it.  “You brood of vipers!” he said.  “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”  In other words, just saying the right words won’t cut it.  Show by your lives the change in your heart.

If a Peaceable Kingdom is to come, then those things that hold back peace will have to go.  We will have to prepare the way of the Lord.  We will all need to let go of violence and vengefulness and hatred and jealousy.  John’s words may be necessary for us to get to Isaiah’s vision.  Maybe we need to do some repenting in order to help bring about God’s peace.

Now, Isaiah knew something about turmoil.  The Hebrew people had been split into two nations.  Israel, the northern kingdom, had already been captured by the Assyrians.  During Isaiah’s lifetime, the southern kingdom of Judah would be defeated by the Babylonians and the people taken into captivity.  Before any of this, both Israel and Judah had seen a long procession of mostly lousy rulers.  Corrupt kings who turned their backs on God, who had no concern for justice.  We looked at a couple of those leaders, Ahab and Jezebel, a few weeks ago.  Like Israel before, the southern kingdom of Judah was now reaping the fruits of turning from God.  It was a dark time.

But in the midst of all this, Isaiah has a soaring, wonderful vision of what God would do.  Isaiah was able to see beyond the immediate moment, beyond imminent destruction, to a bright future.  It was a powerful vision of unexpected hope.

At the moment, Judah was in ruins.  Isaiah describes the state of the nation as being akin to a forest that had been wiped out.  The trees were all gone.  Utter devastation.  But “a shoot shall come from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”  This vision of a coming Messiah came in a time of conflict and even despair.

Peace is not the absence of conflict.  Most of the time, peace is more like a gift of God that we may experience in the midst of the storm.

The story is told of a king who offered a prize to the artist who would paint the best picture of peace.  Artists from far and wide entered the competition.  The king looked at all the paintings, but there were only two that he really liked and he had to choose between them.

One was of a calm lake.  The lake was a perfect mirror, and peaceful towering mountains were all around it.  Overhead was a blue sky with fluffy white clouds.  Everyone who saw this painting thought that it was a perfect picture of peace.

The other picture had mountains too.  But these were rugged and bare.  Above was an angry sky.  Rain was falling and lightning was flashing.   Down the side of the mountain tumbled a foaming waterfall.

At first glance, this painting did not look peaceful at all.  But on closer inspection, behind the waterfall there was a small bush growing in a crack in the rock.  In the bush a mother bird had built her nest.  There, in the midst of the rush of water, sat the mother bird on her nest... perfect peace.

The king chose the second picture.  “Peace,” explained the king “does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise or trouble or hard work.  Peace means to be in the midst of all those things and still have calm in your heart.  That is the real meaning of peace.”

In this season, we will not likely experience that first picture of peace, not if we are reasonable aware of the world around us, and not if we are reasonably in touch with our own lives.  And yet – even in the midst of the storm, God is there.  Even in the darkest night, God’s light comes.  When we least expect it, a child is born, bringing peace on earth and peace to our hearts and lives.  Amen.