“How’s That Working Out for You?”

“How’s That Working Out for You?”

Sermon for Feb. 17, 2019, Epiphany 6C. The audio can be found here for several weeks.

Luke 6:17-26

 The Message (MSG)

Coming down off the mountain with them, he stood on a plain surrounded by disciples, and was soon joined by a huge congregation from all over Judea and Jerusalem, even from the seaside towns of Tyre and Sidon. They had come both to hear him and to be cured of their ailments. Those disturbed by evil spirits were healed. Everyone was trying to touch him—so much energy surging from him, so many people healed! Then he spoke:

You’re blessed when you’ve lost it all.
God’s kingdom is there for the finding.
You’re blessed when you’re ravenously hungry.
Then you’re ready for the Messianic meal.
You’re blessed when the tears flow freely.
Joy comes with the morning.

 “Count yourself blessed every time someone cuts you down or throws you out, every time someone smears or blackens your name to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and that that person is uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—skip like a lamb, if you like!—for even though they don’t like it, I do . . . and all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company; my preachers and witnesses have always been treated like this.

But it’s trouble ahead if you think you have it made.
    What you have is all you’ll ever get.

And it’s trouble ahead if you’re satisfied with yourself.
    Your self will not satisfy you for long.
And it’s trouble ahead if you think life’s all fun and games.
    There’s suffering to be met, and you’re going to meet it.

“There’s trouble ahead when you live only for the approval of others, saying what flatters them, doing what indulges them. Popularity contests are not truth contests—look how many scoundrel preachers were approved by your ancestors! Your task is to be true, not popular.

One of the things I have been so blessed by is the experience of living in other countries.  And one of the ways it is so enriching to live in other countries long term, is that you get to see how people look at things differently than we do here.  

So, I was in Romania, and was surprised to hear that the general opinion of policemen is very low.  My friends there told me that if you could do anything productive, you did it.  If you couldn’t, you could at least work in a factory.  But if that was beyond your ability, you could be a policeman.  (I don’t know if that opinion is still true — I was there in the early 1990s.)  

They resented policemen too.  In those days it was not uncommon for a traffic stop to turn into a minor shakedown.  

But, what was even more surprising to me, was that policemen would not shakedown Orthodox priests.  Why not?  Not out of respect, but because they feared being put under a curse.  Apparently being cursed by a priest was a real thing.  

Now, that just sounded bizarre to me.  Priests are supposed to bless, not curse, right? In fact, God is all about blessing, not cursing, according to my theology.  

But the truth is, God has not always been thought of in exclusively positive terms.  I remember being quite surprised when I learned that in the story of Moses’ farewell speech to the Israelites — which is what the book of Deuteronomy is — Moses details both the blessings and the curses of the covenant.  

This is called the doctrine of divine retribution — you get what’s coming to you.  You get blessed if you obey, and cursed if you disobey.  

I wouldn’t be surprised if you had never heard of this; Deuteronomy 28 never comes up in the Revised Common Lectionary texts for Sundays.  

But the blessings and curses are quite detailed and parallel in structure.  For example, in the story, Moses says, 

“If you will only obey the Lord your God, by diligently observing all his commandments…Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field….Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb, the fruit of your ground…But if you will not obey the Lord your God by diligently observing all his commandments…Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field. …Cursed shall be the fruit of your womb, the fruit of your ground.…” — and on and on.  

I saw a cartoon in a magazine that pictured God, up in the clouds in heaven, sitting in front of a computer.  On the keyboard were only two keys.  One said “bless” and the other said, “smite.”  That captures the ancient doctrine of retribution clearly.

That set of blessings and curses in Deuteronomy may not be familiar to us, but I’m sure it was well known by Jewish people who heard “Moses” being read at the synagogue gathering every Sabbath.  

The reason I told you that is because here in Luke’s gospel, we see Jesus using that same structure of parallel blessings and curses.  It would have been a familiar structure to his mostly-Jewish audience.  

But Jesus made some major changes that have great significance for us, so we will look at this text together.  

Mountain vs. Plain

Some of this may sound familiar to you.  Matthew records what we call the Beatitudes in his gospel too, although he does not include the parallel curses.  Matthew wants to show that Jesus is like the new Moses, so he sets Jesus’ sermon on a Mountain —  which is why we call it the Sermon on the Mount.  

But Luke has another agenda, and so Jesus gives this teaching down on a plain, literally a “level place.”  (BTW, it was common for the gospel writers to shift the settings of teachings of Jesus for their own editorial purposes).  

In the Message version, it said “a plain.”  The point is that Jesus was intentionally with the people, on their level, among them, literally being touched by them.  

As we said last week, when people were around Jesus, they sensed that they were in the presence of a Spirit-person.  They experienced healing in his presence.  (That must have been amazing to be a part of!).

One of the powerful ways in which Jesus revolutionized our understanding of God was to bring him down the mountain, out of the smokey clouds of Sinai, down on our level where he could touch us, and we could connect with the Divine, without fear.  We take that for granted now: that was a huge shift.  (

God is with us, we believe, at every moment of our lives, in every breath, luring us by the Spirit to the next right thing; coaxing us towards the next moment of love, of compassion, of understanding and of forgiveness.  Jesus was demonstrating that by coming down onto the level ground where he could be touched and where he could touch people.

With Whom?

Who were the people there?  Luke specifically tells us.  They were:

“from all over Judea and Jerusalem, even from the seaside towns of Tyre and Sidon.”

The ones from Judea were, of course, Jewish, but the people of Tyre and Sidon were Gentiles.  Again and again, we see Jesus’ inclusion of outsiders and enemies.  Everyone was welcome; no one was shamed or denied access.  

This too is a huge and revolutionary perspective.  In the Hebrew Bible, Gentiles were not allowed into the part of the temple where sacrifices were made.  

But for Jesus, there were no distinctions that mattered, and therefore no barriers.  You could not be a nationalist and a follower of Jesus.  The two are simply and utterly contradictory.  That is still true today.(pause)

Blessing and Curses

So now let us look at the blessings and curses.  First, I purposefully read this text from the Message Version because of the way those words “blessed” and “cursed” are translated.  You heard the word “blessed” by you did not hear the word “cursed” today. In the NRSV which I normally read from, you would have heard this:

“Blessed are you who are poor… But woe to you who are rich….”  

Woe is a denunciation, a curse.  But the Message translates it “There’s trouble ahead” and that is also an important point.  “Trouble ahead” is a natural consequence, not something from the sky.   

In other words, Jesus is not saying that God is going to smite people or curse them, but that their own way of living could end up producing disastrous results.  

People can, and do, end up living in a hell of their own making.  (pause)

It is like when doctor Phil hears someone describing their lifestyle and asks them, “So, how is that working out for you?”  knowing full well that their answer is going to reveal that what they had been trying to justify to themselves was hurting them and others.  At some level, they already know it.

So this is another revolutionary change, by Jesus.  God is not up there waiting for people to smite.  Jesus rejected the doctrine of divine retribution.  

Back in the 1990s, a travel guide for Romania described the completely disorganized process they had for buying a train ticket; there were no lines, you just had to elbow and shove your way up to the window.  The guide said that buying a train ticket there made you feel like you were being punished by God.

But God doesn’t curse people.  Jesus said that God’s sun shines, and rain falls on the fields of the righteous and the unrighteous equally.  But, people can and do live in unproductive and even destructive ways. Or alternatively, we can live in ways that lead to blessing for ourselves and for others.  So let’s look at those ways.  

Here in this text, all the blessings are listed together, followed by the “trouble ahead” lines, but because they are parallel, I want us to hear them together:

“You’re blessed when you’ve lost it all, God’s kingdom is there for the finding… But it’s trouble ahead if you think you have it made. What you have is all you’ll ever get.


“You’re blessed when you’re ravenously hungry. Then you’re ready for the Messianic meal…. [but] it’s trouble ahead if you’re satisfied with yourself. Your self will not satisfy you for long.


“You’re blessed when the tears flow freely. Joy comes with the morning…. [but] it’s trouble ahead if you think life’s all fun and games.  There’s suffering to be met, and you’re going to meet it.

“Count yourself blessed every time someone cuts you down or throws you out, every time someone smears or blackens your name to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and that that person is uncomfortable… [but] “There’s trouble ahead when you live only for the approval of others, saying what flatters them, doing what indulges them. Popularity contests are not truth contests—look how many scoundrel preachers were approved by your ancestors! Your task is to be true, not popular.”

Two Alternative Ways of Being

I wish we had time to take them line by line; we don’t.  But together they present two alternative ways to live; two alternative perspectives on the meaning of life; two different ways of being in the world.  

One is for the here and now, for the self, for maximizing pleasure and avoiding pain.   There is only trouble ahead for that way of living.  

The other way is the embrace of pain and suffering because death always comes before resurrection.  

As Jesus said, a seed has to be buried to produce new life.  

So whether the suffering is from literal poverty, even hunger — which would have been the case for most of Jesus’ followers, the peasants of Galilee — or whether the suffering is social disapproval (or worse), or any other cause of tears in the present, the fact is that God is with you in your suffering.  

In fact, God is on a level with you, being touched by the things that touch you, literally feeling your pain.  

Which is why you, then, know how to be there for others in their pain.  You respond to poverty and hunger with compassion.  You open your heart and your church and your home to those who have been despised, marginalized, and discriminated against.  

There is a circular motion here, which is what true spirituality looks like: from our own deep connection with God, involving the cycles of deaths and resurrections throughout life, around to our relationship to the people of the world; the cycle goes round and round.  

But it not automatic.  There are ways of living that only lead to “trouble ahead.”  It is like what I just heard on the news, there is a condition they call “pre-diabetic”.  It means that if the person continues to live the same way, diabetes is likely in their future.  There’s trouble ahead, unless intentional changes are made.  

The selfish life, I believe, is not worth living.  But the life lived with intentional spiritual practices leads to blessing, and, in the end, deep joy.  That is why we so often talk about the importance of regular spiritual practices like meditation.  We long for one of the alternative way of being in the world, and not the other.  

I love the way the Message version translates the last line:

“Your task is to be true”

Yes, I think we all affirm that.  Our task is to be true, to be authentic, to be congruent followers of Jesus, walking on that level plain, with God, and with all of those other people whom God is not ashamed to be touched by. 

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There is Enough

There is Enough

Sermon for Feb. 10, 2019, Epiphany +5 Year C. Audio will be available here for several weeks.

Luke 5:1-11

Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who are partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”

I’ve tried to imagine what it was like to be in one of those crowds who came to listen to Jesus.  We do not know too much.  No one who was there wrote about it — at least not that we know of.  The earliest historical description of how a gospel was written comes from Eusebius in the 4th century.  He said that he had heard from Bishop Papias that Mark, the first gospel, got his knowledge of Jesus’ teaching from listening to Peter’s sermons.  We don’t know if that is true, but that’s what Eusebius believed.  So, we do not have eye-witness gospels, but rather a tradition, passed down orally for decades, and eventually written down.  

The Spirt-Person

So, we are left to our imaginations based on the texts as we have them.  What was it like to be in Jesus’ company?  We have enough evidence for people like New Testament scholar Marcus Borg to call Jesus a “spirit-man.”  

“Spirit-man” is an anthropological category.  There are people in every culture who are “spirit-people.”  In some cultures, they are priests, in others, shamans, or prophets.  

A spirit-person is someone who has frequent and intense experiences of the divine realm, perhaps visions or other kinds of mystical experiences.  

People identify a person as a spirit-person because they sense something about them that attracts them.  People seek out spirit-people because they seem to be able to convey a sense of the non-material world.   

To put it in Christian language, you sense the presence of God when you are around a spirit-person.  That’s exactly what Peter felt at the end of this story when he knelt before Jesus and felt unworthy to be with him.  

I think that is how people felt about Jesus.  Luke tells us that when Jesus taught, people came expecting to hear no less than “the word of God.”  That’s saying a lot.  

Jesus was famous for teaching about the kingdom of God using short stories called parables.  In his book on Parables, New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan says that the early Christian community continued that practice of telling parables — not about the kingdom, but about Jesus.  

You can feel free to take this story as literally historical, or any way you wish; I take it as a parable.  Parables try to say what is true in the form of a story.  So what true things does this story tell us?

The Setting of Scarcity

Details matter.  The setting is beside the lake where Peter and the others make their living as fishermen.  There are two empty boats on shore.  The fishermen are doing what they did after they had returned from fishing: mending their nets.  

The Hebrew Bible, in several places, speaks of the places where fishermen spread their nets as barren, empty places, so already we are getting hints that scarcity is going to be a theme in this story.  

Jesus asks Simon, whom we know as Peter, to row him a bit offshore so he can teach the crowd that had gathered.  We presume he wants to use the water as a natural megaphone, at least that’s our guess; Luke doesn’t explain.  

Anyway, they do, but when Jesus is finished teaching, he makes a curious request of Peter, saying, 

“Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”

In Deep Water

Peter is going to end up in deep water soon enough.  In fact, he will feel like he is in over his head already by the end of this story, and there is much more to come for him as he journeys with Jesus.  

I believe that is exactly what anyone who wants to follow Jesus should be prepared for.  It is deep water.  It is deep because of the inner-work it requires of us, and because of the outward implications for our lifestyle, our relationships, and our life goals.  

The Objection (Ego)

Peter objects.  Why?  Well, he gives a reason.  He says,

“Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.”

But that is just the surface answer.  Maybe the deeper water is that he is a professional fisherman who knows his business, and he does not need to be told how to do his job by a non-specialist, no matter how good a teacher he may be.  

In other words, it may well be an ego issue. “Don’t tell me what to do.”  He says, “look I have experience, I know this is not a good time or place for fishing.  They aren’t there today.  He says,

“we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.”

Maybe the implication that Peter doesn’t know his own business is insulting.  Well, that is the ego at work.  That is the small self that needs to use externals to prop up the self-image.  

Richard Rohr says that anytime we are insulted, it’s the ego, false-self that is being insulted.  Your true self, who you are as a beloved child of God, cannot be insulted.  But the ego can.  

The ego never has enough.  The ego lives in perpetual scarcity.  There is never enough appreciation, there is never enough praise, or admiration to make the ego feel fulfilled and secure.  This is a scarcity story on many levels.  

So Peter objects.  But, on the other hand, he is already in the boat with Jesus.  Maybe he has already started to do some ego-work as he has heard Jesus pronounce blessings on the “meek,” the “peacemakers,” and the “pure in heart.”  In any case, he has a change of heart, and agrees to stay in the boat with Jesus, and head out to the deep water.  

The Catch

So they do.  And we know how it goes: they let down the nets, and, Luke says,

“they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink.” 

I have seen the boat in the museum in Israel that archeologists found on the shores of that lake.  They believe it is from the first century, which means it was one of the fishing boats used by people like Peter.  It’s 26 feet long, over 7 feet wide and over 5 feet high.  

In other words, it would take an enormous number of fish to get it close to sinking.   For a fisherman, this kind of catch would be like winning the lottery.  There is so much, it’s nearly too much.  So, the story has turned 180 degrees, from scarcity to abundance.  

Abundance

There are several levels of abundance we see in this story.  Let’s start with the fish, on the surface level.  Jesus is going to ask Peter and the others to join him on his itinerant ministry.  They will leave their fishing jobs and set out with someone who will describe himself later saying 

birds have nests and foxes have holes, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”  

And yet, they will be taken care of.  There will be enough.  Trusting that there will be enough is the key to their decision to abandon fishing and follow Jesus.

That’s the level we start on too.  Following Jesus begins when we have sufficient trust to believe that there will be enough, so that we can live lives, not exclusively for ourselves but for others.   There is enough to give some of it away on behalf of others in need.  

Generosity does not come from a narrative of scarcity, but of abundance.  Following Jesus means living into the narrative of abundance.  

Unworthiness

Let’s go down to a deeper level.  We talked about Peter’s ego-battle that first made him resistant to following the fishing advice of a non-specialist.  We said that the false, ego-self will always live in the scarcity narrative of never being sufficiently protected.  

It goes even further in this story.  In the end, after the miraculous abundance of fish, Peter instinctively recognizes that this had been a divine encounter.  Only a spirit-person of exceptional connection to the divine could have made that miraculous catch happen.  

So, in response, what does Peter do?  He feels unworthy.  Luke says,

“But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!””

This is a deeper kind of scarcity.  It is the scarcity of undervaluing our belovedness in God’s eyes.  Jesus never wanted to make anyone feel unworthy, or dirty, or shameful, or sinful.  Jesus was the one that said, “neither do I condemn you.”  So here, we watch as Jesus rejects Peter’s guilt and shame, saying to him:

“Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”

In other words, “you have nothing to fear, I am not here to judge or condemn.  Not only that, but there’s more: I have a future for you.  You are important.  You are going to be part of the mission.  You have a role to play in a good future.”

The Next Good Thing

This is what God is constantly doing in every moment in our lives.  The Spirit is present, luring us, coaxing us, encouraging us to do the next right thing, the next good thing, the next trusting, loving, compassionate, merciful thing.  And so, to start, we believe in our own belovedness.  Our true selves are who we are as God’s beloved daughters and sons.  

I was talking with someone about their interesting tattoo the other day, which they said they regretted because it came from a relationship they were no longer in.  I don’t have any tattoos (yet?) but I replied that the only ones I think I would ever get would be the names of my two sons.  No matter what, they will always be my sons, and I will always love them.  

How did we ever think that God could love us any less than that?  “God is love” according to the New Testament.  And that is exactly what Jesus modeled for Peter, saying, in effect, “Get up; stop groveling; you are loved.  I have a future for you; a future of abundance.”  

Imitating Jesus

Let’s go further.  We follow Jesus by imitating his response to Peter.  We do not judge people, we do not shame people, we do not put people under a load of guilt, but instead, we take people just as they are, and become part of their good future, their next good thing.   

There is enough mercy, enough compassion, enough forgiveness in our hearts to fill up two boats and nearly break the nets.  We have an abundance of goodwill because we have been the recipients of God’s abundant compassion.  

We become, for others, agents of reconciliation by our acceptance of their belovedness.  Together, we form a beloved community, working for the reconciliation of the world.  

We can do this because we are not just theoretical Christians, we are practicing Christians.  We believe in the daily spiritual practices that are specifically designed to help us do the ego-work.  

We take time for daily meditation which trains us to disbelieve the narrator we all have in our minds, that is so concerned about ourselves.  

We write in our gratitude journals, training ourselves to look for and celebrate the good in us and all around us.  

We pray for each other, we worship together, we serve our community, and do all of the practices of a Christian so that we can be followers of Jesus, living in God’s gracious abundance.  

There is enough.  There will always be enough, maybe not for everyone’s greed, but definitely for everyone’s need.  

Jesus’ Beautiful Vision

Jesus’ Beautiful Vision

Sermon for Feb. 3, 2019, Epiphany +4, Year C. An audio version can be found here for several weeks.

Luke 4:21-30

Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

What kind of story is this? It’s odd. It’s part of the way Luke introduces Jesus, but it’s a strange introduction. It starts well, but goes south quickly, and ends eerily.  So, let’s look at it together, and then ask what it means for us.  

Starts Happy

First, it looks like it could have been a “home town boy getting famous, returns home,” happy story, but, as I said, it turns sour.  And it’s Jesus’ own fault that it turns sour.  

They all like him and speak well of him at the outset.  He has just read that prophecy from Isaiah (that we looked at last week) in which he seems to identify himself with the Spirit-anointed Servant of the Lord that Isaiah imaged would come in the future as a Messiah figure.  

He has just said that the year of Jubilee had arrived and that the prophecy was being fulfilled, which makes everyone happy.  

An Assessment?

But then, it’s as though there is a gap, and something happens that Luke doesn’t bother to tell us about.  I imagine something like this: Jesus pauses, looks at them, and makes an assessment.  He knows them all; this is his little hometown of Nazareth where he grew up.  It has less than 200 people, and they are all related.  

So, he has heard them talking around the dinner table, he has heard the men talking as they take the two-hour walk over to the nearby city of Sepphoris, where most of them are construction day-laborers.  

He has heard how they feel about the Romans, about the occupation of their homeland, about the Roman massacre that happened in Sepphoris, after an attempted rebellion, just before he was born.  I imagine he knows all the Hebrew swear-words.   

He knows that if they really understood his vision for them, they wouldn’t like it.  It had nothing to do with vengeance against the Romans.  In fact, quite the opposite.  

The Healer and the Wound

They all like him initially because he has a reputation as a healer.  Everybody wants a quick cure, and everybody has something they need to be cured of.  

But he seems to have made the assessment that as soon as they find out what he is up to, they will tell him to keep his healings for himself and leave.  

So he seems to have made up his mind to provoke them — to touch the wound, right where it hurts.  He wants everyone to lay their cards on the table face up.  

So he starts first, by laying his cards on the table.  He says, in effect, “I know you people, and you are not going to like me.  You are going to tell me to heal myself, which will be our break-up line.  I get it.”  

2 Foreigner Stories

So then, he touches the wound.  Here’s how: he reminds them of two stories; stories everyone knows well; stories from the Hebrew Bible.  They both have exactly one thing in common – which is the wound he is touching.  

The first story is about the time the great prophet Elijah had fled for his life from Queen Jezebel, who had sworn to kill him (long story).  So, to evade her grasp, Elijah crossed the border into neighboring Sidon, and took refuge with a desperately poor widow and her boy.  They were about to die of starvation, but, long story short, Elijah performs a miracle which saves them, by providing a steady stream of oil and meal.  So, a happy ending.

The next story was about Elijah’s successor prophet, Elisha.  He also performed a miracle. He cured a man of leprosy.  The man happened to be Naaman, who was not only a foreigner, a Syrian, he was a commander of the Syrian army.  

So Jesus has just brought up two stories they all know well, which have in common exactly one thing: they both involve God doing something amazing for non-Israelites; for foreigners.  And this is exactly the point Jesus makes:

“But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, … yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”

And that is the wound: foreigners.  Most people despised the Romans and the Roman occupation.  They remembered the massacre and they would have liked nothing better than revenge.  

We can almost hear them thinking, “Fire and brimstone would be nice.   Or, if God needs the help of a rebel army, then sign me up, and find me a sword.  The best outcome would be no more foreigners standing on the soil of the Promised Land.”

One version of “the perfect world” would be one in which “our people” and only “our people” were free to do exactly what we all wanted to do, as we have always done in the past (when we were free to do it our way) without the inconvenience of people not-like-us and their different ways.  

The Story Gets Ugly

So then, the story gets ugly.  Jesus had just laid out an entirely alternative vision of the perfect world, and it specifically included foreigners.  And he had the audacity to show that his view lined up with God’s view, as expressed in their own tradition, the stories in their own Hebrew Bible.  Ouch.

So, here’s how Luke says what happened next:

“When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.” 

So, maybe this is an attempted murder story.  Or maybe it’s a mob-violence story.  But then, it gets eerie as Luke says,

“But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”

Jesus’ International Strategy

Whatever that may mean, I have no idea.  In any case, Jesus left Nazareth at once.  According to Matthew, he made Capernaum his new headquarters (Matt. 4:3).  

Capernaum is on the shores of Lake Tiberius, also called the Sea of Galilee, a fishing village, home to Peter and others.  It also sits right on one of the two major trade routes from Mesopotamia, to Egypt. 

So, it was a busy place, crisscrossed by traders and travelers from many nations.  If you wanted to spread a message internationally, Capernaum would be the natural place to start.

From there, Jesus established an itinerant ministry, spreading his message all over Galilee.  But not just Jewish Galilee.  According to Matthew and Mark, Jesus also intentionally traveled into the region known as the Decapolis, meaning the Ten Cities, that had Jewish minorities, but were Gentile cities.  

The story of Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician or “Canaanite” woman, with the sick daughter, took place there.  So, Jesus’ ministry was intentionally international.  

For Jesus, there were no national or ethnic borders that confined God’s love.  To God, there are no foreigners.

Jesus’ strategy in all those places seemed to revolve around three activities: healing, which drew the crowds, teaching about the kingdom of God, mostly by parables, and establishing common meals.  

Those meals were meant to enact Jesus’ vision of the kingdom.  They were intentionally mixed; men and women, Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, religious and not, Kosher and not.  This was radical, unprecedented, and astounding.  He actually got a bad reputation in some circles for this practice.  

The practice of having those mixed meals is what the church tries to represent in symbolic form as we celebrate the Eucharist.  “Eucharist” literally means “thanksgiving.”  That is what we do when we share the bread and cup together: we give thanks.

Salvation 

For what?  For salvation.  Meaning what?  Many things, including that we have been saved from the default human condition, of believing that the perfect world is an “us vs. them” world.  

If you want that kind of world, you need to be willing to do what must be done to get it.  History is full of the horrors of what “must be done” to try to achieve that world.  You don’t have to go back to the Third Rich and the Holocaust, you could just go back to the horrific war in the Balkans, in former Yugoslavia, that I witnessed the effects of.  

Or, you could just read the New York Times article about the 900 people killed this past week, in one of the Congo’s ethnically motivated atrocities.  

It’s a very old, very common story.  And that is exactly what we have been saved from.

Because of Jesus, we have been given a vision, not of an ethnically “pure” humanity, but of a reconciled humanity.  This is not just theory.  

I have seen this, personally.  As the war between Serbs, Croats and Bosnians was still raging in Bosnia, including the massacres at Šrebrenica and Jeppa, Serbian, Bosnian, and Croatian students lived, studied and worshipped together at the Christian college where I was teaching in Croatia.  

By the way, that was the same time of the Hutu’s genocide of the Tutsi’s in Rwanda.  But it was also the time of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa that prevented a bloodbath of reprisals after Apartheid.  There are two visions for humanity, with real-world consequences.  

Evolution and Tribalism

We know all about the evolutionary development of humans.  It’s true that we survived because we cooperated in tribes that out-competed other rival tribes for food sources.  So we have a long history of tribalism.  

Perhaps at some level, it is hard-wired into our brains to feel “us vs. them” about the world.   But that was back when we had bones in our noses and animal skins on our backs.  We are not cavemen anymore. We have developed rational brains that understand speech communication.  We have the capacity to cooperate on a scale never before imagined — a global scale.  

Sometimes reporters tell us that “fighting broke out,” like the flu “breaks out.”  But conflict is not automatic; it is man-made (yes, mostly by men).  We do not have to keep having World Wars, or any wars at all.  Jesus’ vision can be realized.  Humanity can be reconciled — this is not a pipe dream.  

But it is not the default position.  It seems that the default position is to feel like they did in Nazareth that Sabbath morning when Jesus spoke of God’s love for all the people in the world.  

The default position is to build walls instead of bridges.  That’s why the announcement of the kingdom of God comes with a call to repent — to change our thinking.  Humans need to be saved from our propensity to become a murderous mob, or isolated nativists.  Eventually, Jesus died for what he believed and proclaimed. 

But we are here on this Christian “Sabbath”, and we will gather around a table of thanksgiving today because Jesus is alive in our hearts.  

Jesus’ vision of a reconciled humanity, a beloved community, is alive in us too.  “In Christ, there is no East or West.”  That’s why this story is not a sad one.  Even though there is a death, there is also a resurrection.  The vision lives on!  We are the people of the Jesus-vision!  Amen.

Liberation in Theory and Practice

Liberation in Theory and Practice

Sermon for Jan. 27, 2019, Epiphany +3C Audio will be available here for several weeks.

Isaiah, 61:1-4

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners; 
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn; 
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

Luke 4:14-21

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
“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.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

I took the risk of possibly making you bored by reading two nearly identical texts.  I thought for a while about it.  I don’t want you to be bored, in fact just the opposite.  I hope you are interested.  But I wanted you to have the opportunity to experience the same “ah-ha” lightbulb turning on moment that I had back in seminary.  We were all familiar with the fact that when Jesus stood up to read the scroll that day in the synagogue, he was reading from Isaiah 61.  The surprise came not from what he read, or even from his assertion that Isaiah’s prophecy was being fulfilled right then and there; the surprise came in what he did not read.  

Isaiah said, 

    “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,

because the Lord has anointed me; (for several purposes including)…to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;”

Jesus said, 

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me…
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he stopped, in the middle of Isaiah’s sentence, purposefully omitting the phrase “and the day of vengeance of our God;”

My jaw dropped when that was first shown to me.  It is significant on many levels at once.  Most obviously it shows that Jesus’ vision was non-violent.  Vengeance was off the table as an option.  He made this clear over and over, saying, “blessed are the meek…blessed are the peacemakers…turn the other cheek, go the second mile, those who live by the sword die by the sword, If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over”.  

So right from the start of Jesus’ ministry, he made it clear that the kingdom he was announcing was committed to non-violence.   

Jesus and Scripture

There is another level of significance here.  Jesus both revered the ancient text of scripture, but also felt free to go beyond it.  He did this many times.  Famously in Matthew, in the collection of Jesus’ sayings that Matthew organized into one long teaching that we now call the Sermon on the Mount, there is a string of sayings that start, “you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times”  and then he quotes scripture, primarily the ten commandments, and then he says, “But I say to you…” (Matt. 5).  Jesus had this sense of confidence in his own moral compass to the degree that he felt free to bend and shape the tradition he had received in scripture in profoundly new ways.  

There are many directions we could go with all of this, but today we only have time for two.  But these two are amazing and, I hope, anything but boring.  Both of them involve Jesus shaping the tradition in new and deeply profound ways.  First, we will look at the Jubilee tradition, then the Exodus tradition.

A New Jubilee

Most of you are probably aware that in the Law of Moses there were laws about Israel’s religious life, and moral life, and also laws about their social life: how they should be organized as a community. In the social area, they had laws that stipulated that every fifty years all debts were forgiven, all land was returned to its original owner, indentured slaves were set free. It was called the year of Jubilee.  It was also called the year of the Lord’s favor. (Lev. 25) That’s what it is called by Isaiah and that is what Jesus read that day in the synagogue.  Let’s hear it again:

“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.

Jesus was proclaiming that the year of Jubilee had come.  That’s why it was good news to the poor and those oppressed by debt slavery.  Now, Jesus had no authority to compel anyone to return land to its original owner or to cancel indebtedness.  So what was he doing?  He was re-imagining a deeper meaning to Jubilee.  How?  We will see in just a minute.

New Exodus

This is going to coincide with the second way in which Jesus re-shaped the tradition from the Hebrew Bible, namely the exodus tradition.

The central story of the Israelites, the one narrative that defines them, the one that they repeatedly referred to as the basis for their whole life as a people was that they had been slaves under Pharaoh, but were liberated by God.   Liberation is their central story.  Gratitude for that liberation orients their whole spirituality.  The Psalms of praise are filled with thanks to God for liberating them, sometimes they say, redeeming them, saving them from slavery.  For Jewish people, salvation, redemption, and liberation are all synonyms.

That story of liberation became the template for their second story: the one about returning from exile in Babylon.  That liberation from Babylonian captivity is what the prophet Isaiah was singing about when he spoke of “release to the captives.”  

But, the new exodus story was complicated and vexed.  They had come back to the land, but it was a province of the Persian empire.  After that, it was a territory of the Greek (Seleucid) empire, and after an intermission of independence, by the time of Jesus, the Jewish homeland was in the Roman empire.  Yes, they were living on their land, but many would say they were still in a kind of exile.   They were still captives.  

But Jesus said that Isaiah’s words were being fulfilled, including “release to the captives;” liberation.  Clearly, Jesus was thinking of liberation in a different way than political independence.  Just like his re-framing of the meaning of Jubilee, Jesus also re-framed liberation. 

Jesus’ vision of Jubilee, the year of restoration, and his vision of liberation both are inward and spiritual, with enormous outward, real-world implications.

Liberating God

For Jesus, the release that people needed even more than getting their land back was spiritual liberation.  It starts with Jesus’ beautiful vision of God.  For Jesus, the creator God was not a God of wrath and vengeance, but a God of love.  Liberation means release from captivity to guilt, to shame and to fear.  Liberation means embracing God as Abba, Father, with his arms outstretched to welcome the prodigal home, or as a mother, like a mother hen with her wings outstretched to shelter her chicks.  

If you do not know that God is for you, that God is with you, that you are God’s beloved child, you are living in a captivity of your own making.  The God Jesus taught us about knows that we can get ourselves lost, like the sheep, but when we do, God is the good shepherd who goes looking for us, and then rejoices when he finds us.  Liberation begins with this new understanding of God.

Inward Implications

Liberation goes deeper.   The kind of liberation Jesus taught was freedom from our small, false ego selves.  To be trapped in the prison of thinking that our identity is to be found in wealth, or power, or status, or reputation or attractiveness or even skillfulness or intelligence is to be in an ego-prison that keeps people perpetually on the defensive and anxious.  All of that can come and go — and we all know it.  And all of it is in competition with everyone else.  All of it is unnecessary.  For Jesus, identity is found in being beloved daughters and sons of a loving God.  Redemption means realizing that.  

Outward Implications

Well, we could go on and on about all the ways in which Jesus’ vision liberates us inwardly, but let us consider a couple of the many outward implications.  When we have been set free from the ego-obsessed life, we become people of compassion.  We wake up to the reality of suffering all around us, and we look for ways to bring healing and relief, just as Jesus did.  And when we are liberated from the view of an exclusionary angry God, we wake up to the knowledge that God loves all of God’s children, without exception.  

That is why we too become inclusive and open-hearted to everyone.  We don’t let race stand in the way of relationships.  In fact, we are humble enough to look squarely into the eyes of our own privilege and other people’s lack of racial privilege.  

We are also conscious of the role race has played and continues to play in law enforcement, sentencing, and incarceration rates.  Our liberation leads to the liberation of others. It is no longer “us and them,” and especially not “us vs. them,” but all of us in the same boat together, different, but equally loved.

We welcome people regardless of the gender they identify with or their sexual orientation.  We love their gifts of diversity and we work to dismantle all forms of discrimination and exclusion.  Having been liberated from our own false identity, we have a new way of looking at every single person on the planet.  

Which means we also care about the planet that sustains us all.  We care about the damage humans can do to our environment.  So we take personal responsibility to lower our carbon footprint, and we look for solutions on a national and even global scale.  On a personal level, we carry cloth bags into the store and try to avoid buying single-use plastic.  On a larger scale, we support renewable energy sources like solar and wind sources of energy.  

Celebrating Jesus

There are a million ways we could talk about how inner and outward liberation come to us from Jesus’ radical, beautiful vision but time does not permit.   But let us just pause here to consider what it means to be a follower of Jesus.  This is an amazing, awesome, transformative way of being.  It is a path to freedom at the deepest inner level, and on an outward level, it is all about compassion and kindness.  Who would not want this kind of liberated living?  

So, as you leave here, and go out into your normal life, go out rejoicing that you are deeply free to be all that God made you to be.  And don’t be afraid to talk about Jesus.  We need to reclaim him from all the distorted ways he has been presented to the world.  Buddhists say “we take refuge in the Buddha.”  We can say, “we take refuge in Jesus”  — the Jesus who has liberated us to live as beloved children of God in a beloved community. 

The Community of the Common Waters

The Community of the Common Waters

Sermon for Jan. 13, 2019, Baptism of Jesus Sunday, Year C. An audio of this can be found for several weeks here.

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”


Scholars who study the historical Jesus are aware that very soon, stories were told about him that were completely unhistorical.  For example, there are stories of the little boy Jesus, making bird shapes out of mud, then miraculously giving them life, and they fly away.  We call a body of stories a “tradition”.  So scholars speak of how the Jesus tradition went through a period of development and expansion, as probably all traditions do. 

So how do you distinguish the historical from the fictional in the Jesus tradition?  Well, scholars developed some criteria, like, for example, the criterion of embarrassment.  If there was a story in which Jesus said or did something that would have been potentially embarrassing to the early Christian communities, then the fact that they remembered and recorded it must have been because it actually happened.  

The Embarrassing Story

The baptism of Jesus is just such an embarrassing story.  As a leading New Testament scholar put it,

Early Christians indeed were rather embarrassed by John’s baptism of Jesus, both because of the possible implication of Jesus’ sinfulness and because of his apparent subordination to John the baptist.”  –

Joel Marcus, Anchor Bible, Mark 1-8, p. 164

People could take Jesus’ baptism by John to mean that Jesus was as sinful as everyone else and needed a baptism of forgiveness of sins, which is how John’s baptism is described.  And they could take it that Jesus was subordinate to John.   As the tradition developed, layers were added to the story of his baptism that dealt with those issues.  

Here’s what I mean.  Mark, which came first, simply says that John baptized Jesus in the Jordan.  Luke, which we read today, rushes past the baptism and focuses on Jesus’ prayer and the mystical experience he had of the spirit and the voice from heaven.  

Matthew adds a conversation in which John protests to Jesus that Jesus should baptize him.  So you can see the tradition develop.  

The gospel of John, which came last, does not even mention the baptism at all.  Embarrassment indeed. 

Nevertheless, scholars are not in doubt that the historical Jesus started out as a member of John’s group and was baptized by John.  

This is one reason why the early church continued to practice baptism as a sign of the New Covenant, replacing circumcision, the sign of the Covenant with Abraham and his descendants.  Jesus was baptized, and we follow his example. 

That brings up an important point about how we read the stories of Jesus.  It is evident to me that one of the goals the gospel writers had, as they wrote their versions of the Jesus story, was that we should see Jesus as a model for us.   Jesus called people to follow him, and we should follow him.  

This means that we should see ourselves represented by Jesus, as he is baptized, as he is tempted, as he prays, as he hears God.  So we will talk more about this today. 

But first, I want us to reflect for a moment on baptism itself, and then we will look at this story and what it means to us.  Baptism, is, for Christians the sign of the covenant.  Jews practiced circumcision as a sign of the covenant with Abraham, but Christians replaced circumcision with baptism.  

Baptism has several advantages over circumcision: baptism is available for both men and women.  In addition, people who grew up with Greek ways of looking at the world considered body mutilation disgusting.  But baptism was readily embraced in the Hellenistic world.  One more advantage is that baptism is not limited to the descendants of Abraham, but is for everyone.

Baptism’s Meanings

So what does baptism mean, and what does it do?  Baptism is a richly symbolic act.  Originally, people went to places where there was water enough to stand in, and probably were either submerged or had water poured over them, symbolically submerging them.  

So the symbolism is both of a bath, a washing, cleansing, purifying act, and an act symbolizing a death and rebirth, going down under the water, and coming up again, or perhaps re-entering a womb to be born again.  

We baptize children, following the  Jewish community’s practice of circumcising infants.  We become children of the covenant in baptism, born of water and the Spirit, as the New Testament says; sons and daughters of God, members of the body of Christ.  

Now, when we say what we believe baptism signifies and accomplishes (seals) for us as Christians, we need to be careful to say that we do not believe in exclusivism.  We believe that God’s Spirit is at work all over the world in many faith communities.  We just want to talk about the meaning we understand by our practice of baptism.

The Story of Jesus’ Baptism

So now to the story itself.  Jesus joins all the other people who have gone out to the Jordan river to be baptized by John.  Luke does not focus on the act of baptism itself, but moves on to focus on Jesus’ mystical experience that followed.  But we should notice that going into and under the same waters as all the other people was a hugely important statement.  

Jesus put himself right there with everyone else, in all their brokenness and humanness.  He does not stay on the shoreline at a safe distance, he gets into the waters that washed them, without making judgments, without superiority.  

What does this mean for us?  He identifies with us, in our brokenness and humanness, with all our shortcomings and failures, and is there with us.  

In the same way, that sets the pattern for us.  We seek to live without judgments, without superiority, accepting other people without discrimination, but with radical hospitality and inclusiveness.  We are all in the same waters together.  

Jesus’ Mystical Experience

After Jesus’ baptism, then came the spiritual experience.  The experience Jesus had come in the context of his prayer.  Luke says,

“Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened…”

I have known people who are reluctant to accept profound religious or mystical experiences as legitimate.  But right here, we see that Jesus himself had them.  Both prayer and mystical experiences are part of a normal, healthy spirituality.   

Mystical experiences are rare, it seems, and it is not something we go out looking for, but if and when we have them, we accept them as wonderful gifts.  Some of you have told me of your own experiences, and I thank God for them.  

Whether or not we have these experiences, all of us follow Jesus’ practice of prayer.  No words are recorded here of Jesus’ prayer.  Whether this was a word-prayer or a silent meditation, we do not know.  But Jesus practiced both, and both are part of healthy spirituality.   Christians are people who intentionally connect with God, who, we believe, is always present to us spiritually, through frequent prayer.

So, what happened next?  Luke says, 

“the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

So two things happened: the Spirit and the voice.  First the Spirit.  Luke says that the Spirit came like a dove.  Why?  We are not told why, but it could well be to make a contrast with the way the Spirit was described as coming on people in the Hebrew Bible.  In some of the stories, the Spirit comes on people and makes them prophesy, even fall down involuntarily and behave almost hysterically (1 Sam. 10).  

But here, we see the Spirit descending gently, like a dove.  We believe that as baptized Christians, the Spirit indwells us.  To what effect?  What is the Spirit doing?   The Spirit is gently luring us, quietly coaxing us, offering us the possibility of cooperating with the good that God wants for the next moment.   

The Spirit is present in each moment, each breath,  inspiring us to live into our true selves, instead of our ego, false selves.  We can, in each moment, respond to the tug of the Spirit, or resist.  The Spirit, like a gentle dove, wants to persuade us to the good, but will never control or coerces us.  

The Voice 

So after Jesus becomes aware that the Spirit of God has come to him, he hears the voice from heaven saying, 

“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

It is easy for us to understand that Jesus was God’s beloved child and that God was pleased with him; do we know this about ourselves?

A lot of us grew up with the teaching that we are “sinners in the hands of an angry God” in danger of being cursed in life and in danger of hell after death.  I believe that is horrible and tragic theology.  

That view is an ancient Christian belief, but it was not the only one.  Early in the developing church, many believed that we were created in God’s image, created good, beloved by God, as God’s children, and that God is well pleased to call us his children. 

Now, of course, we are humans, with egos, with pride, with anger, with selfish impulses and brains hard-wired to fight off threats to our sense of wellbeing or security.  So, yes we are sinful.  We readily admit that.  But God is with us, even in our brokenness and lostness, ready to forgive us if we come to our senses and reorient ourselves to the Spirit’s good purposes.  

In other words, it is right to put ourselves in this story, to stand where Jesus was standing, and to hear the voice from heaven saying to us, 

“You are my Son, You are my daughter, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Believing it, Feeling it

My spiritual director wanted me to get to a place where I felt God’s love profoundly, so she asked me what my earliest memory of being loved was.  I told her about being quite small, maybe 3 or 4, sitting on my mother’s lap, and seeing her beautiful hands holding a book with glossy pages and colorful pictures in front of me, and reading the children’s poems to me.   I felt secure and loved, without having done anything to earn it.   My director said, “Now picture God loving you just like that.”

Can you do the same?  Think of your earliest memory of being loved.  Remember how it felt.  Now think of God loving you that way, now.  Feel how it feels.  

That is the truth that sets us free; free from needing our ego defenses, free from fearing God — remember, “there is no fear in love.”  Free to live without guilt and shame; free to respond to the lure of the Spirit; free to be grateful for being a part of the community of the common waters of the baptized, and free to know that all people are beloved children of God too.  

A Jesus for the World

Sermon for Jan. 6, 2019, Epiphany, Year C, click here for audio (available for several weeks)

Matthew 2:1-12 

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 

‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.'”

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

 

I have a couple of really good jokes that I learned in Romania and Croatia.  I was just up in the Boston area visiting my brother and his wife over the holidays, and we went out to dinner with another couple, so I had a chance to tell them again.  They got great laughs.  But I always have to provide a bit of historical and cultural context before telling them, otherwise, the punch line would be missed.  Like the one about people waiting in line in Romania.  It comes from the Communist period of shortages, which all Romanians experienced, but we Americans, of this generation, did not.  

The Time of King Herod

So, similarly, Matthew tells a story to people who know things that we don’t, so to get the story we have to fill in some knowledge gaps.  The story starts “In the time of King Herod”. 

So, in other words, in the time of a power-hungry, brutal man, capable of having members of his own family, including a wife and a son killed because they threatened his power.  His background was Idumean, which the Bible calls Edomite (which will be important).  The Edomites embraced Judaism but were not ethnically Jewish. 

So his claim to be King of the Jews, even though it was conferred on him by the Roman Senate, was dubious in many people’s minds.  It took him 3 years of bloodshed to secure that title, leaving many other aristocrats dead on the battlefield, and leaving their estates in Herod’s hands.  You get the idea.  

He loved architecture.  He built palaces, a harbor complex, and was undertaking a massive renovation of the temple in Jerusalem.  These were all hugely expensive, but no problem, there was no anti-tax Freedom Caucus to stop him from bleeding the peasants dry.  So the story starts, “In the time of King Herod.”  

The story continues, telling us that “Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea.”  Jewish readers know that this is where King David came from, which is also significant for this story.

The Wise Men

After Jesus, who a descendant of David, was born in David’s hometown, Matthew says, 

“wise men from the East came to Jerusalem”.  

Wise men, or literally “Maggi” – from which the word magic comes, were probably Persian astrologers, with dubious reputations.  They were also, dream interpreters who don’t do well when tested, as when Nebuchadnezzar asked them to interpret his dream after telling what he had dreamt.  Only Daniel could manage that feat.  

These “wise” men ask the current king of the Jews where the new king of the Jews is,  who was born king, unlike Herod.  They asked as if they did not know that a rival to the throne from a different family would not be good news to Herod. 

The Star prophecy

At this point, the story starts to get other-worldly.  These gentile Persian people reveal that they have been on a quest, a journey.  They are seekers.  They explain that they are looking for this new king because, 

“we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”  

Jewish people hearing Matthew tell this story would think immediately of that ancient prophecy by that strange character named Balaam (the one with the talking donkey) who was promised money to curse the ancient Israelites, but instead blessed them and offered a prophecy.  He said 

“a star shall come out of Jacob,” (meaning Israel)
and a scepter shall rise out of Israel”; the two parallel phrases say the same thing: the star is a scepter –  the symbol of a king. Then he says, “…Edom will become a possession, … One out of Jacob shall rule,” (Herod was Edomite).  (Numbers 24)

So, the prediction of a rising star indicating a new king is an immediate threat to King Herod.  Herod gets it.  

We cannot help but notice that the story of Jesus is both a story of promise and of threat.  Jesus, a powerless peasant child, born to marginalized people, is a threat to Herod, and Herod a threat to Jesus.  Nevertheless, gentiles of dubious reputation have been on a journey, and have found themselves lured, drawn to Jesus, and finding him, find themselves star-struck.  

The Prophecy and the Plot

Back to the story.  Herod and the whole aristocracy is frightened by their report.  They go to the priests who know the prophecies of Micah and of Nathan, and put two and two together and say that when Messiah comes, he will be born in Bethlehem.

So Herod hatches a plot to use the wise seekers as his spies.  The threat-level goes to red.  They set out, and again, the mysterious star guides them.  Jesus who will turn the lights on in so many ways is found, we could say,  by unlikely strangers who are on a journey, seeking enlightenment.

The Gifts Given and Received

They find the baby Jesus with Mary.  Matthew says,

They knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” 

Jewish people would hear echoes of Isaiah who imagined a future for Israel, after their devastation and exile, saying there would be a reversal of fortunes, so:

      

  Lift up your eyes and look around;     
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you. 
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.  (Isa. 60:4-6)

I like how one scholar explained the gifts:

“There are royal gold and priestly frankincense to be shared. In addition and in a nod to [Matthew’s] literary vision that culminates in crucifixion, there is also among the three treasure gifts an odd gift of myrrh, a burial spice that prepares the child for cruciform [cross-shaped]  kingship.” 

— Jarvis, Cynthia A.. Feasting on the Gospels–Matthew, Volume 1 (Kindle Locations 732-733). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition. 

The threat and the promise come together.  

Home by Another Road

The newly enlightened gentiles have just given gifts to the baby Jesus, and this time, get a dream interpretation correct, and shirking Herod’s decree, go home by “another road.

So what do we do with this story?  What do we get out of telling it?  We get to see how Matthew wants us to understand Jesus, who came proclaiming the alternative kingdom of God, or we could call it, the reign of God.   

We understand that from the start, the reign of God may threaten the interests of empire.  The blessings of God’s reign come, not to the Herod’s, the cut-throats in power, but to the “poor in spirit, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for justice,” and to “the pure in heart.”   In this kingdom, the bottom line that guides decision making is compassion, not consumption.  

We get from this story that the door into the kingdom is wide open.  Gentiles of shady character who are on an honest journey find themselves lured and drawn to Jesus, just as we have been.  Jesus is for the world.

But notice that it is not just that they are welcomed to come, what is even more amazing is that they come bringing gifts, and the gifts are received.  We are continually receiving gifts from outsiders, from those who are “other”, from strangers to our tradition.  We do not claim to have an exclusive grasp of the Divine.  So we can learn from the gifts that other traditions bring to us and receive them with joy.  

From Muslims, we can receive the gift of their example of disciplined lives, of answering multiple calls to prayer every day, and their humble shoes-off, head-to-the-floor submission to God. 

From the Buddhists, we have received the gift of the language of mindfulness and the way meditation has been let out of the confines of the monastery where now, everyone can participate. 

From the Hindu tradition, we receive the gift of humility, acknowledging that though the Divine is One, that humans have an endless variety of ways of conceiving of God’s characteristics and express them in multiple colorful ways.  

All of this changes us.  We could say that the star of Jesus enlightens us.  It leads us to go home by a different road.  The journey continues, and on that journey we are transformed.  We do not follow the dictates of culture or the powers that be.  We are open to dreaming a different dream.  

We dream of a world made right, made whole, made just, made inclusive, where God’s will is done “on earth as it is in heaven.”  In our dream, we keep seeking Jesus on this different road, and as Matthew will later recount, we keep finding him.  We find him in marginalized people, the “least of these,”  the hungry, the thirsty, the prisoners of conscience.  And as we find them, and offer our gifts of compassion and mercy to them, Jesus takes it personally.  

Our journey, our different road, our dream, our star has led us here, to this moment.  We will soon come to the table to share the bread and cup together, remembering the sacrifice that the gift of myrrh foreshadowed, of the one who would rather die than kill, who spoke truth to power, and who forgave his enemies.  We remember his death, but we celebrate his life in each of us, which still shines as brightly as it did, back “in the time of King Herod.”

The Characters at the Crèche

The Characters at the Crèche

Sermon for Christmas Eve, 2018. The audio can be found here for several weeks.

The two Christmas Stories can be found here:

Matthew’s Story

Luke’s Story

At the Presbyterian Women’s Christmas party, all of the tables in Fellowship Hall had a Crèche with Mary and Joseph, baby Jesus, shepherds, wise men, angels, and the animals: the sheep, donkey, and cow.  This cast of characters comes from the two stories of the birth of Jesus by Matthew and Luke.  The stories are different in many respects.  There was never a single moment in either story in which all of these characters were together at the same time, as they are in the crèche.  

I was thinking about how those characters, and the others of the birth stories, like Herod and Pilate, are all important for understanding the Jesus story.  In any story, the characters matter.  So, on this Christmas Eve, let us consider the characters and what they mean.

People from the Margins

Matthew and Luke both tell us about  Joseph and Mary.  Luke adds the shepherds. What kind of people are they?  They are poor people.  They are people from the margins.  They can be pushed around by policies that make their lives even harder.  They lack resources. They have no power.   

Jesus grew up on the margins, and spent his whole short life ministering to people on the margins, and people who were marginalized.  God has always been moved by the cries of the poor, the oppressed, the exploited and the discriminated against.  That is why we too participate in ministries of compassion and mercy to the marginalized.  And that is why we open our hearts and our doors in radical hospitality, without exception.   So, to tell the story of Jesus, we start at the margins. 

King Herod

Along with Mary and Joseph, Matthew’s story includes the account of King Herod.  King Herod the Great represents the monarchy of Israel, political leadership consumed by lust for power and wealth.  He is a brute. He is willing to lie, manipulate, and even order the killing of all the male children in and around Bethlehem to maintain his position like Pharaoh before him.  

From the very start, Herod’s kingdom is in opposition to the kingdom Jesus proclaimed.  Jesus proclaimed a gospel opposed to violence and to privilege.  That is why we try to follow Jesus by practicing non-violence.  And, we follow Jesus by identifying the way privilege puts some people in positions of advantage over others.  We work towards a world in which people are equal and free.  To tell the Jesus story, we include episodes of opposition.

Wise Men

The Wise men in Matthew’s story represent Gentiles; the international community.  They are people of wisdom, but they are mysteriously drawn to Jesus.  Just like the star that the survivors of the mythical Trojan war followed to Italy, where they founded Rome and the Julius Caesar’s family line, so Matthew tells of the wise men following a star.  Matthew’s gospel begins with the foreign gentile wise men ends with the great commission in which Jesus says, “go into all the world and proclaim the good news.”  There are no ethnic borders.  Jesus’ story is for all the world.

Angel Choirs

Luke includes a whole Angel choir as characters in his story.  Why?  Because we have to understand the birth of Jesus as a God-thing.  We have to imagine what a radical and fundamental change in our religious orientation that Jesus made.  We used to think God was angry and judgmental, but Jesus taught us that God is love, like the love of a perfect Heavenly Father.  We used to think God demanded blood sacrifices, but Jesus taught us that what he wants from us is compassion, mercy and justice, and a personal connection through heartfelt prayer and meditation.  We used to think that God had favorites, but Jesus showed us that God’s love was for everyone, without exception.  So, to tell the Jesus story, we need the heavens to be filled with angel choirs announcing his birth.  

Baby Jesus

Finally, we come to the baby Jesus, “wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.”  He is completely vulnerable, human, needy, hungry, and sleepy, as all babies are.  He is real.  He does not hover in the sky like an angel.  He does not just appear fully grown like Athena, showing up to help fight at Troy, before withdrawing back to Mount Olympus.  Jesus begins his life in a stable as a dislocated traveler.  Before he is a year old, in Matthew’s telling, he will become an immigrant, fleeing violence in his home country, crossing borders, seeking asylum.  When it is safe, he will return to grow, slowly, day by day, increasing in wisdom and knowledge and in awe of the God of Love.  

So, when we look at a crèche on the mantle or on a table, let us be thankful for all the characters gathered there, and for how they help us tell the story of Jesus, truly God’s gift to us, and to the world.