Jubilee!

Sermon for the  3rd Sunday after Epiphany, January 27, 2013 on 1 Cor 12:12-31a and Luke 4:14-21

1 Cor 12:12-31a

12   For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with

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Christ.  13 For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. …But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member,  25 that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another.  26 If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.  27   Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.  28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues… 31 But strive for the greater gifts. 

Luke 4:14-21

14 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was  praised by everyone.16 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, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18 “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, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20 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. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Jubilee

We have just read two of my favorite passages in the bible!  They are both so fundamental, so foundational to everything we are and do as a church.

The gospel text we read this morning is Jesus’ inaugural speech.

Luke tells this story carefully; each detail is important.  He points out that Jesus was going to the synagogue on the Sabbath,

“as was his custom.” 

Jesus’ connection with the Judaism with which he was raised shows us that the he fully understood the significance of what he was about to read from that Hebrew scroll, and he understood the significance of what he was going to say about it.

He stood up to read: standing is the reading posture; after the reading he sits down.  Sitting is the teaching posture in the synagogue.

Isaiah’s Servant Song

The scroll he took was the prophet Isaiah.  Isaiah was well known and loved in Jesus’ day because it spoke of a future in which God would do a new thing for his people.

Included in Isaiah’s scroll are poems about the  person whom he calls “the Servant of the Lord.”  Jesus took this Isaiah scroll, and unrolled it to one of those Servant poems, this is from Isaiah 61.

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me…”

Let us pause: we readers of Luke’s gospel already know that Jesus was anointed with God’s Spirit at his baptism which was narrated on the preceding page.  What has the Spirit-anointed the Servant of the Lord to accomplish?  The poem that Jesus read from Isaiah continues:

“… 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, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

What did God anoint Jesus with the Spirit to do?  He tells us. He finds his ministry objectives in that Servant Poem from Isaiah which he read.  We will notice that each of these ministry objectives of Jesus is oriented towards others, they are outwardly focused, not inwardly obsessed.  These are the opposite of the life absorbed in self.

Good News to the Poor

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Jesus was anointed first, he says, to  “proclaim good news to the poor.”  How?  By breaking bread with them, and teaching them to break bread with each other.  By honoring them as valuable people in God’s eyes, and teaching them to honor and value each other.

By refusing to allow purity taboo laws in the Old Testament to remain barriers to his love and touch. Whether or not the poor were lepers or were bleeding, and therefore untouchable, Jesus taught us his followers to get close, to touch, to get involved in meeting their real needs.

Release to the Captives

Jesus said that he, as the Servant of the Lord was anointed by the spirit to proclaim release the captives.  How?  The captivity of the Babylonian exile, which the original poem in Isaiah was about, was over long ago.  Though the people of his day were under Roman oppression, Jesus did not propose or join a revolt from Rome (as some of them wanted and expected he would do).

Rather, he led people to understand how the power of evil itself was an enslaving force, more profoundly so than the power of any empire to enslave. And so he cast out symbols of evil, that is, demons, and taught people to resist the devil’s temptations in all their forms.

Evil in all its forms is destructive; it enslaves people: the evil of injustice, the evil of selfishness, the evil of neglect, of prejudice, of superiority, judgmentalism and scapegoating – all evils enslave us and all of them are dis-empowered by Jesus who holds the key of freedom and forgiveness.

Open Blind Eyes

Jesus was also anointed by the Spirit to open the eyes of the blind.  In what way?  Not only did his touch make the blind see, but his ministry of teaching opened the eyes of his followers to the grace of God in their lives.  He helped people to see how they had been blinded by culture and prejudice, but that the light of the gospel could illumine that darkness.

He opened their eyes to see how their essential humanity was far more significant than the accidents of race or class or gender.  He opened their eyes to see that the path to the kingdom was not one of self-glorification, but the path of suffering on behalf of others; not narcissism, but service.

He opened their eyes to see God as their loving Heavenly Father, seeking out lost prodigal sons and daughters, and welcoming them back into the family.

Jubilee!

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There is one more element of Jesus’ mission statement: it is the last phrase that says, he was anointed with the Spirit,

“to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Scholars agree that this odd phrase, “the year of the Lord’s favor” is a specific reference to the “Year of Jubilee” which Moses gave.

Every fifty years a jubilee was proclaimed: anyone who had sold their family land got it back.  Anyone who was indentured in debt slavery was set free.  By this means, the ancient tribal Israelite society ensured that there would never develop a permanent poor class.

This was the great vision of a society in which everyone’s needs were provided for; everyone had the opportunity to earn their own living on their own secure family property.  By this was born the Judeo-Christian ethic of a just and equitable society.

Now, Jesus, in his day, was in no position to initiate a land reform movement.  But what he did, was to set in motion a movement of Spirit-lead people of faith, who would take up his ethic of concern for the weak and the poor in the society and to address their needs.

The early Christian communities got it!  They looked after each other and became famous in the Roman Empire for the way they cared for the poor among them.

Our Mission

This is what Jesus said he came to do, and this is what he is still doing.  We are the ones who need our eyes to be opened and re-opened to understand what new thing God is doing in the world.

We are the ones who need to be set free, again and again, from the enslaving power of evil as it keeps worming its way back into our hearts.

We are the ones who need to learn God’s love for the poor and the outcast is practical and tangible and that we can be the agents of God’s good news to them.

Each of these ministries of Jesus is now the mission of the church.  Just as God anointed Jesus, his servant with the Holy Spirit, so we have been baptized with his Holy Spirit to carry on that same mission.

Gifts of the Spirit

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This is the same Holy Spirit who gives spiritual gifts to the church, his body.  Some are pastors and teachers, some have gifts of administration, some exercise ministries healing or of service.

All of the gifts of the Spirit, just as all of Jesus’ ministry objectives, are for service to others.  Jesus, the Servant of the Lord, came “not to be served, but to serve,” and to model for us the life of service.  Everyone of us has spiritual gifts that the rest of us needs.  No one has all of the gifts, and none of the gifts is superfluous.  We need each other, and we need all of us together in the body.

 Today

Notice that after Jesus had read this programmatic statement, he said,

 “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 

Today, not some vague, future, utopian day, but today, we have the mandate to carry on the mission of Jesus; fighting the enslaving powers of evil, opening blind eyes to the truth, and proclaiming in words and deeds good news to the poor and the outcast.  We have the same mandate and the same opportunity today.

What does it mean to follow Jesus?  What does it meant to grow spiritually?  It means that we absorb more and more of the perspective of our Lord.  As we allow the same Holy Spirit that anointed Jesus to soften our hearts, we grow in compassion towards the people he came to minister to.

Why did Jesus say he came?

“To bring good news to the poor, 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.” 

Let Today be the day that this scripture is fulfilled in our hearing  as we join Jesus in his mission!

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Memorial Service Homily, Matthew 6:25-34

 Matt 6:25-34

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the

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body more than clothing?  26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?  27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?  28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin,  29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.  30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?  31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’  32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.  33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34   “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

The Little Guy and Jesus

The words we have just read are from Jesus’ famous “Sermon on the Mount” from the gospel of Matthew.  If there are any words that capture Jesus’ perspective on life, they would be these.  Some of Jesus’ most memorable lines are here, known even to people who know little at all about Jesus otherwise.

26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns. … 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?  28 …Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin,  29 …yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.

Before he began his public ministry around the age of thirty, Jesus worked as a carpenter, we are told, like his father Joseph (Mark 6:3; Matt 13:55).  Actually the term “carpenter” in those days meant builder, and applied equally to building with stone as with wood and other materials.

Nazareth, where Jesus grew up, was, in those days a tiny village – probably it had very little, if any building projects to work on.  But not far away the Roman city of Sepphoris was under construction.  It is quite likely that Jesus may have spent years of his life making the daily walk from Nazareth to Sepphoris and back each day to work.

Sepphoris has now been excavated.  You can walk down the central street, paved with the huge stones they used in the Roman era. Main street was flanked on both sides by stalls and shops as any Roman city’s central market street was.  Sepphoris had buildings with Roman style columns, large houses for the wealthy land-owners, and even a small amphitheater.

None of the elements of that city, which probably consumed most of the working hours of Jesus’ early adult life, makes its way into the images in his teaching.  He makes no references

Sepphoris
Sepphoris

to city life or city concerns, of buying, selling and commercial interests.  Rather, when Jesus stands to reflect on the meaning of life and how to live it, we hear him speak of “the birds of the air” and “the lilies of the field.”  You would think he spent all his time in the rural country side.

Probably no teachings of Jesus, more so than these, contribute to the popular notion of Jesus as a starry-eyed, dreamy, other-worldly, spiritual, but completely impractical, idealist.  Sure “the birds of the air neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns,” but real life takes hard work and lots of it.

But perhaps to be dismissive of Jesus too quickly is to fail to account for all the information, and so to mistake something deeply profound and meaningful for something shallow and irrelevant.  Could it be that Jesus consciously rejected urban imagery, choosing instead the imagery of the natural country side?  Could not his preference for “birds of the air” and “lilies of the field” rather than Roman roads and commercial districts have been intentional?

Perhaps it was the non-hierarchical flocks of birds of the air who each has enough for their daily needs and suffers under no tyranny of domination that Jesus chose precisely because of what he saw going on in the highly socially stratified Roman city.

Perhaps it was the very fact those birds “neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns” that made them the object of Jesus’ reflection. Could it be possible that these were chosen as the perfect counter-point to the hoarding of surplus by the latifundia in their palatial estates, harvested by the the back-breaking, dawn-to-dusk labour of the landless peasants, the day-laborers that show up in Jesus’ parables, hired to work in the vineyards  and fields owned by others?

Perhaps it was the little guy, the person at the bottom of the heap, the one who had neither a barn nor a Solomonic wardrobe that Jesus focused his concern on.

In this way George’s concerns in life followed Jesus’.  George found himself, as his son has told me, time and again the champion of the little guy.  Watching out for the concerns of the common folk, the workers, the people whose voice was often un-heard was what mattered to him.

George came by this concern quite honestly, born the son of a coal miner. In the end, he not only provided for his own family, but also did what he could so that others could work in conditions of greater justice and fairness.  There is nothing dreamy or starry-eyed about this.  It is as this-worldly and practical as it gets.  And this was Jesus’ concern.

Some find themselves praying to the gods of the marketplace for bigger barns in which to accumulate more and more.  Some pray more modestly, “give us this day, our bread for today.”  This is the Lord’s prayer, and I believe it was George’s prayer.

Why are we here?  What is the purpose for which we are alive?  What concerns motivate us to get up in the morning and keep us up at night?  What is it that really matters?  How do we know that we have not wasted our lives in trivial pursuits?

These are the questions that come to us at each service in which we say goodbye to the one who has gone before us, not knowing who among us will cause us to gather next.

What will they say about our lives?   We cannot write the script that they will follow, but we can follow the teachings of our Lord, who summed up his vision of the life-well-lived saying:

strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

George is now in a position to know fully the depth of the truth of these words.  Let us all take them to heart as we remember and give thanks for the life of our brother George.

 

 

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Wedding Onion

Lectionary Sermon on John 2:1-11 for the 2nd After Epiphany, C, Jan. 20, 2013

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John 2:1-11

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

The Wedding Onion

I like to listen to music by a group called the Shins. They have a song with a great name: “Know Your Onion.”  How do you get to know your onion?  You peel off the outside layer, of course.  But then, you see that you have  not reached the core, but only another layer.  You can peel that one away, and what do you get?  Another layer.

That’s exactly what this story is like (and what most of the gospel of John is like).  There are layers to peel away, each revealing another layer, each with its own set of meanings.  I think it gets better and better as you go down, and what you reach is as important as it gets. The deepest layer deals with the questions: “What does God want from us?  How do we live in relationship with God?”  Let the peeling begin.

Onion Layer 1: the Wedding and the Guests

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On one story-level, Jesus simply goes to a local wedding. What does this mean?  By attending the wedding, Jesus affirms the goodness of human love, the family, the community.

On this surface level, Jesus is there as a guest, not the host.  So what concern is it of the guests if the host runs out of wine?  It’s none of his business.  He doesn’t want to draw attention to it, lest he shame the host.  So, just  let it go, right?

His mother intervenes, and he turns water into wine.  It’s a sign: a miracle.  I used to think that was what this story was here to tell us; period.  But a lot more is going on in this story.

Onion layer two: Jesus is there as Messiah

On another layer, Jesus is not simply a family friend, attending a local wedding, he is also more than that: he is a person with a mission.  He didn’t arrive alone: he has disciples whom he has called to follow him, and they are, with him at the wedding.

The way John tells the story, it’s only chapter two, but these disciples have already identified Jesus as “Messiah.”  Andrew said to his brother, Simon:

“We have found the Messiah” (1:41)

They expect him to launch his public ministry at any moment.  It is expected that this launch will come with “signs” that what Jesus is all about is a God-thing, not a human thing.  So, when will the signs begin?  Is it his time yet? Has his “hour” come? Jesus seems to think that it is not yet his time.  When his mother suggests he do something about the wine shortage, he hesitates.  She ignores his hesitation and starts organizing.  She tells the servants,

5 “Do whatever he tells you.”

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Jesus quickly acquiesces.

“7 Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim.”

They they fill up the six stone jars with water, and the next thing you know, a “sign” has been performed.  He has turned the water into wine.  In fact, into fine wine.  Why is wine-making the first, inaugural sign?  What does it signify?

This is a sign that “the age to come” has dawned.  The prophets spoke of a time in the future, when God would act to redeem his people, and they pictured it as a time when there would be a banquet of rich food and fine wine.  Now we see that vision coming true; the new age has arrived!  (e.g. Isaiah 25; Jeremiah 31)

On this level of the “onion,” people often notice the theme of abundance that God provides.  The stone water jars were filled up “to the brim.”  There were six jars of 20-30 gallons each.  That is a lot of wine!  God provides life in abundance for his people.  Soon, in John’s gospel, we will hear Jesus say,

“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (10:10)

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That’s not a bad theme if you stop the peeling right there.

Onion level Three

But there is more going on in this story.  There are more levels to this onion.  On a deeper level, this story explores what Jesus’ life means in the context of Israel’s story.

The way John tells his story of Jesus, it begins in the beginning;  at the beginning of the world.

“In the beginning was the Word… and the Word became flesh” (1:1, 14)

We, who are reading John know, from this prologue that Jesus is actually the divine Word, the source of Creation, now made flesh; become part of creation.  We readers are also told that Jesus can be compared to Moses, but yet, Jesus is different.  John tells us:

“17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”

So, John prepares us to see both a similarity and also a contrast between Jesus and  Moses at the very start.  How will we see it in action, and why does it matter to us?

Well, Moses gave the people “Torah” or the law: all the instructions about the tabernacle, sacrifices, priests, the calendar of sacred days and the forms of sacred obligations – in other words, Moses taught people how to live with God; what God expects; how to be pleasing to God.  The obvious question is then, is Jesus going to change any of this?  Will Jesus teach a different approach to God?

Counting Days

Here’s how John tells the story.  Did you notice that the wedding happened on  “the third day”?  The Day sequence is important here.  Let’s do a quick review: One day, as John’s story opens, some people whose whole lives were spent concerned with Moses’ Torah, that is, some Priests and Levites, sent by Pharisees, ask John the baptist if he thinks he is the Messiah (1:19).  John says no, but that he was sent to prepare the way for Messiah (1:20).

The next day, so, the second day, John identifies Jesus as the: “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” (1:29)  That is a short, cryptic title for Jesus.  How will Jesus do that job of taking away the sins of the world?

Remember, “sins”, in the Torah, the OT, included both moral violations, like lies, murder, adultery, theft, as well as ritual violations: like touching a pig, touching a corpse, touching blood, getting a skin disease.  Guilt and ritual impurity were all wrapped up in the bundle together in the law of Moses.

Sacrifices and Purity Baths

So, if you sin, what do you do according to the Law of Moses?  It depends on the sin, but two main ways of removing the guilt or the impurity were offering a sacrifice of grain, oil or an animal, like a lamb, and taking a ritual bath in waters set aside for purification.  It’s a lot of work, but that’s what the law of Moses required.

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John announced, on that second day, that Jesus was going to be the lamb of God – whose death would put a complete stop to the need for any future blood to be shed in sacrifice for sin.  But what about the ritual “sins” that needed the purification bath?

The next day Jesus calls disciples to follow him, including Nathanael, telling him he saw him under the fig tree.  Nathanael is surprised, but Jesus tells him he will see greater “signs.” (1:50)

Then, on this, the third day, they all go to the wedding in Cana – where Jesus does his first official “sign.”  He turns water into wine.  John says,

“11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”

Where is the water that is turned to wine?  In those six stone jars that Jesus told the servants to fill to the brim.  Just as there were six days of God’s creation work, followed by the day of Sabbath rest from work, so there are six water jars.  Why would anybody want to have six huge stone jars around?  For ritual baths.  These, John specifically tells us,were “water jars for the Jewish rites of purification” as required by the law of Moses (2:6).

Drinking, not Bathing

Do you see what has happened?  Now that the jars are filled with wine, they are no longer useful for a purification bath.  Wine, which Jesus will tell his disciples at the Lord’s Supper, is the symbol of his death, is now replacing the whole Jewish purity system.  And this is all happening on the third day, preparing us to notice that Jesus ‘ultimate sign, the resurrection from the dead, is exactly that third day event that meant the end to blood sacrifice for sin, once and for all.

Now we are deeply inside the onion.  Jesus, “the lamb of God” will be the last sacrifice; the last time any blood is shed.  The wine of the kingdom, the rich, well-aged banquet wine has replaced all those purity taboos and ritual laws.  The wedding banquet is the marriage supper of the lamb.  The six days of creation, like those six stone jars are fully filled to the brim, so that now, a new Sabbath of rest  from work can begin.  Grace and Truth have come.  A new Creation can begin.

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So now, “purity” before God does not consist of touch-me-not exclusions of the unclean, but, as Jesus showed us, of open-hearted embrace of exactly those people whom the purity laws had marginalized: outcasts and sinners, lepers and bleeding people, widows and women who have been singled out for censure.  Purity before God is now, as Jesus said, a heart matter.  “Blessed are the pure in heart: they will see God.” (Matt 5:8) In fact, fully embracing outcasts and people who had been excluded is exactly what Jesus taught us was now expected in this new age.

What does God want?

What does God want from us?  How do we live in relationship with God?  How do we live with the fact that we know ourselves – we know we are not perfect; far from it.  Is God mad at us?  Is he looking for ways to punish us?  Is he waiting for us to do something to make it up to him?   Make a sacrifice?  Take a purity bath? No!

Just the opposite.  When Jesus shows up, the party that was about to experience a major “fail” can now shift into high gear.  The best wine is about to be served.  God wills our well-being, our joy, our flourishing at the highest level.  This is a wedding scene – this is a love story.  This is the sign that God is on our side, working on our behalf so that we can experience life in abundance.

The Ask and the Hour

There is one more layer we have not uncovered in this onion.  It’s the odd problem between Jesus and his (unnamed) mother.  She points out the lack of wine, he wonders why that should be his problem, as a guest, especially since his time, or “hour” has not yet come.  She then takes the initiative, starts organizing, and tells the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them.

So, had his hour come, or not?   It appears that his hour had not yet come, until she stepped in and pointed out the need.  Until she got involved in the problem and made it her problem, nothing was going to be done.  When she did step up and address the problem at hand, the human need in the moment, and bring it to Jesus’ attention, then his hour arrived, and he acted.

There is something deeply mysterious going on here that I do not claim to understand.  It is as deep as the mystery of prayer itself.  Does God need to be informed about situations of human need by our prayers?  Does God need to be prodded, by us, into action?  Does God need an audience?   No, no, and no; of course not.  But for whatever reason,  God has chosen to give us prayer as a tool in God’s work in the world.

The Call

This is then a call to all of us to look around deeply at our world.  Where is it hurting?  Where is the pain?  Are we willing to look at it as our problem?  Are we willing to get involved?  Are we willing to take it up in prayer, and then start organizing people to address the problem, with the assumption that the prayer means that God is now involved?

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That’s exactly what Jesus’ mother did, and I believe that is exactly what God expects of us.  It turns out that we are not just guest-observers at a local wedding; we are full participants in the life of the community – in its joys and in its pains.  God’s hour comes when we step up and get involved with heart and hands and minds and, resources.  In other words, with all we have.

Come to the banquet: God loves you and has done all that is necessary – don’t bring a sacrifice, except a sacrifice of your praise, and don’t wait to be pure; that day is not coming.

Come and enjoy the wine of the kingdom along with all of the other impure folks who have come on the same basis – trusting that God has acted on our behalf already; the lamb of God has indeed taken away the sins of the world.  And come sensitive to the needs around, the people in pain.  Get involved.  Come in prayer, and come ready to roll up your sleeves.   The hour has come. “Do whatever he tells you.”  Come, live in the abundance of the new creation.

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The Waters We Pass Through

Sermon for the Baptism of the Lord, Year C, January 13, 2013

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the

Messiah, 16 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. 17 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.”

21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22

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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.”

The Waters We Pass Through

In the book, the Life of Pi, the boy Pi, raised in an agnostic home, discovers from scratch the world’s great religions.  When he first learns about Christianity, it seems to him to be a very short, fast moving story.  Well it is.  Last week we were with the wise men bringing gifts to Jesus, and now here we are one week later, with a 30 year old Jesus, at his baptism.

The story of Jesus’ baptism is one of the few episodes that all four gospels describe.  They each have their own unique way of telling the story, but they all tell it, making it clear that this story is important.

But why is it important?  What does it mean that Jesus was baptized, and what does it have to do with us?  We will look at the unique way Luke tells the story, and I believe we will see why this is so important to our lives.

The Facebook Question

If you are on Facebook, you will know that the first thing you see when you open it is a question with your name in it.  Facebook asks “How’s it

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going?”  Mine says, “How is it going, Steven?”

How is it going?  Well, in general, look around.  Here I am in the United States, in fact on the Gulf Coast, in a climate controlled room with a bunch of nice people, none of whom has probably ever had to wonder about where the next meal was coming from.  We have great health care, great cars, great phones, nice clothes – we have it better than most.

But dig a bit below the surface; ask a question that goes deeper than Facebook’s “How is it going?” and the answer may be different.  Ask about our families, or about our relationships.  Ask about our expectations for ourselves and our loved ones.  Ask about what makes us angry, or what makes us afraid, or what we regret; the answers could get pretty dark, pretty quickly.

Ask us whether we really believe there is any reason for hope.  Ask us why we are here.  This text is all about these questions the answers to them.

The Buzz about the Solution

The place we began this morning is with the buzz that John the baptist got going among the people because of his ministry of baptism of repentance.  You would not have had to ask questions any deeper than Facebook’s “How is it going?” to those folks, to hear dark answers.  Things were bad and everybody

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wanted radical change.  Was it going to come from John?

They had reason to think maybe so.  Remember John was preaching that people should start living in a way that looked like he expected a new social order.  Remember his preaching?

11 “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”  12 … tax collectors: “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”  14 Soldiers:… “Do not extort money from anyone…”

The very next line is where we picked up the story.  Luke tells us

“…the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah”

But no, John said, he was not going to inaugurate the new age.  He was just setting the stage for it.  Someone else is coming who is far superior.  He will get the fires blazing.

The Fire Solution

That’s what they thought the solution was going to be.  Separate out the good guys from the bad guys and send the bad ones into the flames.  The separation would be as easy as sticking a pitch fork in to newly harvested wheat.  You just toss it all up into the air.  The grains will fall back down, the wind will blow away the chaff.

This is what happens when you tell everyone the revolution has begun: the ones that sign up to fight will be the good guys, the rest can get ready to roast.  In fact, as John sees it, Jesus is getting ready for this.  Clearly the wind of the Spirit is active in him; it will start blowing the chaff into the flames soon.

16 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.  17 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.”

Jesus, in line for the water

What happens, however, is amazing.  Jesus comes.  After all this build up about his superiority to John and the baptism of fire he will start, it

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looks like the opposite is happening.  Jesus gets in line to be baptized along with everybody else, in fact it looks like he wound up at the back of the line.

21  Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized

There he is, standing among them, getting baptized in the same water as they all pass through, empty handed, without a pitchfork or a match.

But now Luke adds one bit of information which is unique to him.  No other gospel writer includes the fact that Jesus was in prayer during this event.

“21 …and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened,”

Prayer is important to Luke, and he shows us Jesus at prayer many times.   Jesus, of course, models the life of faith for us, the church.  So, in his second volume, in the book of Acts, Luke shows the church often at prayer.

How are we to live in a world in which the answers to the deeper questions about “How are you doing?” are so difficult?  We do as Jesus taught us: we live as people of deep and frequent prayer.

Prayer in the Water

Do you find prayer easy or difficult?  Is it hard to make time for prayer?  If so, I hope you can come to my class that starts tomorrow.  We will learn how to become centered and quiet, and to rest in the presence of God.

Prayer didn’t send the Romans hurtling into the revolutionary flames.  Prayer is not the magic solution to all of life’s problems.  But prayer orients

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our lives so that we can live in our troubled times with real reasons for hope.  We live with the assurance that we are not alone, that we are loved and cared for because this is a world in which God is present and accessible.  Like Jesus, we pray.

The Spirit Descends

But there is even more to amaze us.  When Jesus rises up out of those baptismal waters, Luke says,

“22 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.”

Instead of blowing chaff into a fire, the wind of God, the breath, the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus.  His entire ministry is lived in the power of the Spirit.  This is another huge theme for Luke who more than the other gospel writers shows the Holy Spirit active in Jesus’ life.

And, like prayer, what is true for Jesus becomes true for the church; the Spirit comes down on the church, like flames of fire on the day of Pentecost, as Luke tells us in the book of Acts, and empowers the church’s life and ministry.  We live as people of prayer and people of the active Spirit of God.  How is God present to us when we pray?  He is present by his Spirit.

The Voice and the Quotations

What is the message we are supposed to hear when the Holy Spirit descends?  Is it the message of condemnation and judgment?  Is it a message about guilt and shame?  Just the opposite.

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The voice is a well-read voice.  Quoting from a Psalm about God’s Messiah, who, it says, will have an international impact, and a prophet, who foresaw the beloved son as one destined to suffer for the nation, the voice of God launches Jesus’ public ministry. (Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1)

So, let’s look at what is going on here.  Jesus comes to the crowd, gets in the back of the line with them, gets down in the water with them, in total embrace and identification with them, as they are, and in prayer, is baptized, then he receives the Holy Spirit and hears the voice proclaim him as God’s beloved son.

The Genealogy: from paradox to tragedy

We didn’t take time to read it, but the very next thing that happens is that Luke gives us Jesus’ genealogy.  As one person says, “Luke’s genealogy begins in ambiguity and culminates with tragic paradox.” – (Carol Lakey Hess in Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 4).

It begins with ambiguity about Jesus’ father:

“…son of Joseph (as it was supposed)” Luke reports.

The genealogy traces each generation of sons back and back, until we come to creation as Genesis described it.  The genealogy ends with:

“Seth, son of Adam, son of God.”

Seth was the son Adam and Eve had to replace Able, murdered by his brother Cain.  The genealogy ends with the memory of tragedy.

Humanity in deep waters

Who were the people in the line for baptism that Jesus joined?  Who were the ones down in that water that he entered?  They were humans.  Like

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us, they were people of ambiguity and paradox, of sometimes heroism but more often tragedy.  People who live in troubled times, people whose answers to the deeper “How’s it going?” questions reveal lots of pain.

But down there with us, in those waters, Jesus shows us how to live: to be people of prayer, making conscious contact with God who is there as well.  Jesus demonstrates that the Spirit is here, even here with humanity like it is; ambiguity and tragedy notwithstanding.  Can we hear the voice saying to us that we too can know God as our loving Heavenly Father, knowing ourselves as his beloved sons and daughters?

He did, after all, come to inaugurate a new order, as John’s preaching anticipated.  He came with a vision of a humanity that knows the truth: we are all in the same waters. We share a common genealogy of ambiguity and tragedy.

But as people of prayer and people of the Spirit, we have the courage to live an alternative lifestyle John described, of honesty, integrity and compassion.  We live as baptized people of God who are willing to look at everyone descended from Adam and Eve as a dearly loved by God.   And that is why our Facebook status can be, “How am I doing?  I’ve come through deep waters, but I am not alone; I have reasons for hope.”

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Home By Another Way

Sermon for Epiphany C , Jan. 06, 2013, on Matthew 2:1-12

Matt 2:1-12

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In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 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.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6 ‘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.’” 7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 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.”

9 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. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 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. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Home By Another Way

I love this story, but it should never have been written.  It is the most unlikely story ever, at each turn.  For starters, it’s about pagan astrologers who look for guidance from the stars, a practice which was well known, but forbidden in the strongest, harshest terms in Torah, the Old Testament.

Of course pagans from “the east” would try to read the stars: for them it was  a science.  These were wise men; experts.  Today, we would call them “scientists.”  Matthew’s original readers would probably assume that “from the East” referred to Babylon, an ancient center for such “scientific astrology.”

“Scientists” like these, who studied stars, seemed to have a category for anomalies they observed.  Matthew says they report: “we observed his star at its rising,” – apparently, an anomaly.

So, without explaining how they concluded that an anomalous rising eastern star was a sign of a new baby’s birth, or that he would be the new King of the Jews, or why a new Jewish king should matter to Babylonians anyway, Matthew simply tells us there they were, a long way from home, in Jerusalem, at Herod’s residence.

Herod’s Competition for the Crown

Competition for his crown was not what Herod was happy to hear about.  Actually in that time, Herod had a reputation for killing off competitors, even in his own family, including two of his own sons.  One ancient writer said he would rather be Herod’s pig than his son – it may have been safer, since Herod made a show of practicing Judaism and so presumably didn’t eat pork.

Anyway, Matthew tells us that King Herod was “frightened” at the news the wise men brought, and “all Jerusalem” was frightened along with him.   He was afraid of the same thing Bashar Al Assad in Syria is afraid of, and all of his supporters in Damascus: that a change in the status quo would be a direct threat to them and their economic interests and possibly their lives.

Upsetting the Dark Status Quo

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I love that Matthew told this unlikely story in this way.  How are we to think of Jesus?  Perhaps we get him completely wrong if we don’t recognize what a threat to the status quo he is.

But it is a dark status quo, and it desperately needs a new light to shine.  The powers that be, and the people who accept the status quo as unchallenged, should feel frightened of the light that will illumine the truth and show the way.  Herod will do all he can to keep it dark, just as he likes it.

Our Darkness too

We humans are a strange lot.  On the one hand, we don’t like change any more than Herod and those frightened Jerusalemites – especially now, when the world is changing so quickly all around us.  “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t” we hear ourselves say.  Change is threatening.

But yet, we are not happy with the status quo either.  We sense the darkness in us and the darkness around us as a condition that we wish could change.  Darkness too, is frightening.  We grope the walls for the light switch.  We long for a light to dawn.  The collect (concluding prayer) for Monday morning in our Book of Common Worship asks God to “dispel all our darkness.”  We pray it, because we know it’s there; we hate living in darkness: we long for a change.

And we also know about our own inner dark places.  The places in the heart we desperately try not to go to, but our wandering minds keep finding: places of hopelessness, fear, anxiety, guilt, depression, unfulfilled cravings.  Nobody gets through life without these.   “Dispel all our darkness” we pray.

The Bethlehem Prophecy

So, back to the story, Herod gathers the Torah scholars to investigate – hoping that they can bring some light to bear on this frightening situation.  Indeed they do.  They go directly to the prophecy from Micah:

6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,… from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

Bethlehem, the home town of King David, would once again produce another star player who would take the scepter in his hand and be king.  Only he would use as his scepter a shepherd’s crook, because, in the eyes of this new king from Bethlehem, the people looked like sheep without a shepherd.  They were shepherd-less sheep, in a very dark status quo.

The Plot and the Dream

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So Herod hatches another dark plot to use these unsuspecting wise men as spies.  They are supposed to come back and report what they learn.  Again without telling us any of the mysterious details, Matthew says that this dark plot is foiled when the wise men are warned in a dream not to return to Herod.

Now these wise men join Joseph, in Matthew’s gospel, as people whose lives have been changed by dreams.  Joseph was told in a dream to go ahead and marry his pregnant fiancé, Mary because the child she was carrying was from the Holy Spirit.    The dream changed his life, just as it did the wise men’s lives.

This is quite fitting.  God’s people have been “people of the dream” many times over.

Now these wise men are people of the dream.  And the dream re-directs them home.

Arriving at the Destination

So, they set out and follow this star until it stops over one particular house.  How in the world they can determine a specific house from a star is also left unexplained, but there they are.  The light that shines in the darkness shows them the way to Jesus.  They do what they told king Herod they would do upon finding the new king of the Jews: they kneel down and “pay him homage.”

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They then start the tradition of gift-giving at Christmas.  They give Jesus gifts, under the light of that shining star.  The whole scene is eerily reminiscent of Isaiah’s ancient prophecy:

“1 Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.  2 For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.…. 6 the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, …They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord”

Christmas Gifts & Lights

Christmas is the season of gifts and of lights.  Candles, lights on trees, lights on our houses and street lamps; this is for us, the celebration that darkness does not have the last word – neither the darkness of the status quo world around us, nor the darkness in our own hearts.  The star has risen and shined its light into our darkness, dispelling that dark hopelessness in the light of Christ’s glory.

This is why we too, Gentiles, like those wise men, pay him homage, or worship (it’s the same word).  This is how Matthew begins and ends his telling of the story of Jesus.  It begins with foreigners a long way from home, paying him homage.  It ends with the risen Jesus, meeting his disciples on a mountain in Galilee.  Matthew tells us:

“17 When they saw him, they worshiped him [paid him homage]; but some doubted.” (Matt 28:17)

The very next thing he does is to send his disciples “to make disciples of all  nations.”  The light that has come into the darkness is to shine to the ends of the earth.  The king who carries a shepherd’s crook is the world’s true Lord.

Home by another way

And so the wise men themselves become the first apostles who were sent to the nations, as they returned home to Babylon.  Having been warned in a dream, Matthew tells us, they went back home “by another road.

But, how do you go home again after this encounter with the light?  How can home ever be the same?  How can the old status quo continue, now that the light has come?   The poet T.S. Eliot captures the ambivalence in the hearts of the wise men as they contemplate returning to Babylon in his poem, “The Journey Of The Magi”.

“We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.”

We were never meant to make the darkness our home, as Herod did, nor to even think of it as home.  We were never meant to live our days swallowed by dark thoughts and fears.  We are not the people who embrace the dark status quo as the only way things can be.

There is another way.  We are people of faith; people of the dream.  We are called to be people of the light.  We are people whose true home is in God.  Jesus has come into the world.  “I am the light of the world” we hear him say, in John’s gospel (8:12; 9:5).    We allow his light to challenge and critique darkness at every level.

He critiques the darkness in our world – it’s unjust systems, its dirty politics, its oppressive economics, its destructive values of all kinds.  And we allow the light of Christ to illumine our personal dark places too: our despair, our hopelessness, our fears and anxieties, and to shine into them his mercy, his love, his transforming presence.

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screen shot from Aradhna video “Asato Ma” “Lead me from untruth to truth, Lord
Lead me from darkness to light, Lord”.

We too are sent.  “You are the light of the world” he tells us in Matthew (5:14).   We, like the wise men, have seen the light, now have a light to share.  We have a dream to share.  We, who worship the king, we who know that darkness does not have the last word, are called to take the light of Christ’s love into our worlds.

We shine the light into the darkness of our own hearts, and then we shine the light into every place of darkness and pain.  We take note of the fact that the first witnesses to that light were radically outsiders, and we learn therefore that no one is outside the reach of God’s light.  All are welcomed, just as we have been welcomed home by this other way.