The Jesus Ethic

The Jesus Ethic

Sermon for Feb. 24, 2019, Epiphany 7C. The Audio can be found here for several weeks.

Genesis 45:3-11, 15

Luke 6:27-38

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

We were in Monday Morning Seekers class, where the discussions are often profound.  Somehow we got onto the topic of how we understand God.  I will come back to that discussion, but first I want to say that this has been a vexed topic for as long as people have tried to imagine the Divine.  

In the Christian tradition, there developed two streams of thought.  One was that you start with what you think you know about God, for example, that God is all powerful and all knowing, and from there you deduce all of God’s traditional attributes.  That is called the cataphatic way of doing theology – according to what is known.

The other way is called the apophatic method, which says that you cannot adequately conceive of the Divine, due to the limitations of our human finite capacities, so therefore any thought would be inadequate, and therefore, a distortion.  So, you do not try to imagine God at all.  Rather you approach God mystically, not theologically.  

The 14th Century English book of spiritual guidance is a good example of the apophatic way: it is called “The Cloud of Unknowing.”  You connect with God by entering a cloud of unknowing, where all specific ideas of the Divine are refused.

So, back to Monday Morning Seekers.  One of the people in the group said,

Well, all I know is that God is good, and that’s enough for me.

I think that’s brilliant.  I also believe that it matters deeply what you think God is like.  Someone has said that you will become like what you worship.  If your God is harsh, judgmental, vengeful and cruel, you probably will be too.  

Unfortunately, the God described in the stories of the Hebrew Bible is often (not exclusively, but often) all of those things, and, no surprise, so were the Israelites in those stories.  

As I said, not exclusively.  We just read the story of Joseph meeting his brothers in Egypt where they had, so many years before, sold him into slavery.  But after all that time, he had risen to a position of power and influence.  His status enabled him to invite his whole clan to immigrate to Egypt and therefore to survive the famine.  He was able to conclude that though his brother’s intended to harm him, God meant it for their good.  So he forgave them.  God could go both ways – from cruel to magnanimous. 

Jesus’ God

What did Jesus think God was like?  If you study Jesus at all you know that he was selective in his use of the Hebrew Bible.  He knew that there were different ways of thinking, different voices in the Old Testament, in conversation with each other, expressing opposing positions.  

Jesus came down on the side of one stream and against another stream many times.  When there was a choice to side with the purity agenda or the justice agenda, Jesus chose justice over purity (that’s what the Good Samaritan parable is all about; and the Prodigal Son).  

When there was a choice to make about which way of thinking about God, Jesus chose one and rejected the other.  He chose to side with the stream in the Hebrew Bible that depicted God as good, as loving, as compassionate, and as forgiving.  He rejected the stream of thinking of God as harsh, judgmental, vengeful and cruel.  

How far did he take this?  All the way.  One of the huge themes of the Hebrew Bible, which we mentioned last week, is the doctrine of Retribution: you get what’s coming to you.  You are blessed for being good and punished for being bad.  Jesus rejected that view.  Today we read:

“[God] is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked”

The ungrateful are those who do not thank God, as if God were not the source of all good things.  The wicked actively oppose God’s will.  So, if God is kind to them, well, that is the opposite of retribution.  In Matthew’s more familiar version Jesus says, 

“[God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”

The evil and the unjust get the same rain and sun as the good and the just.  No retribution, in spite of all the blessings and curses in Deuteronomy 28.  

Imitating God

The way Jesus understood God, retribution was off the table as an option because of God’s very nature.  Listen to how Jesus summed it up — it almost sounds like something someone would say at Monday Morning Seekers:

“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

Jesus pictured God in intimate, family terms: as his Abba, or Father (almost Daddy).  And as such, he called God “merciful.”

Scholars have pointed out that the word “merciful” in Jesus’ language came from the word for womb — which is ironic because Father’s do not have wombs — mothers do.  But anyway, God is called, as Marcus Borg says, “Wombish”.  So maybe a better translation than “merciful”, Borg suggests, would be “compassionate.”  

Our calling is to be like what we worship: be compassionate because God is compassionate.  

So this understanding of God has all kinds of specific implications for how we live our lives.  But as NT Wright was correct to say, let us not see these implications as a duty list.  They are not meant to be the new 10 commandments.  Rather, they are meant to illustrate a way of being.  We are called to live a compassionate lifestyle in every respect.  

But it does help to have some specific examples.  So, Jesus says we are called to 

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

The Golden Rule

All of us here probably already know two things about that last line, which we call the Golden Rule.  One is that already in the Hebrew Bible was the command to love your neighbor as yourself.  Jesus did not claim originality; he was affirming what had already been said.  

The other fact we know is that the Golden Rule can be found in every religious tradition from Confucianism to Hinduism and even Islam.  And none of the adherents of those faiths has been any more successful at always living that way than we Christians have.  None of us measures up to our highest ideals.  But we affirm them as valid and true anyway.

I am so thankful to be a Christian and to be a follower of Jesus who was so passionate about this way of being.  It is not just a side issue or an implication of his teaching buried down in chapter 10.  This compassionate way of being was central to Jesus.  His elaborations of it are extensive.  This is our vision of the life we feel called to live because it was Jesus’ vision.  

A History of Missing the Point

It is bizarre that after he walked the earth, his followers so quickly abandoned this as the main point.  In their effort to understand how Jesus and God were related — whether Jesus was God in the flesh, or was a man adopted by God as his Son, or only appeared to be mortal, or was equally God and human, or any of the other options that they debated, that debate became the main point.  

So they debated and divided into opposing parties, each with their own spokespersons, and started fighting about it.   Their fights sometimes actually became street riots.  People got killed.  It is no wonder that by the time you get to the early 300’s, 

Roman emperor Constantine wanted to bring it to an end.  So he called all the bishops to Nicea, and, under pain of excommunication, and under the sword of the emperor, got them to sign off on the Nicene Creed.  Ever after that, church councils and creeds became the main point of Christianity.   What you believed about God and Jesus mattered.  Living compassionately did not.

I hope we can all see the utter folly, even absurdity of that turn of events.  From turning the other cheek, to street riots.  Christianity became something Jesus would not have recognized in the least. 

Living the Jesus Ethic

It is high time we recovered the meaning of our faith.  It is time we re-connected with Jesus, and let go of a long history of missing the point.  That is what we are here to do.  This community has listened to Jesus.  

So we try to live out that vision of compassion.  That is why we are so open and inclusive.  That is why we feed the hungry.  That is why we provide shelter for DHS children.  That is why so many of us volunteer our time and energy in a wide variety of ministries of compassion.  

And so that we can become people who are able to turn the other cheek and forgive when we have been offended or wronged, we practice the spiritual disciplines that, just like daily exercise, help us to become fit spiritually.  This is why we teach and practice meditation, which, in my opinion, is indispensable as a regular spiritual practice.  

Compassion is also why we become advocates for people whose voices are suppressed in our culture.  Compassion is why advocate for the humane and just treatment of asylum seekers and all immigrants.  Compassion is why we advocate for the poor, and have joined the Poor People’s Campaign.  Compassion is why we advocate for those unjustly incarcerated.

For example: some of us just heard a video lecture on his book Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative.  He told us things that shocked us.  Like that in 1972, there were 300,000 people in jails and prisons.  Today, there are 2.3 million.  

That the United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.  That we have seven million people on probation and parole. That one out of three black men between the ages of 18 and 30is in jail, in prison, on probation or parole.  That being in prison or on parole in most states means you cannot vote.  

Being people of compassion we are horrified by a system that produces these outcomes.  This is just one specific example.  What we are called to is a whole way of being that can be summed up as the imitation of God.  We are called to be compassionate just as God is compassionate. 

We are not called to be able to define the Divine.  We are not called by Jesus to sign off on a creed.  We are not called to orthodoxy — meaning correct belief.  We are called to orthopraxy — right action.  And the right action, is always God’s way of action: the right action is always compassion.

Faith Communities Address Creation Care in the face of Climate Change: Notes for the CCL Regional Conference, Fort Smith, AR

The Citizens Climate Lobby‘s regional Tornado’s Area conference in Fort Smith, AR. Feb. 22–24, 2019

Resources for speaking with people of faith about climate issues.

Blessed Tomorrow

Download the pdf with suggestions for topics, language, themes and rationale which appeals to faith communities

source: Blessed Tomorrow https://blessedtomorrow.org

Interfaith Power & Light 

https://www.interfaithpowerandlight.org  with links to other faith-based climate organizations

AR  http://www.arkansasipl.com

Operation Noah

http://operationnoah.org  We work with all Christian denominations and support interfaith work on climate change.   Many resources, power points, talk outlines, reflection papers.

Religious Statements on Climate Change 

Faith Communities Addressing Climate Change

Let’s Talk Faith & Climate

Download the pdf with suggestions for topics, language, themes and rationale which appeals to faith communities

source: Blessed Tomorrow https://blessedtomorrow.org

Interfaith Power & Light 

https://www.interfaithpowerandlight.org  with links to other faith-based climate organizations

AR  http://www.arkansasipl.com

Operation Noah

http://operationnoah.org  We work with all Christian denominations and support interfaith work on climate change.   Many resources, power points, talk outlines, reflection papers.

Religious Statements on Climate Change 

Christian and other religions’ statements: https://www.interfaithpowerandlight.org/religious-statements-on-climate-change/

Includes links to 15 denominations, including the Evangelical Climate Initiative

Christian and other religions’ statements: https://www.interfaithpowerandlight.org/religious-statements-on-climate-change/

Includes links to 15 denominations, including the Evangelical Climate Initiative

Laudato Si’ pdf in Englishhttps://w2.vatican.va/content/dam/francesco/pdf/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si_en.pdf

“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. 

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.