Sunday’s sermon: Jesus Who Lifts Us Up

Text used – Luke 18:31-19:10

  • I was listening to Minnesota Public Radio this week, and Kerri Miller was having a discussion with Christian author Anne Lamott.
    • (If you’re not familiar with Lamott): born- again Christian, recovering addict (35 yrs. sober), prolific writer → 19 books (a few fiction, most non-fiction) – some of the most recognizable:
      • Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers[1]
      • Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith[2]
      • Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy[3]
    • Lamott’s conversation with Kerri Miller[4] was inspired by her newest book – Dusk, Night, Dawn: On Revival and Courage[5] – and was a discussion that revolved around redemption and forgiveness and courage when it’s hard. It truly was a beautiful and fascinating discussion. If you’re interested, I’d encourage you to visit the MPR website archives and listen to it. It’s Kerri Miller’s program from Tues., Mar. 16.
    • Part of the discussion toward the end of the hour was about grace – Lamott’s description of grace was both so amusing and so captivating that I’ve been thinking about it all week long → She said grace was like spiritual WD-40 – the grease that gets our stuck places unstuck, that loosens the knotted-up parts of our relationships, our souls, our very selves.
      • Scripture this morning is full of knotted-up people in need of the grace of God to lift them up → 3 different, distinct sections
        • Jesus trying to talk to the disciples about what is coming
        • Jesus’ encounter with the blind man
        • Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus, the tax collector
  • First encounter = disciples all knotted-up, stuck in their inability to understand – text = Jesus trying to explain to the disciples what is coming (namely: arrest, torture, death, resurrection)
    • 3rd and final time Jesus tries to clue the disciples in on what is coming
      • Other two times occur in ch. 9[6]
      • None of these times are Jesus being subtle → Jesus, who we all know can be a little vague and enigmatic sometimes (some of those parables can be a little rough!), is very clear and direct in this discussion with the disciples. – Gr. = abundantly clear in lots of ways[7]
        • Right off the bat, Jesus draws attention to the importance of what he’s saying – “Look!” = idou → This is that little Greek word that gets used as an attention getter. When it’s uttered, the hearer (or reader) is supposed to pay special attention to what comes after because it’s important. Really important. Really, really And what follows Jesus’ utterance of this word? “Look … [PAUSE] … we’re going up to Jerusalem, and everything written about the Human One by the prophets will be accomplished.”
        • BUT, just in case that direct statement wasn’t clear enough, Jesus spells it out even more explicitly for them: “He will be handed over to the Gentiles. He will be ridiculed, mistreated, and spit on. After torturing him, they will kill him. On the third day, he will rise up.” → Gr. in this passage is loaded
          • Gr. “handed over” has implications of personal involvement, not just some nameless, faceless Roman official coming to get him → Jesus is hinting that someone – someone close to them, close to him – will be involved in his betrayal.
          • Gr. “mistreated” includes layer of meaning that involves harming someone to the point of loss (particularly reputation/honor) with clear implications of violence and abuse
          • Gr. “tortured” comes from word for the device used to flog prisoners and criminals – a whip with leather strips that had bits of metal imbedded in them to inflict maximum pain and damage
          • And of course, Jesus finishes this description with something that’s clear in any language. – text: “They will kill him.” → Period.
    • Now, I don’t think we can blame the disciples for not cottoning onto that last bit – “On the third day, he will rise up” – because the implications of that are mind-blowing. But with the rest of it, Jesus is clear! And yet … text: But the Twelve understood none of these words. The meaning of the message was hidden from them and they didn’t grasp what he was saying.
      • Gr. makes it clear that the disciples were lost when it came to putting everything together → They just couldn’t make what Jesus was saying to them make sense. They couldn’t fathom it. They were stuck – knotted-up in their own unawareness and naiveté, in need of God’s grace to loosen the ignorance that kept them bound so they could be lifted up in knowledge and understanding.
  • 2nd encounter and 3rd encounter sort of mirror opposites of each other
    • Both involve individuals previously unknown to Jesus who were stuck in difficult situations
    • Both require Jesus’ attention and God’s grace to release them and lift them up out of those difficult situations
    • But those involved in these other two encounters go about things in very different ways.
      • Quick story review
        • 2nd encounter: Jesus coming into Jericho on his way to Jerusalem → blind man begging by the side of the road hears a commotion → asks the crowd what’s happening → finds out Jesus is passing through and cries out to Jesus for help → crowd attempts to shush the blind man but he cries out again: “Jesus, Son of David, show me mercy!”[8] → Jesus stops and asks the man what he wants Jesus to do for him → man says, “Lord, I want to see.”[9] → Jesus declares that man’s faith has healed him → man’s sight is restored → begins to follow Jesus
        • 3rd encounter: Jesus on his way out of Jericho on his way to Jerusalem → enter Zacchaeus, a rich tax collector (text: “a ruler among tax collectors”[10]) → heard Jesus was coming but couldn’t see over the crowd → runs ahead and climbs up a sycamore tree to see Jesus better → Jesus passes by the tree and looks up to see Zacchaeus perched there → Jesus addresses Zacchaeus: “Zacchaeus, come down at once. I must stay at your home today.”[11] → thrilled, Zacchaeus climbs down → crowd grumbles because Zacchaeus is a tax collector (“Who does Jesus think he is, associating with that kind?”) → Zacchaeus has a revelation/conversion moment right there on the road and pledges to not only give away half his possession to the poor but also repay anyone he’s cheated fourfold → Jesus declares that today, salvation belongs to Zacchaeus, too
    • As I said, these two encounters provide a really interesting mirror of each other, so let’s dig a little deeper into the differences and similarities here.
      • Encounters bookend Jesus’ short time in Jericho → Nothing in the text tells us that Jesus spent any great amount of time in Jericho. As far as we can tell, he’s literally passing through the town. Yet as he both enters the town (2nd encounter) and leaves the town (3rd encounter), Jesus has these formative interactions with two different people, leaving both of their lives profoundly changed.
        • Grace on the fly → sometimes the experience of grace takes a lot of time and effort to fully acknowledge and understand BUT sometimes it comes upon us and lifts us up when we’re least expecting it
      • 2nd encounter = blind man sitting by the side of the road begging, relying on the charity of others for his very survival – a man with nothing → 3rd encounter = Zacchaeus, chief tax collector (read: Jew acting as Roman stooge) which makes him incredibly rich
      • 2nd encounter = blind man sitting in the dirt on the road – about as far down as you can get (socially and physically) → 3rd encounter = Zacchaeus up in the tree, climbing higher (literally and figuratively – “up” in his surroundings and “up” in social structure)
        • Reminds us again (and again and again and again) that God’s grace is grace for all
          • All backgrounds
          • All types
          • All circumstances
          • All situations
          • God’s grace is able to find us wherever we are. No matter what.
      • Then we come to a similarity: 2nd encounter = man cannot see → 3rd encounter = man cannot see
        • Both the blind man and Zacchaeus need help to experience what’s going on around them
          • Blind man has to rely on others (has to ask the crowd what’s happening)
          • Zacchaeus relies on himself (climbing a tree to gain sight)
          • Either way, both of the men in these encounters cannot fully comprehend what’s happening around them on their own. They need help.
      • 2nd encounter = blind man cries out to Jesus, not once but twice – intentionally engages, seeking out Jesus’ attention and assistance → 3rd encounter = Zacchaeus passively observing in the tree – Jesus has to seek him out (Jesus sees Zacchaeus, Jesus addresses Zacchaeus, Jesus even invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house)
        • Reminds us that there are many different ways to approach Jesus → Sometimes we recognize our own stuck situations, our own knotted-up souls, our own need for grace. And we cry out to God! But sometimes, we are so entangled in what’s happening that we don’t even see our own need. Either way, Jesus finds us in our need.
      • Another similarity: 2nd encounter = crowd grumbles about the blind man associating with Jesus → 3rd encounter = crowd grumbles about Zacchaeus associating with Jesus
        • Text: When the man heard the crowd passing by, he asked what was happening. They told him, “Jesus the Nazarene is passing by.” The blind man shouted, “Jesus, Son of David, show me mercy.” Those leading the procession scolded him, telling him to be quiet, but he shouted even louder, “Son of David, show me mercy.”[12]
        • Text: When Jesus came to that spot, he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, come down at once. I must stay in your home today.” So Zacchaeus came down at once, happy to welcome Jesus. Everyone who saw this grumbled, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”[13]
        • Interesting: one of those grumbles is directed at the man himself (2nd encounter) while the other is actually directed at Jesus (3rd encounter) → But in neither case does the judgment and prejudice of the crowd deter Jesus’ offer of grace. It is not the world around us that deems us worthy of grace. It is Jesus and Jesus alone.
      • Final fascinating connection pt. btwn these 2 stories = both similarity and difference: 2nd encounter = man’s life is changed … but by his own faith → 3rd encounter = man’s life is changed … but by Jesus’ faith in him
        • In both encounters, Jesus leaves the man he interacts with profoundly changed. The blind man comes away from his meeting with Jesus with his sight restored. Profoundly changed. Zacchaeus, after being in Jesus’ presence for only a few moments, pledges to not only give away half his possession but to make extravagant restitution with anyone he’s cheated in the past. Profoundly changed. Both men walk away from their encounters with Jesus into a life wholly and undeniably different than the life they were living only hours before. In the second encounter, the blind man had faith enough in Christ to call out to him, to beg him for healing, to believe wholeheartedly that Jesus had the ability to grant that healing. And he did. But for Zacchaeus, Jesus had to see that faith within him before Zacchaeus was even aware of it himself. And he did.
          • Last line of our Scripture this morning: The Human One came to seek and save the lost.[14]
            • Reminder that there are many states of lostness
            • Reminder that there are many states of seeking
            • Reminder that Jesus is there in the midst of all of it, offering God’s grace to lift us up whenever we are ready to accept it
              • No matter who.
              • No matter what.
              • No matter where.
              • No matter how.
              • Saving is saving, no matter the circumstances of our encounter with Christ. Jesus lifts us up. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Anne Lamott. Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayer. (New York, NY: Riverhead Books), 2012.

[2] Anne Lamott. Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith. (New York, NY: Pantheon Books), 1999.

[3] Anne Lamott. Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy. (New York, NY: Riverhead Books), 2017.

[4] https://www.mprnews.org/episode/2021/03/15/anne-lamott-on-the-hard-work-of-forgiveness-and-renewal.

[5] Anne Lamott. Dusk, Night, Dawn: On Revival and Courage. (New York, NY: Riverhead Books), 2021.

[6] Lk 9:21-22, 43-45.

[7] Exegesis by Rev. Elana Keppel Levy: https://somuchbible.com/word-studies/annotated-scripture/luke-1831-1910/.

[8] Lk 18:38.

[9] Lk 18:41.

[10] Lk 19:2.

[11] Lk 19:5.

[12] Lk 18:36-39 (emphasis added).

[13] Lk 19:5-7 (emphasis added).

[14] Lk 19:10.

Sunday’s sermon: Jesus Who Brings Justice

Text used – Luke 16:19-31

  • The year was 1963, and he was in prison. Again. Not for the first time. Not for the second time. For the 13th Heck, this time they even had him in solitary confinement.[1] While in jail, he read an open letter in The Birmingham News signed by all the local white clergy – Methodist, Baptist, Episcopal, Catholic, Presbyterian, and even the local Jewish rabbi. It was a letter calling for unity … of sorts. It was a letter calling for patience … of sorts. It was a letter that backhandedly blamed the recent peaceful protestors for the exceedingly violent response against them while simultaneously commending those perpetuating that violence for “the calm manner in which these demonstrations have been handled.”[2] And after reading it, Martin Luther King, Jr. began to work on his response.
    • Result = “Letter from Birmingham Jail” or “Letter from Birmingham City Jail”
    • Result = 7000 words, 21 double-spaced typed pages
    • Result = finished before he was released from that Birmingham jail just over a week later BUT not published and distributed until June 1963
    • Result that included what has probably become one of King’s most repeated quotes: “Injustice anywhere is a thread to justice everywhere.”[3]
    • Result was some unapologetically direct calling out of the established, white congregations (that had just called King himself and the entire Civil Rights movement out in the previous open letter): In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime – the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists. I had hoped that the white moderate would see this need. Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action. … Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are. But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust. Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world.[4] → “Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and our world?” I don’t know about you, but that sounds a lot like the question Jesus is asking in our gospel reading this morning.
  • Today’s parable = Lazarus and the rich man → probably one of my favorite parables (though that could be because I can’t read it without seeing the Godspell interpretation playing in my mind! … and yes, I watched it while I was working on this!)
    • Parable told, once again, in response to the Pharisees – verses leading up to our reading this morning: The Pharisees, who were money-lovers, heard all this and sneered at Jesus. He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves before other people, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued by people is deeply offensive to God. Until John, there was only the Law and the Prophets. Since then, the good news of God’s kingdom is preached, and everyone is urged to enter it. It’s easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for the smallest stroke of a pen in the law to drop out.”[5] → Jesus is making it clear to the Pharisees that they’re so worried about following every single letter of the Law that they’re missing the intention behind the Law. They’re so busy hunching over the scrolls and staring fixedly at what’s written there that they’ve neglected to look around them – to see the need around them, to see the injustice around them. And so Jesus tells them this parable.
      • Basics:
        • Unnamed rich man “who clothed himself in purple and fine linen, and who feasted luxuriously every day”[6]
          • Gr. here is really interesting
            • Phrase “feasted luxuriously” = literally “rejoiced through daily splendor/sumptuousness”
            • Word “rejoiced” = root of a word we use today: euphoria: a state of intense happiness and self-confidence
            • So clearly the rich man in Jesus’ story is living it up. He’s living the high life, not just eating well every day but boisterously feasting, living sumptuously, living the life of a high roller!
        • Flip side: poor man named Lazarus who lays at the gate to the rich man’s house covered in sores – text: Lazarus longed to eat the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table.[7]
        • Both men die → Lazarus is taken up to heaven to be with Abraham while the rich man is sent to be tormented in “the place of the dead” (Gr. = Hades) → rich man looks up to see Lazarus living well and comfortably in eternity and calls out to Abraham for mercy → Abraham reminds rich man that he had everything good in his previous life while Lazarus had nothing and now the roles are reversed → rich man, thinking of his family members still living, begs Abraham to send Lazarus to go warn his family of the fate that awaits them if they don’t change their ways → Abraham reminds rich man that his family has Scripture (Moses and the prophets) to guide their actions à rich man insists that seeing someone come back from the dead (a lá Jacob Marley in Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol[8]!) will straighten out his living family members → Abraham’s final word: “If they don’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, then neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.”[9]
          • “If they don’t listen to Moses and the Prophets” … “Moses and the Prophets” was the Law. This was the sacred writings that the Pharisees spent their days and their entire lives studying. Jesus is very clearly saying to them, “If you don’t listen to the intent of the Law, then nothing will persuade them.”
    • Really interesting context – today’s parable of injustice = sandwiched in between Jesus’ teaching on faithfulness with money[10] and Jesus’ teaching on faithful service[11] → In between talking about how to use one’s financial blessings to help further and care for God’s kingdom and how to use one’s actions to help further and care for God’s kingdom, Jesus tells this parable about a man who turned a blind eye to injustice.
      • Important to note: unnamed rich man in this parable never actually does anything overtly unjust to Lazarus (not that we know of, anyway) → No, the rich man’s injustice is an injustice of omission. He turns a blind eye to the need of his fellow human being, to the point where the man’s dogs eat well from the scraps of his table (because they are there within in sight) while Lazarus lays out at the man’s gate, starving and in desperate need. Despite the way this passage has been used (dare I say manipulated?) in the past, it’s clear from the context and the content of the parable itself that this isn’t a parable told to mollify those who are poor that there will be rewards for them later. This isn’t a “bide your time, you who suffer” parable. This is not a “Call to Unity” open letter parable. This is a parable to call out inactivity in the face of injustice. This is a parable from Jesus, the one who brings justice to those to whom justice has long been denied. This is an “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” parable.
  • And so we get to the crux of this parable: Where are the unseen injustices around us? Even more pointed, what are the injustices we willingly don’t see? How is Jesus challenging us to open our eyes and our hearts and look around? Because it is imperative that we be honest here, friends. There are unseen injustices all around us.
    • Dr. Mitzi Smith, prof of NT at Columbia Theological Seminary (Georgia): The huge housing, health care, educational, wage, and employment disparities we create and support based on class, gender, culture, race, ethnicity, sexual preference, and so on must be closed in our lifetime. This repair requires truth-telling, introspection, risk, and strategic intentional change by individuals, nations, governments, and businesses.[12] → So let’s do some truth-telling this morning.
    • UNSEEN INJUSTICE: wage gap, especially as it pertains to women and BIPOC à for every $1.00 that white men earn:[13]
      • White women: $.79
      • Black women: $.62
      • Hispanic or Latina women: $.54
      • Asian women: $.90
      • American Indian or Native Alaskan women: $.57
    • UNSEEN INJUSTICE: massive chasm between minimum wage and the cost of living across the country[14]
      • Minimum wage = $7.25 (nationwide)
      • Living wage for a single adult = $14.50 à difference: $7.25
      • Living wage for a single parent with one child = $26.48 à difference: $19.23
      • Living wage for a two-adult home with two children = $27.45 à difference: $20.20
    • UNSEEN INJUSTICE: the Super Bowl (just a couple of months ago) → Texas Attorney General announced in 2011 that this massive, yearly, multimillion dollar sporting event – by far the biggest sporting event in America every year– is also the single largest human trafficking event in America every year[15]
      • Just an e.g. – 10,000 girls and young women were trafficked in Miami during Super Bowl 44 in 2010
    • UNSEEN INJUSTICE: vast differences in experiences with the justice system for white people verses BIPOC[16]
      • Just an e.g. – for the lowest level offenses, Black and American Indian youth are confined at rates over 3 times the rate of white youth
    • Friends, there are injustices all around us. We cannot deny it. As Presbyterians, when we join a church or are ordained to a position in a congregation – ruling elder or deacon or Minister of Word and Sacrament – we vow that we will uphold and live by the tenets of Scripture and by the tenets expressed in the confessions – those creeds and witnesses of the faithful who have gone before us. à words of 3 of those confessions:
      • Confession of 1967: Life is a gift to be received with gratitude and a task to be pursued with courage. Man is free to seek his life within the purpose of God: to develop and protect the resources of nature for the common welfare, to work for justice and peace in society, and in other ways to use his creative powers for the fulfillment of human life.[17]
      • Confession of Belhar: We believe that the credible of [God’s gospel message of grace] is seriously affected and its beneficial work obstructed when it is proclaimed in a land which professes to be Christian, but in which the enforced separation of people on a racial basis promotes and perpetuates alienation, hatred, and enmity.[18]
      • Brief Statement of Faith: In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.[19]
    • “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” So I ask again, friends: What are the injustices we willingly don’t see? Amen.

[1] Barbara Maranzani. “Behind Martin Luther King’s Searing ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail” from History, https://www.history.com/news/kings-letter-from-birmingham-jail-50-years-later. Posted Apr. 16, 2013, updated Aug. 31, 2018, accessed Mar. 14, 2021.

[2] https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/sites/mlk/files/lesson-activities/clergybirmingham1963.pdf.

[3] James M. Washington (ed.), “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row Publishers, 1986), 290.

[4] Ibid, 298, 300.

[5] Lk 16:14-17.

[6] Lk 16:19.

[7] Lk 16:21a.

[8] Charles Dickens. A Christmas Carol. (London, England: Chapman and Hall), 1843.

[9] Lk 16:31.

[10] Lk 16:1-13.

[11] Lk 17:1-10.

[12] Mitzi J. Smith. “Commentary on Luke 16:19-31” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/rich-man-and-lazarus-2/commentary-on-luke-1619-31-7. Accessed Mar. 14, 2021.

[13] https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/women/reports/2020/03/24/482141/quick-facts-gender-wage-gap/.

[14] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-09-10/mapping-the-gap-between-minimum-wage-and-cost-of-living-in-u-s-counties-and-cities.

[15] Michelle Lillie. “Largest Human Trafficking Incident in America” from Human Trafficking Search, https://humantraffickingsearch.org/largest-human-trafficking-incident-in-america/?gclid=CjwKCAiAhbeCBhBcEiwAkv2cY1TRhxo8GwhYIavjOBC7Vmj5waBvlWgKXfQi-xLcykjRIxs2YizY0RoCnegQAvD_BwE. Posted Jan. 20, 2014, accessed Mar. 14, 2021.

[16] Wendy Sawyer. “Visualizing the racial disparities in mass incarceration” from Prison Policy Initiative, https://www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2020/07/27/disparities/?gclid=CjwKCAiAhbeCBhBcEiwAkv2cY9JZkaHQl5Ew1CXUvhW1KQNz7DhFjHATdYJY143508OsSn7rCFqClBoCnWgQAvD_BwE. Posted July 27, 2020, accessed Mar. 14, 2021.

[17] “The Confession of 1967” in Book of Confessions: Study Edition, revised [Part 1 of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA)]. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 9.17.

[18] “The Confession of Belhar” in Book of Confessions: Study Edition, revised [Part 1 of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA)]. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 10.5.

[19] “A Brief Statement of Faith” in Book of Confessions: Study Edition, revised [Part 1 of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA)]. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 11.4, lines 65-71.

Sunday’s sermon: Jesus Who Finds Us

Text used – Luke 15:1-10

  • We like the phrase “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” in America, don’t we? It’s supposed to exemplify hard work, perseverance, determination, ingenuity. The American dream, right? Today, we use this colloquialism dually as both inspiration and praise for people trying to make a way for themselves. Here’s the problem: everything about the phrase “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” is a myth.
    • Origin of the phrase = physics example from a late-1800s science textbook: “Why can not a man lift himself by pulling up on his bootstraps?” → originally meant as a sarcastic remark, implying that whatever you were undertaking was doomed to fail – was impossible[1]
    • And yet somehow, throughout the decades, it came to mean the opposite – that, if one works hard enough, he or she can attain wealth, security, success, prosperity. It came to mean, “You can do anything, if only you work hard enough for it.” It’s supposed to be the antithesis of entitlement and privilege. → the problem = not actually possible in our social and economic reality in America today[2]
      • Research done by a wide variety of reputable institutions throughout the last decade or so (Brookings Institute and the Pew Charitable Trusts, just to name a few) has revealed that race, gender, education level, even geography play a much larger part in socioeconomic status and mobility than pure determination does
        • From 2012 Pew research: economic mobility is largely an accident of birth
          • 66% of people born in the lowest two income levels remain there as adults and exactly 66% of people born at the highest two income levels stay there as adults, a phenomenon called “stickiness at the ends.”
          • Even more importantly, research reveals that clinging to this bootstrap myth is actually detrimental to society because it causes people to believe that those living in poverty are doing so not because they’re trapped there because of circumstances and barriers but because they’re not working hard enough, they’re “lazy and stupid”
            • Creates an unnecessary and harmful societal “us/them” dichotomy → allows us to offhandedly dismiss those who need help
    • What’s become clear in the results of all these studies is that, contrary to the “lone wolf” ideal perpetuated by the bootstraps myth, we all need some help – that going it alone isn’t really all its cracked up to be.
      • Research: element that actually helps people move out of the cycle of poverty = help from others[3]
        • Government assistance programs
        • Equal access to early childhood education
        • College access and assistance
        • Programs that reduce economic segregation in cities
        • Eliminating things like food deserts and underprivileged school districts
    • Our Scripture this morning = the antithesis of the bootstraps myth à two short parables Jesus tells of being found … of being found
  • Passage begins with a little setting – text: All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”[4] → Surprise, surprise, y’all … the Pharisees and legal experts are upset! Jesus is doing something he’s not supposed to do. Jesus is hanging out with the wrong people, and I mean the really wrong people. Sure, sometimes Jesus hangs out with unclean people like lepers and those with other diseases – those who are unclean because of their afflictions. But this? Jesus hanging out with tax collectors and sinners – those who have willfully chosen their paths of unrighteousness? And it’s not even that he’s just allowing them to walk with him or something passive like that. Jesus is actually welcoming them, breaking bread with them. I mean, come on. How dare he? Grumble grumble grumble. Grumble grumble grumble.
    • Gr. in this section of text makes it abundantly clear that the Pharisees and legal experts weren’t trying to hide their disapproval – word for “grumble” carries inescapable nuance of being uttered out loud, being understandable → This isn’t just barely audible, unintelligible mumbling and muttering. This is an intentional statement that the Pharisees and legal experts wanted Jesus to hear. Essentially, it’s a challenge.
      • Also clearly a judgment on those gathering around Jesus – if Jesus could hear the comment, all of those tax collectors and sinners could certainly hear it, too → make no mistake: meant to remind that unrighteous riff raff of their place
        • Scholar: Their grumbles are as old as religious itself. If you were really one of us, you would remember our traditions, laws, and norms! We separate ourselves from sinners for our own protection! We never have done it that way before! Their chorus is one that sees Jesus’ hospitality to sinners as dangerous, irreverent, and unpleasant.[5]
  • As is his custom, Jesus responds not with a direct rebuke or definitive statement but with parables → parables about lost things
    • Starts with the parable of the lost sheep: shepherd has 100 sheep and discovers that one is lost → leaves the other 99 sheep to go searching for the one that is lost → upon finding the lost sheep, shepherd rejoices → gathers his friends to celebrate
      • A couple of things we need to notice about this parable
        • Doesn’t say anything about how the sheep got lost
          • No judgment
          • No speculation
          • Nothing to deride the sheep for its lostness à not a commentary on the sheep’s character or lineage or personal worth
          • The sheep is simply lost. Because everything gets lost sometimes. Everyone gets lost sometimes. Unlike the Pharisees’ overly-loud and judgmental grumbling about the lost ones surrounding Jesus, Jesus himself makes no comment about the moral or spiritual implications of being lost. He simply states it as a reality and moves on with the story because, as we learn, the lostness isn’t the true point.
        • Also need to notice that severity of “lostness” gets … well … lost when we translate from Gr. to Eng. → We know that there are varying levels of “lostness” in our own language. A lost phone number, for example, carries innumerably less weight and worry than a lost pet or family member. And anyone who’s spent more than 2 minutes searching for their keys when they’re trying to get out the door in the morning knows that lostness can inspire a whole host of emotions and frustrations in a shockingly short amount of time. However, in English, the word “lost” is a fairly tame word. In and of itself, it doesn’t strike fear and despair into the hearts of those who hear it.
          • Gr. in this passage = significantly stronger – “lost” can also be destroyed, ruined, even killed → Jesus is making it clear just how perilous it can be to be lost. Lostness is nothing to scoff at, nothing to take for granted. Lostness is a serious thing.
      • Severity of the state of lostness leads the shepherd to boisterous rejoicing when he finds the sheep → not just rejoicing himself but rejoicing that spills over to those around him – text: When he arrives home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost sheep.’[6]
    • 2nd parable – lost coin – is very similar: woman has 10 silver coins → discovers she’s lost one coin → basically turns her house upside-down (“lights a lamp and sweeps the house, searching her home carefully”[7]) until she finds her missing coin → rejoices when she finds the lost coin → gathers her friends to celebrate
      • We’ve all been there, right? We’ve felt that stomach-sinking feeling of having lost something of monetary value.
        • Story of losing Caribou gift card from Mom one Christmas when Ian and Luke were little → It’s truly gut-wrenching when you lose something like that, and the longer and more thoroughly you search, the further your stomach drops, right? We may not all be able to relate to Jesus’ tale of the shepherd losing the sheep, but the experience of losing a coin (or, by today’s standards, a paycheck or a credit card or a gift card) is pretty universal.
          • Know the franticness of searching
          • Know the worst-case scenarios that run through our heads while we’re searching
          • Know (hopefully!) the relief and joy that floods through our whole systems upon finding what you’ve lost OR, on the flip side, the frustration and distress we feel if it’s not found
          • This helps us to relate not just with the lost one but the finding one in Jesus’ stories as well. Make no mistake, Jesus makes it clear that we are the ones lost and God is the one doing the finding, but by using these examples that are so easily applicable to everyday life, Jesus gives us a glimpse into the heart of God.
            • Affirms that celebration and relief with what he says after telling each parable
              • Sheep: In the same way, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who changes both heart and life than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to change their hearts and lives.[8]
              • Coin: In the same way, I tell you, joy breaks out in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who changes both heart and life.[9]
              • Joy breaks out! Joy breaks out over one who is found – who is rescued from a state of lostness and brought back to the One who has spent so much love and life searching.
                • Goes along with what we talked about last week – Jesus as the one who calls us to repent → Gr. “changes both heart and life” (exact phrase from both parables) = one simple word: REPENT
    • Scholar: There is no more humbling or common human experience that feeling and being lost. By the reckoning of these parables, the most joyfully divine experience is finding and being found. No matter how lost the people should become and by whatever means they lose their way, the promise is never exhausted: the lamp is burning. The shepherd is searching. God is watching and believing that the lost shall be found until the journey home is completely by every misplaced soul.[10] Amen.

[1] Jess Zafarris. “The Origins of the Phrase ‘Pull Yourself Up by Your Bootstraps” from Useless Etymology blog, https://uselessetymology.com/2019/11/07/the-origins-of-the-phrase-pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps/. Accessed Mar. 7, 2021.

[2] Dave Roos. “The Bootstrap Myth: Climbing the Economic Ladder Takes More Than Hard Work” from HowStuffWorks, https://money.howstuffworks.com/bootstrap-myth-climbing-economic-ladder-takes-more-hard-work.htm. Accessed Mar. 7, 2021.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Lk 15:1-2.

[5] Christopher H. Edmonston. “Luke 15:1-10 – Homiletical Perspective’ in Feasting on the Gospels – Luke, vol. 2. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 83.

[6] Lk 15:6.

[7] Lk 15:8.

[8] Lk 15:7.

[9] Lk 15:10.

[10] Edmonston, 85.

Sunday’s sermon: Jesus Who Calls Us to Repent

Images from “Topography of Tears” by Rose-Lynn Fisher

Text used – Luke 13:1-9, 31-35

  • I want to share some images with you this morning. They’re from an exhibit and the resulting book by photographer Rose-Lynn Fisher. Both the exhibit and the book are called “The Topography of Tears.”[1]
    • [SHOW IMAGES]
    • Description from Amazon: “Does a tear shed while chopping onions look different from a tear of happiness? In this powerful collection of images, an award-winning photographer trains her optical microscope and camera on her own tears and those of men, women, and children, released in moments of grief, pain, gratitude, and joy, and captured upon glass slides. These duotone photographs reveal the beauty of recurring patterns in nature and present evocative, crystalline imagery for contemplation. Underscored by poetic captions, they translate the mysterious act of crying into an atlas mapping the structure and magnificence of our interior lives.”[2] → I have to confess that I find the whole scope and idea and intention of this project fascinating – the idea that the tears we cry for different occasions truly look different on a fundamental level, and yet, at the same time, there is also a powerful similarity in the microscopic make-up of those tears.
      • Tears of joy
      • Tears of grief
      • Tears of shame
      • Tears of relief
      • Tears of longing
      • Tears of frustration
    • Throughout Lent this year, we’re talking about the different roles that Jesus plays.
      • Last week = Jesus’ role as Compassionate One
      • This week = Jesus who calls us to repent → And today’s passage is a really interesting passage for taking a closer look at that role because I think it finds Jesus calling us to repent in some unexpected ways.
        • Usually think of a call to repentance as something sobering and solemn, even stern, maybe – a religious “calling to task,” if you will, sort of like being called to the principal’s office when you were a kid → But when we read these passages this morning, I think we hear a very different sort of call to repentance from Jesus – a gentler call, a compassionate call, a call that comes not from a place of judgment and severity but from a place of longing … longing for relationship, longing for restoration, longing for us.
  • Narrative Lectionary gave us these two portions of ch. 13 from Lk’s gospel this morning – vv. 1-9, then vv. 31-35 – so we’ve already got two different approaches to this call for repentance → But I think we can even divide that first part of our text into two distinct sections – Jesus’ conversation with the crowd being one and the parable of the of the barren fig tree being the other. So let’s take a look at each of these three calls to repentance on their own.
    • First = section titled “Demand for genuine change” or, more starkly, “Repent or Perish” in many Bibles
      • Context: part of a much larger portion of text in which Jesus is teaching a huge crowd somewhere outside of Jerusalem – begins back in ch. 12: When a crowd of thousands upon thousands had gathered so that they were crushing each other, Jesus began to speak first to his disciples.[3] → partway through Jesus’ discussion with his disciples, someone from the crowd raises a question for Jesus which redirects his attention (and his teaching) to the larger crowd[4] → today’s text = continuation of that teaching for the enormous crowd: Some who were present on that occasion told Jesus about the Galileans whom Pilate had killed while they were offering sacrifices.[5]
        • Unfortunately not an event that we have any more historical information about → still clear that the event the crowd is telling Jesus about was a horrific one
          • Other translation = crowd “told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices”[6]
      • Passage just before what we read today = Jesus speaking about judgment, so someone in the crowd brings up this horrific act to ask Jesus if it was payback for the Galileans’ misdeeds – divine retribution, the idea that “they must have done something to deserve such a horrible fate”
        • Ultimately, the basic question of the crowd = certainly a question we still ask today: “Why do bad things happen to good people?
      • Jesus gets to the heart of the matter pretty quickly – text: He replied, “Do you think the suffering of these Galileans proves that they were more sinful than all the other Galileans? No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.”[7] → Jesus takes the discussion a step further by bringing in an example of not human-caused evil (as in the case of Pilate killing the Galileans while they made their sacrifices) but of natural evil = the falling of the tower of Siloam – text: What about those eighteen people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them? Do you think that they were more guilty of wrongdoing than everyone else who lives in Jerusalem? No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.[8]
      • Jesus’ call to repentance in this portion of the passage is a more subtle call and comes in the form of the caution that he repeats for the crowd: “Unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.” → I hear a longing in this call. Maybe even an edge of desperation. First, Jesus is given the extreme example by the crowd – those who were murdered by Pilate in the midst of their act of sacred worship – but Jesus adds to that extreme example with his own, making it clear to the crowd that, while we can’t keep bad things from happening, we can guard our hearts and souls from the devastation of eternal death by repenting – by changing our hearts and lives and reorienting them toward God.
        • I hear Jesus as insistent
        • I hear Jesus as emphatic
        • I hear Jesus as trying to get this message of repentance across to the people around him because he knows exactly what’s at stake. If he were crying tears during this exchange, I imagine they’d be tears of anxiety … tears of fear … tears of concern. I wonder what those tears would have looked like. [PAUSE]
    • Second portion of the text = related to the first → parable of the fruitless fig tree[9]
      • Short parable about a vineyard owner who planted a fig tree → fig tree failed to produce year after year for three years in a row → vineyard own grew frustrated and ordered his gardener to give up on the useless tree and chop it down → gardener negotiates for the life of the tree, promising to give the recalcitrant tree some special attention → final declaration says it all: “Maybe it will produce fruit next year; if not, then you can cut it down.”[10]
        • So let’s talk about fig trees a little bit.[11]
          • Probably the oldest cultivated fruit in the world → some suggestions that humans were planting and harvesting figs 10,000 yrs. ago
          • Grow in warmer climates that our own – native to SW Asia and Mediterranean regions (think Afghanistan to Portugal)
          • Known to live as long as 200 yrs.
          • Produce 1-2 crops of figs per year, depending on the variety
          • Somewhat fickle plant that requires some pretty precise growing conditions, cultivation practices, pruning, irrigation, etc.
      • Fickle … somewhat difficult … requires special attention … sound anything like any human beings you know? Ahhhh … the parable becomes a little clearer.
        • Parable = reminiscent of passage from Exodus where Moses is negotiating with God for the lives of the people of Israel → God has grown angry and frustrated with the fickleness of the Israelites after they made the golden calf → contemplating destroying the Israelites à Moses intercedes on behalf of the people and convinces God to spare them[12]
        • Parable = God is the frustrated vineyard owner, we are the delinquent fig tree, and Jesus is the gardener who promises extra care and attention in a desperate hope for fruit → In this short but powerful parable, we hear Jesus’ call to repentance not in anger or frustration but in compassion. Just like the gardener who was willing to spend his own time and get his hands dirty caring for the fruitless fig tree, Jesus was willing to come down into the messiness of humanity to dwell among us in an attempt to restore our relationship with God – a relationship that bears fruit like we never could have imagined: hope, unconditional love, the glory of God’s kingdom, and above all, grace.
          • Compassionate call to repentance
          • Loving call to repentance
          • If Jesus cried tears with the telling of this parable, I imagine they’d be tears of hopefulness … tears of reverence … tears of devotion. I wonder what those tears would have looked like. [PAUSE]
    • Final portion of our text today = definitely a challenging portion → cryptic, prophetic, and troubling
      • Begins with quite the role reversal: Pharisees coming to warn Jesus: At that time, some Pharisees approached Jesus and said, “Go! Get away from here, because Herod wants to kill you.”[13] → definitely not the role we’ve grown accustomed to the Pharisees playing throughout any of the gospels
        • Some scholars believe this to be an act of political intrigue/subterfuge on the part of the Pharisees[14]
        • However, in other places in the gospels we’re told about a few Pharisees – namely Nicodemus[15] and Joseph of Arimathea[16] – who have heard and believed the message of Jesus despite the suspicion and plotting of the rest of their religious brethren. Perhaps it was one of them that came to Jesus in our passage this morning.
      • No matter who it was that brought the message or their intentions, we hear Jesus’ call to repentance in both defiance and even desperate longing in this final portion this morning
        • Defiance in Jesus’ determination to continue embodying his ministry and delivering his message even in the face of Herod’s threats – text: Jesus said to them, “Go, tell that fox, ‘Look, I’m throwing out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will complete my work. However, it’s necessary for me to travel today, tomorrow, and the next day because it’s impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’”[17] → Jesus knows what is of utmost importance here: the mission that God gave him – to seek and save the lost. Jesus knows what is coming. He knows that is time is drawing to a close – that this message about Herod’s intentions is only the beginning. If he were crying tears during this exchange, I imagine they’d be tears of pain … tears of frustration … tears of conviction. I wonder what those tears would have looked like. [PAUSE]
      • Finally, Jesus turns his attention from the Pharisee messengers to Jerusalem itself in his most explicit call to repentance: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those who were sent to you! How often I have wanted to gather your people just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you didn’t want that. Look, your house is abandoned. I tell you, you won’t see me until the time comes when you say, Blessings on the one who comes in the Lord’s name.”[18]
        • Scholar captures the poignancy and power in this passage: The lament of Jesus is unrequited. Jerusalem is unwilling to cease killing the prophets and stoning the messengers. This is part of being human. Jerusalem is not alone or special in this regard. All people, from all cultures, in all times, find ways to reject the fullness of what God desires to give. … We do not travel perfectly; it is not in our nature to do so. Whenever we stray off course, if we listen, we will hear Holy Mother Jesus shaking his head, saying how he longs to gather us up into a protective embrace. We have a traveling companion who walks with us today, tomorrow, and the next day.[19] → In this final portion, we hear longing and unconditional love in Jesus’ call to repentance. Not judgment. Not retribution. Not an intent to shame or deride or subdue us for the mistakes and the sins that require our repentance. Love. Longing. And a desire for us. If he were crying tears during this discourse, I imagine they’d be tears of yearning … tears of adoration … tears of love. I wonder what those tears would have looked like. [PAUSE]

[1] Rose-Lynn Fisher. The Topography of Tears. (New York, NY: Bellevue Literary Press), 2017.

[2] https://smile.amazon.com/Topography-Tears-Rose-Lynn-Fisher/dp/1942658281/ref=sr_1_1?crid=92D0ACXPA5UT&dchild=1&keywords=topography+of+tears&qid=1614516906&sprefix=topogra%2Caps%2C218&sr=8-1.

[3] Lk 12:1a.

[4] Lk 12:13.

[5] Lk 13:1.

[6] Lk 13:1 (NRSV).

[7] Lk 13:2-3.

[8] Lk 13:4-5.

[9] Lk 13:6-9.

[10] Lk 13:9.

[11] Paul Alfrey. “Dig the Fig – The Essential Guide to All You Need to Know About Figs” from The Permaculture Research Institute, https://www.permaculturenews.org/2016/09/30/dig-fig-essential-guide-need-know-figs-ficus-carica/#:~:text=The%20fruiting%20cycle%20is%20120,as%20long%20as%20200%20years. Posted Sept. 30, 2016, accessed Feb. 28, 2021.

[12] Ex 32:9-14.

[13] Lk 13:31.

[14] Debra J. Mumford. “Luke 13:31-35 – Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels – Luke, vol. 2. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 51, 53.

[15] Jn 3:1-21.

[16] Lk 23:50-53.

[17] Lk 13:32-33.

[18] Lk 13:34-35.

[19] James Burns. “Luke 13:31-35 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels – Luke, vol. 2. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 54.

Sunday’s sermon: Jesus Who Shows Compassion

Good Samaritan” by Paulus Hoffman

Text used – Luke 10:25-37

  • According to …
    • DiSC Personality Profile system (took in seminary): Creative Pattern
    • Enneagram: 1w9 (the Idealist)
    • Myers-Briggs Type Indicator: INFJ (the Advocate)
    • And that’s just a few of the dozens of possible labels that I could wear thanks to the personality test industry. There are all sorts of ways we try to understand who we are and who the people that we’re working with or living with are nowadays. Corporate settings, business retreats, church conferences – any organization that has spent time trying to dig deep into team building has explored some sort of personality test.
      • Part of the call process with our CPM: reams of forms to fill out including 3 separate personality tests (MBTI, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory … and one other that I’ve long since forgotten)
      • Personality test industry = $500 million dollar industry![1]
      • We do everything we can to try to get down to the root of who we are. We feel like if we better understand ourselves, we’ll better understand the world around us – how we interact with people, how people perceive us, some of our strengths and weaknesses, some of our triggers, the best ways that we can contribute, and so on. We seek to understand what our role is and how it fits in with the roles of the people around us – what piece of the puzzle we happen to be, and how we fit with those around us and with the larger picture. → always interesting to learn about who other people are, the roles they play, and how those roles affect and inform our lives
        • Extra interesting because each different type of test reveals different facets of who we are Because whether you’ve taken 100 personality tests or zero, we all know that personalities are complex, multifaceted things. We are many things to many people, and we play many roles throughout our lives.
    • So that’s the angle we’re going to be taking throughout Lent this year. I wish we could be getting together so we could do our own personality exploration on the side with this, but what we’re going to be focusing on during our worship is the personality of the One who brings us here in the first place. We’re going to be focusing on who Jesus is by reading some of the stories of his life and ministry (brought to us this year by Luke’s gospel) and letting those stories reveal roles that Jesus plays even to today.
  • Story that we’re encountering Jesus through today = probably one of (if not the) most well-known stories in the entire Bible It’s one of those stories familiar to people who have never set foot in a church in their lives. It’s the story of the Good Samaritan.
    • Definitely familiar “Good Samaritan” moniker used in all sorts of different ways – all involving “helping” in some way or another
      • Good Samaritan charities/organizations
      • Good Samaritan hospitals
      • Good Samaritan churches
      • Good Samaritan Society = senior living/rehabilitation facilities here in southern Minnesota[2]
      • If you utter the phrase “Good Samaritan,” people know what you’re talking about.
    • Confession to make this morning: in my 8+ yrs. of ministry, I’ve never preached the Good Samaritan I’ve never preached on this text before because I’ve always felt like it’s one of the few Scripture passages that, for the most part, preaches itself.
      • All know the basic story, right?
        • Begins with one of the legal experts/Pharisees asking Jesus, “What must I do to gain eternal life?” Jesus responds with question about the Law (Pharisee’s area of expertise) which encourages the Pharisee to answer his own question: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” not good enough for the Pharisee counters with another question: “But who is my neighbor?”[3]
        • Jesus’ reply = the familiar story: man traveling alone from Jerusalem to Jericho (notoriously treacherous stretch of highways) gets set-upon by a band of thieves who “stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death” a number of people happen upon this man in his gravely wounded state as they make their own way along the road – priest sees him but passes by, Levite (spiritual leader) sees him but passes by, Samaritan “was moved with compassion” and stopped to help the man bandaged his wounds, put him on his donkey, took him to an inn, cared for him, and provided funds to the innkeeper for more care to be given to the man until he was well again[4]
        • Passage wraps up with Jesus posing the Pharisee’s question back at him: “What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?” Pharisee responds, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.” Jesus gives what will become one of his trademark instructions (at least in Luke’s gospel): “Go and do likewise.”[5]
      • I mean, the end of the story really preaches itself. It’s a full sermon in two short verses: [Jesus said,] “What do you think? Which of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?” Then the legal expert said, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”[6]  Done and done, right? It’s clear. It’s concise. There’s a faith lesson involved as well as a directive to go and do (literally). What more do we need?
  • Except that it’s not that clear cut. I mean, it must not be … because here we are 2000 years later, and we still can’t get this right.
    • 2020 has proved that to us in spades
      • Violence done to black and brown bodies over and over and over again while the rest of us look the other way or look for pointless and baseless excuses
      • Politicization of something as simple as wearing masks as a way to protect others during a worldwide pandemic that has killed millions
      • Willfully ignoring and denying systemic racism that has perpetuated poverty, desperation, and an oppressive lack of opportunities for communities of color
    • Beyond just this past year, the last few years …
      • Immigrant families literally torn apart at our southern border
      • Flagrant violation of treaties with indigenous tribes who made their homes on this land millennia before we ever arrived
      • Violence done to the bodies and souls of LGBTQ+ people
      • General villainization of “the other”
        • Anyone whose skin isn’t white
        • Anyone whose first language isn’t English
        • Anyone whose passport doesn’t say “United States of America”
        • Anyone whose faith practice isn’t Christian
    • Not only have we forgotten how to listen to the voices of those who are different from us. We have actively denied and disparaged and attempted to silence those voices. With our words and our intentional silences. With our actions and our inactions.
      • Dr. Mitzi Smith (prof of NT at Columbia Theological Seminary): Disinterested, dehumanizing distance and ignorance makes no demands and takes no risks for others. … When do our class, race, gender, ethnic, ideological, cultural, and religious differences promote dehumanization of ourselves and of others? Dehumanizing others dehumanizes us.[7]
  • But still we have our story for this morning staring us in the face, and we hear again Jesus’ call to compassion. Let’s look a little more closely at our story again.
    • 3 people that encounter the injured man = priest, Levite, and Samaritan
      • Priest and Levite = presumably same ethnic and religious background as the injured man Jews from the area
      • But the Samaritan is another story. Samaritans = technical Jews from the northern kingdom of Israel BUT their ancestors weren’t deported during the time of the Babylonian exile These were the people left behind in the conquered city and surrounding area.
        • Resulted in Jews intermarrying with Assyrian conquerors Jews thought of the Samaritans as half-bloods and “second-class citizens”[8]
        • Resulted in a different form of religious practice Jews thought of the Samaritans as “untrustworthy heretics”[9]
        • Needless to say, Samaritans were despised and actively discriminated against.
    • And yet Jesus makes the Samaritan the example in this passage – the example of being a true neighbor, the example of right action, the example of compassion.
      • Scholar: As a way of illustrating where the center of gravity lies within the story, consider which actors are related to the nearly thirty verb forms in the parable. The victim of the mugging is the subject of two verbs. The robbers are the subject of four verbs. The priest and Levite are the subject of three verbs each, enough to walk the road, see the man, and pass by. The innkeeper is the subject of two verbs. The Samaritan is the subject of fifteen verbs.[10]  Clearly, it’s the actions of this “other” that we’re supposed to pay attention to and learn from. Jesus makes it abundantly clear that the one who crosses all of those arbitrary, societal “other” lines is the one who is acting as God desires.
        • Smith’s description: [This is] a parable narrative about human beings and how they respond to traumatized, violated, unsheltered, and/or marginalized others. This parable is about men—a priest, Levite, and Samaritan—who must make significant decisions at the intersection of ethnicity/race, gender, human victimization, and desperation.[11]
  • Friends, the reality of history is that Jesus was a dark-skinned, curly haired, Middle Eastern Jew. In circumstance, he was about as far from you and I as he could possibly get. And yet he came for us. He came for all of us. He came to show compassion in ways that continue to challenge and astound us. In his ministry, Jesus himself showed compassion in some of the most unlikely, unexpected, and unwelcomed circumstances: sinners and screw-ups, outcasts and misfits, those who had been labeled unclean and unwanted, tax collectors and even Pharisees – those whom he knew would one day take his life. But his compassion never waivered. How often can we say the same? Amen.

[1] Emma Goldberg. “Personality Tests Are the Astrology of the Office” from The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/17/style/personality-tests-office.html. Published Sept. 17, 2019, accessed Feb. 21, 2021.

[2] https://www.good-sam.com/.

[3] Lk 10:25-29.

[4] Lk 10:30-35.

[5] Lk 10:36-37.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Mitzi J. Smith. “Commentary on Luke 10:25-37” for The Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/good-samaritan-2/commentary-on-luke-1025-42-3. For Feb. 21, 2021, accessed Feb. 21, 2021.

[8] Mary Miller Brueggemann. “Luke 10:25-37 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: Luke, vol. 1. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 298.

[9] Douglas F. Ottati. “Luke 10:25-37 – Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: Luke, vol. 1. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 298.

[10] Mary Hinkle Shore. “Luke 10:25-37 – Exegetical Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: Luke, vol. 1. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 299.

[11] Smith.

Sunday’s sermon: Love You Forever

Texts used – Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and John 17:20-26

  • You all know just how important children’s books are and always have been to me. No surprise when your Mom was a children’s librarian for 40 yrs!
    • So many lessons to be learned alongside compelling storylines and fantastic illustrations! → describe Galena Sunday school lessons (taught Sunday school as a part of my church internship and created curriculum out of “regular” children’s books paired with Scripture and some crafts/activities): I was very particular about picking out “non-churchy” children’s books. You see, it was really important to me that these books be ones that the kids could easily come across in their everyday life – at home, in their library time at school, and so on. By connecting those everyday children’s books to a lesson about faith, it was my hope that their encounters with those books outside of our Sunday school class would give them a flash of God in the midst of their ordinary days. I guess you could say I wanted the books to continue teaching them about faith long after our Sunday school lesson was over.
      • Believe it or not, the passage from Deuteronomy that we just read actually talks about this. Well, sort of … it can be interpreted that way, anyway.
        • Text: Love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength. These words that I am commanding you today must always be on your minds. Recite them to your children. Talk about them when you are sitting around your house and when you are out and about, when you are lying down and when you are getting up.[1]
          • Heb. word translated as “recite” could also mean “repeat” – some other translations say “impress on your children” → Anyone who’s been around kids – their own or someone else’s – knows that the more ways and opportunities you can find to present an idea to kids, the more likely it is that that idea will stick! It’s just like my intentions with using “regular” children’s books for our Sunday school lessons.
            • Text: talk about it when you are sitting around your house → having dinner or at bath time
            • Text: talk about it when you’re out and about → in the car or while you’re grocery shopping
            • Text: talk about it when you’re lying down → before they go to bed at night
            • Text: talk about it when they get up in the morning
          • So what’s the “it” that this passage wants you to repeat? It’s simple: Love God!
  • Now, this may sound a little counterintuitive, but there’s actually a problem with this message: you’ve probably heard it at least a million times before, especially around Valentine’s Day weekend. You’ve heard it so many times that maybe it’s past the point of “repeating for the sake of learning” and reached the point of “in one ear and out the other.” So this morning, I’m going to present it just a little differently. After all, we aren’t really all that different from kids sometimes, are we? We like hearing important messages expressed in a variety of ways. This morning you all get to be kids again. You get to sit back and just relax while I read you a story. This book is called Love You Forever.
    • Author: Robert Munsch, illustrator: Sheila McGraw, publisher: Firefly Books → read book[2]

  • Power of love, right?! → Not surprisingly, love is obviously a concept scattered all throughout the Bible. In fact, the word love in all its various forms – love, loved, loving, and beloved – shows up 757 times in the Bible!
    • And this message is extra clear in the New Testament. Today’s text from the gospel of John sheds a little light on the reason for that clarity.
      • Context for John passage = subsection of much longer intercessory prayer that Jesus prays toward the end of his time on earth – today’s subsection entitled “The prayer for the church” in most Bibles → This is a very intimate moment between Jesus and God. In the other gospels, we’re told that Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane at this point, though John doesn’t actually say that. By now, Jesus has already said farewell to his disciples and dismissed Judas to carry out his betrayal. In fact, directly following this passage is John’s account of Jesus’ betrayal and arrest. So that means that in his last unrestrained moments, Jesus decides to spend that precious time praying … for us.
        • Think of what else Jesus could have been asking for
          • Freedom
          • Strength
          • Spared from pain
          • Instead he’s interceding on our behalf
        • Self-sacrifice reminds me of the mother at the end of Love You Forever → she knows the end of her life is near, but she still tries to sing her song to her son
      • In the gospel passage that we read today, Jesus is praying that the message of his ministry will continue.
        • Just prior to today’s section = prayer for the disciples → important for understanding the lead-in to our text today – text (began with): “I’m not praying only for them but also for those who believe in me because of their word.”[3] → Jesus is transitioning the subject of his prayer from the disciples to those who will follow the disciples –“those who will believe in me through their word” … that’s us! We are the ones who believe in Christ because of the words of those who have come before, but we can also be the ones speaking words of witness, conviction, and faith. We can be part of that chain – a living, breathing continuation of Jesus’ prayer from centuries ago. We can be the ones continuing Christ’s ministry.
        • Jesus even gives us the major emphasis of that ministry here – text: I’ve given them the glory that you gave me so that they can be one just as we are one. I’m in them and you are in me so that they will be made perfectly one. Then the world will know that you sent me and that you have loved them just as you loved me.[4] → Over and over again throughout this passage, Jesus says that we are in God and God is in us. This is what gives us the power and ability to reach out to others in faith. But how can God be in us?
  • Read 1 John 4:7-19 → It does seem pretty clear, doesn’t it? God is LOVE! It says it 23 times in this passage alone!
    • Stated explicitly – vv. 8 & 16: God is love → Three small, simple words that mean so incredibly much! God lives in us in the truest and purest form of love imaginable.
      • Ties back to the life and ministry of Jesus – from 1 Jn: This is how the love of God is revealed to us: God has sent his only Son into the world so that we can live through him. This is love: it is not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son as the sacrifice that deals with our sins.[5] → “God sent his only Son into the world so that we can live through him. This is love.” You see, friends, God knows our sins even more completely than we do. Yet what does God do for us?
        • God: Continues to love us → to long for that deep connection with us even as we wander farther and farther away
        • Book: It’s like the mother in the book. Even as her son was growing older – more independent and sometimes more distant, both emotionally as a teenager and physically as an adult – she still longed for that connection.
        • God: made the effort to reconnect with us through the loving life and ministry of God’s only Son, Jesus Christ → God couldn’t stand the separation any longer! God created us out of love in God’s own image – an image that is first and foremost recognizable in love itself, in that we have the capacity to love because that capacity to love existed first in God and came first from God.
          • 1 Jn text: If we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.[6]
        • Book: That mother crawled across floors. That mother drove across town. That mother hefted her son into her lap long after he’d surpassed her in size. It all stemmed from love – an outpouring of love so powerful, so strong, so undeniable that even when we aren’t aware of it (like the boy while he was sleeping), that love wraps us up and reassuringly rocks us back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.
          • 1 Jn put it about as simply as possible: We love because God first loved us.[7]
  • Friends, this is the gospel message! As God’s children, the Holy Spirit abides with us, enveloping us always in God’s love, so when we’re loving others, we’re offering them the love of God and all that it entails. Sharing love is sharing God. And truly, friends, hear me today: God loves you! Whether this is something you’ve been hearing all your life or something you’ve never heard before, it never hurts to hear, “I love you” one more time. God will love us forever. God will like us for always. As long as we’re living – and even longer – God’s children we will be. Alleluia! Amen.

[1] Deut 6:5-7.

[2] Robert Munsch. Love You Forever. (Richmond Hill, Ontario: Firefly Books Ltd.), 1986.

[3] Jn 17:20.

[4] Jn 17:22-23.

[5] 1 Jn 4:9-10.

[6] 1 Jn 4:12-13.

[7] 1 Jn 4:19.

Sunday’s sermon reflection

Text used – Luke 7:1-10

This week was our annual meeting. In our congregation, we intersperse the annual meeting with worship because it helps us remember that all that we do and say as this church – even the business stuff – we do for the glory of God. On annual meeting Sunday, we have a lot going on: meeting elements, installation (and sometimes ordination) of new ruling elders and deacons, and communion, so I write more of a short reflection than a traditional sermon. So here’s this week’s mini-sermon:

He was a centurion, the commander of a small, local Roman military unit in small fishing village – a town no bigger than Oronoco. Did he have a lot of power outside Capernaum? Nope. To be honest, he didn’t even have that much power inside Capernaum. He was just the Roman’s placeholder – someone to command the local troops in case of any skirmishes, someone to quell any potential uprisings. He didn’t have enough clout with Rome to warrant any special assistance. There were no strings to pull. No favors to call in. And his most trusted and important servant was ill and wasn’t getting any better. In fact, he had gotten worse. He got sicker and sicker. And before long, the centurion could tell that his servant didn’t have much time left.

But then Jesus came to town. The centurion had heard about Jesus from the local Jews talking about this Jesus guy and all the miraculous things he’d done – healing people, banishing demons, and all sorts of incredible things. And the centurion believed the stories. There were too many of them to dismiss them as just rumors. So the centurion believed. In fact, the centurion believed in Jesus more fully and more humbly than anyone else had up to this point. The locals had gone to Jesus to urge him to help the centurion’s servant, telling Jesus what a good man the centurion was. Scripture said, “When they came to Jesus, they earnestly pleaded with Jesus. ‘He deserves to have you do this for him,’ they said. ‘He loves our people and he built our synagogue for us.’” And so Jesus goes, but before he can even get to the centurion’s house, the centurion himself sends one of his friends to Jesus to say, “I don’t deserve this. I’m not worthy to even have you visit me. I believe in you enough that I believe all you have to do is say the word, and my servant will be healed.” No need to lay hands on his servant. No need to breathe on him or take his hand or anything else. Just a word.

The faith of the centurion is so complete – so full and whole and strong. It’s the deepest faith we’ve seen expressed so far, and to be honest, I think it’s one of the deepest faiths we see expressed in all of Scripture. There is humility and honesty in the centurion’s faith. And an all-in trust that Jesus is who he is and can do with a simple word what no one else has been able to do. And Jesus names this: “When Jesus heard these words, he was impressed with the centurion. He turned to the crowd following him and said, ‘I tell you, even in Israel I haven’t found faith like this.’ When the centurion’s friends returned to his house, they found the servant restored to health.” The fullest, most genuine form of faith in Jesus Christ … from someone who is about as “other” as it could possibly get in the gospels. A Roman. A Roman soldier, no less. An oppressor. A pawn of the Empire. And yet, his faith in Jesus impresses even Jesus himself. So here’s the question: Where do we least expect to find genuine, life-changing expressions of faith in the world and the people around us? And what can we learn from those unexpected expressions of faith?

Sunday’s sermon: Fulfilling Sabbath

Text used – Luke 6:1-16

  • The sun was setting and the dark of night was beginning to creep across the land. The priest was readying the synagogue for the evening vigils when he saw movement out of the corner of his eye. He figured it was another beggar or a widow coming to seek help. But when he looked again, he recognized the young man approaching. It was David – David, the warrior who had slain the Philistine giant, Goliath. David, who had since become a powerful and renowned commander of many troops in Israel’s army. David, who it was said had befriended King Saul’s son, Jonathan. David, who it was said had caught the eye of King Saul’s daughter, Michal. David, who it was also said had stirred the fierce jealousy of King Saul himself.[1] There, in the waning light of dusk, this same David stood there before the priest. He looked all around as though anxious that anyone would recognize him which sent a jolt of fear into the priest’s heart. With a quaking voice, he said to David, “Why are you alone? Why is no one with you?” The priest saw David hesitate for a moment, again glancing quickly to the right and left before answering, “The king has given me orders, but he instructed me, ‘Don’t let anyone know anything about the mission I’m sending you on or about your orders.’ As for my troops, I told them to meet me at an undisclosed location.” Something about the way he said it made the priest wonder. But David wasn’t finished: “Now,” he asked hopefully, “What do you have here with you? Give me give loaves of bread or whatever you can find.” At this, the priest balked a bit, for he knew the only bread he had on hand was the holy bread – the Bread of the Presence, the 12 loaves representing the 12 tribes of Israel whose precise baking instructions were laid out in the book of the Law, the bread specifically made for God and God alone, also designated by the book of the Law.[2] The priest knew all of this – the exact letter of the law and the utter sanctity of the bread. He knew that there was something about David standing here before him tonight that felt off. And yet deep in his heart, he knew there was something else about David standing here before him – something that overrode his misgivings, overrode his strict interpretation of the Law, overrode even his fear. The priest felt God’s presence in that moment and in David himself. So he took the Bread of the Presence and gave it to David.[3]
    • A story that the Pharisees who accused Jesus that Sabbath morning would have known well
    • A story that Jesus himself clearly knew well, too
    • A story of needing food and compassion and a bending of sacred Law → Or, more like fulfilling of sacred Law.
    • Like our Gospel story this morning, it’s a story of two worlds colliding
      • The world of the old Law and the world of the new gospel
      • The world of the letter of the Law and the world of the root of love behind the Law
      • The world of “already” and the world of “not yet”
  • Understanding of the Sabbath from the Pharisees’ point of view[4]
    • Observing Sabbath = cornerstone of Jewish religious practice
      • Quite possibly the earliest practice → set by God in in very beginning with Genesis 1 creation story when God rested on the 7th day[5]
      • Rules for Sabbath laid out in many passages throughout the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the Bible) → In fact, the commands for properly observing the Sabbath touch every one of those first five books.
        • (As we’ve said), Sabbath = established in Genesis with creation
        • Sabbath = given to Moses as part of the 10 Commandments in Exodus → fully 1/3 of the entire text for the 10 commandments is devoted to the 5th commandment: Six days you may work and do all your tasks, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. Do not do any work on it—not you, your sons or daughters, your male or female servants, your animals, or the immigrant who is living with you. Because the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything that is in them in six days, but rested on the seventh day. That is why the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.[6]
        • Other specifications for how to observe the Sabbath laid out in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy → one such specification is what initially gets Jesus into trouble in our story today: prohibition against people gathering food on the Sabbath
          • Comes from time when Moses and the Israelites were in the wilderness after escaping Egypt and God provided them manna from heaven: God provided enough manna for each person for each day → instructed people only gather enough for that day, not save any except for the Sabbath day → instructed to gather enough food for two days the day before the Sabbath so they didn’t have to work to gather food on the Sabbath itself[7]
    • So that’s where the Pharisees in our story this morning were coming from. These were the rules pertaining to the Sabbath – the rules that the people of Israel had already been following for centuries, the rules that had literally been given to them by God. And it was the Pharisees’ job to interpret those rules for themselves and their communities and to make sure everyone abided by those rules to keep the Sabbath holy.
  • But then there’s Jesus
    • Now, it’s important to remember, folx, that Jesus was a Jew. He grew up observing all the Jewish laws and festivals. Just a few weeks ago, we read the story of Jesus getting left behind in Jerusalem when he was 12 yrs. old, and if you’ll remember, his family had traveled to Jerusalem to observe the Passover festival. → means Jesus’ disagreement with the Pharisees over Sabbath in our Scripture this morning wasn’t about the importance of the Sabbath but about the nature of how to best, most faithfully keep the Sabbath
      • 2 different instances in our passage this morning
        • 1st Sabbath run-in with the Pharisees = Jesus and his disciples walking through a field on the Sabbath → disciples are picking heads of wheat as they walk through the field and eating them → Pharisees call them out (as per the prohibition that comes the from the story of gathering manna that we talked about earlier)
          • Jesus’ response: “Haven’t you read what David and his companions did when they were hungry? He broke the Law by going into God’s house and eating the bread of the presence, which only the priests can eat. He also gave some of the bread to his companions.”[8] → goes back to the story that we started with this morning: David being in a moment of need because he was doing what God needed him to do
          • Implication = work/movement of God supersedes the particular rules of the Sabbath → Jesus doubles down on this with his final statement to the Pharisees on this matter: “The Human One is Lord of the Sabbath.”[9]
            • Sounds simple, but this is a loaded phrase! → scholar explains significance of this statement: In declaring himself lord of the Sabbath, Jesus announces both his authority over the Sabbath and his place as the fulfillment of God’s promise. … In this declaration Jesus positions himself as that one for whom Israel may and must give thanks as the provision of God, as the fulfillment of God’s promise of redemption. As the lord of the Sabbath, Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise in which Israel has been trusting and resting since the exodus. However, Jesus also pronounces himself this [“Human One”] who is lord of the Sabbath. … While he is the promise of the Sabbath, Jesus is also the man who in his flesh is the union of God and humanity. … In Jesus’ humanity God has joined God’s self in covenant with all of humanity. As the [Human One] who is also lord of the Sabbath, Jesus in the union of God and humanity, the master and fulfillment of God’s covenantal promises.[10]
        • See even more of this fulfillment in Jesus’ 2nd Sabbath run-in with the Pharisees: heals the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath → even trickier situation because, as text tells us, Pharisees are waiting in the wings (so to speak) just itching to pounce on Jesus for profaning the Sabbath with his actions again … And Jesus does not disappoint! – text: On another Sabbath, Jesus entered a synagogue to teach. A man was there whose right hand was withered. The legal experts and the Pharisees were watching him closely to see if he would heal on the Sabbath. They were looking for a reason o bring charges against him. Jesus knew their thoughts, so he said to the man with the withered hand, “Get up and stand in front of everyone.” He got up and stood there. Jesus said to the legal experts and Pharisees, “Here’s a question for you: Is it legal on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or destroy it?” Looking around at them all, he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” Se he did and his hand was made healthy. They were furious and began talking with each other about what to do to Jesus.[11] → Again, this not Jesus telling the Pharisees that the Sabbath wasn’t important, wasn’t worthwhile, wasn’t holy and sacred. It’s Jesus interpreting the faithful practice of the Sabbath differently. It’s Jesus honoring the spirit of Sabbath differently. It’s about Jesus displaying devotion to God differently – not in the letter of the Law but in the action of love that inspired the Law in the first place.
  • So what do we do with the idea of Sabbath today? What does Sabbath mean to us? How do we honor the Sabbath with our actions, our rest, our words, and our purpose each and every week? How does God’s command to honor the Sabbath affect our movements through our days and through our lives?
    • To be sure, not easy questions to answer, especially in this day and age → our world is a 24/7 world that stops for little to nothing
      • Jobs that require the presence of workers all day every day or at least for a large chunk of time 7 days a week → being so close to so many medical careers in Rochester – both Mayo and Olmsted – makes this particularly clear to us (even in non-pandemic times!)
      • Activities and obligations that require our action and our attention all the time → perfect e.g.: there’s laundry waiting for me at home this afternoon – laundry that cannot wait … not if I want clean clothes to wear to tomorrow!
    • So how do we keep Sabbath today? Key: take a cue from Jesus = honor the love and sacred intention of the Sabbath → read passage from The Sabbath by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel[12]:

      One of the most distinguished words in the Bible is the world qadosh, holy; a word which more than any other is representative of the mystery and majesty of the divine. Now what was the first holy object in the history of the world? Was it a mountain? Was it an altar?

      It is, indeed, a unique occasion at which the distinguished word qadosh is used for the first time: in the Book of Genesis at the end of the story of creation. How extremely significant is the fact that it is applied to time: “And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy.” There is no reference in the record of creation to any object in space that would be endowed with the quality of holiness.

      This is a radical departure from accustomed religious thinking. The mythical mind would expect that, after heaven and earth have been established, God would create a holy place – a holy mountain or a holy spring – whereupon a sanctuary is to be established. Yet it seems as if to the Bible it is holiness in time, the Sabbath, which comes first. …

      Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world. 
    • So, friends, let us, indeed, turn to that holiness in time – our time together in this worship, our time together with humanity that reflects God’s image and love back at us, and our time together with God. Let us find our Sabbath. Alleluia. Amen.

[1] 1 Sam 17-20.

[2] https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/2974301/jewish/The-Showbread-The-How-and-Why-of-the-Temple-Bread-Offering.htm.

[3] 1 Sam 21:1-6.

[4] https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/shabbat-in-the-bible/.

[5] Gen 2:2-4.

[6] Ex 20:9-11.

[7] Ex 16.

[8] Lk 6:3-4.

[9] Lk 6:5.

[10] Keith Errickson. “Luke 6:1-11 – Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: Luke, vol. 1. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 148.

[11] Lk 6:7-11.

[12] Abraham Joshua Heschel. The Sabbath: It’s Meaning for Modern Man. (New York, NY: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1951), 9, 10.

 

Sunday’s sermon: Great Expectations?

Text used – Luke 4:14-30

  • I want to set the scene for you this morning, so imagine this with me, if you will.
    • Setting: 1st synagogue → large open room, simple table for scrolls in the center, multi-level platforms for seating built into the edges of the room, dirt floor under your feet, wood beam and thatched reed roof over your head, colorful frescos adorn the walls all around you[1]
    • Your family and your neighbors have all gathered for worship → men, women, and children sit intermingled on the benches
      • Talking amongst themselves and laughing before the service begins
        • Sharing news of the village
        • Sharing news of their families
        • Sharing news of the latest escapades of the Roman occupiers
    • Before the service starts, the chief priest chooses members from the congregation to participate in today’s worship → participants are notified by one of the synagogues attendants[2]
      • Some reading → prayers, passages from the law (7), passage from the prophets
      • One translator (if need be) from the biblical Hebrew to a language the congregation could understand
      • One to preach
      • So while you sit there with your family waiting for the service to begin, you watch the attendant out of the corner of your eye as he moves throughout the room, notifying those who have been chosen by the chief priest to read for today. (He glances in your direction, and you quickly look away, silently praying that today is not your day. Your little ones were up at all hours last night, and you don’t feel like you got nearly enough sleep to be able to read the sacred text without stumbling this morning.)
    • Service begins, opening with those ancient words of prayer that have long brought a balm to the soul of you and your ancestors before you → feel yourself relax and become swept up in the cadence of the familiar responses → with your family, friends, and neighbors all around you, you lift your voice to declare the greatness of God
    • Readings begin
      • One by one, men and women rise to read the 7 passages of the law, interpreted now and again into Aramaic by yet another of your neighbors
      • Then, you see a young man stand up. He’s toward the front of the congregation, so you can’t immediately see his face as he stands and walks toward the attendant and reaches out his hand to take the scroll of the prophets, but when he turns around, you recognize this man. He’s the carpenter’s son – Joseph’s boy. And you find yourself excited. This is that Jesus that everyone’s been whispering about. You’ve heard about the things that this young man has been doing throughout the region – teaching, healing, and so on. As he begins to read, you recognize the words of the prophet Isaiah, though you realize something about them sounds just a bit different today. The words aren’t quite the same, and something about the way Joseph’s son reads them grabs your attention like nothing ever has before. There is conviction in his voice. There is a power in his voice. There is a tone of understanding and comprehension that lends itself to confidence. Somehow, he makes you believe that he knows what he’s reading in a way no one ever has before. And when he’s done reading, he rolls the scroll back up, hands it back to the attendant, and goes back and sits down … but you and the rest of those in the synagogue with you can tell that he is not finished.
    • Jesus begins to speak: “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.”[3] → And you feel excitement rush through you because you know what this means. Isaiah prophesied the coming of the Messiah – the warrior king from the line of David who would marshal the nation of Israel behind him, storm the Roman oppressors, and finally bring a new freedom to his people … your people. Your heart soars at the thought of finally being free! But Jesus is not done: “Undoubtedly, you will quote this saying to me: ‘Doctor, heal yourself. Do here in your hometown what we’ve heard you did in Capernaum.’ But I assure you that no prophet is welcome in the prophet’s hometown.”[4]
      • Jesus continues his speech about how the great prophets Elijah and Elisha both performed incredible miracles for Others … for Outsiders … not for the people of Israel but for foreigners and strangers → And something in your spirit breaks a little out of sheer and utter disappointment. Clearly, this mere local can’t be the Messiah. He hasn’t come to deliver you all from bondage to freedom. He won’t even help his own neighbors and family out with a little healing and a few well-placed miracles!
    • And you start to hear the muttering and grumbling among those around you rise in volume and fervor. They’re disappointed just like you are. They’re frustrated just like you are. They’re angry just like you are. And as the temper within the crowd continues to rise, everyone begins to rise and to crowd Jesus out of the synagogue. If he doesn’t want to help those who nurtured him and taught him and watched him grow into a man, fine! Nazareth doesn’t need radicals like him. Nazareth doesn’t want radicals like him around causing trouble and making claims he can’t back up!
      • You follow the crowd – which is getting angrier by the minute – as they herd Jesus out of town → realize they’re leading him to the top of one of many rocky outcropping around the city → realize that some in the crowd are so worked up by Jesus’ words that they’re getting ready to throw him off the cliff, something that definitely makes you uncomfortable → But before you can think what to do, you realize that Jesus has somehow passed through the angry mob unscathed and is walking away. You were standing right here. He must have walked right past you. And yet you have no idea what happened. And as you watch him walk slowly and deliberately down the hill and away from Nazareth, you can’t help but wonder: Who is this Jesus, really? What is he doing? What is he about?
  • To understand this passage best, we need to understand the context a bit more, so let’s do a little digging
    • First, let’s talk about the timeline of things a little bit.
      • Luke’s gospel (what we just read): story appears directly after Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness → Jesus gets up out of the waters of the River Jordan after being baptized by John and goes immediately out into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights of fasting, praying, and temptation by Satan.[5]
        • From that, we go straight into today’s passage: Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and news about him spread throughout the whole countryside. He taught in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been raised. On the Sabbath he went to the synagogue as he normally did and stood up to read.[6] → So according to Luke, Jesus did some traveling and teaching around Galilee (presumably by himself because Luke hasn’t introduced any of the disciples yet), then heads back to Nazareth for a bit and has this encounter in the synagogue.
      • Matthew’s and Mark’s versions of this story = a bit different
        • Story comes later in both gospels (Mt: 13; Mk: 6) so Jesus has had more time to build up quite a reputation before he returns home to Nazareth
          • Healings
          • Casting out demons
          • Teachings (parables, etc.)
          • Even squared off against the Pharisees once or twice
          • Already stopped the storm by this time in Mk[7]
          • Already preached the Sermon on the Mount in Mt[8]
      • Even the passage from Luke that we read today gives a nod to at least some of Jesus’ miraculous actions in other places. Jesus himself says to the crowd in the synagogue, “Undoubtedly, you will quote this saying to me: ‘Doctor, heal yourself. Do here in your hometown what we’ve heard you did in Capernaum.’”[9] So clearly Jesus already has a reputation.
    • Yet despite that reputation, he doesn’t perform in Nazareth as they’ve heard he has everywhere else. And the hometown crowd is sorely disappointed (to say the least!). → all gospel accounts of this story are harsh … but not in the same way
      • Lk’s account that we read today = harsh in that they try to kill Jesus – text: They rose up and ran him out of town. They led him to the crest of the hill on which their town had been built so that they could throw him off the cliff.[10] → undoubtedly an angry, violent mob
      • Mt’s and Mk’s accounts don’t include this homicidal detail or even an account of Jesus in the synagogue
        • Like Lk: both mention his quote about prophets being rejected in their hometowns
        • UNlike Lk: both include a judgment on the people of Nazareth
          • Mt’s last line for this passage: [Jesus] was unable to do many miracles there because of their disbelief.[11]
          • Mk’s last line: [Jesus] was appalled by their disbelief.[12]
          • Gr. “disbelief” in both passages is the same word = unfaithfulness or lack of faith → implies more than just an intellectual disbelief or even a simple ignorance but implies an intentional involvement of the heart, a deliberate turning away
            • Gr. word = root of the word “apostate”: someone who renounces their faith
  • This is all important because it helps us understand the distress of the crowds in this passage. They knew what Jesus had been doing (at least to some extent), and with that knowing came some pretty high and ambitious expectations, some long-held and deep-seated expectations, some expectations wrapped up in cultural and religious beliefs. The crowd was waiting for and hoping for and anticipating the Messiah … but not the kind of Messiah that Jesus came to be.
    • Israelite notion of Messiah = proud, strong warrior who would lead them to victory in battle against those who oppressed them (Romans) → return of a king like David
      • Sword in his hand
      • Tactical plans on his mind
      • Battle cry in his throat
    • But Jesus came to save, not just the nation of Israel from the tyranny of the Romans but to save all people from the tyranny of death and a lifetime in broken relationship with God. Jesus came to embody not the power and strength of a mighty warrior but the power and strength of God’s unconditional love and unsurpassable grace. Jesus came not to whip up and exploit the people’s hatred of the Other – the other nation, the other culture, the other’s scattered along the margins of society – but to reach bridge that hatred and reach out to the Other, making sure they all knew that there was a place for them, too, in God’s Kingdom. → that’s where Jesus’ examples come in in his speech in the synagogue
      • Elijah’s miracle saved the widow of Zarephath and her son from starvation[13] → saved an outsider, not a widow of Israel
      • Elisha’s miracle healed Naaman’s skin disease, an army commander from Syria[14] → healed an outsider, not a man of Israel
    • You see, the problem in this story comes not from Jesus or his actions but from the expectations of the crowd – expectations that were both inflated and too narrow at the same time: inflated in their worldliness, too narrow in their holiness. And yet this misguided expectation is exactly the good news that we proclaim: that Jesus came to live among us, God Incarnate, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, extended God’s amazing love and grace to all people, freeing them from all bondage and laying out a path of compassion, inclusion, and hope instead of a path of hatred, retaliation, and fear. So friends, what are your expectations today? What are your expectations for yourself? For your community? For God? And where is God trying to broaden and deepen those expectations? Where is God trying to nudge you to recognize a more encompassing, more grace-filled expectation? Amen.

[1] https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Reconstructed_First-century_Synagogue_(5806655244).jpg.

[2] Ernest DeWitt Burton. “The Ancient Synagogue Service” in The Biblical World, Aug. 1896, vol. 8, no. 2 (Aug., 1896). 144, 146. Found at https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/3140264.pdf.

[3] Lk 4:21.

[4] Lk 4:23-24.

[5] Lk 4:1-13.

[6] Lk 4:14-16.

[7] Mk 4:35-41.

[8] Mk 5-7.

[9] Lk 4:23.

[10] Lk 4:29.

[11] Mt 13:58.

[12] Mk 6:6.

[13] 1 Kgs 17:7-16.

[14] 2 Kgs 5:1-19a.

Sunday’s service: Reaffirming Our Baptism and Renouncing Evil

Text used – Luke 3:1-22 (embedded in the text this week)

This week, we didn’t have a traditional sermon because everything about this week was anything but traditional. So instead of posting my sermon as I usually do, I’m posting the worship write-up.

Centering Prayer: Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
As you breathe in, pray, “Lord, make me an instrument.”
As you breathe out, pray, “Of your peace.”

Friends, I tried to write a regular service for today – for Baptism of Jesus Sunday. But after the scene that unfolded in our nation’s capitol on Wednesday, a “regular service” just wouldn’t come. So today we are going to remember the vows made during our baptisms and re-immerse ourselves in the grace of those waters. We are going to read Scripture and some other powerful words of witness, of hope, of healing, of lament. And we are going to pray.

Prayer (based on a prayer from the Book of Common Worship):

            Gracious God, the news of this week has ripped our hearts and torn our souls. We are walking through the valley of the shadow of death. In the depths of pain and anger, we gather before you, O God, our rock and our refuge. You are our only comfort. You are our only hope. Merciful God, you know the depth of our suffering. We have only begun to mourn the violence and upheaval, the death and havoc inflicted in Washington D.C. this week. Uphold all those who hurt, fear, and grieve, especially the families of those who died because of this violent uprising and in particular the family of Officer Brian Sicknick. Faithful God, surround us with your everlasting arms. Hear our cries of despair, heed our calls for justice, and do not let us lose hope, in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior, we pray. Amen.

A word before we read our Scripture this morning: You all know that we’re following the Narrative Lectionary right now which means that the passages I choose for each Sunday follow a plan that was laid out years ago. There have been times in the past, especially over this past year, when the pre-designated passage seems to speak powerfully and prophetically to current events. Those are the moments when we feel the thrill of the Holy Spirit stirring close at hand in our worship and in our hearts, and today is certainly one of those days. With the events of the past week in your minds and your hearts, friends, listen for God’s word this morning …          

Scripture – Luke 3:1-22 (translation from the Common English Bible):

1 In the fifteenth year of the rule of the emperor Tiberius—when Pontius Pilate was governor over Judea and Herod was ruler over Galilee, his brother Philip was ruler over Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was ruler over Abilene, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas—God’s word came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 John went throughout the region of the Jordan River, calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins. 4 This is just as it was written in the scroll of the words of Isaiah the prophet, A voice crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way for the Lord; make his paths straight. 5 Every valley will be filled, and every mountain and hill will be leveled. The crooked will be made straight and the rough places made smooth. 6 All humanity will see God’s salvation.” 7 Then John said to the crowds who came to be baptized by him, “You children of snakes! Who warned you to escape from the angry judgment that is coming soon? 8 Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives. And don’t even think about saying to yourselves, Abraham is our father. I tell you that God is able to raise up Abraham’s children from these stones. 9 The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and tossed into the fire.” 10 The crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 He answered, “Whoever has two shirts must share with the one who has none, and whoever has food must do the same.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. They said to him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He replied, “Collect no more than you are authorized to collect.” 14 Soldiers asked, “What about us? What should we do?” He answered, “Don’t cheat or harass anyone, and be satisfied with your pay.” 15 The people were filled with expectation, and everyone wondered whether John might be the Christ. 16 John replied to them all, “I baptize you with water, but the one who is more powerful than me is coming. I’m not worthy to loosen the strap of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 The shovel he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands. He will clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn. But he will burn the husks with a fire that can’t be put out.” 18 With many other words John appealed to them, proclaiming good news to the people. 19 But Herod the ruler had been criticized harshly by John because of Herodias, Herod’s brother’s wife, and because of all the evil he had done. 20 He added this to the list of his evil deeds: he locked John up in prison. 21 When everyone was being baptized, Jesus also was baptized. While he was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit came down on him in bodily form like a dove. And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”

I confess to you this morning that preaching after an armed mob has broken into the nation’s capitol with the intent of damaging property, taking the lives of elected officials, and subverting our political process was not a subject that we covered in seminary. Those aren’t even words I thought I’d ever say in American in the 21st century. And yet this is where we find ourselves. Yes, I realize that there were many people in Washington D.C. this week that were there to lift their voices in protest without lifting their hands in anger, but we also cannot deny that there were many, many more who went with the intent of violence and hatred in their hearts. And they carried out that violence and that hatred in damaging and devastating ways – damaging to property, damaging to lives, damaging to the nation’s trust in the system of government that we have upheld for centuries.

I want to read part of a statement for you this morning. This statement was put out by Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, the coordinator of the Office of Public Witness for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Incidentally, the physical location for the Office of Public Witness is directly across the street from the capitol building in D.C., but because of the pandemic, all those employed by the Office of Public Witness have been working from home since March. They were safe from the violence and threats that so many others enduring on Wednesday. Here’s Rev. Hawkins’ statement:

Wednesday, January 6, marked the day of Epiphany, Día de Los Reyes, as the end of the Christmas season. Sadly, on that same day, at 2:15 pm EST, the United States Capitol building was stormed by a mob of insurrectionists intent on disrupting the certification of Joe Biden as president of the United States.  This was an alarming and sobering reality of the divisions within our country and the danger posed by those who are guided by extremist ideology.

… Domestic terrorists attempted to intimidate our nation’s leaders in an attempt to halt the certification. Using guns, clubs, and other weapons, terrorists overran the police and broke into the Capitol Building. They broke windows, spray-painted walls, ransacked offices, and left threatening notes. Two pipe bombs were left outside of the DNC and RNC local offices. A cooler of Molotov cocktails was discovered in a parked car. Members of both houses were ushered into safe locations for their well-being knowing that their lives were at risk. Many are still shaken by what happened.

The Office of Public Witness mourns the loss of life that occurred and we pray for the four families now in mourning.

… These actions were not just an attack on the Capitol Building, but an attack on American democracy. … Epiphany proclaims hope in the midst of despair. Let not the destructive events of [this past week] derail us from our goal of liberty and equity for all. No amount of resistance will quell our resolve to fight for freedom, justice, and democracy for all people.

Our country is changing and there is resistance, much of it through violent acts and rhetoric. But we will prevail because whenever you stand for justice, love and inclusion, you stand with God.

Friends, today is the day that the church calendar designates as “Baptism of the Lord” Sunday. Many of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism are elaborate tellings compared to our Scripture this morning. And yet instead of lavishing all his details on the River Jordan and John the Baptist, Luke decides to dedicate his account of Jesus’ baptism to what is happening in the world around Jesus and John at that particular moment: corruption and injustice, dishonesty and intimidation, political intrigue and deception. It almost seems like Jesus’ baptism, a seminal event in the life of Jesus’ own mission and ministry, is but a footnote – an afterthought to which Luke devotes a mere two sentence: “When everyone was being baptized, Jesus also was baptized. While he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit came down on him in bodily form like a dove. And there was a voice from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.’” By spinning his gospel tale in this way, Luke inextricably links baptism with sacred integrity, with just actions and intentions grounded in God’s love, with a faith that is active and consistent – a faith that talks the talk and walks the walk.

As we hold all of that in our hearts and our minds this morning – what happened at the capitol and God’s word to us in our Scripture this morning and the meaning of baptism – I want to read you the vows that we ask parents/guardians/individuals to make when we baptize:

(From the Book of Common Worship): Through the Sacrament of Baptism, we enter the covenant God established in Jesus Christ. Within this covenant God gives us new life, strengthens us to resist evil, and nurtures us in love. Through this covenant, we choose whom we will serve, by turning from evil and turning to Jesus Christ.

            Questions for the individual or the parents/guardians: Trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world? (Answer: I do.) Who is your Lord and Savior? (Answer: Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior.) Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his word and showing his love? (Answer: I will, with God’s help.)

In the face of the evil perpetrated in Washington D.C. this week; in the hope of a life everlasting a grace that is greater than all our fears – past, present, and future; in the assurance of a God who is just and merciful who calls us to action in the face of oppression, fear, and hatred, this morning, we reaffirm our baptism in gratitude and in strength:    

Beloved people of God,
our baptism is the sign and seal
of our cleansing from sin,
and of our being grafted into Christ.
Through the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ,
the power of sin was broken
and God’s kingdom entered our world.

Through our baptism we were made citizens of God’s kingdom,
and freed from the bondage of sin.
Let us celebrate that freedom and redemption
through the renewal of the promises made at our baptism.

I ask you, therefore,
once again to reject sin,
to profess your faith in Christ Jesus,
and to confess the faith of the church,
the faith in which we were baptized.

Trusting in the gracious mercy of God,
do you turn from the ways of sin
and renounce evil and its power in the world?
I do.

Who is your Lord and Savior?
Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior.

Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple,
obeying his word and showing his love?
I will, with God’s help.

In hope, in strength, in conviction, in call: remember your baptism and be thankful. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“Lament Psalm Forty-two” by Ann Weems (from Psalms of Lament)

O God, I am struggling
to survive,
preoccupied with dismal
thoughts
that will not
let me go.
My blood pressure climbs,
and I have aches
and pains
that have no cause except
my broken heart.

Why have you turned
your back on me,
O God?
Why won’t you protect me
against my emotions?

I have nowhere to turn
if not to
you.
I have nowhere to go
if not to your
house.
I have no one to talk to
if you won’t
talk.
Break your silence
and speak
to me.

Open your door
so I can
get in.
Turn your face to me
and pay attention
to my problems!

Trouble surrounds me
like a fence
with no
gate.
I need eyes in the back
of my head
so I can see
what’s coming next.
I’m worn down from trying
to deal
with one hell after another.
The pain in my mind
leaves no room
for rest.
O God, return me
to a life of
joy!
Give me a reason
for
laughter!

Can eyes weep
all
the time?
Can hearts race
night
and day?
Can minds agitate
constantly?
Can my soul survive
this assault?
O God, please
stop this revolving door
of emotional oppression!
Stop the outpouring
of unrelenting
adversity!

O God, on the wings of dawn
you come to my house,
bringing peace
in the palm of your hand.
You open my eyes;
you stand in
my doorway
and invite me
to your house.
O God,
you are my peace!

Hymn – “This Is My Song” (Glory to God hymnal, #340)

Blessing (from the Book of Common Worship):

Go out into the world in peace;
have courage;
hold on to what is good;
return no one evil for evil;
strengthen the fainthearted;
support the weak, and help the suffering;
honor all people;
love and serve the Lord,
rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.      

And may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you might abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.