And

A Sermon for the 5th Sunday after the Epiphany: Isaiah 40:21-31, Psalm 147:1-12, 21c, 1 Corinthians 9:16-23, Mark 1:29-39

 Like many Bible stories, this morning’s Gospel story has a central character, whose name we do not know. Reading the story isn’t often a problem, pronouns do just fine. However, preaching or teaching can be a challenge because pronouns don’t work as well, the distance between the pronoun and its associated noun phrase is too great. So, we are left with a long cumbersome descriptor; this morning it is “Simon’s mother-in-law.” That is a lot to say repeatedly. I wondered if it might be appropriate to imagine a name. I took the first letter of each word ‘s,’ ‘m,’ ‘i,’ and ‘l’ and googled it using a find a name web site. I got an answer ‘Smiljana’ (pronounced Smil’ ja na). Does the name fit the character? I googled the name and learned it is of Indo-European origins likely Serbian. It means dear or beloved; which is a good meaning for a biblical name; so, maybe it makes sense to use it. On the other hand, why did Mark not give her a name? To know someone’s name is to have power over them. I don’t think Mark is protecting her, nor do I think he is concerned about anyone having power over their mother-in-law. Power over is not the concern; but, a name does make a character specific, and I wonder if Mark isn’t providing us with a casting for everyone. Therefore, “Simon’s mother-in-law” it will be; and I’ll have to say it 85 times to have saved any words.

There are two stories in this morning’s reading from Mark’s Gospel narrative. The first one is the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law. The other is Jesus’ decision to leave Capernaum to proclaim the message in neighboring towns. Both have the common feature – the revealing power of ‘and.’

You know the story of Simon’s mother in law. They leave the synagogue, where Jesus taught and cast out a demon, and returned to Simon and Andrew’s house. They tell Jesus Simon’s mother-in-law has a fever. He lifted her up, the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

The phrase lifted her up has been translated he raised her up (Hart; Kittredge) which is clear resurrection language. Here is the first occurrence of ‘and’ that caught my attention. This time connecting us to the phrase she began to serve them, which has an unfortunate history. The phrase has been improperly used to put women back in the kitchen or in their place. However, the verb diakonein is the verb used when the angels serve Jesus in the wilderness. It is used to define Jesus’ ministry who came to serve (Mark 10:45). Karen Lewis writes

She serves because this is what discipleship looks like. She serves, showing us what following Jesus will really means.

Lewis sees this as Simon’s mother in-law’s calling to discipleship (Kittredge; Lewis; Harrelson).

Illness is more than the physical issues. There are also emotional, social, and spiritual effects. When Jesus raises her up she is freed of her fever and she is no longer emotionally isolated (Perkins); she is restored to the honored social position of being a hostess, and her spiritual life grows as she serves Jesus as a disciple. Simon’s mother-in-law is healed, she is restored to wholeness of life; she knows shalom.

After dark, when Sabbath is over, all Capernaum, can bring their sick or possessed family to Jesus, and all of them do (Keener and Walton). He heals many and casts out many demons. Early the next morning, Jesus has gone off to a quiet place to pray. The disciples aggressively hunt him down (Harrelson), rudely telling him “Everyone is waiting on you!” Jesus did not come here to be a local healer or holy man. Jesus’ calling is to share the good news that the Kingdom of God has come near throughout the region (Perkins). So, he tells them Let’s go to the rest of the villages so I can preach there also. This is why I’ve come. (Mark 1:38, The Message) They follow Jesus and he proclaims the message and casts out demons. Here is that word ‘and’ again. This time it connects Jesus’ preaching with Jesus’ healing. In Mark’s Gospel story preaching and healing are connected; to do one, is to do the other (Perkins).

Today’s Gospel reading is full of connections. There is the connection between healing, serving, and calling; and the connection between healing, and proclaiming that the Kingdom of God has come near. Connections like these are and will be important for us.

Today is our first Sunday together when I am not your full-time vicar. As I have said and written I will continue to lead Sunday worship and as a pastoral presence. We will have to learn to go our separate ways together. For me not being a full-time vicar/rector/missioner will be a challenge. I don’t know how not to do what I have been trying to do for 23 or so years. You have some experience without a fulltime vicar or rector. It has been awhile and many, actually, most of those who were here then are no longer here. St. Stephen’s resources are not what they were, and it will be a challenge. You have a challenge, and I have a challenge. However, that we share this trait is not the ‘and’ I see that we share with this morning’s Gospel. Actually, I think we share the ‘and from both stories.

As you become a church without a full-time vicar or rector and as I become a priest who is not a vicar or rector we will continue to proclaim the message in how we become this particular reflection of the image of the Kingdom which is right here, right now. As Jesus’ healing and proclaiming the message are one so our living into our new callings is the same thing as our proclaiming the message. As Simon’s mother-in-law is healed she is restored to shalom fullness of life, physiologically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually; in our living into our new callings we are being restored to shalom fullness of life physiologically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually. A lesson from these two stories in Mark’s Gospel narrative is that life with God is not a series of independent events that have to be carefully balanced by some secret knowledge in order to gain access to God’s Kingdom sometime in the future, someplace else. This morning we witness how life with God has many facets and all of them are interconnected to all the others, just as the lives of all people, are interconnected images of God. None of the facets and none of the images is complete on their own. Each of them is dependent on all the others, and all the others are dependent on you as the emerging lay lead St. Stephen’s and me as the emerging well I’m not even sure what I will call myself and that is okay, I’ve always wanted to be an enigma.

Even as I see darkly (1 Corinthians 13:12) at this moment. I am sure of the future because even as we are less connected to each other in a formal way we remain interconnected, along with all of creation to God/Jesus/Spirit who makes us whole and who loves us forever.

References

Avalos, Hector. Health Care and the Rise of Christianity. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1999.

David, W. Peters. “Touch, Epiphany 5 (B).” 4 2 2018. Sermons that Work.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 4 2 2018. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hart, David Brently. The New Testament: A Translation. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017. e-book.

Hoezee, Scott. The Lectionary Gospel Mark 1:29-39. 4 2 2018.

Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.

Kittredge, Cynthia Briggs. Commentary on Mark 1:29-39. 4 2 2018. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Lewis, Karoline. A Call Story. 4 2 2018. <workingpreacher.org>.

Perkins, Pheme. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of Mark. Ed. Leander E. Keck (NIBC) Bel and the Dragon. Vol. VII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols.

Peterson, Eugene H. The Message. 2002. WORDsearch Database – 2008.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Walton, John. Chronological and Background Charts of the Old Testament. GrandRapids: Academie Books, 1978.

 

 

 

Judge Judy

 A sermon for Epiphany 4: Micah 6:1-8, Psalm 15, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Matthew 5:1-12

 You all know the Judge Judy show where Judge Judy acts as both Judge and Jury to settle disputes. Well, this morning we have a dispute. It is in the 8th century (BCE), and it seems Israel has forgotten everything that God has ever done for them. So, God, as plaintiff, calls them to court. Only God, not Judy is also the Judge, and the prosecutor (Harrelson). As Judge, God calls on the mountains and hills to be the jury; after all, they have been around for a really long time and have seen everything that all the nations of the earth, including Israel, have ever done (Simundson).

The trial begins with God’s testimony a short history of what God has done:

  • freeing them from slavery in Egypt
  • inspiring Balaam to reverse Balak’s curse into a blessing
  • enabling them to move from Shittim across the Jordan to Gilgal and into the promised land (Harrelson; Simundson).

God wants to know what has been done that caused them for forget all that has been done.

Israel is speechless; I would be; wouldn’t you be? So, as do so many folks with extravagant liturgical traditions Israel turns to their traditions. They discuss their options. What would please God the most? Now, remember they aren’t from our deep Anglican background. Their liturgical traditions are centered around the sacrificial rites of the Temple. So, the options they discuss are:

  • what about a burnt offering of a year-old calf?
    • that is a prescribed sacrifice (Lev 9:3)
  • maybe a thousand rams would be better?
  • although it seems excessive,
    this is the only mention of a thousand anything as a sacrifice
  • or better yet, ten thousand rivers of oil!
    • we really have reached the heights of absurdity at this point
  • but maybe ~ just maybe the life of my first born will atone for the sin of my soul ~
    • and this is a drastic change; a sacrifice that God has rejected over and over and over and over again (Deut 12:31; 18:10; Jer 19:5; Ezek 16:20) (Harrelson; Simundson).

The entire conversation reveals just how shallow Israel’s understanding of God has become. As Doug Bratt notes God doesn’t want anything from Israel, God wants Israel (Bratt). Israel is so far off base the prophet Micha step in and says:

God has told you
      do justice,
      love mercy,
     and walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8).

 

Now, all that is left is for us is to figure out
what is justice?
what does mercy look like? and
how do we walk humbly?

When I read the suggestion that ‘walk’ is actually the key word in all this, and then suggest that we walk with God as our constant companion, I saw how reversing the order brings a kind of clarity (Simundson). Walking in intimate relationship with God enables us to love mercy or kindness, and that encourages mutual interdependent relationships across all social boundaries; and that enable us to do justice working through churches, communities and whole societies reflecting the image of God (Bratt).

Walking with God is just a little bit more complex than a journey through the valley of shadows and darkness (Psalm 23). Paul is oh so right; the message of the cross is foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:18). Think for a minute, back through this last week, back through this last month, have you heard anything that holds up: the poor, those in mourning, the meek, those who are hungry or thirsty, those who are merciful, or kind or pure of heart, or who make peace, or who are persecuted because they stand up against the elite and powerful, or who those name evil as evil, even when evil parades around in glory, laud and honorific trappings.

Jesus has been traveling all around Galilee. He has seen how the people react to him. He knows people are coming from all around, as far away even as Jerusalem. He realizes the crowd’s growing expectations. There are those who see Jesus becoming a “bold and brash political leader.” There are others who believe he will draw powerful, assertive allies to his side. Nearly everyone expects “swift liberation from Roman” and the end of centuries of oppression by foreign peoples (Hoezee).

Jesus takes his disciples up the mountain, which is a place of theophany, a place of the presence of God, and basically, gives them, and us, a definition of discipleship, that we hear in the beatitudes. All the surrounding nations and for the last several centuries with a distorted emphasis on the exactness of the Law, the Jewish religious leaders focus on attitudes and declarations of doctrine. God desires righteous behaviors, and remember that for Matthew ‘righteous is all about relationship, or always journeying, with God. Jesus’ 9 little sayings turn the world upside down and hint at a future reversal of imperialistic values, that, in fact, is already in process in Jesus ministry way back then and right now (Harrelson).

I have a dream. I dream of Judge Judy perched high on the bench. I dream of WormWood challenging that St. Stephen’s is devoid of the presence of God at anywhere and at any time. I dream that without reference to doctrine or liturgy that by story after story after story of one journey after another where we’ve faithfully held God’s hand as we traversed the darkness sharing kindness and doing justice for all right here right now.

 

References

Boring, M. Eugene. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of Matthew. Vol. VII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols. App Olivetree.

Bratt, Doug. Epiphany 4 A Micah 6:1-8 . 29 1 2017. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.

Butterworth, Susan. “Becoming Peacemakers, Epiphany 4(A).” 29 1 2017. Sermons that Work.

Ellingsen, Mark. Epiphany 4 | Ordinary Time 4, Cycle A. 29 1 2017. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary – Fourth Sunday after the. 29 1 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. Epiphany 4A l Matthew 5:1-12 . 29 1 2017.

Lewis, Karoline. Commentary on Matthew 5:1-12. 29 1 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

—. Righteous Living. 29 1 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.

Pankey, Steve. Draughting Theology. 29 1 2017. <wordpress.com/read/feeds/333491/posts/1312346053>.

—. The Basics 102. 29 1 2017. <wordpress.com/read/feeds/333491/posts/1310831034>.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Simundson, Daniel J. New Interpreter’s Bible The Book of Micah. Vol. V. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015`. X!! vols. App Olivetree.

 

 

 

Onesimus Labor

A sermon for Proper 18: Jeremiah 18:1-11, Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17, Philemon 1-21, Luke 14:25-33

Tomorrow is Labor Day which is set aside to honor those who literally build America. Among the builders, I include teachers, secretaries, house and grounds keepers, maintenance worker, and all those folks who get stuff done. They are not always who we think they are. Way back I remember Richard Dreyfuss in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Duddy was working as a waiter at a summer resort trying to make contact with important people. He wasn’t getting his orders out like he wanted to. He spoke to the maître d’, nothing changed. He spoke to the executive chef, nothing changed. He spoke to the resort manager, nothing changed. One day he noticed the cook had a bottle on a shelf just above the stove, which he drank from frequently. The day Duddy walked by and left a new bottle on the counter in front of the cook, and his orders came quickly. It is not always the people at the top who get things done.

The last 40 years have been a challenge for American labor, trade, and working folks; many are not doing so well. Income has been flat at best; many people have experienced a real decline in spending ability. The children of Baby Boomers and GenXers are the first to do less well than parents. To say why is difficult. There are complex economics factors. There are interweaving social issues that confuse explanations. International relationships and trade deals are problematic. Election season rhetoric doesn’t make things any clearer. All these and more are parts of a vague understanding, or non-understanding, of the state of American Labor.

As I see it, one of the biggest factors is the results of commoditization of everything; food is a commodity, heath care is a commodity, education is a commodity, and now labor is a commodity. Employers relationships with the people who work for them are more and more determined by what profit they generate. The commoditization of everything is a great loss to our society. It a major change from how Jesus, Paul and the Prophets understood faith.

Today we segregate our faith from the rest of our world. There is Church and our relationship with God. People talk about how “I love Jesus” or how “Jesus in my heart” and so forth. Then over there somewhere is the relationship with the rest of the world; customers, suppliers, employees, are all commodities we use to bring profit to us and the cost to them irrelevant. This is what Jesus is speaking to the crowd about.

These and related verses are often referred to as defining the cost of discipleship, and they are hard to hear. Who wants to sell everything you have to be a Christian? Who wants to ‘hate’ their parents, or siblings, or best friend? A language point; the word translated ‘hate’ means something more like “make a lesser priority” so you can make God’s purpose the greatest priority (Ellingsen) (Hoezee, Luke). If ‘hate’ means something slightly different, perhaps the rest of Jesus’ teaching is a little different.

Jesus is prodding the people to consider if their relationships are based on their relationship with God and Jesus or based on something else. He is clear that change needs to be made, and these changes will require sacrifices (Jacobson, Lewis, and Skinner). However, not all sacrifices are the same; some lead to death, and some lead to life (Lose). Gary Gunderson in Leading Causes of Life notes that we are good at seeing threats and responding to eliminate them, but we are not so good at seeing the causes of life and supporting them (Gunderson and Page). Jesus calls us to make sacrifices that lead to life. And yes, even these sacrifices are difficult (Lose). And the ethical decisions that emerge from these sacrifices, as full of grace as they may be, are not cheap (Epperly). To carry the cross is to carry the burdens of a life that is committed to bringing the Kingdom right here right now (Lewis). To carry the cross is making choices that require some wisdom, and being careful to be sure we don’t confuse family’ values with Kingdom values (Hoezee, Luke) (Jacobsen). Such wisdom requires that we realize, as Jeremiah is telling Israel, the choices are ours; the enemy doesn’t control this, God doesn’t control this, these are our decisions.

The treatment of trades, labor, working folk, customers, suppliers, and anyone else is what Paul is addressing in Philemon. Even though Onesimus may not have been a runaway slave, we must still acknowledge Philemon was, and at times still is, misused to justify slavery. After our confession and apologies, then we heed Paul’s words (Barreto). We must confront the same question Paul confronts Philemon with; how are we treating people? Do we treat everyone as a brother or sister in Christ? After deep reflection and honesty, we must deal with whatever we discover separates us from others. Carrying the Cross is a commitment to the radical reorientation of the community’s understanding of the Onesimuses of the world; employees, customers, suppliers, neighbors near and far, whoever we may commoditize as individuals or as a nation. These people are no longer merely a cog in the machine of “it’s just business”; they are now a beloved kin (Barreto). This means all of us in this room, in the parish, our community, our county, state, country, and in the world; who are so good at finding ways to put down, oppress, take advantage of, or commoditize Onesimuses to our advantage irrespective of the cost to them, are called to undermine whatever demeaning ways Onesimuses are viewed and treated as less than our friend in Christ (Hoezee, Philemon). Everyone struggles to build a Jesus like relationships and to receive everyone as a beloved relative. In Jeremiah’s words, by the work of our own hands we are all miss-shaped pots.

It is a foreboding thought. However, Jeremiah’s message is clear, Israel’s life is not fixed, Philemon’s and Onesimus’ lives are not fixed, our lives are not fixed. Our lives are like pots of unfired clay (Portier-Young). Nothing has been predetermined. When Israel turned from good to evil, disaster and destruction came. When Israel turned from evil too good, disaster and destruction are averted. When we turn from evil to righteous behavior disaster, and destruction will fade away (Portier-Young). Turning from evil to righteousness includes changing our relationships with the Onesimuses of the word.

There are competing forces that shape us as individuals and communities. We are formed through righteous beliefs and virtuous actions. We are malformed by greed, abuse, and raw ambition. We are persuaded by suggestion and temptations. Yet we are resilient, we do remarkable good, and are open to deep conversion (Portier-Young). Jeremiah tells Israel, the choice is theirs, walk in God’s ways disaster is averted; continue to reject her moral responsibilities and disaster is assured (Bratt).

Even though Jeremiah is speaking to individuals, his message is to the nation (Bowron). His message is also for us, as individuals and as the communities we are a part of. Therefore, we have a two-prong challenge seeing and changing our own behavior, and seeing and insisting the leaders of our governments, businesses, churches, whatever, change our communities’ and organizations’ ethics and behavior. And as much as I have fussed about it, this is the season to make that voice known, at the ballot box. So in the next 8 weeks or less, with conscious, prayerful discernment, glean God’s calling and then vote your conscious (Episcopal News Service).

It is easy to see doom and gloom on the horizon; there are enough talking heads spouting one form or another of the end of times. But, as I said, Jeremiah is clear, when we change our behavior the disaster we face will fade away. We should also remember that we are not alone. The 23rd Psalm walks us through the valley of the shadow of death, walks us through any darkness that threatens us, assuring us that God is always with us. Even as our strength wanes, we can trust in God’s strength … as we look forward to the resurrection and the life of the world to come (The Episcopal Church 357).


References

Barreto, Eric. Commentary on Philemon 1:121. 4 9 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2975 1/3>.
Bowron, Josh. “What is God Calling You to Love? Proper 18 (C).” 4 9 2016. Sermons that Work.
Bratt, Doug. Proper 18C Jeremiah. 4 9 2016.
Ellingsen, Mark. Proper 18 | Ordinary Time 23 | Pentecost 16, Cycle C (2016). 4 9 2016. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.
Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary – September 4, 2016 –. 4 9 2016. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.
Gunderson, Gary and Larry Page. Leading Causes of Life. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009.
Hoezee, Scott. Proper 18 C Philemon 1:1-1:21. 4 9 2016. <cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-18c/>.
—. Proper 18C Luke. 4 9 2016. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel&gt;.
Jacobsen, David Schnasa. Commentary on Luke 14:2533. 4 9 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.
Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis, and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 4 9 2016.
Lewis, Karoline. Dear Working Preacher Carrying The Cross. 4 9 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4706 1/3>.
Lose, David. Pentecost 16 C: Life-giving Sacrifice. 30 8 2016.
Portier-Young, Anathea. Commentary on Jeremiah 18:111. 4 9 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.
The Episcopal Church. The Book of Common Prayer. New York: Church Publishing, 1979.

Discipleship Transitions

A sermon for Proper 8: 2 Kings 2:12, 6-14, Psalm 77:12, 11-20, Galatians 5:1, 13-25, Luke 9:51-62

We live in highly contentious times. Daily we hear about Donald Trump’s and Bernie Sanders’ disruptive ways. Friday morning, we learned the surprising results of the Brit-ex vote for Britain to leave EU. It makes one wonder if Donald or Bernie followers have renewed hope? Locally times are contentious. We have strong industry; at the same time, we know the impact of cheaper gas as several hundred perhaps as many as a thousand jobs are gone, temporarily, we all believe – hope. The City of Blytheville has budgetary concerns. We need to do something about the county’s Court physical facilities. Violence is increasing across the Delta. There are continuing changes in our schools at the state level. Local changes hold great potential, but they are still change on top of change. There is continuing change in health care as Arkansas moves from Private Pay to AR Works. Times are changing, and it is contentious.

But the world has been here before. In his column, Another Age of Discovery Thomas Friedman draws on Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna’s book Age of Discovery: Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New Renaissance. The years from 1450 – 1550 are known as the Age of Discovery. The changes, propelled by da Vinci, Michelangelo, Copernicus, and Columbus, that produced the Renaissance and reshaped science, education, manufacturing, communications, politics, and geopolitics, were highly disruptive. Today the technological change is the web and smartphones. Then Gutenberg’s printing press was the technological driver of change. In the Renaissance, as today, key anchors in people’s lives; like the workplace and community; were being fundamentally dislocated. Then as now, the pace of technological change was outstripping the average person’s ability to adapt (Friedman).

Actually, we have been here even before then. Chapter nine in Luke is a story of transition. It is the beginning of the travel narrative when Jesus resolutely heads towards Jerusalem (Parsons). We are so used to scripture, and so unused to the traditions of 1st century Palestine we don’t see the radical social change Jesus is creating. Any other Jew would have gone around Samaria. Was Jesus saving time? Not really, he goes through Samaria because his purpose includes those folks (Hoezee). Insulted by the Samaritans’ rejection James and John want to follow in Elijah’s tradition and call down divine fire to consume them (2 Kings 1:9) (Parsons). Jesus rebuffs reprisals for rejection.

If we take his encounter with would-be followers the other way around, we hear Jesus overturn expected family behavior to say goodbye, discard the social obligation to bury your family member, tell a would-be follower expect to be homeless. These are not the expectations of a faithful Jew or a want-to-be wandering rabbi. Everything in this story is highly disruptive.

It is important to hear clearly that this is not a story of worshipping Jesus, rather it is a story about following Jesus. Two thousand years later, we habitually worship Jesus and talk about belonging to Jesus and believing in Jesus. We are not so used to following Jesus and being transformed along the way. It has been a while since the norm for following Jesus, was to walk humbly, love mercy, and do justice (Bates).

Following Jesus is hard. It requires change and none of us like change. All my working life I’ve been something of a change agent. You don’t install a new computer system and not change things. And all my ministry has been in the midst of congregations in change; and truth be told, the whole of the church has been in the midst of change for the last half century – depending on how you count. And even I don’t like change; ~ well I don’t like the change I don’t like.

In order to change, to be vulnerable to transition, we have to be honest with ourselves as we ponder two simple questions:

  1. Are we looking beyond our own self or family interest?
  2. Do we see God’s way of life in our way of life (Epperly)?

 

An example: Years ago the churches where we lived had a Christmas party for the kids who lived in the projects. One year someone noticed that as Santa walked in the front door, the parents walked out the back. One of the volunteers, not a minister, a volunteer, realized that we are doing this for us. The next year the churches still collected toys; however, they opened a Christmas Shop where parents could buy toys at .25 on the dollar, and if needed, they could work to earn what they needed. The moment of revelation was realized as kids started sharing their excitement that their parents were “going to get Christmas for us.”

Paul provides additional clarity in the letter to the Galatians. He writes do not use your freedom for self-indulgence; love one another (Gal. 5:13) For Paul Christian freedom, is freedom from the confines of legalistic traditions, guilt, and shame, ego and individualism and freedom for life transforming behaviors, that inspire us to bring greater unity and create a healthier community here and throughout the world (Epperly). Jesus and Paul point us to a freedom that reveals the Kingdom

which really does contain the cosmic power for salvation [for] all people and all creatures (Hoezee).

 

Karoline Lewis writes

What are you waiting for? For someone else to speak justice? To call for righteousness? Or will you embrace the moment and proclaim the promise of God’s favor (Lewis)?

Embracing the moment is risk on risk. Friedman cites Goldin:

More risk taking is required when things change more rapidly, both for workers who have to change jobs and for businesses who have to constantly innovate to stay ahead.

He concludes:

when the world gets this tightly woven, America “needs to be more, not less, engaged, with the rest of the world,” because “the threats posed by climate change, pandemics, cyber attacks or terror will not be reduced by America withdrawing.” … [from 1450 to 1550] as now, walls stop working … make you poorer, dumber, [and] more insecure (Friedman).

In our own way, Blytheville and Mississippi County have known this for – well, a long time. In the last 14 years, including the projects in process, economic development investment has added some 1750 to 2500 jobs and something like $110 million in annual payroll. Still, all is not as it should be. Nearly 6,000 of our neighbors are neither employed or on any type of government assistance. That is a lot of people. That is a lot of unused human potential. That is a lot of despair that could be transformed into a mountain of hope and renewal (Chitwood).

We could, as some do, simply say it’s the result of some sinful things they have done, it’s a form of divine punishment. This has a ring of tradition, and some see scripture behind such thinking. It’s not following the way Jesus walks, it’s not the love of neighbor Paul proclaims, and it is not ~ what is happening here.

The cooperative arrangement between ANC, the Rockefeller Foundation, and Mississippi County Economic Development called WORK, is helping all the people it can reach, walk the path from no job, no hope – to a good job with life expectations. It’s a journey that is as simple, and as difficult, as showing up (Chitwood).

This effort has great potential; to the extent, we have been honest with ourselves. Are we looking beyond our own self-interest? Are we walking God’s way of life in our way of life? I know some of the folks involved and believe many are choosing to walk the disruptive road through Samaria towards Jerusalem. I know that just as life begets life, so transitions beget transitions. Jesus’ desire is to invite the Samaritans to journey with him into the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ desire is for them and all his followers to be transformed and know the freedom of God’s Kingdom. I believe I see our desire to invite everyone in Mississippi county to be transformed together as jointly we journey to the Kingdom of God that is right here, right now.

 

 

References

Bates, J. Barrington. “Enigmatic Jesus, Sermon Proper 8 (C) – 2016.” 26 6 2016. Sermons that Work.

Chitwood, Clif. “Opinion Column: Where are we, and what’s next?” Blytheville Courier (2016). <www.blythevillecourier.com>.

Ellingsen, Mark. 26 6 2016. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 26 6 2016. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Friedman, Thomas L. “Another Age of Discovery.” The New York Times (2016).

Hoezee, Scott. The Lectionary Gospel Luke 9:51-62. 26 6 2016.

Lewis, Karoline. Every Moment Counts. 26 6 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.

Parsons, Mikeal C. Commentary on Luke 9:5162. 26 6 20016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

 

 

Showing Up In Odd Places

A sermon for Easter 3: Acts 9:1-6, (7-20), Revelation 5:11-14, John 21:1-19, Psalm 30

 

50 years ago Time Magazine’s cover posed the question: Is God Dead? (White). Episcopal Café’s – The Lead coverage included a philosophical summary beginning with leftovers of Nietzsche’s thesis that striving, self-centered man had killed God, and that settled that. It moves to the current death-of-God group that believes that God is indeed absolutely dead, but proposes to carry on and write a theology without God. Then continues with those who believe that God in the image of man, God sitting in heaven, is dead. And concludes that our society frequently faces the questions: “What is in question is God himself?” and “What is in the reality of God?” The article recaps information from The Pew Research Center. In the last decade or so

  • belief in God dropped from 92% to 88%
  • church attendance has dropped from 39% to 36%
  • those religiously unaffiliated has jumped from about 16% to almost 23%
  • but interestingly, a majority of the above “nones,” 61%, still say they believe in God or a universal spirit (White).

This morning we heard the third story of an appearance of the resurrected Jesus. The Bible tells us that once before humanity killed God, manifest in the person of Jesus. The result is The Resurrection. So if humanity kills God again, this time via philosophical or ideological means, the result will be ~ the continuance of The Resurrection. The remaining question seems to be how long will it be before we recognize or see the resurrected Divine presence? Bible stories indicate it will take some time. It seems that the risen Christ is not easily recognized until he says or does something familiar (Gavenat and Petersen). The risen Jesus also appears to have developed a habit of showing up in odd, yet usual places (Cox).

We read about Jesus showing up in cemeteries in all the Gospels. In John Jesus appears in homes, and at work. Luke writes of him appearing on the road and, along with Mark, at the breaking of bread with lesser-known followers or believers. Matthew writes about the risen Jesus appearing on a mountain top, and where the disciples had been told to be. Mark also writes of appearances in that which frightens and amazes us, or at table. There are stories of Jesus even showing up when folks have gone fishing.

This morning we heard that Peter and some of the other disciples have gone fishing. They seem to be a bit unsettled; like they are still a little on edge, or perhaps somewhat dispirited (Gavenat and Petersen). The story begins “after these things” but we are not sure what things or how much time has passed since then (Cox). Maybe Peter is just trying to get back to life as it had been before all this Jesus stuff popped up. Whatever their motivation it not very successful night fishing.

On their way back, when they are about 100 yards from shore, someone shouts “Put the net down on the other side.” Have you ever been on a lake or seashore and tried to call to someone 100 yards away? I don’t get how they even saw each other never mind communicated. Nor do I understand how John recognized Jesus, except maybe the net is full of 153 large fish, an overly abundant catch eerily like the 1ooo bottles of wine at the wedding in Canna (Jacobson, Lewis, and Skinner) (Lewis). Their experience is familiar in other ways; it is just like being with Jesus when they were on or near the sea. When they get to shore there is a charcoal fire, just like in the High Priest’s courtyard; one more familiar thing. The bread and fish are just like the Mountain top when Jesus feeds that large crowd (Harrelson). Another familiar thing. Jesus invites them to breakfast, which might be like the last supper; only Jesus offers them offers them bread and fish instead of bread and wine; this sounds and feels familiar.

Now the story shifts to a conversation between Jesus and Peter.

Peter, do you love me?
Yes ~ you know I am you BFF.
Feed my lambs.
Peter, do you love me?
Jesus, I just told you I’m your BFF!
Tend my sheep.
Peter, are you my BFF?
How many times do I have to tell you, you really are my BFF?

Only this time Peter’s voice tinged with hurt as he recognizes his inability to return the love Jesus is speaking of (Cox). Remember Peter by a charcoal fire in the courtyard where he denies Jesus 3 times, here is yet another familiar thing (Erlangen). The three references to sheep and lambs also draw our hearts, and Peter’s, back to the images of Jesus as the good shepherd (John 10) (Jacobson, Lewis, and Skinner). Next, Jesus’ fatefully speaks about Peter’s future, and then invites him to “Follow me.” This is a final familiar moment; it is reminiscent of Jesus calling Nathan and Philip to “Follow me.” way back in chapter 1 (John 1:43) (Gavenat and Petersen).

 

One gleaning from his conversation with Peter is that Jesus meets us where we are physically and spiritually (Cox). Another gleaning is that the half dozen or more references to previous incidents in John’s Gospel reveal the collective presence and power of grace upon grace (Jacobson, Lewis, and Skinner). It just keeps on building up.

 

Today’s appearance story is also a story of discipleship (Jacobson, Lewis, and Skinner). It points explicitly to the future life of Jesus’ disciples(Harrelson). It also points to our discipleship and our responses to the continuing questions of “Is God dead?” and the cognate questions of God being indifferent or irrelevant.

 

I see a few applicable gleanings.

  • Jesus meets Peter where he was, and he meets us where we are; perhaps we should meet those who struggle with the question of God’s existence where they are?
  • Rather than meet an existential challenge with an equally pugnacious reply, perhaps acts of radical hospitality, like breakfast by the seaside, will reveal the way to living lives of kindness, compassion, sharing, generosity, justice, and peace(Cox) (Jacobson, Lewis, and Skinner).
  • The struggle with existential meaning reveals the need for Jesus in everyday life … like when we are fishing, or on the beach, or about our daily work (Hoezee).
  • As we discover our responses are as ineffective as the disciples’, even in the simple, well-known stuff like fishing, in Jesus’ absence, let’s also remember their astonishing power and effectiveness in his presence (Gaventa and Petersen).
  • Let’s also remember our need for Jesus in meeting the everyday challenges of discipleship.
  • Just because others cannot perceive it, and we can’t explain it does not mean God’s presence and grace are bound. The Resurrection stories reveal that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, (Romans 8:38-39) can contain grace upon grace (Jacobson, Lewis, and Skinner).
  • And finally, when we are befuddled by some particularly complex, or simple, existential question perhaps it is time to invite our challenger to go fishing with us, or jointly engage in some other mutually enjoyable routine, perhaps mundane activity.

 

To this point, my probably unrealized goal was to bring some sensible understanding to the last chapter of John’s Gospel. And it’s unrealized because I’m not sure I’ve necessarily don’t that, and unrealized because I’m not I was aware that is what I was trying to do when I did it. Later in the day, I saw a Facebook posting from Presiding Bishop Michael Curry:

We need Christians crazy enough:

to love like Jesus

to give like Jesus

to forgive like Jesus.

So, rather than making sense of John’s last chapter, perhaps we should follow the example and like Jesus, just keep showing up in all sorts of odd places to love, to give and to forgive.

 

 

 

References

Cox, Jason. “Jesus Will Meet Us, Easter 3 (C) – 2016.” 10 4 2016. Sermons that Work.

Ellingsen, Mark. 10 4 2016. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 10 4 2016. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. The Lectionary Gospel John 21:1-19. 10 4 2016.

Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis, and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 6 9 2015.

Lewis, Karoline. Resurrection is Abundance. 10 4 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

White, John. The Lead: Fifty years since Time magazine asked: “Is God dead?”. 8 4 2016. <http://www.episcopalcafe.com/fifty-years-since-time-magazine-asked-is-god-dead/&gt;.

 

 

Really, who is God? – what are divine expectations?

A sermon for  Proper 19

Proverbs 1:20-33, Psalm 19, James 3:1-12, Mark 8:27-38

David Brooks’ column Friday is titled The Russia I Miss. He notes how debates that raged in the public square in the west, raged within individuals in Russia. That internal debate produced great intellectual and artistic expression. Brooks writes that as America brought a vision of happiness into the world, Russia brought a vision of spiritual commitment. Building on Isaiah Berlin’s thought  “That man is one and cannot be divided.” He wrote:

You can’t divide your life into compartments, hedge your bets and live with prudent half-measures. If you are a musician, writer, soldier or priest, integrity means throwing your whole personality into your calling in its purest form. The Russian ethos … saw problems as primarily spiritual rather  than practical, and put matters of the soul at center stage.
Brooks laments that it is now all gone. (Brooks) And while he does not say so, I believe he longs for such a depth of spiritual commitment to return.

Such lament and such longing is a way of understanding scripture. When God learns that Adam and Eve have fallen to the temptation to be like God the initial response is: What have you done! (Gen 3:13) It sounds of surprise and dismay. From this moment through the end of Revelation there is a sense of longing for the relationship that has been lost, and a longing, a hope, an active effort to restore it.

This morning’s reading from Proverbs presents wisdom as a woman. The are numerous explanations. One tradition understands feminine wisdom to be one expression of the reality of God. (Sakenfeld) The feminine wisdom reveals God who always seeks relationship, and is always multi gender. Proverbs presents a God self revealing in vastly counter cultural ways. (Jacobson) On the surface this reading come across as a bit of a rant. However, when we realize city squares and city gates are locations for courts and the market place we begin to understand the underlying concern is for social and economic justice (Jacobson).  Here Woman Wisdom express lament for Israel’s behavior to God and toward each other, especially the least of these. Here Woman Wisdom longs for a return to relationships between all people as all humanity was created.

In the last few weeks Jesus has traveled from Tyre, through Sidon to Decapolis, through the wilderness, and Bethsaida to Caesarea Philippi. Here Peter gets it right, recognizing that Jesus is God’s Messiah. Then he gets all wrong when Jesus starts talking about betrayal, death and so on. Beyond the fact that none of the disciples ever get it right when Jesus starts telling the truth about what it means to be his disciples, the location makes a difference (Lewis). They are in Caesarea Philippi, which is at the furthest edges of ancient Israel. More significantly, it is the home of multiple temples to multiple gods. One temple was built by Herod in honor of Caesar; which was later enlarged by Philip. Who then renames the town after Caesar and himself – Caesarea Philippi (Easton). In short, they are in the heart of Roman territory. Think ISIS, only with no possibility of drone attacks, or friendly forces rescue. And here ~ is where Jesus chooses to begin revealing who he is, and what following him will mean. Of course Peter tells him to hush. Jesus is challenging Rome in a center of Roman power. In much the same way as the wilderness experience reveals who Jesus is, we are sharing, with the disciples, a further unveiling of Jesus’ identity, which evokes the question: “Who is God?” (Jacobson) Beneath the details, one more time, we see a God who is not expected. Jesus’ rebuke of Peter is a lament of the lack of understanding and the lack of trust. His continued explanation of discipleship, is a longing for what was created.

How often  have you heard “If you don’t want everyone to see it, watch it, hear it, or read it, do not post it on the internet!” In midst of an ugly seminary kerfuffle one of our professors said: “Unlike other injuries, what has been said can never be unsaid.” James is battling similar troubles. It is likely he is expressing concern about false or misleading teachings when he writes about the tongue. James writes that we can not curse those made in the image of God with the same tongue that blesses God (Jacobson). James laments this egresses behavior. Yet the fact that he wrote the letter is an expression of a longing for right teaching, but more importantly for right relationships, between each other and between our selves and God, to be restored.

Scripture reveals God laments the loss of the created relationship between the divine self and humanity and longs for, hopes for, continually works for the created order to be restored. Those whose faith life comes from the Judeo – Christian traditions lament what was lost in the garden and we also long for, hope for the created order to be restored. Those who follow Jesus believe Jesus has started that process. In the millennia that have followed, the revelation of God’s self has been difficult to perceive. We have trouble agreeing on who God is. We have trouble agreeing on what God would have us do. So, do we really know God? Do we really know what the divine expectations are? The answer is sort of, but not completely. I have and I expect you have, seen God in unexpected places. I have and I expect you have, unexpectedly been a blessing in the life of another. We know and cherish those moments.

One of the gleanings from all today’s readings is that God and Jesus never conform to cultural expectations. One of the continual threads in the bible is God is always showing up in the midst of adversity. Insomuch as we look for God in the glitz and glamour, and so rarely encounter the divine there perhaps lets us know we’ve got it wrong. What would we find if we look for, listen for, ask for God in the wilderness and the broken places and people. We expect God and Jesus in particular places, at particular times, in particular ways. Curious how it so rarely works out that way (Epperly). We harbor secrete doubts about the Jesus story, about the cross; may be because we fear or dislike the self denial implicit in the cross (Ashley, Lose). What we misconstrue is that the self denial of the cross is not about less happiness, it is about discovering real and abundant life, an abiding spiritual commitment. In giving up the traditional and the expected  particulars we probably won’t find the life or God we want, we will find the God we need (Lose).

——————-
Brooks David, New York Times, The Russia I Miss 9/11/15
Sakenfeld,  Katharine  Doob.  New Interpreter’s Dictionary  of the  Bible.  Nashville: Abingdon,  2009.
Jacobson,  Rolf,  Karoline  Lewis  and  Matt Skinner.  Sermon  Brain  Wave.  9 13  2015.  
Lewis Karoline. Location Matters. 9 13 2015
Easton, Matthew George, Easton’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary
Epperly,  Bruce.  The  Adventurous  Lectionary.  9 13 2015. .
Ashley, Danae, God’s Story, Our Story  –  Proper  18(B).”  9 13  2015.  Sermons  that Work;
Lose, David, Intriguing, Elusive, Captivating, and Crucial, 9 13 2015 In The Mean Time

The hour is ripe

A sermon for Lent 5

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 51:1-13, Hebrews 5:5-10, John 12:20-33

Jesus has gotten everyone’s attention. That happens when you raise someone from the dead, as he did Lazarus. In Jerusalem, brimming with people gathering to celebrate Passover, the crowds are following Jesus. It gets the Pharisees fatal attention; they observe that the whole world is going after Jesus.

Among those in the crowd are some Greeks, not unheard of, but unusual. They also want to see Jesus. Some suggest they don’t speak Hebrew, so they make contact with Greek speaking Philip. (Hoezee, 2015) Their request is simple:  “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Their request reminds me of Philip’s first encounter with Jesus. Perhaps he is the second of John’s disciples Jesus invites to “Come and see.” for when Nathanial hears the messiah is from Nazareth, and asks “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Phillip answers “Come and see.” In both chapter 1, and here in chapter 12, the verb ‘see’ expresses not a just a visual sensation, but the desire to be in relationship. What they seek is beyond a casual introduction. They seek the covenantal relationship Jeremiah describes, one that is written on the hearts of God’s people. Through Jesus they seek to know the LORD God. (Jacobson, Lewis, & Skinner, 2015) The Greek seekers would not use the word, nonetheless they seek shalom, the peace, the wholeness of life, lived in the presence of God. The Greeks desire to see Jesus denotes that they recognize Jesus as God’s son. (Jacobson, Lewis, & Skinner, 2015) The Pharisees are right, the whole world is seeking Jesus.

I want to continue exploring the idea of the Greeks among us, but first we need to explore

Jesus’ strange reply. Philip tell him some Greeks want to see him. Jesus answers: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified….” Jesus is not looking at a clock, nor at the position of the sun in the sky. The term “The hour,” or ‘the time’ denotes the decisive moment to act; it’s that moment “when people are challenged to decide how they are to prepare for God’s imminent intervention.” (Sakenfeld, p. time) The Greeks’ visit is a clue to the Pharisees the whole world is following Jesus. (Harrelson, 2003) Their presence is also a clue to Jesus, his time is now. (Petersen & Bevery, 2010)His wandering answer, and much of the next five chapters is to prepare his disciples is to prepare us, for what’s come. In John’s Gospel, this is the last public appearance of Jesus, until Friday. (Lewis, 2015)

The Pew Research Center “is a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world.” (Pew Research, 2013) I’ve known their work for years. Their Religion and Public Life Project, Religious Landscape Survey provides a wealth of information. Among which are maps that show the percent of religious traditions by state. You’ll not be surprised to know in Arkansas 53% identify as Evangelical. You may know 16% identify as Mainline Protestant, which includes us. I expect you do not know the third largest religious group in Arkansas are the 13% who identify as unaffiliated. (Pew Research, 2013) Note, they believe in God, they are unaffiliated with any religious tradition, for a variety of reason. In terms of this morning’s Gospel, they are the Greeks among us. They want to see Jesus. If my math is right there are about 2000 neighbors in our near parish boundaries religiously unaffiliated, who want to see Jesus. We have the opportunity to go beyond these open doors and just by being who we are make ourselves known. And as this morning’s Gospel story reveals, when they are ready seekers will ask, in one way or another to see Jesus.

In the Gospel, the question is a sign that it was Jesus’ time. Today, the request to see Jesus is a sign it’s a seekers time, their hour to discern how to grow in faith community into the fullness of God’s presence right here, right now. It is also a sign to us, it is our time to be disciples, to be an evangelist, to warmly, honestly, with their apprehensions, excitements, misgivings, and anticipations as guiding beacons, welcome them into the house of the Lord, which may or may not be within these walls, but is within this community. And yes, we are among the smallest of many faith communities here. And it’s true, our collection of traditional ways of being present are less than others. But I am coming to believe this not a deterrent, but an advantage, because the unaffiliated seekers are not attracted to the usual and customary trappings of faith. And with less to sustain, we are perhaps less likely to be restrained, perhaps we are more likely to simply welcome those who, even if they don’t know it, know the Lord. (Jeremiah 31:34) As we approach Psalm Sunday and Holy Week may we be at peace, the time is ripe for a stranger, friend, or neighbor to seek Jesus the hour is now to journey with them to see Jesus, from the foot of the cross, from the door of the empty tomb, at the right hand of God.


References

Harrelson, W. J. (2003). The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press.

Hoezee, S. (2015, 3 22). The Lectionary Gospel. Retrieved from Center for Excellence in Preaching: http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/

Jacobson, R., Lewis, K., & Skinner, M. (2015, 3 22). Sermon Brain Wave. Retrieved from workingpreacher.org: http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=604

Lewis, K. (2015, 3 22). Commentary on John 12:2033. Retrieved from Working preacher: http://www.workingpreacher.org/

Petersen, D., & Bevery, R. G. (2010). New Interpreters’ Bible, One Volume Commentary. Nashville TN: Abingdon Press.

Pew Research. (2013). Religion and Public Life, Religious Landscape Survey, Religious Groups, Maps. Retrieved 3 2015, from Pew Research Center: http://religions.pewforum.org/maps

Sakenfeld, K. D. (2009). New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon.