Wait, God calls ME??

This was a great lesson, full of rich historical symbolism and simple examples of being called.  I used David Lose’s idea about having the congregation think of someone and pray for them, and I think it was well received.  I was moved by realizing through action the truth of my own words – that God would be working through my prayers for the good of the person I prayed for.  Certainly I believed that in my HEAD – but experiencing it in my HEART in the midst of worship, standing at the lectern, was powerful indeed.

Matthew 4:12-23

12Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
15“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
16the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.”
17From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

18As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

23Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

+++++++

Dear people of God, grace to you this day and peace from our good and gracious God, through Jesus who calls us.  Amen.

If you were here last week, you may find yourself a little confused about what’s going on in this gospel story.  Seems there’s more than one account of how Jesus called his disciples.

Today we are reading from Matthew, one of the so-called “synoptic” gospels or the three gospels that follow roughly the same path.  John’s gospel is the outlier, written later and making its own way to the cross.

Such is the reality of studying ancient texts.  As I’ve mentioned before, reading them as if we were reading a modern novel just doesn’t work.  Our world, our culture, our understandings of literary forms – all are different from these writings of old.

Fortunately, we can benefit from the hard work of historical and biblical scholars.  Their ability to provide some markers for context helps us put some flesh on the lean bones of ancient stories.

They tell us that Matthew’s gospel is one whose audience is primarily Jewish, and is steeped in Jewish tradition and practice.  So Matthew uses references and ways of telling the story of Jesus that will resonate for them.

Take the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali.  These are where two of the twelve ancient tribes of Israel settled, near the Sea of Galilee.  They are also the first of Israel’s territories to fall to the invading forces of Assyria around the time 740 to 730 BC.  Now, if you’re familiar with the Orcs in Lord of the Rings – or perhaps the movies of Quentin Tarantino – then you should know that the Assyrian army easily surpassed those levels of violence and brutality.

When the prophet Isaiah talks about people sitting in darkness, he’s talking about this time of the Assyrian exile.  “Shadow of death” is no figure of speech; it’s reality.  That exile, along with the Babylonian exile, continues to weigh heavily on the hearts of the people of Israel in Jesus’ time.

For Matthew to locate Jesus as coming out of the areas of Zebulun and Naphtali is to give his audience hope of redemption of that horrible memory.  Light has dawned.

I want to point out one other detail that brings this story a little closer to us today.  Look at the first verse of the story:  “Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.”  The Greek word translated “withdrew” is the same used to describe Joseph’s flight into Egypt with Mary and Jesus.  Jesus didn’t sit down and think about where he might like to go, he got out of town immediately.

He could see clearly what the power structure was doing to anyone who questioned it.  John’s head ended up on a platter, which sounds awfully close to some of the language we hear thrown around today.

But Jesus came among us mainly to preach the good news, to set people free.  Maybe he’d like to get some of that happening!  So Matthew has him begin that work from Galilee, so that Matthew’s audience sees a redemptive streak in Jesus out of the gate.

I see something else here, though, something alongside Matthew’s careful use of geography and history to make his point.

By bringing Jesus to Galilee, Matthew makes the point that God works with ordinary people in ordinary places to do extraordinary things.

And the ordinary people he begins with are fishermen.

This story, and its parallels in Mark and Luke, have had a spot in my heart for a long time because, as some of you know, my late husband and I were avid anglers.

I believe the colloquial term is “fishin’ fools.”

We didn’t do this for a living, but for fun.  Our son Tim fished too, and as a family we enjoyed hours and hours out on the lake or the ocean in a boat.

On our fishing vacations to south Baja, we observed the lives of commercial fishermen as we traveled up and down both the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific sides of the peninsula.

It’s hard work.

You’re up at zero dark thirty so you can make bait and get out to the fishing grounds before everyone else.  You’re constantly having to repair nets, outboard motors, or any one of a thousand other things.

And you’re dealing with the capriciousness of a large body of water.  In south Baja, the chubascos that could whip up at a moment’s notice could be fatal if you didn’t run in to shore at breakneck speed, the wind and the waves trying to trip you up the whole way.

It is these laborers that Jesus calls to join him.  People that he knows have the stamina for the rough road ahead.

He calls them from their occupation, to their vocation.  From a life that had been prescribed for them, to a life that had no prescription whatsoever.

Ordinary people, in their ordinary lives, called to do extraordinary things.

But here’s where the differentiation between occupation and vocation is seen: Jesus calls the disciples into relationship.  Not only with one another, but with everyone they will meet.  Because he says “from now on, you will be fishers of people.”

As an angler, I learned early on that if I wanted to catch a fish, I needed to think like a fish.  Jesus takes this a step further: fishing for people isn’t a numbers game, but an adventure in getting to know folks.  Breaking bread with them, telling stories, and sharing how your life has been changed by an encounter with the living God.

Jesus calls us, too – to be in real relationships with the people around us, and to be in those relationships the way Jesus was and is in relationship with his disciples and with us: bearing each other’s burdens, caring for each other and especially the vulnerable, holding onto each other through thick and thin, always with the hope and promise of God’s abundant grace.

Sometimes that call — to be in Christ-shaped relationship with others — will take us far from home and sometimes it will take shape in and among the people right around us. But it will always involve people — not simply a mission or a ministry or a movement, but actual, flesh-and-blood persons.

Maybe that “ordinary people” phrase should read like this: Jesus called ordinary people right in the middle of their ordinary lives to be in relationship with the ordinary people all around them, and through that did extraordinary things … and he still does.

I want to invite you to respond to that call in a very simple way, here and now.  Think of someone you know.  Someone with whom you are in relationship.  Maybe it’s the closest person to you, or maybe a friend or relative.  What I’d like us to do is take a moment to pray for them, and hold onto the belief that God is using you to make a difference in that person’s life.

[15-20 seconds]

Dear friends, Jesus isn’t just now, just suddenly now calling us to be fishers of people.  No, Jesus has been calling us, and using us, to care for those whom God loves for quite some time.

What an amazing picture this is.  We are so deeply loved by God that we are brought into God’s love for the world through Jesus, who calls us to embody that love towards our neighbor.

Every time we gave out one of the treat bags we made in Advent to someone – we were fishers of people.

Each week when those backpacks are filled and distributed to children who would otherwise be hungry – we are fishers of people.

Every quilt that has ever been sent from here to warm someone – is a time we were fishers of people.

God is already working through us to care for those close by as well as far away, drawing all of us into deeper, Christ-shaped relationships with those God has placed in our lives.

A Christ-shaped relationship is one that is both vertical and horizontal.  Vertical, in that it’s informed and inspired by the love of God for all of us.  Horizontal, in that it is most deeply expressed in our regard for one another.

When we fished in Baja, we began the day by making sure whatever fish we kept would be used.  There was to be no waste.  The health of the fishery was vital.

Being fishers of people is not about numbers, but about depth of relationship.  It’s about the health of the fishery, as it were.

And so it is with the last verse of this gospel story: “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”

The health of the fishery.

Jesus calls you and me, ordinary people in an ordinary (and beautiful) place, to cultivate relationships that open this world to God’s extraordinary love and work in all of our lives.

It takes no special tools or training.  Only love.  And love grows here, that is certain.

Thanks be to God.

What are you looking for?

My sermon from the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany, 19 January 2020.

This is actually an encouraging question from Jesus.  He isn’t prescribing what someone should be seeking – rather, he affirms their searching.  Such a different model from the evangelism-by-force that has been around WAY too long.

John 1:29-42

29The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ 31I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” 35The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”

37The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). 42He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

Dear people of God, grace to you and peace this day from God who is and was and is to come, through Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God.  Amen.

“The Lord called me before I was born.”

So writes the prophet Isaiah, adding yet another chapter to the never-ending story of unlikely servants raised up by God.  The identity of this servant in Isaiah isn’t clear, but the pattern is that of a servant of God.  And it is well that we read what are called the servant poems in Isaiah as we move through Epiphany, and head towards Lent.  For the servant in Isaiah is the suffering servant.

And yet – this servant is one who, in the last verses of our Isaiah passage today, is recognized by heads of state, leading them to obedience to God.  Once again, God works through regular folks to proclaim God’s desire for reconciliation between people and God, even when that means turning over the ways of the world – because those ways have created a rift between people and God.

And this brings us to our gospel story today.  John the Baptist becomes the servant who proclaims God’s desire for reconciliation when he says, “Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

There are some interesting differences in this passage from John when contrasted with Matthew’s narrative of Jesus’ baptism last week.  The one I want to highlight today is that in Matthew, John is seen as the forerunner, the one who prepares the way for the One Who Is Coming.

But in John’s gospel, the Baptist is the one who points to Christ, in all that he says and does.  Indeed, in much of classical art, John the Baptist is depicted as pointing to Christ.

In this story, John is with his own disciples, his own followers.  When he says “here is the Lamb of God” he does so with no concern for whether he might lose his disciples to Jesus.  That’s where they should be, Jesus is who they should follow.

It’s an aspect of John the Baptist as a no-holds-barred truth-teller.  He does not mince words, and he does not hold back.  Both of the times he encounters Jesus in this passage, he points to him by saying “here is the Lamb of God!”

And what is the impact of this truth-telling?

Two of John’s disciples head after Jesus.  And Jesus turns and asks them:

“What are you looking for?”

This is the center of this entire story – really, it is the center of the entire gospel, and the center of a life of following Jesus.

What are you looking for?

This is the question Jesus asks each one of us, every day.  Not in the manner of a pop quiz, but rather as a means of encouraging us to live this life of faith in the fullest and most authentic way possible.  By not dropping into the same-old, same-old day after day.  By not succumbing to a life that is devoid of any kind of exploration, any kind of curiosity.

What are you looking for?

This exchange results in Jesus inviting them:  “come and see.”

Come and see, not simply where Jesus is staying that night, but come and see what Jesus is about.

Come and see the way Jesus chooses to engage with folks.

Come and see what God has done and continues to do for God’s people in Christ.

I think Andrew and the other disciple accepted this invitation of Jesus because deep down, they longed to drink of the fountain of life.  They seek deeper meaning.

This has been my own experience with friends who “don’t do church.”

We might easily acknowledge these longings for life and meaning as reasons for following Jesus.  But my non-church friends articulate similar longings without any language about following Jesus.  Seems those feelings are universal.

At the same time, however, my friends articulate deep suspicion and fear over the suggestion that they attend a church, either again or for the first time.  Far too many of them have a history of trauma and abuse from a religious institution.  Others I know have a perception of Christianity that is based almost entirely on what faction of it finds its way to a public microphone.  Yeah, I cringe at that too.

And yet – and yet these two simple phrases are used by Jesus in refreshingly non-judgmental and unassuming ways.  “What are you looking for?”  carries no sense of expectation, only curiosity.  “Come and see” acknowledges the hearer’s curiosity, and invites them to come check it out for themselves, without any obligation.

I have had dozens of rich conversations with folks from many, many backgrounds who appreciate that their answers to Jesus’ questions here are respected and affirmed for what they are – simple curiosity.  They tell me that when the platform for discussion is one that deeply honors who they are, how they think, and what questions they have – they want to lean in and learn more.

They also tell me that their experiences of church in the past have been coercive, manipulative, and threatening.

I don’t see either of Jesus’ two statements here – what are you looking for, and come and see – to be any of those things.

These and other lessons in Epiphany are selected for the purpose of our being able to answer Jesus’ first question, and respond to his invitation.

They are not meant to be coercive, but inviting.

Not manipulative, but encouraging.

Not threatening, but respectful.

These lessons seek to enable us to be authentic bearers of God’s word and God’s love into the world.  If we take Jesus’ words and actions here as a model for how to do what we call “evangelism” into the world, then we find that we’ve been provided with a model that deeply respects the individual (who, after all, is God’s beloved child) and firmly declines the use of force in proclaiming the good news of God-in-Christ.

This bearing-of-God into the world is not about numbers.  It’s not about staying in our own four walls and hoping that someone will notice.

Rather, it’s about being out in the world and forming relationships.

It’s about noticing.  Noticing where we see God in our lives and in our world – as well as where we hope we will see God.  This noticing opens our eyes and awakens us to the work that God is already doing all around us.

It’s also about sharing.  Not only sharing about how following Jesus has impacted us, but sharing resources and hope with folks who haven’t seen them in a long time.  Not just spiritual resources, but material ones.  It’s about remembering: if all that we have is a gift from God, how then shall we live?

And finally, it’s about inviting.  It’s about being mindful of when we might say “come and see” to open a door for someone, to provide them with some hope, or to let them know that the diversity of this world is expressed in this little corner of the church in Stevenson, WA.

And then it’s about getting out of God’s way, and remembering that God works in God’s time, not ours.

In our gospel story, Andrew comes into Jesus’ presence, and he knows.  He knows deep in his gut that this Jesus is the real deal.  He goes and tells his brother, who comes back with him.  And thus is set in motion a way of inviting people to come and see.

As this story unfolds, of course, there are plenty of missteps, words they wish they could take back, and jumping to plenty of conclusions.  Because, humans.

And somehow, in this narrative, God comes to earth in Jesus to make a way where there is no way.

God-in-Christ works with those whom we might call “the salt of the earth” to begin the work of building God’s peaceable realm, against all odds.

And so my invitation to you this day is the simple repetition of Jesus’ words:

What are you looking for?  What are you seeking?

Whatever that is – come and see.  Come and see how this place, how all of us, might be called together to speak those phrases into the world.

And come and see how Christ calls you to a life of deep meaning and purpose.  A life that is not without difficulty, but all the same is, quite honestly, entirely worth living.

Because life lived in Christ is life that is full, and challenging, and rich, and REAL.

What are you looking for?

Come and see.

Amen.

 

Across All of Time

My sermon from this past Sunday, musing on the pro logos – the introduction, “before the word” in the 1st chapter of John’s gospel – and on the fluidity of time.

John 1:10-18

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ “) 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

Dear people of God, grace to you this day and peace from God, through Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.  Amen.

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”

We call this event “incarnation” – in-carnate, becoming a body.

And the phrase translated as “dwelt among us” is more accurately “pitched his tent in our midst.”

And I’m always struck when reading John’s gospel that in this first part, called a prologue (“before the word”), Jesus is described with a lot of verbs.  Active words.

And John’s gospel is SO.WORDY.  A real contrast to the action words.

Sure, John’s gospel contains extraordinarily beautiful language, almost poetic.  But there’s a LOT of that beautiful language.

And sometimes, volume detracts from impact.  (Not to mention, from truth.)

I have a reminder stuck to the side of my refrigerator:

“Beware qualifications that override the impact of the truth.”

I feel entirely certain that the author of John’s gospel never got that memo.

This prologue to John’s gospel seems to get particularly wordy when making a case for Jesus as a part of the Trinity.  That’s understandable; it’s a concept we still struggle to explain.  From our western point of view, we tend to put John’s thesis into time-relative terms.  Jesus has always been, since the beginning.  Jesus has always co-existed with God, and always will.  We think of time as Old Testament times, New Testament times, and all the other eras throughout human history – as well as times yet to come.  We might also think of time as related to geologic or scientific time periods, such as Mesozoic or Iron Age.

But what if we were to relax our time-constrained understanding, and think about God’s incarnation in Christ from a different perspective?

Vine Deloria, in his excellent work God is Red: A Native View of Religion, notes that western political ideologies judge themselves and each other as history unfolds.  They seek schemas that appear to aid in the progression of history.

In contrast, Deloria notes that native people have tended to consider the world from a spatial viewpoint.  In such a way of seeing the world, any sense of time and history becomes subordinated to the present experience of the community in their place.

I think western religious viewpoints also tend to operate within a historically-oriented framework.

And while it might be difficult for us to put aside our axiom of “those who ignore history are destined to repeat it” – I wonder if we could just try it on, relative to what we call the Incarnation.  Maybe as a way of broadening our understanding of God.  “Both/and” IS always an option for us as Lutheran Christians.

We understand and proclaim that Jesus has come as the way God reconciles God’s self to humanity, by way of a “new covenant.”  It’s entirely reasonable to consider Jesus’ coming as part of an over-arching narrative of God’s saving acts through human history.

But when we suspend the constraints of time, we cannot simply pass by the words, “the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.”  Particularly because we preach Christ crucified, AND risen, AND among us still.

By Jesus’ birth, God came to live in Bethlehem, and eventually in Nazareth.  But God has also come to live among us here in Stevenson, WA; and in Cascade Locks, OR; and at the in-lieu sites along the Columbia River.

God’s coming in Jesus was how God began the process of dwelling with us fully – not only individually, but in our communities and in our world.  And if we truly believe what we say we believe, then this process is not one that is tied to time, but is one that is tied to humanity and to all of creation.

The Word became flesh and pitched his tent in the homeless encampments tucked under freeway overpasses in Portland.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among those fleeing the cataclysmic brushfires of Australia.

The Word became flesh and pitched his tent alongside the refugees living in tents along our southern border and across the world.

The Word became flesh and dwelt – and continues to dwell – in the midst of God’s creation.  ALL of God’s creation, time period notwithstanding.

What if we shift the proportions of our witness in the world, to more accurately reflect this timelessness?  In particular, to reflect how Jesus lived?

What if we were to put our flesh, our bodies, into effect for what we confess to be true?  Much more than the words we might use?

After all, talk is cheap, right?  (Said the preacher…..)

God has put, and continues to put, God’s incarnate self into the world.

What does that mean for us?

Personally, I join theologian John Allen in suggesting that God’s incarnation means that we see God’s story lived out in ways we can understand.  Not high and lofty, impossibly abstract theological musings, but down-to-earth real stuff – like Jesus did.

Our present experience of our community in this place – both our church community and our geographical community, both at Shepherd of the Hills and in the surrounding area – allows us to see God’s story inviting us in to help fashion not its ending, but rather its next chapter.  We become a part of that story in the ways we engage with one another, in the ways we seek out and respond to the broken places around us.  Like Jesus did.

When we engage like this, we inevitably put our physical selves into the equation.  Yes, there is risk involved.  There has ALWAYS been risk involved with Christianity in its most authentic form.  But when we experience God incarnate in Christ, in what might seem like a nondescript moment of an unremarkable day – THAT is when we have that sharp intake of breath.  What we might later call “a God moment.”  And it is at that moment when we realize: it’s worth the risk.

Have you ever experienced such moments?

They are all around you.  God IS INCARNATE among us.  God’s tent has been pitched by Jesus on the flat ground right up there.

Risky?

Sure.  The neighbors might have something to say about that tent.  But I have experienced, over and over and over, in incredibly diverse places, that when people experience the grace and love and mercy of God, borne into the world by ordinary people like you and me, the neighbors might come to see that tent in a new way.

Does that mean things always go well?  Of course not.  Part of the lived experience of God Incarnate is the lived experience of God’s justice and love in the world, which seems to always be on the opposite side of whatever empire is in charge.  But when we channel our well-crafted words into our bodies and our physical existence, and we take those into the world in our daily lives, there is a power there that can’t be denied.

When we show up as people of faith in any place, we live out the Incarnation.  God is made flesh once again, through the ways we are present in the world around us.

This transcends time.  Showing up in God’s name is not and never will be tied to any particular time – only to where it is needed.

In this new year, as we enter the third decade of this millennium – what will showing up in God’s name look like for you?

I can’t wait to hear all about it.

Amen.