Life from Death

On the 5th Sunday of Lent this year, I chose to focus on the Psalm and Old Testament Lesson as they speak more to our current situation.  The Old Testament lesson is the best-known one from the prophet Ezekiel, the Valley of Dry Bones.  So much more in this lesson amid a pandemic.

Psalm 130

1Out of the depths
I cry to you, O Lord;
2O Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplication.
3If you were to keep watch over sins,
O Lord, who could stand?
4Yet with you is forgiveness,
in order that you may be feared. R
5I wait for you, O Lord; my soul waits;
in your word is my hope.
6My soul waits for the Lord more than those who keep watch for the morning,
more than those who keep watch for the morning.
7O Israel, wait for the Lord, for with the Lord there is steadfast love;
with the Lord there is plenteous redemption.
8For the Lord shall redeem Israel
from all their sins.

 

Ezekiel 37:1-14

1The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 4Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
7So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. 9Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” 10I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
11Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ 12Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”

 

Dear beloved of God, grace to you and peace this day, from our loving God through Jesus the redeemer.  Amen.

Usually on this Fifth Sunday of Lent, in Year A of our lectionary or readings cycle, we would hear the gospel story from John when Jesus raises Lazarus from death.

It’s an incredibly powerful story, with multiple levels and lots of vignettes from which to preach.

But this year – I just don’t think we’re there yet.  Not for a while.

As more carefully collected and interpreted numbers about the coronavirus pandemic are made known, it’s become increasingly obvious that we are in this for the long haul.  Even though the calendar may say “Fifth Sunday of Lent” – honestly, it feels more like the movie “Groundhog Day” but substituting Ash Wednesday for the February 2nd event.

Every day when we wake up it’s to more reminders that indeed we ARE dust, and to dust we shall return.

So that’s why I thought we might take a look at the psalm and the first lesson appointed for today.  They are timely in a way that God makes happen despite our best human efforts at regulation.

Psalm 130 is called “a psalm of ascent” meaning that it was sung by the Jewish people as they ascended to the temple in Jerusalem.  It’s considered a “penitential” psalm of lament – you could say that it’s a kind of confession, an owning of their situation.

Don’t these words make sense for us today?  “Out of the depths…I wait for you, O Lord…in your word is my hope.”

We are certainly calling from depths.  Depths of isolation.  Depths of the unknowing, of fear and uncertainty.

It’s like standing in a cavern or canyon, surrounded by rock walls, and shouting “hear my voice, Lord!”

The sound might bounce and echo off the rock, creating a punctuation of its own.

Out of the depths.  The places where we aren’t sure we can be seen, the places of deep darkness and unsure footing, where we sense that the climb out will be treacherous.

While we can’t be certain that this will be the character of the next several months, we would be wise to consider the possibility.

And so of course we cry, “o Lord, hear my voice!” and then we proceed to wait.  Wait for God, and wait for hope.

And that’s where it gets hard.  The waiting.

I was reminded this week of the Blitz of Britain in WWII, which concentrated on but was not limited to London.  It began in September 1940 and continued through May 1941.

One of the by-products of the Blitz was the blackout – when all indoor lights had to be extinguished from dark to dawn, every night, for six years.  This was so the enemy planes wouldn’t be able to see cities and towns from the air.  It was not popular, but the people of Britain knew it was critical.  And so all turned off their lights, to protect one another.  And they waited – for the inevitable air raid sirens.

And they waited for hope, which came in excruciatingly small doses, but it came.

Of course, this is not an apples-to-apples comparison; war and a novel virus are two very different things.  But waiting for the Lord is as old as the hills.

So is God’s showing up in response to that waiting.

In our story from Ezekiel, we are witness to an almost macabre scene: a field of dry bones.  The way the prophet describes this scene, you get this incredible sense of utter desolation and despair.  There is no hope here whatsoever of any kind.  It’s over and done.  Whoever these folks were, they have left the building.  We’re verging on the zombie apocalypse here.

But who asks if these bones can live?  GOD.

And Ezekiel, of course, answers probably like we would: uh, God, YOU know the answer to that, not me.

Talk about your role reversals.

And here’s what I find interesting about this story: God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones.  God doesn’t just up and make the bones come to life, he deeply involves Ezekiel in every step of this process.  From words that cause the bones to be connected with cartilage and sinew and muscle, to words that call upon the breath of God to breathe into these bones, the prophet Ezekiel – the human being – is intimately involved in the work of God on earth.

By calling on the four winds, God has Ezekiel participate in summoning the whole of creation as a partner in making all things new with these bones.

And in that process, we realize it is not simply the four winds, but the universal breath of God – the ruach, in Hebrew – that breathes life into all of creation.  The four winds ARE the breath, the ruach of God.

Think about the winds we have here in the Columbia River Gorge.  POWERFUL winds, particularly coming from the east and raging down the Gorge towards the ocean.  It’s almost overwhelming to think of them as part of the breath of God, the ruach – but strangely, it works.

The other detail I notice here is in both Psalm 130 and Ezekiel, the concern begins with the individual and moves directly to that of the community, the entire assembly.  In the psalm, the pronoun moves from “I” to the proper noun “Israel.”  In Ezekiel, the prophet has an experience of God, and then the community is promised an experience of God.

God tends to work through individuals (and flawed ones at that) but God is always working FOR the good of the whole people of God AND for the good of all creation.

But at times like these, I wonder if we don’t feel a lot like Ezekiel, saying “I don’t know, God, you tell me.”

You tell me.  Not a flippant dismissal, but a real demand.  YOU TELL ME, God.  What is this all about?  Why is this happening?

We are yearning to hear a word from God, a word that will give us hope.

Do you remember some weeks ago, we read the story of Jesus being asked by the disciples of John the Baptist if he, Jesus, was the Messiah?

And Jesus answered, tell him what you see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, and the sick are healed.  In other words – don’t go by what I say, go by what you see.

What do we see around us?

Well, on the one hand, I haven’t seen a package of toilet paper or a bag of flour on a store shelf in three weeks.  Don’t get me started on that!

But I also see our congregation checking in on each other.  Figuring out how to best utilize the resources of 3 Squares so that kids have food.  Letting our friends and family know that we have online resources available for whoever needs them.

I see reports of health care professionals working way beyond the call of duty to care for those sickened by the virus.

Every day, I see fewer and fewer people in stores as we figure out how to hunker down, how to stay home and stay safe.

I see people spending time with their families, and figuring out how to build time into the day to take a break from each other.

I see people getting out and walking, keeping safe distances, calling out or waving a greeting to everyone they pass who is of course walking on the other side of the street.

I hear about a neighborhood call and care group, organized in the City of Portland like the way we’ve organized call groups at Shepherd of the Hills – and I hear the folks in those groups talk about what a difference it’s making in their lives.

I see God working in all of this – not taking advantage of the situation, but using it for good.

Not making light of it, or underplaying what is still a critically dangerous situation.  But God reminds us in the midst of it all that God is with us.

By our compassion and care in the world, God begins to hang sinews and muscle on these bones of a society ravaged by a pandemic.

It will be slow going.  Reconstructive surgery generally is slow going.

Folks have wondered aloud, “how long will this be in place?”

None of us can answer that.

The next question invariably is “when can we get back to normal?”

I have begun to think that we never will get “back to normal” because it’s time that we create a new normal, one that is not only sustainable but life-giving for all of creation.

That’s what happened to the bones in our story.  They were enlivened to a new normal.

“I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live…..then you shall know that I the Lord have spoken AND WILL ACT.”

Friends, this is our assurance.  God has spoken and will act.

Our role now is to be Christ to one another and to our neighbor, and to dwell in this holy time of waiting for God.

We wait for God not to be with us, because God already is.

We wait to hear God’s voice, and discern God’s direction for us – anew.

God has spoken.  And God will act.

May we lean in to hear, and look up to see.

Amen.

 

 

 

Thou Art With Me

This past Sunday was the first day we gave online worship a try, using Facebook Live, in this time of coronavirus.  We did not meet on March 15th either, but that decision was made midday on the 14th and I directed folks to other online options.

Dear beloved of God, we are in the wilderness for sure.  We are walking this path apart, and yet together, for we are all one in Christ.  I don’t doubt that the way will be rocky, even treacherous; but God IS our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble (Ps. 46).  For that, I give thanks.

Psalm 23

1The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not be in want.
2The Lord makes me lie down in green pastures
and leads me beside still waters.
3You restore my soul, O Lord,
and guide me along right pathways for your name’s sake.
4Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil;
for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. 
5You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil, and my cup is running over.
6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. 

 

Ephesians 5:8-14

8Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light—9for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. 10Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. 11Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. 12For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; 13but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, 14for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says,
“Sleeper, awake!
Rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”

Grace, peace, and comfort to you from our gracious God, through the Shepherd, Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

In these days of uncertainty, fear, disease, and walking in the wilderness, I can’t think of two more appropriate lessons.

These are appointed for the Fourth Sunday in Lent.  Surely a divine stroke of mercy.  And as I read through them, I realized how much they really compliment each other.  The psalm is our deep, bone-marrow-deep reminder that God.Is.With.Us.

And the epistle, the letter from Paul to the church at Ephesus, is how we are called to respond to God’s pitching God’s tent in our midst.

How many of us know Psalm 23 from the King James translation?  The one with the “thous”?

That second-person form of address is an old English term, but I’ve heard another explanation – from, of all places, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.

Perhaps you remember.  Professor Bhaer explains to Jo March that in German, such second-person addresses are not formal but a term of particular endearment.  Spoken to one whom you love down to the marrow of your bones, the center of your self.

In the original Hebrew of Psalm 23, there are exactly 26 words both before and after the phrase “thou art with me.”  God is indeed at the very center of our lives.  God is WITH us.  We’re not alone.  We’re not the beneficiaries of some kind of divine manipulation – but we are not alone.

Notice how the psalm moves from the third person – “he leads me” – to the second person, “thou art with me”.  Where the psalmist has been talking about God, now the psalmist talks with God.

Here, as in all of the stories of God’s people, relationship develops.  Faith.  Which is what enables “I shall not want.”

This is what really stood out for me.  “I shall not want.”  What does that mean for us today?

I’ll bet it means something pretty different than what it meant just a month ago.

A month ago, I wanted a new pair of powder skis.

Now, I just want to be with you all again.

I sent out a bit of writing Pope Francis did last Sunday that really struck me.  He basically said that when we are able to be together again, when the cafes throw open their doors and windows and we are able to share a meal together, perhaps we won’t take that for granted any more.

Isn’t that so true.

Our world has been moving at such breakneck speed that this time of isolation and “hunkering down” has been hard to adjust to.

Even Amazon can’t fulfill our every wish with free 2-day shipping right now.

Folks make jokes about how life might turn into a version of the cooking show “Chopped” where you have to make a meal out of what’s on hand – none of which makes any sense when combined!

But I’m also feeling that we are beginning to sense that what we’ve taken for granted – that with which we are now isolated all the time – may be all we need……[The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.]

Perhaps you’ve been able to get out on a walk…..[He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters.]

Maybe like me you’ve noticed all the little purple cone-shaped flowers – grape hyacinths – popping up all over town…..[He restores my soul.]

As you can imagine, we clergy have been going full bore all week, trying to re-tool this work for a reality none of us have ever seen before.  And this morning one of them posted: do not for one minute think that you can maintain that pace for what could be many months.  That is NOT how God restores your soul.

Perhaps you have seen the news reports about the pollution clearing over Chinese cities as a result of the massive shutdowns due to this virus.  Or the waters of the canals in Venice being clear for the first time in years.

There is restoration possible in these moments, if we are willing to breathe deeply and let God be God.

Let God restore us and lift us up, so that we can truly live into the call that Paul issues so clearly in Ephesians: live as children of the light.

Paul’s words are startlingly relevant to our day.  When he says “it’s shameful even to mention what such people do secretly” I can’t help but think of those who have hoarded toilet paper and are now selling it on eBay at grossly inflated prices.

Everything exposed by the ‘light’ that is eBay certainly does become visible!

Live as children of light—for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.

And I honestly don’t think that’s measured in quantity these days, or really any day.  It’s measured by quality.

I wonder if maybe right now, the fruit of all that is good and right and true is how we care for each other when we can’t be physically in the same space.

What does that look like right now?

I think it looks very different from how it may have looked a month ago.

I’m not sure exactly what it looks like, but I trust that God is right in the middle of it all.

Saying “see, I am making all things new.”

Because God IS with us.

And on this path where I can’t see more than a foot or so in front of me – that gives me great comfort.

He restores my soul.

Amen.

If you’d like to replay the whole service, click the link below.  You don’t need to be “on Facebook” to view it.  I’m in the process of uploading it to our YouTube channel too, and I’ll update here when that’s available.

https://www.facebook.com/374559357936/videos/163065938088042/

Night Moves

I’ve gotten behind posting sermons, between the start of Lent and fielding different information by the hour on best practices around what is shaping up to be a coronavirus pandemic (wash your hands!).  This is my sermon from the 2nd Sunday in Lent, in which Nicodemus pays a visit to Jesus – at night.

Gospel: John 3:1-17

1Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
11“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Dear friends, grace and peace to you this day from our gracious God, who loves the whole world, no exceptions.  Amen.

This gospel is what we might expect from John.  Multiple levels, multiple issues, and so it makes sense that Nicodemus comes to see Jesus.  At night.

Perhaps you’ve been told for years, like I have, that the reason Nicodemus’ visit happens at night is because as a Pharisee, he didn’t want to be seen.  Didn’t want to get a reputation for hanging out with the enemy, as it were.

But this time around with this story, I’m wondering if maybe Nicodemus makes a night visit because the nighttime is when his brain starts asking ALL the questions, over and over again.

Nicodemus has certainly heard about, and maybe seen for himself, the signs and wonders Jesus is doing among the people.  After all, it’s the main topic of conversation at all the Pharisee cocktail parties.

But perhaps Nicodemus finds himself unable to move beyond this particular topic.  Instead, he finds himself awake at all hours of the night, asking the questions and not able to make that insistent voice in his head just let him sleep.

Perhaps you’ve been there.

Maybe you’ve lain awake, wondering.  Questioning, doubting, agonizing.

The first questions might be the more mundane ones.  Questions like, did I remember to turn that light off? Or, in my case, did I check to make sure the cat didn’t get stuck in the closet?

But the questions inevitably turn to those of substance.

What will be my friend’s diagnosis?  Will my loved one recover from this illness?  Why did my husband die so young?  Does Jesus really love me?

At that point, we can know that night has truly descended.  Truth uttered in darkness, this naked honesty, feels much safer and less exposed when light’s reach is still hours away.

Something has roused these questions in Nicodemus.  We know he did not have “the Google” to spend endless hours looking up answers online, so he went to see Jesus.

Keep in mind, Nicodemus was a learned man.  A Pharisee, educated and trained.  But something was stirred in him.

“Teacher, you have to be from God, no one can just up and do this stuff.”  I don’t think he’s repeating the party line so much as he’s telling his own convictions.  He might want to ask “teacher, have you actually looked on the face of God?  If you have – well – what’s it like?  What’s GOD like?”

As a leader of the Jews, to even say the name of God took some courage.  So I wonder if Nicodemus has felt a spark of discovery that this Jesus IS the Son of God.  The real deal.  The Messiah.

And he must bring the big questions, the ones that keep him up at night.

Maybe his questions are like ours.

Maybe he is asking in the dark of night, why there is brokenness in families.  Why people have money problems.  Why they can’t find work, or enough work.  Why must they deal with depression, or sickness, or a long string of deaths of family and friends.

“How can these things be?” he asks Jesus.  Not just, how is one born again, but how and why are all these things.  Maybe his long and sleepless nights have brought him to the point of exhaustion, in which he finally stops trying to do it all himself and comes to Jesus.

And when he does, Jesus answers him with timeless realities.  He doesn’t use platitudes like “God has a plan” or “everything happens for a reason.”  Jesus instead works to stretch Nicodemus’ understanding of the ways of God – but he also knows the limits of our ability to understand.

We can’t understand a LOT of so-called “earthly things”, so how could we presume to understand the workings of heaven?

And here is where I think the idea of gospel rushes in, like rain after a dry season.  Like an unexpected blessing in difficult times.

Jesus might sound like he’s scolding Nicodemus, but I think it’s closer to commiseration.  “This world is difficult enough to figure out.  How can I expect you to comprehend the ways of the Divine?”

And Jesus, in essence, answers his own question, “I don’t expect you to, not at all.”

Because Jesus then offers a new way.

When Jesus utters the incredibly well-known words of John 3:16, it’s not for the purpose of setting up an us v. them dichotomy of believers v. unbelievers.

Instead, he follows that iconic verse with Verse 17, that breaks open Verse 16 in a way that some people might find very disconcerting.

That way, of course, is the way of love.

God does not send God’s son for any reason other than love.

God loves us so much that God sends God’s son to experience life in many of the ways we experience it.

God loves us and our fallen world, so much that God comes to be with us, right in the thick and the mess of our lives.

NOT to swoop in and wave some kind of magic wand and make everything perfect and right for us.  If God did that, we’d find ourselves even blinder to our neighbor’s suffering than we already might be.

No, God comes alongside us to live life with us, in all of its ups and downs.  In the good days and the bad; the joyful days and the ones of despair; the days of great light and the days of deep darkness.

I spent some good and sacred time with a couple yesterday who is preparing for a vow renewal.  As we talked, we came across a beautiful hymn version of the verses from the book of Ruth that we know:

Wherever you go, I will follow

Wherever you live is my home

Though days be of blessing or sorrow

Though house be of canvas or stone

Though Eden be lost to the past

Though mountains before us be vast

Wherever you go I am with you

I never will leave you alone

Rory Cooney & Gary Daigle, (c) 1992 GIA Publications Inc.

All rights reserved.

I learned this song from the composer at a conference nearly 30 years ago.  He introduced it by saying, “so, I know what you’re all thinking you’ll use this for – weddings.”

We all laughed.  He continued:  “But I want you to, as we sing this, to think of this as a song that might also be sung at a baptism.  Because this is the promise God makes to us, every day.”

From the day I learned it, that song has always held more than one meaning for me.

Likewise, it might go for us as we hear the timeless John 3:16 in the context of this story.

John 3, Verse 16 is not uncoupled from Verse 17 for us today.

Verse 17 fleshes out Verse 16, and gives it a sense of radical hospitality and love that for too many years has been absent.

For too many years, Verse 16 has been used to narrow the gate through which people like Nicodemus might pass.

To separate Verse 16 from Verse 17 might be heard as “do the things FIRST and then God might be willing to accept you.”

Dear friends, I can’t go there.  That’s not been my experience of God.  God loves us first.  I could not possibly be standing here before you today if I had to meet standards in order for God to love me.

I found a poem this week that captures so much of what so many of us experience.  It’s from the website “A Sanctified Art”:

It’s only in the wilderness that you can see the stars.
That’s what city living has taught me.
We can shine a light on the things we want to see—
Fluorescent and bright, lighting up dark alleys.

However, it’s only in the wilderness that you can see the stars.
And it’s only in the dark of night that the questions come.
What is my purpose here? What does God have to say to me?
What does God have to say to suffering?
The sun falls and my doubt rises,
For it’s only in the dark that the questions come.

So like Nicodemus in the night,
I will throw my big questions at the sky.
And my voice will reverberate among the stars,
And my questions will echo throughout the dark.
For there in the night, my words form constellations.
And there in the wilderness, my prayers form galaxies.
So even there in the unknown, I trust that I am found.

A light shines in the darkness, friend.
So if ever you’re in the wilderness,
Look up and find the stars.

“The Wilderness is a Place of Mystery and Unknown” Prayer by Sarah Are | A Sanctified Art LLC | sanctifiedart.org

Look up, and find the stars.

Find the markers for your journey which God has placed in the sky.

They might be markers that guide you in times of pandemic, so that you are safe.

They might be markers that call you to acts of service that might be risky to you.

But these markers have been placed by God, and they call you beyond your self and toward the beloved community, the peaceable realm of God.

It is as Luther wrote, in the midst of a plague epidemic that he and his wife Katie remained through in Wittenberg, caring for their neighbors:

Were they to take our house – goods, honor, child, or spouse –

Though life be wrenched away, they cannot win the day;

The kingdom’s ours forever!

We hold this promise, in this year 2020, in the season of Lent.  Whatever may come, we face it while standing in God’s amazing grace, that makes room for whatever choices any of us might need to make for our own health and that of our neighbor.  If we must be home, we can pray with words.  If we can be out and about, we can pray with actions.  And whatever the situation, our night questions are answered with the assurance that God walks with us through it all, no matter what.

Amen.

 

 

Context is Everything

Last week we heard difficult words from Jesus – but reading them without understanding the world in which he lives (i.e., reading them literally) can be really confusing.

Matthew 5:21-37

21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder’; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

27 “You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. 31 “It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be “Yes, Yes’ or “No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”

Dear beloved of God, grace and peace be yours this day from our gracious God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.  Amen.

I wonder if you, like me, tend to react to this particular gospel with tension.

You can feel it, right?  Your muscles tighten, you feel your eyes narrowing to “glare” position.  Maybe your fists even clench.

Because this is the type of language that, on the surface, can push us to a “fight or flight” reaction.

And that is why it is an excellent example of the problem of reading Scripture literally.  You’re gonna get into trouble.

The contexts in both the gospel lesson and the lesson from Deuteronomy are vastly different from the one in which we live today, and so if we simply react to it through our 21st-century eyes and lenses, we will miss the underlying concern that God has for God’s people.

That is really the essence of how to engage with God’s Word in a way that opens our minds: ask yourself, “what is God’s underlying concern here?”

Not God as detached, profit-driven CEO who is obsessed with rules; but God as our loving Creator.  Our compassionate Parent.

The phrase that sticks with us from Deuteronomy is “choose life.”  Let’s remove that from any kind of culture-wars association, and look at what the text says.

Life and prosperity, say Moses.  Death and adversity.  Walking in God’s ways, or turning to other idols.

So many times we have heard this in a very legalistic way, as if God is demanding slavish devotion to a set of rules “or else.”  Almost like a behavior trap.  But I don’t think that’s God’s underlying concern at all.  God’s not threatening the Hebrew people any more than I might be threatening my son when I tell him to stop teasing the cat.  I’m not going to punish him if he doesn’t obey me; no, the cat will take care of that!  I say something because I don’t want my son to get hurt by continuing to tease the cat.

This is what we call “the Law.”  Let’s think about this separate from our system of secular statutes and codes, the lower-case l law.  What is the purpose of God’s Law, anyway?

There are three distinct reasons for God’s Law:

First, the Law is intended for our own good.  Second, the Law draws us into community.  And third, the Law orients us toward our neighbor.

To say that the Law is intended for our own good is to say that God’s underlying concern is for our best spiritual, physical, and mental health.  God uses the law to point out destructive behaviors, ways of being that ultimately destroy us.

The Law draws us into community by reminding us that it’s God’s intent that we work together and share with one another.  Thus the whole community is impacted by the destructive behavior of even one person.

But the third aspect of the Law bounces off that second aspect when it orients us towards our neighbor.  We are all in this together.  If we have never even acknowledged the person who is now messing up – if we have allowed them to slip through the cracks and get to a place where they are desperate – then it would be well for us to check the log in our own eye.

When Jesus brings up the fifth commandment “you shall not murder” he takes us beyond the literal meaning of the words.  He reminds us of the ways we can act that “kill” in ways that have nothing to do with a weapon.  And then Jesus takes this even further: be reconciled to the one with whom you have a disagreement before bringing your offering.

Which is to say: God is ultimately more concerned with right relationship, and that God’s people are becoming the beloved community.  That is also a part of stewardship – solid relationships as well as solid financial support.

Jesus’ words about adultery are likewise not meant to be taken literally, but to help us think broader.  It’s about being oriented to the community and to the neighbor.  Notice how Jesus doesn’t blame the woman for the man’s behavior, but wants him to take responsibility for his actions.

His words about divorce have been the source of much pain visited on folks over the years by control-freak religious leaders – but what Jesus is saying here is highly contextual.  Women had no standing in that society.  If a husband divorced his wife for no apparent reason, she would be destitute.  That’s not the way the beloved community behaves.  But notice as well that Jesus makes the exception for unchastity: in other words, everyone is responsible for the consequences of their choices, and needs to consider how their actions will impact others.  The beloved community, says Jesus, rises above the minimum-standard level of statutory law to do the right thing by one another and within the community.

At verse 33, Jesus talks not about particular types of “bad” language, but about swearing an oath to guarantee your own word.  Again, he reminds us that we are called as disciples of the Prince of Peace to go beyond, to be utterly trustworthy.  We shouldn’t need to swear any oath if our word is good.

My dad impressed on me at a young age that your word is like gold.  If you keep your word, if you do what you say you’re going to do, you become trustworthy.  And once trust has been broken, it’s incredibly difficult to earn it back again.

Jesus says “if you are going to do something, then so state – and then DO IT.  If it’s not for you to do, again so state.  But don’t waffle, and whatever you do, DON’T LIE.”

Or to put it another way: Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.  Say what you mean, and mean what you say.  Don’t traffic in hyperbole.

And that is a foundation made of rock.  I’m always reminded in these lessons of that great film, “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” where they bring back an assortment of historical figures via time travel for their history final, and Abraham Lincoln’s parting words to the classes at San Dimas High School are “be excellent to each other.”

Because God’s underlying concern is not merely a concern – it is that side of God’s crazy love for us that wants us to know that we are God’s good creation, beloved and set free.  God desires that the entirety of creation would be drawn into the beloved community.

Eco-theologian Michael Dowd speaks of how the Law in the peaceable realm of God is what is meant to help keep us in right relationship, and is also an accountability to the future.  We are the first generation, he says, for whom “choose life” is a decision that reaches far wider than merely our own personal or even community existence.

To choose life – may be to impact not only our lives, but the viability of the planet.

To choose life might be as simple as making choices that encourage ecosystems that allow bees to thrive.

To choose life might be as complex as working on reconciliation between people who are deeply divided.

“Choose life” is the gospel distilled down to two words.  Because those two words encompass everything else we would say the gospel proclaims: love God, love neighbor, do justice, love kindness, and all the rest.

And none of these words are meant so that we have a handy checklist with which to judge others harshly, but rather so we might look to OUR words and deeds – particularly in light of the needs of those around us, both human and otherwise.

And I don’t know about you, but when I take that look, I find myself wanting.  There’s always so much more in the “should do” column.  And that’s when I need to remind myself that “choose life” is what God through Jesus does for me.

God chose me and continues to choose me, and all of humanity; to walk with us and carry us in the hard times, laugh with us in the good times, and open our eyes to the need that is all around us.  And through it all God continues to forgive my many shortcomings and encourage me to try again.

God chooses life for us.  Let us choose life for all of God’s good creation.

Amen.

#blessed

Because we oberved Presentation of Our Lord on February 2nd, for 5 Epiphany I used a combination of lessons from both 4 & 5 Epiphany.  To consider the salt and light portion, and then return to the “blesseds”, broke this lesson open anew.

Matthew 5:1-20

The Beatitudes

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Salt and Light

13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

The Law and the Prophets

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Dear friends, grace and peace and blessing be yours this day, from God who is love through Jesus.  Amen.

Much to consider today.

Matthew’s gospel follows up the Beatitudes, the “blesseds,” with his exhortation to be salt and light for the world.

These are pictures with which we are familiar in so many ways.  The saying “salt of the earth” – all the images of light we explore in this Epiphany season – and the words we know from our baptismal rite, “let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works, and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

I want to look first today at these ideas of salt and light, and then circle back to the beloved Beatitudes.

Salt is one of the oldest seasonings on earth; a compound that has seemingly limitless uses.  But in our most common encounter, salt as a seasoning always makes its presence known.

It’s an important seasoning in cooking.

It’s a critical activator in recipes that utilize baking powder or soda for leavening.

It’s a preservative, and an enhancer.

A little bit of Google research told me that sodium, one of the elements in salt, is used for much more than just seasoning or road salt.  Salt, or its element sodium, makes things happen.

In ancient Israel, salt was a necessary thing, but it was also a symbol of God’s covenant with Israel.  Jesus has not dissolved that covenant, but rather fulfilled it!  And in that fulfilling he describes all of God’s people as the salt part of that covenant: because we are the salt of the earth, God invests God’s self permanently in this world through us.

And here is where we might get more confused, when Jesus talks about salt losing its saltiness.  Any of you with any experience in chemistry will know that salt DOESN’T lose its taste.  And frankly, if it COULD lose its saltiness, it would turn into something else.

Perhaps here is our clue.  If salt loses its saltiness, it’s perhaps straight chlorine.  If a light fails to light, then it’s just, well, broken.

If we lose our saltiness – the essence of what makes us part of God’s plan for the world – then maybe we are ceasing to be disciples of Jesus.  We’re not adding the necessary seasoning to life around us.

If we stop being a light – if we stop shining so that others might see God – then there is more darkness, and less Jesus.

Perhaps you’ve seen a meme floating around the internet lately.  For once, it’s a good one:

Act in such a manner that you are living proof of a loving God.

God keeps that commitment, that covenant, with us every second of every day.  It’s that level of commitment to which the rest of Jesus’ words point: light isn’t meant to be hoarded, but to be shared with all who need its guidance and warmth.

To be salt of the earth is to give seasoning, preservation, and enhancement to the world.  Being mindful of how salt in excess amounts can be bad for us, I think these are meant to be balanced with our being light for the world.  Shining a light on places where justice is absent.  Shining light so that those forgotten can be seen.  Shining light so that our actions are living proof of a loving God.

And the reality of following Jesus, of answering his call to discipleship, is that it’s not an easy path.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer titled his famous book “The Cost of Discipleship” for a reason.  True discipleship, authentic following of Jesus is costly.  Our Beatitudes are a comprehensive list bearing witness to this.

The Beatitudes are also a snapshot of what happens in the kingdom of God.  It is not a kingdom of the world; it’s the world turned upside down.

Because in our society, the poor – or the poor in spirit – are on the margins.

Those who mourn are told “get over it.”

The meek are called names like “wimp” and “chicken.”

Those who work for righteousness find themselves viciously trolled on social media.

The pure in heart are seen as naïve.

The peacemakers are brushed aside as bleeding heart types.

Those who are persecuted because they stood up for what they feel is right, are the victims of harassment and death threats.

This, my friends, is not the kingdom of God – it is the cost of discipleship.  The way of Christ, of following the Prince of Peace, is one that is in direct conflict with the ways of the world.

Maybe you see yourself in one of those categories I just named.  I’ve seen myself there.  Sitting in those places can be painful.

And still God sees you, and hears you, and loves you.  God knows your pain.  God walks alongside you as you travel these rocky roads, because God in Christ has traveled them too.

I came across a great modern version of this famous passage, one that really brings this idea of the Beatitudes as a glimpse of God’s peaceable realm, full circle.  It’s not a translation, but more of a transliteration.

Here come the depressed, they own the future.
Here come the grieving, they will be comforted.
Here come the enslaved, they will have the whole earth.
Here come the ones who are starved of justice,
they will be filled.

Here come the gracious,
they will be shown grace.
Here come the uncorrupted,
they will see God.
Here come the peacemakers,
they will be protected.
Here come the oppressed,
they own the future.
Here you come, you oppressed, you wrongly accused.
Take heart, they did this to your heroes whose ghosts will not die.

(by Matt Valer)

God has not and does not abandon this vision.  We are the salt and light through which God continues to reach toward that day for us, made possible by Jesus’ fulfilling of the law.

The shape of the law is promise, and narrative, and commandment.  This is important to remember: the promises God made, the actions God takes, and the commands God voices are bound up together.  Do we live and teach the commandments, or do we ignore them and teach others the same?

It’s not a matter of moralism, or partisanship either for that matter.  It’s a call to a life of trust in the God who loves us.  Such a life bends toward the life-giving ways God has called us to follow: do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.  Micah sums it up so well.  To not do these things is not simply breaking a rule; it’s not like a minor vehicle code infraction.  It’s denying the promises and action of God – and perpetuating that to others denies their very being as beloved children of a God who promises, liberates, and teaches us how to live towards abundant life for all.

In the last sentence of this lesson, Jesus is not looking to compare or keep score so much as to emphasize that this is all a starting point for righteousness.  The basic outline with which we begin.  The field guide for disciples.

It’s never easy.  The rewards can seem distant.  But there is nothing to compare with the soul’s hunger being filled by doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.

That is abundant life.   Amen.

Keep the faith

My sermon today used the lessons for Presentation of Our Lord, telling the story of Simeon and Anna in the temple when the infant Jesus is brought for the purification rites of the Jewish faith.  I was struck how they maintain faith and hope in a dark time.  Many years ago, a colleague’s twin daughters were baptized on this day, and I will never forget him carrying them both and remarking how the words “a sword shall pierce your soul” were ringing in his ears; it reminded him to hold this moment close because there would be difficult times too.

Seems to be appropriate for the times we find ourselves in, when hope can seem distant.  Simeon reminds us that God’s promises are real and do not fail.

Luke 2:22-40

22When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, [Mary and Joseph] brought [Jesus] up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23(as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
25Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
29“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
30for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”
33And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
36There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

39When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

Dear people of God, grace and peace to you this day, from our good and gracious God through the Son, the light of the world, Jesus.  Amen.

This story is one that has some deep resonance for us, at this juncture in our journey together.

Simeon has watched and waited.  This day, the Spirit has moved him to come to the temple.  Anna has watched and waited, has basically been a temple resident for decades.  Both have waited in patient hope.  And, I would imagine, depressed or despondent hope from time to time.

At the time our gospel lesson opens, they are in the midst of Roman occupation of Israel.  They’ve been around a long time, and maybe their hope is a bit diminished.

I wonder if they’ve gone back to the words of the prophet Malachi that we heard too:

1 See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. 2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; 3 he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. 4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.

Indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.

Have Anna and Simeon found solace or despair in these words?  These words of promise, and of sobering reform?

Do they hear the words “but who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears” and say to themselves, “well maybe but I’m gonna give it my best shot”?

So much hope, so much dreaming in these older folks.

Simeon has been told he will live to see the Messiah, and the Spirit guides him to the temple on the day of Jesus’ presentation.  Anna is open to God’s word as she spends all her time in the temple.

Simeon and Anna are both veterans of a difficult time in Israel’s history.  They wait and they hope because that’s all they have left.  How amazing is it that the Spirit gives them discernment to realize that it is this infant, this baby named Jesus, who is the Messiah and the redemption of Jerusalem?

Simeon responds with his canticle of praise.  Anna becomes the first evangelist.

The Holy Spirit moves in Simeon and Anna so that they discern this child before them is God’s promises kept.  God has acted once and for all to address the question of death with the promise of life.

And yet we know this kind of wisdom and truth is not limited by age.

What is God revealing to us?  What kind of hope and dreaming can we summon this day?

What might our eyes see in the distance if we allow ourselves to fully trust in the promises of God, the same God who promised Simeon he would not die until he had seen the Messiah?

The God who, in our psalm today, provides even a home for the sparrow alongside the sacred table of God.

It can be hard, in these times we’re living in, to see down the path towards the future and imagine that it holds blessings and peace.

We might be in a place of deep darkness, wondering if all is lost.  A place that echoes the imagery we heard in Advent.

Anna and Simeon are living in a time so similar to our own, a time that might not seem to hold any hope whatsoever – and yet, they guard near their hearts a spark that might ignite a flame of hope once more.

They seem to me to be living what Franciscan mystic Richard Rohr calls “a non-binary existence” – they refuse to make life an either-or.  Just because it’s hard for them to see God doesn’t mean God’s not there.

And that stubborn refusal to throw in the towel comes to fruition in a baby brought to the temple by an unremarkable, rather poor couple.

Keep in mind, when Simeon announces the Messiah in this passage from Luke he names him “a light for revelation to the Gentiles.”  Suddenly, Jesus is for ALL the people of the world, not just Israel.  From the very beginning, Jesus’ mission is focused outward.

Jesus hasn’t come to protect the status quo.  To build a wall around Israel.  No, he has come bearing God’s grace and mercy to ALL people.

I can’t help but ponder the so-called “pathway to peace” recently announced, that takes into account only Israel’s desires.  Such a one-way approach doesn’t bear the imprint of Christ.

And it can lead us to the depths of despair.  What is the point? We may ask.  Why bother?

This is where I find Simeon’s words to Mary so interesting: “ a sword will pierce your heart.”

Isn’t that true of every parent?  Certainly Mary’s situation would eventually bear this out – but every parent has had an episode of a sword piercing their heart.

And yet, AND YET – Simeon gives thanks.  Because this life is one of both-ands.  Both the joy, and the sorrow.  Both the rough, and the smooth.  Both the birth, and the death.  Both the difficulties of raising a child, and the moments of deep joy.

Even in the midst of difficulty and oppression all around them, Simeon and Anna give thanks and tell good news.  Because they have seen and held, literally held in their arms, the promise of life granted through Christ, which God grants to us as well.

This is why Simeon’s song is the one that is typically sung as a post-communion canticle.  Because here at this table – in this meal – we also hold this promise of life God makes to us.

We hold this bread in our hands.  We hold the cup, literally or by dipping our bread in the wine.  Our hands become a little manger in which Christ is held, and by which Christ becomes one with us.

Dear friends, it is in times like these that we must hear these promises as much as we can.  So that we might be moved to confident and courageous lives in this world that is so marked by death and destruction, by pain and loss.

We push back against these forces of darkness when we respond to God’s call in our lives.  When we hear those promises again.  When we stand firm and proclaim that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

This is why Simeon’s song is often requested for funerals: in the seeming shadow of darkness, we commend ourselves to the God made known through both the manger and the cross, who has promised us eternal life.  All these centuries later, we continue to sing of God’s great love for us that even death cannot destroy.

In all this, we don’t deny the bitterness and the hard reality of daily life.  By no means.  But as Ray Makeever has written, “death be first but never last.”  The forces of darkness do not have the last word.

Every time we come to this table of grace and mercy, we proclaim Jesus’ triumph over the grave.  Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.  As we hold out our hands, we receive in them the body of Christ, our salvation and the light of the world.  We embody and live out a world in which all are welcome and all are fed.

Leonard Cohen wrote, “there’s a crack in everything…that’s how the light gets in.”

In the broken moments of our lives, on the days when nothing seems right and all seems lost, God’s light is a spark, waiting for the wind of the Spirit.  And perhaps both God and the Spirit are waiting for our exhaled breath in the form of a tired and weary sigh to ignite that light, so that it might stream through the cracks of the shattered world around us.

Anna and Simeon remind us to keep the faith.  Keep up hope.  Keep breathing.  Keep living the life to which God has called you.  Remember, to some the cross is foolishness.  A life that keeps up hope, that walks with those forgotten, is foolishness to some.  But to those who are being saved by the light streaming through the cracks, the cross, the reminder of Jesus’ triumph over death, is the power of God.

May we always be bearers of that light.

Amen.

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.

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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.