Sunday, January 24, 2021

Revelation of the Son of God: Master Fisherman

Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. 

Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him. --Luke 5:1-11 (NRSV)

My dad was an avid fisherman. North of us, about 30 miles away, was the Grand River. It’s a muddy river. It’s a catfish river. That was one of his favorite places. And where he taught us to fish, beginning about the age of 7. For our birthday on that year, each of us would get our own fishing rod and reel - kid size. Then, he would take us fishing, along the banks of the Grand River. We’d stand there for hours. Casting and reeling in. Casting and reeling in. Casting and reeling in. My brother and sister loved it. I hated it. It was so boring.

Then, east of us, about 30 miles away, was the Missouri River. This part of the river was dammed up, so it was also known as the Oahe Reservoir. A huge lake that extended from Bismarck, North Dakota, to Fort Pierre, South Dakota. It was clear, beautiful water. Full of walleye and Northern pike. My dad knew all of the secret and best fishing parts of the reservoir. As we got older, my mom and dad restored an old, wooden cabin cruiser. A regular vacation for us was to pack the boat up with all of our camping and fishing supplies, then pilot it to a large sandbar in the center of the lake, unpack and camp for several days, fish, and eat a lot of fish - breakfast, lunch and dinner. My brother and sister loved it. I hated it. It was so boring. 

So, as you can tell, I don’t have a great love for fishing. Perhaps it’s because I don’t have a lot of patience, something that is definitely required to be a good fisher-person. As in our story today. Simon, who we will come to know as Peter, and James and John, partners in the fishing trade, have been out all night fishing. With no luck. No catch. They have returned to the shore near Capernaum, tired. As they are cleaning their nets, all of a sudden they hear Jesus call out. For Peter. Asking Simon to take him out a little bit from the shore so he can teach the large crowd of people who have begun to follow him. And who are pressing towards him, so much so that he is running out of room, and will soon be pushed into the Galilee or, as it’s called in our text, the Genessarat, Sea. 

This is not the first time Simon has met Jesus. In the verses preceding our text, Jesus has healed his mother-in-law. It’s not clear that Simon is present when this happens, but you can bet that he has heard about it. Jesus’ reputation has grown dramatically since leaving Nazareth. Unlike in the other synoptic gospels, where Jesus is portrayed as moving about quietly, engaged in his ministry, here, in Luke, there is a huge buzz. A report about him has reached every place in the Galilean region. 

So, when Simon hears Jesus ask him for this favor, tired and exhausted as he may be, he complies. You heard the rest of the story. How, after Jesus finishes teaching, he tells Simon to go back to the deep water and try again. Even in his exhaustion, Simon complies. Perhaps he wonders if something might happen. After all, this Jesus is a miracle-worker, right? Or perhaps it's because, in all his tiredness, his defenses are down. Perhaps he’s like I am when I’m tired and exhausted. Have no more energy. Those were always the times that, when my son was growing up, it was like he had a second sense. He knew that that was the time to ask for something. Something big.

Aren’t we all just a little like Simon right now? Exhausted? Beaten down? Sure, we had that little bit of light this week as we listened in amazement to the words of gifted young poet Amanda Gorman as she wove the history of our country and our present experience into a powerful poem, giving us just a little bit of hope that we as a nation might set aside our division and come together in unity as we have before. But, it wasn’t long after that the hum of hope once again became the propaganda of partisanship.

But it is in these moments. In these darkest of times. When it feels as though we will never move out of this morass. When our defenses are down. Where Jesus, miracle-worker, life-giver, master fisherman, enters in. Blowing away all of our cynicism and exhaustion and hopelessness with an abundance so great that we can do nothing other than what Simon, now Simon Peter, does. Fall on our knees, overwhelmed, in complete fear and awe, begging Jesus, “Go away from me for I am a sinful being.” Yet, Just as Jesus reaches out to him, Jesus reaches out to us. Telling us to not be afraid. To trust. And then calling us to follow. To let go. And to move into a new life of abundance and grace and hope. As fisher-people.

May we answer the call with our whole heart. Amen.

Preached Sunday, January 24, 2020, online with Grace & Glory, Goshen, and Third, Louisville.
3rd Sunday after Epiphany
Readings: Luke 5:1-11, Psalm 90:14-17

Monday, January 18, 2021

Revelation of the Son of God: Going Home

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way. --Luke 4:14-30 (NRSV)

It’s hard to go home, isn’t it? 

I had a great aunt named Delores. She was my Grandma Gertie’s sister. Gertrude, or Gertie as she was most often called, was my maternal grandmother. Both of them had grown up on a farm, not more than 30 miles away from where I grew up. When my grandmother, who was older, graduated from high school and married my grandfather, well, they began to farm not more than 10 miles away from where all of them had grown up.

But, my Aunt Delores - she was different. After high school, she married my uncle and they moved to California, settling in the Bay Area. She was the first in her generation to move away from home and from the small, insular community in which most of them remained.

I’ll never forget a trip my Aunt Delores made back to our hometown in South Dakota. I think I was about 10 or 11 at the time. She stayed at my grandma’s house. My mom and sister and I went for a visit - it wasn’t often that she returned home. Somehow the conversation during that visit turned to Native Americans. I’ve mentioned to you before, I think, that the area where we lived was in between two reservations - the Cheyenne southwest of us and the Sioux northeast of us. Living beside Native Americans was a normal thing for us in our small town. Not that we really knew any of them, but they were present.

So, as we sat in my grandma’s living room, the conversation changed to the topic of our Native American neighbors. It’s fair to say, I think, that moving away from home can give one a broader perspective. Certainly, my Aunt Delores believed she had such a perspective. She started to lecture my grandmother on how badly the Native Americans in our small town were treated. I could see my grandmother get more perturbed and angry. And, although it was not typical for her to hold anything back, that day she did. Soon she got up to go into the kitchen. I followed her in there. When we got there, she turned to me and said, “That Delores! Just because she lives in California she thinks she knows everything.” 

It’s hard to go home, isn’t it? 

It’s kind of what Jesus was experiencing in our story today. He’d been raised in Nazareth most of his 30 or so years. He’d been away a little bit, going to the Jordan to be baptized. Then, tempted in the wilderness. Even, as our story hints, doing a little ministry away from home. Healing people. 

But, as the story opens, Jesus is now back in Nazareth, his home town. And, as he’s done so many times before, he goes to the synagogue - this public place of scripture reading and discussion, open to everyone. Where children were taught, where the community gathered, where the administration of justice might even happen. 

Jesus was familiar with the synagogue, it’s practice, and the people gathered there. They were familiar with him. So, it wasn’t unusual or unexpected when, as the hometown son returning, he was given the scroll of Isaiah to read. As he took his time unrolling and rolling the scroll, looking for chapter 61 - the passage we read last month - the people waited in anticipation. Then, finding it, Jesus began to read.

I remember when we studied this same passage from Isaiah late last year. This passage that took us back to the Levitical command for a jubilee year - that 50th year when the land was to lie fallow and everyone was to experience release from bondage, whether from debt or landlessness or incarceration. A command that seemed, from our 21st century eyes, completely impractical and, perhaps, even ridiculous.

But it is this text in Isaiah that Jesus chooses to read in his first ministry appearance in Luke’s gospel. What is even more astonishing was what Jesus did when he finished. He rolled the scroll back up. Gave it to the attendant. Sat down, as was the custom in that time for preaching. And he began to speak. Not to explain the text. But to make a claim. A claim of good news: that, in their presence, in that moment, in that place, this scripture was being fulfilled. In him. 

Our text tells us that the people marveled. They were amazed. Perhaps, it was because they knew him as a child or teenager. Perhaps it was because they knew his father, Joseph. Or perhaps it was because they could sense it. That there, in their midst, was the long-promised One, the Anointed One. 

But, things quickly took a turn. Because, these hometown folk have expectations. They believe that because Jesus is one of them, they will be the first to experience and benefit from Jesus’ power. When he quickly dispels them of this notion. When he tells them that the good news of God’s freedom and release is not just for them, but for everyone. When Jesus explains to them the radical inclusiveness of God’s reign, they get angry. And mob-like. Because they are ready for deliverance, but they are not ready to share deliverance. Good news, huh? 

But, no one said that good news would be easy. Because the good news that Jesus preaches is about release from those things that bind us, like turning a blind eye to the mob led by white supremacists and Neo-Nazis and conspiracy theorists, many who exist in our own country under the banner of Christianity. Or, conversely, the hatred we feel for that mob, who, even though they should reckon with the consequences of their actions, are still human beings, created by God. In spite of hard hearts and violent mobs, Jesus still shows up with good news. Whether or not it is heard.

We are at a tipping point in our nation. A tipping point that it seems could easily swing in one direction or another. We are placed in the midst of this, just as the people of Nazareth were. In the midst of a decision. Where will you stand in the story? Will you celebrate the wideness of God’s mercy? Or will you trade God’s good news of release for a good news of your own design?

In Jesus, the scripture is fulfilled. And ready or not, come cliff or come cross, it will not be stopped. Jesus will lead us on a path that will take us, first, to the darkness of the tomb. And then, and only then, to the mountaintop of resurrection. Going home will never be the same. Amen.

Preached Sunday, January 17, 2020, at Grace & Glory Lutheran, Goshen, KY, and Third Lutheran, Louisville, KY.
Second Sunday after Epiphany
Readings: Luke 4:14-30, Psalm 146


Sunday, January 10, 2021

Revelation of the Son of Man: Claimed as God's Beloved Son

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
    and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
    and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” --Luke 3:1-22 (NRSV)

The third chapter of the gospel of Luke is a little weird. For a text assigned to this day celebrating the baptism of our Lord and which should be about Jesus’ baptism - well, most of it isn’t. As one theologian puts it, Jesus’ baptism comes at the very end, almost an afterthought.

It makes us wonder why. What is Luke doing here?

Just as at the beginning of the birth story of Jesus, it is clear that Luke intends to place this story in history. To show us that Jesus came in a specific period of time to a specific place. 

What we also note with this line up of leaders, is that it consists of both political and religious leaders. 

The Roman emperor believed himself to be the Son of God who was to bring Good News of peace to the earth. Yet the peace he brought was that of military conflict and oppression.

Pilate was placed as governor over Judea to keep the peace, because there was rebellion growing within the population. It was like a powder keg. Ready to explode. And eventually, Pilate would hand over an innocent man to die to keep the peace.

Then there were the high priests Annas and his son-in-law Caiaphas, who succeeded Annas. Both of them kept in power by the Romans.

We have this line up because it was under this political and religious leadership that the people of Israel were feeling oppressed. 

Enter John.

Do you notice in the story that the Word of God came to John and not to the high priests, the leaders of the temple and of religious life for the Jewish people? It’s a similar pattern that we saw in the Hebrew scriptures with the kings and the prophets. The power structures have been corrupted. God must move outside these structures to correct the path of the nation and of the people. 

So, the Word of God comes to John. Who preaches it in the wilderness. A baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. It’s what Isaiah said in Isaiah 40. That the valleys will be filled, the mountains made low, the crooked straight, the rough ways made smooth...So that all people will see God’s salvation.

The people, who are feeling oppressed, are drawn into the wilderness to John. Why? Perhaps for the first time in a long time, they heard the truth. No lies. No conspiracy theories. No falsehoods told in order to hold onto power. 

No, perhaps, for the first time they found someone who spoke truth to them. A hard and powerful truth. That they had been on the wrong path. That they needed to repent. To turn back to God and to the ways of God. “You brood of vipers” John calls them. “You, who have been called to bear good fruit and who have, instead, been relying on the faith of your ancestors, of your family tree. Be warned that the ax is ready to cut down the tree that does not bear good fruit.”

This is John’s truth. God’s truth. A hard and powerful truth that cuts deep within the people. That cuts deep within us.

Immediately, the people respond. “What should we do?” We hear them ask this three times. “What should we do?” This truth of John and of God has cut them to their core. 

John gives very practical responses - how to live in our working world. The baptism of repentance they have received is not the end. It’s the beginning. "Share what you have with those who have nothing," he says to the newly-baptized. 

Then, John speaks directly to the members of the middle class - the tax collectors and the soldiers. Be honest - don’t cheat. If you are in a position of power, don’t use that power to extort others. Be content with what you have.

As one theologian puts it, John’s call to obedience is about more than individual purity. It is about justice. And the well-ordering of society. There is something deeply political in this message from John. And from the gospel writer.

Then, John concludes his sermon with an introduction. To One greater than he, who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire - a refining fire. One who is coming to “thresh the world.” And, then, because “truth” is often not accepted in our world, John’s sermon ends with his imprisonment.

It is then that we meet this One. This Messiah. This Jesus. And, when we meet him, he is on his knees. Baptized as one of the people. Not apart from them but part of them. Part of us.  When we meet him it is after his baptism. Jesus is on his knees, praying. There is no fire burning up the chaff. Instead there is a dove. A sign of peace. The Holy Spirit descending. And a voice from heaven that claims him as God’s beloved Son.

Sisters and brothers, when you and I were claimed in our baptisms, we promised to renounce the spiritual powers of wickedness, the evil powers of this world, and all evil, injustice and oppression however it presents itself. In this unprecedented week, when we have seen the halls of our nation’s capital under siege, calls for our president to resign, and the seemingly uncontrollable spread of COVID, God calls us back. Back to these baptismal vows. To remember who we are and whose we are. To turn back to God, who is a God of justice and peace. Who is working in our own time - before our very eyes - to reframe and restructure our world, leveling the playing field so that all might receive God’s salvation. 

So, look up, beloved of God. Take your eyes off the ground, show your face. A new day is here. The light rises over you, shines brightly, move shadows, touches your face. Everything wrong side up is being upended. The table is extending, rounding out. You have a place at that table that is yours. And everyone at this table will have more than enough.

So, stand up, beloved of God. Open up. Take it all in and shine. 

Preached on January 10, 2021, at Grace & Glory, Goshen, and Third, Louisville.
Baptism of Our Lord
Readings: Luke 3:1-22, Psalm 51:6-17

Revelation of the Son of Man: Our Bright Center

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
    who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. --Matthew 2:1-12 (NRSV)

What a day - as we watch our nation’s capital under assault! 

I’m struck by the similarity of our situation today and that of the time from our reading in Matthew. The magi have travelled from afar. Following a star. Not knowing where it will lead. But understanding its importance,that it is connected to the long-promised Messiah. This king who has been promised to the Jewish people for centuries.

They land in Jerusalem. The center of all Judean life. They seek help from political leaders, wondering if they might know where this child, now most likely near the age of 2 - where he might be located. The goal of these magi? To honor him with gifts. And to worship him.  

But Herod is threatened by this. Not them, but this child, this promised king. Because Herod has a different way of seeing the world: that it revolves around him. His power. His privilege. His city. He is willing to lie and kill to keep the world the way he wants it to be. And he consults religious authorities - not for guidance - but to support his view and his actions. Herod is all about himself. His power. And preserving it. 

We may often be like Herod, centered on ourselves. On the things we want. Or the things we think. Or the things we believe. Often, like Herod, using religion for our own purposes. And, as we watch tonight the events happening in our nation’s capital, I daresay that we are not alone in this. Because this is the human way. The way inherent in us since the very beginning.

But, if we will listen carefully, this story reconstructs our world. The magi, representing those many nations, do come. But the light they see leads them finally not to the city, but to a village; not to a palace, but to a house; not to a king, but to a child; and their gifts foretell this child’s death. The child, who will grow up to be our crucified and risen Lord Jesus, who is the very mystery of God revealed, draws us and all things into God. There is our center - Jesus Christ. Not Herod. Not our national leaders. But Jesus Christ, the very presence and glory of God come to us. That center that is present wherever this word is heard: in our church. In our own homes. Here in this online place. Where we gather, where scripture is read, where we pray for all the nations - not just our own. The center, which is present in the places of our neighbors in need, with whom Christ himself identifies. 
So, let the star of these texts lead you. They will show you a whole new way to see the world. One that is centered on God. And not on us. One that does not rely upon human power, but on God’s power. And one that, no matter what happens in our world, whether it be pandemic or coup or any other trouble, will never abandon or forsake us. But, instead will help us find a way through. 

Arise. Shine. For your light has come. 

Preached online on January 6, 2021, at Grace & Glory Lutheran, Goshen, and Third Lutheran, Louisville.
Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12