A Surprising Catch

Luke 5:1-11

Give me a text on “fishing for people” and I will give you fishing jokes! I think it’s the law. Anyway, a priest, a minister, and a rabbi decided to go fishing and to keep things fair each of them agreed to bring something. The priest brought the sandwiches, the minister brought the drinks, and the rabbi brought the bait.  But after only an hour of fishing, they ran out of worms. So, the rabbi said, “no worries, I’ll just go and get some more.” And then he proceeded to step out of the boat, walk across the lake to get more bait. A few minutes later, he returned in the same fashion. Now, the minister couldn’t believe his eyes, but since the priest wasn’t phased at all, he chose to be quiet. Well, wouldn’t you know it, as soon as the rabbi got back, they ran out of food. So, the priest said, “I’ll go and get some more.” And, you know it, he stepped out of the boat, walked across the lake, retrieved some more food from the cooler in the car, and returned to the boat in the same way he had left. Well, the minister was shocked, and to be honest, feeling a bit “spiritually outgunned.” So, when the drinks began to run short, he boldly announced, “I will go and get more.” He then proceeded to step out of the boat and sink straight to the bottom. Now, perhaps feeling a little guilty, the priest turned to the rabbi and said, “do you think we should have told him about the stepping stones?”

That’s my first fishing joke and the other one is this: Yes, I know only two fishing jokes and you’re being blessed with both of them today! A grandpa and his grandson go fishing. On their way down to the river they encounter a fisherman, so the grandpa inquires, “are they bit’in today?” “Are they bit’in!” replies the fisherman, “they’re bit’in so good I had to hide behind a tree to bait my hook!”

Now, you may have noticed that I sometimes like to start my message with a little humor, especially when the text is one that challenges us to leave our comfort zone and strike out into the unknown. This is kind of my way of living-into the words of Mahatma Gandhi when he said, “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.”

“In a gentle way, you can shake the world.”  I think these words encapsulate so well the meaning of today’s text. Jesus, as we just heard, wanted to share the good news with a gathering crowd. So, to be better heard and seen, he borrowed Peter’s fishing boat, and pushed out into the shallow water at the edge of the lake. And from there, he offered his message of reconciliation and renewal; his message of release, recovery, and liberation.

But I think it’s important to pause here for a moment and recall one of the hallmarks of Luke’s writing style. You see, for Luke, when Jesus says something, it’s followed by an action. He doesn’t just “talk the talk” as it were, but he “walks the walk.” And this is present in all the gospels, but I think it’s especially prevalent in Luke and key to understanding Luke’s deeper desire for us to view Jesus through the lens of social justice.

Now, this “fish of people” narrative that we have today is no exception. Jesus pushes out into the lake, gives his address, and then proceeds to offer them, and us, a miracle of abundance. Peter and the boys had been fishing all night and caught nothing. But Jesus tells Peter to go out further and cast their nets. And of course, they catch so many fish that their boat begins to sink. Peter almost had to hide behind a tree to bait his hook!  And Peter is so moved by this miracle, so convinced that he and James and John drop everything and follow Jesus and to fish for people.

Now, that’s wonderful you might say, an inspiring story and the jokes were funny, but what does all this have to do with my life; with our shared journey of faith? How is a teaching about fishing with nets, and catching a bunch of fish, relevant in 2019?

Well, I’m glad you asked. They deeper meaning here seems to dwell in the realm of “leaving everything and following Jesus” I think Luke is challenging us to let go of the idea of “security in the form of the known.” What does that mean? Well, security in the form of the known, sometimes referred to as “our comfort zone”, describes those things that prevent us from growing, from adapting, from changing our thinking in ways that are necessary to shake the world in a gentle way.

Now that being said, security in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. We all want to feel safe, respected, and at ease in our lives and especially in our church. Amen? That’s why things like a “safe-space” and “Open & Affirming” (http://www.ucc.org) polities are so vital to who we are and what we believe.

But if your security is actually fear; fear in disguise, then it really isn’t secure at all. As I’ve said many times and will continue to say, “fear is the opposite of faith.” Fear causes us to withdraw while faith challenges us to expand. Fear attempts to shield us from the “other” while faith calls us to embrace the other. And finally, fear wants the status quo to remain, at any cost; But not faith, faith seeks to shake up the status quo; in a gentle way, faith would have us shake the very foundations of the world.”

But How? How can we gently shake the world?

Well, in response to that question I’ll defer to two wonderful theologians: Parker Palmer and Madeline L’Engle. Palmer says, “In my view, the mission of the church is not to enlarge its membership, not to bring outsiders to accept its terms, but simply to love the world in every possible way–to love the world as God did and does.”[i]   And Madeleine L’Engle supports this position when she says, “We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”[ii]

My friends, the world hungers for the good news and today Jesus challenges each of us to “fish for people” not by telling them that their wrong but by showing them that the Light of love and compassion and gentleness is so lovely that they will, with all their hearts, to know the source of it.

And this is key as we think about evangelism in our context? Evangelism, effectively “fishing for people” can only occur if we’re passionate about the ministry and mission of this church. When we truly have an attitude of inclusion and forgiveness, of grace and wonder, as I believe we do; it’s then that we will naturally want to invite others to come alongside us on this journey of life and faith. It’s kind of like real estate: but instead of location, location, location, it’s invite, invite, invite. And I know, inviting someone share something as personal, as intimate, as one’s spiritual-self and practice of faith; that takes courage. But invitation, even if it takes several attempts, and even if it ultimately goes nowhere, is still worth the risk. “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.”

One final thought. Perhaps the last thing those tired fishermen were expecting was a miraculous showing of God’s abundance right there, at the end of another long day. And the same might be said of our “long-days”; that they hold the possibility of seeing God’s hand at work in our lives and in the world around us. Someone once said that “God still shows up and surprises us, and next thing you know, our lives are changed forever;” the next thing you know, we’re gently shaking the world.[iii]

May it be so for you and for me.

Amen & Amen.

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[i] Parker Palmer. In the Company of Strangers (quote found at www.ucc.org/samuel)

[ii] Madeleine L’Engle. (quote found at www.ucc.org/samuel)

[iii] Katheryn Matthews. Being Surprised (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2019

Prophet on the Edge

Luke 4:21-30

Choosing is an action that’s full of consequences; some intended and some unintended.  Especially when it comes to choosing people.  If you choose someone, you’re passing over or not choosing someone else.

You know, back when I was a kid, this was played out almost every day on the school playground. When it came to choose sides for kickball, two captains would gaze over the crop of perspective kickers and choose the most popular and most athletic kids first. Now, what we learned from this pre-game tradition was that it feels pretty good, rather affirming to be the first chosen for something. It makes you feel special and wanted. It doesn’t, however, feel so good when you’re the last one to be chosen, if you’re chosen at all.

Now, the Bible is full of the language of choice. We can read passage after passage about God choosing a particular people, the descendants of Abraham, to be “God’s people.”  And as the centuries progressed, this gave the Jewish nation a strong sense of being a “peculiar people,” a people chosen and blessed by God. Unfortunately, as many of the prophets have made clear, the Jewish people turned that blessing into privilege, and they thought it would spare them from suffering the consequences of their disobedience to God. It would seem that by Jesus’ day and time, one of the fundamental aspects of Jewish identity, of the Jewish faith, was the belief that they were chosen by God. In their minds, God’s special relationship with them meant that they must be special, and therefore better than the “gentile dogs” (that is, all non-Jewish people).

But like Jesus, the prophets also reminded the Jewish people that the purpose of their calling was not simply privilege, but so that they might be a “light to the nations”.  This theme goes back to the days of the Exodus, when Moses had said that they would be a “priestly kingdom and a holy nation”, a whole nation of people who would speak for God and represent God’s saving purposes in the world.  It goes back even beyond that to the days when Abraham lived in Ur, and God called him for a special purpose.  The purpose was to make Abraham a blessing to all people: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed”.[i]

Now, I think this is a big part of what’s going on in our Gospel lesson for today.  Jesus knew that the people of Nazareth were jealous of the fact that he had done wondrous things in Capernaum–a city they considered sinful and filled with sinners.  It was a scandal to them that he would share the blessings of God’s Realm with those who were not a part of the “chosen” people. That’s why Jesus gave them two examples of God doing just that; examples of Elijah and Elisha sharing the blessing of God with Gentiles.[ii]  In part, I think Jesus was trying to remind them that God’s Realm of justice, peace, and freedom was not just for a chosen few, but for the whole human family; that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a God who is concerned about “all the families of the earth”.[iii]  My friends, God does not single anyone out for special attention or blessings. Matthew tells us that God visits sun and the rain upon all people, and the Psalmist reminds us that God’s compassion and care extend to all the people on earth. [iv]

I think this is the first thing that Jesus was trying to teach us through this exchange in the synagogue, and this was the second: Jesus wanted his audience back them, and us still today, to have the courage to “speak truth to power.” Remember, Jesus had fame, he was “the hometown boy who done good” but rather than exploit that power by falling in line with the religious authority and spouting the party line, he chose to risk being tossed off a cliff because of what his hometown religion had become.

Which leads us to an interesting question. How might this challenge to “speak truth to power” translate into our time, our context; how might it inform our worldview?

Well, the most obvious answer to that question ties back into this idea of “refusing to forget.” It’s not enough to simply remember or give lip service to the concept that Jesus came for all people, we must refuse to forget, activity resist the notion that we are somehow specially chosen above all other nations, races, or religions.

Former President Ronald Reagan quoted Isaiah when he famously said, “America is, and always will be, a shining city on a hill.” Now, some people in the years since have taken this quote to mean that we’re a nation chosen above all others, set apart by God. And they have allowed this concept of separation to breed isolationism and a fear of the other; whether the “other” is a refugee or an immigrant, an adherent of the Islamic faith, or a person of color.

But that’s not what President Reagan, or Jesus for that matter, would have us believe. In that same speech, Reagan also said, “You can call it mysticism if you want to, but I have always believed that there was some divine plan that placed this great continent between two oceans to be sought out by those who were possessed of an abiding love of freedom and a special kind of courage.”[v] In other words, President Reagan held that God has blessed us to be a shinning beacon to all who wish to seek freedom; to all who seek to be  liberated from oppression. Somehow that lesson has gotten lost over the years.

But maybe it’s time to rediscover it. Perhaps today, in our context, our call to “speak truth to power” takes the form of welcoming refugees, immigrants, no matter what their religion, ethnicity, or skin-color. And I specifically quoted President Reagan today for a reason. I chose him because his words defy the place we find ourselves as a nation today when it comes to welcoming refugees. You see, this isn’t and conservative vs. progressive thing; it doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat, or a Republican, or Green Party, or an independent; it’ finally a matter of living-out our covenant with God and humanity as a people of faith. A covenant that challenges us to extend an extravagant welcome to all people, just as Jesus did.

One final thought this morning. I think Al Carmines encapsulates the essence of Jesus’ love for all people in his hymn God of Change and Glory. The refrain from that song goes like this: “Many gifts, one Spirit, one love known in many ways. In our difference is blessing, from diversity we praise one Giver, one Word, one God known in many ways.”[vi]

My friends, as we come to the sacred table today, and as we refuse to forget Jesus and his compassion and grace and love for all people and all creation, may we do so with the confidence that we have been chosen, along with all of humanity, to be God’s hands and feet, heart and voice in this world. And as we leave this place today, may the blessing of the One God, known by many names, go with us.

May it be so. Amen.

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[i] Richard Bauckham, Bible and Mission: Christian Witness in a Postmodern World, 28-41.

[ii] Cf. William Willimon, “Book ‘Em,” The Christian Century (Jan 27, 2004):20, where he points out that this is Jesus’ first sermon, and he “threw the book at them”!

[iii] Cf. Claus Westermann, C, A Continental Commentary: Genesis 12–36, 152: “Where the name of Abraham is spoken in a prayer for blessing, the blessing of Abraham streams forth; it knows no bounds and reaches all the families of the earth.” Cf. also Charles B. Cousar, Galatians, 84 and Richard B. Hays, “The Letter to the Galatians,” The New Interpreter’s Bible XI:278.

[iv] Alan Brehm Chosen (www.thewakingdrreamer.com) 2013.

[v]  Ronald Reagan The Shinning City Upon the Hill, January 25, 1974

[vi]  God of Change and Glory by Al Carmines, New Century Hymnal (Pilgrim Press, 1995)

Extravagant Signs

John 2:1-11

Who doesn’t love a wedding? It’s a time of joy and covenant and fellowship; two lives joining as one. And here’s the coolest part of all. As a pastor, I’m invited to witness the moment when the newly married couple realize for the first time, their married! That, I think, is one of the most joyous moments in life.

But what happens when everything doesn’t go as planned? What happens when the standard advice for the bride to wear “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue” doesn’t bring good luck? I mean, it’s been my experience that weddings seldom go exactly as planned. So, I’ve decided to tinker around with the old saying a bit: “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, if something goes wrong, shrug it off and continue.” Well, it’s a work in progress.

Here are some examples of weddings not going according plan.

First, the screaming child. I officiated a wedding with a friend for his stepdaughter and it was going just as we had rehearsed. All that was left in the ceremony was to light the unity candle, pronounce them married, kiss, and go to the reception. It was all good. But the bride’s three-year-old daughter had other ideas.  While they were lighting the unity candle, she escaped her grandmother’s grasp, made her way up to the altar pushing her way in-between the bride and groom to see what they were doing. The moment, however, didn’t last. Before the unity song ended, she had made her way into the choir loft, and just as the music stopped, she fell, hitting her head with a loud thump, followed by a wail that could be heard for miles.  Now, at this point, the entire wedding stopped. Nobody moved. Finally, I said, “Paul, go pick up your granddaughter. He did and she was quickly taken next door to the parsonage. But by this time the wedding had been at a complete stand still for about five minutes. So, I got everyone back in place, and whispered, “let’s just finish.” At which time, I looked down at my notes, I looked at the bride and then the groom, I look back at my notes, and then said to the assembled crowd, “I can’t believe I have to say this… but… may you home be a sanctuary of peace and tranquility…” Everyone burst out laughing for what seemed like another five minutes.  Finally, I said, “just kiss her already.” Oh, by the way, the little girl was fine, she was more frightened then injured.

Fast-forward now to a few years ago. I was asked to perform a wedding for Becky’s cousin. And, like the previous story, all was going perfectly, that is, until I messed up the bride’s name. Yes, I said the wrong name! You see, the groom’s name was Tony, and he wanted to be called Tony all throughout the ceremony, that is, until the introduction the couple, at which time he wanted me to use his formal name, Anthony. Fair enough. But when the moment came, I was so focused on making sure I said “Anthony” I said, “it is my honor to present to you, Mr. and Mrs. Anthony and Tony Pape.” The funniest part is that no really caught it, except the bride, who insisted I do it over again correctly. Believe me, the family hasn’t let me lived that one down yet.

And then there’s my daughter Brianna’s wedding. This is the final wedding story, I promise. Just as Brianna was about to take my arm and head into the sanctuary to begin her wedding, the power went out. And to say my youngest daughter had a panic attack would be an understatement. I thought her mother and I were going to have to administer CPR there for a while.  But even though it didn’t go exactly as planned, it turned out to be a beautiful ceremony held by candlelight.

Now, I shared all these wedding stories today for a reason. Weddings, like life, don’t always go as planned. Sometimes we bump our heads, or mis-speak, or something beyond our control, like a power outage, can throw our lives into chaos. Whether it’s an illness or an accident, or a silly mistake or words said in anger that we wish desperately we could take back, or some other outside influence; life seldom goes exactly as planned.

So, when this happens; when chaos displaces calm, where do we turn? I don’t know. Perhaps stories like the Wedding at Cana can bring us some reassurance. How? Well, consider the bigger picture here. Remember earlier I said that one of the hallmarks of John’s Gospel is that he invites the reader to enter into the story? Well, it goes even deeper than that. John is inviting us not only to see ourselves in the story but to use the narrative and these deeper connections the assist us when we bump our head, or mis-speak, or the power goes out; John is opening the door for us to invite the Living God to journey with us through this life.

So, what are these deeper connections? Well, first, we’re invited to look for the “extraordinary within the ordinary.” You see, Jesus often takes the ordinary things of life and uses them to demonstrate the most extraordinary aspects of faith. In this case, I think John wants us to understand that contained within even the most basic necessity of life, water, is the potential for the extraordinary.

What might it mean to share a cool drink of water with someone who’s thirsty? I mean, isn’t that an extraordinary thing? Maybe. But what if we were to think bigger? What if we were to share ordinary water, something we have in abundance, with other parts of the world, where water is scarce? What an extraordinary thing it would be if we were to share from our abundance; our time, talent, and treasure; our food, water, and resources with those who have little.

Which leads us naturally into our second deeper connection with this text: abundance. When Jesus changed the water into wine, he didn’t make one cup or even one pitcher; he changed “six stone jars each containing twenty or thirty gallons.” An abundance by any measure. More than enough for everyone at the party. And it wasn’t some screw-top or box kind of wine, it was the finest wine ever.

Now, it’s pretty clear to me that the wine is a metaphor of the Love of God. God’s Love is abundant beyond all measure, there’s more than enough for everyone, and it’s the finest thing we could ever encounter. Bishop John Sprong once said in a sermon that God’s love is like a faucet that’s been left on, filling the sink to overflowing.  And when that overflowing water spills out of the sink and covers the floor, it fills every crack and crevice, it floods every nook and cranny with the water of life. What a wonderful image of abundance; of the abundance of God’s love.

And, my friends, when we hit our head, or mis-speak, or the power goes out, it’s then that these words about God’s abundant love and our calling to bring extraordinary action into the ordinary problems of the world; it’s these things can bring us reassurance; it’s these things that have the potential to bring us back to life.

May it be so. Amen.

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Sources Consulted

Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Mary: Glimpses of the Mother of Jesus, Chapter Four, “Cana and the Cross: The Mother of Jesus in the Gospel of John,” (University of South Carolina Press, 1995).
Craig R. Koester, Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel: Meaning, Mystery, Community (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995). 
Alyce McKenzie. Wedding Mishaps and the Cross (www.patheos.com) 2013
John Sprong sermon found in Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Theology. Jeff Procter-Murphy and David Felten (Harper One 2012)

 

Good News, Good Ways

Luke 4:14-21 The Foundation and Application of the Ministry and Mission of Christ 

A movie came out a number of years ago called “The Kingdom of Heaven” Now, this movie was set during the second Crusade and as the Christian forces had retaken Jerusalem. But the rub in this story is that the Christians are divided. On the one hand, some people seek to maintain a fragile but stable peace with the Muslims by sharing the various holy places that are sacred to all religions. On the other hand, however, there are the Christian zealots who are bent on destroying all the Muslims, convinced not only that it’s their duty as Christians, but also that victory is guaranteed. Their slogan is “God wills it.” God wills the indiscriminate slaughter of thousands of people whose only crime was that they practiced another religion?

Now, I’m not sure what it is about the nature of religion that seems to always make people think in those terms. Why those who belong to the “right” religion believe that they’re the chosen ones, and those who belong to other religions are condemned to eternal damnation? What is it about religion that breeds exclusivity, an “us versus them” mentality, rather than inclusion or at the very least, coexistence?

Now, the “religious” people of Jesus day, the ones who were under the law and subject to the Temple system, thought that way too. When Jesus preached his inaugural sermon in that Nazarian synagogue, the folks initially responded with proud approval for the “local boy” made good. But Jesus knew that they were missing the point, and so he made it clear: God’s grace is for everyone, everywhere, not just for a select group. As one contemporary theologian put it, Jesus “threw the book at them”[i] by citing examples from Hebrew Scripture; stories from their own Bible about how the prophets Elijah and Elisha went to and blessed outsiders, gentiles, people who existed outside the Temple system. And, as we heard in today’s reading, they tried to kill him.

But why the sudden change of heart?  How did Jesus go from hometown hero to public enemy number one in a single day?

Well, what scandalized the “righteous” people of Nazareth was the extravagant way in which Jesus offered God’s grace to everyone. You see, the religious people of his day expected God’s blessings for themselves. They believed they had earned these blessings through personal piety and a strict adherence to the letter of law. They were convinced that they deserved God’s grace, while the “sinners” deserved punishment. But Jesus came along offering God’s blessings indiscriminately to everyone. It’s hard to imagine anything more scandalous in Jesus’ day.

Now, we might be tempted to think that we’ve moved beyond all that. But the reality is, not much has changed. I’m often amazed by the way people respond when they hear for the first time about the Bible’s hope for all people to be redeemed. The typical response is, “If everyone is going to be saved, why should we go to church?” As if salvation is based upon some kinda points system.

You know, I heard some wise words this week about salvation that I’ll share with you. When asked about the nature of salvation, in other words, who’s in and who’s out, this wonderful, gentile soul wouldn’t respond with a Bible lesson or a defense of his theological position; but instead, he would simply say, “My hope is that God’s grace is big enough to include everyone.”

“God’s grace is big enough to include everyone.” I think part of the problem is that we get confused regarding who salvation is about. It’s not primarily about us making the right choices or believing all the right things. In a very real sense, salvation isn’t about us at all! It’s about God. It’s about God’s love for all creation. It’s about God’s desire for all of humanity to coexist in harmony, justice, and peace. And this, my friends, is the very nature of grace. The unconditional, unearned, always available to every person, Grace of God[ii]

And I know, in our culture, and especially the Christian faith that we so dearly love, God’s grace comes with some challenges. First, Grace challenges us to embrace the essence, the very core of Jesus’ mission and ministry, and come to realize that we are not saved apart from one another, but rather, that the Good News of salvation exists for all people. [iii] That’s the first challenge and the second is this: Grace finally isn’t a stagnate thing; it doesn’t exist in a vacuum; and once we’ve embraced and indwelled the universal nature of God’s grace, it’s then that grace is revealed in us and shared through us, as we reach out and tend to one another’s needs. In other words, the Good News leads to Good Ways.

So, what might be some examples of “Good Ways?” Well, consider three of the verbs that Jesus uses to proclaim the Good News in his proclamation about the direction of his entire mission and ministry: Release, Recovery, and Liberation. How might these words of hope be present in our world today?

Well, as you all know, in our nation and across the globe, we are a deeply divided people. We are divided in how we think about and respond to the plight of refugees, how we resolve the on-going violence and poverty we see around us, and as to the intrinsic worth and value of people of color. And as a result of this division, our government is shut down and people are suffering. And they’re suffering primarily because of the disfunction and distrust, the deception and fear coming from the very top level of our government. Indeed, the way ahead seems very dark and it seem unlikely that anything can change in this cultural climate.

But there is hope. There’s hope if we take seriously this idea of the Good News leading to Good Ways. What if, beginning with us, grace were to replace the disfunction cause by fear and distrust? What if we were to view national and world problems through the lens of release, recovery, and liberation instead of self-interest?

I submit, that even though Jesus’ words are ancient, and even though they originated from a culture that was very, very different from our own, they still contain a central and undeniable Truth. The Truth of God’s universal and unconditional grace.  And it’s this Truth that will set us free. This inherent Biblical Truth has the potential to turn the tide; to change hearts and minds. The Truth that salvation is for all people, including the poor, the marginalized, and those on the outside looking in. The Truth that God’s grace is big enough to include people from every nation, from every race, and from every life circumstance; including those deemed unworthy or un-savable by some caiming to follow Christ. My friends, the Truth is that God seeks to bring humanity release from the captivity of ignorance and recovery from spiritual blindness. The spiritual blindness that leads to things like bullying or domination or war, recovery from the spiritual blindness of things like fundamentalism or racism, or sexism, or whatever “isms” people can concoct. And finally, that God seeks to liberate all people from these injustices.

Friends, as we move forward and as we progress as a people, these are the priorities we must embrace. We are invited to “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” right now, here in this place, through acts of kindness, gentleness, and yet, grace. This is the Good News! The Good News that hopefully will lead all of us, and all of humanity, to practice Good Ways.

May it be so for you and for me. Amen.

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[i] William Willimon, “Book ‘Em,” The Christian Century (January 27, 2004), pg. 20

[ii] Alan Brehm Prodigal Grace (www.thewakingdreamer.blogspot.com) 2007

[iii] Nancy Rockwell Jesus’ Agenda (www.patheos.com) 2016

Affirmed by Love

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 –  Baptism of Jesus Sunday

In April of 2007 an article appeared in the Washington Post, which earned its author, Gene Weingarten, a Pulitzer Prize. The story went like this. “By most measures,” Weingarten wrote, “he was nondescript: a youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money and began to play. It was about 8 a.m. on Friday, January 12, the middle of the morning rush hour. In the next 45 minutes, as the violinist performed six classical pieces and somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,000 people passed by.

Now, the scene that Weingarten has painted thus far is one that might be seen in any urban train station. But the twist in the story is this. The man playing that morning wasn’t just some random street performer nor was he a homeless person trying to survive. The majority of the people walking past that morning didn’t know it, but the fiddler was actually Joshua Bell, one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written, on one of the most valuable violins ever made.

So, what happened? Well, several people stopped and paid quite a bit of attention; one child managed to delay his mother for only 3 seconds; Joshua Bell was recognized by a woman who couldn’t believe her good fortune and waited around until Bell’s magnificent performance was over to introduce herself. And for his virtuoso performance Joshua Bell earned a grand total of $52.17 that day. But the thing that strikes me about this experiment in human behavior, is how many people just passed on by, never even noticing some of the greatest music they would even have the chance to hear. [i]

And I get the impression that something similar has happens when we think about baptism; especially the baptism of Jesus. The details, as they are shared by the gospel-story-teller Luke, are pretty incredible, but sometimes I think we miss the depth of their meaning for our lives and our faith. So, with this in mind, let’s look a little deeper into this important text. Let’s stop in the metaphorical metro station for a moment and absorb the beautiful music that is Jesus’ baptism.

After living in total obscurity his entire life, in his late twenties or early thirties Jesus left his family in Nazareth and burst onto the public scene by joining the movement of his eccentric cousin John. Some scholars have suggested that John was part of the Jewish sect called the Essenes. The Essenes were separatists, part of a movement who lived in the wilderness, away from everyone else, to keep themselves pure. And it was the pursuit of this purity that lead them to opposed the religious authorities of the day and the temple in Jerusalem. So, it’s important to understand that John the Baptist was most definitely an outsider.[ii]  And by joining John’s fringe movement, what Marcus Borg called a movement of “protest and renewal,” Jesus found himself also outside the mainstream of the Jewish Temple structure.[iii]

And this is the first of two points of connection that we have with this text; Jesus’s baptism by John identified him with what Luke describes as “all the people.” You see, the Temple system worked really well for the wealthy and the connected. Jesus however saw his ministry as being with and for all the people; especially the poor, the vulnerable, the outsider. So, Jesus was baptized not because he wanted his sins to be washed away, but so he could be with all the broken and hurting people who had flocked to the Jordan River. And this is key for us today. By wading into the water with them Jesus took his place beside us and among us. With his baptism, Jesus openly and decisively declared that he stands shoulder to shoulder with me in my fears and anxieties.

That’s the first movement of this beautiful Aria we’re listening to today, and the second is this: Jesus’s baptismal compassion for and solidarity with all of humanity was vividly and Divinely confirmed. Luke writes, “When everyone was being baptized, Jesus also was baptized. While he was praying, heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit came down on him in bodily form like a dove. And there was a voice from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.’”

And, my friends, our Still Speaking God continues to say the same thing to us. Think about that for a minute. Think about the life-changing power contained within these words. God’s loving affirmation to Jesus, to us, has the potential to transform the way we think about and live-out our baptism. “You are my child,” God says, “whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”

Perhaps we if we view our baptism as an affirmation of love, then we will begin to view our relationships with others through that same lens. Perhaps if we not only hear but indwell God’s affirmation we will begin to say and demonstrate these same words in our lives. Victor Hugo once said, “What a grand thing it is to be loved! What a grander thing still, to love!”

My friends, Baptism finally doesn’t end at the font, it’s only a beginning; a beginning of our covenant with God and each other. A covenant that meant to be lived out within the church community and beyond; it’s meant to be shared with people who think and act and believe as we do, and with those who do not; and finally, baptism, this affirmation of God’s love, is a precursor to peace.

One final thought this morning. The second author in the book of Isaiah writes that God says to each of us, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; the rivers shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”

As we consider the waters of baptism today, as we endure the fires of life, as we feel the wind of the Spirit, and as we pause, if just for a moment, to listen to the beautiful music of our baptisms, we can be assured that God is near. Just as God was near Jesus as he stood there in the River Jordan, with so much ministry and mission, healing and teaching still ahead of him. And as Jesus moved ahead through it all, step by step, he knew that he was God’s Beloved Child.

My friends, as you go from this place today, and continue to be God’s child, loved and loving, cared for and compassionate to others; God’s words to Jesus echo across time and space, falling upon our ears today: “You are my child,” God says, “My child, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness”![iv]

May it be so for you and for me. Amen.

—————————————————-

[i] Dawn Hutchings Recognizing the Sacred in and Beyond the Stories We Tell: The Baptism of Jesus (www.progressivechristianity.org) 2016

[ii] The Baptism of Jesus: A Vision and a Voice (www.journeywithjesus.net) 2007

[iii] Cf. Marcus Borg in several books and articles.

[iv] Katheryn Matthews Remembering God’s Promises (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2019

The Light

Isaiah 60:1-6 – Epiphany of the Lord

When my three oldest children were much younger, we took them to the Cave of the Mounds in the Southwestern part of the state. And while it was fascinating to look at all the cave structures, the stalactites and stalagmites, and the rivers of sediment that had collected from centuries of dripping water; the really memorable part for me, was when the tour guide turned off the lights. You see, when you turn off the lights in a cave, you experience absolute darkness; the total and complete absence of light. And I remember that it was a bit unnerving. Not that I’m scared of the dark, but because I had three kids in raincoats squeezing the life out of me until the light came back on.

Absolute Darkness. That’s where the discovery of Light must begin; in complete and utter darkness. So, if the complete absence of light is the first step, what’s the second? Shadows.

The Greek philosopher Plato, in The Republic, offers us a glimpse into the shadow world by taking us on a mental journey deep into the earth; into a cave. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave written in 517 BCE and it’s probably his best-known story. Remember now, Platonic philosophy is chiefly concerned with how people acquire knowledge about beauty, justice, and morality, something Plato called “the good.” So, bearing this in mind, let’ look at the story.

The allegory comes to us as a dialogue, a conversation between Socrates and his student. Socrates tells his student to imagine people living in a great underground cave, which is only open to the outside at the end of a steep and difficult ascent. Most of the people in the cave are prisoners chained facing the back wall of the cave so that they can neither move nor turn their heads. A great fire burns behind them, and all the prisoners can see are the shadows playing on the wall in front of them: They have been chained in that position all their lives. There are others in the cave, carrying objects, but all the prisoners can see of them is their shadows. Socrates then describes the difficulties a prisoner might have adapting to being freed. When he sees that there are solid objects in the cave, not just shadows, he is confused. Instructors can tell him that what he saw before was an illusion, but at first, he’ll assume his shadow life was reality.[I]

But does all this have to do with Isaiah and the Light of Epiphany?

Well, today, in our context, I believe we can look at the Allegory of the Cave and the absolute darkness of my experience in the Cave of the Mounds with fresh eyes. Perhaps we can combine these two stories and create a metaphor for we might come to understand the nature of God.

What do I mean? Well, as humanity evolved and began to become self-aware, and as we started move beyond just surviving another day, we started asking ourselves the big questions. Big questions like: Where did we come from? Why are we here? Why do bad things happen? Where do we go when we die? Metaphorically, this was the move from absolute darkness to watching shadows dance on a wall. And this is where incarnation comes into play. I mean, God couldn’t let us keep believing that the shadows were reality. So, God, in human form, came to lead us symbolically into the light of day; to glimpse or grasp, if just a little bit, the nature of the Divine. And the life and teachings, the healing and miracles, the compassion and the grace that Jesus displayed over and over again in the gospels, this is Light that we are invited to enter and to share.

Maybe think of it like this. We often say that Jesus is the Light of the World, right?  Do you remember the blessing and commission on Christmas Eve? I said, “Let us go forth bearing the Light of Christ in our hearts and let is shine in the world.” I used that commission because Scripture challenges each of us not only to see the Light, but to be light.  My friends, we are invited to be a light in the darkness and shadows of this world. That’s the meaning behind Epiphany, and perhaps Isaiah’s words. Maybe they provide us with an opportunity to explore this invitation. An exploration that’s affirmed by Isaiah’s first words in this passage: “Arise. Shine. Your light has come!”

But Isaiah doesn’t stop there. There’s a second, implied imperative here. Let’s look at the next lines of this text again. “Though darkness covers the earth and gloom the nations, the Lord will shine upon you; God’s glory will appear over you. Nations will come to your light and kings to your dawning radiance.”

My friends, as we move from the darkness that covers the earth and emerge from the shadowy gloom that covers the nations; as we move into the Light of Christ, I’m interested in this concept of “nations.” Perhaps Isaiah’s “nations” serve as a second invitation to us from this ancient text. It’s a calling that transcends time. It’s inviting us to look beyond ourselves, our borders, our faith tradition, and reach out to all people with the Light of Christ?

And this is important. It’s important because this is how we are called to “live-out” our bit of light in a pluralistic world. You see, it’s through sharing the Light of Christ with all nations and all people that we can, someday, obtain Peace. Peace is the frist objective here. Not the darkness of isolationism nor the shadows of rhetoric, but actual peace; peace around and with us. But here’s the rub.  Peace cannot be only for a few, or those who perceive themselves as “chosen.” Peace, a real and lasting peace can only be enjoyed if everyone is included.

One final thought this morning. In 1969 Jim Strathdee, a songwriter and theologian, wrote a hymn in response to a Christmas poem by Howard Thurman. I would like to leave you today with the words of the refrain from that hymn because they illustrate so poignantly the meaning of Epiphany.

“I am the light of the world. You people come and follow me. If you follow and love, you’ll learn the mystery of what you were meant to do and be”

My friends, as we leave this place today and as we continue our collective journey from darkness into the Light, may we too discover the mystery of what we were meant to do and be; and along the way, may we encounter the peace that God intends for all the earth.

This is my prayer.

This is my hope.

May it be so.

Amen & Amen.

————————————-

[i] There are multiple sources found at www.thoughtco.com from a post by N.S. Gill

Buckle S. 2007. Descartes, Plato and the Cave. Philosophy 82(320):301-337.

Juge C. 2009. The Road to the Sun They Cannot See: Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Oblivion, and Guidance in Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”. The Cormac McCarthy Journal 7(1):16-30.

Ursic M, and Louth A. 1998. The Allegory of the Cave: Transcendence in Platonism and Christianity. Hermathena 165:85-107.

 

Putting on the Love of Christ

Colossians 3:12-17

All the snow we had this past week reminds me of a story about our first big snowfall seven years ago. Manny was a toddler and Becky had bought him an orange snowsuit to keep him warm as we ventured out, in this, his first winter. Winter actually came late that year, so when it finally snowed, we were anxious to put him in his new outfit and play outside. So, with all the care and tenderness of new parents we “stuffed” him into it. And I do mean “stuffed!” Stuffed to the point that he couldn’t move his arms or legs.orange snowsuit starfish

But the really funny part of this story comes when we put him down outside. You see when we set him down, he fell over backward into a snowbank and was unable to move. He looked like an unhappy orange starfish. Needless to say, we weren’t outside very long.

Paul, in today’s text, also talks about putting on clothes. He lists five qualities or characteristics that are Christ-like: He says, “put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.”  But as we think about putting on these virtues, I wonder if we might feel a little bit like an over-stuffed toddler. I sometimes wonder if he’s inviting us to put on a tee shirt or a snow suit, or a straight-jacket? What do I mean? Well, I think we’re tempted to read these ancient texts and try to “stuff” ourselves into a preconceived message. We might even feel the weight of what it means to let the “word of Christ live in us richly;” a weight that can lead good church folks to live in judgement of others.

And this is a dangerous thing. It’s dangerous because judgementalism can permeate and divide a congregation and lead a church to adopt a position that there’s only one way to live, or to worship, or to interact with the Divine. And ironically, this type of thinking leads people, good well-intentioned people, away from compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience rather than toward it.

Now, this is a challenge for all of us. Sometimes I think we’re tempted to point the finger at others or other churches, but in reality, it’s a challenge for all of us. It’s a challenge because in our humanness we want to be right and we want others to see that we are right, right? But the problem with this way of thinking is that it doesn’t allow for the full richness of Biblical thought to develop and shine forth. In a word, it’s limiting and if we consider only a limited interpretation of the Bible, we may find ourselves “stuffed” into the snowsuit of literalism and we, like the toddler Manny, may find that we’re stuck, like an orange starfish.

But why is this important? Why is a limited perspective of Scripture problematic? What’s wrong, you might ask, with expecting others to believe or behave in ways that conform to what many consider, “the right way.” Well, consider the first line of today’s passage. Paul says, “Be tolerant with each other and, if someone has a complaint against anyone, forgive each other. …And over all these things [over all these things] put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity.”

My friends, when we sit in judgement of others or exclude anyone because of their lifestyle, or religious understanding, or nationality or race, or orientation or gender identity, or for whatever reason; when we exclude anyone, we run the risk of letting our sensitivities overshadow love; the love that Paul says is over all things.

Now, on the other hand, does that mean everything goes? Well, to quote Paul again, “By no means.” In the verses just previous to this one, and all throughout his writings, Paul emphasizes the immoralities and the negative actions we need to “shed” before we can “put-on” love. And that makes perfect sense to me. If I want to be more compassionate in how I think or speak about, …say refugees, for example, perhaps I need to “shed” some of my preconceived ideas about people from south of the border. Maybe I need to turn off or tune out all the harsh and frankly dishonest voices about these refugees and open myself to their humanity and “put-on” the compassion of Christ by putting myself in their shoes and in the shoes of Jesus.

Remember, Jesus was a refugee himself. As a young child he and his parents fled in the dark of the night to Egypt with nothing but the clothes on their backs. So, Jesus had first-hand knowledge of the plight of those who are fleeing from the violence and death of their homeland in Central America. Jesus could identify with the uncertainty and fear that comes as one embarks on a long and dangerous journey, with few provisions, in an attempt to start over again in a strange and foreign land. And Jesus understood, through the experience of his immigrant parents, the courage that it takes for these refuge parents to create a new life for their families and their children here in our nation. Perhaps that’s why we see Jesus welcome the foreigner, love the marginalized and the outcast, and affirm those from other religions over and over again in the gospels.

My friends, Paul’s focus, Christ’s focus, and therefore our focus, should be on creating and maintaining right and loving relationships with the entire human family. Perhaps that’s why our faith calls us to love beyond our borders and to seek solutions to immigration based on these Pauline virtues rather than on fear of the other. Perhaps, if we can overcome fear with love, no more children will have to die on the border.

And this all makes perfect sense as we look at Paul’s writing with a broad understanding.  You see, the negatives or the lists of things we should “shed” are not the focus here – that’s a focus that leads to judgementalism – but rather these lists of “don’ts” are intended to lead us to enact his list of “do’s”; these virtues that he has so carefully laid out for the Church in Colossi.

And this is important. It’s important because in calling for a new way of living, Paul does not emphasize a new set of rules or even a new philosophy of life, but rather Paul understands that we need to change our actions, how we relate to others, in order to effectively change on the inside. This is the transformation that the incarnation of Christ represents. This is the Light that has symbolically come into the world at Christmas. And this is the compassion and kindness, and humility, and gentleness, and patience, and love that we are invited to put-on as we boldly step into a new year.

And while 2019 will most likely be a very challenging year, it also has the potential to be a great one. It can be great if we choose to put on the love of Christ and then share it by loving our neighbors, all our neighbors, those who are like us and those who are very different from us.

My friends, my prayer for each of us in 2019, is that when we find ourselves unable to move, like an orange starfish, that we will “shed” the all the things that keep us from sharing the Love that God intends for all people and that we will instead, “put-on” all the things that lead us in the way of Christ, the way of grace, the way …of love.

My friends, have a happy and blessed New Year.

Amen & Amen.

 

A Walk Through The Garden of Good and Evil

A Devotion for January 2019

“With many other words Peter warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.”    – Acts 2:40

In Season three of the Coen Brothers’ series Fargo, the chief villain says that the problem is not that there is evil in the world, rather the problem is the existence of good. “Because,” he says, “otherwise, who would care? United Church of Christ pastor and author Kaji Douša responds to the villain by stating, “That goodness exists is inconvenient to evil which is bent on making no one care. But the existence of good in the world makes us care. And caring is what will save us ‘from this corrupt generation.’”

Welcome to 2019. Ours is a “generation” of single news cycle attention spans, unashamed public bigotry, and a dysfunctional government, bogged down by corruption and scandal; all played out in real time for all to watch. Sometimes it’s almost too much to bear. And if that’s all we see, if that’s all we’re watching, it could easily seem like good has been vanquished from the world. And if that’s true, if good is absent, then we’re in chorus with the villain in saying, “who cares?”

But, here’s the thing. We do care, don’t we? And as long as we care and because we act upon that caring by giving hope to the hopeless, by giving voice to the voiceless, and by loving those whom society considers unlovable; because we care, good is alive and well. We, as people of faith, are called by God to continue to watch and wait, to continue to strive for equality, to continue to bend toward justice; social justice, environmental justice, and economic justice. Perhaps, in 2019, God is challenging our generation to continue to be the church in all these ways and more.

My friends, every journey begins with a single step. Perhaps our first step, or our next step, could be one that sets us on a pathway that will lead us to a time and place where evil is overcome by good, where hate yields to love, and where caring for one’s neighbor become the norm rather than the exception. Perhaps, with God’s help, we will find our way in 2019 and beyond.

I wish you grace and peace in the coming year.

Shalom, Pastor Phil

There’s Always Room for One More

Luke 1:39-55, Third Sunday of Advent

A six-year-old boy named Franklin captured the hearts of an entire church community because he listened to his mother. The story goes like this. Franklin, Franky to his mother and friends, had moved to a new town and began to attend the local UCC congregation. And as a member of the Sunday School Franky was invited to participate in the annual Christmas Program. He was given the part of the Innkeeper. Now, previous to moving to this town and joining this church, Franky had not been a part of any congregation, so the story of the nativity was new to him. Well, the big day arrived, and Franky and the other children were all dressed in their costumes and seated on the floor behind the pulpit awaiting their turn. But when Franky got up to say his one and only line, he paused. “there’s no room in the inn” came an adult voice from off-stage. But still, Franky was silent.  “there’s no room in the inn” this time a little louder. But still nothing from Franky. Now, becoming frantic and growing with frustration, the voice sounded out again, this time very loudly “THERE’S-NO-ROOM-IN-THE-INN” Seconds, which seemed like minutes, passed and still nothing.  But just as the director had decide to move on, Franky spoke. A broad smile had suddenly adorned Franky’s face and in his loudest six-year-old voice he proudly said, “Come on in, there’s always room for one more!” Of course, a roar of laughter came from the congregation and things really went off the rails when Mary and Joseph actually went into the inn, along with the innkeeper and the sheep and the angels and the wise men. Apparently, Christ was born in a warm bed that year. After the program was over however, the director asked Franky why he changed his line. “Because,” was the answer, “Because my mother taught me to share.”

I wonder if Jesus listened to his mother? I wonder if she taught him to share. I ask these questions because there’s a striking similarity between Mary’s song and Jesus’ inaugural sermon in Nazareth. In Luke 4:18-19, Jesus begins his ministry with these words:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed,
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Now, it seems to me, like Jesus’ understanding of the purpose for his entire ministry is a restatement his mother’s understanding of God’s work in her life. The very essence of his ministry seems to come from Mary. I mean, think about it. Jesus isn’t just making stuff up. He’s giving voice to how he grew up. He’s articulating what he’d been taught; what he’d known this from the beginning. It’s what his mother preached and what she taught him to be. It’s how his mother interpreted Scripture and taught Jesus to interpret Scripture.[I] And this is important. It’s important because this theme of Good News for the poor, of release, recovery, and liberation to those on the outside looking in, serves as a hallmark of this Gospel. Above all else, Luke is concerned about social justice.

But while Mary’s song is a song of justice and liberation, there’s just no way to avoid the fact that there’s a barb in this good news for us here in this room today. And the barb is this. Most of us fall into the category of the “full” and the “rich” who will be sent away hungry and empty-handed, don’t we?[ii]  We’re comfortable, well fed, we have a warm bed in the inn. But Luke presents Mary’s song as a joyful one for those who are lowly, humble and humiliated, the least and the last.  And yet, even here there’s good news; the future Mary looked forward to is a vision of the restoration of the whole human family.  She saw in the birth of her son the establishment of the justice that makes it possible for all people to thrive, to reach their God-given potential, to experience the joy and the vibrancy that God intends for us all.

But take heart. Don’t be discouraged and give away all your stuff just yet. Because what this text means for those of us who are “full” and “rich” is this… the only way for us to sing Mary’s song with the same kind of joy, the joy of the “lowly” being lifted up, is if we actually engage in God’s work of restoration.[iii]  The only way for us to sing Mary’s song with joy and hope is for us to work at lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry, and restoring those who are disenfranchised.[iv] That’s what Jesus came to do; to begin God’s work of making all things new, of setting right the wrongs and lifting the burdens we carry.

That’s why we celebrate Advent and Christmas.  It’s a time for us to focus our attention on God’s work in this broken world. It’s time for us to listen to our mothers and share the blessing we have been given. It’s a time for us to celebrate the work of restoration and healing and salvation that God is carrying out, right now, in the human family; the whole human family.  And it’s a time for us to live-into our faith by joining that work.[v]

My friends, it’s this joyful faith, this Advent faith, that gives us the energy to sustain our love as we join in God’s work of transforming all of creation by making a difference in our corner of the world.[vi]  And it’s a faith, that calls us to open our hearts, and our minds, and perhaps even our homes, and say, to those who have little, “Come on in, there’s always room for one more.”

May it be so.

Amen & Amen.

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[i] Karoline Lewis A Merciful Advent (www.workingpreacher.org) 2015

[ii] Cf. Foster, “Mary’s Hymn,” 458: “even though Mary has been often ‘regarded as the comforter of the disturbed, she [or at least her song] is far more accurately the disturber of the comfortable’” (quoting Doris Donnelly).

[iii] Cf. Stephen Shoemaker, God Stories, 217-18: “There are only two ways you can enter the kingdom and experience its joy. One is to be among the poor, oppressed, bruised, blind, and brokenhearted; those to whom God comes as healing, comfort, justice, and freedom. The other way is to be among God’s people who are going to the poor, oppressed, bruised, blind, and brokenhearted and bringing God’s healing, comfort, justice, and freedom.”

[iv] Cf. Letty M. Russell, “God’s Great Reversal,” The Christian Century (Nov. 20, 1991): 1089.  She says, “God’s great reversal may come too close to home as we hear that Christmas is about lifting up the ‘lowly,’ filling ‘the hungry with good things’ and ‘sending the rich away empty.’ Yet it is by joining in their desire and work for deliverance that we find out the meaning of the good news of great joy.”

[v] Allen Bream (www.thewakingdreamer.org) 2015

[vi] Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 338: “Faith can expend itself in the pain of love, …, because it is upheld by the assurance of hope in the resurrection of the dead.

 

Made Ready

Luke 3:1-6, Second Sunday of Advent, Peace.

The world around us is decorated for Christmas. Stores, communities and individual homes are beautifully covered with lights and tinsel and colors of all sort. And many of us have begun to prepare our homes and the church for the approaching holiday by adding touches of seasonal beauty; candles and greens, and nativity scenes.

But sometimes I fear we spend so much time on these preparations that we might miss the enjoyment or even the deeper meaning behind them. And before we know it, Christmas is over leaving us both tired and relieved. But at the same time, we might also wonder, “What was this all about, anyway?”

Well, all I can say to that is thank God for Advent. Advent is about preparing the way for the Christ Child to come into our homes, our community; indeed, into the whole world to, hopefully, change our hearts and lives.

And this is an important point to remember in this season; Jesus didn’t come for just you and me, but for the whole world. Luke makes that universal reach of the gospel quite clear: the good news isn’t the church’s little secret and it isn’t my private possession or privilege: it’s for all of God’s children. Not just one people or one kind of people, or one nation, or one time in history, but for all of us, every nation, and every age. And it’s not just good news; it’s really big news for all of us, today, just as it was two thousand years ago.

So, bearing this in mind, how do we, as a community of faith, prepare for the Advent of the Christ-child for all the world once again? Well, I would say by immersing ourselves in a different kind of beauty: a quieter, more reflective time, a time of shadows and light, one more candle on the wreath lit each week…the haunting melody of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” running beneath our reflections, and stories of prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah, of Mary and Elizabeth, Zechariah, all of whom speak passionately, eloquently, of God’s salvation breaking into the world, delivering “the whole world” making us a whole and holy people.

And yet. There are no beautiful canticles from Mary or Zechariah in today’s passage from the Gospel of Luke, no visit from the angel Gabriel promising the birth of a Savior, not even the child leaping for joy in Elizabeth’s womb.

No, in this second week of Advent we actually hear from Elizabeth’s child, John the Baptist, much later on, now a grown man bursting onto the scene from out of the wilderness, a man on a mission from God. But this time, instead of leaping for joy, John announces the time of God’s reign on earth by proclaiming a preparational message of a different sort: one that says we all had better get ready for what’s coming.[i]

In today’s text, John calledfor people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives.” Change our hearts and lives. The more traditional theological word is repentance. We are called upon by John to repent, which literally means “to turn and move in another direction,” by asking God for forgiveness for our transgressions. But that’s not all. John continues, later in this passage, to challenge us to “bear the fruit” of our changed of hearts and lives.

But what might that look like?

Well, the crowds that were with him wondered about that too. Later in Chapter 3 they ask him, “What should we do?” And John gave them this answer: “Whoever has two shirts must share one of them with someone who has none, and whoever has food must do the same.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized. They asked, “Teacher, what should we do? John replied, “Collect no more than you’re authorized to collect.” Some soldiers were also there, and they asked, “What about us? What should we do?” The Baptist answered, “Don’t cheat or harass anyone, be satisfied with your pay.”

So, what’s really going on here. Well, this passage is finally concerned about Justice. John is saying in essence, if you want to bear the fruit of your baptism you must engage in just practices. Share your stuff, make sure your neighbor has clothing and food. And if you want to bear good fruit as a society, don’t take more than your own share. Don’t extort money or bully someone who’s weaker. So, what John is offering us here goes much deeper than we might have first imagined.

The author of this passage, Luke, is primarily concerned about the poor, the marginalized, those on the outside looking in.  In Bible Study, we call this an insider/outsider theme. And I suspect that this might be the dominate theme, the thread that connects all of Luke’s Gospel. And these early chapters and verses seem to bear out my suspicion as Luke sets the stage for what’s to come.

What do I mean? Well, consider the progression of the text. Everything moves outward like a ripple effect. You know, when you throw a stone in calm pool of water producing ripples that expand in all directions. That’s the image that comes to mind when I think about the progression of this passage. John says, first change your heart, clean up what’s on the inside and then begin to look outward, changing your life, changing the way in which you interact with the world. In other words, drop the first stone in here and from here, the ripple effect of your changed heart will expand outward changing the lives of others.

How do we do that? Well again, John says, if your neighbor is without a shirt, if your neighbor is hungry, take care of them.  But to bear the fruit of change doesn’t stop there.  You must also challenge the systems that caused your neighbor to be hungry and shirtless.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu said it this way, “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”

Maybe that’s why Luke ties John’s message in the wilderness to historical events. Remember in the beginning of this passage Luke says, “In the fifteenth year of the emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilot was governor” …and so on. He’s making these connections so that we will view the Baptist’s teachings as history, as real-life events and words. And thus, our response to the story should also be “real-life;” a real-life transformation of our hearts and lives, right here, in this world. Luke wants us to do a little bit of good where ever we are; because, as the Archbishop says, “it’s those little bits of good – when put together – that overwhelm the world.”

My friends, as we continue to live into this Season of Beauty and Light, may we too take the time to look for and then do those little bits of good for our neighbor; the neighbor across the road and the one across the globe. And if we do that, if we begin to change our hearts and lives, as the Baptist suggests, perhaps the world will begin to move, if just a little bit, closer to peace.

In this Season of Advent, on this Sunday of Peace, my hope and prayer is that it will be so. Amen & amen.

[i] Katheryn Matthews Sound of a Promise Kept (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2018