Believe It or Not, God Answers Prayer

1 Samuel 1:9-11 New Revised Standard Version

9 After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. 10 She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. 11 She made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.”

1 Samuel 1:19-20 New Revised Standard Version

19 They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. 20 In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, “I have asked him of the Lord.”

1 Samuel 2:1-10 New Revised Standard Version

2 Hannah prayed and said,

“My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God.
My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory.

2  “There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you;
    there is no Rock like our God.

3  Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed.

4  The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength.

5  Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn.

6  The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.

7  The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts.

8  He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world.

9  “He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail.

10  The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High will thunder in heaven.
The Lord will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king,     and exalt the power of his anointed.” 

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Have you ever played Monopoly?  We did, my brother and sister and I.  I don’t know how old we were when we received the game, probably for Christmas.  We choose playing pieces, threw dice and tried to accumulate properties.  The best part of the game was passing “Go” and collecting $200.  I was seldom able to buy property, let alone put on a house or a hotel.  

The original game was invented by Lizzie Magie in 1903 as a way to demonstrate that an economy which rewards wealth creation is better than one where monopolists work under few constraints. It makes me wonder what Mrs. Magie would think of our government’s current sweetheart deals with corporations.  

The system that the board game illustrates is a closed system.  Once the money is gone, it’s gone. There is not enough for everyone; some players end up with piles of pastel-colored money and some end up bankrupt. 

Hannah lived in a closed system.  The only way to be a real woman, to be a good wife, to have someone to take care of you when you lost your marbles was to have children. Hannah sadly had a closed womb in a closed system.  

In some ways she was blessed; her husband loved her and he had been able to have children through his other wife, so he had, metaphorically, passed Go, and collected the $200, that is, he had children who would care for him in his old age and who would carry on his name. But Hannah was not part of that.  She was without property and sentenced to the jail of barrenness and abandonment.

Have you ever been closed off from a system, from people, from happiness, through no fault of your own?  Have you ever been prevented from reaching your goals, from using your talents to the best of your ability? 

That prompts three more questions

Did you turn to God in prayer?

How has God saved you, helped you, encouraged you?

And—how have you thanked God?

Hannah turned to God in prayer.  She gave birth to Samuel. And, in thanksgiving, she turned Samuel back to God, so that Samuel could grow up to serve God in full devotion. Samuel did, in fact, serve God his whole life, as one of the prophets who led the Israelites into the greatest years of their nation. Samuel anointed the first two kings of Israel, Saul and David.  David became the ancestor, the great, great ad infinitum grandfather of our own Savior, Jesus.

God answers prayer. The answer is not always apparent to us. Hannah probably died before Israel became a monarchy. She did not know that a Messiah would someday arrive, directly descended from her womb.  

God answers prayer by making us the bearers of Good News.  

We do not always know how God uses us. Sometimes we can reflect on our lives and see where we touched someone with kindness, when we inspired someone, how we changed someone through what we thought was simply doing the right thing. Give God some credit. Just as God opened Hannah’s womb, God opens our hearts to make  God’s Kingdom present in the lives of our communities. Sometimes we serve within our own communities, with a helping hand, with a friendly conversation.  We never know how much good we do. A helping hand can allow the good deed to be paid forward. A friendly conversation can lift a person out of despair and banish their loneliness. Sometimes we serve beyond our communities, by our personal choices, such as choosing leaders who build God’s kingdom rather than their own, by making decisions that protect God’s creation or God’s people. 

As the recipients of God’s greatest gift, God’s Son, Jesus Christ, we are freed from the bonds of sin to stretch our abilities and talents and even our timid inclinations to bring others into the Kingdom. 

Let me reiterate: Hannah turned to God in prayer.  I don’t know how prayer works.  I don’t know why God doesn’t answer every prayer the way we thing it should be answered. But I know that God answers prayer in such a way that God’s Kingdom is established here and now, where it is most needed. The Kingdom isn’t needed in heaven—-everything is perfect there already. The Kingdom is needed here and now, the blessings of the Kingdom, the gifts of the Kingdom are needed in our own time, in our own place. The hungry need to be fed NOW.  The oppressed need to be freed NOW. The homeless need to be sheltered NOW. The hopeless need to be inspired NOW. The ugly, the disgusting, the losers need to be loved NOW.  That is what the Kingdom looks like.  Our forefathers wrote the Declaration of Independence with a kind of kingdom in mind. The second sentence reads : 

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Happiness can not be pursued like a goal. Happiness is established not by the individual, but by the community. That is how we Christians operate: in community. We call that community the Kingdom. 

Hannah had only one earthly resource to help her achieve happiness, her husband, Elkanah.  He did not have the ability to give her the much wanted child, Samuel. God did.  Hannah turned to God in prayer. God answered not only Hannah’s prayer, but the prayer of salvation for all God’s people. 

Let us turn to God in prayer, not to ask for what we think we need but for what God needs. Let us ask God to make us instruments of peace and plenty.

I learned this lesson from my father.  Everyday he would rise early, get dressed, go out the back door and face east.  Everyday, he prayed, “God, what do you have for me to do today?”

That is how the Kingdom is established, by each of us praying, daily, in our own way to be the workers in the Kingdom that God is building. That Kingdom is possible because sin and death have been vanquished by the greatest answer to prayer ever, the death and resurrection of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Through the incarnation of God on earth, we have the privilege and the power to establish God’s Kingdom on earth. How? Take it to the Lord in prayer. Amen.  

Suffering Luke 13: 1-9

13 About this same time Jesus was told that Pilate had given orders for some people from Galilee to be killed while they were offering sacrifices. Jesus replied:

Do you think that these people were worse sinners than everyone else in Galilee just because of what happened to them? Not at all! But you can be sure that if you don’t turn back to God, every one of you will also be killed. What about those eighteen people who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them? Do you think they were worse than everyone else in Jerusalem? Not at all! But you can be sure that if you don’t turn back to God, every one of you will also die.

Jesus then told them this story:

A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard. One day he went out to pick some figs, but he didn’t find any. So he said to the gardener, “For three years I have come looking for figs on this tree, and I haven’t found any yet. Chop it down! Why should it take up space?”

The gardener answered, “Master, leave it for another year. I’ll dig around it and put some manure on it to make it grow. Maybe it will have figs on it next year. If it doesn’t, you can have it cut down.”  Contemporary English Version

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Why? Why did half a million people have to die from a simple virus?  Why did Texans have to live without heat and water for so long?  Why did Tiger Wood’s car go off the road?  Why were there so many forest fires last summer?  Why are people still trying to recover from the derecho?  Why can’t health insurance be cheaper?  Why do we have to pay taxes?  Why did that fourteen year old boy have to be shot?  Why do policeman have to be afraid of people of color? Why do people of color have to be afraid of policeman?

All of those questions have logical answers, multiple answers, but the larger question is “Why do people have to suffer?”  Why do people have to be in danger, why do people have to get sick, why do people have to have bad things happen?  Why can’t the world be nicer? 

That’s the kind of question Jesus was asking the crowd. Why did Pilate massacre a bunch of people who were offering sacrifices?  They weren’t breaking the law. Why did 18 people have to die when that tower collapsed?  They were just living their ordinary lives. Jesus makes a point that too many Christians can’t seem to understand: suffering is not punishment. 

God does not send bullets or viruses or fires or winds or high prices or low wages.  God does not inspire fear.  

Suffering is not a punishment for sin; nonetheless, suffering is often the consequence of sin. In my observation, that sin is often selfishness.Why did half a million people die from COVID-19? First, there was virus; second there was little effort to initially contain it, and eventually, the silly, individualistic selfishness of refusing to change habits to protect others. In Texas, the selfishness of not wanting to spend money to update the power grid left thousands of people in very uncomfortable living conditions.  Sin!

The death of fourteen-year-old boy is the consequence of hate and conflict.  Sin!

The continued suffering from the derecho is in part from unkept promises on the part of some insurance companies and some contractors. Sin!

One of the easiest ways to cause suffering is to ostracize people who are  different.  Growing up, I “learned” that Catholics were bad people, or at least questionable.  I also learned that other groups were, if not bad, at least not nearly as good or decent or smart as the people I knew.  Sin!

I’ve had a chance to learn differently and to repent of my groundless prejudices.  Let me give you an example

I am part of a group of people who serve our neighbor down the road, Our Lady of the Prairie Retreat Center.  (My goal is for us to meet there someday, when it is safe.) As a member of the Advisory Committee for the Prairie, I am learning about the entity that owns the Prairie, the Congregation of the Sisters of Humility.  As I listened to one of the sisters explain the history of their order, I realized that people all over the world owe much to the various orders of dedicated Catholic women.

 If every denomination had nuns as dedicated and successful as the Catholics have among their various orders, there would be no hunger or poverty or homelessness.  

The work that just this one group of women living in Davenport has done as far as housing homeless people (veterans, single mothers, the elderly) in the Quad-Cities is comprehensive, brilliant, well-managed and well-organized.  They also minister to immigrant workers in Ottumwa on a huge scale.  

They minister to the people who, like the slaughtered Galileans and the people crushed under the tower of Siloam, have little control over what happens to them. Many of my friends like to say that the homeless and hungry are victims of their own poor choices. My observation is that they have no good options presented to them in the first place.

The second part of our text today is the story of the fruitless fig tree.  Three years and no figs!  What should the gardener do? Chop it down?  No! Give it extra attention.  

Isn’t that what the church does? We give extra attention to those who are prevented from meeting the expectations of the community, the county, the neighbors. And what happens?  Something good. We don’t always see the fruit that is born because of our extra attention, but we keep trying, with extra attention, with food banks and all the other ways we try to help.  

I’m rambling, so ramble with me as I switch to another subject: why worshipping in the church building is important.

We have been worshipping by mail, email, and ZOOM for almost a year—can you believe it!?!?!   But there are people missing—-our community is fragmented.  

Being in each other’s presence for worship and fellowship is important to our sense of belonging.  At the same time, because we care for each other, we have protected each other by staying apart.  But when we get back together, we will find renewed energy and incentive to once again act as a group of people, not as individuals.

Being in worship together gives us the courage to say out loud in the presence of others what we believe. Together we confess, repent, thank, ask and praise. It is easier to speak the truth of sin and mercy in a group and it is strengthening to have others speak truth with us.  How many of us would have the courage to say these words out loud anywhere else, standing alone, even in our own homes?  It is important that we say these words out loud with witnesses. In worship, we hold each other accountable.  Like the fig tree, we don’t always bear fruit, but with the loving attention of the people around us, we can say out loud what we believe, repent, and produce. 

Our faith cannot be a secret from the world.  Our faith has to be proclaimed to the world. When the doors are open, the lights on, and the bell rings, we are proclaiming to the world that Christ is present and that we want the world to know that we can be expected to act differently, to talk differently, to plan differently than the secular society in which we live. 

We have no control over weather, little control over the decisions made by powerful people behind closed doors, but we have control over our own reaction to the suffering in the world. 

We know that God does not cause suffering, that God does not cause hurricanes or blizzards, that God does not cause disease to spread. We know that God does not cause selfishness, conflict, segregation.

We do know that God suffers with us. God sent Jesus to discover what it is like to suffer. Jesus became human and walked among the suffering, the sick, the miserable, the sinful, the angry, the broken-hearted and learned for himself what it is to feel helpless and despondent. The other side of the coin is that Jesus saw the only answer was love and Jesus taught us how to love. Our wisest theologians and philosophers have found no greater solution than love.  Jesus’s love went all the way to destroy the sins of hate and greed and envy: he conquered death for us by conquering his own death. 

During this season of Lent, let us be mindful of repentance, mindful of changing our selfish ways, mindful of loving all of God’s creation.  Amen. 

Shock Value Luke 10:25-37

25 An expert in the Law of Moses stood up and asked Jesus a question to see what he would say. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to have eternal life?”

26 Jesus answered, “What is written in the Scriptures? How do you understand them?”

27 The man replied, “The Scriptures say, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind.’ They also say, ‘Love your neighbors as much as you love yourself.’”

28 Jesus said, “You have given the right answer. If you do this, you will have eternal life.”

29 But the man wanted to show that he knew what he was talking about. So he asked Jesus, “Who are my neighbors?”

30 Jesus replied:

As a man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, robbers attacked him and grabbed everything he had. They beat him up and ran off, leaving him half dead.

31 A priest happened to be going down the same road. But when he saw the man, he walked by on the other side. 32 Later a temple helper came to the same place. But when he saw the man who had been beaten up, he also went by on the other side.

33 A man from Samaria then came traveling along that road. When he saw the man, he felt sorry for him 34 and went over to him. He treated his wounds with olive oil and wine and bandaged them. Then he put him on his own donkey and took him to an inn, where he took care of him. 35 The next morning he gave the innkeeper two silver coins and said, “Please take care of the man. If you spend more than this on him, I will pay you when I return.”

36 Then Jesus asked, “Which one of these three people was a real neighbor to the man who was beaten up by robbers?”

37 The teacher answered, “The one who showed pity.”

Jesus said, “Go and do the same!”

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I’ve come to the conclusion that some of the Bible stories I heard as a child had a hidden agenda that was designed to make Jewish people look bad. 

This is the dark side of Christianity.  

You may have heard the saying  “Blowing out someone else’s candle does not make yours shine brighter.” But how often in the history of humanity have people justified the oppression of others by finding ways to make them look dumb or ugly or evil, in order to make themselves look better? 

This story of a Samaritan coming out as the good guy is an example.  I’ve always heard this story as condemning the two Jewish men who chose not to help the victim.  It may seem a stretch to you, but I think it was one of my first lessons in seeing Jews as being “wrong.” Other lessons followed, which I want to pursue at some point, but the biggest lesson was taught on Good Friday: the Jews killed Jesus. This lesson has a long history in the church, and even though it has been theologically debated and refuted, we hear those words during every Passion week, “Crucify him!  Crucify him!” and we know from Scripture that these were not Roman soldiers yelling “Crucify him!”

Three of the four gospel writers implicate the Jewish people

Luke: the chief priests, the leaders, and the people

Mark: the chief priests stirred up the crowd 

John: When the chief priests and the [Jewish] police saw him

Martin Luther, 16th Century reformer, is well-known for his anti-Semitic writings. Yet, Luther gave us the the key to loving all our neighbors: we are freed from sin to love our neighbor. Luther established that it was not the Jews who killed Jesus, but that my own sins killed Jesus.  I am responsible for Jesus dying like a despicable thief on an instrument of murder and torture. Or from a historical perspective, Jesus was killed because of an unjust political system.  He caused discontent among the crowds, attracted the attention of the authorities, became a problem to the carefully enforced peace of the state, and had to be removed. 

 Like Luther, we tend to pick and choose who qualifies as a neighbor.

The lawyer in today’s scripture, in true lawyerly argumentative style, wasn’t satisfied with a simple answer.  He, too, wanted a strict definition of who deserved to be treated as a neighbor.

Jesus answered him with a story, a parable.  This parable is so well-known that there are laws named after it.  Iowa’s Good Samaritan Law encourages those who witness a drug overdose to stay and call 911, rather than running out of fear of prosecution. 

It seems like a simple story: two bad guys and one good guy.  But that was not the formula Jesus used. 

Jesus was actually using a story telling device common to Jewish literature.  He follows the “rule of three” of good storytelling,  Since there are three traditional divisions among Jews (priests, Levites, and all Israel) one can expect that the third person would be an ordinary Israelite.

Jesus told this parable for shock value.  The shock was not that a Samaritan was a good guy—and it was not the first shock. The first shock was that the priest passed by.  The second shock was that the temple helper passed by. Jesus’s listeners would have expected both of them to stop and help the man. Just as you would expect your pastor to stop to help someone who was hurt, so did the Jewish audience expect the two men, because of their status as temple authorities, to stop. So the shock is that these two men passed by.  (Nor, contrary to one popular view do the priest and the Levite pass the injured man because of ritual purity concerns.) 

But then, of course, comes the shock that we have learned to embrace: a Samaritan stops by.  Not an ordinary Jewish person, who then becomes a hero. No. An enemy.  A creep.  An outcast. The last person you’d expect to help an injured Jewish person.  But the shock for Jesus’s listeners was double: according to the “rule of three,” the third man should have been Jewish, an ordinary Jewish person who would become a hero.  So, two shocks: NOT a Jewish person AND a Samaritan person.

Some of my colleagues were asking whom we would portray as the Samaritan if we were to cast this in a modern setting.  Here are some of their responses: 

  • a Muslim woman in a hijab who stops to help after a pastor and youth pastor “pass by on the other side.”
  • If you’re talking to a BLM or ANTIFA crowd, Trump.
  • a Cubs fan gets beat up, and a Bears fan and a Bulls fan pass by, but a Cardinals fan is the one who helps

But I have a better example—-from Texas—just this past week or so.

For the passers-by, let’s use Ted Cruz and a mayor from a small Texas town:

 One unsympathetic mayor took to Facebook to demand that “lazy” people get electricity and water on their own. Tim Boyd, the mayor of Colorado City, Texas, removed his post and resigned after writing that he was “sick and tired of people looking for a damn handout!”

For the hero, for the “Good Samaritan” of Texas, let’s use a furniture store owner: Houston furniture store owner Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale 

Anyone is welcome to use the beds and sofas in his showrooms, take in a movie or basketball game on his big screen televisions and sit down to a hot meal.

Mattress Mack is the perfect example in our time, not because he opened his doors, but because he has as many detractors as fans. I only know that because of Facebook comments.  In other words, he’s not perfect.  However, he is a nice contrast to the mayor of Colorado City and to Ted Cruz, who have been elected to not only represent people, but to provide for the people whom they represent. They have chosen to walk on by. 

Sometimes it’s helpful to see ourselves as one of the characters in a parable.  Who am I?  Who are you?  We have five parts to play.  The injured man, the priest, the temple worker, the Samaritan and the innkeeper.

OR am I the young lawyer, trying to obey the law and protect myself at the same time?

Dr. Arland Hultgren has written a book of commentaries on the Parables of Jesus.  The real heart of this parable is not what kind of story-telling device Jesus used, but about answering the question, “Who is my neighbor?” 

The earlier question was, “Who is my neighbor?  Here the question is, Which person proves to be neighbor?  If the issue is about love of neighbor, the question one should be asking is that of how one is to express that love, not to whom it should be expressed.  “One cannot define ones’ neighbor; one can only be a  neighbor.

Is Jesus saying that we cannot choose our neighbors? Is Jesus saying that the definition of “neighbor” is “everybody?”

The parable teaches that one cannot justify oneself by drawing distinctions between persons, deciding who is and who is not one’s neighbor, and using the law to do that.  The question for a disciple of Jesus is not, “Who is my neighbor?” but rather, am I neighbor to the person in need?”

Hultgren shows that how we define neighbor can be less than loving:

The one who asks, “Who is my neighbor?” thinks of others in the world as classified commodities. One can build fences to determine who is in the circle of those to be cared for, and who is not.  Then we and all others can “take care of our own,” thinking that our help should be directed to those we are related to by ties of family or friendship—things based on law, rights, bloodlines, culture, or tradition.

Have I built fences to keep out neighbors?  We certainly do that as communities. We have zoning laws, we have “homeowners associations,” we have gerrymandering—we have so many ways to include and exclude.  Are you wearing a mask? No? Go home. Do you have a passport? No?  Go home. You can argue for the necessity of these laws, but they all are based on excluding some, relegating some to non-neighbor status. Some are for the common good; some are for the privileged. 

Perhaps the Kingdom of God is too idealistic, too impossible, to ignorant of how people act. 

Jesus is trying to show us the life God has intended for us, a life of authentic love. We are not bound by laws when it comes to being a neighbor.  Our neighbor is simply the one who needs something. If we can supply that need, then we are obligated, not by law, but by love.  Amen.

They were Afraid to Ask Luke 9:28-45

28 About eight days later Jesus took Peter, John, and James with him and went up on a mountain to pray. 29 While he was praying, his face changed, and his clothes became shining white. 30 Suddenly Moses and Elijah were there speaking with him. 31 They appeared in heavenly glory and talked about all that Jesus’ death in Jerusalem would mean.

32 Peter and the other two disciples had been sound asleep. All at once they woke up and saw how glorious Jesus was. They also saw the two men who were with him.

33 Moses and Elijah were about to leave, when Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here! Let us make three shelters, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” But Peter did not know what he was talking about.

34 While Peter was still speaking, a shadow from a cloud passed over them, and they were frightened as the cloud covered them. 35 From the cloud a voice spoke, “This is my chosen Son. Listen to what he says!”

36 After the voice had spoken, Peter, John, and James saw only Jesus. For some time they kept quiet and did not say anything about what they had seen.

37 The next day Jesus and his three disciples came down from the mountain and were met by a large crowd. 38 Just then someone in the crowd shouted, “Teacher, please do something for my son! He is my only child! 39 A demon often attacks him and makes him scream. It shakes him until he foams at the mouth, and it won’t leave him until it has completely worn the boy out. 40 I begged your disciples to force out the demon, but they couldn’t do it.”

41 Jesus said to them, “You people are stubborn and don’t have any faith! How much longer must I be with you? Why do I have to put up with you?”

Then Jesus said to the man, “Bring your son to me.” 42 While the boy was being brought, the demon attacked him and made him shake all over. Jesus ordered the demon to stop. Then he healed the boy and gave him back to his father. 43 Everyone was amazed at God’s great power.

While everyone was still amazed at what Jesus was doing, he said to his disciples, 44 “Pay close attention to what I am telling you! The Son of Man will be handed over to his enemies.” 45 But the disciples did not know what he meant. The meaning was hidden from them. They could not understand it, and they were afraid to ask.

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One of my favorite forms of fiction, of novels, is a genre called “magical realism.”  The stories always seem believable— people eating, loving, working, making mistakes, getting in trouble, but at some point, something happens that seems, in the context of the novel, perfectly normal, but could never happen in real life.  It is normal for the characters in the story, but not for me or you. Magical realism is about different levels of reality working at the same time. The first example I ever read was a story in the sophomore literature book from which I was teaching.  I don’t remember the plot or the title of the story, but I do remember being sucked into the story and believing every word all the way to the end.  I had to pull myself back to the asbestos floor tiles and chalk board of Room 9 when the story ended.  After that, I sought out authors in that genre.  I mentioned one in last Sunday’s sermon, José de Sousa Saramago.  Other authors I enjoy include Isabel Allende and Laura Esquivel.

I mention this form of literature because today’s Bible story could be labeled as “magical realism.” None of us could ever hope to witness Jesus and Elijah and Moses—in real time—in real life—-standing around talking to each other, plain as day.  Yet Peter, John and James did witness this exclusive gathering. Something impossible really happened.  

Something else to notice about today’s reading is that there seem to be two very separate stories, one being the transfiguration and the other being the poor boy possessed by a demon.  Why did the organizers of the lectionary put these two stories next to each other? Why did Luke put them next to each other?  

My answer: they are connected because one informs the other.  Knowing about the transfiguration is meaningless if we focus on that scene alone.  

Raphael, an Italian painter of the High Renaissance. painted the Transfiguration. Like our text today, it portrays both stories. In the top are Jesus, Elijah, and Moses illumined beyond human understanding, with Peter,  James, and John looking on, unable to comprehend what their eyes are seeing. Below this scene of glory is a heartbreaking scene of the child, held up by his father, possessed by demons, surrounded by helpless people.  The men on the left are the disciples, who are not able to help the little boy. The connection between the two scenes is the little boy, whose face is turned upward toward Jesus and the prophets.The apostles are pointing and looking every which way, not able to help.

 Luke describes the scene this way: 

38 Just then someone in the crowd shouted, “Teacher, please do something for my son! He is my only child! 39 A demon often attacks him and makes him scream. It shakes him until he foams at the mouth, and it won’t leave him until it has completely worn the boy out. 40 I begged your disciples to force out the demon, but they couldn’t do it.”

Frederich Buechner writes about a woman he met who had a reputation as a successful faith healer.

The most vivid image she presented was of Jesus standing in church services all over Christendom with his hands tied behind his back and unable to do any mighty works there because the ministers who led the services either didn’t expect him to do them or didn’t dare ask him to do them for fear that he wouldn’t or couldn’t and that their own faith and the faith of their congregations would be threatened as the result.  

How many of my prayers are simply token requests that don’t expect results? How often do I pray because I’m supposed to pray?  How often to I really expect God to answer, to act on my prayers?

 This woman, Agnes Sanford by name, said:

You had to expect. You had to believe. Remember the parable of the Unjust Judge? The woman pestered the judge until he gave into her. It takes work, and practice and faith.   

Buechner explains that prayer without faith is pointless. According to this faith healer,    

Inside us all, there is a voice of doubt and disbelief which seeks to drown out our prayers even as we are praying them. 

Do I really believe that God can move mountains, cure COVID-19, bring unity among the nations of the world?  Is a prayer for world peace a joke? 

Look at these two stories—Jesus in all his glory and a little boy in all his misery.

What is the connection? The little boy is the connection, the reason, the mission, the purpose of the ministry Jesus has given to the disciples.  They have failed. They cannot cure the little boy?  Why not? 

41 Jesus said to them, “You people are stubborn and don’t have any faith! How much longer must I be with you? Why do I have to put up with you?”

Where do we fit in this story, in this work of art?  Are we illumined by the glory of God or do we avoid the light, staying in the shadows?

This story may seem so far removed from our expereince—being filled with light so bright it rivals anything Clorox could do to a load of laundry. Where do we fall in that picture?  Hiding in the shadows? Heck, no!  We, more than ever, are anxious for sunlight and being outside and being among people.  

Let me suggest that our church building is as close as we come to glory on a regular basis. But guess what! We’ve discovered we don’t even need the building! For now, it has to be our ZOOM time together.  What brings us close to glory? The Word, as it is expressed in singing and prayers and preaching. Jesus expected that same glory, that same power to manifest itself in the disciples, so that they could use the glory of God for good of the people of God who were suffering.   They could not stay on the mountaintop.  We cannot stay in our sanctuaries, real or makeshift.

One pastor wrote in response to this idea of going out into the world this rather depressing observation:

  How many times have we preached a sermon and as the congregants leave the sanctuary they shake your hand and say, ” what a wonderful message…great sermon,” only to head down to coffee hour and behave just as they always do? I can understand Jesus’ frustration especially after being on the Mountain top with Peter James and John witnessing his divine nature.

Why do we even need to worship?  You know how few people attend worship. Why is the mountaintop experience of worship necessary? 

David Lose, Luther Seminary professor puts it this way. 

Which is why the next scene and second half of this week’s passage is so important. Because the retreat to worship and the time to listen to the Word, be immersed in the cross, and be gathered in prayer leads inevitably to a return to the “everyday world” of human need where Jesus heals the sick and opposes the forces of evil. If worship is a retreat, in other words, it is not a retreat from the world but a retreat in order to come back to the world in love, mercy and grace.

If worship is our mountaintop experience, how do we hold that in our hearts and minds during the week.

If we cannot think and speak and act in the name of Jesus, how can we share in God’s glory? Can we rebuke the unclean spirits that frighten us? Can we bring light to the dark places of our suffering brothers and sisters in Christ? 

We are the ones who must be transfigured.  We must use the privilege of worship, of Bible study, of music to recharge our faith, to strengthen our belief that through God all things are possible. 

We can interpret Jesus’ time with Moses and Elijah as a time of transition, a time of facing the future.  Moses and Elijah represent the law and the prophets, the pillars of our  history, 

But let’s not skip over why Jesus is on the mountain: 

Jesus took Peter, John, and James with him and went up on a mountain to pray. 29 While he was praying, his face changed, and his clothes became shining white. 

Jesus is moving toward Jerusalem, toward his death.  For the second time in Luke’s gospel, he tells the disciples that he will die.

44 “Pay close attention to what I am telling you! The Son of Man will be handed over to his enemies.” 45 But the disciples did not know what he meant. The meaning was hidden from them. They could not understand it, and they were afraid to ask.

Jesus is facing his death. It will not be pretty. He will not pass away in his sleep.  He will not be lying in a comfortable bed with palliative drugs to ease his pain. He will endure all the pain of all the people of all time, the pain of sin. He will endure beyond anything imaginable—he will die and rise again, to live again, just as human as he was the day he was born. 

It would be easy to say, because Jesus did this for me, I owe Jesus, I must pay Jesus back by doing good deeds.  That is not how it works. This is a stumbling block for us: in our human weakness, we cannot accept a gift without either deserving it or giving something back in return.  Jesus loves us unconditionally.  He does not expect anything.  So what are we supposed to do?  Love.  We don’t love because we could or should or would. We love because Jesus has freed us from sin —->to love.

We don’t come down from the mountaintop and jump into the sad places to impress Jesus.  We jump into the hard places, we walk the scary paths, we enter the dark rooms because we love Jesus.  That love is given to us by the Holy Spirit—it’s like being given athletic ability or artistic ability—we are all given the ability to love.

They were afraid to ask.”  I’m using this phrase slightly out of context. The disciples were afraid to ask. Are we afraid to ask? Are we afraid to ask for healing? for world peace?Are we afraid to ask for change, for transfiguration?   Amen.  

Now What? Luke 6:1-16

6 One Sabbath when Jesus and his disciples were walking through some wheat fields, the disciples picked some wheat. They rubbed the husks off with their hands and started eating the grain.

2 Some Pharisees said, “Why are you picking grain on the Sabbath? You’re not supposed to do that!”

3 Jesus answered, “You surely have read what David did when he and his followers were hungry. 4 He went into the house of God and took the sacred loaves of bread that only priests were supposed to eat. He not only ate some himself, but even gave some to his followers.”

5 Jesus finished by saying, “The Son of Man is Lord over the Sabbath.”

6 On another Sabbath Jesus was teaching in a Jewish meeting place, and a man with a crippled right hand was there. 7 Some Pharisees and teachers of the Law of Moses kept watching Jesus to see if he would heal the man. They did this because they wanted to accuse Jesus of doing something wrong.

8 Jesus knew what they were thinking. So he told the man to stand up where everyone could see him. And the man stood up. 9 Then Jesus asked, “On the Sabbath should we do good deeds or evil deeds? Should we save someone’s life or destroy it?”

10 After he had looked around at everyone, he told the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He did, and his bad hand became completely well.

11 The teachers and the Pharisees were furious and started saying to each other, “What can we do about Jesus?”

12 About that time Jesus went off to a mountain to pray, and he spent the whole night there. 13 The next morning he called his disciples together and chose twelve of them to be his apostles. 14 One was Simon, and Jesus named him Peter. Another was Andrew, Peter’s brother. There were also James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, 15 Matthew, Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus. The rest of the apostles were Simon, known as the Eager One, 16 Jude, who was the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who later betrayed Jesus.

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Just when everybody thought they knew the rules, Jesus changed them. Well, he didn’t change them so much as challenge them. 

 Rules need to be challenged sometimes. “Whites only” is one rule that has been challenged.  Traffic camera laws have been challenged; I never understood that; I have played plenty of fines because I was going too fast; it wasn’t the camera’s fault: it was mine. 

Is it that breaking a rule is acceptable, but getting caught is not?  The Pharisees were trying to catch Jesus breaking a rule.  This was the best they could do on this particular day: catching his disciples “working” by helping themselves to a few grains of wheat.  

The funny part about this is that Jesus ramped it up, just for the fun of it, in my opinion. 

Jesus: Hold my beer. You think that’s bad? Watch this!  

And he restored a crippled hand to wholeness. Right in front of the teachers and the Pharisees!  On the Sabbath!

We have had some issues interpreting laws in our own time. Is it lawful to assemble in a place and yell?  Is it lawful to assemble in a place and break windows and doors? Is it lawful to assemble in a church or restaurant and breathe on each other during a pandemic?

We talked a few Sundays ago about “Disney Princess Theology”—always identifying with the good guy in the story.  But I could easily identify with the Pharisees in today’s story.  How often have I nitpicked my way around a rule to get my own way? How often have I pointed fingers at someone else screwing up when I’ve committed the same sin in a different place?  

Let me give you a great example.  Barring all common sense and suggestions and quasi-rules of the CDC (Center for Disease Control), I joined my friends at Murphy’s Pub last Wednesday. We all wore our masks from our cars to our table, but as soon as we ordered, we doffed our masks and drank and talked.  We pretended that we were socially distanced because only four of us sat at a table that was about two x five.  At one point, we noticed our waitress wasn’t wearing a mask.  So, I held up mine and asked, “Do you need a mask?” I tried not to sound snarky, but, well, …. She replied, with a big artificial smile on her face, “No.”  Well, we, who were after all major mask makers in Clinton County, nodded knowingly to each other. But here’s the thing.  We weren’t wearing masks either. We were drinking and eating and talking.  We were more danger to her than she was to us.  Nonetheless, I rode my high-and-mighty horse all the way home and texted the owner, Connor, who said that of course I can use his name in my sermon because he stands by his word.  Here is what he said: 

Hi Diane. I had a feeling you’d be reaching out… I heard your comment to my bartender Gabby when she delivered your food and assumed you weren’t happy with our policy. This isn’t a simple answer so here is my best response. Since March, we have had countless restrictions placed on our business (100% of them without our input). We have continuously been told how to operate our business and although we did not agree with much of it, we have followed every single mandate, including mask wearing from early November to the 1st of the year. During this time we learned 2 things:

1. We realized that mask wearing in restaurants is not always effective. Our staff were touching their faces far more than normal because they were continually adjusting their masks while trying to communicate with our customers, trying to take a breath while working many hours on their feet, etc.. After they touched their mask they would touch glasses, food, etc. Now that they aren’t wearing masks they are not touching mask and glass thus reducing transmission. We also don’t wear gloves because we know hand washing is far more effective (not to mention prices for gloves have gone up in cost nearly 500%, if we can even get them). Another thing we realized was that masks were sometimes more of a formality with our customers …Example: Patrons walking in and then sitting down and conversing with non-household members for any period of time without masks. We simply did not see the benefit. 

2. I believe it is every employee and customer’s right to decide what to do with their body. About half of my staff choose to wear masks and half choose not to, and I support all of their decisions. I follow this same policy with our customers, I completely understand everyone’s decision to wear a mask or not wear a mask. 

The great thing about this is that everyone has the right to make his or her own decisions. We currently have zero employees that are COVID positive and zero that are in quarantine or isolation. If an employee has ANY symptoms they are required to stay home and I feel this is far more effective then a mask mandate within our business. 

Rules challenged; hypocrites exposed.  Jesus exposed the Pharisees; Connor exposed us.  I told him we were hypocrites.  I told my friends, too.

The pandemic has created all kinds of rules, which in turn have been challenged. Part of this is because the rules are, as Connor pointed out, inconsistent and always changing. When we talk about “getting back to normal,” will we challenge any rules?

I think, too, about unwritten rules, especially in our context as a congregation. What unwritten rules have we challenged in the last year? We don’t meet for worship in the sanctuary. The pandemic has forced me to break rules: We haven’t celebrated Holy Communion for a few months.  I haven’t visited anyone or held office hours in several months. I broke a rule last week by accepting a funeral in our church; I forgot that we had made a rule declaring we would not host funerals in the sanctuary during the pandemic. Because we had ignored our “rule” about taking turns cleaning the church had more than a few dead bugs and  cobwebs as part of the decor. 

How do we know when to challenge a law? Jesus looked at the intent of the law.  The intent of “Honor the Sabbath” was, according to Luther’s Large Catechism,  “that they [the Jews] should abstain from toilsome work, and rest, so that both man and beast might recuperate, and not be weakened by unremitting labor.”

Plucking a few grains of wheat or healing someone could not be defined as “unremitting labor,” could it?  

Wall Street presented us with another example of interpreting the intent of the law.  I won’t try to explain, but my impression is that people with just a little bit of money to invest used the same rules as the people with lots of money use to invest and suddenly, something wasn’t “fair.” What is the intent of the law?

I’ve heard that the law always benefits those who write the law.  In the case of Wall Street, I’d say yes.  In the case of a law that just passed the Iowa Senate and is headed for the Iowa House this week, the law can be interpreted as benefitting 3% of the children in Iowa’s 34 poorest school districts or it can be interpreted as attacking public schools in favor of private schools. 

Look at the Ten Commandments.  The first two are about honoring God and the last eight are about promoting life, liberty and pursuit of happiness among all people. Jesus looked at the intent of the law and acted accordingly.   Did Jesus have an agenda that day? Was he out to get the Pharisees?  They were certainly out to get him. Jesus took advantage of a teachable moment.  Teachable moments are those occasions  that randomly occur in our daily lives, moments that give us an opportunity to be our best, whether it be in solving a problem or helping a person. We become a spur-of-the-moment-blessing to someone. The Pharisees saw a teachable moment: “Your disciples shouldn’t be harvesting grain on the Sabbath!!!!” and Jesus took that moment to teach the correct use of the law. The law is not meant to hinder, but to help.

So, again: what is the purpose of the law? What is the purpose of traffic laws? To protect us. What is the purpose of tax laws? To provide infrastructure for us.  

Jesus would have been a great lawyer, right? But we don’t need Jesus as a lawyer because we have Jesus as a Savior.  Jesus takes the place of our lawyer and wipes the record clean. We don’t have to argue before God about our choices. We don’t have to defend ourselves when we know we have no defense. Jesus has us covered. Sins forgiven. Love unending.  Thanks be to God and to our Savior, Jesus Christ! Amen.

Jesus Hooks Up with Some Fishermen Luke 5:1-11

Jesus was standing on the shore of Lake Gennesaret, teaching the people as they crowded around him to hear God’s message. Near the shore he saw two boats left there by some fishermen who had gone to wash their nets. Jesus got into the boat that belonged to Simon and asked him to row it out a little way from the shore. Then Jesus sat down in the boat to teach the crowd.

When Jesus had finished speaking, he told Simon, “Row the boat out into the deep water and let your nets down to catch some fish.”

“Master,” Simon answered, “we have worked hard all night long and have not caught a thing. But if you tell me to, I will let the nets down.” They did it and caught so many fish that their nets began ripping apart. Then they signaled for their partners in the other boat to come and help them. The men came, and together they filled the two boats so full that they both began to sink.

When Simon Peter saw this happen, he knelt down in front of Jesus and said, “Lord, don’t come near me! I am a sinner.” Peter and everyone with him were completely surprised at all the fish they had caught. 10 His partners James and John, the sons of Zebedee, were surprised too.

Jesus told Simon, “Don’t be afraid! From now on you will bring in people instead of fish.” 11 The men pulled their boats up on the shore. Then they left everything and went with Jesus.

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Then they left everything and went with Jesus.  

Just like that, they left everything.

They left after one of their most successful days ever—-two boats so full of fish they almost sank. They left behind a dependable business. They left behind their families, their homes, and followed Jesus.

They did not volunteer. They responded to Jesus invitation.

Why? What did Jesus say or do?

We know what Jesus said.  It’s recorded in Scripture. We know what Jesus did.  It’s recorded in Scripture.

Jesus was not just any preacher.  His words were fresh, inspiring, encouraging. Heal the sick.  Feed the hungry. Comfort the grieving. They were directed to everyday living, to everyday suffering. They addressed what laws and economic systems could not address.

In a world full of bad news, Jesus preached Good News. The Good News that Jesus preached was the coming of the Kingdom of God. Imagine how that fell on the ears of the listeners.  Some pictured a physical kingdom that would replace the Roman Empire. Some pictured a separate Jewish nation with a new monarch—possibly Jesus.  

How do we picture the Kingdom?  After all, we hear the exact good news that those crowds heard two thousand years ago.  What is the Kingdom? 

Some Christians believe that the Kingdom of God will begin on a specific date in the future. They believe Jesus will return in person and overthrow all earthly rulers.  They see the Kingdom of God as a time when the whole world will be freed from evil, sinners will be banished and only good people will remain. (Good luck separating the sinners from the non-sinners.)

In our traditions we believe that the Kingdom arrived in the person of Jesus, the baby in the manger, the boy in the temple, the preacher on the hillside.

The Kingdom became real when Jesus came to earth to bring salvation for all people.

Martin Luther struggled with this idea of the Kingdom.  

In the vernacular, the word denotes rulers, borders, bureaucracy. But Jesus’s Kingdom has no rulers but God, no borders, no bureaucracy. 

Luther came up with a way to talk about both kingdoms. In his theology, he says there are two kingdoms.  One is the spiritual kingdom which is in inhabited by people who are filled with the Hoy Spirit; it is ruled by love, and its inhabitants act out of love. The other kingdom is the secular kingdom in which all people live; it is ruled by laws that seek to keep the peace; people have to do something before they are accepted.

We live in both Kingdoms. We are ruled by the earthly kingdom, in our case, but the rules of our government.  And, we live in the Kingdom of God, where we are ruled by love. 

This brings me to another concept that is misunderstood by Christians.

We don’t make God love us. We don’t lead righteous lives so that God will love us.

We’ve talked about repentance the last couple Sundays. Do not think that God is waiting for you to repent before God will love you.  God is the first great lover of all creation. God loved before any molecule was ever created. We were created out of love because God wanted someone to love.  Love is not a response to repentance. Repentance is a response to love.

Richard Rohr explains this clearly: 

“Most of us were taught that God would love us if and when we change. In fact, God loves you so that you can change. What empowers change, what makes you desirous of change is the experience of love. It is that inherent experience of love that becomes the engine of change.”

We can use this story of Jesus and the fisherman as an allegory.   Rev. Cathy M. Kolwey explains it this way: 

This story lays out in a very clear way how grace works in our lives (at least how we Protestants believe it to be).  Jesus reveals his abundance through a huge catch of fish, even with Simon’s doubts that it was possible. In the face of that catch. Simon feels he is unworthy and repents, and as Jesus responds, the new disciples leave everything and follow him. This is the pattern for which we understand grace: God’s abundance comes first, and discipleship is the joyful act of service that flows from God’s love.

Jesus reveals his abundance, his loving engagement with the fisherman and they respond. He does not help them because they are paying attention to him.  In fact, they are busy working when he approaches them. 

 Why did Jesus choose Peter and Andrew and Jams and John? Think about it: Jesus had dozens, if not hundreds, of people following him around town. I imagine many of them were day laborers, that is people who hung out in marketplace waiting for someone to hire them for the day.  If work was not available, listening to Jesus was a great way to pass the time. Why didn’t he choose people who had some spare time? 

Why did Jesus preach in the ordinary hangouts of the people? Why not in the temple, in the synagogue?

Well, what if I preached in our sanctuary every Tuesday morning?  Who would join me?  You know that I like to keep office hours—but not in the church building. You know that Heinee Jo’s and the American Legion are my “offices”—when there is no pandemic.  Ministry is impossible without people. There are no people in my office on any day of the week. There are always people in Heinee Jo’s and the Legion. A bar stool is a great place to sit, elbow to elbow, next to people, not separated by a desk. My greatest impatience with this pandemic is the loss of my office hours.  Jesus is my example. There is a huge difference in the way we do ministry. I do not preach.  I do not tell stories. I do not offer advice.  I do not spout wisdom.  

I listen.  

We moan and groan about the empty pews, but in fact, we don’t need pews to follow Jesus, to be, as Martin Luther put it, “little Christs.” Luther had a great respect for vocation, that is the work we do in the secular world. He believed we could live as Christians wherever we were, at a job we hated or loved, in prison, on the town council, even sitting in a rocking chair in quarantine. 

 Peter and Andrew and James and John left their vocation of fishermen and traveled full-time with Jesus. Eventually, they all became preachers themselves, to the ends of their lives. 

Perhaps we Christians have made too big of a deal of our buildings.  Walls divide. They keep people in; they keep people out.  We spend a good deal on maintaining a building that is empty of people most of the time. We have not met in our sanctuaries for several months now.  The electricity bill for Hope Lutheran for the month of December was $500. No one was warmed. No one was fed. No one was taught.  Is that good stewardship?  Our buildings do much good; most importantly, they give us a place to gather in worship.  We need to worship, not because God needs our worship, but because we need to remember who loves us. Worship is one response to that great love. 

A question pastors are asking each other these days is: What will worship look like after the pandemic? We have learned that we can worship outside our sanctuary, that we can gather in new ways.  We have also learned that people need to be together physically.  How will we address that need? Will it be enough to unlock the door on Sunday morning.  

In the meantime, we are not prevented in any way, shape or form, from following Jesus.  God has not changed. Jesus loves us, comes to us where we are, whether it be fishing or working or dozing in the LazyBoy. We respond with loving thoughts, with loving words, with loving deeds.   Amen.

Interesting article about fishing in the Sea of Galilee: 

 Richard Rohr, OFM, is an American author, spiritual writer, and Franciscan friar based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He was ordained to the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church in 1970. PBS has called him “one of the most popular spirituality authors and speakers in the world.”

 https://revgalblogpals.org/2021/01/18/narrative-lectionary-luke-5-1-11/Rev. Cathy M. Kolwey is a write, artist, and pastor who works in the SW suburbs of the Twin Cities in Minnesota.

https://www.loyolapress.com/catholic-resources/prayer/arts-and-faith/culinary-arts/biblical-fishing-101-reeling-in-the-first-fishers-of-faith/?fbclid=IwAR3YaEl7OICseEVsBerVBOlFnFzpzAaDblQUaqZLB31dTm0KmgdHbuNf6cw

Central Casting or How to Get Kicked Out of Church or How to Get Killed

14 Jesus returned to Galilee with the power of the Spirit. News about him spread everywhere. 15 He taught in the Jewish meeting places, and everyone praised him.

16 Jesus went back to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and as usual he went to the meeting place on the Sabbath. When he stood up to read from the Scriptures, 17 he was given the book of Isaiah the prophet. He opened it and read,

18 “The Lord’s Spirit has come to me, because he has chosen me to tell the good news to the poor.
The Lord has sent me to announce freedom for prisoners, to give sight to the blind, to free everyone who suffers, 19  and to say, ‘This is the year the Lord has chosen.’”

20 Jesus closed the book, then handed it back to the man in charge and sat down. Everyone in the meeting place looked straight at Jesus.

21 Then Jesus said to them, “What you have just heard me read has come true today.”

22 All the people started talking about Jesus and were amazed at the wonderful things he said. They kept on asking, “Isn’t he Joseph’s son?”

23 Jesus answered:

You will certainly want to tell me this saying, “Doctor, first make yourself well.” You will tell me to do the same things here in my own hometown that you heard I did in Capernaum. 24 But you can be sure that no prophets are liked by the people of their own hometown.

25 Once during the time of Elijah there was no rain for three and a half years, and people everywhere were starving. There were many widows in Israel, 26 but Elijah was sent only to a widow in the town of Zarephath near the city of Sidon. 27 During the time of the prophet Elisha, many men in Israel had leprosy. But no one was healed, except Naaman who lived in Syria.

28 When the people in the meeting place heard Jesus say this, they became so angry 29 that they got up and threw him out of town. They dragged him to the edge of the cliff on which the town was built, because they wanted to throw him down from there. 30 But Jesus slipped through the crowd and got away.

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Have you ever heard the term “central casting?”  I’ve heard it used in movies or television shows.  I knew it meant that an actor was needed and that “central casting” provided actors ready to act.  But I didn’t know that it is an actual company that was established in 1925, during the Roaring Twenties.  It’s  purpose was to provide organized, safe employment for the thousands of people who wanted to be in the movies. These actors were categorized as “extras;” they played the minor parts in movies, like part of a crowd or a waitress or  anyone who didn’t have much of a speaking role.  They were anonymous in many ways.  

The reason I bring this up is that when I read today’s story about Jesus and his unfortunate experience in his own hometown synagogue, I wondered where I would be cast, if I had really been there.

What made me wonder in the first place was an article I read that claimed that we white Christians usually see ourselves in the role of Jesus, while brown-skinned people see themselves as the slaves in Egypt, the man rescued by the good Samaritan, by any of the people who are marginalized or abused in the stories of Scripture. Here is a quote from the article by Pastor Erna Kim Hackett 

[…], white Christianity suffers from a bad case of Disney Princess theology. As each individual reads Scripture, they see themselves as the princess in every story. They are Esther, never Xerxes or Haman. They are Peter, but never Judas. They are the woman anointing Jesus, never the Pharisees. They are the Jews escaping slavery, never Egypt. For the citizens of the most powerful country in the world, who enslaved both Native and Black people, to see itself as Israel and not Egypt when it is studying Scripture, is a perfect example of Disney princess theology. And it means that as people in power, they have no lens for locating themselves rightly in Scripture or society- and it has made them blind and utterly ill equipped to engage issues of power and injustice. It is some very weak Bible work.

The Disney princess reference is to Disney movies like Cinderella or The Little Mermaid. We’re supposed to identify with  Cinderella, not the evil stepsisters. We’re supposed to think of our selves as Ariel, not Ursala, the mean witch. Likewise, we think of ourselves as “the good guys” in the Bible, not Judas or a Pharisee.  

I find that fascinating and troubling.

Tell me a story about Jesus and I put myself in the role of someone who heals, someone who brings good news.  I don’t see myself as the bleeding woman or the father of the dying little girl.  I see myself as the savior, the hero on the white horse.  So, this odd line of questioning brought me to read today’s lesson from a different perspective.

If Central Casting said, “Dianne, we have a part for you,”  as whom would I be cast? Would I be one of the old men who knew scripture inside and out?  Would I be a member of Jesus’s family? (In Mark’s version, his family is present.)  Would I be a woman sitting in the separate part of the synagogue wishing Jesus would just stop talking so I could get home and finish preparing the meal?  Would I be one of the women whispering to my friend,“Isn’t he Joseph’s son? Who does he think he is?”  

Or.  Would I be one of those who helped to drag him to the cliff?

We do not like to hear words that change anything about our hard-earned contentment.  We all have embedded ideologies, foundational beliefs that are has as hard to change as the law of gravity. 

We live in a time of civil unrest.  We didn’t sign up for that.  The invasion of the Capitol didn’t just happen. People made choices based on the circumstances dealt to them. One of the circumstances dealt to them was to grow up in a country which first flourished under an economic system that needed slavery to succeed.  You know enough about slavery to know you wouldn’t like to be owned by someone and treated like a mule.   In 1929, almost 100 years ago, a descendant of one of those slaves was born. He made choices, not to become a prophet, but to help people.  Simple. He wanted to help people.  He did not live to be 100.  No picture on a Smucker’s jam jar for him.  He did not live long enough to retire, he did not live long enough to see his children graduate from college, he did not live long enough to hold his grandchildren in his lap. But he lived long enough to tell us what was wrong and what to do. That’s what prophets do, from Jonah to Jeremiah to Malachi to John the Baptist. Tell people what they are doing wrong and tell them how do what is right.  

Martin Luther King, Jr., like Jesus, stood up and spoke the truth. Jesus avoided getting thrown off a cliff, but eventually he disturbed enough people that he was murdered.  We like to say crucified because it sounds “special.” In Jesus’ time it was not special. People were crucified by the hundreds.  King disturbed enough people that he was murdered with a well-aimed bullet. It was not a special bullet.

What do we do with prophets, once we’ve disposed of them?  We apologize.  We apologize by making jewelry in the image of crosses. We paint their portraits. We celebrate their birthdays and write books about them and study them like insects under a sociological microscope.

In the meantime, more prophets rise up and repeat the same old litany;

18  “The Lord’s Spirit has come to me, because he has chosen me to tell the good news to the poor.  

Over and over.

The Lord has sent me to announce freedom for prisoners, to give sight to the blind, to free everyone who suffers, 19  and to say, ‘This is the year the Lord has chosen.’”

Over and over.

Have you ever read anything written by Dr. King? People of a certain age discovered the writings of King in their literature books.  When I taught literature, we read the “I Have a Dream” speech. King was a talented writer as well as a Biblical scholar.  That speech is a work of art.  But for this sermon, I read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”  The greeting of the letter is shocking: he is writing to clergy: “My Dear Fellow Clergymen.” My Dear Fellow Pastors…Ministers…Priests…Deacons…Rabbis. Not to the city council. Not to the business community.

Prophets don’t get to chose their audiences. God does that part. 

The pastors in Birmingham wanted King to be patient, to schedule protests at a time convenient for them.  King called the protests “direct action campaigns” because that was what they were.  King replied: 

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

The world was not ready for Jesus, either.  He was a threat not only to the authorities, but to his own friends and family. Isn’t it odd that we Christians now claim loyalty to this renegade, to this radical who tried to upset the status quo?  Isn’t it odd that his Name was brandished in the halls of the United States Capitol along with guns and Nazi flags? Isn’t it odd that we pray to the same Jesus all week long as the Christians who call us snowflakes? Isn’t it odd that Christians are often against each other instead of united under the Christian constitution? The Christian constitution is pretty short, pretty easy to understand, and because of those qualities, pretty easy to ignore. This is my interpretation, not one I found in my textbooks. The Christian constitution is one you’ve heard many times. You can recite it by heart:  Love God. Love your neighbor. 

On what do we disagree?  Let me suggest that to love God is to be loyal to God. Because of evil in the world, we are tempted by other loyalties: loyalty to systems, to people, to our own greed.  To love our neighbor is to “put the best possible construction on all that he does (Martin Luther, Small Catechism, Eighth Commandment). Because of evil in the world, we are afraid of our neighbor, we criticize our neighbor, we vilify our neighbor.  Let me be clear here. I am afraid of my neighbor. I criticize my neighbor. I vilify my neighbor. When I say “we,” I invite us to hide in the crowd, as if being a part of the crowd will water down my sin.  It does not.

Last Sunday we encouraged each other to repent by studying the words of John the Baptist. Repentance is not apology.  Repentance is not confess and forget. To repent is to change.

Wouldn’t it be nice if God were a big Central Casting company and put us in the places that best suited us?  Sometimes we end up in comfortable places, but more often we are forced to adjust to circumstances that “just happen.” How did I end up in this house with this person?  How did I end up in this job with this boss?  How did I end up in this hospital with this disease?

Here’s how: God created us with free will and the ability to make our own decisions.

Lent is coming up fast. Traditionally it is a time of repentance. The token action is to give up something for Lent.  My husband always gives up watermelon. How many of us repent by giving up watermelon? How many of us repent and do a U-turn?  To repent means to change.  Our country is changing. Is the purpose to turn around and create that fantasy of justice for all? Or is the purpose to maintain privilege and wealth and safety and happiness for a minority? Is the purpose to defend the evil as well as the good? “There were good people on both sides.”

None of us has been elected to office to deal with these changes. None of us is going to introduce a bill to the legislature to repent. So why all the fuss?

Because God broke the law of death, not because God hated evil, but because God loves us.  

Because we are each created in the image of God,

because we are saved by Jesus death and resurrection, and 

because we are each gifted through the Spirit with the unshakable, invincible power of love.  

Amen.

https://www.liberatedtogether.com/blog/2017/08/23/why-i-stopped-talking-about-racial-reconciliation-and-started-talking-about-white-supremacy

https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html

What then should we do? Luke 3:1-22

Luke 3:1-22 New Revised Standard Version

3 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, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 

3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4 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.

5 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; 6  and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

7 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? 8 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. 9 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.”

10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 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.”

15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 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. 17 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.”

18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. 19 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, 20 added to them all by shutting up John in prison.

21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 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.”

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Today’s text offer’s much to explore.  We could start by asking why Luke lists all the rulers of the time.  Or we could examine the connection between John and the passage from Isaiah that Luke uses to introduce him.  

We could wonder about the makeup of John’s disciples, we could wonder about the relationship between John and Jesus, we could look at marriage laws in first century Judaism, we could examine personalities of leaders, we could even try to imagine who saw or heard what when Jesus was baptized.

And after this week in American history, I could draw all sorts of parallels between the first century Roman Empire and the twenty-first century American Empire.  

One sentence, one question stood out to me.  After a very unwelcoming tirade from John, instead of telling each other that John was nuts, instead the people stuck with John and asked him, “What then should we do?”  

They listened to him long enough and carefully enough and bravely enough that they wanted to know more.  

Listen to John’s accusations against them.  “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Don’t think that just because your pedigree extends all the way back to Abraham that you’re anything special. 

Why did they listen to this man, who according to Matthew “wore clothes made of camel’s hair. He had a leather strap around his waist and ate grasshoppers and wild honey.” 

Perhaps they heard the familiar scripture from Isaiah: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.

5 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; 6  and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” 

These were familiar words of hope—-the promise of a Messiah. If anything united the Jewish community, it was the hope of a Messiah, a Liberator, a leader to lead them out of submission and toward independence from the Roman Empire.  

Perhaps they listened because they felt helpless and leaderless and wanted someone to tell them what to do. 

We saw crowds of people on television on Wednesday who had felt helpless and leaderless for a long time and wanted someone to tell them what to do.  They found a leader, who was happy to tell them what to do. 

Human beings are complicated. We want to have our own way, we want to do what we think makes us happy, what helps us feel secure, but when we run up against our own limitations, we want someone else to be in charge, to take responsibility, to make the hard decisions.  Sometimes that leader can protect us.  Sometimes that leader can inspire us.

John inspired people. But interestingly, he didn’t inspire them to turn on their captors.  He didn’t inspire them to stampede the Roman senate or the Temple.  He inspired them to look inside themselves. He ignored all earthly structures and institutions and systems and gave them one task: repent.  Not rebel.  Not riot.  No reform.  One task: repent.

Repent is an act that is more than an apology. If you put a dime in the collection plate for every time you said, “I’m sorry,” we would never have to worry about the condition of our church building.  We’d be giving money away to the local food pantry, establishing scholarships for our grandchildren…

But to repent, to turn around, to permanently quit doing all the things we have to later apologize for, to completely change our behavior, to break ingrained habits…that is hard work.  

A classmate—we were classmates from fourth grade through high school- -called me out this week “You wrote a nice article for the Register about the need for civility and yet all of your posts are farrrrr left writers that  have no respect for other opinions.”  

He has called me to repent. What must I do to repent? What must I change about the way I think, about the way I talk and write?  Do I stop posting my opinions?  Do I post opinions with which I disagree?  How do I repent when I think I’m right?

Isn’t that the challenge for all of us? I’m not doing anything wrong. Therefore, why should I repent?

But my political transgressions are not my only transgressions.  Have you ever heard the saying, “I don’t repeat gossip, so listen close the first time?” 

As your pastor, be assured that I don’t repeat what you tell me, what I hear among us, what I see.  (Although I do brag about you from time to time.)

But the local, “harmless” gossip, who’s buying what property, who is coaching what sport, who is moving to the nursing home, who is dating whom…here’s the thing.  Local gossip is like the game of telephone we played as kids…it starts out as a fact and ends up a falsehood.  One time I suggested to some friends that an Italian restaurant should open a branch in DeWitt.  A month later I was at a city meeting of about fifty people and it was stated as fact that Lunardi’s was opening up a restaurant in DeWitt.  I stood up and took credit for my gossip because I thought it was funny.  But what if the gossip is about people and destroys a relationship?   

John’s advice is not so petty; it is not funny.  It is radical.  It is not only “stop doing this!”  It is “start doing this!” “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”

In our bloated materialistic lifestyle, what would this look like? Would it look like a $600 check or a $2000 check or a $10,000 check?  Would it look like people sitting in their cars waiting for one box of food to get their family through a week of meals or a community meal offered five days a week?  Would it look like rusted cars with loud mufflers in hospital parking lots or would it look like public transportation for rural areas ?  Would it look like families sleeping in cars or teenagers bouncing from friend to friend for a safe place to sleep? Or would it look like well-built homes that fit the family income? Would it look like each parent carrying two jobs or would it look like the good ol’ days with one parent working at one job to support the whole family?

Maybe it would simply look like not judging how someone spends their money, how someone dresses, how someone looks, what someone drives, where someone works, what someone does in their spare time.

Here’s the thing: it’s hard for me to watch someone parade around with a Confederate flag.  It’s hard for me to watch someone desecrate a building that many consider sacred.  It’s hard for me to listen to someone call names as a way of controlling someone. It’s hard for someone else to hear about debt forgiveness or Medicare for all.  It’s hard for someone else to believe that after being taught for their whole lives that some people are less intelligent, less ethical, less talented, to suddenly be asked to believe these same people are not dumb, evil, lazy, without every seeing any evidence, without ever sharing community with them. It is hard to discern where patriotism becomes idolatry.  It is hard to discern who can be trusted and who is lying. 

Why should I repent when I see so many who surely need to repent, who need to change their ways? 

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s perceptive remark about human nature suggests a truer and more difficult answer: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

Let me be blunt. The division in our country is not about Republican or Democrat, red or blue.  The division is not about rich versus poor.  The division is about fear versus trust. I know that we as a congregation are united in our love for Jesus, but are there other ways in which we are divided?

James Shenko, a pastor in rural Tennessee, sees the injustices of this lack of trust everyday.  He says,  “In the United States, our government was designed with checks and balances because of the sure knowledge of human corruptibility. It is this understanding of human sinfulness which the Church must reclaim at this time.”

In other words, our government can do no more. This past week, we saw what looked like the collapse of law and order. I can tell you with authority, that this same lack of respect for law and order came close to happening in our own back yard. Wiser heads or maybe just more fearful heads prevailed. 

If you watched television news on Epiphany, January 6, 2021, you may have been thrilled or appalled or terrified. But we weren’t there.  We couldn’t do anything. Many people felt helpless that day. So, the question remains, “What then should we do?”

We are Christians, baptized in the name of God, Jesus, and Holy Spirit. That baptism is permanent, by the way. You can’t wash it off.   Your sins are washed away through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  You are in a relationship with Jesus Christ.  Like any relationship, there are expectations and obligations.

As citizens of the United States, we are expected to obey laws, to defend the Constitution, to respect our leaders. 

But we have a higher calling, a greater obligation. Our “constitution” is simple, but challenging.  Two sentences: Love God. Love your neighbor.  If you need details, read the Ten Commandments in Luther’s Small Catechism. Let me give you one example: 

The Eighth Commandment You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

What does this mean?

We should fear and love God, so that we do not lie about, betray or slander our neighbor, but excuse him, speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.

Excuse the person who screws up. Speak well of the person who disagrees with you.  Assume the best of your neighbor, even when you think she could have done better.  

In the meantime, when we forget, when we get carried up in the rhetoric of louder voices, when we are afraid to look like a goody-goody,  we need repent, we need to try again.

John warns that “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.”

Repentance, if it worked perfectly, would be a one-time thing.  But we are not perfect. We repent, we try to change, we try to remember Whose we are. But we forget. Regardless, we can “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.”  We can think good of, speak well of our neighbor. We can open our eyes and see where we can share what we have—not just the expired cans of beets in the back of the cupboard, but half the cupboard.  And what we can’t do, well, let us find leaders who can do what we would do if we were powerful, if there were no evil in the world.  

Repentance is hard, so we will continue to pray, “forgive us, as we forgive those who sin against us.” Forgive us our sins that we don’t even recognize as we forgive those whose sins really shock us.  Forgive us our sins that we brush off as we forgive those whose sins are the result of their own right to act.  Forgive us our sins that we commit out of fear as we forgive those whose sins are committed out of a similar fear.  

“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.” We will not be thrown into the fire. But the ax is still very real. And I fear it. Let me first repent being fearful and change to trusting in the very real presence of my God who created me in God’s image; let me trust in the very real presence of my Savior, who lived like me, died like I will and rose again, like I will; and in the Holy Spirit, who is, always and forever, my strength and my comfort.  Amen. 

Jesus Knows Who He Is. Do You? Luke 2:41-52

41 Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for Passover. 

42 And when Jesus was twelve years old, they all went there as usual for the celebration. 

43 After Passover his parents left, but they did not know that Jesus had stayed on in the city.  44 They thought he was traveling with some other people, and they went a whole day before they started looking for him.  45 When they could not find him with their relatives and friends, they went back to Jerusalem and started looking for him there.

46 Three days later they found Jesus sitting in the temple, listening to the teachers and asking them questions. 

47 Everyone who heard him was surprised at how much he knew and at the answers he gave.

48 When his parents found him, they were amazed. His mother said, “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been very worried, and we have been searching for you!”

49 Jesus answered, “Why did you have to look for me? Didn’t you know that I would be in my Father’s house?” 50 But they did not understand what he meant.

51 Jesus went back to Nazareth with his parents and obeyed them. His mother kept on thinking about all that had happened.

52 Jesus became wise, and he grew strong. God was pleased with him and so were the people.

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Jesus knows who he is.  Does Mary?  Do we? 

Biblical scholars sometimes ask, “When did Jesus know that he was God?” When did Jesus realize he was different from the other children, different from his brothers and sisters?

Obviously, by the time he was twelve, he had found his niche within the Jewish religious community. Today’s text shows Jesus in the place most revered by Jewish men: in the temple, talking about God, discussing Scripture.

In the musical, Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye fantasizes about being a rich man.

I’d build a big tall house with rooms by the dozen…

I’d fill my yard with chicks and turkeys and geese and ducks…

I’d see my wife, my Golde, looking like a rich man’s wife With a proper double-chin. Supervising meals to her heart’s delight.

Then, he realizes that if he didn’t have to work, he could spend his days in the synagogue praying.

If I were rich, I’d have the time that I lack

To sit in the synagogue and pray.

And maybe have a seat by the Eastern wall.

And I’d discuss the holy books with the learned men, several hours every day.

That would be the sweetest thing of all.

That would be the sweetest thing of all.

How many of us have said, if I were rich, I would…..

Jesus was not rich, Mary and Joseph were not rich, but Jesus had found the sweetest thing of all: discussing the holy books with the learned men. He was, as he told his parents, in the most natural spot for a prepubescent Jewish boy.

How many times have we heard during this year that Mary “pondered these things in her heart,” as the Revised Standard version of the Bible puts it. 

Other translations put it this way:

But Mary treasured all these things, giving careful thought to them and pondering them in her heart. Amplified Bible

Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully. Contemporary English Bible

But Mary kept thinking about all this and wondering what it meant. Contemporary English Version

Jesus gave Mary much to think about.  How many people have said of your mother that she thought about you all the time? We take it for granted.  The gospel writers did not take that behavior for granted.  The writers of the gospels mention Mary, not washing clothes or cooking food, but thinking. Pondering. Contemplating. Meditating. Why?  

From today’s text: 

51 Jesus went back to Nazareth with his parents and obeyed them. His mother kept on thinking about all that had happened.

Mary knew before anybody, of course, that Jesus was extraordinary, one-of-a-kind.  In fact, Mary knew exactly who Jesus was the moment he was conceived.  Gabriel told her Luke 1:32He will be great and will be called the Son of God Most High. The Lord God will make him king, as his ancestor David was. 33He will rule the people of Israel forever, and his kingdom will never end.”

Because Jesus is God, Jesus would have also known from the beginning.  John tells us : 

1 In the beginning was the one who is called the Word. The Word was with God and was truly God. 2  From the very beginning the Word was with God.

Who is this Word?  It is Jesus, who was first revealed to God’s people through words.  It was the words of Promise that sustained the Jewish nation, that kept them united even when they had no land, no king.  

Words, thoughts, thinking.  So valued by our ancestors in the faith.  I wonder if we value thinking.  Thinking gives the impression of doing nothing, because the body does not move. In our culture, actions is valued.  What twelve year boy or girl would choose sitting and thinking over throwing a ball? How often is a child who sits and stares out the window mocked for being a daydreamer?  

Much of our culture demands that we act, that we produce, that we keep busy.  What does a busy mind look like?  

Jesus’s thoughts were not of how to make a buck.  Jesus’s thoughts were not about how to be the best athlete, the best carpenter, the best fisherman.  Jesus’s thoughts were not about being the best anything.  

And Mary’s thoughts: what were they, day after day, as she watched her son grow.  Gabriel hold told her He would be a king, a ruler.  Was she looking for a crowd of soldiers to ride in some day and ask Him to lead them into battle against the Romans?  Was she wondering where they would get the money to clothe him like a king?  And what were her thoughts after her Son’s death? Was she crushed?  Did she feel betrayed when Gabriel’s words did not come true?  

How often do you get to think?  How often are you sitting in your chair or walking through the yard with nothing in  your hands, with no television or iPhone?  With no tools. When do you let your mind wander without prompts from your children or your spouse or your job?  How often have you caught yourself “doing nothing” and chastised yourself for not getting work done?

When is your mind free to contemplate Creation? When is your mind free to think about your faith?  We have been taught to pray…that is one way to mediate.  And prayer is vital to our relationship with God.  

However, I wonder if we spent more time just thinking—not planning, not deciding, not worrying—if we would somehow find peace or joy.  I often close my emails with the words, “May you be surprised by blessings today.”  Sometimes we don’t see our blessings. They’re always there, but we don’t notice them.  

Ponder these things in your heart.  What things?  The things you know about Jesus, just as Mary did.  His birth. His being recognized by Anna and Simeon.  His love of Scripture. His obedience to his parents.  His teachings.  His death and resurrection.  Ponder your questions about Jesus, about faith, about religion.  Don’t demand answers.  Don’t set goals or have expectations.  Just think about Jesus.  About God. About the Holy Spirit. About you and Jesus, you and God, you and the Spirit.  

May these thoughts draw you closer to God, closer to your true self.

Jesus knew who He was. Mary knew who He was.  You do, too. Think about it.  Amen.

Living in the Prophecy Luke 2:21-38

Jesus Is Named

After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

Jesus Is Presented in the Temple

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 

‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,

   according to your word; 

for my eyes have seen your salvation, 

   which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 

a light for revelation to the Gentiles

   and for glory to your people Israel.’

And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

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The connection between prophecy and Jesus’s birth is undeniable.

There would be no Part 1 of Handel’s Messiah if it weren’t for prophecies.  Handel’s libretto (the words to the solos and choruses) was taken directly from the Bible.

Isaiah 40 King James Version

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.

2 Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

3 The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

4 Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain:

5 And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.

9 O Zion, that bringest good tidings, get thee up into the high mountain; O Jerusalem, that bringest good tidings, lift up thy voice with strength; lift it up, be not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah, Behold your God!

11 He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.

Malachi 3:1-3   King James Version

2 But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? for he is like a refiner’s fire, and like fullers’ soap:

3 And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness.

Isaiah 7:14  King James Version

14 Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

Isaiah 60:1  King James Version

60 Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.

Isaiah 9 King James Version

2 The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.

 6 For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.

These prophecies were a major part of every Jewish person’s embedded knowledge. Can you think of any prophecies that you’ve clung to in your lifetime?  I can think of one: Jesus is coming again.  But are there any prophecies you’ve heard over and over and over that predicted what your country or your government or your leaders would become? 

We grow up hearing predictions of course. From our parents: “You clean up your room or I’m going to throw everything out.”  “That neighbor kid is going to end up in jail one of these days.” From economists and political pundits we here predictions of doom and gloom and good times for all.   

But those predictions change with the times.  The prophecies of the Hebrew Bible never changed, even as they became more and more impossible to fulfill.  

Those prophecies from Isaiah and Malachi promised a great deal.  

4 Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain:

Miraculously, when they did not come true, generation after generation, they were neither discarded nor forgotten. They were remembered up to the day that Anna and Simeon met the Prophecy in person, when the manifestation of that Prophecy was only forty days old.  Jewish practice required the parents to come to the temple for the rite of purification forty days after the brith of a child. At the same time, if this were a first-born child, the child was dedicated to God, in the temple, on the site chosen by the son of King David. On this auspicious day at the dawn of the first century, the true heir to the throne of David was brought to the temple by his parents.

Waiting for him were two ancient people, ancient in age and ancient in faith.  They were not waiting for the “new normal.” They were waiting for a savior, a leader, a rescuer.  And they were waiting for their own deaths.  They believed that they would not die until they had met this Savior.

Simeon sings this song of praise:

‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,

   according to your word; 

for my eyes have seen your salvation, 

   which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 

a light for revelation to the Gentiles

   and for glory to your people Israel.’

We recite this song at our own funerals. How different its meaning for us—and yet how similar.  Salvation for all people.  A light for revelation to the Gentiles.   How did Simeon know that??!?!?!

We have not been hanging out in our sanctuary waiting for something to happen.  We know it HAS happened. We know that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah—the Messiah that has prepared a place for us in the presence of the Triune God. We can live every moment of our lives knowing that the long-expected Messiah has come to us—not just to Joseph and Mary and the shepherds but also to US!

So, the prophecy has endured over the centuries, no longer a prophecy but daily Good News.  Not a prediction, not a wish, not an empty piece of folklore, but as the reality of Jesus Christ, who not only was born, but who lived like us, felt like us, even suffered like us.  What an amazing conclusion to a prophecy!  Except—-there is no conclusion, no end to this prophecy.  We know that we are a part of that prophecy, that we live in the reality of that prophecy.

I wonder about Anna and Simeon, about how that sacred knowledge informed their daily lives.  What did people think of them? Why was Anna considered a prophet?  

In our culture, unlike many, the older you get, the more your reputation diminishes. Your kids start to treat you like you’re missing a few lights in the chandelier and try to boss you around. When you’re introduced into a new group, a new situation, you have to work twice as hard to prove to the younger members that you have much to contribute. You gain a few pounds and lose a few hairs and suddenly you don’t look like the ads on tv. It’s easy to age gracefully; it’s hard to age with integrity. Anna and Simeon lived in a time when age was synonymous with wisdom. We live in a time when aging is synonymous with getting out of the way of “progress.” But I have hope.

As you know, unto us is promised a vaccine. The first tier of recipients will be health care workers. The second tier of recipients is NOT government employees or the military: it is people in health care facilities.  People who are not “contributing” to the Gross National Product.  People who are supporting the economy only through monthly fees to nursing homes and pharmacies. Yet, our government has not discarded them. They are not being triaged out of existence.  Their lives have value.  I find this amazing in a country where many lives do not have value, where lives are expendable at the end of a gun, in world where the deaths of children are called “collateral damage” while adults fight over parcels of real estate. So, that is the light I see in this Pandemic tunnel:  lives are valued for their own sake, not for what they can produce or how they can perform.  

Jesus taught us that, by ministering to the outcasts, to the people who were hurting, the people who lived with no hope.  It’s important to remember that Jesus did not limit his ministry to the outcast; he dined with the wealthy, he came to the aid of the powerful.  Let us be as open to all people as Jesus was, judging them not by what they can do for us, not by what they have to offer to us, but as our brothers and sisters and best friends in Christ. 

Anna and Simeon waited their entire lives.  We don’t have to wait. We need only accept the great Love that is offered to us, unconditional, no down payment, no interest rates, no fine print.  A one-word contract: Love.  Amen.

Hold Tight to that Baby! Luke 2: 1-20

Luke 2:1-20  New Revised Standard Version

2 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

14  “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

I can never get over the difference between the “long-expected” version of Jesus and the real-life version of Jesus.   Instead of the “long-expected” Jesus, we have the “unexpected” Jesus.

The long-expected Jesus, the Messiah, was supposed to be a mortal king, warrior, leader, conqueror, a recreated King David. That what was what the Jewish nation had been expecting.  After all, the prophecies talked about a king who would be from the line of David, sit on the throne of David, 

The real-life version was a tiny baby, a first-born child, born to a couple with no experience in politics or leadership or military strategy. They didn’t even have any experience in parenting!!!!  A strange choice for the family of the descendant of a royal king.  A strange choice for a leader who was supposed to restore an entire nation, an entire culture.

We humans can see only as far as the end of our experiential noses. Who could have imagined that God would send not only a human, but a human who could conquer death, who was also God?

What other titles can we ascribe to this miracle?  Prince of Peace! Lamb of God! Son of Man! God with Us!

Jesus was born in dangerous times, not unlike our own.  Civil unrest was the realtime undercurrent of Pax Romana, the peace which existed among nations within the Roman Empire. But the peace was enforced more than maintained by armies and authorities. It was an illusion that kept the government in power, that protected the prosperous. It was a time of poverty and disease and hunger for a large part of the population and there was no recourse, no bail out, no stimulus check for anyone. 

It was risky for Jesus to be born in the middle of that arena of false trust in the power of men.  It was risky for Jesus to be born to a poor family who could easily starve to death without anyone noticing.  It was risky for Jesus to be born into a family of suspected rebels, of a tribe that walked the thin line between secular society and faithful tradition. 

It is no less risky for us.  Daily we walk the thin line between good and evil. Sometimes we can reject the evil; sometimes it overwhelms us.  We make choices that backfire, we are victims of the choices of others, and, I, at least, envy the animals, like the bear and my little ground squirrels, that are able to hibernate and ignore anything beyond their own private caves.

But here we are, three days after the Solstice. The days are getting longer. More light.  Jesus is the light of the world.  What does that mean when we are surrounded by dark thoughts?  It means we have to look beyond our own walls, our own boundaries, even our own fears.

God knows we are afraid. Really—God knows! When the angels came to the shepherds, before they could deliver their message, they had to tell them “Do not be afraid!”  Settle down.  Pay attention.  We have some good news.

We, likewise, need to be reminded to not be afraid.  Pretty tough in a year when we can be struck down by a virus, threatened by a gun, mocked for our opinions.  I don’t think I’ve ever been more afraid of more things in my life than during 2020. And frankly, I don’t think tearing off the last page of the calendar is going to change much.  

We must remember, more this year than any year, that we are not helpless, that we are not forgotten, that we are created in the image of God.  We are not created in the image of Dr. Fauci or Rush Limbaugh or James Bond or Wonder Woman. We are created in the image of God. We are brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ. We are created to be good.  When we screw that up, we are not tossed into the abyss of hell. We are welcomed into the arms of Jesus, not to pay a price, but to repent.  And repentance brings redemption.  We are created in an image that does more than eat and drink, bruise and bleed.  We are created in an image that cares and loves and acts, not according to some animal instinct, but according to the laws of love that God breathed into us at creation.  Jesus came to redeem us, to save us from our own sinful nature. During his ministry, he taught us how to be more than animals, more than victims of our own weaknesses, more than the dupes of evil. He taught that love is the greatest power, that love is what makes the world work the way God created it.  

We are loved. We are not forgotten. We have strength, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to be the people of God, without shame, without fear.  

Jesus came as a baby and experienced what we experience, from our first cry to our last breath.  He experienced anger and disappointment and fear.  And he conquered anger and disappointment and fear.  

What does it mean for us to conquer our own weaknesses, to say “NO!” to evil.  It means we can live in a world that is not afraid. It means we can live in a world where the disenfranchised regain their place, where the hungry are fed, where the rent is paid, where the jobs are secure, where work is valued, where differences are celebrated.  

Hebrews 2:16-18  New Revised Standard Version

  16 For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. 17 Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. 18 Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

 A year ago, we were sitting shoulder to shoulder in our sanctuary, and by some miracle we could all balance a hymnal in one hand and a burning candle in the other hand without setting fire to the person in front of us. That was as risky as it got.  This year it’s hard to believe that our usual Christmas celebrations are too risky.  

But following Jesus is risky, too. That tiny baby grew and grew and grew and surprised everybody who knew him and a lot of people who didn’t know him.  He surprised his family, his disciples, the hated Romans, the outcast tax collectors and the widows. 

Frankly, Jesus still surprises me, not by what I read about him in the Bible, but by what he inspires people to do in His name.  During this pandemic year, I have witnessed kindness and sacrifice and generosity that spread love and healing to the hurt, to the lonely, to the ill.  Despair has been vanquished in a year that should have sucked the hope out of us.  Evil has been conquered, one kind word at a time, one kind deed at a time.  

We anticipate Jesus’ coming by naming the Sundays in Advent: Hope, Peace, Joy, Love. By the miracle of  God’s love, despite our fears, we can still express, feel, name, recognize, proclaim those gifts of God: Hope.  Peace.  Joy.  Love.  We are not defeated.  Evil is defeated. Love came down at Christmas……and never left.  Amen.