Monday, February 25, 2013

Like a hen gathering her chicks . . .

     If you have not been around the past couple weeks nor kept up with the messages in the Bulletin, the Gospel reading from this week may well prove very difficult to hear and inwardly digest.  Before I spend some time in it, it is important to set the stage, so to speak.  Remember, we are in the season of Lent.  We are in that season in the life of the Church when we should be examining our relationship to our Lord.  Ideally, we are discovering behaviors which keep us apart from God, and we are learning about disciplines which help deepen our relationship with Him.  And while our worship is a communal affair, the examination is one that we do ourselves.  My purpose today is not to condemn you.  My purpose is, like Christ’s in His teaching, to warn us of the dangers of straying from God, to remind each one of us of the consequences of our willingness to turn away from God, and to remind each one of us that the penalty for every one of our failures and sins has been paid in full by the one empowered and granted authority to make those judgments about us and the rest of the world.

     That being said, our reading in Luke today comes after an important reminder in two parables and after an attempt by a hearer of Jesus’ words to figure out who else might be saved with him.  The two parables are the parable of the mustard seed and the parable of the leavened bread.  Although there are other meanings to be gleaned from these teachings, today I want to focus on the inevitability they pronounce.  Jesus tells those in His audience and us that the Gospel starts out seemingly insignificant.  Like the mustard seed, it is almost beneath notice.  Yet, with proper rain and nutrients, a shrub is produced which provides food and shelter for birds of the air and shade for animals on the ground.  The allusion to history is obvious.  Though Caesar could have cared less about a carpenter from the backwoods province of Judea, the disciples of that same carpenter grow in a few centuries to overtake the Roman Empire.  Less visible, I think, is how the mustard seed reflects the planting of the seeds in the lives of those around us.  Sometimes it is a teaching, oftentimes it is a service, occasionally it is through means we least expect, but the Gospel starts out as a germinating seed in the life of an unbeliever.  If the soil is “good” and the “farmers” know what they are doing, the seed can be watered and manured so that, one day, the plant burst forth in bloom and fruit to the glory of God and the celebration of heaven at the repentance of a sinner.  Unlike other plants, though, the Gospel “seed” can lay dormant for a long time, grow exceeding slowly or exceedingly fast as life and circumstances and quality Christians around them nurture that growing seed.  And, like the crops in the world, the growth is ultimate dependent upon God.  Like farmers, you and I can till and till and till until we are exhausted, but we cannot cause growth.  Only the Lord can plant and cause the Gospel to grow.  And so, like the farmers around us, we do well to be patient as we tend those in our fields.

     Similarly, Jesus’ use of the yeast and the flour point to insignificant beginnings.  Jesus reminds them and us that nearly fifty pounds of flour can be enlivened by just a pinch of yeast.  Fifty pounds are transformed by a simple pinch!  Sound familiar?  The flour and yeast will be combined to create leavened flour which will be used to make loaves of bread or other bakery items.  From a small pinch, food for life is created.

     Both parables remind us of the inevitability of God’s kingdom.  It may start out small in the world, but it always has far reaching impact.  What happened to Rome is but one example.  Think of the “re-yeasting” or “re-planting”  movements in the life of the church over the succeeding centuries.  The Reformation, The Great Awakening, the Oxford Movement, the Methodist Movement, just to name a few.  To different extents, each one was a reinvigorating of the Church.  No matter the corruption, no matter the laziness, no matter the falling away, God always wins in the end.  His bride is always renewed and restored when she confronts her particular sins and failures.  And so you and I ought to have a particular compassionate optimism as we go through life.  We should be able to mourn with those who mourn, suffer with those who suffer, and yet do so confident that God will win in the end.  Like the yeast in the flour, His saving grace with permeate everything; like the mustard seed, He will produce an amazing growth and harvest.  It may not happen on our timeline, but it will happen.  He has promised.  And His victory over death reminds us that He has the power to keep all His promises.

     It is with that certainty of our Lord’s inevitable victory that we come to today’s readings.  The Pharisees decide to intimidate Jesus with the threat of death.  “Jesus, you need to move along because Herod wants to kill you.”  Taken outside the Scriptures, we might believe that the Pharisees care about Jesus’ safety and well-being.  But we know better.  The Pharisees perceive Jesus to be a threat to their power, respect, and authority.  What better way to scare Him that to tell Him that the king is on their side and wants Jesus dead!  Surely the local yokel will be terrified, right?

     Jesus responds as one anything but intimidated.  You tell that fox I have work to do.  “I have to drive out demons and heal diseases today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal. . . . I must keep going today and tomorrow and the next day -- for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem.”  Jesus not only is not afraid of death, He knows it will occur in Jerusalem.  And His work has a very specific reminder both to Herod and to the Pharisees who are “trying to warn Him.”  The ability to command demons and to heal are signs of God’s Anointed.  If Jesus is really doing these things, what do the signs testify about Him?  Plus, if a suck-up Pharisee runs to Herod and tells the king, how should the king respond?  Remember, it is the king’s job to read and study God’s torah .  That is his chief responsibility.  Herod has had enough conscience to fear John the Baptist has returned from death to torment him, not enough to have stopped the beheading, but enough to know what he did was wrong.  If the Pharisee repeats Jesus’ words to the king and the king works to kill Jesus, Herod pronounces God’s judgment on Himself by killing yet another of God’s prophets.  And by rejecting Him and His ministry, the king and leaders of Israel are once again rejecting the call of God.  And, not coincidentally, Jesus will no longer focus on those outside His circle of disciples.  From this point forward in His ministry as described by Luke, Jesus will no longer work on calling the nation to whom He was sent to His care and keeping.

     Then Jesus laments over Jerusalem’s rejection of His care throughout history.  The judgment is accurate--you kill the prophets and stone those sent to you--, but Jesus does not gloat or threaten over the deserved judgment.  Instead, He laments how often He has tried to gather Jerusalem as a hen gathers her chicks, but that she was not willing to be gathered.  If you have ever watched a hen try and gather willful chicks, you know the difficulty of which Jesus speaks.  Left outside the mother hen’s protective wings, chicks are almost always in mortal danger.  Yet how few seek her wings on their own.  Similarly, outside a relationship with our Father in heaven who seeks to gather us under His wings, you and I are in eternal danger.  Rejecting His call and avoiding His wings reminds us that internally we have rejected His call on our lives.  The seeds and yeast in our lives have lost their life.

     If Jesus ended there and we stopped there, there would be absolutely no Gospel today.  Each of us, no matter how long we have known our Lord, chooses to trust in our own wants and our own desires.  And like Jerusalem, we are often left by our Father to face the desolation of our choices.  You see, more often than not, God gives us what we ask for.  The problem is that we often ask unwisely.  More often than not, we are like Israel who begs for a king.  The king that they get, when left to their own efforts, is like Saul or Herod.  And God wants nothing but good for us.  But we insist on choosing poorly.  We insist on living in desolation.

     Notice the word “until.”  Though Jesus would be righteous in the utter condemnation of Jerusalem for her rejection of His call throughout history and even as God Incarnate, such is not the tact that He will take.  Instead, He will remind Jerusalem and us that desolation will be her and our destiny until we acknowledge Him as God’s Anointed and pledge ourselves to His service.  Though Jesus’s judgment of Jerusalem and Israel is accurate, it is not yet finalized.  There is still hope!  What can atone for the rejection of God’s messiah?  What can atone for the blood of the prophets?  The blood of Christ.  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.  All Israel has to do to leave the desolation is to repent, return to the Father’s wings, and they will be welcomed back into the life He has prepared for them.  They can choose desolation if they wish, but His invitation still remains.  Until their dying breath, He gives them a choice.

     And pay attention to the narrative over the next few weeks.  When does Jerusalem proclaim "blessed in He who comes in the name of the Lord?"  Palm Sunday.  And yet within just a few days they will stand as a crowd, reject Jesus in favor or Barrabas, and they will demand that Pilate crucify Him.  Even after they get it right, still they will get it wrong.  But what happens in the aftermath of His Resurrection?  Thousands will convert at the preaching of Peter and the others.  Thousands who reject Him will turn, repent, and embrace the will of their Father in Heaven.

     Brothers and sisters, have you heard the call of His voice and determined to live in the shadow of His wings?  Have you heard the hope and promise of inevitable victory in His Kingdom, and have you chosen to live and die as He calls you?  Or, do you still prefer the desolation of your own devices?  Do you even recognize the desolation of your lives if you have chosen poorly?  One of the dangers highlighted in the section immediately before our reading is the simply truth that one can be close to the promise of God and miss it.  In our readings, the people see and hear Jesus, the Incarnate Son, speak and teach.  Salvation comes that near, and still they miss it in their midst.  Put in modern language, maybe you believe that because someone or even most of your family is grafted into His vine, He has to take you even if you choose not to accept Him.  Maybe you think that because you come to church enough to satisfy the requirements for active membership in St. Alban’s, He has to transfer your name to the book of life.  Maybe you think that you have earned your salvation by feeding at the Community Meal, serving at Angel Food, serving during worship, or any other number of the ministry opportunities around here.  Notice His message in this passage.  Ask yourself and Him, in which group am I?

     Brothers and sisters, this is as they say “heavy reading.”  No one likes to be  confronted with their own shortcomings and sins.  Failure to us equals judgement.  But His ways are not our ways.  While Jesus is righteously judging, hear the compassion in His voice.  He is not a God who desires to inflict harm and to avenge Himself on us.  He is a God who loves us so much that He was willing to enter the world and accept our deserved punishment, death, on Himself.  He wants you to turn to Him.  He wants to gather you under His wings.  If you are, like those chicks, wandering hither and yon with no direction through the desolation of your life, why not heed His call?  Why not turn and repent and allow yourself to be gathered?  If He wins in the end, why make any other choice?

     And yes, I know you don’t deserve His love.  Yes, I know you have failed Him terribly.  Yes, I know some of you have chosen desolation for a long period of time.  You don’t deserve His love and mercy, but neither do I nor anyone here.  That is why it is called grace.  But I also know this, as sure as He rose from the dead:  nowhere in your life are you beyond His persistent call;  nowhere in life are you beyond His compassionate embrace;  nowhere in life are you beyond His redeeming love.  Though your decisions have been horrible in the past, nothing is to prevent you from starting anew in your relationship with Him.  His death in Jerusalem testifies to that truth.  His empty tomb reminds us that no evil we have chosen can ever keep us from Him, unless we choose to reject Him.  So, whom do you serve this day?  Yourself and your desolation?  Or your King and His inevitable victory?


Monday, February 18, 2013

Diabolical lies we like to believe in spite of the cross . . .

     It is that time of the church year when we focus on our sins, both collectively and individually, and of our need for a Savior.  Truthfully, this morning, I wanted to spend some time focusing on the Old Testament lesson from Deuteronomy.  Truthfully, there is a bit of selfishness in that desire of mine.  We spent a bit over three years in this parish studying the do’s and don’t of that book.  I am well prepared to preach on Deuteronomy, or I had better be after studying a book for that long.  But I found myself preaching during the early service on the Gospel of Luke.  Just to make sure I did not switch books between the services, God seems to have decided to make it clear that I will stick to Luke in this service.  Between the services, we had one of those moments when the congregation focused on a message in the sermon that I did not intend.  But given our discussions, it needs to be said again in front of the second service to make sure the discussion is possible during Lent.  We’ll call it a communal effort this morning. . . 

     That all being said, Luke’s narrative picks up immediately after the baptism of Jesus.  Jesus is led by the Spirit from the Jordan immediately into the wilderness where He fasts and is confronted by Satan with these temptations of which we read this morning.  This confrontation is no accident.  Luke makes it abundantly clear that this confrontation between Satan and Jesus was allowed by God.  There are a couple of details that make this confrontation strange to our ears.  First, Jesus is allowed to be tempted after a fast of forty days.  Who in their right mind would allow such an important confrontation to occur after 40 days of fasting?  I know fasting is a bit out of favor among many in the Church today.  We seem to treat it as a passe discipline, something that was done in ages past to help keep God from inflicting punishments or as a proof that the one fasting truly was committed to serving the Lord.  A surprising number of clergy have discussed with me that fasting really serves no purpose in this age.  Unsurprising to you, I do have some clergy friends who engage in regular fasts.  It is on my mind because some of us fasted this past Wednesday and Thursday.  Personally, I am always envious of those who claim a “faster’s buzz” not unlike a distant runner’s high or second wind.  I find when I am fasting that I start to feel miserable about 16-18 hours in.  I have a hard time concentrating.  I seem a bit scatter-brained to myself.  It just does not give me a great feeling, and I certainly cannot claim any more clarity from God.  That being said, when I try and run distances, I never get the runner’s high.  I always get the runner’s “I am going to die if I am lucky and just pass out if I am unlucky feeling” on those rare occasions that I try to run distances.  The very thought that God would want Jesus to face Satan, His ultimate enemy, after 40 days of such uncomfortableness absolutely stuns me.  If I were in charge, Jesus would have faced Satan after a good meal and limbering up period.  I suppose that is yet another reason I am not in charge of salvation history.

     The other detail that is strange is the location of this cosmic battle.  Why the wilderness?  Unfortunately, as I was dealing with those whom we serve through AA last week, the purpose of the wilderness as a background was driven home to me.  As I shared mostly with them, but a few people here this morning, one of the reasons the Cross is so offensive is its stark reminder that you and I and everyone whom we meet is utterly dependent upon God’s grace.  We midwesterners pride ourselves on our hard work and our ability to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps to improve our lot.  The wilderness, though, reminds us as a setting just how ill-equipped we to resist the Devil on our own.

      Think of the last time we witnessed such a battle between God’s son and the Devil.  Where did it occur?  In a garden.  In THE garden, to be specific.  Remember the book of Genesis?  Adam & Eve were placed in the Garden of Eden.  The Garden produced all that they needed to eat and to drink.  It sheltered them, and it provided a location where they could walk and talk with God.  There was only one commandment.  You shall not eat of the tree.  With all that going for them, how able were Adam & Eve to keep the commandment.  You know the story.  Satan entered the garden, and tricked Eve.  She ate and then shared it with Adam.  He ate.  And both their eyes were opened.  Sin had entered the world, and the downward spiral of human depravity was begun.  Think of that for a second.  There is only one commandment, and all of their needs were provided by God.  Oh, and unlike us who depend on faith, Adam and Even got to see God with their eyes, hear His voice with their ears.  And because they had not yet sinned, they were not destroyed when they looked on His face.  They saw the countenance of their loving Father.  Still they failed.  Still they could not resist eating of the one single tree off limits.  One tree.  If you ever wondered why we need a Savior, think on Adam’s example.  He could not keep one commandment in the Garden of Eden when he enjoyed full communion with God.  How can we expect our selves to keep all those commandments in Deuteronomy when we live in a world like this?  When we see and hear Him only dimly?  When many of us are, ahem, well fed?  And Jesus is forced into this battle with God’s enemy having fasted for 40 days and in the middle of a wilderness.

     And before I go any further, note that Luke describes this as a battle with cosmic repercussions.  I know it is fashionable to believe that the devil is mythological now.  We have fallen pray to that plot of Screwtape where he tells his son to convince people the devil is not real so that he can act unfettered.  Even in the Church today you are likely to  hear that the Devil is not real, that he is mythological, and that were he real, he would be serving God’s purpose and not acting against Him as an enemy.  As a quick lesson, I will remind you that God treats the devil as a real person, that Jesus treats him as a real person, and that the Apostles treat him as a real person actively working against God and His purposes.  There is a great line in the movie Constantine.  The heroine is getting a crash course about spiritual warfare from the lead character.  When he talks about the devil waging war against God she responds that she does not believe in him.  Constantine responds by telling her “you should because he believes in you and wants your soul.”  We dismiss the devil as an active enemy of God at our own peril.  The moment that we think we can walk into any situation and avoid temptation because he does not exist is the moment we set ourselves up to be taken in by his snares.  That, though, is another sermon.

      Anyway, the cosmic battle begins with those diabolical words “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to turn into bread.”  Look at these words.  Think of the trap being laid.  Does Jesus know who He is?  Of course He does.  But Satan is always plotting.  If Jesus refuses to turn the stone into bread, Satan can come back with the accusation that He must not really believe He is the Son of God.  And if Jesus gives in after 40 days of hunger and turns the stone into a loaf of bread, Satan has won!

     As we discussed earlier, Jesus turns to the book of Deuteronomy to engage in this battle.  “Man shall not live on bread alone.”  What the devil is tempting Jesus with is this idea of independence.  Jesus has come to do the will of the Father who sent Him.  Satan is offering Jesus the chance to do things His way.  Do you really need to be hungry out here?  Does it serve any real purpose?  Wouldn’t you do a better job on a full stomach?  The devil is always tempting God’s people, His adopted sons and daughters, with this offer of independence.  Think of the temptation in your own life.  How many of you have come into my office beating yourselves up?  You knew an action was a sin before you did it.  And, yet, you still committed the sin in knowledge certain it was wrong.  Why?  I’m no different.  I know what I am supposed to do.  Heck, in many cases, I know what I am supposed to do or not do better than you in your lives because I study His word that much more.  And still I sin.  And so do you.  Why?  In the end, you and I are all huge friends of Frank Sinatra.  We all want to do it our way and sing out as we go about doing it.  That is, until the consequences come home to roost.  When the consequences of our sins begin to impact us, then we want to know where He is.  Why doesn’t He protect me?  Why doesn’t He stop these consequences?  I said I was sorry.  Doesn’t He forgive me?  

     And I say that looking around at each one of you recognizing we don’t have a lot of gruel eaters here in church today.  Each of you has dragged yourself to church this first Sunday of Lent in the cold.  Ideally, all of us gathered today are a bit more committed to our Lord than those sleeping in this morning.  We will remind ourselves during the Eucharist that “By His will everything was created and have their being.”  Think of that phrase and what it means when we gather.  Not only did He create you but He wills your existence every moment of every day.  Were He to forget you or me because Peace in the Middle East or the orbits of asteroids and meteorites were just requiring a bit more of His concentration, you and I would simply cease to exist.  Poof.  Ever wonder whether He really loves you and cares about you?  Do you ever wonder if you serve a purpose in His plan of salvation history?  If you are existing and wondering, you have your proof that He does.  By His will you were created and have your being.  We know this, brothers and sisters.  We know this.  And yet each one of us will be tempted to do things our way this week.  Each of us will remember that we are dependent upon Him, and still we will choose to ignore His instruction.  We will choose the path of independence and sin.  As did Adam.  Thankfully, our Lord chose wiser than we will.

     The second temptation is also fascinating.  Satan shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and offers Him power and authority if Jesus will worship him.  Satan tells a half truth.  The world has been given over to him; Satan is right in that assertion.  He just neglects to mention that the authority granted to him is only for a time.  He is pretending as if he has ultimate control over the earth for all time, and he is offering the honor and glory and authority that Jesus will be given.  But notice the temptation.  Jesus has come to do the will of the One who sent Him.  Jesus knows His feet are set upon the path that leads to Calvary and the Cross.  Jesus will be mocked, scourged, rejected, humiliated, and killed in order to come into His kingdom.  Satan is offering the opportunity to “skip to the end.”  Bypass the nasty stuff and just get to the good stuff.  It had to be a temptation that you and I can’t possibly understand.  How many of us would choose the paths of our lives which lead through valleys and shadows even if we knew the outcome of our suffering?  If you had your choice, would you walk the difficult paths?  Or would you rather just get to the end as fast as possible and avoid all the negative stuff?

     Again, our Lord turns to Deuteronomy and answers the devil with the words, “Worship the Lord your God and serve only Him.”  Jesus reminds us by pulling out this ancient text that we worship only one person, our Father, our Lord, God.  And the proper worship of God is not just a simple intellectual assent.  Saying that He exists is not enough.  Service is required.  In New Testament language, Paul will remind us that faith without works is dead.  Proper faith in God is expressed both by worship and by service.  Brothers and sisters, if we had THE perfect liturgy here and were a bunch of navel gazers who only came to church and worshipped God, we would not be worth His thought nor His redemption.  If all we did was gather here, we would not be winning souls for His kingdom.  We would not be living into the inheritance he calls each one of us.  And He would not be glorified by us.

     Last week during the Annual Meeting, Michelle asked that question about how we evangelize and how we draw others into this community of faith.  Here’s Jesus teaching us how we are to evangelize: through service.  How do we serve Him?  Through those whom He places in our path each and every day.  You and I are called to remember that everyone is created in His image.  Knowing that, we set out to feed the hungry or clothe the poor or protect the abused or free the enslaved.  Why?  Because in this battle and ultimately through His walk to Calvary, our Lord first served us.  And it is incumbent upon us to figure out the needs of those whom we encounter.  For some, we might need to tell them simply of His love for them.  For others, it might be physical needs.  For others, the needs might be emotional or spiritual.  As the ones already adopted into the kingdom and empowered by His Spirit, we know simply that He will use us to glorify Himself.  That’s part of His amazing promise to each one of us.

     From there, Satan takes Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem and dares Him to cast Himself off the Temple.  After all, God has promised that He has placed the angels in charge of His Anointed and that He will not let His Anointed stumble.  The temptation is one of testing.  The idea is that Jesus can find out for sure whether His Father in heaven loves Him.  If God saves Him, He is clearly loved by His Father.  If not, well, better to find out early and quick before the real suffering begins.  Jesus turns again to Deuteronomy and reminds us that we are not to test our Lord.

     It is a messianic temptation in this instance, but it is one with which you and I can be tempted at any time.  How often do you find yourself wondering whether God really loves you or really cares about you in your circumstances?  Did I mention we were not the gruel eaters?  I am often amazed at how often Christians claim that God ought to be tested in order to prove His love of us.  I grew up in WV.  I’ve been to snake-handling churches where that theology is imbedded.  But it is in other mainline churches in subtle ways.  One of the repeated temptations is “If you guys now where people are being enslaved and who the bad guys are, why don’t you just force the confrontations with the organized crime people?”  After all, if God loves us, He will protect us, right?  It seems reasonable.  It may even seem good.  Yet, we are called to live as innocent as doves but as wise as serpents.  We don’t serve Him to test Him.  We are not in these ministries to prove to ourselves or others that He loves us.  We know from that cross that He does.  No, we do these ministries because we understand dimly the depth of the love He bears for each one of us.

     And this testing can be used well by His enemy to lead us astray.  Think of the possibilities for abuse.  Go spend all your money on the poor.  If He truly loves you, He will have to give you more because you spent it on His people.  Don’t go see the doctor because if He really loves you, He is going to have to cure your disease and keep you from dying.  Feel free to tell your boss off.  If God really loves you, He will have to keep you from getting fired, or else get you a better job, because He can’t let those whom He really loves go unemployed.  The temptation for us is always that we need to prove to ourselves, and to make Him prove to us, that He does love us.  If He answers the need, we are assured.  If He doesn’t, at least we won’t have to waste our lives serving Him.  As if the cross does not stand as THE stark reminder of His love for each one of us.

     The truth of the matter, brothers and sisters, you and I are privileged.  Because Jesus resisted these temptations and walked that road, we are saved.  We are lucky in this setting in that our founding families understood that truth.  That cross hangs over us in everything that we do in here.  Visually, you and I cannot escape it in this setting, and its shadow is cast over us at all times, reminding us of the love our Lord bore for each one us, knowing how often we would fail Him when our turn came.  Think of these temptations.  Jesus has fasted for 40 days -- He is famished.  He is wandering in the wilderness.  And His enemy is hitting Him in hard spots, spots in which you and I repeatedly fail.  And yet, through it all and though the setting seems stack against Him, our Lord does not fail.  He came to do the will of the Father, to save us, and nothing will keep Him from His appointed task.  No physical need, no lack, no fear will keep Him from saving us and restoring us to our Father in Heaven.

     Brothers and sisters, during the season of Lent we will spend a great deal of time discussing sin and its consequences in our lives.  People are more cognizant of things that they are doing in their lives to separate them from the love of God.  Attention is rightfully paid to those temptations which constantly lead people astray.  My question for you this morning is this:  Where are the soft spots in your life that the devil is reaching in and leading you astray?  Where is he poking and prodding and making you wonder does He really love me?  Where is it that the enemy of God is using your circumstances to lead you from God, either by convincing you to do your own will or to falsely believe that He no longer loves you?  This is that intentional season in which you and I should be asking God for the grace to see and to resist those temptations in our lives, temptations which the enemy ultimately intends to use to convince us each that we are not truly loved by God--the only lie the devil knows.  And then ask Him to send the Holy Spirit to empower you to live as He would have you live.  Not for our sake.  But that we might rightly repent of those sins and their consequences and live the life of the redeemed, honoring Him and drawing others into His saving embrace.


Monday, February 11, 2013

A call that cannot be ignored . . .

Shall we try this again?  This year’s annual meeting and our weather just don’t seem to be willing to work together.  A bunch of people lamented that we did not get to hold the meeting a couple weeks ago during the ice storm because the readings were perfect for an Annual Meeting.  But, truth be told, there are no “bad readings” from Scripture.  We may not like some; we may have a hard time focusing the readings on what we want to talk about; but Scripture is always good for shaping and forming us.  Today is no exception, and it applies both individually and corporately.

Luke records that Jesus’ fame has grown to the point that He is followed as He goes about the lake teaching, preaching, and healing the crowds that follow Him.  As Jesus nears the water, He decides to slip out a bit into the lake.  The fishing boats will provide Him with space and distance enough to be able talk to the crowd, and the water will serve like a moat around His boat stage.  And while some of us here might want to know what Jesus was saying and teaching, Luke was more focused on the response of the fishermen, and Peter in particular.  As is often the case, Peter represents what will become known as the Twelve, the inner circle of His disciples whom we refer to as Apostles.  So let us turn our focus to the response of those whom Jesus calls.

Can you imagine yourself in Peter position?  You have just finished a hard shift at work.  The boss has been on your back all day.  Every piece of equipment you have touched has seemed to have been infected by Gremlins.  You have really accomplished nothing.  Now it’s time for the commute, but right before you turn off the lights, He walks in.  And there is no mistaking Him.  His fame has spread too far and too wide for you to feign ignorance.  And so He uses you as a secretary of sorts.  Then, after He has finished, He tells you to try your job again.  How would you respond?  Would you stay and do as asked?  Or would you beg off claiming it was just too hard a day?  Come back another day--a day when I feel better or a day when I got more done.  Not a day when I worked the graveyard shift and have nothing accomplished.

But that is precisely where Jesus meets Peter.  Peter and his partners have had a tough night.  They have fished all night and have absolutely nothing to show for their labor except maybe some sweat and tired backs.  And yet, look at Peter’s attitude.  He does not grumble.  He does not complain--and let’s be honest, the Gospel writers are not ones to cover up Peter’s behavior.  He simply rows out a bit into the lake and let’s the Teacher speak to the crowds.  In this simple response, we learn a great deal about Peter’s recognition of Jesus.  We know that Peter will not come to know that Jesus is the Christ until later in their relationship, but in the beginning it is clear that Peter recognizes that Jesus is an authoritative teacher of God.  The miracles and the crowds testify to that truth.  Does He recognize Jesus true identity?  No.  At this point, Peter is simply willing to follow Jesus wherever He leads.  We know this by the extra work of rowing Him a bit out from shore, and we see it better in just a moment.

When Jesus finishes this teaching, He instructs Peter to cast out his nets.  Think how absurd this must have sounded in Peter’s ears.  Peter is the professional fisherman.  Jesus is the carpenter turned rabbi.  Who, between the two, should know more about fishing.  Yet Jesus instructs, and Peter obeys.  Peter had every reason to ignore Jesus.  He had been up all night and caught nothing.  The fish will see and avoid the net in the light of day.  His back probably ached.  He probably wanted something to eat.  But he cast the net as he was instructed . . . 

Sitting on this side of the empty tomb, you and I probably are not too surprised by the outcome.  But look at what happens to Peter and his partners.  All night long they worked and had nothing for their labors.  Now, Peter has enough fish to sink two boats.  Jackpot!  We are eating steak tonight!  The catch, though, confirms in Peter’s mind that Jesus is a prophet of God.  The works of power attributed to Him must be true.  How else can one explain the full net in broad daylight?  And Peter falls to his knees and asks Jesus to depart.  To those of us here, this might seem a bit extreme.  But Peter has been taught all of his life that God works only through those holy men at the Temple and at the synagogues.  Only those “set apart” are worthy of God’s intervention.  Peter recognizes he is a sinner.  He recognizes that He is anything but holy.  And he confesses such to Jesus and asks Him to depart so as not to contaminate Him.

Jesus, of course, knows Peter.  Now He knows that Peter is truly ready for His work.  He has demonstrated a willingness to follow Him, and he has displayed true humility before Him.  Now Jesus let’s Peter know it is time to get to work.  No longer will Peter fish for food, an action which will bring about the death of those being caught!  Instead, Peter will fish for men!  And for those whom he catches for God’s glory, there will be eternal life.  Can you imagine a more radical transformation of one’s occupation?

Is the offer real?  Peter certainly understands it to be real.  He has seen with His own eyes and heard with his own ears this Teacher, this Prophet.  Professionally, he should never have been able to catch a fish in broad daylight with a noisy crowd close to shore; yet at the command of this man Peter experiences the greatest haul of fish he has ever seen!  He knows that such works of power can only be commanded by those anointed by God.  Make no mistake, Peter’s understanding of Jesus will take time to reach its fullest understanding, but our Lord does not require complete understanding before He begins to use us in His service.  In fact, this side of the crave, even at our very best, we only know Him dimly.  Peter parks his boat, as do James and John the sons of Zebedee, and the leave the old life behind to follow Jesus.

The call of Peter is a great reminder of our Lord’s call on each of us.  True, not everyone is called to be “set apart” as were the Twelve or maybe those of us in ordained ministry, but each of us has an important role to play in salvation history.  You and I, by virtue of our faith, are called as ambassadors of God, charged with the responsibility of teaching those in our life about the Gospel of Christ.  Our background does not really matter.  Who here, if you were creating the Church, would select three fishermen to be part of your start up group?  Who here, if you were in charge of the Church today, would choose men or women like yourself to carry His message of eternal life and hope into our community?  Our Lord, however, worries less about our backgrounds and far more about our responses to His call.  Peter is the perfect example of both what our response should be and how our Lord can work through one who responds appropriately.  Jesus is willing to work with Peter because he is willing to follow Him, be humble before Him, and willing to give up everything for his Lord.  And, though Peter will still have some terrible moments in the months and years ahead, look at what Christ is able to accomplish through Peter!

Brothers and sisters, that same offer that was made to Peter on the shore of that lake some 2000 years ago is made to you today.  If, while sitting here listening to this story and me speak about it for a few moments, the words “I could never” have entered your mind, ask yourself the question “why?”  What is it that prevents you from saying yes to Christ?  Fear?  Don’t want to look stupid to your family or friends?  Don’t want to give up the life you have because you mistakenly believe it is a good life?  Think yourself too low to ever be of any use to the Lord who created you in His image?

Too many of us respond intellectually to our Lord’s offer.  Yeah, I believe, but I can’t let it interfere with real life.  We place all sorts of obstacles to faith in our way.  Soccer matches for the kids; work is really demanding; our health is not the best; fatigue; the list can go on and on.  The call of Peter is told to remind us of what He desires in our response.  All He asks of us is that we follow Him, that we recognize our need for Him, and that we do whatever He asks of us.  The rest of the kingdom building is up to Him.  It is His gift of the Spirit working in us that causes us to be effective witnesses of His Gospel.  Anything less and we are like those who fall away, like those who represent the rocky soil, or like those who say simply, “no thanks.  I’ll remain in charge of my life.”  And we wonder why He seems still to be a distant or why we are unable to draw those whom we love, and whom we know He loves, into the arms of His embrace. 

At a time like an annual meeting, when we as a corporate body are taking stock of where we have been, where we are, and trying to discern where He is leading us, it is only natural that we apply the lesson of Peter to our individual lives.  What makes the timing even more perfect from my perspective, is that Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent.  You and I are called to a period of self-examination.  Where better to begin than by considering our response to His call on our lives?  Do I follow Him?  Or do I follow other things which lead me away from Him and His purpose?  Do I know, absolutely know with all my heart, soul, and mind that I need Him?  Or do I think of Him more as a ”break glass in times of emergency” kind of guy?  Will I go and do wherever and whatever He asks?  Or will I go when it suits me and do what I want to do?  Do I thank and praise HIm as often as I ask Him for help?  The answers to these questions, brothers and sisters, teach us a lot about our relationship to God in Christ, so long as we are honest with ourselves and Him.

If as you are sitting here reflecting, or if you find yourself reflecting Wednesday or during Lent, that your relationship with Him is not what He wants, there is great news.  No matter how long you have kept Him at arms length, He is still reaching our those arms of loving embrace to you.  All He requires is that you repent and commit yourself to Him.  Ask Him to give you a heart that wants to follow Him.  Ask Him to remind you daily of your need for Him.  Ask Him to give you the courage to go where He leads, to do what He has given you to do.  I promise you, and better still He promises you, He will never abandon you.  Abiding in Him, you will fulfill His purposes.  With Him leading you, you cannot be lost.  With Him supporting you, you cannot fail.

And though those thoughts are very comforting, still there is more!  Think back on our Lord’s gift to Peter.  When Peter had every reason to ignore the carpenter and choose the wiser course, what happened?  He was blessed in unimaginable ways!  First, it was by a haul of fish that would have met all kinds of material needs.  Later, Peter learns that he has been restored to God, he has been made holy, through the work of that anointed one who preach from his boat, fit for the work of the kingdom of God.  Still later, the humble fisherman becomes one of the leaders in the early Church and is recognized as a “first among equals” by his fellow laborers.  And even today, though his time on earth has passed long ago, our fellow laborer, Peter the fisherman, later of the Twelve, abides with all the saints in God’s glory, waiting patiently to welcome you, his brothers and sisters, into the kingdom prepared by the Lord he followed.  So, do you accept his Lord’s offer?


Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Surprises in ministry . . .

To whom are we called to minister to in Davenport or, for that matter, in the wider world?  It is by no means an academic question as we prayerfully engage in discernment as a parish.  It is, quite frankly, an attempt by us to discern God’s intention for us and to live as fully as possible into His plan.  And let me say this clearly . . . AGAIN . . . so far, there have been NO wrong answers in our discussions.  None.  Every suggestion that I have heard from parishioners wishing to speak in private really COULD BE God’s call on us.  It is not like anyone is suggestion we do something antithetical to the Gospel.  Quite the contrary.  Most people have come in well considered and advocating a mission that I have no doubt God would bless, and bless well in its season.  The question for us to consider as a parish, though, is which mission does He desire us to undertake in the here and now.  Or, as one person said this week, it could be “which missions.”  Maybe He wants us doing three or four things well and leave others to other parts of the Body.  That’s why this involves lots of prayer, significant fasting, and lots of talking.  And even then, despite our best intentions, we may still “miss the mark.”  The great thing about today’s Gospel reading, though, is that it reminds us of the absolute freedom and joy we should have when trying to discern and making a decision and a commitment to parish focused ministry.

Our reading from Luke overlaps last week’s reading.  Jesus has gone to Galilee, gone to synagogue to worship Yahweh, and has informed those listening that the prophesy of Isaiah, the anointing of the messiah, has been fulfilled in their hearing.  He has gone on to preach about the lesson or lessons that day, and people are amazed at His gracious words and spoke well of Him.  Rather than accept His teaching, however, those listening start asking themselves and one another how His teaching is possible.  Isn’t Jesus the son of that carpenter that married the pregnant “virgin?”  Isn’t he a tradesman?  How could Jesus know this stuff, he didn’t go to seminary or university?  How can such a man of well-known humble and uneducated origins be all that is described by Isaiah?  If you have never heard this story before, you now know why it is axiomatic that clergy never return to their sending parishes or hometowns!

Jesus’ initial response to the people is interesting.  It is interesting precisely because it could be taken in two senses.  Physician, heal yourself.  In one sense, this citation of the proverb could be a demand for proof.  Put in our vernacular, or the words of doubting Thomas, “We have heard these claims about you.  Prove it.  We want to see and judge for ourselves.”  This claim is legitimate.  If Jesus could not do the works of power in their midst, the “neighbors” have every reason to wonder whether He is who He claims to be.  In another sense, though, the proverb could be cited because they think Jesus is a mental case.  Put in our language, if He is the son of Joseph the carpenter, he cannot possibly be doing these works of power.  There has to be some trickery or misunderstanding involved.

Rather than arguing with His people or demonstrating His power, Jesus takes an interesting tack.  He reminds His hometown people of the way God works, particularly when His people are rejecting God.  His first example is the story of Elijah and his ministry with the widow at Zerapheth in Sidon.  To remind you of the story, Elijah believes he is called to call Israel, and especially Ahab and Jezebel, to repent and return to God.  Keep in mind, in what you and I call the Old Testament, Elijah is the second greatest prophet.  He, along with Moses, will appear at the Transfiguration.  And, while God is punishing Israel with a drought due to their refusal to worship Him, this great prophet is sent not to a widow in Israel, but to a widow in Sidon.  When he meets the woman, he asks her for a drink and some bread.  She replies that she is gathering some sticks for a fire.  Then she is going to use the rest of her flour and oil and make her son and her some bread so they can lay down and die.  Elijah ignores her complaint and instructs her to cook for him.  She does, and Scripture teaches us that the flour jar and oil jar never ran out of either for the entire time that Elijah stayed with the widow and the son.  Pretty cool miracle, huh?

There’s another one, even better, buried in the narrative.  During the course of Elijah’s stay with the widow, her son dies.  Elijah intercedes with God on her behalf, and the son is restored to life.  In our modern American society, where women have tons of options, we are likely not to understand the desperation of this widow’s situation when her son dies.  Their life together would have been tough until he came of age.  But there would always be a distant hope.  One day, he would grow up and take over the family farm or family business.  If she could make it until that time, he would provide for her.  But, faced with his death, her prospects are worse than dim.  Her joy at Elijah’s miracle is not just the joy of a mother’s grief of her son’s death, though that is significant.  Rather, it is also the joy of hope being restored in a time of hopelessness.  And Jesus is reminding the people of His hometown that all this, the miracle of feeding and the restoration of hope and the healing of the dead, was given to a foreigner.  A foreigner, not an Israelite.

Similarly, Elisha’s greatest miracle was bestowed upon a foreigner rather than an Israelite.  Elisha was the inheritor of Elijah’s mantle.  His big miracle, though, was the curing of leprosy.  In the story, Naaman the Syrian is diagnosed with leprosy.  Fortunately for him, an Israelite girl has been captured as a slave.  As he is complaining of the disease one day, she offers advice.  “Oh, master, if you only new Yahweh and His prophet Elisha.  He could cure you of this disease.”  The idea of leprosy being cured was unheard of in the ANE, and still is today.  But Naaman decides to find this prophet and see if he can cause his God to help.  He loads up a caravan and sets off to Israel.

Prophets of God were not hard to find in ancient Israel.  The authorities usually kept great track of them, and the people constantly cared for them.  Naaman comes to Elisha and offers whatever Elisha wants in order to intercede with the God of Abraham.  Elisha rejects payment and tells Naaman to wash in the river Jordan 7 times.  Naaman is furious.  He has travelled all this way, embarrassed himself by making obeisance before Elisha, and for what?  To be told to bathe?  Furious, he begins his return.  One of his servants, however, speaks up.  You were willing to do whatever the prophet required.  Why not try what he suggests?  Eventually, Naaman bathes and is cured of leprosy--a miracle never seen before in the ANE!  And which son or daughter of Abraham and Sarah is the beneficiary of this miracle?  Ooops.  It is a Gentile, an enemy of God’s people.

Then we are told by Luke that His own people carried him to the top of a hill, intending to cast him of in order to kill Him.  Although it is not my intended focus this morning, you may be asking why.  Think what Jesus has done.  He has reminded them of their own spiritual emptiness before God.  Just as God shut up the heavens in those days, He has shut up His voice until the emergence of John and Jesus.  Israel is once again being compared to a period in its history that no one wants to hear.  Worse still, just as in the days of Elijah and Elisha, it is the Gentiles, the foreigners, who are more worthy of God’s ministry and grace than are His chosen people, the Jews.  Talk about a spiritual wedgie or bloody nose!  Jesus has caught them right where it hurts the most, and deservedly so.  Jesus embodies the choice that all people are given with respect to God.  Follow Jesus and enter God’s kingdom and blessings; reject Jesus and live in the outer darkness.  Those who think they now Him and His family best lose the opportunity presented because they refuse to see how God works in history.

There are others lessons to talk about in this pericope, but I want us to focus particularly on the surprising way in which God works in our midst.  You and I might have an idea of what we think God is calling us to do, but we might be wrong.  More difficult to grasp is the fact that we might be correct, but for the wrong reasons.  But if we really stop and think about it, there is a tremendous freedom in our efforts to discern.  What happens if we are wrong?  Who pays the price?  That’s right.  He has already died for our willful, sinful behaviors.  If we choose something which glorifies us and not Him, He has already paid the price for our sins on that cross.  And get this, He chose to hang there knowing we would one day screw up!  That, brothers and sisters, is the love He bears for each one of us and for this community.  Better still, the empty tomb reminds us that He can redeem any of our circumstances.  Just because we choose poorly does not mean that He cannot bring us around.  Like I said earlier, nobody has come to me with an unbiblical calling.  All the ideas have been rooted in God’s word.  My guess is that each of the paths would be blessed to a degree, but we are trying to discern His will for us and live into the fullest extent possible of His blessings on earth.  WE want to glorify HIM to the best of our abilities knowing He will in turn bless us for faithfulness.  And so we have a tremendous freedom to discern His will.  If we screw up, He we redeem us.  And if we discern correctly, He will bless us in unimaginable ways, perhaps in ways lie Elijah and Elisha.

I also spoke that we might choose rightly but for the wrong reasons.  By that, I had in mind the ministry of Robin and Connie in Human Trafficking. . .  Those in the parish know their ministry.  If you are not part of this parish, we apologize for the interruption.  Their ministry, however, is not for public consumption right now. . . . A funnier example might be my ministry in World of Warcraft.  Many of you know I played very little for about six months last year.  In the beginning, I played for entertainment and stress relief.  When one of you drove me nuts and God refused to smite you, the game gave me that wonderful opportunity to call down the lightning bolt that hurts and then continues to burn over time.  Wrong reason, but right idea (hey, you guys are not the only ones who get angry some times!  lol).  How many sermons have you heard about teens and their struggles thanks to my ministry on that game?  How many individuals have we helped through prayer and encouragement?  How many individuals have been given a freedom to as questions and to struggle honestly with their faith?  And that ministry was not limited just to me.  Ask Sue or Nathan or Robin or Martha or Sarah or any of the others who ended up joining us in that world where art imitates life.  Is it just a game like they hoped, or is it something far more important in God’s plan of salvation?  God took something I chose for the wrong reasons, redeemed it, and has blessed it incredibly.  Now that I am back and playing more often, those questions continue.  Heck, in some cases, they are far deeper.  And our ministry in human trafficking gives us an even deeper footprint into the lives of many.  That we play like we work, or work lie we play, inspires them.  It causes them to re-evaluate what they were taught and believe about Jesus.  And they worry.  Have I missed my opportunity to enter into His kingdom?  Have I locked myself outside the feast?  And we, those of us who play, get to be heralds of the Gospel.  The imaginary powers we use in a game are replaced by the empowering of the Holy Spirit, and we do, in some cases, get to be that hero that points them to the One who saves, our Lord Christ.

I could go on and on about how ministries around here are used in different ways by God to advance His kingdom.  Community Meal is about feeding people, not about letting male trafficking survivors call us to action, right?  AFM was about feeding people, not about forging community, right?  Winnie’s place is all about helping battered women and their children, not about helping survivors of slavery, right?  Bikes are meant to pass through my office quickly, not linger, right?  We work to reach slaves for their sakes, not for all of those around us enslaved by sin, right?  I could go on and on and on.

Brothers and sisters, what lies before you is an incredible opportunity.  It is the choice of the redeemed!  There is no bad choice.  There is no “unGospel” choice being suggested.  So those anxieties and fears ought not weigh on our decision making process.  Instead, through fasting and prayer, we should be asking God to make it clear where He wants us to go, and then to follow cheerfully as He leads.  Throughout salvation history, when God has opened up new ways of being His people and serving Him, His people have almost always needed to be convinced.  What He is asking of us is no different.  His message never changes, only its ambassadors and its format.  To you has been given a wonderful charge.  How can we reach the lost in our community even better?  What hinders us?  What supports us in that effort?  How might we do a better job?  That, brothers and sisters, is our job right now.  The heavy lifting stuff?  He took care of that a couple thousand years ago that we might live into our inheritance and the freedom He offers.  So, where do you think He is calling us?  And where do you think He is asking you to serve?  And, if we are wrong, whom might He still reach through your faithful efforts?