Grace Presbyterian Church

A Warm and Welcoming Church


Sermon: Blessed Are You Who…

Grace Presbyterian Church

February 17, 2019, Epiphany 6C

Jeremiah 17:5-10; 1 Corinthians 15:12-20Luke 6:17-26

Blessed Are You Who…

In a recent sermon I made reference to a social media “hashtag.” Realizing that possibly this isn’t a familiar thing to some folks here, an explanation is in order, because that particular hashtag is even more interrogated by today’s reading than it was a few weeks ago.

In social media – domains like Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter – that symbol # that looks like the pound sign on your telephone (or a sharp sign to musicians) has a special function. I won’t pretend to be tech-savvy enough to explain how it works except that to say that if you “hashtag” a word or phrase in your post, anyone else – not just your friends or followers – can, by searching for that hashtag, see your post. And indeed, one relatively popular such hashtag across various social media is #blessed.

It’s interesting to see what kinds of posts get the hashtag #blessed from different people: Sometimes they seem pretty sincere:

Kids…grands and great grands…fruitful and multiplying. #blessed (with a smiley-face emoji for good measure).

Sometimes they might seem a little on the edge of being boastful or even arrogant. These often accompany pictures, say of a significant other and the very expensive gift just given (lot of that with Valentine’s Day having passed this week). And then, to top off the picture, #blessed.

Hopefully you get the idea. Some new event, some new gift, some new relationship or milestone or achievement…#blessed.

I don’t want to run people down or dump on them necessarily; some are quite sincere in their gratitude that they can’t stop themselves from sharing. Still, it can seem a bit awkward, because it often feels like there’s an unspoken opposite hashtag being, if not outright suggested, then very strongly implied.

Look at my hot boyfriend…#blessed. You don’t have a man like this? #notblessed.

Look at this new car…#blessed.  You can’t afford one? #notblessed.

Or even worse: I’m a Good Christian. Look at my wife, my kids, my home, everything I’ve got. #blessed. You aren’t a Good Christian? You disagree with me about (insert favorite theological point of argument here)? #notblessed.

It’s an old way of thinking, a little bit like the one found in the reading from Jeremiah. I do good, I’m #blessed. You aren’t, you’re #notblessed.

But boy, oh, boy does Jesus blow up anything like that way of thinking in today’s reading from Luke.

Jesus has been up on the mountain, resting and praying. That’s a pattern in his ministry, especially as Luke tells the story. When he and the disciples come down, they are met by a large crowd – this is also a pattern – with many in need of healing. The opening verses tell us that Jesus did not ignore these needs; he begins to speak only after “power came out of him and healed all of them.” That’s not how such events are normally described, but that’s what Luke tells us here. Then, in a neat storytelling trick, Jesus begins to teach his disciples, with the whole crowd listening.

Now, if you started mentally reciting the Beatitudes in Matthew’s version to yourself, or even if you were listening and singing along with the choir a little while ago, you’re probably feeling as though something’s wrong. The verses you just heard may have sounded wrong, somehow. It’s “blessed are the poor in spirit. You left out the “in spirit” part, preacher. And it’s “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, not just plain old hungry. And what happened to the meek and the merciful and all of those other blessings? Where are they? You messed up, preacher.

In fact, you can read along in those pew bibles and see that no, I didn’t mess up, or at least not on that grand a scale. If anybody “messed up,” it was Luke, except of course we don’t really make that claim about the authors of the gospels.

No, Luke is quite deliberate about these blessings spoken by Jesus. They are very much directed to the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the hated and reviled and defamed. No spiritualizing qualifiers.

As if that weren’t bad enough, Luke includes “woes,” something Matthew doesn’t touch at all. And it will not escape your notice that the “woes” correspond exactly to those truncated blessings. “But woe to you who are rich…” is all, again with no spiritualizing qualification, and it goes exactly with “blessed are you who are poor.” The full will be hungry, the laughing will weep and mourn, and those who are well-liked and lauded by the world…well, that puts you in some very bad company.

A word of caution here; it’s probably not wise to think of these woes as punishments. Indeed, far more likely, Jesus is simply pointing out the consequences of these conditions. When you’ve accumulated everything, what else is left? How can you possibly know your need of God when you have more money than God? If suffering the consequences of your choices is punishment, then, well, I suppose these are punishments. But that misses the mark; these are warnings, meant to call us away from any thing that prevents us from acknowledging our need for God and acting in accordance with what Jesus shows us and teaches us, here and throughout the gospels.

Still, though, we are left with this hard teaching to swallow. It doesn’t take a lot to look around and see that, in our world, the poor are notblessed. That isn’t how we live. That is not how our world is oriented. We don’t honor the poor or the hungry or the weeping or the reviled as being somehow particularly blessed of God, and even if we did, I’m pretty sure the poor would still rather have something to eat. So, to be blunt about it, these “blessings” just don’t ring true out there. And it’s pretty hard to see those “woes” at work either.

You know what? You’re right.

These blessings and woes don’t hold true out there. You know why?

Because this is not Jesus’s world.

This is not a world that is submitted to the Lordship of Christ. This is not a discipled world, not by a long shot. Pretty clearly this is an eschatological thing – a thing still to come, even if the kingdom of God is breaking in now.

And this is why that little narrative trick up front matters. Remember how when all the healings were done, Jesus “looked up at his disciples” and started teaching? While all this crowd was hanging around, this message was directed at a much smaller audience, an audience of twelve. Will we see the poor as blessed of God? Will we see the hungry, the sorrowful, the hated as blessed of God?

Evidence isn’t great. On the large scale, both in history and in the present, the church doesn’t do well by the poor or hungry. And of all things, the Christian church, easily the most prominent and powerful religious group in this country if not the world, manages to act as if it is persecuted. It doesn’t look much like the church as a whole gets it. To be blunt, we still have a long way to go.

And we can never get there by ourselves. Without the risen Christ of whom Paul so fervently speaks in the passage from the Corinthians letter, this is all as futile as everything else Paul describes. Indeed, if we’re trying to go forward with only a dead Savior, we really might as well pack up and go home. But, as Paul so clearly reminds us, we aren’t.

Are we listening? Are we going to learn to see this world as Jesus sees it? Will we take up that call to see and love this world through Jesus’s eyes?

The world is listening, and the world is waiting.

For blessings and, yes, for woes, Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #35, Praise to the Lord, the Almighty; #457, How Happy Are the Saints of God (Psalm 1); #372, O For a World; #852, When the Lord Redeems the Very Least

 

Luke06v17to26_2019


Sermon: Call Stories

Grace Presbyterian Church

February 10, 2019, Epiphany 5C

Isaiah 6:1-8; Luke 5:1-11

Call Stories

Like literary works, which can be classified as, say, novels or short stories or historical fiction or any number of genres, stories found in scripture can also be classified according to different types or genres. Some of these classifications might seem familiar, while others would be distinctive to scripture. Any one story might possibly fall into multiple categories, mind you; scripture is as multifaceted as any other written work, and its contents are as varied as any such collection of writings might possibly hope to be.

Some times these classifications sneak up on us in reading and hearing scripture, and in some cases two stories that might seem bracingly different from one another turn out to have something in common after all. Today’s readings from Isaiah and Luke serve as an example of this, in that both of these are what might be known as “call stories.”

Now on the surface it might be hard to conceive of these two stories having a lot in common. The very familiar Isaiah passage is almost an archetype of a call story. Isaiah sees a vision (whether he is in the Temple when he sees the vision or he is seeing a vision that takes place in the Temple isn’t necessarily clear), and that would also be an accurate way to categorize this passage. The vision is a particularly lofty one, with the Lord on the throne surrounded by heavenly beings singing praises. That hymn we sang earlier does us no favors by throwing in “cherubim” that are not mentioned in the scripture, leading us to highly inaccurate visions of chubby baby-like winged creatures more of old Baroque paintings than anything of scripture. Seraphs, or seraphim, are mentioned, and those particularly heavenly creatures are, to put it in modern slang, bad dudes.

In short, it is an obvious scene of glory, and Isaiah plays it to the hilt.

Luke’s account, on the other hand, is anything but glorious-looking. A day on the busy lakeshore is interrupted for Simon and his fishing partners by the appearance of Jesus, followed by a crowd insistently pressing in on him. Basically Jesus borrows Simon’s boat, asking him to put out a short way from shore so that he might teach with less risk of being crowded right into the lake. Presumably Simon, James, and John continue with their post-fishing tasks, mending nets and such, while Jesus is teaching. The one thing they are not doing is sorting through fish; despite being out all night, they caught nothing. Zip, zilch, nada.

When Jesus is done he makes what must seem a strange request of Simon, more of an instruction, really: go out again, cast out those nets one more time. Now back in chapter 4 of Luke’s gospel Jesus had healed the mother-in-law of a man named Simon; if we guess that this is that same Simon, that healing might be about the only reason he doesn’t toss Jesus straight off the boat. Simon’s recorded response is quite possibly a lot more restrained than what might have gone through his head. Oh, yeah, right, Mr. Fishing Expert, we were just doing it wrong all night and you’re going to show us how? Who do you think we are? Are you kidding? But for whatever reason, Simon does indeed go along with Jesus’s instruction, and takes the boat out again only to come awfully close to losing it with so many fish caught in his nets. Even when another boat shows up to help, both boats are almost tipped over.

It’s a pretty good story, one that would make a pretty good movie scene. But it’s not all that…glorious, on the surface, is it? If anything, the overwhelming adjectives that might be used are “hot,” “sweaty,” and with all those fish, “smelly.”

And yet, look what follows. First of all, the immediate response from Isaiah and from Simon:

Isaiah, in all his prophetic eloquence: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Simon, not quite so eloquent perhaps but right on point: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

The immediate response is not “Hosanna!” or “Praise God!” or anything like that; it’s “I’m in trouble.” Upon seeing the sight, whether obviously holy-looking or not, both Isaiah and Simon have the same moment of realization of their uncleanliness, their unworthiness to be in the presence of the One who performed this act.

While Isaiah is graced with a gesture of purification from one of those bad-dude seraphs and Peter gets no such thing, the end of the story is where these two come together as call stories. Isaiah’s response is one of the classic lines of scripture – “Here am I! Send me!” Peter’s response, on the other hand, is wordless; he, along with James and John, simply drop everything – including their boats and all those fish – and follow Jesus.

That’s where Luke’s account gets scary. That’s not something we’re prepared to do, not by a long shot. But know this: we – all of us – are called nonetheless. To risk the correction of my old English teachers for a near-double negative, no one is not called. Maybe we’re not called to drop everything and go, but we are called nonetheless. No matter how inglorious or sweaty or smelly our setting, we are called. The question is, are we listening? Will we ever hear that call, even if the church fills up with seraphs or Jesus drops two boatloads of fish on us?

For those who hear and follow, Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #1, Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!; #—, With Grateful Heart My Thanks I Bring (text #334, adapted to tune SOLID ROCK); #170, You Walk Along Our Shoreline, #432, How Clear Is Our Vocation, Lord

 

Luke 5


Sermon: Right In Front of You

Grace Presbyterian Church

January 27, 2019, Epiphany 3C

Luke 4:14-30

Right in Front of You

Every gospel has its quirks, something characteristic of that gospel that stands out in an odd way. John talks about “signs” instead of miracles, for example. Some use the language of “kingdom of God,” some say “kingdom of heaven” (Matthew in particular does the latter).

Mark, the earliest of the gospels, has a particular quirk known as the “Messianic secret.” It seems as though any time any person in that gospel starts to speak of Jesus in anything like messianic terms, Jesus tries to shut them up. Something like “Jesus sternly instructed him not to tell anyone” appears. Of course, nobody listens. But since Mark was the first of the four canonical gospels to be written, and seems to have at least been borrowed by both Matthew and Luke in constructing their gospels, you might wonder if this quirk would show up in those later gospels as well.

The account found in today’s reading from Luke blows that theory away.

After all of the stuff that has occupied Luke’s gospel so far – the extensive account of Jesus’s birth taking up two whole chapters, basically – and then the work of John the baptizer, the baptism of Jesus, a quick genealogy, and the temptation narrative, we finally get to the beginning of Jesus’s work. We finally get his first recorded public speaking appearance. And as a bonus, it’s in his hometown of Nazareth.

The way Luke sets up the story, Jesus has evidently been making some reputation for himself in other parts of Galilee. Mind you, we are speaking of a good reputation here, the likes of which no pastor ever really experiences. Seriously, “he was praised by everyone”? When does that ever happen? Not even limiting the question to preachers, when is anyone ever “praised by everyone” in their job? Never, that I know of, that’s when. But as Jesus comes back to his hometown, this is the reputation that precedes him.

Notice that Luke introduces that bit of narrative with the description of Jesus as “filled with the power of the Spirit.” This continues a pattern that began with his baptism, when you might remember that “the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove,” and continued at the beginning of chapter 4, when he, “full of the Holy Spirit … was led by the Spirit into the wilderness,” where he experienced temptation directly at the hands of the devil. Now as his ministry begins, Luke repeats this invocation of the Spirit’s work in Jesus. He’s not just striking out on his own here; he is truly led by and empowered by the Spirit as he begins his ministry.

Having made his reputation in the synagogues of Galilee, he now appears in Nazareth, in the synagogue where he was brought up. Not surprisingly he was called upon to read. As was the custom in the synagogue, a local setting for worship outside the Temple in Jerusalem but without a priest in charge, a man was selected in advance to read and expound upon the scripture, typically a scripture of his choice. (Imagine if someone had met you at the door and told you that you were preaching today. Something like that.)

Following the custom of the synagogue, he stands to read, from the prophet Isaiah. He scrolls through the scroll, finding passages from what we would know as the first two verses of chapter 61, interspersed with the sixth verse of chapter 58 (the part about the oppressed going free). By stopping where he does, Jesus is actually doing a bit of selective scripture citation; he invokes the “year of the Lord’s favor” named by Isaiah, but leaves out “the day of vengeance of our God.” Hmm, wonder if that means something?

He reads and, again following the custom of the synagogue at that time, sits down. Luke is building up the suspense quite effectively, with the comment that “the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.” One might imagine dramatic music in the background, a camera zooming in, and finally, the big moment:

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Talk about a … concise sermon.

This scripture – passages from the prophet Isaiah long associated with the people’s expectation of a Messiah – is being fulfilled right in front of you? In hearing this man – this “local boy” – read, we are witnessing the scripture being fulfilled? Wait…what?

No wonder the people were flummoxed.

Well, he speaks very nicely, doesn’t he?

He speaks very … graciously?

This is Joe’s boy, right? Joseph the carpenter?

But Jesus doesn’t leave well enough alone. If you’ve ever wondered where we get “Physician, heal thyself” from, well, here you are. But also notice the next sentence: “and you will say, ‘do here also in your hometown the things we have heard you did at Capernaum’.” You put on a good show at Capernaum, son. Why can’t you do that for us, your hometown folks?

Jesus goes on to give us another familiar saying, the one about how a prophet is not respected at home, and then cuts to the quick. In both the invocation of Elijah’s miracle for a widow in Sidon and Elisha’s healing of Naaman the Syrian general, Jesus strikes at one of the most coveted, most cherished beliefs of the people: the Messiah is for us. Not for anybody else, especially not for them. For us and us alone.

This is how you debut in your hometown?

It’s not as if Hebrew scripture has made any secret of how the Messiah would be good news for all people. Language like “all the nations will turn to Zion,” “a light to all the world,” But here, somehow, it becomes an offense, and things actually literally turn violent. You are reading here about the first attempt on the life of Jesus, at least in Luke’s telling (if you bring in what Herod tried to do in Matthew’s gospel then this is attempt number two).

The people were ready for a good show from the hometown kid, and instead got about the most direct epiphany possible of who Jesus is. One anointed – not just called – to being good news to the poor; one sent – not just called – to proclaim the release of the captive and new sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed and the year of the Lord’s favor, an apparent reference to the traditional Hebrew year of Jubilee, proclaimed in the Torah, in which debts were canceled and land returned to its owners who had been forced to give it up; this is who Jesus announced himself to be.

He also indirectly announced by omission who he was not here to be. In his reading from the scroll of Isaiah, by stopping where he did with “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” he left out something his listeners might have been waiting for. The reading (the full Isaiah 61:2 in our Bibles) actually goes “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God.” (emphasis mine) But Jesus does not go there. He specifically leaves out that part – the vengeance part.

And let’s be blunt here; sometimes we good church folk – first-century synagogue or twenty-first century church – are guilty of wanting to hear all about how they are gonna get it. Those synagogue folk (or we?) are not interested in hearing from a self-claiming messiah who doesn’t bring the vengeance.

And so, they try to throw him off a cliff.

It’s always possible that part of the problem is that those hometown folk recognized not only that the “them” they so wanted to see punished weren’t going to be punished, but also that the good news for the poor, release to captives, freedom to the oppressed and all of that “year of the Lord’s favor” talk might not be immediately profitable for them either. The year of Jubilee, for example, included a provision that debts be forgiven. But what if you were the one to whom the debt was owed? Maybe this is not good news for you. What if you were the one who had claimed the land another family had given up, but now in this year of Jubilee that family was going to return to it? Maybe this is not good news for you.

Here was a congregation, good synagogue folk, who came looking for a good show from the local boy made good, and instead got Joe’s boy claiming the mantle of being anointed by the Holy Spirit and a kick in the teeth to their very way of thinking about this religion that they had inherited over the millennia.

We don’t know what Jesus had been preaching around Galilee before this. We don’t know what it was he did in Capernaum that the home folk wanted to see in verse 23. But it is at least possible that he was saying and doing the very same things he said and did here. But those were different congregations, possibly? Folks who knew themselves to be poor, captive, oppressed, desperately in need of the Lord’s favor? To them, such a proclamation would have been unabashed good news, right?

It happened right in front of them, this undoing of everything that they had come to believe. What they knew was so …  comfortable. What he said wasn’t. And so they rejected him. This was not the response Jesus would receive everywhere, but like the saying goes about prophets and hometowns… .

For the ones who are uncomfortable with Jesus, and yet listen anyway, Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #634, To God Be the Glory; #744, Arise, Your Light is Come!; #318, In Christ There Is No East or West; #610, O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing


Sermon: The Really Good Wine

Grace Presbyterian Church

January 20, 2019, Epiphany 2C

Isaiah 24:4-13; John 2:1-11

The Really Good Wine

Wine is something of a mixed bag in scripture. There are many passages, particularly in Hebrew scripture, in which wine (or “strong drink”) is denounced as a “mocker” or some other description of how its excess is destructive to a person. Proverbs tends to go there, and there are also passages in Leviticus that lean that way. On the other hand, many passages also take a more celebratory view of that particular drink. Proverbs’s mirror-image companion, Ecclesiastes, provides a couple of examples – 9:7 suggests that one “go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart,” while 10:19 suggests that “wine gladdens life.” While we live in a very different time and a very different perspective, it seems both can be true: in excess, or in the wrong hands, wine (or other alcoholic drink) can be incredibly destructive (as I witnessed as a child), while it can still be a part of celebration when consumed “in moderation” as the modern vernacular puts it.

Perhaps most striking is a passage like our reading in Isaiah, in which the absence or insufficiency of wine is a marker of a fallen and desolate place. In a land under the judgment of the Lord (as described in 24:1-3), along with more obvious signs of desolation it is noted in verse 7 that “the wine dries up; the vine languishes, all the merry-hearted sigh.” In short, to understand the drama in today’s gospel reading, whatever one’s own views of wine or alcohol more generally (and I don’t drink the stuff myself), one needs to understand that wine is regarded at absolute minimum as a good thing for such an event, a common drink, and one that is especially suited to celebration and feasting. A wedding celebration such as that at which Jesus is are present would have wine, and lots of it.

Except in this case, the wedding hosts didn’t have enough of it.

I promise you that there are multiple sermons that could be developed from this passage, and there’s no way I could possibly cover and expound upon all the good and worthwhile truths to be gleaned from this story even if I were prone to preach thirty-minute sermons (and I hope you’ve noticed I don’t do that). I can only try to give one possible point here, really, and somehow the way this dilemma of not enough wine ends up being resolved seems to be pointing to something we perhaps need to realize.

The wine for this multi-day wedding feast is indeed running out. It’s not totally clear why; it might be that the hosts didn’t plan for enough, or that the guests (who were also expected to contribute to the supply for the occasion) failed to do their part. Whatever the situation, it’s running out, and at minimum such an event promised to be a social embarrassment for the couple and the hosts for the rest of their lives. If you know small towns, like Cana, you can guess how such an embarrassment could linger.

Somehow Jesus’s mother gets involved (for some reason in John’s gospel she never gets a name). Some speculate that she might have been related to one of the families involved in the wedding. For whatever reason, she takes it upon herself to tell her son, who to this point has apparently been doing a good impersonation of a wallflower along with his disciples. His response to her cannot help but look rather stark to modern readers: “Woman, what concern is that to you and me?” First of all, that looks rather snarky – “why is this our problem?” and second…I don’t know about you, but if I had ever called my mother “woman” to her face I’m not sure I’d be here today. Biblical commentators will fall all over themselves trying to explain away or even justify that mode of address, but in all honesty it’s going to look rude or disrespectful no matter what.

Nonetheless, his mother one-ups him by leaving the servants with him with the instruction to “do whatever he tells you.” One might almost hear Jesus exclaiming after her as she walks away – “mooooommmm…

Despite his expressed unwillingness to do so, Jesus does act. He tells those servants to take six huge stone jars, typically used to hold water for purification rituals, and fill them with water. Then he tells them to take some of that to the chief steward for his approval. Not exactly a lot of dramatic action here, but by the time that “water” gets to the steward’s lips it isn’t plain old water anymore. It’s wine, and apparently it is really good wine.

There’s the thing. It is really good wine. It’s impressive enough that the steward can’t help but comment on how unusual this is. He has to call aside the bridegroom and observe how this wine is so much better than usual at this stage of a wedding celebration.

As such events stretched out over days in first-century Palestine, it was not uncommon to be careful about what kind of wine, or what quality of wine, was served at what stage of the feast. Break out the really good stuff first, and then, when even the most cautious of celebrants is a bit numb to the taste of wine, unload the lesser (and less expensive) vintage. In modern terms you would break out the best French wines you could find at the beginning of the feast, and by this stage of the proceedings you’d be serving the stuff that comes in a box.

It isn’t just that Jesus performed a miracle, or a “sign” as John is careful to call them in his gospel. To John, these events were “signs” in that they show us who Jesus is. As verse 11 puts it, Jesus “revealed his glory” in this act, enough so that “his disciples believed in him” (they had only just joined him at the end of the previous chapter). For those who witnessed the event, this was a kind of epiphany of who Jesus was.

But who, exactly, witnessed this “sign”? His disciples, apparently. The servants who were charged with filling up the water jars and taking some to the steward presumably could be called “witnesses,” though their reaction is not recorded. Jesus’s mother presumably understood what happened. But who else? For a sign of God’s glory in Jesus, this isn’t exactly a very big sign.

Except that in a way it is a big sign, admittedly. At a time when the wedding feast threatened to run dry, Jesus brought somewhere between 120 and 150 gallons of wine – again, really good wine – to the proceedings. That could keep the party going for a while. It isn’t just a patchwork fix. It’s a serious shot of energy added to the proceedings. It’s extravagant. It’s almost over-the-top. In that sense, it is a big showy sign.

But how many of the wedding guests knew about it? How many of them had any kind of reaction beyond “hey, this is pretty good stuff here”? We don’t know how many, but John doesn’t seem to act as if there was much reaction at all outside of Jesus’s disciples. And as noted before, it sure seems that only a few people even knew what had happened. We get no indication that even the steward who first tasted the new wine ever learned how that new wine had come to pass. So what kind of sign is this, exactly?

For one thing, clearly it is a sign of grace and abundance. For the wedding host on the verge of embarrassment – unpleasant, certainly, but not life-threatening – Jesus provides gallons upon gallons of really good wine. Karoline Lewis, preaching professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN, frames the point as the answer to the question, “what does grace upon grace taste like? The best wine and gallons of it when you least expect it.”

This abundance isn’t a private thing, though. It spills out to the benefit of all of the wedding guests, whether they even knew what was going on or not. Lewis continues:

We have so modified and codified abundance it’s hard to recognize it anymore. And some have so monopolized abundance, hoarded it, thinking that it is theirs to control, theirs to possess — and even, theirs to take away. Theirs to keep for themselves, because those without it? Well, clearly they have not merited God’s attention, earned God’s graces. Because in these cases, abundance is equated with God’s favor. Abundance is connected with God’s blessing. Or, these guarders of abundance are so enmeshed in their own self-warranted abundance that they cannot see beyond it. They have qualified and quantified abundance in such a way that suggests God’s blessings are actually measurable and predictable.

That’s not how abundance works. It really does spill out beyond any boundaries we try to put up around it, no matter how much we try to keep it for ourselves. Being blessed with abundance isn’t about how much you get for yourself; it’s about how much flows out to all. Individual abundance isn’t abundance at all; it’s just hoarding. Like the wine perked up the wedding feast even for those who had no idea what was going on in the back, true divine abundance spills out even to those completely unawares; it is not and can never be reserved only for those who brag about how much they have with the social media hashtag #blessed.

Second, it’s not just about abundance; it’s good abundance, so to speak. It wasn’t just wine that saved the day at the wedding; it was, again, really good wine– the best that had been brought out yet. It isn’t merely about getting by; it’s about receiving fully, without limitation and without reservation.

Come to think of it, there is one set of people who actually didn’t gain any benefit from this sign that Jesus performed at Cana. Have you ever known a wedding where every invited guest actually showed up? There were no doubt people who had been invited to that wedding feast and, for whatever reason, didn’t attend. Maybe that’s another thing to remember; when it comes to living in the grace of God, showing up really is half the battle sometimes.

That of course doesn’t mean only showing up right now, for worship, although clearly I’ll never deny that worship matters and showing up for it is important. But there is so much more to being the body of Christ, and showing up for that matters as well. Just look, for example, at the various kinds of outreach supported by our mission committee. Even more, look outside the walls of this church, where so much need for grace, for compassion, for the most basic extending of God’s abundance is needed. Showing up does matter, and maybe we need to do more of that.

It is a strange sign, indeed. Known by very few, but experienced by many; extravagant in scope and quality; given without qualification or being ‘earned’; such is the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit.

For the really good wine, Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #401, Here In This Place (Gather Us In); #477, Thy Mercy and Thy Truth, O Lord (Psalm 36); #292, As the Wind Song; #156, Sing of God Made Manifest

 

 


Baptism Meditation: Baptized Among Us

Grace Presbyterian Church

January 13, 2019, Baptism of the Lord C

Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Baptized Among Us

 

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;

I have called you by name, you are mine.

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;

And through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.

Those words from the prophet Isaiah were probably familiar, at least a little bit, to many (not all, necessarily, but many) of those who had made their way out to John in the wilderness to be baptized. All of the prophets and their words mattered, of course, but sometimes it seems as if Isaiah’s words mattered a little bit more. And this is a passage of comfort and protection, unlike many of the oracles recorded in the books of the Hebrew prophets, with words of judgment and promises of doom. So it’s not at all unlikely that someone among those being baptized, in being called into the water by John, might have had those very words on their lips:

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you

It’s doubtful, however, that anyone in that crowd that day expected that old prophetic oracle to take quite such a … literal turn.

After all of the people had been baptized, some were probably trying to dry off, others might have been making small conversation, or possibly watching to see what John would do next, or praying. That’s where it happened, to one man, about thirtyish, who was praying. See how carefully Luke has to say it: “the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.” You can imagine somebody getting all flustered trying to describe what happened later.

But there was more:

And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.

There he was – there he had been along – the only Son of God, being baptized, just like the rest of us. Even waiting in line to be baptized, just like us.

Every year in the lectionary cycle this Sunday, marking the baptism of the Lord, follows after the cycle that begins with Advent, runs through all of Christmas, and concludes with Epiphany, which we observed last Sunday. One of the results of this placement is that it becomes clearer just how much this event, Jesus’s baptism, resounds and echoes with themes we hear in those seasons and observances.

Clearly we can say that as Luke tells the story, Jesus’s baptism is itself a kind of epiphany. Out of nowhere, one person out of many, praying, probably still dripping, is descended upon by the Holy Spirit and called the only Son – the Beloved – of God. If that’s not a revelation of Christ, I don’t know what is.

But also, remember words like “Emmanuel” and “incarnation,” words from Advent and Christmas. “Emmanuel” – God with us; incarnation – God as one of us, remember? And indeed this is revealed to the surprise of those still drying off from the waters of the river. God – right here with us! Waiting in line to be baptized with us! Not far off in heaven somewhere, but right here with us!

It is Advent and Christmas and Epiphany all in one. God among us, one of us, baptized among us as one of us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #485, We Know That Christ Is Raised; #480, Take Me to the Water; #482, Baptized in Water; #741, Guide My Feet


Sermon: The Star-Struck Part

Grace Presbyterian Church

January 6, 2019, Epiphany C

Psalm 72:1-14; Matthew 2:1-12

The Star-Struck Part

Having passed through all of Advent, from its unsettling look at the end times through all of its anticipation of the birth of a Redeemer, the call of John in the wilderness and the prophecy of the unwed mother Mary, and finally through the manger at Bethlehem and the song of the angels to the shepherds, and through all twelve days of Christmas, there is one more part of the story to tell.

Our story so far has come from the gospel of Luke. The details found here in the gospel of Matthew are quite different. All of the business about John’s unlikely birth and angels visiting Mary and the journey to Bethlehem are absent; instead, late in Chapter 1, it is Joseph to whom an angel speaks, warning him off of divorcing Mary over her pregnancy and confirming just who this child Jesus would be. Joseph follows the instructions of the angel and marries Mary, and then Jesus is born.

As Chapter 2 opens, the story shifts to Jerusalem, where an unstable king is visited by foreign dignitaries asking about the birth of his successor – to Herod, what else would the “king of the Jews” be? He consults his advisors in a panic, gets an answer from them about where this was happening, and then tries to con the visitors into betraying this new child’s location to him so he could eliminate the threat to his throne. These visitors, most likely astrologer/astronomers from Persia, make their way to Bethlehem following this strange star, and there they find the child, probably about two years old by this time (and in a house, not a stable). They pay their homage, leave their strange gifts, and then…head home, “warned in a dream” to go a different way and avoid spilling the beans to Herod.

If Luke’s Nativity story is all sweet and romantic, Matthew’s narrative has more elements of conspiracy thriller, with intrigue and double-dealing aplenty. One can understand why Luke’s account is so much more popular. Nonetheless, the account of these magi and their visit is compelling, and presumably we do need to be able to take some sort of instruction from it. But what?

In tandem with the psalm we read earlier, we could speak of how Jesus fulfills the prayer of the psalmist for a good king and what that should be (especially when contrasted with the double-dealing Herod). Or we could talk about the meaning of those odd gifts, or how these magi were the first non-Jewish persons to behold the Christ child as far as we know – they are us, so to speak. But maybe there is something else. Maybe, in the case of this story, we need to look up.

These wise men (and there’s nothing that says there were three of them in this scripture) were prompted to take this journey by the appearance of that star. As noted above, these men were most likely a cross between astronomers and astrologers, and watching stars was certainly part of their business. But to be provoked into such a journey certainly suggests something powerful and compelling in what they saw, and how it matched up with their studies and learning. They were prepared for its appearance, and were ready to act accordingly when it appeared.

What this star did just isn’t normal. To speak of a star, or frankly any kind of heavenly body, that not only rises, but then moves ahead of the travelers and finally stops over this particular house in Bethlehem…that’s not how heavenly bodies work. Something different was happening here.

And it’s not as if these particular sky-watchers should have been the only ones who could see it, right? Any number of observers probably saw this thing going on if they watched with any sort of attention. But no one else was moved to make such a journey.

Only these particular magi, we might say, were star-struck.

Only they were prepared to see the sign, and ready to act upon what they saw.

Might we learn from these people?

We Christians (which these magi were not, we should remember) will sometimes use the term “followers of Christ” or “followers of God” or some variant thereof to describe who we are or what we are to be about. That implies that we are watching, observing, looking and listening to see where Christ leads us, one assumes.

Are we, though?

Are we truly alert and ready to act when we see, for lack of a better word, a sign from God? Are we truly motivated, charged, energized to get up and follow, to act, to move should we see and hear such a call? What would it take for us to be so prepared and so ready to act?

The trip on foot and by camel from Persia (what we now call Iran) to Palestine is neither short nor easy, and yet these astrologers took it, seemingly without flinching or hesitation, all to pay homage to a child-to-be-king of a foreign nation. What does it take to get us inspired to act? What does it take to get us to do the work of the church, to carry out Christ’s work in God’s world?

Are we truly watching and listening for the Spirit to do something in our lives, to lead us into something that might even be challenging and difficult?

Maybe what we need to learn from this final part of the story is that, after all, we could stand to be a little more star-struck.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #147, The First Nowell (verses 3-6 only); #149, All Hail to God’s Anointed; #151, We Three Kings of Orient Are; #145, What Child Is This

 


Sermon: The Practical Part (or, Now What?)

Grace Presbyterian Church

December 30, 2018, Christmas 1C

Luke 2:41-52; Colossians 3:12-17

The Practical Part (or, Now What?)

Well, we made it. We have survived what the world defines as the “Christmas season.”

Note that distinction. The church, or some of it anyway, remembers that the season of Christmas is something else altogether, that the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” actually corresponds with the season of the church year that begins on Christmas Day and concludes with the day before Epiphany. Today is the sixth day of Christmas, by that reckoning, and in fact the season of Christmas lasts the rest of this week.

But it’s pointless to deny that the world’s definition of “Christmas season” has its hooks in us pretty securely, so that I’m guessing this past Wednesday was more or less a day of collapse, if that sense of physical and emotional crash didn’t in fact kick in sometime late on Tuesday, depending on how your day went. In many families presents get exchanged, a big meal gets consumed, and then…it’s over, to some degree.

In truth, though, many families are still in a sort of holiday limbo, since children have not yet returned to school. There may be extra daycare involved, or perhaps extended vacation time to deal with this particular situation, but even though everything isn’t quite back to normal, it’s discernibly “not Christmas” anymore.

Even the church will come to the end of the twelve days of Christmas. The days can be marked through this week and next Sunday will bring the observance of Epiphany, the occasion on which the so-called wise men or Magi arrived to see and honor the child Jesus. (Even though they’re always in those manger scenes, they arrived much later.)

So let’s jump ahead to next week, a week from tomorrow, let’s say. Epiphany is past, all this stuff in the sanctuary is ready to be put away, and…then what? What do we do when  Christmas is over?

In thinking about this question, it might help if we can shake away some of the tinsel and greenery and remember the substance behind what we celebrate.

For one thing, we celebrate Emmanuel – that word from Isaiah, the one that translates as “God with us.” Not “God off in the heavens somewhere,” “God with us.” God among us. This isn’t about just a cute baby set in an animal feed trough (a baby that looked nothing like this one here in this manger scene) through seeming circumstances of divine intervention. This is God down to earth.

Furthermore, along with Emmanuel, we also should remember the word Incarnation. You might say it takes the whole idea of Emmanuel – “God with us,” remember – and extends it even further, more shockingly, more unthinkably. God isn’t just with us, or among us; God is one of us.

Remember the Nicene Creed: “for us and for our salvation he came down from heaven and became truly human.” (emphasis mine) This just a few lines after Jesus is described as “true God from true God,” every bit God all the way through. The Scots Confession we use for our Affirmation of Faith today also speaks to this theological truth:

When the fullness of time came God sent his Son, his eternal wisdom, the substance of his own glory, into this world, who took the nature of humanity from the substance of a woman by means of the Holy Ghost. And so was born the very Messiah promised, whom we confess and acknowledge to be Emmanuel, true God and true man, two perfect natures united and joined in one person.(emphasis mine)

 God among us as one of us: this is your miracle of Christmas.

Now, with these two things in mind, let’s go back to our dilemma. What is our life to be in the wake of Christmas? Do we resort to cheesy song lyrics about “keeping the Christmas spirit all year long”? Or is there something more?

Now, in my experience there are some preacher types out there who will tell you (if they even know big words like “Incarnation”) that these are things you don’t really need to worry your precious little head about. You see, they’d say, those things are about the one thing that matters: making sure you get yourself “saved” and get that all-important Get Out of Hell Free Card. It doesn’t mean anything about how you live your life, just keep the Ten Commandments and do what we tell you (they’d say) and you’ll be fine.

Let’s be clear about this. I’m pretty sure (and I’m hoping my professional theologian friends will check me on this) that the precise theological description for such an idea is, and again I’m pretty sure about this, “loony.”

Of course God-with-us makes a difference in how we live.

Of course Incarnation makes a difference in how we live.

Of course these two truths are absolutely vital for the way we conduct ourselves to one another and to the world.

Our epistle reading takes a stab at describing this Emmanuel- and Incarnation-infused life with an interesting metaphor. Having spoken earlier in the book of “putting off” the things of the flesh – those sins that mire us and hold us down – the author now describes the new, Incarnation-led life as something like putting on a new set of clothes.

Clothe yourselves with compassion. The novelist and Presbyterian pastor Frederick Buechner describes compassion as “the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it’s like to live inside someone else’s skin.”

He goes on: “It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.” This is not merely personal change; it matters because it changes how we live with others.

In a similar vein the epistler exhorts his readers to clothe themselves in kindness, humility, meekness, and patience – all things that come from within us to govern how we relate to others – and finally to “clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” Again, like so much we ignore, our living out Incarnation doesn’t happen individually – it is about living with one another, in community, and how that community reflects the incarnate, with-us God we claim.

Finally, these instructions add a few more practices to help us along: the Word of Christ within us; teaching one another and checking one another; and oh, goodness, singing! “Sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God” out of a heart filled with gratitude. (If you wonder why we sing four hymns in a typical service instead of three, blame this verse.) These practices aren’t merely about having fun at church any more than Christmas is merely about pretty decorations and pretty manger scenes. These practices form us. They shape us and mold us and keep us fast to that Word and that incarnate God and that God-with-us. (This is where I put in this plug: sing the hymns. If you can’t sing, sing them anyway. If you don’t know them, sing anyway. This is how we show (and learn) who we are, or one of the ways at minimum.)

Want to “keep Christmas” all year long, as Ebenezer Scrooge might say? Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, love; let Christ’s Word live in you; teach one another; and sing with grace and with gratitude in your heart. It’s hard to do better.

For the new clothes of the God-with-us life, Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #143, Angels, from the Realms of Glory; #127, Hark! the Herald Angels Sing; #137, He Came Down; #136, Go, Tell It on the Mountain