Grace Presbyterian Church
March 17, 2019, Lent 2C
The Destiny of a Prophet
What happens to prophets?
While prophets and their words are scattered liberally across scripture, we often don’t find out in scripture what actually happens to those prophets. The prophet Samuel grows old and dies, and the prophet Elijah is ultimately taken up into heaven in that chariot of fire, but otherwise we generally don’t hear what happens to the likes of Nathan, the prophet who rebuked King David, or those whose names (like Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel and such) whose names are on so many of the books of Hebrew scripture.
Clearly, though, those in Jesus’s time seemed to have a couple of “old sayings” on the subject. We’ve already heard Jesus, earlier in the gospel of Luke, quote one such saying, about how a prophet would be respected anywhere but his hometown. In today’s reading Jesus seems to be citing another such popular belief when, in his answer to those Pharisees who come to warn him about Herod, he says “for it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem,” from which he launches into a lament for the city that “kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!”
Much as the biblical record doesn’t tell us much about the accuracy of this statement, the historical record outside of scripture doesn’t help much either. However, Luke’s readers would have some more recent examples of potential “prophets” who did indeed meet their demise in Jerusalem. The earliest example was James, the apostle best known as the first half of “James and John” in much of the gospel. Those who read part two of Luke’s account, what we know as the Acts of the Apostles, would also know the story of Stephen, the deacon turned apologist who was stoned to death in that city. Of course, by the time Luke’s gospel was being disseminated both the apostles Peter and Paul had been executed in Rome rather than Jerusalem, but even then the agitation against them that led to their respective executions had its origins in Jerusalem. The city, and the authorities both religious and political situated there, could be deadly for those charged to speak a word from God.
Besides the saying itself, its delivery to a group of apparently helpful Pharisees is also rather baffling. In the gospels and Acts Pharisees end up with a bad reputation, often portrayed as implacable enemies of Jesus. As is usually the case, the truth is a bit more nuanced. They were the target of much of Jesus’s denunciation, and they were often portrayed as setting “traps” for Jesus hoping to trick him into saying something they could use against him. But also, Pharisees keep inviting Jesus over for a meal, and (as here), there are those Pharisees who seem to want to keep Jesus from harm or at least want to hear more from him.
Jesus’s response here is less concerned with the messengers than the source of the message, Herod the tetrarch of Galilee (tetrarch = “not quite king”, a title meant to remind Herod of the limits of his authority in the Roman Empire). The term “fox” is not a compliment; foxes were regarded as clever but destructive creatures. While this answer overall is a bit tricky to untangle, the gist of it is this: Herod can’t touch me. I have my work to do, and God is the one who controls that. And my destiny is Jerusalem.
That last has been the case for a while in Luke’s gospel. As far back as 9:51, shortly after the Transfiguration, we are told this:
When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.
“Set his face” is about as much resolution, determination, and fierceness as one can act upon. Even from this point, Jesus knows his destiny, and it ends up in Jerusalem, at the hands of the authorities there. It won’t necessarily be that direct a route, and there will be a lot of stops on the way, such as we are witnessing here in chapter 13. There is teaching to be done, there are illnesses to be healed and demons to be cast out, but all of these things take place in the context of a determined journey with only one possible final destination. And even here how that finale will play out is foreshadowed, with that oblique “on the third day” reference that Luke’s readers could not miss. None of this was at all affected by anything Herod could possibly do.
Just because Jesus knew what was coming in Jerusalem didn’t mean Jesus held any sort of grudge or animus against that place. The oft-quoted lament, heard everywhere from impassioned sermons to the music of Felix Mendelssohn, contains some striking imagery (the hen gathering her chicks under her wings is a particularly interesting way of portraying God) and makes clear the distress of God at that city’s long historical unwillingness to be gathered in. His reaction to Jerusalem is one of grief, not anger.
Even if this passage makes a little more sense in the context of Jesus’s resolve to go to Jerusalem, it’s still an awkward fit in our ears in some ways. What exactly does this mean for us? What do we do about all this?
I’ve never been one for using the image of a “Lenten journey” for this liturgical season. This passage is an example of why. The journey isn’t ours to make; as Luke makes clear, the journey that matters is Jesus’s. We don’t make our own journey; we follow Jesus on his journey.
Even that, though; what does it mean? Let’s face it, we don’t live in a society where we are all that likely to suffer physical persecution for our faith, no matter what certain commentators try to say. We are relatively safe from any kind of authoritarian suppression, unlike many in the world. But what does it mean to follow a Jesus who determinedly “set his face” towards a violent fate?
Maybe this is where the “journey” part matters. As noted before, on this journey it’s not as if Jesus has suddenly stopped teaching and healing. As our book group members know, there are still a lot of meals to be shared. There’s still the Lord’s Prayer to be taught to his disciples. In this last portion of Luke, after 9:51, we get the parables of the Good Samaritan; the thief in the night; the banquet the lost sheep, coin, and son (we call that one the “prodigal” son); the dishonest manager; the rich man and Lazarus; and many more (and that’s just through chapter 15). Zacchaeus’s is still to come, as well as that of blind Bartimaeus.
Maybe the point of this passage is to listen to what Jesus teaches, and to “go and do likewise.” Maybe the point is to see what Jesus does, and to “go and do likewise.”
Maybe we are supposed to be following Jesus in order to be like Jesus, not by ending up slated for an execution but by speaking and teaching good news and ministering healing to those who suffer; by standing up for and standing with those the world deems expendable and oppressable and undesirable; by being the agent of Christ’s work in God’s world. Maybe that, more than anything, is the point. It’s probably uncomfortable, and it’s definitely challenging, but it’s hard to see how it’s not the point here.
The only journey we’re really interested in is Jesus’s. The only fate or destiny that really matters to us is Jesus’s, especially that “on the third day” part that is the whole reason we can even bother with enough hope to minister this way in a world where shooting forty-nine Muslims at prayer in New Zealand gets tacit approval from our authorities, and where the only ones who seem to care about our ongoing destruction of our planet are the children who have to live with the consequences.
So, we minister, we proclaim, and we wait with Jesus, and we watch for that third day, when despite all opposition and oppression Jerusalem can muster, Jesus completes his work.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #12, Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise; #450, Be Thou My Vision; #828, More Love to Thee; #543, God, Be the Love to Search and Keep Me
Grace Presbyterian Church
March 10, 2019, Lent 1C
Every year in the lectionary cycle, as the season of Lent commences, the first Sunday of Lent features as its gospel reading an account of the temptation of Jesus. Conveniently, all three of the synoptic gospels include such an account (though the gospel of John does not), but the three accounts given can differ in remarkable ways.
Mark’s gospel, generally agreed to be the first to be written, barely does more than mention the temptation; Jesus is in the desert for forty days, being tempted, Jesus was “with the wild beasts,” and angels ministered to him. That’s about it. Matthew’s account is more detailed, like Luke’s, but reverses the order of the second and third temptations that Luke includes. (One could almost make a sermon of that difference, but not today. Maybe next year.) Matthew also includes the angels ministering to Jesus in the wake of the temptation, which Luke does not.
One thing Luke and Matthew agree upon, though, is Jesus’s condition after forty days of this fasting and temptation. Both of the gospels make sure we understand that Jesus had eaten nothing for forty days by that time, and both use the word that we get translated here as “famished.”
“Famished” is a pretty visceral word. It’s one thing to say simply that you’re hungry, no matter how much emphasis you put on it – “I’m so hungry” is probably something like you have heard from your children at some point or another. “Starving” is strong, but also carries a separate, more clinical meaning – how many times were you chastised for not cleaning your plate because of those starving children in Africa? – that in some ways detracts from its immediate forcefulness.
For Luke (and Matthew too) to say that Jesus was “famished” feels different. Luke has already shown something of a flair for drama so far, and this certainly has a definite emotional and dramatic force. It cuts through the “duh” factor – well, of course Jesus is hungry, he hasn’t eaten for forty days – and brings home the raw sensation of the moment, the weakness and vulnerability inherent in a human being in Jesus’s condition at that particular moment. It also reminds us of that which we sometimes need to recall; that Jesus, Son of God that he was even walking about on earth, was also fully human, and in this moment painfully human.
So, not a surprise that the tempter first appeals to that famished-ness, is it? Turn these stones to bread and eat up. And if you think about it, there were an awful lot of hungry people – maybe even famished – who could be fed by such a maneuver, and plenty of stones just waiting to be turned to bread.
But Jesus turns away that temptation, as he does with the temptation to claim all worldly power (even though the tempter was not the one to hand out such power) and to demonstrate divine protection (in which Jesus answers the tempter’s quotation of a psalm with his third straight citation from Deuteronomy). Absent those ministering angels in Matthew, Jesus’s temptation ends as the tempter departs until an “opportune time,” which will turn out to be three years later, when a malcontent disciple named Judas provides the means to bring Jesus down. Or so the tempter thought.
Still, though, we have to marvel at how Jesus swatted aside those temptations like a basketball star rejecting shots around the goal. And in his famished condition, it can be even harder for us to comprehend. I know I can’t think straight when I’m even moderately hungry, and I’ll be the first to admit I’ve never truly been famished in my lifetime.
How does he do it?
Well, there is one other aspect of Luke’s account of the temptation that is different from Matthew’s and Mark’s stories. Both Matthew and Mark describe Jesus as being led out to the wilderness for this experience by the Holy Spirit. That can be hard for us to stomach, the idea that it was the Spirit that put Jesus in this position. After all, doesn’t the Lord’s Prayer specifically ask God not to lead us into a time of trial? Of course, one might argue that this experience is why Jesus teaches the disciples to ask for this, but that’s a topic for another sermon. Here, the Holy Spirit leads Jesus out into the wilderness. (Mark puts it even more harshly in his brief account, saying in 1:12 that the Spirit “immediately drove him out into the wilderness” when he was barely dry from his baptism.)
You can talk about things like how this experience clarifies exactly what Jesus’s mission is on earth, or what his relationship to God is, or any number of things like that, but this idea of the Spirit leading Jesus intotemptation isn’t ever going to sit easily with us. But there is one more element of Luke’s temptation account that is unique to him that we haven’t spoken of yet.
Notice how this passage begins: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness.”
The Spirit doesn’t lead Jesus into the wilderness unarmed or undefended. Jesus faced the tempter full of the Holy Spirit, and that’s a mismatch every time. No matter how famished he might have been, Jesus was full of what mattered; physical hunger was no match for spiritual fullness.
Here’s the thing, though: the same thing is true for us, when we face temptation – at least if we would simply accept it. After the famous part of John 14, the part about “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” Jesus tells his disciples this: (14:16-17)
And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
We are not left alone and defenseless. That Advocate, that Holy Spirit that filled Jesus out in that wilderness is with us and would fill us in that same way in whatever time of temptation or testing we might ever face.
What is it with us, that we don’t remember this? Do we really think that our Lord abandons us in these times of trial? We are, if we will accept it, as armed as Jesus was facing this temptation. Let the Spirit do her work. Let the Spirit fill us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #215, What Wondrous Love is This; #168, Within Your Shelter, Loving God (Psalm 91); #167, Forty Days and Forty Nights; #165, The Glory of These Forty Days
Grace Presbyterian Church
March 6, 2019, Ash Wednesday C
In the ongoing struggle over the urgent issue of human-affected climate change and what to do about it, a rather startling new development has become more noticeable in recent months. Beyond the legion of climate scientists with huge, sometimes mind-numbing amounts of research and data and the deniers with no data but huge, also mind-numbing amounts of oil industry money, a third position is starting to be heard with some more frequency.
You might call this the “climate doom” faction. The position espoused here is that, if anything, the climate scientists are understating the problem, and in fact we’ve passed the tipping point that heralds catastrophic change sometime soon (in the large geophysical scheme of things). What is odd about this position is that, having decided it’s too late to stop bad things from happening, these doomsayers argue that we should … do nothing. It is at best a strange, and at worst a damning position. We can’t stop major damaging change from happening, so we might as well keep going the way we are and make it as bad as possible …? Is that really a logical take?
That’s not a recommended position to take now, and it wasn’t a recommended position to take in Joel’s time. The prophet speaks in his brief volume to a catastrophe that has overtaken the land. We aren’t quite certain what kind of catastrophe – Joel’s language is so metaphorical that it’s hard to know for sure – but he does invoke, in 1:4, a plague of locusts, perhaps evoking the plague visited upon Egypt in Moses’ time. While it’s not necessarily certain that’s what happened (the locusts could have been a metaphor for an invading army), neither is it impossible or implausible.
Joel prophecies, or more accurately observes, devastation all around him from this possibly ecological disaster, but his prophecy is not doom and despair. Instead, Joel’s call (or more rightly God’s call given through Joel) is one of repentance. Not surprisingly, Joel, like so many other prophets, calls upon the people to forswear their sinful ways and return to the Lord.
But on this Ash Wednesday, a day given to a visible and public act of showing repentance, it’s interesting to note a few key things about this repentance. For one thing, Joel’s prophecy is decidedly lacking in blame. God is in this case not interested, apparently, in naming and calling out those whose sin brought calamity on the people. You might find such talk in other prophetic utterances captured in scripture, but not here. The time for blame, it seems, is past; repentance and return to faithful service of God is the call now.
The call for repentance here is also a corporate call, extremely so, including even infants and others who would normally have been excused from such assemblies. Penitent individuals are called to act in community, not alone. Furthermore, the penitence extends not only to the people themselves, but to the very land and its creatures that have equally been ravaged by the calamity. These people have been reminded of the Ash Wednesday truism that we are dust and shall return to dust, and further that we share this fate with all of creation. This repentance and reconciliation is not merely anthropocentric; all of creation is deeply involved.
It is also needful to note that this repentance is not, in this case, specifically directed towards some particular cleansing of guilt. As noted before, this prophecy is not so interested in blame, and neither is it interested in naming and shaming of any particular guilt. Here our repentance is one of realizing and admitting our utter dependence on God and the mercy of God.
God is called “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” in verse 13, and it is this quality of mercy and love that is the sole basis for the people’s repentance. Our fallen human tendencies inevitably lead us to downfall in some way or another, absent the working of the Spirit and the grace of God, and it is only in that grace that our reconciliation and redemption can be hoped at all. To quote biblical scholar Loyd Allen, “by virtue of who we are, we will sow in tears; by virtue of who God is, we may reap in joy.”
This, even more than any particular sin we might bear, is our Ash Wednesday and Lenten call; to know ourselves as utterly dependent on “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit,” as that Pauline benediction I often use goes. We rely on no other, if we truly follow Christ. Whatever your Lenten discipline, let it be towards this end: to know your dependence on God, and to lay aside anything that would lead you astray from that dependence.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #166, Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days; #427, Jesus Knows the Inmost Heart; #422, Create in Me a Clean Heart
Grace Presbyterian Church
March 3, 2019, Transfiguration C
They Were Terrified
(Note: what follows is an after-the-fact attempt at summarizing and hopefully recapturing the main points of a sermon delivered without notes on Sunday, March 3, as GPC met for worship at Montgomery Presbyterian Center.)
There is a lot that has already happened in Luke’s account, just in this chapter. At the beginning the disciples are sent out for ministry of teaching and healing, and they return with great joy observing that, in layperson’s terms, “it worked!” Herod has also taken notice of this Jesus fellow, and (after a quick turn feeding five thousand) Jesus has gathered the disciples back together for a conversation about who people say he is. After answers about John, Elijah, or one of the ancient prophets, he asks “but who do you say that I am?” This is when Peter makes his one really good statement, correctly naming Jesus as the Messiah, to which Jesus says…shhh. Don’t tell anybody. Then, to throw things off even more, he starts talking about not glorious things, but things like suffering and rejection and being executed (although he does throw in being raised from the dead too), and then challenging anyone who would be a disciple denying themselves and taking up crosses and following, and how whoever would save one’s own life would lose it and vice versa. So a lot is going on, to be sure.
Luke’s gospel could never have been set in Florida; there aren’t any mountains here, and Jesus’s go-to retreat places always seem to be mountains in this gospel. For this retreat Peter, James, and John are with him, and are already getting groggy when Jesus is settling in to pray. What happens next definitely keeps them awake. Jesus’s appearance changes; his face is different and his robe is suddenly “dazzling white.”
Oh, and then Moses and Elijah, heroes of the faith, show up, talking to Jesus about what’s to come in Jerusalem, the suffering and execution and being raised again. So that’s a lot to take in.
Whether it’s the grogginess or the slightly overwhelmed sensation after all that’s already happened, Peter turns around and starts talking without his mouth being plugged into his brain. Luke even tries to soften the harshness of the inappropriate moment with the slightly pitying description “not knowing what he said.” Even so, this talk about building “dwellings” (more specifically tents or booths, like might be erected at Jewish festivals) seems to set off something more menacing, as a cloud advanced upon the scene and overshadowed the disciples. Clouds have a history as a marker of God’s presence (all the way back to the Exodus), and sure enough, a voice (quite God-like) came from the cloud with this insistent bit of instruction: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Suddenly the cloud is gone, Moses and Elijah are gone, and it’s just Jesus, standing there.
But don’t overlook what Luke tells us about the disciples when the cloud appears: “…they were terrified” as the cloud overtook them. Terrified.
Apparently they were terrified enough that they didn’t talk about it, at least not at the time. What happened on the mountain stayed on the mountain.
As understandable as it might be, terror, or fear, never really works as a response to God. The disciples clam up. When they have come down the mountain the next day, they are confronted by the man with the suffering child whom the disciples – who had just been out teaching and healing not long before – unable to heal him, and apparently Peter, James, and John didn’t help. Again, being afraid is quite understandable – not just that dramatic scene but all that Jesus had said before about suffering and dying – but it still doesn’t help.
It didn’t help the disciples then, and it doesn’t help the church now.
These days the church has a bad time with fear. In particular the world we live in and the highly disrupted and disordered society we now live in can set off fear to be sure, but the church also seems to have a bad time with the moving of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit moves among those whom the church had decided cannot belong – they’re wrong, they’re immoral, they’re rejected and they’re not part of us, and God goes out calling them and moving among them and setting them apart for ministry, even. The church reacts with fear, and the church damages its witness.
We can’t do that. We have so little witness as it is, we can’t throw it off because we’re afraid of what God is doing. We fail to serve God when fear overtakes us.
Elsewhere in scripture we are told that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). That’s a charge for us to follow. That “perfect love” is what God wants to show to the world through us. If we are pulling back in fear from those God is calling and claiming as God’s own children, we are rejecting that perfect love. And we are killing ourselves as a church, local or universal.
Perfect love casts out that fear, even when we’re terrified.. And for that, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #300, We Are One in the Spirit; #792, There Is a Balm in Gilead; #527, Eat This Bread; #227, Jesus, Remember Me; #741, Guide My Feet
Grace Presbyterian Church
February 24, 2019, Epiphany 7C
Do What Now, Jesus?
Boy, would I rather not preach on this scripture.
As late as last night I was seriously considering jumping over to one of the other scriptures in the lectionary today (the Genesis passage is the climax of a great story, but it leads right back to the hard stuff in this reading), or maybe even looking at one of the nearby readings in Luke that was not going to be covered in the lectionary, despite the week’s worth of preparation that has gone into this particular scripture (not that the preparation really is any good at making you feel confident about preaching a scripture like this one). Honestly, I think I’d rather spend several weeks buried in Leviticus or Deuteronomy, or one of the minor prophets, or even plowing through the weirder parts of Revelation, than to preach this scripture.
I hope I don’t have to explain why. As if last week’s alt-Beatitudes weren’t challenging enough with woes matched up to the blessings we expect, now Jesus really plunges off the deep end.
“Love your enemies…” Say what?
“Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you…” Uh, come again, Jesus?
“If anyone strikes you on the cheek, turn the other also…” Seriously?
“…and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.” Do what now, Jesus?
These verses have been in our canon, so to speak, for so long now it can be hard to let ourselves feel just how shocking, how demanding, or even how offensive they can be. Sometimes that might also be partly because we have trouble conceiving of ourselves, for example, as having enemies, or someone who would curse us. We aren’t accustomed even to conceiving of the possibility that anything in our lives might have caused a setback or some kind of harm to others that might even incline them to think unkindly of us, much less that if they should do so, it would be our call – pretty directly so, from Jesus himself right here – to return them good for evil. But here it is, in inescapable or un-fudge-able terms. Love your enemies. Bless those that curse you.
Of course Jesus goes on. Why should it be a big deal to love those who love you, do good to those who do good to you, and so on? Anybody can do that. (You can practically hear the attitude in that statement.) But the kicker sneaks in there, in verses 35-36:
But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
There it is, the inescapable part. We’re supposed to take after our Heavenly Father, or at least as much as possible as Jesus shows us. And this is what Jesus does. So, we are called to do so as well. (And yeah, the fact that we ourselves are graced with God’s forgiveness is a thing too.)
But seriously, Jesus, how about a little help? I mean, can the wicked be a little less egregiously nasty?
Take one of the news headlines that crashed in on us in the last couple of days, out of south Florida, where news came of a human trafficking ring that is under investigation there for smuggling young women into the country for immoral purposes. It is a horrible, gross, vile crime, human trafficking. It is ultimately slavery, that thing we try to convince ourselves got abolished back in 1865, and yet there it is in our own state. For all of that, we probably would not have heard much about this story if one of the patrons of that trafficking ring hadn’t been the owner of the newly-crowned Super Bowl champions in the NFL.
I don’t want to love or bless such people, neither the scum who engage in the kidnapping and trafficking or the rich old men who take advantage of them. I don’t want to. You can’t make me, God. You can’t.
And yet God, for all their evil, loves them. Therefore, I can’t get away with saying no.
There is another aspect to these verses, though, one that really does require us to be extremely cautious in how we quote them or toss them around as prescriptions or instructions to others. Some of the instruction here can very easily be twisted or misused, becoming in the wrong hands instruments of violence, oppression, or exploitation.
For example: that business of giving to anyone who asks of you is hard enough, but twist it a bit, combine it with other scripture fragments about how “God loves a cheerful giver” or the story of the widow’s mite, and suddenly the poor, lonely older woman is sending all her money to some unscrupulous televangelist.
Or the verses that advise us to “pray for those who abuse you” or especially the one that still resonates in popular parlance as “turn the other cheek.” Now, imagine a woman being beaten savagely by her husband or girlfriend, only to be picked up off the floor and told to “turn the other cheek.” Or that young woman seeking out an authority figure – a pastor, say – and laying our her plight to him (and in this case it’s definitely a “him”), only to have that pastor take “pray for those who abuse you” and combine it with his unyielding commitment to the man as absolute power in the household, resulting in telling her only to “pray for those who abuse you,” without bothering to seek shelter or safety. Go home. Pray for your husband. And get beaten again.
These things do happen. Bad interpretations of scripture combine with unhealthy ideas of authority to trap people in abuse of all kinds.
We cannot –must not – toss these words around without remembering the overarching command of verse 36: be merciful. If our way of acting upon or teaching these verses ends up in any way being unmerciful to any other, or even turns harmful to any other, we are doing it wrong. If anyone is suffering from being told to pray for those who abuse them, we’re doing it wrong. If anyone is being harmed because we have told them to love their enemies, we’re doing it wrong, and we need to stop.
These verses only work under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We simply can’t toss them around as spiritualized bon mots without both understanding the utter scandal that they represent even now, and knowing how easily these words can be twisted and abused for harm or violence. These things must be taught with mercy, even as our Father is merciful. Otherwise, who knows what harm we might do in the name of God.
Still, even for these verses, with all the trouble they cause, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #436, God of Compassion, in Mercy Befriend Us; #815, Give to the Winds thy Fears; #435, There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy; #295, Go to the World!
Grace Presbyterian Church
February 17, 2019, Epiphany 6C
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
Grace Presbyterian Church
February 10, 2019, Epiphany 5C
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