Grace Presbyterian Church

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Sermon: Doomsday Scenarios

Grace Presbyterian Church

March 6, 2019, Ash Wednesday C

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

Doomsday Scenarios

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


Sermon: They Were Terrified

Grace Presbyterian Church

March 3, 2019, Transfiguration C

Luke 9:28-43

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


Sermon: Do What Now, Jesus?

Grace Presbyterian Church

February 24, 2019, Epiphany 7C

Genesis 45:3-11; Luke 6:27-38

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!

 

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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