Epiphany 6 C
February 17, 2019
Comforting the Afflicted and Afflicting the Comfortable

During this season after Epiphany, we’ve heard readings from Luke’s gospel about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. After his baptism and time of temptation in the wilderness, Jesus returned to Galilee and began to preach in the synagogues there, including the one in his hometown of Nazareth. Things didn’t go well there, as you may recall. He continued to heal people, cast out unclean spirits, and teach the crowds who sought him out.

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 Epiphany 6 C February 17, 2019

Jeremiah 17:5-10 Pastor Susan Henry

1 Corinthians 15:12-20 House of Prayer Lutheran Church

Luke 6:17-26 Hingham MA

Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Comforting the Afflicted and Afflicting the Comfortable

During this season after Epiphany, we’ve heard readings from Luke’s gospel about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  After his baptism and time of temptation in the wilderness, Jesus returned to Galilee and began to preach in the synagogues there, including the one in his hometown of Nazareth.  Things didn’t go well there, as you may recall.  He continued to heal people, cast out unclean spirits, and teach the crowds who sought him out.

Last week, we heard how he taught from Simon Peter’s boat and then told Simon to “Put out into the deep water and let [your] nets down for a catch.”  Despite having fished all night and caught nothing, Simon did what Jesus asked – and was stunned by the miraculous catch that filled the nets so full that both his and his partners’ boats began to sink.  Simon, James, and John left it all behind in order to follow Jesus.

After that, Jesus healed some more people, called another disciple, and antagonized some of the religious leaders.  The writer of Luke tells us that “. . . during those days, he went out on the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God.” The next day he called his disciples together and chose twelve of them whom Luke often calls “apostles” – those who will be sent out.  As today’s gospel begins, Jesus has come down from the mountain with them, and he stands “on a level place.”  

Now, as the writer of Matthew tells the story, Jesus preaches “the sermon on the mount,’ and that’s the version of the beatitudes we’re most familiar with.  For Matthew, Jesus is the new Moses, bringing down to God’s people what God has given on the mountain, so it’s fitting for Jesus to teach from up there.

But Luke offers a somewhat different perspective.  For Luke, Jesus is the Savior of the whole world, and Jesus is down there on the plain, on a level place that’s right in the thick of a crowd of both Jews and Gentiles – “people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.”  Beginning in Nazareth, Jesus was claiming that what God had promised through the prophet Isaiah was being fulfilled in him.  He announced good news for those who most often heard bad news, proclaimed release and freedom for those who were imprisoned or oppressed, and provided glimpses of a whole other way of living in the world.  In the midst of ordinary life, out there in a meadow or some grassy field, Jesus said that the reign of God was being revealed.

Jews who heard Luke’s telling of Jesus’ story might remember that the prophet Isaiah had also announced that “every valley shall be filled; and every mountain and hill shall be made low . . . and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”  On a level place, people would see the Savior of the world – and so they do.

They see Jesus looking up at them, and they hear good news -- or, at least those who are poor, hungry, sorrowful, or rejected hear good news.  “Blessed are you,” Jesus says to them.  Sometimes that’s translated as “Happy are you . . .” but that might sound superficial and perhaps even callous if you are someone who is destitute, starving, grieving or feels cast aside.  If you sleep rough even in the winter, and you yearn for a hot meal at Father Bill’s, “happy” seems like the wrong word.  If you’re barely coping with the loss of someone you love or if you’re being bullied by your classmates, surely “happy” doesn’t describe you.

Maybe, though, “blessed” does.  “Yours is the kingdom of God,” Jesus says.  Not “will be” – but “is.”  Already, you belong to God.  Here and now, in the cold and in your hunger and your sadness and your loneliness, you are not alone.  Already, you are loved.  The grace of God revealed in Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, is for you.  The kingdom of God is yours, and blessed are you.

You may remember that, years ago, through Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services’ partnership with Lutheran Social Services, about fifty Sudanese unaccompanied minors were resettled in the Boston area.  They were often referred to as “The Lost Boys,” but they objected to that, saying that they were never lost, that they had always known where they were.

My colleague at St. Paul and his wife took in four of the guys for a while, and when the beatitudes came up in the lectionary readings, Ross asked Bol, one of the older boys, a question.  “You were poor,” he said, “Were you blessed?”  Bol replied, “We were blessed because we knew that all we had was God.  You have so many things that you do not know that.”

Like the other Sudanese, Bol had walked a thousand miles – from Sudan to Ethiopia, back to Sudan, and then to Kenya where he spent eight years in a refugee camp.  Really, he had almost nothing – but he knew he had God.  In that knowing, he was blessed, satisfied in the deepest possible way, paradoxically at peace, living honorably, experiencing life in the kingdom of God despite poverty, hunger, sorrow and struggle. Jesus spoke – and still speaks – to those who most need to hear his voice and know his presence with them.  Where valleys and hills are still being leveled out, Jesus comforts those who are afflicted.

I wanted absolutely none of the Sudanese guys’ affliction – none of the sheer poverty, none of the worry about making meager food rations last a whole month, none of the sorrow over the deaths of parents and friends during the war, none of the fear or rejection experienced by those who sought (and still seek) a new life in America.  But I envied their rock-solid conviction that, no matter what, they had God.

Maybe, despite all the things that can keep us from acknowledging our utter dependence on God, you already know that all you have is God.  Or maybe, like me and pretty much everybody I know, you are susceptible to our culture’s insistence that having wealth and power and success, along with a full pantry, a pretty carefree life, and being well thought of are what makes for a life that feels “blessed.”  That illusion gets punctured now and then, of course, but often we patch it up so we can go on believing that we deserve what we have because, after all, we’ve worked hard for it.  But just when things are going smoothly, Jesus afflicts us who are comfortable.  “Woe to you who are rich and full, who are caught up in mindlessly enjoying life and soaking up others’ adulation.  Woe to you who are entranced by a kingdom other than God’s.  Woe to you who do not know that all you have is God.”

Jesus sees us – really sees us – and tells us the truth about our lives.  Sometimes the truth hurts.  It makes us uncomfortable to have Jesus challenge our way of being in the world, reveal how shallow and selfish we can be, and shine a light on how much we depend on ourselves and how little we actually depend on God.  Maybe our woes are wounds we refuse to let Jesus heal – the restlessness that persists when we expect to feel content, a hunger for peace of mind or heart, our shameless disregard for those whom Jesus explicitly calls “blessed.”  Woe to us and to our world when we go looking for love in all the wrong places. 

The gospel’s job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.  Today the gospel is poking at us, calling us beyond the woes and walls we’ve created for ourselves and into the good company of those whom Jesus calls blessed, those to whom he says the kingdom of God belongs.  It can be hard to go there.  

In lyrics based on a prayer by Ignatius of Loyola, songwriter Dan Schutte goes to the place where our woes and God’s blessedness meet:

Take my heart, O Lord, take my hopes and dreams.

Take my mind with all of its plans and schemes.

Give me nothing more than your love and grace,

These alone, O God, are enough for me.

Take my thoughts, O Lord, and my memory.

Take my tears, my joys, my liberty.

Give me nothing more than your love and grace.

These alone, O God, are enough for me.

I surrender, Lord, all I have and hold.

I return to you your gifts untold.

Give me nothing more than your love and grace.

These alone, O God, are enough for me.

When the darkness falls on my final days,

Take the very breath that sang your praise.

Give me nothing more than your love and grace.

These alone, O God, are enough for me.

Such deep and daring faith reflects Bol’s conviction that he is blessed because he knows that all he has is God.  The kingdom of God is his, here and now and always.  The “woes” Jesus proclaims are meant to wake us up, to pierce our hearts, and to move us to live more fully in that realm where God’s love and grace are enough for us.  Here and now and always, “sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever,” we are part of the kingdom Jesus proclaims.  And, especially when we are literally with those who are poor, hungry, sorrowful or rejected, we are living at the intersection of affliction and comfort, woes and blessedness, our sin and God’s grace.  

Amen 

   

    

          

Epiphany 5 C
February 10, 2019
A Story for Us

A few years ago when Vicar Axel was our intern, he invited people to a series of gatherings where they could tell stories in response to a question he posed ahead of time. Wonderful or difficult family stories, amazing faith stories, treasured Christmas-tradition stories and more got told during those gatherings that he called “Have I Got a Story for You.” Stories are everywhere, of course – in the scriptures we hear, the lives we live, the institutions we’re part of, the historical documents we save, and the practices that might reveal stories we didn’t even know we were telling.

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Epiphany 5 C February 10, 2019

Isaiah 6:1-13 Pastor Susan Henry

1 Corinthians 15:1-11 House of Prayer Lutheran Church

Luke 5:1-11 Hingham MA

Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

A Story for Us

A few years ago when Vicar Axel was our intern, he invited people to a series of gatherings where they could tell stories in response to a question he posed ahead of time.  Wonderful or difficult family stories, amazing faith stories, treasured Christmas-tradition stories and more got told during those gatherings that he called “Have I Got a Story for You.”  Stories are everywhere, of course – in the scriptures we hear, the lives we live, the institutions we’re part of, the historical documents we save, and the practices that might reveal stories we didn’t even know we were telling.

The day you called me as your pastor, I baptized Marie Warneck with water from a very little bowl that held not much water.  And when the bread and wine were brought forward before communion, there was just a little wine in a small cruet and there were nickel-sized wafers piled on a small silver paten.  I was a little shocked.  Wow, I thought, this congregation is unintentionally telling me about a theology of scarcity rather than of abundance.  Kind of like, “We’re just bringing a little because we’re not sure there will always be ‘enough.’”

That wasn’t the only story you told me, of course, as we got to know each other.  People generously brought soup, cereal, pasta, and more for Wellspring’s food pantry.  Christmas gifts for youth in Ascentria’s care and Christmas boxes for Wellspring clients filled the hallway.  Oktoberfest proceeds supported nonprofits that made a difference in the community.  All these things continue, along with countless newer expressions of generous and compassionate care for others.  Plus, a bigger bowl at the font offers a more expansive image of baptismal waters, and bread and wine are visibly abundant at the Lord’s table.  We continue to grow more fully into a theology of abundance rather than of scarcity.

We’re still susceptible to the fear of not having “enough,” of course.  Congregations everywhere are figuring out how to be church-as-they’ve-always-known-it and, at the very same time, be church-in-a-changing-time.  When there aren’t as many people in worship as there once were, people start to get anxious.  When it’s harder to find teachers or committee members, we might feel the old tug of a theology of scarcity.  When what’s going on in the world around us stresses us out, we get tempted to hunker down and just hold on.  We start to worry about not having “enough,” about fishing all night and catching nothing.

Some of you have been part of this congregation for a very long time while others are newer to House of Prayer.  I’ve heard lots of stories about significant times in the congregation’s life, and I’m always intrigued by new stories that help me understand the congregation’s DNA, so to speak.  This week, Pat Beal brought some documents from the time when this congregation and three others were considering becoming one new ministry on the South Shore.  This church was part of the Lutheran Church in America, the LCA -- one of the predecessor bodies of the current Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the ELCA.  The other churches were part of the Missouri Synod, a smaller Lutheran body that was, in the past, considerably more open and less rigid than it has become today.

The pastors of these congregations supported each other in their ministries, had a terrific shared confirmation program that some of you were part of, and started to think together about something like a merger.  In the end, three congregations joined together to form the Lutheran Church of the South Shore for several years.  I’ve always been curious about how this came together and why it fell apart.  Among the papers Pat brought was a 1976 assessment from a church consultant about the most effective use of the four potential church buildings and properties.  There was a 1982 letter from the LCA that was a strong nudge about paying off a supposedly short-term loan from the LCA fifteen years earlier.  There was also a 1982 long-range-planning document about the proposed new ministry on the South Shore.

That document notes the good, supportive relationships among the pastors and the annual Reformation service that area Lutheran churches shared, and it adds that “The Lutheran congregations shared also the struggle for survival in an area where Lutheran tradition is meager.”  Oh, I thought, ‘survival’ and ‘meager’ are words about scarcity.  Later in the document I saw that “drastic reductions in subsidy monies” were anticipated, so consolidating the congregations would allow Lutherans on the South Shore to “improve Lutheran witness, to share resources, develop programs and specialize in ministry that would not be possible as separate congregations, and to continue to survive.”  Clearly, those who led this process anticipated a vital ongoing ministry by Lutherans on the South Shore, but they also named their fear about not being able to survive.  Fishing together might be their only chance to make it.

Isn’t it fascinating to see how that kind of anxiety can run through a congregation’s history and, without people actually knowing about it, continue to influence the congregation’s life?  Maybe our resources will be too meager.  Maybe we’ll have to struggle to survive.  Maybe there won’t be “enough.”  Maybe we’ll fish all night and catch nothing at all.

I’m not dismissing those kinds of concerns, but I want to lay our gospel story for today alongside them.  In it, the writer of Luke says, “Have I got a story for you.”  He proceeds to tell how, once, when Jesus was standing beside the Sea of Galilee – which is another name for the lake of Gennesaret – and some people who wanted to hear the word of God were crowding in around him, he saw two boats along the shore.  After a long, hard night’s work, the fishers were washing their nets.  In Jesus’ time, people who fished for a living were lower middle-class folks, either owning or leasing their boats, and a decent night’s fishing on a regular basis made for a decent living.

On that particular day, Jesus got into Simon’s boat – Simon who we mostly know as Peter – and Jesus asked him to go out just a little way from the shore.  Voices carry well across the water, and so Jesus taught for a while from the boat.  Then he asked Simon to “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”  Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.”  Does he wonder whether a carpenter and teacher is really the right guy to offer advice about where to fish?  Maybe.  But apparently this isn’t Simon’s first encounter with Jesus.  Luke tells us that after Jesus has cast out an unclean spirit from a man at the synagogue in Capernaum, Jesus goes to Simon’s house where he heals Simon’s mother-in-law of a fever.  And, in our story today, Simon calls Jesus “Master” – teacher – which suggests he has been listening to Jesus in the synagogue, as Jesus healed people, and right there that day in Simon’s boat.

“Master, we’ve been out all night and have nothing to show for it. ‘Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.’”  And so he did.  And then there were so many fish that the nets began to break.  They called to the other boat for help, and they came and filled both of the boats so full of fish that they began to sink.  Stunned by the abundance of the catch and by his recognition that he is in the presence of what is holy, Simon sinks to his knees and says, “Go away, Lord.  Go away from me because I am a sinful person.”  It is a wondrous and a terrifying thing to catch a glimpse of the power and glory of God when you’re just going along living your ordinary life.  In the presence of all that is holy, we human beings know ourselves to be other-than-holy.      

Jesus says nothing about forgiving Simon, but instead says, “Do not be afraid.”  Don’t be afraid, because I have work for you to do.  Don’t be afraid, because what you see is just the beginning of the abundance God intends for you and for others and for all of creation.  Don’t be afraid, because, instead of being caught up in your own small stuff, you will catch others up in God’s big, gracious, saving net of mercy and abundance.

Something changed for Simon Peter.  He had known Jesus as Teacher, but now he knew him as Lord.  He had been a student of Jesus, but now he would become a disciple.  He and James and John “left everything and followed [Jesus].”  Ironically, perhaps, leaving everything had nothing to do with scarcity and everything to do with abundance.

In that miraculous catch, not only was there “enough,” but there was more than enough – a sign of the year of jubilee that Jesus was proclaiming.  If, like Simon and the others, you had fished all night and caught nothing, you were welcome to share in that remarkable catch.  There it was, two boatfuls of it.  You could feed your family and go to the market with way more than you’d anticipated.  There was enough – and way, way more.  With Jesus, where there had been scarcity, there was now abundance.  Of course you’re going to have to go out the next night and the next to fish again, but now you’ve caught a glimpse of something greater than your fear that there will never be “enough.”

The writer of Luke places this story near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and I suspect it is because those who are part of Luke’s community of believers were just as susceptible to being caught up in anxiety about not having ‘enough’ as communities of faith still can be.  From the beginning, Jesus lays the groundwork for a theology of abundance, a life that is rich and full and curious about what it means to live together as the people of God in any place and at any time and under any circumstances.  We might not be stunned by actual miraculous catches of fish, but this story just might make its home in our hearts, speak to our fear of not having ‘enough,’ and lead us to go wherever Jesus wants to take us.

Simon, James and John didn’t ask Jesus to stay there on the lake with them, fishing together every night so they could be sure they’d always have “enough.”  Instead, they left everything and followed him.  There on dry land, they “put out into the deep water” and went with Jesus.  They discovered what we too come to know -- that, even in the midst of struggle, anxiety, or uncertainly, life with Jesus is always a life of abundance.    

Amen                     

                         

Epiphany 4 C
February 3, 2019
Throwing Jesus Off a Cliff

Last week, we heard part one of this story from Luke’s gospel – the part where Jesus comes to the synagogue in his hometown. He has been baptized and received the Holy Spirit, and, after his time in the wilderness, he has begun his ministry. Luke has told us that Jesus “began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.” Now, in Nazareth, he has read a familiar passage from Isaiah and said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Everyone is looking at him, waiting to hear what else he will say. And that brings us to part two of the story.

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Epiphany 4 C February 3, 2019

Jeremiah 1:4-10 Pastor Susan Henry

1 Corinthians 13”1-13 House of Prayer Lutheran Church

Luke 4:21-30 Hingham MA

Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ

Throwing Jesus Off a Cliff

Last week, we heard part one of this story from Luke’s gospel – the part where Jesus comes to the synagogue in his hometown.  He has been baptized and received the Holy Spirit, and, after his time in the wilderness, he has begun his ministry.  Luke has told us that Jesus “began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.”  Now, in Nazareth, he has read a familiar passage from Isaiah and said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  Everyone is looking at him, waiting to hear what else he will say.  And that brings us to part two of the story.

Maybe this is what they expect to hear:  “Mom, Dad, Auntie Hannah, Uncle Joel, all you cousins, neighbors, and friends – it’s so great to be back home.  Thank you all for the positive influence you’ve had on my life.  I want you to know what a blessing you’ve been to me.”  If that was what he was going to say, they’d feel pretty good about how their local boy has made good, in part thanks to them.  They’d been hearing about what he was saying and doing, and maybe they figured they’d get some special consideration from him since, after all, they’re pretty important to him.

What they get, however, is more a slap in the face than a pat on the back.  It seems like it began all right:  “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.”  Maybe he did fulfill some of their “Mom, Dad, Auntie Hannah, Uncle Joel . . . “ expectations.  But then someone says, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”  Now, that could be taken two ways.  It could mean, “Wow, how did the son of a carpenter from a village like ours become so learned and so eloquent and so wise?”  Or it could mean, “Wait a minute, who does this son of a village carpenter think he is?”

  I wish we had a little more of that sermon so we knew why Jesus was citing proverbs like, “Doctor, heal yourself.”  Somehow, he has already challenged or offended those who are gathered in the synagogue on the Sabbath.  Maybe it’s dawning on them that he meant what he said about the prophet Isaiah’s words being fulfilled in him – and who goes around saying stuff like that?  Isaiah spoke words of hope to people who were poor, captive, blind and oppressed.   Maybe Jesus’ listeners suspect that he’s saying that those are the people he cares the most about – not the ones who raised him, taught him, care about him, and have an investment in his success as a teacher.

And, really, is he serious?  Does he think proclaiming “the year of the Lord’s favor” means it should literally take place?  From ancient times, the jubilee year – which fell every fifty years – was meant to provide the land itself time to rest, give slaves their freedom, forgive debts, and justly bring people home.  It was to be a time for joy and celebration.  Scholars think the jubilee year – which in Jesus’ time might have been that very year – was more aspirational than actually practiced, but Jesus is saying, “No, God means for these things to really happen.” 

Now we begin to glimpse why Jesus’ hearers are offended by him.  Just think of the economic impact of letting land lie fallow for a whole year, even if it will mean better yields later.  Or think of how it will upset the social order if people whose situations had forced them into slavery have to be set free.  And if you haven’t been paid by your customers, now you’re supposed to just wipe that debt off your books?  And property is going to revert to whoever owned it fifty years ago?

Granted, this is all good news if you don’t want the land to be overworked, if your circumstances have left you in slavery, if you have debt so crushing it keeps you from living life fully or if your family’s land was taken over by someone whose wealth or power allowed them to evict you or force you to work on their behalf rather than your own.  No wonder it’s a time for them to celebrate.

But -- if you are a person who farms the land you consider “yours” or who will have to make do without the enslaved laborers who allow you to do well financially, this will not be such good news.  If you are expected to simply forgive people’s legitimate debts to you or if your family has annexed fields that others had once owned, this whole jubilee thing Jesus is proclaiming sounds more like bad news for you.

Of course, proposing to upset the social and economic applecart is no less offensive today than in Jesus’ time.  Presbyterian pastor and writer Ernest Hess responds this way:  “All of this is very challenging for those of us who are not among the poor, marginalized, oppressed or imprisoned of our society to hear.  It is threatening to contemplate the turning upside down of economic structures from which we benefit.”

So, are you ready to throw Jesus off a cliff yet?

But wait, there’s more.  Jesus is about to remind his listeners in the synagogue that God cares not just for people like them – for insiders, so to speak – but for outsiders, foreigners, people who don’t worship as they worship.  What -- you haven’t offended them enough yet, Jesus?  Here he is, in his hometown with people who have welcomed him and who are expecting that he’ll do for them what he’s done for others in a nearby town.  Jesus subtly but provocatively gets in their face about their expectations and their sense of entitlement.  He reminds them about what God did for a couple long-ago and far-away outsiders who were supposedly entitled to nothing from God.  During the famine in Elijah’s time when there were hungry Jews everywhere, Jesus says, who did God provide food for?  A non-Jew in Sidon, a widow in the town of Zarephath to whom Elijah was sent.  And when there were lots of people who needed healing in Israel, Jesus says, who did Elisha send down to the river to be healed of his skin disease?  A non-Jew from Syria.  You’re not the only people who matter to God.

So – a) justice is going to sting, and b) everybody’s well-being matters to God.  It’s not all about you, Jesus says to his hometown listeners.  And they don’t want to hear it.  They really don’t want to hear it.  They drive him out of the synagogue and intend to throw him off a cliff, but “he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”

From the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus’ words and deeds and presence evoked resistance – and even violence -- from those who were not poor, marginalized, imprisoned or oppressed.  Eventually, Jesus went “on his way” to Jerusalem where violence finally prevailed and presumably had won – until God vindicated Jesus’ mission of mercy and justice by raising him to new life. 

Here’s the truth.  You and I are complicit in economic structures that offer the land itself no rest but rather exploit God’s creation as though it were humankind’s to do with whatever we choose.  Jesus’ proclamation of the jubilee has something to say to us.  You and I are people of privilege in a country where God’s own love and justice for poor, marginalized, imprisoned and oppressed people is likely to cost us something – and it’s hard to hear Jesus read from Isaiah without recognizing our resistance to that.  You and I know ourselves to be beloved of God, to be people whose lives get put back together again and again by God’s grace and forgiveness – but we may resist the idea that God’s grace and mercy and healing comes to people who may not call God by the name we do or worship in the way we do.   Jesus’ stories about how, through Elijah and Elisha, God provided for and healed some unlikely people might poke at our assumptions about God and challenge our own sense of entitlement as believers.

So – now are you ready to throw Jesus off a cliff?

After spending a week with this story from Luke’s gospel, I understand better why the good people of the synagogue in Nazareth were filled with rage.  Who do you think you are, Jesus, preaching jubilee and social transformation, grace and mercy, justice and God’s own hard truth?  That truth is that God loves as we are – and God loves us too much to leave us as we are.   

Jesus has taken the scroll and read, “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  For most of us here who hear Jesus’ words, impoverishment, captivity, blindness and oppression may be less physical than spiritual, and so, as Ernest Hess puts it, “ we need the moral courage to listen to the intention of God for humanity as Jesus proclaims it in Luke 4, and we can be opened up by hearing accounts of how persons who are in those very situations hear with joy and renewed hope this good news of social transformation.”  Such moral courage and such willingness to listen to others’ stories will serve us well.  We can acknowledge our resistance to what we hear from Jesus even as we work and pray for the fulfillment of God’s jubilee so that all may live as God desires.

Now, there is some good news for us who want to throw Jesus off a cliff today.  He proclaims “the year of the Lord’s favor,” but he does not proclaim, as Isaiah did, “the day of vengeance of our God.”  Vengeance, Jesus insists, is not what God is about.  Instead, God is intent on loving us out of something and loving us into something.  Here and now, today and tomorrow, Jesus is loving us out of our poverty of spirit into the abundant life he promises.  He is loving us out of our captivity to power and privilege and wealth and into freedom.  He is loving us out of our willful blindness to the needs of others and of our planet and into seeking justice.  And he is loving us out of our oppression by unquestioned cultural values that diminish our lives and into compassion.  The sheer power of Jesus’ transforming love in the face of our resistance is cause for hope and joy and celebration.

Amen      

     

                

Epiphany 3 C
January 27, 2019
Right Words, Right People, Right Time

Can you recall a time when you said the wrong words to the wrong person at the wrong moment? Maybe you could have said the same thing some other time and everything would have been fine, but those words on that day to that person weren’t fine at all. Or perhaps what comes to mind here isn’t something you said, but what was said to you.

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Epiphany 3 C     January 27, 2019

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 9-10 Pastor Susan Henry

Psalm 19           House of Prayer Lutheran Church

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a

Luke 4:14-21

Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Right Words, Right People, Right Time

Can you recall a time when you said the wrong words to the wrong person at the wrong moment?  Maybe you could have said the same thing some other time and everything would have been fine, but those words on that day to that person weren’t fine at all.  Or perhaps what comes to mind here isn’t something you said, but what was said to you.

Needless to say, it’s a lot more life-giving and gratifying to say the right words to the right person at the right time – and to hear them, too.  It’s sheer grace when someone offers us a word of hope or appreciation without their knowing our hunger for it.  Or sometimes, somehow, we hear in a new way what we’ve heard many times before, and it opens up something different for us and blesses us.

Our readings today are stories about the right words to the right people at the right time.  Significantly, these are all words spoken out loud and spoken in community.  In the first reading, the priest Ezra and others read from some version of what we know as the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, to a gathering of the men and women and youth who’ve returned from exile and are rebuilding their lives, the Temple, and the city walls of Jerusalem.

Second, Paul’s letters, including today’s words from one letter to the believers in Corinth, were passed along from church to church and read aloud when people were gathered together for worship, instruction, and sharing the Lord’s supper.  Third, in the gospel reading, Jesus has come to the synagogue where he reads aloud from the scroll of Isaiah to those who’ve gathered there for study.  We too hear the word of God read out loud each week as we worship together.  What all these situations have in common are the word of God and a gathered community in which these words are spoken and heard.

Let’s look a little more at the story from Nehemiah.  Why might these be the right words for the right people at the right time?  The people of Israel have settled in their towns after returning from years of exile.  Now they come together in Jerusalem, in the square in front of the Water Gate.  They ask to hear from “the book of the law of Moses” and Ezra reads “from morning until midday” and “the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.”  When Ezra opens the book, the people stand up; he blesses God, and the people lift up their hands and say, “Amen, Amen.”  As Ezra reads, others help people understand the sense of the reading.  And the people weep.

When something goes right to our hearts, tears may come.  Did their tears come because it had been so long since they’d heard these words?  Because their hopes of return had been realized?  Because they saw how short they had fallen of God’s desires for them?  Did tears come because the people heard clearly – in the book of the law, no less – the mercy of God, the forgiveness of God, the love of God that made them the people of God?

We don’t know exactly what Ezra read, but we do know he and others had to tell the people not to weep and mourn.  “This day is holy to the Lord,” they said; “go on – eat and drink and share some of your rich food and sweet wine with others – and rejoice.”  Rejoice:  “the joy of the Lord is your strength.”  A few verses after our reading ends, we find this:  “And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.”  Old words had new meaning for them, meaning that brought joy instead of sorrow, blessing instead of despair, celebration and sharing instead of isolation.  With the help of Ezra and others, they understood – they “got it.”   These were the right words for the right people at the right time.  As scholar Renita Weems writes, “They both heard God’s word and felt God’s presence in a radically new way.”  The joy of the Lord was their strength – strength for the hard work of rebuilding life in community, of renewing relationships, of restoring the Temple, of rejoicing in a God who, astonishingly, is gracious and merciful and has brought them home.

While the reading from the Old Testament focuses on the effects on the hearers of the right words at the right time, the gospel for today is more about the effect on the speaker of the right words at the right time.  The story of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry is one we tell each year at this time.  The writers of Matthew and Mark both tell us that Jesus began proclaiming the good news of the reign of God, but Luke allows us to listen as Jesus lays out what he understands to be God’s vision for his ministry.  It’s Jesus’ first sermon, so to speak, in Nazareth, and the text comes from the prophet Isaiah.

It is Jesus’ practice to go to the synagogue on the Sabbath, and it is the custom there to stand, probably out of respect for God, when the word is read.  Luke says, “The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him.”  There’s a lot we don’t know here.  Did Jesus choose that reading and ask for that scroll?  Or were there set readings, like our lectionary, and so this one fell to him that day?  Or was this a text that new rabbis often preached on?  We just don’t know.

What we do know is that he unrolled the scroll and read this:  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  And then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back, and, as was the custom, sat down to teach.  Jesus’ reputation had preceded him; he was being praised by everyone.  So now, Luke says, “The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.”  When he began to speak, the sermon his hearers got was surely not the sermon they expected – but more about that next week.  Jesus boldly says to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  That’s a pretty extraordinary statement!

Tom Wright is an Anglican bishop and the author of some down-to-earth commentaries that include his own translation of New Testament writings.  In Luke for Everyone, Wright reflects on “inspired performances.”  He notes that we use the word “inspired” very loosely, assuming that in, for example, athletes’ or musicians’ performances, something just comes over them, that they are somehow different from who they usually are.  But Wright reminds us that athletes and musicians have been training and practicing, perfecting their technique out of the public eye, hour after hour, week after week, month after month.  When a surge of adrenalin helps produce an “inspired performance,” we may forget that, as Wright says, “[it] is actually the fruit of long, patient hard work.”

He says that Luke lets us in on the secret of Jesus’ inspired preaching because Jesus says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.”  All that has come before – listening as a child to the stories from scripture his mother told him, his own life of prayer and study, the confirmation of his calling at his baptism – all this comes together in a truly “inspired performance” in the synagogue.  The Spirit of the Lord is upon him.  Maybe Jesus himself “heard God’s word and felt God’s presence in a radically new way.”  It was the right text in the right place at the right time.

Now, I wonder what the “right texts” are for us at this “right time” in our life together.  Like those who returned from exile and stood in the square to hear Ezra read from the book of the law and like Jesus and those who listened as he read from the scroll of Isaiah, we too need to hear stories from the scriptures and listen for God’s word within them.

Like those in the square whose understanding grew with help from others and like those in the synagogue who heard Jesus speak out of his own understanding of what he had read to them, we too are in need of a community of interpretation, a gathering of curious, open, hungry, trying-to-be-faithful people.  We are in need of a church like this one.

Like those in the Temple square who, when they received insight into the scriptures, stood in awe, and like Jesus who “came so close to God and God came so close to him that he understood what God wanted him to do,” we are called to stand in awe, to pay attention, and to pray.

So -- what are the right stories at this right time for us who are called to listen to God’s word, to be part of a community of interpretation, and to pray?  In this moment, in this January 27th, 2019 “right time” of worship together, these are just the right stories.  Like those we hear of in Nehemiah who’ve returned to Jerusalem to rebuild and be renewed, we too need strength for the hard work of continuing to build a strong, loving, committed, lively, faithful community.  We need the joy of the Lord to be our strength as we begin or renew or deepen our relationships with God and with others. 

In today’s reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, we are reminded that we, who are many, are one in Christ.  We have many and diverse gifts; that seems to be one of God’s good ideas.  We’re not all ears, not all eyes, not all musical voices, not all preachers or prophets or pray-ers.  But some among us have these gifts, and others among us have other gifts, spiritual and otherwise, and we need one another’s gifts in order to be a whole and holy body.  We all have God-given gifts, and in community, in the body, we can come to name and know our own and one another’s gifts, not so we can take pride in them or affect false humility about them, but so that we can discover how God wants us to use them.

Scholar Ann Svennungsen says, “There is no room for boasting and no room for feelings of inferiority.”  Paul says if one part of the body suffers, the whole body suffers.  If one member of the body hides or withholds their gifts, the whole body is weaker and the whole body suffers.  If each member is honored, there is much to rejoice in.  Paul’s words are the right words for our body in this right time.

And what of Jesus’ words?  In baptism, the Spirit that rested on Jesus and that inspired him in the synagogue is given to us, too.  The vision of God claimed by Jesus as his mission is ours to continue as his friends and followers.  We are the body of Christ in the world today.  The poor still need to hear good news; the suffering of separated families seeking asylum still needs relief; the blind (who are sometimes us) still need their eyes opened; grace still needs to be poured out abundantly in words and deeds.  Jesus’ words are the right words for us.

There are surely other words from the Lord addressed to us individually and as a congregation.  But on this morning, in this place, as pastor of this people, I am praying that God will lead us to hear these words of God and to experience God’s presence in a radically new way – a way that connects us with the joy of the Lord that is our strength, a way that deepens our life together in community, and a way that takes us into prayer and out to where Jesus would have us go.  These readings are more than part of a holy book or part of our history.  They are the word of God addressed to us -- because we are the right people in the right place at the right time.

Amen

Epiphany 2 C
January 20, 2019

Attention and Devotion

“Attention is the beginning of devotion.” So wrote poet Mary Oliver, who died this past week at 83. “Real attention,” she said, “needs empathy; attention without feeling is just a report.” The gospels are, of course, far more than “just a report,” so let’s give today’s story from John’s gospel our attention, enter into it with empathy, and see if we are led to devotion.

Read More

Epiphany 2 C January 20, 2019

Isaiah 62:1-5 Pastor Susan Henry

1 Corinthians 12:1-11 House of Prayer Lutheran Church

John 2:1-11 Hingham MA

Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Attention and Devotion

“Attention is the beginning of devotion.”  So wrote poet Mary Oliver, who died this past week at 83.  “Real attention,” she said, “needs empathy; attention without feeling is just a report.”  The gospels are, of course, far more than “just a report,”(1) so let’s give today’s story from John’s gospel our attention, enter into it with empathy, and see if we are led to devotion.

The story of the wedding at Cana and of water turned to wine is the very first story the writer of John chooses to tell about Jesus’ ministry.  You might remember that this gospel begins with a great, cosmic prologue.  You know, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

The gospel writer then tells how John the Baptist testified to seeing the Spirit come and remain upon Jesus.  When John points to Jesus and says to his own disciples, “Look, here is the Lamb of God,” two of them – Andrew and Peter – leave John to follow Jesus.  The next day, Jesus goes to Galilee where he finds Philip, and Philip finds Nathanael, and now there are four disciples with Jesus. And that’s where our gospel for today begins.

“On the third day, there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee. . . “  Wait.  What?  On the third day?  That rings a bell.  What else happens “on the third day”?  Resurrection.  Joy.  New life.  The writer of John isn’t just crossing days off the calendar here, he’s calling us to pay attention to what’s yet to come – and to what resurrection, joy and new life might look like when they arrive ahead of time.

Jesus’ mother is invited to the wedding, and Jesus’ invitation apparently includes not just a Plus One, but a Plus Four, since the disciples get to come, too.  Weddings in Jesus’ time go on for days, often for a week, so no small amount of food to feast on and wine to celebrate with is needed.  The families of the bride and groom supply some and the guests bring some, and the party goes on and on.  Unless the wine runs out.  Which it does at this wedding.  Were these families not wealthy enough to provide an abundance of wine?  Were the guests not as generous as they might have been?  Running out of wine at a wedding is a serious breach of hospitality, and it’s not like somebody can zip over to the store and pick up a few more bottles.

Somebody recognizes that there’s a big problem, but they surely don’t want this to ruin the bride and groom’s happiness or reflect poorly on their families.  The mother of Jesus is clearly paying attention to what’s going on, and she says to her son, “They have no wine.”  He says, “Madam, that is not your problem or mine to solve.”  And he adds, “My hour has not yet come.”  In other words, the timing here is off -- or at least that’s Jesus’ perception.

But perhaps his mother knows him so well that she perceives what he does not – that it is exactly the right time for him to testify to God’s gifts of abundance; God’s delight in love, celebration, and commitment; God’s working through ordinary things like water and food and wine for the sake of the wedding party and their guests’ joy in being together.  Maybe the mother of Jesus is so attentive to the life of the child she has loved and taught and nurtured that she recognizes that his hour has indeed come.  You’ve got to love her when, ignoring what he just said, she says to the servants, “Just do whatever he tells you to.”

It seems strange to hear Jesus call his mother “Woman,” doesn’t it?  It’s a formal address, not a disrespectful one, but it feels odd.  The writer of John’s gospel only mentions Jesus’ mother twice -- neither time by name – here at the wedding in Cana and finally at the foot of the cross where, in a different way, Jesus’ hour had come.  Her presence at the very beginning of his ministry and at the very end of his life reveals her devotion and her heart filled with hope and joy, with pain and grief.  My own heart goes out to her, and yours might, too.

Jesus directs the servants to fill six huge stone jars with water, and they do so.  It takes a massive amount of water – twenty to thirty gallons each – to fill them brimful.  Then he has the servants draw some out and take it to the chief steward (who has no idea where it came from).  After tasting it, he confronts the groom and chides him for saving the best for last.  That’s not how it usually works, he says.  Little does he know “how it works” when you’ve invited Jesus as your guest.

The writer of John never calls anything a miracle.  Instead, he names the changing of water into wine as the first of Jesus’ “signs,” the first of seven ways in which his glory – God’s glory – will be revealed.  Did you happen to notice who is aware of what has taken place.  It’s not the bride and groom or those in charge of the party or the guests.  It’s the servants, just the kitchen help and the catering staff, who must be confused, surprised and awestruck by what just happened.  It would have literally taken a ton of grapes to make that much wine, so imagine them – and imagine yourself -- surrounded by so much that is so fine and so freely given.  It would take your breath away, wouldn’t it?

Jesus will say, “I came that you might have life and have it abundantly.”  His mother, his disciples, the bride and groom, the guests, and the servants all caught a glimpse of that abundant life right there in the midst of their ordinary lives.  The abundance in this story isn’t just wine, of course.  There’s an abundance of celebration, of joy, of amazement.  An abundance of the good company of family and friends and neighbors, of hope for the shared life of the new couple, of gratitude for God’s gifts and Jesus’ presence.  An abundance of awe when what was ordinary has become extraordinary, and in it, the glory of God has been revealed.

Do you wish you’d been at that wedding?  It must have been a crazy mix of various people’s fears, hopes, surprises, and joy.  Maybe you would have been in a panic over how little wine was left but you wouldn’t want the bride and groom to know.  Maybe you would have overheard the back-and-forth between Jesus and his mother, and wondered what all that was about.  Perhaps you would have wearily hauled water and yet more water to fill those stone pots, asking yourself what water has to do with wine.  Or maybe you would have been a wedding guest who was blissfully unaware of all that took place for the sake of your entering into the joy set before you.

  I picture Jesus standing with his mother and the kitchen staff and taking in the scene before him as the party is full of life, there is plentiful food and drink for all, and joy is in the air.  His time had indeed come, and even though It may have taken a nudge from his mother, the glory of God was revealed in water’s new life as wine.

We have seen his glory and we are being drawn to the abundant life he graciously gives, not only to those in Cana long ago, to but us.  The writer of John says that “his disciples believed in him.”  We too believe in him.  My prayer is that what caught our attention in our gospel story today will speak to our hearts and lead us to deeper devotion to Jesus, God’s Word made flesh who lived among us, full of grace and truth.

Amen. 

 

 

                 

     

Notes: 1. Quoted in Bearings Online, Kathleen Fisher, November 5, 2018, collegevilleinstitute.org