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Monday, January 27, 2014

Faithful Followers Fishing

 Matthew 4:12-23
Like so many of you early this week, my plans, my schedule and my life were disrupted by news of the oncoming storm. Some of you had to cancel or postpone appointments. Some of you had to rearrange the timing of travel, shopping or other plans. A few of you had to arrange for child care or figure out what to do with your suddenly homebound children as one snow day turned into two, and then three, and so on.
I have to admit that this snowstorm caught me a bit by surprise. It wasn’t until Monday morning that I even knew it was brewing. By then the more I heard, the more out of whack my week became. My daughter Victoria, who is living in Florida while on internship there, had been visiting the Holy Land with a group from seminary for the past two weeks. By prearranged plan, she would fly into Dulles Airport on Tuesday evening for a brief stay in the area before flying back to Florida early Friday morning.
Suddenly I realized I would be doing an awful lot of driving through what was predicted to be the worst part of a storm that was to affect the entire region of my travel. What to do? I finally decided to reserve a hotel room for the late afternoon, as close to the airport as possible. I quickly located a very reasonable hotel about a mile from the airport (as the crow flies – something they don’t exactly make clear in the information online).
But as I listened to more forecasts, I became concerned about the timing of even this travel plan and decided that getting down to Virginia as early as possible would be the wisest course. I could just hang out and work in a coffee shop until it was time to check into my hotel.
I would be gone overnight, but wasn’t sure how things would play out. What if her flight was diverted? What if roads were so bad they were closed? What if one night turned into two? Well, I was never a Boy Scout, or a Girl Scout, for that matter, but I do live by the motto, “be prepared”. So I packed enough clothing for two nights, threw in a few extra warm pieces and a couple of coats and a spare pair of boots since I was sure my Florida-bound girl wouldn’t be prepared for the sub-zero wind chills being predicted.
I had food to prepare in our room in case we were stuck in the hotel for a day or two. I loaded my briefcase with my computer, extra work and books to keep myself busy; I packed my knitting in case I had some “down time”; I packed my iPad in case there was other stuff I needed to do. I was ready to go! It was only a little awkward having to haul a briefcase, a suitcase, a tote bag and a grocery bag through blowing snow when I finally checked into the hotel.   
That’s so typical of me. I like to be prepared. In fact, I need to feel prepared for every contingency – I’m just wired that way. It’s not a bad attribute, really. Except that it makes it awfully hard to be spontaneous. It makes it challenging to let go of the control I think all this preparation gives me, and it can be a stumbling block in answering God’s call in my life.
I guess that’s why I’m struck by this gospel. I’m struck by this word that appears twice in this passage – immediately. When Jesus calls to these men who would be disciples, they respond immediately. When Jesus is walking by the Sea of Galilee and sees Peter and Andrew, brothers who earn their living through fishing in the sea, and he bids them to follow him, immediately they lay down the tools of their trade, and they follow him. Likewise, with two more brothers, James and John, also fishermen sitting with their father in a boat and mending their nets, Jesus calls to them and immediately they lay down their nets and the text makes it clear that they leave not only the work they know and are familiar with, but also their father Zebedee, and they follow Jesus as well. And I have to wonder, what made them do it? What is it that they saw in Jesus or what stirring of the spirit did they feel at his words?
Had they already heard Jesus preaching and his call to repentance? Did they know Jesus personally? Had they already become friends? We don’t know the answer to any of these questions. But I suspect these fishermen of Galilee were simply ordinary folks doing their ordinary work on an ordinary day when Jesus walked by. He called them and they were spontaneous in their response. It was immediate. They put down what they were doing and they followed him.
Jesus had made his home in Capernaum, a place where most people earned their living either fishing or farming. Capernaum is referred to as the “Galilee of the Gentiles.” It didn’t have a large Jewish presence. It had been conquered by Rome and was ruled by a puppet king who was known for his cruelty, especially toward anyone who he perceived as threatening his authority or claim to power. It was he, Herod Antipas who had John the Baptist imprisoned and later, beheaded. Yet here it was that Jesus, the Son of God, the Anointed One, had chosen to pitch his tent - among a Gentile population of people who lived on the margins; with people who were not powerful; with ordinary people who scraped together a living doing hard, dangerous work, dependent as much on the vagaries of weather and good fortune as on the sweat of their brows.
And it was here that Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Nerdy Greek pointer for the morning – this statement from Jesus is full of import for disciples then and now. Because the verb tense that Jesus uses is indicative of how God is at work.
While the kingdom of heaven, God’s rule, has come near, according to Jesus, it is not fully here. The perfect tense describes action that was begun at a particular time in the past, the effect of which is ongoing or continuing to unfold in the present, and will culminate when it reaches its conclusion at some yet unknown time in the future. Use of this tense here indicates that the kingdom of heaven, inaugurated with the dawning of the great light of Jesus when he came into the world, is not yet complete.  
And so here in the cradle of our Lord’s ministry, discipleship is born as two sets of brothers are invited to follow Jesus. It is from here that Jesus not only begins his ministry, but calls his first disciples into kingdom work. They are called not just to follow Jesus, but to repent - turn away from all that is familiar and to follow Jesus, to work with him in this building up of the kingdom.
I wonder if they had any idea how hard the work would be and how large the mission field. I wonder if they knew how challenging the call would be, I wonder if they knew how dangerous it would become.
I wonder if they had any understanding of how this call would turn their lives upside down and inside out, how the message would become their lifeboat, how Jesus would change their lives, their understanding of themselves and the world around them, how it would call them to new relationships, to travel untrodden paths, would, in fact, take them to places they never imagined, doing ministry they never dreamed of. All we know is that Jesus called to them, and they came. Without hesitation, preparation, without a fancy seminary education, without making arrangements to take care of their homes and families, they went. Immediately.
They didn’t form a committee to determine how best to travel, or ask how they might afford to follow, they went. Without asking Jesus a lot of questions they went. Without asking what discipleship consisted of, they went. And God gave them the tools they needed to go.
Jesus calls disciples to a new way of life. It is a life that causes us to change direction, a life in which God’s love, grace and mercy are extended to the marginalized. It is a life that takes us out of our established patterns of behavior and into relationships that are guided by an unparalleled ethic of love and forgiveness.
God knows that people like me get really caught up in thinking we are control and therefore need to be well prepared for every contingency. God calls us anyway, and uses our gifts for God’s good purpose. God knows how attached we are to our safety nets, and God calls us anyway. Jesus knows how hard this kingdom work can be, knows how far out of our comfort zones it sometimes calls us, understands the sacrifice it sometimes requires. And Jesus calls us and equips us anyway.
Jesus chose to live among common people. Jesus called and still calls disciples right smack dab in the middle of the ordinariness of their days and Jesus called them to do extraordinary things. And in so doing, Jesus transforms these ordinary, common people like you and like me in discipleship that gives new meaning, satisfaction and purpose to our lives, and builds on the kingdom work for the sake of our God.
While John the Baptist may have been the forerunner of God’s light come to brighten the darkness and transform it into a world of light and hope, but it is Jesus who is the embodiment of that grace, and mercy, and transformational good news that rests on each of us. And God calls us to be disciples, to witness to the light of Christ in the world.
Jesus calls disciples to be witnesses of his mighty works of love, healing, forgiveness and redemption. We are disciples who witness not only in word but also in deed. We are disciples when we minister to the marginalized, the isolated, the lonely, the hungry, the imprisoned. We are disciples when we serve as bearers of God’s compassion and forgiveness. We are disciples when we, as individuals and as the body of Christ active in community, engage in the kingdom work as well, without reservation, freely and fully giving of our own transformed lives to share with others the love of God revealed in the life, death and resurrection of the anointed one, Jesus Christ, our Lord.  
I would like to end with a prayer that is commonly used in the Vespers Service, a daily prayer offering at the end of the day. Let us pray.
O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.



Friday, January 24, 2014

The Stories We Tell

John 1:29-42

We are a storied people.

Back in October, our Christian Education team held its first “movie night.” The movie we watched that night was “The Blind Side,” based on a true story of betrayal and abandonment, hope, redemption, and love. I remember when that movie was out in the theaters. It was talked about a lot in the media. It won awards – Sandra Bullock even won the Oscar for acting for her role as the story’s protagonist, Leigh Ann Touhy. That night back in October, we enjoyed the movie, good food, good discussion and fellowship. Mostly, we simply enjoyed witnessing the telling of a good tale.

One of the books I read last summer was “Unbroken,” the true story of an American Olympic athlete and track star who set records in his sport before he joined the Navy during World War II. Louis Zamperini served as a bombardier on a plane that was ultimately shot down over the Pacific Ocean, and survived some of the worst Japanese prisoner of war camps that existed. After the war Louis endured what now would have been diagnosed PTSD, from which he eventually recovered. The book spent months on the bestselling lists and I understand a movie is now being made based on the story.  I highly recommend it, for the story of survival and the human spirit that comes alive through the pages of the book.
The common thread here, is our attraction to Story. Story connects us to people from the past, even to ancient civilizations. Story connects us to one another. Stories help us to define who we are; they help us articulate what is important; they bind us together; sometimes, they help us make sense of things. Popular books and movies on the bestseller lists today include “Philomena,” “The Butler,” “The Book Thief” and “Mandela” just to name a few, each one of them a story, based on real people or events. A good story is hard to resist. A good story must be told. And the best stories survive long after the people in them have gone to the grave.
We each have our own stories to tell, don’t we? In fact, most of us have favorite stories from the archives of our lives that we love to hear and tell. Stories reveal something about who we are, where we’ve been, and telling them is somehow important.
When my children were growing up, a favorite game of theirs was the “tell us about the time when…” game. No matter how many times they had already heard a particular story about their early years or about the time our family did this or that, they never tired of hearing the stories again. As they grew older, the stories they increasingly wanted to hear were about their ancestors – about their grandparents and great-grandparents, even the ones they had never met.

We are a storied people, and this desire for connection to story never quite goes away. Last year, my daughter and her friends rigged up a camera, sat my mother down, and then interviewed her, asking her to tell stories from her life, and her mother’s and her father’s lives. They did this because they felt it was important to somehow document these stories for safekeeping, for a time when my mother is no longer able to tell them herself, in person.
We are a storied people. So I have to ask you, what are the stories you love best? Something that all storytellers have in common is that they are observant. They notice there is something special about a particular person or event, and they help share the story and bring it to light. They are witnesses. Witnesses tell others a story and then invite them to experience it as well.
This progression of noticing, telling, and inviting is the same movement that is at the core of our gospel text today. In the first few verses of our text, John the Evangelist, the chronicler of this particular story, uses the words of John the Baptist to establish once again, that Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus is the anointed one, the Son of God. What’s more, the Baptist calls Jesus the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
John the Baptist testifies not only to who Jesus is and why he is among us, he is a witness. As such, he recites part of the story of Jesus’ baptism to all within hearing range.
“I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove,” he tells the crowd. “I myself - I didn’t know him, but what happened next is this: the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ I am a witness to these things! I heard it myself and then I saw that dove, the one that came out of the opening in the heavens, just as soon as Jesus came out of the waters - I saw that bird descend, and I heard the voice; I heard the voice from heaven say that this is the one, “this is my Beloved,” this is the one in whom I am well pleased.”
Both Johns told a story. John the Baptist noticed, he saw, he witnessed to something magnificent that happened. He was amazed! And he could not keep his excitement and his amazement to himself, so he told others. “Listen to what happened.” Come, and see and hear this Jesus for yourself, for he truly is the Lamb of God.
Years later, John the Evangelist, like the other gospel writers, made sure that the story would not die – he needed to share this story with other people, and later in his gospel, he tells us why. In chapter 20 of the gospel according to John we are told, “These [things] are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
We call the gospel writers evangelists – and evangelism, put quite simply, is noticing and seeing what God is doing in our lives  - then sharing it with others, telling the story, inviting others to come and see and hear these wonderful things for themselves.
Our text today gives us a picture of what true evangelism looks like. John tells a story, Jesus himself issues an invitation. “Come and see.” Disciples are those who come and see and hear and follow, and they don’t keep what they observe to themselves. Above and beyond anything else, disciples are storied people too, and they have a fabulous story to tell. Disciples are excited about all that God has done in creation. Disciples are compelled to share the story of how they see God at work all around them. Disciples of Christ know that this Lamb of God has entered the world and the world will never be the same.
We are a storied people. What are the stories that you love to tell? Disciples come and see and then tell others what it is that they have witnessed. “Come and see – see what I saw” – they invite others into their own experience because they know how God, through Jesus Christ changes lives. They know that through the Spirit bestowed on us in baptism, Jesus abides with us, as a continuing presence in our lives and in creation. They’ve seen it. They’ve felt it. They know that this abiding presence of Jesus transforms lives, and transforms the world. They may not understand it, but they know it to be true. They believe. And they want others to know the blessing of believing too.
Disciples of Christ love the part of the story when Jesus invited them to “come and see.” Disciples of Christ become part of the story. They are observant and they see things through the eyes of faith. So they notice God’s activity around and in them, and they tell others about it, and they invite others into this experience of the Way.
We are a storied people. And sharing the story and the experience of God’s all-encompassing love and mercy, the story of God’s far-reaching, never-ending love is an important part of what we do as disciples of Christ. When we look around and see all of the ways that God reveals Godself in the world, and then tell others what it is that we have seen and then invite them to come and see it too, we become like John the Baptist, and Peter and Andrew, evangelists and disciples who share how it is that God is revealed to us. By sharing our story and inviting others to join us, to see God’s work among us, we all join in the story too.
Studies have shown that the number one reason that most people who are new to church come, is that someone invited them. Not once, maybe not even twice, but with open arms, in a spirit of love, acceptance and accompaniment, someone invited them. Someone told them a story. Someone gave them a glimpse of new life. Someone shared the love of Christ with another. Someone let them know that God is making a difference in their lives and in the world every single day.


The essence of our witness is to tell what we have seen and believe and then to invite others to "come and see."  That’s what John the Baptist does. That’s what Andrew does. It’s what Peter does. It’s what the gospel writers have done. And it is what every single one of us can do as well.
I read somewhere that these three things, notice, share, and invite – form the holy trinity of evangelism, and are the beginning of discipleship. So I ask you, where have you seen God at work in your life or in the world this week? What are you going to do about it?
We are a storied people. What are the stories you tell the best? May we each be inspired, provoked, blessed and led to share (to borrow from a hymn title) the greatest story ever told. Amen.


Monday, January 6, 2014

Revolution

John 1:[1-9], 10-18
Greetings to you, my brothers and sisters in Christ, on this, the Second Sunday of Christmas; a Sunday in which we in the church are focused, one last time this year, on the gift of the child born in Bethlehem. Our cr├Ęche is still sitting, now, so close to Epiphany with the Magi approaching the stable, right here, front and center. Tonight has long been known as twelfth night, the eve of Epiphany, and according to the old English Christmas Carol, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” we are preparing to receive the gift of twelve drummers drumming.
Meanwhile, though we may find ourselves in the Christmas season, waning as it is, the rest of the world has already moved on. The year has turned – and we are already several days into a new year, with new challenges and new possibilities. Merchants are displaying Valentine’s Day wares.  You’ve probably already hung your 2014 calendar, you might be in the beginning stages of gathering your documents together for tax season, and you’ve probably even made your New Year resolutions, if you do that kind of thing – and as we are only five days into the New Year, so far, chances are you’ve even kept the resolutions you’ve made – so far.
I’ve seen an AT&T commercial a few times in the past couple of weeks. In it, there is a man sitting at a pint-sized table with a group of small children in what looks like a preschool or kindergarten classroom. He begins a brief conversation with the children, asking an open-ended question – a really risky thing to do with small children, as I have learned the hard way in children’s sermons over the years.
In this ad, the man begins by asking, “Is it better to be more reliable or less reliable?” Of course, the kids all answer, in unison, “More reliable.” So far, so good – I’m sure this is the answer that man is looking for, given that it is a commercial for AT&T, after all. Then he asks the kids, “Why?” One little boy answers in all sincerity, “So you can keep your New Year’s revolution.”
“A New Year’s revolution! Oh no! What are you going to do?” the man asks, in mock alarm at the thought of kindergartners in revolt. (Which, I admit, is a pretty scary thought!)
The boy then answers, “I would have more time to eat jelly beans this year.”
Relieved, the man responds, “Oh, so it’s not so much a revolt, more just like you eating things that are bad for you.”
“Yeah,” answers the little boy, nodding.
“I can deal with that,” the man responds.
This commercial gave me a chuckle at first, but then I got to thinking about the intersection of these words - resolution and revolution – in the Christmas story. Let me explain.
As Christians, we know Christmas not just as a holiday or festival, but rather as a time that witnesses to a reality that permeates our whole life. While God’s love for God’s creation and people has not changed from the beginning of time, in the birth of the savior, God’s tactics for how that love is made manifest not only changed but ignited a revolution.
In the past, God resolved to love, provide for and accompany God’s holy people into the Promised Land in a covenant relationship. And when the people’s sin and corruption and betrayal repeatedly broke that covenant, rather than cut them off forever, God did something revolutionary; God resolved to save God’s beloved from sin and death by entering the world in fleshly form. And God’s revolutionary presence in the world upset things so much that, in John’s words, “his own didn’t know him……they did not accept him.” Instead, they killed him and hung him on a cross. But God’s revolution in Christ Jesus prevailed in victory over death and the grave in the resurrection of Christ.
Our revolutionary reality is that in Christ, God inhabiting human form, God taking on flesh, makes us new. David Lose writes, “God has become flesh, entering a world of sin. God goes to the cross and dies. God becomes our dust so that we are given God’s life and resurrection. The sacred enters the profane and the world will never be the same.” That, my friends, is revolutionary. And it is balm for a world thirsting for peace and for justice.
For while it is still true that through God’s love we are given all we need to live and to love in harmony with one another and with God’s whole creation, sin persists. We find ourselves in conflict, broken, disappointed, defeated, and wandering. The Old Testament text from Jeremiah today reflects experiences of the people of God in the time of exile, but it also describes our own condition: devastated and lonely, lost, experiencing life filled with zigzags, detours and derailments; we find ourselves stumbling, staggering, and falling down. Yet unfailingly, God responds to our overwhelming need, and guides us back to brooks of refreshing water through baptism, where our mourning is turned into joy.
In our gospel text today, John’s Christmas confession extends beyond the baby born in a lowly stable and wrapped in cloths and laid in a manger. It is the belief that he existed before creation and comes to us and lives among us now; that he was always and is always participating with us as we explore what living as heirs of God’s magnificent reign of love means in our lives. In Christ, God is revealed. In Christ, God becomes known. In the Word, this incarnation of God born of Mary, Jesus the Christ, God’s revolutionary stand is burned into the history and life of the world.
As we gather today, we still have the nativity scene here to remind us of the Christmas story that we heard on Christmas Eve. That story includes a baby in a manger, parents traveling to Bethlehem, angels, shepherds, and a star. Later, it includes the magi, too. In our gospel text today, John gives us a version of the Christmas story as well. In John’s rendering, the attention shifts from Jesus’ birth story, to ours. For in this text, we are reminded of our birth as children of God – that, Jesus came into the world so that we – you and I might become children of God.
In John’s telling of the Christmas story, there is no baby, no manger. There is no report of parents traveling to Bethlehem. There are no angels, no shepherds, there is no star nor report of magi bearing gifts to greet the newborn king. This is no historical account of the birth of Jesus Christ, the messiah. Instead, in the gospel of John, we get a statement of faith about God’s incarnation, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only begotten son, full of grace and truth.” And it is through this Word, the only Son of God that the fullness and true extent of God’s love becomes known to us and is shared with the entire cosmos, and it changes everything.
For those facing despair, the Word gives us cause to take heart and realize that we are not alone, and that these trials will not overcome us. The revolutionary Word of God is a word of hope for all people. The revolutionary Word of God, whose coming has made us children of God, refuses to allow our lives to be dominated by the trials we face, nor by the circumstances in which we find ourselves. It will not allow us to be identified by the clothes we wear or the color of our skin; it does not count our age or gender, accomplishments or sexuality, the measurement of our intellect or bank balance. God’s revolutionary Word became human and entered the struggle of human life as love incarnate, as God’s inclusive word of compassion, forgiveness and reconciliation with and for a fallen world. Revolutionary indeed.
Kae Evensen writes, “Our lives are messy stuff but God entering every corner of the world means that there is no place God is not: the linen cloth that held the Christ child becomes the Veil that has been torn, and from it we are unbound. Jesus is in our midst. Now, sins are forgiven, wounds are healed, the dead will rise.”
What is ordinary now bears the extraordinary, revolutionary promises of Christ. Promises like unconditional love, salvation, grace and mercy extended to all people.
As God’s resolution for the salvation of humanity took on the form of revolution with the birth of Christ, as God joined intimately with the whole of humanity, God invites each of us to join the revolution as well. We are called as children of God and heirs together in Christ to share the love of God within this world in which we live. Jesus comes into our midst calling us to revolution as well. We are invited as children of God to resolve that we will follow in the Way of Christ, forgiving, healing, and disturbing the status quo that denies the reality of God’s sovereignty. To follow through on this resolution means that we will revolt against all forms of slavery, oppression, discrimination, injustice, poverty and hatred.
On this Sunday and every day may it be our resolution to actively take part in the revolution of God in Christ. In this most powerful, meaningful, transformative revolution, led by God and demonstrated in the live, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, let us bear witness to the miracle that takes place not only in a stable in Bethlehem but each and every day within the hearts of every child of God. May we declare with every sound of the drum that as we have received from God grace upon grace, we resolve to dedicate our lives to the peace, equality, love, mercy, and care for all of God’s creation and for all people.