Fragrant.

Now, I’ve heard that some folks love my stories in a sermon, some don’t, some listen deeply and find meaning, some tune out and either put up a mental and emotional roadblock to the scripture and interpretations, find fault in something…or simply not interested and want to get on with their day or are just happy to sit for an hour or so…and, yes, sometimes the preacher isn’t tuned in to the divine flow…either way, it’s OK…that’s kind of church…I’d love to find a way to connect with everyone…and to constantly live in that divine flow…what it boils down to is deep trust and listening…and not just with the preacher, but with the words being spoken that are not just the preachers…and that the divine movement, the God movement, is always happening, whether we acknowledge it or not. 

John 12:1-8

Mary Anoints Jesus

12 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

And, I do have a story.  

Oftentimes, words in a situation really speak something to us.  Several years ago I was in Nicaragua with a group of about 30-40 high school students from my youth group at Northminster.  Nicaragua is the second poorest county in the Western Hemisphere.  We had broken the group up in teams of 3-4 for what we called “home stays”.  Its where we would spend 24 hours with a Nicaraguan family.  I was with a couple of other students and we stayed with my now friend, Manuel.  He took us to a restaurant and bought our dinner.  It was huge…and it only coast $2 in US dollars per meal.  About a dozen or so of Manuel’s extended family and neighbors came with us.  While we were eating, we noticed that Manuel and his wife, Rosie, and the three of us were the only ones with food.  I asked Manuel why, he said that we were the guests of honor and that they wanted to bless and honor us…and that $2 was more than what most folks made in a day, they couldn’t afford it.  Being an American with $50 in my pocket, I told him we’d buy everyone a meal…his response, no, don’t, accept our hospitality and be in this moment.  

The words and the moment were powerful.  

In our gospel lesson this morning, Jesus is hanging out in the home of Lazarus, with Mary and Martha.  Think about that one for a moment…Lazarus, the guy raised from the dead.  Mary and Martha…that’s a full story of relationship.  Martha, always working, Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet.  

Then Mary, who really must have loved Jesus, loved what he was about, who he was and is…took a very expensive perfume.  She anointed Jesus’ feet!  In the other gospel accounts, Jesus’s head is anointed.  In this gospel, the gospel of John, the disciple that “Jesus loved” as he refers himself as in this gospel, has Jesus’ feet getting anointed…that’s a mark of humility.  On that same Nicaragua trip, we did a foot washing, it is humbling to get on your knees, to touch another’s feet…both Nicaraguans and Americans (especially teenagers!), yet, we did it…and we all cried…why?  Because we loved one another.

Now, Judas, one of the disciples, a part of Jesus’ team, a member of the Body of Christ, starts to complain.  Now, when someone is complaining vigorously about something that is out of the ordinary, even it really doesn’t really affect him, then you kind of know where the priorities are…Judas is kind of a sad figure at times, he doesn’t seem to quite get it.  I have empathy for him actually.   Jesus loved Judas, still does…but Judas had a lot of roadblocks emotionally to receiving that love…he couldn’t love himself, was not aware of others, and because he couldn’t love himself, receive God’s love through Jesus, he couldn’t see Mary’s act of love…

He responds how expensive this perfume was and that it could have been used in other ways.  On the surface, that makes sense.  It was expensive.  I think Judas was actually being somewhat sincere.  He was acting out of a worldview that he really believed in.  And, he was a zealot, he believed in what he was doing.  He also projected on to Jesus his aspirations, without doing the work of really listening to what God was conveying to him through Jesus and others.  It’s also interesting to note that Judas did become bitter as his projections on Jesus and others didn’t pan out, did not fit with the image that he created…he eventually sold out Jesus for 30 pieces of silver, a fraction of the cost of the perfume.  And, yes, it drove him to such despair when he finally realized what he had done that he took his life.  

If only Judas could have seen the grace of this moment.  

Jesus doesn’t condemn him, doesn’t stop loving him.  And, by the way, as we look at Jesus, we can also have confidence that Judas always had grace.  You see, Jesus was telling Judas, and the audience that day, to be present with who is with you.  He is saying that there are some things in this world that will not change.  But, we can change.  We can have a new story, and it starts with listening deeply to what the divine voice is saying inside and around us…and to stay present in the moment. 

Friends, Mary was present in her love for Jesus.  The perfume filled the room with an amazing fragrance…but, there was a deeper beauty there as well…the beauty of being present in the moment that is filled with such love that connects us all.  

Church, if we are willing, we can live into this love…it starts by simply receiving it.  It doesn’t make sense, it’s extravagant, it’s not always practical, and it certainly goes against our notions of how the world works.  We don’t earn it, we simply have it.

Fleming Road UCC, in many ways, is pouring out expensive perfume.  We sometimes worry at how long it will last, but we cannot miss this present moment.  We are loving one another, we are loving our neighbors, we are giving ourselves away to our Nepali friends, and now our Ukrainian friends, and we are not getting bogged down by too much complaining as we trust and love one another and love and trust a God who reminds us that we are not alone.  

Our lectionary passage in Philippians says this:  13 Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. 

Friends, let’s move on from the past, live as the beloved, and press on towards a future where we continue to become one with God, with one another, and with the world around us…may live into the communion of God as demonstrated through the words and actions of Jesus.  

Prodigal.

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 

The Parable of the Lost Sheep 

15 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 

3 So he told them this parable:

The Parable of the Prodigal and His Brother 

11 Then Jesussaid, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute  living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself withthe pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. 

25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going
on.
27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the fathersaid to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’” 

Have you ever lost something like a wallet or your keys? Do you go and try to find them? Drives you crazy when you can’t right? 

Our gospel lesson this morning finds Jesus telling similar experiences. He’s responding to some of the religious leaders of his day questioning why Jesus hung out with so many folks from outside the religious boundaries of the day. Jesus’ disciples may have been wondering the same thing. It seems like Jesus hung out more with folks on the margins, folks who were outside the religious institutions…prostitutes, tax collectors who weren’t very honest, widows, children (who were not counted fully as people back then…). 

So, Jesus does what he normally does. He tells stories, parables, that have lots of deeper meanings. It’s as if he’s telling a story with a seed planted in the words. When those words hit fertile ground, someone may not notice, but those seeds grow, giving meaning and growth. 

Our opening shares the setting of the grumbling questioning, why is Jesus not only talking to these folks, but he’s eating with them! Which, back in that day, meant that you were building a friendship. 


I get it, that’s why I’m always open for sharing some coffee, drink, or food together! 

Always an open invitation! 

Jesus shares a couple of parables about a shepherd leaving 99 sheep to find one lost sheep, and about a woman having 10 silver coins who loses one and then cleans the whole house, turns it upside down, to find it. The idea of course is that no one and no thing is outside of God’s pursuit, of God’s love and presence. God will not stop until God finds the lost person and brings it back into relationship, into community. 

Then we come to this parable of the lost son, or the Prodigal son. We see a loving father of two sons. The younger son wants to strike out on his own, so he asks for his father’s inheritance. In essence, he’s saying that he doesn’t need the father anymore. Notice that the father gives the inheritance to both the younger son, and the older son. 

What does the younger son do? He goes to a foreign land and wastes his money on prostitutes, parties, and all sorts of other vices. Then comes a famine to the land and he didn’t have anything to eat. He’s left to finding a job feeding pigs, which for a jewish audience, that would be the worst! After a while, he hits rock bottom in his life. Hitting rock bottom either kills ya’ or it makes you think. The younger son is hungry, he remembers that his dad’s servants had it better than what he’s experiencing now. So, he thinks up a great speech and resolves to go back to this dad, plead forgiveness and ask to be one of his father’s hired hands. 

He sets off and as he’s approaching his father’s house, his dad sees him from a distance. Our scripture says that he was filled with compassion. That word in the greek has a deep meaning of movement in the depth of your bowels, it moved him physically with love! He runs out, puts his arms around him, hugs him…then the son tries to begin his speech, but the father isn’t listening, he’s filled with love and tells his servants to give him the finest clothes, put the ring back on his finger signifying that he’s his son, kill the fatted calf, we are throwing a party!!!! He exclaims “my son was dead, and now he’s alive!”… he’s back. The father had not given up on his son and now his son was back! 

But, then there’s the older son. He hears the music and dancing and asks a servant what’s going on. The servant, kind of matter of factly, says that his brother is back and his dad’s throwing a party in celebration! How does the older son react? He’s angry, jealous, and filled with resentment. He refuses to go to the party. But, what does the father do? He loves his older son just as much, he goes out to him as well, away from the party, and pleads for him to go in. His son, with much outward pride, says that he’s been working hard all of these years while his younger son was partying away his inheritance…and his father had never thrown a party for him. The father responds, that yes, he has been with him, but this is his brother, and he was lost, but now found…so we must celebrate. 

We don’t know what happens with the older son. But, both sons were lost, and both had a father who loved them. 

We can all related to both sons if we are honest. We waste our gifts and talents on frivolous living…or we live in resentment and pride when we don’t get what we think we deserve. We often don’t even recognize our need until we hit rock bottom, or we are so unhappy trying to live a false life of pride and works. Yet, we have a loving God who truly is crazy in love with us. That love can cause us to grow in wonderful ways. That love gives us the ability to love ourselves, love others, and to experience love from others. 

There is also a pattern in this passage of loss, recovery, restoration, celebration. 


The loss of relationship with self, others, God.

The recovery of one’s senses, a movement towards action in one’s life. 

The restoration of relationship with self, others, God. 

The celebration of God with one’s self, other, and God recognition…a celebration of embrace and unrestrained love. 

The father shows us how God loves us, how God takes on everything, even our shame… what’s more, this God becomes our shame and transforms and redeems it into something more…God’s embrace that gives us our identity as God’s beloved. We also have to remember that God is both father and mother and many other things throughout scripture. What this and other texts is trying to share with us is that we have a God who is intimate and everywhere and in all things and people shaping us and shaping our world. 

Henri Nouwen, the catholic philosopher, theologian, writer says this in his book The Return of the Prodigal Son, which I’d highly recommend reading, says this: 

“Each time we touch the sacred emptiness of non-demanding love, heaven and earth tremble and there is great ‘rejoicing among the angels of God.’ it is the joy for the returning sons and daughters. It is the joy of spiritual parenthood.” 

We are all invited to be gradually transformed by God’s love from being the younger and older sons, wherever we find ourselves, into the compassionate parent Henri Nouwen goes on to say and to live lives filled with gratitude, celebration, and not resentment 

There is a movement in this story…to be changed by transformational relationship in a world that often only understands transactional relationships.  A new social imaginary, a new way of seeing ourselves.  

May we remember that Jesus shows us through his life and actions that all are embraced by God! This is Good news! Welcome the embrace! Celebrate! 

Figs.

Luke 13:1-9

Repent or Perish

13 At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

Many of you know my good friend Sean Gladding.  He’s been a part of Fleming Road UCC’s history in that he’s spoken here, led retreats with us, and many of you have read his books and we even did a book/video study of his a while back.

Sean is one of my best friends and we spent some time together this past Friday.  So good.  We shared, and continue to share, a lot of life.  He’s a true friend that loves me unconditionally, and vice versa.  

He’s also an avid gardener, especially in urban settings.  He has build community for decades and common spaces where things are grown together have been a central part of his community building and organizing.  When I was in Birmingham, England recently, visiting with another friend, Sam Ewall, who also is an urban gardener, Sean was mentioned as an example of living into a neighborhood and using gardening as a practical way to feed a neighborhood, but also contribute to a neighborhood’s financial and relational well-being…it’s growth.

Sean also likes figs and grows them in his front and back yards in his neighborhood.  Those are figs in the slide.  

Which is appropriate in this morning’s lectionary gospel reading.

The writer of Luke starts off with a reference to Galileans being slaughtered by Pilate, mixing their blood in with their sacrifices…which made them unclean in death.  Pilate, like many rulers throughout history, had an ego that was demonstrated with amazing cruelty…much like we are seeing today with Putin and Ukraine.  This was an added insult by Pilate because he not only killed them, but did so in a way that they did not have time to repent.  The next reference about the tower of Siloam, no one really knows about because there isn’t an independent historical record of what happened.  But, the same message, they perished before they repented.  

Now, we know as we have talked about this before…repentance is not harsh, it’s actually pretty simple.  It’s a change of heart, a change of mind.  I would even add a phrase and layer by saying like a shift in “social imaginary”.  Social imaginary is a set way of thinking and being in the world because of values that we are raised in, institutions that we lean into, cultural ways of being.  A social imaginary is a neutral term, it can be good and it can be limiting.  If we experience change in the world in which we live, and our social imaginary limits us to doing things the same we always have…and we don’t shift in that imaginary to adapt to those changes, then we eventually whither away and die.

The gospel message is that our social imaginary is bound up in a dynamic flow with God and with one another that moves us towards living abundant lives filled with love for ourselves, others, in a cosmic divine union.  In that dynamic relationship, we have certain characteristics.  We lean into change, we listen, we grow and produce fruit through giving and receiving hospitality, we respect tradition, but we don’t let it limit us from trying new things…even things that will probably fail, but knowing that, in God’s economy, failure leads to growth and even resurrection.  Exhibit A is the cross…an executioners symbol that is supposed to be emblematic of humiliation, punishment, violence, and the power of the state.  When one is crucified, he or she is put down and has failed in something.  

But, with God, this symbol has become instead a symbol of God’s power which is always being emptied and coming down to us and pushing us towards new growth, to resurrection.  

It can be hard…the Christian way of being…it calls us to lean into the growth process which is not what the systems of the world say…they say win at all costs, be comfortable, avoid pain and struggle.  The way of Jesus is to lean into the struggle, to endure, to find solace in God’s “with-ness”, being with us…and to grow stronger in who we created to be in our true selves.  

1 Corinthians 1:-13 is also one of our lectionary readings.  The writer of this Pauline epistle has some harsh words, check it out, but in the end, it’s reminding us to persevere, to not complain, but to listen and lean into whatever is “testing” us in order for us to grow.

Back to our gospel lesson, the writer of Luke talks about figs.  It usually takes three years for a fig tree to produce fruit as Luke tells us, and Sean would tell us also!

This fig tree hasn’t produced fruit.  The vineyard owner went to the gardener and told him to tear it down.  It wasn’t producing fruit.  But, the gardener says lets give it another year.  He puts manure down…compost.  Waste that is usually thrown away…but, if you garden, you know that our waste, if given oxygen over time, can become nutrients for new growth.  

Friends, our church may seem like that fig tree.  But, God, the master gardener, is reminding us that nothing is wasted, that what we have done for decades, centuries even, can be good nutrients for future growth.  It can be messy, smelly at times.  But, we must have patience with our church, and with ourselves.  We may feel like the church, at times, is not producing fruit.  We may also feel that way about our own personal lives.

But God is reminding us in Luke to take a second and even third or fourth look…at our ourselves and who we are as a faith community.  We have an amazing history, a beautiful present, and the potential for a great future.  But, we have to have a gardener’s patience…and maybe listen to one another, our neighbors, and to God like the gardener did, and less talking like the vineyard owner.  We have time for a change, a transformation, a new social imaginary to emerge from the old one…let’s be patient with ourselves and one another, but let’s also be intentional and listen for opportunities to grow new things.  

Lament.

Luke 13:31-35

The Lament over Jerusalem

31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 32 He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. 33 Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ 34 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35 See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when[ you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

We’ve all experienced disappointment in our lives.  I know I have.  We can probably all think of times when we hoped for something, and then not have it happen.  This past year in so many ways, has been a series of disappointments as we live through such a period of change with the pandemic, political and social unrest, and our own personal struggles.  

It has been a season of lament.  Which is actually good and a part of a the process towards growth.

It’s especially important as we are in the middle of Lent…a time of questioning and stripping away…of dying even as we head to the cross and on to resurrection.  Jesus understood lament…he embraced it.  And, so should we if we want to grow.

As a church, we often don’t know what we want to see happen other than the church to survive, but maybe we have deeper hopes for it to thrive….yet, our definitions for thriving may be hard to articulate at times.  It’s safe to say that at our deepest hopes are with relationships.  We are wired for relationship with the world around us and with people.  It doesn’t matter if you are introvert or an extrovert, we all crave relationship and put hope into relationships.  

In the passage above, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem when some sympathetic pharisees, or religious rulers warning him that Herod wants to kill him.  Jesus calls Herod a “fox”, which is interesting to note.  The biblical understanding of a fox in this text is not that Herod is cunning, but that Herod is a small animal that does not have power, is impotent.  Jesus says in affect, I’m casting out demons and have the relational power to overcome unseen forces.  Herod has no control over me.  Jesus then goes on to say that he must he has work today for the next couple of days and that it will be finished on the 3rd day.  This could be a reference to Jesus death and resurrection.  

Jesus certainly gives his hearers a reference that he cannot be killed outside of Jerusalem.  Jerusalem is the center of Jewish faith at that time, the city where the temple of God is.  Jewish folk believed that God’s Presence on earth dwelt there.  It is also the place where prophets are killed.  When prophets came with a message of lament, of a need for change, repentance, relational restoration…the established system, those in power, felt threatened, they would be killed.    

Even though persons in the religious establishment were not joyful, they still had control and did not want to give that control up.  They were in a place of broken relationship with each other, themselves, and with God.  They were what I’d call “resistors” and resistors have roadblocks that can often thwart their growth, their joy, and the growth and joy of others.

Jesus laments, deeply, with great emotion for Jerusalem.  Jesus understands the important of “place”, that people are deeply rooted in a  community and that has potential for great things, but when not living up to it’s potential, when resistant to God’s desire for genuine relationship and community, a place can be destructive.

So, Jesus laments, describes a God who longs to take God’s people, all people, under God’s wings like a hen protecting her chicks.  A God who longs to be in loving relationship with God’s people, to protect them, to bless them beyond measure with friendship and Presence.  

Jerusalem not only signifies the center of religious life for Israel, it can also be descriptive of the church.  God longs for the church to be a place of deep relationship, not only for those inside the church, but for those outside.  Jesus represents all of humanity, and Jesus demonstrates that God is not limited to a building….Jesus goes to places outside of the temple, the synagogue, and continues today to go outside of the church walls.  Jesus says that the temple, the house, is abandoned by God, but God does not abandon God’s people.  

Jerusalem kills its prophets.  But, God keeps on sending those prophets.  There is a flow in and through God that cannot be stopped.

Friends, hear this the good news, lamenting can come out of being dark places in our lives, but lamenting leads us towards growth.  Jesus loves Jerusalem, and Jesus loves his church.  Jesus has promised, and demonstrated, that even though he aches for us, he also aches with us.  He is with us in all that we experience and is with us in the lamenting and in the darkness.  We also know that God, through Jesus, demonstrates that darkness doesn’t win and that we can grow and move towards the promise of blessing as Jesus comes to us.  Lamenting can produce faith.  Faith in and through God’s commitment to us even in the midst of life’s hard places.  

In this season of Lent, may we embrace all of life…even lamenting…and move toward’s the life that God intends for us…a life with the resurrected Jesus…a resurrected Jesus that also bore the scars of crucifixion…a Jesus who understands us and is with us…even in the lamenting that leads towards a deeper growth. 

relevant.

Luke 4:1-13

The Temptation of Jesus

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written,

‘Worship the Lord your God,
    and serve only him.’”

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10 for it is written,

‘He will command his angels concerning you,
    to protect you,’

11 and

‘On their hands they will bear you up,
    so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

12 Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 13 When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

My time away for some study leave, vacation, and pilgrimage to Iona was much needed.  I am so grateful for the grant from SONKA, along with some of my continuing ed funds, and funds from my mom’s estate that allowed me to go on this trip…it seems like my mom keeps on giving to me even now!  This trip was much needed…for those of you who have been tracking with me this past year, you know that it’s been a hard year, filled with lots of questions and loss, so time away was good for my growth and for some perspective.  

It is fitting that we’ve been talking about Jesus’ need for time away…and this morning’s gospel lesson is about Jesus being away…as Jesus followers, it’s good to follow his example and pull away from time to time.

Now, I wasn’t gone for forty days…although, it seemed like it was close to that!  And, almost longer!  When I arrived at Heathrow on Monday, I had to take a covid test, it came back positive and I had to miss my flight and get a hotel room as I couldn’t fly that day.  I tested again the next day and it was negative, so I was able to get a US travel certificate and head home!  I may have had covid, but it would have been the tail end of it, or it could have been a “false positive”.  I’ve tested negative four times since the positive test on Monday.  

And, I wasn’t exactly in the wilderness…but, my pilgrimage to the holy island of Iona, where there has been an Abbey for 1300+ years and where pre-Christian Celts also revered…it’s and island mad of the oldest rock in creation, did seem quite remote and austere…as well as the Island of Mull where I stayed.  

I could have stayed there longer, even 40 days…it was a time of intense and wild beauty, as well as good journalling and thinking…

Now, we don’t know if Jesus was actually away for 40 days…40 is simply a biblical number given to say he was gone for a while.  

While their, he was tempted.  Now, we all face temptations, don’t we?

I know that we all struggle with some temptations.  There are certainly temptations such as eating too much chocolate or going into excess on something.  But, what’s the root of temptation?

A temptation for me, is that I sometimes fantasize about winning the lottery, getting lots of money and funding some of the things that I think are amazing, but seemingly never have funds.  Of course, I always think I’d save a bit of the money to pay off the bills, travel, pay for kids college…and that list kind of grows…of course, then I also realize that 

Our gospel passage this morning presents us with three temptations that Jesus faced.  

  1. Turning stones to bread
  2. Protection from being thrown off the temple roof
  3. Being given the world

Now, on the surface, there are some appealing things to these temptations I’d imagine for Jesus.  There are lots of stones in the world, and lots of starving people.  Wouldn’t it be great to solve the world’s hunger issues by turning stone into bread?  And, with Jesus, you know it would be good bread!

Being able to be protected physically from falling off the temple roof!  Well, we all want to be safe don’t we?  Wouldn’t we like to know that if we jumped off the roof of this building that we’d land safely?  That a bunch of angels would come to our rescue if we are being physically threatened?

How about being given dominion over the world?  Wouldn’t that be great!   We could make everything great and good!  People seem to like to remind us that this world is a mess, that no one is in control.  Well, we are good people, if we had control, then we could make the world safe, we could put our vision into play and make the world a better place…because we know better. We could even end wars like the petty war of ego that Putin is waging, which is causing so much death and destruction.  

Noted author, speaker, theologian and philosopher, Henri Nouwen talks about the temptations of Jesus in his book on Christian Leadership, In the Name of Jesus.  He says that Jesus, like all leaders are tempted in three ways and that we can practice certain disciplines that will help us move towards a better sense of wholeness and health:

  1. The first temptation of turning stones to bread is the temptation to be relevant.  We want to do something that is related to our experiences or others.  Yet, that’s a trap, it’s like me winning the lottery so I can fund the world’s great projects…you can spend so much time on that, that you lose sight of yourself.  Yet, Jesus wants us to know that we are loved and that we can return that love…as we grow in our understanding of God’s love for us, we don’t have to be relevant, yet, we can become confident.  Nouwen goes on to say that the key work or practice for us to move towards a deeper sense of awareness and confidence, is contemplative prayer.  Spending time listening to God’s love for us.  
  2. The second temptation of jumping of the roof only to be caught is the temptation to be spectacular.  Can we impress others with something.  Yet, God calls us to practice the simple work of serving others, of being with people, listening to their stories, encouraging one another, and living authentically.  Our discipline that leads us away from the temptation of wanting to do something spectacular is to be able to confess to others and ask forgiveness.  That’s hard to do, to yield to others, yet that gives us the humility to grow and to mature.  On a side note, our church is practicing this service to others in humility, not only with our local mission partners, but with our church’s giving to humanitarian relief for folks in Ukraine being affected by Putin’s aggression.  Check out the project that Bob Nottingham has set up for us that we mentioned earlier and help out.  
  3. The 3rd temptation of being given the world is the desire to be powerful, to get others to do what we tell them!  To get at others before they get you…really, to have others bow before your wishes, to get your way.  Yet, Jesus tells us that, in order to lead, one has to follow.  And you have to trust others to take you where you may not want to go.  We aren’t given the world, but we are given each other.  Our discipline or practice is to think about God’s actions, God’s word to us, to look at Jesus, to have theological reflection.  That allows us to look at our motives and to be shaped inwardly which moves towards outward actions. 

Temptations lure us in to something innocently enough and with seemingly good intentions.  This season of Lent is meant to be a time of recognizing and resisting temptations, and to take on practices or disciplines to help us to have perspective and grow.  To give us space…space like I had during my time away and the space I’m continuing with, even as I’m home.  I believe we all recognize that when we give into temptations, they become habits of thinking or acting, then they reform us in destructive ways or reinforce bad habits.  Or they can lead to growth if we lean into them and befriend them in ways that lead to maturity.  

Author and speaker, Dr. Brene Brown, in her book Rising Strong, says that our brains get stuck in particular patterns that are hard to break.  The only way to move out of those patterns is by creating a new practice, a healthier practice.   Oftentimes those new practices require courage.  It’s easy to give into the temptations around us, but moving towards a new practice can lead to our thinking patterns being changed and a new way of being.

The early church understood this.  They didn’t have a lot of the dogma that we have today.  For a few hundred years before Christianity became sanctioned by the roman government, practice was more important than doctrine.  Folks knew that they needed community and that they wanted meaning in life and a new way of being.  Christians practiced welcome, grace, hospitality, a sense of equality was practiced between ethnicities and gender, all were one, and there was deep commitment.  When someone joined the church, it was a huge commitment; it could cost you your life.  Yet, the rule of love was so compelling that folks were drawn in…the early church folks didn’t ask new members of the faith a lot of questions about belief, but they took time to be in the practice of loving one another.  It created new patterns of being and doing.  

They also understood that God was committed to them and that Jesus’ actions on their behalf gave them the grace to start over, daily.  They had an understanding of God’s relational nature, which gave birth to the concept of God as trinity, and that Jesus entered into this world, and became sin for us, for all of humanity.  That understanding of trinity was actually embedded in humanity even before Jesus.  Ancient Israelites believed that God was community, check out the first chapter of Genesis where the author states that creation was made in “our image”, God being referred to in the plural.  The ancient Celts also had an understanding that things came in threes, and the concepts of circles…that we need relationship and we can be held together in a circle, in a community.  Jesus’ response to temptation even is our response, we may fail, often, but ultimately, we win because of Jesus’ work for us and in us….and as we practice loving in the way of Jesus, we begin to fall deeper in love with God, we become more of our true selves, even as our overwhelmed with God’s love for and of us.

Fishing.

Jesus Calls the First Disciples

Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “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. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” 11 When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

I grew up fishing with my dad.  I have to admit, I wasn’t good at it and didn’t particularly enjoy it.  I think it was because it was something my dad loved, and really wanted me to love it…but, I just didn’t.  It seems like a lot of times growing up, I had passions for some things like adventures in hiking mountains or sports, where as my dad had other passions such as fishing, carpentry, and classical music.  

As I grew older, I had some deep friendships with folks who were great fisherman.  I began to realize that fishing can be a fun exercise.  It’s peaceful, strategic, and there is an art to it.  I have been amazed at some of my friends with a gift for fishing.  They simply know where to put their lines in the water, and the patience and talent to lure fish onto their hooks!

I think it turned when I went to Alaska several years ago. We went to visit friends and to explore some of the beauty of Alaska.   Our friends were also avid fisherman.  So, every other day we went salmon fishing in some gorgeous place.  One day may be fishing off the coast of Valdez in a boat, the next maybe in a remote glacier lake casting towards the sunrise over snow capped mountains.  I still wasn’t that great of fisherman, but even there I caught enough fish to fill a huge box of salmon steaks to ship home!  

There was a gradual change within me towards fishing…a conversion if you will!

Our gospel lesson this morning finds Jesus right after the story where Jesus was preaching in his hometown of Nazareth and the folks wanted throw him off a cliff that we read last week.  He is at a lake and there are so many people crowding around him to hear him that he gets into a boat and pulls out on the water so he can speak.

When he’s done, he tells Simon, later to known as Peter, to throw down their nets again in deep water.  

Peter protests, he was a good fisherman.  

They grew up around it, it gave them fellowship, a source of income, and they were good at it.  

They had fished all night.  They knew the right places, they had the right technique, they had the correct bait to attract fish, yet, they caught nothing.  All night, nothing.  

I’m sure they are thinking, how would that help?  We know these waters, we know how to fish…moving our nets a few feel won’t do anything.  Yet, they had fished all night with no results.  They were doing what they always did which got them something in times past, but nothing on this day.

So, they take a risk, trust this guy on the beach, and throw their nets out again.  What happens?  They trusted, had some faith, and they caught more fish than ever before! 

Yet, there was also some dissonance.  Peter, always the one who blurts out what is on his mind…says that he is a sinner, and for Jesus to get away from him.  He was living into the narrative that religion has devolved into for millennium…that he was somehow unworthy of God’s love because of what he’s done or not done.  That’s a religion that’s not good for anyone!  We have to remember that we are made in God’s image, and that is good.  We are not meant to be controlled by a religion that says that we are not worthy of love…we are!!  But, we have to deconstruct this religious narrative that we “sinners in the eyes of an angry God”…that’s not healthy and it’s not true!  

Friends, this passage can speak to us in our personal lives and in lives together as .  There may be things that we’ve done for a long time in our lives that simply are not working anymore, we need a fresh perspective, maybe we need to put our nets somewhere else.  We all need to have a deeper trust in the Divine.  We certainly need to slow down, and listen to the voice of God calling us to put our nets out again.  

As we do that, we will find ourselves in a deeper way…we will become students of God’s love, disciples, people marked by growth, awareness, agency…those first disciples answered the call towards risk, adventure, loss, and gaining life, abundant life…movement towards becoming the persons that they’ve always wanted to be….

And, fishers of humans?  That simply means that we are called to connect, to love, and to build genuine friendships…but it starts with trusting ourselves, others, and God’s prompting.    

As we do this, we will find ourselves in the midst of conversion.  Conversion is a lifelong process.  The Benedictine monks got it, they would pray for Stability, Obedience, and Conversion daily.  

I believe in this process of change and growth.  One of our other scripture lessons is the story of Paul’s conversion.  It was dramatic, on the road to Damascus, a blinding light, and the voice of Jesus.  It was also dramatic when you consider that Paul persecuted Christians, killed them, separated families, instilled fear in the early church.  Yet, love penetrates even the most darkest of places when we come before the light of God’s presence and hear the voice of Jesus calling us towards the other side of the boat, out of what we’ve become used to, and into the wide open spaces of God’s expansive love.

This church, our lives, we are in the midst of conversion.  All of us, myself included, are moving towards new chapters in our lives.  That is good news for me, for us, and for all of those around us.  

We talked about “flow” last week, that change will happen no matter what.  

That flow is present in this “sacred act” of our sacraments, our relationships.  Sometimes that flow is messy, it overruns the dams and the banks of our lives that we have built.  And, that’s OK, actually, it’s good as it reminds us that God’s love flows as it will…in and through, all around us.  

 A friend of mine, Brian McLaren, reminded a group of us a while ago that the word sacrament simply means a “sacred moment”.  Our whole lives are sacred moments, not just communion and baptism, may we live into the flow, the mess, and be present with ourselves, others, and God.  

So, friends, lets put our nets out again as we move towards this sacred moment together…

Messy Presence.

Luke 4:21-30

21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23 He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” 24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers[a] in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

Our gospel lesson this am takes up where we left off last week.  Jesus has just finished reading the prophetic words of Isaiah, of taking care of the oppressed, release for the captives, and that God’s kingdom is for everyone.  

He then goes on to say that “today, the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing!”  Essentially that the biblical concept of the canceling of debts, of honoring relationships, of going after the marginalized and including them in community, those folks who have not had the same experiences in life that maybe many of us have had…that we are all called to be together as one people.  Big words, even bigger statement from Jesus at the end.

Now, we then notice that folks are amazed at his words.  The words of Jesus make them feel good that their hometown boy has done well.  They synagogue seats are filled, people are looking around, kind of proud.  

Jesus has given a great performance with elegant words and gave the people there some hope.  Probably a good day for most preachers.

But, then Jesus doesn’t stop…he keeps on speaking and quotes a proverb, “doctor, heal yourself”.  Jesus had probably also heard that folks in his hometown had some criticisms…had some things to say about Jesus.  They also had heard about the miracles that Jesus did in Capernaum and wanted to be “wowed” as well with some miracles.  Yet, Jesus is saying, you who criticize, start with yourself first…ask yourself the questions about your motives, your agenda…don’t look to blame others, but ask yourself how can I be cured, healed.  Miracles can only happen if people are willing to own their own predicament and want to change themselves first.  

I’ve often heard, and have said this myself, in couple’s counseling, especially when folks are thinking about getting married, that you can’t enter into a relationship and try to change that person.  You can’t be concerned about winning an argument or being right, you have to focus on working together and mutual understanding and humility in order to move forward.  

That’s true in every relationship, especially in a church, family, friendship, and neighborhood.  

I believe that Jesus is communicating something good for his hearers that day, develop personal and corporate agency.  When I say “agency”, I mean the ability to have responsibility and awareness of your abilities and confidence to be the person you’ve always wanted to be deep down, the person God created you to be.  I also found this quote on agency:

In social science, agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. 

Jesus doesn’t end there either, he keeps on stirring the point.  He quotes a time in Israel’s history when there was a great famine that lasted for three years.  Israel suffered greatly.  Jesus references this to the hardness of the hearts of the people of Israel.  They were stuck in their ways of doing things, in their pride and habits.  When God raised up prophets from them, they didn’t listen and Jesus even says that a prophet in his own hometown isn’t heeded or listened to. 

So, what does God do?  God simply goes outside of Israel and continues God’s work.  God blesses and works through a Syrian and a widow…a foreigner and someone who didn’t have a spouse.  God wants to find persons willing to step into growth, into their own agency.  

Hearing this reminds me of a book I’ve read:  Leadership and the New Science by Dr. Margaret Wheatley.  It’s a classic organizational book using Quantum physics as a science that informs organizational behavior.  In the opening it talks about the movement of atoms, neutrons, etc.  They are all chaotic, yet there is a sense of order and movement…relationship if you will.  You can’t stop them from being in relationship and creating something.  The author describes it as being like a river.  It starts with a drop, then a stream, then a river and even an ocean.  When the water flows, over time it shapes and reshapes things, but it continues to flow and create something.  You can put up a roadblock, try to cut it off, but you can’t.  Something is formed and reformed.

It’s the same with Israel in Jesus’ time, and it’s the same with the church today.  God’s work is flowing.  That flow is happening all around us, in our churches and especially in our neighborhoods where our churches have been placed.  God is going to bless our neighborhoods and build up our agency if you will.  We, the church, can either figure out where the flow is taking us and get behind God’s work and even encourage it, or we can try to go against the flow, or even simply stand on the banks and let if flow.  Those are our three options, only one leads to life.  

Not only is that true in the church, but in all of our relationships.  There is a flow, it doesn’t stop, we can’t cut things off…but, we can learn to live and adapt and grow in the flow.  

So, Jesus is saying to those gathered that day, that life passed by Israel and the good news of release and freedom was still being proclaimed though.  They could get on board or miss out on on God’s blessing, God’s flow…in their lives and in the life of Israel…  

What happened next was a huge shift in the mood of the congregation.  They had gathered hoping to feel good about themselves, but when they heard Jesus’ words about the time of Elisha and Elijah, their anxiety and fear came out in the form of rage.  They wanted to throw Jesus off the cliff!

Now, I’ve had some good sermons and some bad sermons in my 30+ years of ministry, but I’ve never had anyone push me towards a cliff after one of them!  

Jesus, somehow though, doesn’t give into the rage, doesn’t feel despair, but trusts in his words, his own agency, his true self, and moves through the crowd and leaves unharmed through the crowd somehow to continue his ministry of love and reconciliation for all people.  

A friend of mine asked me these questions about this passage a while ago, they might be good for us to ponder as well:

Why is it that the insiders (Israelites, the tiny community of Nazareth) would stand in the way of the Kingdom things God was doing?  Why are the outsiders more willing to receive the message of a new thing?  And where do we at Fleming Road UCC fit into this story?

Those are questions that we should let soak in to our thoughts this week.  

Friends, for now, this passage can also be an encouragement to us to move towards God’s kingdom of radically inclusive love for ourselves and others and to grow in our agency.  As we move towards being a church marked by God’s love for ourselves, others, and God.  As we own our own wounds and history and move towards healing and a new future, that we can become the Church God calls us to be.  There will be some who won’t understand, won’t listen, and simply do not want God’s Presence in their lives, God’s fullness.  They may rather stay where they are because it seems comfortable.  Yet, God’s love will continue to flow, forming new things in us and in our church. 

That flow is present in this “sacred act” of our sacraments, our relationships.  Sometimes that flow is messy, it overruns the dams and the banks of our lives that we have built.  And, that’s OK, actually, it’s good as it reminds us that God’s love flows as it will…in and through, all around us.  

 A friend of mine, Brian McLaren, reminded a group of us a while ago that the word sacrament simply means a “sacred moment”.  Our whole lives are sacred moments, not just communion and baptism, may we live into the flow, the mess, and be present with ourselves, others, and God.  

Release.

Luke 4:14-21 

“Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15 He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. 16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” 

I have a question:  what makes “news” “good”?  

I remember receiving some good news.  I used to work at a store called REI that sold things like hiking and climbing gear.  I started to work there while I worked as a youth director at a Presbyterian Church in Atlanta to make extra money.  Youth Directors didn’t make much money…back then, and certainly not now!  

One day, while working at REI, Debbie contacted me to tell me some news that I didn’t quite know how to respond as it was early in our marriage…about a year in…she was about a month or so pregnant with our daughter Debbie.  

At first I was stunned, then happy, then I had to sit down and let it sink in…I couldn’t go back to work, I couldn’t focus, it was overwhelming…it had to sink in that I was going to be a father!  It wasn’t what I expected.  Yet, when the reality of this news sank in, it was truly good news…and I still am amazed to watch my daughter grow into adulthood and my son, Brennan, as well.

Our gospel lesson from the lectionary this morning is another story about unexpected Good News and release in the Bible.  

Jesus had just returned from being tempted by the devil for several days in the desert.  He resisted the temptation to become powerful or relevant by the world’s measure and stayed true to who he was.  Which, says a lot to us today as we strive for worldly wealth and relevance, God says that he has something better for us if we remember our identity lies in Jesus and live in self, others, and God awareness.  

As was Jesus’ custom, he preached in the synagogue.  Yet, this was different, Jesus was teaching in his hometown.  The folks gathered that day had heard great things about Jesus.  They had heard about the miracles he had performed and the words he had spoken, as well as the large crowds that were following him.  

Jesus was handed a scroll with the words of Isaiah.  Jesus knew what he wanted to read and began to read the prophecy about the Messiah.  There is an emphasis in this passage of “me”, three times in verses 18 and 19 alone.  In other words, Jesus is quoting this passage, saying that this prophecy is about him.  

Jesus even makes this dramatic, yet subtle and very powerful statement at the end of this particular passage that we are looking at today.  He rolls up the scroll, hands it back to the attendant, and sits down.  At first glance, that may seem odd, but in Jewish custom during that time, you would stand to read Scripture, then sit down to teach.  Jesus was doing just that.  But, when he starts to teach, he begins with the statement:  “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”  Jesus is saying, I am the fulfillment of God’s promise that he would be our God and we would be his people.  Jesus is God present with us.  

The Greek word in this passage for proclaiming good news is one word.  It is also where we get the world “evangelize”.  Now, in our polarizing times, that word “evangelize” triggers a lot within folks…we think of sharing a belief or a dogma, or we go to the word “evangelical”, which, in our context today, means more to folks as a political stance than a religious one…

Yet, Jesus was saying that had come to proclaim good news to the poor and release to all of those held captive.  Who are the poor?  It means to bring something, and in this context, it means that the ones that will hear and receive this message are the poor.  So, who are the poor?  Well, it certainly means those who are economically poor, but poor has a deeper meaning in this context as it does throughout Scripture.  The “Poor” are those who are miserable, oppressed, lonely…those who are marginalized.  The “poor” are those who had been ostracized by society in that day, persons such as tax collectors (who were quite wealthy actually), prostitutes, lepers, widows, immigrants, foreigners…you name it, those who weren’t “in”, but felt left out.  To be poor means more than simply not having material wealth, it means not being in community with others.  Poor has much more to do with status in society, it means much more than what your income is.  

Jesus was saying, if you feel marginalized because of others, then I have come to restore you in relationship with others and with God.  I have come to show you how to live into your “true self”, the person you’ve always wanted to be…and that the power to live that way has always been inside of you.  If you are poor or have ever felt marginalized or left out, if you have ever felt like you were on the outside looking in, then you know what it’s like to be in a desperate place, a place that is miserable…a place where you are hungering for good news of being included.

On a mission trip to Los Angeles with students and adult leaders from a previous church, Northminster, experienced this first hand.  Many of us thought that homelessness was a choice, especially in the wealthiest country that the world has ever known.  For some, it is, but for many, it wasn’t.  Our pre-conceived ideas, even our prejudices were confronted.  We found out that the homeless in this country have a higher percentage of high school degrees, and even college degrees, than the general public that have homes.  We began to understand that if you are homeless you are often spit upon, looked down upon, and forgotten as we worked in homeless shelters on Skid Row.  We also saw firsthand that if you go for several nights without much sleep, worrying about what may happen to you on the street, without the comfort of a true friend or community, that you may go a bit crazy as well and begin to talk nonsense to yourself.  Of course, many of us do that with a good night’s rest!  We also realized that there are only a couple of degrees of separation from us to the homeless and that they too are a part of our community that cannot be forgotten.

Jesus goes on to say in this morning’s text that he has come to proclaim freedom to the prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind, and to set the prisoners, the captives free, released!  He was proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor.  He was saying in effect, God is on your side!  When you look at the life of Jesus, he backed this up.  What does he do with the prostitute, but forgives her and restores her to community.  What about the tax collector, the leper, the blind?  He forgives them and heals them, and always restores them to community with others and with God.  Not only does Jesus do that for them, but he does it for us.  All of us at one time have felt left out because of the actions of others or our own actions.  We have been marginalized, we have been captive to the desire for worldly status and wealth, we have been held prisoner to the desire to put ourselves first, above others, yet, Jesus has come to release us.  We are the oppressed that God has set free, and, through Jesus, has forgiven us, has cancelled our sins and the sins of the world and wants us to know that we have been released to live lives filled with meaning. 

Friends, the church is called to be the body of Christ and to participate in Christ’s mission.  We are called to live out and do what Jesus is proclaiming in this passage.  As the body of Christ, many of us are praying and asking questions about how we can be advocates against human trafficking and other injustices, much of my early work with the group Oasis was centered on the issue of human trafficking.  We are also asking how we can build up the communities around us that are fragmented, and how we can share Jesus through relationships, bringing good news to those who feel left out.  We are praying for how we can listen and even minister to those who live within our neighborhoods by simply being friends with them, while modeling the alternative community that we are called to be as a church.  

Identifying with Christ can be messy and uncomfortable.  When you look at the rest of this chapter in Luke 4, you see that the meaning of Jesus’ words didn’t bring a whole lot of good feelings in the crowd that was gathered.  The crowd wanted Jesus to tell them that they were favored, they wanted him to affirm their “way of life”, they wanted to see some of the miracles that he had performed in other places.  They were looking for a performance and not the community that Jesus was envisioning and Scripture and prophesied.  They wanted their version of “good news” to be good for them only.  They got frustrated and wanted to scapegoat Jesus and looked for ways to cause him harm.  Yet, Jesus’ message and life still went out and continues to this day working in and on us.  Jesus says that in order for news to be good, it has to be good for everyone.  Friends, may we be the body of Christ, bearing news that is truly good to a lost and lonely world.  We have been given the power to proclaim release to all of those held captive to a narrative of darkness as we model the light, the love of Christ.   In so doing, not only will the world see hope and experience release, but we will as well.  

May it be so.  

Extravagant.

John 2:1-11

Jesus Changes Water Into Wine

On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”

“Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.”

His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.

Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.

Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”

They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside10 and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”

11 What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

This past weekend, I officiated the wedding of a former youth group kid, Pat Hasler, and his now wife, Danielle.  Pat is an amazing human being, great runner also…and it was a fun night celebrating with new and old friends!  Even his rehearsal dinner was great…it was at Great American Ballpark…it was simply an extravagant weekend!  

I love the gospel story because it is about family, community, and something new.  Jesus is at a wedding, enjoying himself with his friends and family, the disciples and his mom comes up with this problem.  The wedding has run out of wine…which is a huge “faux pas” in those days and an immense embarrassment.  Jesus’ mom wants Jesus to do something about it.  Jesus responds by saying “woman”, which may sound odd to us today, but the actual word translated is more of a term of respect and intimacy.  Jesus, who by this time is 30 years old, then says something like “oh Mom are you serious?” (in a very loving way I’m sure!).  Mary, Jesus’ mother sees something in her son that is special, she knows he is able to do something about this.  Jesus, then does something amazing.  Jesus takes ordinary water, water used to clean dirty feet (you see, in that part of the world it was pretty dusty and when you went into someone’s house, you cleaned your feet and hands pretty good), and turned into wine…what’s more, he turned it into the best wine that anyone at that party had ever tasted!  

At that point, people had been drinking a lot.  Usually, the best wine came out first, then after folks had a lot to drink, they’d bring out the cheap stuff.  But, the master of ceremonies tasted the best wine and remarked about the generosity of the bridegroom.  

Why did Jesus change the water to wine?  To show that there is something new going on in the world.  In a world that is crazy and where we often feel like ordinary water, or maybe even dirty toe jam water, as we walk through life and get dirty and grimey, there is hope.  When we meet Jesus, he  can take the ordinary or dirty water of our lives and turn it into the best wine ever tasted!  Jesus is saying in this story that he is something special, and, as we’ve talked about the past couple of weeks, Jesus is God in the flesh, he is the “visible image of the invisible God” at it says in Colossians.  Jesus is also saying that everyone is special in this story.  You see, I think that the family in this wedding party probably ran out of wine because they didn’t have a whole lot of money…so, when Jesus turned the water into wine, he turned SIX whole jars, HUGE jars into wine…more wine than they could have drunk.  Jesus not only transformed the water into wine and wants to transform our lives, Jesus blessed the whole wedding party beyond measure and wants to show you some amazing blessings and adventures in life.  One thing about Jesus, he is extravagant in his pursuit and love for us and for the community.  These were friends, family, members of Jesus’ family and neighbors.  The author of John is making a statement by having Jesus’ first public miracle happen at a wedding.  God is interested in overwhelming us with God’s love in practical and unforeseen ways…and this God is interested in blessing all of us together.  God’s good news, God’s presence isn’t for just a few, it’s for everyone.

This passage has also been said to give witness to the passing of the old law based on rules, regulations, and works to the new demonstration of God’s presence with humanity.  One of grace, personal love, and on God’s works on our behalf not our own.  

Just like Jesus wants us to experience the blessing of friendship with God and others in order to live lives into something beautiful, new wine, God wants us to have a change of heart of on our religion, how we live our faith, our very lives.

In our faith, in our way of not just showing up at church, but being church, we so often settle for the way things have always been.  We want to know what to expect and to control things.  We want a predictable faith, a predictable religion, a predictable God.   In so doing, we often make decisions and act upon those decisions that are comfortable and do not depict a faith in God, or even ourselves…leaving us feeling like grimey, dirty, used up foot washing toe jam water.   It’s a religion that does us no good.  And that’s a religion that we simply don’t need….and many people have come to the same conclusion and walk away from their faith.

Yet, we then come to something unpredictable, like a wedding, or a funeral, or an action that someone does for us, and we see God’s goodness breaking in.  

In that goodness, God takes our religion, our very selves, and turns it into something beautiful.  We are overwhelmed with God’s presence and extravagant love.  

The last thing about this turning of water into wine.  Jesus fills 6 barrels.  That’s a lot of wine.  Jesus didn’t want folks to feel like they didn’t have enough.  He also didn’t want them to simply seal up those barrels and not share…he poured them out for the entire wedding party!  In those days, weddings were for the whole community and they lasted for days!

Friends, Jesus wants to remind us that we are loved and are called to love ourselves, others, and God with extravagance…to pour out the good wine of God’s faith in us, God’s love for us, God’s religion or binding to us, to all in our neighborhood…and, in so doing, we’ll find ourselves experiencing the life of the greatest party we could ever imagine!

Baptized.

Luke 3:15-17,Luke 3:21-22

15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

The Baptism of Jesus

21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

I’ve shared this story before.  But it seems pretty important in this season, as I’ve been thinking a lot about Robbie Waddles.  When I was 8 years old, my best friend, Rob was baptized.  When I saw him get baptized, I thought that was pretty cool.  I love Robbie, still do.  We did literally everything together growing up.  He died at age 46, unexpectedly…which is sad, because he was an amazing human…English professor, musician, athlete…and he believed in me, and I in him.  Growing up, if Robbie did it, I was going to do it. 

So, I asked my parents if I could be baptized.  We set-up a meeting with our Baptist pastor, we talked about it, I got real excited…and the next Sunday, I was immersed in this huge tank that was in our Sanctuary behind our choir. 

I did not want to wait, I wanted to get in and get it done.  

I don’t remember much about my conversation with our Baptist preacher.  I just remember that it was something that my best friend did and he was glad…and it sure did make my parents happy.  

In our reformed UCC understanding of Baptism, we believe it to be a sign of God’s faithfulness to us.  It has much more to do with God’s actions on our behalf through Jesus than our actions.  It is also a seal that God puts on us…God’s “signature” if you will.  Baptism marks us as a people living in community with God.  God seals us to God’s self.  We may not always live that way, but in affect, God is saying that he won’t give up on us and that he believes in us.

As Jesus comes up from the water, there is a voice from heaven, God’s voice that has these amazing lines from our gospel lesson this am.  “This is my son, the beloved, with whom I’m well pleased”.

Jesus is God in the flesh, the flesh part means that Jesus represents all of us to God and God is represents to all of us through Jesus.  Jesus says elsewhere in Scripture that if you want to see what God looks like, look at him.  In our Christian understanding, God is three persons that are of the same substance.  They mutually indwell in each other’s being in such a tight community, even sharing the same essence, so much so that they are one God and speak as one.  Jesus is unique in that he is divine, yet also human. 

James Torrance, one of the great Scottish Torrance brothers who were writers, theologians, philosophers, and pastors says this about Jesus’ baptism: 

“When he [Jesus] saw the people going down to the river to be baptized by John, confessing their sins, submitting to the verdict of guilty (which is repentance), Jesus said to John, ‘baptize me!  I will submit to the verdict of guilty for them!’  He identified himself with sinners, the he might take their place…”

Jesus’ baptism is for all of humanity.  

This action by Jesus demonstrates the whole of Jesus’ birth, life, death, and even resurrection.  Jesus came to give us life.  We share the same essence as Jesus.  It’s wild, but what it means for us today is that when God looks at us, he sees Jesus and the words of this passage are also addressed to us.  God is well pleased with us!  We are God’s beloved. We often forget that we are God’s beloved…we live as if we are God.  Actually, we are God’s heart.  And, when we look deep into our selves, our true selves, we find God waiting for us there.  

Jesus came to restore us to our true identity.  Baptism signifies a death of our old selves, the old self that lives in its pathologies and old ways of thinking, when we are put under the water.  When we come up, we are reminded that God has cleansed us and that there is new life.

Paul addresses this in Romans 5:5-6; 13-14: 

5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. 

13 No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. 14 For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

We have been freed to live as our true selves, the persons that God created us to be.  My understanding of sin is that it’s always relational.  We hurt ourselves, others, we betray and are betrayed in all of our relationships when we are not living authentically as best as we can as our true selves…and God wants us to be in authentic relationships…where we can be honest, brave, vulnerable, and real.  Righteousness is a relational term.  As is it says in verse 13, we are called to be instruments of righteousness, to live lives that are filled with grace for ourselves and others as we receive it from God.  

Having said all of this…it seems to me like many of us, including myself, are still waiting for something to happen in our lives and in the lives of those around us.  And we come to seasons like the one we are in now, when things maybe are not going as we had planned, yet we find God in the midst of life situations that we never thought we’d be in…God moving in the midst of chaos, darkness, broken relationships.  

Jesus has done the work and this Jesus is calling us to stop waiting and move into his actions for us that can bring us a new way of thinking, a new way of living, a rebirth.  

This rebirth is in constant motion.  Since Jesus is God, Jesus doesn’t end, therefore Jesus’ actions are sealed forever with us, just as we are sealed with Jesus.  At 54 years of age, I am again realizing deeply what it means to present myself to God and others as someone who has been brought from death to life and to be truly “present” to God and others.  This season of so much loss in my life, I am realizing that losing everything, means to gain everything.   My reality, my true self, is found in Jesus as the great Catholic writer, Thomas Merton says:  

“Our reality, our true self, is hidden in what appears to us to be nothingness….We can rise above this unreality and recover our hidden reality….God Himself begins to live in me not only as my Creator but as my other and true self.”

God, the Creator, wants you to know that life, real life, is happening through God’s constant actions in and around you.  There is new life, this rebirth, as signified in baptism!  God is doing a new thing as the writer in Isaiah says:

18 o not remember the former things,

    or consider the things of old.

19 I am about to do a new thing;

    now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

We may be living in a dry place in our lives.  We may be having a hard time forgiving someone or being forgiven.  Maybe you are waiting for something to happen in your life, but you aren’t sure what that is.  You may want desperately to experience something new.  Friends, We don’t have time to live in regrets, the waiting is over, it’s time to grow up and live, really live as we learn to love ourselves, God, and others.  As Yale divinity professor and author Miroslav Volf says that in our journey, we remember truthfully, we condemn wrong deeds, we heal, we repent, have a change, and we end by letting go of the memory of wrongdoing as we are reconciled through Christ.  

Jesus has brought a new thing and wants us to live reconciled and reset lives as we enter into new reality that is fully present with each other.  You, and our community, have been baptized in Christ.  The old life has gone, and a new reality is upon us.  May we stop waiting and live in the reality of God’s Presence within us, around us, and follow God’s movement towards all of humanity in the streets and neighborhood around us.