Thursday, January 22, 2015

Reflections on the Lessons – Epiphany III – Jonah and Mark 1

Read the texts here: Jonah 3:1-10 and Mark 1:14-20
Both of the lessons today deal with the issue of call.  In the Gospel, Jesus calls the fishermen Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John.  “Follow me,” he says, and they leave everything and follow him.  This lesson is contrasted by the lesson from the reluctant prophet Jonah, who also received a call from the Lord God: “Go!”  “And then away in the opposite way he went.” It is also interesting to note that Mark makes it clear throughout the Gospel that these disciples really didn’t know what they were getting into.  They have preconceived ideas of who Jesus is and what he wants from them that turn out to be completely wrong.  One wonders if the disciples actually understood more from the beginning if they would have been so willing to leave their nets and follow.  Jonah on the other hand seems to have a pretty good idea of not only what is expected of him, but what the result will be.  This is why he tries to run away.  He is not in agreement with God.  In both cases the bottom line ministry that these men are being called to is one of unconditional love and grace; it is one of radical inclusion.  In the Gospel this is made manifest on the cross.  In Jonah, God does not want to see the city of Israel’s hated enemies destroyed and Jonah just knows that God will end up having mercy and extending forgiveness.  And Jonah wants no part of it.

I think there are points of contact between us and the disciples, and us and Jonah.  Like the disciples, we too often create an image of Jesus/God that looks more like our ideas of who God is and what we think God’s priorities should be.  Popular Christianity includes a strong element of judgment and tends to downplay God’s love and grace.  Oh yes, “God loves everyone” (we say)… “but” – and then we come up with conditions: “you have to “accept Jesus as your savior or you have to be good or you have to believe in a certain way or you have to be a part of a certain expression or denomination or you have to accept these political positions or you have to… etc. etc. etc.”  WRONG!  God’s love and grace are unconditional!  God loves us, and because of that then we are able to respond to our call.  This is why the focus is on the cross of Jesus.  It reminds us of God’s amazing love and grace for us.  If it starts to become a symbol of “you better do this, or that, or else” then we are missing the point.

Like Jonah, we too often like to pretend we know the mind of God.  God can’t love those people, God can’t possibly be willing to forgive and accept those people! We like to think of ourselves as having a special IN, and the annoying thing about grace is that it tends to be so radically inclusive.  And this is exactly the point that God makes at the end of the book of Jonah.  God informs Jonah in no uncertain terms, that God is a God of love and forgiveness and God loves the creation so wildly and passionately that God will go to whatever lengths God needs to in order to bring people into relationship and wholeness.  Too bad you don’t like it, Jonah!  But you cannot presume the mind of God.  And this is our problem as well.  Way too often, we like to presume the mind of God.  We are constantly baptizing our prejudices, our priorities, our opinions, our politics and claiming: “God is on my side – and – God opposes you.”  Or we arrogantly assert – “If you want to be right with God you have to think like me!”  WRONG!  We do not know the mind of God and to presume the mind of God is to try to put ourselves in God’s place, which you might remember did not work out so well for Adam and Eve. (And which theologians down through the years have used as a definition of Sin).

A very wise Pastor has summed up the message of these lessons in this way: “If God does not love everybody, then there can be no love for anybody.  If God is not gracious to all, there can be grace for none.”  This is the central theme of the story of Jonah and the Gospel of Jesus.  And like Jonah and the disciples we are all being called to follow, to live lives that reflect this grace and love and to reach out in God’s love and grace to care for others and pass on this love.  It is to this that we are being called.  God’s call to us is that we would open our hearts to God’s love and grace and be open vessels of this love and grace to all – that is – TO ALL.  It is a risky call, because God is so generous and like the disciples we have a hard time understanding and accepting God’s radical inclusivity.  And like Jonah when we do begin to understand we might want to go in the opposite direction.  But just as God pursued and followed Jonah even into the belly of the whale, God will follow us and never let us go; constantly showering his love and grace upon us and calling us to follow and to love – In the name of Father, Son+ and Holy Spirit!

Friday, January 9, 2015

Reflections on the text – Mark 1:4-11

Read the text here: Mark 1:4-11
Wet & Well Pleased
And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Mark 1:10-11

And we are off!  Just like that within just a couple verses in the Gospel of Mark we are plunged into Jesus’ ministry.  No long mystical prologues; no genealogies; no Mary, Joseph, angels, shepherds or wise men here.  Within the space of just a few sentences Jesus arrives at the Jordan River as an adult, is Baptized and then he is immediately wandering in the wilderness struggling against the powers of temptation.  No time for a reception, or time to visit with family or time to consider and think about all that has happened.  Jesus is baptized – the heavens are ripped, the Spirit descends, he hears the voice – and it is out into the wilderness and beyond.  Just like that.

The heart of this brief episode occurs in verse 10 through 11 just as Jesus emerges from the water.  Let’s take a closer look at these events in two groups:
1.     “The heavens are torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove…” The Greek here is even more violent – the heavens are ripped apart - it says.  The word used will appear only one other time in the Gospel and this time at the moment that Jesus dies on the cross when the curtain of the Temple is ripped.  The prophet Isaiah pleads with God: “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” (Isaiah 64:1).  And here the prophecy is fulfilled. God has ripped open the heavens and has come down to dwell among God’s people on earth in the form of the Spirit.  The Temple curtain is ripped because God no longer will be separated from human beings – God lives among God’s people. The ripping open of the heavens then makes possible the bestowing of the Spirit of God on Jesus. 
2.     “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased!” Did Jesus know who he was in relation to God before His Baptism? This is a statement of identity – Jesus is God’s beloved Son.  This is also a statement of unconditional acceptance.  Note - Jesus has done nothing yet.  Jesus has not yet accomplished anything. Jesus has not even contended with the powers of temptation – this comes AFTER these words.  In fact, this event, these words make it possible for Jesus to enter into his ministry.

This story, like all stories from the Gospel, are about more than just a biographical recounting of an event in Jesus’ life.  The Gospel stories are proclamation and all have something to say to us about our lives in Christ and our discipleship.  For we are called, we are baptized and we are sent forth.  We are reminded that God has ripped the heavens open, God has ripped apart the Temple curtain and God continues to dwell among us.  God is not remote or distant or confined to one holy place. God lives among God’s people.  And the gift of the Holy Spirit is given to all who are baptized.  You have been given the gift of the Spirit in your baptism.

And the words spoken are for each of us as well.  “You are my Son / you are my daughter – with you I am well pleased.”  Spoken to each of us before we have done anything.  Because God’s love and acceptance of us is not contingent on anything we do – we are accepted and loved on the basis of who we are.  This is no mere affirmation.  This is not a pat on the back and a “good job!” from God.  There is a place for that, but this acceptance goes deeper than a superficial affirmation – or a “like” on Facebook.  Jesus had not done anything and neither had most of us when we were baptized.  This is unconditional acceptance.  This is God saying to you: “I love you.  You are beloved. I am well pleased with you.  Nothing you do will ever alter this fact.”

But the story doesn’t end here.  This is only the beginning, as it is for us as well.  For we too are called; we too are sent forth from the font to bear the light of Christ’s unconditional love and grace.  Like Jesus, we are empowered to move forward in our lives, contending with temptation, and encountering all kinds of situations we were have the opportunity to bring the light of Christ. 

Therefore, Baptism is more than a private family event.  Baptism provides the foundation of our faith.  For in Baptism we are accepted and loved by God and called and sent forth to bear the light of this love and grace into the world.  So, then since this is such an important part of our faith I want to suggest and exercise.  Do you know when you were baptized?  I was baptized on April 10, 1955 – Easter Sunday! Have you ever done anything to remember and celebrate your baptism?  There are a variety of things that you can do.  Dipping your hand in water and making the sign of the cross is one thing that I think is very meaningful and helps us to remember and stay connected to our Baptism.  But also, What about getting a candle out (your baptismal candle if you still have it, otherwise any candle will do), lighting it and reading through this story of Jesus’ baptism, along with Romans 6:3-5, and also with Luther’s Small Catechism explanation of Baptism.  You can do this on the anniversary and/or in connection with the Baptism of our Lord and other festivals of the church.  But whatever you do, never forget that the words of the voice are for you: “you are my Son/Daughter, the Beloved, and with you I am well pleased!”

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Reflections

Read the text: St. Luke 2:1-20
Do Not Be Afraid
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered.  
Luke 1:1-3

And with those three simple sentences Luke sets the scene for the birth of Jesus, and it is a scene of darkness, hopelessness and fear.  Over the many years since the time of Jesus we have lost this sense of darkness, instead we tell a version of this story which has a faithful and dutiful holy couple, a clean stable, fresh and happy shepherds and devout kings.  But this version of the story misses the point in so many ways.  Luke wants us to understand that this was a difficult time and Mary and Joseph’s lives were hard, as were the lives of everyone else living in 1st century Palestine.  Indeed only a few years later the Romans would punish dissent by destroying the city of Sephorris, which was visible from Nazareth.  The heavy hand of Rome was resting upon this region and it was Quirinius’ job to maintain the Pax Romana – the “peace of Rome” which is imposed peace through violence.  Of course Joseph and everyone else headed off to wherever they are order to go for this tax census – they had no choice.

The shepherds had it particularly rough.  The life of a shepherd was a hard life.  Most people invested all of their wealth in livestock, so these sheep and goats would have been someone’s entire possessions.  These shepherds “abiding in the field, watching their flocks by night,” would have been hired hands.  The work was dirty and dangerous, especially at night.  Because of the dirtiness of the job shepherds were excluded from the Temple rituals and considered untouchables.  These were people on the margins – poor, destitute and excluded.  But these are the ones to whom the angels appear, for these shepherds represent all of those who sit in darkness and fear and for whom Christ comes.

The darkness, hopelessness and fear have not left us.  This past year has been a particularly dark year.  Just here at the close of 2014 we have climbing poverty rates in the US, even people who are employed at minimum wage cannot afford basics like food, clothing and shelter; protests in Ferguson, MO and around the country have raised again the issues of racism even as violence has erupted in some communities; ISIS and other extremist groups have been growing and have been notable for their brutality; at the same time there are simmering conflicts in places like Africa, Israel and Ukraine; and if that weren’t enough, North Korea has launched a cyber attack on a movie studio because they didn’t like a particular movie.  And this is at a national level, closer to home many of us have our own personal darkness with which we struggle.  These issues include dealing with grief and loss, illness, alcoholism, domestic abuse, depression and on and on.

It is into this world that the angels come and speak to us: Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.  It is into this world of darkness that God enters in Jesus in order to illumine from inside; it is into this world of hopelessness that God comes in Jesus to bring hope; it is into this world of fear that God comes bringing the gift of faith and it is into this world, with all its problems and darkness and struggle and sorrow and pain that God comes in Jesus, bringing comfort and joy and offering us peace.  Not the pax Romana kind of peace – no, Jesus brings to us a different kind of peace.  Jesus offers to us shalom – complete well-being and unity, light and life and hope.  The kind of peace that rejects violence as a solution, the kind of peace that doesn’t have to deny the darkness but rather accepts the reality of the darkness in our world and lives, and brings light to it from within.  The kind of peace that recognizes that we are all human brothers and sisters and that we must find ways of not being afraid of each other, but of embracing each other – especially those most different from us.
This is what Christmas is all about, friends.  This is what incarnation is all about.  It is not just a fancy theological word we pull out around Christmas to dust off in order to sound, well, theological.  Incarnation is the way God works in the world.  Incarnation is the way of the cross.  Incarnation is a way of discipleship.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it…”  Mark 8:34-36

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”  Luke 2:14

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Reflections on the text – Luke 1:26-38

Read the text here: Luke 1:26-38
 “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”
Mary must have been a pretty special girl, don’t you think?  To be favored and chosen by God to bear God’s Son, Jesus.  I wonder what she did to deserve such favor.  You would think that God might have had a list of qualifications that needed to be fulfilled for this job.  For example, I would think it would be important for her to have a good financial foundation, so that she could easily provide for the child; have resources, like other women available to assist her; she should be married so that there is no moral or ethical questions; she should be mature and able to handle the responsibility; she should be devout and strict in her religious observance, keeping the law perfectly; she should have a special relationship with God.  Can you think of other qualifications that we might expect for filling the position of the mother of the Son of God?  In fact several early Christian texts – that did not make it into the Bible – went out of their way to describe such a Mary: a woman who was so pure and holy that she was really only one step in holiness below her son.
But this is not the Mary we meet here in the Gospel of Luke.  Mary in the Gospels seems to be nothing special at all.  She is a poor peasant girl, perhaps as young as 13/14 and certainly no older than 17; she is unmarried at the time of the visit of the angel and there is nothing in the text to suggest that she was particularly devout or that she had any kind of special relationship with God.  She is just a normal, 1st century peasant girl, living in a small village, betrothed to an older man and probably (like all young women of this time) looking forward to her life as a wife and mother in this context with the expected mix of both fear and excitement. But she is favored by God!  She is chosen!  She is blessed!
There is, however, something very unique about Mary and it is this: when she is greeted by the angel and told that she is favored by God she accepts and believes it.  That seems pretty simple, but think about it.  All of the social and religious powers of the time were going out of their way to send the message that you – Mary – are not favored and not worthy.  As a woman, a peasant, a villager she would have had 2nd class status and then there was the matter of keeping the law and maintaining the purity regimen.  And on top of that she is going to get pregnant before she is married! How in the world could she ever believe that she was favored by God?
And what about us?  We live in a world of high expectations. Nothing comes free, we must always work to earn everything we have.  We believe that we get what we deserve and there are no free lunches.  We spend our lives trying to live up to expectations and acquiring and maintaining our qualifications.  We spend our lives trying to be worthy.  And we extend this to our relationship with God – if you want God to bless you then you have to…  Fill in the blank!
But on this 4th Sunday of Advent we pause to look at this young woman and marvel at her faith.  And her most important act of faith is simply accepting the angel’s greeting and believing that yes, she was favored and blessed by God, not for anything she had done or accomplished.  God’s favor and blessing come to her as a free, unconditional gift.  And believing this enabled her to accept everything else; accepting God’s unconditional favor and blessing empowers her and enables her to do incredible things.
This is true for us as well.  You are favored by God!  Can you believe it?  Do you know and believe that God notices you and loves you and this is completely on the basis of nothing you do, but only because of who you are.  You do not have to DO stuff in order to attract God’s notice and favor – rather God notices and favors you right now on the basis only of his unconditional love!
The most important thing about this text is not that it lifts up Mary as an exception but rather as an “example of what can happen when you believe that God notices, favors, and blesses you: you may just change the world!”1

Quote from "In the Meantime" by David Lose in his essay "Blessed Like Mary."