Saturday, January 26, 2013

Reflections on the Gospel – Luke 4:14-21

Read the text here: Luke 4:14-21

Can You Handle the Truth?
Since the days of the ancient Greeks and Romans and on to our own day, one of the great temptations that human beings have struggled with it is the place of religion in human society.  And in the majority of cases the purpose that religion has fulfilled has been to support the way the things are – to support the status quo.  The loudest proclamation that comes down through the ages is this: “God is on our side, no matter what.” Ancient paganism was designed to support the temporal powers and the Old Testament is filled with the angry words of the prophets condemning a people and government who would convert the worship of Yahweh into department of state propaganda.  Even in our own time we see this from way too often. We like to think that God is on our side and we hear this all the time – this candidate, this issue, is ordained as what God wants. It makes it hard to oppose or vote against someone or a position that has been approved and ordained by God.  But is that all our faith is - just props to make us feel righteous and special?  Or is there more.
In our Gospel text for today Jesus emerges from his 40 days in the wilderness and goes to his home in Nazareth.  There he assembles with all the men of the village at the synagogue.  Undoubtedly some of these men are family friends, neighbors and family members.  Perhaps Joseph or Jesus’ brothers are there, the text doesn’t say, but it is not inconceivable. Remember also that during the first century even though the Romans were “in charge” there was a strong Jewish governmental and religious structure in place that ruled with an iron hand.  They let the Romans deal with overall administration, but these Jewish authorities – Pharisees and Sadducees and scribes – controlled the religious life in Palastine.  If you wanted to experience God’s presence, or appeal in any way to God you had to do it their way. If you wanted success or even peace then you had to fall in line.  The worship of Yahweh became very temple-centric and focused on individuals keeping the law of Moses.  To try to go against all of this was dangerous – at best it would get you cast out of the community; at worst it could get you killed.
Into this situation walks Jesus.  He is handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and he reads: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  And then he simply adds that today those who are listening are witnessing God’s fulfilling of this prophecy right before their eyes.  In other words Jesus is challenging the status quo.  Jesus is saying that the worship of Yahweh is not just about keeping the law perfectly; it is not about making sacrifice and keeping the festivals in a prescribed way; it is not about obeying the religious structure that was administered by the authorities.  The worship of Yahweh is about lifting up the poor from the depths of misery, it is about releasing those who are captive, it is about the blind seeing, the lame walking; it is about justice – it is about God bringing the Kingdom of Heaven into our midst through Jesus and putting people first by creating a community founded on justice and compassion and grace.  “The year of the Lord’s favor” refers to the Jubilee year, that now, according to Jesus will not only take place but will be a constantly in force.  In other words, Jesus is saying to his friends and neighbors – The God of Israel, Yahweh has come into the world in me, not to support the way things are but to TURN THINGS UPSIDE DOWN!
And guess what, Jesus friends, family and neighbors all turn on him and try to throw him off the edge of the cliff.  They don’t want to hear this news.  They want to hear that God is on our side and approves of everything we do, especially our religious and political structures.  We are like this I think.  We don’t like to have our pre-conceptions challenged; we don’t like to even entertain the idea that God might not approve of everything we do; and we certainly don’t want to hear that our ways of thinking and doing things need to be challenged and even transformed.
This is the Gospel text for us today – look at yourselves (both individually and corporately) honestly and see yourselves through the lenses of the Gospel?  Do you live in ways that reflect your faith and commitment to Jesus?  Probably not – none of us do and for that we all need to ask for God’s forgiveness.  But we can begin to take steps in that direction.  Here are a couple things to think and pray about.  1. The Gospels make it clear that while God loves everyone, when it comes right down to it God is always on the side of those who are in need, those who suffer, those who hunger, those who grieve and those who struggle – and we are called to stand with those same people. 2. Jesus is totally and completely non-violent.  Jesus makes it clear in many different ways that violence is never an answer to any situation. 3. Jesus always reaches out to everyone, especially those who are considered unworthy outcasts.  Jesus is completely and totally inclusive of all. 
Those three items are only a start – but perhaps they are a good start for us. For we tend to glorify those who are successful and wealthy and we tend to look down and even further victimize those who are poor or hungry or unemployed or struggling. And we can also be very exclusive and judgmental.  We like to categorize people and we too often exclude and reject those who life styles are different from our own, or those who are from a different culture or have a different faith or whose skin is a different color.  And we are a society that glorifies violence.  Our Gospel today confronts us with this and calls for us to look at these and other issues long and hard and to ask God’s forgiveness and to ask God to begin to change our hearts and the focus of our community, so that we might also experience more fully the Kingdom of God come into our midst; so that God would transform our struggling, greedy, violent and self-centered world into a perpetual Jubilee year, where God’s love and grace and peace abound.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Reflections on the Baptism of Our Lord – Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Read the Gospel text here: Luke 3:15-22
Fire, Water & Wind
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.  Isaiah 43:2

Fire, water and wind: natural elements necessary for life; natural elements capable of sustaining life and also capable of destroying life.  But these elements are featured prominently in our lessons for today both for their life-giving and life-destroying aspects.  The prophet Isaiah in the passage from chapter 43 is writing to a dispirited and lost people who are in exile in Babylon.  These are people who had literally been through the fire as they fled their beloved city Jerusalem as it burned to the ground in a huge conflagration.  These are people who had experienced waves upon waves of Babylonian soldiers overrunning their city and their homes; waves upon waves of destruction and death.  And now they languish in a far away land that is not their home; a land that is the land of their conquerors: Babylon.  By the waters of Babylon we lay down and wept when we remembered Zion… they sing sorrowfully.  The prophet writes in response and promises God’s never-failing presence with God’s people – no matter what!  Through the fire and through the waters God is there and will bring purification rather than destruction through fire, and life rather than death through the waters!

The brief passage from Acts presupposes that we remember a couple very important things: 1st that the Samaritans had had an experience of being displaced by the Assyrians just like the Judeans by the Babylonians.  The Samaritans had also gone through waves of destruction and fire. The hatred and mistrust that had arisen between the Samaritans and Judeans went back to the division of Israel into northern and southern kingdoms and to these invasions and the subsequent re-settlement.  Samaritans are of the same faith of Abraham as are the Judeans.  Samaria in the north was comprised of 10 of the tribes of Israel, and Judah in the south was comprised of two tribes.  2nd – our passage today is taken from chapter 8.  Beginning with the account of the day of Pentecost in chapter two, Acts then moves from one story to another of the work of the Holy Spirit (literally in Greek: Holy Wind).  The Pentecost story of chapter two had the rushing wind (Spirit), tongues of fire and concluded with Baptism with water. In chapter 8 the fires of persecution are now raging – led by Saul of Tarsus – and have already claimed a victim: Stephen.  But even in the midst of these destructive fires God will bring forth life through the waters of Baptism and the descent of the Holy Spirit!  And this Spirit will ignite a fire of its own – a fire of holiness and grace that will even engulf Saul himself.

The Gospel text brings all of this together.  The “unquenchable fire” which will rage and destroy because of human wickedness and “sin” will in fact be quenched through the life-giving waters of Baptism.  And the Holy Spirit (Holy Wind) will descend upon Jesus and all of God’s children empowering them and working God’s will through them.  This Spirit will ignite a new fire – the fire of God’s grace and love which will burn brightly in the hearts of all baptized believers.  We who have been baptized have been washed clean of our self-centeredness, our Sin; we have been buried with Christ and raised to a new life in Jesus.  We who have been baptized have been given a light, a flame that represents the power of Christ’s love.  We who have been baptized have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit that burns in our hearts and leads us to live lives that reflect this fire of God’s love.

The Kingdom of God is in our midst.  The Kingdom of God has broken into our world.  The light of Christ will dispel and destroy the darkness.  No matter the darkness that we confront we have this promise from Isaiah – God’s knows us by name, God loves us, God is with us, nothing will overcome us.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Epiphany 2013

Read the Isaiah 60 text here: Isaiah 60:1-9
Epiphany 2013
How do we discern the light from the darkness?
There is an old story about a rabbi who enters into a discussion with his students.  When, he asks them, can one know that the night has ended and the day begun?  Is it that moment, suggests one student, when you can tell the difference between a sheep and a dog?  No, said the rabbi, that isn't it.  Is it, asks another, when you can tell the difference between an olive tree and a fig tree?  Not that either, said the rabbi.  Is it, asks a third student, when you can clearly see the sun in the sky.  No, replied the rabbi.  Rather, he told his puzzled students, it is that moment when you can look at a face never seen before and recognize the stranger as a brother or a sister.  Until that moment, he added, no matter how bright the day, it is still night.
The festival of Epiphany is about light and darkness.  It is a celebration of the light come into a world of darkness.  It is easy to see the darkness.  The darkness is all around us.  It pervades our world.  The darkness is can be overwhelming.  For many the darkness in our world is oppressive and destructive.  I'm talking about anything – attitudes, laws, edicts which deny another person his or her potential to be fully human.  I'm referring to the fear and mistrust which we have towards those who are perceived as being different - those whose life-styles are unlike our own, those whose socio-economic status is at a different level than ours, those who are ill or hungry or imprisoned.  We could go on and on - the darkness is easy to perceive and it is almost overwhelming.
But the darkness is not the last word.  Darkness is not the end of the story.  Arise, shine for your light has come………. (Isaiah 60).   In the midst of the darkness a light shines eternally, never to be extinguished.  This is the light of Christ; the light of the incarnation of God.  And this light is a sign of hope, a sign of joy and a call to allow this light to shine forth brighter and brighter through us.  May we all treasure the light - nurture the light - don't let the light go out in your lives, but build it up and allow it to shine forth as a beacon in the midst of the darkness.
+Amen.
An audio recording of my Epiphany sermon - "The Ultimate Gift" - can be found at http://wartburgparish.com/#/media