Sunday, February 26, 2017

The virtue of just showing up

Luke 9:21-36

            “Now about eight days after these sayings…” begins our Gospel account today from Luke, which begs the question: “What sayings?” Which begs the answer: Important sayings. Really important ones. Just before this scene that we now call the Transfiguration Jesus has just finished telling the disciples two very important things. 1) He is going to be betrayed, die, and rise again, and 2) To be his follower you must deny yourself, take up your cross daily and follow him. The disciples hear but do not understand—a common trend for this lot. Peter, who typically represents the church (since he is the “rock” on which Jesus says his church will be built), doesn’t get it. This suggests, at least to my mind, that the church, too, is bound to not get it. This makes me sad and also gives me hope, because I often see the church not getting it.
            When the church (Peter) goes up the mountain with Jesus and sees him transfigured white the church fails to follow through as Jesus wants. The scripture says that Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep. It’s clear that Peter is the ringleader here—it’s “Peter and his companions;” not the “three disciples.” So this is not about the disciples—it’s about the church; about what the church does and what the church does not do. The answer is: the church builds dwellings. It marks sacred spaces. It remembers important events. It even, to some extent, tries to re-create them. Peter exemplifies all this with his initial response, telling Jesus they should be building houses of worship on that space.
            But this is not what Jesus wants—not exactly. The church is not supposed to build first, it’s not even supposed to remember first; it’s supposed to do something harder: From God’s voice from the clouds in verse 35: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” The church is supposed to listen to Jesus. If we listen we will hear the hard words; we’ll hear Jesus say “I’m going to be betrayed and I’m going to die.” We’ll hear the challenge of discipleship, “Deny yourself. Take up your cross and follow.” And we’ll also hear the good news: “Three days later I will rise.” But first we have to listen. As Jesus says in the story immediately following this one: “‘Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.’ But they did not understand this saying…” (Luke 9:44f)
            I can resonate with Peter on that mountain. I have memories of great places, great times, and great people in my life. I’ve felt God at work in me in very specific places that now mean something extra special to me. Whenever I have the occasion to make a pilgrimage to those places I take that opportunity to reconnect with a place that has made me who I am, but those places and those feelings are only any good if they urge me to listen not for voices from the past but for a God who speaks to me in the present, who is challenging and changing me right now. Jesus was obviously there with Peter on that mountain so it’s easy for us, who stand so far on the other side of history, to be critical of Peter. What’s harder is for us to see is that this God who stood with Peter is standing with us just the same today, speaking just as critically today, and commanding us again to listen: “Let these words sink into your ears!”
            If there is anything good I say it is Christ speaking through me; if there is anything wrong I say it is me believing with my little head that I can say it better. This is the path to discipleship: Denying ourselves, giving up the credit to God, because, frankly, God created it all anyway; taking up our crosses, enduring actual hardship—not small inconveniences but actual suffering—and following. It’s hard to follow through on this and a shrine alone will only help a little. The church is the people, after all, and not the building, and the church must be willing to let God do what God will do; not what we expect or want God to do with us. That is denying ourselves. That is taking up our cross.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Manage your expectations

Luke 7:18-35

When Kate and I were going through pre-marital counseling one of the pieces of advice we were given was to manage our expectations. It’s such good wisdom for marriage that I pass it on to every couple I counsel now. Manage your expectations: What does that mean? It means coming to an understanding of what one another expect, which can only be done through good communication. It means checking in with one another to listen and understand what your spouse expects. Then, it means bargaining with one another about how to come to expectations that you share. Managing expectations requires talking, sharing, and, above all, listening to one another. This is a recipe for a healthy marriage. Couples that fall apart often struggle communicating their expectations with one another; they wait in vain for their partner to pick up hints without ever truly sharing them, or they share them but one or both of them refuses to listen.
Managing expectations is key to healthy relationships with one another, and, based on what Jesus says in today’s reading, it also seems a critical part of a healthy relationship with God. In order to have faith in the God who is real we have to get to know Jesus for who he really was and is (and not who we want Jesus to be). In order to understand do this we have to listen to him. We have to read scripture like this and remove what we want to hear, instead listening for what Jesus is saying. If we want to have a healthy relationship with God it starts with understanding who God is and who God is not. It requires us to understand when we are worshiping God and when we have crafted God in our own, human image.
This is not as easy as it seems, because even in the Gospels Jesus is constantly misunderstood. In today’s reading he questions the people, “What have you come to see? A prophet? More than a prophet?”
He begs the question: “Who do you think I am?”
He’s looking for a confession of faith. He’s looking for a profession that he is the son of God, the Messiah. But the people are silent. It says in verse 29 that they “acknowledged the justice of God,” which is miles better than the Pharisees and the tax collectors, but acknowledging God’s justice and confessing who Jesus is are far from the same. Lots of people confess God’s justice, but do they know Jesus? So, Jesus concludes with a jarring critique of the people of an entire generation, comparing them to children in the marketplace who do not understand what it is they are looking for. They didn’t like John the Baptist because he was too much of a recluse; now they don’t like Jesus because he is not reclusive enough. The only person, at the end of the day, who will satisfy the people’s desired messiah is themselves. Nobody is happy with anything on offer.
Do you know people like this?

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Slaves, masters, and where we stand

Luke 7:1-17
            Today I want to talk about the first healing from the first reading. Not the obvious choice to talk about perhaps because the second healing is about resurrection and Lord, do we need a promise of resurrection in our lives these days. I do promise we’ll get there; I just want to start in the beginning. And the reason I feel compelled to talk about the first story is because of the matter of this centurion, because there is something about this encounter between the centurion and Jesus that is baffling and brilliant.
            The story goes like this. A centurion has a slave that is deathly ill, and he hears that Jesus is coming to town. He has heard the stories about this Jesus—healing other sick folks throughout the countryside. So he sends an envoy to Jesus, asking him if he might heal his slave. Then, after the envoy tells Jesus about the sick slave and asks him to come, the centurion himself appears. And so begins a very interesting exchange. The centurion tells Jesus not to bother going all the way to his house. In fact, the centurion explains that he didn’t even want to so burden Jesus with his presence and this is why he assumedly sent his envoy in the first place. Apparently the centurion is as concerned with making sure that Jesus is not put to too much trouble as he is with his slave being healed. For this reason I can only assume that the centurion is Norwegian. The centurion goes so far as to explain to Jesus that he knows precisely what it is that Jesus is going through, because he, too, has people above and under him. All he hopes is that Jesus issues a simple command. He (the centurion) expects nothing more than that.
            We might pause there for a moment, because if you set this stage for me and I’d never read this story before I’m not sure what I would expect Jesus to say. I could really see it going a couple of different ways. Is Jesus going to admonish the centurion for not coming to him in the first place? Is he going to go all the way to the centurion’s house all the same? Is this going to be a story of judgment?
            I expect everybody alongside Jesus was holding their breath and chewing their fingernails all the same. I mean, centurions are Roman soldiers and, sure, this one apparently helped the people to build the synagogue in town, so he was friendly with the Jews, but the question remains: Is this centurion’s behavior appropriate in the presence of Jesus?
            The answer, apparently, is yes. In fact, the scripture says that “when Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith’” (Luke 7:9). This response begs the question, “What, particularly, is it that the centurion did that Jesus understood to be so faithful?” Was it sending an envoy? Was it coming himself? Was it doing both? No, it can’t be any of that, because Jesus responds not to his appearance but to his words. So, what about those words, then? What is it that the centurion says this that is so faithful? Let’s listen closely: He says, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; 7 therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. 8 For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, "Go,' and he goes, and to another, "Come,' and he comes, and to my slave, "Do this,' and the slave does it” (Luke 7:6b-8).

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Our children, our idols

"Now large crowds were traveling with [Jesus]; and he turned and said to them, ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, “This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.” Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions" (Luke 14:25-33).
There are many commandments in scripture that are difficult--nay, impossible--to follow. "Love the Lord your God with all your soul, strength, and might, and love your neighbor as yourself" (Luke 10:27). Good luck getting that one perfectly right! It is verses like those that led Paul in his letter to the Romans to conclude that the purpose of the law is to condemn us and drive us to Jesus--that we cannot, in fact, get the law right, so the law cannot make us any more holy (cf. Romans 3:19-20). This has always made sense to me not only because it is what Paul says but also because it follows from Jesus' teaching as well, e.g. following the story of the rich man and the famous camel-through-the-eye-of-the-needle parable, the disciples ask Jesus, "Who then can be saved?" Jesus responds "For mortals it is impossible but for God all things are possible" (Matthew 19:26).

So, on some philosophical level the hardest commandment is always the first one, because we don't ever get past that one. But most of us do not live like the first commandment is all there is. Instead, we seek out more specific commandments--commandments that apply more directly to our lives--which brings me to the commandment that I've been wrestling with for the better part of the last year--the commandment from Luke 14:26, quoted above.

Now, again philosophically, the hardest part of the scripture above is undoubtedly taking up our cross and following. That's something few of us are really willing to do, and none of us will do it perfectly. But we all know those aren't the hardest practical words in this passage. For most of us the hardest practical words are the bold words: "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple." This verse is so offensive to us, so backwards to our usual way of thinking, that people either A) ignore it, or B) explain it away. I've heard the explanation that Jesus was speaking in hyperbole, which may be true but it doesn't excuse us from trying to understand what he's saying, and I've heard these verses softened, as they are in the New Living Translation, which reads, "If you want to be my disciple, you must hate everyone else by comparison--your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters--yes, even your own life." The "by comparison" part is nowhere in the Greek and is a wishful-thinking on the part of the translators.

Let's be honest: We are offended that Jesus tells us to hate our families. We just are.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

The laws that still matter: Love God, Love your neighbor

            Every week I have the sometimes challenging task of taking scripture that is from a long time ago and trying to help make it relevant to your lives today. Sometimes this is easy. Other times, like today, we are reading about a concept—the Sabbath—that isn’t practiced as seriously, between Jesus and the Pharisees, who are not around anymore, about an issue of contention in the law that Christians mostly believe has been made irrelevant because of Jesus anyway. So there’s that. I also read this week that only 8% of people want their pastor to speak about social issues… so there goes that angle.
            I mean, is it helpful to you if I just stand up and say, “The law is pointless because of Jesus” and sit down? I can do that. It feels tempting on annual meeting Sunday, actually. I can ignore this whole business of what our country is doing to refugees and aliens right now—it doesn’t really fit with the scripture and it’s in that territory where many of you want me to refrain from comment. So ignoring that is awfully tempting too.
Sometimes I hate preaching, because I’m forced to get up here and say something every week and the only thing that truly, really, ultimately matters is the cross and the empty tomb, but we get bored with that (as ridiculous as that is) and so we’re always looking for connections to our lives. Sometimes the connections are easy, sometimes they’re not, but the problem is I have to keep making them and most of the time they aren’t of huge significance, so that when something of truly enormous significance does happen it feels like just another thing—another little connection, take it or leave it. Why’s the pastor talking politics, anyway? If I say anything I’m preaching politics; if I don’t I’m ignoring the repeated call of the Gospels to love God and love our neighbor. So here I stand, and let’s get into the Sabbath and leave you hanging for now about how I’m going to handle this whole mess.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Fish the deep water

Luke 5:1-16

“Put out in the deep water, Simon,” Jesus says. “Try the deep water.”
            I don’t know how big Simon’s nets were, but I imagine fishing in deep water with hand nets is a lot more challenging than shallow water. There’s just more water to cover, it’s more work, and, frankly, the fish tend to congregate more in the shallows. “Try the deep water,” says Jesus. “Fish the deep water.”
            It’s easy to spend all our time focusing on the shallows with one another, barely scratching the surface of who other people are. Most of our conversations take place in the shallows. “How are you doing?” “Terrible weather out there, isn’t it?” Keep casting your nets in the shallows and you know what you’ll get: the same answers, the same general greetings. It will definitely be the same, but will it be enough?
                Jesus has a different idea. It requires more work and it calls us to venture further into a place we fear. Jesus calls us to deeper water; water that is more mysterious, water that is untested, water that can drown us as surely as it can save us. Jesus calls us to throw our nets that way, into the unknown. This calls to mind that famous Robert Frost poem, “The Road Not Taken”:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

But of course the most familiar part of the poem is the ending:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Jesus didn't come for the hometown team

Luke 4:14-30

It’s hard to preach to people you know well: Friends, family, people who remember you as the snotty-nosed little kid who was getting into trouble or the pimply-faced, socially-awkward teenager. When people know your history it is very difficult to outlive it, and when prophets have a history in a place it changes the dynamic of what a preacher is expected to say. Prophets are temporary; they are always just passing through; but when it’s the hometown kid something changes—the temporary and the forever collide and our expectations change. This is what happens when Jesus returns home to Nazareth. You can hear the adults—you know, those of Mary and Joseph’s age—saying things like, “Hey, look, it’s the little J-man, all grown up and going to read the Bible to us! Wow, isn’t he smart?”
            To some extent—and this is probably even more true in small towns and rural areas like Nazareth or Hallock—people are always seen as kids, no matter how old they are. This can be endearing and it can be patronizing. It can mean that the message they bring is not heard when it is spoken or never spoken for fear of what the elders think. I tend to think it is far more challenging for a person (especially a young person) to speak up in this community than in a big city, for example, because whatever message they bring will get wrapped in their personal history. Being a prophet to the hometown team is hard. Preaching the Christian message to those who know how flawed you were—and are—is nearly impossible, because the Christian message is not one of preference for people who look like me or sound like me. Jesus brings a message that tears through the hometown advantage. He doesn’t preach what the people want to hear but what they need to hear. He tells them the hard truth, which is that you aren’t any more special than anyone else. Not surprisingly, the people tire of this message quickly.
            We want Jesus to be on our team—and what could be wrong with that? Why wouldn’t we want Jesus on our team? If we were drafting a team of the most important people in our lives wouldn’t it be a good thing to include Jesus? There’s just one problem: Jesus doesn’t do teams. Jesus has preferences but not teams. And his preferences tend to look the same, which is a preference for the one who is in the greatest need, for the lost and the lowly and the powerless.
            This home-town phenomenon is pretty much the same today. We talked about prophets in Confirmation last Wednesday with the 7th and 8th graders and their parents, and we made up a list of all the people who might be modern-day prophets. Whenever we do this I’m struck that it begins to sound a little like we’re listing the people on our podcast playlist. For example, I might say that Wendell Berry is a prophet, but that may be because I rather like what Wendell Berry says. You might like what Mike Rowe says. Or you might like what Pope Francis says. Or you might like what Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders say. I don’t know. Does that make them a prophet? If Jesus and if any of our examples from the Old Testament are any indication the best way to tell if you are listening to a prophet is to ask yourself A) is this person preaching for the visitors rather than the home team, and B) is this person about to get his or her self crucified for what they are saying? If you can answer “yes” to those questions then you may be dealing with a prophet. People don’t like what a prophet has to say. People didn’t much like what Jesus had to say. Because of this, we are forever domesticating Jesus to fit our already-held beliefs. We make Jesus into our image. We tone down the harshness of the prophetic voice at least as long as the prophecy is aimed at us—the hometown team. We follow Jesus to whatever extent it makes us feel good about ourselves, but the moment it makes us question things we turn away