Monday, January 25, 2016

1/31/16---Hometown Hero

Luke 4: 21-30

Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ 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?’ He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” ’ And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 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. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way. (NRSV)

All is going well for Jesus. He has come home, been invited to speak in his childhood synagogue, and now all are speaking ‘well of him’. People are amazed by his words and are proud that this hometown hero has returned to them to share.

Luke recounts this story as though Jesus really should have quit while he was ahead. There is initially no indication that anyone is upset or offended. They are simply thrilled to have some connection with this hometown hero, the one set to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy.

But then Jesus opens his mouth again. There is no need to. He is not responding to anyone’s question or inquiry. There isn't any indication that he is even responding to any trouble with what he has just said or done.

But Jesus seems dissatisfied. So much so that he pushes the whole mood of this welcome rally in a completely different direction: ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!”

Despite the apparent celebration at Jesus’ presence and message, he sees a need to highlight his hometown’s lack of acceptance towards him. They have accepted him so far, but he has more to say... Jesus is not happy with this exuberant response to his reading.

But why? Does Jesus have an inbuilt suspicion towards their acceptance? Does he sense that they are skirting along his real message? Have they deliberately not heard the call to an inclusive mission filled with grace?

Whatever the case, Jesus goes out of his way to highlight their lack of understanding, their shortsightedness. Even in the days of Elijah and Elisha God was at work beyond the borders of Israel.  He offers two examples: ‘Zeraphath in Sidon’ and ‘Naaman the Syrian’!

It is enough to turn their celebration to a riot and their praise into denial. Jesus has spoken plainly and they have understood well.

Maybe. It would seem this crowd has not, as yet, fully understood. They comprehend enough to object – but not enough to follow.

And then the crowd’s attempt to do away with their hometown hero is mysteriously thwarted: ‘…he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.’ (4:30).

It reads so strangely. Perhaps it indicates that Nazareth got it’s miracle after all...He left them and opened his mission up to everyone...

That means to you. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Monday, January 18, 2016

Jesus' Mission, Our Mission

This season of Epiphany has been very meaningful for me. The Spirit has opened me up to this word "epiphany." In the past, I have understood the phrase "I just had an epiphany!" to mean something like "I feel amazing because I just realized something awesome, and now I look at things totally differently!" Some of the same sentiment and excitement remain, but in a new way for me. God has shown me that an epiphany really has less to do, though, with anything I realize or how I feel about it. An epiphany, I have come to see and learn, is the known presence of God. It is a revelation. It is what happened when the shepherds met the baby Jesus in the manger, when the magi met Jesus and paid homage to him, and it is what happens each time you recognize God with you, around you, and in this world. It has more to do with God's grace and presence than anything else.

This week we come to Luke 4: 14-21 (Luke 4:18-19 draws on Isaiah 61:1-2 and 58:6). This may sound very familiar to you, because we also considered this Scripture during the season of Advent. I preached a sermon called "Jesus Sets us Free" in light of this crucial passage. Then, we read it in light of the coming Christ, asking "what did Christ come to do? Why was he sent?" You may come to these words with a similar approach, but this time we are also considering in light of the word "epiphany;" you may being coming to this passage this time around asking "how is God showing up in the world?" However you come to this important piece of Scripture, God meets you there.

This passage powerfully and succinctly lays out Jesus' mission, his purpose for being sent into this world. In a word, it is to liberate. God shows up to set you free.

One way Jesus does this is by turning the economic structures upside down. Time and time again we see Jesus throughout the gospels preaching a message of hope to the poor and outcast, those who had no place of worth in society. But this begins here at his first sermon in his hometown of Nazareth. In essence, Jesus instituted the year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25), a time in which crushing debts were forgiven and slaves were freed, as an eternal option. God sent Jesus to do that. That is how God shows up.

That is a challenging word for those of us who are not among the poor, marginalized, oppressed, or outcast of our society. It is even threatening to us to hear a word of upheaval of the very systems in which we benefit. But we need the moral courage to listen to the intention of God for humanity as Jesus proclaims it in Luke 4. We can be opened up by hearing stories of how persons who are in those situations of economic stress and social outcast hear with joy and renewed hope this gospel (good news) of social transformation. We can be encouraged, too, because when Jesus preached this prophetic text in the synagogue, when he challenged those in positions of power and privilege, he just so happened to leave out Isaiah 61:2b "and the day of vengeance of our God." Jesus' focus was on bringing healing and justice, not vengeance. Rest assured that Jesus came to set us all free from whatever keeps us from the joy of living in the presence of God.

Ask yourself: "What keeps me from living in the presence of God? " This is just another way of asking "What has Jesus set me free from?"

May you live in the joy, hope, and peace of freedom in Christ,


Monday, January 11, 2016

1/17/16---The Good Stuff

As we continue the season of Epiphany, we come to the scene of Jesus' first miracle in the gospel of John (2:1-11) at the wedding in Cana. We have already seen some incredible scenes including Jesus during this season: the magi following God's light and finding the infant-Christ, Jesus spending time in the temple learning and growing in wisdom, then being inaugurated into his ministry through baptism and receiving the Holy Spirit. The gospels then tell of how Jesus called the first disciples. And so now we meet Jesus, for the first time, as a man prepared for ministry in the world. The time has come to show people just who he is, and he does this, initially, at a wedding. It is worth noting that the gospel of John shows these scenes preceding his baptism as immediate. There is an urgency about Jesus; he knows he has done what he needs to do, then he gets going. Cana is a town not far from where he was baptized at the Jordan river. It is only after he visited the wedding there that he rested for a few days.

This scene is probably a familiar one to most folks: most of us have been to a wedding before. Some of you can even find yourselves in the shoes of those there; most readers can connect to the problem of running short of refreshments for a wedding, or at least worrying about the ways the ceremony and celebration can be ruined...These images of social disaster, whether they are real or not, elicit within us strong and natural emotions of anxiety, shame, and compassion, leading us to ask: "what can be done to alleviate this painful situation of human need?"

This is where Mary (John doesn't name her, but we can) steps in. She tells Jesus there is no wine. What a tragedy! The indication is that he is able and he should do something about it. Jesus, like he did in the Temple when he was 12 years old (Luke 2:41-52), we are provided with a somewhat jarring response by Jesus: "Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come." How rude and unnecessary, Jesus! Why is he talking this way to his mother? If you feel this way, it helps to be aware that you (we) are imposing our concept of what a mother-adult relationship should like, which probably was different during these times. We are also at a disadvantage because our English bibles are translated from Greek and Latin, so we lose some sense of what is actually intended by the words. Scholars say that this phrase was not rude, but was a formula for disengagement and distance. So Jesus may have not been trying to be rude to his mother, but wanted to distance himself from what she's saying. He was guided by God, not anyone else. That is a claim on this text in and of itself; we should all live lives that are guided by God first and foremost.

That is not the only part of this text that may be problematic to the modern reader (that's you), especially in this country. Most of us do not experience scarcity, let alone having this problem fixed by a miracle. For example, none of us seriously believes that our oil shortage problem will be solved miraculously by turning water into oil. It does not suffice to say, however, that back then people believed in miracles, but we don't today. Part of the reminder of the season of Epiphany is to realize how God has showed up in your life; you may consider these epiphanies "miracles," and rightly so!

Notice the chief steward. When he tastes the wine, he doesn't say "Alright! Some worker of miracles has turned that water into this delicious wine! That happens a lot!" This steward assumes that the host of the celebration went and got more wine that was stored up, and he is confused as to why it tasted so much better. It was only the disciples who knew that Jesus did this as an epiphany, as a revelation of his glory, "they believe in him." This is the purpose for the miracle, to "point beyond themselves to what is being revealed through them" (Ernest Hess, Feasting on the Word).

A lot of times, we are like the chief steward. This person recognized the great quality of the wine, but he does not know the source is Jesus, or its meaning as a sign of God's grace and presence. We are often like that: we recognize good things without recognizing their source, which is God. The steward also recognizes that the ability of people to discern even what is a good thing, is impaired. Their physical and spiritual perception are dulled. So, may we recognize the good stuff, the good things in our life, with a clear heart and clear mind, giving God the glory.

In Christ,


Tuesday, January 5, 2016

1/10/16---You are my Beloved

Baptism of the Lord Sunday has come rather abruptly this year. Maybe I shouldn't feel bad about this, though, because the gospel of Luke goes from the birth of Christ, to the 12 year-old Jesus in the Temple, to Jesus' baptism as an adult, age 30. In our yearly liturgical journey, we leap forward to stories surrounding the birth of Jesus to his baptism in the Jordan as an adult. If you have heard or read how Jesus was baptized before, you might be privy to the subtle (and not so subtle) differences that the gospels of Matthew (3:13-17), Mark (1:4-11), and Luke (3: 15-17, 21-22) tell the tale. I have found it to be a rich practice to pay attention to the particularities of the way each evangelist tells the "same" old story. For me, it adds a freshness and depth to what is proclaimed.

Luke's account has a number of differences that are worth exploring. I invite you to read all 3 accounts this week in order to add a freshness and deepness to this important gospel story.

First, Luke includes an evocative intro phrase "the people were filled with expectation" and "questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah" (3:15, emphasis added). The people were hopeful for someone who could lead them out of their difficulties. This is such a recurring theme for people throughout history. I find this to be especially pertinent nowadays, as elections creep up, nations are fighting, and relations among us seem to be depleting in our very own country. We put our hope in people, as did those gathered there in Luke's scene.

Luke also inserts, in 3:19-20 just prior to the baptism, John's imprisonment by King Herod. Although this may be difficult to stomach, this does serve a couple of purposes. It gets John off the stage for the folks gathered there (he was not, ultimately, who they were to place their hope in, although many thought he was), just before Jesus is baptized and begins his ministry. John's work is done and Jesus' is just beginning. John's arrest adds a somber note to this joyful epiphany. It reminds us that there is a price to pay for those who proclaim the gospel. Those who are willing to proclaim the good news may not suffer John's fate, but it will be costly. Jesus' words "take up your cross and follow me" come to mind. These verses remind me that bringing glory to God is a real decision, and making decisions also means denying something else. John denied himself and helped to usher in Jesus' ministry.

Something that Luke does not do is show us Jesus' actual baptism. Instead, this gospel tells us of the events after them. Luke shows us that the heavens opened up while Jesus was praying. This shifts the epiphany from the act of being baptized to the practice of prayer. Jesus prayed a lot (A LOT), as the gospel of Luke shows us throughout. What is begun in baptism is lived out through the practice of prayer by which one receives the Holy Spirit; this is what the Church continues. 

Once again, Luke adds language that makes this account unique. The addition of "in bodily form" to Mark's descending of the Holy Spirit on Jesus "like a dove" emphasizes the paradoxical reality of this spiritual experience: it is tangible, yet elusive and indefinable. I know that I feel that way when I feel Holy Spirit is with me. I know it, but I can't quite describe it.

I love the words Jesus heard from heaven "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." What a powerful affirmation! An affirmation like this, whether we hear it from God, a friend, significant other, or parent, we are strengthened in identity and feel empowered to act in accordance with that identity. And the good news is that in Christ, we are all the Beloved.

In Christ,


I am indebted to Ernest Hess, who is a contributor to "Feasting on the Word," for providing a homiletical approach to this text in the book