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Now is the Time (February 18, 2018)

Mark 1:9-15

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 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. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

I love the gospel of Mark. The author writes in a fast-paced style, leaving out things that aren’t necessary to his/her main point, with a literary style that ties everything together. The author pulls the reader into the story and continues to make us part of it. We are included as participants all through this gospel.

The first Sunday in Lent is always Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, but Mark’s gospel cuts to the chase. The temptation is two verses, no fluff, “And the Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”

That’s it. No description of the temptations. No conversation with the tempter. Not even a mention of whether or not he actually resisted the temptations (though we have to think he probably did). Sparse. Few details. Spirit drove him, 40 days, tempted, wild beasts, angels. That’s it. Then he starts his ministry with another two verses, “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” Again, not a lot of fanfare.

Now, I guess we could compare Mark’s version to Matthew and Luke, then fill in some of Mark’s missing details from there. Because the other gospels include what the specific temptations were—there were three, apparently. They also have Jesus outwitting the devil with his vast knowledge of scripture and divine wisdom. We could spend our time doing that, emphasizing what isn’t in Mark. But then we miss out on what the author of Mark actually does do in this temptation text.

You see, Mark doesn’t care how many temptations there were or how Jesus overcame them. For Mark, the Reign of God begins today. Get on board, because now is the time. God’s reign has come, and nothing will be the same. It’s like an old B Western. “There’s a new sheriff in town. Things are gonna be differ’nt. You better get used to it.”

OK, bad metaphor. But in Mark, Jesus brings this sense of urgency, that time for opposition to God is up, that God’s reign of peace and compassion and justice have truly arrived and will be taking over.

And Mark has this way of inviting us to be part of that narrative. If Jesus is the one in whom all this comes, then now is the time to get on board. The time is fulfilled, Mark writes. The time is now.

So Mark only includes elements of the temptation that make those points. Jesus is driven into the wilderness by the Spirit. The implication and vocabulary implies that Jesus is possessed by the Holy Spirit. This is entirely God’s doing.

Cast out into the wilderness, Jesus confronts Satan, the personification of all things opposed to God. Get used to it, Satan, your 15 minutes of fame are up. And now is the time.

Jesus is with the wild animals, where he’s vulnerable. But nothing happens to him because this is a new day. In the reign of God those who are powerless will be vulnerable no longer. And now is the time.

John is arrested, Mark includes that. John’s ministry was the one that was calling for God’s justice. Now that ministry has been stopped by those threatened by it. Immediately, then, Jesus begins to proclaim that God’s justice has arrived. Those who been able to silence the voice of God’s justice are now done. And now is the time.

The author of Mark proclaims this as real, and present here and now.

And that’s where he/she invites us into the story. The time is fulfilled. These things are happening today. Jesus brings all that God envisions, and we are called to be part of it.

Mark would have us ask, where is Satan today? Think a minute and ask, “What are the forces, the powers, the institutions that are opposed to God today?” Mark invites us to confront them with Jesus, let them know their 15 minutes are up. God’s peace and compassion are going to be lived in this world—right now. By us.

Mark would have us ask, what are the wild beasts today? Think a minute and ask, “Who is preying on the poor, the weak, the vulnerable today?” Mark invites us to stand up to them with Jesus because in the reign of God those who are powerless will be vulnerable no longer.

Mark would have us ask, How is John the Baptist arrested today? Think a minute and ask, “What voices for God’s justice and peace are being silenced today?” Mark invites us to take up that cause and, with Jesus, proclaim God’s justice for all people. Those who silence the voice of God’s justice are now done.

The time is now, Mark writes to us.

I’m well aware that there has already been yet another school shooting in 2018. 17 more children have been killed. The time is now, Mark writes to us.

There is a war on the vulnerable poor right now. A budget proposal for 2019 includes drastic cuts to food stamps, grants for education, healthcare supplements for the poor, housing subsidies for the poor, among others. The time is now, Mark writes to us. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

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Posted by on February 18, 2018 in Sermon

 

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The Power of Powerlessness (Ash Wednesday, Feb 14, 2018)

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near— 2 a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come. . . .
12 Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 13 rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. 14 Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord, your God? 15 Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; 16 gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy. 17 Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep. Let them say, “Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, “Where is their God?’ “

As the people of Jerusalem try to rebuild the city after returning from a 70 year exile held captive in Babylon. They are experiencing the worst disaster that anyone can remember. For an agricultural society, a plague of locusts means starvation and death. But this plague tops anything that even the oldest people have ever heard about. It’s overwhelming. It’s hopeless.

I think that in some ways we share that experience of hopelessness. There are things in our world that we can’t even imagine fixing. Our country is more divided than ever before; greed, lies, obstruction  seem to grow unchecked; an all-out war on the most vulnerable among us seems to actually be deliberate, our national leaders seem more out of touch and uncaring than ever.  There are 2400 homeless children in Jefferson County, yet the obstacles and the anger around any address of the issue seem insurmountable.

It just seems like there’s nothing we can do. Sometimes, as if we’re experiencing a plague of locusts, we can feel powerless.

And that’s what the people of Israel were experiencing too.

Our tendency when we feel overwhelmed is to pull in, hunker down, and make sure our own little corner of the world is safe. If the world is falling apart, we’re going to do what we can to stay clear of that. We’re going to remain where it’s safe, put in a security system, buy a handgun, and do what we can to make sure we’re going to be OK.  If the situation is bigger than our ability to deal with, we take care of ourselves first.

But here’s what Joel’s people in Jerusalem did in the face of a hopeless situation. All of them together threw their lot in with God. They recognized that their situation was bigger than their ability to deal with, so they—all of them together—publicly turned to God for hope and help. Maybe God would do something, maybe not. That was up to God, not them. But they called everyone together to fast and pray and see what God would do. And they did it openly and publicly.

15Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; 16gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy. 

For Joel and his people, the response to despair wasn’t “how can I survive this?” but “how can we help each other seek God in this?” And everyone participated.

As church, as the body of Christ, as followers of Jesus, this is what we can offer the world. A public, altogether, open, everyone involved, plea to God in the midst of things that seem impossible.

We say God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.

We say God is our refuge and strength.

We say God is with us in the midst of difficulties.

We say Jesus brings among us the mercy, compassion, love, and forgiveness of God.

We say that this is unconditional.

We say we trust God in these things.

Here’s our chance to live those things we believe. Let us come together during this season of Lent. Let us, as the whole congregation of Lutheran Church of the Master—all of us—call upon God to spare our world, to end hatred, to stop terror, to put an end to poverty, to protect the vulnerable, to do those things that we ourselves can feel powerless to do.

15Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly;  16gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy. 

This Lent, as we gather each week, both on Wednesdays and Sundays, across ages, ethnicities, genders, faith backgrounds, let us remind one another of God’s promise of hope and newness. Let us discover our own part in God’s promise. Let us, altogether, publicly and openly, call upon our God. Let us share with the world what we believe our God can do. Amen.

 
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Posted by on February 14, 2018 in Sermon

 

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It’s Not Always Easy to Listen (Transfiguration B, February 11, 2018)

Mark 9:2-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

According to some scholars, the Old Testament prophet Zechariah writes that on the day of the Lord, those who aren’t keeping the festival of booths will be punished by God. The way one keeps the festival of booths is by building little dwellings, tents, booths, to remind one’s self of the flight from Egypt and the 40 years wandering in the wilderness.

If that was on his mind, I understand Peter’s outburst about building three booths for Jesus and his important companions. That doesn’t mean, however, that even as these words were coming out of Peter’s mouth he was already regretting them. “It’s good to be here at the end of the world. Why don’t we settle in and do something religious.”

He is so scared out of his mind that the world was coming to an end that he tries to do something godly, religious. I don’t know what it is he’s trying to say, but I empathize with him. Have you had that happen? Some words come out of your mouth and you immediately think, “Oh. That was a mistake.”

What regrettable thing would you say if suddenly you saw Jesus as he really is—as eternity sees him? What would you do if, suddenly, the authentic, full-blown Jesus became real? Like, really real. More than a historic figure, more than a symbol, more than an important person that whose teachings we ought to follow. But, undeniably, in your face, without question, life-changingly real?

Because that’s what just happened to Peter, James, and John. This whole Messiah-thing with Jesus just got real. Jesus is changed right before their eyes. Moses and Elijah suddenly appear, chatting with him, the two all stars of All-Stars. The voice of God from the clouds declare Jesus as the Son, the Beloved of God. And then commands them to really listen to him.

I think it would be a really good day if the worst thing I did right then was utter something religious.

But that’s what’s going on in the Transfiguration. Jesus suddenly gets real for these disciples. He’s something really unique and special to God, no messing around with this. God says listen—not to Moses or Elijah—but to Jesus.

So the question for us as we head into Lent is, “Is Jesus real? Is he worth listening to?” And the question to ask right after that is, “If so, how can we hear Jesus more clearly? What voices are we listening to instead?”

Whether Jesus is worth listening to above all other voices is up to each of us, I guess. I’m here to tell you he is, and I’ve been telling you that for 20 years here, and some of you must agree at some level because you keep paying me to tell you that he’s worth listening to. But the “realness” of how deeply we listen, how seriously we take him, is up to us.

I think it’s easy to listen to Jesus when he’s healing us, or when he’s Transfigured and looking all-powerful. But it’s not so easy when, as he tried telling his disciples right before this text, he’s going to be hanging dead on a cross. It’s not so easy to listen then. God’s beloved? I like saviors who aren’t killed. I like winners.

It’s not so easy to listen to him when he tells you to follow him—even to a cross.

It’s not so easy to listen to him when he tells you that you have to forsake voices that are contrary to his. Even if it’s family, church, boss, or government.

It’s not so easy to listen to him when he says that the way to fully live is to give yourself away. Even to those who hate you or make fun of you.

It’s not so easy to listen to him when he says that the way to get ahead is to serve those who are behind, who have less power or status or money or privilege.

It’s not so easy to listen to him when he says that in order to see him you have to look for him in the faces those who are different than you, in race, language, politics, citizenship, sexual and gender identity, or religion. Not just see Christ in them, but treat them as if they were Christ himself—because he tells you they are.

We begin Lent this Wednesday. The season of really listening to Jesus. The season of taking him even more seriously. The season where we might want to consider turning down the voices that are contrary to his, so we can focus on listening to him with more attention.

It won’t be easy. Lent never is. But perhaps a way to see Jesus as he really is—transfigured, glowing, full-blown Messiah and Beloved of God—is to listen to him. And not just hear his words, but actually follow them.

Join the rest of this community in some Lenten disciplines to help us listen more clearly. Download the daily devotional booklet we’re using this Lent. Spend some time each day with it. Come on Wednesday evenings and practice listening to Jesus in different ways. If it would help, follow the practice of giving something up for Lent. But not for the sake of piety, but so you have something to remind you to listen to Christ.

The Transfiguration of Jesus happens so that we can know how important it is to listen to him. Whether in the brightness of his glory or in the depths of our fear, God still says, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

 
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Posted by on February 10, 2018 in Sermon

 

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#MeToo, Discipleship, Service, and the Gospel (February 4, 2018)

Mark 1:29-39

As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30 Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. 32 That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33 And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34 And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. 35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36 And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37 When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” 38 He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” 39 And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

There’s one phrase in this gospel text that, unfortunately, needs to be lifted up and delved into. One phrase that, even now, will be misused to counter the gospel of freedom, the message and purpose of Christ.

That phrase is, “Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.”

You know, in this congregation, I normally wouldn’t feel a need to preach on this particular phrase. Yet in the context of our culture right now, I am compelled to do so. To not do so would be unfaithful to the nature of the gospel and of Christ himself as it applies to our culture.

Simon’s mother-in-law was healed, and she began to serve them.  It’s necessary to be reminded, yet again, that this text has nothing to do with the place of women or the role of women as lesser people who are there to serve the men. In the Christ-like empowering of women to claim their place as full human beings, and with the work of the Holy Spirit in things like the #MeToo movement against harassment and abuse, we need to hear again that the wording of this text cannot be used to counter what God is doing.

170 brave girls-now-young-women, stood up and testified against Larry Nassar, a man who took advantage of power he had over them as young gymnasts in order to sexually abuse them. Many of these young women are also calling out those who, by doing nothing, are complicit in this horrific abuse.

Many governmental leaders in our country are being called to account for their actions as sexual predators, harassers, abusers of women.

Men in all walks of life who have exploited their power at the expense of women are finally being stopped.

This is what the gospel is about. Lifting up those who are exploited. Empowering those who have less power. We are seeing, right now in our culture as these things are happening, the power of Christ’s gospel to restore us and set us free. Make no mistake about it. Jesus is disrupting a culture that is abusing power and taking advantage of the other.

This isn’t about political feminism. This is about all people being created in the image of God and all people being recognized as fully human. That’s the point of the gospel. That’s what Jesus came to do.

That’s what’s happening in this text.

Simon’s mother-in-law isn’t healed so she can be relegated to her appropriate female role as one who serves men. No, she is healed because that’s what the kingdom of God is about. She serves because that’s what disciples of Jesus do. All disciples. Never, ever, is the gospel about giving more power to those who already have it. Never, ever, is the gospel about keeping power away from those who don’t have it. It’s always about seeking out those who are abused, who are harassed, who are pushed down and restoring them to dignity and the fullness of their humanity as people created in the full image of God.

Perhaps you are hearing this and thinking, “Really, Pastor Rob? Here in this congregation we already know this. We already understand that in Christ all people are to be loved, valued, and respected. We get that this is the freedom proclaimed in the gospel and made real in Jesus. We know this already. Do you really need to go into for a whole sermon?”

Yup, I do. Because just like every week at communion, whether there are first-time visitors or not, it’s important that all of us hear again that Christ’s table is for all. That God’s grace is unconditional. That rich and poor, black and white, female and male, young and old, gay and straight, believer and non-believer all have an equal place at this table. We need to hear it again and again so that we not only experience it, but so that we can live it in service to others.

With this text too. We need to hear over and over that any kind of exploitation is sinful. Any taking advantage of power is evil. Any actions that are oppressive, abusive, or aren’t grounded in dignity and respect run counter to the gospel of Christ. We need to hear it again and again so that we not only experience it, but so that can live it in service to others.

And live it we must. When the evil of misogyny is still excused by many.

Live it we must. When there are still those who, even in the name of Jesus, continue to be complicit in oppressing women.

Live it we must. When power is idolized in order to take advantage of others.

Live it we must. When the resurrected Christ is already paving the way through the empowering of women in our society.

Live it we must. As disciples of Jesus, we’ve got to live this gospel that reveals that all people are created in the image of God and need to be treated that way.

Live it we must. Because Simon’s mother-in-law is healed and restored.

Live it we must. When she serves, she’s living as a disciple of Jesus, who said of himself, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.”

I think in this congregation we pretty well get this. But many in our world do not. And so, as people who have been healed in all kinds of ways by Jesus, we leave here to serve. We uplift. We empower. We respect. We see the dignity of Jesus Christ in each person, regardless of sexual or gender identity.

That’s the power of the gospel. It disrupts our culture of sexism and misogyny. And it restores us as people created in the image of God.

Healed by Jesus, we go and we serve. All people. In the name of Jesus. Jesus heals us, and we begin to serve. Amen.

 
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Posted by on February 4, 2018 in Sermon

 

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“Get Used to the Disruption” (January 28, 2018)

Mark 1:21-28

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve found myself reading this rather dramatic text pretty casually. Jesus teaches in the synagogue, everyone’s amazed, then he casts out a demon during worship, and he becomes famous. Like all this is no big deal.

But imagine that happening here, today. Say we have a guest preacher who knocks your socks off. Everyone here says, “Wow! This is amazing! She preaches like nothing we’ve ever heard before, not like Pastor Rob! This is astounding!

OK, so far? Now one of you, who is part of this congregation, shouts at her during worship. “Are you here to destroy us? I know who you are!” Then our guest preacher, still in the middle of worship, shouts back, “Be quiet! Come out of him!” Then the one of you who started this whole thing has a seizure and starts screaming.

Do you think things would just continue as normal in that synagogue after that? You can’t ignore those events. The normal, peaceful, status quo of that synagogue has been disrupted—probably forever!

This is pretty dramatic stuff. But in Mark, it’s just the beginning. This is only halfway through the first chapter! Jesus is just getting started here.

But just getting started with what?

Here’s the first chapter of Mark in a nutshell: Jesus is baptized, goes into the wilderness, calls four disciples, –this text: preaches one sermon and casts out a demon, then –next week: heals Simon’s mother-in-law and a bunch of other people, then heals a leper.

These aren’t just random healings. These begin a systematic pattern of disruption in all these communities. And each event is followed by a hint at the disruption that follows. Come back for the next few weeks and follow this—how Jesus comes and disrupts everything. Everything.

And this is just chapter one.

I’m thinking that even though it may start slowly, when Jesus shows up things are disrupted. The status quo cannot survive with Jesus. Things get turned upside down. One sermon and one demon. And an entire synagogue is turned upside down. Jesus is just ramping up.

Remember last week how Jesus began his ministry? Right before he called Simon, Andrew, James, and John to fish for people? He said one sentence, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” That’s what Jesus is doing: bringing the kingdom of God into our world. And the kingdom of God disrupts everything. It turns everything upside down. Not for its own sake, but because the reign of God is so different than what we’re used to. God operates much differently than us.

Think again about what happened in this text today happened here. A member of the congregation is demon-possessed and this new guest preacher causes a ruckus casting the demon out. For Jesus, that is the new normal for worship. No longer a peaceful, quiet liturgy where everything is nicely projected on screens because that’s how they planned it several weeks ago. Nope. Now it’s more about casting out demons and shouting.

How would you react? Some of us may be upset by the unruly behavior. Others of us might respond by looking around and wondering who else is demon-possessed. We might become frightened to show up because we might be sitting next to someone who doesn’t match our description of a church-goer. Church is supposed to be quiet and peaceful, a sanctuary from the chaos of the world.

But others might invite our demon-possessed friends because Jesus has turned this is into a place of healing and wholeness. Then we become a congregation filled with spiritually unhealthy people who happen to be seeking something better, something new, something life-giving.

How awful, right?

I heard a story of church disrupted by Jesus, told by Prof. Nate Frambach of Wartburg Seminary at a conference retreat this week. I share it because it’s a good example of the kind of disruption Jesus brings.

Nate visited a Lutheran church called “Solomon’s Porch” in Minneapolis. During worship a man got up and shared his story. “I’m a meth addict,” he began. Then he told how one day, strung out, he wandered into Solomon’s Porch because there was a light on and he could smell coffee. There was food and he began stuffing his mouth and his pockets intending to make a quick getaway before anyone knew he was stealing food.

Suddenly, a man appeared next to him. Oh, no, he thought. I’m caught. Yet the man offered his hand and told him to help himself to more food and coffee. “Anything else you need” he asked? “There’s more.” Then he let him know he was welcome to stay for worship if he wanted. He didn’t.

Week after week this happened.

One day, the addict, when asked again by the man if there was anything else he could get for him, ‘fessed up that he was there just taking advantage of them. He was a meth addict and was only coming for free food and coffee.

I know, the other man said. I knew you were strung out the first time I laid eyes on you.

How? The addict asked.

How do you think I found this place? I was you a year ago. I would come in here strung out and someone offered me food and coffee. I was overwhelmed by the compassion, and eventually I stayed.

Sounds to me like Jesus showed up there and disrupted their church a while ago, don’t you think? That’s what Jesus does. Today, he’s disrupting the church. Tomorrow there’s more. And he’s just getting started. I think we better get used to the disruption. The kingdom of God has come near.

 
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Posted by on January 28, 2018 in Sermon

 

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“Who Would Follow Jesus? Anyone Who Longs for the World to Change” (January 21, 2018)

Mark 1:14-20

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” 16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

The very first words out of Jesus’ mouth as recorded in Mark are in this text, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.” His first words are also his first “sermon” and is pretty short. If I was Jesus, maybe I could be that short, too. But since I’m not . . .

I’m kind of caught by two things in this text that I’ve not really paid attention to before. One is a phrase from Jesus, “the kingdom of God has come near.” Come near. When the Kingdom of God comes, it means that God’s life and peace and justice are established in the world. It means an end of poverty and injustice. It means no fear of enemies and enough food for everyone. And Jesus says it’s nearby. Not actually here, just kind of in the neighborhood. What does that mean? If you go two blocks west you’ll find God’s peace? Or it’s just a little bit late, but if you wait fifteen or twenty minutes, our enemies will put down their weapons? What does it mean that the Kingdom of God has come near?

He says it’s close, but there’s no evidence of it. Too many people are still poor, Israel is still occupied by a foreign oppressive government, Herod, although a Jewish king in Judea, was doing whatever Rome told him. Life is still extremely hard and unjust. Nothing is different. Apparently, the Kingdom of God coming “near” doesn’t really change anything.

That’s one thing. The nearness of the kingdom of God.

The other thing that is grabbing my attention is that all four of these fishermen that Jesus calls to follow him left real and significant lives behind in order to do so. They had jobs, families, friends, and homes. They were settled in a lifestyle and a routine that had been part of their lives their whole lives. They knew who they were and what they were about. Yet they left everything they knew behind to follow Jesus. Why?

It’s even more fascinating when you put both of these things together. These fishermen dropped their familiar, comfortable lives to follow Jesus when there’s no evidence at all of this Kingdom of God he talks about.

It seems like a huge risk. For them to give up everything for this so-called Kingdom of God when there’s no evidence of it. Why take that kind of a chance?

Not to mention that Jesus give no instructions to these fishermen at all. They are called away from the familiarity of their lives into an uncertain future with no guarantees whatsoever. Who would do that?

Yes, who would do that?

I’ll tell you who. These four fishermen would. And when you really think about it, so would anyone who hopes for a better world. Anyone who believes that greed and selfishness are not the way to real life. Anyone who has seen that humanity hasn’t been able to bring about peace and justice on our own. Anyone who is willing to work with God to make this world a place where all are valued, all are respected, all have a place. Anyone willing to give love a chance. Anyone who has longed for the world to change. Anyone who feels this just may be bigger than humanity can do on our own. Anyone who has the imagination to consider that perhaps in this Christ, this Kingdom of God’s peace and compassion really has come near.

Just think what it would be like if fear and death and violence were finally put to an end. Think about a world where anyone can go anywhere without worrying about safety. Think what life would be like if anything that opposed God’s peace and life and sharing were put away forever. Think what it would be like if there was a God who was committed to doing this among us.

Wouldn’t you follow one in whom this was possible? Wouldn’t you leave behind those things that work against God’s work? Wouldn’t you lay down the parts of your own life that aren’t helping God’s vision? Even if those pieces of your life are familiar or even comfortable? Wouldn’t you be willing to walk away from prejudices, political views, family dysfunctions, or fears? Wouldn’t you put all that away to follow one who brings that hope so close we can taste it?

That, I believe, is what Simon and Andrew, James and John did. It’s not that there was no evidence of this Kingdom of God; it’s that in this Christ there was a real and present hope for it.

You see, God has not given up. In the midst of the violence and the threats and the racism and the misogyny and clamoring for power in our culture, God still comes. And the good news Jesus brings is a real hope that God is still here, that God’s peace will still come in fullness, that the kingdom of God comes along side of us especially when it doesn’t look that way.

Jesus brings hope. When all evidence points away from peace and away from compassion and away from justice for the vulnerable among us, Jesus brings those very things right in front of us.

We are called to be part of this hope. We are called to leave all else behind. We are called to follow. Because in Christ, the good news of God’s kingdom is here.

“The time is fulfilled, “Jesus tells us. “The kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news. Come, follow me.”

 
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Posted by on January 21, 2018 in Sermon

 

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A Fig Tree Moment (January 14, 2018)

John 1:43-51

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51 And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Nathanael is interesting. He’s suspicious, sarcastic, and skeptical. He doubts as well as Doubting Thomas ever could.

Right before this, Jesus had called Andrew and Peter. Philip was from the same town and probably heard about Jesus from them. So in the text today, Philip readily accepts Jesus’ invitation to follow him. He’s so excited that he finds his friend Nathanael and tells him that they’ve found the one the prophets had written about. His name is Jesus and he’s from Nazareth.

Instead of being excited, Nathanael responds, “Nazareth? Has anything worthwhile ever come from Nazareth?”

Philip shrugs his shoulders and says, “Why don’t you find out for yourself? Come and see.”

As they are approaching Jesus, Jesus sees Nathanael and says, “Here is someone who tells it like it is. No sugar-coating from this one.”

Suspicious Nathanael asks him, “How do you know that?”

“I had already seen you under the fig tree.”

And that’s it. At that point Nathanael begins to follow Jesus. His mind apparently changes in a fig-tree moment and he start gushing praise and faith.

Something happened there. Nathanael had some sort of “Aha! Epiphany moment” and everything changed. We don’t know what exactly it was that brought about this sudden change of heart, but obviously it was significant. At least for Nathanael. Whatever it was, shared only by him and Jesus, it mattered. He was different after that. Jesus then assured him, “You will see greater things than this.”

Has something like that ever happened to you? I’m guessing that it has. You may not talk about it; you may not even associate it with God or anything spiritual. But I’m pretty sure you’ve had moments where things suddenly had new clarity, or your perspective on something changed, or you saw things in a new light. That’s an epiphany. The same as Nathanael. God finds a way to come to you.

Like Nathanael, these epiphany moments are rather personal, often defying reason or logic. We think they won’t make sense to anyone else. Which means that sometimes we hesitate to share them. No one else would understand.

I disagree. Because it’s an experience that everyone can resonate with in one way or another. Besides, sharing an epiphany moment can never affect the impact it has had on us. And, who knows, maybe there’s a Nathanael sitting under a fig tree who needs to hear your story, who needs the assurance that God is still at work—that God is still there having an impact in the world. Someone waiting to see even greater things than these.

Some of you are aware of one of my more recent Epiphany moments, but telling it in this context matters. I invite you to listen to a fig tree moment, and, although I’m quite positive this is unique to me, perhaps there’s some part of it that you can relate to or be reassured by.

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I have had a on-and-off struggle with depression. When it was at is worst, I had the energy to function day-by-day, but nothing else. During that time, all the things that I was relying on within myself fell away, one by one. My talents failed me, my intellect, my experience. Even my theology, which has always been foundational to me. Everything within me that I leaned on to make me who I am fell out from underneath me.

Even my faith.

It wasn’t that I questioned God or doubted God’s existence, it’s that I didn’t have the energy to care one way or another. It simply didn’t matter to me whether or not there was a God, much less whether I believed in one. Trust God? How? Cling to my faith? With what? There was nothing there.

All I knew was that I was free-falling, and everything I had used in my life to catch me, or slow down the fall, or hang on to was no longer there. I couldn’t fight against it, I couldn’t alter its course, I felt like I was simply falling through space. I was completely helpless, and there was absolutely nothing I could do to change it. I understand utter powerlessness, because there was no other way to describe it.

That’s when the epiphany happened. That’s when I understood Nathanael’s fig tree moment. I somehow, inexplicably, became aware that I wasn’t falling any more. Instead, I realized I was actually being held. By what or by whom didn’t matter at the time. I was aware of simply being held. With nothing on my own to hold on to, in my complete helplessness, I was being held.

That realization changed everything for me. What I believed or even whether I believed weren’t the most significant things by far. Because in my inability to believe or trust, God was holding me. Nothing I did or didn’t do could begin to change that. It wasn’t about my faith or my doctrine or my theology or my good efforts—it was about God’s love that will always hold me. Because that’s who God is. It doesn’t matter if I believed it or not. It’s an awareness that I have.

I get Nathanael’s epiphany when Jesus says, “I saw you under the fig tree.” It was simply an epiphany, God’s presence opening something up inside him. He was aware of something he wasn’t aware of before.

If you’re honest, you’ve had those fig-tree moments too. Recognize the presence of God behind them. Share them with someone. You will see greater things than these.

 
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Posted by on January 14, 2018 in Sermon

 
 
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