Sunday, January 26, 2014

"follow me"

January 26, 2014
All Saints’ Church

“Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation” (part of today’s collect, found on p. 215 of the BCP). Amen. 

Jesus’ ministry begins in earnest during a period of darkness. Israel is under control of the ruthless Roman Empire. Jesus has just emerged from the desert, where he has been tempted by the devil. As soon as he returns, he finds out that his cousin, John the Baptist, has been imprisoned. Jesus moves to a new town and expands upon his cousin’s message of repentance. As he is walking by the sea spreading this message, he comes upon two brothers, casting their nets into the sea. Jesus says “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (Matt 4:19). Immediately, Simon and Andrew drop what they’re doing and come to him, leaving the net to float at the mercy of the sea. The three men walk along the beach until they come to another set of brothers, mending their nets in the company of their father. Jesus calls, and they get up and leave their father, gaping open-mouthed, behind. 

Frankly, this scene creeps me out a little bit. In my mind I picture the disciples as lemmings, blindly following a stranger just because he said, “Come.” I have so many questions about the scene: Was there really no dialogue at all? How did Zebedee, James’ and John’s dad, react to his sons leaving him alone like that? Did they give him a hug before they left, or settle their affairs, or have lunch together one last time? Was he hurt, sending them off with curses and angry threats? How many times did Jesus try this on other people before these four said yes? And the biggest question of all, what was so compelling about Jesus that complete strangers would leave their lives behind to respond to his call? 

Unfortunately, I cannot find answers to these questions, and my speculations are unsatisfactory. All we know is what we hear today: Jesus says “Come, follow me” and two sets of brothers get up and do just that. 

But what does it mean for us to follow Jesus? In many ways, the disciples had it a lot easier than we do. They had a living, breathing, talking Jesus to follow. He told them what to do, how to act. How are we supposed to follow Jesus today?

We begin to follow Jesus first by learning about him. We can’t call him up and ask him questions, but we have access to accounts of his life and those of his followers. Every Sunday we read aloud from these accounts and get to know Jesus and understand his teachings a little better. There are other ways we learn about Jesus. If you’re curious and/or studious, you can read the countless writings of theologians, who ponder everything from whether the bread and wine literally become Jesus’ body and blood to attempts at explaining the Trinity. Another way to learn about Jesus is through the traditions passed down from generation to generation of Christians. One of these traditions is the calendar year, which sets aside time to celebrate and remember important occasions, like Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection. Learning about Jesus is a life-long process.

As we learn about Jesus, we try to listen to where God is calling us. We do this both individually and communally. We pray for direction and guidance for world leaders, for leaders of our local communities, and for ourselves. We listen to each other as we try to make decisions in line with our faith. Listening is a huge part of any relationship, and our relationship with Jesus is no different. 

Finally, we follow Jesus with our actions. Donald Miller, in his book Blue Like Jazz, writes, “What I believe is not what I say I believe; what I believe is what I do” [repeat]. Jesus gives his followers several commands: feed the hungry, tend the sick, clothe the naked; “love your enemies,” “don’t store up treasures,” “pick up your cross and follow me” (Matthew 25:31-46; Matthew 5:44; Matthew 6:19; Matthew 16:24). Following Jesus helps us to realize that we are not isolated in our faith but are connected to every human being. Each person is “wonderfully and fearfully made,” and a beloved child of God (Psalm 139:14). What affects one person in some way affects us all.

I’ve talked about how to follow Jesus, but perhaps you’re wondering why. 

This past week one of my seminary professors and her wife gave the keynote address at a conference about Christian formation. They both reflected on how in our society epic storytelling is what sells. For example, there is a google ad that came out a few months ago. In this ad, a granddaughter listens as her grandfather tells about his childhood best friend, who he has been separated from for over 50 years during the partition of India and Pakistan. Using google, she quickly locates his long-lost best friend, buys him a ticket, and reunites the two as a birthday present for her grandfather. While google is certainly useful, I doubt very seriously that it is used for such a dramatic purpose on a regular basis. I bet it gets used a lot more to find movie times or sports scores than to bring together people torn apart by geopolitics. 

Then there’s our culture’s obsession with magic and superheroes. It seems like every time we turn around there’s another movie about spiderman, superman, batman, or vampires. I think the reason these stories are so attractive is because they are so powerful, dramatic, seemingly far superior to our normal, everyday lives.  

But what my seminary professor and her wife pointed out is that we have the most epic story of all, we just don’t always do a great job of selling it. Think about it. We follow a guy who lived over 2000 years ago. He taught about God. He taught about how we should treat each other. He hung out with social rejects and leaders of society. He healed people who were sick or impaired. He turned water into wine, fed thousands of people with a few loaves and fishes, and brought back some people from the dead. When he was put to death, it seemed that his cause was lost. But 3 days later he came back. Not all shiny and new but with wounds that were still visible. But what really makes this story epic is not that Jesus was a pretty nice guy who had a few superpowers. What makes this story epic is that Jesus was God made flesh. The Creator of the stars, who set the planets in their courses, who separated the light from the dark and gave breath to every living creature, who formed this intricate and extraordinary, breathtaking and heart-wrenching world--this God became one of the creatures God so tenderly made. In Jesus God walked along the same roads as humans. God laughed and joked and wept--experienced joy and disappointment, loss and heartbreak. And by doing this, God reconnected with us, God’s people, who had gotten disconnected from God over the years. Because of this, nothing “can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:39). Not our faults, not our failures. Not even our humanity.

What is more epic than this story? This is why we follow Jesus. A love like his compels us to follow. And so follow we must. Just as Jesus called Simon, Andrew, James, and John, he is also calling you. He is calling you to put away your pens, spreadsheets, and projects. So put down your net...books and follow him. 

Image found here.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

the springing off point

January 12, 2014
All Saints’ Church

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen. 

Just a week ago we heard about the visit of three wise men to the baby Jesus, followed by the Holy Family’s escape to Egypt and eventual return to Nazareth. In today’s readings we have fast-forwarded to Jesus at the ripe old age of about 30. We know very little about what happened in between those years. There’s one story about Jesus staying behind in Jerusalem during a festival without telling his parents and so scaring them half to death, but other than that, Jesus’ childhood and adolescence are a mystery. 

The writers and compilers of the Bible think very carefully about each and every word they write, so pay very close attention to what the authors include and what they do not. Presumably Jesus has a typical childhood, so it is not worth mentioning. Matthew chooses to continue the story of Jesus at his baptism. This moment is a turning point in Jesus’ life. He is no longer a child, but has become a man, and his baptism becomes a springing off point for his ministry. Immediately following his baptism, Jesus is sent into the wilderness before returning to preach, teach, heal, and call his disciples (Matthew 4). In the reading from Acts, the author states that the message of peace that God sends to Israel “[begins] in Galilee after the baptism that John announce[s]” (Acts 10:37). 

John, Jesus’ cousin, the one who leaps in Elizabeth’s womb when he hears Mary’s voice, is the one who “prepares the way” for Jesus. He’s the one who compels people to repent and get baptized in order to forgive their sins as the kingdom of heaven arrives. Jesus seeks out John and asks to be baptized by him. John recognizes that Jesus is the Messiah, and is uncomfortable with Jesus’ request. But Jesus seeks to be baptized not because he needs forgiveness, but because this joins him to all those who’ve been baptized. God gives Jesus a sign of affirmation through the Holy Spirit, which gives him the strength to begin this next phase of his life. 

We are joined to Jesus Christ in our baptism. When we are baptized we become part of something much bigger than just our family unit or church community or even the wider Church.  When we are baptized, we join the communion of saints, all those who have come before us. When we are baptized, we become part of the Body of Christ, and heirs to his kingdom and the message he proclaims (BCP 858). 

In a few moments, we are going to renew our own baptismal covenant. We will begin by saying together the Apostle’s Creed, a summary of our belief in God (BCP 304). Then we will promise, with God’s help, to continue to gather together to worship, read Scripture, pray, and share Communion. With God’s help we will resist evil and ask for forgiveness when we stray. With God’s help we will spread the message of God’s grace and love spoken through Christ. With God’s help we will look at each and every person we meet as worthy of love and respect, and work to bring justice and peace to all people. 

Too often Christianity can seem like a club; so many times the emphasis is placed on belonging to a specific church or denomination. However, membership in the Body of Christ should not be inward-facing but outwardly-focused. My previous rector likes to tell the story of an experience with one particular group of eighth grade confirmands. They were gathered in the church around the altar while the rector explained to them about the Eucharist. The eighth graders were listening as best they could, when the rector asked them a question. “What is the most important piece of furniture in a church?” The kids looked at him. He repeated the question, this time patting the altar, “What is the most important piece of furniture in a church?” Without hesitating, a boy answered, “the exit sign.” [facepalm] “The exit sign?” the rector asked, becoming quite irritated that the kid wasn’t taking the lesson seriously. “What do you mean, ‘the exit sign’?” The boy replied, “because after the service we exit and go out into the world.” Membership in the Body of Christ should not be inward-facing but outwardly-focused. 

When you go out of these doors today, what are you going to do? How can you work toward fulfilling the promises you made in the covenant? Living into our promises is not an easy task, but remember that Jesus went through the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry. Be nourished by the Body and Blood of Christ, broken and shed for you. Draw strength in the fact that we are loved beyond reason and all of us are in this together. Know that with God’s help, we can “accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Eph 3:20). 

So let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work! 

Image found here.

Sunday, January 5, 2014


St. George’s Chapel
January 5, 2014

"Happy are the people whose strength is in you! * whose hearts are set on the pilgrims' way" (Psalm 84:4). Amen.

Rest on the Flight to Egypt by Merson
Image found here.

For many folks, the past few weeks have been filled with laughter, gifts, and lots and lots of traveling. Whether you hosted visitors or took to the roads or airways yourself, the Christmas season is chock full of journeys. 

This is fitting for the season, as the Gospel accounts we have listened to over the past few weeks have involved a lot of traveling as well. In Advent we heard about Mary’s visit to her cousin, Elizabeth. The young pregnant woman immediately seeks out the company of the elderly pregnant woman, both unexpectedly about to be first-time mothers. In both miraculous situations--one is a virgin and the other is past the age of childbirth--they come to realize that “nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37). 

On Christmas Eve we heard about Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem, the land of Joseph’s ancestor, King David. Instead of staying in their hometown, they must travel a great distance to be recorded for the census. There, in a barn, Mary gives birth to Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us. Even though far from home, nearby shepherds, joined by the angels who gave them the good news, gather around the manger to praise and worship the newborn King. 

Tomorrow is Epiphany, when we remember the wise men and the child they journeyed to worship. The season afterward is filled with light, remembering the star that led the magi to the Christ Child, who was and is the “light of all people,” the light that “shines in the darkness” (John 1:4,5). They traveled a great distance (probably all the way from Persia), and I’m sure had many adventures along the way.

Today’s Gospel reading from Matthew tells of a few journeys, as well, each sparked by a dream of Joseph’s. It’s nice to hear a little bit more about Jesus’ adopted father; he seems to get the short end of the stick so often, but in Matthew’s Gospel we get a peek at the man who helps raise God’s Son. The wise men have just left the stable, and Joseph receives a message from an angel of the Lord, who comes to him in a dream. The angel warns him of King Herod.

You see, before the wise men reach Bethlehem, they stop by Jerusalem to ask for directions to the “king of the Jews” (Matt 2:2). I can picture Herod, the provisional king of Judea who considers himself to be Jewish (that’s debatable), spewing his drink out at this news. “Wait a minute--I’m the king. Who dares challenge my authority?!” He calls the wise men to come over and shrewdly gives them directions to Bethlehem, telling them to come back and report to him what they find. 

Well, after they find Jesus, the wise men are “warned in a dream not to return to Herod” (v. 12). Herod does not appreciate their deception, and so because he does not know the identity of this “king of the Jews,” he has every child in and around Bethlehem age two and under killed, just to be on the safe side (v. 2). He will not see his power taken from him, and commands this horrible act, bringing to mind the pharaoh of Egypt’s killing of Hebrew children, from which Moses so narrowly escapes. 

Joseph has been warned by an angel, though, and they get out of Bethlehem just in time. The family spends a few years away, ironically in the land of Egypt that held the Israelites captive for so many years. But this is not the first time that Egypt has been a safe haven for Israelites. The Hebrew patriarch Abraham and his wife, matriarch Sarah, journeyed to Egypt, following God’s command. Their great grandson Joseph, the one with the coat of many colors, was sold to traders in Egypt and eventually rose to power and brought his whole family there during a famine. Egypt has a special place in the salvation history of the Israelites, and so it seems fitting that Jesus’ story should also include time spent there.

When Herod dies, an angel comes to Joseph in a dream again, and the family packs their things and returns to life in Israel. They avoid Judea and return to Nazareth, where Mary and Joseph had begun their life together. This is where Jesus, whose name means “the Lord saves,” grows up until he begins journeying on his own (n. 1:21). 

Our lives are permeated by journeys as well. As we begin this new year, we pause to reflect on the paths we have taken, the journeys--both physical and spiritual--we have participated in, and the people we have met along the way. We are formed by these journeys. Each one teaches us new things about who we are and who we have the potential of becoming. 

Many people use the beginning of the year to come up with resolutions. If you’re like me they are well-intentioned but the list is too long to realistically accomplish all of them: get in shape, eat better, learn an instrument, keep the house clean, write a song, clean the gutters, start a garden, pray more, watch less TV, and on and on and on....  

What if, instead of a list of tasks to accomplish, we look at each item as a journey, a path that will take us somewhere new and exciting? Rather than viewing eating better and getting in shape as doctor’s orders, think of it as an opportunity for exploring new recipes and delighting in the inner strength you find as you come to regard your body as a temple. As an alternative to praying more just because you should (that one’s on my list), think of it as exploring the world with God at your side, sharing stories of your travels and listening to where God is calling you next. And God is with us. Emmanuel, God with us, Jesus, the Lord saves. Our journeys are connected to the journeys of the people before us; we are a part of the great salvation story. 

Whatever your resolutions, journeying is in our history, it’s in our DNA. What new paths are waiting for you? What exciting things will you experience along the way?

Pack your bags; we’re in for quite a ride!

Flight into Egypt.
Image found here.