Weekly Sermons

February 4, 2018

A New Way, A New Day
 

Mark 2: 13-22

13 Jesus went out again beside the lake; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them. 14As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.

15 And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax-collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. 16When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax-collectors, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ 17When Jesus heard this, he said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’

18 Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, ‘Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?’ 19Jesus said to them, ‘The wedding-guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. 20The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.

21 ‘No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made.22And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.’

Well, its Super Bowl Sunday.

Time to reminisce a bit about our favorite team that is not playing.

The Pittsburgh Steelers.

Purchased by Art Rooney in 1933, the Steelers were rarely a winning team.

They did not have a winning record until 1942.

They did not have a playoff game until 1947, which they lost 21-0 to the Eagles.

They would not return to the playoffs for 25 years.

That would be 1972, or course.

That was followed by four Super Bowl Championships, twice back to back, from 1974-1979.

What changed?

Chuck Noll became the coach in 1969.

When Noll showed up several things happened.

First, Noll was in charge of the draft.

From 1969 to 1974 he drafted Terry Bradshaw, Joe Greene, Mel Blount, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth and Mike Webster.

Not too shabby.

But what might have been more important, he brought a new way of coaching.

Rocky Bleier put it this way:

Chuck loved teaching moments, but he wasn’t an orator or a motivator. Chuck would say, “It’s not my job to hold your hand. It’s my job to take motivated people and show them how to become better.”

And what made people better?

Good habits.

Bleier again:

[Noll said] habits are created every day in practice, and they carry over to the game … In the third and fourth quarter, you don’t think; you react.

When Noll died, Art Rooney II  said this;

“Chuck knew where he was, where he was going, where he wanted to go and how to do it. He had a very, very strong moral compass.”

Noll showed up in 1969 and there was a new authority in charge.

A new sheriff in town.

It was a new day.

A new way.

And Steeler Nation was born.

Which, interestingly enough, is what Jesus did.

He was the new authority in charge.

The new sheriff in town.

The one bringing a new day.

A new way.

Over the last couple of weeks, we have been following Mark’s description of Jesus’ early ministry.

Jesus was breaking down barriers.

We saw Jesus touch and heal a leper and so get rid of the idea that old ritualistic rules determined a person’s status in the community.

We saw Jesus forgive a man’s sins and so reject the authority of religious leaders in the Temple stand between God and humanity.

And now we see Jesus welcome even the most despised folks into his family of disciples!

Levi, the tax collector.

Again, Jesus is casting off the old ways of discrimination for the new ways of inclusion.

Jesus is not revising the ancient laws, he is announcing they no longer apply.

And then he tells us to celebrate.

A new sheriff in town indeed!

That is the lesson of today’s text.

Jesus breaks down the barriers.

It’s a new day.

It’s a new way.

So, let’s take is scene by scene.

Scene 1.

Jesus is out walking along the shore in Capernaum along the Sea of Galilee.

Maybe right after the paralytic was healed.

The whole crowd was with him and he was still teaching.

He comes across a toll collector sitting in his booth.

Levi.

This guy was the lowest of the low.

Levi would have “leased” his toll booth from the Romans by paying up front the annual tolls he was expected to collect.

He would then charge whatever he wanted and keep any excess.

Like driving on the turnpike and having the toll collector decide what you owe based on the kind of car you drive.

It was little better than theft.

Toll collectors were considered so untrustworthy that they were not permitted to testify in a court proceeding.

On top of that, Levi would have been considered a traitor to Israel because he was collaborating with the Romans.

This guy was ritually unclean and a social pariah.

So what does Jesus do?

He asks Levi to become a disciple.

And guess what.

Levi does.

Can you imagine what the folks were saying?

Levi?

The tax collector?

Scene 2.

Jesus is having dinner with tax collectors, “sinners” (moral reprobates, impure Jews or Gentiles), and his many disciples.

At Levi’s house.

It is not just sharing a meal, it’s a dinner party!

A celebratory or ceremonial meal.

Maybe toasts.

Speeches.

A welcome banquet for Levi?

A celebration of the new way?

Scene 3.

Around the perimeter of the gathering, there are scribes, likely sent by the Pharisees to keep an eye on Jesus.

It is unclear whether they have been invited to the dinner or just watch from afar.

But this we know, they are puzzled.

They have a question for some disciples nearby.

If Jesus is a good Jew, why would he eat with these depraved people?

Jesus overhears the question.

I have this image of him raising his eyes and muttering, “Are we back to that again?”

“How can I get them to understand?”

Scene 4.

Jesus speaks.

‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’

An interesting turn of a phrase.

How would the scribes interpret this?

 My professor and friend Bonnie Thurston, puts it this way:

Those who have no need for a doctor, the righteous, are those who keep the law, and are already in in a proper relationship with God.

Those folks don’t need Jesus.

Those who do have need for a doctor, the sinners, are those who don’t or can’t keep the law, and are the ones Jesus has come to call back to God.

Those folks really do need Jesus.

Which are you, you scribes?

Either way, you are all welcome here.

I take everyone, Jesus says.

Even these … what you call … corrupt folks.

That is the new way.

In God’s Kingdom, God’s table is open to all, regardless of class, religious identity or purity status.

Scene 5.

Jesus is approached by another group with a challenge.

The Pharisees fast and John’s disciples fast, but Jesus and his disciples have dinner parties!

“What’s with that?”

First, we need to understand a bit about fasting for the Pharisees and disciples of John.

These people were what Gary Charles calls members of renewal movements.

Folks who were waiting for the initiation of God’s reign.

You know, the Messiah.

They fasted (from more than just food) to purify themselves in anticipation of God’s reign.

Maybe they thought they could make it happen sooner.

Or maybe they just wanted to be ready.

If that is why people fasted, why would Jesus disciples fast?

There was no need.

The reign of God had come.

Jesus, the Messiah, was right there.

Its not time to fast, its time to feast!

Its kind of like the bridegroom at the wedding feast.

While the happy couple is there, it is joy and celebration.

Only when they depart is there any reason to stop the celebration.

If Jesus is the bridegroom, it’s time to feast!

Everyone should keep celebrating until Jesus is gone … which will happen soon enough, buy the way.

That is how Levi can become a disciple!

And why we should celebrate.

Its how we become disciples, too.

Everyone is welcome into the Kingdom of God.

It is here right now.

God was near.

God was here.

His name is Jesus.

There was indeed a new sheriff in town.

And we should all celebrate!

We should celebrate God’s presence In Jesus.

We should celebrate Levi’s discipleship.

We should celebrate everyone’s discipleship.

This is the new way!

And this new way does not fit into the old ways.

Jesus’ new way tears apart the old ways.

Just like a new patch on an old shirt or new wine in an old wineskin do not work, we need understand Jesus as the new covenant God offers.

We need to move on from the old covenant and move into the new.

Jesus came to take motivated people, like us, and show them, and us, how to become better.

This is why we read this text in the season of Epiphany.

This is a new revelation from God!

This is a new revelation of God!

It is indeed a new day, and a new way.

And we acknowledge this new covenant at this table.

The table where Jesus eats with all of us.

Tax collectors.

Sinners.

Scribes.

Disciples.

Us.

Just as we announce here at before communion:

Come to this table, those who have much faith and those who want more.

Come to this table those who have been here often, and those who have not been here for a long time.

Come to this table, those who have tried to follow Jesus and like the rest of us have so often failed.

Come tax collectors, sinners, scribes and disciples.

Come all of you.

Jesus welcomes you to his table, to celebrate, and remember.

It really is a new day.

It really  is a new way.

 

January 28, 2018

 
Healed!
 
Mark 2: 1-12
2When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. 2So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. 3Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. 4And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. 5When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” 6Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, 7“Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 8At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? 9Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? 10But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” —he said to the paralytic— 11“I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” 12And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”
 
Back when I was practicing law and trying cases I was often amused by my observations of the jury during the trial.
You need to understand the set up.
The judge sits up front behind a high desk.
The jury sits in a box either to the left or right of the judge, with the witness stand between judge and jury.
The lawyers and their clients sit behind tables out front; the plaintiff close to the jury and the defense away from the jury.
I could watch the jury from my table.
The jury’s job is to watch and listen and then make a decision of some kind in the end.
They are the audience.
I could see their reactions to the drama unfolding in front of them.
Questions are asked.
Answered are given.
Evidence submitted.
Legal arguments made.
Their eyes were always moving.
They look at the lawyer when she speaks.
They look at the witness when he speaks.
They look at the judge when she speaks.
You can tell when they are bored.
You can tell when they are engaged.
You can tell when something happens that catches their attention.
You can tell when they understand what you want them to understand.
It was my task to make sure they were engaged when I was speaking.
How do lawyers do that?
There are many ways.
But the most important is to know your message and be ready to proclaim it any chance you get.
Under whatever circumstances you are given.
Someone says something or does something and you immediately say:
“See, that proves my point!”
Which brings us to today’s text.
Another miraculous healing, right?
Well, in part.
As I have said, most, if not all, miraculous healing stories in the Bible are reported not to demonstrate the power of God, although they do, but as illustrations of a particular message.
A particular message for a particular audience.
The particular audience looks on, listens and then makes some sort of decision.
Some sort of decision about Jesus.
Who he is.
What authority he has.
This week’s text is a very good example of how Jesus does this.
We can divide this brief text into several scenes.
 
Scene one:
Jesus is in Capernaum.
At his home base.
A large crowd has gathered to hear what he has to say.
So many that the room is full and there is a crowd around the front door.
Jesus speaks.
He is speaking the “word”.
What word?
Mark is silent.
But Jesus message to this point has been this:
The Time has come … The Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”
The crowd listens.
 
Scene two:
Down the road come a group of people, four of them carrying a man on a pallet.
He is obviously paralyzed.
They point to the crowd around the door and someone yells, “Jesus must be in there! Let’s go!”
They carry the pallet up to the house and demand to be let in.
They want to take the man to Jesus.
They can’t get through the crowd.
So, they climb up onto the roof and start ripping a hole in it.
 
Scene three:
Jesus is still speaking.
Suddenly, there part of the ceiling is torn away.
Everyone in the house looks up stunned.
Maybe someone screams.
Then the pallet is lowered into the room.
Dropped on the floor.
Right in front of Jesus.
What the heck?
Jesus knows immediately what is happening.
It takes just a moment for everyone else to understand.
This kind of thing happens to Jesus all the time.
Maybe not quite so dramatically.
Someone wants this guy to be healed and has faith that Jesus can do it.
He’s done it before, right?
And Jesus sees an opportunity, not just to speak his message, but to prove it.
To demonstrate it.
To demonstrate the that the Kingdom of God is near.
In fact, right here.
Jesus.
And he has the authority of God.
How is he going to prove that point?
Well, he sees a bunch of scribes in the room.
The religious authority of the day.
Their job is to make sure folks who want their sins forgiven to come to the temple and make a sacrifice of atonement.
They also think sickness and sin are somehow connected.
They believe this man’s paralysis is a divine punishment for some sin, to be healed, that sin must be forgiven.
So if he wants to be healed, he has to come to them.
Jesus takes a moment to evaluate how he can use this spectacular event to make his point.
And then Jesus acts.
He says to the paralyzed man”
“Son, your sins are forgiven.”
And there is silence.
This is … unexpected.
Jesus does not say, “Get up and walk.”
But, “Your sins are forgiven.”
Period.
I have this image of the four who carried this poor soul all the way to Capernaum then up onto and finally down through the roof.
Wide eyed.
Red faced.
“Wait, what?”
“That’s it?”
“Your sins are forgiven?”
“What about the healing?”
“What about the walking?”
The crowd looks back and forth between Jesus and the paralyzed man and the four.
 
Scene four:
The other side of the room.
Over in the corner.
The scribes have a different problem with all this.
“Wait, what did he say?”
“Sins forgiven?”
“Only God can do that!”
“He’s a blasphemer!”
So, the crowd’s eyes are darting from Jesus to the paralyzed man, to the four who brought him, and now to the scribes.
High drama.
What is going to happen next?
 
Scene five:
Jesus speaks.
The room becomes silent.
Jesus asks the scribes what their problem is.
“You think I don’t have the authority to forgive his sins?”
“OK, here’s a question:
Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’?”
The trap has been set.
Jesus knows what they will say.
They will say it would be harder to tell the man to get up and walk.
Because if Jesus can make him walk, and his paralysis is a divine punishment for some sin, then Jesus can wield the divine power of forgiveness as well.
So, they don’t think that any of that is going to happen.
Then Jesus springs his trap.
He tells the scribes – in his best courtroom whisper – the one that allows everyone to hear – that he is about to prove he has the authority from God to forgive sins.
How?
He tells the man to get up and walk, and guess what?
He does.
Boom.
Point made.
 
Jesus has the authority and power to forgive sin.
Now the “jury” – the crowd – has seen all this.
They are convinced that Jesus not only does Jesus have the authority to forgive sins, he does, not in response to some sacrifice in the Temple overseen by religious officials.
But in response to faith.
This is a powerful message.
One article I read this week put it this way:
Jesus fundamentally challenged the social and religious structures of Israel, demonstrating that YHWH is beyond human control. Clearly, “the Temple and the priesthood that serviced it need no longer be recognized as the way station between God and humans.” Jesus here is assuming not only God’s prerogative, but also priestly duties.
That is what is going on in this story.
Jesus is taking on the religious establishment.
You scribes?
You are out of a job.
That Temple?
No longer necessary.
Jesus is saying, “I have come to change things.”
“No longer are the religious minions in the Temple in charge of your relationship with God.”
“I am.”
“And I am a sin forgiver.”
“I am a soul saver.”
“I make people whole.”
“I have the authority of God.”
It’s game on!
And the crowd?
What do they do?
They were amazed!
Indeed, the Kingdom of God was very near.
Right here in this room!
In the form of Jesus himself.
They believed it glorified God.
Message delivered – and received – and believed.
 
And that is the message we are to receive from this text, as well.
That Jesus is the Kingdom of God come near.
Come here.
That Jesus has the authority of God to forgive sins.
And does.
Not through some sacrament under the control of religious authorities.
But though faith.
This is amazing.
Something we nave never seen before.
The forgiveness of our sins.
Making us whole.
The kind of healing that we need.
The kind Jesus gives.
Thanks be to God.

January 21, 2018

 
Be Clean
 

Mark 1: 40-45

40 A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ 41Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’42Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. 43After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, 44saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’45But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.

My Dad was raised as a Christian Scientist.

Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy taught that that sickness is only an illusion that can be corrected by prayer alone.

So those folks don’t readily seek medical attention when they are sick.

They pray.

They believe that if we pray hard enough, and often enough, we will be healed of whatever ails us.

Their theology for healing is found in the Bible, right?

People ask Jesus to be healed, and he does it, right?

Maybe not.

When we see a “miraculous” healing in the Bible, it typically teaches a lesson.

And the lesson is never that the person “deserved” to be healed.

That would imply that if someone did not get healed, they did not deserve it.

That is not good theology.

That is never Jesus’ lesson.

There is always something else going on.

Some other lesson to be learned.

We see that today.

Today’s text seems like a healing story, right?

Pretty simple.

Approached by a leper who asks to be healed, Jesus heals him.

The newly healed man proclaims the miracle of his healing to everyone he knows, even though Jesus tells him not to.

He’s just too amazed and happy to keep it to himself.

Jesus has the power to heal!

Is that the lesson?

Jesus has the power to heal?

In part, maybe.

But there is far more here than meets the eye.

First a bit of background.

Jesus has been baptized, tempted in the wilderness, went into Galilee and preached that the Kingdom of God has come near.

Jesus has called his disciples.

He has cast out a demon in a synagogue and healed many at Peter’s house.

And then continued his preaching tour.

People are asking questions.

By whose authority does he do these things?

But now something even more remarkable.

Jesus starts to change the rules.

Which brings us to today’s text.

Jesus comes upon a leper.

In the middle of nowhere.

Where else would Jesus meet a leper?

That’s the only place one could find a leper.

To really know what Jesus does here, we need to hear a bit about leprosy as it was understood in Jesus day.

Leprosy was a generic term for diseases of the skin that caused scaly or inflamed lesions.

It was understood by the medical community of the day to be a therapeutic evacuation of bodily fluids that are out of balance.

Or the effect of some environmental factor like a skin infection or allergic reaction.

It might or might not be harmful to either the “leper” and might or might not be contagious.

But socially and ritually, it was devastating.

Listen to Leviticus 13: 45-46

45 The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ 46He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.

So, there you have it.

The mere fact a person has the condition makes that person “untouchable” and it is the “unclean” nature of the disease that folks fear.

Why?

It’s not clear.

Maybe it was believed that the disease was God’s punishment for sin.

Don’t want any sinners around, right?

Or maybe that it was just contagious.

It reminds me of the days on the wrestling team.

Our “leprosy” was impetigo.

Get that and you were banished until a doctor certified you clean.

Here is an interesting theory I read this week.

The skin lesions were basically areas of dead skin.

Dead things were considered unclean.

You know what else was considered unclean?

Things of different quality being mixed with each other.

Beware the cotton/polyester blend.

So, a living person with dead skin was unclean for both reasons.

The presence of death on their skin and the mixing of living and dead skin.

But why are lepers banished and people with … say … the flu, aren’t?

Leviticus is silent on it.

But we do know that this passage from Leviticus is part of the “Holiness Code”.

Rules set down by God that Israel was required to follow in order to remain a “holy” nation; set apart by God to reconcile the nations to God.

It’s an illustration of why some nations are not part of the “chosen”.

If a nation is unclean because of idolatry or some other “leprosy”, Israel was not to have anything to do with that nation.

The consequence of that illustration is played out in our scripture reading.

If you had a skin disease of some kind, whatever the cause, you were “ritually” unclean.

Not really unclean … ritually unclean.

You were unwelcomed in the Temple and anywhere else in the community for that matter.

To touch someone who is ritually unclean, even by accident renders the one who does the touching ritually unclean as well.

Ritually contagious, I guess.

And so, to avoid that possibility, an unclean person is banished.

Until they could prove they were no longer unclean.

That is the background.

Now to our text.

Here is our leper.

What ails him is unknown but whatever it is, he is unclean and banished from his community.

With all due respect to Mary Baker Eddy, I don’t think this fellow looks at his condition as an illusion.

He is now isolated and unwelcome.

He is “untouchable”.

Here comes Jesus.

His reputation precedes him.

He is a “healer”.

Jesus has healed many and now is approached by this man who kneels before him and says:

‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ 

Which is an interesting request.

Not, “If you choose, you can heal me.”

‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ 

He does not want to be healed, he wants to be clean.

So he can go home.

How does Jesus respond?

The NRSV says Jesus was “moved with pity”.

There are manuscripts of Mark with a different word for what motivated Jesus in this story.

They say, when approached by the leper, Jesus was moved or filled with anger.

That Jesus was motivated by anger is consistent with Jesus’ later “stern warning” to the leper that he is not to tell anyone that Jesus has healed him.

A better way to translate Jesus’ “stern warning” is to say that Jesus “snorted” at him, sending him away to the priests for his “certificate of cleanliness” and ordering him not tell anyone what had happened.

So, if we accept all this, it is safe to say that throughout this short story, Jesus is … well … irritated.

Why would Jesus be angry?

Maybe this.

Leviticus was written somewhere between 330 and 700 years before Jesus was born.

That’s a long time.

The understanding of “leprosy” had changed.

It was just an illness.

But it remained stigmatized by this ancient text.

But if the purpose of the text was to teach Israel how to keep itself “holy” and to stay separate from the world , how does the treatment of this man do that?.

This poor soul had been barred from his community not because he was sick, but because Leviticus required it.

It was this stigma that many believe made Jesus angry.

Hadn’t Jesus had come to replace and fulfill the purpose of Israel?

You bet.

So this man was suffering because of an obsolete religious tenet, made obsolete by Jesus himself.

Then there was this.

The diagnosis of the “leprosy” was made by a priest.

It was not a medical diagnosis, but a religious diagnosis.

A ritual diagnosis.

The person was unclean and was to be isolated until the person was declared “clean”.

The certification of cleanliness was also made by a priest.

Which means that until a healed “leper” can find a priest, he or she will remain ceremonially impure and unwelcome in the community.

So even if Jesus heals him of his leprosy, the man remains unclean until a priest certifies him as clean.

Maybe that’s why the man asked only to be made clean.

He wanted Jesus to certify his cleanliness!

Maybe that is also why Jesus snorts about the need to go and see the priest.

Jesus was being a bit sarcastic.

Jesus cured him, but the priests were in charge of “ritual cleanliness”, not Jesus.

I suspect the man understood what was happening because he does not go to the priests, but goes and tells everyone that Jesus has made him clean by TOUCHING HIM!

Oops.

Now everyone who heard the former (but not yet certified clean) leper, knew Jesus had touched him.

So now Jesus is unclean and no longer allowed in the towns.

OK, so this is a lot of background.

What does this healing story mean to us?

It means this:

Jesus changes things.

God so loved the world that God was willing to reach out, touch us all and make us clean.

Not ritually.

Really.

No longer are people to be unwelcome or untouchable or rejected just because an old, obsolete religious tenet says so.

Jesus welcomes everyone.

Now we must do the same.

Even if it means we have to touch them.

Even when some of them make us uncomfortable.

Even when we would rather not have them around.

How do I know that is why Mark tells this story?

Jesus knew Leviticus.

He knew this man was untouchable.

He knew that the only way the man would be welcome back into his community was to go to a priest.

Jesus knew that if he touched this man he, Jesus, would become unclean and so would not be able to go into the towns and cities.

Yet Jesus touches this man and makes him clean and so reunites this man with his kin and community.

In order to do so, Jesus takes on the man’s uncleanliness.

Does this sound familiar?

The consequence here is that Jesus becomes ceremonially unclean, and cannot go into any town openly.

Because everyone knew he touched a leper.

So the people come to Jesus.

Maybe because they heard Jesus was unconcerned with ritual and more concerned with community.

To teach the Good News that God so loved the world that he sent Jesus to wipe away all the uncleanliness, and welcome everyone into the presence of God.

Ritual was no longer the way.

It was a barrier.

Jesus was the way.

And he broke down barriers.

Things had changed indeed.

As Pastor Gary Charles puts it:

In a perilous act of solidarity, instead of confirming the man’s exclusion by shunning him, Jesus reaches out and symbolically draws him in. He shatters the traditional boundaries of purity and in the process, rewrites the book on the nature of God’s beloved community.

That is what Jesus did for all of us.

Jesus came to reach out to us and draw us into his community – despite our uncleanliness.

To take our uncleanliness on himself.

To heal us.

To make us clean.

This text is not about healing.

It is about breaking down barriers.

More from Gary Charles.

“Disciples of Jesus are called to break down all barriers – religious, social, economic, political – between human need and God’s liberating mercy.”

The barrier Jesus broke down was between this man’s need to be reunited with his community and the religious tenet that he was not welcome.

What are the barriers we might be called to break down?

What human needs are being blocked from God’s liberating mercy?

Who can say?

There are many and they are complex.

But one way we break down the barriers is generic.

We reach out to all people who are in need.

The hungry.

The thirsty.

The naked.

The homeless.

The strangers.

The sick.

The persecuted.

The unclean.

We reach out and touch them.

And bring them into God’s community.

That is the lesson in the healing of this leper.

He deserved Jesus’ healing touch no more or no less that anyone else.

But Jesus met his human need for reconciliation with his family by breaking down an old ritual that no longer had meaning.

We must do the same.

If you know someone who can use a bit of healing, cleansing or community, reach out, touch them and draw them here.

Be the healed one.

Be the cleansed one.

Break down a barrier.

And bring them to Jesus.

January 14, 2018

 
Follow Me
 
John 1: 35-51

35 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ 37The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ 39He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Anointed). 42He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter).
43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ 44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45Philip 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.’ 46Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ 47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ 48Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ 49Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ 50Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ 51And 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.’

One of my favorite parts of the Christmas Eve service is the candle lighting.
We get our light from the Christ candle and share it with others.
We see how one candle lights the next and the next and the next until the entire room is filled with light.
That is how Christ’s light shines forth in the darkness and the darkness is scattered.

At our staff meeting this week we likened that effect to something going viral on social media.
Someone posts something and it is seen by another.
Another person who sees it “likes” it and shares it with others.
There is a geometric progression as more and more people react to the initial post until it is seen and liked by maybe millions.
Making something go viral has become an artform.
A science.
It’s attempted by politicians, athletes, entertainers and high school kids.

With Jesus, though his progression was a bit slower.
After all it was just by word of mouth.
People met Jesus and then introduced others to him.
We see how that worked in today’s text.
Jesus has just been baptized by John.
It is time for him to get started on his ministry.
But Jesus is alone, at first.
Not for long!
Jesus almost immediately starts gathering disciples.
In the text, we see four different scenes of people becoming disciples of Jesus.

Scene 1.

John who is still baptizing in the Jordan, points Jesus out to two of his own followers and says:
“That’s the guy you need to follow now.
He is the Lamb of God!”
So, they do.
But at a distance.
Then Jesus turns and asks them an interesting question.
“What are you looking for?”
I have this vision of these two looking like deer in headlights.
Busted!
“Um … where are you staying?”
Jesus just smiles.
“Come and see!”
They do.
They talk all day.
I have no idea what they talked about.
John does not say.
But at the end of it, they knew Jesus was what they were looking for.
Lamb of God.
Rabbi.
And they never leave.

Scene 2.

One of John’s disciples was Andrew.
He had a brother named Simon.
Andrew went and got Simon and took him to meet Jesus.
Jesus called him Peter.
I have no idea what they talked about.
John does not say.
But at the end of it, Peter knew Jesus was what he was looking for.
Messiah.
He never left either.

Scene 3.

Jesus meets Phillip.
The text is unclear about how that happened.
Peter might have introduced Philip to Jesus.
That would be consistent with John’s theme that people bring others to meet Jesus.
Regardless, I have no idea what they talked about.
John does not say.
But at the end of it, Philip knew Jesus was what he was looking for.
The one about whom Moses and the Prophets wrote.
And Philip stayed.

Scene 4.

Philip goes to tell his brother Nathanael about Jesus.
And we hear the first bit of skepticism.
Actually, a bit of hostility!
“Jesus?
From Nazareth?
Can anything good come from Nazareth?”
“Why would I want to have anything to do with someone from there?”
Now we do hear the conversation.

47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ 48Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ 49Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’

Jesus somehow knows Nathanael, what he is looking for and how Jesus satisfied that need.
Rabbi.
Son of God.
King of Israel.
And Nathanael stays, too.

If you think about it, each one of these encounters involves a two step process.
First, someone introduces another to Jesus.
That is our job.
Second, Jesus convinces the person to stay.

That is not our job.
That is Jesus’ job.
So, our job is to introduce.
And if you use our text as a guide, it is really not hard.
What do we say?
No grand theological statements.
No logical arguments.
Just three words.
Come and see.
Maybe they’ll come.
Maybe they won’t.

But notice that when the invitation to come and see is offered, there is a sense of anticipation and joy.
“Come and find what you are looking for!”
“Here is what we do.”
“Here is what I like best about Jesus.”
“That is why you should come.”
We need to be upbeat, like John and Andrew and Philip.
Because there might be some Nathanael-like skepticism.
Maybe some hostility.
Folks who respond to our invitation to learn about Jesus with, “Can anything good come out of the church?”
Or, “Why would I want to have anything to do with Christianity?”
Why would people respond that way?
We kind of have that reputation.

It looks a bit like these examples I read in the past.
After a service of ordination to the ministry, a woman came up to the newly-ordained pastor and said, “It’s a grand thing you are doing as a young man – giving up the joys of life to serve the Lord.”
People believe that to be Christian means that all the joy must be taken out of life.
In an old Doonesbury cartoon, an officer is standing by the bedside of a Navy sailor who is in sick bay aboard a cruiser.
The officer says, “We’ve got you scheduled for surgery at four bells tomorrow! Your surgeon will be Commander Torres.”
As he leaves the officer says, “Well, take care, sport. I’ll see you tonight during rounds.”
The sailor is puzzled and says to the officer, “What exactly do you do here?”
The officer replies, “I’m ship’s morale officer.”
And wide-eyed, the sailor says, “You mean, a … a chaplain?”
And the officer replies, “No. No. I really do cheer people up!”

That is what people think of us.
They, like Nathanael, ask:
“Can anything good come out of a church?”
Our answer must be an enthusiastic “yes”.
You bet!
Come and see!

Pastor David Lose on his blog “… in the meantime” said this:
Come and see.
Such easy, warm, and hospitable words. The heart not only of John’s Gospel but Christian evangelism, as we are called not to cram our faith down another’s throat or question their eternal destiny or threaten them with hellfire, but instead simply to offer an invitation to come and see … what God is still doing in and through Jesus and the community of disciples who have chosen to follow him.
And leave the rest to Jesus.

That’s the second part.
People show up and Jesus asks his question.
What are you looking for?
That is a very thought-provoking question!
It is almost existential.
Because everyone is looking for something, right?
Something that will give life meaning or purpose or value.
Something that will comfort or heal.
Maybe something beyond themselves.
Something spiritual.
Fredric Schleiermacher called it “A taste of the infinite”.
That’s one of my favorites.
A taste of the infinite.

But there are many other things people are looking for that Jesus might be able to satisfy.
Jesus is asking if what we are looking for what it is Jesus offers.
“Am I what you are looking for?”
“Who do you think I am?”
“Who do you want me to be?”
There are many roles Jesus fills.
Look at the names we see in this passage.
Lamb of God.
Rabbi.
Messiah.
The one about whom Moses and the prophets spoke.
Son of God.
King of Israel.

So, when Jesus asks the question, the answer might be a bit different for each one of us.
For each person we introduce.
That is what makes Jesus so attractive.
He meets folks where they need him to be in a way they need him to be.
And it might be a bit different from what we sought and found.
That is why we let Jesus take it from the introduction.
Jesus knows what they need.

What they are looking for.
Here are some examples of what that might look like.
Back in the early 90’s, my friend and pastor, Graham Robinson challenged a group of us to read the Bible from cover to cover in a year.
We met once a month to talk about what we were experiencing.
We did not talk about what the text meant, but how it was affecting us.
Suddenly, everything made a little more sense to me.
The world a bit easier to understand.
I found out that Jesus was what I was looking for.
Comfort.

Here is another example.
I knew a woman some years ago who was the best evangelist I ever saw.
More people came to church because of her than you can imagine.
Her method?
Every time someone moved in on her street, she asked them:
“Are you looking for a church?
You should check out mine.
If you are interested I can meet you there Sunday and show you around.”
Not everyone accepted, but many did.
I have no idea what they found.
It is not for me to say.
But at the end of it, some of them knew Jesus was what they were looking for.
Rabbi.

One last example.
I have told this story before.
There is a woman I know who is a teacher.
She met with the mother of one of her students who was going through a horrific divorce.
The teacher said to the woman:
“Why don’t you come to church with me Sunday?
I always feel better at church.”
The woman came.
I do have an idea what she experienced.
We talked about it every week for the next year or so as she worked her way through her grief.
Jesus was what she was looking for.
Healer.

Like John, Andrew and Peter, we just invite folks to come and see.
Let Jesus take it from there.
And they will stay.
This is how Jesus goes viral.
Come and see.

January 7, 2018

 
Three Kings
 
Matthew 2: 1-12

2In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Over Advent, we talked about stories of unexpected visitors we find in Luke and Matthew.
And today we hear one final story that we associate with Jesus.’ Birth
It’s one of those Bible stories we all know and love.
The Three Kings.
We all know the story.
They come from the east following a star.
A star that leads them to a baby in a manger.
They kneel in adoration and give expensive gifts.
We have several hymns in our hymnal where the kings and star are mentioned.
We sing some today!
But do we really know the story?
Or do we just remember it?
The way we see it in our family manger scenes.
Because when we read the story from Matthew’s Gospel, don’t we have a lot of questions?

At our staff meeting this week, we read the passage and did have lots of questions.
Who were these guys?
Where did they come from?
Why did they come?
What did they expect to find?
And what about that star?
How do you follow a star?
How does a star point to something on the ground?
Was it really a star?

Well, here are some things that fill some gaps.
The wise men were not kings.
Probably Zoroastrian priests.
A bit about Zoroastrians.
They believed in one god who created everything.
This god gave humanity free will and was going to judge everyone for the choices each made.
Happily, there was going to be a messiah who would come and “renovate” creation and save people from the consequences of their poor choices.
Sound familiar?
They also studied the stars.
They spent their time looking at the stars and trying to find meaning.
For signs of important events.
They were astrologers.
Astronomers.
Scientists.
They had a name.
Magi.
We don’t really know how many there were, but because there are three gifts described by Matthew, we assume there were three Magi.
They were from the east (which means the star was to their west).
Probably from Babylon, modern day Iraq.
They had seen something new.
A new heavenly body.
What was it?
A star?
Who can know?
But these astronomers called it a star.
A new heavenly body would certainly be considered an omen of something.
And they wondered what the omen meant.
Such things were said to mean a new king was born.
Such an omen was certainly an epiphany.
Which has been defined as “A divine manifestation in the midst of human history.”
A divine manifestation.
God doing something we can see.
Something big.
Really big.
So, they decided to go check it out.

They left when they saw the star and arrived in Jerusalem somewhere around two years later.
Somewhere along the way, they lost sight of the star, apparently.
Which is why they stopped in Jerusalem to ask directions.
Which must have been awkward.
“Hey Herod, current king of the Jews, where is your replacement, the new born king?”
Which brings to mind this question:
What made them think this star was an omen of the birth of a king of the Jews?
Following the star took them to Jerusalem.
Judea.
Where the Jews lived.
Must have been their king, right?
They are told Bethlehem was where a particular prophecy located the birth of the “Messiah”.
Wit, what?
A messiah?

We are waiting for one of those, too!
And so, they went to Bethlehem, and for the first time since they left, there was the star again.
And guess what?
It did take them to Bethlehem.
How did they find Jesus?
They likely asked around a bit.
“Any babies born since that star appeared?”
I think it probably took them a while to find Jesus if that is all they had to go on.
Ultimately, they found Jesus.
Presumably they were told the story of Jesus’ conception and birth and knew he was more than just a king of the Jews.
Here was what they had been looking for.
The divine manifestation.
An epiphany.
They called Jesus the messiah.
We call Jesus the incarnation.
And the Magi knew, everything was different.
That was all they needed to know.
Their search was over.
They knelt before Jesus and gave him gifts.
Then they went home.
Never to see or hear about Jesus again.
But they likely went in peace.
Their messiah, their renovator, their savior was here.
No need for more than that.

So, there is the story with a bit more historical context and some educated assumptions.
Why didn’t Matthew tell the story better?
Because Matthew was focusing on what all good Jews of his day would have focused on.
What does the story mean?
And we should apply that point of view to our reading as well.
We have now talked about the two birth stores we find in Matthew and Luke.
They are a bit different.
The wise men in Matthew did not see angels.
The shepherds in Luke did not see a particular star.
But they all saw something.
Something that let them know that there was a divine manifestation.
God was at work in the world.
There was something they needed to see.
Something that was going to change the world.
Something that was going to change them.
We human beings have been looking for something like that … well … forever.
An epiphany.
That divine manifestation.
Something that will change the world.
Something that will change us.

More and more people are heading in that direction, too.
They have a name.
Spiritual but not religious.
Not atheist.
Just not religious.
They are looking for something.
Something that will change the world.
Something that will change them.

Think I’m wrong?
Read this from the Pew Research Center in January of 2016:
[A]mong U.S. Christians, there has been an increase of 7 percentage points between 2007 and 2014 in the share who say they feel a deep sense of wonder about the universe at least weekly (from 38% to 45%). And there has been a similar rise in the share of religious “nones” who say the same (from 39% to 47%) – not to mention a 17-point jump among self-described atheists.
A 17-point jump among self-described atheists!
I think these people are like the wise men.
They are looking for something.
They might not know it but they are looking for what the Magi were looking for.
A divine manifestation!
An epiphany.

And we need to help them find it.
Right here.
In the last 5 years, this congregation has had 198 visitors to our worship services.
That’s only the ones who tell us they are here.
Why did they come?
What were they looking for?
I have no idea, but I bet it has something to do with seeking a better way to live.

In the past year, we have had many new members.
In the bulletin this morning there is a list of children and adults who have been baptized this year.
Except for the founding members, every one of us was one of those once.
Just like the wise men who found Jesus.
We were searching for … something.
We all came here from different places.
Different world views.
Different generational cultures.
Different races.
Each of us should ask ourselves, “What were we looking for”?
Like the Magi, were we searching for something new?
Or were we looking for something we had once, but lost?
And then, what did we find?
Were we touched by the divine?
Did we find our Messiah?
Did we find Jesus?
Did our world change just a little bit?
Did our lives change just a little bit?
And our lives have changed, how do we respond?

One way to respond is at this table.
Jesus wants us to respond by coming to him.
He wants us to join him at this table.
He wants us to join him in his story.
He wants us to know what his story means.
And what it means for us.
A changed world.
A changed life.
An epiphany.

And let me ask you one more question.
Do you know other people who are on such searches?
Bring them here.
Be their star.
You don’t have to say anything.
Just tell them that they might find what they are looking for right here.
Just like the wise men.
Just like the rest of us.