Monday, February 29, 2016

Sermon for Third Sunday in Lent, "Lent: Satisfied," Isaiah 55:1-13

Sermon 2/28/16
Isaiah 55:1-13

Lent: Satisfied

My appetite is my shepherd, I always want.
It maketh me sit down and stuff myself.
It leadeth me to my refrigerator repeatedly,
Sometimes during the night.
It leadeth me in the path of Burger King for a Whopper.
It destroyeth my shape.
Yea, though I knoweth I gaineth, I will not stop eating,
                                                       For the food tasteth so good.                         
The ice cream and the cookies, they comfort me.
When the table is spread before me, it exciteth me.
For I knoweth that I sooneth shall dig in.
As I filleth my plate continuously,
My clothes runneth smaller.
Surely bulges and pudgies shall follow me
All the days of my life.
And I shall be "pleasingly plump" forever. (1)

            In the midst of the season of Lent, season of fasting and penitence and somber reflection, today we turn from the gospel lesson to a text from the prophet Isaiah that seems a bit exuberant and rich for our setting. Today’s gospel lesson had us returning to a text about good fruit – and even as we continue to seek after it, I hope, I decided maybe we’d spent enough time on good fruit scriptures for a little bit. Plus, this passage from Isaiah is just so – full! So inspiring. But here, midway through Lent, Isaiah is talking about eating what is good and delighting ourselves in rich food. Doesn’t sound much like Lent, does it?
            This part of Isaiah, near the end of the long book, seems to be focused on the time just before or near the end of the exile. Israel had been conquered and many of the people of Israel sent to live in the lands of the conquerors. But eventually, they are allowed to return to Israel, return to their homeland. Where the earlier chapters of Isaiah warn of what will happen, what is happening because the people refuse to repent and return to God, here, Isaiah speaks of God’s mercy, abundant pardon. Nations will run to God, who forgives because God’s ways are not our ways, but are higher. God’s words are like seeds that grow, like bread that fills us. And God’s people will go out and be led in in joy and peace. The beginning part of the text is my favorite: Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.
            Somehow, last week after church, we got talking about whether or not we were forced by our parents to try food we didn’t like when we were little. I can’t even remember now how we got on the topic, but we were comparing notes. Some people had been forced to, or at least strongly encouraged to, try at least a bite of everything on their plates. If it was served to you for a meal, you ate it, at least some of it. Others of us, like me, were free to refuse foods if we didn’t like them.
            I was a picky eater when I was a child. On Thanksgiving, for example, I’d eat turkey, and my grandmother’s homemade dinner rolls. There was nothing else I liked. Of course, our family Thanksgiving spread included many foods that I had never tried before, ever. But I was still pretty confident that I didn’t like them. Could never like them. I didn’t need to try to them to know. I just felt, instinctively, that cranberry sauce and stuffing and green bean casserole were not for me.
            Perhaps you have a child like this in your life? The picky eater? Maybe you were a child like this? My nephew Sam has turned into a picky eater, I’m afraid, and meal times can sometimes be a battle in his household. If you think Sam will fall for the, “well, you can just go hungry if you won’t eat what’s on your plate” routine, you are wrong. He will outlast you. He will probably win that fight! I think he functions like a camel, and stores up an occasional hearty meal of something he loves and makes it last through meals where people try to torture him by offering him vegetables.
            My brother and sister-in-law are trying very hard to make sure that my niece Siggy doesn’t end up with the same finicky food tastes as her big brother. And so they’ve been very careful to limit her intake of many foods, especially things that are full of salt or sugar or other addictive additives. Siggy loves pretty much all foods, from black beans and guacamole, to sips of the kale smoothies my brother likes to drink. She isn’t craving chocolate and candy, because she doesn’t know what she’s missing. And sometimes, that’s a good thing.
            Do you know that if you give a baby some sugar, especially before they’ve really had any sugar, they will light up, smile at you, follow you with their eyes, and generally be wrapped around your finger? They will charm you, in the hopes of getting some more sugary wonderfulness. This taste that they never knew existed is so powerful that it will change their behavior towards you in hopes that they’ll get some more.
            These days, many nutrition plans include an initial period where a person is supposed to completely eliminate sugary and processed foods from their diets. This is because they are so addictive, and our bodies become so dependent on them and unable to tell us when we are truly hungry or what we are truly craving that it takes a while for our bodies to relearn what it is that is truly satisfying. Isaiah was talking about much more than food when he wrote the words we read today, but I imagine that he’d look at us and ask, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” Really though, I don’t want us to get hung up on food. It’s a powerful metaphor, and one that the prophet Isaiah certainly uses. Universal. But it isn’t the whole of what we’re talking about here. If it seems like this scripture is too lush, too rich for Lent, we have to look closer. Because I think Isaiah is suggesting that it isn’t by overindulging – in whatever that’s artificial that we’ve become hooked on – it isn’t by indulging in that stuff that we are satisfied, but rather, it is by stripping away, by finding what’s at the core of who we are, what’s real, who God creates us to be. Being who God calls us to be – nothing less, nothing more – that’s the deeply satisfying life Isaiah announces with such hope.  
            At my work in Rochester, the retirement community and small Greenhouse nursing homes I serve at are part of a group of elder care organizations that have adopted what is called “The Eden Alternative.” It’s a guiding philosophy that shapes the way St. John’s offers care, and it is one of the things I love about my work there. The Eden Alternative’s vision is to eliminate what is calls the “plagues” that create the bulk of suffering for elders: loneliness, helplessness, and boredom. If you’ve spent any time in traditional nursing homes, you know that even the best nursing homes struggle with residents suffering from boredom, helplessness, and especially loneliness. And unfortunately many nursing homes are not even close to “the best.” So the purpose of the Eden Alternative is to eliminate those plagues by following these principles, among others:  * Loving companionship is the antidote to loneliness. * An Elder-centered community creates opportunity to give as well as receive care. This is the antidote to helplessness. * An Elder-centered community imbues daily life with variety and spontaneity by creating an environment in which unexpected and unpredictable interactions and happenings can take place. This is the antidote to boredom. * Meaningless activity corrodes the human spirit. The opportunity to do things that we find meaningful is essential to human health. * Creating an Elder-centered community is a never-ending process. Human growth must never be separated from human life.
            St. John’s serves a fairly affluent community. There are options at the Greenhouses for folks using Medicare, but at the retirement community, the target audience is folks with enough money to pay their own way. And it is not cheap! Yet, despite the fact that many of the folks I serve have more access to material resources, the three plagues that the Eden Alternative addresses are universal. No amount of money, no amount of possessions, no amount of status built up over a lifetime, it seems, will cure the plagues of loneliness, helplessness, and boredom. The things that give meaning – the things that make for a deeply satisfying life – are things you can’t put a price tag on: companionship, the ability to serve and be served with care, and a life full of experiences that bring us joy. Perhaps you, as I do, find this description, these principles, not just values for what we want in elder care facilities, but what we all seek after.
We must answer Isaiah’s question. Why aren’t we choosing that which satisfies? That which offers life? Why aren’t we choosing this ‘good food’ that Isaiah talks about? I have my suspicions. In the first church I served, A high school student told me one year that she was struggling with what she gave up for Lent that year. She wasn’t struggling because she was failing to keep her promise, finding it too hard. She was struggling because she found it too easy, too doable, or at least, too possible. And she was finding it a bit rewarding. She felt good about the choice she made every day. And she struggled with that because: if the new practice she cultivated during Lent was actually rewarding and doable and livable, and not hard and terrible and difficult, what excuse would she have when Lent was done to return to her old ways? Not having that excuse anymore scared her a little bit.
So why aren’t we ‘spending our money’ on only the good food of life that Isaiah describes? Why do we work for that which doesn’t satisfy? I wonder if we fear that our experience of God, of real life, of actual satisfaction, will totally mess up our lives – ruin our plans, mess up our plan of coasting along without much effort, without giving too much of ourselves, without committing in any significant, full way to the gospel, to the path of discipleship the Jesus lays out for us. I wonder, sometimes, if we are terrified of how good life can be when we live it God’s way.
One of my favorites books, by Arthur Simon, founder of the end-hunger campaign Bread for the World, is called How Much is Enough? Hungering for God in an Affluent Culture. Simon shares this quote from theologian Richard Foster: “The Christian life comes not by gritting our teeth but by falling in love.” “The Christian life comes not by gritting our teeth but by falling in love.” Simon expands, writing, “Jesus’ words about possessions, and his call to deny self, take up the cross, and follow him sound a lot like an invitation to grit your teeth. But they seem to have had the opposite effect on his followers. Jesus’ death and resurrection . . . gave them a hope and a purpose that fired their lives as they began forming a new community of faith. They clearly had fallen in love with God for having loved them so lavishly in Christ.”
This Lent, wonder in the knowledge that God does want our lives to be filled up, brimming, overflowing with goodness and joy, peace and love. God, whose ways are beyond our understanding, extends mercy and forgiveness, calling us to return to God with all our hearts. And this Lent, remember that as we fall in love with God, and with God’s people, that God will help us peel away all the layers, strip away all the excess that we’ve built around our hearts, that we may at last find the life that is worth our labors. Amen.

 (1) Author unknown.

Sermon for Second Sunday in Lent, Year C, "Lent: Gathered," Luke 13:31-35

Sermon 2/21/16
Luke 13:31-35

Lent: Gathered

            There’s just something about this scripture passage that’s tugging at me this time around. I’ve preached on this text before, read and studied it. This image – Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem where he compares himself to a mother hen wanting to gather in her chicks, her people, to protect them – is a unique one, a vivid one, certainly. But it hasn’t always tugged at me the way it is this time around.
            Maybe it’s because we, I, just need this image. Need to be gathered in by Jesus, by God who loves us. This past week we hosted our friends in the community at our ecumenical Lenten service, and we engaged in prayer stations for a time of worship. I set up different stations around the sanctuary that were all focused on one of our scripture texts for the season of Lent. For the station that corresponded to this passage of scripture – Jesus gathering the people like a mother hen gathers her chicks – I invited people to wrap themselves up in a warm, snuggly blanket, and cuddle a fluffy, plush stuffed animal. I encouraged people to think about when they felt most comforted, protected, sheltered, and to pray that God would open their hearts to being gathered in by God. I was told by at least one person that that was their favorite prayer station. And I noticed that people not only wrapped themselves up, but tended to move closer to the people they were with – gave a hug, cuddled together, leaned on each other’s shoulders. I noted that a couple of the teenagers present actually wrapped themselves in cuddly blankets and just kept them on, staying wrapped up as they moved around the room to other prayer stations, only putting the blankets down when they were ready to leave for the night.  
When I think of this image, being gathered in like a chick to a mother hen, I think of my grandmother. There was this blanket, at her house, a comforter, that had gotten old and tattered, and so my grandmother sewed it a new cover, out of this silky, shiny white material. It made it look like a puffy white cloud of a blanket. My and my siblings and cousins all called it the Magic Blanket, and everyone always wanted to be snuggled up in the Magic Blanket. There was no place so comfortable. Or I remember that when I would spend the night at my grandparents' house, which I did most Friday nights, my grandma would tuck me in my bed at night so tightly, so securely, that I literally could not even roll over without making a great effort. And so, unable to move, I’d just fall right to sleep. It was like being swaddled like we do with newborns. Being all wrapped up and tucked in – comforted, protected.
And when I think of this image, I think about how children want to be, are so ready and willing to be comforted when they've been hurt. My niece, Siggy, who is a year and half old, recently pinched her finger on a step stool. She cried, and my mom, who was watching her, picked her up and hugged her and snuggled her and fussed over her and of course, kissed her fingers to make them better. What's amusing is that since then, Siggy has been saying "ouch" all the time - I think she realizes that it corresponds to getting the response of, "Oh, poor Siggy!" from the adults around her, and some extra hugs and kisses. She'll even go over to the step stool, and point at it, with an expression of woe, and work up a few tears, lamenting, "ouch!" in the most pathetic manner. She could give her actor-Uncle Todd a run for his money. Maybe she is a little traumatized. But I think she also has realized the deep contentment in having someone want to protect you and comfort you so fiercely. She can depend on it and she knows it.
We find, in our gospels, Jesus longing for his people to know that too. To understand that it is with him that they will find true comfort, protection, nurture, and love. Our text from Luke opens with some Pharisees coming to warn Jesus to get out of town, because Herod, the king, is seeking after Jesus, wanting to find a way to kill him. We don’t usually see the Pharisees looking out for Jesus, but for whatever reason, these particular Pharisees act to get Jesus out of harm’s way. But Jesus isn’t about to change course. He knows his purpose, and where he needs to head, and knows that his path must take him relentlessly to Jerusalem. He responds to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.’” Foxes in literature are often painted as cunning animals, prone to trickery. We might say, “sly as a fox.” They’re predators, but predators of small, weak animals. Herod, King of Jerusalem, obsessed with his power and wealth, cozying up with the Roman government leaders, wanting to maintain his position and power at all costs: Jesus names him a fox, a trickster, someone to be wary of. And then, seconds later, Jesus describes himself as a mother hen. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Of course, chickens are a target, an easy target, for foxes. So for Jesus to describe himself as a hen, right after describing Herod as a fox – what’s he getting at? Why wouldn’t Jesus want to paint himself as something more powerful? Less totally vulnerable? After all, there are many animal mothers that seek to protect their young. Most animals mothers would do this. No, clearly he choose the image of hen in conjunction with his description of Herod as a fox. Fox and hen. Predator and vulnerable prey. But why?
Just before our reading for today, just before the Pharisees come to warn Jesus about Herod, he had been teaching with parable after parable about the kingdom of God, ending with a refrain he repeats throughout his teaching: “Indeed,” he says, “some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” Jesus tells us plainly that the order is reversed in God’s reign, in God’s vision for the world. Everything is turned upside down. It isn’t Herod and his kingdom and his palace and his wealth and power the counts – it’s Jesus and his way of serving by pouring out his life, offering up his very life, rejecting the empty promises that draw us away from God – just as we talked about last Sunday – this is Jesus’ way, God’s way, the way of the world that God dreams for us. And in this world, a fox is not met by a coyote or a lynx or cougar or bear that will threaten it – but by a mother hen who will offer its life to protect these vulnerable baby chicks.
Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “If you have ever loved someone you could not protect, then you understand the depth of Jesus’ lament. All you can do is open your arms. You cannot make anyone walk into them. Meanwhile, this is the most vulnerable posture in the world –wings spread, breast exposed — but if you mean what you say, then this is how you stand.
“Given the number of animals available, it is curious that Jesus chooses a hen. Where is the biblical precedent for that? What about the mighty eagle of Exodus, or Hosea’s stealthy leopard? What about the proud lion of Judah, mowing down his enemies with a roar? Compared to any of those, a mother hen does not inspire much confidence. No wonder some of the chicks decided to go with the fox.
“But a hen is what Jesus chooses, which — if you think about it –is pretty typical of him. He is always turning things upside down, so that children and peasants wind up on top while kings and scholars land on the bottom. He is always wrecking our expectations of how things should turn out by giving prizes to losers and paying the last first. So of course he chooses a chicken, which is about as far from a fox as you can get. That way the options become very clear: you can live by licking your chops or you can die protecting the chicks.
“Jesus won’t be king of the jungle in this or any other story. What he will be is a mother hen, who stands between the chicks and those who mean to do them harm. She has no fangs, no claws, no rippling muscles. All she has is her willingness to shield her babies with her own body. If the fox wants them, he will have to kill her first.
“Which he does, as it turns out. He slides up on her one night in the yard while all the babies are asleep. When her cry wakens them, they scatter. She dies the next day where both foxes and chickens can see her — wings spread, breast exposed — without a single chick beneath her feathers. It breaks her heart, but it does not change a thing. If you mean what you say, then this is how you stand.” (1)
The one we follow, this Jesus we’re journeying with: make no mistake about our destination. We’re headed to Jerusalem, where a cross awaits. We’re following, serving, pledging our discipleship to one who knows he will die to save those who are not really even willing to be gathered in. Jesus makes himself completely vulnerable to be with us in our vulnerability. Will you let yourself be sheltered by God?  
And even as Jesus calls to us, seeks to gather us in, longing for us to be willing, he calls us, as always, to go and do likewise: to stand for others, with our arms wide open, vulnerable, exposed, but offering refuge, offering welcome, offering shelter, comfort, acceptance, love to everyone who needs it. Because we have said we are disciples. We have said we seek to follow Jesus. And if we mean what we say – then this is how we stand: with Jesus. Amen.  

(1) Barbara Brown Taylor, “As A Hen Gathers Her Brood,” Sermon, 1996.  

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Sermon for First Sunday in Lent, "Lent: Tempted," Luke 4:1-13

Sermon 2/14/16
Luke 4:1-13

Lent: Tempted

Every Lent, the readings in the lectionary for the First Sunday are about Jesus being tempted in the wilderness, an event that happens immediately after his baptism and before the beginning of his preaching, teaching, and healing ministry. It makes some sense. Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness, the desert. Forty is a number in the scriptures that signifies a significant passage of time. The flood lasted for forty days. The Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years. Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days. And we observe a 40-day season of preparation at Lent, a season of repentance and introspection as we journey with Jesus a road that leads to Jerusalem, to death, to the cross.
But why this text in particular? Is it more than a match in numbers? I’ll admit, at first read, this passage isn’t one that particularly moves me. Jesus is tempted in the wilderness by the devil, and he seems to so effortlessly knock down anything that the devil pitches to him. Is this is a struggle for him? The temptation reminds us, perhaps, that Jesus is one of us, lived as one of us and was tempted like we are. But when I read this passage, I think, “gosh, I think I could have avoided those temptations too!” It seems so easy to see through the motivations of the devil. It seems so clear that Jesus must and will refuse these shambles of offers of fame and glory and fortune. We all face temptations of many kinds in our lives, and some are easier to resist than others, to the point that we don’t really even find them tempting. For example, I don’t actually ever feel tempted to eat meat. Cheese, yes, is a struggle. But meat is not really a temptation for me. And I’ve never been tempted to use drugs, or to cheat on a test. I know these things may be tempting for some people, and I take that seriously. But these are things that don’t really tempt me, and so I can’t claim any great feat for ‘resisting the temptation’ of them. It hasn’t cost me any great stress or pain or trial to not do these things.
This is what I wonder about when we come to this temptation passage about Jesus. Was he really tempted here? Where is the temptation? What would have been appealing about this offer from the devil? Did this event really cost Jesus, or stress him, or push him, or bring him great pain? Was he teetering on the brink of giving in? I don’t immediately see it. I’m a bit skeptical. And yet, for the gospel writers, the passage is clearly important. It is recounted in all the gospels but John, though Mark does not give us the details that Matthew and Luke do. And as I said, it occurs early – it is one of the foundational events for Jesus’ ministry. The position lends to the idea that this passage is important – we’re meant to see it as important. What are we missing?
I return to the question – does this event cost Jesus something, or stress him, or push him, or bring him pain? It must, for it to truly be a temptation for him. So how can we unravel this passage and learn from it? If we look at the things that the devil asks Jesus to do, we can see that the devil doesn’t ask Jesus to do anything that it is outside of his power to do already. The devil encourages Jesus to turn stones into bread for food. Well, we witness in the scriptures Jesus turning water into wine and Jesus feeding crowds of thousands. If he can do this, we can reason that he could easily make stones into bread. The devil tells Jesus that he will give Jesus glory and authority over the kingdoms of the world if Jesus worships the devil. But Jesus speaks occasionally of his knowledge that if God had chosen, Jesus could indeed be an earthly king with earthly kingdoms to rule – he wouldn’t need this power from the devil. And the devil tells Jesus to test God by throwing himself from the pinnacle of the temple, insisting angels would rescue him. But Jesus has just come from hearing God say directly at his baptism that Jesus was God’s beloved son, that God was well-pleased with him – he didn’t need to test God – he had already experienced God’s love for him in a direct way.
So these things, these temptations aren’t tempting because Jesus can’t do them with the devil’s help. The devil offers Jesus nothing that isn’t already in his power. They are tempting because they are easy, and they would directly benefit Jesus, no one else, and they wouldn’t cost Jesus in the way that the path Jesus is on will cost him. What the devil offers is what Jesus already has and already can do, but in a short-cut way that corrupts and twists. What the devil asks Jesus to do is to forget who he is, what he is called to do, whose child he is, what his purpose is. Jesus knows what he’s come for – but the devil is trying to convince him that he can get essentially the same things in a supposedly easier way.
Pastor PJ Lockhart draws our attention to this certain phrase that the devil speaks. Lockhart writes, “Two simple letters “I” and “f” change everything. If you are the Son of God. The moment this little two letter word is stuck in front of the assertion that Jesus is the Son of God it brings into question the certainty of identity. If you are the Son of God.” The devil tries to call into question Jesus’ very identity, make him feel uncertain, make him doubt. “And the same uncertainty,” write Lockhart, “springs in to our lives as well, constantly harassing us with doubts as the word [if] turns statements into questions. If you are a good person? If you have faith? If you are loved by God? Two letters that take us from a place of security into a place of uncertainty and doubt. And from doubt into temptation.” (1) If you are, says the voice of temptation, urging Jesus – and us – to question our meaning, our purpose, ourselves, and God.
I think that the biggest temptations we face are not temptations that would lead us to lie, or steal, or eat too much, or abuse substances, or cheat – though of course these things can all be tough temptations. I think the biggest temptation is the temptation to forget, to be drawn away from, to be convinced we’ve been wrong about who we are, and what “who we are” means. It is easy to think more of what benefits us than what will help others. It is easier to be comfortable than to be challenged. It is easier to just glide along in life without really making an attempt to follow Jesus and live as he lived.
David Lose writes, “I would argue that temptation is not so often temptation toward something – usually portrayed as doing something you shouldn’t – but rather is usually the temptation away from something – namely, our relationship with God and the identity we receive in and through that relationship. Too often Christians have focused on all the things we shouldn’t do, instead of pointing us to the gift and grace of our identity as children of God. But the devil knows better. Notice how each of the temptations seeks to erode and undercut Jesus’ confidence in this relationship with God and therefore undermine Jesus’ identity … Bread, power, and safety. But it just as well might have been youth, beauty, and wealth. Or confidence, fame, and security. On one level, we experience specific temptations very concretely, but on another they are all the same, as they seek to shift our allegiance, trust, and confidence away from God and toward some substitute that promises a more secure identity … Consider the media barrage of advertising to which most of us are so regularly subjected. Nine times out of ten the goal of such ads is to create in us a sense of lack and inadequacy, followed by the implicit promise that purchasing the advertised product will relieve our insecurity … People are under assault every single day by tempting messages that seek to draw their allegiance from the God who created and redeemed them toward some meager substitute.” (2)
If you are the Son of God,” the devil taunted. Jesus is tempted – but he remembers who he is. He is the one God sent to save God’s people – and Jesus can’t, won’t forget that. Jesus remembers always what he is meant to do. We are called to do likewise. Lent is a time to reject everything that is drawing us away from God. It is a time to turn back to God and the identity we have in God. That’s what it means to repent – to turn back to God. In Lent, we commit to rejecting the false messages. We reject the “if you are” voice of deception that tells us we are anything other than God’s, anything other than belonging to God, children of God, beloved of God. The next verse after our reading for today tells us that Jesus leaves the wilderness filled with the power of the Spirit. He was tempted. But he left the wilderness with a clear head and a willing heart. That’s what I hope for us. Our road to Easter is long. But I’m praying that we arrive there with clear heads, willing hearts, and the power of the Spirit. Amen.

Sermon, "Invitational: Redemption Stories," Luke 5:27-32

Sermon 2/7/16
Luke 5:27-32

Invitational: Redemption Stories

            Over the last few years, I’ll confess that I’ve become a big fan of reading fanfiction. Anybody know what that is? Fanfiction is stories that fans of original works write in order to prolong or reimagine or recreate the original story. Sometimes authors imagine what a contemporary story would be like if it took place in some other time period, or vice versa – like if Pride and Prejudice took place in 2015, instead of the 1800s. Sometimes fanfiction writers imagine a character who has an untimely end in a story as surviving instead, imagining what it might be like, for example, if Darth Vader lived longer, for better or worse. Other fanfiction stories are about what would happen if your favorite character fell in love with the character you always wanted them too, instead of the one they ended up with. And another big chunk of fanfiction are stories about what would happen if the bad guy was somehow redeemed, and the villain becomes a hero instead. What if Lex Luthor decided to start working for Super Man instead of against him? What if Captain Hook built a home for all the Lost Boys? What if Cruella de Vil was persuaded to become an animal lover?
            J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, has written that it’s amazing to her that people keep writing stories where one of the villains, Draco Malfoy, is more nuanced, becomes a hero. She doesn’t understand why people persist in seeing something in Draco that she hasn’t written there. But I don’t find it surprising at all. We love redemption stories. We love that what once was lost can be found! In fact, I thin, it is our favorite story. It certainly seems to be the favorite story of our scriptures. They are full of stories of people like Paul, who, when we first see him, is looking on with glee while followers of Jesus are stoned to death. But Paul has an encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus and ends up giving himself heart and soul to the furthering of the gospel. Or there’s the Prodigal Son in the parable Jesus shares, who squanders everything, and comes back to his father, begging for forgiveness, seeing the value of all he had treated as worthless. There’s King David, meant to be a beacon of godliness, caught up in a web of adultery and lies, repentant and humbled. A bandit, crucified next to Jesus, seeking forgiveness at the last. We love redemption stories. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see!”
            I think, though, that as much as we love redemption stories, when we imagine ourselves in the story, most of us, we’re not seeing ourselves as the one who is lost and needs redeeming. Instead, we’re the ones who love and see the good in those who need redeeming. We’re the ones in the story who can see how much someone else is failing, how much help they need, how they struggle – and perhaps even inspired by what we can see in them, we can witness their redemption. We’re Luke Skywalker, not Darth Vader. I think, especially for those of us who have basically tried and succeeded in walking more or less on the straight and narrow of life, when we think about redemption, someone getting their life together after things being a total disaster, we see ourselves in the role of the helper. The one who can help others get things on track. It’s not a bad impulse – this desire to help others, of course. But we should be wary. Because when we cast ourselves in the role of one who leads others to redemption, the role we’re really giving ourselves is the role of savior. There are many savior-figures in literature, in books, in movies, in TV shows – heroes. Superheroes, even. But when it comes to our journey of faith, if we’re so busy saving other that we don’t need redeeming, is there anything left for Jesus to do? 
            Last week, we talked about the calling of Simon Peter, as Jesus directed he and his fishing partners out into the deep waters, telling them that now they would fish for people. Remember how Peter responded to Jesus sat first, after the great haul of fish: He said, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Simon Peter didn’t fully know yet who Jesus was, but he knew he needed redeeming. So he follows Jesus. Just after he and a few other become disciples, Jesus preaches and teaches and spends time healing – a man with a skin disease, a paralytic man, and many others. Then, we arrive at the start of our text for today. As he exits the house where he’s just healed the paralytic man, Jesus sees Levi, a tax-collector, sitting at his booth. Remember, tax collectors in the gospels were despised not just because everyone hates paying takes – but because they, Jews, worked to collected taxes for the Romans, the foreign occupiers. So tax collectors were considered not only greedy, but disloyal traitors, who chose income from Rome over standing up for their own people.
            So Jesus sees Levi, sitting at his booth, and he says, “Follow me.” Levi gets up, leaves everything, and follows Jesus. This brief exchange is certainly astonishing. Levi responds to Jesus without hesitation. Jesus asks for Levi’s discipleship without, as far as we’re privy to, a single word spoken before he’s asking him for his everything. But maybe it isn’t surprising either. How many people see Levi? How many people saw him and not his position? How many people looked at him and saw promise and hope and a future? Jesus did. He saw Levi, and chose him still. Levi, perhaps seeing for the first time in a long time someone looking at him with something other than disgust, maybe it is a no-brainer that he followed.
            Levi then throws a great dinner banquet for Jesus, this man who saw him and chose him and changed his life. And naturally, who does Levi invite? Other tax collectors! In fact, Luke says there’s a “large crowd” of tax collectors at this banquet. Apparently, Levi doesn’t leave out the religious elite – the Pharisees and scribes are there too. But even though they’re at the same party, they complain to Jesus and the disciples. “Why do you eat with tax-collectors and sinners?” Jesus responds, “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 to repentance.”
            Jesus basically says: “If you’re not sick, you don’t a doctor. If you’re not a sinner, you don’t need to repent. If you aren’t seeking redemption, you don’t need a savior.” Jesus has come to serve those who are sick and sinners and in need of redemption – because they are the ones who realize that they’re lost and need help! How can he heal someone who insists they are well? How can he find someone who insists that they aren’t and have never been lost?
            Jesus calls Levi to follow him, and Levi immediately invites every other tax-collector in town to meet Jesus. Because Levi has found something that has saved his life! He’s been redeemed. He’s found a savior. And this impact on his life is so great, so significant, so meaningful, that he can’t help but invite everyone else to experience what he has. He wants to make sure everyone gets to meet Jesus, because Jesus has saved him, redeemed him. Levi invites not one or two, but a crowd. Why would he want anyone to miss meeting the man who saved him? How compelling an invitation is that? Come meet the person who changed my life. Come meet the person who saved me.
            Today we wrap up our focus on being an invitational people, just as we turn our hearts and minds to the Lenten journey, traveling with Jesus to the cross and beyond. And as we begin this season of reflection and repentance, here are the questions I’m asking myself, that I’m hoping you’ll wrestle with too. Has Jesus saved me? Have I needed a savior? Have I needed redeeming? Or have I been busy trying to save and redeem others? Maybe the story of Jesus redeeming our lives started long ago, and we need to remember how God found us when we were lost. Maybe, friends, we’ve always considered ourselves redeemed, and so never really dug deep into our hearts to show to God our wounds that need healing. Maybe, even, we’ve been lost, but never willing to ask for directions!
            If you met someone who saved your life, that’s a story you’d want to share, right? Levi sure did. He invited a whole crowd to meet the man responsible for his redemption. What about us? Do we have a savior that we will invite people to meet? Amen.

Friday, February 05, 2016

Sermon, "Invitational: Deep Waters," Luke 5:1-11

Sermon 1/31/16
Luke 5:1-11

Invitational: Deep Waters
            I’m fascinated by the fact that for all that we know, as much as we have discovered, for all of the world we humans feel like we have conquered, there are still so many that things that we don’t know and can’t control, so much that we are learning yet, every day. Even today, every year, scientists discover entirely new species of plants and animals. And one part of our world that is rich in things yet-to-be-discovered is in the mysterious fathoms below – the deep, deepest waters of the ocean. In 2015, for example, scientists discovered this Ceratioid anglerfish that lives in the nicknamed “midnight zone” of the ocean. It doesn’t look like other anglerfish – one news article described it as looking like a “rotting old shoe with spikes, a scraggly mustache and a big mouth with bad teeth. And it has a long, angular fishing pole-looking thing growing out of its head.”[1] Or there’s Greedo, named after the Star Wars Bounty Hunter, or these things, which as of late summer, scientists had not yet been able to determine whether they were a kind of jellyfish or something else entirely. They were discovered on the sea floor near Australia. It fascinates me – and let’s be honest – unnerves me – to think there is so much undiscovered in the deep, dark waters of the ocean.
            I had those images in mind this week as I was reading our gospel lesson from Luke, and thinking about deep things, deep waters, bringing to the surface what has been deep, deep down. In our gospel lesson today, we find a familiar scene – Jesus preaching and teaching, the crowd gathered, and the setting – the lake of Gennesaret, where many fishermen would be busy at work. When the scene opens, we read that Jesus is standing by the lake and the crowds are “pressing in on him to hear the word of God.” What an image! They’re impatient – anxious – hungry to hear God’s word – that’s how excited they are about what Jesus has to say. They want the words that he’s about to speak. Have you ever been so eager to hear the Word of God?
            Now, in the chapter before this one, after his baptism, after spending 40 days in the wilderness, Jesus had just begun his ministry, marked by preaching and healing, including a woman described as the mother-in-law of Simon. But we haven’t yet met Simon, really, until this passage we read today. So keep in mind that when Jesus encounters Simon Peter with his boat, he’s already connected with him through the act of healing. So, with the crowds pressing in, Jesus sees fishermen washing their nets and their boats nearby on the shore, and he gets into the boat of Simon Peter and asks him to put out a little way from the shore. This way, Jesus can comfortably teach the crowds from the boat without being smothered by them in their excitement. When he’s done teaching, he turns to Simon, and tells him, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Not a suggestion – not a question – but a direction, an imperative. Peter responds in a way that I admire, since I think most of us wouldn’t respond so openly. Jesus wasn’t a fisherman; he was a carpenter, and now a teacher; Simon Peter was the fisherman. And Peter knew where to fish. And Peter knew that they had already been fishing all night without catching anything. But Simon Peter didn’t respond that he knew better than Jesus, or that they tried what he said already and it didn’t work, or that this new way wouldn’t work. He said instead, “Master, if you say we should try it, we’ll try it.”
            So they let down their nets, and begin to catch so many fish that their nets are breaking. They signal for help, and another boat comes, and still, there are so many fish that both boats are filled to the point that they can barely stay afloat. Peter, overwhelmed, falls on his knees before Jesus and says, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” But Jesus responds, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” And with those strange words, Peter, along with James and John, the sons of Zebedee, partners with Simon, leave their boats and nets and everything, and they begin to follow Jesus.
            “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” I’m struck by the phrase, and all the meaning this biblical image holds for us. If we think of our spiritual lives, our souls, as this water, we can find many ways to think about this text. Shallows waters are safe places in our lives and in our hearts, where we can put our feet on the ground and keep our heads well above water, and where everything that is there is easily visible to the eyes. The deep waters – there is so much there that you might never see or know it all, and you can’t touch bottom, and you have to work harder to stay afloat, but some of the most fascinating things are found in the deep water, and you have to be a strong swimmer, or a strong boater, or with someone who is strong enough for both of you, to spend a lot of time in the deep waters. You can spend all of your time in shallow water, but most swimmers aren’t satisfied with that, are they? I spent some years as a lifeguard, and administered many swim tests to young people who wanted permission to swim in the deeper water in the lake, or in the deep end of the swimming pool. Even knowing it was really too much for them, children just wanted to try out that deep water. So if we’re thinking about our souls as the waters of this passage, what is Jesus saying to us? Go to the deep water. Go again. Go deeper. Simon Peter makes it clear they’ve spent all day out on the lake, fishing, without catching anything. But Jesus won’t let them give up, call it quits, move to another spot, or bring the boats back to shore. There are more fish than the disciples will know what to do with in that lake, and Jesus will help them find them, if they trust him and do what he commands.  
Where are we spending our time in the waters of our soul? I think it is astonishingly easy to spend all of our time, all of our lives, in what God would consider the shallow waters. Not taking risks. Not digging deep. Not exploring the unknown. Keeping our feet firmly planted, never heading out to the deep where we’d have to rely on having Jesus in the boat with us in order to make it through. I can tell you that I’m generally not a risk-taker. I don’t like roller coasters. As some of you probably know, I don’t even like statistically safe airplanes. Spiritually, I wonder if I have any more sense of adventure. How easy it is to do the bare minimum instead of giving heart and soul to God. It is easy, sometimes, for me to understand exactly what the scripture is saying, what Jesus is asking, and somehow easier to make a list of reasons why I can’t quite do what is required.
We’ve been talking about being an invitational people – thinking about the invitations God extends to us, and the invitations we extend to others. God’s invitation to us today is to explore the deep waters of our faith. When I think about the dreams for Apple Valley that we’re exploring this year – being fruitful and prayerful and invitational and missional, I see them all as challenges to head to the deeper waters of our faith. So even as we struggle with the straight-forward invitation of asking a friend to come to church with you, I think God is already calling us deeper – not just to invite someone to church, to attend worship, to attend and event, but to invite someone into relationship with God, to invite someone to come and see what God is doing in your life, to invite someone to journey, along with you, in discipleship, in faith. When we talk about being invitational, we’re not talking about attending an event with a start time and an end time. We’re talking about inviting people into a relationship that will change their lives – even as we ourselves again and again say “Yes” as God calls us to let down our nets one more time.
Last week, I asked you to think about how you might do a bit of Show and Tell during worship today. I told you I’d ask if there was anyone who might be willing to talk about something God is doing in their life. Well, it’s next week. So I’m extending an invitation, an invitation to share with us a minute or two about what God is doing, or has done in your life that needs sharing. This is chance to practice – here where there are plenty of lifeguards on duty – going a bit out into deeper water. Would anyone like to share what God’s been up to?
Peter’s response is so powerful, so moving. “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” The deep waters are full of abundance that God invites us to discover, and in the life of the church, even when it means letting down our nets for what seems like the millionth time in the same waters, I believe that God promises us a catch of fish that is beyond our imagining.
“When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.” Let us go and do likewise.