Saturday, January 21, 2012

Third Sunday after Epiphany: A Fishy Tale

Scripture reading for this Sunday:  Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:5-12; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20

“The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time[i],”
A second time?  What happened the first time?

Let’s go back to the beginning of Jonah’s story.
God speaks to Jonah:  “Go to Nineveh and tell the people there that I have seen just how sinful they are.  Tell them to repent.”

And Jonah gets up and goes – in the opposite direction!
Jonah has absolutely no desire to go to Nineveh.  Nineveh was notorious for its vices – a real Sin City.  Plus it was the capital of Assyria.  The Assyrians were a bad lot – they had marched through Israel and defeated the Northern Kingdom.  Ten tribes of Israel were taken into exile, never to be heard from again.  But the Assyrians were only getting started.  They conquered a good chunk of what we now call the Middle East, as well as parts of Egypt.  They were constantly warring with Judah. 

No wonder Jonah goes in the opposite direction.  He has no desire to preach repentance to Nineveh.  If he does, there’s the remote chance that Nineveh will actually repent, and God, being gracious and merciful, will forgive them. 
Forgive them?  The enemies of Israel and Judah?  Never!

So Jonah goes to Joppa, and gets on a boat heading to Tarshish – in what we now call Spain.  That’s about as far away as he can get from Nineveh (which is located near modern-day Mosul in northern Iraq).
But God isn’t done with Jonah.  He discovers the hard way that you can run from God, but you can’t hide.

Once the ship is out at sea, a huge storm blows up, a boat-tossing, ship-wrecking kind of storm.  The sailors toss over their cargo in an effort to save their lives, but it doesn’t help.  It occurs to the sailors that such a bad storm might indicate that God was displeased.  They wake up Jonah, who was sleeping through the storm, and say, ‘Hey, you better get praying to your God – we’re going to die in this storm.  Ask your God to save us!”
The situation is dire and the sailors decide that they need to figure out who made God mad.  So they cast lots to see, and the lot fell to Jonah.

They start questioning him:  "Who are you and where do you come from?  What is your business in Tarshish?"
Jonah tells them the whole story – how God wanted him to go to Nineveh but he went the opposite direction.  Now the sailors know what the problem is – it’s having Jonah on board.  Jonah tells them to toss him overboard so that they will be safe.

The sailors don’t want to just throw Jonah in the water – they don’t want his certain death on THEIR hands.  But they do want him off their boat, right now!  They try to row to the closest shore, so they can leave Jonah behind, but the waves are so big and the wind so strong they just can’t make any headway.
They have only once chance.  “Ok, Jonah’s God – you want him off our boat, then we’ll toss him off.  Just don’t be angry with us for doing this!” 

Once Jonah sinks beneath the waves, the storm stops and the sailors go on their way.
It’s not the end of Jonah however.  God sends a big fish (the Bible never says it’s a whale) to swallow Jonah. 

For three days, Jonah sits in the belly of the fish, having a gigantic pity party.  “Woe is me. I’m stuck here in this fish. Life is so unfair!”  Finally, Jonah asks God for deliverance and God tells the fish to spit Jonah up on land.
At this point, sitting on the beach, blinking in the sunlight, and grateful to be on dry land, Jonah hears God call again – Go to Nineveh and tell them to repent.

Jonah gets up and goes - grudgingly. 
He gets to Nineveh, walks a third of the way across the city and yells “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 

It’s the most effective sermon ever preached!  The entire city from the king all the way to the animals fasts and puts on sackcloth and ashes and cries out to God for forgiveness. 

God forgives them.

Jonah sulks.

After his brief sermon, Jonah turned around, stalked out of the city and settled down on a hilltop, ready to enjoy the coming destruction of his neighbors.  No destruction came.  Instead of cries of terror and anguish coming from the city, he hears weeping and repentance.
Jonah’s worst fears are realized:  God indeed is merciful and just, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. 

Jonah yells at God. “I knew it!  I knew it!  I knew if I went to Nineveh and preached to them and if they repented, you would forgive them!  Them!  Our sworn enemies, our oppressors, the very ones who destroyed our country.  That’s why I wanted to go to Tarshish in the first place – I know how you are.  You sound all ready to judge, but as soon as someone repents, you rush to forgive them!  Arrrgh!  They don’t deserve your forgiveness – they deserve for you to smite them!  Just kill me now – I don’t want to live if you’re going to forgive them.”
God doesn’t kill him.

Jonah decides to stay on that hill top awhile – just maybe the Ninevites’ repentance will be short lived and God will smite them after all.  He builds a little shelter and hunkers down.

God uses this time to teach Jonah a little lesson.  So God plants a bush by Jonah’s shelter - it grows really fast and Jonah has this wonderful bush to shade him from the sun.  The next day, God sends a worm to eat the bush and all the leaves fall off and the bush dies immediately, leaving Jonah sweltering in the sun.  To top it off, God sends a hot wind to really make Jonah bake.
Jonah sulks:  “I can’t get a break here!  First God forgives the Ninevites, then this bush dies and I’m left roasting in the sun!  All this on top of those miserable three days in that fish!  Arrrgh!  Just kill me now!”

God says, “Really?  You’re THAT angry about that bush?”
Jonah says, “Yes.  Angry enough to die!”

God says, “That bush was nothing to you.  You didn’t plant it or water it or care for it in any way. But you liked it and that’s enough for you to be mad that it’s gone?  And yet you don’t understand that I care deeply for this city full of people, whom I created and love.  I don’t want to see them destroyed – I want them to turn to me.”

And that’s where the story ends.  We aren’t told what happens next.
We’re left to ponder and think about the point of this little story.

Here's what I came up with:

Point 1:  God is a faithful God, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
Point 2:  God’s love is for everyone – seriously everyone, even those people we are sure as so bad that they are beyond God’s love.  Even people we hate.  Even people who have done wrong to us.  Even people we are sure don’t deserve God’s love.

Point 3: God will do whatever it takes to show God’s love to people – send a reluctant prophet to the belly of a whale for three days, send God’s own son to the cross and grave for three days.
Point 4:  God calls those who love him – that’s us - to carry the good news of Point #1 to those in Point #2, trusting God to do Point 3.

[i] Jonah 3:1  

Saturday, January 14, 2012

A Prayer for the Annual Meeting

(If you are looking for Sunday's sermon, it's in the post below this one. )

In our Old Testament reading today (1 Samuel 3:1-10), God calls the child Samuel to be a prophet.   Samuel doesn’t recognize that it’s God calling.  He needs Eli to help him understand who is calling and how to answer the call. 

Often it’s the same for us.  We don’t know that voice we hear is God’s voice.  We don’t know how to answer.  Sometimes we put limits on how we think God can call us and what parts of our lives God’s call applies to.

In our Psalm today (Psalm 139: 1-17), we learned that God knows every bit of us, has known every bit of us from the very beginning.  There is nothing about us that is hidden from God – no parts of our lives are off limits.  There is no where we can go that God won’t find us. 

We move now from worship to consider the business of our congregation.  And it’s easy to compartmentalize here as well – to forget that what we do in the next half hour or so is also part of the call God has placed on our lives.  While we may think that approving the budget and electing officers is “just business,” God sees this as part of our holy calling – efforts to order our life together and allocate our resources in a way that honors and serves God and furthers God’s kingdom on earth.

So, as we start our meeting this morning, we go to God in prayer, asking that we may hear God’s call and willing respond, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

Almighty God, your Holy Spirit equips the church with a rich variety of gifts.  Grant that we may use them to bear witness to Christ in lives that are built on faith and love.  Make us ready to live the gospel and eager to do your will, so that we may share with all your church in the joys of eternal life, through Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord.  Amen. (This prayer taken from Evangelical Lutheran Worship hymnal)

Second Sunday after Epiphany: Come and See

Readings for this Sunday:  1 Samuel 3:1-10; Psalm 139 1-17, 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, John 1:43-51

Disclaimer:  I originally wrote this sermon for the Second Sunday in Advent 2008.  It still contains references to the events of that year.  Tomorrow, I am preaching an updated, revised, extremely shortened version of this sermon

The hockey season started very soon after my husband and I were married.  He loves hockey and really, really wanted me to go to a game with him.  Since I don’t like most sports, I was sure I would hate hockey.  I thought hockey was just a bunch of guys chasing after a puck, beating each other up. 

But since I loved my husband, and wanted to make him happy, I accepted his invitation to go to a game with him.  I had no clue what was going on, but I was amazed at the athletic skill of the players.  I couldn’t believe that men in such bulky uniforms could move so gracefully on ice.  I loved the rituals – the songs, the games between periods- and the community of the fans.  Eventually I learned to follow the game.

Hockey continues to be a part of my life.  It is a joy my husband and I share with each other, with his family, with my cousins, and our children.  I have many fond memories of “the Jungle” – the home rink of the Fort Wayne Komets.  I would have missed out on something good, had I not accepted my husband’s invitation to just check it out, to come and see.

Come and see.

That’s Phillip’s invitation to Nathanael.  Phillip found the guy predicted by Moses and the other prophets and he is so excited by his discovery that he goes immediately to a friend and invites him to share in that discovery.

Phillip invites Nathanael to come and see.  Nathanael scoffs that the Messiah could come from a podunk little town like Nazareth.  (We might say here, could anything good come from New Rome or perhaps from Michigan).  Phillip wasn’t concerned with Nathanael’s skepticism.  Phillip just invites Nathanael to come and see.  And Nathanael did see – he proclaims that Jesus is the son of God, the king of Israel.

Tradition has it that Phillip goes on to invite people in Greece, Syria and Phrygia to come and see.  Tradition has it that Nathanael Bartholomew goes on to invite people in Armenia, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, and maybe India, to come and see.

Come and see.

We hear those words again echoed in the story of the Samaritan woman at the well.  She is so moved by her encounter with Jesus, she runs back to her town and invites everyone, Come and see the one who told me everything I have done!”  They came and saw and believed.

Come and see.

In the 1500’s, a young monk wrestles with his fear of a judgmental god and his inability to please that god.  His spiritual father, the abbot of his monastery, invites him to come and see the grace of God revealed in Jesus, by sending him to study in Wittenberg.  And through his study of the Scripture, he did indeed see.  He saw a loving God whose grace and mercy became the guiding light of his life, his preaching and his teaching.   Martin Luther passionately began inviting others to come and see and experience the grace of God.

Martin Luther’s passionate “come and see” echoes through the centuries.  In 1934, an American family visiting Germany was so moved by Martin’s witness and work, that the father changed both his and his son’s names to Martin Luther, in honor of the great reformer.  Michael King Jr. became Martin Luther King Jr.

Come and see.

Martin Luther King Jr. did not only inherit his name from his father.  King Sr. was a pastor, and the example of his daily living and his preaching invited his son to come and see.  And Martin Luther King Jr., whose life work we remember tomorrow, experienced in the Risen Christ a vision of God’s reign where every human, regardless of the color of his or her skin, is fearfully and wonderfully made by God.  His work for civil rights flowed from his firm belief that all humans are equal in the sight of God.   

Tuesday, we will see the first African-American president take the oath of office, a historical event made possible in part by Martin Luther King Jr.’s tireless work to invite other’s to come and see his dream of God’s reign realized in the world here and now.

Come and see.

His mother was an agnostic, a seeker.  During his childhood. he was exposed to Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism.  He also became a seeker, until he started attending an Abyssinian Baptist Church.  There, the life and witness of the congregation invited Barak Obama to come and see, and he found Christ’s gift of salvation.  He learned that salvation was not just an individual experience, but a gift to the community of believers.  In response to that gift, the faith community has the responsibility to reach out to others in God’s love, to help the needy, to invite those they encounter to come and see.  We will soon see how these beliefs influence his leadership of our country in this time of uncertainty and change.

Come and see.

As a child, every Sunday, my grandmother would pick me up for church.  I didn’t understand it then, but by bringing me faithfully to worship, she was inviting me to come and see.  Later, as an adult running from a religion full of “thou shalt nots” and shame, Father Andrew Greeley invited me, through the unfailing grace God extends to the characters of his novels, to again come and see, to reconnect to a faith community.  And the support and encouragement of my home congregation encouraged me to come and see, to explore God’s call at seminary.

Come and see.

We have a visitor today.  Stella Mandago will tell us about her vision for ministry.  I don’t know who invited Stella to come and see.  I do know that a missionary to her small town in Tanzania encouraged her in her dreams and her pursuit of education.  As a result of her invitation to come and see, she now seeks to “pay it forward” by working to build libraries in rural communities in Africa.  It’s a mission that meets a desperate need. 

Our missions both here and overseas, meet human needs for food, shelter, clothing, education, and medical care.  Sometimes we don’t realize that the very activities of these missions invite the recipients of that care to come and see the One behind the vision.   Jesus is met through the work of people who care with his heart.

Come and see.

Who invited you to come and see?  Was it your parents, by your baptism?  Was it a grandmother who brought you faithfully to church?  Was it the warmth and welcome you found in a community of believers?  How did the Holy Spirit work to bring you to faith?  How can the Holy Spirit work through you to bring others to come and see?

Come and see. What kind of assumptions and beliefs got in your way?  What prejudices and preconceptions keep you from asking the people in your life to ‘come and see”? Can we let go of our fear and anxiety of what other people might think of us to share the good news of God’s love through Christ for each and every person?   

Come and see.  God wants a vital living relationship with us.   God is calling “come and see and taste and hear and experience my love through Jesus to you and to everyone.  Come and follow, seek my guidance, let me comfort and encourage you.”

Come and see.  See how the Holy Spirit gathers us together, reveals the light of Christ to us through the word spoken and the water sprinkled and the wine poured. 

Come and see. God speaks “Come and see” through the gathered community.  The community lives out the vision of God’s reign here and now, in worship and in work, in service and in support, in fellowship and love. 

Come and see.  Come and see this guy we found – Jesus, the son of God, the light of the world revealed.  Come and see and experience and never be the same.  Come and see, and then go and tell everyone!

Come and see!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Baptism of the Lord: If Jesus has no sin, why was he baptized?

Readings for the day:  Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11

Why did Jesus get baptized?

           the Son of God,
           the Word Made Flesh,
           is baptized…………
                                    by John?

John’s baptism, you will remember, is for the forgiveness of sins.  John calls for repentance and confession of sins and then he would baptize you as a sign of God’s forgiveness and to show that you are part of the coming kingdom of God.

You see the problem here? 


Jesus, whom we say had no sin, is baptized for……
                                                                   the forgiveness of sins.


Why did Jesus need to be baptized at all?

All four gospel writers talk about Jesus’ baptism.  If it shows up in all four gospels, it must be important!  Mark, whose account we heard today, places the baptism front and center!  No angels singing, or shepherds in the fields for Mark.  No dreams or wise men or a king so fearful of a tiny child that he orders the massacre of Bethlehem infants.  No baby sleeping peacefully in a manger with his mother watching over him.

Mark starts off with “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”…and goes straight to a grown up Jesus on the shores of the Jordan river, beard dripping and clothing clinging to him. 

This is important stuff, Jesus’ baptism.  It’s where the good news starts, Mark tells us.  So we better take a closer look at what’s going on here.

So why DID Jesus get baptized?  If it wasn’t for the forgiveness of sins, then what was the point?

What’s going on here?

Jesus is in the crowd standing along the edge of the Jordan River.  John is passionately preaching, “Repent!  Turn from your sins!  Turn to God!” 

People are approaching John, confessing the sorry states of their lives, asking for baptism.

A woman approaches, “Do you think God will forgive me? 

A solider goes up to John, “With what I’ve done and all those times I haven’t honored God, God will still forgive” 

John listens to their confessions and their desire for forgiveness, and smiles.  “Surely God will forgive you. Now here we go, into the water.  Leave your sins behind and come up washed in God’s mercy.”

And John dunks them into the water – the muddy Jordan River.

Jesus is in this crowd.  Jesus is in the line of those going to John for baptism. 

It the last place we expect to see Jesus.  It’s unexpected that the one without sin would seek baptism for the forgiveness of sins.  It’s unexpected that one who is going to baptized with the Holy Spirit would stand there waiting to be baptized with water.  It's unexpected for the King would be in the midst of the peasants. 

And yet, where else would Jesus be?

These are the very people he came to love, to heal, to save. These are the people who are desperate for God’s love and mercy.  These are the sheep without a shepherd.

Jesus goes to the crowd, becomes ONE of the crowd, becomes one with these sinful humans, standing in the mud on the banks of the Jordan, waiting for John’s baptism.

Why did Jesus get baptized?  Because it was a way of showing how he identified with humanity.  This is indeed the beginning of good news for us – God is with us, willing to get down in the mud with us in order to lift us out of the pit.

Did John know that this one standing before him was the one John had predicted would come?  Did John know that he was baptizing the one whom he felt unworthy to untie his sandals?  Mark doesn’t tell us. 

All we know is that Jesus was baptized.

And then…

As Jesus comes up out of the water, the heavens are torn apart, not just opened – but ripped into a jagged-edged opening that cannot be closed back up or repaired.  The boundary that separates those of us on earth from God, and also keeps God at a distance from us – the heavens – the heavens are ruptured beyond repair and God is loose in the world.  It’s significant that the only other time we see this particular Greek verb used is at the end of Mark, when, at the moment of Jesus’ death, the veil that separated the Holy of Holies, the dwelling place of God in the Temple, is shredded in two. 

The heavens are ripped open and the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus, like a dove - visible proof that the Spirit of God is in Jesus.

God the Father speaks.
You are my Son,
                the Beloved;
                           with you I am well pleased.”[i] 

Jesus is named and claimed as the Son of God. 

This is why Jesus was baptized.  In his baptism, Jesus’ identity is proclaimed and his mission is blest.  God is with him, God is in him, God is…him.

And God in Jesus is standing in the midst of us, just like one of us.

That’s the point.

That’s the beginning of the good news!

Baptism changed that day from John’s baptism for the forgiveness of sins to Jesus’ baptism with the Holy Spirit.  Because Jesus stood with us that day, and received the same baptism the worst sinners did, we now come to the waters of baptism to receive the baptism Jesus gives, not only finding our sins forgiven, but discovering that we are now children of God and filled with the Holy Spirit.

And with water dripping on our forheads, we hear God say those very same words to us:  Beloved Child, I am so pleased with you!

The theologian NT Wright puts it this way: 
The whole Christian gospel could be summed up in this point:  that when the living God looks at us, at every baptized and believing Christian, he says to us what he said to Jesus on that day.  He sees us, not as we are in ourselves, but as we are in Jesus Christ.”[ii] 

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ started with his baptism, and God claiming him as God’s son, and God proclaiming God’s approval, and the heavens being torn apart, and the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove, and God, in Jesus, on the loose in our world.

It’s like that for us in our baptism as well.  God names us in the waters of baptism and claims us as child of God and tells us that we are joyously and completely loved.  The Holy Spirit enters our hearts and our lives and Jesus-God-with-us, through us, is loose in the world.

The veil is torn,
The heavens are open,
God comes down.

“You are my child.
My beloved one,
In you I am well pleased.”

[i] Mark 1:11
[ii] Mark for Everyone; N.T. Wright, Westminister John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, pg 4.