A Sabbath Identity

Our Seattle neighborhood was one of the most diverse zip codes in the country. From our front porch, you could see a Catholic church, a Buddhist Temple, a Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a mosque, and a Methodist Free Church. Just up the hill, there were several Jewish synagogues, one of which was Orthodox. And, because you have to go to Temple on the Shabbat, but you also can’t drive on the Shabbat, there were a significant number of Orthodox Jews who lived in the neighborhood. One of our best friendslives on a little private cul-de-sacabout a 1/2 mile from our house. Her house is at the top of the driveway, and down below her are three other homes, all three occupied by Orthodox Jewish families. They’re normal families. Their kids are around the same ages as our kids, and play rough and fight and are sweet and helpful, just like our kids. But on Saturday, nothing happened. On Saturday, well from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, they don’t do anything. They don’t drive, they don’t turn their lights on or off, they don’t cook or do laundry or cut the grass. These are families with kids. Lots of kids. The family that I knew best of them had 4 little kids in the house. And they still took a day off from doing laundry! They don’t even sign their name on Shabbat. My friend who lives at the top of the driveway became their Shabbat goy. That’s what you call a non-Jew who does things for you on the Shabbat that you can’t do for yourself. Like signing for a package when UPS delivers your special delivery of kosher mac-n-cheese powder. Or driving you to the hospital when your wife goes into labor.

I was always fascinated by their observance of the Shabbat. On a warm Saturday afternoon, you might see the adults sitting out on the porch step,reading, or taking a stroll with their kids. Almost invariably, all of the kids wound up at our friend Jeanne’s house, where the Shabbat observance was not enforced, and they could play however they wanted.

And I’ll admit. I was jealous of their Shabbat. That’s probably some kind of special level of sin, coveting another’s Sabbath day. But how often do any of us observe a true Sabbath? One that involves simply being not doing? One that makes space for God’s presence and voice, not just for an hour on Sunday, glancing at the clock when it creeps over. But for 24 hours, from sundown to sundown. It’s just not something that our culture makes room for, not anymore.

Our final cultural Sabbath was Thanksgiving Day. The one day a year when no one worked, no one shopped, no one but the most essential personnel left their homes. Everyone rested. Yes, they cooked, and probably cleaned, and certainly consumed, and most likely argued, but this was our last bastion of Sabbath rest. And now it is the prelude to Christmas plunder, and more and more people are being forced to work on Thanksgiving so that more and more people can stop giving thanks for what they have and start finding deals on what they want.

And yet, if anyone asked you what you want more than anything, I bet that “rest” would be a top answer, if not the top. If anyone asked me what I want most of all, I know that would be my answer. Rest, down time, peace, some time to catch up with myself. Some time to catch up with God. We don’t want to be told that we have to take some rest, but we desperately want to be told to go ahead and take some rest.

Imagine that you are a Hebrew slave, born in Egypt. All your life, Pharaoh has been your lord, and you have had to work for him without ceasing. Every day from sunup to sundown, you have either made bricks, or built temples, or toiled in the fields, or served at the tables of Egyptian masters. Every. Day.

And then, one day, you are set free, and you cross the desert, and you come to foot of this mountain, where you are told, “Pharaoh is no longer your Lord. Now, I AM the Lord your God. You will have no other Lords.” In other words, you will not be slaves to anyone, ever again.

“From now on, you will remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Every week, without fail, you will cease working for one day, resting and renewing your life in God, remembering what gives life and what brings freedom.”

And you, former slave, would probably think, “Have to? You mean get to! I get to take a day off every week! I get to worship my God, not Pharaoh! I get to spend the day doing the things that renew me,like studying Scripture, or taking walks with my kids!”

But a few generations later, your grandkids have forgotten what it was like to be slaves. For them, the Sabbath day has always been the boring day of the week when you don’t do anything, and no one will turn on the Nintendo Wii for you, and you can’t even use a crayon. And the only way that the Sabbath will be observed is if it is required. If there are rules. And consequences. And so the Sabbath becomes all about the rules.

And that’s where Jesus is. The Pharisees are all about rules. And with good reason. They weren’t just a bunch of uptight squares. The land of Israel has been invaded more times that can be counted, and the people have been exiled, and their identity, their very existence as a people, has been threatened. And for Jews, their identity is tied up in the covenants,and the signs of the covenants. How do you know God spoke to Noah?Because of the rainbow.How do you know you’re a child of Abraham? Because you are circumcised. How do you know you’re an Israelite? Because you keep the Sabbath.

The Sabbath is a sign of the covenant, and to keep the Sabbath is a sign that you have no God but Yahweh, that you have been freed, that you are not a slave of anyone.

And it’s not just Jews who know this. The book of 1 Maccabees reports that just a few generations before Jesus, the Seleucid empire took over Judea, and forced the Jewish people to profane the Sabbath. In other words, they were forbidden to keep the Sabbath. Their identity as free people of God was taken from them.

The Pharisees knew this history. Their grandfathers had lived it. And they believed that, more than anything else, the best way to survive their current occupation under the Roman empire, was to keep God’s law, as strictly as possible. To follow the rules. To assert their identity as God’s people, by keeping the covenant; by keeping the Sabbath.

But there is a difference between keeping the rules for the sake of the rules, and keeping the rules because they point toward life. The rules, God’s law, was given as a gift. It was given to teach the people, to teach us, how to live in freedom. A people who has been in slavery, whether literal slavery, or some other kind of bondage, need help, they need rules to help them figure out how to be free. But we humans have a tendency to take rules too far. We tend to place the rules in the position of authority. We forget that the rules were intended to point to God, to free us for God’s service, to remind us that we are to love only God, to fear only God.

Martin Luther explains each one of the 10 Commandments by reminding us that “we are to fear and love God,” and only God. Because we always wind up fearing and loving other things. We love power, money, security, comfort, approval. We fear death, pain, rejection, obscurity, deprivation.

And fearing and loving these things, we forget who we are. We forget whose we are. And our rules begin to point to our fears and our loves.

We observe the Sabbath to prove to others that we are more righteous than they are.

We keep the commandments because we fear punishment.

We judge others for their keeping or not keeping the Sabbath, and somehow, eventually, the rules become our gods, because we fear and love them more than we fear and love God who gave them.

There was a saying among the rabbis of Jesus’ time, that if all Jews would perfectly keep two consecutive Sabbaths, the Messiah would come. In other words, if the people would get the rules right, then God would send salvation. And yet here is Jesus, the Messiah, right in front of them. And he breaks two consecutive Sabbaths, first by plucking grain on the Sabbath, and then by healing on the Sabbath. And the Pharisees are so blinded by the rules,that they cannot see that salvation is standing right in front of them. That it’s not about the rules. It’s about what the rules point to, it’s about God, who loves us exactly as we are,even before the rules are given, and even after the rules are broken.

It’s about the life that God gives, and the life that God renews, and the freedom that God restores.

Because in Christ, you have been given freedom, not so that you can set that up again as another rule, not so that you can turn Christ into another law, another rule for judging others or yourself. But for freedom’s sake. Simply because freedom is the identity that God wants for you. Freedom is your promised and preferred future. A promise to be lived, not a rule to be followed.

The Fierce Urgency of Now – Reflections on MLK

I was not raised a Christian, and the last thing that I ever imagined myself doing for a career, was being a Christian pastor. I was brought up in a secular humanist home, and raised with the ideals of equality and justice as the guiding principles of our family. One of the main reasons that my family was not a church-going family, was because of my father. He was born in 1945, in Prattville, Al., just 12 miles north of Montgomery. He turned 10 in October of 1955, 2 months after the death of Emmett Till, and 2 months before Rosa Parks refused to submit to the indignity of giving up her seat on the bus. I do not know the full story of how that year of the Montgomery bus boycott affected my father, but I do know this: one of the reasons that he and I never went to church, was because in his mind, the church that he was raised in had been complicit in the racism, the segregation, the hatred, and the violence that he was surrounded with as a child. God, he knew, somehow instinctively, God did not condone this behavior. But the church did. And he was not interested in buying what they were selling.

In 1977, my parents divorced, and my mother, who is from North Carolina, moved back South. My father and I stayed in the Washington, D.C. area, where he worked for the federal government. That year, he made about $6000. He could not possibly afford to stay in our home in a modest working class white neighborhood of Alexandria, VA. We moved. With the help of government subsidies and urban renewal programs, he bought a small townhome in the predominately African-American Del Rey neighborhood of Alexandria. He didn’t move there to make a statement. He didn’t move there to make trouble. He moved there because it was affordable, and it was close to where he worked, so he could be home quickly if I needed him.

Even if you are unfamiliar with Alexandria, VA, you probably know the film Remember the Titans, with Denzel Washington. That was my high school. In fact, the main character, Herman Boone, was my 9th grade gym teacher, though unfortunately he did not look anything like Denzel Washington. If he had, I might have liked gym class a whole lot better. In any case, I started 2nd grade, just 5 or 6 years after desegregation, at an elementary school that was 75% black. We had assemblies with speakers like Kim Fields (you remember Tootie?) – she was only 2 years older than us, and she rollerskated down the aisle of the auditorium! And when Jesse Jackson came to give his “I Am Somebody” speech, it was like a church revival!

All of this background is to say, that I was blissfully ignorant of racial tensions for the first many years of my life. I lived in an integrated neighborhood, had friends of many races, including Latino and Asian immigrants who went to my school. When I saw the Schoolhouse Rock cartoon about the Great American Melting Pot, I thought it was true. America was a melting pot, and it was possible that we could all get along, no matter what our background.

Then one day, I was walking to the store a couple blocks over to get something for my dad, I don’t remember what, and I passed one of the neighborhood girls. She was a few years older than me, but we had played together, especially when we were younger. Her grandmother lived next door to us, and used to babysit me sometimes. This day, she was outside with a friend of hers, they were probably in 8th grade, I was in maybe 5th, and I smiled at her, and called her by name, and said hi. And she said, “What are you looking at, white girl?” I was confused. Maybe I had done something to upset her? When I got home, I told my dad about it, and he gave me “the talk.” He explained to me what I had never understood before, that race means something, not because it really means something, but because we, our society, has decided it does. And he taught me how to be careful, and how to be kind, and how to be compassionate. And most of all, he taught me that I could never know another person’s story until I asked, and that everyone, no matter what they look like, deserves the chance to tell it.

Not everyone in the room probably knows about “the talk.” Or when they hear that phrase, they only think of the birds and the bees. But the fact is that most black folks have “the talk” with their kids at some point in their lives, often way too young. Because an African-American parent, in addition to keeping their kids fed and healthy and loved and educated, also has to keep their kids safe. And part of keeping their kids safe is having “the talk.” Explaining to them that, because of the color of their skin, the world is not as easy to navigate as it is for their white friends. Explaining to them that what they wear and how they talk matters more to their safety than it does for a white kid their age. Teaching them how to avert their eyes, how to make themselves look smaller and meeker, not to wear hoodies, where to drive. A parent of an African-American child, especially of an African-American son, has to teach them somehow that, while they are a wonderful, strong, beautiful person with incredible gifts to offer to the world, the world will not see them that way, simply because of the color of their skin. It is not a conversation that anyone wants to have. It is really not a conversation that anyone should have to have. But I think it is time for it to become a conversation that we all have. Every one of us.

Because all of us need to start naming the racism in our culture, placing it in the spotlight, and letting it be known. White, black, latino, asian, all of us. We need to have this talk with our kids, with our parents, with our cousins and aunts and uncles, with our friends and our neighbors. We need to have this talk in our schools, in our churches, in our town halls. We need to have this talk in the media and around our dinner tables. To ignore it, to pretend it doesn’t exist, to let others teach our children about racism, is the same thing as saying that it is okay with us, that we don’t mind the way things are, or that we have already been defeated by it. We need to share the responsibility, name the evil, and teach our children peace.

And we have the gift of Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy as a starting point. We have his writings, like the Letter from Birmingham Jail. We have his speeches, like the I Have a Dream speech. And we have his life, lived out of love, lived toward freedom. And I have spent time over the years studying and listening to them all. I have listened because in my 75% black elementary school, 100% of the students in the gifted program came from white families; because my daughter’s godmother gets ignored at the counter in jewelry stores; because my best friend since I was 5 had a black son this year. I have listened because I am a preacher, and I want to learn how to preach; because I am a Christian, and I need to be preached to; because I am a leader, and I want to learn how to lead toward the Beloved Community. I have listened because I am a white woman in a white world and I want to learn how to be change; because the dream has not yet come true; because I am a mother. And I have begun to have “the talk.”

What I want for my children is that they learn these dreams.

What I want for my community is that we dream these dreams.

What I want for my church is that we speak these dreams.

What I want for my nation is that we live these dreams.

And so I turn to Dr. King once again, and I find that he has shown us the way. He led by example, and taught us how to have this conversation, how to have the talk together.

First of all, be kind. Speak of the wrongs that you see, name them, bring them into the light, examine them, and call them wrong. But don’t badmouth those who do them. Have compassion for them, because they are victims, too. They are victims of hatred and of fear, and you can love them because they, too, are God’s children. Martin Luther, for whom Dr. King was named, wrote that “Thou shalt not bear false witness” means that we do not lie about, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain his actions in the best possible way.” Luther would have been proud of his namesake.

When I was in seminary, I met a woman who worked with Dr. King in the early 1960s. She told of a meeting where they trying to figure out how to win Robert Kennedy’s support. As they talked, she said, the meeting became a Kennedy bashing session. Finally, Dr. King stood up and told the room, “This meeting is over until you can give me a list of Kennedy’s good qualities.” And he left. He would not stand for slander or defamation, even if they were true. What he wanted to focus on was the other person’s humanity, their positive qualities. He knew what it was like to be dehumanized. He knew that the spirit of the racist is held captive, that hatred of others eats away at one’s humanity. He knew that when you demonize, you become a demon; when you victimize, you become a victim; when you allow hate to guide you, you lose sight of love, and bit by bit, your soul is torn apart. He would not have it. He would not speak it himself, and he would not be a party to it in others. “Come back when you can give me a list of his good qualities.”

Secondly, fear is the tool of the enemy.

Throughout the Scriptures, we hear stories of people placing fear above love – for fear of the desert, the Israelites were ready to go back to Egypt; for fear of losing his wealth, the rich young ruler walked away from Jesus; for fear of the Emperor, Pilate handed Jesus over to be crucified. But Jesus did not allow his own fear to rule him. Though he was afraid, though he prayed until he bled, begging God to take this cup from him, still he went to the cross, for love. It was love that led him to Jerusalem, love that led him to the cross, and love the broke through the bonds of death on Easter morning. And love is what needs to guide our conversation. Love that is the ground of forgiveness, the root of reconciliation, the heart of the coming kin-dom.

Finally, for those of us who are people of faith, while we root this conversation, this talk, in our faith, we do not need to use our faith as a weapon. This is not a time to evangelize, at least not in the common sense of the word. Instead, this is a moment to demonstrate to others what we know we have received, love, acceptance, forgiveness, acceptance. Like Dr. King, our language may be the language of Scripture. After all, every speech he ever gave was grounded in Scripture, whether he was speaking in a church or in a public square. And yet, it was done so gently, so kindly, and so beautifully, that as a non-Christian, I never knew it. All those years growing up, all those times that I heard him speak, and I never once felt like he had beat me over the head with the Word of God. Believe me, I have heard plenty of other preachers who preach from Scripture, and when you walked away, you thought that you had been bludgeoned by a Bible. But for Dr. King, the Word of God was a part of the way he thought, the way he spoke, the way he lived. It was infused into his work the way that the scent of magnolia infuses the air in early summer. So that, when I was 28, sitting in church on Pentecost, it was his words that I heard ringing in my ears as I heard the words of Scripture, “your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” And it was as if he had wrapped up a gift for me, and delivered it to my doorstep. It was a gift of grace, in which he made the words of faith come suddenly alive. It invited me into faith in a way that few preachers ever have. Over thirty years after his death.

It is a gift that we can share with others as we use the language of faith to shine a light on racism and hatred.

Finally, while there are certainly many other things that we can take from the legacy of Dr. King into our national conversation, I want to reassert “the fierce urgency of now.”

4 years ago today, I stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and I had “the talk” with my daughter. She was almost 7 at the time. We had traveled to DC to attend the first inauguration of an African-American President. And she, who still to this day describes new friends and acquaintances simply by skin tone and hair texture, not by ancestral homeland or racial categories, she wanted to know why we had driven 20 hours in the freezing cold, and why we were standing out there with all those people, and why we were crying with joy and hugging strangers. And I had to explain to her the horror of human sin, the history of human failing, the brokenness of the world. It was one of the saddest moments of my life. And it is even harder to tell her that this struggle is not over. That we still have so far to go, that we still have not achieved the dream that Dr. King shared on those steps. That the fierce urgency of now has not diminished with time. That we are still a divided society, and that we still demonize and dehumanize one another in the name of fear, in the name of power, in the name of economic gain, and God forgive us, in the name of God’s own self. That we are still so busy justifying ourselves that we fail to testify to love. That we still, to use Dr. King’s words, drink from “the cup of bitterness and hatred” rather than standing on “the high plane of dignity & discipline.”

We are a society that is divided, by color, by class, by ideology, by religion. We are divided by lines we can see, and by lines that we cannot see. But these divisions are of our own making, and they can be unmade. These chains have been forged by human hands, and can be broken. Following in the footsteps of Dr. King, we can learn from the mistakes of the past, and recognize the possibilities of God’s promised and preferred future. Through our words and actions, through our conversations and relationships, we can embrace the fierce urgency of now; seek the good in our neighbors and in our adversaries; find the human face of love in even the most twisted face of hate; and teach our children to speak out of the power that they have inherited, out of the pages of justice and freedom found in their own faith traditions. We need to have the conversations; the talks that scare us and make us cringe and shrink, because that is the only way to overcome our fear, to bring light into dark places. It is our responsibility and our privilege, it is the gift that has been given to us, we Christians believe, by a savior who would give his life for the world, but it is not the domain of Christians alone. It was that gift that gave Martin Luther King, Jr., the strength and the courage to begin a conversation that had only ever been had in fear and hatred.

It is a gift that he shared with us, the dream that he dreamed for us: to let love drive out hate, speaking truth to power, clearly and proudly, knowing that we can overcome fear, hatred, and all darkness, knowing that we shall overcome.


Of Fishermen and Nets

On Friday, I was sitting at my desk, getting ready to write this sermon, kind of waiting for inspiration to strike, and I noticed this picture. It was on my desk because Harlan Kuddes had used the back of it to make me a “clean desk” award a couple years ago, not long after I started here. It was a sarcastic “clean desk” award. Anyway, the picture was face up, and if you can’t see it, I’ll describe it for you: it has a picture of a man standing in the shallows of a lake, throwing a large net out into the water. It is captioned with the words of Jesus from Matthew’s version of this same story that we heard from Luke today. “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

And I realized that those are the words that I know best from this story, the words that I assume Jesus will say at the end of this passage. But let’s look at Luke’s version again, because Jesus never says that sentence in Luke. Luke’s story is different.

First of all, in Matthew’s story, Jesus meets Peter and his brother on the shore, casting a net into the sea. Just like this guy in the picture. But in the story that we heard today, Jesus was by the Lake of Gennesaret, another name for the Sea of Galilee, and he saw Simon Peter and some others on the shore, but they were not fishing, they were washing their nets. They were at the end of their workday. Or rather the end of their work night, a frustrating night in which they had caught nothing. They were probably looking forward to a meal and a sleep, but they had some work to do first, cleaning and mending the nets so that they would be ready for the next night’s work.  In any case, Jesus decides that he needs the boat for a pulpit, and he asks Simon Peter to take him out a little ways from the shore, so he can preach to the crowds gathered there. Simon obliges him, maybe because just a few verses ago, in Capernaum, Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law from a fever. After a little while, Jesus tells Simon to take the boat out further and lower the nets.

Where in Matthew, the fishermen are fishing in the day, on the shore, Luke’s fishermen fish at night, from a boat. Fishermen in those days would use handmade nets, not the clear nylon nets of today, and they would fish at night, so that the fish could not see the nets in the water. And now Jesus is telling them to do what they know is ridiculous – to lower their nets in the daylight, when the fish will obviously see them. But they do it anyway, maybe just to humor him, maybe to prove to him that he’s nuts. But what happens surprises everyone.

Scares everyone.

The nets become so full that one boat cannot hold it all, and they have to signal a second boat to come help, and there are so many fish that both boats are not enough, and they are threatening to sink under the weight of it all. They are in the deepest part of the Sea of Galilee, which is way out away from the shore, probably about a mile or so out. So a sinking boat is no joke.

And you’d think that this is exactly the moment when you want a Messiah in your boat, like when the storm came up, or when the mother-in-law was sick. But that’s not Simon Peter’s reaction. Instead of turning to Jesus and clinging to him, instead of asking Jesus for more help, or for a quick wind to bring them back to shore, or any other kind of salvation, what Simon blurts out instead is a confession and a refusal. “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

All in one sentence, Peter both proclaims Jesus as Lord, and rejects him, as well as acknowledging his own sinfulness. What a strange response this seems from one who will become the head of the church, the rock on whom the church is built!

Strange, perhaps, but understandable, too.

How else do you respond to standing in the brilliance of God, in the presence of the Holy, in the light of the divine. You are both uplifted, and cast down at the same time. On the one hand, you can see what is real and true and wonderful, and you can see that it is possible to meet God, and to know God, and you realize that God has come into the world, and is right there with you in not just your joys and celebrations, not just your trials and sorrows, but in your daily work, in the moments of ordinary life, of mundane everyday things, and it is wonderful to realize that, and it is a blessing to receive that presence. And then, at the same time, your mundane everyday things look so much more mundane, so much less wonderful, so much less interesting than they did before, as they stand in the light of so much beauty and brilliance and divinity. It’s like standing next to a supermodel in all her airbrushed, touched up, photo-shopped ideal perfection. And an ordinary beauty, even the supermodel herself in real life, looks plain. It’s not a great analogy. A supermodel is not divinity incarnate. But you get the idea.

The point is, when faced with the reality of God in the flesh, the wonder of God come into the world, it is overwhelming, and no wonder Peter is inclined to shrink away, and throw himself on the ground, and say, “I’m not worthy!”

And what does Jesus say to this?

Does he say, “You’re right. Shape up.” Or “I’ll make you worthy” or “You’re forgiven”


He doesn’t say any of these things. He doesn’t even say, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

Instead he says, “Do not be afraid. From now on, you will be catching people.”

Jesus response to Peter’s fear and rejection and failing is to take Peter right where he is. He responds to Peter’s trembling and confessing and brokenness, not by telling him to change, not by telling him to repent, not by telling him to do anything. But by giving. By giving him a gift and a promise. Jesus does not tell Peter that his sinfulness is forgiven, so much as he tells him that his brokenness is useful.

That he, Peter, is exactly what the world needs.

He calls Simon Peter exactly as he is, and he tells him what his purpose is. Simon is not going to be the fisher of men. He is going to be the net.

I think that’s why I like Luke’s version better than Matthew’s. Because I don’t like to fish. I have been fishing exactly once in my life, right after the eye of Hurricane David had passed through Washington, D.C., so I must have been about 8 years old. It was not a good experience. I remember two things about it. One, it was incredibly boring, right up until, two, I got a hook stuck under and through my fingernail. And we didn’t catch anything. I don’t want to be a fisherman.

Besides, I think I’m too broken and too lost myself. I’m like Peter. I know that it is sometimes hard enough for me to get up in the morning and get through the day, without thinking that I have to catch anyone else for Jesus. As Luther reminds us in the Small Catechism, “I cannot by my own strength or understanding believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to him.” I can’t even make my own self believe for more than a few minutes at a time, how can I be responsible for anyone else’s faith journey? How can I be responsible for anyone else’s belief?

But in this story of Luke’s, that is not what Simon is called to; and that is not what I am called to. I am not called to be the one in charge, the fisherman casting the Jesus net over the world. Instead, I am called to be the net, in fact I am promised that I will be the net – “from now on, you will be catching people.” Jesus is the fisherman, casting me into the world. And remember those fishermen on the shore, taking care of their nets, the nets that they themselves made? That’s Jesus, the Son of our Creator, working to clean and mend the nets as he goes, as a good fisherman does. Working with me as I am, cleansing me, mending me, and casting me out into the world, to embrace it as best I can, to love it as he has taught me, to hold onto others, and serve others, and bring what I can to my work, as each day, Jesus calls me to rise again in newness of life, to try again to live as if this promise were true, as if this purpose were mine.

We the church are not fishers. We are the net.

One of our members spoke at a meeting earlier this week about how sometimes she feels disconnected, and she just tries to hold on as best she can. How she feels like she’s in the deep water. And I thought of this passage. There are people here, people in our communities, our workplaces, our families, who are swimming in deep waters. They are drowning, they are disconnected, they are afraid, they are lost, and they cannot figure out how to swim to the surface. What they need is a net. They don’t need someone to tell them how to swim. They don’t need someone to point toward the surface. They don’t need someone to explain to them that if they would only do or be or believe differently, they could float. What they need is a net. What they need is someone or something that will cling to them, and embrace them, and surround them with love, as Jesus pulls them up. That is what we are called to be. We are called, in all of our brokenness, our sinfulness, our not-quite-getting-it-right-ness, we are called to be the net, created by God, mended and tended daily by Jesus, gathering the world up out of the deep waters, to meet Jesus, the God who has come into the world, the light shining in the deep waters.

The Year of the Lord’s Favor

As I was reading this week’s story about Jesus returning to his home synagogue to preach, I was reminded of something they told us at seminary. They said that at seminary you are going to learn a whole bunch of fancy terms, Greek translations, Hebrew words, names of Church Fathers and theologians and philosophers from Aristotle to Augustine, from Anslem to Abelard. (Why do they all start with A?) You will learn all of it, and then you will want to use it when you preach. And what they said at seminary was, use it. Once. Use it the first sermon you preach when you go home to your home congregation. Prove to them that you have received the great education that they sent you to get, prove to them that their investment in you was worth it. And then never drop another name again. Do not, under any circumstances, try to preach any other sermon in your life, on the topic of the metaphysical juxtaposition of ontology and anthropology in the writings of Athanasius (another A).

And as I thought about this advice, it occurred to me. Things have changed. Things have changed a lot since that advice was first handed out. Because first of all, the professors who were giving this advice were clearly thinking of a time when my home congregation had the money to pay for seminary education in the first place, as theirs likely did when they went to seminary. And because second of all, this advice originated in a time when seminary students were sent from their home congregations, so that they could come back and serve their home congregations. Clearly, things have changed.

Jesus shows up in his hometown, in Nazareth, and the first thing he does is to go to the synagogue on the Sabbath day to preach. I imagine the people there are fairly excited, like the people in a seminarian’s home congregation on their first visit back from school. This is a kid that they have known since he was a child. Jesus is 30 years old now, and he’s beginning to get a little notoriety. The people of his hometown are glad to welcome him back, the hometown boy done good. They won’t mind if he sprinkles some fancy words and drops a few names in his sermon. Heck, it’ll reflect well on them that they’ve got such a big-shot affiliated with their town. And if he keeps on growing in wisdom and in years, in divine and human favor, the way that Luke says, then, hey, the people of Nazareth stand to benefit! He doesn’t even need to read from the scroll, he doesn’t even need really to speak. All he has to do is show up, demonstrate that Nazareth is still his hometown, demonstrate that these are his people, and they’ll be happy. Because if it turns out that this guy is the Messiah, Nazareth is bound to get the best of the Messiah’s reign. Maybe he’ll set up court here, bring in money, jobs, new sources of wealth, not to mention the favor of God! No wonder the people are thrilled when he picks up the scroll of Isaiah, and reads this very passage, from Isaiah 61.

It is a passage that we heard just a few weeks ago. In fact, all of the stories that Jesus refers to in this passage are stories that we have heard over the last few months, as we have worked our way through the Narrative Lectionary. It certainly helps to have these stories fresh in our minds as we listen today. As Jesus reads this passage from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he stops there.

And the people are riveted. This is exactly what they had been waiting to hear! The year of the Lord’s favor! That’s what Nazareth has been longing for, waiting for, yearning for, ever since the Romans came, ever since the Babylonians came, ever since the Assyrians came, hundreds if not thousands of years of longing for a year of favor!

Because let’s face it, it is a hard-knocked life in Nazareth. The town sits above the Sea of Galilee, on the top of a very steep cliff, where it’s easier to defend. Below Nazareth stretches the Jordan valley, which turns from lush green to scrub desert within a matter of miles, dropping quickly down to the harsh salt flats of the Dead Sea. In a good year, there is plenty, but it does not take much to upset the delicate balance, and shift the desert northward, to put the tang of salt in your nostrils and the taste of dust on your tongue. Add to that invasion after invasion, out here at the edge of civilization. From the top of that cliff today, you can see the Golan Heights. In Jesus’ day you would have seen the hills of Nineveh, the mountains of Babylon, the lands of the Philistines, of Zarepheth of Sidon. In other words, then as now, you could see the invaders coming from all sides, and you knew before even the people of Jerusalem that war was upon you, and that no one was coming to your aid. Nazareth was, is, a hard place to live.

So when Jesus proclaims the words of Isaiah, “the year of the Lord’s favor,” and then sits there and tells their eager, excited faces, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” these people are thinking, “finally! Some justice for us! some relief for us! some favor. For us!” And they forget the rest of the story, the stories of Elijah and the widow of Zarapheth, and of Elisha and the leper Naaman.

So Jesus reminds them. The bad news of the good news.
Good news: this is the year of our Lord’s favor.
Bad news: it’s not just for you.

Jesus is bringing the change that Isaiah spoke of, turning the world upside down, as Hannah and Zechariah and Mary sang. But that change doesn’t just affect those who know Jesus intimately, it doesn’t just affect those who raised him, those who changed his nappies, those who sent him off to seminary. The change that Jesus brings,It’s not just for those who have accepted him as their personal savior. It’s not just for those who show up in church every Sunday. It’s not just for those of us who think we have this God-business figured out.

It is change for the whole world.

And for the people of Nazareth, and maybe for us, that feels like bad news. Because those are the bad guys. Those are the invaders, the ones who have made them suffer. If the good news comes to our enemies, too, is it really good news? If I have to share God’s favor with everyone, if I don’t get to choose whom God rewards, and whom God punishes, do I want God’s favor? The people of Nazareth answer honestly, if nothing else.

They don’t want it.

Jesus has reminded them of what they already know, really. God is not only the God of Nazareth. God is not only the God of Galilee. God is not even only the God of Israel. God is the God of all nations, and this good news is not going to be contained. This good news is not going to be used to lift one up over the other. This good news is not going to draw lines, to reinforce boundaries, to separate people from one another because of class or race or gender or age or disability or sexuality or denomination or religion or any other thing that we care to come up with.

This good news is going to tear down all those walls and cross all those lines and break all those boundaries, and it is going to scare the Bejeezus out of us. That’s what it did to the people of Nazareth, it scared them and it made them angry, so angry that they were blinded by fear, blinded by rage, ready to throw their own kin, this kid whose nappies they changed, right off the top of that cliff. So blinded by their fear and their rage that they could not even see Jesus moving through the midst of them, as he walked away.

Change is scary. There’s no question. The world has changed. The Church has changed. The culture has changed. Our community has changed. Our families have changed. You’ve changed. I’ve changed. Change happens. And we can lament and mourn about that change. We can be scared and angry, that’s fine. But the last thing we should do is to get so scared, so blind with rage, that we forget the most important thing.That Jesus is right here in our midst. And that has not changed.

And that today, today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in our hearing. Yes, things are changing, and you may not like the way they look afterwards. You may find yourself sitting next to a widow from Zarapheth, or an Assyrian leper; You may discover that God’s table includes those you would never expect, maybe even those you never wanted to find there. Catholics, Baptists, or, dare I suggest it, Buddhists. You may find that God’s table is far bigger than you had ever imagined, and that you are not entirely comfortable with the other people you find there, and you would rather pick and choose who gets to sit at this table.

But that is exactly the point. God’s table is huge, and that has never changed. God’s table includes all, and that has never changed. God’s table is rooted in the love of God for you.And that has never changed.

What has changed is our perception of that table. What has changed is our ability to see that table. And change is scary. But the most important thing that Jesus told the people of Nazareth, though they were too afraid to hear it, too angry to see it; the most important thing that he tells us, if we have ears to hear; the most important thing is that God is here. God is here, among you, working in and through this change. God has chosen to become one of you, to walk among you, to be in your midst, to walk through this changing world, and to walk with you as you change, too. When you look past your fear and your rage, you will see that God is here. And when you can see that, the change is not so scary. It might even be a blessing. It might even be the year of the Lord’s favor.