We are an incredibly mobile society. The Census Bureau estimates that the average American will move about 14 times in a lifetime—a figure I personally am just one dwelling shy of reaching. My time in the places I’ve lived reads like a reverse bell curve. The first seventeen of my life were spent in the apartment over my parents’ liquor store, the home of my childhood. After that, there are about sixteen years of almost continuous movement. I went away to college and lived in a different room or apartment each year for four years. After graduation I lived in apartments that lasted, in order, one year, six months, 2-1/2 years, and one year. As a young mother I lived in a house for three years, then, upon moving to the B. area, another apartment for four years. Finally, in 1994 I moved into my home on My Avenue, a place I have lived for almost 17 years, the home I hope to stay in for many years to come.
According to the Census Bureau, I am fairly typical. This is the way for Americans, ever since the Second World War seemed to give permission for individuals and families to move in search of greener pastures and better jobs. By way of contrast, the average Canadian citizen moves ten times in a lifetime, the average Brit, five times, and the average Japanese citizen, just four moves over the course of a life.
Of course, if 14 moves is the American average, that means there are many people who move less than that as well as many who move even more. About 40 million Americans move once or more each year, and most of those moves are related to job losses or changes. The most geographically stable Americans, the ones who move the least, are working class individuals and families with good, salable skills and union affiliations. But for the most part, we Americans are very much on the move.
Jesus, too, is on the move, from the very beginning of the gospel of Matthew. As a small child he is forced to move by the contract King Herod has put out on him. Like Moses, he finds himself sojourning in Egypt, where he remains until his parents discern, with the help of a dream, that it is safe to return to Galilee. However, there is still enough danger in Bethlehem that they choose to settle in Nazareth instead, where Jesus is raised to adulthood and learns a trade. Finally, when the moment is right, Jesus goes out to the Jordan to be commissioned for his work by both John the Baptist and God. Perhaps by our 21st century American standards, this is not a lot of movement. For a Palestinian Jew of the first century, though, Jesus is most decidedly on the move.
Our gospel lesson this morning begins with the information that John has been arrested. This is alarming news for those of us following Jesus’ life story thus far. Remember, just a couple of weeks ago, Jesus was baptized by John. That means, in terms of the world of Jewish rabbis, that Jesus became a follower of John. Jesus took on John’s yoke. Now, with reference to farm life and animal husbandry, a yoke is a wooden beam designed to sit across the necks of animals, often oxen, to allow them to pull a load. In terms of the tradition of rabbis and their students, teachers of the law and those who sought to be like them, the yoke was the particular teaching of the rabbi. The student usually prepared to take on the yoke by years of study—even today most students in modern Yeshivas memorize the entirety of the Hebrew Bible, and that’s just the beginning of their study. The sheer enormity of the task helps to make sense of the use of that term “yoke.” Jesus has taken on John’s yoke. But now John has been arrested. It stands to reason that John’s followers are in danger. And so once again, Jesus is on the move.
Jesus makes Capernaum his home base, the region of Zebulun and Naphtali, the prophecy tells us, home to the Gentiles. And we have to pay attention to something Matthew has been hammering home since the very beginning of this gospel: Jesus is making his “home,” such as it is, among outsiders. All Jesus’ wandering, all his travel to and from Egypt, the visit of the Magi, those Gentile star-gazers—an image begins to develop here of someone who is not interested in settling down where it is easy or comfortable. An image comes into focus of someone who is not only on the move, but who is taking his stand with those outside the comfort of his immediate community, as well as those who are under the thumb of the Roman Empire.
Case in point: these fishermen. It’s easy to have an image of the lives of Peter and Andrew and John and James before Jesus comes along—a rustic, homey image of men doing good honest labor in the bosom of their families. And while that all may be true, something else is going on here as well, something about the Roman Empire and its habit of squeezing every drop of lifeblood out of the peasant classes. Did you know that, in the ancient world, fishing was under the control of the empire and its surrogates? These men did not work for themselves. They were employees, either of the royal family or wealthy landlords. They were paid either with cash or with fish after they turned over their catch to their employers. And before they could even drop a net into the sea of Galilee, fishermen paid a tax in order to be permitted to fish—a tax on their catch of as much as 40%. As one of my favorite bible commentators says, “…Jesus calling fishermen is more than just calling them away from their families. It also involves a break from the ‘powers that be’—the wealthy and or the government—and into a new power: the reign of heaven.”
In the aftermath of John’s arrest, Jesus does not do the safe thing. Quite the opposite. Jesus does the risky thing. He tweaks the powers-that-be by disrupting the food-supply chain in this small way, by calling these four men to come and follow.
Jesus is not interested in doing the safe thing. He is not interested in doing the comfortable thing. He is not interested in doing whatever he’s doing in a familiar hometown. He is on the move with something far more compelling: that yoke, that teaching he picked up from John the Baptist. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
We hear the word, “repent,” and I imagine we all have strong associations with it. Personally, I have a mental image of a street preacher I saw once in Times Square, and he was everything you’d imagine—a disheveled fellow with a kind of crazed look in his eyes. A yeller. He attracted more catcalls than disciples. And I think that has to do with what he seemed to mean by “repent.” It seemed to have something to do with trying to convince all those thousands of people who were hurrying by to get theater tickets or to find the Hard Rock Café or the M & M store that they were bad. His message seemed to be, Repent, because you are not a good person.
That’s not really true to the original meaning of the word, though. “Repent” translates a Greek word, metanoia, that means, simply, turn around. Turn around, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. Turn around, I have something amazing to show you. Turn around, the neat stuff is over here. Turn around, don’t you want to have a look at this? Turn around.
Jesus and John both want to show people the kingdom of heaven. And we learn, by the end of the passage, just what the kingdom of heaven looks like. We learn, because Jesus shows us—he lives out the kingdom right in front of us. We read, “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people” (Matthew 4:23). This is what the kingdom of heaven looks like, and it has four components.
The kingdom of heaven involves teaching. Jesus goes into the synagogues of Galilee to teach about the kingdom of heaven.
The kingdom of heaven involves proclaiming the good news—it’s near! It’s here!
The kingdom of heaven involves healing—every disease and sickness, Matthew tells us.
That makes three components. The fourth? Movement. Jesus is on the move. He is going throughout Galilee to teach and proclaim and heal. He is not sitting in one place. He is not waiting for the people to hear about him from their neighbors—though, boy, by the end of our passage, his fame is spreading. But that is only happening because Jesus and his friends and followers are out and about, among the people, talking to them, listening to them, and taking their pain and their problems seriously.
I can’t help believing there is something very important for us here, for our ministry as a church. And that something is this: to be followers of Jesus, to have opportunities to say to people, “Hey, turn around and look at this!”, we have to get up and get out and be on the move. It is not enough to say, “We have this great church and this wonderful ministry, and it would be so great if people came and joined us.” All of which, by the way, is absolutely true—we do have a great church filled with great people and a great ministry. But if Jesus is our model, if we take seriously that his call to us is “ Follow me,” then I think one of the places we have to follow him is out the doors of our sanctuary and into the community. That is not to say that we don’t want to engage in a ministry of teaching and proclamation and healing right here. Of course we do. But my guess is that if Jesus were to walk the streets of OurTown looking for the least and the lost, we wouldn’t find him here. We would find him where people are hurting… maybe the hospital or the nursing home, maybe the dive bars, maybe at the Women's Shelter, maybe at our own table over coffee. But wherever Jesus would be, that is where we are called to be, too.
Theologian Henri Nouwen said, “When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand.” That is our call, to be the person who is willing to share in another’s pain. And that is something we can do anywhere, and when we are doing it we are showing what the kingdom of heaven looks like. Jesus is on the move, sharing the kingdom of heaven. The question is, are we on the move with him? May it be so. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Saturday, January 22, 2011
Sunday, January 16, 2011
Christmas is finally over. Even our sanctuary bears witness to that fact. Still. Indulge me for one brief moment, a Christmas Eve image. It is nearly midnight as we reach what is always, to me, the high point of our service. The sanctuary is lit almost entirely by the candles held in the hands of each worshiper. The echoes of that most beloved Christmas carol are still ringing in our ears. It is at this moment that we hear these words from the gospel of John:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. ~John 1:1-4
At that moment, we turn from the infant in the cradle to give our worship to the mighty God who came among us as that baby. We read these words together, in the candle-glow, and our hearts grow still and silent as the night: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The Word: this is one of our most holy names for Christ, the second person of the Trinity, the Beloved Child of God. Christ is the Word of God. And, as John tells us, Christ the Word was present with God in the act of creation—all things came into being through the Word, just as it is written in the book of Genesis. God speaks, and worlds are created. As Jewish scholar, Susannah Heschel, wrote this week, words do in fact create worlds. 
It has been a week of soul-searching. In the aftermath of last Saturday’s terrible shooting in Tucson, which left six dead and thirteen more injured, we have been asking ourselves questions, but they all boil down to a single question—the same question that grips our hearts, always, at such moments of tragedy: Why? Why did it happen? And, the corollary, what could have been done to prevent it?
It is utterly human to want answers at a time like this. It is completely normal that we should seek to know, to reckon, to understand. Only, sometimes, the answers are not so readily available. Sometimes there is not one answer, though one answer appeals to us mightily. Sometimes we are left with our questions, and with the feeling that the world is a frightening, random, fundamentally mysterious place, untamable and unknowable.
Still, I do believe that one very good thing may have emerged from last Saturday’s horror. This week we witnessed a growing consensus that our national political discourse, the way in which we talk to one another, has grown so vitriolic, so hateful, that it repulses most of us. We want a change. This is, in my mind, a very good thing. It is the recognition that words do create worlds, and we want to be very intentional about the worlds created by our words.
What worlds shall we create? What shall we do with this powerful tool each of us has, the ability to speak? In our reading from Isaiah, the prophet is grappling with just this question. He recognizes that God has called him to do something. In fact, God’s call has been present with him his whole life—from the time he was in his mother’s womb. And God has equipped him as well—God has given him gifts for service. God has given him a particular ability with words—“[God] made me a polished arrow,” he says, “in his quiver he hid me away.” In other words, God gave the prophet the ability to send out words that hit their mark, find their target. But we also notice, the prophet doesn’t seem satisfied with his work. “I have labored in vain,” he says. “I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” These are words that sound close to despair.
It is not always easy to figure out where God is calling you, or just what it is that God wants you to do. That is especially true when you have had the experience of feeling that your work has been ineffective, or worse. In the case of the prophet, the work he believes he has been called to do is to unify, bring together the people of Israel, who have been dispersed throughout the world in the time of exile. Can you imagine? Makes me want to say I will never complain about any aspect of any job description ever again. Unify my people! Oh, ok God. I’ll get right on that.
Most of us, thanks be to God, are not called upon to achieve such enormous objectives. Most of us, thanks be to God, are given calls which are more along the lines of, “Pray this morning!” Or, “Don’t have that fight with your spouse/ mother/ child!” Or even, “Write that report/newsletter article/ sermon!” Calls we can certainly neglect or ignore—calls that are not necessarily easy. But calls that don’t leave us drenched in perspiration every time we contemplate them, either.
But the call to God’s arrow seems to grow in size, not diminish. “It is too light a thing,” says God, “that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
God is calling this servant to go beyond the narrow confines of partisan concerns. God is calling this servant to make his constituency a very, very broad one—instead of the people of Israel, the whole world. Instead of the tribes of Jacob, all the ends of the earth.
Here’s the funny thing about this passage. It is not clear just who or what this servant of God’s is, this prophet. Scholars note that, at times, it seems to be a single individual. In which case, we are back to totally overwhelming and impossible job descriptions that would make most people want to run screaming into the night. On the other hand, if the “prophet” described here is a collective, if it is more than one person, if it is the whole people of Israel—as some readers believe—then that instruction to reach all the ends of the earth still looks daunting. But now it is a shared burden. Now it is the work of, not just one soul, but a community.
Words create worlds. And words create communities as well. And the good news about our call, yours and mine, is that it is both individual and collective. It is both private and personal—a call to be a deacon, say, or to be a caring parent, or to show Christ’s love in the workplace. But it is also collective, communal—remember, we talked about it last week. Our call as a community is to shine forth the Light of the world, so that it can be seen by all people. Now, I’m not going to pretend that isn’t a daunting call. It is a big task. But it is a task we are called to fulfill together. Together, we can do such a thing. Together, we can let the light of God’s love reach to the ends of the earth. It starts with our words.
This week our president spoke these words: “It’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.”  He not only issued this call to the American people; he also demonstrated, in the very words he was speaking, how to do that. He taught by example. He acted, in this way, as God’s arrow for this particular moment in time, the aftermath of a tragedy. He sent out powerful words, words capable of creating new worlds of hope and healing. He behaved very much in the manner of another of God’s arrows, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. At a time when our country was torn apart by the painful issues of segregation and discrimination, he sent out powerful words that are still resonating with us today.
King had strong opinions on the necessity of well-chosen and well-timed words. And he was passionate about exactly what the content of those words should be. He said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” We must be sure that the words we use are words that heal, and not words that wound.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.
Words create worlds. We are privileged and blessed with the gift of our words, and called to be God’s arrow in the way we use and direct them. What worlds shall we create with our words? Hopefully, worlds of hope and not despair; worlds where the Light shines in the darkness; and worlds where healing can, at last, take place. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Susannah Heschel, “Sarah Palin Cries ‘Blood Libel’: Can Words Harm Us?”, Religion Dispatches, January 12, 2011 (http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/politics/4040/palin_cries_‘blood_libel’%3A_can_words_harm_us/).
 Barack Obama, “Obama’s Remarks in Tucson,” New York Times, January 12, 2011 (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/13/us/politics/13obama-text.html?ref=us).
Monday, January 10, 2011
Our service this morning offers us a bridge between the Christmas season and what comes next—Epiphany, the Light of the world shining forth so that it can be seen by all people, and the beginning of the ministry of Jesus. Our readings this morning span nearly three decades. The events of Epiphany, the visit of the magi and the presentation of their gifts, probably occur about two years after the birth of Jesus. Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan takes place when he is about thirty years old. This morning, in all sorts of ways, we are taking the large view—the expansive, panoramic view. This is a big picture kind of morning.
But that’s not to say we can’t focus in on some of the details. Just for fun, let’s play a game. The story just read by our liturgist is so familiar. But how many of the details do we really know? For instance, how many kings came to pay homage to Jesus? Well, none. Jesus’ visitors are called magi, and one writer describes them as “magicians, astronomers, star-gazers, pseudo-scientists, fortune-tellers, horoscope fanatics.” In other words, they are not representatives of other states or countries, with diplomatic credentials. They’re spiritual quacks, really, they’re the wrong race and the wrong religion, and the fact that they are the heroes in Matthew’s very Jewish story is a kind of a scandal.
OK, we know there were no kings. So how many magi were there? Well, the text doesn’t tell us. The word is plural, so there are at least two. But there could be more. Nine, ten. We’ve settled on the number “three” because there are three gifts. And we might be right about that. Maybe there were three. And what are their names? Well, the bible doesn’t give us any names. A tradition that popped up about 500 years after the birth of Jesus names them Melchior, Caspar, and Balthasar. But we really don’t know their names.
And about those gifts. Much has been made of the symbolic nature of the gifts of the magi. Gold, because Jesus is a king. Frankincense, a kind of incense, because Jesus is God. And myrrh, an ointment often used in preparing bodies for burial, because Jesus is the Lamb of God, who will be sacrificed. For those of us familiar with the items ordinarily brought to baby showers—and we had one here, not too long ago—well, the gifts seem kind of odd to us.
But here’s a surprise. The holy family could, in fact, put the gifts of the magi to good, practical use. Especially given that Jesus and his parents are about to become refugees. Gold, of course, could be used to finance the trip—gold was an easily tradable form of currency. In fact, all three of the gifts were usable for trade, and could have kept the wandering family fed and housed. Frankincense has properties that help to fight infection, boost the immune system, and reduce inflammation. It was a great addition to the medicine cabinet or first aid kit. And myrrh, an ointment, was regularly used (by those who could afford it) for all kinds of skin conditions. Yes, including diaper rash. So these highly symbolic gifts turn out to be incredibly practical as well. Because, let’s face it—the big picture, in this case, the Epiphany, the Light of the world shining forth so that it can be seen by all people, pretty much depends on small-picture details such as getting Jesus safely to Egypt and back again, seeing him grow to adulthood.
And we see him as an adult, in another “big-picture, but look at those details” kind of moment. The Big Story here is this: Jesus, at his baptism, evokes comment from God: a voice from heaven, proclaiming, “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” But the details are fascinating. In the ancient world to be baptized by someone was to become a follower of that person. The people whom John baptized became his disciples. John, in this encounter with Jesus, says no, I won’t do it. In fact, the Greek verb tense indicates that this was an ongoing argument between the men, as in “I’ve come to be baptized.” “I won’t do it.” “But I want you to baptize me.” “But I won’t do it.”
John feels inadequate to the task. John feels that the roles are reversed, skewed, that Jesus should be baptizing him. He finally accepts Jesus’ argument that in this baptism, John and Jesus together would be fulfilling righteousness. This was a slam-dunk argument. Righteousness was something that would be prized by all observant Jews, a baseline for morality and integrity and right relationship with God. So John relents. And God rejoices.
I wonder whether our nominating committee had any conversations like that this year? “We would like you to be an elder.” “No, I won’t.” “But we would really like you to be an elder.” “No, I can’t.” “But we think you would make a great elder.” “No, I wouldn’t.” I’m not going to lie to you: everyone who serves—whether as a deacon, or as a minister of Word and Sacrament, or as an elder—needs to have certain gifts. Well, really, they need to have one gift—the one gift without which none of our service would be possible. That gift is baptism. By virtue of our baptism, God calls us—each and every one of us—into the ministry of the church. It’s that simple and that terrifying.
Oh, we need other gifts as well. But here’s the beauty of the situation: we need your specific gifts, R and H and D and K and J and P. We need the gifts you know you have—your analytical mind, say, or your love for events. But we also need the gifts you don’t even know you have yet—like your hunger for a prayer life, your kinship with others who suffer and sorrow. Your individual gifts are the details. The gift of your baptism is the panoramic view. It is the first and most essential piece of equipment for service to God’s people. The rest will unfold, in God’s good time.
Our service this morning bridges one season in the life of the church with what comes next. We say goodbye and thank you to those who have served as deacons and elders at the same time we ordain and install those who will serve this year and beyond. For each of us, the baptism we have received, the mark of water and the Holy Spirit, is the bridge to our service of God’s people. And what is our ministry, really? The basic, real, unabridged definition of ministry? We are called, every one of us, to shine forth the Light of the world, so that it can be seen by all people. We are called to show the world the love of God in Jesus Christ. And we are called to do it together. It’s that simple and that exhilarating. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Brian Stoffregen, “Matthew 2.1-12, Epiphany of Our Lord-Year A,” at Crossmarks Christian Resources (http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/matt2x1.htm).
Brian Stoffregen, “Matthew 3.13-17, Baptism of Our Lord-Year A,” at Crossmarks Christian Resources (http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/matt3x13.htm).