“Sunday is coming! “Seeking Partnership.” Luke 5:1-11, Epiphany 5C

So they signaled their partners in the other boat to help them.” (Luke 5:7)

I wonder where we came up with the idea that we must be self-sufficient in order to survive and be successful. We live in a ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps’ culture that is supportive of a ‘make it or break it’; ‘sink or swim’; and ‘I can do it on my own’ mentality. We are taught to view help, support, partnership and collaboration as inferior to a ‘Lone Ranger’ approach to life. We view other people as commodities we can get something from or as potential customers we can sell something to – often not valuing people’s humanity beyond our self-interested transactions.

The result is that most of us end up feeling like failures when we need help, or that we are suckers because others only want things from us. We live in the greatest technological age recorded in human history; rooted in high speed communication, networking and information overload, and yet we are lonely, isolated and anxious. We live on social media behind the mask of our apparent success and happiness while we fear being left-behind and forgotten without anyone noticing.

The truth is: even the Lone Ranger had Tonto!

We need other people and others need us. Humans have a high capacity for independence, but also a deep need for relationship, belonging, and shared experiences that give us meaning. We long for community, and we benefit greatly from collaboration. From friends, family, schools, places of business, sports, clubs, communities of faith, service organizations and many other groupings we participate in, we come together around common causes, actions and beliefs. Humans are social beings.

Jesus went to Lake Gennesaret (a.k.a. the Sea of Galilee, Luke 5:1) and there were two fishing boats on the shore where he was teaching the crowd. He got into Simon’s boat and went out on the water. When they approached the deep water, he told them to drop the nets. Simon protested, saying, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing” (Luke 5:5a). On their own nothing happened. But when the other boat came to help, the catch was so large both boats nearly sank.

It was by listening to Jesus and in calling to others that abundance nearly overwhelmed Simon. He pushed back against Jesus with his own unworthiness, but instead Jesus offered him (along with James and John) a new calling – to fish for people. They left behind the boats and followed Jesus (Luke 5:7-11).

Imagine the partnership Jesus calls for as a contrast to our ‘boot straps’ culture…

  • What if we stopped pining for what we don’t have or what we thought we have lost and started realizing and living into the abundance right in front of us, because no matter how hard we have tried in the past or how tired we think we are, we listened to Jesus and when we did, we dropped the nets in the deep water?
  • What would it look like if we relied on each other more, utilized our unique and individual set of gifts in our church-communities more, networked our churches and other organizations in our specific locations more, thought about how to connect actual resources to needs more productively, brought together multiple generations, ethnic heritages, faith backgrounds, economic status levels, etc. to work on the challenges we all face because being together and getting to know real people with real stories benefits everyone?
  • What if we invited the neighbors around us we don’t know to service and community events, considered hosting forums on relevant topics from multiple perspectives, intentionally befriended the people we have been taught to be afraid of, sought humane ways to care for the poor, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick and visit the imprisoned knowing we are not the answer, we have often failed, but we are open to keep pursuing our calling by seeking partners, collaborators and allies wherever we can find them?

We might need another boat.

PGS

Bonus:

Other ideas for this story…

  1. Jesus calls us into the deep waters. It can be scary, but he is not looking for shallow disciples or easy quick fixes. Jesus calls us out where the waters are often unknown, beyond the crowd we are used to, where the water is choppier than we think we can handle and the future is unknown. Jesus want us to take a risk. Remember: Just as Jesus called, “a sinful man” like Simon (at least Simon thought he was, Luke 5:8); he also calls you. Where do we hold back by our sense of guilt or reluctance or because we do not think we are up to the task? We are called to faith not certainty. So are you ready to go?
  2. When Jesus shows up, so does the abundant catch. They had worked all night without any fish. Once Jesus was there (or for us, once we realize Jesus is here) scarcity disappears, isolation vanishes, our self-imposed sense of failure dissipates, and it is possible for us to see something we may have missed before. So why do we try to live and work without seeing Jesus at work in our lives? In receiving the abundance of those gifts he asks us to share and invite others into his mission.
  3. Jesus seeks to make us his partners! Jesus only goes out on the water by borrowing Simon’s boat. This story could be told without a another boat. But as Luke describes, it is only when the second boat is called in, are the nets abundantly full. Think about this the next time you do something independent of other people. Consider how the things you do can impact others (both positively and negatively; intentionally and unintentionally). How might collaboration look at home, at work, at a place of learning or service, on a team or as part of a group, club or project? How might organizations you participate in benefit from working intentionally together? What is potentially lost when we don’t?

Sunday is coming! Luke 4:21-30 “Then what about me?” -Epiphany 4C

When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so they might hurl him off the cliff.” (Luke 4:28-29)

When is the last time your love of other people was so offensive that a crowd wanted to throw you off a cliff?

Think about that for a while.

Jesus had just preached (a once sentence sermon) of liberation – the poor would receive good news, the blind would see, the prisoners released and the captives would be set free – TODAY in their hearing. Imagine the excitement that kind of message could generate among a people oppressed by empire and trampled on by life.

But when they questioned him, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” (Luke 4:22), Jesus pushed back with three examples of what he was talking about being fulfilled in their hearing:

-Do for us what you did in Capernaum…no prophet is accepted in his hometown (Luke 4:23-24).

-During the famine in Israel, Elijah helped the woman from Zarephath in Sidon (Luke 4:25-26).

-When there were many lepers in the time of Elisha, the only one Elisha cured was Naaman the Syrian (Luke 4:27).

Our problem with God’s love, mercy and grace, is we believe it is in scarce supply and belongs only to us. Our problem with Jesus as a system breaker and life-changer is we are often too comfortable with the status-quo. Our problem with others is we don’t think they deserve what we rightfully don’t deserve either (but we think and behave like we do).

Why cure people in Capernaum? We are here in Nazareth- where is our healing Jesus?

Sidon? Syria? Foreigners? Who cares about them? We are here in Israel. We are God’s chosen people; not them.

The poor? The captive? The oppressed? The hungry? The immigrant? The person without insurance? The under-employed or unemployed? The people struggling in our community? The people kicked to margins? The forgotten ones? The blamed and scapegoated?

If you help them Jesus, what about us?

What about this country? What about this community? What about this church? What about my family and loved ones? What about me Jesus?

If you help all these others….and if you are asking me to help them too… then what about me?

We are always afraid of scarcity.

Sometimes it is easier to throw Jesus off the cliff than it is to see that there is an abundance of life, liberty, justice, mercy, care, love, peace, grace and humanity for everyone…TODAY, because Jesus is here among us all and the jubilee is about to begin.

Are you ready to help Jesus set the captives free (and in doing so find a new freedom yourself), or are you more ready to throw Jesus off the cliff and anyone else who you think is taking something from you that was never yours in the first place?

Think about it.

PGS

Sunday is Coming! “The issue: Today…in your hearing” Luke 4:14-21, Epiphany 3C

“Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21)

The issue is not Jesus’ hometown. The issue is not that his faith-community knew him since he was a child.  The issue is not the passage Jesus chose to read from the scriptures (the image of restoration was a hope the people had held close for centuries). Those are all good things. It can often feel good to come home.

The issue was his preaching.

Jesus had just emerged from forty days in the wilderness where he had been tempted by comfort, power and security (Luke 4:1-13).  He started preaching throughout out Galilee (Luke 4:14-15). As Jesus regained his strength and stamina as entered the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth; he knew the purpose and center for his ministry. He had been honing in his message. It was time to go public.

This scene serves like a mission statement for the ministry we are about to witness over the course of the Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles – Jesus brings good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, and he lets the oppressed go free (Luke 4:18-19).  As we will see in both Luke and Acts – these themes are both literal and figurative in the encounters Jesus has with people and the community that the Spirit draws around him. Jesus proclaimed the year of the Lord’s favor – the longed for jubilee that would overturn political and economic inequity, forgive all debt, reconcile wrongdoing and restore the whole people. It was a promise of the past when the people lived freely in the land, it was remembered when they had returned from exile, and in Jesus’ day it lived in a Messianic hope that Rome would be toppled, and the fortunes of Israel would be restored.

Jesus’ message was controversial because he preached, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). Jesus was calling for revolution, but a revolution that was already won and was now being realized. It was preposterous. Rome still dominated everything. The people were still oppressed. Hunger and poverty were everywhere. Sickness and death pervaded everyday life. Scarcity and fear held a tight grip on everything known and experienced. The world was a mess.

It still is.

Many in our time are hopeless and cynical that our lives could be any different than the injustice, pain, death and powerlessness we see and know. Either Jesus was a liar, deluded by his own sense of calling and purpose, or by his very presence – changed everything.  The people listening to Jesus that day couldn’t see it. Their ears were not open to receive that message.

Are ours?

People we care about struggle with their health and the financial burden that goes with it (we do too). Injustice, abuse and exploitation are everywhere. We keep overlooking the systemic ways people are devalued and mistreated, pretending suffering isn’t there, that it never happened, or could never happen to us. Our debt owns us. Our economy consumes us. Our prisons overflow. How would the people in your life react if Jesus told us “today” we would all be free?

How do we?

The people in the synagogue smiled at Jesus’ words at first, but they questioned his background, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” (Luke 4:22). They were quick to argue and dismiss him. As the scene escalated, they threatened his life (Luke 4:23-30). How many interactions like this have you had or know of with family, friends, neighbors and co-workers that quickly get out of hand when talking about the real challenges we face as individuals, families, churches, communities, nation and world?

When we fail to listen to Jesus or act in the hope that God’s promises are realized in real time – we continue to reject him. Yet the witnesses of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection in this and every age continue claim that his very presence among us does in fact change our perspective, reality and the trajectory of our lives.

Listen to the promise: Whatever hardship we face, Jesus’ kingdom comes “Today in your hearing.” Be free of what burdens you and join the jubilee.

If the kingdom of God really comes “today in our hearing“…

…How would we see the world differently?

…What could we live differently?

…How should we do differently?

PGS

“Sunday is coming! “Running out of wine and the abundant best yet to come.” John 2:1-11, Epiphany 2C

They have no wine” (John 2:3).

As churches, we spend a lot of time talking about, worrying about and complaining about perceived scarcity: the energy we think we have run out of; the time we think we don’t have; the people we wish were part of our congregations (or were still part of our congregations) but are not; the money we wish we had, the things we used to do, etc.

As people of faith, we constantly wonder if we can ever be enough, can be good enough, or can do enough. We give lip service to God’s unconditional love and mercy for us and for the world, but we have a difficult time truly believing that grace is true, real and palpable. So we try to (to no avail) to live by our works and self-righteousness.

As those who live in the real world, we clamor for protectionism – we are suspicious of others and distance ourselves from the things we don’t know or understand. We cower from the world’s problems. We believe that people are out to get us or take things from us. We try to hide from real suffering around us or that we ourselves face. We distance ourselves from the challenges that seem to big or too difficult to change and believe maybe if we ignore them, they will go away. Deep down we know how fragile and feeble we are.

This story in John (2:1-11) offers an alternative.

Jesus is always one to show abundance. He says later in this gospel: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10)  Whether it is changing water into wine in this story, multiplying the loaves and fishes in others, or his constant expression of compassion and mercy with people who do not deserve it throughout the gospel narratives; just when we think there is nothing left – Jesus surprises us with abundance.

It is fitting that this story takes place at a wedding. It is already a lavish feast. Since it takes place “on the third day” (John 2:1) this party serves as a sign of the heavenly feast that is to yet to come. As the story opens, the wine runs out, but there is neither blame nor shame directed at the hosts. There is no despair or lament over what once was or what could be. There is no retreat or a turning on each other.

What happens is remarkable.

There is a turning to Jesus for hope. There is a call to discipleship. His mother directs the servants to listen and, “do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5). There is a movement to action.

How many of us are willing to do to turn to Jesus, listen, follow and act when things get tough – rather than look inward on ourselves or turn on each other?

Jesus tells them to fill the large stone jars used for purification. These jars hold 20-30 gallons of water. That is 120-180 gallons. If a modern-day bottle of wine is .750 ml. (There are 3.79 Liters in a gallon), there was now between 600-900 additional bottles of wine for this wedding. That is a lot of wine! It is a ridiculous abundance we may find unbelievable to comprehend. John is telling us that ridiculous abundance is the sign that Jesus is among us.

Considering this party was well underway, the steward is also surprised by the quality of this new wine, “Everyone serves the good wine first…But you have kept the best wine until now” (John 2:10). Jesus not only brings abundance. He brings out the best.

-Do we believe Jesus to bring out abundance and the best in our own time and circumstances or do we believe the best days are behind us?

-What is keeps us from seeing him, and leaning into the abundance of love, mercy and grace Jesus gives us to us?

-Where do you need to look to Jesus, listen, follow and act?

-How might you encourage others to lean into Jesus’ ridiculous abundance and best?

PGS

Sunday is coming, “Jesus alongside us in the water” Luke 3:15-22, Baptism of our Lord C

“Now when all the people were baptized and when Jesus had also been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘this is my son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:21-22)

All the people. All of them who came. They were all baptized. The soldiers. The tax collectors. The crowd. All the people who did not belong under the political structure or the religious culture. Who were they? The unclean. The brood of vipers. The unworthy. This is who was baptized with Jesus at the river Jordan: all the undesirables.

There were no VIPs. There were no political officials of note. There were no religious leaders of good standing. Nobody credentialed. There was only John, who by his self-declaration was “unworthy” to be there too. He was not the Messiah. He knew it. His job was to point the way and “prepare the way of the Lord.” He practiced ‘a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (Luke 3:3). He preached sharing and taking care of people with our food and clothing, of acting fairly and honestly in our work, of protecting people without abusing them violently or taking advantage of them (Luke 3:10-14). John called out injustice and the distortion of relationships (Luke 3:18-19). It was the kind of good news that eventually tossed John in jail and it cost him his life (Luke 3:20).

But not yet.

Jesus came to the wilderness. He didn’t begin his ministry in the Temple, or in a palace among the important people run by the powers of this world. He stood at the river Jordan, the crossing point into the Holy Land with outsiders and misfits and everyone else who did not belong. And he was baptized along with them. It almost sounds like an afterthought. They were all baptized. Jesus was too. Unlike the Gospel of Matthew and Mark where the voice of heaven seems to be directed solely at Jesus, as Luke describes this scene all who were baptized heard and could see it for themselves. The Spirit came. The voice called out the beloved. All the undesirables were part of it. You and I are too.

We often ask, ‘Why would Jesus seek baptism?’ After all, Christians tend to assert that Jesus was sinless. In that regard, ‘a baptism of repentance’ would be not only unnecessary but also problematic. Yet all four gospels claim Jesus’ baptism – and his ministry begins to take shape after this event. Perhaps what Luke is trying to reveal is not so much that Jesus is God’s beloved (which in the text he clearly is), but that God is up to something far greater in baptism than self-revelation. Jesus is with them in the water; crossing all who join him in baptism them over from left out to the included, from the unworthy to the beloved, from forgotten about to the remembered, from the unclean to the clean.

Repentance separates the fruitless branches. Jesus does clear the chaff from the wheat. The fire of the Spirit continues to purify us just as the water continues to clean us up and make us whole. We are not left as we were – forgotten on the outside or unworthy on the fringe but are made anew by the Jesus who joins us in the water – loved as we always were but that love is announced in public with the same blessing from the heavens for all to see and hear. The kingdoms of this world never like competition.

Like Jesus, as we emerge from those waters our ministry begins to take shape. Following this Jesus and living in his kingdom is dangerous to the powers that be, and we should expect nothing less than for them to reject us as we live a life of inclusion, generosity, care and integrity. It may make us outliers, push us to fringe, and leave us in the wilderness. Like John (and Jesus), it may even cost us our life.

Fear not. Jesus is alongside us in the water, waiting to lead us to cross over to the other side of the river and find our new community where we are welcomed and loved forever.

Take a look around for the other misfits and vagabonds who join you.

Who do you see there?

PGS

Sunday is coming! “The Wisdom of the Magi” – Festival of the Epiphany, Matt 2:1-12

In the Time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem.” (Matthew 2:1)

The coming of the Magi from the East spurs the imagination but also draws us into hard realities. The focus of attention and query often gets placed in the star: What was it? Where did come from? How did they know to follow it? Or, their “Eastern-ness”: Are they from Persia? Arabia? India? China? Their role: King? Wise Man? Sage? Magician? Astrologer? And their gifts: We know what gold is, but what is frankincense and myrrh? These are all interesting questions, but ultimately not Matthew’s point in telling this story.

Matthew 2:1-12 should be read within the context of the wider narrative of Matthew chapters 1-2. In this bigger story Matthew is telling about Jesus’ origins, several things come to light:

  1. Matthew tells Jesus’ lineage to connect him to the wider story of Israel in the Bible (Matthew 1:1-17). It is important to read through this list of names – it connects him to both Abraham and David, but also to Tamar, Ruth and Rahab.
  2. Joseph is reluctant to go through with the wedding with Mary since she is already pregnant (Matthew 1:18-19). It takes an angel within a dream (remember Joseph and his dreams from Genesis?) to open him to the idea that the child who will be born will “save the people form their sins” (Matthew 1:22), looking back not just to individual misdeeds, but the national wandering from God what led to centuries of exile and foreign occupation. Joseph does marry her, and is present for the rest of Matthew’s infancy narrative.
  3. The Magi are foreigners.
  4. We know nothing about them other than this short story. We do not know their names (Tradition gives them the names Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazaar); how they dressed (a legend tells of Persian invaders in 614 sparing the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem from destruction because of the art portraying the Wise Men were wearing Persian garb, so they left the building alone); or where they came from when they saw the star. Most of the things we think we know about them (including the camel in many of our Nativity sets inferred from Isaiah 60:6, or that there are three wise men) is added conjecture.
  5. King Herod is the power-center of the story. He is threatened by the presence of the Magi and what they represent: a rival who has come to usurp him. Gold, frankincense and myrrh are gifts to give a royal. Herod’s family made a deal with the Romans securing his power. One could see his rule as illegitimate. A child king and potential Messiah was a huge threat. After the Magi went home, Herod sent his henchman to eliminate that threat by slaughtering all the children in the area.
  6. Mary and Joseph (along with the child Jesus) escape to Egypt. Egypt was the place of slavery from which the Exodus narrative – the centering story in the Hebrew Bible is set. When Jesus returns to the Holy Land, it signals (from Matthew’s storytelling) a new Exodus is about to take place, and Jesus (like a new Moses) has arrived to lead the people from slavery to freedom. Matthew was most likely writing his gospel to a Jewish-Christian audience who would have understood the parallels.

What might we make of the Wise Men in a North American 21st century context?

Three ideas:

  1. People are still seeking. In our information heavy, technology-driven, digital age we are inundated by easy answers and often neglect challenging questions. Now is a time to reclaim not only what draws us to the Christ, but what also may be motivating others to seek meaning and purpose in their lives. Many people seem stuck longing, seeking, wondering and hurting. What signs can you point to (and what might others be grasping for) that could draw people together rather than wedge them apart? Is there something in the Jesus story that might speak? Listen? Include? Epiphany means “aha!” Seek the “aha” moment with those around you.
  2. God often uses the outsider to proclaim good news. If the church is to have any future, it is essential that the faith communities many of us have both come from and inherited learn this essential truth: God is neither irrelevant or in decline. But our systems and institutions are. To “tune-in” to where God is leading anew we need to “tune-in” to our neighbors outside of what we may think is normative.
  3. Power does what power does. We should not be surprised or disappointed by this reality or naïve enough to overlook it. Power will often do what it needs to do to maintain its position – often at any cost – unless it is shown that it is in its own self-interest not to do so. History shows that the church (whoever is governing society) often does its best work when it is centered in a message of peace, hope and love (not force, power and control); acts as a voice of the voiceless, and cares for those in need and on the margins. We should expect pushback when we will not be dismissed, coerced or pushed-around or allow it to happen to others. There is a deeper and truer power at work among us than worldly influence rooted in joy, compassion and generosity. Look for it – and join in.

Blessings to you this Epiphany.

PGS

Sunday is coming! “Looking for boyhood Jesus” Luke 2:41-52 Christmas 1C

Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” (Luke 2:52)

The gospels say very little about Jesus’ childhood. The story each of the four gospels share is centered on his adult ministry leading to the passion narrative. Only Matthew and Luke have birth stories, though John frames who Jesus is in cosmic terms. Mark introduces Jesus as an adult ready to bring good news. In each of these four stories, John the Baptist prepares the way for Jesus’ ministry as an adult to begin, and once Jesus emerges from the waters of the Jordan, the story takes off. Only Luke inserts this story about Jesus as a boy between his birth and baptism.

What is this story about?

Mary and Joseph are portrayed as practicing Jews who make the annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. Jesus is anchored in a community and in the traditions of faith of his parents. That they don’t know where he is during their return trip back home says more about the trust and relationships within the wider group they are travelling with, than any neglect on their part. Jesus grows up as an average Jewish kid from a small town, connected to the wider community of friends, faith and relatives.

Yet the story Luke is telling is that Jesus is anything but ordinary. His birth in a manger “is a sign for you” (Luke 2:12). The unique personhood of Jesus is highlighted as Mary and Joseph took him to the Temple as an eight-day old and they encounter Simeon and Anna who know Jesus is the Messiah (Luke 2:20-39). Luke highlights here that Jesus is smart and inquisitive, engaged in the scripture and the religious teachers were amazed at his understanding (Luke 2:46-47). He is no ordinary kid.

His parents are both astounded and angry with him. They had both been entrusted with caring and protecting this child and had lost him for three days. They scoured everywhere looking for him. One can feel their anxiety and shame as they blame him, “Child, why have you treated us like this?” (Luke 2:48).

Jesus remains unfazed by their question. Where else would he be but the Temple? What else would he be doing other than discussing the scripture with the elders? Why wouldn’t he be astounding them with his understanding and answers? Isn’t that the kind of preparation he is going to need for the mission he is on? Shouldn’t Mary and Joseph know that?

They had looked with fear and uncertainty. They must have felt like failures. If you have children or have ever been entrusted with their care; there is no greater responsibility.

If you were Mary or Joseph, how might it have felt to hear, “I must be in my Father’s house” (Luke 2:49)? Was that supposed to reassuring of their role in this divine story unfolding around them or was it an accusation of their disconnected human parenting? In either case – Jesus submits to them, bringing the divine and human together for the long road that is ahead. It may be only one story of Jesus’ upbringing, but in it we see all that we need to understand. This extraordinary boy grew up in an ordinary way to bring together what we often separate, dismiss, neglect and take for granted. When his ministry begins, we will see Jesus approach each of his encounters with others Luke reports to us in the same way – bringing together what is often divided by human means in the divine mission to include all.  The lost are found. Where else would Jesus be?

I wonder if Mary and Joseph realized this profound and extraordinary presence of God among them as they continued to raise Jesus and ponder these things in their hearts. In the midst of that seeking and finding – they loved him. Jesus loved them too.

Where do you go looking for Jesus?

Where has he shown up where you least expect?

What things do you ponder and keep close to your heart?

PGS

Sunday is coming! “The amazing things about Mary and her song” – Luke 1:39-56

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” (Luke 1:47)

The Magnificat is an amazing song. It serves the church not only to highlight Mary and her importance in the story of Jesus; it also highlights (for Luke) who this Jesus is, what he came to do, as well as point all who follow him towards the activity of God’s mission is in the world.

An amazing thing about the Magnificat is its revolutionary content. Mary declares God’s sovereignty and love (Luke 1:47-50); the reversal of the mighty and lowly (Luke 1:51-53); and fulfilling the promises made to the people long ago (Luke 1:54-55). This declaration should unsettle all those who occupy wealth, privilege or power. Mary is neither intimidated nor timid. She proclaims a divine justice and mercy where God restores what is broken and will make right that which is unjust. In the center of that message is her own sense of agency. Mary was called by the angel to participate in the divine embodiment of our humanity (Luke 1:26-38). That God would use such an unlikely candidate to bring about salvation history is astounding.

Another amazing thing about the Magnificat is Mary’s fluency in scripture. Her song echoes Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2:1-10. It is highly probable that Mary would have had no formal education. In all likelihood she learned those stories and songs from her elders at home. It is pure speculation, but one could imagine her mother and the other women in young Mary’s life singing these songs of faith and telling those stories as they did their work and cared for the household. Humans are hardwired somehow to observe and learn the values and perspectives of our families of origin. That Mary knows Hannah’s song so well is a great testament to the people in her life and a reminder to all of us the importance of passing on of the faith within our homes through our most important relationships.

Yet Another amazing thing about the Magnificat is Mary’s humble origins. She is young, female, a peasant and in the most uninteresting part of the least interesting part of the Empire. One would expect a well-educated, experienced, connected, wealthy, powerful, male, person in the capital (or at least a major city) to be the conduit for a message of the divine to have the right platform to gain the widest audience in the ancient world. Mary embodies the very lyrics she sings – the lowly is lifted up.

Revolution.

Story.

Humility.

These are amazing things to sing. Yet Mary’s song has another amazing feature…

It is amazing that Mary and her Magnificat holds such a prominent place in the church’s life, faith and ministry. One would not expect such esteem with so many centuries of male-dominant, financially-secured, power-influenced religiosity running through the church’s institutions.

The Magnificat both keeps and expands Mary’s witness in the church’s liturgy and hymnody alike. Both she and her song are treasured. Her proclamation is sung on the people’s lips and placed in many people’s hearts as if Mary’s voice sings through them. Mary occupies a special place among the saints and in Christian imagination. Our Roman Catholic siblings recite “Hail Mary full of grace…” (Luke 1:28), “blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb…” (Luke 1:42) as one of the central prayers of faith. Protestants and other Christians could learn much from those prayers. She is regarded as God-Bearer, Mother of God and Queen of Heaven, and yet she perpetually remains the young peasant girl from Nazareth with a servant’s heart.

In a world full of destruction, despair, discord, division, disparity, derision and dehumanizing behaviors, our response is a call to devotion.

The Magnificat inspires the faithful of every walk of life and background to consider their calling and agency to bear Christ in the world.

With Mary and all who should be voiceless, we boldly sing God’s praises, long for God’s mercy, and proclaim that one day God’s justice will reign.

What will you sing about until then?

PGS

Sunday is Coming! “Fruit worthy of Repentance” Luke 3:7-18 Advent 3C

The crowd asked him,What then should we do?’” (Luke 3:10)

John is not one to mince words. He grabs the attention of his audience with judgment; calling for a change of heart and urging people to action. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come. Bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:7b-8).

Repentance’ means not to just say ‘sorry,’ hoping to be forgiven. The word ‘repent’ (metanoia) means to turn around – to see things in a new way, go a new direction, or change your mind. It is about life-change!

John’s intensity shines through his sense of urgency. He leaves us little wiggle room to escape, explain ourselves or justify our actions. Our credentials and heritage don’t matter. Our position doesn’t matter. Our sinfulness does. He warns that when Messiah comes – the ax is coming to cut down that which is rotten or unfruitful.

Yet, the people keep coming, and look who it is…

The crowd.

The tax collectors.

The soldiers.

All of them come to John looking for direction, asking, “What then shall we do?” (Luke 3:10). He is no contemplative. John will not ponder these things in his heart as Mary does. He stands in the wilderness and proclaims an honest, direct and forceful call to action.

John tells the crowd that if you have two coats, give one away to someone who has none, and feed those who are hungry.  (Luke 3:11).

“Repentance” (life- change) for the crowd means to look beyond oneself. Be generous. Take care of one another. Be your neighbor’s keeper. We can all learn from this change of perspective. Look to God’s abundance with gratitude as you live with one another. Relate to people with that same generosity, compassion and love.

John tells the tax collectors not to collect more than is prescribed (Luke 3:13). In those days, tax collectors made their income by taking extra than the government asked them to collect. They were wealthy because they exploited people. Since they worked for Rome they were viewed as conspirators, traitors and betrayers of their people; unclean before God because of their wickedness.

“Repentance” (life- change) for the tax collector means to be honest, fair and just – which may cost personal gain. What motivates our work? We can all learn from this change of perspective. Martin Luther said of the commandments against stealing and coveting, “We are to fear and love God so that we neither take our neighbors’ money or property nor acquire them by using shoddy merchandise or crooked deals, but instead help them improve and protect their property and income.” and “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not try to trick our neighbors out of their inheritance or property to try to get it for ourselves by claiming to have a legal right to it and the like, but instead be of help and service to them in keeping what is theirs.”  (Martin Luther, “Small Catechism (1529),” Evangelical Lutheran Worship. [Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006], 1161.)

John tells the soldiers (the foreign Roman occupiers) not to extort money, threaten or falsely accuse people.

“Repentance” (life- change) for the soldier means being in positions of service, not just positions of power. We can all learn from this change of perspective. It means doing our best job in whatever it is we do; not just to serve ourselves, but with the best interest of others in mind, even in a hostile environment.

What might “repentance” look like for you? In your situation? Job? Status? Lifestyle? Relationships? Impact on those you may not know?

The heart of John’s message is life-change rooted in action. He calls his hearers to honesty, integrity, service and generosity (whatever their background) into a new life worthy of their calling and vocation. He doesn’t tell people to leave their jobs or life-situation, but challenges all who will listen with a new way of seeing, being and acting. While he speaks with authority; he proclaims that One is coming with more power than himself who will come with fire and the Holy Spirit.

Ultimately, John’s appeal is good news:

A life that is worthy of repentance strives for the kingdom of God; but not as the pursuit of personal achievement or by somehow trying to earn God’s favor. Rather, it is bearing fruit (doing good) by responding to God’s undeserved mercy and grace; holding tight to the promise of Christ and sharing that hope, love and peace that surpasses understanding with others in concrete ways.

-Where could you use some life-change right now?

-What are some concrete ways you can share the hope, love and peace of Christ through the relationships you already have?

-How might those actions change you, and prepare the way for others?

PGS

Sunday is coming! “John the Baptist: No random oddity” Advent 2C

He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance.” (Luke 3:3)

What conditions may have produced this odd character?

Luke outlines rather carefully in his “orderly account” (Luke 1:1) what is happening on the world stage as John (and shortly Jesus) begin their local ministry. Tiberius is the Emperor of Rome. Pilate is the Governor of Judea having direct control over the Southern part of the country. Two brothers: Herod and Philip rule the local Northern regions but remain subordinate to Rome. Annas and Caiahphas serve as High Priests in the Temple. One could cross-reference the dates of these leaders to locate both John and Jesus in history. Luke has gone to great lengths to ensure that we (and Theophilus [Luke 1:4]) understand the context of the story that is about to unfold (Luke 3:-3).

Bishop and scholar N.T. Wright points put there is more going on than just historical precision:

Behind that list names and places is a story of oppression and misery that was building up to an explosion point…The old prophets had spoken of a time of renewal, through which God himself would come back to them. They had only a sketchy idea of what this would all look like, but when a fiery young prophet appeared in the Judean wilderness, going around towns and villages telling people the time had come, they were ready to listen. Baptism, plunging into the river Jordan was a powerful sign of renewal.” (N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone. [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001], pp. 32-33.)

The conditions were ripe for something new.

Luke wants the reader/hearer to know this is not a random fanatic who drew a crowd. Beginning in chapter 1, Luke provides a background narrative for both the coming of John and for Jesus. The first story that Luke (and only Luke of the four canonical gospels) tells – is the angel Gabriel visiting Zechariah to tell him that he and Elizabeth will have a child, and he is to be named John (God is gracious). “He will turn many of the people to the Lord their God. With the spirit and with power of Elijah he will before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:16-17).  God is orchestrating the redemption plan. The groundwork is being laid for John to set the stage for Jesus.

What is coming?

Looking back to Advent 1C, we heard warnings of destruction and judgment, yet Jesus promising “Your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28) “The kingdom of God is near” (Luke 3:31) and “My words not passing away” (Luke 21:33). These are tall orders in wake of the system of power in place, and the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in the recent memory of Luke’s hearers, and to the us all these centuries later – removed from the historical context, but still longing for hope and renewal in our own time and lives.

Prepare the Way

Our time and our lives are ripe for renewal just as they were in the time of John.  We look at the world and see the difference between the wealthy and the poor; the important and forgotten; the powerful and the oppressed; those who are high and those who are low; those who attempt to ensure their own safety and those surrounded by violence; those who are connected and disconnected; those who seem to get away with hate, abuse, injustice and greed and those who suffer for it. We are often left scratching our heads wondering,”How might we respond?” or “Can I do anything about it to change things?” or better yet, “Where is God in all this?” We feel the pinch of changing church participation and the strain it puts on our community, its leadership and shared resources and we fear the future. We wonder of our own lives matter or could make a difference. In a world full of noise we struggle to find our voice, and wonder if anyone is listening.

John reveals that sometimes what God is up to in our world comes to us in odd, unconventional ways; if we are but open to hear it, look for it, believe it and live it. John remains a key symbol of Advent because he represents a voice calling us out of our own wilderness into repentance (a life-change; new perspective; going a new direction); leading to hope, faith, joy and peace. He enters our story just when it feels darkest; not to be the Light, but to point to the Light that is coming (John 1:7-9). We are invited into that same calling us to “prepare the way” for Jesus to come in our lives, relationships and communities.

In the promise of our coming Christ, we are immersed into the way of love as fear is cast-aside and no longer has power over us. We are on the way.

What strange new things might God be doing in your life and/or community?

Look hard and carefully…Do you see them?

Are you odd enough to join-in?

PGS