Jesus came down with the twelve apostles and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.”
“But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
“Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”
Last weekend, David and I experienced something incredible, thanks to the relentless generosity of my sister. We took a hot air balloon ride over the Napa Valley in Northern California at sunrise. This experience was nothing less than awe – some. Breathtaking. As we began our descent into a clearing within the grounds of a vineyard and began to float closer and closer to the ground, we passed over a block of vines that were being tended to by workers. As I watched them do their vinocultural work, I noticed something that struck me to the core. Here I was, living what was my very best life at that exact moment, a life with not a care in the world it seemed, while right below the hot air balloon’s basket, were a group of about a dozen migrant farm workers, laboring on a chilly winter morning to tend to vines which would grow the grapes this vineyard would use to make their fancy wine – likely costing much more money than these workers would ever expect to have as disposable income in their lifetimes. We were so close to the ground at this point that I felt like they were looking right at my face as we passed over their heads. I was struck by the sheer inequality of the moment – I had not worked for this opportunity to fly high above the ground in a hot air balloon, but rather it had been gifted to me by the generosity and love of someone. The gift came with no strings attached at all, a gift full of grace and love alone. This gift lifted me high above the people who were toiling on the ground below, and that image hit me in my very privileged gut – an image I have yet to shake from my memory of that very special day.
After our trip, I began to read todays Gospel to prepare for this sermon. Blessed are you who…
Are hated, excluded, reviled and defamed because of Christ
And woe to you who…
Are spoken of highly
We’ve heard some of these words before – or something pretty similar – found in the gospel of Matthew in the more famous Sermon on the Mount. Today’s gospel is referred to as the Sermon on the Plain. The Plain – a level place where all who heard Jesus teach were standing as equals – no advantages or disadvantages on being able to see or hear the words Jesus taught. While the Sermon on the Mount focuses only on the “blessed are they who”, Luke’s version of this event describes the flip side – for there is often a flip side to who we are and what our lives are really like in their totality.
Blessings…boy to we Christians love this word! We are blessed when things go well for us – a new job, a renewed friendship, even stumbling across a sale on a great pair of shoes gets labeled as a blessing! We thank God for blessing us with another year on our birthdays and God certainly blesses us when we find a $20 bill in our jacket pocket that we haven’t checked since the last cold snap. So does that mean that we are doing something right? Living our best lives at that very moment? And if that is true, then isn’t the opposite also true? When we don’t find ourselves so “blessed” – are we doing something wrong and somehow deserve our woes?
That’s just not how God works – handing out random blessings and woes to each person on the planet sounds like some kind of god that I’m not interested in having a relationship with. In fact, that seems rather cruel and without any sort of God-like intention at all. This passage from our Gospel reading today speaks nothing of what God supposedly hands out to us in the way of blessings and woes, but rather speaks about our current lived condition. Sometimes life is easier and sometimes life is harder. And while some things are completely outside of our control, there are many ways that we use our privilege to keep our privilege for ourselves, even at the expense of others.
Let me be very clear….God does not say to give up your money, or your food, or to stop laughing and become a person who is ridiculed by others. Whew! Instead we are called to use our access to these points of privilege to reach out to those to whom Jesus DESIRES and some may say even prefers – those who live at the margins of our very own communities. The blessings that Jesus names are also for those whose lives are not privileged by birthright, who have been victimized by the very structures from which many of you, and certainly I benefit. These are not intended to be exclusionary to those who are privileged, but rather leveraged by the very people who have them and take them for granted. To stand with those in the margins requires something of us – and it’s something that is easy to tweet about or discuss over dinner – but it’s quite another when it gets right down to it. It requires us to give up some of our power with the intention of giving it to others.
One of the things I love the most about being a part of this faith community here at the Cathedral is the breadth of diversity found in these pews. People from all stations of life made a decision today to come to this sacred place to worship God together in community. What you are wearing, where you slept last night, and how much money you will place in the offering plate is of no consequence to being able to gather together. This is not a place where attaining social status equals a reward of a spot at the altar rail in a few minutes, when we offer ourselves humbly to God and partake of Communion. Instead, all are welcome. This is a place where children make valentine cards to share with the residents at Peterborough Apartments and tie die t-shirts to sell as we approach the Pride celebration. This is a place where dozens of parishioners give of their time to support the students and staff at Campbell Park Elementary School. This is a place that actively looks for ways to support the community and people who have been sidelined and oppressed by systemic racism, classism, and sexism. These very things that Jesus is preaching about on this level place in todays Gospel – is meant to remind us that we are joining with his followers and the rest of the people who were clamoring to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ. And friends, we have so much more to do to extend the radical love of Jesus Christ into our communities. This is the REAL emergency that affects us all.
Blessings are not zero sum – there are enough for everyone as long as we don’t see them as something we deserve and must hold on to at all cost – they are ours through God’s grace and often, a whole lot of sheer luck. And holding tight to our privilege, does absolutely nothing to honor the message of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain – Jesus expects his followers to actively participate in dismantling structures of oppression which bar others from experiencing what we so easily take for granted. Frankly, sitting back and enjoying our blessings without being compelled to want the same for others is not at all who we are called to be as Christ’s followers. To be clear, this is the REAL emergency that affects us all and should call us to action.
You may have seen this picture illustration before. Three kids are standing on crates in front of a privacy fence in 2 side by side scenarios. In the first panel, the three kids are each standing on their own identical crates behind at tall fence, attempting to watch a baseball game being played on the other side. These three kids range in height from pretty tall to super short. The crates are the exact same shape and size, and the perfect size for the tallest child to see over the fence and have a perfect view of the game with room to spare. The next tallest kid wouldn’t be able to see a thing without standing on the crate – their eyes just clear the very top of the fence line so they can see all the action. The third child – the shortest one, stands as tall as he can on his tippy toes, craning his neck to see over the fence, but he is still too short to be able to see a thing.
In the second panel, all three kids are pictures watching the game and cheering along with the action. But in this panel, the crates have been redistributed. The tallest kid is now standing on the ground – he still has a great view of the game as his head clears the top of the fence line without any help from a crate. His crate is now stacked on top of the smallest boy’s crate to give him the height he needs to be able to see over the fence. This small child’s body language is completely different from the first image, where his shoulders were slumped over in apparent disappointment. In the second scenario, his arms are thrown in the air in excitement as he watches the game, just like the other two kids.
Each child uses the crate for the same goal – to be able to see over the fence. With access to the exact same resources, they have radically different levels of success. It’s not until the tallest one shares his crate with the smallest child that the kids finally have equal access to the fun on the other side of the fence.
Jesus names our blessings and our woes, and it turns out we get some of each in our lives. And in our blessings, God sees us and calls us to remember the Good News is for everyone. Don’t let the blessings of your life lead you to believe there will be no woes, and don’t let the woes stop you from finding your blessings. Instead, spend some time considering your blessings and how you can turn them into blessings for others. When we believe we ALL are created in God’s image, we cannot rest until we have done all in our power to see everyone’s humanity. As Gustavo Gutierrez, one of the earliest liberation theologians has said, when we use our blessings to reach out to others, “We opt to be with Jesus, to serve Jesus, to accompany Jesus among the world’s poor in the nonviolent struggle for justice.”
Our daughter was baptized when she was nearing 3 months old, and because we waited “so long” (according to my mother), we had to purchase a larger christening gown instead of using the tiny family gown that my mother made when I was born, and was also worn by both of my younger sisters at their baptism. For my mom, the dress we three sisters wore was an important memory of a milestone in each of our lives, but even more so, it served as a reminder of our union within the body of Christ through baptism, a community that has existed since the occasion of the baptism of Christ by John that we heard proclaimed in our Gospel reading today.
So from my earliest memories, God and by extension, the church was the center of our family story. We were there every time the doors opened and you cannot name one committee or guild position in the church that didn’t have at least one of our family members serving on it. You can even drive down to Redeemer in Sarasota and find the kneelers that my mother embroidered before we moved away when I was in the 3rd grade and she left her position as the church secretary. One of my favorite memories came a few years later when our church enlisted every available person to participate in a tableau depicting scenes from the stations of the cross for Palm Sunday, right on the front lawn of St. Peter’s in Fernandina Beach on the busiest street in town. We were frozen in position and couldn’t move, sneeze, or talk, and strangers walked by watching – and I was so very sure that I was playing a critical role in the telling of the story of Jesus that day. These memories serve as the foundation of my feeling of being called by God.
Today we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord. Today we encounter a scene where Christ himself is being baptized by John – something that a young girl like me wondered about each and every time we heard this section of the text read in church. Why did Jesus need to be baptized? Why did God need to be baptized if Jesus was God? My young self didn’t have the courage to ask that question as a child, but my grown woman self most surely did. Today’s gospel syncs closely with our gospel reading from the third Sunday of Advent in that John is again reminding folks that he is not the Messiah and that the Messiah will baptize with the spirit. Jesus is baptized, but not for the same reasons that we are baptized – he is baptized as a symbol of the beginning of his public ministry. The words that close our gospel reading today are public words of affirmation of Jesus – who he is and what he was incarnate to do for the world.
When we think about our own baptisms, or those baptisms we have witnessed over the years, we find ourselves drawn back into the words spoken in the liturgy in which we recommit ourselves to our own baptismal covenant. We, like Jesus, also hear words of affirmation in our baptism. We are received into the household of God, and directed to confess our faith in Christ as we are marked as Christ’s own forever. We are changed as we are recognized as members of Christ’s body. This is more than just getting a little wet for Jesus on a particular day – this is a public affirmation of whose we are and that we are called into the world to share Christ’s love as we ourselves are reborn by the Holy Spirit.
But let’s be real – the Holy Spirit is not just a gentle nudge on our lives. The Holy Spirit takes us places that we might never imagine for ourselves. I spent 25 years as a teacher and school principal. I loved lay ministry and found my way into all kinds of roles within the church and in service in my community. After losing my mom to a brief but intense illness in 2012, I found myself being led by the Spirit in ways I could never have imagined. I began seeking new theological experiences, experimenting with a writing a blog on the weekly lectionary, and started feeling as if my career in education was no longer filling my bucket in the ways it had for all those many years. I was seeking….searching for the ways that God was calling me anew, and the voice of God took hold in ways I had not experienced before. I was unsettled. Unnerved. Unsure of things with which I had previously been quite sure. God was calling me into a new direction, and it was far from a gentle and soothing experience. Leaving behind my career to go through the discernment process which led me to seminary and the priesthood is not something I had ever imagined God would call me into, and I sometimes would find my sweet husband (who wasn’t experiencing a call of any sort), looking at me intently as if trying to figure out who I was after being with me for nearly a quarter of a century at that point. The path was not straight. The way was not clear. The journey was one of the hardest things I have done. And here I am – barely on the other side of my ordination, listening and praying for discernment in where God is calling me next.
I didn’t make my own decision about my baptism as an infant, and maybe that is true for you as well. But we each have the opportunity to make decisions today about how we might discern God is calling us into ministry in the church. It could be that we are meant to serve others through the activities of our upcoming day of service on MLK day. It might be that there is opportunity for you in a new lay ministry here at the Cathedral that is bubbling up inside, waiting for you to pray and discuss with a member of the clergy. It may be as simple as deciding to join the Good Book Club of the Episcopal Church as we read Paul’s letter to the Romans between now and Ash Wednesday to spend time with Scripture. Or perhaps you are still discerning a way to draw closer to God and share the love of Christ with someone.
I’m sure of this – God is calling each and every one of us into relationship and covenant. Stepping out in faith and living out our baptismal vows is what we are called to do, even when we are not sure exactly what that means today. I’ll leave you with one of my longtime favorite prayers from Thomas Merton, that may help you along the way:
My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
There are so many things to love about being a parent. Our own beloved Youth Minister, Mike Peterson and his wife Mary Bess, are spending their first Sunday as parents today, and I am confident they are staring into baby Theo’s sweet angelic face right this very minute, in awe of how much they love him already. That is, unless they are “resting their eyes” and catching a few moments of silence as Theo sleeps away much of the daylight hours, saving up his energy for the “after-midnight show” he is sure to put on for his parents tonight. Those first days are so full of love that in hindsight, we can almost forget the exhaustion and the piles of laundry and missed meals, once that phase of parenting moves on to the next. Many new parents often remark that they didn’t know how much they could love another person until they first laid eyes on their children. These times of utter adoration are surely intentional in God’s plan for creation, because they are often all we have to sustain ourselves as our children grow up to push the boundaries, working hard to separate themselves from identifying as only our children – focusing instead on becoming individual people with lives all their own. As I reflect on this as an empty-nester parent, I can maybe….just maybe….get a glimpse into the tremendous and often complicated kind of love God must feel for us as God’s own creation.
The lectionary can be a rough place for both the preacher and the laity. Sometimes, it delivers passages of scripture that are hard to hear, challenging to understand, and difficult to find meaning within. And sometimes, the lectionary has an almost magical quality, starting in some of our earliest texts and following a winding and connected path that gets us to the message of the Good News of Christ. Today we have a bit of both with which to contend. In today’s lectionary readings, we trace a progression which leads us to Jesus as the anointed one. We start out in the Hebrew scriptures with a flowery description of a seemingly perfect expression of love, then move into the portion of the psalter from Psalm 45. In this psalm, one of the collection of so-called Royal Psalms, God is showing an abundance of radical love in the anointing of his servant through an outpouring of kinship with God our true king. In James, we hear of Christ’s birth as the “word of truth,” bringing us all the way to the divinity of Christ found in the gospel of Mark. This culmination of the Godship of Jesus is at the heart of this evangelist’s interpretation of who Jesus is for God’s people.
Jesus is having none of the foolishness of the Pharisees. In reading and studying this gospel selection, I felt a little like an outsider stepping into someone’s family drama—midstream. The Pharisees are desperate to hang on to their authority, and they do that the only way they know how – they throw down the rule of law to Jesus and his disciples. For reasons that no longer exist in our modern world, which is filled with antibacterial soap, refrigeration, and a plethora of chemical additives which work to keep us from getting sick from our food, these religious purity laws were intended in part to keep folks free from illness. And Jesus responds to their authority with an authority that can only come from God….and he challenges them the way all outdated and unnecessary laws that burden our society, especially burdening those in the margins, should be challenged. He turns their purity codes LITERALLY INSIDE OUT.
For it is our insides – our thoughts, words, and deeds, which are of concern to Jesus, and he has no problem naming a few handfuls of examples of ways we live out our own selfish desires. Ways that we live out our desires that serve to separate us from God – ways that are solely, our OWN doing. Like the Pharisees, we worry about how something “looks” from the outside….perhaps spending more of our energy and chatter on our judgment of how things may appear. We lament the state of the world today (thinking and saying things like…kids these days, or bemoaning the behavior of government officials, or arguing about whether taking a knee is appropriate during the national anthem)….we take dangerous risks when we focus on someone else’s outsides instead of our very own and often quite flawed insides.
“You must understand this, my beloved; let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” These words from our Epistle reading today from the book of James exhort us to action, to “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” Peter Rhea Jones, a Baptist pastor and seminary professor remarks that we as Christians would do well to eschew the “deception of passive faith,” as we cast our eyes toward how OTHERS should be behaving rather than standing and carefully examining our OWN selves in the reflection in the mirror. Who are we….really? Who are we reflecting in our life and work? To whom do we belong? And if we KNOW whose we are, then what are we called to do and who are we called to become?
As doers of the word, we will never be without fault. We are still human, still with tendencies toward selfish actions and judgments. But what would it look like if we were all committed to REALLY being DOERS OF THE WORD. Jesus challenges the religious beliefs of the day with an attempt to redirect back to God those who are within earshot of his words. Back to God’s radical love of God’s people. Back to the scriptures they knew so well; reminding them, and by extension reminding US that we are to honor God with our hearts as well as our lips. And honoring God, bringing ourselves back into the membership of the communion of saints is to RE-MEMBER that we must accept God’s love AND send out God’s love to all. While we are individuals with our own talents, callings, and gifts, we are united together in community with God and sent forth to spread love with our words and our actions. We must worry less about what is on the outside of those we meet and look at them in love, the way that God most surely sees us with God’s own eyes.
While Theo Peterson is just starting on life’s journey this week, our country carved out some significant time this same week to celebrate the lives of two very different, yet iconic figures in our society in Aretha Franklin and John McCain. Neither was perfect. Neither claimed to be. But both were remembered as people who loved. They were people of action, albeit in very different ways. They were doers: Aretha using her position in tangible ways during the Civil Rights Movement; McCain using his platform to hold others accountable for truth. They were imperfect in life but created by God and surely welcomed at the feet of Jesus when their earthly life was finished. They were so loved by God and as evidenced by the ways they have been honored in death, they loved and led others in ways that brought about change in their respective worlds.
We are created by God. Loved by God. Anointed by God. Bestowed with gifts and talents from God. Empowered by the gift of Christ to go forth and spread love into the world. We are doers of the Word. How will you be remembered? How will the church of God be known in the world today? We know to whom we belong, and starting within our own selves, we can and we must work to join with Christ as we are called to do. Called to join with Christ to bring about Christ’s kingdom. Lord, what will you have me do?
(Originally posted on the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas Blog March 16, 2018)
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”
I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.”
When a parable appears in more than one gospel text, it can be intended as a significant and important message for the followers of Christ. Jesus used parables as teaching tools for his Jewish followers who were trying to understand a new and somewhat confusing way of understanding who Jesus was and what it would mean to be a follower and disciple of Christ. That we have these two parables recorded by the evangelists in both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke helps to clarify the parable’s meaning as conveyed through their distinct styles. The evangelists in both gospels write to give authority to Jesus early in his ministry, after he spent time in the desert and gathered his earliest disciples. Christ’s divine authority would be necessary for the followers to understand as they joined in ministry with Jesus and by doing so, entered unfamiliar territory peppered with unfettered criticism and even looming danger.
Matthew’s version of this parable appears in the text immediately following the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus is teaching about the way of life necessary to be a follower of Christ. In that famous selection, the door is cracked and a peek at Jesus’s authority of God is visible with close study. The parable shapes a brief yet powerful image of God’s will for God’s people, embedding into that imagery the authoritative nature of God and therefore of Jesus Christ. And once you can know Christ, then you are compelled to follow Christ. This would have been an unveiling of a newer view of who Jesus was as holding the authority of God, and happened when he was still quite early in his ministry. That authority is strong like a rock, not a shifting or uneven or fleeting authority and it will be on that rock that the church itself will be built. And Jesus makes clear that hearing and following any other authority than that of Christ’s is foolish indeed.
Luke’s rendition of this parable is absent any indicator of who is wise and who is foolish, and adds to Matthew’s reference to building on rock by hearing and following Christ. This evangelist chooses to include the meaning of rock as the foundation for building one’s house, a concept that would have been foreign to those living in ancient Palestine where building any building on solid footing would have been a challenge. This is significant to note, because what Jesus was teaching was quite different than what these believers were accustomed to hearing, and imagery like this would have been more impactful to them then it might be to modern day home dwellers who understand that building a strong house on a strong foundation is a given. The Greek understanding of this usage of foundation is that it is something that is physically laid down. Luke’s addition of this description is helpful in understanding that there is a physical response to hearing Christ’s words and then acting upon them, and in doing so, making your faith stronger and shoring oneself up against the storms of a raging river that each of us is bound to encounter in our life’s journey.
“If I wanted to have a happy garden, I must ally myself with my soil; study and help it to the utmost, untiringly. Always, the soil must come first.”
– Marion Cran, If I Were Beginning Again
The wise words above from Marion Cran come out of years of tending her garden and the wisdom she gained and shared in her role as the first gardening radio broadcaster in Great Britain. Cran spent her life doing important work for the British government in the early 20th century, and it would not be a stretch to think that this quote from her love of gardening influenced her work beyond just biological soil. For us who read this parables, Cran’s quote is helpful to understand the fundamental teaching of these two parables. Allying oneself to the soil is another way to imagine hearing the teaching of Jesus Christ and then inhabiting that teaching ourselves, putting those teachings first and foremost in our hearts, minds, bodies, and souls. It’s impossible to go wrong when we adhere to Christ’s teachings. No river or rains, no floods or winds, cannot be overcome by the power of Christ Jesus.
John 1:43-51 (NRSV)
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
Our daughter started getting serious about looking at colleges when she was a sophomore in high school. Since she really didn’t have a particular focus about what she was looking for in a school at that point in time, we visited a bunch of schools, trying to find the one that made her feel like she could see herself living there. I remember people give her lots of advice about which schools would be best, after they asked her that age-old question, “So, have you decided where you are going to college?” The most common category of advice she received was to be sure to choose a college that would help her in her chosen vocational career. Things like, “this is the best school for this degree,” and “choose this college because the alumni network will help you get a job after graduation.” Many people offered her that advice as critical and central to her decision-making process; asserting that her choice would forever mark her as being FROM that school. Their reasoning centered on how a particular place would make all the difference when she graduated and entered the world in her chosen field.
Being from a place like Nazareth didn’t exactly lend credibility to Jesus’ ministry; as he traveled, teaching and challenging the religious and social status quo. Today’s gospel reading speaks to this directly, as Nathanael asks Philip the question, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael doesn’t know a thing in the world about Jesus and likely little or nothing about the folks in Nazareth either. Philip was likely a fisherman, since he lived in the fishing town of Bethsaida and was a friend of Andrew and Peter. So maybe Nathanael and Philip were fishing buddies. Those particular details don’t make it into this story….just the invitation by Philip to come and see Jesus. Nathanael’s encounter with Jesus comes with very little build up….he was found by Philip, who told him only one thing….“We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” And accepting that invitation from Philip put Nathanael face-to-face with Jesus.
This gospel is the only one of the four gospels where Nathanael is referred to as one of Jesus’ disciples. And it is in today’s reading that we see his transformation from unknowing doubter to follower of Jesus. Maybe you can relate. In our home, one of us is most decidedly a skeptic who needs lots of information and options before making decisions. Thank goodness for that, because the other one of us would otherwise tumble headlong into whatever exciting and shiny thing happened to grab her attention! But Nathanael goes along with Philip anyway, even though he didn’t seem to think much could come of the opportunity to meet this Jesus. And Jesus recognizes Nathanael’s character immediately. He sees Nathanael as someone without deceit –someone who innocently approached Jesus and who was NOT there to give Jesus a hard time. And Jesus says as much to Nathanael, and then tells him how he already knows him. It was all Nathanael needed to hear.
And just like that, Nathanael is transformed. Jesus reveals who he is to Nathanael in less time than it took us to brush our teeth this morning. Nathanael becomes the first of the disciples in the Gospel of John to REALLY KNOW who Jesus is. We know this because he immediately calls him Rabbi – a sign of respect for Jesus as a Jewish teacher. He then calls Jesus the Son of God and the King of Israel. He makes a distinction that heretofore has not been made, linking the humanity of Christ with the kingship of God. This link is the first move in this Gospel to connect Christ to the reign of God over all creation. Something good indeed was coming out of Nazareth for us all.
So why did Nathanael even ask if anything good can come out of places like Nazareth? Places where people have less power and influence? Places where people don’t look like you or talk like you or don’t live the way you do? Intellectually, we know those kinds of questions come from a place of insecurity and fear, rather than from the actual reality of the place or the people.
I have a clergy friend who continuously reminds his parishioners how the most beautiful and powerful things often come out of places of brokenness. So it was with Martin Luther King, Jr, the commemoration of whose birthday we celebrate tomorrow and who is a saint celebrated in the church on April 4th, the anniversary of his assassination. As he worked relentlessly for justice and equality for our African American sisters and brothers, it is not too hard of a stretch for us to imagine that he may have had times when he wondered what good could come out of such broken places. He recalls these feelings in the text known as his “vision in the kitchen,” from his book Stride Toward Freedom. He wrote:
“I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud.
The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. “I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”
At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: “Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”
Good things come from all places because God created us and called us good. And who are we to ever disparage a place or people, or consider them as somehow inferior to us or anything less than good????? In the closing lines of today’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells Nathanael, “you will see greater things than these” and “you will see heaven opened and angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” And Jesus is talking to us all with these words. The “you” that we hear in these verses is not the singular usage in Greek, but rather the plural. Think of it as “y’all will see greater things” and “y’all will see heaven opened and angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” With a heart like Nathanael, innocent and willing to step headlong into something that makes no sense or is inconvenient to us or out of our comfort zone, we too will be a light to the world. Like Nathanael and like Martin Luther King, Jr, we too will hear God calling us to serve others and to live into our calling as created and saved and redeemed children of God.
What good can come from Nazareth, indeed. It is not our homes and countries of origin which define us. It is not our family heritage that gives us our worth. Even our vocations are not the way that we are known to Christ. Rather, it is how we are created and choose to live out our Christian calling and faith in the world. Tomorrow, over 90 of our parishioners are signed up to serve in our community. And I know the rest of you will be holding us and those we will be serving in prayer, either with us at our Morning Prayer worship at 8:30am in the chapel or wherever you are throughout the day. This is more than just a bunch of service opportunities – these needs and so many others exist in our community every single day. Dr. King had a vision of a Beloved Community, and the Episcopal Church is working hard to live into that vision. We at Chapel of the Cross have committed to putting our faith into action, to reaching out into the community; into places and with people who are depending on us to live into our calling as followers of Christ. Like Nathanael, we may not know what to expect. We may have some trepidation and even some fear of the unknown. But Christ assures us today that we will see great things, including the face of Christ in those we meet tomorrow and every other day in our daily life and work.
Good things come from God in creation, and we are called to work with Christ to redeem and restore creation. It all starts with the Philips of the world….who tell the Nathanaels of the world about Christ in the world. At our kitchen tables, and in our own times of doubt and wonderings, we too can pray to God for strength to do what God is calling us to do. And then Christ, the Rabbi, the Son of God and the King of Israel, shows us the one true way again and again. AMEN.
Thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.
Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.
I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken. Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
The brain is one of the greatest parts of the created self. Its complex design, its capacity to take in information and attempt to make sense of it, and its role as the driver of our thoughts and actions are fascinating and mysterious. One of those very unique aspects of our brain function is our spatial awareness. Spatial awareness is the ability to make sense out of what we encounter. Our spatial awareness helps us connect data points as we create mental images and maps of the world around us. When it is functioning appropriately, we can find our way around town, pick the right entrance at the mall, and choose the most direct route to our destination. When something is off, or we are missing a significant data point, our spatial awareness can lead us in the wrong direction or down unsafe paths. And feeling lost is one of the worst feelings in the world.
This Sunday is the celebration of Christ the King. It is the last Sunday of the liturgical year, the grand finale if you will, before we start the new liturgical year with Advent I next Sunday. A brilliant way to understand the authority and intent of the kingship of Christ is in the reading this week from Ezekiel, even though the incarnate Christ had not yet been revealed. Through the words of the prophet, God is revealed as the shepherd of God’s people. And we Christians know that the great shepherd of the flock is revealed to us in the life and ministry of Jesus. The prophet Ezekiel is living amongst the exiled Israelites, a people who have been rescued from slavery but have wandered and felt lost in the desert for what surely must have seemed like a lifetime. His prophecy is a message of hope to a lost people.
We may not physically live in a geographical desert today, but we are often a lost people ourselves. We rely on our spatial awareness to do something for us that the created self simply cannot do. Although we are created by God, we are lost without Jesus, who is both our great shepherd and our king. Jesus will search for us, rescue us from ourselves, and lead us to the kingdom when we cannot find our way. For it is in God’s kingdom that we are redeemed through the death and resurrection of Christ. When we are safely under the kingship of Christ, we sit at God’s right hand. And we never find ourselves lost again.
God created humanity and calls us through our baptism into covenant. It is within that covenantal context that we are “fed with justice” as Ezekiel says. This justice is like no human justice at all, but rather is a justice that forgives us our sins and reconciles us with God though we cannot ever deserve such gifts. And a reconciled people are then called to go out into the world and extend that justice to others through love. Today’s Gospel writer conveys what that is to look like, as we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the imprisoned. For we are all members of the body of Christ, found and claimed by Christ our King.
Here is a little glimpse into the history of St. Matthew, the saint whose feast we keep today. In the liturgical calendar, the Feast of St. Matthew is celebrated every September 21st, to honor St. Matthew and his dual roles as an Evangelist and an Apostle. The title of evangelist comes from his assumed authorship of the Gospel of Matthew, the first book in the New Testament, although scholars have cast significant doubt that he was the actual writer himself. He is also among the lists of apostles found in each one of the four books of the Gospel. The story we heard today about his calling by Jesus to be an apostle is a story that is mirrored in Luke and Mark, although he is only called by the name Matthew in today’s reading from the Gospel of the same name. His vocation was as a tax collector, one of those jobs that is certainly not popular today, but was seen as downright scandalous in the days of Roman occupation, particularly if the tax collector happened to be Jewish. It was a position that Jews viewed as disloyal at best, and significantly corrupt and immoral at its worst. So it might not be clear why we have a feast day to honor one of the most famous tax collectors and not-necessarily-authors-of-a-gospel of all time! Now, I have never been a tax collector…I wouldn’t know how to even begin doing the math necessary for a job like that. But I did spend the majority of my vocational career as a school principal. When I would answer the “what do you do for a living” question with “I’m a school principal,” it would inevitably prompt a story in return. That story might be a negative one, about their experience with their principal if they were a student who was often in trouble; or they might have shared an story full of emotions about their own child’s experience with a principal at their school. More often than not, the story was not about how much everyone loves school principals, especially if they have ever answered the phone and heard the principal’s voice on the other end of the call! While nowhere near the vilification of the role of a tax collector, and to be fair, most of my interactions with parents, children, and teachers were overwhelmingly loving and positive, I do have some sympathy for Matthew and his role in society. But this reading is not really about Matthew and what he says. In fact, you may have noticed that Matthew never even speaks at all in today’s pericope. He simply gets up, and follows Jesus when Jesus says the words, “Follow me.” And the sinners in this story….I wonder who the sinners really are? The Pharisees are sure they know….those tax collectors and other ruffians are sinners for sure. But Jesus’ message of mercy, and calling of those who are sinners, rather than those who are righteous, paint another picture entirely. It is said that Matthew followed Jesus, leaving behind his vocation as a tax collector but bringing with him a pen, bringing with him the very best of himself and turning his back on the parts that are not needed in a relationship with Christ. Each of us has gifts and talents that were instilled in us and that we have either nurtured ourselves or been led to explore and practice. Now, what can we do with those gifts to serve God in God’s kingdom? Rather than spending time looking around in judgment as the Pharisees did, we are called to follow Christ. There is no room for parsing out who we deem deserves to be called and who does not. There is no need for classifying others as outsider Christians, or looking toward some who are following Jesus with disdain as if they don’t deserve such to have such an honor. Instead, there is space at the dinner table with Jesus for each and every one of us. We only need to step out in faith as Matthew did and join in the feast. I leave you with the words from the Motto of The Daughters of the King, a religious order of women who devote themselves to prayer, service, and evangelism. In hearing it today, may it honor the life of St. Matthew and all of us who yearn to follow Jesus: For His Sake… I am but one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. What I can do, I ought to do. What I ought to do, by the grace of God I will do. Lord, what will you have me do?
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The Coming of the Holy Spirit
2 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
Peter Addresses the Crowd
14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
The image of fire invokes strong responses from people. Being warmed by a fire on a cold winter’s night is a comforting feeling; seeing a fire burn through a hillside during fire season strikes fear in our hearts. The heat of a fire can keep you alive and it can take away your life in a flash. Vivid images, both positive and negative, come from just hearing about the word fire.
The Bible is full of stories about fire and the way God uses it to get our attention. Moses and the burning bush, where God makes a very clear point about what he wants Moses to go and do for the people of Israel. The story in Daniel of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego coming out of a furnace completely unscathed after Nebuchadnezzar attempts to get all to worship him, only to find himself declaring to the people that all should worship God alone. And the story above from Luke’s writings in Acts, describing a confusing and maybe quite terrifying day when the Lord sent the Holy Spirit to live among the people, with each person present receiving tongues of fire on them.
We can’t begin to understand the power of God and when we try, we always will fall short because our human minds just can’t comprehend the power and glory of our Father. But I would venture to say that he uses fire in those three examples to get our attention. Quite successfully, don’t you think? I’m sure that God can create any sort of imagery possible, but these three examples were transformative to those who witnessed them.
On the day of Pentecost, seven weeks (about 50 days) after Jesus’ resurrection, over 100 of his disciples were gathered together to pray. Jesus was already gone to be with the Father and a loud rush of wind entered the place where they were. Were they scared? I bet they were! Wind…then fire? Then everyone speaking in different languages and onlookers (who were those folks, I wonder???) thinking they were drunk at 9 in the morning! Then Peter addressed the crowd, reminding everyone of the prophet Joel’s words about God sending his Spirit to help spread the knowledge of God to all. I am pretty sure that quieted down the doubters!
All the different languages, the rush of wind and the fire – pretty hefty imagery. And for good reason – those 120 folks were to go out and evangelize to the world and that legacy continues today to Christians everywhere. It does little good in furthering God’s kingdom to rest on our faith while others wander through life without knowing the love of God. Evangelism is a pretty scary word for many Christians (especially us Episcopalians), but it really is pretty simple. Live God’s word in your life. Love your neighbor. Tell how Jesus has changed your life. Pray for others. No need to yell and scream, to judge or condemn; just love.
I may not have a visible tongue of flame visible around me, but I am called to do the same things as those folks on the day of Pentecost over 2000 years ago. Go out in the world and share the Good News.
Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth. O, God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit, we may be truly wise and ever enjoy His consolations, Through Jesus Christ Our Lord. AMEN
The Mission of the Seventy
10 After this the Lord appointed seventy[a] others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. 2 He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. 3 Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. 4 Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. 5 Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ 6 And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. 7 Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. 8 Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; 9 cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’[b]
As long as I have known my Mother-in-Law, she has been a worrier. We have a joke in our house that we can just tell her our worries and she’ll free us up to live without the worry anymore, because she is doing all the worrying FOR us! But in reality, worrying just gets in the way of our close relationship with Christ, because worrying is the very thing Jesus tells these early evangelists NOT to do as he sends them to unknown destinations to spread the word of God to unbelievers in a time where it was inherently dangerous to do so. Sending them out “like lambs in the midst of wolves” speaks of Jesus knowing full well the dangers that each of us face as we carry our torch of faith into the broken and misguided world in which we live. Yet he asks us to press on, just as he directed these seventy chosen faithful when he told them to stay put, no matter the welcome.
But let’s be real. If I am in an uncomfortable setting, the last thing I want to do is to stay there! And who likes to be rejected when we try to form new relationships and step out of our comfort zones? But if we stand firm in our beliefs and listen to God as He calls us into the world to do the work of the Holy Spirit, even when we we are sincerely uncomfortable, He reminds us that we are sharing the Kingdom and our works may not produce the fruit we want, but rather what HE wants. And when you think about it, growth is uncomfortable!
Stay strong, dear followers of Jesus. For as we go out into the world, Jesus reminds us that in doing so, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” How can we want more for our world if we worry about going out into that world? We are armed with faith and love and that really is all we need to make a difference.
Father, send us out into your Kingdom to do your good works. We give our worries up to you. Guide us and protect us in Jesus’ name. Amen.