That precious gem

Luke 10:38-42

I was talking with someone this week about the upcoming Bible passages, and I mentioned Martha and Mary. She immediately turned to me and said with slight disgust, “I cannot stand that story! It is one of my least favorite stories!” Another member of our congregation, as we were zipping along on the S-bahn said, “I love that story. I identify so much with Martha, it’s such a good reminder for me. But yet, I still find it confusing. What are we supposed to do?” Many people, myself included, feel bruised, confused, or frustrated by this passage.

For some of you it may be a favorite story, but for others it does not hold a special place in your heart. When taken out of context, it seems to force us into a choice- we either have to be “Mary people” or we’re “Martha people”. We have to be active and serving, or we have to be quiet, reflective, and willing to sit and listen fo  r hours. When we don’t seem to fit the boxes, the choice becomes that much more frustrating. What is Jesus really trying to say here? Do we really have to be one type of person or the other? This story seems to carry a lot of emotional baggage.

And so, I want to take a few moments and talk about what this story is NOT. It may seem like a strange way to begin a sermon, but I think it might be of help as we clear out some of those theological cobwebs. It might help us reinterpret the hurtful ways that this story has been read for us sometimes in the past. It might help sweep aside some of the guilt, fear, and angst about “whether we’re doing the right thing”. It might help us clear off a couple of those layers of confusion as we look together for that “precious gem”- that central piece of good news and gospel that is saturated through and through the word of God. And so, bear with me as I go through three things that this story is not.

First of all, and this might be a shock, this is NOT a story just about women. It is not entirely about how women should or should not behave at home. It is not entirely a story about what sorts of jobs women should take or not take. It is not about how to be a ‘proper homemaker’. Of course, this story has been used in recent history to talk about women’s roles- the debates around the ordination of women is one example of how in has been reinterpreted responsibly to give biblical insights our context. However, just as a story about James, John and Peter isn’t only about men, this story isn’t only about women. So, men, if you took a look at the gospel and thought you were off the hook for the week, it’s okay to go ahead and start listening again. This story, like much of the Bible, has something to say for all of us!

Second, it is NOT just story about sibling rivalry. The problem with taking this story out of context is that it allows us to pit Mary against Martha, Martha against Mary. It seems to set up this duality between the two characters, sisters by birth but acting as enemies in front of one they both love and adore. In the paraphrased words of one preacher, David Lose, “Every family has someone who acts like Mary. Mine was my aunt. She’s perfectly willing to just sit there, even to sit and watch others do the yard work. It drives me nuts. That doesn’t mean that Martha was right, but it doesn’t mean that my aunt is right either!” When we take this story as fuel for the fire of ongoing family feuds, we do just exactly what Jesus was warning against. Again, this story is not just for those with cranky siblings- it has something to say for all of us!

Third, it is NOT a story about two polar opposites. This, I think, is the ultimate pitfall of this text. We want to make it black and white. Mary was right and Martha was wrong. That means sitting is right and working hard is wrong. There should be a direct formula, right? In this situation, do this. In another situation, do that. We would like Jesus to give us some clear cut rules. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately for us, Jesus refuses to be put into that little box. Last week, we talked about the Good Samaritan. How can it be that just a few verses earlier, Jesus was busy praising one who was going out of his way to provide hospitality, stopping on the road in a dangerous spot to care for another? And then here, we have Jesus praising Mary for sitting at his feet and listening, and criticizing Martha for being too concerned with hospitality.

I read a story this week, a story about a little boy, a story that may give us some insight.

In times past, people used icehouses to preserve their food. Icehouses had thick walls, no windows, and a tightly fitted door. In winter, when streams and lakes were frozen, large blocks of ice were cut, hauled to the icehouses, and covered with sawdust.  Often the ice would last well into the summer.  One man lost a valuable watch while working in an icehouse.  He searched diligently for it, carefully raking through the sawdust, but didn’t find it.  His fellow workers also looked, but their efforts, too, proved futile.  A small boy who heard about the fruitless search slipped into the icehouse during the noon hour and soon emerged with the watch. Amazed, the men asked him how he found it. “I closed the door,” the boy replied, “lay down in the sawdust, and kept very still.  Soon I heard the watch ticking.”

In this story, it wasn’t that the active searchers were doing something wrong. They were diligently looking for something precious and lost. The boy, though, found another method that worked better- he sat still and listened. The thing I want to highlight about this story is that both the searchers and the boy were concerned with one thing- the watch. That was the precious treasure that they were determined to find, the boy sought out a new method. In the story of Mary and Martha and the story of the good Samaritan, we have a precious treasure, just like the watch was a precious treasure to the man. That precious treasure is what Jesus refers to when he says, “Mary has chosen the better part, and it shall not be taken away from her.” But what is that precious treasure for us? What is that better part? What is that precious jewel that we have been searching out?

When I was working as a director for children’s ministries, I taught the 9- and 10- year old class Sunday school each week. All of the sudden, one day, the kids realized that to any question I might ask, there was a pretty good chance that the answer was “Jesus!” No matter the question, if they didn’t know the answer they would shout out this name. If that didn’t work, they would try “God?”, “The Holy Spirit?”. It was a beautiful sound- and no matter how old we get, it still is a good “educated guess”. “Jesus!” This holds true for this lesson as well. Jesus is that precious jewel we have been searching for. Jesus is the one that centers all of our stories, whether stories of action or stories of sitting at Jesus feet, poised in the position of one becoming a disciple as Mary was doing. What Jesus commends Mary for, and chastises Martha for having forgotten, is that He is the ‘better part’. His words are what ground us; his face is the one we search for as we serve our neighbor in need. He is the precious treasure we seek.

How then, do we know what is needed? How do we hear when action is called for and when we are called to sit at the feet of our Lord and Savior? Fred Cradock says it this way, “If we censure Martha too harshly, she may abandon serving altogether, and if we commend Mary too profusely, she may sit there forever. There is a time to go and do; there is a time to listen and reflect. Knowing which and when is a matter of spiritual discernment. If we were to ask Jesus which example applies to us, the Samaritan or Mary, his answer would probably be Yes.” Sometimes we are called to search diligently, full of action, turning the house upside down like the old woman looking for the lost coin or those sifting through the sawdust. But sometimes we are to lie and listen patiently, listening like Samuel in the dark for the words of the Lord or like that little boy for the near silent click of time passing by. In either way, or somewhere in between, God promises to guide us as a cherished child, with us no matter how the journey goes.

This week in Stuttgart, the Lutheran World Federation will meet together for an assembly of 140 national churches. Lutherans from all over the world will convene together to discuss diverse and sometimes controversial topics, from AIDS to climate change, from illegitimate debt to homosexuality to food security for all. For this group of bishops, pastors, teachers, and worshipers, there is one seemingly unexpected topic on the table: Forgiveness. This group is expected to adopt a statement of apology to the Mennonites for Lutheran persecution of them in the 16th century, including Martin Luther’s own inflammatory rhetoric. And in response, the Mennonites are expected to present a gift of an old basin. This gift of an old basin is a strange one indeed, not something we would expect to receive from a friend at Christmas or a family member on a birthday, or anyone ever for that matter! An old basin shows signs of use. It has been rubbed on the edges, worn smooth by washing and scrubbing. Perhaps it is cracked from years of hot and cold water, from the continual process of drying out and being filled up with water that causes the wood to swell, expand, shrink again. Like Martha and the Samaritan it has served and worked hard in its day, a symbol of footwashing and very hard work. But now, it will be used as a sign of receiving forgiveness, perhaps the most passive thing we can do. As two denominations- two old siblings like Martha and Mary- try to reconcile their past wrongs, this old basin of service becomes a symbol of forgiveness. The two are forever intertwined seeking that ‘better part’ in Jesus.

Today, as we gather around the table this morning, we come into the presence of one who is always with us, whether we are acting and doing, serving and moving, whether we are reflecting and learning, listening and paying close attention, or whether we are still discerning what is needed for us now. We come to the table to glimpse a foretaste of a gift of a feast eternal, one where all siblings will be reconciled, all differences between denominations and nations removed, and all past wrongs forgiven and washed clean and smooth as an old basin. We come today to share a meal, crumbs of break, sips of wine, foretastes of that ‘better part’- Jesus in our midst. Come and see that God is good! Amen.


The Word is very near to you!

C Pentecost 7

Luke 10:25-37

A typical dinner conversation in my family might have gone like this:

Me: “Lima beans, again?  I am not eating those.  Do I have to??” 

Mom: “Yes, ma’am.  Two good bites will do.”

Me: “How many lima beans are in a ‘good bite’”?

Mom: “Don’t push your luck, Kate, just eat them.”

Me: “Yeah, okay, but how many?”

Mom: “Fine, ten lima beans.”


As a kid, like many children are, I was concerned about the rules.  I wasn’t really trying to be indignant or insolent, I just wanted to know exactly what I had to do to still be able to eat dessert.  I wanted to know exactly how many of those dreaded lima beans I had to eat to fulfill the requirements- I did not want to eat too few to be allowed a treat, and I certainly was not going to eat any more than I had to, no way!


This morning, in our gospel story, we hear about a lawyer.  This lawyer comes to Jesus with a question.  Like us as children, and even like us as adults, he wants to know exactly what he has to do, precisely how far he must go to follow the rules.  I do not believe he was trying to be adversarial or terribly argumentative against Jesus- after all, he does call him “Teacher”.  This lawyer just needed to know the facts- exactly how many lima beans he had to eat to get through those pearly gates of heaven.  He asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  When I was a kid, I already knew the answer when I begged not to eat something.  I knew a “two good bites” was what was always required.  And just like me as a child, this lawyer already knows the answer.  Jesus turns his question back to him, and asks, “What is written in the law?  What do you read there?”  The lawyer gets the answer right, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”  “Do this,” Jesus says, “and you will live”. 


Love the Lord your God with your whole being, and love your neighbor as yourself.  Just two simple rules, that is all that is required.  In fact, we see another version of this commandment in our first lesson, in Deuteronomy.  There we read, “turn to the Lord your God with all your heart”- another way to say part of this same commandment.  The author points out that this should be an easy thing to do.  He says, “Surely this commandment is not to hard for you, or too far away.  It is not up in heaven, nor is it across the sea.  See, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and on your heart”.  He makes it sound so easy, doesn’t he? 


But the problem is that we get in the way.  The lawyer wants to know exactly how many lima beans he needs to eat.  He needs to know exactly how many neighbors he needs to love.  We too, want to know just exactly how much we need to love God.  Surely not with our whole hearts?  That does sound way too hard!  We also have all of these hidden lima beans.  We have those places where we need to know just how much we must do to squeak by.  Just how nice do I need to be to my mother in law this week?  Just how many secret grudges can I get by holding?  Who is really my neighbor?  Where are those hidden places, places where you already know what God is calling you to do, and yet you hold back, waiting to hear just how many beans it will cost?


It’s part of our human desire- as Christians we turn to God, and yet there is always part of our human selves that wants to be in charge, to be in control of our own nature.  Jesus makes it clear- the rules of his righteousness can’t be settled that easily.  But Jesus doesn’t require a whole new set of laws and regulations.  He doesn’t add difficult lima-bean-counting tasks to the disciples’ already difficult lives.  Rather, he calls them into a new kind of righteousness, and he does that by doing what he knows best- telling a story.


The lawyer asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” and Jesus answers with a story.  This is one of the best known stories in the world, even though Luke is the only Evangelist who records it.  It has the classic element of characters in threes.  It has danger, suspense, and good wins in the end.  But if you look closely, the answer that the story gives is not quite answer the question.  The story Jesus tells us answers not, “Who is my neighbor?” but rather “What does a neighbor do?”


“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor?”  The man answers, “The one who showed compassion.” Compassion is a word that means “suffering with.”  This word has the same root as Christ’s passion, Christ’s suffering.  But the other part of the word is just as important, that little word, with.  To be with someone, even in suffering, is what being a neighbor means. 


The point is, righteousness is not about doing everything right, checking the right boxes, crossing the right t’s, and eating the prescribed number of beans.  Righteousness is about being willing to take the risks to feel others pain.  It’s about being willing to cross the road to help someone else, even if that someone else is not in our ethnic group, our social economic class, our denomination, our religion, our gender, or our language abilities.  It’s about being willing to be with someone else, even when the going gets really tough.  It’s about having com-passion, having the guts, even when it gets hard, to say, “I’m here for you, even if I’m not entirely sure what I’m supposed to do to help”.


Take a look again at the Deuteronomy passage.  There the author shows us that following God’s word isn’t difficult, even when sometimes it seems like it is.  And the reason he gives for it being easy is this: “The word of the Lord is very near to you.”  The word of the Lord is very near to you- what a radical thing to say! God’s word is with us!  In John, we hear, the word of the Lord become flesh and lived among them.  The word of the Lord is Jesus, living and breathing among the disciples and still living and breathing among us. How amazing that we have a savior who is here with us, even now! 


A theologian pointed out that we do not know what happened to this young lawyer who asked such good questions of Jesus.  She suggested that maybe he kept traveling along the road with Jesus, sharing this story with everyone he met, telling it with joy, excitement, and yes, compassion!  As that lawyer went from that place, he had a hard challenge offered to him.  His view on who he is, who God is, and who his neighbor is, were probably shaken quite a bit!  And yet, he did not have to go on alone.  He went walking with Jesus, one who would ultimately have compassion on him and suffer for him and  for all of us, and rise again to walk on the road to Damascus.  He went out as a new neighbor,  into the freedom of living a new way in Christ!


Today we go out into the world with new neighbors as well.  We go knowing that God has called us to be his neighbor, loved us enough to send his only Son for our sake, and even eaten every last lima beans on our plate.   And we go, like that lawyer, with that glorious, joyful story to share with everyone we meet along the path.  Thanks be to God!


Grafted into Christ

C Pentecost 6

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

We are now in the season of Pentecost.  Most of us are familiar with the day of Pentecost- tongues of fire coming down upon the apostles, the disciples going out to preach to all in their own language.  This year we even sang Happy Birthday to the Church on that special day.  This is the day that we celebrate as the beginning of the life of the church, the moment when the Spirit entered and the followers began sharing the word of Christ’s resurrection.


But what about the season of Pentecost?  What is that about?  This is the longest season of the church year, with the fewest “holidays”.  It goes throughout the summer and well into the fall.  Why does it get so much time?


As you can see behind me, the color of Pentecost is green.  I often talk about the colors of the day in my sermons because they give us clues as to what sort of season we are celebrating.  When most people in the congregation were illiterate, they were meant to help people understand what was going on.  And now, even though most of us can read, they still help give us messages about the day or the season, if we learn how to “read” the symbols.  Pentecost is green because green is the color of growth.  Trees, grass, flowers, herbs, vegetables, all sorts of plants are green as they grow, a sign of health and vitality.  The growth we celebrate, though, is not necessarily the growth of the plants outside.  We celebrate the growth of the church.  From the church’s birthday on Pentecost Sunday, all the way through the fall and the beginning of advent, we are celebrating the growth of the church and the growth in us as followers of Christ.


This morning, growth is what Jesus is talking to his disciples about.  The disciples have made difficult decisions in order to follow Jesus.  At a time when following Jesus was a dangerous thing to do- even a crime against the state and a departure from family religion and traditions, the disciples have decided to pick up their sandals and hit the road.  They are ready to head out.  And now, Jesus has some wise words for them to guide their steps.


One professor at Luther Seminary in the Unites States asked her students to take a look at this advice.  She asked them to imagine themselves as one of the seventy.  What would be the most challenging part of the journey? Take a look at the list, there in your worship bulletin.  What would be most difficult for you? Many students had predictable answers: having no money, being expected to greet every house with peace, having no extra clothing, being out on the road for so long, being away from friends and family. 


Then came one answer that surprised her.  From a student who didn’t speak much in class, in the second row, she heard, “Eat what is set before you.”  The student then explained that this was the advice he was often given by his parents as a child.  He grew up in a very poor, rural area of South Dakota, the son of a pastor who would often make house visits.  When they would be invited out to dinner at one of his parishioner’s houses, they never knew what to expect.  It wasn’t just an issue of green vegetables or other foods that picky kids might not like. The farmers in the area would eat whatever they could kill or catch nearby, even for company. Squirrels, rabbits, and other wild animals were often on the menu.  Eat what is set before you!


Many of these pieces of advice seem strange to us.  We are not used to shaking dust off of our feet or expecting others to provide a bed for us when we arrive to a new town.  Our customs of hospitality have changed- but Jesus’ core message has not.  Going out and spreading the gospel requires hospitality.  It requires being both good givers of hospitality, but it also requires being a good guest.  “Hospitality” is the relationship between guest and host.  It is a two way street, both guest and host must act in certain ways to build a good relationship.  Hospitality requires some growth- like being asked to swallow something you’re not familiar with, it requires patience, humility, and a lot of maturity.


In the case of the disciples, this hospitality goes a bit further.  This hospitality is not on their own accord, because they have a desire to be “nice” or “kind” or “always friendly”.  This hospitality comes from a deeper source!  It comes because they were first welcomed.  They have been adopted into Christ’s family, filled with the Holy Spirit, and loved by God with an unending love.  This hospitality overflows when it is shared; God’s intention for love multiplies as we share in this creative journey.


What are the places where you are called to be more hospitable?  Perhaps, it is something as simple as “eat what is set before you”.  In our internet- and cell phone- driven lives, eating together can be a powerful gesture of hospitality.  It can be the perfect opportunity to share what God has been doing in our lives, to invite others into our home to hear their hopes, fears, and dreams for the future. 


Perhaps, the hospitality that is needed for you right now is within your own family.  Day by day, we learn negative behaviors and patterns.  Sometimes, those we love the most start to creep to the bottom of our priority list.  We treat those closest to us with contempt, impatience and unkind words.  Sometimes, hospitality, that cherished relationship between host and guest, needs to be re-cultivated right at home.


Or maybe, the hospitality you need the most is a hospitality toward yourself.  I know I blame myself for faults and mistakes, worry about things that might or might not happen, and get concerned with the little details of my own life.  Sometimes we need to give ourselves the hospitality God has already given us.  We need to be reminded that when we said confession this morning and heard “You are forgiven”, it is real!  We are forgiven, completely free to give ourselves the hospitality we give others.


This season of Pentecost is about growth.  Through these many “green” weeks, we will hear readings about how the church is growing in the life of Christ.  We, too, are invited into that story.  While we were not part of the original 70, we are still part of God’s plan for the world.  Hospitality is one way that we are invited into that story.  Last week, we heard about how serving God and serving others plays also into our journey of faith.  As we go on this summer, listen for ways that God is calling you into growth.  Where is your life expanding and growing, unfolding and changing?  How is God challenging you to grow this summer?


Each of you has a leaf.  As you leave this place, I invite you to write your name on the leaf and to add it to our tree.  There will be pens, tape, and instructions for you in the back.  This tree symbolizes our growth in Christ, grafted with hospitality and Christ’s love into a body of believers that is ever expanding, changing, and being molded by the Spirit.  Throughout this season of Pentecost, we are learning through our readings more and more about how the church grows.  We are also, though, learning more about how we grow as God’s children.  Like old, dead buds on tree branches that look dead, we go astray.  And yet time and again, God forgives us.  Jesus has cracked open those dead bulbs, once and for all, and promise to live with us forever as our new, green selves emerge at his bidding.  We are dead to sin and alive in Christ.  We are fed, nourished, and renewed.  Thanks be to God!


Jesus set his face upon Jerusalem


 C Pentecost 5

Luke 9: 51-62


What do you see when you look at this picture? 



Do you see a vase?  Or two faces? Perhaps you can see both, but only as you concentrate on one image at time.  Vase.  Faces.  Vase.  Faces.


This image is one of the most famous “figure-ground” illusions.  The image is drawn so that there are two pictures, one in the background (the faces) and one in the foreground (the vase).  Many people see one of the images at first, and only notice the second one when they are prompted or search for a long time.  Once the illusion is pointed out, we can see both images, but only one at a time.  Our brains are wired to handle only the important information at once and ignore the rest.  It’s hard for us to remind our brains that both images could be important.


When Jesus was asked the most important commandment in all of scriptures was, he had a simple answer.  However, he did not pick just one commandment.  He picked two.  “You shall love your God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself.” For Jesus, both pieces were integral.  They could not be separated out.  Loving God is loving your neighbor.  Serving God is serving your neighbor.  Just like the vase and the faces, while we might only see one piece at a time, we know they are both there.  The two figures are intertwined, you cannot have one without the other.


The disciples in our story this morning are also having a hard time holding these two things in their minds at once.  We hear two rather harsh stories.  In the first, the disciples enter a town that is hostile to them.  They have seen God’s power as they have been walking around Galilee.  They have participated in miracles, healings, and deeds of great power.  They know that this Jesus fellow is not someone to be messed with, so they propose and answer, “Do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?”


Here, I can just see Jesus rolling his eyes and shaking his head.  “C’mon guys!  Haven’t you been paying attention at all?  Serving God doesn’t mean shooting lightning bolts at the first guy that makes you mad- serving God means loving others.  It means serving others.  Just let ‘em be, and love them.  Fire, come on, really now?”


The second piece of this story is not so easy to stomach.  Here, the followers of Jesus have the opposite problem; they are so busy with their every day lives of family, work and having a place to live that they cannot serve God.  The picture Jesus paints is vivid- even painful- but the message is clear: we cannot serve God if we are too busy serving the things of this world, even when those things are people that we deeply care about.  Serving God means willing to risk following that call, even when the timing doesn’t seem right or the circumstances aren’t ideal.  I don’t think that Jesus means we shouldn’t participate in the funerals of our parents, or take time to tell family we love them, or even prepare a home or an apartment for ourselves.  Clearly these things can also be serving God- the problem is when we turn them into idols themselves.  They become more important to us than God.


But before we get too wrapped up in giving the disciples a hard time or explaining away what Jesus meant, let’s take a look at the difficult places in our own lives.  If you notice, Jesus speaks to many people in this passage, and very few of them are named.  Rather, they are referred to as “one” or “another” or “still another”.  In those places of ambiguity, we are invited to see ourselves in the story.  We are invited to ask ourselves the hard question-  Where are we like those followers? Where are we avoiding serving God or serving others?  Like Jesus followers, we often have an excuse ready- “Yes, Lord, but just wait until I get that promotion”  “Yes Lord, but lets wait until my child graduates” “Yes, Lord, but let me finish what I want to do first, before I’m ready to follow you”


The reason, I chose this image of the vase and the two faces was not only because it illustrates so well this interaction between serving God and serving others.  I also chose it because of the first line in the reading.  Take a look at this line in the text- Luke 9:51.  In the NRSV, the narrator says, “And Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem”.  This is the turning point of Luke’s narrative.  From the beginning his ministry until now, Jesus has been touring around the countryside, wandering from Galilee to Gennesaret, from Bethsaida to Nain. The point is, he’s been out side of Jerusalem the whole time.  But now, this verse marks a critical turning point.  He sets his face toward the city.  Other translations read, “he resolutely set out” or “he turned toward Jerusalem”.  This phrase, “he set his face”, though, I find intriguing.  It shows how determined he was, that even his body turns in the direction of Jerusalem.  Jerusalem.  For Luke, that image is not just a city, it is THE city.  This is the place where the center of Judaism is found.  The temple was where everyone went to show their dedication to God.  This was where pilgrims gathered.  This was where families met for holidays to be reunited.  This was where Jesus had spent much time as a child, and now, Jesus turns his face back to this city.  He sets his face toward the cross.


At ACB, we are also in a time of “setting our faces”, a time of transition.  Last week, we said goodbye and auf Wiedersehen to Pastor Ben and Margit with tears.  With signing, guitar playing, and even some ballet dancing, we also said thank you and gave thanks with joy for a wonderful eight years of ministry!  They will continue to be a part of our traditions, history, and story told together here at ACB even as they go on their own way. In about a month, I too will be saying a fond farewell to you all.  And soon, we will get ready to say hello to Pastor Kienberger, his wife Kristi, and their two girls Elsa and Anna.  Through this summer we will be preparing to meet them, to get to know them, and to come to love them as part of our community of faith.


And yet, in all of these transitions, we have one thing that remains constant.  We know that we, as a congregation and as a people, have “set our face” upon more than just what job we’re holding now, what city we live in for the moment, or even what person holds the position of pastor.  We have set our faces on more than that.  We have set our face on One who is eternal, everlasting, and steadfast in love.  We set our faces on Jesus.


Take a look again at the image.  In the background are the two faces, and in the foreground is a vase, or, you could also see it as a chalice.  We celebrate here Christ present with us in water of baptism, bread, and wine.  In this image, we have a symbol in the cup of that presence. As we look to each other in service, in the middle we see Christ.  In the midst of one another, Jesus is there.


As Jesus sets his face upon Jerusalem, we set our face on him.  Knowing that the road ahead may sometimes be difficult, but always filled with grace, forgiveness, and his presence in our midst, we follow as broken children of God.  Jesus has set his face upon you; your steps will be light in him!

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Overflowing Nets

John 21:1-19

There is an old tale about the width of railroad tracks. The “standard gauge” is 4 feet, 8 ½ inches (or 1435mm). What caused such an odd number? Well, the story goes, as settlers moved across the US, they traveled in caravans of wagons drawn by oxen. These wagons had a standard length for the axle, the same 4 feet, 8 ½ inches. This was so that the wagons could all use the same paths and the same grooves in the dirt roads, causing the wheels to break or the wagons to topple less often. And why did they use this width? Well, of course, because that’s how it was done in England. Throughout the generations, father to son all the way back through the middle ages, this was the size of the hand pulled carts and horse-led wagons. Centuries and centuries before, the first long-distance roads in what is now England were built by the Romans. Julius Caesar himself gave an edict to expand the empire and make all roads uniform so that the armies of the empire could travel great distances. And why did he declare this width? Well, because that’s just the way we’ve always done it!

This story has been disproved many times. This gauge was actually set by an inventor named George Stephenson, a British engineer who worked the first steam powered lines used in coal mines in the 1800’s, who chose it because it was convenient for his projects. But, the very fact that this urban legend survives proves my point- human beings often stick to “the way we’ve always done things”. We get stuck in a rut. Sometimes it’s a good rut- the standard width of the railway lines is a good one, narrow enough that the cars can easily turn and yet still wide enough for them to be stable and safe. But sometimes it can be a bad rut, stuck in habits of laziness, cruelty to those around us, or neglect of our spiritual lives.

Today, we meet Peter again in our text. He is still stuck in a rut. Despite the fact that he has heard the cockcrow announce his denial of Christ three times- he is still stuck in his old ways. Despite the fact that he has placed his hands on Christ sores and heard the risen Lord say, “Peace be with you”, he is still going back to his old habits. And this time, he invites the other disciples to come with him. He says to Thomas, Nathanael, James, John, and two other disciples, “I am going fishing”. Fishing, for Peter, was a rut. Peter was from Bethsaieda- a town name that literally means “house of fish”. He is ready to go back to his old profession and his old work. He is throwing in the towel and picking back up the nets. But unfortunately, Peter has a problem. There are no fish to be found. His old habits are leaving him empty.

What would you most like to transform in your life? Where are the empty ruts in your life? Perhaps, there is a deeply rooted path that leads you back to an unhealthy way of treating your co-workers. The office tensions rise up, and old arguments resurface. You act in a way that you regret later. Or perhaps, there is an old pattern that comes up in your family. You recognize it and can predict the fights that will come in the time ahead- with your spouse, or parent, child or sibiling- and yet feel powerless to stop it. Or perhaps, there’s nothing wrong, persay, but you still feel listless. Day after day, the same old habits cycle through. There are no sparks in your relationship with God. The are are no fish to be found. The old habits are leaving our nets spiritually empty.

Like the disciples, we long for transformation, and yet cannot see it. We want to be washed in the presence of God, and yet our human nature draws us back to the day-to-day concerns of life. We feel the need for renewal but we turn our hard hearts back to the “way we’ve always done things”. Like the disciples, we cannot change our own minds. We are unable to change our own patterns without the help of others. And yet also like the disciples, Jesus comes to us, right where we are and draws us out of the rut and back onto his path!

When Jesus arrives at our fishing scene, what he does is remarkable! He does not drag the disciples by their ears back to the temple. He does not threaten to hang them up by their toenails or even give them a 20-minute sermon and quote some scripture. What he does is get down in the mud with them. He gives them some amazingly simple advice, probably something they had done dozens of times in the night searching for a school of fish. He says, “Cast your net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” This is a challenge the disciples can accept- and they take it on.

153 fish they pull up that day. Like the 4 feet 8 ½ inch railway ties, it is an odd number. Some have postulated that it has a secret meaning, a number that represents a person or a place through roman numeral code. Some have suggested that the number stands for the number of people who were converted that day, or the number of churches in the community John was writing. I think a better interpretation is that 153 fish represents God’s abundance. The incredibly large number of fish shows the magnitude of God’s grace that was being poured out on Peter, the disciples, and all of us too. It is a little detail that makes the story a bit more concrete, more memorable, and more vivid in the grandness of what Jesus was doing in his forgiveness that day. Slowly, God’s abundance is drawing Peter out of his rut.

What happens next is the final blow to Peter’s rut. Peter is asked a hard question by Jesus. “Do you love me?” This question is repeated three times- each time coming closer and closer to Peter’s heart. David Lose offers an explanation. He says,

Jesus’ repetition isn’t meant as rebuke but as absolution: three invitations to confess in order to wipe away three denials just days earlier. In and through this tri-fold pattern of question and confession Peter is restored – to himself, to his Lord, to the discipleship community. And yet it is more than that, too, for Peter is not merely forgiven and restored but also commissioned into servant leadership

I’ve been speaking rather vaguely about getting “out of a rut”. While we may know exactly what that rut is, what does getting out of it mean? Getting out of a rut means being willing to be commissioned into servant leadership. We are called to the same thing as Peter, to be servant leaders. Servant leadership is not necessarily a list of things to do, it is a characteristic of our entire lives. Christians are servant leaders, not afraid to do humble tasks and yet also not fearful to do big missions in Gods name. Christians are servant leaders, commissioned to do work for Christ, always knowing that we do not do that work alone.

Perhaps the clearest way to describe a servant leader is to tell you about three that I have known.. The first is my great-grandmother, Katie McChessney Rose. She was a quiet Christian- faith for her was just something you did, and showed through your actions, not something you needed to tell everyone about. She always kept a Bible on the nightstand and would read a chapter or two before bed, and maybe another page in the morning. When she died, in the attic were a whole box of Bibles with broken spines and dog-eared pages. Day by day of servant leadership, and God slowly granted her a net full of faith.

A second picture is of a man named Paul who attended I church I once belonged to. The first week I visited, he asked to share a hymnal with me- and then helped me to figure out where to go when and how to hold what. After about a year, I noticed that Paul never took a hymnal from the ushers. Each week, he would find a new visitor to sit with, humbly leading them through the details of the service- welcoming them by his own lack of a book. Week by week of servant leadership, and God slowly used Paul to gather a net full of welcomed visitors.

A third servant leader is my littlest sister, ten years younger than me. Lots of family rituals and habits and ruts too were established long before she arrived on the scene. We prayed as a family before meals on holidays, but not at the normal everyday dinner time. Mary, at the age of eight, set out to change that. She would put out her hands and invite us to pray at every meal, no matter where we were or what we were doing. At eight, she was a gift from God that granted a giant net full of quality family time together and a deeper relationship with God and each other. As a child, she was a servant leader.

I could go on and on (but luckily for you, I won’t!). Being a servant leader is not about doing grand, impossible things. It’s about everyday renewals. It’s about gifts that God gives us each moment we need them, for the work of Jesus Christ. You too are servant leaders! Through Jesus you are forgiven. Like Peter, you are restored. With the whole church, you are commissioned into servant leadership. God is already preparing and overabundance of grace for you. You are servant leaders called to feed God’s lambs, tend God’s sheep, and feed God’s sheep. We go out into the world like Peter, knowing that the ruts hold no power because our nets are already overflowing.

The kind that leads to life

Luke 13:1-9

When I was a freshman in college, two of my good friends lost parents.  Both of them were unexpected, and it shook me greatly.  Tina’s1 father was a healthy man with two daughters, who always came along on our band trips and helped unload the percussion equipment onto the field.  He had a heart attack on a Wednesday afternoon and never recovered.  Beth’s mom would take us to the movies and the mall.  She had a surgery the week before her death, and then she died from a blot clot.  This was one of the first times I met death up close and personal.  Until then death had mostly come in the form of news reports and far away relatives.  But in a couple of short months, death came, uninvited into the living rooms of these two good friends. 

As I went to the funerals, talked in their bedrooms, and then later over the phone, I heard Tina and Beth’s painful questions.  These questions affected me as I went out into the world; they were part of my growing up process just as much as going to college or getting my own apartment.  Why now?  Why not in two or three years when I might be graduating from college, getting married?  Why so suddenly- so we didn’t have time to react?  Why not someone else?  And though they never came to say it, why my dad and not your dad?  Why my mom and not your mom?  Why me? 

When tragedy strikes, we have questions.  Those who survive are left to pick up the pieces and make sense of what happened to us.  As humans, we want answers.  As another writer said it, “What we crave, above all, is control over the chaos of our lives.” We have a judicial system that is directed, not toward full healing, but toward finding who is fully to blame.  We want the case to be closed, the files shut, the facts collected into neat little baggies that can be shown in clear arguments to the judge.  Unfortunately, in tragedy, the answers aren’t as clear as we’d like- and we still keep searching. 

Today, the survivors of tragedy come to Jesus seeking control over their chaos.  The Jewish people stand before him and they tell him of the tragedy that has occurred.  We don’t know much about this tragedy, but we do know that Pontius Pilate has killed many Galileans.  These Galileans were killed while fulfilling holy tasks- making their sacrifices to God.  The were praying, serving, and doing their religious duty.  And even in the midst of their sacred acts, they were killed by the Roman soldiers. 

Most likely, these Galileans were part of a political battle.  At the time, there was a group of religious zealots, including many Galileans who were standing up against the Roman government.  These religious zealots refused to submit to the authorities, and Pontius Pilate made an example of them.  Perhaps, the people who came to Jesus that day had answers already in their mind.  “These Galileans should have listened to the authorities.  If they hadn’t stood up to the Romans, this wouldn’t have happened.” 

The other tragedy is quite different.  In the story of the tower of Siloam falling, there are no bad guys and no good guys.  There is no one to blame.  The victims clearly had nothing to do with their fate- they were just at the wrong place at the wrong time.  Like so many tragedies, there are no answers to the questions. 

Two very different tragedies, and yet Jesus responds to them in the same ways.  What is it that Jesus does in the face of these tragedies?   

For one, he asks the questions.  Notice, the people around Jesus do not ask, “Are these Galileans worse sinners than all other Galileans?”  or “Are those eighteen who died when the tower in Siolam fell more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?” The people don’t ask these questions, at least not out loud.  My friends and I were not able to take up the most difficult questions, at least not out loud, for many years. But here, Jesus asks the question for them. 

We could read this passage as Jesus being judgmental.  We could see it as Jesus shaking his finger at the people.  But I think another faithful reading is to see this passage as Jesus giving voice to the questions.  He asks the tough questions that others are afraid to ask out loud.  He gives permission to ask even the hardest questions, questions that allow for healing to begin.  Jesus puts the questions out on the table, he even asks them himself.  It’s ok for us to feel pain, and for us to bring that pain to God.    It’s ok for us to even be angry, even to direct our angry questions to God, searching for hard answers. 

For two, he invites us deeper into the situation.  As painful as it might be for us, Jesus forces us to identify with our neighbor.  He says, you will all perish, just as they did.  Jesus invites us to remember that we are just as our neighbor.  We are no holier than others.  When the disaster in Haiti hit, it is easy for us to examine the inferior infrastructure or the buildings that were not up-to-code.  It is easy for us to point fingers at mismanaged governments or, as some unfortunate Christians in the US did, to make up unfounded cases against the morality of the Hatian people.  It can even be easy for us to find ways to help.  What is harder for us to do is to really identify with the great loss.  It is harder for us to stand in solidarity with our Hatian neighbors, recognizing that we are human, mortal, and frail, just as they are.  Jesus points out that while we may want to put distance between us and them, we are just as   frail, and just as dependent on God’s grace as they are.  

For three, he reminds us that we still have a job to do.  Jesus cuts to the chase.  While we are just as sinful, broken, and mortal as those who have died in these two tragic events, we are all still in God’s grace.  We still have work to do- we still have repentance to come.  Barbara Brown Taylor, an episcopal preacher from the states, puts it beautifully this way:  

Terrible things happen, and you are not always to blame.  
But don’t let that stop you from doing what you are doing.  
That torn place your fear has opened up inside of you is a holy place.  
Look around while you are there.  
Pay attention to what you feel.  
It may hurt you to stay there and it may hurt you to see,  
but it is not the kind of hurt that leads to death.  
It is the kind that leads to life.

It’s the kind of pain that leads to life.  This kind of identifying ourselves as just as our neighbors leads us out from our own self-centeredness into deeper love for our neighbors. It calls us away from ignoring suffering and blaming the victim into the possibility of a “holy place” where we see the true needs of other humans.  It is the kind of hurt that leads into life.  

As we come to the table today, we face the kind of pain that leads to life.  Jesus knew pain.  He knew tragedy- not just his own, but the tragedies that happened around him in Jerusalem and Galilee.  And yet, today, we come to the table not just to experience death and  sadness, but the gift of bread that leads to life.  We come knowing that we are cared for, just like that unsuspecting fig tree which gets loving, tender care, another chance for repentance- even when all earthly signs indicate it should be turned into firewood.  We come with open hands, full of questions.  And yet we receive one answer.  We are placed into the care of the one who can give what we crave: control over the chaos of our lives.  A piece of bread, life eternal.  Amen.