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Luke 4:21-30

It is always fun to think about the rags to riches story–the child of modest upbringing doing good. I know I always beam a little bit when folk talk about Dabo Sweeney, coach of the National Runners-Up in football Clemson Tigers. Dabo and I grew up together. Oh, we weren’t friends, mind you. He grew up in Pelham, proper…. over near the trailer park if memory serves me correct. I grew up in the subdivisions. Me a band geek, Dabo the kid who played Split End (that’s a wide receiver… the one’s who catch the ball when the quarterback throws it). But he hard brick for hands. In other words, he was the kid the quarterback hardly ever threw the football to.

Fast-forward a few years. Here I am at Alabama, in the band. The football tea is blowing out some cupcake of a team for homecoming. It’s the 4th quarter of the game and even the 3rd string players are resting. All the players on the field are walk-on players. Several of us were joking that we ought to go suit up. As we were celebrating another win, imagine my surprise when I look out there on the field and see Dabo Sweeney. He was never the fastest guy. He didn’t always catch the ball when it was thrown his way. But he did two things well. He ran precise routes and he was more than willing to block downfield…. two things that more gifted athlete playing the same position are want to do. Good for you kid. You walk-on, practice hard and get to wear the Crimson jersey all the way to the 1992 national championship.

If that wasn’t a good enough story, he gets hired to be on staff at Alabama specifically because he’s young and can relate in a way the older coaches couldn’t. Ultimately, he gets hired to be the offensive coordinator for Clemson. Mid-year they fire their coach. He is promoted to be the interim Head Coach, again because he relates well to the players. At the end of the season, he gets the job full-time. Fast forward a few years and he played against his alma mater for the national championship. A cinderella story, especially when you find out about just how poor his family was. He was so poor that he and his mom shared a room in Tuscaloosa so that he could go to college. Meanwhile, his mother drove every day to Birmingham to work at Parisian so that they could afford to eat.

A rags to riches story. One everyone loves.

That’s the way today’s story about Jesus sets up. Here’s the guy from Nazareth (remember the phrase “does anything good come from Nazareth). Word of his miracles and wise sayings have made their way from his home as an adult to his childhood home, where he is now in the synagogue, teaching. Everyone wants to see him perform deeds of power. They want to see the spectacle. The want to see the hometown boy make good.

And he defies their expectation. He doesn’t perform a deed of power… well, now exactly. Neither does he tell them comforting words that reaffirmed their status quo or tickled their ears. Here, Jesus challenges them. Reminding them of Elijah and the drought, then he reminds them that Elijah was not sent to the widows of orphans who were suffering. No. Elijah was sent to Sidon–Lebanon. He reminds that during Elisha’s time, Elisha did not heal the child of Israel but a Syrian.

The message is clear and scandalous–Jesus, claiming to stand in the long line of prophets, takes up their mantle saying, “I didn’t come here simply to comfort you. I do not come here to do as you wish, to put on a show and bring fame and notoriety to Nazareth. I didn’t even come here to aggrandize myself. I came to announce the kingdom is here. The kingdom is now.”

His words were condemning them in their expectations. Infuriating them. After all, they were suffering at the hand of Rome. Their lot was decreasing, not expanding. Here they came, expecting to witness the same kind of spectacle they had heard about—teachings and deeds of power that had everyone amazed. This kind talk was so infuriating that they wanted to kill him–was he flirting with blasphemy?

So often, we receive one of two scripts with it comes to our faith in Jesus. One script is similar to the Nazarenes. Here, Jesus is the one who comes to us, hears out every concern, responds to them in a fashion that meets both our expectations and timeline, and we go on with our life.

The other script is that Jesus the one who calls us out to challenge the status quo, to be a new voice crying out in the wilderness, to always be the one who always speaks truth to power, who always is the outlier, relishing bucking every trend and saying “no” to collective wisdom.

I think we gravitate to one of those two archtypes based upon our natural predilections. But make no mistake, there’s the temptation for sin here.

The sin, my friends, is not in the deeds, the actions or the disposition. After all, Jesus is the one who has lived our life and died our death. He intimately knows all our passions, hopes, and heart-breaks. The Holy Spirit always abides, ever so close to us. But Jesus is also the one who calls us to, like him, “afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted”. He is the one who eats with sinners. He’s the one who chooses the 1 over the 99.

The sin that we are all guilty of, my friends, is when we do not let God be God. We bend Jesus to our whims, we align Jesus with our political party, we let the prompting of the Holy Spirit just happen to align perfectly with our  expectations for our life, our community, and our world. I know in my own prayer life, many times I ask, “God is that you or is it just me trying to convince myself that my desires and my wishes are yours”.

This sin is, ultimately, one of arrogance where we tell God how to act and intervene in our lives. We’re the ones setting the agenda, not God.

But here’s the wonderful part… last week’s Gospel Lesson in the Lectionary… with God’s Kingdom present and happening now, we don’t have to try to control God (as if we could). We get to let God surprise us in how we are called to act, reflect, and respond in the world. We get to let God summon to the forefront all the contradictions to our life as we expect it to be–or life as we think it “should” be.

Our next task is to decide what to do.

Are we going to charge to the edge of the cliff, flinging God (and ourselves) over the edge into oblivion so that we can go back to our self-reinforcing, self-centered lives? Or, are we going to listen to what Jesus has to say. Are we going to heed the call to really and truly allow ourselves to follow him, to allow him to make ourselves, our hopes, our dreams, and indeed all things, new.

Blessed Are They

Matthew 5:1-12

Don’t you love it when there’s a simple set of instructions? Many of you know that I love to cook, the experimentation with flavors is great. But there are times when I love simply following the three easy step instructions of easy mac. Exact measurements of milk and butter. No need to be creative, just tell me what to do.

Wouldn’t it be great if all of life was like that? For example, wouldn’t it be great if there were “three simple rules to being a good ______” Fill in the blank: parent, spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend. And the plethora of self-help books to the contrary, the truth of the matter is that they don’t really exist. They don’t exist even for the life of faith… and those would be really nice.

This desire to make this opening of Jesus’ sermon on the mount a today list. And then we take a look at it and realize that this is difficult. For example, if someone tries to complete the “blessed are those who mourn”, how much mourning is required? And not only that but even if the beatitudes were a list of instructions for how to be a good follower of Jesus, we’d have to be careful that we were not turning a vibrant, rich faith that is lived in response to God’s gracious actions towards us into a list of checkboxes that would amount to saying that our works are what saves us.IMG_0458

The beatitudes are not instructions and neither are they aspirations. These words of Jesus are descriptors of God’s KIngdom, they tell us how we act when we are living in God’s kingdom.

Blessed. When we use this term, we usually mean it to convey that we’re doing well or that we are lucky. Many times I hear people refer to being blessed as a way to convey that they are doing far better than they desire. But these mis the mark. Well, at least they miss the mark for the way blessed is used hear. For these beatitudes, to be blessed is not a temporal state of being, but to be blessed is to be deemed by God to be included in God’s kingdom.

So “blessed are those who mourn” is not an admonishment for a follower of Jesus to mourn for someone who has died. Rather, blessed are those who mourn tells us that we are living in God Kingdom and included in God’s kingdom when we look out and realize that we are still some distance away from the vision that God has for creation, and we mourn that distance. Blessed are the peacemakers means that we are not blessed when seek to end violence but that we are participating in God’s Kingdom as we seek to live out and proclaim in God’s peaceable kingdom.

This is a subtle but important distinction. We aren’t performing deeds so as to gain God’s favor but rather, we have received God’s grace and as a faithful response we seek to participate in what God’ is already doing.

What does that look like for us today?

With the snow storm that we all lived through this past week, there emerged a story about who to blame. Your response about who to blame for the inexcusable tragedy of people having to spend the night in their car when it was below freezing depended on, mostly, political party. Some wanted to blame the governor, others wanted to blame the mayor. And while there will be time to ascribe blame as well as figure out what to do so as this never happens again, another story emerged.

That story had to do with how people responded to crisis. I was overwhelmed as I sat there Tuesday night, the news on, my laptop in my lap and Facebook exploded. Individuals began posting things like, “My loved one is stuck in traffic on I-20, can anyone put her up?” or another would post “I live near the intersection of i-85 and Bever Ruin, I have an extra bedroom and plenty of food. If you need a place to stay, text me” And they left a phone number.

It is told that a pharmacist walked up and down the interstate with needles, insulin and test kits, knowing that there would be diabetics stuck in traffic, unable to get to life saving medication. And others tell that though they brought no provisions of their own, others who had plenty shared so that everyone in the surrounding cars had enough to eat.

These are signs of the in breaking of God’s kingdom. People did not do this so that they could tick a checkbox. People did these acts of mercy as a response and their compassion is a sign of God’s coming kingdom.

When we are “blessed” we are deemed to be part of God’s kingdom. We are included.

Isn’t that what this is really what its all about? Not simply “what happens to me when I die.” Well, yes, that but a much bigger question, “am I part and partial of God’s loving and gracious activity?” Not am I in but am I included? I’d have to say “yes” if reading these beatitudes resonates with part of how your life has been shaped as you have sought to life a faithful response to God’s love in Jesus in your life, then yes, you are included.

Yes, you are, indeed, blessed.

From the Top

Matthew 4:12-23

Beginnings matter. Just think how different our expectation would be if Star Wars didn’t begin with “A Long Time Ago, In a Galaxy Far Away….” and see that crawl and we didn’t see that crawl telling the background information of Galactic Empires and rebellions.Or the beginning of the movie Up, totally setting us up as we see in a few short scenes the love story that is Carl and Ellie, or think about the very first episode of the series “Lost”– the eye opening, the disorientation, and the dog.

They set our expectations. They, if not point us in the direction we’re going, give us a few landmarks so that what we’re about to experience has some sense of context.

Its no different with Matthew as we begin following Jesus’ ministry. Three things to gleen are that: Jesus’ ministry begins as John’s ends after his arrest, that Jesus went someplace new to begin his ministry, and that when Jesus began calling the disciples, he didn’t veer far from his new home and the lifestyle of the residents of Capernaum.

Scripture seems to point that subsequent to Jesus’ baptism, his 40 days in the desert,  and then John’s baptism, Jesus assumes the mantle of foretelling that the Kingdom of God had drawn near. A page has turned. Much like Elisha assumed the ministry of Elijah

with John’s demise at hand, his pronouncements that one would follow after him now take root in Jesus stepping forward and living more fully into a public ministry. There was a season for John and now the season of Jesus’ ministry has come into being.

We have seasons in our lives when we are active and when we are resting, when we are leading and when we play supportive roles. I think the key is to, like Jesus, know that there’s a rhythm and a timing to this.

To mark this point of transition and coming to the forefront, he left his home and went to Capernaum. Now, depending on how you read this, it could mean that Jesus went to a place where he was unknown and obscure so that he would not be associated with the ministry of John in a time when it was dangerous to be associated with John, or he was going to the relatively cosmopolitan area that was near the major Roman road traveling north and south from Asia Minor and Syria to the north and Egypt to the south. If it was for the latter, then he wasn’t going to be obscure but for a strategic reason for the spread of the Good News.

I don’t know which reason he went to Capernaum and I’m not really sure that it matters why, but what I think does matter is that he did go. Elsewhere in Scripture we have the words, “a prophet is not without honor in his hometown”. Maybe Jesus knew this before the day when he was run out of his hometown. To tell the good news he needed to be away from distraction and prior narrative about him and his family so that he could be about the work of his public ministry.

We’re like this. Did you know that in many school districts, it is against school policy to go back into the school from which you graduated in order to do your student teaching and practicums? You’re too close, too familiar. There might be something difficult to say that you need to say and folk cannot hear, or maybe the other way around. People who come out of inpatient addiction recovery are told that if they want to have a good chance of staying clean, find a new circle of friends.

New places for new beginnings. Sometimes, responding to our baptism is a very comfortable thing. We receive accolades and recognition. But as the Covenant Service prayer says, sometime we cannot follow Christ unless we deny ourselves. And sometimes that denying self means venturing into the unknown, and it doesn’t have to simply be geographical in nature. For those of us who like control, to give certainty over to God for the sake of responding to our baptism and doing a new and different thing can be scary.

Which leads to a very natural third point: when Jesus called the first disciples, he related well to their context. It is assumed that for all his childhood and early adult life, Jesus trained, apprenticed and grew into the same role as his father: a carpenter (well tekton is better translated artisan, craftsman, or handyman but tradition hold carpenter, so we we’ll go with that).  Have you ever heard the phrase, “if all you have is a hammer in your hand, then everything looks like a nail”? Well, the point is that Jesus grew up in a different environment, different language. And so when he called the very first disciples into ministry, he eschewed the language of either woodworking or stone working. He adopted the metaphors a fisherman would understand: “I’ll make you fish-for people”. And they got it. They understood exactly what Jesus was inviting them to join in on.

It is so easy to stick to our language that we know.

As United Methodists we’re particularly good at this, especially when it comes to code language and acronyms. And sometimes we forget what that what is clearest and simplest is the best. We don’t always need to festoon with such colorful language that we obscure (see what I did there). We don’t need to use insider language or imagery. What we need to use is whatever language or medium that is clearest and most accommodating for people whom we graciously invite into the shared ministry of Jesus.

I’m glad the first children’s sermon I ever did is not on video anywhere. I’d be so embarrassed. Finding accessible language is important for the children in our midst, the teens in our community of faith, and all the people who are not yet here and maybe have no inclination towards church but yet find the need to seek out something beyond themselves as a reoccurring theme in their life. If we can find ways through our deeds which we practice, the metaphors which we embrace and the language we use to connect, who knows how many others can join in this ever-moving, ever changing movement of Jesus followers. New beginnings could be happening all around.

Yes, beginnings are important. We don’t need to doubt that. We know this from our experiences. What’s the phrase? “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” Regardless, how we begin matters. How Jesus began his ministry mattered then and matters now.

Today is the last Sunday of January in 2014. That’s hard to believe, right? One month almost gone. But that’s okay. There’s still 11 months to come. We don’t know what they will entail. But what we do know is that while we are in the opening strains of this year, we might have some clues as to how this year is going, so far. Some things we like and some things we don’t.

If you aren’t thrilled with the way things are going, its not too late. You can still begin anew, find a new and different pattern of life, a changed way of attending to this journey we call our life with Jesus.  The invitation is there: maybe we’re out in the boat and its a fine days catch and its difficult to leave our boats and tend a different kind of nets. Maybe we’ve been casting from the banks and not only is our arm sore from casting but our creel basket is empty—we haven’t caught anything. Maybe we’re looking forward to an invitation to try something new. Maybe we’re somewhere in between.

Regardless of where you are on this continuum, Jesus’ invitation to begin new and refresh abides for you, for me and the world. What do you say? Lets go join in.

The Magi, Resolutions, and Journeys

Gospel Lesson: Matthew 2:-12

Resolutions.

I don’t like them…. and not for the reason you think.

I think its great to strive for something and to have a system of gracious accountability.

What I don’t have a whole lot of time for is guilt.

It seems that the whole system of setting new years resolutions is wrapped up in two phenomena:

that we missed the mark in the year prior. We messed up. Slip down that slope too far and you run into “I’m a horrible person”

But that’s not all. I think that resolutions set us up for failure. Unrealistically high goals, usually going from point zero to accomplishment in 1 day. That’s inhuman. No one can do that, especially not alone.

Phil Schroeder, Director of Congregational Development for the N. Georgia Conference shared an article from Entrepreneur Magazine. In this article, the author shared a similar viewpoint to what I have been sharing. He goes to the extreme of never setting new years resolutions. Forget even setting goals.

Instead, he suggests committing to a system.

I quote from the article:

  • If you’re a coach, your goal is to win a championship. Your system is what your team does at practice each day.

  • If you’re a writer, your goal is to write a book. Your system is the writing schedule that you follow each week.

  • If you’re a runner, your goal is to run a marathon. Your system is your training schedule for the month.

  • If you’re an entrepreneur, your goal is to build a million dollar business. Your system is your sales and marketing process.

Commit to the system and then regularly check in to see if the system is getting you towards your goal.

All of this sounds rather simple, right? But its a seismic shift.

Many of you know I like Alabama football. Their coach is known for talking about “the process”  and how if players commit to the process–which means doing the off-season conditioning, knowing the play book, going to class, respect yourself and the University, and play each play to the best of your ability–then the championships will talk care of themselves.

When players commit to that mindset, things happen. When they buy into hype about being the best team, thinking they need to focus on championships instead of making plays, they lose.

Churches are no different. If we as a community of faith say, “we want 100 more people in worship” or we say “we want $30,000 in giving annually”, more times than not, generosity and gracious hospitality does not happen.

But when we say we want to be a community where people experience God’s radical love in a way that changes people’s lives, then who knows what can happen. Then congregations can start planning for how people respond to God’s love.

The Magi are an example of this. As I alluded to on the church’s facebook page, I don’t think the Magi woke up one morning in their homes and decided that they would give rich gifts to a homeless family staying in a barn in an outskirt of Jerusalem.

Their years of training led them to understand that the star in the sky pointed to a new king being born. They used that training to set a course westward. They continually checked their course. Its fairly safe to assume they asked people if they had heard of a new King being born. Did they read the signs right?

Ultimately, they found themselves kneeling to the the Holy Family and worshipping the Christ Child. It wasn’t in the place they expected. I assume their worship wasn’t directed towards the people they assumed they’d be reverencing. But they got to where they needed to be.

It isn’t really that different with our personal lives.

  • “I want to be skinner”
  • “I want to be a better Christian”
  • “I want give up (fill in favorite vice)”

These are herculean tasks. But maybe if we commit to a system for our lives, those huge goals and resolutions can be attained. After all, this is one of the gifts of Methodism to the world, right?: a plain system of accountability that comprised of spiritual formation and holy living.

Much like the “10,000 steps a day” model of getting healthier, what if we said,

  • “I’m going to worship more frequently, expecting to meet Christ somewhere that day. “
  • “I’m going to commit to some type of learning opportunity, even if it means giving up something I currently enjoy.”
  • “I’m going to find 1 place to regularly serve my neighbor.”

Pick one, pick two, pick all three. They are all things that can lead to committing to a process of living a deeper, more faithful life. And not only pick one of these but assist our faith community in providing this structure for each other.

But why do this? Is it just for self-edification?

No!

Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us in Daily Feast: Meditation on from Feasting on the Word, Year A that the Isaiah text we read today references this:

that for the prophet Isaiah, God’s glory is completed in the glorification of God’s people. Their radiance is essential to any bright future of God’s own imagining. If they hope to sit on the sidelines while someone else shines instead of them, then they have missed their central role in God’s vision. They are not God, but God’s presence will be seen over them. They are not kings. But kings shall walk by their shining radiance.

On this cold, cold day when we could all use a little light, a little warmth, let us let our light shine not “in 2014” but each day, a new commitment. You never know who you are going to influence, who’s path you are going to illuminate, or who’s epiphany you are going to announce.

Amen.

Image by Prio