March 14, 2021
Judgement and condemnation!
I don’t know about you, but as I read beyond the well-known John 3:16 verse, I have more questions than answers. So, God did not send Jesus to condemn the world, ok I understand that. If God did not send Jesus to condemn the world, why are we confronted with the condemned in the very next verse? Past the condemned, we discover a judgement of those that love the darkness. If God so loved the world, why is there judgement and condemnation?
Where does the judgement and condemnation originate? We’ll get to that shortly.
It is easy to rest in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone that believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” As long we believe we are all set, correct? Yes and No! John 3:16 does not say that God loved this tribe or the neighboring tribe. It does not say God loved people in this category but not that category. It says, God loves the world. All of it! It is a love so deep; it envelops all of creation. There is no end to the love waiting to embrace us as we grow in relationship with the Triune God. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached on John 3:16 in his first sermon at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in 1954. His words ring true today, “God’s love has breadth. It is a big love; it’s a broad love. . .. God’s love is too big to be wrapped in a particularistic garment. It is too great to be encompassed by any single nation. God is a universal God.”
It is important to step back and explore what is happening in the text. We are thrust right into the middle of a conversation when the gospel lesson begins. It is a conversation that begins at the beginning of the chapter. Not only that, but it is a conversation held in the middle of the night so that no one would get the wrong impression. Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a leader in the Temple. Thus, he does not want anyone to see him talking to Jesus, who had just been in the Temple overturning the tables. Nicodemus has seen something in Jesus and wants more information. The teaching ensued by Jesus, is pointing to eternal life and the kingdom of God. Nicodemus does not understand, and Jesus must explain in multiple ways.
Eventually in the conversation, Jesus discusses condemnation and judgement. God did not send Jesus to condemn the world. However, condemnation has already occurred. We do not need Jesus to condemn the world, because we have already condemned ourselves. We condemn ourselves when we separate ourselves from the love of God. Not only do we condemn ourselves, but we also try to condemn others and place judgement upon them.
We judge others when we place labels on them and fail to see and come to know who they are as a beloved child of God. For example,
If he’s quiet, it must mean he is aloof and doesn’t care.
If they cut me off in traffic, they must be a jerk.
If his hands are filthy and his clothes look like they have seen better days, he must be homeless.
If she smiles and laughs a lot, she must be shallow and have a perfect life.
Yet, we do not know their stories. What if we got talking to them and discovered what was happening in their lives? What if we were able to build a relationship with them? We may discover,
He’s quiet because he recently lost both of his parents and is still confronting the grief.
They cut me off in traffic because they just got a call that a loved one had a heart attack and they are rushing to the emergency room.
His hands and clothes are filthy because he had just completed a twelve-hour shift in his construction job and the family washer is broke down.
She smiles and laughs a lot because she is trying to hide the reality of her home life and the painshe endures from broken relationships.
The church itself has not been much better in the past. I would like to think that the church has grown and become more welcoming in the past decades. However, “over 20 years ago a group of pastors had a conversation about church with four young adults (early 20’s) who were going through alcohol rehab. Every one of these young adults had experienced the church as a place of judgment. They felt the judgment through looks and/or comments that indicated that others didn’t like the length of their hair or the style of clothing they were wearing. Congregations can be very judgmental institutions — which according to this text, is not Jesus’ job — nor should it be ours.”
Once in a small town lived an old blind man. He was blind yet while walking out at night he would carry a lighted lamp with him.
One night while he was out of his house, a group of young travelers saw him. After seeing him they realized that he was blind. The travelers couldn’t understand why a blind person would carry a lighted lamp and started to make fun of him.
One of the travelers was very curious and asked, “You are blind and can’t see anything so why do you carry a lighted lamp with you?”
The blind man replied, “Yes, I am blind and can’t see anything, but I still carry a lighted lamp with me for people like you who can see. If I walk at night without a lamp, one may not be able to see me coming and run into me.”
Now that they knew him, they were struck with remorse for their words and apologized. Seeking forgiveness for words spoken in mockery.
In this season of Lent, we are invited to examine ourselves and the judgement we place on others. We judge people when we think different politically. We judge people when they do or do not have a mask. We judge people by what they wear. We all do it. Yet, Christ calls us to stop. Stop judging those that differ from ourselves. When we disagree, it is an opportunity for conversation, not condemnation. Once we enter into the conversation, we allow ourselves to accept our dialogue partner as a child of God. Once we accept, it opens the door for the very love that is shown to us through Jesus Christ.
God’s love knows no ends. Even when we find ourselves judging and condemning our neighbors, or even ourselves for that matter, God is present and waiting to embrace us in that ceaseless love. It is a love drawing us into a relationship. It is a love spanning millennia as God spoke order to chaos at the beginning of creation. It is a love poured out and revealed on the cross in the death of Jesus Christ. A love for you, for me, and for all creation.
March 7, 2021
How do you feel when you sense that something is not quite right?
Do you question the status quo, or do you become complacent?
For Martin Luther, there would be no complacency. What he witnessed and what he heard the Spirit speaking to him through scripture resulted with him posting the 95 Theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg. It would quickly bring about conversation among the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church and they would ask Luther to recant his words, in which he responded, “Here I Stand, so help me God, I can do no other.”
His writing stirred the elite within the Roman Church from their status quo and he quickly became someone that the German laity and many others would begin to look towards for guidance. The change that Luther sought within the Roman Catholic Church was not welcomed and therefore we would witness a reformation of the Church as everyone knew it in the sixteenth century. As he called for a refocus on scripture, faith, and the grace of God, the Roman Catholic Church was more focused on the structure. For Luther, the question could be, who is serving whom. C. Andrew Doyle in a commentary for this week, notes, “The mission of God in Christ Jesus will always be limited by the time and energy spent on the structure. When the structures serve itself more than the world in God’s name then the structure needs its tables turned.”
It was as if Martin Luther went to Rome and turned the tables over.
Turning toward scripture, it was not unusual to find bustling activity around the temple. This is where people gathered. Especially during times of festivals, like the Passover, the number of people greatly multiplied as they returned to give sacrifices and thanks. Jesus was not pleased with the activity he witnessed at the Temple. Sure, there were signs of great life as many things were happening all at once, however, it was not the life that Jesus had come to encourage. In one of Jesus’ opening acts in John’s gospel, he is already turning things upside down, literally. In his promise of rebuilding the Temple in three days, or his body as we know he is speaking of, we see new life being fulfilled. In some of these opening words of John’s gospel, we are insiders to a story that has yet to play out. As Jesus refers to his body, we too can trust in God dwelling within us, and that life in our bodies is restored as well.
John chooses to present the story of Jesus overturning the tables in the Temple at the beginning of his ministry. This is different from the other three gospel writers as this same action occurs after Jesus has made his appearance in Jerusalem right before his death and ultimately his resurrection. You can imagine there have been arguments over the timeline and who is right and who is wrong. I am not going to answer that for you, because there is not a definitive answer. However, by John placing it where he does, it sets up the rest of his gospel, which is always pointing to the glory of Jesus. It also gives a moment of time for the disciples to look back on after Jesus’ death and resurrection, fully knowing then what Jesus meant when he would raise the temple after three days. It had finally occurred to them that Jesus meant his body.
The scene that plays out before us in this lesson from John can be a bit unnerving. This is not necessarily the loving and grace filled Christ that comes to our mind. Jesus in this moment reveals an anger at what is happening in the Temple. The purpose and the focus of the Temple has become a scene of a marketplace with profits lining the pockets of those that have set up stalls to benefit as much as possible from those that are making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem during the Passover. This is a Holy Space and when Jesus encounters it running amok with merchants and money changers, it is not surprising that he raises the heat a notch and calls out what he is seeing. Part of the concern here is that the Temple authorities seem to have no problem with what is taking place, perhaps receiving their own cut. Their disbelief in Jesus raising the Temple back up in three days after its destruction reveals where their focus rests.
The Temple has been under construction for 46 years, who could simply raise it up after three days? During those 46 years, look how far they have strayed from the true teaching of God. Their focus in those 46 years have been on the building and they have been pulled away from true worship. They have been distracted from material things that are much less important than God. It appears they are more focused on worshipping the building than they are on the God of their father Abraham. Yes, the purpose of the building is to worship the Lord, but have they allowed it to be turned into an idol that God has warned against in the Ten Commandments. They have allowed it to become diluted by the distractions of the marketplace it has turned into.
This past year has given us ample time to become distracted. As we have stepped outside of the walls of Trinity and had to adjust within this pandemic to do community and church differently, it has been just as easy to step back and say I am going to sit this one out. Yet, we are only as strong as those that are on the periphery looking in, waiting to get back to normal. When we focus too much on the physical aspects on what worship looks like, we become distracted, and our focus on God can become easily diluted. And the thing is, this does not happen just in times of a pandemic. It happens when we look back at the “glory days,” when Sunday School classrooms were full, and we had more butts in the pews. However, the reality is that the church is always in constant change and need of reformation.
When Jesus stepped into the Temple, he would set into motion a movement that has never stopped. It is a movement that is always evolving and changing. We can see that throughout history and it is that much closer for us because we can look towards Martin Luther and the Reformation. If the church is not open to constant reform guided by God’s word, then it might as well bow down to let something else take its place.
Amid, our current situation, where do we go from here? I can guarantee you that church a year from now is not going to look like church did a year ago. We have now entered a new time and space.
Jesus has stepped into the temple to discard the distractions that pull us away from being in right relationship with the Triune God. He has raised himself up as the one to follow. It is the temple of Christ’s body that guides us. We too should look at our own bodies as being of God, as we are created in the image of God. This Lent I have encouraged you to return to the Lord as we heard in Isaiah on Ash Wednesday. Let us leave all the tangibles behind and truly focus on the Lord, our God. We do this in worship, in prayer, in our daily lives. Are you keeping this in mind throughout the day as you make decisions and thinking about how it reflects your life as a follower of Christ? Are you allowing yourself to be drawn into a right relationship with God? Jesus has stepped into the Temple to stir things up, as did Martin Luther did 1500 years later. We are now in a time to continue to see the church reformed and be a part of that transformation.
There is a major difference between Martin Luther and Jesus Christ. One fully knew what he was doing and the other not so much. Sure, Luther had a desire to reform the church as he came to know it, yet I am not sure if he could have guessed where his action on that October evening in 1517 would lead him and his followers into the next century and beyond. Jesus, on the other hand, knew the movement he was starting on the first Passover in Jerusalem spent with his disciples. In driving out the cattle, doves, and money changers from the Temple, he drew people back to the true center of what worship should be. In his promise of the temple of his body being rebuilt in three days, our focus is redirected from the physical to the spiritual. It is here in Jesus Christ, as his disciples will come to fully understand at the resurrection, where the Word of God fully resides. A Word that restores us to new life.
February 28, 2021
How far are you willing to go for your faith?
Are you willing to put your life on the line if needed?
There are countless stories of martyrdom throughout Christian history, beginning with Stephen in the Book of Acts. I would like to share a couple stories with you which have assisted shaping the faith of many others.
Silence, written by Shusaku Endo, and adapted into a movie by the same title by Martin Scorsese, tells the story of Jesuit Priests in seventeenth century Japan as they care for communities of Christians. However, Christianity is not allowed in Japan at the time and they must practice their faith secretly. Fathers Sebastiao Rodrigues and Francisco Garupe are sent to search for another Jesuit priest that had supposedly renounced his faith, Father Cristovao Ferreria. In their searching, Rodrigues and Garupe are both imprisoned and asked to renounce their faith. Garupe stands firm and dies trying to save other professed believers. Rodrigues follows in the line of Ferreria in renouncing his faith after much discernment and saving the lives of many others, yet we eventually find out that he never truly left his faith behind.
Vibia Perpetua was born in the year 182 in the Roman city of Carthage, which was near the northern coast of Africa. We hear of her story from her own words written in a diary. In conversation with her father, she asks, “Do you see this pitcher lying here? Can this pitcher be called anything other than what it is?” His response of no, leads her to make the proclamation, “Neither can I call myself anything else than what I am, a Christian.” Now, Perpetua recently had a baby, yet this did not stop the Roman guards from taking her and several other believers to the city dungeon. Her and the other prisoners, including Felicity another young mother, are herded into the local amphitheater to face wild animals in celebration of Caesar’s birthday. Perpetua and Felicity would die as martyrs of the Christian faith as they faced off against a wild cow. Perpetua leaves for us, her final written words, “Stand fast in the faith, and love one another, all of you, and be not offended at my sufferings.”[i]
The gospel lesson this week is enough to give Peter whiplash and could leave one questioning his faith.
In the verses preceding the reading for this week, we hear Peter’s declaration that Jesus is the Messiah. A truth that the disciples were beginning to suspect as they witnessed Jesus performing miracles and healing the sick. It is still not the time for others to know and Jesus instructs them to tell no one, much like he does to those whom he heals and sends on their way. Peter is excited because he is correct. It is like knowing the correct response in Final Jeopardy!
Jesus’ next proclamation is what brings everything to a standstill. You could say that this is the turning point of Jesus’ ministry and he is no longer teaching in parables but making himself as clear as possible so that the disciples understand what he is talking about. Everything has been going great up to this point as they go from town-to-town healing and listening to Jesus preach. It is now here in Caesarea Philippi, where many different gods have been elevated, in which Peter proclaims Jesus as the Messiah. Not only that, but Jesus also goes on to tell the disciples what the Messiah will encounter. Jesus’ teaching the “Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again,” has them speechless. It is what provokes Peter into rebuking Jesus and telling him that there is no way this can happen. From Peter proclaiming Jesus as Messiah, to now Peter being rebuked himself, “Get behind me, Satan,” there is no surprise he gets whiplash.
There is a lot going on here. And as we have learned about Peter, he is quicker to speak than he is to stop, breath, and think. What is getting in the way of Peter’s understanding? For one, Peter, and I am assuming the other disciples, thought that Jesus would be with them forever. The idea of a Messiah is one that comes to bring the reign of God and no where does that say anything about suffering. However, Jesus is clear, he must undergo great suffering! As Jesus continues his teaching after rebuking Peter, there is a fear that they too could encounter this same fate that Jesus refers to in his great suffering.
This is the first of Jesus’ three passion predictions in the gospel of Mark, therefore it is going to take a bit for everyone to fully perceive what he is talking about. They must take a second to catch their breath as Jesus tries to make this revelation as plain as possible for them to understand. Also, as he tells them, “those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it,” has their anxiety ramping up and wondering what they have agreed to in following the Messiah. Yet, all twelve stand firm and continue to follow Jesus.
Let’s pause to think about Mark for a second as he is writing his gospel after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and what many of those following Jesus were thinking. Mark is writing this in the aftermaths of the destroyed Temple, where others are aware of what has happened and probably also aware of those that have already been martyred for their faith. Stephen became the first Christian martyr; James, brother of Jesus, was killed roughly ten years after Jesus; and by the time Mark was writing his gospel, most should have known that Peter was killed in Rome in 64. There was truth to the words Jesus spoke to the disciples, and to follow him brought dangers that required being courageous and steadfast in their faith. The suffering that martyrs have embraced throughout time can be unimaginable.
This martyrdom and suffering are difficult for us to understand a couple of thousand years later. Living in America, probably makes it even more difficult. You have probably never been persecuted for your faith. The freedom that we have in our country allows the participation of open worship and we do not have to hide like those in seventeenth century Japan or other areas around the globe even today. Because of that, it is easy to become complacent and take our freedom for granted and call on our faith only when it may be needed. Many have turned their faith into a thing of convenience and do not rely on the Spirit to guide their life daily. Suffering for our faith is a foreign concept.
The apostles knew otherwise. While these words of Jesus took their breath away, they would learn to live his truth that he taught them in Caesarea Philippi. Their cost of discipleship would include denying themselves and taking up their crosses; a focus on not saving their own lives, but first losing their lives for the sake of the gospel; and living to see the grace, mercy, and love revealed in Jesus’ crucifixion and not being ashamed by it.
As followers of Jesus Christ, we too can learn to live into the cost of discipleship which draws us closer to the living God. We can be thankful for the freedom of living our faith out loud and not having to hide it or worship in secret places. While our suffering may not mirror that of Jesus’ disciples, and I pray that it does not, there is still suffering that occurs. Living a life of faith and commitment to Christ takes courage and sacrifice. Jesus invited us on this journey in our baptisms. In our times of joy as well as our suffering, we receive the promise that we will not be alone.
Jesus’ revelation of his own suffering and death has turned the page on the ministry that he and the disciples have been doing. The thought of suffering brings much pause and anxiety to the disciples as they attempt to understand Jesus’ words. When we contemplate suffering in our own time, we too want to turn the other way and take the much easier road. Yet, through stories like Perpetua and other martyrs, the power of faith is revealed. While it is easy to turn the other way, Christ gives us the reassurance that whatever it is we must walk through, we will not be alone. Jesus has shown us a way through our suffering, as he walks straight into his own. Suffering is not a place to rest or give up, but a place to move forward from with the mercy, love, and grace of the Triune God.
February 21, 2021
Watching your children grow up is exciting. As you witness them taking their first steps or hearing them speak their first words, you get a sense of joy. The milestones that they reach are signs that they are growing as individual beings. There is also a time of trepidation for many in parenthood. The thought of sending your child to school for the first time can be overwhelming. There are tears. Probably more so for the parents than for the children.
As parents, we send them with love and a purpose. It may feel like a wilderness much greater than the confines of home or preschool, yet they are sent with a purpose to grow even more. We are continually sending them out to experience something new, both exciting and scary. Sending them out to college is the pinnacle as they are now adults and old enough to navigate their own path, questioning what we have been doing the past eighteen years was enough to prepare them for this new wilderness. So, we send them with our blessing. A blessing to encounter a new wilderness to grow more and report back what they find and ask for help when needed.
The wilderness is not a new concept in scripture as we get a glimpse of Jesus and his preparation for ministry. Another word for this wilderness is desert. In our current understanding, we image a wilderness as a place with trees and many animals and a desert as more desolate and barren. The wilderness and the desert in Jesus’ time were interchangeable. The land where Jesus spent his forty days was mostly desert in our understanding, yet also had areas of tress and vegetation.
The image of the wilderness harkens back to the Israelites as they wandered the wilderness for forty years with Moses guiding them. The Israelites did not step as willingly into the wilderness as Jesus. They were constantly complaining to Moses and even crafted their own golden calf to worship because they thought Moses had abandoned them. Moses and Elijah, whom we encountered last week during the Transfiguration, also spent forty days in the wilderness fasting and in prayer. In his forty days, Moses received the Ten Commandments from God. Elijah, praying for guidance from the Lord on how to lead the people of Israel fasted for forty days seeking wisdom.
Mark leaves it up to our imagination as to what Jesus did in the wilderness during those forty days. All we are told is that he was with the wild beasts and the angels waited on him. For some reason, I do not think room service was an option. Thankfully, we learn a little more from Matthew’s and Luke’s gospel as Jesus undergoes multiple temptations by Satan.
Mark has welcomed us into his whirlwind introduction to Jesus’ life. First, he appears on the scene with John the Baptist at the Jordan. In these seven verses we hear today, we learn of Jesus’ identity, the time of reflection in the wilderness, followed by the task he is called to do in proclaiming the good news of God.
Jesus hears his identity declared in his baptism as God calls him his beloved Son. As the reader we get the inside scoop, while the disciples that begin to follow have to wait a little longer to fully comprehend what is happening. The wilderness is the time of reflection as Jesus spends forty days in prayer and fasting. In this time, he prepares himself for the next three years of his ministry of preaching, healing, and traveling with his disciples throughout the countryside and villages. In that time of prayer and fasting, I am guessing it was revealed to him what his task would be. In that reflection and preparation, I believe he also grew in his knowledge of his true calling as the Son of God.
The wilderness provides the space we need to pray, fast, and reflect on who it is God is calling us to be. There were an early group of mystics known as the Desert Mothers and Fathers that chose to live a life of self-reflection in the wilderness. I could here the following story come from their wisdom:
A seeker after truth came to a saint for guidance.
“Tell me, wise one, how did you become holy?”
“And what are they, please?”
The seeker was fascinated. “How does one learn to choose rightly?”
“One word! May I have it, please?” the seeker asked.
The seeker was thrilled. “How does one grow?”
“What are they, pray tell?”
While I don’t believe Jesus made any wrong choices, the earlier prophets sure did. Moses and Elijah in their forty days in the wilderness were given the opportunity for reflection and to hear a direction from the Spirit to help them guide the Israelites in that time and place. The time of testing and temptation drew them closer to God. Jesus too was drawn into a conversation with God during his forty days in the wilderness.
While we have been in a wilderness for nearly a year now, it is easy to slip into a mode where we find ourselves complaining more than giving thanks. For those that want to reach a certain goal, this time has proven hard to measure success in the usual way. This time has also given us the notion that we have to do everything on our own. Personally, I am learning that it is okay to ask for help. We need to be willing to try new things. We need to be willing to make wrong choices so that we can grow.
We can be thankful that it has not been forty years of wandering around the wilderness like Moses and the Israelites after they departed Egypt. Amid this pandemic, we can still be thankful for many things in our lives and the people that we have been able to stay in contact with. We can even be thankful for social media at this time as it has created a valuable avenue for us to stay connected.
At times, it feels that we have been sent out to the wilderness much like Jesus was by the Spirit following his baptism. Jesus’ shows little reluctance to welcome the temptations and struggles that lie ahead. While, on the other hand, we have seen a myriad of reactions to our pandemic. For those that are introverted, they have loved the opportunity for staying away from people, while others have entered this time kicking and screaming. As we care for our friends and neighbors, we have learned to make sacrifices and are learning to live into new expectations.
While the Spirit sends Jesus out into the wilderness, he is not alone and is accompanied by the wild beast and has the presence of angels. Sending our children out into the wilderness is daunting, yet we have faith that they will be surrounded by others encountering this new wilderness for the first time. In those encounters, we trust that they will not be alone. We are reminded that we are not alone as we enter our own wildernesses. We too have those that accompany us, like the wild beasts, and we have friends and neighbors reaching out with love. We can also trust that as we have been sent into this wilderness, there is something to learn here. It is an opportunity for growth, both personally, and in relationship with God.
Being sent out into the unknown can be an overwhelming event. The realization that life is now going to be different, brings a longing for the life that once was, even if the new life is grounded more squarely. Jesus models for us what it means to step peacefully into the unknown and embrace the place you find yourself in. The vastness of the wilderness gives caution while also providing nearly endless possibilities for growth. While we may pause before sending our loved ones out into the wilderness, through the reassurance of Jesus we are reminded that we are not alone. The wilderness can be a place of grand possibilities. The wilderness reveals God.
An unexpected surprise from a tea shop in Taiwain.
Deep down, aren’t we all looking for something that is much greater than us? Karl Forehand may have been searching for something, but did not expect to find it in a tea shop in Taiwan. All he wanted to do was purchase some souvenirs to bring home. When all is said and done, “Sometimes the best adventures are the ones that are unscripted.” (57)
Forehand introduces the reader to the people that join him on this journey and allows the reader to feel as though they are sitting in the tea shop alongside him. Meeting the man with no name, ushered Forehand into new ways of thinking and being in this world. Learning to see God in all things and in the unexpected takes a vulnerability and freedom of releasing oneself into the hands of God. This can be difficult to do when we expect something totally different than what God is offering.
Many of the chapters can be read like a journal entry as the author is rethinking some of those things that he had previously thought. As a pastor myself, reading from someone that used to be a pastor, resonates with my being as some of his thoughts reverberate in my own mind. As he shares some of his own revelations, it brings a sense of joy. The relationships built within this powerful interaction was a revelation itself of God in the world. The willingness to step into the unknown frees us for so much more. Forehand reflects, “I am coming to understand that the stepping into the unknown is not only valuable, but necessary. Most of the time I travel down well-worn paths of familiarity. I want safe adventure , but safe adventures are a contradiction in terms.” (122)
The adventure within this short book is one worthy of taking and you will not be disappointed. The adventure that it contains fulfills some of our need for travel in a time of COVID and is an invitation for our own self reflection.
*Thank you to Mike Morrell and Speakeasy for providing this book for review.
February 17, 2021 Ash Wednesday
Matthew 6:1-6. 16-21, Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Have you ever found yourself in a situation you regret?
Have you ever wished that you could change the outcome of a recent event in your life?
Returning to the scene of the crime, if you want to call it that, is difficult. To admit we were wrong takes courage and some self-revelation. Yet, there is one person we can count on if we hope to be forgiven and loved unabashedly. Through Jesus Christ, God has revealed a forgiveness and love that flows out to all creation. The Prophet Joel’s call to the Israelites is a call that still is vital to us today:
Yet even now, says the LORD,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
13 rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the LORD, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing. 2:12-13
Returning to the Lord and entering right relationship with God is the reason Jesus preached a message of hope.
I do not know about you, but as I contemplated on our gospel lesson for Ash Wednesday, I felt a sense of burden come over me. Within Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, he seems to be rattling off a to-do list which seems a bit overwhelming. These are things that we should do in regular practice because of our faith, yet Jesus seems to be putting restrictions in place. Especially on Ash Wednesday, during a normal year when we would take ashes and mark the sign of a cross on our foreheads. How can we practice our piety and not be seen by others when we have a smudge of ash on our foreheads?
At many times, scripture seems to be a mystery as we want to fully understand it and at the same time we are not meant to fully understand. Actor Martin Sheen when being interviewed by Krista Tippett for On Being said this about mystery: “How can we understand these great mysteries of the church? I don’t have a clue. I just stand in line and say here I am, I’m with them, the community of faith. This explains the mystery, all the love. Sometimes I’m just overwhelmed, just watching people in line. It’s the most profound thing. You just surrender yourself to it.”
God invites us into the mystery this Ash Wednesday through our reflection on the scripture. Within that mystery is a call to relationship. The Prophet Joel heard this message long before Jesus came to be born to Mary. His call was to share the same message that Jesus is now sharing with his disciples during the Sermon on the Mount. It is a call to return to the Lord. In practicing your piety, do not to do it in the hope that other people are going to see it and be jealous or think what you are doing is better than what your next-door neighbor is doing. When giving to the church, do not flaunt it. God is grateful for your gifts to the church but does not wish for you to flaunt it in another person’s face. The amount you give does not equate to faithfulness.
Fasting is a wonderful practice in living out your faith. Lent is a time that fasting becomes more apparent for Christians, but do not do it just to make yourself look good or one-up your next-door neighbor. Lastly Jesus asks us not to horde our wealth in places that will be consumed easily by moth or rust. When we go back to the dust, those riches are not going to mean anything to us. When we put our treasure where our heart is, we will truly come to know God.
This is what Jesus is attempting to drive home. All these practices are great in and of themselves. If your reason for doing them is to lift yourself up for glory, then you are doing them all for the wrong reason. On the other side of the spectrum, we could choose not to do anything at all. Thinking that we are not worthy of the love that God has promised to all of creation. If we are not worthy of God’s love, then we can choose to walk away and become distracted by the next best thing that will pull us away from God. We then find ourselves in brokenness and sin.
God knows that humanity is broken and thus the reason for Jesus to come and walk with us as a human. Jesus gets to experience the many things that we experience, and he grows into right relationship with everyone he encounters. We are all invited to encounter Jesus in one form or another and build upon a life-long relationship.
The gospel lesson and the lesson from the prophet Joel can be closely intertwined as Joel calls for fasting in the hopes of establishing and maintaining a right relationship with the Lord. From the beginning of creation, God’s desire has been to be in relationship with all people. All we have to do is read the Hebrew scriptures and our history books to learn that we are broken and have failed to live into that relationship. As a society, we have failed to love our neighbors and have even failed to love ourselves. The Prophet Joel’s call to return to the Lord is a chance for the Israelites to turn around and repent as they fast and encounter the living God in their midst.
Jesus’ call to the disciples and everyone that is listening to his teaching is one of leaving your ego behind. It is not about you. It is what is done in the sight of the Lord. Our desire to be in relationship with Jesus and ultimately our neighbors is the return that God is hoping for. Are we living with a hardened heart, or are we allowing our heart to be open to a loving God? Thomas Merton, in one of his prayers, writes, “I believe the desire to please you does in fact please you.” In this desire, God welcomes us with open arms and a big embrace because God’s love knows no bounds.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent and a time for us to take inventory. An inventory of our own being and lives in Christ. Are we listening to Jesus when we make decisions? Are we listening to Jesus’ call to repent of our words and actions that lead us away from God? Are we grateful for the love of God that pours out of scripture through a prophet like Joel and the gospels? Are you ready to return to the Lord this Lent? For God is gracious and merciful. For returning to the Lord reveals a love unbound.
February 14, 2021, Transfiguration Sunday
When you behold a mountain for the first time, there is awe in the beauty and sheer scale of it. Growing up in Mid-Michigan, I never really had the opportunity to see a mountain in person. I grew to appreciate the photography of Ansel Adams and the many photographs he took in our national parks which showcased the beauty and magnitude of the mountains. A respect for nature is nurtured when being in the presence of these towering behemoths. This is some of God’s creation at its finest.
I recently watched a documentary on Alex Honnold. If you have not heard of him, he is a mountain climber and is well known for free soloing the faces of many mountains. To free solo a mountain means that you are not using any ropes, harnesses, or protective equipment. Imagine climbing the face of a mountain that looks nearly flat to the naked eye without any equipment, simply using your hands, feet and own sure strength. The documentary, Free Solo¸takes the viewer on a journey from the time Alex Honnold decides he wants to be the first person to free solo El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Climbing to a height of 2900 feet without a rope, harness, or protective equipment. One bad move and your family and friends would be planning your funeral. Alex had friends and knew of other climbers that had encountered such a fate.
Alex’s determination guides him, and he scales El Capitan in just a little under 4 hours. While he rejoiced on the mountain top, he came back down and started thinking about his next challenge. He reached this pinnacle, but there are so many more. He had friends and family waiting for him at the bottom and there was nothing more to do on El Capitan.
Our story from the gospel this morning is one of many mountain top stories in the bible. With our human minds, there is no way we can fully comprehend what has taken place on that mountaintop. It is truly a mystical experience that we are not meant to fully understand at this time, yet Jesus draws his disciples and us into a deeper knowing of who he is. The Transfiguration reveals to Peter, James, and John the full divinity that is within Jesus Christ. Immediately preceding this lesson, Jesus is talking with the disciples in Caesarea Philippi. He has told them of his impending death and resurrection. Peter rebukes him and Jesus tells him, “Get behind me Satan.” Jesus’ prediction does not fit Peter’s image of the Messiah. Perhaps Peter would fully understand with a trip to the mountaintop.
The mountain plays a significant role in the Transfiguration. It is not just about what takes place on the mountain, but also the connections with Moses and Elijah. Two figures in the ancestry of the Jewish people that had their own personal mountain top experiences. If you recall, where was it that Moses had to go to talk with the Lord? Yes, he had to ascend Mount Sinai to receive the tablets from the Lord. However, these first tablets were not enough because Moses descends the mountain to find that the people have made a golden calf to worship and he destroys the tablets in his anger. He returns to the mountain top to talk to God and prepares another set of tablets. The Lord now has the people’s attention as Moses continues his work among the people. Nothing was going to be accomplished on the mountaintop.
Elijah’s mountain top experience was one of patience. Elijah flees from Jezebel and finds himself on the mountain in Horeb and is told to wait for the Lord to pass by. The Lord was not in the earthquake or the fire but in the silence as Elijah exits the cave and begins to converse with the Lord. Once again, he cannot stay on the mountain top for the rest of his life. After he has spoken to the Lord nothing is really happening there. The Lord tells him to return to the wilderness of Damascus. The work he is called to is among the people.
I can understand why Peter would want to stay on the mountain top. Not only has Jesus revealed something to the three of them that no one else will encounter, but they are also blessed by the appearance of Moses and Elijah. These are ancestors of the Jewish faith that they have heard stories passed down through many generations. While they were amazed and terrified at the same time, something had to be done to make this moment last as long as possible. Surely, they could build dwelling places or memorials for the three prophets.
Peter thought they had reached the pinnacle and there was nowhere else to go from there. It is the voice of the Lord this time that breaks into the moment and tells the three terrified and huddled together disciples, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.” This is the same voice that made the proclamation at Jesus’ baptism. However, at the baptism the voice was for Jesus and he had not even gathered his disciples yet. This time they are present and hear the voice loud and clear. And just like that, they are left on the mountain top alone with Jesus as Moses and Elijah vanish. Jesus proceeds to lead them down the mountain while instructing them to tell no one of what they had seen or heard until after his death and resurrection.
How many times have we reached the mountain top or pinnacle and thought that there was no place left to go? If you have played on a sports team and won a championship you may revel in that for some time. However, that is only one season and you must come down and put in the hard work for the next season. It is easy to get caught up in the destination and lose sight of everything that is happening around us.
As Christians, it can sometimes be easy to get stuck in the notion of heaven being our main focus. In this moment, when we equip ourselves with tunnel vision, we block out all that is happening around us. This is not what Jesus is calling us to when we are called to proclaim the good news. Jesus walks with us down the side of that mountain to be with the people in valleys. How can we care and love people when we have our sights set on something that is not even of this world? By caring for and loving those around us, friend and enemy, neighbor and family, we begin to get a glimpse and have a role in bringing the Kingdom of God to earth.
Instead of naval gazing, Jesus invites us to set our eyes on the people around us. To care for and love them. We accomplish that in a variety of ways through supporting Gleaners, the local Richmond Food Pantry, and providing bicycles for those in need to just name a few. We do so when we make a phone call or send a card to someone we have not seen in a while. We do so when pray for the health, safety, and wellbeing of our friends and family. We can only do this when we are among the people where life happens and not gazing down from the mountain top.
There is excitement in reaching the mountain top. Just ask Alex Honnold after he bursts through any trepidation to free solo El Capitan. I think it would be safe to say that there are not many of us that would even feel comfortable climbing 20 – 50 feet up the face of a mountain free solo, let alone with the proper equipment. It takes a lot of courage and willingness to be proactive in anticipating what may come your way. It takes grit and determination to reach the mountain top and it is easy to want to stay there and revel in the glory of it all. Jesus does not intend for us to stay there. He walks with us down the side of the mountain because he wants to be with the people. The work that Jesus calls us to is in the valley where life happens. Life happens in our joys and challenges, accomplishments and struggles, freshness and tiredness. Jesus climbs the mountain with us, encourages us to stop and take a breath, and then descend back down because there is work to do where life is happening.
February 7, 2021
Returning to seminary after being out on internship can be a struggle for many soon-to-be pastors. They have walked with the people of a congregation and experienced many of lives ups and downs in the congregation. There is an eagerness to get out and do ministry in a congregation right away. Yet, in the traditional ELCA format, you returned to school for a final year before being assigned to a synod and being called to serve your first congregation. It is a time of anticipation bundled up with nerves and anxiety.
I was looking forward to that assignment and learned that I was assigned to my home synod. This was not totally unexpected as we hoped to stay within a close distance of our parents. What was shocking, was the realization that my home synod called 5 approved for ordination candidates and at the time there were only two full-time calls open. We were told there would be more coming available in the months to come. Not knowing the specifics was dreadful. I had already moved my family all over the place and now we did not know what the future looked like. Once graduation came and went, I became weary. I returned to what I knew, retail. However, who wants to hire someone that could leave soon for what he really wanted to do?
I was living my own little exile. At times, the weariness ruled and amid the uncertainty there were times I questioned whether I was truly following the path God planned for me. If I didn’t receive a call would I be a failure?
I spent seven months working a retail job and had even been offered a management position. I was weary from the not knowing and I know my family had the same feelings if not greater. After interviewing at one church, interviewing for a year-long Chaplaincy residency, and the talk of possibly moving to Montana, I received my first call. Was it ideal? No, but I was going to get to serve in the church and become ordained.
In my faith, God lifted me up from a time I felt faint and gave me strength in a time when I needed it. I am not special. God has promised to lift all from their weariness and give strength to the powerless.
The fortieth chapter of Isaiah is just the beginning of the Israelites coming to terms with where they are and not-knowing what their future holds. The generation that hears these words of the prophet are many generations removed from their ancestors who were first sent into exile. They know little of Jerusalem and have forgot about God. Somewhere along the line, stories were not shared as frequently and with not having their own personal experience, they slipped into a complacency in their current residence of Babylon.
They needed to be reminded of God’s love by the prophet in the beautiful poetic verses of Isaiah. They needed to be reminded God is present in their lives in Babylon. It is not a ruler or other authority that they should be turning to for comfort. It is not an idol or different god that seeks their attention. It is the God of their father Abraham. It is the God that accompanied them from Jerusalem into their exile in Babylon.
From the beginning of their exile to now, their community has gone through a myriad of emotions. Currently they find themselves being settled. They do not know any other home. They fear leaving Babylon because that means leaving everything they know behind. The prophet is preparing the way for them to return to Jerusalem and the home of their ancestors. There is some excitement in the opening verses of today’s lesson:
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
22 It is [God] who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to live in;
23 who brings princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. Isaiah 40:21-23
This is an incredible story that should have been passed down through the generations. Distance in time has created a sense of apathy and this current generation has failed to listen. The current generation has little feeling for what happened over a hundred years ago and thus their emotion wrapped up in the thought of returning is more fear than joy.
The prophet has been called to share the hope of returning to Jerusalem and what that means for the Israelites. In the meantime, the promise of God present with them in this moment is one that gives power to those that are faint and strength to those that are weakened. God breaks through the weariness with the promise that they will be lifted on wings like an Eagle. In their running and walking they will not tire and will endure for the time to come.
These words in the Hebrew scripture come to us today to provide hope amid any pandemic exhaustion we may be experiencing. These words of the prophet can speak to this era as weariness has become synonymous with daily life. Like the Israelites, the words of the prophet remind us that we are not alone. God is present with us.
This is the story that we have been following from Christmas. Jesus born incarnate of Mary: Immanuel, God with us. The presence of God with humanity has came to us in human form and we get to rejoice and celebrate. Life happens though and there are many things that we do not understand or simply know.
For some reason, we think we need to know everything. Isn’t that how everything went askew in the Garden of Eden? When we do not know everything, we try to fill in the blanks with our own imaginations and make things fit together when many times they do not. For many, there is a fear of resting in the knowing of what you do not know.
God meets us in this not knowing. As we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and surrender to God’s presence in our lives, we can begin to see more clearly. It is a letting go of control. Currently, amid the pandemic there are many things that we individually have no control over. For instance, we cannot control how many vaccinations are getting distributed and how quickly the population can be fully vaccinated. We must wait in the not-knowing.
St. John of the Cross refers to this time of not knowing or unknowing as he calls it, the dark night of the soul. He spoke to this time when he wrote, “I entered into unknowing / Yet when I saw myself there / Without knowing where I was / I understood great things; / I shall not say what I felt / For I remained in unknowing / Transcending all knowledge.” The time of not knowing is a mystery and yet peace can be found in it as well.
Hope is found in God’s presence in the not knowing. Not knowing what the next week will bring. Not knowing what the rest of the year will look like. Not knowing how the pandemic will change the mission and ministry of Trinity Lutheran Church for the future. We can have a role in shaping this, but it is God that calls us and opens our hearts and minds to a new creation. God is present in all of this with the light of hope illuminated in Jesus Christ. God is greater than any of our fears. God is greater than anything we have encountered, and God reassures us in knowing what we do not know.
It has been a long ten months. Many of us feel us though we have lived several years in those months. As we approach Lent, I am reminded how everything that seemed normal at this time last year ground to a halt. We have become weary. Hearts have become faint and strength has weakened. In our weariness God will lift us up and give us strength. We have waited in hope of life returning to a familiar point, and yet we do not know when that will happen. God’s presence with us in the waiting can comfort us in knowing what we do not know. Letting our faith guide us invites surrender and sacrifice. Surrendering to knowing what we do not know and personal sacrifices for the greater good. Will you let God sit with you as you wait?
January 31, 2021
I ask you to profess your faith in Christ Jesus, reject sin, and confess the faith of the church.
I hope these words are familiar to you. We hear them every time we affirm our baptisms or celebrate a baptism in our congregation. As the presiding minister asks these questions, the expected response following each one is, “I renounce them.” The liturgy of the baptism reminds us of the saving grace found in God and that Jesus Christ has authority over all things that pull our attention from God. When we come to the affirmation of baptism with weary souls, Jesus can heal us and liberate us from anything luring us away from God. We get to witness such a healing in today’s gospel.
Immediately following the call of the first disciples, Jesus and the disciples travel to Capernaum. For many of us, moving into a new house, starting a new job, or becoming part of a new community, requires time for adjustment and to get our bearings, Jesus has no such thing in mind. His ministry has been laid out for him from the very beginning and he is prepared to teach the Word of God and heal those in need.
Jesus’ words in the synagogue stop people in their tracks. They are amazed. They are astonished. They are in awe of the teaching that Jesus is laying out in front of them. Even before the man with the unclean spirit enters the scene, we are told that he teaches with authority, not like the scribes. Now, the scribes were intellectual folks and prominent teachers in the synagogue. However, when listening to their teachings, it was probably more like a lecture as they referenced scripture quite often. Jesus, on the other hand, spoke with an authority that no one had witnessed before. No other prophets had taught like this. He was teaching from his very being and with such emotion and passion that people were drawn into every word coming from his mouth.
Jesus was preaching a message that the people were longing to hear. They not only heard the words coming from his mouth, but they also sensed the divine nature of Jesus before the man with the unclean spirit even called out and said Jesus was “the Holy One of God.” At this moment, Jesus takes his teaching to an entirely different level as he addresses the man and the unclean spirit within him. “Silence,” Jesus speaks, and Jesus’ words are enough for the man to be healed.
What was this unclean spirit or demon that Jesus ordered to leave? I encourage you to let go of the images in your mind from any movies or television shows you may have seen that depict demons or unclean spirits. It is our tendency to equate these images with scripture. However, the man with the unclean spirit may have most of the time seemed fine. Perhaps in this interaction, he was letting his anger get the best of him as he cries out to Jesus. The man may have had a deep-seated fear that Jesus was going to stir things up and make life extremely uncomfortable for the people in Capernaum. Remember, the area was under Roman rule, and at any time Rome could decide that their patience had worn thin with the Jewish people.
Jesus is not concerned with this notion, because he knows the ministry which he has been called and he is using this first teaching in Capernaum to set the tone for his and the disciples ministry over the next three years. It is a ministry that will proclaim the Word of God and bring healing to the oppressed. Jesus is emphasizing his ability to provide healing to weary souls.
Many of us can empathize and/or relate with those having weary souls. We are now well into our tenth month of a pandemic that has changed the way we do everything. For the love of our neighbor, we have maintained physical distance and donned face masks. Many businesses are still finding new ways to stay afloat in this time of COVID. Our restaurants are excited that they will once again be able to open their doors to limited capacity this next week. It is nearly impossible to visit friends and family in the hospital at this name and that makes not only us weary, but also the individual under care in the hospital. This is just naming a handful of things that are currently making our souls weary.
In that weariness our lives can seem void of purpose. It is also weariness that can open the door to the demons and evil that pervade our society. Remember, a demon or a thing of evil is anything that has power over us that is not of God. It could be depression that is brought on by isolation over the last ten months. It could be the unhealthy use of alcohol or drugs being used to mute the outside world. It could be the anger and resentment that has built up when realizing some things are out of our control. These circumstances can lead us further from the liberating word and healing of Jesus Christ.
To breakthrough the weariness, we get to acknowledge Jesus for his healing and being the Holy One of God. The man with the unclean spirit did not have it wrong. Jesus was just trying to slow the flow of information coming out of Capernaum so that he could reach more people before the authorities confronted him. To acknowledge Jesus as the Holy One of God, means that we have to give up some of our own control. Coming to terms with the knowledge that we do not always know better is not an easy talk to have with ourselves.
Yet Jesus invites us into his teaching. It is a new teaching that opens our hearts to the wonder of God that is bound in love for each and every one of us. A God that wants us to renounce the evil in our lives and be vulnerable to God’s unending love. We do this by renouncing the evils in our lives. By naming our fears and demons which have entangled our very being, we begin to unbind the evil that has infiltrated our lives. By naming these evils we acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord and we can fully experience the healing brought to our weary souls. This is a process that takes time and transformation as we continue to sit in God’s Word and listen to how it is calling us personally. It is a healing which takes place from the inside out and begins to liberate us from those forces that pull us away from God.
If only we could allow ourselves to be astonished and amazed at the teaching of Jesus, as those gathered in the synagogue were nearly two thousand years ago. Jesus’ new teaching ushers in a reformation for those whose hearts are moved to follow him. May you be open to the vulnerability of naming your personal evils and those forces that have power over you which are not of God. May the Word of Christ liberate you from any bondage you may find yourself in as you renounce the evil in your life. May you be healed by the presence of Jesus Christ.
January 24, 2021
Well, John was arrested, however, let us carry on in the work that needs to be done. Mark quickly glosses over this mention and we are immediately immersed in the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus is asking a lot of his new followers in the gospel lesson and they do not disappoint. Whatever fear may arise, they follow. The time has been fulfilled and Jesus has brought the kingdom of God near so that all may witness and be changed.
What is happening this morning in our gospel lesson? Mark is so excited to share the story with us that only 20 verses into his gospel, Jesus is calling his first disciples. There is no birth narrative like we find in the Gospel of Luke. Mark invites the reader right into the story. We are splashed down into the waters of the Jordan with Jesus as he is getting baptized, and then we find ourselves along the shores of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus calls Simon, Andrew, James and John to follow him.
What astounds me is that they are able to just drop what they are doing without question. As far as we know, they do not even know who this Jesus guy is. Yet, there must be something they sense, an aura about him, that pulls them into the mystery and wonder. Perhaps word of his baptism has made it up shore to the Sea of Galilee and with everything they are taking in with the sights and sounds, they know Jesus is not a false prophet. Yet, to still drop everything and leave requires courage and commitment. The courage and commitment that we see within those first disciples accompanies them through change.
Change is necessary in God’s beautiful creation. The changing of the seasons in Michigan may bring dormancy and cold winters, then we have the hope of spring and those first crocuses pushing their way through the dirt and signaling that warm weather and more sun is on the horizon. The life stages of a caterpillar is nothing but change. Caterpillars must go into their own dormancy period to become beautiful butterflies, an incredible change which points to the miraculous creation we live in. Every once in a while, I am able to experience change in nature in my own household as our 4 year old gecko sheds his skin. Usually, he does this overnight when we are sleeping. He sheds his old, dead skin and once again becomes a vibrant orange and yellow; a necessary change which reveals not only the wonder of creation, but the need for us to shed the dead things in our lives and become new. We are reminded of this through the waters of baptism.
The Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, is credited with the one thing that most of us have become fully aware of as we move through life. He said, “Change is the only constant in life.” We are constantly moving forward and evolving in life, with our locations, relationships, and beliefs to just name a few. Change is a scary thing! The thought of change can keep us from moving forward. It can also be reassuring. I found hope in the words of one of my seminary professors when he said that his theology (or thoughts about God) have constantly changed over his 40+ years of ministry and it is a good thing. To have a stagnant God, would mean the possibilities to grow and evolve in our own beliefs would be stunted.
This past year for the church has required a multitude of changes. Worship in-person has turned to worship virtually. Our usual face-to-face conversations transitioned to Zoom and phone calls. We pray for the day when we can safely gather without face masks and sing boldly. Yet, these changes have ushered in a new era in the church that has been longing to break through. To approach them faithfully required courage and commitment.
The four disciples invited to follow Jesus in today’s gospel took a giant leap of faith to leave everything behind and change. There was a desire within them to grow closer to God and they could sense something in Jesus that was going to lead them. The Holy Spirit came down to Jesus in his baptism and this could very well be what was driving them to follow and leave the fishing and mending of nets to those in the boats and on the shore. They were going to have to change from fishing the sea to fishing for people as Jesus proclaimed.
As we look back at the Hebrew scriptures, the image of fishing often carried negative connotations. Therefore, as people were listening to and reading Mark’s gospel there may have been some hesitancy. The prophet Jeremiah uses the image of fishing as he speaks of God catching people and bringing them to judgement (16:16). The prophet Amos warns the people that they will be taken away with fishhooks (4:2). This is not the type of fishing for people that Jesus is referencing when he is talking to the first disciples. This gospel text has become one of the most common referred to text when we talk of our mission in the world to proclaim the good news and make disciples. However, it is not a contest and we are not tracking to see who can rack up the most lives “saved” in the win column. Jesus is calling us to a discipleship that is much greater.
To follow Jesus Christ means that we must be open to transformation. A transformation that happens within our own beings. A transformation that looks at people for who they are in being created in God’s image and not simply as someone to win over to our side. A transformation occurs when we begin to listen to one another and allow the divine into the conversation. This thought of change can bubble up the fear we are holding deep within. The fear of not meeting someone else’s expectations. The fear of not making everyone happy. The fear of having to face confrontation. The fear of leaving behind what was for what is to come.
The disciples knew this fear. They knew that to follow Jesus was not going to be an easy task. Our gospel lesson is prefaced, “After John was arrested.” There would most likely be consequences in following Jesus. The first four disciples quickly decided that to follow those consequences would be worth taking the plunge to be transformed and changed. ELCA Bishop Brian Maas writes of the consequences of living faithfully, “arrest, repudiation, condemnation, even death—including the death of biases and prejudices, privilege and the insistence on one’s way, one’s ego and one’s facades.”
Now, this is the type of death that Jesus speaks of when he says we first must die to ourselves. The death of those notions that Bishop Maas refers to, bring us in closer relationship to God and the community we surround ourselves.
Jesus has invited us into change. A change that will bring us into deeper relationship with him and our God. It is a change that the disciples stepped boldly into as they dropped what they were doing to follow Jesus. It is a change that we encounter when we make Christ a central part of our lives through prayer, devotion, and the loving of not only our neighbors, but also the stranger.
Fears can prevent us from experiencing many of the wonderful and mysterious possibilities that make up a lifetime. What if the first disciples had said no to Jesus because they were fearful of leaving everything behind? What if the caterpillar refused to become a butterfly because it was fearful of what was on the other side of the cocoon? Jesus comes to alleviate those fears preaching the reign of God has come near. In Jesus’ preaching, each one of us is invited to follow him and change. As we open ourselves to change, God is revealed in our transformation.