Good News for Bad News

luke 4a*Sermon preached at First Christian Church of Hampton, on 27 January 2019.  The sermon delivered had a few really minor changes in the moment, as we continue to look at the intersection of discipleship and being a community centered in Jesus. – Vinson

Gospel of Luke 4:14-21 (New Revised Standard Version

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country.  He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.   When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom.  He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.  The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.  Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

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INTRODUCTION

Returning to his hometown of Nazareth following his temptation by Satan in the wilderness, Jesus entered into his home synagogue.  Word about him was already filtering through Galilee about their native son.  Given most synagogues did not have their own clergy, it would not have been unusual for a distinguished person to speak, so Jesus was invited up front.  In an age when Hebrew had been replaced by Aramaic as the common language with many not literate in Hebrew enough to read the scriptures, I expect is wasn’t his first time, but now was different as Jesus was asked to read scripture and comment upon it.  Taken from the synagogue’s ark, the Book of Isaiah was handed to Jesus, a tightly rolled up scroll probably much like the Isaiah scroll found in an Israeli cave back in 1947 and dated to sometime between 150 and 400 BC.  A foot wide and written on maybe 17 or 18 parchment sheets stitched together, a few minutes would have rolled by as Jesus had to unroll most of 25-feet long 66-chapter book just to get to the reading from Isaiah 61.

Now, far from Jerusalem at an intersection of commerce from the nearby foreign nations, in a town lying in perhaps the most progressive part of tetrarchies that made up the former nation of Israel, if anywhere would seem a great place for Jesus to start, this would be it.  Eyes focused upon him as Jesus found the place and read.  Then, sitting down in the style of the time when preparing to give a commentary and an application of the text, Jesus taught.  To us it would have been closer to a Sunday school lesson that what we would call a sermon.  Whether we’re seeking a personal relationship with Jesus, or we want to speak of what a Jesus-centered faith community is supposed to look like, this is the scripture for us to first sit with as we take our next steps.  While there is certainly the hint Jesus had much more to say than recorded in the gospel, here in a few powerful sentences – Jesus conveys God’s vision statement for his ministry… bringing good news to a world often very much occupied with bad news.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

I only bring this up because if we have listened closely to the gospel text this morning from Luke, this good news of Jesus is only “good” when we first admit what hurts in our lives, what’s lacking, what’s been difficult, what’s our wounds and our sins.

FOR INSTANCE

So let’s hear the words of Jesus again, as we ponder this.  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  It’s a truly hope-filled text, but in truth – it’s only is so when one is willing to embrace both sides of it.

I’ll unpack what I mean.  It is pretty easy to hear all the positive inflections when we read these words.  It even reminds me of hearing the words spoken of Jesus as he entered Jerusalem on what we know as Palm Sunday.  But, that day of glory is darkly mirrored in Good Friday, is it not?  So Jesus lifts up hope in the face of poverty, of captivity, of blindness, of oppression.  None of those are happy experiences, in whatever form we experience them – personal, relational, work, or anything else.  It’s to acknowledge that at some level, all of us are certainly touched by sorrow, if we are honest with God.  Some of us, at least in an objective sense, undoubtedly experience more than others.  In our shared humanity we know this truth:  None of us are immune from pain, from suffering, from wounds to the heart, the body, the spirit.  It is to this, Jesus says, that he has come to bring good news, to bring release, to bring freedom, to bring recovery, and to bring favor.  The words themselves hearkening back to Leviticus, chapters 25 to 27, with a key verse at 25:10, wherein it is said: “Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you…”

If those words sound familiar, I’d note that they are what’s inscribed upon our nation’s Liberty Bell, these words of the Biblical “Jubilee.”  Released from debt, released from captivity to sin and evil – setting aside whatever “captivity” binds people in prison, in addictions, in abusive situations, and so forth.  Not just for the year as in Leviticus, but it’s expanded by Jesus into the broader sense that this will be the way of the Kingdom breaking forth now until he returns.  Life will be reordered by God’s values for people, resetting our lives to God’s intention in the Creative act recorded in Genesis.

There is a caveat that the listeners in the synagogue ran into: they marveled at the words of Jesus, but ultimately could not take them into their being.  It points to how that it’s only when we accept the realization that we aren’t complete in and of ourselves and difficult “bad news” is present in our lives, that we are able to fully participant in this new reality that is Jesus Christ.  The folks in the synagogue are thinking Jesus speaks oh so well, but they’re too comfortable with themselves to take his words into their being.  Jesus comes bringing good news to those in need, not to those who are comfortable in seeing nothing needs to change.  Accepting our release from such captivity takes us surrendering our will to God, as we are.

As we mull over the words of Jesus as being fulfilled in our own hearing “today,” we hear how there’s good news to be had for the poor, the captive, the blind, the oppressed.  God offers comfort, but such comfort will only mean something to those who acknowledge their own discomfort.  It is held at a distance, with the heart silenced by the head.  It’s like wrapping ourselves so tightly in the concept of the resurrection to come that we don’t acknowledge it is a resurrected life in the now.  Such a life in the now always starts with honesty about where we are today in life if our walk with the Lord is to heal.  Accepting our recovery from such blindness is about surrounding our heart to God, as we are.

However, over the years of ministry I’ve known enough folk along the way who knew the answer as to what would make them truly free, but just could not surrender what was owning them in one form or another.  I have found it painful at times to witness, because I see the suffering that could end in the grace of God.  Let’s be honest, our own internal messages, the ones we learned somewhere in life about not it not being OK to be sad, or angry, or hurt, can be a real roadblock to Jesus and is a limit to the work of the Spirit.  Not has everyone has experienced needed permissions from family and friends, or been granted a fulsome ear – and so ready to open up.  And too, sharing stuff may have an aspect of guilt or shame tied up in it somehow that increase the fear of accepting grace – and so it gets locked away, sometimes for decades.  Accepting our freedom from oppression in this and every form is about surrounding our life to God, as we are.

It’s only then we experience the immense freedom from speaking our truth, and receive the help and comfort that God offers – release, sight, healing, freedom, and more, and as a follower, that we move beyond receiving help and comfort to living a life that offers it to others.  It is only then we hear Jesus is happening TODAY in our lives for we receive the good news AND we become a part of his Good News.  “Today” is an important word for Luke; he uses it more than all the other gospels combined.  “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you.”  “Today you will be with me in paradise.”  And twice in the Zacchaeus story: “Zacchaeus, come down immediately.  I must stay in your house today.”  And then, “Today, salvation has come to this house.”  And finally, in our text: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  So I would suggest as good a description as one can have for what it is to be the Body of Christ – is being God’s presence to those in need TODAY, according to the mercies we’ve received and the gifts we’ve been granted TODAY.  Accepting such favor from God is to become a part of the proclamation itself of the Kingdom breaking forth as our spirit honors God, as we are.

SO WHAT?

We talked last week about our huge team and all the smaller sub-teams that make this ministry we have in common.  I know that I can pretty much look around and say, there are no bystanders here.  Each is seeking to serve.  That’s one sign of a healthy congregation.  Another sign of a healthy congregation is Jesus is how we translate the words of Jesus into our individual lives and life as a community gathered in him – as those called to offer his healing and a place of safety for ourselves and each other – that we may find hope and healing, that if one is:

If you are afraid?  Come and find courage.

If you are lonely?  Come and be included in our family.

If you are ill?  Come here – or better, let us come to you – to care for you.

If you are isolated?  We will visit you.  We will welcome you.  We will bring you into our community as an equal.

If you are discouraged?  In our every gathering together, we encourage one another.

In such a spirit, we remember that God has come for not for the perfect but the imperfect, not for the healthy but for the ill, not for the righteous but unrighteous, not for the strong but for the weak.  God comes, that is, for all of us.

In this, I would ask you to join with me in prayer for one another, to have the strength and energy to live in response to Jesus’ promise.  So I am going to ask you to close your eyes and hold in your mind’s eye those around you…  [extemporaneous prayer]

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Pastor’s Notes:

The ‘Team’ That’s ‘Church’

i corinthians 12.jpg*Sermon preached at First Christian Church of Hampton, on 20 January 2019.  The giftedness of people is something of wonder that never ceases to amaze me.  How we bring those gifts together is how we honor best the Spirit’s intent.  The photo is an inscription mentioning Erastus, from first century Corinth (Greece), which was discovered in 1929  It reads, “Erastus in return for his ship laid the pavement at his own expense” and likely refers to the high level official who send greetings from Corinth, in Paul’s letter to the Romans (16:23), who is said to be one of the “seventy disciples” of Christ mention in the Gospel of Luke.  Blessings, Vinson

First Letter to the Corinthians 12:1-11 (New Revised Standard Version)

Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed.   You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak.  Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.  Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.  To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.  To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.  All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

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INTRODUCTION

In pre-war days, during my first of many deployments with the Marines we spent a month going through the Marine Corps’ “Jungle Warfare School” and its survival course in the northern part of Okinawa.  At one point, the battalion was broken into groups of 4-6 men and we were scattered across the more than 17,000 acres of single and double canopy jungle, much of it with impossible slopes, and all of us without weapons, water, food, and shelter.  The point was to use our training and wits to survive off the land.

My group wasn’t exactly well-fixed in terms of ruggedness:  my bodyguard had a broken nose and sore back having gone off a 35-foot cliff just days before.  Then there was an intelligence geek with very little experience outside an office and a Marine who had been fired from his line company, pending separation due to severe mental illness.  I myself was 40 years old, in my third straight operational tour, and starting to feel the wear.  All we brought was each other.  No gear.  Just our boots and utes (uniforms) as they say.  We were expected to build shelter, construct a water filtration system, build certain types of fire pits, and find food.  Instructors would find us and grade us on everything.

We did something, which, as it later became clear, set us apart from the other groups.  Land navigating to our designated site, we spent 30 minutes of our remaining precious daylight to agree on four points:  (1) We would not cuss.  (2) We would not mention food or water, or being hungry or thirsty to each other.  (3) We would determine who had what abilities for which tasks.  And, (4) we would help whoever needed a hand when we completed our individual jobs.  Then we set to it.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

One could argue, especially in view of the Apostle Paul’s many letters, that the coming together which is church has some similarity to a team on a survival course, a team that God selects for us in many ways, certainly a team that comes together amid what we know to be a stressed and fractured society.  I think this is why the reading for today from First Corinthians stands out as so instructive, on one part of being “church” in society.

FOR INSTANCE

Corinth was old and yet new.  Obliterated and depopulated by the Romans in 146 BC, only for the Romans to raise it from its ruins little more than four decades before the birth of our Lord and reestablish the city.  The first generation of settlers passed away not long before Paul came along, so it still had some of that new buzz from the coming together of Romans, Greeks, Jews and the breadth of peoples from across the empire.  In reading Paul’s letters to the Corinthian church, it is becomes clear they had their share of strong-willed and vocal folk!  Full of the Spirit and yet now finding themselves living in a culture that did not align to their faith’s values, even as they themselves were figuring out how to be a team, Paul gives teaching.  Well, we aren’t so young as a church and certainly our team is long-established, but the Word here invites us to take a fresh look, to allow that creativity to come together for the way ahead.

When I mention not cussing, it wasn’t simply avoiding the inventive and often colorful language of Sailors and Marines.  Yes, it was indeed possible for them to restrain themselves, as they learned!  It was about how we would treat each other, and that in spite of the stresses of the experience, we would do nothing to speak ill or gripe to or about one another – we simply couldn’t afford it.  It was about having a spirit of humility, not the absence of debate.  Clearly, this is something Paul had on his mind when speaking of the varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit;” and the “varieties of service, but the same Lord;” and, finally, “the varieties of activities, but … the same God who activates all of them in everyone.”  Being a team comes first: this is why Paul speaks of the “body” throughout his letters.  As another has observed, the Spirit also chooses which gift to bestow on each and knows what gift is needed for each.  Members do not receive gifts of the Spirit as they wish.  The Spirit does not give one kind of gift to all members, either. The purpose of different gifts of the Spirit is to make the church stronger and useful to more people.  Anything else is a distraction from our mission – and we know our mission; it’s one set forth by Jesus in what is referred to as “The Great Commission,” in the Gospel of Matthew the 28th chapter, when:

“…Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”

The second point was also about talk.  Food and water.  Certainly not everything is edible in either the woods nor the jungle, as any Boy Scout has probably learned.  There are grubs and critters that can serve as food, as well as some plants – after a series of tests before consumption.  But it is amazing how focusing on what is missing can derail a team and complicate its mission.  It isn’t to be blind to facts, but this is a faith-stretching moment, with the eye reflecting the generosity of the soul.  It doesn’t always come naturally.  If it did, there would not be the old saw about the cup being half-empty or half-full.  Some are wisely just happy to have the vessel of a cup much less whatever it contains at the moment.  It is to hold close Paul’s words:  ”To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”

Scriptures are replete with examples of this wrestling.  Elisha thinking all is over while Elijah points out the host of the Lord encamped ‘round them where Elisha suddenly wonders where they all came from – having been there all the time.  Or, whether it’s when the disciples of Jesus look out upon the mountain-side crowd and fret they have not enough to feed them all – something we’ve experienced, I expect, at the Welcome Table a time or two!  Only for them to be surprised in the multiplication, to a point of over-abundance of a few fish and loaves of bread.  That’s why in everything, there is that tenacious promise in the closing line to the Great Commission:

And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’”

Then there is using our gifts and then helping others: the third and fourth points of our agreement – which really compliment each another.  I remember when I finished my tasks, for instance, I went over to help one of the Marines struggling to move vegetation to create the lean-to, as darkness was coming upon us, and the jungle can seem a bit like a Hitchcock movie once it’s dark!

One of the things I discovered what how the Okinawan jungle has three kinds of vipers, all a type of Habu, which are among the world’s most deadly snakes.  That was when I discovered one of my own hidden gifts, I was a snake magnet!  Always, there are the talents we know of – whether of ourselves or others, and then there are those that just surprise us!  Habu would just come straight for me across the jungle floor.  So my very helpful team suggested I go and stand in various spots and just let them come for me, having nearly been bitten already once!  This also meant that I had to place my trust in a Marine with sociopathic tendencies and awaiting discharge from the service.  He had only the 2-inch knife of my Gerber tool.  Yet without fail, several times over the days, he ran like lightning and spiked the snake within a yard of me, and our merry little team ate better than the others – being the only group who survived on snakes.

Being church, being a team, I would submit, is taking to heart what Paul says, recognizing his list is just some of the ways that the Spirit works through disciples, while making room for discernment – in ways great and small, seen and unseen.  Paul places seemingly popular gifts later in the list, such as “various kinds of tongues” and “the interpretation of tongues.” What comes early in the list is wisdom and knowledge, which make sense given his initial focus on having a correct understanding, but these do not appear at all to be hierarchal.  Paul is NOT relaying that some thought it a point of pride, but is, instead, pointing to humility amidst the diversity, for it is the same Spirit bestowing and equipping.  “To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.” 

I think about us, our huge team and all the smaller sub-teams that make this ministry we have in common, flourish.  We look out every Tuesday at the team that comes together and gets it done, feeding so many.  We enjoy the team that comes together bringing music to our hearts, feeding our spirits.  We relax in our shepherding teams that have been working to ensure all of our congregation has regular contact, so none are missed.  We know behind the scenes the Business Cabinet tracks the requirements to handle the administrative duties of the church.  We are served each Sunday by a team of elders, deacons, and readers.  There are a hundred behind the scenes gifts playing out, whether it is someone asking to be responsible for folding all the bulletins, or one of the things I sometimes glimpse of one member doing for another in secret to be of help.  It is easy to forget all of this.

SO WHAT?

I’ll be honest, I think the letters Paul wrote to the Corinthian church are among his finest words.  Let’s face it, they weren’t the easiest church.  Full of the Spirit, they kept bumping into each other and stumbling a bit as they figured out this new life in Christ as a first generation community.  Yet, that very exuberance Paul was keen to build upon.  We gather as we are, sometimes seeing our age or disability, perhaps how many things we are already doing or wondering just what one can offer.  We bring ourselves, like my team from long ago, our wits and hearts, and something more – our faith in Jesus Christ.  Thanks be to God!

Amen!

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Named by Love!

isaiah 43*Sermon preached at First Christian Church of Hampton, on 13 January 2019.  The initial story is one related to me by the late LCDR Kenny L. Lee, Chaplain Corps, United States Navy.  I had the sad honor of conducting his burial in 2015, his having died from a service-connected disease related to his service in Iraq.  I think of Kenny often and while I was his sponsor into the Corps, he taught me as much anything I did him.  I miss him.  At any rate, I hope this sermon speaks to you.  Blessings, Vinson

Book of Isaiah 43:1-7 (New Revised Standard Version)

But now thus says the Lord,
    he who created you, O Jacob,
    he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
    I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
    and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
    and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
    the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
    Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
Because you are precious in my sight,
    and honored, and I love you,
I give people in return for you,
    nations in exchange for your life.
Do not fear, for I am with you;
    I will bring your offspring from the east,
    and from the west I will gather you;
I will say to the north, “Give them up,”
    and to the south, “Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
    and my daughters from the end of the earth—
everyone who is called by my name,
    whom I created for my glory,
    whom I formed and made.”

Gospel of Luke 3:15-22 (New Revised Standard Version)

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”  So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.  But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done,  added to them all by shutting up John in prison.  Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

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INTRODUCTION

A dear friend and colleague of mine once shared that during his early years of ministry, his mentor spoke of his own journey starting out. His mentor shared how he had first seen himself standing upon the shore calling folks to come to salvation.  As the years progressed, the pastor stood first ankle deep, then knee deep, and, as more years passed, he stood waist deep in the sea.  With the deepening immersion, he had progressed as well in tossing life rings and ropes.  Yet, it wasn’t until the day when the pastor found himself out in the deep waters swimming with everyone else and pointing to the shore to which they must swim, that he discovered ministry.  Their mutual vantage point struck home to him, like Isaiah who shares such a word for us this morning, swimming, so to speak, amid the same waters as the people in their Babylonian captivity.  Their Temple destroyed, the Great Bronze Sea – symbol of God’s creative act in restraining the sea – shattered and its symbolic waters recalling God’s creative act in restraining the sea, had been loosed.  Yet, said Isaiah:

“O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.  For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”

Here is this powerful reminder of the covenantal relationship.  Here is this word of how the chaos which can infect our lives, whether in health, in work, or in relationships, NONE of our experienced chaos is greater than God.  Hear me again: NONE of it is more than ANY ONE of us because we are in God’s hands.  Looking into the words of Isaiah – such chaos isn’t what truly defines us …because God holds out A NAME for us.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

Now, Biblically-speaking, we know that naming is a powerful event, as one discovers people are called by three names:  first, the name the person is called by his father and mother; second is the name people call him; and finally, the name acquired for oneself.  Yet here, there is a fourth name, the one God holds out for His people.

FOR INSTANCE

It isn’t like when we are given our birth name in our families of origin.  That can be a bit mixed.  We’ve all heard about people who really detested their names or, in our kids’ case, the fact that they each have a moniker four names long!  Or the family brouhaha that occurs when no one names a “junior” or their child after the mother-in-law’s adored “Aunt Eunice” or even the old saw of a joke about the parent that named her twin sons, Lemonjello and Orangejello or the Rastafarian uncle who helpfully named his sister’s twins, Deneice and Denephew.  Over the years in ministry, I have heard about every kind of story.  Some amusing.  Some painful.  Some just marvelous.

Yet here we are with the last and special name which our God reserves for each of us, leveling the field via a very different naming.  God is not like people, even the best of people amid the happiest of namings.  God holds out something more precious.

Though the details differ a bit, depending on whether we are hearing it from Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, the story is much the same.  Centuries after Isaiah, John declares himself unworthy.  Nevertheless, as he baptizes Jesus into the waters of chaos, a dove descends or is referred to, and in 3 of the 4 gospel accounts a voice from heaven is heard to declare Jesus “beloved and pleasing in God’s estimation.”

Jesus is named “BELOVED!”

How many time do we get frustrated and use different – not necessarily nice names – for others… or even against ourselves?  Beloved is a special word, a special name that means “dear” or “precious.”  How much could we change our world by thinking and speaking this name God has for his people.  Beloved.  Imagine is we replaced “lazy” with Beloved; replaced “messed up” with Beloved, even replaced our own response to “How are you” with “Beloved, thank you”?

We all struggle as human being.  We go through moments or even prolonged periods of being in chaotic waters; deep, cold, tough spots in life.  When I think of this congregation and its Welcome Table ministry; when I observe the genuine care and concern, the tenderness and attentiveness, the generosity, the forgiveness, the grace this FAMILY shares with both strangers and those well-ensconced in this flock, I continue to be overwhelmed with JOY, HOPE, PEACE, UNITY – in love and in kindness.

SO WHAT?

So, now, beloved of God, I invite you to come up and to partake of the water, and to affirm your own baptismal covenant with God, as those BELOVED of God, as we continue forward in this new year.  And, I invite you to take one of the seashells as a remembrance of this day.  Used from the earliest centuries to represent baptism, perhaps the use of the shell was preferred to other vessels because it is an item found in nature, from a creature that lives its life submerged in water — even as those who are baptized live a new life stay immersed in the Christian faith.  Perhaps, as well, it is a reminder that, in baptism, Christ calls us to discipleship, even as he called the first disciples by the seashore.

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In receiving, I ask you:  Do you accept that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and to accept and proclaim his to be Lord and Savior of the world?

Of Kingdoms & Rulers

Matthew 2.jpg

*Sermon preached on 06 January 2019, at First Christian Church of Hampton, VA. (No sermon on December 30, due to Christmas Hymn Sing.  This was a challenging sermon, but we live in such times that followers of Jesus should look and listen carefully, with words and deeds measured against scripture.  Blessings, Vinson

Gospel of Matthew 2:1-12 (New Revised Standard Version)

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?  For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”  When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.  They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
    who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.  Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”  When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.   When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.  On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

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INTRODUCTION

The risk always with scriptures that are oh so familiar, is reading past them, not slowing down and just listening.  So it is that when I sat down with today’s reading from Matthew, I forced myself to slow down and read them word by word at the speed and thought as though I was copying them down, putting ink to paper.  It’s a pretty good way to read scripture, especially when it is so very familiar.

This is when it struck me, words that had slipped by me before, especially given the story is so much about Herod.  Listen with me to this verse, read at writing speed:  “When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.”  Did you hear it?  Yes, Herod “was frightened” – and we’ll get to that – but it also notes “all Jerusalem with him.”

Why?  It’s a simple question, not only why would he be frightened, but why would “all Jerusalem” be frightened as well?  If this was the long-promised and hoped-for Messiah, why wouldn’t that be cause for jubilation within the population?  And this is the crux of Epiphany – that it is a season of both wonder and fright, love and fear, realization of the hope of God manifest and realization of its call for change in our lives.  So it’s a bit messy and we aren’t generally fond of messiness.  We like predictability and everything in order, an expression of our desire to be safe.  But the reading asks us, safe from what?

WHY I BRING THIS UP

I bring this up because in reality, Epiphany has two sides.  In today’s reading, tied to so many wondrous carols about the magi, sometimes called wise men and other times called kings, we want the good tidings and warm feelings of Christmas to keep on rolling.  Yet we recognize — as disciples of Jesus — there is this other side of Epiphany that sticks out – the one that speaks of kingdoms and rulers, of fear, and what that fear is resisting.

FOR INSTANCE

I’ve been thinking about this kingdom reading this week.  The kingdom of Herod, who outsourced his spirituality and called in his religious consultants to tell him where the Christ child might be found, simply presumed that these advisers would see this baby as a common enemy.  And, the other kingdom, that of the magi.  These impartial and inquisitive visitors, possibly from Persia (now Iran), but certainly connected to the blend of astronomy, astrology and mystic faith which had roots in Babylon (now Iraq), for now they bring their searching faith to encounter something beyond their experience.

I’ve been thinking of the city, its ancient walls having risen higher, the Temple looming even more impressively over the city, no longer the small “City of David” but a metropolis of sorts, the center of the government and the center for religion.  Here, Herod called for a group huddle with a handful of selected religious leaders upon word of this unknown child’s birth from the magi.  There is irony in that wise men Herod consults are the chief priests and the scribes who are his key advisors, as a major theme within the Gospel of Matthew is that God does “not” reveal things to “the wise and intelligent” [11:25], but to the humble.  And so while learned in the scriptures, Herod’s “wise men” do possess the Biblical knowledge that both Herod and the magi lack, but what good does it do them?  They are not led by insight to seek out their Messiah, but to become involved in a plot to kill him, by turning the magi into informants.

I’ve been thinking of Herod, and his fearfulness of any challenge to his rule, and how he wasn’t alone in this, for we are told “all Jerusalem was afraid.”  We forget with time, how the city had become this symbiotic economic partnership built around this government-temple complex, and I mean that not just with physical buildings, but the extensive connections.  Here, the story of the magi foreshadows the opposition that will be shown to Jesus by the powerful people of his day, their prophetic voice choked off by self-interest, money and power being tied up in the matter.  Religious leaders doing the bidding of a political ruler who wishes to destroy Jesus because of his message.  Let’s ponder for a moment this political-religious economy.  In historical studies, we know Jerusalem had one market for wool carders, another for weavers – generally married women making the woolen clothing, and another market for the fullers who would pull the materials tight and render fabric more watertight.  There was the leather industry, its tanneries outside the east city wall, tied closely to the Temple as the priests kept the skins of all the animals sacrificed which they farmed out to the tanners.  There’s the butchers who sold the fattened cattle, the smiths’ market, holding forth work in iron and bronze, arts and crafts market – perhaps the same or separate from the gold and precious metals market, markets for the olive and olive oil industry, spice and ointment makers, water sellers, bakers… Truly, something for everyone and guaranteed to empty the wallet of every pilgrim!

And let’s also not forget the huge construction industry, which under Herod included the rebuilding of the Temple and Herod’s palace in the Upper City, three huge towers, the huge fortress of Antonia which along with the splendid tomb of Herod dominated the Temple Mount, a theater, the Hippodrome, a viaduct to increase the city’s water supply, magnificent porticoes around and across the twin pools of Bethesda, and all other manner of projects.  All of this required tremendous numbers of stone masons, laborers, skilled craftsmen, and maintenance workers to keep the water sources and streets clean and ritually pure – which was paid for from the Temple treasury.

No wonder Jerusalem shuddered, every bit as much as Ephesus would later grow angry with Paul, because the whole house of cards here wasn’t built about transformational relationships – because it was centered upon economic self-interest.

So it is that I’ve been thinking the past days about those two kingdoms, evident in scripture, and how they relate to what has been unfolding in our time, as we wrestle with how the values which underlie our faith intersect with the myriad of social issues confronting us.  That’s why when I read an interview that Jerry Falwell, Jr. gave this week, I was shocked by something he said.

Let me read his words carefully:

“There’s two kingdoms.  There’s the earthly kingdom and the heavenly kingdom.  In the heavenly kingdom the responsibility is to treat others as you’d like to be treated.  In the earthly kingdom, the responsibility is to choose leaders who will do what’s best for your country.  Think about it.  Why have Americans been able to do more to help people in need around the world than any other country in history?  It’s because of free enterprise, freedom, ingenuity, entrepreneurism and wealth.  A poor person never gave anyone a job.  A poor person never gave anybody charity, not of any real volume…”

Does this sound at all like the Gospel?

What happened to the Jubilee announced by John the Baptist?

What happened to the song to our spirit that is in the Beatitudes spoken by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount?

To be blunt, I cannot see this as anything other than the announcement of a spiritual divorce heralding a requirement for some great spiritual chasm within us all.  It is an argument that we should split ourselves into two kingdoms, never touching, certainly never intersecting; claiming a life changed by Jesus and yet not allowing that changed life to become transformative upon earth.  It is the argument that only the wealthy have something of value, skipping past the widow whom Jesus lifted up and her last mite.  It is the argument that we can call ourselves disciples of Jesus, while giving no evidence of such discipleship upon earth.  It is the argument to give up any effort to challenge society and government to demonstrate our values of compassion, of generosity, of kindness, of justice.  This is a call for a society where what Herod says goes.

Folks, we’ve been down this road before.  We are reading about it in the Gospel of Matthew.  It is about how Jesus has come.  Then and now, we’ve just passed through Christmas and the story of how Jesus’ birth shook up the entrenched order that did not reflect the justice of God.  Naturally, fear always seems to lurk nearby, in the minds and hearts of people, for since the time of the Creation narrative when the Serpent played on the fears of Adam and Eve, enticing them into relationship-damaging behavior against God, fear has been a part of the human story.  And so, instead of hearing the news of the birth of one who may be the Messiah with joy, there is fear, a group huddle, and a plan to seek and destroy.

So when I hear Christ followers justifying everything transpiring, even when morally wrong, as OK because the economy is thriving, while turning a blind eye and cold heart to the poor, the destitute, those in desperate need, the refugees and folks just wanting nothing more than to raise their children where there is safety and enough to eat, I recognize the kingdom of Herod.  Absent is the hand and heart that echoes the Lord’s words:  “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

When I hear Christ’s followers justifying behavior which is nothing but a cover for systemic racism and inequality while holding up a faith which promotes the virtues of justice, equality, and fairness especially for those who are ostracized and mistreated, victimized by said system’s abuse, and oppression, victimized by authorities, institutionally incarcerated, professionally repressed, governmentally mistreated, educationally stifled, financially subjugated, and socially rejected, I recognize the kingdom of Herod.  Absent is the hand and heart that echoes the Word:  “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness.

 SO WHAT?

So what do we make of all of this, as we find our place within the story?

Epiphany is our challenge to begin the journey beyond the wondrous glow of Christmas Day.  On this day, the story of the Christ Child runs headlong into the uncomfortable image of the hard edges of the world, of kingdoms and rulers, and the ancient and yet still present witness to the fears that would even today stifle God’s unending desire for purpose for the hungry and the thirsty, the stranger and sojourner, the homeless and the sick, the prisoners and those who feel alone and/or invisible.  In this, we pay attention to the Spirit’s leading, as in the narrative of Matthew, kings are contrasted with servants [20:25-28] and wise men contrasted with infants [11:25], and the magi are depicted as those who do as they are instructed, seek no honor for themselves, gladly humble themselves before a woman and a child, and finally leave by another route to confound the powers that be so that the will of God might be honored.

Amen!

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Pastor’s Notes:  “Is the story of Epiphany credible?,” by Ian Paul.  Dated 04 January 2017, accessed at https://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/is-the-story-of-epiphany-credible/  “Jerry Falwell Jr. Unveils the Anti-Christ,” by Morgan Guyton.  Dated 02 January 2019, accessed at https://www.patheos.com/blogs/mercynotsacrifice/2019/01/02/jerry-falwell-unveils-the-anti-christ/?fbclid=IwAR3Nb-dIeSIOLDPdcsNVd8gE7q4g_bXjoMLb_ZFD9ZWfrSZjmk9mEfXPolw#QM7kcYiiSA65CG26.01  Jerry Falwell Jr. can’t imagine Trump ‘doing anything that’s not good for the country.”  New York Times, dated 01 January 2019.  Accessed at https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/magazine/jerry-falwell-jr-cant-imagine-trump-doing-anything-thats-not-good-for-the-country/2018/12/21/6affc4c4-f19e-11e8-80d0-f7e1948d55f4_story.html?utm_term=.9d97c31313f3