Thursday, February 14, 2019

Service of the Word - Feb 13, 2019

Service of the Word
Feb 13, 2019
Isaiah 58:6-12

Photo by Doug Kerr from Albany, NY, United States
[CC BY-SA 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons
This month is Black history month. For most of my childhood years, it was just a month to remember the great leaders of the civil rights era - in particular Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks - or to remember abolition of slavery and the heroes of the underground railroad. At least that’s how it typically was framed at school. While I enjoyed learning about history and these historical figures - that’s where it stayed - as history. These things were things of the past; racism was over. I didn’t think much about it. I didn’t even notice til far too late in my education that I didn’t have a single classmate who was a person of color. But, as a pastor in one of the most homogenous (or least diverse) denominations in the country, I need to think about it and wrestle with it more.

It wasn’t until high school that I started to see what was in front of me from the beginning of my school years. Mr. Vasellas, our high school AP US history teacher, began to openly talk about issues of race, particular our small town of Red Lion, PA. He was driving with one of his colleagues from York College. She was an African American professor there. As they drove through Red Lion, she locked the doors and rolled up her window. He asked us why she would do that. We couldn’t understand it. Sure, we do that driving through inner city York - that’s a “dangerous place”, but little ol’ Red Lion? Why? Then he proceeded to tell us about the dark history of the KKK and its place in Red Lion. We were shocked. In all of our years in Red Lion, we had never heard the stories or seen the relatively recent pictures. We assumed that, because we were in the North, any of that kind of stuff would have been well in the past. Then, he continued, “by the way, that KKK is still active here. The grand dragon lives down the street. And their meeting place is just two blocks from here.” Just two blocks from my high school. I had no idea. As far as I’m aware, that’s still true. Just this past summer, there were KKK recruitment flyers left all over York County, including in little ol’ Red Lion.

It’s easy to say - “well, that’s the KKK, they’re the extreme.” Not long after this, I was in my church. The church that I had grown up in - where I came to find not only my faith, but my call. I had been part of a partnership with a diocese in Tanzania, and as part of that, I used to spend time with the Tanzanian students at Gettysburg Seminary. And we’d bring them to church. I overheard, one day, “Why do the Witts keep bringing those n-words to church?” These were my friends. I was crushed to hear them being spoken of in that way.

Then, it’s easy to say, they’re stuck in their ways. That’s just how they were raised. But them, for this reflection, I had initially intended to read a reflection by an African american theologian to amplify their own voices. I didn’t have a particular reading in mind, so I scoured my bookshelves. In all of the books I own (well over 200), I have less than ten written by a person of color. That realization horrified me and pointed to how racism has creeped into my life. I have already come to see my own racism in a number of ways - how, while riding the CTA in Chicago, I felt less comfortable being alone in a train car with a man of color than with a white man (though statistics tell me that I’m far more likely to be harmed by the latter). We have to see our racism to work to challenge it, to grow, and to work to change our world.

Yet looking at my bookshelf, I’m reminded yet again that I still struggle with the racism that I have learned - by watching TV and movies, and from being in a society that is still steeped in racist attitudes. It reminds me that, even in academia, the ones already with power too often get to tell the story, to get their voices heard, and to have their work recognized. It reminds me that I too have privileged some voices over others. Racism isn’t just found in the obvious words and actions grounded in hatred, but racism has affected our society in more subtle ways - ways that reflect the systemic nature of racism - in where we put interstates, in which schools get funding (or funding cuts), in whose books end up on my bookshelf and whose voices are valued.

What does all of this have to do with Isaiah? Isaiah powerfully connects the wholeness and the health of Israel to the wholeness and health of its members. As long as the people suffer under the bonds of injustice and oppression, as long as the poor remain poor, and as long as the hungry remain hungry, Israel cannot be whole.

Isaiah uses a word that is notoriously hard to translate into English. He says “if you offer your nephesh to the hungry, and you satisfy the nephesh of the afflicted...” Nephesh is a word that originally/ literally meant something like throat. But it comes to have a more metaphoric meaning. The throat is where air travels through the body to the lungs, it is where food and water travels to the stomach. Through these processes - eating, drinking, breathing -, people find life. Thus, nephesh gets a meaning like “that which gives life.” So Isaiah says something like “if you offer that which gives you life to the hungry, and you satisfy that which gives life to the afflicted” then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom will be like the noonday.

When I was in Tanzania, my African friends taught me another word for this idea - ubuntu - which loosely means something like “I am because we are.” While this is a common idea in African nations, it was popularized by South Africans who opposed apartheid. I cannot be whole unless my neighbor is whole. My community cannot find wholeness unless every member of it is whole.

Isaiah helps us imagine what the world looks like when all find healing and wholeness. “Your light shall rise in the darkness, and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your needs in parched places and make your bones strong. And you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.” He invites us to vision with him that world; who wouldn’t want to be part of that?

Racism - and all other isms and phobias that divide the body of Christ - keeps our neighbors from wholeness. Racism harms people of color, keeping them under the bonds of oppression. The body of Christ, to use Pauline imagery, is not whole unless our neighbors are whole.

As Lutherans, we believe that Jesus frees us from any need to justify ourselves to God. That’s a free gift - not even our sin - even the sin of our own racism - separates us from God. To be clear, God doesn’t excuse the sin or say that it is okay but rather God in Christ frees us from it so we can grow into the people Christ calls us to be, so we can see Christ in all whom we meet, especially those who are most vulnerable, in this case, those struggling under the weight of racism. That free gift frees us to do our own internal work of facing and struggling with our racism. That free gift from frees us for the work of restoring that which gives life to our neighbors. It frees us for breaking down prejudices (within ourselves and our communities), stereotypes, systems, and other barriers that divide the body of Christ so that we all may find wholeness in this world here and now. In other words, we are freed for the work of loosing the bonds of injustice, undoing the thongs of the yoke, and letting the oppressed go free.

I don’t have all the answers. I’m working on this too. But I trust that God’s vision for the world is one where all find wholeness. And as we continue through black history month, I trust that God is inviting us to vision with Godself - to see the world that God created as it God intended it to be. A vision that draws us in so we can say - “who wouldn’t want to be part of that?” And I trust that God invites and equips us to work to bring that into reality, through confession and absolution, through the sacraments, through the hard conversations, and through the people that God puts in our lives.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

5th Sunday after Epiphany (Year C) - Feb.10, 2019

5th Sunday after Epiphany
Year C
February 10, 2019
Luke 5:1-11

In this week’s gospel reading, we jump forward a little bit. Last week, the people of Nazareth wanted to throw him off a cliff for preaching a vision of the Kingdom of God that extended beyond their idea of the boundaries of the Kingdom - a vision for the kingdom that included the Gentiles. From there, he goes to Capernaum, he cleanses a man with an unclean spirit. Then he goes to Simon (soon to be known as Peter)’s home and heals his mother-in-law of a life threatening illness. A “report” began to spread about Jesus and the deeds of power he performed in that place. We begin to see a shift from the crowds wanting to kill him to a crowd eager to hear (at least for now) this person who reportedly heals the sick and has authority over demons. So a crowd forms and begins following Jesus, as we hear today, “pressing in on him to hear the word of God.” He gets in Simon’s boat and teaches from the boat.

He then instructs Simon to go “into the deep water” to cast his nets for a catch. Simon reluctantly agrees. It’s the “well, I tried that already, but if you say so, I’ll humor you” response. We’ve all likely been there - we’re trying to solve a problem. Someone tells us to do something that we had already tried, and we do it just because we hope that this time will be different. Or maybe we do it to “prove” them wrong.

My pap was a woodworker; he loved his scroll saw and he taught me how to use it. Not long after he died, I went over to his workshop to make something. I didn’t know what. Perhaps random cuts in the wood would turn into something. In my grief, I needed that way of connecting with him - even if I just cut out a random design. So I start up the machine, put my foot on the pedal, and brought the wood to the blade. Well, the dang blade broke. Pap never taught me how to replace it. So I found the manual and the special tool that went with this particular model. Put the new blade in. Okay. Great. I start up the machine. Put the wood to the blade, and the blade pops out of the top clamp - which was frightening to say the least. I put it back in, mess with it a bit. I start up the machine, put the wood to the blade, and it pops out again. I go through this cycle several times before getting my Dad (who didn’t know either, but I was at the point that I needed another set of eyes on the problem). I forget what solved the problem, but Dad’s suggestion was something I certainly tried before. Yet, I did it to show my Dad that it didn’t help - the “see this is what I’m talking about” attempt. And it worked. Of course. Dad shows up and magically it works.

That’s kind of how I imagine the scene. Simon goes to the deep. Maybe out of exasperation. Maybe to prove that there really aren’t any fish there - “see, this is what I’m talking about.” (Why would he expect this venture out to the sea to be any different?) Or maybe, just maybe, it goes out of this nagging hope that this will be the thing that finally actually works. We don’t know. But he goes. He goes to the deep. The deep - a place that represented for people a place of chaos - symbolized in the first creation story by the watery abyss that was present before God created the earth. The sea is untamed, it is wild, it is unpredictable. Getting in a boat, heading out to the deep, fisherman put their lives on the line (and in the hands of the deep) to provide food for their families and their villages. Jesus sends Simon back out there - out to the deep - after an exhausting and exasperating night of catching nothing.

And yet this time - he catches a catch like never before. Like a couple weeks ago with the wine at the wedding of Cana, this is a vision of over-the-top abundance. The catch is more than what we’d expect. Here, in the deep, the Word of God unfolds before them. They catch enough fish that it started to sink not one but two boats - it would likely be enough to feed not just their families - but their village. It is a catch that brings life and sustenance to people all around them. Jesus shows his authority, not just over the demons and illnesses, but over the chaos and danger of the sea. Here Jesus brings abundant life from the chaos of the sea. Simon, upon seeing this abundant gift of God and Jesus’ ability to bring life out of chaos, falls at Jesus’ feet saying - telling Jesus to go away from him - as a sinner, he doesn’t see himself as deserving of the abundant grace of God - again. His mother in law had been healed by Jesus - and now this. How could he as a sinner face Jesus, the presence of God among them?

Yet, instead of going away from Simon, instead of being pushed away by Simon’s sinfulness, Jesus gets closer. In the words of Nadia Bolz-Weber, in her book Accidental Saints, “Never once did Jesus scan the room for the best example of holy living and send that person out to tell others about him. He always sent the stumblers and sinners. I find that comforting.” Here, he brings Simon - a sinner - into a deeper relationship with him. Jesus calls this man - along with James and John - to follow him as his disciples, and to send them out to participate his mission in the world. He calls Simon and the rest to venture out into the chaos of the world, telling them that from this point forward they would be fishing for people - bringing them into this reign of God that has broken into this world through Jesus. They will be in the midst of the chaos of the world as it is, a world ruled by Romans - who kept the peace of Rome by way of the sword, a broken world marked by oppression and violence. And this journey through the chaos of the world will lead to the cross (and even to their eventual deaths as well, as Peter was likely martyred in Rome during the reign of Emperor Nero). Yet they are called, and they drop everything to follow Jesus. They enter into the chaos again, with the trust in the one calling them and the confidence that the gift that they had experienced is not just for them, but that the gifts of God are for others. They are called to expand their nets so that all are brought into the reign of God. They trust that the abundance of God (and the life that comes out of it) is greater than the chaos that they will experience.

Instead of being pushed away by our sinfulness (or by our attempts to push Jesus away), Jesus comes closer to us too. Jesus calls us - stumblers and sinners alike - to follow him and to participate in God’s mission for the world. My Hebrew professor, Dr. Klein, in Seminary used to say God’s final word to God’s people is always yes. That is the Good News. As Christians, we trust that Jesus is God’s yes to God’s people. In Jesus, God shows (once again) God’s commitment to being in an intimate and life-giving relationship with all of humanity. In Jesus, we have a God that enters into the chaos of our world, risking everything, even death, to enfold us all into the reign of God that is continually breaking into this world here and now. We have the gift of living on this side of the resurrection; we see that neither death nor chaos have the final word, but rather life and love in Jesus - God’s yes - has the final word. Therefore, nothing - not even our sin - can push Jesus away from us or prevent God’s inbreaking of the kingdom. God’s final answer to us is yes. That indeed is Good News.

Today, that yes from God in Christ calls us into the chaos of our world. We are called to step out intothe deep. Like Simon, James, and John - we are called to trust the one who brings life out of chaos. We trust that God is faithful and that even in the midst of the chaos of our world, God is bringing forth abundance and life. We are called to see and to witness to the abundant life from God all around us - sometimes in the most ordinary of places. We are called to participate in the life-giving work of Christ in our world. How do we expand our nets - so that all around us are enfolded in the grace and love that are markers of the Kingdom of God? I don’t think this passage is about purely getting more numbers in the pews. Rather, this passage points to an expansive vision of who is included in the net - who is included in the Kingdom of God. Perhaps, we’re called to do the things that seem ridiculous. Perhaps we’re called to do the things that we’ve tried before (and thought couldn’t work again). Perhaps we’re called to try things that we’ve never tried before. Regardless, we’re called to expand our nets - to make the love of God known to all people, everywhere.

Monday, February 4, 2019

4th Sunday after Epiphany (Year C) - Feb 3, 2019

4th Sunday after Epiphany
Year C
February 3, 2019
Luke 4:16-30

In today’s Gospel lesson, we get Jesus’ first sermon as recorded by the writer of Luke. It went so well that, by the end of today’s gospel reading, members of his hometown drove him out of Nazareth and tried to throw him off a cliff. Glad my first sermon went here went a bit differently than that. Today’s gospel reading is a tough one. It is another one in which it is hard to find the “good news” to preach, as we hear of people literally wanting to kill the messenger of that news. 

Jesus gets up to read. He reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah - “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.” And he proceeds to tell the members of his hometown congregation that “today, the scripture has been fulfilled in their hearing.” So far so good. I imagine a synagogue full of people, hanging onto every word from their hometown hero that they’ve heard so much about. He has done the right things up to this point: he’s performed healings and miracles. Today, he said all the right things, quoted a beloved passage from scripture. Up to this point, they had heard what they wanted and expected to hear. These words sounded good. “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” They’re amazed that Joseph’s son - Joseph’s son of all people - would say such powerful and gracious words. This Jesus, the one that they had known since he was just “this big,” had grown into such a wise young man, with such knowledge of their sacred texts. Pride emanated from them, as they saw who this young man had become.

Then as he continues, soon that pride turns into anger and fury - enough so that they sought to get rid of him - permanently - by throwing him off a cliff. Jesus seems to know that, while for the moment, the crowd is amazed, it won’t last. He knows that Jesus’ mission and Jesus’ vision for the world will lead to his rejection - starting here in his hometown. It is the vision for the world that his mother, Mary, sang about as she waited for his birth. It is a vision of a world where the rich and powerful are brought down and the poor and the lowly are lifted high. It is a vision where those held captive and where those who are oppressed find freedom.

The people seem to like the vision, but as he continues his sermon, as he tells them what that vision means, they quickly find issue with his words. The words that earlier were full of grace and wisdom, are now words that spur hatred and fear. His words are harsh, are assertive. He tells them that they will reject him. He turns to other stories from the Scriptures about other prophets and their missions. He points to the times that Elijah and Elisha brought the power of God, the healing of God, the glory of God, not to the Israelites, but to Gentiles - to a widow in Sidon and to Naaman, a Syrian. Jesus’ mission, at least as told by the Gospel of Luke, is a mission to the outsiders. Because of that focus on the outsiders, Luke’s gospel has a special focus on Jesus’ ministry to gentiles - to non-Jews.
Jesus is perceptive. He’s perceptive enough to know that a proclamation of a vision that includes the Gentiles, would be heard by some as a threat to their own place in that vision of the kingdom of God. It is easy to get caught up in the idea that God’s love and God’s kingdom is limited. There’s only so much love and there’s only so much room in the Kingdom of God. Including others in that vision means less love and less of a place for me. It makes it scary to think that people who aren’t like me are included in the Kingdom. So for the townspeople, a message of inclusion of the Gentiles is taken as a threat to their place as God’s chosen people. They wanted to hear a message that God’s love, made known in Jesus, was specifically for them.

This isn’t unique to the people of Nazareth. I want to be careful here - it is easy to portray the people of Nazareth as wild, irrational, etc. And it is easy to accidentally fall into anti-semitism, making claims like “the Jews rejected Jesus, so Jesus rejected them in favor of the Gentiles.” To be absolutely clear, that’s not what’s going on here. As we know from the rest of the Gospel, Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God is a vision that includes both Jews and Gentiles. Jesus’ words this morning are not a rejection of Judaism or the Jewish people or of his hometown. Jesus was born, lived, and died a Jew. He challenged the authorities and the powers that be and he reinterpreted theology, but he never rejected his faith and lived firmly within it. A rejection of Judaism is a rejection of Christ.

Humanity, in general whether in the first century or in the 21st century, is so trained, conditioned to see the world in terms of scarcity - the idea that there isn’t enough to go around - that it is easy to transfer that to God. We’ve just started February and Black history month. This is a month in which we lift up the voices and the history of folks who have been and continue to be marginalized. Yet, every year, I hear critique that says “well, why don’t we have white history month?” I hear similar critiques of Pride month in June. “Why don’t we have heterosexual pride parades?” The lifting up and the inclusion of other voices (voices that have traditionally been silenced) are heard and taken as a threat to the voices that have always been included. And I think that’s what is going on today. The inclusion of outsiders is taken as a threat to those already on the inside. While the kingdom of God is expansive enough, big enough to encompass all - Jesus’ words this morning are heard as a threat.

What is good news for all, is heard as bad news for others. It is easy to accept Jesus’ words as long as it fits into my idea of who is in and who is out. When that is challenged, people feel threatened and people get angry and people try to kill the messenger. While Jesus escapes death today, this vision for the world will lead to the cross. Yet, on that cross, Jesus reveals that love that is inclusive of all people - of all races and nationalities, of all genders, of all sexualities, of all cultures, of all kinds of ability, etc. To quote the Rev. Michael Curry, the current presiding bishop of the Episcopal church, “our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all.”

So where do we go from here? The good news this morning is that neither God’s love nor the Kingdom of God are limited. The Good News is that love wins. God’s love wins for you, for me, for stubborn townspeople, for Gentiles, and for Jews alike. We are called to see the Kingdom of God, not through a lens of scarcity, of keeping it only for myself, but rather, we’re called to see the Kingdom of God in terms of abundance. There is more than of God’s love to go around. God’s love extends to me, to you, to my neighbor, to my enemy, even to those I most want to see outside the kingdom of God. While that isn’t easy news, it is indeed good news. Jesus, the one being sent  “to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,” brings all back into their rightful place in community. I am not whole unless my neighbor is whole. We are not whole unless our community is whole. When the captives are released and the oppressed go free, the community is made whole - and we all experience the Kingdom of God breaking into the world.

Thanks be to God for that.