Luke 9:28-43 (New Revised Standard Version)28Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said. 34While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
37On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. 38Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. 39Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. 40I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” 41Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” 42While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father.
43And all were astounded at the greatness of God.
If I’ve ever had a conversation with you about television or movies, there is something you will find out very quickly about me in the course of our discussion.
I cannot do violent movies.
I don’t mean action movies, where there is stylized violence and explosions and fight scenes - like what you would find in the Marvelverse or Star Wars or the Lord of the Rings.
I’m talking the gory stuff - the gratuitous stuff - the over-the-top-was-it-really-necessary-to-the-plot-to-show-that stuff. It’s the reason I will never watch Game of Thrones even though I read most of the books. Whenever Ben and I sit down in a rare moment to watch television, especially if it’s something that Ben has watched before and I haven’t, I close my eyes and make him tell me when it’s ok to open them again.
Because for me, once I see something like that, it gets burned into my brain. I don’t want to get desensitized to that kind of violence. It’s not something that’s easy to unsee. I’ve been watching this with Michael as well, as he watches movies with his friends; he’s extremely sensitive to scenes of peril - even scenes that as an adult I might label as innocuous. But he’s got a vivid imagination and even the assurance that it all works out in the end doesn’t bring him comfort in the moment.
Once you see something, it becomes really hard to unsee it, no matter how hard you try.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the past two years of the pandemic, and just how much it has revealed about our society. Almost two years ago, when the world stopped, it felt like the entire planet, from the wildlife creeping into cities to humans in their homes to the very sky itself, was catching a breath as we witnessed the terrible unfolding of this novel coronavirus creep into our consciousnesses. We saw hospitals fill up (several times over these two years, with waves and surges striking throughout our country). We saw millions of people on unemployment. We talked about the “new normal” with varying degrees of horror and uncertainty, wondering if this will ever end, and what life on the other side would look like.
There were moments of incredible beauty in this season as we witnessed the resilience of the human spirit - watching as Italian neighbors sang to each other in the midst of lockdown across their balconies. We saw people finding ways to connect with their loved ones, through new technology and hand-written letters and plastic sleeves designed for sanitized hugs. We saw meals cooked for sick friends, for healthcare workers, and parades for birthdays and graduations. We practiced gratitude, we started taking mental health seriously, we found meaningful ways to give and receive hope - and in the midst of the space - this great pause - some of us may even have caught a vision for what life might be like if we didn’t have the relentless hustle and pressure to perform…to succeed…to make ends meet…to feel like we’re just getting by.
Layer on to all of this what we’ve witnessed when it comes to racial tensions in our country - the brutal violence inflicted upon Black bodies and Asian-Americans that we just don’t hear about but can actually witness with cell phone camera footage. Or the continual silencing of Indigenous voices. Or the deep economic disparity between those who have enormous wealth - like how the top 1% wealthiest individuals in the US hold nearly a third of all wealth in the US - and those who work two jobs and are still unable to afford housing. Or how we are at a tipping point globally with how we address climate devastation - a crisis that impacts every single human being living on this planet.
There are things that we’ve seen this year that we cannot unsee; truths that we cannot unknow. And yet, we - as a society - are still desperately trying to get back to normal - back to our lives, back to business-as-usual, back to the daily grind, because at a systemic level, we want to forget how much these past couple years revealed about both the brokenness of our society and how much potential we have for something greater. I think many of us feel that pressure and are finding it difficult to implement the lessons we’ve learned about ourselves and the world during the pandemic as we get drawn back into the rhythm of unchecked progress.
I see this tension reflected so much in our Gospel text for this morning - a story known as the Transfiguration - where Jesus takes his closest disciples up the mountain to pray and before their very eyes, Jesus changes, dazzling white light, Moses and Elijah show up, they talk about what’s going to happen in Jerusalem - spoiler alert, it’s the crucifixion, and the disciples want to set up camp. A cloud descends, which terrifies the disciples, and a voice booms out “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.” They all walk down the mountain, tell no one what happened, watch Jesus get frustrated when a man asks him to cast a spirit out of his son and mentions that Jesus’ disciples were unable to do it, see Jesus heal the child in the midst of one of his episodes, and “all were astounded at the greatness of God.”
This happens a little more than a week after Peter realizes who Jesus is as the Messiah and after the disciples hear Jesus himself talking about his suffering, rejection, death before he rises again.
That’s some pretty spectacular stuff - yes, we have some hard truths about what will happen to Jesus - and we also have legends out of Jewish history appearing out of thin air, demons exorcized right in the midst of the crowds, and God’s literal voice echoing off the mountain - and still….the disciples miss the mark. They check out…they disengage…they see the fullness of who Jesus is before them and they struggle to make sense of what that means.
The rush back to the familiar is seductive, and although once you’ve seen something - really, truly, seen it - it’s hard to unsee….it’s far easier to pretend it never happened - to not speak of it, to not think of it, to not mention it, and pretend instead that everything is normal.
(If I had seen Encanto, I might at this point make reference to the song “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” but I haven’t, so I won’t).
Our Epiphany season started with Jesus proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor, and that what was foretold from Isaiah - release to the captives, the freedom of prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind - had been fulfilled with his presence. The season ends with this dazzling transfiguration and divine revelation, with the foreshadowing of the cross drawing nearer on the horizon.
We talk about mountaintop experiences - times that have changed our lives or moments of divine clarity and presence where we understand ourselves in who we are and all our belovedness and worth - and yet how many of us struggle putting those moments of clarity into practice in the midst of the mundane? How many of us get lured back into the comfort of familiar patterns of behavior and ways of being even when we know they aren’t healthy for us or good for the earth or what we ultimately yearn for - why is transformation so hard?
We live in that complex tension between the systems of the world - and our desire for their transformation - and how we carry ourselves and live the values of God’s reign in on own hearts as we, too, as creatures ever being transformed into the likeness of divine love incarnate - Christlike in our own uniquely formed ways. We, too, when confronted with the reality of our world - in all its harshness and all its beauty - when we have that clarity of vision it can be tempting to feel overwhelmed and fall back on familiar patterns of knowing and behaving - like the disciples - in order to avoid the pain, in order to avoid engagement, in order to avoid transformation.
Yet once the curtain is pulled back, once what was hidden becomes revealed, once we see - we cannot unsee - and we have a choice to live a life in light of that truth or pull back into one of falsehood.
It’s scary and daunting, because change is hard. It involves renegotiating priorities in our lives, it means dying to things in our lives that aren’t aligned with God’s hopes and dreams, it means shifting patterns of behavior and reevaluating relationships and changing our spending habits or our working habits. It means our own embracing the cross and staying present to our suffering - not in a gratuitous or abusive way - and to the suffering of others and of the world.
In the transfiguration, we see God’s glory and fullness - a vision of light and hope that dazzles our imaginations - and we also see the nearness and presence and accessibility of God in Christ. We see how close God draws near to humankind and all our suffering, which allows us to encounter God anew and empowers us to do likewise. We open ourselves to our own transfiguration, knowing that the change is slow, that it’s a journey where we companion each other along, and which gives us strength as we engage with the suffering we see, as we engage with the potential there is to be, as we enter into the transformation of our hearts and of our world.
We’ve seen a lot over the past couple of years. We can’t unsee it. We can’t unlearn the lessons we’ve discovered about ourselves, the world, the depth and meaning of human connection, the hope so many have of a world made new. We read the signs of the world around us and engage with it as Christ leads us, for we know he goes with us both on the mountaintop and in the valley, and may we keep our eyes open and choose the work of transformation, both in our lives and in our world. Amen.
Scripture Luke 6:27-38
Luke 6:27-38, New Revised Standard Version
27“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31Do to others as you would have them do to you. 32“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
37“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
About a month ago, somebody sent me a NYT opinion piece written by David Brooks - America is Falling Apart at the Seams - and it was the first thing that came to my mind when I read the scripture text for this morning. I tried to go back and reread the article to refresh my memory on the subject - maybe I need to get a digital subscription! But the article was very much an exploration of what we’re seeing unravel before our very eyes - trust in overarching institutions is eroding - and we see it play out in the social sphere with how we treat each other. There’s a reason you never read the comments section on an article posted on Facebook.
We’re so quick to label people as enemies in our world. The one who was rude to me on Facebook. The one who disagrees with me about vaccinations. The one who cut me off in traffic. The one who has a wrong stance about x, y, z issue. The organization who supports whatever organization I take offense to. The one who - you name it. And this is all on top of the interpersonal conflicts that crop up in all relationships - in our families and friendships and work-relationships - when people hurt and wound us, knowingly or not.
Liz Goodman, a UCC pastor in Massachusetts, had this to say in the Christian Century a couple weeks ago, reflecting on how the pandemic has exacerbated so much of this:
“Life used to be about ordinary, daily interactions that, in many ways, were mildly abrasive. You’re pulling out of a parking space, and someone mindlessly walks behind your car—so you stop and wave the person on, though you’re pressed for time. You’re waiting in line at the library, and someone comes up to ask a “quick question” of the librarian that makes your wait a little longer. All those mild abrasions made us, if not tough, then tolerant. Yielding to one another used to be woven into our days and lives to such a degree that we might barely have noticed doing it: ordinary grace.
But the pandemic and its social isolation have put us out of practice of bumping up against one another in regular ways. We’ve become so tender as to be almost intolerant, easily triggered by the slightest sleight. Kids in school are fighting, even with other kids they’ve known for years. Adults in public are unable to keep their composure even over issues with the lowest stakes. The trauma of the pandemic, where it hasn’t wrought death, crisis, or ever more pronounced precarity, has been sneaky for its slowness.”
Our natural impulse is to step away, disengage from the relationship. If it was a personal offense, we’re tempted to hold a grudge. Or retaliate in some way. Boycott -- or, nowadays, cancel. We get into fight, flight, freeze, or fawn mode.
This ugliness in our society transcends political party. It transcends ideology. It even transcends religious affiliation.
And into that mess come Jesus’ words:
But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.
30Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.
31Do to others as you would have them do to you.
36Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
37“Do not judge, and you will not be judged;
do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.
Forgive, and you will be forgiven;
38give, and it will be given to you.
All these commands hinge upon how we understand one word: love. Love your enemies.
The word in Greek used here is “agape” which gets translated as love - but it’s not romantic love, or platonic love, or warm-fuzzy love. It’s not about liking someone else or your emotional state towards them. It oftentimes is described as “unconditional love” or “love without strings attached” but even that doesn't wholly get at the meaning.
Agape love means more like “whole-hearted, unreserved, unconditional desire for the well-being of the other.” (https://www.holytextures.com/2013/01/luke-6-27-38-year-c-epiphany-7-february-18-february-24-sermon.html)
The beautiful thing about this is that there’s no calculation of costs or benefit, no expectation of receiving anything from them, no end goal for our benefit, no transaction - only desiring well-being for the other for their own good.
You don’t have to like the other person. You don’t have to agree with them or approve of their behaviors - you may find what they stand for grates your bones - but agape for your enemies isn’t about what they can give you, it’s about desiring wholeness for them. And if you agape your enemies, the ways you express and respond to them will also be an outflowing of your desire for their wholeness and well-being.
It also means you can be hurt…you can be angry…you can be wounded and decide that you can’t be in relationship with someone anymore…and still practice agape with them - you can still desire and act out of a place where you want the best and wholeness for them.
Now, forgiving someone who cut you off on the highway is different than forgiving the friend who betrayed your trust - and neither one might fully fit the definition of “enemy” in the same way that Jesus used it - those who try to actively harm and oppress you, like masters and soldiers in his day. Even so, what Jesus offers is a path forward involving wholeness for all people - enemies included - in exposing and naming harm.
But forgiveness doesn’t mean all is suddenly rosy and well. It’s not about pretending the offense didn’t happen, that you aren’t angry or sad or hurt about the harm done. It’s not about allowing yourself to be abused or mistreated - which is often how these verses are used, especially when it comes to domestic abuse. Forgiveness doesn’t always mean the relationship is restored and back to “normal”.
Forgiveness also isn’t a band-aid to instantly fix whatever is wrong. Forgiveness isn’t a guaranteed ticket to make everything better - forgiveness comes after confession and repentance - it’s not something to give if someone hasn’t actually done the work to change patterns of behavior or to acknowledge the harm they have caused.
Forgiveness also doesn’t come overnight. It’s messy and non-linear and, to be honest, it’s driven by the one who has been harmed. The journey to get to a place of forgiveness is hard and takes work.
But taken in the context of agape love - forgiveness doesn’t have to been we continue in relationship with someone. It doesn’t mean we have to be buddies or like them - it means we get to a place where we desire their well-being, and we release our hold on that spot of woundedness. It may come when we are able to see their actions as a result of the other person’s woundedness or when we are able to have compassion on what led to their actions. It doesn’t excuse the harm or whatever they’ve done, but it transforms how we see them and places them in perspective.
Debie Thomas at Journey with Jesus writes this: “To choose forgiveness is to release myself from the tyranny of bitterness. To give up my frenzied longing to be understood and vindicated by anyone other than God. To refuse the seductive lie that revenge will make me feel better. To cast my hunger for justice deep into God’s heart, because justice belongs to God, and only God can secure it.
I wonder if we're often squeamish about forgiveness because we misunderstand the nature of unconditional love. Foregrounding God's all-embracing love doesn't for one second require us to relativize evil. If it did, God's love would be cruel and weak, not compassionate and strong. But where we humans make love and judgment mutually exclusive — where we cry out for revenge, retribution, and punishment — God holds out for restorative justice. A kind of justice we can barely imagine. A kind of justice that has the power to heal both the oppressed and the oppressor.”
Forgiveness - as well as the other actions Jesus lists here - isn’t about a doormat faith or about retaliation through kindness…but about exposing reality in a way that calls others into account - and about inviting others to become better versions of themselves. It’s about seeing people as God sees them - and releasing their hold on you into that space, and offering that agape love - love that isn’t linked to your own personal opinion of them.
It happens in small ways in small spaces so that we can be ready for the more challenging acts of forgiveness we will be called upon to wrestle through in the course of our lifetimes.
And maybe, as we learn more and more to see the divine in the other, the “better-self” that resides within those who harm us, perhaps others will learn to see themselves that way too - and learn to also extend well-being to those around them as well.
May we find ways this week to offer that agape love to those around us - especially to our enemies. Amen.
Scripture Psalm 1; Luke 6:17-26
Psalm 1 (New Revised Standard Version)
Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law they meditate day and night.
They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.
The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.
Luke 6:17-26 (New Revised Standard Version)
17 He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. 18 They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19 And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
“But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
“Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
Who is blessed - and who is not?
There’s a lot of cultural baggage around the word “blessed” - particularly in how it relates to our own personal ideas of success - how we measure up in our careers or social norms or family values or education). Money and stuff tend to be the metrics we most naturally default to, perhaps because they are the most quantifiable and easily comparable.
Both our passages challenge those assumptions in that we are invited to see - both ourselves and others - as God sees instead of how we tend to look at others - and these two texts invite us into a different understanding of the word “blessed” - even a different understanding of the word “happy” - and call us to step into a different way of being and living in the world - one that is measured by God’s economy and not our own.
As a reminder, at the heart of God’s economy as Luke tells us in his gospel, is the Year of Jubilee - the year of the Lord’s favor - when the oppressed go free, captives are released, debts are forgiven, land rights are restored - it’s a year of celebration and trust in God’s provision for all God’s people - rich and poor alike. It is a Sabbath year above all Sabbath years, where the even the land was not intentionally cultivated and people relied on stored supplies, on the natural production of the land, and on gleaning.
Such a year where the ideal was this radical redistribution of resources, would have certainly been good news to the poor and marginalized - and uncomfortable at best to those who held power.
This theme of Jesus’ ministry is in the background as we see Jesus standing on the plain among the people - the crowds and his disciples - and he’s healing diseases and unclean spirits and power is just flowing out of him - and then he turns to look up at his disciples and gives this teaching of blessings and woes that are a lot like what we see in the Beatitudes, except they pretty explicitly deal with the materiality of the world. Where Matthew talks about blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness and blessed are the poor in spirit, Luke expressly says blessed are the hungry and blessed are the poor. No qualifiers. And, Luke adds some “woes” that Matthew doesn’t deal with.
“Blessed are you who are poor, hungry, sad, and expendable. Woe to you who are rich, full, happy, and popular.” (Debie Thomas)
Pretty cut and dry, doesn’t it seem? Maybe a little harsh, especially for those who find themselves called out by Jesus.
I wonder if Jesus in this moment had been moved by compassion by all those who had gathered around him. The passage tells us of a group of people who had traveled from all over who had traveled to see him, to hear a word of hope, to be healed from what ailed them. This is a massive group of hurting people (enfleshed), some of whom may have expended all they had to come and receive what Jesus had to offer. Those who had gathered around him were suffering - and Jesus turns to them and says that what they are experiencing - their poverty, their suffering, their hunger, their social status - isn’t how it is meant to be - that they shouldn’t have to endure these things that the barriers they face aren’t right - that God is close to them in these moments and that in this great era of God’s kingdom, in this Jubilee year, things will be made whole.
Jesus’s words point out this great reversal of power, and that when we live out the values of God here on earth, we will change whole systems and ways of being. This reversal comes all throughout scripture, as God is constantly paying attention to who is oppressed and harmed and who is profiting at their expense and through the prophets (and Jesus) calling forth a future where the oppressed, exploited, suffering, can thrive and be free.
It kind of makes us ask the question - well, where are we in God’s economy? Are we more blessed or are the woes meant for us? What reversals are at stake for us?
Truth be told, for many of us the answer might be both - we may be privileged in some places in our society because of our gender or skin color, but marginalized in others because of our economic status or social location. We may have privilege through our education and marginalized because of our sexual orientation. We can experience unfairness and suffering and injustice AND have places where we enjoy more power and privilege than others. In this, we can find ourselves both invited to receive blessing and be challenged by what that reversal - what “woe” - means for us?
I love how enfleshed invites us to consider some questions - they write, “What if we choose that reversal instead of waiting for it to come- what if we choose to join the blessed, giving up our power by choice? What if we choose to not simply act out of charity but work instead to radically shift the system we benefit from? Or if we are the ones God promises are blessed, what does it mean for us to believe that God doesn’t just promise crumbs or handouts but a total reversal of that which keeps us down? How does claiming our own blessedness empower us to survive, to thrive, to keep believing that God is working with and for us for something better?”
The commentary continues:
“Sometimes we all need to be reminded that suffering at the hands of injustice, oppression, or normalized destructive systems deserves compassion and companionship. There are so many ways that we face unnecessary barriers each day that keep us from thriving: Public transportation doesn’t come to our side of town because of racism, we live in food deserts, we get misgendered everywhere we go, we can’t get in to see a doctor because it’s too expensive or because they’re all overbooked, we get talked over at work because of sexism, we are overworked and under paid, and the list goes on. There are very few experiences of suffering and pain that are not somehow linked to larger systems of evil that someone else is profiting from. This text reminds us that God’s response is compassion, is support, and is a reminder of what should and shouldn’t and will one day be. Together, we are encouraged to recognize one another’s pain, respond to it with physical manifestations of love and resources, and remind one another, tenderly and compassionately, that feelings of frustration or weariness or impatience are welcome. God, too, feels those things with and through all who suffer.”
Or as Rev. Dr. Monica Coleman puts it, “the community of God is living in this opposite way that inverts, or turns on its head, all of our expectations. To live out the community of God is not to reflect things as they are but to live as things ought to be.”
Each of you this morning should have a stone with you should have brought with you to worship. I invite you to hold your stone in one hand, and cover it with your other hand…..feel the weight of the stone in your hand…the warmth of your skin warming its surface….
…imagine that warmth and that weight is God’s love and presence…and as you imagine that presence, that peace…that love…bring to your mind someone who is struggling right now - perhaps someone who is wrestling with the healthcare system and wondering how to pay for their medical bills….or someone who is trying to figure out housing…maybe someone who is just feeling sidelined by friends and family and wondering if anyone really cares about them…maybe someone who doesn’t know what is next for them…and as you hold the stone, as you experience the warmth and love of God’s presence…imagine that blessing - that presence and nearness of God - being transferred to that person, and that they too are surrounded by God’s love. Say a silent blessing for that person - a reminder that God is near to those who are hurting…that God has compassion on the suffering and the struggling…that God’s community has a place for them…and imagine that blessing being carried by the stone in your hand.
After worship - give that blessed stone to someone - maybe someone in the congregation or someone in your home or at your workplace - who could use the blessing that you put into the stone.
Through it all, we have the presence of the one who holds us all together, who carries each of us and draws us deeper into grace and mercy as we learn to live as members of God’s community together…and we have the gift of each other - to learn from and grow with as people blessed and challenged to live into a more faithful reflection of life in God’s reign.
I want to leave you with this reflection on Jesus’s upside down kingdom written by Frederick Buechner. He writes this: “The world says, ‘Mind your own business,’ and Jesus says, ‘There is no such thing as your own business.’ The world says, ‘Follow the wisest course and be a success,’ and Jesus says, ‘Follow me and be crucified.’ The world says, ‘Drive carefully — the life you save may be your own’ — and Jesus says, ‘Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.’ The world says, ‘Law and order,’ and Jesus says, ‘Love.’ The world says, ‘Get’ and Jesus says, ‘Give.’ In terms of the world's sanity, Jesus is crazy as a coot, and anybody who thinks he can follow him without being a little crazy too is laboring less under a cross than under a delusion."
May the God who gives and takes away, offers comfort and challenge, grant us the grace to sit with woe, and learn the meaning of blessing. (Debie Thomas). Amen.
Scripture - Isaiah 6:1-8, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, Luke 5:1-11
Isaiah 6:1-8 (The Message)
6 1-8 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Master sitting on a throne—high, exalted!—and the train of his robes filled the Temple. Angel-seraphs hovered above him, each with six wings. With two wings they covered their faces, with two their feet, and with two they flew. And they called back and forth one to the other,
Holy, Holy, Holy is God-of-the-Angel-Armies.
His bright glory fills the whole earth.
The foundations trembled at the sound of the angel voices, and then the whole house filled with smoke. I said,
“Doom! It’s Doomsday!
I’m as good as dead!
Every word I’ve ever spoken is tainted--
And the people I live with talk the same way,
using words that corrupt and desecrate.
And here I’ve looked God in the face!
The King! God-of-the-Angel-Armies!”
Then one of the angel-seraphs flew to me. He held a live coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. He touched my mouth with the coal and said,
“Look. This coal has touched your lips.
Gone your guilt,
your sins wiped out.”
And then I heard the voice of the Master:
“Whom shall I send?
Who will go for us?”
I spoke up,
1 Corinthians 15:1-11 (The Message)
15 1-2 Friends, let me go over the Message with you one final time—this Message that I proclaimed and that you made your own; this Message on which you took your stand and by which your life has been saved. (I’m assuming, now, that your belief was the real thing and not a passing fancy, that you’re in this for good and holding fast.)
3-9 The first thing I did was place before you what was placed so emphatically before me: that the Messiah died for our sins, exactly as Scripture tells it; that he was buried; that he was raised from death on the third day, again exactly as Scripture says; that he presented himself alive to Peter, then to his closest followers, and later to more than five hundred of his followers all at the same time, most of them still around (although a few have since died); that he then spent time with James and the rest of those he commissioned to represent him; and that he finally presented himself alive to me. It was fitting that I bring up the rear. I don’t deserve to be included in that inner circle, as you well know, having spent all those early years trying my best to stamp God’s church right out of existence.
10-11 But because God was so gracious, so very generous, here I am. And I’m not about to let his grace go to waste. Haven’t I worked hard trying to do more than any of the others? Even then, my work didn’t amount to all that much. It was God giving me the work to do, God giving me the energy to do it. So whether you heard it from me or from those others, it’s all the same: We spoke God’s truth and you entrusted your lives.
Luke 5:1-11 (The Message)
5 1-3 Once when he was standing on the shore of Lake Gennesaret, the crowd was pushing in on him to better hear the Word of God. He noticed two boats tied up. The fishermen had just left them and were out scrubbing their nets. He climbed into the boat that was Simon’s and asked him to put out a little from the shore. Sitting there, using the boat for a pulpit, he taught the crowd.
4 When he finished teaching, he said to Simon, “Push out into deep water and let your nets out for a catch.”
5-7 Simon said, “Master, we’ve been fishing hard all night and haven’t caught even a minnow. But if you say so, I’ll let out the nets.” It was no sooner said than done—a huge haul of fish, straining the nets past capacity. They waved to their partners in the other boat to come help them. They filled both boats, nearly swamping them with the catch.
8-10 Simon Peter, when he saw it, fell to his knees before Jesus. “Master, leave. I’m a sinner and can’t handle this holiness. Leave me to myself.” When they pulled in that catch of fish, awe overwhelmed Simon and everyone with him. It was the same with James and John, Zebedee’s sons, coworkers with Simon.
10-11 Jesus said to Simon, “There is nothing to fear. From now on you’ll be fishing for men and women.” They pulled their boats up on the beach, left them, nets and all, and followed him.
When God encounters us - how do we respond?
These are three very different stories and accounts of what happens when people meet God and the transformation that happens through experiences of the sacred. Isaiah sees this grand vision of an enormous deity, so big its robes fill the Temple, attended by angelic beings that leave Isaiah feeling small and insignificant, impure and unworthy. He declares his state before the Lord as one with unclean lips who lives among a people of unclean lips and one of the beings touches his mouth with a hot coal to purify it, his sins are declared wiped away. Isaiah ends up volunteering to be the mouth of God as a prophet and is basically told that he will be unsuccessful - that people will not understand the message he is bringing to them - try as they might to hear it, see it, and understand it.
The four fishermen respond to Jesus’ invitation to fish in a new way when they get the catch of their lifetimes based on Jesus’ unsolicited advice after a fruitless night of fishing. They drop their nets, leave their families, and leave it all behind to follow this carpenter-turned-prophet who had attracted a crowd of people around him as he preached the Word of God.
Paul - the author of 1 Corinthians - describes the resurrected Jesus appearing to Peter and his first followers (ironically leaving out the fact that women witnessed Jesus first) before presenting himself to a larger group of 500, and then finally, showing up to him as he was about his zealous work of persecuting those early followers of the Way. To give you a quick refresher, Paul - then Saul - was on his way to Damascus to round up any Jesus followers, both men and women, and bring them back bound to Jerusalem. He was struck blind, heard the voice of Jesus identifying himself as the one he was persecuting, and was sightless for three days before being healed by Ananias, a follower of Jesus in Damascus. Paul in this story describes himself as one not ready or worthy for the task because of all his years trying to stop the movement of the Holy Spirit.
Three stories - all very different encounters with the divine - all challenging in their own right as we think about the ways we respond to God’s invitation in our own lives.
But there is one thread that I see that weave these responses together - and that is the transformation from reluctance, the feelings of unworthiness or unpreparedness, to God’s action that affirms and sends each person out into the world.
I don’t know about you, but that is often my first response when presented with the divine call - the fear and anxiety, like I won’t be good enough or up to the task. I know I’ve shared before about my own feelings of inadequacy when I first had an inkling that congregational ministry was on my path - and I had this laundry list of excuses why professional ministry was not a good fit and I wrestled with God for many years before coming to a place of acceptance or surrender. And many of you may have heard the expression “God doesn’t call the equipped, God equips the called” - and you may have heard that applied to any kind of task or pathway that you feel God might be inviting you to follow.
What I find in all three of these stories is that each person recognizes the holy - Isaiah knows he is in the presence of God; Simon Peter - and his friends - recognize Jesus as Lord and Master after the abundant catch they haul in after getting nothing all night; Paul recognizes the resurrected Christ on the road. And each of them doesn’t doubt God’s authority or glory or power…but each of them wonders if they are really up to what God wants them to do. They have faith in God - just not faith in themselves.
We hear in Simon’s story an echo of our Isaiah text - he’s convinced that he is unclean in an unclean world - that he is in need of purification - and instead of drawing closer to Jesus after this miraculous catch, he withdraws further in fear and trembling - after all, stories of God’s judgment abound in the Old Testament connected with fishing with hooks and nets. It’s not for salvation, as we understand it from our Gospel passage.
But Jesus doesn’t forgive Simon. He doesn’t punish Simon after Simon proclaims his sinfulness. Jesus recruits him. Gives him a role and a purpose. The judgment isn’t punishment - the judgment is love and worthiness and a proclamation of “you are enough as you are” - it’s not just an absence of condemnation, but it’s the presence of communion, friendship, trust, companionship along the way. It’s saying to someone who’s done you wrong, Come, let’s work together. I trust you. Follow me. (SALT project).
Jesus reverses the image that we find in the Old Testament of fishing for people being one of God meting out punishment as judgment, and turns into one of worthiness as judgment. Again, from the SALT project - it’s as if Jesus says to Simon Peter: You’re afraid of getting caught in one of God’s nets? Well, I’ll tell you what, from now on you’ll be the one catching sinners! And not so they might be damned, mind you, any more than you’re being damned today. On the contrary, we’re out to catch sinners so they might be saved! Take heart, Simon, and don’t be afraid: the Great Jubilee has begun!
Isn’t that Good News? Continuing that theme we talked about a couple weeks ago of the Great Jubilee - the year of the Lord’s favor - isn’t the proclamation of the Lord’s favor Good News to people who feel wounded and broken and caught in their sin that the judgment is not punishment but love? Grace? Worthiness? That God sees the whole person and chooses to love and liberate, to redeem and resurrect?
The four men leave everything behind and follow him - including that abundant catch - two boatloads worth. What another wonderful sign of Jubilee - the Sabbath year above all Sabbath years, where the land rests, debts are cancelled, slaves are freed, land rights restored, and where the abundance of God’s provision is tangible. I can imagine that what Simon Peter and his friends brought in fed hungry people (after all, the crowds following Jesus were right there) instead of lining the pockets of the wealthy and powerful, as what happened most often to the goods and services the peasant class and work of day laborers provided. There is abundance in the midst of our perceptions of scarcity - this is what Jubilee is all about!
It’s also all about ourselves…we focus so often on our own shortcomings, our own unworthiness, lack of ability, our own inadequacies - but God believes in us - God deems us worthy - we know our shortcomings, they are ever before us, but God invites us to lean in to the abundance of our giftedness just as we are. While we focused on the Luke passage, we can draw similar conclusions through the lens of Isaiah and Paul - God recruits the unlikely, the questionable, the ones we wouldn’t expect, and they become witnesses of God’s love, grace, and mercy in being sent out into the world.
So what does that look like? It’s different for each of us - but as we continue to steep ourselves in God’s love and grace, as we follow more deeply in the way of Jesus and let Christ animate our beings, we learn to divest of the stories the world would have us believe and invest in the unfolding of God’s abundant love and favor, the idea that all things are held together and made right in Christ, and that the Holy Spirit is pouring out and drawing all of us forward into pathways of righteousness and peace.
God doesn’t want our appearances of having it all together. God doesn’t want our pretense of the shiny and perfect. God seeks the broken and vulnerable, our open wounds, our tender places - and the judgment declared is love and worthiness.
In a world that gives us a lot of messages about who we are supposed to be and how we are supposed to act and that values upward mobility and the amount of money in our bank accounts - isn’t it freeing to know that God doesn’t care about any of that? That the judgment isn’t how well we measure up to any given standard - but that we are loved and surrounded by grace and God’s abundance no matter where we are? That gives me so much comfort and hope - both as a person and as we think about our life together as an organization.
I invite us this week to consider that shift - to think about what God is inviting you into, to note the feelings of fear or anxiety or hesitancy - and then to offer those spaces to the God who loves and considers you worthy -- who doesn’t just equip you for the task ahead, but who already sees and values and affirms your giftedness just as you are…and just as you are becoming. Thanks be to God for the year of the Lord’s favor - and for the abundance that is already here. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and five year old son and 2 year old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.