Sunday, February 17, 2019

Being the Blessed: Luke 6:17-26 - Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

17[Jesus] came down with [the twelve] 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.18They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
20Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
 “Blessed are you who are poor,
  for yours is the kingdom of God.
21“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. 23Rejoice 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.
24“But woe to you who are rich,
  for you have received your consolation.
25“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.
“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” (NRSV)
day 171 knead by tracy ducasse on flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

As a child, there were a few things my parents did not allow me to say…besides curse words.

I could never say, “I’m starving”—because Mom or Dad would always answer, “No, you’re not! You’re just hungry.”

Soon, I noticed the “Save the Children” commercials on TV—and I learned what starvation really was…

Knowing that, I can’t help but be perplexed when Jesus says, “blessed are you who are poor…” “Blessed are you who are hungry.” “Blessed are you who wail.” To speak these words to someone who’s dying of starvation, standing at the graveside of their loved one, or experiencing a dark night of the soul would be the ultimate insult.

It would take an act of God for someone in such dire circumstances to be blessed.

It’s natural to associate God’s blessing with your own prosperity—which is not always wrong. Health, wealth, laughter, and a good reputation are just a few of the many ways you can experience God’s blessing. When you pray, “give us today our daily bread,” and God does, you are blessed.

Where you go wrong is in associating these with God’s favoring of you—and the lack thereof as God’s disfavoring. Don’t think for a second that God is pleased when little children die needlessly of starvation, or when you wail in agony over a loss or hardship, or when people unjustly hate and defame you. God is not pleased. God is going to act to make it right.

If, on the other hand, you enjoy riches, prosperity, and a good name; you give God no thanksgiving; you act as though God should be giving you these blessings and more; and you give no thought to your neighbors in need—God is not pleased. Be warned: your “luck” or whatever you want to call it is about to run out. Lost in the sea of your own ambitions, you will be swept away when Jesus comes to turn the tide against suffering and death.

But remember: Jesus doesn’t threaten you into discipleship. Jesus’ words are Gospel; they are good news. Jesus speaks God’s determination to bless the hungry, the poor, and the despised. And not just in the distant future, but in the here-and-now. Jesus is inviting you to enter this reality of blessing.

It never fails that when you do something to bless the poor, something in you changes. Perhaps you’ve experienced this firsthand when you’ve volunteered at the clothing closet; you’ve gone Christmas caroling at the nursing home; or you’ve gone far out of your way to help someone in need. All your normal ways of thinking and acting come to a screeching halt.

“When I see people in need, it makes me more thankful for what I have.” “I can’t turn away.” “I must do something.”

When you’re confronted with the tragedy of human suffering, the Christ who lives within you is activated. Suddenly, the poor and hungry are blessed—because you are serving them. Suddenly, the despised and rejected are blessed—because you love them. Someone can face a difficult tomorrow because you will be there waiting for them.

Best of all, when your love meets another’s need, there is rejoicing. You’re rejoicing, and so are they—and it’s not the kind of rejoicing that comes from buying expensive things or vacationing in exotic places. It’s not the kind of rejoicing that comes with personal success and achievement. It’s the rejoicing that results from God’s promises coming to fulfillment.

And today Jesus is inviting you to go deeper into that experience of blessing and the rejoicing that comes with it—which is precisely where this gets challenging.

If you enjoy an abundance of health, wealth, laughter, and a good reputation, have you ever really had to rely on God for anything—other than to keep these blessings coming? For the poor and destitute, God is their only hope. But you have stuff to cling to. You have a safety net. And it is extremely difficult to exchange worldly gratification for divine gratification. health, wealth, laughter, and a good reputation satisfy you right away. With God, you’re not in control. You must be patient. It’s easier to cling to God’s promises when God is all you have.

Amazingly, the people I’ve witnessed staking themselves on God’s promises are also the people you’d least expect. A client of our food bank gave his brand-new winter jacket to our clothing closet with the sales tags still attached—because his old coat still fit, and he wanted someone else to have the new one. A girl in grade school gave away some of her favorite toys when a house in her neighborhood burned to the ground. I’ve seen people serve this church with sickness all through their bodies—because they need to be here. This is what it means to be blessed. This is the joy of the Lord.

This is what Jesus wants to give to you. If you’re content with your discipleship “as-is,” this joy will elude you. Continue seeking health, wealth, laughter, and a good reputation—and you’re heading in the opposite direction of God’s kingdom. You’re the foolish man building his house upon the sand. God is for the poor. God is for the lost and lowly. God is for those who need forgiveness. Real blessing is found where selfless love and sacrifice raise the dying to new life. All who wait upon the Lord will be satisfied. God is making right all that has been made wrong. Then, we shall all rejoice like never before.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Catching People: Luke 5:1-11 - Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

DSC00010 - Hunger and Thirst by Dennis Jarvis on flickr. CC BY-SA 2.0

1Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. 4When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” 5Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” 6When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. 8But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” 9For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” 11When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him. (NRSV)

I’ve only been fishing once. But it’s common knowledge that fishing is an exercise an extreme patience. Unless you go fishing in certain parts of the Mississippi River, known for its vast schools of Asian Carp—an invasive species of fish that literally leap right out of the water—and often right into your boat. Imagine that—you don’t have to bring a pole, bait, or a net—they practically come to you.

When it comes to fishing for people, this is the mindset of today’s church: if you build it; if you offer it; if you promote it—then they’ll come. But this is not how Jesus catches people.

Consider the first disciples… Simon Peter is no stranger to Jesus. Very recently, Jesus stayed at his home and even healed his mother-in-law. Today, Jesus has borrowed his fishing boat and used it as a kind of pulpit, using the winds on the lakeshore to carry the sound of his voice to the gathered crowds. When he finished speaking, he told Simon to put down the nets into the deep water for a catch. But Peter and his partners, James and John, had been doing that all night—and caught nothing. Yet, because Jesus said so, they lowered their nets—and ended up catching more fish than their nets and their boat could carry. “From now on,” Jesus said, “you will be catching people.” But they don’t exactly feel up to the task.

Simon Peter is probably still shaking in his boots. “I’m a sinful man!” he cries. It’s no different for the prophet Isaiah—or the Apostle Paul. Their immediate reaction to God’s call is resistance, objection, and terror. They feel unworthy—because they are. Paul murdered Christians and persecuted the Church. Simon Peter will prove to be impulsive, fickle, and egotistical. James and John will not prove much better.

Nevertheless, Jesus calls them. On account of all that Jesus had done for them—they leave their nets and follow him. They will, indeed, catch people—just like they caught fish—and like Jesus caught them.

So how did Jesus catch you? Where were you? What were you doing? What was going on in your life? How did you know that Jesus is in your life?

For all our talk about church growth and reaching new generations of believers, this is something we seldom talk about—and that’s a shame. Lest we forget—you’re not here by accident! You are the Body of Christ because of God’s action. So what’s the story?

Many of you are here because you were born into the church and the Christian faith. There was NEVER a time when you wouldn’t have called yourselves “Christian.”

Some of you may be new to the faith. Some of you may have spent years or decades away from the church and the faith, but now you have returned. A few of you may be even questioning whether or not this church and faith stuff is all worth it.  Yet, you are here—because of Jesus.

This would be a good time to point out that when Jesus tells his first disciples, “you’ll be catching people,” he didn’t mean that they were going to end up like the fish they caught—as someone’s dinner. Jesus’ disciples—and the people they will catch—will be captured into new life.

We heard Alex’s amazing story of deliverance from death—and we know that he and his family will never be the same again because of God’s saving grace.

When Jesus sends you to capture people into new life, it’s not your outgoing personality or evangelistic skills that will capture them. And it’s not programs or building facilities or children’s activities that bring new generations into the church. It is Jesus’ activity in your life—and the new creation you become—that attracts people. People will be attracted to you as someone whose sins have been forgiven and who is loved unconditionally by God. People will be intrigued to the patience and mercy they see in you; how you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. People will be inspired to the generosity and compassion they see in you. People will pay attention to your testimony on how God has acted for your deliverance. They will covet your hope.

But to embrace this new life, Peter, James, and John left their nets. You could say that Jesus released them from their nets. But they had to let them go.

In every Christian’s life there are entanglements—stuff that thwarts and prevents new life from flourishing in you. In every Church, there’s stuff that keeps us from catching new generations. These are complicated questions and there are no easy answers. But I believe that the number one reason is our failure to pay attention to what God is doing—followed by our failure to talk about it! We’re all too distracted by worries, pressures, and personal ambitions. And we’re afraid of losing our safety nets. We’re afraid of what new life will mean and where discipleship will take us. We want salvation to jump right into our boats like the Asian Carp—whether it’s an easy answer to our prayers or it’s wealthy, young families to keep the church going.

But remember—Simon Peter didn’t follow Jesus on a whim. He saw what Jesus had done. Today’s faith in tomorrow’s hope is born in yesterday’s graces. Jesus is working hard in your life because he loves you and wants for you and your neighbor to enter into the new life he won for you at the cross. It’s no longer a question of IF on his part—but if you’re crazy enough to pray for Jesus to release you from the nets you’re in so that you can be captured into new life.