You Want What??
February 10, 2019
Rev. Susan H. Francis
Luke’s tale of a miraculous catch sounds like some kind of fish story. Still, it may truly have something to say to us who find ourselves in the church, believing we have been called to share the good news that Jesus himself shared. The reality is, when we look around it can feel pretty overwhelming, but we keep fishing, leaving it up to God whether we just get a few nibbles or net a big catch.
God shows up sometimes when we least expect it. Maybe that’s what Peter thought when Jesus showed up at his boat. Somewhere along the line, between growing up in Nazareth as a kid and becoming an itinerate preacher, Jesus seems to have to spent time, begun his public life in Capernaum, a town along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, or Lake Gennesaret. It has many names and was home to many people, lots of poor farmers, but, as we would guess, lots of fishermen, too, and all the accompanying tradesmen whose services would be necessary for the fishing industry, including good carpenters, like Jesus. Early on, in Capernaum, Jesus had cast out a demon in the synagogue and then went straight to the home of one Simon, as in Peter, curing his mother-in-law of a high fever, only to start a parade of folks sick or possessed. So maybe it’s no wonder when Jesus happens to be hanging by the lake, a crowd gathers, folks who could probably use a Word of God, and Jesus seems ready to speak. Perhaps it’s a bit bold, a little presumptuous, how he kinda’ commandeers Peter’s boat, but even more surprising is that Peter just lets him. Maybe Peter knows him and is used to him doing that kind of thing, or maybe Peter’s so grateful for Jesus’ earlier help with his mother-in-law that there wasn’t much he wouldn’t do for him. Maybe Peter’s just that kind of guy, or maybe Peter’s just too tired to care. Let’s face it, he probably has lots of things on his mind other than Jesus teaching from his boat. It’s been a miserable night fishing, with nothing to show for all the effort of, at least, four men—Peter and his brother Andrew, and their partners, James and John. No fish for their families’ breakfast, and no fish to be sold, but big haul or small catch, there’s still all the clean-up, like nets to be washed. It’s nice how they humor Jesus while they’re cleaning up, even getting back in the water to push the boat out while he teaches, all the while just wanting to finish up, get home, and go to bed. There’s no such thing as “you deserve a break today” for Peter, Andrew, James and John. If anyone should ever be sympathetic to the guys, it should be the Church, who, throughout the ages, also seems to spend plenty of time doing what we think we’re supposed to do, only to have little to show for the effort. Folks wear themselves out working for justice (as in for 2,000 years), but there’s still plenty of injustice, or closer to home, supporting NESFACE, but there’s still hungry people; or look around, there are more than a few empty pews. We know what it’s like to pour ourselves into our ministry and come away exhausted, frustrated, and done. Neither “Peter and Company” nor “the Church” have smashing success stories. “Lord, we’ve worked all night long, but have nothing.” Still, Jesus shows up, sometimes when we least expect it.
Funny though, in God’s presence, things do happen. Probably the last thing Peter wanted to do was to take his clean nets and go back out. We can hear it in the “you want what?” of his “Lord, we have worked all night.” He’s got to be wondering just what a carpenter, even a miracle working one, knows about fishing. Yet, Peter shows some dogged determination, letting the Lord direct him, doing what he really didn’t want to do, what really didn’t fit into the schedule, as he goes back out to do the same old thing one more time with no guarantee of different results—the very definition of insanity. Jesus brings no magical net nor new techniques or gimmicks. Nothing is different from what they’ve been doing all night long, except Jesus is in the boat and they’re following his directions. But when the nets hit the water, frustration gives way to epiphany as the crew almost drowns in abundance. No wonder Peter drops to his knees, Isaiah does pretty much the same thing, when they both finally realize that they are in the presence of God. That’s what happens when folks remember that there’s a difference between the Creator and the creature, and just who’s who, as they acknowledge they are finite and imperfect. Peter and Isaiah use the word “sin,” even though that’s a word we 21st century Christians pull away from. But call it what you may, our self-reliance, our lack of trust, unreliable wisdom, and insecure egos all get in the way of the gospel message. Too often, the Church, that is, we, people of faith, have shown ourselves to be intolerant and trivial, and when Jesus tells us to get into the boat and put out for the deep water, our only response is “You want what?” We seem to forget that if Peter would have given in to the sin of skepticism, or logic, or done what he likely wanted, he would have missed a miracle, missed witnessing the power of God, missed the call to fish for people. But by following Jesus’ direction, obedient to the Word made flesh, Peter rides in a boat full of fish with the Son of God, in whose presence things happen.
Funny, how God’s always up to more than we can imagine. Jesus calls Peter to go deeper, and despite his doubts, Peter listens and obeys and receives more than his wildest dreams as he follows Jesus, gathering people up in the life changing grace of God. When God asks, “Who shall I send,” when Jesus says, “Rather than stay in the shallows, go with me into the deep water,” we are offered the chance for him to widen our view and broaden our perspective, to look beyond what we see and what we think is true. Maybe that’s when we realize the world is teeming with folks we may have never seen, liked, or loved, swimming right beside us. We only need to reach out, not as people fully in the know or the only repositories of divine inspiration, but as people who know that in God there are infinite possibilities beyond our expectations. When Jesus asks us to follow him, he’s not asking us to leave our brains at the door, to forsake our gifts, our intellect, our experience, or our creativity. Just as Peter knows the tools of his trade, the limitation of his men, the value of timing, and most importantly, the nature of water, bringing it all to Jesus for his use, so, too, we are to bring all that we are, that in the freedom of his presence we might become more fully who Jesus calls us to be. That doesn’t mean our journey will always be filled with affirmation and success. Had Hunter read just a bit further, we would have heard Isaiah’s call leading him to deliver a grim message that would be inevitably rejected—which is not the way to win friends—and Peter’s ministry will eventually lead him to his own cross. But lest we get discouraged, do you hear the promise? Peter stands drowning in fish and sees the hope of the gospel—a new humanity netted in the name of Jesus the Christ. A vision far greater than he had ever imagined.
Jesus still comes to us today, inviting us to do things that make us shake our heads and ask, “You want what?” Yet, following his direction, even with our limitations, our doubts, and our inadequacies, the very thing he calls us to can be accomplished through the grace of God at work in us in ways we can’t imagine.
Good News—Not Always Appreciated
February 3, 2019
Rev. Susan H. Francis
I Corinthians 13:1-13
Sermons are funny things. The Holy Spirit breathes on them and they can take on a life of their own. Sometimes, the preacher walks in with a sermon convinced it is mediocre at best, sure folks will fall asleep, but it really speaks to the congregation. Other times a preacher can think the sermon’s a winner, and not so much. Occasionally, I come in sure that God has handed me a loaded gun, ready to go off, but you have thoughtfully listened. And every once in a while, I’ll say something only to have one of you tell me, weeks later, how much it meant to you as I scrape my brain wondering what it was that was so profound. I do appreciate that none of you has offered to throw me off a cliff, at least so far, but a preacher never knows just how folks might respond to a sermon.
Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth starts out great. Let’s face it, he’s the hometown boy. The folks who “knew him when” have heard great things, that he’s an excellent teacher, that in his presence disease disappears and demons scatter, that he can even turn water into wine if the party needs a little help. The kid with the iffy birth story is their own rising star. Not only do they want to hear what he has to say, the coffee now is already on for the Fellowship Hour afterwards. And he doesn’t disappoint. Filled with the Holy Spirit, he stands up to read (as was the custom) a familiar passage from the prophet Isaiah, words of good news, freedom, sight, and justice, as every eye is upon him. “Today,” he says, “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” How can they help but be delighted? Today, God’s reign of Shalom, the day of salvation and transformation, is fulfilled. What anticipation, as they, who live in an occupied territory, who have become destitute under the taxes of foreigners, who are so vulnerable, hear God’s words of liberty; God’s promise to rescue and redeem is about to take on flesh. When they hear a new world is on the horizon, the world dreamed of by the prophets, they can’t help but think their hopes, their prayers, that the Romans will be ousted, the Temple will return to its former grandeur, and the unclean foreigners and pagans will be put into their rightful place, are coming into being. As Jesus situates himself in the words of the prophet Isaiah, as he speaks of good news, they are sure he means it is just for people like them. For a moment every eye is riveted on him; Jesus’ sermon starts out great.
But it takes a U-turn, and the crowd wants to throw him off the cliff. Why? What’s he said to infuriate them all? Maybe it’s that sight to the blind, justice, freedom, and any other blessing, is all good news as long as they come to folks who in some way can claim him. Surely, if Jesus is willing to pass out miracles for strangers, just think what he should be willing to do for hometown folks and family. But that’s not what he’s saying; he’s talking good news to folks best forgotten about, who might do harm, might take resources, might use gifts meant for folks who know him. And that’s a whole other thing. No wonder they get upset when Jesus reminds them there were plenty of widows in Israel, but God sent Elijah to Sidon, and plenty of Israeli lepers, but God sent Elisha to Naaman the Syrian. Sidon, Syria, Honduras, Ecuador, Afghanistan, it really doesn’t matter. It’s maddening to realize that God loves others, outsiders, foreigners, as much as God loves us, but it’s just as irritating when we recognize that God offers good news to people who may not be outsiders, but are still people we’d rather not sit next to, folks who smell because they’re homeless, MAGA hat bearers, uncompromising Democrats, the person who recently embarrassed us publically, or anyone else who might offend and disturb us. It’s infuriating that God doesn’t belong to us, refusing to be limited to location or tribe, always crossing every artificial border we set up, whether geographical, political, or personal. Do we fear that God has only so much love and so many blessings, as if there isn’t enough to go around? Do we fear that we might come up short, that we aren’t specially entitled, that there’s no real reward for being chosen, that God loves them as much as God loves us? Jesus’ promise of good news isn’t good news if deep down underneath we really expect God to play favorites and we’ve got to be the favorite. That’s when enthusiasm turns into antagonism, joy into contempt, and delight into violence, and we’re ready to throw Jesus off the mountain.
Still, Jesus says, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in our hearing.” Today? As day after day, generation after generation, humankind crowds together ready to throw him off the cliff and make clear we don’t think it’s very good news? But Jesus isn’t making this stuff up as he places his ministry in the ongoing promise and commitment of God, who loves us and asks us to love others. Is he naive or what? But just as astounding may be that we, people of faith, know that the fast shift between love and hate that starts Jesus’ ministry will end it as well during Holy Week on a cross, yet we follow him, having been drawn into community not by our own selves but by God. In the church, we dare to believe that something transformative can happen when we consent to listening to God’s word with our whole hearts as Jesus pushes hard against the illusions of our cherished assumptions that we deserve more, more liberty, more sight, more good news than the next guy. Disillusionment, even though it stings, seems to be essential for the Christian life. In the words of a wise woman, "Disillusionment is, literally, the loss of an illusion — about ourselves, about the world, about God — and while it is almost always a painful thing, it is never a bad thing, to lose the lies we have mistaken for the truth”1 as God opens us up, transforms us, to what is really good news. The reality is we all see through a mirror dimly, and the very people we are tempted to ignore, avoid, wall out, may be the very people who hold a piece of the truth we need to see more clearly. For God speaks to people we don’t recognize as sacred and privileges voices we aren’t interested in hearing with revelations we need to know if we are to be released from what holds us captive, that we might be part of God’s vision of good news. Like someone once said, “We cannot be what we are intended to be, unless our brothers and sisters, locally and globally, are who they are intended to be, living out their gifts as God’s beloved children”2 In truth, we all have hurts, biases, and misunderstandings that cause us to fail to live up to God’s dream. But together in a symbiotic relationship, through love or respect or value, call it what you may, we can each bring healing to the other as together we take on our commission to go out and proclaim that this is the year of the Lord’s favor. Today, today, scripture is being fulfilled.
Jesus’ words aren’t easy; his good news is not always appreciated when we realize that it is not good news for us alone and each of us must wrestle. There’s no shortage of situations that confront us: the division over the wall, the sense of injustice between the races, concerns over incarceration, take your pick. But Jesus’ sermon gives us a vision we must reflect on, lest he passes through the midst of us and goes on his way.
1Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life
2Martin Luther King, Jr.
Gifts for a Particular Time
January 27, 2019
Rev. Susan H. Francis
I Corinthians 12:1-11
I can’t help but mention, especially as we’ve entered the Lukian cycle of the lectionary, that Jesus seems to like a good party. It will be as if he’s always eating and drinking at parties and meals, telling stories or parables. Even today, our one Sunday in the Epiphany cycle before Lent when we’re in the Gospel according to John, we find him at a wedding and we like that about him! As his followers we, too, seem to adhere to his inclination to enjoy a good party. Our most attended Fellowship Events tend to be at local wineries. Yet, it’s not so much about the wine—I’ve never seen anyone imbibing much, lots of us drinking Coke or Pepsi instead—but about the fellowship, the music, the talking and laughing. Still, it would throw things off if the server came to us and said, “They have no wine.”
You can tell a lot from the first events of Jesus’ public ministry. Each gospel writer gives us a different incident, a different happening, that sets the tone for their gospel, helps shape our expectations and our perspective of Jesus and his ministry. Matthew offers us Jesus preaching a sermon from a mountain, teaching as he comes across as a then present day Moses. Mark tells of Jesus casting out an unclean spirit, announcing his intent to stand against anything that stops the children of God from having abundant life. Luke, who we’ll hear from next week (so you might want to be here to compare and contrast), writes of Jesus in Nazareth, announcing his intention to give sight to the blind, release to the captives, and bring good news to the poor, but John? John starts things off with a party, a wedding in Cana. The celebration of two people, or two families, coming together in a new relationship that should be marked with a week-long party, full of joy, pleasure, and hospitality (read: wine and lots of it). For in the ancient world, wine was a sign of God’s harvest, of God’s abundance. To run short wasn’t just embarrassing, but disastrous. To run out of wine would have felt like a curse, voiding out any blessings. Yet, as John tells it, the story isn’t about scarcity, but about abundance, as Jesus brings to life the “grace upon grace” the gospel writer talks about in his intro, his prologue.1 It’s at the wedding, where Jesus directs the servants to fill six jars, each holding 20 to 30 gallons (which translates to roughly 1,000 bottles), that he embodies what grace upon grace really looks like with a sign of abundance. More wine than folks could possibly want or need appearing when they could have least expected it. Jesus doesn’t use his power to make himself look good or anyone else look bad; nobody’s health or safety is at stake—reputation yes, but no one’s life. Instead, he offers his gift for the good of the community. Jesus’ first miracle, the first event of his ministry, is for real people in a real situation, the first sign in a gospel that shows us what grace looks like.
If we’re honest, it sure doesn’t seem like Jesus was really for the idea, or that he thought it was a very convenient time to do it. In the curious little exchange with his mother, he’s basically telling her, “Hey mom, it’s not my problem. Maybe they should have hired a wedding planner instead of counting on Aunt Martha,” but Mary doesn’t let up. Instead, she pushes him to be who she knows him to be, and she trusts him to do what he needs to do—whether he wants to or not. Jesus is correct, of course, it’s not the right time. It never is, but then God and mothers are seldom convenient. Situations rarely happen when everything is in place or planned out. Maybe Jesus wanted to wait for a time where something more life-saving would mark his advent on the scene, but where the need is, is at the wedding that day. It’s at that particular time, for the particular need, that he shares his particular gift for the good of the group. The reality is, we today, like Jesus then, live in a world where all too often every form of abundance is treated like something we can qualify and quantify. As if our blessings, as if our abundance, is measurable. The world has somehow bought into the idea that abundance is something that can be hoarded, controlled, possessed, and even taken away, as if it comes to folks who deserve it, and since we have it, it’s our job to be its guardians. We only need to look at the government shut-down to see how determining who’s “essential” enough to be paid for their day’s work isn’t only lacking compassion but rooted in greed and manipulation. Abundance is never just about an individual. It’s never about what I have or what you’re worth, or how someone can be controlled. It’s not even about “Jesus and me” being happy with each other. Abundance is always about bringing us into relationships,2 not a richer life but a fuller life, and that is experienced with others and ultimately with God. Maybe that’s why Jesus, when the wine runs out, decides rather than have the party break up, the crowd start to melt away, that it’s time to step in and step up. Jesus re-evaluates the situation, changes his plans, and embodies his goals as he shows abundant grace, even if it isn’t convenient.
Like Jesus, followers throughout the arc of time are called to copy the notion of generosity he shows, convenient or not, whenever and in whatever form a need presents itself, for the good of the whole. That’s what Paul did when the congregation in Corinth started to understand their gifts and abilities in a divisive hierarchy that threatened to destroy their relationships and fracture their unity as a community. That’s why Paul speaks to them of the importance of all their gifts, reminding them that no one gift or ability is greater or more important than another. Paul’s words are still important today as we remember God is a generous giver, and every gift and talent we have been graced with is to be used in the service of bringing about God’s vision for the church and beyond. God’s gifts are both long term and momentary, and most of us have had different calls at different times. I’ve needed different gifts to meet my different callings as a nurse, wife, youth group leader, mother, elder, and preacher, and you have, too. Gifts needed for a particular time in our personal lives and in the life of our faith community. There are a myriad of gifts needed to fulfill God’s vision, whether preacher, teacher, visionary, or musician. So there’s always the temptation to fall into the worry of scarcity. “We need more wine, we need more members, we need an organist, we need more folks to serve on the boards.” Yet God is generous and provides for every need we have, giving us the gifts and talents necessary to meet our needs. When we truly believe that, then our only real question becomes what can we do? What’s our place in the miracle? For our gifts aren’t nouns that can be possessed, but verbs to be acted upon. Like Mary, are we to name, persist and trust? Or like the servants of the wedding hosts, are we to carry huge jars, making lots of trips, exercising our strength with lots of resolve? Are we, like Helen and Mona, to realize that talents we put aside years ago are to be dusted off and resurrected to new life; or like Dave Beil and Jerry Bennett who took the initiative to get themselves down here two Thursdays ago, making sure the snow blower was operational before last week’s storm; or like Bob Melvin, here early last Sunday morning to shovel snow so the community could safely get into the building to worship; or like the men’s group, who knowing with or without the government shutdown that folks who are served by NESFACE might need a little extra help, as they donate the profits from last week’s and next month’s dinner, serving others for the common good? On and on I could name you, for I have seen or heard or noticed your presence as you have looked deep within and figured out what you can offer up, answering God’s invitation to use your gifts freely and innovatively, participating in God’s own life and work by the power of the Holy Spirit, that we, too, might offer grace upon grace, following the example of Jesus’ own generosity.
God’s grace is to be shared, whether that’s in the form of 180 gallons of the best wine, or a smile and conversation shared with folks coming to and supporting the dinner for NESFACE. Lots of times it’s really not convenient, but generous grace is what turns the ordinary into the sacred and the incomplete into the whole, as we share what we’ve been given at this particular time with all.
1John 1:1-18, but specifically verse 16
2Concepts of abundance being quantified and qualified as well as found only in relationship are in Karoline Lewis’ article “Abundance for All,” from online blog Working Preacher, 13 January 2019.
January 13, 2019
Rev. Susan H. Francis
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
The Baptism of the Lord Sunday falls in the season of Epiphany with (as we heard last Sunday) its themes of illumination, revelation, and transformation. But during Epiphany we shift from the obvious revelations of Christmas, with its angelic choirs and traveling wise folks, to catch glimpses of God and the Kingdom, the extraordinary, beneath and beyond the ordinary that lives all around us. And what can be more ordinary than water, in the font, out of the tap, and flowing in the creeks and rivers around us.
In today’s passage Jesus’ ministry starts when he is baptized by John in the Jordan. In Luke’s version of the story, Jesus stands in line with everyone else and waits his turn but after he comes up for air and is praying, that’s when the heavens open and something that looks like a dove that seems to come straight from the heart of God settles on him and he hears a voice saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Luke says nothing of mass conversions, or the crowd falling to its collective knees and proclaiming Jesus the Messiah. Instead, it seems to be a private epiphany, a private moment, given to make sure Jesus knows who he is and whose he is before he starts off in his ministry. Jesus goes into the water a carpenter, and comes out a Messiah. The same person, but with a new direction, a new vocation. He goes into the water his own person and comes out God’s person. Maybe it’s only with such a clear sense of his identity, when God calls him the Beloved Son, that Jesus can take on the enormous ministry before him. For next he’ll be tempted in the wilderness, where Satan will attack as the evil around him taunts “If you are the Son of God,” seeking to undermine any vulnerability or insecurity with his relationship with God. Jesus’ ministry will face the Wilderness, the skepticism of religious leaders, and Gethsemane with a confidence born in his relationship with God and God’s commitment to him. Declared the Beloved Son of God at his baptism, before Jesus ever does anything worthy of praise except opening himself up to God’s vision, responding to God’s movement, God makes sure Jesus is clear about who and whose he is, which is the beginning of everything honest. And it all starts with Jesus’ baptism.
Most of us here today have been baptized, and whether we knew it at the time or not, that was the beginning of our ministry as well. Granted, a lot of us were too young to remember voluntarily opening ourselves up to God’s movement, but found ourselves raised in a faith that began the process for us, teaching us to listen for God’s voice. But somewhere along the line, at confirmation or a much later date, we, like Jesus, find ourselves at the water’s edge. And whether we’ve made the decision to go in or are still contemplating it, that process, God’s movement, continues as God whispers in our ear, “I have redeemed you. Do not fear for I am with you.” God is committed to us not because we’ve done anything to deserve it, but because it’s God’s nature to love us unconditionally, and no one is forgotten in the circle of divine love regardless of whether we turn a deaf ear, drudge up all the sludge we threw into the water once before, or ignore the sound of the dove. But when we plunge in, whether through water or our confession, by our desire to follow, to be a disciple of the Master and serve him, we are blessed with God’s own Spirit, given the name Christian, and marked with Jesus’ cross. Maybe now is a time when the question of our identity has seldom been more pressing, when there are so many sources out there who want to claim and construct who and what we are, with few of them life giving and none of them redemptive1. Instead, we who have followed Jesus into the water find ourselves armed with Christ’s own name as we face our own wilderness temptation and challenges and live into the ministry and mission God has set before us in each of our lives, sure of who we are and whose we are, secure that we are beloved by God and bound to Christ in a ministry that begins at our baptism.
Joined to Christ, we are pulled into community as well. Just as the ancient Israelites weren’t in the wilderness alone, but had each other; just as Jesus wasn’t in the wilderness alone, but had the presence of the Spirit and the promises of God’s declarations; we aren’t in the wilderness alone as our baptism propels us into the community of the Body of Christ. A body that extends to our pews in the church, to Times Square and Nancy’s, to Washington, DC, to our borders, and across the earth. A family in Christ responsible to and for each other, joined together as we live out the Kingdom of Heaven in the world. But the world is a big place, so God calls each of us to be part of a particular body of believers that has particular tasks that need done, that just happen to fit the particular gifts and talents we have been given by the Holy Spirit. Each of us with different gifts and talents, all needed, that we might accomplish what none of us could accomplish alone. Sometimes that means we are called to a community for a short time, to give and receive what we need before God calls us elsewhere. But other times God calls us to stay put for a long time, like Dave Mathews and Liz Carkhuff, who have served this particular faith community each for over 70 years, committed to giving their gifts and talents in such a way as to teach the rest of us what it means, what it looks like to be the Presbyterian Church in Kinsman, Ohio—a church that reaches out and serves the community around it through ministries to AA, NA, and Al-Anon, through ministries to the local kids, like the Boy Scouts and tutoring. Dave and Liz, with gifts that are as unique as they are, have been guided by the Holy Spirit to shape our faith community, but that’s true for the rest of us as well. All of us are blessed with our own gifts, none being more important than another, all useful in our various callings in our jobs, at home, as well as in the church. Let’s face it folks, we have been gathered by God as a family, called to share our gifts and work together as we live as Kingdom people in the world God wants desperately to know him.
Swept up in the waters of baptism, God shows God’s commitment to us by naming each of us as God’s own beloved child, by telling us who we are and whose we are, and then asking us all to carry on the family commitment.
1David Lose shares this thought in a blog “In the Meantime” January 2017.
Pondering & Growing
December 30, 2018
Rev. Susan H. Francis
Isaiah 11:1-4a, 6-9
John 1:1-5, 10-14, 16-18
For we who gather on this 30th day of December, Christmas isn’t a done deal, but continues. While the rest of the world is already taking down Christmas lights and ornaments, we find ourselves pushing against the culture towards a place where Christmas still matters, where Christmas is still happening. Let’s face it, the wise men haven’t even made it there yet. What better time to create a space, to ponder and grow, as Scripture tells us both Mary and Jesus did, as we live into Christmas.
Mary seems to do a lot of pondering. To be honest, she has lots to think about when the shepherds come to the manger with their stories of angels and songs of promise and praise. Granted, as a girl child, in her culture, she had no chance, no opportunity, to ruminate on the Scriptures like the boys in Hebrew school. But the informal education offered every Jewish child, male and female alike, raised in a broth saturated with the law and stories of the prophets, creates, for her, a space to contemplate the promises of a child who would be born, a Prince of Peace. Creates space that takes Mary’s musing at the annunciation of “how can I, a virgin, a young woman, bear a child?” and expands her question to include the mystery happening in Bethlehem, outside the bounds of both human experience and explanation. Deliberations not ending with the baby’s birth, but continuing as Jesus grows into childhood and then goes to the Temple for Passover. Hearing that teachers and bystanders alike are amazed at her son’s understandings and answers, even as she hears his confusion and bewilderment at their search, once again Mary contemplates the happenings around the child. The mystery of divinity taking on humanity, that humanity might take on divinity, makes her ponder.
Yet, it seems to be in the DNA. Mary’s willingness to think on things gets passed on to her son. Our Scriptures say Jesus grows in wisdom and stature, and in divine and human favor. Still, it’s not just in his nature, in his make-up, although certainly that plays a part, but surely, Mary’s and Joseph’s faithfulness nurtures Jesus’ own faith as well. Coming into the world when time isn’t overly scheduled, when, while there is lots of work there’s still time to think and day-dream, without an overly filled schedule or mind-numbing TV, Jesus is born into a culture that encourages questioning and debate. A culture that during Passover sees the Sanhedrin meeting in public at the Temple court to discuss, in the presence of all who would listen, religious and theological questions that insist that every moment can be holy. Jesus hears and asks questions in ways that astound elders and perplexes the Pharisees—evidence of a student in search of knowledge who will grow into manhood, on whom the spirit of the Lord shall rest. Jesus grows aware and is receptive to God’s vision through a process, not a flash in the pan but a process, as he ponders on God’s call on his life.
Well, like the prophet, Mona Draa said recently, “If it was good enough for Jesus, I guess it’s good enough for the rest of us.” If Jesus, the One who teaches with authority, who not only knows, but is the Word of God, if he continues to grow in wisdom and stature, shouldn’t we, who claim to follow him, do the same? Yet, we live in a time that offers little incentive for thinking and growing, where reflection is too often interrupted by the noise of meaningless chatter, where beliefs aren’t pondered, and assumptions aren’t challenged, and we don’t give God the chance to move us to evolve and grow in our faith. Instead, we’re content to keep God limited to what we learned in our 8th grade confirmation class, as if that’s all there is to know about God. Yet, in reality, the mystery at Bethlehem, the mystery that is God, that is far too great for any of us to wrap our minds around, draws our hearts to long to know more. Just as Mary ponders the Christmas message, just as Jesus grows in wisdom and stature, we, too, are invited to muse, to question, to doubt, and to wrestle. All signs of an active living faith, unwilling to allow God’s word to simply be ancient words on a page, but instead engages us in growing pains. For it’s only as we grow in wisdom that we can increase in stature, like Jesus, a quality all about character and merit. When, better than Christmas, can we hear an invitation for some major honesty and openness to what God might be wanting us to learn? When is there a better time to wonder just what this season and our belief all means? As followers of Jesus we, too, are called to ask and answer, to learn and grow.
Now is the time, when we’re already pushing against culture, to ponder. For Christmas is all about reminding us that God acts in our midst. It’s the time to re-evaluate and re-orient as we sit with the marvel that is God.
Be Ready to Move... For the World Is About to Turn
December 23, 2018
Rev. Susan H. Francis
Today’s passage, today’s story, is an unusual one. Did you notice it’s an all- female cast? Oddly, the one guy who could be in the story, the one guy who lives in the house, Zechariah, is literally silenced. At a time when women’s voices were seldom heard, that such a passage appears is a rarity. Yet, whenever anything that seems particularly unique makes its way into the Scriptures, there’s usually a holy reason for it and it should stand out like a sign to listen up, for God has something to say.
The Church has long been conflicted when it comes to Mary, whose voice we hear in the song. She has been buried under layers of theologies and politics. Some folks pray to her, others ignore her, and still others find that while they have no problem with her, between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit there’s little room left in the inn for the one who bears the Christ child. Some of us see her as a young woman guided by God like an ancient Joan of Arc, while others see her the victim of divine coercion. It makes it hard for us to figure out just who she really is and just what she has to say to us today. Certainly, Scripture is scanty when it comes to Mary. We get the Annunciation, today’s passage, Jesus’ first miracle at Cana, and the cross, if we’re expecting to hear from her in her own voice. And with hymns titled “Gentle Mary Laid Her Child,” maybe it’s no wonder about the only picture we can even form is one of a meek, vulnerable, little maid. Hardly someone who can stand up to what the world will throw at her. Hardly someone who will be able to participate in the salvation of her people or the world. Yet, she follows in a long line of faith-filled women blessed by the calling of God who are courageous, refusing to be passive, taking huge risks while defying what the culture expects when the Spirit moves them. Women included in Jesus’ own lineage like: Tamar, daughter-in-law of Judah, Jacob’s son. He, with no fondness for her, will acknowledge, at the end of her story, that she was more righteous than he; or Rahab, a Canaanite woman living in Jericho, whose choices brought safety to her household; or Ruth, whose story ends with her neighbors’ claim that she is more to her mother-in-law, Naomi than seven sons; or Bathsheba, wife of Uriah the Hittite, taken by David, who wrangles a kingship for her son Solomon. Mary follows a long line of faith-filled women, but she also differs from them, for her strength doesn’t show itself through the machinations of power, or military cunning, or economic strength, or a good marriage. Her strength is found through her body, even as her soul will be pierced, as she willingly gives birth and raises the One who will then give his body to death as he announces a new eon, a new age. When it comes to the little we know of Mary, what we do know is that she trusts the God who calls her wholly and fully.
We know it because in her blessing Elizabeth calls out Mary’s truest self. Maybe it’s no wonder that as soon as the angel Gabriel leaves, Mary sets out in haste, not just ambling, but in haste. A pregnant teenager who runs for the hills, not slowing down until she reaches Elizabeth. And when she gets there, while Elizabeth connects the dots in Mary’s story, the not-yet-born John leaps, prophesying of another time when he will go before the child Mary carries. In Elizabeth’s greeting, she’ll bless Mary, first for the child she carries and then because she believes what the Lord has spoken to her, and it’s through Elizabeth’s blessing that Mary finds her own prophetic voice, not a pious hymn of thanksgiving but a radiant, hope-drenched song that is probably the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. She sings of the power of God as she describes a world reordered and renewed, a world characterized by love and justice that only the baby she carries can birth into beginning. Later, his parables and beatitudes and the way he lives his life will set into motion an awareness that unjust systems, oppressive hierarchies, and rampant self-interest and ego aren’t the way it has to be. That there can be more, be better. Mary becomes the pivot as her song heralds a world about to turn upside down, as she sings of what will be because she knows God will fulfill God’s promises. Anticipating what the baby will bring, Mary and Elizabeth show the world around them how to function when life is about to change, as they live into the existence of the kingdom, allowing it to not only change the future, but to change their present as well. Living into who she is, Mary steps up and finds herself a messenger to the world about life in the Kingdom, and is blest by Elizabeth.
In their actions, Mary and Elizabeth model what the church at its truest self can also be. For together they become a prototype of Christian community where Mary’s need for safety, affirmation and empathy is met with companionship as Elizabeth offers acceptance, rather than judgment, nurturing and celebrating God’s work in Mary’s life. At the same time, Mary shares God’s vision not only for the future but for the present as well, and together each gives strength to the other. Like Mary and Elizabeth, we, as the church, strengthen and support each other in our efforts to live out the future Kingdom in the present. In some ways, it’s no different than when we were in high school making decisions and taking classes based on what we thought our future held—college prep classes if we anticipated college, tech classes if that was where we were headed. In the same way, Jesus’ first coming draws us to live in the here and now as if his second coming, with the reign of God, is already present. Mary’s Magnificat isn’t simply ancient words on a page, but a guide as to how we can do that. Her words are reminders that eventually systems of injustice will give way. God’s favor will fall on the poor, folks we marginalize will be lifted up, and God will do grand things for and with the very folks our society casts aside or locks out. And that healthy dose of reality should shake us all up a bit and make us realize that perhaps we need to think about where we stand and what we do, and maybe rethink some of the ways we live. For change is coming, and the world is about to turn. And if we aren’t wanting to be part of Jesus’ way, then perhaps God will find others who are among the least expected, as God did 2,000 years ago. The reality is, we, as people of faith who follow the way of Jesus, can’t celebrate Christmas without recognizing that we, too, are part of turning the world, trusting that God fulfills God’s promises no matter when that fulfillment happens.
Even today, God is working through women and men to bring all God’s children into an existence like the one Mary sings of. Are we ready to move, are we ready to be part of God’s bold, risky, world-changing work? Mary tells us that the birth of Jesus, the Word made flesh, can only be celebrated with as we take up her song and become part of the action. For once again, the world is about to turn.
1 Matthew 1: 1-16 is Jesus’ lineage according to the writer of Mathew. A lineage that includes 4 women. Tamar’s story is found in chapter 38 of Genesis, Rabab’s story is in Joshua 2 and Joshua 6:22-25, Ruth-the book of Ruth.
Where’s the Good News
December 16, 2018
Rev. Susan H. Francis
It is the third Sunday of Advent, pink candle and all. Yet even with the pink candle and Zephaniah’s words of rejoicing, John’s scolding makes us wonder just where’s the good news? For those of us who grew up where “turn or burn” sermons were not uncommon, nor preachers who seemed to “channel” John at his angriest, his words don’t seem to bode much redemption, may even bring out some resistance. Yet, for some reason the writer of Luke seems to think John’s proclaiming good news to the people.
So just where is it? Where’s the good news John talks about. “You brood of vipers.” Really? This is what John is calling the folks who give up a day at work to hear him? Then he adds a little “end of the world” good fruit/bad fruit fear of God to his sermon, with the ax at the root of the tree. It is no Norman Rockwellian picture he paints when he calls folks “snake spawn.” His words are hard, but still the crowd comes. According to Luke, great crowds stream into the desert to hear John berate them. Why? What’s the attraction? Of course, look who John’s attracting: a crowd of “gypsies, tramps, and thieves,” a lot of them misfits and losers. Folks at the edge of society who maybe weren’t quite so comfortable at the synagogue or temple where religious leaders, more polite than John, would normally hang out, not so comfortable with the “good folks from town” missing from John’s gathering, who were probably out doing their Christmas shopping or busy enjoying their holiday indulgences (just kidding, they didn’t have Christmas). See, many of the folks who make up the crowd around John are clearly at the end of their rope, who maybe don’t have any better place to be, no real job to go to, no steady, gainful employment. Or are tax collectors, turncoats, who work for Rome, allowed to skim off the top of what they collect from people who would just as soon spit on them as pay the tax. Or soldiers, also employed by the empire, mercenaries by any other name, as often as not thugs with trouble staying within the boundaries of their authority, comfortable using fear to get what they want. For a lot of folks making up the crowd, about the only thing going for many of them is that they’re still children of Abraham, part of the covenant, but John eliminates that hope with his “brood of vipers,” suggesting what they’re passing in their DNA is cold and evil, as he strikes down any hope of entitlement or assumption of election. So, it makes you wonder why they bother coming, or why they stay and take John’s abuse, ‘cause it sure doesn’t sound like John has any good news.
But John’s doom and gloom sermon doesn’t end in dismal hopelessness. The crowd isn’t done yet. Maybe somehow they know God has a different vision for the world and God’s children in it. Maybe they aren’t content with bearing bad fruit and being thrown in the fire, but question John with, “What shall we do?” And isn’t that our question as well? Isn’t that the question we ask when we come to the end of our own wisdom, when our defenses are down, when things just aren’t working as we think they should? “What should we do because folks looked exhausted after the Bazaar? What should we do in five years as folks get older and there are fewer of us? We ask the question, “What shall we do,” when we’re weary or disillusioned. In all honesty, lots of us are no less desperate than the folks in the crowd. Realities like the collapse of the family order, the lack of job security for our kids, the dishonesty and incompetence of political leaders, and the impact of other, often hostile, nations crosses the eons of times. Granted, most of us don’t live on the margins of society, but we, like the crowd, share a common despair for our very real world as we watch the “breaking news” and wonder at the apparent hopelessness of it all. John’s answer is as pertinent today as it was then. To the poor, share the gifts you have, contribute something—there’s always someone with a greater need—be generous. To the tax collector, how about a little economic justice, not filling your pockets with the hard-earned money of others. And to the soldiers, be satisfied with your wages, don’t be a bully but instead act with integrity. Not such crazy ideas. You’d think somebody dressed like John in camel hair, who seems to prefer fast food, literally on the fly, would require us doing something a little more radical. But instead, he offers fairly pragmatic instructions that aren’t rocket science, but lessons we should have all learned in kindergarten—and each and every one of them within our reach. Go home, to family, jobs and neighbors, and live fully, deeply, and generously. Share now, be merciful now, live genuinely now, because now is what we’ve got, now is when we can make a difference, as John points to the very real places where we already live, love, laugh, and struggle. Just like he doesn’t ask the crowd to move to the wilderness, the tax collectors to abandon or betray Rome, or the soldiers to become pacifists, he tells us that wherever we are, God meets us, accepts us, and uses us if we are willing to bear good fruit by living a different vision of the world, an alternative version that prefers compassion over indulgence and sacrifice over self-interest. John gives us an invitation to become new creatures when he answers the question, “What shall we do,” that we might bear good fruit and become part of God’s vision for the world.
No wonder Luke says John’s proclaiming good news. It is, and that is a cause for rejoicing. For what John announces is that salvation isn’t only “when we all get to heaven” but that salvation—healing—is here and now, within and among us. Rejoice, that all the possibilities we need to make the world a little more heavenly are right here before us if we’ll just start asking and listening and placing ourselves in a position to be guided. For we believe in a Messiah who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and fire. A Jesus whose judgment looks beyond our masks to see us clearly and knows us to our very core, whether we act like vipers or doves. A Jesus who patiently and lovingly wields a winnowing fork to remove the chaff that hides our rich promise. A Jesus who’s willing to stay with us though the sacred fire that comes into every life. And that’s cause to rejoice, for we are an imperfect people, all too willing to compromise and live with all kinds of evil and wrong. Yet, Jesus is with us amid our imperfections and failings, meeting us in the need of our neighbor and in the hope of our grandchildren as he blesses our efforts to reflect his love and claims us, even when we fall short, as he draws us into his purifying flame. Rejoice. Like Zephaniah, just when there is little ground for hopefulness, John dares to trust that God will be God, will honor the promise to redeem us and by doing so then frees us to care for our little part of the world that God loves, and then stretch ourselves a little further. How can we help but rejoice? What other response can be possible to the God who will gather us up and brings us home? Rejoice, for John the Baptist gives us good news.
John pushes us in his curmudgeonly way to look at whatever job, place, or real life situation we’re in and find ways we can show a grace, an honesty, and an integrity that comes from our Lord, that we might be part of the divine shift in a world that reflects God’s vision. And that is certainly good news, and a cause for rejoicing.