Sunday, January 27, 2008

Sermon -- 27 January 2008

3 Epiphany —27 January 2008
St. John’s, Keokuk — 10:00

Isaiah 9:1-4 Ps 27:1,5-13 1Cor 1:10-18 Matt 4:12-23

“Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him.

This is a marvelously vivid and dramatic scene—so easy to image (at least I find it so). A bright blue sky over the sea of Galilee, a gentle breeze blowing, the sound of the waves breaking gently on the beach, the cries of the gulls overhead. Standing a bit offshore is a fishing-boat, the fishermen in practiced concert casting their net out over the water. Another fishing-boat is run up on the beach, its owners perches on the gunwales, carefully examining every cord of their net, every knot, retying, splicing. Along the beach comes Jesus; he pauses for a few moments, watching, and then he strides purposefully down to the water’s edge, and calls out: “Simon! Andrew! James and John! Follow me! From now on you’ll go fishing for people!” And immediately they drop their nets and follow Jesus. And poor old Zebedee, who hasn’t quite noticed, suddenly looks up from his net-mending: “James? John? Where’d everybody go?” Oh, it’s a scenario just waiting for the cameras!

This is a familiar episode to us, I think, and one that’s often presented to us as an example (the Collect of the Day today is a fairly clear instance: “Give us grace to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ”). Like these disciples, we too should drop everything and follow Jesus.

And that can be a little threatening. We can easily enough imagine ourselves back in first-century Galilee, mending our fishnets, and Jesus comes by (organ music) and intones, “Follow Me!” and we hop right up and say, “Yes, Lord, here I come!” and it all sounds rather romantic, and besides, who wants to mend a bunch of smelly old fishnets anyway? But when we think instead about Jesus poking his head into our office, our shop, our factory, our kitchen, our classroom, and saying “Drop all that and come follow me”—well, that may not be quite so romantic! And the words which spring to our lips may be, “Hey, wait a minute! What about my stuff?”

Bear in mind, from last Sunday’s Gospel, that Andrew at least, and probably his brother Simon, had been disciples of John the Baptist, and had met Jesus of Nazareth already. Jesus had been living in their town of Capernaum and preaching there. So probably these fishermen, Simon and Andrew, James and John, knew Jesus and had been hearing him proclaim the breaking-in of the reign of God. And so when Jesus summoned them to follow him, they had at least some notion of what it was all about. Jesus’ call didn’t come completely out of the blue. Obviously they didn’t know at the time where it would all lead. But their decision to follow Jesus wasn’t a headlong, or blind, or rash decision. They knew Jesus; they trusted him; and when he called, they did leave everything and followed him.

Jesus does not expect us to follow him blindly or irresponsibly. He knows that we have obligations, and what our obligations are; he knows much better than we do what our real obligations are, and what of our “obligations” are only excuses. But Jesus does call us to follow him, and that means we have to move from where we are to where he is. (It may not be a spatial movement, but it is at least a change in mentality, in attitude, in the way we direct and live our lives—a very real movement.) And moving means we have to leave some things behind. Maybe some of our material possessions. Certainly some of our ideas, desires, preconceptions, loyalties, habits, values, priorities, and preferences—if we are to follow Jesus.

“Follow Jesus.” But what does that mean? Notice what Jesus says to his first disciples: Not just “Follow me,” but “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” Follow me not just for your own sake, not just as a matter of your own personal religion, but follow me, come with me, because we have work to do together, gathering the world under the sovereignty of God. As the Collect says, “Give us grace to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works.”

Jesus calls most of us, in the first instance, to follow him, and to fish with him, right where we are. He’s not asking us to go off somewhere special, but to be someone special and to do something special right here, where we are. Most of us are called to follow Christ and to work with him to bring the world into his realm of love in very here-and-now, day-by-day, yes even ordinary kinds of ways. The whole world is to be claimed for the dominion of God; and that means every little corner of the world is important; and that means that your little corner of the world is important to God, and your work is needed for the building up of God’s reign.

Having said that, I think it’s also important to say this: Some people are called to follow Christ and to work with him to bring the world under his sovereignty in extraordinary, unusual, improbable, far-out, far-off, heroic ways. And there’s no guarantee that you aren’t one of them.

Andrew and Simon (Jesus nicknamed him “The Rock,” Kephas in Aramaic, Petros [Peter] in Greek), and James and John the sons of Zebedee, all knew Jesus. They trusted him. And when he called, they followed. Jesus wants us to know him. He wants us to trust him (to have faith in him)—that he is indeed the proclaimer and bearer and enactor and embodiment of the reign of God. And he calls us to follow him, not just for our own sake, not just for our own personal salvation, but to be with him fishers for the whole of humankind, casting the net of his love to gather in and give life to a broken world.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Sermon -- 13 January 2008

1 Epiphany — 13 January 2008
St. John’s, Keokuk —10:00

Isa 42:1-9 Ps 29 Acts 10:34-43 Matt 3:13-17

John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

When I was a child in Sunday School, I had a hard time figuring out the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist: John’s baptism was a sign of repentance and forgiveness; why then did Jesus, the sinless one, have to be baptized by him? Why did Jesus have to be baptized at all? In the King James words I heard as a child, Jesus tells John, “Suffer it to be so now, for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness,” and when I was twelve years old I know that didn’t help me very much!

Here’s ol’ John Baptist ranting and raving, preaching hellfire and damnation, really laying it on the folks about their sin (which does seem to be the kind of thing John did), calling on those who repent to Come On Down to the river; and he’s baptizing away, and he looks up to see who’s next, and there’s his cousin Jesus. “Uh … hi. I … um … I wasn’t expecting to see you here … I mean … I didn’t know you were here today. Um … this is the line for people being baptized, you know, like, for repentance, like, sinners, you know … Um, wouldn’t it be better for you to baptize me?!”

Well. Why does Jesus, who presumably does not need to submit to a baptism of repentance, accept (and indeed insist on accepting) John’s baptism? As we see what Jesus was up to here, we may also gain some insight on what our own Christian baptism is about, and how that affects the way we live our lives.

Later on in his ministry, Jesus would ask his disciples, “Are you able to drink the cup which I must drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I must be baptized?”[1] The cup he must drink is the cup which he prayed might pass away from him on that last night in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest—the cup of his impending death. Jesus saw that also as his baptism. He understood his baptism as his conscious commitment to the way of the cross. He accepted John’s baptism not because he needed repentance, but as a way of identifying himself with us, of declaring his complete solidarity with our sinful humanity, and taking onto his own shoulders our burden of sin and death. As St Paul would later put it, “he who knew no sin became sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”[2] At Christmas we have celebrated the coming of Immanuel, God-with-us. In his baptism, Jesus explicitly declares himself “with-us”—he accepts identification with our condition; he who is innocent pleads “guilty.” Jesus’ baptism is his declaration of his unity with us, just as our baptism is the means of our unification with him.

There are two side-tracks we often wander off onto. One of these is the refusal to identify with the world. We sometimes hold ourselves aloof, especially in our “spiritual” lives. We make of our “religion” something apart from “real life,” and our Christian faith becomes simply one compartment among the many compartments into which we organize our lives. But if we hold Jesus to be Lord only of our religiousness, and not of our whole lives—our work, our play, our family relationships, friendships, values, economics, politics, and everything else—then we aren’t accepting Jesus as Lord at all, and instead of Christian faith we have simply a quaint, nostalgic, perhaps beautiful but in the end meaningless religiosity. In his baptism Jesus identified himself with the whole of our human lives.

The other side-track of course is to identify with the world too much—to accept the world’s values and methods as adequate and sufficient. We convince ourselves that being nice and respectable by the world’s standards is all the Gospel really requires of us, that holiness is attained simply by being politically correct. And we forget that a Christian is always somewhat at odds with the world. We are in the world; we are for the world; but we do not finally belong to this world. The Word of God is not the world’s word. But neither is the Word of God only a religious murmur spoken in a corner of a Sunday morning. The Word of God is spoken to the whole world, and in judgment upon the whole world, and in re-creation of the whole world.

And so there is a tension—in Christ we share his solidarity with the world. No part of human life is beyond his Lordship. Nothing in the world is outside our concern. As Jesus is “Immanu-El,” “God with us,” so we as Christ’s Body must “be with” one another in our brokenness, sharing the hurt and the sorrow of all our brothers and sisters. But on the other hand as Christians we are in the world as those who do not ultimately belong to the world. The Gospel which claims us sends us into the world not to be swallowed up by the world but to transform the world. Jesus in his baptism plunged himself into our human condition, not becoming just like us in our sin, but raising us out of our sin into his love, redeeming us and renewing us. So we now, who are baptized into Christ, do share his baptism, and his cup; we do not succumb to the world, but we take the world upon ourselves—as empowered by Christ’s Holy Spirit in graceful and healing love—and in Christ we bear our broken world up to the throne of heaven.

(To page 292)

Dear People of God: In Holy Baptism we follow the pattern of our Lord Jesus Christ. As he came up from the water he was anointed by the Spirit of God and designated as God's Son, so we also are anointed by that same Spirit; we are reborn and adopted as sons and daughters with whom God is well pleased. Let us now renew our own baptismal covenant.

[1] Mark 10:38.
[2] 2 Cor. 5:21.

© 2008 William Moorhead

Monday, January 7, 2008

Sermon -- 6 January 2008 (Evensong)

The Epiphany — 6 January 2008
Trinity, Iowa City — Evensong 5:00 pm
Pss 96, 100 Isaiah 49:1-7 Revelation 21:22-27

I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.

When we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord Jesus Christ, subtitled The Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, the primary focus of our commemoration is the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus in Bethlehem, as indeed we did this morning. But that story — whether it be literal history, or parable, or a bit of both — is not self-contained. It points beyond itself. And what it points to is God’s purpose for the world.

The Incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth was not just for the people of Israel. That’s the significance of the Magi. They were not wise men from Jerusalem. (In fact, there weren’t any magi in Jerusalem. The Jews weren’t into astrology so much.) The Magi were from “The East,” which in the story was presumably meant to be the Persian Empire, whether Persia itself (that is, today’s Iran), or somewhere like Babylon in Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq). They were not Jews. The story does not indicate what kind of religious commitment they had. We could speculate that they were supposed to be Zoroastrians, but that’s speculation, and in any case it doesn’t really matter, because Matthew’s point in the story is that they represented the outside world. And I think this confronts us with the realization that the Incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth is also not just for Christians.

This is something a lot of Christians seem to have a hard time wrapping their minds around. I’m not quite sure why, because it certainly seems to me that the Scriptures overall are fairly clear about what’s at stake here. Or rather, I probably am sure why this is; it’s because we are afraid that if we don’t maintain control of our own tidy religious system, in which we are Us and everyone else is Them and therefore Not Us, God might actually try to do something without our permission, like really call the Whole World into God’s Kingdom.

(Digression: One of the things I would like to see hanging somewhere in this place would be a big photograph of Archbishop Desmond Tutu with his famous and oft-repeated words, “God loves absolutely everybody!” End of digression.)

But the Scriptures make clear that calling the whole world into the Kingdom is exactly what God is up to. (Actually, what God is up to is calling the whole universe into the Kingdom, plus any other universes there may be, but at the moment we’ve got enough to handle just with our own little world!) For instance, the prophet Isaiah today, words to the Servant of the Lord: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

And John the seer of the Revelation: “The city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.”[2]

What did Jesus do in his ministry? Primarily, he was proclaiming and enacting the Reign of God, teaching and healing. He was not, so far as we can tell, recruiting people into his religion. He did call some people to follow him, and become the core of his community; but he did not call everyone to follow him in that way. In fact, some people wanted to follow him and he told them, “No, go home and tell your people what God has done for you.”
[3] Jesus was summoning everyone to live into God’s Kingdom, but not recruiting them to join his club. Joining Jesus’ club is not the answer to the question, “What must I do to be saved?”[4]

I’m not suggesting that Jesus’ community, which developed into his church, was not and is not important in God’s plan. On the contrary, God chooses to depend largely, though I think not exclusively, upon us for the implementation and fulfillment of the divine plan for the salvation of the world. We as the Church are instruments of God’s saving Kingdom, but not its sole recipients. Sadly enough, there seem to be some folks in the Church who apparently don’t get this distinction and who evidently think they have a monopoly on the Kingdom. Alas, they are members of the Big Brown Truck Society.

(They wouldn’t recognize the Kingdom of God if Jesus himself drove up to their house in a big brown truck and personally delivered it to their front door.)

As I believe I have said before, and will no doubt say again, Jesus did not say “I have come that you may have religion, and have it abundantly.”

Or, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said (another quotation I have made before and will no doubt make again), “Christ is not an object of religion, but something completely different, truly the Lord of the world.”[6]

The season of Epiphany, which follows on Christmastide, calls our special attention to the mission of the Church, a worldwide mission that is not a recruiting trip but a proclamation and implementation of the eternal Reign of God.

[1] Isaiah 49:6.
[2] Revelation 21:23-24.
[3] E.g., Mark 5:19/Luke 8:39.
[4] See, e.g., Luke 10:25.
[5] Cf. John 10:10.
[6] “Christus ist dann nicht mehr Gegenstand der Religion, sondern etwas ganz anderes, wirklich Herr der Welt.” Letters and Papers from Prison, 30 April 1944.

© 2008 William Moorhead