“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
Scripture: Micah 6:6-8
Jesus amplifies the prophet Micah’s words several times in the book of Matthew.
In the Sermon on the Mount he says: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”
In giving us the Great Commandment Jesus says: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Later, Jesus goes on to say: ‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing,
I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
Then people ask him when did they do all this. And Jesus replies: ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
Listen to God, who might say something like this today:
“I demand integrity from my disciples. You cannot walk humbly with me and walk in arrogance with your brothers and sisters. You cannot be a saint in prayer and a tyrant in your job or with your family.
I have given you many things that I intend you to use for the good of those in need around you.
The quality of your human relationships shows the true quality of your relationship with me.
If you are truly walking with me, I bring you face to face with the needs of my other children.
As you treat them, so you treat me.” (Prayer from Sailboat Church:Helping Your Church Rethink Its Mission and Practice, by Joan S. Gray)
This Lent, you are invited to reflect on your journey with God. How are you walking with God?
Who do you see along your journey?
Devotional by Martha Shepard & Vicki Freutel
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15 (NRSV)
1 The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar. 2 At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah, 3 where King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him. 6 Jeremiah said, The word of the Lord came to me: 7 Hanamel son of your uncle Shallum is going to come to you and say, "Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours." 8 Then my cousin Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the Lord, and said to me, "Buy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself." Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord. 9 And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. 10 I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales. 11 Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing the terms and conditions, and the open copy; 12 and I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel, in the presence of the witnesses who signed the deed of purchase, and in the presence of all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard. 13 In their presence I charged Baruch, saying, 14 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. 15 For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.
This sermon is about hope. When you think of Hope in scripture, perhaps you first think of Hebrews 11: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Or maybe the first reading that comes to mind is not actually from Scripture at all, but from Emily Dickinson:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all –
And yes, that’s true. But this passage we read in Jeremiah, also offers us a different depiction of hope. One that isn’t made of feathers, perching on our souls, but one that instead involves grit, extreme forward thinking, and betting against the odds. It’s about a terrible real estate investment – one that was essentially flushing money down the toilet.
Here’s the deal. Jeremiah was a prophet to Israel. Israel was a small parcel of land, compared to its neighbors. It was small, but it had a water source, important for agriculture, and it connected to the sea, important for trade and national security.
But Israel was in trouble this time, and Jeremiah knew it, because Babylon was a much larger nation, and had been attacking and taking over its smaller neighbors on all sides. The last ruling King of Israel, King Zedekiah, might have known deep in his gut that Israel was about to be overtaken, but he would not admit that to anyone, nor would he allow Jeremiah or any other prophet to infest his people with weak thinking; He needed his people in Jerusalem to stay strong and fight the Babylonians; not surrender.
So, King Zedekiah had Jeremiah thrown into jail. And from jail, Jeremiah had this vision from God - this premonition - that his cousin, Hanamel, would offer to sell him his land at Anathoth. So, when Hanamel did indeed come visit him in jail and offer to sell him his land at Anathoth, Jeremiah knew he had to say yes. There was a reason behind this.
It was a crazy real estate deal. Israel is about to be taken over by Babylon. Jeremiah knows it. Israelites are about to be marched out of their homes with whatever they can carry on their backs; many of them will never see their homeland again. Their homes, businesses, synagogues, they’re all going to be a distant memory as these people make a new life for themselves in Babylon. Why buy land you know you won’t inhabit?
Why spend your precious silver shekels – a commodity that will trade in Israel or Babylon or anywhere you can go – to purchase land whose value is about to plummet?
It would be as crazy as a Syrian family whose home was bombed out in Aleppo purchasing the bombed out homes next to it with all the remaining cash they had. Meanwhile, there’s very little clean water and food in the city. Prices go up every week. Bombings continue. Help is nowhere in sight. Most everyone who could get out has already left. This situation will not “go back to normal” in their lifetimes.
There’s no real way to make sense of this land purchase from Jeremiah’s perspective, except that he felt compelled by God and he had a whole lot of hope. So yes, he got a good deal on the land. He paid around four months’ wages for the land, so he essentially bought it at less than foreclosure rates. He got a good deal because people with half a brain knew it would be essentially worthless for their lifetimes, because of Babylonian occupation.
But Jeremiah was compelled and he had a whole lot of hope. Because his understanding of time was not just his own understanding. Jeremiah was looking at the opportunity through the lens of God’s time. Jeremiah had hope – not in King Zedekiah’s ability to stave off the Babylonians – but that God would redeem Israel in God’s own time, and when that time came, his people would hold the title to the land. You see, the field that Jeremiah bought was inside the gates of Jerusalem. Jerusalem – God’s holy city that God would indeed reclaim.
Jeremiah, the prophet, was a realist. He knew Israel couldn’t stand up to Babylon. But he also had a deep hope that God would redeem it in the long run. And what could send a stronger message of hope to the townsfolk than to hear Jeremiah was buying real estate in the city? The very man who told everyone to start packing was also the man purchasing real estate, preparing for a distant future when God would bring them home.
Today you are worshipping in a church that is one hundred eighty-eight years old. This sanctuary and the pews you are sitting on are one hundred thirty-two years old. This home for God and sanctuary for the people was built by people who did not know you. They did not know what a gasoline-powered car was, or air conditioning or cell phones or computers. They might have a hard time recognizing their church on the corner of Poplar and Third in the 21st century, but I’d like to think they would be proud of what we’ve done with the place.
Like Jeremiah, those who came before us built this community of faith to stand the test of time because they had hope that God would be at work in the future, just as they sensed God was at work in their community in the present.
That means they had a deep hope. Not the kind with feathers that gently lights upon our shoulders. Not the kind of hopeful wishing or hopeful thinking that we sometimes engage in to get us through a tense football game. We can hope for a win, but we have very little control over the outcome.
We often have that shallow kind of hope. We hope for the Presidential candidate of our choice to win. Or we can hope when our school principle comes up with a new policy, it will make a difference in the lives of the children. We can hope First Pres will have a vital role in nourishing faith and calling for justice in the next one hundred years.
But what is hope without investment? To me, there’s a difference between the kind of hope with feathers that gently lights upon our shoulders, and the kind of hope that causes you to invest your time and hard-earned money in the future God envisions. If we truly have hope that God will work all things together for good for those who love God and are called according to God’s purposes (Romans 8:28), then we will put our resources behind our hope.
If Jeremiah were in our midst this morning, I think Jeremiah would challenge us all to invest in the future we want to see. If you care who becomes president, vote. If you care about our city’s poor children, become a tutor so one more child can learn to read. If you care about Memphis and the “least of these” we serve weekly through our outreach ministries, invest in the future you want to see. If Jeremiah were in our midst, he would challenge us to invest in this church property, even though organized religion is on the downtrend.
He would invite us to give our resources to the RAISE THE ROOF campaign, which is actively fundraising to pay for a new roof for the sanctuary, and to replace our non-functioning gutters, fix the portico and seal and paint the windows and doors on the North side of the church building – And he would challenge us to give not because we ought to do it to keep the building from falling down, but because we have a DEEP HOPE in the future that God is working out even now and for the people who will come after us.
Give because you care about the city of Memphis and about those on the margins. Give because you believe God cares deeply for those without homes. Give because you believe God fosters hope and action in young people – like those who will stay here in our church this summer with our new mission partner, Memphis Youth Mission. Give because you believe God cares for us and uses Sabbath time to refresh our spirits and reshape us into the Disciples we were created to be – to foster a DEEP HOPE in our homes and workplaces too.
We don’t know who will worship here in 30 years when the lifespan of this new roof will expire. We cannot know how God will use this church in the future, just like those who came before us could not have known that this church would sustain the faith of thousands, birth multiple non-profits, and would become widely known for its outreach to neighbors who are homeless.
We cannot know what God will do in the future from 166 Poplar, but if we have a deep hope, we know God will use our investment to produce fruit for the kingdom. Because we serve the God of Hope. The God of restoration and re-creation and reformation. God is always doing a new thing out of old things.
I am not necessarily optimistic about all churches or organized religion in the US in the next century, but hope and optimism are different.
Cornell West helps us make the distinction between hope and optimism. He says, “Optimism tends to be based on the notion that there's enough evidence out there to believe things are gonna be better. It’s much more rational and deeply secular, whereas hope looks at the evidence and says, "It doesn't look good at all. Doesn't look good at all. So we’re gonna go beyond the evidence to create new possibilities based on visions. Visions that become contagious to allow people to engage in heroic actions always against the odds, no guarantee whatsoever. That's hope.”
I have deep hope in God. And I plan to invest in God’s future plans in this church, and I invite you into that deep and abiding hope too.
We are a part of something much bigger than ourselves here. Thanks be to God.
In the name of the One who was and is and will be to come,
For the past several weeks, the lectionary has had us following Jesus on his campaign of teaching and healing and preaching. And we’ve watched as he has rewritten the rules for religious people. We’ve watched the religious leaders turn on their heads while Jesus healed in the temple or upset the dinner party.
And today is no different. Jesus is teaching a difficult lesson: Discipleship is costly. Discipleship means you have to be “all in.” Jesus’ claim on us is total, and our response should be commensurate to that claim. There is no exclusion. Nothing – not even family is off limits when it comes to our commitment to walking a faithful journey. Our loyalty belongs to Jesus.
That’s a difficult teaching. I imagine it made the religious leaders continue to raise an eyebrow and watch him carefully. Afterall, they had religion down pat. They had the temple on Sabbath. They enjoyed a cultured life, meaningful work, good food, good wine, good family and friends every other day of the week. They had a good balance, and here Jesus is rewriting the rules again.
Demanding that his followers reorient their lives – even their family life – fully to their God.
Demanding that you and I also orient our lives to our God.
But if our God is the same God we read about in Jeremiah, isn’t that a little bit scary? Let’s turn our focus now to that Jeremiah passage. God is the potter. We are the clay. Are you comforted by that? Or are you scared by that? God has the power to squish you, scrap Her plans for you, and turn you into something else on a whim.
That is unsettling, but remember – Jeremiah was a prophet. Prophets had one job to do: go to a city or a group of people and convince them they need to turn from their evil ways. Oftentimes there was a threat. An or else… And in this case, it was, “God is like a potter. God can squish and squash you and turn you into something else if God jolly well wants to. You are pliable, like putty in the hands of God. So you better change your ways.”
Now that’s not terribly comforting on the outset. At least it’s not to me, because who wants to think of God as purposely intending harm to us, God’s own creation? This reminds me of four-year-old daughter, who would make the most colorful, adorable artwork. She would spend thirty or 45 minutes (which is a long time for a kid that age) making an elaborate piece of artwork, and then once she had shown us her creation, she would begin systematically destroying it. Sometimes ripping it into shreds; sometimes picking off the pieces one by one, wadding it up and throwing it in the trash. It baffled me why she would create only to destroy.
God baffles me here too. Why create only to destroy?
It’s hard to imagine that God, the Creator of the universe, would choose to bring disaster on a whole nation of His own making. But of course you know there are people who imagine just that. After all, we call natural disasters, “acts of God.”
There are even modern day prophetic voices who claim that God is causing natural disasters to bring the nation back to Him; These disasters are meant to punish our country for the wickedness we tolerate.
August 2005, Hurricane Katrina: Shortly after the massive destruction of hurricanes Katrina and Rita on the Gulf Coast, Repent America director, Michael Marcavage, issued a statement blaming the massive disaster on New Orleans's annual gay party, Southern Decadence.
"Although the loss of lives is deeply saddening, this act of God destroyed a wicked city."
December 2011, Tsunami: Cindy Jacobs, of Generals International said homosexuality also caused the 9.0 magnitude earthquake, which prompted a destructive tsunami in eastern Japan, causing 15,870 deaths and $235 billion in damage. "Everything that I said has happened," she said. "We have seen these disasters happen. We need to repent for turning away from God and saying that we can make any laws that we want, it doesn't matter... that God's laws don't count."
The words of Jeremiah were quite possibly ringing in their ears: In Jeremiah, God says, “At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it.”
But here’s the thing that my husband pointed out when we talked about this passage this week: “The sins that the Old Testament prophets are usually talking about are systemic injustices and economic oppression, so if God is sending disaster on our country, it’s because we still don’t know how to treat the poor and have equitable economic and political systems.”
I’m not so sure, though, it is right for us to focus on the disaster at all. Because the truth is, if you trust the analogy of God as the potter and us as the clay, it’s all grace.
As we trust in the Spirit of God at work in our lives, we realize we are like clay in the hands of our artist God. Maybe we start out as a bowl – sturdy base, smooth sides, perfectly round lip – but when we become dried out or out of kilter and are slung off the potter’s wheel, we are scraped up off the floor, revived with a little water to restore our constitution, and our new life begins at the potter’s wheel. This time, the potter thinks, I’ll make this lump of clay into a beautiful serving dish.
And on the process goes. None of us, it would seem from this analogy, is ever fired. We are always pliable, re-formable lumps of clay. And God is always at the wheel.
This summer at Montreat, NC, one of our denomination’s retreat centers, I stopped into the pottery barn to pick up clay for our high schoolers to mold into pinch pots. I stepped into the magical land of clay and creativity and didn’t want to leave. The place was buzzing with grandmoms and grandkids, summer vacationers, college work crew on break – everyone brimming with creative energy and joy. Newbies learning to throw pots on the wheels. Kids cutting shapes out of slabs. Experienced sculpters working on the front porch, delicately piecing together their masterpieces.
The pottery barn operates on joy, creativity, routines, and – like most artist collaboratives – frugality. I stayed in the pottery barn a while, observing the operation. There are dedicated spaces for each activity. One place to get your clay, weigh it, pay for it. Another place to roll it out. Another place for the wheels. Another for drying. Another for cutting and shaping up. Another place to pick up your piece when it comes out of the kiln. And another for washing all the tools. A giant double sink with windows overlooking the porch, and to the left of the windows, the reclaim pile. All of the unused clay from projects, dried out scraps, bowls that fell off the wheel, abandoned kids projects, all of it is thrown into 5 gallon buckets. Water is added, then the staff presses it out onto the counter to dry out to become the right consistency to be reformed into a new piece another day.
As long as there are artists in the building, there is clay in the reclaim pile.
As long as God is our creator, we are in the reclaim pile.
A material of potential and possibility.
We are re-formable lumps of clay. And God is at the wheel.
Now the metaphor still might not be comforting to you. Afterall, if you spend the first half of your life as a bowl, you get used to being a bowl. And when you are scrapped and being reshaped, it hurts. You might live in fear that you will never be a bowl again. And even when you have been formed into an elegant new serving dish, you still might grieve the days when you were a sturdy-based bowl.
But listen, friends, when God is at the wheel, you can trust that God will reform you into something beautiful and useful for the kingdom. You can trust that God is right beside you. God’s artist’s hands always have clay under the fingernails, because God is always at work. And just like all other artists I know, God is passionate about Her art. About us. And God is thrifty. None of us will be wasted.
Our job, as lumps of clay, is to remember we have a purpose. But only when we are in the hands of the Creator. I think that’s what Jesus was getting at in Luke, too. Discipleship means you have to be “all in.” All in the hands of God.
The good news, friends, is this: God is the Potter. We are the clay. None of us, it would seem from this analogy, is ever fired. We are always pliable, re-formable lumps of clay. And God is always at the wheel.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
 The Advocate online: www.theadvocate.com
Luke 8:26-39 (NRSV)
Then Jesus and his disciples arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” I beg you, do not torment me” – For Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.)
Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
When the swine herdsmen saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned.
The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
There are some really juicy details that help this story come to life for me. First, remember that this story takes place just after Jesus has calmed the storm on Galilee. So, Jesus’ identity as someone who controls even the weather has just been established. Jesus is ALL – POWERFUL!
And now they’re on the other side of the lake. A.K.A. Gentile territory; Unclean territory. So, Jesus is willing to cross into unfamiliar, unclean territory in order to bring about healing and new life for beloved Children of God in need, whether they’re good Jews or not. This already says a lot about Jesus, and the story has only just begun, right?!
Now, Jesus has barely stepped foot onto dry land when this nasty, naked, demon-possessed man approaches him. We don’t even know his name because when Jesus asks him his name, the demon responds instead, saying, “We are Legion.”
To get the full picture of the situation, you need to know that “Legion” was the name designated for a Roman army battle force of four to six thousand soldiers, so this demon was as powerful over this man as four to six thousand Roman soldiers would be. The poor man stood no chance against them. He was completely controlled by his demons.
But the people in town were used to him and apparently weren’t afraid of the man when he was possessed by demons - they were used to him in the same way we grow accustomed to our neighbors on the streets who ask for money. They knew what to expect from him and how to handle him.
When the demons took over, they chained him up and cast him out to the wilds, where demons allegedly liked to roam in those days. They forced him to live outside of town in the tombs, among the dead – how symbolic, right? Just like we cast out law-breakers into the wilds of jail or prison, away from good townsfolk.
But - when Jesus healed the man with demons, the townspeople were afraid of him. They were afraid of him not when his demons were in control; They were afraid of him when he was in his right mind. Perhaps because they didn’t know what to expect anymore; because Jesus had turned the man’s world and therefore his community’s expectations upside down. Or maybe they just wanted to get rid of Jesus before he ruined their livelihood next… Afterall, some poor family just lost their herd of pigs. Whatever the base of their fear, what stands out is that when the demoniac was changed back into a normal person, the people were afraid!
It must have been devastating for the man’s family to watch his demise. It must have been horrendous to feel they had to kick him out of their home and leave him at the mercy of the city. Then, to watch him be chained up, spat on and tormented by law-abiding citizens. But the family has found a way to deal with it and they’re dealing.
Does this story sound at all familiar? Do you know anyone who was once a life full of possibility and potential, who veered off-track somehow, and is now struggling to find sure footing again? Sadly, I know too many examples of this pattern.
I am from a small town in Mississippi. There’s not much for teenagers to do for fun in small-town-Mississippi. In high school, on the weekends, we would ride around town, go to a field party or a bridge party – yes, that’s where we parked on a bridge down a gravel road, and we partied… And by party, I pretty much mean stand around vehicles, listen to music and drink beer.
And no, not everyone drank beer. And no, not everyone stuck to just beer. There was hard stuff too. And drugs, apparently, though the drugs weren’t nearly as obvious as the alcohol. But with the passing of each semester of school, we would find out about another friend who had been seduced into escaping his own world for that of the drug world. I had no idea at the time how closely we were dancing with demons.
Then I went to Ole Miss. And I watched friend after friend hand themselves over to the ideal of an Ole Miss sorority girl or a fraternity party animal. I was surprised at how quickly my friends learned to play their new roles.
Freshman year alone, I picked up a friend from a fraternity house, drunk, crying and scared after her “friend” convinced her to snort Ritalin; I escorted another to the hospital to have her stomach pumped; I walked alongside another after an unfortunate encounter with a fraternity guy who was supposedly a really smart, nice guy until he became an Ecstasy user and dealer. But these examples pale in comparison to the demons I watched destroying healthy self-image and healthy eating habits of my beautiful friends along the way. I realized that year just how closely we were dancing with demons.
I wish I could say college was the last I have seen of demons, but it’s not. It was apparently just the beginning. As I entered the next phase of life, I began to see demons occupying my friends and destroying marriages, steering good people into the quest for wealth, above all else, pushing them to consume at all costs, and to seek selfish rewards instead of the good of their family and community.
Demons are real. And they come in many forms. They are alive and at work today just like they were two thousand years ago when this story took place. They’re out there, taking captive good people and completely changing their identity from “Beloved Child of God,” the name we were all given at our baptism, and replacing it instead with “Alcoholic” “Drug Addict” “Cheater” “Depressed” and “Crazy.”
You’ve encountered these demons too, right? Or maybe you’ve met the demons that tell you you’re not good enough. You’re too old. Too young. Not good looking enough. Not smart enough. Just plain not enough. These demons are very real, too. And much sneakier than the obvious demons of alcoholism or drug addiction. We are barraged by these identity demons on a daily basis in the form of commercials and advertisements that tell us we NEED more products in order to be happy.
Demons are real. And they come in many forms.
But however they manifest, they have one thing in common. They come in and chain you up and steal your identity as a child of God and replace it instead with the false notion that you are less than a Child of God, worthy of God’s full grace.
And so again today, Jesus comes to us, and just like in the story, Jesus asks, “What is your name?”
And our response? Is beloved Child of God!
You see, the author of Luke is going to great story-telling lengths in this section of the gospel – in chapters 7 and 8 – to show us to just what great lengths Jesus will go to offer restoration; true identity; true grace to EVERY KIND OF PERSON – even people who society thinks unworthy, and to reclaim them as Children of God!
First, he healed the important Roman Centurion’s servant. This one you might expect, right, as the Centurion would have been a prominent figure in their community. But then Jesus heals the widow’s son in Nain, a small, remote town outside of Nazareth. The widow would have likely become a street beggar if her son’s life hadn’t been restored. Jesus is really reaching out to the desperate here.
And then, he’s at Simon’s house having dinner when a “Sinful Woman” comes in and praises him for restoring her life. She pours out expensive perfume on his feet and bathes them with her tears. We don’t know what her sin was, but according to Jewish law – and we were in a Jewish household – she was about as unclean as they come. There would have been NO WAY she would have been allowed in the door, much less at the table, but here she is, and Jesus accepts her and changes her identity from “Sinful woman” to “Forgiven.”
And now the story of the Gerasene Demoniac.
“What is your name?” I can imagine Jesus asking him just before he got back on the boat to go home to the Jewish side of the shore… “Beloved Child of God!” I can hear the now restored man saying.
Friends, this story is about a case of stolen identity – As Christians, our identity comes first and foremost from God. At the moment of our baptism, we are claimed as God’s own child and renamed “Beloved Child of God”.
Part of the good news of the gospel this morning is that God goes to the edges of the earth to unbind the hostage; to reclaim God’s precious people; to set their identity straight– for the unnamed man with a Legion of Demons and for each of us as well. The reality is that we aren’t strong enough to wrestle with demons. But Jesus is. And he has proven that he will travel across the lake into unclean territory to do so.
We are weak, but he is strong.
But that’s not all of the gospel, because our identity isn’t just restored so that we might have a full and happy life. Yes, I believe God wants that for us, but we are also called to witness to what God has done for us – like the man in the story – so that others can come to know this amazing, freeing love of God that even re-shapes our very identity.
As forgiven Beloved Children of God, we have the opportunity – no, if we are Jesus’ disciples, we are commanded by Jesus - to share that love with others as well. Because that’s how the gospel spreads. That’s how grace; how fresh new life begins in our own communities.
And because our world lives under a constant, daily barrage of identity theft, we need to hear this message time and time again. You are enough. You are Beloved. You are a Child of God!
Friends, Demons are real. And they come in many forms.
But so is Jesus. And he's calling your name even now.
In the name of the One who claimed us at birth and is in the business of reclaiming us even now.
Luke 4:14-21 (NRSV)
14 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18 "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." 20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."
Full disclosure: Sometimes I read scripture passages like this one and immediately feel guilty. Because if we Christians take our directives from Jesus, my gosh, we have big shoes to fill, how can we possibly?!
Jesus was always bringing good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind and letting the oppressed go free. I want to follow, but I haven’t been around any captives this week – at least not the captives I envision when I read this text…
I envision captives whose lives are totally different from mine. Much more oppressed. Much more sorrowful. Here in Memphis, sure, but definitely in other parts of the world where slavery persists.
Sometimes I have the feeling that I would be a really great disciple, if only the situation were plopped down in front of me. I would make the right decision. With God’s help, I would set that prisoner free.
But when I read this beautiful passage, I wonder “How am I supposed to follow Jesus’ lead to set the prisoners free while I’m fixing sippie cups, or doing dishes and laundry?
Where is there a prisoner to set free in the grocery store?
Or while I’m driving home from work?
What does this captive language really have to do with me?
My guilt doesn’t stop there, though. Sometimes I read scripture passages like this one and I feel guilty because I feel I am the captive. The sippie cups, the what’s for suppers, the dishes, the laundry, the bills, the bedtime routine, rinse & repeat…
Of course, it’s beautiful captivity, and I know it won’t last and I should enjoy our children while they’re young. I hear that advice often, and I get it. As much as any captive can hear those words of encouragement. But the daily grind of existence has been known to take well-intentioned people into captivity. And not just young parents.
Captivity does not discriminate. It waits with open arms for the business owner who feels stuck, captive to a changing economy, a shifting business landscape, and rapid turnover in technology.
Captivity waits patiently to welcome the busy and distracted; or the lonely and depressed.
Indeed, in every stage of life, we are each vulnerable to captivity. And so Jesus’ words mean more than a simplistic command to do good for other people.
His words are first good news first for you and me. Jesus is proclaiming release, freedom and fullness of life for you and for me in all our various captivities.
Of course this interpretation might seem selfish or uncomfortable to us if we’re not used to thinking of ourselves in the position of the captives. Afterall, there are real-life captives across the street from us in 201 Poplar, who surely need God’s love, God’s salvation more than we do, right?
We’re used to thinking of ourselves in the place of someone able to provide help, not receive it.
But as flight attendants remind us every time we fly: In case of an emergency, put your own oxygen mask on first before assisting others.
“In the 1980s, priest and theologian Ernesto Cardenal studied Luke 4 with a group of Nicaraguan peasants. He writes that one woman responded this way: ‘What he read in the book of the prophet is prophecy of liberation. And it’s a teaching that a lot of Christians haven’t learned yet, because we can be in a church singing day and night tra-la-la-la, and it doesn’t matter to us that there are so many prisoners and that we are surrounded by injustice, with so many afflicted hearts…so much unfairness in the country, so many women whose eyes are filled with tears.”
I wonder if she’s right? What if Jesus’ core mission was to teach and preach and live LIBERATION!? To Everyone. To the mom of toddlers, to the lonely teenager, the wealthy businessman, the widow, the imprisoned and the prison guard too?
To you? To me? Each of us has something we need to liberated from.
Henry Nouwen says it well:
“We have to ask ourselves, “What is my poverty?” Is it lack of money, lack of emotional stability, lack of a loving partner, lack of security, lack of self-confidence? Each human being has a place of poverty. That’s the place where God wants to dwell! “How blessed are the poor,” Jesus says (Matthew 5:3). This means that our blessing is hidden in our poverty.”
So what’s your poverty?
What’s your captivity?
What’s your blindness?
Allowing yourself to believe that God wants to dwell with you in your poverty or captivity – wherever that may be in your daily grind of existence – that’s the first step to being a disciple of Jesus Christ.
That’s putting your oxygen mask on first.
Because the truth is – there is a captive world outside our doors, and God has work for us to do to help liberate it!
"Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."
Today’s the day, Jesus says.
1 Corinthians 13:1-13 (NRSV)
1 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
Outside the chapel at Columbia Seminary, where Davis and I received our divinity degrees, was a white board where the seminary community listed prayer concerns. Unless I was in a hurry, I stopped to scan the board on the way in or our of chapel to see what was going on people’s lives and in the community. It was like Facebook before there was a Facebook.
One day, taped to the white board, was a copy of a dated black and white pastel sketch – of a preacher. In his black robe, with the doctoral stripes. His brows are furrowed. His nose sharp. One hand resting on the Bible. The other cupped as if holding truth itself inside those curled fingers. What’s left of his hair, sticking straight up on his bald head. His mouth is wide open. He is preaching hard!
And the illustrator is listening. You can tell because he’s printed the sermon on top of the preacher. It says: Words, words, words, words, words words. Literally, “Words” is printed in all-caps block print all over the face and into the air around the preacher.
I’m not sure who posted that picture outside the chapel. And I’m not sure if it was meant to be an indictment or an inspiration, but that image came flooding back to me as I read the scripture passages for this week.
Paul says to the Corinthians: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” So if a preacher preaches in the tongue of Memphians, but does not have love, she is full of words, words, words, words, words.
Love is the answer for Paul. It is eternal. It is truth. It is powerful enough to change the course of lives. Anything not stemming from love is – well – just empty words. And words are but a noisy gong.
I learned from a commentary that the noisy gong Paul is referring to is different from the gong that came to my mind. Another word for noisy gong is echoing bronzes. These instruments were used in Paul’s time to reverberate sound in theaters. You know - to help with acoustics. Old timey amplifiers, used to help resonate the sound of human voices, which otherwise would have been lost in their wooden theaters.
So in other words, Paul is saying, you – church in Corinth – you, church in Memphis – you can speak beautiful, even passionate words, but unless they’re rooted in love, you’re just amplifying some one else’s message. It’s best to begin instead, with love.
They knew that, of course. They were committed to following Jesus. But even churches lose their way sometimes. The church in Corinth that Paul was writing to was a thriving church. I imagine they had robust ministries and programs that had been designed to showcase God’s love, but like any church, they experienced conflict and maybe even a midlife crisis. Maybe they were arguing over the direction of the church, or maybe they were arguing about the latest hot-button argument of the day, but what we can easily pick up on is that the church is in disagreement.
From this letter, we can surmise the church community had grown impatient with one another. They began to act in unkind ways. They had grown irritable and resentful. Some were rejoicing in wrongdoing. They weren’t bearing each other up. Some had quit believing. Some had lost hope. Some gave up altogether, saying they were having to sacrifice too much to be a part of this community.
And to them, Paul says:
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
Paul knows the congregation well. And he has zeroed in on the areas of their life together that are lacking in love. He’s calling the church in Corinth and this church in Memphis, I think, to consider how we stack up against love.
Everything is on the table. Even the elements of ministry that are cherished in the congregation – and maybe this is partly why the Corinthians were so upset.
Even the ministries and accomplishments they were the most proud of, Paul is
bringing them out and inspecting them through the lens of love. It would be like Paul coming to our church and probing deeper about our family-like community, our outreach ministries, including the soup kitchen, clothes closet, state ID’s program, food stamp program, and how we treat people coming to the door for help.
Paul would want us to tell him more about our super awesome fun social activities… And our session meetings and committee meetings and, most assuredly he would be analyzing this worship service.
And the question would be – Is love the reason you’re doing this?
Every act of service that flows from our Outreach ministries.
Every decision the session makes.
Every Sunday school lesson
Every administrative function
Paul wants to know: Is love the reason you’re doing this?
You can see how the Corinthians might have felt put on the spot.
But I hope we can see, too, how freeing it might have been for the Corinthians to have a renewed and refreshed sense of its priorities. Everything should flow from love.
It’s not a bad thing for congregations to point with justifiable pride to certain aspects of their life and ministry. Quite often churches’ identities are shaped by the things they do well. We’re known for our Soup Kitchen and outreach ministries, as well as the caring, family-like feel of our congregation.
The question this passage raises is, “Are these things done with love?” Or it could be phrased, “How might they be done with greater love?” The gong may not yet be noisy and the cymbal not yet clanging, but how might these things we, as a congregation do well be enhanced with more love?
And, of course, Paul’s letter was written to a community of believers, but the advice is just as pertinent for us as individuals too. If Paul were to come to your house for dinner tonight, and he had you tell him about your day, your week; your job, your volunteer commitments; your friends circle, your family life, your routine…
You two sit there politely sipping a glass of water as Paul sifts through your life,
inspecting every aspect through the lens of love. Everything is laid bare on the table.
Paul wants to know: Is love the reason you’re doing all of this?
Is love the basis of all your relationships?
Maybe it’s better that this communication from Paul came to the Corinthians in the form of a letter and not a personal visit. He might have been chased out of Corinth the way Jesus was chased out of the temple in his hometown!
The true measure of a church is how loving we are.
The true measure of a life is how loving we are.
The good news this morning is that LOVE already abides in us. Love was there in the beginning when God created and called all of creation good…
Love carried the Israelites in times of exile and anguish…
Love flowed into the psalmists as they wrestled with God…
It was love that welled up in God, and caused him to send his Son, Jesus, to live among us and show us how to live and how to love.
Love is what unites us with God. And it is love that unites us together as the Body of Christ.
Love is eternal.
Love is the truth.
Love never ends.
The true measure of a life is how loving we are.
How will you love this week?
Well guys, here we are! One big holiday meal down; one to go.
The race to Christmas is on! Black Friday has come and gone;
Cyber Monday is tomorrow. The deals are probably filling your inboxes and mailboxes. Santa Claus – I mean Jesus – is on his way. And to issue in this mysterious figure, there will be a flurry of activity squeezed into the next month: caroling, Christmas pageants, shopping, baking and whatever else your family tradition calls for.
And in the church’s life? Today begins our season of Advent -
a time set apart to recognize that God’s reign is coming into being. That’s the definition of advent, by the way – a coming into being.
God’s reign is not fully realized, yet neither is it out of reach.
It is actively “coming into being.” Like an unborn child in the womb. Or like a caterpillar that has entered the chrysalis stage on its way to becoming a butterfly.
The season of Advent is all about the already, but not-yet-ness of God’s kingdom.
And in the midst of Black Friday ads and Christmas lights going up, it’s kind of strange, jolting, out of sync with the rest of culture, even to many Christians.
The Bible stories read during this season are, by and large, not childhood favorites. They have no star in the east guiding devout magi, no soliloquy of angels stirring shepherds to go and see the babe, no anxious innkeeper refusing to take in the foreigners, no touching moment when Mary ponders these things in her heart.
Those are the stories we are preparing ourselves to hear, but the stories of Advent… Well, as you have heard this morning, our Advent stories are dug from the harsh soil of human struggle and the littered landscape of dashed dreams. They are told from the vista where the bad guys keep winning, and hope has gone on vacation.
Many prefer the major notes of joy and gladness in the Christmas stories to the minor keys of Advent. Advent also leaves us dizzy over time. Advent is not a steady, constant, “time marches on” kind of time, a persistent drumbeat of day after day, year after year. I guess if it had a certain genre of music associated with Advent, it should be jazz. Advent is unpredictable time, unsteady time, strange time.
In this season, we look for a baby to be born while we know that the baby has already been born, and still is being born in us— this Emmanuel who came and is coming and is among us right now. That’s strange, right?
Heidi Neumark is a Lutheran pastor who writes about this holy season amid her ministry in the roughest part of the Bronx: “Probably the reason I love Advent so much is that it is a reflection of how I feel most of the time. I might not feel sorry during Lent, when the liturgical calendar begs repentance. I might not feel victorious, even though it is Easter morning. I might not feel full of the Spirit, even though it is Pentecost and the liturgy spins out fiery gusts of ecstasy. But during Advent, I am always in sync with the season. Advent unfailingly embraces and comprehends my reality. And what is that? I think of the Spanish word anhelo, or longing. Advent is when the church can no longer contain its unfulfilled desire and the cry of anhelo bursts forth: Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus! O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!”
As the first, lone candle of Advent wreath burns, Jeremiah recalls his own city burning, and yet he speaks not of destruction but of God’s future as he offers his cry of longing, of anhelo.
Jeremiah speaks to hostages being seduced to start a new life in balmy Babylon. He tells a tough audience that, despite every sign to the contrary, “days are coming,” days when God’s promises will be fulfilled. Jeremiah tells his kin that God’s future will come not by giving up on God’s promises and making the best of a bad situation— after all, “when in Babylon”— NO!, says Jeremiah. We don’t live by the world’s rules; we are not governed by common sense or conventional wisdom. God’s kingdom will come by trusting in the creative and redemptive and sure purposes of God: “The Days are coming!”
With the world that he has known crumbling around him, Jeremiah pushes his people to see a future, God’s future, which seems laughable given the current circumstances.
And it seems laughable to us too, doesn’t it? It seems laughable that we would still hold out hope for God’s kingdom to come –for “thy will to be done” – the day after an ill-adjusted loner walks into Planned Parenthood health clinic in Colorado and kills three people, wounds nine.
Jeremiah’s proclamation that “the days are coming” seems laughable in the face of Isis and Boko Haram terrorists.
Indeed, it seems laughable that “the days that are coming” will indeed come before we destroy the earth ourselves.
As I listen to the cries of Jeremiah throughout the scope of his prophecy, I long for the day that is surely coming when God’s future will be a reality beyond the violent boastings of the ruling Babylon of the day – Isis or Boko Haram - or whomever it may be.
I long for the day that is surely coming when in God’s future the poor are not sent to shelters or forced to sleep on the streets. I long for the day when our soup kitchen is no longer needed because everyone has a home.
I long for the day that is surely coming when God’s future has no space for violence, when we will stop producing body bags— because there are no dead gang members to fill them.
I long for the day that is surely coming when God’s future affords no room for hatred or hostility, a day when our world is no longer torn apart by racism and sexism and homophobia.
Preaching Advent from the perspective of Jeremiah, I long for the confidence of the prophet’s words about the righteous future of our God. I long for people to know the God whom Jeremiah heralds and whom Jesus will incarnate, not a hidden God who refuses to get involve in the human enterprise, but a God who hears God’s people when they cry anhelo.
I long for people to know, not the God of religious fanatics or bigots, not a God who enjoys seeing Jerusalem set afire, but the God who, in God’s own time, will bring more mercy and justice than we will ever grasp.
We’re not crazy, you know.
This kingdom of God we are longing for actually exists.
And it breaks in.
Just this week in Queens, New York, Jose Moran spent Tuesday morning setting up the Nativity scene at the Holy Child Jesus Church, where he is a custodian. He put up the manger, and went to lunch. And when he came back, he heard the cry of a baby.
The baby was in the manger, swaddled in blue towels. He was so young his umbilical cord still sprouted from his belly.
Jose Moran ran to tell the new Friar, Father Heanue, “There's a live baby in our manger!”
The Friar called 911. The baby boy was brought to the Hospital, where he was weighed—just over five pounds—and found to be healthy.
The mom came back to check on the baby, and was relieved to find that her baby was safe. Father Heanue says he feels only love for the mother.
"A church is a home for those in need," he told the New York Times, "and she felt, in this stable—a place where Jesus will find his home—a home for her child."
He says families in the parish have already asked to adopt the baby.
"They feel that he was left in the parish and should stay in the parish."
So this week, the love of a mother who felt she couldn't care for her child led her to bring him some place safe and warm. And he was found by people who will—who already do—love him.
"Surely the days are coming...", says the Lord.
And so with Jeremiah leading the way, we watch for signs of love in the midst of the darkness. And we hope.
Maybe Jeremiah is the best biblical voice to lead us into Advent, the season that brings anhelo – of deep longing – to expression.
Advent is a strange season.
But it is a hopeful season.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, we pray.