Sunday, January 23, 2011

Sermon for Epiphany 3A

Sermon as prepared for delivery at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Ithaca, New York on Jan 23, 2011

Text: Matthew 4:12-23 (Inclusive Bible)

When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he went back to Galilee. He left Nazareth and settled in Capernaum, a lakeside town near the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali. In this way the prophecy of Isaiah was fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, the way to the sea on the far side of the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles: the people who lived in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”
From that time on, Jesus began proclaiming the message, “Change your hearts and minds, for the kindom of heaven is at hand!”
As Jesus was walking along the Sea of Galilee, he watched two brothers – Simon, who was called Peter, and Andrew – casting a net into the sea. They fished by trade. Jesus said to them, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of humankind.” They immediately abandoned their nets and began to follow Jesus.
Jesus walked further and caught sight of a second pair of brothers – James and John, ben-Zebedee. They too were in their boat, mending their nets with their father. Jesus called them, and immediately they abandoned both boat and father to follow him.
Jesus traveled throughout Galilee, teaching in the synagogues, proclaiming the Good News of the kindom of heaven and healing all kinds of diseases and sicknesses among the people.


Will you join me in prayer? O God, you tell our hearts to seek your face, and it is your face we seek. Open the eyes of our hearts that we may see you. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing to you, our Rock, and our Shelter, Amen.

          I was raised in an evangelical church in a denomination very prominent in the South, including Texas, where I grew up. When I was 14 years old, I went to a weeklong summer camp at Lubbock Christian University. While I have many memories that speak to my love, from a very young age, for God’s church, it was at this summer camp that I first experienced what I would describe as a “call” to ministry. There was no lakeshore, and I wasn’t fishing. Well, I wasn’t fishing for fish! Like many 14 year olds, I was fishing for boys, and there was one boy, named Tilden, on whom I had a HUGE crush.
          One night after a worship service, a missionary from Africa said that he would be talking about his experience if anyone wanted to stay. Well, Tilden was staying to hear this missionary, so of course I had to stay too! I listened to this man talk about sharing the good news about the light Jesus brings into the world, and I was transfixed. I came away from that weeklong camp with a vision of myself traveling to Africa to save the lost. You see, in my childhood faith, only those who were Christian – and we had a very narrow definition of who was a Christian – could go to heaven. And I felt a deep yearning in my soul to share my faith so that no one would be excluded from heaven.
          In our Gospel story today, five people experience what may have been their first sense of “call.” Now, I know you can all do the math, and that there are only 2 pairs of brothers, which adds up to 4 people. But Jesus is the first to begin to live into his own identity and calling. Before this scene in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has had a remarkable start in life. His birth was heralded by astrologers or magi from the East. Then his family fled to Egypt, and when they returned to Israel, they decided to make their home in Nazareth, on the Sea of Galilee. Jump ahead to when Jesus is a young adult, and his cousin John is making waves by baptizing and preaching repentance –calling people to redirect their lives in line with God’s purposes.
          Jesus responds to John and is baptized by him. Matthew continues his theme of pointing to Jesus’ identity as God’s Anointed – the Messiah. Like the Magi, John recognizes who Jesus is. And then while Jesus is being baptized, the spirit of God descends like a dove, and a voice declares that Jesus is God’s beloved child. Jesus carries this knowledge with him into a time of testing in the desert.
          And so we come to our story for today. The narrative begins in an interesting place – “when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.” Then it goes on to say that Jesus moved from Nazareth, where he had grown up, to Capernaum. Matthew, who loves to quote prophecy, draws a parallel between this move and the prophet Isaiah, who said that the Gentiles in Galilee “had seen a great light – on those living in the shadow of death, a light has dawned.” I’ll return to that later. But for now, I want to point out this sentence that comes after Jesus’ temptation, after John’s arrest, and before Jesus calls the disciples: From that time on, Jesus began proclaiming the message, “Change your hearts and minds, for the kindom of heaven is at hand!”
          This is where today’s story begins – Jesus recognizes his own identity and begins to live into his vocation. Vocation, from the Latin vocare or “to call” is described by Frederick Buechner as "the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet" (from Wishful Thinking: A Seeker's ABC).  Jesus had found that place, and his next task was to set out and find people who would join him.
          I shared with you earlier about the first time I remember recognizing my vocation. Determined to live into that, I went to a Christian university and majored in Bible and Missions. In my childhood faith tradition, many women, myself included, who felt called to ministry, saw that as a call to missions, because the mission field is a place where gender boundaries in church leadership are not as strict.
          When I was 19, I went with 5 other students to live with missionaries in Togo, West Africa. This summer internship was a bit unique, because rather than being expected to share the Gospel, as we understood it, with the local people, we instead spent most of our time learning from the Eve people of southern Togo – they taught us about their language and their culture and how God was moving in their lives.
          One thing about Togo that I vividly remember is the beach – the water is a lovely sea green, and just out on the horizon, you could see where it drastically changes to a deep blue. This was where the continental shelf begins, so the water quickly becomes very deep. I learned that there is a rich supply of fish right along this line, and the Togolese people, like the fishers of Jesus’ day, use nets for their catch. Often when we hear Matthew’s story, we think of fly fishing or rod and reel – using bait to catch just the right fish, and cutting the line if it gets snagged or you don’t like what you’ve caught.
          But this scene by the Sea of Galilee – which was really a large, freshwater lake, is not an idyllic scene like we might imagine right out of A River Runs through It. Like in Togo, fishing was tough work, and it involved large nets that could get snagged or torn and that didn’t allow for discrimination in choosing which fish to catch. In Togo, if the net gets caught on something, people risk their lives to swim down and free it. They could get caught in a current, or attacked by a shark that has come to feast on the trapped fish.
          While Simon, Andrew, James, and John did not have to deal with sea sharks, their fishing trade had sharks of its own. New Testament scholar F. Scott Spencer describes life for Galilean fishers: “At every turn, family fishing businesses, like those of Jesus' disciples, were caught in (Herod) Antipas's conglomerate net, forcing them to procure fishing licenses and leases, to produce demanding quotas, and to pay taxes, tolls, and other fees to an extensive bureaucracy monitoring the whole fishing enterprise, from catching to processing to shipping” ("'Follow Me': The Imperious Call of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels," in Interpretation, April 2005).
          And those of you who have been down to Back Bay Mission, or who know anything about fishing as a profession, know that it is dangerous, bloody, back-breaking work that can be profitable but can also be bankrupting or even deadly. Last summer Syed and I were in New Orleans not long after the beginning of the massive oil leak that devastated the Gulf Coast. Even then, restaurant owners spoke of their fear that they would not be able to sustain their business.
          At the same time, there was a remarkable resilience that was born out of having taken risks and lived through challenges. There was a sense of, “We made it through Katrina and Rita, and we can get through this again together.”
          Jesus knew that, like John the Baptist, these two pairs of brothers were no strangers to risk. They had faced the hardships of the fishing life, and they had found a way to survive and even thrive. Jesus chose these men to be his companions and disciples because he knew that they could weather the storms that were sure to come.
          This congregation is no stranger to risk. You have lived through changes of pastors; you have started new ministries and developed a plan for growth and leadership development. You have declared yourselves to be open and affirming. And, you now stand in a place that holds some financial risk.  Yet you also have incredible resilience and spirit – you know you’ve got the strength to get through these challenges together.
          Here we stand on the threshold, the liminal place, beside the Sea of Galilee, near the Finger Lakes, with the opportunity to heed Christ’s call: “Follow me!” This liminal place can be filled with darkness – and this is where I get back to Isaiah’s prophecy about darkness and light –  for “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”
          This image had great power for the first readers of Matthew’s gospel. When I was in Togo, most people in the village of Tabligbo did not have electricity.  If we needed to walk anywhere in the dark, we needed a flashlight or other light source to safely travel. Without light, we could have stepped on a green mamba snake, or fallen into a hole, or been attacked by a person or animal. Light was our security and our salvation.
          Today’s Psalmist (Psalm 27) wrote, “God, you are my light, my salvation – my fortress and my hiding place.”  Jesus calls us to take great risks, but he also promises to accompany us and light the way. We are called to cast our nets wide, to make room for all God’s beloved, to find where the world’s deep hunger and our deep gladness meet. We are called to join in Jesus’ ministry of healing and caring; and sharing the Good News that the kindom of heaven is not something that we have to strive to “get into,” for it is already here, among us.
          We are in a place where the path forward may seem dark and unknown. A wise friend once told me that sometimes God gives us just enough light to take the next step. And then the next, and then the next. May we seek together to discern that next step, knowing that the light of Christ will continue to show us the way. Amen.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Joy of God-Bearing

Sermon as prepared for delivery at Newark Valley UCC in Newark Valley, NY on 12/12/10
Gospel text: Luke 1:39-55
Advent 3A

          Here we are on the third Sunday of Advent, in the midst of a season of waiting, introspection, anticipation and longing. It is the pregnant pause, where we expectantly wait for God to break through with something new. It seems we do this every year… we come hoping that this will be the year when transformation will really happen in our lives - in our church  – in our world. We tell the story every year as if we don’t know the ending, because we’re hoping that this will be the year.
          The people of Israel did the same thing, year after year, hoping for a new ending. They had a story to tell, of God’s faithfulness and deliverance throughout their history, and every year they told this story in hopes that this year would bring a bigger and greater transformation than they had ever imagined.
          And so a young woman – a teenager, really, finds her place in the story of God’s people. As you know, the angel Gabriel had revealed to a young woman named Mary that she would give birth to a holy child, the Son of God. Listen to the story of Mary’s visit with Elizabeth, from the gospel of Luke:
“Within a few days Mary set out and hurried to the hill country to a town of Judah, where she entered Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth. As soon as Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! But why am I so favored that the mother of my Lord should come to me? The moment your greeting reached my ears, the child in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who believed that what our God said to her would be accomplished!”
          And Mary sang:
“My soul proclaims your greatness, O God,
and my spirit rejoices in you, my Savior.
For you have looked with favor
upon your lowly servant,
and from this day forward
all generations will call me blessed.
For you, the Almighty, have done great things for me,
and holy is your Name.
Your mercy reaches from age to age
for those who fear you.
You have shown strength with your arm;
you have scattered the proud in their conceit;
you have deposed the mighty from their thrones
and raised the lowly to high places.
You have filled the hungry with good things,
while you have sent the rich away empty.
You have come to the aid of Israel your servant,
mindful of your mercy –
the promise you made to our ancestors –
to Sarah and Abraham
and their descendants forever.”

          This is the week in Advent when we join in singing with Mary, letting our inner joy bubble up and spill over. But let’s take a step back for a moment and look at this text in its context. The gospel of Luke is only half of a 2-part work: Luke, which tells the story of Jesus Christ, and Acts, which tells the story of the beginnings of the Body of Christ, the church.
          Mary’s Magnificat, or song of praise, holds up several themes that are important throughout Luke and Acts: the presence of God’s Spirit, the abundance of food and resources for all, and God’s cosmic table-turning, making the last first and the first, last. But these themes are not unique to Luke-Acts. They are persistent themes throughout Hebrew scripture, and Mary’s song comes out of this deep soul knowledge, bred in her through her religious and cultural upbringing.  Mary is able to sing about what God will do because of what God has already done. Looking back over her own history and the history of her people gives her hope that God’s promised renewal will come.
          Now, things were not easy for Mary. She was unmarried, probably a teenager, in a small town, where everyone knew everyone else’s scandals, and gossip could take on a life of its own. Who knows what kind of stories people told about her?
          When I was in high school, a teenage girl in my church became pregnant. When people talked about her, they would get that sort of whisper people do when they’re saying something scandalous. (whispering) “Did you hear that she is pregnant?” “That would never happen in my family.” Can you imagine Mary hearing the whispers on the street? “I heard that’s not Joseph’s baby. Do the math.” “She’s got such good parents. I would have expected more from her.”

          And Mary is not just any teenage mother. She is the one chosen to give birth to the Messiah, the anointed one. Mary knew that if she and her child survived childbirth – a dangerous process in those days – there would be more pain ahead. She knew her Bible well – her scriptures didn’t say that the Messiah’s parents would be loved by all. They didn’t say that the Anointed One would be heralded and lifted up – at least not in any way that a mother would hope for her child to be lifted up. No, Mary’s Bible told her that God would turn things upside down – and that the Christ would pay the price for the renewal of the world.
          Knowing what the Bible had to say about the kind of life the Anointed One would have – what mother would want that for her child? What mother to be would be able to sing with such overflowing joy?
          To begin to understand Mary’s situation, it’s also important to know that the Israelites were an occupied people. Most, if not all of us, don’t know what that looks and feels like, but Mary knew it deep in her bones. Her quality of life was dependent on the whims of the Roman Empire. She knew that a Messiah would make a claim about God’s reign in the world – thereby making a claim that the Roman empire – or any other empire – didn’t really have any power at all.
          From her lived experience, Mary knew that Rome did not look kindly on that kind of message. She had seen people crucified and lifted up on crosses, displayed for all to see the power of Rome.
          Knowing all of this – what sane person would want to give birth to and raise God’s Anointed – God’s Christ? And yet, there is something about God-bearing – about carrying within oneself the hopes of God for the rebirth of the world – that fizzes up inside and makes us want to sing, as Mary did, about the God who takes the scandals of our lives and turns them into an opportunity for profound transformation.
          Allow me to shift into our present world, one in which it can often be hard to move past the pain and heartache and judgment of this world and find a way to join in Mary’s joy. Most of you are familiar with the “It Gets Better” project, and I saw the heartfelt video you created following J.K.’s installation as your pastor. The It Gets Better project is a response to the epidemic of suicides committed by young people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning.
          I spent the past 4 years living in Fort Worth, Texas, where I went to seminary. If I asked you to make me a list of the most gay-friendly places in the United States, I’m not sure Fort Worth would be anywhere near the top of the list. But recent events have raised the visibility of the LGBT community in Fort Worth, and the city has been working hard to rectify some of the injustices that have occurred. Recently we gained even more visibility, when a brave city council representative decided to share his story.
          Joel Burns, a young man with a thick Texas accent, tearfully shared his experience of attempting suicide after being bullied and told he was going to burn in hell because he is gay. Joel spoke directly to youth to tell them that “It gets better.” In his moving speech, he says, “Yes, high school was difficult. Coming out was painful. But life got so much better for me….give yourself a chance to see just how much better life will get. And it will get better….You will find and you will make new friends who will understand you…Things will get easier. Please stick around to make those happy memories for yourself.”

          And my friend and seminary colleague Sam Castleberry, a young man from Conway, Arkansas, says, “When I look back over my first 23 years, they weren’t easy…the thought of having to wake up every morning and go through the day was an almost unbearable thought. But as for my life now, my life is better than anything I could have ever imagined. I am happy, I am joyous, and I am free!”
          Both of these men have taken their place in God’s story and shared their Magnificat – their song of praise – in the hopes that others will be able to find that place as well. We have all seen our share of hard times – individually and communally. And, like Mary, we know that allowing God to bring something new to birth in us might bring with it even more risk and pain.
          But, like Mary, and Joel, and Sam, we can look back at our history to see where God has been. What is your Magnificat? What has God already done – in your life and in your church – that gives you hope for what God will do?
          In finding her place in God’s story, Mary discovered that she was not alone. Joseph could have abandoned her, or worse, had her killed. Zechariah, a priest, could have refused to welcome her into his home. But she discovered that there was a community of people who loved her and would support her as God came to life in her. In the church, the Body of Christ, we provide that support for one another.
          We, too, are Godbearers. Our womb is heavy with creative possibilities – we don’t know exactly what it will look like. In fact, we never know exactly what it will look like when the divine and the human join – but when the new thing God is doing emerges from the womb, we will all cry out with joy at its beauty.
          Catholic Christians around the world join with Elizabeth every day to say, “Hail, Mary, full of grace, blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Church, let’s join in Mary’s song, knowing that someday, people will say, “blessed is the fruit of your womb, and blessed is the God who brought it to birth in you!” Let this be the year when transformation happens in our hearts, our homes, our church, and our world. Blessed are you who believe that God will do it! Amen.