3 Epiphany 2018, Year B

Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:6-14 ; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20

The focus of our first assigned reading is not really the prophet Jonah; it’s the place God called him to go to. That was what our translation calls “The great city of Nineveh.” I think the way the Hebrew reads is “Nineveh, that great city.” It’s a little more interesting to me that way; “Nineveh, that great city.”

When Jonah is first told to go to “Nineveh, that great city,” he hesitates to do so. If I were Jonah, I’d hesitate to go to Nineveh, myself. Nineveh wasn’t a Jewish community – it was Assyrian; gentile territory and not exactly friendly to Israel. To understand what Jonah might have felt when he first heard God’s assignment, imagine if you were a small town American Rabbi in, say, 1938 and God sent you to Berlinand told Germany to shape up or else. Odds would not be good for Germany to change. So there was no reason Nineveh would listen to Jonah, an unknown foreigner.

And yet somehow what he said resonated with the people there and they did, in fact, listen to and respond to Jonah’s prophesy. They repented. That is, they turned away from their behavior and toward more better, more ethical behavior. It’s really quite extraordinary, an unexpected twist for those encountering the story for the first time. Talk about unexpected twists!

Many of us remember when, in 2006, Charles Roberts broke into a one-room Amish schoolhouse near Lancaster, killed five children, and injured five others before killing himself. The Amish community forgave the gunman and rallied around his family to minister to them. Most people were amazed by that story and were sure they couldn’t have forgiven him. Yet the Amish community was merely putting Jesus’ teachings into practice.

Jesus teaches us to forgive and to pray for those from whom we are estranged. He didn’t invent that perspective. It was founded on the law of Moses and the words of the prophets. A particularly famous example comes from the prophet Micah who said: “...what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)

“Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God.” I don’t see much evidence of those traits as our society continually engages in the “culture wars.” In that fight, some groups represent themselves as the last bastion for morality, yet they are as susceptible as anyone to corrupted motives and behavior. Almost anyone can rationalize taking unethical, manipulative, immoral actions if those actions can be expected to help us gain money or power.

Jesus taught us to go a different way. In essence, he taught and lived the way Micah had described and the way Jonah had been sent to get Nineveh, that great city, to live.

If we really want to follow Jesus we must look at our own lives, our own words, and actions first. No matter what our grievances with politics or whatever, with God’s help we must exemplify the standard we would have others follow.

“Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God.” When we follow Micah, our hope is that our example will inspire others. The challenge is that we want people to see how just or merciful or humble we are – yet we want to be humble enough not to draw attention to it, ourselves. That would sort of defeat the purpose, don’t you think?

2 Epiphany 2018, Year B

1 Samuel 3:1-10; Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17 ;1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51

It’s said that not long after the Civil War, General Robert E. Lee participated in the Eucharist at a church in Washington, D.C. At communion he knelt beside a black man. An onlooker said to him later, "How could you do that?"

Lee replied, "My friend, all ground is level beneath the cross." Let me put that in different words: all people are equal before God.

This means also that all are equally susceptible to the fears, jealousies, desire to maintain control that cause us to create class distinctions based on race, income, religion, or whatever.

This month’s writer in “Forward Day-by-Day” has offered several entries which explore a tragic situation from early in the civil rights era in Prince Edward County, Virginia. To summarize briefly, in 1954, after the supreme court ordered desegregation in Brown V Board of Education, Prince Edward County shut down its public education system for five years in what they termed “Massive Resistance.” The result was that black students in particular had nowhere to go and lost 5 years of education they can never get back. In retrospect, it’s obvious that shutting down the whole public school system was overreacting not to say overreaching. But similar reactions have happened before and since.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, West Coast Americans of Japanese descent were put in interment camps, to “protect” the coast.

Many of us recall news reports in the days immediately after 9/11, when people in America who looked vaguely Muslim were being abused and sometimes beaten up because allegedly they looked like the people “who attacked us.”

Prince Edward County public schools, Japanese-American Internment Camps, anti-Muslim violence are just three symptoms of people’s efforts to exert control when feel very much out of control. We go into our shells, turn off our reason, and default to our prejudices.

We see the dynamic all around us today, as well: knee jerk reactions to situations and people we dislike, mistrust, fear. Political partisans ask if anything good can come from that other political party; factions wonder how they can trust the leaders of the opposing faction; some Christians condemn all non-Christians, or different sorts of Christians, or Muslims, as “Godless.”

In our Gospel reading when Phillip offers to introduce Nathanael to Jesus of Nazareth, Nathanael responds, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” I know I’ve usually taken this as a bit of tongue and cheek humor and yet I think Nathanael meant it. Until he got to know Jesus he really believed nothing helpful could come from a backwater town like Nazareth.

Thank God something good did come from Nazareth. As recorded in the Gospels, Jesus did not shy away from people that custom and social pressure told him to avoid. He talked with the woman at the well in Samaria, with lepers, with sick people. He didn’t give in camps or factions; his love and acceptance become openings for people to see beyond their own limitations and the limitations their culture imposes on them.

As we say in the Baptismal Covenant, we are called to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself.” With God’s help.

1 Epiphany

Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11

In the church calendar, this is a mixed weekend. Saturday is the feast of the epiphany; Sunday is the first Sunday after the Epiphany. Our readings come from the Sunday after Epiphany: the baptism of our Lord.

It’s an annual reminder that just as our life in Christ formally begins with our baptism, Jesus’ earthly ministry began with his baptism.

Jesus’ willingness to be baptized is significant because John’s baptism was offered “in token of repentance.” Our faith is that Jesus had nothing to repent of, yet he submitted to being baptized.

By contrast, each of us has something, probably many things, we have to repent: actions we’ve taken or failed to take; prejudices, devastating words spoken in anger, and so on. While the symbol of baptism is that we get a clean slate, it doesn’t take long for us to write new sin on that clean slate. This is why we include a general confession at most of our services, as a reminder and an opportunity to confess.

We need that general confession as a way to keep us humble. That doesn’t mean to think of ourselves as insignificant but it does mean to keep a reasonable perspective about ourselves and our abilities.

I don’t see much humility in the people who are calling on courts and congress to ensure their “religious freedom.” Many of them appear to believe that because they claim to be Christians, they have the absolute right to have things the way they want them. For example, they believe they have the right to operate shops but refuse to serve people whose lifestyles or politics don’t suit them. They believe they have the right to refuse to offer their employees certain pieces of health insurance they don’t personally approve, even if their employees – exercising their own rights – need and approve of those elements.

What they actually have is the arrogant presumption their own “religious freedom” is more important than anyone else’s religious freedom. They are not interested in conversation or debate, let alone compromise. There is no humility in that; no love of a neighbor in that.

John the Baptist shows his humility in the Gospel reading when he says: “After me comes one mightier than I am, whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and unfasten.”

There is a tradition about St. Francis of Assisi. It’s said that one day St. Francis and Brother Leo were out walking together. Suddenly Brother Leo called out, 'Brother Francis!'

'Yes, I am Brother Francis,' came the reply.

'Be careful, Brother Francis! People are saying remarkable things about you! Be careful!'

And Francis of Assisi replied, 'My friend, pray to the Lord that I may succeed in becoming what people think I am'"

Both John the Baptist and St. Francis’ point away from themselves and towards God in Christ. They aren’t after special treatment because of their faith or accomplishments. Their baptism and membership in the Body of Christ is the most important accomplishment of all. For us, too.

1 Christmas 2017

The writer Joseph Conrad’s wife once recalled that “Conrad announced the birth of our child in these words, ‘The house is in a state of disorganization on account of the arrival of a child of the male persuasion. However, the fuss is over, thank God.’ When he saw the child he exclaimed, ‘Why, it’s just like a human being!’”

Christmas is the celebration of the birth of a human being. He was born of a human mother like any other baby. In most respects, there was nothing to distinguish him from any other newborn. His parents did everything their faith expected of them, including bringing him to the Temple to be presented, as told in our Gospel reading.

It was an important milestone for his family but in the broader sense is was a typical liturgy for the habitues of the Temple; until two elders of the temple, Simeon and Anna, identify this baby as the child they, and all Israel, had been waiting for. The Holy family soon returned to Nazareth, a relatively rural, isolated place, and Jesus grew up in relative anonymity. When Jesus eventually makes his mark as an adult, he will emerge essentially out of nowhere, although stories like this one about his Simeon and Anna will eventually circulate.

Let’s keep in mind the context of the reading. By this point in his Gospel Luke has told of the annunciation, the birth, the shepherds. Just one verse before our assigned reading, Jesus was circumcised on his 8th day and formally given his name. And now (forty days after his birth to complete Mary's ritual purification), Jesus is presented and sacrifices are made for him.

At the center of it all these things is an infant who, to most observers, is “just another baby; seen one, seem ‘em all.” That’s one of Luke’s points: Jesus is a human baby. But as Simeon and Anna announce, he’s not “just another baby.” To those who have the insight, he’s special.

Another point Luke is making throughout the beginning of his Gospel is that the Messiah came in a specific time and place in history, a thread Paul picks up in our brief reading from Galatians.

In that epistle reading Paul says, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.”

To use a working definition, adoption is being claimed and incorporated into a new family. It doesn’t rewrite your DNA; that is, it doesn’t change one’s physical nature. Yet adoption utterly changes essential parts of one’s identity. There is no legal distinction between birth children and adopted children and most of the time the adopted children are made such an integral part of the family that we rarely think of them as adopted.

This is also true of us Christians. As Paul says, we “receive adoption.” We become each other’s brothers and sisters in Christ. We know ourselves to be recipients of grace and yet our faith becomes so much a part of us that we easily start to take it for granted.

Many of us know that the word, ‘Eucharist,’ means ‘Thanksgiving.’ Every time we celebrate Eucharist, we give thanks for God’s grace given to us through Jesus Christ. And we give thanks for our brothers and sisters who share that grace with us.

One reason we have an annual celebration of both Christmas and Easter is that these remind us of what God has done for us through Christ; remind us also of how he did it.

Christmas 2017

Anyone familiar with Handel’s Messiah probably had it echoing in our mind as we heard the words of Isaiah in our first reading. Our Bible translation is different from Handel’s. This is the translation in his libretto: “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; and they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.” and a bit later, “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulder; and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”

As I wrote those down, and as I’m reading the words, the music reverberates in my mind, reinforcing the text so beautifully, in some ways magnifying the emotional truth of what we’ve gathered here to celebrate.

“For unto us a child is born....and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”

Isaiah lists these titles not to predict Jesus, particularly; that’s an identification Christians made in the light of the resurrection. When Isaiah was writing, Israel was in a perilous time. The prophet was promising hope for his beleaguered people. Over the centuries his words and those of other prophets began to be associated with an almost mystical figure: the messiah, the anointed one of God. The Hebrew community built up all sorts of expectations of that person.

As Christians we believe Jesus, son of Joseph and Mary, to be that long-awaited messiah, the one who embodies all the titles Isaiah lists in our reading and more besides. We also believe that the messiah’s ministry was life-long journey which began in that stable in Bethlehem.

No worldly power was present to proclaim the birth; nothing as moving or grand as Handel’s music trumpeted it. Instead, heavenly beings – angels – appeared to an isolated group of unkempt shepherds to tell only them this good news and those shepherds were the first from the community to welcome the baby into the world.

Jesus was born into a world as perilous in its way as the one in which Isaiah wrote, given the tensions between Rome and the occupied territory of Judea. Looking around us today, we see our times to be perilous, also. Our reassurance comes in seeing the promise realized in Jesus. But at his birth, all Jesus will accomplish lies in his future. Just for the moment, reflect on the infant lying in that stable, fully dependent on his mother and father, probably sleeping peacefully, unfazed by what little excitement his birth stirred up around him.

As the carol puts it: “Silent night, holy night. All is calm, all is bright round yon Virgin Mother and Child, Holy Infant so tender and mild. Sleep in heavenly peace.” Amen.