Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Jesus went to Capernaum...or Princeton?

Matthew 4:12-23, Epiphany 3 A, January 26, 2014 (Annual Meeting)

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

Sometimes far off places can be just like home.
When we hear stories from the Bible, we often think of them like a fairy tales. We hear of far off places like Galilee, Nazareth, and Capernaum. The people have strange names like Zebulun, Naphtali, and Zebedee. These stories hail from ancient cultures with customs that we do not understand. In many ways, Israel is very different from Iowa. But maybe we are more similar than you would think.

When Jesus hears that John the Baptist has been arrested, he leaves Nazareth in Galilee to go to Capernaum, a thirty-mile walk. That may sound like a long distance, but it really is like going from West Davenport to Princeton. Jesus left Nazareth, which certainly was not a booming town in those days. Yet Capernaum was even smaller.

Capernaum was a small town on the Sea of Galilee. There were about 1,000 people living in Capernaum, some in the city and others in the countryside around the town. Most of the people living there were either farmers or fishermen. Sound familiar?

You may ask, why would Jesus go to somewhere like Princeton to start his ministry? We aren’t special here. Many of us don’t have exciting lives, but instead we enjoy the slow, casual pace of life away from the busy Quad Cities. We enjoy knowing our neighbors and the people in the pews. Why would Jesus reach out to people like us?

That is a great question, one that many people have asked. A better question is, “Why not us?” Why shouldn’t Jesus go to the unimportant, regular people first? By doing so, we can step into the disciples’ shoes and see Jesus’ ministry from their perspective.

Who were these fishermen?
These fishermen were simple people. They were not known for their intelligence. They could not read, nor had they ventured far from home. Instead, they were diligent, persistent, and strong. They were not rich, but their work usually produced enough to get by.

The life of a fisherman was a hard life. They had to be strong enough to haul in their nets full of fish, yet they had to have enough fine dexterity to mend their nets. They worked long hours in relative isolation. They could quickly clean the fish that they caught. Sometimes, all of their hard labor produced very few results.

These were the people that Jesus called to follow him. He did not call scholars who were desperate to study under a rabbi. These men probably had very little education, and they were ok with that. Knowing all of this, it is no wonder why the disciples were often so clueless about Jesus’ teaching!

The passage explained
After John’s arrest, Jesus leaves Nazareth, his hometown. Jesus was ready to begin his ministry, but he did not want Herod Antipas breathing down his neck. So, he travels the thirty miles to the small fishing town of Capernaum. He quickly settles in and begins to preach saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." Jesus is quoting John the Baptist word for word.  Jesus is continuing where John left off.

Then Jesus approaches first Simon Peter and Andrew and next James and John. He makes a strange, unexpected request: “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men." Without question or hesitation, they drop everything and immediately follow Jesus.

I wonder how long Jesus was in Capernaum before he called those fishermen to follow him. I wonder if the fishermen heard Jesus preach. When they dropped everything and followed Jesus, did they know what they were getting themselves into? Did they realize how difficult their next few years would be?

Did they know that Jesus would heal people without explanation? Or that he would teach using confusing riddles? Did they know that Jesus would end up dying a horrible death on the cross? Did they know that they would become the first church of Christ?

No, I think not. They may have had some idea of who Jesus was, but they had no way of knowing all that was to come. Somehow, they knew that this Jesus was someone special. So, they followed him throughout Galilee. They listened to Jesus preach and teach. They watched him cure people from incurable diseases.

These simple men with strong hands and gentle hearts followed Jesus across the country. They even followed him into Jerusalem where he was destined to die. They witnessed his resurrection and shared his story so that we also can become disciples.

Now it is our turn.
The first disciples did their part, and they have passed their story down through the generations and laid Jesus’ mission in our hands. Not only are we blessed with the written scriptures, but we also have centuries of traditions, rituals, and theology. Throughout Christian history, we have seen so many fabulous examples of how to – and how not to – be the church.

So, what are we going to do with it? We are at a turning point in our church. Today, we are going to elect new council members and adopt a new budget. We are going to review the past year and look toward the next. Throughout our meeting, ask yourself and each other, “How are we being disciples of Christ? How are we continuing his mission?”

After Jesus heard that John the Baptist was taken into prison, he left a place like West Davenport and came to a small, rural place just like our own. He went up to people just like you and me and said, “Come. Follow me. I will make you fishers of people.”

Let us leave behind everything that is getting in the way of us following Jesus. Let us leave behind our grudges, our laziness, and our fear. Let us leave behind anyone or anything that distracts us from the will of God. Let us leave it all behind so that we can follow Jesus into the community where we can share the good news and help those in need.

We can do this because God strengthens us through worship, study, and prayer. By joining together here, the Holy Spirit prepares us for the ministries that we are called to do. Jesus shapes us into the people God calls us to be. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber in Cedar Falls

Last Wednesday, Brett and I went to see Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber in Cedar Falls, IA. We loved her interview with Krista Tippett, and I have read her autobiography, Pastrix: The Cranky Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint. I have already admired how untraditionally Lutheran she is. She may not look or act like your average Lutheran pastor, but her theology is solid. Because of her life experience, Pastor Nadia understands God's grace in a way that I may never be able to.

Brett and I ventured in the bitter cold two and a half hours through blowing snow and low visibility to see Nadia Bolz-Weber. Thankfully, we were there early enough to grab some dinner and get seats in the sanctuary. Even though we are not from Northeastern Iowa Synod, we knew a few people there (fellow Wartburg College alums). There were over 650 people there! All of the ticket sales plus another offering went directly to the ELCA Malaria Campaign.

Pastor Nadia described her approach to leading her congregation, House for All Sinners and Saints (HFASS) in Denver, CO. They do a lot of unique things, like delivering turkey sandwiches to people who have to work on Thanksgiving. They are "anti-excellence and pro-participation,"meaning that doing ministry and worship together is much more important than doing it well. Describing why she needs a bishop, "Somebody should make sure that we are on the yellow brick road, that I am not taking my people into a field of poppies."

A big message that the gathered assembly took away from her talk is that the Christian message is the same as it has always been, but our delivery method needs to change. Just like phone booths and Blockbuster, the church destined to struggle if it doesn't change with the times. Our culture is also very cynical about institutions and trust our lived experience instead. So, people are still desperate to hear the Good News, but many won't go out of their way to get it.

One final story from Nadia Bolz-Weber: Every Good Friday during worship, the people of HFASS lay purple tulips on a crucifix. Not letting the flowers go to waste, after worship, they bring those tulips to the site of a local shooting. One year, they went into a bad neighborhood where all of the dogs were barking. As they laid the flowers down where an innocent person died, they chanted. The dogs stopped barking while they were chanting, and then they began to bark again when they stopped. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Deluge of Baptismal Waters

Matthew 3:13-17, Baptism of our Lord A, January 12, 2014

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

God was not in these waters

October 2012. The hurricane named Sandy hit land. It brought 115 mph winds and pounded the northeast with torrential downpours. The entire coast and twenty-four states, from Florida to Maine, were impacted by this storm. Buildings were destroyed and livelihoods were lost. The coast was ruined. Hurricane Sandy caused at least $65 billion in damage. Almost 300 people were killed, some immediately and others after time in a hospital. Superstorm Sandy came to America, but God was not in those waters.

July and August 2013. Heavy rain struck Manitou Springs in Colorado. In a matter of days, this area received a year’s worth of rain. Not yet recovered from the previous year’s forest fires, this part of Colorado experienced flash flooding that led to terrible mudslides. Bridges were destroyed, roads collapsed, and houses demolished. Mudslides came to Colorado, but God was not in those waters.

April, June, and July 2013. Our very own Quad Cities receives remarkable amounts of rain, raising the water levels of all local rivers. At least four times during the spring and summer, the Mississippi flooded over its banks. At the same time, the Wapsi and Rock rivers also flooded.

Some buildings were damaged, including many homes and businesses. These excessive waters forced Davenport to put up their Hesco barriers multiple times along River Road and Credit Island. After carefully protecting the Credit Island lodge from the waters, it went up in flames. Many who loved this lodge were devastated. Flooding came to our part of the world, but God was not in these waters.

We have experienced many natural disasters caused by rain, snow, and ice. When the waters come in excess, our lives stop as we assess the damage. Buildings and homes are often destroyed, leaving people without places to work or live.

Sometimes we can prepare for these times. People along the coast can board up their homes. We can build homes above flood levels and create levies and floodwalls along the river. Sometimes, all of our protection isn’t enough. Sometimes we can’t help but watch from safety as everything we know is being demolished. I do not believe that God causes those natural disasters.
God is in these waters 
But God is in some waters at some times. When water is combined with scripture read and proclaimed, then God is present. In the waters of baptism, God does not destroy the good. Instead, God destroys the bad within us and enlivens the good. We know that God comes to us in those holy moments of baptism because Jesus first experienced baptism. Jesus went to the Jordan to be baptized by John, and God was in those waters.

Jesus was baptized by John 
After John had made a name for himself, Jesus traveled from Galilee to John at the Jordan. He knew that it was time for him to be baptized. When Jesus approached John the Baptist, John immediately knew that this man was not just one more to make clean. John knew who he was, and he knew that Jesus didn’t need to be baptized. Jesus had no sins to confess; he did not need to be washed. For every reason that John baptized others, Jesus did not qualify. All that John had preached about and all of the baptisms that he had done were all in preparation for this moment.

John wanted to be baptized by Jesus. He asked him, “Why do you want me to baptize you? Shouldn’t it be the other way around?” Jesus answered him, “Don’t worry about your role in this. You need to baptize me to fulfill all righteousness. It is part of God’s plan.

So, John took Jesus into the river, and he did as he had done with all the others. John gently leaned Jesus back in the water until his head was at the water level. He said that Jesus was baptized in the name of the one true God. Then John leaned Jesus back further until his entire head was submerged in the river. 

God was in more than these waters
Then, as Jesus slowly lifted his head out of the river, the water streamed down his face and dripped from his hair. Looking up, Jesus saw the sky change above him. It looked like the blue sky was pulling away to reveal a bright golden light. And from that stunning bright space he saw something white and holy coming down to him. Although it appeared as a dove, Jesus knew that this was the Holy Spirit. When this Spirit descended upon him, Jesus felt himself changed and at peace.

Then Jesus heard a booming voice from heaven say, “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matt 3:17) Jesus knew that this was the voice of his one and only Father. In this moment, the Trinity was complete in Jesus, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Jesus left the Jordan strengthened, prepared, and empowered for his entire ministry that would come. He was ready to face the world, yet he does not go straight to teaching or healing. Instead, he had to face the temptation of the devil first. From the bright, holy moment of Jesus’ baptism, he was led directly to one of his darkest – into the wilderness.

God is in our lives
We too face dark moments in our lives. Our dark moments, like so many natural disasters, are not caused by God. Yet God brings us through the darkest times, walking along side us. When the water seems to be rising above our heads, God lifts us up to safety. We are never alone.

One way that God does this is through baptism. Because God has baptized us and cleansed us from all of our sins, we can step refreshed into each new day. When we receive communion, we are strengthened for what is to come.

If in baptism we die to sin and are raised to new life, then these waters are powerful. These waters are as destructive as Hurricane Sandy, destroying everything in its wake. The waters of baptism create mudslides inside us, taking away all that is evil. The waters of baptism flood us so that only the good can survive. “Cleansing us from all our sins” sounds so simple and peaceful. Instead, God creates a deluge inside us to strip away all that stops us from serving God.

All of the crashing waves of the flood at Noah’s ark, the blessed separation of the sea during the Exodus, and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Jesus’ baptism are wrapped up in those three little scoops of water gently caressing an infant’s head. No matter how we are baptized, whether through sprinkling, pouring, or submersion, the water and the word bring God to us. All of God’s love, grace, and will for us is found in baptism. Amen!