Sermon: September 17, 2017 – “The Vision of Luke”

“The Vision of Luke”

Text: Luke 4: 16-31

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.” 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23 He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” 24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers[a] in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

One of the things that I like to do when I study a text that comes from one of the Gospels, is I like to compare the text with the other places where the same story might be told and compare the stories and look for things that jump out at me. If I discover that two stories are very different then it opens the door for more study, more interpretation and at least for me, a greater depth of understanding about the authors and the context in which they are writing.

So if we look at this text from Luke, we can find a similar story in both of the other synoptic gospels, that is Mark and Matthew. The story does not seem to appear in the Gospel of John in any form. One of the interesting things to remember when we study the text in this way, is that the Gospel of Mark was written first. Most scholars believe that the authors of Luke and Matthew had copies of Mark that they worked from when writing their own gospels. This is very apparent when you read the story of Jesus’ rejection in his hometown in the Gospel of Mark and then read it again in Matthew. The two stories overlap a great deal; the Matthew account isn’t exactly verbatim, but it is pretty close.

But when you read the story in Luke, it is very different. I like to ask the question why? Why would Luke take this story and expand upon it the way he has. The stories in Matthew and Mark are only about 6 verses long in each case. Jesus shows up, he teaches, they take offense and Jesus leaves. There are not many more details than that in the two other stories.

But in Luke’s story, he identifies the text that Jesus taught from, he creates some drama by saying that every eye was fixed on him and then he has Jesus claim to be the one who is fulfilling the prophecy spoken of by the prophet Isaiah.

The story goes on, not only do those who are listening begin to take offense with Jesus, Luke even includes some of the dialogue that took place. There was a bit of a back and forth exchange; it sounds a little like junior high. You remember the “did not, did too,” exchanges or the more sophisticated “I know you are, but what am I?”

There is an underlying theme here, but you have to dig a bit in order to find it. You also have to use your imaginations a bit and fill in some blanks with what might have been the case. No one knows for sure what is going on here, or why Luke expanded this story the way he did. But I think to try to understand we have to back way up to the very beginning.

If you read the opening of Luke you will discover that Luke is writing on behalf of someone named Theophilus.  We know of some people in history who had such a name and some of them may have been alive at the same time as Luke, but we don’t know for sure. Scholars don’t agree on who Theophilus was or who he might have been. One theory is that Theophilus was a Roman of some importance in the Roman political system that became interested in Christianity. I like this theory for a number of reasons, but this text in Luke is one of those reasons.

In the comparative texts found in Mark and Matthew, the information about why those leaders in the temple that day took offense with Jesus’ teaching is not given. The texts simply say they were offended without any real explanation. Luke takes the opportunity to put some flesh on those bones and lays it out for us to see, if we look close enough.

For starters, Luke has Jesus read the text from Isaiah. This is a beautiful text and I think it speaks to the very heart of the ministry of Jesus. But it can also be taken several different ways. Let’s look at the text Jesus read from the perspective of the leaders in the synagogue that day.

The first item of business is that Jesus has come to bring good news to the poor.

What this means is that for all this time, all these years and years the synagogue had been in Nazareth, the synagogue has not been good news for the poor. I don’t think the implication here is neutral, if the synagogue has not been good news, then it has been bad news for the poor. History supports this idea. The synagogue and the systems that it supported were very oppressive to the poor and designed to keep the poor poor.

So in a way, Jesus was saying; “look you guys, you have had all this time to minister to the poor and you have not gotten it done. They are in pathetic condition. I have come to finally bring them some good news; something you could have done decades if not centuries ago, but you have not.”

The second item of business for Jesus according to the text in Isaiah is that he is to bring release to the captives. Now I don’t see a lot of separation here from the idea of bringing good news to the poor because certainly the poor were held captive by an oppressive system. But this statement could also include another group of people.

There were certainly those in Nazareth who were not destitute and without any means, they were not poor, necessarily but they were not wealthy either. Sort of a Nazarene middle class. These people, many of them Jews, made the commerce of the city work. They ran businesses and shops and kept the trade moving and were able to maintain from day to day and year to year.

I think Jesus was also speaking about this middle class being held captive by oppressive laws and customs and ritual and ceremony. Often there was so much to do to keep the law, it was difficult to run a business. And the temple demanded a lot of attention, but it also demanded a certain level of financial support as well. The leaders in the temple were getting wealthy while everyone else just sort of got by. Jesus wanted to change this system by bring release to those held captive by the temple laws and customs.

Then there was a third group of people that Jesus wanted to speak to and perhaps enlighten. This was the group gathered in the temple that day. This was the group of leaders, the scribes, the Pharisees, the temple priests and all those associated with the system. Jesus wanted to speak to them in hopes they could see a better way. Perhaps they could see for the first time how lopsided the system was and how it took advantage of the poor and the middle class and how the profits of that system lined the pockets of the temple leaders.

So how did Jesus identify this third group of people? He called them blind. The third deed for Jesus to accomplish in the text from Isaiah is recovery of sight to the blind. Jesus was hoping that some in the temple that day might just see the light.

The fourth task is to let the oppressed go free – which can be just about anyone. The fifth and final task says that Jesus is to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. This is a reference to debt forgiveness, so anyone who owed the temple any money or were behind on their taxes or lease payments for the land they were trying to farm-all of those people should be forgiven their debt as well.

So when we read what Jesus read in the temple that day from a slightly different perspective, it is a little easier to understand why they maybe took offense at what Jesus said.

But here’s the deal. It isn’t what Jesus said, it is what Isaiah had said centuries earlier. In other words, the text in Isaiah is telling the leaders of the temple that this is what should have been going on all along. When the Spirit of the Lord is upon you, as the leaders of the temple claim that it is, then this is what you do. Jesus was just pointing out the astounding level of hypocrisy here; that the leaders in the temple were in essence saying one thing and doing another. No wonder they got upset. So they drove him out of town.

This is the Jesus we follow. Jesus the trouble-maker. Jesus the one who gets those in power so upset they drive him out of town. Jesus the one who eventually made everyone so uneasy that the only response left was to execute him. This is the Jesus we follow.

If we are truly going to follow Jesus down this path, then we must also be prepared to take on the same people in power that Jesus took on. We must be willing to speak the truth to power and live with the consequences. This following Jesus stuff is not for the timid or the shy or the faint of heart. Speaking truth to power is not an easy thing.

And that is food for thought. Amen.

Sermon: September 10, 2017 – “Just Asking Questions”

 

“Just Asking Questions”

Text: Ephesians 2: 14-19

For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.

I want to begin this morning by sharing some personal information about my family and what I think may be a unique experience and perspective because of events that took place while I was growing up. To gain perspective, we have to travel back in time to 1966. This makes me about 10 years old. It is also the year that my oldest sibling, a sister named Shelda would have been graduating from Westmar College. This is the same college in LeMars, Iowa where my dad taught physics and the town where I grew up.

Shelda, if I remember correctly, had a double major in college, one of which was Spanish and with that Spanish major, she wanted to use that education in her career which she did. But before she began teaching Spanish in the public school system, Shelda spent two years in the Peace Corps in Guatemala, where of course she used Spanish quite a bit.

I remember the day when the acceptance letter arrived from the Peace Corps. Shelda was still in college, but living at home with the rest of the family as she finished up her senior year. I remember that she was in class when the letter arrived, but I was already home from school and other siblings were present as well. It was with great anticipation that we waited for Shelda to come home from class and open the letter with the Peace Corps return address. After it was opened and acceptance into the program confirmed, a great celebration ensued!

Shelda served in the Peace Corps for two years, from what I think was the summer of 1966 to the summer of 1968. While she was in Guatemala City working in a hospital there, she met a native Guatemalan who was also working in the hospital as an orderly. His name was Federico, but everyone called him Lico for short. It wasn’t long before the letters we received from Shelda started to include all the things that her and Lico had done together.

To shorten the story a bit, when Shelda was ready to return to the United States in the summer of 1968, Lico came with her and they were married in November of 1968. When Lico arrived he knew very little English, although Shelda had begun to teach him some. They returned to LeMars and lived there for a number of years.

Now here is what I think is the fascinating part of this story. Over the next couple of years, Lico learned Enlgish well enough that he could start to attend classes in the evenings to earn his GED. Which he did.

Then with a GED in hand he was able to enroll in college, which he did at Westmar where Shelda had graduated and my dad taught physics. In about four years, Lico not only graduated from college, but graduated with honors and proceeded to have his own career teaching in the public school system and coaching soccer on the side.

At some point during all of this, I remember another celebration we had as a family. There was a cake and home-made ice cream and a healthy collection of friends and family and relatives all gathered at our house. This time we were celebrating the day that Lico became a US citizen.

It has taken quite a few years of perspective in order for me to fully appreciate all that Lico accomplished and the magnitude and the importance of that day when citizenship was granted.

With that perspective comes the stark realization that in today’s political climate and attitudes that some hold toward immigration, Lico’s story may not have been possible. Of course we can’t know for certain, but I’m sure the system has changed a great deal since 1968. I’m also certain it hasn’t gotten any easier to accomplish what Lico has accomplished. Today, Lico is retired and recently celebrated his 80th birthday; he and Shelda live in the Dallas / Fort Worth area in Texas.

I wanted to offer this background information from a personal level so you might better understand that I probably have a unique perspective and unique personal experience with the potential upside of positive immigration.

Immigration has been in the news recently and the current administration is seeking to make some changes within our system. Some of those changes I’m not certain are beneficial and I think some of the attitudes of suspicion, fear and outright racism are hiding behind the veil of immigration reform. This is a complicated issue and everyone will need to gather information as they can and come to their own conclusions. You will not hear from me what you should think about this issue; rather you will only hear some comments and observations and questions I have as it relates to this issue. You are free to think for yourselves.

Having said that, I want to return to the text I read a few minutes ago and make some observations about what Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians. First of all, I think it is worth mentioning that the political climate and the tensions that we experience today are not all that different from the situation that Paul found himself in. For Paul, there were aliens coming to Christianity that others felt did not have the right to do so. These aliens were the Gentiles.

For Paul, there were only two groups that made up the entire world view from his perspective; there were Jews and there were Gentiles – that was it. In the text Paul says that Jesus has bridged the gap between these two groups, and the entire world, as far as Paul knew, was reconciled into a single humanity. Verse 16 says that both groups have been reconciled into one body; verse 14 says the wall that had been dividing the two groups has been broken down. Paul defines it even further as he says that Jesus came to offer peace to those who were near and those who are far off. In verse 19 Paul summarizes all these thoughts in a powerful closing statement; “So you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.”

In response to Paul’s statement and example given us in this text, what would Paul’s thoughts be with regard to our current situation?

Last week the Attorney General of the United States made a statement about the end of what I consider to be a positive immigration program known as DACA. As Attorney General, he focused on the law side of the issue. To be exact, and I’m quoting here from his statement:

“To have a lawful system of immigration that serves the national interest, we cannot admit everyone who would like to come here. Therefore, the nation must set and enforce a limit of how many immigrants we admit each year and that means all cannot be accepted. Enforcing the law saves lives, protects communities and taxpayers, and prevents human suffering. Failure to enforce the laws in the past has put our country at risk of crime, violence and even terrorism.”

We can look again at the text in Ephesians about what Paul had to say about the law. In verse 15 the text says that “He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace.”

So I will ask another question; is what Paul says here about the law applicable in any way to our current situation?

Others have weighed in on this idea since Paul wrote his letter to the Ephesians 2,000 years ago. Martin Luther King, Jr is remembered for having said once that “we should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was ‘illegal’.”

A literary giant and scholar who was imprisoned by the Soviet Union for a number of years and labeled as a dissenter and heretic, Alexander Solzhenitsyn has observed the following: “A society based on the letter of the law and never reaching any higher fails to take advantage of the full range of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence of society.”

So great thinkers and philosophers that have gone before us question the benefits of a dogmatic adherence to the law, however it is defined. What do you think Martin Luther King, Jr or Alexander Solzhenitsyn or even Paul would think of the argument brought forth by our Attorney General?

The last question I want to ask is what would Emma Lazarus think of our current situation? If that name rings a bell, you might be remembering that Emma Lazarus is the author of the poem “The New Colossus” which is memorialized on a plaque installed at the base of the Statue of Liberty. This poem’s last few verses has become immortalized in our nation’s history:

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

I will close with just one more observation. Last week I made reference to another sacred text that is more ancient than our own New Testament. It is as old as or older than much of our Old Testament and is considered to be a valued asset in philosophical thought and theological exploration. What I am referring to is what is called the Tao Te Ching; this ancient sacred text is Chinese in origin and is said to have been authored by a Chinese prophet named Lao Tzu. The Tao Te Ching is a collection of observations listed as verses, numbered one through 81. It is verse 17 which I found to be so interesting in our current situation. Verse 17 of the Tao reads:

With the greatest leader above them, people barely know one exists.

Next comes one whom they love and praise.

Next comes one whom they fear.

Next comes one whom they despise and defy.

When a leader trusts no one, no one trusts him.

The great leader speaks little.

He never speaks carelessly.

He works without self-interest and leaves no trace.

When all is finished, the people say, “we did it ourselves.”

And that is food for thought.

Amen.

 

Sermon: September 3, 2017 – “Ancient Wisdom; Always in Style”

 

Ancient Wisdom; Always in Style

Text: Isaiah 40: 28-31

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
29 He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
30 Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
31 but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.

I had a really odd experience about a year ago. I had been to the dentist for some oral surgery. I had something like 6 teeth removed and was under the influence of a particular kind of anesthesia that puts you under without putting you under. In other words, I didn’t feel a thing, was completely relaxed, but was still conscious enough to open my mouth when told to do so and help the dentist in any way I could. Obviously, I was in no condition to drive, so when the surgery was complete, they called Heidi and she came and got me and drove me home.

This is where the story gets kind of interesting. After we got home I was awake and not in any pain and Heidi and I had a discussion. After a few hours of sleep and rest, it may have even been the next day, Heidi made reference to our conversation. I didn’t have a clue. I could not remember anything or any part of what we had talked about. I could have agreed to move to Alaska or paint our house purple and would not have known it. The entire episode was a blank. I didn’t even remember being picked up from the dentist’s office. It was an odd sensation to say the least.

I tell this story because I think my mental condition coming out of that anesthesia from the dentist may be a little like what we often experience in our relationship with God. We are maybe awake, but the substance of what we experience is not truly absorbed.

This text from Isaiah I think is a good example of what I’m talking about and I think the prophet Isaiah is trying to explain to us how to avoid this situation. Most of us have heard this text a 100 or more times, but has it sunk in? Have you ever really studied it and asked some questions about it? What is Isaiah trying to say?

That being said, let me ask a couple of questions that pop up for me and you can see what you think. My focus really becomes verse 31 and the overarching question for the entire text, at least for me, becomes “what does it mean to wait for the Lord?”

Most of the text is about how we become tired and fatigued and how God doesn’t experience that sensation of becoming worn out. God is always strong and always present and seemingly never needs a nap. Further when we do experience exhaustion or fatigue and are about to faint, God bolsters us up, God gives us strength and renews our power. To quote exactly verse 31: “but those who wait for the Lord, shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

Ok, so I will ask the question again. What does it mean to wait for the Lord? What does that kind of waiting look like? Does it mean sitting in a corner, twiddling your thumbs and doing nothing? Does it mean patience? Does it mean focus? What is the context of this word, “wait” and how are we to interpret what it is we are supposed to do?

To answer my own question, I think the word ‘wait’ could mean any of these things and more. Actually I think it has many layers of meaning and is not simply explained or translated; actually I think the concept is very complex.

I also want you to remember my dentist experience. Even though I was talking, even though I had every appearance of knowing what was happening – I clearly did not. I didn’t have a clear grasp of what we were talking about and did not remember a thing after the anesthesia wore off. I guess my question becomes how many of us unwittingly have conversations with God while we are in that condition? And if we do talk to God in that state, wouldn’t it be better to ‘wait’ for the anesthesia to wear off before we talk to God again?

So now comes a follow-up question. What causes us to fall into that trance like state? What causes us to become anesthetized to the point of needing to ‘wait’ for the Lord and ‘wait’ for the anesthesia to wear off? What causes that?

The prophet Isaiah speaks in terms of fatigue and growing faint. Isaiah says there are times when we are powerless and even the young fall exhausted. Why would we be so tired? What kind of activity causes us to faint with weariness? Are we all running marathons or what?

If you have been around here for a while, you may know that it is not unusual for me to sometimes look at a different sacred text and look for overlap or a new interpretation of an old idea. Ancient wisdom is still wisdom regardless of the source and there is much to learn from other writings.

One case in point in the Tao de Ching. This manuscript has been translated almost as much as the Bible and is close to being the same age. The Tao is considered to be about 2,500 years old and parts of our Old Testament, or the Hebrew Bible, are at least that old, perhaps older, but the New Testament is considerably younger than the Tao. The author of the Tao is considered to be an ancient Chinese sage and prophet name Lao Tzu. I think it is interesting that Isaiah and Lao Tzu could have been alive during some of the same years in the 7th and 6th centuries BCE.

So the Tao de Ching is a respected ancient Chinese sacred text, full of wisdom and is the primary sacred text for a number of Eastern religions, including Taoism, Buddhism and others. The Tao is a collection of sayings broken in to 81 different verses. In verse 12, I found something that I think is interesting.

  • I won’t read the entire verse, but I’m reading basically the last few sentences:
  • “The chase and the hunt craze people’s minds.
  • Wasting energy to obtain rare objects only impedes one’s growth.
  • The master observes the world, but trusts his inner vision.
  • He allows things to come and go.
  • He prefers what is within to what is without.”

I think what Lao Tzu is talking about here is the quest for riches and wealth, the quest for security and fame, the quest for recognition and honor. In a 21st century context, it is the quest of what many call the American Dream. The success of the upper middle class, the education, the good job, the nice house and the 2 and half kids.

It is the chase and the hunt the craze people’s minds – it is the chase and the hunt that is the anesthesia which clouds our connection to the Divine. We waste so much energy trying to obtain rare objects like gold or money or prestige. Consider the overlap of what Lao Tzu says about wasting energy and what Isaiah says about falling exhausted.

Lao Tzu suggests that we allow things to come and go; he suggests that the master prefers what is within to what is without. Isaiah says it another way. Isaiah says for us to wait for the Lord. Perhaps to get quiet before God. Perhaps to leave the material things of this world out of our thinking and focus on a spiritual inner world instead.

I think the two texts are remarkable similar and say the same thing. We are to be wary of the anesthesia that Lao Tzu calls the chase and the hunt. We are to be wary of the anesthesia that Isaiah identifies as weariness and exhaustion. All of these things cloud our connection with God and we must wait for the cloud to clear before we can truly commune with the Divine.

Go in peace and wait for the renewal of your strength by preferring what is within to what is without. Allow things to come and go and you will be lifted up on eagles wings. Ignore the chase and the hunt that craze people’s minds and you shall run and not be weary, you shall walk and not faint. This is ancient wisdom.

Amen.