Scripture: Luke 20:27-38

I have an interesting history with this passage.  It seems to pop up now and again in theological conversations I’ve had with people over the last several years.  One of those conversations was just an out of the blue phone call I received when I was sitting in the office.  “First Presbyterian Church of La Grande.  This is Keith, how may I help you?”  “You a pastor?”  Since I was kind of shocked at abruptness of the question, it took me a second to answer, “Yes, yes, I’m a pastor.”  “Well, my friend and I are having an argument.  He says angels are male.  I say they are female.  Who’s right?”  I’d never been asked a question like this before, so I had to think for a second, but this passage came to mind.  “Did you ever consider that angels are neither male nor female?  There is this passage in the Bible that talks about how in the resurrection we will become like the angels.  There is no longer any marriage or death.  When you read it, there is a subtle, possible implication in this passage that angels aren’t sexual beings, but created as eternal beings with no sexual identity.”  After a pause, I get a, “Well, that doesn’t do me any good” with a click on the line.

Actually, there is a lot in this passage that doesn’t really do us any good if we get stuck on them, like are angels male or female.  But if we start with the end of the passage, where the good news rests, it will make this passage come alive and have an impact on our lives and probably make us ask different questions.  The good news of this text is that God is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living.  Say that with me, God is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living.

So, keep that in mind as we start working on this passage.  We hear a lot in scripture about the Pharisees.  This is the first and only place in Luke where the Sadducees show up.  Just like today, there are different camps that believe different things about who God is and what God is up to in the world.  And one of the arguments between these two groups was “what is authoritative scripture.”  Basically, the Sadducees believed that only the first five books of the Bible, the books of Moses, had any say in the theological life of the Jewish people.  Since Moses makes no comment about an afterlife, there is no afterlife.  To the Sadducees, when you died, you were dead.  No heaven, no hell, no resurrection, just the grave.  This life was the only one you are given.

But the Pharisees believed that God revealed the divine will not only in the books of Moses, but continued to speak to and through God’s people in their changing circumstances.  So as time went by, the Psalms, the prophets, the history of Israel as we have now in most of our Old Testament became authoritative to the Pharisee camp.  And from this new understandings of God’s promises evolved.  Like the resurrection of the body  You find a bit of an understanding for it over here in Daniel, and in a few versus in Ezekiel and the Psalms, and the prophet Isaiah writes poetic lines about being bodily present in presence of God.  So they took this understanding of resurrection and looked at what was happening around them in the culture.  Here is what they saw:  The righteous suffered and the wicked seemed to prosper and they knew that a just God wouldn’t let that be the final word.  From scripture, they concluded that God would raise the dead and the righteous would receive their reward and perhaps the wicked would be raised to receive punishment.  Most of the general population believed in the day of resurrection and so did Jesus.  And this teaching drove the Sadducees mad.

That’s the background of this scene between Jesus and Sadducees. It starts off with this crazy question about this women’s married life that speaks to some of the laws in the first five books of the bible.  And we can’t get stuck here.  Their goal in setting up this extreme example was to put Jesus on the spot.  The crowds would see just how brainless such a belief was.  How can the dead be raised, the Sadducees say, if those who are raised aren’t even able to tell who is married to whom?

Since we are going to focus on the good news of this passage, that God is not the God of dead, but the God of the living, Jesus’ response not only affirms the life after death experienced in the resurrection but also goes on to briefly teach about what that life will be like.

First, since God is a God of the living, life on earth and life after death are not alike.  The resurrected life will not just be an extension or repeat of this life, thank God!  We experience death and decay here.  In the resurrection, we will be totally in the presence of the living God, completely enveloped in his presence and death and pain will be destroyed and all tears will be wiped away.

Second, there will be no marriage in the age to come.  For some of you, that might be a relief.  For others, you might be heart broken.  You love your spouse.  Again, God is a God of the living.  Jesus doesn’t say we won’t know our present spouse in the age of the resurrection, but rather that our relationship will be different.  I love Laura.  I love Laura with all my heart.  But we don’t have a perfect marriage.  I thank God everyday that she is able to forgive me for my screw ups.  But I can celebrate the fact that in the new life of the resurrection that my relationship with her will be so transformed that it will go beyond marriage.  But that also includes my relationships with you, too!  No one will be less than the other, no one will be greater than the other, but we will be focused on God.  In the Message, Eugene Peterson says it this way:  All ecstasies and intimacies then will be with God.

Third, there is no death.  All these rules about what happens when you die and keeping blood lines don’t matter any longer.  God is a God of the living, no more death, the resurrected will be like the angels in heaven, eternally serving, praising, and living in the presence of the living God.  Now it doesn’t say the resurrected become angels, but are like them, no longer experiencing death because God is the God of the living.  Our existence and nature becomes fully alive in the presence of God.

But in all these points, Jesus is debunking their argument based upon scripture outside of the books of Moses. This argument holds no water for the Sadducees.  But Jesus then turns to the book of Exodus to say, and again I’m quoting Peterson:  Even Moses exclaimed about resurrection at the burning bush, saying, “‘God: God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob!’ God isn’t the God of dead men, but of the living.  To him all are alive.”  Now, this is really exciting and really hard to put our heads around.  Here’s why:  God, in defining Godself, uses the relationship experienced with these patriarchs of the faith to say who he is.  And God uses the present tense:  I am currently the God of Abraham, not I was the God of Abraham whom I dearly miss.  In this argument about the resurrection, Jesus is saying that to God, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are alive in the presence of God.  And to say that they are living, it is necessary to conclude that they have been resurrected.  Don’t ask me how this works, because you can go visit the graves of the patriarchs today.  Their bones are in the dirt!  The best way I’ve been able to even attempt to grasp this is in a lecture I heard Tom Long give he said that when we die, we enter God’s time, eternal time, resurrection time.  If God is the God of the living, in our death, to enter God’s presence, we have to be fully alive, body and soul.  Wow.

So, why does that matter?  I said earlier that believing that God is not God of the dead but God of the living would have a impact on our lives.  Here’s why:  One of the reasons the Sadducees pushed against the teaching of the resurrection was that people who believed it pushed against the status quo.  If this life was all that you had, you will compromise with the powers that be and hold on to all that you can get your hands on.  And guess what?  The Sadducees were the ones who pushed for alliances with the Romans and were generally the wealthiest members of the Jerusalem population.  Don’t rock the boat.  Don’t push back or it might mess with this comfortable life I’ve created.  But what about those who pushed back, who said the Romans shouldn’t be in the temple, who pointed out the wrongs in this life, who demanded justice, who rocked the boat, who said God intended something better for the world he created?   These were the ones the Romans nailed to a cross and they were the ones who believed that they would be resurrected and vindicated by God.  Knowing that we will live fully in the life to come pushes us to live life fully now, not just for ourselves, but for our neighbors and all creation.  We come to the point that lives can be lived with a certain amount of hope, a certain amount of daring in working for justice, a certain amount of adventure, a certain amount of confidence because God is a God of the living.  We don’t have to let the things of this life control us, we don’t have to hoard and hang on, we don’t have give up when the path God is calling us down seems crazy.  God is calling us to live, live the hope of the resurrection today.

So, don’t get stuck on all the details of this passage.  Get stuck on God, for God is not the God of the dead but the God of the living and the promise of resurrected life in this passage invites us to live fully alive with God today.  But at the heart of it all will be a people who live.

God in Christ is making you into his living people by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

(Sermon preached by Rev. Keith Hudson on Nov. 13, 2016 at First Presbyterian Church, La Grande, OR)


Living: sermon by Keith, 11.10.13 Pentecost 25C

Scriptures: Psalm 98, Luke 20:27-38

As a person goes through their day to day routine, there are a variety of questions that a person can get asked.  Simple questions in passing, such as “How are you doing?”  that can begin a conversation on life’s joys and tribulations, or it can be answered simply, “Fine.”  Or the kind of question that has a relative definite answer, like “How long does it take to drive to Portland?”  Depending on the number of potty breaks, usually around four hours.  There are also the questions that are asked to find out what side of the fence you are on politically or religiously.  The person asking is trying to determine if you are on his or her side of the argument, if you are one of the good guys or bad guys.  Are you for gun control?  What do you think of Obamacare?  Do you say tomato or tomaato?

Then there is the kind of question that Jesus is asked this morning in the passage we just read.  The Sadducees already knew what side of the resurrection fence Jesus was on.  He believed it and taught it.  But to fully understand their question and what they were trying to do to Jesus in asking it, we have to understand who the Sadducees were.  They were the temple elite, the priestly class, and wealthy, and in the 1st century Jewish world, they would have been labeling theologically conservative.  Scripture for them only consisted of Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. No teaching was considered authoritative if it wasn’t given in these five books and they found no doctrine of the resurrection there.  In fact they found no teaching at all about an afterlife.  Death had the final say for them in the matter of life.

The other primary Jewish group at that time was the Pharisees.  They were the teachers out in the small town synagogues and were the ones we usually see Jesus butting heads with in the Gospels.  They considered Torah as authoritative, but also included the prophets and the oral traditions as having the same level of authority.  It would be what we call the Old Testament plus the traditions handed down all the way from Moses to that day.  It is in the oral traditions and prophets that spoke of the day of the resurrection that would take place somewhere far into future.  One day, God would raise the dead and give them a new glorified body.  It was not considered a resuscitation of the former physical body but a new form of existence.

Resurrection was hotly debated between these two camps, and it is because of this debate, Jesus is asked a question that comes straight from the heart of Torah.  “Based on the rules of marriage found in the Law of Moses, if a man dies leaving his wife with no children, his brother must marry her.  If this happens a total of seven times, whose wife will she be in the resurrection?”  The reason for this kind of question is to make Jesus re-think his position, because they ask it in a way there are only two possible answers, answers that prove the Sadducees right and Jesus wrong.  Answer A is she is married to seven men in the resurrection.  This violates the law and God wouldn’t have a separate set of rules of marriage in the life that is found in the resurrection as there are now.  If Jesus can’t go there, opening the door to allow this woman to have seven husbands, then he must close the door completely, which is Answer B, there is no resurrection.  From the Sadducees point of view, it is the kind of question that will force Jesus to agree with them or be silent.

But Jesus does answer them, but not how they expected.  His answer is two fold and I believe it points to the heart of a Christian hope for the future. It’s important to look at what he says and what he doesn’t say as we explore his answer.  The first part of his response simply points to the inappropriateness to the question, given the difference between this life and the life to come.  We live in a world where death is a reality.  We will all die.  That’s a point both the Pharisees and Sadducees could agree on.  And because of the fact we all die, marriage and perpetuation of life in the family becomes essential while we live.  But in the resurrection, we are given the gift of life everlasting so there is no need to marry or a need to have children.  The Torah laws regarding marriage and family no longer hold sway in the resurrection because we belong to a new family, the family of God.  Any Pharisees who were in ear shot of this part of Jesus’ answer would have been nodding in agreement as they heard Jesus’ words.

In the second part of his answer, Jesus uses the scriptures that the Sadducees see as authoritative to reveal an implicit reference to the resurrection in Torah.  The resurrection of the dead is found at the heart of Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush.  God did not say from the burning bush, “Once upon a time I was the God of Abraham, was the God of Isaac and was the God of Jacob, and now I miss them all dearly.”   God says, “I am their God.  Now, right now, in this very moment, I am their God.”  God is a God of the living and not of the dead.  It follows then, that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are living, not dead, and in the presence of God.  And when Jesus points to this passage as support for the resurrection, he means Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are bodily in the presence of God.  Ironically, this response probably would have got the attention of the Pharisees, too.  Resurrection day was somewhere in the future, not something that was already being experienced by the dead.

Now here is where Jesus response to the Sadducees gives us hope for the future.  Now the hope isn’t only for those who grew up in a dysfunctional family or experienced divorce and can say, “Thank God I don’t have to spend eternity with him!”  nor does this passage remove the hope that we will be in the presence of loved ones when we die.  But this passage refocuses our hope in God.  God is a God of the living first and foremost because we have a living God who calls us into relationship with him.  God is not some spiritual force that flows through the universe that our spirit leaves at our birth and returns to in our death, but a personal triune God who created us in love in his image and declared us and all of creation good.  And this God who breathed the breath of live into us calls us into relationship from the day of our birth to the day we die.  This doesn’t mean we don’t take death seriously.  It destroys life and relationships.  Paul even calls death the last enemy of God.  But death isn’t stronger than God.  We know that because in God we find life.  God takes life so seriously that that he sent the Son into the world so we could experience eternal life with him, both body and soul, in this life and next.  And Jesus died, really died, experiencing agony and suffering on his way to the cross.   And God’s love of life broke out of the tomb that first Easter morning when God raised Jesus from the dead for us.

It is in his resurrection we get a glimpse of what the resurrection of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and even our own resurrection is like.  His disciples recognized him, but he was not a disembodied ghost.  He walked and talked, he ate and drank, and the disciples touched him.  He had a body, but it was a different body.  Sometimes those who knew him best didn’t recognize him.  He could vanish or show up in rooms where all the doors were locked.  He was the same person in a different way.  In the resurrection, we don’t lose who we are by being dissolved into some universal spirit like a drop of rain being lost in the ocean.  As Shirley Guthrie puts it, “In an unimaginably different and better way we will still be the individual human beings we are now, with the ability to have genuinely personal relationship with God and other people in the eternal “communion of the saints.””

Sometimes talking about the resurrection raises more questions than it answers, the kinds of questions that just might not have a clear answer.  A question like how can Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob be bodily present with God when we can go visit their tombs today?  You know, I don’t know.  Scripture just gives us small glimpses here and there, but I trust and hope that in the words of Jesus to the thief of the cross that something happens that only can be described as a gift from God.  “Today you will be with me in paradise.”  At the point of our deaths, we enter God’s time, eternal time, and we will be raised to be with Christ and God will claim us as his children.  Even when we don’t have all the answers, we can trust in his promises that in this life he will be with us and that we will be with him in the next.  Nothing, not even death, can separate us from God and God’s love.  Because he is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  He is God of (pick 3 names of people sitting out there).  And he is the God of Bonnie, of Gene, and of Gordon.   He is God of the living and in him we find life.  Amen

Lost or Found? Sermon by Keith, 9.22.13 Pentecost 18C

(Lay Leader Sondra read scripture: Luke 15:1-7)  

What Sondra just read is called the Parable of the Lost Sheep and it opens chapter 15 from Gospel of Luke.  This chapter has been called “the gospel in the gospel,” as it has at its heart the very essence of the good news Jesus came to proclaim.  And, in very Jesus fashion, he shares this good news by use of parables, the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and the parable of the prodigal son.  Fredrick Buechner defines a parable as a small story with a large point.  And I would add a large point about God and God’s Kingdom, and about us, the listeners.  And parables typically have many, many layers of rich meanings, with different understandings of what is being revealed depending on who you are.  But they also allow us to step into the shoes of the ‘other.’  I even think these parables allow us to step into God’s shoes, allowing us to come to a deeper understanding of the nature of God and thus a deeper understanding of our relationship with God and each other.

Now each of these three parables has parallels but each can uniquely stand on its own.  So today we are going to be looking at the Lost Sheep and Lost Coin, leaving the Prodigal Son for another Sunday.  There has been a lot more focus on the Prodigal Son in literature, art, and even the movies then there has been the Lost Coin and Lost Sheep.  There’s even a brew house in Pendleton called the Prodigal Son. Las Vegas could possibly be called the city of the lost coin, but the coin and sheep haven’t quite received the same level of focus as the Prodigal Son.  My guess is it is because the prodigal parable has more of an individual focus while the other two have more communal understanding with it.   The numbers are just bigger, as the parables start with 100 sheep, then down to 10 coins, and finally 2 brothers.

Now, let us hear the parable of the lost coin. (Read Luke 15:8-10)

Jesus is surrounded by a mixed bag of followers, the disciples, the Pharisees and the scribes, but also the tax collectors, the prostitutes, and others of less then savory backgrounds.  It has become a crowd of insiders and outsiders and almost immediately the side conversations begin.  “Who invited them?”  “Doesn’t Jesus know these people are sinners?”  The Pharisees and the scribes had a rule about dealing with people like that:  Have no dealings with them!

Jesus hears the conversations and begins to address the growing grumblings in the crowds by talking about the nature of God in terms they could understand, turning the conversation toward things they held as valuable.  He wants people to think about what is most valuable to them.  The shepherd values the health and safety of his flock and the woman values the hard earned money she has scraped and saved for herself and family.

It may be hard to exactly come to an understanding of the value of the sheep and coins since we are separated by 2000 years of tradition and culture.  But I had a lesson on the lost sheep from an old Basque sheepherder in the mountains of Wyoming.  My brother, Dad and I hiked back up into this valley and came across this old Basque in his sheep wagon.  The Basque had come to the states to work sheep and cattle in the lonely, isolated areas of the west, and this man had worked these mountains for most of his life.  Even though he was excited to have some human conversation, he always kept an eye on the sheep that lined the ridges above his camp.  Then with his broken English, he suddenly said, “Someone’s missing.”  The three of us looked up at all the sheep scattered on the ridge and I blurted out, “How can you tell?”  He went on to explain the groupings of the sheep that he watched for and after a bit of time, came to know each and every one.  He could scan the hillside and notice which sheep wasn’t there.  He went on to explain that when a sheep would look up from its grazing and saw another sheep, it would start bleating and catch up to the others.  If it saw no other sheep, many times it would just sit down and quietly wait.  It made no noise so as not to draw any attention to itself from predators.  You could read the anxiety rise in the old man’s face as he got his horse ready to ride the draws and downed timber looking for this one lost sheep.  That sheep had a deep value and worth to him.

But what would be a modern parable equivalent of the lost coin parable?  It’s just a coin, right?  How many of you ladies have lost a diamond out of a wedding ring, or even the entire ring itself?  How many husbands have torn apart a trap on a drain looking for a gem or ring that went down the drain?  It is very possible that Jesus used this image with 10 coins for a reason.  The mark of a married woman was a headdress made of ten silver coins linked together by a chain, and it would be similar to the today’s wedding ring.  It may have been one of these coins that the women had lost, so the search for it would be like searching for a lost diamond from her wedding ring.  For this woman in Palestine, the value of this chain of coins was more than the coins itself.  The headdress was inalienable hers; it couldn’t even be taken from her for payment of debt.

So what Jesus does is make this crowd think of that thing that is most precious in the hearers life and what it would be like to loose it.  Think about it for a moment.  What is most valuable in your life to you?  Now what would it be like to loose it, whether through carelessness or theft?  What would you do?  How long would you seek for it?  My guess is for a long time, until you felt that every possible rock had been overturned and every nook and cranny had been thoroughly explored.  And you continue searching because it feels that part of the whole, part of you, is missing.

And as those who are listening to Jesus are contemplating the thing in life most valuable to them and what they would do to recover what is lost, Jesus tells them that God is like that in his search for them.  God is like the shepherd who values each sheep in the flock, or the woman who accounts for every coin on her headdress.  When one goes missing, God goes into search mode.  God’s nature is love, and love looks like one who goes out and never stops searching because what is lost is priceless in his sight.

But these parables not only talk about the all loving, always seeking nature of God, it also speaks to nature of the one who is lost.  The lost sheep that is curled up, not making a sound out of fear of the predator that might be lurking by cannot aid in its own rescue.  Its rescue is dependant on the diligence of the shepherd.  The lost coin is an inanimate object that cannot shine bright to get the women’s attention, but is only found because of the women’s careful cleaning of the house.  They can only be found.

The Pharisees and scribes would have been flustered at this understanding of God and God’s love for these sinners.  They deserved God’s wrath for who they were.  Maybe if they came crawling to God in confession and self-abasement and prayed for pity, maybe, maybe God would forgive and grant mercy.  But never would they conceive of a God who went out to search for sinners.  One of the things Jesus is trying to teach the Pharisees, and even the tax-collectors and prostitutes, is that those on the fringe of the community are necessary and integral to what the community in all its fullness should be.  Until they return, the community is incomplete.  And when they do return, there is cause for celebration.

Now I can’t dispute that the core of each of these parables is an understanding of God searching and finding the lost.  I’ve heard your stories, about the times in your lives you were lost and have had an encounter with the God who dived into thickets to pull you out or the God who crawled into the hole you dug for yourself and lifts you out.  Alleluia and Amen!  But I believe that the God does the searching to restore the lost to their community they were lost from.  It isn’t a search to save per say, but also a search to welcome.  Welcoming is about intimacy and focuses on the community over the individual.  That is why the celebration can take place.  It’s almost as if the finding and saving takes place so celebration can take place.  They go hand-in-hand.  The finding of the one isn’t just for the sake of the one who was lost, but for the sake of the entire community that is now complete and made whole.

These parables call the community to open its doors and rejoice and celebrate.  Sinners and tax collectors gather at the table with Christ?  Rejoice!  Celebrate!  A pew that was empty is now filled with a new face seeking a community to learn what it means to follow Christ together?  Party time!  Laugh!  Hugs of welcome and invitations to a meal all around!  An old familiar face that has been missing for months is back?  Be glad!  Delight in their presence and listen for the story of how God found them.  You never know, God may have found them through the card you sent or the phone call you made.  We can now feast!  Hope and joy has been restored!

Lost or found?  Friends, we are both.  Praise be to the God that finds us and restores us into the household of God.  Because when one is restored, we are all better off for it. Amen.

Sticker Shock: Sermon by Keith, 9.8.13, Pentecost 18/Ordinary23C

Scripture Readings: Jeremiah 18:1-6; Luke 14:25-33

Now that we’ve finished up the book of Acts, it will be good to spend some time back with good old Jesus.  It was fun spending the summer with Peter and John and Paul as they followed Christ.  But now it is nice to back on familiar ground, traveling that comfortable road so we can follow Jesus.  Ah… And boy, has he been busy, healing and preaching.  Lots of people were following Jesus, too. There was something exciting about the personality of Jesus that brought in the crowds wherever he went.  Maybe it was because he would heal with a touch.  Others gathered around him because of the authority by which he spoke.  There was power in his every word.  He’d even sit around with children on his lap teaching about the Kingdom of God.  Some followed him because they were looking for healing and hope, some followed because the thought maybe he was the Messiah they had prayed for.  Others followed because they were just curious.  But people definitely wanted to follow him.   Makes you want to step out of the crowd, give him a big hug, congratulate him for the amazing work he’s doing, and let him know he’s got your vote.  Let’s see what this wonderful man has to tell this expectant crowd this morning…(read Luke 14:25-33)…

Wow.  That’s not the Jesus I wanted to hug a few minutes ago.  Hate my parents?  Hate my kids?  Hate my wife?  Shoot, we celebrate our 10 year anniversary this week.  I don’t think there has been a time when I loved her more!  Take up my cross?  I know there is more than one person in this crowd listening to Jesus who has seen a Roman execution on a cross, with the crosses placed along the roads for the entire world to see.  And give up everything?  I don’t want to be a monk or a hermit, Jesus.  I like my stuff, my house, my camel!  What happened to the Jesus surrounded by children, smiling and laughing?  These are hard words.  I think if I was in that crowd that day, I’d be looking down at my feet, shuffling the dirt of the road, taking in the words I just heard.  I’m sure some people would be headed home and I wonder just how much longer I’d hang around.

Friends, what Jesus is inviting those who have been following him is to consider the cost of being his disciple.  Many of these people in the crowd had been looking forward to the dawning of a new day, the Kingdom of God was at hand and this Jesus was bringing it to fruition.  Some thought it was going to be an age of victory over Rome and the peace and prosperity that would follow would be theirs at no personal sacrifice for just following him.  But Jesus lets them know there will be a personal cost to being his disciple, and that cost is high, and it may be more than what some of them are willing to give.

In understanding what Jesus is teaching the crowd and us about the cost of being his disciple, we have to stress the notion of cost along with the discipleship.  The term for “cost” appears only once in the New Testament, and it is in this passage.  As Emilie Townes defines it, “cost is what we give up to acquire, accomplish, maintain, or produce something.  It involves a measure of sacrifice and perhaps loss or penalty in gaining something.  Cost requires effort and resources.”

Now with that understanding of cost in the back of your mind, we must remember that discipleship is a process.  We do not wake up one day and decide to follow Jesus and are perfect disciples.   The Holy Spirit is continually molding us and forming us.  That should be clear from the behaviors of those 12 disciples that were the closest to Jesus.  Fighting over who was the greatest, running off the people who were trying to get close to Jesus, and even denying and rejecting Jesus aren’t what I would call ideal models of discipleship, but they are real examples of people on the road of discipleship.  Theirs are the stories of real people saying yes to Jesus and the bumps and pitfalls encountered along the way.  Discipleship takes time and involves both false starts and modest successes.  Discipleship is growing in our faith on a journey to live into the fullness of our humanity and dare to live and be guided by the Holy Spirit that resides in each of us.  It is a process by which we learn to face life’s challenges and joys with a spirit of love, hope, faith, and peace that leads us to an ever deeper spirituality and relationship with Christ and each other as we commitment to live into what appears to be the harsh demands of his call to discipleship.

But I think that with this understanding that discipleship as a process, Jesus’ words no longer seem as harsh, still demanding and still with a cost, but it is actually good news as it refocuses us on our call to love God and neighbor.  The word that most often gets translated ‘hate’ in most versions of scripture loses something from the word Jesus used in Aramaic.  Eugene Peterson translates the word as ‘letting go of.’  That also misses the level of degrees the word conveys.  It is a comparative verb, one that means something like “loves much less than.”  Another way to translate it, but still doesn’t quite get it, would be something like, “Whoever comes to me and loves father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, their possession and yes, even life itself more than me, cannot be my disciple.”

Jesus isn’t saying we shouldn’t love our families, ourselves, or even have a fondness for our possessions.  What he is saying is that our love for God in Christ is to be so much greater than our love of all other things that there is no chance that family, our possessions, or even our very self and self preservation becomes our god, to make sure what we own does not own us.  These words ask us to put Christ above “family values.”  Our families and our stuff should not get in the way of our love of Christ.  It is a word that tells us that the love we have for our closest family members, compared to the love Jesus demands from us, looks almost like hatred. In short, if God and His kingdom are given the proper all consuming love Christ expects then the highest and best of all my other loves-even my love for myself-will seem to be in a far-distant second place.

And, what may seem as a twist, that life of discipleship that calls for a life of learning to love Christ ever more deeply frees us to truly love our family, ourselves, and our possessions as God would have us love them.  We don’t become monks and send our kids to orphanages.  But what we do is free ourselves of our need to acquire, our yearnings for success, our petty jealousies, no longer trying to keep up with the Joneses, or have the picture perfect family.   We are no longer controlled by our stuff and we no longer try to control our family.  It’s what Calvin called the proper use of the gifts of God in daily life.  We recognize what we have, our possessions, our family, and even our lives, are a gift from God.  And in all of those gifts and life’s action, we first look to our calling from God as Christ’s disciples.

But I think the hardest part of this call to discipleship is the letting go of one’s self, of loving God measurable more than loving one’s own being.  The cost of discipleship is not just accumulating new information about life and living it fully or making changes in our behavior in light of Jesus’ teaching.  The cost is engaging in a profoundly radical shift toward being guided by the Holy Spirit with every fiber of our being and being transformed into the people, the disciples Christ would have us be.  We no longer pursue trying to be the people society says we should be, but becoming the people God created us to be.  And that may mean taking up a cross.

Do you remember the definition of cost from earlier, how it is about what we give up to acquire something?  In studying this passage, I came across a lot of people talking about all the things one needs to give up, the cost, in being Jesus’ disciple, but not what we gain.  Now, we might just jump to salvation, but if we think of salvation only as fire insurance, our get out of jail and into heaven free card, we miss what salvation gives us in this life.  And the person who describes that best in his aptly named book “The Cost of Discipleship” is DeitrichBonhoeffer.  In it he says, “Where will the call to discipleship lead those who follow it? What decisions and painful separations will it entail? We must take this question to him who alone knows the answer. Only Jesus Christ, who bids us follow him, knows where the path will lead. But we know that it will be a path full of mercy beyond measure. Discipleship is joy.”

Joy.  Walking the discipleship road with Jesus leads to joy.  In scripture we have Peter to look to, or maybe John or Paul and hear about their mistakes and sacrifices, but also the joy they experienced.  And what we discover in looking at their stories is that their joy occurred in community with other disciples.  They never walked the discipleship road alone.  Friends, you never walk that road alone, either.  It is a walk with Christ and the rest of the community.   That’s why over the next few weeks as we enter stewardship season, we will be hearing from you.  Some of you will be asked about how God has changed you and molded you on your path of discipleship and how God through this church community has had an impact on your life.  We will probably hear some stories of sacrifice, but I know that we will also hear stories of joy and celebration.  Because that’s what discipleship is.   It is hard, it is demanding, but it is also joy.

In the name of the One who calls us to discipleship,

and in the name of the One who walks with us on the discipleship road,

and in the name of the One who forms us into disciples, Amen.

“Mission Statements”: Sermon by Keith, 1.27.13, Epiphany 3A

Texts: 1 Corinthians 12:12-31Luke 4:14-21

A one sentence sermon.  Did you catch it?  “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  I don’t think my preaching professors in seminary would let me get by with a one sentence sermon.  I’ve only heard of one other sermon that was only one sentence, and I understand that pastor got a lot of dazed, confused looks.   A previous pastor in the church where we did our internship walked up to the pulpit and said, “God is love.” and sat down.  From the way people told the story, they were grasping for some reason why he would do that.  Maybe it was a busy week and he didn’t have time to get a proper sermon done, or maybe there had been a crisis in his family.  But it was the one sermon people talked about years later.  Now we read about Jesus, back in his home town, and we find his first recorded sermon, a one liner.  And it is a doozy, one that makes his family and friends react to him in a way they never had before.

After being baptized by John and spending 40 days in the wilderness, he makes his way to his home country.  Reports start spreading about him through Galilee because of the miracles he is bringing to people’s lives and how he has taught.  So when he makes it back to Nazareth, it is quite a day in synagogue.  This is where he grew up, and everybody is there, eager to hear a world proclaimed from their hometown boy.

In the synagogue, there were no professional clergy, so to speak.  The leader of this community house of worship could invite any appropriate person to read and comment on the text.  So Jesus is asked to read the lesson from the prophets. The choice is up to him. Since there isn’t a book like we have today, a bulky scroll is brought to him and placed upon the lectern. Jesus unrolls it, searching for the text from Isaiah.  In a voice strong with anticipation, he reads aloud these words: “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, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Finished with his reading from the prophet, Jesus rolls up the scroll, returns it to the attendant, and takes his seat.  It was the custom that the teachers and rabbis sit, so when he takes his seat, everyone looks at him, expecting some sermon and commentary on the text.  This was a text they knew well, one that had been read multiple times.  They knew what Jesus was supposed to say, the question was would he say it correctly or not.

And what Jesus says catches them all off guard.  Jesus sets free the scripture passage he has just read.  “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  He claims those ancient words of Isaiah as his own personal mission statement.  The reason the Holy Spirit came down on him in his baptism was to empower Jesus to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind; free the oppressed, and usher in the Jubilee year of God’s justice.

Jesus takes all this as his mission statement, and everything that follows in this life, especially as we see through the gospel of Luke, can be pointed back to his reading of this prophecy he claimed for himself that Sabbath morning.  As you go through the gospel, every time Jesus acts, he is living into these words, until it finally kills him.  Now there are some who welcome what Jesus does, especially those who are freed from bondage of sin and illness and those whose eyes are literally opened and those whose eyes are opened to the reality of God in their midst.  Based upon some scholars calculations, the year that Jesus stood in the synagogue and read these words was an actual year of jubilee, a once every 50 year cycle of freedom and rest, freedom for the fields to rest, a year debts are forgiven, a year when people return home and slaves are freed.  Relationships are restored and salvation is found.  In Jesus, literally the time of salvation had begun.

But there are those who do not like what Jesus does.  They do not want to give up the power and control they have been given or acquired.  They do not want to face the possibility of freedom for others that is found in the year of jubilee.  When someone is freed, they have to be freed from someone or something, and that is when the balance of control gets upset.  Jesus pushes those in control to question their complacency and pushes them to recognize that their relationship with God may not be as it should.  They find their discomfort increasingly intolerable and think his crucifixion will bring an end to the matter.  They are wrong.  Jesus rose from the dead to show that the freedom that is promised by God and found in God even extends to being freed from the grave.   The captivity of the grave cannot stop the Holy Spirit.

Friends, that same Spirit that fell upon Jesus is the same spirit that falls upon us.  The same Spirit that anointed Jesus to bring good news to the poor is the same Spirit that anoints (name of congregant) to bring good news to the poor.  It is the same Spirit that sent Jesus to proclaim release to the captives that sends (Name of congregant) to proclaim release to all those who are imprisoned.  It is the same Spirit that gave Jesus authority to give sight to the blind that gives (name of congregant) the same authority.  The same Spirit that gave Christ his mission gives us, the church, our mission.

God in Christ is still active in the world in and through his church.  Jesus still does these things because his church does them.  Now we might say we cannot perform these kinds of miracles.  However, as individuals we can indeed do much.  Remember the Holy Spirit is upon us.  But only if we think we are alone are we limited.  Christ is with us in and through his body, the church.  As his body, collectively, we can also do miracles.

And we are called to do those miracles together here and now.  “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  Do you hear the urgency of that one sentence sermon?  The time of God’s Holy Spirit is today, right now.  Daily we are called to live into the mission Christ calls us into.  Not just the mission field in Africa or some place far away, but in our hometown, on the corner of Washington and Fir Street, La Grande, Oregon.  The poor in our neighborhoods gain hope, whether it’s their souls or their bodies that we find starving. The captives experience freedom, whether they are prisoners in a jail or prisoners in the biggest house on the block. The blind receive sight, whether it is from lack of Vitamin K, by cataract surgery at the Grande Ronde Hospital or the scales of prejudice falling off the eyes of someone filled with hate and are blind to the love and grace of God. The oppressed are set free, whether oppression is a political regime or a drug addiction. When Jesus reads that passage in the Nazareth synagogue, he announces the mission statement for himself and for his body, the church.  He announces the mission we are called to do with and for him in our world and especially our community today.

So, here we are, remembering a one sentence sermon given two thousand years ago.  It had an impact, hasn’t it?  Even the day he gave, tempers flared and the people attempted to throw him off a cliff.  But as his church, we do more than just remember it.  We live into it everyday, no matter the consequences, because Christ is with us, forming us into his people, his body, who will carry his mission into the world.  His mission is our mission.  Amen.