Posts Tagged Gospel of Luke

Crossing Boundaries

June 23, 2013

Galatians 3:23-29
Luke 8:(22-39)26-39

I’ve always had a naturally very inquisitive mind. Whenever I discover something new, I always have to know what it is, what it’s used for and when do I get a chance to use it. When I was in school and one of my friends would bring something from home … a new toy, a new baseball glove, or anything like that … we would all gather around, full of questions … wanting to see it … wanting to touch it … wanting to take turns playing with it.
One of the earliest memories I have was when I was about five years old. I discovered a green colored, marking pencil somewhere in the house. I had never seen one before – I wanted to know what it was and what it was used for. So, I did what most five year olds would do – I went and asked my mom. Now, what I hadn’t figured out at this early stage of my life was that my mom had an occasional bent towards playful sarcasm whenever she was in the mood. And she just kind of casually and jokingly said to me: “Oh, it’s for marking on walls!”
Well, that kind of sarcasm went right over my head! I was at a stage where I took things literally. The next though that came to my mind as I looked at that pencil was: “Cool! I’m gonna have some fun with this!”
I don’t remember what I subsequently drew later that day when I was alone. Five years old is what I think of as the “cubist period” of my artistic career … I was fascinated by angles and different geometric shapes.

But the most important lesson I learned that day, after mom discovered what I had done, was about boundaries … what you can and can’t do … and how important they are. Boundaries, I learned, are good … they keep you from ruining things or hurting other people … they keep our society orderly and functioning properly … and their purpose is to keep you safe and out of trouble. Boundaries, surprisingly and somewhat paradoxically, give us freedom. Without certain restraints, we would become slaves. There are rules that we all have to follow … some of them unwritten like “you’re not supposed to draw on walls” … and for the most part, they have a good reason for being.

The two scripture readings this morning are about boundaries. But both of the authors, Paul and Luke, want us to understand that not all boundaries are good. There are times when boundaries hurt and don’t protect … times when they enslave and prohibit freedom.
Jesus begins the Gospel story by crossing a very literal boundary … the Sea of Galilee. He had been around the northern part of the lake, near Capernaum. There he healed a Centurion’s servant … he told the Parable of the Sower … and in the Gospel of Matthew he is said to have preached the Sermon on the Mount at that time.

But after he had done all of these things, he gets into a boat with his disciples and tells them, “Let’s go on to the other side” (let’s cross this boundary). And they set out from the very northern tip of the Lake and sail to the very southern tip, landing somewhere near the city of Gadara. Now the Sea of Galilee is considered to be a boundary … it separates the region of Galilee, over which King Herod had authority, from a region known as the Decapolis – a group of ten cities, founded by Alexander the Great during his conquests, and which were very different from Galilee in terms of culture, language and religion. The people of the Decapolis were not Jewish … they were Gentiles. They did not speak Hebrew or Aramaic, but probably spoke Greek, and they worshipped the Greek and Roman gods and maybe some other ancient tribal deities.

And the first thing that happens as Jesus sets out to cross cultural, political, and religious boundaries … is, well, he goes to sleep … he doesn’t seem too worried about what he’s about to do. Unlike a lot of people … unlike a lot of us, crossing these kinds of boundaries isn’t upsetting for Jesus. He’s at ease and comfortable with what’s about to happen. He’s so much at ease, as a matter of fact, that a storm comes up … the boat is tossed to and fro and water begins to wash in over the sides … and Jesus continues to lie in the back of the boat, just snoozing away. The disciples have to shake him awake.

I can only wish for that kind of peacefulness in the midst of a storm. And as I read this account in the Gospel, it makes me wonder: Do we, as the church, have that kind of calm assurance whenever we are on the cusp doing something so radically different from anything we’ve ever done before? Or, do we want to give in to the temptation to turn back and return to Galilee … to where we came from (which is probably what the disciples are thinking about in the middle of the lake and a storm) … do we want to go back to where we feel more safe and comfortable because we encounter some resistance or things get a little too stormy? Whenever we come up against cultural, political or religious boundaries, like the disciples, we are filled with fear.

The apostle Paul is concerned about some of these same boundaries. And he tells us in the reading from Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (v. 28). Paul is concerned here with artificial boundaries … boundaries that are a human creation … and that are erected, not only to separate one group of people from another, but to put one group of people over and above another: Jews above Gentiles … masters over slaves … men over women. Race, socioeconomic status, and gender. And Paul tells the church in Galatia – and it’s a good reminder for us today in the 21st Century even, that in the Kingdom of God these boundaries do not exist … and for the church, since it is supposed to be a representative of God’s heavenly kingdom here on earth, these boundaries should not exist for us either.

But do they? Do we let them? Martin Luther King Jr., made the remark many times throughout his ministry in several different speeches and sermons that the most segregated hour in America is the 11 o’clock hour on Sunday morning. Is not this one of the boundaries Paul was talking about? The 70’s and 80’s saw the growth of the “megachurch” movement – big box churches that attracted thousands – sometimes tens of thousands – of members. One of the things the churches that were (and are) a part of this movement shared was the philosophy that, in order to grow, it was best for the members to be alike each other in some way … similar in terms of race, culture, socioeconomic status, and political affiliation … and the reason they gave for doing this was so that everyone in the congregation would be more comfortable. Is that what we want out of church? A place where we can be comfortable while the world we are called to minister to crumbles around us?

It would have been much more comfortable for Jesus to have remained in Capernaum, with his own people … people who were like him … but he got into the boat and he tells his disciples to come with him. Jesus finds a way to be comfortable – not safely within the bounds of cultural, economic or political segregation – but rather in challenging those boundaries.

And after they crossed that hazardous boundary … after they make it across the sea, more boundaries come into play. They meet a man who is forced out to the boundaries of his own society. He has no home, he has no clothes, he is kept chained and locked up, and a guard is posted over him day and night. He doesn’t seem to know his own identity, for when Jesus asks him his name, he says, “My name is Legion.”

Now, some might diagnose his condition a little differently today. Some people might say he suffered from a form of epilepsy … some might say he suffered from some form of mental illness … and some might even say he was, indeed, possessed by demons. But some might argue: “What’s the difference?”

One thing is for certain: He may have forgotten who he is, but we know him … we see him everyday. He’s the person we encounter on the street that we walk away from as far as we possibly can because they seem a little strange to us. He is the woman who shows up in the hospital emergency room with her children seeking medical attention, and everyone automatically assumes she’s illegal for no reason other than she is Hispanic. He is the African and/or Arab American who is racially profiled at every traffic stop, airport and department store in America. He is every man, woman and child we push to the margins of our own society, even here in the supposedly enlightened time of the 21st Century.

But he is also like the rest of us in one way. The demons that inhabit his mind and have robbed him of life have become such a part of him that he is no longer able to envision life without them. The ideological boundaries that keep him on the margins … that keep him bound and chained … that make him the victim of prejudice and abuse are what really possess him … they’re the real demons in this story.

And the people who keep him on the margins … who keep him under lock and key … who have no vision of their own community where he can somehow be a part of it … they’re as equally possessed as he ever was. They think this is natural … they think this is the way things should be.

So, Jesus does more than just a simple exorcism in this story. The real miracle that happens here … the real healing … is he gives the man back his identity … he gives him a place and a role in the community. Jesus tears down the walls and ideological boundaries that segregate him from his neighbors. And that’s scary for the people who had kept him locked up – they have to deal with him now … they can no longer ignore him. We are told the town’s people are filled with fear when they come out and find this man, fully clothed and in his right mind.

As well they should be, for the kingdom of God has broken on them … there is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. The kingdom of God crosses all political, cultural, economic, and gender boundaries, annihilating walls of hierarchy and oppression.

If we are Christ’s followers, remember that Jesus commands us – not to remain safe within the bounds of Galilee – but to get in the boat with him. Crossing boundaries will be stormy … there will be demons waiting for us on the other side … but we bring with us a precious cargo … the good news of the kingdom … the good news we are called to bring to the poor, that proclaims the release of the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, that lets the oppressed go free, and proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:18-19, citing Isaiah 61:1, 58:6, 61:2).

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Sticking to Plan A

Rev. Michael Woods

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Second Sunday in Lent

Reynoldsburg First Presbyterian Church

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18

Luke 13:31-35

 

We have to give the Pharisees their due! A lot of times in the Gospels and the Book of Acts they’re presented as the bad guys – you might as well dress them in black hats and give them a name like “Black Bart” or something like that. If you were to make a movie of the Gospels, a good actor you might want to ask to play the part of a Pharisee, I think, would be Christopher Lee. You probably remember Christopher Lee – he’s a British actor who’s made a very comfortable living playing bad guys in movies. Back in the 60’s and 70’s he gained notoriety by playing the part of Count Dracula in a series of movies about that character. Later he did a number of Westerns where he always played the villain. In a James Bond movie, he was The Man with the Golden Gun. More recently, he’s been in movies like the Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, where he plays an evil wizard. So, whenever you watch a movie and you see Christopher Lee in it, you automatically think, “Oh, we’d better watch out for this guy – this has got to be one of the villains!”

But – you know what – in real life, I understand he’s probably one of the nicest guys you’ve ever met … the perfect English gentleman … you probably couldn’t meet anyone nicer and less villainous. You would think it amazing that not only could he ever play a bad guy in a movie, but that he could do it so well!

Likewise, the Gospels occasionally present us with another side  – a better side – to the Pharisees – the quintessential bad guys of the New Testament. There’s Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimethea, for instance, who both seem to be followers of Jesus and support him in his ministry. And Jesus seems to have some kind of special connection with the Pharisees. Not all of them agree totally with the message he is teaching – a lot of them want to argue with him about it – but overall, they see Jesus as one of them. He’s doing a lot of the same things they are doing – carrying out his ministry outside the bounds of the Temple – he teaches in the synagogues, as they do, and the people call him rabbi, as the Pharisees are called. And although they may have some differences of opinion with Jesus about particular points of theology, the Pharisees do seem to be very interested in his message and they go out of their way to engage him in conversation and most of them seem to consider what he has to say very seriously.

And we have to give the Pharisees their due, because I believe without them the religion of Judaism would not have survived – it would have perished in the First Century about forty years after the time of Christ when the Roman army lay siege to Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple built by Herod the Great. So, I want to resist painting the Pharisees with too broad a paint brush. They have to tendency to be far more complex than we want to give them credit for sometimes and can surprise us in different ways.

In this morning’s story, they give us one such surprise. Jesus has begun a journey … probably the last of his ministry. Luke tells us that Jesus was going through one town and village after another, teaching the people about the Kingdom of Heaven, as he makes his way toward Jerusalem. Now, Jesus has begun this journey fully aware of what awaits him there: suffering and crucifixion. If you recall, over these last few weeks we’ve talked about the fact that he’s been trying to warn all of his disciples about this very thing!

Now, the Pharisees, who’ve had their differences of opinion with Jesus in the past, put aside those differences and try to warn him to stay away from Jerusalem … his life is in great peril if he were to set foot in there. They are concerned about him. But Jesus essentially tells him that they’re not telling him anything he doesn’t already know.

But it’s one thing to talk about danger and peril in theory, when it’s all so far and distant. You might feel a sense of false bravado, as if you were Superman – there’s nothing for you to be afraid of; you can face anything, even death, in the eye. But when it gets up close, it starts to look a lot more ominous and you can find a lot of reason to be afraid. It’s a lot like this fiscal cliff thing that keeps coming up in the government. When its still a few months off, it doesn’t seem all that bad, but as it gets closer and closer, and the news media starts to describe what programs are going to be cut and who will loose jobs and whose benefits are going to be reduced, you start to feel anxious and you’re filled with this overwhelming sense of dread. At least, I know I am … especially when I think about how all this will affect programs that help the poor and how it will have negative consequences on our economy’s struggling recovery. You hope that somebody finds another way and they find it fast.

 

I think Abram is at the end of a similar rope in the passage from Genesis. God has made a great promise to him and his wife Sarai. They were promised they would dwell in a new land and that they would be the ancestors of a great nation, and their descendants would be as numerous as the dust that covered the Earth.  Well, Abram can see the new land – he’s already living in it. But at this point in the tale, he’s approaching 90 years of age … he and Sarai are yet to see the second part of God’s promise be fulfilled.

And as we read the scripture, it seems like to me that Abram gets a little testy with God. What we read in this passage sounds like a bitter lament: “You have not given us any offspring, so now I have no other choice maybe but to adopt one of the children of my servants and let them inherit the estate you have given me.” Abram has given up and is making other plans. He’s already started work on Plan B.

The journey of Lent, in a lot of ways, mimics the journey we go through in our individual lives. We start off with a lot of promises … a lot of high hopes and dreams! Do you remember what it was like the day you graduated from high school? Or the day you graduated from college? The day you finished your last day of military service? You had the whole world in your hands, didn’t you. There was nothing you couldn’t accomplish, you believed, if you just put your mind to it … no challenge you couldn’t face head on … you had such dreams … such aspirations!  Then one day we all woke up and discovered we were a lot older than we used to be. I discovered I didn’t have as much hair as I used to and what I had left was turning gray … so, I could no longer get by on just my good looks. There is so much left undone! So much that we never were able to get around to! We started out thinking we were going to make our mark on the world. We started out hoping (at least, I pray that we all were hoping) we would make this world a better place … that somehow our lives would touch the lives of other people in a positive way … we would leave some sort of legacy for the world. How do you find faith and not loose hope when your plans for the future never worked out?

Even Jesus seems to voice some disappointment things didn’t turn out the way he had hoped they would: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, yet you were not willing.”

You know, Christianity began its own journey over two thousand years ago. The Faith started out with a lot of high hopes and aspirations! But it’s now the 21st Century. We still have war, crime, violence. People are still abused and oppressed. There is still poverty, neglect and illness. And even more shameful is the fact that the Christian church has not only been complacent in that, but has even been the cause of it at times! Jesus preached a gospel of love and forgiveness, and everyone agrees that it’s a wonderful message, but no one seems willing to take it to heart. People seem like they’ve all given up.

I see a trend in movies and art these days. There are a lot of movies and novels coming out with apocalyptic themes … stories about the end of the world. Movies like: The Book of Eli, 2012, Contagion, or The Road. Books like: The Left Behind series.  These are a sign, I think, that a lot of people are giving up. They want an asteroid to come – like the one that blew up over Russia last week – or a super flu virus and wipe off everything on the planet so we can start over. They’ve given up on the good news that Jesus preached … they’re starting to make other plans – they’re working on Plan B.

But if there’s a common message in today’s two passages, it’s that God doesn’t give up! God is sticking with Plan A. God hasn’t lost the hopes, dreams, and the aspirations that God began with. God still believes in the cause! God still believes it can work and it’s not too late! That’s good news for the human race, I believe. You know why?

Because Plan A – that’s us, the human race. God hasn’t given up on us! The entire witness of the Holy Bible is that God has not given up, is not giving up, and will not give up on you, me, and everybody else who has ever dared to hope and dream that this world can be a better place. God has faith in us! God’s faith will sustain us even when ours has fled the scene! God’s faith is enough to keep hope alive!

 

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What Lasts Forever

What Lasts Forever

Rev. Mike Woods

February 3, 2013

Reynoldsburg FPC

4th Sunday of Epiphany

 

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Luke 4:14-30

 
It’s a sign of the times we live in that one of the big news stories from the past week was a story that initially wasn’t picked up by any of the traditional news outlets – not CNN, not FoxNews, not any of the network news organizations, although it eventually found its way there. Still, as of yet, I haven’t seen it in the Columbus Dispatch. It’s a story that was first reported, where most stories are initially reported today, through informal channels of the internet – social media websites like facebook or Twitter, and blog posts like The Drudge Report or the Huffington Post. And although some of you may have already heard about the story, I relate it to you this morning with a little bit of hesitation … because it doesn’t reflect well on my profession – the vocation of pastor … and it reminds all of us that we pastors are human, too. We make mistakes … we’re not perfect. We can be a little sanctimonious at times and even a bit of a cheapskate.

For those of you who haven’t heard the tale – it goes something like this: Last Sunday evening, following worship at a church somewhere in St. Louis, a large group of church members, along with their pastor, visited a restaurant, as they usually did following evening worship. Since their party was a large one, an automatic gratuity was added to the individual bills, as is the custom in most restaurants. All of the church members paid their bills including the tip, with the exception of one member – their pastor, who marked through the amount of the tip on her receipt and left in its place a big zero and a rather snarky comment: “I give God 10% why do you get 18(?)”

If any of you have ever tried to make a living by waiting tables, you know tips are what you live by. The Federal minimum wage for wait staff is only $2.13 per hour, and the last time that minimum wage was raised, Ronald Regan was president.

Well, the next thing that happened was a picture of the receipt, along with the pastor’s comment, was posted on the internet. The story went viral! Everybody and everybody’s brother had to comment on it! And the comments that were posted online weren’t very kind in their judgment of the pastor. And although indentifying information was left out of the photo, somebody eventually figured out who this person was … and the pastor was publicly embarrassed … and the church she worked for was publicly embarrassed.

Now, to her credit, the pastor (whose name I’m purposefully leaving out because it’s not my point to embarrass her or her church any further) has since admitted she made a mistake … she had a lapse in judgment and brought shame on her calling and her congregation. But, then she made an even further mistake, after she was publicly exposed, by calling up the restaurant and demanding that everyone who worked there be fired – not just the employee who posted the picture of the receipt online, but everybody! The manager, the other wait staff who were serving other tables and had no contact with the pastor’s party, the bartenders, the bus boys, the cooks, the custodian.

Like I said, the incident reminds us that, in spite of our unique calling to ordered ministry – to fulfill special functions within the church – we pastors are human, too. Sometimes, we insist too often on having our own way … sometimes we can be a little too arrogant and rude … and we don’t practice mutual forbearance, as we should. All the things Paul says love is (patient, kind) we are not; and all the things Paul says love is not (envious, boastful, irritable) we all to often are.

When we meditate on the qualities of love Paul describes in his letter, I think we see an ideal … we see the Divine Image in which we were created … we see the human race as God intended us to be … as God wants for us and calls us to be. It is a description of the greatest gift God has given to the human race. But it is a gift we often shun because we wrongly believe it’s something that weakens us or is not in our own best interests.

A few weeks ago, I told you about Eben Alexander, the neurosurgeon who had a near death experience that changed his life. The most important and wonderful thing he learned from that experience, he said, was not the glimpse of heaven he was afforded or any of the miraculous things he saw – it was the knowledge that he was deeply loved … that love was the most powerful force in the universe, and nothing, no matter how dark or evil or hateful, would ever overcome it. Whenever the universe comes to an end and the last star dies out and nothing remains, love will still be there.

Paul gives us a beautiful description of love – one that is poetic, we read it often at weddings. But it’s a description that ought to challenge us more that it ought to soothe us – because everything it says love is we often are not, and everything it says love is not, we all to often are.

So when I read the second text from the Gospel of Luke – the story of Jesus’ first sermon in his hometown of Nazareth and how the crowd probably wanted for him to perform a miracle and Jesus doesn’t do so – I’m not too quick to be too critical of the people there. Now – they come across as arrogant … rude … they insist on having their own way. Jesus has come to teach them about love … he wants to expand their ability to show love to each other and to gentiles, against whom the Jewish people felt a lot of prejudice. And the Nazarenes want to throw him off a cliff for it.

They’re a lot like us: they want to keep Jesus in this little box … they want him to be their Jesus … their hometown boy who’s been off to the big city of Capernaum and done wondrous things there and made quite a name for himself. We do the same in the church with “our Jesus” … our Jesus who came and died for us and not for people we don’t like … people we don’t think deserve his grace (as if grace were something that could be deserved). In her book, Traveling Mercies, the writer Anne Lamont quotes a friend of hers as saying, “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

When we insist that God has the same opinion about things as we do, but we never open ourselves to the light of scripture to learn otherwise, we bow down to the false idol of “our Jesus.” When we insist that being made in the “image of God” means that God looks like me, we raise our angry voices along with those of the crowd in Nazareth as they rush Jesus to the edge of the cliff.

One of the first profound theological moments I witnessed as a young child occurred while watching an episode of the old television series All in the Family. Archie Bunker and George Jefferson were arguing about what God looked like. Archie claimed that God was white and George claimed that God was Black. But neither one of them could see the image of God in each other.

We in the church often insist on our own way, and we are not open to the “better way” that Paul talks about – God’s way, the way of love.

Jesus came two thousand years ago and shared with us a very simple message – that love is the answer to every problem that human society faces. And like the crowd in Nazareth, we want to argue with him about it … we want to say that the world’s problems are just too complex for so simple an answer … all this stuff about love and peace and hope and faith is beautiful and wonderful in theory, but it’s not very practical. We want to chase Jesus to the edge of the cliff for even suggesting such a thing.

Jesus doesn’t let us get too comfortable with our fears and prejudices and our over-inflated sense of self-importance. He’s always nudging us to go in a direction we don’t always want to go – God’s way, the way of love. And we’re afraid to go with him because we’re afraid the crowd might want to throw us over the edge, too.

It may seem like too simple an answer, but in truth walking the way of love is the most complicated and treacherous journey we can ever undertake. If it were truly simple, we would choose it far more often than we do. Instead, we choose the easier self satisfying way of taking revenge, of taking advantage of others so we can get ahead, of watching out for our own self interests. Jesus offers us another way that will liberate us, will be the answer to every problem we have ever faced, but will also be the hardest thing we have ever done. And that is to walk the path of love.

Paul tells us that love never ends … along with faith and hope, it will continue to exist long after the Earth we live on has disappeared. How it will outlast the evil that so defines the human condition – evil seems so much stronger, so much more powerful – I can’t tell you. I don’t know the answer to that, and neither does Paul. But he does tell us we will eventually come to understand those things one day: “For now we see as in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now, I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

Friends, it’s hard for us to understand how we can never go wrong choosing the path of love. It’s not always the easiest path – it’s usually the hardest … it’s never without a lot of heartache and emotional trauma … and it’s not always the most immediately rewarding path, either. It’s the path of the cross … it leads to Calvary … the path our Savior walked two thousand years ago to bring us Salvation … and the road we find ourselves on as a result of that Salvation.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

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