Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 † Psalm 19 † 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a † Luke 4:14-21
You’ve probably heard the one about lies and statistics. It’s a quote from Mark Twain, from about 1906 that he attributed to the British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli. Rather than repeat it here, let me just defer to a less colorful paraphrase of it from a letter to the editor of the British newspaper the National Observer: “Sir, —It has been wittily remarked that there are three kinds of falsehood: the first is a ‘fib,’ the second is a downright lie, and the third and most aggravated is statistics.”[I]
Anyway, I found myself thinking about this, and about statistics in particular, as I was preparing for today, and trying to get a sense of what Luke is trying to claim about Jesus and his work in this text. Jesus stands up among his hometown folk and reads from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me,” And then the rest of it reads like a mission statement, which is, I think, Luke’s purpose. This, Luke suggests, is what Jesus is up to, what he is about, what God is doing in this promised one of unprecedented power and truth. “He has anointed me,” Jesus reads,
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.”[ii]
The passage is plain, and the work is straightforward, although it may take a little unpacking. But Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, in his recent book Tenacious Solidarity is concerned that we may miss the plain sense of the text. Here’s why. He says: “we have been schooled, for a variety of reasons, to read the Bible in categories that are individualistic, privatistic, other-worldly, and “spiritual.”[iii]
Now, he is getting old. Perhaps he’s worried about what he sees, as he nears the twilight of his long career and his life. But he makes a compelling case that we are prone to step away from the plain meaning of this gospel to our peril.
Daniel 12:1-3 † Psalm 16 † Hebrews 10:11-25 † Mark 1:8
“’Hope’ is the thing with feathers,” says the 19th century poet Emily Dickinson.[i]
“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all –
Hope is feather-light, the smallest and most vulnerable of things, yet it has such potential to evoke possibility against unimaginable odds.
Dickinson’s embodiment of hope seems a little jarring juxtaposed to the principalities and powers that show up in Daniel and Mark today. Such solidity and heft against such a fragile thing—teacher, “what large stones and what large buildings!”
You get the sense anything so insignificant would be crushed in an instant, would be powerless against such size and force. But Dickinson isn’t done. In fact, she ups the ante, throwing this feathered creature into the tempest.
Genesis 1:1-31; Psalm 8:1-9; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20
Anyone living in the Pacific Northwest should read Timothy Egan’s The Good Rain. It is a thrilling yarn by a modern day wilderness adventurer who follows the route of a trailblazer from 1853. Woven through many historic threads, is Egan’s reverence for Creation in the Pacific Northwest. Let me read a small passage, chosen at random.
Near Vasiliki Tower (a mountain in the North Cascades), wildflowers grow from rock slits high above timberline. A hummingbird buzzes overhead, and I see goat prints on a patch of midsummer snow. As it has for many citizens of the Information Age, computer time has cut my attention span and reduced my patience. To come up here, I must slow to glacier time.
In a class at Seattle U, several of us from St. Andrew read a half dozen books, at least four of which also captured an enchantment with Nature in these parts.
I was reminded of the creation story Pat read that begins Genesis. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. And it was good. Farther down, at verse 26, God says, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing.... God blessed them, and God said to them, Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion….
Ezekiel 34:11-24 † Psalm 100 † Ephesians.1:15-23 † Matthew 25:31-46
It’s all hindsight. All of it. No one was doing what they were doing in the parable because they thought they were doing it “unto Christ.” They were just doing it. It was just what they did or didn’t do. Everyone was surprised, in other words. Everyone was surprised that this would be the thing that would set them apart—right from left, sheep from goats. When did we see you hungry or thirsty, or a stranger or naked, or in prison?
Which kind of begs the question. What were they expecting? Not so much for the goats. We know all-too-well the world in which people do “goaty” things, do for themselves, vote for their own interests, look out for number one, shove and claw and occupy and foul more space than they need to. This story is as old as the hills, or at least as old as Ezekiel who sounds like a modern-day prophet for climate change. “Is it not enough,” the prophet asks,
for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet?[i]
There’s more than enough of that to go around. And, of course, we know that part in us. Because we all have a little sheep, a little goat—we all have contested space within us, a DMZ between Thanksgiving feeding at the REACH meal and that feeding-frenzy we call Black Friday.
But they were all surprised—sheep and goats together. No one was expecting this. It just kind of surfaced. So if it wasn’t about pleasing, about caring, about serving as a way to meet the holy, to do it “unto Christ,” what was the motivation? Why did they do it? What did it mean? What does it say?
Exodus 14:19-31 † Psalm 114:1-9 † Romans 14:1-12 † Matthew 18:21-35
Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister?
Perhaps I should stop talking and just sit down.
Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Thus ends the reading of the word. Thus, ends the sermon.
Why do we pass judgment? There is plenty here in this simple question. Just take time to reflect on it, live in it. “Explore the space,” as Christopher Walken says in one of my favorite Saturday Night Live skits. If we were to do this, and this alone, to consider our quick path to judgment, it would be time well spent.
Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister?
That’s what the slave did to the other slave in the parable, isn’t it? He decides not to forgive the debt he is owed, despite having just experienced forgiveness that has given his own life back to him.
It is worth pointing out, I think, the extremes captured in the amounts that are forgiven and not forgiven. The master forgives his servant a debt of ten thousand talents, while the servant fails to forgive his brother a debt of one hundred denarii.
Let’s do the math. A talent, as the footnote in the pew bibles notes, is worth “more than fifteen years’ wages of a laborer” while the denarius was “the usual day’s wage.” In other words, the first servant has been forgiven a debt equivalent to 50 million days of a salary for a laborer, while he cannot find his way to forgiving a debt equal to a salary of 100 days of labor—4 months or so. We are talking, in other words, about a proportion of 500,000 to one.
Exodus 12:1-14 † Psalm 149:1-9 † Romans 13:8-14 † Matthew 18:15-20
Do you remember the Somali pirates? They made news about 5 years ago with a spate of ship hijackings off the horn of East Africa. The story gained some traction in the news and lots of mixed reaction, even inspiring the 2013 movie “Captain Phillips” played by Tom Hanks. The movie tells of a 2009 Somali hijacking—the first of an American cargo ship in 200 years.
I remember because it was one of those stories that seemed to appear in the news out of nowhere, and then disappear almost as quickly. Piracy in the modern world? Where did this come from? And why? And why now?
It turns out political instability—essentially a decades-long civil war had resulted in a missing-in-action Somali government. In the vacuum of leadership and the dismantling of the local navy, foreign ships began to exploit the coast, invading local fishing grounds and poisoning the waters with illegal waste that further decimated the fishing population. It effectively ended the fishing trade that had provided a living for these Somalis and their families.
They turned to piracy out of desperation, holding crews hostage for ransom.
Genesis 45:1-15 † Psalm 33 † Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32 † Matthew 15:10-28
Mother Teresa used to say, “If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.”
I don’t know what you think of this. It strikes me at first, like a claim from a more innocent time. It seems inadequate in the face of the recently amplified voices of white supremacy, of oppression and intolerance and hatred—perhaps most unnervingly, from the occupant of the White House whose role is supposedly to speak with a moral voice, to represent all the people, not an intolerant few.
It seems inadequate in the echo of extremist voices reviving the language of racial purity and ethnic intolerance. It seems inadequate given these beliefs led to the systematic murder of 7 million Jews and people of color by the Nazi Party of Germany—of people with physical and mental disabilities, and of lesbians and gays and transgendered people who were only trying to be their true selves.
It seems inadequate given the long history of slavery, of overt and covert oppression and malicious intimidation of people of African ancestry these past 400 years. It seems inadequate given the ebb and flow of government policies over the life of our troubled nation that have further privileged the interests of the already protected insiders.
Perhaps a quick reminder of legislative history in the United States might help us to keep things in context here:[i]
Franklin and a team of researches visited the scorched slopes of Mount St. Helens after the volcano exploded with the force of multiple atomic bombs in 1980.
William Dietrich tells the now familiar story in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Final Forest.[i]
The blast laid trees over like a giant comb, burning off the needles and covering the mountainsides with logs like matted brown hair. Ash covered the duff of the forest floor. Humans and large animals caught in the blast were suffocated and roasted. But scientists were surprised at how many small creatures and plants survived the searing heat and began immediately to repair the ecological fabric. Fireweed poked through the ash. Ants scuttled across the gray powder. Gophers burrowed to the surface, beginning to mix the old soil with the new deposits. Insects and seed began to blow across the moonscape.
Isaiah 60:1-6 † Psalm 72:1-7,10-14 † Ephesians 3:1-12 † Matthew 2;1-12
There seems to be some debate as to whether 2016 was a good year or a bad year when you stack it up against others. I don’t know what do you think?
A shorthand list makes the case for a pretty disappointing trip around the sun: Syria, Zika, Haiti, Orlando, Nice, Charlotte, Brussels. Or take this angle: Bowie, Prince, Ali, Cohen, Fisher, Reynolds. There were quite a few people who weren’t too happy with votes in the U.S. and Britain, not to mention a few other places. We’ve had our share of personal tragedies and disappointments too. It can wear on us. Make us wonder about things, doubt, despair. I confess to this at times. I lose hope.
Of course, there are arguments for the other perspective. Take some 2016 headlines from a recent article:[i] British Columbia protected 85% of one of the world’s largest rainforests. In February, Peru and Bolivia signed a $500 million deal to preserve Lake Titicaca. In March, the U.S. government abandoned its plan for oil and gas drilling in Atlantic waters. After almost 13 years of negotiations, Malaysia established a 1 million hectare marine park. More than 20 countries pledged over $5 billion for ocean conservation this year by creating 40 new marine sanctuaries covering 1.3 million square miles. New research showed that acid pollution in the atmosphere is back down to the level it was before industrialization in the 1930s.
Jeremiah 18:1-11 | Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 | Philemon 1-21 | Luke 14:25-33
There is no escaping faith. This is important to understand. You have to believe in something. When Jesus spins around and confronts this large crowd who is following him with a word that sounds harsh and confrontational and impossible, he is at least making this truth plain. There is no such thing as neutral living. If you choose not to give yourself to something, you have given yourself to something else by virtue of your choice. If you choose to be inactive about something you are, at the least, supporting the status quo. No matter what you do, you are giving yourself to something. The question is to what.
St. Andrew Sermons