From Master to Lord

Luke’s version of Jesus calling his first disciples feels like something of a non sequitur.  After a chapter full of stories of teaching and healing in and around Galilee, it feels like Jesus has a bit of crew hanging around him.  Yet, by the time we get to chapter 5, Luke feels compelled to let us in on how the band first got together.  As if by way of a flashback, Luke begins the story of Jesus calling Peter, James, and John with, “Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God…”

So, once upon a time, Jesus was hanging out by a lake with a crowd so large he couldn’t hear himself think.  Quick on his feet, as the Son of God should be, Jesus decided to use the natural amphitheater of the lakeshore to his advantage and he asked Simon (Peter) to put his boat out into the water a bit so that he could teach the crowd.  When he was finished with his sermon, presumably on the nearness of the Kingdom of God, Jesus asked Simon to head out into the deep water in order to catch some lunch.

Simon (Peter), exhausted from a long night of fishing but not catching, reluctantly follows the Rabbi’s instructions, but not without a good, passive aggressive, gibe.  “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.  But, if you say so, I’ll let down the nets.”  Master caught my attention this morning because it clearly isn’t Lord, which is what people usually call Jesus in the Gospels.  In the Greek, the word translated as master is the generic word for someone who is appointed over someone else – a superintendent or an overseer.  In the culture of his day, Simon no doubt recognizes that this itinerant Rabbi is of a higher class than him, but he is also pretty sure that lifetime of fishing on that lake made him an expert.  In the parlance of the South, it might be as if Simon (Peter) says to Jesus, “OK, hoss, we’ll do it your way.”

What follows is a most miraculous event.  The catch of fish is so large that it almost sinks two boats.

jesus-and-the-miraculous-catch-of-fish-on-lake-of-genesareth-sea-of-m5yrj6

What is the most ridiculous part of this stock image of the scene?  My vote is on Lazy Jesus.

Luke tells us that everyone who witnessed this event were amazed at what they say.  No doubt the crowd gathered on the lakeshore knew as well as Simon did that fish don’t bite that late into the morning.  Yet, there before their very eyes, was a catch such that they had never seen before.  Simon Peter is moved from skeptic to believer in that experience.  Jesus is no longer simply master, but now he has become Lord.  Peter fell to his knees and worshiped Jesus saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”  He wasn’t exactly sure what this Jesus guy was, but he knew that God was with him.

Many followers of Jesus since then have had deeply profound encounters with Jesus that helped them come to faith.  Many others, myself included, have simply been a part of the Way their whole lives.  Being called as a disciple doesn’t require the miraculous catch, but rather, a willingness to see Jesus as something more than simply a special teacher, a master, but rather as Lord.

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By what authority?

For me, the problem with only preaching once in a a eight week span is that I’ve somehow missed the giant leaps the lectionary has done within the Gospel of Matthew.  Even if reality doesn’t bear this out, it feels like we all of a sudden find ourselves in Holy Week.  In actuality, we have jumped only a few chapters at a time over the course of the past few months, but this week, we find ourselves deep in the conflicts of Holy Week.

Chapter 21 begins with Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem.  Known these days as Palm Sunday, this marks the beginning of Jesus’ final week.  Riding on a donkey, Jesus entered Jerusalem from the east on the same day that Pilate, the Roman Governor of Israel, would have arrived from the west on his war horse.  On the east side of town, the crowd cheered “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”  On the west side of town, a much larger crowd proclaimed Caesar as the son of god.  Upon his arrival, Jesus made his way to the Temple where with a whip of cords and disgust in his eyes, he flipped the tables of the money changers and equated the whole enterprise with Isaiah’s “den of robbers.”

The next day, which would have been a Monday, Jesus again entered Jerusalem through the east gate and returned to the scene of yesterday’s unpleasantness.  It is here that our Gospel lesson begins with the chief priests and elders asking a perfectly legitimate question, “By what authority are you doing all this?”  In common parlance, we might imagine them saying, “Who do you think you are?”  I’ve written on the topic of authority in Matthew before.  Then, it dealt with Jesus’ claim to have been given “all authority” following his resurrection.  I think the topic deserves attention here, before the crucifixion, as well.

authority-link-buuilding

My current working definition of authority comes from the Rev. Dr. Craig Koester, Vice President of Academic Affairs at Luther Seminary.  In a commentary on Matthew 28, Koester defines authority as “followability,” which I find helpful in this context as well.  After all that had happened on Sunday, Jesus returns to Jerusalem and finds himself, once again and still, surrounded by a crowd of followers.  The leaders are indignant.  How could this rabble-rouser still have followability?  Who gave him such authority?  One suspects that they already know the answer, though deep down, they pray it isn’t true that God’s judgment had really come upon the Temple system.

We who follow Jesus recognize his authority simply by following.  By subscribing to his teaching of the Kingdom of Heaven and how it has been inaugurated, implicitly we agree to the reality Jesus names after his resurrection.  Namely, his authority, the reason we follow him, comes from the God who created everything that is.  In so doing, we place ourselves under that authority while also having some of it ceded to us.  Since we are not in the midst of Holy Week, and will not be under the scrutiny of those of would do us harm, by virtue of our baptisms, we are all able to answer the question, “by what authority” with confidence – “we follow Jesus.”

Following Jesus – a sermon

Today’s sermon can be heard on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.


When I was a kid, my favorite classroom job was eraser cleaner.  I loved the chance to go outside and beat the chalkboard erasers against the wall of the school.  They don’t have chalkboards in most schools anymore, so that job has gone the way of the gas lamplighter, and in a highly unscientific study of two girls ages 7 and 4, I’ve come to realize that the number one classroom job nowadays is Line Leader.  Even when our girls hated going to school, the weeks that they knew they’d be assigned Line Leader were always a good ones.  Being the one who gets to lead the class to the bathroom, to lunch, or best of all, to the playground seems to tap into something deep within human nature.  There seems to be something hardwired in us, something integral to our humanity that makes us want to be leaders.  We want to be in control.  We want to be the ones who are out front.  Of course, that desire that sits deep within us is part of what makes being a disciple, a follower of Jesus, so difficult.

line-leader

Instead of running out on our own, ahead of everyone, Jesus invites us not to lead, but to follow.  In today’s Gospel lesson, we hear the story of three people who really wanted to follow Jesus, they deeply desired to be with him, but they wanted to be with him on their own terms.  They wanted to be in control, even as they followed Jesus.  They wanted to walk out front instead of holding back and trusting Jesus to lead them to the Promised Land.  Luke doesn’t tell us whether or not any of them actually ended up following Jesus, but he makes it abundantly clear that following Jesus is not easy.  Of course, these three aren’t the first to struggle with the idea of trusting Jesus enough to follow him.

Way back at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus met three fishermen cleaning their boats after a long, unsuccessful night of fishing.  After borrowing one of the boats as a makeshift teaching platform, Jesus asked one of the fishermen, a man named Simon Peter, to put out into deeper water to drop the nets for a catch.  Jesus invited Simon to follow his directions, directions Simon knew it would be absolutely foolish to follow.  Simon vocalized his distrust of Jesus.  Two boats full of professional fishermen had fished all night long and caught nothing, why on earth would he waste his energy by dropping nets in the heat of the day.  Yet, Luke tells us, Simon eventually followed.  “If you say so,” Simon said to Jesus, “I will let down the nets.”  Despite Simon Peter’s misgivings and his vocal objection, two things he will come to be known for, Simon followed Jesus, dropped the nets, and the catch was so large that both boats were filled to the brink of sinking.  Simon made the intentional choice to follow Jesus even when it made no sense, but as he took in the events surrounding the amazing catch, Simon Peter was caught short.  He knew that he was in the presence of a man of God and he became afraid to follow Jesus, blurting out, “Get away from me.  I am a sinful man.”  But Jesus wouldn’t let him off the hook that easily.  Jesus invited Simon and his friends to make their lives about following him, to become fishers of people, and so Simon, James, and John immediately dropped their nets and followed him.

Following Jesus means giving up all control.  It means going where Jesus wants to go, at the pace he wants to get there, using whatever path he wants to use.  Peter, James, John knew this better than anybody else.  They followed Jesus all around the Galilean countryside.  They followed Jesus to meals at the homes of sinners and tax collectors.  They followed Jesus as he violated the laws of Sabbath, and they even followed him to Nain where they watched him raise a man from the dead.  As they followed, they listened to his teaching; they misunderstood his parables; they watched with concern as his mother and brothers tried to get him to stop what he was doing.  Much to their surprise, they even followed in his ministry of exorcism and healing.

Everything about following Jesus changed in the course of about a week, however.  After Peter confessed that Jesus was the Messiah, he and James and John followed Jesus up a mountainside where he was transfigured before their very eyes.  Because they had followed, they were witnesses to Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, and they heard the voice of God.  As they came down, it became clear that things were never going to be the same.  Luke suggests this by telling his readers that Jesus set his face for Jerusalem.  He set his face toward the cross, the final act of self-giving love, a place that would prove too difficult for his disciples to follow.  But before he got there, he was met by these three would-be disciples who desired to follow him.  Jesus responds to their requests, not with harshness, but with reality.  Following him on the way to Jerusalem will mean having nowhere to call home, it will require a commitment stronger than death, and it will mean walking resolutely forward.  The stakes are much higher now; there is no time to look back, no time to mourn what is lost, no time to worry.  Jesus wants every would-be disciples to count the cost of following him.

I can’t help but wonder if following Jesus in 21st century America is just too easy?  Even as a priest, a professional follower of Jesus, as it were, I have a very nice house where I can lay my head; I have plenty of leisure to spend three weeks each year looking back, studying the past in church history and theology; and worry is, as you know, my spiritual gift.  Jesus Christ set his face toward the cross, but what sort of risk to we take to be his disciples?  What is the cost?  What difference does following Jesus make in my life?  I think it is important to ask ourselves these questions; to examine where our lives have fallen short of accepting the true cost of following Jesus, but I’ve also seen the barrage of prayer requests over the past several weeks.  I’m keenly aware that our community has deeply felt the pain of loss and the fear of the unknown of late.

The good news is that following Jesus isn’t about feeling guilty for falling short, but claiming for ourselves the grace that overcomes our failures.   We follow the living, risen Jesus who walks ahead of us through the cross to resurrection life.  Following Jesus doesn’t mean being protected from the hard things in life – Jesus walked straight to the cross. Following Jesus means walking through all the trials and tribulations of life.  It means walking through illness, through death, through darkness and sadness.  Following Jesus means you won’t walk through those hard places alone.  Jesus has already walked through the valley of the shadow of death and he will be there with you.  Following Jesus means having him as your ever present companion. He offers you his body and breaks bread with you.  He offers you his blood and shares the cup with you.  He nourishes you from his very substance so that you might continue to follow where he leads.  Following Jesus means choosing each day to walk with him through the cross to eternal life.  It means counting the cost, keeping our eyes focused ahead, and trusting him to lead us through the hard times to life everlasting. Where would you have us follow, O Lord, for we are ready as you lead the way?  Amen.

 

Breaking Bread

Despite the recent trend away from products containing gluten, bread has for centuries been one of the most important food commodities around the globe.  Be it Baguette, Matzah, Cornbread, or Nan just about every region of the world has a grain and water based staple that provides calories and carbohydrates for the hard working lower class.  In times of high cotton in America, workers have been said to “bring home the bacon,” but the reality is most of us are doing well to “keep bread on the table.”  It is no wonder then that Jesus’ encounter with Cleopas and his companion (literally, one with whom you break bread) is so intriguing.

Sure, it is a story full of nuance and questions.  Why don’t he disciples recognize Jesus?  Why does he pretend to continue down the road?  What were the disciples thinking as their hearts were strangely warmed?  To my mind, however, the most important action in the story is their sitting down to break bread together.  In the depths of their despair, the disciples offered hospitality to the stranger in their midst, invited him to spend the night, and shared a meal with him.  How many of us would do the same?

There is, I think, a discipleship lesson in the Emmaus Road story.  Followers of Jesus eventually realize the holiness of the mundane.  Breaking bread is something we do whether in joy, as in the Eucharistic Feast, or in sadness, as in the traditional funeral reception.  We take time in the midst of the highs, lows, and in-betweens of life to share a meal and remember the good things God has given us.  Sometimes it is strictly ceremonial, sometimes its therapeutic pimento cheese, and sometimes it is a feast of rich foods and well aged wines, but breaking bread is something we do, no matter what.

For the record, I hate pimento cheese, so please don’t see this as an invitation to bring some by my office. Thanks!

The Hook – A Sermon

you can listen to yesterday’s sermon here.  Or, read it below.

Every other week, my main task for the week is the preparation of a sermon for Sunday.  Sure, I do other things: pastoral visits, teaching preparation, administrative mumbo jumbo, and outside projects for Beckwith or Diocesan Restructuring, but every other week, at least a quarter of my work time and a lot more of my mental effort are spent crafting a sermon.  By far, the hardest part of that preparation is finding the hook – often a story that I can use to open the sermon as I begin to take you down the homelitcal path toward what I think is the point of it all.  I begin my prep work on Monday morning: I read the lessons, write a preliminary blog post, visit the commentaries I have found helpful over the years, and compile my notes for the week ahead.  By Tuesday afternoon, I’ve read those notes, listened to my favorite lectionary podcast, written a second blog post, and am beginning to see a theme develop.  Wednesday is usually spent chewing my exegetical cud.  I re-read my notes with my sermon theme in mind, looking for insights into the culture of Jesus’ time and how it can be related to our very different time and place.  By Wednesday, I’m starting to feel the pressure for the hook, and I’m wracking my brain, looking everywhere for the opening paragraph.  If all goes according to plan, Thursday is writing day, and the first thing that happens is an amazing story is typed out with a clear understanding of how it ties into the rest of my sermon and what benefit it gives in shaping the theme of Jesus’ life lesson for that week.  If all goes according to plan.

I’ve made the narrative of my sermon preparation process this week’s hook to tell you how important I think a good story is.  Without a good story, a sermon, no matter how well thought out, no matter how theologically sound, no matter how applicable it is to the life of the hearer, without a good story, a sermon is usually dead in the water, and I think Jesus’ parable of the unjust judge or the persistent widow is just not a very good story.  I’m probably over stepping the bounds of polite behavior in suggesting that our Lord and Savior missed the mark on a story, but I just can’t stand here and sell you something that I don’t believe.  The Parable of the Unjust Judge is flat out a bad story, and I know that I’m not alone in thinking that.  In fact, I’m pretty well convinced that Luke wasn’t quite sure if he should include this parable in his Gospel or not.  Mark, the author of the earliest Gospel, didn’t use it.  Matthew, the second oldest Gospel, also chose not to include it.  Luke ultimately put it in his Gospel, but decided that he needed to give it a little help.  I imagine his editor calling him up and saying, “Luke, that story about the judge and the widow… well, I just don’t get it.  What’s the reader supposed to take from that story?”  So, before the final manuscript was published, Luke went in and added an editorial comment on the story.

“Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart.”  For Luke, that’s what this story, hard to understand as it is, was all about: the need to pray always and not to lose heart because for Luke and his Church, the main question that they were dealing with was, “Why hasn’t Jesus come back for us yet?”  As we read through the New Testament, starting with Paul’s letters as the earliest written texts, we see that Paul very much expects Jesus to come back tomorrow.  His instructions for ordering the common life of the Church are based on the assumption that it won’t be around long enough to need buildings, endowments, and hierarchical organizational structures.  Over time, however, as the Apostles begin to be martyred and the first generation of disciples begins dying of natural causes, the questions begin to creep in.  “If Jesus isn’t coming back tomorrow, is it ok if I go ahead and get married?”  “How are we going to share the story of Jesus once everyone who actually remembers him is gone?”  “How is my family going to take care of me in my old age if we put everything into a common purse?”  Practical questions for a people needing to be practical followers of Jesus, so Luke decides to share this story so that his people would know that Jesus wanted them to “pray always and not to lose heart.”  This is all well and good, I suppose, but I’m not convinced it helps us 21st century Christians much.  We’re the inheritors of two-thousand years of waiting for Jesus to come back.  Most of us are pretty sure that he’ll come back someday, but probably not anytime soon.  Our version of Christianity is very much built to be practical about the fullness of our lives – that is to say, our Church is equipped to carry us from womb to tomb.

This brings us back to the fact that this is just not a very good story.  It does not have the timeless qualities of some of Jesus’ other parables.  It seems very specific to the time and place of Jesus and the sixty years after his death and resurrection.  I get why Luke decided to put it in his Gospel, but I feel like we’re back to square one, scratching our heads and wondering, what’s the hook?  Why is this in our Lectionary?  What’s the point?

The second most important part of sermon preparation is the conclusion.  What is the lasting thought I want to leave you with when I’m finished?  This is the part I struggle with.  By the time I’ve poured out my fifteen hundred words, I’m usually tapped out, and as I read and re-read and re-re-read this parable this week, I couldn’t help but wonder if Jesus wasn’t a bit drained by it all as well.  The conclusion to this parable seems to have nothing to do with the rest of the story.  After a painful tale about justice delayed, Jesus says, “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”  Every time I read that line, I wondered what it was doing there.  I thought maybe Luke had copied and pasted it from another story by accident.  I went digging into the Greek thinking that perhaps the translation was sloppy.  I found that the Greek is even more puzzling as it contains an “untranslatable interrogatory participle that implies anxiety or impatience.”[1]  Not only did Jesus say this line, but he said this truly wondering, to the point of being anxious about it, if when he finally returned would there be any faith left on the earth?  And then it hit me, Luke was right; this is a story all about the universal need to pray continuously and to not lose heart.  I realized that my problem with this story was that it seemed like a non sequitur.  It seemed to just be plopped down in the middle of nowhere for no good reason, but that is absolutely not the case.

Jesus tells his disciples this parable because seventeen verses earlier, the Pharisees approached Jesus and asked him, “When will the Kingdom of God come?”  When will it all get set right?  When will this nightmare that we’ve created be over?  Over the past couple of weeks, more than most in my life, I’ve found myself asking Jesus the same question, “when will your kingdom come?”  As many of you know, I’ve spent the last two weeks on Jury Duty for the Baldwin County Circuit Court.  It doesn’t take too long in the Baldwin County Court House to realize that God’s Kingdom is not yet fully attained on earth as it is in heaven, but you didn’t have to drive to Bay Minette to figure that out.  The 16 day long Government Shutdown and ensuing Debt Ceiling and Obamacare political wrangling  made it abundantly clear that we are just small pawns in somebody else’s high stakes game.  More than a few times over the past few weeks, I found myself asking Jesus to come on back and sort out this mess.  And I know I’m not the only one.

That’s what makes this terrible story so worth telling.  We’ve all felt like that poor widow at least once in our lives: crying out for God to just come fix it because it is all just too much to handle.  We’ve all been a razor’s edge away from losing heart, throwing up our hands and saying, “to heck with it all.”  Jesus knew you’d get there, so he told his disciples a parable, with a hook 2,000 years long, “pray always, don’t lose heart, have faith.”  The Kingdom of God has come near.  Amen.


[1] BibleWorks 5.0 BGM Morphology for Luke 18.8