READING: John 3:1-16
1Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God." 3Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." 4Nicodemus said to him, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" 5Jesus answered, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.' 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." 9Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?" 10Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
11Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
There is a classic story of sibling conflict in my family. My cousins were having a fight, and when one of them threw a ball at the other, the other ducked, and the ball flew over them—and right through a window. When my aunt ran in to see what had happened, she saw the broken glass and asked who had broken the window. You can probably guess what my cousins said. “It’s their fault, they threw the ball!” Quickly followed by, “No, it’s THEIR fault—they ducked!”
My aunt, of course, wasn’t buying it. Just like most of our parents probably did, and most of you who are parents do, as our Confirmation students said when we discussed this at our class last week. Of all the things we can come up with to try to get out of trouble, “They started it!” is probably on the list of top ten excuses that are least likely to succeed!
It is no wonder, then, that God didn’t accept Adam and Eve’s claims. Adam saying, “It was Eve’s fault” and Eve saying “It was the snake’s fault!” In the end, God held them all accountable, Adam, Eve, and the snake, all having consequences for the mistake they had made.
And I think that this, perhaps, is one of the great lessons we can learn from this ancient tale. When we make mistakes, God sees through the excuses and the distractions and the blame, and knows the truth: we mess up, just as Adam and Eve did in this legendary tale from the very beginning. Of course we do, we are human after all! And God knows this, no matter how we may try to hide. It didn’t work for Adam and Eve, it didn’t work for Cain, and it doesn’t work for us either.
This is not, however, the only lesson of Adam and Eve, although we often get stuck there, and sometimes in the worst possible way: Eve disobeyed God and ate the apple, and drew Adam into her sin. Evil temptress woman! And then, God threw us out of the garden to suffer. But this is not actually the beginning of the story, nor is it the end.
All of the angst and shame and mistakes and consequences of Adam and Eve cannot erase the real beginning of the story. No matter how much we mess up, that can’t change the fact that God created us, in God’s image. God spoke words calling us into being, God shaped and formed us with His own hands. God breathed life into us. When we breathe, God’s very Spirit fills us again, and again, and again. And, we know from God’s provision of clothes for Adam and Eve when they were embarrassed about their nakedness, and God’s protection of Cain after he killed Abel, that God will never stop loving us, even when we have done great harm.
We know that God will never, ever, give up on us. God is so committed to loving us, redeeming us, bringing us home, that he came to us in Jesus, even though God knew that our sinfulness would result in Jesus’ suffering and death. God continues to come to us today, because we are God’s beloved children and nothing can ever change that.
We human beings, and this human life we live, are complicated! There is a reason we Lutherans like to talk about so many “both-ands.” As we begin Lent, we can hear echos of Martin Luther telling us that we are all simultaneously sinners and saints. We are humans, imperfect beings who make mistakes, harm other people, ourselves, and God by what we do and what we fail to do. And, we are humans, beloved children created by God, with an amazing capacity for love, compassion, healing, and joy.
In Lent, we are reminded to embrace the full truth of who we are, both sinner and saint, beloved of God. We are called during these 40 days not to make excuses, not to place blame on others, not to distract from our brokenness and the brokenness of the world, but to acknowledge the areas of our lives that need healing and forgiveness. We are challenged to take the finger we may have pointing at others, and take a look at our own lives and our part in our relationships, and invite God in.
Where have we been dishonest in our relationships with God, ourselves, or others? Where have we contributed to brokenness and oppression in the world, whether by what we have said or done, or by failing to stand up for those who are suffering? How can we learn to be more present for the people in our lives, and less distracted by those things that really don’t matter in the end? What can we do these 40 days to grow our capacity for love, honesty, compassion, justice, and joy?
During these 40 days, we can prepare for Holy Week and Easter by focusing on prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. In prayer, we commit time to focus on our relationship with God, acknowledging that we need God in our lives. In fasting, we let go of things that are getting in the way, and make room for healing and love to come in and change us. In almsgiving, we look for ways to be of service to the world around us, trusting in the abundance God has given for all people.
We walk these 40 days together, and it starts today. It starts with worship, prayer, sharing Communion, and receiving ashes to remind us of our humanity. As a community, we see our own brokenness and the brokenness of the world, with no excuses, and are reminded profoundly of the need we have for God. And we do this because we know we have a God who will never fail us, even when we fail God. Thanks be to God!
READING: Luke 9:28-36
The conversation about Jesus’ suffering and death is enclosed in a dazzling foreshadowing of the resurrection. God affirms Jesus’ identity, the disciples are stunned speechless, and Jesus resumes his mission with a demonstration of his power over evil.
28Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. 34While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
As I reflected on this reading, I got to thinking about mountaintop experiences, those times when the veil becomes particularly thin between us and God. I have experienced these moments in many places, including on retreat, and in church, but most often in nature. A few years ago, after spending almost two weeks with members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania, my fellow travelers from Holy Trinity Lutheran and I took a few days on safari, and the plains of the Serengeti took my breath away.
Everywhere we looked, we saw a landscape untouched by humans, with the exception of the tire-worn trails forged by safari vehicles, and over the course of three days, we saw animals running, playing, hiding, eating, sleeping and hunting, animals that I never really thought I would see outside of a zoo. We saw baby baboons only days old, and lions feasting on the carcass of a cape buffalo that had apparently been too old to outrun the pride one more time. We saw a hippopotamus, yawning as it raised its head briefly out of its watery sanctuary, and discovered its enormous footprint in the mud where it had ventured out for food. A mother elephant thundered to within a few feet of our car, her baby close behind, letting us know that this was her territory—they were hungry, we were merely visitors, and we had better not get in her way!
We were surrounded by God’s creation, and it seemed in those few days that, as the psalmists say, everything in that creation was singing God’s praise. I knew the effort was futile, but I couldn’t help taking picture after picture, hoping to capture the experience. I would guess you have some of your own similar stories to share of experiencing awe and wonder, and perhaps like me, have tried in some way to freeze that moment in time. Most often, mountaintop moments take me by surprise, defying attempts to plan or predict them, but when they come, they can be profoundly life-changing. And when the moment is past, I often struggle to explain the experience, because I find it almost impossible to put into mere words—although you’ll notice that it hasn’t stopped me from trying!
The disciples’ experience on the mountain with Jesus was all of this and more. It was not the first time they had gone off alone with Jesus, and it would not be the last. And for this, one of the pinnacle experiences of their time with Jesus, James, John, and Peter walk with him to a high mountain, and Jesus is transfigured—changed or transformed—right in front of them. More surprising, perhaps, is the appearance of Moses and Elijah with him, almost like ghosts of famous people only heard of and never seen. And the disciples first reaction is not unlike my photographic urgency on safari—Peter wants to build a booth for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. Peter, in other words, wants to enshrine this experience, so it can be easily replicated for others and preserved for the future. How amazing would it be if that could be done?
God, however, sees things differently. No sooner does Peter suggest this, than he and James and John throw themselves to the ground, overwhelmed by the voice of God speaking similar words to those heard at Jesus’ baptism in the river. “This is my Son, my chosen; listen to him!” As the words echo in Peter’s ears, he is profoundly aware that the experience he is having is far beyond his control, and that there is no way to encapsulate it in a booth.
Like all mountaintop experiences, putting words to what they mean is challenging at best, and in this case, the disciples have been very clearly told to listen to Jesus, not to talk. In our Gospel today, Jesus doesn’t say anything to the disciples, but in the Gospel of Matthew, he does speak. And what Jesus has to say is at once reassuring and confusing. First, Jesus touches the disciples, grounding them in the midst of their fear and awe, and tells them not to be afraid. And just like that, the experience is over. Moses and Elijah have disappeared, and they are alone. They are not, however, unchanged.
And then Jesus orders them to tell no one about what has happened until after he has risen from the dead. This for me is, at first glance, confusing. I might have expected some kind of explanation of what they had just seen, or why they couldn’t build the booths, but Jesus doesn’t offer that. Only the instruction not to tell. And just a few verses before our Gospel passage from today, Peter declares that he believes that Jesus is the Messiah, and that, too, is supposed to be kept secret. This begs the question, why were they there? What did this experience mean for them? And why are they not supposed to tell anyone?
As we enter into Lent, it is the perfect time to think about these profound experiences that Peter, James, and John had. If what the disciples have experienced on the mountaintop is Jesus as Messiah, it actually makes sense to wait until after the resurrection to share this story. After all, it would have been difficult to explain Jesus as the fulfillment of all the hopes of Israel on the afternoon of Good Friday. Even after their mountaintop experience, we know that Good Friday and Holy Saturday were nothing short of devastating and terrifying for the disciples, because they didn’t yet understand themselves what it would mean for Jesus to die and rise again.
Transfiguration Sunday is an experience of God that points to Jesus’s suffering and death, not only because Jesus has explicit conversations about his suffering with his disciples before and after his transfiguration, but because the Transfiguration is about who Jesus is and what he came to do as the Messiah. Jesus’ suffering and death are a part of what he came to do, and that suffering and death is itself transformed on Easter Sunday.
And so the disciples, following Jesus’ direction, wait until after the resurrection, when the whole story of who Jesus is and what he came to do can be told. We, as Jesus’ followers, along with the disciples, are invited to share the whole story of Jesus’ life and ministry, suffering, death, and resurrection.
And we can see from our readings today that knowing—and experiencing—the presence of God in our lives is not something that we simply learn and re-tell. Just like the disciples were never the same after their time on the mountaintop with Jesus and Moses and Elijah, we too are transfigured. Just like Moses’ face reflected the love of God so strongly that the people couldn’t even look at his face after he had spent time with God, we too are transformed.
On Ash Wednesday, we will begin 40 days of praying, and reflecting, acknowledging those things in our lives that prevent us from being aware of God’s presence, get in the way of our being present in loving, just, truthful ways with our fellows. We are invited to open ourselves to the love and mercy and forgiveness of God in ways that will transform how we show up in the world. Most importantly, we are invited to travel together, as friends, family, fellow children of God. Thanks be to God!
READING: Luke 6:27-38
[Jesus said:] 27“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31Do to others as you would have them do to you.
32“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
37“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
Joseph’s brothers did him wrong, no question. The choice they made, out of jealousy, resentment, annoyance, vengeance, has no excuse, no matter how arrogant and presumptuous Joseph was as a young man, no matter how unfair Jacob’s favoritism of his young son. And the damage they did was significant. For years, Joseph lived in slavery. He endured physical hardship and even abuse, false accusations by Potifar’s wife, ridicule for the gift of dream interpretation that God had given him. And Jacob lived all those years thinking that his beloved son was dead.
Ultimately, Joseph’s fortune turns around. Potifar comes to believe him, and not only releases him from prison, and sets him free from slavery, but puts him in charge of guiding the whole country through the famine that had come over the land. We aren’t told how it happens for Joseph. Maybe it was the time that had passed since his brothers sold him. Maybe it was because the physical slavery and hardship that resulted from his brothers’ betrayal had ended. Maybe it the great position of power and privilege that he found himself in. One way or another, by the time Joseph’s brothers come to him desperately seeking the food they will need to survive the famine, Joseph has forgiven them for what they did. He has been set free not only from his physical prison, but from the emotional prison of resentment and anger. Truly, a miracle had happened.
When North Minneapolis resident Mary Johnson’s son Laramiun was shot by Oshea Israel, another teenager in the neighborhood, in 1993, forgiveness and love was the last thing on their mind. In an interview with People magazine in 2011, Mary and Oshea shared their experience. Mary said, “At the trial I hated Oshea. I thought he was an animal and deserved to be caged. I was so angry when the judge charged him with second degree murder, instead of first degree.”
For his part, Oshea felt that Laramiun was to blame for the shooting, and that if Mary had raised him better the conflict that led to Laramiun’s death and Oshea’s imprisonment would not have happened. As time went on, Mary’s anger and depression and grief led her to become a recluse, and ultimately she knew she needed God’s help to forgive the man who had killed her son. After 12 long years, and countless hours of tears and prayer, Mary visited Oshea in prison, and as they shared their pain with each other, God transformed them, and love and forgiveness became possible in the midst of anger and grief.
Mary founded From Death to Life, a program that offers hope and reconciliation to others who have lost children to violence through support groups, prayer walks, and community gatherings that celebrate life and forgiveness. Oshea was paroled in 2010, and today, Mary and Oshea live next door to each other, and share their story of healing from podiums and pulpits around the world, offering hope to many who have experienced the same grief. Oshea, having recognized his own guilt and responsibility for Laramiun’s death, said, “I caused her pain, but we are loving our way through it.”[i] Their journey was far from over. There was much healing yet to take place. But, a miracle had happened.
This is a dramatic example that may seem out of reach, and when left to our own resources, it is. Fortunately, it is precisely where we fall short that God steps in. For us as humans, on our own, forgiveness is not possible, but with God, miracles of love and healing are possible, and they happen every day.
Forgiveness is not an easy thing. If it were, the Bible would not need to include so many stories about it, such as Joseph’s story today, and Jesus would not have continually taught his listeners, and us, to forgive. If forgiveness was something we could just choose once and for all, and be done, there would be no need to talk about it, right? But it is hard. And there is much to learn from what scriptures share about how we respond when we are wounded. There is much we can learn from the courageous vulnerability of those like Mary and Oshea who share their pain and anger, and the miracle of their healing.
There are several things about forgiveness revealed in the stories we have heard today. First of all, forgiveness takes time, and sometimes distance. For Mary, it was years of living in deep bitterness before she could even think of talking to Oshea, and Joseph lived in Egypt apart from his family for years before facing the brothers who had betrayed him. Mary tried to force forgiveness, but it took time and the healing of the Spirit for it to truly begin to happen.
Secondly, when forgiveness happens, it is not because the person who did harm demands it. When we have harmed another, our job is not to require them to forgive us, but to own up to what we have done, and commit to being different, no matter how that person feels about us. When we have been harmed, our job is to bring our woundedness to God for healing, and ask for help in being freed from our own prison of pain, anger, and resentment. Joseph, with God’s grace, extended mercy to his brothers. Mary, with God’s help, came to forgive Oshea. Oshea, with God’s help, came to understand how much harm he had done, and commit to living a different life.
Finally, this process of forgiving is certainly a gift of grace from the person who was harmed to the person who did the harm. But first and foremost, when we have been harmed, forgiveness sets us free from our own pain, making space for healing to continue. Jesus calls us to forgiveness because he wants us to be whole. Jesus calls us to forgiveness because God’s greatest desire is for us to live in love.
Forgiveness is not easy, and there are times when the harm done has been so great that boundaries and distance and even separation are necessary for healing and wholeness to take place. Forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same thing. Whether together or separately, miracles of forgiveness and healing happen, every day. It takes time, and patience, and is only possible with God’s help.
We are, in our humanity, people who mess up often, who hurt one another, and fail to live in the love of the God who made us for love. And we are, in our humanity, beloved children of God who continue to grow and experience the miracles of community and forgiveness and healing that God has for us. And we can walk this journey together, trusting the God of Jacob, and Joseph, and Mary and Oshea, to guide us on the way. Thanks be to God!
[i] Margaret Nelson Brinkhaus and Lorenzo Benet. “How I Forgave My Son’s Murderer.” People Magazine, September 12, 2011, 84-86.
GOSPEL: Luke 5:1-11
1Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. 4When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” 5Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” 6When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. 8But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” 9For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” 11When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.
That day, Simon Peter was doing what he always did on any ordinary day. He, along with his shipmates and partners, had been hard at work, trying to make a living and provide for their families, as many of us do. He had no reason to expect, when he got up, and said goodbye to his wife, and left home, that this day would be any different from any other day. He got in the boat, set out to sea, and cast the nets, hoping to catch enough fish to pay the taxes he would owe the tax collector, with some left over to cover his family’s needs. Sounds familiar, right?
All night they fished, casting their nets again, and again, and again, and—nothing. Finally, they gave up, came back in to shore, and began to wash the nets, hoping for better luck the next time they went out. As they cleaned up so they could go home after a long, unproductive, but quite ordinary night, the first unexpected thing happened. Jesus, looking for a way to preach to the large crowd that had gathered to hear him, came to Simon Peter and asked him for a favor.
Out they went, so Jesus could speak to the crowd from the boat. And when he was done, Jesus told Simon Peter to head out to deep waters and let out his nets again. And in spite of his weariness, the worry of not bringing anything home to his family, and annoyance at the itinerant preacher who was telling this career fisherman how to do his job, something about Jesus had drawn Simon Peter in. Or perhaps, he just wanted to prove Jesus wrong. “If you say so!” And then the second unexpected thing of that otherwise ordinary day happened.
Thank goodness Simon Peter wasn’t alone on the water. His partners had gone back out with them, and between the two boats they just barely managed to get back to shore, hauling the biggest load of fish they had ever seen. And like Isaiah of the unclean lips, and like Paul who had persecuted followers of Jesus, like almost all of the prophets of God, and like so many of us, Simon Peter falls to his knees and says, “Wait a minute, what are you doing? I can’t do this! Go find someone else, you’ve got the wrong person.” The funny thing is, Simon Peter doesn’t even know what Jesus is going to ask him to do yet!
And just like that, Simon Peter’s whole life is changed. He went out that day to catch fish to provide for his family. And while he was out, Jesus showed up, and Simon Peter became one of his followers, a “fisher of people.”
And as we claim in our baptisms, whether we believe we can do it or not, regardless of how much the very idea may terrify us, we too are called to be fishers of people. What does that even mean? Because it certainly doesn’t mean we go around throwing nets over everyone we meet, pulling them into our boat, and hauling them back to shore!
For one thing, if we are to be fishers of people, we have to step out of our comfort zone. That’s part of why this is such a scary thing. We have to leave the solid ground of the shore, with its steadiness and predictability and familiarity, and head out to the sometimes chaotic unknown of the deep waters. Isaiah answers God’s call by saying, “Here am I. Send me,” not knowing where God may send him. Paul, who was raised as a Pharisee and taught to be suspicious of anything that seemed to threaten what he knew, left his comfortable upbringing far behind as he went out to share the good news and promise of God-with-us in Jesus. And in a matter of a few hours, Simon Peter has put down the fishing nets he has used his whole life in order to follow Jesus.
So following Jesus and becoming a fisher of people means leaving our comfort zone, letting go of what we think we know, and trusting that God will lead us when we don’t know the way. That doesn’t mean that all of us are called to physically travel to other places as missionaries, although some certainly are, and we at Bethel continue to support those sent to live and minister with the people of God all over the world.
Leaving our comfort zone, being fishers of people, also means simply seeing people we may normally overlook, and extending the grace and love of God in unexpected ways, right in our own neighborhoods, schools, workplaces. We are called to share the good news of God’s love with everyone we meet, by our words, and by our actions. This is something we do outside of these four walls, as Jesus tells Simon Peter to set out for deeper waters, but also within, as we strive to welcome everyone who enters this space.
Being a fisher of people means putting others before ourselves, listening and reaching out especially to those who may look, talk, think, and live differently from us. This isn’t always comfortable or easy, and we will make mistakes. In the process we can learn about others, and ourselves, and God, as we see the beauty and diversity of God’s creation in the unknown of the deep water.
“Do not be afraid,” Jesus tells Simon Peter. Just like Simon Peter had his partners to help him with his unexpectedly large catch of fish, we also have each other as we seek to follow Jesus. This is something we do together, in community. Jesus does not promise that being a fisher of people will be easy. But Jesus does promise to be with us, and teach us, and guide us, no matter what unexpected things may happen along the way.
Thanks be to God!
21Then [Jesus] began to say to [all in the synagogue in Nazareth,] “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’ ” 24And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
When the passage from Corinthians was read today, many of you likely remembered at least one wedding where that reading was central to the service, perhaps a close friend, or your child, or sibling, or maybe even your own wedding. “Love is patient, love is kind, love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.” Rest in that memory for a moment, thinking about the couple you witnessed, the beauty of the dresses and tuxes, the stories of how the couple met and got engaged, parent-child dances, and the happiness of that day spent celebrating the hope for the future they will have together.
And now, let’s take a step forward, and reflect on what this passage from Corinthians, and the other readings today, tell us about love, and about God—because when we hear this passage at weddings, it is easy to stay in the place of present joy, hope, and happiness experienced on a day of celebrating the lives of those getting married and the future that lays before them as a couple, and forget how complicated love can be.
And it is important to remember that this letter from Paul is not actually written for engaged couples coming to get married. Paul is writing to a community of faith that is struggling to figure out how to live together as followers of Jesus—he is writing to people who, probably like all of us, struggle with impatience and arrogance and selfishness and resentment, and need to be reminded of how God calls us to be in the world—the “still more excellent way of love.”
Far from being an easy thing, love can be really hard and challenging. This passage is not describing an emotion that we feel only in particular times and places. The love Paul is talking about is not a love we feel only for certain people, who we have found to be worthy, and withhold from those who have not earned it. This love is not time-limited and fragile, dependent on circumstances.
Paul, as he writes to the Corinthians and offers them guidance for their lives together, is teaching them about what love means in a community living with conflict, with jealousy and resentments and impatience and pride and all of the other human things that make life in community so challenging. It is exactly into the midst of barriers to love that the love of God enters in and transforms us and our relationships.
Love, Paul tells the Corinthians and us, is about making a choice to endure, believe, be patient, kind, tolerant, truthful, to not insist on our own way, to not hold resentment. Love is an action, a commitment, that must be practiced, in all things, every day. Not just when it is easy, but precisely and most profoundly when it is most difficult. Even impossible. Love is what we choose when we look at one we think of as an enemy, and choose, with God’s help, to see them and respond to them as a fellow child of God.
And when we think this is beyond our capacity, when we encounter a person or situation that sparks every bit of jealousy or resentment or woundedness or rage into a blazing fire within us that threatens to destroy everything in its path, we are reminded that on our own, in our humanity, we will never be capable of living out this seemingly impossible ideal. On our own, we cannot love in the way Paul describes.
This human life we live, and the relationships and community we share, are complicated and sometimes messy. Living into love does not take this away, and there are times when love means making choices that are equally complex and messy, and sometimes we come to realize that the most loving thing we can do, for the good of ourselves and our families, is to set boundaries, or to divorce or end relationships that have become toxic to everyone involved.
And Paul, with his awareness of his own human weakness, certainly knew this. He was, after all, offering wisdom not to a people living this out perfectly, but a people who were finding their life in community hard to manage.
So many of the prophets—Moses, and Elijah, and Mary, and Esther—felt they didn’t have what it takes to live the life God calls us to. And God never seems to say, “oh, you’re right, you aren’t the right person after all. Get out of the way, and I’ll find someone else to do this instead.” God sent Aaron and the seventy-seven leaders to Moses not to take the burden away from Moses, but to share the load. Elijah had Elisha, Mary had Elizabeth, and Mordecai encouraged Esther in the challenges they faced as they spoke the truth of the love of God in their lives.
And to all of them, God promises to be with them, to help and guide them in the task he set before them. In our first reading from Jeremiah, when Jeremiah claims that he can’t possibly do what he is being called to do, that he doesn’t have the words, God empowers Jeremiah, and promises him that he will never have to speak on his own. And God promises the same thing to us.
St. Francis prayed, “Make me an instrument of YOUR peace,” knowing he could not do it on his own, asking God to bring peace through him. And we can join him in that prayer . . . “where there is hatred in this world, in this community, in this room, let me bring YOUR love” not our own. And we can trust that God will show us how to love. God will make it possible for us to do the impossible, for this is how it has always been.
Love, Paul tells us, will never end. Love, Faith, and Hope will abide, even when we in our humanity fall short, because the love of God will not fail, even when we do. Thanks be to God!
14Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 16When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
August 28, 1963, 56 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr stood before thousands on the National Mall for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and delivered a speech—a sermon, really—that would become one of the most famous of Dr. King’s messages for the people, laying out his hope for the future of our country, one where unity and justice would become lived reality for all. It is still today common household knowledge. I bet most of you already know what I am thinking of. Say it with me now: I have a dream.
I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.
With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
This might be considered Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s keystone address, in which he provided the core focus and hope and purpose for all of the ministry he had done, and all he was to do, during the 10 years or so that he led in public life.
Some 2,000 years before Dr. King spoke those famous words, another preacher stood before a crowd gathered in a synagogue in Nazareth, and gave what might be considered his keystone sermon, in which he provided the core focus and hope and purpose for all of the ministry he would do, over the three years or so of his public life.
When Jesus entered the synagogue that day, he had just come out of the desert, where he had spent 40 days and 40 nights getting really clear on who he was and what his purpose was. The devil had tempted him, trying to get him to focus on being popular, on having great power, on being seen as relevant, even spectacular, throwing himself down from a mountain cliff so the angels could catch him as he fell. And in all of it, the Spirit was with him, and Jesus kept saying that it was about God, and not his own glory. About trusting, and not testing, God. It was about knowing that the Word of God is what is most important. 40 days and 40 nights later, hungry, thirsty, exhausted, Jesus comes out of the desert, goes to Galilee, and begins teaching, and soon after gives the first sermon recorded in the Gospel of Luke.
The Word of the God has been given to us as our guide, to lead us forward together. Jesus lived and breathed that Word. The text he reads for his first sermon is from Isaiah: "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." After reading his keynote text, he tells his listeners, and us, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."
As we hear in our portion of Luke today, the initial reaction is favorable, and they ask themselves if this can really be Joseph and Mary’s son. Then, Jesus makes sure that they understand just how challenging these words are. Because as always, Jesus’ first concern, and God’s first concern, is for those who are oppressed, hungry, imprisoned, poor. For those impacted by the injustice of the world. Just as Dr. King spoke hope to those who needed it most, the Spirit has anointed Jesus NOT to be a golden hometown hero, but to bring hope to the poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed. And after Jesus makes this message clear, they try to throw him off a cliff.
Because this message is not necessarily the easiest to hear and embrace, for those of us who have privilege in this world. It is, however, a message that can give us focus, as followers of Jesus, as people of faith who strive to live in the Spirit of God. "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” says Jesus. The Spirit is on Jesus. And we know, as we claim in our baptisms, that the Spirit of God is on us, too! We too are anointed to bring good news to the poor. We too are sent to proclaim release to the captives. We too are called to proclaim recovery of sight to the blind. We too are called to let the oppressed go free, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
In the midst of this time of change and transition that we of Bethel and Immanuel Lutheran Parish are in, it is the perfect time for us to hear Jesus’ first sermon, as he tells us who he is and why he is here. As we go into our Annual Congregational meeting, and reflect on the past year and dream together about the next, it is the perfect time for us to claim, as Jesus did, that we are anointed by God to serve and live into God’s kingdom, which as Dr. King said, is a kingdom of freedom, equality, justice, abundance for all of God’s children.
So, as we wonder together where God is leading us, and what the future will bring, we do not wander alone in the desert. The Spirit is with us, the Word of God guides us, and we can dream together with courage and faith in the one who has anointed to share in bringing the good news. Thanks be to God!
2On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” 5His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” 6Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. 9When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” 11Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
If there is one thing I have learned about Bethel Lutheran Church in the time I have been here, it is this: You all love a good feast! Whether it be the large-scale meal for hundreds that is the lutefisk dinner, carefully prepared and lovingly served, the monthly Men In Mission breakfasts, or the treats served after worship at the Little Falls Care Center or after Sunday worship here at Bethel, food is central to our life together. And what a marvelous thing that is!
Sometimes we can settle in to an image of God that can tend towards the utilitarian—our daily needs are met, we come to worship, we serve our community, we are forgiven and restored when we fall short, we support one another in times of need especially. And all of this is certainly true. But this story of the Wedding at Cana reveals something very important about our God, come to us in Jesus. To see it clearly, we need to get a good picture of where Jesus was and what was happening.
When we think of weddings, we may typically think of 100-200 people come together for a few hours, for the ceremony and a reception with music and dancing. There are gifts and toasts, and food and wine, and then at the end of the evening, everyone goes home. The Wedding at Cana that Jesus attended had food and drink and wine and dancing, of course, but on a completely different scale from what we usually expect.
This was no Saturday afternoon gathering, but rather a seven-day long feast, with hundreds of people, eating, drinking, even (so the steward in our story says) getting a little drunk! Many of the guests travelled long distances to be there, and stayed several days, and it was a point of honor for the host, with the help of local family and community, to provide for all the needs of the guests while they were gathered.
But more than that, the wedding feast was about abundance. There are no limits to the revelry here as family, friends, neighbors join in unbridled celebration with the newly married couple. No worries, or stress, or responsibilities (for the guests, at least). Joy, joy, joy!
In the middle of all this, the wine runs out, and Mary is the first to notice. She calls this to Jesus’ attention, and when Jesus resists, I can imagine her thinking: “You owe me. Remember those three days I searched for you in Jerusalem and found you in the temple, of all places? The panic we felt, the exhaustion of walking and looking everywhere for you. For three days. You owe me!” And then to the servants, “Do what he says.”
The fact that Mary goes to Jesus, rather than to the chief steward who is responsible for overseeing the feast, is interesting in itself. I think she knew, somehow, that Jesus would have a solution to the dilemma. When Mary visits Elizabeth while waiting Jesus’ birth, she proclaims her belief in a God that can do amazing things, a God who keeps promises, a God who cares about our lives and well-being. She believes that God in Jesus cares not only about the needs of the guests, who need the wine to drink in a land that is short on water, but that God rejoices with us when we celebrate. Mary also believed that the world was ready for what Jesus would show us about God.
And Jesus, our God-with-us in human form, having initially questioned whether or not he should step in to solve the problematic lack of wine, decides it is time after all. The enormous jugs are filled with water, and when a cup is drawn, it is wine. And not just any wine, but a wine so good that the chief steward is left to wonder why it was saved for last! God is full of surprises, always, and this is no exception. Having surprised us with his birth as a vulnerable, poor, baby, and then presented himself to John the Baptist for Baptism along with all of the crowds of people doing the same, Jesus now reverses our expectations again by serving the best wine when the guests had already been celebrating for several days. Mary’s faith in Jesus—in God—has not been misplaced. A mother always knows!
In this first action of his public ministry, Jesus shows us a God of abundance, and more than that, a God who, like we at Bethel, can appreciate a good party, with lots of food and drink and music and celebration. Jesus himself was a guest at the party, enjoying the feast along with the rest of the guests. And we are invited into the joyful abandon of the wedding at Cana, to celebrate life and abundance!
And, if we pay attention, we notice that not everyone at the party was aware of the miracle that had taken place with the water turning into wine. The only ones who noticed were the servants, those considered invisible to most of the wedding guests, and the disciples, who were close to Jesus. Once again, it is not those who have the most power and wealth and privilege to whom Jesus first reveals himself, but to those who are often overlooked.
And so, Jesus’ public ministry has begun—with a feast! And we are invited to join in the celebration, along with the rest of Jesus’ disciples. And, we are called to be like Mary—seeing the need of the world, knowing and trusting in the abundance of God, and in that trust bringing prayers to God, asking God to continue to provide as He has promised. With a God who revealed himself in Jesus at the Wedding in Cana, we can trust that the food and wine will not run out, and make sure everyone around us is invited to share in the joy!
Thanks be to God!
Meagan McLaughlin, SAM at Bethel Lutheran Church
Meagan is our interim SAM. Please enjoy her blog on her sermons.