Living the High Life: Interpreting the Law

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You Might be a Pharisee

Several years ago, a fellow Georgia native made a name for himself by comparing people in general to a certain segment of the population. He managed to make quite a name for himself making these comparisons and they ended up on coffee mugs, yearly flip calendars, and various other pieces of merchandise. The phrase that paid, at least for him, was, “You might be a redneck if…”

We’re going to play a version of this game but I’m going to alter it a little from the original. Instead, I’m going to say, “You might be a blank…” and then finish the statement.

  • You might be a blank if you believe in both the Scriptures and the teachings/traditions of the elders.[1]
  • You might be a blank if you believe, “the ability to do what is right or wrong is within the capacity of every person, so that fate cooperates with human free will.”[2]
  • You might be a blank if you believe “in the resurrection of the dead and in an afterlife in which people would be rewarded or punished according to their actions in this life.”[3]
  • You might be a blank if you believe “in angels and spirits.”[4]
  • You might be a blank if you believe in “political realism” and have a “deep concern to preserve the religion of your forefathers.”[5]

Some of you have caught on from the description and the text that the blank in this case is Pharisee. For all our maligning of them through the years in the Christian tradition, many Christians have a great deal in common with them. Think about how many of those beliefs you yourself might espouse. Think about how closely your own ideas about faith and religion align themselves with the Pharisees of Jesus day. Quite often, Christians have looked at Pharisees as being the overly religious, uber-pious defenders of a dead Jewish faith that Jesus came to correct or erase all together depending on the viewpoint. But I think the truth is, we have quite a few Pharisaical tendencies ourselves. We have our own bastions of ideas that we hide inside of with the intent of defending ourselves against all comers.

So, if we are so much like them and they are not necessarily all that bad, why do the gospels have such bad things to say about them? Why do they get a bad rap? Let’s look a little deeper in the text and see what might be hovering below the surface.

foxworthy-copy

Herman Who?

Before I started seminary, someone gave a piece of advice that went something like “Learn all you can learn but remember that most of it is only interesting to you and the other people you go to class with.” For the most part I have tried to follow that advice but from time to time, I like to throw out a few ideas that resonated with me because otherwise, what was the point in going? One of my favorite seminary words is hermeneutics. I know, I know. Herman who? Hermeneutics is simply a ten-dollar word for the methods and tools we use to interpret things. Your method of interpretation has a lot to do with your perspective and worldview. It’s like having a series of lenses that you can try on and each of them give the world around you a different look and focus on differing things. A telescoping lens might let you see tiny things while a wide-angle lens would let you see great areas at one time. Each is useful, but each must be used for its purpose and only its purpose.

In the ancient world, people developed hermeneutics for their lives they simply didn’t know it. Jesus and the Pharisees in our story had theirs and it colored how they saw God and his creation. The way the stories are told in the gospels also has a coloring as well, in some cases leading people to believe horrific things about Jewish people even to this day.

For most of people, the idea of being a Pharisee as a bad thing. They are, after all, at odds with Jesus through most of the gospels and they are generally blamed for the death of Jesus, using the Roman government as the tool for the job. O. Wesley Allen, Jr. writes,

The Pharisees have been misunderstood and maligned by the church at least since the Jerusalem Temple fell in the year 70 and the church found it in direct competition with Pharisees (as opposed to the priests, Sadducees, or Essenes) as heirs to Israel’s traditions in a post-Temple age. Pharisees were the liberal, mainline Protestants of first century Judaism. While other Jewish sects claimed the people needed the priesthood and the temple to mediate between them and God, the Pharisees democratized religious experience.[6]

But, the heart of the issue between Pharisees and Jesus, and eventually the early church, was an issue of interpretation, or better yet, worldview. This worldview signals the hermeneutic lens – or set of lenses used – for both.

Most scholars write about the Pharisees as a sect of Jews often misunderstood and much maligned. To understand the Pharisees, we need to understand their perspective on Judaism, specifically the Law of Moses. The Pharisees looked at the law and tried to ‘fill in the gaps’ where the law seemed ambiguous. For instance, when the law said, “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy,” they wondered “what does it mean to remember? What does it mean to be holy? how do you define rest? These are the kinds of questions that the Pharisees were most interested in answering, debating, and wrestling with such things. Over the years from their beginnings, about one hundred-fifty years before the birth of Jesus, the Pharisees had been developing a tradition with respect to interpreting the Law.[7] The other major sects, Sadducees and Essenes, were focused on other things; the Sadducees on the temple and enforcing temple worship as the most important aspect of Judaism and the Essenes on how wrong the other two sects were and how they wanted to live out their own version of Mosaic Judaism in the wilderness outside Jerusalem.

The Pharisees were of the people, spending their time teaching and preaching in the synagogues around the Palestinian region. For most Jews of the time, the Pharisees were the connection they had to their faith, since trips to the temple in Jerusalem were infrequent and usually reserved to once a year occasions. It was the Pharisee’s teaching that defined Judaism outside of Jerusalem and their interpretation was what drove community norms and behavior.

Enter Jesus

In Luke chapter six, we see Jesus challenging the Mosaic interpretation of the Pharisees by working on the Sabbath. The writer of Luke says,

“…as Jesus was going through the wheat fields, his disciples were picking the heads of wheat, rubbing them in their hands, and eating them. Some Pharisees said, “Why are you breaking the Sabbath law?”[8]

Here we have an example of what we talked about before. The Pharisees regarded doing any physical labor as work, so everything was taken care of before the Sabbath started at sundown on Friday evening: no cooking, no cleaning, no lighting fires, no feeding animals, nothing. Yet, here is Jesus, obviously aware of the law and the Pharisaical interpretation of it, watching his hungry disciples pick the heads off wheat stalks and eat them and saying nothing about it. Some of the Pharisees noticed and were immediately indignant. Here is Jesus, a rabbi, perhaps even schooled as a Pharisee in their tradition, breaking the Sabbath according to their interpretation of it.

On another occasion, Luke writes,

“…Jesus entered a synagogue to teach. A man was there whose right hand was withered. The legal experts and the Pharisees were watching him closely to see if he would heal on the Sabbath. They were looking for a reason to bring charges against him. Jesus knew their thoughts, so he said to the man with the withered hand, “Get up and stand in front of everyone.” He got up and stood there. Jesus said to the legal experts and Pharisees, “Here’s a question for you: Is it legal on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?” 1Looking around at them all, he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So, he did and his hand was made healthy. They were furious and began talking with each other about what to do to Jesus.”[9]

Again, Jesus defies their idea of interpreting the Sabbath. The interpretation of the Pharisees was that God rested, God commanded us to rest, and no work, not even the tiniest fraction of work, was to be done. Frankly, by their definition, I’m surprised anyone even bothered to get out of bed and get dressed as that might constitute working in the effort to do so.

But Jesus in his interpretation asks a question of their understanding, “Is it legal on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?” In other words, why do we have the Sabbath? What makes the Sabbath special? To help us understand, in another place Jesus asks, “Is the Sabbath made for man or man made for the Sabbath?” Here we get to the point. Here, we get to the important aspect. Why do we have a Sabbath?

The answer is a matter of personal hermeneutic, a method of interpretation. For the Pharisees, it had become a way of controlling community and behavior as is common in religious and political systems but on the positive side, a way of living a holy life before God in conscience. If you know all the rules and you never break them, you never have anything to worry about. Being able to say who is in the club and who is out, so to speak, was how people defined doctrine, belief, and their community. For Jesus, it was a time in which the physical rigors of day to day life gave way to time with God and community. As God rested on the seventh day, so we should rest but rest should be defined, not by detailed laws and baseless traditions, but by a time set aside for true fellowship with God and with neighbor.

What does all this mean to us?

  1. Wesley Allen, Jr. writes,

“The question lying under the Pharisees challenge to Jesus, underneath Jesus’ answer to them, and underneath Luke’s decision to include these stories in his narrative concerns faithful identity to a community’s tradition in light of ever-changing circumstances.”

While some feel that the fabric of our society is being ripped in two, it is perhaps more accurate to recognize that we live in a day when that fabric is being re-dyed. Some experience this with joy and hope and others with fear and pain. As part of this process, the church’s identity and mission is also in flux. Denominations battle and split over issues like homosexuality. Congregations watch their numbers dwindle. Worship leaders are challenged to embrace contemporary methods of entertainment and technology to reshape the liturgy.

What does remaining faithful to Christian tradition and practices mean in such a day? Maybe Sabbath controversies are not just an ancient concern after all.[10]

There is the question for us, what does remaining faithful to Christian tradition and practice mean to us here and now. What do we use to interpret the Scriptures, the traditions, the experiences of our lives? I would advocate that it means not more rules, more doctrine, more dogma, or more denominational strictures and controls, but it means simplifying things down to the basics, to spend our time emulating Jesus and using passages like The Sermon on the Mount, the mission of Jesus in Luke 4, the call to feed and clothe and care for one another as in Matthew 25, and to carry this message to others with our lives as in the Great Commission.

We started off the sermon questioning if we might be Pharisees. We have now seen that interpretation is the real difference between how Jesus and the Pharisees saw the world. So the question that we will leave with, to wrestle with in the days to come is how do we want to see the world, as Pharisees with confidence in the rules about God or in Jesus with confidence in the person and relationship of God?


[1] (Lee-Barnewell n.d.), Kindle Loc, 5384-5387

[2] (Lee-Barnewell n.d.), Kindle Loc. 5318

[3] (Lee-Barnewell n.d.), Kindle Loc, 5391-5392

[4] (Lee-Barnewell n.d.) Kindle Loc. 5394

[5] (Lee-Barnewell n.d.) Kindle Loc. 5395-5396

[6] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3001

[7] (Ehrman 2004), p.235-240

[8] Luke 6:1-2

[9] Luke 6:6-11

[10] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3001

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Living the High Life: Finding Purpose

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For the audio version, you can listen here: https://clyp.it/ld1kyvje

Who am I?

Self-realization. Self-actualization. Finding your identity. Finding a sense of direction. Thousands of books, articles, websites, and millions of printed pages have been produced seeking the answers to the great mystery of our purpose in life. I have, in my own small collection of books, no less than a dozen books on the subject. As I was looking at the topic this week on the internet, my first Google search gave me more than 812 million results. An Amazon search will give you about seventy thousand books to choose from and an academic search engines will give you millions of results as well.

What are they saying to us? These people are all writing on this same subject trying to tell us something about the idea of purpose in life, purpose for life, all writing from various perspectives and viewpoints, affiliations and aspirations. What do we make of it?

One of the writers, Mark Manson, had this to say,

“…when people say, “What should I do with my life?” or “What is my life purpose?” what they’re actually asking is: “What can I do with my time that is important?”[1]

He goes on, like most others, to list seven questions to ask yourself to find out what important things you might do with your time. But I found that idea of answering the question of What should I do with my life? by asking What can I do with my time that is important? to be an engaging thought. I think it speaks into the sermon today and helps us to reframe our question perhaps to say, what can I do with my time to be a disciple of Jesus?

That question, I think, has the power to drive our thoughts, actions, and yes, purpose of life, toward a greater faith and greater expression of faith in our families and community. So, how do we answer this? I think the best way to answer this question is being a good disciple and follow the example of Jesus. We’ll tell a story, a story about a couple of fisherman and the fish story they have to tell.

It was this big

fishing-net.jpg

There are good days fishing and then there are good days when you get to fish. When I was a kid, my great uncle took my father and I fishing at Lake Weiss on the Georgia-Alabama border in northwest Georgia-northeast Alabama. Usually, my Uncle Burl could find white bass and striped bass near an old submerged roadbed. We happened to catch a good run of them this particular day and at one point my uncle had one fish in the pocket of his overalls, one in his hand and one on the line. That was good day’s fishing but I don’t think it compares with the morning Simon Peter and his friends had in our story.

Simon and company had been out all night, casting nets over the side and pulling them in with nothing really to show for. By all accounts, it was a wasted night, full of frustration and exhaustion. I’ve tried my hand at fishing with a net before and I can tell you, it is a tiring exercise, on a boat doubly so. You have a net with rocks on the edges for weight that is bunched up in a certain way and then thrown out so that the net spreads out and falls flat on the water’s surface before sinking down and catching everything beneath it. Simon and his partners, James and John, were coming off a back breaking, muscle aching night of casting their nights just this way.

Enter Jesus. In the story the author of Luke is telling, Jesus has just come from his hometown after having been nearly thrown off a cliff, then casting out a demon, healing people, and teaching in the area of Capernaum, he comes to Lake Gennesaret where he finds Simon and his fishing partners sitting on the shore, washing their nets and trying to recover from an exhausting, fruitless night.

Jesus walks up to Simon’s boat, hops in, and asks Simon to row out a little way so he can talk to the crowd of people that have gathered. I can’t say whether it was some authority that Simon recognized in Jesus or if he had already heard of this Nazarene rabbi and preacher, but something compelled this exhausted fisherman to listen and obey. So, Simon rows the boat out a little to create a floating amphitheater near the shoreline and from there, Jesus taught the crowd of people.

I imagine the message Jesus offered must have resonated with Simon because when Jesus was finished, he asked Simon to go out a little farther from shore and cast out the nets again. Simon’s response? You gotta be kidding me. The story says Simon responded with, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and caught nothing. But because you say so, I’ll drop the nets.”[2] In other words, nobody else could get me to that after the night I’ve had, but because it’s you and I see something in you I don’t see in other people, I’ll do it. The result?

“…they dropped the nets and their catch was so huge that their nets were splitting. They signaled for their partners in the other boat to come and help them. They filled both boats so full that they were about to sink.”[3]

Simon’s second response?

“Leave me, Lord, for I’m a sinner!” Peter and those with him were overcome with amazement because of the number of fish they caught. James and John, Zebedee’s sons, were Simon’s partners and they were amazed too.”[4]

The fishermen are amazed. It’s miraculous, it’s like one of the stories of old, when God shows himself to Israel through a wonder of nature like parting the Red Sea or the pillar of fire or Elijah calling fire from heaven. They are astounded beyond their belief. At this point, the fishermen are not expecting what comes next but like any good day on the water, it’ the surprises that keep you coming back.

Calling all fishermen

“Don’t be afraid. From now on you will be fishing for people.”[5]

I am reasonably certain that Simon was not expecting this. When Jesus looks at him and makes this statement, the fisherman is still recovering from the miraculous catch of fish he has just seen. Given his Jewish heritage, Simon is most likely now seeing Jesus as a great prophet like Elijah or Isaiah as well as teacher of truth. Prophets rarely ever called people as disciples but it is clear to Simon that Jesus is doing that to him in this moment. We read from the text that Simon answers the call by leaving everything behind and following Jesus.

Simon’s response may seem odd or unorthodox, but there are some things here that I see as parallels to the calling we as followers of Jesus experience here and now. First, this statement is imperative. If you remember your grammar from school, an imperative statement is one that insists you do what is being told to you. In other words, Jesus is not saying to Simon, “You know if you don’t have anything better to do for the next three years, and you want to see some really cool stuff, and learn some things about God, you could give up this fishing thing and we can go walkabout.” No. Jesus looks at Simon and says, “From now on, you’re with me. We have work to do and you have to follow me to do it.” Simon not only hears this but he feels this. Something deep within propelled him to “leave everything and follow Jesus”, to leave his livelihood, his family, his life.  Why else would he walk away from what was most likely a reasonable trade as a fisherman to become the disciple of an itinerant preacher.

Second, Jesus reassures Simon. Notice the words, do not be afraid. This phrase shows up throughout the text in Luke and is usually about something miraculous or difficult. In this case, Simon has just been on the best fishing trip of his life. But he is also being asked to join Jesus on an even bigger trip, discipleship. This is the same trip we are invited on when hear the message of the gospel. Yet Jesus is saying to Simon, “Look, I get it. It’s a big commitment, a big life change. I’m asking you to be like me, do what I do, go where I go, and live how I live. And I get that it’s scary, not knowing where you are going, where your next meal will come from, but don’t worry, if you’re with me, I’ve got you. Don’t be afraid. We’ll walk together.” For all of us who hear the message of the gospel, Jesus makes the same invitation, the invitation to follow but to know we do not follow alone. He is with us.

Finally, Jesus gives Simon purpose. Simon probably started learning his way around a boat as a boy. I imagine he was given smaller responsibilities like carrying gear or storing equipment and worked his way up to throwing nets and hauling in fish. Fishing was his purpose, his reason for being; that is, until Jesus redefined the reason. “Simon,” Jesus said here in the story, “from now on you will be fishing for people. You will be learning the message, seeing it lived out in front of you, and given the task of sharing it with the world as you meet it.” Simon is still a fisherman, still casting out a net, but now he casts a spiritual net of truth with the intent of hauling in disciples.

The Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote, ““The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.” We as followers are disciples. The word disciple implies that we not only learn from the Master but that we share the Maser’s teaching with others so that they too can become disciples. When we look for our purpose as followers of Jesus, this is our most basic expression of it, that we are those who feel the imperative call to follow, that we do so without fear and we do so with the purpose of leading others to follow as well. At the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus makes this point clear by expression the mission in a fifty-thousand-foot view:

“…go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you.”

Living with purpose

One of my favorite movies is Young Frankenstein. For the first half of the movie, Frederick Frankenstein tries to convince the world that his grandfather, Victor, was not the true scientist that Frederick is. By the middle of the movie, we see he is only trying to convince himself and by the end, he has embraced the work of creating life from death. The story, for all its comedic veneer, is one of embracing your life purpose, even if it’s not what you expect it to be.

While we are not normally in the business of making monsters in the church, we have a definitive purpose. We are called to live a life that embraces the imperative call on our person; to live a life without fear because we do not walk alone in this world; to live a life of purpose, the purpose being to be disciples and make disciples.


[1] https://markmanson.net/life-purpose

[2] Luke 5:5

[3] Luke 5:6-7

[4] Luke 5:8-10

[5] Luke 5:11

 

Living the High Life: Being Basic

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For the audio version click here: https://clyp.it/zv3tpsme

Basic – A Modern Definition

Our sermon series that we begin today is called Living the High Life and it is an invitation to look at the life of Jesus through the Gospel of Luke and live into the higher way of being that Jesus lived into. As we continue with the series, it is my hope that we will not just learn about the life of Jesus but embrace his way as our way of being and living.

When I was growing up basic had two definitions: it was something plain and simple that had little flash or panache and it was the main programming language on my first three computers. But the idea of basic has changed through the years. It still has those definitions but like most of the English language, it has pick up several more. The one that I find most interesting is the current meaning. According to dictionary.com, basic is,

Slang.

(especially of a female) characterized by predictable or unoriginal style, interests, or behavior: those basic girls who follow trends.

(of things) boringly predictable or unoriginal: His lyrics are just so basic.

Another author referenced in the article says that “to be labeled as basic is to say that you have the most homogeneous, blank, and unsophisticated identity.”[1] I did a Google search of the term and I found out that basic is not what you want to be. It is usually a term that women apply to other women to belittle them, especially those in the public eye. There are dozens of articles, most of them on websites for younger women and fashion magazines that spell out plainly that being basic is being persona non-grata regarding any way you might be basic: clothes, slang terms, ideas, you name it. Oddly enough I did find an article on Cosmopolitan.com (trust me I just read that article) that was titled, What’s So Wrong With Being Basic?[2] In the article the author, a young woman who sees herself as basic (‘I’ve been known to refer to the fall as Pumpkin Spice Latte season. I also love a barre-method workout class, to which I wear my Lululemons and those socks with the little grippy bits on the bottom. I think pretty much everything Kate Middleton wears is flawless.’[3]), talks about a segment of the culture (the fashionable) who disdain all things popular or common or trendy as basic or as the definition says, with a predictable or unoriginal style, interests, or behavior.

basic

The author points out, interestingly enough, that men can be basic in popular culture and it is perfectly okay. The author writes about the idea of the Bro, the guy who is ‘basic’ saying,

“Over time, guys made Bro mean whatever they wanted,” says BroBible managing editor J. Camm, “so now it has less of a negative stigma.”[4]

Well, this morning I want to propose that we take the author’s advice to be basic, not in the anti-fashionable, I don’t want to be the next great thing to hit Paris, London, or Milan kind of way. But in the sense that follow Jesus in the Way is something predictable and unoriginal that may lead us to a transcendent and Spirit-led life.

First Messages

The first sermon I preached was in a tent outside Hiram, Georgia in the early summer. It was a hot sticky evening, I was wearing my best suit, barely fifteen years and scared out of my head. The church we had just discovered, along with my new beginning of faith was insistent that all the young men (teenage boys that is) try their hand at preaching, just to see if it stuck with anyone. To that church, the highest calling was ministry and they wanted to send as many preachers into the world as possible. I said a few words about the church as Paul described it from Ephesians and sat down, still shaking, convinced I had no business there. After a long circuitous through agnosticism and several other philosophies I found myself, some twenty years later, formally in the ministry, a strange road to find a calling to be sure.

Jesus, however, took a much more direct route. In our passage from Luke, we see the story of Jesus as he comes to the beginning of his ministry. I think it’s safe to say that this sermon went a lot better than mine. Now there is a lot of stuff going on in this passage and a lot that we can cover but in the interest of leaving us with something practical to work with I’m going against the grain and I’m going to be basic. I’m going to offer what I would call a basic Christianity from Jesus sermon.

So, what going on here? Jesus has been preaching all over the region known as Galilee, probably in synagogues, town squares, and at hillside near you. He comes to his hometown, Nazareth, the place he grew up and knows everyone from, and walks into the synagogue. Apparently, he had gained enough of a reputation as a teacher of the Tanakh or Jewish scriptures, that he was accorded the honor of reading from them and offering his teaching.

It seemed that in the synagogue of that time, as is the case with many religious orders now, there was a lectionary of sorts, a listing of passages to read on certain days. The day Jesus was asked to preach used the scripture from what we know as Isaiah 61, and Jesus stood up to read,

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.[5]

Jesus rolls up the scroll and says, “Today, the scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.”[6] At first, the people rave about him saying that he offers such ‘gracious words’[7] and they marvel at him. He goes on to say a few more things about the unbelief they harbor in their hearts and how they are like the Israelites of old who said they believed and really didn’t. Eventually, he peeves them off so much that they try to throw him off a cliff.

But before these reactions, there is the message itself, a passage from Isaiah that Jesus claims is fulfilled in him. What does he mean? What does that mean for us? Let’s look at the passage and break down the pieces a bit.

He has sent meJesus is saying here that he has a purpose in life, that he was sent. For all of us who are followers of Jesus, we too have a purpose and reason for being, to continue in the footsteps of Jesus, living as he lived, doing as he did, and encouraging others to do the same. We as disciples live lives that are inextricably tied to the life and being of Jesus and to the mission that was his before us.

So, what is the mission?

To preach good news to the poor – If I were to do a literal Greek translation of this it would sound something like ‘to proclaim a worthwhile message to those who are forced to bow down under the weight of something or someone.’ When Jesus spoke these words, he was speaking to an audience of people who had been under the boot of foreign invaders for several centuries. More than anything, they wanted to live in an Israel that was ruled by Jews as in the days of old. They longed for the old monarchies as in the days of David and Solomon. Though they did not know it at the time, Jesus was preparing a message of peace and reconciliation between the various factions of Jewish rulers and those who had been marginalized by Jewish society. The poor – the tax collector, those in slavery, those in poverty, those with diseases, those who were pushed aside for being something other than the norm – would find a message of hope that would transcend the misery of life by embracing a life that no longer put prestige, social honor, and familial connection at the forefront of being. Peace is for all and reconciliation is for all and all are offered a chance to hear the message.

Proclaim release to the prisoner & to liberate the oppressed –  Throughout the gospels, Jesus has an ongoing argument with the Pharisees about the law. Now, understand, there is the law (the Torah and many other laws that total over six hundred things required of Jews) and there is the Law (that which is of God for man to live by and in communion with God and neighbor). Some of these things overlap and some do not.

With this as an understanding and context, I believe that the prisoners Jesus speaks of are those held captive by Pharisaical traditions and forced to obscurity and marginalization on their account. In passages like the sermon on the mount, the greatest commandment, and the wealthy young ruler, Jesus iterates this idea of living into communion with God and neighbor as the ultimate expression of following God, saying things like,

“You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind. 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself. 40 All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”[8]

And

 “I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. 36 I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’

37 “Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? 38 When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

40 “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’

Many other places show these teaching and I believe them to be what Jesus means by releasing the prisoner, those in bondage to religion and faith as it should not be.

Recovery of sight to the blind – The religious leaders we just spoke are throughout the gospels shown to be those who cannot see. Take John 9 where Jesus contrast the healing of a blind man and his restored sight to the Pharisees who cannot see it for what it is. Notice what is said in John 9:39-41, “I have come into the world to exercise judgment so that those who don’t see can see and those who see will become blind.” In other words, the man who was born without sight (spiritually and physically) is restored and the Pharisees who were born with sight (physically but not spiritually) have lost or never had it.

We who follow Jesus can become those who see but only so long as we rely on Jesus being our light, our guide to see by. To live into his teaching and follow the path of the Way is how we see and help to bring sight to others.

Proclaim the Year of the Lord’s Favor – In Leviticus chapter 25, Moses stands on the side of Mount Sinai having a conversation with God. God is telling Moses how to prepare the land once the people enter Canaan. The instructions that he gives require a Sabbath rest for the land so that the land may heal itself every seven years. During this Sabbath, the food from the previous six years was to be used to feed not only the people but they’re hired laborers, servants, and foreign guests who lived with them as well as the livestock and wild animals in the land.

After a period of seven Sabbaths of the land, a total of 49 years the people were to blow a trumpet on the Day of Atonement and declare this to be a Jubilee year. During this year, each person had to return to their family property where no one was to plant no one was to harvest, no one was to gather food, and people were only allowed to eat only the produce that was directly out of the field because it was a Jubilee year and it was considered a holy. The buying and selling their food was regulated to keep people from cheating one another. God declared that the land should not be permanently sold because the land belongs to God. Leviticus 25 verse 23 says, “You are just immigrants and foreign guests of mine.” Methods were given to calculate a fair price for land to be purchased back for those who were in difficulty and had to sell. For those who were indentured servants it was a year to be released from bondage, are year to return to their family and their family property.

The year of Jubilee was a year of redemption. It was a time when those who had come upon hard times would now be able to return to their lands, return to their families, and have the dignity of their humanity restored. Jubilee was a time when things that had gone wrong could be set right. It was a time for those who found themselves under the yoke of personal or financial bondage could be redeemed from their circumstances.

Jubilee, in its purest form, is the freedom to rest. It is being released from the bondage of the debt and restored to a place of peace and the place of plenty. Imagine knowing that all your debts were canceled, that you were completely free from the burden of owing anyone anything. Imagine the good night’s sleep that you would have and the carefree day that you would have knowing that you were truly, completely, without worry.

Now imagine Jubilee, not in the physical sense that we have been describing, but in a spiritual sense, a way in which you were given freedom from your past, freedom from your mistakes, freedom from the person that you used to be. Now imagine the freedom to look to the future, the freedom to not fear failure, the freedom to be the disciple that Christ calls you to be when He whispered the words, “Come, follow me.”

Living into the Sermon

We who choose to be disciples of Jesus choose this as our lives, our way of being, our path in the Way, are choosing to be basic. Basic in the sense that we are boringly predictable in our life patterns which mimic those of Jesus and being unoriginal by letting the thoughts, actions, and person of Jesus be our own.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, amen.

[1] http://www.cosmopolitan.com/lifestyle/news/a30846/whats-wrong-with-being-basic/

[2] ibid

[3] ibid

[4] ibid

[5] Luke 4:18-19

[6] Luke 4:21

[7] Luke 4:22

[8] Matthew 22:37-40

Living the High Life

Becoming Family

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LTHL Poster

Initiation

Our sermon series that we begin today is called Living the High Life and no, it isn’t sponsored by Miller Brewing Company. It is an invitation to look at the life of Jesus through the Gospel of Luke and live into the higher way of being that Jesus lived into. As we go deeper into the series, it is my hope that we will not just learn about the life of Jesus but embrace his way as our way of being and living.

Speaking of the high life, there were a number of things I chose to do in college. For instance, I took a long time to graduate, six years to be exact. I had a number of majors: biology, chemistry, political science, criminology, and finally religious studies. I was also a student at several universities: Shorter University, Georgia State University, the State University of West Georgia, and my alma mater, Mercer University.

But one thing that I never experienced during my college days was fraternity life. I think it had to do largely with being a commuter student and working full time for most of my college days. But I have friends who really enjoyed “rushing a frat” and made lifelong friends and connections.

In doing some research this week, I found that despite having no-hazing policies at most colleges and universities, most fraternities and sororities do it anyway. Some take it too far but some take it for what it should be: welcoming new members into a family. Take these rituals for instance:

“Multiple nights throughout the semester we’d pick the pledges up and drop them off somewhere random and make them run back to campus…we called it midnight runs. If they took too long we’d drive them back where they came from and make them do it again.”[i]

“In order to get a bid into our fraternity, we make the kids go 3 rounds with one of our senior members with Sock Em Bopper inflatable gloves. Fun to watch and even more fun to participate in. If they can’t handle that, they won’t handle our pledging.”[ii]

“We always made fun of this one pledge because he had no facial hair and couldn’t grow a beard or mustache so we drew a mustache and a goatee on him with a sharpie and told him he had to make sure it stayed for the whole week. Every morning he had to draw it back on…he looked ridiculous it never got old.”[iii] 

frat-house

The point of all this is bound to the idea of what it means to be a part of something bigger than yourself, something that offers meaning, identity, a sense of connection. For those people who take part in Greek life, this is largely what they are looking for while at school and after they graduate.

Throughout the course of your life, you will take part in many rites of passage. Most all of us will experience these things as transitions from one stage of life to the next. We grow up and start school, learn to drive, start dating, move into our own homes, go to college, and begin families and lives of our own. But rites of passage are not limited to the physical and social, they extend into our faith and beliefs as well.

Spiritual Initiation

The spiritual life is no different than any other aspect of life. It also has these moments where we experience rites of passage and being connected to something bigger than ourselves in our relationship to God, the church, and our own spiritual journey. And it is just that, a journey, as life is, where we have moments that are similar to those experienced in life outside the church.

In the Methodist church, we understand these rites as means of grace or sacraments. Means of grace are just what they sound like, it is a way in which the grace of God finds its way into our lives. It can be one of the two recognized sacraments (baptism or communion) or it can be something simpler, more specific to you as a person, like a moment of quiet, a long hike in the woods, or an uplifting, encouraging conversation with someone. But these sacraments and means of grace are born out of our connection to God and the church.

In the story from Luke 3, we see the cousin of Jesus, John the Baptistizer, baptizing. Verse three says, “John went throughout the region of the Jordan River, calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins.” Notice what it says here about why they are being baptized: to show they were changing their hearts and lives, the definition of repentance. They wanted to be forgiven of what they had done in the past, who they were in the past. They wanted to start again. An early Christian writer, Cyril of Jerusalem said of baptism “Let us pass from the old to the new, from the type to the reality.”[iv] This was the central theme of why these people wanted to be baptized, to show that they were passing from who they were to who they were becoming. And all the different kinds of people that are there with John: Jews, soldiers, tax collectors, anyone from any walk of life might have been among the crowds that sought to be baptized. The message was a universal message in that there was no one group that could come, all could come and take the plunge so to speak.

As we come to the end of our reading this morning we see that Jesus also came to be baptized. Did he need to repent? Did he need to become someone else? Or is there another purpose of baptism that we haven’t seen? Verses 21-22 say, “When everyone was being baptized, Jesus also was baptized. While he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit came down on him in bodily form like a dove. And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”

Notice the words attributed to God here, “You are my son”, “I love you”, I am happy because of you”. These words are not words about forgiveness or repentance or changing your life. These are words about acceptance and caring and love for another. You are my son, my child, one who from me. I love you, I have the greatest of affection for you, I want the best for you. I am happy because of you, I derive joy from you being you and from simply being with you.

When we put this together with the baptisms of John earlier in the passage we get a ritual act that offers the chance to declare that you are someone seeking a new life and way of being, someone who loved of God, belongs with God, is happy in God’s presence as God is happy being in their presence.

Some theological statements about baptism

Theologians have long debated the merits, functions, and every other aspect of baptism and what it means. They cover a wide area of denominational and theological ideas to try and explain what baptism means. One theologian I read writes about how baptism mimics the original creation as a re-creation, cleanses us from the wrong we have done, makes us part of the church, gives us the Holy Spirit, and makes us a new person.[v]

In another explanation of how different traditions see baptism, Ted Campbell catalogues several perspectives and lists some of the ways they see things differently,

 “Some churches have insisted that baptism is only an outward sign of membership and so has no direct relationship to our salvation (the belief favored by churches that practice believers’ baptism and by many liberal protestants).

Churches of the Reformed tradition insisted that baptism is connected or linked to our justification and regeneration (new birth), but not “automatically”: the moment when water was applied might be different from the moment from the moment when a person was justified and born again.

Older Christian traditions, including those of Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and Lutheran churches as well as Wesley’s own Anglican church have insisted that baptism is itself the means of justification and regeneration, that is that those who have been baptized have been justified and born again.”[vi]

Of course, as United Methodist, we have an official church statement on the denominational website,

“In baptism, the Church declares that it is bound in covenant to God; through baptism new persons are initiated into that covenant. The covenant connects God, the community of faith, and the person being baptized; all three are essential to the fulfillment of the baptismal covenant. The faithful grace of God initiates the covenant relationship and enables the community and the person to respond with faith.”[vii]

All of that sounds great and is fun to discuss if you are a seminary student or as one of my friends like to say, a “theology nerd.” But for the rest of the church, what are we really getting at here. I think it goes back to the idea of declaring that you are someone seeking a new life and way of being, someone who loved of God, belongs with God, is happy in God’s presence as God is happy in theirs. It is symbolic. It is spiritual. It is justifying and regenerative and covenantal and all of those things in some sense, but to me it is most importantly a way of saying to both God and the community around us, “I am a follower of Jesus. I am someone who wants to be a different, better disciple of the Way. I am someone in the eyes of God and want the help other people see themselves as someone to God, too.” I believe for the child or infant being baptized, it is the parent saying these things on behalf of the child, as a promise to live into these things that the child might grow to live into these things.

To me it is, most of all, belonging. It is an outward sign that participate in to show those around us the inward act of change that we have experienced and the connection to others like us who have changed and chosen this way of life as well. In this act of baptism, we celebrate this belonging to God and to one another and with that make a pledge to God that we will live this renewed life we have been given with our entire heart, soul, mind, and spirit, loving God and loving each other. This is our entry way to the path that is Living the High Life. The hope is that whether you began this journey as an infant or an adult, whether you were sprinkled, poured over, or dunked, that you can see baptism as the door entering into something engaging, mysterious, and tremendous that will draw you closer to the person and path of Jesus.


References

Campbell, Ted A. Methodist Doctrine. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2011.

Jensen, Robin. Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity: Ritual, Visiual, and Theological Dimensions. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Publishing, 2012.

Jerusalem, Cyril of. The Christian Theological Reader. Edited by Alister E. McGrath. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007.

McLaren, Brian. The Voice of Luke. Nashville, TN, 2007.


[i] http://thecampussocialite.com/hazed-confused-10-real-hazing-stories-100-anonymous-2/

[ii] ibid

[iii] ibid

[iv] (Jerusalem 2007), p.549

[v] (Jensen 2012)

[vi] (Campbell 2011), p.80-81

[vii] http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/by-water-and-the-spirit-a-united-methodist-understanding-of-baptism

Can We See the Salvation?

christmas-presents
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Is it worth the wait?

There were lots of thing to look forward to with springtime in the south. Everything starts to come into bloom around the end of March or the beginning of April. The still, silent gray of winter gives way to a rainbow of colored leaves, flowers, and birds. For me, baseball season started and that meant the smell of fresh cut fescue and bluegrass every Saturday morning at Woodrow Wilson park. Spring break, the end of the school year, there were so many things to look forward to as the calendar tumbled away from January and February toward June.

But there was one treat that I looked forward to every spring as much or more than any. Usually around the third Friday our family would take a short little drive down Interstate 20 toward Atlanta. We would get off the highway one exit before the Atlanta city limit sign, wind our way down the off ramp and enter the gates. For nearly thirty years my father worked for a company called Printpack, a flexible packaging company. And every year, Printpack would collaborate with another company like IBM and rent out Six Flags Over Georgia for an employee picnic.

We always started in the same place, the picnic grounds. The companies would have a local business like Chick-Fil-A or one of the local barbeque restaurants cater the event. My father would talk to his co-workers and they would pat my sister and I on the head and tell how we had grown from last year. Usually, Karen and I would finish our food in a hurry and start the sleeve tug, “Can we go now? Can we go now? Other people are going, can we go now?” Finally, my father would finish eating and we made our way to the entrance and into the park.

We almost always went to the newest ride first. Every year, it seemed like the park created some new, bigger, better, faster, scarier something for park patrons. I have seen line wait times for some new rides as long as three hours and invariably the more complicated the ride, the more likely it was to break down and make people wait even longer.

I remember the year that the Monster Plantation was built in the park. It is a simple water ride, you sit in a boat and float past a lot of animatronic characters who tell a story about a southern style celebration. Think of it as something like Splash Mountain at Disney World without the roller coaster drop and splash at the end. We got there early enough to get through the line in about an hour and by the time we got off the ride, the line had doubled. When we were getting ready to leave the park with the early birds, the line was still about an hour and half.

Regardless of what new ride Six Flags came up with – and whether I had the nerve to ride it – there was an anticipation that came with the annual trip that became a yearly tradition. As soon as the calendar was flipped over to April, I couldn’t wait to go to the park. As I got older, it was an even bigger deal because I got to walk around with friends or by myself, walking in some sense across a long bridge to being my own person.

As we come to our scripture in Luke this morning, that is the crux of Simeon’s story, a story of anticipation, a story of waiting for something well worth the wait.

Waiting for a Song

It was an off day for Simeon. I’m not sure what that meant for priests of the Temple in Jerusalem during the first century, but I can imagine that it was probably something like it is for the rest of us: a day to rest, to catch up on things around the house, to enjoy a little time with the family. Simeon, as a priest, was on a rotation; he spent around a month serving in the temple area and then returned home. So, when he was off duty, Simeon had a long period of time to relax.

According to Luke, Simeon was, “righteous” and “devout,” characteristics that the writer of Luke and Acts also attributes to Elizabeth, Zechariah, Joseph of Arimathea, and others in the two narratives. Simeon was also a man who “anticipated the restoration of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him.” (Luke 2.25) Even on an off day, Simeon would have still been attuned to the Spirit and it should be no surprise that when the Spirit of God spoke, he would be listening.

I have wondered what that must have been like, the waiting all those years for restoration of Israel. Was Simeon like others who saw this as a political and social restoration where the foreign invaders would be driven out as in the days of the Maccabees? Or did he have a keener eye for things of the spirit and realize that the restoration talked about was one of spiritual restoration and reclamation, where God would once again be the center of the Jew’s hearts and life, leading them, “to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with their God” as it says in the story of Micah (6:8)? What version he was looking for we don’t know, I tend to think the later, but the greater point is that he was looking and he was listening.

Simeon is minding his own business, enjoying an off day when he feels the Spirit of God leading, drawing him to the temple. I imagine Simeon may have been cautious, maybe wary, perhaps excited, or curious, in any event, he recognized the tugging on his heart as the Spirit and followed as it directed him to the temple. I would think there were people wandering about in the temple area, having their currency changed, buying sacrifices, listening to teachers and sages teach, discuss, argue about the theological ideas and thoughts of the day.

Then he sees the child. Not just any child, but the child of promise, the child who would become the man to bring the salvation of God to the world. I imagine the prophet is awestruck, overwhelmed, as he goes to the cautious young family, a family still worried about potential stigmas of poverty (they could only afford a dove or pigeon to sacrifice) and honor (some thought of Jesus as the child of a Roman soldier not the holy child of God). In the presence of this priest, God takes away these worries. Simeon takes the baby in his arms and I can’t help seeing a painting in my mind by Ron DiCianni. In the image, Simeon holds gently the newborn to his chest, his mouth open in speech or song, and a single tear falling down his cheek. This affectionate display is born of a great truth that the priest has held onto for a long time and now is seeing.

Let’s look at some of the verses here and try to see what Simeon saw.

The big picture: Jesus is the restoration of Israel (2.25-26)

The setup for the story of Simeon is that of promises and hope. The writer of Luke says,

25 A man named Simeon was in Jerusalem. He was righteous and devout. He eagerly anticipated the restoration of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 The Holy Spirit revealed to him that he wouldn’t die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.”

Throughout the Old Testament, the prophetic call is one of restoring Israel to the proper worship of God and the proper view of God. While there were many, if not most, in Jesus time who took this to mean that God would restore the physical and political land of Israel, there were others, and I believe Simeon to be among them, who saw this as a restoration of the soul and Spirit. In the Old Testament, from Micah that we quoted earlier, God says to his people,

“With what should I approach the Lord and bow down before God on high? Should I come before him with entirely burned offerings, with year-old calves? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with many torrents of oil? Should I give my oldest child for my crime; the fruit of my body for the sin of my spirit? He has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.” – Micah 6.6-8

In this and other passages, what we see is a God who is not interested in outward religion but inward, spirit led faith that leads to the display of good as it’s fruits. Throughout his earthly ministry as recorded in the gospels, Jesus refers repeatedly to the idea of being ‘born of water and the spirit’ (John 3.1-17), worshiping God in spirit (John 4.24), and being born anew (1 Peter 1.3). The emphasis on the spiritual over the physical and political is unmistakable, the restoration that is sought in both testaments is one of the spirit.

This brings us to the how, how is God going to restore Israel and for that matter ‘all nations’? Through Jesus. Notice what is said in the Song of Simeon,

“my eyes have seen your salvation. 31 You prepared this salvation in the presence of all peoples. 32 It’s a light for revelation to the Gentiles and a glory for your people Israel.” – Luke 2.30-32

Jesus is the salvation – the deliverance – of man by God. In Jesus, Simeon see the salvation, the deliverance of his people from their complacent spirituality of the past, to a newness of life. Jesus brings the promise of worshiping God in the spirit, not just in the temple but anywhere. He is the teacher of the way, the true way to being at peace with God and with neighbor. This is a spiritual reliving of God’s salvation – his rescuing and restoring them – as he did in the Exodus and the Exile. The greater point here being that God desires to see all of his creation delivered and through Jesus, a final act of salvation can be set in motion.

Jesus was prepared – made ready – in the presence or ‘in the face of’ all people. Simeon did not rush out to have Mary and Joseph take the child to alcove in shame or fear. He held the child in full view of everyone there in the temple area. This is a public salvation, not to be hidden but to be declared as the angels did before the shepherds and as Simeon and Anna do now in the temple. This was a declaration of the child’s importance that the priest and the prophetess Anna make public statements to all about who Jesus is.

Jesus is a ‘light for revelation’ – the means to see clearly that which is being shown – to the Gentiles or non-Jewish people. When you walk into a room and it’s dark, what do you do? If you want to see, you flip the light switch. With the phrase, “light for revelation,” Simeon is saying that Jesus is the light switch flip for the entire world, Jews and Gentiles, those who have known a special relationship with God already and those who will come to know no matter their ancestry. Simeon makes the bold pronouncement that Jesus is the one to bring spiritual unity to all that are a part of creation itself.

What are you Waiting For?

When I was a kid, it seemed like forever to wait in line to ride the ‘good rides’ at Six Flags. With Jesus, there is no line, no waiting, no standing there peeking around the corners or impatiently sighing at the mass of people in front of you. There is only the need to seek Jesus and you will find him, to choose to orient the direction of your life toward God as Jesus taught us and we are no longer waiting for restoration, for revelation, for salvation, it will be given to us. And we don’t to wait from year to year for God to show us something new, bigger, better. We simply have to walk, as Jesus walked, and God will show it to us.

In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Spirit, amen.