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Archive for January, 2014

The following sermon as preached on January 26, 2014 at Bethel Lutheran Church.  This text was based on Matthew 4:12–23.

“I will make you fish for people.”

There are some phrases in our scriptures that are somewhat iconic, phrases that bring images to our mind and people can quote with ease.  How do you remember this passage?  When you hear this phrase, what images or feelings come to your mind?

“I will make you fish for people.”

fishing_3For some, perhaps we envision the disciples casting large nets into the Sea of Galilee.  Maybe our minds flash to the Jesus fish found on back bumpers of neighboring cars during rush hour traffic.  I have a friend who got her doctorate in contemporary Christian music, and this phrase reminds her of a Christian Rock station called “The Fish.”

What image does this phrase bring for you?  For me, I am reminded of my home church pastor, who takes off the first day of every hunting season and fishing season and goes on a spiritual retreat in the wilderness.  Over the years these retreats have proved to be restorative moments in his ministry and the ministry of our church, even if that restoration is accompanied by pictures with his largest catch of the weekend.

As a church, this phrase is strongly associated with evangelism, the ministry of going out into the world and telling people about the good news found in Christ Jesus.  Just as this phrase brings up our own images, our Gospel author Matthew also was trying to draw an image to mind of his audience.

Matthew is deeply invested in the Jewish tradition, proclaiming that Jesus has come to fulfil what has been spoken through the prophets.  Jesus quotes the other prophets frequently and uses prophetic imagery throughout his ministry to help emphasize this message.

Just before we enter today’s lesson, Jesus has been baptized by John in the river Jordan and anointed by the Holy Spirit.  These images of anointing is once again a connection to Jesus and prophesy, as prophets in our Hebrew Scriptures were frequently anointed with oil before they began their public ministry.

Soon after his baptism, John is taken by Herod, a somewhat prophetic foreshadowing to Jesus’ own public trial before the crucifixion.

“I will make you fish for people.”

Matthew tells this story with purpose, forsaking the backstory of the disciples we find in other gospels.  This brings us to the iconic phrase faster. “I will make you fish for people.”

While perhaps images of Jesus fish bumper stickers, radio stations, and pastors fishing may float to our mind, Matthew’s version of this story is for a specific purpose.  He is once again making the bridge between Jesus and the prophets, this time using fish as the bridge.

fishing_4In prophetic literature, fishing imagery is all about discovery, about uncovering what is hidden beneath the waters.  Amos talks about communities finding the faithful in a sea of dangerous figures, like a fishhook draws out the fish from the water.[1]  In Jeremiah, God sends out fisherman to catch those who are hidden in communities filled with inequity. [2]

Fishing in prophetic literature is about finding, it is about unveiling, it is about discovering what is lying deep within the waters, beyond what the eye can see.  Fishing is about seeing how God has faithfully stood beside humanity throughout the ages of time, working to draw us out of the dark depths into an intimate and compassionate relationship.  Fishing is about reaching deep into the wells of our souls and seeing God waiting at the bottom.

Through this prophetic understanding of fishing, we discover that what is necessary to share the good news of Christ with others is to uncover what is already lying beneath, to uncover how God is already working in places and in ways that may not be obvious when standing on the river bank.

Through his death and resurrection, the blessings found in Jesus have been given to all of creation.  Through the power of the Holy Spirit and the waters of our baptism, we are each called to unique ministries and opportunities.  We have been resurrected in Christ, freed from the restrictions of sin and brokenness that would hinder our ability to proclaim God’s gift of reconciliation and love.  As resurrected people, the Holy Spirit works through our shortcomings and limitations, transforming obstacles into opportunities.

fishing_2This is what happens with the disciples.  While in a secular world, the lowly occupation of fisherman would seem like an obstacle, through Christ this same occupation becomes an opportunity to serve God.  That transition from obstacle to opportunity is immediate, propelling the disciples from the jobs they had to the vocation of following Christ.  “Immediately they left their nets and followed Jesus.”   Through Christ’s affection, they instantaneously discovered that God had equipped them to be disciples.  “Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.”

We are empowered to fish for people because through the cross, Christ first fished for us.

This weekend Bethel has been supporting the students of Lutheran Campus Ministry through Trivia Night and other fundraising efforts.  In a few weeks, many of these students will head to Guatemala, and there they will live into their vocation to fish for people.  They will be fishing in the prophetic sense of the word, exploring how God is already at work in the community they are going to serve.  They, like other mission ventures in the ELCA, will join the efforts of an already existing ministry to help strengthen and support how God currently tends to that context.  In seeing how God blesses and resurrects the Guatemalan people, our students will delve deeper into the waters of their faith and discover in new ways how God blesses and resurrects their own lives here in St. Louis.

Fishing for people is not about telling others what they need to do to be better followers of Christ.  It is about talking with others, hearing their resurrection stories, and sharing our experiences in return.

Fishing for people moves beyond assuming that what motivates someone’s involvement is based on their age, education, or financial status.  Instead it is about uncovering the gift that God is already nurturing within that person and helping them join a mission that suits that gift.

Fishing for people is about serving as a witness to the wondrous and endless ways that God is present within the midst of every person, and then sharing what we witness as proclamation of how the kingdom of heaven has come near.

Fishing for people is about uncovering ways that we can work together to glorify our God who loves us beyond our understanding.

fishing_1When we fish for people in this prophetic sense, the kaleidoscope of our faith shifts and we are nurtured to spread the message of Jesus’s love and reconciliation to others.  Our relationship with God strengthens when we see how strongly God supports others.  We more fully understand how we are forgiven when we witness how Christ’s forgiveness transformed another.  We have hope for our own healing when we see how the Spirit has unexpectedly brought life to someone who lives in their own health battles.

The beauty about being called by Christ to fish for people is that there is not an expectation that we will do it perfectly.  The likelihood is high that we will make mistakes, yet God calls us anyways.  As a member so wisely pointed out in our Bible study this past week, the disciples called at the river bank are the same disciples that will deny Jesus and send him to his crucifixion.  These same disciples that denied him are the same disciples that 50 days later are resurrected in Christ and given the task to tell the world about Jesus.

This ability to move forward and proclaim Christ after we so epically fail is a gift that has been given to us by the resurrected Christ.  That we can be advocates for all of creation all the while we pollute the earth can only come from the love of a creating God.  That we can be given the privilege of seeing how God works in others when we ourselves make choices which limit that work within ourselves is a blessing that can only be given to us by the resurrected Christ.  That the tragedies of our life stories can be transformed for compassion to serve others is only a gift that comes from a life-giving Spirit.  Christ calls us to fish for people, and we can do so boldly because no matter the joys and sorrows along the way, our Triune God continues to resurrect us from our mistakes, trust us and stand by us.

We are empowered to fish for people because through the cross, Christ first fished for us.

Amen.


[1] Amos 4:2

[2] Jer 16:16

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The following sermon was preached at Bethel Lutheran Church, St. Louis on January 12, 2014.  The message was based on Baptism of Our Lord texts, Acts 10:34-43  and Matthew 3:13-17. 

Every year, we encounter the baptism of Jesus early in the season of Epiphany, which means “manifestation” or “striking appearance.”  It is in this season between now and Ash Wednesday where our lessons will have a strong emphasis on the striking appearance of Christ in human flesh, revealing the various ways that God is indeed with us.

magi1Last week, had weather permitted, we would have gathered together to retell the feast day of Epiphany, where the magi encounter the manifested baby Jesus.  That day is celebrated on January 6th, and is affectionately referred to as Twelfth Night.

I have a little confession to make.  Before my church work days began, I was a children’s librarian in Northeast Ohio.  During that time I fell under the spell of a great occupational hazard – I became an avid Shakespeare buff.

Shakespeare wrote a play entitled “Twelfth Night,” and every year between Christmas and Epiphany, I pull out my well-loved copy and re-read the story.  My all-time favorite work from Shakespeare, this comedy is a complicated love story where duplicity is the name of the game.  The play’s setting is during a carnival-style celebration of the Epiphany.

When reading Peter’s affirmation of faith in today’s reading from Acts, I was reminded of one of my favorite “Twelfth Night” quotes:

In nature there’s no blemish but the mind; None can be called deformed but the unkind.[1]

Our second lesson is one of those examples in Scripture where context adds a great deal to the message.   Peter is at the home of Cornelius, a Roman officer.  It just so happens that Cornelius’ home is in a very pagan city, dedicated to Augustus Caesar.  Up to this point in Luke and Acts, neither Jesus nor his followers had taken their ministry to such a pagan location.  Jesus had even healed the centurion’s servant from Capernaum outside the city because of the dangers associated with entering Gentile territory.[2]  Before Peter came to Cornelius’ house, he and the other disciples traveled quite a bit.  They baptized Jews and Samaritans, but no Gentiles.

peter_vision1One day while Peter was praying he became very hungry and fell into a trance where he experienced a vision.  In the trance, the heavens open up and a four legged creature appeared.  This creature looked like the reptiles and birds that were considered to be unclean by Jewish custom.   A voice from the heavens told Peter to kill the creature and eat it.  Peter replied that he would never eat something so profane or unclean.  The voice returned, saying three times, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”[3]

When Peter awoke from his trance, he went back to the other disciples, where he learned that a man named Cornelius had sent three men to bring Peter to him.  Now Peter was still experiencing that blemish of the mind Shakespeare wrote about.  He hadn’t unraveled the vision of the four-legged creature and wanted to ignore Cornelius’ request.  The Spirit came to him saying, “Look Peter, I was the one who sent these three men to come get you.  Go to Cornelius house.”

So Peter went to Cornelius’ house, but still didn’t understand why he was there.  He listened as Cornelius shared how the Spirit came to Cornelius in a vision and told him to call on Peter, for Peter would bring him a great message.

Finally, things clicked in place for Peter, and we join his story this morning at this Oprah-esque “ah-hah” moment.  Here, Peter realizes the fulfillment found in Jesus is for all people – Jew, Samaritan, Gentile – everyone.  What had been considered profane had been made clean by God.  The light-bulb over Peter’s head has finally lit.

Now that Peter gets the picture, he says “I truly understand that God shows no impartiality.”  A more accurate translation reads, “By truth I understand.”  By the truth of God’s inclusive love, Peter understands that Jesus’ official ministry began when Jesus was anointed by the Spirit in the river Jordan.  In God’s truth, Peter recognizes the unique testimony that comes from witnessing Jesus’ death and resurrection first hand.  Peter acknowledges the responsibility that comes from having known Jesus, and responds to the call to preach and teach the good news of Christ to all people.

peter_baptizing_gentilesThrough Peter’s own baptism, he was called to serve others and expand the church.  The Spirit continued to call to him throughout his ministry, guiding his steps to Cornelius’ door, leading him to a moment of understanding that deepened his faith and that of the Gentiles.

In the verses that immediately follow today’s message, we read that while Peter was recalling the ministry and resurrection of Jesus, the Holy Spirit fell upon those who were gathered.  As Peter baptized the Gentiles, the Spirit was set upon them, forever connecting them with manifested Christ.

In our own baptism, we are connected to Jesus and have had the Spirit set upon us.  Through baptism, we enter the water as profane four-legged creatures awaiting slaughter, and leave the waters cleaned, whole and alive.  We enter the water as victims of the blemishes of our mind, inflicting unkindness to our surrounding.  We leave the water as proclaimers of the peace and mercy found in Christ, healing the hurt found in this world through the authority that has been anointed unto us by the Spirit.

The transformation we receive in baptismal waters is not something we can bring to ourselves.  This transformation comes to us because God continues to manifest God’s self in our sacraments.

Jesus was baptized in the river not because Jesus needed to be absolved of sin.  Jesus entered the waters without blemish – clean, whole, and holy.  Jesus entered for us, to demonstrate his connection to humanity.

jesus_baptismWhen the Spirit set upon Jesus in the Jordan, it was a moment similar to the anointing of David and other leaders.  Being anointed and partaking in John’s baptismal ministry, Jesus affirms that God is indeed incarnate, humbly sharing in the breadth of our faith heritage.  Just as these actions assert Jesus’ humanity, the dove appearing in the sky asserts his divinity.  His divinity is emphasized as God the Parent’s voice claims Jesus as his beloved Son.  Through his humility in the river, Jesus unites humanity with the privilege of being claimed as God’s own child.

There, in the waters of the Jordan, Jesus changes baptismal waters from being merely a cleansing rite into a way for us to experience God manifested within our midst –present in, with and under the element of water.  This presence comes to us as we celebrate baptism.  When water meets the Word of God, when we recount the times throughout generations God has saved humanity through the water, Christ becomes present in, with, and under the water.

jesus_baptism2This manifestation is what happened with Peter and Cornelius after Peter’s amazing “ah-hah” moment.  The Spirit worked through the water and the Word claiming the Gentiles as God’s chosen people, just as the Spirit claims us in our baptism.

Peter speaks of the privilege and responsibility that comes with having been a witness to Jesus.  He understood that God calls those who have experienced the presence of Christ to serve others and proclaim how the fulfillment found in Jesus is for all.  He understood that the Spirit his ministry to grow into something new at Cornelius’ house.

Through our baptism, we too are called to serve others and proclaim the goodness in Christ. Like Peter, the Spirit calls us to explore new ministries we had never imagined.  God has equipped us to follow when the Spirit calls us because we experience the presence of Jesus through our sacraments.

Every time we gather at the table to share in Holy Communion, we experience Christ manifested in, with and under the elements of bread and wine.  In that sacred meal, the hunger that comes from the brokenness of our sin is sated and the Spirit nourishes us to go out into the world and serve others.

jesus_baptism3Every time we witness the baptism of another, remember our own baptism, or confess our sins, God returns us to the moment where we were anointed by the Spirit in our baptism.  Luther said that we return to the blessings of our baptism every time we wash our face.

Jesus humbled himself to unite our Triune God to the whole of our human existence.  Jesus was anointed as our ancestors were, and as we continue to be today.  Jesus was washed, cleaning the stains of former generations, and giving us a clean slate to strive to bring Christ’s peace to a weary world.  Just as we share in the blessings and ministry opportunities of Jesus’ baptism, we share in Jesus’ resurrection.

Through baptism we have been united to Christ and anointed by the Spirit.

Amen.


[1] William Shakespeare, “Twelfth Night”, Act 3

[2] Luke 7:6 – 7

[3] Acts 10:15

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