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Posts Tagged ‘Matthew’

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 December 29, 2013.  This message is based on Hebrews 2:10-18 and Matthew 2:13-23.

bassinet“Do you think Jesus ever ate applesauce?”

I looked over at Sheila as she peered down at her daughter lying in the crib between us.  She was twirling a little paint brush in her hand.  We were in a New Hampshire hospital Intensive Care Nursery where I was serving as chaplain.  Sheila and her daughter Star had been in the hospital nursery for the past seven months, since they day Star was born.  We were gathered around Star’s crib as the hospital staff prepared to remove her life support.

“Applesauce?,” I asked.

“You know, when Jesus was a baby.  Do you think he had baby food, like applesauce, or squash, or sweat potatoes?”  There was a long pause.  “Star always loved applesauce,” she said.

Star was born with a genetic disorder that caused her organs to grow at different speeds.  While the rest of her body had grown to a normal size for her age, her lungs had barely developed.  As a result, Star breathed through a trachea in her neck, and for the most part was fed through a tube in her belly so that eating wouldn’t interfere with her breathing.  Star could the swallow teeny-tiniest amounts drops of food or water.  Every day, Sheila would come to the hospital and paint Star’s lips with applesauce.  Star’s eyes lit with delight as she licked the applesauce off her baby lips, experiencing the briefest pleasure from the limited food she could taste.

The memory of watching Sheila twirl that applesauce paintbrush roundmoore-lamb and round in her hands as she asked me about the baby Jesus has filled my mind this past week as I have pondered this morning’s complex and stark gospel lesson.

We know very little about the infancy of Jesus.  Our gospels contain perhaps a handful of passages about Jesus’ entire youth and childhood.  While there are other writings that appeared in the second century that speak of Jesus as a five year old and teenager, these writings are widely regarded as unauthoritative, similar to that of the Gnostic Gospels.  Even our fiction, like Christopher Moore’s novel, Lamb: the Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, neglects to imagine Jesus’ life as an infant.

Historically, we know that Bethlehem was a small town, and that around the time Jesus was born there were probably no more than twenty children under the age of two.  Add the scriptural passages about the naming of Jesus and his presentation in the temple to today’s passage, and in a few brief words we have summed up about all we know about the incarnate infant.

A question beckons us, “With so much left unsaid about Jesus as an infant, why is the story of Herod and the murder of innocent children one of the few stories we do tell?”

In many ways, this story is a retelling of the Passover, one that unites the life of Jesus to the vulnerability and pain of the exodus from Egypt.

When we dig deep, we can see rich parallels between Moses’ ministry and the beginning years of Jesus’ life.  Both Jesus and Moses were forced to leave their homes when they were infants – Jesus with Joseph and Mary, and Moses in the MosesBasketriver.  Both were forced to flee from Egypt and to live in exile.  Both advocated for the under privileged, the captive and the abused.  Both brought new commandments to God’s people.

Matthew works really hard to help emphasize that Jesus is the new Moses, sent by God the Parent to bring the Israelites to new life.  This morning’s message is peppered with imagery pointing to this notion; Jesus fulfilling what was spoken by the prophet, “out of Egypt I have called my son.”  An angel told Joseph twice to “get up and go into the land of Israel.”  The image of Rachael weeping, the same Rachel who was married to Jacob (whose name was changed to Israel) is another vibrant association.

Jesus is the new Moses, sent by God the Parent to bring the Israelites into new life.  But Jesus is also so much more.  Emmanuel, God with us, Jesus is more than a sequel to the Moses story.

A challenge to this passage is that there is a part of us that wants to know why God the Parent saved Jesus but not the other children.  We want to know why Jesus didn’t save the other children.  We want to know why Jesus doesn’t save us from the violence of this world.

More than a sequel to the Moses story, as God incarnate Jesus didn’t need to be a vulnerable baby born among animals, forced to flee with his mother and Joseph and live as a refugee.  He could easily have descended from a cloud as described in Daniel, or appear heroic and stoic as prophesied in Revelation.

Instead, Jesus put on our vulnerability and our humanity, calling us brothers and sisters, living as susceptible as any infant child.  Jesus humbled himself to live in the fullness of our existence in every respect, sharing in our joys and sorrows so that we will never have to question if our Triune God understands the complexities of our realities.

In the vulnerability of the incarnate infant, we can trust with a certainty that our through Jesus, God will stop through nothing and has stopped at nothing to be in deep, meaningful relationship with us.

hole-earthMany of you may have seen the Ted Talk that has been floating around social media about empathy verses sympathy.  It says that in order for a person who is in despair to feel that they are not alone, they do not need to be sympathized with, they need to be empathized with.  That when we are in our lowest moments, when we are living in a pain so deep and dark that it haunts us and terrifies us, the only way we can get out of that deep, dark hole is to have someone else come down into the hole with us.

Sympathy is when we stand above that hole, seeing someone deep inside, and offer them a rope.  Empathy is getting into the thick of it, walking step by step as the one in pain finds their way toward the light.

God throwing us a rope of sympathy is not enough to bring us to the light.  Jesus coming among us, into the deepest, darkest pit of our experience and sharing our lives step by step is empathy, and is the light that shines upon our path.

We may want the quick fix of the sympathy rope.  We certainly seek it when tragedy strikes.  We wanted to know in Newtown, Connecticut why our children were slaughtered.  We want to know why some people are plagued with illness and others with senseless persecution.  We want God to in the blink of an eye fix our infertility, to cure us with our battles of addictions.  We want God to reset the clock on our crumbling relationships.

God does more than sympathize with our pain.  In humbling himself to our humanity, Jesus comes down and joins us the deepest, darkest ache of our lives.  Jesus empathizes with our vulnerability and fragility he experienced the fullness of our humanity.  It is like our lesson from Hebrews shares, just as “the children share flesh and blood, Jesus himself likewise shared the same things.”

Jesus’ early life echoed the history of the Israelites so that their history became his own.  Jesus continues to share in our human experience.

When our children were senselessly murdered last December in Newton, Christ experienced the grief of their parents and our nation.  When we are plagued with illness, Jesus feels the prick of every needled and the adhesive of every bandage.  When we yearn to grow our families, Christ experiences our parental instincts.  When we long to reset the clock on our relationships, Jesus shares in our feelings of despair and hopelessness.

In the infant Jesus, God moves from sympathy to empathy, forsaking the rope and crawling down into the darkness to walk with us step by step.  But Jesus does not stop at empathy.  Just as Jesus shares the experiences of our humanity, Jesus moves past empathy so that we share in his resurrection.  Through his death and resurrection, Christ transforms the empathy of our shared human existence into the fulfilled promise of new life, a life that is available to all.

Through the miracle of resurrection, we rise from our grief like a phoenix from the bassinet_2ashes, building new relationships and holding onto hope.  In resurrection, Jesus moves past empathy and helps us discover the new possibilities that come from understanding how we are more than the limitations of our bodies.  In resurrection, we build deeper connections with our loved ones from the intimacy that comes with forgiveness.

I continue to think about Sheila and her question if Jesus ever ate applesauce.  While I will never have an answer that that question, I place my trust in the fulfilled promise that Jesus was right beside little baby Star as she was filled with joy from the taste of applesauce.  I place my trust that Jesus in his vulnerability was with Star step by step as she struggled to grow, and was the light that guided her from this life to the next.  I live in the resurrection hope that through Jesus, Sheila’s life was shaped for the better for having been Star’s mom, even for a short while.

The infant Jesus lives in the light and darkness of our lives, journeying with us step by step.

Amen.

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The following sermon was preached at Bethel Lutheran Church, St. Louis on December 8, 2013.  The message was based on Isaiah 11:1–10, Romans 15:4–13, and Matthew 3:1 – 12.

104004A.TIFI recently discovered a local television station that plays reruns of Lost.  It’s been about three years since the series ended on ABC, and I have been enjoying re-watching the story.

The main premise of the show is that a plane crashes onto a mysterious island somewhere in an untraceable part of the south Pacific.  We journey with the characters as they try to survive and attempt to leave the supernatural island.  As they travel around the wilderness of the island, the audience learns about the characters through flashes of their lives.  In flashbacks, we learn that their lives before the crash were also a wilderness filled with broken families, addictions, struggling marriages, and professional woes.  For many, the wilderness of the jungle proves to be more peace filled then the wilderness of coping in mainstream society.

This morning we encounter the wild image of John the Baptist in his camel hair clothes, chomping away on locusts and honey.  He is prophesying the arrival of Jesus while baptizing those who seek an escape from the wilderness of their lives.

As every good realtor would tell you, location is everything.  John remains on the margin alongside the river Jordan.  His location prompts people living inside and outside the city to meet him on the margin created by the river, to take a step towards the wilderness.

John’s wild attire and focus on an extreme lifestyle is no accident.  The wilderness is sacred in the history of the Israelites.  It was a place seen for renewal, it was where the Torah was revealed, and was a place where judgment fell to those who lacked faith.  John serves as a prophetic voice, bringing to life the sacredness of the wild in every way – through baptizing those who repent in untamed waters, in bringing to life the words of Isaiah of the voice crying out in the wilderness, to the very nature of how he dressed and lived.

ArrowTreeJohn’s life, attire and ministry pointed to one central message – return to the wilderness, it is here God will give us a new way.

This message begs the question, what and where is our wilderness?

John the Baptist shows us that our wilderness can be found in stepping out of the comfort of our tradition and grasping onto the change that faith brings.

Our passage sets the scene of Pharisees and the Sadducees coming for baptism.  The word in Greek that is translated as “coming for,” the word epi, can also be translated as “coming against.”  This verse could read “He saw any Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism,” or “coming against baptism.”

If we consider that the church leaders were “coming against baptism,” the following sentences of vipers clinging to their ancestor Abraham deepen in meaning.  John is furious because the church leaders are coming to put a stop to baptisms, to take the focus off what God will be doing and return it to what God has already done in their ancestry.

John explains that to live in this history and not accept that God is doing something new is like a spiritual death, one as dead as a tree cut by an ax.  To cling to the old ways is to live in the shelter of a spiritually dead city.  To cling to the old ways is to give up hope that God will continue to transform the world.

John the Baptist urges us to return to the wilderness and to cling to the hope that God is about to do a new thing.  Return to the sacred wilds and be amazed at what is to come.

For many of us, this call to leave the comfort of the city or even the familiarity of the margins, to trust in the wildness of faith, can make us feel vulnerable.   It requires us to let go of the notion that we are in control and trust that God will fulfill God’s promise to mend what is broken in the world.

Signs_UnclearJohn’s call to put our trust in God and embrace what is unknown can be difficult because we spend our lives sifting through unanswered questions. When is the right time to move my parents out of their home and into ours?  Do my children know that I love them?  When will I ever find job, and at what expense?  Will my body ever stop feeling like my enemy?  How can I sustain my marriage when it seems like the love is gone?  Why should I pray when I do not hear God answer me?

We are already living in the wilderness, in the rough and harsh environment of things unknown.  For many of us, we are like the characters of Lost, where the wild of the jungle would seem more peaceful then the wilderness of our daily lives.  It is oh so tempting to be like the Pharisees and the Sadducees, feeling too vulnerable to hope that God is doing a new thing in our midst.

John urges us to go deep into the wilderness of our hearts, but the truth is we are already there.  And so is God.

God is not like John the Baptist, waiting at the perfect remote location by some distant river bank.  God comes to us in the wilderness of our lives, taking the chaff and making manna, creating a branch of life to sprout from the dead root of the stump.  God is among the question of our lives, making something new.

The temptation may be there to evaluate where God is at work in the wilderness and treat hope like a wish.   We may wish that God will answer our questions in the terms we have scripted in our minds.  I would imagine we all have our wish list of tasks we want God to complete.  But hope is not wishful thinking.  It is not us putting conditions on God will unfold the future.

Hope is the ultimate trust that God is already making flower_snowthe world new and repairing what is broken.  Hope is the knowledge that God takes the chaff of our hearts and turns it into bread from heaven.  Hope is the recognition that burning away the unhealthy in our lives is the fertilizer that nourishes new seeds.  Hope is eagerly awaiting the new branch to sprout from the stump, bringing life in the midst of grief.

We put our trust in that hope because through the glory of the manger God came to us incarnate as Jesus Christ.   Talk about the wildness of the unexpected.  Who could have imagined that a child born in poverty would be our Emmanuel, God with us?  God did something new by coming among us as Jesus, and throughout his life Jesus continued to do new things.

Jesus never hesitated to live among all people, helping the world recognize that God is at work transforming all of us – those inside and outside the city margins.  Jesus faced the demons of illness and oppression.  He brought restoration in cities, on mountains, with water and wine, fishes and loaves.

Jesus’ ministry was often a wild process, bringing reconciliation in ways that baffled the comfortable history of the ancient ways.  That wilderness continued to the cross.  The certainty that seemed to accompany death no longer was true, as Jesus did something new through his resurrection.

The newness of resurrection was extended onto us by the power of the Holy Spirit.  We have been resurrected in Christ.  Through the waters of our baptism we are claimed as God’s own, in a ritual filled with wild waters that we would expect to bring death but instead bring life.

We may wish that God would mend our lives in specific ways, taking us out of the uncertainty of the wilderness into the safety of familiarity.   We may wish God will work in ways we have determined as best.  Living deeply into our faith, however, is not a wish list we hope God will complete.  It is living in the certain hope that through Christ, God has already answered the question before we even ask it.

MandelaThis was hope that empowered Nelson Mandela to care for his people in the wilderness of the South African apartheid.  I would imagine that Mandela never wished that God would send him to prison or make him an enemy to the authorities.  Yet, God did something new and made bread from the chaff of those experiences.

Mandela’s ministry was not based on wishes of what God could do, but was instead living into the hope of what God was already doing among his people.  Holding onto the certain hope that the resurrection of Christ was at work in the midst of the wild and violent time in his country, Mandela was able to be a voice crying out in the wilderness that God was sprouting a new branch on a seemingly dead tree.

The hope we have in Christ is living in the certainty that God has already begun working on the answer before we even ask the question.  We have been resurrected in Christ, and the uncertainty of the wilderness is no longer.  In Christ, we have the certain hope that God is doing something new within our lives, fertilizing the seeds of our future with the remnants of the fire.

Live in hope.  Return to the sacred wilds and be amazed at what is to come.  God is already there, doing something new.

Amen.

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