“Failure” Micah 6:1-8; Matt 5:1-12

 

Beloved in the Lord, I must confess to you my sin this day.

I have failed.

I have failed in 32 years of preaching to convey the essence of the Gospel.

I have failed to equip the saints.

I have failed to fully comprehend what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

I have been too often turned aside and led astray, addressing the “adiaphora,” (a fancy theological term for the “things that really don’t matter”) of church.

The leaky roof occupied my thoughts.

The right wording in the constitution became my obsession, or the space for the food pantry, or the mailing for the Stewardship program, the color of the new carpet, or making sure the right liturgical color was on the altar for the right season of the church year.

These are the things that I must have called important.

I met in meetings to discuss these matters, and I planned how to execute them best, and argued for and about these things.

All the while, somehow I neglected to proclaim what we would most need in these days.

Evidently, I failed to mention or appropriate into my own understanding that Jesus calls us all to lay down our life, even for the stranger, and not to protect our life at the expense of others.

Evidently, I forgot to take to heart the words of Micah, who told us what is most important and what God truly requires of us.

I neglected to push you, and myself, to understand what it is to do justice in this world.

I must have missed opportunities to develop a quality of mercy that would allow us all to love our neighbor, and not to fear them.

I guess I was too busy trying to find a sense of pride in the building, or a program, or in an accomplishment to learn how, or to help you learn how to walk humbly in the way God leads.

So, forgive me.

Confession is good for the soul, so they say.

So, today I am confessing that the Beatitudes bug the heck out of me, and I don’t believe a single one of them.

I certainly don’t believe in them enough to emulate them, or to put myself in the position of being who God pronounces “Blessed” upon.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit…”  yeah fat chance, who in here believes that?   Who in here is willing to change places with anyone who is depressed, or down on their luck, or who struggles in actual poverty, or detained in an airport just so they can find God’s blessing?

We’re just thankful we’re not like them, or in their place.

So it is really with all the Beatitudes, one by one, as you go down the list.

No one chooses to mourn, or to hunger, or to thirst.    It’s great to know that if you ever find yourself in those places, that God will be there and will blesses you where you are, but I don’t sense God calling me to experience any of those things just for the sake of finding blessing.

And you know which beatitude we really don’t choose, and don’t want anything to do with?

It’s this one about “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”

We particularly don’t like this one, because you see, of all the ones we might be inclined to find ourselves in sometime, this is the one we have to choose.

Few choose to be poor, they end up there.

Fewer still choose to mourn, or walk the path of meekness, or to hunger and thirst for righteousness.

You end up having things happening to you that bereave you, make you powerless, or make you hungry for some justice, and when you find yourself there, you hope someone comes along to lift you out of it, and you long for God to pronounce blessing, but you don’t choose to go there.

No, the only place you have an option for “choosing” in the beatitudes is whether or not you will do something for the sake of God and God’s call upon your life.

This is where the rubber meets the road.

We don’t like conflict.

We don’t like putting ourselves in the place where we’ll be subject to scrutiny, subjected to an opposing viewpoint, or called out because of our convictions or beliefs.

We know we hate being put in this position from something as trivial as a well-intended casual Facebook post!  When you put your thoughts, your convictions out there, there is always someone ready to argue back at you and point out how they beg to differ with your “opinion.”

So, as I confess to you my sin, I guess it’s a pretty natural one.  If I could make it look like I was following God without having to do the really hard stuff, well that was the best thing to do, the comfortable thing to do.

And, for a long time, I could do that and get by.

But not anymore.

There are brothers and sisters in our midst who are rightly scared of what is coming in the days ahead from this administration.

Will my marriage be revoked?

Will my friends or co-workers be deported?

Will families be separated, and rights revoked, and citizenship be questioned?

Will the work of my lifetime in the sciences be suppressed, dismissed or ignored because it does not fit with the “new alternative facts” desired?

These are the fears voiced in our midst, and in the midst of this nation.

Honestly, I don’t care who you voted for.  I don’t care if your guy won, or if you think Satan himself now sits in the White House.

This is what I care about.

How are you going to treat one another in the midst of all of this?

I ask that because our track record has not always been great here on that front, mine included.

Are we going to love one another enough to deeply listen to one another’s fears, and not dismiss them or belittle them, or feel compelled to argue or name call?

Are we going to set aside our differences to speak on behalf and defend the one who is afraid, and to calm their fears, and if necessary, work tirelessly to assure and reassure?

Will we, in other words, be a blessing to others, or be blessed by God because we are willing to take a stand somewhere, with someone.  Even if it’s not the stand that I would personally agree with, but know that because we love and care for each other, and that it is a stand that YOU have to take, I will stand with you because you are my brother, my sister in Christ?

Will we be willing to be reviled, and persecuted, and have all manner of evil spoken against us – rightly or falsely — because we are willing to do something on account of what the Gospel calls us to say, or to do, or to be?

We get to choose that, you see.

Will we?

Will I?

Forgive me.

I have failed to do so in the past.

I will likely fail to do so again.

But confession is good for the soul, and today I confess my failure of you, and with you, in the fervent belief that the power of forgiveness empowers us to start again, and this time to choose to do what we must do as a matter of conscience on God’s account, and in God’s name.

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“Repositioning” Matthew 4:12-23

I’ve always read the Matthew passage about the call of the disciples focusing on the last part here, how Peter, Andrew, James and John dropped everything and followed Jesus as he met them by the Sea of Galilee.   I’ve focused on, and usually marveled at their faith, or trust which allowed them to follow Jesus when he happened by.

But I’m looking at this story with a little different set of eyes this time.  I’m paying attention to the kind of “positioning” that Jesus engages in long before the call is extended to “come and follow me.”    I’ll tell you what made me think about this.

When I started doing a little research about getting “bang for your buck” out of travel for a potential Sabbatical I ran across these things called “repositioning cruises.

You see, nobody really wants to sail, no matter how nice the ship is, up a Norwegian Fjord or the Alaska coastline in the middle of winter when it’s cold and the days are short so you can’t see anything, and seasonal storms rolling through make the ride rough.

But, when it’s cold and dark and stormy up north, that is a really good time to be tooling around in the Caribbean or cruising Australia/New Zealand.

You could just park your ship and wait for the weather to change, or you could you move the ship to where it was needed at the time.

Repositioning Cruises are longer, and so they are also a good time to roll over your staff.   You get a few extra “days at sea” as you move that ship from one place to the other to train your sailors, servers, have your entertainers learn new shows, etc.   You don’t want to just move an empty ship, so you offer a discount price to any passengers who want a longer sea experience and who don’t mind watching the shift of a few events.   To the person who has never been on a cruise before, you may not even notice the transitions, although they are happening all around you.

Repositioning acknowledges that the ship can’t keep doing what it has been in the same place, and it can’t just park itself waiting for good weather to come back.

Repositioning recognizes that it takes time to learn the skill sets necessary for proficiency, and so you have to be patient as both a passenger and a crew as it retools itself for this new situation.

Repositioning means you move your assets to where they can do the most good, and prepare along the way for the ultimate task.

Now with that in mind, look at the Gospel for today again.

The story starts out with an acknowledgement that John is no longer on the scene.    Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.  He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali.

Jesus, it appears, is repositioning himself.  John the Baptist is no longer on the scene.   The situation is changed.   “Baptism for Repentance” was a way to introduce that God was about to be up to something, but what God is about to do takes a different skillset, and a different way of navigating.

Jesus repositions himself from his hometown of Nazareth, to Capernaum, and the historic tribal territory of Zebulun and Naphtali.

Why there?  Well partly it appears to be to line up with a prophecy from Isaiah.

Zebulun and Naphtali, of all the tribal areas of Judah, were the most trodden upon of the 12 Tribes of Israel, and the most long suffering throughout history.

This area has seen a lot of “dark days.”

The Assyrians had conquered those lands in the days after Solomon the Wise.

The Babylonians had swept through on three separate occasions, conquering, occupying, and pillaging along the way.

Zebulun and Naphtali had been occupied territories under the Persian Empire.  While Nehemiah rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem, Persian retained control of the trade routes along the Sea of Galilee.

The Greeks had taken these lands during the conquests of Alexander the Great, and the Ptolemy and Selucid generals had been regents and occupying forces after Alexander’s  death, right up until King Herod the Great traded influence with Rome to re-acquire them.

Now in the time of Jesus and under Roman occupation.  Herod Antipas is building up the area around Capernaum into a center of trade, which you might think would be a good thing, but here is the second reason why Jesus is positioning himself here.

Herod is likely building up the economy by exporting dried fish and Garum, (a fermented fish sauce which was a Roman staple) from the Sea of Galilee to the wider Roman Empire.

Herod Antipas is pocketing the profit, even as fish stocks in the lake are being depleted, prices are being inflated locally, and the staple food source for the people of this old land of “Zebulun and Naphtali is being “shipped out.”  So, hunger is on the rise.

Yes, this area has seen a lot of “dark days.”    Isaiah’s promise of light shining would be a particularly welcome word to them.

Jesus, the Light of the world, coming into this place would be a welcome thing as well.

Jesus, “the bread of life” will be a welcome presence of God in the midst of hunger, physical and spiritual.

So, “Repositioning.”   Where does Jesus go after John’s arrest?   He goes where it is darkest and hungriest.

He goes where he is most needed, and where he can do the most good.

This is Jesus, repositioning himself, and repositioning the message as well, for while John preached Baptism for Repentance, looking forward to Messiah.   Jesus now positions the message anew.

“Repent, for the Kingdom of God has come near.”

So, I just want you to notice with me this time all that takes place before the Disciples are called, all this “repositioning” work that God is doing to make it possible to for them to follow.

There is a timing element to the positioning of Jesus.   John’s message is at an end, The moment for Jesus’ message has arrived, and when the time arrives, he arrives.

There is a location element involved.  It is not so much Jesus “withdrawing” as if this were a retreat of some kind.   No, Jesus withdraws from what used to be home (Nazareth) and takes up residence in a new “home.”      “Withdrawing” from Nazareth means for Jesus that he is advancing to where he is needed!

Before there is any call to follow, before there is any leaving of the boats, or the father or family, before there is any promise of fishing for people, — there is God repositioning assets for a particular time, at a particular moment, and in a particular location.

Just let that sink in for a moment.

So don’t rush to the “call to follow” part of this story. Consider for a bit what was positioned that made it possible for those disciples to respond to Jesus.

Don’t beat yourself up because you are not like Peter, Andrew, James or John, ready (it appears) to drop everything at the drop of a hat, because likelihood is they weren’t quite like that either.

Those fishermen had a long history of living in the land of “Zebulun and Naphtali” a land acquainted with darkness, and with watching darkness gather once again.

It’s not such a hard thing you see, to drop your nets if there aren’t any fish to be caught!

Jesus comes along and yes, this looks like a risky proposition, following him, but sure beats doing what clearly isn’t working anymore, or doing what the political powers that be demand of you with no rewards.

Peter, Andrew, James and John were being prepared for this particular moment when Jesus positioned himself at the right time, and the right place, for them to be open to finding a new way of life and a new source of hope.

Maybe your time is just now coming.

Maybe the forces at play in this world have all been leading up to this moment where at the invitation to follow Jesus with your own conviction, you are now ready.

Similarly, if you have been following Jesus, don’t puff up and get all cocky because you’ve decided to follow Jesus, as if that were some accomplishment on your part.

“Isn’t Jesus lucky to have us….”

No, before jumping to the call, consider the positioning.  Where had God positioned himself in your life to make that following possible?

More importantly, where is God repositioning himself?

As White middle class Christians we got pretty used to sailing the same waters since the 1950’s.    We built fine, historic buildings, crafted programs to meet the needs of a growing suburb with families just like us moving in.  We acquired properties as we built our ships, literally called our “Naves”, to hold what we believed would be our ever expanding group of passengers just like us.

But the climate changed.

We might even go so far as to say that a bunch of people have even “jumped ship,” no longer willing to ride along as we ply the same waters, doing the same things that worked when the societal climate was so very different.

Is it time we “repositioned?”

We saw significant events this past week, a new President sworn in and an affirmation in the inaugural address of how he sees the country and what he understands his task to be.

We also saw a tidal wave of response to that vision cast, and that direction set.

People are repositioning themselves, are they not?

Some see light in all of this, some see darkness, or gathering clouds.

And without going too deeply into any of that or evaluating where you might be inclined to stand on anything, what is perfectly clear is that we are living in a time when things are being repositioned, and it is statement of faith to say that God is indeed in the midst of all of that.

So, this may be your time, when the call to follow Jesus is suddenly so absolutely clear and you are ready now, to drop the old and follow the new.

Or, this may be for you a time when it is becoming painfully clear that God is moving and you need to pay attention to where God is positioning God’s self, because the boat has indeed sailed and you need to be ready and open to the changes being made as it retools itself.

In either case, welcome to the world of re-positioning, and to the God who appears to be well accustomed to doing such things.

Perhaps I am reading more into this lesson from Isaiah than I should be, but as Isaiah’s words come around this time we are deep into a process of watching the newly elected president assemble his cabinet and the world is abuzz with the matter of transitions taking place.

Everywhere you look on national, state and local government the conversation is about who will be chosen and who is qualified, and what kind of people are being chosen for this position or that.

And the promises made by those taking office are all about getting the sluggish economic wheels turning again.  Jobs here.   Jobs returning.  New jobs for idle hands.

Suddenly, the matter of Job Descriptions is of more interest to everyone.

Just what does the Secretary of State do?   Does a former Exxon-Mobile CEO have the credentials to do a task that is usually performed by someone with years of political and protocol experience?

Does it matter if people who have spent their careers battling against government regulation are now put in charge of the very agencies they have fought against?

Is it savvy to put a former governor of an oil rich state in charge of the Department of Energy, a former oil executive in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency?  Will they perhaps have insight that career politicians do not possess having worked “in the field” so to speak, or is this like putting the fox in charge of the hen house?

Can you “bring back” what has been transitioned to new ways of doing things?  Are the wheels of economic growth a boon for workers, or automation?  More jobs for robots than for humans.

That’s the tricky thing with “Job Descriptions”, they are always a bit open to interpretation.

Does a job description exist to give one the “bare minimum requirements of what it takes to do something?

Do we approach a job description as a means of determining if we fit the general qualifications required to perform the task as it is outlined, or is a job description a guide to where one starts, and then one is allowed to adapt and make the job their own?

Or, do we view the job description as the limiter?   Is it used as the means of disqualifying candidates outright as having no possibility of ever performing this job?    “You don’t have the degree, the letters behind your name, the experience we are looking for.”

“Must Possess sound organizational skills with the ability to multi-task and with a strong attention to detail.”

“Must be Self-motivated to accomplish goals with a strong sense of accountability for results.”

“Must Demonstrate communication excellence, verbally and in writing; be comfortable presenting to large groups.”

Maybe all of those descriptions fit a person’s capabilities, but how does one know if one could actually do the job?   Such qualities are often generic enough to fit a variety of professions and situations.

All of this is on my mind because I’m reading Isaiah 42 with new eyes.

Traditionally the “Suffering Servant” songs from Isaiah have always been seen through Christian eyes as being prophetically connected to Jesus.

Jesus is the “Suffering Servant” here Christian tradition says.  He was the ideal servant in who God delighted.

But when Isaiah penned these descriptions he likely did not have a single person in mind, but rather was speaking of Israel, his nation, his own people.

The “Servant” was Israel herself, destined from the time of Abraham’s promise to be a blessing to the nations.  What was that blessing to look like?

What would it mean to be a “Servant people?”

This is where the “job description part comes in, for Isaiah pens his hopes here, of what his own people should be to their neighbors, and to this world.

Now, as followers of Jesus, we believe that our lives are also to be somehow shaped and formed by Christ and his example. That is what it means to be “disciple.”   We literally walk in the footsteps of Jesus, the way of the Cross.   Servants of “The Servant, that’s what we are.

So, on this day as we observe and celebrate Jesus’ baptism, we begin to hear echoes in it of our own baptism, and it is appropriate to draw all kind of connections.

We baptize, and we are baptized, and in the action of water and Word happening we come to see that we are made into the “children of God”, the heirs to Abrahams promises.

We are the ones now who become “beloved” and “chosen.”

We are the ones in who God now “takes delight.”

We are the ones who become the “people of God” through the waters of baptism.

And this is where Isaiah 42 becomes less of a description of a “hoped for someday messiah” and more of a “job description for a people.”

Maybe even a job description for you and me.

That’s the crossroads where this reading from Isaiah begins takes on new meaning.

Is this our job description, as the ones who have been baptized?  The ones whom “God has chosen and in whom God delights?”

If it is, then how do I hear this hoped for, this longed for “servant?”

Am I, are you; the one upon whom God has placed his Spirit?

We say so, in the waters of Baptism.

We affirm so in the right of confirmation.

At some point in time a Pastor put his hand upon your head and prayed, “Stir up your Holy Spirit in (your name) … confirm her faith, ….guide his life…..empower her serving…give him  patience in suffering…bring her to everlasting life.

Those are the words spoken over you by name in the affirmation of your baptism.  Your job description if you will, that aligns you with Isaiah 42, as a part of a people who God has chosen and in whom God delights!

An if that is the case, then look at all Isaiah 42 places before us, all the things we are called to live into if not are made able to do at this moment.

It means we are the ones charged by God to bring justice to the nations.

It means we are the ones with expectations to not “cry of lift up our voice in the streets.”   But rather, “a bruised reed he will not break, a dimly burning wick he will not quench.”

Could that mean as God’s people, as servants we are not to engage or join in with the kind of “shouting down of others” that passes for discourse?   But rather we are to speak up for justice, particularly for those whose voices are so often minimized and marginalized?

Is that what it means to hear God say we must not “grow faint or be crushed until justice is established on earth?”  For surely, to join our voices with those who are so often shouted down will feel like a crushing experience!

Is this our “job description?”   Not just one put out for a “someday messiah” or written to lay in wait for Jesus to take up, but rather one that was penned for you and me?   One that we are destined to pick up and to do?

I must admit that all of this would be a little bit overwhelming.

I might read this “Job description” and do what I have done with so many others through the years, simply not see myself as capable or qualified for it.

I am not a “justice bringer.”

I have no special gifts to bring light, or to open eyes, or release those imprisoned.

You have the wrong person, God, if that is what you expect of me.

But if you read it again, you will begin notice something else, for this is not just a “job description” of what God expects of the servant, but it is more a description of God’s activity to empower.

“Here is my servant whom I uphold….”

I have put my Spirit on him/her….”

“He/she will not cry out….”.

“He/she will bring…..”

Why?

“Because I am the LORD…”

“I have called….”

“I have taken you by the hand….”

“I have given you as a covenant/promise to the people…”

Above all else, this is a passage of the kind of confidence that God has in God’s own people to do and to be what God has envisioned.

It’s not about a “special servant.”

It’s about what God empowers us to do in daily life through the many gifts already given to us, to carry out in the place in which we find ourselves.

Your “job description for life” is to live out your own baptism and all that it empowers you to do, to let your light shine yes…. But more importantly to let God’s light shine in this world through you!

Lutherans have understood this to be bound up in vocation.   We serve God best by doing what we have been gifted to do in this world, and we proclaim justice and we release captives and we bring light and open eyes by doing what we can do very well, and to the glory of God.

So, here’s your “job description” for the week.  Whatever it is you do in this world?   Do that as if God were empowering you, for God is!

Wherever you find yourself this week, that is the place where you bring justice, and you do it not by some grandstanding action in the street, but by doing things with grace and decency.

Let your words be words that God would delight in.

Let your actions be those what cause someone to smile, or to say “thank you.”

Be the blessing God intended you to be right where you are and in so doing, you will be the Servant in whom God delights.

Oh, you will suffer for that, for not everyone is going to take kindly to your cheerful disposition.

Some will be suspicious of your motivation.

Dim wicks and bruised reeds do abound in this world, and it is a conscious choice not to push people over and snuff out their last spark of life.

But this is what you are empowered to do, by a God who has created the heavens and given life to all that is.   See people as God sees them this week, oh Servant in whom God delights.