“Leveling” Luke 6:27-38

Everything depends upon leveling.

I admit that one of my guilty pleasures is gaming.

In college I was one of those “nerds” that got sucked into the world of adventure gaming, playing “Dungeons and Dragons” for hours — HOURS on end in the dormitory lounge with little pewter figures all hand painted.  Escaping from studying into a fantasy world of wizards, dragons, elves and orcs.

I admit that like many in the 1970’s and ‘80’s I shoveled quarter after quarter into various video games, “Asteroids,” “Tempest” and “Galaga” trying to “win” by getting the highest score.

I still spend some time unwinding in front of a video screen saving the galaxy or wandering virtual worlds or middle earth.

In the world of gaming everything depends upon leveling, you know.

You have to play the game long enough to accumulate enough experience points to collect better devices, better weapons, or better magical items until you are the biggest, baddest character on the board, or accumulate the highest score on the machine.

When you first start out in any game everything beats you up.

But that first time you “Level up,” it’s great.

Suddenly the monsters and characters who used to be a challenge become easily dispatched.

It doesn’t matter the game, really. Whether you are piloting a starship, commanding a mechanical robot, making your way through a simulated battlefield dispatching Zombies or driving a virtual racecar, — the more you “level up,” the easier the game play becomes.

“Leveling up” is everything.

And if you think about it, that is really just a mirror of the way that we tend to view the world working in general.

If you’re a kid getting your first job at McDonald’s, the understanding is that you’re expected to get your butt kicked for a while.  We even laud the character building nature of that.

You just need to “level up!”

So, the encouragement and incentive is to climb the ladder, ascend the levels of management, get a better job, and continue perpetually “moving up.”

You need to become the manager.  Get your own franchise.  Become an entrepreneur. Start your own unique business, or ascend the corporate ladder.

Level up!

And that’s a fine arrangement, all things being equal.

However, another truth about this world is that, (like in a game) all things are usually not equal.

Some will enter the game with an extra measure of privilege.  They can afford to devote hours to game play, or they can afford to purchase the boosts and special items that give them a leg up on things.  They level up more readily, more easily, and a hierarchy develops.

There are those who cannot afford any of that and they are left underpowered and outmatched, stuck where they are.

So also, some enter the game of this life with an extra measure of privilege.   Wealth that is passed to them.  Social standing, gender, or a skin color that works in their favor instead of against them.   Mental or physical capabilities that allow them to learn and grow and “level up.”

Circumstances of birth and opportunity by virtue of where they live, who they know, how well equipped their schools are or how stable their home life and situation all impact the kind of start that you get in the game of this life.   Such things will have a hand in how well you are able to “level up.”

So why all this talk about gaming?   What does this have to do with this particularly difficult portion of Luke’s Gospel?

Well, it all has to do with the kind of “leveling” that Jesus seems to have in mind.

Luke is intentional in his telling of the story of the Beatitudes.   We are told in Luke’s Gospel that Jesus comes down on the “plain” or to a “level place” in order to teach.

When Matthew tells this story, he has Jesus sit atop a hill, like a “new Moses” to bring down a new law from a new Sinai.

But Luke intentionally sets the story of the beatitudes and all that follows on a “level place.”

Luke is letting us know that the rules of the game of life can and do change with Jesus.  Or, at very least the possibility exists for the rules of the game, and the game itself to change.

Luke is not naive.  This Gospel is written to a Greek speaking audience that understands the workings of Empire very well.

Empire is built on a system of patrimony and reciprocal obligation, on “leveling up” if you will.

In the world of the New Testament living under Roman occupation, life was lived in a complex set of favors and returns.

One gained favor in government and societal circles by the company one could keep, the obligations one could make, the favors one could ask.   All of which needed to be carefully balanced.   You need to be willing to give to someone just enough to get the desired outcome in return, but not so much that you would be obligated too much in return.

You sense this in some familiar the bible stories.

You hear it in the way that we are told the Pharisees carefully chose their seats, and by the objections they have to those with whom Jesus chooses to associate, to eat, to drink, to touch.

You get glimpses of that hierarchy in the story of Jesus’ healing of the Centurion’s servant.

“He is worthy for you to do this for him.”  The Pharisees tell Jesus.  “He helped to build our synagogue.”

It is a “you scratch my back, and I will scratch yours…” kind of world.  A world where one is preoccupied with “leveling up.”

Jesus even makes this explicitly understood today.  “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?”    He says.

“If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that?   Even sinners lend to sinners.”  He says.

That’s Jesus straight up saying that he knows well how the game of this world is played.

I dare say that we are just as well acquainted with that.

Do we not shake our heads at the kind of “arrangements” that we see played out on a daily basis in the world of politics, health care, business transactions and society?

Do we not also see a world (where depending on who you know, and what your “level” in society may be,) “treatment” is different?

I don’t need to give you any illustrations for how we see the “game” of this world played out.  Such illustrations surround us and will readily come to mind depending on your own “level of privilege.”

Illustrations will come to you in the outrage you feel at the unfairness of something.

Or it will come to you in a quick examination of who you are all too willing to give a “pass” to for their behavior or actions.

“Hey, that’s just the way the game is played.”

I won’t slide into examples that you can either dismiss as too political, or too outrageous, or too uncomfortable.

I’ll simply say that we all know the truth of this.

We live in a world that is preoccupied with “leveling up”, which is precisely why this Gospel story rubs us the wrong way.

What Jesus proposes here is indeed “leveling,” — but not up.

Rather, for Jesus it is a leveling down, and evening of the playing field, a choice to change up the game of this world and instead live as if this was the reign of God.

What Jesus proposes sounds like madness to a world where “leveling up” is the norm.

The advantage that you have… that is what you are to give away to the one who has no such advantage.

The wealth you have accumulated?    That is what you are to share readily with the one who is lacking in life’s daily needs.

The divisions and hatred that you’ve carefully “worked up” over the years, decades, centuries even … the “enemy” that you have worked and leveled up in your own mind or societal consciousness as the root and cause of all manner of problems… that is who you are to forgive, who you are to LOVE, who you are to pray for.

Worse yet, you are to take any abuse that they may send your way, to turn the other cheek to it, to expose yourself to further injury rather than to engage in any of the tit for tat retribution that is the usual response, the game this world plays.

You are not to play that game, the one you know so well.

Every fiber of our being says that this is the WRONG thing to do!

People will take advantage of us!

People who play the game will just keep on doing so, and will use this as a means of “leveling up” over us!

This is what we tell ourselves to keep us from breaking the cycle of the game that we know so well.

But here’s the thing, (and it is important to SEE this!)  Jesus doesn’t just give these things as a command from on high as to how you are to behave now.  If he did, we would just cry “foul” on that and go right on ignoring his word as coming from someone who just doesn’t get it, doesn’t know how the “game” of this world is played.

No, Jesus COMES DOWN and enters this on a level playing field with us.

He comes and interrupts the game play that we are used to, or at very least he refuses to follow the normal set of rules by engaging in any kind of “leveling up.”

Jesus enters into  a different way of living and relating, and invites us along with him.

Jesus “levels down” until he’s on eye level with the one who is the enemy, and the one who is cold and hungry, and the one who is angry enough to slap him, — angry enough even to crucify him.

He levels down, and then invites those who follow him to do the same, and to keep on “leveling down” until the normal operation of this world is interrupted enough to stop the unending treadmill and bondage of the need to “level up.”

Jesus lives into and introduces a reign of love that says there is enough for all to share, and that the pursuit of the next big thing, the next level, the highest score is not the venture that will bring you joy.  It is rather relationship with one another and seeing sufficiency that will do that.

“Do to others as you would have them do to you.”  Jesus says.   Which sounds way to simple, and everything in our experience says, “it won’t work!”  People will take advantage of us!   We won’t get anything back!

But Jesus invites us to dream this dream with him nonetheless.

If enough people are willing to dream it, and live it, then the promise is that the bondage of the endless pursuit of this world can be broken and the freedom of the Kingdom of God can break in.

Everything does depend upon leveling you see, but not the kind we are used to.   Not leveling up… rather rather leveling down.  Joining with Jesus in considering that maybe the game we’ve been playing, and that know so well, can be changed for good.

“Deep Waters” Luke 5:1-11

There is an awful lot going on in Luke’s telling of this story, and much of it makes a great deal of sense out of what Mark and Matthew record so briefly.

In Matthew and Mark, this is a “fly-by” kind of story.   Jesus calls.  The fishermen hear his call, drop their nets, leave their father and follow.   That brevity always leaves us scratching our heads, wondering what it was that they saw in Jesus that made them just drop everything?

But as Luke tells the story he provides more detail about the events by the lakeshore. Those details help us understand and give us pause to wonder.   There are five observations about this story as Luke tells it that I simply want to point out.  Then I want to ask you a question to take along with you in the week to come.

Are you ready?

Okay, the first observation is that Jesus is an interruption to whatever it is that we are doing and that we think is most important at the moment.

The disciples in this story are washing out their nets after a long night of unproductive fishing.

Nets are everything to a fisherman.   They are the tool of your trade, and like all tools need to be cared for and attended to regularly. They are important.  Without your nets, you really have nothing.

The disciples are doing what it takes for them to make a living.   This is when Jesus intrudes and interrupts their routine.

If this is when Jesus show up for them, it is likely that this is when Jesus will show up for us as well, when we are engaged in the things that we have to do to make a living, that we think are the most important things for us to do and to which we should be paying attention.

Jesus is going to show up at your office.

Jesus is going to show up at your workplace.

Jesus is going to show up when you’re taking care of your kids, when you’re cleaning, cooking, and trying to work out the hectic schedule.

Jesus is going to show up at what feels like the most inopportune of times and just plop himself down right in the way and in the middle of you trying to do something else, and usually something you feel is very important.

Here he comes, right in the middle of net washing, plopping down in Simon’s boat and saying, “would you mind?”

Of course Simon minds!   Can’t Jesus see that he’s busy?

And yet, this is what Jesus does.  This is where faith and the world intersect.  This is where we experience God coming to us, asking of us, demanding from us, — pestering us—right in the middle of whatever it is that we think is more important.

I’m not sure I every thought of that before, but Jesus is really quite a pain here, isn’t he?   Just sits down, asks Peter to put out so he can teach, makes Simon Peter sit through the whole lesson/preaching/teaching while his nets that need washing are slowly drying in the Galilean sun.

Yes, Jesus is quite an inconvenience in Simon’s schedule.

Is this the way it works for us too?   Does Jesus show up asking of us when we’re doing something else, something we may think of as more important?

The second observation I have about this story is that Jesus seems to hit us up when we’re bone tired.

That’s the case for those disciples.  They have been fishing all night long and haven’t caught a thing, and now they have to attend to their nets and try to get some rest before trying it all over again.

They are no doubt, exhausted from all their efforts.

Is this when Jesus comes still, when we are bone tired from whatever it is that we’ve been doing that hasn’t been terribly productive?

I talk to a lot of colleagues and church folks who will tell me sometimes of how tired they are.

They have been on this committee for years.

They have “served their time” on church council, or as a Sunday School Teacher, or on Property or Stewardship.

Maybe especially Stewardship, (since I’ve been coaching in that area for the past 5 years.)  I hear a lot of people talk about that.

“We’re tired, and nothing seems to be working right now.”

Everyone is looking for the “silver bullet”, the program, the approach, or the “new folks to take over.”

Yes, there seem to be a lot of bone-tired folks in the church these days.

It is peculiarly good news to hear that Jesus shows up to the weary ones.

This is where Jesus makes his presence known, in the midst of weariness, in the midst of what feels like futility, as people are going about the tasks that they have done for so long and are quite frankly sick of doing.

It’s good news that Jesus doesn’t abandon the tired.

But it’s not such good news to hear that what Jesus asks of those who are already bone tired is one more try, one more letting down of the nets.

Are we willing to do it again, even when we’re discouraged and tired?   Will we do what Jesus commands, even if we think it will be futile?

This gets me to the third observation, which is that Jesus asks us to do something completely counter-intuitive to everything we think we know and with which we are most comfortable.

You don’t have to be a professional fisherman to know that “deep water” is not where you go looking for fish.

Fish like structure.

Fish like protection.

Fish like being close to the surface where all the nutrients are, the plankton, the juicy bugs, and the other little fishies that are food.

Deep water is not where you would go looking to catch much.

You might need to know just a little bit about desert dwelling nomadic people to see the other reason for a high level of discomfort into which Jesus invites these folks.

For the Hebrew people, water has always been dangerous.

The psalms will refer to Floods and storms, deep waters and images of drowning.

Deep water is where the powers of chaos abide, where the things you can’t control are at work, where the Leviathan lives, where the fish that swallows prophets lurks.

Deep water will swallow you up. It will get you.  Deep water knows no mercy and gives no quarter.

The boats on the sea of Galilee are small draft, shallow water vessels designed to hug the coastline, not really suited for crossing open water.  We see that in a couple of other stories when Jesus sends the disciples crossing the lake.

Deep water is trouble.

Deep water is unknown territory.

Deep water is to be avoided at all costs.

So here comes Jesus now inviting Simon Peter into the place where no one fishes, into the territory that no one wants to enter, and to seek out the place that everyone is scared spitless to enter.

“Put out into deep water and let down your nets….”

It goes against everything Simon Peter and all the fisherman know, and yet “if you say so Jesus, we’ll give it a go.”

The surprise in the story is that there is more than enough for everyone to get into the act here, to fill their boats, but it’s found where you don’t think it should be, and where you would never have gone yourself, except for Jesus’ invitation and urging.

Is that a message for us as well, in our day?

Where are we afraid to go?

Where do we think it would be unproductive to work?

What are we unwilling to do, except at Jesus invitation and urging?

A fourth observation about this story is found in Simon Peter’s repentant attitude, the acknowledgement that he is a sinful man whom Jesus should want nothing to do with.

Jesus knows who we are and gets in with us anyway.

It is something pointed out by the story.  There are a lot of boats there from which Jesus could choose, but he chooses to get into the one belonging to Simon.

That’s a word of intention.

Simon isn’t the first person to think that he’s not worthy of Jesus’ attention… or maybe he is, and it is because of Jesus’ choosing and sticking with Simon Peter that we find hope and courage ourselves to follow.

If you aren’t wondering if you might not be the right person for this, then maybe you aren’t taking the call seriously enough?

This is how it is with Jesus.  He is always seeking out the person that looks like the least likely candidate, and then making something of them.

He did it with Peter.

He did it with Saul, who became Paul.

God has done that in this way or another throughout God’s story with God’s people.  It’s not so surprising, and yet we always find it surprising, especially when we find out that it appears to be OUR life, OUR boat that God has staked out for special purpose and plopped down in.

This is both incredible good news, and also disconcerting.

Good news because, well, we find out that God has called and chosen us.

Disconcerting, because now we have to go into “deep water!”   Now we will become what God sees in us that we cannot yet even see in ourselves.

“Go away from me, for I am a sinful person…” we are inclined to say to God, who in turn responds.

“Don’t be afraid, from now on….”

“From now on….,” whatever that might be for you, for me.

“From now on…,” because Jesus has plopped down into your boat, into your life, things will never be the same.

Which gets me to the fifth and final observation about this story, which is “What happened to the fish?”

The answer is, it appears they were left for someone else to deal with.

This is no small thing, for catching fish is what the disciples had been preoccupied with up until this point.   This is what they thought was so important before.   Now having gotten the catch of a lifetime, they leave it to rot on the shore or for someone else to fddeal with.   Following Jesus becomes the new passion, the new all-consuming activity.

Which leads me to wonder just how much of what previously consumed our time and effort we would be willing to leave to someone else in order to follow Jesus?

What is it that we could or would need to walk away from?

These are the observations that Luke’s telling of this story make me ponder, and as promised, I now have a question for you to consider this week.

What is “deep water” for you?

What is it that Jesus would invite you into that would be out of your comfort zone, the place that scares you spitless, the place from which you wouldn’t expect any results or any return?

What is your “deep water?”

Ponder that this week.

Listen for Jesus’ teaching, and pay attention to where he may be plopping down in your life.

“Put into deep water, and let down your nets…”   he says to Peter.

What would that look like for you?  Amen.

“Gracious Words can get you Tossed.” Luke 4:21-30

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  Jesus said.  “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.”

We sometimes have a difficult time understanding Jesus’ hometown crowd.

How does one go from receiving the compliment that gracious words come from one’s mouth to having that same crowd ready to throw that person off a cliff?

It’s hard for us to imagine the intensity of emotion that rises so quickly among those who should care for Jesus.

Why is Jesus’ mention of the Widow of Zarephath, and Naaman the Syrian so offensive?

What is it about hearing that Jesus will not be doing the things they heard about him doing in Capernaum right here at home that angers his own people?   How is it that gracious words can get you tossed right out of town?

We need to put these words of Jesus into some kind of context that will help us understand and grasp the quick change of mood, so here’s my go at it.

You know, in the United States about 39.7 million people who live below the poverty line.   That is to say that there are 39.7 million people who live in and amongst us who earn less than they need to afford the basics for housing, food, clothing, transportation and medical coverage.

39.7 million people, in a country blessed with the world’s richest economy.

In this country with the world’s richest economy, the top ten wealthiest people are reported to have amassed a combined net worth of 701 Billion dollars.

That’s Billiion with a “B.”

That kind of wealth naturally raises our hackles a bit, because it tends to confirm our suspicions that in this richest nation in the world, it is as it has always been in this world, that the rich who get richer and the poor who get poorer.

In order to lift every household out of poverty, (according to my limited napkin mathematics) it would take a transfer of wealth in the neighborhood of 2.5 Billion dollars.

So then, if those 10 wealthiest people in the U.S. would give from their largess, their combined net worth would still be worth $698.5 billion dollars, and we could eradicate poverty and everyone in the U.S. would have enough to eat, a place to live, and health care when needed.

If I were to propose that, you might even be inclined to marvel at my gracious words.

“He speaks well, when can you squeeze that 2.5 billion out of those greedy folks, Pastor?   They probably won’t even miss it!”

But if I were to go on and say, “Now, the current population of the U.S. is 328 million people, and in order to eliminate poverty, we would simply need to raise taxes and ask of every person in this room for the amount of $7.62 cents annually, and then distribute that to those living under the poverty line, and all would have what they need.

You might have a very different response to that, and it might not be that my words are gracious!

Raise MY taxes???

You mean the Jeff Bezo’s, the Koch Brothers and the Zuckerberg’s of this world are only going to have to pay $7.62 cents a year more too while they keep their billions but you expect me to scrape up more out of my limited resources???

Introduce the element of what we consider “fair” or a concept of not what others must give, but what “we must do” and you can raise the temperature in the room pretty quickly.  We go from looking forward to seeing my gracious words enacted so that all might have housing, medical care and enough to eat to figuring out how to bury that idea just as quickly as possible.

We’ll start talking about conflicting ideologies.

We’ll start talking about how capitalism is supposed to work, and start throwing around those dreaded references to “Socialism” and pretty soon you’ll hear people talk about “freeloaders on the system” and a bunch of other things, and the debate will get spirited.

We’ll divert our thinking, (in other words,) from seeing how the Kingdom of God might come among us and the Gospel might be proclaimed, to something, –anything –else.

“Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

That’s really good news if what you have imagined is something wonderful happening to you.

It’s really good news if you have pictured yourself as the recipient of Jesus’ actions, if you’re going to see what Jesus did in Capernaum start to happen in your own home town, –the healings and the feedings and the casting out of demons, the “acceptable year of the Lord” – all starting right here!

For the people in Jesus’ hometown, this was long overdue.  Israel has been waiting for this vision from Isaiah to come to pass since the time of Exile, since 587 BCE.

Oh, there have been some bright spots.   Israel got a little bit of their former glory back under Ezra/Nehemiah when the walls of Jerusalem and the Temple were rebuilt, but as for being restored to a nation like under the Kings of David, no.  Israel has been under foreign occupation by one country after another for the last 500 years. Babylon first, then Persian, then Greece, and now under Roman Empire occupation.

So, when Jesus begins to announce the “year of Jubilee,” the long promised great setting right of all the wrongs in this world, the restoration of things…what those people in his hometown have in mind is that they are finally getting what was promised to them so long ago.

Restoration of the nation.

An end to living under foreign occupation.

“The acceptable year of the Lord.”

All of that expectation is dashed when Jesus starts talking about how this is actually going to work out.

It will be like in the time Elijah, when it wasn’t to the Widows starving in Israel that God sent the prophet, but rather to the Widow of Zarepheth… a Philistine woman!   The age old, unconquerable enemy, that’s who God sent Elijah to show mercy to!   That’s who knew God was at work in the suffering of drought and famine, not the “home town crowd.”

It will be like the time of Elisha, when there were lots of Lepers in Israel, but it was the Syrian General Naaman who found God’s healing power.  That’s who found out that there was a “Prophet in Israel”, who learned that the God of Israel had power to heal, not those suffering with leprosy in the home town.

It is one thing to hear Jesus’ gracious words and have in your mind that you are going to finally get something you long believe you deserve and look forward to receiving.

But it’s quite another thing to hear that the “fulfilling of scripture” is going to be about what this will personally cost you and how it will manifest itself to those whom you perhaps think least deserve it.

For Jesus’ hometown, hearing that God was sending Jesus as God sent Elijah and Elisha in days of old was a little bit like you hearing that you get to be part of the redemption of all those who are held captive to a rigged financial and political system, — and it’s only going to cost you $7.62 a person to do it.

It would cost less than a trip to McDonalds to see all your neighbors live free from anxiety, fear, want, and disease… and you would get to SEE that,… but hearing how the Gospel is going to work, (and it’s not the way you expect it should,) that is what causes the rapid change in the crowd.

Now we’re getting close to understanding the spark of anger in Nazareth that day.

It is dismaying to us.

How could they go from saying “He speaks well” to “Throw him from the hill” so quickly?

Well, we know, don’t we?

It is the same with us.

We have a general idea of the way we think God should operate in this world, who God should have mercy upon, who God should love and be gracious to, and it usually starts with us.  If there happens to be some grace left over after that, well then sure, God can be gracious on whoever God chooses to be gracious on.

What make us want to pitch Jesus from the cliff is when this Grace stuff get too… you know…gracious!

What makes us question Jesus is when he insists on stepping outside the bounds of our own expectations of who should be included, and where God ought to start with God’s activity.

What makes us want to call into question Jesus’ wisdom, his motives and actions is when Jesus begins to fling this grace stuff just a little more liberally than we’re comfortable having him do so.

“Isn’t this Joseph’s son?”   The home town crowd said.

Which is to say isn’t Jesus “One of us?”  One of our kind of people?   Doesn’t he know where his loyalty ought to lie, where his allegiance should be placed, where and on what his interests ought to be centered?  Where he ought to be applying his efforts, spending his time?

Isn’t this Joseph’s son?

Wasn’t he raised to know better than this?

And of course, the whole problem is that Jesus isn’t Joseph’s son in the critical way.   He is the “Son of God,” and he knows all too well where his Father’s interests lie and where his efforts need to be placed.

“Those who are well have no need for a physician.”   Jesus will say in Luke’s Gospel.

‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—”   So said old Simeon on the day Jesus was dedicated in the Temple.

And here we are now in the home town, having the inner thoughts of many revealed, and the falling out and the rising up of many…as they hear him speak.

As it is to this day.

Jesus knows exactly to whom he is sent to, and how far grace is to be extended, and it is always grace going way further than many of us, (and sometimes any of us) are comfortable with, but that’s what makes it God’s Grace, and not something less than God’s grace.

So, this is a hard Gospel story for us to hear, as it should be.  For Jesus has come to show us the height and depth and breadth of God’s love for this world, and God is always pushing that love further than we are comfortable.

So as difficult as this Gospel may seem to be, it is good news for us.  Jesus is in our midst, whether we are recognizing his words as gracious, or getting so angry about those words and what they imply for us that we’re just about ready to pitch him over the edge of our lives.

Jesus is still here.

Moving through us.

Challenging and talking with us.

Assuring us that scripture is being fulfilled, whether we like it or not.

It’s not a lot to hold on to sometimes, but it’s all we’ve got to hold on to when our emotions swing back and forth and we lose sight of the Jesus we expect and glimpse instead, the Son of God who fulfills scripture in our hearing.