“Put Down Your Sword” – John 18:1-11

Sermon Context: Nall Avenue Church of the Nazarene, Prairie Village, KS.

There has been fear in recent days about the decline of religion in our culture, particularly around Christianity and diminishing attendance rates. There is a growing fear and trepidation. But it’s interesting religion has not gone away. In fact, spirituality in several surveys shows an increase. Though there may be a decrease in those who profess to be practicing Christians, there is an increase in those who would identify in some way as exercising some kind of “spirituality.” We have not gotten away from those practices and realities at all.

In fact, one of the prominent religious organizations gathers every Sunday in huge cathedrals. The faithful flock in and wear the liturgical colors. They gather for a time of worship and often their hands are raised in celebration and adoration of their idols. They have officials that work and walk the people through the four movements of the service. There is libation, drink and food, that they eat together. It is a place where families are gathered together and formed deeply by these liturgical rituals. “This is who we are!” There are even chants and song that talk about the life they share together in this place. It is powerful. If you have ever attended one of these worship services, you find yourself gripped by it. You get caught up in the fervor and the emotion of the moment. It is powerful. Very powerful.

The worship service is geared around something very damaging. The very thing it centers its life around is violence. There is a lot of violence in this place. Yet, the faithful gather to watch it every Sunday, to talk about their kingdom and their glory… and sometimes “the good old days.” Perhaps you would recognize this place as a place like Arrowhead stadium where the Kansas City Chiefs play football. It is a place of worship where the faithful gather every Sunday to sing songs of celebration, to proclaim there is only one kingdom. This is for the glory of the city, if you’re more of a Sporting Kansas City fan. There’s even a “Blue Hell!” There is life and death in these matters. There’s times of celebration and lament – all centered around competition, and winning, and being the best, and dominating the foe, putting them down. It’s a powerful liturgy.

I was brainwashed from a very early age. I didn’t grow up a Chiefs fan. I am a Cowboys’ fan. That’s a different kind of sinner. I grew up in the days of Tom Landry. So, I have been formed so that even when they have gone through their decline, I wonder each year if this will be the year they get the glory. Usually I’m disappointed. We are transfixed by this celebration of violence where men have become bigger and bigger, stronger and fiercer. They SMACK each other and we celebrate. It is like the days of the gladiator modernized with protective gear. We celebrate the ritual of violence against each other and it lets off the steam of our own desire for violence. I can celebrate the violence of others and relieve my own desire for violence.

Liturgies of violence deeply form us. This morning my 3 ½ year old daughter came into our room and exclaimed, “I got my laser beam! I’m going to find the bad guys!” She’s 3 ½ and she’s talking about bad guys! She doesn’t know “bad guys,” other than when she thinks mom and dad are the “bad guys” for correcting her. She doesn’t understand good and evil. She doesn’t understand the full complexities of life. She has been so deeply formed by television shows she has seen, the realities of our culture, that this morning she was talking about going and getting “the bad guy.” These liturgies capture our hearts, imaginations, and desires so quickly and at such an early age. They largely go unquestioned, unchallenged. Sometimes in the Church, the liturgies of violence are so ingrained in us we don’t question it but when we talk about being peacemakers it is questioned. We always have an excuse for not seeking out peace. “Yeah, but what if this happens?” “Yeah, but what if it’s against these kinds of people?” We’re quick to push down peacemaking, to question it. But the liturgies of violence go unquestioned.

We find ourselves in the midst of this story with Jesus and his disciples. Did you notice where they are? They have gone across the Kidron Valley and find themselves in a garden. Gardens are not where battles are fought. Gardens are places of respite, rest, wonder, and awe. We are reminded of something that is good and life-giving. Jesus would often go to these places for rest and prayer. He’d go to the gardens to escape, to connect, and to commune with God. He’d often take his disciples along with him to commune and pray with them. In Matthew’s Gospel, that is exactly what they have done. Jesus has taken the disciples and asked them to pray with him “for the hour has come.”[1] Every time he returns, the disciples have fallen asleep. The garden is a place of prayer and respite. So, we don’t expect chaos to erupt in the garden.

We can remember stories from scripture about other gardens, particularly the Garden of Eden. Do you remember God would come down in the evening and walk with humanity? God would walk and commune with them. There was something so good, and beautiful, and right there. Everything was in harmony. Relationships were working well. There was a connectivity to one another, not hindered by shame and hiddenness and brokenness.

There is a moment of betrayal in the Garden. Do you know the story? They were told not to eat the fruit from a certain tree in the Garden for doing so their “eyes would be opened.” There is a desire humanity will not deny. They take the fruit and eat it. Immediately, the realize they are naked. They experience shame and hide themselves. Yet, God comes to them in the Garden. The story follows humanity continuously moving east of the Garden, away from God’s presence. This movement away from God manifests as increasing violence in human communities.

Cain and Abel, two brothers, who should be out for one another’s welfare, begin to fight. Cain deceives his brother, takes him out to a field, and kills him with a stone. The story continues until we reach Lamech. Lamech kills a young man because the young man said something against Lamech. Lamech exclaims that if Cain would be avenged seven times, he would be avenged seventy times seven. Violence has exploded exponentially. It has grown from brother against brother to everyone being out for their own gain and against each other. Betrayal.

We should be reminded of these stories when Jesus is found in a garden and Judas enters the garden with betrayal on his heart. Judas has come with an ulterior motive. Judas comes seeking Jesus, not in the way of a seeking disciple. Judas has come to orchestrate Jesus’ arrest. Betrayal. The communion between God and Judas is being severed, torn. Judas wields violence against the Creator, against Jesus. Judas comes with a contingent of soldiers armed to the teeth, ready for battle. They have come to do harm. There is an authority placed upon these soldiers to arrest Jesus because the religious leaders don’t like what Jesus is saying and doing in the community. He has been talking about a Kingdom with a very different way of life than the kingdoms of this world. Jesus speaks peace to those who are not “peaced” people. He brings in outsiders and heals those who have been hurt deeply by society. People begin to get “up in arms” about this. They don’t like this Kingdom that looks out for the least of these. They don’t like a Kingdom that questions everything about how we have arranged our lives together.

Jesus comes as a disrupter. Not with a sword. Jesus does not come as conqueror using force. Jesus comes as one who pours himself out – who serves, who washes disciples’ feet. This is a strange king and a strange kingdom. Jesus proclaims a peaceable kingdom. This kingdom seeks out the good of the neighbor. For some, this way of Jesus is just too difficult. It calls too much from us. There is great risk in being a servant. There is great risk in loving people, especially our enemies. When you bow down to wash somebody’s feet, you expose your neck. To expose your neck to somebody, particularly an enemy, makes us vulnerable. Yet, this is the very thing Jesus does for Judas, bowing down and exposing his neck.

Jesus takes the bread at the Supper, breaks it, and hands it to Judas. Breaking bread in Jewish culture is like a peace treaty. To receive that bread is saying, “I’m looking out for your benefit and I trust you are looking out for mine.” Jesus gives the bread as a sign of peace. Judas takes the bread knowing that he will betray Jesus. Even though Jesus knows Judas’ intentions, he still extends the peace of God to Judas. Jesus knows that serving enemies is risky business.

Despite the risk, Jesus has an unarmed guard of disciples as they go to the garden. Peter has found a sword somewhere. He has no business with a sword. He’s a fisherman, not a soldier. When Judas’ group arrives, Peter may think this is the moment to rise and fight to establish Jesus’ kingdom. This is the moment! Peter said he would never abandon Jesus, even if everyone else does. He will be with Jesus to the bitter end! He pulls out the sword to protect everything he hopes and believes, to protect life and to secure it by all possible means.

Peter swings at the one person who doesn’t have a sword! He’s so brave! He swings at Malchus, servant and reporter to the high priest. Malchus has no sword. He doesn’t need it. He’s surrounded by soldiers. Peter spots the most vulnerable mark in the group and attacks. All Peter manages to cut is part of an ear. He swings with all his might, trying to protect, trying to hold on, trying to control the outcome… as we so often do. He is gripped by fear, not love. He is gripped by the narrative of redemptive violence – the narrative that violence can redeem, that violence is necessary. We believe violence saves. Peter draws the sword ready to protect everything. But redemptive violence is a myth. It cannot save.

Jesus tells Peter to stop, to sheath his sword. Jesus confronts Peter in his moment of standing up and tells him to back down. “Put away the sword.”[2] I totally relate with Peter. I imagined as a young boy that if my beliefs were ever threatened, I would stand up. I would be ready to accept whatever violence might happen and fight for everything I believed in. That’s a pretty natural response – to believe I can control the outcome and justify my violence.

I just can’t get around this Jesus character. He calls for some very difficult responses from us. “If you want to follow me, pick up a cross.”[3] Be ready to die, not take life. “Those who lose their life for my sake will gain it.” Jesus calls for some very difficult ways of living, risk-taking, entering so fully into this way of love that violence is no longer an option. I don’t know that I’ve been so gripped by Jesus that I can fully say I’ve cut myself off from these ways of violence. I know how effective violence can be to achieve my goals.

Peter knew how effective violence is. He observed how Rome utilized violence to assert their power. There was talk of peace but always under threat of the sword cutting down anyone who dissented, anyone who opposed the Empire. They used power to put down. Peter saw how effective it could be. There were also the stories of the Maccabees who defeated the Romans and kicked them out of Jerusalem for a time. Peter hoped Jesus would expel the Romans again. But Peter finds out that Jesus Kingdom doesn’t resemble the Roman empire’s way of violence.

My father once told me, “Don’t get into a fight. But, IF you do, fight to win.” I remember being told this as a young boy and being so deeply shaped by it. Of course, you can see I am not an intimidating figure. I didn’t seek out fights. But I found ways of utilizing violence to get things accomplished. My sister, who is a couple of years younger than me, was being teased in school. Understand that as a freshman in high school, I was a whopping five-foot-one and eighty-one pounds. I was all bone. If it was windy outside, I whistled because I was so skinny. I’m supposed to be the big, protective brother. So, I gather a couple of my friends who love to fight and are much more imposing than I am. We find her bully. My friends pick him up and pin him up against a locker. I threaten him. It was effective. It was powerful. Even though I was so small and diminutive, I felt real power.

There is an intoxication with violence. Power comes in all sorts of forms. It can be utilized against our spouse by the words we use. It can be against our children by constantly reminding them they don’t measure up instead of building them up. It is a violence that allows us to keep and maintain control over them. Or, we might think about someone breaking and entering and we want to protect ourselves or others in our home. The very first thing we go to is violence. We don’t ask this question: “When those moments come where fear and anxiety and chaos surround us, when I or those I love are threatened, how do I seek the most peaceful way?” How do I respond when I hear Jesus say, “Levi, put the sword away?” That’s risky.

Right after this scene in the garden, Jesus will be arrested, bound, beaten. He will be given a crown of thorns, mocked, spit upon. He will be dragged through the streets. He will be humiliated and, ultimately, crucified. The cross is a political sword. Jesus is pierced by the spear. Yet, the one who holds all power does not retaliate but absorbs that very violence in his own body and exhausts its power. The power of the sword has always been death. Jesus has conquered death by going and accepting the blows himself. If we believe Jesus isn’t simply wanting us to be good people, to whisk us away, but forms the church as a colony of heaven living in a culture of death then the call of Jesus is not just a pipe dream about the future. It is a call to lean into God’s way of life here and now. The cross is the establishment of that way.

The Kingdom is established in the cross in John’s Gospel. John’s Gospel is focused on God’s glory, but by means of God’s condescension. It’s ironic. God’s glory is a crucified savior. God’s glory does not return violence for violence, fire for fire, eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. God turns it upside-down and exhausts the power of violence by conquering death, Death itself, through the power of the resurrection. New Creation life blows like a fresh wind.

In the resurrection scene, Jesus is in a garden again. Jesus is in a garden when he is betrayed and now is in a garden when he is resurrected. New Creation things are happening. He has gone into the garden where everything has been death and violence. Now, being buried into the ground, risen three days later, not taking the way of the world but going the way of the cross, Jesus comes out of the grave as a victorious savior. Never once having swung a sword, yet having been pierced by the sword, Jesus is not defeated.

Some are quite fearful in the Church and utilize violence as a safety mechanism, something that gives us security. In that regard, I’m not sure resurrection has fully gripped us. The power of resurrection that has broken into this dark world has not fully gripped us because for so many of us death is to be feared. We fear death and, therefore, we hold onto life with everything we can. When we hold onto things in great fear, violence is usually the outcome. Can we trust God cares for us so we don’t have to be gripped by violence? Even if the very worse should happen, God forbid, does God love us so deeply that God won’t let death be the last word over us? Do I believe resurrection power is not something off in the distance but is now working its way in me, doing something different in me, so I don’t have to perpetuate cycles of violence that escalate? Can I embody an alternative way of being like Jesus, even at great risk?

We meet at the Table every Sunday. We gather at the Table to eat a meal that recalls our crucified Savior’s unwillingness to take our violence and turn it back against us. Even having received our violence, Jesus takes it into his very body and then offers us his peace. The bread, the body, broken for our sake. The bloodshed as an atonement for sin. Jesus offers his very life in this moment at the Table and in consuming the meal we are receiving in our bodies and lives the way of Jesus – to be broken and poured out for the sake of our world. We are not to return hate for hate but return hate with love. We are to sow peace in places of discord. We receive this meal with glad and open hearts knowing it calls us into something deeper than retaliation, unless it is retaliating to evil with good, hatred with love, violence with peace – the way of Jesus.

This is my Father’s world

O let me ne’er forget

That though the wrong seems oft so strong

God is the Ruler yet

 

This is my Father’s world

The battle is not done

Jesus who died shall be satisfied

And heaven and earth be one[4]

 

Though the wrong seems oft so strong, though the chaos seems like it might envelop us, yet we serve One who has gone headlong into the chaos, headlong into death, and has received new life and promises that same new life to us as those who embody the way of Jesus.

(Following Communion)

A story that captivates me is the story of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights movement. They experienced the threat of violence and real violence. Firehoses, dogs, guns, bombs. There was real risk in the way of non-violence that King embodied. His witness is powerful because it confronted the chaos and darkness of this world through non-violence. We continue to celebrate his legacy because he embodied a different way of engaging the powers that surround us. It is a powerful reminder that violence may be effective for a short time, but love conquers all. “Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that. Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.”[5]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Harrelson, John 12:23, 17:1.

[2] Harrelson, John 18:11.

[3] Luke 9:23, my paraphrase.

[4] Ken Bible, “This is My Father’s World.” In Sing to the Lord: Hymnal, 7th ed. (Kansas City: Lillenas Publishing, 1993), 75.

[5] Martin Luther King, Jr., Vincent Harding, and Coretta Scott King, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, 1st ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010), 65.

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“Stay Woke” – Matthew 26:36-46

Sermon Context: Nazarene Theological Seminary, Kansas City, KS. Opening chapel

My friend, Tiny, lives out in the country off a dirt road. His mobile home is perched off of the dirt road on top of a steep hill looking down to the road. David and I had been out to Tiny’s only a few weeks earlier. When we left, we jumped in David’s little Ford Ranger. Instead of driving down the driveway to the road, David drove down the steep but short hill onto the dirt road. Off we went back home.

Several weeks had passed and I was back out at Tiny’s house. I was driving my Chevy long-bed, extended cab with the cattle guard on the front. It was as pretty as it sounds. I parked in the same spot David parked, knowing the easiest way to pull out when I left. It was quite dark when it was time to leave. I hopped in my large pickup, popped it into drive, and headed over the hill. As the front end of my truck crested the hill, I noticed something different about the road. It was no longer a smooth transition down to the dirt road. I had not noticed a large ditch had been dug on either side of the road. It was too late to brake. The dewy wet grass and the momentum of my heavy truck nullified any traction. BAM! Headfirst into the ditch… Then, the walk of shame back up to Tiny’s house.

The Church has found itself in a ditch. We imagined the road would continue to be accessible by the old paths we once took. While we were sleeping, ditches were dug out and we failed to pay attention to what was altered. The ditch of diminishing authority, of moral failure, of social disengagement, or absent accountability. Our moral imaginations have become stymied and stagnant.

I would like to offer a title for consideration: “Stay Woke.” Stay woke. Rev. Otis Moss III talks about “staying woke” as a movement and call to “be conscious in an unconscious age.” Being woke is the clarion call to be aware of the cultural and societal frameworks shaping our lives and to rouse our collective energies to be more than passive observers.

For some of us, the phrase “stay woke” has a lot of political baggage. It may be the opinion of some that this phrase is unwarranted, too political, and too controversial to be used in Christian worship. Please know I hear those concerns. Yet, if we cannot talk about the pressing issues of the day, many may question the Church, “Why on earth do I need your Gospel?” I don’t recall who said it, but I think it bears repeating: “We must not socialize the gospel. We must gospelize the social.”

Politics certainly falls in the category of social. However, I don’t imagine that “gospelizing the political” will resemble a Christian nation-state, whose life is often rooted in tribalism, the myth of perpetual progress, and violence. Jesus’ ministry runs counter to these narratives at work around us. By “gospelizing the social and political” I mean we see all categories of life through a Gospel-lens, a theological framework. In other words, God makes claims on the ways we arrange our lives in this world.

We tend to think of theological concepts in doctrinal terms: holiness, sanctification, Christology, pneumatology, eschatology. These are all important terms. Might I suggest some equally important theological concepts for our consideration: incarceration, food insecurity, sex trafficking, consumption and capitalism, foster care, economic exploitation, red-lining, white supremacy, sexism, ableism. Each of these concepts imagines a theological construct of the world, envisions the “good life,” and arranges our desires to live out the claims those narratives entail.

Ghettos and projects are theological concepts. Tupac Shakur once wrote: “I wonder if Heaven got a ghetto?”[1] If we imagine there are no ghettos in heaven and Jesus teaches us to pray that God’s “will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we should ask why ghettos exist in the landscape of our cities. Ghettos are not simply unfortunate social realities, they are theological categories which dismiss bodies and entrap persons in social, economic, psychological patterns of despair and desperation. If the hope of the Gospel cannot address such social issues, one might also question the extent of God’s reign. The Gospel intersects the political and social and calls all systems of inequality and despair into question to account. But, are we woke to the realities our corporate lives, including within the Church, create among the most vulnerable among us?

The disciples follow Jesus to the Garden of Gethsemane. The gathering gloom hangs over the company. It is the same shadow that descends on the upper room as they remember the Passover. The long shadow is shaped like a cross. Though the disciples do not see it, they sense something is coming. Peter even boldly proclaims, “Even if everyone else falls away, I will NEVER fall away!” This is the claim of every disciple who initially follows Jesus without counting the cost of discipleship – to follow Jesus is a journey toward the cross.

Jesus leads his disciples to the Garden to pray and to keep watch. Like shepherds tending their flock, they are to keep watch, to pay attention while Jesus prays. Jesus goes a little beyond them to pray, to discern, to wrestle. With great anguish, Jesus struggles with the call he received in his baptism and confirmed in the wilderness – a radical obedience to the kingdom of heaven, regardless of the backlash. In this scene, there is no tempter’s voice boasting loudly like the one Jesus encountered in the wilderness. Now, it is the eerie silence and the deepening sense of isolation. Like the calm before the rushing storm, the Garden is deathly silent, save for the agonizing prayer which Jesus offers to the Father. Wading into the morass of public life does not bring one certainty, or unanimous approval, or remove the risk of violence, physical or verbal. Quite the opposite. Proclaiming an alternative word, a subversive way to the dominant narrative will likely lead us to places and seasons where we experience abandonment. The weight of obedience comes crashing in.

“If this cup may pass from me…”[2] Bread, body broken. Wine, blood poured out. Passover and paschal lamb. Exodus hopes. Homecoming promise. Powers dethroned. Baptized and liberated community set apart. In the dethroning of Egyptian and pharaonic powers, the first-born sons of Egypt die. The deathly practices of empires fall back upon themselves to their own destruction. But, now, when confronting the powers and principalities of this world, Jesus becomes the first-born son offering his own life in their place.

Jesus’ eyes are wide open in his prayer. He recognizes that confronting the destructive practices of this world agitates anger and violence in religious and political communities quite satisfied with the way things currently operate. The cross is the manifestation of that societal anxiety at work in our midst. The cross is the theological category of Rule of Law and social order which maintains privilege and peace under the threat and utilization of violence. Fear coerces and co-opts. Prayer may seem an unlikely, unproductive avenue for confronting deathly empires. But it is impossible to embody a Kingdom-kind-of-love when we are controlled by fear and anxiety.

Don’t get me wrong here. The prayer in which Jesus engages is no lightweight “thoughts and prayers.” This is no escapism that throws happy thoughts or sad face emojis at the deep wounds of the world. Jesus prays as one contending and yet submitting to God’s direction. “Not my will, but your will be done.”[3] Such prayer inevitably leads those who pray it to the places of deepest pain, broiling darkness, and festering woundedness in our world as embodied signs of God’s presence. Immanuel – God with us!

Jesus returns from praying to find the disciples are fast asleep. They do not recognize the hour. They cannot see the crash course with the cross to which Jesus is leading them. They are weary, exhausted, unable to maintain their watch. Jesus calls them to stay woke, to pray, so they might not fall into temptation. Yet, each time he returns, they have drifted off into the hazy, unconscious world of slumber.

This is not Sabbath rest. This is the slumber of anesthetized uncaring. It’s the drifting of idle unawareness. This sleep quarantines and cloisters, builds barriers and creates chasms, it ruptures relationships and silences suffering. This is turning of eyes, averting the gaze, so that we might not become too disturbed, distraught, or distressed by the suffering around us.

It is easy to be lulled asleep by the comfort of our own privilege. There are churches that refuse to recognize their privileged position in society because they are caught up in the game of church growth, numerical success, ecclesial ladder climbing, and survival. We are more likely to decry our loss of rights as religious institutions and clergypersons than we are to lament and confess our unwillingness to seek justice in our society and in our world. We are quick to play the martyr card unless, of course, martyrdom becomes a real option – then, we’re furious at our mistreatment!

Jesus calls his disciples to watch and pray so they will not fall into temptation. Jesus calls them to know the time and to be attuned to God’s call to be witnesses to an alternative Kingdom way. The way of the meek, the way of the peacemakers, the way of those who mourn and lament, the way of the merciful, and the pure in heart, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, and the poor in spirit… THE WAY OF THE CROSS!

Watch and pray that you might not fall into temptation. Stay woke and pray so that you do not fall into temptation by inoculating ourselves to the suffering around us, to remaining silent and passive. Stay woke and pray that you are not tempted to sleepily preach a gospel of privilege suited to the desires of itching ears rather than a Gospel that embodies a new way of life for all. Stay woke and pray to have eyes wide open to the destructive powers of this world and that you might not be tempted to avoid the cross.

Let it not be lost on us that all the disciples abandon Jesus when the cost of discipleship becomes too steep, when it is easier to go back to sleep than remain awake. It’s more convenient to preach a palatable Gospel than shake the world. We may make bold promises to follow Jesus and never fall away. But, we are the same disciples whose eyes become heavy with cynicism, exhaustion, anger, pride, privilege, or fear. We may think ourselves “woke” and yet are too often blind to our own complicity in the world’s brokenness. We lay sleeping, dead in our slumber, unable to keep watch.

Yet, time and time again, Jesus returns to the disciples to rouse them to “stay woke.” Jesus calls again and again. The voice of Jesus pierces our slumber to open our eyes and see again the world around us. When we have not kept watch, Christ has kept watch. When we were unable to drink the cup, Christ drank the cup for us! When we were unwilling to be broken and poured out, Christ was broken and poured out for our sake! “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you!”[4]

 

[1] 2Pac, I Wonder If Heaven Got A Ghetto (Interscope, 2011).

[2] Matthew 26:39, my paraphrase.

[3] Harrelson, Luke 22:42.

[4] Harrelson, Ephesians 5:14b.

“Dirty Laundry” – Revelation 22:12-17, 20-21

My family once had a potbelly pig for a pet.  Yes, we literally bought a pig for a pet.  It was the runt of the litter, rather small.  We named it “Wilbur.”  It wasn’t long before Wilbur needed a bath.  FYI, pigs tend to become dirty and smelly in a short amount of time.  If Wilbur was to stay in the house, he needed to be cleaned.  So, bath day came.  We prepared the bathtub and set Wilbur down in the water to begin scrubbing.  Wilbur had a different idea.  He didn’t care for the bathtub.  Maybe it was the water.  Maybe it was the slippery porcelain floor of the tub.  Whatever it was, Wilbur wasn’t having anything to do with the bath.  He began to freak out, squealing and squirming.  Suddenly, Wilbur began to fly in the air as he used the slick porcelain bathtub like a snowboarder using a half-pipe – flying up one side, back down the side, and then shooting up higher on the other side.  It was a disaster.  Water was everywhere.  Wilbur was a piglet of chaos and no closer to being clean.  Wilbur eventually worked himself out of a home with us because he refused to be cleaned.

Advent comes from the Latin adventus, which means “coming.”  It is a time for preparing our hearts for the coming of Christ in the Incarnation, that is, Jesus’ birth, and also Jesus’ coming again to complete the union of heaven and earth.  The season of Advent lodges us between these two events.  As the early Church used to say, “Christ has come; Christ will come again.”  As Christ came as the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes, now we wait in joyful anticipation of Christ’s return to reconcile and redeem the world to God.  The time is coming, says Jesus.  Prepare.  The time is drawing near, says Jesus.  Be ready.  The day is on the doorstep.  Be prepared – “wash your robes.”

If we are totally honest with ourselves, we could all write up a lengthy laundry list of grievous sins, poor decisions, lapsed judgment, and painful brokenness.  Imagine yourself robed where everything that you are and everything that you have done was written in permanent marker for everyone to see.  What would it say?  If we came to the gates of the City of God wearing those robes, would we expect entrance into the wedding party?  No, we’d expect to be outside with the dogs.  But, we’re not always sure we want to go through the tedious work of preparation – of washing.  We’d rather toss it in the laundry heap and forget about it.  Advent reminds us that the time for Jesus’ return is drawing near and we need some clean clothes for the party.

Like Wilbur, we desperately need to be washed, made clean.  Our robes are dirty, tattered, and torn.  Our lives are soiled rags, frayed threads, and filthy garments.  Some stains are so deep that Clorox can’t touch ‘em.  We look worse for the wear.  The mud of lust cakes the sleeves.  The dirt of gossip smudges the collar.  Broken relationships fray the cuffs’ hems.  Anger tears apart the seams.  The buttons of love are chipped or dangling by a thread.  Wrinkles of dejection and anxiety mangle the fabric.  Distrust leaves the bottom edges thin with strings dragging in the dust.  Our robes are rags, hardly suitable to wear at the coronation of Creation’s King.  “See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me… Blessed are those who wash their robes.”[1]

Do you know the key for clean clothing?  Two things: Clean water and agitation.  Stale, stagnant water only increases the filth and stench in our clothes.  Using the water of this world, with its empty promises for new life and purpose, leaves us wreaking of death.  We have soaked too long in the stagnant pools of our world and culture so that our robes have taken on their flavor.  We have washed ours clothes with the disease-ridden waters of arrogance, deception, racism, sexism, idol worship, addictions, greed, and any other number of things.  Our robes, our lives, are covered in sludge, slime, and slander.

Jesus, the Living Water, calls us out of the filth-filled floodwaters of our world into the stream of life flowing from the very throne of God.  These waters of purest crystal, fragranced with milk and honey are God’s free gift to all.  Jesus offers us Living Water to drink for our parched and thirsty souls.  Jesus invites us to bathe, to soak, to dive deep into this life-giving current, which is the very Life and Way of God.  In these waters we find healing for every disease, every malady, every infirmity, and every seeping wound.  This Water can bring even life to the Dead Sea… surely it can bring life to my dusty rags.  To drink of this Living Water is to also be swept up in its current, its Way, and its movements.

Water isn’t the only necessary ingredient for clean clothes.  Soil, soot, stains, and sweat are dislodged from clothing when water is combined with agitation.  People used to wash their clothes in rivers and then beat them on rocks.  Or, they used washboards to agitate the stains out of the material.  Today, we use machines that turn barrels with paddles that toss the clothes to-and-fro and then sift out the dirty water through high-velocity spinning.  Removal of stubborn stains requires adequate agitation.  Our sin-stained robes… our broken lives could use some agitation.  If you’re in need of some good old-fashioned agitation, like I am, Advent is a wonderful place to start.

Advent places us firmly in what theologians call “the now-and-not-yet” Kingdom.  Christ has initiated the Kingdom of God here on earth, but it hasn’t come yet in its fullness.  We’re still waiting for the final unveiling.  Christ’s first coming unveiled the brokenness of the world and marked out a different pattern of living.  Jesus demonstrated what it means to be both fully human and a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth.  His birth, life, death, and resurrection both initiated God’s Kingdom on earth and pointed toward its future consummation and completion.

And that’s agitating… because Jesus wakens us to a new, truer reality that calls all of our previous ways of life into question.  Everything is thrown into question: politics, economics, family relationships, marriage, divorce, education, personal rights, private property and land, nations, power, parenting, community and neighborliness, poverty, violence, hope, success.  EVERYTHING!  The shabby robes with which we have clothed ourselves and our world is put under the black-light of Jesus… and the robes we wore and which we imagined to be clean and whole are shown to be disgusting, disheveled rags clinging to our bodies.

Jesus’ way calls for peace and unmasks our love of violence.  Jesus’ way calls for mercy, but we are bent on retribution.  Jesus’ way calls for love, but anger has its claws in our flesh.  Jesus’ way calls for justice, but we enjoy the benefits of injustice too much.  Jesus’ way calls for hope, but we are entrenched in fear.  Jesus’ way calls for truth, but we are committed to our collective lies.  Jesus’ way calls for sharing resources, but we’re just not sure there’s enough to go around.  Advent agitates us, stirs us, and disturbs us because we are confronted with the reality that our lives, both communally and personally, don’t yet fully reflect Jesus or his Kingdom.

Waiting and preparing for Jesus often tumbles us, throwing our world upside-down.  Yet, when we encounter God’s grace in Jesus the Living Water who washes us and the Spirit of God that agitates us from places of complacency, something life-giving stirs in us that we would have never anticipated.  We begin to change – little by little.  The stain of discontent begins to fade.  Neighborliness sews together the seams frayed by enemy-making and violence.  The stench of anger and bitterness are replaced with the fragrant aroma of Christ’s mercy and grace.  Greed is washed out with self-giving love.  Humility and service bleach out vanity and pride.  The more we are washed by God’s presence and stirred up by Christ’s life, the more we realize that our robes are being repaired and made clean and that we’d rather not wear those old, dirty rags of our former lives.  So…

The Spirit and the bride (that is, the Church) say, “Come.”
And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.

The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.”

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.[2]

Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.

Born Thy people to deliver,
Born a child and yet a King,
Born to reign in us forever,
Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
By Thine own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
By Thine all sufficient merit,
Raise us to Thy glorious throne.

By Thine all sufficient merit,
Raise us to Thy glorious throne[3]

 

 
[1] Revelation 22:12a, 14a.

[2] Revelation 22:17, 20-21

[3] Charles Wesley, “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.”

“Sabbath for the Rest” – Mark 3:1-6

This was a short sermon (5 minutes) that I wrote for the ACTS D.Min. program in Chicago.  It utilized “incarnational translation” as part of the methodology for the sermon.  

 

The Pharisees sat in the pews keeping a suspicious eye on Jesus, waiting to see if he would heal on the Sabbath.  Work was strictly prohibited on Sabbath.  The Jewish religious leaders had created numerous laws designed to restrict working on Sabbath.  Don’t do this.  Don’t do that.  Don’t take too many steps on this day.  You can’t prepare meals on this day.  You aren’t allowed to do any manual labor.  It was a long, extensive, exhaustive, comprehensive, encyclopedic list of prohibitions they were required to follow.  The Pharisees prowled around the sanctuary just waiting for Jesus to step one toe out of line and break the Sabbath.

Jesus tells the man with the withered hand to stand where everyone in worship can see him.  As the congregation has gathered in their holy huddle, Jesus asks them an unsettling question: “What’s the whole purpose behind Sabbath?  Is it for doing good or evil, for sustaining life or promoting death?”  The Pharisees believe the Sabbath is about not working.  But Jesus says the Sabbath is about re-defining our work – not simply stopping it.  It’s not only about avoiding evil, but actively doing that which is good – preserving, sustaining, and blessing life for all.

You may have heard the old saying, “We don’t drink, smoke or chew, and we don’t go with girls that do.”  There have been times, we, as Nazarenes, were known for what we didn’t do.  We didn’t play cards.  We didn’t go to movies.  We weren’t allowed to dance.  We didn’t drink alcohol.  I’m not even sure we were allowed to smile.  Somewhere along the way, we rooted our identity in what we were against, but we weren’t sure what we were for.  We can list what we shouldn’t be doing, but we struggle to name what we should be doing.

While we may have avoided doing some harmful things, while we may have insulated ourselves from “a dangerous world out there,” we have also divorced ourselves from God’s Sabbath call.  Jesus tells the man to stretch out his hand and upon doing so the man’s hand is healed.  Jesus demonstrates in this healing that the “work” of Sabbath is the work of justice.  It is the work of restoration.  It is the work of renewal.  It is the work of reconciliation.  Sabbath is not only rest – Sabbath is restitution.

We stand at a crossroads in the life of our state and community.  It is a crossroad which recognizes that worship which fails to engage the real issues of this world isn’t really worship.  Our state has experienced a massive shortage in money for budgets.  It was a gross mishandling of money entrusted to them by its citizens.  The result was significant cuts to education, mental health care, and loss of tax breaks for our poorest neighbors.  Simultaneously, huge tax breaks were given to large oil companies.  The disturbing misuse of power and privilege which tramples over the most vulnerable people in our state and in our community is unacceptable and we cannot remain silent.  We cannot remain on the sidelines.

Jesus stands in our midst today, asking us: “Why have we gathered here in worship?  Is it just to avoid being tainted by the world outside?  Is it to build a huge wall of security around ourselves so that we might not concern ourselves with the world’s brokenness?  Or, is it so that we might be empowered to do that which is good, that which is right, that which preserves life?”  Perhaps we have been gathered here in worship to be reminded that God wants to heal our withered hands so that we might be sent back out into the world to work for the good of others.

“An Unbelievable Future” – John 20:19-31

Thomas rubbed the deepening circles under his eyes.  Sleep had eluded him again.  He sat in the half dark room alone, staring up at the ceiling.  His stomach growled from hunger, but he didn’t feel like eating.  Every time he thought of that man’s face, beaten… that crown of thorns shoved forcefully down on that brow, his stomach churned in knots.  He shivered as he remembered that man, his teacher and friend, hanging on those rough beams of wood.

Thomas’ breath became labored as he recalled watching Jesus’ ragged breathing on the cross.  A small stream of water from Thomas’ eyes mirrored the water running from Jesus’ side as the Centurian pierced his side with a spear.  Dead.  The lifeless, limp body no longer moved.  Jesus had cried, “It is finished!”  Those words hung in the arid air before Thomas.  It was finished.  All of it!  The hope, the promises, the future… dashed against the cold, heartless rock of Rome and the Jewish authorities.  Another failed messiah… another failed leader… another promise broken.  Thomas curled into a ball as sobs racked his body again.  His tears had all but dried up.  His sobs were ghostly moans of disappointment.

How many had there been?  How many prophets?  How many politicians?  How many spiritual leaders?  How many self-proclaimed messiahs?  All had promised to make Jerusalem great again… yet, here they were again – empty promises littering the floor.  Anger flashed.  Rage swelled.  But, despair followed quickly as Thomas was reminded of the futility of it all.  Herod.  Pilate.  Caiaphas.  They held all the power.  The world kept moving much as it had before Jesus was killed.  Those in power remained in power; nothing ever changed.  Jesus had been silenced forever.

Thomas couldn’t bear the silence of the room any longer.  He wasn’t sure where to go, but he had to get out.  He slipped quietly from his room, avoiding eye contact, darting in the shadows, covering his face to keep from being recognized.  He bumped into a few people as he hurried along, his feet carrying him along a familiar path.  He wasn’t sure how he had arrived on the steps, but he knocked on the door anyway.

Familiar faces were gathered together.  All of the disciples were here.  He hadn’t expected to see all of them together, but he supposed they didn’t have anywhere else to go.  He looked into their eyes, searching for something – he wasn’t sure what.  Perhaps the same sense of loss and desperation, the pain, the disappointment.  Thomas expected reddened eyes and dejected faces staring back.  But, they smiled at him!  What was wrong with these people?  How could they possibly smile after all that they had seen and heard?  How could they so easily forget that awful day of finality?

The disciples hugged Thomas.  Gripped his shoulder.  Patted him on the back.  He didn’t really return their embrace.  Nor did he return their smiles.  What was going on?  His bewildered look prompted one of the disciples to speak.  “Thomas, the most wonderful news!  Jesus came here last week.  He’s alive.  We saw his hands and feet.  It was him!”

Thomas squinted in disbelief.  Anger began to rise to the surface.  What kind of cruel joke was this!?  Dead people don’t rise.  He had seen the lifeless body brought down from the cross.  He saw them carry Jesus to the tomb.  If the Romans were good at one thing, it certainly was the ability to kill people.  They were proficient killers.  What madness had gripped his friends?  Dead people don’t show up anywhere!  Perhaps they had seen a vision or maybe they had a vivid memory in their grief.  Hadn’t he hoped Jesus would walk through the door and prove it all a bad dream?  But, that had not happened.  Jesus was dead.  Thomas cleared his throat of the knot that was there, “I will not believe it unless I put my finger in the wounds.”

Thomas had been fooled enough.  He had dared to hope.  He wouldn’t be taken in again.  He wasn’t gullible, like the rest of this group.  Thomas was tired of hoping.  He wanted proof.  He wanted nothing less than tangible evidence.  Nothing else short of that was acceptable.  Trust was exhausted.  He refused to trust what he could not see.  Thomas fumed.  He refused to smile and he would not meet anyone else’s eyes.  He sat shaking his head in disbelief that his friends could be so gullible, so naïve.

Thomas is often given a bad rap.  “Doubting Thomas” we call him.  We shake our heads and wonder at Thomas’ audacity to ask for proof.  We marvel at his lack of belief, his inability to understand what has happened.  Doubting Thomas.  He embodies for many of us something opposed to faith.  Doubt, some say, is the great enemy of faith.

But, doubt is a function of faith.  We doubt based on what we believe.  We doubt we can jump off of a 10 story building and fly because we so deeply believe in the power of gravity.  We doubt that we can put out a grease fire with water because experience has shown us that water actually makes grease fires worse.  We doubt that camels can fit through the eye of a needle, unless that needle is gigantic, because we believe in the physics of reality making such an event impossible.  Thomas doubted Jesus’ resurrection because he knew that dead people stayed dead.

Thomas wasn’t a doubter.  He was a realist.  Dead people stay dead.  Thomas wasn’t faithless.  He had followed Jesus.  But, the cross pointed to Jesus as a failure.  Where was the Kingdom of God when Caesar, Pilate, and Herod still ruled?  Where was the fulfillment of promises when the messiah laid in a tomb?  Where was any hope when Death held the victory?  The powers-that-be had won decisively.  Their victory was the shape of a cross that proclaimed Jesus to be a false king and a political rabble rouser, but nothing more.  Thomas may have doubts, but they are born out of his experience that has shown itself over and over and over again.  Promises are ultimately broken.  Hope is short-lived.  The world never changes.  Death always wins.

Thomas would fit right in to our postmodern age.  We watch election campaigns where candidates promise to make everything “great again.”  We hear their promises and know there is false hope being offered.  Too many promises have been made.  Too many promises have fallen short.

We watch markets fluctuate while interest and the cost of living rises.  There is more month than paycheck and we wonder how we can make those dollars stretch.  Many are foundering under mounds of credit card and consumer debt.  Houses are foreclosed.  Loans are overdue.  Creditors hassle us.  That mountain of debt appears too large to overcome.

Illness, and addictions, and abusive relationships, and hunger, and a myriad of other problems invade our vision with such regularity that it becomes difficult to see any possible future where our lives are not dominated by these realities.  The rich get richer.  The poor get poorer.  The powerful become more powerful.  The weak become more vulnerable.  The way of the world seems to hold sway.  The shadow blots out the light, until we are unable to see the horizon beyond.  We are tired, and torn, and tattered.  We are distraught, and dismayed, and disillusioned.  We are beaten, and bleeding, and bruised.

Even when it comes to the Church, we often wonder if such a place matters.  What’s the point?  The people are hypocrites.  The Church is mixed up in scandals and abuse.  The Church is broken and ineffective.  The Church is failing and declining.  I remember talking with the dad of a teen one day, who told me, “The Church, I believe, is just going to die.”  He had seen churches close and flounder in its mission.  And, as a youth pastor, it was difficult for me to see any other reality either.  Perhaps like me, you have wondered if the Church has a future.  It is easy to look at the Church and at the rest of the world and become increasingly cynical that anything but death can come from it.  Our experience of death is so strong and overwhelming, that like Thomas, we won’t believe life and hope are possible unless we can see it with our own eyes and touch it with our own hands.

… Just as Thomas’ eyes pivoted to the floor, he heard a voice among the voices of the disciples.  It didn’t belong to the disciples, but he recognized it.  He rubbed his temples, obviously hearing things that were impossible to hear.  If dead men stay dead, dead men don’t talk either.  Thomas kept his eyes to the floor.  A pair of feet stood directly in Thomas’ line of sight.  They appeared to be normal feet with sandals… except for one difference.  These feet had a hole straight through them, as if they had been pierced by a metal spike.

Thomas’ eyes followed the feet up the robe, up the torso of the robed figure, until he met the eyes of the man that had been his teacher.  His voice caught, his breath left him, he was hallucinating, surely!  He blinked his eyes to clear them.  Opening them found the same scene – Jesus standing before him.  Jesus spoke: “Peace be with you.”  Thomas’ jaw must have been on the floor, because he did not respond… couldn’t respond.  Jesus exposed his side, the side that had been pierced by the spear.  “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

Thomas’ body began to shake, to tremble.  It was Jesus!  Alive!  His hands and feet and side all bore the wounds of crucifixion and yet something was different because nobody had opened the door to this room – it was still locked!  Yet, here Jesus stood, in the flesh, bearing the wounds of crucifixion and yet living and breathing and alive!

Thomas didn’t remember slipping down to the floor on his knees, but he couldn’t help himself.  “My lord and my God!”  It was the only appropriate response because nobody else could defeat death, especially in such spectacular fashion.  Jesus looked at Thomas, saying, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

As Pastor Becca reminded us last week, “The resurrection changes everything.”  It changes everything!  Thomas encounters the risen Jesus and his response is, “My lord and my God.”  Thomas began with the realistic expectation that dead men don’t rise.  He could not fathom a world where Jesus was messiah and king when it was obvious that Death had stopped him.  Now, because of this encounter with Jesus, Thomas doubts that there is any place that Jesus is not lord and king of all because resurrection has fully undermined the power of Death.

Herod, Pilate, and Caesar may still appear to be in power.  Their weapon of choice, death, has been their method for silencing their opponents.  Death has been the ultimate weapon that the world has used to silence the prophets and the people who sought to follow God and called into question the ways of this world, the ways of power politics.  The world would kill anyone that challenged how things have always been.  If you don’t want to be killed, you better play along – especially if you benefit from those power arrangements in society.  Let the poor be poor, we would say, because they deserve it.  Let the weak remain powerless, because we deserve power to look out for ourselves.  But, don’t question the way things are, don’t look too closely, turn a blind eye to the injustice, ignore the violence – better yet, be those who benefit from those things.  And, the best way to maintain peace, for any empire, from Egypt to Rome to us, has been to use death as the means for control, for domination, for maintaining life the way it is.  Death is our weapon of choice.

And, death does some awful work.  It is vicious and cruel.  It tore Jesus’ body.  He was stretched like tanned leather across those planks of wood.  His hands were pierced, his feet were nailed, his side was jabbed, his back was slashed, and his face was beaten.  Jesus stood before Thomas with visible reminders of the world’s ways of using power.  And, as he had stood before the disciples a week before, showing them his hands and feet, he said, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.”  He stands before Thomas now with that same reminder that we, as disciples, have been sent back into the world as an invasion force.  But, we no longer use the weapons of death to conquer, for the world’s ultimate weapon of death has already been demolished.  “My lord and my God.”

The weapon of death, which all worldly powers depend on to maintain their way of life has been defeated, made defunct, demolished.  The resurrection changes everything.  Now, those worldly powers have no real power.  Their weapon has been trashed, trumped, and torn down.  Jesus has gone through death and come out the other side having defeated Death.  This death of Death marks the beginning of new creation.  Jesus shows up to his disciples on the first day of the week, the day of first creation.  What Jesus has initiated and inaugurated, Thomas grasps.  Only God can do something new.  Only God can give new life so dramatically.  “My lord and my God.”  Thomas doubts the power of death because he has seen and touched the new creation, he has seen and touched Jesus.  Thomas realizes, because of the resurrection, that all of God’s promises are “yes” in Christ Jesus.  And, for that very reason, hope is possible.  “My lord and my God.”  Nothing else deserves his allegiance.  Nothing else is worthy of his life.  For Thomas, and for us, the resurrection changes everything.

But, still, it remains to be seen.  It remains to be seen in our families, our communities, our homes, our offices, our churches, our schools.  Does the resurrection change everything for us?  When people watch us and watch our little church, do they see resurrection power at work in us?  Do they see the risen Christ?  Can they touch the wounds when they enter these doors?  Does our confession, “My lord and my God,” go beyond words to actions?  Are we willing to be sent like Jesus to proclaim hope, even if it cost us everything?  The Church’s job is to proclaim the new creation that has broken loose in Jesus’ resurrection.  We are called to dispel the darkness by living as light.  We are invited to give up everything for the sake of others – knowing that it is better to give than to receive and that it is in giving that we receive.

Perhaps poverty continues to be an issue in our community because we have not been the generous hands and feet of the risen Christ.  Perhaps addictions abound in our community because we are unwilling to be vulnerable by sharing our own wounds with each other, to confess that we struggle.  Perhaps people lack resources because we hoard resources for ourselves.  Perhaps the Church is floundering because we have failed to live out resurrection here and now.

But, where the resurrection has taken root.  Where we live out of the hope and peace we have received through Jesus’ resurrection, we are empowered to be world changers, initiators of the new creation here and now.  The resurrection changes everything!  Where the resurrection catches our imagination, lifts our hearts, gives us hope… that becomes a radical movement and revolution in our world.  We do not move in fear.  We are willing to give freely of ourselves.  We are energized to live out God’s mission for us.  We are empowered to proclaim the Good News.  We are equipped for every good work which we have been given in Christ Jesus.  When every day is a celebration of resurrection, we will see lives changed – both inside and outside of the church.

Those very things are happening here and more is yet to come.  I marvel at the way that our small group has decided to be missional and serve members of our community while we grow in our walk with God together.  I celebrate that Gloria and Charles have given of their time to run the van to pick up people on Sunday mornings.  I am deeply grateful for those that are engaged in the backpack program that provides food each weekend for underprivileged children.  I am ecstatic about the GED program that is meeting in our building on Monday and Thursday evenings.  I am excited to see our annual VBS program be a success this year as we reach our community together.  I am thrilled to see some of our people reaching out to others and inviting them to be part of our church.

Resurrection things are happening here.  And, as we are captivated more and more by the power of resurrection, we will fear the wounds of crucifixion less and less.  As we trust more fully in Jesus as lord and God, we will place less and less hope in the empires of this world.  And, as we live out resurrection in our world, we will see small bursts of new creation break out.  The resurrection changes everything!

“Into Deeper Water” – Luke 5:1-11

I love looking at family trees.  It provides a portrait of where we come from and can provide insight into where we are going.  It is interesting seeing how lives have been woven together and how some nuts don’t fall far from the family tree.  Looking at our heritage is a good practice, not only as individuals, but for our corporate lives together as well.  It says who we have been and can help paint a picture for where we are going.

The Church of the Nazarene began its life in California on Skid Row.  “Nazarene” was sometimes used as a derogatory name for this group of misfits.  But, those early Nazarenes wore the name as a badge of honor because it pointed to the kind of people we wanted to be and the type of people we felt called to serve.  They were ministering right in the thick of their community’s deepest hurts and darkest sins.

These Nazarenes ministered to those struggling with alcohol addiction, broken families, and poverty.  They jumped right into the mess and proclaimed the hope of Jesus by word and deed.  They built hospitals, homes for unwed mothers, orphanages, schools, churches, and so many other places to meet the great needs of their communities.  Their message and way of life captivated people with the freedom offered by the Gospel of Jesus.  Not only did these Nazarenes seek to make a difference for people in the next life; they extended hope and help, here and now.  They cast nets for people in the most troubled waters of our world.  That is our heritage.

Our story begins with Jesus proclaiming a word from God, a word unfolding the Kingdom before his hearers.  Like those aching for bread, the crowd presses in on Jesus.  They want to hear his words, they draw closer still until Jesus is right near the water’s edge.  The teacher sees two boats sitting on the shore, the crew washing and mending the nets after a futile night of catching seaweed but no fish.  Jesus steps into Peter’s boat and asks him to push off into the shallows.  Peter is obviously tired from a long night of catching nothing.  But, he nods in response and pushes out into the water, keeping the boat from floating away with the current.

Jesus sits down in the boat, the position of a teacher, the position of one in authority.  The word continues to be proclaimed.  Words of hope and a future.  Words that speak life into the dead places.  They are fascinating words.  Words that bring to life an imagination long dead and dull from the pain and suffering of life.  The crowd stands at the shore and Jesus is calling to them from the shallows.  But, that’s where the crowd stops – at the water’s edge.  Maybe some of them allow the water to wash across their feet.  But, they move no further, no closer – a safe distance.

Jesus concludes his teaching to those gathered at the shore’s edge.  Jesus turns to Peter, whose arms are probably aching from the long night and lack of sleep, and tells him to put out into deep waters and to let down his nets.  Move from those shallow waters to the deeper, troubled waters.  They are going fishing in those deeper waters.  Some are content to remain at the shore’s edge, but if you’re in the same boat with Jesus you might just find yourself sailing into deeper waters.

Deeper waters have stronger currents.  They pull and push the boat relentlessly.  The swirling waters are dark and often mysterious.  We do not always know what lies beneath the surface.  Deep waters can be frightening.  But, that’s where Jesus sometimes calls us – deeper waters.  The danger of capsizing, of being overturned is ever present.  Even skilled sailors can quickly find themselves in treacherous places in those waters.  There’s risk, make no mistake, in heading out into deeper waters.  But, that’s where God will sometimes call us.  Will we row out into those deeper waters?

We live in a time of troubled waters.  It’s all around us, threatening to swell and overwhelm our little boat.  The troubled waters of deep anxiety, riddled with violence crash against the side of the boat.  Poverty; refugees forced from their homes; abused children and spouses; homelessness, which is only growing; substance abuse; deadly diseases killing large populations; natural disasters leaving many dead or without shelter.  The current threatens to sweep our boat away from the safety of the shore, to submerge our boat, to drag us down with it.  The problems of those deep waters seem much too big for our little boat to handle.

But, that’s where Jesus calls us to drop anchor and drop our nets – in those deeply troubled waters.  That is where Jesus desires to go and the very place where the Church should be found.  Like the boat that carries Jesus and the disciples “into the deep” places, the Church is the vessel which continues to be out on those troubled waters carrying Jesus and the disciples.  The boat was never meant to remain on the shore or in the shallows.  The Church was never meant to remain on the sidelines and watch the world from the safety of its four walls.  Ever and always has Jesus climbed into the boat and said, “Let’s go to deeper waters.”  And, disciples are the ones that follow Jesus out into those troubled places.

“Cast your nets.”  Can you imagine Peter’s puzzled look?  He is a fisherman by trade and knows the “sweet spots” on the lake.  If he can’t find fish, nobody can find the fish.  It’s broad daylight and fishing with nets is meant for the night.  The fish will see the net.  This appears to be an exercise in futility.  There is no way on God’s green earth that they will catch anything but perhaps a stray fish.

How often that is our very attitude as well.  “Jesus, just look at the state of these people.  They are the most broken, the most vile, the most destitute, the least worthy, the least noble, the least likely candidates.  Casting our nets in this place is pointless.”  We may very well feel like Peter looking at the problem and saying, “There’s really no point in trying. It’s a foregone conclusion.  We will fail.”  Yet, even while Peter was skeptical of success, he cast out his nets in obedience.

We may have been fishing all night without catching anything.  We may wonder if we are simply beating our heads against the wall.  We may have tried with all our strength to reach people only to see no return.  That may discourage us to the point that we have stopped casting our nets.  Instead, we drag them to the shore and busy ourselves washing and mending them – but not fishing.

We content ourselves with staying on the shore, avoiding the deeper waters.  But, going deeper with Jesus does not lead us away from the problems of the world.  Rather, drawing nearer to Jesus, getting in the same boat with Jesus, usually leads us right into the mess of our world as those casting their nets to catch people and pulling them into the boat, the Church as a foretaste of the Kingdom.

It surprised Peter when the nets began to tug and pull.  The weight of the fish as these fishermen began pulling them up made the men strain against the load and they couldn’t do it alone.  Peter waved to his fishing partners in the other boat.  Even with both boats, it was hard, tedious work.  They lifted, strained, and struggled.  They were sweating and aching and tired.  Yet, they labored on.  The load of fish caused both boats to begin sinking.  It was simultaneously exciting and frightening.  What a great catch!  But, they’re in deep waters with two boats sinking!  Peter drops to his knees and bows before Jesus, exclaiming, “Lord, I am a sinful man.  Go away from me!”  He and the disciples are astonished and afraid.

I think we avoid the deep waters and casting our nets for a couple of reasons.  The deep waters frighten us.  We want to avoid the messes of the world, while we complain about them behind closed doors from the comfort of our recliners and at the safe distance which our television screens afford.  We want to keep our distance.

The second reason is because casting our nets and pulling them up is difficult work.  Evangelism and discipleship are hard tasks, difficult tasks.  They require energy, patience, and compassion.  And, we’re not even sure we want to expend the necessary energy, patience, and compassion.  Maybe that’s why we place blame on so many people for being in those dire situations in the first place.  They deserve to be in the positions they find themselves.  And, as such, we can excuse ourselves from doing the very work to which Jesus calls us.

“I’m comfortable on the shore, Jesus, thank you very much.  I’ve done my part.  I needn’t do any more.”  Or, we think, things like worship and faith are just about my personal experience alone.  I have no responsibility for others’ lives.  So, we watch from the shore, content to watch Jesus from a distance, but not willing to be inconvenienced by his call to cast our nets in deeper waters.

But, notice that Peter isn’t the only one straining at the nets.  Other hands join his to hoist the nets and the catch into the boats.  The many hands of the Church work together to lighten the load.  Each and every person has something to contribute to the work of the Church.  Every person that is a part of the Body of Christ does not stand idly by, but lends their hands in service to the task before us.  Everyone has gifts which God has given them for such moments.  Keep in mind that some of the crew are steering, some are rowing, and some are tending the sail.  But, each is contributing to the mission of the Church in response to the call of Jesus.

Oh, but it is hard work, make no mistake.  Joyful, but hard.  Things don’t always go as planned.  Casting our nets for people in the midst of those troubled waters can be painful and exhausting.  It is often inconvenient and will sometimes feel like things are coming loose at the seams.  The disciples’ nets begin to break.  The boats begin to take on water.  All the chaos of those waters threaten to come over the edge of the boat, dragging us down into the murky depths.  It can be frightening to feel like the boats won’t float any longer.  And, many have become frightened whenever the Church has been threatened by those deep waters.

When we were younger, my sister and I attended a swimming party at a neighbor’s house.  A lot of our friends were there to celebrate the birthday of one of the girls.  It was noisy, busy, and festive.  Children were splashing and screaming and stuffing their faces with cake.  It was a bit chaotic.  Although there were several adults in attendance, it was nearly impossible to keep an eye on everything happening.

At one point, my younger sister began to have difficulties swimming.  She was treading water but could hardly keep her head above the waves.  The side of the pool was too far for her to grab and she was in a deeper section of the pool where footing was impossible.  I didn’t think, but immediately jumped in to help her.  However, my sister’s problem quickly became my problem.

As I reached her, she immediately grabbed me and shoved me under the water, using me as a prop to get air.  She has a death-grip on my head while holding me totally submerged.  I can’t come up and didn’t have much air when I went down.  Free training tip: Always approach drowning people from behind so they don’t drown you also.  Back to our program.  Luckily, I was able to escape her grasp and help her get to the side.  Trying to help her had almost ended badly for me and it was terribly frightening.  But, I’d do it again in a heartbeat.  When we try to help people drowning under the weight of the world’s brokenness, we might find ourselves being submerged.  It may feel like we’re drowning in the process.

When broken people, like you and I, come through those doors, we often bring those troubled waters with us into the boat.  We bring the mess of our lives right through those doors.  We carry our guilt, our shame, our brokenness, our anger, our bitterness, our lust, our greed, our poor attitudes, our fear right into this place like rushing waters.  And, the torrent can feel downright overwhelming at times.  Perhaps that’s why we try to keep our messes hidden from each other.

We dare not let others know our brokenness and sin for fear of chaos breaking out, of being cast out of the boat.  And, for those with more visible problems, we may say a kind word but we dare not make them feel welcome enough to stay.  Those problems belong “out there,” but not in this boat.  The nets are already strained to the breaking point and the boat is threatening to tip.  We might wonder if some fish aren’t just better tossed back in the pond than having to deal with their messy situation.

But Peter’s confession has always been the Church’s confession: “Lord, we are sinful people.  Surely, there’s better qualified people than us to do your work.”  While Jesus may call us to be “fishers of people,” we better remember that we were the fish pulled out of those troubled waters to begin with.  “Lord, we are sinful people.”  We are people that are deeply submerged in those mirky, troubled, deep waters.  We are the broken.  We are the destitute.  We are the impoverished.  We are those living in darkness, those living in sin, those loving our shame.  “Lord, we are sinful people.”

Jesus responds to Peter’s confession, even as he calls out to us now, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people alive.”  Peter recognizes that he is in deep waters, sinful.  Jesus has cast his net and brought him into the boat, calling him to do the same for others.  Peter and the disciples will do for others what Jesus has done for them – caught them out of death for life!  The only appropriate response is to leave everything behind and follow Jesus.

Would there be a better response for us today?  Wouldn’t it be great to be a church that is known for following Jesus into the deep and troubled waters, casting our nets out to catch people out of the ways of death of the world and pulling them into the Church to be part of the new Kingdom of life here and now?  There are no disciples sitting on the shore, only an entertained crowd.  The disciples are where Jesus is, right in the messy waters of our world catching people for new life.  That is and has always been the Church’s mission.

As Emil Brunner once remarked, “Mission work does not arise from any arrogance in the Christian Church; mission is its cause and its life. The Church exists by mission, just as a fire exists by burning. Where there is no mission, there is no Church; and where there is neither Church nor mission, there is no faith.”  We can’t be part of the Church without also being part of its mission.  Jesus calls us out into deeper waters, to cast our nets, to catch people up into this newness of life we have found together in Jesus.