Thursday, April 5, 2012
Tuesday, March 27, 2012
Saturday, March 6, 2010
3rd Sunday in Lent
7 March 2010
We all know the story and the images well by now. On the afternoon of January 12, a catastrophic 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Port au Prince, Haiti, the capital, was absolutely leveled. Nearly a quarter of a million people were killed. 300,000 more were injured. Roughly a million were rendered homeless. It is a devastation we can scarcely imagine.
Saturday, February 6, 2010
5th Sunday after the Epiphany
7 February 2010
It was an interruption that changed everything.
Interruptions have the power to do that, you know. Most interruptions are mere annoyances – the telemarketer who rings you as you sit down for dinner, the co-worker who stops by your desk just as you are making progress on your inbox, the child who talks over the punchline on your favorite show. But some interruptions change our lives. The phone that rings at 2:00 in the morning. The water that breaks four weeks early. The breaking news that interrupts regularly scheduled broadcasts. One moment changes everything.
For Simon, it had been a night like any other night. He and his fishing partners had spent the whole night fishing. But for all their work, they had come back to shore with nothing. They stood there next to their boats, washing their nets, ready for a hot breakfast and a long nap. And up walks this man who just steps into Simon’s boat, sits down, and starts teaching. A crowd is pressing in on him, anxious to hear the word of God, and so he delivers it, sitting in Simon’s fishing boat.
Luke doesn’t tell us whether Jesus asked permission or offered explanation. He doesn’t say how Simon responded to the interruption. He just says that Jesus got in and started teaching. And Simon and his friends didn’t leave. They had worked all night for nothing, and surely felt bone-tired and ready to go. But they didn’t. And when Jesus was done speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”
Simon explained, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.” In other words, “We’ve already tried that, it didn’t work.” Some people might’ve stopped at that, turned around, and headed home. But Simon’s head was filled with what Jesus had been teaching. It is clear from the crowds who press in that this man offers a compelling word. Simon is compelled too; he doesn’t turn away. He goes on, “Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”
So they push off from shore and do what Jesus says. They throw their empty nets into the deep water, and pull up a staggering haul. Their nets begin to break. They have to call their partners over from the other boat to help them bring it all up. They struggle to bring up the catch; it fills both boats. And the boats begin to sink.
Can you see it? Can you smell it? Fish flopping everywhere. Nets creaking, straining. Boats tilting, tipping. Tired men groaning, tugging, struggling with their catch. Where there had been nothing, now there is more than they can handle.
It’s the first miracle in Luke that does not involve a healing or an exorcism. Jesus hasn’t commanded the sea or the fish. He has not told the fisherman to do anything unusual. He simply comes to them in the midst of their ordinary work, and tells them to try again, and to go deeper, and they do.(1) What they pull up defies all expectation and brings Simon to his knees.
He knows that what has happened is more than just the best fish tale ever. What he has caught hold of with his nets is a miracle, and he responds to the divine power of it, falling before Jesus and saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” But Jesus won’t have it. “Do not be afraid,” he tells Simon, “from now on you will be catching people.” And they bring their boats to the shore, and leave them there – stinky fish, breaking nets, and all – and follow him.
What a story! Even so, some of us shy away from it. We have heard this story used towards a kind of triumphal evangelism. We have heard it used as part of church growth campaigns. We prefer to relegate it to children’s Vacation Bible School lessons, so that we don’t have to deal with it so much ourselves. It makes us feel guilty, or uncomfortable, or anxious. We do not want to be, in the more familiar words, “fishers of men.” It is unseemly.
But what if we could set that aside? What if we could let Jesus interrupt our preconceived notions and our well-defended habits? What if we just let him come in, enter our ordinary lives, right where we are? Maybe he comes to us after a long day’s work, when we feel like nothing we have done has made a difference. We are ready to be finished for the day. Try again, he urges. Go deeper, he says, calling us into depths we haven’t explored, spiritually, or emotionally, or in some other way we’re unprepared for. Do we resist, and insist that we’ve already tried and failed?
Maybe he comes in the same way, right here into our church. Some here have worked so long, and so hard, for the sake of this church, and for what? Some days it’s hard to see that any of it makes any difference. We worry. We despair. We wonder what we have to show for all our years and all our work and all our faithfulness. And there he comes. Try again. Go deeper. Do we resist? Do we insist that we’ve already tried and failed? Do we give up? His call to put out our nets into the deep water – that’s an invitation to go farther than we have, to move out of safe water and known places, and see what happens when we let him lead.
If we’re willing to respond to such an invitation, we could find ourselves faced with unexpected abundance and blessing. Instead of coming up empty, the fishers’ nets were filled with a stunning wild bounty. Can we believe that God will lavish abundance on us too, if we risk going further and going deeper than we thought we could? Scripture tells us that God can do abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20). Do we believe that? Are we willing to risk asking and imagining and seeing where God leads us?
If we really believed in the God we say we trust, then we would know that no net we have is enough. No resource, no ritual, no habit, no tradition, no understanding, is big enough to contain what God means to bring. We can never be prepared for the abundance God means to provide. A boatload of blessing – and more – is available, but it will strain and even break our previous structures.
Maybe that’s what we are afraid of. Maybe we are not afraid of failure, but of success – success in the form of unpredictable abundance and blessing. When Simon confesses his sin, isn’t it interesting that Jesus’ response is, “Do not be afraid”? Jesus knows that this is the way we are. When faced with the possibility of abundance, when challenged by the breakage of our old ways, we are afraid. We want to keep doing things the way we’ve always done, whether they’ve worked or not. Whether they’ve helped us or others, or not.
This past week was the Feast of St. Brigid, one of the patron saints of Ireland. Brigid helped shape Irish Christianity in the middle of the fifth century, when it was still new to Ireland. She was known for her hospitality and generosity. In stories about Brigid’s life, she is remembered as a person who worked miracles of abundance among the poor – abundance of food, or drink, or healing, or justice. She taught that “every guest is Christ,” and though she was not generally known for turning anyone away, she was wise and discerning with how she ministered to those in need.
One day, a man with leprosy approached her saying, “For God’s sake, Brigit, give me a cow.” Brigid told him to leave her alone. Possibly this was not her first time dealing with the man. He persisted. “Give me a cow!” Brigid asks him if she can pray to God to remove the man’s leprosy. “No,” he replies. “I get more this way than if I were clean.” Brigid insists that he “take a blessing and be cleansed.” And he acknowledges that he is, in fact, in a lot of pain. And so she prays for blessing for him, and he is cured. (2)
It’s easier – less risky, less costly, less work – to stick with whatever we’ve got, to do what we’ve always done, than to open ourselves to blessing and abundance that may require something more of us than we expected. Jesus calls us to cast our net into deep waters – to risk moving towards possibilities we cannot yet see, or predict, or understand. If we follow, who knows what wild bounty we may haul in? In the process, there are habits and practices, attitudes and understandings, in our lives and in our church life that will stretch and maybe break, and maybe even sink. Are we up for that? Are we willing to follow the Lord of the broken nets? Are we willing to trade what we’ve got for what he wants to give?
In the end, it was not just fish that were caught that day at Galilee – Simon and his friends were hooked, too. They could not resist the draw of this man Jesus. He would call them into dangerous places. They could not foresee the outcome. But they had experienced a moment of untamed, unmitigated, abundant, amazing grace, and they could do nothing but respond. They left behind the nets, the boat, and the catch. Because in the end, the real grace wasn’t about the gift, but the giver.
God is ready to do abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine. What is it that you would ask, for yourself, and for this church? What do you imagine? What can you dream? God’s dream is bigger. God’s bounty is wilder. God’s provision is more outrageous.
Everything we’ve got is just a net, or a boat. We have to be willing to let what we’ve got be stretched, be broken. In some cases, we may need to be broken, ourselves. But God will provide more than we can ask or imagine, as long as we’re willing to keep following Jesus, and to go deeper than we’ve gone before, maybe to places we cannot yet see or expect.
And if we really fix our lives on following him, if we really stake our church on him, then we will find ourselves drawing a net of love out into the world and hauling more people towards unexpected blessing and grace. The haul may not look like what “experts” call “success.” It may look like dozens of children from Hikone Housing, coming to know the love and dependability of God because of people here who showed that love. It may look like scores of children and families in Nandasmo, Nicaragua, who are strengthened and empowered by the bonds of Christian friendship with sisters and brothers here. It may look like a new kind of movement to confront the problems of homelessness in this city with courage and conviction, while caring for those who are homeless with compassion and greater resourcefulness. [Maybe it will look like a holy zeal to share the love of Jesus in every way we know how.] Or it may look like something we have not yet dreamed.
Jesus said, “From now on you will be catching people!” Who knows what that catch will look like – all we know to do is throw out our nets, let ourselves be stretched, let our boat be rocked. And keep on following him.
 New Interpreter’s Bible. “Luke.” Gail R. O’Day. 118.
 The Reverend Jan Richardson, http://paintedprayerbook.com/2010/01/31/epiphany-5-the-wildest-bounty/. Also thanks to her for the phrase “wildest bounty,” which she found in Alice Curtayne’s biography of St. Brigid. Curtayne wrote that Brigid ministered to the poor with “a habit of the wildest bounty.”
Saturday, January 23, 2010
Third Sunday after Epiphany
24 January 2010
One of the things our boys are learning in kindergarten is that everybody can be a scientist. They are learning to be curious, to be open-minded, and to investigate the world around them. Their teacher tells them that when they encounter something that looks or smells disgusting, instead of responding with, “Eww, yuck!” a scientist says, “How interesting!” It is their new favorite phrase. For them, every day has become an opportunity for scientific investigation, and there is no realm of life that cannot be approached with a scientist’s quest for knowledge.
Our contemporary culture, which excels at compartmentalization, prefers to divorce science from other facets of life. The most famous such split is the supposed divide between science and religion, which are seen to be not just distinct from each other, but in conflict. Science and poetry are also seen as completely separate fields, but this can’t really be the case, can it? There is an inherent poetry in equations, for instance – rhythm, symmetry, something like rhyme, and certainly beauty. When science shows us something new about the human body, or about the earth, or about the skies, we are brought into new awareness of how vast is the mystery of life. It is hard not to be struck by wonder and by awe, at such new discoveries. These are the same responses that poets are going for. And of course mystery, wonder, awe – these also lie at the heart of faith.
A few nights ago, one of our little scientists approached us and asked if, for his birthday, we would let him take a special trip. When we asked him where, he answered matter-of-factly, “To the center of the earth.” When I asked him how he would get there, he had an answer for that too, “A rocket drill.” His brother chimed in, “That sounds exciting. I want to go. I’m dying of curiosity to see what’s at the center of the earth.”
We know what science teaches us about what is at the center of the earth. And of course we know that it would be not only impossible but also unpleasant to attempt to take a little day trip there. But the impulse behind this birthday request is possibly universal and certainly profound – the desire to know what is at the core of reality. What is the center of life? What lies beneath that part of reality we can see? What holds everything together?
Our psalmist has some thoughts about that. He has a poet’s sensibility, a scientist’s quest for truth, and the attentive delight of a child. He starts not by pondering the center of the earth, but by pointing our gaze towards the edges of the universe.
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
In the heavens God has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a bridegroom
from his wedding canopy
and like a strong man runs it course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them;
and nothing is his from its heat.
On a January weekend in Michigan, we might not agree with that bit about nothing being hid from the sun’s heat. But even grey skies and barren trees and icy wind tell of God’s glory, though for some of us it may sound more like tiny whispers than like a voice that goes out through all the earth.
The psalmist here is reflecting an ancient belief that the sun, and the moon, and the stars produce a harmony of tones by their movements, and that this harmony is sounded day and night from one end of the earth to the other.[i] The voices of the universe are not in human language – as the psalmist says, “there is no speech, not are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth.” And what they are telling is the glory of God.
The psalmist knew that creation is gorgeous enough in its own right, but there is a gift beyond that gift – what creation teaches us about God. Beauty, power, persistence, whimsy, usefulness, harmony, fierceness, interdependence, wildness – all of these will teach us about who God is, all of these will teach us how to praise God, if we pay attention.
And yet we know we cannot look at creation and see only good; there is tragedy and terror in it too. The horrific damage of the earthquake in Haiti is too fresh on our minds to be glib about how pretty nature is. Creation deals cruel blows. Theologian Paul Tillich once wrote, “Praising the glory of nature does not mean speaking of the beauty of nature alone and forgetting its overwhelming greatness and terrible power. Nature never manifests shallow beauty or merely obvious harmony.”[ii]
How do we reckon with the wild and terrifying freedom of creation? Natural disasters leave us horrified, bewildered, and enraged. They lead some of us to question God, and some of us to question if God even exists. It is the central perennial question of faith: how can God be both all-good and all-powerful and still allow such terrible things to happen? It’s a problem that cannot be settled, not entirely, and not entirely satisfactorily, not on this side of eternity.
But we can learn something from the psalmists about engagement with cruel realities. The psalms speak of God as refuge in times of destruction and distress. The psalms tell us that in response to fire and earthquake, in God’s temple all say, “Glory!” The faithful did not deny evil or tragedy, but even those things led them towards humility and reverence. It caused them to bow before the great mystery of a God who has set such a complex and uncontrollable universe in motion. It led them to respond with praise to the fierce, untamable nature of a God who is beyond our understanding or control.
But God wants more than our reverence; God wants a relationship. The psalmist, who had us looking up to the skies, now directs our eyes toward the Torah, God’s instruction. Like the sun in the sky, the Law of God revives the soul, rejoices the heart, gives light to the eyes. God’s instruction, which has been built into the very structure of the universe,[iii] has been made more explicit in Scripture.
What the psalmist is trying to help us see is that the same God whose power is proclaimed by the cosmic witness of the universe has also directed a personal word to humanity. The implications of this are staggering. The God who set the stars in the farthest galaxy also address us intimately, warmly, directly. The God who created the whole vast universe also came seeking a relationship with each of us.
God’s instruction, in creation and more overtly in Scripture, is meant to draw us into that relationship. The psalmist declares that what God’s Word accomplishes in our lives is all the good things God wants for us: vitality, wisdom, joy, enlightenment. Creation’s voice goes out over all the earth, and yet we do not hear it. But we have been given this book, and if we listen deeply, we do hear God speaking words of life.
The problem is, we’ve treated Scripture more like rules that we can’t live up to than like a relationship we’re willing to embrace. We find ourselves unable to do the things we know would keep us in harmony with God, or with each other, or with the world, or even with ourselves. We fail, and we hurt each other, and we do great damage to other people and to ourselves. And so the psalmist acknowledges our faults, and makes a petition for forgiveness. A psalm that started at the outer edges of the cosmos bends down now to the one place that matters most to God – the human heart.
Whereas creation is for us music without words, the Scriptures have been for many of us words cut off from music. Not because the music isn’t there, but because in our human limitation we have not been able to hear it, and accept it, and dance with it. So finally, God brought the music and words together for us, in the life of Jesus. His life, and death, and resurrection said the Word we needed to hear, the Word that is already written in the skies, and in our Scriptures, but that we couldn’t seem to see, couldn’t hear – that Word was Love, and only Love.
This is the core reality. This is what holds at the center – God’s love for us, and for our world, from the expanding edges of the universe to the shifting floors of the sea. When we turned away, and our love failed, God’s love remained steadfast.
We look at our creation and divorce it from any sense of reverence and connection with our creator. We look at our Scriptures and we read judgment. We read constraint. We read irrelevance. But the only thing God has ever been trying to say was, I love you. The only thing God has ever wanted is for us to live in the freedom and the refuge of that love, that we might honor and care for each other and our world.
I love you! he tried to tell us through the stars and the moon and the sun and the trees. But we couldn’t hear it. I love you! he tried to tell us again through the Scriptures. But we couldn’t accept it; we thought it was only a law we couldn’t keep. I love you! God told us one more time in Jesus, and tells us still.
In the 14th century, a 30 year-old English woman named Julian of Norwich received the first of several revelations from God. The most famous one, and the one you’ve probably heard quoted, was about a hazelnut. Her visions went on from there, for 15 years, and she continued to ask God what it all meant, when finally she received this answer:
What, do you wish to know your Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who reveals it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? For love. Remain in this, and you will know more of the same. But you will never know different, without end.[iv]
Love. If we yield to it and embrace it, we will know more of the same. But we will never know different, without end.
That Sacred Word, the Word that spans the universe and stretches across the pages of Scripture and finally took on flesh to reach down to the depths of our sad dark hearts – that Word is saying just one thing, and always only one thing, and never anything different, only more and more of that one word. I love you! I love you! I love you!
It only says that one thing, and it only wants one thing in return – to shine like the sun over your whole life.