The Woman Washes Jesus’ Feet

In Luke 7:36-50, Jesus has gone to eat with a Pharisee. The Pharisees were very concerned with keeping the purity of themselves and their faith community and they did that by following and interpreting the law given by Moses and that we find in the Torah—the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures. Pharisees rarely ate with people outside their own group. If they did invite someone outside their group to their home, they would ensure that proper washing had taken place and that the guest was wearing a clean garment which they provided.

Jesus arrives for dinner at the home of a Pharisee named Simon. No water or clean clothing is provided but the food is served. Part way through the meal, a woman arrives with expensive perfume. We are told that she is a sinner. We are not told anything about her sin.

When we read scripture we sometimes think of sin as prostitution or adultery. In Jesus’ culture sin simply referred to not keeping the Jewish law. If you were not particular about who you ate with, or the foods you ate, you could be labelled a sinner. In our own culture, it might be helpful to think of sin as brokenness in a relationship. The broken relationship might be with God. It might be with ourselves. It might be with another person. It might be with the earth. Sin is the action that leads to this brokenness. Sin causes hurt and pain. When we say the Lord’s prayer, I use the word sin rather than trespass because sin carries the weight of hurt and pain. To me, trespass means I have walked somewhere I shouldn’t have—a vacant lot for example. There’s really no harm involved and minimal consequences. Sin implies something different—it is word used exclusively to describe the hurt and pain that causes brokenness.

In our culture, we associate doing something wrong with a sense of shame or guilt that we place on ourselves. Our conscience kicks in and we can often (but not always) tell when we have said or done something that causes pain to ourselves or others. Sometimes, these hurts are a blip. Sometimes we can heal the relationships that have been damaged. In Jesus’ culture, the guilt and shame was not internally based and self-directed. The community was the conscience. It was the community that identified when sin had been committed and responded by labeling someone a sinner. Being identified as a sinner excluded people from social gatherings, limited access to the temple or synagogue and made earning an income difficult. There was also an understanding that an illness or something bad happening might be the result of sin. Whether you had done something or not, you could be labelled as sinner. People who were labelled as sinners became isolated from their communities and found themselves in a vicious cycle of poverty and broken relationships.

In the story, a woman who is labelled a sinner arrives to wash Jesus’ feet and anoint him. We don’t know anything about her sin. We don’t know where she came from or her connection with the household that Jesus is visiting. We don’t even know how she knew Jesus was there and that the host had not offered correct hospitality. Simon, the Pharisee, is perhaps grumbling to himself about the woman who has entered, is now touching Jesus and making him unclean. Simon also thinks that Jesus should know better than to associate with sinners. Jesus calls Simon on his behavior. He begins by telling a story about forgiving debts. Two people owe debts—one owes 50 coins, one owes 500 coins. Neither can pay and so the person holding the debts forgives them both. The obvious lesson from this is that the person with the bigger debt will be more grateful to the money lender.

But the story isn’t really about the money lender and these particular debts. Jesus really has something to say about the Pharisee and the woman who is washing his feet. Simon has sinned by not offering correct hospitality—by not washing Jesus’ feet or providing clean garments. Simon, as a Pharisee, should have been particular about these rituals. Simon—who might be a bit obsessed with keeping the law, and avoiding sin—has sinned by not providing hospitality. The woman, that Simon was looking down his nose at, has provided more than the correct hospitality. Even though she was “the sinner,” she was the one who knew how to do what was right. She was the one who knew how to love. That love overflowed from her in how she cared for Jesus.

Sometimes the people that we want to label and keep out of our communities and gatherings are the people who have something to teach us about showing love and hospitality. Sometimes we want to keep out people with mental illness or disabilities, sometimes we want to keep out people who practice a different religion or whose skin is a different colour from our own.

Sometimes, expected behavior doesn’t match the social location that we place people in. We would expect the random people eating pizza to share. They have an abundance and so we should expect more of them. That’s not how this video played out. The person who didn’t have money to buy pizza and who may not eat tomorrow shared his pizza. In the gospel story, we see Simon, the insider fail to provide hospitality and the woman who is “a sinner” welcome Jesus and tends to him. Who is more faithful in this story—Simon, the Pharisee, who talks about the law and purity or “the sinner” who provides hospitality?

Where are you looking for God’s Kingdom?

In Luke 7:18-35 John the Baptist’s followers have been watching Jesus and bringing word back to John about all the things that Jesus is doing. There may even have been some rivalry between the two groups. John sends a couple disciples to check out what Jesus is up to. John wants to know if Jesus is the messiah or if they should they wait for another.

They find Jesus continuing to do exactly what he has been doing. Jesus is curing people of diseases, plagues, evil spirits and giving sight to the blind. The lame are walking, lepers are being cleansed, the deaf can hear, the dead are raised and the poor have good news. Jesus sends this message back to John.

John’s messengers go back and Jesus continues to preach to the crowd. It seems that Jesus is preaching to a group of people who were followers of John. Perhaps they have become disenchanted with something John said or did. Perhaps Jesus has more pizzazz. Perhaps Jesus is spending more time in the communities and less in the wilderness. This is a group who have been to the wilderness with John and are now following Jesus around. And Jesus asks them why they even bothered to go to the wilderness with John. What were they expecting to find out there? Jesus asks if they went to see a reed shaken by the wind. This might be a reference to wild sugar cane. It would grow 4-5 feet tall and during the day when it got really hot the tops of the canes would droop to the ground. It was apparently very pretty but not really the focus of a trip into the wilderness. Perhaps they went to see someone in fine clothing and living in luxury. Why would you go to the wilderness to see that? You would be looking in the wrong place.

Jesus is asking, “If you didn’t go to look at the wild sugar cane and you didn’t go to look at the wealthy people in their finery, why did you go? What was in the wilderness for you? Maybe you went to see a prophet—a prophet like John who is sending out the message that the messiah is coming.” Jesus has a crowd of people who have heard John’s message. They have even, like Jesus, been baptized by John. The crowd is made up of an assortment of people—including tax collectors who were perceived as corrupt. This crowd of people was looking for the kingdom of God. Looking for what was to come. They had gone to the wilderness looking for the kingdom of God and hoping to find it in John and in baptism. They were seeking something—something better than what they had. They were looking for hope that their oppression would end.

The Pharisees were trying to maintain their purity and obedience to God’s law. They saw the John and Jesus movements as barriers or threats to the Jewish people’s ability to keep God’s law. Jesus was crossing too many barriers and breaking too many of laws they felt were necessary to be faithful. They were looking for new life in the laws.

At the core of Jesus’ message is a sense that the important thing is not the law but to bring good news to the poor. You might remember from several posts ago, that the poor refers—not just to the economically disadvantaged—but to anyone who is socially marginalized. And that is exactly what Jesus was doing. He was touching people who lived with illnesses. He was touching dead bodies and raising them to life. He was healing on the sabbath. All these things make him unclean and impure in the eyes of the Pharisees. For the Pharisees, it was more important to keep the law.

Jesus goes on to speak about the Pharisees as those who refused to participate in God’s kingdom. He describes them as children who haven’t learned how to behave appropriately. They haven’t learned that when there is music you should dance. At a sad time, like a funeral, you should cry. Because they haven’t learned how to behave appropriately, they have missed the opportunity to participate in God’s kingdom. Yet children know instinctively that when there is music you should move and dance. Children pick up on the emotions around them and know when others are sad or upset. The Pharisees should instinctively know how to participate in God’s kingdom and yet they choose not to.

How many opportunities do we miss to participate in God’s kingdom? I have been reflecting lately on my own reaction to conflict. It is sometimes easier to walk away and remain silent rather than risk creating a scene or getting into an argument with someone. I find myself responding to difficult situations in this way. We learn ways of dealing with conflict in our homes as children. Sometimes, families have good and healthy ways of dealing with conflict. Sometimes conflict is surrounded by silence. Sometimes it is surrounded by violence.

One of the ways I deal with conflict is by remaining silent. By doing so, I miss the opportunity to participate in God’s kingdom. We sometimes think—and are taught to think—that God wants us all to get along and so we cannot disagree openly. Jesus engaged directly in conflict. By not engaging in conflict, I sometimes let injustice or inappropriate behavior go unchallenged.  In doing so, I maintain the status quo and miss an opportunity to participate in God’s kingdom. Instinctively I know how to participate in God’s kingdom but at times choose not to.

Jesus wasn’t afraid to engage conflict. He wasn’t afraid to disagree openly as a way of helping people to understand God’s kingdom. Jesus wasn’t afraid of challenging people who thought differently from himself. He always grounded the conversation in his understanding of God and God’s kingdom. He didn’t just tell someone they were wrong. He brought the conversation back to what God’s kingdom would look like. He brought the conversation back to the teachings of the prophets. This seems like a good model for engaging conversation with people who have fundamentally different world views. As people of faith, we need to learn how to speak about our values in a way that reflects our faith and expresses our understanding of who God is and how the world is meant to be.

 

 

The crowd Jesus is speaking to had gone looking for God’s kingdom. Some had gone looking for it in the wilderness. Some had gone looking for it in following the law exactly. God’s kingdom is not in either of those places. God’s kingdom is found as we challenge injustice and seek to welcome the stranger and those on the margins. Many of us know this instinctively but are hesitant to risk being hurt.

I sometimes find it difficult to engage in what could be a conflict but as I see what’s happening in the world, I am reminded again God’s kingdom is not found in wealth and power. God’s kingdom is not found in dividing people but in drawing us together. God’s kingdom is not found in destroying life but in creating hope.

Absolute Rules?

In Luke 6:1-16, we see Jesus continuing his ministry and he’s finding himself in conflict with the religious authorities. They want Jesus to stick to the rules—the way they think they should be interpreted. Both Jesus and the Pharisees value scripture but the Pharisees want to stick to the letter of the law. Being faithful becomes about following the rules, rather than the rules giving life. Jesus’ focus was on how the laws could bring life.

Jesus and his followers are walking along on a Sabbath day and they are hungry so they pick some grain to eat. Picking grain was considered work so Jesus and his disciples were in violation of the Sabbath laws. Some Pharisees see this and question Jesus. Jesus refers them back to scripture and reminds them that David and his followers were on the run and they were hungry. (1 Samuel 21) They asked a priest for help and were given the Bread of the Presence which was only permitted to be eaten by the priests. David went on to become the great King of Israel. So Jesus is telling the Pharisees that David did not lose favour even when he broke the rules. The conversation about the Sabbath continues as Jesus enters the synagogue and heals someone’s hand.

Rules are not absolute. They help create a social structure and set boundaries but Jesus is warning against allowing the rules to rule our lives at the expense of truly living. In Jewish society, if you followed the rules you were an insider. If you did not follow the rules, you were an outsider. By healing on the Sabbath, Jesus is challenging the whose social order. When someone had a disability, they were seen as unclean, as an outsider. After being healed this person would be welcomed back into the community. Jesus, on the other hand, places himself on the outside by healing on the Sabbath. It raises questions—yet again—about who is in and who is out. It raises questions about the role of the law and whether there are times when it is appropriate to break the rules or break the law.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian born in 1906. (For a good biography of Bonhoeffer check out: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy Paperback by Eric Metaxas.) Bonhoeffer was a young man as Hitler and the Nazi regime rose to power. He was a pacifist and an outspoken critic of Hitler. His pacifism was grounded in his faith and in his belief that Christianity could not just be an intellectual belief but must be lived. His faith led him to resist the Nazi regime. He watched holocaust happen. He watched the Nazi invasion through Europe and struggled with what to do. His faith told him that to use violence to resist violence was wrong but he could not stand by and watch these events unfold. His non-violence resistance seemed to be losing ground so  he and some other religious leaders became involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Even someone who took their faith seriously and knew the rules, struggled with how to respond. To stand by and watch was wrong but to kill was also wrong. Which of these is the lesser of two evils?

 

Most of us will not be faced with this type of extreme situation but we do have situations in our lives where we need to decide whether rules should be kept or broken. Throughout history, and depending upon culture, the rules change. At one time, women were required to wear hats to church. And we no longer have that standard. At one time, it was standard for men to wear hats to church but now people are offended by men wearing hats in church. Sometimes rules around appropriate dress can prevent people from feeling welcome if they don’t know the rules or are unable to fulfill those rules for some reason.  Rules do play a useful part in ordering our lives and structuring our culture but rules for the sake of rule are sometimes destructive.The rules change and what we know of the rules—whether it is about the Sabbath or appropriate clothing or proper behaviour—always needs to be questioned in terms of whether something brings life or destroys life. Does it help people to be faithful or is it a barrier to being faithful?

What rules might God be calling you to reconsider?

Amen.

How do You Fish for People?

The story of Jesus calling the first disciples (Luke 5:1-11) as told by Simon….

I’m a fisherman by trade. There’s been a lot of odd things happening lately. My mother-in-law got sick recently. We thought she was going to die but there was a healer wandering the countryside. He came in and healed her up real good. I’m not sure exactly what or how but it was pretty miraculous.

And then there’s the fish. We haven’t been catching much lately. I know they’re out there somewhere but they just weren’t finding their way into our nets. Now this healer I was telling you about? He was still in the neighbourhood last week. There seems to always be a crowd following him around. So the crowd followed him right up to the shore. It was too crowded so he asked to use my boat. We weren’t doing much on account of not catching any fish. So he got in the boat and we rowed him out a ways.

After he taught the people for a bit, he said to my mates and I, row out a bit more. So we did. Then he said to put the nets out. I thought to myself, what a waste of time that will be. But again, nothing to lose so out go the nets. I thought they’d sit empty for the next few hours—just like they did for the last few weeks. But suddenly there were fish everywhere. There were more than our nets could handle. The boat was swamped and I thought we might sink, there were so many fish.

I called to the next boat to come and help and the fish still overwhelmed both boats. I knew there were strange things going on and it seemed to have something to do with the healer they call Jesus. Why would this Jesus person help me out by healing my mother-in-law and then finding this huge catch of fish? Who am I to deserve this? And I told him so…Why waste these gifts on me?

His response was unexpected. He told me not to be afraid and that we would now catch people instead of fish. When we came to shore, we left the fish and the boats and walked away. The evidence of what this man could do was too compelling. I felt strangely drawn to him and to see where the adventure leads.

……

hope-sun

from: Miracles in the Mundane milagomama.wordpress.com/2016/03/30/create-hope/

I grew up being part of a United Church. I’ve always believed—at least intellectually that there is something beyond us—something beyond what I can see and touch and feel. That sense of being grounded in something bigger than myself has always been grounded in Christianity. As a child, I learned the stories of Christianity but the stories were just stories. They didn’t actually speak to me or tell me anything about the world in which I lived except that there was a God out there somewhere who was in control of everything.  But if God is in control, why do bad things happen? Why is there hatred and violence?

 

What has continued to shape my sense of call to Christianity and to ministry is the Hebrew prophets and the way in which Jesus grounded himself in these prophets. They lived in the midst of famine, war and exile. They lived amid great disparity in wealth. And yet they spoke of hope.

I imagine the fishermen waiting for days with no fish in their nets. I imagine Simon’s desperation when he has no money for medicine or healers for his mother-in-law. And then Jesus comes to town. He heals people. He offers a word of hope that things will not always be the way they are.

Just like the prophets…just like Jesus…we live in a time of great upheaval. We need hope which calls us to look beyond everyday life and see the bigger picture. I believe that part of what drew people to Jesus was that he gave them hope…hope that the world could be different…hope that the world could be turned upside down…hope that there could be an abundance where there was none previously. Jesus invites the first disciples to leave everything and come with him on a mission of hope. We see Jesus and his new disciples head off on their mission. They feed people. They challenge injustice. They heal people. They create a community in which hope for the future and hope for a world made new is what holds the community together. At the centre of this hope is a God who is bigger than anything they can imagine. Jesus renews the community’s hope in that God.

We are also called to be bearers of hope in a time of upheaval. The Hebrew prophets and Jesus point the way for us. Their message and the model teaches us to welcoming strangers, including people who are on the outside of the structure and to look after the most vulnerable. These tasks create a culture of hope in a world where there is much despair.

Jesus tells the disciples that they will catch people instead of fish. But what will they use to catch people? You can’t use nets like you would for fish. It is the hope that will catch them. How can you create hope in the life of one person you know? How can you help to create hope for a group of people who are marginalized or threatened?

To Proclaim Good News to the Poor

Jesus begins his ministry!

In Luke 4:14-30, Jesus seems to have gained some popularity: Everyone is praising him. Then there’s a shift. Jesus reads the scroll in the temple and suddenly he is no longer popular. Jesus proclaimed (based on scripture from Isaiah) that God’s love and grace isn’t just for the chosen people. It isn’t limited to those who worship regularly, offer the correct sacrifices or even have the correct pedigree. Like John from last week’s blog, Jesus is declaring that God is for everyone.

Jesus is preaching is his home town. People who had watched him grow up and had known him since he was a child are listening. They’ve all heard the scroll before. It’s like coming to church and hearing a scripture that you heard last year on the same Sunday. There’s nothing new here.

Except that Jesus changed the scripture from Isaiah 61 just slightly. If you had been in the synagogue but weren’t paying attention you might not have noticed. But the changes were significant.

First and foremost in Jesus’ proclamation is the poor. In order for us to understand this passage, we need to understand what Jesus meant by poor. We hear the word poor and think of economic status but that isn’t what Jesus is referring to. In Jesus’ time, the poor were anyone who was socially vulnerable: “religiously, economically, politically, and domestically. People who are maimed, lame, blind, and the like are “poor,” regardless of how much land they might own.” A widow might have land to live on, she might have stashes of gold but she would always be a “poor widow” because she doesn’t have a husband. Jesus begins his mission by proclaiming good news to anyone who is outside the social structures and anyone who is vulnerable. (See Malina, B. J., & Rohrbaugh, R. L. (2003). Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Second Edition, p. 400). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press. for more about this).We see throughout Jesus ministry his particular attention to those who are excluded for some reason.

Jesus continues identifying his mission by moving on to proclaiming a release for captives. In Jesus’ time it was not uncommon for people who owed debts to be put in jail in order to extort money from their families. The year of the Lord’s favour, also called the year of the Jubilee, refers to an ancient law found in Leviticus 25. Every 50th year all debts would be cancelled. If land had been sold to pay debts the original owners could return and reclaim their land. This was the ideal. Whether this was actually practiced is up for dispute but Jesus has taken the ancient law to heart.

The idea that debts would be cancelled would literally mean release from prison. This would be good news for those who have debts and who are in jail because of their debts. The debts owed would not be for luxury goods but for basic survival—the taxes that couldn’t be paid because the crop failed or the cow died or the primary earner in the family got sick. Jesus came to bring practical good news to the prisoners and release the people in jail because of debt or other injustice. In 1998 the World Council of Churches picked up on this passage and proclaimed a Jubilee year. During that year, they advocated for cancelling the debts of the poorest countries and changing policies for the World Bank and International Monetary Fund so that there was the possibility these countries could find their way out of debt, sustain their people and create viable economies.

Jesus started his ministry by identifying the people he was sent to by grounding his mission in the theology and law he had been taught since was a child. Perhaps some of the people listening had even taught him. And then he makes a pointed dig at the people who are listening. They are inside the temple. Some of them benefit from the current system. If you were allowed in the temple you were automatically an insider. If you were not an insider, you could not get in the door. Jesus says that he brings, “recovery of sight to the blind.” Blindness may refer to physical blindness but it also means to not understand. Jesus is bringing understanding to those who do not understand—particularly those who do not understand the purpose of his mission. Jesus spent a lot of time teaching and challenging those who upheld the system—the tax collectors, the temple authorities, the wealthy. These are the people inside the temple and the people listening to him speak. They got it. They understand that he’s taking them on in a direct challenge and they are not happy about it.

Then Jesus goes one step further and proclaims that he is the fulfilment of the scripture. He is the one who will bring about this change. Now his listeners are really unhappy. Jesus has overstepped his boundary. He is a local boy and uneducated. Who is he to speak for God and to put himself in so high a position. Then Jesus references two stories from the Hebrew scriptures which would be known by his listeners.

The first is Elijah and the widow. We heard this story before Christmas. In this story, the prophet Elijah is sent to a widow and asks to be fed. The widow responds that she has nothing but a bit of oil and flour and that she and her son are about to starve. Elijah tells her that the food will not run out. This widow was an outsider and yet the prophet was sent to her. Jesus also references the story of Naaman the Syrian who was a commander of enemy forces. The story goes that he suffered with leprosy and that the prophet Elisha cured him. Again, we see a prophet interacting with someone who is outside the community.

Jesus is speaking to the insiders and reminding them of the history in which God’s love, grace and healing goes to the outsiders. It’s an uncomfortable idea that God’s message is for the outsiders. When we take this passage all together Jesus was offering a radical message of good news to people who are on the outside. He offers the good news to people that don’t hear much good news. Jesus offers good news to people who just can’t seem to get a break in life.

If you have always been told by the temple authorities that you are unwelcome or an outsider because of disease, family structure, inability to make correct sacrifices then a message of good news for you would be a surprise. Jesus is turning the world upside down with his message. He is erasing the boundaries of the conventional religious structure and opening God’s grace and love to a broader group of people. He is claiming an authority from God which he is not entitled to under the social structure in which he lives.

Jesus offers an important message to all of us. If we feel like an outsider, like we don’t belong, Jesus tells us that we are welcome and the message of God’s love and grace is for us. If we feel like we are part of the established culture, like we are loved and that we belong, Jesus’ message for us is to broaden the circle a bit more and stretch the boundaries. We are loved. Love is abundant. There is more than enough for everyone.

Jesus was very practical in his ministry. He welcomed people. He fed people. He challenged the structures that kept people outside. He challenged the structures that oppressed and harmed. The good news that Jesus brings doesn’t belong just to the insiders but to those most marginalized and vulnerable in our society.

Scrooge and John the Baptist

We are entering the season of Epiphany. It is a time to celebrate the ways in which we see God’s light shining in the world. Jesus is one of those lights.

In the first chapter of Luke we read the story of John’s birth. John was a cousin of Jesus. At his birth, Zachariah, John’s father gives him a blessing:

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.

(Luke 1:77-79)

The blessing is also a prophecy that John will be the one who goes into the world to prepare people for the light of God. John’s mission is preparation.

In chapter two of Luke we find a description of Jesus given by a man named Simeon. Simeon was a religious Jew who spent time praying in the temple. He had a sense that he would not die until he had seen the messiah—the chosen one sent by God. On a particular day, he is drawn to the temple. It happens to be the day Jesus is brought for circumcision. Simeon spots Jesus and recognizes him as the messiah with this prayer to God:

Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”

(Luke 2:29-32)

In Luke’s gospel, right from the beginning we find Jesus’ mission as bringing light into the world. It sets the stage for everything that is to happen next. In Luke’s gospel Jesus grows up in Nazareth. It’s close enough that every year his family travels into Jerusalem for the Passover festival. We hear the story of Jesus wandering off and listening to the scholars and priests in the temple and his parents leaving without him and then having to go back and look for him.

The next time we read about Jesus, he and John are both adults (Luke 3:1-22). John has been living in the wilderness and preaching a message of repentance and forgiveness. The central part of this passage has to do with John’s message. He’s just as radical as Jesus as he prepares people for the message of Jesus. John recognizes that he is only laying the groundwork for Jesus and that the people who come to him need a radical shift in understanding.

John starts with name calling. We all know that if you want someone to hear what you have to say, you shouldn’t start with insults. John needs a bit of work on his communication skills but he is passionate about his message.

It was believed by many in the Jewish faith at the time that because Abraham was the ancestor of faith and the Jewish people were descended from him biologically, nothing more was needed. John asserts that the lineage that matters is not one of biology but of morality.  John’s argument is that it doesn’t matter who you are descended from, if you are not living in a moral manner then your faith cannot save you.

And then John offers some specific examples of what this means. “If you have two coats you must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” To the tax collectors John said, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” For soldiers John offers this advice: “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” The behavior John describes goes against accepted behavior. People grumbled about the wealthy who had too much while others were cold and hungry. People grumbled about the tax collectors but it was normal for them to collect more than they were entitled to. People grumbled about the soldiers but when someone threatens violence how can you resist? Does this sound familiar?

carol1John was calling the people to repent. One of my favorite definitions of the word repent is “being in the same situation behaving differently.” In A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens we might identify Scrooge with all the people who have come to hear John preach.  They don’t really think there’s anything wrong with their lives and they are content and comfortable. These are the people who live their lives saying “Bah humbug” when the world doesn’t meet their expectations. Scrooge experiences the ghosts of his past, present and future Christmases. As he examines his life he realizes that he has not lived up to spiritual or moral expectations. He can’t go back and change what has passed but he can change the future. Scrooge needed someone or something to shake him awake so that he could repent.  He is still living in the same city. He still interacts with the same people but his attitudes and behavior towards them have changed.

Like the ghosts speaking to Scrooge, John is asking his listeners to look closely at themselves and to ask themselves whether or not they are the moral descendant of Abraham. John was concerned with whether people were living out the expectations of the prophets. In order to be a spiritual or moral descendant of Abraham, John expected people to look out for each other—especially the most vulnerable. He expected that people would do what was right. He expected that even soldiers would not take advantage and not use more violence than absolutely necessary. Baptism was a sign of adoption into this spiritual or moral family.

What might John expect of us before we are baptized into this spiritual family? We are always invited to share what we have with others in a variety of ways. It’s easy to share with family and friends but harder when we are asked to share with people who talk differently from ourselves, who believe differently from ourselves, who look different from ourselves or who live a different lifestyle from ourselves. The temptation is for us to say, “we will help them so they become like us” or “if they were like us we wouldn’t need to help them.” If we think like this, we’ve missed the point of both Jesus and John’s message.

Those of us who have been around the church for a long time might identify with a sense of entitlement, like John’s listeners who were biologically descended from Abraham. John wouldn’t necessarily have been impressed with those credentials as he prepared people for Jesus and he wouldn’t necessarily have appreciated our credentials as long-time church goers unless we were also following the message of the prophets. If we go back to the beginning of this reading we see John’s frustration coming out in name calling and insults because they haven’t got it. They want the feel good religion or maybe it’s the novelty of being baptized by the exotic desert preacher. I know that sometimes people only want to come to church to feel good or to connect with their friends. Maybe baptism is something we do because our parents were baptized here. But being part of a faith community is about being part of a spiritual family. We don’t get to choose family. We don’t get to choose who sits beside us in the pew. We are expected to care for other family members—remember that God’s family includes everyone.

Jesus’ baptism is almost an afterthought in this story but it is important to the story because it ties Jesus directly to John, to the Jewish prophets and their moral and spiritual faith. Our own baptism is important because it reminds us that we are part of God’s family. It also reminds us that we have a spiritual and moral responsibility in our faith to follow Jesus’ path—not just with words, not just in name but in our life and actions.

Good News

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How comfortable would you be to welcome this person in your church?

The words in Isaiah 61:1-11 were written after the return from Babylonian exile. The community returned to a land that had been occupied by others. They returned to homes in which other families were now living. The land they returned to was no longer theirs.

But Isaiah speaks into the heartbreak of returning in this situation and reminds the people that God continues to send messengers of good news—in this case, the prophet. The prophet begins by identifying who needs to hear the good news: the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the captives, the prisoners, those who mourn. The good news is not for those of us who are comfortable and content—it is for those who are discontented.

We need to remember that in our churches. Many of us are comfortable here. We have our friends and our routines. We have supported the church faithfully with time, with money and energy but in many ways, as a place of good news, the church is not for us and the message it offers is not for us. The message is for those who feel like their lives are falling apart. It is a message for those who feel least comfortable here and in the community. It is a message for the most vulnerable in our communities. It is a message for those living with physical and mental illnesses. It is a message for our brothers in White Spruce Training  Centre. It is a message for the people who come to use our food shelf. It is a message for those living with intense grief.

The message that the prophet has to offer these groups of people is one of good news. Prisoners will be released. The brokenhearted will be healed. Those who mourn will be comforted. That’s the good news.

In recent years we’ve seen movements like Idle No More, Black Lives Matter, Occupy which are movements of the disenfranchised trying to find their place and seeking justice. This passage continues the idea that that those who are most vulnerable will be able to take control of their own lives and be supported in finding their place within society.

This passage suggests that there will be reason for the returning prisoners to celebrate. They will rebuild cities and devastation that has lasted many generations will be healed. Not only will these groups become valued members of their society, they will become leaders with the ability to change the society.

The transition might be more difficult for the people who are already living in the land. This return will bring upheaval into their lives. They will find themselves displaced as everyone wiggles a bit to make room for new and different people. In our church, it might mean sitting beside someone you don’t know or maybe even having to change pews because someone is sitting in your spot. It might mean that meeting times change to accommodate people who work. When we say that everyone is welcome, we need to consider that welcoming people who seem different from ourselves will be disruptive to our community life. It might be inconvenient. It might even be uncomfortable.  But just as we read in the prophet Jeremiah a few weeks ago about the burning of the scroll in order to silence the message, this message cannot be silenced either.

Jesus renewed this message of good news as the writer of Luke chooses these words to shape Jesus’ ministry.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

As followers of Jesus, we are also called to bring good news to the poor, release the captives, offer healing and opportunities for renewing of life. The good news for those of us who are comfortable is that God works through us. The good news is that in the moments of our lives where we are most vulnerable, God does not abandon us.

In Advent we wait for Jesus, the bringer of this good news. We wait for the world to be turned upside down. We wait for love and peace. We wait for hope and joy. Are we really prepared for what that means? Part of preparing ourselves for Jesus’ coming is preparing ourselves for the upheaval that his presence brings. Just as those who were waiting for the captives return from Babylon had to make space and opportunity for the returnees, we also have to make room for the poor, the oppressed, the captives, people who live with intense grief, with mental illness or physical challenges. When we make space, Jesus has come.