Proper 7, Year C: Luke 8: 26-39: Love Over Fear

You can see all the lectionary readings for the Proper 7, Year C by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss the passage from the book of Luke.

I did the homily at church on this day, so I’m copying that below.

Let’s start by considering that in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus has crossed the lake to the other side—it’s not only the other side, but it’s away from the Jewish side. This is the first time he’s left his Jewish community to reach beyond it to the Gentiles.

Luke also wrote the book of Acts, which is like a sequel to this Gospel. It tells the story of the early church post-resurrection, and it goes into detail about how Christianity spread beyond its Jewish roots. So, Jesus, who is continually reaching out to people in need in the Gospel stories, is reaching out to a new community in this story. This also relates to the Epistle reading for today, which tells us that in Christ there is no longer Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free. All are one in Christ and children of God.

I won’t seek to define what exactly is happening when we read about demon possession in the Bible. Many people have proclaimed either that demon possession is real then and now or that what is described is actually an extreme mental illness. I don’t think it’s necessary to solve that mystery at this time. Luke himself seems to see no difference between exorcism and healing.

The essential thing to understand is that the man’s situation is dire and has been for a long time and he’s an outcast from society. He’s desperately lonely and wounded. This is a matter of going from a broken life and sundered relationships to a whole, healed life and restored relationships.

Unlike other exorcism stories you may have read, this time Jesus actually talks with the demon, not just commanding it to silence. The demon calls itself Legion—meaning there are many demons rather than just one. It’s interesting to note here that a legion at this time only would have meant a Roman legion. There’s a hint here that the power of Jesus is greater than the fearsome power of Rome. Or for us, he is greater than whatever powers overwhelm us. Also, unlike other exorcism stories, the crowd is upset and wants Jesus to leave. They are afraid and maybe also angry about the loss of a herd of pigs. They perhaps feared what else Jesus could do after a display of such power.

When the man wants to go with Jesus, Jesus sends him home instead. The homeless man can now return home. And in that home, he will be a continual reminder of how an encounter with Jesus changed him forever.

How can we relate this to today’s world? We don’t have a demon-possessed man living in the local cemetery (as far as I know, anyway), but we definitely have people who are homeless and often mentally ill. We may judge those people or at least assume we know what’s going on with them. We may reach out but more often we may cross the street to avoid them. Or we may invite them in on a Thursday morning for breakfast in Grace’s Kitchen or bring them a sandwich with Midnight Run.

The isolation and despair of this outcast man is reflected in many people in the world today. Though in some ways we as a society have a more compassionate outlook than the people of that time, we still have people who are abused, addicted, homeless, mentally ill, imprisoned, and in desperate poverty. Often the same people fit several of those descriptions at once. For example, incarcerated people were often abused as children and adults. They are also usually poor. People of color are statistically more likely to be poor and even imprisoned because of institutionalized racism. Marginalized LGBTQ kids are more likely than other kids to become homeless because their parents kick them out.

The number of refugees is at an all-time high of nearly 71 million people worldwide. 71 million. Some of these refugees arrive at our own border, where they are separated from their children and crammed into overcrowded cells without basic necessities. Just imagine all those people and what they have been through. Imagine being so desperate that you must leave the only home you’ve known and go live in not just another state but another country where you have to start from scratch and where you are likely to be mistreated. They are refugees because of their own experiences of bigotry, abuse, injustice, and war. So many people are like that man who was afflicted by demons, though their demons may be of a more metaphorical variety.

One might even say their demons are legion and they need a special kind of healing. Sometimes the healing is simply granting humanity and identity—to go from a legion of demons to one human, one special child of God. How much liberation is in that identity? How much better would the world be if everyone could see that child of God in everyone else?

There’s a story told by Kevin Ryan, president of Covenant House, which houses and serves homeless kids in many cities, including New York. He was talking to one of the Covenant House kids and asked, “What do you want for the future?” The reply was simple and very real: “I want to be seen.” For people like the man in this story and like that kid—sometimes being seen, being loved as a child of God, is part of the healing. That’s one way to look at this story—to see the man in pain and how Jesus responded to heal him. We can also look at the people of the town who reacted badly to the events and asked Jesus to leave town because of their fear.

How are we like these people? Would we rather accept the darkness of the world rather than the sometimes daunting task of following Christ? Do we prefer the status quo, for all its failings and inequities, to radical change for the better? It would be so easy to judge the people in the story for choosing fear over love, for being unable to see the joy in the situation. It would be so easy to judge ourselves when we do the same, but the beautiful part of the grace of God is that it’s not only for the more obviously broken and hurting; it’s also for the rest of us who carry on our lives of respectability and comfort but inside we can still be full of pain and need and it leads us to neglect others. God love us more than enough even when we don’t love enough.

Think about how people have often reacted to radical change for the better in our own lifetimes and our parents’ lifetimes. How did a lot of white people react to the civil rights movement? How do a lot of straight people react to the LGBTQ equality movement?

I don’t think I need to describe to you how hard people fought against equal rights and continue to fight against any struggle for justice and equity. Again, even when we fail to act as God would want us to act, his love remains, but we must still act for good. Some would see that man, driven mad by his demons (real or rhetorical) and consider him beyond any help. Jesus saw him as a child of God in need of love and healing and reconciliation. We must reach out to wounded and hurting people like Jesus did. While in the story, Jesus converses with demons, we must sometimes confront the metaphorical demons of this world—pain, trauma, addiction, poverty, inequality, injustice, bigotry….

The well-known and unconventional Lutheran pastor and author Nadia Bolz-Weber writes this:

“In these healing texts, the healing is never fully accomplished until there is a restoration to community. Here the man healed of demons is then told to stay with his people and speak of what God has done. In the Jesus business, community is always a part of healing. Even though community is never perfect.”

Accidental Saints by Nadia Bolz-Weber

Jesus spent a lot of time with those the world considered sinners, but it was not them that he usually rebuked. Instead he rebuked those with power and influence for not reaching out and helping the poor and marginalized. In fact, he saw that far from helping, the powerful trampled the weak. Yet Christians today often point fingers of condemnation at the very people who most need the love of Jesus and a helping hand. But they look up to the rich and powerful as if their wealth and influence were a sign of God’s favor. It’s almost like they’ve flipped the gospel on its head. But God sees the poor and the marginalized as his children, and that love is liberating.

Jesus acted with compassion. No matter what we think is actually happening in a story of demon possession, the story is of Jesus reaching out to someone in need to change his life for the better. That is not always received well by the community, as in this case. Change, even change for the better, can disrupt our lives. Take a look at your life today—is there a change you can make in your own life, in our community, in the larger world? Can you take time to speak out against injustice or to reach out with mercy?

We have to cross the metaphorical lake—to meet the wounded where they are with the liberating love of Jesus Christ.

Trinity Sunday, Year C: John 16:12-15: Community of Love

You can see all the lectionary readings for Trinity Sunday, Year C by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss the passage from the Gospel of John.

This is one of those brief passages that is better to quote than to paraphrase:

“I have so much more to tell you, but it is too much for you to accept now. But when the Spirit of truth comes, he will lead you into all truth. He will not speak his own words. He will speak only what he hears and will tell you what will happen in the future. The Spirit of truth will bring glory to me by telling you what he receives from me. All that the Father has is mine. That is why I said that the Spirit will tell you what he receives from me.

John 16:12-15 (Easy-to-Read Version)

On this, Trinity Sunday, we have a statement from the Son about the Father and the Holy Spirit. They each have their roles and they interact in love. They also share that love with us. May we all live in such beautiful community.

Day of Pentecost, Year C: Acts 2:1-21: Birth of the Church

You can see all the lectionary readings for the Day of Pentecost, Year C by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss the passage from the book of Acts.

Even though I want to focus on Acts, I’ll go over the John passage a little because it comes first chronologically. Jesus is speaking to his disciples during his Last Supper and he has told them he is going to prepare a place for them in his Father’s house, which he says has many rooms. He is talking about going to be with God and they are understandably a bit freaked out at the way he is talking. Philip says, “Show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” Jesus tells him, “Don’t you know me after all this time we’ve been together? If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.” He tells them God is living in him, doing his work through him. He says, “Believe me when I say I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves.” Then he goes on to promise that he will ask the Father to send an Advocate. He says, “This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.” This is a deep passage. About as simple I can make it is to say, Jesus tells his followers that he will be leaving them to go to Heaven but he will send them a helper to be with them always and help them do his work. The Holy Spirit helps us to live as God would have us live and shows how to truly love others.

The Acts passage is a bit more of a story to tell, though it can still be a bit confusing. It’s actually a bit of an exciting story with roaring winds and tongues of fire and miracles. On the day of Pentecost, (which was a Jewish holy day) all Jesus’ followers were gathered in one place, probably to celebrate the day because they were all Jewish and following Jewish customs as well as following Jesus. (This was after Jesus had been taken up to Heaven and the apostles had chosen a replacement for Judas, who had betrayed Jesus. The replacement’s name was Matthias, just so you know.) While they were in this house together, a violent wind blew down from heaven and filled the house. Then they saw tongues of fire settle on each of them. That was a visible sign of the miracle that followed. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages.

It seems that they went outside among the crowds of people visiting Jerusalem for Pentecost and began to speak to them, and the people were amazed that they all heard their own languages from these Galileans. And picture the apostles; they were not all a bunch of rabbis or well-educated men. They were fishermen and the like, for the most part. So this bunch of working-class dudes emerges and they are all speaking in languages everyone can understand, though the crowds are from all over the place and speak many different languages. They asked one another, “What does this mean?” And this part is a little funny—some of them think they’re drunk. I suppose that would explain this group of people coming out and speaking all at once but not the fact that everyone can understand in his or her own language.

Then Peter speaks up and addresses the crowds and tells them, they’re not drunk, it’s only 9 in the morning! (Look at Peter, remember what we said about him after Jesus reinstated him by saying “Feed my sheep”? This is him as a leader of the new church, strong and fearless, never denying his Christ again!) He quotes them a scripture from the book of Joel, a promise that God would pour out his Spirit and his servants will prophesy and there will be wonders. The point is he basically goes on from there to tell them all about Jesus and his teachings and called on them to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

Pentecost is traditionally seen as the birth of the church. Before they were all kind of hanging out; Jesus had died, risen, and then ascended into heaven again, and they were just sort of waiting and praying. Then after the miracle of Pentecost happens and Peter makes his great sermon, they go on to have more miracles and spread the word of God and the love of Jesus everywhere. Pentecost was the moment it really took off and the church began. Here began the church as a world-wide family and we can carry the love of God out from where we are into the larger world as they did on that day.

Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year C: John 17:20-26: Loving in Prayer

You can see all the lectionary readings for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year C by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss the passage from the Gospel of John.

In this beautiful passage we see Jesus praying for his followers. It’s tricky to paraphrase so I will just quote it below:

“I pray not only for these followers but also for those who will believe in me because of their teaching.Father, I pray that all who believe in me can be one. You are in me and I am in you. I pray that they can also be one in us. Then the world will believe that you sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me. I gave them this glory so that they can be one, just as you and I are one. I will be in them, and you will be in me. So they will be completely one. Then the world will know that you sent me and that you loved them just as you loved me.

“Father, I want these people you have given me to be with me in every place I am. I want them to see my glory—the glory you gave me because you loved me before the world was made. Father, you are the one who always does what is right. The world does not know you, but I know you, and these followers of mine know that you sent me. I showed them what you are like, and I will show them again. Then they will have the same love that you have for me, and I will live in them.”

John 17:20-26 (Easy-to-Read Version)

We often don’t see what Jesus prays, because the gospels will just mention him going aside somewhere to pray. But this time we get the meat of the prayer and it can be an example to us. He prays for what he desires, but because he is close to God, he desires something very pure–for his followers to know how to love and to know God more. Yes, we should be ready to ask God for what we need and want in prayer, but that prayer is better if we are abidiing in God and seeking to follow in the steps of Jesus. If we are doing that, what we desire will be closer to what God also desires in the world.

Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year C: John 14:23-29: Following Jesus

You can see all the lectionary readings for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year C by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss the passage from the Gospel of John.

Jesus says to his disciples that all who love himwill obey his teaching and his Father will love them. Anyone who does not love him will not obey his teaching. He then promises that a Helper will teach them and help them to remember all he told them. That Helper is the Holy Spirit, sent by the Father.

He says he leaves them his own peace–a different peace than the world. He says not to be troubled or afraid. He is leaving, but he will return. If they love him, they would be happy he is going back to the Father.

A lot of Christians are very focused on worshiping Jesus rather than following Jesus. I don’t know that Jesus ever said, “Worship me” but he definitely said multiple times, “Follow me.” And where does Jesus go that we must follow? He teaches a profound love for God and for others– a love that reaches out to those on the margins to pull them in and help them, no matter the cost, even at great sacrifice. In another possible reading in today’s lectionary, Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath, telling him to take up his mat and walk–the healing and the carrying of the mat are both in defiance of the Sabbath law, but Jesus cares about the man more than any consequence. He acts out of love. That is what we are to follow. And the Holy Spirit is given to lead us in that way of following.

Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year C: John 13:31-35: Love One Another

You can see all the lectionary readings for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year C by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss the passage from the Gospel of John.

This week’s Gospel reading goes back to before Jesus’ death.  We’re back in the upper room where they are having the last supper. At this point in the evening, Judas has just walked out after Jesus has predicted that he would be betrayed and handed the bread to Judas to indicate he knows it is he who will betray him. I think it was probably a tense moment and the other disciples were probably confused and frightened by the way Jesus has been talking. In some gospels he’s already talked about his body and blood and death. 

Now he says, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.” When Jesus says the “Son of Man” he’s referring to himself. While researching this passage I read that some consider this his way of saying he was not just the Son of God, but also fully man. I also read that it may distinguish him as not just a Son of David (Jewish) but as coming for all mankind as he’s a Son of Man. 

As for the being glorified, that’s a bit complicated. I took classes in New Testament and in Theology in college, and I’m still not sure what exactly that’s about. All I can figure is he is talking about his death and resurrection (which is what the focus of this last supper has been). Then he goes on to say that he will only be with them a little longer and he says, “Where I am going, you cannot come” (again referring to his coming death and resurrection). 

At this moment it’s like he’s preparing them for that time and then comes one of my favorite scriptures, and the heart of his gospel: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  How true that is…and how sad that many Christians do not show that love to one another or especially to those who are different from them. It’s such a simple command, and yet can be so hard to fulfill.

Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year C: John 10:22-30: Follow the Shepherd

You can see all the lectionary readings for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year C by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss the passage from the Gospel of John.

Today’s story takes place in winter, during the time of Hanukkah. Jewish leaders are gathered around Jesus in the Temple area. They are demanding to know if he is the Messiah.

Jesus says that he has told them already, but they did not believe.

“I do miracles in my Father’s name. These miracles show who I am. But you do not believe, because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give my sheep eternal life. They will never die, and no one can take them out of my hand. My Father is the one who gave them to me, and he is greater than all. No one can steal my sheep out of his hand. The Father and I are one.”

John 10:25b-30 (Easy-to-Read Version)

As they asked in that time, we must ask in our time? Who is Jesus? And how do we live if we follow him? He is the Good Shepherd, who loves us and holds us and guides us. We are to follow in his footsteps, his mission to heal and liberate and reach out to the marginalized and hurting. How do we live our best lives in that mission?

Third Sunday of Easter, Year C: John 21:1-19: Feed My Sheep

You can see all the lectionary readings for the Third Sunday of Easter, Year C by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss the passage from the Gospel of John.

This week I was set to preach, but got sick with food poisoning the night before. This is what I would have preached (and what was read for me by my friend Jan):

Our story begins with the disciples deciding to go fishing. You can imagine the strong emotions they have been going through since the death and resurrection of Jesus: shock, awe, trauma, then joy. They’re probably undergoing confusion and tension. It has to put them in a state of mental overload. We have all been there, even if our own experiences might not be as dramatic as theirs.

Sometimes when we are in a state of emotional upheaval like that, we want to do something comforting and familiar—like have a bowl of ice cream, read a well-loved book, or watch a movie we have watched many times before. In this case, Peter decides to go fishing—it’s what he was doing the day he met Jesus. Perhaps he thinks after all this maybe he’ll go back to a normal life.

I want you to take note of two key characters in this story. Obviously, Jesus is the main character as he’s the subject of all the Gospels, but there are two more who are very important. The first is Peter, whom I already mentioned.

The second is referred to as the Beloved Disciple. He’s called that several times in the book of John and remains anonymous. At the end of this same chapter it’s revealed that he is the source for this Gospel, so traditionally people have assumed it’s John, but no one really knows for sure. I’m going to just call him John just to simplify things, because “the Beloved Disciple” is a bit of a mouthful. (I even considered calling him the B.D.—but that’s a little silly—so John it is).

These two men have very different personalities from what we can tell. Peter is impetuous, a man of action, who often acts without thinking and can get himself in trouble. He has moments of great bravery and moments of great cowardice—as when he denies knowing Jesus three times while Jesus is being interrogated following his arrest.

John is more cautious and thoughtful. When Mary Magdalene tells them the tomb is empty, both John and Peter run to the tomb and John arrives first, but Peter is the first to go into the tomb. Then it says that John believed, but Peter did not yet believe. John seems to be the kind to have a deep understanding but he is slow to jump to action; whereas Peter leaps first and asks questions later.

That brings us back to today’s story, keeping in mind these two very different personalities. While they are out fishing, they don’t catch a thing. Jesus is standing on the beach, but they don’t recognize him. He calls out to them to cast their net to the other side of the boat. When they do, sure enough they have so many fish in the net they have trouble hauling in the catch.

At this point John says, “It is the Lord!” He has the insight and recognition—perhaps remembering the same miracle from the last time Jesus told some of these same fishermen to change where they cast their nets. But it’s Peter who takes immediate action, throwing on some clothes and jumping in the lake to swim to shore. John and the others remain in the boat and haul the nets to shore.

John recognizes Jesus first, but it’s Peter who takes immediate action. We need to learn to do both—to recognize and hear the Lord, but also to act, which is the best response of a committed faith. Both the recognition and the action—the knowing and the doing—come from a place of love.

You may notice there are a lot of parallels to previous gospel passages in this story. First there are parallels with the fishing story of how some of the disciples met Jesus, which I said might have prompted John to recognize him. Once more they are completely unsuccessful at fishing until Jesus tells them to move the nets, then suddenly their nets are full to bursting. Remember that in that instance he told them to leave their nets and he would make them fishers of people instead.

The first story is of their calling to be his disciples; this story is of their calling to be more than disciples—to carry on Jesus’ mission into the future. Last time I preached, I actually talked about Jesus declaring his mission to help the poor, to heal, to bring freedom, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Jesus is now sending his followers (and us) to fulfill his mission. That was the beginning of his ministry and this story is the beginning of ours

Another parallel is how none of the disciples recognize the risen Christ on shore at first. This happens in multiple resurrection stories. Even now that they have already seen him post-resurrection they still do not have immediate recognition. We also may not always recognize when Jesus is at work among us.

Another parallel is how Peter quickly jumps in the water to go to Jesus—this reflects the time Peter is on a boat and sees Jesus walking on the water. He asks Jesus, “If it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.” Imagine the audacity that required! Then when Jesus says to come, He leaps out of the boat and begins walking toward him, until he wobbles and begins to sink. It is almost like his brain finally catches up to him. Peter was such an amazing man—a messy, impetuous human. You can imagine Jesus shaking his head at his antics, but also loving his big, reckless heart.

Finally, there are more parallels when they come to shore. Jesus cooks them breakfast and they eat together as they did on the night of the Last Supper. This time they eat together not as an ending but as a beginning. The disciples have been lost and hurting but now they will move forward with a purpose. From this moment on they continue the work Jesus started—they grow his church and spread his message.

The next parallel comes when Jesus has a talk with Peter. You may recall that after Jesus’ arrest, when he was being questioned, Peter denied knowing him three times, just as Jesus told him he would. That was the only other time in the gospel of John that a charcoal fire is mentioned, so it very deliberately refers back to that incident.

Now Jesus asks him a question three times, and please note he calls him by his original name, Simon—it was Jesus who renamed him Peter, meaning “the Rock”:
“”Simon, do you love me?”
“Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”
“Feed my lambs.”
“Simon, do you love me?”
“Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”
“Tend my sheep.”
“Simon son of John, do you love me?” Now it says that Peter felt hurt that he kept asking.
“Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”

Peter is rehabilitated and reinstated after his three denials. He is back to being Peter, the rock on whom Jesus will build his church. However, he is not simply reinstated as a disciple; he is being given a new role. He is set a charge to love and feed those whom Jesus loves—his sheep, meaning his followers but also anyone in need. We don’t dwell here on Peter’s past but on Jesus’ grace and his call to carry on his mission.

The words “feed my sheep” refer to providing for physical needs as well as spiritual—Jesus is the model of that as he has modeled feeding people as he teaches them. He has tended to physical illness as well as spiritual needs.

Jesus was feeding and blessing people at once and he calls us to carry on that ministry post-resurrection. When we break bread together in the Eucharist, it is in that same spirit—we are fed by God and we share that moment so that we can go forth and share the love of Jesus Christ and feed others both physically and spiritually.

Earlier in John, Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” To keep the commandment to feed his sheep is to love Jesus. He is calling Peter and us to action. Again, we need both the recognition and wisdom of a John and the love in action of a Peter. To love Jesus, we must know him and we must act on his behalf.

Do you ever feel that Jesus is saying to you “If you love me, feed my sheep?” The call to feed his sheep is not only for priests and other ordained servants—it’s for all of us. It is in our baptismal covenant–that we will with God’s help seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves. How can we feed his sheep? What does that mean today?

This whole passage reminds us of who Jesus is and how his grace and love are not at an end but continue on with us. Cast your nets to the other side of the boat—make a change—are we living in fear and confusion or are we moving forward in faith and action in love? Go forth and feed his sheep.