The Blame Game

Tragedy. When it hits boy does it get people talking. And no matter the source, or cause, or who is affected, egad we love to speculate. We love to ponder why whatever horrible tragedy went down, went down.

Take, for example these American workplace tragedies, ripped from the headlines of our nation’s history.

Molasses
Sometimes tragedy involves a sticky situation. This first one is so bizarre it’s almost comical. In January of 1919 a storage tank in Boston, holding 2.5 million gallons of molasses mysteriously burst. As a result a wave of molasses flowed down the street, travelling as fast as 35 miles per hour, and reaching a height of 15 feet. Can you imagine?

As funky as this is to visualize this odd occurrence was not without cost: the accident injured 150, killing 21.

So who was to blame for this sticky situation? Was it the fault of the storage tank manufacturer? Or bad management at the molasses company? Or maybe the people walking down the street when the sugar flood arrived just had it coming.

Fire
Often tragedy involves fire. That was the case at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York City in March 1911. When the fire, of unknown origin, began on the eighth floor it quickly raced through the garment factory, feeding on the textiles that filled the building. Firefighters at the scene quickly realized their ladders and hoses would only reach the sixth floor. Even worse there were only two exits on the floor for people to leave. One was locked, with the other engulfed in smoke and flames.

Fifty-four were injured that day, with 156 killed. Prior to the 9/11 attacks, this was the largest mass-casualty in New York City history.

And who’s to blame for this one? News articles at the time speculate an errant match or cigarette could have started it. Or maybe it was the fire department’s fault, they really should have had longer hoses and ladders. Or perhaps we should blame the workers for their own demise. If all those employees had more ambition, and went to college, and had better jobs, then they’d be alive today.

So our speculation goes.

Explosion
Tragedy often involves massive explosions, like in the Texas City disaster of April 1947. While workers loaded cargo on the SS Grandcamp a fire broke out. The biggest problem wasn’t the fire, it was the nature of the cargo. Which turned out to be explosive grade ammonium nitrate, better known as fertilizer. And there was 2,300 tons of it.

When the fire and fertilizer met it caused a massive detonation. And that was pretty much that.

But wait, there’s a bit more.

The explosion had such force, and burned so hot, that 16 hours later another nearby cargo ship, which was also carried fertilizer, also blew up. The twin explosions created a blast radius of almost a mile, flinging glass, metal and debris in all directions. This monumental tragedy injured more than 2,000, killing 581.

Who should we blame for this one?

The 1947 explosion is recent enough there is video of the damage done online.  Tho viewer please beware. Frankly after seeing the devastation I’m at a loss for words.

These are the types of newsworthy events that get people talking. It’s what we as neighbors discuss. It’s our water cooler conversations at work. It’s our coffee- talk, from home to church to the café.

Tragedies, of course, have been with us since the beginning of time.

Tragedy at the Temple
And sadly, sometimes they happen in holy spaces. Today’s Luke 9 text begins with Jesus listening to others from Galilee describe a news story of that day. This one is a temple tragedy. Let’s listen in to hear what those that were there might have had to say.

Did you hear about our friends and neighbors who were killed in Jerusalem? They were there at the temple, offering their sacrifice, when this horrible thing went down. So many were killed. All while trying to live out their faith the best they knew how. I hear Pilate had his Roman minions do it! Even worse, their bodies were left right alongside the animals they brought to sacrifice to our God. What barbarians!

Perhaps those sharing the news with Jesus grumbled, in self-righteous anger, at the injustice of it all. Arguably they had good reason to be enraged. As Galileans foreigners occupied their land. And were killing their people. And were insulting their God. In similar circumstances you just might be upset too.

And who did they blame for this one? Perhaps the Galileans were judging their own. Maybe their friends that had been killed should have waited to take that trip. The roads are rough these days, you know. These are dangerous times. They should have known better than to travel. Perhaps God was punishing them for choosing to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Perhaps.

What do you think about all of this, Jesus?

The people wanted to know.

Let’s get back to Christ’s response in a bit. But first, one more tragic story, from just last week.

Mosques
Similar to temple tragedies, sometimes tragedies happen at other places of worship too. Like mosques. On the 15th of March, 2019, in Christchurch New Zealand, a 28-year-old Australian man, described in media reports as a white nationalist, entered two mosques and began shooting. Right in the middle of their Friday prayers.

The attacks killed fifty, and injured fifty more.

The parallels between today’s scripture and this modern headline are striking.

Both tragedies occur at places of worship. Both smack of religious persecution. Both are an attack of one ethnic group on another. And both involve the loss of life among people engaged in ancient, faith-based, holy ritual.

And, despite our best efforts not to, we can’t help but want to look outward to assign blame. To point our fingers in judgment at the cause. So who’s at fault for this latest shooting? Fraser Anning, a senator from Australia, was quick to chime in. “Does anyone still dispute the link between Muslim immigration and violence?” he asks.

The implication of his words is clear: blame the immigrants.

If they weren’t here they wouldn’t have been killed.

This is the world we live in.

But it is not the world, or the way to view it, that Christ desires.

Christ Chimes In
Jesus, when asked to respond to the temple tragedy of his day, offered a response that can’t help but surprise.

When listening to his fellow Galileans, about who was at fault, Christ didn’t nod his head in agreement. And he didn’t pile on examples of his own self-righteous anger. And he didn’t simply walk away, avoiding it all.

Instead he chose to engage his fellow countrymen with a question.

Do you think you’re better somehow than those who have died? That you have been living a Godlier life and have been spared? You’re not, Jesus responded, answering his own question.

Tower
Christ then gave a news story of his own for those gathered to consider. Remember when that tower fell in Jerusalem? Eighteen people died that day. Do you think they had it coming? That everyone one else in Jerusalem has it all figured out?

The query almost answers itself. No, of course not.

Yet when tragedy strikes our broken human nature can’t help but want to assign blame. Sometimes we blame people or groups that have nothing to do with it, using them as a scapegoat for our own bias. Other times we simply blame the victim.

But that’s not the nature of God.

And by extension it’s not what we should be about either.

Jesus then shares an allegory to drive the point home.

Fig Tree
There was a fig tree in the orchard, and the manager came to look at the tree to see how it was doing. But the fig tree was barren. It gave no fruit. And it had been that way for a while. So the manager asked the gardener to cut the tree down, to make room for another plant that wouldn’t waste the soil.

The gardener objected. Leave it planted for another season, the gardener pleaded. I’ll dig around the roots and make sure it has the best soil there is. And the highest quality fertilizer available too. If the tree bears fruit next season let us rejoice. And if not? Perhaps then it is time to cut it down.

In this allegory we humans are the fig trees. Our world is filled with over seven billion of them. And we’re prone to look around at all the other fig trees and make our own assessments; which look healthy, which do not. Which bear good fruit, which bear none. When we’ve made our assessment we’re prone to talk poorly about the trees that don’t bear the fruit we think they should.

And when tragedy strikes parts of the orchard we’re quick to draw our own conclusions. Those trees must have been in bad shape. They must have deserved to be cut down.

Perhaps we even go so far as to think God did the cutting.

But Christ, the master gardener, wants nothing to do with the cutting down of anything in the orchard. Christ advocates for us, always asking for another season to be added to our lives. Christ cleans up our roots, plants us in the good soil, and brings water, light, and life to us each day. Regardless of where in the garden we’ve been planted.

Christ always advocates for all of God’s children. Christ always will.

Close
We live in an era where everyone wants to blame everyone else for the ills of this world. Sure, we can go around cutting down others, either in word or in deed. And we can continue to judge others that get cut down in the inevitable tragedies of our time.

We are only human, after all.

Or, we can take the high road, as Christ models, and rise above that faulty, fallen nature.

We can choose to lift others up in times of crisis, instead of putting them down.

We can help ensure God’s children are planted in fertile soil, regardless of their gender, race, ethnicity, religion, orientation, nationality, political affiliation, or any other group we marginalize.

And, most importantly, we can be a people that don’t rage at the world when tragedy strikes.  Because God knows we all have our biases, our stereotypes, our ways of being that minimize some of God’s beloved. It’s hard work to address these biases, and we all have them. And that work, my friends, starts with an honest, humble, and heartfelt look at what lies within.  Amen.

Fill ‘er Up

Earlier this winter, I found myself in Iowa City for a clergy gathering at synod hq. It was time spent alongside other pastors in our Lutheran denomination, and it was good. Afterwards I headed to my car in good spirits, looking forward to the drive home. Vehicle now started I then looked down at the gas gauge. I had a quarter of a tank left.

Bugger.

To fill up now, or not? That was the question.

Of all the ways to get from Ames to Iowa City I’ve really grown to love route 30. So scenic, so serene, plenty of open spaces to be seen and appreciated. Add in the occasional picturesque small towns that pepper the landscape and now you’re really cooking.

And don’t get me started about all the beautiful rustic farm houses and old barns that line the route, so relaxing.

But, for all the reasons to love this particular drive, there just aren’t too many gas stations along the way.

Eager to hit the road I opted to wait on the refuel, estimating I could probably make it to the Marshalltown exits just fine. And could take a break to fill ‘er up then.

So I put the car in gear and fired up my cell phone. Catching up with long-distance friends, while driving alone, helps the road miles just melt away. Before long one of my friends picked up and the two of us got to talking.

And talking.
And talking.
And talking.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, the Marshalltown exits came, and went, and were now long gone in the rear-view mirror. It wasn’t until the saying of goodbyes that I looked down at the dashboard. Which now featured a prominent bright orange low gas light staring back at me.

Apparently this big orange light had been on for a while. I knew this because the gas gauge was on the wrong side of a big capital letter E. E is not for enough. E is for empty.

Crap.

Realizing now the importance of getting gas, and soon, I surveyed the landscape looking for the next exit. The State Center exit quickly passed by my line of sight; there wasn’t enough time to veer over and take it. I soon was greeted by another sign with even more unwelcome news. The next exit was 12 miles away.

Double crap!

How many miles did I have left before running out of gas? How long would it be before I found myself stranded?

Even worse, at least for this former Floridian, it was below freezing.

With snow in the forecast to boot.

Triple crap!!

To stack the deck I slowed down to a less gas guzzling speed and turned off the heat. I then pulled in closer behind a semi to try and draft them some. All in the hopes of not running out of gas over these next dozen miles.

It was a moment of big sighs, white knuckle driving, prayers being lifted.

Lent
Today we celebrate the first weekend in Lent, a 40-day journey culminating in Easter.

It is a season of slowing down some.

Reflecting on the world around us.
Being honest about what is wrong with it.
Dreaming about how, with God’s help, it could be.

It is a season of self-examination.

Reflecting on our own failings.
Being honest about what they are.
Dreaming about how, with God’s help, we could be.

It is a season more somber than others.

Reflecting on a savior come to free us all.
Recognizing it took his death to do it.
Dreaming about how, with God’s help, his death leads to our life.

It is a season of both ashes, and palm branches.
A season of silence, and of shouting.
A season of tombs occupied, tombs empty.

A season measured in days and weeks, yet practiced in years and lifetimes.

And – if you attend here Wednesdays – it’s a season of chats, incense, and fires that burn higher, and hotter, than your pastors sometimes expect. That’s a soft plug for our Lenten Wednesday services; our first chat featured a hand-held fire that I’m really glad didn’t burn the whole place down 😉

Filling Up
The Lenten text from Luke 4 is likely somewhat familiar; in many congregations Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is preached on every two years out of three.

Which means that some of you have heard this story read and preached anywhere from ten to fifty times already.

To quote me five-year-old son, sometimes that can get booooorrrrringgggg.

In case you’re not overly familiar with the text, here’s the cliff notes version:
– Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days, getting tempted by the devil.
– The devil tempts Christ thrice. Each time Jesus responds, quoting scripture.
– Trials now passed, the devil departs.

Got it? Great, that concludes our message. Amen.

Just kidding.

You’re not getting out of here that easily 😊

Instead, let’s spend some time considering a few tips and tricks, pulled straight from scripture, on how to navigate the temptations of this world for maximum effect.

#1 Remember your baptism
Right before the Luke temptation text Jesus finds himself in a scene with a cousin named John, a river named Jordan and a dove without name.

That’s not quite right, the dove does have a name.
The dove is the embodiment of the Holy Spirit.

When John baptizes Jesus in the Jordan, the Spirit descends on Christ. It is then when God looks down and responds, “you are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

Martin Luther taught that each morning we are to rise and say, “I am baptized into Christ,” remembering our status as a beloved child of God. This prepares us to then go about our day knowing we are in God’s care. Remember your baptism, and what it means, and do so on the daily.

#2 Fill ‘er Up
Unlike my trip home from Iowa City earlier this winter, make sure you spend some time to refill your tank as you start this Lenten journey. Today’s text begins with Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit. His journey didn’t start out on a quarter tank of Spirit. Scripture said he was full.

Christ always kept his trip tank full. He did this with prayer and the reading of scripture. Perhaps most importantly he surrounded himself with disciples dedicated to travelling that road, with him. Traveling together.

You too, can travel your road right alongside fellow disciples of Christ.

#3 Prepare to be Led
Now running with a full tank, scripture tells us Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. That one phrase, led by the Spirit into the wilderness, could be a sermon all to itself. For now keep this one conclusion in mind: To be a Christ follower, at times you’re going to be in spiritual wilderness. And in those times you’ll find yourself being tempted in all sorts of ways.

All this, despite your best planning. Despite your careful preparations.

All this, amazingly, is according to God’s plan. For we are not called to live carefully, protected in a bubble, safe from the world around us.

We are called, instead, to be God’s people out and about and among God’s children throughout the world. By definition that puts us in some unfamiliar, uncomfortable settings.

By definition you’ll have opportunities to be *of* the world, and not just *in* it.

But fear not, because with prayer, and scripture reading and hanging with fellow Christ-followers your tank is set on F. That’s not F for fail. It’s F for full. Full, my friend, of the Spirit.

Not only is the Spirit in you, she’s there alongside you, taking the steering wheel as she leads you into this wilderness. Present with you, every mile of the way.

Prepare to be led by the Spirit. If you let her she’ll take you to some amazing places. She’ll take you to places of temptation. She’ll lead to paths filled with difficulty. But ultimately, these tests she points us to, prepare us. They prep us for God’s mission for the world, strengthening us for it, as we go.

#4 Fill ‘er Up Again
The good news, and this is really good news, is this: temptation lasts for but a season. Eventually this too, shall pass. After Jesus was tempted thrice, and quoted scripture thrice, the devil departed for a time. In these times of solace and peace let us give thanks.

But that’s not quite the end of the story, is it. Because it is only after temptation ends that Jesus’ ministry begins. A ministry that took him from town to town, house to house, temple to temple was preceded first, with temptation.

The very next verse after today’s passage begins with Jesus being filled with the power of the Spirit. Refueling, once again, for all he would then do. Filling the tank for all the miracles, all those parables, all the pain, all the joy that was to follow.

The only way Jesus could have made the lasting impact on our world that he did was by frequent stops to get reenergized in the Spirit. These fill ‘er up moments happen again, and again, and again in scripture. Each fueling Christ’s journey to the cross and beyond.

Empty Tank Redux
Fortunately my trip back home from Iowa City had a fairly non-eventful conclusion. After drafting a semi for a dozen miles I was able to get to the next exit and to the gas station. But just barely. I was so surprised at making it I took a photo of the gas pump. I filled the CRV with 16.497 gallons of gas. In a tank that, per the manual, only holds 15.3. No, it wasn’t a miracle 😊 Tho I’d drifted into the station, seemingly on fumes.

As we begin our Lenten journey anew, let me give you a little advice. Don’t be like your pastor.

Don’t wait to refuel, taking the chance to find yourself stranded on the side of the road.

Instead, model Christ.

Close
Start your Lenten journey with a full tank. Celebrate your baptism, daily. Take comfort in knowing our Creator has a plan, custom made, just for you. Spend time in prayer, and in scripture.  And spend time alongside fellow Christ-followers. In all this your Spirit tank will be refilled.

Next, prepare to be led by the Spirit. And plan to be led to some challenging, tempting, and even dark places. In these moments you will grow, and learn, and retool to better live out God’s call on your life.

Finally, once temptation leaves don’t kick back and call it a day. Refuel in the Spirit, once again. Get reenergized to live out God’s mission for your life. Refuel without ceasing.

To reference a favorite Tom Cochrane song from the early 90s –

Life is a highway
I wanna ride it all night long
If you’re going my way
I wanna drive it all night long

For when the Holy Spirit is your driving partner, through the wilderness, you’ve got the best GPS system money can’t buy. And the best fuel to fill your tank along the way, ensuring your journey arrives right where God intends. And that journey, my friends, has only just begun.  Amen.

Enemies

On February 12, 1993, in Minneapolis, Mary Johnson’s only son was murdered. Ironically it happened less than 48 hours before a holiday that celebrates love. The backstory sounds downright familiar, downright senseless. Two groups of macho young men got to trash talking each other at a Friday night party. Things, as can happen, escalated from there. Words were weaponized, and before long a real weapon emerged. One shot, at point-blank range, was fired, killing 20-year-old Laramiun.

Mother Mary, in that instant had lost her only son. She was devastated.

When the killer was identified three days later, a 16-year-old named Oshea, her feelings of loss now had a target. Mary was angry with Oshea, of course. Hate for him soon set in.

Mary says she viewed Oshea as an animal, and wanted him locked up for the rest of his life. She went to his trial to ensure justice prevailed. It did, arguably; Oshea was sentenced to 25 years in prison for second degree murder.

It’s safe to say that if Mary had an enemy in this world it was this young man now behind bars.

Enemies
Today we reflect on the second section of the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6; Pastor Bryan covered the first part last week. The dozen verses of this text pack quite a wallop.

After considering all sorts of ways to approach the text I keep coming back to one word in verse 27: enemies.

And find myself ruminating over what enemies are, and what Christ calls us to do with them.

I soon realized, after Googling around some, that who or what is considered an enemy is entirely self-defined.

What one person describes as the enemy of the state another may consider their favorite newspaper.

In war times who the enemy is depends on which side of the battle you’re on.

Heck, sometimes an enemy can be made while simply driving down the road. Perhaps that’s what leads to road rage.

And some enemies are downright cool. That’s the case for the 80s/90s hip hop group Public Enemy. The group made a career out of defining themselves with this label. This rap ensemble was pretty good at it too, and were inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame in 2013. Love me some Chuck D and Flavor Flav.

Put another way, an enemy is merely a label we place on another. Nothing more, nothing less.

Tires
The tendency to apply this enemy label to people can pop out of nowhere, seemingly, with storylines that are downright mundane. Driving over to Cabin Coffee earlier this week, to prepare this message, I noticed the nearby Kum & Go had a tire pump, excellent. The tires on our Honda Fit have been low for a while.

But there was a big truck right parked right in front of the pump.

And a guy near that truck looked to be involved in some kind of construction project. I watched as he methodically cut into the slab of concrete on the ground with a huge circular saw. He was totally unaware his truck was in my way.

After considering the situation I decided to move the Fit as close to the air pump as I could. Which was inches away from his truck. To my delight it turns out the pump hose was long enough!

Long enough to reach the first three tires.
But not long enough to reach the fourth.

Oh this silly man! I found my emotions going to unhealthy places.

As I drove away, my feelings toward this guy were less than charitable. Was he my enemy? The dude had, after all, unknowingly prevented me from reaching my goal.

Wars have been fought over less.

In that moment I certainly wouldn’t have called him friend.

Groups
Because what makes for an enemy is self-defined it turns out today’s text applies to each of us in different ways. I have my enemies, conceptually speaking, you have yours. It’s part of each of our shared, broken, human nature.

And lest we think that this passage isn’t compatible with local sensibilities and #IowaNice consider these synonyms to the word:

Adversary
Opponent
Foe

With more than one side, the other side might just be your adversary.
Multiple viewpoints can give rise to multiple opponents.
A few perspectives make it possible to have more than a few foes.

Mexicans, Americans, Russians.
Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians.
Beer swillers, Wine connoisseurs, and those that choose to abstain.

Oh my. Oh my. Oh my.

Sometimes having an opponent is all in good fun. When the Green Bay Packers tied the Minnesota Vikings earlier this year – a foreshadowing of a poor year for both, as a Chicago Bears fan I couldn’t help but smile.

The smile widened when I heard a quote from the legendary Packer coach Vince Lombardi about it. Coach Lombardi, after a tie, proclaimed that a tie in football is like kissing your sister.

Aka satisfying for no one.

But even our innocuous sports team fandoms can sometimes go too far.
Silly banter can lead to shouting matches at the stadium.
Or worse, to fistfights at the bar.

And when how we treat the opposition ends up hurting another, we all lose.

The Acts
So what exactly are we called to do with our enemies?

Jesus is clear.

We are to forgive them, just as we have been forgiven.
We are to love them, just as we are loved.
We are to pray for them, despite their actions.

Perhaps hardest of all, we are to do good to those who hate us.

This text goes down *hard*. I mean really, who wants to love their enemy?

Especially when everything in our broken nature tells us to plot, attack, and harm them?

Loving your enemy isn’t Discipleship 101. It’s a graduate level course. And mastering this class is downright difficult. In fact it’s a lifetime endeavor.

It’s messages like this from Jesus that make him so radical.
Ultimately it’s wisdom like this that got him killed.
Yet it’s this ethos of peace that has, does, and will continue to transform our world.

Tires Revisited
After reflecting on this text some more I found myself thinking back to the construction worker at the Kum & Go. There are so many other approaches I could have taken. I could have asked the guy to move his truck. But really, he’s working, I really could have just let it go and filled my tires elsewhere.

I began to consider the nature of his work, having to be out there in the snow and ice for long spells. I found myself wondering how his day was going, who he was going home to; perhaps a wife and a couple of kids not too unlike my own.

The moment now gone I prayed God would keep him warm on the frosty Iowan day, and safe on our occasionally treacherous roads. I asked God to keep him safe with the circular saw that rotates around thousands of times a minute. I asked forgiveness for my own occasional tendency to label people in unkind ways. And I asked God to soften my heart the next time a similar situation pops up.

Mary and Oshea
A decade after Mary’s son was murdered in 1993 her heart, too, began to soften. Hers was a much harder task than mine, after all she’d lost her only son at the hands of another. After some reflection Mary came up with a way to harness her personal tragedy for good. To do this she wanted to bring mothers of murdered children together so they could share their stories. What a cool idea.

But before she could do that Mary, a devout Christian, realized she better get to prison. She wanted visit with her son’s killer, to make sure she’d forgiven him.

Walking up the prison ramp that day she almost turned around. It was so hard, she recalled. It took a friend to nudge her, step by step, up to the entrance.

When the two sat down for the first time she opted to keep it simple. “I don’t know you, you don’t know me,” she told Oshea. “You didn’t know my son, and my son didn’t know you. We need to lay a foundation. We need to get to know one another.”

After hearing this Oshea’s defenses began to come down. He’d expected to be verbally attacked for all the pain he’d inflicted on Mary these many years. Instead she simply wanted to build relationship.

One prison visit became two. Shared handshakes became shared hugs. With that first hug mother Mary became hysterical; imagine the pain that moment must have held.

It was then, she says, after that first hug, that the two began to bond.

All that Mary could say to a friend afterwards was, “I just hugged the man that murdered my son! I just hugged the man that murdered my son!” She found herself repeating this over, and over, and over.

She describes then feeling something that began in her feet, that moved up, and up, and up, and then left her. And she knew, instantly, all the hatred, the bitterness, the animosity, the anger, it was all gone. It just took a hug to get things moving.

Since then the two became friends, Mary refers to Oshea as her spiritual son. And when he finished serving his time, in 2010, Mary threw a welcome home party alongside other mothers of murdered children, some former gang members, and several local Catholic nuns too.

She even helped Oshea find housing; the two literally live next door to each other.

These days the two have partnered up, speaking to inmates, churches, and some pretty large audiences, sharing their story. Their goal is to teach and preach forgiveness that’s strong enough to break the cycle of violence that stems from taking an eye for an eye.

Mother Mary models what it means to love your enemies. And she does so on the daily.

CBS News ran a brief story about these two, check it out:

Close
While I pray you never face the loss of a child like this – so horrible – Mary offers a beautiful example of what Jesus calls us to do.

Fortunately we have the opportunity to put the words of Jesus into action for our enemies, either real or perceived, every single day. We can do that –

With the construction worker at Kum & Go;
On social media threads that go sideways;
In our political conversations not all agree with;
And even during an occasional church squabble too.

Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who abuse you. These are the words of Christ. Amen.

Hometown Reject

A first-person retelling of Luke 4:16-30.

Imagine, you were there that day, in Nazareth, in the synagogue. You’re a farmer, have been working the fields all week, and finally, it’s your day off. You don’t work on the Sabbath, of course, this a holy day.

You go to be among God’s people.
You go to hear scripture being read.
You go to hear scripture interpreted.
You go frequently, religiously.

And you go, most of all, for a glimmer of hope. You seek a hope that will brighten your days in the here and now. Your crops this year have been decent, but boy it’d be nice to have better yields. You decide to take those prayers of bounty with you to the Synagogue that day.

Even better, this particular Saturday is pretty special. A friend mentioned that Jesus is coming to the synagogue to read and interpret scripture. You remember Jesus! He’s from Nazareth too. You watched the kid grow up, Mary and Joseph and Jesus and all his siblings lived right down the road. You’re aware of his humble beginnings, of being born in a stable. You’ve heard about how he got left behind at the temple as a pre-teen. Jesus struck you as a rebellious teen-to-be back then. He was definitely a non-conformist. You know those stories, and so many others about Jesus, because you and he hail from the same town.

And really, how could you not know them? Nazareth is pretty small, only 400 or so people live here. For reference that’s about the size of the Story County cities of Collins, Kelley, or Sheldahl. It’s downright impossible not to know a ton about everyone in town. Especially when we’re talking someone as unique as Jesus.

Sitting Room
As you enter the synagogue you find your favorite spot on the floor and get comfortable. With a town this size the space isn’t overly large.

But you know this space, the synagogue, and you know it well. You went to school on this floor, all the kids did. You went to court here when that bad deal with a neighbor went down. And when it came time to give back some of your harvest to those without, you brought it right here.

This space is the center of action for Nazareth. It holds so very many memories.

Your mind snaps back to the present as you see heads turn. Jesus walks in, He’s here! My how tall he’s gotten! He always was a good looking lad, it’s nice to see he’s grown up so well.

Initially Jesus sits down next to an old friend and the two begin to catch up. He fits right in, you realize, he is one of us.

The buzz in the air is downright electrifying.

Scripture
When it comes time for the reading of scripture Jesus stands, requests a scroll, and is handed one. Which scroll will he read? You find yourself filled with wonder, filled with excitement. Jesus slowly unrolls the scroll to his selected passage.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” he begins,
”because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.”

Hey, you recognize that passage! It’s from Isaiah. And it happens to be a personal favorite.

Jesus continues, saying,

“He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
to deliver sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s
favor.”

Jesus then rolls up the scroll, hands it to the attendant, and goes back to where he’d been sitting.

You find yourself smiling; what a great selection. He picked a really good one. It’s a message of hope, for the marginalized, that things, very soon will get better. And he delivered it like a pro.

And you’re not alone in your awe, all eyes are on Jesus. He has everyone’s rapt attention. You could have heard a needle drop in that room.

What a way to make a mark in your hometown.

You then lean in, excitedly, to hear how he’ll interpret this fine passage.

Interpretation and Prophesy
Today, by hearing this, Jesus continues, scripture has been fulfilled.

What bold words! This must be where things get interesting!

You’re feeling better and better about that bumper crop you’ve been praying for.

The room fills with chatter, people talking over themselves, excited about all he had said.

Someone in the back of the room wondered aloud is this not Joseph’s son?

You find yourself mildly wondering the same thing. For all the excitement we’re still talking about the kid who grew up down the street, right? That he’s done some exciting stuff in other towns doesn’t make him that special you find yourself thinking.

Jesus responds by saying he knows we’re going to ask about that miracle he performed in Capernaum. Jesus cast a demon out there, how awesome that must have been. There aren’t even that many Jews there; mostly it’s people that worship other gods. Or no god at all. And if he can do His thing among those people certainly he can do the same back home among his own.

Show us a sign, Jesus! The hometown crowd awaits.

But Jesus does none of that. Instead he tells the congregation no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. Your sense of joy, about this local boy made good, begins to shift. Now he thinks he’s a prophet? Perhaps Jesus has gotten a bit too big for his britches. You begin to wonder if the trust you’ve placed in this guy has been misdirected.

Callbacks
Jesus then retells two stories. This is where things get really dicey.

First he recounts a drought in Israel that lasted over three years. But God didn’t have the prophet Elijah end the drought for the Israelites, at least not then. Instead Elijah was called to help but one, a widow, and a non-believer. The widow’s son was healed. And her family was fed. It was then the widow proclaimed she believed in the one true God.

You find yourself really bugged by this story Jesus shares. Why didn’t God’s prophet help God’s people? Instead he chose to heal an outsider! That ain’t right, you find yourself thinking. That ain’t right!

Jesus then shares one more story with the congregation. Quietly you hope he says something lighter. Something more positive. Something that will benefit his hometown. Something more about that bumper crop you’ve been praying for.

But that didn’t end up happening. Jesus goes on to recall the story of Naaman. A leper, Naaman was healed by washing seven times in the Jordan to be clean. There were a bunch of other lepers in Israel, and none of them were healed. In fact, Jesus said, Naaman was a Syrian, and an army commander for another country. The Jewish prophet Elisha healed a non-Jew, and an army man no less!

What is up with the stories Jesus is telling?

Pivot
At this point you’re downright ticked.

Others in the congregation are too. In fact they’re angry; most gathered there are enraged. You watched as a mob of people surrounded Jesus, and take him to the top of the hill in town.

It sounded like they wanted to throw him off the cliff.

Somehow Jesus escaped. Perhaps that was the miracle.

All you know is the people of Nazareth are still really upset with Jesus. Deep down you hope God is big enough to help with your crops and take care of all of those other people Jesus talks about too.

And that’s went down, that fateful day.

What began as a happy homecoming for Jesus ended as an angry outcasting.

Broaden
This is the first example in Luke of Christ showing just how expansive this new kingdom of God is to be.

It isn’t for one people. Or one nation. It doesn’t even benefit people from just one religion. The kingdom Jesus ushers in is for all.

It’s an expansion from the…

Specific to the general,
Partial to the whole,
Local to the worldwide.

It’s for the atheist widow and her sick son.

It’s for the soldier from another country with a humiliating disease.

It’s for the Palestinian losing both land and livelihood because of religious oppression.

It’s for the migrant caravan families in Mexico escaping violence in search of safety. In search of hope.

And it’s for the groups of society we so often marginalize. Groups based on race, gender, sexual orientation and mental health status, just to name a few.

Close
The Nazarenes of old challenge us on how best to respond to God’s new, broader, expansive narrative. A narrative that is for all people of all kinds in all places. A narrative that is for those that often look, feel, act and believe differently from us. There are three basic responses we can take to today’s text.

We can be like the people of Nazareth, filled with wrath at the notion God blesses and is for other people so unlike ourselves.

We can choose to be indifferent, looking away from what God is up to around us.

Or we can follow God’s newly unfolding narrative, and find out, firsthand, where that new narrative leads. It’s a narrative that calls us to contribute to the renewing, redeeming work of God the world round.

Today’s Luke passage contains the first public word Jesus spoke as an adult. Today, he begins, this scripture will be fulfilled.

Today Christ brings good new to the poor.
Today He proclaims release to the captives.
Today the Son of God gives sight to the blind.
Today the Almighty lets the oppressed go free.

May you be not angry with Christ’s new, expansive narrative. May you be not indifferent to it either. Instead, may you dive right in, feet first, partnering with God to make this new narrative a reality.

And may God’s work in you, begin anew, today. Amen.

The Good Stuff

Weddings are accidents waiting to happen. Despite our best efforts at planning the big day, something, it seems, almost always goes wrong. On what many consider the most important moment of their lives.

To delve into this wedding calamities hypothesis further I asked Facebook friends – including many of you – to share their most memorable snafu stories from their own special days.

Responses from this calamities query came pouring in, 26 people openly told their tales of what wasn’t quite right at their wedding. Some have a certain wow factor, others are downright funny. Here’s a short selection.

Sometimes wedding day accidents happen before the service even begins.

Friend Heather remembers waking up the morning of her wedding with one bridesmaid covered in hives. And another bridesmaid unexpectedly needed to take her boyfriend to the ER. With the help of some Benadryl the hives went away, but she still needed to find a new bridesmaid. Amazingly one of her good friends was attending the wedding stag, fit in the dress just fine. She made for a great last-minute replacement.

At Rich’s wedding the two limos left the bride-to-be’s house at the same time. And each thought the other car had the bride and her dad. When the limos arrived at church they realized their mistake. A classic case of being left behind.

Priscilla, an occasional church organist, recalls a wedding she once played for. Right before the wedding she found the bride, in the Pastor’s office, drink orange soda, smoking. When Priscilla asked if it’d be ok to start the prelude with a some Handel and a bit of Bach, the bride waved her hand over the exhaled smoke and said yeah, go for it, that’s cool.

Now that’s what I call a smoking bride.

Other times the wedding drama happens in the service itself.

Seminary friend Kari Lee remembers kneeling at the altar, alongside her husband, as a friend sang the Lord’s Prayer. As he sings “thy will be done” a huge clap of thunder hits, rattling the church windows. Kari says it was pretty intense. And that everyone there laughed. If that were me that night I’d be locking the doors extra tight.

Linda, our church Database Coordinator, recalls that half the people at her sister’s wedding had the stomach flu – including the groom. Things got so bad the groom had to run out in the middle of the ceremony to take care of business. That was an accident waiting to happen the groom was happy that didn’t 😊

Then there’s Dan and Diane Hinderaker who gave communion to everyone there, but themselves. No worries, you two, I forget that part all the time too.

Chew on this one – both of your pastors here, Bryan and I, had difficulty getting our unity candles to light during our weddings. That’s where both bride and groom light separate candles, and then lean into light one, larger unity candle, symbolizing how the two become one. Mine and Kathi’s lit after a few minutes, Bryan and Trish’s never did. Make of that what you will. Tho by all accounts both our marriages seem to be going just fine 😊

Some wedding accidents happen after the service while driving to the reception.

Friends Jeff and Jen pulled off the road to take the balloons and streamers off of their car. Which makes it a lot easier to see while driving. But while doing that Jen’s grandmother’s wedding ring fell off, and she didn’t realize it until arriving at the reception. Jen was hysterical at the thought of losing a family heirloom. So Jeff hurriedly drove back to look for it, some friends drove by and they too offered to help search. The ring was found, to their great relief, in the parking lot, hours later at 10:30pm.

Lisa Ailshie, our Communications Manager, got married at St. Cecelia, which is right down the road. She recalls leaving the church only to be greeted by the sight of a car on fire in the parking lot. Imagine. After things settled down some they drove to their reception, leaving behind firetrucks and flames. What an exit!

Kirsten tells a similar story. She and husband Peter had rented an early 1900s Model T to take them from the ceremony to the reception, a really cool touch. It was cool until the almost century-old vehicle caught on fire. She thought everyone was waving because they were so happy for the newlyweds. Nope – they were trying to alert them about the smoke.

All of which makes me wonder if, for weddings, perhaps we should just revert back to a good old horse and carriage 😊

And of course many of the most memorable accidents and oopsies occur at the reception.

Angela arrived at her reception venue only to find the DJ wasn’t there. Quickly a new plan was hatched. The pastor officiating the wedding stepped in to MC. The hotel loaned their sound system. Guests loaned their laptops and iPods and scrambled to put some tunes together. No one had the wedding song on their devices so a hotel employee went to buy the CD. What began as a big problem ended up pretty well.

Even when your DJ does show, sometimes they screw up and introduce the couple using the wrong names. “Let’s make some noise for the new Mr. and Mrs. Smith: Riku and Valerie” is pretty funny then the bride’s name is Veronica. Especially when her sister, who was there, is named Valerie. Oops!

Or maybe you can relate to Lori Woodcock. She got up to go to the bathroom and her sister ate her piece of cake. On top of that the cake was cut wrong so there wasn’t any left. She didn’t get any of the cake at her own wedding! Ask her about it some time, from what I gather it still makes her blood boil.

Shortage
I’ve got one more wedding story accident; it’s from John 2:1-11.

Here we find Jesus, his mother, and the disciples at a wedding reception. Wedding celebrations in those days were a huge community event. So big they were measured not in hours but in days. Seven days to be precise. Imagine all the planning and coordination it would take to pull *that* event off well.

Yet despite all the planning, go figure, something here too went wrong.

Three days in, to a seven-day party, the wine suddenly runs out.

Unlike our modern times, you couldn’t just send someone down to the local Cyclone Liquors to get more.

How short were they? There were six empty jars there, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. That adds up to somewhere between 120 and 180 gallons of wine, or up to 1,000 bottles. Good luck sourcing that much in a pinch.

Perhaps this oversight was a sign someone dropped the ball. Perhaps it was a sign the party was over. Perhaps it was time to head home.

And perhaps there would be some shame, for the family that planned this wedding. The guests there just might talk about the reception that got cut short for years and years to come. Perhaps.

Abundance
Mary, the mother of Jesus, saw these impending possibilities, and asked her son to take action. Jesus, whose ministry hadn’t yet begun, initially defers. But mom presses on, asking the servants there to do whatever he tells them. It’s mother Mary, pushing her son out of the nest, knowing that it’s time for her son’s ministry to take flight.

Jesus then directs the servants to fill those empty jars with water. He then does his thing with that water, miraculously turning it to wine.

Accident averted. Celebrations continue.

But there’s more to this story. The wine steward, or sommelier comes over to taste the wine. That’s their job, they’re the experts. They taste to ensure it is good enough for the particular occasion at hand.

After tasting this newly made wine the sommelier makes a discovery. Not only is the wine acceptable, but it’s the good stuff. Normally the good wine is served first, with the meh wine to follow. But that’s not how Jesus operates. With Jesus you always get the best.

This scripture passage is just one more example of that.

Joy
Scripture is pretty clear about the ills of drunkenness, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. In our modern era, over time, this can evolve into the disease of alcoholism. This disease is common, impacting more than three million people a year in the US alone. It’s safe to conclude most everyone here has a close friend, family member or loved one that is affected.

Yet scripture is filled with stories of wine being used in healthy, joy-filled, sacred celebrations. Wine was a central part of many community gatherings in scriptural times. And it continues to be a part of many of our gatherings today. Before Jesus made the lame walk, or the blind see, or raised the dead, his first recorded miracle, in the book of John, is this one. Of turning water into wine.

And each week here we commemorate the Lord’s supper, eating of bread, drinking of the wine. In that we celebrate the life, death and resurrection of Christ.

We live in this tension, of sorts, holding the ills of alcohol in one hand, and the communal benefits, and the celebrations it is connected to, in the other.

All this leads me to conclude that the John text really isn’t about the wine. It’s about Jesus’s role in turning individual accidents, shame, judgment, and conflict, into communal joy.

• It’s about making sure Angela’s wedding had a DJ after all, so that sacred party could continue.
• It’s about Lori getting that piece of wedding cake on her big day, making sure everyone gathered there has enough to eat.
• It’s about lost wedding rings being found.
• It’s about car fires being extinguished.
• And it’s about encouraging the unity, of two people, being joined together in holy matrimony, whether those big unity candles get lit or not.

Close
Just like a wedding celebration, life, too, is an accident waiting to happen. Despite our best efforts at planning for our careers, our finances, our families, something, it seems, almost always goes wrong.

In those moments let us remember that our Lord once attended a wedding feast. And, in performing a great miracle there, He said yes, to gladness. Yes, to joy.

God does not want our religion to be too holy to be happy in.

So let us take a cue from Christ, allowing ourselves to be filled with joy.

Let us sing, and dance, and be merry, right alongside God’s children.

Then let us raise a glass of the good stuff.

And let us toast. Let us toast a Savior who provides, and wants nothing less than the very best, for us all. Cheers, my friends.  Amen.