The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
February 3, 2019
Pastor Ed Foster
Well, today is our national holy day. Maybe even more than the 4th of July. Today is a holiday that all Americans will celebrate. It’s Super Bowl Sunday. And it is very easily compared to a religious holiday.
For indeed, there are the true believers. Those football fans who will watch football no matter what and they have been preparing for the last two weeks. They have all the right decora-tions. They have purchased the correct uniforms and they’ve got all the right foods saved up. Indeed, I know of a few people who have actually purchased a second connection to the internet just in case their cable goes out. They are true believers.
And then there are the majority of the rest of us who really enjoy this day. We will maybe go to a Super Bowl Party and we will enjoy the company of our friends. We will eat good food and share in this common event that we’ve all participated in one way or another. Some of us are the part-time football fan – you know the ones who only watch this game. But we will watch maybe for the commercials? Or maybe for that half-time show?
Of course, like all religions there are the agnostics. Those who don’t care about football even those who actively dislike it, but they are going to be celebrating today. Their favorite restaurant will be almost empty and they can go to Dillon’s and they can shop without anybody being in their way.
Of course, there is that another group today. That group of folks who are fans of a certain team. For the last weeks they have been getting more and more excited trying their best not to get too excited and yet sometime around 9:00 tonight all of those people will be affected. Those whose team won the game are going to be elated. For weeks afterwards they will be seen with smiles on their faces. They will feel like not only did their team win, but somehow, they won something, too. That their life is better, that their life is happier.
And then there will the fans of that other team. The team that didn’t win. And they are going to be sad tonight, and they are going to be sad tomorrow and maybe for days and weeks into the future they are going to feel like not only did my team lose but somehow, I lost, too. Maybe I didn’t cheer loud enough, or maybe I forgot to wear my lucky socks.
There is something in our human psychology that causes us to identify ourselves with other things and other organizations and to tie our sense of who we are to those things. I’m a Husker fan and when the Huskers play well it makes me smile and when they play terrible, that affects me as well. I didn’t catch any passes, and I’m pretty sure that how loud I cheer in my basement makes no difference to the outcome of the game. And yet, somehow, our psychology says it does.
We all feel a sense of pride when someone from our hometown goes off and does something really exciting or really important as if growing up in the same town as we did somehow make us bigger or better or smarter.
It is for the most of us a mistake, I think, this ability to identify with the things around us. It does have the tendency to draw us together, to bring us closer, to give us something to talk about, to give us something to share, to give us something that draws us together.
I think, at least in part, that’s what’s going on in today’s gospel lesson. Jesus shows up at his hometown in Nazareth. In last week’s lesson when it is time to read from the Bible, Jesus stands up and says I’ll do that reading. And he goes up front and they bring him the prophet Isaiah and he unrolls it to the place where Isaiah describes the Messiah. And Jesus reads that section, rolls the scroll back up, hands it to the attendant, and then he sits down and says, today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. It’s me.
And all of the people say, that’s awesome! The Messiah comes from our hometown. Look that’s Joseph’s boy. I remember when he was just a little guy. The Messiah comes from our hometown, maybe when he becomes the king he will come and build a big palace here. Maybe he will make us rich or at least richer. And certainly, if none of that happens, at least we can go and brag to the folks in the town down the road that the Messiah came from Nazareth.
And Jesus was having none of that. Don’t you remember how things go with the prophet? The people from the prophet’s hometown don’t get any special prizes. Indeed, they go to the people to whom God says that.
The folks in Nazareth thought they were going to get special prizes because Jesus was from their hometown. They thought that they would be special, that they would be treated better, that Jesus would come and give them something more because of that familiarity. Jesus didn’t come just to save the people from his hometown. Indeed, he came to save the world. And so, in that is very reminiscent and I think even foreshadowing of his passion, when he says I am not going to be the kind of Messiah you hope I will be. The people decided they were going to kill him.
Here’s the difficult question today. Does anybody today think that being on Team Jesus is going to get them some kinds of special goodies? Does anyone today think that being a Christian means that God loves them more than all of those other people? Does anyone today promise that if you believe in Jesus that you are going to get special prizes, that you indeed will have a Cadillac in your driveway, too? Does anyone think, does anyone believe that being a Christian makes you someone more special, more important, more loved than anyone else?
And the answer is, of course we do. It is in our human nature. We think if we cheer for this team it makes a difference. Certainly, we think being on Team Jesus will get us special goodies, special prizes, that it will make us more important and more loved than everyone else.
And Jesus still isn’t having any of that. For indeed, we who believe in Jesus, we have already received our special prize. We have received the gift of God’s love and forgiveness. We have received the gift of eternal life. Indeed, it is the gift of Christ is offering to all believers. We are not more special because we believe in Jesus. But we certainly know how special we are. How special we all are.
Jesus did not come just to save the people of his hometown or the people of Israel. He didn’t come just to give prizes and special recognition to the people who were like him, or even for the people who liked him. He came to save everyone, even those folks who wanted to throw him off the cliff, even those people who nailed him to the cross.
We are on Team Jesus because you know what he has done for us. We have been invited to go and share that good news with all the world. To bring everyone into that team. To let everyone know that Christ has done for them. Amen.
The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday, February 10, 2019
Pastor Ed Foster
Today is fish story Sunday. I’ve told you about my uncles before. My Uncle Ward and Uncle Bob were extraordinary fisherman. They caught fish when no one else was, and they caught more fish and they caught bigger fish. Indeed, more than once did I see people go and complain to the Fish and Game warden that those guys must be cheating and when they found out who they were talking about, you mean those guys in that brown boat? They always catch fish like that.
Now it maybe of course that they had gotten so good from the years of experience, but I prefer to believe that there is something genetic about it and that one of these days that gene is going to kick in for me. It hasn’t yet, but we live in hope.
Now in Uncle Bob and Uncle Ward’s boat there was a rule. Whoever was either the least experienced or the youngest got to catch the first fish. One day my Dad and I were fishing with my Uncle Bob and his granddaughter Amanda. Just as the sun came up and it started to be legal to fish, we put out our lines. And before the lines were fit out, little Amanda’s pole began to hop. First, we thought maybe we caught a rock, but no it wasn’t a rock it was a fish.
Amanda looked at Grandpa and said, “Grandpa I think you should catch the first fish this time!” But no that wasn’t the rule in the boat. And so, she began to reel. And the line started going out faster than she could reel. Eventually the fish tired out, so she could bring it in for a way, then it would get its strength back and off it would go.
She was certain she was either going to lose the fish or maybe lose the fishing pole, and asked Grandpa, “Grandpa, are you sure I can catch this fish? Are you sure you don’t want to catch this fish?” But grandpa was sure.
And so, about an hour later, poor little girl – her arms so tired she thought they were going to fall off – pulled in a 49-inch Northern Pike. Bigger than her. At the end of the day when we went back to the shore, little Amanda went and told everyone how she had caught the biggest fish. And they all smiled and shook their heads, until she took them over to see the fish that she had caught. I am fairly certain that little Amanda is still telling the story of that day when she caught a fish bigger than she was because her Grandpa believed that she could.
You may have noticed that all three lessons today have a similar theme. That doesn’t happen very often. Sometimes, to try and make it work and it really doesn’t work so well, but today’s lessons all three of them have a similar theme. Indeed, it is a theme that runs throughout all of scripture. When each of these three were confronted with the presence of God all three of them believed that they were not worthy.
Isaiah has a vision and when he realizes that in this vision that he is in the presence of God he is terrified because he knows that he is a sinful man. “I am a man of unclean lips,” he says. It makes you wonder what kinds of things he had been saying with those lips. But, nevertheless, God calls Isaiah. Even though Isaiah knows that he is a sinful man.
Then there is of course, Paul. Paul who is quite proud to tell us that he is the least worthy person that has ever walked the face of the earth, apparently that pride thing hadn’t been quite cured yet. But he wasn’t far wrong.
Paul indeed was one of the least likely people you could ever imagine to be called to be God’s evangelist to the Gentiles, for he indeed did persecute the church. He hunted down and hunted out Christians, had them arrested so that they could be stoned to death. And God called Paul. God called the least likely person that anyone in his generation could have imagined. But Paul was so very aware that he was not worthy.
And then, of course, there is our good buddy Simon Peter. Peter the impetuous one, Peter the one who any time a thought comes into his head, that thought came out of his mouth. Peter when he realizes that he is in the presence of holiness, realizes his sinfulness and falls on his knees in front of Jesus, and it is Peter that God calls to be the rock on which he will build his church.
That theme runs throughout scripture. God seems to prefer to calling those who are the least likely, those who are sinners, those whose faults are so great that when they are forgiven and when they are transformed, it shows the whole world the power of God’s love and God’s grace.
I think it is almost certainly true with all of us. That if we look deep in our hearts, we realize that we, too, are not worthy of God’s call. That we have not been and aren’t always the people that God has called us to be. And yet, God has and God does continue to call us, forgiving us of our sins, filling us with his love and with his grace, sending us out into the world and transforming.
For indeed, Isaiah’s mouth is clean. Paul met Christ on the road, and once struck blind, instead of being a persecutor of the church now became its staunchest champion. Peter was transformed in that boat and he became a fisher of people. And he, too, would live his life bringing God’s word and God’s grace to the world. Fisherman of people.
So, too, God is working to transform us. We are not worthy, and yet, God calls, God is making us worthy. God has declared us “forgiven” … God has declared us “holy” …. God has declared and is even now making us “righteous”.
God has called us to go out and spread his grace and love in the world. People who are not worthy, people who sometimes we may think are the least qualified, the least abled. But it is people just like us that God loves to send out to the world. God has called us and we have answered, “Here I am, send me.” Amen.
The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
February 17, 2019
Pastor Ed Foster
Each year during Advent we raise our voices and sing our hope and our anticipation. Indeed, we usually do it more than once because it’s one of the few good Advent hymns, but each year during Advent we come together and we sing, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” And here during Advent we call and we pray and we ask that God come and be with us. On Christmas Eve and Christmas day we proclaim that God indeed has come. God has come in the person of that Christ-child, that he is Emmanuel, that he is God with us.
There are two stories of the Beatitudes in the New Testament. There is the one from Matthew that we all know very well, and there is this one from Luke. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus shares the words up on the side of the mountain, on that place where you are halfway between earth and God, in that lofty place where it seems like heaven is just at hand.
But in Luke’s gospel, Jesus comes down from the mountain to be with the people. Jesus comes down from that lofty place, comes down to that level place where normal life happens, comes to that place where we live each day, he comes there to be with us. To be Emmanuel.
Now to be sure, we all know that version of the Beatitudes from Matthew much better than we know this one from Luke, we hear the one from Matthew for instance on All Saints Day, we hear that “blessed are the poor in spirit.”
But Luke has a little different take on it. Luke says, blessed are the poor, blessed are the hungry, blessed are those who are crying and those who’ve been excluded, and passed out … blessed are those that the world seems to have left behind, blessed are those who seem the less blest of all. Jesus comes down to be with those who are hurting and those who are hungry and comes down to be with those who’ve been excluded and pushed away and passed out, Jesus comes down from that lofty place to be with us.
And Jesus says those of us who are rich, woe to us who are full, and woe to us who are laughing now, because we have already received our consolation. Kind of harsh, isn’t it? The point is painful. Yet, Jesus came down from the mountain to be with us as well.
That word of hope that he proclaims to the poor and to the hungry isn’t just a hope for a time to come, but it is the hope that Jesus comes to be with all of us, that we will all be changed and transformed by the power of his presence. That indeed, we who by the world’s standards are far from poor, we will see in one another the image of Christ who has come to be with us in one another, that we will indeed find our consolation not in our things, but in how we can use those things to be that blessing to those who are poor, to those who are hungry, to those who are outcast.
Jesus came to be “God with us,” not just to proclaim the kingdom that is far off, but to make us all a part of that kingdom, to bless one another, to love one another, to find our consolation of bringing that kingdom to us. Amen.
The Seventh Sunday after Epiphany
Sunday, February 24, 2019
Pastor Ed Foster
It doesn’t seem possible that it was actually clear back in 1981 but I googled and that’s what it said. 1981 Pope John Paul II was shot by a would-be assassin. Luckily, the assassin did not succeed. But I remember in (I think the next day) the news reports said that Pope John Paul II had forgiven his would-be assassin. And I remember the sneer which that line was delivered by that reporter. How could he forgive, it’s only been a day, was the implication.
John Paul II reached out to his would-be assassin. He began a conversation with him first by writing and then on the phone and then actually more than once he went and visited with him. And indeed, he forgave that man and built a relationship that would last for the rest of John Paul’s life.
To be sure the world didn’t hear much about that. We still hear stories from time to time about John Paul being shot by an Islamic assassin. But not so much about what happened afterwards. For indeed, the world doesn’t really believe in forgiveness and grace. All around us we see that idea that we must seek retribution, that we must be vindicated, that we must reach out and obtain our own measure of justice.
Throughout his life, John Paul was a tireless worker bringing together people from all of the worrying and fighting groups in the world and once again, almost all of those efforts were met with skepticism and even a bit of a sense of how foolish is this man bringing together Muslims and Jews and Christians and striving to build a homeland for all of them in Jerusalem.
Today’s first lesson is a story most of us know well and love. The story of Joseph. Joseph and his technicolor dream coat, which probably wasn’t a colorful coat at all, but probably the best translation is it was a coat with fancy long sleeves. But whatever the case, Joseph was the 11th of 12 brothers and he was his Daddy’s favorite. The first son of his Daddy’s favorite wife. And that coat with many colors or long sleeves came to represent his being first in his Daddy’s eyes.
Of course, the 10 older brothers did not appreciate that. For there was more to the story. Joseph was also a dreamer. And in his dream his brothers and his father would come and they would bow down to him. And Joseph, either enjoyed or has not the sense to not share that story with his brothers, and so it is that his brothers began to detest and despise and hate their brother Joseph.
And so, it was that one day when they were a long way from home, Joseph’s father sent him out to see his brothers. And his brothers, a few of his brothers decided to kill Joseph. But another brother said, well, we can’t kill our own brother, that would be horrible. Let’s throw him in a hole and let the wild animals kill him. But then they were saved from their dastardly deed by a group of Midian traders and so they sold their brother into slavery.
It is arguable whether that fate was worse than death or not. For indeed, the life that they had consigned him to was a life of servitude and a life of being someone else’s property. Not much different than a cow or a camel or a horse, he was to spend the rest of his life doing someone else’s will, getting up when they said to get up, going to bed when they said go to bed, working on what they wanted them to work on. Sin that his brothers committed against him was indeed inexcusable and by all accounts unforgiveable.
But as we have heard from our friend Paul Harvey, there is a rest of the story. Joseph’s dreaming abilities also worked with the ability to interpret dreams and the Pharaoh was having terrible dreams that he could not understand. And so, Joseph was brought to the Pharaoh and explained the Pharaoh’s dreams.
There would be seven years of great crops, the best years that Egypt and the world had ever seen and those seven years would be followed by seven years of famine when all of the world would go hungry. And the Pharaoh was so impressed with Joseph that he made him the governor of all Egypt, Vice Pharaoh.
And sure enough, it happened. They had seven great years and Joseph had all of the excess grains stored away and then the seven bad years came and people of Egypt had food while the rest of the world had none including Joseph’s family.
So, his brothers come to Egypt where they heard there is food and they don’t realize that they have come to beg their brother. And in today’s first lesson, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. Not only does he forgive them, he tells them, don’t feel bad, don’t be angry with yourself, because Joseph saw in all that happened to him, God’s grace. You intended for evil, God intended for good.
Jesus commands us today to love our enemy and to do good to those who harm us, and to forgive. It seems like either an impossible demand or a rather foolish and silly command. But indeed, beyond being a command, this is his promise. That we don’t have to live in this world of one-up Manship and retribution, where if you slap my right cheek, I’m going to slap your left twice as hard. We need to live in a different world. In a world of grace, of kindness, that we can forgive, we can love, even our enemies.
John Paul II’s legacy is great. But I think maybe the greatest thing he ever did was to show us that we can indeed love and forgive our enemies. That we don’t have to live in the world’s ways of retribution and violence and hatred. Love your enemies, be good to those who harm you, forgive. Amen.