Sunday, January 26, 2014

Just Ordinary

Matthew 4:12-23
January 26, 2014

            “There’s no need to fear.  Underdog is here!”  Underdog was a cartoon superhero voiced by Wally Cox.  Normally Underdog was known as humble Shoeshine Boy.  But when trouble or danger loomed, Shoeshine Boy would rush into a phone booth and emerge as the fearless Underdog.  The damsel in distress that Underdog was always saving was Polly Purebred and the main villain, maybe the only villain, was Simon bar Sinister.  Underdog was a bumbling sort of superhero.  I remember he crashed a lot.  But he still managed to save Polly and save the day. 
            I wasn’t very old when I watched Underdog.  But I remember whenever he said his battle cry I would say it right along with him.  “There’s no need to fear.  Underdog is here!” 
            Underdog and Batman played by Adam West are the two superheroes that I remember from my early childhood.  But superheroes of all sorts were a part of my growing up, just as they have been for my kids.  My friends and I watched the cartoon Spiderman in the afternoons after school. Zach, who has loved superheroes ever since he could talk, told me, and I tell this with his permission, that some of his first memories are of the times when he would be sick late at night and the same Spiderman cartoon that I watched as a kid would be playing.  I would let him watch it till he could fall asleep. 
            Zach comes by his love of superheroes naturally.  Matt loves them.  My three nephews love them.  We have a variety of superhero movies in our DVD collection, and I’m sure more will be added.  There are so many different superheroes being portrayed in movies today, I can no longer keep up.  Along with Spiderman and Superman and Batman, there’s The Fantastic Four, X-Men, Ironman.  My kids get frustrated with me when I ask questions such as, “I know Thor is a good guy, but Loki?  Good or bad?” 
            All of this is to say that superheroes have been around for a long time; in comic books, in television shows, in movies.  As a culture, we love them and I suspect that love will continue.  Maybe it’s because we like the idea of there being people who live among us who seem to be ordinary, regular folks, just like us.  But when trouble or danger appears, they drop their ordinary fa├žade and reveal their true super selves.  They rush in and save the day, stop the bad guy or guys, and make things better.  When we hear about another shooting, in schools or movie theaters or malls, don’t we wish, secretly or not, that there was a superhero or two to come in and make things better? 
            You probably think I’m about to connect this love of superheroes with the expectations people in the first century Near East had of a savior.  It’s true that some of the disappointment that people eventually felt about Jesus was that he wasn’t the warrior they expected.  The people who followed Jesus would not have had our version of a superhero in mind, but they would have expected a fierce warrior prepared to go to battle against the powers of oppression and tyranny that dominated their lives.  Jesus was not this kind of warrior.  But the superheroes that I’m actually thinking of are the disciples; the disciples that we read about in our text from Matthew.  These first four disciples – Simon called Peter, his brother Andrew and another pair of brothers, James and John, sons of Zebedee – are the superheroes I’m thinking of. 
            As you heard already, these four are minding their own business, literally.  When Jesus walks by the Sea of Galilee, he sees the four at work.  They are fishermen.  Peter and Andrew are casting nets into the sea.  Jesus calls them, and immediately they drop their nets and follow him.  Jesus walks a little farther and he sees James and John in their boat mending nets with their dad, Zebedee.  Jesus calls them as well, and they drop the nets, hop out of the boat, leave Zebedee and follow Jesus. 
            The commentaries and Biblical scholars that I turn to each week for better understanding of scripture have done a great deal of work demystifying this passage.  It’s quite likely that the disciples did know about Jesus already.  The passage begins by telling us that Jesus left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum.  Capernaum would not have been a big city where you could get lost in the crowds.  It is quite possible that the disciples would have already encountered Jesus, either in person or by reputation.  Maybe they had heard him preach or teach.  Maybe they had previously heard his call to repent. The point is that Jesus may not have just been some random stranger who walked up to them, said, “Follow me.”   If they knew him or at least knew of him, it might explain a little more why they dropped everything and ran. 
            It is plausible to think that the disciples, having some knowledge of Jesus, realized what an amazing invitation they were getting and accepted.  However I’m not sure it matters that much for our purposes and understanding if they knew Jesus beforehand or not.  What matters is that when his call came, they answered.  But I also think it is plausible to believe that had the disciples known exactly what they were getting into, they would have told Jesus, “No, thank you.” 
            I talked with different people this week about a time when they’ve made a decision or a choice that changed their lives.  Maybe it was a decision they made impulsively, not knowing what was awaiting them.  One friend of mine said that she made a decision to provide foster care for some children for a week.  Just one week.  Now, a year and a half later, she’s still caring for those children.  They have become part of her family.  But if she had known that the week she promised to give would turn into an ongoing relationship, she might have said, “No.”  In fact it’s a good bet she would have definitely said, “No.”  Not because she isn’t caring or loving, but because it is a huge and demanding commitment. 
            I wonder if the disciples didn’t accept this call to follow Jesus, to be fishers of people, in the same way.  They accepted quickly, maybe without much thought about what they were getting into.  Had they had an inkling of the challenges they would face, the true nature of discipleship, they might have said, “No.” 
            But they didn’t.  Jesus called and they answered.  They dropped everything and followed him.  They left livelihoods and friends and family and answered the call.  Poor old Zebedee, one minute he was working with his sons, mending nets, the next minute he was left in his boat.  I wonder if he was thinking, “Wait?  What?” 
            These must have been extraordinary men to do what they did.  They must have been exceptional, because surely that’s why Jesus chose them, called them.  He had to have known that they would follow.  He had to have seen something remarkable in them, something special, some quality or trait that ordinary folks didn’t have. 
            To be honest, that’s what I’ve always thought about them.  I realize that Jesus was compelling, extraordinary and they probably recognized something remarkable in him.  But they must have been pretty incredible as well to do what they did; to leave everything and everyone and follow.  They must have been, because even on my best days I can’t do what they did.  I need to know I’m leaving one thing for something else.  I need to know I’m going to have some security in whatever call I’m answering.  I am not like those disciples.  I try but I don’t have their courage or their fortitude or their willingness to answer a call from Jesus with their whole hearts, minds and bodies.  That’s what I’ve thought.
            The problem with that thinking is that it makes the disciples seem more like superheroes than just ordinary folks.  But they weren’t superheroes. They were just ordinary people, just like me, just like you.  To claim the label “ordinary” doesn’t meant that we don’t have talents and abilities and something special within each of us.  To claim the label “ordinary” means that we don’t have to be anything more than we are right now to answer Jesus’ call to follow.  No matter how much we want to believe that the disciples were just a little higher up on the scale of specialness than we are, they weren’t.  They weren’t superheroes in disguise.  They were just ordinary. 
            We see that lived out time and time again.  They follow, but they don’t get it.  Peter – dear, wonderful, rash, impulsive Peter – tells Jesus in one breath that he is the Son of God, the Messiah, the One they have been waiting for … and in the next breath tells Jesus to knock it off with all this talk of death, crucifixion and rising again.  You’re scaring the other guys! 
            The disciples were just ordinary folks.  Just like me. Just like you.  Jesus called them in all of their ordinariness.  God worked through them, imperfect though they were, to bring about God’s purposes and God’s kingdom.  They were ordinary.  So are we.  They were called to follow, and sometimes they stumbled in their following.  Their faith wavered.  They messed up.  They were afraid and disbelieving.  They weren’t superheroes.  But sometimes they did extraordinary things.  And so do we. 
            Jesus calls us ordinary, everyday folks to follow, to be fishers of people, to trust that we can do what we are called to do, whatever that may be.  Jesus calls us to follow, not because we’re superheroes, but maybe because we’re not.  Jesus calls us to follow because of who we are already, with all of our failings, all of our flaws, all of our ordinariness.  We’re just ordinary folks and Jesus calls us, us, to be fishers of people.  Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!”  Amen.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Come and See

John 1:29-42
January 19, 2014

            No travel writer has made me want to get up and go more than Rick Steves.  His show on PBS, Europe Through the Backdoor, not only offers his viewers glimpses of the most famous travel sites in Europe, but you also see the places that don’t always make the tour maps.  Steves, in his sweet, nerdy way, shows that it’s possible to not only visit a place, but when you visit Europe through the backdoor you are able experience the real people and their real lives.     
            In one episode Rick and his crew, his producer and his cameraman, were in Portugal.  They left Lisbon and drove north up the coast to a town called Nazare.  Nazare is a beach town and during the summer, it is packed with tourists from all over Portugal and all over Europe.  But Rick is traveling in the off season, so tourist business is down.  Women of the town who have rooms to rent in their homes stand along the main thoroughfare into the town and hold up signs that are written in five different languages, advertising their open rooms.  Rick stops and speaks with one woman who assures him that she has good rooms, and then she beckons him to follow her home.  Come and see.
            So Rick and his crew in their car follow this woman who is on foot through the narrow streets of Nazare.  It seems that they follow this woman for a long time, but she just keeps laughing and beckoning them to follow her, come and see. 
            When they finally reach her home, she shows them the room and it’s absolutely lovely.  It’s spacious, clean and probably a lot homier than any hotel they might have stayed in.  This is what I love about Rick Steves.  He’s a seasoned traveler, but he’s not afraid to try something most of us would never dare.  He was willing to take a chance when this woman invited him to come and see the rooms she had for rent.  Come and see.
            To me it is the “come and see” aspect of this first passage that makes it so interesting.  John’s gospel always manages to surprise me in its distinct differences from the synoptic gospels.  Matthew, Mark and Luke’s gospels all record Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist in the Jordan River.  But John’s gospel does not give that account.  Instead we read John the Baptists’ testimony to Jesus and to his identity.
            If we were to read this chapter in full, we’d see that it takes place over a few days.  Our part of the passage starts on the second day.  John sees Jesus coming toward him and declares “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”  The day before John was questioned by religious leaders who wanted to know who he, John, was.  They wanted to know the full scope of John’s identity.  But John tells them about another one.  John tells them that he is not the Messiah, but there is one who is the Messiah they’ve been waiting for. 
            Knowing a little more about what happens on the first day explains more fully John’s remarks on this second day.  John says, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  Then he goes on to say, this is the one I was telling you about yesterday.  He may be coming after me, but he ranks far ahead of me.  I didn’t know him, but this is why I’ve been baptizing.  And I saw the Spirit descend on him and remain there.  The one who told me to baptize told me that this is how I would recognize the Messiah.  This is the Son of God.
            We move to the third day.  This day John is standing with two of his disciples.  Jesus walks by, and as he does, John proclaims, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”  When John’s two disciples hear this, they leave John to follow Jesus. 
            Now we come to the crux, the heart of this passage.  Jesus sees them following him, and he asks them, “What are you looking for?”  They call him “Rabbi” which the gospel writer translates for us readers as “teacher.”  They ask him am unexpected question, at least for a moment and a meeting like this.  The men ask, “Where are you staying?”  Jesus responds not by giving them directions or details.  He just says, “Come and see.”  And he leads them from that point on.  Just like that woman from Nazare who leads Rick to her home with “Come and see,” Jesus leads these new disciples with “Come and see.” 
            What we have to understand about John’s gospel is that it is a gospel of many layers of meaning.  Every question in John’s gospel means more than what it seems.  When John’s disciples ask Jesus “where are you staying?” they’re not just asking him about his place of residence.  They’re not looking for a house tour or a place to hang out for a few days.  They want to know about his relationship with God.  It’s almost as if they’re saying to Jesus, “Look our teacher, John, has proclaimed you to be the Lamb of God, so we want to know for ourselves.  If you are indeed the Lamb of God, the rabbi, the teacher we’ve been looking for, then what is your relationship to God?  Are you in intimate relationship with him?  Are you staying with God?  Teacher, where are you staying?”
            Now think about the other call narratives in the first three gospels.  Jesus goes to his earliest disciples and calls them away from their work, their previous lives, even their families.  He gives them a hint as to what they will do as disciples.  But in this narrative, the first disciples hear John’s testimony and follow.  When Jesus asks them about this, their response is to ask a question about his relationship to God.  Jesus doesn’t give them definitive answers.  He just invites them to come and see.
            Discipleship is something that you will have to experience for yourself.  You will have to follow me to witness and know my relationship with the Father.  You will have to follow me to experience who I am and what I have come to do.  If you want to be a disciple, you will have to follow me and experience it for yourselves.  If you want to be a disciple, you must come and see.
            So that’s what these new disciples did.  John’s witness has done what it was meant to do.  It has pointed them in the new direction God is taking.  They leave John and follow Jesus.  They go and see.  And from there other disciples join them.  At the end of the passage we have before us today, Andrew tells his brother Simon, “We have found the Messiah.”  Simon comes to Jesus and Jesus gives him a new name.  “You are to be called Cephas, which the passage explains is translated ‘rock’.” 
            And if we were to keep reading till the end of the chapter, we would also learn that Philip and Nathanael join Jesus as well.  All of these disciples decide to come and see Jesus for themselves.  They follow him so that they can witness and experience for themselves who this man is, this Lamb of God, this Son of God, this Rabbi, this Messiah.  Nathanael pronounces him both Son of God and King of Israel. 
            Come and see.  Jesus beckons us to follow and see for ourselves what discipleship is all about.  I find it interesting that in this passage Jesus is called by a variety of names.  In the first chapter of John’s gospel he is called by at least eight different names or titles.  That’s just the first chapter alone.  Jesus acknowledges them all.  We know that none of these names fully reveal or define the fullness of who Jesus is.  They cannot convey the glory of Jesus and what he will do.  But each person sees Jesus and recognizes Jesus in the way they most need.  John sees him as the Lamb of God, the one who takes away the sins of the world.  John has been baptizing people in preparation for this Lamb.  The disciples, wanting to learn, wanting to understand, see him as Rabbi, then as Messiah.  Nathanael, who is startled by how Jesus knows him, exclaims that he is the Son of God, the King of Israel.  They all name him in the way they understand him.  And Jesus is all of these names and more. 
            His invitation to come and see invites people to experience him and understand him in the way they need the most.  I often hear the expression that Jesus meets us where we are.  This passage exemplifies that statement.  Jesus meets all of these early disciples where they are.  Their names for him reflect their understanding of him.  I have a picture in my head of Jesus accepting each name they give him, extending his hand and inviting them to “come and see.” 
            Today and tomorrow, many of us will observe the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday.  Today as I picture Jesus extending his hand to the disciples with the invitation to come and see, I can’t help but think of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial in August, 1963.  The power of that speech comes not only from his substantive message and his call for justice, but for the picture he paints with his words; a picture of an America we still have not achieved. 
And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.

            Come and see.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. 

            Come and see.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."

          Come and see.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.[1]

Come and see.

           The picture that Dr. King painted with his words was not just of a better America; it was a small glimpse of what the Kingdom of God must be.  When Jesus invited the disciples to “come and see,” it wasn’t just to sample discipleship.  It wasn’t an invitation to a Meet and Greet with God.  Jesus invited the disciples to come and see for themselves the incarnate love of God.  Come and see the Lamb of God, come to save them.  Come and see that with the coming of Jesus, comes God’s kingdom.  Come and see.  As Jesus invited them, so he invites us. Let us experience for ourselves God’s love and true power.  Let us experience for ourselves the glorious and new thing God is doing right here in our midst.  Come and see the in-breaking of the kingdom of God.  Come and see.  Come and see.  Let all God’s children say, "Alleluia!"  Amen.

[1] “I Have a Dream” Speech, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. August 28, 1963, Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

On the Plus Side

            Yesterday I read an article in the Huffington Post about a controversy with the Swedish fashion company H&M.  Their new catalog is out, and in its “plus size” section the plus sized model did not look the way that label suggests.  Pictures of the model lit up social media.  People complained that this is one more way the fashion industry gives the message to women and girls that the ideal body size and shape is a size 4 or less.  In my opinion this model is gorgeous.  Tall.  Leggy.  Gorgeous.  I’ve seen other models that look more plus sized (whatever that means) who are also tall, leggy and gorgeous.  According to what I read, the company said the featured model wears the size of clothing that is the industry standard for plus size (14 in the U.S.).  I agree with the growing number of voices that are calling for the fashion industry to drop the plus size designation.  If you’re a model you’re a model, whether you wear a size 2 or a size 14.  But here’s what really got to me.  This plus sized model may be a size 14, but in terms of Small, Medium, or Large, she wears a Medium. 

            Wait?  What? 

            Medium is plus sized?  I wear Medium.  In fact, I worked damn hard to wear a Medium.  I was beyond thrilled the day I walked out of a dressing room in a Medium.  Yet reading that Medium is considered plus sized was that proverbial last straw on the camel’s back of my insecurities.  These insecurities have been on the rise lately, and my initial response was to give into the despair and self-loathing that they bring about.  But something inside me said, “No!  Enough is enough.”  So I took a step back and thought long and hard about my body image. 

            At the CREDO conference and retreat for clergy I attended last May the faculty person for health and wellness, a brilliant and beautiful woman, quoted these three statements. 
            How do we exploit creation? 
How do we enjoy creation? 
Do we accept creation with awe? 

            Then she said to substitute the word “creation” with the words “our bodies.”  How do we exploit our bodies?  How do we enjoy our bodies?  Do we accept our bodies with awe?  In my notes from that lecture I wrote, “What would it mean for me to see my body as creation and accept it with awe?”  I remembered this question yesterday, and I realized something.  I have spent approximately 36 of the 48 years I have lived on this earth NOT accepting my body as creation and NOT seeing it with awe.  Instead I have hated my body.  I have wished for any other body type than the one I have.  I have mistreated my body.  I have starved my body one minute and gorged it the next.  I have spent the majority of my life looking in the mirror and seeing nothing but flaws.  That isn’t just time misspent, that is sad.  Horribly, terribly sad. 

            So I asked myself these questions, “What is so wrong about my body?  What is so wrong about me?”  It occurred to me that my questions are wrong.  What I should have been asking all these years, what I should be asking now is, “What is fabulous about my body?  What is fabulous about me?”

            Here’s my answer. 
This body begins with an incredible brain.  Someone I love and admire very much described me as being “smart as a whip.”  And so I am.  I can stand in a pulpit and make words written thousands of years ago come alive.  I can open people’s eyes to hope in the most unlikely of circumstances.  I have a heart that’s compassionate and kind.  I can make people laugh.  I’m a good friend.  I’m a good mom.  And in this last year I’ve proven to myself that I am brave.    

And let’s not forget this actual body.  Last night I took another look at myself in the mirror.  Instead of seeing abs that will never be a six-pack and hips that I’ve bemoaned as being too wide and the general sagging and change that comes with life and gravity, I saw an amazing creation.  This body has been fortunate enough to carry and give birth to two incredible kids. I nourished them with this body, cradled them in my arms and carried them on these wide hips. 

            This body is healthier and stronger than it’s ever been.  It’s not a skinny body; it’s a medium body.  And maybe some would consider my medium body to be plus sized, but if that’s true so be it.  I rock these curves!

            What would it mean to see my body as creation and accept it with awe?  I think it’s time for me to find that out.