One Little Word

We come to worship each week and it is interesting and, I think, beautiful to pause for a moment and think that our Lord Jesus also gathered in a similar way to worship.
We don’t know everything about the practice of worship in the synagogue during the time of Jesus’ life and ministry but we do know that there was a liturgy and an order to the weekly gathering, somewhat similar to the liturgy we practice this morning.
We know, for example, that it was customary for a teacher to stand and read from the scrolls of the holy scriptures and then for the teacher to take a seat to interpret what they had read and teach the people.
So, Jesus, freshly baptized, begins his public ministry by coming to the synagogue of his hometown on the sabbath day to worship. As a teacher among the people he is handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and he unties the string and unrolls it, he finds this powerful, prophetic passage:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

As was common practice, Jesus then sits down to interpret the scripture, but what Jesus says for an interpretation, no one is ready for.
What Jesus says next is not what these hometown Nazarenes would have expected from his very first sermon. These are words from Isaiah are words of promise and words that all imagined described a far-distant future. But Jesus is saying that he has come to bring God’s ultimate reality to the present.
With one little word, Jesus calls their hearts and minds to be open to God’s immanence crashing into the present. With one little word, Jesus calls us to be open to God showing up in the present. With one little word: “Today.”
“Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Lots of teachers have taught about the meaning of “today,” of course. From the popular adage of “Carpe Diem” during the time of the Roman Empire, which they took from the much more ancient teaching of the Greeks, the idea of seizing the day and squeezing everything we can out of it, has come all the way down to us, which we see when teachers teach mindfulness, and the idea that power that comes from being present to the moment at hand.
Jesus is not the only teacher who has lifted up the importance of “today,” and, in fact, we almost don’t need a teacher to understand how it differs from the past and the future.
Life itself teaches us, somewhat brutally, that we can never go back to the past and make different decisions no matter how desperately we might wish we could. We also know that we can’t always affect the future in the ways that we would like. It is often beyond our control as well.
But we are always being given this moment of now; this gift of today.
And I think we get that. We understand that very well.
But Jesus says its more significant than we thought: TODAY is when and where God encounters us and meets us.
Today is not just a gift, but a gift from God who is present in this moment and is calling to us in this very moment.
Certainly, we tell the story of God’s activity in our past and sing and write and celebrate all the ways God has saved us, has provided for us, and has led us in the past.
And certainly, we know and tell about how God promises to prepare a future for us that is good, and a future with hope.
But we meet God in this moment. God encounters us today.

In some sense, there is no difference between us and the Israelites gathered around the Water Gate of Jerusalem with Nehemiah and Ezra.
These Israelites had been taken into captivity far away in Babylon, and for a generation were not free – not free to be and not free to worship – and now they have returned home and they have rebuilt the city and the temple and this second generation of returnees is gathered together in the morning sun to listen to the reading of the books of Moses, the beginning of our scriptures, that tell of God creating us, extending a covenant to us, and promising to bless us to be a blessing.
And these people in the bright morning sun hear this story and these words for the very first time. They hear the reading of scripture and its interpretation and all the people weep and mourn for their sins, for the ways that their actions have lead them far away from God, but Nehemiah says, “Listen, don’t weep and mourn, but instead eat the fat of the meat and drink sweet wine and send portions to those who have nothing prepared, for this day – today – is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
Today is the gift of God encountering us again, for the first time.
Just because we trusted God in the past doesn’t mean trusting him today has been taken care of. Today is the day God invites you to trust him.
Just because we have been open to a prayer life in the past, doesn’t mean that our prayers for today have been taken care of. Today is the day God invites you to open your life to him.
Again and again, Jesus shows us that this very day, this very moment is holy. Listen to what Jesus has to say about it:
Out in the village, when Jesus meet the tax collector Zacchaeus, he says, “Today salvation has come to this house.” And Zacchaeus is able to stop and really listen.
On the cross, Jesus says to the man being crucified next to him: “Today you will be with me in paradise and the man is able to see who Jesus really is.”
And when the disciples come to Jesus and ask how to pray, Jesus says to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. And give us today our daily bread.”
Jesus instructs us, who have so much, to ask God, “Give us today our daily bread,” because we have to be reminded we need God. We have to be reminded that God recreates the world every day, and that without him we perish. And that the only way we can connect with God is in the present moment.

This past week, our middle and high school youth and their families have been handing out what they call blessing bags to people in our community hoping for daily bread.
On Monday of this past week, as a way to celebrate MLK Day, some of the middle and high school youth gathered in the Star Lodge for a day of service.
We started the day thinking together about all the ways God has blessed us in the past, about the ways God is blessing us in the present and at this time in our life, and about the promises God makes to bless us in the future. We shared these with one another and remembered again how God blesses us to be a blessing.
So then we formed ourselves into an assembly line to make what we had come to call “Blessing Bags.”
We took about 50 gallon-sized Ziploc bags and filled each one with a lip balm, a toothbrush, a tube of sunscreen, a couple protein bars, hand-knitted scarves and socks made by our friends and partners in ministry at Hanover Adult Center, a hand-written word of hope from the scriptures, and various other goodies.
And at the end of a half-hour we had a large pile of blessing bags. Everyone in the group took a couple bags home so that throughout this week, with our families, we could give these bags to people around town who look like they could use one.
Youth have been texting me this week to tell me about how they were able to hand their bag to someone and say, “God loves you.”
Our young men and women seemed surprised at how easy it was to give and how grateful the men and women who received them were.
A man from Russia here in the US with a 2-year-old daughter and waiting on immigration papers said that just a chance to talk with another person about his challenges meant everything in the world to him.
A family said they were in awe that the person who received their bag said “God bless you!” and blessed them when they thought they were the ones doing the blessing.
Families told me that they continued to pray for the people they met on the street throughout the rest of the week.

Isaiah writes:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Today these words have been fulfilled in your hearing, through you and me, and the ministry of the congregation God has gathered here today. Through feeding ministries, through friendship, and through service to those who are crying out to God for help.

Like Paul’s image of a body with many members, we are each given our own unique gifts to share, and the Spirit binds us all to Jesus, who gathers us here around his table for the meal that feeds us with enough trust in God for today.

How beautiful to pause and think:

In this meal, Jesus is placed in our hands, and then Jesus calls us back into the world to use these same hands as he lives in us, and through us, for the sake of a world in need.

Not only yesterday. And not only tomorrow. But today.

Loose in the World

On Thursday of last week I was hanging out with Cheryl Baggs, our Faith Formation Director, and Tod Mitchell, our brand-new Facilities Manager, and thinking out loud about how high school seniors are really getting serious about their choice of college.
Tod and his wife Jackie have sent three off on their own and Cheryl is getting ready to send her oldest son to college in the fall.
Both agreed that parenting is a profound blessing, and you do all you can do as a parent to form a child, you try to teach them and shape them and help them to come to a place where they can think critically, act independently, and live confidently. You try to prepare them for a life beyond yourself. But at a critical point, all you can do – all that’s left to do – is to say “I love you,” and to turn them loose in the world.
At his baptism, God the Father says “I love you” to Jesus and then turns Jesus loose in the world.
Just as a parent shapes a child with their values and the child’s life is an extension of their own, so Jesus is let loose in the world to bring God’s values to the world and to be an extension of God in his ministry.
At Jesus’ baptism, God looks down on him and speaks, and this is the first time we hear God’s voice in Luke’s gospel. Angels have spoken to Zechariah and Mary, magi have worshipped Jesus as divine, but only now does God speak, and he say, “You are my Son. I love you. With you I am well-pleased.”
Now, in Jesus of Nazareth, God makes baptism something new. No longer will it be a ritual washing that communicates our best intentions to do better and love God more. Now baptism is the opening of heaven and the pouring out of the Spirit that moved over the waters at creation, bringing about a new creation in the one who stands under God’s voice, which says, “You are my beloved child, and with you I am well pleased.”
It is significant that God speaks these word of blessings and love over Jesus as a gift — before he has done any work: before he has cured diseases or healed anyone, before he has preached a sermon or taught a single lesson, before he has cast out demons or bested the devil, before he has raised a person from the dead, and before he has stilled the storm.
Jesus hasn’t don’t anything yet, really, but God speaks words of love and encouragement and lets Jesus loose in the world.
In fact, its these words of love and blessing that make Jesus ministry possible. With these words and the gift of the Holy Spirit God empowers Jesus life and work.
These words of love and blessing make it possible to heal, cure, preach, and point to God. Only the love of the Father gives Jesus the power to be the one who hold the winnowing fork to clear his threshing floor and separate the wheat for his barn and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.
Only the love of God at work in Jesus makes him the one who burns my brokenness and sin and your brokenness and sin– our chaff – as he works in us through the days and the weeks and the years and the lifetime we have been given, as we spend time with him in prayer and reading the word and living in Christian community.
In baptism, God pours out his love on you and me and we are made to be a part of God. We die to ourselves and are raised up to live in Jesus Christ.
We are made a part of his team.
A few weeks ago, we were really having football fever in our house. Sarah is a huge Green Bay Packers fan and we had been watching the Packers on tv. We were outside in the front yard and in the road and the children wanted to play football.
They aren’t able at 3 and 4 years old to comprehend many of the rules or even much beyond getting touchdowns, tackling, and end-zone dancing, but they knew that a football field had to have a logo in the middle of it.
So we got out the sidewalk chalk and I asked them what logo they wanted me to draw. They agreed that the logo should be Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, because Lucia, said, “That’s our team.”
We are made a part of Jesus’ team in our baptism.
He is our leader and he faithfully calls the plays that his Father would want us to run: He calls the play of forgiving, of bearing with our enemies, of working for healing. Jesus calls plays that we wouldn’t run if it was just up to us.
In our reading from Acts we hear how God the Father and Jesus his Son have called a play that has everyone sitting on their heels. They have turned the Holy Spirit loose in the world which brings people together, even though they wouldn’t choose one another.
These Samaritans and Hebrews would not choose to talk with one another, work together, or be a part of the same team, but the word of God is loose in the world and the Spirit sends Peter and John down to them to lay hands on them, pray with them, and be the vehicle through whom the Spirit will come to them.
We live in a world the plays up our differences – socioeconomic differences, differences of race, political differences – and we talk to people who are like us less and less, work together only if necessary, we build walls and imagine those who are different from us or who disagree with us to be evil.
The Holy Spirit says that all who are in Jesus are on the same team. The Spirit will separate our prejudice, judgment, and broken relationships out as chaff and leave us with our shared humanity, all people made in God’s image and people whom God has spoken over with the words, “You are my beloved child. I love you. With you I am well pleased.”
From Jesus’ baptism I think we learn three things about ourselves:
Because we are joined to Jesus in baptism, we can be obedient to God. Before the cross, Jesus kneels on the Mount of Olives and prays, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me, but not my will but yours be done.” Because Jesus is obedient to God and we are joined to Jesus, we can be obedient.
Because we are joined to Jesus in baptism, our prayers have power. Jesus’ prayer has the power to open heaven and when we pray our prayer is joining Jesus’ prayer, already in progress. We do not have the pressure of beginning to know what to ask for but are invited to join our Lord as he prays.
Because we are joined to Jesus in baptism, we are called to mission. God speaks over you and me, before you have done any work or any good thing: “You are my beloved child.” And yet, we are reminded that in that love we are sent out to a world in need, because God loves the world so much to and wants its healing through our lives.
Brothers and sisters, rejoice! We are baptized and our whole life is found in God, who turns us loose in the world. As a team.
Thanks be to God!