“On the Road Again: Rough Starts”
Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
January 30, 2022
Isaiah 61:1-11, Luke 4:21-30
The second lesson for today follows directly on the heels of what Pastor John presented last week in his sermon about first steps. Jesus is in the synagogue in his hometown and reads a section of scripture from Isaiah, the same section we just heard read in our first lesson. Jesus closes the scroll and says. READ LUKE 4:21-30
These beginning steps of Jesus escalate rather quickly into a very rough start. It can be confusing to us to understand why this scene escalates from the people being amazed at how wise Jesus is, to wanting to throw him off a cliff. The core of this interaction is caused by the relationship this town has with Jesus.
These people know Jesus. They had been there to see Jesus learn how to walk, they remembered when sentences were new to him and the words didn’t come out in the right order. They saw his awkward adolescence phase and witnessed many firsts and failures of Jesus’ life. They know Jesus; or do they?
Recently they have begun to hear different stories about Jesus. Some are saying he can heal people. There are some stories about inspiring teachings and great insights about God. They are excited Jesus stood up today in the synagogue because they finally get to see if these rumors from Capernaum are true.
If the town knows Jesus, then Jesus also knows the people in this town, too. Jesus has heard the men joke behind the backs of the soldiers, “We will see who is tough when the messiah comes.” Jesus has played the children's games in the streets where the messiah wins great battles against their enemies. Jesus has heard the stories of how wonderful life will be once the messiah arrives. No more hunger or pain, only peace, and health. Jesus knows what they expect from their messiah.
Drawing out these relationships allows us to see how this is a bit more like a stand-off than a happy homecoming. On one side, Jesus has faced the devil in the wilderness. He has been baptized and is ready to begin his ministry in the way he has been called to serve the world. On the other side, the people have been waiting for generations for a messiah and the rumors hint that maybe Jesus, one of their very own, is the long-awaited savior.
The stories they have told and retold about prophets being sent by God to save the people might be happening before their eyes. They desperately desire to be a part of that story. When Jesus stands up to read they all think this is it, this is their time to be part of the story.
Jesus knows the town too though and he knows they are missing a key detail about how God works in the world. He uses two of their beloved stories to show them, as gently as he can, what his ministry will be about. He reminds them that the widow Elijah is sent to help is a foreigner, even while the widows in their community continue to suffer. The leper Elisha is sent to heal is the commander of the enemy's army. God’s favor is not just for the chosen, it is for everyone.
It is suddenly clear to the town that this is not going to be the grand homecoming filled with miracles that Jesus’ neighbors wanted. It sounds like Jesus is NOT going to destroy their enemy but might actually be thinking about helping them. This is not their messiah and they are not going to stand around and let this kid from their town head out to help their enemies. The vibe switches instantly and they begin driving Jesus towards the cliff. A very rough start for Jesus indeed.
I would love to be able to say if you get the right map, pack the right things, have all the credentials, and everything is perfectly planned the journey goes smoothly. But if Jesus doesn’t even get that, I don’t think we should be expecting anything easier. Rough starts are going to be a part of our experience too.
But the great news is we get to see how Jesus handles rough starts. This is just one of the rough patches Jesus hits in his ministry. And I think if we collected them all we begin to see a pattern in how Jesus handles rough starts.
He gives everyone a chance.
He believes who people show him they are.
He knows when to establish boundaries.
The first thing Jesus does is he gives everyone a chance. He knew how this synagogue reading was going to go. He knew the worldview his town held and he knew what they expected from their messiah. They wanted someone to show up and squash the enemy and raise their chosen family to all seats of power. Jesus knew that was not what he was offering them, but he gave them a chance anyway.
This month I came across a video of a person crying. They had just come out as non-binary to their conservatively religious family. The tears made me assume the moment did not go well, but to my astonishment the parents had responded, “We love you, we want you to be happy.” It was a huge risk but this person gave them a chance and it paid off in the best way.
Jesus probably knew how that reading in the synagogue was going to go but he gives his hometown a chance to be with him anyway. Unfortunately, they are not. Given the chance, they choose to turn against Jesus. As they back him up against the cliff, Jesus does not soften his message and re-explain what he meant. He doesn’t reason with them or begs them to think this through. He takes their reaction at face value and silently slips away. He believes them when they show him who they are.
I have been blessed to have many friends who have been with me from preschool to now. Others have come and gone as life changes. Others though, I had to honestly see who they were and realize they were not on my side anymore. It is hard to make those calls because we remember the good times. We want to give them second and third chances because they have helped in other chapters of our lives. The best practice though is to believe people when they show you who they are. People can say all sorts of things but their actions will always tell you who they are.
Once Jesus gives the town a chance and they show him who they are, Jesus establishes boundaries to protect himself and the people who will join his ministry. We can see these boundaries in Matthew's gospel. Now Matthew does not include this scene in the synagogue. I don’t think he wanted to show the rough start, but he does show us the boundaries Jesus makes around the people of his hometown. Early on in Matthew’s gospel Jesus’ mother and siblings show up wanting to speak with Jesus. He replies, “Who is my mother, who is my brother?” It's one of those harsh truth moments from Jesus, but when we factor in what he experienced the last time he was probably with them, the harsh reply looks more like a healthy boundary. They were not with him when he gave them a chance so he has spent his energy developing relationships with people who are with him.
Jesus’ reaction to his rough start is helpful to us today. It encourages us to give everyone a chance. We may think we know what the outcome will be but until we give someone a chance we don’t know for sure. Everyone deserves a chance to show us who they are. And when they do, we believe what we are shown through their actions. When those actions are not helping you walk your journey with God or helping you become the person you were created to be, establish boundaries.
The truth of boundaries is that they may feel hurtful but they actually give someone another chance to show us who they are. Do they respect your boundaries or do they try to manipulate their way around your boundaries? Either way, you have again given them a chance to show you who they are and you have more information to establish appropriate boundaries again. We can always amend our boundaries if someone proves they have changed. Jesus does reconcile with his mother and possibly a few of his siblings. They must have shown Jesus they had changed and are willing to defend him should a mob arise again. When they showed him that, he adjusted his boundaries to welcome them in.
Or maybe we find ourselves on the outside of someone else's boundaries. That absolutely feels terrible. We may want to push back or take offense that they are not as open to us as before. Knowing, though, that boundaries are a part of Jesus’ ministry, we realize boundaries are not a punishment. They are feedback about how we are showing up for the people in our lives. They are another chance for us to grow and be better.
We give everyone a chance, and we keep a lookout for moments when we are given a free chance. We believe who people show us they are, and we show up for other people to show them who we are. We establish appropriate boundaries, and respect the boundaries of others so second and third chances are possible. With this framework, we ensure that rough starts are just that: starts. They do not mean an unnecessary end. Rough starts are starts that lead to the greater journey.
“On the Road Again: First Steps”
Rev. Dr. John Judson
January 23, 2022
Ezra 3:1-7, Luke 4:14-21
I had everything packed in the car. I had carefully loaded my camera bags with my video cameras, tripods, and sound equipment. Cindy and I then hopped in the car and headed for the interview we were going to be doing with Justin and Alexis Black. If you are unaware of who they are, Justin and Alexis both grew up in the foster care system. They met in college, married, and then wrote a book entitled, “Redefining Normal,” which is about their journey through the system and how with God’s help they redefined their lives. It is a great book. Cindy and I were excited about meeting them, and doing the interview, and so we headed up I-75. When we had driven about two hours, Cindy asked me, “Are you sure you have the right address?” “Of course,” I replied. “Why don’t we just pull over at this upcoming rest stop,” She said, “And be sure.” As Cindy was making her wise recommendation there was a still, small voice in the back of my head saying…didn’t you get a new address? Pulling into the rest area, we phoned. “Oh no, “Alexis said when she answered. “We moved to Kalamazoo a couple of months ago.” I apologized for the mix up and they were gracious letting us know that it would be ok if we were late. I then plugged their address into Google Maps and realized there was no easy way to get from where we were to where they were. I suppose the upside was that Cindy and I saw parts of Michigan we would never have seen otherwise. We finally made it to their home, were received warmly, and got a marvelous interview…which by the way you can watch on our website. That story kept coming back to me this week as I thought about first steps; the first steps of a journey. That while it is true that the longest journey begins with a single step, it always helps if that step is in the right direction.
The same holds true for our faith journeys. To start, or to start again, it helps to be pointed in the right direction. The question is, how do we do that? How do we ensure that our first steps are in the right direction? Fortunately, both our stories this morning offer us insight into how we can move in the right direction regardless of where we are in our journeys. Our story out of Ezra describes the first steps that the returning Jewish community made when they returned to the ruins of Jerusalem after years of exile. I say that Jerusalem was in ruins because the Babylonians had literally burned what could be burned and pulled down what could be pulled down. The city was a heap of rubble. One would think that the first priority of the returnees would be to rebuild the walls of the city for protection, or to raise a defense force; for they were surrounded by enemies, nations who did not want the Jews to rebuild their city and their lives. But the returnees did not do that. Instead, they built an altar to God. Then they made their first offerings. Then they made plans to rebuild the Temple. In other words what the Jewish people did was to begin their journey by orienting themselves to the God who had saved them. The people engaged in religious practices and rituals that made sure that their hearts were rightly oriented, toward God and not toward fear. In this way they believed that this new opportunity they had been given to be God’s people would be successful.
Our story out of Luke offers us a different look at what first steps might look like. Jesus has been baptized, anointed by the Spirit, and successfully resisted the temptation to wander off the path God had set for him. Our story then is Jesus taking his first steps in his new journey. The text begins with Jesus reading from the prophet Isaiah “The Spirit of the Lord 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, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then Jesus sits down and says, “Today these words have been fulfilled in your hearing.” In other words, Jesus is telling the people that he is the anointed one. He is the one who has come to save the world. To put it another way. What Jesus is doing is taking his place in “The Story.” The Story is what I referred to a couple of weeks ago when we were packing for this journey. We were to pack The Story, the Spirit, and the Son. The Story was the story of God at work redeeming the world. It was the story that God had not only been working for redemption over time, freeing God’s people from slavery and bringing them home from exile, but that now, in Jesus, God was going to something decisive to bring the restoration of the world; to set humanity free from sin and bondage. We can see this a bit more clearly when we focus on the word “Today” with which Jesus began. It meant that “The Story was not a someday, some time, in some way story. It is a story in which Jesus is taking his place in that moment.
Both stories point us to possibilities for our first steps. First, we can and should intentionally orient ourselves to God through religious practices and rituals. I realize that this sounds very churchy, but the reality is that we are creatures of habit. What we do and how we do it, what we believe and how we live those beliefs are all guided by our practices. In their book “Redefining Normal,” Justin and Alexis talk about the “practices” and “rituals” that their biological families taught them. These practices and rituals were not life-giving. They were destructive. Only by learning and practicing new ways of living, including orienting themselves to God, were they able to live lives of joy and hope. If we want to be those whose lives are moving in the right direction, in the Jesus direction toward life, then we need to develop practices and rituals that point us down the path God desires that we take. These can be as simple as attending worship, whether online or in-person. It can be a practice of prayer, extemporaneous or familiar. It can be meditation or Bible reading. Or it can be all the above. The advantage of engaging in these practices is that once they become a ritual, like our morning or evening rituals, they will help to ensure that our first steps are pointing us in the way we should go.
The second way in which we can ensure that we are headed in the right direction is to place ourselves in The Story as did Jesus. What I mean by this is that The Story is both an ancient story and a story being lived today. It is a story that is not only intended to inform us of what God has done and is doing, but it is a story in which we are to play a part. Justin and Alexis found their part of the story. They felt led to create a ministry to assist children and teens not only in the Foster Care system, but in any life circumstance, to discover how to reorient their lives toward life and joy. Being part of The Story means discovering where God can use our gifts and talents to help make creation look more and more like the Kingdom of God, so that God’s will can be done on earth as it is in heaven. And if you are wondering where you might serve, or where your place might be, get in touch with Rev. Bethany or me and we can offer you some guidance.
I realize that many of us have been on our faith journeys for a long time and we might be wondering what do these first steps have to do with us? The answer I would offer is that it is a good thing to on occasion, pull into a rest stop, and check to be sure that the address to which are headed is the right one…and then take some new first steps. My challenge for you then during this week is to ask yourselves, how am I orienting myself daily to God, and where is my place in The Story?
“On the Road Again: Credentials”
Rev. Dr. John Judson
January 16, 2022
Ezra 2:59-63; Luke 3:23-38
It looked like something that would be good to have. It was my first year here at First Presbyterian and I met one of my pastor friends in the parking structure at Beaumont Hospital. Attached to his shirt was a red “clergy badge.” I asked him about it and he said that it was not necessary to visit but that it would get me in after normal visiting hours and into places in the hospital that ordinary mortals were not allowed to go. I then enquired as to where to get one. He told me to go to the chaplain’s office. So, after my hospital visit, I went to apply. When I entered the office and asked about getting a badge, they informed me that they would need to see my credentials. They would need to see my certificate of ordination and a letter from my church, on letterhead, signed by someone other than me. As I walked away, I thought two things. First how was I going to get my certificate of ordination since I had never received one when I was ordained in 1985? The second was, why would anyone want to fake being a pastor just to get one of those little red badges? The first question was answered by the Stated Clerk of my ordaining presbytery who got me my certificate, and by Jan Peters who wrote and signed the letter. The second question was answered, in a way, when I discovered that close to thirty-percent of people lie on their resumes by exaggerating their skills and experience. In other words, people, for any number of reasons, are willing to lie about their credentials to get what they want.
Lying about credentials isn’t anything new. In the ancient world, kings and potentates were always lying about how great they were, the battles they had won, and the kingdoms they had conquered. And evidently there were some priests that it would appear were lying about their credentials in the return to Jerusalem from Babylon. As Ezra puts it, “The following were those who came up from Tel-melah, Tel-harsha, Cherub, Addan, and Immer, though they could not prove their families or their descent, whether they belonged to Israel.” What was this all about? Well, there are two things we need to understand about this rather cryptic passage. The first is that the Jews that had been exiled into Babylon remained an intact community by doing two things. First, they made lists of who really belonged to the people of Israel so that they would know who was in and who was out. Second, they kept the Law of Moses in everything that they did. In this way they were not absorbed religiously into the Babylonian world. When they returned home, they looked for priests to serve in the soon to be rebuilt temple, so they checked their lists. They checked their lists to ensure that only the people referenced in Torah were allowed to serve God…and the people mentioned in our morning’s story were not on any of their lists. They had faked their credentials.
Credentials were equally important to the Jews of Jesus’ time as well as to those who ran the Roman Empire. Jews were still doing record keeping of who was in and who was out. The Empire kept records of who was a citizen, who was a slave, who was adopted, and who was natural born. And one’s status in the empire was always tied to these sorts of credentials. This posed a problem for Luke as he was telling his tale about Jesus. This was a problem because on the surface Jesus had no credentials that would lead either Jews or Romans to consider him to be a messiah. All they knew of him was that he was a carpenter, turned traveling teacher, who “supposedly” died and was then resurrected. While that is somewhat impressive, the people listening to Luke’s story would want to know if Jesus had any credentials that would let people know he was worth following. So, Luke offers a genealogy that was intended to satisfy both audiences. For the Jews, Luke begins by saying that Jesus was thirty years old when he began his work, which was the age that priests were when they began to work…so Jesus was spiritually mature and capable of the work. Second Luke ties Jesus to David, the great king. This was critical for a Jewish audience because only a descendant of David could be king, and for many, a messiah. As a side note, the last descendant of David who was acknowledged as a prince of the people, was a man named Zerubbabel, who we read about last week. In other words, it had been four hundred years since a king of Israel had been seen. So here is Jesus, with his lineage credentials tying him to David. For the Roman audience, Luke had to dig a little deeper. Within Roman culture the more ancient one’s lineage, the better. The more one could tie oneself to the past, the more respect one was given. Where this led was that many of the emperors had pedigrees that listed gods or goddesses in their family tree. Luke, then, is not about to let any emperor outdo Jesus, and so Jesus’ lineage is offered unbroken back to the first human being and to God’s own self. While these credentials alone did not bring people into the church, into the Jesus community, they were foundational for assuring Luke’s audience that Jesus was worth following.
Where this brings us then is to our own credentials. What are the credentials that we are to take on our journey? The first is a credential for those within the Church. One of the interesting things about the worldwide church is that there are churches and denominations that refuse to recognize our place within the community. There are churches and denominations that claim that they, and they alone, are the true church; that only by joining them, or being baptized like they are baptized, or having the spiritual gifts that they have, can we be true Christians. But my friends, we have credentials. We have our baptisms. I say this because in baptism we have been grafted into Christ. We have been adopted as a child of God. We have been made part of the very body of Christ, the church. We also have the cross. We have our profession of faith in Jesus Christ, that he is Lord and Savior. These two credentials, whether others accept them or not, demonstrate that we are part and parcel of the Jesus’ community.
The second credential we have is for the world. Unfortunately, when the world looks at the church and Christians, what it often sees is hatred, condescension, and a community that does not seem to care about anyone other than itself. Our credential to the world then is our service to the least, the lost, and the lonely. Our credential is the service we offer to those outside of our community. It is our work with Angels’ Place homes, at Alcott, packing food baskets, serving the homeless, and caring for others. These acts of service are the credentials to the world that we are who we say we are, followers of Jesus, and we do what He has asked us to do. Which, if we read the Book of Acts, also written by Luke, was what drew people into the life of the church. In other words, we serve the world because we are they, and they are us. And as the old hymn states, they will know we are Christians by our love, by our love. This is our credential to the world.
We are now ready for our journey. Two weeks ago, we heard Rev. Bethany talk about the ethical map of John the Baptist. Last week we packed the Story, the Spirit, and the Son. This week we discovered our credentials. And so next week we take our first steps. My challenge to you then is this, to ask yourselves, how am I allowing my credentials to guide who I am and what I do?
Rev. Dr. John Judson