SERMON It’s Okay to Be Ungrateful

A reading from the Gospel according to Luke, the 17th chapter.

11 On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. 12 And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance 13 and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” 14 When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; 16 and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus answered, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? 18 Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17:11–19 ESV)

Gratitude. We’re told to cultivate it. The Samaritan here has it, and in many ways, that cultivation of gratitude — give thanks to God for all God has done for you — is a central message of both the Bible and the Qur’an.

God has provided for you. Isn’t it better that you thank God for that provision?

So the Samaritan here, the foreigner, the nonbeliever, here is possessed of the right attitude. After all, Jesus commanded them all to go show themselves to the priest to do as commanded in Leviticus 14 when a leper (really, anyone suffering any kind of skin ailment) is finally cleansed. And it is likely the Samaritan had no priest nearby to resent himself to (though the Samaritan had a ritual of some kind based in Leviticus, since the Samaritans had the Torah; a different Torah, but a Torah). So it makes sense the Samaritan would turn back and thank Jesus.

He likely has no other easy option.

And yes, it is good to be grateful, to thank God, to remember that Christ himself wondered why the other nine healed lepers, likely all Judeans, did not come back to praise God and thank Jesus?

But note this — those other nine were still healed. They still walked away to do as the Torah commanded them (though we don’t know if that’s what they actually did). They did not thank Jesus or praise God. I’m guessing their faith did not make them well as it did with the Samaritan, or with the Centurion in Luke 7.

The most faithful and amazing responses to God’s unearned grace we will find among those we least expect it — foreigners, outcasts, occupiers, those we have rejected. Those who cannot rely on their patrimony as the People of Abraham, recipients of the promise, to show they are entitled to an inheritance, to the blessings of God.

However, it’s okay to be ungrateful too. For the sun rises and shines on the those who are good and those who are evil, and it rains on the just and the unjust alike. (Matthew 5:45) We should be grateful — it’s better when we are — but we are the recipients of God’s grace whether we know it or not and whether we pay it back with worship and gratitude.

Like the Samaritan, we worship because we have encountered Jesus and we know we have to do something — to grovel, to adore, to give even a little something of ourselves back to show we understand who we have met and what that means for us and for the entire world.

But we don’t have to. We don’t have to.

It is okay to walk away, to do — or not — only as much as the law requires. God is still at work, still healing, still teaching, still pronouncing forgiveness and healing to lost and broken world. Whether or not the world gives thanks, pays any attention, or even knows that God is in its midst.

SERMON It Doesn’t Take Hardly Any Faith At All

A reading from the Gospel of Luke, the 17th Chapter.

5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 And the Lord said, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

7 “Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? 8 Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? 9 Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” (Luke 17:5–10 ESV)

I’ve heard a lot of sermons in my life that talk about our faith from the standpoint of the disciples — if a little can do so much, imagine what a lot could accomplish?

If we just had lives that overflowed with faith, if we really, truly, actually believed, we could do more than command the trees or move the mountains! We could change the world! We could maybe even save the world!

With that much faith, there are no limits to what we could do.

After all, the mustard seed is a small thing that grows and gives brith to a tree big enough for birds to build nests and seek shelter in! A tiny thing can become a great thing!

So, if we had more than a mustard seed, imagine — a redwood tree, growing hundreds of feet in to the air! Something for all the world to see!

But … what if that’s not the point of this parable? Yes, Jesus is serious. Even a tiny amount of faith can move things, change things, command things, incredible and amazing and astounding things.

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What if we can’t have that faith? What if we can’t have more? What if we cannot even manage something as tiny and unimportant as a mustard seed? What if all the faith we have is something smaller — a grain of pollen, a long chain hydrocarbon molecule, or even two atoms of hydrogen and oxygen that make water. Or even less – an atom’s worth of faith, and not something heavy and complex like uranium, but the simplest and smallest thing there is — one proton and one electron, hydrogen?

What if all the faith we have is so small it cannot be seen, and is more empty space than substance? What if that mustard seed is more faith than we could conjure up in a dozen lifetimes?

What if Jesus’ answer is ironic, a way to tell the disciples that increasing faith isn’t what’s at stake here. Because even that tiny hydrogen atom of faith can do a great deal. Can love, reach out, can heal, can reconcile, can raise from the dead. It doesn’t take hardly any faith at all to live in this kingdom, to do the work of this kingdom, to bear the fruit of this kingdom.

And that’s a good thing. Because I don’t have mustard seed faith. I’m not sure how much faith I have, but it isn’t that much. No trees that can shelter birds sprout from my trust in God, much less obey my command to yank themselves out of the soil and hurl themselves several miles to the sea.

I do, however, have enough faith. Enough to do the work of love, mercy, and grace that I have been called to. That Christ invited me, commanded me, to do when he told me on that horrible day in September, 2001 underneath burning towers:

“My love is all that matters.”

But living in this kingdom, doing kingdom work, bearing kingdom fruit, being filled with even a tiny bit of kingdom faith, is not a thing we’re going to get much thanks for. There are no awards, no bonuses, no trophies, no not even much thanks for our trust, our faith, and our work. Most of use labor in obscurity, unknown by many except by the Jesus who called us. We are unworthy servants doing what Jesus has called us to do — the hard work of preaching, teaching, baptizing, proclaiming, and living the good news of a kingdom that will never end. God’s rule is here and now, in Christ’s love for us, on our love for each other and the world.

This is our calling. This is our duty. This is our love.

This is God’s love.

SONG – Lazarus

So, one of this Sunday’s readings from the Revised Common Lectionary is one that has always made me giggle a bit.

4 “Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory
and stretch themselves out on their couches,
and eat lambs from the flock
and calves from the midst of the stall,
5 who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp
and like David invent for themselves instruments of music,
6 who drink wine in bowls
and anoint themselves with the finest oils,
but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!
7 Therefore they shall now be the first of those who go into exile,
and the revelry of those who stretch themselves out shall pass away.”
(Amos 6:4-7 ESV)

I’ve always found the bit about “idle songs” intriguing, since I spend a lot of time writing idle songs. I don’t have a harp, but I suspect in our day and age, the guitar and ukulele would work as instruments to call down woe upon the one who strums them idly.

Which would be me, I suppose.

And that reminds me, where is my bowl of wine?

At any rate, the reason I did not post a contemplation or reflection on this week’s Gospel reading (Luke 16:19–31, the rich man and Lazarus) is because I’d written a song about it — this song, “Lazarus,” and it’s the first Scripture song I’ve written in a long, long time.

I didn’t get to play it this Sunday, but I hope to play it soon.

Speaking of which, I want to come play my songs at your church. Let me know when I can come…

JOSHUA Reaping What You Did Not Sow

Chapter 24, the final chapter of Joshua, begins with Joshua relating Israel’s story to the people as they are gathered to hear his last testament to the people of God gathered at Schechem. And Joshua tells them of the nature of the gift they have received from God:

I gave you a land on which you had not labored and cities that you had not built, and you dwell in them. You eat the fruit of vineyards and olive orchards that you did not plant. (Joshua 24:13 (ESV)

This is a world in which we all strive to make more than we take, in which we admire self-reliance, in which we claim “I built this!” And take great pride in what we build, accumulate, and leave behind. We earn what we earn, digging and hewing and carving it out of the very ground we walk upon.

We earn. It’s what we do. It’s what we strive to. We labor. It is honest, decent, moral. To earn our daily bread. I want to earn. I want to work and draw a paycheck or even sing for my supper. I want to know I’ve done honest labor, can care for my family, and even help support others. An orphanage in India I have been aching to help.

But Joshua reminds Israel that they did not earn this land. And have they not worked it. They reap fruit they did not sow in a land that was full of people they have driven out, killed, conquered, and enslaved. I suspect this strikes many of us as tremendously unjust — especially in a world where war and conquest, occupation and imperialism, are viewed with great disdain, as fundamentally immoral acts.

Western Christians — at least some of us — are repenting of these things, and repudiating church teachings that proclaimed lands already full of people actually empty, places open for conquest and settlement. We condemn this kind of thing, we do not celebrate it.

And we certainly don’t attribute this kind of gift to God.

All this reminds me of the parable of the Ten Minas in Luke 19:11–27. It’s a harsh parable, especially when it comes to the servant who was so afraid that he did nothing with the sum he’d been entrusted with:

20 Then another came, saying, ‘Lord, here is your mina, which I kept laid away in a handkerchief; 21 for I was afraid of you, because you are a severe man. You take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.’ 22 He said to him, I will condemn you with your own words, you wicked servant! You knew that I was a severe man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow? 23 Why then did you not put my money in the bank, and at my coming I might have collected it with interest?’ 24 And he said to those who stood by, ‘Take the mina from him, and give it to the one who has the ten minas.’ 25 And they said to him, ‘Lord, he has ten minas!’ 26 ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” (Luke 19:20–26 ESV)

I’ve heard lots of attempts to turn this into a critique of the political and economic system of the empire in which God is not complicit, none of them ring true, I believe the harsh master off to claim the kingdom in another land is Christ1, and he is returning to the judge the church — his followers who have been entrusted with the wealth of God in the absence of our master.

And this brief passage from Joshua bolsters that view. God does, in fact, give to those who have not earned, who did not deserve. God takes from those too frightened to live (and maybe sin) boldly in faith. Many reap who never sowed seeds of wheat, and much sowing is done by those who will never take a scythe to the grain they have planted. Who will never thresh.

Earlier in Luke 12, Jesus tells the story of a rich fool who takes comfort knowing his silos are full of grain, who relaxes to eat and drink, not knowing he will die that night.

But God said to him, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”

Is God just or unjust here? Perhaps because this parable is a critique of wealth, couched in terms of inevitable and inescapable death, that we can accept it. We will all die. We will all leave behind things, the wreckage of our lives, that will become the possessions of others. The parable of the minas is different. It suggests a coming judgment — and like many of the judgment stories in Luke, it’s a harsh and brutal judgment — in which God will actively take from one who has little and give to one who already has more than enough.

Like the parable of the minas, however, this gifting of the land — a land already populated with women and men, old and young, full of cities and fields — is conditioned upon Israel’s adherence to the covenant. And we are about to reach that moment in the biblical narrative in which the Israel will begin to reap the consequences of its failure to do as God commanded when the gift of this land was made. God will stop fighting for Israel. Eventually, this land will vomit Israel out. Just as God said it would.


  1. I believe the allusion here is to Vespasian, the Roman general who in the midst of the Jewish War, left with a legion to seize power in Rome, placing his son Titus in charge of besieging Jerusalem and destroying (accidentally, if press reports are to be believed) the city. ↩︎

SERMON Workers For The Harvest

I didn’t preach this Sunday, but if I had, it would have looked and sounded like this.

Seventh Sunday After Pentecost (Year C)

  • Isaiah 66:10–14
  • Psalm 66:1–9
  • Galatians 6:[1–6] 7–16
  • Luke 10:1–11, 16–20

1 After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go. 2 And he said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. 3 Go your way; behold, I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. 4 Carry no moneybag, no knapsack, no sandals, and greet no one on the road. 5 Whatever house you enter, first say, Peace be to this house!’ 6 And if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest upon him. But if not, it will return to you. 7 And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his wages. Do not go from house to house. 8 Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you. 9 Heal the sick in it and say to them, The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ 10 But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, 11 Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’ 12 I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town.

13 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. 14 But it will be more bearable in the judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 15 And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades. 16 The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me.”

17 The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” 18 And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. 19 Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. 20 Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:1–20 ESV)

The harvest is plentiful, Jesus said, but there are few workers to come harvest.

My question is: why?

My grandfather owned a farm and ranch southwest of Spokane, and in the summer — if it has been a good year — the hills of that farm would turn gold as the wheat and the barley ripened underneath a hot, dry, blue sky. And in a good year, that wheat would yield fifty-fold.

The harvest would be plentiful. Hills covered with grain, ready for reaping. Stalks of grain, ready for threshing.

Even though the work was largely done by machines, there was still a need for laborers. And my grandfather always had a few, at least when I was little. Young men, doing the hard work the older men could no longer easily do, bucking bails of hay and driving trucks full of harvested grain.

There were always laborers. Always men, ready, willing, able to work for the harvest.

Does anyone remember a few months ago, when some news agency mistakenly reported that the state of Hawaii was hiring anyone with a bachelor’s degree, certified or not, to teach at island schools. The state department of education was inundated with resumes from job seekers from across the world. (Truthfully, I almost sent them my resume!) Now, maybe there would have been equal interest if that state had been, say, North Dakota. Maybe. Hawaii had to make clear the following day that it had lowered standards for its teachers — certification was still required to teach in Hawaii, reports to the contrary notwithstanding.

We see it, from time to time, dozens, hundreds, thousands of applicants seeking work. People lined up around city blocks to submit applications for highly coveted positions — like teaching in Hawaii! All wanting the dignity that comes with steady employment, meaningful or not.

The harvest is, well, not so much. But the laborers are plentiful. We see that with our own eyes.

So … why does Jesus tell us the exact opposite? As he sends his disciples out two-by-two, not long after being shown no hospitality by a community of Samaritans, after calling and being followed by people he meets along the way to Jerusalem? Why is this harvest so plentiful and yet it attracts few laborers?

What is the harvest? And what does it mean to labor in this harvest?

Jesus shows us what it means to labor in his harvest. It means going out without what we consider proper preparations or provisions. Pack nothing, greet no one on the road. Do not let what you are supposed to carry distract you from your calling.

Who of us here have ever traveled anywhere without making proper preparations, without packing for the trip, without taking extra clothes and the money needed to cover basic needs and deal with emergencies? Who here has ever picked up and gone someplace new, amongst strangers, and trusted they would provide hospitality, care, food, protection, ears to listen to the good news the God’s kingdom is coming near?

It’s hard, what Jesus asks. Try it, sometime.

He even builds into this calling the expectation that some people, some places, will not welcome, will not accept you, will not care for you or provide for you. That too, is part of what it means to labor for the harvest. We will be unwelcome.

This too seems to be the kingdom drawing near. That some will refuse to welcome. They will pay the price, Jesus tells us, come the day of judgment. Kick the dust off your feet and move on.

For the harvest is plentiful. The hills are covered in ripening grain.

So, we must trust God. We must trust that somewhere, hands will provide. People will welcome, peace will be spoken, bread will broken, meals will be shared. All the power of Satan to temp and break and confuse and confound mean nothing in this kingdom growing near. We have power — life-restoring, death-defeating, resurrection power. That’s real power.

But it seeks no glory. It seeks no fame. Life everlasting is all it proclaims. So many who labor for the harvest labor alone, unseen, unsung, their names lost to history and their bones long turned to dust, awaiting that day when the trumpet will blast and the dead will rise, alive and remade, to the final judgment of Christ.

We want glory. I want glory. We want fame. I want fame. We want something more than complete reliance on welcoming strangers. I want something more. I want bread earned by the sweat of my brow, honest sweat, from honest labor. And we want something more than to have to kick the dust off our feet when we meet hostility and fear.

Sometimes, I want fire from heaven to devour those who have not welcomed or received me. To show them just who and what they have rejected.

This is thankless work, this calling Christ has given us. We do not know who these 70 (or 72) others are. They have no names, at least not in scripture. They go unremembered. We know they were called, given this commission, and came back rejoicing that even demons bowed down to the name of Jesus! But we don’t know who they are. We don’t know what became of them.

Let me suggest, sisters and brothers, that the reason Jesus tells us the laborers are few is because the work is hard, we have to trust complete strangers will provide for us, we have to heal the sick and cast out demons, and we have to move on when we find no welcome. We receive no pension, no salary, no titles, and likely no recognition.

We don’t even speak for ourselves. We speak only for the one who called us to this miserable, amazing, incredible, thankless work, who sent us out to proclaim his kingdom.

Who’d want that work? Not me.

Not me.

And yet … here I am. He called me. I followed.

I followed.

SERMON For We Are Legion…

I didn’t preach today, but if I had, it likely would have looked like this:

Fifth Sunday After Pentecost (Year C)

  • Isaiah 65:1–9
  • Psalm 22:19–28
  • Galatians 3:23–29
  • Luke 8:26–39

26 Then they sailed to the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27 When Jesus had stepped out on land, there met him a man from the city who had demons. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he had not lived in a house but among the tombs. 28 When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell down before him and said with a loud voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me.” 29 For he had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many a time it had seized him. He was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the desert.) 30 Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Legion,” for many demons had entered him. 31 And they begged him not to command them to depart into the abyss. 32 Now a large herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside, and they begged him to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33 Then the demons came out of the man and entered the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and drowned.

34 When the herdsmen saw what had happened, they fled and told it in the city and in the country. 35 Then people went out to see what had happened, and they came to Jesus and found the man from whom the demons had gone, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind, and they were afraid. 36 And those who had seen it told them how the demon-possessed man had been healed. 37 Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked him to depart from them, for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. 38 The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39 “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” And he went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city how much Jesus had done for him. (Luke 8:26–39 ESV)

Their name was Legion.

Λεγιων. The largest military formation in the Roman army, anywhere from 3,000 to 6,000 men under arms, though at the time this was taking place, let’s trust the 6,000 men figure. But there’s a colloquial use, one we have to this day. “My troubles are legion,” we might remark, noting that our woes are so great they cannot be counted.

Many. Too many to number. Brutal. Destructive. Thorough. The Romans has been in Judea, in the Greek east, for more than a century at this point, having arrived with the Roman General Pompey when he conquered Jerusalem some 90 years before the events in our Gospel reading, the people of Judea knew Romans, knew their soldiers, their order, and their methods for keeping that order.

The Romans came, and conquered, and stayed. They did not leave. Not freely.

And there was no power in the world, not at this point in history, capable of bringing the empire and its armies to permanent heel. Germans and North Africans and Parthians — Iranians, if you must know — could inflict the occasional defeat on the armies of Rome, take the occasional chunk of territory, capture soldiers and booty — such a regimental standards; such an event at the hands of German tribesman along the Rhine kept a distraught Emperor Augustus up for some nights, wandering the palace, crying out, “General Varus, where are my eagles?!?” — and humiliate Rome for a time.

But there was no permanent victory against Rome. No liberation, no expulsion, no end of occupation and rule by Rome and its satraps and governors.

Rome came. Rome saw. Rome conquered. Rome colonized. Rome stayed.

A little like the demons in our gospel reading today. The demons have made their home in this man, have conquered and colonized him, but instead of civilizing him (as the Romans aspired to), they have turned him into a naked barbarian, unfit for human companionship, at home only among the dead, bound in chains for his own safety — and for the safety of others.

We don’t know why he became host to a legion, of demons beyond counting. Luke merely says he was a man “who had demons,” as if that somehow explains everything. We can speculate why these demons found him an attractive host, but we cannot know anything conclusively. Luke calls him “a man from the city” [ἀνήρ τις ἐκ τῆς πόλεως], a description similar to that of the unnamed “woman of the city” [γυνὴ ⸂ἥτις ἦν ἐν τῇ πόλει] used to describe the woman who weeps and kneels and anoints Jesus’ feet.

But … we do know those demons know who Jesus is. They have no doubt about his identity. “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you do not torment me!”

And yet, torment them Jesus does. He commands them to leave the man, and this legion begs — “Please don’t send us to the abyss!!!”

Again, these demons so numerous they cannot be counted do not want to be went to place so vast and deep it has no bottom anyone can find. They are at home, occupying this man, chained and alone, asleep among the dead. They would rather be with, in, and under him than back in the place they came from — their boundless and bottomless abode.

But … Jesus controls the demons. At his word, he commands them to leave. He rebuked the stormy skies and the turbulent sea, he ordered the demons out of the man, and he gives them permission — permission — to enter the pigs. Which then drown themselves.

Jesus commands. The elements obey. The demons obey. I don’t know what Legion’s fate is after this. I don’t particularly care. Dead demons aren’t an interest of mine.

Jesus commands. And the demons, who had every intention of staying forever and a day, leave.

The man is healed. Calm. In his right mind. Freed of his chains, probably clothed, and now ready to dwell among the living.

But the living … don’t want any part of him. Meeting Jesus has healed him, and made him whole, but it hasn’t restored him to the community, not this place where he dwelled, whose people had lived in fear of him when he was possessed by demons. Because they are afraid of him now. And they beg him to leave. Possessed, they could handle him, even if they were afraid of him.

But healed … they have no idea what to do.

Redeemed, in his right mind, ready to follow Jesus, there’s no place for him. Not even with Jesus, who sends him home and commands him to bear witness.

Jesus meets legion, and commands legion to go. All that the people of this place try to do only keeps the demons at bay, only restrains them, only keeps their host out of sight and out of mind. But Jesus, Jesus commands them. Drives them out. With a word. And he frees a man who could not be freed, could not free himself.

This legion that comes, and sees, and conquers, and colonizes, that stays and cannot ever be made to leave, this legion is expelled. Not by force. Not by threats. Not by violence. There was no way to send the demons away with the force they used to occupy and possess. The demons, this legion, are masters of that violence. They can be restrained by violence, sometimes, but we cannot fight them with their means.

But by an authoritative word from the Son of the Most High is enough to terrify this legion. They know who Jesus is, fear his power and authority, and beg him not to dispatch them back home.

Legion knows who Jesus is.

We are beset and possessed by demons who are legion. The have come into our midst, they saw, they conquered, they colonized, and they stayed. We are afraid of them. We try to fight these demons using all of the tools at disposal. We know they occupy and posses us, so we fight back. We seek to be free of them.

So, with violence, cunning, and brutality, we struggle against Legion. We try to contain these demons, knowing they possess us. We bind ourselves in heavy chains, and then we break our binds, and flee madly into the wilderness. We are more at home among the dead than we are with the living.

More at home among the dead than the living.

But Legion cannot be fought successfully, cannot be beaten, with the means it uses. There is no violence, no war, no self-righteousness, no hate, no fear, that will defeat or even keep Legion at bay. We may throw it off for a time with our own efforts, but eventually, Legion will come back, take hold of us, occupy us, possess us.

Legion has come to stay. Legion has no intention of leaving.

But a word from the Son of Most High is enough to make Legion go. We, who seek to defeat our demons, to limit the damage they can do, are powerless. But the power of God in Jesus is enough. A word from Jesus is enough. It has set us free. It has cast the demons out.

SERMON The Stones Don’t Have to Cry Out

I preached this Sunday, March 20, at Emmanuel-St. John’s Lutheran Church in Hudson, New York. And it went something like this:

Palm & Passion Sunday (Year C)

  • Isaiah 50:4-9a
  • Psalm 31:9-16
  • Philippians 2:5-11
  • Luke 22:14 to 23:56

Ho-sanna, Hey-sanna, sanna sanna ho, sanna hey, sanna ho-sanna…

Anyone remember that melody? From Jesus Christ Superstar? Anyone?

We’re missing something in our readings today. We’ve got the whole bloody story of Jesus from that last supper in the upper room to the betrayal, to Peter’s denial, to Jesus being mocked and tried and handed over and put to death. On that cross, that cross Simon of Cyrene was forced to help him carry all the way up that hill. We even have his burial, in that borrowed tomb.

From a rented room to a borrowed tomb. No place of his own. We have that today.

But today is Palm Sunday, and we’re missing the Palms, the waving, the singing of “Hosanna” and the calling out — Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!

I’m going to beg your indulgence today, but I need to read just a wee bit more scripture. The Holy Gospel from Luke, the 19th chapter.

28 And when he had said these things, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. 29 When he drew near to Bethphage and Bethany, at the mount that is called Olivet, he sent two of the disciples, 30 saying, “Go into the village in front of you, where on entering you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever yet sat. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it? ’ you shall say this:‘The Lord has need of it. ’” 32 So those who were sent went away and found it just as he had told them. 33 And as they were untying the colt, its owners said to them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34 And they said, “The Lord has need of it.” 35 And they brought it to Jesus, and throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36 And as he rode along, they spread their cloaks on the road. 37 As he was drawing near—already on the way down the Mount of Olives— the whole multitude of his disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, 38 saying, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” 39 And some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” (Luke 19:28–40 ESV)

I’d always imagined the crowds waving Jesus into the city, riding on that colt with his bemused disciples who weren’t entirely sure what was happening.

But that’s not the story Luke tells us here. It isn’t the crowds shouting and clamoring for him. In fact, there might not be crowds lining the streets at all. There is a multitude — of disciples, Luke writes — and they are the ones who are suddenly shouting and chanting and praising God with those words from Psalm 118, Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!

The crowds, the multitudes, are his disciples, entering the city with him, chanting and praising, raising such a ruckus that the Pharisees ask Jesus to tell them to shut up.

It’s a little like an absurd and audacious carnival has wandered into town, making noise and hooting and hollering while everyone kind of looks on and wonders what on earth is going on.

Or maybe, it’s a little like some strange wanna-be presidential candidate — for those of you who are old enough, think Pat Paulson, or if you are a little more up on current events, Vermin Love Supreme, or maybe Jeb Bush — arriving with an entourage in Washington DC some January 15 and proclaiming that the new president-elect has just arrived, and hail to the chief!

Because few had heard of him, or took him seriously, and he most definitely did not win the election.

So, really, it’s no wonder things go south for Jesus and his disciples so quickly. The city of Jerusalem didn’t hail him as their new king — his disciples, and only his disciples, did. Only this multitude of Jesus’ disciples, convinced he’s King and Lord and come to take the throne. With the city and its people probably looking on in mute wonder, unsure exactly what this all means. Except that it’s spectacle. Strange and wonderful spectacle.

The Pharisees know who Jesus is, and they do something interesting. They don’t condemn him, they don’t say, “who do you think you are proclaiming yourself the king of Israel?” They look at him, as if he were one of their own, and demand he rebuke his disciples, that he silence them and their traitorous and even heretical utterances.

And hear what Jesus says:

“I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”

The pharisees may think they know who Jesus is, but this city — its very stones — they know. They really know who Jesus is. The very stuff from which this city is build, ancient and worked with human hands, know his disciples aren’t wrong.

And the mute crowds, either curious or indifferent, who will on Friday morning demand “Crucify him” and “release to us Barabbas,” know nothing.

Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, John the Baptist tells the crowds who come to him in the wilderness to repent and bear good fruit, because it is not enough to be children of Abraham. “God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.”

Stones. Mute. lifeless. Unable to testify to anything. But they could become disciples if God willed it, just as Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones came to life when God spoke and breathed life into them. Or these stones would cry out to heaven if the disciples were not there, in this strange procession, praising God, bearing witness, that blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord, peace in heaven and glory to the highest!

This, sisters and brothers, is why this week will end on a bleak hill called The Skull outside Jerusalem, with a wailing and gnashing of teeth, and then in a tomb borrowed from Joseph of Arimathea. Because there was never any hope — except maybe on the part of the disciples, who although they’d been warned three times by Jesus alone the way what was coming — and never any promise it would end any other way.

Jesus is not that kind of king.

This week, Jesus will stir up trouble. He’ll toss the money changers out of the temple. He will be asked about paying taxes to Caesar an answer in a very ambiguous way. He’ll prophesy the coming destruction of Jerusalem. It may be by Tuesday or Wednesday this audacious proclamation of his kingship is, at least in the eyes of some, beginning to amount to something. This Jesus really could be the King of Israel! And so, the chief priests will conspire, and whatever support Jesus may have gained — for Luke tells us they had become afraid of the people, who were hanging on Jesus’ very words — will vanish once Jesus is arrested.

And they will go from mute wonder to hanging on his every word to … demanding his death.

The stones remain silent. Eventually, just as Jesus prophesied, they will be pulled down, battered, broken, one by one, and nothing will be left but rubble.

But we are not silent. Not today. Not this week. Not ever. We bear witness. We testify. We have seen mighty works in our midst, the waves and wind calmed, the dead raised, the sick healed, and thousands fed. We do more than sit and gawk in wonder. We are his multitude, following along, proclaiming in a loud voice:

Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!

 

LENT What is the Kingdom of God Like?

18 He said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? 19 It is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his garden, and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”

20 And again he said, “To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? 21 It is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, until it was all leavened.” (Luke 13:18–21 ESV)

I have, for as long as I can remember, wanted to give my life to God. To serve God. To live amongst people who want to serve God. Praying and worshiping and caring for others, sheltering the wounded, protecting the vulnerable, and finding the lost.

It is all I want. I wanted fame and fortune once, and several time in my life I thought they were in my grasp.

But I want to love my neighbor. And not worry about anything else. I want to live in, and surrender, to the Kingdom of God.

I’d be an urban monk if I could, living simply, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting any of this. Some are clearly called to that kind of life. And maybe I am too.

The kingdom, however, is not so much a place we dwell, surrounded by the artifacts of Christian life, as it is something that dwells within us. It is not the world, and it does not rule the world. It can’t. It dwells within the world, giving us life and breath and sustenance, it is everywhere and in everything, making love possible. Giving love meaning and purpose. It is hidden, brought out only because the bread has risen or because the birds have a place to nest. Because we see what it has done. Is doing.

This kingdom is a verb and not a noun. It is an act, not a place.

This kingdom, it is our sanctuary, but it is not a fortress. It is not an army, and it is not deterrence or fear. It is not that kind of strength. It is the strength to love, this kingdom, knowing that our love is the very leavening and the very branches where sanctuary is possible.

I still want to live a simple life, worshiping God, caring for the wounded, and finding the lost. But I do that not to hide from the world, or not as some alternative to a worldly life. I do that because I am the the kingdom of God when I live that way. When I live as Jesus has called me to live. When I love God and neighbor and enemy … in the world.

SERMON An Opportune Time…

I did not preach this Sunday, but if I had, it would have looked and sounded something like this.

First Sunday in Lent (Year C)

  • Deuteronomy 26:1–11
  • Psalm 91:1–2, 9–16
  • Romans 10:8b–13
  • Luke 4:1–13 (Purple)

1 And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness 2 for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry. 3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” 4 And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone. ’” 5 And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, 6 and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. 7 If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8 And Jesus answered him, “It is written,
“‘You shall worship the Lord your God,
and him only shall you serve. ’”
9 And he took him to Jerusalem and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10 for it is written,
“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
to guard you,’
11 and
“‘On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone. ’”
12 And Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test. ’” 13 And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time. (Luke 4:1-13 ESV)

We have three versions of this story, the temptation of Jesus in the Wilderness. Mark’s is short, a mere two verses, and tells us nothing of the encounter, save that Jesus was tempted for forty days, the wild animals were with him — comforting him, probably, the way a cranky old cat comforts my foster daughter Molly when she has anxiety attacks and nightmares — and the angels were ministering to him.

Matthew’s telling of this story is long, like Luke’s, and Matthew tells us that Jesus is driving out into the Wilderness by the Holy Spirit in order to be tempted by Satan. God, seeing what his incarnate self is made of, seeing what temptation looks like. And whether or not it can be withstood.

There doesn’t seem to be quite that purpose to Luke. The Devil — Διαβολος in Greek, the slanderer, the accuser, the weaver of lies and falsehoods — seems in Luke’s telling merely to tag along while Jesus wanders into the Wilderness, tempting Jesus all those 40 days, pestering him, bothering him, laying before him the very temporary but glittering wonders that Satan has to offer.

Here, in Luke, God is not trying to figure out what temptation is like and whether it can be resisted — because God has spent most of scripture laying choices before Israel, before his called out people, and telling them one choice leads to life and abundance and prosperity and the other to suffering and death. So, it only seems fair that an incarnate God stand hungry, exhausted, lost, and even despondent before a devil who tempts and taunts and tries his best to convince that his way, Satan’s way, is the best.

If in Matthew it seems that God is exploring what it means to be incarnate, to be enfleshed and all that means, here, in Luke, Diabolos seems intent on figuring out if an incarnate God is subject to the kinds of human weaknesses the rest of us are. Does hunger, and thirst, and exhaustion, and confusion, and desperation, mean that God can be convinced of a different way of doing things? Well, the devil works his hardest — maybe — to find out. It’s at least worth a try, with the incarnate, enfleshed Son of God in front of him (and it’s funny how as we insist upon the femininity of God, no one seems to do the same for the devil), to tempt him, and see what happens.

Because maybe, just maybe, Jesus will succumb. Jesus will give in.

What does Diabolos tempt Jesus with? He tells a hungry man who possess the power of the divine to take stones and make them loaves of bread. Jesus need not be hungry, not ever. This sacrifice in the wilderness, this fasting, is all for nothing, because Jesus can, with the mere touch of a finger or the saying of a word, turn worthless stones into life-sustaining bread.

He could feed not just the world, but himself.

When Jesus says that bread is not enough, Diabolos takes him up to the highest point in the world and shows this lost, lonely, and powerless man all the kingdoms of the world — kingdoms which could be his if just bows down and worships Diablos. “I will give all the authority and glory of this world, because it is mine to give to whom I will, “ Diabolos tells Jesus, “If you will worship me.” Jesus could rule the world, and make sure every knee bends and every tongue confesses. He could really enforce the will of God — dry all eyes and break every sword.

Peace and bread. For all.

But Jesus says no. The worship of the Lord our God is more important, more important than authority and power and glory and peace and bread.

So then Diabolos takes Jesus to the temple, and invites him — if you are the Son of God, take a stupid and pointless risk with your life — toss yourself off the pinnacle, for the angels of God will rescue you. You cannot die! You cannot even suffer! You can do any stupid and pointless thing you want, because God will bail you out!

And Jesus — hungry, lost, exhausted Jesus — tells Diabolos, “no, you shall put the Lord your God to the test.” He will not pointlessly risk death for something stupid.

I like the temptations. Because Jesus does, in fact, do everything Diabolos tempts him to do. He feeds the world, though not himself, with his own broken body. Bread for all, at the table we gather at every time we worship.

He rules the world and all its kingdoms, but not through the kind of authority glory Diabolos so easily gives to all who aspire to earthly rule. He rules, but not through power and might, not through lies and violence, but through truth, weakness, and surrender. He rules not in victory and conquest, but in defeat and exile.

And he does risk his life, though not in a stunt, but in a very real act self-giving of love. He faces the priests and the soldiers and the mob, all of whom howl for his death. And he does this, not pointlessly, but on a cross where the sins of the world are nailed. Where our sins die with him, are buried with him, but do not rise with him. Because he rises, from death, from defeat, from exile, he shows us that all the worlds’ caesars and kings and dictators and presidents offer nothing of real, permanent, lasting value.

He resists the tempting words, the enticing promises, of Diabolos, both here in the Wilderness and then in his very life, his death, and his resurrection.

So, what to make of these last words of Luke in this passage: Diabolos departed from him until an “opportune time”?

That opportune time is now. Today. Actually, that opportune time is anytime we who are the church face the same temptations — to feed ourselves and the world, to rule it in authority and glory, and to risk our lives and tempt God needlessly. When we are hungry, and lost, and desperate, and think the only solutions to the problems we face — to the problems the world faces — are somehow in our hands or at our fingertips. When so much good could be done, when so much justice could be accomplished, when so much could be proven and demonstrated by well-timed and well-done stunt — sorry, public display of faith. That’s when Diabolos is there, whispering in our ears, command these stones to be bread, bow down and worship me, throw yourself off.

All we need do is just use our power and our wealth, and everything will be right.

THAT is the opportune time.

We cannot resist. We cannot help ourselves. We want bread. And peace. And justice. And we want everyone to see so they can, without a doubt, know the truth of God and thus there will be no excuse for non-belief. We live in a world that was long ago handed over to the accuser, to the teller of lies, and we are daily tempted with his means of ruling that world. We may delude ourselves that we use those means — violence, coercion, lies, trickery, magic — for the good ends God desires. But this is still Diabolos’ world, this world of power and authority and glory.

The devil’s world, yes, but it is also God’s good world. Into which Christ came, to redeem it.

Jesus resisted all these temptations. He feeds the world with himself and rules in an authority and glory founded upon suffering, weakness, and death. We are his — and even though we cannot resist temptation, we are part of his saving and redeeming rule. We are part of his victory over lies and deceit, over fear and desperation, and we become part of his saving defeat of despair, hopelessness, and death. He resisted temptation for us, so we do not fail even when we cannot resist. We are part of his overcoming when we gather at this table and proclaim the feeding of the world. When we worship and proclaim the good news of a crucified God who gave his life for the salvation of the world.

Diabolos is done. Defeated. And he knows it. He rages and he rails against it. But he takes comfort from our fear that he might still have a chance of winning, that the final outcome has not yet been decided. Diabolos wants followers to share his doom by trying to convince us that if we do not act, and act right now, if we do not grab the devil’s means, then all is lost. Because we too are in the wilderness. Hungry. Lost. Desperate. Frightened. And alone.

But we are not. We have Jesus, our King, our Lord, our Savior, and our Brother. Who walked into the Wilderness for 40 days. Is here in the wilderness with us now. And came back out. Ready to preach. Ready to heal. Ready to cast out demons. Ready to break bread and feed people and proclaim God’s forgiveness of sins.

Ready to suffer. And ready to die.

SERMON The Joy of the Lord is Your Strength

I did not preach this Sunday. Instead, I’m working all day. Because I need to work the occasional Sunday. If I had preached, it would have been something like this.

However, I am preaching next Sunday, January 31, at First Reformed Church in Chatham, New York. Worship starts at 10:00 a.m., so if you are in the area, come and hear the gospel. You might even meet Jesus!

Third Sunday after Epiphany / Lectionary 3 (Year C)

  • Nehemiah 8:1–12
  • Psalm 19
  • 1 Corinthians 12:12–31a
  • Luke 4:14–21

1 And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel. 2 So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. 3 And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. 4 And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that they had made for the purpose. And beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand, and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam on his left hand. 5 And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood. 6 And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. 7 Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. 8 They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.

9 And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. 10 Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” 11 So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.” 12 And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them. (Nehemiah 8:1–12 ESV)

 

14 And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and a report about him went out through all the surrounding country. 15 And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all.
16 And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. 17 And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:14-21 ESV)

Long before today’s reading, as the waning decades of the Kingdom of Judah are related in 2 Kings, the word of the Lord — the teaching of God to Moses — was found. By accident, in a dusty corner of temple. It was being cleaned out so Israel could hold something of a great garage sale to raise money to repair the temple. Hilkiah, the high priest of Israel, has found a scroll while rummaging around. A book. The teaching. The torah.

The law of God, the teaching to Israel through Moses, had been lost in the temple, amidst the banners and the silverware and the broken images of false gods. I suspect King Hezekiah had a few “now where did we put the torah?” moments during his reign. And so Hilkiah tells Josiah, the King of Judah, that a book of the law has been found.

“When the king heard the words of Book of the Law, he tore his clothes,” the authors of 2 Kings tell us. Josiah, a good king committed to following God’s teaching and having his people follow that teaching as well, then instructs his priests to go ask God whites in store next for his kingdom. He’s heard the words of the teaching, and he knows just how much Israel has deviated from that teaching.

“For great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us.” (2 Kings 22:13)

He expects doom, the doom that has fallen upon faithless Israel to the north, which was conquered and resettled by Assyria because the kings of Israel — and its wayward people — worshiped golden calves, and other idols, including the false and foreign gods of the Assyrians. He tears his clothes, and he fears the worst.

But a woman, Hulda the Prophet, tells the king that his faithfulness has saved Judah, and has delayed the disaster forecast in the book:

19 because your heart was penitent, and you humbled yourself before the Lord, when you heard how I spoke against this place and against its inhabitants, that they should become a desolation and a curse, and you have torn your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, declares the Lord. 20 Therefore, behold, I will gather you to your fathers, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace, and your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring upon this place.” (2 Kings 22:19–20 ESV)

By repentance and a promise to be faithful, the coming disaster has been delayed, but not avoided. Judgment will still come upon Judah, Upon God’s faithless people. But this turning will push it back a little. Those who are faithful, will see a reward — in their lives — for their faithfulness.

I’m telling the story of the rediscovery of the law under King Josiah, and his commitment to keeping the law, to contrast it with both our Gospel reading and the passage we heard from Nehemiah. And with our understanding as well.

We have gathered today, probably not as many as many people here in the place as gathered that day when Nehemiah read the law to Israel in the square before the Water Gate, to hear the word read. Not the whole Book of Deuteronomy — I doubt many today would have patience for that — but our simple and short readings from Nehemiah, Luke, and Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth.

King Josiah was sad, and even afraid, when the book of the law was read to him. He knew how he, and Israel, had fallen short — and what God had in store for Israel. In Deuteronomy, God promises famine, disease, conquest, defeat, exile, and slavery in response to Israel’s faithlessness. God does promise an eventual restoration, if Israel remembers its relationship with God. But failure on Israel’s part to live out the covenant meant doom.

And Josiah saw that doom. He’d seen how it overtook the northern portion of God’s divided people. And he knew it was coming for Judah. For Jerusalem.

And so he weeps. He mourns. He tears his clothes.

Nehemiah tells Israel something different. In part, because Nehemiah is reaping something of the promised regathering. Israel has come home from exile in Babylon, has started rebuilding the long-abandoned city of Jerusalem, and has seen the beginning of its redemption. So Ezra the priest reads the law, and if all Israel gathered at the Water Gate is moved to weep, and mourn, and tear their clothes, and fast — remember the king of Nineveh’s command to his people upon hearing the news of Jonah’s short sermon of doom — Nehemiah, the governor of the province of Judea (because remember that Judah is merely a province of the Persian Empire at this point) has told his people to remember that this day is holy, and they are not to mourn. They are not to fast. They have heard the words of the teaching, and while they know the sinfulness and faithlessness of their fathers, Nehemiah understands they live in the promise.

1 “And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, 2 and return to the Lord your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, 3 then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you. (Deuteronomy 30:1–3 ESV)

So feast, Nehemiah says, east and drink and remember who you are. Remember whose you are. “Do not be sad, and do not weep, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” Celebrate. The time for weeping will come — it comes in the next chapter, when Israel as a people tells its and story confesses its sin and its miserable position. Even with the end of the exile, Israel understands, just how precarious and contingent their existence as a people really is. Because they aren’t truly free.

36 Behold, we are slaves this day; in the land that you gave to our fathers to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts, behold, we are slaves. 37 And its rich yield goes to the kings whom you have set over us because of our sins. They rule over our bodies and over our livestock as they please, and we are in great distress. (Nehemiah 9:36–37 ESV)

Still, even as Ezra reads the law to regathered Israel, Nehemiah tells them to celebrate. To feast. To take joy. They may not be free, may not yet live in the fully realized promise of God. But they have that promise. That is worth celebrating.

In our gospel reading, we have Jesus proclaiming, as he reads from the book of the Prophet Isaiah — the captivity of God’s people is over. Good news has come, for the poor, the blind, and the captive. There will be enough for all, the blind will see, and the captive will be set free. And rolling up the scroll, with all eyes fixed upon him, Jesus proclaims — “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Jesus walks into the synagogue in Nazareth and says God’s promise is real and realized. Because Jesus himself is the fulfillment of this promise. His person, his life, his ministry, his coming death, and his resurrection — this is the promise of God made real. He is the freedom Israel yearned for when they confessed their sin to Nehemiah and Ezra. He is the freedom Isaiah promised.

His freedom is ours. He invites us in to it, makes it part of us, makes us part of him. We are free. He sets us free.

There are times to weep and mourn when we hear to clear teaching of God in the torah, when we know how we have failed to keep our end of the covenant with God and face the very real consequences. Josiah was right to tear his clothes, and Israel was right gather in sackcloth and ashes to confess their sin before their leaders and before the Lord their God. When we hear the teaching that convicts us, reminds us, forces us to go to God knowing that God, his promise, his grace, and his redemption, are all we have.

But Nehemiah reminds us that there are times when we hear the words of God and we are to celebrate, to be glad, to feast, to remember that the joy of the Lord is our strength. God’s own joy is is our strength, our protection! We are to eat and drink, and be glad. We have God’s own good news! We can see! We have been set free! So come to the Lord’s table, eat and drink, and remember God rejoices over you! Our days of living in fear and uncertainty, weeping over our fate, our exile, our dispossession, are over.

Because today, the promise of God is fulfilled in our midst.