Sunday, January 27, 2008

Go Fish

Go Fish

Robert J. Elder, Interim Pastor
Mountain View Presbyterian Church, Las Vegas, Nevada

Third Sunday of Ordinary Time: January 27, 2008
Isaiah 9:1-4
Matthew 4:12-23

We have from the hand of Matthew two separate scenes from the early ministry of Jesus. They are separate, yet there is something that binds them together.

• The first scene recalls a disaster that had swallowed up the Jewish people by the time Matthew wrote his gospel.

• The second scene seems to shift us abruptly to the call to discipleship of the fishermen, Peter and Andrew and James and John.

First of all, consider the disaster of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. When Matthew wrote his gospel, probably after the year 70 A.D., the Romans had recently run rough shod over Herod’s magnificent Temple in Jerusalem. No legions of angels had interceded on behalf of God’s chosen people. Nothing miraculous had happened. The Romans had done their worst and nothing had been forthcoming from the throne of God. It must have been an awful time. According to the ancient Jewish historian Josephus, the fighting within the walls in Jerusalem and the Temple among the Jews themselves nearly was worse than the devastation that the Romans wrought from outside.

The rebellion had happened almost by accident. The final Roman procurator of Jerusalem had goaded the people, torturing and killing them, deaf to the cries of the moderate Jewish leaders. Various radical groups began to react in a blind rage, and when the rebels began to occupy strategic points in the city, the moderates -- who could see that the end of the battle would mean the destruction of all -- were murdered by their own countrymen.

And so the city fell into the hands of warring parties of revolutionaries who were at least as busy killing each other as they were fending off the Romans, willfully blind to the fact that even a united defense must eventually have failed. Like Ethiopian spears against Italian tanks in World War II, there was no winning against the superior power of Rome. The final walls were breached, and the city was laid waste from one end to the other.

Some in the tiny Christian community of Jerusalem managed to escape before the destruction. Most of these considered themselves Jews as well as Christians. They must have shared the numb feeling that all Jews felt upon learning that the fortifications of Jerusalem, crowned by the Temple, were no more. What could be left of faith in a God who could have abandoned his people so completely?

It is a question that for us, hundreds of years later, has perhaps some mild academic interest. Of course we know that the worship of God is not centered in any Temple made by human hands. But then it was a novel thought, an idea that was disturbing and threatening in its raw newness. Could there be life after Jerusalem was destroyed? Could there be faith?

Matthew recalled for his troubled congregation another time when the people of God must have asked the same question. He reminded them of the prophecy of Isaiah (9:1-4):

The Land of Zeb´ulun and the Land of Naph´tali,
Toward the sea, across the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles
The people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
Light has dawned.

Probably few of Matthew’s people knew precisely where Zeb´ulun and Naph´tali had been. They had been tribes of Jews that had disappeared 700 years before, during another time of foreign invasion and devastation. But the mention of their names would have called forth a feeling of distress, the same feeling they were experiencing over the fall of Jerusalem in their own time. Similar to what we might feel in hearing the word “Alamo” or that native Americans might feel in hearing “Trail of Tears.” It is a wounded, humiliated, powerless feeling, even for those who are separated from tragic events by many years.

It seemed that Matthew wanted to tie together the raw wound of the fresh experience of disaster that his people knew with a former time of disaster, as if to say that even in the face of unspeakable dishonor and sorrow, God’s hope can spring forth again. In the midst of faithless horror, faith can be born.

When no faith is found among the competing factions of Jerusalem, when one person kills another in the name of God, then God may well abandon us to our own horrors, but that doesn’t mean God has given up on humanity. It means that we must look for the work of God in a new, most likely unexpected place. In this case, Matthew talked about going fishing. He asked his people to look to the place where Jesus had begun his ministry. Not in the streets of Jerusalem or among the Temple officials there. He had begun his ministry in Capernaum, among the very people who had moved into the area vacated by the Hebrew tribes of Zeb´ulun and Naph´tali when they were carted off into exile 700 years before. He began his ministry among the mixed races of Gentiles and Jews in Galilee, among gentle, simple fisherfolk.

The end of the first scene in this little passage from Matthew gives us the opening words of Jesus’ preaching: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”

Then, having reminded his listeners of the pitiable devastation that is possible for even the things we cherish most, such as the Temple, Matthew shifts abruptly to the second scene: by the shores of the lake, he speaks to men who are about their fishing business, a model for emerging faith.

The call of Peter and Andrew and James and John shows at the very beginning what it must have meant for a person of Jewish background to come into the church. It did not involve a simple decision to change from this church to that, one religious outlook for another, choosing to be a Methodist instead of a Presbyterian. It meant the dropping of everything familiar to take up a whole new way of life. We are reminded that there is much to be given up if there is much to be gained. All four of the disciples dropped not only their nets, but their means of livelihood. For James and John, responding to Jesus’ call meant leaving their father Zebedee. Means of livelihood, even family, not to mention loyalty to the Temple, much may have to be left behind by those who choose to follow the carpenter’s son from Nazareth. There are wonderful words about this in a hymn in the Presbyterian hymnal but not in ours. It is rarely sung even in our churches that use the denominational hymnal because many people don’t know the tune. But I think the words are appropriate to our scripture readings today:

They cast their nets in Galilee
Just off the hills of brown;

Such happy, simple fisherfolk,
Before the Lord came down.

Contented, peaceful fishermen,
Before they ever knew

The peace of God that filled their hearts
Brimful, and broke them too.

Young John who trimmed the flapping sail,
Homeless in Patmos died.

Peter, who hauled the teeming net,
Head down was crucified.

The peace of God, it is no peace,
But strife closed in the sod.

Yet, brothers, pray for but one thing --
The marvelous peace of God.

What had been cherished had to be set aside. When God’s spirit works, it often must work in spite of human reluctance, indifference, even opposition. Squeeze a balloon in one place and the air will fill into another spot. For a Jew to accept the fact that God could be working among the Gentiles was as difficult as the decisions of the first four disciples to abandon their way of life to go fishing for another sort of catch.

Isaiah spoke about those dwelling in a land of deep darkness, and I suppose we don’t have to be Hebrews in exile to know what deep darkness is all about. Those who have dwelt in a land of deep darkness know who they are when the Prince of Darkness taps them on the shoulder. We know who we are and we shudder because the land of deep darkness is the kingdom of annihilation and obliteration. It is the land where creation is reversed, and things that used to make sense begin to dissolve back into their original chaos, the place where the loving hand of God on nature is not necessarily replaced by an evil hand so much as by no hand at all: no guidance, no love, no order, no creation, just deep darkness and chaos.

Anyone who has walked into a room once occupied by a loved one who is now gone, seeing the half-read book on the night table, the pajamas hung in the bathroom, the eyeglasses on the dresser, the medicines in the cabinet, the clothing in the closet, anyone who has had to pick up their life with that kind of emptiness cutting a big hole in the middle of it, knows where the land of deep darkness is. The one who has experienced the falling-apart marriage, the still-born child, the approach of retirement when there seems to be so much more to do, these know where the land of deep darkness is.

To all of us who have visited the kingdom of darkness and dread a return trip, Jesus extends an invitation to go fish. While it may seem like an option, the call to discipleship is not some choice we make among other alternatives, but turns out to be the only alternative to the land of deep darkness, for no other loyalty springs forth from the kingdom of heaven. Jesus called those four fishermen to a new kind of fishing, and in the process of responding they discovered that all other loyalties are temporary, none endures, not family, not Temple, not career, not nation, not even life itself. No, an invitation from Jesus to go fish is an invitation to follow the only one who leads forth from the land of deep darkness toward the great light.

Albert Schweitzer once wrote,

He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those men who knew him not. He speaks to us the same word: “Follow thou me.” And sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.2

God give us the courage to rise and follow as Christ calls our names by the lakeside.

© copyright 2008 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 William Alexander Percy, Copyright 1924, LeRoy P. Percy.
2 Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, p. 403.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Fulfilling All Righteousness

Fulfilling All Righteousness

Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 3:13-17
© copyright 2008 Robert J. Elder
January 13, 2008

The righteousness of God. It’s a topic that just sounds as if it belongs in church, doesn’t it? And maybe in a church with members who are a little more fiercely opinionated than your average Presbyterian. As students, most preachers were admonished to make up titles for sermons that would cause a passerby to pause, and perhaps be made curious enough to come inside to see what the sermon would say. In New York City, the standard was that preachers should create titles compelling enough to cause someone on a midtown bus to disembark and enter the church out of curiosity.

Sounds great, but it can be quite a burden when you have to come up with 40 or 50 of these titles a year, every year, for a bunch of years. I’m wondering if today’s sermon title would compel many to enter an unfamiliar sanctuary on a Sunday morning; it might even scare some away. Speaking of years, over 20 years ago I stepped into the pulpit of a church I served for the first time as their pastor. My sermon title on that day was almost as exciting as today’s, it was called “The Plain Truth.” I suppose some who were there might possibly remember every golden word, though I can’t remember a single phrase myself. Figuring maybe 40 or so sermons a year, that makes 600 titles, give or take. And there had been 13 years in the ministry for me before that, 7 as a preaching pastor, for an additional 280 sermons. I am exhausted just thinking about it. I can only imagine how it makes a congregation feel, just thinking about having to swallow 880 sermons, give or take. Some of us have sat still for many more than that.

Still, the sermon title today concerns righteousness and refers to the very first words that Jesus uttered in the gospel. Though the word righteousness may not be much in our modern vocabulary, it was a word on Jesus’ lips at the very beginning of his public ministry, and so it merits our attention whether it would grab passersby or not. We are almost at the end of three chapters of Matthew’s gospel before we hear Jesus’ voice, and when we do, it is in answer to John’s objection about baptizing this one who is so clearly his spiritual superior. Jesus responded to John’s protest, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

His words highlight two or three things, then. They are about what is proper, they are about fulfillment, and they are about righteousness.


“It is proper for us in this way,” Jesus said, “to fulfill all righteousness.”

Several years ago a film was released entitled, “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” loosely — very loosely — based on Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey. The film was set during the Great Depression in the deep South, as three inmates escape from a chain gang. They are a clueless trio, but manage to bungle their way to freedom. On their journey they come across a gathering of folks by a riverbank who are lining up to be baptized. Two of the three scramble down to the water, and the first one baptized, the one played to perfection by Tim Blake Nelson, exclaims as he returns to his skeptical friend on the bank that the pastor told him all his sins have been washed away, even the theft of a pig for which he’d been convicted and sent to prison. His friend reminds him sarcastically that he had maintained all along that he was innocent. He responds, “I lied...and that’s been washed away too!”

The church has always maintained that Jesus was sinless, the one human being ever on the face of the earth who did not sin. John the Baptist came to the Jordan proclaiming a baptism of repentance for sin. Why would Jesus, sinless as he was, desire such a baptism? How is it that it could be proper? We can all understand the motivation behind the pig-stealing convert’s baptism, he needed to be freed from his burden of guilt as we all do, but why Jesus? Why baptism to erase the sin of one who knew no sin?

This was among the first challenges leveled by non-believers at the church’s proclamation about Jesus. How could it be that baptism for repentance was a proper thing when Jesus had nothing in his spirit in need of cleansing? The word translated as proper is sometimes also rendered “fitting.” Matthew uses it only two times, and both times the word is on the lips of Jesus. Luke uses it once, in a story about faithful servants that also appears in Matthew’s gospel. It doesn’t appear at all in Mark or John, and only four additional times in the rest of the New Testament.

What does it mean to do something in a proper way? The plainest meaning I can identify suggests that a proper way of doing something is the right way, the appropriate way, the orderly way. Bent over my study desk as a youngster, with my head cradled on my elbow, looking sideways and nearly cross-eyed across my homework page, my father was as likely as not to pass by my room and call out to me, “Alright son, you won’t get much done sitting that way, now sit up properly.” Now we may argue with folks who suggest this or that method for doing things as the proper way, but I think that when Jesus mentions the word proper in regard to his own baptism, he means that it is the right way to go about doing things, that it has an appropriateness. However much this may have confounded John and contradicted his image of the mighty coming Messiah, Jesus described his submission as proper. Jesus was obedient to God, properly so, a model for us all.


“It is proper for us in this way,” Jesus said, “to fulfill all righteousness.”

Here is something I had missed in all the times I have read over this passage. “It is proper for us in this way,” Jesus said, “to fulfill all righteousness.” For us...meaning, this was something which involved both Jesus and John in fulfilling the heart’s desire of God: The sinless one and one who, like the rest of us, was a sinful person. Baptism requires one who receives it, and one who administers it. And clearly, in this model, the one who administers it is not in any way superior to the one receiving it, any more than the priest who baptized Mother Theresa would have been considered superior to her. It was a fulfilling action on both parts, John and Jesus. Jesus, God’s word made flesh, could never be truly human unless in his life he submitted to the fullness of human experience in partnership with other, fallible human beings. Every person knows what it mean to ask and receive forgiveness. Jesus, though sinless, nevertheless needed to know the experience of the forgiving and cleansing love of God. He needed to submit to the baptism of John.

Matthew is big on fulfillment. He uses forms of this word fifteen times in his gospel. The typical formula is, “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet...”

It is as though, while the world awaited the arrival of Jesus, there was a big gap, a large something missing. There had been expectation, Lord knows, plenty of expectation and hope and even wishful thinking. But not so much fulfillment. For the fulfillment of God’s promise to save his people, there had still been some waiting to be done. And then came Jesus, down to the riverside, and from there the gospel takes off with reports of this and that fulfilling what Isaiah or Jeremiah or Zechariah or the Psalmist or Hosea said in their prophecies in the Old Testament.


“It is proper for us in this way,” Jesus said, “to fulfill all righteousness.”

And so at last to righteousness. “It is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” The word righteousness in the Bible doesn’t necessarily mean what we might think. It means to be in an appropriate, proper relationship with God. “Paul wrote that none of us is righteous,1 not saying that none of us has ever done anything right, but rather saying that our life with God and with God’s children is out of kilter, needs to be set right. Jesus has become our righteousness, says Paul. Jesus has done for us that which we cannot do for ourselves, namely, put things right between us and God. Righteousness means to live life in congruence with the demands of a just God, to see our lives, not as our own, to use as we please, but rather as God's gifts, to be used as God pleases.”2

Theologian Joseph Sittler often shared a story of a mechanical breakdown he once experienced in Jerusalem. He took his car to a mechanic. When the mechanic had finished his work on the car, he started it up, and as it hummed along perfectly, he said, “Zadik.” Zadik is the Hebrew word for righteousness. In the garage, it meant simply “It’s working,” or “It’s working again the way it is supposed to work.”

Righteousness means doing the revealed will of God. It means our relationship with God is returned to the working order which God intended. God has provided people with ample instruction on doing his will. To seek righteousness means to set about doing God’s revealed will, to aim at making things work again the way they are supposed to. Living justly with kindness and mercy, that sort of thing.

For whatever reason he knew it, Jesus knew that to pursue righteousness meant receiving the baptism of John. It meant an obedience to God signified in partnership with faltering and failing humanity so that God could turn us toward the relationship he has always had in mind for us. In this, Jesus is, as the author of the letter to the Hebrews said, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.

How do we move from our repentance-needy lives to the place where repentance is made possible, where the cleansing of the waters of baptism can touch us and transform us? I invite you to pass by the baptismal font on your way out of the sanctuary this morning. Touch the waters, remember the one who has cleansed us, remember you are baptized, just like Jesus before you, and be glad.

1 Romans 3:10; Psalm 143:2.
2 “No Problem,” by William Willimon, preached at the Chapel at Duke University, January 10, 1999.

© copyright 2008 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

Sunday, January 6, 2008

The Gathering

The Gathering
A Communion Meditation

Robert J. Elder, Interim Pastor
Mountain View Presbyterian Church, Las Vegas, Nevada
Matthew 2:1-12
Ephesians 1:1-12
Epiphany Day, January 6, 2008

The Sunday or two after Christmas day every year are hard Sundays for modern preachers and their congregations. Having thrown ourselves into planning and celebrating in the days leading up to Christmas, the Sundays after inevitably strike us as a bit of a letdown.

What are we doing here? The baby’s been born, Christmas is over, it’s not nearly time for Easter. And why are we singing these suddenly tired-sounding Christmas songs? I noticed that the first of the annual advice for ways to unload the now unwelcome Christmas tree appeared in newspapers on Christmas day this year! Has no one at a newspaper office or radio station ever sung “The Twelve Days of Christmas?” The twelfth day was yesterday. What do they think it is about, a special leap year with twelve December the 25ths?

Probably many – even most – of us have already pulled the decorations off the tree and set it out on the road, boxed up the other decorations around the house except for the one you won’t find until you move the sofa to clean under it in May, ceased turning on the outdoor display, and have considered Christmas only in the past tense for several days now. More’s the pity. For centuries, the church has called Christmas a season, not a single day. It runs from December 25th to Epiphany, which is today, January 6th. We gather today, then, on a special day called “Epiphany,” more familiar to Orthodox Christians, the day of the light – from the Greek word “phanos,” the word for light. Orthodox Christians wait until January 6th to celebrate the arrival of the Christ child, because that is the traditional day to recall the arrival in Bethlehem of the magi from foreign lands – people foreign to Israel and her God as we would be without that child.

So we are gathered here in our now treeless and poinsettia-free sanctuary. What brings us here today? For some of us, it is a late coming to Christmas, but as with the magi, what matters is that we come, late or not. This gathering in this room takes place every Sunday, and we are all late by the measure of the shepherds and angels of the birthday, but on time by the measure of magi who came seeking the light.

Did you hear what Matthew reported about the arrival of the visitors from the East? Are you sure? Often these familiar stories are almost too familiar, and we fail to see anything other than what we have always seen in them. We could check Mark, Luke and John for second or third opinions, but we will find nothing about magi there. Matthew is the only one of the four gospels to report these foreign visitors, so if we want to know the details, we will have to look here.

And did you notice what wasn’t said about them in the gospel lesson? For starters, they are not referred to as kings – as in the famous Christmas carol – but as magi. The word Matthew uses – “magi” – the beginning of our word for “magic” – literally means, astrologers, or star-gazers, people who sought to know about current and future events from the alignments of the stars in the sky. These were people who were considered wise in some eastern gentile cultures in New Testament times, though today their successors are relegated to a marginal existence in the Life section of the newspaper with the daily horoscope. I think it is instructive that though we may not lend too much credence to astrology today, in that season even the stars pointed to the one for whom all creation waited, whether those waiting were wise or not.

Many of the manger scenes which adorn our homes and hearths at Christmastime include a variety of barnyard animals along with the holy family, shepherds whom Luke said came to see the infant Jesus, and these magi whom we find in Matthew. But Matthew doesn’t have anything to say about a manger or an innkeeper. The wise men inquired of Herod of the one “who has been born,” and Matthew says, “On entering the house, they saw the child...” On entering the house, not the barn or stable of Luke’s Christmas story, they saw, not the infant (brephos) of Luke’s Christmas day account, but the child (paidiou), which was the word Luke used when speaking of the twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple with the elders. “Child” refers to a youngster well past the newborn stage. No wonder the church actually reserves the commemoration of the visit of the magi for January 6th, after the 12 days of the Christmas celebration which only began on December 25th. Their visit came much later than the shepherds’.

Matthew also did not say how many magi there were. Our Christmas traditions have assumed there were three, because that is the number of gifts laid before the child, but Matthew never numbered them. Tradition has even given them names which we do not find in scripture: Caspar — the friendly magi who brought gold, Melchior who brought the fragrant frankincense, and Alberto, that’s Balthazzar, who brought bitter myrrh, best known in the first century for its usefulness in embalming.

So, we have done all we can to help get the wise men there on time, but try as we might, we have to realize they were late, too late for the first birthday. They were not called by the obstetrician anyway, but by the light, the special star. We also have to realize that we have arrived late, too. None of us was there on that first day of Jesus’ life. Yet something calls us here today. I wonder what it is. I wonder if we are not more like the wise men than the shepherds, called simply because something tells us there is light here in this gathering of people who claim the name of Christ.

Though these gentiles did not have the benefit of the scriptures of Israel, we find the startling news in Matthew’s gospel that they have made their way to the infant savior by the light they did have, the light of the star in the East. All of creation, apparently, is in cahoots with the God who has plans to seek out even star-struck foreigners and bring them home to Jesus.

I once had an opportunity to hear a pastor speak about the magi, thinking of those folks who go through life rejecting the church even though they do not know it well, because they do not want to look like hypocrites who go to church without fully believing what the church says. I notice that the magi made no further appearances in Matthew’s gospel or anywhere else for that matter. Who knows if they became believers. Perhaps they were hypocrites! But I don’t think so.

I prefer to think of any of us who come looking for light as seekers, for that is what we are in these days after Christmas, you and I. There must be more to this story than the account of a birth of a child, and though we may not know what more there is, much less whether we can trust it, we come seeking, searching for a place that understands our preoccupations with material things like the gold of Caspar, our need for the things of the spirit, like the fragrant offering of Melchior, and our hope that someone can make sense of the death we must all come to know, symbolized in the embalming gift of Balthazzar.

Whether we think of it in just these words or not, we all desire someone or some cause worthy of the offering of our material lives; some commitment which will nourish our flagging spirits, someone worthy of our reverence and worship; and someone who brings good news to a bad news world.

The magi were the first of the non-Jewish world to recognize that Jesus would be a king like no other king. They came to worship him, and that gathering for worship continues to this very day right here in this place.

Paul wrote about gathering and its meaning for believers. As he began his letter to the Ephesians he said, With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

Gathering up all things? All of them? Jesus will gather up even strangely bedecked astrologers from foreign places? Even things of earth as well as things of heaven, such as gold, incense, embalming material? Even you and me as we sit here this day, not too sure about the one who calls us together here, but sure of our need for some calling at least? Even if you only know enough of Christ to recognize in him some light, come to this gathering with other seekers again. Come and see and worship and find whether or not this will be the one who will one day give you and me the very Word of life. The story we track from this day throughout the rest of the year is nothing less than that story of Jesus, and how he came and what he did, and how he lives on through this gathering of his people.

Come to the gathering, Sunday after Sunday, and like the magi, bring your best to this table of our Lord, so that what we offer may in some way respond to the glory which God has offered us in Jesus Christ.

© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved