January 23, 2017

Sermon: Epiphany III – What Is It About Jesus?

Fishing Boats, South India 2007

SERMON: What Is It About Jesus?

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by 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.’

From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

• Matthew 4:12-23

What is it about Jesus?

What is it about him, that when he walks by, people pay attention? What is so attractive about this itinerant rabbi that people like Simon Peter and Andrew, hard-working brothers in a family business, will stop right in the middle of their work day, come ashore and leave it all behind to follow him? Why would James and John drop their nets, abandon the boat, and leave their father in the lurch to take off after Jesus? (I’ve always thought that was a bit unfair to Papa Zebedee.)

What is it about Jesus?

Why do people like you and me come to this place every week? Why have people gathered together around here since the mid-1830’s to pray and sing, to hear sermons from the Bible, to take communion together? Why have generations of people brought their babies to be baptized and raised their children in confirmation classes here? Why has this congregation continued, generation after generation, to serve its neighbors? It has something to do with Jesus, who is pictured right behind me here as a shepherd tending his flock, whose name we invoke constantly throughout our service, whose body and blood we receive each Sunday.

But what is it about him? What is it about Jesus that inspires such devotion, that brings about such faithfulness and loyalty?

Why am I here this morning? Why, more than forty years ago, did I embark on a journey of faith and pursue a vocation of ministry? Why did a young man like me, a senior in high school, become attracted to a church and a youth group and a youth choir and to studying the Bible? Why did I walk forward in response to an invitation one Sunday morning and profess a renewed faith and a desire to follow Jesus? Why did I then go to Bible college and afterwards begin preaching in the hills of Vermont in a little white church where they rang the bell on Sunday morning — a church even older than this one, where people had been coming to worship since 1814?

After that, we moved to Chicago so I could attend seminary. There I became pastor of another church as our family grew and learned what it meant to follow Jesus together. Then it was on to the Indianapolis area, where we kept on trying to serve churches in Jesus’ name. Gail and I even took mission trips around the world to places like India where we sang and preached and did medical work so that young people there would hear about Jesus. Now, as a hospice chaplain, it is my calling to go into homes where people are dying all around Indianapolis, sharing the comfort and hope of Jesus’ love.

What is it about Jesus that would make a person like me choose a life like that?

Each one of you has a story too, a story of what Jesus means to you. You might not be able to put it into fancy words, but you know Jesus has called you to follow him, and there was a time in your life when, like Simon Peter and Andrew, like James and John, you discovered that following him was your calling. It may not have been so dramatic as their decision to drop their nets and say goodbye to dad right in the middle of the work day, but here you are, however long it’s been, and you are still following.

Why? What is it about Jesus?

Our Gospel this morning says that Jesus was like a light in the midst of darkness. It says that people in his day, and especially in the place where he lived were sitting in darkness and in shadows so deep it seemed like death. Their land was occupied by foreign soldiers and ruled by a puppet king named Herod. God had promised that one day he would send his King, the Messiah, who would bring about peace, rescue them from oppression, and finally make things right, not only for them but also for this whole great big dark world in which they lived.

Many individuals and movements claimed to have the answer. Some, like the Zealots, led revolutionary movements that sought to use violent means to overthrow their enemies. Others, like the Pharisees, thought that leading a life of strict religious observance would get God’s attention and move God to miraculously intervene on his people’s behalf. Still others, like the Sadducees, took the route of trying to cooperate with the Romans, thinking that working within the system rather than against it would yield the best results.

In various ways, all these groups were trying to fight darkness with darkness. Violence wasn’t the answer. Meticulous religious practice wasn’t the answer. Politics wasn’t the answer.

Then Jesus came along. What was it about him? Well, our text says he was like the light of the sun rising to dispel the darkness.

It says he came with a different message, a message that caught people’s imagination. “Repent! for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near!” The word “repent” here didn’t so much mean that Jesus was calling people to feel sorry for their sins. “Repent” means to turn around, to change your ways. He was calling them to do something new and different, something 180 degrees opposite of what they were doing, to give up all of the fruitless ways of fighting the darkness in which they were engaged.

Why should they change their ways? Because, Jesus said, God has come to rule. God was on the verge of fulfilling his promises. God is about to do what everyone has been waiting so long for God to do. And so, Jesus said, the appropriate response to that is not violence, nor withdrawing into a life of religious piety, nor trying to work the system to get what you can out of it.

Well, if those things aren’t the answer, what is? What should we do then? That’s when Jesus comes walking by, saying to us, “Follow ME.” We are to trust him, to spend time with him, to watch him and how he lives, to learn to do things his way. When we follow Jesus, the text says, we see him teaching, announcing Good News, and bringing healing to everyone he touches.

In other words, Jesus not only came with a different message, he came with a completely different mode of operation. Jesus comes and shows us it is all about the power of God’s Word and the power of God’s love. When people hear that Word and when people are touched by that love, they begin to experience the rule of God, the kingdom of God, in their own hearts and lives.

That’s what it is about Jesus. He’s all about a living in a different way than all the ways we commonly use to try and fight the darkness in our world. He’s about bringing a message of genuine hope. That message proclaims that God is really here, and he loves us, and he will make things right! Jesus is about a mode of operation that exhibits love, compassion, and kindness, that reaches out with compassion and helps the hurting. A way of living that brings healing and hope to all those who encounter it.

What is it about Jesus? It’s about truth, and grace, and most of all, love. Love that cared for people and gave so faithfully and completely that Jesus voluntarily took our darkness upon himself and died, before being raised into resurrection light.

This way of Jesus is what our world today needs too.

It has been many years since I have seen the people around me in our land so angry, so divided, so desperate to find ways out of the darkness. What our neighbors need to see in us — the followers of Jesus — is a group of people who refuse to resort to anger and violence, who will not succumb to the temptation to withdraw into our little world of religious piety, and who will not think that we can make things right by resorting to political compromise.

No, the call is clear. First, repent — that is, turn around and decide you are going to go a different way. Second, listen to Jesus when he says “Follow me!” Follow me into the light. Follow me as I lean on God’s Word and share it with others. Follow me as I lay down my life to heal and bless others.

That’s what it is about Jesus. May it also be said that that’s what it is about us. Amen.

Epiphany III: Pic & Cantata of the Week

Maine Coast 2014

(Click on picture to see larger image)

• • •


Bach Cantata BWV 72, “Everything according to God’s Will”

This is one of four Bach cantatas we have for the third Sunday after Epiphany. It emphasizes the believer’s effort to accept that God’s will is ultimately good, no matter how many dark passages it involves navigating.

The alto aria from this cantata that we present today is an earnest, delightful expression of childlike trust and commitment to follow Jesus, even through “the ways of thorns and roses.”

Mit allem, was ich hab und bin,
Will ich mich Jesu lassen,
Kann gleich mein schwacher Geist und Sinn
Des Höchsten Rat nicht fassen;
Er führe mich nur immer hin
Auf Dorn- und Rosenstraßen!With all that I have and am

I want to abandon myself to Jesus.
Although my weak spirit and mind cannot
grasp the counsel of the Highest,
may he always lead me along
the ways of thorns and roses!

Cantata text by Franck, von Brandenburg

The Internet Monk Saturday Brunch (1/21/17)


”It is talk-compelling. It puts you in a good temper, it makes you satisfied with yourself and your fellow beings, it sweeps away the worries and cobwebs of the week.”

There was a big to-do in Washington, D.C. yesterday. We’ll do our best to block it out of our minds and conversation today. I’d like to avoid indigestion and/or food fights if possible.

Ah, I see our loyal servant is bringing the fruit tray and coffee now. It’s time to indulge in some of the news and notes from this past week outside of Washington. Enjoy!


When my son was little, he once told me when he grew up he wanted to be “an artist and a garbage man.” What else would you expect from a little boy who sat for hours by the picture window in the living room, drawing and coloring and watching the traffic on the street outside?

This week I heard the story of John Marboe. He is a Lutheran pastor who grew up admiring his local garbage collectors in Alexandria, Minn. And when times were lean for his family, he decided to take on some shifts hauling trash. What meaning does he find in this odd combination of trades?

I keep doing it because it’s, I don’t know if I want to say it’s more important but it’s differently important. You’re doing something for people, and I think especially I’m aware of that when it’s hot out, when it’s really smelly, when there are a lot of maggots. But as a garbage man, I probably know more about people on my route than their pastor does because their trash tells a story.

…it puts me in touch with that side of life which is about loss, that everything is temporary.

…And to do the trash, it’s sort of a reminder that every small thing that we ever do for other people is valuable, even though it might be really small and unnoticed.

Read or listen to “Trash Tells a Story” at NPR StoryCorps


Jan Hoffman of the New York Times reports:

The rate of abortions performed in the United States has fallen lower than during any year since 1973, when the Supreme Court legalized the procedure, according to a new report by the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights.

The latest numbers, for 2014, continue a trend of declining abortion rates for most years since 1981.

In 2014, there were an estimated 926,200 abortions — a rate of 14.6 per 1,000 women of childbearing age (15 to 44) — compared with 1.06 million abortions in 2011, the year of the last Guttmacher report, or 16.9 per 1,000. In 1973, the year of the Roe v. Wade decision, the rate was 16.3. In 1981, the rate was 29.3.

Now for someone like me who does not support the practice of abortion (whether or not it should be legal and available is another question), this is both good news and bad. I have often expressed my opinion that those who are pro-life should focus first on reducing abortions by helping change certain conditions that cause people to choose the procedure. So, this continuing drop in the rate of abortions is unvarnished good news. On the other hand, I still find the idea of nearly a million abortions per year sad and unacceptable. It was not clear to me from reading the study how many of those abortions might have been considered medically necessary.

One of the biggest factors in the decline of abortions, the report suggests, was access to birth control.

Researchers suggested that increased use of long-term birth control, such as intrauterine devices and contraceptive implants, contributed to the most recent decline. In particular, the proportion of clients at federally funded family planning clinics who sought such methods increased to 11 percent in 2014 from 7 percent in 2011. Because women who rely on these clinics are disproportionately young and poor and account for a majority of unintended pregnancies, researchers said, even a moderate increase in reliance on these methods could have an effect on the abortion rate.

Read “Rate of U.S. Abortions Hits Lowest since Roe v. Wade” at the NY Times


According to geneticists, anywhere from 1-5% of the genome of modern Europeans and Asians may come from Neanderthal ancestors. It seems that around 50,000 years ago, when the ancestors of modern humans migrated out of Africa and into Eurasia, they encountered Neanderthals and, uh, took things to the next level. Those who stayed in Africa missed out on the Neanderthal tango (no Neanderthal DNA appears in present day Africans).

Dr. John Anthony Capra, an evolutionary genomics professor at Vanderbilt, has been trying to learn what a partial-Neanderthal heritage means for people today.

What we’ve been finding is that Neanderthal DNA has a subtle influence on risk for disease. It affects our immune system and how we respond to different immune challenges. It affects our skin. You’re slightly more prone to a condition where you can get scaly lesions after extreme sun exposure. There’s an increased risk for blood clots and tobacco addiction.

To our surprise, it appears that some Neanderthal DNA can increase the risk for depression; however, there are other Neanderthal bits that decrease the risk. Roughly 1 to 2 percent of one’s risk for depression is determined by Neanderthal DNA. It all depends on where on the genome it’s located.

He even thinks that Neanderthal DNA can make a person more prone to nicotine addiction.

Sorry if these words are hurtful to any of you.

 Read “What Did Neanderthals Leave to Modern Humans?” at the NY Times


Did Jesus believe in “original sin”?

Who were the first “Protestants”?

How did Christianity diverge from 1st century thought about the afterlife?

What predictions of “conventional wisdom” about the church failed to come true in 2016?

How should we interpret the Genesis Flood account?

Is the Bible a “personal letter” from God to you and me?

What, exactly, is the problem with hypocrisy?

Does America’s “gospel of success” leave any room for failure?

How does televangelist Paula White answer her critics?

Is “globalization” the problem?


Babies born dependent on opioids, tiny victims of an epidemic across our nation, are often born facing having to deal with symptoms of withdrawal — twitching and tremors, trouble with feeding, and difficulty sleeping.

Boston Medical Center has developed a program to help these little ones. They call it CALM, an incomplete but apt acronym for Cuddling Assists in Lowering Maternal and infant stress. This program revives a definitely old-school approach, putting an emphasis on non-pharmacologic care. Often, that starts with skin-to-skin cuddling.

Programs like CALM are being developed across the country, recruiting volunteer cuddlers for those babies whose parents are unavailable because they are in residential treatment programs or otherwise unable to be as present as needed. The CALM program itself has 100 volunteers who take two-hour shifts, holding, rocking, singing, and providing soothing presence to the little ones.

STATNews reports on the results so far:

  • A 40% drop in medication treatment rates
  • Saving the hospitals money. It costs $2100 per day for the medical center to house one of these babies and huge cost savings is realized with shortened stays.

And all it takes is someone who will devote himself or herself to cuddling a baby.

Read “Call in the Cuddlers” at STATNews


For my money, the greatest cover song of all time began to be recorded on this day in music history. On January 21, 1968, Jimi Hendrix started to lay down his version of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” at Olympic Studios in London.

Recording the song was a long process that eventually moved to New York’s Record Plant studio, where the majority of the Electric Ladyland album was cut. There Hendrix had access to a 12-track and then later a 16-track recording machine that enabled him to obsessively overdub guitar and bass tracks repeatedly until he got what he wanted.

I’ll let Ray Padgett in his “Cover Me” article take it from here:

After the endless overdubs and re-recordings of guitars, vocals, and bass, it came time to mix the record. By this point Chandler, who had produced the original London sessions, was long gone. His original mix had been relatively subdued, focusing heavily on the acoustic guitars and giving even the loud solos plenty of room to breathe.

The new version Hendrix mixed with Eddie Kramer went in the opposite direction. “It was a case of Jimi and I doing it together and just making it sound as commercial as we possibly could,” Kramer said. With 16 tracks at their disposable, they had plenty of room to add compression, reverb, chorusing, and other studio tricks to make the entire thing louder and more in-your-face. With many other tracks too long or too far out to ever take off, the goal for “Watchtower” was becoming clear: hit single.

It worked. Release as a single in the US on September 21, 1968, and backed with “Burning of the Midnight Lamp,” “All Along the Watchtower” became Hendrix’s first and only Top 40 single on the Billboard charts, climbing from #66 on its debut to a peak of #20 (it made #5 in the UK, where Hendrix had more of a track record). It in fact sold more than the group’s previous four singles combined – and that includes “Purple Haze” and “Foxy Lady.”

It resonated particularly with troops in Vietnam. The army’s official radio broadcasts were tightly controlled, but GIs overseas had made a regular practice of setting up pirate radio stations in the field, and “Watchtower” began to get heavy airplay. One veteran recalled in Stephen Roby’s Black Gold, “I just spun the dials…lo and behold there’s Midnight Jack broadcasting: ‘Midnight Jack, man, I’m deep in the jungle… What can I play for you, man?’ He’s gone for about 30 seconds and I imagine he’s putting a reel-to-reel tape on and here comes Jimi Hendrix…”

Perhaps most importantly to him, Bob Dylan loved it too – though it’s not clear whether or not Hendrix ever knew, as all Dylan’s public comments occurred after Hendrix’s death. “It overwhelmed me, really,” Dylan told the Florida Sun-Sentinel in 1995. “He had such talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn’t think of finding in there. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using. I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day.”

One cool thing about article linked and quoted above is that it contains audio samples of various takes captured in the process of recording “All Along the Watchtower.” Check it out. And here’s the finished single, a classic, and in my view as I said, the best cover song of all time.

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