Posts in Category: Sermons

Love of God and Holy Communion

First Communion Service

Vicar Maggie Westaby

What does it mean to be in relationship? From a biological standpoint, relationships are all about intricate connections. There are so many interconnections that exist throughout all of creation…. and we are just starting to understand them. Because we are all connected, from a scientific standpoint, and…. we are all connected and united through God in Christ.  

Yet despite the multitude of interconnections, personal relationships are also unique. Because personal relationships are different depending on the person you are in relationship with. The relationship with one’s mother is different than the relationship with a friend, a pet, or a barista at your favorite coffee shop... And yet… there is one constant to every relationship...God.  

Because God is a part of every relationship that you have, regardless if you recognize God’s presence in that relationship or not. Because God desired to be in relationship with creation…… so much so, that God gave God’s self to us in the flesh and blood of Christ.

Which means that God truly understands what it is like to be human and to be in relationship. For Jesus experienced relationships. He experienced love, laughter, joy, community, pain, hurt, betrayal, trauma, aloneness, and death. All of the things that happen to us and all of the things that happen in our relationships with one another….

But sometimes relationships are hard… There are times when a loving relationship might seem lost or broken…where we are left with feelings of hurt, anger, sadness or despair… Because sometimes there is no easy fix, because life is messy… and no matter what our best intentions are, they simply don’t work out, because we cannot control relationships or situations… But no matter what happens, God is always there for you—to lay down those heavy thoughts, to listen to your anger, your sorrow or frustrations.  

Because God loves you unconditionally…. Meaning that God’s love is not dependent upon you doing everything perfectly…. because God knows that perfection is not even a possibility…. Because we are all broken and flawed human beings…. Which is why Christ body has broken for you….

 

Showing us, that even in our brokenness, we are united with God, in Christ.

 

And that is what we are reminded of in communion. Because Christ’s body was broken for you God’s very being becomes a part of you. For Christ became flesh so that we could encounter God’s unconditional love in our flesh… So that it could manifest in our bodies and so that we can share this same love with all of creation.

Because this love is more than an emotion; it is an embodied action… And it is a part of you.

 Because through communion God is giving you strength, peace, renewal, and forgiveness so that we can embody those traits when we leave this space….

Because being in communion with God allows us to enter a new space, a place where all are invited into a relationship that spans time and space. A space where we are united with all who have come before and all who will come after…Because not even death can separate us from God, or from our loved ones who are no longer with us.  Because God holds all relationships present and past in God’s very being.

And today, we will celebrate that space, with Andrew and Kasen as they partake in their first communion… A space where we all experience transformation through the forgiveness of sins... Which in turn opens us up to live our lives knowing that in Christ we find our salvation.

For it is through Christ’s death and resurrection, that Christ’s body is able to live on in us, so that we will never perish. Because communion is a foretaste of the feast to come, where we can taste the real richness that God has given to us. For it is here we find God’s grace, mercy, forgiveness, and love.

Because God yearns to be in relationship with you. Because God is a part of all of all interconnections, God is in the midst of the microscopic relationships that constitute the vastness of the universe, and God is a part of you. And today in communion we will experience that transformation in our flesh, a transformation that never stops. A relationship that is never failing, and a love that is truly unconditional…Amen

Holy Communion

First Communion Service

Vicar Maggie Westaby

 

 

Theologian and Author, Howard Thurman wrote “In a simple thing like bread… that is thoughtfully and carefully prepared… one may taste the richness of wheat or corn or barley that in its growth absorbed sunlight and rain and the rich chemistry of the soil. All the ingredients besides should serve to reveal and make available what the grain has stored up in its life under the skies.”

In this day and age, it is so easy to forget that bread has a history if you will. We simply go to the grocery store and buy a loaf, or we buy the ingredients to make a loaf. Very few of us grow the wheat, corn, oat, or barley needed for bread. And even fewer of us check the chemistry of our soil. We simply go to the toaster with a piece of bread… Forgetting all that has taken place… That in that piece of bread ancient sunlight has been made available for us to consume. Sunlight has been transformed because of the plants ability to harness and convert sunlight into food…

And just as plants have the ability to convert sunlight into food… God has the ability to make Christ available to us in the bread and in the wine of communion. Transforming life under these skies into something that is a part of God—into something that is specifically “for you.”

Because God is the life source of all transformations—from intricate plant and sun relationships to bringing Christ to us through the Word of God in Holy communion—God is at work in all spaces.

And through communion we enter a new space, a place where all are invited into a relationship that spans time and space. A space where we are united with all who have come before and all who will come after…

And today, we will celebrate that space, with Alex Natalie, Jerrin, Molly, and Vinca as they partake in their first communion… A space where we all experience transformation through the forgiveness of sins... Which in turn opens us up to live our lives knowing that in Christ we find our salvation. For as we were reminded in the gospel today, Christ’s body and blood has been given for you. It has been given to you out of God’s very being.

Which was made possible because Jesus lived His life completely of this earth. And like Howard Thurman said about bread, that “All ingredients should serve to reveal and make available what the grain has stored up in its life under the skies.” This is the exact same thing that Jesus was doing while He lived on this earth. For Jesus lived a life full of things that took place under these same skies.

 

Jesus experienced love, laughter, joy, community, pain, hurt, betrayal, trauma, aloneness, and death… “Ingredients” if you will, which also makes up our lives… So that He could connect and be with us in all things that we experience. And because Jesus is God, He baked each of those experiences or “ingredients” into God’s very being so that, there is no place you will go where God is not.

And because of Christ’s death and resurrection, because of Christ giving His body and blood to each one of us… Christ’s body lives on in us, so that we will never perish. Because communion is a foretaste of the feast to come, where we can taste the real richness that God has given to us. For it is here we find God’s grace, mercy, forgiveness, and love.

And though Christ may no longer be in the physical body of Jesus… Christ’s body is still available to us through communion because of the Word of God. And just like we are able to consume sunlight in a normal loaf of bread… God’s Word makes it possible for us to consume God’s light—the light of Christ—through our communion meal. Because Christ has given of himself, so that we can be nourished in ways deeper than any loaf of bread ever could do….  What a gift! That has been given for you….  Amen

 

1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14

Wisdom and Climate Change

Rev. Dr. Niveen Ibrahim Sarras

1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14-- Wisdom and Climate Change

August 15, 2021

An angel appears at a faculty meeting and tells the dean that in return for his unselfish and exemplary behavior, the Lord will reward him with his choice of infinite wealth, wisdom, or beauty. Without hesitating, the dean selects infinite wisdom.

"Done!" says the angel, and disappears in a cloud of smoke and a bolt of lightning. Now, all heads turn toward the dean, who sits surrounded by a faint halo of light. At length, one of his colleagues whispers, "Say something."

The dean looks at them and says, "I should have taken the money." [1]

King Solomon saw in wisdom the most voluble thing to possess. More valuable than any wealth. King Solomon says to God, "9Give your servant, therefore, an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?" God was pleased with him and granted Solomon peace and wealth alongside wisdom because he chose wisdom. If you were Solomon, what would you ask God? All of us need wisdom. Without wisdom, we cannot navigate our path in life. We need the wisdom to relate to one another, succeed in our job, and take care of the environment.

 

It is too late to talk about climate change once a year on Earth Day because it is happening now. We need to ask God to give us the wisdom to take care of our world. It is hard to think that climate change is not real. A lot is happening in the world that forces us to believe it is true. The recent report by the United Nations climate change emphasizes a hotter future is inevitable, and human's actions over decades are the cause.[2] Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist, explains that

Scientists measure how Carbon Dioxide is increasing in the atmosphere as we burn fossil fuels. Carbon Dioxide traps heat, keeping it from going out to space, and warming the air. Climate change matters because it affects people. It increases heavy rainfall, heat waves, and the severity of hurricanes.[3]

 

The wildfires on the West Coast and Canada have affected our lives in Wisconsin. We heard on the news about wildfires in Algeria, Turkey, and Greece. Flood in Sudan, South Korea, and Germany. I heard on Wisconsin Public radio that over half of Wisconsin is in moderate to extreme drought. Because of the excessive heat, the ice is melting in Antarctica, and the global sea level is rising. These signs of climate change scream in our faces saying we are fools, not wise. We have chosen wealth and greed over wisdom and understanding.

God created a marvelous world and gave it to us as a gift. Our greedy actions have destroyed God's work. Psalm 111:10 states that "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." Fear and honor of God mean being good and faithful stewards of this earth planet. Our polluted water and air expose our sinful life. Our greed stresses that we prefer wealth over wisdom.
 

We have not cared enough about God's creation. If we do not care about our planet, we do not care about ourselves and our neighbor. This statement is interesting because our greed and self-interest motivate us to abuse our creation, ourselves, and dishonor God, the creator.

Like someone is diagnosed with obesity and diabetes, not changing daily habits, the illness will worsen and probably die. Are we wise enough to repent and change our actions that harm our planet? Our planet is heating up. If we do not do anything about it, as people of faith, this planet would not be suitable for us and all creatures to inhabit.

 

Some Christians believe that climate change is a myth. God is in control of everything. These Christians argue, suppose God wants to change the climate, nothing we can do about it. I believe that God is in control. However, as a Christian and biblical scholar, I believe that God created us with free will. There are consequences to our choices. For example, using dirty energy is not a good choice. Moving to clean energy is consistent with our values as Christians because investing in it gives us clean air and water.

 

Foolishness means humans decide to use toxic chemicals in God's atmosphere. In contrast, wisdom calls us to be faithful and good stewards of the creation that God gave us as a gift. God is inviting you and me to live in harmony with the planet. Are we going to do it? Are we going to make this planet a healthy and enjoyable place for the next generation? Throughout this week, I invite you to ponder how you can adopt new habits to live in harmony with our earth planet.

 

 

[1] http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/w/wisdom.htm

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/09/climate/climate-change-report-ipcc-un.html

[3] Katharine Hayhoe, Climate Change and our Christian Faith, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0VIsnxuH7X0

 

2 Samuel 18—Absalom and David

           Rev. Dr. Niveen Ibrahim Sarras

2 Samuel 18—Absalom and David

August 8, 2021

 

It's difficult to say exactly when the first tear bottles came into being, however, we can be certain that the legends began in antiquity. The Old Testament of the Bible references collecting tears in a bottle in Psalm 56:8 when David prays to God, "You have kept count of my tossings;
put my tears in your bottle.
Are they not in your record?

Tear bottles were fairly common in Roman times, around the time of Christ, when mourners filled small glass bottles or cups with tears and placed them in burial tombs as symbols of respect. Sometimes women were even paid to cry into these vessels, as they walked along the mourning procession. Those crying the loudest and producing the most tears received the most compensation, or so the legend goes. The more anguish and tears produced, the more important and valued the deceased person was perceived to be.

Tear bottles reappeared during the Victorian period of the 19th century, when those mourning the loss of loved ones would collect their tears in bottles with special stoppers that allowed the tears to evaporate. When the tears had evaporated, the mourning period would end.

In some American Civil War stories, women were said to have cried into tear bottles and saved them until their husbands returned from battle. Their collected tears would show the men how much they were adored and missed.[1]

 

David sheds tears over the death of his son, Absalom, who plots a coup and tries to overthrow him. Absalom betrayed his father, David, and stabbed him in the back. It is highly possible that Absalom sought revenge against his father, David because he did not take an action against Amnon, who raped his half-sister, Tamar. The scripture tells us that when Absalom kills Amnon in revenge for his sister, David banishes him for three years, but his cousin Joab reconciles him to David. Absalom hides his anger until he declares himself a king in Hebron. He gathers men to fight David, but the rebellion is defeated, and Absalom is killed.

 

Absalom's betrayal leaves David in shock, anger, hurt, and disappointment. Despite Absalom's betrayal, David feels undone at hearing the news of his death. His fatherly love moves him to seek Absalom's safety. So, he orders his military officers not to harm him (v. 5). David must have hope to reconcile with Absalom again. The bad news comes to David about the death of Absalom breaks his heart. David expresses agony over his death. His parental grief is expressed in intense sadness and pain. I believe that while David is grieving Absalom, he remembers his sin against Bathsheba and the prophet Nathan's prophecy that a member of his family would rebel against him (2 Sam. 12:11).

 

The scripture tells us that Joab does not give David enough time to mourn Absalom. He threatens to take David's kingdom if he continues to grieve. As a commander of David's army and his nephew (1 Chronicle 2:15-16), Joab was close to his uncle David. Joab represents those in charge to protect us from harm but instead harm us. Joab also represents a dear relative who betrays you. David hired Joab to do his dirty work. For example, Joab follows David's order to put Uriah, the husband of Bathsheba, on the frontlines to die. David trusts Joab to lead his army and to fight his enemies, even his son Absalom. Joab hears David ordering him not to harm Absalom, but Joab allows his armor-bearers to kill him.  On the brink of death, David advised his son Solomon to kill Joab because his hands are covered with innocent people blood (1 Kings 2:5-6). 

What a troubling story! David's son, Absalom, and nephew, Joab, betray him and left him in utter devastation.

 

As parents, you grieve when your children hurt and betray you or even when they get themselves in trouble. You might shed tears or not get enough sleep, or you might find yourself fighting depression and anxiety. As parents, you always hope to reconcile with your rebellious child. I do not think that any of you wish to harm your rebellious children, but you always hope that they will acknowledge their sins,  repent, and reconcile with you.

 

When you grieve because of your rebellious child or a relative, I assure you that God sympathizes with your pain. The psalmist says, "God is close to brokenhearted" (Psalm 34:18). God cries when we rebel against God and follow our desires and immature wisdom. However, God rejoices when we repent. Imagine how many times we grieved Jesus' heart and made him shed tears because of our rebellion. All of us are like Absalom. Many of us are tempted to overthrow our heavenly Father and King and take over God's place to lead our lives and the world. We become very proud and arrogant by trusting in our immature wisdom and trusting ungodly friends rather than God.

 

King David wailed, saying, "O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!" David was unable to die instead of his son. All the power and wealth he enjoyed did not prevent the death of Absalom or resurrect him from death. Like David, God cries loudly over our sinful life, "O my son and daughter, my son, my son, O my daughter, my daughter! I will die instead of you, O my son, O my daughter!" Unlike King David, God the Son, Jesus Christ, volunteered to die for us, covered our sins, and reconciled us with God the Father.

Even though we act like Absalom, we have a better chance than him. We have an opportunity to repent through the Holy Spirit that leads us to repentance and our Lord Jesus Christ, who reconciled us to God the Father. Remember, my friends; God will always give you a chance when you sincerely repent. Also, remember Exodus 34:6-7 " 6 And he [God] passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, 7 maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished.”

 

 

 

 

[1] http://www.lachrymatory.com/History.htm

John 17:6-19

Jesus prayed for you & his disciples

Rev. Dr. Niveen Ibrahim Sarras

John 17:6-19… May 16,2021

"Boarding the SS Dorchester on a dreary winter day in 1943 were 903 troops and four chaplains, World War II was in full swing, and the ship was headed across the icy North Atlantic where German U-boats lurked. At 12:00 on the morning of February 3, a German torpedo ripped into the ship. "She's going down!" the men cried, scrambling for lifeboats.

A young GI crept up to one of the chaplains. 'I've lost my life jacket,' he said. 'Take this,"' the chaplain said, handing the soldier his jacket. Before the ship sank, each chaplain gave his life jacket to another man. The heroic chaplains then linked arms and lifted their voices in prayer as the Dorchester went down."[1] They "died because they gave up their life jackets to save others." "Congress established February 3 as "Four Chaplains Day" to commemorate this act of heroism."[2] I was wondering what these chaplains were thinking as they gave their lives for the soldiers. What their final statement was. Did they think of their families? We do not know.

 

This morning, I want to look at one of the final statements we have from Jesus. Thanks to the gospel writers, we know what Jesus's concerns, thoughts, and prayers were in the moments before he died on the cross. And we can learn a lot from this prayer. Likewise, I think Jesus wants his followers to learn from this final prayer. In this prayer, we notice that he did not concern himself, but he concerned his disciples and those who believe their testimony; that is us.

Knowing that he would be crucified on the cross to atone our sin and save us from death, Jesus assured his disciples that they belonged to him, not to the world. He knew that Peter would deny him, Judah Iscariot would betray him, and the rest of the disciples would run away. Jesus knew that only his beloved disciple would be with his mother, Mary, at the time of his crucifixion. Despite his sadness, heartbroken, and suffering, Jesus assured his disciples and us that we belong to him and that we are a gift from God to him. Jesus's prayer intends to calm his disciples' anxiety. I invite you to meditate with me on his prayer.

First, Jesus prayed for protection from the world and evil one. What is the difference between the world and the evil one? Is there any difference? The world is not the cosmos or the earth but the place where Satan is at work. The world manifests itself in systemic evil, which arises from structures within human society, like slavery, human trafficking, and discrimination. The world expresses itself in our own sins, too. God created a perfect world, but sin subjugated people, pushed down and marginalized the poor, and launched war. This world crucified the Son of God, rejects Jesus, and promotes secular ideology and culture. This world mocks Christians and encourages attending sports on Sunday rather than the church. We indeed need protection from this world of sin, war, death, injustices, and darkness.

As Jesus was leaving the disciples, he asked God, the Father, to protect them from the world and that they become one as God the Father and Jesus Christ are one. Jesus also asked that his joy may be made complete in his disciples (v. 13). The evil one aims to destroy your joy by tempting you and bringing hardship to your life. But, despite all his evil deeds and power, he cannot strip you from Jesus's joy because you belong to Jesus alone.

Jesus prays for his disciples' protection from the devil, and that they are not taken out of the world. But, ultimately, just as the Father sent Jesus into the world, so too, Jesus sent the disciples and us into the world to continue his mission and spread the good news about forgiveness of sins and everlasting life.

Second, Jesus prayed for his disciples' sanctification in the truth. Sanctity does not imply or claim a godly status. It is described as being in the truth, which is the word of God. Sanctity has to do with our mission to be sent to the world to share the word of God. Your sanctification does not come by isolating yourselves from the world but by being sent into it.

Our sanctification is connected with Jesus's suffering on the cross (v. 19). This sanctification is not cheap because it cost Jesus to lose his life for us. It also comes in the experience of losing our own lives. Jesus says, "Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life" (John 12:25).

Jesus also says in John 16:33, " I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world, you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!" In this era, where atheism and secularism target Christians and more people are less interested in church, keep in mind that Jesus prayed for you. Take courage; Jesus Christ defeated this world and its master, the devil. Jesus will give you the strength and wisdom to continue his mission in this world.

 

My church family, I beseech you, do not hesitate to express your faith in words and deeds. Do not put your light under a bushel, but put your light on a stand, that those who come in may see the light ( Luke 11:33–36).

"And the peace that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 4:6).

 

[1] Today in the Word, April 1, 1992. http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/s/substitution.htm

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SS_Dorchester

Thomas the Believer--John 20:19-31

​Rev. Dr. Niveen Ibrahim Sarras, Ph.D

Thomas the Believer--John 20:19-31

April 11, 2021


“Seeing is believing. Of course with today's technology and photoshop capabilities, you can't always believe what you see. But in the realm of faith, ''Believing Is Seeing.'' Spiritual sight follows belief, vision follows trust, insight follows faith."[1]

 

The Apostle Thomas was absent when Jesus appeared to the disciples. He could not believe that the other disciples saw the risen Jesus showing his wounds in his hands and side. So, the church has labeled the Apostle Thomas as doubting Thomas. This title carries a negative connotation. The church does not do justice to the Apostle Thomas, who traveled to India to spread the good news and create faithful communities who trusted and believed his testimony that Christ rose from the dead.

 

The Apostle Thomas was a skeptic who refused to believe without direct personal experience. He thought that the grieved disciples were imagining. He also assumed that the disciples saw a spirit. Encountering a spirit or a ghost of a deceased person is still a common belief in different communities around the world. Thomas wanted to touch Jesus to believe that Jesus is real and not a spirit because you cannot touch a spirit. He questioned his faith and the faith of his companions and demanded a proof. Jesus confronted Thomas "Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe." Jesus confronted Thomas with the reality that he was not among the dead anymore.

I do not discredit Thomas, and neither did Jesus. All of us have Thomas' moment. All of us questioned our faith at a certain point in our lives.  I was skeptical of my faith tradition when I did my Ph.D. degree in Old Testament and after the death of my younger sister. I doubted almost everything the church has been teaching like the Trinity, angels, virgin birth, and many more. I searched for evidence to prove my inherited faith. I experienced a spiritual crisis. In the midst of my spiritual struggle, Jesus confronted me through my friend who was attending the same program. My friend engaged in spiritual and intellectual conversation with me. Gradually, I experienced a gentle spiritual awakening. Jesus came to me through my friend as he came to Thomas. As a result, my relationship with Jesus is deeper.

 

The story of Thomas teaches me not to be afraid of questioning my faith and be critical. Yes, it is okay to question your faith. Questions are actually a sign of growth, not weakness. A pastor and author, Gary E. Parker, writes,

If faith never encounters doubt, if truth never struggles with error, if good never battles evil, how can faith know its own power? In my own pilgrimage, if I had to choose between a faith that has stared doubt in the eye and made it blink, or a naive faith that has never known the firing line of doubt, I will choose the former every time... Faith is a knowledge within the heart, beyond the reach of proof.[2]

 

Jesus transformed Thomas' life. He is no longer the doubting Thomas, but Thomas the believer. Thomas was a critical thinker. He was intellectual, and Jesus did not discredit him. His faith in Jesus, who is no longer among the dead, freed him from his doubt and fear. He responded to Jesus' resurrection by acknowledging him as his Lord and his God.

 

 Thomas became a very well-known Apostle in India. He tolerated persecution for the sake of Jesus Christ. According to Syriac Christian tradition, the Apostle Thomas was allegedly killed and became a martyr in 72 C.E. Thomas, the believer, not doubting Thomas took his faith seriously. Because Thomas and the rest of the disciples believed the resurrection, we believe it, too. Our faith is based on their testimony.

We live in a time when it is difficult to be serious believers in Jesus Christ. It is easy to be a nominal believer as long as your faith does not get in anybody's face. The Apostle Thomas' faith changed the world. What about your faith?

 

The story of the apostle Thomas teaches us that the resurrection is true. It also teaches us that Christ is walking with us. I want to confront you with one reality. Jesus Christ is not dead. He is alive, and he comes to confront you today not saying: you are questioners, or skeptical, or you disappointed me. He didn't say that to Thomas, so he will not say it to you. He comes to confront you today, saying: "peace be with you."

 

 

 

[1] Joe Alain, Believing Is Seeing (John 20:19, 24-29), https://www.sermonsearch.com/sermon-outlines/90865/believing-is-seeing/

[2] Gary E. Parker, The Gift of Doubt: From Crisis Authentic Faith (n.p.: HarperCollins, 1990).

Mark 1:21-28

Jesus' Authority

Rev. Dr. Rev. Dr. Niveen Ibrahim Sarras

Mark 1:21-28

January 31, 2021

"Cheryl Reimold, an authority about body language, once said, "If you stand up to address a seated person, you gain height and a certain amount of temporary power. But if you face a person directly, on his level (whether sitting or standing), you are more likely to establish communication."

Queen Victoria knew that.

The queen and her husband, Prince Albert, quarreled about something early in their marriage. Albert walked out of the room and went to his private quarters. Victoria followed, found the door locked, and began pounding on it.

"Who's there?" Prince Albert asked.

"The Queen of England," was the reply. But the door remained locked.

More pounding followed, but then there was a pause. The next sound was that of a gently tap.

"Who's there?" Albert inquired.

The queen's reply: "Your wife, Albert."

Prince Albert opened the door immediately."[1]

 

Jesus displayed a kind of authority that was accompanied by gentleness and compassion. Through his gentle authority, he opened the door to people to come to God through him. In his Gospel, the evangelist Mark makes a comparison between Jesus and the teachers of the law. He demonstrates the authority of Jesus over the teachers of the law. The worshipers at Capernaum synagogue were impressed by Jesus' teaching because he taught with authority, unlike the teachers of the law. There are two points in the Gospel that distinguish Jesus from the scribes:

First, Jesus taught new teaching—with authority! The teachers of the law interpreted the law and the prophets and gave relevant implications for people's present time. Still, Jesus gave an interpretation to be more relevant to people's life.[2] The scribes' teachings and authority were like a burden on the Jews. Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew 23:1-4 that the Pharisees and scribes "tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them." It seems that misusing their authority closed the door to people to come to God. Jesus continues to criticize them by saying, "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people's faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to" (Matthew 23:13).

Second, Jesus' exorcism demonstrates his authority over the teachers of the law. Healers, magicians, and exorcists were widespread in Israel and Hellenistic culture. Why did the Pharisees and the teachers of the law oppose him? The first reason, Jesus healed the possessed man on the Sabbath. The second reason, the statement that the possessed man uttered, "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?" represents the struggle between Jesus and the teachers of the law. The New Testament scholar, Ched Myers, notes that the unclean spirit speaks on behalf of the teachers of the law and presents their opinion toward Jesus' authority.[3] The evangelist Mark presents Jesus as a threat to the established power of the teachers of the law. Our Lord Jesus threatened the status quo of the religious leaders.

 

Jesus' teaching liberates people, unlike the teachers of the law that enslaves people. By healing the possessed man with an unclean spirit, Jesus demonstrates his messianic mission and the coming of the reign of God. "God's enemies are beginning to be defeated, and that Satan's rule over the world is about to end."[4]

 

The unclean spirit is very present in our life, our community, and the world. This unclean spirit aims to destroy and enslave us.  Examples of this unclean spirit could be addiction, discrimination, war, and so on. To eliminate this spirit, we need first to name it, and through the authority of Jesus Christ, we can destroy it.

I want to share with you my story. Losing my father made me very sad. It was hard to admit that he is gone. I intentionally made myself busy with my ministry to avoid acknowledging this significant loss. To refuse to recognize the loss of my father made me suffer more and more. The unclean spirit manifested itself in turning my back to my grief. I had to admit and name my loss. At that moment, through the help of God, I have started my first step to heal and recover. I firmly believe that naming your problem or the unclean spirit in your life will help you to transform it. Believe in the authority of Jesus Christ and trust him to liberate you. He had the authority to release the man who was possessed by the unclean spirit. Believe that he can do the same to you. God's grace and mercy are always available to you. Sometimes we do not value the treasure that we have until we lose it. Sometimes we do not pay attention or use the valuable resources that we have. We become busy finding solutions for our problems, whereas the solution is next to us all the time. God is always present in your life, but we do not pay attention. God is close to you as your skin. Pray to God through Jesus Christ to help you to destroy your unclean spirit. Jesus has the authority to liberate you, so open your heart to receive his precious grace.

 

[1] https://www.sermonsearch.com/sermon-illustrations/325/stand-up/

[2] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-mark-121-28-5

[3] Myers, Ched. Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus (p. 143). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.

[4] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-mark-121-28-5

 

Fishers of people: Invitation to involve in Social justice

Mark 1:14-20

Rev. Dr. Rev. Dr. Niveen Ibrahim Sarras

Mark 1:14-20

January 24, 2021

 

"The story is told about a group called themselves fishermen. There were many fish in the water all around this group. In fact, the whole area was surrounded by streams and lakes filled with fish. And the fish were hungry.

Week after week, month after month, and year after year, these who called themselves fishermen met in meetings and talked about their call to fish, the abundance of fish, and how they might go about fishing. Year after year they carefully defined what fishing means, defended fishing as an occupation, and declared that fishing is always to be a primary task of fishermen.

Continually, they searched for new and better methods of fishing and for new and better definitions of fishing. Further they said, "The fishing industry exists by fishing as fire exists by burning." They loved slogans such as "Fishing Is the Task of Every Fisherman." They sponsored special meetings called "Fishermen's Campaigns" and "The Month for Fishermen to Fish." They sponsored costly nationwide and world-wide congresses to discuss fishing and to promote fishing and hear about all the ways of fishing such as the new fishing equipment, fish calls, and whether any new bait had been discovered.

These fishermen built large, beautiful buildings called "Fishing Headquarters." The plea was that everyone should be a fisherman and every fisherman should fish. There was one thing they didn't do, however—they didn't fish… Is a person a fisherman if, year after year, he never goes fishing?"[1]

In Mark's Gospel, our Lord Jesus calls Simon and Andrew, the fishermen, to follow him and make them fish for people. We have traditionally interpreted Jesus' invitation to grow the number of people in the kingdom of God. We hear evangelical preachers using the text in Mark's Gospel to encourage Christians to win souls for Christ. In other words, Jesus' statement, "fish for people," connotes the vocation of "saving souls." I do not deny this interpretation; however, I invite you to pay attention to this text's context.

In Jewish biblical tradition, to fish for people implies a divine judgment of God's enemies. The prophets Jeremiah (16:6), Amos (4:2), and Ezekiel (29:4) used the metaphor of "hooking a fish" as a metaphor for God's punishment on the wicked. For example, Amos warns the  rich Israelites of God's judgment if they do not repent, "The Sovereign Lord has sworn by his holiness: 'The time will surely come when you will be taken away with hooks, the last of you with fishhooks.'" If the Israelites biblical tradition understands fishing for people to mean punishment, why does Jesus use this metaphor? I assume that Jesus has two reasons:

 

First, according to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus started his ministry after "John was put in prison" (v. 14). Herod Antipas was responsible for beheading John the Baptist, possibly at his royal palace in Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee's shores.[2] Jesus called his first disciples Peter, Andrew, James, and John, sons of Zebedee, who witnessed Herod Antipas taking the Jews' land to Romanize the region and put it under the Emperor's control.[3] Those disciples were victims of Roman oppression.

 

Second, the villages that surrounded the Sea of Galilee were fishing villages. The Jews depended on fishing for their survival. But Herod Antipas' romanization project in Galilee had controlled the fishing industry by imposing taxation on fishers and exporting fish throughout the empire market, which benefited only the elites.[4] It seems to me that the first disciples suffered greatly from the Romans' injustices.

 

 

Jesus called his disciples who were anticipating God’s intervention to end the Romans oppression. Jesus preached the good news about the coming of God's reign to replace the Emperor and Herod Antipas’ reign. Jesus invited his disciples to join him in participating and preparing for the kingdom of God. When he says, follow me, and I will make you fish for people, he means to invite his disciples to resist the powerful and the elites who took advantage of the powerless. In other words, Jesus "is inviting common folk to join him in his struggle to overturn the existing order of power and privilege."[5]

 

To be a disciple of Jesus and his follower means that Jesus is your Lord, and he rules over your life. Following Jesus might lead you to the cross. Preaching the kingdom of God and speaking against injustices led to his crucifixion. Jesus says in the Gospel of Luke, "A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained, will be like his teacher" (6:40). In other words, you are not better than Jesus Christ. Since you call yourself a Christian, you come to church to listen to his word and partake in his body and blood; then you have to live like him. We are called to fish for people, which means to improve people's life. We are called to make this world the kingdom of God. It is our responsibility as Christians to be the voice of Christ in every institution, organization, school, church, home, government. You name it.

 

It is not enough to talk about fishing and explain the best way to fish without going fishing. It is not enough to come to church and listen to the word of God. We are called to be Christ’s voice of love, peace, and justice in our communities. To be a follower of Christ and fish for people means to be the bridge that connects divided people.

 

After the election and the riot in Capital Hill, some people ended their friendship with their friends who have different opinions. A friend of mine told me that she lost a longtime friend over politics—other lost family members. Followers of Jesus Christ are invited to love one another and lay down their lives for one another (1 John 3:16). Despite our differences, Jesus is calling all of us—republicans and Democrats—to fish for people. You cannot call yourself fisher, and you do not fish. You cannot claim that you love Jesus and end your friendship or oppose your neighbor who has different political views.

 

Fishing for people has political and spiritual meaning. Through advocating for the oppressed and challenging the hostile order of hierarchy and privilege, you share the love of God with your underprivileged neighbor. You participate in helping people to taste and see the goodness of the Lord. You help them and allow yourself to be open to receive God's grace and mercy. It also means comforting one another and "carrying each other's burdens" (Galatians 6:2). In doing so, the Holy Spirit grants you peace and comfort in a time of need and strengthens you to continue to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ regardless of what the hostile world might bring.

 

 

 

[2] Ched Myers, “let’s Catch Some Big Fish!” Jesus’ Call to Discipleship in a World of Injustice,” Radical Discipleship, January 22, 2015, https://radicaldiscipleship.net/2015/01/22/lets-catch-some-big-fish-jesus-call-to-discipleship-in-a-world-of-injustice/.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1995), 132.

 

John 1:43-51

Prejudice
 
 
 
Rev. Dr. Rev. Dr. Niveen Ibrahim Sarras
John 1:43-51
January 17, 2021
"In his autobiography, Mahatma Gandhi wrote that during his student days, he read the Gospels seriously and considered converting to Christianity. He believed that in the teachings of Jesus, he could find the solution to the caste system that was dividing the people of India.
So one Sunday, he decided to attend services at a nearby church and talk to the minister about becoming a Christian. When he entered the sanctuary, however, the usher refused to give him a seat and suggested that he go worship with his own people. Gandhi left the church and never returned. "If Christians have caste differences also," he said, "I might as well remain a Hindu." That usher's prejudice not only betrayed Jesus but also turned a person away from trusting Him as Savior."[1]
Many of us value people based on their ethnicity, zip code, and color. Prejudice clouds our judgment. The sin of prejudice is an age-old problem. We have many examples of stories of discrimination in our Scripture. In the reading today in the Gospel of John, we encounter Jesus' disciple Nathanael, who used discriminatory language against Jesus, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Nathaniel undermined Nazareth and its residents. He did not expect the Messiah to come from a village.
 
According to archeologists estimates, the population of Nazareth at Jesus' time was around 400 residents.[2] Nazareth was a small village settled by a few low-income families. Nathaniel did not expect the Messiah to come from an insignificant village. Maybe he expected the Messiah to come from a big city like Jerusalem, Capernaum, or Caesarea. Some scholars also suggest that the Judeans in Nazareth were strongly influenced by Jerusalem's Jewish and priestly leaders [3] who supported the Romans. It is possible that Nathaniel hated the Jewish religious and political institution in Jerusalem and assumed that Jesus was part of them.
 
Jesus did not meet the expectations of the Jews, who had a militaristic and priestly character of the expected Messiah. This Messiah, who grew up in an insignificant village, is the Lord and the Savior. Jesus was different than the Jews in Nazareth. He was not a Jerusalem-centered Galilean Jew. Jesus was the Messiah who cared about ordinary and low-income people. He chose simple fishers to be his disciples and to preach the good news about the kingdom of God. Philip said to Nathaniel, "Come and see." When Nathaniel encountered Jesus, it transformed Nathaniel and cleared his clouded mind from prejudice. Nathaniel was captured by stereotyped beliefs and tended to discriminate against people who supported the political and religious institutions in Jerusalem. The Messiah Jesus touched Nathaniel's heart and made him a more understanding and open-minded person.
 
          Prejudice is a heart issue. The prophet Jeremiah teaches that "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure" (Jeremiah 17:9). To purge our hearts from the sin of prejudice, we need to encounter our Lord Jesus. Through God's grace, our heart will be like Jesus' heart. God is full of love and compassion for every person. In the book of Acts 10:34-35, the apostle Peter says, "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation, anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him." If the church welcomed Mahatma Gandhi to worship with them, I believe Gandhi would have inspired many people in India to accept Jesus Christ.
 
"As partisans of our way of life', writes Allport, 'we cannot help thinking in a partisan manner . . . so that the very act of affirming our way of life often leads us to the brink of prejudice."[4] I am sure it is not easy to stop making generalizations about people.  However, unprejudiced Jesus gently confronted the prejudiced Nathaniel and changed him. Jesus did not get upset with Nathaniel or change his mind when calling on him to be his disciple. On the contrary, Jesus saw in Nathaniel a person who is ready to welcome God's grace and follow him. Jesus gave Nathaniel a chance because he knew that Nathaniel desires to repent and follow him. Jesus repeatedly gives us the same chance. Are we willing to take the chance?
 
To cleanse your heart from the sin of prejudice does not happen through taking workshops on anti-discrimination or by reading articles. You need the help of God to fight this sin. You and I would experience God's grace when we come before the throne of mercy, asking for help and direction. When we commit ourselves to discipleship, the Holy Spirit strengthens us. Our Lord Jesus gives Nathaniel and us an example of loving and respecting all people who may be different from us. He also teaches us that our transgressions are redeemable by the grace of God when we repent. Jesus is still calling each one of us to be his disciple.
Rely on the love of God for you. Depend on God's grace to transform you. Ask the Holy Spirit to direct you. I assure you, you will become like Nathaniel, a committed disciple of Jesus Christ.
         
 

[2]Mark Allan. Powell, Introduction to the Gospels, ( Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2019), 4.
[3] Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, “What Was Wrong with Nazareth? (John 1.43-46),” Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, October 30, 2012, https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/jewish-studies/jn-1-43-46-what-was-wrong-with-nazareth/.
[4] Gordon Allport, The nature of prejudice (New York, 1958), p 7

Mark 1:4-11: the baptism of our Lord

Rev. Dr. Rev. Dr. Niveen Ibrahim Sarras

Mark 1:4-11: the baptism of our Lord

January 10, 2021

 

Illustration: Baptism, Lost and Found[1]

A drunken man stumbles across a baptismal service on Sunday afternoon down by the river. He proceeds to walk into the water and stand next to the old country preacher. The minister notices the old drunk and says, "Mister, are you ready to find Jesus?"

The drunk looks back and says, "Yes, Preacher: I sure am." So the minister dunks the fellow under the water and pulls him right back up.

"Have you found Jesus?" the preacher asks." No, I didn't!" said the drunk.

The preacher then dunks him under for quite a bit longer, brings him up, and says, "Now, brother, have you found Jesus?"

"No, I haven't, Reverend."

The preacher now holds the man under for at least 30 seconds this time, brings him out of the water, and says in exasperation, "Man, have you found Jesus yet?"

The old drunk wipes his eyes and says to the preacher, "Are you sure this is where he fell in?"

Maybe the purpose of the minister is to wake the drunken man up. This short story might sound funny, but in essence, it reflects our misunderstanding of the sacrament of holy baptism. I invite you to explore the significance of Jesus' baptism and ours.

 The evangelist Mark gives more details on John the Baptist much more than Jesus Christ. Mark compares the baptism of our Lord with John the Baptist. John the Baptist "proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins "(1:4), whereas Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit (1:8). What do these baptisms represent?

 

In writing about baptism, the evangelist Mark goes out of his way to describe John's unusual clothing. It is not only to show John's poverty, but his clothing signifies his identity and points to his baptism. For a Jewish audience, this detail linked John the Baptist to the prophet Elijah, who wore similar clothing. In 2 Kings 1:8, we read that "They answered him, "A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist." The king said, "It is Elijah the Tishbite."  In Matthew's Gospel, our Lord Jesus connects John the Baptist with the prophet Elijah (Matthew 11:11, 14). We understand that John represents the prophets and the law. His baptism has to do with the work of the law. The prophets encouraged people to repent and to follow the law to reconcile with God. The prophets Zachariah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah prophesied about baptism that cleanses the Israelites from their impurity. In this case, the baptism of John the Baptist and our baptism are similar. The big difference in Jesus' baptism is that he baptizes us in the Holy Spirit. According to Jesus' great commission in Matthew 28: 19, we are baptized in the name of the triune God. In the book of Acts, the apostle Paul emphasizes to the believers in the city of Ephesus, who were baptized by John the Baptist, that they need to be baptized in the name of Jesus and to receive the Holy Spirit because John the Baptist directed people to believe in Jesus (Acts 19:1-5).

 

In our baptism, we die with Christ and rise with him (Romans 6:4). We have the Holy Spirit dwells in us. We no longer need the law to guide us because we have the Holy Spirit to lead us. The Holy Spirit has renewed us in our baptism. The apostle Paul said to Titus 3:5, "He [God] saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit." The Holy Spirit plays a significant role in the believer's life because the Holy Spirit intercedes for us before God (Romans 8:26-27).

After the Holy Spirit descended like a dove on Jesus, God the Father declared from heaven that "you are my Son, the beloved; with you, I am well pleased "(v.11). Likewise, in your baptism, God declares that you are a child of God, the beloved. In the letter to the Romans 8:15, the apostle Paul teaches, "you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, "Abba! Father!" The adoption by God is not part of John's baptism. Therefore, my friends, the apostle Paul insists on the baptism by the Holy Spirit so that we will enjoy all the privileges that the holy Trinity bestows on us.

Baptism is not merely ritual practice, but it has a profound meaning for our entire life. In your baptism, God claims you a child of God, sealed by the Holy Spirit. It is the work of God, not the work of a minister or a baptized person. In your baptism, you make a promise, or your parents and godparents made a promise on your behalf to continue to live your life for Christ alone. As the apostle Paul says to the Galatians 3:27, "For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ." In our Lutheran tradition, baptism comes with significant responsibilities

to live among God's faithful people,

to meditate on the word of God and partake in the holy communion, to grow in faith and prayer, to trust God,

proclaim Christ through word and deed,

care for others and the world God made,

and work for justice and peace.[2]

 

Our Lord Jesus Christ fulfilled these promises throughout his life. We are called to follow his example. Our baptismal vows affect every aspect of our lives and connect us with all Christians in this world. Because you are a child of God 24/7, you need to live your baptismal vocation 24/7. May the Lord grant you the strength to live your baptismal life faithfully.

 

[1] https://www.preaching.com/sermon-illustrations/illustration-baptism-lost-and-found/

[2] ELW, Holy Baptism, pg. 228