Sunday, February 18, 2018

What Do We Find in the Wilderness?

The Rev. Kathi Johnson
B Lent 1 – 18 February 2018
Text: Mark 1:9-15
Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, Grand Prairie, Texas

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This past week, someone asked me what gives me joy. My mind immediately went to a moment earlier that same day – Ash Wednesday – which was, for me, a nutty day in the midst of a nutty week. So after her question, my mind went to this moment after the 1pm Ash Wednesday service was over. I was sitting in my office, trying to focus on the next thing of the day, and I found a moment of stillness.

And in that moment of stillness, a bird began to sing. Again and again, it sang its song… Then it changed its tune…The songs of the bird reminded me of my joy – even in the midst of a nutty day and a nutty week. The bird reminded me that there is joy in the activity of leading worship, just as there is joy in moments of stillness.

Out of the four gospel writers, the one I read from just a moment ago – Mark - is the most spare – he gives us the fewest words. True to form, in today’s lesson, he doesn’t give us much about the baptism of Jesus, or of the forty days that Jesus then spends in the wilderness. In today’s story, we do find a few details. The same Spirit who descended on Jesus like a dove at his baptism then drives him out into the wilderness. Jesus is driven out to the wilderness, almost in the sense of being pushed.

The wilderness...
Mark gives us very little about Jesus’ time in the wilderness: “He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” And that’s it.

Time in the wilderness can be very fulfilling. It is in the wilderness where we can find moments of stillness – moments in which we can hear birds sing to remind us of our joy. Time in the wilderness can help us see the beauty around us, and we can find strength within ourselves that we didn’t even know was there.

But time in the wilderness can be draining, as well. Maybe you’ve seen the show “Mythbusters” – two men, Adam and Jamie, spend the show testing out different “myths.” In one show, they are dropped off on a deserted island with nothing but the clothes on their backs and a pallet of duct tape. They have to find food and water, build shelter, and – ultimately – find a way to escape.

They do OK at first, while their energy is fresh. But then the sun starts beating down on them, and they have to make shoes out of duct tape and sticks, so they can walk in the jungle to find water and food. Part of what they learn in their particular wilderness is that every task takes three other tasks that they have to complete first.

I don’t spend much time in actual, physical wilderness or on deserted islands, but I encounter other kinds of wilderness: times in which I feel alone, or when I feel overwhelmed by the enormity of a task, or when I feel deeply saddened by another tragic and unnecessary loss of life (as we had this past week in Florida).

Often when someone I know is going through some kind of difficult challenge, I hear this platitude tossed around: “God never gives us more than we can handle” Respectfully, I disagree. I think that there are wilderness times when we do have more than we can handle.

But in those times in my own life, I remember Jesus’ time in the wilderness. Mark says that Jesus spends his wilderness time with the wild beasts and the devil – but also the angels. God’s angels are there, too, ministering to Jesus, showing him God’s care.

What that means for me is that when I have more than I can handle, that is the point where I let God in. The point where I have reached the very end of my own strength – that is the point where God shows up, giving me strength, giving me wisdom, giving me love.

So, Jesus is baptized, and then he spends forty days in the desert. When he comes out from his time in the wilderness, he begins preaching about the Kingdom of God. He begins calling people to repentance and sharing the good news of God’s love for them. He calls his disciples to follow him, and then they get to work, ministering among the people: feeding them, healing them, showing them the fullness of God’s mercy and love.

And that’s how it is with us, too. We are called in the same way – we are also called to do the work of God among the people whom God loves.

Even though we are beloved children of God, there are times of wilderness in our lives. What can we learn in those wilderness times? How can God be our strength? How is God showing his love? And, when we come out from those wilderness times, how can God use me? How can God use you?

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Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Fishing is Risky Business

The Rev. Kathi Johnson
B Epiphany 3 – 21 January 2018
Text: Mark 1:14-20
Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, Grand Prairie, Texas

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When we catch up with Jesus today, he’s at the very beginning of his earthly ministry. We are now in the Gospel of Mark, and today you see we are in chapter 1, close to the beginning of the book, only 14 verses in. In Mark, there is no Christmas story to start off the book – there is no poetic introduction, like John has. Mark begins by saying this is “[t]he beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

There’s a short bit about John the Baptist. Then, Jesus is baptized in three verses, tempted in the wilderness for two verses, and we arrive at verse 14, wherein we find out that John the Baptist has been arrested. Undaunted by John’s arrest, Jesus begins his proclamation: “the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” 

Jesus then starts to build his team. He’ll end up with many disciples, of course – many will follow him around, listening to him and learning from him. But Jesus wants a closer group, too. Mark says that he’s next to the Sea of Galilee, and he finds Simon and Andrew fishing. He calls to them to follow him, and he’ll have them fish for people. And immediately (Mark says), they leave their nets and follow Jesus.

So Jesus keeps going, and he finds James and John fixing their nets in their boat, working their family business. Immediately (Mark says), Jesus calls them, and they, too, leave their nets and their dad, and they follow Jesus. So, at this point, Jesus has built his team with four fishermen.

Fishing can be a risky business. I have gone fishing before. I went a few times as a child with my Grandpa Woolard. We’d go out in a little boat, sit quietly, and wait for the fish to come to us. When I was a little older, we’d take family camping trips on the lakes of Central Texas. I remember one time, I was the only one in the family to catch a fish – and it was about this big. There was very little risk involved – to me…or to the fish.

But for professionals, fishing can be a risky business. If you watch any of the myriad of what I call extreme-reality shows with crab fishing or fishing in the North Atlantic or fishing in Alaska, you see what I’m talking about. These men (and a few women) go out into treacherous waters, where storms thrash them around, hoping to find the hot fishing spot. Sometimes they find it, and sometimes they don’t. Every time they go out, they put their lives on the line. They’re miles from medical help, miles from law enforcement, and at the mercy of the weather, their boat, their captain, and each other. 

Fishing in the First Century was risky business, too. The boats that they used were decent sized – we got to ride in something similar – but they weren’t huge. Like their modern counterparts, the fishermen in Jesus’ day were also at the mercy of the weather and discovering where the fishing was good…and where it was bad. Nets required constant care and repair, and the hours were long.

So, Jesus comes along and calls a bunch of fishermen to follow him, which they do. In fact these four men: Simon (aka Peter), and Andrew, James, and John would in some ways form the core of Jesus’ closest companions over the course of his ministry. And as I read this story again, I began to wonder why did Jesus call a bunch of fishermen?

I sat with that question for a while, and of course, I’ll never know the answer for sure. But sometimes, it can be helpful to speculate on motivations, so why did Jesus call a bunch of fishermen? Which then led me to ask: What characteristics did these men likely have – as fishermen – that Jesus would find useful?

Accustomed to taking risks. Leaving their work and following Jesus was risky.
Accustomed to hard work. It was hard work to follow Jesus – to travel with him, deal with the crowds who followed him, learn his difficult lessons.
They were strong. Maybe they didn’t know exactly the depth of their strength until after they’d spent some time with Jesus and he’d pushed them harder than they’d ever been pushed.

As I was reading this week, I came across a quote about this passage, written by Albert Schweitzer: 

“…by the lake-side, [Jesus] came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: ‘Follow me!’ and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him…He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and…they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.”

These men didn’t know Jesus when he called them. But there was something that compelled them to follow him. Maybe it was the desire to take a risk or to try something new – whatever the case, when Jesus called them, they listened, and they followed. 

So – we talked about the fishermen…why do you think that Jesus calling you? What characteristics do you have that Jesus finds useful? 

Often when I pray to begin a meeting, I begin with these words: “Thank you, Lord, for the work you have given us to do…” It’s a verbal reminder that all we have comes from God. You each have unique gifts, abilities, strengths, interests – so why is Jesus calling you? 

When we are baptized, we are called. When we are called, are we listening? When we listen, we find that God has gifted us for such a time as this – to be strong, to work hard, to take risks – to have faith, and to hope, and to love. 

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Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Are You Listening?

The Rev. Kathi Johnson
B Epiphany 2 – 14 January 2018
Texts: 1 Samuel 3:1-20; John 1:43-51
Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, Grand Prairie, Texas

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Samuel’s story takes place during a difficult period for the people of Israel. Before we even get to what the text says, we know from history that Israel during Samuel’s life is still a collection of various tribes – they have not yet unified into a nation. They are also surrounded by enemies - in particular, the Philistines. Some of the people want a monarch to take charge, thinking this will unify Israel and provide stability and security.

So now that we have a bit of the history in mind, we can look at the text again, which right away lets us know there’s some trouble going on: “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”

We have to take the story back a little to see what’s happening here. Back in the previous chapter , we see that the people who are entrusted with leading the worship of God are corrupt. They are taking advantage of people who are bringing sacrifices to the Lord, and they are taking advantage of women who are trying to serve the Lord.

So it’s no wonder that the word of the Lord was rare – there weren’t many who were truly listening for the voice of God.

Enter Samuel…whose name, by the way, means: God has heard.

The boy, Samuel, is serving the Lord under Eli’s supervision when he hears this voice calling to him one night. Samuel would’ve been at Eli’s beck and call, which is why he assumes the voice that he hears is Eli’s. Also, the text tells us that Samuel didn’t really know the Lord yet, so to him, it makes sense that the voice he hears is Eli’s.

The Lord calls to Samuel three times – and three times he runs to Eli – and twice, Eli sends him back to bed. The third time, Eli figures out that something bigger is happening here, and so he encourages Samuel to listen. And then Eli says that when God calls, tell God that you’re listening. And then, listen.

So Samuel returns to his room – can you imagine him, waiting?

“Samuel! Samuel!”

And Samuel listens. And the word of the Lord comes to him, and it’s a hard word that he receives. It’s a hard word because it’s about those corrupt leaders I just mentioned – and those are the sons of Eli – and God has had enough of them and their wickedness. This is the word that Samuel has to give to his boss the next morning.
The next morning, as they’re talking about this experience of Samuel  listening to God, Eli listens to Samuel, for he recognizes that even though it’s a hard word, the boy has received a word from the Lord. The next chapter is when life falls apart for Eli and his sons.

As for Samuel – this part of his story ends with the text saying that everyone knew him as a trustworthy prophet. Samuel lives into this tremendous calling that God has placed upon him: to be a prophet of the Lord.

When someone is preparing for ordained ministry, and even after becoming a pastor, one gets asked to share their call story over and over. People ask me: “How did you know you wanted to be a pastor?” “Did God speak clearly to you, like in the Bible, or did you just know?”

But I’d like to share part of another call story with you, of when God brought Steve and I into each other’s lives. We had begun dating, and pretty early on, we knew that this was something special. Early in our relationship, I was on the phone with my Granny, who was 88 years young at the time. I was nervous to tell her how Steve and I met – through the website

So I did what you do when you’re trying to get someone on board – I launched into every single positive attribute that Steve has. Granny then asked, “So how did you meet?” (Darn. Was hoping she’d forget!) And I nervously told her we’d met online.

Now, my grandmother is a very faithful woman. And she can tell better than most when God is involved in something. So her response was, “Well, I suppose if God can use other ways to bring people together, he can use that, too!”

In other words, when God calls, listen.

Every so often, I get asked how I think God speaks to us. How do we know what we’re hearing is of God, and not just our own selves?

What do you think….?

Is it how something feels in our gut? Is it receiving confirmation from others? 

Regardless – we have to listen. Samuel listened. The disciples in today’s gospel lesson – when Jesus called them, they listened. If the word of the Lord seems rare, are you listening?

Also – the word of the Lord isn’t always an easy word – just look at Samuel and Eli. But whenever and however God calls us, God also gives us what we need to live into that calling. God gives us faith, and hope, and love. And then, God gives us strength to live in this world as bearers of the truth of God’s love for all.

Are you listening?

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Thursday, January 11, 2018

Rise and Shine!

The Rev. Kathi Johnson
Epiphany – 7 January 2018
Texts: Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-23
Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, Grand Prairie, Texas

+ INJ +

When I was a child, my Grandfather Inglis and I would sit outside and look up at the stars together. Grandpa was the one who showed me the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper, and Orion. We’d gaze at the moon and talk about its shape, and if a human-made object flew past, he’d tell me about the satellites his company built and put up into space. Every so often, we’d see a shooting star.

I still love to go outside and look up at the stars. They’re more dim than they used to be because of light pollution from the big cities, but I still find the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper, and Orion, and some others I’ve learned along the way. I gaze at the moon and think about its shape. I think about the human-made objects floating around above our heads. And every so often, I see a shooting star.

There is constancy to the stars – they are pinpricks of light in the deep darkness. Is it any wonder that it’s a star that leads the wise men to find Jesus, the Light of the World?

These wise men know their stars - better than me, better than my grandpa. They are astrologers – professional star gazers – and so to them, any change in the night sky means something. Often, the appearance of a special star means that something big is happening in the world – the death of a king, or the birth of another.

When the wise men see the star that lead them to Jesus, they pay attention. Then, they get up and they travel – how far, we do not know – but they travel to Jerusalem and then on to Bethlehem. They travel so they can worship at the feet of an infant king. They visit Jesus with gifts and they offer their devotion.

It is interesting to me that the writer of the Gospel of Matthew includes this story about the wise men in sharing the story of Jesus’ birth. As astrologers, these wise men would’ve been viewed with suspicion in the time of Jesus.  These wise men live outside the accepted norms, and so their worship of Jesus is unexpected.

So, included in this lovely story of the wise men and Jesus is the idea that God in Jesus has come for all people - not only those we accept or expect.

Also woven around this story of the wise men visiting Jesus is the story of an ugly political reality at the time. Herod the King is paranoid and fearful. He’s so fearful that he’s able to draw others along the path of fear with him. When the wise men stop in Jerusalem to ask for directions to go and visit the newborn king, Herod says he wants to worship Jesus, but really, he wants to eliminate this infant threat to his power.

After the wise men visit Jesus, they receive a warning in a dream not to return to Herod, so they bravely defy the king, change course, and go home on a different route. Then Joseph also has a dream, so he and Mary pack up Jesus and they take refuge in Egypt. The young king, Jesus, is safe. And so, at first, we think the evil king has been thwarted.

But Herod rages when he finds out that he’s been tricked by the wise men, and he brings death to the children of Bethlehem – death to the children, and weeping and loud lamentation to their families – a reminder to us of what can happen when kings are too thirsty for attention and power.

For the power found in this story is not seated with King Herod on his throne of darkness, but in the power of God residing within the baby Jesus, the Light of the World. It is Jesus who will grow up to be a wise teacher, and a great healer of people. It is Jesus who will grow up to be crucified and die. It is Jesus who will defeat death by rising again in the power of God. 

No matter the day or time or season, we trust in a God who doesn’t let the darkness of death have the last word.

This weekend, we celebrate the Epiphany – the revealing of Jesus to the world, and so we take a bit more time today to revel in the lights of Christmas. But later on, for another year, the lights are coming down and getting packed away. At our house, the tree had gotten extra crispy, so yesterday, I pulled off the ornaments and Steve put the tree outside. Then, I ran the vacuum again and again to get up all those pine needles. Soon, our big plastic bins will be full of lights and wreaths and d├ęcor.

After all the lights have been pulled down and the busy holiday season is over, it can be hard to get back to life with enthusiasm. After the sparkle of Christmas goes away, it can be difficult to rise and shine. Have you ever encountered (or been) a well-meaning morning person who starts off the day with a rousing “RISE AND SHINE!”

Yet, that’s what the prophet Isaiah says to the people of Israel who’ve returned to their homeland after being exiled: “Rise, shine; for your light has come!” cries out Isaiah, trying to encourage people, and offering them a word of hope. In their case, he’s reminding them that the light of the power of God has led them home again. He’s showing them the light that is cracking through the deep darkness that covers the earth.

To you, in this new year, I offer similar words of hope:

Rise and shine!
Get up and reflect the light that God has given to us –
            The true glory of God has risen up overhead, like the sun.
Deep shadows spread over the earth,
            and sometimes, it feels like total darkness covers the people;
But the Lord shines over us, and his glory shines like the sun!

We have the opportunity to reflect the Light of the World – Jesus - again and again. In this new year, this is the time to rise and shine. Whether it is a pinprick of light in the darkness, or as bright as the sun, this is the time to rise and shine.


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