Sermon from February 28, 2016
We hear it, frequently, when disaster hits, someone points the finger and says “They deserved it!” or “It was because of those people, those sinners who angered God!” Hurricanes, tornadoes, floods – many natural disasters are declared to be God-given punishment!
Now, we might laugh. We might look with disdain at those who proclaim such a simplistic view of the world. Yet, it is so often the way we look at the world – on a smaller scale. “You reap what you sow!” That’s a Biblical statement. And we hear it as proof that God will judge us and others. So, when something bad happens, it is easy to assume that God has judged us (or them) and found us (or those people) guilty – and we are being punished. I did a quick search for Biblical quotes about reaping what we sow. I found a particular website that listed all the places in the Bible where this idiom occurs. The top of the website declared, “Most professing Christians are going to hell!! Your life depends on it. Find out now. Are you truly saved?” “Most professing Christians are going to hell!”
God is the harsh judge – waiting to hand out what we and the world deserve for the ways in which we have lived. Therefore, when anything bad happens, we must assume that we have displeased God.
“At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them – do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.’”
This is a hard passage to hear. How quickly do our ears go to Jesus’ words of warning, “Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did”? We hear it as a promise that we will reap what we sow, that God will judge us for our deeds. This image of God as the waiting judge hovers over so much or our understanding of the faith.
We have to hear the entire conversation that Jesus had with those who told him about the Galileans. His response is a reminder that the idiom about reaping what we sow has to be heard with another Biblical message. We’re told that the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike. The story of Job wrestles with this very notion of we reap what we sow. When bad things happened to Job, his friends assumed that he had done something to deserve God’s wrath. The book challenges Job to embrace a larger vision of who God is.
Bad things happen—to good people and bad people. That’s what Jesus was telling those who approached him. They couldn’t assume that those who had died were somehow more deserving of their fate than those who lived. The world doesn’t work that way. And God doesn’t work that way.
Yet, he follows with those words about repentance – words that sound like “what you will sow you will reap.” “If you don’t repent you will perish.” It sounds like the church signs you see all around. “Repent or perish!” And we hear, “God’s gonna get you!”
Contrast this image of God with the image in Isaiah 55. “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters. You that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”
We are to imagine the homeless, the poor, the despairing and suffering walking into our grocery stores and filling their carts with good things. We are to imagine banquets spread for all to enjoy. It is an image of God that is filled with grace and mercy, with love that overflows in abundance. “Come to the waters!”
Daniel Debevoise wrote about being thirsty, but not knowing it. He wrote about signs in the Grand Canyon National Park that warn hikers to stop and drink water. “You are thirsty, whether you realize it or not!” What if repentance is learning to acknowledge our thirst for God? When we reduce life to a reaping and sowing equation, do we leave room for God? Or, do we limit God’s presence and activity to that of making the equation equal? God dishes out the appropriate consequence – or maybe a severe consequence for human failures.
Do we not thirst for the God who is not the harsh judge but the nurturing, welcoming, healing, host? Is our world not thirsty for this God? We hear enough about the God waiting to mete out harsh judgments, even eternal judgment.
“Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” the prophet asks on God’s behalf. Perhaps, when Jesus spoke of perishing he was speaking not about God inflicting punishment, but life which was not truly nourished. There is nothing nourishing in a life that is lived in such fear of God that the world becomes small and calculating. There is nothing nourishing in a life that sees only scarcity and the need to look out for oneself or one’s own. There is nothing nourishing in a life that is focused on getting more and more and more.
Debevoise wrote about a movie titled Millions, so I rented it and watched it. It’s the story of a young British boy who found millions of stolen Pounds. The movie looks at the mayhem that this discovery caused as each member of the family made decisions about how it should be used. Chaos ensued. We hear about lottery winners, those who receive unimaginable amounts of money, and find, not happiness, but chaos, struggle and heartache. In the movie, the boy who found the money, Damien, constantly looked for ways to use the money to help others – a way of dealing with his own grief after his mother’s death. Finally, he was joined by the rest of the family. They gave the money to dig wells in Africa so that people could have clean water. (An appropriate story for our preparation for the CROP Walk!)
Repentance isn’t about living carefully to avoid God’s impending judgment and wrath. It’s about discovering the God who desires that we satisfy our thirst and our hunger with God’s very presence.
“Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food,” it says in Isaiah. We perish, not because God threatens us, but because we do not seek the very banquet that God offers. The world hungers and thirsts for God – yet seeks the food that does not satisfy – things, status, safety, fear, judgment, condemnation, isolation.
I thought of a wonderful piece by Ann Weems titled “Happy Birthday, Church.” It starts, “There was once a church that had only party rooms: the Session’s Party Room, the Music Party Room, the Feasting Party Room, the Touch Lepers Party Room. In the center of the building was a large round room with an altar and a cross: God’s Party Room. There was in the church an air of festivity and brightness that could not be denied.” The piece speaks of a congregation that didn’t collect canned goods for the poor, but bought pizza and went to the apartments and ate with tenants. Members went to the hospital and sat with dying patients, holding their hands, mopping their brows and speaking of life.
When accused of heresy, the people said, “We ask you to sit at our table and sup with us… We are celebrants of the gift of Life. We are community. We are God’s church. Why are your faces red when we are trying to do justice and love mercy? Why do you shake your fists at us when we are trying to discover the hurting and begin the healing? We are overjoyed that we can be the church, a community of people who are many, yet one – who are different, but who walk together and welcome any who would walk with us.”
Come to the waters. Come to the banquet. God wants to slake our thirst – our true thirst. God wants to feed us – with God’s very presence.
From February 21, 2016
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus is still on his way to Jerusalem when this morning’s encounter takes place. So, even though he hasn’t made it to the city, the city is ever on his mind. It is his destination. It looms in his ministry. The author of this gospel places Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem here – away from the city. Jesus laments long before he gets there. He knows, in part, what he will find.
Some scholars noted that the Pharisees, in this encounter, seemed to be concerned for Jesus’ well-being. Others wonder if this wasn’t a way of trying to silence Jesus. “Look, you’d better watch out. You’re in danger! Get away from here.” They wanted him out of their community. Jesus’ response calls them to account. He recognizes their willingness to use a hated ruler to further their own ends. They are playing a political game to silence an opponent.
Jesus won’t be silenced. In fact, he asks them to deliver a message to Herod. “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I must finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be one my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’”
Jesus will not be deterred. He will continue to journey to Jerusalem – the place that was the heart of his people’s faith. And, because it was the heart of the faith, the place where the external threats to their faith were most deeply felt. There were those who, for the sake of expediency, cooperated with the Roman powers. There were others who were constantly looking for a hero who would re-establish Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, free from foreign influence.
Some have accused Jesus of being politically naïve; and it was that naiveté that got him killed. Others have said that he wasn’t concerned with politics at all – that he came to proclaim a personal relationship with God; his death, therefore, was because the personal faith challenged the religious structures of the day.
Both interpretations ignore parts of the Biblical witness. Jesus was aware of all the power struggles around him, some of which were a result of living in an occupied land, others which existed within the political/religious structure that had developed within Judaism, and others which arose because power struggles are endemic to human communities. “Grant us to sit one at your left hand and one at your right,” two of Jesus’ own disciples asked.
Jesus, in this encounter, is telling the Pharisees – and us – that he is willingly and knowingly challenging all the power structures that are a part of human life. His challenge, scholar Rodney Clapp says, will go all the way to the top. Jesus is proclaiming, working for, demonstrating a topsy-turvy kingdom where the “first will be last and the last will be first.” He has been doing that – much to the dismay of those in power. And he will continue to do that – all the way to the heart of Judaism’s identity, Jerusalem.
Lent has at its heart an invitation to introspection. It is, in many ways, an inward journey. But that doesn’t mean it is merely a personal journey. The inward journey is so that we may consider what is at the heart of our faith. Jesus, as he looked to Jerusalem, mourned because the city that was central to his very faith, to his people’s faith, lived in brokenness. He laments that the city killed the messengers of God who proclaimed to it a different way, different values. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.” It is a motherly image. The fox, Herod, threatens the brood, but Jesus speaks of a tender love that desires to keep the flock safe. Yet, the flock chooses to admire the foxes, the ways and the values that threaten its very existence.
It is the image of a loving parent who sees a child or children making the wrong choices – and longs to bring them in and make them safe once more. Yet, that parent acknowledges that love requires that the children have the freedom to make mistakes. Sometimes those wayward children reject the ones who truly love them. “How often have I desired to gather your children together!”
Last week I spoke about seeing the ways in which we tempt Jesus. Perhaps a good question for today might be “How do we grieve Jesus?” How are we like the little chicks who stray and reject God’s ways, choosing instead the ways of the world that lead to destruction, division, hatred and fear – even when they promise the opposite!
I’ve started reading a book by Diana Butler Bass titled Grounded: Finding God in the Word. In her introduction she talks about the way we have historically viewed God. In spite of our declarations of Jesus as Immanuel, God with us, the church has consistently proclaimed a hierarchical view of God. She writes about what theologians call the omnis – God was seen as “omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient” – that is, “all-powerful, in all places, and all knowing.” God became the ultimate CEO of the church throughout the ages – yet removed, distant.
Contrast this image of God with Jesus who laments, Jesus who weeps – or to pick up on an image that we used Wednesday evening, the God who wipes away our tears. Bass describes this God as the inter-God, “the spiritual thread between space and time; intra, within space and time; and infra, that which holds space and time. This God is not above or beyond, but integral to the whole of creation, entwined with the sacred ecology of the universe.”
Now, this could just be a reason for a theological discussion – yet, our assumptions about God profoundly affect the way we live out our faith – individually and corporately. Jesus lamented that Jerusalem rejected God’s ways. We see that play out when he came to Jerusalem and was caught up in all the political turmoil. Rome and the religious authorities saw him as a threat. People were looking for someone who would exercise power and overthrow the hated rulers, both religious and foreign. Jesus demonstrated and proclaimed a different way of being that was grounded in God’s expansive love – a love that embraced all people – Jews, Gentiles, -- even Romans. He rejected hierarchical structures and worked to welcome those who had been rejected, condemned, sidelined, or ignored.
How do we grieve Jesus? Bass’ book talks about the challenges facing the church today. She talks about people who have a sense of God yet find a church that rejects their experiences or condemns their experiences. She challenges the church to recognize its adherence to hierarchies that, in the modern era, are crumbling or institutionalizing a disconnect from God.
How often do we as people of faith buy into the power structures of our world? How often do we think that someone will be able to set things right so that we can just live out our lives the way we want to live them? Does Jesus grieve, “How often I have wanted to gather you together?” while we wander our own way, looking for those who have power, giving them that power, and then resenting it?
Jesus’ image is of inclusion – not each of us going our own way. Clapp says, “… all the first who would be first, then and now – they want to see themselves as masters of the universe, invulnerable and imperial behind their relentless, foxy maneuvering. Jesus calls their death-dealing by name, yet he also sees them as barnyard chicks lost in a storm, too afraid and too stubborn to find shelter under the shadow of mother hen’s wings….the foxes are not in control as much as they think they are.”
“The foxes are not in control as much as they think they are.” That is the good news for us. But we have to remember that at times we strive to be the very foxes Jesus condemns. We want that power and control – in big pieces or small. We want to matter.
Yet, we do matter. We matter to the one who loves us, who wants for us what is good and life-giving – for each of us, for all of us, for friends and family, for strangers, and even for enemies. We matter to the one whose love for us matters most. How do we let that love shape our lives, our faith communities, our work and witness in the world?
This morning’s gospel lesson is a familiar one – the temptations of Jesus. We might think of those silly cartoons with a little devil sitting on someone’s shoulder offering those bad choices – and a little angel sitting on the other encouraging better choices.
It’s always a challenge to hear a familiar story and let it speak in new ways. Furthermore, three gospels tell us that Jesus went into the desert and was tempted. Yet, each gospel, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, tells the story differently.
“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” I learned this week that our translations that speak of temptation are probably misleading or inaccurate. The Greek word is used elsewhere in the gospels when people were trying to test Jesus. Luke’s gospel is also unique in that he speaks of Jesus as “full of the Holy Spirit.” The temptation stories follow the accounts of Jesus’ baptism. Luke’s story emphasizes that the gift of the Spirit was more than an external gift. The Spirit had descended from heaven and become an indwelling presence in Jesus.
“If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” “If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here.”
Now the author of the gospel tells us that Jesus faced “temptation” or “tests” the entire forty days that he was in the wilderness. Yet, it was at the end of the forty days when, perhaps, he was most vulnerable, that he faced these three particular attempts to test him. So, what was the test that the devil was trying to accomplish?
Scholars suggest that the devil was trying to trick Jesus to embrace a different version of who the Messiah was to be. The devil encourages Jesus to embrace a vision of privilege, power, and self-protection. “Command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” The Messiah should have all his needs and wants satisfied. “Worship me and I will give you all these kingdoms.” The Messiah should be able to exercise his agenda from a position of power. “Throw yourself off – and the angels will bear you up.” How could God’s will be accomplished without keeping the Messiah safe? When Jesus resisted the previous tests by quoting scripture, the devil, himself, turned to scripture to bolster his argument. It is a reminder that scripture can easily be used or misused.
I always think that this story of Jesus’ time in the wilderness and Jerusalem tells us not about a once and for all conflict, but about conflict that will continue to arise during his ministry. He was constantly challenged by those around him, including those who loved him, to embrace a different understanding of who he was. He was asked to be the powerful deliverer who would drive out the hated Romans. He was asked to be the miracle worker who would heal and feed on command. The competing images of who he was expected to be never left. They persisted until his very death.
A fresh, for me, interpretation of this story suggested that we are to read ourselves into the story not as Jesus, but as the devil who tries to trick him into embracing a different understanding of who the Messiah was to be. We continue to ask God and Jesus to be molded according to our expectations and our desires rather than being informed by the God’s own revelation in scripture, the witness of the church throughout the ages, and the indwelling of the Spirit in our own lives. Of course, this isn’t necessarily an easy thing! The devil used scripture itself to present an alternative vision or understanding of what the Messiah was to be about. We know that scripture is continually used to present to our own world visions of God that injure, harm, belittle, threaten, and engender fear in the hearers. The church, too, throughout the ages, has often presented to the world a vision of God and a vision of Jesus that is bound up with the violence and the prejudices of the world.
We treat God like Satan treats God, the scholars suggested. “I’ll believe in God if I win the powerball.” “If I win the powerball, then I will give away 50% of my winnings.” Or there is the perennial question, “If God exists, why is there suffering? You should be able to pray and God will take care of the suffering. God will wipe it out.” “I’m a good person. God will take care of me!”
We could say that Jesus, the Messiah, is impervious to these misunderstandings, to these unrealistic prayers. But we’re speaking of the one who loves us. We know that sometimes, out of love, we make the wrong decisions when it comes to our loved ones. Parents indulge their children in ways that aren’t helpful. People stay in broken and abusive relationships because of love. Churches get caught up in destructive patterns because it is feared that speaking the truth will break the fragile fabric of community. At the training session I attended a week ago, we talked about churches that are held hostage by particular people who force their agenda on the entire body. “If we don’t act in accordance with their wishes,” the churches often say, “they will leave.” So the churches, like some families, persist in destructive brokenness.
A Lenten journey can be a journey of discernment. We need to discern who the Messiah is – apart from all the voices that would lead us astray, even the voices within our very selves. The disciples battled with their own expectations and hopes. At times those expectations and hopes prevented them from seeing and understanding who Jesus was.
The Lenten journey can also be one of discernment about who we are in relationship to God. Now, I said earlier, that we are not to read ourselves into the story as Jesus. We are more likely to be the devil. I had a seminary friend who, when we gathered, would often declare, “Get behind me, Satan!” when he was struggling with a choice or an attitude. It seemed to those of us who were his friends that he was too willing to externalize the threat, the conflict. Satan wasn’t some devil sitting on his shoulder, but his own inner self that was finding it hard to live as God’s child.
We may not be Jesus, but we can understand that, like Jesus, we are to live into a more complete way of being God’s beloved children. A scholar noted that this passage can teach us something about what sin is. When we refer to the story as the story of the temptations, we’re set up to understand sin as “sins,” particular acts or deeds. But sin is broader. Jesus was being tricked into embracing an identity that was not God given. We live in a world that bombards us with ways that we are to judge who we are. People are judged by their income, their appearance, their jobs, their race, their sexual orientation, their relationships, their education, their nationality …. the list can go on and on. They are told they matter – or that they don’t matter. They’re told they have worth – or that they’re worthless.
Sin could be understood as our unwillingness or inability to see ourselves through God’s eyes. “Who is it that God has called us to be?” is a good question for Lent. (It’s actually always a good question for those who call themselves Christian!) But in Lent we might ask what tests our sense of identity as committed Christians. What gets in the way of seeing ourselves as God’s beloved children? What competing claims do we allow to shape who it is we understand ourselves to be?
Jesus, throughout his ministry, was shaped by God’s call. He resisted every test that invited him to embrace a different vision, every test that competed with God’s naming of him as the Beloved child. His testing reminds us that he lived in a world with competing images – just as we do. His faithfulness has opened the door for us to live according to the way God sees us – as beloved children, made in the very image of God.
Sermon from February 7, 2016
Luke 9: 28-36
“It was Jesus of Nazareth all right, the man they’d tramped many a dusty miles with, whose mother and brothers they knew, the one they’d seen as hungry, tired, footsore as the rest of them. But it was also the Messiah, the Christ, in his glory. It was the holiness of the man shining through his humanness, his face so afire with it they were almost blinded.” Those are Frederick Buechner’s words, looking back at the story of Jesus’ transfiguration.
It’s such an odd story. I commiserate with the disciples who, according to the gospel writer, “kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.” We might think that they would have come down from that mountain bubbling over with excitement. “Guess what we saw!” “You should have been there!” “It was amazing!” But, they kept silent.
When I was in seminary, a professor said, “Many people have had an experience of the Divine. But they are hesitant to speak of it.” She invited us to think about those experiences that we had had. I read the same thing in a book recently. But we don’t talk about them. They remain hidden.
I wonder if those disciples didn’t say to themselves, and maybe each other, “We can’t tell anyone about this. They’ll think we’re nuts!” Who would expect businessmen to have a mystical experience? Is it any different today? Who wants to be labeled crazy? And we know there are enough “crazies” in our world, in our own society. There are people who claim that God has spoken to them, that they have heard God’s voice and know exactly what God wants. We know the painful consequences. People are quick to proclaim God’s will and God’s judgment. Oftentimes personal fears and prejudices are given God’s stamp of approval.
Add to that our discomfort with what we can’t explain. The Reformed tradition is not known for having mystics. The emphasis is on logic, good theology, and careful attention to the Biblical witness. It is designed to prevent the harmful “I speak for God” rhetoric that leads people to destructive theology – and sometimes destructive behavior. How many cults have had people willing to follow leaders even to death because they have been convinced that those leaders were speaking God’s word?
I was thinking how hard I find it to preach on the Transfiguration – because it can’t be explained! Now, that doesn’t mean that people, good scholars, haven’t tried to explain it. Some speak of it as a post-resurrection appearance that got told in the context of Jesus’ life. So, the resurrected Jesus could have this appearance – but not the human being that trod the dusty roads!
I don’t think that works. Maybe we’re supposed to let the mystery remain – to let this story challenge our desire to have an answer, to have an explanation for everything so that we can make sense of it. It is one of those stories to remind us that God is God. Whatever we understand of God is only partial at best. We cannot and should not expect that we would be able to explain everything about what God desires and who God is.
Back to those experiences of God. Perhaps we need the wisdom demonstrated by the disciples of not saying anything – at first. This story wasn’t shared until they had the time to place it in a context. They could begin to understand it more fully after they had journeyed to the cross and experienced the good news of the resurrection. Our experiences of God need to be placed in the context of the witness of scripture and the church throughout the ages. At the same time, we need to acknowledge that they did share the story. Its impact became evident as the community of faith heard it and embraced it. Perhaps the community helped shape the way in which the story was remembered and told. As the church, this story challenges us to make room for sharing our stories and reflecting together on the mystery of God revealed to us.
Beuchner went on to say, “Even with us something like that happens once in a while [seeing God in the midst of the human.] The face of a man walking his child in the park, of a woman picking peas in the garden, of sometimes even the unlikeliest person listening to a concert, say, or standing barefoot in the sand watching the waves roll in, or just having a beer at a Saturday baseball game in July. Every once and so often, something so touching, so incandescent, so alive transfigures the human face that it’s almost beyond bearing.”
There are times when we are transported to our own mountaintops, when we are in awe of the beauty of God’s world and God’s presence. We are given a glimpse of God’s glory in the midst of this world. We see the wonder and the awe of God’s incarnate presence, of God’s willingness to be wrapped up in the ordinary. It is as if the veil is pulled back for a moment – and we see not dimly, but more fully the promise of God’s indwelling presence.
Biblical scholar Walter Wink wrote, “Transfiguration is living by a vision: standing foursquare in the midst of a broken, tortured, oppressed, starving, dehumanizing reality, yet seeing the invisible, calling it to come, behaving as if it is on the way, sustained by elements of it that have come already, within and among us. In those moments when people are healed, transformed, freed from addictions, obsessions, destructiveness, self-worship or when groups or communities or even, rarely, whole nations glimpse the light of the transcendent in their midst, there the New Creation has come upon us. The world for one brief moment is transfigured. The beyond shines in our midst – on the way to the cross.”
The disciples may not have spoken about what they had seen and heard, yet, perhaps it gave them some glimpse of the reality that God was present in Jesus’ life in a way that they didn’t fully understand. It is a reminder that the life of faith does not come with a clearly mapped route. It does not come with all the answers. It is a journey to a destination that can be glimpsed, but is not fully known. The story of the transfiguration is in the middle of the gospel. It marks a turning point. Jesus’ ministry begins to lead him to the cross. His face is set toward Jerusalem. His disciples do not understand – yet they followed. They made it almost all the way, until fear won the battle and they faltered.
God chooses to be known to us. God chooses to be involved in our lives and in our world. And sometimes that involvement challenges, even shatters, our expectations and our assumptions. The glimpses we have of God are not to endow us with special powers or privilege that mean we can dictate to the world. On the contrary, they might better serve to remind us that God is God and we are not, and that God is beyond our full knowing or our full explaining. There should always be in the life of faith and in the life of the body of Christ room to be surprised and awed by the ways that Gods transforming presence is revealed in ways we would not expect, in places we would assume God is absent, or through people we have discounted – even our very selves. I love Wink’s words. “Standing foursquare in the midst of a broken, tortured, oppressed, starving, dehumanizing reality, yet seeing the invisible, calling it to come, behaving as if it is on the way, sustained by elements of it that have come already, within and among us. In those moments when people are healed, transformed, freed from addictions, obsessions, destructiveness, self-worship or when groups or communities or even, rarely, whole nations glimpse the light of the transcendent in their midst, there the New Creation has come upon us.”
We journey toward a vision, a vision that emerges as we consider the witness of all who have gone before us, beside us, and as we acknowledge our own experiences. At the same time we allow for the vision to become clearer with time. We allow for God to intervene in ways that correct the journey that we’re on, sending us on a new road. That happens as we cultivate the practices that open us to God’s presence – practices of prayer and study, engagement in the mission of God’s people, and connection with others who are on the journey. And, in all of that we need to allow for mystery, wonder, and awe that God is God.
Sermon from January 31, 2016
Luke 4:21-30 and I Corinthians 13:1-13
They had heard about him – this hometown boy – and the impact he was making in the region. So, when he came home, there was a buzz. Then, he went to the synagogue. He, it seemed, wasn’t above them. He still remembered his roots. And, imagine how excited they were when he stood up to read! And such a wonderful passage he chose:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives,
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Were they not the ones who needed God’s favor? They, compared to the Romans, were the poor. They were captive to an occupying power that controlled much of their lives. They were the oppressed waiting for the year of the Lord’s favor! God’s anointed – God’s Messiah – had come. It was time to celebrate!
There are soaring, beautiful words in the Bible. There is poetry that stirs our hearts. I Corinthians 13) is one of the most familiar Biblical passages. “If I speak in the tongues of mortals or angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” These words are so familiar that they are often chosen by couples getting married – as a celebration of their love. “Faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” Oh, the beauty of Paul’s words are so appropriate for those couples making a public declaration of their love!
Context. Last week I spoke about context. I read Paul’s words in I Corinthians in a way that would never fly in a marriage ceremony. The tenor of that reading would be more appropriate for marriage counselling, when everything seems to have gone wrong. And that is closer to the context out of which these lofty sounding words come. Paul wrote this treatise on love for a church community that was plagued by conflict. It follow his reflection that the church is like a body – and that each part of the body matters. (Paul’s imagery is frequently used in our ordination and installation liturgies, reminding us that ministry is a shared endeavor.)
When Jesus spoke to the hometown folk in the synagogue, he quoted from Isaiah – a beautiful passage of God’s promise. Then, he began to expand the context. He “gave the interpretation” for his hearers. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Well, that was nice. Yay! God was going to take care of them. But, he went further. “But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”
Jesus was telling them that they had limited the scope of God’s concern, the scope of God’s promise. They could not hear these words as words only for the Israelites. God’s redemptive presence was and would be wider than they had conceived. To use Paul’s imagery of the body, the body had a diversity they had scarcely imagined. Jesus was anointed by the Spirit to do God’s work – and God’s work could not be owned by any particular group of people.
It’s easy, looking back, to judge them harshly. “How could they not see that the Messiah would be for all of the people of the earth?” We look back as those who have heard the good news and count ourselves among the family of God, a reality that would have been difficult for the people of Nazareth to imagine.
It’s harder to ask what the context for these words looks like in our own time. Someone suggested that we consider the “Black lives matter” movement. That assertion has generated great anger. There is the backlash movement that declares, “All lives matter!” But, that assertion is often a way of dismissing the injustices and the pain of a particular group of people. A colleague said, “Firefighters tell us that all houses are important. But the one that is on fire gets immediate attention!”
Last Sunday, Patrice Hatley, our presbytery’s coach and coordinator, spoke about churches needing to have satisfaction and energy in order to thrive. I was struck by the word “satisfaction.” Too often it seems that churches are torn asunder when personal preferences become the means by which the church is judged. “I’m not satisfied,” can be detrimental to the well-being of the congregation. How would it be possible for everybody’s personal preferences to be accommodated? We would have total chaos. It’s hard enough dealing with just a few preferences. “I wish we’d sing such and such a hymn more often!” or “I think a church has to do…whatever!”
I’ve been reading the book which gave her that information. The author wasn’t talking about satisfaction that comes from having one’s wishes, desires, or preferences fulfilled. He wasn’t talking about making the church according to our own visions. If we are pulled asunder by the misguided notion that we can “satisfy” everyone’s desires, we will never be able to be the church in the world. Paul saw the disastrous results in Corinth. He called them to consider a larger context than the self. They were to consider the community – the body of Christ. For Crabtree, the author Patrice was quoting, satisfaction was more about recognizing that a church was striving to be faithful in the world and living according to a vision of what God was calling it to do.
Living toward a larger context is never an easy thing. The people of Nazareth demonstrated that. And we see how hard it is over and over again in the church of this day and age. It’s tempting to become obsessed with our own status in the world – and forget that God’s vision is always larger. Crabtree says that flexibility is key. Paul would add that “love” is also key – not the romantic love that gets lifted up when his words are read at weddings, but the hard work of love that looks for the well-being of others, that seeks the health of the every growing body of Christ.