Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Hometown Boy Makes Good

This is the sermon I preached last week at St. Timothy Lutheran Church. The text was Luke 4:21-30.


Can't you imagine what the talk of the town would be when the residents of Nazareth  find out that Jesus has come home?

He's here. He's here. Did you hear what he did in Capernaum? Surely he will perform miracles and heal people here. After all, we're his neighbors. He grew up here.

The report of all the works and miracles Jesus had made its way to Nazareth. The hometown boy has made good. These people were expectant! Wouldn't you be?

Today's gospel begins with the declaration of fulfillment  Vv. 21-22. In last week's gospel, in the synagogue, Jesus read from Isaiah about all the promises of what God would do for his people. The fulfillment Jesus speaks of must be rooted in his person. He is the One anointed by the Holy Spirit.

The crowd heard Jesus' declaration of fulfillment as a promise of special favor for those of his hometown. At the same time, Jesus embraces his divine mission and commission for himself.

The worshippers in the synagogue were impressed by Jesus. They recognized in his message the active grace of God and they respond to Jesus according to their own parochial understanding. They exhibited admiration. He's "one of us." The congregation would see themselves as immediate beneficiaries of the Lord's favor. They think Jesus is the son of Joseph, their neighbor,  but we know that Jesus is more. He is the Son of God. As such, Jesus comes to fulfill the purpose of God, without being restricted by the demands of the devil or his neighbors and relatives in his hometown.

The initial, positive response to Jesus' words was based on the people's narrow, provincial understanding of Jesus' identification and mission. They did not have a problem with Jesus' explicit claim that the fulfillment of Isaiah's words specifically related to Jesus. In the abstract his words sounded good. However, Jesus now further unveils the nature and implications of who he is and his mission. This is what gets him into trouble.

Jesus shows his inside knowledge of the thoughts of his audience. Jesus understood that the people were expecting a demonstration of his work reported from Capernaum. We see an omniscience, which is characteristic of a Spirit imbued prophet.

Why wouldn't Nazareth benefit from Jesus' ministry? After all, he was a hometown boy. It was because of their assumption that Jesus will act as one of them. Their inhibiting vision of who Jesus is and what he is to accomplish is the primary obstacle to their receiving God's favor through him.

All three of today's readings mention prophets. Contrary to popular belief, prophets do not tell the future. Rather, they speak truth about the present from God's perspective. More than just a few people are called to be prophets. We all have a responsibility to search for the truth and say it. Jesus risks the rage of his own people in order to speak the truth of God's loving and expansive reign. Are we to do no less?

Today's gospel includes two biblical images of human need: the widow and the leper. Both were excluded from the wider society. They were outsiders in general, even more so because they were Gentiles.

Isn't it ironic that while Jesus is teaching in a Jewish synagogue, he speaks of God's historic care for non-Jews? Everything was going pretty well until Jesus brought up the subject of God's love and care for all. This is the rub with the people of Nazareth and the people of Israel as a whole. Since they believed that they were God's chosen people, instead of using that position to be a light to the non-Jewish people, they saw themselves as having a corner on the religious market and they thought they were better than the rest. 

The crowd reacts with a violent rejection of Jesus, whose message called into question the crowd's assumptions about their privileged status Vv. 28-29. The attempt to kill Jesus foreshadows his crucifixion. Anger and hostility are the last defense of those who are made to face the truth of their own tradition, which they have defended and embraced.

The crowd tries to eliminate Jesus, but he mysteriously is beyond their power. Jesus slips out through the crowd unharmed and "went on his way." The path of obedience to God's purpose is fulfillment of Jesus' mission for which he was anointed. The scene in Nazareth reaches its finale, but the public ministry of Jesus had only begun. God has and will have the final word.

What does this mean to us? Christ lives and reigns and calls us ever anew to experience the abundance of God's love and care, along with all God's children. However, there is a similarity between the synagogue crowd and today's church. Do we sometimes feel possessive of Jesus? He's mine--me and Jesus and who cares about anyone else? Like the crowd in the synagogue, we assume the good news is especially and specifically for us.

Like the worshippers in Nazareth, we sometimes have preconceived ideas of how God will work in our lives. We aren't called to relate to God because of the benefits we will receive. We are called because of the magnitude of God's goodness.

We cannot contain our God and put him in a box. God's favor is loose, unruly, uncontained by presuppositions about who needs it or who deserves it. We should not be surprised by this, since God's favor has long operated in this way. The longing for deliverance, for a champion, a prophet is not relegated simply to ages past. We look for someone who will speak truth, whose words can conquer evil by the very power of divine authority. We see this classic hope for example, in movies when magical words spoken by the good guys can obliterate what is wicked and hateful.

Today, when refugees are so often shown to us as strangers, Jesus reminds us that God's love heals even strangers.

The boundaries around the chosen people are broken down. Now Jesus comes into our streets, into our sanctuary, saying that the prophet's words are now fulfilled. How are we going to react? Are we going to be angry and filled with rage because we don't want to share Jesus with anyone else? Or are we going to be thoughtful, joyful and welcoming because we realize that we are supposed to share Jesus with everyone. God is challenging us because all kinds of people we'd never invite to dinner are being welcomed to the table, to break bread and drink wine. If we stay, an odd thing happens: like a blanket, we find God's love wrapped around us, but it is also wrapped around the ones we called outcasts. It's not quite the same hometown, but it's a lot more like the reign of God. Jesus speaks to religious insiders about God's love and care for outsiders.

Who do we identify with in this story? Do we identify with the Jews worshipping faithfully in the synagogue or do we see ourselves as the outsiders like the widow in Phoenicia or  like Naaman, the Syrian officer? Jesus comes to us as our loving Savior, our liberator, and our healer. Like the widow, we are fed and like Naaman, God cleanses us in the waters of baptism. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in [our] hearing.”
Amen.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

God Arranges and Appoints





 This is the message I preached at St. Timothy Lutheran Church and St. Mark Lutheran Church this past Sunday, 1/24. The text is 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a. 

Paul writes that we are all "baptized into one body" v. 13.There is tremendous diversity within the groups Paul mentions--some of which are expected, such as Jews and those who are free. But God and Paul also include Greeks, who are Gentiles and slaves who are complete nobodies. And yet, in the waters of baptism, they are made new and become part of the body of Christ. Even from the beginning of the church, God included outsiders in his body. Baptism is the great equalizer that destroys the walls that divide people.

Everything in today's epistle is based upon and grounded in baptism. As Lutheran Christians, we emphasize that all we do in life flows out from our baptism. Martin Luther wrote:1 C

"Therefore every Christian has enough in Baptism to learn and to practise all [their] life; for [they have] always enough to do to believe firmly what it promises and brings: victory over death and the devil, forgiveness of sin, the grace of God, the entire Christ, and the Holy [Spirit] with [God's] gifts" (Large Catechism). Later in this lesson, Paul spells out what some of those gifts are.

In baptism, we experience the Spirit of God at work to overcome the divisions which the powers of this world nurture and on which they depend. The Corinthians had been competing with each other according to their culturally defined values. They used the gifts of the Spirit for their own honor rather than for the good of the whole community. Paul teaches that our common experience of God's grace in baptism--in which we all share the same water, the same promise, the same Spirit makes us all equally part of the same body.

What really struck me in today's epistle is the emphasis on God's work. "God arranged the members in the body," then "God arranged the body" and finally God has appointed ministries in the church. 

First of all, "God arranged the members in the body...as he chose," v. 18.
The body was a common, well understood metaphor in Paul's day. However, Paul gives it an important twist. In many ancient writings, the image of the body was used to appease those of the lowest social and political status, reminding them of their duty to serve those who are naturally superior. Paul turns such an interpretation upside down, declaring that the weaker members are indispensable. The less honorable are clothed with greater honor and the less respectable are treated with greater respect. We may want to assign various positions within the church, but we better be sure we're not stepping on God's toes by catering to the powerful and ignoring the weaker members. They too have gifts to share with the body of Christ. After all, differences in the church were arranged by God.

Paul puts forth a vision for community as something that holds diversity and differences in tension. Being different is not something to eliminate, but is a gift of God's grace and a sign of the Spirit at work. The differing gifts of the Spirit form us in such a way that we must belong to one another.

By using the illustration of the human body, Paul encourages the Corinthians to be united. This was a problem the Corinthians had. In the beginning of 1 Corinthians, Paul teaches and admonishes the Corinthians concerning their sectarianism. They thought they were in good shape as a church. They were manifesting many of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which had become a source of pride---as if they had anything to do with God's gifts working among them. This created a hierarchy within the church in Corinth. It is from this background that Paul admonishes the powerful members to honor the weaker members of the church.

Contrary to our modern concern about including the wrong people, Paul claims that the Corinthians are wrongly excluding people from their fellowship--specifically those of lesser social status and material means. God chose us not because of our own goodness or inherent gifts, but  because of his goodness and his love for all of creation. We have no reason to boast. We do, however, have a reason to be overwhelmed by the love of God. Paul is confident that the body of Christ will manifest that love. He had experienced for himself a love of God that knows no boundaries. That's the kind of love God calls us to manifest.

God arranged the body "giving greater honor to the inferior member,"  v. 24.The unity of the body does not mean that the less honored members are abused and treated roughly. Rather, all the parts belong to one another and therefore the "weak" parts are given special care. The end result of Paul's use of the body metaphor is not the same old hierarchy, or even the inverse of that culturally-expected pattern of domination with new people on top in positions of power, but instead a deep unity of the whole body, with each part caring for the others and each part being equal to the others.

God has appointed ministries in the church, v. 28. It is so easy to fall into the trap of comparing our gifts and talents with those of other people. When we do this, we always come up lacking in some way. This is because we insist on making value judgments on things that God has created to be perfectly equal (Dave Westphal).

The gifts Paul lists as first, second, third and so on all deal with the word spoken to the church in one way or another. A congregation can exist without dramatic healings and public manifestations such as speaking in tongues, but it cannot live without the word of Christ spoken and heard. The good news proclaimed and taught will form the church into one body in Christ (Brian Peterson).

In fact, Paul tells us to strive for the greater gifts and in the next chapter tells us that they are faith, hope and love and the greatest one is love.

So how do we apply Paul's lesson to our congregation today? Are we treating all members of our congregation equally or are we catering to those of status and wealth and ignoring the less fortunate and the poorer members of our congregation? Are all voices heard and valued equally or are we telling some members that you can't serve in this position because of your sex or because you're too young or because you're only here part of the year or for many other reasons by which we could prevent someone from serving? What in our day corresponds to the divided groups Paul talks about in the beginning of today's lesson? Perhaps the homeless or the mentally ill, refugees, people of different races or ethnicity and those with whom we disagree politically would be today's divided parts.

Paul's words prevent a cookie cutter mentality. Paul's vision is not a monochrome vision of the church, but a multi-colored rainbow.

God chose all of us: sick and beautiful and broken people, Mother Teresa, desert mystics, conservative evangelicals, progressive mainline church members, liberal Christians, church ladies and bishops and even me and you. It is important that we love each other, even the most difficult people we encounter. Paul teaches the importance of loving each other and by so doing, we allow love to trump divisions.
Amen. 

Resources

Charles B. Cousar, Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV-Year C

https://members.sundaysandseasons.com/Home/TextsAndResources#resources

Brian Peterson, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2733

Dave Westphal, Epiphany Devotions