Monday, January 28, 2013

"Was it something I said?" Yesterday's sermon at Highlands

“Was it something I said?”
Highlands Presbyterian Church
January 27, 2013

The lectionary stops where Cathy did…but we can’t leave it there, here’s why. That’s not how the story ends. This is the rest of the story.

Luke 4.22-44 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”
And Jesus looked out at them, saw their smiles and how pleased they were by the sermon that had ended without challenging anyone to do anything…and he began to speak again, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 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 one widow at in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and not one of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”

When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

I am not sure that the words of Jesus have much power anymore. We’ve read and heard these stories so often over so many years that they may have lost their power. After all, what’s a story about Jesus insulting a bunch of uptight folks in the synagogue 2000 years ago have to do with us?

Well…it must have been something he said. Oscar Wilde once said, “If you want to tell people the truth, you need to make them laugh. Otherwise they may kill you.” There was no one in the synagogue that morning laughing. They weren’t just sitting there seething, waiting to get to the parking lot where they left their camels to start complaining. His words made them darned unhappy, hopping mad. And they hopped up and drove Jesus, drove him out of the synagogue, and then they drove him out of town…and then they drove him to a cliff and they wanted to throw him over it and into the abyss.

Now I’ve had folks walk out on a sermon. I’ve even had a few drop their membership in the church when they were unhappy about what I said. I suspect there have been times when others have complained quietly or not so quietly. But I have yet to be driven from the church, chased out of town and have my life threatened.

So when I read the account of Jesus first sermon and the fan reaction, I feel lacking. What have I done wrong that no one ever tried to toss me over a cliff?

Jesus had a peculiar knack of getting himself into trouble. He read that passage from Isaiah, and could have said something innocuous, like, “I’ve got some thoughts arising from this passage that I’d like to share with you.”
No, he says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” In other words, “I’m the guy Isaiah was talking about.” They kinda rolled their eyes and said, oh sure, you’re the son of Mary and Joseph but they let that one go by…until he goes on to tell the folks that it’s foreign widows and lepers that will receive God’s gifts, not the good and proper folks there in the synagogue.

We listen and say, “Go get ‘em Jesus! Hit ‘em where it hurts. You’ve got truth on your side and, hey, it was a long time ago when people over-reacted to such criticisms.

But it all got me thinking. There are a couple of questions that came to mind. One, WHY would Jesus want to say something that would cause his listeners to become so angry…and TWO…what would it take today, in today’s church…in this church? What would someone have to say today in order to make the folks so incensed that they would chase you toward the nearest cliff?

Think of a similar scenario. A young person in your church – a young person who maybe grew up in the community. You know her parents, dad is a carpenter, mom stays at home and raises the children. Good people…and you recall this young girl when she was small and occasionally came to church.

Now she comes to church as a young adult…with assorted hardware-piercings in her nose, ears and lips, tattoos across arms and neck, she’s the reader one Sunday morning, know one seems to know how that happened, tat crazy pastor probably lined her up…she stands up and reads one of the passages about the return of the Messiah. We all smile and say, “isn’t that so-and-so’s daughter. My she has grown up. I’ll bet her parents are not happy with those tattoos…but she is so well-spoken and she read the scripture so well.

But then she suddenly stops. There is a glimmer in her eye. She looks out at the congregation and with a perfectly straight face says, “I’m it, folks. I’m the Messiah these guys were talking about. I am here to tell you what you need to know. And you know something else? God cares more about the HIV positive drunk lying homeless on the street and the malaria infected African pauper, than about any of you.”

It was sort of like that. In your face…or as the kids used to say, “up your nose with a rubber hose.” Why would Jesus say such things? That gentle fellow we see in paintings holding children and petting lambs, who speaks of love and kindness? Well, I think Jesus knew that the pews are too comfortable. That’s where the saints come to hear stories about the sinners. From the pews of the church we have a window on the world, not a mirror into which we can look and see our own reflection.

Jesus knew kingdom building on earth was too important not to tell the truth and he knew that if he wasn’t causing someone to be uneasy or even angry, he would never be able to motivate them to do the hard work of kingdom building.

So…we read the scripture and we know that from time to time he said things that made folks unhappy. Today’s reading describes a time when they were so angry by his words they tried to kill him. Later…they will.

Make a note. Jesus wasn’t there just to make them mad. He was trying to get them to think first and then to act. Jesus knows that delusional thinking keeps us from doing the tough work. If we sit here and allow ourselves to believe there is no racism in our community, that everyone has a fair break, that poor people are poor because they make bad choices, that homeless people choose to be homeless…well then…there isn’t much we can or should do about those problems.

But what about us? What needs to be said today to stir such emotion?

What if one of the family’s from Family Promise came to speak. A mother, let’s say, with three children. She and the kids step up to the lectern. First she gives thanks, tells us how nice it was that we brought her and her children dinner, strayed with her and talked, read to her children. She appreciated that.

But then she stops, looks around the room as a tear falls from her cheek, and she says, “Why do good folks like you sit quietly in your warm homes and tolerate the way poor people are treated in Cheyenne?  Why is it acceptable for employers and landlords, payday loan sharks, and businesses to take advantage of the poor in this Christian community? God said, there would be no poor people if you all followed God’s law…so what’s up with all these hungry, homeless children?”

Imagine one Sunday…perhaps during prayer time…someone stands up, a newcomer who has been quietly listening to us and and says, “You call yourselves Christians? Jesus touched and helped the lepers of his day. The leper said to Jesus, “You can help me if you choose.” Jesus said, “I will help you.” But you…you brood of vipers (to use Jesus’ words) you brood of vipers create more lepers than you help.

Jesus said, “There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and not one of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”

After quoting Jesus, she says, “There are many lepers today…in this community…people who because of their sexual orientation, their addictions, their criminal records or economic status…are lepers…created by the laws and the lawmakers and the people of God who read the word of God as literally as those Jesus confronted 2000 years ago.”

And as she looks into my face and yours, she says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor and the homeless and to the gays, lesbians, transgendered and bisexual people, to the addicts and to the others your laws and beliefs have turned into lepers and to proclaim to them the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And as she took her seat, she says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

The Gospel says that upon hearing those words, we have three choices. One, we can do nothing, act as though those minutes passed in silence…or two, we can turn red in the face and chase her to the nearest cliff and toss her over…or three…we can examine ourselves, our own thinking, the behavior of ourselves and others with whom we share the community and become advocates for the lepers.

Lent begins with Ash Wednesday on February 13th. We will have a series of Lenten suppers beginning on February 19th and running for five consecutive Tuesdays. We will use our Lenten season to think and dialogue and pray about how to make the third choice. We will study the prophets of the Old Testament, what they said and why. We will hear from local folks who have learned from personal experiences in this community what it’s like to be an advocate for the lepers.

And at the end of Lent, we will remember the crucifixion of he who risked his life to be an advocate for us all…remembering not only his death but also his resurrection. AMEN

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