Jesus in the Synagogue

(sermon 1/24/16)

jesus in nazareth synagouge
Jesus preaching in the Nazareth synagogue, detail of 14th-century fresco in a monastery in Kosovo


Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “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.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” – Luke 4:14-21

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The gospels place this story of Jesus teaching in the Nazareth synagogue in different places in their narratives. But Luke places it at the beginning of his story, because to him, this event is the lens through which everything Jesus did could be seen and understood. Jesus explained that God’s Spirit had descended upon him, and sent him into the world to do the things in this reading from the prophet Isaiah. Bringing good news to the poor, release for those held captive in whatever way, healing for those with physical ailments, freeing the oppressed, eliminating debt – which is what Jesus is talking about when he talks about proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor; that phrase refers to the Jewish “Year of Jubilee,” the year that comes along every 50 years when all debts are erased. I imagine that, if nothing else, would be good news to the poor. Doing this was how Jesus defined God’s “good news” – what our Old English-speaking ancestors would translate as the word “gospel” – and what it meant to proclaim it to others. This was Jesus’ mission statement.

It was the mission statement for the earliest church, and the way they understood the “good news” too. They didn’t have any big institutional structure, or real estate, or budgets to speak of; and yet, with God’s Spirit and this mission, they turned the world upside down.

I think that over time, we lost a large degree of this understanding. We gradually picked up a lot of the things the early church had very little of, and these things had a crowding-out effect on our understanding of what Jesus called the “good news” here. We’ve allowed so much other meaningless nonsense to cloud our vision and distort our priorities, and in the process, we, the church universal, have damaged the gospel, and damaged countless millions of people, the very people Jesus called us to help, in the process.

It’s certainly no secret that we’re in a time now of overall church decline in this country. There are undoubtedly a number of reasons for it, but I suggest that a big part of it is because of the way we’ve missed this simple explanation from Jesus himself of what his meaning and mission is, and therefore, what ours is. We haven’t totally forgotten our original mission statement, but we’ve focused far too much on things that, relatively speaking, are meaningless nonsense at best. We’ve hurt way too many people by focusing on the wrong people, and wrong things.

In the book Blue Like Jazz, author Don Miller tells about attending an extremely secular, extremely liberal college where the attitudes toward the Christian faith ran anywhere from disengaged neutrality to outright hostility. Every year, he said, the students would hold a campus-wide blowout where law enforcement was held at bay, and everyone sort of looked the other way as the students engaged in an alcohol- and drug-induced, almost completely no-holds-barred funfest. It wasn’t the kind of event where you’d expect to see a religious presence, but Miller and his handful of friends, who as far as he could tell were the full extent of any Christian presence on campus, decided to set up a confession booth on the quad, right in the middle of things, where confessions could be heard. But the catch was, whenever a student actually stepped into the booth, it was the Christian on the other side of the partition who would confess for all the terrible and hurtful things the church had done over the years, and how too many current-day Christians were smug and self-righteous, and judgmental, and not at all a fitting face for the Jesus who explained what he was really all about in this passage from Luke. Miller said that it was an amazing experience that ended up speaking to the hearts of the students who actually went inside, as well for himself and his Christian friends who were doing the confessing and asking for forgiveness.

I wonder if the church needs more of that, something along the lines of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was established in South Africa after abolishing the system of apartheid – a forum that brought together former oppressors and former victims who somehow had to find a way to peaceful move forward; a way to air grievances, to ask for forgiveness, and hopefully, to find the reconciliation that could only follow after such an exercise in honesty on both sides.

A big, and important part of the church recognizing its past wrongs today is the adoption of Welcoming Statements, where we tell people that contrary to times past, people of any and all types are welcome to be part of our church congregation. The more I’ve thought about it, I’ve come to wonder if Welcoming Statements, as incredibly important as they are, are really just a first step. In all honesty, welcoming statements seem to arise from a viewpoint that there’s a large number of people out there who desperately want to come to come in and be part of the church, but the church has kept them out, and they’re just standing around holding their breath waiting for us to tell them they can come in. There are certainly some people who were pushed out of the church who are seeking reentry, but I think the larger reality is that our having for so long distorted Jesus’ message, as seen in today’s gospel text, have pushed people away to the point that they’re getting along perfectly well without the church at all, thank you very much, and when they see churches that are offering up Welcome Statements to say that they’re allowed to come in, their thought is “Why do you think we’d want to?”

The more I think of it, I think that right after adopting a Welcome Statement, we, the church, need to consider something more meaningful. We need to consider setting up our own version of Don Miller’s confessional; of Truth and Reconciliation dialogues. More important, maybe, than a Welcome Statement is a Statement of Confession and Repentance – honestly outlining our past and current sins against all those we’ve let down and hurt, and humbly asking their forgiveness. Maybe take out a full-page ad in the paper; I don’t know. But definitely doing it in more concrete ways – like intentionally going to those groups of people we’ve not been Christ to, humbly asking their forgiveness, and how we can help to achieve the good in their lives that Jesus outlines in today’s text, in the ways that they themselves see as the most direct and most effective way to do it. Hearing what those things are, and then humbly getting in line with them in the lead in order to make it happen. If we do that, then maybe – just maybe – the people that Jesus called us to bring good news to will see that we’re serious, and worthy of their trust.

Well, all of this can seem like a bit of a wet blanket thrown onto the church – more sackcloth and ashes, and condemnation that we’re not doing enough, and so on. But most sermons are supposed to bring us a message of grace, and hope, and not just bash us over the shoulders about another way we’re blowing things in God’s eyes. Where’s the grace in this sermon?

To be honest, I find a lot of grace in this particular passage, but it’s abundant, overflowing grace for the kind of people Jesus mentions in his reading – all these kinds of people that I suppose some modern politicians would write off as “losers.” But you see, here’s the thing: we’re all “losers” – because I promise you, at one time or another, we’ve all been in one or more of those categories Jesus mentions, past or present. I guarantee you that there are plenty of people here this morning who, contrary to all outward appearances, are poor, or being held captive by something, or suffering physically, or who are being oppressed, maybe not least of all by crushing levels of debt. So many of us are precisely the people Jesus had said in this story from Luke he’d come into the world for, to offer hope to, and to help. And because of that, we can all find grace; we can all say

Thanks be to God.

The Eye of a Needle (sermon 10/11/15)

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As [Jesus] was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”  – Mark 10:17-35

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It happened all the time as they went from town to town. He’d make an appearance in the synagogue, or the town square, and the people he encountered were amazed at him, some for the better and some for the worse. And eventually, he’d end up catching the eye of someone in the upper class, someone in the power structure, who would need to meet him in person. It seemed to play out like this in every town. Sometimes it was a religious leader, who wanted to test him for his religious orthodoxy. Other times, it was some toady of the Romans, who wanted to trick him into saying something treasonous against the government. Sometimes they just wanted to get up close to him because he was famous, because of the youTube video of him sending a Legion of demons into a herd of pigs that had gone viral. And other times, it was someone from an important family who’d gone to an Ivy League school who wanted to have some fun putting this uneducated hillbilly in his place. Every once in a while, though, they came to see him honestly, sincerely, wanting to hear him and learn from him. As he looked at this one, kneeling in front of him in this moment, he could see that this one was coming to him with questions from the heart. This one was for real.

“What do I have to do to inherit eternal life?” “What do I have to do to be saved?” There it was, the same thing that so many people asked, and each time they did, he’d turn their question upside down – making the point that a person’s salvation is like something that’s only visible out of the corner of your eye, but you can’t see if you try to focus directly on it. Rather than thinking about your own personal salvation, you need to concern yourself with extending gracious behavior to others.

That’s what he’d said in the past, and that was what he’d do here, too. So he told the man, you know what’s important; listing off half of the Ten Commandments – interestingly, all the ones that dealt with treating others with compassion and justice, and none of the ones dealing with honoring God. But even the man himself knew that wasn’t the whole story; there had to be more than just that. And of course, there was. Sell all your stuff. Give the money to the poor. Come follow me.

If the man were like so many of the others that had come to see him he’d have just left at that point and written Jesus off as an imbecile, a lunatic. So much for this one being the messiah; he’s just a garden-variety kook. But this man wasn’t like them. These words sunk in; they hit home. He left, dejected, upset, grieving over the thought of giving up all the perks, the comfort, the security, the power and prestige that came along with all of his possessions.

This story shows up in three of the four gospels in different variations, but none of them really tell us what the man did – did he reject Jesus’ words as being too hard to live up to, or did he actually follow through with it and become one of the nameless, faceless crowd of people following him wherever he went? We’ll never know, but either way, it’s clear that stepping into a new future, a way of living life more deeply shaped by faith can be painful. The emotional letting go that’s necessary to use whatever God has entrusted to us in ways that benefit others more, and ourselves less – that’s very hard.

Of course, it isn’t any accident that we get a Lectionary text like this now, in the time of year when many churches, including ours, are about to kick off their annual stewardship campaigns. It’s a time when we all have to wrestle with Jesus’ words. Surely, he didn’t mean that everyone who followed him had to sell all their possessions, did he? Surely, Jesus doesn’t want us all to be poor; he isn’t saying there’s anything inherently great or noble about living in poverty. So how is this supposed to work?

Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t have any insights into how we’re supposed to understand this story in our own lives. I’m sure that there’s some line, and up to that line God wants us to benefit from the financial blessings we have; and beyond that line, we’re supposed to use those resources for the benefit of others. I don’t know where that line is exactly, not for you and not for me – but I admit that the whole question gives me a knot in the stomach, because in a world where half the world’s population – 3.5 billion people – live on less than $1,200 per year, and where an income of $32,000 per year puts you in the wealthiest 1% of the world – richer than 6.3 billion of the world’s seven billion people – wherever that line is, I suspect God has drawn it in a very different place from where I have. This time of year, as we’re about to enter our stewardship campaign, we all need to deal with this admittedly unsettling question of whether we’re using our finances in the way God intended us to when we were given them. Are we using our financial resources in a way that pleases God?

Jesus’ words are unsettling for us when we try to apply them to our lives as individuals. Could another child be fed if the next time you buy a car, you go for the cloth seats instead of the heated leather ones, and gave the savings to the church? I know I could adopt a child at Montana de Luz through their “God’s Gift” program if I’d just go to Moondog’s Cafe one time fewer per month. Where’s the right balance? It’s the same when we ask this question together as the church. As an architect, I always admired the wonder and beauty of the world’s great cathedrals. I marveled at the work of the minds and hands of these artists, who were dedicating the very best of their talents to the honor and glory of God. But when I’d stand in those cathedrals, I could never totally shake the nagging question, how many children went to bed hungry, or even worse, how many people starved to death, that the church could have saved if it hadn’t diverted the money to the building of the beautiful cathedral? Was it a trade-off worthy of the Kingdom of God? We can feel the rich young man’s pain when we put ourselves in his place in the story.

Let’s look at things from that level for a moment. How would we respond if Jesus walked in here today, this morning – I’m up here blathering on and on, just like every Sunday, and Jesus comes walking through the back door and strides up here to the front. It’s amazing, a miracle. And everyone forgets they’re Presbyterians and crowds up to the front of the church to get close to Jesus, and the love and the compassion are incredible; it’s a big love-fest among us all. And Jesus smiles and he sits there and and speaks with us, and he says: “You’re a great congregation. You do so many wonderful things, reaching out to people in need. You provide a voice for social justice in the community in ways that most congregations don’t. But you lack one thing. This building is holding you back. It’s way too big for you, and it’s costing you a fortune to maintain. Sell it. Sell the Tiffany window, sell the Skinner organ, sell the real estate. Then take the money, and buy the vacant bank building over on Genesee Street as your home. It’s plenty big enough for more than all your needs, the main banking hall would seat more than twice your typical Sunday attendance, it’s energy efficient, much cheaper to maintain, handicapped accessible, has its own parking lot and a great central location. Then, take the rest of the proceeds from selling this place and use it for targeted mission outreach to the community downtown – serving the needs of the elderly in the apartment towers, the students at Lattimore Hall, the homeless and the poor living around downtown – be a real “downtown church.” Do all that, in order to serve others around you, and do it gladly, and then – then, you will have eternal life.”

What would we do if Jesus said that to us? Would Jesus ever say something like that? I don’t know. One thing for certain, even if he did say it, and even if we did it, there would be a whole lot of grief to process, just like with the rich young man. On the other hand, what if Jesus just said to increase our annual pledge by five or ten percent? Would we do that?

Is God calling us to give more of our individual finances to the kingdom of God? Collectively, are we being called in this generation to use the church’s resources with a different understanding of being missional than we’ve had in past generations? Do past mindsets and practices still hold true today? Those are questions that you and I both have to consider, and pray about as we try to be faithful to Christ – who can make us uncomfortable just as often as we’re comforted.

Thanks be to God.

Listless

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I just saw yet another blog post, written by yet another Millennial – the demographic Holy Grail du jour of aging, declining church congregations. It was the latest of a seemingly endless supply of lists titled “___ [Some Magical Number of] Things the Church Must Do to Attract Millennials”. Just do these things, these essays always say, and Millennials will flock through your doors.

Allow me to just say – bullshit.

Don’t get me wrong, Millennials. I agree with virtually every criticism you lodge against the institutional church. Overall, the church absolutely has to be more of all the things you want more of, and less of all the things you hate about it. It must be more committed to issues of social justice. It must be more authentically spiritual. It must do more to be truly missional – working to directly, positively bring real betterment in people’s lives. It must be far less inward-focused and self-serving.

But here’s a little secret: there are already, even in your absence from the pews, a lot of people who think the exact same way you do (mind you, I’m speaking particularly of Mainline, progressive denominations here in the U.S., such as the Presbyterian Church (USA), where I find myself). And these people who agree with you aren’t all running around in large-print gingham shirts and sporting lumberjack beards or man buns. That man with the thinning grey hair, the little pot belly, and the out-of-fashion sweater vest? He was a Freedom Rider in the 60s. That grandmotherly looking woman laughing and chatting with the person sitting next to her? The original organizer of the local chapter of the National Organization for Women. The guy sitting over there who looks like an insurance salesman? He leads a Spiritual Formation and Meditation group, after an extended residence at Thomas Merton’s monastery in Kentucky. The couple sitting beside you? They met while spending a year working together at an orphanage in Honduras and got married when they returned. The man sitting alone up front? He was arrested after he dumped his partner’s ashes on the White House lawn as part of an ACT UP protest.

I’m not exaggerating here. Scratch the surface of virtually any Mainline congregation and you’ll likely find people who have walked the walk in countless ways before you appeared on the scene. There are a lot more of them here than you probably think. And pretty much all of them share your attitudes about the institutional church and how it needs to change.

The difference between them and you is that they’re actually here, trying to make the changes needed, and you aren’t. If you’d just join forces with us, you’d find a lot of willing allies in seeing the church become what it needs to become.

I’m sorry Millennials, as a progressive, recent “Missional Church”/”Emerging Church”/”Altermative Church”-savvy seminary graduate (despite my grey hair) who really is on your side, I have to say that the continual barrage of these kinds of essays just starts to come across as a self-absorbed whinefest – a list of demands for some imaginary, pristine version of church that you insist has to be in place before you’ll grace us all with your presence. Remember, I say this as an ally, someone who’s working in the trenches, within the system, trying to accomplish precisely the things you point out – but really, grow up a bit.

*I need to be very clear: I’m not talking about all Millennials here. We’ve all heard the old cliche, “Some of my best friends are (fill in the blank).” In this case, more than half of my friends and colleagues in ministry are themselves Millennials. I am genuinely blessed and humbled to know them, to minister with them, and to call them my friends, and I’m a better person and minister because they’re such an important part of my life. As a group, they are perhaps the greatest strength in the institutional church today. But that’s just the point – they’re in the church, actively a part of what the church needs to be and do. My thoughts here are directed toward those Millennials who won’t be part of the church just because it doesn’t perfectly fit their idea of what it should be like – to which, I say, join the club.

The reality is that the church is never going to be perfect – it wasn’t for anyone who came before you, and it won’t be for anyone coming along afterward – and it’s unrealistic to expect it to be so. So you have a choice: you can follow the lead of those people sitting in the pews, many of whom worked to set the stage for all the progressive aspects of this society that you currently enjoy and who even now are trying to affect change in the church from within; or you can come up with another list of five, or seven, or ten things that the church has to do in order to be worthy of your being part of it. Perhaps the answer is to blog less, and actually get off your asses and be part of the solution instead of just bitching and moaning. We don’t need another list telling us what needs to be done. Many of us already know that; what we need is the strength in numbers to actually accomplish it.

There’s a lot that the church needs to do in order to reform itself – to correct its past abuses and problems, and to make it more truly an institution reflective of the Kingdom of God that Jesus both taught about and personified. As a pastor, I try to work within the system as it is, in order to help steer it, and its members, in that direction – the direction that so many of your lists describe. Frankly, it would be a hell of a lot easier if you’d show up and help. But I’m going to continue trying to do it, with your help or without it.

*This paragraph was added to the original post, after a few readers pointed out – correctly – that, as originally written, it negatively painted all Millennials with the same broad brush. This was definitely never my intention, as I hope that the added paragraph makes clear.

Scraps (sermon 9/6/15)

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Watch video of this sermon here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZIvnv-xwH_c

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From there [Jesus] set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

     – Mark 7:24-37

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When I was a kid, from the ages of nine through eleven or twelve, I played on a baseball team. It was kind of like Little League, but this was a separate league started by the people in my home town that was in competition with the local Little League. This was the Little Knights League, and eventually, Little Knights became a bigger thing locally than Little League. One of the few differences between the two leagues was that, unlike Little League, every Little Knights player played at least two innings per game. This was a very good thing for me, because up until the last few games in my playing career when something finally clicked, I might have actually been the worst player in the league. I was a guaranteed strikeout, I was guaranteed to not catch the pop fly that was hit to me, literally out in left field. The only reason I played was because my grandfather was a founder of the league and the manager of one of the teams – the Giants – and every other family member had been a Giant before me, so I had to be a Giant, too. Up until that last year, every game was pure hell for me. And it had to be the same for my parents, who had to be cringing as they sat in the bleachers watching me mess up every single game.

One of the best things, though, about Little Knights was that unlike Little League, Little Knights had a concession stand. For a dime, you could get your choice of a bag of popcorn, or a snow cone, or a bottle of pop, and at the end of each game, every player got their choice of a free snack. For me, it was always a bottle of Orange Nehi, and I’m telling you, at the end of a hot, sweaty evening, there was nothing, then or since, to match the taste of that ice cold, sharply carbonated orange pop going down your throat.

And at the end of the evening, as everyone was heading home and the concession stand was closing up, all the kids who didn’t have the money to buy something would gather around the window, next to where Mrs. McCann would be cleaning out the popcorn machine, and they’d all ask her, “You got any scraps? You got any scraps?” You know, the popcorn scraps. The tough, little, half-popped kernels that you get in every batch of popcorn and that end up on the bottom of the machine, that you’d never really want to eat and you certainly couldn’t sell. But if you didn’t have a dime, it was better than nothing.

There’s something like this going on in today’s gospel story. Jesus, who has been going all over the Jewish countryside preaching about the realm of God and God’s love for them. But he’s tired and needs to take a mini-vacation away from things to recharge his batteries, so he leaves there and goes to Tyre, which is not part of ancient Israel but is the neighboring Syrophoenician kingdom. The Jewish people looked down their noses at the people of Tyre, just as they did with all Gentiles. They weren’t part of God’s chosen people; they were disrespectable, unclean, even contemptible; good people aren’t even supposed to associate with them, let alone do them any sort of kindness. So Jesus slipping off to Tyre would be kind of like us slipping off to Canada for the weekend, if we hated all the Canadians and thought they were all filthy subhumans worthy of our scorn; but they had a nice beach and the exchange rate was good, so we just put up with them.

And while he’s here, trying to go off the clock for a bit – trying to do some “self-care,” as pastors are instructed to pay attention to today – this strange Gentile woman seeks him out and asks him to heal her daughter. And in one of the most shocking and seemingly atypical stories we have of Jesus in the gospels, Jesus is downright insulting and rude to her. He says that it isn’t right for him to help her – he’s been sent to proclaim good news and to help God’s children, the Jews, not to Gentile “dogs” like her.

This sounds bad enough to us, in English, today. But in ancient Middle Eastern culture – and even in some of those cultures yet today – to call someone a dog is one of the worst insults you could call someone. This was the first-century equivalent of calling a black person the “n-word,” or a gay person the “f-word,” or similar slurs to others. It really isn’t what we’d expect from Jesus. And then, of course, we heard this woman put Jesus in his place. She’d come, desperate for him to help her daughter, and now, when facing the ultimate of insults, she stands up for herself against him as she continues to claim that she’s worthy of at least some attention and compassion from him. She asks him at least for some crumbs off the children’s table. She asks for some scraps.

This seems to have been a turning point in Jesus’ own understanding of his ministry. The scriptures say that, divinity aside, he had to learn things as he grew and matured – he “grew in stature and knowledge;” and here it appears that he learned something from this woman who wasn’t afraid to stand up for herself and her daughter, and the suffering and injustice they were enduring, to ask for his help. And as we heard, Jesus honored her faith, her trust that he could help her, and her tenacity in standing up for it even in the face of the social and cultural deck being stacked against her, and he healed her daughter.

This is an important story for us to remember, especially now when we’re continually seeing the protests and demands from various groups in our own culture today that they be treated in accordance with the promises of our country’s founding documents and our legal system. For too long, these groups were considered the dogs. They didn’t even get the crumbs, the scraps, or our society, and then they eventually got at least that, and now, they’re calling for full equality – demanding to be recognized not as the dogs under the table, but as children equal to all the others in our family. In one way or another, we’ve all been complicit in treating these others like dogs, or at best, less-favored stepchildren, in society, and even in the church. And because we’ve all been complicit in this, whether as individuals or just as members of cultural structures that systemically did it, we have an obligation to take an active role in fixing the problem, and making a place at the table for these children, our long-shunned brothers and sisters. This is true whether we’re looking at society, or the church itself. We all have to learn the lesson that the plucky Syrophoenician woman who maybe figured she just didn’t have anything left to lose, taught Jesus on that day so long ago.

Friends, we have to learn this lesson over and over as we come to see the fullness of the realm of God. Jesus, and then the earliest church, had to learn that God’s message of love and acceptance wasn’t meant only for the Jews, and in every age we come to terms with expanding our understanding of who’s inside that “circle.” We need to keep focused on the incredible, extravagant grace that God has given us, and to understand that God has given us the responsibility to reach out and extend that love, and grace, and justice, and acceptance, to all those around us. That’s the simplest, most essential truth of the gospel – God’s good news. And any time you hear someone talking about the gospel in a way that excludes some group or another, you know they haven’t learned the lesson Jesus learned the hard way in this story. We need to learn, and re-learn, that in God’s eyes, we’re all called to share in the abundance and beauty and wonder, and especially the justice, of this world – not just the scraps, but the whole, big, puffy, white kernels, buttered and salted for all of the flavor of God’s great creation.

Jesus had to learn it. And if we learn it, and if we do everything – everything – that we can to open up room at our table in church and society, and to give everyone – everyone – an equal seat, equal respect, equal dignity, equal consideration – equal justice – then in God’s eyes, we’ll have hit a home run. And in God’s eyes, that will qualify us for something even greater than a free, ice-cold, Orange Nehi.

Thanks be to God.

Weak Strength (sermon7/5/2015)

Rembrants-Paul

I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.  – 2 Corinthians 12:2-10

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He was bald, bow-legged, with a strong upper body but short even by the standards of his own time, with one big, bushy, caterpillar “unibrow” over his eyes, and he had a particularly large nose. That’s how a writer described the apostle Paul not long after he’d died. Over the course of his life, he’d been beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, snake-bitten, and even though you could say public speaking was his job, people commented on how he didn’t have a voice particularly well-suited for the task. Beyond all that, Paul talks in the passage we heard today from Second Corinthians about some unspecified “thorn in the flesh” that had dogged him throughout his days. Clearly, Paul wasn’t going to influence people based on his own personal appeal.

And yet, in ways large and small, often for the better and sometimes less so, this one individual who had so few of the tools of charisma and leadership in his tool belt shaped the Christian faith more than anyone other than Jesus himself.

It seems to be a pattern that God uses a lot – calling people to do something beyond their own strength. Calling them from a place of weakness to accomplish something they seem on paper ill-equipped to pull off. You see it time and again throughout the scriptures and the history of the church. The greatest things in the Kingdom of God have been achieved by people in positions of weakness, who had to rely solely on their faith and trust in God, and not in their own security or strength.

We’re worshiping outdoors today for a few reasons. The first is just to enjoy God’s creation this holiday weekend, to enjoy its beauty and the special feeling of fellowship and connectedness that we have with one another and with all of creation. Another reason we’re outside is to make an easy transition between the service and our picnic today. But another reason we’re out here is to serve as a reminder that the church isn’t the four walls that we usually gather in, insulated from the world outside, but instead, the church is constantly called by God to be out in the midst of things in the world – always moving outward to be the agent of God’s love to all the world. That’s the whole purpose, the whole reason for the existence of the church. These four walls are meant to be a base of operations, a place of spiritual nurture and development, renewal and encouragement, in order for us to get right back our here. This is where the church is called to be.

That can be an unsettling thing. We understand the rules, the traditions, the way things work inside the walls. We have a sense of strength and security in there. Even if we tweak the Order of Worship once in a while, for example, or we move a hymn here or there, we can still be pretty confident of what’s going to happen, and when, and how. We can build up a perception of our own strength and security in the comfort of our walls. But as unsettling as it might be, as weak or uncertain as it might make us feel, God keeps leading us out here, where, as someone once said, where anything can happen and usually does. God keeps calling us into those places where we have to rely on God and not on our own supposed strength and security, our own planning, or our wits, or our traditions, or our finances. God keeps calling us into this weakness. It’s an inseparable part of our faith. It’s in that place where our faith deepens and grows. It’s in that place where God empowers us, through our faith, to feed the hungry, to shelter the homeless, the care for the lonely, to work for justice – for freedom and liberation for all of God’s people.

We’re actually very lucky this morning. We’re outside our walls, enjoying the breeze, and the birds, and the shade of the trees, by our choice. But this morning, there are at least eight predominantly black churches in this country who don’t have the option of being inside their walls this morning. Churches whose buildings have been destroyed by fire over the last two weeks since the tragic killings in Charleston. Some of these fires may have been accidental, but at least several of them have been ruled arson. Whatever the cause, these congregations, our brothers and sisters in Christ, are worshiping somewhere this morning outside of their walls, too. They’re experiencing a moment of real weakness. And in this moment, they’re having to draw from their own faith and trust in God’s words to Paul, that as bad as things may seem, God’s grace is sufficient for them – and for us – and it’s when we feel the most weak, the most vulnerable and insecure, that we’ll end up seeing and feeling God’s love and work within us.

Have you ever wondered what would happen if we lost our building, like those churches did? What would we do? Would we rebuild? If so, what would we build? How would it be different? How would it meet the needs of the mission we see for our church? Would the new building, whatever it was, enable us to see other aspects of our mission that we hadn’t seen before? And that leads to the next question: If thinking about how that hypothetical new building led us to see some new or different aspect of the church’s mission, how do we know we shouldn’t be finding some way to accomplish that same thing now, without any fire, without any new building?

The truly good news that Paul discovered in the midst of his own weakness about God’s love and provision is truth for us, too, when we might feel weak and not in control of things in our own lives. Regardless of whatever you or I may be feeling helpless about, God has promised to provide grace sufficient for us to get through it – without us having to put too much emphasis on creating our own supposed strength, or security, or having to impose our own control over things. Jesus himself told us not to over-stress about those kinds of things; that to do so is itself something sinful and indicative of a lack of faith and trust in God. In the counterintuitive way of the Kingdom of God, worrying too much about our strength ends up making us weak, while accepting our weakness and trusting in God ends up making us strong.

Whoever we are, and in whatever circumstances we’re in, God loves us, and will provide for us, and will give us the guidance and strength that we need to do what God has called us to do. That was good news for Paul. And it’s good news for the members of the Mount Zion Church in Greeleyville, South Carolina, as they meet somewhere this morning while the smell of charred wood is still thick in the air. And it’s good news for us this morning, too, as we sit here in the breeze, with the birds, in the shade of the trees and the shadow of our walls.

Thanks be to God.