The Shortest Sermon Ever

reading torah scroll

(sermon 1/27/19)

Luke 4:14-21

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.”

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Many of you probably know that in the last couple of weeks, the Netflix television personality Marie Kondo was at the center of a minor internet kerfuffle. I you aren’t familiar with her – and honestly, I wasn’t, before this – she’s the host of a show where she gives helpful advice to people about how to simplify and improve their lives through uncluttering and tidying up – getting rid of the nonessential physical stuff that, over time, we all accumulate like barnacles on the hull of a ship. Apparently, one bit of advice that she gave was that you should get rid of a lot of the books that you accumulate, and presumably, never read twice, or sometimes maybe even once. She was quoted as supposedly saying that you shouldn’t keep more than thirty books in your home. Now, I’m pretty sure that some of you here would more likely cut off one of your arms with a pocket knife than cut your personal library down to no more than thirty books, and it’s definitely something that would be an absolute non-starter with most pastors I know. Some of the comments about the “thirty book rule” that I saw online from pastor friends ran along the lines of “What, you mean no more than thirty books on my nightstand?” or “You mean no more than thirty books per topic?” and similar thoughts. And there were a few less-than-charitable suggestions for what Marie Kondo could do with her advice, from pastors and non-pastors alike, that I can’t share here.

In her defense, her entire point – and it’s a valid one – was that in simplifying, a person finds greater joy and effectiveness in their life through forcing themselves to consider what’s most important to them. It’s an important exercise meant to get a person to focus on the core, distilled, crystallized expression of their meaning and purpose.

Today’s gospel text is something like that. You might call it a Marie Kondo moment in the gospels. In this story, Jesus is at the very beginning of his public ministry. He’s already getting some notoriety, word is spreading from town to town about his powerful words, and even some healing miracles that he’d performed. He’s the small-town guy made good, and now here he was back in his hometown, and his home synagogue, undoubtedly surrounded by family and lifelong friends, and a number of others curious to see and hear him for themselves. He’s asked to read from the scriptures, and he goes to this passage from the Book of Isaiah, a text that was understood to be a reference to the one who would come from God, the anointed one, the messiah in whom they would find salvation. And not some pie-in-the-sky eternal salvation somewhere out there in the ether; they were all good observant Jews who knew they were already in God’s loving care – but rather, someone who would save them in a much more immediate sense, saving them from their oppression and troubles on this side of eternity. So Jesus reads, “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 then, he sits down, as was the custom, and he delivers what was probably the shortest sermon ever given in the synagogue, as he says in so many words, “Yeah, that’s all about me.”

We’ll hear next week that his audience didn’t exactly appreciate what he told them, thinking it was a bit cheeky and presumptuous. But this week, I want us to think about  Jesus’ words themselves. Because in those words, I believe we get the perfectly distilled, condensed, Marie-Kondo-simplified essence of what Jesus is saying his entire ministry, his entire message, is all about. This is what Jesus was sent to proclaim and to carry out. In other words, this is how Jesus defines “the gospel”: that God loves, and stays in solidarity with, and is working to help, the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the oppressed, the ones who for whatever reason have lost hope.

And since that’s the case, then it’s also the perfect distilled version of the gospel that Jesus calls his church to work for, too.

There’s a scene in the first “Star Wars” movie, where Darth Vader is about to kill Obewan Kenobi, and Kenobi tells Vader “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” In a very similar way, in another section of the gospels Jesus told his disciples very much the same thing in the days leading up to his crucifixion – telling them that after his death, through the work of the Holy Spirit they – the church – will actually achieve these ends, this good news, much more than he would during his short earthly lifespan.

So as we, the church, try to discern whether we’re actually proclaiming the gospel that Jesus did – and this is particularly appropriate today, as we’re about to go into our annual congregational meeting, and we’ll review our past year, where we’ve been, and consider where we’re going – we can consider Jesus’ words as a touchstone. In our actions as Christ’s church, we can ask:

  • Are we working to bring freedom and release to those who are locked behind bars, or in cages, or imprisoned in some other way?
  • Are we working to bring health and healing to those who are suffering from illness or disease?
  • Are we working to bring real hope and love to those who have none?
  • Are we letting others know that God is so focused on these priorities as to enter our existence and live among us, to show solidarity with us and love for us, through Jesus Christ?
  • In short, are we loving others out of gratitude for knowing that God loves us?

If we’re doing those things, then we’re proclaiming the same gospel Jesus proclaimed. And if we aren’t – if we define the gospel as being something strictly spiritual, only concerned with eternity and getting into heaven, and having little if anything to do with working against suffering and poverty and injustice and imprisonment and illness and hopelessness – then we aren’t proclaiming the same gospel as Jesus.

To me, that’s as simple and focused an understanding of the gospel possible. That’s as simple and focused an understanding of Christian theology that I can imagine. Everything else, all the billions of words put to paper about it, is just elaboration and commentary. I really believe that. But I’m still not giving up all of my books.

Thanks be to God.

Christ the King

(sermon 11/20/16)

arson-hopewell-missionary-baptist-church-greenville-ms

Interior of the historically-black Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church, Greenville MS, destroyed by arson

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”- Luke 23:33-43

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So today is Christ the King Sunday. It’s meant to be the culmination of the church year, just before we restart the cycle with Advent and our spiritual reflection and preparation for observing the coming of the Lord into the world. It’s meant to be the ultimate, full, shout-it-from-the-rooftops affirmation that God entered our existence in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, that Jesus’ mission in the world was successful, and that Jesus is indeed the Lord and King of all. Given that intent for the meaning of the day, this might seem to be an odd gospel text to hear. If we’re meant to focus on the Reign of Christ, the reality of his Kingship, why not pick some other passage? Why not maybe one from Revelation, with cherubim singing, and saints prostrating themselves on the ground, and Christ returning to earth riding in the clouds; something like that? Why not something that shows a King of power and might, and setting things right? No. Instead, we get this dreadful passage that details the lowest, worst moments of his earthly life. Why?

Well, I think that maybe it’s meant specifically to point out the very different kind of King that Jesus is, and the very different kind of Kingdom that he reigns over. We talked a bit about this idea of Christ the King last week, and how that should play out in our lives, and this gospel text today speaks even more to that point. Christ is the kind of King who stands for God’s compassion for the world, and all who live within it. The kind of King who upholds that message even when it’s unpopular. Even when it’s dangerous and will be opposed by the rulers and powers of this world. And I think this passage reminds us that Christ is the King of a Kingdom that will lose many battles in this world, as his own crucifixion attests. And yet, it’s those same battles that he calls us, his people, to engage in, as a part of our faithful response to professing Jesus Christ as our King.

I think that the next several years are going to be crucial ones for us as Christians in this country. I think that we may find ourselves in a serious time of crisis, one that transcends partisan politics or ideology, or any particular individual leaders or political parties. This crisis lies in many of the policies that are currently being floated as potential directions for our country – and which apparently have a large block of support within the general population. I’m talking about policies that run absolutely, irrefutably contrary to the core teachings of our faith. Policies that would bear down unjustly on immigrants, refugees, and their families. Policies that would permit our government to engage in what the world community considers torture. Policies that would harm women, people of color, LGBTQ people, religious minorities, and others.

These are all policies that must be absolute non-starters to anyone who professes Christ as King. Upholding justice, defending the weak, the powerless, the publicly scorned and rejected – these are absolute, non-negotiable, bedrock essentials of our Christian faith. This is what Christ our King teaches us. This is what Christ our King demands of us.

And I believe that standing up and speaking out, and working to stand up for these members of our society, and opposing these policies, might cause us difficulties. We might be opposed by individuals, we might be opposed by groups, we might be opposed by governmental leaders and even some in the religious community. If we faithfully stand up for these core principles of our faith, we might very well find ourselves in the same unpopular position as those who were part of the Confessing Church movement in Germany in the 1930s, who stood up against the heresy, the evils of nationalism and the overreach of state authority, and who gave us the powerful Barmen Declaration, part of our Book of Confessions. We might find ourselves in the same position as those who were part of our own American Presbyterian tradition in the 1960s, who stood up against the heresy, the evils of racism, sexism, and other social ills in our own country, who gave us the profound Confession of 1967. We might find ourselves in the same unpopular position as the black church in South Africa in the 1980s, who stood up against the heresy, the evils of apartheid and racial segregation, and other justice issues as well, and who gave us the prophetic Belhar Confession.

In all honesty, I look at the current situation in our country, and I truly wonder if we’re on the verge of the next time of crisis that will end up producing our next major confession – or at least will lead to an energized movement of Christian witness against the popular heresies and sicknesses in our society that will make us just as unpopular as those earlier movements were when they began.

I was thinking about this yesterday, when I was at our Presbytery meeting. Before the meeting began, there was a brief presentation and discussion about the Belhar Confession, and in that session, I read again some of its closing lines. I want to read those lines to you this morning:

“We believe that, in obedience to Jesus Christ, its only head, the church is called to confess and to do all these things [commanded by Christ], even though the authorities and human laws might forbid them and punishment and suffering be the consequence.

Jesus is Lord.”

In other words, Christ is King.

We are currently living in strange times.

We’re currently living in a time when a successful, well-dressed, native-born Asian-American attorney driving a luxury car, living in an affluent community can be harassed and taunted by an affluent, white man at a gas station in that same community, telling the man he doesn’t belong here in this country, and that he needs to go back where he came from. We’re living in a time when a gay senior citizen in Florida can be jumped and beaten by a man who all the while yelled at him that now that we have a new President-elect, it’s OK to kill all the faggots. We’re living in a time when black churches and mosques are burned, and synagogues have their windows bashed out and swastikas painted on the walls. We’re living in a time when people feel emboldened to harm others in ways like this. These are not normal times.

I believe that in order to be faithful to our profession that Christ is King, all of us – each and every one of us – are very possibly going to have to get out of our own comfort zones and stand up to oppose these and other things, and to protect and help those being attacked, either through policies or personal attacks. I believe that we’re going to have to stretch ourselves spiritually to rise to what Christ, our King, is calling us to in these times. What we may have been doing in the past in trying to be obedient to our King may not be sufficient for the living of these days.

We may have to speak out, loudly, maybe even forcefully – even the most soft-spoken and quiet and shy among us. We may have to protest. We may have to take actions to support God’s love, and mercy, and compassion, and justice, and the other key teachings of the gospel that might not seem to be decent and in order at all.

Is this what we’re facing in the next few years in this country? I don’t know.But I do know that if it comes to that; if you and I have to take some unpopular stand in order to uphold the values of the Kingdom of God by standing up for God’s justice for all, especially for the most discriminated against of God’s people; if we face the scorn and rejection of people for doing it – whatever happens, we can remember this awful, dreadful passage from Luke that reminds us that our King suffered for this Kingdom, too. This was the way that our King modeled how we should live, even in the face of opposition, even in spite of defeats. This, according to Luke, is what we mean when we say Christ is King. And we can have hope, because yes, Christ is indeed the King of the cross – but thankfully for his sake and ours as well, he’s also the King of the resurrection.  And for that, we can all say

Thanks be to God.