Sunday, July 9, 2017

Too Close to Home

Those gathered for the General Council of the World Communion of Reformed Churches in Leipzig, Germany.
July 9, 2017
Luke 4:16-30

16 When Jesus 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, 17 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.”
20 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. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 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?” 23 He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” 24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25 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; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 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. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

I’ll never forget my first seminary sermon. It was fairly well reasoned and worded. It also happened to be a snooze fest, because I preached the entire thing without-any-inflection-in-my-voice-like-a-factory-new-Presbybot. It turns out my first seminary sermon was also a lesson in humility!

I take comfort in the fact that Jesus’ first official sermon wasn’t received very well, either. In fact, no one tried to run me off a cliff after mine (but perhaps that is a lesson in taking more risks). 

You can picture that day he preached. Palestinian Christian Lutheran pastor Mitri Raheb set the tone well in our Bible study on this text ,at the World Communion of Reformed Churches General Council the last 10 days in Leipzig, Germany. Like Jesus, he also did not mince his words, saying the setting for Jesus’ entire earthly life was one of occupation. In Palestine, to be exact. Jesus’ people were occupied by Rome, and so his ministry was never just about personal salvation; it was communal salvation,  saving oppressed people from the tyranny of political and religious occupation. Raheb, one who has experienced occupation as a daily reality for his Christian flock, names the saving those under it need saying, “Occupied people are not poor, they are made poor as resources are exploited by the empire. So Jesus doesn’t offer aid or food, but good news.”

This gospel against empire is a tricky business. It’s a get-yourself-run-off-a-cliff-sort-of-business, because religion and empire have always been complicated bedfellows. But the carpenter’s kid doesn’t back down. Naming something of a mission statement, he reads from Isaiah his 5-point plan. 
1. good news to the poor
2. release for the captives
3. recovery of sight to the blind
4. freedom for the oppressed
5. a year of jubilee

Jesus was preaching what we preachers (and all people of faith) should always proclaim: good news. But sometimes it’s not recognized as such, especially when it means things have to change. Change rarely feels good, or cozy, or welcome. 

Jesus’ message hit way too close to home, because he dared critique his own people and faith, naming that while some good was done in the past, God wasn’t nearly finished. 
And God wouldn’t be finished until there was no such thing as poverty, captivity, blindness, incarceration, or despair. (Which means of course, God’s still not finished.) This good news would require turning the world upside down, and those religious folk simply didn’t have the energy for that. They’d rather let their hometown boy die than have to change. What do we sacrifice in order to hold onto some semblance of staying the same, I wonder?

But each time we try to run that message off, to stick to we’ve-always-done-it-this-way, Jesus, that wily Savior, slips on through our shortsighted fingers. He lives on, bringing good news everywhere he goes. Sometimes that’s in the walls of the church, and sometimes it’s not. 

I’ll tell you this, though: I saw him spreading that gospel joy all over the place in Germany. Gathered with Reformed Christians from Indonesia to Northern Ireland to Lebanon to Madagascar, I saw that wily Jesus still sharing his gospel with all who would listen.

I heard his voice, echoes of this first sermon of his, through people like pastor and professor Nadia Marais from Stellenbosch University in South Africa. She named the relationship between the church and a changing culture, saying, “If we are unconcerned with those unwanted in our churches we cheapen God’s grace and the life-giving salvation of God. Grace is not up to us: it is given to all of us by God. Grace is unapologetically present. The church does not belong to us. The gospel reminds us that for this very reason, we do not get to choose who we don’t want in the church with us.”

The people who listened to Jesus preach that day in Palestine, who perhaps went for the novelty of hearing Mary and Joe’s son speak as much as anything, wanted to decide on behalf of God who was in and who was out. Using liturgical language, they labeled many “unclean,” excluding them in the so-called name of God’s law. But Jesus was never phased by such descriptors and categories: grace and compassion abounded in his every breath, even as they tried to kill him for it.

By the time he got to point 5 of his mission statement, those hometown folks weren’t even listening anymore. So, they couldn’t hear that last crescendo of a promise: a year of jubilee!

In Jewish tradition, a year of jubilee was part of God’s order. It was an ordinance woven through with grace, where slaves were freed, property was returned, and even the land itself was given a rest. It was a time of sabbath, of reformation, of renewal. 

I experienced something of this joyful jubilee in many moments at the WCRC, including an impromptu conga line at closing worship as we danced, singing, “Siyahamba…We are marching in the light of God!” with one voice in many languages.

Perhaps the most well known presenter at the WCRC (other than Joanna Hipp who did an amazing job preaching at the close of the women’s conference!) was German theologian J├╝rgen Moltmann. At 90 years old, he brought the word of God with great power and authenticity. He called for this good news of jubilee, even as he grieved the loss of his wife, saying, “Let us measure the positive dimension of the great joy in the broad spaces of God, who is closer to us than we think, and widens our lives more than we suspect.”

Sometimes jubilee can only come through change, like through an unassuming carpenter’s son becoming a prophet. Or through the WCRC General Council for the first time issuing a binding statement on the validity and importance of women’s ordination. Or through dismantling the systems of empire and occupation that keep poor people poor. As Moltmann reminded us, the opposite of poverty is not wealth. The opposite of poverty is community. 

A beloved community where change is possible, where reformation still happens, and where sometimes that wily Jesus shows up. He hits close to home to remind us that this whole ‘church’ thing was never just about wherever we call home, but instead about the God who made a home with us all. And where God makes a home, no matter what change comes, no matter what newness is required of us, there is jubilee, great joy to be found in the broad spaces of God. 

That is the best news there is, not just for us, but for all. Amen.

1 comment:

  1. very powerful and well preached, Whitney, thank you! - Laura