Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Rethink Church

Jeremiah 1:4-10
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Luke 4:21-30

       What on earth happened in Nazareth?  What turned a nice bunch of synagogue folks into a murderous mob?  There they were all cleaned up and dressed in their Sabbath best sitting in their accustomed places in the synagogue, just like you all here.  But by the end of the service they were mad as hornets, intent on hurling this young man raised in their church over a cliff.  What on earth happened in Nazareth that day?  I’ll tell you what happened.  Jesus read from the scriptures and then told them what it meant.
       The good folks of Nazareth came to praise God for their blessings and pray.  The mothers may have taken a little extra time with their daughters’ hair that morning.  Jesus was back in town.  That nice young man who was always to kind to everyone.  He was a skilled carpenter, he could support a family.  Not a bad match if Jesus married your daughter.  “Remember how he loved the Torah?” the men smiled and nodded.  He was such a studious young man.  “I hear he’s a pretty good teacher.”  “Have you heard the stories about him?” the young people watched him with awe.  People said he had cured the sick in Capernaum.  “Do you suppose he’ll do that here?” they asked one another.  “My father says that’s nonsense,” from one.  “My brother says it’s true.  He was there when it happened,” from another.  
       And then the head of the synagogue began to pray.  When he took the scroll of the prophet Isaiah from its place and handed it to Jesus, you could hear a pin drop.  Jesus read the beloved words of Isaiah,
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 rolled up the scroll and handed it back to the attendant and sat down.  The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.  And then he said something strange and wonderful.  He said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  He announced Jubilee.  And he looked into their faces and he knew.  Right then and there, he knew.  They expected him to make them proud, to do whatever they asked him to do, and to fit neatly back in their community.  And then he heard the words, “Isn’t he Joseph’s son?”  Only moments ago he had accepted the mantle of the prophet speaking Isaiah’s words.  He had identified himself with God’s vision for a healed world.  He had claimed God’s anointing for the transformative work of setting people free from poverty and oppression.  He had powerful work to do, but his neighbors saw only Joseph’s son.  
       And so using their own scriptures, Jesus explained why he could not be a prophet in Nazareth.  They couldn’t see past his past and into his future.  They couldn’t see God in him, only Joseph.  They wouldn’t hear God’s desire for freedom for all of humanity from him because they taught him how to be a good son and a good Jew.  These scriptures, these promises, this young man belonged to them—and he refused to go along.  Jesus chose the stories of the prophet Elijah and the gentile widow at Zarephath in Sidon and the prophet Elisha who healed the Syrian Naaman of leprosy to reveal God’s greater vision of salvation.  God cared not only for the poor in Nazareth, God cared for the poor in Zarephath.  God’s wholeness belonged to the people of Syria as surely as to the nation of Israel.  And suddenly they hated him.  Who did Jesus think he was?!  They were filled with rage and they literally drove him out of town intent on murder.  
       Why?  Because Jesus identified himself and the Spirit of God with work outside of the congregation instead of inside.  He named the woundedness and brokenness in the status quo and claimed God’s desire for the healing that comes from the end of poverty, blindness, and oppression.
       Who does Jesus think he is?  Son of Joseph or Son of God?  The answer makes people angry—furious.  That’s not a bad question for us either.  Like Isaiah before him, Jesus was rethinking the mission of God’s people.  What if we rethink what it means to be church?  What if church was something that we did during the week instead of a place that we go on Sunday?  What would happen if we claimed God’s anointing and announced Jubilee?  What if we had news that really was good for poor people?  What if we worked to release people from captivity?  What if we helped people see a new way?  What if we freed people by ending oppression?   I’ll tell you what.  We’ll make some people very angry.  You can’t do that kind of work and not make people angry.  You can’t change the status quo without disturbing some people’s sense of peace.  The young prophet Jeremiah heard that he would have to break down before he could rebuild.  But you already know that.
What amazes me is that accepting God’s anointing allowed Jesus to look into angry faces, continue to love them, and walk into a new reality.  He didn’t let other people’s disapproval change his mission.  He remained true to God’s vision and his mission.  Can we follow Jesus with such boldness?  I don’t like disappointing people or making them mad, so it’s often easier for me to stay within the status quo—to stay within the parameters of safe expectations, to keep the peace.   How did Jesus remain a person of deep peace in a volatile situation?  He knew he had God’s anointing.  He met anger with an expansive, healing love.  By the time the apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians, he had learned the same thing.  Rejected, hounded, and beaten, he knew that love is the antidote to every negative emotion.  Listen to this familiar chapter.  Because you’ve heard it so many times, listen in a new way.  Listen to hear the way that God loves you—and your enemy.  Listen for the way that we are to love ourselves and one another.  Listen for the action words, not for theory.  Because love is not a feeling.  It is a decision and an action.  Love only exists in action.  
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.  For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.  When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.  For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.  And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
And love, my friends, brings good news to the poor, proclaims release to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, lets the oppressed go free, and proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor. . . . Jubilee!  I invite you to visit the United Methodist web page on the cover of your bulletin to see the many ways that we can rethink church in terms of spirituality, creation care, racism, education, hunger, immigration, restorative justice, worker’s rights, malaria, global health, humanitarian relief, and meeting basic needs.  May we proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, Jubilee, with the patience, kindness, gentleness, hope, and boldness of Jesus.


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