Good News for Who?

Sermon prepared for Wesley United Church Montreal’s Sunday Service of Jan. 27, 2019 based on the Gospel (Luke 4:14-21) and Epistle (1 Cor. 12:12-31) for Year C Epiphany 3.

With the up-coming by-election in the riding of Outremont, I have been watching as colourful party signs appear on lampposts and balconies around my neighbourhood.

I’ve also been receiving some material from candidates, on Facebook, by email, and in our mailbox. And, let me tell you, they seem to have all sorts of Good News to tell me.

They are proclaiming Good News to the underemployed, to the middle class parent, to the business owner, and newcomer. Their promises are filled with hope, and assurances, and an invitation to follow them.

***

Jesus, here in Luke, has just returned from his not-so-relaxing retreat in the desert, and is giving his first public appearance in his hometown. He’s in the right place, with the right people, at the right time. He stands at the front of the assembly to read from the Scroll of Isaiah. He is amongst his neighbours, those who saw him grow up, and he speaks with power and authority.

It’s all very good optics.

And, Jesus reads these words from the prophetic text:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good newsto the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captivesand recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressedgo free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.[i]

It’s a solid opening. And when we read this passage we can’t help but think to ourselves, Yes! This is the kind of man whose side I want to be on. This is the kind of teacher I want to follow.

Because, we could all use a little Good News in our lives. It is a New Year, and yet it feels so much like the last, with our newfeeds brining us one hard story after another.

But, this isn’t a unique experience to our time and place. This past week we celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and we were reminded of the past and present struggle of the Black community for equality and justice. With the on-going conflict between the RCMP and Wet’suwet’en People, we are reminded of the continued struggle of Indigenous Peoples in Canada. This week is Muslim Awareness Week in Montreal, and we think of the not-so-distant shooting at the Quebec City mosque, and the history of islamophobia in our country.

Is it any wonder that these words of God’s rescue and favour have been echoed throughout history? Throughout the Jewish and Christian scriptures? They are a sweet reminder to those who are struggling in a world filled with Bad News.

***

Yet, we’re missing part of the story here in Luke.

Jesus announces that the scriptures are fulfilled as he sits down, and folks say to themselves… “Is this really Joe’s kid? Yeah, the one who was really bad carpentry… Huh. No kidding!”[ii]But the story doesn’t end there.

Next week’s reading will show how Jesus’ first forays into public ministry end up with a furious crowd who want to throw him off a cliff!

The Nazareth Gazette the next day likely read: Hometown boy bombs first townhall of his public career.

***

Jesus’ Good News doesn’t seem so good to this crowd. But, why? What is so startling about Jesus’ message?

He proclaims a great reversal of fortunes, that the bound will be free, the impure will be made pure, and the oppressed liberated![iii]What’s wrong with that?

You see, the thing is: Jesus is not preaching merely to his neighbours, the people in that assembly. In the following section he recalls a story of how Elijah, the great Jewish prophet, was rejected by God’s people and instead went to Sidon, to stay with a non-Jewish widow.[iv]

The Good News is great news if you’re the one God is talking to, but it is a tough pill to swallow if you’re not.

Certainly, the Jewish people in the 1stcentury were oppressed by the Roman Empire, but the rural populace was also weighed down by the administration of the Jerusalem elite—who Jesus criticizes openly in his ministry.

Yet, Luke shows Jesus as stepping even further to the margins. He doesn’t just speak to his neighbours (Jewish men and their families), but he reaches out to children, the disabled, the widowed, and non-Jews in the surrounding region, offering them Good News as well.

The image of a righted world, reconciled with God, is so much bigger than his listeners would like it to be. Throughout his ministry, Jesus begins to break open the text to say God is not just speaking to you and I—the vision of God’s Kingdom is bigger.

***

Luke’s version of what we call the Beatitudes is a bit different than you might recall, because Luke pairs his four declarations of “blessing” with four declarations of “woe”.

Blessed to you who are poor, who hunger, who weep, and who people hate because of the Son of Man.[v]

But woe to those who are rich, who are well fed, who laugh, who are spoken well of.[vi]

The mission Jesus was gifted in his baptism and time in the desert, to proclaim Good News, is a double-edged sword. Yes, he delivers a message of hope, but he also has a hard message for those who hold power and privilege.

The Kingdom of God is not some vending machine of niceties and goodwill—it is a great upheaval, a reversal of a world set too long down the wrong path.

***

When Indigenous Peoples in Canada speak about reconciliation I am often struck by this recurring sentiment: that right-relations will feel wrong to those who are used to holding power. Equality will feel like injustice, because settler people are so unused to a balance of power; we will feel off-kilter as we try to find equilibrium with our Indigenous relations.

***

All this makes me wonder, whether this Good News is truly good news for you and I?

There is a part of me that says, yes! Yes, because there are things in my own life I need liberation from. Things I no longer want to be captive to.

And yet, there is another part of me that is contrite, knowing I am culpable in the oppression of my neighbours.

I am both the someone who Christ would call “blessed”, and the someone to whom he would say “woe”.

And, I can respond in one of two ways: I can choose, like the Nazarenes who hear Jesus’ teachings, to refuse to acknowledge that God’s Kingdom extends beyond the boundaries of my imagination; or, I can choose to allow God to make me new in this great upheaval.

***

How remarkable that God offers us grace in this in-between place. How remarkable that we are invited to take part in this great working of love.

Jesus, throughout the Gospels, not only extends us the invitation to be a part of God’s Kingdom, but he also asks for our elbow grease too. Today in our readings the Apostle Paul reminded us that we are each gifted, and called.

We are gifted, and called: from the last, to the least, to the littlest. We are called from the margins of society, and out of its great houses of power. We are made new in this Kingdom of God, as equals.

It is a Kingdom that desires us to be reconciled with our creator, and fellow created. It looks to put back in balance a world so off-kilter.

And, Jesus tells us this isn’t some far off utopia—some distant promise—but that it is fulfilled today, in our hearing.[vii]Wherever God’s people are, proclaiming the Good News and acting in service of the Kingdom, there is God at work. There we find our world, and our own selves, being made new.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

[i]Luke 4:18-19 NRSV

[ii]Luke 4:22

[iii]Luke 4:18b

[iv]Luke 4:24-27

[v]Luke 6:20b-22 NIV

[vi]Luke 6:24-26 NIV

[vii]Luke 4:21

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The Foremothers of Our Faith

Prepared for Wesley United Montreal’s Sunday Service of Dec. 23, 2018; based on Luke 1:39-55 (Gospel and Alt. Psalm for Year C Advent 4).

I’ve been thinking about the Parkland shooting in February of this year, as I’ve reflected on what a challenging year 2018 has been.

Specifically, I’ve thought of all the courageous young people across the globe who’ve spoken out against violence and hate, against injustice and the degradation of our planet.

When columnists and pundits were reflecting on the “March for Our Lives” movement in the US, focused on gun-control and spearheaded by these young people, and observation was made.

What do you expect from a generation that was raised on books like Harry Potter and Hunger Games? Youth and young adult fiction that said resistance is possible, we can change the world together.

As 15-year-old Parkland shooting survivor Anna Crean told reporters, “We can make a difference because that’s what books and movies have told us since we were little.”[i]

***

Today we read a section of the Gospel of Luke. I imagine much of it was familiar to you. It is to me, I’ve read and heard it countless times before.

And, a number of folks have asked if preaching this Advent is different because I find myself in a state similar to Elizabeth and Mary.

In a way, yes. Because I was struck by this passage this year, in a way I hadn’t been before. But, what struck me more than anything, was the loud voices of Elizabeth and Mary.

How I had not heard them before? I had been so focused on those little lives, coaxed into being by the work of the Spirit, that I had missed something.

***

In our Christmas pageants, who do we cast in the role of ‘messenger to the Good News’?

Angels. Shepherds. Even the incredibly late magi from the East.

But, it was the women who were the first. Who recognized, in this budding life, a new creation being made.

Our text tells us Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, like the roaming prophets of the First Testament. And she prophesies to her cousin Mary:

“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”[ii]

“Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord.”[iii]

Elizabeth echoes the words of the messenger, Gabriel. She affirms his declaration that Mary is “blessed […] among women!”[iv]

This is the woman who will raise John the Baptist, the one called to forewarn the world of God’s coming Kingdom. The angry man crying: Repent![v]

And I wonder, what stories Elizabeth told him at night… Did she recite stories of the old prophets, crying out in the desert?

 Did she tell him, in quiet whispers, of the promise God made to her and Zechariah, of who their son would become?

A child raised on story, believing that God is working in this world—doing something new—that is the kind of upbringing that inspires world-changers. These are the mothers, the parents, who lift their children up, and tell them a better world is within reach.

John’s vocation as a prophet, comes not, in my opinion, from his father the priest. But, from his mother who, filled with the Holy Spirit, was the firstto declare God is at work here!

Where her husband is struck silent in his disbelief,[vi]Elizabeth feels the baby moving in her womb and believes.

***

Prophetic genes must run in the family. As we turn, now, to look at Mary: We see a young woman, a teenager not so dissimilar from Anna Crean, who sings a song of rebellion and liberation. How right it is that God’s new work would be declared by both an old woman and teenaged girl.

The Biblical stories are filled with images of women who are not passive, but active agents of God’s workings. And, it is so easy to read them as secondary characters in this great masculine epic—but we lose out on so much richness when we see them as a reprieve from the main story.

It is through the last, the least, and the littlest that God’s Good News is revealed.

Mary’s song is not just a prayer of thanksgiving but a declaration, a taste of what God’s coming Kingdom will look like.

She sings of a God who exalts the lowly, fills the hungry, and rejects the powerful; a God whose reign is known by justice and mercy.[vii]

Mary is a revolutionary; and, what a woman to raise the man we know as Jesus.

Did he listen to her ranting by the fire as she cooked? Calling out the imperial regime, and railing against the Jewish leaders who had aligned themselves with empire?

Did she sing him songs of resistance as he fell asleep?

Did she tell him, with awe in her voice, about Gabriel’s visit and who she dreamed her son would become? Of the promises God made her?

***

What a disservice we do to our faith when we skim over these pages. The Gospel stories show women, children, the disabled, and the elderly as God’s actors in this great revelation.

God chose the most vulnerable in society to reveal her great workings of love. And, these people didn’t go about their calling quietly. They sang and prophesied loudly, they cried out in the streets, and rushed to Jesus. And, he responded by calling them “blessed”.[viii]

It was the women, filled with God’s Spirit, who were the first. Who recognized, in this budding life, a new creation being made.

What a God, whose Christ’s coming would be announced by women, and whose resurrection would be declared by women also.

If you remember, when the women came from the tomb to declare that their Teacher’s body was gone, the disciples didn’t even believe them.[ix]

What a God, who chooses the Good News to be delivered by those society doesn’t even consider a worth-while witness.

God’s Kingdom is such an easy thing to miss out on, when we close our eyes and ears to those around us declaring God is at work here!

***

Mary’s song is a precursor to John’s own ministry, and both set the stage for the life and work of Jesus. Both remind God’s people of the promises made to Abraham and his descendants;[x]a promise which is extended to us.

And, in a while, we’ll sing together the “Canticle of Turning”, inspired by Mary’s song. It is a prophetic declaration that we join in singing, believing that God’s great work of love is still being revealed today.

We follow in Jesus’ example, believing he has shown us the way to join our voices with our foremothers, singing God is at work here!

 

[i]“How Harry Potter Inspired The Parkland Student Activists — And What That Means For The Future Of Children’s Literature” by Sadie Trombetta. Mar 27 2018.

[ii]Luke1:42b NKJV

[iii]Luke 1:45 NKJV

[iv]Luke 1:28b NKJV

[v]Luke 3:3

[vi]Luke 1:21

[vii]Luke 1:46-55

[viii]Luke 6:20-22

[ix]Luke 24:11

[x]Luke 1:55

An unusual king and an “otherworldly” kingdom

This sermon was prepared for Wesley United Montreal’s Sunday Service for November 25, 2018 (Proper 29, based on John 18:33-37).

Jesus was brought before Pilate, and Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”[i]

And Jesus replied: […] No, I am a CEO. My company is vast and I have amassed great wealth. There are tens of thousands under my employ, and I pay taxes in 17 different countries!

Jesus was brought before Pilate, and Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”

And Jesus replied: […] No, I am a Prime Minister! My cabinet is filled with important men and women. I decide on policies that will benefit my donors. And, my legacy will go down in the history books.

Jesus was brought before Pilate, and Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”

And Jesus replied: […] No, I am a Self-Help Guru! Millions hang on my every word, buy my books, and follow my diet plans. They will do anything I say.

[…] Jesus was brought before Pilate, […] and Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”

And Jesus asked him where he got that idea from.

***

When Pilate asks the question, “Are you King of the Jews?”, he is assessing the threat that Jesus poses to the occupying Roman Empire.

Pilate wouldn’t very well care if Jesus is a religious figure. Roman rule was invested in allowing Judaism to exist in Israel—it was a political and military strategy to maintain control. But, if Jesus was a revolutionary figure, one who might want to rebel against the occupation? That would be a real problem.

When Pilate asks his question Jesus responds, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”[ii]Though Pilate might not care if Jesus is a religious figure, who broke no Roman laws, there are others who do.

The Gospel of John says it is Caiaphas, the high priest, and his men, who arrest Jesus and bring him before Pilate to be condemned to the cross.

This whole play is about power.

Pilate is unthreatened by Jesus; and, the Gospel even shows the governor as reluctant to condemn the man. It is the religious authorities who feel their power is most directly threatened by Jesus; they are the ones who push Pilate to finalize the execution.

***

But, what power does this man, Jesus, hold?

Jesus is not a king in any sense Pilate is used to—with borders, an army, and a treasury. Jesus makes it clear that his kingdom is not based on nation-states and the conquering of enemies—it is “otherworldly”.[iii]

I wonder what ran through Pilate’s head when he heard that. Did he think Jesus was just another roving Holy Man shouting bizarre things in the desert? Did he see it as a rhetorical ploy to avoid incriminating himself?

What does an “otherworldly” kingdom look like?

***

Personally, I find it hard to grapple with the term “kingdom”, because I can’t separate it in my mind from human institutions, power, and greed.

I like to think of it in terms of “kinship” like Paul uses, he calls the budding Church the “children of God”.

How would you describe this kingdom of God? What image has captured your imagination? Is it a table? A dance? A song? […]

In some of his parables, Jesus refers to it as a feast,[iv]seeds scattered on the ground,[v]and a mustard seed.[vi]

Surely, this is not the image Pilate had in mind when he questioned Jesus!

***

Now, Jesus is very coy when asked if he is a king—he seems to say yes, but he also seems to say no. At the very least, he is no kind of king that Pilate would recognize.

But, he does do kingly things: He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, like a king returning to the city at a time of peace.[vii]

And then, he turns around and does something wholly un-king-like

“He ate and drank with outcasts and sinners”, that’s a line from a communion prayer in the Anglican’s Book of Alternative Services. And, I used to hear that said every Sunday before I came to the Table.

“He ate and drank with outcasts and sinners.”

This is the kind of kingship that would feel so alien to Pilate.

Someone preoccupied with consolidating his own power, surrounding himself with powerful people he could trust, and those he didn’t dare turn his back on. He was the kind of “king” who put himself first.

But, Jesus. […]

Jesus continually puts others first…and not just any others but the last, the least and the littlest.

Jesus refused to align himself with other figures of power and authority; he rejected wealth and status.

Jesus is no kind of king that Pilate would recognize.

***

It is interesting, that Pilate has no idea what a threat this kingdom is to the empire. That’s where the religious authorities get it right.

Jesus is no kind of threat that Pilate is used to.

And, do we sometimes think that we know who Jesus is? Like Pilate, do we mistakenly perceive him as something he isn’t?

[…] Someone safe, docile. […] Someone always allied with our own self-interests. […] Someone to be followed when it’s convenient.

Friends, the Gospel that Jesus preached was a radical one. A few months ago when Heather preached on the Rich Young Ruler she challenged us to think about whether Jesus meant what he said when he asked us to give sacrificially.

[…] The kingdom of God is demanding. Because being part of a kingdom where all are welcomed, loved as children of God, requires a change in our behaviours and our priorities.

When we follow Christ’s example we find our own voice, raised with him, crying out against injustice, condemning those in power who abuse and extort the powerless.

We cannot remain silent while our human family suffers; we cannot remain silent in the face of human greed and hatred. This “otherworldly” kingdom will not accept the status quo of our world.

So you see: Jesus is no kind of threat that Pilate is used to, he is so much more.

***

And, how do we come to this Table today, hosted by this king?

A table where the last to arrive will be treated as the most honoured, and the first arrivals are called to help in serving. It is a table where the roles of host and guest are inversed—modelled by a man who washed his disciples’ feet.[viii]

What a table to sit at—to be invited to.

***

“God SO LOVED the world, he sent his only begotten son”.[ix]The son who would usher in this new idea of what kingdom could mean so that we might know it.

In a while we’ll come to this Table, to gather and break bread. And, I want you to think about what that means… to accept the offer of this unusual king, to be a part of God’s “otherworldly” kingdom; a kingdom that surprises us by turning our expectations on their head.

***

Friends, I pray that God would continue to show you the kingdom in a way you’ve never quite seen it before. What a joy, to continue to discover the depths of our God, and of our greatest example, Jesus. Amen.

 

[i]John 18:33

[ii]18:34 NRSV

[iii]John 18:36

[iv]Luke 14:15

[v]Mark 4:26

[vi]Luke 13:18

[vii]John 12:12-18

[viii]John 13:1-20

[ix]John 3:16