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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Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up

This sermon was prepared for Wesley United’s Sunday service on January 28, 2018 (Year B Epiphany 4, 1 Corinthians 8:1-13).

When first approaching this text, the obvious thing is to preach a sermon about the idols we have in our lives. Since there’s ample fodder there for conversation.

We could talk about the devices that distract us… concerns that seem all-too-important in the short-term… We could talk about how social media puts us in an infinite loop of comparison, leading to depression and anxiety… We could also talk about how, sometimes, we get more caught up in the institutional church than the communion of believers (since last week was the Week for Christian Unity). Yes, there are lots of idols, big and small, we could talk about.

But, then would we be missing the point?

This epistle has a lot more to say about mature Christians supporting their immature siblings than it does about meat or idols. Paul assumes his readers know what to do when it comes to that issue—he’s not worried about diets.

You see, there was no confusion for this community of believers about what was an idol.  There were Roman temples where people would go and worship local and national Gods, and their idols. Now, we remember in the Hebrew scriptures that Yahweh made it very clear—there would be no idols, representing pagans Gods or the Israelite god. To Yahweh, the Israelite people were his representatives on earth–He didn’t need statues of wood or stone when he had idols made of flesh and blood.

This early Christian community knew all of this–they knew they weren’t supposed to worship other gods or idols. The issue, which it seems they wrote to Paul about in a previous letter we no longer have, was whether it was acceptable to eat meat which was bought from the local market and had been sacrificed at one of these Roman temples.

For Paul, though, this isn’t a question of whether eating that meat is problematic–it is the question of whether the house church in Corinth is caring for one-another in community.

This is one part of a longer section where he offers them instructions on how to worship together in Christian community. It culminates with the oh-so-famous section, which has been read at every wedding I’ve ever attended:

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.

 

This text is not a prescription for marital bliss, but for healthy community. Paul, actually, isn’t a huge fan of marriage, he sort-of relents and says if you have to it’s better than falling into sexual immorality but he really wishes you’d just commit your entire life to evangelization and mission work. But I digress…

Returning to our text for today: “‘[All] of us possess knowledge.’ Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”

This is a love that has empathy for where each of us is starting from, and the faith journeys we are taking in community.

Can you reflect on a time when you were “immature” in the faith? A time before you learned that idol meat was just meat?

Do you remember what a painful process it can be to work through the theology that’s been embedded inside of you, passed down by well-meaning family members and Sunday School teachers?

I remember—and it makes me feel embarrassed just to think about it. But, before I ever came to terms with my own sexuality, I was a homophobe. I grew up in a community that was certain about how Jesus, and God, felt about gay people (bisexual people weren’t even on the radar then)—and they passed those beliefs onto the children in the community—onto me.

Eventually, I met amazing people whose lives were inspirational, and they happened to be gay. They tricked me, by having me fall in love with who they were as people, as loving partners, as mentors to me in my own faith journey. That changed stuff for me, but it took a couple years and a lot of thinking before I became affirming. And, then it wasn’t until I was affirming that I could think about my own sexuality and come to terms with my orientation.

Thinking back makes me uncomfortable. I don’t have a lot of grace for that version of myself, and so I don’t have a lot of patience for people who are still in that place. I forget how hard it was to get from there to here. But, that means I sometimes make it harder for folks to work out their own feelings on the subject. I push them in my own arrogance and anger, and they push back, entrenching themselves further.

Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t challenge one another and speak out against harmful ideas. But, I do think Paul speaks to a responsibility we have—to support one another on our journeys with love. It is an orientation of its own, to allow each of us to take the journey at our own speed, from our own starting point. It is a caution against arrogance; and, a call to patience, kindness and self-control. We want to support others, in their theological dilemmas and wonderings, so that they draw closer to God, instead of pushing them father into polarized factions.

We’re working to dissolve the boundaries of us and them—to make space within the we of Christian community. It is an exercise in seeing Christ within the other, and recognizing that their faith journey won’t look like our own.

The Creator made our world expansive, vibrant and diverse—God’s children, are just as varied; and God speaks to them all in different ways, according to their personalities and needs. What’s good for your journey may not be good for mine, and vice versa. We have an opportunity to support one another and to engage one another in conversation. What a gift to learn the different ways God is speaking and moving in creation. What a gift to have community members who share their struggles with one another.

May the experience of supporting one-another help you find a better way of journeying with God. Amen.