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.

Discipleship—The Original Pyramid Scheme

This sermon was prepared for the Wesley United Church, Montréal, for Sunday, October 22nd, 2017. The scripture reading it is based on is 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 (Year A, Proper 24).

I will never pass on an opportunity to discuss 1 Thessalonians, which is the oldest text we have from the early Christian church.

I don’t know if you share this same curiosity, but I am fascinated with these folks who found themselves building a community together, after Jesus’ brutal crucifixion and confoundingly empty tomb. A community, not just of Jewish believers who see Jesus as the messianic figure that the scriptures talk about (their liberating king), but also of Greeks who are inspired by the roaming missionaries, and their message of social and gender equality in Christ.

In 1 Thessalonians, we listen to the communal voice of Paul, Silvanus and Timothy as they speak tenderly to one of these groups—a house church in the city of Thessalonica that is in crisis. In the letter, we read between the lines to see the image of a fledgeling community facing persecution and theological quandaries. In the response of the three men, we see the glimpses of the dynamic between the founders and the fold—our oldest example of discipleship in the Christian tradition.

Now, let me clarify that to see, it is our oldest example, with the Gospel being dated later than this early letter. Of course, we inherit stories from Jesus’ ministry, which act as out ultimate examples in the Christian tradition.

Discipleship, which is a word we don’t use outside of religious circles anymore, speaks to a commitment between teacher and student. Apprentices, who carefully watch the master craftsman to learn their trade, are our closest metaphor for this kind of relationship. With both disciple and apprenticeship, there is a strong human connection, as wisdom and experience are passed down from one person to the other. As well, the identity and reputation of the master become tied directly to the work and reputation of the student.

There are certainly other examples of this kind of relationship in the modern world—I attend McGill and the actions of the student body will reflect positively or negatively on the institution as a whole. Yet, in our society which is more individualist than communal, our modern examples lack a certain amount of intimacy or symbiosis. We like to see people for themselves, or at least we like to pretend to, so we try to hold each person for their own individual actions and successes, instead of as groups—it’s why we have MVP awards for team sports.

Now, these three men, crafting a love letter filled with encouragement and advice, are wonderful examples of early Christian discipleship. Like, true teachers, they don’t shy away from correction (which is seen more clearly later on in the letter). Paul, you may have noticed, is very pastoral in many of his letters, but also employs the strong language of correction when his apprentices are, in his opinion, out of line (Galatians is an excellent example of this). Since Paul’s reputation and identity are entwined with the churches he plants—discipleship is both about genuine care but also his self-preservation—it’s complicated and messy.

One of the features of Paul’s letters is that he tries to model to his readers that their identity, as disciples of Jesus, is entwined with the reputation of Christ in the world. He talks about being witnesses, examples, and light; and he always brings it back to Christ. As a disciple of Paul, who is a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth, Paul emphasizes over and over again that his disciples are the disciples of Jesus. And he gets pretty ticked when people refer to themselves as the disciples of Paul or the disciples of Apollos; he wants the emphasis to consistently be on God, the starting point of their genealogy of faith. He writes a genealogy for the early church, one that he extends back all the way to Abraham. And, it also extends through history to include you and me.

A characteristic of evangelical movements I really appreciate, is that there’s often a line of transmissions that is kept alive through testimony. By sharing and re-sharing people’s stories of how they came to faith, they recite their genealogies of faith to one another over and over again.

For myself, I am fortunate to know a little about my family’s history. My family is Irish, and my surname, “Mullin”, comes from “Maolan”, an ancient byname meaning “The tonsured one” (tonsuring being an ascetic practice of shaving your head), and refers to a monk or holy man. In early Celtic Christianity, monks weren’t required to be celibate, so my family comes from a long line of Celts who took up the Christian faith and also acted as spiritual leaders.

Do you have a genealogy of faith? Who came before you, and walked a path that you discovered you could follow? Was it a parent or grandparent? A close friend? A spiritual teacher? Or, are you the first of your generation, having stumbled onto “the Way”?

Now, disciples are not merely descendants. Once they’ve “graduated”, they go on to become teachers. We hear of early missionaries and preachers like… the deaconess Phoebe in the Letter to the Romans… or Lydia who founds the house church in Philippi… and Priscilla and Aquila who bring the teacher Apollos to the faith.

Of course, Jesus’ disciples were also commissioned to go out and teach, the Gospels tell us they received this instruction even before his crucifixion.

So, like a pyramid scheme, the disciple becomes the teacher, who disciples others, and so on and so forth. Which, is how you and I came to be here today.

But, unlike a pyramid scheme, this message, or movement, has lasted a long time—millennia. I think Paul, Silvanus and Timothy have an important observation about why that is, they spoke of the message arriving in Thessalonica with power and conviction. And, that it resulted in joy for the community there. Pyramid schemes offer a lot of different things to us…wealth, better looks, more friends, better sex, bigger homes, and happiness.

But, the Gospel offers liberation, so that even in the midst of suffering and persecution there is joy. It was, and is, an alternative to the politically endorsed way of being that said you were born to be a slave, you were born to be a noble person, and that’s the way life is.

These three men speak about chosen-ness—and it always reminds me a little of Harry Potter. Because those books inspired a generation of children who, on their 11th birthdays, crossed their fingers and wished so hard to receive a letter from Hogwarts—something saying they were special and chosen.

There’s a magic in that—being chosen, being uniquely important to someone.

Which, is what Paul tries to instill in his communities—their being loved and chosen by God. Even some of the Hebrew prophets write about this, the being formed lovingly by God in our birth mother’s wombs, and our lives being laid out uniquely for us.

Why do you think Peter, Simon, and the sons of Zebedee leaped at the opportunity to follow this crazy itinerant preacher around the backwaters of Galilee? Because, they were fisherman—they were supposed to do the work their father and his brothers had always done, to work alongside their cousins, so that their sons would go on to do just the same.

And then, this man walks up to them and chooses them. Out of all the men there with the boats, mending the nets, he picks them—the teacher tells them to come and follow him.

Discipleship, is about a special relationship between student and teacher—one that goes beyond care and reputation to seeing the potential within someone else. To saying, this person deserves to hear the words of life, about how important they are to God, about all the good things that God has in store for them—they deserve freedom from the bondage of sin and death.

And, disciples, after having experienced this, want others to be able to experience what they have, and so they become teachers—living out their message through their actions as much as through their words.

Jesus said to them, “Come, and follow me…and bring others.” And, they went.

Where is God asking you to go? Who is he asking you to speak the words of life to?—through your actions as much as your speech. Where is he calling you to be an example to others?

Let us take some time to reflect on these things. Amen.