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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Jesus, a good Jewish boy

Prepared for Wesley United, Montreal Sunday Service of November 4, 2018 (based on Mark 12:28-34 for Proper 26).

For the past three weeks we’ve read consecutive sections of Mark’s Gospel, we saw how three sets of men approached Jesus to ask him a question. These texts are so wonderfully crafted; we can miss so much with our short readings on Sunday mornings so it was nice to have a continuous reading for a while.

However, having jumped a few chapters ahead this week, we’ve missed the first part of our story today!

After Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, a series of religious authorities come to question him.

  • The Chief priest and elders of the Temple ask him… with what authority is he teaching and performing miracles?[i]
  • Some Pharisees, Jewish reformers, ask him… should we pay taxes to the Roman Emperor who is oppressing the Jewish people?[ii](That one sounded a lot like entrapment, to me! Is this radical guy going to say don’t pay, which is illegal, or is he going to align himself with the occupation? Which wouldn’t look good either. But Jesus comes up with a pretty good answer.)
  • Then, some Sadducees, the religious conservatives, ask him… whether he believes in bodily resurrection, providing an especially complicated example of whether a remarried woman would have two husbands in heaven![iii]
  • And then, one of the Scribes comes to him and asks… “Which commandment is the first of all?”[iv]

This is not a hard question. Now, there are some preachers who’d like you to believe that Jesus is just so much smarter than all the other Jewish religious leaders of his day, that he figured it out when they didn’t! But, as we heard from the Book of Deuteronomy earlier, the greatest commandment had been established—by God, no less. And ancient Jews recited its words as liturgical practice, similar to how we recite The Prayer Jesus Taught His Followers.[v]

Jesus is a good Jewish man, he knows the answer because he knows the teachings of the Torah. He says:

“The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ … This is a passage from Deuteronomy, which we heard earlier [Deut. 6:4-9].

Then he says:

“The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”[vi]… A passage from Leviticus 19.

As a young boy, Jesus would have been taught the pillars of the faith, just as we try to instil the basics of our Christian faith through kid’s time, Sunday school, storybooks and conversation at home.

If you grew up in a faith community as a child, do you have memories of certain stories, verses, or prayers you were taught? If you didn’t grow up in a faith community, do you have other memories of adults trying to instil their values in you?

My parents really liked mottos and recited them often: “To know and not to do is not to know!” was a favourite. And, they said it often enough it likes to pop-into my head occasionally.

***

What’s interesting about this particular story is that Jesus enters into a theological conversation with this Scribe. It’s not a test, like with the other religious leaders.

The Scribe reiterates what Jesus said, and then continues by adding, “this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices”![vii]

He says this, in Jerusalem, the city that existed to house the Temple complex; the people who lived there year-round were all part of its functioning: priests, animal herders, temple scribes…. It is a very big deal to say something like that in Jerusalem.

And, maybe this Scribe had heard of Jesus, heard how the day before Jesus had walked into the Temple and told the people working and worshipping there that they had turned it into a “den of robbers”![viii]This is the story where Jesus overturned the moneychangers’ tables and herded the animals outside.

Maybe the Scribe saw Jesus had something in common with him because Jesus criticizes the Temple system just as the Scribe does.

Now, Christianity has a dangerous history of interpreting these texts as anti-Jewish, and considering the events of these past few weeks, I think it is incredibly important to clarify a few things here.

  1. Jesus was a Jewish man, born of a Jewish mother; someone who went to synagogue, memorized Torah, discussed scripture with his companions and visited the Temple regularly.
  2. An internal debate around the authenticity of religious practices had existed within Judaism for centuries.

Both Isaiah and Hosea criticized God’s People and their religiosity. Amos delivered an especially pointed prophetic message to the House of Israel:

I hate, I despise your festivals,

    and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.

Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,

    I will not accept them;

and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals

    I will not look upon.

Take away from me the noise of your songs;

    I will not listen to the melody of your harps.

But let justice roll down like waters,

    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.[ix]

Wow! That is not an easy message to hear.

So, though it would be easy to say Judaism was all about rules, rules, rules, and Jesus brought authentic worship based in love, that is a misrepresentation of a rich faith history, and Jesus as a faithful man of the Jewish faith.

Prophets had been providing course correction for the Jewish people since before they started writing it all down.

How human, we all are, that we need those corrections.

A good translation of the word “to sin”, or hamartia in Greek, is to say you’ve “missed the mark”. Humans beings continue to miss the mark and get things wrong, God knows that and provides us with lots of help along the way.

***

Each of these passages shows us that humanity has known about God’s desires authentic, robust love for millennia. It is a love that engages all of who we are—our feelings, our understanding, and our actions.

Amos teaches us that worship without acts of justice is just noise. God requires more than words and posturing from us.

Each of these texts invites us to begin to look inward, at our own communities of faith, to ask whether we’re living out these two commandments in the work that we do.

Are we using love of God, love of self, and love of the other, as our lens when we make decisions about the work we do?

Is it influencing our committees? Our practice of hospitality?

Is our worship integrated alongside our justice work?

When Jesus said to the Scribe, “You are not far from the kingdom of God,”[x]he is giving us a framework we can look to as we hope to further God’s kingdom here and now.

Are there people or places that make you want to say, “Wow, you’re not far from the kingdom of God!” What is about the way they put their faith into practice you find encouraging?

***

It is remarkable that we have inherited a faith tradition that encourages dialogue and thoughtful reflection on the scriptures and our purpose in this world.

We’re fortunate to have inherited a faith tradition that believes in educating children, asking them questions, and inviting them into the conversation. This work is the building blocks of the coming kingdom.

And, how remarkable that God had the foresight to send us those people, like the prophets and this scribe, to help us on our faith journey. Providing the course correction, we so often need, to love God more fully with our whole selves—with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, and all our strength.

Friends, this week may you find new ways to act out this call more fully: loving God, your neighbour, and yourself; since there is no greater commandment than these.[xi]

 Amen.


[i]Mark 11:28 NRSV

[ii]Mark 12:13-17

[iii]Mark 12:18-27

[iv]Mark 12:28b NRSV

[v]Based on Matt. 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4

[vi]Mark 12:29-31 NRSV

[vii]Mark 12:33b NRSV

[viii]Mark 11:15-19

[ix]Amos 5:21-24 NRSV

[x]Mark 12:34 NRSV

[xi]Mark 12:31b

Love, an attitude of justice – A Reflection on Luke 13:31-35

This article first appeared Feb. 18th, 2016 on the KAIROS Canada Blog as part of a Lenten series. All verses quoted in the New Revised Standard Version.

Reflecting on this Sunday’s Gospel reading, Luke 13:31-35, I was struck by the image of the pilgrimaging Christ standing on the road towards Jerusalem. In this chapter of Luke, we meet Jesus in the midst of his travels, begun in Luke 9, as he is warned by a group of Pharisees about the danger he is moving towards. The Roman sponsored King, Herod, was issuing threats against Jesus, threats which most would take seriously considering his recent beheading of Jesus’ friend and colleague John the Baptist (Luke 9:7-9). Yet, this gruff roaming rabbi greets the threat of violence with this response: “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.” (v. 32)

This statement tells us Jesus has no intention of halting his travels because of a threat by the governing powers, a threat of violence, a threat that has been channeled into action in the past. He emphasizes his words by assuring his listeners the work he is doing will be done today, and then the next, and the day after that—alluding, in our minds, to his greatest work demonstrating redemption in his crucifixion and resurrection. He then repeats himself, “Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’” (v. 33)

He goes on to say, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (v. 34) This story of Christ, journeying forward despite the great danger he is walking towards is always juxtaposed, in my mind, by the story of the Prophet Jonah. Jonah who did not want to go, who had no love for the people he was sent to, who spoke God’s words of grace but received the Ninevites’ repentance with indifference. Jonah who wanted wrath, and violence; Jonah who was controlled by fear (fleeing his mission) and inclusivity (his rejection of God’s call to extend grace to the Ninevites).

As justice seekers, in our contemporary context, I often wonder whom we are most like. Are we the angry Prophet who heads towards danger controlled by fear and seeking vengeance? Or, are we like Christ, spurred by love, which fuels courage in the face of fear; a love that renders violence powerless, and refuses to heed the threats of the “powerful”.

My constant hope, and prayer, is that I am journeying towards Jerusalem, a heart full of compassion that will not waver in the midst of violence and injustice. And yet, pilgrimaging is hard, and our small acts of justice will not always bear the fruit we want to see. Jesus’ ministry and death did not immediately change the political and social systems he was fighting against. He tells Jerusalem in Luke 13:35: “See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’” Christ knew that hearts and minds, and destructive systems are not changed overnight. Although, I like to believe he understood the righteous impatience many of us feel—bred from a sacred desire for the world to be righted.

In this Lenten season we journey as a faith community along that road to Jerusalem, walking beside Christ, reflecting on his actions. We have seen him rebuke evil in the desert already, and now we see him walking towards forces of violence and oppression in the city. As we journey with him, taking time to examine our own hearts, I would ask you to reflect on the attitude you are seeking justice with.

May love inspire in you courage to overcome fear, to seek justice from a wellspring of compassion. Amen.