Sunday, January 31, 2010

Whose News?

The commercials that have started playing are getting me excited about the up-coming Olympic season. I love watching the coverage, not just for the athletic competitions themselves, but also for the stories. I LOVE a good story, and the Olympics are usually full of them. There are athletes from small towns and unimaginable circumstances. There are families and friends who have walked alongside them as they have trained and sacrificed to pursue their sport and their dream. There are proud high school teachers and coaches, aunts and uncles, parents and siblings who beam at the thought of their hometown hero bringing home the gold. Everyone loves a hometown hero!

Jesus came back to Nazareth such a hometown hero. NBC hadn’t been following him with a camera, letting the folks back home know what he was up to and how he was astounding the countryside with his preaching. The TV crews hadn’t been hanging out in the vineyards, the marketplace, and the synagogue to take interviews from his old buddies, other apprentices in the carpenter’s shop. Yet still, when he arrived back in Nazareth word had already gotten back to them about what he had been doing, what he had been preaching and teaching in the time the boy next door was gone. And they had heard he was GOOD!

Certainly they expected him to come to worship on the Sabbath; Jesus and his family never missed a week. Certainly they expected him to come to the synagogue as he always had, but with a reputation that had preceded him home they weren’t going to just let him sit back and worship. Jesus, the hometown hero, the boy-next- door turned respected preacher was certainly going to be invited to read and interpret when he walked through the door of First Synagogue of Nazareth. “Local boy makes good” the headlines would have read if they existed. “Come and hear him for yourself” the invitation would have beckoned to the whole town.

The scroll of Isaiah was the one handed to him, but Jesus got to pick the passage. He actually picked two passages and put them together, then claimed they were fulfilled even that day in the hearing and presence of the community. He claimed that the one of whom the prophet is speaking, the one to whom the Spirit of the Lord has come, is Jesus himself. The one who has been anointed to bring good news, proclaim release and recovery, let the oppressed go free, is Jesus, the hometown boy standing, well, now sitting right in front of them. The folks in Nazareth had heard he was good, but THIS good? Really? Jesus the carpenter’s son?

It's not really the message they expected to hear. Maybe a sermon on the benefits of prayer. Maybe something about repentance and baptism. Maybe even something about battling your inner demons would have seemed appropriate after what they had heard of his recent experiences with the devil in the wilderness, but this year of the Lord’s favor stuff? All this talk about poor and captives, the blind and the oppressed, that isn’t what they expected at all.

The surprise starts as excitement. At first, the congregation spoke well of him and was amazed at his gracious words. You can imagine them beaming with pride like an Olympian’s hometown friends. “This one is one of ours! That’s our boy! That’s Joseph’s son!” They can hardly believe the one who has spoken seemingly wise words in front of them is Jesus who had always lived and worshiped among them. They are excited he has returned and with such a glowing reputation ahead of him.

Although they initially cut him some slack, the excitement doesn’t last too long once he continues. He begins equate himself with the great prophets of their faith, even Elijah. He talks about how Elijah and all the rest were rejected in their hometowns. He starts to get antagonistic with the congregation made up of the friends of his youth, the adults who knew him since he was a child, the elders who nurtured him in the faith he took so seriously. He challenges them, and his formerly tolerant friends and neighbors respond by rethinking what they have heard, questioning the words he has proclaimed and claimed in their presence.

It’s hard for the people of Nazareth to imagine this local man is quite as important as he seems to think he is. The Spirit anointed him? The fulfillment of Scripture? The year of the Lord’s favor? Really? All of this? As he continued to preach the tide began to change.

It’s understandable why the people of Nazareth started to get worried and upset. They saw the significance of what Jesus was saying about himself, his ministry, and even the love of God. What he was saying, it wasn’t hard to see, was going to define and guide the rest of his ministry. It was to be his mission statement, and, he was saying, it was a divine mission statement, too. In his preaching he tells who he has come to touch. He tells who it is God desires to approach. He tells who is included in the Lord’s favor, and who should be among God’s beloved community.

And, funny enough, it doesn’t really seem to be about the folks sitting in the synagogue before him. Or at least not obviously. Poor they might be and be willing to claim, but captives? Prisoners? No, that didn’t seem to fit the crowd that has come freely to worship on the Sabbath. Blind? Maybe a few in the crowd, but not all of them as a whole. None of them are slaves, oppressed and depressed by masters wielding power over them. No, none of these descriptions of those for whom there is good news seem to fit these faithful, religious people. None of what Jesus has said about the ones who will be released and free seems to include them in the picture.

No wonder their excitement quickly turned into rage. Here they were, strong people of faith, the people who knew Jesus and had taught him, the people who like him had come worship on the Sabbath week after week, month after month, year after year, the people who had kept the holy days fully and faithfully just as he had, and Jesus came to deliver the message that the good news, it’s really more for someone else. The year of the Lord’s favor, it will be shown to outsiders first.

It’s sort of the opposite of what we would call preaching to the choir, right? Preaching to the choir - - that’s when we say words that others probably need to hear to the ones who probably don’t need to hear them. What Jesus does is preach to the ones who probably do need to hear his word, but won’t WANT to hear what he has to say. This good news from God, this release and freedom, it’s not just for the ones who have been religiously waiting for it. In fact, it may not even be for them first. It may not be granted to those with perfect attendance like an award at the end of elementary school. It may not come because we got enough stickers on our church chore chart.

In fact, Jesus, he tells them, he tells us, came to bring it NOT to those on the inside who seem to deserve it, but to those on the outside who think they don’t. He came, he tells them and us, to carry the favor and love of God to the ones who feel like they’ve been forgotten, to those who struggle to see God’s grace, to those who are beaten down by people and systems that keep them from having any reason to have faith in God enough to walk through the doors of a church, or synagogue, or mosque, or temple every week, or even once a year. He came, he tells them and expects us to follow, to free those who are held captive by binding social rules and cultural expectations, by their own fear to follow and be loved, by those who are scared to know them, to help them, to walk on the same streets in the same neighborhoods with them. He came, we are called to understand and replicate, to include those who are usually excluded, to bring in those who are usually shut out, to lift up those who are usually tossed aside, and share the good news of God’s favor with them.

At our retreat last September, the session was bold to realize that we here at First Presbyterian Church do a REALLY good job at trying to foster a sense of community within our walls. We know how to cook a good pancake feed and enjoy it together. We can put up a potluck that will rival any church’s spread. We do a great job of sharing fellowship with one another and building our own relationships with one another and with Christ. We care for one another in crisis. We celebrate with one another in great joy. Our ministry in the Spirit of God within the walls of this building and the bounds of this congregation is up-lifting, loving, and inspiring, and that’s not to be taken lightly or tossed aside as frivolous and unnecessary.

However, it isn’t, the session discerned, our complete call from God. It isn’t, Jesus claimed from the prophecy of Isaiah, the first thing he came to do. He came to look beyond the walls that hold those who always show up, whose custom it is to worship on the Sabbath as he did. He came to walk outside of the place of worship and warm community into the dark dungeons of despair and hopelessness and faithlessness. He came to speak the good news of God’s love in places where good news hadn’t been heard in years, where good news was least likely to be believed.

I think the people in First Synagogue of Nazareth got more than a little upset because Jesus’ preaching to them turned everything they had held onto upside down. If we come here faithfully, if we believe and love with all our hearts, souls, and strength, if we follow the expectations of God and care for one another, we are right on track. But Jesus came back home to tell them that’s not all there is to it. Jesus walked in and told them Spirit of the Lord sent him out, sends them, sends us out from these walls in which our faith is nurtured and grown, sends us out of those doors the welcome us in, sends us out to the poor, the captive, the blind, the oppressed to proclaim God’s love for them, the year of the Lord’s favor for all.

In September the session of First Presbyterian Church began to notice this call is heard and obeyed by many of us in individual ways, but rarely all of us in a communal way. It is a place in our congregational life, in our ministry in the name of Jesus, where there is room for growth. We are fantastic at ministering to those in our midst; we have important steps that need to be taken to minister to those whom Jesus was sent to serve first.

You will hear me mention it more than once, probably even weekly until February 20 - - you are invited, encouraged, and downright BEGGED to join in a conversation about our ministry that will be held that morning, again February 20, here at First Presbyterian Church. We will speak openly and honestly about our ministries as a congregation. We will dream and discern and pray about what God has uniquely gifted us to do, not just in our care for one another, but especially in our mission to the community and beyond. We will plan for our future as people called by God to be sent outside of these walls, outside of our family faith, to share what we know, what we experience, what we celebrate with those who might never consider walking into this place, this faith home.

In the ministry and love of Jesus of Nazareth, the good news has come. The year of the Lord’s favor is here, and it is here for those who have never even considered it. May the scripture and call of Christ to share that good news be fulfilled in our hearing and in our life together. Amen.

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