Saturday, January 26, 2013

A Period Where It Didn't Belong...

I left a lot out of this one, I think. I didn't want to get into Penal Substitutionary Atonement, or the fact that far too many Christians think that the only way to encourage people to follow Christ is to threaten them with eternal damnation...

While studies show that fear of Hell makes people "act right," I cannot think of Christianity as behavior modification. In Scripture, the response to God's grace is a desire to follow, a desire to change, a desire to draw ever closer to Christ.

This is my imperfect attempt to articulate that...

Luke 4:14-21
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

This is the Word of the Lord.

Punctuation is an important part of our language. Punctuation is the difference between “Let’s eat, grandma!” and “Let’s eat grandma!”

In that tiny synagogue in his hometown, with a single punctuation mark, Jesus changed everything we thought we knew about God.

All eyes were on Jesus that day as he took the scroll of Isaiah, unfurling it to the section we know as Chapter 61, and began to read. It is a familiar passage, and one can imagine almost everyone's lips moving in silent recitation. But something happened that day: something new, something jarring, upsetting, disconcerting. Jesus ended his reading with the words, “…to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll, returned it, and sat, assuming the position of a teacher.

Now, it’s true that Hebrew had no punctuation in those days; in fact, there weren’t even spaces between words. Vowel sounds weren’t a feature of Hebrew until about nine hundred years after Jesus read those words. But it’s a pretty good indication that there is more to be read when the next word in a sentence is the word “and,” which is the case in Isaiah 61, verses one and two.

What everyone in that synagogue that day expected to hear was Jesus reading “ proclaim the year of the Lord's favor and the day of vengeance of our God...”

But no, Jesus puts a period where it doesn’t belong, and as every mouth in the building is silently forming the word “and,” simply says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

This scripture: Good news, release, recovery, freedom, favor. Period.

Now, our Lectionary Elves leave the reaction of those listening to him in the Synagogue for next Sunday’s reading, but I can give you a hint: it isn’t a real positive response. In fact, our reading next week ends with the people Jesus grew up with: his friends, his neighbors, maybe even his relatives – trying to throw him off a cliff!

To me, at least, this is a very confusing reaction – a message of good news, release, recovery, freedom and favor being fulfilled, leading to such naked rage? Why?

I think that, for many of us, the prospect of faith in God often has a carrot-and-stick aspect: do things right, say and think the proper things, do enough and give enough, and we get the carrot, the reward. Mess up? We get hit with the stick. What’s more, those people who don’t think and act and worship like me? They really get hit with the stick!

How many times, over the years, have well-known preachers blamed natural disasters – Hurricane Katrina, the earthquake in Haiti, the list is nearly endless – on the sinfulness of the victims, or on the sinfulness of the victims’ ancestors?

And how many men and women and children live under the notion that God is waiting, poised at every moment to punish, to strike, to wreak vengeance – not on enemies or oppressors, but on them, if they make a mistake?

What Jesus does, with this one tiny dot, this period, this punctuation where it doesn’t belong, is to take the stick out of the carrot-and-stick equation.

But what about my enemies? Elsewhere in the Gospels, we learn that we are to love them. What about those who persist in sinning? Elsewhere in the Gospels, we learn that we are to forgive them. What about those who are different, who do not worship or believe or think or act as we do – people like the Gentiles and the Samaritans? Elsewhere in Scripture, we learn that we are to include them. It is, after all, no mistake that the woman caught in the act of adultery is forgiven, no mere chance that one of the earliest converts to what would become known as Christianity is a eunuch, no mere aberration that the star of one of Jesus' best-known parables is a Samaritan.

With a simple period, Jesus turned everything his hometown crowd – and we – thought we knew about God, on its head... but (and this is important) Jesus did not change God.

God has always been in the business of redemption, restoration, and second chances. God’s love and grace are eternal and consistent.

The words that Jesus reads were originally written to a Hebrew population in exile – far from a home that few of them were old enough to recall, enslaved to a pagan king and culture, moment by moment and day by day losing all hope. They felt abandoned, convinced that God had forgotten them. These were the people who wrote the heartbreaking words that open the one hundred thirty-seventh Psalm: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’

How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?

It is to them, through the prophet Isaiah, that God promises “… to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion— to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor. They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations. Strangers will shepherd your flocks; foreigners will work your fields and vineyards. And you will be called priests of the Lord, you will be named ministers of our God. You will feed on the wealth of nations, and in their riches you will boast. Instead of your shame you will receive a double portion, and instead of disgrace you will rejoice in your inheritance. And so you will inherit a double portion in your land, and everlasting joy will be yours.

Comfort… provision… beauty… joy… praise… righteousness… splendor.

Jesus did not change God, who, hundreds of years before Christ was born, proclaimed that sacrifices were a poor substitute for mercy, who elsewhere proclaimed that justice, mercy, and humility were God’s sole requirements, who for the entirety of the existence of the Law of Moses had insisted that strangers and aliens not be distrusted or hated or mistreated, but rather be welcomed and cared for and respected.

Jesus does not change God. Jesus, rather, reveals God – a God who loves us, and who loves those who are like us, and loves those who are different, who loves those who we love and who love us, and those we may consider our enemies. The love and grace of God know no boundaries, no limitations.

And in Jesus Christ, all the promises of God – good news, release, recovery, freedom, favor… and so much more – are fulfilled. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus tells the Good News, Jesus heals, Jesus restores, Jesus feeds, Jesus protects, Jesus even raises the dead. And every step, every word, every touch, every act brings him closer to Jerusalem, closer to that last long night where bread is broken and wine is poured, where he sweats blood and is betrayed, that day where he feels the agony of the whip and the excruciation of the crown of thorns digging into his flesh, the terror of the nails and slow asphyxiation and death…

And Jesus knew that this was where he was going, every step and every touch and every word and every act. And every one of these steps and touches and words and acts – ever moment of agony on the cross, and that glorious moment when he burst forth from the tomb never to die again – was a revelation of who God really is.

Those people in the synagogue may well have been asking, where is the day of vengeance of our God? Why isn’t that part of Jesus’ reading?

May I suggest that perhaps, just perhaps, one answer may be that vengeance is too easy? When we are wronged, we may want a Dirty Harry kind of God. When we do wrong, we may expect to be crushed under the thumb of the Almighty. But returning hurt for hurt is the easy answer, and when we require an eye for an eye, we all end up blind.

It is far, far more difficult to forgive, isn’t it? And God does the hard thing by nature. Grace, love, forgiveness, redemption, healing, restoration, community, these are the attributes of God.

God does not hate us. God has not forgotten us. We who love him do so because he first loved us.

The Cross of Christ is God's ultimate answer to and for humanity – redemption through the blood of Christ, reconciliation through his suffering, healing by the stripes he bore, power and victory over death through the Resurrection.

This is the truth of God planted in us by the indwelling Holy Spirit, the message we each are called to not simply proclaim, but to live out.

When Jesus read that passage that day in the synagogue in Nazareth, when he added a period where one did not belong, Jesus did not change God.

Rather, in fulfilling that Scripture in his life, in his death and in his resurrection, Jesus changes us.

Let us pray.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

You Are My Son... Now Go Act Like It!

It's been a while since I posted my sermons, and for that I apologize. With the new year, I'll pick it back up, and (hopefully) post them sometime before midnight local time each night. This, of course, remains to be seen... but eight pm on Saturday night seems a good way to start, doesn't it?

There are so many wonderful directions to take the Scripture passages this Sunday. What is the "unquenchable fire?" Is it Hell, as so many people believe, or is it a cleansing, Holy Spirit fire, burning off that chaff within us that is not good seed? That's just one of the directions I wanted to go... but did not. Perhaps next year, eh?

The story of the Princeton Professor comes from Lindy Black of Lindy's Nuggets, by the way. It's one of my go-to locations for insight and often-awesome one-liners.

Please feel free to offer insights and constructive criticisms.

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

Acts 8:14-17
Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Our reading from the Book of Acts takes place very early on in the life of the Church. This passage follows the stoning of Stephen, when there is great persecution against the group of believers in Jerusalem.

Up until this point, amazing things had been happening, and the Church had been growing by leaps and bounds, but it had been confined to that one city. Even within the conflicts that church leaders had with the Jewish authorities, there was a common knowledge and experience. With this new outbreak of persecution, though, most Christians leave the city, and in fleeing the persecution spread the message of new life in Jesus Christ all across the region.

Even in, of all places, Samaria.

The person who first preached the Good News to Samaria had to either be the bravest person in Judea, or someone with such a poor sense of direction that they had no idea where they were when they evangelized.

After all, no self-respecting Jewish person would so much as speak to a Samaritan; much less spend enough time in their corner of the province to preach a message! They were… different, after all. Ethnically, Jewish people considered the Samaritans to be mutts: though the Samaritans claimed to be purely descendents of the tribes of Ephraim, Manasseh and Levi, Jewish tradition held that they were a mixture of the bottom-of-the-heap Jews and the foreigners that the Assyrian king, Sargon II, brought in to repopulate the area. This was after the more gifted and powerful had been taken when the Assyrians defeated the Northern Kingdom in 722 BC.

And make no mistake; the Samaritans despised their Jewish counterparts just as much. Quite aside from the open xenophobia, where the very idea of a Jewish person’s foot touching the dirt of a Samaritan town made them unclean, there was the very real (and often violent) dispute over what books of Scripture were truly holy, and where the center of worship should be. For the Jews, of course, this was Jerusalem, on the mount known either as Moriah or Zion, depending on the Biblical scholar. But for the Samaritans, the place where God had chosen to establish God’s name was Mount Gerizim. Further, the Samaritans recognized only the Torah, or the first five books of our Old Testament, as being authoritative and holy.

So as much as we might think that the Jews and Samaritans were related by blood and tradition, and called upon the name of the same God, the revulsion each group felt for the other was an insurmountable obstacle.

Until the apostle Philip walked in to that one Samaritan village and told whoever would listen that God, in Jesus Christ, loved them… and the people who heard the Good News believed. By the way, Philip has no problem with his sense of direction. We meet him very soon after this passage, preaching the Gospel to an Ethiopian eunuch. Perhaps unique among the Apostles at that point in history, Philip truly sees no limitations on the love of God. When Jesus told him to go into to all the world and preach the Gospel, Philip took him literally.

I really wish that the writer of the Book of Acts had given us a little more detail about the moment when the Apostles heard about how the Samaritans had come to believe in Jesus. All we are told is that when they heard it they sent Peter and John to them, and that’s what counts, of course. But given the history of animosity between Jews and Samaritans, could it have been that simple?

Well, yes, given the fact that the apostles were so sensitive to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, it certainly could have been. But I like to imagine a scene where Philip walks in to the Apostle’s room – in my head it’s the Main Office, and the apostles are sitting at a big first-century conference table doing apostle-y things. Philip is sweaty and out of breath from his hurried journey, covered in dust from the road. Everyone is happy to see him of course, until he blurts out: “Guys! Guys! The Samaritans believe!”

Ten mouths hang open in shock, everyone staring at Philip. The stunned silence goes on forever. Of course, in my imagination, the first person to speak is Thomas, and you know he has to say, “I doubt that,” right?

But it was true, and from that point on the Gospel spread like wildfire, from the Samaritans to that eunuch I mentioned, to the Gentiles, and on and on and on. No one was off limits. No one was unreachable.

And, in this regard, let me be clear: nothing has changed: today, right now, no one is off limits to the love of God. No one is unreachable to the grace and forgiveness found in Jesus Christ.

This is the day in the liturgical calendar when the Church commemorates the baptism of Jesus. It is a familiar account to most of us: when Jesus is baptized, the heavens are opened and the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus in the form of a dove, and a voice from heaven says “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

The story is told of a New Testament professor from Princeton Seminary who visited a high school youth group one evening. After the professor finished speaking about the significance of Christ's baptism as a revelation of God's presence in Jesus, one high schooler said, without looking up, "That ain't what it means."

Now, as someone who did youth work for a long time, I can tell you that it’s a good sign when a student disagrees. It means they’re listening. Luckily, this professor understood that. So the professor asked, "What do you think it means?"

The young man still didn’t look up. "The story says that the heavens were opened, right?" "Right." "The heavens were opened and the Spirit of God came down, right?" "That's right."

The boy finally looked up and leaned forward, saying, "It means that God is on the loose in the world. And it is dangerous."

The professor was, of course, not wrong. At the baptism of Jesus, God’s imprint upon and intentions for his Son were made clear. Christ the King was anointed, but in a way unlike any other king before or since.

The idea of anointing someone or something is to set that person or thing apart, make him or her or it – or certainly, recognize him or her or it – as unique, special, honored. It’s usually done with pomp and circumstance, though not always, and it is almost invariably an act performed with oil.

And yes, that happened with the baptism of Jesus. But Jesus was not anointed king with oil. Hear the Word of God from our Gospel reading: “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized…” You see? Jesus was first anointed not with oil but with water – and in a manner no way unique. He was baptized just like everyone else.

The Holy Spirit which descended upon Jesus as he was praying is also, since the day of Pentecost, available to all who believe… even, as we see in our reading from the Book of Acts, a people so hated, so removed, so unlovable as the Samaritans.

Bishop Desmond Tutu tells of a time when he was a parish priest, and was giving a Bible exam to some young people. One of the questions on the exam was “What did the voice from Heaven say to Jesus when he was baptized?” Most of the kids got the answer right, but one of the “wrong” answers stood out in Bishop Tutu’s memory: “You’re my son. Now go act like it.”

Whether we were sprinkled or dunked, whether we were infants or adults, we share the same baptism with water as Jesus. Through our faith in Christ, we share the same Holy Spirit that descended upon Jesus that day.

And like the student said to the Princeton professor, God’s spirit is loose, and God’s spirit is dangerous. No one can predict or control who God will love, who God will bring in as a fellow citizen of the Kingdom of God next.

Scripture affirms that we are a royal priesthood and joint heirs with Christ, whoever we are, whatever our background or ethnicity or nationality or gender or orientation. That wild, dangerous and unpredictable Spirit of God demonstrated in the eighth chapter of the Book of Acts that no one was outside the circle of God’s love, grace, and forgiveness in those first days of the Church – not the Samaritans, not eunuchs, not Gentiles… and that same wild, dangerous, egregiously loving, lavishly forgiving Spirit is still moving, working, and proving no one is outside that circle today.

And as the Spirit worked in and through Philip and Peter and John and the other apostles and believers in those early days of the Church, the Spirit works in and through you and I, joint heirs with Christ, a royal priesthood, today. And what that young person said to Bishop Tutu is what God says to each and every one of us in the here and now: “You are my children. Now go act like it.”