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January 11th, 2009

“Good News for the Poor” (Luke 4:14-30), January 11, 2009

So a number of years ago, a gay man came to Corinth.  He sat down with me and told me his story.  He wanted to join the church.  He openly professed Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, but he said he was just looking for acceptance, for friendship, for genuine Christian community.  Then he told me this: “I’m not in a relationship right now, but I have to be honest and tell you that if the right partner came along, I probably would be.”

What would you have said? 

Questions

Get ready for a breath of fresh air.  The largest class of new members in our history, as far as I know, will be joining Corinth two weeks from today.  They are young and old, new to the faith and lifelong believers, native to Hickory and transplants from far away, contemporary, traditional, and Sonrise worshipers.  What they have in common is that God’s grace has brought them to himself through faith in Jesus Christ, and God’s grace has brought them to Corinth.

Last week during our first Pastor’s Class with the new group, I started as I usually do with the theme of “Questions.”  Who am I?  Who are you?  What questions should you ask when changing churches?  What is our core value at Corinth?  What questions do you want to have answered before you join the church?

I also shared with them some questions I would ask if I were joining a church.  What are the major conflicts in this church and how are they handled?  What are your strategic plans for the next five years?  When was the last time you preached a sermon that made people uncomfortable?

Then I invited the group to ask me one of the questions I had suggested.  Chris Van Allsburg picked the “uncomfortable” question.  And I didn’t have a real good answer on when I last preached a sermon to make the congregation squirm.  So I thought, why not today?

If I didn’t preach a sermon on this text that makes all of us uncomfortable, I should get fired.  By the time Jesus finished his message to the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth, they were not just uncomfortable – they wanted to kill him.  I’m told that George Bush’s approval rating as President has been as high as 90% (just after 9/11) and is now 27% just seven years later.  Jesus’ approval rating went in a matter of hours from off the charts to off the cliff.

So let’s spend a few minutes discovering what made them uncomfortable, and then let’s see if I can’t get a noose wrapped around my neck before I’m done.  Agreed?

The circle of “in”

We have come to the formal beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, as Luke records it.  Luke tells us more stories about Jesus’ birth than the other gospels writers.  He is also the only one to relate the story of Jesus visiting Jerusalem at age 12 with his parents, which is the only story any of the gospel writers tell between Jesus’ infancy and about age 30.

Luke has further prepared us for Jesus by telling of John the Baptist, whose preaching prepared the way for Christ.  The proper response to John’s preaching, as we said last week, is, “I want to come closer to Christ, whatever it takes.”  This week, Luke will reveal a little more of what that means.

Luke also tells a little about Jesus’ baptism (3:21-23), his family tree (3:24-38), and his temptation (4:1-11).  Now he’s ready for Jesus to explode on to the scene in Galilee.

William Barclay says that the word “Galilee” comes from a Hebrew word meaning “circle.”  It was so named not because the region was round (it was about 50 miles north to south and 25 miles east to west) but because it was encircled by non-Jewish people.  It was densely populated, with the Jewish historian Josephus (a one-time governor of Galilee) claiming that three million people lived in 200 towns in Galilee.  That may be overstated, but certainly a lot of Jews lived there.

Galileans were viewed rather condescendingly by their Jewish neighbors to the south, those who lived in and around Jerusalem, in Judea, below Samaria.[1]  Perhaps this condescension was geographical (even today we southerners can be a little snide toward Yankees and it goes the other direction as well, or think small town folks vs. city folks), but it was probably religious as well.  The Judeans, after all, boasted the temple and the center of religious life.

Luke does not suggest that Jesus’ visit to Nazareth was the beginning of his public ministry.  Instead, he tells us in verses 14-15 that Jesus had preached in many Jewish synagogues in Galilee – and that he had gained quite a reputation for preaching (v. 15) and healing (v. 23).  It may have been about a year since Jesus left home.

His reputation preceded him to his hometown.  He shows up, and it’s kind of like Sarah Palin going back to Wasilla after being nominated as John McCain’s running mate, or Jake Delhomme heading back to Louisiana after becoming a big-time NFL star.  He’s become “something” since he left home, and everyone is curious.

Think about it.  He played as boy in their streets, he went to school and learned to read and write, he hung out as a teen with the other kids, he learned to use a saw and hammer, manufacturing and delivering furniture.  In all that time, there’s absolutely no indication that he was anything unusual.  A good kid, I’m sure.  A better than average craftsman, I’m guessing.  An honest businessman, definitely.  But nothing that made him stand out as the Son of God.

It was Jesus’ weekly habit to go to the synagogue, and that’s what he did when he came home to Nazareth.  He went to “church,” setting for us the example of going to church whether or not we feel like it, whether or not we enjoy it, whether or not there are hypocrites in the pews, whether or not we like the music, whether or not the pastor is a great speaker or sometimes makes us uncomfortable.

In Jesus’ case, given his new reputation, he was also given the floor.  So he picked up a scroll of the book of Isaiah and unrolled it to chapter 61.  It could have been the planned reading of the day, since there were assigned readings.  Or it could have been random (from a human perspective) – the scroll just opened there by God’s providence.  I suspect that Jesus deliberately chose this text.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” he began reading in Hebrew (he may have also translated the verse into Aramaic, the common tongue), “because he has anointed me” (18).  The word “anointed” is related to the Hebrew word for Messiah.  This text was about the promised Christ who would usher in God’s reign for the Jews and the whole world. A dramatic anticipation filled the room.

“He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor…freedom for the captives…sight for the blind…release for the oppressed.”  What is Isaiah saying?  Those usually excluded or overlooked will be Messiah’s special attention.  “He has anointed me…to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

As was customary, Jesus handed the scroll to the attendant and sat down on a small wooden platform to explain and apply the Scripture text.  He had everyone’s attention (20) in what I assume was a rather crowded room.  Then he spoke just eight words (translated into English, anyway), “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (21).

His prior reputation, the way he carried himself, his choice of text – all added together to deepen their positive impression.  “And he’s Joseph’s son – one of us” (22).

At that point, however, the sermon became…well, uncomfortable.  “You probably want to see some miracles like the ones you’ve heard about in Capernaum, right?” (23, paraphrased) he says.  I can picture most heads nodding.  “But this isn’t a freak show.  You don’t honor me for who I am because I’m a hometown boy.”  Now they’re squirming.

Then he really made them mad.  Now remember that Luke, the story teller, is a Gentile writing for Gentiles.  From the beginning of his record he wants his readers to know that this message of Jesus the Jewish Messiah is for the Gentiles.

Luke quotes Jesus speaking in his inaugural address to the hometown synagogue about two great Jewish prophetic figures, Elijah and Elisha.  Jesus says that both prophets had ample opportunity to minister to Jewish poor, oppressed, and disabled.  But their most famous works were on behalf of Gentiles.

That did it.  His message was, “You want me to do wonders for you.  You don’t get it.  You’re the insiders, the favored ones.  God has sent me to people outside your ‘circle’ – I’ll be doing God’s work for them, like Elijah and Elisha.

That didn’t go over well.  They were furious.  These men who had grown up with him, played with him as boys, sat around tables he made, praised his teaching and reputation, pushed him outside the town to a nearby precipice, and threatened to send him over the edge.  Whether they were all talk or this was a supernatural rescue, I don’t know.  But he walked right through the crowd and out of town.

Ministry Teams

What is it that made his hearers that uncomfortable?  And what is the Lord saying to us?

Judging from my sermon title, you can probably surmise where I have been planning all week to go with this sermon.  The Consistory has chosen a congregational priority for 2009: serving in God’s world.  In the coming months, you will be hearing about many opportunities to bring good news to the poor.

If you want to get closer to Christ, one way to do so is to get your fingernails dirty serving the poor.  One of the obvious responses to this text is to determine that this year you will choose to be involved with at least one ministry team that serves the poor, the marginalized, the condemned, those who are out of sight.

As I read these examples, choose one and write it down on a yellow pew card with your name.  Place it in the offering plate.  As ministry teams form in these areas during 2009, we will contact you.

§  Soup Kitchen.  Let’s do more than just send money.  Let’s form a team that helps serve and spends time with those who eat at the Soup Kitchen.

§  Saturday Morning Breakfast.  You may have seen the piece in the paper Friday about this “Soup Kitchen” ministry on Saturday mornings in the Ridgeview community.

§  Habitat House.  We plan to build another one in 2009, perhaps in conjunction with other churches in the area.  Part of what we need to know is whether we have time and money enough from Corinth people to make it happen.

§  After School Tutors.  We have kids within walking distance of our church who go to Viewmont and Oakland and have parents who don’t speak English.  Imagine how difficult it is for them to succeed in school.  We could have a tutoring program right here on our campus.

§  Handyman Ministry.  Recently a single Mom called me.  Her refrigerator stopped working and she had no idea what to do next.  We need a ready list of those with skills for simple home repair whom we can call to make a quick visit and see if it’s something simple or we need a repairman.

§  Job Seekers.  Maybe you’re not in need of a job right now.  But many others are, in the church and in the community.  We need a ministry that encourages and offers practical help and networking during tough times.

§  Race Relations.  How about a ministry team that seeks to build bridges with Hickory’s black community?  A good start would be to attend next Sunday’s MLK service.

§  Moldova Mission Team.  Now is the time to step up and commit to joining the team that will travel July 9-19 to minister in this former communist country.

§  Gulf Coast Mission Team.  Pastor Bill will be coordinating a Corinth effort for a one-week trip to the areas still recovering from Hurricane Katrina.

§  Volunteer Team.  There are many worthy, active organizations in our community that can use a helping hand every day of the week.  CCM, Safe Harbor, Women’s Resource Center, Family Care Center, CCOM, and many others we support.  If you can invest an hour or a half-day from time to time, we can coordinate finding the organizations that can use your help.

Which one of those would be a calling for you sometime in 2009?  Write it down and hand it in.  Serving in God’s world will bring you closer to Christ.

But I’m not sure that any of those areas makes us sufficiently uncomfortable.  Who would be difficult for us to include in our “circle”?  How about a team to invite, welcome, and include gays and lesbians in our church family?

Open to the Holy Spirit

What made Jesus’ hometown friends so angry was not his quotation from Isaiah about the poor and oppressed.  It wasn’t even his implied claim that he was the Messiah.  It was the fact that he wanted to embrace Gentiles along with Jews.

They had drawn this circle – geographically as well as metaphorically.  Gentiles were people outside those borders.  They were people it was safer and easier to ignore than engage.  They were people who deserved God’s judgment, not his mercy.  Their attitude was, “Let’s arrange our lives, especially our religious lives, so that we isolate ourselves from them and our paths cross as little as possible.”

Sound familiar?  You know who I’m talking about.  We would simply rather pretend that “they” don’t exist.  If “they” come into our church quietly and we don’t know it, that’s tolerable.  But “they” certainly should not admit who “they” are.

It occurred to me this week that I don’t think I have heard of a church yet that gets this right.  I’m sure there are churches out there who do, but I haven’t heard of them.  I don’t know if we could pull it off or not, but by God’s grace, I would love to be a church that gets it right.

On the one hand there are churches called “Open and Affirming” in our denomination, the United Church of Christ.  These churches believe that different gender preferences are inborn if not God-created.  Therefore it is a matter of justice in the world to advocate for marriage equality and in the church to accept pastors and leaders regardless of their choice of partners, married or not.  It will be uncomfortable for many in our society, and perhaps some of you, to hear me say that’s not right.  Why?  Because it ignores the clear teaching of Scripture that any sexual relationship outside of marriage between a man and a woman is sin.

On the other hand there are many churches who are very clear about their condemnation of sin, especially this sin.  That’s too easy when this sin is not only not my sin, it’s not my temptation. The circle of inclusion is drawn with a thick, red line, and “they” are not in it.  If someone suggests that anyone should be included without public repentance, if not humiliation, the reaction might be close to what Jesus experienced in the Nazareth synagogue.  Let’s organize to make sure “they” don’t make any gains in society.  That’s not right.

Then there are many churches, and I would put us in this category, that simply prefer to ignore the issue.  Let’s not talk about it.  Let’s pretend “they” don’t exist.  We know “affirming” is wrong.  Neither do we want to be “condemning.”  We’re not sure what to do with people who are different than we are.  Saying nothing is the most comfortable place to be.  But it’s not right.

As a pastor, I have heard stories that will make your heart break.  Stories of men and women who have never felt accepted, never felt loved, never felt wanted.  If it weren’t that good news is for sharing, we could do nothing.  But maybe the uncomfortable response God is calling us to make is to be intentional, even in the middle of a raging national and cultural debate, about welcoming those who are so different than most of us.

“Well,” you say, “of course we will welcome them if they change.”  I’m so glad God never put that condition on me.  The area I battle in terms of real change almost seems trivial in comparison, but it helps me understand.  I tell you about my victories when I get my diet and exercise under control, but right now that’s not the case.  Oh, I’m getting up at 5 AM three times a week to work out, but it just seems to make me hungrier.  I thought as soon as the holidays were over, I could start exercising self-control.  It hasn’t happened.  I’ll get there, but I’m not there yet.  There’s something in me – and some of you understand but others never will – that draws me inexplicably back into a pattern of overindulgence.  Please love me anyway.

There are so many people out there who would say to us, “Please love me anyway.”  You may not approve of how I live my life, but just accept me, welcome me.  Don’t require that I change as a precondition.

What would it look like for a church to be intentional about our welcome of “them”?  I don’t know.  But I would love to form a ministry team that asks that question.  Is God calling you to be a part of it?  Write it on a yellow card and give it to me.

It’s not that everyone has to sign up for this ministry team.  But if a handful of people commit themselves to this ministry of welcome, it is essential that the church body buys into it.  We all have to open wide our arms to love without condition.

Let me tell you a story that I think represents what this looks like.  I will not mention the name, but I do have this person’s permission to tell his story.

He always knew he was different.  But he was also raised in a very judgmental, fundamentalist family.  When he “came out,” he was more than just a disappointment to them.  He grieved and angered his parents, particularly his father.

He lived the “lifestyle,” if you know what I mean, for many years.  But he never lost the basic faith in which he was raised.  He even tried attending churches like the “Open and Affirming” churches I mentioned earlier.  But it wasn’t right.

So a number of years ago, he came to Corinth.  He sat down with me and told me his story.  He wanted to join the church.  He openly professed Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, but he said he was just looking for acceptance, for friendship, for genuine Christian community.  Then he told me this: “I’m not in a relationship right now, but I have to be honest and tell you that if the right partner came along, I probably would be.”

What would you have said?  Here’s what I said, “I accept you as a brother, because I can hear a genuineness in your profession.  All I ask is that you be open to the Holy Spirit as he continues to work in your life.”

He came and talked to me again a year or two ago.  This is what he said:  “I will never forget the way you welcomed me as a brother and friend.  You showed me the kind of genuine love I have not felt from another man.  You accepted me like I was, and all you asked was that I be open to the Holy Spirit.  I wanted you to know that I have now chosen a life of celibacy to honor Christ.”

I don’t know exactly what it looks like to get it right on this issue, but I think it looks something like that.  People don’t change because they’re guilted into it or we choose just the right Bible verse to zing them.

Our job is to love people where they are, as we ourselves want to be loved. We welcome them without precondition.  We don’t judge – we leave that up to God.  We name sin as sin, but we never forget to turn the search light inward on our own sins.  We rub out the “circle” – that boundary that defines others of God’s grace.  It’s uncomfortable, but it’s right.  Amen.

(© 2009 by Robert M. Thompson.  Unless otherwise indicated, Scriptures quoted are from The Holy Bible,
New International Version, Copyright 1978 by New York International Bible Society.)


[1] See, for example, John 1:46, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”

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