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Monday, January 28, 2008

Hometown Hero - Luke 4:21-30

Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did in Capernaum.’” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them to a widow at Zaraphath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

Some years ago, I discovered I had been afflicted with a certain condition. At first, it didn’t seem to make much difference to me. But I soon noticed that people began to treat me differently because of it. I mainly saw it in the eyes of people when I would return home on academic breaks, and something within me longed to be “normal” again. My name is A.J. Thomas, and I suffer from golden-boy syndrome.

What’s interesting about this condition is that it seems to be geographically specific. I only seem to suffer from it when I am in my hometown of Niagara Falls, and its symptoms are even more acute whenever I walk through the doors of St. James United Methodist Church. Last Christmas, I realized my local celebrity status when I was asked to preach in my home church on the Sunday following Christmas, which just happened to be New Year’s Day. It was announced in the December and January newsletters, and every bulletin for a month and a half before January 1st that I would be in the pulpit, a pulpit from which my own father had delivered some of his finest sermons. The day arrived, and the crowds came, a larger crowd than usual.

Bear in mind that this was not the first time I preached in my home church. Throughout college and seminary, I was invited back on several occasions. However, on this particular Sunday, it was the first time I was there with those three little letters in front of my name.

I looked across the congregation and took it all in. There was my first-grade teacher, a pillar member of the congregation, in her usual place on the center aisle, four rows back, on my left. There were my neighbors, people I had gone to school with, and whose grass I had cut, whose groceries I had rung up, and whose newspapers I had faithfully delivered. As the sanctuary swelled with the familiar rhythms of liturgy and song, prayer and praise, I secretly congratulated myself for working “extra” hard on the sermon.

I delivered what I thought was a convincing piece of interpretive genius, gave the benediction and assumed my position at the back door, ready to receive the accolades as people walked by. From their comments, I soon realized that very few people had actually paid attention to the sermon itself. One woman told me how nice I looked in my robe, “just like a real preacher.” Someone else said they could see my father’s influence in my preaching style. Another man reminded me that he could always count on his newspaper to arrive early every morning, except on Saturdays, when I was prone to sleep in a bit. They didn’t hear a thing I said.

Then we look on this sermon that Jesus preached in his home synagogue in Nazareth. Jesus drew a crowd. I can see the headlines in the Nazareth Gazette: “Local Rabbi Makes Good, Will Preach in Hometown.” I imagine the synagogue was standing room only. They ran out of bulletins. They were parking donkeys up and down the road, there were so many people there.
Here was one of their own who had made good. Here was one of their own, Joe and Mary’s boy, who used to work in the carpentry shop. An elderly man nudged his wife, “I remember when he used to read the Torah over there under that window.” Here was one of their own, reading a piece of their own Scripture they all knew from memory. Israel’s native son, speaking from his heart to theirs, out of their own beloved prophets, speaking from their collective past.

Jesus put down the sacred text, panned the crowd, and said with all authority, “The day of the Lord is here.” An excited stir went through the chosen people of Nazareth. “All of our waiting for deliverance is over at last.” A chorus of ‘Amens’ rang through those hallowed halls. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” This was it. The Lord is coming to redeem his own people, and according to Jesus, that day is here now! The crippled lifted up on their crutches, old men wept for joy, the oppressed lifted their faces with hopeful expectation. An excited murmur rippled its way through the congregation, and all spoke well of Jesus’ words.

This is the part where Jesus should have stopped. He’s got them eating out of the palm of his hand. Any good preacher knows there are three things you should do: stand up to be seen, speak up to be heard, and shut up to be appreciated. This is where Jesus is supposed to raise his hands, say, “The Lord bless you and keep you,” walk deliberately down the center aisle and shake hands as people walk out and marvel.

But Jesus keeps going. After a brief pause he says, “Now, the last time the Lord came, I seem to remember something about there being lots of poor, hungry widows in Israel. But God chose to help a foreign widow. You all remember that story.” You could hear the silence.

“And speaking of old familiar stories, how about the one where there were lots of lepers in Israel, and God did nothing for them, but instead healed an officer in the enemy’s army.”

Yes, the story was familiar, a little too familiar for many there that evening. Jesus had stopped preaching and taken to meddling. In the judgmental silence, a new, exciting, life-giving sermon was recognized as an old familiar story, and one we wished to God we could forget.
This is not the type of sermon you preach in your hometown, at least, not if you wish to be remembered favorably. Take the three main points of Jesus’ sermon, and this is what you walk away with: 1.) The Messiah is here. 2.) I am the Messiah. 3.) I’m not here for you.

I wonder what comments this sermon would have elicited in a seminary preaching class. I wonder if Jesus would been told, as I was on one of my assigned sermons, that “this message is a bit harsh, and difficult for your hearers to listen to.”

But whether we like it or not, sometimes prophetic voices are difficult to listen to. There are really two aspects of classic prophecy, but we tend to focus on only one of them. We usually think of prophecy as fore-telling, as the ability to articulate events in the future. But prophecy is also fore-telling, the ability to truthfully articulate the present. Sometimes those truthful words cut closer to home than we like.

Imagine, for a moment, Heather Oswalt (8:45 service)/Emma Harkins (11:00 service). Heather (Emma), raise your hand so everyone can see you. Do you see her beautiful smile? Imagine her going through Sunday School, growing up here, going through confirmation, participating in youth functions, and then heading off to college for a few years, then off to seminary, and finally, probably years after I am nothing more than a picture on the wall, being invited to preach from this pulpit. Imagine it, one of our own, preaching from our Scriptures, in our church, to our people! Now, imagine her standing where I am right now, and truthfully telling us to beware of our assumed position of religious privilege; God has a history of showing up to those not on the A-list.

While we may not like being reminded of this news, I doubt any of us will put up a serious counter-argument. The theme of God going to persons of lower prestige, of less desirability, of outcasts, and misfits, and outsiders, is woven throughout Scripture. In fact, it IS God’s story. This should come as great news to all of us. Once we were outsiders, but through God in Christ we have been made insiders. Once we were no people, but now we are God’s people, declaring his glorious works among all nations.

We find ourselves in a similar place to the people in Jesus’ hometown. In our culture, the church has taken the place of the synagogue in Jesus’ day. We find ourselves as religious insiders, as persons of religious privilege, among those who are blessed by God. But we also find that with great privilege comes great responsibility. Jesus was not criticizing the people in his hometown simply because they were privileged. He was critical because they assumed membership in the religious elite and its privileges secured them a place of divine favor.

Great privilege carries with it great responsibility. Jesus was doing nothing more than asking the people in his hometown, and us, to remember our story and then live into it. He wants us to know that we are blessed in order to be a blessing. He wants us to recognize that we are not the final destination of God’s grace. He wants us to know that merely belonging to the right religion is not enough; we also need to practice it.

Many Christians across North America have come to see church membership as securing some sort of privileged status for them, much as the people in Jesus’ home synagogue did. And the church has been happy to perpetuate this misnomer. But let us not forget that the Church is God’s gift to the world, that the world might be drawn to God through the Church’s witness and mission. We are called to follow the witness of Christ, who came not to serve his own interests, but was obedient to the will of his heavenly Father, obedient to death on the cross. We are an extension of that obedient love, and we are called to give ourselves for others just as Christ gave himself for us. The church is one of the only organization that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members.

Adam Hamilton, pastor at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, tells prospective members of his church that, unlike the American Express card, church membership does not come with any privileges, only expectations. It is a sign of commitment. It is a declaration that one wishes to be a part of the things God is doing in and through the faith community. Membership allows people to say, “This is my church. I am committed to its people, its mission, and its vision. I want to serve God and grow in my faith in this place.” Church of the Resurrection, founded in 1990, currently averages 8000 per weekend in worship, and adds 150 new members per month.

Friends, we already know the story. There is no conflict here between old and new, between established and pioneering. This is about living out what we already hold to be true. You have the choice this morning, as did the people in Jesus’ hometown, to accept the message or to throw the messenger off a cliff, which shouldn’t be too hard to find around here. I think you know which option I’m voting for.

There is a story of a Franciscan monk who volunteered to be a guide and “gopher” for Mother Teresa when she visited his native Australia. He was hoping to spend some time with her, but of course, she was busy talking with the poor, the crippled, and other “less-desirable” people. On the ride back to the airport, in exasperation, the monk asked, if he bought a plane ticket to New Guinea, could he sit next to Mother Teresa, talk with her, and learn from her? She looked at him and said, “Do you have enough money for a plane ticket to New Guinea?” “Yes,” the monk answered. She thought for a minute, and said, “Then give that money to the poor. You’ll learn more from that than anything I can tell you.” Mother Teresa understood Jesus’ ministry and her own ministry in light of it. I pray for such clarity in our lives.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

God Claims You - Matthew 3:13-17 - Blackburn's Chapel

13Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

I’d like for you to take a stroll down memory lane with me for a moment. Walk back with me through the doors of your elementary school and find yourself in gym class. Perhaps today we’re playing basketball, dodgeball, kickball, soccer, or floor hockey. Whatever game we’re playing doesn’t really matter. There we all are, before the game starts, lined up in a nice neat row as two people “randomly” selected by the gym teacher each have the task of filling a team. One-by-one, names are called and our classmates and friends are divided evenly into two growing clumps at opposite ends of the gym. One group dons red jerseys and the other puts on blue, and for the next half hour, our identity is simply a member of team red or team blue. To be a member of team red or team blue is to recognize that someone else has chosen us to be part of their team. At the same time, we can still choose to use our full ability or something less than our full ability as a member of the team.

According to the Church’s calendar, today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday. Today is a day when Christians everywhere, regardless of their denomination, are remembering Christ’s baptism by John and celebrating our one baptism. It is more than a beautiful and favorite Bible story – like baptism, it gave life to us when it happened, and it continues to give life each time we remember it.

As Matthew tells the tale, a lot of people were heading down to the Jordan to listen to sturdy preaching and to pray that God would forgive their sins. It is the original revival – a preacher stands by the bank of a river clamoring for repentance, then one by one contrite sinners step forward; and trusting themselves to calloused fingers which pinch their nostrils shut, they are plunged-every bit of them-beneath the moving waters. It is a straightforward, modest ceremony, nothing more than a bath in the river really; and, yet, something about this washing beckons to people, pulling folks from their busy lives to make a trip down to the Jordan.

Maybe in the end the thing that motivated people to attend John's revival was really very simple. John's actions took something that our bodies know so well-that just-bathed, tingling, freshly toweled-off sensation-and managed to replicate it for people's spirits. Dunk. Splash. Sputter. And from the muddy flow, drenched converts emerged with scoured souls. Certainly this is part of what baptism is about: cleansing the human spirit, wiping away sin, standing unsoiled before God.

The crowds have been coming for days and weeks – they have literally worn a path from the city center out here into the wilderness. The rabbis have noticed the attendance in the synagogue down over the last several Saturdays. The priests and the scribes and the Pharisees leave the hallowed halls of the temple mount and follow that path down the river, where they are shocked to find a tent revival already taking place. They don’t like it very much, but it’s already gotten too large and too popular for them to even think about stopping it. So, they decide to turn it into a political opportunity – shaking a few hands and kissing a few babies, hoping that such overtures might get them a few more votes in the upcoming election.

We have been told earlier that John the baptizer was offering a baptism of repentance. Imagine the scene, as the crowds pressed in along the riverbank. One member of the crowd seems to stand out. He is moving through the great throng of people like a hot knife through butter, making his way down toward the river. This scene is a favorite of artists everywhere from Bruegel to Rembrandt – Jesus making his way down the riverbank, seeking out his cousin, the wild-eyed preacher, and those waters of Jordan.

Here is the one character John tries to talk out of being baptized. Imagine of those Visa check card commercials, where everyone is perfectly choreographed, spinning around the store with their arms full of merchandise, happily using their Visa check card and the whole thing running like a finely-tuned machine. Yet, there’s always that one person who wants to pay with cash or write a check, and that person grinds the whole thing to a momentary halt. You have that picture? Now, take the same sort of image and bring it down the Jordan river in our text today. A great movement of people around the river, John down in the middle, dipping them under the water as repentant sinners, bringing them up as cleansed and new. Then Jesus steps up. Jesus – the Messiah. Jesus – the stainless one. Jesus – the pure, spotless Lamb. He speaks: “I have come to be baptized by you.” Everything grinds to a halt. John loses his balance in the soft riverbed and falls. He comes up sputtering, “Me! Baptize you? No, no! What will people think?” It’s a fair enough question. What would the sinless Jesus need to repent of? What hidden imperfection did he hope to have cleansed in those ordinary, yet extraordinary waters?

The first three chapters of St. Matthew’s Gospel are obsessed with one question: “Who is Jesus?” By the time we get to this account of his baptism, you can almost drown in the number of answers provided to that question. We find that he is the Messiah, the son of Mary, the offspring of the Holy Spirit, the son of Father Abraham, the son of David, the King of the Jews. He is Emmanuel, God-with-us, he will save his people from their sins. As Jesus goes under the water, he confronts all sorts of things on our behalf. He confronts the unknown and unseen dangers that threaten each of us. He confronts the murkiness of our own sin, and as he rises out of those dark and foreboding waters, we know that we have met the one who will be able to stand against the darkness of this world.

For Jesus, his baptism was not so much about being cleansed from unrighteousness; Matthew tells us it was to fulfill righteousness. It was the start of something new. As he came up from the water, the crowd that day saw the divine confirmation for which they had long been watching. God claims as his own the ministry to which Jesus is now commissioned. The Spirit descended like a dove, and the voice of God the Father boomed in. “This is my Son. This is my Beloved. With him I am well-pleased.”

You know, that’s how it happens for us in our baptisms as well. It is a moment in which God says to each of us, “This is my son. This is my daughter. This is my beloved. I claim this person as my beloved child with whom I am well-pleased.” In baptism, God claims you as a member of the family. And members of God’s family are called Christians. That becomes your identity. That becomes the primary, and determinative, and most important characteristic we will know you by.

Therefore, when a child is baptized in this congregation, we ask what name has been given to the child. The parents have already named the child, but in baptism, we celebrate a new name for that child. We celebrate a name given through the power of the Holy Spirit and sealed with water. In baptism, we lay on a more determinative, more revealing name – “Christian.” God promises to enable us to live a Christian life, and we promise to live one. In the case of a child, we predict that the child’s life will be a long story of growing into that name and claiming the benefits of their new family. In the case of adults, we celebrate a new identity rooted in Christ in which one’s previous labels no longer control and define. As Austin Miles’ old gospel hymn put it: “there’s a new name written down in glory, and it’s mine.”

For the baptized person, they will forever be known by the new name given to them. They will be known as Christian, as a member of God’s family. Other names may come and go, but in baptism, God cleanses us, claims us as God’s own, and seals the Holy Spirit upon our hearts. That is something they can’t take away from you, and for the rest of your life, proudly announces to the rest of the world that you belong to God.

On the day Jesus entered the Jordan, water changed, and it will never be the same for Christians again. For when a Christian is washed with the waters of baptism, Christ's mission of justice becomes our mission too. In baptism, we are called and commissioned to battle the evils of this world – those we can see above the surface of the water, but also those lurking down in the muddy riverbed. We find ourselves caught up in the ministry of Jesus – a ministry that brings hope to the hopeless, that makes itself a friend to the friendless, that brings healing to a weary and broken world. We find ourselves proclaiming sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed, and throwing the party for the year of our Lord’s favor.

God does not call us and claim us because we’re special. I often run into people who don’t feel they could possibly be used by God for any purpose. They cite all sorts of reasons – I’m too old, too young, too feeble, too strong, too stupid, or too smart. They’re not open to how the Holy Spirit may move upon them and stir up within them a passion for the ministry to which God may be calling them.

But remember this: God is still in the business of doing extraordinary things in and through ordinary people. God has called us and claimed us in baptism, and given us the gift of the Holy Spirit that we might be empowered in the work with which we are entrusted. God is not through with any of us! God is not through with any individual, and God is not through with any congregation. For those whom God has called, God continues to equip. In baptism, God has called each of us, and we continue to be equipped through the Holy Spirit.

Make no mistake about it: baptism is something God does within each of us – it is not something we do for God. Our response is to recognize the grace of God poured into our lives, open ourselves to how the Holy Spirit will continue to move among us, and find ourselves lost in wonder, love, and praise. By the grace of God, we find ourselves cleansed from sin, claimed by God, and commissioned for ministry.

Today, I am going to give each of you an opportunity to remember and renew your baptisms. We will have what is called a baptismal renewal service. If you have been baptized, I will invite you to come forward, and I will touch the water and mark the sign of the cross on your forehead, and say, “Remember your baptism and be thankful.” If you have not been baptized, I welcome the opportunity to talk with you further about what it means and set a date where we can celebrate your baptism as part of this worship service.

Today is sort of like renewing marriage vows. From time to time, a married couple may feel the need to renew their vows and recommit themselves to one another. A couple doesn’t get remarried when they do; but they often find a renewed sense of strength and purpose in that renewal. In renewing our baptisms together, we’re doing the same thing. No one is getting re-baptized today, but in remembering our baptism, we are all given the opportunity to be energized toward the work with which God has entrusted us, and empowered to do it.

As you do, I hope you hear the voice of God once again call you ‘Beloved,’ and I hope you sense a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit, as we are empowered once again to go forth in the name of a God who cleanses us from sin, claims us as His own, and commissions us to share in His ministry.