Sunday, June 19, 2016

Sermon for Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, "Missional: The Journey," 1 Kings 19:1-18 (Proper 7, Ordinary 12)

Sermon 6/19/16
1 Kings 19:1-18

Missional: The Journey

Today we pop into the Hebrew Scriptures to the book of First Kings. We’re coming in kind of in the middle of a story here, but nonetheless, this reading from the lectionary just grabbed at me as I thought about everything happening in our world and everything happening right here at Apple Valley. We come into the story here in Chapter 19, but things have been unfolding for several chapters already. First and Second Kings chronicle a period in the history of Israel and Judah when a line of kings, starting with King Saul, ruled the people, after they had long clamored for an earthly king - not just God as ruler - so that they could be more like other nations. First and Second Kings testify to the fact that having a king is not all that God’s people hoped it would be. Some kings are faithful servants of God, but others “do what is evil in the sight of the Lord,” according to the author. And among those evil kings is King Ahab. In fact, back in Chapter 16, we read that “Ahab … did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him.” He marries Jezebel, a daughter of a neighboring king and a priestess of Baal. Ahab, too, begins to serve Baal, the idol god of area Canaanite religion. He worships Baal and builds an altar for Baal and all of this, we read, kindles God’s anger at Ahab more than God had ever been angry at all the kings before him.
And then, Elijah appears on the scene. We know almost nothing about where Elijah came from, who he is, other than that he’s a prophet of God and he seems set on countering Ahab, Jezebel, and the false idol they worship. He starts by causing a drought to come upon Israel. We heard a brief mention of Elijah in our gospel lesson a couple of weeks ago when Jesus was pointing out how it was a widow who was not an Israelite that Elijah stayed with during the drought - this is that occasion. Elijah causes the drought to try to force Ahab to reexamine his life and actions, and while the drought is taking place, Elijah stays with the widow of Zarephath. After three years of this, Elijah presents himself to King Ahab. In the meantime, Jezebel has been having prophets of God killed. She’s basically seeking to execute any prophets of God who speak against her, Ahab, their god Baal, and the prophets of Baal. So Elijah sets up a confrontation - he is alone left among the prophets of God, and there are hundreds of prophets of Baal. He tells Ahab he must choose once and for all who he will follow, asking, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” No one answers. So, through a series of tests, Elijah shows that Baal is false and his prophets are false while God is ever faithful. The people fall to their knees, worshiping God, and Elijah seizes all the prophets of Baal and has them killed. But Ahab tells Jezebel what happened, and she seeks to capture and kill Elijah.
That’s where our scene for today finally begins. Elijah is afraid, and he’s on the run, fearing for his life. He journeys into the wilderness, a desert place, and sits under a solitary tree. He asks God to let him die, saying, “I’m no better than my ancestors.” Tired, hungry, dehydrated, he falls asleep. But a messenger of God touches him and wakes him saying, “Get up and eat.” Elijah sees food and water prepared for him. He eats, and sleeps again. The scene is repeated, with the messenger telling Elijah, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He eats and drinks again, and he’s given strength for his 40 days journey to the mount of God.
He spends the night in a cave, and God’s voice comes to him, asking, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” He sounds weary, doesn’t he? Forlorn. Exhausted. Out of ideas and out of energy. God replies, “Go out and stand on the mountain, for God is about to pass by.” The particular phrasing - when God passes by like this in the scriptures - it means that God and God’s glory is going to be revealed in a special way. There’s a great wind. But God is not in the wind. Then an earthquake. But God is not in the earthquake. Then a fire. But God is not in the fire. And then the sound of sheer silence. Elijah steps out from the cave, and God asks again, “What are you doing, Elijah?” Elijah repeats his complaint. And God tells him to go and anoint a new king. God tells Elijah that Elijah will anoint his successor, a new prophet, Elisha, to follow in his place, and that there will still be seven thousand Israelites who have not worshipped Baal, but instead remain faithful to God.
I have to tell you, when I first looked ahead to the lectionary for what I knew would be my last Sunday here, to see if I wanted to use a scheduled text, or choose one of my own, I dismissed the chosen passages immediately, not seeing anything that spoke to our theme of Missional Apple Valley, our own context here in transition, or the broader real-world situation. But last Sunday, early in the morning, a gunman attacked Pulse Orlando, killing 49 people, injuring another 50 beyond that. The victims were primarily people in the LGBT community and their friends. The man who committed the murders was a Muslim man, possibly connected to or at least supportive of the extremist ISIS regime. And the crime was committed with recently purchased semi-automatic weapons that do great damage in an incredibly short amount of time. This horrible tragedy came less than a month after the close of the 2016 General Conference of The United Methodist Church, where delegates decided to study possible solutions to our seemingly insurmountable conflict over human sexuality and the church and how we will include - or limit - the full participation of all people in the life of The United Methodist Church. I don’t know about you - but the combination of these things, combined with the hateful tenor of our current electoral cycle in the United States, combined with my upcoming move - it has had me feeling pretty weary. Pretty overwhelmed. I know others feel the same. I’ve seen people quoting Psalm 13: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” In the face of tragedy and in the face of injustice upon injustice and in the face of a journey that seems too long and too hard, it is easy to feel like we’re losing ground, not gaining it, when it comes to our mission, our purpose of announcing the good news of God’s vision of love and justice and right relationships for the whole world.
With all this in my heart, suddenly the text from 1 Kings seemed perfectly placed. Elijah is so weary. He’s so weary of fighting against evil and on God’s behalf, of staying faithful to God’s call - so weary that he asks God to let him just give up. He’s done enough, after all. And people are literally chasing after him so they can kill him, like they’ve killed all the other prophets. It’s too much. He sits under a lonely tree, ready to die. But God finds him there, as God always does. Elijah is just one of many folks in the scripture that wind up at their wit’s end under a tree, and God always sends aid. He gets food, strength for the journey. And he makes it up the mountain to talk to God. God is in the fire sometimes, and the earthquake, and the raging wind. But this time God comes after the sound of sheer silence. Elijah repeats his weary woes to God. And God responds. There will be a new king - Ahab and his reign of evil is finite. It seems unending, but he will not be king forever. Elijah will anoint a new prophet. Elijah has worked hard for God, but he is not God’s only prophet. He is one in a line of prophets, working for God, and that line of prophets will continue after Elijah is done. God always raises up people to do God’s work. And finally, God reminds Elijah that no matter how bad it seems, there are many, many people who remain faithful to God. We know what God can do with the smallest amount of things. Imagine what God can build out of seven thousand faithful people. After our reading for today, Elijah is able to finish his work with less fear and more hope in his heart, because God has reminded him that even though we see but a part, God is relentless in working for justice, in spreading love, in offering grace, in cultivating new life.

Friends, that is my prayer for us too, in the world, here at Apple Valley, in our hearts. We are all on a journey, even if I am the one moving away. We’re on a journey of faith and discipleship as we seek to shape our lives to reflect ever more clearly God’s hopes and dreams for us and for the world. And sometimes that journey is so hard. It seems like everything is uphill and parched dry ground and we are so weary. God gives us a gentle reminder, spoken out of the silence: we are not the center of the universe, and that’s a good thing. We are a part of the body of Christ. But we’re a part. We have our place in line in the great cloud of witnesses whom God has raised up before us and who will surely come after us, as we each carry out the call, the task the God has set for us, in our place, in our time. I am so thankful that for this precious time, these two  years, our journeys were in sync. You have been like food for my empty stomach, a cold drink for my parched soul, and you have given me strength to follow God on the path that unfolds before us. I know that you will continue to be that - you can’t seem to help but be the loving, grace-filled, open-armed people that you are - even as you set off in new company, on your own new path. Here, and there, God is with us always. Amen.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Sermon for Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, "Missional: Needy," Luke 7:36-50 (Proper 6C, Ordinary 11C)

Sermon 6/11/16
Luke 7:36-50

Missional: Needy

We talk often about how Jesus goes out of his way to eat with sinners and tax collectors and other people who are on the fringes, who are disliked, who are rejected by well-mannered well-behaved folks. But Jesus also ate with people who were in the thick of it, right in the center of society. You have to give some credit to Pharisees who invited Jesus for a meal, because Jesus didn’t hesitate to say what he thought and stir things up, even if he was your guest for dinner! Would you want Jesus for a dinner guest? What might he say to you, to me I wonder?
Jesus is asked by Simon, a Pharisee, a religious scholar and leader in the community, to eat at his home, and he accepts. He takes his place at the table, and a woman, identified only as “a sinner,” learning where Jesus was, comes with an alabaster jar of ointment. We’re not told what her sin is. Although history has often called her a prostitute, there’s nothing in the text to suggest it. She stood behind Jesus, at his feet. He would have been reclining, almost on a sofa-type seat, the traditional manner of dining. And weeping, she begins to bathe his feet with her tears, kissing his feet, anointing them with ointment. Simon watches and thinks to himself, “If Jesus was really a prophet, he’d know that the woman he is letting touch him this way is a sinner.” Simon apparently knows her, knows her sins. Jesus speaks up. “Simon, I have something to say to you. A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answers, “I supposed the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.” You can hear the reluctance as he answers, as he guesses he’s been trapped. Indeed, Jesus tells Simon he has judged rightly, and goes on to compare how he was welcomed by the woman versus how he was welcomed by Simon. Simon gave him no water for his feet, a courtesy for travelers on dusty roads, but the woman anointed his feet with tears, hair, ointment. Simon gave no kiss in greeting, but the woman is unrelenting in kissing Jesus’ feet, a sign of extreme humility. Jesus concludes, “her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” He tells the woman that her sins are forgiven and that her faith has saved her, and he sends her off in peace. Meanwhile, the rest of those at dinner grumble, wondering at a man who dares to offer forgiveness for sins.
“Her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Does this mean that the worse we are, the greater sins we commit, the more potential to love Jesus we have? Can that possibly be what he means? How much forgiveness do we need? How much do we need from Jesus? Yes, forgiveness. But as much as the woman in this story, who is known as a sinner? Has a reputation for it? If we’ve managed to get through life without having a reputation for being a bad egg, we can’t need as much forgiven as this woman, right? So then how can we ever hope to love Jesus as she seems to?
I started thinking this week about what it means to be in need of something, and how we talk about neediness, and how it makes us feel. Would you consider yourself a needy person, or not? We might call someone needy if they have financial need. Poor people are needy, we might say. Is that a positive or negative term? If we apply the word needy to other situations, the results suggest neediness is not value-free: it’s has a negative connotation. If someone is needy in a relationship, generally we mean that in a bad way. We mean that they’re clingy. That they demand too much attention, time, energy. I think that there are few if any areas in our life where we’d like to be classified as needy. Do you like being needy? How comfortable are you being on the receiving end of assistance? The receiving end of a helping hand? The receiving end of gifts when it isn’t Christmas, or your birthday, or your party? How much would you like to be considered someone who always needs extra attention, extra help?
“I want to do it myself!” Any of you that have experience with young children probably know that small children reach a point in their development where they are experimenting with and pushing the boundaries of their independence. When Sam was about three, he went through this period when no matter what the task was, Sam would refuse help of any kind. If he was trying to get dressed, he didn’t want your help, even though it took him forever to get his clothing on the right direction the right side out. Particularly frustrating was his desire to get in and out of his car seat in the car on his own – it would take him several minutes, when you, the parent or aunt or grandma knew that you could just pick him up and put him in the seat in five seconds. Sam has long grown past this particular stage now, but I can still perfectly hear his voice and tone and picture his expression, “I just want to do it myself!”
        Of course, adults aren’t much better, are they? Many of you know that my mom, who is slowly becoming a bionic woman, has been through many surgeries – rotator-cuff, two knee replacements, two ankle fusions. The ankle fusion, a surgery that failed the first time and had to be repeated, was particularly hard, as my mom was in a non-weight bearing cast for months, and with her previous shoulder injury, she also couldn’t use crutches. That meant she worked with a walker and a wheelchair. My mom, a nurse for 30 years, is a horrible patient, as folks who work in the medical field generally are in my experience! She wouldn’t let anyone help her up the stairs when she got home from the hospital, resulting in several of us hovering around her uselessly while she scooted up the stairs, sweating profusely with the effort. She fell in the bathroom the first morning after being home, because she was trying to do a little rearranging in one of the bathroom cupboards while balancing on one foot. And when I took her out to a craft show, and tried to push her through the crowd in a wheelchair, I realized it wasn’t working because she couldn’t stop trying to steer, even though I told her it was actually making it harder, not easier to navigate. Two people trying to steer one object works just about as well as it sounds. It doesn’t work. Mom, not unlike Sam, just wanted to do it herself.
I can’t claim that I’m much better. I much prefer to be the one helping than to be the one being helped. I’ve had times in my life, for example, when I’ve been able to offer financial support to others I care about, and times in my life when I’ve had to ask for financial help from others. I would much rather be able to be generous with my money than have to accept help from someone. I suspect it might be the same for you. I’ve tried to think about why that is. After all, when I give to others, I am not looking for their gratitude, although gratitude is nice. I’m not trying to make someone feel incompetent. I’m not giving with an expectation that I’ll get something back in return. I’m not giving so that I can hold it over them or have power over them. I’m giving because I love to give, I love them, giving because I can, giving because I have empathy for those who are struggling, or because I feel like I have the resources and I want to put them to good use, to do some good with what I have. So why is it so hard to be on the other side? To be the one receiving what is given in love? I think being needy makes us feel weak. Incapable. Small. It hits at our pride, our need to be self-sufficient. We can do it ourselves. We are self-reliant. Self-sufficient. It’s practically the American Dream. We make something of ourselves. Pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. And not being able to do it - being needy - it’s failing.
When I did my doctoral work and the research project that followed it, I started my work in every congregation with an interview with each participant that would help me establish our starting point. And as I asked people about their understandings of charity and justice, what I found is that nearly every single person I interviewed spoke in terms of themselves as the giver, but never as the receiver. Charity and justice were described in terms of what we could give to them. What we might teach and offer them. The ones who are needy. Which is not us. The few exceptions were primarily from people who themselves had experienced significant periods of poverty as adults. We don’t like and don’t want to be needy.
Except...Jesus says that those of us who are self-sufficient and self-reliant and pulling-ourselves-up and making something of ourselves - those of us who are decidedly not needy - not needy of money, not needy of help, not needy of being lifted up, not needy of anything because we can Do. It. Ourselves. - Jesus says that we love little. Oof.  
I preached on this very text at the Greenhouse in Rochester this past week, the small skilled nursing homes where I’ve served as chaplain. I talked about how hard it is to admit we need help and to let others help us, but of course, I was preaching to the choir. They are experts in experiencing what it is like to need to depend more and more on the assistance of others all the time, and I know it is challenging in ways that are beyond my experience or understanding. Folks there over time need help with going to the bathroom, help bathing themselves, help getting dressed, help feeding themselves, help remembering even who they are sometimes. So needy. And with such great capacity to love. One of my sweetest ladies there - every single day that I saw her would say, again and again: “I am so blessed. I am so blessed.”
Friends, we cannot serve God, we cannot serve Jesus, we cannot truly give to others if all we have to offer is our own strength, our own wisdom, our own stuff, the work of our own hands. Simon loved little not because he was not a sinner too, or because his sins were less than hers, but because he believed himself to be better than her, less of a sinner, less in need of grace. He was so full of himself that there was no need that he could see for forgiveness. And so he had room for none.
Being needy is humbling. Which, as it turns out, is an attitude Christ commends to us. But being needy is only humiliating if we give to others with a sense of our own superiority, and if we believe ourselves to be above it - above need. We all stand in need of God’s grace. And God is so eagerly offering it to us. Can you receive what God is offering? Can you admit your need? Jesus said, “Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Humble us, God. Amen.  

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Sermon, "Missional: Setting the Bar High," Mark 10:17-27

Sermon 6/5/16
Mark 10:17-27

Missional: Setting the Bar High

Last week, we started our series looking at what it means to be a missional congregation. We talked about finding our purpose, or rather, aligning ourselves with God’s purpose in the world. We heard Jesus announce that his purpose was to embody God’s good news, God’s purpose in the world, which focuses on extending welcome and special invitation to all those who are marginalized and oppressed. For us, who already have heard and received the good news in Jesus, our task is to work with and for Jesus to help make sure the whole world gets the message.
That sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it? Sometimes, I think, we can be overwhelmed with a sense of helplessness in the face of the call of the gospel. Jesus wants to flip the world upside down, and we want to go with him, but this turning the world upside down leaves us a bit dizzy. Are we making discipleship too hard? Can’t we just try to follow the golden rule - do unto others as we’d have them do unto us - and be nice and kind - and call it a day? Isn’t that enough? It sounds very appealing, doesn’t it?
Yet, I can’t help but think of the Book of Acts, which we’ve been reading in our Bible Study class the last several weeks. I keep asking folks to pay attention to words and phrases that are repeated through the book, as that helps us understand what the author wants to focus on. And I keep noticing that the author of Acts repeatedly describes the followers of Jesus, the apostles who are working to spread the news of Jesus as bold. With boldness they do this. Boldly they do that. Their discipleship is bold. Risky. Attention-getting. Trouble-making, in fact. Their dedication to preaching the good news lands them in prison more than once.
But, we don’t have to do that, right, to be disciples? That path isn’t for everyone - right? This week at Annual Conference, Liz and I had the opportunity to hear Adam Hamilton teach over three study sessions. He’s the pastor of the largest United Methodist Church in the country, and he’s the author of a number of books, including the book Making Sense of the Bible that we studied together last year. I found him to be inspiring and challenging. At one point, he talked about how to know what God is calling you - individually, or as a congregation - to do. And he said he operates with a principle he calls “discernment by nausea.” If one of two paths feels easy and comfortable, and the other makes you a little sick with anxiety to think about doing, he said, guess which one God is probably call you to do?
Some of you have heard me talk before about whether we like to think of what God wants from us, ask of us, whether we like to think of the call and task of discipleship as something that is easy or hard. There’s an expression we use that comes from the sport of high-jumping, where athletes run and try to leap over a bar that gets progressively higher until only one contestant is left. If something is really difficult, if the standard for approval for something is strenuous, if a lot is demanded of someone in order to be considered successful, we might say, “Wow, the bar is set really high” for whatever that is. We might say, for example, that to become an astronaut that actually gets to go into space, the bar is set high, as you must be physically fit and well, knowledgeable, experienced, and generally at your peak in order to be chosen for a space mission. We might say the bar is set low if almost everyone and anyone could qualify something. Like if the Olympics handed out medals for participation, just for trying.
I think it’s pretty clear from the gospels that the bar of discipleship is set very high. What does God want from us? Everything! How hard is discipleship? Why, it’s so hard that you might say it’s easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for us to really enter into and get this kingdom of God and eternal life stuff Jesus talks about. I think we get tempted sometimes to say that what God asks of us as followers is easy. We’d like to start the bar out low, maybe even put it on the floor, so we can all get over without any help. Why can’t the bar be set at a level where we all might make it over? I don’t want that, though. And I don’t think we’re going to get that. I don’t think we see that in the scriptures - the bar set low. I don’t think Jesus ever suggests following him is easy, or simple. Instead, I think the bar of discipleship is set very high. So high, in fact, that often, we’re going to fall flat on our faces when we try to get over it. So high, that sometimes we’re like a camel trying to get through the eye of a needle when we try to follow Jesus.  
So about that camel. A man came to see Jesus just as Jesus was about to set out on a journey. He knelt before Jesus, the action of a slave before a master, and called Jesus, “Good Rabbi,” a description – goodness – reserved for God alone. His actions express his commitment to getting some answers from Jesus. He’s serious. He really wants some guidance, really wants to do what God wants. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responds by listing several of what we call the Ten Commandments – specifically, all the ones relating to how we treat one another. “These I’ve kept since childhood,” the man responds.
Jesus looks at him and loves him. Loves him enough to say some hard things: “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” The man is shocked, and leaves, grieving, because he had many possessions. The man was great at keeping all the commandments that had to do with how we treat neighbors. But those ones about our relationship with God: About there being just one God, and about putting nothing else before God – it seems Jesus got to the heart of the matter and pinpointed the very thing that would come between this man and God, between this man’s desire to follow Jesus, and his commitment to actually doing it. We’re not told what the man did when he left Jesus, only that he was shocked, and left grieving. He would be grieving either way. He could decide that discipleship had too high a price, and grieve because he couldn’t do what Jesus asked. But he could also grieve because he was about to give up what he so carefully had accumulated for himself. His possessions. His stuff. The work of his hands.
I think there is some grieving in our discipleship no matter what choices we make. Sometimes we spend a lot of time trying to shut out God’s persistent call, trying to quell that nausea-inducing tug that’s leading to a particular ministry path, to a particular action, to a pattern of living we know is right and just, and we grieve because we’re turning away from the life we know would be so much more satisfying than the stuff we settle for. But sometimes we’re grieving because our own plans sound so good to us, so right, something God could approve of – and we still have to walk away, because our plans are just that – a possession, something we own, something we create, a thing that just becomes one more idol, and any idol, no matter how shiny and bright, is still something that puts distance in between God and us. One way or another, there’s some grief in this journey of discipleship. We know that, don’t we?
But when we choose to follow in the way of Jesus, our grief always gives way to hope, to joy. Jesus tells the disciples that it is harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God than it is for a camel to make it through the eye of a needle – in other words, impossible by our own human efforts to do. But when Peter wonders if there is any hope, Jesus, we read “looks at them,” a phrase I think adds emphasis to his words, and says, “For mortals, it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
Following Jesus isn’t easy. He asks us for everything. He asks us for whatever we love most! He asks us to put following God before everything - and I mean everything - else. He asks us to take up a cross. He asks us to go to the end of the line. He asks us to open ourselves to ridicule and scorn. He asks us to reject the ways of the world and to choose him and his path first and always. He asks us to give our lives for others, to spend our days working relentlessly to bring ever nearer the kingdom of God where all are included, where justice reigns and the systems of oppression have tumbled to the ground. The bar is set so high that it’s hard to see from here on the ground. Making it over that bar? Impossible. But for God? Well, for God, all things are possible. And so we pray not that we might be good enough to get over that high bar, but that we might be wise enough, faithful enough, humble enough to let God lift us up. We pray that we might just give up our whole selves, put our whole lives into God’s hands, so that depending on God, we might be raised up with Christ. The only way I know to get a camel through the eye of the needle is God’s way. Up and over that bar set so high. We can’t do it. But God can. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sermon, "Missional: Mission Statement," Luke 4:14-30

Sermon 5/29/16
Luke 4:14-30

Missional: Mission Statement

Today, after a hiatus in our series to celebrate Lent, Easter, and Pentecost, we finally return our series focusing on those components that are my dreams, and I hope yours too, for Apple Valley: that we would be a congregation that is Fruitful, Prayerful, Invitational, and Missional. It was almost a year ago now when we first talked about what I had in mind when I said I dreamed that we would be a missional church. We focused on a key verse: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” I shared with you our denomination’s mission statement, our purpose statement. The Book of Discipline says that the mission of the church is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world by proclaiming the good news of God’s grace and by exemplifying Jesus’ command to love God and neighbor, thus seeking the fulfillment of God’s reign and realm in the world” and further that that mission is carried out by “send[ing] persons into the world to live lovingly and justly as servants of Christ by healing the sick, feeding the hungry, caring for the stranger, freeing the oppressed, being and becoming a compassionate, caring presence, and working to develop social structures that are consistent with the gospel.”
I hope that you recognize in that mission statement some of the themes you also just heard in our gospel reading from Luke’s gospel. Because when Jesus gets up and shares these words, his first time, at least first recorded time teaching in the scriptures, what we get from Jesus is his mission statement, his purpose, his plan of what he is going to be all about. He reads from the scroll of Isaiah, and then concludes, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” In other words, Jesus says he’s going to - and in fact already is - embodying the words of Isaiah in the world. That’s his purpose, why he’s there.
When I was writing my long final project for my doctoral work, one of the hardest parts to get just right was the very beginning of all those pages. The most important part of the whole work is stating the question, and stating the thesis.. What question am I asking, and what is the answer I’m going to try to prove in my paper? Any of you who have written a paper will remember being taught that you must have a thesis statement that you can prove. And you have to state your thesis right up front, as soon as possible: what’s your purpose for writing the paper? What’s it all about? In my draft project proposal, my advisor said that I needed to get to my thesis sooner. Right away. And then, as I wrote each chapter, everything I wrote had to point back to my thesis. The instructions for the paper were clear – I had to constantly loop back to my thesis, and my chapters had to support that my thesis was on target. Everything else I wrote, no matter how long, how many words, was just a kind of evidence for what I said on the very first page. Like a mission statement, a thesis gives the purpose, and everything else hinges on that. So it goes with our lives in Christ. We are disciples, following Jesus, and no matter what other things we do, what unfolds on the pages of our lives, everything is meant to point back to our primary identity as children of God, followers in the way of Jesus. Do we think we understand God’s purpose in the world and for us? Do we know our life’s purpose? What is your purpose in life? And then, if we know our purpose, how are we responding, living our lives, in light of that, and in light of God’s purpose for us?
Sometimes we talk about doing things “on purpose” or “on accident.” My mother tells a story about meeting with her life insurance agent when she was still working as a nurse. The agent talked to her about an “accidental death” policy. She joked, “Well, if I die, it sure won’t be on purpose!” He didn’t seem to think it was very funny though! When we do something on purpose, we claim responsibility for it. If we say we did something “on accident,” often we’re trying to let folks know that we aren’t responsible for whatever happened. Sometimes, though, I worry that we live our whole lives in sort of an “on accident” mode, never being intentional enough to claim responsibility for how are lives are turning out. We say we have a direction or purpose or set of beliefs that guide our lives, but we don’t state our thesis very boldly, or our life’s supporting paragraphs never seem to loop back to that these statement, or worse, our supporting paragraphs disprove our thesis, showing that whatever we claimed as our purpose was just empty words. We wander through life a bit accidentally, hoping that we’ll also accidentally end up following Jesus.
Jesus shows up at the synagogue in his hometown to declare his purpose. He reads from Isaiah, “‘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 favour.’” When he sits down to teach, the practice in Jesus’ day, everyone is just waiting to hear what he’ll say. He says, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” That’s a big claim! But everyone is thrilled with Jesus. He speaks so well! Isn’t he so grown up? Isn’t that Joseph’s boy? He has so much potential! He’s really going places, this Jesus. They’re delighted. If only things had ended there...
But instead, Jesus is not content to leave them content! There’s a saying that Jesus comes to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, and Jesus definitely seems to think they are too comfortable. So he continues speaking: “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town . . . there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’”
The people are filled with rage at his words, and try to drive him off a cliff, and we as 21st century readers are left wondering what we missed. Why did his words upset them so much? Well, what Jesus points out to the people is that God sent these prophets to work through those who were not Israelites, those who were not a part of the community, those who were not a part of the in-group. Basically, Jesus says, God has a practice of picking those who are outside the synagogue, outside the congregation, outside the acceptable parameters, outside the normal, and using those very people to accomplish God’s purposes.
The people don’t want to hear it, and they don’t want to hear it so much that they’d rather just push Jesus off a cliff than listen to anything else he has to say. But Jesus isn’t saying anything new - God’s preference for the outsider, for the pushed aside is right there in the words Jesus read from Isaiah.  Jesus read about good news for the poor, release for the captives, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed, not good news for the middle class, release for the independent, sight for those who just won’t open their eyes, freedom for the comfortable. And Jesus is coming to embody this very message. He, too, is going to be at work on the margins, using those that have been excluded, that have been rejected, that have been left out. That’s his plan, his purpose, his path: to serve those who have always been on the bottom of the heap.   
It’s always easy to put ourselves in the role of receiving the blessings of scripture. Jesus says he comes to bring good news and release and recovery and freedom and favor. Who doesn’t want that? It sounds great, and we’re ready to have all these blessings. And friends, God does want to bless us. But to receive God’s blessing for us, we have to find our right place in the story. We who are already in, who’ve already found our place in Christ’s church - we’re called to come alongside Jesus to serve. We’re called to put others before ourselves. There can be no “me first” in discipleship unless we’re offering ourselves as first to serve, first to give, first to love. As a congregation, we’re not meant to sit waiting to receive the good news - we already know it! Instead, the church, Christ’s body, exists to share the news with others. We exist not for ourselves, but that we might help get this message, this purpose that Jesus declares, to others. He’s given us the purpose statement, and we’re meant to be the supporting paragraphs, always pointing back toward Jesus.

“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.’” May it be so even here and now. Amen.  

Sermon, "In Denial," Mark 8:31-37

Sermon 2/20/24 Mark 8:31-37 In Denial My sermon title is both a reflection of our gospel text for today, and a reflection of how I felt abou...