The Radical Hospitality of Jesus

This sermon was preached on February 19, 2017 at First Presbyterian Church in Red Wing, MN by Rev. Greg Bolt. The sermon text was Luke 7: 36-50 and was entitled, "The Radical Hospitality of Jesus." 

Right after seminary, I was working as a temp at a law office. I was in one of those cubicle mazes and sat at a desk all day, filing things, and entering data into databases. It was riveting. The woman that worked in the cubicle next to me would often strike up conversations, eventually we got around to the fact that I had just graduated from seminary and that I was on the way to becoming a pastor in the Presbyterian Church. We talked a little about church but the conversation died pretty quickly after she found out I was a pastor. This is not uncommon, but one thing she said has stuck with me for the last decade. She said, “I grew up going to church, but I have to get my life together and once that happens I can get back to going to church.”

What I wanted to say was, “NO! NO! NO! Church is the place where you can go when your life is falling or has fallen apart, church is a place to find healing, church is a place where you can say, the hard thing, where you can confess, where you can be real, where you can be forgiven, where you can be loved just as you are and loved enough not to stay that way.”

I think I said, “Oh well, I’m sure you could go back to church now.” Then we both turned back to our work and went on about our day.

Unfortunately, I think her perception is the perception of many. They perceive, rightly or not, that they will be judged, if they darken the doors of the church before they’ve “figured it all out.”. This woman was a single mother, she had a few tattoos, and from what I could tell of her office stories she didn’t live the holiest life. One might say, she was “a woman in that town who lived a sinful life.” But to be honest, which one of us hasn’t.

If the church isn’t a place that we can welcome anyone, then we have lost what I believe to be a core message of, not only our Holy Scriptures, but of all Abrahamic faiths, radical hospitality. The willingness to be open, to be accepting, to welcome in all comers, the stranger, the immigrant, the refugee, the foreigner is a key tenant of our faith. That radical hospitality allows us to create a space for people to feel comfortable being themselves, being real, being authentic. Radical hospitality allows a space for people to let go of the shame of “should ofs”, the guilt of “what might of beens”, the disgust of “I knew betters”. Radical hospitality allows us to bring our history with us, it allows us to deal with our history, and it reminds us that we are loved beyond measure. God loves us, warts and all.

In our scripture reading today, Simon the Pharisee, a religious leader, has invited Jesus to dine in his home. Suddenly, an uninvited, unnamed woman appears who is described simply as a “sinner in the city.” Without speaking, she weeps, wets Jesus’ feet with her tears, wipes them with her hair, kisses them, and anoints them with perfumed oil.

There are many ways to look at this story, I first want to talk about, how this woman of ill repute gets into this dinner, like many commentators explain this as a custom of symposium, a public place in a large home where people are invited to come and talk about big issues, some talk, some listen, but the crowd is often a mix of various people from various classes, groups, and perspectives. That explains how she got in, now I want to talk about what she did, in contrast to what the Pharisee did.

She offered Jesus the ritual of hospitality, first the washing of his feet, with her tears, then she offered him a holy kiss, a kiss of welcome, and she anointed his feet with oil. This lavish hospitality is at the core of first century Palestinian culture, the oversight by the “religious leader” is egregious to say the least. Normally in his case, a servant would have done this ritual, he was/is above it, it is for others beneath him. Whereas she comes to Jesus, just as she is, she knows who she is, she knows her reputation, she knows her own sin, and yet she come to Jesus offering him hospitality as a form of repentance.

Simon, the Pharisee, appears not to believe he needs repentance, he acts as if Jesus allowing this woman to touch him was shameful. He thinks to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”

Often when we sit in places of privilege we think that we don’t need repentance. We are where we are because God shined God’s light on us, or some other such idolatry. It’s far easier to point out how other people need repentance than our own issues. Jesus tells a parable about repentance and forgiveness. We all have debts, we are all in need of repentance the rich, the powerful, the poor, the powerless. As the Apostle Paul says, “We all fall short of the glory of God.”

The woman’s sins maybe different than the Pharisee’s but both of sinned. Most readily we see that the Pharisee has committed the sin of inhospitality, which is high on the list of terrible things you can do according to the Hebrew Bible. In Ezekiel, it is said that the sin of Sodom inhospitality. Radical hospitality is not a suggestion it is a mandate.

Radical hospitality is also terrifying. If anyone can walk through your doors, the anyone can walk through your doors. Registered sex offenders, felons, children, families, old people, young people, conservatives, liberals, sinners, holier than thous, loud mouths, the disabled, transgender people, haters, lovers, on an on. Radical hospitality is not safe.

In fact that radical hospitality is laid out pretty distinctly in, our denomination, the Presbyterian Church USA’s constitution, not only for our churches but for our nation. In the Book of Confessions, part 1 of our constitution, in the Confession of 1967 it says in Part 4 paragraph B.

“b. God’s reconciliation in Jesus Christ is the ground of the peace, justice, and freedom among nations which all powers of government are called to serve and defend. The church, in its own life, is called to practice the forgiveness of enemies and to commend to the nations as practical politics the search for cooperation and peace. This search requires that the nations pursue fresh and responsible relations across every line of conflict, even at risk to national security, to reduce areas of strife and to broaden international understanding. Reconciliation among nations becomes peculiarly urgent as countries develop nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, diverting their manpower and resources from constructive uses and risking the annihilation of mankind. Although nations may serve God’s purposes in history, the church which identifies the sovereignty of any one nation or any one way of life with the cause of God denies the Lordship of Christ and betrays its calling.”

Sometimes, when we read this we can say, “YEAH our nation should be more welcoming!” We should welcome refugees and immigrants, we should be hospitable to them because that would lead to less war, less conflict, and more harmony, more love.

The question is, what are we doing to display the radical hospitality of Jesus? What are you doing? What can we do in Red Wing, MN to create an environment of radical welcome? What will we do to create an atmosphere of love and trust where people can be themselves, their true selves, not their “Church Selves” not their best foot forward selves?

If we are able to find, to create, a space for people to be vulnerable, to be authentic, we can let go of the shame of our sins, we can talk about our shortcomings, our what might of beens, our should haves, and move more fully towards repentance. We can turn to God, with all that we are, with our whole heart, and finally love ourselves, so that we can love our neighbor

May it be so.

 

Do You see what I see?

This sermon was preached on February 5, 2017 at First Presbyterian Church in Red Wing, Minnesota by Rev. Heidi Bolt. The sermon text was Luke 7: 1-17.

Last week in our Scripture reading, we had the story of two different Sabbath days with Jesus pushing the boundaries of what it meant to observeSabbath in light of changing circumstances. Today, we have two towns, two healings, two very different circumstances.  In the first healing, the healing comes to one outside of the people of God, to a slave of a Roman centurion.  The Jewish elders sent toJesus appeal to him and declare the centurion worthy for he has helped the Jewish people, even built their synagogue. This was a man of means and it seems a man of faith, for while others call him worthy, he knows his own unworthiness and asks Jesus not to even come to his house but just to say the word and he knows his beloved servant will be healed.  A man of deep faith who was not a Jew. And Jesus heals the servant, expanding the boundaries yet again of who belongs in the Kingdom of God.

The second story is much different. No one calls the man who has died or his widowed mother worthy.  There is no indication that they are a family of means.  The man is not sick but already dead.  But when Jesus comes across the dead man’s mother, it says he sees her and has compassion on her.  As a widow with her only son now dead, she is a woman without hope.  Women at that time were dependent on the men in their lives for survival and she is now a woman without husband or son.  She is doubly vulnerable.  Jesus sees her and has compassion  on her and so raises her son from the dead and in that act she has now been restored to community and survival.

This word compassion is important in Luke.  Compassion is not to intellectually understand that someone is suffering, it is to feel for that person on a visceral level.  The word in Greekcomes from  the word intestines.  Jesus feels for this woman on a deep, gut-wrenching level. Two other times we hear this word compassion in Luke.  Once when the good Samaritan has compassion on the stranger in the ditch and cares for him and again when the father sees his prodigal younger son returning and has compassion for him.

The compassion that Jesus felt, that prompted him to resurrect this widow’s only son, is the call to suffer with the powerless.  Henri Nouwencalls Jesus life of compassion a life of “downward mobility”.  He says “Compassion means going directly to those people and places where suffering is most acute and building a home there. God’s compassion is total, absolute, unconditional, without reservation.”  “Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in  the condition of being human.”

To see those who are suffering and to feel compassion towards them is not always easy.  But it is what the example of Jesus calls us to.  In our own time, we might asked to view someone on the other side of a political argument with compassion.  It might be a woman who has  gone back to her abusive husband again and again.  It might be a teenager who is giving you nothing but trouble.

Jesus sees the grieving widow and has compassion on her.  Who do we need to see that we might overlook?  Where is there suffering?  How can we build a home there?

Dropping Sophia off at school on Friday, I noticed the flag was at half staff.  I didn’t know what significant person had died recently so I looked it up which is how I came to hear about the incredible story of the four chaplains. George Fox, Alexander Goode, Clark Poling, and John Washington died on this date in 1943 when their troop ship, TheDorchester, was torpedoed. There weren’t enough life jackets, so the four men helped soldiers to the lifeboats, then gave up their life jackets, linked arms, sang hymns, and went down with their ship.  These four men showed the ultimate compassion, the ultimate downward mobility for their soldiers.

To have compassion on another child of God.  To feel a deep, gut-wrenching sympathy and desire to alleviate their suffering. This is the way of Jesus.

After Jesus had given the dead man back to his mother, it says that the crowd was seized by fear and that they glorified God.  Jesus welcomed the worthy and the unworthy,the rich and the poor, he had compassion on those often overlooked and he offered healing to the suffering.  And he asks us to do the same.  Fear and glorifying God seems an appropriate response. 

Jesus became poor and suffered with us, to the point of death so that we might be restored to community with God and one another.  In the communion meal we will soon share,Jesus offers his very self to us and asks us to remember him.  May we do so, we receiving Christ’s compassion and extending that same compassion all.  May it be so.  Amen.

Expectations

This sermon was delivered at First Presbyterian Church in Red Wing, Minnesota on February 12, 2017. The sermon text was from Luke 7: 18-35.

Expectations are a funny thing.

They can help us to be prepared for what’s before us, they can help us to know what we’re in for, they can help us see God. They also can blind us to what’s happening, they can keep us from seeing what is happening right in front of our eyes, they can keep us from seeing God.

The truth is we all have expectations, we have expectation of ourselves, of our kids, our spouses, our parents, our friends, our pastors, our politicians, our athletes, and on and on. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, necessarily, but we do need to be open to seeing things in different ways than what we are expecting.

I also want to stop here a second, and say, for me, not all expectations are the same. I think it is totally appropriate to expect to be treated as a human being, it is totally appropriate to expect to be respected, and to be treated with dignity. Often however, those expectations mean different things to different people.

In our scripture, this morning, John the Baptist, hears about what Jesus has been doing. According to Luke they have not had any direct contact and frankly it doesn’t seem like John thinks Jesus is fitting the expectations of the one to come after him that will make the world better. So, he sends some of his disciples to ask the question, “Are you the one we are waiting for?”

Remember Jesus himself says, that God has anointed him to bring good news to the poor. God has sent him 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.

For John, none of this has happened. Many scholars believe that at this point John is in prison, when this story comes up in the book of Matthew, that’s exactly where John is, captive. He hasn’t been released, he hasn’t been set free.

Rev Gord Waldie, of the UCC, tells a story about his first year in seminary over 20 years ago,

“one of the assignments in Introduction to New Testament was to look at a variety of texts and determine if Jesus is the Messiah that was expected. The texts laid out a “job description” of sorts — and Jesus fails. Not only does Jesus fail to free his people from the Roman yoke and setup a new kingdom like that of David and Solomon, he doesn’t even seem to have that task on his to-do list. John seems to have expected active and vigorous cleansing, more repentance and sin stuff. Jesus doesn’t seem to be doing that either."

Jesus wasn’t fitting into John’s expectations for the Messiah.

I can’t say that I blame John much here. I mean…when I think about Messiah I’m looking for a big hulking guy, with huge muscles, with a big scary weapon to crush people. Basically I’m thinking of Thor, not the Norse God, but the Marvel character in the Avengers’ played by Chris Hemsworth or the Marvel character Luke Cage played by Mike Colter. Basically I'm looking for a character from the Marvel Universe. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, we can watch the movies or series together. I love them both.

But I digress.

I have always believed that people will live up to your expectations of them. If you have low expectations, that’s what you’ll get, if you have high expectations the same holds true. The problem is when you hold those expectations too tightly or specifically. We must hold our expectations loosely, like sand. If you pick up a handful of sand you can hold it in your hand, only if you hold it loosely, if you hold on too tightly, the sand will slip through your fingers.

When John sends his disciples to ask Jesus a simple question, he expects a simple answer. The question, “Are you the one we have been looking for?” is a simple yes or no question. Jesus, as we’ve seen, doesn’t do what we expect. In the last few weeks, we’ve looked at stories where he has defied the Pharisees understanding of the Sabbath, he’s healed the poor and the rich, he’s even declared the year of the Lord’s favor for those outside the temple. All of this is showing us who Jesus is, Jesus is not the messiah that people were expecting. When Jesus is answered a simple yes or no question his answer to John’s disciples is “look around what do you see? What do you hear?” I take a little comfort in that even John the Baptist, the prophet who proclaimed Jesus’ arrival isn’t sure because Jesus defies expectations.

We’ve started to see and hear things about our church. One of the things I’ve heard the most here is that we are a small church. It normally, goes something like this. I hear a story about some amazing thing that this church has done even in the midst of turmoil and then the person says, but we’re a small church. It’s seems as if it has become part of our identity, one that we aren’t proud of. To be honest, I can’t see it. I know the history of the church; I recognize its effects on our congregation, but I think we are powerful beyond measure. We are blessed with particularly gifted people to do specific work in Red Wing.

Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” Let’s remember that. As we continue to be faithful to our calling, let us remember that other people’s expectations of who God is or what Churches do should not limit us. When they ask about our work, we can say, “What do you see? What do you hear?”

What that work is, I’m not sure yet, we do so many great things already, but I’m hoping that you can help us figure it out. I hope that in a year or so, people will be saying, “Do you go to that Presbyterian church?” because they are not sure how we are able to do the things we do, we are doing things in the community that might not be typically considered, “Church stuff”. I hope we will continue to defy expectations, as we follow Christ along this journey together. Part of that will mean taking a hard look at our expectations of our church, our pastors, and ourselves. We will need to name them, we will need to evaluate them, we may need to throw them out the window. When people start to ask us about our church, we can say “what do you see? What do you hear?”

This world is changing, our expressions of faith are changing, but as Lutheran pastor, Erik Parker says,

"Imagine telling anyone who has regularly been in a pew for the past 15 years that it is possible that our currently declining and aging church may be full and bustling again in a few decades. They will laugh at you.

Well, maybe they would have [a few months ago].

But now all the things we thought were important are in reversing decline like flashy worship, entertaining sermons, lattes for sale in the lobby, Nickelodeon night for the youth, and all the other things we think will “attract” people mean nothing now. Churches, especially mainline ones, will need to focus again on the core things that we have always been:

We will need to be communities of refuge because people will have fewer and fewer safe spaces.

We will need to be communities of resistance in a world that is demanding division, conflict, and violence.

We will need to be communities of hope because we cannot just go back to sleep and pretend the government will have our backs while we spend our time mindlessly consuming stuff and entertainment.

We will need to be proclaimers of the gospel."

My prayer is that people see the Lord working through us as we provide voice to the voiceless, we provide safety for those in danger, we provide comfort to the afflicted and we afflict the comforted and may we always hold loosely, how and what we do, remaining nimble and available to respond when God calls.

May it be so.

Sabbath Mystics

This sermon was preached on January 29, 2017 at First Presbyterian Church in Red Wing, Minnesota by Rev. Heidi Bolt. The sermon text was Luke 6: 1-16.

It doesn't seem like Jesus was trying to make friends, does it?  As we read through Luke, Jesus is provoking all those he encounters and today's passage is no different. On two different Sabbath days he does something that he knows will anger those who care about religious tradition. He plucks grain one day and heals in the synagogue on another. He does both these things knowing it will anger some and he does it to try and suggest that the rules are changing. The understanding about how it is to faithfully follow God is changing. The rules about Sabbath observance were good rules made by faithful people. But Jesus is telling them that the Sabbath traditions might need to change. After all, the lord of the Sabbath is now among them. I read in a commentary this week that suggests that the real question in these texts is this: How do we faithfully identify with our community's tradition in light of ever-changing circumstances? How do we faithfully identify with our community's tradition in light of ever-changing circumstances?

And boy is that ever our question, too.

The world is changing at a breakneck speed. Headlines come every day or every hour that seem to signal big shifts in our world. The religious landscape in our denomination, our country and our world is changing more rapidly than we can even fathom. The church as an institution's identity and mission is in flux. Even on this Sunday when we look back at what the church has done and been in the last year through our congregational meeting, we continue to look toward our future as well, knowing that our circumstances are ever-changing. How do we do what church's do when the world seems to be so different, when what we do seems less relevant all the time to a lot of people? This is the question I've been wrestling with this week.

Then I saw that Dr. John Vest, whom I know and respect, who is the Visiting Professor of Evangelism at my seminary, Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, shared a blog post by Richard Rohr, the well known Franciscan author and speaker.  And Vest shared the blog saying, "This perfectly captures what I think Christianity ought to be encouraging today. This is what I think churches ought to be focused on. This is what I'm most interested in."

The idea that Richard Rohr was writing about as a way forward for the church was to recapture our role as mystics. That's an unfamiliar term to some of you, it's a scary one to others. To be a mystic is to be one who has moved from mere belief to actual inner experience of God. Now this is an idea that Presbyterians have often been wary of. Theologically we affirm that we are flawed, flawed creatures and so we can't fully trust our experience of God. We are more comfortable putting our trust in our interpretation ofScripture, the traditions found in our confessions, in the life of the mind. And Those are good.

But If our faith stays only in our heads, if it's only about the rules and traditions, what Calvin had to say about it or Barth or Brueggemann, then it is much less likely to transform our hearts.

Here is what Rohr had to say: Christians speak of the “paschal mystery,” the process of loss and renewal that was lived and personified in the death and raising up of Jesus, as the pattern of transformation. We Can affirm that belief in lovely song and ritual, as many Christians do in the Eucharist. However, until we have personally lost our own foundation and then experienced God upholding us so that we come out even more alive on the other side, the theological affirmation of the paschal mystery is little understood and not essentially transformative. It is a mere liturgical acclamation.

This congregation has been through this process of losing your foundations and discovering that God was there for you in the midst of it all, transforming you so that you might come out the other side more alive. I know this has been true for me personally and I know that most if not all of you have stories of transformation because of God's presence in your life. This experience of knowing God is what helps us keep going when times get scary, it's what can give us courage when we need to stand up for what Christ stood up for - feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, healing the broken. 

That is the kind of transformation that experience of God, or mysticism, helps create. How do we faithfully identify with our community's tradition in light of ever-changing circumstances? I would like to suggest one way is to invite others to experience God. Not to recite a set of beliefs about God, not to teach them into love of God, but to invite them into an experience with God. This is what Jesus did. He asked people to look less at the rules of faith and get to know more the God that the rules were meant honor. After teaching and provoking and healing, he went away to talk to God. He sought out direct experience of God before he continued with his work. Diana Butler Bass, a historian who focuses on the history of Christianity suggests that “Christianity did not begin with a confession. It began with an invitation into friendship, into creating a new community, into forming relationships based on love and service.”   

I would like to suggest that this is something that the world needs from us. Forming relationships based on love and service. With our many divisions, with our 24/7 nature, with our emphasis on doing and creating and achieving, the worlds needs us to offer another way.  An experience of God so that they know that they are loved not for what they do but because of who God is. A transformative experience of God that makes them more alive, move loving, more giving. These mystical experiences can come when we are marching or when we pray, when we are out in mission or even in church on Sunday.

And so, I'm not going to talk to you anymore about Sabbath. I am going to invite you to experience Sabbath, a brief Sabbath, just 2 minutes of silence. To be quiet before God, to know that your worth comes not from what you can achieve, a chance to breathe in and breathe out. My hope is that this experience will give you a little more peace, a little more strength as you head into another week in our fast-changing world. May you experience God.

 

Let's Go Deep

This is the manuscript as written of the sermon I delivered at First Presbyterian Church in Red Wing, Minnesota, on January 22, 2017. 

The sermon text was Luke 5: 1-11

I have a confession to make.

This week it was hard to writing this sermon. I have been distracted, distracted by the events leading up to this Sunday. The inauguration, the woman’s marches all around the globe. I have been distracted by the tenor of the conversations in our country. I have been distracted, but yesterday I was inspired. I was inspired by all things a presbytery meeting. I was inspired by seeing the pictures of men and women who are part of my life, speaking up and speaking out for justice, equality, and constitutional rights. I am hopeful, in what is happening in our country, in our town, and in our church.

In our reading from Luke today we here Jesus’s famous words, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”

But how did we get there?

Jesus comes to the lake in Gennesaret, the crowds were pressing in on him and he stepped into Simon’s boat. There just happened to be room in the boat because there were no fish in it. After he finished speaking he began talking to Simon, who was called Peter, and said, “Why you don’t you put your nets out into the deep water. Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When he did this, he caught so man fish that he thought the nets would break, it felt like the boat was going to sink, he called his partners out, and before they could get the nets securely back in the boat, Simon falls onto his knees and says, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

This is like saying, I’m not worthy, I’m not worthy.

As Rev. Mary Austin says, “When Jesus presence allows them to catch way more fish than they think is possible, Simon Peter reacts with shame. He urges Jesus to get away from him, “for I am a sinful man.” Peter knows that he is experiencing more than fish – he’s getting a glimpse of the divine, breaking into the ordinary world of fishing. It evokes the later moment, after Peter has been with Jesus for a long time, when Jesus tells Peter to get behind him, because Peter’s understanding then is so limited. In this early moment, Peter sees clearly who stands before him.”

This is why in our worship services from the Reformed tradition, we open with a call to worship then we sing a song of praise, then we confess our unworthiness. When we come into the presence of the almighty, we can’t help but confess our sins, recognize that God is God and we are God’s children.

Jesus tells Simon Peter to put his nets out in the deep water. This is a big ask. The water, the deep water, is a scary place, it’s unpredictable, it’s dangerous, it’s chaotic. In fact, the Bible begins with the fear of the deep. Genesis 1:2 says, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep,”

Peter and his crew had been fishing in the shallow water and catching nothing, Jesus calls them out of their comfort zone, out of the safety of the known. When they move into the deep they are shocked with what they find, and when they realize what they can do with God’s help. They begin a new and unknown adventure.

There are a lot of churches in the US that fish in the shallow water, it’s safe to say that this church has been in the in the deep for the last few years. You probably feel like you had no choice. But you did. You had the opportunity to say no to the Holy Spirit, but you didn’t. Given the recent history of this congregation could of sat on the shore, you could of folded up shop, but you didn’t you packed your nets back in the boat and went fishing. It hasn’t been easy, it’s been tiring, you felt like the boat was going to sink, you called in reinforcements, and the nets you have pulled in are filled with the knowledge that you are not alone, you are gifted, and you are capable of a lot more than you thought you were.

Christ is still calling; the Holy Spirit is still moving.

You know you can swim, you know you can fish. Now we are going to fish for people. We will fish for those who can’t fish for themselves. We will fish for those on the margins, we will fish for those outside the shallows of our own walls, we will go into the world proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ. We will be with the lost, the lonely, the poor, the elderly, the young, the old, those in between, the parents, the kids, we will be there because we have before, we know how to swim, we know that God is with us, and we know that no matter what happens, no matter what storms come, we will be right here.

I know this from the deepest depths of my soul, we have seen the power of God to do miraculous things. Now it’s our turn to be co-creators with Christ as we step into this new, wild adventure.

May it be so.

Be Ready

This is the sermon I preached on January 15, 2017 at First Presbyterian Church in Red Wing, MN. The text is Luke 4: 14-30. This was my first sermon in this new call. Last week at the end of the service we invited you to take a star with a word on it. A word that you were asked to reflect on for the coming year. We want you to place this star somewhere you will see it, whether that’s the refrigerator, your car, your mirror, as a book mark,...somewhere you will see it. Currently my star is sitting on my desk next to my computer, where I am, a lot of the time. The word I received is “readiness”. I thought, “what am I going to do with that?” Then I read this week’s scripture.

I hope and pray that this sermon ends differently than it did for Jesus. I hope you don’t get up and drive me out of town, leading me to the top of Barn Bluff ready to toss me into the river. We really like it here. Also, our old cat, Joe might not be able to take another move.

For me this word readiness, fits right into today’s passage from the Gospel of Luke. Jesus, having been baptized is sent unceremoniously into the wilderness where is tempted and then returns to the region called Galilee, to Nazareth, his home town. He goes to the synagogue, as was his custom, and he reads a familiar passage from the prophet 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, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

This would have been well known to the folks in Nazareth, this is one of those passages that is uplifting, hopeful, a good rah-rah passage. Jesus puts the scroll away and says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  In Eugene Peterson’s contemporary rendering of scripture called The Message, it says, “You’ve just heard Scripture make history. It came true just now in this place.”

The people were pretty impressed. They say, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?”

At this point I imagine the crowd all patting themselves on the back, smiling, and saying “Wow, isn’t that Joseph’s son. He’s grown to be such a good boy.”

Then Jesus gives them a word that they are not ready or willing to hear.

Prophets don’t do well in their own town. He expounds on the story of Elijah saying, “You know there were widows in Israel when famine struck but Elijah wasn’t sent to any of them he was sent to a widow in Sidon. There were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha but it was only Naaman of Syria that was cleansed.”

In the retelling of those stories, Jesus is reminding the gathered, the in crowd, the haves, that God has and will always be on the side of the least of these.

Jesus is bringing Good News, but as Rev. Jose Morales, Jr. says, “Good News is not always nice news.”

On this weekend in our national calendar, this story of Jesus bringing a hard word to the in crowd seems appropriate. Jesus’s readiness to deliver a message that he knew wouldn’t sit well with the crowd, but needed to be said is apparent. Martin Luther King, Jr. was known for saying some hard words, that he knew wouldn’t sit well but needed to be said, too.

On this, our national holiday celebrating his life we remember the beautiful, soaring, and inspiring words of his “I have a dream” speech, we remember the hopeful words delivered in Oslo, Norway during his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Martin Luther King, Jr. has become a sort of talisman whenever we want to talk about equality, he is remembered as this sweet, loving, kind pastor who everyone liked. But as a student of history I know that this was not the case. It seems that at times we have not been ready to hear the Good News in Dr. King’s message but we have chosen only to hear the nice news.

This week I was reminded of the words from his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail. These are words, I do not like, I do not find comfort in them, they are not inspiring. They are convicting, they are real, they are most certainly GOOD NEWS.

“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

Every time I read this letter, I am pulled up short here. I have yet to be ready to hear these words.

I feel like, I am a person of good will, it seems that you are all people of good will. The people in the crowd that Jesus was talking to were people of good will.

It seems as if the people of Nazareth were people of good will but they weren’t ready. They weren’t ready for the not so nice, Good News, that Jesus was proclaiming. They weren’t ready to hear that they didn’t get any special treatment from God or Jesus because they were the children of Abraham or from his hometown.

The Good News, but not nice news, is and was that the “year of the Lord’s favor” was for all, Jews and Gentiles alike. The Good and nice News is that God loves you, just as you are, no strings attached. The Good and not so nice news is, that love extends to those outside the in crowd, those people you might not like very much.

The people in Nazareth got angry, got violent, because Jesus told them something that they were not ready to hear, that the God’s love wasn’t only for them, God’s justice wasn’t only for them, God’s love was for the poor, the captive, the blind, the oppressed, the immigrant, the Jew, the Muslim, the unbelievers, those in the LGBTQ community, those of all races, those people whom we might find to be unforgivable. God’s love extends to all. This is the Good News of the Gospel.

May we be ready not only to hear the Good News, but let us be ready to live the Good News, even if it isn’t nice news.

May it be so.