Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
I want to commend those persons who have signed on for leadership roles in the church this year and beyond. It is a big deal and huge responsibility. While the pastor has overall responsibility for the vitality of the church’s ministries, it takes committed and faithful members and leaders in order for things to run as they should.
Many members spend countless hours in meetings and conversations pouring over major decisions related to church staff, how to keep the lights on and doors open, management of the building, operation of the day school, on and on and on.
Decisions made in these meetings, whether good or bad, can have lasting impact. Resolution of a poor, narrowly focused decision can take years, large amounts of time, money, energy, and effort to resolve.
Never in my lifetime have I witnessed a greater need for discipleship and effective leadership. This is a critical moment in our nation’s history and our United Methodist Church is on the verge of splitting over the issue of full inclusion of our gay and lesbian, transgender and bisexual brothers and sisters.
But the heart of the matter is this: how we see one another, who’s really in and who’s out and our moral obligation about it. It is about our lack of empathy and narrow focus, our sense of religiosity, ignorance and fear. And sooner or later, we too will have to make clear and decisive calls about where we stand on the matter.
There are many voices in our world; many voices claiming to speak for God, the will of God and what God is doing. There are many voices, groups, denominations, opinions and we are all entitled to our own.
But I have come to tell you that any voice that attempts to speak for God that does not include the welfare and well-being of all people is not the voice of God. Any voice contrary to full inclusion and loving one another and that leaves some people out is not the voice of God. Any voice that does not care about how the most vulnerable among us are treated and cared for does not represent the voice or will of God.
We ask ourselves, how then can we differentiate, how can we know what God wants? We need look no further than the holy writ.
When we meet Jesus in our gospel this morning he is riding high in his hometown. A local boy has come back home and he enters the synagogue to worship. Someone hands him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and Jesus begins to read.
The hometown crowd is mesmerized. Most likely there is a sense of pride; after all some of them at least had probably watched him grow up in the small village of Nazareth where everybody knew everybody.
My guess is that some of you know something about small towns like that.
Jesus comes home. He is Joseph’s son. And he begins to read: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because the Lord had anointed me to preach good news to the poor … recovery of sight to the blind, to set the captives free … Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.”
Most likely the listeners did not understand what Jesus was reading or what he meant by the passage being fulfilled in their presence. His words expressed good news, but my guess is that they were wanting to keep him as Joseph’s boy; not some fulfillment of divine prophecy.
Isn’t that often the way it is when we go away? We change. Our perspectives change. Life opens us up to different realities and we see things differently. There is a sense that we can never go home again – not really. Not fully. Once stretched and awed, we cannot un-ring the bell or pretend that we have not seen or heard.
Luke tells us that the people were all fascinated by Jesus. They were raving about his eloquence. Perhaps, they were remembering how they had watched him working with his carpenter dad building tables and boats and what-not: local boy now heralded as a faith healer; one who mesmerizes crowds.
Except his popularity did not last long as popularity without substance rarely does. Just five short verses later, we see a dramatic turn. When they heard this, Luke tells us, everyone in the synagogue was filled with anger. They rose up with their fury, anger, and hurt feelings and ran Jesus out – not just out of the building – but out of town. They led him out to the crest of the hill on which the town was built so they could throw him off the cliff; shut him down and kill him. But Jesus passed through the crowd and went on his way.
What had Jesus said that was so alarming? How gracious his words had been but what did they mean? It is clear that Jesus surely must have pushed their buttons, don’t you think? Perhaps it was in the same ways that the gospel always pushes our buttons if we listen carefully. How it stretches us; causes discomfort. They were expecting one thing but they got something else.
Jesus reminded them of the widows in Israel. How it was that there had been no rain for 3-1/2 years and the people were dying because of the great famine. It was to the poor widow in the out-of-the way city of Zarephath that God had sent Elijah the prophet, not to all the others. How his own people had skin diseases during the time of Elisha but none of them were cleansed – only a foreigner, a Syrian named Naaman. God’s kingdom has no limits and includes the unexpected.
The heart of the gospel pushes us out of our comfort zone. It always calls us to think a little deeper, more seriously about how we carry out our days and the work of Jesus Christ. It calls us to take action even when we would rather be silent or content. It reminds us of who and what is important at end of the day: the poor, the disenfranchised, widows and children, the disadvantaged whoever and wherever they are. It pushes us outside of our little circle and personal issues and reminds us that others are in need to.
The crowd got angry with Jesus. He said things they did not want to hear. I understand, don’t you?
And so, they ran him out. And there is no doubt in my mind that when the crowd gathered just a short while later and were crying “Crucify him, crucify him!” there were some of this same group standing right there demanding his death.
We have just celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. but to celebrate the name without the message is no celebration at all.
On the night before he died, King stood before a packed crowd at Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee. It was April 3, 1968 – his last public appearance before being shot down the following day. King was in Memphis not only to support the cause of civil rights for black people, but to support a strike by poor underpaid sanitation workers who were struggling for a livable wage – basic civil and human rights of all people.
King said a lot of things that night. Some say, it was as if he was predicting his death: “I’ve been to the mountaintop and God has allowed me to look over …”
Something else he said:
Only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding.
Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same: ‘We want to be free.’”
Let us be counted among those who are responding in this hour. Wherever we are, it’s time to rise up and cry aloud: we want to be free. We want others to be free. Free to live in this old world with human dignity. Free to be safe and secure. Free to earn a living and have basic needs met. Free to love whomever we choose. We want to be free.
May we be open to the astonishing ways in which God may be pushing our buttons until all people are free and God’s love prevails.