Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Preach the Good News

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Luke 4:14-21:

In a speech I saw by Bishop Will Willimon, he recalled the first time he went to visit a prisoner on death row.  He said he was a little nervous going in knowing that the person he was going to be meeting with had committed some atrocious crime.  After arriving at the prison he was searched and then given a long set of instructions about what he could and could not do and could and could not say, and when he entered the room he had no idea what was going to happen.  After the prisoner he was meeting with sat down, Bishop Willimon asked him what he wanted to talk about; he said “Do you think the United Methodist Church is doing enough to reach out to a new generation offering them Christ?”  That was not really the question he expected to start the conversation out with.  As they continued to talk, Bishop Willimon found out that the man had become a Christian while on death row.  When asked how he came to Christ, the man said “well I heard a lot about Jesus and he thought he and I had a lot in common.”  To which Bishop Willimon said, “are you Jewish too?”  “No,” the man said, “Jesus was on death row and was executed by the state, and I’m on death row waiting to be executed by the state, so I think we’ve faced the similar things.”
That comment came back to me this week as I was thinking about he radical claim that Jesus is making in this passage and what it actually means for us, and what it means for others as well.  We often sentimentalize Christianity, and it’s message, removing some of the teeth and the call, removing the fact that we worship a man who was arrested, tried and executed, not because he was a nice guy, the state tends not to kill nice guys, but because his message, his good news, was seen as a threat not just to the religious leaders of his day, but more importantly because he was seen as a threat to the Roman empire itself.  There are significant costs to being a prophet.  Tavist Smilley said, “You can have people like what you say, or you can offer a prophetic message, but you cannot do both.”

In Matthew and Mark, Jesus begins his ministry after John the Baptist has been arrested, and he too will soon be executed, and Jesus says “Repent, for the Kingdom of God has come near.”  That is the first proclamation of Jesus to the world, and about his message, which is about the Kingdom of God.  Later in the fourth chapter of Luke, which is where today’s passage came from, Jesus says explicitly “For this purpose I was sent,” “to proclaim the Kingdom of God.” That is at the heart of Jesus’ message and Jesus’ purpose, but explaining what that kingdom looks like and what it means is not always the easiest thing to do, but Luke wants to make it as explicit as possible.  Unlike in Matthew and Mark, the first public proclamation we hear Jesus say is not about repentance and knowing that the Kingdom has come near, it is about what the actually means for the world.  This statement is Jesus’ first message for the world, and what will drive his ministry for the rest of Luke’s gospel.

Picking up the scroll and reading from the prophet Isaiah, Jesus says, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach 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.”  What is the good news being by Jesus? What is does the Kingdom of God look like?  It is a message of redemption, welcome and inclusion for those excluded by society, for the poor, the blind, the prisoners, the captives, the oppressed, those in debt, the downtrodden, the least, the last and the lost.  That is the vision and the mission that drives Jesus and it should be the mission and the vision that drives us as Christians as well.  One of my favorite scripture passages is Micah 6:8, what does the Lord require of you? To do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.  I think we often get this passage wrong, because what we want it to say is to love justice, do mercy and walk humbly with God.  Because it’s a lot easier to say that we love justice and we do mercy, and I think we’re pretty good at that.  But that is not what the passage says.  It says DO justice and love mercy. Do Justice.  That’s a lot harder to accomplish, and we might actually even ask what that means? What does the Kingdom look like?

Robert Parham, director of the Baptist Center for Ethics wrote, “Luke 4:18-19 is one of the most ignored, watered down, spiritualized or glossed over texts in many Baptist pulpits, evading or emptying Jesus’ first statement of his moral agenda.”  Of course this charge could be leveled against more than just Baptist preachers.  This passage is the unofficial official scripture of the Boston University School of Theology.  But the stained glass window that contains this passage has been edited.  It just says “the spirit of the lord has anointed me to preach good news.”  In response someone has written out “to the poor” and taped it onto the window so the statement is complete, “Good news to the poor.”

Parham continues that those who have a hierarchy of concerns for the church with abortion and homosexuality at the top, are, in his words “neither reading from the Bible, nor listening to Jesus.  These are issues that are secondary to what Jesus said in his Nazareth Manifesto in Luke 4… and the great judgment passage in Matthew 25.”  For those who don’t remember Matthew 25, it talks about the judgment at the end of time when the sheep and the goats are separated.  Those who are welcomed into the kingdom are those who helped Jesus when he was hungry, thirsty, naked, sick or imprisoned.  When the people ask Jesus when they did or did not do all these things, Jesus says as you do to the least of these so you do it to me.  Or as Parham notes, the church seems to be against a lot of things these days, in fact for the non-religious we are much more known for what we are against then what we are for.  As we wring our hands about declining attendance, and younger generations not coming in, we should remember they are not rejecting God.  The vast majority say they believe in God, but what they are rejecting is the church.  We need to stop being known as being anti everything, and instead to become known as being pro-Kingdom of God. The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…

In 2008, the Grapevine Christian School played a football game against the high school from Gainesville, Texas in a game that should have never been known by anyone except those involved, except for one incredible feature.  Located 20 miles north of Dallas, the Grapevine Faith Lions, as they are called, had 70 players, 11 coaches, the best equipment money could buy and were 7-2 going into the game.  Although only another 50 miles to the north, Gainesville might as well have been a million miles away in the disparity between the two.  Gainesville only had 14 players and 1 coach, had no field and so every game was on the road.  They usually only had a few fans who traveled with them and that did not include any cheerleaders or band, and they went into the game with Grapevine at 0-8, having scored only two touchdowns the entire season.  For you see the Gainesville school is a maximum security prison for teenagers.

Knowing the discrepancy between the two teams, Faith’s head coach Kris Horgan came up with a truly radical idea.  What if for one game, he said, the Faith community split their fans in half and had a full sideline cheering for the other team, and what if they sent their JV cheer line over in order to lead their fans in cheers for the other team?  After this idea was announced, one player walked into the coach’s office and asked why they were doing this?  The coach responded “Imagine if you didn’t have a home life.  Imagine if everyone had pretty much given up on you.  Now imagine what it would mean for hundreds of people to suddenly believe in you.”  And so for one night, when the Gainesville players got off the bus and had their handcuffs removed, they ran onto the field through a throng of cheering fans and through a paper banner held for them by their cheerleaders, and the stands on their side of the field were full of people cheering for them.  “I thought they were confused” said one Gainesville player, “they started yelling ‘dee-fense!’ when their team had the ball.”  Another player said “We can tell people are a little afraid of us when we come to the games.  You can see it in their eyes.  They’re lookin at us like were criminals.  But these people, they were yellin for us!  By our names!”

Coach Horgan’s message to the Faith community was simple: “here’s the message I want you to send,” he said, I want you to let them know that they “are just as valuable as any other person on planet earth.”  Although Faith beat them 33-14, for one night the Gainesville Football players were just as normal as anyone else.  After the game, as the faith players gathered at the center of the field for prayer, the Gainesville quarterback and linebacker, whose name was Isaiah, as if you need another message from God, joined them and asked if he could lead the prayer.  “We had no idea what the kid was going to say,” Coach Horgan said, but Isaiah said this: “Lord, I don’t know how this happened, so I don’t know how to say thank you, but I never would’ve known there was so many people in the world that cared about us.”  As the Gainesville players made their way back to the bus, surrounded by 12 uniformed guards and were handcuffed for the ride back the prison, their coach grabbed coach Horgan and said “You’ll never know what your people did for these kids tonight.  You’ll never, ever know.”

The superintendent of the Gainesville prison, Gwan Hawthorne, said that the boys came back differently from that game.  One of the teachers at Gainesville said, “The boys, a lot of them, just hadn’t had anybody care about them… they brought that back. And then their peers heard that these people cared about them -- really cared about them, not just throwing money at them or throwing a bag of stuff at them."  That game now takes place annually, and is known as the One Heart Bowl, and the fans are still divided up so that Gainesville always has fans on their sidelines, and proceeds from the game go to help support the teenagers in the Gainesville prison.

Now I don’t know anything about Coach Horgan, have never met him or even seen him interviewed, but I imagine that he had the Spirit of the Lord upon him when he suggested the idea to the school, and that’s what we have to remember, is that we don’t do this alone.  Even Jesus didn’t do it alone.  In a very short period of verses we are told three different times that the Spirit was with Jesus.  The Spirit comes down when he is baptized, then we are told that he was full of the Holy Spirit when he went to the wilderness and was tempted, and then filled with the Spirit he comes back to Galilee where we find him picking up the scroll and saying, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.”

The Spirit is important for us to be able to do the things that God has called us to do, now be ready, the Spirit is necessary because the Spirit gives us… power.  The Greek word there for power is dunamis. From which we get words like dynamic and dynamite.  Rev. Joan Gray, “when you think about is, this dunamis of the Spirit is the only thing the early church had going for it.  It had no buildings, no budget, no paid staff and very few members.  The opposite situation may face us: we have buildings, budgets, staff and members, but do we have the power of the Holy Spirit?”  The power to do the things we are called to do, and most importantly to step outside of our comfort zones, to step beyond those we normally associate with to proclaim the good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

That year of the Lord’s favor is the jubilee year.  In Leviticus, we are told that every seven years, fields shall be left fallow as a year-long Sabbath, and in Deuteronomy we are told as part of this practice that every seven years all debts are to be forgiven.  Strangely I never hear anyone claiming that this is God’s law that must still be followed. But then in seven years of seven, in the 50th year would be a year of jubilee in which again all fields would be left to rest, but all property would also be returned to its original ownership, a law to keep the wealthy from accumulating ever increasing land and wealth at the expense of the poor who had to sell off their land given to them by God in order to get by.  In addition, all those who sold themselves into slavery would also be freed and would be allowed to go back to their ancestral lands, which would then be returned to them.  This is a significant claim that Jesus is making, not just in the freedom, but in including the excluded, the lease, the last and the lost, as Luke would have it.

And there is one other important piece of information that Jesus doesn’t read from Isaiah.  It appears that Jesus has specifically chosen this piece of scripture, but what the original passage includes that Jesus leaves out is that Isaiah also says “to proclaim the day of” vengeance or judgement “of our God.”  I think that Jesus sees there is already plenty of judgment being made against those he is talking to.  What they need is not more judgement, but the good news. That God has a message for them, that they are included in the Kingdom of God, that God is for them, not against them, that Jesus has come to proclaim the good news to them, but not just to proclaim it but to actually do something about it.  Later in Luke, John the Baptist sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he is the one to come, and Jesus says, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them.”

Now it turns out that Jesus message is not good news to everyone, because after hearing Jesus say that this scripture has been fulfilled in their hearing, the members of the synagogue get really upset and rise up against Jesus, and drive him from the town out to a cliff where they intend to throw him to his death, but he is able to escape.  Sometimes the good news is not good news to everyone because they would rather hold on to what they have, the privileges they have received, the special considerations that come their way, the special community boundaries that they hold sacred, over against a radical claim of liberation and good news regardless of all the boundaries we want to put into place.  It is a reminder that while we are called to act as instruments of God’s grace for others, what we are not allowed to do is to set the limits about who is free to receive that grace, that we are not called to be anti-things, but pro-kingdom of God.

On this weekend in which we remember the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who received his doctorate from a Methodist seminary, I thought it would be appropriate to read a selection from his Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

My Dear Fellow Clergymen:
While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities "unwise and untimely." … I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham…  I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town…

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly… . Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds….

In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: "Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern." And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.  If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith.   Let us all hope that the dark clouds… will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.

Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood,
Martin Luther King, Jr.

Robert M. Brearley has said that instead of asking “How are we doing as a church?” the real question is “As a church, what are we doing for God?”  For the spirit of the Lord is upon us because he has anointed us to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent us to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  What if we were to take this passage as seriously as we should.  What if we were to say to the world, God loves you and we love you and we have good news to offer to you?  We love you because you are a child of God and we have good news for you.  What difference could we make?  I think we could make all the difference in the world.  May it be so.  Amen.

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