Sunday, August 31, 2014

Following the Difficult Way of Jesus...

There was a man called Jesus of Nazareth…the one whom his followers
came to call Christ. His life was one of living out what he believed the
nature of God was…and it was in him    that his disciples, his followers,
came to understand what it meant to live in close relationship with God,
to BE God’s people in all their living, in all their actions, in  all their
speaking, in all their relationships with others. And what he showed to
them- and to us, all these centuries later- was that God is a God of love
and justice and inclusion and compassion and forgiveness…in spite of
what they and we might hear to the contrary.

Early in Jesus’ ministry, he boldly proclaimed his revolutionary vision of
the Kingdom of God in a synagogue in his hometown on the Sabbath, and
the religious authorities surrounding him stood amazed at his teaching.
He stood up to read, and someone handed him a scroll of the prophet
Isaiah, from which he read these defining words:

         The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
         because he has anointed me
         to proclaim good news to the poor.
         God has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
         and recovery of sight for the blind,
         to set the oppressed free,
         to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

In other words, Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done. On earth as it is in

This was a proclamation of justice for the poor, the blind, and the
prisoner, fulfilling a kingdom vision that not only included but was
focused on “the least of these”. A kingdom vision that even his closest
disciples did not fully understand at the time. A kingdom vision in
which we are each and all called to be a part of creating.
And as a result of his vision, of his understanding of what the reign of
God was to look like, Jesus was rejected. There was confusion. There was
anger. The religious leaders listening to Jesus got angry. After all, this
was not the way they heard or understood the Law, the voice of God
speaking to them. Their initial curiosity turned to apprehension, to fear.
This was NOT how it was supposed to be…so an angry mob chased him
out of town, threatening to run him off a cliff for his heresy.
But we wouldn’t do that, we think. We wouldn’t get so upset at the
message of Jesus. Yet I’m here to tell you that we DO…get upset, I
mean, when the gospel message runs counter to what we are
comfortable with. You see, the Good News Jesus was bringing, the
message of God he was sharing, called for justice for ALL PEOPLE…and
if we’re honest, biblical justice can often make us more than a little bit
ill-at-ease. After all, it doesn’t seem to really make sense, from our
human perspective: The last shall be first. The weak will become strong.
The poor will become rich. It is a vision of paradoxes.

But how can you read the scriptures, how can we examine the life and
ministry of Jesus the Christ, and NOT hear…see…sense that mercy,
justice, compassion, especially for the marginalized, are not dear to the
heart of God? Are not part of the Kingdom-Vision?

For Jesus’ God- the image of God he showed and lived- justice was not
peripheral…it was not just a nice idea…it was critical, central…and it is
to be a part of our identities as disciples of the one who came to show
the way to relationship with God and with one another.
Yesterday, when I was working on my sermon, my son dropped by. We
chatted for a bit, as I asked him about his week and he asked about mine.
And then I found myself telling him that I was a bit stuck on the sermon
because I feel like I am preaching the same thing over and over again.
“The congregation must feel like they’re listening to a broken record,”
I lamented. “I keep saying the same thing week after week- or at least,
that’s what it feels like.”
“But, Mom, that’s what you need to do,” my son responded. “People
NEED to hear the same message again and again. You know, that’s how
it is with AA. We go over the same things over and over again. That’s the
way they become part of us. And that’s what people go to church for, I
think- to hear what it means to live as a Christian, to hear what it means
to be the people of God. Just keep preaching it.” And this from a young
man who, until about 20 months ago had not darkened the door of a
church in more than 15 years, except for family funerals!

So, I’m preaching “IT”…the message of Jesus the Christ as I hear it…
calling us to LIVE fully as people of God…calling us to live inclusively as
people of God…calling us to care for the least of these because they, too,
are children of God…even when that living is difficult. Even when that
living costs us everything!

What we all-too-often forget is that many people of his day and time,
including some of his own family, thought Jesus was crazy. They didn’t
want to hear his message because it challenged some of their own
dearly-held beliefs…because it set the status quo on its ear… because it
meant re-thinking who and how they were in their own relationships to
God and neighbor…and enemy.

Being a disciple, a follower, of Jesus the Christ, is filled with choices and
decisions- and most of them are neither easy nor simple. There are
times when our beliefs- the ones to which we hear the voice of Jesus
calling us- bring us into conflict with those around us- the call to love our
enemies, for example, when our next-door neighbor’s son is serving in
Afghanistan; being willing to work toward solutions with people having
a different perspective on an issue, even as people on our “side” see us
as betraying them and what they stand for; being willing to let go of
being “right” in service of accomplishing good in our neighborhoods or in
our cities. There is a price to pay for defying the mandates of our culture,
and it can feel like a very steep price, indeed.

Look around you at the world right now. In the town of Rotherham,
England, people keeping quiet and doing nothing over a period of more
than sixteen years has resulted in the sexual abuse of more than 1400
young people, some as young as 10. Apparently, authorities didn’t
believe- or didn’t want to believe- that this was going on in their “nice”
little town, and so hundreds of children have been irrevocably damaged…

Or look at the town of Ferguson, Missouri, where the shooting death of
Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, has resulted in battle lines
being drawn in the sand, instead of a united community looking
together for a solution to the institutionalized racism which is still so
abundantly present throughout these United States, at the attitudes
which make being a black man in our society so difficult.

Or look at the state of our own state as big business and the legislature
are uniting to push through legislation permitting Fracking- in spite of all
the environmental evidence which has shown and continues to show
that this practice will threaten the very water we drink. And all the while
there are those who continue to deny that climate change IS happening
and is being hastened by the very creatures who demand that this world
is ours and its resources should be at our unlimited disposal.

Yes, indeed, following God is difficult. Jesus never promised it would be
easy- indeed, he referred to a cross, to the giving up of one’s life. We’re
almost always overwhelmed by the demands of discipleship and so, are
tempted to turn away…to keep silent…to look in the other direction. We
convince ourselves that OUR voices, OUR actions, make little difference
in the overall scheme of things. But if we stop pursuing justice, peace,
inclusion, and wholeness, then we become supporters of the very things
we say we oppose. DO YOU HEAR THOSE WORDS? If we stop working
to bring in the kingdom of God- stop working for justice and peace and
inclusion, then we are actually working FOR those who work
against those things!

Jesus invites you and me to be disciples, to take him up on the offer of
selfless living. It’s a risky invitation to accept because it means
continually living in the tension of hearing ourselves make the confession,
“You are the Messiah!” one minute and cowering in the corner, saying
“I do not know him,” in the next. But, you see, there is also a price for
staying where we are…and that price is losing the opportunity for a real,
lasting, meaningful relationship with the One who Loves, with the One
who Forgives, with the One who accepts us just as we are. For it is only
in being willing to give up what has been and moving into what is now in
Christ that we will really, truly, fully live. And that’s the truth.

                                                  Thanks be to God. Amen

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