Preaching Notes for the Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany (January 31, 2016)
These are the final three installments in each of the three-week miniseries tracks. Next week is a transition Sunday in which we celebrate the Transfiguration of the Lord, after which we call people to observe a holy Lent at Ash Wednesday services.
Old Testament Track: Our Saving God
My father, who is a retired United Methodist minister in Arkansas, used to call his parishioners on the telephone and identify himself by saying, "This is the Lord." After a while, of course, everybody in his church knew that when the Lord called them, it wasn't really the Lord, but their rather odd preacher. And oftentimes, as it turns out, when the Lord called, the people who got the call were not that thrilled, because they figured “the Lord” was only calling because he wanted them to do something.
It occurred to me this week, as I thought about what happened when the Lord called Jeremiah to be a prophet, that Jeremiah's reaction was not so very different from the reaction of my father's church members when the Lord called them: "Who is this again? The Lord?? Ah! Lord God! Good to hear from you. Yes, well, I appreciate the thought, I really do, but the truth is, I think you're calling the wrong person. Why don't you try somebody who is older than I, somebody with more experience, somebody with more time, somebody who is a better speaker? Why don’t you call somebody else?"
But of course, my father's parishioners in Arkansas and the prophet Jeremiah are not the only ones in history to have responded to the Lord's call in a negative way. After all, a call from the Lord is not generally thought of as something everyone expects or hopes to receive. That is, if we think of a call from the Lord mostly in terms of those called to professional ministry.
Before I started seminary, back in 1990, I think, I took my first step toward entering into professional ministry. The process leading toward ordination in the Methodist church is long and arduous, as some of you know. It begins with candidacy, which is a fancy name for what they call "exploring your call to ministry." But even before you begin the exploration process, you have to be recommended.
The way you get recommended is you meet with the staff-parish committee of your local church, the church in which you hold membership, for an interview about whether or not the folks in your church, usually folks who know you pretty well, believe you to be truly called to ministry. It is only after you are able to persuade them that your calling is sincere that you are able to become a candidate for exploration.
I remember my staff-parish interview. It was at St. Paul United Methodist Church in El Dorado, Arkansas, where I was working as a youth director at the time. I think I was twenty-four years old. What I remember about that interview, and what reminded me of it as I thought this week about the Scripture lesson from Jeremiah, is that it was the first time I had to try to explain to someone why I felt called to the ministry. I remember telling the committee that I couldn't pinpoint the exact moment in which I felt the Lord's call. There wasn't any specific event that I could name for them that would sound convincing. The almighty God didn't speak to me. There was no phone call from the Lord. There wasn't any sudden, unmistakable, blinding vision like Paul had on the road to Damascus. There was only a long history of involvement with the church, and a feeling that the church was where I truly belonged.
And of course, that was only the beginning of my struggle to describe my calling. After I was accepted as an exploring candidate, there were more interviews, with district and conference committees. And in addition to the interviews, there were numerous applications to fill out in which I had to try to explain my call to the ministry on paper. These applications were going to be read by lots of people, including laity and clergy, my mother and father, seminary professors and admissions directors and decision-making boards. I think there was a sense in which I felt a real need to legitimize my calling to myself. How could I know for certain that I was called? And, perhaps more important, what exactly was it that I was being called to do?
I imagine that the prophet Jeremiah must have asked himself those very same questions. Otherwise, why would he have bothered to make sure that his scribe, Baruch, wrote down these words that are surely meant to legitimize Jeremiah's call, and certify him for future generations as a true prophet commissioned to speak on behalf of the Lord.
Once I got into seminary, I had to begin describing my call not only to my professors, but to other students, other people who also felt called to the ministry, and the task became even more uncertain and difficult for me. Over and over, I found myself in groups of people who described their calls to the ministry in much more legitimate and convincing ways than my own feeble attempts to explain why I was there. There were people who talked about special visions. There were people who spoke of trying for years and years to avoid God's clear and certain call on their lives, until finally they could fight God no more and had given in, oh so reluctantly, to what was unquestionably God's will for their lives. It was as if all of their calls were a parallel of Jeremiah's. It was as if the Lord had spoken to each one of them directly and said: "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations." I would sit there and listen to their stories and think, "Either these people are crazy, or I really don’t belong here."
I'm not sure when it happened, but at some point in my seminary career I reached a turning point. The change came when I stopped thinking about and trying to describe my call as an event that had happened in the past, and began to understand God's call on my life as a kind of ongoing process. I began to think that God doesn't call people one time to perform some particular task and that's the end of it. God's call is more of a dialogue that goes on throughout our lives, a part of an intimate relationship between each person and God.
Think about Jeremiah. Lots of Bibles are divided into little sections, and the sections are given titles. For example, this Scripture passage from Jeremiah is described in my Bible as "Jeremiah's call and commission." But when you start to read the rest of Jeremiah, you realize that the Lord didn't just come to Jeremiah one time and say, "Okay Jeremiah, I want you to be a prophet and go out and speak for me," and then go away. That's not what happened at all.
What happened is that the Lord came to Jeremiah again and again, all throughout his life. Sometimes the Lord told Jeremiah to go and do something, like go out and tell the people of Jerusalem that if they didn't end their wicked ways, their nation was going to be destroyed. Other times, the Lord went on and on to Jeremiah in a tirade of disappointment about Israel, much like you or I might complain to a good friend about something we are upset over. And then, there are times in the book of Jeremiah when Jeremiah complains to the Lord about what he thinks are unfair conditions that the Lord created: "Why do guilty persons enjoy success? Why are evildoers so happy?" (Jeremiah 12:1, CEB) he asks the Lord at one point. Why have you created a situation where people suffer, where life seems completely unfair, and then call upon me to go out and tell everybody you're going to destroy this nation because the people are so wicked?
I think about Jeremiah and his relationship with God. I think about God's call on Jeremiah's life, and God's expectations about what Jeremiah could accomplish. I think about all the things that God calls each one of us to deal with. And I think about all the things God has called me to do in my life so far.
God has called me to do many different things at many different times in many different places in my own life. At one point, God called me to be a child, to explore and play and grow and learn. Later on, God called me to test my wings as an adult. God has called me to be a friend to some people and a parent to others. Sometimes God calls me to be a listener, and other times God calls me to speak. God has called me many times to respond to situations that I judged to be unfair or difficult. And at times, of course, just like Jeremiah, God has called me to go and do things that I really didn’t want to do or thought I couldn't do.
I remember when I was pretty new to the ministry and serving as the associate pastor at a large suburban church in Illinois. Every year during the months of January and July, the senior pastor would go on vacation for a month, leaving me alone to lead the church. One year when he was gone, I received a phone call from a family who needed me to conduct a funeral for their seventeen-year-old daughter. The circumstances of the death were already familiar to me because I’d seen the story on the news the night before. A young lady, the cousin of the deceased girl’s family for whom I was being called to be in ministry, had too much alcohol to drink and she ran the car she was driving into a tree, instantly killing everyone in the car but herself. Three teenagers were dead, and the driver had survived with hardly a scratch. And to make matters worse, the two girls were not just cousins. They were very close friends. It was a terrible situation for which seminary, and indeed life itself, had not prepared me adequately to handle. I remember feeling terrified, just like Jeremiah, as I went to God in prayer. "Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a child." And miraculously, somehow, in my moment of deepest doubt and fear, our saving God came to me with words of reassurance: "Do not say, 'I am only a child'; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you" (Jeremiah 4:7-8, NRSV, adapted by author).
How many times have you been in that kind of situation? How many times in your life have you been called to do what you thought you could never do or respond to a situation that you hoped you would never find yourself in? How many times has the Lord called you to sit with a person in need, to have courage in the face of a storm, to take a risk and stand up against the crowd to speak the truth? To fight for something that you knew in your heart to be right?
How many times have you felt like Jeremiah and said, "No, Lord, please. Not me. I'm not ready to answer your call right now. I don't have the time. I don't have any experience"? And how many times have you complained to the Lord about what you were being called to do? "Why me, Oh Lord, why is this happening to me? How can you be so unfair?"
How many times have you experienced the sting of pain and fear and disappointment? How many times have you found yourself searching for the right words to say to someone who was hurting? How many times has the Lord called you?
I think what I have finally learned after all this time in professional ministry is that the Lord calls all of us. The Lord has called us in the past, and the Lord is calling us today to respond to a world filled with pain and need. No one person's call is any more special or significant than another's. Those people in seminary, with all their impressive tales, why, their calls were no more special or serious than mine is, just as mine is no more special or serious than any one of yours. All of us are important. Each of us has something special to offer. Every single one of us is called to be in ministry.
In the words of Paul, there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit, and there are varieties of services but the same Lord, and there are varieties of activities but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?” (1 Corinthians 12:14-18, NRSV)
The Lord doesn’t just call the pastor to be in ministry. The Lord calls every single follower of Jesus Christ to be in ministry. So what is our task? To invite our members to pray about it, to listen for God’s leading, to discern what the Lord is calling them to do, and then to go out there and do it.
Reconciliation in Christ
The church at Corinth was notorious for its conflicts and divisions. They just could not get along with one another. They were constantly quarrelling and competing for power and control of the church, trying to form into little cliques and groups and to rally troops to support their positions. Paul makes this clear in his opening chapter, where he names the divisions directly:
It has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’ or ‘I belong to Apollos’ or ‘I belong to Cephas’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized not one of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that none of you can say you were baptized in my name…for Christ did not send me to baptize, but to proclaim, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power (1 Corinthians 1:11-17, NRSV).
Paul’s letter to the people in Corinth was written as a warning to a church in trouble. Even though we often hear chapter thirteen read on its own, apart from the rest of the letter, it is important to understand that it was never intended to stand alone, as if it were a fully developed lesson about the beauty of love. It is not a complete unit of thought, but rather a continuation of what he has been saying in the preceding chapter. Chapter thirteen is only some more of the same argument against this divisive sense of self-importance that had apparently sprung up in the hearts of some of the members.
Paul introduces the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians by saying, "Let me show you a more excellent way," and he ends by saying that love is the greatest gift of all—better even than faith, which the writer of Hebrews notes is the "substance of things hoped for"—better even than hope itself.
These varied gifts that each member of the body has, and which manifest themselves in us in different ways, these things that divide us and that we argue over, are in fact the very things that Paul is talking about.
The fact is, if we look closely at the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians, it becomes quite evident that Paul is engaged not only in downplaying the individual gifts of the Holy Spirit in the name of love, but also in trying to make us feel the very opposite of "holier-than-thou."
- Doesn't he argue that gifted speakers are, after all, quite shallow if they are without love?
- Doesn't he convince us that even the greatest faith amounts to nothing without love?
- Doesn't he open our eyes to the revelation that self-sacrifice, no matter how much is given, is wasted without love?
Or just take the complex of emotions that makes up love as Paul describes it and compare them with the attitudes of those who flaunt how many gifts the Holy Spirit has given them:
- If love is patient, think of how impatient some Christians are in their expectations of how things ought to go, and how quickly things ought to happen.
- If love is kind, think of how some, in the name of their own beliefs, put down other people’s beliefs.
- If love is not jealous or boastful, think how some can never seem to take a rest from pointing out how much more genuine and heartfelt and spirit-filled their faith is in comparison to the faith of others.
- If love does not insist on its own way, think of how one-sided some are when they tell people what the Bible says or how the church ought to be run.
- If love is not arrogant or rude, think of how some do all the talking and never listen to the wisdom of their brothers and sisters in the faith.
- If love is not irritable or resentful, think of how those very attitudes are evoked by the narrow-minded and self-righteous posture that some Christians take.
Paul says people who are guided by the love of Christ don't act the way some in the Corinthian church had been acting; that is, impatient, unkind, jealous, boastful, insistent about having one's own way, irritable, resentful, and crowing about those having the wrong qualities. Paul says that the only quality worth bragging about is the love that comes from Christ Jesus. Only the love that comes from Christ lasts from now on. Other gifts, like being prophetic or silver-tongued or knowledgeable, these individual gifts will pass away even before we ourselves pass away. None of us sees the whole picture alone. We are like people looking in a dull mirror, or like children just starting to school. What we know about Christ is very limited. The important thing is not what we think we know. The important thing is what Christ knows about us.
And what advice does Paul give to us with our limited vision? He says, simply, “keep the faith.” Don't lose hope. And above all else, let your lives be filled with Christ's love.
This is the thing that must be at the center of all of us who dare to call ourselves followers of Jesus Christ. Not my ideas or your ideas, not my desires or your desires, not my opinions or your opinions, not my needs or your needs, not my preferences or your preferences, not my vision of what the church should be or how it should be run or yours.
Love must be at the center of our life together as a community of faith. Because if we are grounded first in genuine love, if we speak and act first out of love for our Lord God, for our neighbors, for ourselves, then all other things will follow.
No matter where you are or what you are doing or what happens, do not ever give up on Christ's love, for it is the thing that never ends. As for prophesies, they will come to an end. As for tongues, they will cease. As for those who think they know it all, they will eventually pass.
Let us cling to love, the greatest gift of all, and pass that on to the next generation.
Gospel Track: Jesus: The Miraculous Healer
This week picks up right where we left off last Sunday in Luke’s gospel. It’s at the start of Jesus’ ministry. The setting is the region of Galilee. So what did Jesus do? That’s the question, right? What would Jesus do at the start of a new ministry? Well, Luke has it that Jesus chose to make one of his first appearances in his own hometown of Nazareth.
And of course, anybody and everybody in Nazareth had come out to hear their hometown boy preach.
They had already heard about his growing popularity, how he was drawing great crowds throughout the region. They’d heard about his teaching in the Temple in Jerusalem, the miracles he’d worked in Capernaum. And now they were thinking that he was going to bring some of that fame and fortune back home.
And that maybe, just maybe, he’d saved the very best for them—maybe a healing, a really great miracle, or some mind-blowing teaching—something that would show all the world that a prophet could come from Galilee. So they were pumped! And they all leaned in and listened carefully as he began to speak.
He started with a Scripture. The lesson for the day came the book of Isaiah: He unrolled the scroll and read the prophet’s words: "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 the sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor" (Luke 4:18-19, NRSV).
As Jesus finished the reading, all eyes were fixed on him. They were ready to experience for themselves the wonder of his teaching and to perhaps even witness a miracle or two.
So Jesus rolls up the scroll, gives it back to the attendant, sits down. And he gets off to a very promising start:
"Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing," he tells them. The preacher at the church I attend, Don Morris, once called this the world’s shortest sermon. He called it Luke’s summary of the entire teaching of Jesus in one sentence! A great insight, I thought.
And of course, the crowd thinks so too. They are immediately captivated. "Oh wow! He’s awesome! Isn't he the most amazing, wisest person you have ever heard? Do you know who his parents are? Why, he is Joseph the carpenter’s son! My goodness, can you believe this great man came from our little town of Nazareth?"
But the mood quickly turns sour as Jesus moves to things that make his hometown crowd feel less and less comfortable. He says, "Listen folks. I know the real reason you are here. You want me to do a miracle like the one in Capernaum. But that’s not why I’m here. I’m not the prophet you think I am. I’m not here for you. I am like the great Old Testament prophets Elijah and Elisha who took God’s blessing to non-Jews" (Luke 4:23-27, my personal paraphrase).
So the big question is: Why were the listeners “filled with rage” when Jesus said this? Perhaps it was because what he was saying was that his message wasn’t just for them, for the inside people, the folks from Nazareth, God’s chosen ones.
They were mad because he implied that his message was for everyone. Simply being born Jewish wasn’t going to be what saved them anymore. From now on, God would heal and save whomever God chose to heal and save. So we can see the problem, right? We understand that Jesus’ opening message to his hometown crowd is a message of radical inclusion.
You’d think that the people would love to hear something like this! Doesn’t that sound like good news to you? God is opening hearts, minds, and doors to anyone who will come! God is not just going to save the chosen people anymore. God wants to save everyone!
What’s the problem? Why the discomfort, if that was Jesus' message? What was it that made them so angry that they dragged him to the edge of town so they could throw him off a cliff?
The awful truth is that they were angry because they didn’t really want their God to include everyone. They wanted to maintain their privileged status with God. They wanted Jesus to affirm that they were and would always be favored and special to God. They wanted to make sure they kept the exclusive rights to whatever Jesus was or would become.
The religious identity of the people from Nazareth was founded on the belief that they were God’s chosen people. And so they expected that God would bless them in a very special way through Jesus. They wanted God’s blessing to be for the Jews alone, and not the Gentiles. After all, he was their long-awaited Messiah, the one they had been looking for, the one who would save them, help them to rise above their neighbors and restore Israel to its former glory.
Nazareth was and is even today a very diverse village. In the time of Jesus, there were all kinds of people living in Nazareth: Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, women and men, young and old. Since Nazareth had a mixed population, the Jewish people were a little touchy about their identity. Their status as God’s chosen people was important to them. So when Jesus said to them, "You’re not special. This is no exclusive club. I am here for all people everywhere,” he is really challenging not just their beliefs but their very identity. Who were they if they were not God’s people, chosen for special blessings and privileges? For Jesus to suggest that God could bless all people: the poor, the captives, the oppressed, the blind, Gentiles as well as the Jews, women as well as men, Muslims as well as Christians, unbelievers as well as believers—well, this was a hard pill to swallow. They didn’t want to hear it. And we can understand this, right? We can see why this made them angry. Because really we are no different.
We are Christians. This is our identity. And just like the Jews of Nazareth, we like to think that we are special people, God’s chosen ones, the ones that God will reward and save because we believe in Christ. And that’s fine. In fact, that is at the core of our belief as Christians that if we believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God and confess him as our Lord and Savior, we are saved.
But the problem is a lot of Christians don’t just stop there. We follow it up by making ourselves the judge and jury as to who is in and who is out. We can’t just be content leaving it up to God to decide. We want to be the ones to decide. And we like to think that we not only know who God likes best, but we like to think that we’ve got an exclusive lock on what God wants. We have this whole system set up, this whole moral code about what is right and what is wrong, what is acceptable to God and what isn’t, what is Christian behavior and what is not.
If Jesus came along today and spoke in your Temple, as the guest speaker in your church, and he said to your congregation, “Hey folks, I’ve got good news for you, but let me first remind you that in the time of Elijah God saved only the widow in Sidon who worshiped Baal. And in the time of Elisha God cleansed none of the lepers except the Syrian who worshiped Asherah. I’m here to announce the great news that you aren’t the only ones. God can save whomever God wants,” I would submit that some of our members might take offense.
The United Methodist Church in recent years has embraced a motto or tagline that came from United Methodist Communications. We see it posted in lots of our churches, so that we think it is an official position of the denomination: “Open Hearts, Open Doors, Open Minds.”
While that particular tagline might be relatively new, the idea is not. Methodists have always strived to be an open church. We have strived, although we have not always succeeded. Because being open is a struggle for Methodists, just as it was a struggle for the people of Nazareth. We like the idea of these words, but we may not like the reality quite as much.
As a denomination, we have struggled mightily over the years to be open. For example, as we embark upon Black History Month in February, it would behoove us to remember how many of our Caucasian Methodist forebears couldn’t agree to open their hearts, minds, and doors to their brown and black-skinned brothers and sisters, and how their disagreement was so sharp that the only way forward was to split the church in two.
And how the only way to reconcile some 100 years later was to become united in name only as we proceeded to created a separate but “equal” Central Jurisdiction, a heartbreaking solution to our problem of not being able to be open. That compromise persisted for nearly three more decades until finally, in1968 we finally “officially” began to allow our black brothers and sisters full participation in the United Methodist Church for the first time in our history.
I’m afraid that for those Methodists who just couldn’t open their hearts and minds and doors to their African American neighbors it was, like with the people of Nazareth, an issue of identity. The thought of ending slavery meant ending a culture, a lifestyle, a core identity, for a group of people who truly thought they weren’t doing anything wrong -- people who thought they were truly acting as Christians and truly acting as faithful Methodists.
And so, when challenged at a point of identity, they became so angry and so caught up in protecting themselves and their way of life and their beliefs that they were willing to split the church rather than open their hearts, minds, and doors. They were furious, just like the people of Nazareth who were so furious that they wanted to throw Jesus over a cliff for suggesting that God could be open to people other than the Jews. Why? Because accepting the idea that God’s vision may be different from our own is extremely difficult for us.
God wants to invite folks we think should not be included? For example, worshipers of Baal and Asherah? Well, that’s not right. That can’t be right.
My friends, we may have a sign that says, “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors,” but we all know that people do not suddenly become open just because they post a sign on their website or their bulletin or their walls. It’s not a reality. Not yet, anyway. But maybe it is something to strive for. Maybe posting a sign points us in a direction. Maybe it points to a way of getting us there. Maybe if we can just act as if it is true, it will become true one day.
The story goes that three days before his Aldersgate experience, John Wesley was to preach at a healing service. But John was having a spiritual crisis and didn’t feel that he could bring the Word that evening. He just wasn’t feeling it. So his friend Peter Bohler gave him some advice: "P reach faith until you have it. And then because you have it, you will preach faith." Act as if you have faith, and one day you’ll you turn around and find that you do!
Maybe if we act as if we have open hearts, open minds, and open doors, then one day we will.
Maybe "Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors" is not so much a motto for Methodists as it is a goal. We are, after all, going on to perfection. And maybe if we “act as if” we have open hearts, minds, and doors today, then tomorrow we really will.
Can we trust God to decide who is in and who is out instead of ourselves? Or does that idea just make us angry? Jesus told the people from his hometown that God loves the whole world. Not just them, but everyone. Can we embrace that as God’s vision? Can we sit in the synagogue of Nazareth listening to Jesus say: "Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing!" and hear it as God’s amazing good news? Can we find miraculous healing by living into that vision?
Or will we hear his words as an uncomfortable challenge and become angry and frightened and say, "I've had about enough of this. This is not what I came here to hear today. I know what is right and what is wrong, and that man Jesus just doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He’s nobody. He’s just Joseph the carpenter’s son. And clearly he’s got it all wrong about God. Let’s throw him off the cliff!"
Either way we hear him, the good news is this: By the power of the Holy Spirit he has passed through the midst of us and will go on his way to love and to heal and to announce God’s love for all people, all the way to the cross.
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