Monday, February 1, 2010

Inconvenient Truth – Do Over -- A Sermon

Remember when you were a kid and you were out playing a game with your buddies? Doesn’t matter what game, but sometimes you’d mess up and shout, “Do over!” As adults, we don’t always get a chance for a do-over.

But today I do. Because the sermon I was going to preach last week works equally well this week. In fact, I think the gospels for last week and this week should have been read together anyway because they are really one story arc.

Think about the story. In last week’s gospel, Jesus begins his earthly ministry at home in Nazareth by reading in the synagogue:

“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, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

How inconvenient for his listeners. They just didn’t realize it was inconvenient until TODAY’s gospel. At first they were thrilled by what Jesus read.

Let’s set the stage to see what happened.

The synagogue was the seat of learning in first century Israel. It’s where people studied the Torah, and where any educated man could preach. But Jesus wasn’t any educated man. The likelihood is that he had been away – presumably as a student with a wandering rabbi, as was tradition for the highly gifted.

And NOW he’s returning home as a rabbi himself – that is to say, someone capable of taking on his own students. [NOTE: rabbis back then were not the same as rabbis today, and the designation was much less formal. However, it designated someone highly educated and able to teach others.]

Even though any adult male could read and comment on the scriptures, a rabbi could read from the prophets, and a newly minted from the hometown would get a special hearing. This is a friendly audience, people ready to be proud.

And they loved this passage because when Isaiah wrote it, it wasn’t about the needy, it was about Israel. Isaiah wrote this when Israel was in exile. It is a promise that the down-and-out nation that it would be restored to its former glory.

And guess what? Israel NOW is down and out as well, suffering under Roman occupation. They are looking for someone to come in and restore their fortunes, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. From his audience’s perspective, Jesus is telling them, “God is going to whoop those Romans, just wait and see.”

But then, he has to keep talking in TODAY’s gospel. Because like any good preacher, he doesn’t know when to quit.

Not that he puts them to sleep. No, he tells them the truth, and it is a truth they don’t want to hear, a very inconvenient truth as it were.

He says, “This isn’t about you.”

It’s like a smack in the face. How can it not be about them? And if not, then who’s it about?

And what he tells them in essence, is that he really is sent here to bring good news to the poor, to bring sight to the blind, to bring release to the captives and freedom to the oppressed. But not just a nation – to ALL the poor, blind, captive and oppressed.

His mission is not a national mission – nobody who follows Jesus will be holding up “Israel is #1” banners. His mission is a HUMAN mission. And to Jesus, it doesn’t matter where that person is – if they are hurting, they are his.

The inconvenient part of Jesus’ sermon – and remember, this is his first sermon, the one that sets the tone for his entire ministry – is that it says we are here to alleviate suffering. Not starting with our own – this whole “Charity begins at home” business is garbage to him. He says, “If someone is suffering, do something about it. If a person is God’s concern, then that person is your concern.”

Want proof? Notice how mad they get, mad enough to kill him. That’s because the examples Jesus gives for the type of people God reaches out to are specifically foreigners. Outsiders. People who are no good.

Worse yet, in just a few words, Jesus implies that, Not only is Israel NOT the center of God’s universe, but the people of Israel might want to quit playing “Victim” all the time because others hurt, too. Maybe they should get off their backsides and do something to help others.

The other inconvenient truth in this is that Jesus never just speaks to his biblical audience. He speaks to us, too. And although I think the message of reaching out beyond ourselves in love is pretty strong here at St. James’, I also know that we – like everyone else – still have the temptation to fall back into that “poor me” attitude, the attitude that says, “let’s just take care of ourselves.”

We’re little, we’re broke, the problems of the world are too big.

This isn’t the smack in the face that it was for Jesus’ friends and family in his first sermon. For us, it’s more a reminder. We are here to do more than keep a building up and running. We are here to bring good news to the poor and freedom to the oppressed.

As Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple said back in World War II, The church exists for the sake of those outside it. And as long as there are poor, sick, captives and oppressed, we’ll be on the job. It’s not very convenient, I know, but it is God’s way. And it is good. Amen.