Monday, February 1, 2016

January 31, 2016 - Growth in Vision

This was a sermon in three parts, each part delivered at a different point in the service.  It was originally the sermon for January 24, but a snow storm changed our plans.

              If we are going to talk about growth then we need to talk about growth in our vision of what it means to be Christian and what it means to be church.  So much of our talk about Christianity these days is about the personal, the individual.  The fastest growing congregations in the U.S. tend to be those that make faith more about the personal relationship with Jesus than with the social nature of the gospel.  Even in our congregation I have heard a fair amount of talk about wanting to keep this or that person happy.  I suppose that is one of the advantages of small church life.  In Luke, Jesus does not begin his ministry with a call to comfort and warm feelings.  He does not stand in the midst of the congregation and tell them how to feel good or feel better about themselves.  He does not tell them to praise him or love him.  He says nothing about God loves you or I love you or I want you to be happy.
              Instead he presents a vision, drawn from the prophet Isaiah, a vision that challenges and provokes, a vision that speaks not of love but of freedom, from poverty, from oppression.  It begins with a message of good news for the poor, not the poor in spirit, not some symbolic interpretation of spiritual poverty, but the poor; the needy.  This ministry is going to identify with poor and needy people.  Especially in Luke, God’s favor rests upon the poor and needy.  In Luke’s gospel, the version of the sermon on the plain says, “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven…Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”
              What does this mean for a congregation like us or for a church like the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America which is made up primarily of middle to upper middle class white people?  Periodically when I read the Lutheran magazine and the letters to the editor, there will often be voices criticizing the larger church for taking up what the author sees as liberal causes, all this talk of raising the minimum wage, confronting racism, welfare reform, welcoming refugees.  To be fair, I doubt the authors of these letters have any issues with sponsoring food banks or doing projects to help people in need, they just don’t want the church involved in what they see as political issues.  “Let’s get back to the gospel,” an author might say.
              And this would be so much easier if Jesus had presented the gospel as generic good news instead of declaring it as good news for the poor and something that Jesus fulfills.  There is a challenge here to expand our vision from a gospel that makes us feel good (and it should make us feel good.  There is nothing wrong with that) to a gospel that makes us aware and calls us to pay attention, sets us free to serve those who need freedom.  And that may well call us into the political realm if that is how we can best serve those who need freedom, from poverty, from racism and injustice, from oppression in another country.
              If we say we believe that Jesus brings good news.  If we say that we want to be part of that good news then that has to be more than what happens here on a Sunday morning.  Jesus proclaims good news that is going to change the world around us and he invites us to be part of that vision.  What happens in worship is nice and can be a way to sustain your personal faith, but Jesus is calling us beyond Sunday morning to be part of a faith and a vision that changes the world.
Part 2: Jubilee – A Hard Restart
              When Jesus reads this passage from Isaiah he aligns himself with an idea that Isaiah pulls out of the book of Leviticus, the year of the Lord’s favor, also referred to as the year of jubilee.  The description of the jubilee year sounds a bit like Bernie Sanders on steroids.  Every fiftieth year in Israel, all slaves were to be set free; debts were to be forgiven; if you had sold your land to someone, it was returned to you.  Among scholars, there has always been a debate as to whether this idea was ever put into effect (the organization of seems very difficult) or whether this was an text included as a symbolic ideal for Israel, a reminder that God owned the land and so was in charge of it distribution; a reminder that Israel was supposed to be a place of freedom.  Clearly by Jesus’ time, it was symbolic idea.  There is no evidence that Israel was celebrating jubilee years under Roman rule.
              In all of my dealing with people who work with computers, computer science majors and tech support people, the one question that they always ask when there is a problem is, “Did you try to restart the computer?”  As programs run and searches are made, what amounts to a kind processing crud develops as instruction in conflict with one another try to run.  So they say first, turn off the computer and let it restart, turning off the conflicting instructions and beginning from scratch.  This is the nature of jubilee, starting over, rebooting the system, letting go of bad data and bad instructions.  Imagine if society could just reboot, letting go of all the “isms” that we have created, letting go of the grasping for power, letting go of the lines of code that tell who to like and who to hate.
              Imagine if your life could just reboot, letting go of all the mistakes and missteps, learn the lessons but lose the shame.  That’s the vision people were invited to in the synagogue.  Jesus stands up reads the text and, rather than giving the expected interpretation on the text, he declares that he has fulfilled it.  Jesus doesn’t just talk about the jubilee; he is the jubilee.  He is the means by which we restart the system and reboot our lives. 
              So I’m going to invite you into a couple of minutes of silent jubilee.  Let the worries about tomorrow and concerns about the past slip by.  As they come, greet them and let them go past.  Take a moment to reboot and rediscover a loving God who sets you free.  And when we are done, we will share the peace with another, because jubilee is not just for you; it is for all.

Part 3: A Generosity of Purpose
              We have heard the word of jubilee.  We have hit the reset button.  We have dined at the table.  As I said before, I hope all of that was nice and made you feel good in some way.  But now what?  Growing in vision is a good place to start.  Understanding that the good news is not just about a personal interaction with the divine, but calls us to a broader view, is a good start.
              Growing in purpose is the next step.  Why are we here in this community?  Why is Christ Lutheran here today and what difference would it make if we weren’t?  We don’t need to be here.  There are other churches and they should all be asking the questions.  What are we doing here?  What is our purpose here?
              Now we may all answer that question with slight differences based on theology, history, resources and talents.  Yet somewhere in that answer there should be some variation that we are here to declare God’s jubilee.  We are here to declare freedom and joy, not just for ourselves, but for the world.
              As you leave today realize that you are part of that vision, you are part of God’s jubilee.  Live it in the way you with others.  Declare it with every breath and kindness.  Spread it so that all may be free.
              May almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit bless you with peace and send you with vision and purpose.  Along with Jesus, we declare…
              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 captive and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.