Wednesday, November 8, 2006

Sermon for November 5, 2006

Whose Side is God On?
Luke 4:16-21

“If you’re a rock worshiper and a tree-hugger and an animal-rights activist and an anti-war draft dodger, you might want to stay home and tune in to NPR on the radio because you ain’t going to have a good time [here this morning] you ain’t a flag-waving, Bible-waving American.”

Can I get an "Amen"? Anybody?

Those remarks come from the Rev. Jeff Fugate, a southern Baptist minister from Kentucky who has trying to get his congregation psyched up about an upcoming religious rally. Fugate’s “I Love America” sermon lived up to his billing. At the July 2 event -- which cost his church more than $50,000 to stage -- Fugate criticized liberals, homosexuals, cross-dressers, HBO, Hollywood stars, rock musicians and the U.S. Supreme Court, as thousands applauded. He told non-Christian immigrants to “leave your religions, your Bibles, all the other things back where you came from.” How did it become possible to say that to be a follower of Jesus is to be a flag-waving American? Or a flag-waving anything for that matter? Can we really claim that God is on our side and our side alone?

American or Iraqi? Christian or Muslim? Rich or poor? Married, single or divorced? Gay or straight? Patriarch or feminist? Child or adult? Patriots or Giants? (Honestly, people always ask me to pray that their sport's teams will win. They must have money riding on the game. I'm not sure whether God really cares about the outcome of sporting events.) Whose side is God on? One way can figure out whose side God is on is to look in the Bible and read about the people with whom Jesus spent his time.

I think this passage gives a clear answer to our question. Jesus unrolls a scroll from the prophet Isaiah, and reads passages about how God is going to restore the Israelite exiles. God will renew the people by being present with those who have been forgotten by society. The poor. The blind. The prisoner. Jesus takes that mission upon himself. He goes where God goes and does what God does. God again reveals himself as the loving Giver. Let’s take a moment to look at each of these categories of people.

The poor are mentioned first. The poor often had to sell themselves or family members into slavery to pay off debts. Jesus was filled with compassion for the poor, not only the spiritually poor, but also those who were socially and economically poor. When you realize how contemptible poor people were, you will understand how revolutionary Jesus was. In the Greek, the verb “I spit” is ptuoh. The word for poor or beggar is ptochos. I poor person was literally a “spit upon one.” Jesus seeks out these spit upon ones and says, “I have good news for you. The day of richness has come upon you.”

Then there are Prisoners. Some commentators think Jesus may have been referring to imprisoned debtors. These people lived behind bars because they owed something to someone. Jesus says that part of his mission is to proclaim freedom and forgiveness for debtors. Jesus forgives the offenses that shackle people. The world around us is also full of people who are imprisoned in fear, anxiety and doubt. Bars of depression, violence, loneliness, and greed cage in all kinds of people. Jesus knew that words of courage, peace, love and justice have the power to bring freedom to those who are imprisoned by situations of life.

A while ago a prison inmate wrote the following account:
In the summer of 1987, I had just finished my third year on San Quentin’s death row. I was getting ready to spend my time exercising when the guard told me, “You’re going to miss Mother Teresa. She’s coming today to see you guys.” Yea, sure. I thought this is just one more of those designs they have on us. But after awhile I heard the commotion and the bells went off, and I realized maybe this was true. “Don’t go into your cells and lock up. Mother Teresa stayed to see you guys, too.” So I jogged up to the front in gym shorts and a tattered basketball shirt with the arms ripped out, and on the other side of the security screen was this tiny woman who looked 100 years old. Yes, it was Mother Teresa. You have to understand that, basically, I’m a dead man. I don’t have to observe any sort of social convention; and as a result, I can break all the rules, say what I want. But one look at this Nobel Prize winner, this woman so many people view as a living saint, and I was speechless. Incredible vitality and warmth came from her wizened, piercing eyes. She smiled at me, blessed a religious medal, and handed it to me. I wouldn’t have walked voluntarily to the front of the tier to see the Warden, the Governor, the President, or the Pope. I could not care less about them. But standing before this woman, all I could say was, “Thank you, Mother Teresa.” Then I stepped back to let another dead man come forward to receive his medal. Then Mother Teresa turned and pointed her hand at the sergeant. “What you do to these men,” she told him, “you do to God.” The sergeant almost faded away in surprise and wonder.
I think that’s what Jesus did. He reached across social barriers and touched prisoners.

Jesus spent a lot of time giving sight to blind eyes. For that matter, he spent a lot of time with sick people. Jesus was a healer who spoke words of wholeness. He prayed for healing for the blind, sick and lame -- people who were looked upon by society as liabilities. Jesus always found ways to be a healer of broken emotions, broken relationships, and broken communities. He knew that when you take care of the physical problems, it allows people to accept new spiritual realities. To the blind Jesus says, “I have good news for you. The day of a new, healing vision has come.”

Jesus also talks about Release for Captives. This phrase can also be translated as “forgiveness for the downtrodden.” Jesus committed himself to speaking words of forgiveness to those who needed to know the grace and mercy of God. Jesus experienced the injustices suffered by outcasts and he treated all people with fairness, and compassion.

Compassion is about opening people up to the reality of God’s love. Compassion has to do with suffering along with the downtrodden. Who is oppressed in our community? What about the grieving parent who is told that it’s time to get over the death of a child. What about those who work for a wage they can’t live on without going into debt, but who cannot get another job? What about those whose housing is appalling, but who can’t afford to move? What about those who may be earning big money, but who have to work every hour because otherwise they won’t get the bonuses or they won’t have the job security, and they won’t be able to pay their huge mortgage? Jesus is saying, “I have good news for you. The day of your release has come.”

Whose side are you on? The next time you are choosing sides for God, look around. Where are the weak and the powerless? Where are the ones that can’t defend or speak for themselves? Where are the ones who are trapped and can’t find the key to freedom? That’s where God will be. So be sure you pick the right side.

God’s on the side of the child, regardless of nationality, searching for a family in the rubble that was once home. God’s with the grief-stricken, the lonely, the desperate and the broken-hearted. Our God, who knows suffering so well, is with those like the disgraced criminal dying on a cross beside Christ. Our God, it seems, is rather passionately on the side of these so-called “losers.”

So, whose side are you on? Ever heard or said something like this:
“There’s so much pain out there. I suppose someone has to address it, but why should I have to do it? I mean, I’ve got my hands full right now, what with working 60 hours a week and my family and all. Besides, I’ve worked hard to get what I have. Why shouldn’t be able to enjoy it?”
How about this one:
“Yes, I know. The world is full of injustice and all. It needs to be corrected, but that will take a better person than I. It will take a Martin Luther King, Jr., a Gandhi, a Mother Theresa. Maybe all three rolled into one. I can’t to that; I’m just an ordinary sort of person.”
I’ve thought things like that myself. It’s a problem, because if Jesus reaches out as God’s loving Giver, and we are supposed to follow in his steps, the excuses don’t really do much but to perpetuate the brokenness of the world.
Author and lecturer Leo Buscaglia once talked about a contest he had been asked to judge. The purpose of the contest was to find the most caring child. The winner was a four-year-old child whose next-door neighbor was an elderly man who had recently lost his wife. Upon seeing the man cry, the little boy went into the old man’s yard, climbed onto his lap, and just sat there. When his mother asked him what he had said to the neighbor, the little boy said, “Nothing, I just helped him cry.”

Of course, you can’t solve the world’s problems by yourself. Most of these problems took generations and millions of people acting badly to create. One person cannot solve any of them acting alone during one life-time.

Even though you can’t do it all, does that mean you can’t do anything? You can’t hold one weeping, broken person in the circle of your love?

God is on the side of the poor, the prisoner, the blind and the oppressed. And through us God says to them, “Today, your day of freedom has come.” Whose side are you on, and what are you going to do about it?

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