Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Sermon for September 30, 2007

The Prophet Without Honor
Matthew 13:54-58

The following sermon draws heavily upon remarks by James Buchanan at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago:

Remember Junior High romance? I do. There was a girl. And there was a school dance coming up. Not just any dance – our fist middle school semi-formal dance. I was sure this girl would go to the dance with me. I thought she was pretty and fun. But mostly, I knew she would say yes. So, I did what many self-respecting 6th graders do. I had my best friend to ask the girl if she would go to the dance with me. As I saw it, there was only one slight glitch in my plan. My best friend always tried to convince people that he was a Martian who was left on earth as an orphan child. In hindsight, putting my romantic future in the hands of an orphaned Martian may not have been a good move. We all sat on the bleachers in gym class -- the girl and her friends on one side, my best friend and I on the other. He slid over to her, held up his hand in a sign indicating that he came in peace, and he said, “Ya Yaaa! Grok! Dee Doba Pukee Tolba. Reeta bah Flootah Matt” As he said it he pointed at me and smiled. I buried my head in my hands. She looked confused. She apparently did not speak Martian. My best friend then leaned over, cupped his hand over his mouth and whispered something in her ear. She nodded and smiled. My friend quickly shuffled back to me, grinning. She said yes.

That next week, I was so nervous I got sick. My mother and I bought a wrist corsage at the hospital flower shop while visiting a relative. As I picked out my only tie. I knew my date would wear the white dress with the little red polka-dots. It’s the only one I ever saw her wear. I knew it was going to be a good night. Little did I know, It would be my first date with rejection.

We’ve all been there. We’ve all felt the stinging pain of rejection. We’ve been turned down dozens of times. Parents told us no. We’ve been rejected in romance. We have received rejection letters from colleges, or rejection from job applications. Many of us have stifled our life by heeding some misguided critic who implied we were not good enough. Beethoven’s music teacher called him a hopeless composer. Albert Einstein’s parents thought he was sub-normal. At his first dance audition, Fred Astaire was told that he was balding, skinny, and can dance a little. In the dead of night, Charles Dickens sneaked off to mail a manuscript, petrified that his friends would find out and ridicule him. The manuscript was rejected. More rejections pierced him before he won the hearts of millions with classics like Oliver Twist.

Part of what a family is for is to help individuals deal with rejection. A pioneer in family therapy at Chicago Theological Seminary used to say that a family is where you know you will never be turned away; where you will always have a place. Your family is supposed to be the group of people you can count on being on your side. Sometimes we have to find other families when our own doesn’t work. At its best, the Church is a family for us all. And sometimes it does work, at home, the way it is supposed to.

Mel White, an evangelical pastor, professor at Fuller Seminary, author, consultant and writer for Jerry Falwell, husband and father, after years of struggle, announced that he was gay and that he was leaving his marriage and profession. Rejection is a mild word for what happened to him. Former colleagues would not speak or return calls. He was picketed, called names, publicly berated and told that he should be stoned to death, that he would die of AIDS, that he was going to spend eternity in hell. In the middle of it all, White’s parents were caught by a TV interviewer who asked on camera, “You know what other Christians are saying about your son? They say he’s an abomination. What do you think of that?” “Well,” the mother answered in a sweet, quivery voice, “he may be an abomination, but he’s still our pride and joy.”

Family is where you know you have a place. The night of my junior High semi-formal, my family dropped me off at the school. I met my date there. She was a vision of beauty in her white dress with red polka dots and red carnation wrist corsage. We went and sat on the bleachers. As soon as the music started, I knew there was going to be trouble. I’ve always been too self-conscious to dance. I think my date wanted to dance, but I was terrified. I just sat on the bleachers and cracked jokes, hoping to compensate for my fear. Finally, she told me that she had to use the ladies room. She went in with a gaggle of her friends. A half hour later, she was still in there. Over the next hour, her friends would run out of the ladies room and ask me what I did to my date. She was in there sobbing out of control. I didn’t do anything. My poor dancing skills certainly should not have made her cry. She never came out of the restroom that night. I found a pay phone and called my parents to pick me up. I held it together until my father came to get me. I jumped into the front seat of his old silver pick-up, slammed the door. All my father had to do is look at me and ask, “What happened?” I cried all the way home that night. I had felt the first sting of rejection, and didn’t know what to do. I was so glad my father came to get me and bring me to the comfort of my home.

Sometimes the best antidote to rejection is a family that knows how to be a family.

Part of what is going in today’s story of Jesus is that outsiders become insiders, and people who should be insiders become outsiders. The people rejected by religion and society get special treatment from Jesus. Pharisees, scribes, religious officials, don’t get it. They won’t budge. They won’t leave the safety of their rules, regulations, and assumptions in order to entertain a new idea.

The most devout, the most committed, the most pious, are the very ones who hound Jesus, question him, accuse him, berate him, oppose him and ultimately kill him. There is an obvious warning here—not to the overt sinners of this world, but to people of faith. The faith community proved to be Jesus’ toughest audience. And the warning to the church today is contained in that deceptively simple but devastating conclusion.

Jesus moved on. He left. He didn’t have time to waste on people so certain of themselves, so rigid, so arrogantly exclusive that they could not hear, let alone believe, the good news of God’s unconditional love.

One of the reasons they rejected Jesus was their own rigid religiosity. But the other reason was that he was just Jesus. He was the carpenter, Mary’s illegitimate son. He didn’t look like a Messiah. He certainly didn’t act like the Messiah they expected. He didn’t look like or sound like a Word from God. He was just Jesus, an ordinary man, their old neighbor. Jesus cannot force them to believe in him or love one another, and so nothing new happens, no miracles, new birth, no Kingdom of God.

The good folk of Nazareth, in order to get it, are going to have to change the way they think. They will have to live more loosely with their traditions and be open to something new as it comes to them in the ordinary . . . the everyday . . . the commonplace.

How easy it is to miss goodness and beauty and truth—because we think we already know where and how to find it.

Martha Beck wrote a book, Expecting Adam: a True Story of Birth, Rebirth and Everyday Magic about the birth of her son, a little boy with Down Syndrome. The Beck’s Harvard colleagues advised them to terminate the pregnancy because of the hindrance the child would be to their academic career. But Adam was born and changed the way his parents see life. Martha had to accept Adam’s difficulty in speaking. It was frustrating to him and heart breaking to her. At a particularly low point, she was in the grocery store with both of her children and told them they could each pick out a treat at the candy counter. Katie chose Lifesavers and a chocolate bar. But Adam went to a basket of red rosebuds and picked one out. His mother put it back and said, “No, honey, this isn’t candy—don’t you want candy?” Adam shook his small head, picked the rosebud out again, and placed it on the counter. At home the incident was forgotten.

But the next morning, there Adam was in her bedroom, with the rosebud in a small vase. Martha wrote: “I looked at him in surprise. I didn’t realize that he knew what vases were for, let alone how to get one down from the cupboard, fill it with water, and put a flower in it. “Adam walked over to the bed and handed the rose to me. As he held it out, he said in a clear, loud voice, ‘Here.’”

Sometimes goodness and beauty and truth come to us in unexpected and ordinary ways. Sometimes people close to us—children, parents, teachers, students, tutors, husbands, wives, lovers and friends—convey the truth and grace of God and God’s love in Jesus Christ.

He will be rejected, not only on this day when he read and spoke in the synagogue in his hometown, but officially by his religion and by the Roman governing authorities. He will be rejected dramatically by scribes and Pharisees and Priests and by common people caught up in a public spectacle. He will die alone, publicly humiliated.

He will give new meaning to ancient words written by one of his people centuries earlier—
“He was despised and rejected by others: A man of suffering and acquainted with grief.” (Isaiah 53:3)

It is the deepest mystery of our faith that God’s love was expressed through rejection and crucifixion. It is the deepest mystery of our faith that in his rejection we behold God’s deepest commitment and love for us. Whatever else happens to us, whatever rejections scar our hearts and mark our spirits, we are forever welcome and safe in God’s strong love. “Surely,” the ancient prophet said, “he has borne our infirmities he was wounded for our transgressions and by his bruises—by his rejection—we are healed.”

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