Friday, November 14, 2008

Sermon for Sunday, November 9, 2008

Our Core Values: Outreach
Luke 4:16-21
Nov. 9, 2008

Predators seem beautifully designed to catch prey animals, while the prey animals seem equally beautifully designed to escape them. So, whose side is God on? I was thinking about this when I read a story: In the middle of a forest, a hunter was suddenly confronted by a huge, mean bear. In his fear, all attempts to shoot the bear were unsuccessful. Finally, he turned and ran as fast as he could. The hunter ran and ran and ran, until he ended up at the edge of a very steep cliff. His hopes were dim. Seeing no way out of his predicament, and with the bear closing in rather quickly, the hunter got down on his knees, opened his arms, and exclaimed, “Dear God! Please give this bear some religion!” The skies darkened and there was lightning in the air. Just a few feet short of the hunter, the bear came to an abrupt stop, fell to its knees, folded its mighty paws together, and owed its head. Then the bear began to speak: “Thank you, God, for the food I’m about to receive.”

People always claim that God is for them and them alone. Whose side is God on? Is God a Democrat or a Republican? Male or female? A warrior or a peacenik? A Yankees or a Red Sox fan? Does God say “to-may-to” or “to-mah-to”? We all like to think that God is on our side. When we ask God to be our personal cheerleader, it must that we are also asking God to jeer those who oppose us. After all, God can’t be on everyone’s side. That would not make sense. In our righteousness, we insist that God’s opinions match with ours. We sift through the Bible for nuggets that justify our claim to God’s favor. In the process, we present a vision of God that is fragmented, partisan, divided. We divvy God in little divine pieces among us.

Think about the Pharisees, both ancient and modern They will tell you that you have to follow all of their rules and rituals to the letter in order to be acceptable to God. Except they never show you the small print on the membership contract: you will never be good enough to join, so just stay away. So, whose side is God on?

Rich or poor? Married, single or divorced? Gay or straight? Patriarch or feminist? Child or adult? Whose side is God on? One way can find out is on is to look in the Bible and read about with whom Jesus spent his time. To whom did he reach out? With this question in mind, let's turn to today's Gospel reading.

When he came to the village of Nazareth, his boyhood home, he went as usual to the synagogue on the Sabbath and stood up to read the Scriptures. The scroll of Isaiah the prophet was handed to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where this was written:
“The Spirit of the LORD is upon me,
for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,
that the blind will see,
that the oppressed will be set free,
and that the time of the LORD’s favor has come.”

He rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the attendant, and sat down. All eyes in the synagogue looked at him intently. Then he began to speak to them. “The Scripture you’ve just heard has been fulfilled this very day!”
Whose side is God on? I think this passage gives a clear answer to our question. Jesus unrolls a scroll from the prophet Isaiah, and read a passage that talk 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 is revealed as the loving Giver. Let’s take a moment to look at each of these categories of people.

The poor are mentioned first. As in our day, the poor were not influential people. They 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 abundance has come.”

Then there are Prisoners. Some commentators think Jesus may have been referring to imprisoned debtors. If so, these people were behind bars because they owed something to someone. Prisoners are contemptible people. Jesus says that part of his mission is to proclaim freedom for prisoners and forgiveness for debtors. Jesus cancels debts. He forgives the offenses that shackle people. They have wronged us and are being punished. Jesus committed himself to speaking words of courage and peace, love and justice. Jesus knew that words of faith spoken with compassion 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 the social barriers and touched prisoners. And most of us are prisoners, from time to time. We are trapped to jobs, to circumstance, to children, to spouses, to singleness, to childlessness, to the economy, to addictions, to infirmities; prisoners of expectations, hopes, fears, regrets, uncertainties, and griefs; we are prisoners of out worn ideas and of futures that have not arrived; prisoners of our own shame, of our own apathy, of regrets for the past, of hopes for the future, of our own greed. There are moments when it breaks into each of our consciousness with a terror that chills. To the prisoner, Jesus offers a simple message. “I have good news for you. Today can be your day of freedom.”

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. And, realizing the great injustices suffered by outcasts, he treated all people with fairness, and compassion.

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.”

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 living in sub-standard housing but they can’t afford to move? What about those who may be earning big money, but who have to work every hour 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.”

God is on the side of the people who lay down their loves sacrificially. 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.”

The real question is, whose side are we on? At TCC, we have identified outreach as one of our core values. We desire to extend God’s love, through service and outreach, to those in the community and the world, as best as we are able. Who are the targets of our outreach? Are we reaching out to those who have captured God’s heart? 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. And that’s where we need to be.

Have you ever heard or said something like this:
“There’s so much pain out there. I suppose someone’s got 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.

I may not be a Ghandi, but all that means is that I am not called to lead a movement. It does not mean that I am not called to love compassionately. When our love becomes truly compassionate, then we begin to understand what to do. We begin to see what’s happening around us. We notice those who are already doing outreach, and how they’re doing it. We begin to see what people really need, and we begin to have the courage to make that thing happen. And that begins to change the world, even if it is only a small part of the world.

Of course, you can’t do it all. Most of these problems took generations and millions of people acting badly to create. One person cannot solve any of them acting alone and for only a lifetime. You can’t do it all, but you can do something. You can hold one weeping person in the circle of your love. And that kind of outreach has power to change the world.

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