Monday, January 11, 2010

Sermon for January 10, 2010

Jesus, Breaker of Boundaries
Luke 4:14-21

Imagine what it might sound like if Moms wrote the laws of the Bible. Forget all this stuff about ritual purity and the dimensions of the fork used to stir sacrificial meat. Mom’s laws would be more practical. For instance, from “Mom’s Laws”: Do not scream; for it is as if you scream all the time. If you are given a plate on which two foods you do not wish to touch each other are touching each other, your voice rises up even to the ceiling, while you point to the offense with the finger of your right hand; but I say to you, scream not, only remonstrate gently with the server, that the server may correct the fault. Likewise if you receive a portion of fish from which every piece of herbal seasoning has not been scraped off, and the herbal seasoning is loathsome to you and steeped in vileness, again I say, refrain from screaming. Though the vileness overwhelm you, and cause you a faint unto death, make not that sound from within your throat, neither cover your face, nor press your fingers to your nose. For even not, I have made the fish as it should be; behold, I eat it myself, yet do not die.” That’s another way of saying, “Stop complaining and eat your dinner.”

Most of us know the Ten Commandments (or at least the important ones), but how well do any of us know all the rules of the Bible and adhere to them? How about trying to live like Jesus did? Tow authors tried it recently. A.J. Jacobs best selling book is called, The Year of Living Biblically, in which he tried to follow all 613 laws in the Old Testament. Inspired by reading Jacob’s book, megachurch minister Rev. Ed Dobson claims he spent a year “living like Jesus.” after reading The Year of Living Biblically. This one-time architect of the religious right, the man who preached for 18 years at a very conservative church, read the four Gospels every week. He followed Old Testament laws about eating, clothing and behavior, since Jesus was a Jew whose followers created Christianity. Observing kosher dietary requirements to not mix meat and dairy products, Dobson gave up his beloved chicken-and-cheese burritos. He took to heart Jesus’ commands to help the poor and visit the imprisoned. He also heeded his warning that only those who do God’s work will enter heaven.” Jesus is a very troubling individual,” Dobson said. Jesus’ troubling teachings influenced Dobson to vote for Barack Obama — his first vote for a Democrat for president. I’m not trying to make a political statement here. I want you to understand just how much this “experiment” changed Dobson. He said, “I felt, as an individual, he was closer to the spirit of Jesus’ teachings than anyone else. (Obama) was a community organizer, so he was into the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, which Jesus is very much into.”

Dobson is in hot water with some conservatives over his statement that living like Jesus influenced him to vote for Obama. He also admitted that he drank an occasional beer while witnessing for Christ. On a positive side, he admitted that he can’t wait to eat burritos again.

How many of you have read all those rules in Leviticus and Deuteronomy? I’m betting that a lot of you haven’t. More well intended resolutions to read the Bible cover to cover falter on the pages of Leviticus than any other book of the Bible. If you have read Leviticus, you know that it is filled with pages and pages of rules. Many of the rules sound bizarre to us. In fact most of us break a great number of them nearly every day. For example, if you don’t eat kosher foods, if you like bacon, or if you wear cotton polyester blend clothing, you are breaking a number of the laws in Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

Religious rules are hardly restricted to Christianity. Jews and Muslims have rules. You’ll find rules in Hinduism and Taoism and in the local tribal religion of some remote South Pacific island. Religion is, at least in part, about learning to live in ways that cohere with what we created to be. We need rules, both the kind that restrain evil and those that guide us in shaping our lives so that they will be good and abundant and meaningful. Rules also set the boundaries of the community. Who’s in and who’s out? What are the minimum standards for membership? What are the behaviors that will get you tossed out?

Who’s in and who’s out? The question is not just an ancient one. I read about a professor who had an interesting way of picturing the difference between God and humans. God is like this (throwing arms wide open), forever going out from God’s self, creating out of love, embracing out of love. But humans are sinful and like this (hunching over and pulling in arms as if clinging to something). They’re constricted, driven to protect what is theirs, to cling to what they think is theirs, and to draw lines and boundaries to keep out people who scare them or who are too different from them. All to say, we need to be careful when we say that certain rules are God’s rules. Sometimes we get confused and think that human rules came from God, when they really developed from our own fears.

All of us have ended up on the outside of those lines and boundaries. We’ve been told that we are too young or too old, too pretty or too ugly, the wrong gender, the wrong political party. We went to the wrong school or lived in the wrong place. We didn’t have enough money or didn’t belong to the right club or organization. We weren’t smart enough or educated enough. Who’s in and who’s out? Nearly all of us know what it’s like to be out. But the amazing love of God in Jesus reaches out wide across all lines and boundaries saying, “My love is for you, too.”

We hear it in today’s reading from Luke. For Luke, Jesus is the golden boy. Luke has stated several times how Jesus continues to grow in wisdom and divine favor. Jesus is filled with spirit and power. Glowing reports of his teaching and preaching spread. Naturally, the folks from the hometown are delighted to have him preach at their synagogue. Jesus goes home to kick off his ministry and mission, like a political candidate today might launch his campaign at the old home place to show his humble roots and strong support for godly values.

The scripture reading he picks for his inaugural sermon is filled with history and promise. Their ears perked up as the words from Isaiah rolled out – “good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind.” And summing it all up, “The year of the Lord’s favor.” Everyone caught his drift. It refers to the Jubilee year that is supposed to turn society upside down every 50 years. You recall the first creation story in Genesis – 6 days of work followed by the 7th day of Sabbath rest. God rested, so human beings are to rest, even slaves and animals rest weekly. The book of Leviticus describes a sabbatical year, 6 years of work followed by a 7th year of rest. IN the seventh year, fields were to lie fallow, slaves released, and debts erased. Leviticus also has a seven year cycle. After 49 years, or seven cycles of seven years, there was supposed to be a 50th year Jubilee. Not only were slaves released and debts erased, but lands were to be returned to their original stewards. Anyone who had lost their holdings through debt or drought would be restored as a trustee of God’s estate. Jesus is raising some tall expectations by reading this passage. He is saying, “It’s time to ring in a Jubilee year.”

Some of the people are amazed. Murmurs of disbelief and excitement ripple through the congregation. All these wonderful things are going to start right in the little hicktown of Nazareth. God has finally remembered the poor little folk. Can you believe it? Herod’s glitzy temple in Jerusalem is not the center of the universe. Now that Jesus is here, roaring in like a first-century Superman, maybe he can save their city, make it a decent place to live and raise families.

Others were threatened. Release captives? Hang out with the blind and the lame? Associate with the poor? These were boundaries that good people did not cross. Captives were in prison for doing something wrong – for defying Rome. The blind and the lame were seen as those who were punished for their sin and the sins of their families. If God was teaching them a lesson, why get in the way? How do you think wealthy landowners would feel about the Jubilee year? Erasing debts and returning land the poor? Redistributing wealth? Not a popular message to those who want to protect their portfolio.

Jesus’ hometown crowd hears a tactless reminder that God does not necessarily act the way we want God to act. We believe that God is gracious, but often we are most interested in God’s grace for ourselves. Yet we are called upon to acknowledge that grace is extended to all, those outside our church doors, those outside our faith, those who are outside our boundaries of acceptability.

Jesus is a breaker of boundaries. He comes to shake us up and help us follow him into a new reality.

We put boundaries around ourselves all the time. We put limits on our vision. We decide that God has only one way. For some strange reason, God’s way seems to mirror our own needs.

It’s time to give up our worries. It’s time to let go of constricting, self-protecting expectations. This is a big challenge for an old church that has been maintaining its traditions for almost 300 years. Are we wilting? Sagging? Wearing down? Sliding toward the sideline? Burdened by buildings, going limp, troubled by the numbers, cutting back? Christ says, “Don’t forget your priorities. The Spirit of the LORD invites you to bring Good News to the poor; to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of God’s favor has come.

When we are settling into our comfortable boundaries, fluffing the pillows, feeling safe with one another, accustomed to the surroundings, and finally feeling unthreatened, Christ comes and says, “Enough with tranquility! I’m the way! The truth! The life! Follow me!”

Just when we’re reading Scripture, extracting important biblical principles from the text, retrieving significant ideas for consideration, and proof texting it to fit our private theologies, Christ gets up, slams the big book shut, and says “OK, let’s stop talking about it. Let’s go do it.”

We have the Spirit that Jesus sent to every one of us. That’s why I know that when you hear what God is doing in the world, there’s a part of you that says, “YES!” You are the Body of Christ in the world. God’s Spirit is on you because God has chosen you to bring good news to the poor. Chosen YOU. Anointed YOU. Given YOU the gifts of the Spirit to see visions and speak truth to power, to invite everyone you know and even people you don’t know, or don’t know yet, to that party we are going to have on that day when every one of us can say, “the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing!”


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