Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Sermon for February 3, 2013

Jesus, Breaker of Boundaries
Then Jesus returned to Galilee, filled with the Holy Spirit’s power. Reports about him spread quickly through the whole region. He taught regularly in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 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. 17 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!”
Luke 4:14-21
Imagine what the Bible might have sounded like if it was written for families by parents.  God knows we parents have a lot of rules, and we say them over and over and over again. Forget all the minutia about things like the dimensions of the fork used to stir sacrificial meat. Parent’s laws are more practical. I do a lot of the cooking in the Braddock household, so one of my dinnertime laws might sound something like this: Do not scream; for it is to my ears 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 whining 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? Two men tried it a while back and wrote about it in a book called The Year of Living Biblically. Author A.J. Jacobs tried to follow all 613 laws in Hebrew Scriptures. Jacobs followed dietary laws, laws about stoning and laws about how to sacrifice animals. He also took  a crack at laws such as Leviticus 19:19: “You shall not let your animals breed with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials.” In modern times, with our food production and our clothing blends, I think we have fully succeeded in breaking all three of those!

Inspired by reading Jacob’s book, former megachurch minister Rev. Ed Dobson claimed he spent a year living like Jesus. Jacobs is known as one of the architects of the religious right, a man who preached for 18 years at a very conservative church. In his year of living like Jesus, Dobson followed scriptural rules about eating, clothing and behavior, since Jesus was a Jew who probably followed the same ritual laws. In order to observe kosher dietary requirements to not mix meat and dairy products, Dobson gave up his beloved chicken-and-cheese burritos. He followed Jesus’ commands to help the poor and visit the imprisoned. His conclusion?  “Jesus is a very troubling individual.” In fact, Jesus’ teachings were so troubling, they influenced conservative, Evangelical, founding-Board-member-of –the-Moral-Majority Ed Dobson to vote for Barack Obama in 2008 — his first vote for a Democrat for president. He wrote, “I felt, as an individual, [Obama] 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.” I’m not trying to make a political statement here. What I’m trying to understand is the human tendency to marginalize those who threaten the status quo. It turns out, when you preach the golden rule, people try to ruin you. Some have even been killed for it.  Dobson plunged himself into hot water with some of his colleagues over his decision. And that’s an understatement.  On a positive side, Dobson admitted that he couldn’t wait to eat burritos again.

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 religions. 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 more closed (hunching over and pulling in arms as if clinging to something). We are constricted, driven to protect what is ours, clinging to what we think we own. We 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 sexual orientation, 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 introductory 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 were 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, 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 people were taught not to cross. Captives were in prison for doing something wrong – like defying Rome. People were taught that the blind and the lame were being 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 a Protestant Christian tradition that is wilting, sagging and wearing down, troubled by the numbers, and cutting back. Christ says, “Don’t forget the priorities. The Spirit of the LORD invites us 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!” We are the Body of Christ in the world. God’s Spirit is on us because God has chosen us to bring good news to the poor. Chosen US. Anointed US. Given US 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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