The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s170g10 Epiphany 3 24/1/2010
'he .. was praised by everyone' Luke 4.15
It is interesting that the comment that Jesus 'was praised by everyone' is noted just before Jesus came to his hometown of Nazareth. If we are to take Mark seriously Jesus no longer taught in synagogues following his rejection at Nazareth. The focus of his ministry shifts to the villages and the wilderness where crowds follow him.
Indeed Jesus was initially welcomed into his home congregation. As we will read in next Sunday's gospel, his initial words were greeted enthusiastically, but it was when his audience demanded miracles from him that their attitude turned. He was there to fulfil their desires. In the lovely turn of phrase of Robin R Meyers: 'We are encouraged .. to lead lives of profound selfishness'. ('Saving Jesus from the Church' p52)
Of course it was Jesus' ministry 'to bring good news to the poor .. to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free' for this is the ministry of us all. If our ministry is only the magnification of the church, and through divine osmosis our own magnification we are still essentially selfish. There are always the poor, captives, blind and oppressed, and the eternal mission of all people is to seek to relieve such suffering. Often secular society does a better job at this than does the church! Often the church wants to retain ever so subtle but ever so real oppression over her followers.
As I thought about this it struck me that when Jesus talked about the impending blessings of the kingdom with some reflected status for himself there was no problem with his audience. The problems arose when he talked about blessings for others. The real scandal of the gospel is not that 'Jesus is Lord' but that Jesus loves others as much as Jesus loves us.
And I reflect that Jesus' mission was to bring good news to the poor, not affluence. Jesus' mission was not to relieve their poverty, but to say that they were loved as much as those who were rich. Poverty is not a sign of divine disfavour any more than riches are a sign of the opposite. It remains OUR job to relieve the needs of the poor, it is US who need to share. One has only to think of the generosity being poured out to help those in Haiti to see how motivated 'ordinary' people are to help those in need. It is lovely to hear that Guantánamo Bay is being used for more palatable reasons than in previous times.
Jesus, led by the Spirit, preached in all the synagogues of Galilee, and finally comes to his hometown of Nazareth. Here he was amongst those with whom he had worshipped all his life. He was preaching to people who could name the other members of his family. And what did they want him to preach about? I'm sure that they wanted him to say how much he was indebted to his upbringing and those amongst whom he had worshipped. No doubt they would have wanted him to complement their devotion, the way they did the liturgy, the fabric of the building, how much he appreciated his upbringing. I recall recently a clergy person describe his welcoming of people before the service as 'smooching'. :-) No doubt, Jesus hometown friends would have liked him to reminisce on the good times, to smooch with them. But instead Jesus quotes the scriptures that suggest that God loves others, and their expectation of a pleasant time of self-congratulatory speeches turns to rejection and hatred, as we will read in the continuation of today's gospel, next Sunday. Why should this upstart think to teach us!!! Of course Jesus could preach to others, but he couldn't preach to them!
So again, we are faced with the fact that Jesus was admired by everyone, except those who thought they had an exclusive claim on him. The religious thought that they had an exclusive claim on Jesus. Those who had known him and his family all his life thought that they had some claim on him. And the inescapable conclusion is that despite all our worship, if we think we have a special claim on Jesus as 'christians' we may well likewise be piqued to find that he associates with others, and that our special claim is useless. While our communion is smooching to us alone, that's all right. But Jesus smooches with all. Their exclusive claim on Jesus meant that they didn't have to listen to his words or change their way of life. Of course others have to listen to his words and change THEIR way of life! And I reflect how many good 'christians' think the same things.
In my life in the Anglican Church I think each and everyone agrees that the church has to change to survive. It is almost a statement of faith these days. And everyone agrees to this, and it is someone else who has to do the changing! :-)
As I was reading the psalms awhile back I was struck by the words: 'Their throat is an open grave: they flatter with their tongue.' (5.10). This was just after I read these words of Meyers: 'Such a God is 'awesome,' because we have a penchant for mindless superlatives' (p51).
I was grateful to hear a preacher speaking recently about the western Church as lacking in enthusiasm, and it was a dissertation with which one could hardly disagree. And as I reflect on his words, I suspect that this is a symptom of the western church admiring the 'enthusiasm' of the fundamentalists yet recoiling at the methods. 'Liberalism' oft times seems lukewarm. 'Liberals' have surreptitious dalliances with secularism, knowing the good to which society aspires, and the legitimate horror they also have over fundamentalism and anti-scientific superstition. But we have been so indoctrinated with a theology of ecclesia where everything outside is inherently misguided and evil; that we baulk at embracing incarnation in all its fullness.
I cannot but quote again Robin Meyers: 'Worship consists of .. effusive praise and tearful thanksgiving for what God has done on behalf of each and every one of us followed by preaching that circles the wagons of what is falsely assumed to be a besieged and righteous minority doing battle against the forces of secular humanism. The rhetoric is that of a western movie, the 'last stand' between the chosen but misunderstood and legions of depraved liberal heathens whose worldly logic has led them to worship false gods (mostly in the temple of the flesh) and who are out to destroy the only true religion by removing it from the public square. (p144)
I was bemused to receive a communication from one of my 'Facebook' friends who wanted to know 'Which Bible character are you?' by answering the questions: 'How is your relationship with God right now? Would you stand up for Jesus in your workplace, school, etc..? Are you a Christian? What kind of Music do you listen too? (sic) What do you want to be?' Another, from the same person, wanted to know 'How Catholic are you?' with the questions: 'The Pope is .. Sola Scriptura (Bible Alone) is .. Vatican 2 was .. Mary is .. Martin Luther is ..' How fascinating that each of these is how we define our distinctiveness from others and how none of these speak about loving others! They are an attempt to challenge others into the enthusiasm of difference. They hold out the carrot of distinctiveness by denying the incarnation.
Jesus 'was praised by everyone' but it was precisely this that upset the orthodox so much. Everyone (else) should not be praising God but be moved to become orthodox like they were. And it should cause us to stop and ponder if the world's perception of our message is something that inspires praise or places demands upon others to become like us? We have this monopoly on the kosher worship of god that we don't recognise how limiting this is for others. We so exclude others from expressing their faith that we consider them godless heathen.
In my pastoral work I marvel how infrequently I receive a knock-back from patients. Sure, some people have no time for the church and clergy for that have been truly burnt, and I can't fix everything. I just wish some 'church' people would experience contact with ordinary people in a non-threatening way to find our how accepting people are of faith and spirituality to inspire and hear others praising God that they too are included.
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