Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Home Town Boy Comes Home

What is it like to grow up in a small town and have everyone know you?  Many in Weimar can relate to this because some have never left the town they grew up in while others left for their working years and have returned to retire here.  What is is like to be around people who knew you when you were growing up and have memories about the person you were then but cannot seem to accept you for the person you are now?

Perhaps that is what happened when Jesus went back to Nazareth after being baptized and tested in the wilderness.  Luke 4 recounts the story about Jesus reading from Isaiah 61 during his turn to read in the synagogue in Nazareth.  He stood to read the Isaiah passage and then sat down to talk about it, as was the custom with rabbis in his day.  All of those present watched his intently as he began, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."  With those words, Jesus proclaimed to them that the one whom Isaiah declared 800 years before stood before them.  Jesus was saying that it was he whom Isaiah had predicted would come one day.  Could he be the Messiah?

At first everyone spoke graciously about him.  After all, this was the son of Mary and Joseph.  They had watched him grow up in their village.  They had seen him playing with the other boys and chasing about as children do.  They had watched him as he had grown and perhaps had seen him in the synagogue regularly, as was his custom.  He was Jesus, the boy they all knew who had been gone for a brief period of time but was not back in his village and expected to conform to their expectations of what he should be like.

Suddenly, they did not like what they heard him say.  The words of Isaiah he read were not "fulfilled" in their hearing?  Did he actually think that he was the one that Isaiah had written about so long ago?  Surely not, he is just the son of a carpenter, the boy who belonged to the peasant family that they all knew well.

If that brief statement made them wonder about him, what would his longer explanation do to them?  Jesus went on to explain that God worked miracles among the Gentiles as well as the Jews when he spoke of the stories in the Hebrew Scriptures that told about Elijah and Elisha doing works for the widow of Zaraphath and Namaan the Syrian leper.  It was as if he was telling them that God loved Gentiles as well as Jews and would do the things for them that God had promised to his chosen people, Israel.

Suddenly, their graciousness turned to anger and wrath.  Suddenly, they did not want him in their presence or anywhere for that matter.  They wanted him dead.  So, they led him to a cliff  and were going to throw him off but somehow in the confusion of it all, he escaped their grip and their wrath.  Jesus went on his way, and the angry mob somehow made their way back to the city to tell each other how wrong Jesus was to say that God accepted others outside of their faith.

How is it that people can be so gracious to others when they like what they say and approve of their views but suddenly become an "angry mob" when those people voice views that are not of their liking?  How is it that seemingly rational people can be turned against others simply for not speaking words that are agreeable to them?  It happened to Jesus and it happens to many of us in our lives.

There is a song played on Christian radio stations from the 1970s-80s that said, "Friends are friends forever if the Lord's the Lord of them, and a friend will not say never for the welcome will not end..."  It is a wonderful sentiment but the truth is that for some, friends are friends as long as they agree on everything and if they do not, then the friendship ends.

Rejection can come about as an overt act in which persons demand and tell others what they want them to think and if they do not agree then the relationship is over.  Rejection can also happen as a covert act in which persons simply stop talking to others or recognizing their presence.  The Jews had a phrase for it...he's (or she's) dead to me.  They would simply act as if that person does not exist.

Jesus suffered rejection from the ones who knew him best in his own hometown.  They expected him to be Jesus, the son of Joseph, the boy who learned the trade of being a carpenter from his father.  They did not expect him to be a self-proclaimed fulfillment of ancient scripture.  That made them very uncomfortable, so much so that they wanted him silenced and dead.

How do we react when persons we know speak words that make us uncomfortable?  How do we feel when we read words posted on social media or hear words that come out of mouths that we respect only to change our opinion because of the weight of the words in our minds?  Do we react in anger and want the person silenced?  Do we give that one the benefit of the doubt and attempt to discuss our feelings rationally with them?  Do we respect them despite the weight of their words in our minds and allow them to think and let us think as we wish, knowing that sometimes we have to "agree to disagree" in order to preserve a relationship?

Last week we read from I Corinthians 12 in which Paul told the Early Church that God uses people in a variety of ministries for the good for the Church.  He concludes chapter 12 with the sentence, "And I will show you a still more excellent way."  With that sentence, Chapter 13 begins what we call "the love chapter" of the Bible, read at more weddings than any other scripture passage.  Paul writes about love and its merits and qualities to tell the Church that none of what is done in the Church has value unless the meaning behind it is love.  Work done in a loving way, respecting the feelings and integrity of others, is truly worthy.  Without love, what we have done is worthless.

Jesus' friends and fellow Nazarites could not love him because they hated what he said so much.  His words stung them to the point that they only wanted him out of their sight, for good.  They could not see beyond their anger, prejudice, and fear of the change that God might bring about if Gentiles were given equal access to the God of Israel as they had so they had to silence the speaker of the words.  Once he was gone, all would be good once again.  What a chilling example of human nature...both in the ancient world and still happening in our world every day.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Coming and Going

"For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven...(Ecclesiastes 3:1)

There are beginnings and endings to every part of life.  The writer of Ecclesiastes states that fact and then enumerates times for different life events.  A time to be born, a time to die; a time to plant, a time to harvest; a time to kill, a time to heal; a time to week, a time to laugh; a time to mourn, a time to dance.  Life is full of beginnings and endings.  Each ending signals a new beginning of something else.  An end to childhood brings a beginning to adulthood.  An end to working years bring a beginning to retirement.  An end of our days brings a beginning of eternal life.

Pastors know that their ministry has beginnings and endings also.  When I worked as a pastor in the United Methodist Church, my ministry setting was dictated by the Bishop and his cabinet.  They directed me where to go to be in ministry and how long I would stay there.  My ministry in a certain place was determined by what was good for the entire conference in which I served.  If I were needed 300 miles away, I was told to move at the next annual conference.

Jesus began his ministry at his hometown synagogue in Nazareth.  People gathered on the Sabbath to hear the hometown boy read the scripture and preach from it.  Jesus was the guest liturgist of the day and the preacher.  He stood and read from the prescribed reading of the day, from Isaiah 61, where the prophet spoke of the servant who would bring good news to the poor, sight to the blind, and the news of God's favor for all.  Jesus sat down after reading, which was what the preacher would do, and then he said, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."  (Luke 4:21)

It was at that point that Jesus ministry to the world around him began.  Jesus told those people who knew him best, his home town folk, what he would be doing for the rest of his life.  It was not something that they wanted to hear but he told them what he believed was important that he do with his life and then began to do it.

Working to bring good news to others should be something that everyone would celebrate.  There are some in the world, however, who do not want good news to be brought to everyone.  They believe that some are more worthy of God's favor than others.  After all, they surmise, some have brought misfortune upon themselves by the way they live for by bad choices they have made.  Shouldn't they have to suffer for their actions?  Isn't God's favor reserved for the righteous and holy in society?  And shouldn't we be the ones to decide who is righteous or holy enough to deserve God's favor?  That was the thinking of those who were listening to Jesus' read and talk about what he read.  His declaration that Isaiah's words were being fulfilled in and through him did not sit well with many who heard his speak.

Ministry is done, many times, among and for the very ones who are totally undeserving of favor of humans or of God.  Ministry is done on behalf of many who have made bad choices in life.  It is done for some whose life choices have placed them in circumstances that are undesirable or pitiful.  We often look down upon them because of the way they live.  Declaring God's favor for them does not say that we condone or approve of the actions of others.  It says that God's grace is enough to go beyond anything that humans may do or act or think.  It says that God's love reaches out far beyond what humans are capable of doing.  It says that if God can love us, despite our failings and faults, then perhaps God is calling us also to love others, despite their failings or faults or misfortunes.

Jesus' ministry began on that day he preached in Nazareth.  Jesus' earthly ministry ended when he died on the cross and his life as a human ended.  Jesus' resurrected ministry among humans continued until he ascended to return to live with God the Father.  Jesus passed on to his followers what he had begun so that we who say we believe in Jesus will do his works and greater works even because he is empowering us through the Holy Spirit.

The Church is the Body of Christ on earth equipped by the Holy Spirit to work on behalf of others who need to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ.  We are a community of faith working together to proclaim that the year of God's favor is here, that God loves everyone and that no one is excluded.  We, in the United Church of Christ, believe and teach that whoever you are and wherever you are on the journey of life,  you are welcome in our church.  We teach and believe that God's love is for all and that we are the ones with the mission to tell others that Good News.  That is why we exist.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Happy Epiphany Day!

Today marks the end of the Christmas Season....this is the 12th day after Christmas, also called Epiphany.  It celebrates the coming of the Wise Men to see the child Jesus.  They are often lumped in with the shepherds in the Nativity pageants and stand alongside them in our outdoor displays, but actually they did not see Jesus when he was an infant, more like a toddler.

The story from Matthew says that they were from "the East" and often we sing the song that says they are from "the Orient" but no one really knows who they were or where they were from, simply that they were "wise men" who had observed a star rising in the sky that they thought would indicate the birth of a great person.  So, they began to watch that star and to follow it.  They went on their journey, not knowing where they were going or who they were looking for, but they felt an urgency that made them continue their trek even when they were unsure why or where they were going.

Epiphany is a word we use that means "revelation" or "surprise" or "a-ha".  It is one of those "light bulb" moments when suddenly "we get it".  Epiphany is called the season of light because it is the light of God that reveals truth to all.

The wise men finally saw that the "star had stopped" and the result was that "they were overwhelmed with joy".  They journey had ended, at last.   They had found what they had been looking for.

Today is a religious day.  Some churches have church services.  People may pause and reflect upon what it means to them to have light shine in their lives and reveal the truth to them.  Most people will have the day come and go without even thinking about it.

Today begins the Season of Epiphany which lasts until the beginning of Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday, February 10. It is a small, short season during which we hear the stories of Jesus' ministry on earth again--changing water into wine, preaching in his home synagogue only to be rejected by many present, being transfigured before his disciples high on a mountain.  In each story, a little light is shown on Jesus revealing who he is and what he is about.  That light then shines on us to help us understand what Jesus' life and ministry means to us.

Happy Epiphany Day!  Let the light of Christ so shine that others will see your good works and give praise to God in heaven for God's wondrous love.