Sunday, January 31, 2016

An inconvenient Church

New Ark United Church of Christ,Newark, DE 
January 31, 2016

            “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

            This is the hinge, the pivot on which this story opens and turns.  Last week it was Jesus’ last line.  Today it’s his opener.  Either way he’s challenging his audience to not only listen but to hear what he is saying.

            “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

            “Oh, wasn’t that nice?  That’s Joseph’s boy, isn’t it?  And he knows his Bible too, doesn’t he?”

            Jesus doesn’t want the glossed-over, hometown-boy-preaching-in-his-home-church welcome home.  He’s got good news to give but he’s also got some hard truth to tell.

“When I’m through preaching, you’re gonna think I’m the one who needs a doctor.  All you want to see is the side show,  a magic trick; you want to “ooh” and “aah”, walk away safe and entertained.  But you don’t get it.  God’s the main event here.  Back in the day there were plenty of people in Israel who needed God’s help but it was a couple of Gentiles who heard and obeyed God’s prophets and received God’s mercy.”  Ouch.  The truth hurts so bad the hometown congregation wants to hurl Jesus off a cliff.

            Whenever Jesus preaches or tells a parable or heals the sick, more often than not, we hear the comforting words as meant for us and the words of justice and challenge as meant for someone else.  Human beings are pleasure-seeking, pain-avoidant creatures, and the folks in Jesus’ hometown were no different.  Nazareth was a blue-collar bedroom community, full of coarse-spoken laborers that worked elsewhere.  Surely they deserved God’s mercy.  Surely the year of God’s favor, the year of Jubilee, the year of cancelled debt was meant for them.  Surely God will serve justice to those in power, to those with wealth, to those who occupy their land and eat up their resources—to those gentile Romans.

            But none of us gets to choose the message, the truth we don’t want to hear.  Both God’s comfort and God’s justice is intended for all of us, for the just and the unjust, but who will listen?

            “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

            Earlier this week an article written by Pulitzer-prize winning author Chris Hedges on the website Truthdig rubbed some salt in a painful truth.  The article’s title alone, “The Suicide of the Liberal Church”, was inflammatory.  As all the research declares loudly, the Church is in decline, but as for the possibility of its death, especially at its own hand, many readers reacted with anger, denial, and bargaining or equivocating.  In short, they had heard enough and wanted to throw Hedges off a cliff.

            In the article Hedges holds the liberal church accountable for squeezing out our more radical prophets and looking the other way as the rich got richer, the poor got poorer, and the racial divide grew ever wider.  A graduate of Harvard Divinity School, he also pointed to the decline in liberal seminary education, and, ironically, got a few of his facts wrong; for instance, that Andover Newton Theological School, the oldest seminary in the U.S., had shut down rather than its actual plan of selling its campus and transitioning to another location.  He later corrected himself, probably after some angry alumni left their scathing remarks in the comment section.

            Oftentimes, when we get our facts wrong, it’s because we’re passionately trying to communicate something that can be stronger than facts: our emotions and what’s important to us, our values.  Maybe Hedges is angry at the liberal church for being just as human and susceptible to temptation and fear like everyone else.  Maybe he’s feeling let down, realizing that we’re still church in an empire and not as counter-cultural as we used to be.  Maybe he’s grief-stricken for the missing prophetic witness in the public square, like that of Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, Jr.

            What’s difficult to hear in his words is any love he might have had for church and seminary education and the radicalism that gives both those institutions vitality and purpose.  But then where do anger and disappointment and grief come from, if not from the love of a broken heart?  A love that once was, a love that hopes against hope that all is not lost and that love can rise again. 

            Jesus also sounds rather harsh at times, as in this passage from Luke, as though he has no love for those who were his family, his village, as if he’s ready to give up on them.  But usually it is those closest to us that have the power to wound us the most.  It is those whom we are more desperate to save.  Jesus knew that, to the point that the last words of his life were ones of forgiveness rather than condemnation.

            Jesus is our constant reminder of how radical love really is, and that our love barely scratches the surface of God’s love.  We can tell the truth in all its nakedness for the sake of saving something precious, but if we do it without love, without patience and kindness, we risk no one hearing this life-saving truth.  And yet the reverse is also true.  We can love this world and each other and feel at one with all that is and yet if we do not tell the hard truth of those who suffer injustice and work to end it, our love is empty and hollow.

            The Church could be, can be, and still is the inconvenient truth in this world of inequality and injustice.  The Church began as a radical, diverse mix of rich and poor, women and men, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, where everyone ate and worshiped together, held everything in common, and gave to those who had need; where there was no room for self-importance or envy or ego or resentment or childish ways; where even in the face of adversity, lives were transformed and risks taken.

            The mainline Protestant church, in essence, resembles more the establishment than its radical, status-quo-busting roots.  For quite a while now we’ve played it safe.  Many have left to find ministry and meaningful community elsewhere. It looks like we’re on the losing side.

            And yet that’s where Jesus was for his entire ministry, right up to the end.  For Jesus, safety was no place for him to lay his head and success looked like a cross.  It was and still is all about being and making disciples, about transforming lives and taking risks, about loving in such a way as justice is restored and mercy is overflowing.        

Are we, New Ark United Church of Christ, changed and transformed?  Are we being changed and transformed?  Are we willing to be changed, to be transformed?  Now don’t throw me over a cliff, but because I love the Church and because I love this church, I say this: if we aren’t at least willing to put ourselves in the path of change and transformation, then the gospel of Jesus Christ and its Church have become convenient and have lost their power to be a radical force in our lives and in the life of the world.  Our love then becomes a clanging cymbal or a noisy gong.

            Lutheran bishop Ann Svennungsen writes, “God is interested in hearts. Not beautiful hearts, not pure hearts, nor perfect hearts, but hearts that know their need of God.”  In acknowledging our deep need for God—God known as unconditional love, radical forgiveness, restorative justice, and fearless compassion—we admit we need help in loving the world the way God loves the world—just as it is, that the world might be saved, changed, transformed through that justice-making, wholehearted, hopes-all-things love.

            “Today’s scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”  This is the hinge, the pivot on which our story opens and turns.  May it be so.  Amen.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Church on the blog


The sky unfolds the story of your presence;
The firmament tells of the work of your hands.
Day after day overflows with speech;
Night after night breathes out knowledge.

There is no word or phrase
In which the voice of your creation is not heard.
Your testimony is faithful,
Enlightening those who do not understand. 

Your decisions are true;
Taken together, they prove righteous
They are more valuable than gold,
More than refined gold in abundance. 

May the words from our mouths
And the contemplations of all our hearts
Be in keeping with your will,
God, my Rock and my Redeemer. 

— from The Complete Psalms: The Book of Prayer Songs in a New Translation by Pamela Greenberg, Psalm 19 

*Hymn “Praise with Joy the World’s Creator” #273 


Throughout the Bible, Holy One, you spoke to and through your prophets. You spoke to Moses through a burning bush. You spoke to Elijah in a gentle whisper. Miriam and Hannah, Deborah and Mary sang of your justice and compassion. 

Today, your voice continues to sound all around us: in the whistling wind, the ocean’s mighty roar, in the cacophony of the daily news. In our quiet times, your whisper touches our deepest thoughts. Open our ears to hear your call. 

In the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus read from the scripture that the Spirit of the Lord “has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind.” He told listeners that “today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” All heard, yet many did not receive his words. 

Open our ears to receive your call, Holy One. Open our eyes and loosen our tongues. For if we, your church, do not speak out to end racism and poverty, who will? If we, your church, do not call for social justice and environmental awareness, who will? If we, your church, do not proclaim the good news to those we meet on life’s way, who will? Speak to us and help us be your voice in a world that so desperately needs to hear it. AMEN. 

— written by John Micklos, Jr. 


The Written Word: Luke 4:14-21 

Response to the reading: 

Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church.
Thanks be to God. 

*Hymn “I Am the Light of the World” #584 

The Word Interpreted “Why Are We Here?” 


Offertory Anthem: “Jesus, Lord, We Look to Thee”       Forrest

Financial and Food Gifts 

*Doxology: Praise God, Creator of the earth;
                    Praise God made flesh with Jesus’ birth;
                    Praise God within each living soul;
                    Praise God in whom we are made whole. 

*Prayer of Dedication

Even as we gather these gifts, Holy One, our hearts falter. Are they enough? Are we enough? Does what we do, who we are, make a difference? O God, transform what we offer, even our lives, that by our giving, our fear and doubt would become hope that sustains, good news for the poor, freedom for
prisoners, vision for those who can’t see the way forward. AMEN. 


*Hymn: “Go, Tell It on the Mountain” #154 


The Spirit of the Lord is upon us, Church. We are the Body of Christ. We too have been anointed to bring this good news, to proclaim release, to give sight where it is needed, to let the oppressed go free. 

If not us, then who? If not now, then when?


Benediction Song #160 

We will follow the light,
Beautiful light,
Come where the dewdrops of mercy are bright,
Shine all around us by day and by night,
Jesus, the light of the world.

Why are we here?

Luke 4: 14-21
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
January 24, 2016

            “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

            The people of Nazareth had heard this passage from Isaiah 61 before.  It was an old hope.  It is said that an old hope becomes a domesticated hope: it loses it power after so many generations, after so much disappointment and displacement and heartbreak.  It begins to sound hollow, like the promises of so many politicians and those who have power and want something from those who have none.

            But Jesus’ reputation preceded him.  He was making his way around Galilee, his home province, on his own speaking tour, and everyone who heard his words praised him.  When he came to Nazareth, the village where he was raised, it was probably a full house.  Maybe Jesus figures he’s only got one chance in his hometown, and so he goes for broke.  He takes that old hope out of its drawer, gives it a snap, pulls it on over his head, fills out the sleeves and shoulders, and stretches it over his body.  It still fits.

            “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

            When was the last time we had a prophet in our midst?  When did we last hear one who knew themselves anointed to bring good news to the poor, release for the captives, sight to those who can’t see their way?  How similar is this passage from Isaiah to the words of Dr. Martin Luther King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.:  “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men [sic] are created equal.’”

            And so every year we trot Martin out like so much Easter and Christmas.  We pay homage.  We post his words and his face on social media.  We perform acts of kindness and organize service projects.  We thought things had changed in 2008 when President Barack Obama was elected, and certainly history was made not only once but twice.  His campaign slogan, “Yes, We Can”, signaled echoes of Isaiah’s old hope of restorative justice and radical change.

             But presidents are not prophets but politicians, even the good ones. Still, we kill our prophets or call them crazy and irrational or silence them with poverty or criminalize their protests and call them riots.  Dr. King said that riots are the language of the unheard.

            “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”  But is anyone really listening if nothing is really changing?

            Hear these words from Rev. Traci Blackmon, the United Church of Christ minister for Justice and Witness, a prophet from our own village:

  • ·        “I protest because of the acceptable invisibility of our children, of our babies. 
  • ·        I protest because poverty is not a crime.  People should not be criminalized because they don’t have excessive resources. 
  • ·        I protest because I live in a nation and I live in a city where it is acceptable for many to have a whole lot and for many more to not have enough. 
  • ·        I protest because black girls and black boys get a substandard education and then get blamed for not being able to get a job. 
  • ·        I protest because neighborhoods are criminalized and villainized because they are populated by black people. 
  • ·        I protest because black boys and black girls live in poverty and are not able to have recreational resources, recreational facilities, and then because they are still brilliant and ingenious, create their own collaboratives on street corners and in allies and in street ways, and then those areas are victimized and villainized and criminalized. 
  • ·        I protest because we are the children of God, the sun-kissed children of God, and until we are treated like everybody else, we are not gonna shut up. 
  • ·        And lastly, I protest because until we protested, you didn’t hear us.”

I wanted you to hear Traci’s words in her own voice.  I wanted you to hear to hear the emotion in her voice, her restraint conflicting with her passion and pain.  I wanted you to see her face and her eyes.  Yes, our digital projector is on the fritz.  Yes, there’s a blizzard this weekend and you’re reading this on my blog.  Yes, there’s a video of “Why I Protest” at the end of this post. 

But first I want you to read her words out loud, yes, out loud in your own voice.  Why?  Because today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing and in your voice.

Racism will not end in this great nation until white people speak these words, hit the streets, and protest.  Poverty will not end in this great nation until those with disposable income divest themselves and invest in the lives of the poor.   All lives will matter when black and brown lives matter as much as white lives.

Jesus wasn’t making empty promises but protesting with his life, that the lives of the poor, the prisoner, sightless, and oppressed would not only matter but change.  “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”  Not only with his life, but with the lives of those who chose to hear his words.  “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”  It is not only fulfilled in the life of Jesus but in our hearing of it.  These were not solely the words of Jesus’ mission but marching orders for God’s people.  “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” 

Dr. King wrote in his autobiography, “One of the greatest problems of history is that the concepts of love and power are usually contrasted as polar opposites. Love is identified with a resignation of power and power with a denial of love. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.”

Why are we here, Church, if not for this?  To link our love with power that justice may be done.  To not only hear this scripture but to live it.  To keep our end of the bridge intact, even when others have burnt their end to a crisp; to not abandon the offer to rebuild.  To incarnate, enflesh, resurrect the old hope and make it come alive again.  To be the prophet in the midst of the world’s longing.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon us, Church.  We are the Body of Christ.  We too have been anointed to bring this good news, to proclaim release, to give sight where it is needed, to let the oppressed go free.  If not us, then who?  If not now, then when?