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.

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