Sermon by Bonnie Kline Smeltzer University Baptist and Brethren Church July 29, 2012 14
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 16When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. 22All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” 24And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” You can almost feel the anticipation of the people gathered in the synagogue that day. Jesus the hometown boy, son of Joseph and Mary is in town. And now he takes the scroll, unrolls it and reads from the prophet Isaiah. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” This will be his mission statement and all who follow Jesus will join him in that work. The words and his explanation of them were enough to incite a riot that day. The people intended to hurl him over the cliff but “he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” And he’s been going on his way ever since, preaching good news to those who would listen, pointing people to the God of all, healing the sick, reaching out to the poor, and speaking truth to power in word and in deed. Jesus called people to follow him, to join him in this work and here 2000 years later we have the church in all its glory, divided into fiefdoms of power, ritual, and dogma, daring to bear his name. We who call ourselves Christians have all too easily been satisfied to play church one day a week in our beautiful sanctuaries, instead of being the church with all of its risks and uncertainties in a world of need and pain. In his book Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus, United Church of Christ pastor Robin Meyers invites Christians to go back to the fourth century fork in the road when Constantine declared Christianity the state religion and choose a different path. Meyers writes, “We have been traveling down the creedal road of Christendom since the fourth century, when a first-century spiritual insurgency was seduced into marrying its original oppressor. Before there were bishops lounging at the table of power, there were ordinary fishermen who forsook ordinary lives to follow an itinerant sage down a path that was not obvious, sensible, or safe. He might as well have said, ‘Come die with me.’….This is the road less traveled. It seeks not to save our souls but to restore them…it was the only road that did not lead to Rome. It took travelers into the heart of God, singing all the way. It welcomed all who would come, especially the poor and the lost, and the only trinity that mattered was to remember where we came from, where we are going, and to Whom we belong.” He continues, “If we do not go back to that fork in the road we cannot go forward on the road less traveled. If we do not stop traveling down the road we are on, we will not just destroy the planet and everyone on it but continue to betray the heart of Christianity. Our task now is not just to demythologize Jesus. It is to let the breath of the Galilean sage fall on the neck of the church again. First we have to listen not to the formulas of salvation but to a gospel that is all but forgotten. After centuries of being told ‘Jesus saves,’ the time has come to save Jesus from the church.” So what happens if try to save Jesus from the church? If we stop worshiping Christ and start following Jesus? I’d suggest that we dust off our Bibles and delve into the gospels and study the life of Jesus. If we’re going to follow this Jesus then we can’t have some vague notion of who he is and what he stands for, we need to get up close and personal. And that may mean delving into the Old Testament as well, for we need to understand the faith of Israel from which Jesus came. Friends we cannot afford to be biblically illiterate in these days. When the Bible is being used as a hammer to exclude, hurt, and yes, even kill people we’ve got to reclaim it as good news! It’s our sacred story and its been hijacked for too long. Now I’m not suggesting that anyone become a “Bible thumper” or debater but I do want to suggest that we have a basic familiarity with the life and teachings of Jesus and basic themes and stories of the Bible. If we say we are Christians isn’t high time we know the stories of our faith? If we stop worshiping Christ and start following Jesus then we get in the compassion business and get out of the condemnation industry. As followers of Jesus I believe we are always called to err on the side of compassion rather than condemnation. Followers of Jesus practice radical hospitality and extravagant love. We are called to welcome those Jesus welcomed and love those Jesus loved. Condemnation and judgment are not for us to decide, instead we welcome and love and serve all God’s children and creation. Erring on the side of compassion however can be risky. Here again, I like what Robin Meyers suggests. “A church entirely devoid of political engagement is a living contradiction. Churches are political even when they refuse to act politically, because silence is a form of complicity and thus an endorsement of the status quo. The church is political the moment that it determines that one way of treating human beings is more compassionate than another way and then sets out to the right thing. The church is political because it is a ‘city-state’ whose citizens are under very strange and countercultural orders to live as resident aliens in a world gone berserk. When Britney Spears’s navel gets more media coverage than millions of uninsured children, the church is not called upon to serve tea and wring its hands. It is called up to speak truth to power. It was Martin Luther King Jr. who recognized the difference between comforting the poor and confronting the people and systems that cause poverty. Of course we should be good Samaritans, but we should also consider doing something to make the road to Jericho less dangerous for everyone. In the end, Dr. King knew that ‘you cannot set the captive free if you are not willing to confront those who hold the keys. Without confrontation compassion becomes merely commiseration, fruitless and sentimental.” So if we are to save Jesus from the church, if we are to stop worshiping Christ and start following Jesus we’re going to have to stick our necks out, we’re going to have to take some risks and make some sacrifices. Meyers recognizes this when he writes, “If the church is to survive as a place where head and heart are equal partners in faith, then we will need to commit ourselves once again not to the worship of Christ, but to the imitation of Jesus. His invitation was not to believe, but to follow. Since it was once dangerous to be a follower of The Way, the church can rightly assume that it will never be on the right track again until the risks associated with being a follower of Jesus outnumber the comforts of being a fan of Christ. Until we experience Jesus as a ‘radically disturbing presence,’ instead of a cosmic comforter, we will not experience him as true disciples. The first question any churchgoer should be asked and expected to answer is: What are you willing to give up to follow Jesus?” So what if the church was raised from the dead and stopped worshiping Christ to follow Jesus. What would that church look like? Can you imagine it? There are probably many pictures that come to mind. Let me share just one picture of that church. “The story comes from Appalachia, from a place called Watts Bar Lake, where a certain preacher served a tiny rural mission among the poorest of the poor. It was their custom on Easter to have a baptismal service in the evening – by immersion of course – at sundown. After the candidates for baptism moved into the water to be dunked, they waded across to the shore, where the congregation had gathered to sing and cook supper. The folks on the shore had built little booths for changing clothes out of hanging blankets. After those newly baptized had dried and changed, they formed a circle around the campfire to get warm, and then the rest of the congregation formed a larger circle around them. A man named Glenn Hickey always did the honor of introducing the new people, giving their names, explaining where they lived and where they worked. Then the ritual would begin. One by one each person in the outer circle would make an offer to those standing by the fire. ‘My name is . . . and if you ever need somebody to do washing or ironing . . .’ ‘My name is . . . and if you ever need anybody to chop wood . . .’ ‘My name is . . . and if you ever need anybody to babysit . . .’ ‘My name is . . . and if you ever need anybody to repair your home . . .’ ‘My name is . . . and if you ever need anybody to sit with the sick . . .’ ‘My name is . . . and if you ever need a car to go to town . . .’ Around the circle it went, until those who had symbolically died and risen to Christ were officially ‘adopted.’ Then they all ate and had a square dance, and at the appointed time a man named Percy Miller, with thumbs in his bibbed overalls, would stand up and say, ‘Time to go.’ He lingered to put out the fire, kicking sand over the dying embers. Then he looked at the preacher and said, ‘Craddock folks don’t ever get closer than this.’ [Robin Meyers writes,] When I first heard this story, it was from the mouth of the preacher himself. In the silence of the sanctuary, after a long pause, Fred Craddock looked out at all of us, peered over his spectacles, and let the story sink in. Then he said, ‘Once, when I told this story to a group of city folk, they looked amused, but confused. One of them said, ‘Fred, what do they call that where you come from?’ He replied, ‘I don’t know what you call it where you come from. But where I come from we call it . . . church.’” Yes, that’s the church, people like you and me loving God by loving their neighbors, offering their gifts and their time in service to those in need. It doesn’t get much better than that - people following Jesus and choosing his way. And I dare say Jesus, nor anyone else needs saved from that kind of church! Amen. Robin R. Meyers, Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus (New York: HarperOne, 2009) 10-11. Ibid. 138-39. Ibid. 145. Ibid. 230-231.