Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Sebeka, MN
February 3, 2013--Epiphany 4
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
Today—February 3, 2013—is a big day. It’s the Lord’s Day, when we gather for worship trusting that God will show up among us in Word and Sacrament and a gathered community of sinners who are also saints. That’s a big thing.
And speaking of sacraments, it’s Baby Brigid’s Baptism Day. Another little Stout will become a Christian, and not a moment too soon. That’s a big thing.
Oh, and I hear that there’s some big football game later today down in New Orleans, the 49ers vs. the Ravens and all the hoopla that will go with it. That’s a big thing.
And then there’s something else happening “under the radar” all across the Upper Midwest today. Pastors are heaving a sigh of relief because (with the exception a few congregations like yours) today normally marks the end of “annual meeting season.”
Now that might not seem like such a big thing to you….but it’s a really big thing to most pastors.
Because, you see, annual meetings make pastors nervous.
Annual meetings have the reputation for being occasions when even Minnesota-nice Lutherans don’t always behave like adults. Annual meetings are often long, drawn out, pointless and conflicted. A pastor friend once told me he referred to his congregation’s annual meeting as “The Night of the Long Knives.”
So, many pastors think that the best annual meeting is a short one in which nothing happens.
Twice within the last week I heard pastors extolling the brevity of their annual meetings, with 15 minutes being the new record for the shortest, sweetest annual meeting ever!
But is an annual meeting of a Christian congregation that’s short and sweet, in which nothing basically happens--is that necessarily a good thing? Is it a sign of faithfulness or fruitfulness as God’s people?
Do we gather for worship, do we come together as church, just to be comforted—never to be unsettled? Is every conflict that bubbles up within the community of faith a disaster? Did God the Father send his beloved Son into our world simply to soothe us and lull us to sleep?
What about Jesus when he lived on earth? Did he always keep things on an even keel? Or did Jesus evoke disagreement? Did Jesus call forth questions and challenges? Did Jesus even go so far as to pick fights—in order to agitate, to shake up his hearers?
…..which brings us to our gospel lesson for this morning.
This is the second half of a “to be continued” gospel reading from Luke chapter 4. We heard the first half of the story last Sunday. Jesus as a young adult, returns to his hometown Nazareth and attends worship in the Jewish synagogue. He reads from the Prophet Isaiah, taking the prophet’s vision as his own, Jesus’ own, mission statement.
Jesus says that proclaiming release to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and the dawn of the Lord’s year of favor—Jesus says that all of that is his work, his mission, his goal.
And at first that sounds just great!
But then, ever so subtly, the synagogue crowd starts to turn. They move from their first reaction—“All spoke well of him and were amazed at [his] gracious words…”—they move from affirming to wondering: “Is not this Joseph's son?"
And Jesus, reading their faces and discerning their wonderings, Jesus refuses to leave well enough alone.
So Jesus pokes at the folks in Nazareth’s synagogue. Jesus prods their questions, and then he does something really provocative—he tells them a couple Bible stories from the Old Testament.
And by the time Jesus is finished with all that, the crowd becomes so ticked off, so incensed that they’re ready to haul Jesus out of the church building and drag him to a cliff—not a metaphorical cliff, mind you, not a “fiscal cliff” but a real, PHYSICAL cliff--in order to hurl Jesus down to his death.
Now that’s a church conflict to beat any church conflict I have ever seen!
So what are we to make of this? Three things:
1. Let’s not immediately assume that the worshipers in Nazareth’s synagogue were a dysfunctional congregation that needed to learn family systems theory or go through group counseling for anger management—though their response is definitely “over the top.” Let’s assume, not that they were especially “sick,” but they were human, which means that sin was fully operative there on that Sabbath day when Jesus came to church.
2. Let’s also not assume that this is just a story about Jesus being a smarty-pants provocateur—someone whose chief mission in life was to get under people’s skins and make them upset. One of my college roommates was like that. He was always ready to needle me about something, anything, just to get a rise out of me. Jesus, though, didn’t show up among us to annoy people.
3. Instead, let’s assume this: that Jesus came bearing the full Word of God to the worshipers in Nazareth’s synagogue….and when that full Word of God--a Word that always both accuses and liberates---when the Word has its way with us, we will resist it, we will try to keep it at bay, we will realize we’re under attack and feel the need to lash out at it….before finally that Word finds a home in our hearts and sets us free.
This is what was playing out in Nazareth’s synagogue so long ago: the Word of God in all its glory, unleashed by him who was the embodied Word of God, proclaimed release to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, the year of the Lord’s favor dawning upon us.
“Bring it on!” we say, at least at first….
But when Jesus starts to spell out just for whom this Word has come, then he encounters the deadly pushback from his fellow worshipers in Nazareth.
Because release, recovery and freedom sound great if you and I are the intended recipients…..but what if God has something bigger in mind?
So Jesus tells Bible stories about all the wrong kinds of people also being drawn into the orbit of God’s gracious favor.
Jesus painfully reminds his hearers that when famine covered the land the Lord’s prophet Elijah went not to the house of a good Jewish mother….but to the hovel of a despised Gentile—a poor widow and her starving son.
And Jesus pointedly reminds his hearers that when Elijah’s successor Elisha healed a leper—in a land filled with deserving Jewish lepers!—it was a hated Gentile leper, the commander of Israel’s Syrian enemies, who was healed of leprosy.
Release, recovery and freedom don’t sound so great when we learn that God’s going to give such gifts to “those kind of people,” too!
And that’s why the crowd stormed out of the synagogue, ready to lynch the preacher Jesus.
….which brings me back to a question I asked earlier: Do we gather for worship, do we come together as church, just to be comforted—never to be unsettled?
And because we are regularly unsettled in the church, maybe we need to ask: are we unsettled about things that matter—especially, things that matter to God?
So here’s an example. I was just with some folks from one of my favorite congregations in our synod.
I love these folks because they have a really, really good fight at every annual meeting of their congregation.
And here’s the question that sets them off: “How can we get behind God’s mission in an even bigger way this year?” This congregation “fights” about how they can increase their offerings for mission beyond their congregation, how they can do even more than what the church council proposes in the annual budget.
This congregation doesn’t fight about the color of the carpet or the heating bill or whether the pastor is attending enough high school basketball games. They don’t fight about what someone else did wrong. They fight about whether they themselves are being faithful to their faithful God.
What a great thing to fight about at an annual church meeting! Why—it might even be worth investing more than 15 minutes, if we get to talk about things like THAT!
Jesus comforts AND unsettles us always—thank God!
God’s Word is always accusing us in the same breath that it is setting us free.
And God’s people are forever fighting, if the truth be told.
The only question really is this: are we fighting about things that matter to God?
In the name of Jesus. Amen.