Sunday, January 24, 2016

Good News for the Outsider: How Might This Change Us?

Luke 4:21-30

Over the last couple of weeks, I spent some time preparing to lead a retreat on prayer for a group of about forty. When I sat down to put the pieces together, I began by articulating some basic goals. For instance, I decided we would not just talk about prayer, but that we would actually spend time in prayer. I wanted to do all I could to ensure that those who gathered would leave feeling renewed, filled up, replenished. Finally, I wanted to offer a practice with which I was familiar so I decided we would spend time together the sort of prayer that is ours to experience when we share in 'lectio divina,' which is Latin for 'divine reading.' Indeed, for me, this particular practice of prayer continues to shape my life and faith in profound ways.

And so it was that I spent some time this week re-reading Eugene Peterson's, Eat this Book. To be sure he makes a marvelous case for this practice of prayer. And yes, his words really came home to me as I was reflecting on this week's Gospel where he says in his chapter, "Scripture as Script: Playing our Part in the Spirit,"
This book makes us participants in the world of God's being and action; but we don't participate on our own terms. We don't get to make up the plot or decide what character we will be. This book has generative power; things happen to us as we let the text call forth, stimulate, rebuke, prune us. We don't end up the same. (p. 66)
Indeed, Peterson, makes the point that while we might try, we cannot control or completely systematize the stories which are ours to receive in scripture. Ours is simply to receive them, to take them in, and to be changed by them. It is so that we do not end up the same.

And so this week as I come to the story of Jesus preaching in the synagogue in his hometown, I find myself somewhat distressed that 'we don't get to make up the plot.' I mean, I for one, would not dream of taking the tack that Jesus does here. For as the story is relayed by Luke, it certainly appears that his accusations of those gathered are entirely unprovoked. In his preaching he reminds them and all of us that God's gifts are extraordinary. But in his next breath he turns their own sacred stories back on them --- bringing up memorable examples of how God has always favored the outsider. Oh no, Jesus makes clear that God's preference may not necessarily be first for 'us', the long faithful, the 'members,' if you will.  And as the story plays out before us now, it is evident that this was certainly not received as good news to those who first heard it. As it may not be today.

Indeed, perhaps it is no wonder that those gathered in the synagogue in Nazareth who were entirely entranced just moments before are now trying to hurl Jesus off a cliff. Yes, their reaction is extreme and violent, but this would certainly be one way of ensuring they would no longer have to hear what they do not want to hear. This would be one way of 'controlling the plot' -- as Peterson would have it. And while you and I might not seek to utterly destroy the life of one who speaks what we are not willing to hear, I know that I, that we, have other ways of tuning out voices which bring unwanted news or perspectives or insights.

For yes, I, too, am inclined to want to believe that these gifts of God are for me --- this business about good news and release and recovery of sight and freedom and forgiveness of debt which was ours to hear about last week. And it is, of course. But it doesn't stop there. It never stops with me,with us, with all of us who consider ourselves 'insiders.' For if that is the case, then I expect Jesus would tell us now that we have missed the point altogether, even as he did so long ago. If that is the case, then we have made these promises words on a page to be understood only on a very surface level --- just empty platitudes which make us feel better about ourselves when the truth is that they were meant, they are meant to change us in real and concrete ways. And at least in this case, it seems that part of what we are called to is to focus our attention beyond ourselves --- on those who are not yet part of 'us.' As God always has. On those for whom this good news would be literally life changing. And by doing so? We do not end up the same. Because by doing this? This good news is somehow even more fully ours in ways we could not before imagine.

And so what does this mean for those of us who are called to offer and interpret this story among and for those who gather for worship? In this time and place when many are so fearful of the 'outsider' how is it that we speak this important word without getting 'hurled off a cliff' ourselves? Indeed, I find it profoundly ironic and perhaps extremely fortuitous that this story falls on the very Sunday the congregation I serve gathers for our annual congregational meeting --- a time when leaders are elected and a budget is passed where in and through both, priorities will be set for the coming year. Surely in that hour, but also in every hour we deliberate, we are making choices about who this Good News is for. Is it for the likes of the widow at Zarephath and Namaan the Syrian? Or is it just for those who are already here?

I wish I could say I could offer a clear path forward on how to make this so in our individual contexts for it is so that in my particular place of call, it is often less than clear. In fact, just this week it was mine to share with my congregation the hard news that because of an Illinois state budget impasse which has gone on now for seven months, Lutheran Social Services is being forced to radically cut back services since the state has not paid what is owed in the amount of more than 6 million dollars. (For the full story click here.)

This is a tragedy with real faces for us here since for the past several years the congregation I serve has provided office space for one of the home care programs which is being eliminated. The vast majority of the clients served depend on state aid in order to afford these services. With this announcement, more than a hundred will be out of work. And hundreds more who have depended on them will have their well being put in jeopardy in very basic ways.

As you can imagine, we find ourselves heartbroken and more than a little angry. We want to lay blame, and yes, as might be expected, in a profoundly politically divided world, we do not find ourselves able to agree on who or what is most to blame. So I do speak the truth when I say  I find myself thinking that it would seem so much simpler to stop at the point where we believed that Jesus' preaching is only good news for those who are already here. It was so much easier before I began to believe that these words demand something of me, of us. Except Jesus does not leave us there today. As always, Jesus does not leave us there.

So while next steps in responding to this challenge are still cloudy for us, perhaps this is where we best begin. Maybe for now at least, we are simply called together to live in this story and others like it which push us out of our comfortable places and assumptions and old ways of thinking. And perhaps by hearing Jesus' words of challenge now as meant for me and all of us, we will be changed in ways that matter and that can make a difference. For on this day and on most any day, we do so need to be reminded that God is in charge of this story, our stories, and the larger Story where we find our homes. And Jesus' sermon in the synagogue today certainly does that. And I do wonder if together we just listened deeply for God's voice and direction in this little bit of Luke's Gospel, we might just get a sense of where we are called next? Not only in this particular situation that we are faced with now, but in all those times and places which demand more of those who follow Jesus. What do you think?
  • I do find Jesus' preaching here to be more 'direct' than I am often comfortable with.With his first listeners, I might also find myself offended. I wonder then, what needs to be changed in me? And how might my being immersed in a story such as this result in me being 'not the same' as Eugene Peterson would have it. What do you think?
  • What do you think is the main point of the story before us now? What stays with you after you read it a couple of times? What message does it hold for you? How does it change you?
  • I wonder how many listeners today are familiar with the widow at Zarephath and Namaan the Syrian. And I wonder what examples Jesus would use today to bring this story home.  What do you think?
  • Do you think scripture has the power to change us?  If you have known this to be so, which stories have impacted you in powerful ways? Which stories have left you 'not the same?'

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