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Who are Your Favorites? (February 17, 2019)

Luke 6:17-26

[Jesus] came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. 18 They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19 And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21 Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22 Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
24 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25 Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. 26 Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

There is a major theme throughout the gospel of Luke. Everywhere in this gospel God is lifting up those who are low, revealing God’s loving intentions for the poor, the hungry, and the powerless. We can see God’s vision all through this gospel. We can really hear God compassion for those the world excludes and looks down on. In this gospel, the author is clear that the low are lifted up and those up high are brought down. Everyone is level, even. Those who think they are God’s favorites discover they aren’t, and those who think they are far from God discover they aren’t.

Unlike Matthew’s “sermon on the mount,” in today’s text Luke deliberately has Jesus doing this “Beatitude-like” teaching on a level place. Luke has everyone at the same level.

The author spells it out, making it very clear. Those who are poor, those who are hungry, those who are weeping, and those who are hated and excluded are blessed by God. Regardless of what others say, they aren’t lower. They aren’t despised. They are loved and included and welcomed and valued. Just as much as those whom everyone thinks are favored.

The playing field is level. Good news, right? Well, think about that, because the implications of a level playing field affect us more than we may believe. It goes in all kinds of different directions and extends into parts of our lives that we hadn’t considered before.

Not only is the man who stands at the intersection with a cardboard sign and a mental illness just as beloved by God as I am, but it goes beyond that. Beyond those who are socioeconomically low. It also means that those whose theology I despise, those who use the holy name of Jesus in abhorrent ways, those who abuse and twist and distort this life-giving gospel message for profit and their own agendas, those who give Christianity a black eye, are beloved to God. And that’s hard to hear.

That means God favors Pat Robertson, Joyce Meyer, Creflo Dollar, Benny Hinn, Marilyn Hickey, Franklin Graham, T.D. Jakes, Beth Moore, Joel Osteen, and rest of them just as much as God favors Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr, the apostles, Mary Magdalene, all those who are deliberate about revealing the living, resurrected Christ in our world.

This level field of God’s favor applies everywhere. Including political figures and parties, business and non-profit, race and ethnicity, gender identity and sexual identity, citizen status and documentation. Those who are low or ignored or hated or treated unfairly are favored by God.

It’s one thing to acknowledge that, but it also means they have to be favored by me, too. As a disciple of this Jesus who taught about levelling the field on a level place, I need to acknowledge the presence of Christ in each of these people. In all of these people. Those who are not favored by me are nonetheless blessed by God. And I need to deal with that. If not, then I’m included in the “woe to them” part of this gospel text.

This level, lack of favoritism by God extends beyond that even. It also means that those the world seems to favor, e.g., the rich, the powerful, the popular, the good-looking, the healthy are not favored by God over me. There are those people who just seem to have everything put together. They’re gifted, talented, intelligent, good incomes, have well-behaved children, they’re respected in their field, never sick, have yet to experience hardship—even the death of a loved one. And I know everyone has their issues and it’s not fair to generalize, but it does seem that a few people already have a leg up on life. We call them blessed, we think of them as favored—if not by God then certainly by everyone else.

Jesus’ teaching and example on the level place today says that as far as God’s compassion and love, they have no advantage at all. Luke uses the language of “woes,” meaning these who seem to have everything need to recognize, too, that none of that matters to God.

Those at the top, those we look up to, those who have all the luck, those who are constantly fortunate, those who are our heroes, they are not that way because they are closer to God.

And those at the bottom, who can’t catch a break, who fight and scratch every day to pay rent, who live in fear of the next catastrophe that will put them over the edge, who struggle to gain some kind of acknowledgment that they are present and valuable, they are not that way because they are further from God.

God’s care, God’s compassion, God’s grace all rain down equally on everyone—regardless of how much value the world places on them.

But like rain, God’s mercy and justice, though it falls on everyone, still flows down and pools in the lowest places. Some days that’s you. Some days it’s not.

This major theme of levelling in the gospel of Luke becomes real for us in the church. That which God does, we do also. Those who are at the bottom today, need us the most today. Those who are poor, hungry, weeping, and excluded today are to be cared for, fed, comforted, and welcomed today. Those who think they are God’s favorites discover they aren’t, and those who think they are far from God discover they aren’t. As Christ lives, may he live through us.

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Posted by on February 15, 2019 in Sermon

 

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There is Good News! But Being Favored Isn’t It (February 3, 2019)

Luke 4:21-30

Then [Jesus] began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23 He 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.’ ” 24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25 But 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; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 They 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. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

Last week was Jesus’ first sermon recorded in Luke back in his home congregation in Nazareth. Today’s text continues, even overlaps a verse, and includes the congregation’s response to it. In a word, it wasn’t a great response.

I can’t imagine going back to my home church in Salt Lake City right after seminary and preaching my very first public sermon ever. And the congregational response is to drive me out of town and try to throw me off a cliff. I think I’d likely rethink this whole preaching thing as a career choice.

But we need to look at why they tried to throw Jesus off a cliff. He was their hometown hero at this point. His reputation as a preacher and teacher had spread throughout Galilee already. Everyone was amazed at him and they all praised his ability.

So the bar was high when he comes back to Nazareth. Things start out just fine. Everyone was amazed at what he was saying. They liked his emphasis on God’s good news coming into the world. They beamed with pride, “Yup, this is Joseph’s son, he’s one of us!”

And then someone shouted, “Hey, Jesus! We’ve been hearing about some things you did in Capernaum. How about doing one of those miracles or something here?” And everyone else chimed in too. “Heal one of our sick, cast out a demon from one of us. After all, we’re your people. We’re like your family. We’ve always supported you. We deserve something from you.”

That’s when the wheels came off. Instead of showing favoritism to his family and friends, Jesus took the opportunity to make a bigger point. “That’s not the way God’s reign works,” he said. “If God shows any preference, it’s for those who are on the outside, the poor, the oppressed, the migrant, and the prisoners. You’re not entitled to better treatment and bigger miracles because you know me.”

Then Jesus gives them two examples from their own scriptures. In a famine which lasted 3 ½ years, God’s prophet Elijah wasn’t sent to his own people in Israel, but to a poor Gentile widow from Sidon. And later, God’s prophet Elisha was sent to heal only one leper, and that wasn’t someone from Israel, but a man from Syria.

Jesus found out that apparently, people get mad when you say they are no more deserving of God’s power than anyone else. Apparently, they are enraged when you let them know that their enemies are at least as favored as they are. And apparently, they try to kill you when you tell them God doesn’t tip the scales in their favor.

Let’s not get too judgmental about these hometown folks in the synagogue in Nazareth. Because that attitude of being God’s favorites, of being more entitled to God’s salvation, and more deserving of God’s help is still pretty prevalent among us.

For the people in Nazareth, they feel more entitled because they know Jesus. For us, we feel more entitled because . . . we know Jesus.

We’re Christians, we believe in the Triune God, which includes Jesus. We know the Lord’s prayer, we confess Jesus as Lord, and we are good moral people—in his name. We honestly try hard. That’s gotta be worth something, doesn’t it? If God is going to help anyone, it oughta be someone who knows God’s son, right? If anyone is saved, it should really be those who know Jesus, shouldn’t it? Don’t we still kind of believe that we as Christians (especially as Lutherans; and even more especially as Americans) are somehow favored? That we’re just a bit entitled? That we should get God’s attention first?

Think about it. We trust that we who go to Christian churches are destined for heaven, but aren’t so sure about those that go to the Mile Hi Church of Religious Science on Alameda. We are in favor of converting non-believers, but not so enthusiastic about loving them. We pray for the safety of American troops, but rarely pray for the safety of enemy troops. We welcome educated European immigrants, but put up walls to keep out poor Central American ones, and bans to keep out Muslim ones.

And what does Jesus say to us? The same thing he says to his hometown church. Jesus says, “The truth is, there were many Christians who are suffering loneliness and despair; yet my disciples are sent to the Hindus and the agnostics. There are also many Christians who are hated and persecuted, yet my disciples are sent to welcome the Muslims and the non-religious.”

In Nazareth, people thought Jesus was great when he said things they liked. But they were ready to kill him when he said things they didn’t.

We can listen to those parts of Jesus’ teachings that we agree with and that seem to be good news for us personally, e.g., you’re forgiven, I go to prepare a place for you, today you’ll be with me in paradise, those who believe and are baptized will be saved, etc. It’s easy to find Jesus amazing!

We also need to hear the parts that are hard, and trust that since they’re coming from Jesus, they’ve got to be good news too. E.g., love your enemies, forgive everyone, serve the poor, protect the immigrant, and accept the reality that we are not more favored because we know Jesus. Like the folks in Nazareth, it can be hard to follow Jesus when we hear these things.

But the good news is Jesus. Not just some of his teachings, but Christ himself. In this crucified and risen one is God’s vision for us and for all creation. This Christ is present and comes and calls and invites all of us into God’s redemptive work in the world. He brings it—all of it—into our hearts and into our lives. The good news for the world is Jesus—all of him. Jesus has come. Not just for us, but for the whole world. As Jesus said to those in Nazareth, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Christ has come into the world, and has come to us. Whether easy or hard, it is good news!

 
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Posted by on February 1, 2019 in Sermon

 

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