Date: 24 January 2016
Text: Luke 4:14-21
Site: Bethany United Church – Halifax, NS
In 2010 I was asked to join a unique national committee of the United Church of Canada. Selected were lay leaders and clergy folk representing growing churches from across Canada, growing numerically that is. In my case it had been a fairly easy feat, after all I was the Minister in a large and growing suburb. “Shooting fish in a barrel”, comes to mind. But I was particularly interested in meeting colleagues and lay leaders from communities were numerical grow would be a huge challenge.
Now I should point out that the ethos of the United Church, at least recently, has not been to focus energy on numerical growth. In my formation as a Minister much of the talk was about being attentive to the needs of the community, either the community around the church or the needs of the existing church members. So these leaders who were fostering a culture of evangelism, at least in its purist definition, were people I was interested to meet and learn from.
One such leader was a former Roman Catholic Priest who had left his church to become a United Church Minister. Scott is a gifted leader. When Scott began his work in a “rougher” section of urban Winnipeg he was told his role would be “palliative”. The congregation was shrinking quickly, the average age was very high, and the diversity of the church was nil. Still Scott’s passion was strong and he reached out to his community to see where new people, new families, new mission, could be found. Scott’s openness, his good humour and his connections within the community led one Filipino family to accept Scott’s invitation to attend Sunday worship. The new family received a very warm welcome and so they returned the next Sunday with another Filipino family. And again the hospitality of the church was so strong that the next week three Filipino families attended that church. And so on. And so on.
Suddenly there were more Filipino families in that church than what Stephen Harper might call “old stock” Canadians. Scott invited the Filipino families to become part of the worship leadership, the music began to change, the spirit of the service changed. It truly was becoming a new and dynamic place to experience God’s love and care. All of this change, all of this new and dynamic worship was not universally celebrated and affirmed by people who had worshipped in that church for generations. People began to grumble that it no longer felt like “church”, that “our” church was not the same anymore, and there came that familiar hum, “something has to be done about this.”
N.T. Wright, New Testament scholar says of our Gospel text this morning, “Jesus is talking about what happened in the days of the great prophets Elijah and Elisha and in doing so he identifies himself with these prophets. Elijah was sent to help the widow – but not a Jewish one. Elisha healed one solitary leper – and the leper was the commander of the enemy army. That’s what he did. And that is what drove the people to fury. Israel’s God was rescuing the wrong people. Often the text is interpreted as the people were astonished at what a good speaker Jesus was but in fact the text really says they were astonished that he (Jesus) was speaking about God’s grace to them – grace for everybody.” Another way to say that might be, be careful what you ask for…
If your church is shrinking, dying, and you pray for growth, numerical growth, be careful what you pray for. God has a way of upending our plans and making us all a Gospel lesson. You and I become another Prodigal Son, another Good Samaritan, or another Widow’s mite. Who says God doesn’t have a sense of humour?
As people of God sometimes I think we get too familiar with our stories, so much so that we lose the power of God’s unsettling truths for our lives. The stories become domesticated, personal, and even sentimental. And the wildness of God’s grace and love is lost in the translation. Just like us the people of Israel have read the prophets, preached the prophets, and prayed the prophets, perhaps they have actually become accustomed to the lack of fulfillment in prophecy. The people of Israel were once slaves in Egypt, they were an occupied people, a people who had no power, no freedom, a people who have grown too familiar with bemoaning their tragic fate. Their hearts have become brittle with their experience of sorrow or longing or acceptance or anger. This is who they are, and they’ve learned to make peace with it.
But now Jesus is telling them their wait is over. What they’ve been praying for has arrived. All they have to do is receive the message, release their old ideas of who they are, and live into God’s dream for them. This will happen not because they’ve worked so hard for it, or planned for it, or even suffered for it. It will come as a result of God’s grace pouring in, transforming everything. It will not be brought to them through a return of King David or a series of plagues that will decimate Rome. It comes through the voice of someone just like them, a carpenter’s son who tells them miracles are an everyday possibility. It’s so unexpected, so different from what they thought, not only are they prevented from receiving it; they actually experience it as a threat.
I think the core of today’s Gospel text can be found in verse 21. The “someday” of hope is now the “today” of fulfillment. If we accept that “today” hope has arrived then it suddenly forces us to move out of the stale atmosphere of yesterday’s disappointments and the mile high elevations of big dreams and visions that never seem to take form or life. IF someday is today, as Jesus says, then the question of “what is hope” is all around you, all around me, all around our church, and we need to look, to touch, to feel, and see what is in fact all around us.
Author of several books on the future of the mainline churches in North America, Diana Butler Bass writes, Overemphasizing the past results in nostalgia--the belief that the past is better than either the present or the future--a disposition that is steeped in grief and fear. Overemphasizing the future--the belief that all that matters is that which is to come--often results in thwarted hope, doubt, and anxiety. A recent survey from Public Religion Research discovered that the majority of churchgoers in the United States express high levels of both nostalgia and anxiety. By strong majorities, religious Americans--and without any significant difference between theological conservatives and liberals--believe that "our best days are behind us" and that the future of society is bleak. In particular, mainline congregations are caught between valorizing the good old days and a deepening sense of desolation that some promised future will never arrive. Evidently, most Protestants would rather look back with sadness than trust that a more just and beautiful future beckons. As a result, today is lost. Today is merely a stage upon which we mourn the loss of past and fear what we cannot imagine.
But "today" is a deeply dangerous spiritual reality--because today insists that we lay aside both our memories and our dreams to embrace fully the moment of now. The past romanticizes the work of our ancestors; the future scans the horizons of our descendants and depends upon them to fix everything. But "today" places us in the midst of the sacred drama, reminding us that we are actors and agents in God's desire for the world. "Today" is the most radical thing Jesus ever said. Jesus essentially told his friends, "Look around. See the Spirit of God at work, right here. Right now. God is with us. The ever active, ever loving, ever liberating, always present God is here with us. Now."
In the document that Bethany provided to all prospective candidates seeking the position I now hold there was a lengthy section devoted to a vision of where the church needs to go in the future. Bethany could provide a drop-in to younger families, Bethany could provide a community centre for seniors, and/or Bethany could offer a speaker series on topics of interest to young families and seniors. It is an extensive and comprehensive list. I also know that Bethany prides herself on a long history of faithful service including a long list of activities, studies, programs, musical offerings, age-specific gatherings, and the past is persevered in many ways throughout this building. All of this is very good. Any new Minister would want to know a church feels it stands on solid ground in its faith foundation and that it is looking forward with vision.
But each of these gifts of the Spirit, the past and the future, can distract us from the present, the now, the today that Jesus proclaimed. I remember one church I served that had but one member on its Christian Education committee. I was the new Minister and so I called a meeting to learn more about the church’s programming for children, youth and adults. After I heard about how that church carried out its programs I asked the Chair if I could call on support from the church for members of the committee. Hesitantly the Chair replied we would need to change the church rules since the constitution of that church specifically said the CE committee would have 5 members and including her and the other four members, all deceased, the committee was full. I was dumbfounded, “the deceased members are still on the committee”, I asked. “Yes”, she said, that’s how we honour our past here. I have also served churches that would not move on mission within or outside the church walls because at every turn the response was, “we can’t do anything until we have engaged a consultant to come and work with us to create a long-term strategic plan.” In the last five years that church had commissioned three such plans with little to show for the expense, energy and effort of those vision documents.
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “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, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then he said to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
What “today” is being fulfilled in our hearing? Imagine the possibilities for us and for others. I stand ready to serve those dreams and visions, we can be inspired by what has gone before us and we need to make plans for the future but we can never forget that the Spirit of Jesus gives us the imagination, the energy and the determination to create this new world now, at this very time, today. Let’s get to work!