Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON
Several years ago, the actors and actresses who would portray the characters in the movies to be made from the Harry Potter books were announced. The Internet chat groups buzzed with concern. The child chosen to portray the character Hermione was simply too pretty. In the books, Hermione is described as having rather large teeth and completely unruly hair. Even if she were a very skillful actress, people weren't sure they were going to be able to buy this girl as Hermione on the big screen, because she didn't fit their notion of what Hermione should look like.
This happens a lot with movie’s based on books. We go to the movie of one of our favorite books and suddenly find out that the way the character looked or acted is totally changed. Stephen King was so out raged with the movie The Shinning he ended up making a second movie called Stephen King’s The Shining. Strangely enough the hotel on which the movie is based “The Stanley Hotel” shows Jack Nicholson version which Stephen King hated on its own channel but not King’s remake. We can not make up our minds what Hermione or The Shining should look like. We expect one thing and it ends up another.
Jesus had a similar problem. "Can anything good come from Nazareth?" "Isn't this Joseph's son?" All sorts of things, including his announcement from the front of the synagogue in Nazareth that Isaiah's prophecy was fulfilled in their presence, seemed to point to the possibility of Jesus being Messiah. For many generations, however, people had gotten a pretty clear picture for themselves of what the Messiah would be. He'd be in the line of David, and therefore kingly in both lineage and bearing. He'd be a powerful warrior, perhaps, or a dramatic prophet. He'd come with legions of angels and trumpet calls and no ambiguity whatsoever about who had sent him. But Jesus was the kid down the road who grew up with your kids and played in the dirt and got lost that time on the trip to Jerusalem. You've known his dad, mom, and extended family for several generations. There's no way someone from that background would be sent from God for this kind of mission. Jesus just did not work as the embodiment of the character Messiah.
The problem, of course, with preconceived notions, is that often they are wrong. Jesus knew exactly what they were thinking, and so reminded them of stories they knew well: Elijah and the widow of Zarephath and Elisha and Naaman the Syrian. In both of these stories, great prophets choose to do miracles not among the chosen people of God, but for foreigners. In both cases not only the people of Israel, but the recipients of the miracles themselves are surprised by the way God chooses to act. In the case of Naaman, people were shocked that God would use a prophet of Israel to heal not only a foreigner, but an enemy, and Naaman couldn't believe the simple methodology that was used to heal him.
Jesus tried to help the citizens of Nazareth remember what they should have known already from years of hearing the stories of the faith. God does not act in ways predictable to humankind. One of the greatest theological fallacies is to assume that the doctrine that God is unchanging means that we can predict what God will do. If the record of scripture tells us anything, it is that one of the ways God never changes is that God remains beyond human understanding and certainly beyond prediction. After all, this is the God who chose the youngest son of a family of shepherds to be the greatest king of Israel, the one from whom the Messiah would descend.
Rather than being frightening and arbitrary, however, our inability to predict God's next step can be exciting and comforting to us, for God's motivation is always for good, for love. We can find hope in knowing that God can do anything with anything, including the cracked vessels that constitute most Christian believers. It also reminds us that we need to be looking for God in unexpected people and places. Perhaps the kid working at the grocery store with the spiky hair and multiple piercings has a message for us from God. Looking at God in this way, suddenly the world becomes ripe with possibilities for encountering the presence of the holy in our midst. Jesus may not have looked the part of the hero, nor would he have been chosen to play himself in the film version, but he was, and is, the Savior.
We often must re-evaluate the way we see God. For many Jesus did not look the part of the messiah of God among us. I think that distorted view of what God is can be seen again and again in our society and world. I have heard a fellow clergy type say to someone who is being unloving and very judgmental that their vision of God is not the vision of God that the Bible sees. We need to call for a re-evaluation of how we see God. We need to be honest. How do you see God? As judge? Police chief? Santa Claus? Genie in a bottle? Loving? Cruel? Distant? Available? Smiling? Angry? Irrelevant? Powerless? Be honest. How do you really see God? There is a good chance that like those that first saw Jesus our vision of God is distorted.
Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON
As a student of preaching, I had read all of the great preacher Fred Craddock's books and articles for years, but I had never met the man until a retreat at Kirkridge about 10 years into my ministry. Since preaching books, unlike best-sellers, don't often have a photograph of the author on the jacket, I had no idea what he looked like. As we gathered in the room to hear him give a Bible Study for this retreat, I kept waiting to see someone I had admired greatly for many years. Soon a short, slightly overweight man in a bright orange sweat suit went to the front of the room and introduced himself as Fred Craddock. Somehow this did not fit my image of a "great preacher." Once he began to speak, however, I forgot entirely what he looked like and heard words of amazing wisdom and insight.
How do you see God? As judge? Police chief? Santa Claus? Genie in a bottle? Loving? Cruel? Distant? Available? Smiling? Angry? Irrelevant? Powerless? Be honest. How do you really see God in your mind?
How we see God may be one of the most important decisions we’ll ever make. When we’re first confronted with this question as adults, our picture of God will always emanate from our subconscious early childhood experience with our father or a father-figure. With so few dads resembling Jesus in what they do and say, it’s no surprise that few of us have a good and accurate picture of God. We piece together an idea of Him based on the prayers He didn’t answer, the tragedy He allowed in the life of someone we care about, the opinions of our friends, the celebrities we admire and maybe a little bit of Scripture (if we were taken to church). Never intending to, we create a patchwork picture of God that may have little resemblance to the one true God.
Yet how we view God has a lot to do with whether we feel loved or not, whether we care for others or not, whether we turn to God often or just in a crisis, and even whether we want God in our lives . . . or not. We all need a true picture of God, but most of us just have random pieces of the puzzle floated into our lives from different people and events.
We need to look no further than Jesus to get our answer. He defined God as “Father.” A perfect Father. Not the one we had, not our friend’s father we always wished we’d had. A totally perfect Dad. So, what might that look like? A father who listens to you, engages with your life, knows your heart and your heart’s desire. You always know he loves you . . . that he’s crazy about you. He never gets mad at you, never sulks nor pouts to teach you lessons. He’s a father who is always available, who’s never in a hurry, who doesn’t bail on you . . . ever. A father who has no ego that needs feeding, no ‘skeletons’ to hide, nothing to prove and nothing to fear. You know he has other children but he makes you feel like you’re the only one. He says both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ when you ask for things, but over time you come to see that his ‘no’s’ were the right answers for the right reasons at the right time.
God is our father. He created us. Jesus told us to think of Him, love Him, respect Him and pray to Him as Father. He said, “This, then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father . . .’” When I grasped God as my perfect Father and engaged with His forgiving, unconditional love, it changed my life forever. I’ve yet to meet an all-in Jesus-follower who wasn’t fueled by gratitude for the love of their Heavenly Father. (https://radicalmentoring.com/so-how-do-you-see-god/)
There are two men in a hospital, on opposite sides of a room. They can’t see each other, but they’re close enough to speak. Weeks go by. One man describes a view outside a window to the other: white clouds, blue skies, cardinals flying by. The man listening starts to get envious — he does not have a window, only a blank wall in his field of vision. The man describes the changing views: fantastic windstorms, sunsets, rain showers, until he is well enough to leave the hospital. The man by the blank wall begs to be moved to the other’s bed, to see the view he has been told about. But when he’s moved, he discovers there is no window. There never was. What the man described was only his imagination. The creation of imagery had no reality to support it.
The way we perceive the world is more fluid than the binaries of fact and fiction. Throughout the course of each day, we are confronted with continuous feeds of imagery, language, and experiences — some verifiable, some invented, many in between. The distance between the author and the reader has increased into abstraction. On an individual level, many of us select representations of our lives on social media, curating what we want to enforce as an image of ourselves to friends, colleagues, strangers, and perhaps most importantly to ourselves. On a larger scale, history functions as a filter that presents a single image — a limited and reductive version of our shared past. Jesus suffered from the same thing many years before social media and our modern-day image makers. (https://medium.com/posted-by-sypartners/between-image-and-reality-where-we-all-perceive-the-world-2ed8a427c58)
"The whole point of the fairy tale of the Gospel is that he is the king, in spite of everything. The frog turns out to be the prince, the ugly duckling the swan…." (Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth [San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1977], p. 90)
"The original sin is to limit God. Don't." Richard Bach
In some ways God can be likened to a hurricane. Human forecasters try their best to predict exactly where and when it will hit landfall and at what strength of wind. Yet often those forecasts are inaccurate at best. The hurricane has an internal logic which defies the capacity of human beings to discern. We do best with hurricanes when we prepare for anything if they are anywhere nearby.
One of the most important surprises to the hearers of Jesus' words in the synagogue is his reaffirmation of the global nature of God's activity. Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, of course, including the two stories Jesus tells here, the fact that God acts not just among the chosen people is crystal clear. Yet that seems to be a message that every person who claims God as their God needs to hear again and again. God acts for good not just among Jews or Christians, but among all people. God uses instruments for work in the world not just among Jews or Christians, but among all people. RAS
As a woman in ministry, ordained over twenty years ago when there were fewer women in ministry, I know the experience of having my "package" overshadow my message. In my last year of seminary, I preached as a guest at a small church in upstate New York whose members had never had a woman preacher. After the service, a man came up, shook my hand and said, "You preach pretty good for a woman." Without missing a beat, I replied, "You listen pretty well for a man."
To live fully into the unpredictability of God requires a fairly advanced theology of the Holy Spirit. It is one thing to say of God's Spirit that "the wind blows where it will"; it is quite another to actually follow where that wind blows and not try to control or even predict it.
Statistics continue to tell us that the people who make the highest salaries and tend to be promoted most quickly in the corporate world are those who are tallest. Clearly, size does matter. Even the church is not immune to this sort of thinking, however, and not just about height. When I was in seminary at a Presbyterian school, common wisdom was that a Scottish accent got you at least $4000 more in salary as a pastor.
If you want to see God laugh, make plans.
Social activist Dorothy Day, like her Lord, found that she was at times "a prophet without honor" among her own people, the Roman Catholic Church. Her positions on wealth and poverty were so extreme and so strongly advocated in her newspaper The Catholic Worker that many conservative members labeled her as a Communist revolutionary. She had once been a Communist, and her gospel-based teachings on wealth and poverty were revolutionary, but certainly not like those of the Bolsheviks, with whom she was lumped. In the film Entertaining Angels we see the Archbishop of New York paying her a visit in her flat. He mentions the charges leveled against her and the discomfort this is creating in the diocese. Wishing to put some distance between the radicals and the church, he suggests that Dorothy should drop (pull in spacing) "Catholic" from the name of the newspaper. Not intimidated by his authority, Dorothy declines, telling him that it might be better if she moves her operation across the river to Brooklyn. Realizing that this would include the soup kitchens and shelters for the homeless, which have brought widespread praise to his diocese, the prelate backs down. But as he leaves we can tell he is still bothered by this troublesome advocate of the poor.
The problem the people in Nazareth experienced was that they didn't fully understand the power that was in front of them. They failed to appreciate who and what Jesus really was. When radioactivity was first encountered, people did not have a full appreciation of what it was. For a long time scientists believed that radioactive ingredients were therapeutic. As a consequence, for many years’ manufacturers put radioactive thorium in toothpaste and laxatives. Until the late 1920s the Glen Springs Hotel in the western part of New York bragged about its "radioactive mineral springs." Radioactivity was finally banned from consumer products in 1938. But by the time it was realized that radioactivity presented a health hazard to humans, it was too late for some people. In particular, Madame Curie died of leukemia in 1934. Her laboratory had been so thoroughly exposed to radiation that all of her papers from the 1890s are still too dangerous for anyone to handle. They have been placed in lead-lined boxes, and people who put on protective clothing may only view the papers.
The citizens of Nazareth were irritated at Jesus for suggesting that they might not be as faithful as people in other lands. Even when people don't actively practice their faith, they often still want to lay claim to that faith at least in name only. A poll conducted last year in Britain found that while most people there do not regularly participate in worship services, the majority still say they are Christian. The survey, which encompassed residents of England and Wales, found that 71% of the people identified themselves as being Christians. Islam was the second-highest ranking religion, with about 3%. Hindus followed them at 1%, and Sikhs and Buddhists at less than 1%. Evidence of the lack of involvement with their faith is found in the rampant biblical illiteracy among many Christians. When one bishop referred to Jesus' flight to Egypt after his birth, many people in the church were scandalized and wanted to know where on earth the cleric had come up with an idea like that. He had to inform them that he found the idea in the second chapter of Matthew.
Instead of rejoicing that God is at work among the people in many lands, we often tend to resent the suggestion that God cares for people who are different from us. In When Religion Becomes Evil, Charles Kimball points to the headlines that have become so common in our newspapers, headlines that point to the lingering resentments among various groups of "godly" people: "Hindus and Muslims on the Brink of War in Kashmir"; "Serbian Christians Stand Trial for Atrocities Against Bosnian Muslims"; "Palestinians Killed by Jewish Settlers in the Occupied Territories"; and "Muslim Militant Kills Twenty with Suicide Bomb at Jerusalem Pizza Parlor."
We tend to place limits on how large groups we belong to should be. Beyond a certain point, we figure that the body will become unmanageable. To a degree, that was the reason for some of the hesitancy that the people of Nazareth had about accepting the idea that God's domain extended farther than they usually thought. As the United States was beginning to expand westward, some officials feared that the growing size of the nation would make unity impossible. Shortly after the Louisiana Purchase was completed, a congressman from Connecticut, Roger Griswold, declared: "It is not consistent with the spirit of a republican government that its territory should be exceedingly large, for as you extend your limits you increase the difficulties arising from a want of that similarity of customs, habits, and manners so essential for its support" (Charles A. Cerami, Jefferson's Great Gamble: The Remarkable Story of Jefferson, Napoleon and the Men Behind the Louisiana Purchase [Naperville, Ill.: Sourcebooks, 2003], p. 255)
Although Jesus was momentarily acclaimed as a local hero for his sermon, as he continued to speak and offer ideas that ran contrary to local opinion, he found that he soon lost favor. In Sermons, Peter Gomes of Harvard University suggests that we have a shortage of heroes today, and the heroes we do have stand on rather shaky ground. Instead of having heroes, Gomes suggests, today we have celebrities, people from whom we expect little and who usually deliver less. He says: "Celebrities are a part of our consumer throwaway culture; they are here today and gone tomorrow, and that is why we must create so many of them" (Peter J. Gomes, Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living [New York: Harper San Francisco, 1998], p. 44)
It used to be that what mattered most was who liked you, not how many liked you. Instead of appealing to experts to offer their opinions about the finest restaurants or the best movies, the process now has become much more democratic. Especially with the rise of chat rooms and Internet polls, people are often swayed by the quantity of comments they read, rather than by the quality of those comments. Nowadays shows like American Idol do not ask a panel of competent judges to render their opinion as to who is most talented. Rather the viewing public, regardless of their qualifications, is invited to phone in their votes, and whoever is most popular is deemed to be the best.
The audience in Nazareth did not appreciate hearing Jesus praise outsiders. Our tendency frequently is to want to heap praise on ourselves and in some way to demonize those who are different than we are. That is basically what happened during the Salem witch hunts of the 17th century. Beginning in 1692, in that one small village, 144 people were accused of being witches. Of those, 19 were eventually hanged, 1 was pressed to death beneath stones, and 4 others died in prison. In Hellfire Nation, James A. Morone discusses how historians have revealed that at that time Salem basically consisted of two distinct communities. Those who lived on the western side of Salem mainly were people who had lived there a long time and were rather traditional in their ways. In contrast, those who resided on the eastern side of town tended to be newcomers, people who didn't necessarily buy into the more traditional ways of those on the west side of town. Upon analyzing the records, it turns out that almost every accused witch lived on the eastern side of town, where the non-traditional people lived. At the same time, almost every accuser lived on the west side of town, where the upholders of tradition were concentrated. Furthermore, historians of that era have come to realize that most of the women who were accused of being witches in New England were wealthy women. Since tradition said that property and wealth should be passed on from one generation of males to the next generation of males, those rich women posed a threat to the tradition. In order to preserve the tradition, therefore, people sought a way to get rid of those women. The best way they knew how to do that back then was to accuse the women of being witches.
Do we truly believe that there is one God who is over all people? In When Religion Becomes Evil, Charles Kimball observes that Allah is simply the Arabic word for God. When people who speak Arabic pray, including the more than fifteen million Christians in the Middle East, they pray to Allah. Kimball notes that when French people pray to Dieu or when German people pray to Gott, we do not accuse them of praying to some other deity. The author reports that in the many times that he has worshiped with Christians in the Middle East in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Israel, prayers have always been offered to Allah.
Throughout the Bible, God has always been at work for good in and through the lives of those who were outsiders to the Hebrew people. Following the flood, God's covenant is made with every person and with every animal. Moses' father-in-law was a Midianite. Pharaoh's daughter, who saved Moses from the Nile, was an agent whom God worked through for good. All of the characters in Job are presented as being non-Israelites. And in the Jonah narrative, the godliest people are the sailors, who do not even know Jonah's God.
What does it take to get people to realize that God's ways are broader than one's own religious community? Tennessee governor Phil Bredesen declared this past July 11-18 as "Different Religions Week." With his proclamation he encouraged his fellow Tennesseans to participate in a service at a house of worship other than the one they usually attend. The idea apparently originated with Nathan Black, a student at Rice University. Having grown up in a liberal Congregationalist church, he confessed that he had been instilled with rather negative feelings toward conservative Catholics. That changed, he said, when he started dating a Catholic woman who took him to mass. Although he doesn't entirely agree with the Catholic faith, Black says that at least he now has an informed basis for his opposition. With the governor's proclamation, Black hoped that others would also be able to learn a little more about how other people experience God in their lives.
"Men do not reject the Bible because it contradicts itself but because it contradicts them." (E. Paul Hovey)
"Most people are bothered by those passages in Scripture which they cannot understand; but as for me, I always noticed that the passages in Scripture which trouble me most are those that I do understand." (Mark Twain)
"Rejection is the sand in the oyster, the irritant that ultimately produces the pearl." (Burke Wilkinson)
"One of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they seem to sense, once hate is gone, that they will be forced to deal with pain." (James Arthur Baldwin)
Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)
Move us from charity to change, O God, from status quo to status quo interrupters, and let this service do something so unpredictable in our souls that we leave here as the people of God. Amen.
Remind us, Heavenly Being that most of our assumptions and projections have to do with ourselves. We, not the poor, are the ones who are lazy. We, not the poor, are the ones lacking in moral fiber. Surely some of them are not angels too. Like us they are humans, groping for the light, granting habit and pattern its way, refusing risks, refusing engagement, sometimes even refusing gifts, like Your abundant gift of grace. Shake us up. Fill us up. Grant us freedom from our projections and assumptions. When we find ourselves filling with blame, return us to self-examination. When we find ourselves thinking that we are better than someone else, let us walk a mile in his or her shoes. We need both forgiveness and grace, O God. Help us to realize that. Amen.
We give to You what is not ours but Yours. We give because we can, because we must, because we want to overflow the fountain that is our life in You. Your unpredictability shames us; let us make one gift today, either in this offering or another, that surprises even us. Amen.
For grasses that sway in fields,
For sparkling white jasmine growing out of dumps,
For abandoned shopping carts that someone returns to home,
For Farm workers who harvest all their chili peppers outside their rental apartment before the frost comes,
For the safety of immigrants traveling in the deserts,
For children who write letters and call home,
For the certainty of Your unpredictability,
For all these things and more that we can't remember,
We give You thanks, O God.
You surprise us with both grace and beauty, which You put in unlikely places at unlikely times.
You dazzle us with joys that we thought could not be, with justice we thought impossible, with hope long ago dead in despair.
You make all things new and all things good.
Come now to us and turn us towards a new week, with a hunger for surprise, a refusal of despair, an openness to possibilities that are as sure as Your dawn and Your sweet-smelling morning Jasmine.