Saturday, 7 June 2008

Christ centred, Community facing

Pentecost 4 year A Sermon
The Right Reverend Pamela Tankersley
Moderator of the General Assembly

Hebrew Scripture: Jeremiah 29:1 &4-14
Gospel: Luke 4: 14-30

The story read for us today is a beautifully crafted one.

The narrator sets the context: Jesus, after his baptism in the river Jordan and having been led into a time of testing in the wilderness, returns to Galilee begin his ministry. We hear that empowered by God’s Spirit, he has been doing wonderful things: healing the sick, exorcising demons, preaching and teaching. It seems he sets up house in Capernaum – which is at the North of Lake Galilee.

Perhaps there is a sort of rivalry between Capernaum and his hometown Nazareth?

And now he is returning to Nazareth – which is over to the west of Lake Galilee, and is of course the town where his folks are. He is returning home. Can you imaging the talk, the gossip? The locals, in such a time of highly oral communication will have heard that he is coming. Some will be sceptical, some excited, some curious, some with high expectations.

What’s the language?

O I knew him as a little boy, you know…
Did you hear about the man he cured of leprosy…
The stories about him can’t really be true…
I wonder if he will do anything marvellous here…
I hear the powers that be aren’t impressed…

But now its time of the Sabbath, and here is Jesus in the Nazareth Synagogue (as was his custom, the text tells us.)
Let’s pause a moment to consider who else is there.
Can you imagine it?
Perhaps it is important for us to note who is NOT there.

The women – archaeology has shown us a separate place for the women to observe the proceedings
The children – until they were about 12 and admitted to the Temple they would probably have been with the women
The Gentiles - though there may have been around a few “God-fearers” as they were known, such as the Centurion we hear about in later stories.
And also – the ill, especially with those diseases known to be communicable or to be a sign that God had cursed the recipient, such as ‘leprosy’
And some occupations deemed the worker unclean, for instance tax-collectors and shepherds.

So the scene is set up with INSIDERS and OUTSIDERS: those inside the synagogue – the men - and those outside the synagogue - all the others, probably able to observe what is happening.

Jesus, as an itinerant preacher, comes inside and sits down, as is the custom. The attendant goes to the structure on the wall that holds the scrolls and takes the Scripture for the day for Jesus. We don’t know if Jesus has chosen this one, but we assume it just happens to be the reading for the day: we know it as Isaiah 65.

The effect is probably electric. Is their a text from scripture that speaks to you and your community with particular poignancy? This reading is THE favourite for all Jews –it is the announcement of Jubilee.

He reads: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, sight to the blind, to release the captives and to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

Then Jesus says quite calmly. Today this reading has come true in your midst.
Wow!! They are stunned.

Jubilee is HERE in our midst, and through this Jesus - who is one of us! The text says they marvelled at his gracious words and all eyes were turned to him. We might say, “you could have heard a pin drop.”

The significance is not lost on them: for all Jews believed the Jubilee was a promise of God to them, who had since the time of the exile known only oppression and captivity. In the immediate context they longed for freedom from Roman occupation and demands. They are looking for a political saviour.

I guess after the pause there was quite a buzz!

The sceptics are gone: isn’t this Mary and Joseph’s son?
But Jesus, always perceptive, speaks into their excitement:

I know what you are saying – why don’t you do for us what you did in Capernaum? And you will quote to me the proverb, “Doctor heal yourself.”
In other words, begin with your own people: “yourself” is “us” Charity begins at home. In this inaugural story, Luke has put Jesus firmly on the inside, at the centre of his own community.

But…says Jesus (and is there a pause?)… but I tell you a prophet is not to be found in the inside of any institution, a prophet is not accepted there.
And in Jewish fashion, he tells two stories of famous prophets Elijah and Elisha;
Elijah who saved the widow of Zarephthath in Sidon – in Phoenicia, not in Israel, and Elisha who cured a Syrian, not a Jew.

Both these prophets go to the outsiders and not to the insiders….

And we read “When all who were in the Synagogue heard this they were filled with rage!”

Can we wonder? Jesus has rejected their prior claim on his Godly power to enact Jubilee, and declared it was for outsiders!

But do you wonder how those who were not in the synagogue heard this? The “impure”? the women, the gentiles, the outcasts?

So they hustle and try to throw him over the cliff – and the stones would have followed, but his time was not right and he walked through the crowd and on his way to be with the outsiders. Luke, of all the Gospel writers, records how Jesus was found with those on the margins of society, a prophet on a path of confrontation with the Insiders.

Now let us turn to another prophet: Jeremiah, a prophet of Judah.

You will remember that in the 6th century BCE, Jerusalem of Judah was laid to waste by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. The destruction of Jerusalem meant the destruction of the Temple -and of the Holy of Holies where the Arc of the covenant was to be found. So in this destruction, the people of Judah, whose theology was entirely temple-oriented, must have felt that not only was their state, their city and their Temple destroyed, but also their God.

Nebuchadnezzar was very astute: he took as exiles to Babylon all who might be able to rebuild Jerusalem: the artisans who might rebuild Jerusalem physically, the Kings and captains who could rebuild it politically, and the priests who could rebuild it spiritually. We know how these exiles felt: we hear their lament in Psalm 137, “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat down and we wept when we remembered Zion. How shall we song the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

It is to these lamenting people that Jeremiah writes a letter (as we heard in Jeremiah 29). In effect he says this is how you shall sing the Lord’s song: Build house and live in them, plant gardens and eat the fruit form them, marry and have children and marry you children to that they might have children, increase in number and do not decrease.

And then he says the words that I think are helpful for us a church that is “exile” in many ways The Lord says ‘Seek the shalom of the city into which I have sent you (I use the word shalom, which is the original Hebrew word mostly translated as welfare or peace, but it is more than any of these words) and pray for its shalom, for in its shalom, you will find your own.’
There is a sense in which Jeremiah is saying; work through your lament, build up community here, and love your enemies, go beyond your own circle of insiders and work for the good, the shalom of all, including the outsiders. God (who has not deserted you in the destruction of Jerusalem) has SENT you here for a purpose, and is not about to rescue you. And then comes the lovely words of Jeremiah 29:11, which many of us have found a personal source of inspiration, but which in their original context are to a community of people in exile; “For surely I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord, “Plans for your shalom and not for destruction, to give you a future with hope.”

Jeremiah is prophesying that the renewal of God’s people will come after a long time and it will come about as they seek the shalom of the people beyond their own circle, where God has place them. Is this not consistent with the message of our first scripture passage for today?

So what might we conclude from the two stories?

Well, it’s clear we are called to be outward facing, to seek the shalom of our communities –here in Wanaka and Hawea and its surrounds - to bring reconciliation and mercy, justice and compassion here for our neighbours, for insiders and outsiders, continuously drawing the circle wider.

Perhaps we need to give away our exclusive claim to Jesus and see him wherever Jubilee values of compassion, justice making and peace are celebrated, and give away the power innate in holding Jesus, being prepared to risk that those who do not yet know him might find him in settings other than our church. We need to recognise that we are called to be in partnership with the community, with other shalom seekers, and see all that we have as tools for Christ’s mission.

For in these words, in this fragile place where we find ourselves as the Christian Church in Aotearoa in the 21st century, we have a word of hope. As we face outwards in mission, as we are an incarnational church embodying Jesus in the world, God will be with us. Indeed, maybe we need to see that Christ is already there with the outsiders, calling us to join him.

I want to finish with an ancient Celtic quote – one that I found on the wall in a home for elderly people;

I sought my God my God I could not see
I sought my soul, my soul eluded me
I sought my neighbour and there I found all three.

My prayer for you is that as you seek your neighbour, in the way of Jesus, you will become truly Christ-centred and community-facing and you will know the hope and joy of being God’s people.

May God bless you today and always.