By Rev Brian Hiortdahl
According to Scout Law, a scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind,
obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent – or, to summarize for the
call committee, overqualified. You will no doubt see many of these characteristics on display this morning as Pack 777 and their families join us in worship this morning, but one in particular stands out. Cub Scouts are brave. Some of them have probably never been to worship with us before, and I applaud their bravery for accepting our invitation to be with us.
Perhaps you can remember walking into a church for the first time, whether that was half
an hour or several decades ago. It is not easy to walk into a church for the first time.
How will you be received?
Will you be welcomed, judged, embraced, ignored?
Will you be respected or dismissed?
Will you be beaten with an umbrella by an old woman cursing you out in German for
sitting in “her seat”?
(Yes, I’ve seen that happen.)
Will someone try to convert you or otherwise try to impose their religion upon
upon your life, with murder brewing in their eyes if you disagree or decline?
Will you be labeled a sinner, either directly with words or more directly with turned
shoulders and cold glances?
Will people talk about you like they talked about Jesus: some too friendly, others
insultingly questioning where you came from, but everyone whispering an opinion?
Will you be applauded for your bravery, in a culture overrun with Christians behaving
badly, for daring to give Jesus a chance?
I for one am glad and grateful you are here, especially this week for the chance to hear
Jesus in his hometown synagogue.
Jesus reminds his familiar faithful that there were lots of Israelites to whom the prophets
of God did not go. Instead, Elijah was sent to a widow across the border in Zarephath, and Elisha went to the commander of an enemy army to heal him of his leprosy. Widows, being women, could not legally own a home; lepers were quarantined with other lepers in colonies beyond the outskirts of town so that they wouldn’t pollute anyone else with their disease.
Everyone assumed that both were cursed by God: they had to be sinners. The widow admitted as much to Elijah herself. And the widow of Sidon and the leper of Syria were Gentiles, the Bible’s word for not God’s people, not religious, not chosen, not one of us.
Surely a true prophet of God would judge and condemn them.
But not Elijah…not Elisha…and not Jesus.
In fact, Jesus does more than refrain from judging them. Jesus lifts them up, celebrates them, and says, these are the people to whom God has sent me. The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to bring good news, but not to the synagogue, not to the big donors, not to the faithful champions of tradition, not to the voting members, not to the ones who are politically, socially and spiritually free enough to step fearlessly inside the church doors.
The Spirit of the Lord is sending me to the so-called sinners: First. When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town…and tried to kill him. I hope your experience at Shepherd of the Valley is more positive.
One of the sad ironies of religion is that God accepts us and we reject God. Jesus has just announced the year of the Lord’s favor; one translation of this is the time of God’s acceptance or welcome, which is how the same word is used in other places in the gospel. It fits with the lyrics of the angel chorus in the Christmas sky and the open arms of the father in Jesus’ story welcoming home his loser son while his dutiful brother sulks out in the field about the old fool’s poor judgment. Surely he and the faithful in Nazareth and the lifelong churchgoer are entitled to better treatment and more respect, not less. When God rejects this reasonable premise, we reject God. The crowd tries to kill Jesus—eventually they will—but even then he doesn’t have the decency to stay dead. Instead he rises and launches church, a new community dedicated to welcoming, healing, helping and loving widows and lepers and Gentiles and prisoners and prodigals and outsiders and people who aren’t like us.
Rob Bell and Don Golden explain beautifully:
In the new humanity our world gets bigger, our perspective goes from black-and-white to color, our sensitivities are heightened, we’re rescued from sameness and uniformity, because the wall has come down and peace has been made. A church is the new humanity on display. She’s in graduate school, and he’s in his nineties; and one couple has a million dollars, and another doesn’t have enough money for dinner; and he arrived in this country three years ago with a small suitcase, and they’ve never been out of the country; and they have a son fighting in the war, and they’re going to a war protest later today; and he’s got serious doubts about what he was taught growing up, and she’s just decided that God might even exist.
All of these people—who are divided, who never sit down and listen to each other—in
the new humanity, in the church, they meet, they engage, they interact, they begin
to feel what the other feels, and the dividing wall of hostility crumbles.
Them becomes us, they becomes we, and those become ours.
A church is not a center for religious goods and services, where people pay a fee
and receive a product in return.
A church is not an organization that surveys its demographic to find our what the market
is demanding at this particular moment and then adjusts its strategy to meet that
The church is Jesus’ body, a good gift for the healing of the world.
It’s for the benefit of others.
For the good of those who look different from us.
A church is an organization that exists for the benefit of nonmembers.
This blessing extends even to our enemies.
Which is why Elisha goes to Naaman, and why Jesus doesn’t answer violence with violence, but just keeps moving, on his way, not theirs. I don’t know how he slipped away without being hurt. The world doesn’t know why he slipped away without hurting others. He remains a beautiful mystery, which is why we don’t manage and schedule Him, or restrain him with our expectations and assumptions, or market or sell Him: we worship and love Him.
And follow Him, by loving others, when we’re brave.