Sunday, January 18, 2009

Sermon: The Cost of Discipleship

Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
Saint Mark United Methodist Church
January 18, 2009

The Cost of Discipleship

Luke 4:14-30, NRSV: Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, 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.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The
eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.

Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your
hearing.” 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?” 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.’”

And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 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; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”

When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 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. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

One: The Word of God for the People of God.
Many: Thanks be to God.

My colleagues have spoken about how and why we believe in the development of better human relations and how we seek to empower others to become the whole persons God intended. You have heard it said that we, as a church, are people called to service and mission, proclamation and witness. We’re called to share our stories, weave our stories together and point all of it back to the grace of God, from whom all good things flow.

Why, then, does this passage also point us to the troubling consequence of discipleship? Jesus comes, preaching good news to the poor, release of the captives, recovering of sight to the blind, and freedom from oppression. The Incarnate God says that this is the year of the Lord’s favor. As he is presented with the lectionary text for the day, Jesus reads the words on the scroll and proclaims that he is the one who has been the recipient of the Holy Spirit, which has anointed him and sent him, and today, the scripture had been fulfilled in your hearing.

Those gathered in the synagogue are thrilled at this news – finally, one has been sent to heal them, free them, and promise them God’s favor. This is the gathering of faithful people who have found a way to maintain their faithfulness to God in a world where there was no reward other than God’s own promise. And, on this day, they hear these words spoken to them, by the Jesus, the Messiah, the Anointed One – the one for whom they’ve been waiting – and he gives them some Good News.

Like any good recipients of a good sermon that warms the heart, they immediately begin to praise Jesus. They love him. He tells them exactly what they need to hear – that, finally, they are going to get some of the goodness of God’s promise that they’ve been anticipating for so long. No more suffering, no more poverty, no more blindness, no more oppression – this is a people who are ready for the Lord’s favor, they are ready to see and to shout and to rejoice in their freedom. You can almost hear them, rising up and saying, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!’

But that’s not what they say. What they say is, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” It’s as if all they can see is the six year old boy who grew up in their midst, chasing animals in the barn and squirming in his seat. They cannot hear what he has to say, and Jesus knows this. This Gospel word is not for them. Jesus continues by prophesying first that he will be run out of his hometown, and then reminds the assembled congregation of believers that when the going got rough for Israel, God was faithful to a Sidonian and a Syrian. Outsiders. Foreigners. The Bible is packed with stories of people who came from outside of the Israelites to identify God’s claim on their life and make the radical transformation from people of the world to people of the kingdom. There was so much at stake for these men and women that converting to a faith in the one true God was less risky than living with the knowledge that God’s promise was for them and not responding to it. For the hearers of Jesus’ first sermon – this new is enraging.

We gather today, not only to hearken to a call of social justice and mission in the world, but to remind ourselves why it is that we do such things. Theologian Rebecca Chopp argues that “The church is not created for fellowship, continued support, spiritual nourishment, or even social service; rather, the church is called to give to the world news of emancipatory transformation.” She believes that “Christianity must undergo, in proclaiming the Word to and with the world, its own thorough transformation, one in which Christianity’s complicity with the modern order is questioned and uncovered.”

Indeed, O Lord: Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore.

Chopp argues that we seek emancipatory transformation by deliberately speaking of freedom from a position of marginality. Now, even the faithful people and recipients of the promise cannot even assume that the message is for them.

Those in the temple hear Jesus’ teachings and they run him out of town, and try to push him off a cliff! Now these are some folks in need of emancipatory transformation. Whatever it is they are expecting from God and this hometown prophet is not what they will receive. Jesus tells them that the Scripture is being fulfilled in their hearing, but they are not the ones receiving the favor. This huddled group of faithful people, who have clung so long to their otherness and unworldliness, are now being told that even they are not the disenfranchised anymore – because they have each other. They have found, as Chopp identifies, fellowship, support, nourishment, and service amongst one another. But they have not yet found transformation.

They have not yet been changed by the Good News that Christ comes to give. They are bound by their interpretation of Scripture, their history, their narrative, their expectations. But Christ comes and says: I am not bound by your expectations. I am the Son of God, the living Christ, and I have come to teach you how much God loves you, and how we are called to be in relationship with one another –not just with the people who are like us or nice to us or praiseworthy or acceptable or piteous. This Good News is for the people who have never had a good word spoken to them, and today – that doesn’t mean you. It means those who are outside freezing in the rain, unable to be cured, locked up in prison, and silenced by the government. We are called to tend to them, heal them, listen to them, and remind them that THIS is the year of the Lord’s favor, so that they may be the ones to say, “MY eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!” And we can, at last, gather together in worship and praise of the God who refuses to let any of us go, so that we can be transformed into a people of true freedom.

Amen and Amen.

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