I never intended to be a preacher. I actually entered seminary thinking that I would come out a Christian Educator. BUT, I got caught up in the classes, hooked on learning, I got my highs from studying ancient Greek and Hebrew and Pastoral Care, which are not part of the Christian Education tract. So, mid-seminary I changed direction and went for a Masters of Divinity. I still thought, though, that I would one day be either a Christian Educator or an Associate Pastor with primary responsibility for Christian Education. Twenty-five years ago, when I started seminary, that’s what most women did with a Masters of Divinity degree.
Since that was my goal, I assumed I could avoid taking homiletics classes. Homiletics. It is the art of writing and preaching sermons. “Can’t be done,” my advisor said. If you are an MDiv candidate, thou shalt study homiletics.” And so I did, and surprise, surprise, I did well at it. My father was a journalist. I have always liked to write. And again, I like to study, love to study.
The first time I preached (outside of homiletics class) I was interning at a big church in Potomac Maryland. The head of staff had asked me to preach on New Year’s day, which fell on a Sunday. Enormous sanctuary. Cavernous. High vaulted ceiling. The pulpit was one of those nose-bleed types—at least 15 steps up. Almost need mountain-climbing gear.
Scary proposition that sanctuary; that pulpit. My saving grace was that no one attends church on New Year’s Day. People are sleeping late; they are nursing hangovers. I could step a toe into the preaching waters, and see if I liked the temperature.
I got to church early, New Year’s Day Sunday. Practiced my sermon several times through. Then, with time to spare, I cordoned off the back pews, so that the small crowd I was expecting, could gather up front.
Who knew that some people, lots of people actually, want to worship on New Years Day? Packed, absolutely packed sanctuary.
With nervous stomach and trembling knees, I climbed those many steps and I preached my first sermon in the thin air and before a LARGE congregation. I was terrified; but only until I opened my mouth. Then calm overtook me, a great calm. Was that the holy spirit? Don’t know. But by the time I was done, I knew I had to do it again. It had been fun; exhilarating! And my sermon was very well received.
Someone has said, if you are looking for your life-purpose: 1) ask yourself what is the most fun time in your life; 2) when is it that time seems to stand still for you—you are so caught up in what you are doing? 3) where is it in your life that your deep gladness meets the world’s great need?
Fortunately for me, the world needs preachers and I like to preach!
In our scripture reading today we are privy to Jesus’ discovery of HIS life purpose. Jesus had been baptized by John the Baptist, remember, and in a spectacle that is definitely a sign from God, he receives special powers—but for what purpose? So Jesus goes into the desert where he tries to figure it out—“Should I aspire to be famous?” No. “Rich?: No? “Ok. What exactly?” Out there in the desert is where he discovers where his deep gladness meets the world’s great need.
After his discovery, Jesus begins a teaching circuit in the synagogues around Galilee. It’s in Nazareth though, his hometown, that he makes his great pronouncement. First, he reads from the scroll of Isaiah. That scripture reading begins, "The Lord has anointed me---to bring good news to the poor and to proclaim—what is he to proclaim? He is to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor," —which is the kingdom of God.
Then, Jesus sits down facing the congregation. In the Jewish synagogues in those days it was the custom for preachers to do their thing sitting down facing the congregation. From his chair or maybe it was a bench, he says, “Today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing!” Here you might imagine a big grin on his face, because it is a happy time when, at long last, you DO discover your life purpose, In other words he says, “I found it, people!”
At first his hometown community IS genuinely happy for Jesus. After all, this is someone they have watched grow from infancy, through adolescence into adulthood. But, then the people in that congregation start thinking what this could mean for THEM. You know, a healer in their midst. Someone who can act as mediator between them and God. “Darn. Aren’t we lucky!”
But that’s not what Jesus has in mind at all. That’s why his reference to Elijah and Elisha—these were prophets who prophesied and healed outside not just their hometown, but outside their country, Israel. Evidently Jesus has no plans to stick around.
That congregation does not like that one iota or one yod, to use a Hebrew vowel. “Surely God cares more about US in here than about them out there?! WE need him more than they do!”
As Barbara Brown Taylor says in one of her sermons on our reading for today, “Jesus offended them by telling them not one but two stories about how God had passed over them to minister to others. It was like telling them God had become chaplain to the Ku Klux Klan, or that God has passed over a Sunday school teacher who was sick in order to take care of an ailing Hindu.“
So offended is that congregation and so stubborn is Jesus, that when that hometown congregation perceives it cannot change his mind, they run him out.
Jesus knows HIS purpose. But evidently the congregation in Nazareth does not know theirs. Or if that congregation does have a purpose, it is 180 degrees counter to that of Jesus—because just as each person has a purpose, so too every congregation has a purpose—either identified, or if not, then by default.
A Session at a church I served in McLean, spent quite a lot of time and effort determining what ITS church’s purpose was. They came up with not so much a declarative statement as an image. That image was an airport. Members aka airplanes, fueled up in church on Sunday, and at mid-week Bible Studies. Then, their tanks full, they revved up their engines and after communication with air traffic control (wink, wink—God), they achieved lift off, bringing Christ’s message to a hurting world. So if we were to put words to the image they created we would say that that church’s purpose was to receive nurture in community and then give to the world. Not bad, right? Well except….
As an associate pastor at that church I had several meetings with an indigent person. I had given him a little bit of money out of the church’s discretionary fund, to help him get by. We talked about his faith journey. He was a believer. I invited him to come to worship at our church—remember, big church in wealthy DC suburbs. “Oh, no,” he said. "I would not be welcome here.” I begged to disagree. So as an experiment, he came to church on Sunday. Holey pants, ragged shirt. On Monday morning, the head pastor asked me angrily, “Did YOU invite Brian to church? (His name was Brian). Don’t you know HE wouldn’t be comfortable worshiping here?”
Happily, I have every confidence that Brian would have felt comfortable here. Good for us!
Rick Warren changed the face of evangelical Christianity in his book, The Purpose Driven Church. Rick Warren makes the case that church should be about bringing the stranger out there, inside here. That’s something that would not have sit well with those people in the synagogue in Nazareth AT ALL; and not something the Session members at that church in McLean ever seriously considered. Doing good for people out there is ok. But bringing them inside to worship? Seriously?!
Rick Warren and Session members in that church in McLean and all of us here at Scottsville Presbyterian probably WOULD agree, though, that there IS a more profound purpose for all churches and for all serious minded Christians. That more profound purpose is at once much simpler and more difficult than preaching (me), of proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor (Jesus), serving as a kind of spiritual airport (that church in McLean), or even of welcoming the stranger (Rick Warren). That more profound purpose is simply or not so simply, to love. Love is the purpose beneath the purpose. Or as the poet e.e. cummings has said, “It is the root of the root and the bud of the bud, and the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart.” Love. It is the foundation of all life, of our faith, and of our communion with God.
It has been my experience and maybe yours, too, that it is far simpler to love in theory, strangers out there than to love people we know in here. In other words, it is easier to love in theory Syrian refugees, and homeless people, and drug addicts, out there, than it is to love fellow congregation members. True?
To quote Barbara Brown Taylor again, “God loves the people we won’t sit next to in church—the people who disturb and offend us, and who belong to God just as surely as we do, No matter how hard we try, we cannot seem to get God to respect our boundaries. …The problem is not that we are loved any less. The problem is that people we cannot stand are loved just as much as we are, by a God with an upsetting sense of community.”
Jesus found his purpose and He looked for people to share it with. But sadly, he didn’t find any in Nazareth. And so Jesus passed through the midst of them, and went on his way.
And perhaps Jesus still does that today. For congregations unwilling to share in Jesus’ purpose, he just passes through the midst of them and goes on his way. Amen