Will you join me in prayer: May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable to you, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
When I read scripture and other sources in preparation for sermons, often I turn to the wisdom of Jacob the Baker. I know I have shared some of Jacob’s tales with you before, but in light of today’s passages, I offer these words of advice from our Jewish friend and baker:
An older man, who was both wealthy, and suspicious, invited Jacob to dinner in order to test him.
When the dinner was served, Jacob was given an empty plate and cup while his host’s plate overflowed and his cup had wine draining past its brim.
Jacob said nothing but sat there and watched the man devour his sumptuous meal. When the man had finished, Jacob stood, said thank you for his dinner, and prepared to leave.
Unable to resist Jacob’s silence, the host asked, “Weren’t you angry because I gave you nothing?”
“No,” said Jacob, passing through the door. “You gave me what you had. If I expected more from you than I received, then I was filled with my expectation and not your offer.”
Our scriptures today are filled with personal expectation. We hear within the Gospel of Luke the expectation of the synagogue crowd as they heard the ancient text by one of their own. They were filled with anger upon hearing a proclamation of presumed lies spoken by a common hometown boy. And Paul’s message to the fighting church of Corinth is saturated with the hope of harmony, countering the expectations of those trying to determine who was right and who needed to be set straight.
Both proclamations speak of unity. Jesus meant to astound the religious leaders of his hometown as a wakeup call to see in him the Good News of God’s promise fulfilled. And, the Apostle Paul, referencing the lifeless human body of Christ, set out to amaze the young Christians with the reality check that they are in fact now the living body of that Good News.
The great Pastor and Theologian, Frederick Buechner, in his book, Peculiar Treasures and later in the collection of essays published in Beyond Words, says this about the many parts of the body:
When you came right down to it, what was God up to, for God's sweet sake, sending them all out - prophets, apostles, evangelists, teachers, the whole tattered bunch - to beat their gums and work themselves into an early grave?
God was making a body for Christ, Paul said. Christ didn't have a regular body any more so God was making him one out of anybody God could find who looked as if they might just possibly do. God was using other people's hands to be Christ's hands and other people's feet to be Christ's feet, and when there was some place where Christ was needed in a hurry and needed badly, he put the finger on some maybe-not-all-that-innocent bystander and got them to go and be Christ in that place themselves for lack of anybody better.
Just last week we celebrated the life, mission, and ministry of one such person, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who through his persistence and passion, sparked change. Although struck down by an assassin before his work and dream could be fully realized, King was a modern day example of being Christ’s hands and feet. Perhaps that is why his death mirrored the brutal, yet anticipated death of Jesus; who was killed by those
who hated him for not understanding his work and dream.
I watched the movie Selma last Sunday afternoon for the first time. If you have not yet seen this extremely powerful depiction of Dr. King and others’ roles in organizing a poignant and pivotal turning point in our nation’s battle for civil rights, I highly recommend it to you. Observing the struggle of those who fought for equality not only made my stomach toss and turn, it aroused my soul to action. You might ask, “What can I do today, the events of Selma, and the civil rights movement happened over 50 years ago.” To that, I ask, “Really? Or are they still happening?” Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is one day in which we remember the history of the struggle of the African American people. It is one day when we are reminded of the injustices which continue to cripple our country.
The 50 Mile walk from Selma to Montgomery, showed people of color, old and young, of all sizes, of all stations walking out of Selma. Police stood at the ready to break up the march. Our African American brothers and sisters nonviolently walked forward through tear gas and gun fire, continuing their march. All they were doing was walking. My friends, over 50 years have passed, and I ask you today, “What has changed? How have we learned to be one body in Christ?” How is this possible if our parts continue to be separate. It is well past time.
As I continued to watch the many injustices and supremacy stack up around the Black Alabama Community of the Sixties, I was struck by one line King’s character told his followers, “We have to win another way!” when his companions felt the need to use force in retaliation to their struggle. Then, King, reaching out to the entire country claimed, “If you believe all are created equal, we need you to stand with us.” As a result, support for the Civil Rights movement grew and mostly white, mostly clergy joined the march at Selma. From right here at home, Lancaster Theological Seminary sent a group comprised of faculty, local pastors and current seminarians to march alongside the black community. Returning home following the march, some of those same seminarians met with opposition from Local Church Search Committees when seeking a call into ministry. It seemed their quest to have the body of Christ come together as equal parts would be misunderstood by the same churches they would be called upon to lead.
The Apostle Paul wrote his letters to the churches of Corinth just a few years after Jesus went around dismantling boundaries and hierarchies and distinctions – and the people in the churches were already thinking, once again, that some of them were better than others, higher than others, with more important gifts than others, and therefore stood for more important roles and ministries than their brothers and sisters. Yes, it happened that quickly, in the earliest churches: the discussion got started that might fracture the community, divide it, and drain it of its energy and life.
The United Church of Christ’s “Bouncer” Commercial of almost 10 years ago now, depicted such exclusion of the early church and of our country’s early Civil Rights Movement. Do you remember its message? (Pan in on the front of a large church where bouncers stood on its steps behind a velvet red rope, ushering people into church. Allowing only those deemed worthy to pass. Those of any color were rejected, those in wheelchairs were not allowed to pass, and couples who were of the same gender were denied access to worship.) The ad sparked much controversy and many networks pulled the caricature after only a few airings.
The Ancient Psalmist of Psalm 19 declared:
The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.
What are these ordinances of the Lord deserving much fear? Jesus has told us that the greatest of them is to love your neighbor as yourself. We cannot have love of neighbor if the fences of fear and hatred continue to divide. We cannot have love of neighbor if exclusion continues to equate to culture.
My favorite theologian, Henri Nouwen has said:
In our world of loneliness and despair, there is an enormous need for men and women who know the heart of God, a heart that forgives, that cares, that reaches out and wants to heal.
People do not always need a physician or medical specialist’s help for their healing to begin. Sometimes, all that is needed is the companionship, care, and affirmation of another. Sometimes all that is needed is to experience the love and reconciliation of a neighbor. In other words: all we need to understand is that God’s love is unconditional and that it matters not what you have accomplished in life, but that you are loved for being who you already are.
The Psalmist’s message throughout Psalm 19 is that of unity; all of us working toward a complete worship of the Almighty, culminating with these familiar reverent words: Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
Here is the message for all of us today. God is our rock! No matter what, God is our redeemer! Who among us does not need to hear these words? To hear this Good News! The Good News that Christ was sent here to convey to a lost and confused creation.
Jesus announced for the first time in public his purpose and mission when he claimed,
“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.”
These are great words, but such a proclamation of comfort only means something to those living in discomfort. Such Good News is meaningful only to those seeking relief. Like our friends, past and present, who have fought for Civil Rights and continue to dream of equality. How do we hear these words today? We spend so much time acting as if we have it all together. We spend so much money trying to look better, get fitter, and appear younger. There is so much pressure on us externally from the culture at large and internally from ourselves to not need anything or anyone that it makes you wonder if Jesus’ message has any value among today’s listeners. Except, these superficial dreams of perfection are all false, and deep down we know it.
My friends, in order for us today to hear Christ’s words as Good News and to see Jesus as our Lord and Savior we need to hear his message first as Bad News! The bad news that we are not who we want to be, can be, and should be, and quite possibly never will become. When we recognize and more importantly accept this bad news then we can truly hear Christ’s Good News that through God’s heart it doesn’t matter who we are, we are loved anyway.
All of our texts today provide yet another reality check. We not only receive help and comfort, but are invited to offer it to others. We are invited, that is, not just to hear and receive good news, but to be it. We not only come together to worship our Lord of great
possibilities, but are invited to live out that worship daily. To sing from the mountaintops and dance through the streets, sharing the Word of the Lord and rejoicing in unconditional Divine Love.
This, in a sense, is what the Body of Christ and community of faith is about, God’s hands delivering the promise of good news to all who come in need. Afraid? Come here to find courage. Lonely? Come join our community. Ill? Come here, or, better; let us come to you, to care for you. Isolated? We will visit you. Discouraged? Let us gather together and encourage one another.
Paul has reminded us all that we are all different, some apostles, some prophets, others teachers and eloquent speakers. We all have special gifts with not one over shadowing another. Paul concludes the passage: “Strive for the greater gifts, and I will show you a still more excellent way.” We know what is coming in the familiar passage that follows, the soaring, poetic passage on love. Perhaps that is, in the end, where we need to begin even more than with unity and diversity: we need love to be the mark by which we are known, and unity amid the diversity will follow. In the end, this love comes from God, and it is the love that we come to know in many different ways, often from the most unexpected people. Like Jacob the Baker’s wealthy dinner host, who tried to irritate his guest by providing him nothing to eat, only to discover through his guest’s patience, a love and forgiveness beyond words. The African American community of equality seekers found it among members of their oppressive race who walked along side of them toward freedom and equality for all.
“For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, Jews and Greeks, slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” Amen.