“Too Close to Home,” Luke 4:21-30

January 2016 at NWUMC
Note: This is part of a sermon series entitled “Skin in the Game” we’ve been doing at Northwest UMC since Epiphany to talk about the meaning of Incarnation.

Jesus said, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21) What Scripture? If you feel like you have come into the middle of a movie, you have. Pastor Tom Slack dealt with the first half of this text last Sunday. More about that shortly, but first I want us to think about how we react when things don’t go the way we want? Or we don’t get something we really are counting on, perhaps a Christmas gift that isn’t quite what you were expecting?

A little boy asked his grandparents for an iPad. Boy was he surprised when he opened his gift on Christmas morning and found a bandage for an injured eye. It was an “eye pad” all right, but not the kind that comes from Apple. When my son was driving his kids to school on the first Monday after the long holiday break he dropped first grader Audrey off at her school first and could immediately see in the rear view mirror that her 2-year old brother Brady was not happy when he realized he was next. It was like that moment when the family dog realizes you aren’t just going for a ride but are heading for the vet. Brady stuck out his lip, turned his head and wouldn’t look at his dad or talk to him all the way to pre-school. He was expecting Christmas vacation to be the new normal and made it quite clear he was not ready to have to go back to school.

I’m sure Brady was fine a few minutes after he bid a tearful goodbye to his guilt-ridden father, but some unwanted surprises are harder to take and last longer. A teen grounded for doing something that seemed like a good idea until it wasn’t, an elderly parent forced to have his or her driving privileges taken away or to move from an old familiar home. Broken marriage vows, political heroes who turn out to have feet of clay. Whatever the disappointment, it’s hard not to be upset, even angry, to blame everyone but ourselves, sometimes even God, and the bigger the disappointment, the harder it is to accept things we can’t change or have no control over.

In the Gospel lesson from Luke we have a complicated story where high expectations turn into disappointment. Pastor Tom did a great job last week of covering the first half of this story, but let me do very quick review for those who weren’t here. In part I of this story Jesus has returned to his hometown of Nazareth after his baptism, temptation in the wilderness, and some teaching and healing in other towns in the area. As was his custom, Luke tells us, he went to the synagogue in Nazareth on the Sabbath to teach. He was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and read the passage that describes Jesus’ understanding of who he was and what his ministry was about. The passage talks about proclaiming good news to the poor, release of the captives, restoring sight to the blind, and proclaiming the acceptable year of the Lord because the Messiah is anointed by the Holy Spirit to do those things.

That part about the Holy Spirit is critical to understanding what it means for Jesus and for us to put our skin in the game to build God’s Kingdom. Luke links every important event in Jesus’ early life to the Holy Spirit. Jesus is conceived by the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit descends on him at his baptism, the Spirit drives him into the wilderness to be tested and prepared for his ministry, and it is the spirit that empowers him to proclaim after reading those words about the Messiah, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

It’s that last line that gets the hometown crowd excited. Nothing Jesus read up till that point was new to them. Isaiah’s words had been around 500 years or so and similar pleas for social justice for the poor and misfortunate run through many of the prophets. God had sent prophets for centuries to proclaim that message, but people didn’t listen. So God decided he has to do a new thing, he has to go all in and put skin in the game. “And the word became flesh and dwelt among us” is how the Gospel of John describes the incarnation. My favorite translation of that verse is the one that says, “God pitched his tent among us.” Not in luxury and ease but on the front lines of suffering, that’s where God decides he can’t just tell us anymore how to live together; he will come and show us in the form of Jesus.

Paul Harvey used to tell about a man who was angry at God and the church was home alone on Christmas Eve while the rest of his family went to church. Late that evening he looked out and saw a flock of birds struggling in his yard with snow that was falling so hard and was so wet and heavy that it coated their wings like a jet needing to be de-iced. They were flopping around trying to fly but couldn’t. The man went out and opened his garage doors hoping they would go in there out of the storm. When they didn’t he tried to herd them to safety, but that only made them more frightened and confused. He was thinking, “If I could just become a bird for a little while, one of them, they would trust me and I could save them.” Just then he heard the church bells ringing. It was midnight, the beginning of Christmas Day, and he suddenly understood why God chose to come to earth in human form.

Putting skin in the game means to be invested in something. If you’ve ever shopped at Aldi’s you know about their clever way of handling the problem of getting their grocery carts back where they belong. They don’t pay employees to round up carts left in their parking lot. They have their customers put a quarter in a gizmo on the cart that unchains it from the other carts, and when you return it you get your 25 cents back. Two bits is not a big investment, but it’s enough skin in the game that I’ve never seen anyone fail to return their cart. We all are more likely to show up for an event if it costs us something, even a token amount. I’m a big Ohio State fan, but on frigid January nights when the wind is blowing off the Olentangy River near the Schottenstein Center I might wimp out and choose to stay home in the comfort of my living room and watch the basketball game in HD on the flat screen. But since I have paid in advance for my tickets, I’m much more likely to show up. Because I have some skin in the game—even if it’s cold skin.

As Jesus’ conversation with the folks in Nazareth continues, we see just how much he’s risking by putting his skin in the game. His hometown folks are at first excited. “This is Joe’s kid. We remember him. He’s one of us, and if he’s the Messiah, wow, just think what he can do for us! We’ve heard all the amazing things he’s done in other places, it’s gotta be even more awesome here in his hometown. Jesus, do here what you did in Capernaum. You know us, Lord; you’re one of us. We changed your diapers, wiped your runny nose, put up with your childhood moods. You know how much we need your healing and miracles. You could get the lead out of our water; maybe turn some of it into a good Merlot? And while you’re at it, could you give us the power ball numbers for next week?

But their high expectations soon turn to disbelief and disappointment. Jesus responds by reminding them that prophets are not usually accepted in their own hometown. Jesus has a bigger agenda than making his neighbors happy. He has an urgency to share a much more important message with the whole world. His mission is to go global with the Gospel, and he knows he doesn’t have much time.

That explains his strange references to Sidon and Syria. He says Elijah and Elisha didn’t heal their hometown folks; they went to Sidon and Syria, to Gentiles, strangers, foreigners. Why would they do that? Because those great prophets understood that the God of Creation is also God of the whole Universe. Yahweh’s power to heal and save cannot be hoarded by any one nation or people. Isaiah said, “It is not enough for the Messiah to save Israel, I will make you a Light to the nations.” Jesus and the prophets understood that to be God’s chosen people is not to receive preferential treatment, but they and we are chosen to be God’s servants to the whole wide world—to people of all faiths or no faith at all.

None of that is new. It is all straight out of Hebrew Scriptures. But when Jesus reminds his Nazarene neighbors of the universal scope of God’s love, they think he has stopped preaching and gone to meddling, just like we all do when our taken-for-granted expectations are challenged!

When I teach preaching classes to seminary students one of the key principles I try to impart to them is the need to build a relationship of trust with their congregations. The preacher’s job is not just to get God’s word said, but to get it heard, and that’s more likely to happen in an atmosphere of mutual trust. Based on the response of Jesus’ congregation in Nazareth, he flunked that part of preaching 101. I’ve often wondered why Jesus would stir up so much trouble so early in his ministry. It’s like he’s waving a red flag in front of a bull. But I’ve decided it’s because urgent situations where so much is at stake don’t allow time for the luxury of community building. Life and death matters require immediate and complete truth.

The Scriptures tell us that we “shall know the truth and it will set us free,” but what John’s Gospel doesn’t say is that first the truth may make us mad. When an addict is confronted with his or her self-destructive behavior, the truth still hurts. When I really see myself in the mirror, really see, or when I hear honest criticism of mistakes I’ve made, or am told my bad health is because of my poor lifestyle choices, I probably will not welcome that truth with open arms.

That’s why the folks at Nazareth react so violently. Luke tells us, “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.” Jesus looks like he’s about to have the shortest ministry in history. Most pastors enjoy a little honeymoon with a new congregation, but not here.

That’s because Jesus’ words hit too close to home. The Nazarenes are expecting special treatment from their hometown hero, and instead they resent his including a bunch of foreigners in God’s mercy. They don’t want to share Jesus with the Syrians and Gentiles. They want to keep Jesus and God all for themselves. Of course they know better. They know their Bible. They know the truth – they just don’t really know it and embody it. Don’t we all have a tendency to read the Scriptures selectively? We choose to focus on Scriptures we like instead of the uncomfortable truth we need to hear.

To have skin in the game means we show up and speak the truth even when it’s risky. Jesus finds out early on in his home town that what he’s up to is dangerous to the max, but he is the young and fearless prophet who speaks the truth, not to make people mad, but to invite them to see the truth about themselves and the world God has created.

The question for us is do we have enough skin in God’s game to follow the example of Jesus? Do we care enough to risk rejection for the truth? To speak up for the downtrodden, to take the side of the underdog – to object to sexist or racist attitudes and comments? God does – no matter what it costs. God is all in – are we? That’s what it means when Jesus says, “take up your cross and follow me.” God doesn’t promise us a rose garden, but the way of the cross that leads to the Garden of Gethsemane.

But here’s the best news—whatever Gethsemane you find yourself in, whatever disappointment or pain you are dealing with right now—you don’t have to face it alone. God’s powerful spirit that anointed Jesus is also with us in every up and down phase of life – every one! No matter how terrible or hopeless things seem, God is right there with you – not to make everything the way we wish it was, but to go through it with us.

Jesus’ situation looks pretty desperate. The people of Nazareth are so mad they want to kill him. But this brief story foreshadows much bigger things to come. They take Jesus out to the edge of a cliff and are ready throw him to his death, but Luke ends the story with one simple sentence: “Jesus just passes among them and goes on to Galilee.” If that sounds familiar, it’s because after Jesus’ resurrection, Matthew says the angels told the disciples at the empty tomb,”He is going ahead of you to Galilee, there you will see him.”

The risen Christ is always going ahead of us to a Galilee far away – where no prophet has gone before. And he calls us to go with him. Notice, we are not asked to go alone – but with the same power of the Holy Spirit that enables Jesus to conquer his fear of death. We are all called to trust the God who loves us enough to suffer with us and for us, to show us the way and the truth and the life – because our God so loves the world that He puts his own skin in the game.

Some times are harder than others to put our skin in the game – to play the game of life full out. Often those times are when we are personally disappointed with our life situation or with ourselves. I was reminded this week of an experience that always speaks to me about that issue. This past Thursday was the 30th anniversary of the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Some of you are too young to remember that tragedy, but most of you have seen the pictures. For me the most memorable thing about that day was the final words spoken by Commander Dick Scobee just before the explosion took those seven lives. They were just a couple of minutes into the mission when the crew was given the go ahead to go to full power, and Commander Scobee’s last words were, “Roger, go with full throttle up.”

That’s how I want to live my life, whatever the circumstances, full throttle up! That’s what Jesus came to show us, that no matter what happens to us or around us, we have the power of the Holy Spirit to live life fully and abundantly. So wherever God calls us to go this week, my prayer is that we can respond with confidence and faith, and go with full throttle up!

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Why We Must Render unto Caesar

The water crisis in Flint has been troubling me on many levels for days, but I had one of those ah hah moments about it while listening to any NPR piece in the car today about a related but different issue. I’ve been having a depression inflicted writer’s block for several weeks, and was so glad when this light bulb lit up. I couldn’t wait to get home to write down my thoughts. Sorry church, Sunday’s sermon will be on hold for just a little longer.

The NPR story was about New Jersey’s former governor, Chris Christie, and his political career. Christie is a Republican I had hope for back in the Super Storm Sandy days, and have been dismayed as he has swung to more extreme right-wing views for obvious political reasons. Such views are what sell in our fear-laden society. But I got new insights into the pressures that cause such shifts in political positions and ambitions listening to the radio. (I apologize that I cannot cite the author who was being interviewed, but I believe it was on the “Fresh Air” program, January 25, 2016.)

The author described the great success Christie had early in his term as a Republican governor in a very Democratic state, and his skill at bi-partisan compromise, the very thing that is so sorely needed in government at every level these days. In particular Christie negotiated a deal with public employees that was designed to address the financial crisis in the state employees’ pension funds which had been created by government “borrowing” those funds for other purposes. As a public retiree in Ohio and a Social Security recipient, my ears perked up on that all too familiar and personal topic.

To oversimplify, the agreement was that the public employees agreed to take some cuts to their benefits from the state in exchange for Christie’s promise to put more money into the pension funds to stabilize them. It was lauded as a wonderful, pragmatic, bi-partisan solution that other states and federal governments should emulate. Combined with Christie’s exemplary leadership in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in the fall of 2012, his success in New Jersey launched him into the national spotlight as a potential Presidential candidate.

And that’s where personal ambition enters stage right (pun intended). The brilliant solution to the pension crisis was derailed. The public employees kept their end of the bargain, but in order to keep his Christie would have had to raise taxes. That of course is the kiss of death for any one hoping to succeed as a Presidential candidate in the increasingly conservative Republican Party. (Eisenhower, Lincoln, and even Reagan would not recognize the Grand Old Party they proudly represented, but that’s a topic for another day.)

You are probably wondering by now what this has to do with clean water for Flint, Michigan’s 100,000 predominantly black and poor citizens. (And Flint is just the most egregious example of this problem. A school system in Northeastern Ohio is closed today as I write this because of testing for lead in their water system.) These very serious health problems are just symptoms of a much larger crisis facing the American people. They are the tip of an iceberg of crumbling infrastructure that is being ignored while politicians fiddle. Instead of addressing failing bridges, highways, underground sewer and water lines, public transportation, and a host of other critical issues that would create jobs and put people back to work, politicians on both sides of the aisle are held hostage by an ideology that makes raising taxes so we can pay for essential public services an eighth deadly sin.

And in the process we are ignoring one of the real deadly sins, greed, or even promoting it as the private “free” market-driven solution to what are complex public problems. There is no free lunch. Like it or not, we need government to provide essential public services and structures that profit-driven companies cannot provide. And that’s why when asked about paying taxes, Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.” (Mark 12:17, Matthew 22:21) The answer is not to kill government but to reform it and make it work.

Bottom line, companies resent government regulation, but human greed and selfishness require it. Dostoevsky’s famous line from The Brothers Karamazov is applicable here, “If God does not exist all things are permitted.” The same is true without good government. A recent article in The Columbus Dispatch pointed out that the Ohio Department of Natural Resources was charged with developing regulations for the rapidly expanding fracking operations in Ohio in 2014. Nearly two years later they have created one minor regulation and are mired in political and bureaucratic wrangling over any significant attempt to address the potential health risks and dangers of this new technology. So do we throw the baby out with the bath because government is not working well? Or do we find a way to address the gridlock caused by political ambition, unfair gerrymandering of political districts, and fights over voter rights? I didn’t say it would be easy. Nothing worth doing ever is.

The truth is, we don’t have a choice. As appealing as it sounds, we cannot live without government. The streak of selfishness in human nature requires a structure of public responsibility and accountability. No human-created governmental system or structure has ever been or ever will be perfect. Anger and extremism are not the answer. Holding the responsible parties accountable for poisoning the water in Flint or creating earthquakes and contaminated ground water from fracking accountable should be done–but not just for retribution and punishment. The real reason for digging into such messes is not for revenge or political advantage, but to learn from our mistakes so we don’t make them again.

To play the blame game and demonize our political opponents simply makes the necessary work of bipartisan, collaborative communication more difficult once the much-too-long season of mud-slinging and character assassination is over. That’s why Benjamin Franklin said, “We must all hang together or we will certainly hang separately.” And it’s why Jesus said, to paraphrase, “I didn’t say you had to like it, but taxes are a necessary evil to maintain a workable society. So pay up and realize that to solve this country’s problems and the world’s is not going to be cheap. But ignoring them is not a viable option.”

The Unbroken Circle of Life II

IMG_1150 I have rarely reposted a previous blog here, but in searching for some inner wisdom to cope with life today I was drawn to one I wrote just 3 months ago in October of 2015. It still sounds good and maybe even more relevant now than it did then; so it is copied as written below. My only additional preface is a comment I made in my journal recently as 2016 has gotten off to a bumpy start for me, my family, and the world: “The cycle of life keeps turning and there are no stations to get off till you get to the terminal.”

Will the Circle Be Unbroken?
I attended a Bluegrass Festival with some friends a few weeks ago and have been singing or humming “May the Circle Be Unbroken” ever since. Bluegrass is not my music of choice; so I’ve been pondering why that song has stuck in my head. There are good memories of singing that song around campfires when I was a youth minister many years ago. But it has taken on a deeper more pervasive meaning lately. Some of that became clearer to me this week after a depressing visit with my 94 year old father who has outlived his mental and physical faculties and is miserable. Is there a better day coming for him and his wife suffering from dementia?

I don’t think it’s in the sky but where? What? How? Those questions become more relevant as morality pounds harder on my door each day, in aches and pains, friends in surgery, cancer diagnoses and biopsies, longer list of things I can no longer do. I’ve toyed with the lyrics of that song by changing the “e” to an “i” in “better,” i.e., “There’s a bitter day a coming….” That’s what happens when we turn in on ourselves, we get bitter and go victim. “Why me?” “It’s not fair!” “Why didn’t I take better care of myself?” “Let’s try one more miracle supplement that flows out of the fountain of youth!” Fear springs from the unknown “in the sky” or in some place of darkness, from regrets over a lifetime of sin or just dumb mistakes we can never erase.

Fear is epidemic in our society. I was at a wedding reception recently where I was told one of the men at my table was carrying a concealed weapon “because you never know what might happen.” The next week my relatives at a family gathering were discussing preparedness drills for an active shooter at their little country church and in their schools where children are being taught to throw anything they can find at a shooter ala David versus Goliath–only Goliath didn’t have his NRA sanctioned AR 15.

A father was shot dead last Friday in front of his six kids and wife in a burglary in our affluent “safe” suburb. And today Ted Koppel was on the morning news talking about his new book Lights Out, about the coming cyber-attack that will paralyze our society. The temptation to buy some guns and a generator and become a survivalist is so strong even I feel it tugging at me. There is a little solace for me that I’m old enough I may not have to deal with the worst of the Hunger Games scenario, but I fear for my kids and grandkids and feel hopeless and helpless to do anything significant to help them.

Will the circle be unbroken? Or has human depravity and selfishness reached epic proportions that strain the bonds of civility beyond the breaking point? Is Jesus’ pacifist advice to turn the other cheek and put away our swords just naïve idealism? Those are not verses that fearful Christians cite when they turn to Scripture for comfort. I quoted Isaiah (2:4) and Micah (4:3) once to a life-long Christian, the verses about “beating our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks,” and she said that in 60 years of going to church she didn’t remember ever hearing those words! Unless prophetic voices stand up to the fear mongers and proclaim a message of hope and reason to a world gone mad, the circle may indeed be broken.

I remember being this depressed about the state of the world back in 1972 after Nixon’s landslide victory in spite of Watergate and the protests about the Vietnam War. I wrote a letter to the editor saying that all we could do now was “wait for the inevitable judgment of God.” 43 years later we are still here. We’ve survived that war in SE Asia, the resignation of Nixon and his Vice President, 9/11 and a host of other terrorist attacks, too many mass shootings to count, a huge economic recession, and at least so far several ill-advised wars in the Middle East that have only fanned the flame of hatred in that cauldron of religious and ideological conflict that is the eternal flame of human strife and animosity.

The circle is frayed and contorted out of shape, but it is still unbroken; and that last paragraph is a micro-second in the eternity of the cosmic circle viewed from God’s perspective. As we scroll backward in time through Holocaust, Civil War, Slavery, Genocide of native people, the Dark Ages, the Crusades, Roman, Greek, Syrian, Egyptian, Ottoman Empires, the rise and fall of numerous Dynasties in China and Japan, Exile and Exodus, Stone Age and Ice Ages, and all the other eras of our planet’s history that I missed in history class, our current fears and woes are put in better perspective.

In every generation there have been concerns about the elasticity and tenacity of the circle, and it is still unbroken. That is not an excuse to blithely bury our heads in the sand or in our parochial platitudes. We must counter the fear mongers with words and lives of hope and visions of peace in any way we can. And remembering the great circle maker and sustainer gives us the courage to witness to our faith even when fear and doubt threaten to overwhelm us.

[originally written October 27, 2015]